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Astrological Profiles

Louis Armstrong: A Study in Aries Rising [by David Lehman]

Louis ArmstrongLouis Armstrong was born on July 4, 1900 if you believe him or August 4, 1901 if you believe your lying eyes. Let's assume the latter as astrologically valid. A Leo, then, with Aries rising, Aries in his moon, New Orleans as his native city, and a lot of moon in his chart, and what you get is a born performer and, with significant celestial activity in Capricorn to keep him grounded, an entertainer who will never lose his popularity because he knows his public and regards himself as an instrument through which the Lord expresses his moody blues and swinging jazz. Music is supreme in his soul and his rejection of be-bop must be understood in this context. He shares a birthday with Shelley. Whom did you think that poet was evoking when he wrote, "Be through my lips to unawakened earth / The trumpet of a prophecy"? Not Dizzy or Miles, I can tell you that, but the old cornet player from the Back O' Town section (Jane Alley) in N.O. Also born on August 4 was Barack Obama. Make of that what you will.

Satchmo should be on anyone's list of great Philo-semites. Just read 'Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family," the keynote piece in Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words, Satch's selected writings (edited by well-named Duke professor Thomas Brothers and published in 1999 by Oxford UP). Others on the list of great Philo-semites are Nabokov and Emile Zola and. . . somebody please help me complete this sentence. 

Louis loved the Karnofsky family that gave him his first job and encouraged his study of music. "I had a long time admiration for the Jewish People. Especially with their long time of courage, takin So Much Abuse for so long. I was only Seven years old but I could easily see the ungodly treatment that the White Folks were handing the poor Jewish family whom I worked for." Notice the idiosyncratic and very deliberate use of italics and caps, his favorite emphasizers. Louis was a writer; he took his punctuation seriously, he took his typewriter wherever he went, and he was always going; he loved typing even more than swimming. He also loved Jewish food, including matzos. The Karnofskys operated a mobile rag and bone shop, and Louis played a little tin horn on the junk wagon. "When I reached the age of eleven I began to realize it was the Jewish family who instilled in me Singing from the heart." He wore a star of David around his neck.

The blues came naturally to him. The best recording of the Arlen and Koehler standard, "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," is Armstrong's, with voice and with trumpet. Listen to "West End Blues," "St Louis Blues," "St James's Infirmary," "Basin Street Blues" as performed by the Hot Five with Earl "Fatha" Hines on piano. You listen and you know why "saint" is in the title of so many blues. At the same time -- and here's where Louis's Leo stands up and takes a bow -- he (voice, trumpet) makes happiness real. And after embodying Jazz as a style, a phenomenon, and a musical idiom in the 1920s -- I mean "Cornet Chop Suey," "Potato Head Blues," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" with Lil Hardin on piano, and "Knockin' a Jug" with Jack Teagarden on trombone -- Louis went on to swing the American Songbook: "On the Sunny Side of the Street." "Jeepers Creepers," "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," the amazing sides with Ella. The meaning of swing is in the lovelight burning in his heart. In 1967 he concludes a heartfelt letter to a jazz-loving Marine in Vietnam by typing out Hammerstein's lyric for "You'll Never Walk Alone." I once heard Louis recite the words of this song from Carousel, not sing them, just recite them, with the melody playing softly in the background, and there was not a dry eye in the house.

He loved gage and smoked it every day. He thought "gage," "Muta," "pot," or "some of that good shit," were better names for the heavenly stuff than marijuana. It was, he said, "a thousand times better than whiskey." He could write a whole book about it, he added. A day without Gage was a meal without wine. He also spoke eloquently of "the Genuineness of Asses." He loved his wife's (Lucille "always had the Choicest Ass of them all") but didn't see the point of denying himself the pleasure of "whaling" on the road. "Kissing will lead to fucking every time." One time at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas he "Grined" a lady he called "Sweets" -- "Struck Oil" -- and "planted a cute little baby." Jazz meant sex. Man, he felt alive. He was performing 100% of the time. But the horn redeemed the world. "I Can tolerate Anything, as long as it doesn't interfere with my trumpet."

Now I will play "Stardust," "Pennies from Heaven," "Alexander's Ragtime Band." Cutting up with Crosby on the set of High Society. Mixing with Sinatra on TV, "The Birth of the Blues."  And then back to the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of "Weary Blues," "Potato Head Blues," "No (Papa, No)," "Tight Like This," "Weather Bird."

Like Phillip Larkin, Armstrong detested be-bop: "Mistakes, that's all rebop is. . . .New York and 52nd Street -- that's what messed up Jazz. Them cats play too much -- a whole lot of notes, weird notes." He saw it clearly, Jazz reduced to a form of chamber music that the devout would listen to breathlessly if uncomprehendingly in darkened shrines. "You've got to carry the melody," he insisted. 

During the Little Rock crisis in 1957 he sent a telegram to Eisenhower urging the president to send in troops to assure the safety of the "little negro children" at Central High School. He called Ike "Daddy" and said that if he "personally" came "along with your marvellous troops please take me along. O God it would be such a great pleasure I assure you." Should the president wish to respond, he was advised that he could do so through Satch's "personnel manager," Joe Glaser, in New York. He signed off "Am Swiss Krissly Yours Louis Satchmo Armstrong." 

There was no way you could dislike Louis Armstrong. Now close your eyes and pretend it's the first time you're hearing the opening cadenza of "West End Blues."  -- DL

from the archive; first posted 2011

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November 12, 2016

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October 31, 2014

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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