Louis Armstrong (1901 – 1971)
On 12 October, 1931, a young man in Austin Texas, a freshman at the University of Texas named Charlie Black, paid seventy-five cents to get into the downtown Hotel Driskill to hear someone billed as the ‘King of The Trumpet, and His Orchestra.’ The band was to play at play four dances in Austin. Young Charlie knew precious little about jazz, and he had never heard of the King. He went along and paid his money because he just knew that there would be lots of girls to dance with. Well, in those days, young people went out to meet and dance together, and they even danced cheek to cheek, something that became part of a song later made famous by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.
But there was of course a kind of separatism then. It had been left there long after the Civil War by the curse of racism. Everyone on the dance floor was white. Only the waiters and the musicians – including the King – were black.
Charlie Black would later remember what happened when the King started to play:
…..mostly with his eyes closed, letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never before existed….Steamwhistle power, lyric grace, alternated at will and even blended.
He was the first genius I had ever seen….It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen year-old southern boy’s seeing genius for the first time , in a black. We literally never saw a black back then, in any but a servant’s capacity….But genius – fine control over total power, all height and depth for ever and ever? It had simply never entered my mind that I would see this for the first time as a black man. You don’t get over that…The lies reel, and contradict one another, and simper in silliness and fade into shadow. But the seen truth remains.
Charlie Black’s white mate was unmoved: ‘After all, he’s nothin’ but a goddam nigger!’
Charlie Black, who obviously had a way with words, carried the ‘seen truth’ with him all his life. He became a distinguished teacher of constitutional law, and he would in part repay his life-long debt to the King in 1954. It was then that he appeared with other counsel for the segregated bus travelling children in the great Supreme Court Case of Brown v School Board of Education. The Court then ruled that the Great Republic would no longer tolerate segregated bussing for schoolchildren on the specious ground of ‘separate but equal’. People were either equal or they were not equal. Playtime for pussyfooting about race was over. This was a great win for the nation, for the rule of law in the West generally, and for the people of the King. It is an appalling cliché, but on this occasion we might justifiably use it – it could only happen in America.
Ken Burns made TV series about the Civil War, baseball, and jazz. He saw all three as being deeply American – they were about freedom and improvisation. The book of the last series begins with this anecdote about Charlie Black, and the author says: ‘Genius is ultimately untraceable. No amount of historical or psychological sleuthing can ever fully explain the emergence of artists like Bach or Picasso or Louis Armstrong, who appears as if from nowhere and through the power of their own individual imaginations transform an art.’
In the Preface, Burns had become lyrical. ‘Louis Armstrong is quite simply the most important person in American music. He is to twentieth-century music (I did not say jazz) what Einstein is to physics, Freud is to psychiatry, and the Wright Brothers are to travel.’
If jazz had a holy trinity, Charlie Parker might be the son, and Duke Ellington might be the Holy Ghost, but there is no doubt who the first would be.
Louis Armstrong used to say that he was born on July 4 1900, but the fact was otherwise. He was born in 1901, and he was the grandson of slaves. His mother and father each abandoned him at one time or another. He grew up in Uptown or Back of Town and then Storyville, the red light area, in New Orleans, the undisputed birthplace of jazz. He hauled coal as a kid, but the family did not make enough, and his mother had to go on the game. Louis dropped out of school at eleven, and he learned to play the cornet (a kind of trumpet) by ear at Dago Tony’s Tonk.
Young Louis was in custody for a while in the New Orleans Home for Coloured Waifs. He played in the band and was taught some music there. He worked for a while for a Jewish family from Lithuania and he saw that you did not have to be coloured to be rejected by white people. He wore a Star of David for the rest of his life. He played with Joe ‘King’ Oliver, a legend of jazz, who fleeced him. He there learned the importance of the straight lead being played in whole notes. He also played with Kid Ory, and then he joined the Fletcher Henderson orchestra.
By 1925, Satchmo, as he would be called, was a recording star, and he started making recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven. His then wife, Lil, played the piano. Armstrong said: ‘When we made those records, it was just pick up them cats and do it. And we didn’t want no royalties, just pay me man, give me that loot. Got $50 each for each [tune] – just a gig to us and glad to do it so we could go up town and have a ball with the money. And now look at them records.’ Lil said that ‘it’s amusing to read in books telling why we did this. I’m glad they know, because we didn’t.’
Armstrong had no bother with top C’s then, and he began to get a following with his singing. It was this which would in time, with his natural showmanship, bring him to white audiences. And he was writing his own material, and the fruits of that melodic creation would become a basal part of the jazz canon. It is a quirk of history that the charm of Armstrong as a man and an entertainer would blind too many in posterity to the fact that he was a musical genius. Genius is a much abused word, but on any objective view, Louis Armstrong had it.
On 26 February, 1926, Armstrong and the Hot Five cut six more sides in the recording studio. Two made jazz history, and are still played and replayed. In ‘Cornet Chop Suey’, Armstrong states the melody with no accompaniment in a stop-time solo and a cadenza of his own. It was all so daring that the producer delayed its release, but then cornettists all over the country started ‘cutting’ each other trying to match the Master. In ‘Heebie Jeebies’, Armstrong sang without words – ‘scat’ – because, he said, he had dropped the song-sheet. Scat became integral to the repertoire. Mezz Mezrow drove fifty miles after midnight just to play this record for Bix Beiderbecke, who ‘then tore out of the house to wake everyone he knew’. ‘Cats’ everywhere began to salute each other as ‘Heebies’ or ‘Jeebies’ and imitating Armstrong’s riffs.
This is how the British musician and critic Alyn Shipton saw those recordings.
The discs that Armstrong made, from November 1925, with his Hot Five Hot Seven and Savoy Ballroom Five, became influential all over the world. They confirmed that Armstrong had successfully combined emotional depth, rhythmic innovation, and a liberating sense of solo freedom into a heady and original mixture. He pushed at the boundaries of the cornet’s range. Even in his hottest soloes he explored a lyricism that might, in part, have come from his love of classics and light opera (indeed he regularly played a selection from Cavalleria Rusticana as his solo feature with Erskine Tate’s band during this period). Overall, he brought a new set of aesthetic qualities into jazz, a sense that there could be considerable artistic worth in music conceived as popular entertainment.
There is no overstatement there, as is the English critical tradition, and there is nothing light about Cavalleria Rusticana.
Not many people now realise it, but Armstrong revolutionised singing in America, and not just in jazz. Apart from scat, which became an artform in itself, he learned how to control the melody and rhythm of a song for his own purpose – Sinatra would do the same to make some songs his own. He could give meaning to the most vapid lyrics, but swing remained paramount – just listen to him and Ella Fitzgerald together. You are listening to two grand masters creating their own art as they go before your very ears, somehow putting an end to space and time. Bing Crosby said that ‘Louis Armstrong is the beginning – and the end – of American music.’ And Bing Crosby was in a position to know.
With the end of the twenties, the so-called Jazz Age, and Prohibition, Satchmo was a New York star. He acquired a protector, a Mafia man who looked after Armstrong for thirty-five years. With time, and the waning of the Big Bands, he got out of them and developed his All Stars with legends like Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Sid Catlett. (In the Rough Guide, Digby Fairweather notes that on Louis Armstrong And the All Stars at Symphony Hall, the solo of Catlett on Steak Face is one of the great drum events in jazz history. The late Whitney Bailliett, in The New Yorker, idolized Catlett.) It is as if these stellar players have to put themselves on a leash from time to time.
This is how a musician described the dressing room of the coloured musician who upstaged stars like Crosby and Sinatra in High Society.
He’d be sitting down in his underwear with a towel around his lap, one around his shoulders and that white handkerchief on his head and he’d put that grease around his lips. Look like a minstrel man you now…and laughing you know natural the way he is. And in the room maybe, you see two nuns. You see a street walker dressed up in flaming clothes. You see maybe a guy come out of the penitentiary. You see maybe a blind man sitting there. You see a rabbi, you see a priest, see. Liable to see maybe a policeman or two detectives, see. You see a judge. All of ‘em different levels of society in the dressing room and he’s talking to all of ‘em. ‘Sister So and So, do you know Slick Sam over there? This is Slick Sam an old friend of mine’. Now the nun’s going to meet slick Sam, Old Notorious, been in one of the penitentiaries. ‘Slick Sam, meet Rabbi Goldstein over there, he’s a friend of mine, rabbi, good man, religious man. Sister Margaret, do you know Rabbi Goldstein? Amelia, this is Rosie, Goodtime Rosie, used to work in a show with me years ago. Good girl, she’s a great performer. Never got the breaks.’ Always a word of encouragement, see. And there’d be some kids there, white and coloured. All the diverse people of different social levels…..and everybody’s looking. Got their eyes dead on him, just like they was looking at a diamond.
He made appearances and films with big names and he made hits like Mack the Knife, Hullo Dolly and What a Wonderful World. He reinvented himself for new audiences and he became a national and then an international icon.
Armstrong never played what we now call ‘the race card’. Many coloured people were upset by this, but Armstrong was a musician, and entertainer, not a politician. He preferred to just grin and bear it. The baseballer Jackie Robinson would suffer the same pain and humiliation. The grandson of slaves and the coloured waif who hauled coal was feted at the White House. He may have been just about the best known and best loved person in the whole world.
Duke Ellington was more urbane and dignified. He could appeal to the white musical toffs even if the ‘cats’ just took him for his swing. The suave orchestrator said; ‘I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people…some of the music which has been written will always be beautiful and immortal. Beethoven, Wagner and Bach are geniuses; no one can rob their work of the merit that is due it, but these men have not portrayed the people who are about us today, and the interpretation of these people is our future music.’
Louis Armstrong, or Satchmo, died with a smile on his face. He had called a rehearsal of the All Stars for that day. Duke Ellington said ‘I loved and respected Louis Armstrong. He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone on the way.’ (Ellington was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after.) Wynton Marsalis said: ‘He left an undying testimony to the human condition in the America of his time.’ He also said that Armstrong had been chosen by God to bring jazz music to the world. ‘Louis Armstrong’s message is overwhelmingly one of love. When you hear his music, it’s of joy…He was just not going to be defeated by life. And these forces visit all of us.’ When Ken Burns told a psychic that other people thought that Satchmo was an angel, she merely said: ‘Biggest wings I’ve ever seen.’
And what is the best part? This very, very great man never forgot Goodtime Rosie, who ‘never got the breaks’.
For what it is worth, Louis Armstrong is for me up there with Abraham Lincoln as one of the two unequivocally great gifts of the United States of America to the West and to the world at large. Steamwhistle power, lyric grace….fine control over total power, all height and depth, for ever and ever….
Muhammad Ali (1942-)
As befits a nation of pioneers who put a premium on individual responsibility and community ideals, Americans go for sport in a big way. It is their national tragedy that instead of rugby or football and cricket, they have their own sports of gridiron and baseball, so that their champions do not compete on an international stage. That does not stop Americans following their sports with at least the passion and patriotic intensity of the Indians with cricket or African nations in football. The games they play tell you a lot about Americans.
In June 1902, a guy who ran saloons in Pigtown, Baltimore took his seven year old kid on a trolley-car to a reform school and then left him there. . The school was named St Mary’s Industrial School for Orphans, Delinquent, Incorrigible and Wayward Boys. The kid would stay there until 1914 when he was 19. By the time he left, his mother was dead.
The kid got training to become a tailor, but he was big on baseball. His nick-name was the unkind one of Nigger Lips. Photos show a wide-eyed innocent with thick lips. He was a fan of Brother Matthias, who gave instruction on baseball on Saturday evenings, and as a big raw-boned kid, he could play. He could both pitch and hit – left-handed. Jack Dunn, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles, spotted the kid and offered him a contract at $250 a month – primarily for his pitching. The kid left St Mary’s as the legal ward of two of the Brothers, and with Jack Dunn as his guardian – the abandonment by his own family was complete.
They took off for spring training. The kid had never been on a train or seen a menu before – he had never seen a professional player, let alone a professional game. He must have been the most untutored player ever to go up to the Majors. Dunn’s babies were known as ‘babes’. Since the kid had got to retain his surname if nothing else from his family, and that name was Ruth, the kid became Babe Ruth, unquestionably the most famous name in all baseball.
Over the next twenty-one years, the Babe changed the game of baseball. Before him, the game was controlled by pitchers, and batters approached their task tactically, and they tended to hit a flat trajectory. The Babe was altogether less prosaic. He introduced the power game, big hitting right up into the crowd. He saw his role not just in moving men along the bases, but in belting home runs off his own bat. He took baseball to a whole new level of entertainment, not just with the power of his hitting, but with the power of his presence.
The kid went to the Red Sox but they came to the doom-laden view that they would have to sell the Babe. They did so at huge expense – an unprecedented sum – to the Yankees. Now, the Babe was not really a Boston type, but he and New York in the Twenties were just made for each other. And the city of Boston would pay an appalling price for its failure to come to terms with the Babe. In what became known as the curse of the Bambino, the Red Sox would not win another World Series that century.
The Yankees won four World Series and seven pennants in the period that the Babe was with them (1920 – 1935). In his total career he hit 714 home runs, a proposition that would have been laughed at in 1914. He was the first to break 60 in a season – which he did after apparently being trumped by Lindbergh. He was called the Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout, or the Wizard of Whack, but he still holds the tenth highest batting average of all time.
Jackie Robinson became an officer in the US Army during World War II. What awaited him when he got back to the land of the free? ‘Down the back of the bus with the other niggers.’ Rather than football, Jackie took on baseball as his professional sport. He had the eye of a natural hitter; he had all the skills for a second base; he was deadly quick at stealing bases, and handy if a shirt-front were needed; and he was determined to win. In short, he was just the kind of player to build a team around. Except that in 1947, baseball was rigidly segregated – no formal agreement, just invincible history and unwritten understanding. There were white leagues and black leagues, and that separatism was just as saluted in the north as in the south.
Jackie Robinson and a man named Branch Rickey cracked the monolith. They both subscribed to the teaching of the Jewish carpenter, especially the Sermon on the Mount. They would both be tested on the hard bit – turning the other cheek – in a way that is not asked of most of us. Rickey was the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He told Robinson that he would give him a go in the minors with a view to signing him for a full season with the Dodgers if he was good enough. He said Robinson would be exposed to hate and abuse, sometimes from his own side, and that he would not be able to answer back.
Rickey had one large portrait in his office – the great emancipator, Abraham Lincoln. Rickey was smart as well as brave. He described his purpose: ‘First, to win a pennant. There’s some good coloured players. The second reason is…it’s right.’
Robinson made the season with the minors satisfactorily. (In his second at bat, he had rifled it into the crowd.) When it came time for him to turn out for the Dodgers, every club but one said they were against it, and players in his own team took up a petition to have him excluded. Other teams threatened to strike. He was still subject to insult and abuse and death threats on the road, and venomous hate speech on the field. He kept his part of the deal. He copped it and he did not answer back. He had a great season with the bat and a league-leading 29 stolen bases and a momentum – turning base-running style. He was the first ever Rookie of the Year. The Dodgers made it to the World Series and forced the Yankees to go to the seventh game. This Yankee side, with DiMaggio and others, is one of the greatest teams ever, and is the main reason why the Dodgers do not have more to show from their ten years with Robinson. He was not just a hero for black people, but for all Americans.
Well, what might happen if America got a champion black sportsman who played on the world stage, and who could appeal to coloured people all over the world, and who was prepared to stare down Uncle Sam – and who just happened to be the greatest of all time?
This is how Norman Mailer began his book The Fight:
There is always a shock in seeing him again. Not live as in television, but standing before you, looking his best. Then the World’s Greatest Athlete is in danger of being our most beautiful man, and the vocabulary of Camp is doomed to appear. Women draw an audible breath. Men look down. They are reminded again of their lack of worth. If Ali never opened his mouth to quiver the jellies of public opinion, he would still inspire love and hate. For he is the Prince of Heaven – so says the silence around his body when he is luminous.
Cassius Marcellus Clay Junior was born on 17 January 1942 in Louis Kentucky. His father painted signs and his mother was a domestic. They were African Americans descended from slaves. The baby followed his father in being named after a famous abolitionist. The former Cassius Clay was a most formidable man, a six-foot-six Kentucky farmer who had commanded troops in the Mexico War. He inherited a plantation and he later freed his slaves. For this he received death threats. ‘For those who have respect for the laws of God, I have this argument.’ He produced a leather-bound bible. ‘For those who believe in the laws of man, I have this argument.’ He produced the constitution. ‘And for those who believe in neither the laws of God nor of man, I have this argument.’ He laid down a Bowie knife and two pistols. Lincoln thought enough of him, or of the Russians, to send him to Russia on government business. As David Remnick remarks, ‘He maintained his physical courage to the end. When he was eighty-four, he married a fifteen year old girl.’
Clay grew up to win national Golden Gloves and then gold in the 1960 Olympics at Rome. He turned pro and was undefeated, but he was not winning friends by his manner of belittling opponents. He was light on his feet and he was unbelievably fast. He had height and reach, and he could lean back and then hit his overcommitted opponent with a lethal right jab. He won the right to challenge Sonny Liston, and the fight was set for 25 February 1964.
Sonny was born into the Mob – the underworld – and he could never get out of it. He never had a chance. He had no family to speak of and he knew the inside of the Workhouse. He was an enforcer for the Mob. Not many people gave lip to Sonny Liston and lived. The Mob ran boxing. A generation of Prohibition gangsters had promoted and fixed fights, charming people like Frenchy DeMange, Frankie Yale, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Boo Boo Hoff, Kid Dropper, Legs Diamond and Dutch Schulz. You can ask why crooks were attracted to pugs, but they were both on the fringe.
Sonny’s manager was Paul John (‘Frankie’) Carbo, also known on the street as Frank Fortunato, Jimmie the Wop, and Dago Frank. After being sent to Sing Sing for homicide, he lifted his game to become a hit man for the Brooklyn branch of Murder Inc. David Remnick says that it took Cassius Clay, still on his way up, to break the grip of the Mob. That young man found his protection in the Nation of Islam. Many of his countrymen would have been more relaxed if he had stayed with the Mob – the devil they knew.
Sonny then would frighten the hell out of anyone. The bookies had Clay at seven to one, which is insane in a two man event, and journalists were plotting the locations of the nearest hospitals. Many thought that the kid would be killed. The kid – the Louisville Lip – responded as was his wont now. He taunted Liston, pulled up outside his house and asked him to step outside, and famously said that he would ‘dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee.’ He turned the weigh-in into a circus.
At the bell, Liston came out like an enraged bull, but Clay slipped away, and was scoring heavily by the end of the first round. He buckled Sonny’s knees in the third, and he cut the champion for the first time. He seemed to be blinded in the fifth, but he came back to belt Sonny in the sixth. Sonny did not come out for the seventh. It was a TKO and Clay shouted to the world that he was the greatest ever. The rematch came after Clay had publicly, and amid great hostility, converted to Islam and changed his name. It was a sad farce. Liston copped what the press called the ‘phantom punch’, and the fight was over in less than two minutes. It looked for all the world as if the fix had gone in and that Sonny had taken a dive.
Ali said that ‘Clay’ was his slave name. He got offside with millions by taunting his opponents and then being cruel to them by prolonging their punishment. He then courted more unpopularity by refusing to be drafted for the increasingly looked down on war in Vietnam. He knew who his enemies were. ‘No Vietcong ever called me nigger.’ In the way of things, it would be this stand that would secure his position in the Pantheon – and in the U S, as well as the rest of the world. He would later be courted by presidents.
Ali was stripped of his title and locked out of boxing until the Supreme Court eventually set aside his conviction on a fine point of law. (The black Justice, Thurgood Marshall, did not sit.) By then, the tide had turned completely on Vietnam and Ali was a living legend for more reasons than one. But he had lost the best years of his boxing life. He fought Smokin’ Joe Frazier, who was more in the Liston mould, and he lost his first professional fight. He would later beat Frazier, but the highpoint of his return, and of his boxing career, came with the fight against George Foreman for the title at downtown Kinshasa, Zaire on 30 October 1974, the Rumble in the Jungle.
There was a book, Mailer’s The Fight, and an Academy Award film, Once Were Kings, made about this contest. Ali was passed his prime. And Foreman had a fearful reputation. He was a frightfully heavy puncher. He had knocked out both Frazier and Norton in the second round. Ali responded with his normal verbal barrage and mind games, but in the film, Norman Mailer said that Ali never looked at Foreman’s heavy punching bag – it had been deformed. No one ever got into the ring with George Foreman after watching him deform the heavy bag. No one – or hardly anyone – though that Ali had any chance at all. This was then like the first Liston fight that had taken place more than ten years ago. Again, people in the know feared for the survival of the outmatched challenger.
This is how Norman Mailer describes their coming together in the ring to get instructions from the referee.
It was the time for each man to extort a measure of fear from the other. Liston had done it to all his opponents until he met Ali who, when Cassius Clay at the age of twenty-two, glared back at him with all the imperative of his high-destiny guts. Foreman, in turn, had done it Frazier and then to Norton. A big look, heavy as death, oppressive as the closing of the door of one’s tomb.
Then something extraordinary happened, something almost unbelievable. Ali came out in the first round and started to hit Foreman, and hit him hard – with his right hand! It would be like a right-handed batter or golfer coming out and playing left-handed. It was downright insulting. Then as the fight settled down, Ali would just go back on the ropes, hunch up, and absorb flurries of punches. At first some thought that the fight had been fixed. But then they saw that most of Foreman’s punches directed at the body were not scoring, but were drowning the energy of the champion. It was high drama – anyone of those missiles could have landed any other fighter back in the bleachers, but Ali just went back, took the blows, and then eased out and scored. All the time he was taunting Foreman: ‘Is that all you’ve got?’ It then became apparent that Foreman was tiring. His punches were either not landing or not hurting. And Ali was starting to float about him and was pinning him with darts at will. Then in the eighth, Ali moved in for the kill and it was all over, and the world title was his again. There was delirium in the crowd, and in front of TV sets all around the world. Sports fans who have seen the fight and the film many times still move to the front of their seats and hold their breath while they watch it yet again. It is probably the most watched sporting event ever.
After that, there was The Thriller in Manila with Frazier again, but it was all downhill. Ali was permitted to go on too long. This is sadly common with boxers and other sportsmen. He became a distressingly sad reflection of the wonderful athlete and fighting machine that he had been. In his advanced age he suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and he has had it now for a long time.
But even in that condition, he could move very greatly younger people who came into his presence. Even in decline he had an aura – as Norman Mailer saw, he could be ‘luminous’ – in a way that could still move people by a curious alchemy, a kind of out of body experience. Why is that? Perhaps they just feel somehow that Muhammad Ali was in truth the greatest of all time.
It is a great story, the descendant of slaves beats off the mob, becomes world champion, beats off the government, and wins back his championship, each time against a frightening odds and a terrifying opponent. For all of his faults and failings – which, for him, like most of us, were formidable – his story is a tribute to the human spirit. This is why he is held in such awe right around the world. This is why so many see him as the greatest ever, the greatest ever sportsman and the greatest ever entertainer, the promoters’ final dream, the ultimate crowd pleaser. He embodies the truth that at least at the top now, professional sportsmen and women have almost nothing to do with sport, and almost everything to do with entertainment, business, and money. If that means that we have gone from the amateur sportsmen of the Olympic Games of the ancient Greeks to the professional chariot races and gladiators of the decaying and decadent Romans, then that is a lookout for all our mums and dads and others. Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali have between them consummated that transformation. The man has been, if nothing else, a mover and a shaker.
Muhammad Ali has a lot in common with the late Maria Callas. He was, like she was, an entertainer. They are both seen by many as having been in their time the best ever entertainers of their kind – there is generally seen to have been blue sky between them and the rest. By the force of their character as much as by the high reach of their technique, they both radically changed the way that the world saw their art – and we should not blush to use that word for Ali was well as for Callas. And now, in his reflective time at peace, Muhammad Ali might agree with Maria Callas that: ‘There are no short cuts. There is only discipline, technique, and Mut’. As the professional coach said in Chariots of Fire, ‘You can’t put in what God left out.’ It is just that some make better use of what they get from God than others do.