Satchmo and the Critics


Now that Louis Armstrong has achieved the iconic stature he deserves, it seems passing strange to recall the days when Satchmo was not just fair game for the critics, but when his relationship with them resembled the fox and the hounds.

The attitude, rooted in the fallacy that Louis had sold his birthright of “authentic” blues and stomps for Tin Pan Alley pottage (the contempt in which most jazz critics once held “the Great American Songbook” is another fascinating subject), can be traced back to the ’30s, when the great man’s recordings as a leader changed from small to big bands and his recorded repertory stressed popular songs. In truth, Louis had from the very start of his musical activities sung and played all manner of music, and even when he was featured on records with his Hot Fives and Sevens in the 1920s, his bread-and-butter work was with large ensembles.

The critics had, of course, routinely complained about the poor quality of Louis’s big bands, and they were indeed unanimous in cheering the advent of the Armstrong All Stars, born in 1947. But the honeymoon was brief, and by mid 1950, when the jazz world was about to celebrate Louis’s 50th birthday, or what he and the rest of the world thought was his 50th, George Simon, editor of “Metronome” (a magazine as important at that time as “Down Beat”), found it necessary to construct his tribute around the theme of disrespectful criticism. Typically, Simon (who, at the time of his death this past February, was the dean of jazz critics) was conciliatory in tone: “To belittle his playing today is like minimizing the impact of, say, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address because it wasn’t delivered in Time magazine’s terse, modern, unemotional style. To some, Louis Armstrong may appear old-fashioned, but to many of us he is the man who set the fashion in jazz, who gave it warmth and musical stature, and who made it possible for jazz to go ahead as far and as handsomely as it has.” He also noted the irony of a birthday celebration being planned at Bop City, the nightclub where the Armstrong All Stars were currently in session. (He was the only attraction to fill its cavernous space, which soon folded.)

Let’s modulate to 1956, a key year in Armstrong’s career, the one in which he first visited Africa, where he received a tremendous reception; in which he had perhaps his best film role, in High Society, with Crosby and Sinatra (and Grace Kelly, whom he absolutely charmed); and was featured on television in Edward R. Murrow’s Satchmo the Great. He had already been dubbed “Ambassador Satch,” and the All Stars were, by a long shot, the highest-paid (and hardest-working) jazz attraction. But success has never sat well with critics.

When the All Stars appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival, then in its third year, here’s what Jack Tracy, editor of Down Beat, had to say: “Too much Louis . . . marked the second night . . . the only reign to fall [it had poured the night before] was that of King Louis Armstrong. He demonstrated with finality that it takes more than rolling eyes, handkerchief on head and chops, and the same old Paramount theater act to warrant using an hour’s time at an American festival of jazz.” Tracy mentioned flashes of “the majestic tone and ingrained feeling that has made him an undeniable great in jazz,” but thought they came too seldom. Armstrong, he complained, was playing “the same old tunes and fronting the same indifferent band he’s been working with for too long.” His “appearance seemed commonplace . . . an insult to an audience that was there to hear the best from everyone.”

Hindsight, provided by Columbia records, which issued part of Armstrong’s set on an LP, reveals just how insulted the audience was, roaring its approval when Louis announces “Mack the Knife,” which at the time he had not been playing for very long. We also get to hear the “Indiana” on which Tracy found “Louis running into some difficulty on his solo which he barely works his way out of”—utter nonsense.

Tracy’s tone and content didn’t arouse much response on this side of the pond, but it was also printed in Britain’s Melody Maker, where Max Jones and Sinclair Traill suggested it was possibly an example of modernist bias (they also defended drummer Barrett Deems, the critics’ favorite All Star whipping boy). Tracy responded with “strenuous objections” to their “ridiculous assertions,” but the two Brits had the last word, asking if Tracy knew “of a better small group playing hot jazz today.” (This “indifferent” edition of the All Stars had Trummy Young, Ed Hall, and Billy Kyle; it was my favorite lineup, with the Teagarden-Catlett band a close second.)

But Tracy (a nice man who went on to produce some of Woody Herman’s best LPs) was not alone. Here, still in the same year, is the present dean of jazz critics (like Tracy, no longer active), The New York Times‘ John S. Wilson, on the occasion of the first ever jazz concert at New York’s 39-year-old Lewisohn Stadium, the one where Louis and the All Stars joined Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in the grandiose “symphonic” arrangement of “St. Louis Blues” captured in Satchmo the Great: “[This collaboration] was a welcome event for those who had gone to the stadium in hopes of hearing Mr. Armstrong play with some suggestion of the jazz artistry of which he is capable. His solo . . . was movingly expressed and beautifully developed . . . a refreshing change from the Armstrong performances that have been heard here recently . . . [and were limited] to repetitions of a program that rarely varies.” Wilson acknowledges that the audience responded enthusiastically “and even made a brief attempt to dance in the aisles.” But, undeterred, he goes on to say that “it is somewhat disturbing to realize that the Armstrong group’s performances are being seen all over the world and are widely publicized as outstanding examples of the propaganda value of American jazz. . . . except for occasional instances, it would be misleading if the antics of Mr. Armstrong and his colleagues were to be accepted as representative of well-played jazz.”

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.