July 4th is a great day. You start by staking out a piece of beach, you find the Yanks on the radio, you eventually wind up around a grill, and then you blow stuff up. Tough to beat. And the perfect soundtrack to this most American of days is Louis Armstrong.
Louis Armstrong claimed July 4th was his birthday, and while no one really believes it, it’s the perfect day to celebrate the Father of American music. To paraphrase (and exaggerate) no less an expert than Miles Davis, not a single note can be played that can’t be traced back to Armstrong.
Best of all,you don’t have to own a single Armstrong album to enjoy his music this Monday. Just tune to WKCR (89.9 FM/NYC and iTunes/radio/college/WKCR), the student station of Columbia University, and get 24 hours of Louis, from midnight to midnight on the 4th.
There is so much to like about Armstrong. Today, we talk about social influencers, and there was no bigger influencer than Armstrong. His style, one that emphasized soloing and improvisation, redefined the form, and led to imitators from New Orleans to Chicago to New York City. I also like Louis because he was an optimist; you hear it in his music. Where jazz is associated with suffering, with the darker side of the human condition, and certainly with talented artists dying way too young, Armstrong just seemed happy and enjoyed a long career. Maybe when you grow up on the poorest streets in New Orleans and spend your youth playing cornet in brothels, you are glad to be anywhere. And yet, this inclination was one reason Armstrong was ignored by so many jazz fans for so long.
My first memory of Louis Armstrong is this big box of a thing, a four-album “musical autobiography” my father owned. Louis narrates the entire thing, talking in between songs, explaining how “Potato Head Blues” was first recorded or who was sitting in during the recording of “West End Blues.” I can almost visualize the day I heard “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” for the first time, “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” the swinging “Canal Street Blues,” and thinking, nothing sounds like that, that just swings. And that’s what Louis introduced to America. Swing.
A while back I picked up Terry Teachout’s 2009 biography of Armstrong, Pops. The first half was well documented terrain, his youth, his early days, the excellent Hot Fives and Hot Sevens days. But what I didn’t know was the later years, the Ambassador, the 1950’s and 1960’s. His playing had diminished, certainly musical tastes had moved on, but Louis remained a force. Through the thousands of letters he wrote, and a tape recorder he kept on hand to capture hour after hour of his thoughts, he lived a great American life.
An original. A soloist. An optimist. American qualities worth celebrating.