Did you know? Louis Armstrong wore Star of David


Louis Armstrong at the recording session of “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy,” where he showed his Star of David. (Photo courtesy Louis Armstrong House Museum)

It is true. According to the trumpeters official biography, Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 4, 1901. He was raised by his mother Mayann in a neighborhood so dangerous it was called “The Battlefield.” He only had a fifth-grade education, dropping out of school early to go to work. An early job working for the Jewish Karnofsky family allowed Armstrong to make enough money to purchase his first cornet.

“While Armstrong identified as a Baptist, it may surprise a great many music lovers to learn that the “goodwill ambassador to jazz” wore a Magen David, or Star of David, throughout most of his adult life,” wrote Alan Smason for the Crescent Jewish News.   The background to this little- known tale makes for fascinating reading and is steeped in the culture of New Orleans.

Armstong worked as a laborer for Louis Karnofsky and his family of Jewish-Lithuanian peddlers. Part of his duties included getting up early and delivering “stone coal” from atop a delivery wagon with Louis’s son, Morris. It was hard and dirty work, but the Karnofskys’ work ethic impressed the youngster as he related in the biography “In His Own Words”: “The Karnofksy boys were all fine young men, wonderful dispositions. The whole family had that fine warmth for all their Negro help,” Armstrong wrote. “The Karnofskys would start getting ready for work at five o’clock in the morning and I was right there along with them.”

Armstrong would write, “One day when I was on the wagon with Morris Karnofsky – we were on Rampart and Perdido Streets and we passed a Pawn Shop – which had in its Window an old tarnished beat up’ “B” Flat Cornet. It only cost Five Dollars. Morris advanced me two dollars on my salary. Then I put aside Fifty Cents each week from my small pay – finally the Coronet was Paid for in full. Boy was I a Happy Kid.”


Armstong always had a special relationship and good memories of his time spent with the Karnofsky family.

“They not only encouraged him to play, but to sing as well,” wrote Smason. “According to Armstrong, Esther “Tilie” Karnofsky, Louis’ wife, often sang songs such as Russian lullabies.” “When I reached the age of Eleven I began to realize it was the Jewish family who instilled in me Singing from the heart,” Armstrong recalled. “They encourage me to carry on.”

Throught that relationship, Armstrong felt a special attachemen to his Jewish friends and a kept up with his friendships with both Morris and another brother, Aleck, many years after he had moved permanently to Queens in New York.

Smason concluded that perhaps to remind him of his humble background and his halcyon days with his “Jewish family,” the jazz star constantly wore that Magen David.

In a 1954 interview Armstrong said the gold necklace as a gift from friends Abe and Frances Donen. Donen, a Los Angeles area (Baldwin Hills) jeweler friend, inscribed it with “Best of Luck, Abe and Francis.” On the front it was inscribed with his nickname “Pops.” In that interview Armstrong asserted he never took it off. The fact that he wore it daily is supported by additional photographic documentation on the few occasions when Armstrong did remove his shirt.