Illustration by Kendra Shelton  

When I Pick Up That Horn, That's All
The life and music of Louis Armstrong

Dizzy Gillespie once said of Louis Armstrong:  "If it hadn't been for him, there would have been none of us. I want to thank Mr. Louis Armstrong for my livelihood." And Miles Davis agreed:  "Louis has been through all kinds of styles. You know you can't play anything on a horn Louis hasn't played."

In October 1999, a month before he died, Lester Bowie—one of the most inventive of modern jazz trumpet players—premiered a major work in Chicago for 18 musicians. He dedicated it to Louis Armstrong.

And, on the edge of the millennium, when nominations were being made for "Man or Woman of the Century," Ahmet Ertegun—the legendary head of Atlantic Records—unhesitantly named Louis Armstrong.

Many listeners throughout the world would have seconded that nomination. So would just about every jazz musician—established and aspiring—in all countries. The one undisputed fact of jazz history is that Louis was the first, stunningly original jazz soloist to set timeless standards for imagination, daring, virtuosity, rhythmic assurance and unconquerable spirit.

There had been soloists, of course, in his native New Orleans and other early centers of jazz, but just as there were playwrights before William Shakespeare, Louis is the seminal jazz soloist whose recordings will last through the ages.

In 1922, when Louis came to Chicago—summoned by his mentor, King Oliver—clarinetist Buster Bailey recalled:  "Louis upset Chicago. All the musicians came to hear his ideas, his drive." And when he arrived in New York two years later to join Fletcher Henderson's prestigious big band, another horn man, Rex Stewart, described his impact: "I tried to walk like him, talk like him. I bought shoes and a suit like the "Great One" wore."

At the time, Louis was only 23 years old. He started recording in 1923 and continued until shortly before his death in 1971. These recordings have shaped the course of jazz not only because of the standards of improvisation he kept setting but because of the feeling, the depth of emotion in his storytelling.

Trombonist Trummy Young, who was alongside him night after night for years, often played the same songs, said there were times when he cried during a solo by Louis.

Another longtime sideman, clarinetist Edmond Hall, told me: "There'd be times when, even on a number I'd heard so often, Louis' sound would just get cracking, and I'd get goose pimples."

I once asked Billie Holiday who had most influenced her. It was Louis. "He didn't say words," she remembered, "but somehow it just moved me so. It sounded like he was making love to me. That's how I wanted to sing."

I have never known a distinctive jazz musician who was not dedicated to his instrument, but none made his horn the constant center of his being as intensely as Louis did. He told Gilbert Millstein of the New York Times: "When I pick up that horn, that's all. The world's behind me, and I don't feel no different about that horn now than I did when I was playing in New Orleans. That's my living and my life. I love them notes. That's why I try to make them right.

Any part of the day, you're liable to see my doing something toward playing that night. I don't want a million dollars. There's no medals. You've go to live with that horn. That's why I married four times. The chicks didn't live with that horn. If they had, they would figure out, "Why should I get him all upset and get to fighting and hit him in the chops, when it's liable to hurt him?"

Louis was extraordinarily warm-hearted, off the stage as well as on. He was without prejudices of any kind. As a poor boy, he worked for and was nurtured by a Jewish family in New Orleans, and he was fond of Jews for the rest of his life. "I learned a lot from them," he said, "as to how to live—real life and determination."

He shared his immeasurable goodwill with all kinds of people; but despite his ever-amiable public image, Louis never forgot what he and other blacks had experienced as objects of bigotry.

One night, backstage at Symphony Hall in Boston, Louis had finished a long, exhaustive concert; but when I asked him for an interview he characteristically gave me all his attention. He talked about race in America for a long time and about what he himself had been through and was still going through. He didn't smile once. He knew what it was to be, as a song he recorded said, "Black and Blue."

Photographer Herb Snizter tells of being on the road with Louis in 1960. It was long after he had become world-famous: "We set out on a bright, warm Saturday afternoon, headed north, with everyone in a good mood. The bus did not have a toilet. So somewhere in Connecticut [not the Deep South], we stopped in order for Louis to go to the bathroom. I was stunned when the owner of the restaurant, clearly on the basis of race, refused him use of otherwise available facilities. I will never forget the look of Louis' face. Here he was, a favorite to millions of people, America's single most identifiable entertainer, and yet excluded in the most humiliating fashion from a common convenience."

This part of Louis' life has been largely overlooked in the many articles and appreciations being published at the centennial of his birth approaches. And his public anger at the hurt inflicted on blacks who were not world-famous was ignored during the height of the civil rights movement when some young blacks were calling him an Uncle Tom and "a handkerchief-head."

In 1957, the nation was focused on the absolute refusal of Arkansas Governor Orville Faubus to obey the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, three years earlier, that all public schools segregated by race were unconstitutional.

Faubus ordered the Arkansas National Guard to prevent nine black students from entering the high school in Little Rock. President Dwight Eisenhower hesitated to take action.

Said Louis Armstrong to the press: "The way they are treating people in the South, the government can go to hell!"

As for the nationally beloved Ike Eisenhower, Louis said publicly, "The President has no guts."

In 1965, as jazz writer Ralph Gleason reported, when Martin Luther King's march on Selma, Alabama, was viciously and brutally attacked by local and state police, Louis, then playing in Copenhagen, said after watching the bloodshed on television, "They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched."

Though angry at racism, Louis did not become bitter. The essence of his life, after all, was his horn—and his trumpet gave him great fulfillment—as it did to so many of the rest of us.

The essence of Louis was not only expressed through his triumphant music. He was also, as jazz critic Gary Giddins has pointed out, "the most expansive musician-writer jazz has ever known." Not only the writer of songs, Louis was also an autobiographer and a continual sender of letters to friends and people who wrote to him.

A valuable collection of Armstrong's prose, which was as openly personal as his music, has been published by Oxford University Press—Louis Armstrong. In His Own Words: Selected Writings, edited by Thomas Brothers.

From a letter to jazz critic Leonard Feather: "I'd like to recall one of my most inspiring moments, I was playing a concert date in a Miami auditorium. I walked on stage and there I saw something I'd never seen. I saw thousands of people, colored and white, on the main floor. Not segregated in one row of whites and another row of Negroes. Just all together—naturally. I thought I was in the wrong state. When you see things like that, you know you're going forward."

In another article, Louis recalls his first nights with King Joe Oliver's band in Chicago: "I would often say to myself, this can't be me playing with all these masters. To play with such great men was the fulfillment of any child's dream, and I had reached that point in Music.

"For instance, a drummer such as Baby Dodds; to watch him play, especially when he beat on the rim of his bass on a hot chorus, he sort of shimmied when he beat with his sticks. Oh! Boy that alone was in my estimation the whole worth of the price of admission╔when he would play on the rims of his drums behind me on one of my hot choruses, he would make me blow that horn!"

Louis had another way of expressing himself besides the trumpet and typewriter he always carried with him. He was also the most influential singer in jazz history. Actually, his trumpet playing and his singing were indivisible. One flowed right into the other without a break.

For instance, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, often heard with Wynton Marsalis' groups, has said that his life was changed when he was 12, on hearing an early Louis Armstrong recording, "Keyhole Blues." His great-aunt had left behind a five-volume history of jazz when she died. Says Gordon: "Those instruments expressed themselves vocally, as if they were singing instead of just playing these little mechanical cliches that funk and rock musicians have been using."

In a story that makes his effect on listeners more palpable that the words of any jazz critic, Louis recalled: "I'm playin' my horn for myself one afternoon. A knock came on the door and there's an old, gray-haired flute player from the Philadelphia Orchestra down there for his health.

"Walking through that neighborhood, he heard this horn, playing Cavalleria Rusticana which he said he had never heard phrased like that before. To him, it was as if an orchestra was behind it."

A few months before Louis died, a young trumpet player and I were listening to him in a huge ballroom. We were at the back of the room, but his sound came through as bright and clear as a spring morning. Louis had been jiving his way through one of his big hits, "Mack the Knife," and then with no introduction flowed into his venerable theme song, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South."

He was staying close to the melody, but subtly, he added new dimensions of feeling and textures to the song. He was merging—in a way no one else could have—poignancy and exhilaration. There were tears in the eyes of the musician standing next to me.

"Man," he said, "Pops makes you feel so good."

Originally published in Gadfly, March/April 2000.

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