discovery / found

An Eight-Second Film of 1915 New Orleans and the Mystery of Louis Armstrong’s Happiness

How could Armstrong, born indisputably black at the height of Jim Crow and raised poor, be so happy?
Armstrong sounded happy—like he knew something the rest of us didn’t. He was hip to some delightful, mysterious fact. That aura of happiness has amazed and confounded Armstrong fans for more than a hundred years. How could Louis Armstrong, who was born indisputably black at the height of Jim Crow, in New Orleans, and raised in a rock-’em-sock-’em neighborhood known as the Battlefield, and whose family ate from dumpsters and who landed at least twice in juvenile detention, for relatively minor infractions—how could he be so happy? In his own time, he caught hell for it, and, occasionally, he still does. Some musicians called it false or, worse, “tomming,” to gain favor with white audiences. Others were more loving. As Billie Holiday famously said, “Louis toms from the heart.”

But that happiness seems to have come from somewhere deep down, and you can see it, I think, in an eight-second film that the journalist and Armstrong sleuth James Karst recently found and has written about, in the magazine 64 Parishes. If the film is what he thinks it is, and what the jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern agrees it is, and what the Armstrong biographer and Louis Armstrong House Museum curator Ricky Riccardi says he’s almost sure it is, then it may be the most significant finding of Armstrongalia in more than thirty years.

The silent footage, taken by unknown cameramen in 1915 or thereabouts, captures a busy corner in downtown New Orleans, at the intersection of Dauphine and Canal streets, on what appears to be a sunny day. The action moves a hair faster than the reality likely did, as in a Buster Keaton movie. White people are hurrying in every direction—men in three-piece suits and women wearing long-sleeved blouses buttoned up to here and skirts flowing down to there. In their haste, the people sometimes brush against one another. Only a few glance into the camera. Then a nimble black newspaper boy enters the frame, just after the three-second mark. At first, his back faces the lens. Then he turns around and models the front page of the day’s paper, sidestepping the white pedestrians—easy, like a dancer. The boy is ever so relaxed and natural, like Maurice Chevalier walking the Champs-Élysées. He’s thin and dark-skinned; he wears long pants, rolled-up shirtsleeves, and a newsboy cap. He’s on the tall side; he might be a mature eleven-year-old or a dewy teen-ager. When he smiles at the camera, it’s almost impossible not to smile back. He’s friendly. He’s funny. And he’s Louis.
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