A Jewish family Karnofsky, who immigrated from Lithuania to the United States, took pity on the 7-year-old boy and brought him to their home.
There he stayed and spent the night in this Jewish family home, where he was treated with kindness and tenderness for the first time.
When he went to bed, Mrs. Karnovski sang him Russian lullabies, which he sang with her.
Later he learned to sing and play several Russian and Jewish songs.
Over time, this boy became the adopted son of this family.
Mr. Karnofsky gave him money to buy his first musical instrument, as was the custom in Jewish families.
Later, when he became a professional musician and composer, he used these Jewish melodies in compositions such as St. James’s Hospital and Went Down Moses.
The little boy grew up and wrote a book about this Jewish family who adopted him in 1907. And proudly spoke Yiddish fluently.
In memory of this family and until the end of his life, he wore the Star of David and said that in this family, he learned “to live a real life and determination.”
This little boy’s name was Louis Armstrong. This little boy was called Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. Louis Armstrong proudly spoke fluent Yiddish, and “Satchmo” is Yiddish for “big cheeks, a nickname some say was given to him by Mrs. Karnofsky!
Look at any picture of Louis Armstrong relaxing with an open shirt collar, and you will likely see a Star of David hanging around his neck. Where did that come from? It’s an expression of his lifelong gratitude and devotion to the kindnesses shown by the Karnofsky family when he was a seven-year-old boy in New Orleans.
How Louis encountered “the Jewish Family” (as he referred to them in writing) should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the “crazy quilt” character of some New Orleans neighborhoods, in which people of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds blend daily, often living next door to each other. Such was the case when Louis moved from Jane Alley, “back o’ town,” to Franklin and Perdido Streets in the Third Ward. South Rampart Street was only a couple of blocks away, teeming with pawnshops, tailoring establishments, restaurants, bars, and saloons. The resident proprietors of the pawnshops, and many of the tailors, were Jewish — the Finks, Fertels, and Karnofskys being the most prominent among them — but the neighborhood also included a Chinatown.
Running amok on the streets as he was wont to do, little Louis took it all in, and his relationship with the Karnofskys (which began with his first job) was a foregone conclusion from the time he moved into the neighborhood. Among other things, they shared a similar lifestyle, right down to the basics: for example, everybody in the area had to use privies (yes, outhouses); everyone was poor in material goods but rich in spirit, and their fortune was in the streets; and if you were eating out for a special occasion, you went to a Chinese restaurant, where they had soul food (“lead beans and lice” said Louis) along with the usual Cantonese fare. Armstrong admired his Jewish benefactors because they were industrious and stood together in the face of oppression — which they encountered at every turn, like their black neighbors. They were “all in this together,” but some folks were more together than others. As Louis said later, “I came up the hard way, the same as lots of people, but I always help the other fellow if possible.” After he made it, he kept a bankroll that could choke a gator precisely to make good on that promise. He learned that from the Karnofskys.
Louis did start at the bottom. His job for the Jewish family was collecting refuse (bottles and rags mostly) and delivering coal to the prostitutes in Storyville. He usually accompanied Morris or Alex, two of the Karnofsky sons, on the junk wagon and played a tinhorn to attract customers. One day they passed a pawnshop, and Louis saw a burnished B-flat cornet on sale for five dollars in the window. Five bucks might as well have been a million, but Morris gave him two dollars and saved the rest at 50 cents a week until he could raise the money to buy the horn. (That’s something else they taught him, how to save, which as most of us know, is a hard lesson, often learned more than once in a lifetime.) Morris never let Louis forget that he had talent and applauded him as he attempted to make his first horn sing.
“They could see I had something in my soul,” Louis said. And the Karnofskys also made sure that he had something in his stomach. Louis loved the food he ate at their home. He said, “My first Jewish meal was at seven. I liked their Jewish food very much. Every time we would come in late on the little wagon from buying old rags and bones, when they would be having supper, they would fix a plate of food for me, saying, ‘you’ve worked, might as well eat here with us. It is too late; by the time you get home, it will be too late for your supper.’ I was glad because I fell in love with their food from those days until now. I still eat their food — matzos. My wife Lucille keeps them in her breadbox so I can nibble on them whenever I want to eat late at night. So tasty — delicious.”
Louis worked for the Karnofskys until he was twelve and was “a little large for the job.” We all know what happened to him after that — he became the first jazz star — but what about his mentors? As Louis tells it, “they came into larger businesses. They had invested their saved earnings, and they had New Orleans all sewed up before one realized it.”
The youngest son, David, grew up to be a master tailor, and he kept in touch with his family’s most famous protégé, often attending Louis’s performances in New York. And there’s more. Later generations of Karnofskys abbreviated the surname to Karno (which it may have been initially in their native Russia), and some became powerful nightclub owners in the French Quarter. Nick Karno had La Strada, The 500 Club, The Famous Door, Court of Two Sisters, and other prime real estate devoted to music. So maybe this relationship was more reciprocal than it’s usually made out to be because it seems to me that Louis gave the Karnofskys something, too — an appreciation for the creative power of jazz. That’s a gift that keeps on giving.