My Jazz History class tonight was about Louis Armstrong and what a pleasure to spend time with this man I have visited so often before. One doesn’t need to see a photo of him with his broad grin to be infected by his joy. You can feel it in his trumpet playing and hear it in his voice, no matter what the content of the song he sings. And yet, this is how he began:
• Born into poverty. Had to work as a child to bring food to the table.
• Father left when he was born, mother a part-time prostitute.
• Lived in a violent neighborhood called “The Battlefield” amongst houses of prostitution.
• Dropped out of school in 5thgrade.
• Arrested at 11 years old and put into reform school for two years.
• Married a prostitute who tried to cut him with a razor.
• Black in a segregated and racist culture.
In the typical American rags to riches story, he would denounce his childhood and praise his ascent to fame and (modest) fortune. And yet. Here’s what he says in his essay “Growing Up in New Orleans.”
“I’m always wondering if it would have been best in my life if I’d stayed like I was in Hew Orleans, having a ball. I was very much contented just to be around and play with the old timers. And the money I made—I lived off it. I wonder if I would have enjoyed that better than all this big mucky-muck traveling all over the world—which is nice, meeting all those people, being high on the horse, all grandioso. All I this life I have now—I didn’t suggest it. I would say it was all wished on me. Over the years you find you can’t stay no longer where you are, you must go on a little higher now—and that’s the way it all come about. I couldn’t get away from what’s happened to me.
But man, I sure had a ball there growing up in New Orleans as a kid. We were poor and everything like that, but music was all around you. Music kept you rolling.”
And the music rolled him right out of New Orleans, up the Mississippi to Chicago, on to New York and then over the Atlantic to play for the Queen of England, to be adored in Italy and France, to touch some ancient roots in Ghana. And further yet to Asia, Australia, South America. He recorded with other jazz greats like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lionel Hampton, Oscar Peterson, was in a movie with Billie Holiday, on TV with Dizzy Gillespie and also shared stages (and screens) with Mahalia Jackson, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and countless others. Wherever there was jazz, there was Louis.
When Miles Davis was asked to describe the history of jazz, he said it in four words: “Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker.” “Pops” grew up with the folk music of New Orleans, music made “of the people, by the people and for the people,” an American incarnation of the West African practice of music as the binding force of community, realized in parades, picnics, processions, in funerals and Mardi Gras and woven inextricably into the daily life of the folks. But coming of age at just the propitious moment when the technology of recordings and radio amplified one’s voice far beyond the boundaries of being in earshot, he ascended the ladder of increased visibility (and audibility!) to capture the ear of people far away who he would never meet in person. He entered the firmament of larger-than-life stars and combined with the other technology of increased ease of travel and the growth of movies and later TV, became one of the brightest stars in the firmament of the 20thcentury, known and beloved by people in just about every corner of the world, his voice instantly recognizable and welcomed. As an entertainer and icon of popular culture, he offered music that the masses did not participate in as they did in the streets of NOLA, but enjoyed vicariously as a member of an audience, sitting in their paid seats in the club, concert hall or movie theater.
But Louis was also the one who lifted jazz from its folk music and popular music beginnings and brought it into the Western ideal of a classical art form, something that demanded prodigious technique, a deep understanding of complex harmonies and scales and a unique talent that brought the elements together in a personal voice to express something far beyond the daily round. His opening 11 bars to The West End Blues in 1928 catapulted the emerging jazz solo into a new stratosphere, the art of the intricate and expressive improvised solo. Jazz musicians of every ilk spent the next 20 years or so trying to come to terms with those 11 bars and every musician, not just singers and trumpet players, was inspired to follow his lead and craft their own memorable improvisations, finding all the notes implied by the blues or simple popular tunes and bringing them out into the open to uplift all who had the ears to receive them. And again following Pops, all with an apparent effortless ease, soulful feeling and irrepressible joy that offered a different look at the Western artist, the one so often portrayed as the tortured soul ahead of his time and separate from the people. These new classical artists were at once right in their time and rubbing shoulders with the people (literally in the intimate jazz clubs) and also transcendent of their particular moment, reaching for some universal and timeless expression that finds us still enjoying and uplifted by Louis’ Hotter Than That scat singing, Coleman Hawkin’s Body and Soul solo and just about anything that Art Tatum played.
We owe him so much. Louis traveled from I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues to What a Wonderful World without missing a beat. “I know of no man for whom I had more admiration or respect,” said Bing Crosby, a singer he both influenced and sang with often. And yet Bing Crosby never once invited Louis to his house. Nor did Joe Glaser, his manager for so many years. He publicly criticized President Eisenhower for failing to enforce the Little Rock school integration, calling him “two faced” and “no guts” and then sent a telegram telling him “he had a good heart” when the President finally decided to send in the federal troops (perhaps influenced by Louis’ comments?). Like any black man then or now, he knew racism intimately from the bottom to the top, but refused to let it break his spirit.
I ended tonight’s class with these quotes below and “What a Wonderful World” playing and corny as it may be, it made me weep. Neil Armstrong may have said, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” but Louis Armstrong already beat him to it, making his giant leap from his life on Jane Alley to beating out the Beatles on the No. 1 Hit Parade in 1964 and all of humankind refreshed by his journey. He embraced life, accepted life, grabbed life by the tail and swung it joyfully over his head, ending so many songs with his signature affirmation, “Oh, yeah!”
“I had begun to recognize that Pop’s grinning in the face of racism was his absolute refusal to let anything, even great anger at racism, steal the joy from his life and erase his fantastic smile.” -Dizzy Gillespie
“My whole life has been happiness. Through all of the misfortunes, etc, I did not plan anything. Life was there for me and I accepted it. And life, whatever came out, has been beautiful to me, and I love everybody.” -Louis Armstrong
" …those who can most truly be accounted brave are those who best know the meaning of what is sweet in life and what is terrible, and then go out, undeterred, to meet what is to come." - Pericles
May he serve as a beacon for us in these hard times when the daily news tries to bring us to our knees with the “terrible” and drowns out what is sweet and brave and joyful. May we have the courage to be happy. Oh yeah.