“Louis Armstrong blew
Coherent lines until the very end.”
Armstrong himself seems to have believed the legend that he was born on the Fourth of July, in 1900, though scholars posthumously confirmed his birthdate as Aug. 4, 1901. Some of us still commemorate his arrival on Independence Day. He deserves two birthdays, at least one of which should be a national holiday. In the chapter he devotes to Armstrong in Cultural Amnesia (2007), Clive James says Armstrong “[did] as much as anyone since Lincoln to change the history of the United States.” Try to think of another likely candidate for that distinction. FDR? MLK? Certainly, no other artist. More than them he possessed the gift of making people, regardless of demographics, happy. He is a rare artist with the power to improve the quality of his listeners’ lives (not merely their moods). Look at almost any photograph of Armstrong and you will invariably see the people around him smiling. In the obituary he wrote for The New Yorker, Whitney Balliett lays it out cleanly:
“Louis Armstrong was the first great American musician. He all but invented jazz, which remains the wellspring of American music. He was an old-fashioned, even medieval clown who nonetheless never seemed dated. And he was the first famous black man who from the point of view of both races seemed to transcend color. He was absolutely true to himself throughout his 50-year career.”
Listen to “Weather Bird,” recorded in 1928 with Earl Hines. And then listen to Armstrong performing “Standing on the Corner (Blue Yodel No. 9)” with Johnny Cash in 1970, one year before his death. Armstrong and his wife Lil Hardin Armstrong accompanied the song’s composer, Jimmie Rodgers, on the original recording in 1930.
[The lines quoted at the top are from Clive James’ “A Heritage of Trumpets,” published in the July 10-17 issue of The New Yorker.]