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LOUIS ARMSTRONG: The Jazz Musician

8 minute read
Stanley Crouch

Pops. Sweet Papa Dip. Satchmo. He had perfect pitch and perfect rhythm. His improvised melodies and singing could be as lofty as a moon flight or as low-down as the blood drops of a street thug dying in the gutter. Like most of the great innovators in jazz, he was a small man. But the extent of his influence across jazz, across American music and around the world has such continuing stature that he is one of the few who can easily be mentioned with Stravinsky, Picasso and Joyce. His life was the embodiment of one who moves from rags to riches, from anonymity to internationally imitated innovator. Louis Daniel Armstrong supplied revolutionary language that took on such pervasiveness that it became commonplace, like the light bulb, the airplane, the telephone.

That is why Armstrong remains a deep force in our American expression. Not only do we hear him in those trumpet players who represent the present renaissance in jazz–Wynton Marsalis, Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton–we can also detect his influence in certain rhythms that sweep from country-and-western music all the way over to the chanted doggerel of rap.

For many years it was thought that Armstrong was born in New Orleans on July 4, 1900, a perfect day for the man who wrote the musical Declaration of Independence for Americans of this century. But the estimable writer Gary Giddins discovered the birth certificate that proves Armstrong was born Aug. 4, 1901. He grew up at the bottom, hustling and hustling, trying to bring something home to eat, sometimes searching garbage cans for food that might still be suitable for supper. The spirit of Armstrong’s world, however, was not dominated by the deprivation of poverty and the dangers of wild living.

What struck him most, as his memoir, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, attests, was the ceremonial vigor of the people. Ranging from almost European pale to jet black, the Negroes of New Orleans had many social clubs, parades and picnics. With rags, blues, snippets from opera, church music and whatever else, a wide breadth of rhythm and tune was created to accompany or stimulate every kind of human involvement. Before becoming an instrumentalist, Armstrong the child was either dancing for pennies or singing for his supper with a strolling quartet of other kids who wandered New Orleans freshening up the subtropical evening with some sweetly harmonized notes.

He had some knucklehead in his soul too. While a genial fountain of joy, Armstrong was a street boy, and he had a dirty mouth. It was his shooting off a pistol on New Year’s Eve that got him thrown into the Colored Waifs’ Home, an institution bent on refining ruffians. It was there that young Louis first put his lips to the mouthpiece of a cornet. Like any American boy, no matter his point of social origin, he had his dreams. At night he used to lie in bed, hearing the masterly Freddie Keppard out in the streets blowing that golden horn, and hope that he too would someday have command of a clarion sound.

The sound developed very quickly, and he was soon known around New Orleans as formidable. The places he played and the people he knew were sweet and innocent at one end of the spectrum and rough at the other. He played picnics for young Negro girls, Mississippi riverboats on which the white people had never seen Negroes in tuxedos before, and dives where the customers cut and shot one another. One time he witnessed two women fighting to the death with knives. Out of those experiences, everything from pomp to humor to erotic charisma to grief to majesty to the profoundly gruesome and monumentally spiritual worked its way into his tone. He became a beacon of American feeling.

From 1920 on, he was hell on two feet if somebody was in the mood to challenge him. Musicians then were wont to have “cutting sessions”–battles of imagination and stamina. Fairly soon, young Armstrong was left alone. He also did a little pimping but got out of the game when one of his girls stabbed him. With a trout sandwich among his effects, Armstrong took a train to Chicago in 1922, where he joined his mentor Joe Oliver, and the revolution took place in full form. King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, featuring the dark young powerhouse with the large mouth, brought out the people and all the musicians, black and white, who wanted to know how it was truly done. The most impressive white musician of his time, Bix Beiderbecke, jumped up and went glassy-eyed the first time he heard Armstrong.

When he was called to New York City in 1924 by the big-time bandleader Fletcher Henderson, Armstrong looked exactly like what he was, a young man who was not to be fooled around with and might slap the taste out of your mouth if you went too far. His improvisations set the city on its head. The stiff rhythms of the time were slashed away by his combination of the percussive and the soaring. He soon returned to Chicago, perfected what he was doing and made one record after another that reordered American music, such as Potato Head Blues and I’m a Ding Dong Daddy. Needing more space for his improvised line, Armstrong rejected the contrapuntal New Orleans front line of clarinet, trumpet and trombone in favor of the single, featured horn, which soon became the convention. His combination of virtuosity, strength and passion was unprecedented. No one in Western music–not even Bach–has ever set the innovative pace on an instrument, then stood up to sing and converted the vocalists. Pops. Sweet Papa Dip. Satchmo.

The melodic and rhythmic vistas Armstrong opened up solved the mind-body problem as the world witnessed how the brain and the muscles could work in perfect coordination on the aesthetic spot. Apollo and Dionysus met in the sweating container of a genius from New Orleans whose sensitivity and passion were epic in completely new terms. In his radical reinterpretations, Armstrong bent and twisted popular songs with his horn and his voice until they were shorn of sentimentality and elevated to serious art. He brought the change agent of swing to the world, the most revolutionary rhythm of his century. He learned how to dress and became a fashion plate. His slang was the lingua franca. Oh, he was something.

Louis Armstrong was so much, in fact, that the big bands sounded like him, their featured improvisers took direction from him, and every school of jazz since has had to address how he interpreted the basics of the idiom–swing, blues, ballads and Afro-Hispanic rhythms. While every jazz instrumentalist owes him an enormous debt, singers as different as Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Marvin Gaye have Armstrong in common as well. His freedom, his wit, his discipline, his bawdiness, his majesty and his irrepressible willingness to do battle with deep sorrow and the wages of death give his music a perpetual position in the wave of the future that is the station of all great art.

Armstrong traveled the world constantly. One example of his charming brashness revealed itself when he concertized before the King of England in 1932 and introduced a number by saying, “This one’s for you, Rex: I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” He had a great love for children, was always willing to help out fellow musicians and passed out laxatives to royalty and heads of state. However well he was received in Europe, the large public celebrations with which West Africans welcomed him during a tour in the late ’50s were far more appropriate for this sequoia of 20th century music.

He usually accepted human life as it came, and he shaped it his way. But he didn’t accept everything. By the middle ’50s, Armstrong had been dismissed by younger Negro musicians as some sort of minstrel figure, an embarrassment, too jovial and hot in a time when cool disdain was the new order. He was, they said, holding Negroes back because he smiled too much and wasn’t demanding a certain level of respect from white folks. But when Armstrong called out President Eisenhower for not standing behind those black children as school integration began in Little Rock, Ark., 40 years ago, there was not a peep heard from anyone else in the jazz world. His heroism remained singular. Such is the way of the truly great: they do what they do in conjunction or all by themselves. They get the job done. Louis Daniel Armstrong was that kind.

Essayist Stanley Crouch’s latest book is Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives

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