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Clip: Louis Armstrong's New Orleans reviewed

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  • Carl Z.
    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
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 25, 2006
      '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
      Hot Poppas."
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