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Pops – a tribute
“Great Satchmo, will you make it to heaven?
But if you do – play!
Let the good times roll once more!
that boring state of little angels.
But so there'll be no remorse in hell,
so death will cheer us sinners up,
pass you horn
to the better player,
- from “Satchmo” by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, on the occasion of Armstrong’s death, 1971. (Trans Albert C. Todd).
Ask many, perhaps most, people what they know about jazz and one name is more likely than almost any other to pop up – that of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong.
Never mind that Armstrong's playing towards the end of his life was a pale, a very pale, version of the incredible music that he had produced in his heyday, Armstrong is still “Mr Jazz” to millions of people. Never mind that the song which likely, and for better or for worse, will be associated forever with his name is an unfortunately popular sonic pablum that has about as much relationship to jazz as rap has to opera: “What a Wonderful World.”
Never mind that the amazing musical creativity that had shone across the jazz world like a brilliant shaft of sunlight on a cloudy day had, by the end of his life become a rosy, romantically diffused glow for sentimental lovers (not that I have anything against sentimental lovers!).
Never mind all of that, “Pops” as he was so affectionately known by his fellow musicians, was a true creative genius and a jazz musician of unquestionable originality.
Until Armstrong started to exert his amazing trumpet authority on the music jazz had been a music of the ensemble and the ones who stood out were the leaders. From those piercingly beautiful notes in the solo Pops took on “West End Blues” back in 1928 the soloist became the star of jazz. Armstrong single handedly changed the direction jazz was to take. That it went from there into places that he was not prepared to follow is no reason to discount his incredible achievement.
Many jazz musicians and even some only tangentially related to jazz acknowledge a debt to their “Pops”. As Dizzy Gillespie, no mean innovator on the trumpet himself, said at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival: “Louis Armstrong's station in the history of jazz … all I can say is unimpeachable. If it weren't for him, there wouldn't be any of us. So I would like to take this moment to thank Louis Armstrong for my livelihood.”
The early years
Born in poverty, a grandson of slaves, in New Orleans on 4 August 1901 (not on 4 July 1900 as so often stated, including by Armstrong himself) he lived 70 years of musical history from the first stirrings of jazz in his home town until it was a world-wide genre, thanks in large part to him.
Along the way Armstrong produced music which, while being ground breaking in the early days, was easily recognisable by anyone with even half an interest in music. In 1964 he achieved something which gave him great pleasure – he knocked the Beatles off the top of the charts with his famous rendition of “Hello Dolly” - and stayed on the top for four weeks!
After playing in a number of New Orleans bands and on the Mississippi River boats with the great Fate Marable, Armstrong's big break came in 1922 when Joe “King” Oliver invited him to join the Creole Jazz Band which was then playing in Chicago.
The pianist in this band was Lil Hardin who soon became Mrs Armstrong, his second wife after a brief marriage to Daisy Parker had faded. Armstrong is not known to have had any children, but he and Daisy did adopt the mentally disabled son of one of Louis' cousins. Louis looked after Clarence Armstrong for the rest of his life.
Becoming the "World's Greatest Trumpeter"
His position in Oliver's band was as second trumpet, which his wife Lil thought was beneath his capabilities and she urged him to find a position more in keeping with his already prodigious skills and musicianship. He found such a position with the Fletcher Henderson band in New York City, where he spent a year.
He then switched between Chicago and New York for a few years, then going on the road and to Europe, before settling in the latter city permanently in 1943.
For many serious students of jazz the greatest music Armstrong made was with his seminal “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” bands of the 1920s and early 1930s. No doubt the impact of these bands at the time was immense. I find it difficult after 80 years and the huge development that the music has undergone since to imagine that impact.
What is a matter of historical record is that by the mid-1920s Armstrong was recognised at the greatest jazz trumpeter in the US who was influencing large numbers of other jazz musicians, not only trumpeters.
Armstrong appeared in movies with the likes of Bing Crosby and others, as well as becoming the first African-American to host a radio show when he substituted for Rudy Vallee on CBS.
The “All Stars”, the small group with which Armstrong played for almost 30 years, was formed in late 1947, and included at various times Earl “Fatha” Hines, Jack Teagarden, Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall, Arvell Shaw, Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Big Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Tyree Glenn, Barrett Deems and the Filipino-American percussionist, Danny Barcelona.
With this band Armstrong toured the world, including Africa, sometimes playing more than 300 gigs in a year.
Louis plays "Skokiaan" with the Sy Oliver band, 1954
The African Connection
Three things connect Armstrong to Southern Africa – the fact that in 1949 he was made “King of the Zulus” in the annual New Orleans event; in 1956 he sent a trumpet to budding South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela; and he recorded a tune written by a Zimbabwean, August Musururgwa, called “Skokiaan.”
The “King of the Zulus” incident brought Armstrong a great deal of criticism and the honour of being the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time Magazine on February 21, 1949. The “real” Zulus are, of course, a people in South Africa.
In his autobiography Still Grazing (Three Rivers Press, 2004) Masekela tells how Armstrong got to send his trumpet to him. Father Trevor Huddlestone CR, famous anti-apartheid cleric who worked in the famous Sophiatown area of Johannesburg, had started a jazz group with youngsters from the township to give them something to do and keep them off the streets. Masekela was one of those who became members of what was called the Fr Huddlestone Jazz Band. Huddlestone was in the US on a visit in 1956 and in Rochester NY was able to meet Armstrong backstage before a performance at the Civic Auditorium. He told the great trumpeter about the boys in his band back in South Africa and how much they were in need of instruments.
Armstrong's fourth wife, Lucille, organised to send Armstrong's instrument to South Africa by courier.
“When I opened the package and handled the horn, I was overjoyed. I was seventeen, and for the first time I felt something like a spiritual connection with Satchmo and those musicians back in the states that I idolized to my core,” Masekela wrote. “The horn was my connection not just to Armstrong, but to a long, powerful tradition that had criss-crossed the Atlantic from Africa to America and back. It was a sign that my direction in life was cemented.”
The song “Skokiaan” was billed as a “South African Song” but actually, although it was popular in South Africa, it is of Zimbabwean origin. The name is the word used for the potent illegal liquor brewed and sold in the townships of Southern Africa and which was sometimes lethal.
The tune was, absurdly, recorded by some artists (not, thankfully, Armstrong) as “Happy, Happy, Africa.” (Personal aside: my late brother Chris made his first recording, one of those shellac 78s that could be pressed for a few pounds in kiosks in the major cities, of “Skokiaan” as a guitar duet with one of his friends).
How I got to love Pops
While at school in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State, in the late 1950s, the school chaplain, Fr Trevor Bush, had a copy of “Louis and the Good Book” and I started to enjoy listening to the gospel-oriented songs with their rich sonorities and the clear tones of the great man's trumpet.
From the gospel type music of that album I started to get turned on to the blues numbers like, especially, “Basin Street Blues” which I loved. I was getting really into the music of Satchmo.
Only in later years did I discover the even more wonderful earlier recordings of the 1920s and 1930s.
The two sides of the great man started to appear to me – the wonderful musician who could knock your socks off with a piercingly clear and unforced high C, and the equally wonderful entertainer who could goof around with the words and notes of a song and make it something quite different.
As a youngster just getting into jazz and the world of music generally I think I appreciated the entertainer side of Armstrong as it made my appreciation of the music easier.
Now, though, it's the musician I revere and love. His tone and the clarity of his musical ideas are just so impressive, so wonderful to listen to.
The seriousness with which he approached his trumpet playing always comes through. He never comes to the instrument with anything less than total devotion, even when playing light and fluffy stuff.
Critic Richard Hadlock, in a wonderfully perceptive and expressive chapter in his book Jazz Masters of the Twenties (Collier Books, 1965), wrote of Armstrong's music that it “cannot be explained, in the final analysis, by his remarkable physical equipment, his showmanship or even his skill with the trumpet. It is the man's mind that has produced this vast body of marvellous music.”
“Armstrong has always been utterly serious about his trumpet playing,” Hadlock continued. “Even in the frivolous years of the twenties, when many jazzmen assumed their music couldn't last and proceeded to blow themselves out at an early age.”
Armstrong's horn always had a sound of authority, a definitive sound that is unmistakeable in its majesty and beauty. Methinks that Archangel Gabriel indeed has some competition. As Armstrong himself sang:
“I hope that Gabriel likes my music,
When I meet him up there.”
How could he not?
I used the following books and articles in my reading to refresh my memory of the facts around Armstrong's life:
Arnaud, Gerald & Chesnel, Jacques 1991) Masters of Jazz. Edinburgh: Chambers
Berendt, Joachim (1976): The Jazz Book. St. Albans: Paladin.
Gottlieb, William P (1995): The Golden Age of Jazz. San Francsico: Pomegranate Artbooks.
Hadlock, Richard (1965): Jazz Masters of the Twenties. London: Collier Macmillan.
Kernfeld, Barry (ed) (1994): The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz. New York: Macmillan
Masekela, Hugh (2004): Still Grazing. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Time Magazine (21 February 1949): Louis the First. Accessed from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,805063,00.html on 23 September 2010.
Wikipedia: Louis Armstrong. Accessed from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Armstrong on 23 September 2010.
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2010