Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Hal Miller - a collector of sorts

I first heard Hal Miller's name last November, soon after I opened the book of Louis Armstrong. Given my dearth of jazz knowledge, I needed ear and eye knowledge to complement my book learning. The first musician I turned to told me to talk with Hal Miller. “Miller knows most all there is to know about jazz history. He’s built an enormous collection of DVDs slowly converted from Betamax tapes of live performances, TV talk shows, and films. All the valuable jazz visual evidence is right there in his living room.” I was tempted but intimidated. I wrote down his phone number, then put it aside.

In late January planning for Stoptime took off. The Planning Committee favored a festival as best way to engage the Saratoga community in celebrating Louis Armstrong's life, music and influence. with Downtown Saratoga the location. The buzz of town and tourist town activity is not confined to racing season. It begins early summer and lasts through Labor Day. Our original idea was to request the CDTA permit musicians and artists to perform on buses and invite the audience to ride along. Do I have to detail why that idea did not fly?

Stoptime Planning Committee approached Skidmore's Special Programs to partner with the Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute. The Institute, founded in 1987, has a venerable history in jazz education. Don McCormack of Skidmore, originally a faculty member, by then was directing Special Programs. He hired Gerald Zaffuts to head the new Summer Jazz Institute. Together they created the annual two-week summer program for high school jazz students. Zaffuts was the Jazz Institute’s Director for the ensuing 20 years.

In partnering with SSJI, Stoptime wanted to extend a portion of the Institute’s program for young musicians to the greater Saratoga audience. This time we got a big thumbs up. Working with Maria McColl in Special Programs, we chose July 6, Louis Armstrong’s death day. McColl recommended that Hal Miller give a visual presentation on Louis Armstrong. Miller has taught at the Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute for over a decade. Each year he gives a series of eight visual presentations, each concentrating on a particular instrument. Students learn from and love this footage; it gives them an understanding of instrumentation, especially as experienced through the dynamic of performance in various formats, live, TV, in films.

Miller’s presentation on Louis Armstrong will offer footage of Armstrong that even veteran fans will see for the first time. This historical view will also provide essential grounding for the other events of Stoptime Festival that will examine Armstrong’s legacy today through a number of media from dance to workshops. These events begin after Hal Miller’s presentation at 5 PM in Congress Park and surrounding areas in downtown Saratoga.

McColl’s admiration for Hal Miller is the result of many years observing him teach at the Institute. She told me a story that I have since heard from many others, “When Ken Burns decided to make his Jazz series, he went to Miller for much of his footage.” She presented him in such friendly light that I overcame my stage fright and called him. This was late February. Miller was on his way to join Carlos Santana on tour. April 12 was the earliest I could meet him and see his treasure house.

This long delay was a good thing. I listened to, read about and watched jazz solidly all month.  I took the big step away from Louis Only Louis. This was already happening, as it is impossible to study Louis Armstrong in a vacuum. I began to appreciate and enjoy music I'd shied away from. As well, I hoped I’d learned enough to more fully appreciate what I would hear from Hal Miller.

April 12 was a fine day, a rare thing this winter and spring. The drive to Albany was warm and fine. People were out on the streets enjoying the air. The first time around the block I drove right by the enormous brick school building built in the early 1990s off Pearl Street. The awning said Schuyler Apartments, but this had not registered as I’d pictured a row house to hold his commodious collection.

I circled again. This time I paid attention to the address: 69 Trinity Place. The place is palatial, floors of apartments. I hadn’t noted the apartment number on my Google map; there were hundreds of apartments and I despaired of finding Miller. But there on the large band of mailboxes I found his name and the apartment number. I  buzzed. A buzz back, no voice. The place felt more like a hotel than an apartment building except there was no desk, no attendant. I found the stairs, the second floor and finally a door open a few inches. I knocked timidly and, after a moment, Hal opened the door wider and invited me in.

We walked past the kitchen. At least I think we did, all I could see floor to ceiling were shelves full of DVDs. Seeing all these small boxes was startling; I was still stuck with the idea that library had to be stacks of books. The old schoolhouse has high ceilings; the renovators had the good sense not to drop them. Sunlight filtered through the curtains. A clear sense of order pervaded the apartment. I sat on a sink-into sofa that faced a large flat screen. Billie Holliday performances and films unfurled one after another. When I arrived New Orleans was playing. We talked about it briefly. Hal sat in a chair to my right.

Hal mentioned Milt Hilton, telling me he was a founding member of the Institute's faculty. Hal knew him well and had come to teach at SSJI at  Hinton’s invitation. Miller talked about Hinton, about his spirit, an inspiration to all involved with the program during his life and even after his passing. Hinton and Armstrong were neighbors in Queens. Miller told me that many times Louis would go over to Milt's house to invite Milt and Mona, his wife, over to share Lucille's home cooked red beans and rice at the Armstrongs’ house. 

It was easy to talk with Miller; my nervousness fled. He didn’t reveal anything startling. He just has a good way of putting words together to give the essence of the person he is talking about—Louis Armstrong “universal cure for the doldrums.” I mentioned the anecdote on Ken Burns approaching him to for video footage for Burns’s PBS Jazz series. Miller said that Burns freely admitted that he knew very little about jazz, that his interest from the beginning was using jazz as “a convenient vehicle for telling the story of race in America.” While race dominates a major part of the narrative, I hadn’t thought about this obvious hinge.

Talking about Burns’s Jazz brought up the familiar territory of Louis Armstrong musician and entertainer, the double identity that has colored the way many see the whole of Louis Armstrong. Gerald Early, one of the commentators in the Jazz series, describes in one episode how he got Armstrong wrong when he was a young man. He saw him only as entertainer, one who perpetuated stereotypes of “’darky’ entertainers” (Ralph Ellison’s phase in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke”). This was late 1940s, early 1950s when melodic jazz was moving into heady jazz, when Early was coming to age. This is my generation and Miller’s as well.

I asked Miller his age (given my Dead at fascination, asking age is a question I’ll put to anyone) and he replied he was born in 1941. We are the same age. We both grew up with Armstrong through a different lens. He’s black, I’m white. He grew up with bebop, jazz; I stopped with Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller. My dad played the clarinet in high school and a bit beyond, but if he had any affection for the direction jazz moved after the big bands, I never heard it. Dizzy Gillespie was someone famous who played trumpet in a way I couldn’t relate to and Thelonius Monk was a foreign country unknown in my household.

I realized even from a young age that Armstrong was a maker of faces, but I’d overlooked the racial component. He was, I thought, someone everyone loved. Miller, like Early, like many African Americans born in the 1930s and 1940s, grew up in a generation with views far different than their parents’, than Ellison’s. Ellison watched the world change and experienced derision. The rise, fall, rise of his reputation is similar to Armstrong’s. Robert O’Meally’s “Interview” in Living with Music, titled “My Strength Comes from Louis Armstrong” was new to me and inspirational.

Ellison, like Armstrong, survived the anathema of many African-American politicians, philosophers, artists in the 1960s and 1970s. He is more venerated today than when he first achieved fame with the publication of Invisible Man. Like Ken Burns, he understood jazz as a racial construct, noting the importance of accounting for growing up black in the north as markedly different from growing up black in the south in the first years of the twentieth century.

Hal Miller grew up in the Bronx. When the Billie Holliday videos were playing, Miller mentioned that his mother was a nurse in Harlem; she took care of her in 1953. Miller, like Early, found Armstrong the jazz musician in the 1920s and 30s admirable. Miller was well aware of the changing view on Armstrong in the 1950s and 1960s. However, Miller does not find a division between artist and entertainer. He said that as a young man, he did not fully take into account the time and the place Armstrong came from and how this formed him. This is similar to the above observations on Ellison. Another difficulty that Armstrong faced, Miller said, “is that if you stay around too long, you lack credibility as the audience changes since the audience cannot move outside its time.  But…this is now past history, Louis Armstrong has transcended race, people everywhere have suspended their racism when they see or think of Louis Armstrong.”

Hal Miller is steeped in his knowledge of jazz; he can quote chapter and verse on anyone, then go right to the shelf and pull off the appropriate DVD. He keenly appreciated that I was there to learn. He gave me material from Armstrong’s performances I did not know existed. He doesn’t have the personality that many collectors possess. He is totally unassuming and uninterested in drawing attention to himself, in using his collection for self-validation. I thought about the film, Herb and Dorothy, that’s the type of collector he is.

A fine reminiscence that he mentioned was his trip to Japan in 1975. He had no money at the time. He’d pay his rent and everything else went to music. He’d started taping music from TV on Betamax. Someone told him about Akihabara (“Electric Town”) in central Tokyo. He bought a ticket and flew to Tokyo, went directly to Akihabara, maxed out his credit card, returned to the airport and flew back to the US laden with tapes.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Willie Armstrong

Louis Armstrong’s father, Willie Armstrong, worked in a turpentine factory. He married or did not marry Mayann, Louis’s mother. He left the family soon after Louis’s sister, Mama Lucy, was born. He died in 1933. From these bare facts Louis embroidered a short, bitter text. He told the story of his childhood and wrote it over and over. In his eyes his father was of little consequence. Louis Armstrong had grounds—desertion. Here in Armstrong’s words are three versions, 1936, 1954, and 1969-1970.

[My mother] met my father in New Orleans. His name was Willie and he was a turpentine worker. My father died just a few years ago [1933], but his mother is still living. She’s a pretty old lady now—about ninety I guess—maybe more. I saw her when I was in New Orleans a little while ago. She certainly was one grand cook and could swing the biscuits. But I guess my father and mother were not very happy. He married her when she was only fifteen years old.

When I was a year old my father went to work in a turpentine factory out by James Alley, where he stayed til he died in 1933. He stayed there so long he almost became a part of the place, and he could hire and fire the colored guys who worked under him. From the time my parents separated I did not see my father again until I had grown to a pretty good size, and I did not see Mayann for a long time either.

My mother May Ann (Mary Ann)—Young with a nice smile, a little on the chubby side, Beatrice, which was Mama Lucy (nickname), was Two years younger than me. We had a few Step Fathers through the years Since we never did see our real Father, whose name was Willie Armstrong. A Tall Nice looking Guy, Brown Skinned. With holes in his face—indications of healed small pox. He was a Freak for being the Grand Marshal for the Odd Fellows Lodge Parade. Especially when they had Funerals (or the 10th of May celebration). Then he would go on the hard working job that he had. He was working for a big Turpentine company keeping fire in those big furnaces, for a very small Pay….
The man who May Ann told us was our Father left us the day we were born. The next time we heard of him—he had gone into an uptown neighborhood and made several other children by another woman. Whether he married the other woman, we’re not sure. One thing—he did not marry May Ann. She had to struggle all by herself bringing us up. Mama Lucy + I were bastards from the Start.

Turpentine was big agriculture and big business in the south from post Civil War until after WWII. Work in the camps and in the factories supported many people, but not with sizeable incomes. Look at Willie Armstrong this way. His job, tending the fires in the furnace, was hot and hard. Working a furnace is unpleasant in itself, add to that the fumes of a turpentine factory. It’s remarkable that he lived as long as did (no birth date available, estimated age at death—50). He held one job in one place for over thirty years. Even if this was a lowly one, it was not rock bottom. He had hiring and firing power. He was SOMEONE in his place of work.

In the only known photo of Willie Armstrong, the image fits Louis’s description—“a tall, nice looking guy, brown skinned.” Any evidence of small pox scars are not visible in the photo. Here is Willie in his Sunday best and dapper he is. What would a photo of Willie at work in the turpentine photo look like? I’d like to see him there, see pictures of those factories in 1901, 1914, or 1930.

Ralph Ellison is the reason I began ruminating about Willie Armstrong’s life—his life at work and what work was. I was reading Invisible Man again. In the Prologue Ellison muses on Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue?”—tying it to the condition of invisibility. This is perhaps the most famous passage in the novel and the link that led me to reread the novel now.

Armstrong’s singing “My only sin is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?” pulses forward from those first pages to inform every circumstance and scrape that the narrator finds himself in. Arriving in New York from the south, he first seeks employment handing out the precious sealed letter of recommendation from his college superintendent. As the last of seven letters reaches its prospective employer, the man reads it and then lets the narrator in on what the reader suspected—the letters portray the narrator as incompetent and far worse.

Shortly after this the narrator finds a job in a paint factory. The working conditions are strikingly similar to my imagined view of a turpentine factory. Ellison gives the reader a paint factory seemingly in the hands of one very clever man, Lucius Brockway. In Ellison’s humorous, deft portrayal of Brockway, the reader learns he is in charge of the creating the base ingredients from which all the paint is manufactured. He is the engineer who knows through his hands not through education. The narrator is assigned as Brockway’s assistant. The elder man, gruffly but surely, takes Invisible Man under his wing.

“All right, but I’m warning you to keep an eye on ‘em. You caint forgit down here, ‘cause if you do, you liable to blow up something. They got all this machinery, but that ain’t everything; we be the machines inside the machine.

"You know the best selling paint we got, the one that made this business?" he asked as I helped him fill a vat with a smelly substance.

"No, I don't."

"Our white, Optic White."

"Why the white rather than the others?'

"'Cause we started stressing it from the first. We make the best white paint in the world, I don't give a damn what nobody says. Our white is so white you can paint a chunk coal and you'd have to crack it open with a sledge hammer to prove it wasn't white clear through!"

His eyes glinted with humorless conviction and I had to drop my head to hide my grin.

"You notice that sign on top of the building?"

"Well, you might not believe it, but helped the Old Man make up that slogan. 'If It's Optic White, It's the Right White,'" he quoted with an upraised finger, like a preacher quoting holy writ. “I got me a three-hundred-dollar bonus for helping to think that up. These newfangled advertising folks is been tryin’ to work up something about the other colors, talking about rainbows or something, but hell, they caint get nowhere.”

“ ‘If It’s Optic White, It’s the Right White,’ “ I repeated and suddenly had to repress a laugh as a childhood jingle range through my mind.

“ ‘If you’re white, you’re right,’ ″ I said.

“That’s it,” he said. “And that’s another reason why the Old Man ain’t goin’ to let nobody come down here messing with me. He knows what a lot of them new fellers don’t; he knows that the reason our paint is so good is because of the way Lucius Brockway puts the pressure on them oils and resins before they even leaves the tanks.” He laughed maliciously. “They thinks ‘cause everything down here is done by machinery, that’s all there is to it. They crazy! Ain’t a continental thing that happens down here that ain’t as iffen I done put my black hands into it? Them machines just do the cooking, these here hands right here do the sweeting.

Returning to Louis’s three versions, I suggest that his view of his father is more complex than I first stated. In saying that Louis had little or no respect for his father, I take the party line, the interpretation found in biographical writing on Louis Armstrong. But Armstrong himself grants his father a measure of respect; he sees the Lucius Brockway in him. Willie Armstrong is open to criticism on the care and protection of his family, but he was gainfully employed and apparently well respected in the work place. Louis took care to add in the turpentine factory whenever he recalled his father. Surely this counts for something in the whole picture. As far as who Willie was….was he musically talented? what did he think of Louis as he followed Louis’s huge success in Chicago? None of this will be known and that’s the sad part. He’s a mystery; he’s not a bum.

“What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” is from Satch Plays Fats.

1 Swing That Music, Louis Armstrong, New York, Da Capo, 1993, 3.
2 Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong, New York, Da Capo, 1986, 8-9.
3 Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, Thomas Brothers, ed., New York: Oxford University Press,  1999, 7-8.
4 Louis Armstrong House Museum, Museum Collection
5 Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, New York: Vintage Books, 1989, 217-218.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Learn to be your own teacher—Lee Shaw

One Day’s Lessons:

Last night was the first time I heard jazz

Keep moving change lanes later

I resist turning into Joe Glaser

Listen to the radio 

Sun through the trees
impossible to read
riding in flickering light

Ruthless compassion is the only compassion

Performing equals managing

When in doubt leave it out

Don Draper does not know where he’s going
Jon Hamm does not know where Jon Hamm or Don Draper is going

Stammerers do not stammer singing or talking to animals
David Mitchell

“She is very stooped but she is still sharp”
         Hiding and Seeking

These are the glory days.

Has beens have been, being a has been confirms the journey

There is something to say
besides glory all the time. Gloria!
         William Bronk

Simple is as simple does equals complex

When a house sells the garden is left behind

Pretend that you owe me nothing
We can bring back the old days again
         Tom Waits

Writing starts as a lark
the calendar in another room

“I feel the daises growing over me,”
         the dying Keats said to his friend, Severn
         quoted by Helen Vendler

Listen with the palms of your hand
         Paulene Oliveros

Before Louis Armstrong I could not hear jazz
Before Louis Armstrong I could not imagine jazz
After Lee Shaw I see the journey

At the end of the day Dippermouth
         is still Dippermouth
—April 1 Concert Zankel Music Center Lee Shaw Trio with
         John Medeski