Interviews » Biographers

Interview with Thomas Brothers — author of Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism


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Thomas Brothers, author of Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism

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Nearly 100 years after bursting onto Chicago’s music scene under the tutelage of Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong is recognized as one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century. A trumpet virtuoso, seductive crooner, and consummate entertainer, Armstrong laid the foundation for the future of jazz with his stylistic innovations, but his story would be incomplete without examining how he struggled in a society seething with brutally racist ideologies, laws, and practices.

Thomas Brothers picks up where he left off with the acclaimed Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, following the story of the great jazz musician into his most creatively fertile years in the 1920s and early 1930s, when Armstrong created not one but two modern musical styles. Brothers wields his own tremendous skill in making the connections between history and music accessible to everyone as Armstrong shucks and jives across the page. Through Brothers’s expert ears and eyes we meet an Armstrong whose quickness and sureness, so evident in his performances, served him well in his encounters with racism while his music soared across the airwaves into homes all over America.

Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism blends cultural history, musical scholarship, and personal accounts from Armstrong’s contemporaries to reveal his enduring contributions to jazz and popular music at a time when he and his bandmates couldn’t count on food or even a friendly face on their travels across the country. Thomas Brothers combines an intimate knowledge of Armstrong’s life with the boldness to examine his place in such a racially charged landscape. In vivid prose and with vibrant photographs, Brothers illuminates the life and work of the man many consider to be the greatest American musician of the twentieth century.#

Brothers discusses his book with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita in an April, 2014 interview.

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 “The astonishing thing about Armstrong is that he invented not one but two modern art forms, one after the other, both of them immensely successful and influential, and that he did this with vigorous commitment to means of expression derived from the black vernacular he had grown up with…Armstrong’s first modern style, created around the years 1926 – 28 and based on the fixed and variable model, was pitched primarily to the black community.  These people enjoyed his entertaining singing, but they were in awe of his carefully designed trumpet solos…

“His second modern formulation was the result of efforts to succeed in the mainstream market of white audiences.  The key here was radical paraphrase of familiar popular tunes.  The basic idea was nothing new: when, during the late nineteenth century and probably long before, African-American musicians spoke of “ragging the tune,” they meant creating their own stylized version of a known melody by adding all kinds of embellishments and extensions..  This technique was part of Armstrong’s early musical training.  In the early 1930’s, with the assistance of the microphone, he invented a fresh approach to this old tradition, creating a song style that was part blues, part crooning, part fixed and variable model, plastic and mellow, the most modern thing around.”

– Thomas Brothers

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A 1933 filmed performance of  Armstrong performing “Dinah”

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JJM Your book is a study of what is generally acknowledged to be Louis Armstrong’s most creative and important era, from the time he left New Orleans in 1922 to his time in Los Angeles in 1932. It also provides the reader with a clear look at the social context in which he lived and excelled. So, before we get started I want to say congratulations, and also thank you for your work.

TB Well, thank you very much.

JJM You’ve become known as the essential Armstrong scholar. The cultural historian Gerald Early calls you “Armstrong’s finest interpreter and chronicler.” Are you ever surprised by what you learn about him?

TB   Oh, yes. That is what keeps me going! There were a lot of surprises in this book for me. Maybe not as many as in my previous book, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, because there had not been a lot of work done on that period, surprisingly. The early years of New Orleans jazz has been studied, but not really systematically, and, quite frankly, not really by scholars. So there was a lot to do there, and a lot of new things were learned. The period Master of Modernism covers is a better covered period — everybody knows the famous recordings and so forth. But, there were a lot of surprises, yes.

JJM   What are some of the new resources available on Armstrong since you wrote Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans?

TB   I used a number of archival sources for Master of Modernism. One of them is available to anyone who can subscribe to these ProQuest database searches, which provides access to historic black newspapers that are all online now, and you can just keyword search in them. It’s incredible!

For example, you can type in a slang word to find out how it was used. There was a comedian Armstrong was hooked up with in Chicago in the late 1920’s by the name of Marshall “Garbage” Rogers, who was well known as the “Heah Me Talkin’ to Ya” guy because it was the centerpiece of a comedy routine Rogers and his partner performed at the Savoy Ballroom.

With a little keyword searching, I figured out that this was where this Armstrong song title came from, and that it was probably written for the Chicago Savoy Ballroom, where Rogers was a comedian, and where he got married. So I’m conjecturing that this piece was written for his wedding.
So, things like that can come out of these historic black newspapers.

Also, there was a weekly magazine called the Heebie Jeebies, believe it or not, that started before Armstrong’s recording, so, if anything, Armstrong’s 1926 recording refers to the magazine, and not the other way around. I stumbled on to about 45 – 50 extant copies of this weekly magazine — some of them are in New York at the Schomburg Center, and a couple of them are at Yale, but a lot of them are at the Chicago History Museum. It was a gossipy little magazine that just gives a lot of information about things like what was happening at the Savoy Ballroom this week, this is what happened last week, and that kind of thing. So, that was really useful, too.

Of course the other thing I make big use of are oral histories and interviews made with the musicians, as well as Armstrong’s own personal accounts and his scrapbooks, which are available at the Queens Archive in the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Those are scrapbooks put together by his wife Lillian Hardin during his great Chicago years, and they are amazing clippings of inside reports, some of which I was able to attribute to the Heebie Jeebies magazine. So, these types of on-the-ground reporting finds were part of this big archival database I tapped into.

JJM Your book’s focus is on Armstrong’s invention of two modern art forms, the first being the creation of his “carefully designed trumpet solos” which were pitched primarily to black audiences, and the second being the “radical paraphrase of familiar, popular tunes” that appealed to a wide audience. Concerning the first modern art form, throughout the book you refer to a musical format you call the “fixed and variable model.” Can you explain that?

TB Sure. It’s always hard to talk about music in detail — it’s a real obstacle that we have. I try to get into a little bit of detail by talking about this because I feel that it’s important to draw the discussion to that level of exactly what is happening in these musical pieces, and then to connect that to bigger interpretive issues, such as this modern style that I write about. The reason that’s important here is because I’m asserting that this is his primary way of thinking about organizing these solos, and if you don’t talk about it, then you are sort of talking around it. So, by talking about it we are linking his achievement to a much bigger tradition of African-American music — and ultimately African music — and that is the main line of interpretation there.

What I mean by this “fixed and variable model” is that there are basically two layers of activity, and it is easiest to understand this in terms of rhythm. There’s a rhythmic pulse, a meter, and then a phrase structure — all of which tend to be binary — and then there’s another more complicated layer that interacts with that fundamental layer, and that’s the variable.

Once you understand this intuitively, it is actually very easy to hear. All African-American dance music is based on this fixed and variable model — it is very common. Ragtime is also based on this model. It’s ubiquitous, and, to some degree or another, it shapes virtually all of the African-American vernacular traditions.

In jazz it became a centerpiece, and jazz soloists cultivate elaborate variable lines — their solos — against this fixed, fairly simple and straightforward underlying foundation. But the emphasis in jazz is how fancy you can be in the variable side of it, which is one distinguishing feature of the tradition, as opposed to, for example, the blues, which cultivates the same thing but in more of a conversational style of delivery rather than as fancy rhythmic tricks or as elaborate melodies. It is more in the phrasing. Ragtime does the same thing, and it’s more locally-based, as opposed to Armstrong’s thinking in bigger terms — the variable against the fixed. Ragtime is more locally based — according to the measure — so there is syncopation within the measure. Armstrong’s extending that way of thinking to two measures and three measures and four measure phrases.

JJM   Not being a musician myself, I understood the variable at a very base level to mean Armstrong soloing over the rhythm…

TB  Well, here’s the key. You can play a jazz solo against the fixed pattern in the background, and it doesn’t really have variable rhythms. It’s very easy to do that. You can play rhythms that are sort of in-sync with the flow of the fixed background, and conform to it in a very straightforward way.

So, for example, in one of the chapters on New York, I claim that Joe Smith, who was Armstrong’s rival, is basically much more in sync with that fixed background. He is conforming to the flow of measures and two-bar units and four-bar phrases, and that makes it easier to listen to him. Armstrong is challenging that. He’s more in tension with that fixed background, and that makes his solos more challenging, and more adventurous, actually. And that’s the kind of detail that he cultivates.

JJM Your book begins with Armstrong leaving New Orleans and returning to Joe Oliver’s band in Chicago. What immediate opportunity did that present Armstrong?

TB He stayed with Oliver’s band for almost two years. It was a high paying gig — probably better pay than he got for work in New Orleans — and he was playing with a group of first-rate New Orleans musicians, including the great clarinetist Johnny Dodds, who plays on one side of him, and of course Oliver, who plays on the other side. Oliver had a very clear, strong vision of what he wanted his band to sound like, and what he wanted his soloists to sound like. It’s a crackerjack band — a really good unit. So, it must have been really fun to play with that band, and really fun to just sink deeper into Oliver’s stylistic vision of what the ensemble should sound like, and what the solos should sound like.

JJM Who were the band’s competitors?
TB Well, there was Freddie Keppard’s band, Lawrence Duhe’s band, and if Jimmy Noone wasn’t there already he would be within a year or so. The New Orleanians were doing very well in Chicago, actually, and were very well received. Milt Hinton — who is not from New Orleans,

but who moved to Chicago with his mother in the mid- 1920’s as a young teenager — said the New Orleanians basically had a lock on Chicago entertainment on the South Side. They were very, very popular. So, Armstrong was stepping into a very promising situation, one that was ready to hear his advances, and to take them in.

JJM The New Orleans musicians brought what you call a “plantation vernacular” to Chicago…

TB They had already done that in New Orleans, exactly. They’re packing touches of the blues into their dance music, as well as the kinds of touches that remind people of church — congregational singing, the ring shouts. Somebody in New Orleans said that this music was like the ring shout being taken out into the streets. There was also the improvisation, of course. So, they had built a whole scene around this kind of effort.

JJM So, we walk into Lincoln Gardens in 1922. What do we witness?

TB Well, first off, we know from Armstrong’s report that when he got off the train, having arrived from New Orleans, he got in a cab and it took him directly to Lincoln Gardens, which is kind of symbolic because the people who were attending Lincoln Gardens and supporting Oliver and his band were the people of the Great Migration — the 50,000 people who had come from the rural and urban South who settled on the South Side of Chicago. So, as I say it is symbolic that Armstrong takes that same trip himself, and ends up right there.

Lincoln Gardens is a dance hall. There are differing reports on the number of people it held, but it is a fairly large dance hall, and not terribly fancy. It had a very small balcony around the sides, and it had one of those reflecting lights that twirls around and breaks into little prisms of light on the dance floor. There was “ring side seating” up near the bandstand, and this is where white musicians liked to be. So, this collection of white musicians gathering around the bandstand, admiring what he and Oliver’s band were doing, was a new thing for Armstrong. They are young guys in their late teens and early 1920’s who are really impressed by the band; they’re studying it, they’re imitating it, and the band members are their heroes, really. So, this admiration by white musicians is a very new thing for Armstrong.

JJM They were known as “Alligators.”

TB Exactly. That’s the Louisiana nickname for them.

JJM An essential relationship of Armstrong’s was with Lillian Hardin, who he eventually married. How did they connect?

TB She was not in the band when he arrived. There are different reports about this, and Armstrong himself tells different versions of the story, but it is pretty clear she was not in the band in August, 1922, because there was a different woman pianist. She came in late that year as a piano player, and she wasn’t very impressed by Armstrong to begin with. She knew he was the second cornet player, and there was no immediate sort of attraction or anything.

Oliver had introduced them, and they gradually got to be friends, especially during the spring of 1923, when they end up being part of the first of the great series of recordings of the Oliver band. During the recordings she noticed that they had Armstrong stationed in the back of the recording studio, which she understood was because he was overpowering Oliver.

After that they start to take an interest in each other. They begin dating in the summer of 1923, and by February of 1924 they are married. It is not exactly a match made in heaven, but it’s a match that’s extremely important for Armstrong’s career in the 1920’s.

JJM
She was clearly an important partner to Armstrong, and once claimed that he was “A fella who didn’t have much confidence in himself to begin with, and he didn’t believe in himself.” Is that something that Armstrong would have agreed with?

TB Oh, I think so. Yes. He talks a lot about being shy in New Orleans, and about how difficult it was to leave Oliver and step out as a soloist. Even after he returns to Chicago from New York, when he’s established as a soloist, he was embarrassed by having his name put up on the marquee and was reluctant to step up on the stage for featured solos at the Vendome. It definitely took him a while to gain confidence as a featured soloist, and Lillian was important in that transition.

JJM You wrote, “In their search for fame and lucre, Lil and Louis were exploring two main avenues — compositions that they could copyright and a more prominent space for Louis as a soloist.” How did the financial incentive to create music that could be easily written and copyrighted shape Armstrong’s creative development?

TB  Well, this is interesting. In the early 1920’s it was quite firmly recognized by the musicians in Oliver’s circle — and by the New Orleanians in Chicago generally — that one way to make money was to record your own tunes, which was easy to do. If you had a recording contract, the recording company was interested in having you provide your own tunes rather than record the famous tunes of the day because then they didn’t have to pay any royalties. They could just pay you a flat fee — not that much, actually — and your tune would then be recorded. The payoff would then be from the royalties you would earn if your tune became popular and other people recorded it. This was a financial business model that Oliver was very keenly interested in. Lillian also got interested in it, and she copyrighted a number of tunes during the period. Armstrong also steps right into this, and the two of them write tunes together.

Lillian copies them out by hand, and Armstrong eventually does, too, and they sent them to the U.S. Patent Office, and today these lead sheets are in the Library of Congress. The piece “Cornet Chop Suey” was, I think, the most spectacular discovery — not from my work, this has been known for 10 or 15 years — because before that people thought it was actually an improvised solo. Now we know that he had it written out meticulously, and that he played it virtually the way he had written it out. There are a few embellishments here and there, but it’s not a tune that needs to be embellished and jazzed up or anything, it is basically intact the way it is. So, at this point his creativity is being channeled into what can be notated, and that’s what they see as their path to better financial rewards.

By the end of the decade, he had basically abandoned that model. What he realized by the end of the decade was that his personal gift would not be through tunes that could be notated, but through tunes that can’t be notated. In other words, they include a lot of the vernacular, eccentric little details, phrasing, accents, and rhythmic patterning that can’t be notated but can be captured on a recording and that can really shine through in live performance. That’s where his gift is, and that’s what makes his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens solos of the 1920’s so great – he is incorporating all of that. He’s doing this in an orally-based kind of music, rather than restricting his creativity to what can be notated.

JJM There was a contradiction in what each business model wanted out of him; the record company wanted him to create original material, and the cabarets wanted him to perform known melodies…

TB  Yes, I think that’s correct. In my book I talk a lot about these two phases of modernism — as you described earlier in the interview — and the first one being largely for the African-American community and preserved on the Hot Five recordings, and the second being an attempt to reach the white audiences with paraphrases of popular songs.

It’s important to emphasize that performing popular songs in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s wasn’t new for him – he had been doing that all along – it is just that those pieces didn’t go onto recordings because paying royalties to the song’s composer wasn’t part of the business model.

JJM How did Fletcher Henderson first hear of Armstrong?

TB There’s a story that Henderson was touring through New Orleans with a blues singer in 1921 or so, and while there he actually heard Armstrong and then tried to get him to come to New York, but Armstrong refused to leave at that point. So, somehow Henderson was reminded of Armstrong in the summer of 1924, and invited him to come to New York then. Lillian inspired him to take the offer and to go, and he spent about a year in New York City playing with Henderson.

JJM So, in addition to playing with Henderson, he also had access to the recording studios where he worked with people like Clarence Williams and Bessie Smith…

TB He loved that side of his experience during his year in New York, making all those “race recordings” with the blues musicians. But the main benefit of playing with Henderson was that he was the featured soloist. So, he would now be playing lots and lots of hot solos, and he had a whole year to work on a technique of constructing them.

I make the case in the book that the melodic construction of hot solos at this point, in 1924, wasn’t necessarily anything special, they just had to have a lot of heat. In other words, they had to have a lot of bluesy intensity, they had to have a lot of strong percussive attack, and they had to have a lot of rhythmic excitement, but they didn’t have to be great melodies. Armstrong sounds good because he’s got great control of his instrument, he has a big sound, he has a lot of rhythmic drive, he has a lot of bluesy touches — so he’s perfect for this. But what he’s also driven for — and this is what he experiments with during his year with Henderson, and during the next year back in Chicago — is constructing these as beautiful melodies, in addition to all that. That’s what ultimately distinguishes him.

JJM Following his time with time with Henderson, he returned to Chicago, and within a week’s time began work at the Dreamland. What made the Dreamland stand out from other Chicago clubs?

TB It was owned by an African American, which made it very special, and it got a lot of press for that. It became known as a “safe place” for African Americans to go, where they would not be humiliated, and where there was no hint of any kind of segregation.

It was a very friendly place, and it was also known as a classy place for people on the South Side to go, which must have meant that there was not a lot of racy humor, there was not a lot of nudity — meaning the women dancers did not wear revealing costumes, or at least with much less exposure as other places.

JJM Did Armstrong feel a competition with the dancers of any of the clubs in which he played? In other words, did he feel as if he needed to upstage them, and if so, did that drive his creativity at all?

TB There has been some good work done on that by Brian Harker, a musicologist at Brigham Young who has associated Armstrong’s work at the Sunset Café in 1926 and 1927 with some dancers there. There’s not a lot of evidence that says he actually felt threatened by them, but the dancers are doing a lot of the same things that he’s doing — they are taking African-American vernacular dance steps and they’re professionalizing them to satisfy the integrated audiences of the Sunset Café. So, there’s a lot of compatibility between the dancers and the musicians, and, of course, all of the music Armstrong made was very compatible with dancing, so there’s a lot to work with there. And, since a lot of them are virtuoso dancers, they are pushing the professionalization of these vernacular dance steps as far as they can take them, which is a lot of what Armstrong is doing, too.