(and Why) I Grew To
Love King Louis
By Gene Seymour
SeeingBlack.com Jazz Critic
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Louis Armstrong may be the only American musician who gets two
centennial celebrations. He is certainly the only one who deserves
them. Last year, nodding to the July 4, 1900 date Armstrong believed
to be his birthday, record companies unloaded a rich harvest of
retrospectives and boxed sets, notably Columbia-Legacy's four-disc
"The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings of Louis Armstrong,"
with the history-making sessions between 1925 and 1929 that, in
essence, created 20th century music.
Given the relatively recent discovery that Armstrong was actually
born August 4, 1901, the centennial celebrations are likely to continue
through the end of this year. The keynote was certainly struck in
January with the broadcast of Ken Burns' epochal PBS series, "Jazz."
Armstrong's spirit informs all 19 hours of the documentary, establishing
himonce and for all and in timely fashionas a towering
figure in world history. People in other countries had no trouble
with this notion. In Europe, he was an important musical artist.
In Africa, he was a king. If you doubt this, watch documentary footage
of Armstrong's concert tour of that continent. They knew they were
in the presence of a hero. Though you may find few who'll admit
it now, there were many black folks in this country who doubted
this, including me.
Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives,
I know now that I badly needed Louis Armstrong as a hero when I
was growing up. Being a creative child who was never happier than
when I was drawing pictures, making up skits or putting strange
words or sounds together, I couldn't possibly have found more positive
reinforcement for my undefined dreams than the first great American
improviser himself. Armstrong's own account of his 16-year-old self,
playing a horn in a rough Mississippi River-front honky-tonk, exemplified
the kind of self-containment and artistic poise to which I'd subconsciously
aspired ever since I learned to read and write:
"[The Brick House]…was one of the toughest joints I ever played
in…Guys would drink and fight one another like circle saws. Bottles
would come flying over the bandstand like crazy and there was lots
of plain common shooting and cutting. But somehow all that jive
didn't faze me at all. I was so happy to have some place to blow
my horn." (From "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans," 1954)
Unfortunately, I didn't encounter such inspiring anecdotes until
I'd grown well past the need for role models. (To paraphrase what
a famous African-American actor once said in confidence to me: Role
models are useful up until the age of 17. After which time, if you
still need one, what you really need is therapy.) By that time,
I had also come to realize other things about Louis Armstrong that
made him seem even greater a hero than I was conditioned to believe
as a teenager. His well-publicized rancor with the U.S. government
over President Eisenhower's reluctance to send federal troops to
Little Rock in 1957 to enforce school integration revealed a fiery
militancy very much at odds with the jovial, hanky-brandishing persona
that was the only Armstrong my generation knew.
Getting past that image was something that even my parents' generation
had to be talked into, given its too-close association of Armstrong
with the hambone minstrelsy of a fading era. However warmly they
may have felt towards Pops, my folks and their peers found it easy
to dismiss him as, at best, Yesterday's News. And if my parents
weren't going to guide me towards Armstrong's example, my fellow
baby-boomers were even less help. To them, Armstrong was Everybody's
Foxy Grandpaalways entertaining you with his sandpaper voice
and cute expressions but lacking the raw aggression of James Brown,
the stiletto-edge danger of Huey Newton and the sex appeal of any
pop star of our era.
Let's be plainer still: What the boomers believed at their worst
was that Louis Armstrong was a prototypical sellout pandering to
the crowds; worse still, an Uncle Tom. I never (I don't think) went
that far. But received "wisdom" of this magnitude was powerful enough
to keep me from engaging Armstrong's music, no matter how much of
it came my way. "Political correctness" was a concept whose usage
was pretty much confined to Marxists when Armstrong died in 1971.
But professing an informed fondness for Louis Armstrong and all
he personified was something of a liability for young African Americans
who in those Nixon years were being goaded to the barricades, literally
and figuratively. Part of me accepts these circumstances because
that's the way it wuz in dem days. Most of me will always resent
empty socio-political baggage put between a potentially nourishing
life force and my unfulfilled self.
Armstrong's Hot Fives and Seven box set.
It wasn't until four years after Armstrong's death that the piercing
clarity of his horn shattered my pre-fabricated resistance. It was
the 1927 recording of "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" included on
the first edition of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz.
Armstrong seized my attention and curiosity from the opening chorus
with the kind of force that one imagines it had almost a half-century
before on an earlier generation of listeners. That was the beginning
of a long, happy re-acquaintance with King Louis during which I
listened to all the majestic 1920's recordings with fresh, revitalized
ears (Three words. "West End Blues." Go now and listen to it!) while
reading whatever I could find about him. Throughout these years,
I sought to make amends with his spirit. Many surprises awaited
me on the journey.
I knew of his disdain for modern jazz, especially the beboppers.
What I hadn't known about was his fondness for Guy Lombardo and
rock and roll, his R-rated sense of humor (Three more words. "Tight
Like That." It should be on the same circa-1928 disc as "West End
Blues. Seek. Find. Laugh.), the trenchant, earthy letters he typed
on the road or at home, the collages he made by hand and, most revealing
of all, the anger at racism of all kinds that he concealed behind
his amiable mask until it became necessary to let it loose (as it
was when Ike was tardy with backup). The more I found out, the more
enigmatic and mysterious I found this man who seemingly gave all
of himself to his public.
Ossie Davis alluded to such chimeras in his on-camera testimony
in Ken Burns' epochal PBS series, "Jazz," which aired earlier this
year. As with many who came of age after Armstrong's early breakthroughs,
Davis had trouble getting past what he called "ooftah," his name
for the shucking-and-jiving stage antics that Armstrong deployed
like a poker dealer. But when he'd seen Armstrong sitting alone
off-camera during a shoot of Sammy Davis Jr.s 1965 movie, "A Man
Called Adam," Davis was moved by the intensity of Armstrong's immobile
expression to re-evaluate his opinion. Maybe, Davis thought, Armstrong
was concealing lethal weaponry beneath that broad grin, ubiquitous
hanky and gilded trumpet.
The way I feel now, I don't care whether that horn, in Davis'
words, "could kill a man." I just know that it's taken longer than
necessary to give Armstrong a break for whatever he was supposed
to have done to African Americans and their self-imageand
for me to figure out what I needed him for. Everyone else should
try as well. After all, it's his birthday.
-- April 9, 2001
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