A few years ago, research disclosed that Louis Armstrong was not born on the Fourth of July,
1900, but a little more than a year later. No matter; Armstrong believed that Independence Day was his birthday and identified himself with the United States of America. As his career and popularity developed and the magnitude of his genius became apparent, the country he loved–and much of the rest of the world–adopted him as a symbol of the spirit of America.
Much of Armstrong’s reputation stemmed from the audacity, the inventiveness, the sheer visceral and intellectual excitement of his work in the late 1920s with his Hot Five and Hot Seven. And yet, barely more than a decade after they were made, the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings had all but disappeared. That situation disturbed a fan who found a way to do
something about it and went on to become one of the greatest jazz record producers. The young man was George Avakian (pictured here), now in his ninetieth year. New York Sun columnist Andrew Wolf chose the eve of the Fourth of July to retell the story of Avakian’s determination to see that Armstrong’s revolutionary music became available to new generations of listeners.
There is a key figure in Armstrong’s career who still is alive and has a great story to tell of Satchmo, and his own story of American ingenuity and his contribution to the music industry.
George Avakian, a spry and energetic 89-year-old, is my neighbor here in Riverdale. As a student at the Bronx’s Horace Mann School in the late 1930s, he came up with what was then a revolutionary idea — the reissue of collections of music of the past.
To read all of Wolf’s column, and see a terrific photograph of Armstrong, go here.
Thanks to Avakian’s early labors, Armstrong reissues moved through 78 rpm albums, LPs, cassette tapes and CDs into the era of digital downloading. This box set has all of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.
Here is the Armstrong Hot Seven in 1927 playing “Potato Head Blues.” Armstrong’s final chorus is one of the wonders not just of jazz improvisation, but of all twentieth century music.
Happy Independence Day.