march 2011


The Louis Armstrong Centennial

He Whose Music Made The Angels Weep

August 4 marked the 100th birthday of Louis Armstrong, an artist blessed with such a multitude of gifts that jazz scholars are still contemplating the magnitude of his work and his meaning forty years after his death on July 6, 1971. Given that Louis was resolutely Louis until the day he died, he would likely be the least surprised to learn how time has been on his side. The critics who once bayed and howled in denigrating all the work he did after his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings in the 1920s now comprise the lunatic fringe of Armstrong scholars. Where Dan Morgenstern was once almost alone in pointing out the virtues of recordings Louis made with small combos and big bands throughout the rest of his career, the wheel has rolled around to where it now rests on a point of widespread agreement about the remarkable consistency and often-transcendent moments of the Armstrong oeuvre.

In his 1988 study, Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong (still the best book about Louis the recording artist, replete with biographical context although it is not a full-on biography), Gary Giddens opens with an eloquent summation of the artist’s achievements, musical and sociological alike.

louisGenius is the transfiguring agent. Nothing else can explain Louis Armstrong’s ascendancy. He had no formal training, yet he alchemized the cabaret music of an outcast minority into an art that has expanded in ever-widening orbits for seventy-five years, with no sign of collapse. He played trumpet against the rules, and so new rules were written to acknowledge his standards. His voice was so harsh and grating that even black bandleaders were at first loath to let him use it, yet he became one of the most beloved and influential singers of all time. He was born with dark skin in a country where dark-sinned people were considered less than human and, with an ineffable radiance that transcends the power of art, forced millions of whites to reconsider their values. He came from “the bottom of the well, one step from hell,” as one observer put it, but he died a millionaire in a modest home among working class people. He was a jazz artist and a pop star who succeeded in theater and on records, in movies and on television. Yet until he died, he travelled in an unheated bus, playing one-nighters throughout the country, zigzagging around the world, demanding his due but never asking for special favors. He was an easy touch and is thought to have handed out hundreds of thousands of dollars to countless people down on their luck. Powerful persons, including royalty and the Pope, forgave him a measure of irreverence that would have been unthinkable coming from anyone else. Admirers describe him as a philosopher, a wise man, someone who knew all the secrets of how to live.

But few people knew him well, and many of those were most possessive about his art were offended by his popularity. The standard line about Armstrong during his lifetimes, rendered in James Lincoln Collier’s 1983 biography, goes like this: Louis Armstrong was a superb artist in his early years, the exemplar of jazz improvisation, until fame forced him to compromise, at which point he became an entertainer, repeating himself and indulging a taste for low humor. In his 1981 Armstrong discography, Hans Westerberg notes that he “was generally despised by critics and jazz purists during the last decade of his career.” Despised!—the word sounds jarring, overloaded. Louis Armstrong despised? Yet, in fact, he was beset by damning reviews for nearly forty years. He was excoriated for playing pop tunes, fronting a swing band, appearing with media stars, sticking to a standardized repertory, engaging in vaudeville routines, making scatological jokes, mugging, entertaining. When he knocked the Beatles from their number 1 perch in 1964 with “Hello, Dolly!”, the last record by a jazz musician or (excepting Frank Sinatra) a peacock artist ever to top the charts, the jazz community was ambivalent.

wonderfulSeventeen years after his death, he made the charts again with a song cut in 1967, “What a Wonderful World”—the only track from the movie Good Morning, Vietnam to get a new life. According to statistician Joel Whitburn, who uses ratio and sales figures to simulate pop charts going back to the 1890s, Armstrong’s first “hit” was “Muskrat Ramble”: number 8 in 1926. No other singer comes close to spanning sixty-two years on the charts. One can’t imagine a single contemporary of Armstrong’s in the 1920s—Al Jolson? Ethel Waters? Bing Crosby?—enjoying the same degree of success six decades later. Armstrong’s undying popularity is as significant a tribute to the timelessness of his music as is the undiminished purity of such epochal masterworks as “West End Blues” or “Potato Head Blues.” A jazz aesthetics incapable of embracing Louis Armstrong whole is unworthy of him, and of the American style of music-making that he, more than any other individual, engendered.

Armstrong was also an artist who happened to be an entertainer, an entertainer who happened to be an artist—as much an original in one role as the other. He revolutionized music, but he also revolutionized expectations about what a performer could be. In the beginning, eh was an inevitable spur for the ongoing American debate between high art and low. As his genius was accepted in classical circles around the world, a microcosm of the dispute took root in the jazz community, centered on his own behavior. Elitists who admired the musician capable of improvising solos of immortal splendor were embarrassed by the comic stage ham. One reason, surely, is that critics were frustrated (far more than Armstrong ever was) by the fact that relatively few of his fans knew just how profound his stature was. How many of those who joined Benny Goodman’s swing caravan in the thirties or rocked to Chuck Berry in the fifties or savored the increased vibrato that became fashionable in the brass sections of symphony orchestras knew the extent to which they were living in a world created by the famous gravel-mouthed clown? How many appreciated what Miles Davis meant when he said, “You know you can’t play anything on the horn that Louis hasn’t played—I mean even modern,” or Bing Crosby, when he called Armstrong “the beginning and the end of music in America,” or Virgil Thompson, when he wrote that his “improvisation would seem to have combined the highest reaches of instrumental virtuosity with the most tensely disciplined melodic structure and the most spontaneous emotional expression, all of which in one man you must admit is pretty rare”?

sphinxPerhaps because it elicits concentrated emotional and carnal responses, music often makes us pietists and hypocrites. Having experienced great music, we are torn between promulgating it and protecting it from the great unwashed. Armstrong would have none of that, and his career superbly demonstrates the democratization of an art conceived, as he insisted, “in the cause of happiness.” He is the only major figure in Western culture who influenced the music of his time equally as an instrumentalist and singer. His popularity enabled him to shatter countless racial obstacles, while his manner undermined Europhile assumptions about the way an artist was supposed to present himself. He advocated and perfected purity of tone and obeisance to melody; patented the rhythmic gait known as swing; transformed a polyphonic folk music into a soloist’s art; established the expressive weight of blues tonality; proved the durability of harmonic improvisation. But he also relished the tradition of humor that had grown out of the black archetype in minstrel shows and had become a mainstay of black entertainment throughout the first two decades of his life. In 1938, he paid tribute to such monologists as Bert Williams (whose records he collected and whom he had begun to parody on stage as early as 1924) with his Elder Eatmore sermons.


To separate Armstrong the sublime trumpeter from Armstrong the irrepressible stage wag curbs a magnanimous artist to satisfy a misguided appeal to Kulchur, but underestimates the absurdist humor that informs his serious side. His ability to balance the emotional gravity of the artist with the communal good cheer of the entertainer helped enable him to demolish the Jim Crow/Zip Coon/Ol’ Dan Tucker stereotypes. In their place he installed the liberated black man, the pop performer as world-renowned artist who dressed stylishly, lived high, slapped palms with the Pope, and regularly passed through whites-only portals, leaving the doors open behind him. Americans loved Armstrong and he counted on that love to do what only the greatest artists are prepared to do—show the world to itself in a new light. By the late 1940s, fashions changed and many blacks and not a few whites took offense at his clowning, equating it with racial servility. But an Uncle Tom, though he may stoop to conquer, consciously demeans himself. Armstrong would have considered ludicrous an attempt to equate his style of entertainment with self-abasement. He was as much himself rolling his eyes and mugging as he was playing the trumpet. His fans understood that, but intellectuals found the whole effort too damn complicated. …

louisOn every level of his art/entertainment, Armstrong combined musical inspiration with a beguiling knowledge of the anomalous. The result is manifested in obvious ways: in his use of nonsense syllables—scat singing—to replace or supplement the lyrics of a song or to facilitate vocal improvisation; in the song titles that celebrate sex or pot or food, usually in slang too inside even for most musicians; in the humor that deflates the sentimental pretensions of pop songs; in the stage routines that persistently undermine the seriousness of his own art, so that vainglorious brilliance in balanced by an indecorous wit that establishes casual mutuality with the audience. Yet his familiarity with the absurd runs deeper still, producing the fundamental detachment or irony that allowed him to transfigure the music of his day. …

Nowhere is his irony more breathtaking than in “Laughin’ Louie,” in which he discards the rum tune after a few measures, addresses the other musicians in the role of a laughing buffoon, and then plays an unaccompanied melody—recalled, he says, from his youth—of immutably stark and haunting beauty. What manner of man is this Laughin’ Louie who can play music to make the angels weep?

Gary Giddins’s Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong is available at

Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five, ‘Potato Head Blues’ (1927)

Louis Armstrong & Hit Hot Five, ‘Sugar Foot Strut’ (1928)

Louis Armstrong & Hit Hot Five, ‘Lonesome Blues’ (1926)

Louis Armstrong, ‘Basin Street Blues,’ live in Stuttgart, Germany (1959), with Trummy Young on trombone

Louis Armstrong with Velma Middleton, ‘St. Louis Blues,’ live in Belgium 1959

Louis Armstrong, ‘Hello Dolly!’ live

The Chairman of the Board with the man he calls ‘Professor A’

Louis Armstrong and Johnny Cash, on The Johnny Cash Show talk about Louis’s July 16, 1930 session with Jimmie Rodgers on ‘Blue Yodel #9,’ ahead of performing the song. ‘We’ll give it to ‘em in black and white,’ Louis says.

Louis Armstrong and Dean Martin on The Dean Martin Show

From the Hoagy Carmichael Collection, this 1932 photo of Louis Armstrong is inscribed by Louis, ‘Hello ‘Hoagy,’ you ‘rascal.’ From Louis Armstrong, 2/27/32.’

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