FROM 19Z5 TO 192.8, Louis Armstrong made an astonishing series of recordings, the jazz-creating legacy of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, a succession of studio groups that virtually never performed live. In 19Z7, the young cornetist led his band into a meticulously hilarious version of a classic composition Jelly Roll Morton had made famous, “Twelfth Street Rag.”
The track sounds like the opening shot of a revolution—except that the revolution in Armstrong's head and hands had already been in full swing for years. Unlike most revolutions, from the first it displayed an ingratiating, inviting sense of humor and charm. Dippermouth, as his early New Orleans pals dubbed him, used the rag as a trampoline. As his horn fractures the tune's familiar refrains, ragtime's precise, cakewalking rhythmic values suddenly coil and loop and stutter and dive, the aural equivalent of a bravura World War I flying ace dogfighting tradition. Every time Armstrong comes precariously near a tailspin, he pulls back the control stick and confidently, jauntily, heads off toward the horizon, if not straight at another virtuosic loop-de-loop.
The relentless joy brimming in the sound of young Satchemouth's horn, the glorious deep-blue and fiery-red tinged Whitmanesque yawp of it, has an undeniably self-conscious edge. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray first pointed out a half-century ago that it is also the sound of self-assertion, a musical realization of the double consciousness W. E. B. Du Bois posited for African Americans. Within this almost Hegelian compound of power and pain, a racial revisiting of the Master-Slave encounter in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Du Bois explained that African Americans were inevitably alienated, stood both inside and outside mainstream American culture and its norms, prescriptions, hopes, dreams. Such alienation, Du Bois pointed out, could cripple black Americans by forcing them to internalize mainstream cultural values that held them to be less than human, but it could also liberate the brightest of them. The “Talented Tenth,” as he called this group, could act on their perceptions of the contradictions between the high ideals grounding basic American cultural