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.
George Ziskind says
“Armstrong’s final chorus is one of the wonders not just of jazz improvisation, but of all twentieth century music. ”
Yeah – write on, man!
Todd Bryant Weeks says
Louis’s b’day discrepancy was posited in the late 1980s by the now deceased New Orleans jazz historian Tad Jones, and published in Giddins’ “Satchmo.” The evidence (a baptismal record) is not 100% proof of Louis having been born in 1901, but it’s compelling.
George Avakian has indeed been a tireless champion of Armstrong and older forms of jazz in general. In 2003, he agreed to do a “peer review” on my book on Hot Lips Page. I hardly consider myself a peer of Avakian(!), but I was thrilled that he was interested. The book [Luck’s In My Corner: The Life and Music of Hot Lips Page (Routledge Press, 2008)] is doing well, no doubt in part thanks to George’s willingness to get behind a first time author.
I heard the following Louis Armstrong anecdote while working as an assistant archivist and docent at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, in 2007:
“Louis had many powerful and celebrated friends, and sometime in the early 1960s he threw a party that included Bobby and Ethel Kennedy among the revelers. When the distinguished guests disembarked from their limo and mounted the steps to the modest two-family house at 34-56 107th street, the front door opened and they were greeted with–a veritable nimbus of marijuana smoke. Given Bobby’s role as “drug czar” during his brother’s adminsiatration, this must have presented a conflict of interest for him–although who could turn down an invite from ‘Pops’?”
Bob Rasmussen says
In 1945 two Highland Park High School friends and I drove to Chicago to a small bar..the Rag Doll… to hear Louis Armstrong play. We asked if we could have a picture taken with Mr. Armstrong. He agreed and I still have that picture today. He was great to us.
Loudon Briggs says
I read the article about Avakian and his efforts to recover and reissue those old recordings of Armstrong’s. Really interesting info.
Got me all hepped up for listening to some of those efforts by Louis, so went to the Red Hot Jazz site, http://www.redhotjazz.com/index.htm , and played about a dozen of those old Okehs… about half 5s and half 7s. I may go back again. 🙂