The Once and Future King

Amid the crush of CD releases timed to accompany Louis Armstrong's centennial celebration, a two-year event that acknowledges his avowed birthdate in 1900 as well as his true one in 1901, a remarkable oddity has glided in under the radar of many fans. It's an appendage to a collection of 1950s records by Lotte Lenya, the Viennese-born singer and actress whose own centennial in 2000 was strangely neglected. "Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill/The American Theater Songs" includes her robust duet with Armstrong on "Mack the Knife," an uncommon but hardly unknown performance. The curio is a funny eight-and-a-half-minute rehearsal tape that allows us to be flies on the wall as Armstrong teaches her to syncopate.

The excerpt begins with a complete run-through of the song, which is persuasive until the very end, when Lenya is supposed to sing, "Now that Mackie's [quarter-note rest for rhythmic accent] back in town." She ignores the rest and drags out the last three words for a mile and a half. Armstrong good-naturedly explains to her the jazzy cadence, growling a "boom" to indicate the rest. She laughs and tells him, "That's easy for you." Taking charge, Armstrong informs the producer that there is no need to re-record more than a closing insert, and encourages Lenya ("That's it," "There you go") until she gets it almost right. The irony is delicious: Armstrong coolly coaching Lenya, a near-legendary figure in her own right, on a song her late husband had conceived expressly for her—and she displaying not one iota of prima donna resentment as he spots her take after take. Also amusing is the precise and unchanging pitch with which he repeatedly cues the "boom." The episode reminds us how alien jazz rhythms could be as recently as midcentury. Today, few 10-year-olds would have any difficulty mastering that rest. Thanks largely to Armstrong, we live in a syncopated world.

Armstrong was the most influential, popular, and celebrated jazz musician who ever lived. No one disputes that. But he was also the most bitterly criticized. The Armstrong schism began as early as 1929, before his fame reached anything resembling national dimensions, and it was triggered by his willingness to record and perform Tin Pan Alley songs with—this is what really bugged many of his early antagonists—large bands, which embodied the heresy of the imminent swing era. The argument made no sense, yet stuck around for many years, having been made gospel by Rudi Blesh in his 1946 jazz history, Shining Trumpets. "Louis Armstrong could conceivably return to jazz tomorrow," he assured readers. "He did it once before, from 1925 to 1928, when he left [Fletcher] Henderson and returned to Chicago." But then, after Earl Hines and Don Redman joined his band, the "quality deteriorate[d] into a sort of sweetness foreign to Louis' nature, one belonging to sweet-swing." For example, "West End Blues," though a "record of great beauty," "narrowly misses banality" because of Hines, and signals Armstrong's descent into "a dark romanticism foreign to jazz."

Reading Blesh, you get the feeling he was determined to protect jazz from the unwashed as well as from swing bands, and that he might have been happy on an island populated by professorial Dixieland addicts and noble savages to satisfy their jones. Perhaps I am unfair. Yet he also wrote that Duke Ellington composed a "tea dansant music trapped out with his borrowed effects from jazz, the Impressionists, and the French Romantics." To those who lamented that Ellington had forsaken jazz, Blesh advised, "The Duke has never played it." He could see little difference between "Daybreak Express" and the "theatrical corn" of Ted Lewis. So the hell with unfair.

Armstrong and Ellington were the first major jazz figures subjected to judges who knew better than they what they were supposed to be doing (an arrogance that might appear quaintly eccentric today had it not been embraced so vigorously by the Lincoln Center crowd in the 1990s). Ellington was lambasted for reaching too high, Armstrong for stooping too low. Those who were touched by the latter's genius were offended by his clowning, risqué humor, and acceptance of all the habiliments of pop—never mind that he tailored them to his own tastes. In Early Jazz (1969), Gunther Schuller, one of the most perceptive and influential critics of early Armstrong, wrote that "West End Blues" proved "jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression." In The Swing Era (1989), however, he reported, "our memories are beclouded by recordings of a sixty-three year-old Louis singing, 'Hello, Dolly!' against a cheap brassy Dixieland sextet."

To which one might shrug: Not my memories, pal. But musical memories are now governed by technology, specifically the accessibility of records, which leads to a kind of critical historicism. Consider the Armstrong myth that dates an overall decline to his wholesale acceptance by the public and his inability to resist commercial blandishments. In the past, even critics sympathetic to late Armstrong were likely to conclude that only when he stepped into the mainstream, in the mid-1930s, did he begin to rely on vocals—beyond his patented scat volleys—and pop songs. The LP generation accepted that because when it came along, the Hot Fives and Sevens were represented on records solely by 36 prime tracks collected on the first three discs of Columbia's four-album series, The Louis Armstrong Story, originally issued in 1951 on LPs and 45s, and kept in catalog for more than 20 years. The only way you could hear the complete works was on European collections.

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