Louis Armstrong’s Musical Ideals

On June 29th, Trombone Shorty brought his band to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park for an outdoor concert. The show sold out, but thousands of people kept streaming into the park as he played, creating a vast crowd outside the walls of the arena. Shorty electrified the audience, then toward the end of the set announced, “I’m going to dedicate this next song to my hero, Louis Armstrong.” Shorty launched into a warm, tender version of “Sunny Side of the Street” that ran for well over ten minutes and climaxed with his show-stopping circular breathing solo, in which he holds a single note over dozens of choruses as the band vamps behind and the fans slowly realize what he’s doing until they scream their shouts of approval, urging him on to the finish. Shorty, a distant relative of Armstrong’s, went on to play another of Satchmo’s show stoppers, “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and it felt totally of a piece with the material I’ve recently been listening to from Armstrong’s 1956 date with the All-Stars, The Great Chicago Concert. It’s awe-inspiring to see Shorty translate this material to a contemporary crowd more or less the same way Armstrong did half a century ago. It’s in his blood, to be sure, but it’s also a statement about how Armstrong’s methods and attitudes toward his music were not simply about entertainment or technical prowess but a kind of Aristotelian ideal of music as a perfect form of communication.

Louis Armstrong. Photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Photo courtesy of Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Louis Armstrong is an American icon whose music and persona still resonates throughout the world 41 years after his death. His initial popularity ushered in the jazz age. His revolutionary trumpet playing created the idea of the jazz solo. His creative and thoroughgoing rhythmic sense suffused both his singing and playing, defining the notion of what would eventually be called swing. He moved effortlessly from heading the compact traditional New Orleans jazz group into leading a big band, then after World War II establishing a small band concept that influenced the R&B and rock ‘n’ roll combos that followed in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Armstrong virtually invented popular music as we know it today. As a vocalist his phrasing and rhythmic sense were the model for subsequent pop icons like Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and countless other singers who went to school on his relaxed, seductive vocal style. But that was only one aspect of his singing. Armstrong’s approach to scat singing invented a new musical language, a vocalese that in effect added a new instrument to jazz orchestration. Add in the growls, distortion and exclamations of delight he employed and you’re really looking at a contemporary musical thinker.

Armstrong’s wordplay and sense of humor added variety to his performances, which were full of ad libs and bawdy stories. If you think about it, he may have influenced American comedy as well as music.

It’s truly amazing that Armstrong, who was considered by many of the top jazz critics to be washed up from the 1950s on, still has such a profound influence on contemporary music. And it’s not just Shorty taking cues from the way the All-Stars paced their shows. On Tom McDermott’s Duets album, Satchmo comes to life as a hip-hop MC in the 21st-century through McDermott’s ingenious sampling and looping of his vocal and trumpet figures. Kid Merv, the trumpeter from the Treme Brass Band, has just released an album backed by pianists Ellis Marsalis and producer David Torkanowsky that is an out-and-out Armstrong tribute without ever identifying itself as such. Of course, an album that includes “What A Wonderful World,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Summertime” and “Mack The Knife” doesn’t have to. Torkanowsky and Marsalis each bring different contours to standards associated with Armstrong, all of which reveal new aspects of the Armstrong ideal.

Over the course of the first weekend in August, the Satchmo Summer Fest will explore Armstrong’s historical impact on American culture as well as demonstrate its ongoing influence during two days of live performances, including a set from Kid Merv playing material from that new album, Body and Soul. The seminars, lectures and film presentations that will take place in the newly designed third floor conference rooms at the Old U.S. Mint will be of particular importance this year because newly-unearthed recorded material has driven a critical re-evaluation of Armstrong’s career that places greater importance on his post-World War II work.

The most moving of the rediscoveries is Armstrong’s live concert with the All Stars, recorded at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. a few months before his death in 1971. Armstrong was an honored guest at a dinner welcoming the new president of the club, a Louisiana native. Armstrong was terminally ill with a heart condition and was instructed by his doctor to sing only for ten minutes and not to play the trumpet at all. But when the All Stars launched into Armstrong’s theme, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” Satchmo shocked and delighted the room by lifting his trumpet to his lips and blowing. For the next 25 minutes, Armstrong held the crowd spellbound, and delivered a memorable farewell to his listeners with a bit of musical autobiography, “The Boy From New Orleans”:

Now all through the years
Folks, I’ve had a ball
Oh, thank you, Lord
And I want to thank you all.
You were very kind
To old Satchmo
Just a boy from New Orleans

Armstrong’s performance was recorded and a handful of copies of a privately distributed LP were given to Press Club members. Now this historic performance is available to the general public for the first time on Smithsonian Folkways records.

The Press Club release is part of a wave of new and reissued Armstrong recordings that will finally place his full career in historical perspective. One of the main advocates of this reevaluation of Armstrong is critic/historian Ricky Riccardi, curator of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York and author of a great book which refutes much of the standard critical thinking about Armstrong, What A Wonderful World.

“The Press Club release really warmed my heart,” says Riccardi, “because it got people listening to the late Armstrong again. It was the best-selling CD on Amazon for a couple of weeks. It’s kind of the perfect capsulisation of Armstrong’s career, with a beautiful ‘Sleepy Time,’ a great trumpet solo on ‘Hello Dolly,’ a terrific ‘Mack the Knife,’ and the heartfelt ‘Boy From New Orleans.’ It shows Armstrong still getting it done a few months before he passed away.”

Riccardi was a contributor to the first big release in the surge of Armstrong reissues, last year’s 10-CD set from Universal covering Armstrong’s years at Decca and Verve. At this year’s Satchmo Summer Fest, Riccardi has several presentations planned, including the unveiling of plans for even more reissues.

“I’m gonna be all over the place,” he laughs. “I’m going to do my annual film presentations. The first one is “Louis Armstrong on Television”. It’s going to include some really rare stuff from 1952 until the year he died, ’71. It’s going to include Louis on the Colgate Comedy Hour, the Frank Sinatra Show, Jimmy Durante, the All Stars on the Ed Sullivan Show from Germany in 1961. TV captured the real Armstrong—there were no scripts, you could see how much he was a natural performer, how natural he was on talk shows. He should have had his own talk show. Most of what I’m showing is not on DVD or YouTube, you have to see it here.”

Riccardi is going to present another film feature, “Louis Armstrong in Europe”. “It always seems that the Europeans knew the importance of Armstrong more than the Americans did,” says Riccardi. “When Louis went to Europe the cameras were never off. In my private collection I have live concerts from Amsterdam in 1959, from Sweden in 1962, from Germany in 1962, from East Berlin in 1965, just really great performance stuff, almost all of it not available anywhere else.”

During Satchmo Summer Fest, Riccardi is also going to announce the release of one of Armstrong’s most historic concerts, Satchmo at Symphony Hall, which will be available in its entirety for the first time ever.

“It’s one of the all-time great concerts, recorded in Boston on November 30, 1947,” says Riccardi. “When it was originally released, Decca had to cut out parts of the show to fit it on two discs. When it was re-released on CD in the 1990s they cut out three more songs.”

After the Swedish Armstrong collector Gösta Hägglöf willed his archives to the museum in 2009, Riccardi discovered the complete Symphony Hall show in his collection. It included material that even Universal didn’t have in its vaults.

“We’ve cobbled together the entire concert from the band tuning up through all the announcements and four completely unissued tracks—‘Back O Town Blues,’ ‘Jack Armstrong Blues,’ ‘St. James Infirmary’ and ‘Velma Middleton’s Blues.’ It’s going to be a real beautiful double CD package.”

Riccardi is also excited about two additional Universal projects that are coming out. On last year’s 10-CD box, the 10th CD was all rare and unissued material from the Universal vaults. Universal is going to release that CD on its own on a download-only basis. The company is also releasing a download of an entire Armstrong recording session for the album Ella and Louis Again.

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald

“The first Ella and Louis album was so successful that producer Norman Granz decided to put them back together for a double album and include some solo tracks, three for Fitzgerald and four for Armstrong,” says Riccardi. “So on August 1, 1957, Armstrong went into the studio with the Oscar Peterson trio and Louis Bellson on drums to record his four solo features. Granz let the tape roll from the opening, when the band is playing ‘Back Home In Indiana’ to test the levels and Armstrong isn’t even playing into the microphone but his sound is so huge it’s like he’s right there. The tape runs through all the takes, breakdowns, alternate tapes and discussions as they record ‘Makin’ Whoopie,’ ‘I Get a Kick Out of You,’ ‘Let’s Do It’ and ‘Willow Weep for Me.’ You can actually hear Armstrong in the studio over the course of one day in his life. How he approached the songs, how each take varied, how his trumpet tones varied, how his phrasing varied on each tune. The first take of ‘Let’s Do It’ is fantastic but he gets tongue-tied a few times, it’s kind of humorous because he keeps on going. It’s revealing to be this close to Armstrong’s genius, to hear him working on his craft, messing up, improving things, making jokes with the musicians, it gives a good sense of how he worked.”

It also offers proof of how Armstrong’s art matured over the course of his life, Riccardi argues.

“When you hear him singing on the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, there’s almost a little shouting, there’s a trace of Al Jolson there, you can even hear him laughing while he’s singing. But he’s not nearly as nuanced as he’d become later on. In 1929, with ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ and ‘Stardust’ he starts taking his singing a little more seriously. But at the same time there are songs like ‘When Your Lover Has Gone’ that have very deep, even depressing lyrics, but his singing is so rich and so swinging it’s like he’s not even thinking about the emotional content of the lyrics. But in 1935, when he starts recording for Decca, you begin to hear almost a different voice. From that moment forward, Armstrong starts directing more of his genius into articulation, into interpreting the lyrics, delving into the song’s emotional content.

“By the time he gets to the 1950s and the recordings with producer Norman Granz, he’s singing with Ella Fitzgerald and he’s doing the songs of Cole Porter, the great American songbook. Also recording technology had improved to the point where it could capture all the subtle mannerisms of his vocals. We’re talking about one of the greatest singers who ever lived at this point. ‘Let’s Do It’ is a masterpiece, the most incredible nine minutes. Even though the melody doesn’t change Armstrong sings it differently with each passing chorus. He changes the phrasing. He changes the melody. It’s a vocal tour de force.”

Riccardi’s work has already born fruit. Those who attend this year’s Satchmo Summer Fest will come away with a new appreciation of America’s greatest musician.

“I think in 200 years when people ask who are the great figures of this civilization, people are going to talk about Shakespeare, Mozart and Louis Armstrong in the same breath,” Riccardi concludes. “People are finally accepting the totality of Armstrong’s career. They’re accepting that he was a great singer, trumpet player and entertainer from the 1920s until the day he died in 1971.