Notes of a Native Son

by James Baldwin

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Who is Louis Armstrong and what does he represent for Baldwin?

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Louis (pronounced "Louie") Armstrong is among the most famous American jazz musicians of all time. Born in 1901, Armstrong became popular beginning in the 1920s as a trumpeter, composer, and vocalist. His most notable characteristics are his strong improvisational skills (both in playing trumpet and "scatting") and his status as one of the first American musicians to cross racial lines and become popular with both black and white audiences.

In "Sonny's Blues," by James Baldwin, Louis Armstrong represents "old" jazz and a generally non-political, mass appeal-friendly version of the black musician. When asked if he wants to be a musician like Armstrong, Baldwin's character "face [closes] as though [he'd been] struck," and he exclaims, “No. I’m not talking about none of that old-time, down home crap."

Overall, Baldwin recognizes the complex persona of Armstrong, which is still hotly debated. Was he a groundbreaker for black musicians, or was he another iteration of a well-used stereotype? Baldwin's characters seem to believe the latter.

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