born on the fourth of july?

If Louis Armstrong wasn't born on the Fourth of July, 1900, well, he should have been. In any case, that fact was long believed until someone discovered baptismal records placing Armstrong's real birthdate as August 4th, 1901. But let's not let that to spoil the party.

And let's include Armstrong -- who was as American as apple pie, hot dogs, and capricious commutations of sentences for White House cronies -- into our celebrations today.

Armstrong's life and legacy transcended mundane facts as easily as his trumpet's sound and his vocal phrasing danced across a bar line. His horn, his voice, his rhythmic sense, and his approach to music in general helped signal a distinctly American sound, a decidedly 20th century cultural development. And his presence brought simple human joy, along with conscience of political and social imperative, to bear in any and every context.

Here are some things trumpeters have told me about Armstrong:

"The call of a trumpet has been a spiritual thing since Biblical times. And nobody played the trumpet with more of a spiritual presence than Louis." --Terence Blanchard

"There's no way you can get around Armstrong's influence." --Nicholas Payton

"Armstrong's solos had tension and release, conflict, resolution of conflict, everything you could want or need." --Wynton Marsalis

'I don't think anyone in Chicago doubted that he was the greatest player in the world." -- Doc Cheatham, reminiscing about Chicago circa the late 1920s

"I think the way Armstrong thought about group playing is not that far from the way Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton or Ornette Coleman think, trying to get each musician fully and consciously into the group sound." --Dave Douglas

Armstrong left New Orleans early in his life and career and eventually for good. Yet he still lives there in so many ways. There's Armstrong Park, on North Rampart Street, marking the location of Congo Square, where, more than a century ago, drummers congregated to play otherwise forbidden hand drums. (The fact that Armstrong Park is today, essentially dormant and under lock-and-key and that a supposed jazz park project there remains caught in some curious limbo speaks to both the troubled state of New Orleans and our conflicted attitude about these honorable legacies... but I don't wanna ruin anyone's picnic or anything...) Some more positive Armstrong presences in NOLA include next month's Satchmo SummerFest
and, starting Monday, the Louis Armstrong Summer jazz Camp (later this month, saxophonist Jimmy Heath will serve as the camp's artist-in-residence).

And Armstrong still lives in Queens, his home for 28 years, where he'd often sit on his front stoop, entertaining and instructing neighborhood kids (here's a link to the site for his former house, now one of the coolest museums in New York)

Armstrong of course lives on through the music he left us, so easy to find that you need no help from me, so broad in stylistic touchstones that you needn't worry about a point of entry -- though I'll mention that if you've never heard the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, you don't have a complete understanding of jazz development and that there's no earthly reason to deny yourself the joys of Ella and Louis (with Ella Fitzgerald).

Armstrong was a trickster figure in the story of American cultural history, showing the world what's great about this country as well as what's not so great, often at the same time (for the latter point, see Penny von Eschen's book, Satchmo Blows Up the World). Or just read this.

Armstrong's own writings, frequently hammered out on the typewriter he brought with him nearly everywhere he performed, are frequently touching, often illuminating, and utterly disarming.

Maybe it's that last quality I like best.

So, while throwing more meat on the grill (and hell, did Armstrong like to eat), throw some Armstrong into the playlist for your guests. What could be more American right now than to disarm?

July 4, 2007 9:30 AM |


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