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Coronation by Cornet | The Nation

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Coronation by Cornet

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LOUIS ARMSTRONG AT 100

In 1927 a young cornetist led his band into a meticulously hilarious version of a classic composition Jelly Roll Morton had made famous, "Twelfth Street Rag." The recorded track sounds like the opening shot of a revolution--except that the revolution had already been in full swing in Louis Armstrong's head and hands for years.

Unlike most revolutions, though, from the first this one displayed an ingratiating, inviting sense of humor and charm. "Dippermouth," as his early New Orleans pals dubbed him, used the rag as a flight vehicle: As his horn fractures the tune's familiar refrains, the precise, cakewalking rhythmic values of ragtime suddenly coil and loop and stutter and dive, the aural equivalent of a bravura World War I flying ace in dogfighting form. 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 into another virtuosic loop-de-loop. The cut is from an astonishing series of recordings Armstrong made in 1925-28 that amount to the jazz-creating legacy of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, a succession of studio groups that virtually never performed live. And now, in time for his centennial--he claimed he was born in 1900 but wasn't--it's all been reissued.

The relentless joy brimming in the sound of young Satchelmouth's horn, the glorious deep-blue and fiery-red Whitmanesque yawp of it, has an undeniably self-conscious edge to it. 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. Du Bois posited for African-Americans. Within this compound of power and pain, a racial revisitation of the master-slave encounter in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Du Bois explained that African-Americans were inevitably alienated, stood both inside and outside mainstream American culture and its norms, prescriptions, hopes, dreams. Such alienation, Du Bois 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 (for example, that society believed "all men are created equal," as the Declaration of Independence puts it) and gritty daily reality, where blacks were not exactly welcomed into concert halls, schools, restaurants or the front of buses.

In the bell of Armstrong's barbaric (which means, in the sense Whitman inherited from 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 naïve 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 a wit and understanding evident in his music. As he wrote of the composer of "Twelfth Street Rag" and jazz's self-proclaimed inventor, "Jelly Roll [Morton] with lighter skin than the average piano players, got the job [at New Orleans's 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, Murray explains how Armstrong's music limned human talents needed in the frenetic, fast-changing twentieth century. Drawn from the pioneer, Indian and slave, the key American survival skill was improvisation, the soloist's ability to mesh with his surroundings. Ellison's Invisible Man uses Armstrong's version of "Black and Blue," a tune from the 1929 Broadway play Chocolate Dandies, to demonstrate the Du Boisian 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 door of mainstream culture, when the Harlem Renaissance redefined African-Americans, when Prohibition created a nation of outlaws who, thanks to associating with booze and gangsters and the demimonde's jazz soundtrack, saw that Negroes, as they were called, were subject to legal and extralegal restrictions and prejudices more arbitrary and inane than the constitutional amendment forbidding booze.

The elastic rhythms and fiery solos on the sides by the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens spoke to these people. 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"--originally written as a lament by a dark-skinned gal for her man, who's attracted to high-yellow types--made him a star. Armstrong's brilliant, forceful reading renders it as mini-tragedy, the musical equivalent of Shylock's speech in The 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 dance halls while young folks skittered and twirled and flounced and leaped and broke out of lingering Victorian constraints to loose-limbed beats and blaring horns that emerged from America's Darktowns in New Orleans, New York and Chicago.

One of Armstrong's 1936 recordings is "Rhythm Saved the World." Like many, this banal tune is transformed by his syncopating personality. Its idea still echoes across America's teeming subcultures: Decades later, Parliament Funkadelic sang, "Here's my chance to dance my way out of my constrictions."

If Armstrong claimed he was born on July 4, 1900, 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 (who insists that all American music emanates from Armstrong) proves that Louis's birth date was August 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 5.

At 7 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 known, had found his calling.

On January 1, 1913, he was busted for firing his stepfather's pistol, and sentenced to the Colored Waif's Home. There 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 young Louis mastered the chops-busting clarinet solo for "High Society" before his teens--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. When Oliver left for Chicago, following post-World War I black migration 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 Fate Marable and the riverboats plying the Mississippi in 1920-21.

Marable, impressed by the young hornman's dazzling facility and ear, 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 would confound 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.) At Davenport, Iowa, when the riverboat docked, a white kid named Bix Beiderbecke first heard Armstrong with Marable and decided to make the jazz cornet his life.

In 1922 Oliver sent for his protégé, who kissed his mother goodbye, packed the fish sandwich she made for him and headed north to Chicago. 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. He couldn't believe he'd be playing with these masters of jazz. Yet in a very short time, first in recordings with them, then with his own Hot Fives and Hot 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 that Oliver kept Louis in his band to keep him from fronting his own, Lil persuaded her husband to grab Fletcher Henderson's offer to join his New York-based big band. When Armstrong arrived in the Big Apple 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 arrangers and soloists were extending his sound.

It was Lil who persuaded Armstrong to go back to Chicago after scarcely more than a year in New York, and there he joined her band, then Carroll Dickerson's, and rocked the town. The night he returned, he was greeted by a banner she 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, 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 had been singing before he ever 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 seems implausible. Here's a sample: He invented the full-fledged jazz solo. He invented scat singing. He introduced Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes as jazz's raw material. (When Armstrong replaced New Orleans standards and blues with Tin Pan Alley tunes in the 1930s, he forged the model followed by swing, jazz's most successful invasion of American pop music. His model was followed literally: Key arrangers like Don Redman, who worked for many bandleaders, including Benny Goodman, adapted Armstrong's runs and rhythmic moves to section-by-section big-band arrangements.) And Armstrong performed in interracial settings. Once, in New Orleans, when a bigoted announcer refused to introduce his band, he did it himself--so well that the radio station asked him to do it for the rest of the band's stint.

His voice engulfed America. Among his major disciples was Bing Crosby, who called him "the beginning and the end of music in America." His influence rippled across American popular and jazz singing like an earthquake. As he reconfigured pop tunes, the apparently natural force of his voice's cagey dynamics and loose rhythms seized the imagination of talents like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

With his last Hot Sevens recordings for Okeh in 1928, in which tunes like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" were issued as B-sides, Armstrong had moved closer to the new American cultural mainstream he was inspiring. When he started recording for Decca in 1935, the impetus accelerated. A couple of interim managers gave way that year 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." It was the beginning of his big 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 nonmusical 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 less eye-popping, 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's style could be attributed to the lip trouble he had in the early thirties. 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, Armstrong had never separated art and entertainment; jazz for him was pop music. And if his bands irritated critics, there were plenty of gems, and besides, 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 rhythms, 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 industry and the American military. 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 entertainment as Uncle Tom-ism rather than artistic expression.

The Dixieland revival, based in Chicago, occurred at about the same time. 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 eighteen-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 into 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. Giddins deftly shows 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--to be an organic conception of the artist as entertainer. Still, from the 1950s until just before his death in 1971, Armstrong had to deal with 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 canceled it because the Southern states refused to integrate schools, and he publicly excoriated Ike and America.

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 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, "race" records, especially Armstrong's hits, were as important as Bing Crosby's in saving the fledgling record companies from collapse during the Depression. (And there was more to it than that. Through the phonograph Armstrong made infinite disciples, shaping what jazz would become.)

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, offhand 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 scat singing 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 of their understated yet consummate ease.

The 1961 session with Armstrong and 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.

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 that 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 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 irony--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 precociousness, 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.

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