Louis Armstrong: simply the best

August 4, 2017 at 9:10 am (civil rights, culture, good people, jazz, Jim D, modernism, music, New Orleans, Sheer joy, United States)

Louis Armstrong: born August 4 1901, died July 6 1971


Above: possibly his greatest recording, West End Blues (1928). For a detailed analysis, read what the of the Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum (in Queens, New York), Ricky Riccardi, wrote, here.

Louis Armstrong never knew the date of his birthday. As Terry Teachout writes in his excellent biography Pops – A Life Of Louis Armstrong (2009):

‘Until the day he died, Louis Armstrong claimed that he was born on July 4, 1900. He said so in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans and Swing That Music, his two published memoirs, and on innumerable other occasions, and although at least one biographer found the date too pat to be plausible, it was only in 1988 that a researcher located an entry in latin for “Armstrong (niger, illegitimus)” in the handwritten baptismal register of New Orleans’s Sacred Heart of Jesus Church. According to that record, Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, the natural son of William Armstrong (known as Willie), who spent most of his adult life working in a turpentine factory, and Mary Ann Albert (known as Mayann, though her son spelled it different ways over the years), a fifteen-year-old country girl who came to New Orleans to work as a household servant.’

What was never in doubt is the simple fact that Louis was born  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 straightfact 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.”

Permalink Leave a Comment

A musical interlude from Miss Lee Wiley

April 14, 2017 at 12:07 pm (jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy, song, United States)

Just in case anyone wondered where I’ve been this week, here’s a favourite singer with a clue:

Permalink 5 Comments

Happy birthday, Dick Hyman

March 10, 2017 at 5:53 pm (good people, jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy)

A slightly belated happy 90th birthday to piano and keyboard wizard Dick Hyman, born in New York on 8 March 1927.

Dick is still gigging and still wowing audiences with his wondrous technique and versatility. He’s as comfortable paying tribute to Jelly Roll Morton as he is playing  Art Tatum-style arpeggios or exploring the experiments of Cecil Taylor. In the course of an amazing career, he’s worked with (amongst many others) Benny Goodman, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker, Pee Wee Erwin, Ruby Braff and Soprano Summit/Summit Re-union. In the 50s he even made some commercial honky-tonk records under the name of ‘Knuckles O’Toole.’

Click on the Youtube clip above for a master-class recorded in 2014, in which Dick gives that good ol’ broad Georgia Brown a new lease of life.

Permalink 3 Comments

Prince Buster: farewell to a legend

September 10, 2016 at 9:52 am (black culture, Jamaica, Jim D, music, Sheer joy)

Cecil Bustamente Campbell: musician, producer and originator of Ska. Born 24 May 1938; died 8 September 2016


One Step Beyond … and memories of my party-going days …

RIP Prince Buster

Permalink Leave a Comment

Happy birthday, Fats!

May 21, 2016 at 1:54 pm (black culture, cinema, jazz, posted by JD, Sheer joy, song)

Things have been a bit depressing for many of us lately, so let me bring a little bit of joy into your lives, courtesy Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller, who was born this day in New York, 1904.

Here is the “Harmful Little Armful” himself in the 1943 film Stormy Weather, also featuring drummer Zutty Singleton, bassist Slam Stewart, Benny Carter on trumpet, Lena Horne and dancer Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.

Fats died shortly after this was filmed, but you’d never for a moment guess that from the sheer joie de vivre of this performance of his own most famous tune:

Permalink Leave a Comment

Khan victory in London brings horrible prospect of Kate Hopkins and sausage

May 7, 2016 at 2:57 pm (labour party, London, posted by JD, Racism, reblogged, reformism, secularism, Sheer joy)

I can’t improve on Comrade Coatesy’s coverage of this superb result:

Sausage Identical to the one said to be on Way to Kate Hopkins’s Bum.

It was a joy to see Sadiq Khan won the London Mayor election.

For readers not in the UK (roughly half those reading this blog) this is a report,

Sadiq Khan became the first Muslim mayor of London in the early hours of Saturday after a bitter campaign marred by accusations of dog whistle racism on the part of his rival, the millionaire environmentalist Zac Goldsmith.

The Labour MP for Tooting in south London finished comfortably ahead of his Conservative rival whose camp accused Khan of “pandering to extremists” and tried to depict him as a Jeremy Corbyn loyalist who planned to use the capital for a “dangerous experiment”.

In his victory speech, Khan said he was “humbled” to be elected. In sharp remarks, he directly addressed Goldsmith’s campaign saying that he was proud “that London has today chosen hope over fear and unity over division”.

He added: “I hope that we will never be offered such a stark choice again. Fear does not make us safer, it only makes it weaker – and the politics of fear is simply not welcome in our city. I promise to always be a mayor for all Londoners, to work hard to make life better for every Londoner regardless of your background.

“I have a burning ambition for London. I want every single Londoner to get the opportunities that our city gave to me and my family.”

Referring to his late father, who came to London from Pakistan, Khan said he would have been proud “that the city he chose to call his own had now chosen one of his children to be mayor”.

Guardian.

Owen Jones notes,

Forgive and forget Zac Goldsmith’s racist campaign? No chance

Zac Goldsmith has lost, his reputation ruined, a political disgrace consigned to the history books. He had a choice. He could have capitalised on his reputation as a liberally minded, eco-friendly Tory, crossing partisan divides, love-bombing a city that has increasingly become a Labour heartland. Initial polls suggested he had a chance, even a significant lead. The cheerleaders for Tessa Jowell, the Blairite candidate in Labour’s selection race, wrongly suggested Sadiq Khan was unelectable.

Instead, Goldsmith waged a campaign soaked in racism, in one of the most ethnically diverse cities on Earth, shamelessly exploiting anti-Muslim prejudices in an effort to secure a shameful victory. Khan was a candidate who “repeatedly legitimised those with extremist views”, he wrote in the Mail. London was offered a campaign of fear, smear and bigotry. And London overwhelmingly told it where to go.

A more detailed analysis of the national results will follow, though it is clear that attempts to drive Labour down to the ground have not born fruit.

For the moment we note that critics of Jeremy Corbyn claim any successes as their own work, and any set backs as his.

This is one reaction from a leading British commentator after, on Wednesday she tweeted:

French co-thinkers of Hopkins yet to react: Two Hours of a Muslim London Mayor and Daesh have not yet blown up Big Ben.

Then there is this, from the Weekly Worker, no doubt endorsed (?) by the ‘Labour Party Marxists’.

Both of them.

Vote Galloway

The Provisional Central Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain, meeting on May 1, agreed to call for a vote for George Galloway (first preference) in the London mayoral election and Sadiq Khan (second preference).

We call for a first-preference vote for George Galloway in spite of his notorious alliances with the Iranian regime, with Ba’athists and other oppressors in the Middle East, and in spite of the political differences for which we have repeatedly criticised him.

We do so because the witch-hunt around allegations of ‘anti-Semitism’ currently being conducted by the Labour right and the mass media is an attempt to smear any opposition to US policy in the Middle East as racist, and is part of a class struggle conducted by the capitalist class to recover full control of the Labour Party by its paid agents.

Sadiq Khan has come onside for capital in this witch-hunt; Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have collapsed in the face of it. In contrast, George Galloway has responded robustly and broadly correctly. In this context a first-preference vote for Galloway is a useful, if limited, protest against the witch-hunt.

It is not yet known how the ‘Provisional Central Committee’ will react to the results, including Galloway’s 1.4%  (Wikipedia):

Mayor of London election 5 May 2016 [183]
Party Candidate 1st Round  % 2nd Round Total  First Round Votes  Transfer Votes
Labour Sadiq Khan 1,148,716 44.2% 388,090 1,536,806
Conservative Zac Goldsmith 909,755 35.0% 250,214 1,159,969
Green Siân Berry 150,673 5.8% 468,318 618,991
Liberal Democrat Caroline Pidgeon 120,005 4.6% 335,931 455,936
UKIP Peter Whittle 94,373 3.6% 223,253 317,626
Women’s Equality Sophie Walker 53,055 2.0% 198,720 251,775
Respect George Galloway 37,007 1.4% 117,080 154,087
Britain First Paul Golding 31,372 1.2% 73,883 105,255
CISTA Lee Harris 20,537 0.8% 67,495 88,032
BNP David Furness 13,325 0.5% 36,168 49,493
Independent Prince Zylinski 13,202 0.5% 24,646 37,848
One Love Ankit Love 4,941 0.2% 28,920 33,861
Labour gain from Conservative

Permalink 5 Comments

Spring Is Here: Kenny Dorham

March 20, 2016 at 11:34 am (jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy, song)

The ONLY song for today. Dorham (1924 – ’72) was a somewhat neglected figure, whose misfortune was to have emerged just as Gillespie, Brown and Davis were stealing the scene. But on a good day (as here) he was their equal. A lovely version of a great song:

Permalink Leave a Comment

Saturated Fats for Christmas

December 24, 2015 at 6:19 pm (Christmas, jazz, Jim D, music, Sheer joy, whisky, wild man)

My favourite Christmas record:

Fats and the boys recorded this in Chicago on November 29 1936: they’d obviously begun celebrating a wee bit early.

Best wishes to all readers.

Normal service here at Shiraz will be resumed shortly.

Permalink 1 Comment

Billie Holiday, born April 7 1915, died July 17 1959

April 6, 2015 at 2:04 pm (civil rights, culture, history, jazz, Jim D, music, protest, Racism, Sheer joy, song, Soul, The blues, truth)

The woman who was simply the greatest singer in the entire history of jazz was born 100 years ago. Apart from her extraordinary voice (limited but highly expressive), she tends to be remembered for her “tragic” life, bad choices in lovers and her clashes with the authorities (she was even arrested on narcotics charges as she lay dying in hospital).

She made an extraordinary impression on all who met her, or even just heard her records. The British jazz critic Max Jones who met her and got to know her when she visited Britain in 1954 and then just before her death in 1959, is typical:

“Soon reports were coming in regularly of her deteriorating condition. At the end of May she collapsed and was taken to hospital, suffering from liver and heart complaints.

“Still harried by the authorities, she died in degrading circumstances at 3 a.m. on 17 July 1959, with 70 cents in the bank and 750 dollars in large notes strapped to her leg. She was, by her reckoning, only 44 years old. And I was halfway through a letter to her when friends telephoned to say she was dead. Though half expecting it, I was devastated by the news.

“But still, we have those many lovely or disturbing recorded performances. They will be a pleasure to my ears for the rest of my life and those of future generations for all time, I guess.” 

The actor, Billy Crystal  (who, it turns out, is the nephew of Commodore Records’ Milt Gabler, who recorded Billie singing ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939), still remembers her.

Billie is well represented on Youtube, including her incredibly moving 1957 TV recording of ‘Fine and Mellow’ , a reunion with her old (platonic) friend and confidant Lester Young, after some years of estrangement. Then there’s the cry of pain and protest that is ‘Strange Fruit.’

But I prefer to remember the young, joyous and careless Billie of the mid-to-late 1930’s, as can be heard on this little gem from 1936 (below):

Billie even (playfully) puts drummer Cozy Cole in his place in the opening banter. Bunny Berigan on trumpet, Artie Shaw on clarinet.

Permalink 6 Comments

Louis Armstrong at Mardi Gras: ‘Jubilee’

February 16, 2015 at 9:49 pm (film, jerk, Jim D, music, New Orleans, Sheer joy)

Tuesday February 17 is Mardi Gras and here’s some appropriate music to honour New Orleans (which deserves honouring as it heroically recovers from Katrina):

Louis Armstrong plays Hoagy Carmichael’s tune ‘Jubilee’, first of all at the head of a parade (admittedly, not a New Orleans parade) in the 1937 Mae West film Every Day’s A Holiday:

… and then on the famous January 1938 recording:

This also gives me an excuse to bring you the late Richard M. Sudhalter’s marvellous, descriptive, jazz writing (from his 2003 book Stardust Melody: The Life of Hoagy Carmichael):

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 to the heavens and, lofted atop 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 into 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 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.”  

Permalink Leave a Comment

Next page »