In 2021, social media users enthusiastically shared a meme about the early life of the legendary trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong, which focused in particular on the influence of a Jewish family in New Orleans, the Karnofskys, and included the striking claim that his nickname, “Satchmo,” was derived from a Yiddish term for “big cheeks.”
The story recounts Armstrong’s difficult childhood, and the kindness shown to him by the Karnofskys for whom he performed odd jobs:
…The Karnofskys gave him money to buy his first musical instrument, as was the custom in the Jewish families. They sincerely admired his musical talent. Later, when he became a professional musician and composer, he used Jewish melodies in some of his compositions.
The young black boy grew up and wrote a book about this Jewish family who had adopted him in 1907. In memory of this family, and until the end of his life, he wore a Star of David and said that in this family he had learned “how to live real life and determination.”
You might recognize his name. 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!
The widely-shared vignette contained some accurate information, and correctly emphasized the mutual affection between Armstrong and the Karnofsky family. However, “satchmo” is not a Yiddish term for “big cheeks,” and Armstrong’s famous nickname was in fact derived from an earlier nickname of “satchel mouth.”
As such, we are issuing a rating of “Mostly False.”
“The Jewish Karnofsky family WAS very important to Louis and he did wear a Star of David, but they never adopted him, they advanced him the money to buy his first cornet (Louis paid it back while working for them) and ‘Satchmo’ is ‘Satchelmouth’ and not Yiddish for ‘big cheeks.'”
Of the Karnofskys, Armstrong would later write:
“One thing that I couldn’t help but notice about the Karnofskys was, poor as they were, they weren’t lazy people… They suffered so badly in their early days in New Orleans. I shall always love them. I learned a lot from them about how to live — real life and determination.”
His early experiences with the Karnofsky family set the tone for what would become a life-long affinity with Jewish people more generally. Armstrong later wrote:
I had a long time admiration for the Jewish people. Especially with their long time of courage, taking so much abuse for so long. I was only seven years old, but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the white folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for. It dawned on me, how drastically. Even “my race”, the Negroes, the way that I saw it, they were having a little better break than the Jewish people, with jobs a plenty around. Of course, we can understand all the situations and handicaps that was going on, but to me we were better off than the Jewish people.