July 5, 2015


Born On The Fourth Of July: How Louis Armstrong Taught Us to Swing (Nat Hentoff, 7/04/15, Daily Beast)

There has been no jazz musician so widely, deeply, durably influential as Louis. And no trumpet player who could do all he could do on the horn. Once, Louis told journalist Gilbert Millstein, "I'm playin' a date in Florida, livin' in the colored section and I'm playin' my horn for myself one afternoon. A knock come on the door and there's an old, gray-haired flute player from the Philadelphia Orchestra, down there for his health. Walking through that neighborhood, he heard this horn, playing Cavalleria Rusticana, which he said he never heard phrased like that before. To him it was as if an orchestra was behind it." 
And that reminded me of what happened one night in the early '30s, when a delegation of top brass from the Boston Symphony Orchestra--all of them unfamiliar with jazz but brought there by rumor of genius--stood in Louis Armstrong's dressing room and asked him to play a passage they had heard in his act. Louis picked up his horn and obliged, performing the requested passage and then improvising a dazzling stream of variations.

Shaking their heads, these "legitimate" trumpet players left the room, one of them saying, "I watched his fingers and I still don't know how he does it. I also don't know how it is that, playing there all by himself, he sounded as if a whole orchestra were behind him. I never heard a musician like this, and I thought he was just a colored entertainer." [...]

Before Louis Armstrong came to his blazing maturity in the '20s there had, of course, been other notable jazz soloists. Some, like Buddy Bolden in New Orleans, are forever misted in legend because they never recorded. Others, like King Joe Oliver and players in Chicago, New York, and then Southwest were often forcefully, pungently distinctive. But none had the sweep, the extended melodic imagination, and the rhythmic inventiveness of Louis. None could make simplicity so profound or high-register fireworks so dramatically cohesive. And none, above all, had ever before so dominated the jazz ensemble, whether small combo or big band. The first fully liberated jazz soloist, Armstrong hugely influenced soloists on all instruments, and he helped free all who followed. They were still part of a collectively swinging group, but they had a lot more space in which to stretch out for themselves.

Gunther Schuller, an instrumentalist and a composer, emphasized in Early Jazz the four salient elements which set Louis apart from all the jazz musicians who had preceded him: "... (1) his superior choice of notes and the resultant shape of his lines; (2) his incomparable basic quality of tone; (3) his equally incomparable sense of swing, that is, the sureness with which notes are placed in the time continuum and the remarkably varied attack and release properties of his phrasing; (4) and, perhaps his most individualistic contribution, the subtly varied repertory of vibratos and shakes with which Armstrong colors and embellishes individual notes. The importance of the last fact cannot be emphasized enough, since it gives an Armstrong solo that peculiar sense of inner drive and forward momentum. Armstrong was incapable of not swinging."

Back in New Orleans, when he was still a boy--who had learned to play trumpet in a waifs' home where he had been sequestered for celebrating New Year's Eve by shooting off a gun--Louis had already shown unmistakable signs that he was becoming a soloist unlike any New Orleans had ever heard or even imagined. Trumpeter Mutt Carey, known as the "Blues King of New Orleans" when Louis was a lad, once let the teenager take his chair in Kid Ory's band, one of the city's most crisply proficient combos.

"That Louis," Carey recalled, "played more blues than I ever heard in my life. It never had struck my mind the blues could be interpreted so many different ways. Every time he played a chorus it was different, and yet you knew it was the blues." [...]

It also took a lot of self-fortification for Louis to keep on coping with the Jim Crow that was an obbligato to his life. For many, many years, famed as he was in Europe, when he'd go on the road in his own country, only certain places, black places, would house and feed Louis and his band. All black jazz musicians, no matter how lauded for their contributions to America's "indigenous art form," were pariahs on the road until comparatively recent times. A member of the Count Basie band, which had just come off the road in the early '50s, told me: "Can you imagine what it feels like to begin pulling up to a gas station and see the attendant running like the hell to lock the men's room. No, you can't imagine it."

Posted by at July 5, 2015 6:46 AM

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