Books: July-August 2006

August 1, 2006

Louis Armstrong's New Orleans By Thomas Brothers.Louis Armstrong's New Orleans

By Thomas Brothers. W.W. Norton and Company, 2006. 386 pages. $26.95.

If pressed to come up with modern jazz's birth certificate, most critics would single out the 1928 recording of "West End Blues" by Louis Armstrong's "Hot Five." Only twenty-seven at the time, Armstrong had already mastered the peerless solo virtuosity that trumpeters ever since have emulated. The recording's trumpet cadenza, its pure sonority, the exquisite phrasing in the horn's high register, still draw gasps even after repeated replaying. Here was a new American art form announcing to the world its "potential to compete with the highest order of previously known expression," as jazz critic Gunther Schuller has put it. Yet, it came from the musical sensibility of a fifth-grade dropout and serious truant only six years removed from the poverty of "back o' town" New Orleans and the nearby "Battlefield" area of roughhouse honky-tonks and cheap bordellos.

Where did Armstrong acquire his musical genius? Thomas Brothers, an associate professor of music at Duke, refuses to fall back on the clichè of Satchmo's "God-given talent." He argues that Armstrong learned his chops from the soundscape of New Orleans itself, particularly the uptown neighborhoods where tens of thousands of ex-slaves relocated in the 1880s.

Brothers comes at this subject from a background in European art music (his first book was about medieval chansons), with its distinctive pedagogy and rules of performance. The tradition that produced child prodigies like Mozart was so far removed from Armstrong's childhood milieu as to defy meaningful comparison. But, as this richly textured book shows, the pre-literate tradition of African-American aurality was fully capable of producing prodigies of its own. The vernacular tradition in which Armstrong was trained comprised many strands: the heterophony of the Sanctified Church, the bluesy sounds of toy horns favored by itinerant rag collectors, the rough harmonies of "git-box" spasm bands and pubescent vocal quartets, the gut-bucket music that nightly poured from dance halls and saloons, and the ubiquitous brass bands with their cavalcades of undulating second liners.

It was a boisterous, blues-inflected, fun-loving music that prized collective improvisation because the crowds who danced to it expected their musicians to be as inventive in their playing as they themselves were in gyrating their bodies. This was music not as object but activity, performance that bled easily into spontaneous composition as musicians interacted in sonic-kinetic fashion with the audience.

Furthermore, it was best played out of doors, which afforded autonomous space for an oppressed people to tell white society "that they were just fine as they were, that they were not inferior," writes Brothers. In important respects, Louis Armstrong's New Orleans is about how early jazzmen used sonic material to fashion a new urban identity for black migrants from the countryside.

Armstrong ran these city streets with his boyhood chums, all of them unsupervised. Through the cracks in the wall of the famed Funky Butt Hall, he used to peek at the dirty dancing of "get down" whores. From a rag and bottle man he first learned blues gestures. There was some formal training along the way. The year and a half he spent in the Colored Waifs Home when he was eleven and twelve brought him his first cornet and grounding in technique. Joe "King" Oliver, Armstrong's mentor, who called him to Chicago in 1922, gave him private lessons. Later, when he started playing on the steamboats, he learned musical notation, a skill his classically trained second wife helped him perfect after he landed in the Windy City.

But his real musical education was in the traditions of the highly competitive ear musicians in uptown New Orleans. Armstrong discovered himself in their masculine world of black funerals and social, aid, and pleasure clubs. Eventually he plunged into the Eurocentric world of harmony, borrowing material that he incorporated into breathtaking solo performances that redefined jazz itself and provided the Great Migration a new urban identity. But he never sought to assimilate into white culture, only to gain access to the white marketplace. Besides, he was musically curious.

Brothers isn't afraid to challenge conventional wisdom. He plays down the contributions of downtown black Creole musicians, whose improvisational agility, he argues, was constrained by their Eurocentric inheritance. In his view, jazz was imposed on the downtown Creoles by the market popularity of uptown blues. (Creole rebels like Louis "Big Eye" Nelson, Freddie Keppard, and Sidney Bechet are obvious exceptions.) He discounts the idea that New Orleans jazz can be understood as a "musical gumbo." Its roots were African, its provenance was "back o' town." And he isn't bashful about taking on critics who question New Orleans' claim to be the birthplace of jazz. If it wasn't, why were black musicians from other areas stunned by the jazzy ensemble sound produced by wind instrument players from New Orleans? "No place else had the same social and musical history, with all its layers of patronage and practice and its sequential development, the heyday of which coincides with the first twenty-one years of Louis Armstrong's life."

The evidence for much of Brothers' analysis is admittedly thin. Even he concedes that he had "to make the most out of a few clues," including the oral interviews at the Hogan Jazz Archives at Tulane University, whose subjects were as well-versed at improvising memory as they were music. Still, no one has handled the sources more intelligently or made better use of theories of gender and identity, in piecing together this vital story than Brothers. This is an astonishingly smart book, one that scholars of jazz and historians of New Orleans can't afford to overlook.