The death-bed legacy of guitar legend Snoozer Quinn

November 22, 2014 at 5:37 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans, strange situations, The blues)

Above: the only known film of Snoozer, with his ‘Snoozer’s Telephone Blues’ dubbed

I’ve been vaguely aware for some years, of a legendary jazz guitarist called Snoozer Quinn. I knew from something I’d read, that he was highly regarded by fellow musicians in the 1920′s and 30′s, but didn’t record much until he was – literally – on his death bed in a TB sanitorium in the late 1940′s, when someone brought in a portable recording machine and asked him to play into it.

Some of these recordings have been available on the internet for a while, but not the complete set and not on CD. Now, Mike Dine’s 504 Records has put out all 12 of these death-bed recordings known to exist, on a CD called ‘The Magic Of Snoozer Quinn’.

Here are the very detailed and knowledgeable CD booklet-notes by Charlie Crump:


Snoozer Quinn was a classic example of a musician’s musician.

Born Elvin McIntosh Quinn in McComb, Mississippi on October 18th 1906, he was a child prodigy, learning to play mandolin and violin by the age of seven, before taking up the guitar which was to become his instrument of choice.

After the family moved to Bogalusa, La, he became a professional musician, playing with the family band before going on the road at the age of seventeen with bands led by Jack Wilrich and later Mart Britt. He first met Johnny Wiggs in 1924 when he joined Peck Kelly’s Texas based band, then playing in Shreveport, La. Returnin to Bogalusa, Snoozer was picked up by Wingy Mannone who was putting together a New Orleans style band for a gig at Bob White and Eddie Connors Somerset Club in San Antonio, Texas. Joe Mannone’s New Orleans Rhythm Band consisted of Wingy Mannone (tpt), Don Ellis (sax), Charles ‘Pee Wee’ Russell (clt), Joe Lamar (pno), Snoozer Quinn (gtr), Joe ‘Hooknose’ Loycano (bs), Clause Humphries (ds), the job lasted three months.

From late 1925 to 1928 he played in the New Orleans area where he was heard at an after hours jam session by members of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, including Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer, then playing at the St. Charles Theatre in October 1928. Trumbauer was so impressed with Snoozer’s playing that he took him to Paul Whiteman’s room so that he could hear him play. Johnny Wiggs recalled  that one of Snoozer’s tricks was to play pizzicato and hold the chord with one hand and shoot out the other to shake your hand. He did this to Whiteman while playing ‘Tiger Rag’. Whiteman was so knocked out by this that he immediately offered Snoozer a job, and he played with the Whiteman organisation until around mid-April 1929.

As far as recordings were concerned this move did not do much to enhance Snoozer’s career, as he only appeared on two, or possibly three, over the Whiteman period. At the end of his stay with Whiteman he appeared on Bing Crosby’s first session to be issued under his own name and on a session, rejected at the time, by (singer) Bee Palmer which included Frank Trumbauer and an inaudible Bix Beiderbecke and has only recently seen the light of day as a CD issue (and on youtube). Discographies also list him as appearing on the Columbia issue of the Mason-Dixie Orchestra, a Frank Trumbauer group, shortly after leaving Whiteman. His only other recordings were a rejected session for Victor in San Antonio in May 1928 and ten titles with another guitarist as accompanist to Jimmie Davis on ten country styled tracks in May 1931.

After the Jimmie Davis period he played with Earl Crumb’s Band in New Orleans over a long period in the early 1930′s  and continued to work in the South until the end of his playing career was brought about by failing health at the end of that decade.

However, he started playing regularly again by the mid-1940′s, including a long spell with Earl Crumb’s Band at the Beverly Gardens Restaurant on Jefferson Highway in New Orleans. One of Snoozer’s last appearances was at the New Orleans Jazz Foundation Concert in April 1948.

Advanced tuberculosis caused him to be confined to a sanatorium for the last few years of his life. Effectively that would have meant the end of Snoozer’s music had it not been for Johnny Wiggs, who had maintained contact with him over the years and considered his music of sufficient importance to justify a further attempt to preserve Snoozer’s guitar work. Although he had spent over 20 years as a teacher of mechanical drawing and had only recently started playing again, Wiggs took his cornet, a portable recording machine and blanks  to the sanatorium where Snoozer was a patient. The twelve tracks presented here, some of which have Wiggs added on cornet, are those recorded at the time. Four of the titles were issued privately by Johnny Wiggs on two 78rpm records on his Wiggs Inc. label and are included in this set which represents all those that were recorded at that time.

Given the circumstances of the recording the results are remarkably good, with only one track showing any sign of groove damage.

The exact dates of the recordings are unknown but they fall between the dates of Snoozer’s entry to the Sanatorium in 1948 and his death in 1949.


* H/t: Jason Hill (for bringing my attention to the youtube  film)

* ‘The Magic Of Snoozer Quinn’ is available from 504 Records, 20 Clifton Road, Welling, Kent, DA16 1QA, England. Tel: 020 8303 9719

* Lots more on Snoozer, here

* Finally, I hope it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: I have no commercial interest in this CD.

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Bessie Smith: Back Water Blues

February 9, 2014 at 5:52 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans, song, The blues, tragedy)

Extreme weather and flooding having become a highly-charged political issue in the UK. So I thought Bessie Smith’s blues (superbly accompanied by pianist James P. Johnson) about the flooding of New Orleans in 1927 might be appropriate:

This is dedicated to all the people of the ‘Somerset Levels’ who’ve had to suffer so much over the past weeks. I’d also like to dedicate it to Lord Chris Smith of the Environmental Agency, a decent man whose monumentally inept handling of the situation and lack of PR skills are making it increasingly likely that he’s going to be made the scapegoat for this fiasco.

But, for now, let’s just enjoy Bessie’s incredible voice…

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The hottest jazz record ever made?

November 15, 2013 at 4:15 pm (BBC, jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans, Sheer joy)

Us old jazzers love discussing the perennial question of the ‘hottest’ record of all time. Alyn Shipton at Radio 3′s Jazz Record Requests has asked for suggestions. The definition of ‘hot’ in this context is (like the word ‘swing’ or indeed ‘jazz’) not at all easy to pin down. But we know it when we hear it. It doesn’t necessarily just mean ‘up-tempo,’ though a brisk pace is usually a requirement. It’s to do with intensity, drive and raw excitement.

Philip Larkin reckoned that Louis Armstrong’s 1929 recording of St. Louis Blues was the Hottest Record Of All Time, and I’m inclined to agree. But leaving that aside, what other contenders are there?

I’d put forward Hello Lola by the Mound City Blue Blowers (1929), Bugle Call Rag by the Billy Banks Rhythmakers (1932), That’s A’ Plenty by Wild Bill Davison (1943), and this (which I’ve suggested to Alyn and should be played on JRR this Saturday):

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Louis at Hallowe’en: Skeleton In The Closet

October 31, 2013 at 6:36 pm (cinema, comedy, jazz, Jim D, New Orleans)

Any excuse to run a clip of the great Mr Armstrong. This is from the 1936 Bing Crosby movie ‘Pennies From Heaven.’ Behind the masks the band includes Lionel Hampton on drums and Joe Sullivan on piano:

Scary, isn’t it?

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Bob Crosby centennial

August 23, 2013 at 10:53 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans)

What’s this? Two music posts in succession!

Well, thanks to ‘Perfessor M. Figg’ at The Pop Of Yestercentury I’ve just realised that one of my favourite 1930s/40s bandleaders, Bob Crosby, was born 100 years ago today. The ‘Perfessor’ pays a fine tribute, analysing the Crosby Orchestra’s 1938 rendition of ‘Diga Diga Doo’ with evident knowledge and appreciation.

I’ll take this opportunity to share their 1942 record of ‘Vultee Special’ featuring Yank Lawson on trumpet, Floyd O’Brien on trombone and Jess Stacy on piano:

Bob was Bing’s younger brother and was only the titular head of the Orchestra: in reality it was a co-operative, run by its members and devoted to playing jazz rather than simply aiming at the hit parade. The late Richard Sudhalter wrote a fine appreciation of the Bob Crosby Orchestra in his 1999 book Lost Chords:

“Above all,” Bob Haggart recalled, “we were like a family. We worked together, socialised together. Thought musically together. Most other bands — well, to tell the truth, we didn’t pay much attention to what everybody else was doing. To us most of the time, they just sounded as if they were trying to steal from one another.”

Meet that wonder of the musical 1930s, the Bob Crosby Orchestra. In the whole colorful decade there wasn’t another band like it, and in certain ways there may not have been another nearly so good.

For chronicler George T. Simon, they were an ensemble “with tremendous spirit, one filled with men who believed thoroughly in the kind of music they were playing and, what’s more, who respected and admired one another as musicians and as people.”

Few bands, however brilliant, approached that degree of unanimity with any consistency. It extends beyond mere skill, beyond originality — even beyond a leader or arranger’s inspired vision. Neither Goodman’s virtuosity nor the faultless precision of his orchestras ever quite transformed their efforts into the expression of a single collective will. Artie Shaw came closer, his various bands driven by the strength and singularity of his vision: but Shaw’s musicians remained his employees. Much the same could be said even for Red Norvo’s extraordinary 1937 band, breathing, whispering, exulting as extensions of both its leader’s xylophone sound and Eddie Sauter’s ensemble concept.

The Crosby orchestra had an extra dimension. It lives in such words as “ensemble,” when describing tightly knit group acting, or “team,” in the finest athletic sense; the idea of a collective entity, each component interacting constantly and creatively with the others to shape, to determine the whole. Gesalt, a single consciousness compounded of many.

In that rarified context only the Duke Ellington Orchestra comes to mind as in any way comparable. But an Ellington orchestra, any Ellington Orchestra, assumed its finished shape through the leader’s (and often Billy Strayhorn’s) codification of an ongoing fusion and fission among its individual members. The Crosby orchestra, by contrast, began with unanimous, shared dedication to a single stylistic ideal. its name, most often popularly (and imperfectly) identified, was “Dixieland.” But the word fails to describe either a stylistic predisposition or a rhythmic foundation, not to mention a wide palette of orchestral color and texture.

Better by far, and more accurate, to remember that the band led by Bing Crosby’s younger brother was built around a core of New Orleans musicians, whose shared background and affinity determined its musical direction.

Historically, New Orleans jazzmen away from home shared a bond, a camaraderie, that seemed to transcend class, education, politics, even race. Meeting in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, they were often simply homeboys together, carrying their environment with them in a way that seemed to render differences among them irrelevant, or at least secondary. It may be that way with musicians from St. Louis, Boston, or San Antonio, but not to that degree: and on the evidence it’s anything but that with New Yorkers.

Crescent City jazzmen seemed to recognise one another, even gravitate toward one another’s company both on and off the stand. When clarinettist Joe Darensbourg, a Creole, says of guitarist Hilton “Nappy” Lamare, a white, “if everybody was like Nappy Lamare this would be an awfully nice world,” he’s talking New Orleans. The sight of Eddie Miller and Kid Ory crawfishing together in a stream on the outskirts of Los Angeles says less about race relations or social ecumenism in jazz than about their shared home town and its ways.

In this connection the Bob Crosby band has a strong cognate, perhaps even a forebear, in the great Luis Russell Orchestra of 1929-30. Henry “Red” Allen on trumpet, bassist George “Pops” Foster, drummer Paul Barbarin, and clarinettist Albert Nicholas had known each other back home, and they were at the heart, musically and socially, of an extraordinary band. Others, such as Russell himself (born in Panama but raised in New Orleans), Georgia-born trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, and Bostonian saxophonist Charlie Holmes, quickly got (as the title of one of their best records put it) “Feelin’ The Spirit.”


Like the Russell band, the Crosby unit had New Orleans musicians — Lamare, drummer Ray Bauduc, tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller, and, slightly later, clarinetist Irving Fazola — at its core, alongside a cadre of avid fellow-travellers, among them Long Islander Haggart, Kentucky-born clarinetist Julian “Matty” Matlock, and Missourian John “Yank” Lawson on trumpet.

As with the Russell band, Crosby’s men were never in any doubt or disagreement about what they wanted to play and how they would do it. Even with a slightly larger instrumentation than Russell’s, they were doing what they’d known “down home.” In this connection, all the Miller-Lamare banter about “po’ boy” sandwiches and other local delights that opens the Crosby record of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” tells its own affectionate story. As the guitarist put it in a 1940 interview, “white musicians as well as the colored seem to have the right ideas down there.”

Whatever it was, and by whatever name its music was known, the band had sparkle, spontaneity, and lift and left a legacy of distinctive records, which have easily withstood the shifting winds of musical fashion.

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Two kids interview Louis Armstrong

June 28, 2013 at 6:04 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans, Sheer joy, song, Soul, United States)

If this doesn’t lift your spirits and brighten up your weekend, I don’t know what will.

Two middle aged men recall how, as young teenage would-be journalists in 1964, they got to interview Satch. And we can hear the recording of the great man talking about his “chops” and other crucial matters. I dedicate this to Comrade Dave Osler, who last weekend admitted to me that he now, at long last, finally “gets” Louis Armstrong…

H/t: Michael Steinman and his great ‘Jazz Lives’ blog.

NB: The best Louis Armstrong website, written by his Number One fan, researcher and historian Ricky Riccardi,   here.

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Louis’ Jubilee

June 1, 2012 at 7:53 pm (jazz, Jim D, Monarchy, New Orleans, republicanism, song, United States)

This is the only Jubilee I’ll be celebrating this weekend:

…Though I have a horrible feeling that Louis himself (like Duke Ellington) would have been only to pleased to honour Her Maj…

Anyway, here’s what the late Dick Sudhalter wrote (in his book ‘Stardust Melody’) about Louis’ performance of Hoagy’s song on a highly productive day in the studio; read it as you listen:

Armstrong recorded “Jubilee” for Decca on January 12, 1938, backed by Luis Russell’s orchestra, and his performance stands out for a great jazzman’s ability to ennoble an otherwise pedestrian song through majesty of conception and execution. After making short (if enjoyable) work of Adams’s generic “let’s all have a good time” lyric, Louis points his Selmer trumpet at the heavens and, lofted atop by Paul Barbarin’s drumming, rides ‘Jubilee’ into high orbit.

He spends one chorus paraphrasing the melody over band riffs, then intones complementary replies as Russell’s horns punch out the melody in the second. Taking over at the bridge, he works to a final, soaring, transcendent high concert F. The balance and wisdom of these seventy-four bars defy explanation or analysis: what divine intuition dictated that he hold the concert G in bar 26 of the final chorus (corresponding to the word “of” in the phrase “carnival of joy”) for three and one half beats, rather than the gone-in-a-blink eighth note assigned to it by the lyric, before landing emphatically on the F for “joy?” Only a a peerless aesthetic sense could have understood the effect of that move, one among many, on the emotional density of its phrase. The word “genius,” so devalued in this age of inflated superlatives, surely finds its rightful application in such details…

Sudhalter also wrote (in his notes to the American Decca CD Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra: Heart Full Of Rhythm):

Of Jubilee little need be said. The Carmichael tune has never been played or sung better. The wisdom, balance and vision of Louis’s two choruses places them almost beyond musical analysis: placement of phrases, a tip-of-the fingers knowledge of when to hold back and not play; understanding of those moments when one long note will do the expressive work of many short ones.”

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Dr Edmond Souchon’s’s sleeve notes to ‘Papa Laine’s Children’

May 10, 2012 at 10:22 pm (history, jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans)

I was chatting to a fellow jazz-lover in the pub recently (and , by the way this guy is also a classical music lover) and we agreed that the move towards online  MP3 downloads is, at best, a mixed blessing.

In particular, we miss the sleeve notes on the backs of LP’s, and the ‘booklets’ that replaced them when CD’s came in.

I recently purchased an LP , ‘Papa Laine’s Children‘ at my local Oxfam shop. It’s a 1951 recreation of early New Orleans white jazz, with a band selected from those white  New Orleans musicians from the early days, who were still around by that time. The only one of them to have achieved any great fame was the drummer Ray Bauduc, a star of the Bob Crosby Orchestra in the 30s and 40s.

But John Wiggington Hyman (aka “Johnny Wiggs”) is well worth listening to: a Bixian cornet player of taste and imagination.

Here’s Johnny Wiggs with another obscure figure, the guitarist Snoozer Quinn:

I believe that this was recorded in the sanitorium  where Quinn was dying of TB in 1948.

Now for Dr Edmond Souchon’s sleeve notes from (at a guess) the early 1960′s, and I apologise in advance for his term “the African jungle expatriates” and other language on racial matters that we wouldn’t use these days. Nevertheless I hope it’s obvious that Dr Souchon was no racist.

This is an absolutely marvellous example of  informative, detailed sleeve-notes of the kind you rarely come across these days. I even enjoy the slightly stilted prose style.


TOM BROWN (trombone)


EDMOND SOUCHON, M.D. (guitar and banjo)

HARRY SHIELDS (clarinet)




The history of the arts has come down to us in many ways — chiselled in stone, scratched  on the walls of caves, burned on thye bark of trees, painfully written in hieroglyphics on the dried skins of animals, and by word of mouth. These primative origins date so long ago that often the original is completely changed and all but lost forever. This generation is particularly fortunate in that the advent of a new art-form practically coincided with a mechanical invention that would enable its beginnings to be preserved for all time: the inception of jazz was closely followed by the invention of the gramophone.

The anthropological and chronological facts which shaped the stage for the creation of this new type of music were slow to reveal themselves. The fact that 11 national flags flew over the State of Louisiana – and we must add the African jungle expatriates – is interesting, but nobody could have known in 1875 that a new art form was crystallizing.


The lineage of the great coloured bands which originated in New Orleans is wellknown. “Buddy” Bolden  was the recognised leader of the first organised group. He was succeeded by Freddie Keppard, “Bunk” Johnson, “King” Oliver and (skipping rapidly up to date) the eternal Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. All except “Buddy” Bolden have left records by which they will be studied and remembered.

But what of the white lineage that paralleled those great negro groups? Again, we are more than fortunate. The individual whose influence upon the earliest groups of white jazzmen was greatest is still alive. George Vital Laine, born in New Orleans in 1873, was known in those early days as Jack Laine, and the soubriquet he now bears — “Father of White Jazz” — has come down to us unofficially through the years by the very musicians who were under his baton.

The convention of the New Orleans Jazz Club of 1950 made the title official. But he is affectionately known among jazz addicts everywhere as “Papa Laine”, the venerable old man whose life story is the story of Dixieland music itself.

Jack Laine was playing the drums before he was 10. He recalls that those early bands were usually “strings” — violin, guitar, bass, mandolin and occasionally banjo — with the later additions of of clarinet and piccolo, and later still the cornet (never a trumpet!), trombone, mellophone and tuba. The strings were then dropped and the sax “slipped in”. Jack recalls that in the early days coloured and white bands used to meet in friendly “cutting sessions” — playing across the river from one wharf to another. They would vie with arrangements of the same tune from one week to the next. Who borrowed most from whom is still an open question — and the controversy continued regarding the great white bands of a decade or two later. Such names as the Loyocano Brothers, the Brunies Brothers, Tom Brown (Trombone on this disc, died May 1958), Leon Rappollo, Henry Ragas, Eddie Edwards, Dave Perkins, Alcide “Yellow” Nunez, Harry Shields, Tony Sparbaro (Spargo) and Ray Lopez are are fabulous names from early New Orleans. At one time or another, all these musicians played under Jack Laine’s banner. Later, Tony Parenti and Sharkey Bonano, Happy Schilling and George Fisher were either in his band or played under his management. It’s only natural that the great bands of jazz history have stemmed from this historic organisation. Tom Brown, already mentioned, left New Orleans ahead of his time and headed for Chicago in 1814 with the first white band to spread the gospel. “Tom Brown’s Band from Dixieland” made history in Lamb’s Cafe there, and later in other great American cities. It was to Tom Brown’s outfit that the disparaging reference “jazz band” was first applied, only to boomerang upon the critic who sneeringly gave it.

Names like Dominick LaRocca, Harry Sheilds, Eddie Edwards, Emile Christian, Henry Ragas and Tony Sarbaro immediately conjure up the “Original Dixieland Jazz Band” whose famous first recording session for Victor in 1917 sold one-and-a-half million records! The list of bands stemming from Jack Laine’s school could go on idefinitely, but space is limited. However, one more famous band involved must be listed, and this is “the Halfway House Orchestra.”


Humble with all the honours heaped upon him at the New Orleans Jazz Convention, old Jack Laine gets a faraway look in his eyes these days when he recalls the names of his first group — Achille Baquet, Manuel Mello, Leonce Mello, Bill Gallity, Willie Guitar. When told of World Record Club plans to make a disc of early New Orleans music, using where possible musicians associated with his name (including the great Tom Brown), Papa Laine was most enthusiastic, but naturally asked if he might audition the tape before release. So it was sent along to his home at 521 Clouet St., New Orleans, which is a Mecca for musicians of a historic bent.

Papa Laine’s wife brewed a pot of coffee and joined Jack to listen. The reaction was immediate. Their feet beat the time, their heads nodded. “That’s it,” said Papa. “That’s the music we used to play. Mama, listen to those Blues, don’t that remind you of that tune ‘Praline’ that Achille composed? Say, you fellows really have it. If I was playin’ today today that’d be my Number One Band!”

So on this disk you get the real New Orleans Early Jazz, the way Papa Laine played it, presented by a team of fabulous musicians who’ve had it in their blood from boyhood. And to round off the disc, Papa Laine himself, aged though he is, records for us a few brief remarks that provide a golden bridge to those bygone days. This spoken track is recorded for historic interest. You’ll never hear Papa Laine in front of a microphone again.

-From notes specially contributed by Dr. Edmond Souchon, New Orleans.

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Good Christmas songs #1: Connee Boswell’s White Christmas

December 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm (Christmas, jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans)

An idea for the festive season: good Christmas songs. Yes, there are some. Every few days I’ll be posting Youtube clips of Christmas numbers that stand up simply as good, well performed music regardless of their seasonal content. I’m open to suggestions by the way, but would prefer lesser-known numbers and/or performances. We start today with the best-known Christmas song of all, but performed here not by Der Bingle but by the (these days) nearly forgotten Connee (aka Connie) Boswell, a middle-class white gal (1907-1976), from New Orleans, who was a major influence on the young Ella Fitzgerald. Connee’s best jazz was recorded in the early-to-mid thirties with her sisters Martha and Vet (both of whom left the music business, leaving Connee to soldier on as a soloist), but this, recorded in 1958, is pretty good and shows she still had a powerful, jazz and blues- drenched voice, even on a commercial record date late in her career:

Click on that link (above: “best jazz”) to the Boswell Sisters’ highly-sophisticated yet bluesy version of ‘There’ll Be Some Changes Made’ and as well as hearing some fabulous, ‘modern’ vocal-harmony singing,  you’ll see a secret that the carefully-posed  official publicity photos of the time (as with FDR) kept hidden: Connee was wheelchair-bound.

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Why Louis Armstrong is still The Greatest

August 4, 2011 at 12:19 am (black culture, good people, jazz, Jim D, music, New Orleans, song)

It’s 110 years since Louis Armstrong’s birth (4 Aug 1901) and just over 40 years since his death (6 July 1971). Good reasons, as far as I’m concerned, to remember the life and music of this extraordinary human being. But I don’t really need an excuse to wax lyrical about the greatest musician (arguably the greatest artist) of the twentieth century. Here’s a piece I wrote for  Workers Liberty magazine ten years ago to mark Louis’s centennial; I’ve made a few alterations, updatings and corrections in the light of further thought and some criticisms made by readers at the time. This updated version makes particular use of the best book yet written on Louis: Terry Teachout’s ‘Pops: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong.’

Someone who’d watched the Ken Burns Jazz  films on TV said to me: “I can’t understand why Louis Armstrong is held in such high esteem in jazz circles. He always struck me as an Uncle Tom.” That view has been quite widely held for many years, particularly by the generation of jazz musicians who emerged in the 1940′s and 50′s and found Louis’s mugging for white audiences at best embarrassing and at worst simply demeaning. But there was a whole background to Armstrong’s persona. As the author Terry Teachout comments in his book  ‘Pops: The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong’: “He was a child of his time, not ours, and some of the things he did and said as an adult are barely intelligible to those who know little of his youth. Even in his own time he was widely misunderstood, often by people who, like Dizzy Gillespie, should have known better.” In other words, don’t leap to judgement until you know the full story – or at least, enough of the story to put Louis into his proper context.

Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans on 4 August 1901, at the absolute bottom of the US socio-economic pile. He was black, his mother was an alcoholic and an occasional prostitute and his father deserted the family before he was born. He seemed destined for a life of poverty and petty crime until a Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, took him under their wing and encouraged his musical talent (including lending him the money for his first cornet). Louis never forgot them and wore a Star of David under his shirt for the rest of his life. That early experience also seems to have conditioned his approach to the race question. He was proud of his Afro-American roots but never a seperatist. He almost always had at least one or two whites in his All Stars – a policy that his manager Joe Glaser encouraged for commercial reasons but that Armstrong believed in as a matter of principle. His closest musical friend was the white trombonist Jack Teagarden, to whom he (allegedly) said on their first encounter, “I’m a spade and you’re an ofay. We got the same soul – so let’s blow.”

Armstrong is, simultaneously, by far the best known figure in jazz and one of the most underrated. The reasons for this have little to do with music and everything to do with image, perception and ideology. Most of today’s jazz fans (despite the sterling efforts of Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch and others) know little of Armstrong and see him as an avuncular buffoon singing lightweight pop songs in a gravel voice. He’s not considered a real jazz musician like, say, John Coltrane or the oh-so-cool Miles Davis. And then there’s that “Uncle Tom” tag. We’ll come to that in a moment.

What is all too easily forgotten in any discussion about Armstrong is the simple fact that he was the single most revolutionary exponent of the most revolutionary music of the Twentieth Century. Long before he became the jovial entertainer the world remembers, he almost single-handedly created jazz as we know it today.

Anyone who doubts this should listen to Armstrong’s first recordings, made with his mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver’s band in 1923: Olver and the others chug along in the staccato semi-ragtime rhythm that characterised early jazz. Armstrong (playing second cornet to Oliver) uses triplet-based quarter and eighth notes, riding on a 4/4 beat that only existed inside his head. It was the rhythm that that twelve-to-fifteen years later would be called “swing” and make Benny Goodman, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller and a lot of other (mainly white) bandleaders rich and famous. That rhythm, together with the concept of the virtuoso solo, improvised over the chords of the tune, which Armstrong also pioneered, was the springboard for Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and most of what followed in in jazz, up to this very day.

It is of course true that had Armstrong never been born, someone else would have made these musical breakthroughs sooner or later – they were almost necessities waiting to happen. Phillip Larkin (an unstinting Armstrong fan)  oversimplified matters, but had a point when he wrote that Armstrong “simply did what everyone else was doing (but) twenty times better.” We know that Armstrong’s New Orleans contemporary, the clarinet and soprano sax virtuoso Sidney Bechet, was playing along similar lines in the early twenties, with a power and imagination that came close to matching Louis’s. But Bechet was a (literally) wayward character who spent a lot of time travelling in Europe while the epicentre of jazz was the US and, incresingly, New York. He lacked Louis’s personal warmth and although he recorded quite extensively, he didn’t achieve widespread public recognition until he settled in France in the 1950′s where he became something of a folk-hero in his final years.

To understand Armstrong, the man and the performer, you have to understand something of the society he was born into. New Orleans at the turn of the century was a hotbed of vice and violence. It was also, in comparison to the rest of the USA, relatively tolerant in racial, social and cultural matters. The French had founded the city and brought with them a tradition of opera, symphony, dances and parties. This had melded with the work-songs and “shouts” of the black slaves. As a result New Orleans was, as far as can be judged, the birthplace of jazz. The city’s mixed-race “creoles” constituted the vast majority of early jazz musicians of note. It is a myth that early jazz was the preserve of Afro-American “negroes”. In fact creole musicians emphasised their French and/or Spanish heritage and tended to be quite disparaging towards negroes like Armstrong and Oliver.

On New Year’s Eve of 1912 Armstrong was arrested for some high-jinks with a pistol and sent to the “Colored Waif’s Home” – a borstal, albeit a relatively enlightened one for its time. In fact, Louis often stated that being sent there was the single best thing that ever happened to him, mainly because the Home had a band and he soon became lead cornet in it. Years later, in the 1930′s, Louis revisited the place, found his old room and immediately snuggled down on the bunk.

From the Waif’s Home Armstrong went on to become second cornet with King Oliver in Chicago (jazz followed the black migration to the new industries up there), star trumpet soloist with Fletcher Henderson’s sophisticated big band in New York, and then to make the legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings with his old New Orleans confrères Kid Ory (trombone) and Johnny Dodds (clarinet). Listening to the Hot Fives (recorded between November 1925 and December 1927) is an education in personal development: Armstrong soon outstrips and overwhelms his old comrades, making their contributions sound anachronistic, stilted, and generally surplus to requirements.

By the early 1930′s Armstrong was an international star and one of the first black American entertainers to tour Europe; Paul Robeson and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (a big influence on Armstrong) were the only others. At this point a big contradiction becomes apparent: Louis’s stage persona was by then that of an extrovert, exuberant virtuoso. Personally, he was completely insecure (remember that visit to the Waif’s Home), always in need of a tough guy (like the ex-Capone man Joe Glaser) or strong woman (notably second wife Lil and final wife Lucille) to look after him. And even after all the plaudits and awards, he desperately needed the approval of an audience. After the last performance of his life (undertaken against medical advice), he watched a TV review of the show in his hotel room and was devasted by the slating he received; he turned to Joe Glaser with tears in his eyes and asked: “You’ll still book me, Joe?”

Louis ‘mugged’ and played the harmless black minstrel to white audiences throughout his life. Younger black musicians and performers accused him of being an Uncle Tom and there was a tiny grain of truth to the charge. Billie Holiday famously said (affectionately) “Louis toms from the heart” and Sammy Davis Jr. (less affectionately) denounced him for being willing to play for segregated audiences. Terry Teachout comments, “Sammy Davis, after all, had a point: the All Stars did play for segregated audiences, and Armstrong never complained to Glaser about it. ‘I never question owners of dance halls or my manager about the racial patterns of places I am contracted to play… I have been with Joe Glaser too many years to worry about where I play and for whom,’ he had told a reporter for the Courier  in 1956. Nor would he ever take part in civil-rights demonstrations.’My life is music,’ he explained to a reporter. ‘They would beat me in the mouth if I marched, and without my mouth I wouldn’t be able to blow my horn…”

But there was one occasion when even the apolitical Armstrong was unable to contain his inner rage in the face of racism: in 1957, three years after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision required public schools to de-segregate and allow black puils to enroll. But in Little Rock, Arkansas, Governor Orval Faubus openly defied the court’s decison and the Federal Government, ordering the state’s National Guard to join with a mob of howling bigots outside the city’s Central High School to intimidate and obstruct nine black children who were trying to enroll.  Louis, on tour as usual, watched these scenes on his hotel televison shortly before he was interviewd by a cub reporter from a local paper. When the subject of Little Rock came up Louis exploded with rage, calling Faubus a “no good motherfucker” (later changed to “uneducated plowboy”) and denouncing President Eisenhower as “two faced” with “no guts.” He continued: “The way they’re treating my people in the South the government can go to hell,” and vowed that he would not agree to tour the Soviet Union for the State Department, calling Secretary of State Dulles “another motherfucker.” The young reporter had the scoop of a lifetime and Associated Press put the story on the wires.

Eisenhower later sent the army into Little Rock to enforce de-segregation and ensure the Nine were admitted to the school. Whether or not Armstrong’s intervention was a decisive factor in forcing Eisenhower’s hand is still a matter of debate, but the fact that a much-loved and generally apolitical figure had spoken out so strongly must surely have had some effect.

But this was an uncharateristic moment. Louis was not a political person and certainly no black militant. His background and natural inclinations made him an instinctive integrationist. And he generally let his music speak for itself, as when he sang “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen” on the Ed Sullivan Show during the Montgomery bus boycott or performed “You’ll Never Walk Alone” with the All Stars for a segregated black audience in Savannah, Georgia.

Louis’s sheer humanity is summed up by the New Orleans guitarist Danny Barker (quoted in James Lincoln Collier’s 1983 biography ‘Louis Armstrong – An American Genius’), describing Louis on tour, in the dressing room:

“…He be sittin’ down in his underwear with a towel around his lap, one around his shoulders an’ that white hankerchief on his head, and he’d put that grease around his lips. Look like a minstrel man, ya know…an’ laughin’ you know natural the way he is. And in the room ya see, maybe two nuns. You see a street walker dressed all up in flaming clothes. You see a guy come out of the penitentiary. Ya see maybe a blind man sitting there. You see a rabbi, ya see a priest, see. Liable to see maybe two policemen or detectives, see. You see a judge. All of ‘em different levels of society in the dressin’ room and he’s talking to all of ‘em. ‘Sister So and So, do you know Slick Sam over there? This is Slick Sam, an ole friend of mine.’ Now the nun’s going to meet Slick Sam. Ole Notorious, been in nine penetentiaries. ‘Slick Sam, meet Rabbi Goldstein over there, he’s a friend of mine, rabbi good man, religious man. Sister Margaret, do you know Rabbi Goldstein? Amelia, this is Rosie, good time Rosie, girl used to work a show with me years ago. Good girl, she’s a great performer. Never got the breaks.’ Always a word of encouragement, see. And there’d be some kids there, white and colored. All the diverse people of different social levels…an’ everybody’s looking. Got their eyes dead on him, jus’ like they was lookin’ at a diamond.”

NB: Check out Ricky Riccardi’s ‘Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong’: a fantastic resource for interviews, music and videos:

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