On Wednesday I entered that state of grace that occasionally comes to biographers so deeply immersed in their material that for a brief time they are capable of simultaneously holding everything they know about a subject in their head, ready for instantaneous access at any point. Between morning and evening I piled three thousand brightly polished words of the fourth chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong. As of this hour, I’ve finished writing roughly a third of the book.
Here’s a taste of what I wrote today:
What is most striking about Armstrong’s solos on “Shanghai Shuffle” and “Copenhagen,” and the many others that he contributed to Fletcher Henderson’s recordings throughout 1924 and 1925, is that they are solos, brief but expressively potent monologues in which he steps into the spotlight and speaks his musical piece, more often than not accompanied by the rhythm section alone. He had been raised, after all, in a very different kind of tradition, one in which it was taken for granted that the individual artist, however gifted, would willingly subordinate himself to the needs of the omnipresent ensemble. In New Orleans solo playing was the exception, not the rule, and even after moving to Chicago Joe Oliver would continue to stress collective improvisation over individual solos, his own included. In Albert Nicholas’ words, he “didn’t want to hear any one person, [he] wanted to hear the whole band. He wanted everyone to blend together.” Armstrong, like Sidney Bechet, knew that tradition intimately, but by 1924 both men were moving in a different direction, having concluded, consciously or not, that it could no longer accommodate their need for personal expression. The more Armstrong grew as a player, the harder he found it to stay within the narrow bounds of the time-honored New Orleans style. He still loved Papa Joe–he always would–but he wanted to be heard.
I hope I have sense enough to lay off for a day and take it easy, though it’s tempting to keep on forging ahead. In the immortal words of Crash Davis, “A player on a streak has to respect the streak.” On the other hand, I forgot to go to the gym on Wednesday. In fact, I almost forgot to eat. (Could it possibly have snowed in Manhattan today, or was that just something I imagined while in the throes of composition?)
What I really ought to do tomorrow is walk across Central Park to the Frick Collection and pay a visit to Goya’s Last Works, which I still haven’t gotten around to seeing (it’s up through May 14). Maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll succumb to the temptation to put in a little more work on Hotter Than That. Somewhere in my mind it’s November of 1925, and Louis Armstrong has just caught the morning train from New York to Chicago. In less than two weeks he’ll be going into a recording studio with his wife Lil to record “My Heart,” “Yes! I’m in the Barrel,” and “Gut Bucket Blues,” the first three sides by the Hot Five….
Enough already! I’m going to get some sleep, and tomorrow morning I’ll go to the gym. The rest can wait.