Red Allen, Tommy Ladnier, Baby and Johnny Dodds, Pops Foster and many others giged with bandleader Fate Marable, who ran the bands for the Streckfus excursion boats that plied the Mississippi. Not the least of them was Louis Armstrong, who played with Marable on-and-off for three years.
William Howland Kenney’s excellent Jazz on the River (University of Chicago Press) and Dennis Owsley’s City of Gabriels, The History of jazz in St. Louis, 1895-1983, (Reedy Press) both make it clear that music played on the riverboats during their heyday(c. 1910s-1930s) was arranged dance music of a medium tempo, with apparently little chance for a musician to “get off.” So, for New Orleans jazz musicians, playing in a Marable band on a Streckfus steamboat was not a chance to hone his hot chops, but it was nonetheless a desirable gig.
Especially after the closure of Storyville in 1917, even those in the upper end of the New Orleans jazz hierarchy were struggling. The boats provided a steady paycheck–$35 per week with room and board, $45 without. They also provided a heavy dose of discipline; some of it arbitrary and racist and some of it seen as useful, i.e., the discipline of reading music.
Louis Armstrong first played on a Streckfus steamer in 1918. He worked his way from town to town and in St. Louis, jammed with the local musicians. Louis was ambivalent about reading music. He knew it was a skill he needed to have, but said he thought it separated the musician from the listener. As a result, he progressed in reading, but didn’t become really proficient. (c.f. the “pound plenty” story with Fletcher Henderson).
Armstrong was allowed to play a cornet solo with just piano accompaniment on a song called “La Veda,” which apparently went over well. He wanted to expand his role and be a featured player and singer with the band, but neither Marable nor Streckfus wanted that. One can speculate that Armstrong’s representation would have threatened the very tightly controlled, segregated “Dixieland” mythology that ownership felt underlay the appeal of the excursion boats and which they tried to purvey through the music. Give the customers a whiff of the exotic, but no polyphony, really fast or slow tempos or sexual lyrics.
So, in 1921, Armstrong left Marable. Then, in 1922, he got the call to join King Oliver in Chicago (Jazz mythology about the music traveling up the river not withstanding, there was no Mississippi tributary deep enough to carry large boats all the way— Armstrong took a train to Chicago). In 1928, when gigs in Chicago had temporarily dried up, the Streckfus family sent a representative to Armstrong and him offered the chance to re-up. Despite an offer that escalated from $75 to $100 to $125 a week, Armstrong refused.
While Armstrong never played on the river again (at least for Marable), the Big River stayed a part of Armstrong’s musical identity for the rest of his life, especially during the next twenty years.
Although he recorded Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy River” in 1931 and several times after, his approach to that tune has a very different flavor than his other “River” songs. Armstrong plays “Lazy River” more as a parody, while the other tunes allow him to more sincerely limn a specifically black-centric experience of life and memory on the Big River. As author Kenney suggests, he is taking the tradition of songs and chanteys sung by roustabouts and expanding it. As an aside, Kenney says that there is good evidence that in derivation, chanteys are West Indian as much or more so than British. With the slavery triangular trade in full swing, there’s good reason to think there was a musical exchange between the Caribbean Islands and the British Islands.
Armstrong’s earliest “river” recording was in 1930 for Okeh records, with pianist Buck Washington. Then, in 1931, Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra recorded Carmichael’s Lazy River.
Armstrong felt strongly connected to the Big River and his river repertoire allows him to give full reign to his genius for transcending the boundaries between individual experience, racial identification, personal integrity and the marketplace.