Louis Armstrong, summoned by King Oliver, came up to Chicago in the summer of 1922, Buster Bailey reports that “Louis upset Chicago. All the musicians came to hear Louis. What made Louis upset Chicago so? His execution, for one thing, and his ideas, his drive. Well, they didn’t call it drive, they called it ‘attack’ at the time. Yes, that’s what it was, man. They got crazy for his feeling.”
His feeling. Even toward the end of his life, when many of the same tunes would be played night after night, month after month, Louis could still, as trombonist Trummy Young remembers, make a sideman cry.
His feeling. Billie Holiday, a young girl in Baltimore, listening to Louis’s recordings: “He didn’t say any words, but somehow it just moved me so. It sounded so sad and sweet, all at the same time. It sounded like he was making love to me. That’s how I wanted to sing.”
There has been no jazz musician so widely, deeply, durably influential as Louis. And no trumpet player who could do all he could do on the horn. Once, Louis told journalist Gilbert Millstein, “I’m playin’ a date in Florida, livin’ in the colored section and I’m playin’ my horn for myself one afternoon. A knock come on the door and there’s an old, gray-haired flute player from the Philadelphia Orchestra, down there for his health. Walking through that neighborhood, he heard this horn, playing Cavalleria Rusticana, which he said he never heard phrased like that before. To him it was as if an orchestra was behind it.”
One of the reasons I enjoy reading Joe Posnanski’s blog is because he relishes talking about sports the way fans do. He takes bar room topics, often in list form, and riffs, with reason and humor and a sense of fun. Who was the best so-and-so, what was the greatest such-and-such. The enthusiasm he shows for this kind of banter is what makes Pos so appealing–and he’s as well-liked a sports writer as I’ve ever met. The sabr-numbers crowd dig him and the mainstream guys like him too.
I was in Pos-mode the other day when I read Chris Ballard’s SI cover story on LeBron James. King James is only 24, a man-child, physical-mental freak of historically great proportions. The guy is twenty someodd pounds shy of 300, for crying out loud. I had no idea he was that big. And he’s so fast. He could play strong safety in the NFL.
Along with Kobe Bryant, James is the greatest player in the game and he’s only getting better. So I thought, when we talk about the greatest basketball players in the post-Jordan Era, it’s got to be Shaq, who you can’t really compare with Jordan because of the position; Kobe, who has won three titles and is certainly great, but not at Jordan’s level, especially off the court in terms of mainstream popularity and influence; and James.
Of course the league has been filled with other iconic players since Jordan level, including Allen Iverson, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett, but not ones whose appeal crossed over to a wider audience. They are just hall of famers in the game. Nobody has reached the level Jordan attained. Jordan followed the greatestness of Magic and Bird seemlessly and he brought it to a crescendo that was peerless.
I thought about guys on that level—Jordan and Tiger Woods, Babe Ruth—as I read an old GQ article by the novelist William Kennedy. In 1956, Kennedy was a kid reporter working for the Albany-Times Union when he interviewed Louis Armstrong, who was in town for a gig. Kennedy went up to his hotel room and talked with him for an hour and a half. He wrote a short nothing piece on it for the paper but saved his notes.
My awe and reverence for Louis continued to grow through the ensuing years, and somewhere in the late 1970s I conducted an after-dinner poll as to who was the most valuable person who had ever lived, and Satchmo won, with five votes. William Faulkner got four, Michangelo three, Beethoven, Muhammad Ali and Tolstoy two each, and Dostoyevsky and Busby Berkeley one each.
…He was a giant in his youth: the first major soloist in jazz, the man to whom every last jazz, swing, modern jazz and rock musician after hism has been and is indebted, some via the grand-larceny route. Music has changed radically since the seminal days of jazz, but Satchmo’s achievement has not been diminished. No one has superseded him in jazz eminence the way Crosby superseded Jolson and Sinatra superseded Crosby and the Beatles superseded Elvis, and I will never know who or what really superseded the Beatles.
Who else, in sports, in the arts, in popular culture, is on this level?