In the late 1940s, the bebop revolution drew a line down the middle of jazz. The new breed of musicians demanded to be taken seriously as artists and looked askance at the jazz performers of the ’20s and ’30s, who often let traditional styles, entertainment and dance rhythms take precedence over their solo inventions. Louis Armstrong fit this image of early jazz performers to a T. He mugged for audiences, surrounded himself with often-bland accompanists and recorded songs like “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” Dizzy Gillespie, then a young lion, accused him of being an Uncle Tom.
As the years passed, though, the conflict between generations died away. Gillespie himself even took over Armstrong’s role as consummate jazz entertainer. Today, Armstrong’s trademark grin seems less an example of obsequious Uncle Tomming and more the Buddha-like smile of a loving jazz deity.
This Fourth of July marked the 100th anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s birth–that is, if we accept the date that Armstrong gave during his life. In Gary Giddins’ 1989 biography Satchmo, the author proved that Armstrong was, in fact, born on August 4, 1901. This is one case, though, where fiction seems to hold more truth than the facts. What better birth date for the man whom Bing Crosby called “the beginning and end of music in America” than Independence Day at the dawn of the 20th century?
Born in New Orleans, Armstrong made his first recordings in Chicago in 1923 with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. The following year, he traveled to New York to play with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra and, the story goes, taught the band to swing. But Armstrong made his greatest impact on a series of recordings under his own leadership, known collectively as the Hot Fives and Sevens.
These small-group records, made from 1925 to 1928, established jazz as a soloist’s art form and provided a blueprint for what was to come. Before these recordings, jazz rhythm was syncopated, but it didn’t swing. Improvisation was the rule, but solos were restricted to short stop-time breaks. Armstrong’s innovations changed the music on every level.
The Hot Fives and Sevens sessions have long been available as part of the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces reissue program, but the producers’ attempts to reduce background noise on those CDs made the already primitive recordings sound even muddier. Jazz collectors have long preferred the import versions produced by the English label JSP, on which the digital remastering by John R.T. Davies leaves in the hiss, but also captures the high and low ends of the music.
For years, those imports were an expensive alternative, but last fall, JSP quietly made its Armstrong reissues available domestically in a budget-priced four-disk set called simply The Hot Fives and Sevens.
To hear the JSP disks for the first time is a revelation. Previously faint aspects like spoken words, rhythm guitar and cymbals suddenly jump out of the speakers. And Armstrong’s trumpet itself is a brilliant brass beacon cutting through the fog of the years. His cadenza at the start of “West End Blues” sounds once more like a clarion call to the world, announcing the creation of a new music.
The original Hot Five featured clarinetist Johnny Dodds, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, trombonist Kid Ory and Lillian Hardin Armstrong (Louis’ new wife) on piano. As great as these musicians were, they still played in an older style that was on its way out. Only Armstrong really “swings,” his notes floating above the rhythm section, free-falling to earth in gorgeous arpeggios, lagging slyly behind the beat or dragging it impatiently forward. When his trumpet drops out, some of the air goes out of the band. It’s not until the third disk in the set that Armstrong finds a band mate who’s his near match: Earl Hines, the first jazz pianist to improvise horn-like melodies with his right hand. Their duet on “Weather Bird” defined modernism circa 1928.
By disk four, the actual Hot Fives and Sevens have disappeared, replaced by a big band, and the material has gone from original tunes like “S.O.L. Blues” (an acronym for “shit out of luck”) to popular songs like “When You’re Smiling” and “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” To some jazz fans, this was the beginning of the end–for almost two decades Armstrong would abandon the innovative small-group jazz that set the pattern others would eventually follow. But the change could also be viewed as a prescient move on Armstrong’s part: The big bands would soon take over, and jazz would turn to popular song for new melodies and chord changes in order to stay vital.
The recordings on The Hot Fives and Sevens also offer the first real examples of Armstrong’s singing on record. Though only in his mid 20s, he already had the rasping tone that he became famous for–a harsh contrast to the classically trained tenors who were popular at the time. Like his trumpet lines, Armstrong’s vocals could not be contained by meter and often burst from the constraints of melody and lyric into joyous scatting. His famous scat vocal on “Heebie Jeebies” was said to be the result of a dropped lyric sheet, but perhaps this was the excuse Armstrong gave the record company.
A new two-disk set titled Louis Armstrong: A 100th Birthday Celebration offers mostly vocal-oriented performances from Armstrong’s RCA Victor recordings, which were made over two brief periods: 1932-1933 and 1946-1947. Both were important transitional phases of his career. In the first, just a few years after the Hot Fives and Sevens dates, Armstrong was on his way to becoming an established popular artist and performing plenty of novelties (some delightful, such as his original “Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train”), Tin Pan Alley dross and big-band versions of traditional New Orleans fare. He was still taking heart-stopping solos, though, as on the 1933 version of “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” or the after-hours oddity “Laughin’ Louie,” where he plays a cappella to entertain the band.
By the late ’40s, the second period covered by A 100th Birthday Celebration, singers, beboppers and R&B were replacing the big bands. The RCA Victor recordings capture Armstrong’s last big-band efforts and his return to the small-group format with the first version of Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars (the name his bands would use for the rest of his career). It’s here that the set falls short. Armstrong did some of his best work on eight sides he recorded with trombonist Jack Teagarden in 1947, but only two of the tracks–“Jack Armstrong Blues” and “Rocking Chair”–appear here. Serious collectors would do better to buy the three-disk Complete RCA Victor Recordings, which offers the full Teagarden sessions and twice the number of tunes overall.
Verve Records has a three-disk Armstrong salute of its own scheduled for release at the end of this month: The Ultimate Collection. If you can’t wait that long, Let’s Do It: The Best of the Verve Years is an excellent substitute. Verve mainly featured Armstrong in modern jazz settings, often accompanied by the Oscar Peterson Quartet, and produced the most intimate recordings of his vocals; you can hear the notes decay until all that’s left is the sound of his breath vibrating. The title track on Let’s Do It is an eight-minute-plus version of the Cole Porter song, on which Armstrong sounds like the voice of Eros, the life force animating us all.
It’s Armstrong the gravel-throated singer whom most people know today, thanks largely to his saccharine swan song “What a Wonderful World,” which has been co-opted ad nauseam for television commercials and in-store soundtracks. It’s the first song on Louis Armstrong Sings Back through the Years: A Centennial Celebration, a new two-disk sampling of the recordings he made for Decca Records (and a few affiliates). The collection includes some of his biggest hits, from 1949’s “Blueberry Hill” to the 1963 comeback “Hello, Dolly.”
True to the title, the songs are arranged in reverse chronological order, putting his last big hit at the start. This programming choice makes sense both for those who are new to Armstrong–for whom the familiar tune is a welcome introduction–and for discerning jazz fans, who can easily skip the song without having to program their CD players.
“What a Wonderful World” has come to define Armstrong for many, not only because it was his last commercial hit (in 1967, when rock ruled the charts), but because it seems to capture the singer’s essential personality–much as “My Way” did for Frank Sinatra. In both cases, however, the portrait of the artist is more like a caricature. Armstrong didn’t need an excessively sentimental lyric (not to mention a lame pop arrangement) to communicate his love of life; he did it with every note he sang or played.
The high point of Back through the Years is 10 numbers recorded in 1956 for the five-LP set Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, on which Armstrong revisited dozens of songs from earlier in his career. The most successful remakes are “On the Sunny Side of the Street”–a song he was born to sing–and “Body and Soul,” a perfect example of how Armstrong could make a serious lyric sound lighthearted. Overall, these songs demonstrate Armstrong’s undeniable ability to put listeners in a good mood. When you hear them, the sky seems brighter, the trees look greener, and every person walking down the street is beautiful.
If the set has a downfall, it’s the widely varying quality of the accompaniment. Armstrong finds his best collaborators on the 1950 version of “I Surrender, Dear,” where he is joined by old friends Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines, and clarinetist Barney Bigard, a veteran of Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. On other numbers, though, only Armstrong’s contribution raises the music above the banal. The white-bread choir on “Lucky Old Sun” and “Blueberry Hill” in particular is an offense.
Inferior material is also a problem, with such wildly inappropriate songs as “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and Henry Mancini’s insipid movie theme “Moon River.” Armstrong often recorded unlikely songs, making fans wonder if he was stooping to reach a larger audience. Or could it be that this musical genius didn’t have very good taste? (He did once name Guy Lombardo’s Orchestra as his all-time favorite.)
Armstrong’s unusual song choices are just part of the larger paradox he presents to the jazz world: An instrumental virtuoso, he became more famous for his singing. Possessed of a squeaky clean public image, he was the underground king of the “vipers” (marijuana smokers). A staunch advocate of civil rights, he often recorded Tin Pan Alley material that romanticized the antebellum South.
If there was an intent behind these contradictions, perhaps it was to combine the opposites, to integrate good and bad and bring all music together as a whole. Armstrong’s light shone more brilliantly in spots, but it reached every dim corner of American music.