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Sunday, January 10, 2010

If it weren't for him, there wouldn't be any of us.*

*Dizzy Gillespie on Louis Armstrong
A new biography of Louis Armstrong was published in November.  It is Pops by Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and culture critic for Commentary.  

Reviewers note that this is a comprehensive biography, long overdue on a man who changed the culture of America.  They also note "liberals" and bop era figures disparaged Armstrong as a popular entertainer who shuffled on the stage as an Uncle Tom.  That is an overblown  generality, because he was an inspiration and a revered master to musicians and serious appreciators of jazz.  Louis Armstrong was a powerful presence in my own life in ways that not only whetted an interest in music, but also shaped a political sense.

There has been disagreement among jazz fans about Armstrong's influence and significance, but I do not know of any trumpet player who, like Dizzy Gillespie, did not give Armstrong his due recognition as an inventor and innovator.  Miles Davis said, "You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played."
I grew up in a household with two older brothers who were more than casual jazz appreciators.  My oldest brother played piano and collected records.  My next older brother was an avid record collector.  One of the 78 rpms that they played until it wore out was Armstrong's "Black and Blue," and it echoes in my memory of those formative years.

At the age of 15, I became a full-fledged accolyte at the altar of jazz.  Having played trumpet for five years, I decided to quit the high school band because I, like many young musicians, got tired of playing the background music for sporting events with the Moline High School band.   However, it was some hip musicians in the marching band, particularly a hard bopping tenor sax player named Lenny, who led to my conversion.  I took lessons at a music store owned by Louis Bellson's father, and my instructor, bound to a wheel-chair from polio, led a local dance band.  The music store did the booking for a number of bands, and I eventually became a floating side man for bands that played high school proms and dates for country clubs and fraternal organizations.   However, those bands played Lombardo-like arrangements of pop tunes with a few swing charts thrown in, because the parents, teachers, and the more sedate dancers preferred that we stick to the tamer stuff, so I would not call these  jazz bands.

The summer I was 14 was the transforming one.  I had a part-time job working on the lawn and greenhouse crew at the Deere-Wiman estate, a mansion built by John Deere's son where the president of Deere  Co. lived at the time.  I  worked in the mornings.  In the afternoons I trekked  a block to a garage down the alley where a neighbor boy, whose Brazilian grandfather taught him to play the guitar, was trying to organize a jazz band.   Generally, we started after lunch, took a break for supper, then played in the evenings until Karl's mother chased us out of the garage, saying that we would disturb the neighbors.  Actually, the garage was a brick double that had been built for heating, so it had insulated walls.  You had to be standing almost next to the garage to hear the cacophony going on inside.

We scrounged up a phonograph for the garage on which we played records over and over again and tried to copy what we heard.  We filched the records from parents and older siblings. Initially, we chose records that seemed within our range of abilities to imitate.  Traditional jazz bands, dixieland style, were our first focus of study.  Most prominent among the recordings were Armstrong's.

We worked on such standards as "When the Saints Go Marching In,"  "Sunny Side of the Street," and "St. James Infirmary," that latter which satisfied the adolescent taste for drama and tragedy.  Our efforts got some professional help when a sax player from the Rock Island High School marching band joined us.  My all-white neighborhood was in some consternation when it saw this young black man getting off a bus and trudging through their alley each day.  But after a summer of working and working and actually being able to play some songs all the way through, the sax player's aunt, who was the music director at an AME church, invited us to play with her at the church.  We had not had a keyboard instrument up to that point, only the guitar.  The woman played black gospel music on a Hammond organ, and began coaching us and finding some arrangements for us.  She gave us a strong grounding in and appreciation of the blues. 

Louis Armstrong was a musical role model for us, but as our constant hours of practice and rehearsal enabled us to play, our tastes led us to other musicians.  When we listened to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, we were at once intimidated and challenged.  No one, we said, could actually play that well, but we started working up a version of "Salt Peanuts."  At the same time, Stan Kenton brought a new sound to big bands.  I was impressed with a chubby trumpet player named Ray Wetzel, who played screamer with both the Kenton and Woody Herman bands.  He inspired me to working on high range playing, which led to both some band jobs and some embouchure problems.  For long periods of time, I had to give up playing to give damaged lips a chance to repair themselves.

Although I followed musical trends in jazz,  Louis Armstrong was always a presence.  He knew how to provide both entertainment and an artistic experience for his audiences.  So did Dizzy Gillespie, who earned his nickname from his on-stage antics.  While jazz fans and critics were dividing themselves between traditional jazz and be bop, aspiring musicians were trying to absorb both styles.  We found that one form led rather naturally into the other.

I saw Louis Armstrong perform many times, but the first time was when members of the garage band learned he was coming to town.  At the foot of the Centennial Bridge in Rock Island, Ill., was a club, variously known as the Paddock Club and Horseshoe Lounge, that featured name musicians.  We decided to go down town Rock Island and hang out near the door for a chance to see and hear Satchmo.  The place was mobbed.  There was standing room only, and the staff was furiously trying collect cover charges and see that all customers had drinks before the show started.   We managed to squeeze in the door with a group of people and thread our way to the back wall, where we could not be seen.  Nor could we see.  But we could hear, and got to hear the first set  while pressed up against the wall behind people who had to hold their drinks above their heads to keep them from being spilled.

When I was a freshman in college, my English professor was a well-known jazz collector.  He was a school classmate and friend of Bix Beiderbecke's, sponsored the college jazz club, and had one of the most extensive collection of jazz recordings in the country.  He was a personal friend of Louis Armstrong's, a friendship that apparently extended back into the 1920s.  When Armstrong came to town, Dr. Richter and Louis  got together.  One of the stories told by Dr. Richter was that when Armstrong was playing a date in the area, a grade school teacher from Rock Island's inner city asked he if would visit her school and  talk to the children.  Armstrong said he would visit the school and say hello.  When he got there, he asked what kind of music the kids were being taught.  The teacher sat down at the piano and began to play a tune to which the children marched in a circle.  Armstrong got out his trumpet and began weaving a jazz tune around the teacher's clunky piano playing, and soon the children were laughing and dancing and happy to be with their visitor.  As my professor said, it was Louis doing what only Louis could do, and he registered something on the people he was in contact with not by lecturing, but by performing.

I got into one of the few fist fights in my life when in the early 1950s someone dismissed Armstrong as an Uncle Tom has been.  Like many of my generation, I thought Armstrong represented a racial breakthrough.   While he did not aggressively speak out in behalf of civil rights, his presence and his demeanor advocated for them.  In the autumn of 1957 that all changed.

I was at Fort Bliss, Texas, training to be a guided missile crewman in September 1957.  A fraternity brother with whom I had been drafted was also stationed there.  He was a dancer and performer and was assigned to work in a special services unit.  They were working up a show, when he made a frantic visit to me.  The show was to feature a big band and they needed another trumpet player.  Some of the musicians had suddenly been reassigned and shipped out.  I said I had no trumpet and hadn't played in months.  He and his fellow performers scrounged up a horn (I had a mouthpiece with me) and I practiced and rehearsed when not on duty until I was in shape enough to join the band.  The band members were talking about a  Louis Armstrong  story that had made the news.

Armstrong was appearing in Grand Forks, North Dakota, that September, and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had ordered out the National Guard to prevent the Little Rock high school from integrating. A young reporter from The Grand Forks Herald was assigned to interview Armstrong, got into his room through subterfuge, and got the interview of a life time.  Louis was worked up over the events in Little Rock.

 “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” Armstrong told the reporter.  He charged President Eisenhower with duplicity and cowardice, and he called Orval Faubus something with the mama-humping adjective attached to it.  A full account of the incident is in The New York Times

When Eisenhower called in the troops to escort the black children into the Little Rock High School,
Armstrong sent him a telegram that said, “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy. God bless you.”

In 1957, the military was six years into concerted desegregation.  It was not going well.  There was a racial motive behind the transferring of the musicians in the special services band in which I was filling in.  There was a roadhouse outside El Paso where black musicians went to jam, and it was often raided by MPs for various pretexts, but racial harassment was a clear motive.  Blacks were not particularly welcome across the border in Juarez, either, so men with talent had to devise their own opportunities to make music.  Consequently, the news of Armstrong's rebuke of the government was both encouraging and alarming to the black musicians and their friends.  I got pulled aside by a white NCO who, without any sense of irony,  asked if I knew what those black mother-fuckers were saying about General Eisenhower.  They better not say it in front of me, he warned.

The military led the nation in the movement to desegregate.  President Truman and his military staff began serious investigations and policy shifts toward integration, but matters did not change significantly until the Korean War.  Some poor performance by black units led to an analysis that showed inequalities and segregation to be a cause.  Gen. Matthew Ridgway spurred the process when he asked and received permission to fully desegregate units under his command.  By 1953, basic training units were fully desegregated, but there would linger in the military racial hatred and violence.  Eisenhower's decision to call out the troops to enforce desegregation of the public schools was encouraging to soldiers who sought an end to racial discrimination, but it also led to overt and violent actions by those opposed to racial equality.

Black men in the military service had been asked to fight for their country, but when they returned from the wars, they found that their country still discriminated against them.    When Louis Armstrong said "a  black man hasn't got a country," he stated a nasty fact that Ridgway and Eisenhower grappled with.  Why should black men serve a country that does not grant them full status as human beings?  Armstrong backed out of a scheduled  foreign tour to be a musical ambassador.  He could not see representing the freedom and equality of America as a representative of race to which freedom and equality was denied in America.  His words rippled through America and defined the problem to which Eisenhower reacted.  It was an important political moment that defined America.  It recalled the words from the song that Armstrong recorded in the 1920s:  "What did I do to be so black and blue?"

One of the most poorly understood aspects of jazz is why it not only spoke to black peope but why it was so essential to many young white Americans.  From its inception as work songs and gospel songs, American black music has always carried a double message.  It commiserated with the oppressed and deprived and expressed that blues feeling with a satiric edge against the society that oppressed them.   But it also sung of freedom from oppression and deprivation and urged the spirit to keep striving for a brighter future.  Most of the young people who particpated in and lived through the Second World War were the children of a working class that shared some of the same frustrations and  oppression that black Americans experienced.  The forces of denial that discriminated against blacks were also operating against whites of the lower economic classes.  Most of the young people I knew who were going to college on the G.I. Bill were jazz fans, and when they listened to bebop or Stan Kenton, they were inspired by a music that was pushing aside old boundaries.  Long before African Americans found opporunities in sports, Louis Armstrong and his fellow musicians were pushing against the boudaries that limited their people.  Jazz is a music of liberation, and it set the rhythm and the lyrics for generations who sought liberation from the denials of the promise of America. 

When Dizzy Gillespie said if it weren't for Louis Armstrong, there wouldn't be any of us, he spoke not just for trumpet players and jazz musicians.  He spoke for all of us who found solace and inspiration in what Satchmo articulated for America.

His life is worth serious study for what it has contributed to us, and Teachout's book gives a definitive account.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States