If you are a lover of jazz you no doubt will recognize the nickname of Louis Armstrong, the great trumpeter, composer, and singer who left his mark on the music world during a groundbreaking 50 year career. Satchmo would have celebrated his 115th birthday yesterday, on August 4th. He grew up in New Orleans, the grandson of slaves, and the son of a delinquent father and a mother who turned to prostitution. He quit school when he was 11 years old, worked odd jobs, and spent much of his time in the bars, hostels, and brothels of New Orleans. Somehow he survived the turbulence of his youth. Perhaps saved by his love for music, his genius, talent, and stage presence enabled him to become one of the most beloved performers of his time. Today he is simply remembered as one of the all time great jazz artists.
A strange and little known fact about Louis Armstrong: he wore a Magen David – a Star of David – wherever he was and whatever he was doing. What an odd symbol to be chosen by a young black man from New Orleans! But behind that Star of David is a story. When Armstrong was as lost as a boy could, when his own parents had deserted him and he literally didn’t have two pennies to rub together, he found work in a junk hauling business. That business was owned by the Karnofskys, a Jewish family from Lithuania only recently arrived on US shores. The family saw how lost Armstrong was, and how lonely he was as well. They took him in, fed him dinner, sat him at their table, talked with him, treated him with dignity and respect. As he got to know them he realized the Karnofsky family was subject to prejudice and hatred in much the same way that he was as a black man. And yet they didn’t give in. They worked hard. They lived with purpose and determination. They had almost nothing, but what they did have they were willing to share.
In later years Armstrong wrote a short book about the influence the Karnofsky family had on his life. At just the right moment his path crossed theirs. For a time they walked together, sensing a shared fate and intuitively understanding the deep need we all have to be accepted and to belong, to have people in our lives who care about us and believe in us. The Star of David reminded Armstrong of where he had come from, and how far he had come. But it also reminded him of the lost young boy he had been, and the kind family he met along the way that helped him become a man.