As the month of July comes to a close—with weather crises, political turbulence, and new COVID-19 variant concerns—we’re still here on #BlackMusicSunday with music to soothe a few of those ongoing worries away … if only for today.

While scrolling through a long list of jazz musicians born in July and the All About Jazz Birthday calendar, I was reminded that the most famous of them all celebrated his birthday on July 4, even if researchers now say he was born on Aug. 4. That man was “Pops,” as he was dubbed by folks in the music world; others called him “Satchmo.” We know him as Louis Armstrong.

Since I didn’t get to honor his birthday on the fourth, let’s open with Armstrong. We’ll close with today’s birthday celebrant, alto-saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who had several nicknames but was most frequently called “Rabbit.”

Back in 2013, I posted a celebration of Pops on July 4, explaining that it was a tradition at my old jazz radio station.

When I was the program director of WPFW-FM radio, Pacifica, Washington, D.C., we broadcast his music from 6:30 AM till midnight, interspersed with interviews with musicians who knew him and loved him.  

Several musicians spoke of how he quietly took care of many older musicians financially, and not only did he sustain them while living, he took care of their funeral expenses and looked after their families. His close friends called him “Pops.”

So July 4th, to me, is “Pops Day.”

The July 4 Armstrong birthday celebration happens at other jazz stations as well, like New York’s WKCR. The Louis Armstrong House Museum has a bio of his life—listing Aug. 4 as his birthdate.

Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on August 4, 1901. He was raised by his mother Mayann in a neighborhood so dangerous it was called “The Battlefield.” He only had a fifth-grade education, dropping out of school early to go to work. An early job working for the Jewish Karnofsky family allowed Armstrong to make enough money to purchase his first cornet.

On New Year’s Eve 1912, he was arrested and sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys. There, under the tutelage of Peter Davis, he learned how to properly play the cornet, eventually becoming the leader of the Waif’s Home Brass Band. Released from the Waif’s Home in 1914, Armstrong set his sights on becoming a professional musician. Mentored by the city’s top cornetist, Joe “King” Oliver, Armstrong soon became one of the most in-demand cornetists in town, eventually working steadily on Mississippi riverboats.

In 1922, King Oliver sent for Armstrong to join his band in Chicago. Armstrong and Oliver became the talk of the town with their intricate two-cornet breaks and started making records together in 1923. By that point, Armstrong began dating the pianist in the band, Lillian Hardin. In 1924, Armstrong married Hardin, who urged Armstrong to leave Oliver and try to make it on his own. A year in New York with Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra proved unsatisfying so Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925 and began making records under his own name for the first time.

The group formed in his “own name” was Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.

For a more detailed dive into his life, and music, I suggest you read Louis Armstrong, In His Own Words: Selected Writings.

Bookcover

The book was written by Armstrong and edited by Thomas Brothers.

This unparalleled collection of Armstrong’s candid writings reveals a side of the artist not widely known to his fans. With idiosyncratic language and punctuation that recalls his musical virtuosity, Armstrong presents his thoughts on his life and career–from abject poverty in New Orleans to playing in the famous cafes, cabarets, and saloons of Storyville; from his big break in 1922 with the King Oliver band to his storming of New York; from his breaking of color barriers in Hollywood to the infamous King of the Zulus incident in 1949; and finally, to his last days in Queens, New York.

Music historian Brian Harker reviewed the unique book for Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association.

Louis Armstrong in His Own Words sets particularly high standards of editorial judgment and fidelity. The book contains nineteen items, all written by Armstrong and all previously inaccessible except through research libraries or photocopies from decades-old periodicals. Brothers has made his selections wisely, starting with the indispensable “Louis Armstrong + the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907.” Other essential entries include source material for the first Armstrong biography (the “Goffin Notebooks”) and the incomplete sequels to Armstrong’s second autobiography (“The Armstrong Story” and “The Satchmo Story”). To contextualize the writings, Brothers provides useful ancillary materials: an appendix of well-informed commentary on each of the entries, a bibliography of sixty-five extant writings by Armstrong, and an annotated index compiled by Charles Kinzer.

Brothers takes a scrupulous approach to editorial policy. He preserves Armstrong’s idiosyncratic uses of capitalization and punctuation, which he views as inflections of Armstrong’s prose similar to the expressive devices of his trumpet playing. Brothers argues convincingly that such unorthodox writing style is neither meaningless nor consistently ironic (as some have proposed), but rather a way of conveying a specifically vocal emphasis. Indeed, one can almost hear Armstrong speak the following sentence from a letter he wrote to his manager Joe Glaser in 1955: “I–Just, Love, Your, Checks, in, My POCKETS–“OH” They look so pretty, until, I hate like hell to cash them” (p. 163). Since Brothers normalizes spelling, spacing, and other minor aspects, this book should not be seen as a critical text. Rather, it strikes a compromise between two somewhat contradictory goals: “To make Armstrong’s writings accessible to the general reader and to preserve the unique features of his style” (p. xxv).

If you’ve never visited the Armstrong House Museum in New York City, take a trip out to Queens to do so. Otherwise, Armstrong fans should visit their website.

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Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald recorded my favorite duet version of “Summertime,” from Porgy and Bess.

Less well-known is Armstrong’s “Summer Song” with Dave Brubeck.

The “Summer Song” lyrics feel particularly relevant as summer races toward fall.

Love, to me, is like a summer day
Silent ’cause, there’s just too much to say
Still, and warm, and peaceful
Even clouds that may drift by
Can’t disturb our summer sky
I’ll take summer, that’s my time of year
Winter’s shadow, seems to disappear
Gay is swanee season
That’s the reason I can say
That I love a summer day
I hear laughter, from the swimming hole

Kids out fishin’, with the willow pole
Boats come driftin’, round the bend
Why must summer, ever end…
Love, to me, is like a summer day
If it ends, the memories will stay
Still, and warm, and peaceful
Now the days are getting long
I can sing my summer song
I hear laughter, from the swimmin’ hole
Kids out fishin’, with the willow pole
Boats come driftin’, round the bend
Why must summer, ever end…

“Summer Song,” written by Brubeck and his wife Iola, was a tune from The Real Ambassadors.

In 1961, Dave Brubeck put together a remarkable musical show. Using the talents of Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, Carmen McRae, the innovative bop vocal group Lambert, Hendricks And Ross, and his own rhythm section, Brubeck and his wife, lyricist Iola, wrote a largely upbeat play full of anti-racism songs and tunes that celebrated human understanding.

For those of you who want to spend a chunk of listening and viewing time with Pops, this video clip from onemediamusic has about an hour’s worth!

Check out the track list!

Louis Armstrong — Satchmo At His Best – Legends In Concert Also featured is footage of Armstrong playing with such jazz greats as Lionel Hampton and Jack Teagarden. Most of the performances are in black and white as it was made up using archive footage. In his early 20s, Armstrong moved to New York, where his music influenced many top musicians of the time.

1. Hello, Dolly!

2. I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You

3. Muskrat Ramble

4. On The Sunny Side Of The Street

5. Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen

6. Jeepers Creepers

7. C’est Si Bon

8. Medley: Now You Has Jazz / Tiger Rag

9. The Birth Of The Blues (feat. Frank Sinatra)

10. I Love Jazz

11. South Rampart Street Parade

12. When It’s Sleepy Time Down South

13. Just Because

14. St Louis Blues

15. Some Day You’ll Be Sorry

16. When The Saints Go Marchin’ In

17. The Umbrella Man

Changing instruments, but not eras, let’s salute today’s birthday great, alto-saxophonist Johnny “Rabbit” Hodges, who was born on July 25, 1907 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Scott Yanow, jazz reviewer, historian, and author wrote this detailed bio for The Syncopated Times

He had the most beautiful tone of anyone ever on alto-sax and possibly of all saxophonists (although Stan Getz on tenor came close). When he was called upon to play a ballad with Duke Ellington, he would approach the microphone while looking completely emotionless even as he played luscious phrases with his gorgeous tone. His blank expression made it look as if he were thinking about what he might order for supper or fantasizing about being somewhere else rather than concentrating on what beautiful phrase he would be playing next. […]

Early on he was self-taught on drums and piano, playing the latter at dances. When he was 14, Hodges began playing soprano sax. At that time the only significant jazz saxophonist was Sidney Bechet, the master of the soprano. Hodges met him in 1922, impressing the older player who gave him some lessons and encouragement. Hodges soon began doubling on alto because it was easier to find work on that instrument.[…]

In mid-1928, Johnny Hodges joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra on the recommendation of clarinetist Barney Bigard. His boyhood friend Harry Carney was already a member of the band, remaining as an important fixture of the orchestra for the rest of his life. Hodges would be with Ellington almost as long.

Give a listen to his lyrical horn on this version of Duke Ellington’s tune of “I Got it Bad and that Ain’t Good” on Johnny Hodges with Billy Strayhorn and the Orchestrarecorded in December 1961.

It’s no wonder that music critics have said that Ellington didn’t need a vocalist to sing with the band when he had Hodges to sing with his horn.

Here’s Hodges soloing with the Ellington Band in 1969.

It’s hard to believe, given his role in jazz history, that there is only one published biography of Hodges, and that it took so long for it to his story to hit the shelves. Many thanks to Con Chapman for writing it, and to Oxford University Press for publishing Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges in 2019.

Book cover.  Biography of alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges

In his eulogy of saxophonist Johnny Hodges (1907-70), Duke Ellington ended with the words, “Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes–this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.” Hodges’ unforgettable tone resonated throughout the jazz world over the greater part of the twentieth century. Benny Goodman described Hodges as “by far the greatest man on alto sax that I ever heard,” and Charlie Parker compared him to Lily Pons, the operatic soprano. As a teenager, Hodges developed his playing style by imitating Sidney Bechet, the New Orleans soprano sax player, then honed it in late-night cutting sessions in New York and a succession of bands lead by Chick Webb, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and Luckey Roberts. In 1928 he joined Duke Ellington, beginning an association that would continue, with one interruption, until Hodges’ death. Hodges’ celebrated technique and silky tone marked him then, and still today, as one of the most important and influential saxophone players in the history of jazz. As the first ever biography on Johnny Hodges, Rabbit’s Blues details his place as one of the premier artists of the alto sax in jazz history, and his role as co-composer with Ellington.

Musician Steve Provizer reviewed the book for The Arts Fuse.

Alto and soprano saxophonist Johnny Hodges was one of the most singular voices in jazz. He didn’t play the horn as much as sing through it. He made a large, long-term contribution to the music, both as a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra as well as on his own. Hodges was also a somewhat inscrutable, taciturn, and quiet man, with a relatively uneventful personal life. This makes him a tough case for the would-be biographer, but author Con Chapman carries off the task well. Anyone who spends several pages just parsing out how Hodges got his nicknames (Little Caesar, Squatty Roo, Jeep, but mostly, Rabbit) has things under control.

The book offers several backstories for the nickname “Rabbit”—however I’m not sure I agree that he “looked like a bunny.”

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As a fan of ballads, I could listen to Hodges all day, especially when I need my nerves soothed. This medley is all the medicine I need.

For those of you who love the sheer beauty of instruments, jazz writer Doug Ramsey posted this note with a video from Tomoji Hirakata about Hodge’s sax on his Rifftides blog.

The video below is about the horn played by the great Duke Ellington alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges (1906-1970). The voice in the commentary is that of Frank Wess, a major saxophonist of the generation following Hodges who is an active player at the age of 91. Mr. Wess explains that he owns the Vito saxophone, number 5000, and used it when he played lead alto for the Toshiko Akiyoshi orchestra. You needn’t be a saxophonist to appreciate the intricacy and beauty of the instrument. Tomoji Hirikata, a senior technical specialist in New York for the Yamaha instrument company, created something approaching a minor work of art when he crafted this video.

I can all but guarantee you’ve never seen an instrument like this one, so lovingly profiled.

What an amazing piece of art!

Please join me in the comments section for more music from July birthday celebrants from the world of jazz … and be sure to post your favorites as well!

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This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.

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