"Call a man a genius often enough, no matter how justly, and his work gets to be beyond comment," writes Martin Williams in his classic study The Jazz Tradition. As if acknowledging this predicament, the exhibit Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy looks not so much at the music of the great jazz trumpet player as at Armstrong's influence and the force of his personality.
The exhibit does include some art, yet in this setting it always serves as a reflection of Armstrong's impact. Misha Reznikoff's 1938 oil painting named for the song "Cornet Chop Suey" is an abstract work of crisscrossing black lines filled in with red, yellow, green, blue, and white. Although bold and appealing, it doesn't discernibly connect to the music. There are also paintings by Stuart Davis and Franz Kline, photographs by Weegee and Garry Winogrand, and collages by Armstrong himself, including his sincere tribute to Swiss Kriss herbal laxative. The various stages of his development--from talented youth to Jazz Age emblem to Hollywood star and ambassador of goodwill--are explored through an assortment of photographs, letters, film clips, record covers, and memorabilia.
Documentation of his early years is sparse. Armstrong gave out most of the information on his childhood in his 1954 autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, including his falsified birth date (changed from August 1, 1901, to July 4, 1900) and the insinuation that his mother worked as a prostitute. One photo shows Armstrong at the age of 11 in a brass band in the Home for Colored Waifs, where he landed for firing a revolver in the air. He later played with Joe "King" Oliver in the saloons of Storyville--then the vice district of New Orleans--and on riverboats and in funerals and parades. Photos by E.J. Bellocq are used to corroborate Armstrong's grim descriptions of the period.
Armstrong moved to Chicago with Oliver's band in 1922 and soon developed a reputation for his skilled and loud horn playing. Three years later, when he started recording with his band, the Hot Five, Armstrong reshaped jazz as a soloist's domain. He supposedly invented scat when a lyric sheet slipped off a music stand during the recording of "Heebie Jeebies."
A 17-minute videotape surveys Armstrong's films, but the glimpses of him playing, speaking, singing, and dancing left me hungry for more. Ultimately, the attempt to convey Armstrong's personality through documentary materials was bound to come up short. The exhibit only presents bits and pieces, many of them contrived and all of them shallow. But with a little imagination and open ears, we can draw our own conclusion.
Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy is at the Terra Museum of American Art, 666 N. Michigan, through June 25. Call 664-3939 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Louis Armstrong Archives, Queens College.