AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
by Ernest Borneman — 4/7/1948
At the end of the International Jazz Festival, correspondent Ernest Borneman spent the night in Louis Armstrong’s room at the Negresco hotel in Nice, France, talking to Louis, Mezz Mezzrow, Barney Bigard, Big Sid Catlett and others about progress and tradition in jazz until the sun came up and it was time to catch the early morning plane for Paris. Others present were Velma Middleton, Louis’ featured singer, and Honey Johnson, Rex Stewart’s vocalist. Louis asked that some of the things said be considered “among friends.” These parts of the conversation have therefore been kept off the record. A transcript of the remaining passages, mainly those of argument between Louis, Bigard and Mezz, is given below because it seems to cover nearly all the points of opinion that have recently divided the old school of jazz from the novelty school. The interview might also be considered as a fitting reply to Stan Kenton’s statement that “Louis…plays without any scientific element” and that “all natural forms of inspiration in music have been exhausted.” The actual text of Mike Levin’s interview with Stan had, of course, not reached Louis yet at the time of the Nice festival, but some of Louis’ statements sound almost telepathic in view of their direct relationship to the questions that Stan raised simultaneously in New York.
Borneman: Well, now that it’s all over, what do you think the verdict is going to be in the cold light of the morning after?
Mezzrow: If it proves anything, it shows that jazz is the greatest diplomat of them all. Did you dig those young French cats playing like Joe Oliver? Man, that’s old Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Baby on woodblocks. And that’s thirty years later and in another country. If that’s not the great leveler, I don’t know what is.
Bigard: You mean Claude Luter? You must be kidding.
Mezz: What do you mean kidding? Those cats sound real good to me.
Bigard: They’re out of tune so bad it hurts your ears.
Louis: What’s that you’re saying, man? Ain’t you never played out of tune?
Bigard Sure, man, but I try to do better. I learned a few things all those years since I was a kid in New Orleans. And if you blow wrong you try to keep it to yourself.
Louis: How about records? How about that thing you made with Duke, the one about the train?
Bigard: “Happy Go Lucky Local?” I didn’t make that.
Louis: No, the other one. “Daybreak Express.”
Bigard: That was the trumpet, and maybe they just cut him off in the end.
Louis: Yeah, maybe.
Bigard: And how about the one you made with the big band on “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue?” How about that clarinet?
Louis: That was half a tone off, but it sold all right.
Bigard: Yeah, but you were satisfied with it?
Louis: It sold all right. Them cats know that a guy got to blow the way he feels and sometimes he hits them wrong. That’s better than them young guys who won’t blow for fear they’ll be off.
Mezz: I’ll tell you why he hit it wrong that time, Barney. The guy was playing tenor at the time and then switched to clarinet and his embouchure knocked him out.
Bigard: Embouchure, huh! I was playing tenor too. I had two embouchures. For tenor on this side and for clarinet on that one, so what about that?
Louis: That’s not what we’re talking about. You’re always knocking somebody, pops. I say that little French band plays fine. I could take them youngsters up to the Savoy and bring the walls down with them any day.
Bigard: That’s because you can take any kind of outfit and blow everyone else out of the room.
Louis: That’s a fine band, pops. That little cornet player sounds just like Mutt Carey to me, I can hear all them pretty little things Mutt used to do when that boy gets up and plays. That’s the real music, man.
Bigard: Real music! Who wants to play like those folds thirty years ago?
Louis: You see, pops, that’s the kind of talk that’s ruining the music. Everybody trying to do something new, no one trying to learn the fundamentals first. All them young cats playing them weird chords. And what happens? No one’s working.
Bigard: But Louis, you got to do something different, you got to move along with the times.
Louis: I’m doing something different all the time, but I always think of them fine old cats way down in New Orleans—Joe and Bunk and Tio and Buddy Bolden—and when I play my music, that’s what I’m listening to. The way they phrased so pretty and always on the melody, and none of that out-of-the-world music, that pipe-dream music, that whole modern malice.
Borneman: What do mean by that, Louis?
Louis: I mean all them young cats along the Street with their horns wrapped in a stocking and they say, “Pay me first, pops, then I’ll play a note for you,” and you know that’s not the way any good music ever got made. You got to like playing pretty things if you’re ever going to be any good blowing your horn. These young cats want to make money first and the hell with the music. And then they want to carve everyone else because they’re full of malice, and all they want to do is show you up, and any old way will do as long as it’s different from the way you played it before. So you get all them weird chords which don’t mean nothing, and first people get curious about it just because it’s new, but soon they get tired of it because it’s really no good and you got no melody to remember and no beat to dance to. So they’re all poor again and nobody is working, and that’s what that modern malice done for you.
Mezz: Because they’re full of frustration, full of neuroses, and then they blow their top ’cause they don’t know where to go from here. All they know is that they want to be different, but that’s not enough, you can’t be negative all the time, you got to be positive about it, you can’t just say all the time, “That’s old, that stinks, let’s do something new, let’s be different.” Different what way? Go where? You can’t take no for an answer all the time. You got to have a tradition. They lost it. Now they’re like babes in the wood, crying for mammy. Poor little guys, and one after the other blows his top. They ought to see a psychoanalyst before they start playing music. We made a blues about it for King Jazz, and we called it “The Blues and Freud.”
Bigard: But we’re in a new age now, man. It’s a nervous age, you got to bring it out in your music.
Louis: When they’re down, you gotta help them up, not push them in still deeper.
Bigard: You can say that because you’re a genius. I’m just an average clarinet player.
Louis: Now none of that, pops, you’re all right. You just got off the right track when you were playing with [name withheld]. All that soft-mike stuff that can’t cut naturally through the brass. You just remember the way the boys used to play way down on Rampart Street and you’ll kill the cats.
Bigard: You know who has the best band in America now? Kid Ory.
Bigard: And I’ll tell you why. Because they got a full tone and they play in tune.
Mezz: And no mop-mops and be-bops.
Louis: Because they play together, not every prima donna for herself. And not like them cats who got too big for their boots when somebody gave them a chance to lead a band and now they can’t play their instruments no longer. Look at [name withheld] starting off “West End blues” in the wrong key. He don’t remember his own solo no more. I remember every note I ever played in my life.
Bigard: But that’s what I was saying. It’s all so easy for you to talk because you’re an exception in everything. We others just got to keep scuffling, and if they want us to play bop, we gotta play bop. It don’t matter if we like it or not.
Louis: No, that’s because I got some respect for old folks who played trumpet before me. I’m not trying to carve them and do something different. That’s the sure way to lose your style. They say to you, “I got to be different. I got to develop a style of my own.” And then all they do is try and not play like you do. That’s not the way to do anything right. That’s the sure way you’ll never get any style of your own. Like I was telling you about [name withheld]. He had a style once because he played like the old timers did on their horns, and all he tries now is to play solos and not back up a band or a singer.
Bigard: That’s because he was a leader, man, and he just got used to waving a stick.
Louis: Jack was a leader too. You were a leader. I’ve been a leader for some time now, but don’t try and carve you when we play a passage together.
Mezz: That modern malice.
Louis: You see, pops, it’s wonderful with the trumpet players because the trumpet is an instrument full of temptation. All the young cats want to kill papa, so they start forcing their tone. Did you listen to [name withheld] last night? He was trying to do my piece, make fun of me. But did you hear his tone? ’Nuff said.
Bigard: I won’t argue with that.
Louis: I’ll tell you another. Remember Lunceford? Those first things he did, “White Heat Jazznocracy,” why, that was wonderful work on reeds. And then the trumpets came in and that was the end. They killed it stone dead every time.
Bigard: That was Steve.
Louis: No, that wasn’t Steve. Steve was all right. It was [name withheld]. And I’ll tell you another one. You know [name withheld]? One day he told Braud I was playing 1918 trumpet and the hell with me. You know that was the wrong man to talk. Braud nearly killed him for it. Now they tell me he never said it, he loves me too much, but I know those cats. They want to play good trumpet, and they want to show off at the same time. But you can’t have it both ways. You can play good trumpet with a pretty tone and a fine melody or you can play them weird chords. You can’t do both at the same time and if you try, that’s when you get unhappy and hate everybody and then you blow your top.
Bigard: That’s right. I don’t go for those guys who get so high they can’t work and then come sucking around you looking for sympathy. Last night [name withheld] comes up to me and says he can’t send money home to his wife because the French won’t let him. So I say to him, “What were you doing when you were touring [name withheld] where they let you send money home? Who was buying all your drinks then?” That’s the way they talk and all the time you know they get high just because they’re fighting their horns.
Louis: This cat comes up to me last night and says: “Louis, don’t you like me no more? You don’t ever talk to me.” I say, “Pops, don’t give me none of that Harlem jive,” and I leave him standing there. I don’t dig those cats.
Mezz: And [name withheld], how about [name withheld]?
Louis: Best white drummer I ever heard and can’t hold a job and that’s why he keeps knocking everybody in the business.
Mezz: That modern malice (laughs).
Louis: Pops, I’ll tell you what it’s all about. Just look at the Street today. Don’t let me tell you nothing. Just look at the Street. They’ve thrown out the bands and put in a lot of chicks taking their clothes off. That’s what the bop music has done for the business. And look at them young cats too proud to play their horns if you don’t pay them more than the old timers. ’Cause if they play for fun they aren’t king no more. So they’re not working but once in a while and then they play one note and nobody knows if it’s the right note or just one of them weird things where you can always make like that was just the note you were trying to hit. And that’s what they call science. Not play their horns the natural way. Not play the melody. And then they’re surprised they get thrown out and have strippers put in their place.
Bigard: Well, I don’t know.
Louis: Well, you oughta know, pops, you’ve been around long enough. Look at the legit composers always going back to folk tunes, the simple things, where it all comes from. So they’ll come back to us when all the shouting about bop and science is over, because they can’t make up their own tunes, and all they can do is embroider it so much you can’t see the design no more.
Mezz: But it won’t last.
Louis: It can’t last. They always say, “Jazz is dead,” and then they always come back to jazz.
Enter Louis’ valet dragging a trunk: We gotta pack, pops. (Draws the curtain.) It’s daylight, boys. We gotta be at the airport in a hour.
Mezz: Well, let’s scuffle.
Louis: It’s always the same thing in all languages. You make a pretty tune and you play it well and you don’t have to worry about nothing. If you swing it, that’s fine, and if you don’t, well look at Lombardo and Sinatra and they’re still not going hungry. We’ll be around when the others will be forgotten.
Mezz: They’ll be cleaning the streets of the city when we eat lobster at Negresco.