George Bornstein’s The Colors of Zion is a challenge to the story told by the often-chronicled fissures in the relationships between Blacks, Jews, and Irish in the years from the Irish Famine until the end of World War II. In this revelatory transatlantic study, Bornstein shows that the sympathies and cooperative efforts between these three oppressed groups were far greater than generally acknowledged. In the piece below, Bornstein takes the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day to reflect on Louis Armstrong, who embodied the interethnic, cross-cultural affinity that The Colors of Zion documents.
When making his breakthrough recordings with his Hot Five in 1926, young Louis Armstrong took care to include a new song on which he had collaborated with Percy Venable. Sandwiched between the better-known “You Made Me Love You” and “Willie the Weeper,” came “Irish Black Bottom,” a Celtic take on the original New Orleans jazz classic “Black Bottom.” With Armstrong breaking into raucous laughter at the line “And I was born in Ireland,” the tune ends with the lines, “All over Ireland you can see / The people dancin’ in / Cause Ireland’s gone Black Bottom Crazy now.”
The playful racial masquerade, a reversal of more traditional Irish contributions to blackface minstrelsy, signaled Armstrong’s lifelong artistic devotion to racial and cultural hybridity. “It’s no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow,” he once remarked. “Race-conscious jazz musicians? Nobody could be who really knew their horns and loved the music.”
Such boundary crossing started early for Satchmo. In an interview with Life magazine he listed among his early influences the all-white “Original Dixieland Jazz Band,” the Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and sopranos Amelita Galli-Curci and Luisa Tetrazzini (for whom the dish turkey tetrazzini is named), and especially “the Irish tenor, John McCormack—beautiful phrasing.” Later Armstrong became one of the first jazz musicians to play to large audiences in Ireland, with his wildly successful Belfast concert of 1962 and two shows in Dublin five years later attended by 4,000 people.
Armstrong’s connection to other groups than his own didn’t stop with the Irish. Perhaps most important among the others were Jews, beginning with the Karnovsky family who hired, mentored, and looked after him as a boy after he left the Colored Waif’s Home in New Orleans. According to his moving late memoir Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans they fed him regular meals and staked him to his first horn. In tribute to them he wore a Star of David around his neck regularly after that. The jazz photographer Herb Snitzer created a famous photo of Louis on bus tour in 1960 with striped white shirt open, cigarette in hand, and the necklace clearly visible. “He wore the Star his entire life,” recalled Snitzer. “He was the least prejudiced musician I ever knew.”
Satchmo practiced what he preached, welcoming musicians of all backgrounds into a majority African American enterprise. He even dedicated Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family to his Jewish manager Joe Glaser, calling him “the best friend that I've ever had.” Similarly, he featured in concerts and recorded numerous hits by white composers, including Irving Berlin's early “Alexander's Ragtime Band.” Louis recorded duets with Ella Fitzgerald of celebrated Berlin classics like “Cheek to Cheek,” “Isn't This a Lovely Day,” and “I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” He liked Jewish-themed songs, too, such as his “Shadrach” retelling of the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the Book of Daniel.
Such crossovers pervade the history of jazz and of popular music. The African American stride pianist Willie “The Lion” Smith born four years before Satchmo described his own ancestry as French, Spanish, Negro, and Mohawk Indian, calling himself “an American pianist” in the subtitle of his autobiography. After discovering that he had a Jewish ancestor too, he converted to Judaism, had a Bar Mitzvah, and even served as a cantor between jazz stints. Reciprocally, the Jewish-born clarinetist and saxophonist Mezz Mezrow, who briefly became Armstrong's manager, did his best to be as Black as possible. He moved to Harlem, married a Black woman, and even insisted in prison on being housed with African American inmates. Like Armstrong, he believed that jazz transcended color and brought one of the first mixed-race bands to Broadway. Mezzrow wrote of Jewish religious music that “when I add Negro inflections to it they fit so perfect, it thrills me.”
The linkages and mixtures favored by Armstrong and the others pervade our past. A son of Irish immigrants, mayor John Hynes of Boston slyly undercut fantasies of purity half a century ago in introducing at a rally the first Jew to become mayor of Dublin. “We have here with us two fine fellows—an Irishman and a Jew,” he told the crowd. “I give him to you now, Lord Mayor Robert Briscoe.” Satchmo would have agreed in his consistent opposition to barriers that divide us into separate categories. As he told a group of journalists who challenged his including Israel on a tour of the Mideast with his All Stars, “Let me tell you something, man. That horn. You see that horn? That horn ain't prejudiced. A note's a note in any language.”