Happy Birthday Louis Armstrong

One of the most delightful myths of American music is that the great jazz trumpet player and gravelly-voiced singer Louis Armstrong was born on July 4th, 1900. Actually, he was born on August 4th, 1901 but that fact wasn't uncovered until after he died, when biographers started raking over his life. The July 4th story, fostered by Armstrong himself, was based on the birth date on a phony draft card he used as a teenager in order to play music in New Orleans clubs.

Myths call attention to essential truths. The story of George Washington chopping down his father's cherry tree is a biographer's invention. So is his admission, "I cannot tell a lie." It never happened. But the myth tells us something about George Washington's character. Historians agree: it was sterling.

Similarly, no matter what the fact of Louis Armstrong's date of birth, he was our country's twentieth century, July 4th baby, a musical genius who brought joy to the world and changed the course of American music and entertainment.

Armstrong's importance rests on three propositions. As a young trumpet player in the 1920s he expanded jazz from an harmonically and rhythmically-circumscribed music into a creative performers art. As a singer, he was the inspiration for Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and every other great pop singer. Finally, he was the world's most beloved entertainer, an ambassador of American culture to the world.

Armstrong's jazz reputation rests on a series of records he made between 1925 and 1928: his Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions. On these records, Armstrong's extended solo improvisations took center stage, expanding jazz's emotional and musical language. Discovering space in syncopation, he made the music swing. Scholars have analyzed Armstrong's solos on these records, but it's enough to listen to them. Potato Head Blues, Cornet Chop Suey, Struttin' With Some Barbecue, Heebie Jeebies and the magnificent West End Blues are all available on CD reissues, as are his later albums, Louis Armstrong "Plays W.C. Handy" and "Plays Fats Waller," which are works of genius.

Jazz would have gone in the creative direction that Armstrong took it even without him. Generation after generation of brilliant jazz improvisers have pushed against its creative borders. But it was Armstrong who first and most brilliantly uncovered the possibilities of the music. As Miles Davis once said, "You can't play anything on the horn that Louis hasn't played -- I mean even modern."

Before Armstrong started singing, there were great black blues singers (Louis Armstrong accompanied the greatest of them, Bessie Smith, on some of her records), and white belters (like Al Jolson) who tried to imitate them. But pop crooners, like the sweet, lame-voiced Rudy Valley, stuck to the written music as in the European classical tradition. Armstrong brought his jazz innovations to popular singing, allowing the vocalist to personalize the music, to interpret a song as he or she wished. He was not the first singer to scat (that is, sing nonsense syllables for words), but he was the first jazz or pop singer to explore the full emotional range of the voice. He used it as if it was a horn, going deep within himself to capture the essence of a song.

Armstrong's musical ear and lyric sensibility were unerring. When songs were trite, as they so often were, he enhanced them with gentle mockery and then made them his own with brilliant musicianship. With good material -- tunes by Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, and Handy and Waller - - he was definitive. His collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald rank with the best of Sinatra as the authoritative interpretations of the great pop standards. Queen Ella, with her crystalline voice, swooped and soared. Armstrong responded in gruff staccato. Ella had the "chops," as Louis might have described her voice, but Armstrong's singing and trumpet playing was pure joy and musical genius.

Louis Armstrong saw himself as an entertainer as well as a jazz musician and singer. We picture him handkerchief in hand, wiping sweat off his brow, jiving and mugging. He was often criticized for not taking his music seriously and degrading his art. Detractors accused him of playing an "Uncle Tom," acting like a buffoon to please white audiences. There is an element of historic truth in that charge. All minorities learn to clown (think of Jewish comedians) in order to protect themselves from the majority's hostility, and Armstrong, living in a Jim Crow world, had something to fear.

But Armstrong's humor was as authentic as it was universal. Like his music, it welled up from in him. There was no shame in his jive, no dishonor to his mugging. Armstrong was always observant. He always carried a typewriter when touring, and his writings (see Louis Armstrong In His Own Words; Oxford, 1999), make apparent the self-awareness that informed his life as an entertainer. Growing up in an impoverished Southern apartheid environment where, as he put it, violence "danced" all around him, he understood the importance of his artistic vision, knew whom to emulate and whom to hold as role-models. He believed in himself and his ability to bring people together. The man people called "Dippermouth," "Satchmo," "Louis," or "Pops" was perfectly self-actualized, conscious of his prowess, true to his talent.

So happy birthday "Pops" even if July 4th is not your real one. On Independence Day, let's play some Louis Armstrong along with the National Anthem. Louis Armstrong was a true native son, the great liberator of American music.

Marty Jezer is a freelance writer from Brattleboro, Vermont. He welcomes comments at mjez@sover.net

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