02 June 2017

Pops and Diz

by Kirk Woodward

[As ROTters will know, my friend Kirk Woodward is a long-time jazz enthusiast.  (See “Some Of That Jazz,” posted on 7 June 2015.)  Kirk’s not only a fan, but as a musician and composer himself, has the musical knowledge to know what the instrumentalists are doing and analyze his own responses.  That makes his discussion below of the contrasts and similarities between two jazz greats, Louis Armstrong (“Pops”) and Dizzie Gillespie (“Diz”), whose styles varied but who played together occasionally and respected each other’s art, all that more revealing.  I don’t have the background to write cogently about music (among other topics),so I’m always on the look-out for contributors who can cover what I can’t.  Kirk, in addition to being my friend for more than 50 years, has been my go-to guy on music, not limited to jazz, since I launched Rick On Theater over eight years ago (at his suggestion, as it happens).  In “Pops and Diz,” I think you’ll see why.  Even if you’re not a jazz fan, I’m sure you’ll find his descriptions of the playing of Armstrong and Gillespie, two of America’s greatest musical artists, enlightening.  (Pay particular attention to his analysis of the two musicians playing together on “The Umbrella Man”:  you can almost hear them riffing!)]

In a sense a work of art is a capsulated form of the time in which it was created – but the “capsule” often omits important information, such as the author’s intentions in the piece, the circumstances in which it was created, the events that motivated the piece, and so on. For example, we have Shakespeare’s plays but essentially no information about his writing process except what little we can deduce from the plays.

In our electronic age, such artifacts don’t have to be literary – they can also be visual and auditory. One example is a scratchy kinetoscope of a duet, on a TV jazz special called the Timex All-Star Show broadcast 7 January 1959, between the jazz trumpeters Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) and Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993). The video can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqkoKIEESBs.

Louis, often nicknamed Pops,  and Dizzy or Diz, whose real name was John Birks Gillespie, represent two eras in jazz, and actually there is a third era between them – all in a space of about thirty or forty years, which demonstrates how quickly changes can take place in music.

Armstrong played magnificently melodic improvised music, and brought out the role of the soloist in jazz – ironically, considering that much of Dixieland is ensemble jazz. Armstrong influenced the great trumpeter Roy Eldridge (1911-1989), who in turn was Dizzy Gillespie’s primary early stylistic influence. In his autobiography, To Be, or not . . . To Bop (1979, Doubleday Books), Gillespie confirms this:

 . . . at one time, every trumpet player in the world, everybody who wasn’t in a classical band, had to be influenced by Louis Armstrong. Louis not only influenced trumpet players, he changed the modus operandi of music by inventing the solo. He came from King Oliver, and then he went out, and Roy Eldridge came from Louis Armstrong. I came from Roy Eldridge.

Armstrong’s musical approach is often called “Dixieland” and Gillespie’s, “bebop,” with “swing” coming between the two styles.  The terms, of course, can’t help being somewhat reductive; both men were greater than their styles.

I never heard Louis Armstrong in person; many of his performances can be seen on YouTube. I saw Roy Eldridge once at a jazz festival, and once at the old Jimmy Ryan’s jazz bar in midtown on Manhattan’s west side (now closed), where I asked him to play his famous specialty song “I Can’t Get Started,” and he did.

As for the jazz style known as bebop, Wikipedia says:

Bebop or bop is a style of jazz developed in the early to mid-1940s in the United States, which features songs characterized by a fast tempo, complex chord progressions with rapid chord changes and numerous changes of key, instrumental virtuosity, and improvisations based on a combination of harmonic structure, the use of scales and occasional references to the melody.

Bebop, pioneered by musicians including Gillespie on trumpet, the brilliant Charlie Parker (1920-1955) on alto saxophone, and the highly individualistic Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) on piano, had a rough time gaining popular acceptance, and Gillespie’s outgoing, boisterous personality helped the music overcome resistance – for example, Armstrong’s, as we shall see – and enter into and influence the mainstream of American music.

I was fortunate to see Dizzy Gillespie in person three times. I saw him at an outdoor concert in 1969, on the bill with another great trumpet player of the next generation of jazz, Miles Davis (1926-1991), although they didn’t play together that night. I also saw him, along with Thelonious Monk, at one of the Giants of Jazz concerts in Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall, and at an evening of Latin-influenced jazz, one of Gillespie’s specialties.

Armstrong and Gillespie had much in common. They were both African American, both born in conditions of poverty; both had flamboyant personalities, both found the trumpet a perfect instrument of expression, both mastered their crafts to an extent previously unknown, both influenced untold numbers of musicians, both became enormous popular favorites.

But Armstrong could not reconcile himself to the complex bebop style of jazz, and said so, including in his act for a while a song that made fun of bebop musicians as “poor little lambs who have lost their way” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vWjBZ8ZmI4s). Gillespie and others fired back, not just on musical elements but on Armstrong’s performing style. (More on that below.)

So when I found the “Umbrella Man” duet between Armstrong and Gillespie, I wondered what kind of personal relationship it represented. Had they met before? Were rehearsals tense? Was it actually evidence of a battle?

The song “The Umbrella Man” was originally a mawkish English ballad written by James Cavanaugh, Larry Stock, and Vincent Rose in 1924. The 1959 broadcast version is anything but mawkish.  The band, with Gillespie on trumpet, is also made up of: Les Spann (1932-1989), guitar; Sam Jones (1924-1981), bass; Lex Humphries (1936-1994), drums; and Junior Mance (b. 1928, and still with us, although he has now retired), piano. The three minute number goes like this:

(First chorus) Gillespie kicks off a fast waltz tempo with three quick stomps of his heel, and plays a fluid, straightforward introduction. He sings the song in a relaxed, offhand style, interrupted four times by Junior Mance screeching the umbrella man’s cry. Each time Dizzy looks askance. A transition to 4/4 time leads to:

(Second chorus) Gillespie begins a sprightly improvisation on the melody, looking over briefly to see if Armstrong has entered, which he does, playing fluid fills in response to Gillespie’s first two phrases. Armstrong plays four measures in his classic style, and Gillespie four in his, using at least twice as many notes as Armstrong. They finish the chorus with Armstrong playing second trumpet to Gillespie’s lead, Gillespie playing in a light-hearted Dixieland style, and Armstrong accompanying him flawlessly.

(Third chorus) Gillespie and Armstrong “trade eights,” alternating eight measures each. Armstrong gives Gillespie a long “Yeah – h – h – h – h!” during Gillespie’s first solo. Each plays in his own characteristic style, Gillespie dazzling, Armstrong majestic.

(Fourth chorus) Gillespie sings the song and Armstrong scats responses to each line, practically bouncing with pleasure. Gillespie inadvertently spits slightly on Armstrong at the line “He’ll fix your parasol” and Armstrong responds, “Your parasol is juicy, boy!” turns and wipes his face, scats again, and says, “Oh, turn that way.” Gillespie wipes his mouth just before he sings “It looks like rain” – “Yeah, man!” Armstrong says. 

They continue the song-and-scat through the rest of the chorus. (The “Swiss Kriss!” Armstrong includes in his scat is the name of his favorite laxative!)  Armstrong demonstrates again in this piece, as he so often did, that his scat singing is as memorable an aspect of jazz as his trumpet playing. At the end of the number Gillespie returns to the trumpet while Armstrong continues to scat. Jackie Gleason (1916-1987), the host of the TV special and a jazz fan and occasional orchestra leader as well as a comedian and actor, looms in the background as Gillespie and Armstrong slap palms.

This video artifact is a joyous celebration, a remarkable achievement, and a sure cure for a gloomy mood. So what was in fact the relationship between the two men? The answer, it appears, is that they knew each other well and were friendly. In fact, Gillespie’s autobiography includes a lovely photograph of Armstrong, Gillespie, Bobby Hackett (1915-1976), and Jimmy McPartland (1907-1991), the latter two also outstanding horn players, together at a party at Gillespie’s house.

Gillespie, a serious student of music, was always respectful of musicians from other “schools.” In his autobiography he maintains:

when [Armstrong] started talking about bebop, “Aww, that’s slop! No melody.” Louis Armstrong couldn’t hear what we were doing. Pops wasn’t schooled enough musically to hear the changes and harmonies we played.  Pops’ beauty as a melodic player and a “blower” caused all of us to play the way we did, especially trumpet players, but his age wasn’t equipped to go as far, musically, as we did. Chronologically, I knew that Louis Armstrong was our progenitor as King Oliver and Buddy Bolden had been his progenitors. I knew how their styles developed and had been knowing it all the time; so Louis’ statements about bebop didn’t bother me. I knew that I came through Roy Eldridge, a follower of Louis Armstrong. I wouldn’t say anything. I wouldn’t make any statement about the older guys’ playing because I respected them too much.

And Gillespie prided himself that

Louis Armstrong criticized us but not me personally, not for paying the trumpet, never. He always said bad things about the guys who copied me, but I never read where he said that I wasn’t a good trumpet player, that I couldn’t play my instrument.

However, Gillespie did criticize Armstrong’s performance style, as did others who thought Armstrong was “playing up” in a humiliating way to white audiences. Gillespie writes that

I criticized Louis for other things, such as his “plantation image.” We didn’t appreciate that about Louis Armstrong, and if anybody asked me about a certain public image of him, handkerchief over his head, grinning in the face of white racism, I never hesitated to say I didn’t like it. I didn’t want the white man to expect me to allow the same things Louis Armstrong did.

But Gillespie acknowledged that in some ways he did the same sort of thing:

Hell, I had my own way of “Tomming.” Every generation of blacks since slavery has had to develop its own way of Tomming, of accommodating itself to a basically unjust situation.

And he ultimately came to a different understanding of Armstrong’s behavior:

Later on, I began to recognize what I had considered Pops’ grinning in the face of racism as his absolute refusal to let anything, even anger about racism, steal the joy from his life and erase his fantastic smile. Coming from a younger generation, I misjudged him.

This understanding made it possible for Gillespie to admire Armstrong’s great talent despite the differences in period styles:

Nowadays in jazz we know more about chords, progressions – and we try to work out different rhythms and things that they didn’t think about when Louis Armstrong blew. In his day all he did was play strictly from the soul, just strictly from his heart he just played. He didn’t think about no chords – he didn’t know nothing about no chords. Now, what we in the younger generation take from Louis Armstrong . . . is the soul.

So the two men’s TV appearance was in a sense a logical event:

Pops and I played together publicly for the first time on January 7, 1959 on the Timex All-Star Jazz Show, televised on CBS. Pops’ acceptance of this engagement sort of showed he accepted the olive branch we “boppers” had held out, and it showed he recognized that there didn’t have to be any competition between Dixieland and modern jazz.  But to let it be known that neither of us had given up his own brand of jazz, Pops and I played “The Umbrella Man” and battled it out, “Dixieland” versus “modern.” It was much more fun arguing with music than with words.

Gillespie says their appearance was “the first time” they played together publicly. I haven’t found references to other times. However, Gillespie writes that he and Armstrong intended to record an album together – Gillespie hoped there would be more than one, actually – but that the manager they shared at the time, Joe Glazer (1896-1969), refused to let it happen.

That would have been an album to cherish. Another event one wishes had been recorded was an evening in New York in which Armstrong became sick and was unable to finish a night club appearance. Gillespie wrapped up his own gig, went to the other club, and played Armstrong’s set in Armstrong’s style. What an event that would have been to see and hear.

In any case, we fortunately have the grainy kinescope of “The Umbrella Man” to thrill us over and over with a moment when two musical giants came together, with deep affection for their craft and for each other, and created a few moments of great art and even greater joy.

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