Drawing in a Time of Fear & LiesWeekend

The Storm Clouds Behind Louis Armstrong’s Smile

The Fourth of July is a time to remember the great jazzman’s quiet defiance.

Jason Eisner, ‘in plain sight’ (2017), collage, ink on paper, 11 x 13 inches

“I can’t hide what is on my face.” 

Louis Armstrong celebrated his birthday on the 4th of July (though he was actually born, it would later be discovered, on the 4th of August).

As fireworks tear apart evening skies and folks across America proudly display their stars and stripes, I think of Louis Armstrong’s smile. His reassuring grin put people at ease — a friendly face, suggesting perhaps a playful edginess… like his horn, his smile became a sign of Louis’s persona. It developed into a celebratory mask, obscuring a defiant spirit, and a raw emotional complexity.

Nowhere else is this more clear than when Louis sings Fats Wallers’ “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue”. He smiles as he sings and yet he can’t hide what is on his face — we see the pain and disappointment, sorrow and rage.

With his smile, Louis is asking us to look closer, just as his music asks us to listen deeper. This man, who celebrated his birthday on the day our nation celebrates its independence, felt a deep love for and connection to America. Yet he was on the receiving end of America’s history of discrimination and dehumanization. Through his art, we are moved to dance, shout, laugh, cry, and hope. Behind the surface of his smile, Louis Armstrong is challenging America.

“How will it end? Ain’t got a friend. / My only sin is in my skin.” 

In a 1965 performance recorded in Berlin, Louis smiles as he sings, but his smile is an indictment.

Indeed, “How will it end?” An attempt to return our nation to some mythical former greatness is only guaranteed to reinforce the structural inequalities that make America a disgrace.

For all the abuse and threats of violence, for all the humiliation Louis Armstrong endured as a Black Man in America, he refused to give up his smile. His courage and defiance urges us forward, toward a greatness that lies ahead.

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