Clip: Louis Armstrong's New Orleans reviewed
- 'Louis Armstrong's New Orleans,' by Thomas Brothers
Review by JASON BERRY
Published: April 23, 2006
Louis Armstrong, at 20, was a New Orleans cornet player sharpening his
chops when he landed in the Tuxedo Brass Band. It was 1921 and, for
Armstrong, a move up. In "Louis Armstrong's New Orleans," Thomas
Brothers portrays him as a grandson of slaves who brought "a culture
based on blues, on communal singing in church and on the string-band
tradition of ragging tunes" into a band led by "Creoles of color."
Many free people of color owned slaves before the Civil War. At the
turn of the century, Jim Crow laws squeezed Creoles into segregated
status with former slaves or their children. Armstrong's mother was 15
when he was born. He was all but fatherless, at 11, when a judge sent
him to the Colored Waif's Home for Boys after he was arrested for
firing a gun. There he got his first horn, and musical discipline.
Back on his own in his teens, he found a surrogate father in Joe
Oliver, a gifted cornetist and the emerging king of New Orleans jazz.
Tensions between caste and color in New Orleans have drawn scrutiny in
some jazz histories. Brothers has done the most thorough job yet of
exploring the social distance between Armstrong's early years in Back
of Town — the central city ghetto, once a swamp back of the plantation
houses — and the world of the downtown Creoles, below Canal Street.
Many Creoles still spoke French, and most were classically trained.
Lorenzo Tio Jr. was an esteemed clarinetist among a school of reed
players in the downtown Seventh Ward. Oliver, who lived uptown, played
by ear, improvising on the melody. Creoles considered this playing
raggedy, but the poor folk from uptown and Back of Town who filled up
dance halls signaled where the culture, and the music, were heading.
The harmonies of choirs in the small Sanctified churches melded with
the blues and syncopated rags in a musical stylization quite different
from society orchestral fare. There is an enduring stereotype of the
Storyville red-light district as the incubator of early jazz. The
bordellos and cabarets with sawdust floors did provide key music
venues and the raw stuff for many lyrics, like those for "Basin Street
Blues." But Brothers rightly examines the spiritual imagination that
fired the voicelike phrasings of the wind players; the many mingled
echoes of the sacred and profane gave dancers in the clubs a
stomp-down good time.
Brothers, a professor of music at Duke University and the editor of an
anthology of Armstrong's writings, culled many oral history interviews
in the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University in forming his picture
of the society that bloomed around Armstrong and his early peers.
His treatment of Armstrong's mother is poignant. In his 1954 memoir,
"Satchmo," Armstrong hints that she resorted to part-time prostitution
to support him and his sister. Brothers's insight into this woman, of
whom we know too little, deepens her humanity: "May Ann made a choice
about where she belonged. She brought her son into the
emotional-communal world of her tradition, not the assimilative
tradition of the new Baptists and definitely not the French tradition
of the Catholic Creoles, but the one that was closest to the ring
shouts of slavery, the one that featured communal focus on a direct
experience of the Holy Spirit, the one that cultivated vigorous
rhythms that made your body move and deeply felt melody that made your
heart pour out."
Creole musicians like Tio discovered a new way of playing as the dance
halls welcomed parade music, and the likes of Oliver and Armstrong
fused rhythms of the pews, rags and marches with the cool and burning
pathos of the blues. As society orchestras leaned toward bravura music
with improvisational weavings, dark and lighter jazz artists used an
idiom that had never existed before.
"Louis Armstrong's New Orleans" is not a biography, although Brothers
follows Armstrong through the cultural terrain in which he matured.
The curtain lowered on Act I of that grand life in August 1922. May
Ann made him a trout-loaf sandwich and waved at the train depot as he
left for Chicago to join Joe Oliver in the Creole Jazz Band.
The author writes about Armstrong, "In his cornet one could still hear
the caressing, arousing gestures of the blues, which still made the
chick slap the cheeks of her behind, grind her hips, explode with
laughter, all in dialogue with the music and the other dancers."
Certain passages on musical technique will make some readers skim.
Still, this is superb history and a rocking good read.
Jason Berry, a jazz historian and investigative journalist, is the
author of "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the
Sexual Abuse of Children" and of a forthcoming novel, "Last of the Red