Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Invisible man: Louis Armstrong and the New York Times

Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he's made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he's unaware that he is invisible.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
For many people, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) was and is nothing more than a genial entertainer: a smile, a handkerchief, and, from 1967 on, the singer of the sentimental anthem "What a Wonderful World." Armstrong's genius as an improviser, his technical ability as an instrumentalist, his wholly original singing (he's the most influential singer in American popular music), his capacity for reimagining popular songs (his 1931 "Stardust" might be the greatest example): all these elements of his musical and cultural accomplishment remain largely invisible. I credit Armstrong with much greater self-knowledge than Ellison's philosophizing narrator will begrudge, but there's no gainsaying his characterization of Louis Armstrong as an invisible man.

Just how invisible? I decided a couple of days ago to check the New York Times online archives for the newspaper's first reference to Louis Armstrong. I was astonished to find that it came on October 5, 1935, in the day's radio listings:
By 1935, Louis Armstrong had been making records for thirteen years. Between 1926 and 1928, he had led the small-group performances known as the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, regarded as among the greatest jazz recordings. (Try "Weather Bird" or "West End Blues.") Performing in the pit band for Hot Chocolates in 1929 in New York, Armstrong had stolen the show night after night with a performance of "Ain't Misbehavin'." In 1932 and 1933 he had toured Britain, Denmark, Norway, and Holland. The Danes had the intelligence to film him performing "Dinah," "I Cover the Waterfront," and "Tiger Rag," performances that remain dazzling in their elegance and intensity. The Times had taken note of none of it.

October 19, 1935: The Times column "Night Club Notes" notes that Armstrong is performing at Connie's Inn in midtown Manhattan.

January 18, 1936: "Night Club Notes" reports that "Louis Armstrong, of course, continues" at Connie's Inn.

September 5, 1937: Armstrong has suddenly become an oldster, a precursor of "Swing." In "Swing: What Is It?" Gama Gilbert reports that "Swingsters speak with reverent breath of Buddy Bolden, master trumpeter, of 'King' or 'Papa' Joe Oliver, who admitted to his band a youngster named Louis Armstrong, a devil on the 'hot horn.'"

March 25, 1938: A little item noting an engagement at Loew's State Theatre calls Armstrong "a disciple of swing music." Precursor, or disciple? Who's following whom?

November 3, 1940: Howard Taubman's review of Columbia jazz and blues re-releases ("Bessie Smith, Beiderbecke, Henderson and Armstrong in 'Classic' Albums") reinforces the sense of Armstrong as a musician whose time has passed. Here Armstrong is said to be one of the "outstanding names of the Twenties," names familiar to the "connoisseur of hot jazz from way back," as familiar as the names of "the current leaders in the field." Armstrong is "still laboring in the vineyard," not dead yet (unlike Beiderbecke and Smith).

October 26, 1941: The first Times article devoted to Louis Armstrong appears, "Trumpeter's Jubilee: Louis Armstrong Rounds Out Twenty-five Years as a Hot Jazz Wizard," by jazz writer Leonard Feather. The occasion was a never-to-be-realized Orson Welles documentary on Armstrong.

Writing a decade before Invisible Man, Feather understands that Armstrong's genius may be invisible to the reader: "The widespread lack of understanding, and frequent misconceptions, of Louis' real place in jazz," he says, "seem to indicate the need for a general recapitulation of his past achievement," a recapitulation that distinguishes public persona from more significant matters: "Armstrong has been a public figure in the United States as a showman-comedian, a movie and stage star, rather than as a great trumpet player and inspired singer." Recounting Armstrong's influence on trumpeters, other instrumentalists, and singers, Feather avows that "Armstrong is a creator of unparalleled originality." Did Feather know that no one had said such things in the New York Times before?

[June 11, 2010: Be sure to read the comments, which consider two more Times references to Armstrong: as "an unnamed member of the orchestra" (1929) and as "Lou Armstrong" (1932).]
Related posts
The day Louis Armstrong made noise
Louis Armstrong, collagist
Louis Armstrong's advice
"Self-Reliance" and jazz

Louis Armstrong in Denmark, 1933 (not 1934)
"I Cover the Waterfront," "Dinah," "Tiger Rag"

comments: 12

Anonymous said...

Love your site. I find it interesting that Milton Berle was in the ad as well. I didn't know he was working back that far.

And you have to love youtube. I've always loved the Denmark clips and now you can watch all three of them as much as you want.


Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Tex. I'd love to see the Denmark clips on a DVD, with missing footage restored if it's available (the other solos are missing) and archival materials (photographs, excerpts from letters, and so on). 'Til then, we have YouTube.

Busterhouse said...

Youtube has unfortunately taken down the Louis Armstrong video.
I wonder if there is any other place to see it.
I always thought that "Ambassador Satch" 1955? was one of the great recordings of all time.

Michael Leddy said...

If you search for louis armstrong and the names of the three tunes, you should be able to find them. Searching with denmark yields nothing right now.

Busterhouse said...

Thank you, Michael. Here is a link to ..."waterfront" http://www.poetv.com/video.php?vid=13392

Addison said...

Is it possible that Armstrong's invisibility is a function of the indexing rather than a shortcoming of the Times' coverage? For example, a Google search on "Louis Armstrong" and "New York Times" lead me to James Lincoln Collier's "Louis Armstrong: An American Genius," generously excerpted by Google. "Hot Chocolates" was reviewed on June 21, 1929, and it looks like Armstrong was mentioned. The relevant page isn't included in the preview so I can't be sure. But go to page 251, where Collier quotes a Times correspondent writing from Paris on Sept. 4, 1932, that some of Armstrong's records were until recently procured only with difficulty in the French capital, a citation that didn't turn up in your search. I'm limited to what I can find at my computer, but isn't it likely that there are more (though probably not too many more, to be sure)?

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Addison, for such a thoughtful response to my post. The Times articles that you mention (and which I did not know about when writing this post) turn out to go along with the idea of invisibility in an interesting way. The 1929 review doesn't mention Armstrong by name: his performance of "Ain't Misbehavin'" is credited to "an unnamed member of the orchestra." The 1932 piece refers to him (twice) as "Lou Armstrong." Thus neither of these items turned up in a search for Louis Armstrong.

I just searched from 1926 to 1935 for armstrong and trumpet and found nothing beyond the 1932 article you've mentioned. I suppose Armstrong might be mentioned by first or last name alone somewhere (e.g., "Bix, Duke, Louis," &c.). But I think my main point still holds: that the Times took no note of Armstrong's accomplishments until well after the fact.

Adair said...

But here's another degree of invisibility: if you look in some of the great journals of the Harlem Renaissance, such as The Crisis, you will not find much, if anything, on Armstrong or jazz. You WILL find lots on people like Roland Hayes, an African American classical singer. I was surprised by this, since we have come to associate jazz with the Harlem Renaissance. It seems that many black intellectuals of the 20's and 30's (except of course Langston Hughes) were embarrassed by jazz ("the devil's music") and by its lowly origins in brothels. They were afraid that it showed African American culture in a poor light, whereas someone like Hayes was "elevating" the race by mastering white European culture. I think that it was Leroi Jones who pointed out how Howard University, a major institution for African American education, forbade jazz concerts until the 1950's (!), and when they did lift the ban, it was to invite a WHITE jazz orchestra---Stan Kenton! In any case, Louis Armstrong is no longer invisible---or is he? Today, he is ranked alongside Picasso and Stravinsky as one of the major 20th Century innovators. He is institutionalized and canonized---perhaps a more insidious form of invisibility? I only know that life without the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sessions would be so much poorer...Desert island discs, to be sure!

Michael Leddy said...

I’d agree on all points, Adair. The jazz-included version of the Harlem Renaissance that most college literature students receive is highly misleading. Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were both going against a certain grain in their celebration of “folk” materials.

Last year, I found this item, which gives some sense of how one major African-American newspaper was thinking about early jazz.

I hope you have your Hot Fives and Sevens in the JSP boxed set — much better sound than CBS Sony. :)

Adair said...

The JSP set is on my want list. Frankly, I love listening to my old French lp set of these sessions, on a label called "le jazz hot." The lps preserve the real "attack" of Louie's trumpet, which sometimes gets dulled on the cd versions that I have heard. Thanks so much for your blog; it is a delight to read.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Adair. It’s great to exchange ideas about these things with you. I think you’ll find the JSP sound very pleasing — lots of punch.

Michael Leddy said...

Oops — I left out the link above. Here’s the item that offers an early appraisal of jazz.