Life Played By Ear Until he joined the pantheon of entertainers, Satchmo's life was as improvised as his art

Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism

Thomas Brothers (Norton, 2013) 594 pages including notes, index, photos, discography and bibliography

     Armstrong is to music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright brothers are to travel.    

—Ken Burns


Louis Armstrong’s station in the history of jazz is unimpeachable. If it weren’t for him, there wouldn’t be any of us.

—Dizzy Gillespie


On June 5, 1931, Louis Armstrong and his band travelled from New York to New Orleans in a private railroad car. He was 30 years old, and for him it was a triumphal return home after nine years of apprenticeship in Chicago and New York that had brought him to the top of his profession as a jazz musician. Largely through the modern technologies of radio and recordings, he was rapidly becoming a national icon. At the railway station,


eight bands, including one sponsored by the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, escorted this “magnet of dark town adulation” (as a white newspaper put it)

on a parade through South Rampart Street. A crowd numbering in the thousands carried him while he comically kicked his legs into the air (MM 418).


Armstrong was booked into the upscale Suburban Gardens, a large all-white venue, and he played there six nights a week for close to three months. Here is Thomas Brothers’ account of opening night:


As was now normal for Armstrong’s extended gigs, a radio broadcast was set up, on station WSMB. Opening night was marred by a bracing insult. The announcer walked up to the microphone, hesitated, explained to his audience, “I can’t introduce that nigger man,” and left the building.  


Outrageous insult like this was often endured by black musicians in the segregated South. In this instance, “Armstrong immediately walked out to the mike, asked the band for an introductory chord, and introduced himself” (MM 420). He likely took this affront in stride and with at least apparent good humor, as he customarily did during his long career as a black entertainer. But for Thomas Brothers’ study of that career, the entire episode brings together the many threads of American life woven into his biography of jazz trumpeter and vocalist, Louis Armstrong.



“If anybody was Mr. Jazz it was Louis Armstrong,” Duke Ellington affirmed. “He was the epitome of jazz and always will be. He is what I call an American standard, an American original.” This remark and several others cited in Armstrong’s obituary certify his enduring reputation as a celebrated jazz musician, but there is far less agreement on just what jazz is. In his earlier volume, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, Brothers devotes several pages to a wide range of definitions to demonstrate that jazz is no easier to define with any clarity or finality than the novel, or poetry, or art in general (NO 134-40). “There’s some folks,” Armstrong was fond of saying, “that, if they don’t know, you can’t tell ‘em.”  The word itself has a blurred history.  To many of us it recalls the shadowy world of the New Orleans honky tonk and bordello, the late-night revelries of the Storyville district. The eventual spread of the music from there is well documented musical and social history– up the Mississippi to Saint Louis and Chicago and on to New York to become internationally known as the trademark sound of the nation.  But the essential elements of the music itself defy satisfying description.  Just what, precisely, is jazz? How are we to understand these harmonic and rhythmic ingredients that came together in the early years of the 20th century to generate the music now recognized the world over as a distinctively American art form? What does it mean to say that Louis Armstrong was a seminal figure and influential master of this musical genre?

The early forms of this music, now known as Dixieland or simply New Orleans jazz, can helpfully be thought of as gumbo—Brothers’ happy analogy that will seem apt for anyone who attends to the polyphonic exuberance still available on vintage recordings and later imitations. Each musician addresses the selected musical theme simultaneously and yet plays independently, with a result that is not chaos but a coherent, satisfying musical experience for the receptive listener.  Not every listener, however, will hear the same thing or find the same element central to the flavor of the whole. What, then, is the fundamental ingredient of jazz, both in this early form and during the century of development that followed? Some definitions point to innovative instrumentation that departs markedly from the classical ensembles common in Europe, some stress an untutored innocence of written scores that provides looseness and freedom for the musicians that is felt, shared and enjoyed by the auditor  Other descriptions lay heavy emphasis on the driving rhythms from Africa prevalent in the early playing that were eventually enhanced, initially as two-beat patterns expanded to the more relaxed four-beat (then five and beyond), and later when American jazz assimilated Latin American combinations of stress and timing like bossa nova. Almost all students of the art form, however, agree on the centrality of improvisation, a jazz musician’s ability to create new melodic lines during the very act of performance, the remarkable compositional skill for which the young Louis Armstrong has long been celebrated as a master.

Brothers proposes what he calls the “fixed and variable model” and demonstrates persuasively how his concept integrates many components of a jazz performance. His originary illustration comes from sub-Saharan Africa where one group of drummers maintains a steady rhythm while another improvises counter-rhythms and free accents that complement and enrich the foundational pattern into something fresh and wholly spontaneous. This musical approach was part of the legacy brought to this country by those who came in chains; for Brothers it shaped the playing of Armstrong’s contemporaries and his own performance with early street bands, his apprenticeship and collaboration in Chicago with King Oliver, the hot solos he provided for the Fletcher Henderson orchestra, and the recording successes of “West End Blues,” “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” While the rhythm instruments—drums, piano, banjo and tuba (in the early days), bass and guitar (later)—create a fixed foundation of regular movement, Armstrong the soloist moves independently close to, then farther away from this foundation,  creating as he plays the characteristic rhythmic and melodic tension so often found in jazz. Over time, harmonic progressions adapted from European music strengthened the sense of regular movement that provided the point of departure for the instrumental soloist. Through extensive illustration and analysis, some of it highly technical, Brothers demonstrates that solo improvisation is not rootless, undisciplined musical utterance but rather a skillful and very demanding creative response to the stable structure being constructed by the other musicians.

It is not easy to say how much jazz soloing is truly improvised, invented in the moment of performance. Many archival recording sessions feature fresh creative approaches on successive versions of the same material. Armstrong’s early playing, however, brought him local and then national fame, and he was often expected to reproduce solos his audience knew from records or earlier performances. When he took his short “hot” choruses with the Henderson orchestra, they were usually limited to eight or sixteen bars in a larger orchestral arrangement, and he often remarked that once effective material had been worked out, he would simply repeat it as he had learned it. “Once you got a certain solo that fit in the tune,” he said, “that’s it, you keep it” (MM 92). Brothers looks closely at several of the celebrated recorded solos and argues persuasively– with citation of currently available CD tracks and time-count reference–that the well-known solo on “Wild Man Blues,” for example, was undoubtedly composed and learned before it was recorded. A similar demonstration traces Armstrong’s work on “Cornet Chop Suey” all the way to the fully written-out score Armstrong filed with the U.S. copyright office.

And yet Armstrong frequently insisted that the jazz musician should never play anything the same way twice. What seems likely is that he did  prepare and rehearse material for set pieces and anticipated situations—like cutting sessions and big band interjections—but certainly could not have done so for his famous twenty-chorus solos on “Tiger Rag,” which extended to forty choruses on one documented occasion. As the music and its audience changed, nourished by radio and recordings into the early 1930s, what has come to be known as The Great American Songbook gained canonical status as show tunes and popular melodies became familiar nationwide. Armstrong and his fellow musicians were expected to play these songs, and as they did, again and again, they helped create the core tradition for the players that followed them. Once a soloist can assume that his listener is familiar with the basic melody being played, he has yet a further point of stable reference, along with rhythmic and harmonic order, upon which to build his improvised variations.  Brothers examines this closely; I quote him at length here as example of the careful analysis he provides frequently throughout his book. What made Armstrong’s innovative breakthrough possible, Brothers tells us,


was the nearly universal sense of periodicity that shaped popular songs and dance of the period, the absolutely predictable flow of time through symmetries of beats, half-measures (two beats), measures (four beats), two-measure groups (eight beats), four-measure  half-phrases (16 beats), and eight-measure phrases (32 beats). Harmonic rhythm (the rate of change of chords) contributed in a fundamental way. The ear naturally follows this ground level of fixed activity and uses it to understand events on the variable level. … This rigid layering is what allowed Armstrong to bring the fixed and variable model, ubiquitous as it must have been throughout the Deep South when he was growing up, to the theater and cabarets of Chicago (MM  270).


Musicians speak of a “two-chorus player,” one with limited creative imagination. When asked by one of his greatest admirers, Bix Beiderbecke, how he managed to improvise without repeating himself, Armstrong responded: “Well I tell you … the first chorus I play the melody.  The second chorus I play the melody round the melody ….” For the third chorus, he says, he “routines,” or improvises freely. Brothers quotes these familiar remarks and offers this analysis of Armstrong’s “routining”:


His melody is in dialogue with the rigid periodicity of the fixed rhythmic group, its beats, harmonic rhythm, and phrase structure; … just like the variable drumming in a West African ensemble, the meaning of the improvised solo line can only be construed through its relationship with the fixed foundation. Second, units of his melody are often in dialogue with the previous units, so that one hears his solo as an unending flow of commentary upon itself. And third, his improvised line is in dialogue with the original tune itself.


Brothers describes this dialogue as “ragging the tune,” but that term strikes me as an unfortunate echo of the jumpy syncopation of early ragtime. The familiar classical tradition of variation on a theme seems closer to Armstrong’s style of melody-based improvisation, but whatever terms we use, “the whole package,” Brothers concludes in admiration, “is overwhelming in its creative, dialogic energy” (NO  292).



A biographer choosing to chronicle the life of an artist faces what can often seem an overwhelming obstacle. Unlike statesmen or military heroes, the lives of writers, painters and musicians rarely offer moments of high historical drama or physical action. Their lives interest us because of their art, and it is only through that art that the achievement of the life can be appreciated. We must read the poems, see the paintings, listen to the music. As a consequence, biographies of artists are most effective when richly furnished with historical insight and cultural analysis. Brothers understands this and  addresses it directly in both volumes he bases on Armstrong’s life. Neither Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism nor its predecessor, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans, is biography in the traditional sense; to the extent that they are biographies, as Brothers explains carefully, they are “highly decentered” ones. “The details of Armstrong’s experience open up topics relevant not only to his musical development but also to the history of jazz.” The books are “organized around the flow of his life, but the discussion often moves laterally, into the larger context” (NO 6).  That context is primarily the racial history of the United States during the first third of the Twentieth Century and its influence on the evolution of jazz, the indigenous music of the black community that for Brothers embodies both the culture of the musicians who created it and the often contentious relations between blacks and whites during that period.

For a black musician at the time, and especially for one of low social position and little education like Armstrong, the early professional career was of course dominated by the legacy of racial tension rooted in the preceding era. Brothers finds George Washington Cable’s 1885 remarks still relevant: “There is scarcely one public relation of life in the South where the [black] is not arbitrarily and unlawfully compelled to hold toward the white man the attitude of an alien, a menial, and a probably reprobate [sic], by reason of his race and color” (NO 166-67). Brothers describes a tour through the South that encountered considerable problems. One was finding food. “A reliable method was to go around to the back of a restaurant and plead with the African-American chef to feed them in the kitchen. ‘Many are the times I’ve eaten off those big wooden chopping blocks,’” Armstrong remembered (MM  426). Another challenge was lodging. They had been booked to stay in a woman’s 15-room house, “but when her husband came home he told his wife to get the dirty musicians out immediately, then turned around and threatened to shoot them” (MM 426). In Tyler, Texas,


A rope was strung down the middle of the dance floor to separate the races. Someone from the black side snuck under the rope, according to [sideman Preston] Jackson, and the ‘Texas Rangers came down on him and beat the living shit out of him and they made the promoter give the white people all their money back.’ The dance folded quickly and the musicians bolted (MM 427).


With countless incidents like these—and the opening–night light at the Suburban Gardens—we might expect tension or at least cautious distancing between Armstrong and his white audiences. And yet this was not the case. His total immersion in the music itself, and some would say his genius, seems to have made him immune to being patronized, both by the whites who insisted on viewing all black entertainers as primitive songbirds from the jungle, and by educated, socially ambitious blacks who disdained and feared the echoes of the plantation and Storyville that the blues brought to jazz. Armstrong embraced his early years at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, where he learned to play the cornet, and his street life in the poor districts of New Orleans. Nor did he reject the gamblers, pimps and prostitutes who befriended him there. He seems to have been, to put it bluntly, happy in his own skin, happy to be who and what he was. Late in his life he often repeated advice offered him when young by an older black man, Benny Williams: “Something Black Benny said to me, came true—He said (to me) ‘Dipper, As long as you live, no matter where you may be—always have a White Man(who like) you and can and will put his Hand on your shoulder and say—This is My Nigger and, Can’t Nobody Harm Ya” (Letters 160). This was Armstrong’s survival strategy, one that served him well in his dealings with his white managers and his white audience, and he seems never to have felt resentment or anger at a fate that had placed him in this position.

Brothers refuses to draw a firm distinction between art and commercial entertainment, and he argues that Armstrong himself made no such distinction, indeed would hardly have understood it. He knew that other musicians admired him as a creative innovator, and he saw the white players who visited the all-black venues where he played to learn from him and copy his solos. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Armstrong saw no threat in his many imitators. “A lotta cats has copied the Mona Lisa,” he quipped, “but they still line up to dig the original” (MM 411). It was important to him that the fans continue to line up. He always saw himself primarily as a showman, an entertainer, a trumpet player and singer who made his living and hoped to prosper by bringing pleasure to the paying customers, and the customers who paid the best were white. His obituary in 1971 records this reflection on his musical career:


I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show. My life has been my music, it’s always come first, but the music ain’t worth nothing if you can’t lay it on the public. The main thing is to live for that audience, ’cause what you’re there for is to please the people. … I love my audience and they love me and we just have one good time whenever I get up on the stage. It’s such a lovely pleasure.




When we examine Armstrong’s career beyond the musical success of the early 1930s, we face a formidable challenge. The enormous commercial success and popularity he enjoyed during his middle and later years transformed the innovative young trumpet player and scat vocalist revered by jazz enthusiasts into a “Living American Legend,” according to his obituary, a mainstream cultural hero and international icon of an entirely different kind. He became a star entertainer who traveled abroad repeatedly as his nation’s goodwill ambassador.  In Accra, Ghana, his obituary records, “100,000 natives went into a frenzied demonstration when he started to blow his horn, and in Leopoldville, tribesmen … carried him into the city stadium on a canvas throne.” In many parts of the world, Louis Armstrong was welcomed as the joyous, smiling face of the United States, a face that two younger musicians who thrived in the jazz world Armstrong helped create, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, didn’t hesitate to label Uncle Tom. For many jazz lovers, Armstrong the artist was compromised by his popular success in the movies and with commercial recordings like “Hello, Dolly,” “Blueberry Hill,” and “It’s a Wonderful World.”

In his 1999 collection of Armstrong’s writing, Brothers notes an essay by Gerald Early that not only calls for the very prose collection Brothers has produced but also gives a poignant account of Armstrong’s later career. What is especially tragic about  these years, Early writes,


is that he not only ceased to be a genius, but after the 1950s he ceased to be musically inventive or interesting. The pain that one feels when Armstrong’s television performances of the middle and late sixties are recalled is so overwhelming as to constitute an enormously bitter grief made the keener because it balances so perfectly one’s sense of shame, rage, and despair. The little, gnomish, balding, grinning black man who looked so touchingly like everyone’s black grandfather who had put in 30 years as the janitor of the local schoolhouse…;this old man whose trumpet playing was just, no, not even a shadowy, ghostly remnant of his days of glory and whose singing had become just a kind of raspy-throated guile, gave the appearance, at last, of being nothing more than terribly old and terribly sick.  (Callaloo 90-91)


This man, Early adds, “perhaps the greatest musical genius America ever produced” may unfortunately be remembered by later generations not for the brilliance of his creative years but as “a silly Uncle Tom, … a pathetically vulnerable, weak old man…positively dwarfed by the patronizing white talk show hosts on whose programs he performed …”  (Callaloo 90-91).

Early’s obvious pain reflects the deep sense of regret felt by a young black writer forced to acknowledge the loss of an artistic and racial hero, and he helps us see that if Brothers continues the story of Armstrong’s life beyond the present volume, that story will not be of musical and artistic achievement but of popular culture and racial stereotyping.



After Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans brought the young trumpet player’s story to the local fame of his early twenties, Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism has traced his emergence during the next decade as the widely celebrated singer, virtuoso instrumentalist and musical innovator who led American jazz to international acclaim and imitation. In 1969, two years before his death, Armstrong described the remaining years that brought his remarkable personal story to a close.


     I was thirty-two years old when I first went to England. Returned the following years and toured all of the provinces of England—we also toured the French countries—the Scandinavian countries…traveled the U.S.A and made movies…. Another tour of all America, 1953. We made our first trip to Germany. We were the first attraction there, after the war. I was fifty-three years old. We toured all over Italy. We went everywhere in Africa, 1958. … 1960s we toured overseas again. This time we went to all of the countries. … In California we made more movies. Went to England—1967. Back home in 1969 still doing the things that I love, playing music and singing. Still pleasing my audiences—appreciative fans. On my sixty-ninth birthday, all of the kids … where I live came in front of my home and wished me a Happy Birthday, which thrilled ol Satch …   (WORDS, 190).


For lovers of jazz, the seminal musical career of Louis Armstrong did not survive the war years at mid-century. Ironically, the much beloved public personality of the later decades achieved iconic status of an entirely different kind,  but we must not let memories of the international ambassador of good will overshadow his extraordinary earlier creative achievement. Thomas Brothers, and all the others who labor to set the record straight, deserve our deepest gratitude.

Notes: Page numbers marked MM are from Thomas Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism  (Norton, 2013). Those marked NO are from Brothers, Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (Norton, 2006), and those marked WORDS are from Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words, edited with an introduction and appendix by Thomas Brothers (Oxford, 1999). Other celebrities who contributed to the Esquire article were Rube Goldberg, Maurice Chevalier, Norman Rockwell, Lotte Lehmann, Buckminster Fuller, and Leopold Stokowski. (WORDS, 220).

Gerald Early’s  essay, “’And I will Sing of Joy and Pain for You’: Louis Armstrong and the Great Jazz Traditions” appeared in Callaloo, No.21 (Spring-Summer, 1984),  pp. 90-100.  Available also in Early, Tuxedo Junction: Essays in American Culture (Ecco, 1989).

The obituary cited appeared in The New York Times for July 7, 1971. Honorary pallbearers at Armstrong’s funeral included Governor Rockefeller, Mayor Lindsay, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Pearl Bailey, Count Basie, Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Ed Sullivan, Earl Wilson, Alan King, Johnny Carson, David Frost, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett and Bobby Hackett.