A week or so ago I had the privilege of interviewing Thomas Brothers, the eminent Louis Armstrong scholar whose recently published Master of Modernism focuses on Armstrong’s most creative and essential era, beginning with the time he left New Orleans for Chicago in 1922, and ending with his experience in Hollywood in 1932.
What follows is a very brief exchange about new resources Brothers used for this book…
JJM You’ve become known as the essential Armstrong scholar. The cultural historian Gerald Early calls you “Armstrong’s finest interpreter and chronicler.” With all your knowledge of Armstrong, are you ever surprised by what you learn about him?
TB Oh, yes, there were a lot of surprises in this book for me. Maybe not as many as in the first 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 systematically, and not really by scholars, quite frankly. 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, frankly, is available to anyone who subscribes to ProQuest database searches, which provides access to historic black newspapers that are all online now, and you can do keyword searches in them. It’s incredible!
For example, 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, where Armstrong played.
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 in addition to being a comedian there, it is where Rogers got married. So this piece — I’m conjecturing — was probably written for his wedding.
So, things like that can come out of these historic black newspapers.
Another thing I discovered is that there was a small weekly magazine called the Heebie Jeebies that started out before Armstrong recorded that song, so, if anything, Armstrong’s recording refers to the magazine, and not the other way around.
Look for the complete interview, to be published soon.