Genius in artistry is a fine mystery regardless of its practitioner. Why do Duke Ellington’s compositions and Jane Austen’s novels have such staying power, whereas countless of their creative peers left works long forgotten?
At the risk of putting myself on a thin limb some reader will hack off in a letter to the editor, I would argue that a visionary idea of narrative lies at the heart of genius. Even painters such as Mark Rothko who disassemble conventional ideas of the image achieve a powerful hold on the imagination by grounding us with an idea of story inherent in a work. I am thinking of the dark canvases arrayed around the interior of the Rothko Chapel in Houston and how that climate of serenity bestirs one to rewind the reel of life experiences, seeking some connective tissue between roots and destination, to see how one’s story adds up.
Louis Armstrong was born August 1, 1901, and if ever a cultural genius left a narrative trail it was the city’s most distinguished native son. The bare details of his biography, while here, stand out all the more impressively in light of the will to tell his story, beyond the gorgeous music that he made.
Raised by a mother whose husband had abandoned the boy and his sister, he grew up in a shack, long since demolished, close to where Central Lockup is today. (Tom Dent, in a poem, “For Lil Louis,” lamented over Armstrong’s old house being the city’s new jailhouse.) In his book, Life in New Orleans, written in his early 50s and published in 1954, Armstrong hints that his mother turned tricks to help support them. A classic of American autobiography, Satchmo captures life in the hard streets of his boyhood with bravura and a genuine warmth for the struggling people who surrounded him. Of his first parade appearance, he writes: “All the whores, pimps, gamblers, thieves and beggars were waiting … They ran to wake up mama, who was sleeping after a night job, so she could see me go by.”
The book ends in 1922 when he leaves for Chicago to join the band of his father figure Joe Oliver in Chicago. This, from a man who never made it through high school. He relished the written word. As jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern notes in an introduction to a reissue, Armstrong carried a small typewriter when he got on the train that day.
His first known letter was written a month later from Chicago to Isidore Barbarin, the Onward band’s mellophone player (father of Paul Barbarin, grandfather of Danny Barker). The book Louis Armstrong In His Own Worlds, edited by Thomas Brothers, gathers letters and written accounts of his life episodes. He used italics to suggest spoken emphasis. He searched his past, seeking meaning in memory. The boy spent many hours with the Karnofsky family who had a furniture store on Rampart Street. “The Jewish people has [sic] such wonderful souls,” he wrote during a hospital stint in 1969. “When Mrs. Karnofsky would start singing these words to ‘Russian Lullaby’ we all would get our places and sing it. So soft and sweet. Then bid each other good night. They were always warm and kind to me… something that a kid could use at Seven [sic].”
He had a determined sense of history. His scenes of the roughhouse saloons and honky-tonks give names, nicknames, song titles and tell about major events. “The two biggest funerals I had ever seen in New Orleans when I was a kid were two members of the District [Storyville] … One was Henry Zeno the drummer and the other Clerk Wade the sharpest Pimp that New Orleans ever had.” Kid Ory discussed the Wade funeral in an interview with Bill Russell, and Danny Barker wrote an extravagant account imagining all the hookers weeping and pawing the coffin as it went down.
In an article for Esquire, Barker remarked on “Basin Street Blues,” that staple of early jazz: “Lulu White, the Octoroon Chick, had a very famous house on that street in those days, called ‘Mahogany Hall’ … Jelly Roll Morton, the great jazz man at the piano, played for Lulu … In the days when money was flowing like wine, down there … Basin Street is what travelers call a ‘landmark’ nowadays.”
It will be years yet before we get the first biography approaching definitive status on Satchmo. In the meantime, the pleasures of his music are universal, and the river of words he cast like a composer at the typewriter and – with pen in hand – reveal a mind keen to the properties of literature.