By Mary Lou Beatty
When he was rich and famous later in life, trumpeter Louis Armstrong looked back and remarked, "I don't feel no different about that horn now than I did when I was playing in New Orleans. No, that's my living and my life. I love them notes."
This July 4 marks the one-hundredth birthday of Louis Armstrong, give or take a year -- the exact date has become a little problematic over time. Whether it is 2000 or should be 2001, the celebration is going on in Queens, and we take the occasion to look not just at Louis Armstrong but at jazz itself. The film producer Ken Burns (of The Civil War and Baseball fame) will be airing his new epic on jazz early next year. Nineteen hours in length, Jazz takes viewers from the early days of Buddy Bolden and King Oliver through Armstrong and Ellington to Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. The film follows performers through the Great Depression and the advent of radio. It tells of life on the road in segregated America, where black musicians found themselves barred from rest rooms and often unable to stay in the hotels where they played.
Whatever the circumstance, jazz endured. "It was this feeling of freedom," says pianist Dave Brubeck. "I was always waiting for this guy to stand up and play his solo, a trumpet player, a trombone, or saxophone, the pianist or the drummer -- and then they were completely free, away from the constriction of the written music, but improvising on top of it. And this is the thing I love the most about jazz."
Or cornetist Jimmy McPartland talking about Bix Beiderbecke: "One thing we talked about a lot was the freedom of jazz. People used to ask Bix to play a chorus just as he had recorded it. He couldn't do it. 'It's impossible,' he told me once. 'I don't feel the same way twice. That's one of the things I like about jazz, kid. I don't know what's going to happen next. Do you?'"
Writer Ralph Ellison, who played horn himself in his youth in Oklahoma City, put the dynamic a different way, finding "a cruel contradiction implicit in the art form itself. For true jazz is an art of individual assertion within and against the group."
Given the improvisational nature of jazz, how do music scholars proceed from individual performance to the body of the work? Paul Machlin of Colby College in Maine has been embarked on just such a study of Fats Waller, who was celebrated as a pianist and organist and singer, but less well known as a composer. Machlin has transcribed seventeen of Waller's performances for the first time for a new volume of the Music of the United States of America series, which NEH supports. Writer Stephen Budiansky suggests that Waller's works on the organ are near-classical with their embellished variations "welded together into beautiful, coherent wholes by their carefully laid out harmonic underpinnings and interlocking melodic themes."
And last, we look at music in a far-removed time and tradition, in this case late-nineteenth-century Japan. It is the story of the emperor Meiji, who was looking for better treaty arrangements with the West and found an unlikely diplomatic weapon --the piano.