“King of the Zulus” (Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five)

For some, a scandalous and unfortunate moment in Hot Five history, in which Armstrong explores his thematic relationship to blackface minstrelsy, “Zulus,” and other primitives. But before trying to judge this trax, there is so much to be said: the African American members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, celebrated here, hailed from Armstrong’s neighborhood as a child—“Perdido and Liberty – Franklin Streets,” as Armstrong himself wrote to reporter Betty Jane Holder in 1952. And the Zulu Club was (and is) a mutual aid society of the type often promoted today by scholars of immigration, transnationalism, and anarchism. Armstrong also remembered the Zulus as primarily “teamsters” who “taught me the ropes” in terms of operating a street cart. By the time Armstrong was eighteen, the Teamsters were using “Equal Pay for All” as a slogan, and the organization’s New Orleans Executive Board had been integrated for more than a decade. So “Zulu” means both uplift and integration to Armstrong, and it’s important to remember this when tracking Armstrong’s appropriation of primitivism (Gene H. Anderson detects it in the trax’s “minor mode” and “dominant and tonic harmonies throughout”). Also important in judging the trax’s potentially political purposes is the fact that the reigning 1920s paradigm for jazz appreciation involved seeing the jazz performer as an “avant-garde primitivist aesthete,” to borrow John Gennari’s phrase (Blowin’ Hot and Cold 32). Just as the Zulu Club’s blackface parade, complete with floats, began in 1915 as a kind of parody or counter-Mardi Gras, so too is Armstrong’s appropriation potentially smothered in irony. Meanwhile, John Cowley’s research on this trax convincingly situates the skit at the center of the track as promoting racial solidarity between the Jamaican “country man” (a Garveyite, perhaps) and the citified Hot Five through successful soloing. This black immigrant bumpkin is as clear a type as the “Zulu,” and it’s as if the Jamaican character is reaching out to ask Armstrong, “How might I continue to make music when I am thus demeaned?” Armstrong’s response is simple: blow.


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