This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songs of the founding father of jazz, Louis Armstrong, born in the Battlefield neighborhood of New Orleans on this day in 1901. He was 11 years old when he fired a pistol on New Years Eve, a misdeed which got him labeled a delinquent and packed off to the New Orleans School for Colored Waifs. It was there that providence intervened, as he found a cornet and received his first music lessons, and discovered his gifts. Among these were his ahead of his time improvisational skills, his distinctive voice, and his charismatic presence, which served him well in the acting field as well as on the musical stage.
For a look at his contributions to the songbook of freedom, it’s important to first acknowledge that he was not out front in the civil rights movement, and didn’t record many traditional “freedom” songs. Even so, for one who lived and worked in a highly segregated world of intense discrimination, he was able to convey as free a spirit as anyone could imagine. He did make vocal his support of the Little Rock children integrating the Arkansas schools, but there’s little doubt that his greatest contribution to the work of race relations was the crossover popularity of his music and his persona. For some of his songs that do speak to his spirit of freedom, we’ll look first at one of the traditional spirituals, drawn from the resonance the black community felt with the exodus of the Hebrew slaves.
Now when Israel was in Egypt Land
(Let my people go)
Oppressed so hard they could not stand
(Let my people go)
So the Lord said
Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land
Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go
I love this next example from 1961. It was the first time that Louis Armstrong recorded with another legend, Duke Ellington. The resulting album of Ellington compositions, played by Armstrong’s All-Star Band, with the Duke on piano, was originally called Together For The First Time. It was later issued as American Freedom. I wish that Satchmo had lent his gravely voice to the song In a Mellow Tone (which has a good reference to being free – see lyrics below), but we’ll have to be satisfied that he was feeling fancy free in his trumpet solos, just as Duke was on the piano.
For a final example of this joyful freedom, listen to another improvised instrumental from that same recording session, Beautiful American. Ellington composed this on the spot, and provided Louis with plenty of room to laugh and play on his horn. The title reminds me of a line Tony Bennett said about Armstrong and his influence on world music: The bottom line for any country is: “What did we contribute to the world?” We contributed Louis Armstrong.