Friday, June 21, 2024

The Jazzmen - Larry Tye

 Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Most of all, with Negroes constituting just 10 percent of the population, you needed support in white America. No trio did as much as Duke, Satchmo, and the Count to set the table for the insurrection by opening white America's ears and souls to the grace of their music and their personalities, demonstrating the virtues of Black artistry and Black humanity”

- Larry Tye

A new book about Pops, Duke and the Count is always a welcomed addition to the literature on Jazz, especially one that’s on a mission such as Larry Tye’s recent Jazzmen which explains how these three Giants of Jazz helped “transform” America and place it on the path to social justice through racial integration.

In this regard, it is very much a book for our times. As Mr. Tye explains:

“What is far less known about these groundbreakers is that they were bound not just by their music or even the discrimination that they, like nearly all Black performers of their day, routinely encountered. Each defied and ultimately overcame racial boundaries by opening America's eyes and souls to the magnificence of their music. In the process, they wrote the soundtrack for the civil rights movement.”

As noted on the dust jacket, Jazzmen is “based on more than 250 interviews, this exhaustively researched book brings alive the history of Black America in the early- to mid-1900s through the singular lens of the country's most gifted, engaging, and enduring African American musicians.”

Armstrong, Basie and Ellington’s contributions to the cause of racial integration was not as overt as other leaders of the movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s such as Martin Luther King, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Roy Wilkins.

It was a more indirect thing usually involving a defiant attitude, pointed comments in the press or a refusal to appear in venues that disallowed mixed race audiences.

Indeed, Pops [Louis Armstrong] was so low keyed that he was often labeled an Uncle Tom and criticized for performing in “the Jim Crow” [segregated] South.

And yet, in 1957, Pops forcibly spoke out as Mr. Tyne recounts:

“Nobody's outcry was more heartfelt and unexpected than that of Louis Armstrong, who shortly after the 1957 Little Rock school crisis offered this knife-edge rebuke that made headlines from Boston to Budapest: "The way they are treating my people in the South, the Government can go to hell." Satchmo mocked segregationist governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas as a "motherfucker" (to make it fit for print, he and the reporter toned it down to "uneducated plow boy"), and derided war-hero president Dwight Eisenhower as "two-faced" and having "no guts" for failing early on to protect the brave Black kids desegregating Little Rock's Central High.”

Duke’s role is detailed in the following:

“A successful revolution also needed inspirational anthems and symbols. Duke more than rose to the occasion by composing transformative works like Black, Brown and Beige and writing Jump for Joy, a play that banished Uncle Tom from the stage and American life and that insisted it was time to stop turning the other cheek.”

Basie’s is recounted here:

“A mass movement required money, too, for everything from bringing people to rallies to bailing them out of jail. Count Basie wrote checks, while his wife Catherine Basie not only raised bagful's more, but played pivotal roles in civil rights groups in New York and beyond.”

Discretion was the better part of valor and it was also in evidence when Pops, Duke and Count traveled the world as “overseas Ambassadors” for their country:

“Duke, the Count, and Satchmo served the needs of the U.S. government because they were patriots. There was pushback, but less from activists worried about Black artists being used to score propaganda points for a racist nation than from an old guard opposed to promoting Negro art and sinful music. During their foreign travels the music makers largely kept to themselves their feelings about the police dogs and water cannons that were battering fellow Negroes back home even as the world celebrated them as emblems of American inclusiveness. "The reason I don't bother with politics is the words is so big that by the time they break them down to my size the joke is over," was Armstrong's sweet but disingenuous reply when overseas reporters pressed for his views, echoing Ellington's and Basic's deflections.

In more candid moments, all three let loose with what they really thought. In 1957, Duke traced the Soviet Union's one-upping America in the race for space directly to "this racial problem." Whereas Russia "doesn't permit race prejudice ... to interfere with scientific progress" he wrote, "because so many Americans persist in the notion of the master race, millions of Negroes are deprived of proper schooling, denied the right to vote on who will spend their tax money and are the last hired and first fired in those industries necessary for the progress of the country... Everybody has to get in the game if we are playing to win." The Count likewise made clear that he was traveling the world, even when he was wheelchair-bound, because it freed him from the racial vituperations back home.

Satchmo, whose role as a planetary plenipotentiary for jazz and for America earned him the new moniker of Ambassador Satch, was more direct. The U.S. government could and should "put its foot down" to stop race troubles, he told reporters in Buenos Aires in 1957, "but, you know, the government is run by Southerners." Photographer Lisl Steiner heard him go a surprising step further when she was taking pictures in his hotel room. The American ambassador to Argentina called to ask that Louis perform "The Star-Spangled Banner." "Mr. Ambassador," the trumpeter said, "you can go and fuck yourself because I can't even get a hotel room in Times Square!"”

Throughout the themes and topics, Mr. Tye’s work - “... lies at the intersection of two American stories—one about this country at its most hidebound and straight-laced, the other about jazz, the all-American music form, at its most locomotive and sensuous. We'll follow those contortions in the enclosed and electrifying settings of honky-tonks and concert halls. How better to bring alive the history of African America in the early- to mid-1900s than through the singular lens of America's most gifted, engaging, and enduring African American musicians? And although this is a book about struggle, it has a triumphal windup. Count Basie, Satchmo Armstrong, and Duke Ellington were as much archetypes for Black music as Joe Louis was for Black boxing and Paul Robeson was for the Black stage—and much as Louis and Robeson became symbols of their art rather than just their race, so our musicians were known not as great Black jazzmen but as great jazzmen. Barrier breakers, indeed.”

The underscored segment of the above quotation is Mr. Tye’s unique contribution to the perceptions of Pops, Duke and Count, not only in the history of Jazz, but in the history of America in the 20th century.

The book is easy to read because it's written in a style whose intent is to inform, rather than to prove a point. It covers many aspects of the career of all of these Giants, both personal and professional.

Actual quotations abound, many of which offer fascinating insights into the genius of all three men; some of which are painful in the extreme to hear recounted while other speak to their humanity and generosity:

“[Early in their careers the maestros were disparaged by critics, many using racial tropes, for not measuring up. Later the charge was that they might have once been good, but had gotten old and tired. Ellington spoke for all three when he answered the attacks this way in a 1965 article in Jazz Journal:]

'If you find a beautiful flower, it is probably better enjoyed than analyzed, because in order to analyze it, you have to pull it apart, dissect it. And when you get through you have all the formulas, all the botanical information you need, and all the science of it, but you haven't got a beautiful flower anymore."”

And this from Louis:

"Sometimes I sit around the house and think about all the places me and Lucille have been. You name the country and we've just about been there. We've been wined and dined by all kinds of royalty. We've had an audience with the Pope. We've even slept in Hitler's bed" said Satchmo. "But regardless of all that kind of stuff, I've got sense enough to know that I'm still Louis Armstrong—colored."

Quincy’s reminiscence is an example of the magnanimity that was common in all three men: 

“Quincy Jones recalled that when he was struggling, the Count cosigned a loan, and when he needed direction, Basie offered lessons to live by. "Basie was family to me, an idol, a father, a brother, a mentor, a manager, whatever he had to be," said Jones. "'Learn to deal with the valleys, the hills will take care of themselves,' he advised. 'And always be fair.'"

"Money," Basie explained in his memoir, "has never really been a very big consideration with me personally. I really would rather not get into any discussion about it."”

Coming in at a whopping 32 pages, the bibliography in Jazzmen is extensive and is another major contribution of the book to the Jazz literature.

Treat yourself to a copy of one of the best books about Jazz to come along in a long time. You’ll be glad you did.

Here are some other reviews of the book. For order information go here.

Kirkus Reviews

“From the New York Times bestselling author of Satchel and Bobby Kennedy, a sweeping and spellbinding portrait of the longtime kings of jazz—Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie—who, born within a few years of one another, overcame racist exclusion and violence to become the most popular entertainers on the planet.

This is the story of three revolutionary American musicians, the maestro jazzmen who orchestrated the chords that throb at the soul of twentieth-century America.

  • Duke Ellington, the grandson of slaves who was christened Edward Kennedy Ellington, was a man whose story is as layered and nuanced as his name suggests and whose music transcended category.

  • Louis Daniel Armstrong was born in a New Orleans slum so tough it was called The Battlefield and, at age seven, got his first musical instrument, a ten-cent tin horn that drew buyers to his rag-peddling wagon and set him on the road to elevating jazz into a pulsating force for spontaneity and freedom.

  • William James Basie, too, grew up in a world unfamiliar to white fans—the son of a coachman and laundress who dreamed of escaping every time the traveling carnival swept into town, and who finally engineered his getaway with help from Fats Waller. What is far less known about these groundbreakers is that they were bound not just by their music or even the discrimination that they, like nearly all Black performers of their day, routinely encountered. Each defied and ultimately overcame racial boundaries by opening America’s eyes and souls to the magnificence of their music. In the process they wrote the soundtrack for the civil rights movement.

Based on more than 250 interviews, this exhaustively researched book brings alive the history of Black America in the early-to-mid 1900s through the singular lens of the country’s most gifted, engaging, and enduring African-American musicians.

An examination of the lives of three kings of jazz and their impact on American society.

Tye, the bestselling author of biographies of Satchel Paige, Joseph McCarthy, and others, embarks on his first voyage into music history. In a single volume, he has essentially produced fairly substantial biographies of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington, contemporaries who became three of the most decorated and celebrated musicians in American history. The author capably delineates their struggles with, and impact on, the often harrowing and sometimes violent complexities and shifting dynamics of American race relations during the first half of the 20th century. The most striking aspect of the book is the astonishing amount of research Tye conducted, the sometimes overwhelming yield of which clears up myths that the golden trio themselves often perpetuated regarding their upbringings, their turbulent personal lives, and the technical evolution of their music. The author takes a fascinating look at the religious backgrounds and beliefs of Armstrong, Basie, and Ellington, who were the most prominent frontmen of the music that fanatics and public figures long blamed and targeted for societal degradation. Tye also explores the friendly but fierce professional rivalry among the three. The author’s vivid style brings readers front and center into the myriad of clubs and studios where Armstrong, Basie, and Ellington played, as well as the social vibe of the cities and towns where their music left an indelible mark. This thoroughly enjoyable musical journey is succinctly titled, yet the scope of Tye's research demonstrates why and how Armstrong, Basie, and Ellington transcended jazz and even music itself to establish themselves in American culture forevermore in words that a young Ellington employed to describe himself: "beyond category." For Ellington, “it wasn’t a contradiction to be an artist as well as a showman.”

A delightful read.”

Publisher’s Weekly

“Biographer Tye (Bobby Kennedy) presents a mesmerizing group portrait of American jazz greats Duke Ellington (1899–1974), Louis Armstrong (1901–1971), and Count Basie (1904–1984). Tracing each man’s influential career, Tye captures their intense work ethic and rigorous travel schedules (Armstrong alone averaged 300 nights on the road per year), their music’s deep gospel roots, and their artistic styles and gifts (Ellington and Basie flourished as conductors, while Armstrong thrived by communing with a live audience). Yet Tye’s main focus lies in how his subjects changed American culture at large: even as Armstrong, Ellington, and Basie endured the indignities of touring during the Jim Crow era, they brought alive in their music the “invisible stories of Black America.” In doing so, Tye contends, the jazz legends opened “white America’s ears and souls to the grace of their music and their personalities” and “the virtues of Black artistry,” and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. With scrupulous attention to detail, Tye brings his subjects to life as both forces of social change and three-dimensional human beings who lived and breathed their art, from Ellington’s soulful, “Shakespearian” arrangements to Armstrong’s “heart as big as Earth” and Basie’s “Buddha-like” temperament. It’s a vibrant ode to a legendary trio and the “rip-roaring harmonies” that made them great. Agent: Jill Kneerim, Kneerim & Williams. (May)”


MAY 29, 20244:03 AM ET


Michel Martin

“A new book by Larry Tye — The Jazzmen — traces how the popularity of musicians Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie affected the civil rights movement.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: The lions of the civil rights movement are well known - Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, for example. But a new book wants us to consider a few other names not so commonly associated with the cause. It's titled 

"The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington...

MARTIN: ...Louis Armstrong...

MARTIN: ...And Count Basie...

MARTIN: ...Transformed America." Author Larry Tye makes the case.

LARRY TYE: White men who would never have let a Black cross their threshold wooed their sweethearts with the music of Duke Ellington and the gravel-throated Louis Armstrong. White women who would have walked to the other side of the street if a Black man were walking towards them in the privacy of their own living room tapped their toes to the music of the extraordinary Count Basie. For once, race fell away as America listened, rapt.


MARTIN: What's the evidence of this? I mean, it's just - not to be sort of - I'll just be blunt. You know, white people have always benefited from Black people as entertainers. And that didn't change their thinking about whether Black people deserve to be treated as full human beings. So I guess what I'm saying is, like, what's the evidence that this actually changed anybody's thinking?

TYE: So the evidence is that these guys, while they perpetually said, we will speak through our music, they did a whole lot more than that. Louis Armstrong spoke out during the Little Rock crisis in a way that rocked America, and that, I think, helped convince Dwight Eisenhower to send in federal troops to protect those kids who were courageously integrating Central High School in Little Rock. Count Basie, as early as 1945, insisted by contract that he would not play unless his integrated band was accepted and integrated audiences were the order of his day. Duke Ellington wrote symphonies telling the story of Blacks in America. "Black, Brown And Beige" was the name of his famous symphony.


MAHALIA JACKSON: (Singing) God do hear men's secrets. He will hear your every breath.

TYE: He sat in in a sit-in in Baltimore. And the kids who had been staging that sit-in got no response from the press. And when Duke Ellington joined, they got worldwide headlines. But don't trust me. Martin Luther King, in a little-noticed speech in Berlin, said, if it weren't for these jazz guys, that essentially integration of schools and all kinds of other things that really mattered could never have happened, that they infiltrated as quiet insurrectionists more American households than any other Black celebrities of that era.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is? It's a fascinating sort of argument. Well, why do you think that is?

TYE: I think it was partly because they did it so quietly. The quiet part of the revolutionary is what made it happen. When all three of these musicians were headliners at Las Vegas casinos, they could only get in through the kitchen. And at some point, the absurdity of the indignities they suffered, I think, just helped set a table for things like Supreme Court decisions that we've just celebrated 70 years of at Brown v. Board. But again, it wasn't just Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jackie Robinson. Everybody turned to these jazzmen when they needed somebody to truly break through.

MARTIN: Who was the first one to break through, as it were?

TYE: So Louis Armstrong was the first to cross over. He was consciously playing initially to Black audiences in Chicago, then to mixed race audiences in clubs called black and tans and then to white audiences. And he did it partly through the strength of his trumpet playing, being able to hit high notes nobody else could. He did it through a voice that was so uncharacteristically a voice that you would ever think would be popular that kids in Chicago in that era, in the middle of winter, would stick their heads out of the car to try to catch cold so they could sound like Louis Armstrong.

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) I'm so happy as can be when they swing that music for me.

TYE: And he combined that trumpet and that voice to the point where in the '40s, '50s and '60s, it was said that the two most recognizable American cultural figures around the world were Mickey Mouse and Louis Armstrong.

MARTIN: And you also write about how they each took different paths to becoming involved in the civil rights movement.

TYE: So they did take different paths. And the one who was the most enigmatic and that the world knows the least about was Count Basie. And yet, as early as 1945, he insisted that his contracts have a stipulation that unless an integrated band was acceptable to the venue, and unless the venue itself was integrated, he would not play. And the idea of doing that just as World War II was ending was so uncharacteristic. It took Duke Ellington another 20 years to get to that point.

TYE: They were also recognized to be amazingly important tools, as America was involved in a very hot Cold War, to the point where America sent all three as unofficial ambassadors not just around the world, but especially behind the Iron Curtain. And something strange happened to them the moment they left our shores. In America, they were more than willing perpetually to speak out about racial injustice. When they got behind the Iron Curtain, Russian reporters realized the vulnerability of America's racist policies. When they were asked about that, they said, yes, we have racism, but we're going to fix it. So they became uber-patriots. They never denied racism, but they said, it's getting better, and we're working to fix it.

The world knows the musical legacy of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but there is an equally important half of their legacy that it doesn't know, that they were through their music and through their words standing up and making a difference in a way that at that time in Jim Crow America was not just a courageous thing to do, but was an incredibly dangerous thing to do.

MARTIN: That is Larry Tye. His latest book is "The Jazzmen: How Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong And Count Basie Transformed America." Larry Tye, thank you so much.

TYE: Thank you. This was great.”

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