Monday, August 31, 2009


This post represents my attempt to sum up Louis Armstrong in a few paragraphs. That can't be done, of course, and the result is so simplistic that any readers who are at all familiar with Armstrong and his genius can safely ignore what follows. I've found, though, that many jazz listeners, and even musicians, don't understand what all the fuss is about - they consider Louis old-fashioned at best.

At some point in my high school band career, I was given the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award for being the best jazz musician in the school. However, that wasn't saying much in the semi-rural school I attended - it's not like there was a lot of competition. But it got me thinking, perhaps for the first time, about the paradox of Louis Armstrong.

When I was a kid (and still today), the most powerful AM radio station in Atlanta was WSB. But while WSB is now a talk radio station featuring unreflective right-wing mouths, it used to be the adult "easy listening" station. And I'll admit that I kind of liked it as a kid, and that I learned a lot from listening to it. They played crap like Lennie Dee and Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass, but they also played Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck. And they played Louis Armstrong records: "Mack the Knife," "Cabaret," and "Blueberry Hill."

By the time I was playing in my high school's "stage band," as school big bands were usually called in those days, I vaguely knew that Armstrong was supposed to be one of the jazz greats - possibly the jazz great. But I couldn't reconcile that image with the pleasant, genial music I heard by Louis on the radio - that music didn't seem like the work of a genius. Understanding and appreciating Armstrong was a slow process, and was part of the journey of appreciating and enjoying early jazz styles in general.

A little investigation, a little exploration of the records in the local library, and I started to get it. As I explored Louis' early output, I found some stunning music: "West End Blues," with its amazingly complex opening cadenza, "Potato Head Blues," with a solo that dances over a stop-time rhythm, and "Beau Koo Jack," with trumpeting as virtuosic as any ever recorded in jazz.

The late-twenties Okeh records like these, collectively known as the Hot Fives, since most of them featured that band name, are usually considered to be Armstrong's pinnacle. But the best of his slightly later recordings for the Victor label are no less amazing. These records were made with pretty mediocre big bands, and the material is mostly pop songs of the time - good ones like "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and lousy ones like "That's My Home." But the material is immaterial - on both of these sides Louis acheives a soaring eloquence unlike anything else in jazz; his playing on these tunes reminds me more of Beethoven than King Oliver.

The conventional wisdom is the rest of Armstrong's career represented decline and compromise. Certainly his later trumpet playing never again reached the heights of the Hot Fives and best Victors. But later recordings such as "I Double Dare You" feature brilliantly constructed improvisation with a somewhat more subdued, pared-down trumpet style. And even near the end of his career, when his ability to play the trumpet was limited, he could create solos that show his genius. I've always been struck by his playing on the 1968 "Dream a Little Dream of Me" - it's spare, using short phrases and few notes, but each note is carefully chosen and placed for maximum expressive effect. It's one the most moving of Armstrong solos.

By the time he recorded "Dream a Little Dream of Me," Louis had been fronting his constantly touring band, known as the All Stars, for 20 years or so. During this time, he became one of America's foremost entertainers; it was in this role that I first became aware of Armstrong. If it is difficult to understand how the first and greatest genius of jazz could settle for being a mere entertainer, well, that's a distinction which Louis never made for himself. In all stages of his career, he played music which he hoped people would like. Yes, his days of jazz innovation were long behind him by the time he knocked the Beatles out of the number one spot on the pop charts with "Hello Dolly," but he was still trying to create good music, and usually succeeding.

Gary Giddins' book on Armstrong, Satchmo, has chapters titled "The Artist as Entertainer" and "The Entertainer as Artist." This summarizes Louis - he was both, and didn't see a division. If you don't know Armstrong's music, check out the early masterpieces, but don't stop there. Listeners who can open themselves to Louis' music at all stages of his career will find lots of rewards waiting for them.

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