Gary Giddins, the jazz critic whose award-winning writing includes 31 years of Village Voice columns and books about Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby and Charlie Parker, is the 2016 Satchmo Symposium’s vastly qualified keynote speaker.
Now hard at work on the second of his three-volume Crosby biography, Giddins will present Pops and Bing: A Real Mutual Admiration Society, Friday, August 5, at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré.
The winner of six ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards and five Jazz Journalists Association Awards, Giddins discovered his love for jazz in New Orleans. In 1963, during a coast-to-coast trip for teens, Giddins visited the city for the first time. He was 15.
Musically and socially, it was an eyeopening experience. At the crest of the civil rights era, for instance, Louisiana’s still-enforced segregation shocked the young New Yorker.
“It was one thing to see it on TV,” Giddins recalled recently from New York. “It was another thing to be booked into a motel that has bathrooms marked Men, Women, Colored Men, Colored Women. And when I got on a street car on Canal Street, I sat next to a black lady. This was long after Rosa Parks, yet two white girls, about my age, sitting across from me, berated me for sitting next to her. The whole ride! And the driver didn’t say a word. Nobody said anything. It was staggering to me.”
Nonetheless, while in New Orleans, Giddins wanted to do what generations of tourists have done: hear jazz music. A newspaper ad led Giddins and a friend to a Sunday afternoon concert by Emanuel Sayles’ Silver Leaf Ragtimers, featuring George Lewis. The audience at the Royal Orleans Hotel, unlike the sanctioned segregation he’d witnessed all over New Orleans, was integrated.
“Everybody was talking to each other and clicking cocktail glasses and smoking,” Giddins remembered. “I thought, ‘I’ve never even seen this in New York. This is the world I want to be in!’”
That afternoon’s performance by Sayles and the Silver Leaf Ragtimers brightened the way for Giddins’ life in jazz.
“The music, because it was New Orleans–style, was easy to understand,” the critic said. “And it was terribly exciting.”
During the concert’s intermission, pianist Joe Robichaux noticed Giddins and his friend, the only youngsters in the audience.
“He called me over,” Giddins said. “And then the musicians came over and talked to me. They asked me about my life and what I was going to do. I felt like I had been adopted.”
Upon his return to New York, Giddins said, “I wanted to hear everything.” Everything began with a historical compilation album, The Louis Armstrong Story, Volume III: Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. “I bought that and my life was forever changed.”
Even before his New Orleans visit, Giddins had been searching.
“I’d grown up with classical music and ’50s rock ’n’ roll,” he said. “By the early ’60s, all the people I liked were dead or disappeared. Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, a singer named Dee Clark from Chicago, Elvis, Lloyd Price, Jerry Lee Lewis—they were arrested, they were drafted, they got into trouble with the Mafia. I was looking for something else.”
Giddins found a clue in Ray Charles’ 1961 album, Genius + Soul = Jazz. The title inspired him to borrow jazz albums from a friend. Wonderful albums though they were, the music they held was still beyond his understanding. It took the dual revelations of Sayles and the Silver Leaf Ragtimers at the Royal Orleans Hotel and New Orleans native Armstrong’s album, The Louis Armstrong Story, Volume III, to bring the brilliance of jazz into focus.
Giddins writes about playing the Armstrong album for the first time in his 2004 book, Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century. The album opens with “Basin Street Blues.”
“I played the first track,” Giddins recalled for OffBeat. “And I jumped off the sofa and got to the needle before it went to the second track. I played the first track again. While I was standing there, I noticed a spot on the record. I brushed it with my finger. I realized I had tears in my eyes.”
Giddins had previously thought of Armstrong only as a comical entertainer on The Ed Sullivan Show. But after hearing Armstrong’s 1928 rendition of “Basin Street Blues,” he ranked it with his favorite classical piece, J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor.
“The truth is I played each Louis Armstrong Story, Volume III track several times, until I knew it by heart. And it was months before I flipped over to side two. ‘Tight Like This’ is the last track on side one. I thought, ‘This is it. There can’t be anything better than this.’ And then I turned it over to ‘West End Blues’! The rest of the album is relatively minor performances. That was sort of reassuring. Even Armstrong was occasionally not Godlike.”
Gary Giddins will deliver the Satchmo SummerFest Symposium’s keynote speech, Pops and Bing: A Real Mutual Admiration Society, at noon, Friday, August 5, at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré.