An excerpt from

Jazz on the River

by William Howland Kenney

Chapter 3

Groovin’ on the River
Louis Armstrong and Riverboat Culture

In April 1919, several years before moving to Chicago, where he cut some of his most important records, Louis Armstrong determined to see where his burgeoning talent as a jazz cornetist, vocalist, and entertainer might take him. In September 1918 he had started playing on a Streckfus Steamers excursion boat that plied New Orleans harbor but, still restless, announced to friends and colleagues that he would be shipping out to perform along the Mississippi River from New Orleans as far north as Minneapolis. Armstrong, who had been born on August 4, 1901, was then seventeen years old. He had decided to accept what looked like an exciting job offer from John Streckfus and his bandleader Fate C. Marable to play in their new hot dance band on board the steamer Sidney. He had not then ventured much beyond the neighborhood of his birth and had only quite recently decided to become a professional musician. But having been left to his own resources from an extremely tender age, he was prepared to embark on what turned into a restless life of touring the circuits, playing for junkets for three seasons on the river. He would later permanently leave the river but continue to travel, taking his restless, fugitive music on a train north to Chicago's South Side. He then traveled by jalopy to New York, by transatlantic steamer to Europe, and ultimately on ocean liners and airplanes that carried him to West Africa and around the world. His youthful decision to work out his future on America's greatest river set into motion a lifetime of exile from his southern home, forcing him to translate for new audiences the music he had pioneered back in New Orleans, rethinking and reinventing himself, exploring his musical capacities and creating new meanings while on the move.

Most of the early historians of jazz linked the emigration of its musicians from New Orleans to the official closing in 1917 of Storyville, the city's vice district, in which some jazzmen had found performance opportunities. That narrow interpretation ignored in Armstrong's as in Marable's case the rich context of the black migration out of the South after World War I, a major chapter in the African American diaspora. A closer look at the outpouring of musical creativity that accompanied the Great Migration indicates that New Orleans jazz pioneers, and those with whom they performed on the river, became the heralds of their people's migration northward. Whereas the blues singers became its musical voices, the jazzmen, led by Armstrong, trumpeted the Great Migration primarily to the wider white world of the racially segregated excursion boats. As heralds and modernist troubadours, they experienced this great movement of people in a way that both paralleled and contrasted with that of the majority who were not musicians.

Louis Armstrong and friends
Three brilliant stars of early riverboat jazz. Left to right: the trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen, the trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and the drummer Zutty Singleton. [Photo courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection, accession no. 92-48-L, MSS 520.]

Armstrong, the many musicians who played with him, and those who followed him onto the riverboats did not migrate in the simplest sense of moving from some point in the South to settle down in Chicago. But neither did many male migrants, who tended to move in a generally northerly direction from one job to another before taking on a major industrial center such as Chicago or Pittsburgh. Although the riverboats did paddle northward up the river, they also steamed eastward and westward across it, before paddling southward back to their original point of departure after Labor Day, their musicians usually still aboard.

Armstrong, for example, worked his way from one small town to another up and down the river for three seasons, reconnoitering the major Mississippi valley urban areas, creating a network of professional contacts that helped him find his way in the world. When he first arrived in St. Louis in 1919, he was stunned by its tall buildings:

There was nothing like that in my home town, and I could not imagine what they were all for. I wanted to ask someone badly, but I was afraid I would be kidded for being so dumb. Finally, when we were going back to our hotel I got up enough courage to question Fate Marable.
"What are all those tall buildings? Colleges?"
"Aw boy," Fate answered, "Don't be so damn dumb."

He learned quickly by playing after-hours sessions with St. Louis musicians. His meetings with them epitomized the black musical migration in the Mississippi valley. After demonstrating his unsurpassed improvisational talents, Armstrong listened to them and much admired their literacy and musicianship. Together, they all talked about Chicago. This after-hours networking within a context of further migration and travel would continue for many years, creating what the scholar Gerald Early has called a "Black Heartland."

Armstrong, of course, permanently left the riverboats in 1921 to return temporarily to New Orleans. His further migrations to the North came when he boarded an Illinois Central train to travel to Chicago to join King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. He could not have gone there by riverboat, there being no waterway deep or wide enough between the Mississippi River and Chicago to convey him there. While working on the river, Armstrong occasionally returned to New Orleans, and he continued to spend much of his time performing on the road around the world, becoming the prototype of the traveling musician who often seemed to live in trains, planes, taxis, hotel rooms, clubs, and recording studios. His career as the single most celebrated jazz star was a most exceptional one, but he, like most of his colleagues, spent long periods moving from one gig to another.

From the point of view of most Americans, Armstrong's restless world was even more elusive and mysterious than that of Marable. Black musicians were strictly segregated from the white passengers on the riverboats, as, later, from the patrons of the clubs and dance halls of the northern cities. "More than white musicians, black ones were usually excluded from the more stable engagements (of a week or longer)," and often lived through careers filled with musical "one-nighters," their more frequent displacements making them harder to locate at any given moment. Armstrong later described what it was like to be on the road in the South: "Lots of times we wouldn't get a place to sleep. So we'd cross the tracks [into the black section of town], pull over to the side of the road and spend the night there. We couldn't get into hotels. Our money wasn't even good. We'd play nightclubs and spots which didn't have a bathroom for Negroes. When we'd get hungry, my Manager, Joe Glaser, who's also my friend, Jewish and white, would buy food along the way in paper bags and bring it to us boys on the bus who couldn't be served."

Employment on the tramping riverboats offered many of them one of their longest-lasting engagements and was, for that reason alone, a milestone in many careers. But however slowly, the paddle wheelers kept moving, too. Elusive black musicians, for whom Armstrong became a figurehead, lived and worked for months at a time in reasonably close proximity to the white crew and passengers. But, thanks to the Jim Crow regulations on board, they still remained essentially enigmatic to whites, their music new and puzzling, their dress and comportment unlike that of the more familiar levee roustabouts, their after-hours destinations and activities a mystery to most white people.

Calling Armstrong and his fellow musicians "mysterious" presumes, in part, a middle-class white perspective that preferred black musicians to remain largely unknown, the better to stamp them all with racist stereotypes. The musicians could be "known" mostly within the traditions of riverboat entertainment. In the 1920s, American audiences still looked for exotic characters when stepping onto riverboats for their musical entertainment. Given the long tradition of minstrelsy, most whites thought that any black roustabout, deck hand, or musician carried an air of mystery, gaiety, and danger. During his years on the river, Armstrong, who, as we shall see, remained largely docile in the face of racial oppression, began to think about the need for an on-stage persona from this artificial racial perspective, one that would reinterpret elements of the minstrel show stereotypes.

His arrival on the excursion boat scene found him near the start of his long career as a crossover musical entertainer, and he was then a timid young man, as yet unsure who he was. But even he could not ignore his amazing talent, so Armstrong gradually discovered the courage to confidently project an image, one at which American audiences marveled in the 1930s and 1940s. By then, he had conjured an "in-between" restless persona in which he mixed his unsurpassed instrumental improvisations with an unusual jazz patois, hoarse yells, scat singing, an eyeball-rolling, handkerchief-waving, leering humor mixed with pathos, and a mysterious musical sensibility that keened in its joy. Smiling and bowing reassuringly, Armstrong nevertheless seemed a subversive enigma, his music and gruffly masculine presence slyly creating ironic reversals of beloved lyrics and melodies, his fevered imagination an unpredictable, surging force.

The new riverboat musician's early experiences had engendered a tough resilience and a determination to succeed as a musical entertainer. According to Laurence Bergreen, his had been a "wretched" childhood. His memories of its pain and promise had led Armstrong, like the true artist, to signify on it (reinterpret it) onstage, in his music, and in his patter. On the typewriter that he brought on board with him, he initiated a long life of banging out jazzy letters that rarely failed to mention some detail from his "gruesome" days and nights as a timid child in a dangerous world on the grimy sidewalks and in the squalid brothels and cabarets of Storyville. Yet, as Bergreen insists, Armstrong was full of surprises: thanks in large part to music, he later came to insist that his childhood had been an ideal one for a jazz musician. In so doing, he usually reached for the laugh but still revealed an "edge of anger" and hurt stemming from the fact that his father had not only abandoned him and the family but had then paraded proudly through the streets of black New Orleans. His stories about Mardi Gras high jinks included stark recollections of the routine beatings and "head-whippings" the New Orleans whites meted out to inoffensive black workers. His soaring music expressed the mingling of joy and sorrow in his heart. Some of his colleagues "thought they detected a voodoo ethos about" Armstrong, and, indeed, he was familiar with voodoo and included some of its seemingly nonsensical chanting in his vocals.

Armstrong's painful recollections of his errant father, his own forced incarceration in an orphanage, his betrayals by powerful figures of the New Orleans demimonde such as "Black Benny" Williams, and the terrible racial oppression that forced him into a life of exile all brought sounds of sorrow and melancholy to his carnivalesque jazz. The poet Nathaniel Mackey has explained that for those who, like Armstrong, have been subjected to the "social death" of racism and abandonment by a parent, "song is both a complaint and a consolation dialectically tied to that ordeal, where in back of 'orphan' one hears echoes of 'orphic,' a music that turns on abandonment, absence, loss. Think of the black spiritual 'Motherless Child.' Music is wounded kinship's last resort." When discussing Armstrong's scat vocals, Mackey argues that "scat's blithe mangling of articulate speech testified to an 'unspeakable' history" of racial oppression that only worsened during Armstrong's years on the river.

In his published statements, Armstrong maintained an impenetrable diplomatic silence about the many difficulties of his decision to leave New Orleans. He admitted to feeling homesick, missing his mother and sister, friends and cronies, but he clearly signaled that he had exchanged his hometown for an excursion steamer in hopes of finding a better life. Most of the leading New Orleans musicians who had made a deep impression on him were leaving. The cornetist and bandleader Joseph "King" Oliver had decided to move to Chicago. The trombonist and bandleader Edward "Kid" Ory had determined to give Los Angeles a try. A surprising number of jazz musicians traveled the Gulf Coast network of waterways, railroads, and highways in search of greater employment opportunities in music. Among them were John Handy, Sam Morgan, Edmund Hall, Cootie Williams, Lee Collins, Buddy Petit, Oscar Celestin, Clarence Desdunes, Billie Pierce, Sadie Goodson Peterson, and Ida and Edna Goodson. The trumpeter Don Albert joined the migration of African Americans who lived west of New Orleans, on the western side of the Mississippi River, to Texas. The reedman Sidney Bechet had headed for Europe. All of them would live their lives in transit, a bag packed, a telegram announcing the next gig sliding under the door. Many of them ranged as far west as Texas, well up into the northern Midwest, and south to Mexico and Cuba. Many others joined Armstrong on board the vessels of Streckfus Steamers.

Armstrong became the most celebrated representative of a broader and more diverse movement. Looking back after becoming jazz's first superstar, he left no doubt that working from 1916 to 1918 as a musician in and around New Orleans in Kid Ory's band had offered him his start toward professional advancement. The cornetist's wonderful ebullience gave a can-do, Horatio Alger tone to his memoirs of black Louisiana. But working with Ory never would have paid enough to free Armstrong or any of Ory's other musicians from long hours of manual labor during the week. Armstrong continued to sell coal door-to-door. Several other musicians worked as longshoremen and stevedores. In Louisiana, they could only hope to be part-time musicians who played for local black audiences, their wages modest at best.

The "moldy figs" of the post–World War II years—people who clung desperately to early jazz in the face of the bebop revolution of the 1940s—spied purity and authenticity in black New Orleans music before it responded to white riverboat audiences and the big city media, but it would be easy to romanticize the musicians' struggles. Kid Ory had had so much trouble getting gigs that he had started promoting fish fries on a plantation in rural Laplace, Louisiana, one whose grounds reached down to the Mississippi. Ory and his friends caught fish straight out of the Big Muddy. His uncle, who ran a grocery store in Laplace, gave Ory whiskey and beer to sell, as well—five cents for a drink, five cents for a fish sandwich.

Refusing to sit about waiting for gigs to come to him, Ory organized parties, becoming bandleader, promoter, bookkeeper, treasurer, and fish fryer. He sought out houses left empty by people who had migrated elsewhere in search of work. Such structures worked well for dance parties because they contained no furniture to get in the way. He also worked his party and picnic scheme at local baseball games and eventually earned enough to go into the musical instrument business as well.

As a seven-year-old Ory had begun by making his own banjo, guitar, string bass, and violin in order to organize a band of street urchins. As his "spasm band" began to make some meager profits at baseball games, he gradually bought several real musical instruments: a trombone, of course, a violin, a twelve-string guitar, a string bass, a trumpet, and drums. When poor youngsters such as Armstrong accepted an invitation to play in Ory's band, the leader would rent them instruments on which to perform, reducing their wages accordingly. When Armstrong left New Orleans to play on the riverboats, therefore, he arrived without a musical instrument, knowing that, under a prior agreement, the captain would rent or sell him one. For Armstrong, simply getting to the point of having his own instrument represented a major step toward professional independence.

The modest, localized, and rural setting of these initial musical endeavors, in which young part-time musicians played by ear on homemade instruments, defined what came to be seen, from a later vantage point, as "authentic" black jazz. But, in fact, the musical world of Kid Ory's band had also led naturally to the margins of more professional musical activities. The leading black bands from New Orleans ventured out to the Louisiana plantations every payday during the winter season when the sugar cane was ground. Buddy Bolden, for example, played on the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley line's excursion trains, which ran between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Such trains stopped at Laplace, where Bolden would play a number or two from the baggage car as advertising for an afternoon picnic and dance from 11:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

As soon as Ory secured his real instruments, he went into competition with these big-city professionals, dressing up his musicians in jackets and bow ties and leading them at picnics on weekends between performances in Laplace and Baton Rouge. His band's repertoire showed a debt to Buddy Bolden's by playing such tunes as "When the Saints Go Marching In" that he had taken from evangelical and Baptist churches. Those denominations used drums and piano accompaniment with their singing. Ory later admitted to Neshui Ertegun of Atlantic Records that his group's repertoire was more than two generations behind that of the churches.

But Ory had been moving inexorably into more urban settings in which his rural roots intertwined with more commercial venues. He performed at Pete Lala's New Orleans bar as early as 1907 and landed his first job as leader of his own band in Gretna. Soon thereafter, he secured his historic gigs at Economy Hall in New Orleans and at Cooperative Hall in Milneberg by renting the halls himself and promoting dances. In 1916, the cornetist Joe Oliver left Ory's band, and Louis Armstrong replaced him. One year later, the thirty-eight-block area called Storyville, in which prostitution had been made legal in 1897, was officially closed, leaving the musicians and the prostitutes who had worked there scrambling for jobs. Not long thereafter, the riverboat bandleader Fate Marable began talking to Armstrong about playing in his hot riverboat dance band.

As he thought about Marable's offer, Armstrong imagined it within the context of a search for freedom. He metaphorically recalled the time that he had entertained with a group from the waifs' home at a picnic under a broiling sun. Dizzy and exhausted, he had taken refuge in a nearby cypress swamp, where his thoughts had turned to the generations of slaves who had fled into the swamps from the plantations. Thinking of his own predicament, he had imagined his fugitive ancestors sitting on the knee-shaped tree trunks just above the snake-infested waters. Exhausted, he had perched on a knee and fallen asleep.

Armstrong had awakened, blinded by an impenetrable blackness. Terrified, he had stumbled out of the cypress swamp, grateful to find the sun setting, his young fellow inmates packing their instruments, the interminable job finally played. According to his published autobiographies, Armstrong never went back to the swamp, opting instead to attempt a career as a professional jazz musician outside the South. Starting on the Mississippi River, he demonstrated to those that could hear new spaces between the beats, new notes with which to fill them, and a correspondingly dynamic, elusive, and original lifestyle.

In a second metaphor, Armstrong speaks of the Mississippi as taking the contours of many poorly formed letters M and W when viewed on a map, likening his travels up and down the river to a young person's lessons in literacy. He notes his relief when, sitting on deck, he saw the cypress swamp slide past his northbound steamer.

Much of Armstrong's unusual persona came from his childhood of extreme poverty and limited education, but his unusual and ultimately entertaining translations of his past also found encouragement in the process of his migration to the North and his subsequent chasing after the gigs. He and his jazz, even the partially tamed jazz that he played on the excursion boats, took some of its optimistic spirit from an important link between music and movement. Like the blues, jazz is a form of culture that readily travels. In the first half of the twentieth century, all sorts of Americans lived in motion, migrating from abroad to new homes, from the country to the cities, from east to west, and, most important for jazz and for African Americans, from the South northward. They inevitably left behind them much of their earlier thought and behavior but readily learned to redefine themselves by the contrasts between what they recalled of what they had been and what and whom they saw and heard around them on their journeys. Moreover, the riverboat musicians, proud of their craft, possessed an unparalleled ability to carry their musical identities with them. The elements of their New Orleans musical lives swiftly became what W. T. Lhamon Jr. calls a "lore cycle," an open-ended loop of musical gestures that brought an exotic excitement to riverboat dance music. Jazz may have been invented in New Orleans, but its new context on the Mississippi and the Ohio and in the major river cities changed it.

Forward motion animates dynamically played notes into movement toward "the next expected tone," unfurling melodies moving toward completion, while developing harmonic progressions and stepping rhythmic patterns create an impression of "unfinished being." So the music that was commercialized as "jazz" throve on many varieties of exciting, adventurous travel. Its slang, like the music itself, came to incorporate metaphors of movement. Practiced players said they had "traveled miles and miles" through the paths of song; a musically rich performance was "a trip"; fans wanted to be "moved" by the music and pleaded with the musicians, "Go, go, go!" or "Send me!" Jazz's close relation to dance brought it joy in physical movement as dancers "hoofed it," "legged it," "beat the leather," "hopped," "trotted," "shimmied," and "toddled" to the music. Perspiring scholars tried to pin jazz down, but, of course, it was "in process," always becoming something new depending in part on where it was played, its freshness carrying a powerful message of solace and hope to those able to hear it. As we shall see, riverboat jazz even moved to the rhythmic chanteys of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century riverine laborers.

The riverboats and lives of incessant travel also encouraged what have often been described as the "joyful," "joy-making," "festive," "happy," and "fun" sounds of Armstrong's music. Well-established patterns of minstrelsy and the tourist trade indicated that bar and nightclub music by New Orleans blacks had to be upbeat and exuberant. Thus Armstrong's impossibly large stage smile.

But the music that Armstrong recorded and that he wrote about playing is too easily dismissed as merely "happy music." It was not "unhappy music," but neither was Armstrong's jazz a cartoon music like that of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Livery Stable Blues," which was conceived and performed with caricatured low-comic intent. So, too, Jelly Roll Morton's "Hyena Stomp" drew in a similar manner on broad-brush vaudeville slapstick. During the 1950s, Armstrong and, in particular, his vocalist Velma Middleton entertained their audiences with plenty of pratfalls.

Nevertheless, most of the recorded music that Armstrong performed in his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings and his Mississippi River numbers of the 1930s and 1940s could more accurately be described as sharply glinting, in flight, agitated, and excited, not simply happy or joyful, a rough, tough-spirited music that resisted easy labels. Polyphony and polyrhythm gave it substantial complexity. Armstrong himself contributed a nearly operatic virtuosity. As Nathaniel Mackey insists, sadness lurks in his tone and expressiveness and, when blended with the Roaring Twenties spirit of nervous excitement, lent emotional depth to his music. Thus his music flew well beyond the comic minstrel mugging with which it was delivered.

Much of this complexity expressed the hazards of the Great Migration, a mixture of eager anticipation and danger. For Armstrong, as for the musicians who played with him on the riverboats, jazz was, in addition to musical entertainment, what James Clifford has called a habitus, a space in time between past and future where one lived while on the move, a set of musical and social practices and associations that could be remembered and through which one could simultaneously remember one's hometown while far from it. Jazz skills, jazz ideals, and jazz's alienation from mainstream middle-class culture functioned as a body of knowledge with which and within which one could live and work while on the move, particularly on the water. Armstrong owed much to his musical experiences in New Orleans. But from 1919 to the end of the summer of 1921, he tramped the Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio rivers. He had no fixed home. He worked in order to change his place and position in American society. He never made Chicago his permanent home, either, and when he bought a home outside of New York City, he spent as much time away from it as in it. His music expressed the special kinds of movement characterized by migration, diaspora, and steamship voyages. It had great energy, ambition, daring, courage, undercurrents of the voyagers' nostalgia for home, and a tough alienation from sentimentalism and from mainstream culture.…

In ways that have not been understood heretofore, Armstrong played a particularly influential and controversial role in the riverboat experience. In 1919, 1920, and 1921, the young musician was deepening his initial discovery of the wellspring of improvisation that he had gradually revealed to himself in the aural world of black New Orleans, a powerful groove that he could not but bring on board with him. However, his unusually rapid improvisational progress accelerated on the Streckfus Line excursion boats, just where the orchestra leader Fate Marable and his employers so vigorously pursued their policy of musical literacy. For three summers, Armstrong therefore became the focus of a highly symbolic cultural struggle between oral and literate approaches to musical performance. His spectacular journey through this conflict made him the figurehead of a new musical interstice called jazz.

When he first crossed the gangplank in his tattered shoes, Armstrong performed only in the aural world of Kid Ory's band. But the young cornetist subsequently assured the reading public in his 1936 autobiography that he had, under the tutelage of mellophonist David Jones and pianist Fate Marable, learned to read music.

Louis Armstrong and band
A handsome and dynamic young Armstrong (third from right) looks ready to fly off his chair. The other players, left to right: Henry Kimball, Boyd Atkins, Fate Marable, John St. Cyr, David Jones, Norman Mason, Norman Bradshear, and Baby Dodds, aboard the S.S. Capitol, c. 1919. [Photo courtesy of Duncan Schiedt.]

Subsequent events would prove that Armstrong exaggerated and oversimplified his progress in musical literacy. When in 1923, two years after leaving the river, Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson's hot dance band, one for which Fate Marable's band had provided excellent training, he still felt uncomfortable reading arrangements. His rhythmic swing helped transform that orchestra, but he still had to listen to someone else play the notes arranged for him so that he could then play them from memory.

Where I had come from I wasn't used to playing in bands where there were lots of parts for everybody to read. Shucks, all one in the band had to do is to go to some show and hear a good number. He keeps it in his head until he reaches us. He hums it a couple of times, and from then on we had a new number to throw on the bands that advertised in the wagons on the corner on the following Sunday.…I had left Chicago, where the way we used to do it was just take the wind in and take what's left and blow out and now I got to watch this part.

While rehearsing with the Henderson band, Armstrong, for example, missed the dynamic markings and blasted out his part while the rest of the musicians brought theirs down to pianissimo (abbreviated as pp), as instructed in the arrangement. In response to Henderson's criticisms, he tried to cover up with a joke—"Oh, I thought that meant 'pound plenty'"—when explaining his failure to follow the chart.

Beyond the initial step of learning to recognize the basic musical notation symbols, "reading music" becomes a relative matter. Some musicians come to specialize in it, becoming precise musical technicians. Others learn to read about as much as they need to play the gigs they manage to find. Armstrong came on board a musical illiterate who lived in the aural musical world he had shared with people in his neighborhood. He then learned to read music, perhaps not swiftly or at first sight, nor perfectly thereafter, but, with sufficient rehearsal, he did learn enough to play his parts well in performance. In the process, he discovered that in some important ways he didn't really want to read music. As he described it, the sheets of music distracted him, got between him and his audience, diverting his inner aural concentration on the sound of swiftly passing chords and rhythms with the external imperative of visual concentration.

He became, after all, the most impressive "get-off man," or improviser, since Sidney Bechet. Early big bands such as those of Marable, Henderson, and Ellington clearly recognized a division of labor between the musicians who had been hired to read the charts and those who had been hired to "get off" into the surprising world of musical improvisation. Armstrong, therefore, moved beyond his initial illiteracy. Like many of the other New Orleans musicians, he dutifully learned to name the notes and to mathematically divide and subdivide their rhythmic values. He was, moreover, linguistically literate. He would use his typewriter to write letters to his old friends for hours at a time. When, in 1936, he wrote his first autobiography, he described the Mississippi as one might when looking at it on a map. The river looked to him like a winding series of poorly formed but recognizable signs whose form and meaning would emerge with greater clarity only with more direct riverboat experience. Armstrong was one of those who preferred to apply literacy to language while keeping music aural.

He had excellent reasons. The oral world from which he sprang treated music and language in similar ways. Both partook of what Walter Ong has called an "oral, mobile, warm, personally interactive life world." Writing, whether linguistic or musical, reduced "dynamic sound to quiescent space." Written words and musical notation "isolate sound from the fuller context in which [they] came into being": "The word in its natural, oral habitat is a part of a real existential present. Spoken utterance is addressed to a real, living person or real, living persons, at a specific time in a real setting which includes always much more than mere words." Written notes were only that. Those played by ear, like pronounced words, naturally relied heavily on individual manipulations of intonation, pitch, and a grand variety of colorings and shadings. The black musical tradition had developed minute rhythmic variations in the way notes were articulated. The written score, on the other hand, seemed to musicians such as Armstrong a cold, unresponsive, unchangeable final statement imposed on the musical imagination, a Dead Sea scroll that remained outside any give and take of real persons, beyond discussion. In his written recollections of his hometown, in many of his letters, and in interviews, Armstrong emphasized the rich social context in which he had come to music.

And here was the crux of his continuing attachment to playing music by ear, just as he was learning to read it at sight. He found in the world of sound, far more than in that of sight, emotional fulfillment. This is, according to Ong, part of the essential psychological meaning of music. It, like human consciousness and human communication, gives the impression of emanating from somewhere profoundly deep within oneself. Like river water, music seemed always in flux, moving toward the next discovery. A gifted musician such as Armstrong gathered and then immersed himself in sounds coming from all directions and sources, making himself the center of his own personal and original synthesis. Whereas sight dissects and isolates elements of experience, sound brings experience inside us and harmonizes our perceptions of the world. As Ong puts it, "The centering action of sound…affects man's sense of the cosmos, unifying, centralizing, and interiorizing." Improvised music, "like the spoken word…proceeds from the human interior and manifests human beings to one another as conscious interiors, as persons; the spoken word [and music] form[] human beings into close-knit groups." Music, and, more particularly, improvised music (and even hot, agitated varieties) can generate, more than can a written arrangement, a sense of a sacred circle. These styles of music seem to emanate from an unknown source very deep within the musician, one that he or she experiences as a unifying harmony that is being shared with others.

This aural worldview emphasizes a participatory give and take between audience and musician, plenty of leeway in exactly how one recalls a favorite tune, and a nonabstract, situational manner of understanding the communication process. Armstrong and the other black migrant musicians developed their own vocabulary to describe the major techniques, strategies, and culture of playing jazz. They spoke of "heads," "turnarounds," "the sock chorus," "licks," "getting off," and much more. The externalized authority of the tradition of musical literacy must have felt like the imposition of an oppressive new authority, little connected to Armstrong's musical background.

That strong aural tradition formed the core of an interstitial musical life that included many other ingredients, as well. A poor, uneducated black man from the lowest social level of wicked Storyville, someone who nonetheless clung to certain old-fashioned American values, an African American much influenced by the Karnofskys, his adoptive Jewish family, a man traveling into a life of exile from his southern home, an individual moving through a time of crackling racial hostility calling for the strictest discretion and diplomacy—here was a man living between social and cultural categories. Striking out in search of a better life, he began to reinvent himself as a black musical entertainer, becoming a mysterious mixture of gifted solo improviser, comedian, and original vocalist with a guttural, rasping sound capable of suggesting pathos in humor.

Even at that early stage in his career, Armstrong was in the full bloom of an unprecedented journey into a life of solo instrumental improvisation. As jazz musicians used to say, he was beginning to "own that thing." Instrumental control engenders a sense of personal stature and power within the world of music and in life generally. A life of improvisational development is a rare privilege. More often than not, literate musicians simply cannot improvise. His special gift intimately linked him through musical memory to his people and his ancestors.

He had to know, far better than did Streckfus, what his gift might do for him in the world of musical entertainment. He liked and respected Fate Marable and made an on-going, two-and-one-half-year pass at learning to read his charts but stubbornly acted as if he knew that he would never live out his life and career as a section player. Marable might be right. He might live to regret his stubbornness. But, in fact, he did not. He was Louis Armstrong, and there never was another musician like him.

Armstrong may also have had his own reasons for avoiding Marable's lessons. His exceptional talent raised complex questions about career planning. True, reading the riverboat charts offered poor musicians such as Armstrong a special Streckfus kind of economic opportunity—real enough, but strictly limited. They paid the average sideman $35.00 plus room and board or $65.00 per week without room or board, as when, for example, the boat worked for several weeks at one city and the musicians found rooms in the black sections of town. Given the Herculean labor of playing both a daytime and an evening cruise, this was downright parsimonious, but the Streckfus brothers probably were aware that Kid Ory paid his musicians only $17.50 per week (albeit for much less labor). In 1919 John Streckfus had paid only $37.50 per week without room and board, but he gradually increased the benefits and shortened the work hours. Much earnest, respectful negotiation convinced the Streckfus brothers to divide the orchestra into smaller units during the daytime cruises. That way, at least players got some time off. They subsequently decided to hire a different band for the daylight cruises, saving their best band for the moonlight excursions.

The S.S. Sidney, riverboat that Louis Armstrong played on
The S.S. Sidney (on the right) seen from the bow in this early photo. Louis Armstrong played on the Sidney, and Walter Pichon, James Blanton, and Errol Garner performed in its dance hall when it was recommissioned as the Washington. [Photo courtesy of the Jones Steamboat Collection, Special Collections Division, Howard-Tilton Memorial Library, Tulane University.]

By 1926, when Henry "Red" Allen, following Armstrong's career trajectory and improvisational ideas, came aboard, the starting salary had increased to $45.00 per week, but room and board were not included. In order to keep exhausted musicians from jumping ship, they also offered a bonus of $5.00 per week, paid at the end of the summer season. If a musician could refrain from splurging in town after his night's work, if he would dutifully spoon in the starchy steamboat cuisine, sleep in the tiny, crowded bunk room, and save his pennies, he could welcome Labor Day with more cash in his pocket than he had ever had before. If such restraint faltered, he was still a young man with a bankroll in what looked and sounded like a glamorous job. In levee-front bars, that earned considerable respect. Armstrong wrote glowingly about rolling back into his old Storyville haunts, a wad of riverboat dollars in his jeans.

The Streckfus brothers preferred to pay one flat rate negotiated between the black musicians' union and the company, and their experience with Armstrong led them, slowly and reluctantly, to modestly increase the salaries of their star players. He and other gifted improvisers such as Red Allen, Nathaniel Story, Earl Bostic, Clark Terry, Harold "Shorty" Baker, and Jimmy Blanton managed to eke out another $10.00 or $15.00 per week. The Streckfus brothers never fully accepted the star system because it led directly to higher wages for the star and less work from the sidemen. Nor would they allow them to accept gigs in the river cities after the midnight cruises. They insisted that if midwesterners wanted to hear their red hot band, they would have to pay to come on board. The same logic may have led them to discourage their musicians from recording, at least under the Streckfus banner.

Armstrong wanted to become the featured soloist and vocalist in Fate Marable's dance band. Both Streckfus and Marable resisted the innovation. In 1921, therefore, Armstrong left the riverboats for good. He had found much to admire in the experience, but his employers' intransigence would leave a permanent wound. In his first autobiography, Armstrong characterized his last months on board as stormy weather and, many years later, took particular satisfaction in seeing that a Streckfus entourage had made the effort to come to a club in New York where he had star billing to hear and see him perform. Armstrong returned the gesture by going over to their table between sets.

Although he has exaggerated his case, the musical theorist Jacques Attali has offered an important interpretation of radically new popular music styles such as the jazz Armstrong played on the river between 1918 and 1921. Attali insists that such musical breakthroughs act as heralds of emerging new social orders. Two of his many provocative points about the social functions of music offer potential insights into the social significance of Armstrong, the Great Migration, and riverboat jazz. First, Attali likens radically new musical styles to "noise" that has the potential to disrupt and silence the usual ritualized harmony of musical styles that have been designed to help people forget violent disruptions to the social order. Second, the manipulation of music by the powerful usually serves to ritually domesticate and therefore to "sacrifice" music's radical potential in an effort to restore listeners' belief in the political and social order. Riverboat jazz, a partially tamed adaptation of New Orleans jazz, eliminated violence, affirmed the possibility of social order, and offered a promise of racial reconciliation.

Armstrong and his famous New Orleans jazz brothers had "brought the noise," black noise, through the Mississippi valley at the height of the region's racial tensions. Their astounding music might easily have reached hundreds of thousands of white Americans from New Orleans to Minneapolis. But many were deeply troubled by the social changes set in motion by the Great Migration. Within the "confidence game" played by the excursion steamers, power moved to make the nation's past live on into very unsettled modern times. In order to make twentieth-century midwesterners believe in the continued dominance of Mark Twain's world, the musicians had to sacrifice the blues, the radical challenges of their free polyphonic improvisations, fleetingly fast and grindingly slow tempi, and sexually frank lyrics. This suppression of what would have been to many white passengers the more threatening (because unfamiliar) qualities of New Orleans jazz also sacrificed Armstrong and Dodds, the two most spontaneous, innovative, and entertaining musicians in Marable's Metropolitan Jaz-E-Saz Orchestra. The riverboats had provided but a limited venue for Armstrong's solos. In the fall of 1921, he performed a solo titled "La Veda" accompanied only by piano. It received such applause that it became a featured act. But Armstrong had signed on to act as a section man in an arrangement-reading orchestra. In 1922 he would finally jettison his regimented role in the riverboat dance band. He postponed the daily quest for mastery of Euro-American musical literacy and moved on to the nightclubs of Chicago, a musical world where, on one hand, his individuality and expressive freedom found greater encouragement, while, on the other, the number of his professional choices was correspondingly limited.

Because of the Streckfus policy against recording their bands, Armstrong never recorded with the celebrated Metropolitan Jaz-E-Saz Orchestra. As if that were not unfortunate enough, he had to wait twelve years before recording any tunes that evoked rivers in general or the Mississippi River in particular. But during the depression and World War II, he did express his new, remarkably unsentimental spirit in several recordings with river themes. Indeed, were one to include all the recordings that tapped into the general themes of parting and returning, leaving someone (and being left), and finding that person again, the number of his recorded movement tunes would rise dramatically.

Armstrong created a new jazz interpretation of the black Mississippi, one that combined his musical roots with the lessons of his riverboat years if not their often melancholy spirit. His river recordings began on April 5, 1930, well after his famous Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions of the 1920s. They crop up in daring, wonderfully successful sessions held during the worst of the Great Depression. The first of them was "Dear Old Southland," created in 1921 by the African American songwriting team of Henry Creamer and Turner Layton when they had "borrowed" two spirituals, "Deep River" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and stitched them together to make their commercial hybrid. Armstrong recorded it as a solo in 1930 with accompaniment by the vaudeville dancer and pianist Buck Washington. The trumpeter launches into this musical voyage with a slow, haunting, dignified statement of the two sacred themes that is worthy of a New Orleans brass band marching to the cemetery. But then, following the musical tradition of the funeral parades, he leaps into double time, his joyous shouts sending sorrow flying into the glinting rough and tumble of hot jazz.

He was a hip, secular, itinerant musician deeply influenced by the music of Storyville. Indeed, according to Marable, he was a "wild young man." Although such black intellectuals as W. E. B. Du Bois and Alain Locke felt a strong attachment to the spirituals, or "sorrow songs," interpreting them as sacred expressions of a lost time of greater folk purity, Armstrong had grown up far from the halls of academe. Music critics for the Harlem paper New York Age joined forces with the National Association of Negro Musicians and the Hampton Institute's journal The Southern Workman to condemn the jazzing of the spirituals. But Armstrong created a hot commercialized river spirit by both respecting and jazzing the spirituals, working into his wild trumpet improvisations direct and heartfelt statements of the sacred old melodies.

"Deep River" first attained great popularity in this country's publishing houses and concert halls in 1917, the year that Ell Persons was lynched in Memphis and a murderous race riot tore apart East St. Louis, Illinois. Nearly blasphemy in relation to Du Bois's sorrow songs and certainly "a moment when the subject-matter or the content of a cultural tradition [was] being overwhelmed, or alienated, in the act of translation," Armstrong's musical announcement of a new era was a transgressive act.

In 1933–35 the trumpeter recorded with a twelve-piece band, similar in number and instrumentation to Marable's bands. Indeed, some of the musicians on these dates—Zilner Randolph, Harry Dial, Red Allen, Leonard Davis, Lawrence "Snub" Mosely, and Pops Foster—had played their ways through the Mississippi valley, too. A remarkable Victor session in 1933 produced "Mississippi Basin," "Dusky Stevedore," "St. Louis Blues," "There's a Cabin in the Pines," "Mighty River," and "He's a Son of the South." Sessions for Decca in 1939 and 1940 waxed the culturally rich "Shanty Boat on the Mississippi" and "Lazy 'Sippi Steamer."

Armstrong's river recordings seem to me to be among the more successful records he made. They can be seen as his creative response to Joseph Streckfus and Fate Marable, the records that he would have liked to make with Marable's Metropolitan Jaz-E-Saz Orchestra ten or eleven years earlier, had he been allowed. On several of these sides we hear Armstrong leading orchestral arrangements, indicating how much he had learned from Marable's tuition despite their falling-out. At the same time, Armstrong is the star instrumentalist and vocalist who leads the band, asserting an individual authority in the recording studio denied to him on the river.

Armstrong's river recordings create an "in-between space" in black music history. He interprets major themes of the black Mississippi, an important experience in the Great Migration, in his own hot, stomping, swinging manner, often at much faster tempi than the riverboat captains had allowed. His lyrics often allude to the sadness of the black South, but Armstrong frames all such moments with his sunny optimism. With Andy Razaf's lyrics for "He's a Son of the South" (Vic 24257), Armstrong, riding high over a fleet rhythm section that included the pianist Teddy Wilson and the banjoist Mike McKendrick, turns the Great Migration into a seemingly effortless but stylish strut. He's a son of the south very much on the move, dressed even better than Fate Marable, and, moreover, stepping to some really hot jazz, much too searing for old wooden paddle wheelers. He pulls out all the stops, his trumpet blistering his joyful, shouting notes, his slick journey through the lyrics slipping, gliding, and veering through the syllables.

He slows the tempo a bit, switching into a minor key, to play and sing "Mississippi Basin" (Vic 24335). In singing these lyrics, Armstrong becomes a levee worker: "Even though the weight was heavy, I was happy on the levee. Want to take my rightful place in the Mississippi Basin back home. Everybody was for me there, all the folks will be there, used to like to wash my face in the Mississippi Basin back home." He wonders aloud why he left but recalls that he's going to make a beeline back home.

He flips on full afterburner when blazing through Andy Razaf and J. C. Johnson's "Dusky Stevedore" (Vic 24320), his second recording about maritime labor. At a tempo that would have reduced the St. Paul to splinters, Armstrong doffs his hat to the roustabouts down on the levees of the Mississippi, singing that though the loads they carried were heavy, they still had a song to sing and "a ragtime shufflin' gate" to their steps. These tough, strong, stylish men demonstrated how to come through slaughter, offering an artistic rendering of the roustabout experience to counterbalance the meanness of the Streckfus Steamers' magazine story about Millennium Potts.

Profiting enormously from his back-up band, one that also included Albert "Budd" Johnson and Scoville Brown on tenor and clarinet and St. Louis's own Zilner Randolph on trumpet, Armstrong slowed down just enough to hit a swanlike note of dignity for Billy Baskette's "Mighty River" (Vic 24351). The lyrics actually celebrate the sound of a departing steamer's whistle and bell, announcing a slow voyage back home to a girl (like Daisy Parker) whom migration had left behind. He even slips into these lyrics a statement that the best part of the trip will be getting to its end.

Decca and Victor, labels that plied the nation's more commercialized musical markets, were many steps removed from the Okeh race record label, on which Armstrong's most famous Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions appeared. Armstrong's last two river recordings followed the standard ballad form with vocal. Terry Shand and Jimmy Eaton's "Shanty Boat on the Mississippi" (Decca 2729) and Armstrong's own "Lazy 'Sippi Steamer Going Home" (Decca 3283) provide a counterpoint to the advanced thinking of the other recordings. On the latter, according to Charles Garrett, Armstrong celebrated the social and economic potential of life in Chicago for a talented immigrant. On the former, however, he plays and sings hot interpretations of what he had left behind on his migration. "Shanty Boat" evokes the jerry-rigged houseboats of poor black people along the Mississippi, singing the feelings of an exhausted laboring man who looks forward to kicking back on his own shanty riverboat. He's gonna take him a wife, eat fish from the river, and "ain't gonna work no more."

Chanteys were labor songs sung by sailors on boats. Although the lyrics of some of these songs refer back to British tars, many of them reveal black origins, so many, in fact, that one expert argues that the old sea chanteys derived from the West Indies. There, black islanders, defending themselves against severe weather, for example, moved their simple dwellings by mounting them on rolling platforms. The owner acted as both a shantyman and a chanteyman, singing out the call of a laboring song, while those pulling him and his house furnished a rhythmic response. "Shanty Boat on the Mississippi" commercializes and modernizes the shanty tradition, rearranging the old themes of labor, recreation, and music. Armstrong's river recordings are chanteys in jazz time, full of the music and images of riverboats and their traditions. The identity of the group mentioned in the lyrics depends on the listener's point of view, but black jazz lovers would have had no problems creating their own memories of the South and their migration in the performances. Armstrong's original manner of performance might have given his river recordings a little of the rebellious spirit of the black maritime tradition that extended from the eighteenth-century Atlantic trade to the nineteenth-century sail and steam vessels to the early twentieth-century packets and excursion boats.

"Lazy 'Sippi Steamer," like "Mississippi Basin," celebrates the anticipation of a black laboring man like the composer or one of the black seamen or roustas returning home down the Mississippi. Armstrong evokes the powerful, mixed emotions of one returning to the South, the familiar sights and sounds along the banks of the Lower Mississippi evoking home and the lives of one's friends and family, all the beautiful but terrifying experiences that migrants like him had fled.

Armstrong sings these songs straight, without scatting or adding comic interjections such as those he injected into his recording of Hoagy Carmichael's famous song "Lazy River" (OK 41541) and of "Lonesome Road" (OK 41538). The first might have seemed too romantic, the latter too full of self-pitying lyrics. He transforms the former by doubling the tempo and scat singing, the latter by erecting all around the melody and lyrics a scaffolding of vaudeville-style satire. His recording of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" (OK 41504) compensates for the many little implied racial stereotypes in the lyrics by opening with a conversation between Armstrong and Charlie Alexander, the pianist in the session. They contextualize the song with signals of their solidarity in the Great Migration, discussing how long they've been "up here" and their plans to touch base back down South, the lovely old melody becoming a memory of the beauties of a less intense, slower-moving past.

In the big band river records that Armstrong made during the thirties and very early forties, the great musician and entertainer turned all the hope and labor of his migration into his own interstitial interpretation of the Mississippi. He and his all-black recording orchestras recalled via their own experiences the black laboring men who had come before them. In the recordings of Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, excited emigrants fairly flew through the air, with style and grace, their travels animated by the adventure, energy, and mystery of gifted young artists on the move.

After World War II, a time of somewhat less violent race relations in the Mississippi valley, a time when more militant attitudes about how to deal with the white majority swept through black communities, Armstrong appeared to some to have accommodated himself too fully to racism and segregation on the river and elsewhere. The trumpeter Miles Davis, raised in East St. Louis, Illinois, excoriated Armstrong for his Uncle Tom behavior, as did Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Davis had never lived through the post–World War I riots and had never been so poor, and was therefore unable fully to appreciate how dangerous those times had been to a musician such as Armstrong. Whatever his practical spirit of accommodation, the older man had never granted whites in general nor the Streckfus family in particular dominion over him. Despite his reluctance to help free the drummer Baby Dodds from the clutches of John Streckfus Jr., Armstrong did not fully accept the riverboat captains' vision of white dominion on the Mississippi.

In his second autobiography, he recounted it thus: one night, a mate roused him from his sleep with word that the captain had demanded his presence in the pilot house. Worried that he might have done something wrong, Armstrong rushed to the captain's side only to discover that the white-bearded gentleman wanted to point out to him Jackson Island, where Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer had cavorted with his friends. "I looked up at the old gentleman, not knowing what was to come. Then I saw he was smiling. He said, 'Louie, come in here. We're working up to Jackson Island in a few minutes and I thought you would like to see it.' He had remembered my telling him about my reading 'Tom Sawyer' and asking him if he had known Mr. Mark Twain." Streckfus placed a heavy, kindly hand on Armstrong's shoulder. After a lengthy silence, he finally said:

"This is Mark Twain's country. He was a very great man. I never pass this part of the river without feeling that his spirit rests over it." I began to see a dark patch of woods standing out ahead of us on the left. Then I heard his voice again. "That is Jackson Island," the old gentleman said. I knew the time had come when I should feel something he wanted me to feel. I remembered from the book about how Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn and their friend Little Joe Harper had gone to that island to be "pirates," and had cooked their food over a wood fire and had had a good time, but that seemed a long way back to me, and the island, as far as I could see it in the dark, looked just the same as a hundred other islands we had passed in the river in the long time we had been going since we left New Orleans.

Although he has been accused of being a weak person whose spirit was broken by racial oppression, Armstrong, beneath his ever-present diplomacy, remained quietly resilient and independent in the face of pressure from such white authority figures as John Streckfus Sr., the president of Streckfus Steamers and captain of the boat on which he was working. In fact, this is a major lesson that can be learned from the history of his years on the river. Armstrong and Marable's other musicians took what the excursion boats could offer them and then got on with the greater goals of their migration. Their experiences in major cities along the Mississippi ultimately led them away from the South—and the riverboats.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 64-87 of Jazz on the River by William Howland Kenney, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2005 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

William Howland Kenney
Jazz on the River
©2005, 242 pages, 23 halftones, 1 map
Cloth $27.50 ISBN: 0-226-43733-7

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