Louis Armstrong has served as the focus of many works of literature. Now, a few seconds of old film that appear to feature Armstrong as a teenage boy have captivated jazz journalist James Karst. If Karst's theory is correct, the clip from 1915 shows Armstrong at a turning point in his early life — years before he became famous and eventually legendary around the world.
Karst tells NPR's Scott Simon that he stumbled upon the alleged clip of Armstrong on the Getty Images website. For the first beat of the eight-second clip, apparently taken from a newsreel, pedestrians cross a busy New Orleans street in 1915. Then, the boy who Karst suspects to be a 13 or 14-year-old Armstrong enters the shot.
"A couple of seconds into this film clip, a newsboy walks into the scene," Karst describes. "His back is facing the camera at first. And then he turns around, and you can see that he's holding a newspaper — what I believe to be the New Orleans Item, an afternoon paper. And he briefly engages the camera, smiles and then he turns around and keeps going."
When Karst saw the clip, its possible significance occurred to him instantly. "I saw it and immediately recognized that Louis Armstrong, when he was a young man in this very year, was a newsboy in New Orleans, and was one of, apparently, relatively few black newsboys in New Orleans in this location," he says. Karst immediately set out to determine whether or not this newsboy was in fact Armstrong.
From there, Karst got to work piecing together bits of evidence to support his hunch. He reached out to Dr. Kurt Luther, a professor at Virginia Tech known for his work identifying people in Civil War-era photographs, for advice, and compared the facial features of the boy in the video to those seen in the earliest known images of Armstrong. Karst also accessed census records to verify the small number of black newsboys on the New Orleans records at the time the film was taken.
At the time, Karst says, Armstrong would have recently been released from a boys' reformatory where he had been sent for shooting a pistol into the air — this reformatory is also where Armstrong played in the marching band and received his first formal music instruction. As Karst says, after coming out of the reformatory in June of 1914, Armstrong found work as a newsboy to help support his family, who lived in poverty.
Karst says he's been surprised to find that others largely accept his suggestion, which was published in a magazine of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. "I fully expected people to try to pick it apart."
According to Karst, there is one evident clue on the boy's face in the clip: "The beautiful Louis Armstrong smile that later became famous."
Listen to the entire interview at the audio link.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Many works of literature have been written about Louis Armstrong. But now, jazz journalist James Karst has written about the effort to decipher a few seconds of old film that may show Louis Armstrong as a 13 or 14-year-old boy - a turning point in his life before he became famous around the world.
James Karst writes about this footage in a magazine of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. He joins us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us.
JAMES KARST: Hi. Thanks for having me today.
SIMON: What did you discover and where?
KARST: So I found a very brief silent film clip that shows a street scene in New Orleans, apparently in 1915, and it shows a lot of pedestrians walking back and forth. And a couple of seconds into this film clip, a newsboy walks into the scene. His back is facing the camera at first, and then he turns around and you can see that he's holding a newspaper - what I believe to be the New Orleans Item, an afternoon paper. And he briefly engages the camera, smiles and then he turns around and keeps going.
I discovered this film on the Getty Images website, where it apparently has been for a little bit over a decade. And I saw it and immediately recognized that Louis Armstrong, when he was a young man in this very year, was a newsboy in New Orleans and was one of, apparently, relatively few black newsboys in New Orleans and in this location. And so I immediately set out to determine whether or not it was him.
SIMON: And how did you begin to confirm that?
KARST: Yeah, well, I took a number of different routes. One of the first things I did was I got in touch with a Professor Kurt Luther from Virginia Tech University, who has worked on a project to identify people in Civil War-era photographs, and I talked with him about strategies for making an identification like this.
From there, I went in other directions. I looked at census records to see how many black newsboys were on the records at the time, and then I also compared features on this - the boy. I took a screen grab of the video and compared the distance between the eyes and the width of the nose and the angle of the ears and the shoulders and compared that with early images - known images of Armstrong.
SIMON: Louis Armstrong was at a home for boys who got into trouble with the law, right?
KARST: He had been released the year before - in June of 1914 - from an institution that was known as the Colored Waifs Home. And this was a reformatory - it was part reformatory, part orphanage. And Armstrong was sent there for at least the second time in early 1913 after he had been arrested for shooting a pistol into the air.
And it was at - while at that reformatory that he began to receive his first formal music instruction. He played in the marching band there. They would parade around the city and play at events on the lake and stuff like that. But when he came out, he was, you know, faced with the challenges of being 13 or 14 years old at the time and needing to provide some income for his family. He grew up in dire poverty, of course.
SIMON: You take a look at this, like, 8 seconds of film, I guess it is, and maybe it's the power of suggestion, but it certainly looks like Louis Armstrong. And you (laughter) - you really do get a sense, even from this 13-year-old youngster, of just overwhelming charisma.
KARST: Yeah, that has been sort of the reaction. The overwhelming reaction to my story is - you know, I fully expected people to try to pick it apart because it's kind of a ridiculous thing to propose. But overwhelmingly, people have said, holy smokes, we think this, you know - it looks like him. He smiles the beautiful Louis Armstrong smile that later became famous. Yeah, it's been fascinating to me.
SIMON: Well, we want to go out a bit with some Louis Armstrong music - Louis Armstrong's first recorded solo. I guess you recommended this to us - 1923 "Chimes Blues" - and it was released by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band.
(SOUNDBITE OF KING OLIVER'S CREOLE JAZZ BAND'S "CHIMES BLUES")
SIMON: Jazz journalist James Karst - his article is "Young Satchmo" and appears in the magazine 64 Parishes. Thanks so much for being with us.
KARST: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "SAVOY BLUES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.