January 1, 1901 was a Tuesday in steamy New Orleans. There were folks, mostly muttering vagrants and journalists, who would say it was Wednesday in China, but these people were considered unbalanced and irrelevant. That Tuesday introduced an un-conjoined rabble of miscreants labeled ‘Americans’ into a century that would thrill, fly, drive, destroy and generally scare the crap out of millions of people.
50 years earlier an industrial revolution got kicked off as the necessity of war created new ideas that forever enhanced the colorful pastoral landscape of America. Railroads created new towns across the land as well as a small class of wealthy people. The need of lubricants for these colossal engines created millions of jobs and big holes and a small class of wealthy people. Suddenly horses and trains weren’t fast enough so the two were combined. And the need for a compound that had been being developed for a few centuries without any clear need created a rubber tire industry and a small class of wealthy people. The need to govern this creeping advancement towards a utopian environment cemented a move from politicians being reluctant rural aristocrats, a move that had been building throughout the 19th century, into the career knuckleheads we re-elect to this day. And of course created a small class of wealthy people.
Anyone who owns a home knows that any small crevice, a corner on the underside of your deck or eaves, the spaces between the shingles on your roof and the roof itself, those pesky fence post corners, are irresistible havens for wasps. You create this environment and you have to live with the varmints. Nasty, pesty creatures that have no gratitude that you built this environment and have given them endless opportunities to make your life miserable. So in came the bankers. And another small class of wealthy people. Note: I did not capitalize wasps.
Farming as a way of life was waning, certainly as a small family farm. And this was no more apparent than in the southern United States at the beginning of the 20th century. The carpetbaggers that flocked to the South at the end of the Civil War squeezed the last of any possible revenue from the rural farms and plantations then flocked back north. Whites and Blacks alike went to the cities searching for new jobs and new lives and mostly re-discovered poverty.
Louis Daniel Armstrong was brought into this stew on a Friday. August 4, 1901. He posited his whole life he was born on the Fourth of July 1900, but that’s been discounted because July 4, 1900 was a Tuesday and we have it on solid authority Louis was born on a Friday. He was born into poetic circumstances. Both parents were teenagers, and his mom Mayann brought little Louis into the world in Boutte, a small Creole town north of New Orleans. Pops left when Louis was young, and Mayann was forced to make a decision. Work the sugar cane fields around Boutte, an incredibly hard and dangerous profession, or move to New Orleans and get work as a domestic servant.
Mayann chose the latter. Louis spent the first 5 or so years in the care of his grandmother. Mayann supplemented the wealth she no doubt made as a domestic servant with evenings walking the streets. Picking sugar cane as a job has a nasty and dangerous reputation but choosing prostitution in turn of that century New Orleans in a neighborhood called ‘the battlefield’ over picking cane gives that shit a new perspective.
At 6 or 7 Louis was befriended by a local Jewish family named Karnofsky. He was impressed early on by three things: This family was white and as oppressed as his family because they were Jews, they gave him jobs working their junk business despite the fact they were poor themselves, and they had music. The house was full of singing, and later in life Louis remembered the sounds of the mother starting a lullaby, and the family joining in before going to bed.
The Karnofsky’s scraped together $5, a sum of princes at that time and place, and bought Louis his first cornet. Even at 9 years old he knew what he wanted to do with that thing, and spent evenings wandering around New Orleans listening to music. At the time you could walk the residential streets of this musical city and hear variant styles of music coming from the houses on each block, jug bands, ragtime on player pianos, strings with horns, old men on porches with banjos. But what really drew young Armstrong’s attention was a musical form that was taking ragtime, adding call and answer figures and syncopation that would by the time he was a teenager develop into Dixieland or Creole Jazz.
When Louis was 10 or 11 he really started listening to Joe Oliver and Sidney Bechet. He followed them after gigs, pestered them for lessons and tips on playing. Oliver in particular remembers this little kid they called Dippermouth as talented but really too young to pay much attention to. But even at 11 Louis could make money singing in the streets.
The entertainment environment in New Orleans in 1912 was as rich as it is today. The city was a major route entry for ships, sailors, scoundrels and thieves who needed brothels, drink, and music. A style of singing sprang up with street bands who sang on corners and in front of bars for spare change. They developed a style of imitating instruments with their voices and added growls, howls, and guttural screeches that became known as ‘spasm music’. These spasm bands would do hits of the day for money, adding a new and exciting flavor that couldn’t be called nuance as much as hot sauce. It was fun to watch, fun to listen to, and fun to perform. Louis learned his singing chops in these roving bands of delinquents.
But delinquents they were, and at 12 Louis was arrested for disturbing the peace and sent to the Colored Waifs Home for Boys.
The home was a structured environment where you got three hots and a cot, but were expected to go to school, fix your own clothing, and follow rules. Armstrong was OK with the former but had to be shown that whole ‘rules’ thing that resulted in sore body parts. But the Waifs Home had something he couldn’t resist, and would put up with anything to participate in. They had a band.
Not only did they have a band, but they had a leader, a teacher who would recognize the talent of Louis and would set to bringing this wild kid into a world he would need that discipline to survive. Even late in life Armstrong would credit Peter Davis with setting him on a path that would change his life and the lives of musicians around the world, but remained convinced Davis never liked him. Peter Davis was a hard master and kept Louis in menial roles until he stopped getting into trouble. Louis was first allowed into the band as the tambourine player, which Armstrong considered demeaning and some form of punishment, but Davis would recount he did that to give the boy the rhythm he needed to really succeed on that cornet. Thank you Mr. Davis. Tell us where we can send flowers.
Armstrong and Davis in 1965.
The band introduced Armstrong to structure, discipline and theory, but also to many different styles of music. Ragtime was considered low class and certainly Dixieland hadn’t been explored yet, so Davis taught the boys the popular tunes of the day. Louis never lost the love for different styles, even pop styles, and despite being credited as instrumental in the development of Jazz never considered himself a ‘jazz’ trumpeter. He was an entertainer. And the growling he took from spasm band singing and the natural talent he had for innovation found fertile ground under the shadow of Peter Davis.
The Waif’s Home Band would march in neighborhoods and do concerts. He would remember his entire life the pride he felt going back to the battlefield where the hookers and hustlers remembered Dippermouth and were amazed at his talent.
Upon leaving the home he was a musician for life and went in search for where he would fit best. Ragtime was still popular but had a constriction which chafed musicians like Armstrong. They started playing around the melody, and brought in call-and-answer blues senses into ways to have the instruments ‘talk’ to each other. And it begins.
Armstrong played around New Orleans with several bands, even taking Joe Oliver’s place in a band when he moved to Chicago. But the real next jump was joining a band led by an African American pianist named Fate Marble. At 18 he was playing with Marble on a riverboat band whose captain loved this new ‘jazz’ music that band was playing. Marble recognized Armstrong’s raw talent and knew throwing him into a band with veteran talent would help him. Louis not only learned a new level of music discipline including sight reading charts, he learned he had a natural ability to hear a song once and own it.
In 1922 Joe ‘King’ Oliver called Louis and asked him to join his band in Chicago. Armstrong was 21. The next decade would see Louis revolutionizing the cornet and singing as a jazz instrument. In 1924 he joined Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra, but Fletch didn’t dig Louis’s singing voice and feared that growling would offend his audiences. Armstrong left sending the remainder of the Roaring 20’s with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups. In 1928 he finally switched to trumpet and in 1930 moved to New York.
Here is Louis’s first solo with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, 1923, Jelly Roll Morton’s Froggie Moore.
1928, with the Hot Five. A song that follow him his whole life, Basin Street Blues. His power as a player and singer is really taking off. And man, that scat.
In 1937, Louis with the Mills Brothers. Acoustic guitar and trumpet, two instruments only. Mills Brothers vocalizing the horn parts.
Bonus. La Vie en Rose. This is much later, like 1950.
Shiver Me Timbers.
Next issue: Louis Armstrong, Ol’ Satchmo. The really amazing later years.