Uncle Satchmo?


Credit: Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

This eye-catching collage is a self-portrait of sorts by Louis Armstrong, one of many assemblages the jazzman created with found images of himself that he affixed to his huge collection of reel-to-reel boxes. It appeared, along with other examples of Armstrong's art, in the Spring Paris Review. Harry N. Abrams is publishing a book of the complete collage collection in April 2009.

The work's most striking feature is its obvious mimicry of record sleeve art, complete with "blurbs" paying tribute to "Satchmo" the "Good-Will Ambassador, TV, Motion Picture and Recording Star" who "thrilled the largest audience ever to attend a Dixieland Concert." The work is dominated by a vast crowd with Armstrong towering above it, making music while engaging in the eye rolling that was central to his stage persona. Armstrong was clearly proud of his stardom and willingly imagined himself in a purely commercial idiom.

Yet the mugging persona at the center of this stardom had become controversial even as Armstrong shaped art from it. Critics charged that he amused white audiences by pandering to minstrel show stereotypes. But where others heard derision, Armstrong heard pleasure. "Performing" meant more to him than blowing a horn; the audience's response was essential. Rejecting the detached "cool" of bebop, he stayed in character.

Maybe his graphic art was also a response to the criticism: a portrait of the artist "who adds to his popularity with every performance."

Charles Paul Freund is a contributing editor at reason.