'Jazz and I Get Born Together' - Louis Armstrong at 100

By Olsen, Eric P. | The World and I, August 2001 | Go to article overview
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'Jazz and I Get Born Together' - Louis Armstrong at 100

Olsen, Eric P., The World and I

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.

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