Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"12 O'Clock News": "And the Jolt" Sprung everything

                           Moulin Rouge
Las Vegas, Nevada     
Aug. 2 nd 1955

Dear Mr. Glaser”
         Am sorry that I have to write this letter with a pen, but, on arriving at the air port in Las Vegas yesterday, My typewriter fell from on top of all, that luggage that was on the truck, And the “Jolt” Sprung’ everything. Tch, Tch, isn’t it A Drag? And I wanted so badly to swing a lot of Type Writing, “Gappings” on ya” Of course, they’re fixing it up for me. So, I Guess, that’s all that matters.[1]

Notwithstanding the kerplunk typewriter, Louis Armstrong needed his manager, Joe Glaser, to take care of business right away. If his typewriter broke, Louis Armstrong picked up his pen.

Two decades later, in a similar quandary, Elizabeth Bishop began a letter to Frank Bidart: The E fell off my electric typewriter (those damned Coronas) Sunday & it has gone to Belo Horizonte to be soldered. Thank heavens I had this old Royal, non-electric, here. It was less embarrassing—after all, E is the most-used letter in the English language.[2]

The blessing and curse of typing is that fingers move almost as fast as the mind. Armstrong and Bishop relied on their typewriters to pick up the pace, to carry the tune of speaking voice. The typewriter encouraged Armstrong to write more quickly, but whether he wrote by hand or typed, the voice was his speaking voice.

Bishop used different writing tools for different purposes, pen or pencil for the poems, typewriter for letters. Bishop’s poetic voice, a listening and speaking voice, was in place even in her earliest poems. Usually, she hand wrote the first draft. Then she typed it, hand editing that draft. Next, she retyped it, again hand-edited this, so on and so, over and over. This is demonstrated in the sixteen versions of the poem, “One Art,” in Edgar Allen Poe and the Juke Box edited by Alice Quinn.

Her letters, like Armstrong’s, are the place to go to hear her talking. In his Introduction in One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters, Robert Giroux stated that she wrote several thousand letters that covered fifty years— 1928 to 1979. The number of Armstrong letters is almost the same, thousands of letters from the early 1920s until his death in 1971.

Both writers preferred the typewriter for correspondence. Bishop depended on the typewriter’s speed to record her conversational voice. If it broke, she could fetch the spare Royal, her old, trusty non-electric. If the spare broke, she might put off writing letters until the typewriter came back from the shop. The typewriter was one of several staples on her writer’s desk. In Armstrong’s writing space, most often a moving target, the typewriter dominated the workplace. If it broke, he picked up the pen. As early as 1922, he recognized that he could fill long hours in the dressing room with the exhilarating experience of writing.

Louis Armstrong at the typewriter appeared in my February 25 post in reference to two letters in Thomas Brothers’s Louis Armstrong in His Own Words. One is the above-mentioned letter to Joe Glaser; the other is his letter to L/CPL. Villec stationed in Vietnam. Both letters are hand written. Armstrong’s conversational style is evident in the subject matter and the way he used punctuation to mimic his speech. Brothers states: “Armstrong’s prose is idiosyncratic [in his] use of visual symbols… his orthography is an integral part of his writing…it must be respected…how the apostrophe and capitalization are used…to convey emphasis. For example, in [“Jolt” Sprung’], the closed double apostrophe gives primary emphasis to “Jolt” while the single apostrophe gives secondary emphasis to “Sprung.”[3]

From a stoptime perspective, the dashes emphasize a stop or brief pause. This follows the pattern of stoptime, Armstrong used the dash to clear a space for the soloist. He emphasized words by placing them in quotes, particularly words familiar to African-Americans, a device that also stopped some readers. For example, Brothers relates that “gappings” is defined in African-Americans usage dictionaries as “salary” in African-American dialect. He adds that it also onomatopoetically echoes the action of typing.[4] This is a stretch but not farfetched. Armstrong is ever ear-attentive.

Subject matter as much as the mark making carries the imprint of Armstrong’s conversation. He freely and frequently brought up his sex life and bowel functions; he enjoyed giving advice on both topics, promoting the herbal laxative Swiss Kriss far and wide. He responded to everyone in his audience familiarly, even the King of England, calling him Rex during a performance. These letters, to an unknown fan and to Joe Glaser, whom he knew well, covered similar topics. However, his tone of voice to each recipient was distinctly different. Both letters exhibit a jovial Armstrong, but the intent differed. Armstrong wrote to the serviceman as comrade, expressing their shared experience of music. With Glaser control was the issue; Armstong’s joking stance did not hide his demands. “As long as I am Slated to blow this Trumpet don’t spare the Horses. I love the instrument. Then too—the loot looks pretty good in my pocket…So I’ll close—Now that I’ve made myself very Clear. Book Anywhere—Anytime. Just let me know what’s happening—in time.”[5]

Beside speed and ease of typing, Armstrong admired the typewriter for the same reason he enjoyed other instruments —the trumpet and the tape-recorder—the typewriter was an extension of his body. The typewriter is equally instrument and object; it blends the utilitarian and aesthetic. This counts for both Armstrong and Bishop.

The demands of the writing life were far different for Bishop and Armstrong. Armstrong words flowed easily from him, just as music did. Writing was another way of communicating naturally. He wanted to tell his own story and he did, over and over, in his autobiographies and in his letters—to say nothing of the countless times he repeated the same stories on the air.

Armstrong operated almost totally in the spotlight. He wrote on the move, often in a place where others freely entered. He did not appear to ever need a vacation. When he did have free time, he contented himself staying at home with Lucille, compiling his scrapbooks, collaging memorabilia onto his 7 x 7 inch reel to reel tape box covers, going to the corner barbershop, jawing with friends and neighborhood kids. He spent hours and hours in his den/study with the tape recorder. Archivist is another of his full time occupations. Louis Armstrong— trumpeter, vocalist, actor, writer, archivist. He was at all times a public man.

Elizabeth Bishop sequestered herself for days, weeks. She was an intensively private person. She kept notebooks, not diaries. She had a coterie of friends and did not step outside this circle. Her writing room was sacred space, set up in a particular way. Though she wrote in many places and situations, the idea of the writing space as sacred and apart was essential to her well-being.

Bishop fit the model of the writer needing a quiet place, stretches of solitude, long walks, then the return to the sacrosanct writing room. Many poets say it does not work like that. The poem pops up on the walk, scribble, scribble. Or at the party, dip into the bathroom, scribble, scribble. But the vision remains: the writing desk. Elizabeth Bishop had one everywhere she lived. In Brazil she had a whole studio overlooking a waterfall.

My impetus for connecting Elizabeth Bishop’s and Louis Armstrong’s typewriters, the writing desk and room as fixed or fluid, comes from reading Paul Muldoon’s chapter on “12 O’Clock News,” the fourth of his Oxford Lectures.[6] Muldoon discusses the poet’s physical writing space and how, in this instance, Bishop used it as metaphor for the battlefield.

Bishop’s “12 O’Clock News” first appeared in The New Yorker March 4, 1973 issue. She divided the page into two columns. On the left is a list of eight items visible on her desk: gooseneck lamp, typewriter, pile of mss., typed sheet, envelopes, ink-bottle, typewriter eraser, ashtray. On the right each item is briefly described. Here are three:

typewriter           The escarpment that rises abruptly from the central plain is in heavy shadow, but the elaborate terracing of its southern glacis gleams faintly in the dim light, like fish scales. What endless labor those small, peculiarly shaped terraces represent! And yet, on them the welfare of this tiny principality depends.

pile of mss.         A slight landslide occurred in the northwest about an hour ago. The exposed soil appears to be of poor quality: almost white, calcareous, and shaly. They are believed to have been no casualties.
typed sheet        Almost due north, our aerial reconnaissance reports the discovery of a large rectangular “field,” hitherto unknown to us, obviously man-made. It is dark-speckled. An airstrip? A cemetery?

This poem is an anomaly in Bishop’s work. She rarely wrote prose poems and she avoided direct reference to the political. Here the landscape of the writing room takes its cue from the battlefields of Vietnam. Her information came from TV, where, nightly, Americans watched the replay. Everyone got the same picture, a vision that is impossible to imagine today.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “12 O’Clock News” and Louis Armstrong’s letter to L/CPL. Villec remonstrate that the distant battlefield was continually present in the life of U. S. citizens. Armstrong received thousands of fan letters and answered a fair number. Many of these survived but have not been published. Is it odd that his reply to this letter is one that did make it into print? Did Armstrong answer Villec because he was a marine serving in Vietnam? I venture Villec’s Vietnam service had much to do with Armstrong’s letter being saved, collected, and published.

Villec’s letter was lost, but his reasons for writing are plain from reading Armstrong’s letter. He commented on the power of music throughout his reply, beginning with New Orleans music in “Old ′Sanctified’ Churches, the Baptisms—that’s when someone wants to be converted by Joining the ′Church and get ′religion.” He described the Funeral Marches, then advised Villec to “Keep ′Music in your ′heart the ′same as ′you’re ′doing. And ′Daddy—you ′Can’t  ′go ′wrong. Armstrong concluded with the lyrics from “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.

Louis Armstrong and Elizabeth Bishop prized the typewriter. More essential was the act of writing, by hand or typewriter. They lived in very different worlds, but writing was at heart of both their lives. Their concerns were the same as those of most Americans in the late 1960s. They struggled with the Vietnam War at a distance, but the war was present always.

[1] Louis Armstrong In His Own Words, edited and with an Introduction by Thomas Brothers, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 157. Note: all subsequent citations from Brothers noted in text, page number in parentheses following citation.
[2] One Art: Elizabeth Bishop Letters, selected and edited by Robert Giroux, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994, 520.
[3] p. xiv
[4] p. xii, xiii
[5] p. 163
[6] The End of the Poem, Paul Muldoon, New York: Farrer, Straus and Giroux, 2006, 82-113.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Waiting at Idlewild, John Updike Hears Louis Armstong

Listen to "Flight to Limbo"

“Flight to Limbo” by John Updike. This poem first appeared in Poetry Magazine in the January 1997 issue and is under copyright.

The lines “Louis Armstrong sang in some upper corner,
a trickle of ignored joy” arrive in the middle of John Updike’s “Flight to Limbo.” Armstrong’s voice familiar, the phrase itself familiar, perhaps “Hello Dolly, This is Louis, Dolly.” The weary travelers hear it but the sound does not register.

A place where everyone marks time—limbo.

Updike does not name himself the traveler delayed at the airport bound by anxiety and boredom, but we can picture him waiting, scribbling notes for a poem—“the dazed family with their baggage all in cardboard boxes, girls in the tax-free shops amid promises of the beautiful life abroad.” Maybe he wrote the whole poem while an anxious traveler sat next to him, both caught in the machinations of the late twentieth century, going where we have to go because we want to.

“The plane delayed,
the rumor went through the line. We shrugged,
in our hopeless overcoats.”

A place where no one belongs—limbo.

Armstrong appears as one of several Updikian details in this poem. Maybe it’s happenstance that Updike made Louis’s voice the one to broadcast familiarity in the midst of dazed confusion. Maybe Sinatra could sing it? Dean Martin? Tony Bennett? Maybe, but Updike hit the right note with Armstrong. Even if the passengers missed noting the details of the airport’s miasma, the reader hears Louis singing, cunning coating the comfortable.

Beneath the title Updike placed (At What Used to Be Called Idlewild), place identification is important for the mass of humanity stewing in its own juices and for Louis Armstrong in the 1950s and 1960s, exemplar of life in the in-between.

Idlewild, the name so obvious—the tension between idle and wild—that it hardly bears mentioning. Updike wants us to know that this is a particular international airport, the center of international travel in the 1950s and 1960s. You had to get to Idlewild in order to fly on. Armstrong only had to be driven from Corona, Queens. From here he departed and arrived over and over those years of Ambassador Satch. The U.S. Government sent Louis Armstrong to Europe, to Africa again and again.

Some see Louis Armstrong in limbo in the 1950s, 1960s. A remark intended without disparagement. Not that he lost his way, rather he chose another path. The music he came from, the music he had a large share in making into hot jazz, had passed on to something else. His sound was not a part of the new “something else” and so he invented another way, carrying on, singing, playing in a polyglot world. Call it a holding pattern, these years of Armstrong the entertainer, vis-รก-vis the 1920s and 1930s, Armstrong the musician.

Louis Armstrong saw no split. He was a musician and an entertainer. He wanted to give people a good show. He sailed graciously through his triumphs, like Hannibal crossing the Alps, as Edward R. Murrow said when introducing him in Satchmo the Great, the 1957 film documenting his visits to England, Europe and his first trip to Africa where he played in Ghana to an audience of over 100,000.

The talk show hosts routinely asked him if he ever gave a bad performance. He responded to Dick Cavett, Jack Parr, Mike Douglas that he enjoyed every single performance and because his heart was in each one, every performance was good one. This became a mantra trotted out almost nightly.

Because Armstrong told his story over and over, he polished his pearls to perfection. Another one, “I always had what I needed and I never wanted anything more,” was equally sincere. From such tidbits it is easy to construct a Louis Armstrong hagiography. He was angelic, but the devil made him do lots of things. Was he addressing himself when he sang “You Rascal, You?”

For a long, long time he was on top of it every time. In 1959 he suffered a serious heart attack in Spoleto, Italy. He returned to work quickly, but he was never robust after that ordeal. In the 1960s, in Africa again, Velma Middleton, his vocalist, great friend and compatriot, collapsed and was hospitalized. Armstrong was persuaded to continue the schedule, leaving her there where she died.

He hired a new vocalist, Jewel Brown. She appears in many YouTube videos, the set is that big globe with the cutouts of the continents holding it together. She looks good, svelte in strapless gowns, but she’s no Velma and the magic is gone. By then almost every appearance Louis Armstrong and the All Stars made, the band playing, the crowd swaying, was filmed. The camera panned over Armstrong introducing each sideman for solo. Armstrong stepped back, wiped his face with his handkerchief, nodded approvingly. Sometimes you can see that he is elsewhere, his look, one of bored weariness.

Not anxiety of the traveler, he was comfortable on any stage, but there is a parallel to waiting in the airport. Limbo—“Outside, in an unintelligible darkness”—the darkness is always there, Ellison’s invisible man—“Invisibility, let me explain, gives one a slightly different sense of time, you’re never quite on the beat. Sometimes you’re ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leaps ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around. That’s what you hear in Louis’ music.”[1]

An altered state, sometimes the tension of waiting helps you arrive. What was Louis waiting for those days? Days when he’d been there, done that?

[1] Prologue, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison, New York: Vintage Books, 1989, 8. I discuss this passage in a slightly different light in “Willie Armstrong,” posted April 9, 2011.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Flood Blues

It’s raining in upstate New York, supposed to continue for days. Rivers and lakes remain high, but flooding is over. This corner of the world is a safe haven compared to the Louisiana river corridor. Up and down the Mississippi people are rounding up their animals, leaving, and watching their houses float away. It has happened many times. The story of most famous flood, The Great Flood, April 21, 1927, is being retold again and again. Saturday on NPR’s Weekend Edition Scott Simon interviewed area residents and ended with Lonnie Johnson playing his guitar and singing “Broken Levee Blues.”  Johnson wrote the song soon after the flood and recorded it in 1928.

Lonnie Johnson, I know the name, but he’s one of those holes in my jazz bucket. “Broken Levee Blues” stuck in my head, so I wandered around looking and listening hither and yon.

I often wonder where Armstrong was at this or that moment in history, how involved he was mentally if not physically, what the news meant to him. As time passed did he look back, picture himself where he had been at the time a disaster swept by or a great political change occurred? When I think about 1957, Faubus and Little Rock, I see Armstrong in North Dakota speaking his mind to a news reporter. Ten years later was North Dakota a part of his memory when he thought about his part in the civil rights movement, his quick, honest response that placed him in a different spotlight?

In 1927 Armstrong was in Chicago, a big year for him. He was busy, busy cutting records with The Hot 5. In April and May alone they recorded nine times. Now far away from New Orleans, what impact did the Great Flood have had on him? His early life in New Orleans, his family remaining there, all this must have been with him in Chicago when the water was rising then spilling over the levees. Perhaps I could find an Armstrong link to Lonnie Johnson and his “Broken Levee Blues.”

Did Armstrong ever record the song? No. Did Lonnie Johnson ever play with Louis Armstrong? Did they ever record together? Yes indeed, Lonnie Johnson joined the Hot 5 (Armstrong, tp; Kidd Ory, tb; Johnny Dodds, d; Lil Hardin, p; and Johnny St.Cyr, banjo/guitar) to record “I’m Not Rough” on December 10, 1927. I had not heard this song or heard of it, but it was easy to find once I knew where to look. I found it on Columbia Jazz Masterpieces The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, Volume III. Also on that release is Johnson playing guitar on “Hotter Than That” and “Savoy Blues,” recorded December 12, 1927.

The first CD I purchased was West End Blues. I have listened to “Hotter Than That” many, many times. But Lonnie Johnson does not play guitar on this recording. The jazz people love to talk about the Lonnie Johnson “Hotter Than That” version with Armstrong and the Hot 5. [The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong] I needed that recording. I was saved from a purchase right before I hit BUY when I remembered to consult Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux’s Jazz. Turns out I did have the Lonnie Johnson version with the Hot 5; it is on the first CD of the four CD set that accompanies the book. Not only can I listen but also be guided through their structural analysis.

Blues and the Great Flood go together. “Broken Levee Blues” is one of several blues songs about The Great Flood. Another is Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Rising High Water Blues” recorded in May 1927. Another is Bessie Smith’s “Back Water Blues,” often tied to the Great Flood. Endless hours of picking through online sources has its high moments. In this case, I found a link to a webpage that states Smith wrote it about a different flood. She recorded this song two months before the flood. [Cambridge Journals]

Armstrong did not record “Back Water Blues.” However, Armstrong did accompany Smith on nine songs they recorded together, six of them with Blues in the title. He often mentioned his respect for Smith. “She’d always have the words and tune in her head, and we’d just run it down once. Then she’d sing a few lines, and I’d play something to fill it in, and some nice beautiful notes behind her. Everything I did with her I like.” (Gary Giddins, Satchmo, Da Capo, 56)

I moved along, still looking for a watery blues number that Armstrong had a hand in. In the discography, checking 1927 recordings date by date, I found Sippie Wallace. Another hole in the jazz bucket. Wallace may not be as famous as Lonnie Johnson, but she was well known and had a large following. Like Johnson, Wallace made it big and then disappeared for a long time, later resurfacing for a second career. Bonnie Raitt played a role in finding Wallace a new audience. Raitt recorded Wallace’s songs “Mighty Tight Woman” and “Woman Be Wise” on her first album, 1971.  During the 1970s Wallace sometimes toured with Raitt.

But hotter than that, Sippie Wallace recorded “The Flood Blues” with Louis Armstrong on trumpet on May 6, 1927. The waters were still roiling. This may be the closest Armstrong came to commenting on the Great Flood of 1927.

Sippie Wallace and Louis Armstrong—"The Flood Blues"

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The House Finch Waits to Flee Like a Bird

I first sighted the house finch yesterday afternoon. From inside the window at my writing table I saw him hopping, then walking slowly about the deck. He did not fly but he did not appear injured. He was quite handsome, sun glinting off his bright red back feathers.

After some time a female appeared, a walking in similar circles, accompanying him. They looked back and forth but did not approach each other. Maybe they were mating, but no signs if so. Maybe the nest was nearby and he was protecting it. This struck me as impractical—a nest so low to the ground. After some time she left.

My friend arrived for our afternoon gardening. He agreed on the injured bird theory, but after more observation decided this guy was a fledgling trying to get his flying act together. The female was probably mom urging him on.

An hour later the house finch lifted up and went for the window screen where he hung for five minutes. Then turned and wheeled for the Norway spruce twenty feet away. He made it. He perched on a low branch, chirping occasionally. Figuring he’d soon be off, we planted carrots and arugula, dug perennials to move to the cottage garden, and stopped when the sun was low in the neighbor’s trees. Walking back, we checked the Norway spruce and found no house finch.

We put our tools in the shed, and walked up the stone ramp. There he was, almost right back where he started from, pottering around under the stone overhang. The ramp is just off the deck, no more than twelve feet from the house. Maybe that is why linnets are called house finches—they like to hang around the house. Sometimes they are called dooryard birds. Maybe his balance is not developed enough and clinging to a branch all night too scary. He would rather take his chances on terra firma. When I discovered him, I thought him bewildered. Now I have decided he is sure of himself. He knows that he must wait until he is ready, until the world is ready for him. I go to bed apprehensive. There are cats and hawks in the neighborhood.

Soon after sunrise I went out. He was still here, out and about, hopping around, a bundle of feathers. I scattered some sunflowers right at his feet. He had to be hungry, but he ignored my offering. He wandered the driveway and the stone patio for the next hour. When I left the house at 7:30 he was nowhere to be found.

Yesterday afternoon all I did was check on this bird. Bam, I look out and he’s in my life. A bird not behaving like a bird. A bird not flying to the feeder. A bird not minding a human approaching. The house finch stepped in, my concentration fled. When I could not see him, I went searching. If I were to name him, I’d call him Louis. There’s a pair of them, you know. A pair of interrupters who have asked me: how did I feel in different times of my life, how did my feelings affect my actions, what can waiting and watching teach me.

What started as a lark, following some significant person for a year of my life and responding to that life, has turned into something far more than a subsuming research project that results in some artwork. The individual’s lifespan and the historical events that frame the subject’s life populate my head. Most of my days I am more at home in 1958 or 1924 than 2011. I reckon biographers live this way every day. Although they may have a deadline, it is likely longer than a year. They probably selected their subject because the history and world the person inhabited was familiar to them. But I have this one-year deadline. Unless, always the bottom line, I die before October 4,  I must leave Armstrong in a few months and begin anew. I’ll be only beginning to believe I might know a little something about this amazing man.

In the middle of the night I say Armstrong is too much to handle. But, I signed on for this giant, I have abdicated control. Organizing this Stoptime Louis Armstrong Festival on July 6 is a crazy thing to do. I am as scared as that house finch trying to levitate off my deck. But I just reported that the house finch wasn’t scared, that he was waiting, when the time was right, he’d fly. And so like Louis Armstrong. He had a superb sense of timing. Musically, naturally, but far greater than that. He knew how to move through the world. He knew how to wait—for Joe Oliver to ask him to play in his band, when to let his star shine brighter and stronger than Oliver’s, when to let Joe Glaser take care of things, when to let the women go, how to wait in the wings off-stage, when to speak his mind, when to keep quiet.

Better to think about waiting another way. When does waiting profit us? For the fledgling, waiting is learning timing. Armstrong learned early on how to take advantage of his opportunities, how to make timing work for him. Some of us have time to prepare for death and he was one. He was greatly weakened in his last two years. It’s difficult even all these years later to see him in those last performances. He never gave up. In public. He knew when to tell the old stories that he repeated again and again, when to sing and when to let others make the music. Hal Miller gave me a DVD of Louis Armstrong at Newport, 1970. Miller said that it was hard to watch. It is. Armstrong strolls through a long practice session on the Newport set; he speaks to this good friend and that one, Bobby Hackett, Tyree Glenn, Wild Bill Davison. They have their instruments and keep right on playing. Louis does not have his trumpet. An interviewer asks him questions. He responds and at the same time keeps right on talking with his friends. He talks about the brass band in New Orleans, how the funeral march starts, and we hear “Flee Like a Bird.”

When I wrote my February 25th post on Armstrong’s letter to L/CPL Villec, I reported that I’d finally found the song, learned the words, no longer had to wonder what that famous tune was. That seems like years ago. I have read or heard Louis tell that story dozen of times since then. He was good at repeating himself; all I have to do is wait and this happens.

Here is "Flee as a Bird" from The Great Chicago Concert recording.

Armstrong knew what he was waiting for. He kept company while he waited. It was still a wonderful world even if he had to ride the chair elevator up the steep stairs from the first to the second floor in the Corona house. When I visited the house last August, I’d barely met the man. His laugh, his rolling eyes, his handkerchief, I could see all that, but I did not know him. I didn’t know what a moldy fig was or why or when he got angry about where jazz was going. I saw him with his trumpet at his chops, but I’d never seen him in the late 1920s, early 30s, all nip and tuck in that white suit, running back and forth, bending at the waist, so jumped up with delight he couldn’t stand still if someone tied him up. I knew him in the 1950s and 60s, when he was called an entertainer—musician, a long gone descriptor in most everyone’s book. I couldn’t imagine he had to ride upstairs. Flee like a bird. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

What is Stoptime?

When about talking Stoptime with friends and strangers, the first question people ask is “Why Louis Armstrong?” The second is “What is stoptime?” It’s time that I spend a little time defining this common jazz term. But first here is Stoptime’s “Hotter than That” logo designed by Patrick O’Rourke. It heads the News Release sent out to all the local and regional publications, radio and TV stations.

For Immediate Release:
Event:                        Stoptime: Louis Armstrong Celebration
Date:                         July 6, 2011
Location and Time:      4 PM       Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College
                                 5- 8 PM               Congress Park, Spring St Gallery
                                 9 PM-midnight     9 Maple

Contact:                     Margo Mensing   518-584-7997

Stoptime celebrates Louis Armstrong’s life and music in Saratoga Springs, Wednesday, July 6. Hal Miller, noted jazz historian and drummer, kicks off the festival at 4 PM at Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College. The Skidmore Summer Jazz Institute partners with Stoptime to offer Miller’s presentation on Louis Armstrong’s music and influence in jazz, a rare opportunity to see footage of Armstrong in performance.

The celebration moves downtown to Congress Park at 5 pm for music, dance, visual art, and story telling events. The exciting new band Horns on the Hudson will play early jazz in a 21st century mode. Joe Bruchac, author of more than thirty books and his son, Jesse, will present "Red, Black and Blue," presenting songs and stories on Armstrong from the Bruchacs’ Abenaki and Slovakian perspective. Other events include Debra Fernandez’s dance, “Chops”; Ginger Ertz’s “Rhythm, Color, Collage”—a workshop centered in the collage of Romare Bearden; and Terry Diggory’s “A Cornet a Day,” an interactive word game played with dice embedded with Armstrong song titles and a special cornet.

Nearby at Spring Street Gallery, the clever duo Clarke E. Hingeford and Elky with guest percussionist Stanley Francois present “Scatterimpop,” an electronic music read on Armstrong’s genius. In the gallery is a wide array of artworks inspired by Louis Armstrong, improvisation, and jazz. Anne Diggory, Francelise Dawkins, Ginger Ertz, Willie Marlowe, Margo Mensing, Vicky Palermo, Barbara Todd and Stephan Dawkins.

Picnic in the Park with Hattie’s Restaurant special Louis Armstrong Take Out dinner. At 9 pm at 9 Maple Pete Sweeney Quartet will present an improvisational evening of jazz grounded in Armstrong’s music. A jam session follows.

July 6 celebrates both Louis Armstrong birth dates. Armstrong always believed he was born July 4, 1900. Seventeen years after his death in 1971, a researcher discovered a baptismal certificate listing August 4, 1901 as his birth date. Stoptime celebrates both on July 6, coincidentally his death date.

The term stoptime originates in jazz—a break where the soloist improvises. The beat pulls back; the band repeats sharp accents opening space for the soloist. Stoptime is the place where improvisation happens. Stoptime taps into Armstrong’s energy and love for his audience.

Artist Margo Mensing organized Stoptime. Her impetus for this festival originated in her year-long study and response to Louis Armstrong’s music, life and influence. To learn more about Armstrong and Mensing’s take on Armstrong’s attitudes and life, visit her blog, louisarmstrongdeadat.blogspot.com. This program is funded in part by an Artist Grant awarded to Mensing by the Saratoga Program for Arts Funding (SPAF), New York State Council on the Arts, administered by Saratoga Arts.

Soon the website will be up with a full listing of participants and events. I return now to a brief discussion of STOPTIME for those who may be unfamiliar with jazz lingo. As mentioned in the news release, stoptime is a break, a pause that makes room for a soloist to improvise. This simple definition can be misleading as it implies that the music, the beat, the rhythm, everything, in other words, except the soloist, stops. Better to say, the other players pause. Even that is too exaggerated. Some or all of the rest of band may play as the soloist improvises. Giddins puts it well in his explanation of stoptime in “Oriental Strut”: “the soloist improvises freely while one or more members of the band seems to stop the flow of time with a unison stomping on the certain beats.” The non-variable is a space cleared for the soloist to improvise.[1]

Any jazz textbook provides a definition and discussion of stoptime. There are several good texts but I always end up with Jazz by Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux because I started with Giddins’s Satchmo, a great short biography of Armstrong, when I started listening to Louis Armstrong. Jazz is a whopper of a book, almost 700 pages. The four CD set that accompanies is most helpful. The notes for each entry list each new element with the precise second it occurs. For example, “Cake Walking Babies (from Home)” with The Red Onion Jazz Babies and Louis Armstrong, cornet; Charlie Irvis, trombone; Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Buddy Christian, banjo; Clarence Todd and Alberta Hunter, vocals, was recorded December 23, 1924 in New York. The form is ABA’CA”—verse/chorus; chorus is 40-bar popular song. To find where stop-time occurs listen at 2:06 for “Stop-time: Armstrong improvises a complex syncopated line in his upper register. At 2:14 “At the end of the passage, Armstrong plays his last note with a growl.” [2]

Louis Armstrong, obviously, is not the only early jazz instrumentalist and vocalist who made use of stop-time. Nor is stop-time limited to early jazz. On page 407 Giddins and DeVeaux chart “Concerto for Billy the Kid by George Russell recorded in 1956 by Art Farmer, Hal McKusick, Bill Evans, Barry Galbraith, Milt Hinton, and Paul Motian. But for now, maybe for always, I am sticking to Louis. Other Armstrong recordings where stop-time occurs are “Oriental Strut” and “Hotter Than That."

[1] Satchmo, Gary Giddins, Da Capo Press, 1988, 64.
[2] Jazz, Gary Giddins and Scott DeVeaux, New York: W.W. Norton, 2009, 109,110.