True story: Armstrong the Unknown at the supermarket. Assume nothing.

True story, just happened: The cashier at my Brooklyn Shop Rite supermarket asks, “Who’s that on your shirt?”

Who is this man?

I glance down at my tee, not recalling what I threw on this morning. “Louis Armstrong.” I see it’s one from the Jazz Institute of Chicago, a print of Gary Borreman’s painting of Pops as he looked circa 1928 — newsboy cap, big grin, chubby cheeks, suit and tie and proudly held trumpet.

“I’d like to meet him,” says this pretty young black woman, maybe 23.

“You don’t know who he is?” She shrugs, nah. I teach jazz, blues, etc. to non-music students at New York University, and some of them sign up for class knowing little, but I usually assume everybody in America has heard of Armstrong.

Wrong. Assume nothing. “He was a great musician — a trumpet player, who basically invented jazz as it is today — and a great entertainer, with a long career,” I tell her.

“Oh, sounds nice,” she says. “I studied flute once. Or clarinet.”

“Why did you stop?” Thinking, “Maybe you haven’t. . . ”

Shop Rite cashiers’ stations

“It was just something I did in junior high school,” she says. “Band class or something. It was okay while it lasted, but  I wouldn’t do it again.”

“Why not? I just came from practicing my flutes — I ride my bike out to someplace  quiet, and practice for a few minutes, most days,” I say.

“That must be relaxing.”

“Well, it feels good,” I allow. “It’s fun, and give me something to work on.” Like I need another thing to work on. But I do find it fun.

“Oh,” she says.

“You must have something like that in your life, don’t you?” I prompt her.

“No, not really, nothing like that,” she replies, handing me a receipt for my purchases. I’m bagging the stuff myself. “Just work and school, then I go home. That’s all.”

Not me but this is the idea.

“Too bad,” I sympathize. “Where are you studying? And what?”

“In college — childhood education,” she answers.

“Great,” I say. She intends to teach. “Good luck with that.”

Subscribe by Email or RSS

All JBJ posts

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. /Al Longbrake says

    Ok, I’ll post a comment. This must be a popular website, or no one cares about jazz any more. This story reminds me of a comment by Art Blakey in the late ’80’s or early 90’s. He said that with all the great black musicians performing jazz today, The average young black kid doesen’t know or care anything about it.

  2. says

    In a strange cultural counterbalance to this experience of Mr. Mandel’s, within the past year or two I have been shopping at a supermarket (in the Midwest) only to be greeted by the music of Bird (with strings, if memory serves) and – even more surprisingly – in a hotel lobby (also in the Midwest) by music from Miles’ Second Great Quintet (several tunes form The Sorcerer!). At the hotel I actually said to the clerk: “Do you realize you’ve got music by one of the greatest, most path-forging jazz ensembles ever to perform and record playing as background. How unexpected yet bizarrely hip is *that*?” He didn’t seem to share my interest. Strange that at just this cultural moment when jazz-awareness is at a seeming nadir, some of its strongest and most individual expressions should come to serve as Musak!

  3. says

    Way back when I purchased Duke Ellington Presents the Dollar Brand Trio LP on Reprise from the Woolworth’s on Fulton St downtown Brooklyn. When I went to the check out here was no price on the LP and the cashier couldn’t get a price so I pointed to the cover and said it’s right there Dollar and was promptly charged $1.

    Another time I was visiting New Orleans with a group of people that included some college age students and we went to Armstrong’s original house where he lived as a kid and the students had absolutely no idea who he was or his contributions to American music and culture.

    It’s a hopeless cause. Most kids today don’t even know who the Beatles are.

    So womb there it is!

  4. Paul Lindemeyer says

    History, at least anything but war and politics, is dead. Even the oldest among us think the world began at Pearl Harbor. We’re too great a country to have so much repressed memory.

  5. Monique Avakian says

    Heartbreaking in so many ways…..worst of all because she is going into education….the loss of play and lolling around looking at clouds, making sounds with sweet blades of grass…we need s revolution in more facets of life than educational policy paradigms…….

  6. Skip Norris says

    The saga continues….
    It’s not only sad but not surprising. So many young people have no idead of not only who Pops was, but haven;t heard of Faulkner, Socrates, Ellington, or Walter Reuther….. I was born in 1959 and was exposed to a broad educational sweep. In grade school, I listened to Pops, Trane, Motown, The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Miles, Bobby Womack, Johnny Guitar Watson…..and read everything from Thomas Mann to Ralph Ellison……The spiral must stop……

  7. Drey Liautaud says

    That’s too bad too hear. Even if people aren’t playing jazz related instruments ( I myself play guitar and sing and had a ton of fun in high school playing LA venues with my band) I would think a face like Armstrong’s is recognizable. I never studied music other then a few basic theory classes, but both myself, my nonmusical friends, and music oriented friends all had music related requirements in high school. Most people who didn’t play at least took Music Appreciation classes. The jazz one was one of the most sought after, maybe these requirements are a newly added requirement, but I don’t think this story represents all the youth by any means. I’m fairly positive if I spoke of Armstrong and Ellington most of my buddies would have a notion! Even if people can’t find the time to play a society that at least knows about and appreciates music is a better society imo.

    • says

      I’ve been wondering how much basic level music appreciation is still taught — one associate in graduate school tells me more jazz appreciation classes are offered today than ever, I think he’s speaking of college level. But you may not be representative, Mr. Liautaud — you play and sing and were in a working band. This young woman seemed quite disconnected with even the possibility of this music. Skip, how do you stop a spiral? Young people have experiences that are render the past we hallowed irrelevant. Our cultural heroes are analog and action-oriented, as opposed to digital and consumption-oariented.