I’ve been giving New Orleans Jewish history tours for a little over a year now, so naturally I talk about how Louis Armstrong was “adopted” by a local Lithuanian Jewish family in the early 20th Century. There are a lot of different versions and sources about this story and I read quite a few of them; what I did not know until recently was that I had a somewhat of a personal connection to this story.
A few months ago, my parents went to visit my mother’s cousin in England. I’ve met one cousin from that family about 20 years ago, and always liked Liverpool and its football team (AKA soccer) because my grandfather was born there, and, of course, because of the Beatles.
While they were over there, my mother sent me an email saying that her cousin in England told her that he has a relative who lives in New Orleans – last name Karno – and that this relative is somehow connected to the great Louis Armstrong. I knew about the story, but having a personal connection, that was new! And within a few hours I was lucky enough to be sitting in the den of this particular Karno family member who shared firsthand about the family connection to Armstrong. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity.
As a 7 or 8-year-old living and hanging out in the South Rampart area in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong was hired by the Karnofsky family to ride a rag and coal wagon, sometimes delivering coal to the red-light district called Storyville. He would blow a tin-horn to attract customers. One day he noticed a cornet in the window of a pawn shop and wanted it but could not afford to pay its cost all at once. Morris Karnofsky, one of the brothers riding the wagon with him, lent him some of the money, and the rest he came up with himself, and worked to repay the loan. This is what he testifies to in his autobiography.
Later, Morris Karnofsky opened the very first music store in the city that sold Jazz records. Armstrong never forgot his Jewish family, who fed him hot meals at the end of a day’s work, and who took him in and made him feel welcome. That is why he could be seen wearing a Magen David in many photos. What I found amusing is that his wife kept Matzah in the house, and that was his midnight snack.
In the photos – the remains of 427 S Rampart, the Karnofsky home and tailor shop, and in the background a mural of Jazz greats on what used to be the Eagle Saloon; also, a fairly new mural of Louis Armstrong.