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The Louis Armstrong Collection

The early days of television brought the greatest stars of the day into the daily lives of Americans. Among the most common onscreen faces of that era was Louis Armstrong. Armstrong had been America’s first racial cross-over artist in the 1920’s and 30’s and had been an Ambassador of good will for the U.S. around the world. He was welcomed in homes across America, even as his contributions to the civil rights movement were being questioned. Ultimately, Armstrong’s value as a uniquely American artist and entertainer is his contribution to all.

Louis Armstrong: Artist as Entertainer

For those of us who grew up and watched TV in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, Louis Armstrong was a comfortable grandfather figure; entertaining, funny, and most importantly safe. Artistically, his talents were beyond question. He helped transform both jazz and popular music in the 1920’s and 30’s. He was influential in modern music both instrumentally and vocally. He was amiable and developed relationships with performers of all races around the globe. He was a respected performer, accepted and even revered by cultural and political institutions.

Armstrong’s work in the 1920’s not only changed jazz from band-oriented music to one that emphasized individuals and extended solos. This, then, gave rise to the importance of being a performer, a “personality,” and Armstrong’s personality was second to none. His amiability, signature vocal style and entertaining persona helped popularize jazz. His early recordings with “The Hot Five are considered some of the most important in American Jazz.

Growing Mainstream Recognition

In the 1930’s Armstrong became the first black to host a nationwide radio program with a 12-week replacement gig, taking over for Rudy Vallee on the Fleischmann’s Yeast Show. In 1937 Armstrong was the first Black American to get featured billing in a major motion picture, Pennies from Heaven. But even as the American mainstream accepted Armstrong into their cultural iconography, in the 1940’s many jazz musicians and jazz music began to evolve in new directions.

Jazz musicians in the 1940’s began to reject what they perceived as onstage persona’s that pandered to white audiences’ stereotypes of American blacks. For many, Armstrong’s onstage personality seemed too close to the Jim Crow blackface grinning, mugging and eye-popping characters of the American minstrel shows. Musicians wanted their music to be recognized as high art, equivalent to European Classical music, and many felt that Armstrong’s focus on entertainment hurt that perception. Many younger musicians outright rejected an entertainer’s persona, refusing even to interact with audiences at times, focusing on band members and the music as they played onstage.  

The divide between Armstrong and younger jazz musicians grew. Jazz was evolving beyond mainstream, traditional jazz and swing. The divide came to a head when in 1948 Armstrong was quoted in downbeat criticizing younger players.  

“These young cats now they want to make money first and the hell with the music. And they want to carve everyone else because they’re full of malice, and all they want to do is show you up, and any old way will do as long as it’s different from the way you played it before. So you get all them weird chords which don’t mean nothing, and first people get curious about it just because it’s new, but soon they’ll get tired of it because it’s really no good and you got no melody to remember and no beat to dance to…”

Armstrong and Growing Criticism

The early 1950’s cemented Armstrong’s place in the mainstream American musical pantheon. He became an International Ambassador for the U.S. Government, generating good for the U.S. around the world, spreading sound of American Jazz. Armstrong was becoming a known face on early classic TV. In 1956 he starred in the film, High Society, with the biggest stars in America at the time, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

The late 50’s and early 60’s was a rapidly shifting social era, as prosperity and mobility clashed with tradition and values in America. At the front of the social turmoil was the civil rights movement, and Louis Armstrong had to reconcile his established, establishment image with radical times that were demanding changes. Criticism continued regarding his persona. New criticism arose regarding his lack of comment on the changing civil rights landscape. Many felt he was not confronting the entertainment industry and audiences, an obligation many felt performers had, at the time.

Classic TV made Armstrong made a regular on many high-profile musical variety shows hosted by the biggest stars of the day. Throughout the 1950’s Armstrong appeared over 30 times on nationally broadcast TV. His face was the Black face that white America knew best; who they felt safe with and allowed into their homes via their TV sets.

Armstrong’s Contributions

Perspective allows a better look at Armstrong’s role in the civil rights movement and allows for a reevaluation . Armstrong admitted that he was not, by nature, politically inclined. Late in life he admitted that he had seldom voted due to his lack of knowledge on the issues. He said at the time, “ain’t no use messing with something you don’t know anything about.”

But that lack of political depth did not mean Armstrong did not take a stand. He used his celebrity to appeal to President Eisenhower regarding desegregation in both Arizona and Arkansas, and canceled tours to Russia in protest over the lack of action in each case. His reaction to canceling the tour over desegregation in Little Rock was, “the way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” and “It’s getting almost so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country,” extreme statements for a Black man in the highly segregated and racially charged America of the late 1950’s.

Armstrong often took stands by opening doors. His popularity created opportunity. His music created awareness. Armstrong saw understood himself to be both an artist and an entertainer. He couldn’t be one without being the other. He understood that through entertainment he could break down barriers for himself and others. He knew he was frequently playing to an audience that included racists that he abhorred. However, Armstrong felt, “While they’re listening to our music, they don’t think about trouble. What’s more, they’re watching Negro and white musicians play side by side. And we bring contentment and pleasure.”

His music was his contribution to obtaining equal treatment for his race. He forced people to admit the value he brought to their lives and American culture, and to look at the value in others that was being wasted.

Black writer, Amiri Baraka, was among those who criticized Armstrong in the 1960’s, at the height of the tensions in the civil rights movement regarding the role of Black celebrities. By 2006 he had allowed time to give him a different perspective. He said, “We confused what we perceived as the social demeanor in that context of lynching. You understand? Overt segregation. And we thought that Louis was submitting to that. You know, Louis’s expression was musical and artistic and transcended that. When it was possible for Louis to speak, he spoke.”

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Additional Resources

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Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong

Crosby and Armstrong “Has Jazz”

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Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley on stage together.

Frank and Elvis Sing

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A clash of the Titans! What more can you say!