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.

The story that emerged and hardened into received wisdom is known to every jazz lover and goes like this. Between 1925 and 1928, Armstrong made several dozen records by small studio units known as the Hot Five, Hot Seven, and Savoy Ballroom Five. They are the foundation for jazz’s ascension as an art—indeed, for much of what we value highest in jazz and popular music. At those sessions, Armstrong supplanted the marchlike two-beat of the New Orleans style with a steady and occasionally throbbing four/four; established the imperative of blues tonality; replaced the polyphonic or group approach to improvisation with solo inventions of, in his case anyway, uncanny radiance; and freed the vernacular voice that remains at the center stage of American song. All this is true. The greatness of those records exceeds their influence. We do not pay passive homage to Armstrong’s genius, but, rather, lose ourselves in its emotional grandeur, stately tone, earthy comedy, and discriminating rigor.

In 1929, he brought all these strengths to bear on a popular song by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” This number was no more compromised by Tin Pan Alley expediency than the songs he had already recorded by such successful songwriters as Spencer Williams (“Basin Street Blues”) and Fats Waller (“Squeeze Me”). But their songs were the product of the close-knit world of young African American musicians making headway in jazz and on Broadway. “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” was blues-free white pop. It was also superior to much of the material Armstrong had recorded to that time, and his superb interpretation, in effect, provided a jazz pedigree for a song that would live on as a standard. Still, it generated a simmering pique among the most hidebound of his admirers, who may have astutely surmised that he would no longer belong exclusively to them.

In truth, he never did. Here is where received wisdom was skewed by the vagaries of Columbia Records. Blesh complains that he had abandoned jazz before 1925, working with Henderson and an assortment of vaudevillians, including a very mixed bag of blues divas, but ignores the pop records he made between 1925 and 1928 as though they never existed. Until the late 1980s, you could not easily find a complete edition of the Hot Fives and Sevens. But Columbia finally issued a poorly mastered set (a better edition, simultaneously released in England on JSP, can still be ordered online), followed last year by the improved but troublesome The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings. Today, listeners have no choice but to take them all in—the gold, silver, and lead. In this context, we are no longer blinded by an exhibition of largely instrumental masterpieces, from “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” and “Potato Head Blues” to “Tight Like This” and “Muggles.” Instead, we are treated to a more complicated panorama in which those works alternate with lighter yet almost always earthier pieces intended to entertain.

If you include the spoken raps on “Gut Bucket Blues” and “King of the Zulus,” 14 of the first 24 Hot Fives have vocals. On “He Likes It Slow,” the Hot Five appears in support of vaudevillians Butterbeans and Susie, and on “Sunset Cafe Stomp” and “Big Butter and Egg Man,” Armstrong’s guest vocalist is May Alix, a nightclub performer known for her splits (a routine later incorporated into Armstrong’s shows when he hired singer-dancer Velma Middleton) and for being so light-skinned that Ellington balked at taking her on tour. Four numbers, including those with Alix, were created by Percy Venable, who staged floor shows at the Sunset Cafe. One of them, “Irish Black Bottom,” begins as “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” interpolates “Black Bottom” (also a white tune, incidentally), and finds Armstrong singing, “I was born in Ireland—ha ha!—so imagine how I feel.” As it is intended to make you laugh, it will never appear on a serious best-of Louis anthology, nor should it. Neither does it becloud one’s memories of “Potato Head Blues.”

In short, at no time in Armstrong’s career—which began with him singing for pennies on New Orleans street corners and progressed to social functions like picnics and funerals that were not covered by the press (alas)—did he devote himself exclusively to a fancied shrine of jazz; at no time was he disinclined to entertain; at no time did he forswear popular material. All the songs he sang were pop or would-be pop. No one wrote tunes, least of all Armstrong, in hope of achieving a cult status. The songs he recorded are jazz classics because he did them. In jazz, the singer makes the song, never the reverse. The most famous of his early vocals is “Heebie Jeebies,” which popularized scat; “West End Blues” and “Basin Street Blues,” for his soft wordless crooning; and “Hotter Than That,” for his virtuoso scat romp. Less talked about is the 1928 “St. James Infirmary,” another essential performance, because here for the first time we hear what Armstrong could do with a conventional song, perfectly gauging the high notes and propelling the chorus with rhythmic emotion—three months before the more inventive breakthrough on “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.”

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.

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.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 5, 2001

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