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.