Being an avid listener of The Karen Hunter Show on Sirius XM, I was listening on the evening of Feb 17th to her discussion with the venerable Dr. Wilmer Leon about his listing 6 crucial turning points in Black History. One of Dr. Leon’s 6 points was the birth of Louis Armstrong which, Karen had issue with. She didn’t see how that would be a crucial turning point in black history. This is a point of contention with me. Successful blacks who are in a position to do so much to increase jazz awareness among young black folk and all people such as Oprah Winfrey are totally apathetic to jazz because they just don’t like it, nor understand it’s historical significance in the very least. To Dr. Leon’s credit, he explained it to her, but I felt Karen brushed it off and really did not get it. She just agreed to disagree. Of course, I nearly wrecked my car and as soon as I got home penned the following letter to The Karen Hunter Show:
February 17, 2017
Let me prefix this email by saying I am one of your loyal fans. I’ve followed your career since your days at MSNBC to your current show on Sirius XM. I love you and support all that you do. Hearing your discussion today with Dr. Wilmer Leon, where you gave him “homework”, he gave you 6 points, one of which was the birth of Louis Armstrong which you had issue with. As a professional jazz artist for 41 years, who have sat at the feet of some of our greatest jazz masters such as Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Charles McPherson and others, I have to say that I was appalled by what seemed like your lack of understanding of jazz and hurt by what felt like your total apathy towards the importance of jazz music and in Louis Armstrong in particular. As an enthomusicologist, I understand that this is a common problem with the younger generation of black folk. So it is up to my generation (I am 60) to pull your coattail so to speak.
First of all, what makes jazz so important is that it is the only truly original art form that America has created and contributed to the world. It is the harbinger of all other so-called black musics that came after it in the 20th and 21st Century, and Mr. Armstrong, (whom we call Pops) was it’s very first universally recognized artist. He was the Michael Jackson of his time. But it is much more than that. Pops was a very serious musician who developed the modern style of playing the trumpet. He was also an innovative and influential vocalist who was THE direct influence for Billie Holiday and countless others. Don’t be confused by all the shucking and jiving. In his day, that was the only way serious black artists were acceptable. Thank God he was able to do so without the blackface as those before him had to do.
Jazz as a cultural phenomenon truly brought first America, than the entire world out of the Victorian age and into the 20th Century. Through it’s syncopated beat, and freedom of expression through a level of musical improvisation never seen before, it inspired mankind to build skyscrapers, sleek-back cars, airplanes, freed women to discard their corsets, lower their skirts -no longer ashamed of showing the beauty of their bodies and bobbing their hair styles. It was a music that liberated the human spirit. The Europeans were the first to recognize it during World War I, when Lt. James Reese Europe brought his musicians to France to perform as the Harlem 369th Infantry Band. The French lost their minds. They saw it for what it was: the highest form of music ever created. Why? We jazz artists, like the French first saw in James Reese Europe’s excellent and well-trained musicians, possess a technical mastery of our instruments equal to a virtuoso-level classical musician. But then go one step further by taking all that knowledge and extemporize with it; -freely creating our own melodies etc, essentially composing on the spot each and every time we play. And each time we do this, it is different, even playing the same tune. We state the melody of a tune and then branch off and improvise on the chord changes of the tune. Something classical musicians to this day cannot do. At least not on that level. This is why there is much admiration towards jazz musicians from classical musicians. Many classical musicians say to me, they are just lost without the musical page in front of them. James Reese Europe is a name I think you should look into more. He was the culmination of what went before his time during the Negro Renaissance of the late 1890s, being directly influenced by composer Will Marion Cook (another name to research). Don’t forget about other many geniuses of the era like Black Patti and her Troubadours, Bill Cole, (Burt) Williams and (George) Walker and the all black musicals on off-Broadway in the 1890s and early 1900s such as “In Dahomey” or “Shoo Fly Regiment” And all of this was BEFORE Louis Armstrong came on the scene in the 1920s. Jazz did not merely come out of blues and field hollers as I heard you say. That is a simplistic understanding and Karen, you should know better. Jazz is an entirely new artform that happened as a result of black musicians combining ragtime and the blues. I’m amazed that someone who is a prolific reader as yourself haven’t read some of the historically important books on jazz such as “Hear Me Talkin’ To You” by Nat Shapiro, “Just Before Jazz” by Thomas Laurence Riis or the many countless jazz autobiographies.
Here are your homework in this regard: in addition to the before mentioned, you need to read: 1) “A Life In Ragtime” by Reid Badger (James Reese Europe Biography) James Reese Europe can seriously be called the Father of jazz. Unfortunately he died in 1919, but he was the one who inspired and influenced Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson. Read his articles in the 1910s in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine on the ‘the seriousness of Negro Music’ 2) “Reminiscing With Sissle and Blake” by Robert Kimall & Wm. Bolcom. This book features great photography from the era and is about the disciples of James Reese Europe, Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake who created the musical “Shuffle Along” in 1922 (spurring the Harlem Renaissance), the first all-black play to hit Broadway and changed Broadway forever. It changed the Broadway musical from the ‘English Operettas” to the modern musical we enjoy today. Black jazz artists did that! You need to understand all that came before jazz to understand what a phenomenon it was. It did more than anything to change the way the world looked at black people. The most racist white person of the era just couldn’t help but love the music as reflected in all the white bands that copied early jazz like the ODJB (Original Dixieland Jazz Band) who historically was the first recorded jazz band in 1917. Actually New Orleans legend (and influence on young Louis Armstrong) Freddie Keppard was offered the chance to record first in 1912, but declined saying very prophetically that people would steal his stuff. Or the famous Paul Whiteman Orchestra who copied James Reese Europe. How great was Jame Reese Europe? He played a concert in 1912 at Carnegie Hall in NYC with 250 all-black musicians on stage! Here is a picture of that night from the “Reminiscing With Sissle and Blake” book:
We jazz artists have a great and proud tradition that is being diminished more and more every year. It has been up to folks like myself and many many others who continue to perform so that it doesn’t fall off of the face of the earth. We teach folks that you can dance in your head and that you can be entertained by listening to music alone. Yes, Dr. Leon NAILED IT! One of the most crucial turning points in Black History truly was the birth of Louis (Not Louie) Armstrong that herald the beginning of the ‘jazz era’. There is much more I can talk about such as the importance of Duke Ellington or Bird-Charlie Parker (the Mozart of our time) or John Coltrane, but will leave it here.