Armstrong, Rollins and Integrity

Armstrong, Rollins and Integrity

by Owen Cordle, Correspondent
copyright © 2001 Owen Cordle

Two of my favorite jazz stories involve Louis Armstrong and Sonny Rollins. Bill Morrison, during his days as The [Raleigh, NC] News & Observer's sole entertainment critic, wrote a sad tale about Armstrong at Dorton Arena toward the end of his career.

Morrison spoke with him after a Dorton Arena concert was canceled because of poor ticket sales. Armstrong had been warming up in his dressing room. Nobody bothered to knock and inform him.

"Tell your readers this wasn't my fault," he said, his eyes welling with tears. "I would play for two people."

The other story takes place on Williamsburg Bridge, which connects Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. It was there throughout 1959 that Sonny Rollins practiced his tenor saxophone on a pedestrian walkway high above the East River. He had taken a sabbatical because he felt that he wasn't performing up to people's expectations. "I don't like to take money when I don't earn it," Rollins told writer Ted Panken in this month's Down Beat magazine.

These stories reveal the similar integrity of these artists. You can hear it in their performances -- the desire to please without condescension, the high musical standards, the honoring of the unwritten covenant between performer and audience.

In addition, Armstrong and Rollins share a similar musical approach based on improvising on the melody. They are not as far apart as their separate musical genres and critically acclaimed golden ages would appear to indicate. In terms of musical stature based on creativity, they are the alpha and omega of jazz's first century.

Ken Burns got the alpha part of this right in January's PBS series Jazz. But by shortchanging the last 30 years and applying a retro-jazz bias, he failed to fully convey the creative progress of jazz in our time.

(Burns is a reference for anyone writing about the music in coming months. We'll continue to hear much about the "great man" theory -- Kenneth Clark's dictum that Western art is a succession of isolated men of genius -- and the cultural contexts that gave rise to the various jazz movements.)

For the next week, the Carolina Jazz Festival, the main attractions of which begin Saturday, will be a source of discussion about and discovery of both Armstrong and Rollins.

"Celebrating Louis Armstrong's Centennial," the festival theme, echoes not only in concerts by the Steve Wilson Sextet (festival artists-in-residence), the North Carolina Jazz Repertory Orchestra, high school bands, the UNC jazz band and others, but also in an art exhibit, play, film and video festival and symposium. Capping the event is a sold-out concert by Rollins in Memorial Hall on March 2.

Jazz existed before Armstrong, but he made it swing and gave it the extended improvised solo. Jazz will continue after Rollins, now 70, but we may never see such rapid development and succession of influential innovators and codifiers in the art again.

The Jazz Journalists Association recently hosted an online panel discussion titled "A Century of Pops: A Critical Celebration of Louis Armstrong." Participants recited chapter and verse that Armstrong introduced polyrhythms in the solo line and that his solos presented subtleties of rhythm and articulation previously unheard in jazz. They remarked on the grand personality of his music -- its existential power and joy -- and his ability to transform any song into art.

Some said that he didn't break any new ground after the 1930s (or '40s or '50s) and that in later years he had to compete with his youth. They cited the earthiness of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens (famous records made in 1925, '26 and '27). His "Potato Head Blues," recorded in 1927, is a certified masterpiece. ("Contains a solo that is not only one of his greatest achievements," says John Chilton in the liner notes for a Hot Five/Hot Seven reissue on CD, "but is also one of the most impressive pieces of music conceived this century.")

Online writers applauded Armstrong's public stand on school integration in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 and his subsequent refusal to take a government-sponsored goodwill tour abroad.

Someone observed that the late avant-garde trumpeter Lester Bowie (of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) was directly influenced by Armstrong in terms of long tones, simple chord changes, lyrical lines and a desire to please.

Another writer had us turn to page 316 in our Miles Davis autobiography and quote the Evil One on Pops: "You can't play nothing on trumpet that doesn't come from him, not even modern [expletive deleted]."

Much of this parallels the Rollins profile. There is the ear-turning youthful apprenticeship: By 25, Rollins had been heard with bebop stars Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and J.J. Johnson -- a counterpart to Armstrong's apprenticeship with cornetist Joe "King" Oliver in New Orleans and Chicago in the early 1920s. By 28, he had, comparatively speaking, waxed his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens; i.e., the brilliant trio records "Way Out West," "A Night at the Village Vanguard" and "Freedom Suite." The last-named was Rollins' play -- both musically and verbally (via a bold statement on the album's back cover) -- on America's civil rights abuse.

In the online discussion, a writer quoted trumpeter Peter Ecklund to the effect that Armstrong's musical vocabulary came partly from listening to the European tradition of popular music -- opera, marches and cornet solos -- and partly from Caribbean rhythms handed down from New Orleans slaves.

The operatic grandeur of melody ... Caribbean rhythms: Each appears in Rollins' playing, too.

If Armstrong can play and sing "Hello, Dolly," which he found trite and lifeless, according to Laurence Bergreen's biography ("Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life"), and redeem it by his personality and musical integrity, then Rollins can do likewise with "Tennessee Waltz" and "Sweet Leilani."

(Ray Charles also has this ability to take any tune, even a soft-drink commercial, and make a sincere, expressive statement out of it.)

In the Down Beat article, Rollins recalls playing Caribbean-type tunes for Harlem dances when he was growing up. He also remembers operettas and movies and a wind-up Victrola with Caruso records. These set the stage for those famous Rollins calypsos ("St. Thomas," Duke of Iron," and others) and his bel canto delivery of the melody and his fondness for old show tunes.

Some musicians, if they don't like a tune or a musical genre they are obligated to perform, will often make fun of it via a deliberately square, corny, mocking reading. We find none of this attitude in Armstrong and Rollins, although we find plenty of humor: Armstrong's grinning (Tomming, critics have charged) facial expressions, obviously, but also his exaggerated vocal imagery and joie-de-vivre scat-singing, for example, and Rollins' clever use of musical quotes and ability to fit oblique rhythms into any metric space.

Armstrong and Rollins are masters of rhythm, soaring above or digging into the beat at will. For the last 30 years or so, Rollins has kept his rhythm sections straight-ahead and uncluttered. No perpetual drum solos and elusive bass rhythms and hidden beats while Sonny speaks. He will juxtapose his own contrasts across or through the time, thank you. (We are reminded of Bowie's appreciation for Armstrong's simpler musical elements.)

Like Armstrong, Rollins has had to confront his own prodigious youth. It's unfair to say that he hasn't broken any new ground since (name your date and album reference here). Although he no longer plays bebop per se, bop remains part of his vocabulary. He doesn't experiment with free (or avant-garde) jazz, as he did in the '60s. He's more like a pop or rhythm and blues saxophonist in his allegiance to variations on the melody and rhythm.

"I am trying to make my playing more primitive and even more intuitive than what classically oriented musicians might consider to be a higher form of music," Rollins told Eric Nisenson, his biographer (Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation).

"He has reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm, harmony, form and timbre into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last 50 years of jazz vocabulary," Panken says.

Now that's a bridge that will stand.

Published Friday, February 23, 2001, The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC

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