Slowly, slowly, our awareness of Louis Armstrong spreads and deepens. Of course, someone out there is still saying that everything after POTATO HEAD BLUES was a colossal misstep. And somewhere, another gently misguided soul is suggesting that “Louis Armstrong was the worst thing that ever happened to traditional jazz,” which is a direct quotation and one that tried my peaceful nature to the breaking point.
But many people understand or have come to understand — to feel — that whatever Louis touched, he made beautiful. So I write what I believe: that the recordings newly issued by Universal, annotated by our own local hero, Ricky Riccardi, are some of Louis’ greatest. They are masterpieces of technique, drama, and above all, emotion. And if I hear whimpers, “But they’re commercial! The songs are so beneath him,” I will call Security to clear the room.
Here is the official link to the Universal Records issue — 95 songs, available through Apple here for download. No, they aren’t going to be issued on CD. Downloads, like love, are here to stay — so ask a niece or nephew to assist you. And if the idea of intangible music — sounds without a tangible disc, shellac, vinyl, or plastic, is odd and threatening, think of downloading as new-fangled radio.
However, there are characteristically wise and rewarding liner notes by Mister Riccardi, about fifty thousand words, so knock yourself out here. I believe that the cost for the whole package is $44.95 and individual tracks are priced at $1.29, which is not prohibitive. As we have gotten used to cheap food in the last forty or fifty years, we also expect music to be free. Silliness and selfishness, but that’s another blogpost. This one is to celebrate Louis.
I listened to all ninety-five sides recently, and I am floating.
I grew up with some of these recordings — Louis and Gordon Jenkins, especially — so they are very tender artifacts to me. I came to Louis slightly later than the time period of this set: I think I bought my first record in 1963, although the experience of buying individual 45 rpm discs in paper sleeves is a part of my childhood. Department stores had record departments, as did the “five and dime” stores, Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, W.T. Grant, so hanging out there was a real part of my childhood and adolescence. Of course, I separated myself from my peers early, but that is not something I lament. In the Sixties and Seventies, Decca collected many of these sides on 12″ lps — SATCHMO IN STYLE, SATCHMO SERENADES, and the like. This is to say that perhaps ten of the ninety-five sides were new to me, but the music is astonishing throughout.
Several aspects of this set are powerful to me and will be to you. One is the trumpet playing. Louis’ unrivaled ability to make a “straight” melody come alive — “tonation and phrasing,” he called it — shines through every track. Listeners who only see brass instruments in the hands of people who have spent the requisite ten thousand hours may not know how difficult what he does, casually, from track to track. Ask a trumpet player how easy it would be to reproduce four bars of Louis. I think you will be startled by the answer. I know people rightly hold up his recordings of the Twenties and Thirties as examples of astonishing grace and power — and they are — but his trumpet playing in 1949-1958 is awe-inspiring, his huge sound captured beautifully by Decca’s engineers.
(And for those who worry about the “jazz quotient,” Louis is so strongly evident throughout that this should be enough — but one also hears from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Billy Kyle, Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Butterfield, Allan Reuss, Charles LaVere . . . )
Another pleasure is the alchemy Louis works on the material. For those who are appalled by, let us say, YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART or SKOKIAAN, I ask them to take a deep breath and evaluate the lyric and melodic quality of, perhaps, THAT’S WHEN I’LL COME BACK TO YOU before criticizing the “pop” material. And if a record of WINTER WONDERLAND brought people to hear and warm to Louis, then the large reach into popular songs — nothing new — that Jack Kapp and Milt Gabler did is a very good thing.
The final thing that kept revealing itself, over and over, was Louis’ deep innate romanticism, his delight in singing and playing about love — hopeless love, disappointed love, fulfilled love — all the shadings from bleak to ecstatic. Even those people who admire Louis as I do have not always given him credit as a great poet of love, vocally and instrumentally. His dramatic sense is peerless on these records.
If you feel as I do, perhaps I am overstating the obvious. But if you don’t, I ask you to listen to this:
and this, which to me has some of the emotional power of Billie’s Commodore ballads:
and this tender hymn, which I’ve loved for decades:
I know that 2016 has been a dazzling year for reissues and issues of material never heard before — consider several new Mosaic sets and the two volumes of material from the Savory collection — but this music is extraordinary: you can’t afford to miss these dreams.
May your happiness increase!