When Ken Burns’s “Jazz” was aired a few months ago, there were complaints that the documentary spent too much time on Louis Armstrong’s later years. The gripes revealed a bias toward one kind of musical development at the expense of another. The thrill of hearing brand-new ideas shining forth from Armstrong’s horn in his first decade as a recording artist—from the labyrinthine fanfare of “West End Blues” to the ornate obbligati of “Tight Like This”—should not obscure the fact that Armstrong moved on, developing the vocabulary with which he had virtually invented jazz. In the most satisfying of his later performances, his new innovations have less to do with rhythmic or harmonic inventions than with the kind of emotional depth only an older artist can convey. This is especially evident in the last segment of Burns’s documentary: In a clip from George Wein’s film of the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival, the frail 69-year-old Armstrong explains his 40-year relationship with his theme song, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” by giving an exuberant a cappella performance that transforms the nostalgia of the 1931 record into a heartbreaking elegy.
For another example of his development, the recent reissue of “Satch Plays Fats” juxtaposes two Armstrongs: the brash, fiery innovator of 1929-1932, heard in six bonus tracks tacked on the original album, and the seasoned statesman of 1955. The two versions of Fats Waller’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue,” words by Andy Razaf, provide a particularly stunning contrast. The tune, written for the revue “Hot Chocolates,” was sung by a dark-skinned woman who laments, “Browns and yallers all have fellers/Gentlemen prefer them light.” Armstrong, perceiving a broader message, eliminated the verse and created an early protest anthem. To be black, in his version, is to be black and blue, a remarkable statement for a 1929 pop record. The true meaning of the song is no longer found in Razaf’s lyric, but in Armstrong’s interpretation of it—a phrase like “even a mouse ran from my house” might sound self-pitying or simplistic when sung by a less nuanced artist—and in the way he bends, to borrow Ralph Ellison’s memorable image, a “military instrument into a beam of lyrical sound.”
The 1929 recording shows how lyricism emerges from repression in more than the obvious way; it’s there in the conflict between the artist’s freedom and the song’s rhythmic and thematic straitjacket. The track opens with a sentimental, rhythmically literal riff on celesta, played by Gene Anderson, which is batted away by Armstrong’s brassy, bluesy attack. Then he recapitulates Anderson’s simple 5-1-2-3/6-1-2-3 minor phrase, a simple progression from an A minor to D minor, whose sentimental theme is subsequently dismantled with a blaring, dissenting high E atop a D-major chord.
What follows is a series of mixed allusions, including additional blues variations, a trumpet onomatopoeia of a marching band snare-drum’s “rat-a-tat-tat,” and a parody of a bugle call, as if he were waking us up from a dirge. Yet as supple and flexible as Armstrong’s phrasing—trumpet and voice—is, part of what continues to astound is the contrast between his rhythmic variation and his rhythm section’s relative stiffness. (The Armstrong of this period frequently engaged in jaw-dropping contrasts with his fellow musicians. Check out his recording of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” recorded three days before “Black and Blue,” and hear Homer Hobson’s merely adequate trumpet reduced to tonal rubble by the force of Armstrong’s brassy detonations.) With Earl Hines out of the rhythm section, Armstrong lacked a peer. The metronymic quarter notes plonked out on Mancy Carr’s banjo stand in dramatic contrast to Armstrong’s graceful swing.
By 1955, when Armstrong rerecorded “Black and Blue,” he was paying tribute to Waller, an old friend who had done much for his career and had died in 1943. In the year of Charlie Parker’s death, when the innovations of bebop already appeared complete, the jazz world was not often in the habit of looking back. The Satch Plays Fats project and, for that matter, Armstrong’s band, the All Stars, then in its eighth year, was perceived by some as sentimental. Yet that album is one of Armstrong’s most satisfying, and reveals how his sense of swing had deepened, as well as how it had been absorbed by his musicians. Although the 1955 version was made shortly after Armstrong had parted with Hines for a second time, the empathetic Billy Kyle reflected Armstrong’s style better than anyone sitting in the 1929 rhythm section. The difference between Kyle’s swinging piano and Anderson’s melodramatic celesta is especially evident because Kyle plays variations on phrases from the earlier record. The bassline has also changed, from Pete Briggs belting out half-note oompahs on tuba to Arvell Shaw thumping out quarter notes on bass, with reliable yet unpredictable cadences that leave room for rhythmic breathing. Armstrong’s suppleness was now complemented by the instrumentalists around him. He was playing in a musical world that had caught up with him.
Armstrong plays the 1955 head with subtle variations and a startling brightness akin to that heard on the earlier version, but now uses his vibrato more cannily, the slower tempo giving him more time to dig into those bent thirds and to express the piece’s sorrow. His treatment of the theme mixes a greater degree of melancholy with his brassy bravado; the blues phrases are enunciated with slow breaths that begin powerfully and trail off for just the right dissipating effect. In a closing solo (absent from the 1929 version), he plays with mature economy, making each note tell exactly the right story. Those stories respond to the pathos of Razaf’s lyrics, while the parodies of military drills, sprinkled throughout his solo, demonstrate a mocking resilience: rolling with the punches was no less painful in the Eisenhower era than in the Hoover years.
Armstrong often used the stage, to which he remained faithful until the end of his astonishing career, for clowning, mugging, and delivering the “good old good ones,” but he left evidence of other emotions as well. In a 1961 photograph, William Claxton captured a tuxedoed Armstrong staring into the abyss. Many of his later recordings—among them “Beale Street Blues” on Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (1957) and “Mood Indigo” on The Great Summit (1961), with Duke Ellington—suggest a mixture of triumph and catharsis, as well as continuing development even beyond the 1955 “Black and Blue,” reminding us how Armstrong’s art could convey life in all its bruising complexity.
More articles in this week’s Voice Jazz Supplement.