I remember his disfigured lip.
I was just twenty years old when I met Louis Armstrong. He performed at Ole Miss, where my stepfather, Arthur Kreutz, was an artist-in-residence. My mother usually accompanied her new husband to concerts, but this time she sent me instead, possibly hoping we would find a connection. Arthur was a well-regarded composer, conductor and violinist. I knew nothing about music. My mother, a writer, didn’t either. But she managed to bluff her way into his world, writing lyrics to accompany his compositions.
On this night, we drove in Arthur’s black ’39 Plymouth. I had only known him for a year. My concern was how his marriage to my mother (her third) would affect me. Already their union, which I heard about when my father showed me a clipping from the society pages of the New York Times, had uprooted me. I was working at a bank in Seattle when Arthur’s appointment at Ole Miss gave me the opportunity for a college education.
The Louis Armstrong concert was well-attended by Oxford’s white elite. He got a standing ovation. Afterward, I was shocked when my stern, Czech stepfather stepped onto the stage and ducked behind the curtain in search of Mr. Armstrong’s dressing room. The gall of the man!
I followed. What else could I do?
Mr. Armstrong was glad to see him. They reminisced about mutual friends. Arthur was a fan of Dixieland Jazz, having played violin and banjo in dance halls for fifteen years. His composition, Dixieland Concerto, had been commissioned four years earlier and would later be treated to the acoustics of Lincoln Center.
As they talked, I studied Mr. Armstrong’s face. I couldn’t help but focus on the mass on his lip. Self-taught musicians often develop a faulty technique, causing a buildup of scar tissue, I read in a recent New Yorker book review by John McWhorter.
Besides a chance to meet a famous person, the concert opened the door for me to get to know my stepfather. I wasn’t interested. He may have associated with cool jazz musicians, but, to me, he was just there, a looming but mostly inconsequential figure in our peculiar family.
For Mr. Armstrong, there were surely places he would have rather been than Ole Miss in 1954, eight years before James Meredith enrolled, an act that required a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. Oxford, despite a free-spirited artist vibe, was of course rigidly segregated. How could Louis Armstrong perform for people who wouldn’t drink from the same water fountain?
I still get choked up when I hear him sing, What a Wonderful World. For all the hatred and injustice he encountered, the man who as a child honed his musical talent at a place called the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs saw the colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky. How could that be?
He must have found peace in his music, as my stepfather did. Arthur was only happy around other musicians. He melded into some Southern rituals, becoming a fan of Ole Miss football, for example. But he, like Mr. Armstrong, was an artist to a degree that left room for little else.
Arthur and my mother made Oxford home. He became a tenured professor of music, a position he held until he retired. He and my mother remained devoted partners until his death.
As a stepfather and later a step-grandfather, Arthur didn’t have much to give. Just his music, which he played for us on occasion, even though we were not sophisticated enough to appreciate his gifts.
But as an artist, he was amiable and generous, revered by his students and regarded a friend by the great Louis Armstrong.