Because I grew up with Mr. Armstrong (I was eleven years old when he died), he has always been a part of my life. He often appeared on the 1960s variety shows–which I have come to think of as the last gasp of Vaudeville–and I loved watching him perform. At a very young age I became familiar with Louis Armstrong’s music by way of my father’s tendency to play jazz programming on public radio at mealtimes.
Mr. Armstrong has lately crossed my radar screen in the form of a remark made by Troy Maxson, the principal character in August Wilson’s magisterial play, Fences. No one, I think, would dispute Louis Armstrong’s enormous and in every respect indelible influence on Jazz. Like all living things, though, Jazz evolved. Bebop, Jazz for listening rather than dancing, developed in the early 1940s in New York City. When the the recording ban of 1942-44 ended in the United States the innovators and stars of Bebop, foremost among them Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, became widely available to the listening public.
Louis Armstrong heard in Bebop’s frenetic pace and “weird notes” what he called “Chinese music.” Mr. Armstrong believed Bebop artists mostly played for one another, not the audience listening to them. In act one, scene four (page 48 of the Plume edition) of Fences, Troy’s son Lyons, a musician, invites Troy to a club to hear Lyons play. Troy declines with the comment that he doesn’t care for “Chinese music.” I very much doubt this allusion is coincidental, so there’s one obscure note in the play to point out to students reading it (at the risk of revealing my hamster wheel of a mind to the readers of this blog).
It’s also worth mentioning, should you be teaching Fences (this is my first time through this masterpiece) that Troy works as a garbage collector; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., at the time of his death in Memphis, was in that city to support the cause of striking sanitation workers. This too, I suppose, I reject as a coincidence. The Pittsburgh Cycle, as Mr. Wilson’s plays are known, is also known variously as the Century Cycle and the American Century Cycle. This is drama, yes, but it is also history.
So this post is an appropriate conclusion to Black History Month 2022. Women’s History Month 2022 begins on 1 March. As always, Mark’s Text Terminal will observe this imperfect, indeed inadequate (as it too is only a month long–scarcely enough time to detail the manifold contributions of women to this world) month with posts and Weekly Texts on topics in women’s history.
If you find typos in these documents, I would appreciate a notification. And, as always, if you find this material useful in your practice, I would be grateful to hear what you think of it. I seek your peer review.