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Not a wonderful world: why Louis Armstrong was hated by so many
"Casual listeners think of him as a gentle giant of jazz, but critics and African Americans often saw him as a sell out or ‘Uncle Tom’. A new book aims to show how radical ‘Pops’ really was
Last modified on Fri 18 Dec 2020 06.15 EST
“I cannot think of another American artist who so failed his own talent. What went wrong?” asked one biographer of Louis Armstrong. “The sheer weight of his success and its attendant commercial pressures,” answered another.
The popular opinion of the trumpeter and gravel-voiced singer of What a Wonderful World is as a genial, foundational voice in jazz. But the jazz establishment – and many African Americans – reviled him as a sellout or an “Uncle Tom”. When he died in 1971, he was seen as having peaked in the 1920s with the Hot Five and the Hot Seven, a series of inventive small-band recordings, and been in decline ever since. A new book, Ricky Riccardi’s Heart Full of Rhythm: the Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong, charts this apparent fall from grace, but shows the reality to be far more complicated.
After signing with Decca in the mid-1930s, Armstrong began working with Joe Kapp, a svengali producer who boasted of keeping a “pulse on the multitude”. The singer switched from respected Dixieland jazz to populist fare: Bing Crosby collaborations, Hawaiian instrumentals, syrupy romances, Iberian mariachis, and B-list comedy movies. At record speed, Armstrong would become America’s first black multimedia star, and was often hated for it: Gunther Schuller, the noted American jazz critic, remarked that “creepy tentacles of commercialism” had laid bare a “wasteland” in Armstrong’s career for more than 40 years.
“The band behind him are positively abominable. Nothing could possibly do more harm to such a great artist. It’s absolutely murderous,” one critic wrote in Metronome magazine. “Armstrong no longer is a vital force in hot jazz … [and] has chosen to play exclusively for the box-office,” published Music and Rhythm.
African Americans found Armstrong more troubling still. The handkerchief-holding persona – cheerful, fond of silly jokes – he’d perfected had echoes of an “Uncle Tom”, a black person who happily does the bidding of a white master.
Bob O’Meally, the head of jazz studies at Columbia University in New York, remains divided. While lauding Armstrong as “one of the greatest people of the 20th century”, he was “offended by his presentations … At the time of the rise of Malcolm X, the authority of Martin Luther King, examples in the popular media like Muhammad Ali and others, there was Armstrong – a kind of throwback from another era, with this borderline minstrelsy role that he played. I cringed as a black American.”
Armstrong’s reputation has improved since, but there’s still much room to recover – and not least in elite circles. Riccardi, a director of research collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, recalls that his master’s at Rutgers University in jazz history devoted just two hours to Armstrong in the whole programme. “I go into universities now, and everybody knows every Charlie Parker solo in every key. I say, ‘OK, how many of you have ever checked out Louis Armstrong?’ Blank faces.”
Riccardi’s book spans 1929 to 1947, when Armstrong became the world’s biggest pop star. But going against the usual complaints of critics – who portray the period in almost-Faustian terms – Riccardi sees Armstrong’s escape from jazz royalty as the man’s true making.
For one, crossing over (or “selling out”) as an African American in the 1930s was hardly a ticket to gold and glamour. Just as he got started, Armstrong was jailed and kicked out of California for smoking cannabis; he was later chased from Chicago by gun-toting gangsters and forced to travel with permanent armed protection. On tour in the deep south, Armstrong was turned away constantly from lodgings, struggled getting gigs from racist promoters and was harassed by police. He was sent to jail again while on a pit stop in Memphis, after onlookers grew suspicious about the band’s nice suits, “fancy-looking cigarette holders”, and that the manager’s white wife was sitting on the bus.
His times in Europe were no less challenging. On his first night in London in 1932, Armstrong couldn’t get to bed until 5am because hotels wouldn’t admit black guests. Reviewers wrote of “rhythmical jungle noises”, his “hippopotamus physiognomy”, “gravelly gorilla roar”, and “wild Negro African ancestor’s primitive cries”.
Yet as Riccardi emphasises, meeting culture in the middle meant Armstrong could change things from within. The list of firsts he oversaw is staggering. Knockin’ a Jug, which featured black and white musicians, was one of the US’s first integrated recordings. That same year, he cut the first integrated vocal duet, Rockin’ Chair, with white singer Hoagy Carmichael. Black and Blue, a 1929 B-side on Okeh Records’ “popular music” listings (a label that had previously marketed him for “race records”), has been called American music’s first bona fide protest song against racial inequality.
On tour in New Orleans, his home town, Armstrong handed out cash in the street, bought a radio set for the orphanage where he grew up, and was the first African American to do his own announcing on city radio. In a first for black musicians, he published an autobiography, Swing That Music, in 1936. The following year, he was the first African American to host a national radio show, and get featured billing in a Hollywood film. For O’Meally, the Columbia jazzer who grew up sceptical, Armstrong’s importance for the cause of racial equality is simply “incalculable.”
At the same time, working the culture from within could raise difficult questions. His stage persona – later problematised by African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s – seemed to fit the cloying stereotypes manufactured by a cynical white media. “He made a lot of black people uncomfortable”, the African American critic Gerald Early said, and Miles Davis, still fond of Armstrong, resented his penchant for “clowning”.
His film appearances in the 1930s posed a particular challenge. In Pennies from Heaven, a launchpad for Armstrong’s multimedia success, he played a mentally challenged farmer that couldn’t count. He was draped in a Tarzan cape in a movie soon after, and was even directly named Uncle Tom in another.
Riccardi offers a subtler take. The tide had certainly turned against him by the 1960s, he concedes, but African Americans were once overwhelmingly supportive of Armstrong. “The black press, they constantly praised his personality” while he rose to fame, he says. “They love the showmanship. They love everything. And I think that’s what always rankled Armstrong [with the Uncle Tom allegations, because] that persona, the smile, the humour, the jokes, the comedy, all the non-musical aspects of his stage persona, were perfected in front of black audiences.”
“I wouldn’t judge Armstrong”, O’Meally says. “The delicacy of the balancing act meant that at times he did fall, he did falter, and contradicted what Martin Luther King and others were trying to do.”
Testing the demarcation lines of jazz would always touch on race, too. “Jazz is an extension of the black voice, of black style, of moving”, O’Meally says. And even as Armstrong moved away from jazz and apparently pandered to white audiences, O’Meally still detects an immutable black essence in his music: “a sense of an audience around the corner”, one away from the white wings, to whom he was really performing.
How Armstrong affected jazz music itself is equally contestable. Catherine Russell is a jazz singer and the daughter of Luis Russell, who worked as Armstrong’s bandleader, including on Song of the Islands, a 1930 Hawaiian muzak single some considered “the beginning of the end”. Jazz has always been a mixture of “high art” and “folk art”, she says, and Armstrong never affected a particular loyalty to either.
His best work, she says – especially the Hot Five recordings of the 1920s – are hardly classical fineries. Big Butter and Egg Man, Irish Black Bottom, Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa: the Hot Five were dealing in the everyday crudities of blues, putting New Orleans street humour to song. Things would change in the 1940s. Led by Dizzy Gillespie and Parker in New York, the new bebop sound paid little mind to the demands of easy listening. It was harsher, more cerebral, heavily improvised, and conceived as a direct challenge to what Gillespie termed Armstrong’s “Uncle Tom sound”.
Armstrong saw danger in bebop. Its “weird notes” and “Chinese music” was made only for other musicians, he feared, and the consequences would soon come to bear. You could plausibly trace the bebop germ to the 1960s, when it flowered in the dissonant avant garde of free jazz: a sound so harsh and abrasive, the story goes, that black audiences were driven to more accessible alternatives in other genres. If musicians had kept a closer eye on Armstrong’s open-ended approach, Riccardi asks, one wonders where jazz may have headed, and how popular it’d be today.
Yet mixing genres, as Armstrong did, could dilute jazz’s musical core. Crucially, the closer jazz gets to the pop and institutional mainstream, critic Gary Giddins feared in Visions of Jazz, the more a dependence on “big money”, corporate donations and government grants may gnaw at its inner authenticity: the energy that enabled “its glorious eruptions” last century. But playing the field is often the thing keeping jazz alive, and prompts innovation in its own way: think of Davis’s experiments with funk, the growth of jazz fusion in the 1970s, or how most jazz musicians today make their money from playing in other genres. It was called selling out then; it’s collaboration now.
“I don’t see Armstrong turning against the revolution. He had fomented it in the first place and then stepped aside from it and kept going,” O’Meally says. And no matter how rapacious or all-encroaching the music business gets, nothing can ever kill jazz, he claims. Its musical identity – chordal experimentation, the blues undercurrent, playing with notions of time – remains as influential as ever. Even hip-hop is “one of the extensions of the world of Louis Armstrong”, O’Meally says, pointing to Biggie Smalls’ reputed schooling in jazz.
All in all, maybe Armstrong did “sell out”. But in doing so he secured his place in history. Roy Eldridge, “Hot Lips” Page, Henry “Red” Allen, Rex Stewart: the 20th century had plenty of trumpet gods, but they’re sadly forgotten to most.
Armstrong took a different path. “When the world is ready to define what we mean by modernism, we will realise that the shift away from 19th-century forms of music, vocal and instrumental, was something achieved by African Americans,” O’Meally concludes. “Armstrong led the band.”
• Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong by Ricky Riccardi is out now, published by Oxford University Press."
Saturday, December 19, 2020
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the Liberating Power of Music
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom begins with what seems at first like a harrowing journey. Netflix’s new adaptation of the late August Wilson’s play opens with a foreboding shot of the woods; the only noises are of crickets chirping, dogs barking, and young Black men gasping for air as they sprint through the trees. But then, we hear the music. As soon as the men detect Ma Rainey’s thunderous voice spilling out from a tent where the famed blueswoman is singing, we know they’re safe. Cradled by sweet sounds and the chatter of the crowd, they’ve made it home.
Released yesterday on streaming, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom tells the story of a fictionalized Ma (played by Viola Davis) gathering with her backing band to record new songs in a Chicago studio in 1927. The members of the band—Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), Levee (Chadwick Boseman, in his final role), and Toledo (Glynn Turman)—clash with one another and with the white managers producing Ma’s album. But like Wilson’s play, the George C. Wolfe–directed film isn’t just about a brilliant singer, or about the entertainment industry. The story concerns itself chiefly with the role of music in documenting and, in some cases, defusing the unspeakable pains that birthed the blues. Even when no songs are playing, Ma Rainey is a reminder of Wilson’s reverence for the genre. Just as the film takes care to depict its lead’s formidable presence, it pays attention to the larger forces threatening Ma’s artistry—and the lives of all the singers in the room with her.
Though some of the disagreements among the band members stem from prosaic matters, much of the conflict in the studio is rooted in the racism of the era. Even when the musicians criticize one another’s style, musically or otherwise, they are really wrestling with their place in the country as Black men. When Toledo mocks Levee’s ostentatious sartorial choices, he scoffs that “more niggas have got killed trying to have a good time than God got ways to count.” Meanwhile, the white record-label managers treat Ma carelessly, seeing her only as a vehicle for their own profit. They botch her recordings, ignore her requests, and interrupt the band’s studio time. Ma knows that the executives, Irvin (Jeremy Shamos) and Sturdyvant (Jonny Coyne), don’t actually value her as a person. “They wanna take your voice and trap it in all them fancy boxes with all them buttons and dials, and then too cheap to buy you a Coca-Cola,” Ma tells Cutler at one point. “They don’t care nothin’ about me. All they want is my voice.”
Along with showcasing her vocal prowess, Wilson’s play imbues the Georgia-born singer with the rebellious spirit that many observed in real life. As the blues scholar Steven C. Tracy wrote in his 1987 essay “A Reconsideration: Hearing Ma Rainey,” “Ma’s southern-drenched voice, echoing the field hollers and folk songs of 16-hour days among turn rows worked so unrelentingly that the laborers could see them in their dreams, had a depth of feeling matched by few other blues singers of her time.” Fittingly, Rainey is played by a southern woman and one of the greatest modern actors: Davis (who won an Oscar for her role in Fences, another Wilson adaptation).
From Ma Rainey’s opening musical performance in the woods, Davis throws all of her artistic gravitas into the portrayal. She moves with calculated swagger and delivers her monologues with rawness and precision. In real life, Rainey was sometimes mocked by northerners for her “country” mannerisms. But as Davis told Vanity Fair, Wilson displayed a deep respect for the speech patterns that came most naturally to southerners such as Rainey and herself. Plus, Davis said, Wilson “lets [Black characters] talk. A lot of times I don’t get to talk. And then sometimes even when I do talk, I’m like, that’s not what I would say.”
The original play premiered as the second in Wilson’s The American Century Cycle, a series of 10 works that each dramatized one decade of Black life in the 20th century. After the concert in the woods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (the only American Century play set in Chicago) doesn’t have any more scenes in Georgia. But for Wilson, exploring the resistance baked into mundane parts of Black life meant emphasizing the southern sensibilities that Black people held onto even after leaving the region. The Netflix adaptation’s screenwriter, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, sought to preserve Wilson’s interest in conveying the “nobility and courage” of his characters. “Their values, their integrity, the way they do things, their recipes, and the way they worship and courted—I had to keep all that intact,” Santiago-Hudson, a longtime collaborator of Wilson’s and a playwright himself, told me. “The music of August Wilson is his writing. And his writing is exactly what he heard from the people.”
Other writers might have portrayed Ma, a queer, dark-skinned woman born in 1886, as a wholly tragic character; Wilson’s play and Santiago-Hudson’s adaptation resist that narrow vision in part by focusing on the power of her music. Brash though she may be, Ma speaks with a defiance honed by years of working in an industry that first discarded her. To witness her singing is to feel that vulnerability and triumph, if only you know how to listen. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom stresses how integral music is to keeping its protagonist, and all Black people, alive. “White folk don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there,” Ma says in the film. Wilson’s writing underscores the legacy of suffering that created the blues—and the comfort the music provides. “You don’t sing to feel better,” Ma explains in one scene. “You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life. The blues help you get out of bed in the morning. You get up knowing you ain’t alone.”
Wilson once called the blues “the bedrock of everything I do.” As he told The Believer in 2004, a year before his death, “all the characters in my plays, their ideas and their attitudes, the stance that they adopt in the world, are all ideas and attitudes that are expressed in the blues.” Like Wilson, Santiago-Hudson embraces the literary virtue of the blues. Both men have marveled at the genre’s ability to tell the story of Black America, whose history in this country has largely been distorted by official accountings. “There’s no clearer documentation of our journey than the blues,” Santiago-Hudson said. “The blues’ll tell you when the boll-weevil crop wiped out all the cotton. The blues’ll tell you when Martin Luther King [Jr.] got killed.” The genre gave Wilson the name of one Pittsburghplay and provided the thematic foundation of many others. And it has brought Black artists together and had a seismic influence on the cultural landscape of America.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom doesn’t suggest that making music is a panacea for Black people. The characters wrestle with the failure of white power brokers to grasp the depth of Black art; at the same time, the musicians grapple with racism’s hold on other areas of their lives. Some of the movie’s most affecting scenes feature Levee, a zealous and temperamental trumpet player, whom Boseman inhabits with characteristic grace. Levee alternates between deference to a label manager and confrontation with Toledo, who chastises the younger musician for pandering to an indifferent white executive. Boseman’s Levee is a hothead, to be sure, but he’s also a wounded man whose craft eases the grief of losing his father to racist violence. “Me and this horn, we’s tight. If my daddy had-a knowed I was gon’ turn out like this, he woulda named me Gabriel,” he jokes early on. “I know how to play real music, not this old jug-band shit. I got style.”
Through casual conversations such as these, Ma Rainey lays bare the effects of 1920s racism, and the frustration of seeing Black art filtered through white arbiters’ visions of commercial success. In real life, Rainey was said to have reserved her best singing not for the technologically shaky records that her label produced, but for live concerts in front of Black audiences, who responded to her with wonder and genuine appreciation. In the film, the ecstatic opening performance is a visceral illustration of what Bonnie Raitt called “the fire and gusto” of her voice at Rainey’s 1990 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The most famous blues artists of the early 20th century challenged white entertainment institutions, whether record labels or performance venues. These musicians demanded more ethical treatment than such institutions were accustomed to giving Black people, especially women. Billie Holiday, whose complicated legacy gets a thoughtful investigation in a recently released documentary, rejected the societal expectations placed on her. Like Rainey, she resented the gatekeepers who held her career in their hands even as the talent was all her own.
No matter how varied the arc of their stories, these women, like so many of their fellow musicians throughout history, found ways to keep the best of themselves for the people who most understood the traumas sublimated into their songs. With their music, they charted a path toward collective understanding, if not also healing. They did what Santiago-Hudson noted that Black artists such as Rainey—and Davis and Boseman—do best: “With a free hand, we express things that we protect and cherish inside.”