Pops, At 100 -- A Birthday Primer

Pops, at 100 -- A Birthday Primer

by Howard Mandel
copyright © 2000 Howard Mandel

Louis Armstrong is the best-recognized and most beloved American, worldwide. Yet at home, with dozens of events celebrating his 100th birthday over his past protracted Centennial year -- we're not even now, maybe, coming to understand him.

Armstrong's image is indelible, but complex. His story has the dimensions of myth and details of modest, commonplace scale. Just consider the question of his birth date. Armstrong always claimed it was the 4th of July -- American Independence Day -- in 1900. But 12 years after his death in 1971, documents were found proving he was born August 4, 1901. Record-keeping was lax back then, and Armstrong devotees regard the 4th of July as symbolically appropriate for the start of something big and American, like jazz. So Armstrong's centennial celebration kicked off last July 4, '00 and will officially end in August 01, 13 months later. Why should it end at all? It is wonderful, hearing so much Satchmo.

New York City's Jazz at Lincoln Center, with extraordinary trumpeter Wynton Marsalis as its artistic director, is honoring Armstrong through its entire 2001 schedule of jazz orchestra and smaller ensemble concerts, concerts, lectures, workshops, etc. The Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, directed by equally virtuosic trumpeter Jon Faddis, has competitive plans -- and one of the sidenote highlights so far was hearing him demonstrate Armstrong's indelible cadenza opening "West End Blues" at a lecture by Dan Morgenstern, presented under the auspicies of Robert O'Meally's Columbia University Jazz Studies center.

Beyond New York, the Jazz Institute of Chicago commissioned a riotous, avant gutbucket big band Armstrong tribute from the Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Lester Bowie, who was able to perform it shortly before his death in November 1999. The San Francisco Jazz Festival, and several other presenters, have screened programs of Armstrong's nearly three dozen film appearances, which include segments from Betty Boop cartoons and full-length features like New Orleans with Billie Holiday, High Society with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, The Five Pennies with Danny Kaye, Paris Blues with Duke Ellington, A Man Called Adam with Sammy Davis Jr. and of course with Barbra Streisand in Hello Dolly.

Of course, record companies have scrambled to release elegant new editions of Armstrong's classic recordings. Among Armstrong rarities being reintroduced are his one recording session with Duke Ellington, The Great Summit (Roulette Jazz), and journalist Edward R. Murrow's adoring radio portrait Satchmo The Great, (Columbia Legacy), portraying the trumpeter with his band on-location and in concert in England and Africa in the 1950s.

Louis Armstrong: In His Own Words (edited by Thomas Borthers, published by Oxford University Press), collects pages from what Armstrong called his "typewriting hobby." Armstrong wrote all his life, and published two autobiographies besides producing one manuscript that was held back, apparently by his own manager, as too candid about issues of race, crime and his experience. He also tape-recorded conversations, rehearsals and personal musings for many decades. These holdings are open to the public as well as scholars at the Louis Armstrong House and Archives, in the home he and his fourth wife, Lucille, kept for 30 years in a quiet middle-class New York City community. Armstrong House has a website, www.satchmo.net, and an unmatched collection of Armstrong's memorabilia -- sheet music, instruments, personal affects such as his white handkerchiefs, and packages of his prized commercial laxative, Swiss Kriss. The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, started in 1969, supports the Armstrong Archives as well as public school music ed programs, ASCAP seminars, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture collections, and music therapy at the pediatric center of Beth Israel Hospital.

Armstrong is also celebrated in the archival video biography threading through the 10 episodes of Ken Burns' Jazz, an 19-hour documentary that makes him the epic hero of the social history of the U.S. in the 20th Century. Burns, whose previous long-form video subjects include the American Civil War and baseball, flatly calls Armstrong "the most important figure in jazz." This is a long way from Louis Daniel Armstrong's humble origins.

Abandoned by his father in infancy, "Little Louis" (pronounced either "Louie" or "Lewis") grew up in one poor room with his beloved mother and sister, and sometimes a stepfather. As a child, he sold chunks of coal to prostitutes to use to heat their rooms, and was employed, fed, sung to and mentored by an industrious Russian-Jewish immigrant family, who lent him money to buy a trumpet he spied in a pawnshop window.

Cops caught little Louis shooting off a gun on New Year's Eve 1914. He was sentenced next day to two years incarceration in the city's Colored Waif's Home (orphanage), where under the tutelage of a seasoned band director, he became the Home's little band leader, cheered when they went on parade. Armstrong learned the dirges of traditional New Orleans funerals and the festive, syncopated "Didn't He Ramble" for mourners to shake off their sorrows on the way back from the graveyards. He followed the early jazz men, especially Joe "King" Oliver, who gave Armstrong his big break, beckoning him to Chicago to work as second trumpet in his band. Armstrong quickly became talk of the town. He was second to no one.

Armstrong always had charm, hope, personality and authenticity -- it's in his face, his horn, his voice, from early days to old age. "With Louis, what you see is what you get," his friends remember. Photographed a million times from his professional emergence as musician in 1917 to his very last days, his face is as famous as Washington's, Lincoln's, Muhammad Ali's, Elvis Presley's or Marilyn Monroe's. Armstrong might sometimes be caught dark, brooding or tired, but he's typically beaming, hip and happy. His brow is broad, his eyes wide with merriment or scrunched shut tight in glee. His skin is deep brown, and his cheeks are lit by his infectious grin and serious, thick lips. "Chops," he called those lips. His mouth earned him the nicknames "Dipper" (as for a ladle) and "Satchelmouth" (as for an open bag), shortened to "Satchmo."

Armstrong's mouth in photos is often pressed to his trumpet. Ah! Armstrong's trumpet! Unmistakable, a golden clarion awakening people to life, calling us to our senses. His notes are juicy, tumbling forth in abundance. His strong, swift melodies have the flourish of street parades, the buzz of commerce, the soul of spirituals, the inner strength of work and slave songs, the grandeur of popular operatic arias, the passions of the salon and the saloon. Armstrong's musical career paralleled the invention of broadcast and recording technology, so his music was well-documented. The crown jewel of current Armstrong reissues is Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Fives and Hot 7s (Columbia Legacy), a four CD set including his breakthroughs "Cornet Chop Suey," "West End Blues," "Weather Bird (Rag)," "Potato Head Blues" and "Tight Like That" among 80 tracks recorded from 1925 to 1929.

Seventy years old, these recordings are still fresh air: Armstrong's energy is so contagious you can't help but smile and swing with it. He won over kings of Europe with that energy, as well as tough black audiences, U.S. presidents and gangsters in New Orleans, Chicago and Harlem. He enraptured musicians, especially, resulting 70 years ago in a fiery new music called jazz. When musicians confront Armstrong now -- as Wynton Marsalis did, leading his Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra in recreations of Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven tunes for a "Great Performances" concert televised throughout the U.S. last December 13 -- they tend to play more brilliantly than they've dared to before.

As trumpeters, Marsalis, Jon Faddis, Nicholas Payton and Warren Vache -- today's stars -- are very much in Armstrong's thrall, and so were heroes of yesterday including Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Don Cherry and Miles Davis. So are alternative heroes, like Lester Bowie, Hugh Ragin, Steve Bernstein, Dave Douglas, Roy Campell. And not only trumpeters are influenced by him, but everyone. Armstrong, as an improvising instrumentalist, looms over all jazz and creative musicians, including vocalists. His voice may be his most immediately unmistakable property. It is an unforgettable rough, rich groan, a medium of expession with extraordinary texture and sibilance, suppleness and joy.

Armstrong used his voice like his trumpet to tell stories of hot times, high times and making the best of troubles at all times. He sang with commitment, secure in his rhythmic delivery and phrasing. He was a great interpreter, and maybe a great actor; he could make difficult lyrics and childish ones sound natural. So Armstrong popularized America's hits from the Roaring '20s through the Great Depression, World War II, the Eisenhower Era, the Civil Rights struggle and the war in Viet Nam. He was the man who sang "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Stardust," as well as "C'est Si Bon," "Mack the Knife," "Hello Dolly," "What a Wonderful World," and themes from Walt Disney movies including "Chim Chim Cher-ee."

Armstrong recorded indelible renditions of Fats Waller and W.C. Handy songs, Gershwin's Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald, and The Real Ambassadors, a cold war satire by Iola and Dave Brubeck, with Carmen McRae and Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. In the '20s and '30s, Armstrong collaborated with Bessie Smith, the Mills Brothers, country music's Jimmy Rodgers, rhythm 'n' blues progenitor Louis Jordan, and many others. His singing had major influence on post-World War II vocalists starting with Sinatra, Ray Charles and Bobby Darin, extending to Betty Carter, Aretha Franklin and La Streisand.

Everybody loved Louis, though during the '50s and '60s some self-righteous critics began to write him off as a corny old guy, a worn out figure of the old school, or worse. He was considered, by pseudo-sophisticates, an embarrassment, what they called an Uncle Tom: a black man obsequious and self-demeaning in the face of white society, wearing a clownish mask rather than demanding his respect and rights.

Armstrong was no political militant, but he was politically aware and committed to racial tolerance. He sang the ironic and poignant "What Did I Do To Be So Black and Blue?" for decades, and was admired for welcoming white trombonist Jack Teagarden to a jam session with friendly racial vulgarities: "You're an ofay, I'm a spade -- let's blow!"

In the '50s, Armstrong publically criticized Dwight D. Eisenhower, the President of the United States, for inadequately protecting black children trying to integrate white schools in segregated southern states. Attacked for speaking out, Armstrong cancelled his U.S. State Department tour of the Soviet Union. "The people over there ask me what's wrong in my country," Armstrong grumbled. "What am I supposed to say?"

Armstrong was a world-class democrat. Asked in 1956 by journalist Murrow to define the slang term "cat," he answered, "A cat can be anybody --- from the guy in the gutter to a lawyer, doctor, the biggest man to the lowest man. If he's in there with a good heart, and enjoys the same music as you do together, he's a cat, daddyo."

Armstrong embraced humanity beyond national borders, class and racial bounds. His music was enjoyed by non-English speakers even before he introduced "scat-singing" -- with wordless syllables -- on "Heebie Jeebies" in 1925. His voice transcends English even to English speakers, in the same direct way that his trumpet gets to everyone. It did so then and does so now.

Armstrong was most familiarly called "Pops," for "poppa" or "father," and maybe that is his over-riding identity. Armstrong was a boyhood scamp, a princely young man of easy grace, and in his maturity he embodied the confidence and enthusiasm everybody wants from their dad.

He was at one with his mission: he said he was always "in the service of happiness." His music was radical at first, and when its innovations became universally accepted he worked to keep their effects real, to deliver nothing less than honest feeling. Armstrong was solid and comfortable, wise and proud, earthy and affable. He was no braggart or self-promoter, though his accomplishments were awesome.

Maybe that's why Americans have trouble understanding Armstrong. He is too great a figure to be knowable, with too much music and life to be neatly defined. It seems impossible there would be anyone like him now. Could a single, self-educated musician change the world by playing a bugle, and remain true his real self over half a century in the global music business?

In 1956 the conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein spoke for classical musicians, Americans and everyone else who has enjoyed listening to Louis Armstrong. As excerpted in Satchmo The Great, Bernstein had just led the New York Philharmonic in a symphonic arrangement of W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues during which Armstrong and his All-Stars improvising their own choruses. Bernstein praised Pops to the sky.

"When we play 'The St. Louis Blues' we're only playing a blown up imitation of what he does," Bernstein said. "What he does is real and true and honest and simple and even noble. Every time this man puts his trumpet to his lips, even to practice three notes, he does it with his whole soul. He is a dedicated man, and we are honored."

It is an honor when an artist puts so much soul into making people happy. Louis Armstrong has sometimes been misunderstood, but he's never been obscure in the U.S. He's been on our postage stamps. He's been remembered by elders, listened to by lovers, and introduced to children at an early age. His sound, hot, tart and sweet, with joy and awe for the glad, mad and sometimes sad rush of life, is immortal. It is our good fortune we can hear it now.

Howard Mandel, author of Future Jazz (Oxford University Press) and president of the Jazz Journalists Association (www.jazzhouse.org), grew up listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Junior Wells and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, always aware that Louis Armstrong was for everybody. This piece is adapted from an article commissioned by Bravo! magazine, Sao Paolo, Brazil.

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