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Ernest Hemingway and Louis Armstrong - 20th Century Soundtrack


If Jelly Roll Morton invented jazz (and we have to believe him), then Louis Armstrong invented jazz as an art form: jazz as a means of personal expression, in the same way a poet, dramatist and novelist will use words as a means of expression, or an artist paint. And I don't use this analogy glibly. When Armstrong was at his most creative, in the 1920s, American literature was also being re-invented by Ernest Hemingway. It was a post First World War outpouring of pent-up anger that came out as an aggressive need for a new kind of honesty, coupled with a need for a new hard-edged beauty that was itself a resentment against the strictures of the 19th century, strictures that had come apart at the seams with the bloodbath of 1914 -18.

But in the 1920s Armstrong and Hemingway, and a few others, were far more revolutionary than the gang of despots sitting in the Kremlin, or the Hitler rabble in the  Munich bier kellers.  Hemingway and Armstrong wanted change, and wanted it now; they were not going to hang around for the old order to take control again as they were trying to do with prohibition. Armstrong and Hemingway had, in their separate and different ways, paid the price and so felt entitled to make the changes themselves, to create new ideas, new words, and new music. They cut to the quick in a total abolition of the old.

In many ways Armstrong was the most immediate and vital, and the quickest to make his name felt on the scene, and when we listen to an Armstrong solo from the 1920s we are  listening to the musical equivalent of Hemingway's first collection of prose and poetry  in our time, with Armstrong's beautifully crafted cornet and trumpet full of totally new ideas and new sounds, sounds that changed people's lives, as Hemingway's words and sentences were to do.

Armstrong's work in those early days was just as stylish  as Hemingway's, but it was of the moment, of that moment captured on record. Think of the young middle-class Hemingway (his legs still hurting from the severe wounds he received during WWI) sitting at a table outside a Paris bar – perhaps a glass of chilled white wine within reach - thinking about a story, then sweating out those thoughts for a couple of hours before putting his journalist experience into the mix and writing the story in his moleskin notebook, a story that would need polishing and reducing to a perfection that would change literature. Then think of Armstrong learning to play his horn back in the poorest quarter of New Orleans (with thoughts of funeral parades, lynchings, and a hundred different languages in his head) and then trying stuff out with  those river boat bands, stuff that would eventually become an extraordinary sixty second solo within an extraordinary three minute recording. There is a huge difference in approach and execution, but a huge similarity in preparation – sweat and genius.

Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans on the 4th of July 1900. At least that's what he believed until the day he died, and so did everyone else until a baptismal birth certificate came to light recently confirming his actual birth date as August 4th, 1901, silencing, in the name of scholarship, one of the happiest legends in American music.

The Armstrong family lived in a small single storey house in Jane Alley (also known as Jane's and Jame's Alley), which, although in a very poor district of New Orleans was not completely run down, with Louis' mother looking after the yellow painted wooden house with pride. Armstrong, in Laurence Bergreen's biography, remembers the place:

“When I was about four or five, still wearing dresses, I lived with my mother in Jane's Alley in a place called Brick Row – a lot of cement, rented rooms sort of like a motel where Negroes of all characters were living in rooms which they rented and fixed up the best way that they could. We were all poor. The privies were out in a back yard, one side for the men and one side for the women... Everything happened in the Brick Row ...”

Ernest Miller Hemingway was born on July 21, 1899, in the south facing bedroom of his grandfather's house in Oak Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago.

Although Hemingway and Armstrong came from very different backgrounds (Armstrong from a poor underclass that only two generations earlier had been slaves, Hemingway from the wealthy professional upper-middle classes) both of them had aspirations that were very similar: both knew, albeit subconsciously, that they had a mission (as fanciful as that may sound) to leave their mark upon art and society, change it even. But first they were driven by instinct to see and taste the forbidden fruits around them, to explore the beating hearts, the night life, of New Orleans and Chicago, to go as far as they could, to take risks, to fill themselves to the brim with it all; it was a new century, with new hopes and ideas.

This was easier for Armstrong the young boy (his hard pressed mother simply couldn't keep an eye on him all the time) in that he lived close to the so called French Quarter of New Orleans, to the whore houses, clubs and bars where the new music was being played, where Jelly Roll Morton was putting it down. It was a new music for which he felt an affinity, perhaps even a part ownership even then; and the young prostitutes took a fancy to the handsome young boy and took him in. He ran errands for them, and no doubt for their pimps too, and as a reward he was allowed to listen to the bands and taste the booze and flesh – heaven.

For Hemingway it was less easy. The Chicago suburb of Oak Park was a relatively small community where school, church and respectability were the predominant social factors; the whore houses, bars and clubs were a good train journey away in the  heart of Chicago, and Hemingway's mother, Grace (her father, Ernest Hall, had emigrated to the US from Sheffield, England in the 1840s), kept a very keen eye on her son, as she did her husband. Although it has to be said she did introduce Hemingway to the Chicago art galleries, the theatres and concert halls (she had trained as a classical singer herself), as well as the classy restaurants and stores. Sadly, Armstrong was not so lucky in that respect. But it was through his father, a doctor, that Hemingway began to see another part of life that made him very much the man he became. Not only would Clarence Hemingway (the Hemingway family had themselves emigrated from Yorkshire, England, in the 16th century) take his son on extended fishing and hunting trips where he taught him not only to fish but to shoot and to recognise just about every tree, plant, bird and animal they came across. But he'd also take him on his medical rounds, especially those to the Indian Reservations nearby where he taught him how to treat an array of ailments, how to deliver babies, and more often than not how to stitch up and dress wounds invariably caused by the drunken and violent behaviour of a man toward his wife. Like Armstrong in the whore houses, Hemingway listened, tasted and watched, absorbing  all he saw, and remembering. And as Hemingway grew in size, and in confidence, he managed more and more to escape the confines of Oak Park and head for the seedier parts of Chicago, where he discovered the bars and whore houses frequented by the dock and railroad workers. But unlike Armstrong he was never taken in by the young prostitutes, instead he simply sat back with a drink and watched the  activity, at the same time listening to the language, and, like Armstrong, remembering the sounds and the structure.

But Armstrong's days and nights in the whore houses, clubs and bars were numbered when, after being arrested for petty theft, was thrown into borstal, which in retrospect was one of the best things that ever happened to him because it was there that he got his hands on his first cornet (apparently a gift from the principle) and, after a short while, began to play in the institution's brass band. Such was his ability that he was quickly taking solo parts. On his release he had become an accomplished musician and very quickly found himself playing in those same clubs and bars, and people were listening and taking notice of a different kind of playing, of a different kind of sound.

Even at school Hemingway wrote well, and once he'd graduated – in 1917 – it became obvious that he wanted to follow some sort of writing career, and in an attempt to promote this desire ( although Grace was not at all sure about a writing career), and to get him away from the fleshpots of Chicago, Clarence Hemingway, through several family connections, managed to get his son the job of a cub reporter on the Kansas City Star, which was fine because it meant that Hemingway very quickly found himself reporting on petty crime – and the occasional murder – in Kansas City's own red light district. But what it did teach him was how to write short pithy sentences that would, like Armstrong's short punchy musical statements, leave the majority of the story below the surface allowing the reader or the listener to imagine what had not been written or played. It was a new way, a truly modern way of expressing oneself.

But these first spoutings were only embryonic. It would take, for Hemingway, a world war and a spell as a reporter living and working in Europe, and for Armstrong an apprenticeship playing on the river boats (and a meeting with another young trumpet player), and the discovery of a musical father, before they really began to feel, within themselves, that they were making a difference.

   

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