Louis Armstrong

FROM 1925 TO 1928, Louis Armstrong made an astonishing series of recordings, the jazz-creating legacy of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, a succession of studio groups that virtually never performed live. In 1927, the young cornetist led his band into a meticulously hilarious version of a classic composition Jelly Roll Morton had made famous, ‘Twelfth Street Rag’.

The track sounds like the opening shot of a revolution — except that the revolution in Armstrong’s head and hands had already been in full swing for years. Unlike most revolutions, from the first it displayed an ingratiating, inviting sense of humor and charm. Dippermouth, as his early New Orleans pals dubbed him, used the rag as a trampoline. As his horn fractures the tune’s familiar refrains, ragtime’s precise, cake-walking rhythmic values suddenly coil and loop and stutter and dive, the aural equivalent of a bravura World War I flying ace dogfighting tradition. Every time Armstrong comes precariously near a tailspin, he pulls back the control stick and confidently, jauntily heads off toward the horizon, if not straight at another virtuosic loop-de-loop.

The relentless joy brimming in the sound of young Satchemouth’s horn, the glorious deep-blue and fiery-red tinged Whitmanesque yawp of it, has a undeniably self-conscious edge. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray first pointed out a half-century ago that it is also the sound of self-assertion, a musical realization of the double consciousness W.E.B. Dubois posited for African Americans, Within this almost Hegelian compound of power and pain, a racial revisiting of the Master-Slave encounter in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, DuBois explained that African Americans were inevitably alienated, stood both inside and outside mainstream American culture and its norms, prescriptions, hopes, dreams. Such alienation, DuBois pointed out, could cripple black Americans by forcing them to internalize mainstream cultural values that held them to be less than human, but it could also liberate the brightest of them. The “Talented Tenth,” as he called this group, could act on their perceptions of the contradictions between the high ideals grounding basic American cultural myths (“All men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence, for example) and gritty daily reality, where blacks were not exactly welcomed into concert halls, schools, restaurants, or buses.

In the bell of Armstrong’s barbaric (which means, in the sense Whitman inherited from Ralph Waldo Emerson, non-European) horn is the sound of a new, all-American culture being forged from the stuff of the social sidelines. In 1957, Ellison wrote to Murray, “I’ve discovered Louis singing ‘Mack The Knife.’ Shakespeare invented Caliban or changed himself into him. Who the hell dreamed up Louis? Some of the bop boys consider him Caliban, but if he is, he is a mask for a lyric poet who is much greater than most now writing. Man and mask, sophistication and taste hiding behind clowning and crude manners — the American joke, man.”

Armstrong himself was no naive artist; he certainly wasn’t a fool. From his earliest days he saw race as a key issue in his life, his art, and his country, with the wit and understanding evident in his music. As he wrote of the composer of ‘Twelfth Street Rag’, jazz’s self-proclaimed inventor, “Jelly Roll [Morton] with lighter skin than the average piano players, got the job [at New Orleans’ leading whorehouse, Lulu White] because they did not want a Black piano player for the job. He claimed — he was from an Indian or Spanish race. No Cullud at all… They had lots of players in the District that could play lots better than Jelly, but their dark Color kept them from getting the job. Jelly Roll made so much money in tips that he had a diamond inserted in one of his teeth. No matter how much his Diamond Sparkled he still had to eat in the Kitchen, the same as we Blacks.”

In The Omni-Americans, Albert Murray explains how Armstrong’s music limned human talents needed in the frenetic, fast-changing 20th century. Drawn from the pioneer, Indian, and slave, the key American survival skill was improvisation, the soloist’s ability to mesh with his surroundings. (Historical accident though it may have been, in that context the meeting of Armstrong and Jimmy Rogers, Father of Country Music, on tracks like TK, seems almost a foregone conclusion; it also forecast and encouraged later developments like Bob Wills and his Texas swing, Willie Nelson’s jazz singing and partnerings with Ray Charles, and Merle Haggard’s looselimbed improvising Strangers.) Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man uses Armstrong’s version of ‘Black and Blue’, a tune from the Broadway play Chocolate Dandies of 1929, to demonstrate the Duboisian nature of improvising as epistemological tool.

This was the lesson Armstrong started teaching in the Jazz Age, when flappers reigned and sexual emancipation knocked at the doors of mainstream culture, when the Harlem Renaissance redefined African American, when Prohibition created a nation of outlaws who, thanks to associating with booze and gangsters and the demimonde’s soundtrack of jazz, saw that Negroes, as they were called, were subject to legal and extralegal restrictions and prejudices just as arbitrary and stupid as the constitutional amendment forbidding Americans to buy and sell booze.

The elastic rhythms and fiery solos on the sides by the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens spoke to them, and illustrated the joys of the jazz-inflected life. On tune after tune, Armstrong cavorts and leaps and capers over and around his musical cohorts with the playful self-possession of a young and cocky top cat. Nothing can hold him down. He traverses keys and bar lines and rhythms with impunity, remolding them without missing a step.

‘Black and Blue’ made him a star. Originally written as a lament by a dark-skinned gal for her man, who’s attracted to high-yellow types, Armstrong’s brilliant, forceful reading renders it as mini-tragedy, the musical equivalent of Shylock’s speech in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. “My only sin,” he sings in that growl that compounds the earthy humanity of the blues with an unflinching dignity — this is no grovel — “is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?” The short answer: in America, nothing. The color line did it all.

Subversive and powerful, Armstrong’s music was the fountainhead of the Jazz Age and the Swing Era, when jazz was America’s popular music, and the sounds of syncopated surprise filled the nation’s dancehalls while young folks skittered and twirled and flounced and leaped and broke out of Victorian constraints to looselimbed beats and blaring horns that emerged from America’s Darktowns in New Orleans and New York and Chicago.

One of Armstrong’s 1936 recordings is called ‘Rhythm Saved The World’. Like many he cut, this banal tune is made something else by his subversive transformations. Its idea still echoes across America’s teeming subcultures. Decades later, Parliament Funkadelic insisted, “Free your ass and your mind will follow.”

Armstrong always claimed he was born on July 4, 1900, and who could blame him? As one of America’s primary declarers of cultural independence (and interdependence), he should have been. But in his rich biography Satchmo, Gary Giddins both insists that all American music emanates from Armstrong and proves he was born on Aug. 4, 1901.

Armstrong and his sister were born in a hard district of New Orleans; their father left before either could remember him. In his early years Armstrong was raised by his grandmother, whom he credited with the Emersonian values — hard work, self-reliance, artistic daring coupled with personal amiability — that guided him. His mother may or may not have been a prostitute for a while; Louis returned to live with her when he was five.

At seven, he quit school and went to work for a Jewish family, the Karmofskys, and picked up his first instrument — a tin horn. He’d been dancing and singing on the street for pennies with other kids, but working coal wagons with the Karmofsky sons, he learned to blow the cheap horn by putting his fingers together in front of the tube (he’d pulled off the mouthpiece). The boys encouraged him, their clients loved his melodies, and Little Louis, as he was called, had found his calling.

On January 1, 1913, he was busted for firing his stepfather’s pistol, and sentenced to the Colored Waifs Home. Here he joined the band and got his first musical training, which he characteristically never forgot. According to clarinet great Sidney Bechet, who in the 1920s was Armstrong’s only peer as a virtuosic improviser, the cornet-playing ten-year-old Louis mastered the chops-busting clarinet solo for ‘High Society’ — an astounding feat that only hinted at what was to come.

Little Louis danced in second-line parades, following cornetist Joe “King” Oliver in the Onward Band as they wound through the Crescent City streets. Oliver was a catalytic force for Armstrong, who always insisted he learned his stuff from Papa Joe. Certainly Oliver mentored him: when he left for Chicago, following the first post-World War I black migration waves from the South to northern and western cities, he left Little Louis his slot in the Kid Ory band, which led the young cornetist to the riverboats plying the Mississippi and Fate Marable in 1920-21.

Marable, impressed by the young hornman’s dazzling facility and ears, hired him for his riverboat band, and one of his sidemen trained the youngster to read and write music. What they played was a mix that, had they thought much about it, would have confounded the Dixieland revivalists who decades later took Armstrong as their figurehead: adapted arias and classical overtures, quadrilles and other dance music, and the like. (Historian Dan Morgenstern has pointed out the suggestive influence of classical music on Armstrong’s music.) At Davenport, Iowa, when the riverboat docked, a young white kid named Bix Beiderbecke first heard Armstrong with Marable, and decided to make jazz cornet his life. He would perfect his craft by jamming with Armstrong regularly, an exchange that led to mutual respect and friendship of the type still rare across America’s color line.

Armstrong’s multifaceted legacy, his music would create a new subculture — the jazz milieu — where whites and blacks in America could meet on something like equal grounds, thanks to artistic respect. The institutionalized color line would hardly disappear; for generations, white stars would routinely get credit for musical advances developed by black musicians. In a historical irony enhanced by American racism, the jazz world became a site into which disaffected white Americans could exit, in implicit or explicit rejection of their society’s mores and aims; for black Americans like Armstrong himself, it became one of the few precious potential entrances into the larger public visibility and acceptance.

In 1924, Oliver sent for his protégé, who kissed his mother goodbye, packed the fish sandwich she made for him, and headed north. When he got to the Lincoln Gardens Cafe, where Oliver’s band was wailing, he looked like a rube, and was so shy he stayed by the door to watch and hear. He couldn’t believe he’d be playing with these masters of jazz. In a very short time, first in his recordings with them, then with his own Hot Fives and Sevens, he would make them all sound like musical relics.

Rube or not — and his mode of dress quickly became Chicago-style sharp — Armstrong got the girl. His second wife, piano-playing Lil Hardin, married him while they were both playing with Oliver. Hardin was conservatory-trained and middle class, and for the next few years her ambition would drive the modest genius she married to make his mark in the rapidly exploding Jazz Age. Convinced Oliver kept Louis in his band to keep him from fronting his own, Lil convinced her husband to grab Fletcher Henderson’s offer to join his New York-based big band. When Armstrong arrived in 1924, Henderson’s band was, as Morgenstern notes, “designed for Roseland’s white dancing public… rhythmically stiff”; when he left fourteen months later, both arrangements and soloists were extending his sound, and white America was learning to dance to them.

It was just the start. When Armstrong replaced New Orleans standards and blues with Tin Pan Alley tunes in the 1930s, he forged the model followed by the Swing Era, jazz’s most successful invasion of American pop music — and thus American society. His model was followed literally: key arrangers like Redman, who worked for many bandleaders, including Benny Goodman, adapted Armstrong’s runs and rhythmic moves to section-by-section big band arrangements.

After Armstrong spent 14 months in the Big Apple, working with Henderson and recording with blues singers, it was Lil who persuaded him to come back to Chicago, where he joined her band, then Carroll Dickerson’s, and rocked the town. The night he returned, he was greeted by a banner she’d had unfurled over the bandstand: “World’s Greatest Trumpet Player.”

Armstrong later told Morgenstern the reason he left Henderson’s band was that the “dicty bandleader,” college-educated and light-skinned and prone to look down on dark blacks, wouldn’t let him sing, except occasionally for black audiences or for novelty and comic effect. Armstrong sang before he picked up a horn. It was a fundamental part of who he was and what he had to say. Ultimately, his vocals would make him a world-famous star. More immediately, they were another virtuosic tool he used to change jazz and, in the process, American culture.

Armstrong pioneered so many firsts in jazz (and America) that a list can seem unbelievable. Here’s a sample. He invented the full-fledged jazz soloist and scatsinging. He introduced Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes as jazz’s raw material. And he performed in interracial settings, sometimes for multiracial audiences. Once, in New Orleans, when a bigoted announcer refused to introduce his band, he did it himself — so well the radio station asked him to do it for the rest of the band’s stint.

He was transforming folk music into an art form without losing his willingness or ability to communicate his art to a broad audience — the vehicle for his penetration of mainstream American culture, and with him as point man, the submerged African-American culture largely known beforehand to most whites via caricature or appropriation, into something undeniable, tangible, concrete. His voice engulfed America. As Rudy Vallee put it, “No one in America sang the same after him.” Among his major disciples was Bing Crosby, but his influence rippled across American popular and jazz singing like a submerged tidal wave. The apparently natural force of his voice’s cagy dynamics and loose rhythms as he reconfigured pop tunes seized talents like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

With his last Hot Sevens recordings for Okeh in 1928, where tunes like ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ issued as b-sides, Armstrong moved closer to the new American cultural mainstream he was inspiring. When he started recording for Decca in 1935, the impetus accelerated.

In between, Armstrong had been pursued out of Chicago, then New York, by gangsters. The manager who helped him escape brought him to Europe, then made off with his passport. (The first time Armstrong played London, a deputation of British hornmen trooped backstage to examine his trumpet for gimmickry. As Morgenstern writes drily, “His virtuosity was still something not quite credible.”) A couple of interim managers gave way, in 1935, to Joe Glaser, a thuggish, mob-connected scion of a well-off Chicago family. He and Armstrong shook hands on a deal that lasted till they both died. As Armstrong put it, “A black man needs a white man working for him.” Jazz had originated as an ignored marginal subculture, played in whorehouses and bars by men who were often regarded as renegade heroes, tricksters, folks whose talents could help them get over on The Man. It was almost inevitable that the white American demimonde of gangsters and hookers and the like would be among the earliest exposed to jazz, and among the key white Americans in positions to employ black jazz musicians. It was no accident that so many of the clubs in jazz centers like Harlem and Chicago were mob-owned or affiliated, that hot jazz became the soundtrack of speakeasies from coast to coast during the Roaring Twenties that somehow, in quintessentially American ways, coexisted with Prohibition. Though it was often a marriage of convenience, it endured because it coupled the marginal and outcast. Among white folk, who else would choose to hang out with and deal with blacks?

His deal with Glaser marked the beginning of his crossover into mainstream American culture — another Armstrong first in undermining de facto segregation in America. And his years at Decca were his workshop in change.

He fronted a big band, which critics hated and fans enjoyed. The outfit was run by Glaser, since Armstrong, who occasionally hired and fired personnel, didn’t want to shoulder a bandleader’s non-musical burdens. And he agreed with Glaser on a new musical direction: setting his solos off in sometimes inventive, sometimes indifferent big-band charts; smoothing his blues-frog vocals into a more sophisticated sound without losing their rhythmic slyness — something he was also doing with his trumpet solos, reshaping his early frenetic chases after strings of high-altitude notes into smoother, more lyrical solos.

Physical damage to Armstrong’s lip and mouth from high and hard blowing forced the issue. Joe Muranyi, who played with him years later, says, “Part of the change in Louis’ style could be attributed to the lip trouble he had in the early ’30s. There are tales of blood on his shirt, of blowing off a piece of his lip while playing. This certainly influenced the way he approached the horn; yet what we hear on these tracks has at least as much to do with musical development as with physical matters.” Limitation was, for Satchmo’s genius, a pathway to a matured artistic conception. As Giddins argues forcefully in Satchmo, he’d never separated art and entertainment; jazz to him was a popular music that should be able bridge that potential gap, and allow him to open a beachhead where black figures could garner popular acceptance and respect. Jazz was his way into American society. And if his bands irritated critics, there were plenty of gems, and besides, he’d broadened his popularity by appearing in movies, with some inevitably racist parts and some brighter moments with Crosby, and people loved him.

By World War II, his audiences were more white than black.

The war years broke the big bands. The culture had changed: singers and small groups were hip. It was the era of a new sound, what Dizzy Gillespie called modern jazz and journalists dubbed bebop.

Bop’s frenetic, fragmented rhythms restated the postwar world’s, and it deliberately presented itself not as entertainment but as art. The musicians forging it, like Gillespie and Charlie Parker, were fully aware of the stirring civil rights movement. World War II had fostered widespread entry of blacks into the American military and industry. Not surprisingly, after the war, they weren’t willing to return to the old values of accommodation and deference. Instead, they demanded equality and freedom.

In this context, boppers and their followers saw Armstrong’s lifelong mugging and entertaining as Uncle Tom-style pleasing white folks rather than artistic integrity or entertainment. Dizzy Gillespie was rare among postwar jazz musicians in clowning and mugging onstage, his outgoing sense of humor a continuing counterpoint to the bop conviction that their art was being shortchanged by the music business, run by white Americans. Most record company executives didn’t like or understand bebop, and were sure it could never be broadly popular; they preferred older and familiar and commercially tested forms. (It was another historical irony that Armstrong and Gillespie clashed about what the older man saw as bebop’s pretensions, while Gillespie was, in many ways, Armstrong’s truest heir in jazz at that time, with his beret and glasses and puff-adder cheeks and uptilted horn, his devotion to and adaptation of Afro-Cuban dance rhythms as well as his implicit claim to artistic status.)

Thus was set the stage for the Dixieland revival. Based in Chicago, the (mostly white) revivalists needed an artistic figurehead. With a healthy historical irony they ignored, they chose Armstrong — the very soloist who blew apart old-style New Orleans polyphony, their idea of “pure” or “real” jazz.

By 1947, Satchmo reluctantly abandoned his 18 piece outfit for the All Stars, a New Orleans-style sextet that included Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines. Though they often made fine music, the group was seen as a step backward by boppers. They jabbed at Satchmo, he jabbed back, and the split between revivalists and modernists escalated to a civil war that, in different stylistic and racial modes, still divides the jazz world.

Sadly, it was another Armstrong first. And his audiences began to turn lily white.

In Satchmo, Giddins deftly explains how Armstrong’s world-famous onstage persona — the big grin, the bulging eyes, the shaking head, the brandished trumpet, the ever-present handkerchief, the endless vaudevillian mugging — was an organic conception of the artist as entertainer. Still, from the 1950s until just before his death in 1971, Armstrong had to deal with the accusations and slurs.

But if he never forgot who he was, while retaining his characteristically modest manner and only privately protesting how much he’d done to advance black civil rights, he could still be provoked, as President Eisenhower and the public discovered in 1957. Armstrong was poised to go on the first State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union, a cold-war beachhead by jazz. He abruptly cancelled it because of Southern states refusing to integrate schools, and publicly excoriated Ike and America. Surprisingly, even this didn’t put a dent in his Uncle Tom image among the black audiences deserting him.

By all accounts, Armstrong was aware of his gifts and yet somehow unassuming. His wealth meant little to him: he traveled on the same unheated buses as his bands 300 days a year. When his wife and manager wanted him to buy a Long Island mansion, he insisted on staying in his working class bungalow in Corona, Queens, where the kids waited on his stoop for him when he came back from tours. When his wife persuaded him to put a brick façade up, he went up and down the block asking if other homeowners, too, would like their houses bricked, at his expense.

A prolific writer, Armstrong made his typewriter part of his road equipment. He wrote of everything — scattered impressions, concentrated history and biography, his love of marijuana and Swiss Kriss, a natural laxative. In his later writings, he contrasts New Orleans blacks to Jews like the Karmofskys, claiming, with uncharacteristic bitterness, that blacks didn’t help each other to “get ahead” the way Jews did.

Antonio Gramsci wrote of proletarian intellectuals, who could understand class struggle from an integrated perspective lacking to others, however sympathetic. Though he was writing about himself, he could have been describing Armstrong. Which is part of why African American intellectuals like Ellison and Murray saw Satchmo as an emblem of America’s racial politics.

Early jazz musicians often refused to record, because they felt competitors could steal their best licks from their records. This was why the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band made jazz’s first records; black New Orleans trumpeter Freddie Keppard refused, fearing for his originality.

No one knows for sure how many recordings Louis Armstrong made during the course of his half-century recording career. All agree, however, that he helped create both the art and the industry. After all, it was one of the numberless ironies of American racism that “race” records, a category of recordings aimed explicitly at nonwhite and other marginal subcultures which included Armstrong’s hits, were as important as Bing Crosby’s in saving the fledging record companies from collapse in the Depression.

But there was more to it than that. Through the phonograph Armstrong made infinite numbers of disciples, dispensing his vision and shaping what jazz would become. The phonograph transformed evanescent musical moments of improvisation into captured pieces of time, endlessly duplicable and repeatable, able to be studied and savored as well as experienced immediately. Also through the phonograph, as Morgenstern points out, we get a larger sense of what Armstrong himself listened to because of the records (of arias and the like) that he collected. And nearly three decades after he’s dead, nearly all of us inevitably get our sense of how he played through the phonograph — though Morgenstern has noted that onstage Armstrong would often solo for half an hour at a time, an experiential perspective that the records, with their three-minutes-and-under limit, unfortunately can’t and don’t give us. What they give us instead is a series of windows — imagine peering out an express train passing through a station — into Armstrong’s world and art.

During the 1950s and 1960s, when he was largely considered a period piece, Armstrong recorded important documents, like his meetings with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. The best thing about them is their apparent artlessness, the easy offhanded creativity that was as much Armstrong’s trademark as his trumpet’s clarion calls. The pleasure is doubled by the response of his disciples.

Ella fits that description easily, since her trademark scatsinging owes so much to Armstrong’s. Yet she made it her own, purging scat of its overt blues roots. Producer Norman Granz supported them with his favorite Jazz at the Philharmonic stars — Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, and Ray Brown. The results: both Ella And Louis and Ella And Louis Again are incandescent yet low-key, full of generous pearls (from ‘Can’t We Be Friends’ to ‘Cheek To Cheek’) that can almost slip by because their understated yet consummate ease.

The 1961 session with Duke, Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington, was hasty and almost haphazard, a simple melding of Ellington into Armstrong’s All Stars, and yet it produced a wonderful, relaxed, insightful album. After all, Ellington had shaped his earliest bands around trumpeters and trombonists who could serve up Armstrong’s New Orleans flair. And Morgenstern observed just how quickly and efficiently Armstrong soaked up Ellington’s music at sight, shooting down any notion of Satchmo as a purely intuitive musician.

Like most postwar babies, I grew up knowing Louis Armstrong as the guy who sang ‘Mack The Knife’ and, most famously, ‘Hello Dolly’. It was only later I’d discover the old blues stuff with singers like Bessie Smith, the Hot Fives, Ella and Louis, Fletcher Henderson, and — one of my faves — Armstrong’s accompaniment on early hillbilly star Jimmie Rodgers’s ‘Blue Yodel No. 9’. But even as a kid I felt strangely drawn to the little black guy singing and grimacing on TV, wiping his perspiring brow with his trademark handkerchief. Although it all seemed corny, there was something, a hint of a subversion — though that wouldn’t have been what his audiences, black or white, noticed unless they were old-timers who knew the ironic physical language or Satchmo fans or, like me, just a kid.

Why would a white kid in America catch a glimpse of Armstrong’s abundantly joyful and potentially dangerous ironies? I’d love to claim precocious brilliance, but it was a lot simpler. I could tell Armstrong was real because he filled the little blue TV screen so overwhelmingly that he made everything around him look, as it should have, fake.

© Gene Santoro‘Highway 61 Revisited…’, 2004

Leave a Comment