Story Bites

Louis Armstrong: The Man who Transformed Jazz

Louis Armstrong — also known as “Satchmo”, “Satch”, “Pops”, and “Louie” — was a man who changed the face of jazz. With his charming personality and fantastical playing of the cornet and trumpet, it’s not much of a surprise looking back. But everyone’s got to start somewhere, as is the case with this famous musical powerhouse.

Rough roads ahead

Born in New Orleans in 1901 to Mary Albert and William Armstrong, Louis Daniel Armstrong grew up with the odds against him. His father had abandoned his mother and him at a young age. To make matters worse, he was born in a poverty-stricken neighborhood known as The Battlefield. That didn’t stop Armstrong, though; through his childhood he’d make money working odd jobs for the Karnofskys, a family of Lithuanian Jews. But the Karnofskys were more than just a paycheck; they were his second home, more often than not inviting him over for dinner.

From a young age, Armstrong always wanted to play something other than the tin horn he’d been playing. And luck must have been on his side, for one day he saw a cornet in a pawn shop window. With his earnings from the Karnofskys, Armstrong bought the instrument and began his musical journey.

Cornet 101

While Armstrong loved playing the cornet, he’d need a teacher to become even better. Luckily for him, one would come in the least expected way. On New Year’s Eve of 1912, Armstrong stole his stepfather’s gun and fired a blank into the air. He was promptly arrested and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home, a bare place where meals were small and the mattresses absent. It was here that Armstrong met Peter Davis, a man who frequently appeared at the home. Davis, who was a musician, took Armstrong under his wings and gave him his first formal music lessons. He even let him become part of the band at the home.

In 1914, Armstrong was released from the home to stay with his biological father. He wasn’t welcome there though, so it wasn’t long before he was back home with his mother. He lived with her until he began to play in brass bands and riverboats in 1918 under Fate Marable. Marable, who’d been taught to read music at a young age, passed along this knowledge to all his band members. Armstrong thought of this experience as his university training, and during this period he learned how to sight read music. With this start, Armstrong found he could read music by the age of twenty.

An unstoppable force

Beginning with his move to Chicago in 1922 at the invitation of King Oliver —  a notable American jazz cornet player and bandleader — things only went up from there. His reputation grew, in part due to his participation in “cutting contests” — a musical improvisation contest.

He’d go on to briefly play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the top African-American band of that time, develop his vocal skills, and create famous groups like Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. He became so prominent of a performer that at one point in his career he’d go on to play an average of 300 performances a year. And, after a long career, he’d leave behind one more hit in the United Kingdom with his single “What a Wonderful World”.

Armstrong’s secret sauce

Throughout everything Armstrong did, his charismatic and exuberant personality would come along, even when it came to jazz. While most collective ensembles would only vary the melody of a tune and play along together, Armstrong’s personality thought a different route would be better. He played variations based on the chord harmonies of the song, creating wild improvisations that many hadn’t dared to even dream of. With this, he’d change the very fiber of jazz, making it more about the solo performances rather than the collective improvisation.

It helped that he was a master at musical improvisation, in large part thanks to him always challenging himself to get better through the blood, sweat and tears of practice. Armstrong took the traditional routes of practice, but he was also one of the first artists who used recordings of his performances to improve his playing.

More than just a brass player

To add even more to an already talented man, Armstrong also helped popularize scat singing with his recording of Boyd Atkins’s “Heebie Jeebies”. According to legend, Armstrong dropped his sheet music during the recording and, instead of giving up, started singing nonsense syllables. While he thought this track would be discarded, to Armstrong’s surprise it was released to be an unexpected hit. 

On top of this all, Armstrong even managed to write more than fifty songs during his busy life. Of those, some such as “Potato Head Blues”, “Gully Low Blues”, and “Swing That Music” have gone on to become jazz standards.

Armstrong was, without a doubt, a man of great talent and skill. He was also a man who never forgot where he came from and the help he got from the Karnofskys. For the rest of his life until his passing in 1971, he wore a Star of David in remembrance of all those times he made him feel like family.

Who knows, maybe he’s even chatting with them now in the afterlife, wherever that may be.

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Forbidden Feelings: Clara & Robert Schumann’s Fight for Love

A female music prodigy and male composer fight for their love, doing anything up to and including suing the woman’s father. It sounds like something straight out of a romance novel, but for Clara and Robert Schumann, this was their life.

A prodigy is born

While Robert Schumann had been born in 1810 in Zwickau, Clara Wieck was born late in Leipzig in 1819. Her father Friedrich primarily trained her in piano during her childhood. Her mother was absent from her life due to a divorce when Clara was only five.

Clara trained daily with one-hour lessons from her father followed by two hours of practice every day. While tough, the training paid off and she had her debut performance in 1828 at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig. She was only nine years old.

Meeting of the musicians

In that same year she would go on to perform once again in Leipzig. This time it was at the home of Ernst Carus, director of the mental hospital at Colditz Castle. It was also here that none other than Robert Schumann himself was in attendance. Impressed by Clara’s playing, Robert asked his mother’s permission to stop studying law. He wanted to take music lessons under Clara’s father Friedrich instead. His mother agreed and he studied underneath Friedrich for a year before returning back to his law studies.

He could have continued on the law track, but the allure of music pulled at his heart strings once again. So, in 1830 Robert decided to quit his law studies for good and continue underneath Friedrich Wieck. Friedrich was encouraging, telling Robert that he could become a master musician in a few years’ time. Unfortunately, this would never come true; in his early 20s Robert would suffer a hand injury, ending his career as a pianist. Undeterred, he decided to dive into the world of music composition where his hand injury mattered little.

Falling for Clara

As he delved further into composition, Robert began to feel a growing affection for the now 15-year-old Clara. Over the next years their feelings grew together and, in 1837 when Clara was 18, he proposed to her.

She ecstatically agreed, but her father disapproved of the whole thing, denying their ability to marry. And while many may have given up at this point, Clara and Robert were not the type. Instead, they decided to sue her father for their right to marriage. A legal battle started that would go on for three grueling years.

A love kept secret

During this battle, Clara and Robert continued to send love letters and meet in secret. Robert would often wait hours in a cafe nearby after one of Clara’s concerts. Their prize: a few minutes of much valued time together. Sneaking around was labor-intensive though, and some have speculated that the emotional hardship they endured led Robert Schumann to his large creation of Lieder — poetry set to classical music.

But their hardship could only last for so long and, fortunately for them, their efforts were finally rewarded in 1840. They won the legal battle against Clara’s father and finally married in September.

Meet the Schumanns

Over their marriage Clara taught piano and went on concert tours while Robert kept composing. While already impressive, it’s even more so considering they also somehow managed to raise their eight children. Happily married, the relationship was unfortunately cut short when Robert threw himself from a bridge into the Rhine River after being driven mad by demonic visions in 1854. Though he survived, his mental health continued to rapidly deteriorate until his early death in 1856. His last written piece was Geistervariationen, or Ghost Variations in English.

After Robert’s tragic death, Clara went on to regularly perform. She would play in Britain, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and her homeland of Germany over the next decades. She’d even play into the 1870s and 1880s. Her final concert was on March 12, 1891 in Frankfurt. Her final song played was Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn with James Kwast.

The end of Clara

Clara, her life lived to the fullest, passed away at the age of 76 in 1896. It was 40 years after her husband had died. She was buried next to Robert, leaving a legacy of her virtuoso performances and teachings to people like Carl Friedberg. A German pianist and teacher, Carl spread those very same teachings to The Juilliard School in New York City.

And while both Clara and Robert Schumann may be gone, their love and devotion to each other still live on in a diary they kept together during their marriage. Filled with entries about their lives and their desires and accomplishments in the arts, it’s clear that they were more than just a couple; they were a team.

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Composition and Combat: How Ego (almost) Killed a Man

George Frideric Handel was most famously known as a composer, but did you know he was also in a sword fight? It’s true, and today we’ll be covering that infamous duel.

A stubborn start

Born in Halle, Duchy of Magdeburg in the year 1685, Handel’s father Georg Händel was against all things music. Despite this, Handel was stubborn, so much so that there are unconfirmed stories of him sneaking a little clavichord into a room at the top of the house he grew up in.

Through his stubborn perseverance Handel soon found himself at a young age studying in Halle underneath the organist Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow. With this training, he eventually went on to accept a position in 1702 as an organist at the Calvinist Cathedral in Halle. During this time he also made acquaintances with Georg Phillip Telemann and even briefly studied law at the insistence of his father.

When his probationary appointment at the cathedral ended in 1703,  Handel chose to move to Hamburg. Here he took a position as violinist and harpsichordist at the Oper am Gänsemarkt. And it’s also here where he met Johann Mattheson, the man who almost killed him. Most famously known as a music theorist, Mattheson was a man of many talents, taking lessons from a young age in keyboard instruments, violin, composition, and singing. With these skills, it was only natural that Mattheson would come to compose a number of musical works himself.

One of Mattheson’s musical works, Cleopatra, is where the fabled sword fight occurred. During the premier in 1704, conflict arose when Handel refused to relinquish control as conductor back to Mattheson, who was busy singing for one of the scenes. Tempers flared and it wasn’t long before one of them challenged the other to a duel outside.

The sword fight begins

A crowd began to gather as their swords swung left and right, clanking over sounds of birds and people murmuring. The two men deftly handled their swords, exchanging blows in a flurry of strikes. At the height of the duel, Mattheson found an opening and lunged his sword toward Handel’s exposed chest. Certain that he was mortally wounded, the crowd gasped in surprise at the sight of Handel still standing, seemingly unscathed. It turned out a large metal button on his cloak deflected the strike, saving his life from what should have been certain death.

The men came to their senses at this, deciding to end the conflict and even reconcile. Over the years the two men became life-long friends, sending letters back and forth long after they went on their separate journeys.

A life well lived

Over the course of his life, Handel would go on to write 42 operas, 25 oratorios, more than 120 cantatas, and many more musical works before passing away in 1759. Had it not been for that metal button of his, countless numbers of those masterpieces may have never existed.

So, next time you’re listening to a piece by Handel, I hope you think to yourself:
Thank goodness for that metal button.

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