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Genius isn't inventing or developing something out of thin air. Rather, genius is taking elements that already exist and putting them together in a monumentally new way.

Albert Einstein, of course, is the prototypical genius. His most important breakthrough was taking work by Max Planck and others and transforming it into a theory that illuminated the relationship between energy and matter. He took the hints that the earlier scientists used for mathematical constructs necessary to make equations work--but which they didn't think actually existed in nature--and showed that they were real and defined the behavior of light and, indeed, all matter. (That, in any case, is my limited understanding.)

What does this all have to do with Louis Armstrong? Plenty. Armstrong is the Einstein of modern music. There were other Bohrs, Feynmans and Hawkings (Ellington, Monk and Parker is the start of a pretty good list). But only one guy is at the top of the heap. That is Louis Armstrong. Miles Davis, who reportedly didn't like Armstrong because of the way the latter presented himself to white audiences, acknowledged his stature:

"You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played."
It isn't that he necessarily was a greater talent than other jazz greats.  It was the talent plus the luck of being there at the right moment. The world was ready for Einstein to discover the relationship between matter and energy that would lead to quantum physics. And Armstrong was in the right place at the right time when jazz was ready to move from an ensemble to solo art form. Many can describe what he did far better than I.

It's also very interesting to note the similarities between the lives of the two men. Both were amazingly charismatic and led uniquely American lives. Both saw their breakthrough grow to be something with which they were uncomfortable: quantum mechanics and bebop. (The purest manifestation of Armstrong's breakthrough, by the way, can be listened to. It is said to be the first 13 seconds of the beautiful West End Blues.)

Like most geniuses, Armstrong and Einstein had their breakthroughs early in the careers and had to deal with an unrealistic expectations for decades afterwards. This was difficult for both men.

Armstrong, in some critics' eyes, stopped innovating and became a jolly reactionary fighting against the innovations he made possible. Einstein rebelled against the quantum world ("God does not play dice with the universe") and embarked on a quixotic quest for the unified field theory. (During the past year, the controversy over results that initially indicated particles moving faster than light and the discovery of the Higgs Boson -- a possible step toward a unified field theory -- prove that a world of very brilliant people still is dealing with Einstein almost 60 years after he died.) Einstein's research ended -- literally -- on his death bed.

There is one Einstein music story. He played violin  in an orchestra at Princeton. He jumped in at the wrong point during one rehearsal. The conductor looked up and asked, "What's the matter, Dr. Einstein? Can't you count?"

Here Armstrong plays Hello Dolly live (probably during the Korea era) and Mack the Knife.

Cross-Posted at THE DAILY MUSIC BREAK, the site that features good music regardless of era or genre. Visit for a free daily or weekly email of links.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Those who, as Miles did, (5+ / 0-)

    dismiss Armstrong as a Tom to this day need to read up on his powerful stand during the early civil rights movement:

  •  Thanks, cweinsch! (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    bfitzinAR, The grouch, Senor Unoball

    The first 13 seconds of West End Blues is pure genius.  Joe Oliver never saw that coming when he wrote it.

    I'm tempted to try and use it for my voice mail or answering machine but I think after the caller heard it, they would be liable to think their message was unworthy of that fanfare and would just hang up.

    A petty criminal is someone with predatory instincts but insufficient capital to form a corporation. --Clarence Darrow

    by stlsophos on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 07:09:28 AM PDT

    •  You are very welcome... (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      bfitzinAR, Senor Unoball, stlsophos

      ...there actually is quite a bit on the Web about West End Blues and that section of the song. A tremendous book written by the music critic for the Wall Street Journal was published a couple of years ago. It's "Pops" by Terry Teachout. (I don't know how to link in comments.) It's a great book, and has quite a bit on that 13 seconds.

  •  Listening to Armstrong (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Senor Unoball

    in the context of his contemporaries, especially on recordings from the 1920s, is relevatory--Louis's ability to swing, his technique, and his way of generating great ideas out of simple material are really head and shoulders above the guys he's playing with.

  •  Thanks, Louis. I hope we never forget you (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Senor Unoball

    What a gift he had, and what a gift he was, to all who have the ears to listen. The way he brought his sense of timing and emphasis to his singing was, in my mind, as revolutionary as his playing. Some may cavil about the tone of his voice, though I think it's great. But the way he made a lyric swing, and stutter, and laugh out loud, well, that was magic. I still listen to his duets with Ella, which I first heard near 35 years ago, with undiminished pleasure.

    •  Thanks... (0+ / 0-)

      ...if you ever are in NY, try to visit the museum in Corona (and stop at Corona Ice King for the best ices in the world). Armstrong recorded all his conversations, and they play some of them. Also, he brought a typewriter wherever he went and wrote and wrote. His first bio is supposed to be great, though I haven't read it yet.

  •  Pops (0+ / 0-)

    The Jimmy Hendrix of the trumpet. The inventor of the organized solo. The catalyst that created pop music which has dominated our culture for the better part of 75 years.

    Billie Holliday emulated him in her musical phrasing. Benny Goodman (whom I adore) took the moniker King of Swing like a petty thief because Armstrong, on the lamm after ducking out of a mob-penned musical contract, never took his rightful credit for its invention.

    He also was an activist during the '50s and sent many a telegram to Ike on righting the wrongs done to Blacks. He smoked reefer and cursed like a sailor, every day, something that never intruded on his popular image.

    You should get a hold of his Hot ensembles recordings, when he was laying down some righteous confetti. West End Blues is a standout from this era.

    Welcome to the headquarters of pulling facts out of my hindquarters

    by Mike E on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 10:49:43 AM PDT

    •  Well said... (0+ / 0-)

      ...his mother was a prostitute who believe in the medicinal benefits of laxatives. So Armstrong gave a packet of a laxative called Swiss Miss to people he met--including the Queen of England. The Pope asked Armstrong if he had kids, he said no, but he and his wife were having fun trying. He also cared for his mentally retarded cousin for his whole life--starting well before he had any money. Just a great all around person.

      •  Swiss Kriss (0+ / 0-)

        Tony Bennet was there when he took the bag out, and when the royals finally understood what it was they nearly rolled under the table, they were laughing so hard. Tony is also a national treasure, our last Jazz ambassador.

        Welcome to the headquarters of pulling facts out of my hindquarters

        by Mike E on Tue Jul 24, 2012 at 11:05:26 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Swiss Kriss... (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Mike E

          ...right. I met Tony Bennett once at a cable trade show. Very nice person. His portrait of Armstrong is hanging in Armstrong's study in the museum in Corona.

          My dad was an attorney whose office was down the hall from somebody associated with Armstrong. Perhaps Glaser. Dad did a small favor of some sort and they gave him a pre-issue copy of the duets with Ella. I still have it, but it's not in good condition.

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