[Dixielandjazz] Louis Armstrong book reviewed
rsr at ringwald.com
Sun Jun 12 22:17:01 PDT 2011
Hot Jazz from an Old Master
by Jonathan Yardley
Washington Post, June 12, 2011
The "later years" of Louis Armstrong lasted almost a quarter century, from the first
performance of his new small group at Town Hall in New York on May 17, 1947, until
his death in his modest house in Queens on July 6, 1971. In the life of this extraordinary
man, it is a period that has long been marked by controversy. As Ricky Riccardi writes,
"The myth of the 'two Armstrongs' continues: the young serious artist and the old
entertainer." The myth was spread largely by a handful of critics, principally the
musically astute but humor-challenged Gunther Schuller, who argued that Armstrong
peaked in the 1920s with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and subsequently was little
more than what Schuller called "a good-natured buffoon, singing 'Blueberry Hill'
and 'What a Wonderful World' night after night."
By now the myth has been quite thoroughly punctured, first by Gary Giddins in his
slender but authoritative "Satchmo" (1988) and then by Terry Teachout in his definitive
biography, "Pops" (2009). Both writers understand that Armstrong was a natural entertainer
whose clownish on-stage antics were expressions of his ebullient personality, and
both insist that the level of his musicianship during this period was far higher
than his detractors are willing to concede. Now comes Riccardi, a younger student
of Armstrong's career, to make the case once more:
"In many ways, these were the most important years of Armstrong's life. With a bruised
lip and an almost inhuman, punishing schedule, Armstrong worked harder than ever
before to attain new heights of popularity, staying relevant and in demand at an
age when most performers start to fade. With each passing year, the popularity of
jazz in America diminished while, simultaneously, the popularity of Louis Armstrong
around the world only grew. Because many jazz critics can't embrace popular acts
-- and because 'new' is so often equated with 'better' -- a lot of Armstrong's most
lasting works of those years were repudiated."
The "new" that supposedly was "better" included bebop and the other forms of "modern"
jazz that subsequently evolved from it. The decade and a half after World War II
was a pivotal moment in jazz history. On the one hand, almost all the great founders
of jazz and swing were very much alive and performing -- Armstrong, Count Basie,
Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday et. al. -- while on the other hand, the next generation
was aggressively asserting itself: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker (until his death
in 1955), Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis et. al. To all intents and purposes the big-band
era was dead, and with it jazz's standing as a genuinely popular musical form. The
younger generation was less interested in pleasing audiences than in pleasing itself,
and its hostility toward its more outgoing elders was palpable.
Many older musicians felt this antagonism, but none more persistently or strongly
than Armstrong. Not only did he clown unashamedly in the course of his act -- and
having seen that act many times during these years, I can testify that he was often
flat-out hilarious -- but there was a widespread feeling among African Americans,
especially among musicians, that at times he descended into offensive black stereotypes.
Because of this, and because by the 1950s his audiences were predominantly white,
he was regarded in some quarters as "good ol' Uncle Tom Satchmo, the smiling, grinning
Negro." Never mind that he repeatedly refuted this both in words (most famously,
his attack on President Eisenhower during the Little Rock school crisis of 1957 as
"two-faced" and having "no guts") and in deeds (his refusal to perform in his beloved
hometown of New Orleans until it would receive him "without racial distinction").
The calumny had remarkable staying power, and he never fully got out from under it.
Part of the problem was that Armstrong's sense of humor was so irrepressible that
it colored almost everything he said and did. Once in the late 1960s while he was
performing at Basin Street East in Manhattan, the great pianist Erroll Garner greeted
him with, "Hey, Pops, how's everything?" to which Armstrong replied without missing
a beat, "White folks still in the lead." Though Armstrong could indeed be serious,
and when alone could slip into reflective moods that struck some who glimpsed them
as almost mournful, in his heart he really did believe that, well, it's a wonderful
world. Joe Muranyi, who played clarinet with his All-Stars in the late 1960s, told
"He was the greatest star I've encountered because he really was a star but he didn't
act like one. He was very real. There wasn't a phony bone in his body. And he liked
people. And he liked poor people. And he liked crippled people and fat ladies. He
loved the humanity aspect. And he was just wonderful, I can't tell you."
The All-Stars with whom Muranyi played were the last in the line tracing back to
the May night in 1947 when Armstrong took the stage at Town Hall with Jack Teagarden
on trombone, Bobby Hackett on trumpet, Sid Catlett and George Wettling on drums,
Dick Cary on piano and Bobby Haggart on bass. That performance, available on CD as
"The Complete Town Hall Concert 1947," left no doubt that Armstrong hadn't lost a
thing musically since the legendary glory days of his youth, and led to the formation
of the first touring All-Stars later that year: Armstrong, Teagarden, Catlett, Cary
along with Barney Bigard on clarinet, Arvell Shaw on bass and Velma Middleton on
vocals. In November this group went to Boston for a concert that has been preserved
for the ages on "Satchmo at Symphony Hall," one of the absolutely indispensable jazz
The original All-Stars didn't stay together long. The greatest loss was Teagarden,
who stayed on until 1951, leaving a disconsolate Armstrong to complain: "What really
bothers me, Pops, is losing Jack. That Teagarden, man, he's like my brother." Riccardi
stoutly defends the later All-Stars -- he says "their golden era" began in late 1951
-- and indeed during the last two decades of its existence the group made at least
one classic recording, "Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy," and two smash-hit singles:
"Mack the Knife" and "Hello, Dolly." (The ubiquitous "What a Wonderful World" was
recorded with a studio orchestra and choir.) To my taste, though, Armstrong's postwar
years reached their musical apogee with those first All-Stars.
During those years Armstrong was on the road all the time, doing one-night stands
across the country and around the world. Toward the end, his health suffered, and
he had to pull back, though he hated to do so. His need to entertain was as powerful
as his need to make music, and it kept him going past the point of exhaustion. It
is amazing, all things considered, that he lived as long as he did, dying four weeks
before his 70th birthday.
Riccardi writes about Armstrong with self-evident and infectious love. "What a Wonderful
World" could have profited from some judicious pruning -- fewer accounts of recording
sessions and road itineraries -- but it is written in a generous spirit and indeed
enhances our understanding of just how good Armstrong really was in the postwar years.
Fulton Street Jazz Band
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I've just been so pre-occupied with this Anthony Weiner deal.
Will he attempt to retain his congressional seat or accept the job offered to him
to be spokesman for Oscar Mayer???
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