Poverty, racism and all that jazz

By Mike Hobart

Published: June 30 2006 15:03 | Last updated: June 30 2006 15:03

by Thomas Brothers
W.W. Norton ₤17.99, 386 pages

Louis Armstrong's huge role in the evolution of jazz may pass unchallenged, yet still there is a nagging doubt. Could transcendental genius really lie behind his dubious eye-rolling, played out on a backdrop of New Orleans Bacchanalia? The American academic Thomas Brothers has marshalled a wealth of historical detail to explain precisely how genius came to lie there, and any lingering romantic images of early 20th-century New Orleans are soon muscled out by testimonies of street parades along "paths of putrid, sewage-ridden mud".

The city of New Orleans crackled with social tensions - at one time it was partitioned along ethnic grounds - and trumpeter Armstrong was pivotal in forming its potent cultural mix into a quintessentially American music. This is well-mined territory but Brothers brings colour and texture to his central theme of the under-recognition in jazz history of African-American working class traditions.

Scholarly without being scholastic, Brothers enriches his thesis in Louis Armstrong's New Orleans with nuggets such as bandleader Kid Ory raining stink bombs on a competitor's parade, or the 1920s bling of street hustlers strutting their stuff in shoes that sported battery-powered flashing lightbulbs. Brothers establishes the strength of the oral vernacular in the city, and Armstrong's loyalty to it. This was a world of storefront churches and gambling joints, rag-and-bone men and marching bands whose union of the sanctified and secular spawned collective improvisation, emotional expression and rhythmic swing.

Armstrong grew up in a tough working-class quarter where prostitution was rife. As a child he was left to roam the streets, where he sang for tips. At 12 he discharged a firearm on the street and was sent to the Home for Colored Waifs. It was here that he first had access to a wind instrument.

By the time he was released he had enough skills to earn a living out of music. Part of his apprenticeship was playing in the marching bands that struck out on just about every occasion, from funerals to advertising a new store. Some musicians detested playing in these bands, fearing both violence from onlookers and illness from the often putrid streets. Armstrong, though, revelled in the freedom of movement of the parades, which took him through parts of the city normally off-limits to African-Americans.

He also set about mastering sight reading and European harmony; skills jealously guarded by those musicians who were light-skinned "Creoles of color". Long-established in New Orleans, Creoles used their formal skills to distance themselves from the 40,000 migrants that poured in from the plantations after slavery was abolished.

Brothers unpicks brilliantly the hierarchies of class and colour that Armstrong had to negotiate to succeed as a musician. Using Armstrong's life, Brothers explores what was essentially a clash between the African-rooted traditions of uptown New Orleans blacks and the Eurocentric formalism of the downtown Creoles. The fusion of musical cultures that gave birth to jazz took place almost entirely within the African-American communities of New Orleans, and Brothers rarely steps outside these social milieux. Armstrong was unusually true to the cultural values of his uptown origins, yet his genius lay in appropriating the skills of diverse musical traditions.

Ten years after he left New Orleans, he was performing for the King of England, genially announcing "This one's for you, Rex." Rex was the name given to the white King of the Mardi Gras, much mocked by the black Mardi Gras participants - it's unlikely that his royal audience was aware of the blatant racial insult contained in these words. Had he been, the king might not have found the title of the song so charmingly amusing: "I'll be Glad You're Dead You Rascal You".

Mike Hobart is the FT's jazz critic.