|A Marable band with Armstrong, onboard a Steckfus steamship|
William Howland Kenney's excellent Jazz on the River and Dennis Owsley's City of Gabriels, The History of jazz in St. Louis, 1895-1983 both make it clear that music played on the riverboats during their heyday(c. 1910's-1930's) was arranged dance music of a medium tempo, with apparently little chance for a musician to "get off." So, for New Orleans jazz musicians, playing in a Marable band on a Streckfus steamboat was not a chance to hone his hot chops, but it was nonetheless a desirable gig. Especially after the closure of Storyville in 1917, even those in the upper end of the New Orleans jazz hierarchy were struggling. The boats provided a steady paycheck–$35 per week with room and board, $45 without. They also provided a heavy dose of discipline; some of it arbitrary and racist and some of it seen as useful. I.e., the discipline of reading music.
Louis Armstrong first played on a Streckfus steamer in 1918. He worked his way from town to town and in St. Louis, jammed with the local musicians. Louis was ambivalent about reading music. He knew it was a skill he needed to have, but said he thought it separated the musician from the listener. As a result, he progressed in reading, but didn't become really proficient. (c.f. the "pound plenty" story with Fletcher Henderson).
Armstrong was allowed to play a cornet solo with just piano accompaniment on a song called "La Veda," which apparently went over well. He wanted to expand his role and be a featured player and singer with the band, but neither Marable nor Streckfus wanted that. One can speculate that Armstrong's representation would have threatened the very tightly controlled, segregated "Dixieland" mythology that ownership felt underlay the appeal of the excursion boats and which they tried to purvey through the music. Give the customers a whiff of the exotic, but no polyphony, really fast or slow tempos or sexual lyrics.
|Armstrong and Oliver|
While Armstrong never played on the river again (at least for Marable), the Big River stayed a part of Armstrong's musical identity for the rest of his life, especially during the next twenty years.
Although he recorded Hoagy Carmichael's "Lazy River" in 1931 and several times after, his approach to that tune has a very different flavor than the ones I'm posting. Armstrong plays "Lazy River" more as a parody, while these tunes allow him to more sincerely limn a specifically black-centric experience of life and memory on the Big River. As author Kenney suggests, he is taking the tradition of songs and chanteys sung by roustas and expanding it. As an aside, Kenney says that there is good evidence that, in derivation, chanteys are West Indian as much or more so than British. With the slavery triangular trade in full swing, there's good reason to think there was a musical exchange between the Caribbean Islands and the British Islands.
Armstrong's earliest "river" recording was in 1930 for Okeh records, with pianist Buck Washington. This tune was an amalgam of "Deep River" and "Motherless Child."
In 1933, Armstrong recorded for the Victor label with a 12-piece band, which included several Marable Alums. They recorded "Mississippi Basin," "Dusky Stevedore" and "Mighty River."
In 1939 and 1940, he recorded "Shanty Boat on the Mississippi" and "Lazy 'Sippi Steamer" for Decca records.
In this repertoire, Armstrong shows once again his genius for transcending the boundaries between racial identification, personal integrity and the marketplace.
I post this with all respect to Ricky Riccardi, whose blog is the ultimate source of Armstrong info.