Sample text for Living with jazz / Dan Morgenstern ; a reader edited by Sheldon Meyer.
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Armstrong and Ellington
He never was billed as the King of Jazz, but Louis Armstrong is the sole legitimate claimant to that musical throne. Without him, there would still be the music we call jazz, but how it might have developed is guesswork. He was the key creator of its mature vocabulary, and though nearly three-quarters of a century have passed since his influence first manifested itself, there is still not one musician partaking of the jazz tradition who does not, knowingly or unknowingly, make use of something created by Louis Armstrong.
For those who basked in the living presence of Armstrong, it is sobering to contemplate that we are at a point in the history of jazz where many among us know him only in his posthumous audiovisual incarnation, and many, alas, not even that well--unable instantly to recognize that voice, that trumpet sound, that face, that smile. Our age consumes even the most consummate art at such a pace that Armstrong's universality is no longer a given. Yet the infinite reproducibility of his recorded works ensures his immortality, and future generations will surely come to know that jazz and Louis Armstrong are synonymous. The language he created is a marvelously
flexible and expandable one that can be spoken in ever so many accents, and as long as it remains a living tongue, it will refer back to its creator.
So if you are someone who is hearing the music in this collection for the first time--and that is an enviable way to discover what took some of us years of searching for rare old records, a few at a time--it will be most surprising if there are not familiar strains in it. Miles Davis knew what he was talking about.
By all odds, Louis Armstrong, born out of wedlock on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, raised in the city's poorest quarter, out of school and working for a living before he'd finished fifth grade, was not slated to become world-famous. Yet against all odds, he not only survived but thrived. Sent to reform school at age twelve, he learned the fundamentals of music there and by the time he was sixteen was able to supplement his income from work as a longshoreman or day laborer by playing his cornet on weekends in such rough joints as the Brick House, where, as he tells us in his autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, "Levee workers would congregate every Saturday night and trade with the gals who'd stroll up and down the floor and
into the bar. Those guys would drink and fight one another like circle saws. Bottles would come flying over the bandstand like crazy, and there was lots of just plain common shooting and cutting. But somehow all that jive didn't faze me at all, I was so happy to have some place to blow my horn."
Indeed there was not much that ever fazed Louis Armstrong. He was blessed with a perfect physique for blowing that most demanding of instruments, the trumpet (actually a cornet for the first decade or so, but as we shall see, the difference is slight), and with a perfect disposition for making his way in the toughest of
environments. "Little Louis," the first nickname he was known by, could be tough when required but mostly made friends wherever he went. He credited his maternal grandmother--the one permanent adult presence in his early childhood years--with instilling in him the system of values that would carry him through his extraordinary life and enable him to confront with equanimity situations and experiences he could not have imagined in his youth. As he describes them, these
fundamentals seem deceptively simple: "I didn't go any further than fifth grade in school myself. But with my good sense and mother-wit, and knowing how to treat and respect the feelings of other people, that's all I've needed through life."
Armstrong's "good sense and mother-wit" covered a lot of ground. He also had, in abundance, what used to be called character--a currently unfashionable concept, since we are all supposed to be molded by environment. Of course, New Orleans was and is a very special place, and at that time it had a unique musical culture-in-the-making, something that gave young Louis inspiration. But even early on, his love of music and of life was combined with an extraordinary sense of
responsibility, toward himself and what he very soon conceived of as his work. We speak of "playing" music, and young Louis certainly found exhilaration in playing his horn. But he also quickly noticed that musicians who didn't watch their intake of alcohol or take care of their health in other ways were less likely to play consistently well.
Armstrong was never a puritan, but he was a firm believer, early and late in life, in the separation between work and play. Thus he never table-hopped between sets, always warmed up before taking the stand, and reserved his pleasurable indulgences for after working hours. But, as we learn from his autobiography, he certainly did not practice deprivation of the senses. He writes of a musician on board
the Mississippi riverboat that carried the band, led by Fate Marable,
in which the young cornetist honed his playing and reading skills.
This man nearly starved himself in order to invest all his earnings
in cotton farming, but the boll weevils devoured his cotton and he
became near-suicidal. "I'll never be rich," Armstrong concluded from
observing this, "but I'll be a fat man." He did become rich, however
(and sometimes fat as well), but never spent much on himself. His
wives were well provided for, but he had no need for "a flock of
suits," and perhaps because he never forgot the generous tips his
early playing had inspired from his audience of whores, pimps,
toughs, and hustlers, he gave away what he could afford as long as he
lived, without the slightest ostentation.
Sharp powers of observation also led Armstrong to let others handle
the business side of bandleading, including hiring and firing. This
decision was often misunderstood, but he explains it perfectly well
in Satchmo: "I never cared to become a bandleader; there was too much
quarreling over petty money matters. I just wanted to play my horn as
I am doing now . I have always noticed that the bandleader not
only had to satisfy the crowd but that he also had to worry about the
box office." Of course Armstrong did not leave all bandleading
decisions, especially hiring, to his musical directors or managers;
he simply did not want to take energy away from his playing in order
to deal with the everyday banalities of music as a business. Making
the music was a full-time job; he let others count the house.
Throughout his long career, Armstrong looked back on his New Orleans apprentice years with the greatest warmth and respect for his peers. First, of course, came King Oliver, who had treated him somewhat like a son, given him pointers, and groomed him to take his job with trombonist Kid Ory's band when Oliver left in 1919 for Chicago. Then came such other influential cornetists as Buddy Petit, Bunk Johnson, and Freddie Keppard, and a host of other musicians: clarinetists, drummers, bass players, guitarists. And most of all, there were the brass bands with which Armstrong loved to march, and to the strains of which he had "second-lined" (danced in the streets) as a child.
It was in New Orleans, too, that he'd heard the strains of European music, not only the marches, quadrilles, and waltzes so inventively transformed by the early jazz players, but also the operatic arias popular in the city that took such pride in its French Opera--the center of New Orleans social and cultural life. Operatic themes were also prominent on the programs of the concert bands that played on Sundays in the park band shells and featured cornetists as their star soloists, and on a lesser scale, these themes were also ground out on barrel organs.
And there was yet another, strictly modern, influence: the phonograph. Armstrong first acquired one after his marriage (at seventeen) to Daisy Parker, whom he'd first met when he was her customer. (The marriage didn't last long, for reasons well described in Satchmo.) In 1966 he recalled those early records: "Most of my records were the Original Dixieland Jazz Band--Larry Shields and his bunch. They were the first to record the music I played. I had Caruso records too, and Henry Burr, Galli-Curci, Tetrazini--they were all my favorites. Then there was the Irish tenor, McCormack--beautiful phrasing."
Many ingredients went into the making of Armstrong's musical mind. Early writers on jazz emphasized ragtime, spirituals, blues, marches, and dance music; few, if any, mentioned opera. More recently musicologists have been taking some notice of the parallels between Armstrong's formal solo structure (including such elements as opening and closing cadenzas) and operatic arias. As we shall see, Armstrong not only listened to such material, he later played it as well.
When he joined the Fate Marable orchestra aboard the steamer St. Paul, which cruised up the Mississippi as far as Davenport (where a young man with a horn, Bix Beiderbecke, first encountered Armstrong), the repertory included the latest popular hits. These were learned from sheet music, and Armstrong's reading knowledge was rudimentary. Marable thought so well of his playing that he hired the young man
nonetheless, with the understanding that he would apply himself diligently. David Jones, who played saxophone and tenor horn in the band, took Little Louis under his wing and taught him to read (and write) music; the pupil caught on quickly. Also in the band were such stellar players as the brothers Dodds, clarinetist Johnny and drummer Baby; the bassist Pops Foster; and the guitarist Johnny St. Cyr, all of whom would become Armstrong associates in the next decade.
About this time Armstrong also showed his first gifts as a songwriter. He whipped up a little number called "Get Off Katie's Head," and sold it outright for $50--a good deal of money in 1920--to society bandleader A. J. Piron and pianist Clarence Williams, partners in a publishing company. The song became a big hit under the
more saleable title of "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate," and thus Louis learned a lesson: on the business end of music, nobody could be trusted very far. Williams soon moved his organization to New York, where he prospered, though not always with the methods he had applied to Louis. Their future collaborations would be more equitable.
We know little about Armstrong's playing at this point, other than what musicians have related. Sidney Bechet, four years older, confirmed that Louis started to play around age ten, and recalled that the kid stunned him a bit later by playing the famous "High Society" clarinet solo on cornet, something quite unheard of. This
alone tells us that a very young Armstrong (Bechet left New Orleans in 1917) already had the technique to execute a passage that would have challenged the best cornetists of the day.
Reliance on recordings is at once jazz's blessing and curse. Without this evidence, we would have no case on which to build a sensible history of the music, yet it is only circumstantial. The annals of oral jazz history are filled with players and bands that never encountered a recording device. In Armstrong's case, we have been
fairly lucky, though it's a pity he didn't get to record before March 31, 1923--some seven months after he came to Chicago at King Oliver's beckoning to join the King's Creole Jazz Band at the Lincoln Gardens. That move would forever remain in Armstrong's mind as the key step in his career, the one that made him.
The year 1923 was a watershed in jazz recording. Black bands and singers had been recording for some time: James Reese Europe's was the first, in late 1913, that was remotely jazz related; Mamie Smith's 1920 "Crazy Blues" started the business of "race records"--recordings specifically made for the African-American market, which turned out to be considerable. And of course the first "real" jazz records, by the white New Orleans Original Dixieland Jass Band [sic] were made in 1917 (and bought by Armstrong along with his first Victrola in 1918). Kid Ory, who'd moved to California, made records there in 1922, but they hardly circulated outside that state. But in 1923 King Oliver, Bessie Smith, and Jelly Roll Morton all made
their first records--a major breakthrough.
Oliver's Creole Jazz Band has gone down in history as a true New Orleans band, but it is more accurate to see it as a development of the parent style. Though its best records feature two cornets, trombone, and clarinet with a rhythm section of piano, banjo, and drums, there are frequent additions, such as C-melody or bass saxophone, and changes in personnel that do not quite measure up to Armstrong, Oliver, and the Dodds brothers. Be that as it may, the band's recorded legacy became the sacred texts of the 1940s traditional jazz revival that coincided with the coming of
bebop--which is another story.
From the testimony of musicians (and fans) who heard the 1922-24 Oliver band live, its most potent attraction was the unique two-cornet team. Oliver and Armstrong worked out fancy double-cornet breaks that seemed to be miraculously harmonized and synchronized, of which we get an echo on such records as the two versions of "Snake
Rag." Though they seemed purely spontaneous to the listeners, these breaks were in fact worked out in a most ingenious way: at a given point in the preceding collective band chorus, Oliver would play what he intended to use as his part in the break, and Armstrong, lightning quick on the uptake, would memorize it and devise his own second part--which always fit to perfection. No doubt some of the most
successful breaks became standardized in the band, just as Oliver's famous three-chorus solo on "Dippermouth Blues" became what is known as a "set" solo, repeated not only by its author but by others playing the piece--which, incidentally, was co-composed by the two cornetists. (Dippermouth was Armstrong's first nickname among musicians, often shortened to "Dipper.")
Armstrong played his first recorded solo at the first Oliver studio session, on "Chimes Blues." It sticks close to the attractive melody but, in its sound, phrasing, and swing, stands out like a little gem that blends with its plainer setting. What isn't discernible to the listener on these recordings is that Armstrong was so much more powerful in tone that he had to stand much farther back from the recording horn than Oliver. On "Tears," a tune composed by Armstrong, his solo breaks are the strongest indicators of the future in his recorded work with Oliver.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Jazz History and criticism