The Once and Future King

Luis Russell played piano on the McHugh-Fields song, and it was Russell's band that Armstrong would front—after he returned from his European sojourn—between 1935 and 1943. Those were the Decca years, which, for me, mark his greatest period as a singer. His voice had a smooth, lustrous, supple quality, richer than in the preceding decade and not as gravelly as in the one to follow, though by the early '60s, it attained another crest—deeper and richer and more authoritative than ever. Perhaps never before or after did his trumpet produce so many gleaming, acrobatic flourishes as in this period—most notably the dazzling and superior remake of "Struttin' With Some Barbecue." The Deccas are still not as widely known as they should be because they have yet to be properly issued, though with Verve now in possession of the catalog there is hope.

Meanwhile, a company in Andorra, where I suspect copyright laws are more flexible than here, has done the job splendidly on six CDs in two volumes, The Complete Decca Studio Master Takes 1935-1939 and The Complete Decca Studio Master Takes 1940-1949 (they are available through the mail-order company Collectors' Choice). With trumpet and voice each at a distinctive peak, Armstrong's creative consistency is stunning. Nobody was singing or playing anything to match his "Love Walked In," "Jubilee," "Thanks a Million," "Swing That Music," "Lyin' to Myself," "My Darling Nellie Gray," "Pennies From Heaven," "Among My Souvenirs," "The Skeleton in the Closet," "Shoe Shine Boy," and dozens more, not least the modern spirituals he put on the map: "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Shadrach." Some 60 years after they were made, these records sound as fresh and surprising as anything in American music, and seem to contain seeds for everything that followed, even hip-hop. Consider his rhythmic recitation at an anomalous March 14, 1940, session, which produced "Hep Cats Ball" and the marvelous "You Got Me Voodoo'd." The latter begins with jungly thumping—by Sid Catlett, no less—and a spooky vamp, before Armstrong declaims:

Just like some magic potion,
You fill me with emotion.
You control my very soul.
You've Got Me Voodoo'd.
You knew the goddess Venus
Would start this love between us.
You inspired me with desire.
You've Got Me Voodoo'd.
. . .
Just like the siren Circe,
You've got me at your mercy.
Mama, you've Got Me Voodoo'd.

The number is credited to Armstrong, Russell, and Cornelius C. Lawrence, an obscure playwright, actor, and lyricist who also wrote songs with the intriguing titles "Curfew Time in Harlem" and "Ink Spink Spidely Spoo." Each line of the lyric is the equivalent of two measures, which makes for an AABA song, only without a melody. Louis's trumpet chorus, unlike the proper Prince Robinson clarinet solo that precedes it, uses the rapped rhythm as a starting point before juicing it with melody and taking off on the bridge—a model for what can be done with an intrinsically unmelodic form.

Armstrong always trusted the sound of his own voice, even when no one else did, and often used it with comic authority—on several of his earliest records, the tunes even allow him to boast of his sexual prowess. On his first session as a leader, in November 1925, he used "Gut Bucket Blues" to introduce the fellas (a much imitated gambit, e.g., Jimmie Lunceford's "Rhythm Is Our Business," Andy Kirk's "Git," Slim Gaillard's "Slim's Jam"), letting us know that he was in charge and knew exactly what he was about. Of banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, he chortles, "Everybody in New Orleans can really do that thing." But, in fact, no one in those days could do that thing like Armstrong, and it is likely that had he not come along, jazz would never have become a full-fledged art of universal appeal. Instead, it might have remained a lively regional folk music after the Dixieland fad faded. Even Ellington might have gone a different route, composing theater and dance band music, had Armstrong not awakened his respect for the blues. The confidence we hear in Louis's barking in "Gut Bucket Blues" is not much different from the helpful "boom" he offered Lotte Lenya 30 years later. It wasn't Louis Armstrong who changed. It was us, the people.

More articles in this week's Voice Jazz Supplement.

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