Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington, Soul of Bronzeville

This week’s (02/08) featured musicians are Louis Armstrong and Dinah Washington. You can listen to the show on SoundCloud.

Louis Armstrong

August 8th, 1922 (just 6 months shy of 100 years ago), Louis Armstrong boarded a train from New Orleans to Chicago. He would stay in a boarding house at 3412 South Wabash Avenue, right in the middle of IIT’s campus (down by the Greek Quad).

He had received an invitation to join Joe “King” Oliver’s jazz band at Lincoln Gardens on 31st and Cottage Grove Ave. He played with King Oliver for 2 years before moving to New York to play in Fletcher Henderson’s jazz orchestra; moving back to Chicago after a year, when, in 1925, he got his first record deal with OKeh Records with him as the bandleader. “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five is from a later record in that deal, recorded in 1928. You’ll hear Louis Armstrong open the tune on trumpet with what is now one of the most famous openings in jazz; it’s beautiful and expressive and in some ways sets the tone for jazz in the years after.

The bandleaders that Armstrong first played under, King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson, never let him sing! Louis had grown up singing in New Orleans, and knew he had something special, but the bandleaders never liked it enough to include it in their orchestrations. Armstrong was regularly passed over for other blues singers. In one of his autobiographies he said of Fletcher Henderson, his boss in New York, “He had a million dollar talent in his band and he never thought to let me sing.” The tune “Lazy River,” recorded by Louis Armstrong as a solo artist in 1931, is among the earliest examples of Louis Armstrong scat singing and vocalizing on his records in the most Armstrong way imaginable. You’ll hear his novel approach the role that vocals can have in jazz; especially in the timing, rhythm, and attitude of it.

The gravelly, deep-register warmth of Louis Armstrong’s voice makes it one of the most unique in American music. That polarity in timbre and register allows for powerful contrast in song composition. For a great example, one can listen to any duet that Armstrong has recorded with the great Ella Fitzgerald. “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (1950) and “Summertime” (1958) are two tracks they recorded together nearly a decade apart. You’ll hear Armstrong on both trumpet and vocals; both of which are in stark contrast with the high-register clean voice of Ella Fitzgerald; truly you couldn’t imagine two more different voices.

Duke Ellington had been an admirer of Louis Armstrong for decades. In the 1940s Ellington wrote a tune with Armstrong’s voice in mind, but, for a variety of reasons, they were not able to record it together until 1961. Ellington had tried it with other vocalists in the intervening years, but it wasn’t until the recording with Armstrong that it came into form in the way that only Armstrong could do. That tune is “Azalea” by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. While listening, you’ll hear another example of the contrast between the gravelly warm timbre of Armstrong’s vocals and another delicate instrument–in this case, Ellington on the piano.

You can still visit the home that Armstrong lived in while in Bronzeville at 421 E 44th St. More information at http://www.chicagotribute.org/Markers/Armstrong.htm

Dinah Washington

Born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the year 1924, Dinah Washington moved to Chicago with her mother in 1928, where she developed a talent and a passion for gospel singing. She would often sing in the gospel choir at St. Luke’s Baptist Church, which once stood at 3663 Indiana Avenue, just two blocks south of the Illinois Tech campus!

Dinah eventually left school to sing in a gospel choir full time after winning a singing contest at the Regal theater, just down on 47th and King. Soon she was performing at clubs across Bronzeville, such as Dave’s Cafe and the Downbeat Room of the Sherman Hotel. One day she was going to see Billie Holiday at the Garrick Stage Bar when a club owner was so impressed by her singing that he hired her to sing at the Garrick for a whole year. It was during this time that she acquired the name that most people know her as, when the club owner told her that “Ruth Jones” just wasn’t gonna cut it, hence the adoption of “Dinah Washington”.

Dinah toured with Lionel Hampton’s big band from 1943 to 1945, when Dinah decided she was ready for her own career. In 1946 she left Hampton’s band and signed a deal with Mercury Records, kicking off her solo career. Her very first solo recording for the label was a cover of Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin” (1947), which was the first in a long list of successful records throughout the next decade. From 1948 to 1955 Dinah had a total of 27 R&B Top-10s, including R&B Number 1’s such as “Am I Asking Too Much” (1948) and “Baby Get Lost” (1949).
With her newfound commercial success, Dinah spent the first half of the 50’s touring across the country and frequenting jazz and soul festivals in LA, NYC, Washington DC, and Chicago. Dinah would eventually move to New York in 1956, where she would perform at local clubs and host extravagant parties at her apartment afterwards. These parties were really a who’s who for New York club culture at the time; it was said that you could find politicians, performers, Hollywood stars, and more all in her living room after a show.

In the studio, Dinah was well-known for her no-nonsense attitude. It was said that she went through pianists like nobody else, most of them shooed away after they gave a disappointing performance. When recording, people claim that she would be able to pick out a single lousy musician out of a whole string section if they were making sounds she didn’t care for. Dinah’s effectiveness in the studio is best exemplified in her best-charting single, “What a Difference a Day Makes”. This song, complete with the full string section, was recorded in just one take. Dinah walked into the studio, told the producers she was only giving them one take, and only three minutes later her greatest hit had been recorded.

On December 14, 1963 Dinah died at the young age of 39, leaving behind a legacy of charisma, personality, and talent. Her vocal ability remains a hallmark of 1950’s Jazz and R&B, and many consider her to be one of the greatest vocalists to ever grace the genre. For this reason and many others, she stands as one of the most influential artists in Bronzeville’s history.

@samuelbgolden & @andyyy.cordell

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