“King of the Zulus” (Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five)

For some, a scandalous and unfortunate moment in Hot Five history, in which Armstrong explores his thematic relationship to blackface minstrelsy, “Zulus,” and other primitives. But before trying to judge this trax, there is so much to be said: the African American members of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, celebrated here, hailed from Armstrong’s neighborhood as a child—“Perdido and Liberty – Franklin Streets,” as Armstrong himself wrote to reporter Betty Jane Holder in 1952. And the Zulu Club was (and is) a mutual aid society of the type often promoted today by scholars of immigration, transnationalism, and anarchism. Armstrong also remembered the Zulus as primarily “teamsters” who “taught me the ropes” in terms of operating a street cart. By the time Armstrong was eighteen, the Teamsters were using “Equal Pay for All” as a slogan, and the organization’s New Orleans Executive Board had been integrated for more than a decade. So “Zulu” means both uplift and integration to Armstrong, and it’s important to remember this when tracking Armstrong’s appropriation of primitivism (Gene H. Anderson detects it in the trax’s “minor mode” and “dominant and tonic harmonies throughout”). Also important in judging the trax’s potentially political purposes is the fact that the reigning 1920s paradigm for jazz appreciation involved seeing the jazz performer as an “avant-garde primitivist aesthete,” to borrow John Gennari’s phrase (Blowin’ Hot and Cold 32). Just as the Zulu Club’s blackface parade, complete with floats, began in 1915 as a kind of parody or counter-Mardi Gras, so too is Armstrong’s appropriation potentially smothered in irony. Meanwhile, John Cowley’s research on this trax convincingly situates the skit at the center of the track as promoting racial solidarity between the Jamaican “country man” (a Garveyite, perhaps) and the citified Hot Five through successful soloing. This black immigrant bumpkin is as clear a type as the “Zulu,” and it’s as if the Jamaican character is reaching out to ask Armstrong, “How might I continue to make music when I am thus demeaned?” Armstrong’s response is simple: blow.


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“The Queen Chant (Li Liu E)” (Martin Denny)

While this could be taken as a typical Denny-esque track which adds, in his words, the South Pacific’s “excitement” and “languor,” it’s the latter’s oppressive and stifled listlessness (produced by island exotica music in general) that’s up for discussion here. Structured as a set of linear solos, the swaying tempo becomes a violent swinging, dizzying the (colonial) experience with, eventually, a hard bop-ish insurgency (and response). The final three solos (drums, bongos, and bass) drive it home with sharp intervals leading to high-end fade-outs—making use of muted tones all the while—marking the homeland as (originally) nothing but over-harvested and exhausted in all registers.


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“Darn That Dream” (Bill Evans)

Borrowing liberally from Holiday’s phrasing, seemingly, piano and guitar jockey for a way to maintain the “one-track mind” needed to live in hope. Piano’s longing to ascend meets with guitar’s ruminations on the (fleeting, legato) heights. The “nightmare” of non-mutuality sustains the critical project, maintaining the precipice (and inclination) of being as the point of lacerating potentiality.

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“Fundamental Frequency” (Toots Thielemans)

While the bass solo in this bop tune equals the combined time of the intro and ending, the three primary soloists have roughly the same amount of solo time: harmonica (61 seconds), sax (65), and piano (72). The BPM ambles if compared to more extreme examples of the genre. While the harmonica may be a non-standard jazz instrument, there are precedents (and heirs). Those are the particulars, as far as frequency and fundamentals go. Thielemans is probably more concerned with the spacing of the band, often pushing back against organizational and operational structures and a strict sense of time. The playful coupling and teasing of the introduction—harmonica partnering up with the other soloists sequentially—for example. And the harmonica’s carry-over from the intro to its solo magnifies the case. Frequency as a given variable. Fundamental: the foundation, the (shifting) root of a chord, and the sounding/vibration of a body.


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