The Roaring 20’s changed life in America in radical ways. The 18th Amendment passed on January 16, 1919, and prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors ” within the US, one year after ratification. Implemented by the Volstead Act, it resulted in every bar and saloon in the country closing on January 16, 1920. This forced the manufacture and distribution of alcohol underground and changed the small local hoodlum gangs running numbers and hookers into major criminal forces running politicians and cities.
The 19th Amendment known as the WTF Act gave women the vote for the first time. A revolution happened to the fairer class as more women joined the work force and started developing lives outside the home. For the first time in America’s history more people lived in cities than on farms. The earnings of the average household increased dramatically, and like all good Americans they looked around for places to spend it. Consumer goods became more nationally ubiquitous with the start of national ad campaigns. And what they bought a lot of were radios.
The first commercial radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, went on the air in 1920 and three years later there were 500 stations nationwide. By 1929 12 million households had a radio. Henry Ford revolutionized the manufacture of the automobile and in 1924 the cost of a Model T was $260 and by the end of the decade was not only affordable but was owned by 1 in 5 Americans, going from a luxury item to a necessity. And they drove those cars to the movies. In 1929 3 of 4 Americans went to the movies every week. Langston Hughes, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and Eugene O’Neill became prominent literary and cultural forces.
The decade was called the Jazz Age. If it wasn’t for that pesky Crash of 1929 the era would have been remembered as the greatest time in our history. And that jazz. Jazz in 1920 was mainly a Dixieland/Creole experience, and the musicians spent that decade looking for new ways to invent, expand, experiment and exploit an idiom that was more and more in demand as the nightclubs sprang up around the nation and the world. Louis Armstrong went from 19 years old and a prodigy in Oliver’s King Creole Band to a 29 year old recording star.
Louis Armstrong was married from the time he was 17 years old until the day he died, and pretty much continually, to four different women. But it was his second wife, Lil Hardin, who influenced his music more than any other and who early on recognized Armstrong’s talent and potential. In 1923 right after they were married Lil convinced him to leave Oliver’s band in Chicago and move to New York. Lil Hardin Armstrong was a strong willed and single minded musician and business manager and she molded an often recalcitrant Armstrong, changing the way he dressed, appeared on stage, his stage presence, and even convinced Louis to play classical in church groups to expand his musical thinking. Upon moving to New York he was hired in Fletcher Henderson’s big band.
This is 1924. Big bands were just becoming important and swing was but a glint in Henderson’s eye. Many musicians were working into swing, most notably Chick Webb, but Henderson was a master arranger and a major force in the development of the style. Henderson went on to become Benny Goodman’s arranger in the early to late 30’s and was the creator of a lot of those great arrangements performed by Goodman’s band we remember so well. But in 1924 he was playing a little constricted and within more of the confines of the ‘white’ bands like Paul Whiteman and his orchestra. The arrival of Armstrong changed that.
Henderson recognized Louis’ talent, but was reluctant to let him break out. He was not fond of his singing, and preferred Armstrong stay on the charts with his playing. The band itself was full of talented but more classically trained players who seemed content to be who they were. Armstrong was not, and would never be content to rest on laurels. He wanted to be somebody and the few times Fletch let him sing or solo the reaction from the audience and the musicians showed Louis (and Lil) he was very special. Armstrong was only with Henderson for a year and moved back to Chicago in 1925, but before leaving New York he was in demand all over town, recording with the great Sidney Bechet whom Armstrong remembered following around as a kid in New Orleans. And he changed Henderson’s band, giving it more freedom and space. But Lil had moved back to Chicago to take of her ailing mother. Louis missed her and she convinced him to move back.
Armstrong was welcomed back as the returning hero. Lil who came from Oliver’s band had created her own band and brought Louis in. But by the end of 1925 it was Louis Armstrong and the Hot Five. Here is a recording from that year featuring Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on banjo ( still a percussive instrument in 1925) and Lil on piano. The opening trumpet solo is wonderful and despite the tepid feud between Louis and the bop generation (Armstrong called it re-bop and “Chinese music”!) they give this solo props as probably the first hint of bebop playing. This is a Joe Oliver tune called West End Blues and an early Okeh recording.
The sustained trumpet note at 2:34. Yeah, go back.
By the 1930’s Armstrong had become seduced by the big band craze. Tommy Rockwell from Okeh Records and the producer of some of the more popular Hot Five recordings knew Louis’ potential and introduced him to Louis Russell who had a hot band in Harlem. Russell hired Armstrong and from here he learned the ropes of the big band. Armstrong formed his own with a revolving door of great musicians. The band was popular but Armstrong chafed under the rigors of being responsible for 12 or 15 musicians. But he made some marvelous recordings including this, written by Hoagy Carmichael (an early Armstrong worshipper) and recorded by everybody, even Willie Nelson.
But despite the popularity of bands like Goodman and Glenn Miller, by the end of the 30’s running a big band was not something that could be done by many. The war caused a hiatus, and then by 1945 the genre was unmanageable and all but dead. In April 1946 Armstrong and his big band played the Aquarium in NYC. Fans and musicians gathered to hear the greatest jazzman in the world. But Pops arrived with one of the largest, loudest and worst bands in his career. Time magazine gave the show a horrible review and it appeared Armstrong was headed in the same direction as many other big band leaders. But a few months later an angel appeared in the form of United Artists.
UA wanted to do a movie to tell the story of New Orleans in 1917. Titled New Orleans it featured Louis, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard (an early teacher of Louis’) and Billie Holiday, but more importantly put Pops back into a small ensemble setting. The result was Armstrong started recording with big and small bands and fully realized that the small sessions could really beat the crap out of doing larger bands. He started looking for better opportunities. Armstrong was approached by Town Hall music director Bobby Hackett about doing a ‘one-night’ show at the famous hall.
On May 17 1947 Louis showed up to a packed house and went over the songs with the musicians because there had been no time for rehearsals. But this was no large band where slackers could hide, this was a band made up mostly of musicians who’d played with him before and were some of the best in the industry including George Wetting on drums and Jack Teagarden, the trombone master, who’d recently given up his own big band because he was broke. The result was a huge success and Louis and the All Stars were born. The die was cast for the remainder of Armstrong’s career.
Satch solidified the All Stars and hired Velma Middleton as singer. She quickly became a comic sidekick to Armstrong. Her voice wasn’t strong but this woman could make an audience laugh and was great for Louis’ act which contained some silliness and downright vaudevillian relief. She was a large woman, going three hundred pounds, who used to be a dancer and would do these James Brown type splits on stage. Wish there was some video of THAT. Pops loved her and so did the audiences. Here’s Velma and Pops in 1947.
Jazz musicians had gotten pretty serious by this point starting with guys like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker playing the same Town House with their Be-Bop group in 1945, then into the 50’s with the invention of ‘Cool Jazz’ with the like of Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. Armstrong’s act, that had all that musical comedy, the campy grinning and eye rolling gave these serious blowers fits and even into the 60’s there were accusations of ‘Uncle Tom’. His singing was often described as gritty and harsh (obviously by critics who’d never heard the previous ‘Stardust’ cut) and even derided his scat singing with criticisms that he’d just forgotten the words and was mocking the artists who wrote those words. While touring Australia, 1954, he was asked if he could play Bebop. “Bebop?” he husked. “I just play music. Guys who invent terms like that are walking the streets with their instruments under their arms “. In 1957 Armstrong took a radical stance on a Little Rock flamer involving desegregation of schools, even calling out President Eisenhower, calling him ‘two faced’ and having ‘no guts’. Armstrong was roasted for his stand by the usual press, but he was genuinely surprised when none of the musicians calling him a tom backed him up. Not one.
What these clowns really missed was Armstrong’s work ethic. He played 300 gigs a year, evidenced by the fact he had four wives and only one kid, and was known by the people he worked with as a tireless worker. Throughout his life he took his music seriously, even as he considered himself first and foremost an entertainer. He bypassed the usual after gig parties and would instead go back to his hotel to write, both music and letters. In the late fifties he was touring world- wide and was considered the Ambassador of Jazz, but he lost musicians when they became exhausted from all the touring. Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s long time manager, was blamed for the killer schedule but the fact was Louis would have done it anyway.
In the late 50’s he toured constantly, as usual with a couple of world tours. In 1960, he took a break from touring. On the 1959 tour he’d suffered a heart attack and by 1960 was showing signs of health slowing him down. But he recorded with the likes of Dave Brubeck, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, and Ella Fitzgerald. His desire was unflaggable. In 1963 he recorded “Hello Dolly”, which became his biggest hit, and in 1967 “What a Wonderful World”, recognized world-wide as classic Louis Armstrong. These tunes made it into every show he did until he died. He never had an over-sized ego when it came to his music. He played what his audiences came to hear. Audiences from all over the world. In the mid 60’s he toured Africa, Asia and Europe including countries in the Soviet bloc.
By 1969 he was ready to celebrate his 70th birthday but his health was in the way. In ’69 he didn’t tour at all, just rested. His doctors proclaimed him ready to tour and he immediately embarked, but another heart attack sent him home for good. Satch died a few days just before his 70th birthday at his long-time home in Queens, the first and only house he ever owned, on July 6.
In 1956 a remake of the Katherine Hepburn/Jimmy Stewart/Cary Grant classic Philadelphia Story, this one called High Society, starred Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Celeste Holm and Louis Armstrong. As you’d expect this was a musical, one of the distinct departures from the original. Obviously the musical factor set High Society apart. Frank, Bing, and Satchmo? The three first name guys all left permanent legacies, and the names still evoke memories. I was 2 years old when this film first came out and I’m from the rock generation but I know what these men did and still do to the listener. And the music. Written by Cole Porter, each song had its own life and still flowed with the story line. I am not a fan of musicals. Usually the music is heavy handed, over used and more of an affair than a marriage. I can count the musicals I love on one hand, and this is one of them.
The movie featured the 1956 version of the All Stars, Ed Hall on clarinet, Barrett Deems on the traps, Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano and Arvell Shaw on bass, all long time members (except Young who joined the All Stars in 1952) of one or another of Armstrong’s big and small bands. Fronted by Crosby for this cut, it explains for the Newport cognoscenti how jazz is made. Der Bingle is having so much fun in this cut it brings me misty every time. Yeah, this is sappy stuff. Shoot me.
I need to give credit to two biographies of Pops that I used for a lot of material in this column, Louis Armstrong by David Stricklin and What a Wonderful World by Ricky Riccardi. Both recommended.
[A footnote: a year ago the only known footage of Satchmo in a recording studio was rediscovered after having been lost for almost 60 years. Interestingly enough, the recording was for Audio Fidelity Records, mentioned in this issue’s Vintage Whine column. Take a look and enjoy Satch in the studio.—Ed.]