Satchmo, The Philosopher


In 1958, Miles Davis said of Louis Armstrong, “You can’t play nothing on trumpet that doesn’t come from him, not even modern shit.” (Quincy Troupe has him saying it again in the 1989 autobiography.) What Miles said was not literally true. People routinely played things that were light-years ahead of what Armstrong was doing in the 1920s, and tremendous harmonic, formal, rhythmic, and communicative advances continue unabated. So what did the Prince of Darkness mean?

In his essay “Plato, the Philosopher,” Ralph Waldo Emerson supplies one possible answer: “It is fair to credit the broadest generalizer with all the particulars deducible from his thesis.” Indeed, Armstrong’s seminal recordings (his “thesis”) contain the “broadest generalization” of what it means to be a jazz musician. But “all the particulars”? How about these: The spontaneous creation of new melodies, an extraordinarily pliant approach to phrasing and articulation, and—here’s the “modern shit”—an understanding of the plasticity of time as a resource for the improvising musician. If all of Western philosophy is merely commentary on Plato, then all of jazz is, in some sense, commentary on Louis. * Armstrong’s achievement is amply evident in two solos on “Basin Street Blues.” (Both can be found on Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 1923-1934.) In the first, recorded in 1928, Armstrong ornaments the embedded melody with quick up-and-back arpeggios and little turns that visit the upper and lower chromatic tones. By the fifth bar it becomes clear that Armstrong is creating, out of the simple material of Spencer Williams’s tune, a new and complex melody with all kinds of implied counterpoint. In bars seven and eight, Armstrong develops two independent melodies and weaves them together. The uppermost melody is rhythmically straightforward, and descends from a high G to the G an octave below. The lower melody is riff-like and begins with the leap from B flat to E flat. This intensely swinging bit of complexity ends with a downward arpeggiation of C-minor 7th, leading into an approach-note pattern that resolves on the third of the chord.

Throughout this solo Armstrong plays with our perception of time, pushing some phrases forward and holding others back, using a stuttering attack. Where other players were hemmed in by four plain quarter notes, Louis heard a vast expanse and infinite possibility. This solo beautifully demonstrates the “fractal” nature of Louis’s time sense—”infinity in a grain of sand, eternity in an hour” (or quarter note): an infinite amount of complexity contained in a finite amount of space/time.

A number of Armstrong’s solos from this period (check out “Sweethearts on Parade”) are living things, going through a process of germination, growth, and decay. So, too, our second “Basin Street Blues,” recorded in 1933, which begins with a triplet figure that serves as the germ for the entire solo. The first six bars are a natural efflorescence from a simple seed, completely free of the restrictions of bar lines or chord changes. The turnaround pattern in bars seven and eight begins with an operatic gesture in the high register, leading down in coruscating fashion through a reverse arpeggiation of C-minor 7th flat-5, a delicious double chromatic approach into A, and finally grazing upon the flat 13th of the F-7th chord.

Two utterly different approaches, yet they can be played together as a duet, and sound like they had been composed that way. The fecundity of Armstrong’s compositional mind allowed him to improvise solos that were completely different in shape, placement, and emphasis, yet always stemming organically from the melody.

One important facet of Armstrong’s lapidary genius is the fusion of European-derived melodic material with Afro-Caribbean rhythmic complexity. The cornetist Peter Ecklund says that it wasn’t until he began working in salsa bands that he understood the Caribbean origin of much of Armstrong’s rhythmic language. Using Armstrong’s classic 1927 solo on “Potato Head Blues,” Ecklund deconstructs the fusion of these elements. Play just the notes in straight 3/4 time, devoid of jazz feel, and it sounds like a waltz by Franz Lehar! Then play the rhythms only, on one pitch, and you hear a very hip Afro-Cuban drum solo.

No amount of strictly musical analysis or influence-tracing forensics, however, can explain the heart of the matter—the luminosity and perpetual freshness of Armstrong’s music. These qualities, as well as his essentially abstract ability to affect our perception of time, link him with the other artistic and scientific revolutionaries of the first half of the 20th century. Recently I had a very public fantasy (in Ken Burns’s Jazz) in which Werner Heisenberg attends a Louis Armstrong concert in Copenhagen, in 1933. Did I go too far? Actually, I didn’t go far enough. How do we recognize transcendence in a work of art? Perhaps a couple of physicists can help us out.

So here is Heisenberg, the 1932 Nobel Prize winner who figured out quantum mechanics, attending that fabulous Armstrong gig at the Tivoli Garden with his pal Erwin Schroedinger, who won the 1933 Nobel Prize for his work on wave equation. Both men are delighted and moved by Louis’s performance. After the show they go to one of the Tivoli’s cafés to decompress. (Schroedinger’s lines are from his essay “Why Not Talk Physics,” Heisenberg’s from “Science and the Beautiful.”)

After a couple of Tuborgs, Schroedinger sighs and says, “The scientific picture of the world around me is very deficient. It puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart. It cannot tell us a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet; it knows nothing of the beautiful.”

Heisenberg sets down his glass. “Perhaps I may remind you of the second definition of beauty, which stems from Plotinus: ‘Beauty is the translucence, through the material phenomenon, of the eternal splendor of the One.’ ”

Schroedinger, nodding, knocks down the last of his beer. “Science can describe in full detail all that happens from the moment the waves of compression and dilation reach our ear to the moment when certain glands secrete a salty fluid that emerges from our eyes. But science cannot tell us a word about why music delights us, or moves us to tears.”

It’s that translucence, that light shining through, that brings us to tears, wherever we find it. Music notation is a blunt instrument whose limitations become most apparent when you attempt to notate the extraordinary details of rhythm, articulation, phrasing, tone color, and nuance that are part of great improvised performances such as Armstrong’s two versions of “Basin Street Blues.” They can only be truly understood when heard. As Sidney Bechet put it, “You’ve got to be in the sun to feel the sun.”

More articles in this week’s Voice Jazz Supplement.