Is there a greater story in American history than how Louis Armstrong developed the improvised jazz solo before white and black audiences in the 1920s? Playing before white audiences, Armstrong would rarely stray too far from the tune. Give them something familiar, easy on the mind. Don’t what those white people to have to work too hard. For black audiences, however, Armstrong was free to innovate more, show off what he could do, vary it, add some shit, play the dozens, bend more notes, create more subtleties in variations of tone and timbre. The back and forth between Armstrong’s solos and the entire musical group echoed the call and response of West-African music. Armstrong might imitate the singer, drag behind the beat, anticipate a harmonic idea, add a break, a fill-in, an obligato, a shout or groan from way on down South and way on down back to Reconstruction and Emancipation and all of life before the Civil War. Then smile some more for white people, even shuffle along, play up a stereotype they liked. That’s what Dizzy Gillepsie meant when he spoke for a later generation of black musicians: “Louis is the plantation character that so many of us despised.” Somehow Armstrong became all things to all people–artist, entertainer, white, black—while playing a “brassy, broad, and aggressively dramatic” music, as Baraka says in Blues People. When you heard that sound, it wowed you, it impressed you. You put your money down. The music we call jazz was born.
Note: Louis Armstrong Stadium at the US Open in NYC is one of the largest tennis stadiums in the world. It seats 14,000 spectators.
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