Saturday, March 12, 2011

Louis at the Typewriter

Photos courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

The typewriter and the tape recorder are Louis’s tools. One can argue they are a close second to his voice and the trumpet. As he aged, he was as busy setting the record straight as he was performing. He started with the typewriter; twenty or so years later when the reel-to-reel tape recorder came on the market, he jumped on it.

Letters of the famous become part of the public record. Armstrong knew that many of his letters would enter the public domain. But that’s not why he wrote them. He typed to keep in contact. His letter to Isidore Barbarin is the earliest known collected letter. Writing from Chicago in 1922, Armstrong referred to their ongoing correspondence. He also mentioned he was waiting for a letter from their mutual friend, Nenest. It’s evident that he was typing and sending letters to a number of people from the moment his career took off and likely even earlier.
Through the years a vivid portrait emerged of Armstrong backstage. Fans and photographers snapped away. The photo: Louis Armstrong typing seemingly oblivious to his surroundings. His dressing room served as his study. As another artist might withdraw to his library or office to compose, Louis detached himself from the backstage bustle and engaged in correspondence.
Louis at the typewriter can be seen as Louis on jazz. His writings extend his speech; his speech extends his music. Thomas Brothers’ Louis Armstrong In His Own Words is the best place to go to get a sampling of Armstrong’s writing—the autobiographies, letters, and published articles. Brothers discusses Armstrong’s idiosyncratic mark making (punctuation, capitalization), spelling, as exactly consistent with his performance. He goes on to note why the way Armstrong physically handled language matters:
The interpretation that seems to hold most consistently is that Armstrong is interested in depicting an oral rendition of his prose; he offers not just written prose but his version of how to hear it. He is especially attentive to emphasis and pace. Given who he was as a musician, this interest is not surprising, for he was a great master of melodic nuance and rhythm. The improvising musician controls time completely; that is the challenge and envy of his profession, since his abilities in performance and composition combine duties that are typically relegated to separate people in Euro-centric musical traditions. The jazz musician, more than any other kind of improviser, makes his reputation through this ability to control time, from the smallest nuance to the most complicated syntactical structure. In the blues tradition that Armstrong learned as a child, mastery of pitch inflection was also highly valued. Armstrong later brought this mastery to performance of all kinds of music.[1]
Brothers’ words express well the intent of Stop-Time. Those stepping up to the microphone on July 6 to perform, musically or in other media, see themselves in Armstrong’s long shadow. A few of the performers are well versed in Armstrong’s music. Some are professional musicians. Others know little about his music, life or jazz, but each participant understands the creative force of improvisation and Armstrong’s role in developing this. All take on the challenge to use improvisation as starting point.
To return to the typewriter. Photos of Louis at the typewriter testify to the iconographic value of Armstrong’s written record. The catalog entry for left photo states: Louis at the typewriter backstage. Armstrong concentrates on what he’s typing; this looks like a candid shot not a set-up. But the surroundings are curious. It looks like a storeroom not a dressing room. Boxes of spotlights could well be stage lights, but the shelves also hold glass jars, maybe candies or olives. Louis is suited up, handkerchief in place, natty shoes, socks rolled down, ready to go. Photo on right is a page from one of Armstrong’s eighty-five scrapbooks in the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Louis is cleaning his typewriter (lower photo on page).

[1] Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, Thomas Brothers, ed. with an Introduction, (Oxford University Press, 1999), xiv-xv.

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