I would be remiss if I didn’t celebrate the birth anniversary yesterday of Louis Armstrong. For not only is Pops tops on my list of all-time musicians, he may be my leading exemplar of the American spirit. Creative, optimistic, hard-working, giving, personable, loyal, racially aware, philo-Semitic, self-created (at least largely), simultaneously noble and earthy, worldly and down-home — if they don’t represent the American ideal, I don’t know what or who does. Even his flaws, such as his serial philandering and near-daily marijuana consumption, make him that much more endearing. I mean, if weed and women are a man’s leading vices, he’s probably not that bad a sort.
Then there’s the music, which speaks, sings and soars for itself without my feeble attempts to describe it. I love it all. But what Louis Armstrong music do I turn to most frequently, when in need of the warmth and happiness he uniquely, among musicians, provides me?
Let’s see. There are the Hot Fives & Sevens, locus classicus of jazz and America’s equivalent to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” There’s the relatively suave bandleader of the later 30’s and 40’s, no longer on the leading edge of jazz, but still capable of giving all the rest a run for their money on each track, in every solo. And of course, there are the innumerable recordings (including some recent discoveries) by the Armstrong All-Stars, the small group with whom he toured for the last decades of his 70 years. Sure, the critics scowled at the All-Stars’ narrow repertoire and hoary formulas (as well as at Armstrong’s old-fashioned, supposedly undignified laughing and mugging). Louis, bless him, realized that the folks who came out to hear him and the cats were likely doing so for the first and only time, and deserved the standards for which he became famous.
But most often, I go back to 1930-31, a time when Armstrong was making the transition from young jazz genius to marketable entertainer for the masses. His repertoire and settings, in recordings made mostly in LA and Chicago in these years, reflect this transition: Out were the tight-knit, relatively cooperative small groups and original blues and stomps of the 1920’s. In were popular standards, mostly of the Tin Pan Alley persuasion, played very much in a soloist-backed-by-big-band format. Lots more vocals and fewer instrumentals, too.
For the snootier critics, this marked the start of Amstrong’s artistic downfall. For me, this is one of the richest moments in American music history: a unique black genius’s assault on and utter transformation of polite, mostly white popular music.
To those accustomed to the operetta-like pop vocal styles of the day (think Dick Powell in the Busby Berkley musicals), Armstrong’s guttural voice and creative garbling of words and melodies must of been a shock, giving many listeners, no doubt, their first encounter with real, unadulterated African-American cultural sensibilities. But in their time, was there anything more avant-garde in the entire world of the arts? And the solo trumpet choruses, usually two per number — oh my goodness, what brilliant melodic variations! Time after time, the young Armstrong puts his horn to his lips, and turns a nice little tune into 4th of July fireworks. I can’t get enough.
Sometime in the early 1960’s, near the end of his life, the great conductor Bruno Walter was asked his opinion of jazz. “Oh, don’t provoke me!,” Walter answered. “If you want to provoke me, then I feel I must answer, and I say that jazz is an insult to me. I feel debased by listening to it.”
I have no idea what music Walter had in mind when he said this, and what jazz could have had the power to inspire such negative, not to mention ugly, sentiments. But it’s these 1930-31 Louis Armstrong performances I think of when I read these words. Yeah, if one was inclined to be debased by proud, forceful blackness, these great sides would probably have done the job. Except what was an insult to Walter is a privilege to me. And what debased him never fails to elevate and inspire me. I honor your career and love your Mahler and Beethoven recordings, Maestro Walter. I can only hope that in the next realm, you’ve come to your senses, and that you and Pops are teaming up for some swinging symphonies — The Bruno and Satchmo Show!
Want to hear more? I’ve put YouTubes of a few tracks above. Here’s a Spotify playlist of the best Satch from the era, culled from a few different CD reissues.
And check out New England Public Radio’s Tom Reney and his Jazz à la mode tribute to Armstrong from Monday night at NEPR’s “Listen on Demand” page. You have til next Monday to listen — don’t miss it! Tom’s blog on Pops is of course worth reading as well.