The Armstrong Myth

Let’s take a trip to Storyville. Not New Orleans, but the place in our minds where tall tales take over our brains, washing away reason, sweeping us up in myths. It’s a fictional place, but like food, it’s sustenance. It’s the zone that lets jazz fans form a church based around Saint John Coltrane and allows Sun Ra to believe he was from another planet. It’s the place of sci-fi and half-truths, mystery, chance and beauty. It’s the locale that allows for Louis Armstrong’s birthday to be July 4, 1900—not its actual date, Aug. 4, 1901.

In the real world, all the media outlets, from jazz mags to men’s mags, the Gray Lady to graying alt weeklies, TV shows to radio programs, wouldn’t be rushing to celebrate Satchmo’s 100th one year early. But we live in a fantasy world, a place so powerful it can alter time on the Gregorian calendar and rush in the second millennium’s arrival on Jan. 1, 2000—365 days before it truly happens.

Math and logic be damned: JazzTimes enters Storyville this month riding shotgun on Armstrong’s birthday bandwagon. In this issue we’ve got a multitiered tribute to Armstrong that includes Nat Hentoff’s column about Pops as a civil rights advocate and an 11-page photo tribute shot by some of the world’s best cameramen. From CD reviews of recent reissues to George Avakian remembering what it was like to put many of those albums together the first time, we think our Armstrong spectacular is just that.

The real world intrudes on our fantastical one when we insist that Armstrong was born Aug. 4, 1901, instead of the quintessentially American date he chose to believe. Stories are told and retold, and along the way dates are confused, order is switched, time is compressed. I’m not advocating sloppy scholarship, but I’m willing to let some facts slide for the sake of poetry. This is Storyville, after all, and is there no more representative American musician than Louis Armstrong? Is there no more perfect birth date for him than 7/4/00?

Long before success of the The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje wrote 1976’s Coming Through Slaughter, an account of legendary cornetist Buddy Bolden that mixed fact and fiction, interviews and conjecture. Despite the book’s jacket stating that the novel mixes history and legend, readers often believe it to be biography. There have been more than a dozen Armstrong biographies, and it’s safe to assume all of them have contributed something to the Armstrong myth.

“Their stories were like spokes on a rimless wheel ending in air. Buddy had lived a different life with every one of them,” writes Ondaatje. The mysterious Bolden began to get famous around Storyville in 1900, the same mythic year Armstrong was born.

Poetry, truth or fiction? Yes, please.

Originally published in October 2000

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