Today is the birthday (1901) of Louis Armstrong, nicknamed Satchmo or Pops, legendary jazz trumpet and cornet player, and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana. Armstrong often stated that he was born on July 4, 1900, a date that has been noted in many biographies. Although he died in 1971, it was not until the mid-1980s that his true birth date of August 4, 1901 was discovered by researcher Tad Jones through the examination of baptismal records. Armstrong had no middle name, but a 1949 Time magazine profile gave him the middle name of Daniel. The census and baptismal records confirm he had no middle name. He generally preferred that his first name be pronounced in the French manner – Lou-ie, but in recordings of the song “Hello Dolly” he pronounces it in the English style – Lewis.
Coming to prominence in the 1920s as an “inventive” trumpet and cornet player, Armstrong was a foundational influence in jazz, shifting the focus of the music from collective improvisation to solo performance. With his instantly recognizable gravelly voice, Armstrong was an influential singer, demonstrating great dexterity in improvisation, bending the lyrics and melody of a song for expressive purposes. He was also skilled at scat singing. He is occasionally credited with inventing scat, but there were others before him.
Because of his charismatic stage presence and voice almost as much as for his trumpet-playing, Armstrong’s influence extends well beyond jazz music. By the end of his career in the 1960s, he was widely regarded as a profound influence on popular music in general. Armstrong was one of the first truly popular African-American entertainers to “cross over,” being accepted into white society in a country that was severely racially divided. He rarely publicly politicized his race, often to the dismay of fellow African-Americans, but took a well-publicized stand for desegregation during the Little Rock Crisis.
I could give you a long and informative history of Armstrong’s life, but I’m not going to. We all know he was one of the greatest trumpet and cornet players of all time, bringing the trumpet to the fore as a solo jazz instrument, hitting flawless high notes, singing like gravel, and pleasing countless millions with something as simple as a pearly white smile. The rest you can look up for yourself. Instead here are some quotes from Satchmo (the first being my favorite), followed by some tributes.
“If they act too hip, you know they can’t play shit!”
“Man, all music is folk music. You ain’t never heard no horse sing a song, have you?”
“If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the critics know it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the public knows it.”
“Man, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know.”
“Making money ain’t nothing exciting to me. You might be able to buy a little better booze than the wino on the corner. But you get sick just like the next cat and when you die you’re just as graveyard dead as he is.”
“The memory of things gone is important to a jazz musician. Things like old folks singing in the moonlight in the back yard on a hot night or something said long ago.”
“You blows who you is.”
“He left an undying testimony to the human condition in the America of his time”
“You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played”
“Jazz is not – never has been – a one man show. But if I had to vote for one representative for jazz, that one would have to be Louis Armstrong”
“I’m proud to acknowledge my debt to the ‘Reverend Satchelmouth’ … He is the beginning and the end f music in America”
“Americans, unknowingly, live part of every day in the house that Satch built”
(critic) Leonard Feather
“If you don’t like Louis Armstrong, you don’t know how to love”
There are so many great Louisiana recipes to choose from but I have to go with my favorite – gumbo. There are as many recipes for gumbo as there are cooks in Louisiana. This one is taken directly from Paul Proudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen (with a few minor changes). The secret of all great gumbos is the rich, dark roux that is the foundation. File is used in some gumbos because of its earthy flavor, and as a thickener. In this version it is not necessary but can be added if desired.
Paul Prudhomme’s Cajun-Style Gumbo
1 cup melted pork lard, or vegetable oil
¾ cup flour
2 cups finely chopped onions
1½ cups finely chopped green peppers
1 cup finely chopped celery
10 small or 5 large bay leaves
1¾ tsp. cayenne pepper
2 tsp. freshly ground white pepper
2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp. plus 1 tsp. finely minced fresh garlic
6 cups (about 1½ lb.) fresh, tender young okra cut crosswise into one-quarter-inch-thick rounds, or 3 packages frozen, cut okra
3 cups smoked ham cut into “sticks” about 1-inch long and ½ inch wide (a ham known as tasso, a New Orleans specialty, is best for this. If you wish to make a Creole gumbo, do not use a heavily-smoked ham).
¾ tsp garlic powder
salt to taste (if desired)
4 cups (about 2 lbs) fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded and coarsely chopped, or chopped, imported canned tomatoes
6 cups fish stock
1 lb. peeled, blanched crayfish tails
file powder to be added as desired (optional)
1. A heavy, black, iron skillet is almost essential for the preparation of this dish. It is also strongly recommended that all the ingredients be chopped and assembled before starting to cook. Combine and assemble them in the order in which they will be used so they may be added without hesitation.
2. Heat one-half cup of the melted lard or oil in the skillet until it is barely smoking.
3. Add the flour and stir vigorously and constantly with a wire whisk about three minutes or until the mixture is the color of dark chocolate. Take care that it does not burn.
4. Quickly add half of the onions, one-half cup of the green peppers and one-half cup of the celery. Reduce the heat and cook, stirring, about three minutes. Add four small bay leaves or two large bay leaves, one teaspoon of cayenne pepper, one teaspoon white pepper, one-half teaspoon black pepper and cook, stirring, about one minute. Add one teaspoon of the minced garlic and cook briefly, stirring. Remove from the heat. Scrape the mixture into a large casserole and set aside. There should be about one-and-one-half cups.
5. Heat the remaining one-half cup of melted lard or oil in a black iron skillet over very high heat. When it is hot and almost smoking, add the okra. Cook, stirring often, about 15 minutes. Frozen okra may require a shorter cooking time.
6. Add the remaining onions, green peppers, celery and minced garlic, one cup of the ham and the remaining bay leaves. Continue cooking over high heat, stirring occasionally, for five minutes and add the remaining cayenne pepper, white pepper and black pepper, and the garlic powder. Add salt, if desired (the ham adds salt).
7. Cook until the mixture is quite dry, about five minutes. Add the tomatoes. Stir and cook over high heat, stirring often, about 10 minutes. Stir carefully and often all over the bottom to prevent sticking and burning. Pour and scrape this mixture into the large casserole containing the browned flour.
8. Add the fish stock and the remaining ham. Cook over moderately high heat for about one hour. Stir often all over the bottom. Add the crayfish tails or shrimp and bring to the boil. Let simmer about five minutes.
The base of this gumbo before the seafood is added may be made several days in advance and refrigerated. It also may be frozen. When ready to serve, remove the bay leaves. Serve the file powder separately to be added by each guest according to taste. Serve with plain boiled or steamed rice.
Yield: 10 servings