Louis Armstrong is still swinging that music
By Jon Garelick
AUGUST 28, 2000: The Louis Armstrong Centennial is upon us -- and in the spirit of his generosity, the celebrations will probably last a couple of years. Armstrong gave his birth date as July 4, 1900; a New Orleans researcher a few years ago discovered a church birth certificate dated August 4, 1901 (Armstrong died on July 6, 1971). But who wants to wait till next summer? The record companies have begun glutting the market with recycled Louis, and for once I'm not begrudging them anything.
In June, Columbia/Legacy brought out three reissues of prime late-'50s Armstrong: Satch Plays Fats (Waller, that is) and two documents of his 1955-'56 world tours, Ambassador Satch and Satchmo the Great. Blue Note has created a two-disc set from a 1961 Armstrong/Ellington small-group session on Roulette, The Great Summit. Verve has combed the vast Universal Music Group holdings for the career-spanning three-disc The Ultimate Collection. And this past Tuesday, Columbia/Legacy released a newly sequenced package that many have argued contains the Rosetta stone of American jazz if not all of American popular music, the four-disc Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings.
There's probably no American artist about whom there's at once greater consensus and more division. To hardcore jazz fans, Louis reigns supreme, but for many of them his work declines sharply after his groundbreaking inventions of the '20s. He's a long-time favorite of classical musicians, and critics have duly noted how Armstrong's signature vibrato changed the sound of symphony brass sections worldwide. For younger generations of pop-music listeners, though, even the most "radical" of Armstrong's music must sound hopelessly dated, so long ago were his inventions absorbed into the mainstream. And then there's the image of Armstrong the entertainer that survives from his final decades as a pop star: eyes popping, teeth flashing, handkerchief in hand as he sings "Hello Dolly."
And yet, one famous witness after another attests to Louis's all-pervasive, radical influence. There's Miles Davis's "You know you can't play anything on the horn that Louis hasn't played -- I mean, even modern." In his notes to The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, Robert G. O'Meally cites Ellington's reported imprecation to his band members that they all try to sound like Armstrong -- from brass to reeds to rhythm. And then there's Bing Crosby's summation of Armstrong as "the beginning and end of music in America."
The Armstrong innovations that have been cited over and over include his bringing the improvised solo to the center of jazz performance, of creating jazz's rhythmic foundation and, by extension, creating the blueprint for pop and jazz vocal performances with his singing. His conception of singing and trumpet soloing were of a piece, and that piece was swing. He may have extended the upper register of the trumpet and made all varieties of vibrato, "shakes," and "rips" part of the jazz vocabulary. But Louis's various syncopated patterns, his ability to play around with the beat (most famously in his unaccompanied introduction to the 1928 Hot Five recording of King Oliver's "West End Blues"), virtually invented the swing sound. The phenomenon is described by Gunther Schuller in his essential Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, with his combination of scholarly precision and metaphoric aptness, when he isolates the typical Armstrong quarter-note: "It is as if such notes wish to burst out of the confines of their rhythmic placement."
That might be the defining metaphor for Armstrong's greatness -- all the joy, the aspiration, the desire contained in those notes that "wish to burst out of the confines of their rhythmic placement." Whether it's of the same technical type, that kind of "swing" and aspiration informs all the great vernacular American artists, from Louis to Muddy Waters to Elvis and beyond. It's the sound of the poor negro kid from New Orleans whose only ticket out of town is that cornet pressed to his lips.
Part of the fun of going back to Armstrong's early recordings is hearing him play in the company of musicians who haven't caught up with his conception. In his chapter on Armstrong, Schuller frequently castigates the subpar playing of those around him. None of which detracts from the pleasure of these sides. Whereas Schuller picks on Lil Hardin for "ideas more related to vaudeville and the movie-houses than to jazz," the rest of us might be more willing to accept her filigree on "Cornet Chop Suey" as a vernacular "pop" convention of the time. Of course, that's part of what dates the material, and Schuller wants the timelessness of pure music, of music for music's sake, of jazz. But what's even more shocking than the contrasts in the playing on The Hot Five and Seven Recordings is Armstrong's earlier work with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra on the Verve set's "Copenhagen." Here Louis, a month after his arrival in the band in 1924, is surrounded by an estimable cohort that includes Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins, but the ricky-ticky arrangement sounds positively prehistoric until his solo fires out of the ensemble like a rocket.
That's why Armstrong's playing is so exciting even when it's less than "perfect." Schuller will help you discover every flubbed chord change (though no rhythmic missteps that I can think of). And you can hear for yourself a missed note. Later players like Dizzy Gillespie further extended the upper range and velocity of the trumpet but no one, not even Dizzy himself, was ever more musical than Armstrong. Everything -- idiosyncratic note choices, harmonic inspiration, bellowing or sneering colorations, flashing rips to the upper register -- went into the music's forward drive. Even that vibrato, as Schuller notes, is something that makes "the tone go forward, not up and down." When Armstrong misses, it's after he's completed something impossible, or is going for a note most players wouldn't even think of.
Armstrong's inventiveness is often most easily apparent in his singing. He was credited with, if not inventing scat singing, then bringing it into the mainstream with the Hot Five recording of "Heebie Jeebies" (1926). But that's almost a minor accomplishment in the scheme of things. Louis's gravelly pipes were more than Fletcher Henderson was willing to risk, and Armstrong apparently left the band because Henderson wouldn't let him sing. Listen to the Verve set's "I'm Confessin' " (1939) with Louis phrasing just behind the beat, altering the melody by dropping from high- to bent-note low-register punctuation ("I'm confessin' that I love you, babe"), or singing a line on a single note with another melismatic aside ("Tell me do you love me too, oo-oh?"). Suspend for a moment that sweet oil-and-gravel tone and you can easily replace it with the sound of Billie Holiday -- the approach is identical, and you can hear why Billie called Louis her greatest inspiration.
If Armstrong's gifts were so profound, even in the most dire contexts, then where to turn in the current crop of CDs? The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (those are the names Armstrong gave to the studio groups he recorded with on and off from November 1925 through March 1929) are essential, and for the first time they're all collected in one set, with extensive notes and packaged in a handsome hardbound book (though the "long box" proportion is probably inconsistent with any CD storage system you may have devised). In fact, the set even goes beyond "official" Hot Fives and Sevens for the sake of inclusiveness. If the four-CD set is too much for your pocketbook, you can collect these sessions on the installment plan in Columbia/Legacy's previously released individual discs. And if you're confused about which of Louis's many "West End Blues" is the original, remember that these sides were originally recorded for Okeh.
Of the three late-'50s Columbia/Legacy discs, Satch Plays Fats is the most consistently rewarding, in part because of the material and because this edition of Armstrong's All-Stars included not only trombonist Trummy Young but also the great Ellington New Orleans clarinettist Barney Bigard. What's more, the set offers bonus tracks of earlier Armstrong-Waller material. Satchmo the Great is drawn from a CBS News See It Now documentary made by legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow and includes Murrow's stentorian narration of "Ambassador" Satch's conquest of Europe. ("Hannibal crossed the Alps in 218 BC with 37 elephants and 12,000 horses. Louis Armstrong crossed the Alps in the mid 20th century with one trumpet and five musicians.") There actually is good interview material here, but if you lose patience, you can always program your CD player around Murrow. The disc also includes Louis's comments on the phenomenon of New Orleans funeral music, plus a moving example; there's even a session where Armstrong plays with Leonard Bernstein and a symphony orchestra.
The Verve Ultimate Collection is a good career-spanning overview, from the early Fletcher Henderson material to a couple of overlaps with the Hot Fives and Sevens set, vocal duets with Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, and '60s pop songs like "What a Wonderful World" and "Cabaret." The flaws here: you might be just plain sick of "Wonderful World" and "Cabaret" (the same way a friend of mine asked for a good Armstrong vocal album without "Mack the Knife"). And despite a fine vocal performance by Louis of "Blueberry Hill," the 1949 arrangement mucks things up with a goopy, extremely white female vocal choir.
Finally, the Blue Note/Roulette session is a gem if only because it documents the only extended recorded encounter between Armstrong and Ellington. No, it's not the Ellington big band (if only Duke had had Louis's services for his New Orleans Suite). But outside of Earl Hines, you couldn't ask for better piano backing than Ellington, and Bigard is here as well, warbling deep-register New Orleans obbligatos behind Armstrong's vocal on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." A bonus disc of false starts and between-take chatter has an appealing intimacy that works all on its own.
Armstrong was a pop star as well as jazz genius -- something he aspired to from the moment he saw Bill "Bojangles" Robinson perform. He came from a time when there was no difference -- when a great entertainer did it all. Armstrong admired the way Robinson connected with an audience, avoided the minstrel trappings of blackface, comported himself with dignity. "He didn't need blackface to be funny. Comedian + danger in my race." Over the years, Louis's mugging and clowning has proved to be a matter more of style than politics. He caused a scandal when at the height of his late '50s fame he declined to play a State Department tour in protest of the government's apathy toward school desegregation in Little Rock. There was a steely temperament under that smiling face. Biographies by Gary Giddins and Laurence Bergreen document Louis's toughness as well as his lyricism. But you can hear it all in his music.
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