Louis Armstrong 1901–1971


Louis Armstrong was born 100 years ago, on August 4, 1901, in a squat, wooden, ramshackle building in a destitute and violent area of New Orleans known as “the Battlefield.” His influence on the music of his century proved to be so sweeping that we are sometimes more inclined to rehearse the revolutionary nature of his art than enjoy it—a disposition this homage tries to redress. That the following six pieces tend to focus on his postwar work is largely coincidental: That’s what everyone wanted to write about, asserting affection for a body of music dismissed by critics at the time it was made. Consequently, this section is also concerned with critical presumptions that led to the impasse Dan Morgenstern compares to the fox and hounds in a hunt.

Will Friedwald, Eugene Holley Jr., and David Yaffe, all familiar contributors, focus, respectively, on Armstrong’s later vocal records, his triumphant African tours, and his development from the 1920s to the 1950s. Matt Glaser, violinist and chairman of the string department at the Berklee School of Music, whose deconstruction of “Lazy River” was a highlight of Ken Burns’s Jazz, compares two early masterpieces, which he also transcribed.

I am especially pleased to have Morgenstern—whose previous contributions include a major Armstrong essay in our 1985 homage—back in these pages. This time, taking on a personal issue, he shows how the Armstrong press attacks and distortions of the 1950s helped goad him into becoming a jazz writer. As an editor of music magazines in the ’60s and early ’70s (notably Down Beat in its peak years) and as a historian, critic, and, since 1976, director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers, Dan has shaped a generation of journalists, especially in the area of Armstrong criticism. Many of the arguments he put forth that were once dismissed as fan worship are now practically standard-issue: They inform every essay in this section, whether the ideas came directly from him or from other writers he influenced. The prewar Deccas alluded to in my essay, for example, were so little-known as recently as 1967, when he helped to spur a reevaluation of them, that they were reissued as Rare Items. A long-awaited anthology of Dan’s greatest hits is now in the works.

The street on which Armstrong was born, Jane Alley, with its adjoining field of outhouses, no longer exists. When it was paved over in the 1970s, the city was petitioned by music lovers around the world to salvage a cornerstone of the Armstrong birthplace. New Orleans’s municipal hacks refused to do so and all that remains of the old area is one defiant tree, ringed by protective bricks. Does it matter? “If you would see the man’s monument, look around.” -G.G.

More articles in this week’s Voice Jazz Supplement.