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A Quick Note About Louis Armstrong

Today is a blessed day.

No one really knew until the 1988 publication of Gary Giddens’ Satchmo. It was in this book that the world learned of a discovery by jazz historian Tad Jones in the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in New Orleans: a birth certificate proving Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901 — not his symbolic choice of July 4.

Granted, he made bad records, appeared on horrendous television shows, and smoked a fair amount of weed — by the way, he called it “muggles.” But none of that matters, because in 1928, in a Chicago recording studio, he played 68 notes that changed modern art.

And here they are.

This is the opening cadenza to King Oliver’s “West End Blues” as recorded by Louis and his Hot Five: Earl “Fatha” Hines, Fred Robinson, Jimmy Strong, Mancy Carr, and Arthur James “Zutty” Singleton. They are passionate, they are chromatic, they swing and you would be hard pressed to find a more significant statement in the last couple hundred years of art.

I don’t know if I could fully convey the primacy of “West End Blues” other than to ask you to listen to the excerpt. If you’re reading a design blog, then chances are you’re at least slightly motivated by an appreciation for aesthetic phenomena and hopefully you’ll hear something. If not, then get thee to a Googlery, where you’ll find more than enough breathless superlatives.

Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal critic currently at work on a new Armstrong biography, considers Satchmo equally significant to other 20th-century Modernist figures like Picasso or Joyce.


But consider this… if you’ve ever looked at a project and said to yourself “I gotta fuck this up somehow;” or if you’ve ever done the wrong thing for the right reason; then perhaps you’re really putting Louis Armstrong’s examples to practice without really knowing it. Perhaps your soul’s not as dried up as you feared. Because ultimately “if ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”

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ARCHIVE ID 2760 FILED UNDER Miscellaneous
PUBLISHED ON Aug.04.2006 BY m. kingsley
Pesky Illustrator’s comment is:

Anyone interested in some Satchmo today might want to plug into streaming WWOZ 90.7 FM, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage radio


On Aug.04.2006 at 07:21 AM
felixxx’s comment is:

But what does this have to do with design?

I Kid. I kid because I love.

Nice work Marmin.

On Aug.04.2006 at 05:23 PM
m. kingsley’s comment is:

You know what Felix? I'll answer that.

We live in a post-Armstrong era and one could argue that he influenced the character of Western culture on many different fronts. Just off the top of my head, written in the middle of the night, and at the risk of sounding like our friend Design Maven; here goes...

1. The appearance of syncopated rhythms and other jazz innovations in Stravinsky, Milhaud, Copland, Gershwin, Weil, Ravel, and Bernstein; not to mention more popular forms of music...

2. Jazz historian Phil Schaap credits Armstrong's strength as an improviser, and the subsequent effect on sales, as the impetus for the Artists and Repertoire department at the Okeh label and subsequently, the current method of developing new musical talent in the age of recorded music. By the way, the first A&R guy at Okeh was Clarence Williams, who supervised their race recordings. His grandson Clarence Williams III is a character actor best known for playing Linc on The Mod Squad.

3. The influence of jazz on visual art esp. in the work of Arthur Dove, Jackson Pollock and Stuart Davis. I once flipped through Pollock's record collection on a visit to his studio on Long Island. Lots of jazz, good amount of Armstrong.

4. There are several books which describe the American government's promotion of art across the post-war world as an example of democracy and freedom. Armstrong was an American jazz ambassador who traveled abroad in State Department-funded tours. He fought the Cold War!

5. Imagine the impact of a black man becoming one of the biggest stars in the world before the civil rights movement.

Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces is a well-known account of the historical line between Dada and punk rock. It would be quite interesting to similarly trace the Armstrong effect. Compared to the paltry renown of your typical famous graphic designer — known to no more than 10,000 people — Armstrong is the epitome of mass media.

You want to know what this has to do with design? Everything. We rearrange the world and we present the world; and that world was profoundly changed by Louis Armstrong.

On Aug.05.2006 at 05:21 AM
Mark Andresen’s comment is:

Nicely put, Mr. Kingsley.

A second name should stand beside Louis Armstrong's and that is Mahalia Jackson's. She too was another New Orleanian who became an enormously popular ambassador of American culture around the world - when American culture used to be more respected than it is now. You're right, even before mass media, they were both global figures unlike anything seen before.

On Aug.05.2006 at 09:28 AM
Michelle French’s comment is:

Louis Armstrong invented "scat" when the music blew off the stand during a recording session. If only all of our improvisations were as successful.

Yet, we all have those happy accidents that lead us down a more creative path. Remember how Jackson Pollock came upon the dribbled paint technique?

Armstrong popularized Jazz throughout the world and continues to effect our culture. This spring in New Orleans, the most prevalent t-shirt had the words "Do You Know What It Means..." and if you can read those words without tears, you just don't.

In the late 80s or early 90s, "Satchmo, the Musical" based on the book/his life was staged. I got to see it here in Atlanta and enjoyed the music, the story and the familiar faces from New Orleans who performed. The run ended here, its first stop after debuting in New Orleans, panned by critics for "lack of original music."

How ironic is that?

On Aug.07.2006 at 05:34 PM
DesignMaven’s comment is:

No Way To Express my Love for POPS.

GENIUS PERSONIFIED!!!! An Understatement.
Words don't adequately Justify POPS Accomplishment.

I Tear Up Thinking about the Legacy.

BTW, I Love those Movies with Francis Albert and POPS.

Mark, Thanks for sending me the Bob Dylan Link a couple weeks ago.


On Aug.07.2006 at 07:40 PM
Simon Dorfman’s comment is:

I listened to that horn clip half a dozen times and started to dig it. Somehow it got me thinking of the piano piece at the end of this interview:

But it could just be that I'm obsessed with the Maple Leaf Rag since shooting that interview. In any case, I highly recommend it to y'all.

On Aug.10.2006 at 12:10 AM