April 15, 2003


Satchuated: Running Down the Rabbit Hole at the Louis Armstrong Archive (Gary Giddins, April 16 - 22, 2003, Village Voice)
Years ago, watching a clip of bungee jumpers, I thought, It's just like writing a biography--the long drop into the abyss, then the sudden jerk of salvation. Later I realized that was wishful thinking. There is no jerk, except yourself, plunging into the depthless mire of research, until finally you are obliged to concede, "Hold, enough!" However many bones you unearth, you know there are more, buried a little deeper. And when the boneyard is truly bare, bones already baking in the sun will be endlessly re-excavated. Otherwise there wouldn't be hundreds of biographies of Alexander, Napoleon, and Lincoln, each presuming to varnish or grind into dust its predecessors. I have never attempted a full-dress biography of Louis Armstrong, but I have written a short life and several essays, enough to have felt some confidence in understanding him, his genius, and his times. Yet seconds after curator Michael Cogswell ushered me into the Louis Armstrong House & Archives for a recent visit, I felt I was plunging down the rabbit hole.

In the short time I spent there, examining maybe .05 percent of the holdings, I found no new information. But facts and factoids have limited appeal. What you really hope for is a better purchase on the man, a jarring of the imagination that enables you to see what you already know in a clearer light. A few steps into the archive I was stopped dead by a pasteboard blowup of a photograph that had never been published, showing Armstrong and his adopted son, "Clarence Hatfield." I had never given Clarence much thought, having heard he was mentally retarded and died a long time ago, hidden away.

But here he was: beaming backstage at the Band Box, a club in Chicago, in the 1940s, nattily dressed in a double-breasted suit not unlike the pinstripe tailored for Armstrong, who also beams, with unmistakable paternal pride. Clarence and their relationship sprang to life, sending me back to Armstrong's account in Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, to appreciate for the first time its affectionate candor regarding his only venture into paternity. Clarence was born in 1915 to Louis's teenage cousin, Flora, apparently after she was molested by an old white man her father felt powerless to challenge. Louis's first sight of the baby washed "all the gloom out of me." He took it upon himself, at 14, to get a job hauling coal (immortalized in the 1925 "Coal Cart Blues") to support the baby and the ailing mother, and assumed full responsibility after Flora's death, marrying his first wife and adopting the three-year-old at 17. In that period, Clarence fell off a porch and landed on his head; doctors judged him to be mentally impaired. When Louis married Lil Hardin in Chicago, Clarence joined them, and Louis never forgave Lil--who claimed that Clarence was never legally adopted--for her impatience with him. When he left Lil for Alpha, he brought Clarence along.

Eventually, Clarence was set up in the Bronx, where he was married in an arrangement of convenience financed by Louis. Clarence's surname is something of a mystery. According to Armstrong's friend, photographer Jack Bradley, he was listed in the phone book as Clarence Hatfield--but this may have been an expediency to keep nosy fans and biographers at a distance. Before Flora died, she evidently anticipated Louis's involvement and renamed her son Clarence Armstrong. He lived a full life, dying in August 1998, and endures in Armstrong's memoir as the happy athletic boy everyone called, much to Louis's pleasure, "Little Louis Armstrong." You feel his attachment in the photograph; had I seen it 15 years ago, I would have made every attempt to find and interview "Hatfield."

Other photos are no less revealing.

By the time most of us were old enough to be conscious of him, Louis Armstrong seemed like something of a novelty act--his nickname Satchmo, dangerously close to the derogatory Sambo, his act consisting of singing hokey tunes Hello, Dolly, Mack, the Knife, and What a Wonderful World. Now, his personality was so dynamic, and obviously came across better while singing than blowing, that you can almost forgive various variety shows of the day for having him croon instead of play. But if you didn't know better, you'd have had no idea that he was a seminal jazz trumpet player and every bit as important a figure in the history of desegregation as Jackie Robinson. The latter was a function not just of the industries and venues that men like Robinson, Armstrong, Sidney Poitier, and others integrated, but of their becoming heroes to generations of young Americans of all races. In some sense, one of the first step towards making America a color blind society was to make young whites want to grow up to be like black heroes. As for his trumpet playing, check out his Hot Fives & Sevens and this companion site to Ken Burns' Jazz.
Posted by Orrin Judd at April 15, 2003 4:58 PM

Armstrong may be the single most important figure in the history of American popular music. As an instrumentalist, generally, he essentially invented the concept of "swing," solidified the 12 bar blues as the primary basis for jazz (and later rock), and was the first to reach across the typical blues and "stomp" tunes of the day to bring Tin Pan Alley pop songs into jazz. As a trumpet player specifically, he was a thrilling performer, who's records from almost 80 years ago are still required study for all horn players. As a singer, he was the prime influence on Bing Crosby, who begat Sinatra, etc....(even Elvis listened to Crosby and Sinatra and Dean Martin).

His opening cadenza on "West End Blues" and his duet with Earl Hines on "Weatherbird" (both about 75 years old) remain pinnacles of improvisation and sound incredibly fresh and modern.

Posted by: Foos at April 16, 2003 10:41 AM