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.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.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
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: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).]
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"