LISTENING TO LOUIS?

I’ve just read David Rickert’s assessment of “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946)” issued by Mosaic Records in 2009, an essay published in ALL ABOUT JAZZ.  Rickert’s on the right path, but I found many of his statements confusing, even contradictory.  But before some eager commenters leap to his defense, I am not in the ad hominem trade, merely puzzled.

Here it is, unedited:

As far as recordings by trumpeter Louis Armstrong go, the Decca recordings don’t generate much interest. Prior to them came the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, the most influential jazz recordings ever made and the template for everything that was to come. Afterward came the superb pop recordings for RCA, which showed a masterful entertainer more respected for his vocal prowess than his trumpet playing. The Decca years represent Armstrong’s adolescence: a bit gangly, sometimes awkward, and filled with questionable choices amidst the bold assertions of identity. Part of the problem may be that the Decca recordings have been available somewhat helter skelter over the years. Who better to provide some coherence than Mosaic? The label has compiled everything that Armstrong recorded for Decca, brilliantly remastered from the original metal parts or discs, and with thorough liner notes from jazz veteran Dan Morgenstern to boot. With this seven CD set, it is finally possible to assess this set completely and perhaps more firmly establish them as the great records they are. Critics of these recordings gripe about the subpar quality of the song choice, which is surprisingly inferior given the astounding amount of good songs that were written at the time. A quick glance at the tracks will confirm this suspicion; there are quite a lot of second tier songs (you can often spot them just from the title.) At the time, Joe Glaser had recently become Armstrong’s manager and quickly obtained the services of Jack Kapp at the newly launched Decca label to record him. And record they did—166 tracks over 11 years that also span the infamous recording ban. Kapp saw Armstrong as a novelty act, someone whose numbers might be a little corny and superficial and easy on the ear. In this regard he had much in common with pianist Fats Waller, another mugger who recorded piffle. But also like Waller, Armstrong was always able to turn even the most insignificant material into something special, even if it wasn’t perhaps high art. He also correctly assumed that his performance would carry the material, and more often than not it did. There are some undeniable misfires here, such as a few numbers with a Hawaiian theme, and some gospel numbers, along with a few numbers like “When Ruben Swings the Cuban” that even Armstrong can’t redeem. But there are also quite a few numbers that Armstrong absolutely nails and turns into masterpieces, such as “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque,” “Tiger Rag,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Satchel Mouth Swing” and “Jubilee” proving that a terrific song and superb musicianship can always combine to make musical gold. Anther problem for some critics is the quality of the sidemen. There are really no stellar musicians on the stand, but rather serviceable sidemen capable of playing the charts and managing a decent solo when prompted. Clearly the focus here was on Armstrong and the rest of the band was only called upon to provide sturdy accompaniment and little else. Thus, unlike the Hot Five and Seven Recordings, there’s no pianist Earl Hines or trombonist Kid Ory to keep Armstrong on his toes and match his chops (although truth be told, few could keep up with him). The novelty here is hearing Armstrong navigate the world of big band coming from the smaller groups he had employed earlier. The recordings start out startlingly sweet and progressively get hotter, matched by terrific charts from Sy Oliver and Joe Garland. Armstrong was also paired with other artists from the Decca label such as saxophonist Glen Gray, reed player Jimmy Dorsey and bassist Bob Haggart, all white musicians, and pairings that helped erase the color lines that existed. There are also a few visits with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and a reunion with soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, as well as early appearances with guys like guitarist Dave Barbour who would go on to greater things. Oh yes, and the first pairing of Armstrong and singer Ella Fitzgerald. Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great. A sampling of the best of these records would show how truly great this period was. Mosaic’s warts and all approach necessarily includes some questionable material. But with the Mosaic touch, don’t be surprised if these recordings reemerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.

Rickert ends his piece generously: he won’t “be surprised if these recordings emerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.”  But he begins with the rather curious statement that these same recordings “don’t generate much interest.” 

I wonder if the second statement is a matter of commerce rather than artistic merit.  The Deccas were never reissued intelligently at home.  Rather, they came out in blurts, “Jazz Classics,” “Collector’s Items,” “Golden Favorites,” and several well-meanin but incomplete attempts.  It was left to Gosta Hagglof  to issue the Deccas logically and completely on CD.   

It’s always tempting to see a jazz artist’s career in terms of the progression of record labels, but in doing this, Rickert presents some debatable generalities.  The Hot Five and Seven recordings are “the most influential jazz recordings ever made”; the later Victor sessions produced “superb pop,” where Armstrong’s singing overshadowed his trumpet playing. 

How about the “influential jazz recording, BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and the “superb pop” of JACK-ARMSTRONG BLUES or PENNIES FROM HEAVEN? 

Rickert’s underlying assessment of Armstrong’s career might be something like this: “Louis played pure New Orleans jazz up until 1929, and then was corrupted into “pop” commercialism, with short detours back to Eden when he recorded with homeboys like Bechet and when he played W.C. Handy.  But had he stuck to POTATO HEAD BLUES, what a body of work he might have created!  Alas, poor Satchmo!  I knew him well, before he became popular, that is.” 

This harks back to the ideological wars of the Forties, Moldy Figs arguing with Be-Boppers over whose music was “authentic,” over how one defined “the real jazz.”  I thought we were past those quarrels.

Louis didn’t elevate jazz to the pantheon while lamenting that he was forced to play “pop.”  I doubt that he ever complained in the studio, “Hey, Mr. Kapp, this is piffle you’re asking me to mug.”   

In fact, if you admire what creative improvisers do with their material, what could be better than Louis did with ON A COCOANUT ISLAND?  Did it take more inventiveness for Fats Waller to swing THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART than the MINOR DRAG?  I would think so, but for these musicians, it was all music.  Perhaps even trying to play WHEN RUBEN SWINGS THE CUBAN is a heroic act in itself, and the discographies of many revered jazz musicians show equally unpromising titles. 

To his credit, Rickert recognizes that Armstrong was able to “redeem” many of the song choices and make them “something special.”  But he may confuse the musician, the record company, and the song. 

It is easy to view Armstrong as a good-natured pawn in the hands of White manipulators Jack Kapp and Joe Glaser, Kapp coming in for special excoriation for trying to make Louis a “novelty act.”  But record companies then and now wished to sell records — and, after years when companies went bankrupt, one can hardly blame Kapp for trying to ensure broad popular success. 

If Kapp viewed Armstrong as a “novelty act,” he also did so with his best-selling and most popular artist Bing Crosby, who recorded an even wider range of material with great success.  And the idea of “questionable material” might be one that the artists rarely asked.  And the idea of good songs and bad might be undercut by the results.  Does Billie Holiday sound less like herself on WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO than on YESTERDAYS?  The genius of jazz musicians lies in their ability to transform and transcend the most banal material — it is only in retrospect that jazz critics, praising “forward-looking” and “harmonically adventurous” music, make such distinctions.  I GOT RHYTHM and the blues were perfectly satisfying for Charllie Parker and Sonny Rollins to improvise on.  So, rather than assume that nefarious forces compelled Louis to record SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, we should marvel at what he did with it.  (As an aside, some of his recordings I find most gratifying are the least “jazz-inflected”: consider his Fifties recording of TREES, for one.)    

Rickert, as I do, teaches English, and I admire his equating Louis with Shakespeare.  But I find what follows condusing: “Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great.” 

Should we care how many people admire a particular piece of art?  What has popularity to do with merit? 

And if Rickert could point out to me where “academia” and “Pottery Barn,” meet, I’d be grateful.  I’d even meet him at the clearance sale table.  I applaud the idea of Louis as King Lear — majestic, commanding the winds.  But I don’t think that Louis had to pass through suffering to arrive at true awareness: his music shows that he had reached a deep awareness early.

Ultimately, I wonder if Mr. Rickert was victimized by circumstances in writing his review.  Mosaic box sets — in this case, seven compact discs — are initially overwhelming, not well-absorbed in one or two hurried gulps.  I wonder if he was sent this box with perhaps two weeks to listen to it and write about it.  He would either have had to work his way through the set — rather like doing homework — or to listen to it in pieces, hoping to find the figure in the carpet. 

In either case, I admire his fairness: praising Mosaic, attempting to situate Louis in a cultural context.  But he’s missed some of the beauties of these recordings. 

It’s perfectly understandable to look back to Louis’s partnership with Earl Hines as a high point.  But the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings are in some sense artificial, because Louis never worked with those groups.  The Deccas, for better or worse, represent some of the material Louis was performing every day with working bands.  But to become nostalgic for Kid Ory is to neglect J. C. Higginbotham.  And if you’re looking for a musician perfectly paired with Louis, able to keep up with him and to spur him to new heights, I would submit that Sidney Catlett is the man. 

I would ask Mr. Rickert to listen to WOLVERINE BLUES for Catlett alone, to THANKS A MILLION and SOLITUDE for the beauty of Louis’s expressive singing and playing.  Follow that up with the sides recorded with the Mills Brothers, those dreaded Hawaiian sides, and more.  Only then can he or anyone get a true picture of Louis’s achievement . . . and that might take a good deal of time.

20 responses to “LISTENING TO LOUIS?

  1. Pingback: LISTENING TO LOUIS?

  2. A more in-depth (IMHO) treatment of Pops is found in Jazz Masters Of The 20s by Richard Hadlock, which you can download here: http://www.volusiagig.com/music/jazzmastersofthe20s.pdf

  3. Hey man, I agree with your assessment of this piece. I’ve found All About Jazz to be lacking in context at times, which has led me away from it generally. I see the argument for an uncorrupted jazz in Rickert’s piece, and agree that these arguments should be over with by now. But too often the critics at All About Jazz stick to guns that should have been abandoned decades ago (I don’t know if you’ve heard pianist Robert Glasper, but his connections with hip hop got a similar treatment from AAJ in 2005).

    Anyway, thanks.

    Peace,
    Jon Wertheim
    (Rehearsing The Blues)

  4. Hmm, I love Pops’ Hawaiian records! Anyone who isn’t affected by “To You, Sweetheart, Aloha” has no business writing about jazz. Can’t we all just dig Louis, without worrying about which tunes he recorded?

  5. “Alo-waa from the bottom of my heart,” says The Master. How could anyone not be moved by Louis’s sessions with the Mills Brothers? “We are far away from home. Yeah, man,” quoth The Sage. Cheers to you, Mr. Wamp! Michael

  6. John P. Cooper

    He lost me at the first sentence.

    Now to trudge through what promises to be some very labored reading.

  7. “Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. …”

    Oy vey. Is he talking about a turntable or barbecue?

  8. Spot on. These recordings are essential. Louis genius is consistently displayed. And in Big Sid Catlett, there’s a musician not only the equal of Earl Hines, but in terms of sympathetic accompaniment, far superior. I love the Mosaic boxset, it is uplifting, astounding, beautiful, awe-inspiring and being played by me daily! Pops is Tops!!!!

  9. So I found this and now I can respond!

    First off, when I said they don’t generate much interest, I meant that of all his recordings, the Decca sides get the least amount of attention. People are more familiar with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and the Verve stuff. I didn’t mean that the recordings themselves were uninteresting.

    As for the Shakespeare of jazz comment, I meant by that Louis is a guy that everyone admits is one of the greatest admires but I would wager that few listen to him on a regular basis compared to, say, Miles or Coltrane. The only way that he escapes merely being a subject of study is to appear on Pottery Barn compilations. This was meant to be more funny than true, but I bet more people have an Armstrong song on a Pottery Barn compilation than have purchased one of his CDs. Thus he’s the Shakespeare of jazz: everyone thinks he’s great and influential, but how many people read Shakespeare on a regular basis?

    As for the comments: look, any review is just an opinion. I think the Decca stuff is decent. I don’t care for the Hawaiian stuff. I don’t like mediocre songwriting. I can admire what he did with it, but I appreciate what he did with all the great songs on “Louis Under the Stars” more. How can a mediocre song done by a great talent be preferable to a great song by a great talent? You are free to disagree with me, but to say that I don’t know what I’m talking about simply because I don’t like what you like is silly. And to say that all of Armstrong’s stuff is genius or classic only proves that you have a blindside when it comes to Satchmo.

    If you don’t like the reviews on AAJ, then become a contributor. There’s a link there.

  10. David, I’m happy you responded, and I admire your forthrighness. Maybe if you had to explain so much in the review after the fact, it wasn’t entirely clear to begin with? I don’t think that’s a “silly” reaction. And if I have “a blindside when it comes to Satchmo,” I’ve had many worse things said about me. Are you objective about the people you love? I’d hope not! I have (if you ever want to check, and I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t) already written for AAJ, so I am on their list of contributors. Your logic eludes me here, but I won’t belabor the issue. Do you know why? It’s because I treasure LOUIS UNDER THE STARS, too — so perhaps we’re just wearing different prescription eyeglasses, not on opposite sides of a criticial divide.
    Cheers, Michael Steinman

  11. Hey David Rickert,

    Let me point you in the direction of Terry Teachout’s bio of Armstrong, which makes a case for much more than Pottery Barn. I think there’s a flaw in your reasoning. You say, “I meant by that Louis is a guy that everyone admits is one of the greatest admires but I would wager that few listen to him on a regular basis compared to, say, Miles or Coltrane. The only way that he escapes merely being a subject of study is to appear on Pottery Barn compilations. This was meant to be more funny than true, but I bet more people have an Armstrong song on a Pottery Barn compilation than have purchased one of his CDs. Thus he’s the Shakespeare of jazz: everyone thinks he’s great and influential, but how many people read Shakespeare on a regular basis?”

    I think a distinction needs to be made between everyone and jazz fans. Jazz listeners are sure to have more than a Pottery Barn Armstrong tune in their iTunes, just as an English teacher probably reads Shakespeare a lot. Jazz is, like it or not, NOT a popular music. “Most people” probably only have one or two Miles or Coltrane albums, for that matter. Jazz fans probably have dozens. The same goes for Louis Armstrong.

    Armstrong is the basis of so much jazz, popular and jazz. You’re right, he didn’t produce a gem every time. But he’s much more than “a subject of study,” and that’s not because of Pottery Barn. For just one example, if a controversial one, Armstrong is a huge part of the world-famous career of Wynton Marsalis. Miles sang his praises, as does every young musician I’ve talked to. Armstrong may be history, but he’s not irrelevant.

    It’s okay if you don’t like Louis. I happen to not listen to Louis all that often, it’s true. So please, disagree with Michael and with me and with everyone else. It’s the listener’s right. But, in this case, you don’t know what you’re talking about. So go on not liking Louis, but don’t falsify his context.

    Peace,
    J (Rehearsing The Blues)

  12. David Rickert

    Actually, I didn’t have any problem with what you said. The last part was directed at the people who commented to your initial post.

  13. David Rickert

    I didn’t say that Armstrong’s music was irrelevant. I said a lot of people respect what he does, but don’t listen to him regularly. That includes jazz fans. I may be wrong, but my impression is even people who really like jazz don’t listen to Armstrong all that much either, although they respect what he’s done. This is not a criticism of Armstrong’s work. It’s only to say that most people would rather listen to something else. Sure, trumpet players listen to him and sing his praises, but they’ve studied him and absorbed his influence he’s always going to be relevant to jazz musicians. I have Armstrong in my collection, and really like “Louis Under the Stars” but I will go a year easily without listen to it at over 300 CDs. I had the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens in my collection and know why they’re great, but every time I listened to them it was because I felt like I was something I was supposed to enjoy (to get back to my roots or whatever) rather than actually enjoying them. Who I think are the greatest jazz musicians in the world has little to do with whom I go to when I want to listen to something. To go back to the Shakespeare analogy I used, of course he’s the greatest writer the English language has produced, and his influence is everywhere. But outside of students and writers, he’s not that well read.

  14. David, I think the ice of logic is cracking under your feet. How would you know how many jazz fans (however you define them) listen to Louis? Are you going to check Amazon rankings of his CDs? That wouldn’t necessarily prove “listening,” but “purchase.” How could you know how many people are reading Shakespeare or seeing a play? When I taught freshman composition, I had to remind my students not to extrapolate from a limited sample — their own experience. It sounds to me as if you are making a case for your preferences being not only yours but representative of jazz listeners at large. No matter what direction you push that in — pro-Louis, anti-Louis, pro-Ornette, etc., it is problematic as a matter of reasoning. And — to be fair — if you told me enthusiastically that every jazz fan you knew got up in the morning to the strains of POTATO HEAD BLUES, I would have the same worries about your evidence-gathering. You are not under attack as a man with preferences and opinions — they’re your right! — but when you try to say that your feelings are somehow universal, you might be asking us to believe a little too much without evidence. If you felt that the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens were somehow obligatory homework, “required reading,” might I suggest that you listen to them as the original purchasers did . . . one at a time, rather than putting the CD in the player and trying to absorb the whole output in one gulp. Michael

  15. David Rickert

    I also noticed you like rap. Listen to Public Enemy much? I’ll give you a dollar for every person with a huge rap collection that owns “Fear of a Black Planet.”

  16. Puzzling. To whom are you responding? If I ever appeared in print as liking rap, I’d be more than surprised.

  17. David Rickert

    Sorry, it was a poke at Jon, who said I didn’t know what I was talking about. I don’t mind the intellectual discourse you provide, but I took offense to that.

  18. Hi David,

    Glad to see you’re meeting me halfway (that was a poke at you – obviously you are not). I do like rap. Of course not every rap album will be listened to, and not every rap artists will survive the test of time. You’re right about that. And I don’t have the stats on Shakespeare, but you’re probably right about that too.

    I stand by my assertion, David. You’re drawing a line that I don’t think should be drawn. You’ve said that trumpeters sing Louis’ praises because they studied him. True. The man is dead, and his peak was (arguably) in the first half of the last century. That DOESN’T mean he isn’t relevant today. That DOESN’T mean people don’t listen to him. Historical doesn’t equal cobwebs and dust.

    You brought up Coltrane and Miles as examples of people who ARE listened to, in contrast with Mr. Armstrong. Coltrane is certainly studied as much, if not more, than Mr. Armstrong due to his work with modes, scales and spiritual music. Even Ravi Coltrane studied Coltrane’s music at school. People play Coltrane’s tunes (just as Brian Lynch, Nicholas Payton and others have interpreted Armstrong’s). There are two sides to every coin, David. Just because someone is studied and had a career more than 50 years ago doesn’t mean people don’t listen.

    So I do stand by my statement that, in that particular regard, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have charts or graphs at my fingertips either, but I do stand by the evidence of records and interviews I’ve heard and testimony from my own musician colleagues.

    I hesitate to make generalizations about the jazz community, because it is so personal a world. Everyone has their own influences, their own preferences. Any statement I’ve made here I can support with what I have personally encountered, from friends or from colleagues in the music world. You, and unfortunately this is representative of the AAJ approach, make your own views the world’s. You say, “I will go a year easily without listen to it at over 300 CDs. I had the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens in my collection and know why they’re great, but every time I listened to them it was because I felt like I was something I was supposed to enjoy (to get back to my roots or whatever) rather than actually enjoying them.”

    Okay. Great. SO DO I, if you want the truth. But that’s just you and that’s just me. It’s not the jazz community and it isn’t the world. And just because only have a few Armstrong records in my 1500+ collection doesn’t mean he’s been relegated to that attic. Perspective is everything, David. Often, the perspective of how we are small in comparison to everyone out there is the hardest to achieve. Remember that you’re just one of many and you’ll find both that people will listen to you and respect your opinions more and that less discussions like this one in your future.

    Peace,
    J

  19. David Rickert

    You make a valid point, and I think you understood MY point, even if you didn’t agree with it. But let’s not let this one point detract from what, if you read it, is overall a positive review. I would like more people to listen to this set, not less.

    Truth be told, I don’t go to AAJ all that much except to submit CD reviews and book reviews. I used to frequent the message boards and read the occasional review, but mostly now I just put in my stuff and leave it at that. I don’t feel the need to be a large part of the jazz community any more. You’re obviously more immersed in it wherever you are than I am, probably because I don’t play an instrument. I’m just a listener. I can’t appreciate the technical aspects of what anyone does; I just either like it or I don’t in varying degrees. But I can assure you there’s no “house style” at AAJ. We just can’t review anything that we’ve purchased (yes, I got the Mosaic set for free) and we can’t suggest people buy anything. If there’s any sort of egocentric behavior there, it’s probably present in anyone who writes reviews. It’s certainly present in the writing of Will Friedwald and Richard Cook and others I read regularly and get my inspiration from. I like opinions and I like bias. I don’t always agree with Friedwald, but I suspect he invites that debate. And like I said, if you don’t like the reviews there, become a contributor and write them yourself. You certainly are knowledgeable and can write.

  20. Well, thank you for all your compliments, the highest of which is that I understood what you’re saying – I always try my best, and I’m glad I succeeded. I’m also glad we’ve avoided the venom this thread was heading for! Maybe I will become a contributor; it’s crossed my mind, certainly.

    Let’s say we agree on the important stuff, and the disagreement can be called PERSONAL style. I’ve certainly learned from this exchange. Thank you, and thanks to JAZZ LIVES! for allowing this to happen! As Ethan Iverson says, if we all thought the same thing we wouldn’t be reading blogs in the first place!

    Peace,
    J

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