Podcast • July 8, 2014

Ruby Braff’s Tribute to Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong came out of the Colored Waifs’ Home in New Orleans and the honky-tonks of the red-light Storyville district. Then and ever after Louis Armstrong’s time and phrasing, his tone and spirit made him the most influential voice in 20th century American music. We’re appreciating the man the world came to know as Satchmo. Thousands of musicians and friends called him Pops. Our guest this hour, the cornet star Ruby Braff, always called him Louis.

Hoagy Carmichael, the song-writer of “Stardust” and “Georgia,” remembered the first time he heard Louis Armstrong play, in 1921. He dropped his cigarette and gulped his drink. “Why,” he moaned, “why isn’t everybody in the world here to hear that?”

Something so unutterably stirring, he knew, had to be heard by the world. And over the next 50 years indeed it was. Louis Armstrong came out of the Colored Waifs’ Home in New Orleans and the honky-tonks of the red-light Storyville district. In Chicago in the mid-twenties his small-group recordings on the Okeh label with the so-called Hot Fives and Hot Sevens revealed an original jazz genius, full-blown.

Then and ever after Louis Armstrong’s time and phrasing, his tone and spirit made him the most influential voice in 20th century American music. We’re appreciating the man the world came to know as Satchmo. Thousands of musicians and friends called him Pops. Our guest this hour, the cornet star Ruby Braff, always called him Louis.

Podcast • July 7, 2014

Wynton Marsalis on Louis Armstrong

“What we play,” Louis Armstrong said, “is life.” We’re learning that Louis Armstrong was not just the world’s greatest trumpet player, not just the most original and influential voice in jazz, not just the founding father of an American music with new forms and phrasing and feeling all indelibly marked by him; what’s seen and heard in perspective is that he was an actor and artist of range and depth, who shaped classic songs of American life as Dickens and Shakespeare formed classic characters of the English language.

In celebration of July 4th, we’re republishing this interview about Louis Armstrong, who is said to have been born on Independence Day, 1900. The second part of the conversation, with the trumpeter  Ruby Braff, is here.

“What we play,” Louis Armstrong said, “is life.” We’re learning that Louis Armstrong was not just the world’s greatest trumpet player, not just the most original and influential voice in jazz, not just the founding father of an American music with new forms and phrasing and feeling all indelibly marked by him; what’s seen and heard in perspective is that he was an actor and artist of range and depth, who shaped classic songs of American life as Dickens and Shakespeare formed classic characters of the English language.

Novelist Ralph Ellison heard a lyric poet in Louis Armstrong: “man and mask, sophistication and taste hiding behind clowning and crude manners — the American joke,” Ellison said. Our guest Wynton Marsalis hears in Louis Armstrong’s music “an undying testimony to the human condition in the America of his time.”

From the Archives • March 3, 2014

Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — ...

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — musical highlights of a comprehensive revolution. It was one of two modern migrations, it’s been said, that made American culture what it is — of blacks from the Jim Crow South, and of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. The movement of masses is an ageless, ongoing piece of human history: in India and China today, more people migrate internally from village to city in one year than left the South from the onset of World War I (1915) to the end of the Civil Rights era (1970), as Isabel Wilkerson frames her story. But was there ever a migration that beyond moving people transformed a national culture as ours did? Songs, games, language, art, style, worship, every kind of entertainment including pro sports — in fact almost all we feel about ourselves, how we look to the world, changed in the sweep of Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent story, The Warmth of Other Suns. Great swaths of the pop and serious culture I grew up in – my children as well – were fruit of Ms. Wilkerson’s story: Jazz and its immortals like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, Miles Davis, the Basie and Ellington bands and stars like Duke’s greatest soloist Johnny brussellHodges, whose family moved from Virginia to Boston very early in the century; Mahalia Jackson and Gospel music; Rhythm and Blues, Ray Charles, the Motown sound, the Jackson family and little Michael; sports immortals like Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson, and athletes without number are players in this story. Writers, actors, politicians, comedians… Toni Morison, Spike Lee, Michelle Obama are all children of the Great Migration.

It was “the first big step the nation’s servant class took without asking,” in one of many graceful Wilkerson lines about “a leaderless revolution.” But it was a graceless, usually violent, threatened, lonely experience. Isabel Wilkerson is speaking of the mothers, fathers and families that faced it down — the Russells of Monroe, Louisiana, in one example, who gave the world the greatest team-sport winner we ever saw (13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, 11 NBA championships), the most charismatic defensive player in any game on earth. But for the migration, Wilkerson observes, Bill Russell “might have been working in a hardware store. It’s hard to know — there are a lot of mills around Monroe, LA. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to that enormous talent that changed a sport…

They lived under a caste system … known as Jim Crow. Bill Russell’s family experienced some of the harsh realities of that. One story involving Bill Russell’s father involves a day where he was just wanting to get gas. The custom in the Jim Crow South is that when an African American was in line for something, any white southerner who came up could cut in line. One white motorist after another had shown up and gone in front of him, and he had to wait, and he had to wait, and he had to wait. Eventually he decided he would just back out and drive the half-hour to the next gas station where he might be able to get served. As he was beginning to back out, the owner of the gas station stopped pumping gas for the white motorist he was working with and got a shotgun, held it to Bill Russell’s father’s head and said “You’ll leave when I tell you to leave. Don’t ever let me see you trying that again.” His mother was, around the same time, stopped on the street because she was dressed in her Sunday clothes. … A police officer stopped her and said “You go home right now and take that off. That is not what a colored woman should be wearing.” … The family decided that they would leave Monroe Louisiana, a very difficult decision, for a far away place, Oakland California. And it was there that Bill Russell had the opportunity to go to integrated schools, to be able to go to an NCAA school; he would never had had the opportunity to do that had they stayed in the South. He ended up leading the Dons of UCSF to two NCAA championships, and then of course came to the attention of the Celtics… Basketball would not be what we know it to be, had this Great Migration not occurred. And he’s but one person out of this entire experience of six million people who migrated.

Isabel Wilkerson in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 5, 2010.

Podcast • March 2, 2010

Tom Gleason’s Liberal Education: Memoir with Music

Tom Gleason might be everybody’s dream of an intellectual mentor: there are touches of Mr. Chips about Tom, and of his friend George Kennan, and of my big brother Peter, and your big brother, too, if you're blessed to have one. It’s my thought anyway that if you assemble a dozen or so people of Tom Gleason’s range and reading and curiosity and conversational talent, you’ve got yourself a university.

Call this a musical-conversational extension on the memoir of a beloved teacher, the historian of Russia at Brown University, Abbott Gleason, known as Tom. We’re connecting dots from Tolstoy to Orwell to Louis Armstrong in a big roomful of friends at Brown’s Watson Institute.

Tom Gleason might be everybody’s dream of an intellectual mentor: there are touches of Mr. Chips about Tom, and of his friend George Kennan, and of my big brother Peter, and your big brother, too, if you’re blessed to have one. It’s my thought anyway that if you assemble a dozen or so people of Tom Gleason’s range and reading and curiosity and conversational talent, you’ve got yourself a university.

A Liberal Education is the title of his memoir. It’s the private side of a career in Russian studies coinciding with four decades of Cold War. It warms and deepens my pleasure in the book to have known Tom well from odd angles: our daughters were college roommates; we’ve listened to jazz bands many Monday nights at Bovi’s Tavern in East Providence; we read War and Peace together in a small group two summers ago, then Moby Dick last summer. The Brothers Karamazov is next, in summer of 2010…

The fun of the book is in the disgressions — to the Tolstoyan family farm in Connecticut where young Tom spent his summers, where “workhorses… and a team of massive white oxen lingered, long after tractors and hayloaders were the rule on the more serious farms in the neighborhood… The haying was all done manually, with pitchforks, and many a wobbly load slid or topped off the wagon before it could be brought home to the barn. Farm work was usually over in time for drinks at the Big House before the sun had sunk much below the yardarm…”

The fun of our conversation is in our version of the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, as Tom Gleason free-associates on the music of Bela Bartok, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane and Tom’s Harvard roommate John Harbison.

Maybe the meat of things is a reflection on the academic wars that came with Tom Gleason’s job:

CL: You we born into the Cold War, in a certain sense. You kept your powder dry in it. But in the book, as in life, you observed all the high and low politics of it, the ideological and academic politics of the Cold War period. So in the end, Tom, what the hell was it all about? Over here and over there, who got it right? Who, in retrospect, had wisdom on that huge subject?

TG:  Well, I’m not sure that getting it right and being wise are exactly the same thing. As far as getting it right goes, I tend to think — and I was a sort of left center person on the Cold War — the people on the two extremes, further to my right and further to my left, got it more interestingly at least, if not absolutely more right. By that I mean people like my colleague the British historian Michael Cox, who teaches at the University of Wales, and his Trotskyite friends always had a view that the Soviet Union was conceived in sin and betrayal, and it didn’t really belong in the world and it would someday pass away — and of course from their point of view, be replaced by something that was truly revolutionary, as Trotsky had believed.  And on the other side, my more conservative colleagues Adam Ulam, Robert Conquest, Richard Pipes, also from a quite different point of view believed that the Soviet Union did not belong in the modern world.  They believed that any nation or any empire which denied the market and denied the economic realities of the world, would not ultimately survive.  So in a certain sense the two extremes met, behind my back, so to speak, and in many ways they were the people who were sort of least surprised – Martin Malia being another one of the conservative ones.  But I think the two extremes were not necessarily the wisest people.  I think the wisest people in dealing with the cold war were those who tried to question their own motives and tried to question themselves and tried to take it one step at a time… I think the cold war got us into places where rhetorical flights could take us out of ourselves and get us well beyond where we wanted to be.  Once in a while I would catch myself saying something and my little super-ego would sort of pick itself up and rub its eyes and say “I’ve been asleep all this time, did I hear what you just said?”

Abbott (Tom) Gleason in conversation with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, March 1, 2010.

It’s a nice Gleasonesque thought that the folks who saw the Cold War prophetically were his adversaries at far opposite ends of the argument, and the very last people you’d have asked to do something about it.

Podcast • January 11, 2010

Terry Teachout’s Pops: Culture-Changing Genius

Terry Teachout‘s fine reconsideration of the man called “Pops” solidifies Louis Armstrong’s standing as not just the greatest horn player since the angel Gabriel, but an all-transforming artist at the level of James Joyce or ...

Terry Teachout‘s fine reconsideration of the man called “Pops” solidifies Louis Armstrong’s standing as not just the greatest horn player since the angel Gabriel, but an all-transforming artist at the level of James Joyce or even Shakespeare, and a black American freedom fighter of character and conscience, too.

Louis Armstrong’s power to astonish was never in doubt. Hoagy Carmichael, the songwriter of “Stardust” and “Georgia,” dropped his cigarette and gulped his drink the first time he heard Louis, barely out of his teens, in 1921. “Why,” Hoagy moaned, “isn’t everybody in the world listening to that?” Over the next 50 years the whole world heard Louis, and marveled, but there were always questions, too: Could honky-tonk music from red-light New Orleans get standing, really, with Schubert and Bach? Was Louis in artistic decline after the Twenties? Was he an Uncle Tom in all that Satchelmouth clowning?

All the modern answers as Terry Teachout documents them are over the top now in favor of Louis Armstrong. Listen to the testimonies his fellow horn players Ruby Braff and Wynton Marsalis gave me on Louis’s legendary centennial, July 4, 1900: that if Louis wasn’t actually God, he was at least proof of God. His grandeur, complexity and consistency as man and artist seem now beyond question. Harold Bloom, keeper of the cultural canon and an astute jazz listener, too, pairs Armstrong with Walt Whitman as the greatest American contributor to the world’s art, the genius of this nation at its best. It turns out we could believe our ears after all.

CL: You refer to him at one point as a middlebrow genius, which I think is awfully good, but spell it out.

TT: I used that phrase because Armstrong is a guy whose favorite band leader was Guy Lombardo, a guy who just liked a good tune, who happened to be a culture-changing genius. And he didn’t see why you couldn’t like Guy Lombardo and Caruso and the Beatles and Barbra Streisand, and Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton — he just thought it was all music.

The picture on the cover of my book was taken by Philippe Halsman in 1965. It is an outtake from a session that was photographed for the cover of LIFE, this very famous photo that everybody’s seen of Armstrong with his eyes popping and the horn pointing outward and he’s dressed in this tux. He looks wonderful and he looks like the Armstrong we all know.

In this photograph, Armstrong’s just standing there with a very enigmatic half-smile on his face, holding his horn, dressed beautifully, looking like a man who knows something that maybe we don’t know, a man who knows his complexity, the complications of his own personality, who has seen the world as it is and in a very deep sense has accepted the world as it is.

Armstrong is a man who is at peace with himself. At the very end of his life he sent a letter to a friend that I quote at the end of my book, where he says that ‘my whole life has been happiness and I love everybody.’ And he wasn’t kidding, he really wasn’t kidding.

That kind of acceptance of the fundamental realities of life, not meaning that you don’t want life to be changed, but that you accept the world as it is, and decide that you’re going to make the best of it, that’s really at the heart of his character, and I think of his genius too. It allows him to take in all things in his music and his art, the sadness, the beauty, the joy, the comedy, and make them one.

Terry Teachout in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 8, 2009