Music: Louis the First

  • Share
  • Read Later

(5 of 7)

Louis, a modest man, makes no bones about what he owes to Joe Oliver in the Chicago days: "We never had to look at each other when we played, both just thinkin' the same thing. And he's the one that stopped me playin' all those variations—what they call bebop today. 'You get yourself a lead [melody] and you stick to it,' Papa Joe told me. And I always do." It was the kind of jazz that didn't take written arrangements, if a man had "a lead" and could "cut loose from the heart."

"No Musician Today." So far as the U.S. public was concerned in the '20s, there were a good many other ways of playing jazz. Paul Whiteman, with his 30-piece band and his smooth arrangements of Tin Pan Alley hit tunes and minor classics (The Song of India), was "King of Jazz," and his music and records were far better known than the small-band New Orleans variety. But after Louis arrived in Manhattan in 1924, and persuaded Fletcher Henderson to let him "open up" on his horn at Broadway's Roseland Ballroom one night, jazz musicians of all existing varieties flocked to listen.

Then came tours that took Louis to the West Coast and points between. He switched from cornet to trumpet (chiefly because the longer horn "looked better"). In 1926, when he dropped some lyrics on the floor during a recording session, he quickly substituted nonsense syllables, and added "scat-singing" to jazz. He had formed "Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five" (Satchmo, Clarinetist Johnny Dodds, Trombonist Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr on the banjo and second wife Lil Hardin Armstrong on the piano) to make recordings of his best numbers for Okeh. When he played Chicago, such youngsters as Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Eddie Condon, who were to help create the "Chicago school" of jazz, sat and listened worshipfully. All of them now make their bow to Louis. Says Drummer Krupa: "No band musician today on any instrument, jazz, sweet, or bebop, can get through 32 bars without musically admitting his debt to Armstrong. Louis did it all, and he did it first."

In 1930, Hollywood heard about him and put him in the first of a half-dozen films (his latest: A Song Is Born).

As Big as Mussolini. When Armstrong went abroad in 1932, Europe turned out to be as much of a cinch as Chicago. At London's Palladium, George V did Armstrong the honor of attending in person. Louis repaid the compliment with a grinning bow to the royal box: "This one's for you, Rex." In Italy he relished seeing his own picture blown up to the same size as Mussolini's, hanging on the opposite side of the theater doorway ("Mussolini was big stuff in those days").

Louis liked Europe well enough to return in 1933 and stay for two years. He still thinks the British are the best appreciators of jazz in the world ("Man! They know more about my records than I do"). Next to the British, he ranks the French, who call his kind of music le jazz hot. Last year, when he went to France for the Jazz Festival at Nice (TIME, March 8), President Vincent Auriol himself sent Louis a large Sevres vase. But after each trip abroad Louis says: "Europe's fine, but I sure get homesick for the ol' U.S.A."

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5
  6. 6
  7. 7