The beloved Satchmo was early recognized as "the greatest trumpeter in the world" but later vilified by boppers as a "moldy fig." Now, a century after his birth, he is universally hailed as a revolutionary yet foundational figure in popular instrumental and vocal music.
"Talent is that which is in a man's power," wrote the American poet James Russell Lowell; "genius is that in whose power a man is." Few can dispute that Louis Armstrong credits this rarefied appellation. Captive to an inspiration that had few if any precedents, Armstrong and his startling melodic inventions redefined the musical status quo. So compelling was his originality that almost every popular instrumentalist since owes a debt to him.
Armstrong virtually invented the role of the jazz soloist, with his soaring, imaginative improvisations, yet must also be recognized as among the most influential vocalists in twentieth-century popular music--perhaps the most. Music critic Gary Giddins has claimed that no one else in the history of Western music has had a comparable impact, both as a singer and instrumentalist.
Armstrong was born in New Orleans on August 5, 1901. Throughout his adult life he (and the general public) believed his birth date to be July 4, 1900, and as writer Albert Murray once noted, this is true in every way except the facts. For no figure so well typified the burgeoning promise and swagger of America in the twentieth century as Louis Armstrong.
Jazz and Armstrong can be said to have grown up together. What he heard on the raucous streets of turn-of-the-century New Orleans was a boundary-defying jumble of marches, parlor music, church hymns, and ragtime that was gradually fermenting into a new musical idiom.
"There was so much music when I was growing up in New Orleans that you couldn't help but hear it," Armstrong later said. "Whenever there was a dance or a lawn party, the band ... would stand in front of the place on the sidewalk and play half an hour of good ragtime music. And us kids would stand or dance on the other side of the street until they went inside. That was the only way that we young kids could get a chance to hear those great musicians."
In fact, Armstrong found other venues where the musical foundations of jazz were being laid down. Among the most singular were New Orleans' stylized funeral processions. A mournful, dirgelike spiritual would set a somber tone as mourners accompanied the body to the interment; then at the signal of a percussionist, the brass band would break into a vigorous, syncopated march that would typically draw a "second line" of spectators and revelers, among whom the child Louis frequently counted himself.
Other kinds of revelry were notorious in New Orleans. Indeed, it has been suggested that jazz was born not so much by a convergence of cultures and musical influences as by a convergence of vice. "Historians and scholars have made a determined effort to place a fig leaf over the origins of jazz," says Armstrong biographer Laurence Bergreen, "and have argued strenuously against the obvious, that it was born in the whorehouses and on the sidewalks in front of the whorehouses, and that it came of age in these establishments." For Armstrong, prostitution and the violent and grasping underworld of pimps, drug addicts, and petty thieves were as unremarkable as the next-door neighbor. These were "his people," and over decades of reminiscences he retained a sentimental fondness for these often colorful, usually tragic personalities whose lives were surrendered to illicit trades.
His early history was heartwrenchingly pathetic. Abandoned at birth by his father, Louis was raised, irregularly, by a mother who evidence suggests resorted to prostitution to support the household. A procession of short-term "stepfathers" shared his home, setting a pattern of violence, drunkenness, lechery, and, at times, desultory fondness for the child. Worried that young Louis couldn't sufficiently hold his liquor (to take a typical example of the boy's parenting), his mother joined him on an all-night bender in which they both became falling-down drunk. "Son," she pronounced the next morning, "I am convinced that you know how to hold your liquor," an affirmation that left him feeling "very proud of myself."
Armstrong's initiation into matrimony came with marriage to a knife- wielding prostitute, the first of four such formalized liaisons. His relationships with women throughout his life were reckless and immature, informed by the ethos of the red-light districts in which he came of age and summed up by a dictum he adhered to religiously: Never belong to only one woman.
Unstable and faithless in romance, Armstrong gave himself to music with the passion and fidelity of the most love-struck bridegroom. His endurance as a trumpeter was legendary. Punishing himself with demanding engagements night after night--he would sometimes spray blood from his cracked lips--Armstrong performed up to the final hours of his life (against the advice of his doctors) and can almost be said to have given his life for his art.
His discovery of his calling came in aptly fabled circumstances. At six, Armstrong joined the fledgling business of a kindly Jewish immigrant family, the Karnoffskys, peddling odds and ends from a junk wagon. He invested ten cents for a tin horn to attract attention to the wagon. Playing all day long, he eventually coaxed some rude music from it.
The Karnoffskys encouraged the boy, telling him he "made a beautiful tone" with the tin instrument. "They could see I had music in my soul," Armstrong said. "They really wanted me to be something in life. And music was it."
The Karnoffskys' role, so early in his awakening awareness, would be hard to overstate. It was Morris Karnoffsky who advanced him two dollars so he could buy a tarnished five-dollar cornet at a pawnshop. "Although I could not play a good tune, Morris applauded me just the same, which made me feel good," Armstrong said. "From then on I was a mess and tooting away."
Amazingly, Armstrong traced his singing style not to the emotion- drenched blues and spirituals of the African-American tradition but to the Karnoffskys. "I felt relaxed singing the song called 'Russian Lullaby' with the Karnoffsky family when Mother Karnoffsky would have her little baby boy in her arms," Armstrong remembered. "We all would sing together until the little baby would doze off ... [and] when I reached the age of eleven I began to realize it was the Jewish family who instilled in me singing from the heart."
That his initiation into music came through the offices of a nonmusical white family was never lost on Armstrong. He saw in the lives of these immigrant Lithuanian Jews a fortitude and industry in the face of bitter privation that engendered a sense of empathy toward others that knew no racial boundaries. Armstrong always saw jazz as a bridge across racial lines. "These people who make restrictions," he commented upon the rise of more militant forms of modern jazz, "they don't know nothing about music. It's no crime for cats of any color to get together and blow."
Armstrong matured in a time when music in his hometown was experiencing an unprecedented integration of styles. Brass bands, with instruments proliferating in the years following the Civil War, incorporated military marches with ragtime rhythms and formal elements introduced by classically trained, usually Creole, musicians.
Early New Orleans jazz, as opposed to later permutations of the music, subordinated individual performance to the propulsive polyphony of the ensemble. Typically, the cornet, trombone, clarinet, and other instruments played specific roles rather than freely improvising. Much of the creativity lay in the boundless colorations jazz players affected, making the instrument mimic, as it were, the subtlety of the human voice. "See how many ways you can play that note," clarinetist Sidney Bechet once instructed a young player. "Growl it, smear it, sharp it, do anything you want to it. That's how you express your feelings in this music."
Into this informal yet stylized musical camaraderie stepped a modest, brilliantly creative youth whose battered cornet not so much made music as declared psychological independence from a life of bitter privation. Like Shakespeare, whose genius with language unfolded in an era in which the English language was supple and flexible, Armstrong had no thought that he shouldn't remain within the loose constraints of this emerging idiom. He sublimated the hard facts of daily existence through music into a boundless joy that eschewed resentment or bitterness.
Young Armstrong honed his craft in a succession of ensembles of increasing musical sophistication. Meanwhile, a few adventurous jazzmen drifted away from the mother city to seed and nurture America's new indigenous music, principally in New York, Chicago, Kansas City, and Los Angeles, and even across the Atlantic. Armstrong himself found the opportunity to play on a riverboat going up the Mississippi. This three-month engagement for strictly white patrons was for him an eye- opening discovery, not only of the breadth and scope of America but of the electric impact that authentic New Orleans jazz had on the uninitiated. He returned to New Orleans wiser, more worldly, and more confident in a personal approach that was more than a show of dazzling technique; it was the beginnings of a personal aesthetic vision.
On the evening of August 8, 1922, a 21-year-old Louis Armstrong received a telegram from Joe Oliver--a mentor, friend, and father figure--to join him in Chicago. The young man's life would change from this day, and American music would be set on a course that, in fundamental respects, it has not deviated from since.
"King" Oliver was busting up Chicago with his Creole Jazz Band. Oliver and a growing number of musicians were part of a massive influx of southern blacks into the Windy City, whose black population grew from 45,000 in 1910 to some 235,000 in 1930. Chicago's South Side, like Harlem in New York, coalesced into a vibrant center of black artistry and entrepreneurial activity. Nightclubs, restaurants, theaters, and casinos catering to blacks enjoyed newfound prosperity in the years following World War I. And with the coming of Prohibition, a burgeoning vice industry--and crime syndicates to manage it--made Chicago a crueler, more heartless version of Armstrong's familiar New Orleans.
America was entering the Jazz Age. From a localized phenomenon known (outside New Orleans) at best as a gaudy amusement on the vaudeville circuit, jazz veritably exploded upon the national consciousness at the close of the First World War with the maturation of the jazz orchestra and the epoch-making appearance of the phonograph and radio.
It was with the King Oliver band that Armstrong first recorded--on a primitive acoustic apparatus that only crudely communicated the intricacy and depth of the interchange of voices in the ensemble. The recordings, made beginning in 1923, can now be heard on Milestone Records' Louis Armstrong and King Oliver (47017) and within multivolume sets of Armstrong's recorded legacy put out by various labels. These early recordings have historic interest and offer glimpses of the energy and excitement of early jazz, but the modern listener will be disappointed both in the sound quality and the seeming flatness of the performances. Yet it is imprudent to apply too critical an evaluation to these recordings, necessarily unrepresentative as they are because of the constraint of a three-minute record, the experimental state of recording, and the diffident attitude with which performers approached the studio.
It was not through recordings but live performances and the celebrated "cutting contests"--impromptu competitions between bands or soloists-- that Armstrong's stature began to grow. Word spread among the fraternity of jazz players. Musicians would come to hear for themselves and invariably be dumbfounded by the virtuosity of the young New Orleans cornetist. They came to listen, to challenge; then they came to be awed; and they came finally to learn, as the young Armstrong invented a new musical vocabulary.
His solos had the form and structure of classical compositions, informed with a grandeur and balance that continue to satisfy. For the greatest artists lay claim not just to superior technique but to insights and expressions of human emotions conveyed through the alchemy of art. Armstrong's singular inventiveness, a foundational influence of jazz soloists ever since, possesses a startling coherence and charm that sounds contemporary.
The young cornetist's meteoric rise in Chicago soon secured him an offer to join the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York. Henderson was everything Armstrong was not. Cultivated, college-educated, fashionable, and aloof, Henderson perfected a more formalized arrangement of popular standards, toward which Armstrong was initially perplexed. "I had just left Chicago," he said, "where the way we used to do it was just take the wind in, and take what's left and blow it out--and now I got to watch this part."
Armstrong soon enough fell in with the group but before long began to cut loose like an unmanageable force of nature. On opening night at the exclusive Roseland Ballroom, "people stopped dancing to come around and listen to him," one band member recalled. "They could hear him out in the street, and we were told that there were people passing by that stopped, listening to him. He was so loud. Well, that was the first night. The next night you couldn't get into the place."
His virtuosity was only half the package. Not just a musician, Armstrong was an entertainer, and his stage antics--his mugging and clowning, and preeminently his unorthodox singing--were unnerving to his fellow band members. His singing, perhaps the most inimitable vocal style in American music, expressed the rawest simplicity, yet held an emotive power that brings to mind the greatest blues singers. There could be no starker statement of the revolutionary temperament of Louis Armstrong than companion versions of his signature song "Ain't Misbehavin' " recorded in New York in 1927. The first featured Armstrong himself, muscular, earthy, and insouciant; the second featured Seger Ellis, a sentimental crooner whose sickly and emasculated tone sounds ludicrously alien to the genius of jazz. The wonder is that Ellis could command the fortitude to share a recording studio with the likes of Armstrong.
Armstrong's unencumbered vocals could no more be contained by convention than could his soaring horn solos. In the midst of a song, he would suddenly introduce nonsense syllables, all the while grinning proudly like the cat that ate the canary. This was scat singing, a technique that dated back to the minstrel tradition. But Armstrong was the first to introduce it to jazz, and the innovation liberated generations of jazz singers who thus claimed the freedom to improvise melodically as did their instrumentalist counterparts.
Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925, embarrassed to learn that he was now being billed as the "world's greatest trumpet player." Having worked with some of the most distinguished recording artists in New York, he was receptive to a plan to bring some of the best New Orleans musicians together for some recording sessions. Now the putative leader of the ensemble (although they never performed publicly together), Armstrong felt relaxed and energized by the freedom to swing again outside of the requirements of the Henderson arrangements.
The results of these sessions--which came together off and on (with some changes in personnel) over the next four years--have come to be recognized as perhaps the greatest recordings in the history of jazz. "No other body of work in the jazz idiom has been so loved and admired" as these recordings, says jazz historian Ted Gioia. "In historical importance and in sheer visionary grandeur, only a handful of other recordings ... can compare with them. Certainly none can surpass them."
Known to history as the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, these recordings established Armstrong as the preeminent jazz instrumentalist of his age. His intricate improvisations were painstakingly transcribed and published, marvels of musical clarity and ingenuity. (The recordings, now remastered, are currently available on several labels. Legacy Records' four-disc boxed set, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, 63527, won the 2001 Grammy Award for Best Historical Album.)
Armstrong proceeded to conquer America, not only musically but socially, with a winsome elan that disarmed much (if not all) racial animosity. He continued to record prolifically and, to the chagrin of many jazz purists, expanded his repertoire to embrace popular and show tunes. He traveled to Europe to impassioned acclaim and launched a film career that would eventually make him a household name. Like his contemporary Babe Ruth, Armstrong's celebrity transcended his sphere of excellence to achieve iconic status.
The music that he helped to launch, meanwhile, continued to change and evolve. It is worth noting how radical was the progress of jazz from its beginnings in turn-of-the-century New Orleans to the arrival of modern jazz some forty years later. As Gioia notes in his groundbreaking History of Jazz, the genre appeared as the spontaneous voice of a disempowered underclass, yet it did not assume the status of an inwardly self-affirming folk tradition, stressing continuity and communal solidarity, as is common among indigenous peoples. Jazz conferred no obligations, nor did it bear the ponderous weight of ancestral tradition. It was innovation; it was entertainment; and it grew in short order into a universal art.
Modern jazz, or bebop, signaled a startling departure, not just from the conventions (such as they were) of prebop jazz but from the view that jazz is entertainment rather than a self-conscious art. Boppers, like true modernists, were at times contemptuous of the "popular" legacy of the music and seemed to take a perverse pleasure in how their increasingly complex phrasings and dissonant chord structures befuddled the ears of uninitiated listeners.
Armstrong's reaction to bop and bop's reaction to Armstrong were studies in misapprehension. He was hurt and baffled by its militant rejection of the exuberant mannerisms and musical conventions pervading jazz up to that time. Modern jazz performers, in turn, coined the pejorative term "moldy fig" to designate prebop performers whose time, they judged, had passed. Armstrong specifically--the most visible and popular of these, who in addition seemed to play to the very stereotypes that the race-conscious boppers rose up in defiance of--was a particular object of scorn.
In a recent New York Times essay, critic Stanley Crouch scathingly took this misplaced elitism to task: "His [Armstrong's] innovations as a trumpet player and singer, once they had been absorbed, were ignored as his inferiors began to talk as if he were no more than the most famous Uncle Tom in the world."
And none other than Dizzy Gillespie repudiated his (and his cohorts') earlier judgments of Armstrong in his 1979 autobiography, To Be or Not to Bop:
"If anybody asked me about a certain public image of him, handkerchief over his head, grinning in the face of white racism, I never hesitated to say I didn't like it. I didn't want the white man to expect me to allow the same things Louis did. Hell, I had my own way of "Tomming" ... Later on I began to recognize what I had considered Pop's grinning in the face of racism as his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life and erase his fantastic smile. Coming from a younger generation, I misjudged him."
Gillespie's point is worth repeating. Somehow, Armstrong miraculously set aside not only racism but a conglomeration of ravaging hardships-- most particularly a childhood that could have turned another into a remorseless street criminal--as just not relevant. There is special genius in extracting joy from crushing privation, and joy is the music he played throughout his life, with a passion like that of no other instrumentalist before or since. As was once said of songwriter Irving Berlin, so might it be said of Armstrong: "He has no place in American music. He is American music." As was said of Armstrong, by his friend and colleague Bing Crosby, "He is the beginning and the end of music in America, and long may he reign."n
Additional Reading:Louis Armstrong, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, reissued by De Capo, New York, 1986.
Laurence Bergreen, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Broadway Books, New York, 1997.
Ted Gioia, The History of Jazz, Oxford, New York, 1997.
Robert Gottlieb, ed., Reading Jazz: A Gathering of Autobiography, Reportage, and Criticism, Vintage, New York, 1999.
Eric P. Olsen is associate executive editor of The World & I.…