© - Steven A. Cerra - copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Genius is the transfiguring agent. Nothing else can explain Louis Armstrong's ascendancy. He had no formal training, yet he alchemized the cabaret music of an outcast minority into an art that has expanded in ever-widening orbits for sixty-five years, with no sign of collapse. He played trumpet against the rules, and so new rules were written to acknowledge his standards. His voice was so harsh and grating that even black bandleaders were at first loath to let him use it, yet he became one of the most beloved and influential singers of all time.
He was born with dark skin in a country where dark-skinned people were considered less than human and, with an ineffable radiance that transcends the power of art, forced millions of whites to reconsider their values. He came from “the bottom of the well, one step from hell," as one observer put it, but he died a millionaire in a modest home among working-class people. He was a jazz artist and a pop star who succeeded in theater and on records, in movies and on television.
Yet until he died, he traveled in an unheated bus, playing one-nighters around the country, zigzagging around the world, demanding his due but never asking for special favors. He was an easy touch and is thought to have handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars to countless people down on their luck. Powerful persons, including royalty and the Pope, forgave him a measure of irreverence that would have been unthinkable coming from anyone else. Admirers describe him as a philosopher, a wise man, someone who knew all the secrets of how to live. …
But few people knew him well, and many of those who were most possessive about his art were offended by his popularity. The standard line about Armstrong throughout his career, rendered in James Lincoln Collier's 1983 biography, goes like this: Louis Armstrong was a superb artist in his early years, the exemplar of jazz improvisation, until fame forced him to compromise, at which point he became an entertainer, repeating himself and indulging a taste for low humor. …
A jazz aesthetics incapable of embracing Louis Armstrong whole is unworthy of him, and of the American style of music making that he, more than any other individual, engendered.”
- Gary Giddins, Satchmo
The editorial staff at JazzProfiles can’t get enough of “Pops” on these pages. The above quotations from Gary Giddins’ superb biography of Louis Armstrong and the following feature excerpted from the January 8, 1959 issue of Down Beat magazine are intended to add more archival materials to the blog about an artist of whom it can truly be said - “No him, no Jazz.”
“In the world of jazz, Louis Armstrong is more than king.
He is a living legend and a symbol of the music.
To gauge his influence, and to obtain a new perspective on him, Down Beat gathered opinion and recollection from seven top brassmen from all areas of jazz.
Assembled around the Down Beat roundtable are veteran cornetist Rex Stewart; trumpeter-arranger Quincy Jones; lyrical cornetist Bobby Hackett; modern trumpeter Art Farmer; the melodic Ruby Braff; trumpeter-bandleader Maynard Ferguson; and trumpeter, major influence on the horn, and close friend of Armstrong's, Dizzy Gillespie.
Gillespie: "The first time I ever heard Louis was in 1935, at Fay's theater, Philadelphia. I must have been about 17. My brother-in-law was a fan of his, but I wasn't too interested in him. I liked Roy [Eldridge]. I got to admit I was impressed. I don't think I had heard him on records before that. Records were scarce at home."
Hackett: "I remember listening to Louis' records as a kid in Providence. I've never been the same since. I was just starting to fool around with the horn. The first time I heard him live was at the Metropolitan theater in Boston. We went up on the bus and stayed the whole day. He used to close the show with a spiel for the musicians in the audience. He tell us he was going to hit 400 high Cs, and he'd do it. He'd end up on a high F."
Jones: "Louis' was one of the first name bands I ever saw. That was in Bremerton, Wash., and I was about 14 or 15. I remember I was in the high school band, and I sneaked in the back door of the dance carrying my baritone horn. He wasn't so much of a legend then as he is now. And I guess I hadn't read the book on him."
Stewart: "I first heard him on records. It was in 1923 or 24 when I first heard him. What did I do? I flipped! I'm not sure what the tune was, maybe it was Mabel's Dream."
Braff: "When I was a little kid, I used to listen to the 920 Club on the radio in Boston. One guy would play 15 minutes of records by an artist. That's where I first heard him. In person, the first time was at Mahogany Hall, downstairs from Storyville."
Farmer: "I guess I first heard Louis about 1948, in person. On records, I'd heard him a lot earlier."
Ferguson: "I was about 13 when I first saw Armstrong. He came to Montreal with a big band, and played in the auditorium that's now the Bellview Casino. I had heard him on records prior to that. My mother bought me his theme song, Sleepy Time Down South, and I also had Struttin' With Some Barbecue."
At this point, everyone agreed on the scope of Louis' influence.
Braff: "He influenced everyone's playing. Lester Young . . . everyone.”
Farmer: "His playing was an influence on mine, but not directly. It's like hearing someone who plays good, and who makes you want to get the most out of your horn."
Ferguson: "I never really had one hero, but quite a few of them. Louis was one. I felt he enjoyed what he was doing more than the others."
Stewart: "He's an influence on everyone who plays a horn. He definitely influenced my playing. I think most in the conception. He taught the world how trumpet should be played."
Jones: "At first, I think he did influence me. For the first few years, anyway, in things like attack and the living part of his playing. But this was just before the era when it became hip to be cool . . . about 1948. Right after that, I went over to Diz."
Gillespie: "Louis' playing influenced mine in a roundabout way, through Roy. Roy got a lot from Louis' conception, and I got a lot from him."
Hackett: "His playing influenced everybody. His conception, his ideas . . . everything. To me, he's the perfect hot trumpet player."
There was less general agreement on Armstrong's biggest contribution to jazz.
Hackett: "I think it's his performance. He's been heard all over the world, and he has influenced anyone who is interested in music."
Gillespie: "His music is his biggest contribution, for my personal taste."
Jones: "I wish I had been around more. I'd like to have been around 45 years and be about 16 years old now. But I'd say Louis biggest contribution is that he was first. He wrote the book on trumpet. There's a lot of things in his playing that you've got to respect today."
Farmer: "Louis' contribution, I think, has been that he was really playing horn at a time when not many people were doing it. He was a good instrumentalist; one of the first and one of the greatest. And he started something . . ."
Stewart: "Well, I'd say his biggest contribution was getting me the job with Fletcher Henderson. Seriously, I really feel that without his influence, I couldn't imagine what trumpet playing would be like. He showed there was more range than high C, and more drive than the syncopation used before him. He did so many things.”
Ferguson: "Since Louis is associated with the word, jazz; he has made the public conscious of jazz. That shouldn't be ignored or put down. People love Louis. He's the hot jazz trumpeter off the river boat. He has a very beloved name."
Braff: "His biggest contribution was in just being. He happens to be the mother and father of music. And he's more important than Bach."
As it must in every conversation about Armstrong, the subject soon becomes a treasured performance. Sometimes it's a record. Sometimes it's an in-person appearance.
But always it's a memory to be relished for trumpet men.
Ferguson: "I guess I like Struttin' With Some Barbecue because the band is out of tune and raggedy, but Armstrong is carrying the whole thing, and he's wailing."
Stewart: "My favorite is Hotter Than That. Fireworks! And that came from the period I enjoyed him most in."
Farmer: "I can't right now think of the name of the tune, but it was made around 1927, and I always liked it because it sounded contemporary as far as his line of melody and his sound was concerned."
Jones: "I was in Hamp's band, and we were playing opposite Louis in Washington, D.C. This was in 1952. The song was Indiana, and Louis just amazed me. He played high G’s, and he was just smoking. I like his record of Chinatown, and, of course, West End Blues."
Gillespie: "I like the way Louis sings. I like his record of that French tune, C'est Si Bon. He reminds me of a conversationalist singing. He sort of talks in different ranges. It sounds like he's talking to me. Now, that's the way I'd like to sing . . . if I could sing. That phrasing, like the way I talk ... I'd like to sing that way. Louis sings the way he talks."
Hackett: "I just like everything he touches. Struttin' with Some Barbecue on Decca . . . the things with Luis Russell's band ... for vocals, I like If Could Be With You.
Braff: "For me, there's no such thing as a favorite performance by Louis. Anything with his name on it, that's all. The only things that make them weak are, maybe, the other people on them. But he always played the greatest with the weakest and corniest background. It's as if he can turn off the band he's with. He seems to be constantly playing with another band. I wish I could hear that band!"
Our round-tablers dig Armstrong for more than his music. Many are personal friends, with whom Armstrong has had good times off-stand as well as on.
Hackett: "I think he's just about the greatest guy who ever lived. When he's in town, I go over to his house and we sit around and talk about a hundred things. There's another wonderful thing about him that nobody knows. He's a very generous person. He gives to a lot of charities. And he likes to help people, and not exploit them."
Gillespie: "Louis is not two-faced. He's one of the most sincere people you'll find. You always know what he thinks. He doesn't bite his tongue, although sometimes he puts his foot in his mouth. But he's honest. That's the quality I admire in him."
Stewart: 'I'd like to say I feel Louis truly was the direct turning point . . . the reason for this wonderful music. He was the creator, the innovator, and at the same time one who gave the world much more than he received."
Jones: "He has been one of the most original figures ever on the scene. He's been a very strong voice in jazz."
Braff: "That cat is loved all over the world. And better than any of the political leaders.""