Born: August 4, 1901, New Orleans, LA
Died: July 6, 1971, New York, NY
“It seems that the imperious bird known as God” the Argentine writer Julio Cortazar begins a strange and wonderful account of a 1952 Paris concert by Louis Armstrong, “breathed life into the first man to animate him and give him soul. If Louis instead of the little bird had been there for that breath, man would have turned out much better.” When Armstrong takes the stage, Cortazar writes, “the apocalypse is loosed, Louis merely raises his golden sword and the first phrase of ‘When it’s Sleepytime Down South falls’ upon the audience like a leopard’s caress. He plays Muskrat Ramble, “with his eyes white behind his trumpet, with his handkerchief waving a continuous farewell to something unknown, as if Louis always has to say goodbye to the music he makes and unmakes in a moment, as if he knows the terrible price of his marvelous freedom.”
We know the story of that “marvelous freedom,” distilled most simply perhaps in the back cover blurb for an early paperback edition of his autobiography Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans—“From slum boy to Jazz King.” He is a mythological figure, yet he indeed lived. Born and raised in unimaginable conditions in turn-of-the-century New Orleans (which is why I find curious that trumpeter billed as “The Satchmo of the Ghetto,” as if the original wasn’t), he, very literally, changed the contours of our cultural landscape and became among the most recognized individuals on earth.
Armstrong cuts his musical teeth in the honky-tonks of New Orleans and the steamboats on the Mississippi. From New Orleans, in the summer of 1922, he heads to Chicago to join his mentor Joe “King” Oliver, and becomes a sensation (“It was hypnosis at first hearing,” guitarist Eddie Condon remarked). He joins Fletcher Henderson’s band in New York in 1924. At every stop he transforms the music.
“Here’s an important date in my life, November the 12, 1925—that’s the day we made the first recordings by my own Hot Five” Louis says introducing “Gut Bucket Blues” on his fascinating Musical Autobiography recordings of 1957. And an important date in our cultural life.
It is in these recordings where jazz moves from an ensemble music to the soloist’s art. More than 70 years later they still have the ability to awe the listener with their exuberance and power. In some sense the greatness of those early recordings, of “West End Blues,” of “Potato Head Blues,” or even the greatness of, say, the comedic “Big Butter and Egg Man” when he sings “I’ll buy you all the pretty things that you think you need” (remember he was also a nonpareil entertainer) is a greatness distilled into what the poet Phillip Larkin called a “three minute cameo,” the 78 rpm recording. With all the limitations in sound and time it is in some sense a greatness only hinted at, a mere glimpse of what he was capable of. Just imagine what he might have sounded like if the technology of the time was worthy of him. Imagine the otherworldly flights of fancy you may have witnessed in Chicago in the ’20s. On the Musical Autobiography this is how he introduces “Wild Man Blues:”—“When we played the Sunset cafe in Chicago, this tune ran so long until I’d go in the kitchen, get a sandwich and a cup of coffee, come back and play my solo, and Earl Hines would go back in the kitchen and get an order of meatballs and spaghetti, cup of coffee, and we’d all meet on the bandstand and swing out the last eight bars.”
In Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story 1900-1971, Max Jones and John Chilton write of the effect his live performances had on other trumpeters: “Range no longer had the same limits; tonal possibilities had expanded; most of the theories about technical command and physical endurance had gone.” Armstrong had re-ordered the musical world.
His recasting of the role of performer was just as revolutionary as his musical transformations. A 1933 account from an Armstrong performance by Irving Caledon sets the scene “He backs off, downstage left, leans halfway over like a quartermiler, begins to count, (swaying as he does) ‘one, two, three…’ He has already started racing toward the rear where the orchestra is ranged, and he hits four, executes a slide and a pirouette; winds up facing the audience and blowing the first note as the orchestra swings into the tune. It’s mad, it’s meaningless, it’s hokum of the first order, but the effect is totally electrifying… His trumpet virtuosity is endless—triplets, chromatic accented eerie counterpoints that turn the tune inside out, wild sorties into the giddy stratosphere where his tone sounds like a dozen flutes in unison.”
In the ’30 he transforms the pop song. These recordings don’t generate as much enthusiasm as the Hot Fives and Sevens. It is the period where his vocal style comes to the fore (and, as with seemingly everything he does, rewrites the book and influences that which comes after). Revel in his re-invention of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” where he pares the lyric to its very bone. From our vantage point we can’t comprehend the effect this and similar recordings had on Armstrong’s contemporaries, both other musicians and the public in general. However we get an idea from popular crooner Rudy Vallee who, oddly, wrote the Introduction to Armstrong’s first book, the heavily ghosted 1936 autobiography, Swing that Music: “I suggest you listen to…his vocalization of ‘I Surrender, Dear.’ You may say that it is not singing, it is not beauty, that a beautiful romantic song has been treated as a madman would treat it…Try playing it a second, third or fourth time, and eventually there must dawn on you that this man knows what he is about and you will begin to feel upon you the sway of his extraordinary musical personality. It is a test of artistic work—repetition with a growth of effect.”
Beginning in the late ’40s, Armstrong returns to his New Orleans roots and travels the globe with his “All Stars.” He plays “the good old favorites” and begins to pay that “terrible price of his marvelous freedom.” Many in the jazz world dismissed his music as dated, old time, resented his role as showman. While some called him an “Uncle Tom,” he was the highest profile entertainer to take a stand in the midst of the Arkansas school integration crisis in 1957. At that time he called the Arkansas governor a plow-boy and President Eisenhower two-faced and gutless. Many spoke out against him including among many others, Sammy Davis, Jr. He just said what he felt without worrying about the implications. He wrote of that period, with customary aplomb, “Hmmm. I was trying to stop that unnecessary Head whippings at the time—that’s all.”
But he forged through the controversies to bring joy to the people through his music, endlessly touring the country and world as “Ambassador Satch.” Armstrong even hit the top of the charts at the age of 63 when “Hello Dolly” unseated the Beatles as the Number One song in America, some 40 years after his initial recordings.
In some sense dubbing Armstrong a “Master of Louisiana Music” diminishes him, for his influence is so far-reaching. Remember, he was not only a master of the jazz idiom, but was a sympathetic accompanist to the great blues singers—Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, backed country music legend Jimmy Rogers “Blue Yodel # 9” (at Rogers’ request), his recordings of Disney songs are a joy, and he could animate even the most leaden material.
Louis Armstrong is, therefore, a Master of the World’s Music. As Cortazar writes in his 1966 novel Hopscotch, “…and Satchmo everywhere, with that omnipresence given him by the Lord… is inevitable, is rain and bread and salt, something completely beyond national ritual, sacred traditions, language and folklore: a cloud without frontiers, a spy of air and water, an archetypal form, something from before, from below, that brings Mexicans together with Norwegians and Russians and Spaniards, brings them back into that obscure and forgotten central flame…”
For an individual of such towering influence, its fitting that Armstrong’s Centennial celebration will actually last for two years. The first centennial begins July 4, 2000, the date he gave as his birth, the second on August 2001, the date uncovered in the baptismal records of Sacred Heart of Jesus Church by researcher Tad Jones, and now accepted as the day he actually came into the world. There will be a deluge of compact discs and publications in celebration of these dates, but of what is presently available, I offer a few recommendations.
Of the many books on Armstrong, the most interesting is Gary Giddins’ Satchmo. Divided into two sections, “The Artist as Entertainer” and “The Entertainer as Artist,” this, more than any other volume, puts Armstrong in his rightful place. Also recommended is the books’ companion video which collects wonderful clips and interviews about Armstrong, and includes a portion of the film Copenhagen Kalundborg, the “Dinah” footage Ken Burns speaks of elsewhere in these pages. It is absolutely riveting. Published last year Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words is a remarkable book. It collects unpublished material—letters, notebooks and the like and offers new perspectives on this very complicated man, (it also includes many paens to his two favorite herbs, marijuana and the laxative Swiss Kriss).
There are so many Armstrong recordings out there that it is hard to narrow them down to a workable number. The best place to start is the four disc set The Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man which includes essential recordings from the ’20s into the mid-’30s. The important Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are included. Also of interest are the many chronological reissues that come out of Europe. In this way you can trace Armstrong’s development as a performer. I’m especially fond of his 1930s material. Of his later work, among many, I recommend his duets with Ella Fitzgerald (the contrast in their voices is a delight) as well as his recordings with Duke Ellington. His reading of “Azalea” will make you weep.
Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings by Louis Armstrong, Thomas David Brothers (editor) (Oxford University Press, November 1999)
Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life by Laurence Bergreen, Jenny Minton (Broadway Books, July 1998)
Satchmo by Gary Giddins (Da Capo Press, April 1998)
The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong (Verve, 2 CDs)
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1923-1934 (Columbia, 4 CDs)
An American Icon (Hip-O, 3 CDs)
Let’s Do It – Best of Verve (Verve, 2 CDs)
Satchmo At Symphony Hall (GRP)
Hot Fives and Hot Sevens (JSP, 4CDs)
Robert Parker’s Jazz Classics: Louis Armstrong 1923-1931 (Louisiana Red Hot Records/CDS Records)
Robert Parker’s Jazz Classics: Louis’ Love Songs (Louisiana Red Hot Records/CDS Records)