I got back from Connecticut on Saturday, having spent most of the preceding week working on the third chapter of Hotter Than That, my biography of Louis Armstrong. “All Those Tall Buildings: Leaving Home, 1919-1924” takes Armstrong from the St. Louis-based riverboats on which he cruised up and down the Mississippi, playing jazz for the residents of the sleepy harbor towns immortalized by Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi, to Chicago, where he joined King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, made his first recordings, got divorced and remarried, and started thinking of himself not as a sideman but a soloist.
I was staying with a friend who lives out in the country, and I devoted most of my waking hours to the book. No sooner did I return to New York than I resumed work on Hotter Than That, knocking off only to attend a performance of Lisa Kron’s Well on Saturday night and get some sleep.
On Sunday morning I awoke at eight, descended from my loft, booted up my iBook G4, and started writing again. Within a few minutes I was lost to the world, having previously taken the precaution of setting my alarm for one p.m. so that I wouldn’t forget to put on my clothes, go down to Forty-Second Street, and see a preview of another new play, David Marshall Grant’s Pen.
At 12:55 the phone rang. It was my friend Meg, whom I would be meeting at Playwrights Horizons in fifty minutes.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“Sitting at my desk, writing,” I said.
“The play starts in five minutes,” she said.
“No, it doesn’t,” I said. “The curtain is at two o’clock.”
“Yes, I know,” she said. “Daylight Savings Time starts today. It’s five till two.”
“Damn,” I said. (Actually I said something of much higher voltage, but this is a family blog.) “Tell the press guy what happened. I’ll get there as fast as I can.”
I hung up, threw on Saturday’s clothes, ran downstairs, stole a cab from an unwitting woman on the corner, and told the driver to step on it. Nine minutes later, unfed and unshaved, I sat down in my aisle seat, and ten seconds after that the house lights went down and the play started.
“I can’t believe you made it on time,” Meg whispered.
“I can’t believe I made it on time,” I whispered back.
Four hours later I was back at my desk, and eight hours after that the third chapter of Hotter Than That was finished, footnotes and all. It’s 10,044 words long.
Here’s a little taste of what I wrote last week:
A month after Armstrong came to Chicago, F. Scott Fitzgerald published Tales of the Jazz Age, giving a name to the period of postwar cultural ferment that was fast transforming America. “It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire,” Fitzgerald later wrote. The art was no small part of it, for the coming of the Jazz Age was the moment when modernism hit America like a shrieking tornado. In 1920 Eugene O’Neill won the Pulitzer Prize for Beyond the Horizon; in 1921 Alfred Stieglitz held the first public exhibition of his nude studies of Georgia O’Keeffe; in 1923 Ernest Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems, was published in Paris; in 1924 H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan launched The American Mercury and Paul Whiteman premiered George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Contrary to popular belief, jazz was both discussed widely (the Mercury was one of the first magazines to cover it) and taken seriously in America as well as Europe, where classical composers as dissimilar as Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, and Darius Milhaud were incorporating its thrillingly asymmetrical rhythms into their music. By 1925 W.J. Henderson, the most discerning American music critic of the day, was informing the readers of the famously sedate New York Times Book Review that jazz embodied “our carefree optimism, our nervous energy and our extravagant humour.”
Yet even then most Americans still thought of ragtime, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and Whiteman’s decorous dance music when they thought of jazz. To be sure, Shuffle Along, the first Broadway musical to be written, directed, and performed by blacks, had opened three years earlier, and the Harlem Renaissance was well under way. But the music of Joe Oliver, Armstrong’s mentor and boss, was as yet unknown outside the urban ghettoes, save to the handful of nervy white boys who went there to listen and learn, and unless you happened to live in certain sections of Chicago or New Orleans, Louis Armstrong himself wasn’t even a vaguely remembered face, much less a celebrity. You had to look closely to find his name on the labels of the Creole Jazz Band’s records:
DIPPER MOUTH BLUES
KING OLIVER’S JAZZ BAND
His new wife Lil was right. Second cornets don’t get great enough–not until they go out on their own.
And now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll take a little nap….