Friday, May 10, 2024

Books: "The Jazz Men" By Larry Tye


The Jazz Men: How Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie Transformed America

By Larry Tye

Mariner Books; hardcover, 416 pages; $32.50

Larry Tye is the New York Times bestselling author of Bobby Kennedy and Satchel, and he has also authored Demagogue, The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising from the Rails, as well as the co-author of Shock, with Kitty Dukakis. An award-winning reporter at the Boston Globe and a Nieman fellow at Harvard University, Tye now runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship.

In the new, richly-researched book, The Jazz Men, Larry Tye has written a sweeping and spellbinding portrait of the longtime kings of jazz Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Count Basie. They were born within a few years of each other and overcame racist exclusion and violence to become the most popular entertainers in the world.

These were revolutionary American musicians, maestro jazzmen who orchestrated the chords that captured the soul of twentieth-century America. Tye tells the story of the birth of jazz, while unveiling fresh revelations about these icons' lives on and off the bandstand.

Duke Ellington was the grandson of slaves who was christened Edward Kennedy Ellington, a man whose story is as layered and nuanced as his name suggests, and who wrote music that defied categorization.

Louis Daniel Armstrong was born in a New Orleans slum that was so rough it was called The Battlefield, and he got his first musical instrument when he was seven years old, a ten-cent tin horn that drew buyers to his rag-peddling wagon and set him on the road to elevating jazz into a pulsating force for spontaneity and freedom.

William James Basie twas the son of a coachman and laundress who dreamed of escaping every time the traveling carnival swept into town. He engineered his escape with help from Fats Waller.

The biographical information of the three, and how their journeys intertwined, as well as the history of the times they lived in, sets this book apart. There is a deep look into how Armstrong experimented with numerous instruments before settling on being a trumpet player, just as how Basie originally played trap drums, which was a set with a small snare and bass, plus a hanging foot pedal. Eventually, he became a renowned pianist.

The New Orleans before Armstrong was born was one in which there were no color lines, and a palpable feel of being welcoming to all outsiders - including Irish people who fled the famine, Jewish merchants, and more Italians there aside from New York - was palpable in the late 1800s post-Civil War era. It also was a place that had high political participation, as 72 percent of the city's eligible Blacks registered to vote, and they had the first African Americans to serve as Governor in any state, Oscar Dunn and Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback. Sadly, that laissez-faire mindset began to erode at the turn of the century, around the time Armstrong was born, and he was confronted with segration on a bus as young as five years old.

Tye writes of these titans in this excerpt: "This is the story of three revolutionary American maestros, the jazzmen whose music throbs at the soul of twentieth-century America.

You know their names: Duke Ellington, Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong, and Count Basie. And you probably think you know their stories. Duke was the man who seduced the country with 'Mood Indigo' and six thousand other tunes composed on his Steinway Grand, and who wound up on a U.S. coin and a U.S. postage stamp. Satchmo was a multifaceted rhythm maker - trumpeter, vocalist, and leading man on the silver screen - who charmed us when he crooned 'Mack the Knife' and whose 'Heebie Jeebies' we instantly grasped despite its indecipherable English. Then there was the Count, the most inscrutable of the threesome, who proved - with his trademark flicker of the brow and tinkle on the treble - that the best place from which to conduct a band is a piano stool.

Yet much as we may think we do, we don't know any of the three. Not really. The story of Duke Ellington, the grandson of slaves who was christened Edward Kennedy Ellington, was layered, nuanced, and embellished not just by his managers but by his own behind-the-scenes image polishing. Louis Amstrong's father took off when he was an infant, his teenage mother temporarily took the hustling, and he was raised by his grandmother, great-grandmother, and a family of Lithuanian Hews named Karnofsky. William James Basie, the son of a coachman and laundress, also grew up in a world unfamiliar to white fans, one he dreamed of escaping every time the traveling carnival swept into town and from which he finally engineered a getaway with help from renowned jazz pianist and humorist Fats Waller.

What is far less known about these groundbreakers is that they were bound not merely by their music or even the discrimination that they, like all Blacks of their day, routinely encountered. Each defied and ultimately overcame racial boundaries not by waging war over every slight, which would have accomplished little in that Jim Crow era, but by opening America's ears and souls to the magnificence of their melodies. White men who wouldn't let a Black through their front door wooed their sweethearts with tunes from the Count, the Duke, and gravel-throated Satchmo. White women who dodged Blacks on the sidewalk gleefully tapped their high heels in the isolation of their living rooms. Even the most unyielding of rednecks flipped on their radios to hear 'One O'Clock Jump' as they sped their trucks through the rolling hills of the hinterlands. Race, for once, fell away as America listened rapt.

In the process Messrs. Basie, Ellington, and Armstrong crashed through racist ceilings, making both musical and social history. All would be toasted by presidents from the race-baiting Richard Nixon to the biracial Barack Obama. As their irresistible tunes still keep our feet tapping to this day, the lives of these jazzmen resonate in the way they quietly upended the way musical dynasties are constructed and how human rights are secured.The sound of their evolving jazz dialect formed a cultural fulcrum that no outraged protester or government-issued desegregation order could begin to achieve.

Each of these unique and improvisational men did that in his own way. Armstrong was over-the-top and genuine, and he appealed to our nostalgia. Ellington was moody, aristocratic, and futuristic. Basie, with a temperament both reticent and heartfelt, was smack-dab in the moment. Those dispositional differences help explain why, even as they professed reverence for one another, they seldom connected on the bandstand or off.'

No comments:

Post a Comment