Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong influence American music
Ancient Egyptian paintings and sculptures all seem to have been created by a sixth grader. They are stiff, flat profiles with feet, nose and chin pointing in the same direction: no depth, no realism. All the art was so primitive until the 5th century, when the Greeks took a giant leap…literally. They have developed counter post, where a standing human figure is posed with its weight resting on one leg. The shifting of weight brought organic movement, bringing paintings and sculptures to life. (Discover the 5th century Boy of Kritioswhich is the first known Greek statue to use the contrapposto.)
Similarly, look at European art from medieval times, or the Middle Ages, from the 5th century to the 15th century. Much of it is cartoonish – flat, distorted and unrealistic. Baby Jesus almost always looks like a weird little man, not a baby. No wonder they called it the Dark Ages. Then Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael and others, inspired by the ancient Greeks, built on this realism and brought about the Renaissance, moving the world forward and bringing art to life. I look at ancient Egyptian art and feel nothing. I look at Michelangelo Pieta and cry. That’s what it’s about.
I recently rewatched Ken Burns’ 10-episode mini-series, Jazz. Over the 2,280 minutes of running time, it occurred to me that American music had gone through a similar evolution to that of the visual arts world. Just as Renaissance artists brought realism to art, jazz musicians, especially Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, brought realism to music. Here is a little story.
“I listen to vaudeville; I don’t feel anything. I hear Armstrong and I cry.
In 1877, when Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, he was looking for a way to improve telegraphic communications, opting for what he called a “talking telegraph”. Maybe it’s because Edison’s first recording was of him singing “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, but quickly people figured out that if you want to record something, music is probably a solid option.
Partly fueled by Edison’s groundbreaking inventions, the United States was becoming a veritable superpower, world leader in industry, technology, finance, and more. time for an American Bach to legitimize the nation’s contribution to world music. They looked to universities, the military and the establishment to provide this musical genius.
One of the earliest recording artists (in the late 1800s) was John Philip Sousa, America’s “walking king”. With all due respect, it’s amazing that the records have spread. I’m as patriotic as anyone else, but who in their right mind pours a class of wine and kicks off “The Stars and Stripes Forever” to unwind at the end of a long day? Sousa’s steps are as steep and lifeless as an ancient Egyptian mural.
Louis Armstrong: When it comes to authenticity and swing, the responsibility starts here.
A decade later, at the turn of the 20th century, singers dominated record sales. They were mostly vaudevillians like Billy Murray and Arthur Collins, who had hits like “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, “Give My Regards to Broadway”, and “The Yankee Doodle Boy”. They were theatrical performers, trained to act melodramatically while singing and speaking in a loud, affected manner so they could be understood from the back of a theater. It was a stage voice – not the voice of someone who actually communicates or expresses emotion.
Then, in the 1920s, the music took a contrapposto step in an unlikely way. One of the greatest artists of the early 1920s was Al Jolson, who performed in blackface, stealing pieces of African-American culture and making it more palatable to xenophobic white audiences. Based on Jolson’s success, Columbia Records executives thought, “Hey, instead of a black-faced white man singing a white man’s interpretation of black music, why not record the people they fly?”
“The powerful themselves sought the answer when what they sought came from slaves and their abused descendants. The poetry of it all.
Columbia found and recorded Bessie Smith, an orphaned black blues singer who grew up supporting her impoverished family by walking the streets of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Smith’s true performances tied to record buyers. “The Empress of the Blues” became a wildly successful artist, which opened the door for Louis Armstrong. Not only did Armstrong introduce the world to a swinging groove, but his authentic, conversational vocals made those driven, affected vocals seem wooden in comparison. I listen to vaudeville; I don’t feel anything. I hear Armstrong and I cry.
It’s the classic unlikely origin story, like the birth of baby Jesus in a manger. The hero/savior needed rarely comes from the establishment. The powerful themselves sought the answer when what they sought came from slaves and their abused descendants. The poetry of it all.
Duke Ellington, Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Stones, Miles Davis, Prince, Zeppelin, Clapton and pretty much everything else I love descends from the jazz and blues of Bessie Smith and Satchmo. When Duke Ellington was asked how he felt when he couldn’t stay at the hotels where he performed, he replied: “I just took the energy to pout and wrote blues.”
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