boundary 2 30.2 (2003) 115-136
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Checking Our Balances:
Ellison on Armstrong's Humor
Robert G. O'Meally
What the black actor has managed to give are moments—indelible moments, created, miraculously, beyond the confines of the script: hints of reality, smuggled like contraband into a maudlin tale, and with enough force, if unleashed, to shatter the tale to fragments.
—James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work
But if all this seems too pessimistic, remember that the antidote to hubris, to overweening pride, is irony, that capacity to discover and systematize clear ideas. Or, as Emerson insisted, the development of consciousness, consciousness, consciousness, a more refined conscientiousness, and most of all, that tolerance which takes the form of humor, for when Americans can no longer laugh at each other, they have to fight one another.
—Ralph Ellison, "American Humor"
Louis Armstrong is one of the inventors of jazz, a true revolutionary in art. He is the key figure in the invention of the instrumental jazz solo, of the quality of inevitable-seeming momentum that the world calls swing, of [End Page 115] the relaxed, and of the playful impulse to reinvent a song that is called jazz singing. Harder to evaluate with certainty are Armstrong's cultural politics, the varied offerings and takings of his image and music, his significance as an American icon. Here I refer to "Ambassador Satch," the tireless worker for the State Department and the one who stood up to Dwight Eisenhower at Little Rock, the man who surprised his white agent by saying angrily that Eisenhower, waffling in sync with Governor Faubus, had two faces and no heart. At the same time, I refer to the familiar comic image Armstrong began to offer the public as early as the 1930s. What do we make of Armstrong's semicircular, shining smile? His signature flourish of a blazing white handkerchief? If in these familiar scenes what he wears is a comic mask, then what does it conceal? And how do we understand the meaning of the mask (or as Constance Rourke might say, the "double-mask" 1) itself? What can Louis's smiling face tell us about the man who took his stand against a U.S. president? How, if at all, does this face affect the way we hear his music? Is the comic act something he transcends (Figures 1 and 2) in his creation of high art music, or is the comedy part and parcel of an evidently contradictory artistic whole? 2
I want to explore such questions with Ralph Ellison's theories of comedy as a guide. In so doing, I also hope to see how understanding Armstrong's manifold art can shed light on the world according to Ellison's own art as a writer. How can Louis's sound and smile make us see and perhaps hear Ellison's writing more clearly? (Invisible Man asks, "Could this compulsion to put invisibility down in black and white be thus an urge to make music of invisibility?") 3 I choose Ellison as a critical guide because before becoming a writer, and indeed even in his first years of trying to write fiction, the future author of Invisible Man defined himself, in his "heart of hearts," as a musician. He was a trumpet player who, by day, paid his dues to Bach and Sousa (as a college boy, one of his jobs every morning was to wake the campus with reveille, after which he would blow sustained tones to increase [End Page 116] his sound), but who, by night, was practicing both the phrasing and timbre of such blues singers as Ida Cox and, most emphatically, of the singing and trumpet playing of Louis Armstrong and his imitators. "Let that boy blow," Ellison recalls a neighbor saying of his fledgling efforts on horn. "He's got to talk baby talk on that thing before he can preach on it. . . . Now, try and make it sound like ole Ms. Ida Cox sings it." 4
Ellison's main ambition while in college was to master European...