As a child, Armstrong worked a series of odd jobs, from hawking newspapers and cleaning graves to picking vegetables from the trash and selling them to neighborhood restaurants. At the young age of four or five, he went to work for a local Jewish family, the Karnofskys, selling junk from the family’s wagon by day and buckets of coal by night to prostitutes.
“After a day’s work in the Hot Sun… that evening we would finish up—unhitch the horse and wagon… have a good Jewish meal—relax for the night Route through the Red Light District selling Stone Coal a Nickel a Water Bucket,” Armstrong writes in Louis Armstrong in His Own Words.
John McCusker, a veteran Times-Picayune photojournalist and the author of Creole Trombone: Kid Ory and the Early Years of Jazz, offers history tours with stops at the Karnofsky family’s tailor shop and other key sites, including the former Iroquois Theater, where Armstrong once won a talent competition in “white face,” and the Eagle Saloon, a popular watering hole where Armstrong likely drank and listened to other Back O’ Town artists.
*Tours can be arranged through the contact form on McCusker’s Web site (www.johnmccuskermedia.com) and by phone: (504) 232-5421. $30 per person.
The recently reopened Little Gem Saloon is one of the few success stories among the small cluster of dilapidated jazz relics on the 400 block of South Rampart Street. When it opened in 1903, the Little Gem was as a hangout for early jazz legends such as Buddy Bolden and Jelly Roll Morton. And it was outside its doors, on New Year’s Eve in 1912, that Armstrong celebrated by firing a pistol into the air—an event that led to his arrest and confinement in the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. Today, the Little Gem Saloon’s early 1900s-inspired interior and daily live music harkens back to the club’s heyday, and its Sunday jazz brunch features a historic Creole menu by Chef Robert Bruce, with dishes such as oxtail soup, pickled oysters and molasses pie.
At 17, Armstrong accepted a job with John Streckfus and his bandleader Fate C. Marable aboard the Sidney, a New Orleans paddle wheeler, performing along the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers. Armstrong’s time on the riverboats was his first exposure to musical literacy, and the by-ear musician—who until that point would memorize his parts—was forced to sight-read. It was also the place where he fine-tuned the improvisational techniques that would become his signature. NOLA travelers can get a feel for Armstrong’s time on the river on the last of the city’s authentic paddle wheels, the Steamboat Natchez riverboat, which offers nightly dinner jazz tours, featuring the Grammy-nominated Dukes of Dixieland, on its 15-mile roundtrip route on the Mississippi.