Louis Armstrong is known for many things involving his playing and singing, his global popularity and his tireless efforts to promote the music he loved through a nonstop performance schedule. But he was also a man of letters who kept copious journals, produced a legendary amount of correspondence, and wrote several versions of an autobiography.
His writings, carefully collected during his life and now archived mostly in the Louis Armstrong House Museum at Queens College and the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University, prove Armstrong was an important twentieth century commentator on popular music. He was opinionated and unpredictable. Unlike many jazz critics, Armstrong didn’t couch his criticism in academic terms. He was plainspoken and descriptive, and his observations reflected personal taste more than musicological analysis. “All of my records ‘Knocks’ me out… After all—I am the public too… I criticizes myself too… When I find it necessary… Some people criticizes just to be saying something that’s unbecoming—or—something like that… tee hee…”
These observations were often forward-looking. Armstrong had more in common with writers from the 1960s who wrote about popular music from John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman to the Fugs and Bob Dylan in the context of contemporary life.
The key word there is “popular.” Even though jazz was mainstream popular music right up through the 1950s, and in hybrid forms to this day, many jazz critics criticized Armstrong during his later years for being a popular musician as opposed to an art musician. But Armstrong always wanted to please large audiences and thought that by crafting durable melodies and solo parts he would achieve greater success. Though he was a great improviser—he had to be to excel at playing traditional New Orleans jazz—Armstrong worked on composing set themes and solos that he would repeat each time he played a song.
In an article from The Record Changer in 1950, Armstrong gave a definition of great music that could well have been written by Lester Bangs:
“Fire – that’s the life of music, that’s the way it should be.”
The music that Armstrong grew up in New Orleans playing and listening to had yet to be called jazz. He wrote, “In those days it was called Rag Time Music.” Armstrong was asked to define jazz in an interview. “I wouldn’t say I know what jazz is, because I don’t look at it from that angle. I look at it from music—we never did worry about what it was in New Orleans, we just always tried to play good. And the public named it. It was ragtime, Dixieland, gutbucket, jazz, swing—and it ain’t nothin’ but the same music.”
That sense of the universality of music was also present in the pages of Crawdaddy magazine during the late 1960s and the early-to-mid 1970s when I was an editor there and the magazine published writers such as Michael Cuscuna and John Storm Roberts. We covered rock, jazz, blues, folk, R&B, country, electronic and classical music as overlapping genres. The line between “jazz” writers and “rock” writers was starkly drawn back then despite the fact that jazz musicians were being written about in so-called rock magazines—Sun Ra was an early Rolling Stone cover subject—and jazz magazines were being forced by the success of Miles Davis, Weather Report and others to treat fusion jazz as a legitimate genre. A few visionaries like Rolling Stone co-founder Ralph J. Gleason wrote about all kinds of music without prejudice. To a large extent Armstrong anticipated this approach.
It’s true that Armstrong was critical of bop and free jazz, saying that the players were hitting wrong notes and were just screeching. In doing so he was defending his turf in economic terms, but also adhering to the discipline he’d mastered to develop his own reliance on strong melodic content. In that sense he was more critical of the jazz musicians who sought to replace him in the pantheon than he was of different genres of music, from Guy Lombardo to country music.
While Armstrong became the first great jazz soloist and created a vocal style that influenced all American popular music to this day, he was also arguably the harbinger of rock ’n’ roll, at its roots a blues-based music that excelled at distilling riffs and obbligatos into big beat dance material. In groups like the Harlem Hamfats you can hear how Armstrong’s music became that of Muddy Waters. From there it’s an easy step to the Rolling Stones.
When I was in college a friend of mine, Mike Creegan, had a band called Nanker Phelge that unsurprisingly did a lot of Rolling Stones covers. They also did originals, all of which were based on riffs transposed from Armstrong’s trumpet to guitar. The guitarist Jay Geils, who launched one of the most successful blues-based American rock bands in the 1970s, learned music from his father, an avid Armstrong fan. If you listen to the arrangement of “House Party” that opens up the band’s Bloodshot album, you’ll hear a direct quote from Armstrong’s terrifically exciting solo on “St. Louis Blues.”
Like most of the early rockers, Armstrong was deeply influenced by blues. Blues predated jazz and was the first music young Louis learned to play proficiently. He played with the Kid Ory band in 1914, his first “professional” work. Even then, Armstrong was a master on cornet playing blues. Many of his early recordings were instrumentals with “blues” in the title.
Armstrong’s favorite music brought with it vivid mental pictures of New Orleans.
“Weary Blues,” he wrote, “reminded me so much of New Orleans, until I was looking direct into New Orleans from where we recorded it.”
“Potato Head Blues,” Armstrong noted, “really gassed me because of the perfect phrasing by Johnny [Dodds] and [Kid] Ory… I could look direct into the Pelican Dance Hall, at Gravier and Rampart streets in New Orleans, during the days of the First World War… That was in the years of 1918-1919… And their bandstand was built in the left-hand corner of the hall… And the stand was up over everybody’s head… in order to say hello to any member of the band, you had to look up… And all that good music was pouring out of those instruments—making you want to just dance and listen and wishing they’d never stop…”
Armstrong’s writings offer an important look into the early days of jazz “during those real beautiful days in different places in the District way back from 1910 to 1917, when they closed it down,” he wrote.
“Here is a short rundown of my idea of the choice musicians in my young days in New Orleans… Henry Kimball Bass Violin. Manuel Perez Cornet – Manuel and Joe King Oliver played together in the Onward Brass Band, really something to listen to when they played for Parades and Funerals. They had Twelve musicians in their Brass Band. Eddie Jackson used to really Swing the Tuba when the band played Marches. They sounded like a forty piece brass swing band… The Onward Brass Band, Broke up a Baseball game, over in Algiers, La, when they passed by the game playing – “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The Game Stopped immediately and followed the parade.
“Henry Zeno was a popular drummer during the days of the Red Light District. He was also a pretty good card player, well like by people in every walk’ of life. When he died he had people of All Races at his Funeral.
“Speaking of the Trumpet again, there was a good one named Arnold Metoyer. A very good first Sight Reader with a very beautiful tone… He was a good Triple Tonguer.
“Henry Martin was a fine Drummer. I should mention here’ A perfect beat – A beautiful roll on his snare drum, the Bass Drum with a double beat at the same time. Henry would pull his pants legs way up to his Garters, when he starts to Swing. Better than anyone I know. He used to kill me, watching him do it. A big cigar hanging from his mouth while he played in Kid Ory’s early string band. Kid Ory’s band would Cut All of the bands, during his Tail Gate Advertising. The Crowd would Roar and Applaud when Kid Ory would blow a few bars on his trombone, as his wagon was leaving, of a tune called ‘Kiss My Ass.’
“Kid Ory had a trumpet player who played in his band, in the early days – way before my time. Mutt Carey. I enjoyed him every time that I could listen to him… Joe Oliver was my idol and my only love on the trumpet until the day that he died. No one has replaced him as yet in my heart, trumpetly. Eddie Garland was a popular Bass Player at all times… Joe Oliver used to tell me about the double beat Garland had.”
In Armstrong’s biography, accounts of his experiences in New Orleans overlapped with those of his time in Chicago playing with other New Orleans expatriates.
“In 1925 in Chicago I had the pleasure of playing with Erskine Tate’s Symphony Orchestra… We played for Silent pictures and all of the Pathe News, etc… Boy, did we Rock that theater. An Indian Reservation came up on the Screen during the Pathe News during their war dance. We faked the music to it and how. Imagine ‘five Scenes later’ the Audience were still applauding for that same scene and the same music. I hadn’t ever seen anything like it. Eddie Atkins (N.O. boy’) played the Trombone in that Orchestra.
“Erskine Tate’s Symphony Orchestra in Chicago’ made several recordings’ while I was with them. Two of them were called, ‘Static Strut’ – ‘Stomp Off Let’s Go.’ I had feature solos in those tunes. I admired Teddy Weatherford’s fine piano playing very much. Here’s another Trombone Man who was very good, playing nightly in the Red Light District – his name is Zoo Robinson. Every musician had ‘great respects for Zoo… He blew his trombone with no effort at all – no facial expressions etc.”
“Here are some more of the great pioneers… Alphonse Picou Clarinet… the one who took the tune ‘High Society’ and transposed the piccolo part for the clarinet… I’ve heard Barney Bigard play it note for note. Since Picou died – Barney – is in a class by his li lol self – still’ great. I went to the Lyric Theater quite often. Located downtown on Iberville and Burgundy streets. Robichaux orchestra was always the best. They all read music. John Robichaux. They used to play for the stage shows. Andrew Kimball was the cornetist in the band (my choice). Speaking of a young cornetist around New Orleans in my younger days, there was Buddy Petit. I thought Buddy was very good. He had a little style all his own. He blew from the side + his jaw poked on one side.
“In my days there were 126 gig bands. And they were all booked up every night of the week. Even when Buddy Petit’s band and my band would be on the Tail Gate Advertising for different dances or advertising for a fight – Gun Boat Smith or Harry Wills (good fighters) – we both would meet on a corner, play our tune or a couple of tunes and we would cut out into different directions and give a big wave, playing our cornets with Admirations of each other’s Blowing, which was really Something to hear. That alone cheered both of us up…
“The Excelsior Brass Band, a good one – Something in the same order as the Onward Brass Band. Had a Tall Fantastic Drummer named Cottrell. He would come on the streets in each parade with a Brand new Snare Drum, which would Break it up. Black Benny the Bass Drummer Beats a whole lot of Bass Drum. And will fight at the drop of the Hat.”
Armstrong wrote a lot more about his music, life and times. The best collection of his work is Louis Armstrong In His Own Words (Oxford University Press), edited with an introduction by Thomas Brothers.
Armstrong lasted through the era of the Beatles, notoriously knocking the Fab Four out of the top spot on the hit parade at the height of the band’s popularity on May 9, 1964. The song Armstrong achieved that milestone with was “Hello, Dolly!” the title song of the Broadway show which is once again the hottest ticket of the day in its current revival.
A lot of speculation about Louis Armstrong versus the Beatles ensued. But were Armstrong and the Beatles really rivals or just different versions of the same pop ideal?
“Louis Armstrong as Music Critic” will be a multimedia presentation at Satchmo SummerFest at the Old Mint. Saturday, August 5 at 1:30 p.m.