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Gushee 1998

Gushee 1998

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C
neprr
n
TheImprovisation
of
Tnrnre
rN
Louis
Armstrong
Lrwnr,Ncr,
GusnEp
Some
of
the
first
generation
of
New
Orleans
jazz
musicians
who
movedtoChicagobetween1918and1925
wentbeyond
the
inherent
limits
of theirlocal
style,
takingnot only
a
significantbut
an
essential
role
in
the
formationof
the
dominant
jazz
style
of the
1930s.
It
was sometimesunspectacular
so
far
as
the
general
public
wasconcerned,
as
with
a
legion
of
string
bassists;sometimesmediated
and
indirect,
as
with
the
inspirationJimmy
Noone
gave
BennyGood-man and
Jimmy
Dorsey,and
which they
in
turn
passed
on;
and sometimes
so
early
andspecial
as
to
be
easily
forgotten,
as
with
Joe
Oliver'stalking
cornet.
Againstthisbackground,LouisArmstrong's
achievement
is
incomparable.
Thedirectimpact
of
his exampleon
trumpeters-indeed,
onall
jazz
playercand
singers-was
unmatched
in
its
time(approximately
1925
to
1935),
as
was
his
eventual
rise
to world
recognition
and
the
durability
of
his
art.
Althoughalwaysa
New
Orleansmusician
in
the bone,
hegrew
with
the
music
as
it
developednationally,
learning
something
from
each
situation
in
which
he
found
himself,
and
teaching
ageneration
of
jazz
musicianshow
to
do
it.
Hebecameindispensable
in
the way
summed
up
by
pianist
Art
Hodes:"Jazz
is
not-never
has
been-a
oneman
show.
But
if
I
had
to
vote
for
onerepresen-
tative
forjazz,
that
onewould
have
to
be
LouisArmstrong"
("Roses
for
Satchmo"
1970,
16).
There
is nothing
in
Armstrongt
"urt],,ipJringingormusical
experience
to
ex-
plain his
genius-nor
is
there
in
any artist's
biography-but
there
ismuch
to
explainhis
competenceandprofessionalversatility.
His
firstpublic
perfor-
mancesas
aneleven-year-oldwere
as
a
street
singer,somethingnot
typical
for
jazz
musicians,
fromNew
Orleans
or
elsewhere.r
BeforeArmstrong
was
a
cometist,
he
was
an
entertainer;
small
wonde!
then, thathis
international
star-
dom
rested
on his
extrovertsingingpersonality, something
of
which
he,
in
contrast
to
many
critics,
was never
ashamed.
Perhaps
hismugging
and
jiving
(..Uncle
Tomming,"
so
far
as
manywere concerned)were
of
a
piece
with
this
early
seasoningas
a
street
performer,
no
doubt
drawingoneighty
years
of
minstrel
show
stereotyPes.2
So
far
as
his
earlycornet
experiencegoes,
Armstrongplayed
aboutevery
kind of
music that
was available
to
a
Negromusician
in
New
Orleans
at
that
[,
 
I
1i
292
.
Lawrence
Gushee
time,
with
theexception
of
theater
pit
orchestras
(ofwhich
there
was
but
one).Heplayed
in
honky-tonk trios,
in
high-
(TomAnderson's)and
low-class
(Pete
Lala's)
cabarets,atsociety dances,central
city
andsuburban
dance
halls,
with
streetbands, andon
the Streckfus
excursion
boats-in
short,
for
every
socialor economic
class,
black
or
white.This
intensive six-year
period of
apprentice-
ship
was
not
untypical,
and
it
wenthand-in-hand
with
whatever
time
he de-voted
to
study
of
the cornet
as
such,
or toleaming
notereading andharmony.
Armstrong
left
no
doubt whatever
that
Joe
Oliver
was
his
"main
man"; notonly
was
Armstrong
inspired by Oliver,but
the
older
man
taught
him importantthings
about
cometplaying
and
musicianship.Most important of all,
perhaps,
he
restrained
Armstrong's
tendency
to
abandon themelody, to make variations
which
weretoofree.
That's the
first
thing
Joe
Oliver told
me when
he
listened to
meplay.. .
.
Heused
to
come around the
honky tonks
where
I
was
playing
in
the
early
teens
[sic].
"Where's
that
lead?"
I'd
playeight
bars and
I
wasgone
.
.
.
clarinetthings; nothing
but
figurations
and
things
like
that,
like
what the
cats
calledbop later; that
was
just
figuration
to
us
in
theearly
days.
Running
all
over
a
horn.
Joe
would
say,
"Where's
that
lead?"
and
I'd
say
"Whatlead?""You play
some lead on
thathorn, let
the
peopleknow whatyou're playing."(Morgen-stem
1965;
see
also Pleasants 1974)
If
Joe
Oliver
insisted on
staying close
to
the
lead,
in
what
sense
was he
as
"creative"
as
Armstrong
repeatedly insisted?
First
of all,
he
played
wonderful
breaks-and
much
of
whatArmstrongplays
are
seemingly
limitless
realiza-tions
of
a
basic dominant
seventh
break.
Second,
Oliver'smusic
embodies
a
kind
of
ethic
of
variation,
in
which,
ideally, no note
is
played
automatically.Even themost inconsequential
motif
is
shaped, and any
repetition is
varied.
It
is
this"ethic"which,
applied thoroughly
and
with
ingenuity,
can makethoseparaphrases
of
Armstrong's
which
stick
close
to
the
melody-and
which
are
therefore uninteresting
to
melodic
and
harmonic
analysis-deeply
satisfyingto
hear.3
Oliver
showed
a
further
concern
for Armstrong
that
can
justly
be described
as
paternal
(withoutrequiring
us
to
seeArmstrong
as
"needing
a
father"),
invit-ing him
home,passingon
his
old
cornet
tohim. Armstrong often
said
that
he
tried
to
play
justlike
Oliver,
and there
is
little
doubt that
his
extraordinaryblues
playing(including
therare
instances
in
which
he
used
one
of
Oliver's
favorite
devices, theplungermute
in
conjunction
with
a
pixie
mute)
stems
directlyfrom
Oliver,the
Oliverwho
was so
spectacularly
adept
at
blues,
far
outclassingany
of
theolder
New
Orleansplayers
of
whose stylewe
havesome
tangible evidence(FreddieKeppard,
Mutt
Carey,
Bunk
Johnson,
or
EmestCoycault).4
It's
not
easy
to identify
models other
than Joe
Oliver,not
least because
of
the absence
ofphonograph
recordings that
would
back up
a
claim of
influence.
Improvisation
of
Louis
Armstrong
.
293
For
example,
Amstrong
is
said
by
many to
have had
much
in
common
withhis
near-contemporary,
Buddy Petit,
and
hadmany goodthings
to
sayabout
hisplaying,
perhaps
even
admitting
to
a
major
influence.s
Indeed,
so manycompetent
musical
witnesses
testify
toresemblances thatwe
would
be
foolish
to rejectthe
evidence.
What
cant
be
determined,
of
course,
is
which
aspects
ofhis
style
parallel
Petit's,and
how
"major"
the
influence
was.
It
was
Willie
"Bunk"
Johnson
who
was
offered,
and
who offered himself,
as
themajor
teacher
ofArmstrong,
a
claim
which,
onthe
basis
of
Johnsons re-
cordings
of
1942-4"7as
well
as
his reputation
as
a
notorious
liar,
has
struck
most
critics
as
of
little
merit.
Collier
isparticularly skeptical,
contending
that
"whatLouis
actuallybelievedwe donot
know"
(1983,60).
In
a
little-known
interview
from
1949,
however,
Armstrongclearly
distinguishesbetween John-son,someoneadmired
from
afar,and
Oliver,who
assumed
anactive and con-cerned
role in his
apprenticeship:
Whenever
o1'
Bunk
cameby,
I'd
leave
my corner
[where
he
was
selling
news-
papersl
and
follow
the
wagon.
..
.
He'd let
me
carry
his
homwhen
he wasn't
playin,
and
it
was
a
big thing
for
me.
..
.
I
never
knew
a
man
that could
getthetone,
or
thephrasing,
like
Bunk.He
was
a
young man
then.
.
'
.
Bunk
was
my
idol,
but
Oliver
used
to
comeover
to
the
honkytonk where
I
played
and
sit
in.He'd
show
me thingsyou
know
He had
some ideas.
I
think
he
was
a
little
more alive
musically
than
Bunk.
Everything
I
did,
I
tried to
do
it
like
Oliver.
(Jones
1949)6
Therewere othermusicians
who
taught theyoung
Armstrong
somethingaboutnotereadingand the
theory
of
music.
The
first of
these
appears
to
have
been saxophonistand
mellophonist
Dave
Jones,
whoworked
withhim
on
theStreckfusboats,
"afinemusician
with
a
soft
mellow
toneand
a
great
ability
to
improvise"(Armstrong
1955,
182).
Armstrong
could
already
"spell"'
that
is,
slowly
decipher
a
written
part,butcouldnotplayatsight, something
he
ad-
miredin
Fate
Marable
(theleader
for
Streckfus)
and
his musicians
and
wishedtolearn:
"Kid
Ory's
band
could
catch on
to
a
tune
quickly,
and oncetheyhad
it
no one
couldoutplay
them.
But I
wanted
to
domore than
fake
the
music
all
the
time,
because
there
is
more
to
music
than
justplaying
one
style"
(1955'182).
Jones
taught
him
to
sight-read,wroteArmstrong,
well
enough
that
he
couldread
"everything
he
[Marable]put
beforeme."
If
"everything"
consisted
only
of
the
cornetparts
from
stock
arrangements
of
thecurrenthits,
this
wouldnt
have
been
very
difficult,
and
certainlynot
as
difficult
as
the
Fletcher
Hendersonanangements
that
are said
to
have
given
him
so
muchtrouble
in
1924.
Onthe otherhand,
Armstrongmight
havebeen
reading
very
littlein
the
preceding
two
years
and
consequently
merely
rusty
when
he
joined
Hen-
derson.T
From
the
testimony
of
New
Orleanscontemporaries,there
isno
doubt
that
by
1922,
youngArmstrong
was
one
of
the
best
young cornetists
in
the
city.
 
294
.
Lawrence
Gushee
Perhapshe was
not
as
far
ahead
of
hiscompetitors
in
swing
and
imagination
as
he was tobe after theseasoning
of two
years
of
steady
work
with
Oliver
in
Chicago
andtheyear
with
Henderson
in
New York; but
there
is no
reason todoubtthat
his
style was
fixed
in
its
essentials.S
whenArmstrong
arrived
in
cnicugJirJtJ"
,o--".
ot
l922,rhe
leading
trum-
peters
on
the South Side
besidesJoe
Oliver
were Freddie Keppard,
Joe
Sudler,
andBobby
Williams.
Listeners werealso
taking
note
of
the featured soloist
with
Vassar's
orchestra,
Tommy Ladnier
from Mandeville,
Louisiana,
across
LakePontchartrain
from
New
Orleans,
where
he
is
said
to
havetaken cornet
lessons
from Bunk
Johnson.
Ladnier
had arrived
in
Chicago
some
fouror five
years
earlier
and hadplayed
briefly
in
St.
Louis.
An
impressive sample
of
his
playing
from this
period
survives
in
the
excellent recording
of
"Play
That
Thing"
made
by
Ollie
Powers'
orchestra
in
the
fall of
1923.e
Over the next two
years,
Ladnier
recorded
extensively
in
small
bands, and
at
approximately
the same
time
as
Armstrong,
made the
moveto
a
large
eastern
band
playingfrom written
arrangements,
Sam
Wooding's,
with which
he
madean extensive
Europeantour. Eventually he
was
to
be a featured soloist
with
Fletcher
Hendersons band
two
yearsafter
Armstrong's
departure.
After
a sec-
ond
trip
toEurope,Ladnier
dropped
out
ofthe
big
band
life,
and thepaths
of
the
two
mendiverged.
Subsequent
to his
swan
song,
thefamous
Mezzrow-
Ladnier recording
session organized
by
Hugues Panassi6, he
died miserably
in
1939.
To
understandsomething about where
Armstrong
was
going
by
1924
or
1925,you
only
need
compare the
two
musicians, most
directly
perhapson
two
performances
of"ShanghaiShuffle,"
one
by
Armstrong
with
FletcherHender-
son, the
other by
Ladnier
with
Sam
Wooding.r0
Ladnier
seems
a
true,
if
slightly
swingier, disciple of
Joe
Oliver; his
solo, however, lacksthe
overall
coherence
of
Armstrong's.rrIt's
also instructive
to
listen
to
the
solos
with
Isham
Jones'
orchestra
of
young
Louis
Panico,
said
to
have
taken wa-wa
lessons
from
Joe
Oliver.
They
are
musically
interesting,but
lack
the
tonal warmth
and
swinging
momentumthat never
seem
to be
absent
in
Armstrong's
playing.'2
When
Oliver
sent
for Armstrong
in
thesummer
of
1922,
he had
only
re-
cently
retumed
from
an apparently
not very
successfulyear
in California
to
a
Chicago
rather
different
from
1919,
when
at leastthree
or
four New
Orleans
bands
of
more
or
less standardmakeup
(violin,
cornet,
clarinet,trombone
and
rhythm
of
string
bass,
guitar,
piano,
and drums) had dominated theSouth Side
music
scene.
A
year
or two
later,the concept
of
a dance
band
as
composed
of
sections,
as
well
as
featuring
the noveltimbres
of
hooting
saxophones
and
intensively
percussive
banjo, had
been
widely
popularized
by
the
recordings
of
Paul
Whiteman.
By
1922,
Whiteman
had
thickened
his
brass
section
by
the
addition
of
a
second
cornet,something
heard
in
manyother
dance bands,
a
fashion
which
was
beginning
to
be
followed
even
in New
Orleans.
Perhaps JoeImprovisationofLouis
Armstrong
.
2g5
Oltu*
in
sending
forArmstrong,
wasalso
following
fashion;
perhapshe
wasasked
to
do
so
by
the
management
of
Lincoln
Gardeis;
""d
p;;;;;;
wanted
to
ease
theburdenon
himself.whatever
the
case,
Armstrong
arrivedprepared
to play
second,
and
perhapsnor
minding
at
all:
exempt
rrorritrr"-oirilation
or
carrying
the
merodiclead,the
second
cornethadmuchmorefreedom
to
ex_
ploreharmony
andcounterrhythms.
13
whateveroriver's
motives,
the
thickeningof
thetexturecreatedby
the
addi-
tionalpart
has
much
to
dowith
the
monumental
impactthe
oliver
band,s
1923-24recordings
havehad
onmost
critics
and
attentivelisteners.
Tobesure,
it's
alsoa
matter
of
enrichment
andexcitement,
often
from
the
way
in
which
A-rmstrongappears
to
capitalize
onthedifferences
between
theiriwo
styles.
Although
much
of
his phrasing
follows
oliver
with
uncannyexactitude,
in
thespaces
left
by
oliver
thereis
a
constant
presence
of
anotheimusical
fersonal_
ity,
one
with
a
different
sense
of
time
anda
different
vibrato.ra
At
anyrate,
oliver's
bandwasalmostthelastlarge
Neworleans-styre
band
toholddown
a major
jobin
chicago;
in
the
later
1g20s,
the
tradition
could
bemaintainedg-dy
b_y
quartets
and
quintets.
To
theextentthat
oliver,s
band
was
a
traditionalNeworleans
band
in itsrelative
deemphasisonsolos,
it
was
regressiveand
an
obstacle
to
Armstrong's
career,ata
time
whenbands
ail
over
th-e
country
were
beginning
to
give
a
gooddeal
of
space
to
hot
soloists,
including
trumpeters.
Lil
Armstrong,
who
joined
the
Oliver
banda
few
months
uft",
Arlrtrong
and
married
himinFebruaryrg24,described
her
role
in
Armstrong's
career
onseveraloccasions.
According
to
one
of
her
accounts-which
Louishimself
appears
to
have
accepted-oliver
said
to
Lil,
,Aslong
as
little
Louisiswith
mehecan't
hufi
me."
This
ledherto
recognize
Louisi
great
talent-I
find
it
curiousthat
she
did
not
recognize
it
at
once-and
she
proceeded
to
convince
him
that
he
would
have
to
leave
the
oliver
band
in
orcler
to
advancehis
career.
AccgrdingtoMeryman
(r9ir,35)
she
also
kepthim
from
rerurningto
oliver
in
1926.
.
Lil
apparently
also prayeda
crucialroleinfurthering
Louis,
musical
educa_
tion.Noneof
herbiographies
fail
tomentionyouthful
musicarstudies
at
FiskUniversity
before
she
moved
to
chicago
in
i9fi,
andherclassicalmusicalaspirationscontinuedthroughout
the
1t20s-she
is
even
reported
u,
fhying
scriabin
and
chopin
ina
1929
concert.Theevidence
of
her
skill
as
a
tunesmithliesbefore
us
in
dozens
of
tunesrecorded
byLouisbetween
1926
and
r92g;
her
abilities
asa
leader
are
witnessedbythe
universally
anddeservedly
highly
regarded
series
of
recordingsmadeunderthe
names
of
the
NeworleansBoot-
blacksand
the
New
OrleansWanderers
in
1926.
During
the
timethey
were
part
of
the
Oliver
band,the
twoArmstrongs
ap_
parently
spentsome
oftheir
freehours
playing
classical
or
light
classical
duets,
and
Lil
iscredited
with
instructingLouis-in
Lusic
theory
no
doubtharmony.
Armstrong
may
havebeen
referringtothattimewhen
he
wrotethat
..asa
kid
itjust
camenatural.
I
neverwasone
for
going
onandonabout
thechanees
of

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