It is amazing, beautiful, and triumphant that African Americans, who at the beginning of the 20th-century were mostly despised by the dominant White culture and subject to wanton and homicidal violence in the South, should at the same time have created jazz -- the only original American music and which, in its origins, is essentially happy and upbeat.
In Mr. Brothers's superb new book, he examines the reasons for this aspect of jazz, as well as many other aspects. As he says in his introduction to "Louis Armstrong's New Orleans", it is not so much a biography of Satchmo as it is an attempt to place him and jazz in the historical, social, political, and musical contexts into which the man and the music were born.
Satchmo was the perfect person in the perfect place at the perfect time. The aftermath of the defeat of Reconstruction and the institution of Jim Crow laws was the impetus for 40,000 ex-slaves to flee the plantations and move to New Orleans. Among their possessions they brought their music. This music and its players fused African rhythms and tonalities with Western instruments. The old plantation bands, which were composed mostly of string instruments, began the tradition of "ragging" the tune; that is, taking the melody, breaking it apart, and riffing on it.
When this music arrived in New Orleans, it was translated into wind instruments such as the clarinet and trombone, but especially the cornet. Blues structure also developed at the same time. At the beginning of the 20th century, brass bands were flourishing in New Orleans. Buddy Bolden, a cornetist who played the blues, became the first jazz soloist. The music took off. Into this fecund world, Louis Armstrong was born (1901).
The son of a teenage mother and absent father, Louis roamed the streets of New Orleans selling newspapers, carrying the instruments of band players, and getting himself into trouble occasionally. Trouble sent him to school where he got his own instrument and emerged as a cornetist who, at the age of 14, was good enough to be a substitute in bands. By 17 he was renowned in his hometown and by his mid-twenties he had moved to Chicago as part of the Great Migration of Blacks to the north. He had come to Chicago by invitation of his cornet mentor, Joe "King" Oliver. Soon, Satch would be cutting the records -- with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands -- that first made his reputation and then made him a planetary legend.
All of this Mr. Brothers tells in a literate, compulsively readable style. But he brings more to the table. What is crucial in his book is the understanding of the many strands of context so important to a full picture of any artist's achievement. One example: Mr. Brothers highlights how important the cornet was to the origins of jazz in New Orleans because it was a brass instrument that could be played LOUD and with dexterity. In fact, everybody who remembered Buddy Bolden remarked on the fact that he played loudly (Bolden went insane around 1907 before he could be recorded). This was important because the music mostly took place outdoors in the streets and could be heard a mile or two away. Thus audiences flocked to the bands. Of equal importance in this analysis is that jazz developed before there were automobiles; consequently, cities were quiet enough so that a band could be heard from two miles away.
Another thread of analysis Mr. Brothers foregrounds: The established Creole musicians of New Orleans. They lived downtown on the west side of Canal Street. They were of French heritage and classically trained because of it. They looked down on the "raggy" people, i.e., Blacks, who lived uptown on the other side of Canal. Eventually the Jim Crow laws caught up with the Creoles, and so there grew some empathy between the groups as outsiders trapped by White racism. This social and political dynamic eventually brought the musicians together and benefited both ethnic groups. Many Black musicians learned to read music from the Creole example, and many Creole musicians learned how to "rag time," i.e., play jazz. Sidney Bechet (note the French last name), the greatest of early jazz clarinetists, is the most famous example of a Creole jazz musician. Jelly Roll Morton may have been partly Creole as well.
There is some examination of jazz in Mr. Brothers's book that requires an understanding of very basic music theory. It is helpful to know the fairly rigid and repetitive musical structure of 12-bar blues. It is also of use to know that 4/4 "flat" time means that every beat in a 4-bar measure is of equal weight -- unlike European music in which the first and third beats are accented. Knowing what a melody is and that the heart and soul of jazz is to take the melody apart ("rag" it) is also necessary. I confess to being a musician, but still, these are minor matters, not major ones in appreciating this terrific book. Finally: One highly recommended companion to "Louis Armstrong's New Orleans", is Lee Friedlander's book of photographs, "The Jazz People of New Orleans."