(On 115th anniversary of what, according to his Baptismal certificate, was Louis Armstrong’s actual birth date, I am reposting a piece I wrote in 2001 for SeeingBlack.com & for whatever reason, is now lost in the digital ether.)
Louis Armstrong may be the only American musician who gets two centennial celebrations. He is certainly the only one who deserves them. Last year, nodding to the July 4, 1900 date Armstrong believed to be his birthday, record companies unloaded a rich harvest of retrospectives and boxed sets, notably Columbia-Legacy’s four-disc The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings of Louis Armstrong, with the history-making sessions between 1925 and 1929 that, in essence, created 20th century music.
Given the relatively recent discovery that Armstrong was actually born August 4, 1901, the centennial celebrations are likely to continue through the end of this year. The keynote was certainly struck in January with the broadcast of Ken Burns’ epochal PBS series, Jazz. Armstrong’s spirit informs all 19 hours of the documentary, establishing him—once and for all and in timely fashion—as a towering figure in world history. People in other countries had no trouble with this notion. In Europe, he was an important musical artist. In Africa, he was a king. If you doubt this, watch documentary footage of Armstrong’s concert tour of that continent. They knew they were in the presence of a hero. Though you may find few who’ll admit it now, there were many black folks in this country who doubted this, including me.
I know now that I badly needed Louis Armstrong as a hero when I was growing up. Being a creative child who was never happier than when I was drawing pictures, making up skits or putting strange words or sounds together, I couldn’t possibly have found more positive reinforcement for my undefined dreams than the first great American improviser himself. Armstrong’s own account of his 16-year-old self, playing a horn in a rough Mississippi River-front honky-tonk, exemplified the kind of self-containment and artistic poise to which I’d subconsciously aspired ever since I learned to read and write:
“[The Brick House]…was one of the toughest joints I ever played in…Guys would drink and fight one another like circle saws. Bottles would come flying over the bandstand like crazy and there was lots of plain common shooting and cutting. But somehow all that jive didn’t faze me at all. I was so happy to have some place to blow my horn.” (From Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, 1954)
Unfortunately, I didn’t encounter such inspiring anecdotes until I’d grown well past the need for role models. (To paraphrase what a famous African-American actor once said to me: Role models are useful up until the age of 17. After which time, if you still need one, what you really need is therapy.) By that time, I had also come to realize other things about Louis Armstrong that made him seem even greater a hero than I was conditioned to believe as a teenager. His well-publicized rancor with the U.S. government over President Eisenhower’s reluctance to send federal troops to Little Rock in 1957 to enforce school integration revealed a fiery militancy very much at odds with the jovial, hanky-brandishing persona that was the only Armstrong my generation knew.
Getting past that image was something that even my parents’ generation had to be talked into, given its too-close association of Armstrong with the hambone minstrelsy of a fading era. However warmly they may have felt towards Pops, my folks and their peers found it easy to dismiss him as, at best, Yesterday’s News. And if my parents weren’t going to guide me towards Armstrong’s example, my fellow baby-boomers were even less help. To them, Armstrong was Everybody’s Foxy Grandpa—always entertaining you with his sandpaper voice and cute expressions but lacking the raw aggression of James Brown, the stiletto-edge danger of Huey Newton and the sex appeal of any pop star of our era.
Let’s be plainer still: What the boomers believed at their worst was that Louis Armstrong was a prototypical sellout pandering to the crowds; an Uncle Tom. I never (I don’t think) went that far. But received “wisdom” of this magnitude was powerful enough to keep me from engaging Armstrong’s music, no matter how much of it came my way.
“Political correctness” was a concept whose usage was pretty much confined to Marxists when Armstrong died in 1971. But professing an informed fondness for Louis Armstrong and all he personified was something of a liability for young African Americans who in those Nixon years were being goaded to the barricades, literally and figuratively. Part of me accepts these circumstances because that’s the way it wuz in dem days. Most of me will always resent empty socio-political baggage put between a potentially nourishing life force and my unfulfilled self.
It wasn’t until four years after Armstrong’s death that the piercing clarity of his horn shattered my pre-fabricated resistance. It was the 1927 recording of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” included on the first edition of The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz. Armstrong seized my attention and curiosity from the opening chorus with the kind of force that one imagines it had almost a half-century before on an earlier generation of listeners. That was the beginning of a long, happy re-acquaintance with King Louis during which I listened to all the majestic 1920’s recordings with fresh, revitalized ears (Three words. “West End Blues.” Go now and listen to it!) while reading whatever I could find about him. Throughout these years, I sought to make amends with his spirit. Many surprises awaited me on the journey.
I knew of his disdain for modern jazz, especially the beboppers. What I hadn’t known about was his fondness for Guy Lombardo and rock and roll, his R-rated sense of humor (Three more words. “Tight Like That.” It should be on the same circa-1928 disc as “West End Blues. Seek. Find. Laugh.), the letters he wrote on the road or at home, the collages he made by hand and, most revealing of all, the anger at racism of all kinds that he concealed behind his amiable mask until it became necessary to let it loose (as it was when Ike was tardy with backup). The more I found out, the more enigmatic and mysterious I found this man who seemingly gave all of himself to his public.
Ossie Davis alluded to such chimeras in his on-camera testimony in Ken Burns’ series. As with many who came of age after Armstrong’s early breakthroughs, Davis had trouble getting past what he called “ooftah,” his name for the shucking-and-jiving stage antics that Armstrong deployed like a poker dealer. But when he’d seen Armstrong sitting alone off-camera during a shoot of Sammy Davis Jr.s 1965 movie, “A Man Called Adam,” Davis was moved by the intensity of Armstrong’s immobile expression to re-evaluate his opinion. Maybe, Davis thought, Armstrong was concealing lethal weaponry beneath that broad grin, ubiquitous hanky and gilded trumpet.
The way I feel now, I don’t care whether that horn, in Davis’ words, “could kill a man.” I just know that it’s taken longer than necessary to give Armstrong a break for whatever he was supposed to have done to African Americans and their self-image—and for me to figure out what I needed him for. Everyone else should try as well. After all, it’s his birthday.
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For our site’s inaugural posting of 2013, I proudly & happily yield the floor to Chafin Seymour (BFA, Dance, The Ohio State University, 2012), who has picked up his father’s end-of-the-year compulsion to assess the things he hears and let the world in on what he thinks of them. Unlike his father, he does his list, you will note, in ascending, rather than descending, order (“Opa Letterman Style!” And, no, you wont find no damn Psy on this list.) He also shows righteous critical acumen that, were I an overly envious person, would make my teeth ache. Instead, “my heart soars like a hawk”! (Name the movie. Win no prizes.) It would seem I have helped re-birth Lester Bangs, though he dances a whole lot better and takes better care of himself…I hope.
These are my top albums of 2012. I will not go overboard with my intro except to say that 2012 was an exceptionally strong and eclectic year in independent and pop music, and I had a hell of a time deciding what I wanted to write about for this year end wrap-up. I decided on these fourteen albums (four honorable mentions and a top ten) arduously and carefully.
Honorable Mention Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
Cagey rap veteran Killer Mike finally does his name and reputation justice. Independent, political, and fiercely opinionated, Mike makes the album we have been waiting for, with help from Brooklyn producer El-P, who takes some of the usual distortion out of beats in favor of banging southern bass. It is a smart choice that allows Mike to rock in his comfort zone from start to finish.
TNGHT – TNGHT EP
THE party record of the year, hands down. This five song EP from producers Lunice and Hudson Mohawke was a giant smack across the face of modern dance music. Combining “trap” style southern hip-hop bass with elements of House and Dubstep (note the intense-ass-drops on every track), TNGHT reveled in simplicity and space while urging pop consumers and club kids to “wake the f’ up” and notice some real “ish.”
How To Dress Well – Total Loss
This was the first proper cohesive album from How To Dress Well’s Torn Krell. He continues to play with traditional R&B arrangements by taking out all the warm and fuzzy stuff to leave you with an anxious, empty sound. He does let some color in on tracks like “& It was U” but overall stays distant. Never has a bad break-up (and crippling depression) sounded so smooth.
Burial – Kindred EP & Truant/Rough Sleeper
I have always described Burial as being on “another level” from other electronic producers and the two EPs released by William Bevan this year continue to prove me right. While eleven-minute electronic house opuses steeped in otherworldly distortion and dark ambiance may not be the most palatable thing in the world, it is good to see an artist unafraid to explore the world he chooses to create. While we wait for another jaw dropping album like 2007’s Untrue these two excellent EPS will just have to be enough.
Top 10 10. Four Tet – Pink
As any one who has spent a lot of time around me in the past year can tell you, I have been really into house music. In fact, much of this fascination was instigated by Four Tet’s fabulous Fabriclive mix from earlier this year. Many of the tracks off of Pink were released as singles or EPs, but they were really begging to be compiled. Four Tet (actual name, Kieran Hebden) is an electronic music veteran. He has put out six very different albums and more live mixes and song remixes than I care to imagine. Pink finds Hebden diving head first into the club. Where earlier records were rhythmically restrained in their minimalist tendencies, Pink lets the rhythm drive and builds the structure around those. Loops abound and bass pounds, but you never get the sense that Heben is leading you on aimlessly. This is music based in his roots, and you can tell he cares. This is really a great introduction to house music for someone with little to no experience, and rarely does a modern producer delve so deeply with no effort showing. Never has so much thought gone into music that encourages folks to stop thinking and just let go. You will dance my friends, oh yes, but you will do so consciously.
9. Alabama Shakes – Boys & Girls
I was a little skeptical of Alabama Shakes before I listened to them somewhere between the NPR accolades and adult-contemporary following. However, I allowed myself to indulge in this album. It is four-piece, grungy southern blues-rock in its purest form, nothing overly deep or onerous, and that is key. What really reaches through the speaker and grabs you is lead singer Brittany Howard’s primal howl. From the thumping “Hold On” to the trickling “Goin to the Party” to the love ballad of the year “You Ain’t Alone,” the consistency, believability, and sense of desperation of her vocals make up this album’s driving force. While there were other notable blues-rock releases this year, namely Jack White’s strong solo album Blunderbuss, nothing stuck in my mind so concretely as Boys & Girls. In this case, less is most definitely more.
8. Jessie Ware – Devotion
In a post-Adele world how does a young, female, British singer-songwriter make her work stand out? There probably isn’t one right answer to that question. But Jessie Ware certainly offers an intensely-appealing album of suggestions. Ms. Ware made her start singing hooks on electronic dance songs by the likes of SBTRKT and much of that club influence spills over into Devotion, her first solo work. However, despite the “of-the-moment” nature of the production Ware manages to expertly write and sing timeless love songs. The centerpiece ballad “Wildest Moments” is a song that could have gallivanted into glory by expressing the joys of a one-night stand or healthy sexual relationship. Instead, Ware manages to add uncertainty and poignancy by singing about a relationship that only makes sense to the two people involved. This attention and care makes an album that could easily have been just another pop-diva’s introduction into a collection of smart artistic choices and memorably intimate melodies.
7. Grizzly Bear – Shields
I’ll be up front: I love Grizzly Bear, always have. Ever since I heard those first tenuous notes of 2006’s Yellow House followed by the complete work-of-art that is 2008’s Veckatimest, Grizzly Bear has managed to run the emotional gauntlet from warm intimacy to cold distance. Shields finds the Brooklyn band venturing out into the wilderness to look beyond their own backyard for influence. Musical references range from jazz to The Beatles; somehow they manage do it all justice. The arrangements on this album conjure up landscapes as breathtaking as they are intimidating. You can feel that Shields came to be, relatively seamlessly and naturally when compared to the endlessly worked-over quality of earlier albums. In interviews, Grizzly Bear has said that this album was the most collaborative in terms of songwriting, and you can feel the vibe of a band intensely comfortable working together. In lesser hands, songs like these could easily be sappy or overly buttoned-up; in this case, it’s just What They Do. I’ll be damned if I can think of a band that does it better.
6. Beach House – Bloom
The most glaring critique I keep hearing about Beach House’s Bloom is that it “sounds too much like their earlier stuff.” While this is true, that fact is also precisely what makes Bloom such a strong effort. It has taken three other albums, but Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally finally take their synth-and-guitar-driven-dream-pop out of the bedroom and into the big wide world. The depth and scope of this album is impressive, as every song seems to, indeed, “bloom” from start to finish. Legrand’s voice is as scintillating as ever and the arrangements are indeed lush. However, her newfound lyrical assertions as well as the use of more confident percussion and rhythmic structures deepen and widen a sound that could easily peg a less-adept band into a corner. Beach House knows where their niche is and, instead of shying away from that, they have found a way to dive deeper into it. Bloom seems to say, in response to the criticism mentioned earlier, “Yeah it does and try to tell me you don’t love it anyway.” I can’t, and neither should you.
5. Grimes – Visions
Grimes is definitely a product of our over-digitized culture. Canadian art-student Claire Boucher makes music entirely on her laptop using technology that is, relatively speaking, available to anyone. She has garnered a following and buzz using just the Internet, no record label needed, and Visions is Boucher’s most accessible release to date. Despite being an indie darling (thank you Pitchfork), Boucher does something unexpected here by making something she clearly enjoys as opposed to trying to please critics or an audience (a tactic, I believe, more artists, in and out of music, should look into). You can tell she is having a lot of fun with this record. Her layering of her own sugar sweet vocals over gloppy, bounding digital tracks is equally appealing and subversive. The fact that you can hardly understand her lyrics (I’m pretty sure she slips into singing in Japanese on a couple tracks) is part of the escapist absurdity of it all. Visions is not the easiest album to listen to, to be fair. But it truly grows on you, going from ridiculous to danceable to contemplative in just a few minutes, further reflecting the over-stimulating effects of the Internet. By allowing yourself to revel in the commentary as well as the fun, Visions becomes a worthy indie-pop experience.
4. Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d city
good kid, m.A.A.d. city has already been hailed by some critics as, “the most important commercial rap album in the last decade.” So let’s calm down and start by jumping off the Kendrick Lamar bandwagon for a second. Yes, he is a skilled lyricist with a strong instinct for radio-friendly hooks. Yes, he expertly chooses assorted beats from the best of today’s hip-hop producers. Yes he’s been featured on every hot hip-hop track over the past six months. Yes, he can count such industry heavyweights as Lady Gaga and Dr. Dre in his corner. However, despite the buzz, what stands out most about Kendrick Lamar is his ambition. This album is subtitled a “Short Film” and indeed the scope of the narrative-driven LP can feel a bit cinematic at times. It contains twinges of naïveté, with stories of adolescent peer-pressure and family alcoholism (“Swimming Pools (Drank)”), mixed with youthful bravado (“Backseat Freestyle”), and a dash of timeless swagger (“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe”). At the edge of it all gnaws the darkness and emptiness of growing up in South Central L.A. gang culture (or, for that matter, any violent American urban center) and the cultural contradictions often present in African-American culture, such as devotion to God and religion equal to that of substance abuse and violence. It remains to be seen where this album will fall historically; hence my tentative urging to give it some breathing room. It is, nevertheless, instantly recognizable as an important and original portrait of urban music in 2012 — and, by far, the strongest rap offering I have heard from a new artist in quite some time.
3. Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE
There is little doubt in my mind that Frank Ocean is the future of urban and pop-music. I am also decidedly OK with that. After an early mixtape in 2011, the phenomenal Nostalgia, ultra, and tabloid fodder regarding his sexuality, Ocean, whose birth name is Christopher Breaux, emerged from the hype with the meticulously-crafted channel Orange. The album is meant to transcend boundaries and identities, and it does. At first listen, it can come off as simply a strong debut from a pop singer. You can feel how much Ocean has sharpened his teeth while ghostwriting for such artists as Justin Bieber and John Legend. However, upon repeat listening, one can begin to recognize channel Orange as a much stronger statement; not just on Ocean’s pop sensibility but on America’s. The fact that a song as cloyingly sweet as “Thinkin’ Bout You” can slide into play on urban radio stations next to Rick Ross and Meek Mills, while still being a sing-along favorite for soccer moms, is both impressive and intelligent. This eclectic, constantly-shifting mix of pop ideas is so deftly, almost nonchalantly, executed that by the time you realize you’re listening to a John Mayer guitar solo over gloomy, ambient synths at the end of “Pyramids,” it’s almost too late. From start to finish, Frank Ocean plays to our comfort zone while periodically throwing in ideas you would not expect. A delight to listen to as well as to discern, channel Orange is an unexpected pop pleasure.
2. Flying Lotus – Until the Quiet Comes
This album represents a musical and intellectual quandary to many people. A traditionally hip-hop/electronic producer strips down his digital cacophony with (get this) live musicians. Steve Ellison (a.k.a. Flying Lotus) has embraced his heritage. He is the great nephew of Alice and John Coltrane. After releasing three albums to increasing critical acclaim he arrives with the wonderfully-understated Until the Quiet Comes. It is, in essence, an electronic jazz album. But before you write it off as overly experimental, just put it on and let it take you for a ride. The way in which Ellison can synthesize so many disparate elements (African percussion, free jazz, West Coast hip-hop etc.) into a cohesive sonic journey is a wonder to behold. The influence of fellow Brainfeeder Collective member, Thundercat is clearly discernable in the strong bass lines and psychedelic milieu. The use of live set musicians, as opposed to exclusively digital instrumentation, further expands Ellison’s current trajectory. Nothing here seems forced. And despite existing in a clear and heady intellectual space, there is something discernibly intimate and personal about this album. You really feel as though Ellison has found his “quiet” place where all his musical ideas can flow organically and take shape on their own.
1. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan
For those of us keeping score at home Swing Lo Magellan represents Dave Longstreth’s eighth album in the past decade with his Dirty Projectors project. What is most impressive about the latest effort is the seeming lack of it. Longstreth finally seems comfortable in his own skin as a songwriter. Not to say he has abandoned his distinctly complex vocal harmonies or tempo shifts, but he has found a way to not let his technical arrangements get in the way of simple and pleasurable song writing. Swing Lo Magellan is a collection of literate love songs for a generation of young people hyper aware of the impending doom of society. However even in the darker moments of the album (such as “Offspring are Blank”), Longstreth trusts in his expressive and eclectic musicality to carry through while allowing himself to be lyrically playful. This is by far Dirty Projectors most accessible and fun release to date and it is undeniably catchy. Try getting the chorus from “About to Die” or “Impregnable Question” out your head after one listen…Impossible.
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I was born & raised in Hartford, Connecticut, attended local schools, graduated in 1974 from the University of Connecticut. Should have set off on my own, but lollygagged around until I drifted into a copyediting job at the Hartford Courant on Jan. 17, 1977 which, if memory serves, was also the first night of ABC’s “Roots” mini-series. Begged for a “field” job & reported in eastern Connecticut towns before finally getting the urge for going, in 1981, to Philadelphia and the last progressive populist tabloid in America, its Daily News. (Though 28 at the time, I no longer contradict people so readily when they assume that I “grew up” in Philly.) I did rewrite on the city desk, traveled to every neighborhood for reporting duties, begged for a feature writing job and finally got one in 1987.
Within a year, I was writing TV reviews four times a week, which led to a short, unhappy stint at the then-fledgling Entertainment Weekly, which in turn led to a longer, happier one at Newsday, where I wrote mostly about jazz and the movies. Sometime after 1999, I was doing film reviews full-time and this split off into such pleasant experiences as my one-and-only trip to Cannes, a year-and-a-half doing weekly TV reviews on WPIX, six annual trips to Toronto and a few good movies. Not-so-pleasant experiences: My one-and-only trip to Sundance, chairmanship of the New York Film Critics Circle (the awards ceremony was fine, everything before wasn’t), many mediocre movies. Took a buyout from Newsday in March, 2008.