Satchmo and the Critics

I've quoted Wilson at length because his review is such a clearly stated position (unusual in the amount of editorializing) of the mind-set that reveals a deep-seated dichotomy between art and entertainment that, in the case of Armstrong, was prevalent.

To Louis, this was a no-brainer. And to musicians who appreciated him, this dichotomy was nonexistent. In 1964, the great Chicago tenorman Bud Freeman, nurtured on Armstrong, whom he first encountered at the Lincoln Gardens with King Oliver, said that "to me, Louis swings more telling a joke than most others do playing a horn." In that same year, Ann Baker, who'd sung with Louis's big band, was present when the All Stars performed in West Virginia, bringing the house down, as always. She hadn't seen Louis in years and was moved to tears when he introduced her. Afterwards, she told a reporter: "You don't know how great he really is until you've worked with him."

For me, reading stuff like the Wilson piece and worse brought me closer and closer to finally deciding that I should write about jazz and become part of a breed from which I felt profoundly alienated. There wasn't much else to be done when you had to put up with such comments as this, concerning a Brooklyn Academy of Music concert, "All things considered, it scarcely seems proper to book Mr. Armstrong's group in a jazz series such as the Academy is offering. For this troupe is less a jazz band than an 'attraction' and, as such, its appeal—which is undeniable—is primarily to people who have little, if any, interest in jazz."

Of course there were exceptions. Leonard Feather, no paragon of critical virtue, was always a staunch defender of Louis, who had befriended him long ago. In 1959, for instance, he complained about "musicians and fans [who] tend to be condescending and supercilious about a man who has done more for jazz and, in his oblique way, more for brotherhood than any of those who have belittled him." But even he complained about "crude humor" (clearly there were no Redd Foxx fans among white critics) and "insensitivity" to the contemporary psyche. Martin Williams was another who could see how much Armstrong still had to offer and often praised the man's trumpeting. But Martin had a blind spot for his marvelous singing, hearing it as "one-sided" and filled with "surface geniality, like his stage manner." He even went so far as to say, in 1964, that Louis "has learned, like many jazzmen of all schools, how to coast and shuck his way through several nights." Coasting was something Louis was absolutely, constitutionally incapable of doing—even when he was exhausted and unwell.

The general press was usually more aware of the virtues of the Armstrong All Stars, but even here there were exceptions, often from those endangered by the little knowledge they had of jazz. One such was the much admired Murray Kempton, whose reporting of an incident at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival was bizarre. He led off his column with a dire prediction: "Louis Armstrong, jazz's greatest figure, is unlikely ever to be asked to appear at [Newport], the major showcase of the medium he helped so much to raise to international stature. The 57-year-old master tore the patience of his hosts to shreds . . . by turning what had been planned as a sentimental birthday party for him into a massive display of the sulks." Kempton misreported almost everything that had led to Armstrong's fully justified decision not to serve as anchorman for a parade of performers at the expense of his own group's self-respect. Kempton described him as "insecure, infrequently happy, in constant need for reassurance as to his stature . . . reluctant to learn new things or even to revive all but the most familiar of the old, jealous of his billing, and distrustful of his juniors. The mask of the clown is only a mask." (It just occurred to me that Kempton wrote the script for James L. Collier's odious biography.) The term "hosts" is nice—Louis's band had not been invited to a party. It had a gig to play and had just come from one of hundreds like it. And of course, their "hosts" had him back next year.

Kempton wasn't the only one to dump on Louis, who, as always when he was angry, played superbly that night. His old friend Jack Teagarden, who like this writer was there, said, "It seems like they want to crucify Pops." But like the many scribes and fellow performers who jumped on Louis when he attacked Faubus and Eisenhower and predicted that he had jeopardized his career, they had to eat their words.

To the man himself, all such things were of little import, especially the barbs of critics. "A note or a good tune will always be appreciated if you play it right," he said in his sixties. "I appreciate all kinds of music and play all kinds. I don't think musicians should type themselves. . . . If you perform, you're going to have your ups and downs, but what is said about you, good or bad, is forgotten tomorrow. That's how fast our America is."

Right, dear Louis. But not so fast that what you've left us will ever be forgotten.


More articles in this week's Voice Jazz Supplement.

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