Interviews » Biographers

Thomas Brothers, author of Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans

New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century was a complicated city, a rough and beautiful place bursting with energy and excitement.  It was a city marked by racial tensions, where the volatile interactions between blacks and whites were further confounded by a substantial Creole population.  Yet it was also a city of fervent religious beliefs, where salvation manifested itself in a number of ways.  Perhaps abolve all else, New Orleans was a city of music:  funeral bands marched through the streets; professional musicians played the popular tunes of the day in dance halls and cabarets; sanctified parishioners raised church roofs with their impassioned voices; and early blues musicians moaned their troubles on street corners and in honky-tonks, late into the night.

     And right in the middle of it all, stomping his feet in church, peeking through the windows of the dance halls, and marching in the second line that followed the parade bands up and down Canal Street, was a young boy named Louis Armstrong.  In Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, author and Armstrong scholar Thomas Brothers illustrates the indelible imprints left on Armstrong by New Orleans and its music.#

     Brothers’ book draws from a wealth of autobiographies, memoirs, and interviews with family, friends, and fellow musicians.  In a June, 2006 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Brothers discusses the city and musician whose impact on American culture is immense.


photo Frank Driggs Collection

Louis Armstrong

“In the early twentieth century, New Orleans was a place of colliding identities and histories, and Louis Armstrong was a gifted young man of psychological nimbleness.  The city and the musician were both extraordinary, their relationship unique, their impact on American culture incalculable.”

– Thomas Brothers


Dippermouth Blues, by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band


JJM  You wrote, “As I tried to contextualize what Armstrong was saying (while working with an edition of his unpublished writings), I realized how much American musicology had neglected the early period of jazz in New Orleans.” Why was this important period in American music neglected?

TB   Probably because American musicology from its beginnings was very Euro-centered — it was founded by refugees from Germany who brought a tradition of German musicology to the United States, which was then farmed out to each major university. Each university had its own German-Jewish refugees, who instilled a tradition of scholarship that was fascinated by European classical music, which we still are. I love European classical music, but until recently, it was not acceptable to study American music of any kind. So, that is the large part of the reason why the study of early jazz of New Orleans was neglected. But the other part of the answer has to do with the absence of African Americans in musicology, which remains a problem in American musicology. As far as I know, this is the first book ever written on the early part of New Orleans jazz by a trained musicologist.

JJM What made you suited for this work?

TB  People did not specialize in American music, much less African American music, and much less African American popular or vernacular music. So this kind of research was way off the radar screen of most writers. My dissertation field is actually fifteenth century medieval music — which I did in the eighties — but even in graduate school I was doing a lot with jazz. I worked quite a bit with Ollie Wilson at the University of California, Berkeley, a retired African American composer who had a really keen interest in African American music history. Studying with him got me into this work there, but, as I said, I did my dissertation on fifteenth century music, so this was a secondary field for me until about ten years ago, when I started doing most of my work in jazz and African American music.

JJM  Are the research challenges posed by the study of New Orleans music less imposing than those faced during the study of fifteen century music?

TB  Every field has its own research challenges, depending a lot upon what kinds of evidence are available. For this book both the positive and negative research challenges have a lot to do with the oral histories that I worked with. As I was getting into the project, I realized that vernacular music in New Orleans — especially jazz at this time — is generally well-documented in oral histories. This rich harvest of information from interviews that were conducted mostly in the fifties and sixties is what made this project work. However, the problems with that kind of information are substantial — people’s memories fail, they can supply misleading information, they may claim to report on something they don’t really know much about, and interviewers can ask leading questions that direct participants in a certain way.

JJM  What were some of the ingredients that fostered the stylistic innovations of early jazz?

TB  Before I answer that, I have to provide the caveat that, as you know, we don’t have this music recorded. It is not really recorded until the early twenties, when a lot of the musicians left the city and go out to the west coast and Chicago, which were the immigration patterns of African Americans during the great migration from the South to the North. That is another research challenge, obviously, because we don’t have any well-documented recorded history of the sound of this music, so we are relying on people’s accounts of it, and on their demonstrations of what musicians of the period played like. So, when I try to trace the stylistic innovations of this period, it is very sketchy. You just do the best you can, but it is hard to pin a lot of that down.

Having said that, something that makes this such a rich and wonderful period to study is the tremendous number of people who were making music at all levels — amateur, semi-professional and professional — within the African American community. That kind of diversity of practice in that kind of competitive environment has a lot to do with stylistic innovation. It is very rich in that regard.

JJM  You indicate that a constant flow of low paying, unmonitored performances, steady movement between social levels, and a relaxed attitude were things that that helped inspire the development of jazz…

TB  Yes. When someone like Louis Armstrong is playing music at age fifteen, it is important to realize that, at that stage of his life, he didn’t know how to read music, he really didn’t have much of an understanding of his instrument, he didn’t know how to play in key, and may not have even known what a key is. He was playing mostly by ear, learning pieces while performing with small groups that he was often substituting in and out of. That is what I meant by unmonitored performance situations, where no one was standing outside with a paycheck, where no one was saying the music had to be played in a certain way, and so forth. This was very common. The famous advertising wagons and the low paying jobs in the dance halls were all over the place — it was very common for people to make music without expecting much money in return for it. While that is the downside, the positive side is that there were many people making music, and many people experimenting with music, so it was the kind of environment that fosters stylistic innovations.

JJM  Your book goes into great detail about how Armstrong was shaped by the musical and social complexities of New Orleans. Who provided Armstrong with important early musical models?

TB  The most important by far was Joe Oliver. Armstrong had already noticed Oliver when he was ten or eleven years old, which would have been about 1911 or 1912, a time when Oliver’s career was on the ascent. He was the man in Armstrong’s neighborhood, where Oliver was getting to be well known and admired. Armstrong often followed him around in parades all day long, and when he could, snuck into dance halls, or stood outside of them, listening to Oliver play. Then, within a year or two of getting out of the waif’s home, Oliver sort of mentors him, has him over to his house and gives him lessons. So there is no doubt that Oliver was the dominant stylistic model for Armstrong during his middle-teen years.

After Oliver leaves New Orleans in 1918, Armstrong still finds a lot of people to learn from — Buddy Petit is certainly one, Punch Miller is another, and Kid Rena is another. These musicians are a little older than Armstrong, and they are among the ones coming up after some of the older musicians left town as part of the great migration. Each of them had an impact on Armstrong in his own way.

JJM You point out that several musicians felt that Buddy Petit was twenty-five to thirty years ahead of his time. Did he exert much influence on Armstrong’s style?

TB  I believe so, and a lot of people say that is the case. It is hard to know what to make of that twenty-five to thirty years part, but I think that has a lot to do with harmony, because Petit was very interested in harmony. He probably didn’t read music, but he had a really good ear and picked up on diminished chords and maybe augmented chords as well. That is probably what they were thinking when they said that. Petit’s impact on Armstrong was likely the harmonic precision and harmonic willingness to take on a language like that and mix it into his improvisation. Also, people talk about Armstrong connected to Petit in terms of his second playing — which is playing an obbligato line or counterpoint line to the main melody, which Petit did very well. He loved to play in the low range, actually, and loved to have somebody else take the lead and stay in the low range. He played this lovely little counterpoint to the melody, and, as we know from his 1923 recordings with Oliver, Armstrong did precisely that. Oliver would take the main melody and Armstrong would weave these beautiful polyphonies around it.

JJM You describe Armstrong’s singing in a vocal quartet as his “most important childhood hustle.” What do you mean by that?

TB   I call a chapter in my book “Street Hustler,” and write about Armstrong at ages nine, ten and eleven — before he goes into the waif’s home — at a time he was basically trying to pick up change off the streets. It was a time when he sold newspapers illegally — it was a segregated job and you had to be white to sell newspapers — but he does it anyway and gets into trouble because of that. He is also seen doing other things to make himself a little change during this time, like reselling restaurant waste, for example. He called things like that his “hustles.”

This stretch with the vocal quartet is an important point because it really gets his ear going, thinking harmonically, which is something he probably hadn’t done much of until then. Church singing probably wouldn’t require much harmonic thinking, and there is not much interest in harmony in blues playing, at least not in the blues he was exposed to. Sources make it quite clear that these vocal quartets were interested in experimenting with harmony and delighted in experimenting with chords. That is the kind of situation that got him thinking harmonically.

JJM  The expectation in these groups was unconventionality?

TB  Yes, and that is where barbershop quartet singing comes from, apparently — not New Orleans, necessarily, but the African American South, which had a vernacular tradition of quartet singing in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

JJM  You devote quite a bit of time writing about how New Orleans parades helped form Armstrong’s sense of what it meant to be a professional musician. What was the importance of outdoor music and parades?

TB  These are more examples of what I spoke of earlier concerning performing situations that were not heavily monitored. The Mardi Gras parade is the crown jewel of New Orleans parades, but there are many other parades there. Any excuse would be given for having a parade — especially during Armstrong’s time there — and there were multiple parades on Sundays.

New Orleans had a tremendously vibrant outdoor culture that provided opportunities for performances at all levels. Very highly polished Creole marching bands were paid the best, and then there were the sort of funky uptown bands that came from Armstrong’s neighborhood who were not being paid very much but who were having a lot of fun playing music that was probably similar to what was played in church, at least in terms of heterophony. Some people think that funky kind heterophonic parade music was the source for the distinguishing texture of New Orleans jazz, which we know as the collective improvisation and polyphony I was referring to earlier.

JJM  You wrote, “Parades thus offered disfranchised Negroes a chance to assertively move their culture through the city’s public spaces, the very spaces where African Americans were expected to confirm social inferiority by sitting in the rear of trolley cars and by stepping aside on sidewalks to allow whites to pass.” So, these kinds of bands allowed the African American musicians a certain kind of security…

TB  Yes. This is a period when African American people all across the United States were not able to move about freely. They can’t simply wander into any part of town they want to — in fact, there is real danger involved in moving through town. It is also quite clear that there was a lot of violence associated with the second-lining. We like to think of second-lining as people who follow a parade and participate, interact and dance with the musicians. While that may seem like a kind of joyous, happy thing, there was actually a lot of violence associated with it, which had to do with the restricted motion throughout the city.

Armstrong found a way to deal with that. He figured that if he could make friends with Joe Oliver and carry Oliver’s horn while he wasn’t playing during stretches of the parade, then Armstrong could accompany the band along the entire parade route — which was not something he could safely do otherwise. This allowed him to stay with the band.

I began this book with a recollection of Armstrong from 1954 or so, in which he remembers a moment from 1921 when he was playing with the Tuxedo Brass Band. By this time, he had really arrived in New Orleans and was becoming well known as a soloist, but he recalled that this moment, playing with the Tuxedo Brass Band, was very important to him. Why was it so important to him? Because, as a result of his success with this march, he was able to travel more freely, due to personal recognition. Suddenly everyone in town seemed to admire his music. It was a discovery that through his music he could accomplish something that was otherwise prohibited to him.

JJM  It was a great antidote to the violence, and, as you say, it offered a great sense of freedom for him, which was clearly important to him.

TB  As it was for the entire African American community. I make the point in my book that this had a lot to do with funeral music, which was a public ritual where African American culture was on display, especially the rejoicing during the burial, which was like a public broadcasting of a cultural autonomy. They seemed to be saying, “This was our music, and our culture. We own this performance tradition and we can broadcast it throughout the entire city.” I also attempt to relate that to Buddy Bolden, who people talk about as a musician who played his cornet so loud that he could be heard from two or three miles away. So, what was that all about? It is about this sense of assertion that we are talking about.

JJM  And you suggest it may have been a way for him to shout out his masculinity…

TB  One of the surprising things I discovered while writing this book is that the funeral music was controlled by fraternal clubs, not by a religious institution. Some previous writers tied funeral music to, for example, African religion and African American Christianity. There is a dimension of that, I am sure, but mainly this ritual was sponsored by groups that were not particularly religiously motivated.

The other thing I found surprising was the fact that only men were buried in what we know as a jazz funeral, so it was clearly a masculine thing. Also, because there was objection to it from preachers and Catholics, it indicates that it was not a religious ritual. So, my conclusion is that these funerals were expressions of masculine dignity, broadcasted in a public setting, when masculine dignity was under siege from all directions — Jim Crow laws were in place, voting rights were being taken away, and lynching’s were at an all time high in the South.

JJM  Regarding this, you posed an interesting question in the book: “What does the loss of political freedom and its attendant blow to masculinity have to do with early jazz?”

TB  The idea that music is a special area of expression for African Americans goes back to the days of slavery, when they were able to express a freedom that did not exist for them in any other realm. The freedom in some ways had to do with the non-materiality of music-making — you can make it with just your voice and a stick, basically.

JJM How did the waif’s home prepare Armstrong for the uptown musical world?

TB  The point about where, when and how he got his first cornet is somewhat controversial. I don’t take that issue up too much in the book except to say that I believe he got his first cornet in the waif’s home. This is what he said for most of his life, until near the end of it, when he wrote a very controversial document that had a number of misleading things in it. While it contains a lot of emotional importance, it also has some mis-recollections of facts. The very consistent message we got from earlier writings is that he got his first cornet when he was in the home, which is where he got instruction on it, and where he probably learned the basics of musical notation, note tinkering, how to play the instrument, the armature, and so forth. That training basically gave him the tools to play the blues in a honky-tonk when he got out of the home, which did not require him to know any music, did not require him to know any pieces, did not require him to read music, and did not necessarily require him to fit into an ensemble. His playing in a honky-tonk night after night at age fourteen was very important. While today we may think of that kind of work as child abuse or child exploitation, it was the perfect thing for him at that time – to be able to play the horn in a public setting, and to be playing the blues. But without that training in the waif’s home, he wouldn’t have had that opportunity.