Peggy Keener: The sad/happy story of Big Cheeks

Published 4:57 pm Friday, September 30, 2022

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Big Cheeks led a life of misery. As the grandson of a slave, he was born in 1901 to a 16-year-old mother in a very poor section of New Orleans. Shortly after, his father abandoned the little family. To earn money, his mother turned to prostitution. It was, however, not enough to support them. Thus, Big Cheeks was sent away to live with his grandmother.

At the age of five, he was returned to his mother. For the young lad the move could not have been more disastrous as thereafter he spent his impoverished, dirt poor youth in the rough New Orleans’ neighborhood known as “The Battlefield.”

Fortune, however, was about to change for little Big Cheeks. His life took an upward course when he was hired to work for a family of Lithuanian Jews. The Karnofskys knew all about toil and strife, for they had to scratch out a new life for themselves in a foreign land. Hard work was their middle name. Big Cheeks and their two young sons joined together to earn money for the family. Their jobs were to collect and sell rags and bones, as well as to deliver coal.

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Despite this hard scrabble life, the Karnofskys treated baby-faced Big Cheeks extremely well, feeding and nurturing him like a son. The mother, as well, often sang Russian lullabies which the boy quickly learned. Not only did she teach him the notes and the words, but more importantly she also taught him to sing with feeling. To sing from his heart.

When he was seven, Big Cheeks was deeply saddened when one day he realized that the Karnofsky family was being discriminated against by the white families in the neighborhood. Despite his young age, he could easily see the harsh and unfair treatment with which those folks treated the challenged Jewish family. It was during this agonizing time that the stalwart Karnofskys taught Big Cheeks another lesson: how to live. How to live a life of dedicated determination.

Everyday, Big Cheeks accompanied Mr. Karnofsky as he made his rounds on his junk wagon. To attract attention away from the other hawkers, seven-year-old Big Cheeks played a tin horn as he walked along side the wagon. This would turn out to be his first musical performance. At that time it was the custom in a Jewish family to give the gift of music to each child. Mr. Karnofsky gave Big Cheeks an advance toward buying his first musical instrument.

Big Cheeks never forgot the love this extraordinary Jewish family gave him at a time in his life when living with his mother seemed utterly hopeless. In remembrance of the sincere caring which he received from this big hearted family, Big Cheeks wore a Star of David for the rest of his life.

When he was eleven, his family moved into a one-room house with his new baby sister, his mother and her common-law husband. Next door lived his uncle and two cousins. Along with another boy, the four youngsters formed a quartet and sang on the street corners for money.

They also got into trouble. On New Year’s Eve in 1912, Big Cheeks borrowed, without permission, his stepfather’s gun and fired a blank into the air. He was arrested. He spent the night in the New Orleans Juvenile Court. The following day he was sentenced to live in a detention home. It turned out to be a home for waifs.

Life there was, in a word, spartan. There were no mattresses and meals were often little more than bread and molasses. In every respect, the home was run like a military camp with corporal punishment being common. Big Cheeks lived with this misery for the next two years.

Then in 1914, he was released into the custody of his real father and his new stepmother. For several months he lived with them and his two step-brothers. That lasted until the birth of their daughter. After that, Big Cheeks was no longer welcome. He was returned to his real mother. But, things were so dire there, he had to share a bed with her and his sister.

With this move, Big Cheeks found himself back again in the rough and tumble “Battlefield” neighborhood. This unsavory place left a boy like him wide open to a myriad of old temptations. But, using will power and determination as the Karnofskys had taught him, he found a job at a dance hall.

The major drawback was that the owner was deeply connected to organized crime. In no time this man taught Big Cheeks another way of doing business. At the age of fifteen, Big Cheeks became a pimp for a prostitute. Her name was Nootsy. The job quickly halted, however, when Nootsy stabbed Big Cheeks in the shoulder and his mother nearly choked Nootsy to death!

Following that he briefly studied shipping management at a local community college, but was forced to quit because he couldn’t afford the tuition. As all hope seemed to be draining away, he began yet a new job. A job selling coal. It was while he was making his coal deliveries that he began to hear small groups of men playing music out on the streets. All their instruments were made from household objects. Big Cheeks was drawn to that music like an ant is to a picnic.

This was a turning point in Big Cheek’s life. From these humble and hopeless beginnings, he went on to become a musician. A musician who was eventually recognized and loved throughout the world!

What I neglected to tell you was that during all those years while he was growing up, the Karnofskys did not call the boy “Big Cheeks.” Instead they used the Lithuanian translation … “Satchmo.” You would know him as Louis Armstrong.