Thomas Brothers, author of Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism
Nearly 100 years after bursting onto Chicago’s music scene under the tutelage of Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong is recognized as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. A trumpet virtuoso, seductive crooner, and consummate entertainer, Armstrong laid the foundation for the future of jazz with his stylistic innovations, but his story would be incomplete without examining how he struggled in a society seething with brutally racist ideologies, laws, and practices.
Thomas Brothers picks up where he left off with the acclaimed Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, following the story of the great jazz musician into his most creatively fertile years in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Armstrong created not one but two modern musical styles. Brothers wields his own tremendous skill in making the connections between history and music accessible to everyone as Armstrong shucks and jives across the page. Through Brothers’s expert ears and eyes we meet an Armstrong whose quickness and sureness, so evident in his performances, served him well in his encounters with racism while his music soared across the airwaves into homes all over America.
Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism blends cultural history, musical scholarship, and personal accounts from Armstrong’s contemporaries to reveal his enduring contributions to jazz and popular music at a time when he and his bandmates couldn’t count on food or even a friendly face on their travels across the country. Thomas Brothers combines an intimate knowledge of Armstrong’s life with the boldness to examine his place in such a racially charged landscape. In vivid prose and with vibrant photographs, Brothers illuminates the life and work of the man many consider to be the greatest American musician of the twentieth century.#
Brothers discusses his book with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in an April, 2014 interview.
photo Maud Cuney-Hare/via Wikimedia Commons
Louis Armstrong, 1936
“The astonishing thing about Armstrong is that he invented not one but two modern art forms, one after the other, both of them immensely successful and influential, and that he did this with vigorous commitment to means of expression derived from the black vernacular he had grown up with…Armstrong’s first modern style, created around the years 1926 – 28 and based on the fixed and variable model, was pitched primarily to the black community. These people enjoyed his entertaining singing, but they were in awe of his carefully designed trumpet solos…
“His second modern formulation was the result of efforts to succeed in the mainstream market of white audiences. The key here was radical paraphrase of familiar popular tunes. The basic idea was nothing new: when, during the late nineteenth century and probably long before, African-American musicians spoke of “ragging the tune,” they meant creating their own stylized version of a known melody by adding all kinds of embellishments and extensions.. This technique was part of Armstrong’s early musical training. In the early 1930’s, with the assistance of the microphone, he invented a fresh approach to this old tradition, creating a song style that was part blues, part crooning, part fixed and variable model, plastic and mellow, the most modern thing around.”
– Thomas Brothers
JJM Your book is a study of what is generally acknowledged to be Louis Armstrong’s most creative and important era, from the time he left New Orleans in 1922 to his time in Los Angeles in 1932. It also provides the reader with a clear look at the social context in which he lived and excelled. So, before we get started I want to say congratulations, and also thank you for your work.
TB Well, thank you very much.
JJM You’ve become known as the essential Armstrong scholar. The cultural historian Gerald Early calls you “Armstrong’s finest interpreter and chronicler.” Are you ever surprised by what you learn about him?
TB Oh, yes. That is what keeps me going! There were a lot of surprises in this book for me. Maybe not as many as in my previous book, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, because there had not been a lot of work done on that period, surprisingly. The early years of New Orleans jazz has been studied, but not really systematically, and, quite frankly, not really by scholars. So there was a lot to do there, and a lot of new things were learned. The period Master of Modernism covers is a better covered period — everybody knows the famous recordings and so forth. But, there were a lot of surprises, yes.
JJM What are some of the new resources available on Armstrong since you wrote Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans?
TB I used a number of archival sources for Master of Modernism. One of them is available to anyone who can subscribe to these ProQuest database searches, which provides access to historic black newspapers that are all online now, and you can just keyword search in them. It’s incredible!
For example, you can type in a slang word to find out how it was used. There was a comedian Armstrong was hooked up with in Chicago in the late 1920’s by the name of Marshall “Garbage” Rogers, who was well known as the “Heah Me Talkin’ to Ya” guy because it was the centerpiece of a comedy routine Rogers and his partner performed at the Savoy Ballroom.
With a little keyword searching, I figured out that this was where this Armstrong song title came from, and that it was probably written for the Chicago Savoy Ballroom, where Rogers was a comedian, and where he got married. So I’m conjecturing that this piece was written for his wedding.
So, things like that can come out of these historic black newspapers.
Also, there was a weekly magazine called the Heebie Jeebies, believe it or not, that started before Armstrong’s recording, so, if anything, Armstrong’s 1926 recording refers to the magazine, and not the other way around. I stumbled on to about 45 – 50 extant copies of this weekly magazine — some of them are in New York at the Schomburg Center, and a couple of them are at Yale, but a lot of them are at the Chicago History Museum. It was a gossipy little magazine that just gives a lot of information about things like what was happening at the Savoy Ballroom this week, this is what happened last week, and that kind of thing. So, that was really useful, too.
– Thomas Brothers
Of course the other thing I make big use of are oral histories and interviews made with the musicians, as well as Armstrong’s own personal accounts and his scrapbooks, which are available at the Queens Archive in the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Those are scrapbooks put together by his wife Lillian Hardin during his great Chicago years, and they are amazing clippings of inside reports, some of which I was able to attribute to the Heebie Jeebies magazine. So, these types of on-the-ground reporting finds were part of this big archival database I tapped into.
JJM Your book’s focus is on Armstrong’s invention of two modern art forms, the first being the creation of his “carefully designed trumpet solos” which were pitched primarily to black audiences, and the second being the “radical paraphrase of familiar, popular tunes” that appealed to a wide audience. Concerning the first modern art form, throughout the book you refer to a musical format you call the “fixed and variable model.” Can you explain that?
TB Sure. It’s always hard to talk about music in detail — it’s a real obstacle that we have. I try to get into a little bit of detail by talking about this because I feel that it’s important to draw the discussion to that level of exactly what is happening in these musical pieces, and then to connect that to bigger interpretive issues, such as this modern style that I write about. The reason that’s important here is because I’m asserting that this is his primary way of thinking about organizing these solos, and if you don’t talk about it, then you are sort of talking around it. So, by talking about it we are linking his achievement to a much bigger tradition of African-American music — and ultimately African music — and that is the main line of interpretation there.
What I mean by this “fixed and variable model” is that there are basically two layers of activity, and it is easiest to understand this in terms of rhythm. There’s a rhythmic pulse, a meter, and then a phrase structure — all of which tend to be binary — and then there’s another more complicated layer that interacts with that fundamental layer, and that’s the variable.
Once you understand this intuitively, it is actually very easy to hear. All African-American dance music is based on this fixed and variable model — it is very common. Ragtime is also based on this model. It’s ubiquitous, and, to some degree or another, it shapes virtually all of the African-American vernacular traditions.
In jazz it became a centerpiece, and jazz soloists cultivate elaborate variable lines — their solos — against this fixed, fairly simple and straightforward underlying foundation. But the emphasis in jazz is how fancy you can be in the variable side of it, which is one distinguishing feature of the tradition, as opposed to, for example, the blues, which cultivates the same thing but in more of a conversational style of delivery rather than as fancy rhythmic tricks or as elaborate melodies. It is more in the phrasing. Ragtime does the same thing, and it’s more locally-based, as opposed to Armstrong’s thinking in bigger terms — the variable against the fixed. Ragtime is more locally based — according to the measure — so there is syncopation within the measure. Armstrong’s extending that way of thinking to two measures and three measures and four measure phrases.
JJM Not being a musician myself, I understood the variable at a very base level to mean Armstrong soloing over the rhythm…
TB Well, here’s the key. You can play a jazz solo against the fixed pattern in the background, and it doesn’t really have variable rhythms. It’s very easy to do that. You can play rhythms that are sort of in-sync with the flow of the fixed background, and conform to it in a very straightforward way.
So, for example, in one of the chapters on New York, I claim that Joe Smith, who was Armstrong’s rival, is basically much more in sync with that fixed background. He is conforming to the flow of measures and two-bar units and four-bar phrases, and that makes it easier to listen to him. Armstrong is challenging that. He’s more in tension with that fixed background, and that makes his solos more challenging, and more adventurous, actually. And that’s the kind of detail that he cultivates.
JJM Your book begins with Armstrong leaving New Orleans and returning to Joe Oliver’s band in Chicago. What immediate opportunity did that present Armstrong?TB He stayed with Oliver’s band for almost two years. It was a high paying gig — probably better pay than he got for work in New Orleans — and he was playing with a group of first-rate New Orleans musicians, including the great clarinetist Johnny Dodds, who plays on one side of him, and of course Oliver, who plays on the other side. Oliver had a very clear, strong vision of what he wanted his band to sound like, and what he wanted his soloists to sound like. It’s a crackerjack band — a really good unit. So, it must have been really fun to play with that band, and really fun to just sink deeper into Oliver’s stylistic vision of what the ensemble should sound like, and what the solos should sound like.
JJM Who were the band’s competitors?
TB Well, there was Freddie Keppard’s band, Lawrence Duhe’s band, and if Jimmy Noone wasn’t there already he would be within a year or so. The New Orleanians were doing very well in Chicago, actually, and were very well received. Milt Hinton — who is not from New Orleans, but who moved to Chicago with his mother in the mid- 1920’s as a young teenager — said the New Orleanians basically had a lock on Chicago entertainment on the South Side. They were very, very popular. So, Armstrong was stepping into a very promising situation, one that was ready to hear his advances, and to take them in.
JJM The New Orleans musicians brought what you call a “plantation vernacular” to Chicago…
TB They had already done that in New Orleans, exactly. They’re packing touches of the blues into their dance music, as well as the kinds of touches that remind people of church — congregational singing, the ring shouts. Somebody in New Orleans said that this music was like the ring shout being taken out into the streets. There was also the improvisation, of course. So, they had built a whole scene around this kind of effort.
JJM So, we walk into Lincoln Gardens in 1922. What do we witness? TB Well, first off, we know from Armstrong’s report that when he got off the train, having arrived from New Orleans, he got in a cab and it took him directly to Lincoln Gardens, which is kind of symbolic because the people who were attending Lincoln Gardens and supporting Oliver and his band were the people of the Great Migration — the 50,000 people who had come from the rural and urban South who settled on the South Side of Chicago. So, as I say it is symbolic that Armstrong takes that same trip himself, and ends up right there.
Lincoln Gardens is a dance hall. There are differing reports on the number of people it held, but it is a fairly large dance hall, and not terribly fancy. It had a very small balcony around the sides, and it had one of those reflecting lights that twirls around and breaks into little prisms of light on the dance floor. There was “ring side seating” up near the bandstand, and this is where white musicians liked to be. So, this collection of white musicians gathering around the bandstand, admiring what he and Oliver’s band were doing, was a new thing for Armstrong. They are young guys in their late teens and early 1920’s who are really impressed by the band; they’re studying it, they’re imitating it, and the band members are their heroes, really. So, this admiration by white musicians is a very new thing for Armstrong.
JJM They were known as “Alligators.”
TB Exactly. That’s the Louisiana nickname for them.
JJM An essential relationship of Armstrong’s was with Lillian Hardin, who he eventually married. How did they connect?
TB She was not in the band when he arrived. There are different reports about this, and Armstrong himself tells different versions of the story, but it is pretty clear she was not in the band in August, 1922, because there was a different woman pianist. She came in late that year as a piano player, and she wasn’t very impressed by Armstrong to begin with. She knew he was the second cornet player, and there was no immediate sort of attraction or anything.
Oliver had introduced them, and they gradually got to be friends, especially during the spring of 1923, when they end up being part of the first of the great series of recordings of the Oliver band. During the recordings she noticed that they had Armstrong stationed in the back of the recording studio, which she understood was because he was overpowering Oliver.
After that they start to take an interest in each other. They begin dating in the summer of 1923, and by February of 1924 they are married. It is not exactly a match made in heaven, but it’s a match that’s extremely important for Armstrong’s career in the 1920’s.
JJM She was clearly an important partner to Armstrong, and once claimed that he was “A fella who didn’t have much confidence in himself to begin with, and he didn’t believe in himself.” Is that something that Armstrong would have agreed with?
TB Oh, I think so. Yes. He talks a lot about being shy in New Orleans, and about how difficult it was to leave Oliver and step out as a soloist. Even after he returns to Chicago from New York, when he’s established as a soloist, he was embarrassed by having his name put up on the marquee and was reluctant to step up on the stage for featured solos at the Vendome. It definitely took him a while to gain confidence as a featured soloist, and Lillian was important in that transition.
JJM You wrote, “In their search for fame and lucre, Lil and Louis were exploring two main avenues — compositions that they could copyright and a more prominent space for Louis as a soloist.” How did the financial incentive to create music that could be easily written and copyrighted shape Armstrong’s creative development?
TB Well, this is interesting. In the early 1920’s it was quite firmly recognized by the musicians in Oliver’s circle — and by the New Orleanians in Chicago generally — that one way to make money was to record your own tunes, which was easy to do. If you had a recording contract, the recording company was interested in having you provide your own tunes rather than record the famous tunes of the day because then they didn’t have to pay any royalties. They could just pay you a flat fee — not that much, actually — and your tune would then be recorded. The payoff would then be from the royalties you would earn if your tune became popular and other people recorded it. This was a financial business model that Oliver was very keenly interested in. Lillian also got interested in it, and she copyrighted a number of tunes during the period. Armstrong also steps right into this, and the two of them write tunes together.
Lillian copies them out by hand, and Armstrong eventually does, too, and they sent them to the U.S. Patent Office, and today these lead sheets are in the Library of Congress. The piece “Cornet Chop Suey” was, I think, the most spectacular discovery — not from my work, this has been known for 10 or 15 years — because before that people thought it was actually an improvised solo. Now we know that he had it written out meticulously, and that he played it virtually the way he had written it out. There are a few embellishments here and there, but it’s not a tune that needs to be embellished and jazzed up or anything, it is basically intact the way it is. So, at this point his creativity is being channeled into what can be notated, and that’s what they see as their path to better financial rewards.
By the end of the decade, he had basically abandoned that model. What he realized by the end of the decade was that his personal gift would not be through tunes that could be notated, but through tunes that can’t be notated. In other words, they include a lot of the vernacular, eccentric little details, phrasing, accents, and rhythmic patterning that can’t be notated but can be captured on a recording and that can really shine through in live performance. That’s where his gift is, and that’s what makes his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens solos of the 1920’s so great – he is incorporating all of that. He’s doing this in an orally-based kind of music, rather than restricting his creativity to what can be notated.
JJM There was a contradiction in what each business model wanted out of him; the record company wanted him to create original material, and the cabarets wanted him to perform known melodies…
TB Yes, I think that’s correct. In my book I talk a lot about these two phases of modernism — as you described earlier in the interview — and the first one being largely for the African-American community and preserved on the Hot Five recordings, and the second being an attempt to reach the white audiences with paraphrases of popular songs.
It’s important to emphasize that performing popular songs in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s wasn’t new for him – he had been doing that all along – it is just that those pieces didn’t go onto recordings because paying royalties to the song’s composer wasn’t part of the business model.
JJM How did Fletcher Henderson first hear of Armstrong?
TB There’s a story that Henderson was touring through New Orleans with a blues singer in 1921 or so, and while there he actually heard Armstrong and then tried to get him to come to New York, but Armstrong refused to leave at that point. So, somehow Henderson was reminded of Armstrong in the summer of 1924, and invited him to come to New York then. Lillian inspired him to take the offer and to go, and he spent about a year in New York City playing with Henderson.
JJM So, in addition to playing with Henderson, he also had access to the recording studios where he worked with people like Clarence Williams and Bessie Smith…
TB He loved that side of his experience during his year in New York, making all those “race recordings” with the blues musicians. But the main benefit of playing with Henderson was that he was the featured soloist. So, he would now be playing lots and lots of hot solos, and he had a whole year to work on a technique of constructing them.I make the case in the book that the melodic construction of hot solos at this point, in 1924, wasn’t necessarily anything special, they just had to have a lot of heat. In other words, they had to have a lot of bluesy intensity, they had to have a lot of strong percussive attack, and they had to have a lot of rhythmic excitement, but they didn’t have to be great melodies. Armstrong sounds good because he’s got great control of his instrument, he has a big sound, he has a lot of rhythmic drive, he has a lot of bluesy touches — so he’s perfect for this. But what he’s also driven for — and this is what he experiments with during his year with Henderson, and during the next year back in Chicago — is constructing these as beautiful melodies, in addition to all that. That’s what ultimately distinguishes him.
JJM Following his time with time with Henderson, he returned to Chicago, and within a week’s time began work at the Dreamland. What made the Dreamland stand out from other Chicago clubs?
TB It was owned by an African American, which made it very special, and it got a lot of press for that. It became known as a “safe place” for African Americans to go, where they would not be humiliated, and where there was no hint of any kind of segregation.
It was a very friendly place, and it was also known as a classy place for people on the South Side to go, which must have meant that there was not a lot of racy humor, there was not a lot of nudity — meaning the women dancers did not wear revealing costumes, or at least with much less exposure as other places.
JJM Did Armstrong feel a competition with the dancers of any of the clubs in which he played? In other words, did he feel as if he needed to upstage them, and if so, did that drive his creativity at all?
TB There has been some good work done on that by Brian Harker, a musicologist at Brigham Young who has associated Armstrong’s work at the Sunset Café in 1926 and 1927 with some dancers there. There’s not a lot of evidence that says he actually felt threatened by them, but the dancers are doing a lot of the same things that he’s doing — they are taking African-American vernacular dance steps and they’re professionalizing them to satisfy the integrated audiences of the Sunset Café. So, there’s a lot of compatibility between the dancers and the musicians, and, of course, all of the music Armstrong made was very compatible with dancing, so there’s a lot to work with there. And, since a lot of them are virtuoso dancers, they are pushing the professionalization of these vernacular dance steps as far as they can take them, which is a lot of what Armstrong is doing, too.
JJM Regarding his time with Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendome, Armstrong must have been quite nervous at the outset, since he said “I like to have fainted” upon being hired… TB This was another place where Lillian was influential, because she insisted that he take the opportunity to play with Tate. Tate’s outfit is very classy. They called themselves a “symphony orchestra” — they have violins, and they’re playing light classics and opera overtures. They’re fitting into what was a national tendency to have classy music at some movie theaters.This is hard for us to understand, because it’s so unfamiliar to us today, but movie theaters always had music of some kind during the silent picture era, even if were just an organist or a piano player.
The fanciest movie theaters in Manhattan had elaborate, very well-rehearsed symphony orchestras that were competing with the best orchestras in all of New York City. The programs would turn over every week, and the music became just as important as the movies, and in the case of the Vendome Theater, the music is even more important than the movie because how much of what was being produced in the movies of the 1920’s is going to appeal to the African-American audiences of the time? Usually not very much. If there are any African-American actors in the film, they’re treated condescendingly or patronizingly, or they’re ridiculed. So, to see a classy African-American symphony orchestra perform is a huge thing, and that’s why Armstrong was nervous, because he had never played that kind of music before his time with Tate.
JJM This was a step up from what he played during his time with Fletcher Henderson…
TB Yes, this was actually a big step up from Henderson. You can imagine that the ensemble playing is very tight, you would have to read music quickly, you would have to learn music quickly, and you would have to assimilate it quickly. There were also all kinds of nuances that he’s not necessarily used to.
JJM And he sang at the Vendome…
TB We don’t have a whole lot of detail about his singing there, but, yes, I’m sure he did sing because once “Heebie Jeebies” established him as a singer in the spring of 1926, his singing was in demand, not just at the Vendome but at the Sunset Café too.
JJM In the winter of 1925 – 26, while making a name for himself at classy venues like the Dreamland Café and the Vendome Theater, Armstrong was also extending his reputation thanks to the Hot Five series on OKeh Records. The recordings sold in Chicago, but the main target audience was African Americans in the Deep South, where “race records” were immensely popular. What was OKeh’s marketing strategy for this series?
TB Yes, they certainly sold in Chicago, and they sold in all northern cities where there were African-American communities from the Great Migration. The target of these “race records” was of course to appeal to the African-American mass audience, and to do so in a low-budget way. They were not interested in paying musicians any royalties – they would get a flat fee – so while it was a great way for a musician to make a name for himself, it was not necessarily a great way to make a career because there was very little income from the recordings themselves.
JJM What Armstrong recorded for OKeh and what he performed live must have been substantially different than what he was playing…
TB That’s right. The famous Hot Five ensemble of Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr, Johnny Dodds, Lillian Hardin, and Armstrong are New Orleans musicians who were assembled in order to put collective improvisation together at the drop of a dime. They would walk into the studio with very little rehearsal time and no fancy arrangements, and knock off a few recordings. It’s a rough and ready kind of production, which is very different from playing in a place like the Vendome Theater or the Sunset Café, where they’re playing arrangements, where more than one musician may be playing on a part, and where they are playing hits of the day.
During my research for the book I tried to identify as much overlap as I could between what was being played in the live settings and what was being played in the recording studios. Sometimes it’s very clear. For example, “Big Butter and Egg Man,” one of his most important recordings from 1926, was definitely played at the Sunset Café, but the version that’s on the record with the Hot Five is not going to be matching what was played at the Sunset Café, except for Armstrong’s solo and the vocals. The Hot Five arrangement is not what we would have heard at the Sunset Café because that was arranged and orchestrated for the musicians, whereas the studio version was improvised by the New Orleanians, who, except for Armstrong, were not at the Sunset Café. So, it’s that kind of thing, where sometimes you can see little bits of evidence that these solos are migrating from the live performance venues into the recording studios, but sometimes it’s just speculation.
Another example is “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque,” which I suggest was probably heard in these venues because it’s clear that it is a carefully worked out solo, one that he performed week after week, got it right in the live venues and then brought to the studio.
JJM We talked a little earlier about the “Alligators” — the white musicians who would come watch and listen to Armstrong. How did they contribute to Armstrong’s emergence as the dominating influence in jazz during the 1920’s?TB Well, it’s clear that the Henderson recordings and the 1924 recordings he made with blues musicians in New York were getting his name out to jazz musicians throughout the country. For example, Jack Teagarden said that he first heard Armstrong for the first time through those recordings. The Hot Five recordings were an ever better opportunity to showcase Armstrong as a soloist, and his reputation expanded among musicians, especially musicians in Chicago who knew about him.
So, going down to the Sunset Café or at times other venues to hear Armstrong and to hang out with him became the thing to do. They became friends with him — they certainly idolized him — and they had these recordings from which they could memorize his solos. This connection with other musicians was the way his innovations and his great melodies find their way throughout the jazz field.
If these musicians didn’t copy his solo exactly, they internalized his style. Bud Freeman is very good with this, and he talks about some of his early recordings, saying, “That’s all Louis, what I’m doing on there. That’s my version of Louis’ solos.” That became more and more common among not just African-American musicians, but white musicians, too.
JJM There was a lot of talk among the African-American musicians about the Alligators stealing their work. Chicago Defender writer Dave Peyton felt that black musicians should “hold on to your ideas. Don’t show them (Alligators) a thing.” He even insisted that anyone who violated this principle was an “Uncle Tom.” Of course, the recordings made it so you didn’t have to see Armstrong in person to steal his work, you could steal it from the recordings, which was a new dynamic…
TB Yes. Peyton does talk about this. As the music writer for the Defender, he is probably the most important African-American writer on music during the 1920’s. The column you refer to is sort of a business column — for example, how to advance your career — and he talks about this problem you bring up.
You know, Armstrong never complained about it. Armstrong and Earl Hines, for example, felt flattered by the attention, and they enjoyed their friendships with white musicians. For others it was not so easy to swallow, because if you weren’t in the premier cream of the cream, like Armstrong and Hines-two of the greatest musicians of the 1920’s — if white musicians were copying what you were doing, then that was more of a problem and it wasn’t quite as easy to accept.
JJM Jumping ahead to 1929, Armstrong returned to New York, where he performed at Connie’s Inn in Harlem and on Broadway in Hot Chocolates, a show that put him in a position to experiment with paraphrasing popular songs…TB The success of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” puts a bigger spotlight on him in New York, and especially a spotlight at the Hudson Theatre, which is primarily a white theater. It’s through this success that the recording company realizes they can now market him more aggressively to white audiences through their premiere label.
So, after the success of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Ain’t Misbehavin'” — both of which were from May and June of 1929 — he became much more in demand in that marketing strategy. At the same time, he is playing in different kinds of venues, and he has a tour around the country during which he sings primarily popular songs, where there will be a very strong connection between what he’s doing in live situations and what’s going directly onto the recordings.
JJM So, he became what is known in the record business as a “crossover artist,” which is an ability to appeal to multiple audiences…
TB Yes. I believe ”West End Blues” was the recording where they first started experimenting with releasing him on both labels, and then they just increased the intensity of that, all the way through 1929. Ultimately, by 1931, his recordings are no longer released on the “race” label – his music is only released on the white labels.
JJM “West End Blues” was sung at the Savoy Ballroom, and probably with the use of a microphone…TB Yes, somebody actually says how he stepped back from the microphone to play his trumpet solo, which implies that he’s got a microphone there for his voice. And you can also tell on his vocal on “West End Blues” that it is a very different vocal style than, say, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” or even “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. You hear the microphone voice on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and you hear the big voice that’s going to fill up a big space on “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. These are two different kinds of voices for him, and it’s the microphone voice that’s going to dominate the early 1930’s, with all the nuances and delicate phrasing, which is closer to the crooner style. The crooner style was based on microphones, and while nobody mistook Armstrong for a crooner, there are definitely connections there. .
JJM Armstrong’s performance of “Poor Little Rich Girl” got everybody’s attention at the Vendome and Sunset, but he never recorded it since OKeh was not interested in paying royalties to its composer, Noel Coward. Are there other examples of that, and, because of this kind of constraint, did Armstrong put his best material on record?
TB We do have some reports on that kind of thing from the Vendome Theater, where people talked about certain songs as having a huge impact when he performed them live there, but we don’t know anything about them on record. So, I think there was absolutely some of that. That would have been true of his work through 1928, but once he gets into the white audience, from 1929, especially, and through 1932, we can be confident that most of his good material is going onto the recordings.
JJM Breaking into the white market without losing his African-American vernacular identity was an amazing achievement for his era…
TB Well, he’s in an environment in Chicago at a time where there is an incredible demand among African-American audiences for sophisticated music that, as one person says, “Really relates to us.” People have disposable income and they’re willing to pay for classy entertainment, and there are a lot of venues where classy entertainment is being presented. It is a very competitive environment that made this kind of achievement possible.
Another thing is that there was access to music lessons. Many New Orleanians took lessons in Chicago from German music teachers, and they are learning scales, they are learning technical exercises for agility, they are learning how to cultivate a better tone quality, and they are learning a little bit of music theory and chord formation. All of that gets folded into his solo style in the mid-to-late 1920’s. That kind of thing is very audible in that period — we don’t hear that so much today, we just hear Armstrong as a great player — but during this period, they would hear that. They would hear that as sophistication, they would hear that as technical accomplishment. They could hear that he could match the best white trumpet players of the day, and they could hear that he even expanded the range on his instrument, and that he could play as fast as they do. And, of course he has his beautiful sound, which was just as good as the classy white trumpet players. All of that was very audible in Chicago in the late 1920’s.
JJM The final part of your book deals with the time he left Chicago in July of 1930 for Los Angeles. Of that period, you wrote, “What really did Armstrong in was the movies. In two short films made by Paramount in early 1932, soft racism is thrown to the winds while Armstrong is assigned crippling roles in stories of explicit barbarism.” Why wasn’t he more reluctant to be a part of this?
TB Well, as a writer for the Chicago Defender said, “They’re thinking of their meals, not their ideals.” You know, there was an understanding at the time that if African-American musicians were going to advance in the white market, and to get the big money and the big fame, certain compromises were necessary. And, African-Americans understood that, and they appreciated it when a fellow African-American made it big. They definitely admired anybody like Armstrong who could reach the national market, so there was a willingness to overlook that kind of thing.
JJM Well, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington also made Betty Boop cartoons for Paramount, but, as you write, with very different results. What was it about Armstrong that made the animators depict him in such a savage way, versus the way Ellington or Calloway were depicted? Did Armstrong allow that?
TB I think that it’s the intensity of the African-American musical vernacular in his music and in his singing that leads to that. In other words, when people hear him, they actually hear the connection to Africa. They hear the connection to the bluesy vernacular of the South. It’s very deep, it comes across as very genuine and very thorough. It conditions everything.
That’s different than Ellington and Calloway, who are matching white show styles at a different level. They’re combining things in a different way, and their bands are playing more than one instrument on a part, and so forth. So, they don’t quite have the same emphasis.
JJM Throughout his career he was depicted by the media in ways that made him palatable to the whites of that era…
TB Yes, you’re right. This became an issue in the 1950’s and especially during the civil rights era. Remember, we are talking about someone who had a fifth grade education. He didn’t grow up like Miles Davis did, who came from a wealthy family that was used to dealing with white people and who was engaged politically. And, he was not Paul Robeson, who was a lawyer. And then, on the other hand, we’re talking about a career that goes on until the very end of his life. How many musicians are able to do that? He was willing to make compromises to make that happen.
JJM There is of course a great divide about how Armstrong’s career is viewed. There is no debate about the era you focus on in your book – virtually everyone agrees that his work at that time is greatness. But that is where the disagreement begins. While there are critics that will defend his career post-1932, others would ridicule it. Where do you stand on that?
TB Well, I could just speak to that mainly for the period covered in the book. When he steps into the repertoire of popular songs played by a dance orchestra, with two trombones, two saxophones, and so forth, playing arrangements primarily of popular songs, this is the formula for the swing era. This has been viewed as a controversial step all by itself – his turn away from the Hot Five repertory and the New Orleans collective improvisation format into this alternative. I don’t think that many people who really know Armstrong today would feel that this is a problem, because the music is so fantastic. What he did with this repertoire in the early 1930’s recordings is incredible. But there was a time where that was regarded as very controversial, and a step in the wrong direction.
That was a theme during the swing era itself, where people like John Hammond would criticize the music for being too commercial, and some jazz musicians would take a purist kind of stance, claiming they only play commercial music because they have to, but what they really want to do is play small-group jazz. That was a minority position in the swing era – I doubt that a whole lot of people thought that way, but you see the seeds of it even there.
But I don’t think that was a problem for Armstrong. What he comes up with is so transcendent, because what he did was transforming these popular songs and arrangements into something completely different -and coming up with his own version of this music. And it’s brilliant, really.
“Armstrong’s career, the most successful jazz has ever known, spanned half a century. From the time he left New Orleans in 1922, at age twenty-one, until he died as one of the most famous people in the world in 1971, he trumpeted and sang his way through some of the greatest dramas in the nation’s history – nascent Jim Crow, the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the urban North, the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights era, and the Cold War. To see how a dark-skinned musician from the Deep South, whose formal education ended at age twelve, accomplished all of this is to witness one of the most compelling life stories of the twentieth century. A small man who controlled a powerful instrument, Armstrong first internalized and then transformed the African-American vernacular.”
– Thomas Brothers
Listen to the 1926 recording of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five playing “Heebie Jeebies” [Columbia/Legacy]
# text from the publisher