Louis Armstrong and the Jewish Family
Why the famous jazz musician wore a Star of David.
Louis Armstrong, popularly known as “Satchmo”, was a towering, influential and beloved jazz musician. His career spanned five decades and different eras in the history of jazz. And for most of his adult life, the Baptist wore a Star of David necklace, the quintessential symbol of Judaism.
Why? What was Louie Armstrong’s connection with the Jewish people?
Louis Daniel Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans, an environment that was anything but promising, long before the Civil Rights movement would irrevocably transform the social strata of the city. Segregation was strictly enforced.
On the day that he was born, his father, William Armstrong, abandoned the baby’s mother, 16-year-old Mayann Albert. For the first five years of his life, Louis was brought up by his grandmother. Later, he moved into a one-room dwelling with his mother, whom he adored, and a younger sister.
Segregation was rampant in New Orleans. Degrading and debasing, for most segregation effectively precluded social or economic self-improvement.
When Louis reached the fifth grade, he had no choice but to quit school and go to work to help support his mother and sister.
At age six or seven, Louis was already scouting out the neighborhood after school hours, in search of ways to make a penny or two. This was standard procedure for most of the Black children he knew.
To his great good fortune, across the tracks, in a run-down, low-class White neighborhood, he discovered a cluster of Jewish families who had arrived from Lithuania. Most of the families were related, at least by marriage. They formed a close-knit community who clung together and helped each other weather the blatant anti-Semitism they encountered in their new homeland.
As Armstrong described it years later, in a short memoir “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La, the Year of 1907”, the Jews had suffered over the course of history even more than the Blacks. As he tells it, Jews “were having problems of their own – along with hard times from the other white folks’ nationalities who felt that they were better than the Jewish race… I was only 7 years old, but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for.”
Regardless of local anti-Semitism, the Jewish families considered themselves lucky. Compared to the pogroms they had encountered under the rule of Russia’s czar, life was now full of hope. They were free to live wherever they chose (and could afford) and to make a living however they wanted.
The Karnofskys, one of these Jewish families, were determined to improve their lot in their new homeland. Each morning, at 5 AM, one of the older boys, either Alex or Morris, set out on his daily rounds as a junk collector. He gathered bottles, bones and rags people sold to him for pennies, then sold or bartered them for more profitable goods
When Louis approached the Karnofskys asking for work, they had no objections to hiring a Black child to help them with their “profession.” Thus, at age seven, early each weekday morning, Louis found himself perched next to either Alex or Morris on the Karnofsky’s horse wagon.
Louis worked for them in the evenings, as well. They would load their wagon with coal and make the rounds, selling it for a nickel a bucket.
It was Morris who gave the child what might well have been the most significant present he would ever receive.
In Armstrong’s words: “Morris bought for me a Tin Horn. To blow and blow, the kind of Tin Horn they use at parties to make noises, while celebrating. The children loved it.”
One of Louis’s tasks was tooting away on his horn to announce the arrival of the junk wagon, or, in the evenings, of the coal supply. For Louis, this was more an amusement than a work assignment. And even at that tender age, the future trumpeter, vocalist and song-writer, displayed his bent for improvisation.
As Armstrong tells it:
“One day – I took the wooden top off of the horn, and surprisingly I held my two fingers close together where the wooden mouth piece used to be, and I could play a tune of some kind. Oh’ [sic] the kids really enjoyed that. Better than the first time. They used to bring their bottles, Morris would give them a few pennies, and they would stand around the wagon while I would entertain them.”
Conceivably, it was the first time in his young life that Armstrong tasted sweet success. He became the center of attention of an admiring audience, and he drank in the exhilarating experience of giving joy to others.
That tin whistle from Morris Karnofsky was the first step toward a lifetime career of innovative music.
One day, as Morris and his young helper made their rounds, Louis’s keen eye spotted a tarnished cornet in the window of a pawn shop. What a find! His heart beating with excitement, he asked Morris to stop. He and Morris went to ask the price of the precious horn. It was five dollars, a tidy sum in those days.
Morris lent his “prodigy musician” two dollars for the down payment. Louis then paid another fifty cents a week until he had made the precious instrument his own. He learned to play it well, and later graduated to the instrument that brought him into the spotlight of American jazz, the trumpet.
That small loan and unforgettable act of kindness proved to be a significant step forward on Louis Armstrong’s road to international fame.
And the warmth and security Louis found in the Karnofsky home perhaps made an even greater impact.
The family dubbed him “Cousin Louis”, making him a part of the family, the color of his skin notwithstanding.
Mrs. Karnofsky insisted that he eat dinners with them. Knowing that his mother would be hard-pressed to provide him with even a modest meal, she would insist on his joining them at the table. To spare him embarrassment, she would offhandedly say that by the time he got home, there would probably be nothing left to eat, so he must sit down and enjoy a meal with them.
“Cousin Louis” blossomed from the emotional support the Karnofskys extended to him. The best part of his day came in the evening when he and all the children would gather around Mother Karnofsky as she put the baby to sleep.
Decades later, the scene remained vivid:
“Russian Lullaby,” he wrote tenderly, “is the song that I sang when I was seven years old – with the Karnofsky family when I was working for them, every night at their house when Mother Karnofsky would rock the Baby David to sleep… we all would get our places and sing it. So soft and sweet… We all sang together until the little baby would doze off. Then we bid each other good night. Then I would go home – across the tracks town to Mayann and Mama Lucy, my mother and sister.”
What a new world this was for the child who had been abandoned by his father as soon as he came into the world.
At age 11, Louis played with a gun that belonged to his step-father. When he shot blanks into the air, he was arrested and sent to the Colored Waifs Home, a detention facility. The living conditions were far from comfortable. There were no mattresses to sleep on and the meals were sparse. Discipline was tough and punishment was corporal.
But there was one redeeming factor that eased Louis’s new life. The home had a band. Louis was allowed to join and was even given lessons to improve his playing. At age thirteen, he was appointed as the bandleader.
After his time at the Home, he gradually moved up the ladder as a trumpet player, rung by rung, until he was recognized as a bright star on the horizon of jazz. Wherever he turned, he showed respect and affection for the Jewish People.
For years, Joe Glaser was his Jewish manager; he also became a close friend. It was Joe who presented him with a the Magen David, the Star of David. Armstrong said he would wear it proudly in honor of all that the Jews had done for him.
For years, Louis Armstrong continued to follow the work ethic that had made such an impression on him as a youth. He made over 300 appearances a year. He appeared in over thirty films. By the 1950s, he had become an American icon who represented his country in performances in an international tour that touched down in Sweden, Copenhagen, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Vienna, Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt, in an average of two shows a day.
Eventually, his hectic pace led to a heart attack from which he never fully recovered.
In 1969, Dr. Gary Zucker, a Jewish friend and his personal physician, tended to Satchmo at New York City’s Beth Israel Hospital. While confined to bed with the severe heart disease that eventually claimed his life, Armstrong penned his final memoir about his relationship with the Karnofskys.
In the 75-page document, Armstrong describes the evening ritual in the Karnofsky home. Savoring these moments once again, he relates how a Jewish family opened their home and their hearts to him, and he credits them for the innovative music style that he developed.
He also praised the other members of the Jewish community who treated him with respect, as a fellow human being, regardless which side of the tracks he came from.
He admired the Jews’ family solidarity and described how each new child was a precious gift in which to delight.
He also attributed to his Jewish benefactors the energetic work ethic that guided him throughout life. He followed the example they set for him, demanding more and more of himself, until he reached the top of the ladder.
He notes that the Karnofskys worked and lived as a team with a common goal. They responded to the challenge of supporting themselves with continuous hard work, mutual help and caring. The family’s solidarity made a deep impression.
“The Jewish people has such wonderful souls,” he wrote. “I always enjoyed everything they sang and still do. Of course, I sang the Lullaby Song with the family – I did not go through every song they sang. But I was a good listener. Still am.”
He writes that how he admired the fact that they banded together to fight prejudice against them by bettering their lot through hard work. Rather than expending energy on protests, they simply got on with their lives and made progress.
“I will love the Jewish people all my life,” he declared in Louis Armstrong and the Jewish Family. “They were always warm and kind to me, which was very noticeable to me – just a kid who could use a word of kindness.”
He stressed how much he had learned from them – “how to live, real life and determination.”
But perhaps above all, Louis Armstrong was an advocate of loving one’s fellow man. His broad, beaming smile became his hallmark. Countless people had demeaned him and mistreated him, but he never sought revenge. Rather, he encouraged his fans to focus on the half of the cup that was full, to find pleasure and satisfaction in it, to work hard, and spread happiness and good will.
On August 30, 2021, Hurricane Ida knocked down the New Orleans's home of the Karnofskys on South Rampart Street. The family had lived there and ran a tailor shop at the turn of the 20th century.
All that is left of the house now is rubble.
The collapsed historical Karnofsky building is seen on S. Rampart St. in New Orleans, La., early Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (Max Becherer/The Advocate via AP)