IN HIS OWN WORDS
By Louis Armstrong
Edited by Thomas Brothers
Oxford, 288 pages, $25
Reviewed by David Simpson
From the 1920’s until his death in 1971 Louis Armstrong expended almost as much energy pecking away on his portable typewriter as he did improvising blues solos or scatting through song lyrics on stage. More than any other jazz figure of comparable status, Armstrong developed a genuine passion for writing—taking it up zestfully as a kind of hobby or handicraft, the way some people take up golf or gardening.
Scores of jazz musicians have exhibited a side-interest or flair for literary expression. Duke Ellington, for example, produced a volume’s worth of critical articles, autobiographical pieces, and personal reflections—all written with characteristic suavity and sophistication. Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie contributed their vivid speech and strong personalities, if not their actual written words, to highly successful “as told to” autobiographies. And Hoagy Carmichael and Art Hodes shifted effortlessly from the piano bench to the writing desk to produce their colorful, sharply sketched memoirs. But of all major jazz artists only Armstrong practiced his journalistic skills religiously over an extended period.
Everywhere he toured he packed his trusty portable—along with a dictionary, a thesaurus, and other serious tools of the penman’s trade.
During his lifetime, he published numerous articles, a stack of anecdotes, letters, and interviews, and two separate autobiographies.
According to jazz scholar Thomas Brothers not a single sentence was ghost-written. Brothers is the editor of a new and fascinating miscellany Louis Armstrong: in His Own Words, a work whose immense historical and cultural interest have been unfortunately overshadowed by its controversial opening section, a candid 30-page memoir entitled “Louis Armstrong and the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907.”
Armstrong composed this extraordinary document while recovering from a life-threatening illness at New York’s Beth Israel Hospital in 1969. For the most part, it is a tender flashback to his New Orleans childhood—full of charming portraits and good-humored anecdotes. But regrettably what readers are most likely to remember about it are its questionable ethnic characterizations and racial stereotypes, some of which would make a hardcore bigot blush.
Repeatedly throughout the article, he glowing sermons on the thrift, hard work, ambition, and togetherness of poor Jews while bitterly denouncing the “laziness,” self-indulgence, excuse-making, and back-biting of his fellow African-Americans. “Negroes never did stick together and they never will,” Armstrong declares at one point: “They hold too much malice—Jealousy deep down in their heart for the few Negroes who tries.” Black men, according to him, are absorbed with conniving, gambling, fighting, boasting, lusting, blaming, sulking, or generally just “Trifling” and “doing Nothing.” It is hard to imagine the late George Wallace or even a Klan wizard uttering anything more flagrant.
Other than to point out that they were written following a serious illness and offered as a kind of moral testament, Brothers does not delve into the possible deep motives and implications of these remarks. Perhaps it is just as well. For without ignoring them entirely, jazz lovers may surely regard them as trivial compared to the overall brilliance of Armstrong’s musical legacy—especially at a time when Satchmo fans around the world are getting revved up for this year’s big Centennial celebration.¹
Besides, it would be a further shame if a few sensational paragraphs were to divert attention from the far more engaging and typical aspects of this book—which for most of its more than 200 pages is not about Blacks and Jews or race and personal bitterness, but about Armstrong’s love of writing and wordplay, and especially about his devotion to the friends, family, and fellow musicians who guided his career.
Armstrong’s two previous autobiographies - Swing that Music (1936) and Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans (1954)—first introduced readers to his idiosyncratic writing style. Like his music, this style combines disciplined craftsmanship with inspired, exuberant improvisation—with plenty of sheer prankishness and showmanship on the side. Remarkably, Louis Armstrong, in his Own Words is even more unconventional than its predecessors. That’s because Brothers has made it a point not to sanitize Armstrong’s language, correct his (sometimes bizarre) punctuation, or curtail his whimsical typographic escapades.
Composing in syncopated riffs, treating the keyboard like a musical instrument, Armstrong produced his own distinctive word-jazz: a spicy gumbo of standard English, Black English, street slang, Bronzeville and Harlem jive, down-home colloquialisms, Southern regionalisms, Louisiana pidgin, Creole patois, and, most remarkably, his own outrageous coinages and shorthand terms (e.g., “somphn” for “something,” “sommitch” for SOB).
Among the now well-known slang expressions that Armstrong either introduced into general use or helped popularize are gage (for marijuana), chops (for lips, mouth, or a horn player’s embouchure), and chick (young woman). Similarly, to get ice in Armstrong-speak means “to receive a cool reception;” to wedge means “to fit together or harmonize musically;” to lush is "to go on a liquor binge;" and to get gassed means to get a konk or hair-straightening job. Armstrong is also frequently cited as the main source or popularizer of words like scat, gate (a greeting among jazz musicians that became a popular WWII term for a buddy or pal)² and the still current use of chill, as in “chill out.”
Meanwhile a few choice Satchmo-isms remain downright obscure. For example, his favorite way of describing a dynamite musical performance was to call it “the Livin’ Aspirin”—apparently because good jazz makes everybody feel good! Similarly, his pet name for an old patched tuxedo (to this day a standard apparel item among New Orleans street musicians) was a “roast beef,” though exactly why is anybody’s guess.
Armstrong’s love of unusual or custom-crafted language even carried over to the signature phrases that he used to conclude his letters: three of his favorites were “Swiss Krissly yours” (referring to his favorite herbal laxative), “Red beans and ricely” (his favorite Creole dish), and of course “trumpetly” (self-explanatory).
But Armstrong’s writing involves more than just a concoction of odd words and funny phrases. At its best, his style can be as easy, as natural, as strangely melodic, and rhythmically exact as his singing voice. Two passages will illustrate. The first is a reminiscence of his Chicago debut performance (1922) when he reunited with King (Papa Joe) Oliver and his Creole Band; the second is yet another affectionate recollection of his beloved mentor:
We cracked down on the first note and that band sounded so good to me ... that I just fell right in like old times—Papa Joe really did blow that horn. The first number went down so well we had to take an encore. That was the moment Joe Oliver and I developed a little system whereby we didn’t have to write down the duet breaks—I was so wrapped up in him and lived his music that I could take second to his lead in a split second. That was just how much I lived his music. No one could understand how we did it, but it was easy and we kept it that way the whole evening. I didn’t actually take a solo until the evening was almost over. I never tried to go over him, because Papa Joe was the man and I felt any glory that should come to me must go to him—I wanted him to have all the praise. To me Joe Oliver could blow enough horn for the both of us. I could just sit and listen to him and play second to his lead. I never dreamed of trying to steal the Show or any of that silly rot. (p. 50)
Sometimes I’d persuade Papa Joe (I calls him) to make the Rounds with me, after work, which would be—two o’clock in the AM. It was real Kicks—listening to music, Diggin’ his thoughts, comments etc. His Conception of things—life—Music, people in general, were really wonderful. It is really too bad that the world did not have a chance to Dig the real Joe King Oliver and his greatness. His human interest in things was really something to think about. All Joe Oliver had to do—was just talk to me, and I’d feel just like I had one of those good ol’ music lessons of his. It was a solid gassuh the way he would explain things. (p. 67)
Prose this sweet and natural doesn’t just happen by accident—as if it were simply a matter of typin’. It comes from long practice and experience. The passages remind us that the very best writing of this kind—the prose of Mark Twain—had its roots in the vocabulary and speech rhythms of ordinary folks, mainly African-Americans, along the Mississippi River from Louisiana to Illinois and remind us of the many exciting ways that Jazz and the American language have productively intertwined.
¹ Note: For the sake of symbolism and out of respect for a popular and long-enduring legend, the Armstrong Centennial will officially kick off in New Orleans and New York on July 4th. Louis claimed to have been born on 4 July, 1900, though records reveal that his actual date of birth was 4 August, 1901.
² The term apparently goes back to Louis’s own adolescent nickname, “Gatemouth.”