A Black History Month Profile: Louis Armstrong

JJM Regarding his time with Erskine Tate’s orchestra at the Vendome, Armstrong must have been quite nervous at the outset, since he said “I like to have fainted” upon being hired…

TB This was another place where Lillian was influential, because she insisted that he take the opportunity to play with Tate. Tate’s outfit is very classy. They called themselves a “symphony orchestra” — they have violins, and they’re playing light classics and opera overtures. They’re fitting into what was a national tendency to have classy music at some movie theaters.This is hard for us to understand, because it’s so unfamiliar to us today, but movie theaters always had music of some kind during the silent picture era, even if were just an organist or a piano player.

The fanciest movie theaters in Manhattan had elaborate, very well-rehearsed symphony orchestras that were competing with the best orchestras in all of New York City. The programs would turn over every week, and the music became just as important as the movies, and in the case of the Vendome Theater, the music is even more important than the movie because how much of what was being produced in the movies of the 1920’s is going to appeal to the African-American audiences of the time? Usually not very much. If there are any African-American actors in the film, they’re treated condescendingly or patronizingly, or they’re ridiculed. So, to see a classy African-American symphony orchestra perform is a huge thing, and that’s why Armstrong was nervous, because he had never played that kind of music before his time with Tate.

JJM This was a step up from what he played during his time with Fletcher Henderson…

TB Yes, this was actually a big step up from Henderson. You can imagine that the ensemble playing is very tight, you would have to read music quickly, you would have to learn music quickly, and you would have to assimilate it quickly. There were also all kinds of nuances that he’s not necessarily used to.

JJM And he sang at the Vendome…

TB We don’t have a whole lot of detail about his singing there, but, yes, I’m sure he did sing because once “Heebie Jeebies” established him as a singer in the spring of 1926, his singing was in demand, not just at the Vendome but at the Sunset Café too.

JJM In the winter of 1925 – 26, while making a name for himself at classy venues like the Dreamland Café and the Vendome Theater, Armstrong was also extending his reputation thanks to the Hot Five series on OKeh Records. The recordings sold in Chicago, but the main target audience was African Americans in the Deep South, where “race records” were immensely popular. What was OKeh’s marketing strategy for this series?

TB Yes, they certainly sold in Chicago, and they sold in all northern cities where there were African-American communities from the Great Migration. The target of these “race records” was of course to appeal to the African-American mass audience, and to do so in a low-budget way. They were not interested in paying musicians any royalties – they would get a flat fee – so while it was a great way for a musician to make a name for himself, it was not necessarily a great way to make a career because there was very little income from the recordings themselves.

JJM What Armstrong recorded for OKeh and what he performed live must have been substantially different than what he was playing…

TB That’s right. The famous Hot Five ensemble of Kid Ory, Johnny St. Cyr, Johnny Dodds, Lillian Hardin, and Armstrong are New Orleans musicians who were assembled in order to put collective improvisation together at the drop of a dime. They would walk into the studio with very little rehearsal time and no fancy arrangements, and knock off a few recordings. It’s a rough and ready kind of production, which is very different from playing in a place like the Vendome Theater or the Sunset Café, where they’re playing arrangements, where more than one musician may be playing on a part, and where they are playing hits of the day.

During my research for the book I tried to identify as much overlap as I could between what was being played in the live settings and what was being played in the recording studios. Sometimes it’s very clear. For example, “Big Butter and Egg Man,” one of his most important recordings from 1926, was definitely played at the Sunset Café, but the version that’s on the record with the Hot Five is not going to be matching what was played at the Sunset Café, except for Armstrong’s solo and the vocals. The Hot Five arrangement is not what we would have heard at the Sunset Café because that was arranged and orchestrated for the musicians, whereas the studio version was improvised by the New Orleanians, who, except for Armstrong, were not at the Sunset Café. So, it’s that kind of thing, where sometimes you can see little bits of evidence that these solos are migrating from the live performance venues into the recording studios, but sometimes it’s just speculation.

Another example is “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque,” which I suggest was probably heard in these venues because it’s clear that it is a carefully worked out solo, one that he performed week after week, got it right in the live venues and then brought to the studio.

JJM We talked a little earlier about the “Alligators” — the white musicians who would come watch and listen to Armstrong. How did they contribute to Armstrong’s emergence as the dominating influence in jazz during the 1920’s?

TB Well, it’s clear that the Henderson recordings and the 1924 recordings he made with blues musicians in New York were getting his name out to jazz musicians throughout the country. For example, Jack Teagarden said that he first heard Armstrong for the first time through those recordings. The Hot Five recordings were an ever better opportunity to showcase Armstrong as a soloist, and his reputation expanded among musicians, especially musicians in Chicago who knew about him.

So, going down to the Sunset Café or at times other venues to hear Armstrong and to hang out with him became the thing to do. They became friends with him — they certainly idolized him — and they had these recordings from which they could memorize his solos. This connection with other musicians was the way his innovations and his great melodies find their way throughout the jazz field.

If these musicians didn’t copy his solo exactly, they internalized his style. Bud Freeman is very good with this, and he talks about some of his early recordings, saying, “That’s all Louis, what I’m doing on there. That’s my version of Louis’ solos.” That became more and more common among not just African-American musicians, but white musicians, too.

JJM There was a lot of talk among the African-American musicians about the Alligators stealing their work. Chicago Defender writer Dave Peyton felt that black musicians should “hold on to your ideas. Don’t show them (Alligators) a thing.” He even insisted that anyone who violated this principle was an “Uncle Tom.” Of course, the recordings made it so you didn’t have to see Armstrong in person to steal his work, you could steal it from the recordings, which was a new dynamic…

TB Yes. Peyton does talk about this. As the music writer for the Defender, he is probably the most important African-American writer on music during the 1920’s. The column you refer to is sort of a business column — for example, how to advance your career — and he talks about this problem you bring up.

You know, Armstrong never complained about it. Armstrong and Earl Hines, for example, felt flattered by the attention, and they enjoyed their friendships with white musicians. For others it was not so easy to swallow, because if you weren’t in the premier cream of the cream, like Armstrong and Hines-two of the greatest musicians of the 1920’s — if white musicians were copying what you were doing, then that was more of a problem and it wasn’t quite as easy to accept.

JJM Jumping ahead to 1929, Armstrong returned to New York, where he performed at Connie’s Inn in Harlem and on Broadway in Hot Chocolates, a show that put him in a position to experiment with paraphrasing popular songs…

TB The success of “Ain’t Misbehavin'” puts a bigger spotlight on him in New York, and especially a spotlight at the Hudson Theatre, which is primarily a white theater. It’s through this success that the recording company realizes they can now market him more aggressively to white audiences through their premiere label.

So, after the success of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Ain’t Misbehavin'” — both of which were from May and June of 1929 — he became much more in demand in that marketing strategy. At the same time, he is playing in different kinds of venues, and he has a tour around the country during which he sings primarily popular songs, where there will be a very strong connection between what he’s doing in live situations and what’s going directly onto the recordings.

JJM So, he became what is known in the record business as a “crossover artist,” which is an ability to appeal to multiple audiences…

TB Yes. I believe ”West End Blues” was the recording where they first started experimenting with releasing him on both labels, and then they just increased the intensity of that, all the way through 1929. Ultimately, by 1931, his recordings are no longer released on the “race” label – his music is only released on the white labels.

JJM “West End Blues” was sung at the Savoy Ballroom, and probably with the use of a microphone…

TB Yes, somebody actually says how he stepped back from the microphone to play his trumpet solo, which implies that he’s got a microphone there for his voice. And you can also tell on his vocal on “West End Blues” that it is a very different vocal style than, say, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” or even “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. You hear the microphone voice on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and you hear the big voice that’s going to fill up a big space on “Ain’t Misbehavin'”. These are two different kinds of voices for him, and it’s the microphone voice that’s going to dominate the early 1930’s, with all the nuances and delicate phrasing, which is closer to the crooner style. The crooner style was based on microphones, and while nobody mistook Armstrong for a crooner, there are definitely connections there. .

JJM Armstrong’s performance of “Poor Little Rich Girl” got everybody’s attention at the Vendome and Sunset, but he never recorded it since OKeh was not interested in paying royalties to its composer, Noel Coward. Are there other examples of that, and, because of this kind of constraint, did Armstrong put his best material on record?

TB We do have some reports on that kind of thing from the Vendome Theater, where people talked about certain songs as having a huge impact when he performed them live there, but we don’t know anything about them on record. So, I think there was absolutely some of that. That would have been true of his work through 1928, but once he gets into the white audience, from 1929, especially, and through 1932, we can be confident that most of his good material is going onto the recordings.

JJM Breaking into the white market without losing his African-American vernacular identity was an amazing achievement for his era…

TB Well, he’s in an environment in Chicago at a time where there is an incredible demand among African-American audiences for sophisticated music that, as one person says, “Really relates to us.” People have disposable income and they’re willing to pay for classy entertainment, and there are a lot of venues where classy entertainment is being presented. It is a very competitive environment that made this kind of achievement possible.

Another thing is that there was access to music lessons. Many New Orleanians took lessons in Chicago from German music teachers, and they are learning scales, they are learning technical exercises for agility, they are learning how to cultivate a better tone quality, and they are learning a little bit of music theory and chord formation. All of that gets folded into his solo style in the mid-to-late 1920’s. That kind of thing is very audible in that period — we don’t hear that so much today, we just hear Armstrong as a great player — but during this period, they would hear that. They would hear that as sophistication, they would hear that as technical accomplishment. They could hear that he could match the best white trumpet players of the day, and they could hear that he even expanded the range on his instrument, and that he could play as fast as they do. And, of course he has his beautiful sound, which was just as good as the classy white trumpet players. All of that was very audible in Chicago in the late 1920’s.

JJM The final part of your book deals with the time he left Chicago in July of 1930 for Los Angeles. Of that period, you wrote, “What really did Armstrong in was the movies. In two short films made by Paramount in early 1932, soft racism is thrown to the winds while Armstrong is assigned crippling roles in stories of explicit barbarism.” Why wasn’t he more reluctant to be a part of this?

TB Well, as a writer for the Chicago Defender said, “They’re thinking of their meals, not their ideals.” You know, there was an understanding at the time that if African-American musicians were going to advance in the white market, and to get the big money and the big fame, certain compromises were necessary. And, African-Americans understood that, and they appreciated it when a fellow African-American made it big. They definitely admired anybody like Armstrong who could reach the national market, so there was a willingness to overlook that kind of thing.

JJM Well, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington also made Betty Boop cartoons for Paramount, but, as you write, with very different results. What was it about Armstrong that made the animators depict him in such a savage way, versus the way Ellington or Calloway were depicted? Did Armstrong allow that?

TB I think that it’s the intensity of the African-American musical vernacular in his music and in his singing that leads to that. In other words, when people hear him, they actually hear the connection to Africa. They hear the connection to the bluesy vernacular of the South. It’s very deep, it comes across as very genuine and very thorough. It conditions everything.

That’s different than Ellington and Calloway, who are matching white show styles at a different level. They’re combining things in a different way, and their bands are playing more than one instrument on a part, and so forth. So, they don’t quite have the same emphasis.

JJM Throughout his career he was depicted by the media in ways that made him palatable to the whites of that era…

TB  Yes, you’re right. This became an issue in the 1950’s and especially during the civil rights era. Remember, we are talking about someone who had a fifth grade education. He didn’t grow up like Miles Davis did, who came from a wealthy family that was used to dealing with white people and who was engaged politically. And, he was not Paul Robeson, who was a lawyer. And then, on the other hand, we’re talking about a career that goes on until the very end of his life. How many musicians are able to do that? He was willing to make compromises to make that happen.

JJM There is of course a great divide about how Armstrong’s career is viewed. There is no debate about the era you focus on in your book – virtually everyone agrees that his work at that time is greatness. But that is where the disagreement begins. While there are critics that will defend his career post-1932, others would ridicule it. Where do you stand on that?

TB Well, I could just speak to that mainly for the period covered in the book. When he steps into the repertoire of popular songs played by a dance orchestra, with two trombones, two saxophones, and so forth, playing arrangements primarily of popular songs, this is the formula for the swing era. This has been viewed as a controversial step all by itself – his turn away from the Hot Five repertory and the New Orleans collective improvisation format into this alternative. I don’t think that many people who really know Armstrong today would feel that this is a problem, because the music is so fantastic. What he did with this repertoire in the early 1930’s recordings is incredible. But there was a time where that was regarded as very controversial, and a step in the wrong direction.

That was a theme during the swing era itself, where people like John Hammond would criticize the music for being too commercial, and some jazz musicians would take a purist kind of stance, claiming they only play commercial music because they have to, but what they really want to do is play small-group jazz. That was a minority position in the swing era – I doubt that a whole lot of people thought that way, but you see the seeds of it even there.

But I don’t think that was a problem for Armstrong. What he comes up with is so transcendent, because what he did was transforming these popular songs and arrangements into something completely different -and coming up with his own version of this music. And it’s brilliant, really.



“Armstrong’s career, the most successful jazz has ever known, spanned half a century. From the time he left New Orleans in 1922, at age twenty-one, until he died as one of the most famous people in the world in 1971, he trumpeted and sang his way through some of the greatest dramas in the nation’s history – nascent Jim Crow, the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to the urban North, the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights era, and the Cold War. To see how a dark-skinned musician from the Deep South, whose formal education ended at age twelve, accomplished all of this is to witness one of the most compelling life stories of the twentieth century. A small man who controlled a powerful instrument, Armstrong first internalized and then transformed the African-American vernacular.”

– Thomas Brothers




Read our interview with Thomas Brothers about his book Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans

# From the publisher