THE UNFAILING LIGHT OF LOUIS

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Thanks to scholar and co-producer Ricky Riccardi, another wonderful set of Louis Armstrong recordings has emerged, complete: the Mercury recordings Louis and the All-Stars made between 1964 and 1966, with the pop hit MAME and the lesser hit SO LONG, DEARIE as the most famous among them.

louis-mame-cover

Ricky has done his usual wonderfully exhaustive job of annotating these digital releases.  Here (from his Louis blog) are the notes as they can be read online. And here is the link to read his notes as a PDF.

The music is available only as a digital download through Apple / iTunes: the complete package is $24.99, each song available at $1.29.  Details here.   And, as I wrote in my post on the the new issue of Louis’ complete Decca singles, if you hate “downloads” for their insubstantiality, I understand.  I too like music in physical packages (my apartment is furnished in Early Music) but we listen to live music and go home without being furious that we can’t take the players with us; in olden days, we listened to the radio, etc.  So if you reject this music because you “hate Apple,” to quote Billie, you’re just foolin’ yourself.

Now, if you are someone who deeply feels Louis, you probably already know about these issues and might already be listening, rapt.  If you are someone new to Louis or one of the people who believes the “beginning of his long decline” happened ninety years ago, I urge you to read on.  First, some facts.

The fifty-three performances are, first, the original contents of the “vinyl” issue: MAME / THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS / SO LONG DEARIE / TIN ROOF BLUES / I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY / WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN / CHEESE CAKE / TYREE’S BLUES / PRETTY LITTLE MISSY / FAITH / SHORT BUT SWEET / BYE ‘N BYE / then followed by alternate takes, rehearsal takes, monaural takes of BYE ‘N BYE / FAITH / DEARIE (7) / MISSY (5) / FAITH (8) / SHORT BUT SWEET (6) / CIRCLE (6) / PARTY (5) / THE THREE OF US (3).  The performances are almost all three minutes long — not harking back to OKeh 78s but to the currency of the times, the 45 rpm single that would be played on AM radio.  The other musicians include Buster Bailey, who had worked with Louis in 1924-5; Eddie Shu; Tyree Glenn; Big Chief Russell Moore; Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Everett Barksdale, and more.

Louis, like other innovators, had a long history of taking “popular” material and creating immortal improvisations, so jazz fans dismayed at seeing unfamiliar titles should not be.  Not all of the songs are deathless — a few are paper-thin — but it almost seems as if the worse the material, the more room Louis has to work magic on it.  For me, the finest performances are of songs I doubt others could have done much with: SHORT BUT SWEET, THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS, FAITH, I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY, THE THREE OF US (never before issued), SO LONG DEARIE, and others to lesser effect.

Here is the issued take of SHORT BUT SWEET:

A quietly warm melodic statement (helped by Tyree Glenn’s vibes and, for once, a rhythm guitar) leads into an equally warm vocal — on a song that resembles eight other classics — calling it “derivative” would be excessive praise.  Although the lyrics consistently disappoint, as if the writers had made a bet how many cliches they could jam into thirty-two bars, Louis is even warmer, with freer phrasing, on the vocal bridge to the end of the chorus.  And then that trumpet bridge!  “Tonation and phrasing,” passion, vibrato, and courage.  It might not leap out at a listener the way the beginning of WEST END BLUES does, but I know I couldn’t get those eight bars out of my head after just one hearing.

If you do not warm to that, may I suggest an immersion?  If it doesn’t get to you after three more playings, we may have little to say to one another.  But you might want to read to the end to discover the depths of my apparently foolish devotion.  And you might keep in your head what Bobby Hackett said to Nat Hentoff (I am paraphrasing here): “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come alive like that?”

I have a serious sentimental attachment to this music, because when this record came out, I was nearly fourteen.  This was my Louis Armstrong.  This was the heartfelt, occasionally comic entertainer I saw regularly on television — performing two songs with the All-Stars, conversing briefly and jocularly with the host, and then the show would move on to the acrobats, the writer plugging a new book, the actress doing the same for her new film.  I thrilled to these moments: Louis emerging from behind the curtain to sing and play MAME, DEARIE, later CABARET and WONDERFUL WORLD.  I lived in suburbia, a mile’s walk from several stores with record departments, and I recall going to Times Square Stores [known to some of us by our adolescent translation of its initials into Tough Shit, Sonny] or Mays or Pergaments, thumbing through the Louis records I knew by heart, and buying this new one in an excited flurry.  (My mother would have looked patient but puzzled; my father would have said, “Don’t you have enough records?” but not argued the point.) I would have disappeared into my bedroom and played it over and over.  I no longer have my mid-Sixties copy, but this recent release has brought all that experience back.

And what was there on this Mercury record?  Joy is the simple answer, with a substantial emotional range: the mocking dismissal of DEARIE, the celebration of the imaginary hedonist Auntie Mame on the title song, the blues — familiar and impromptu — the cheerful satire of FAITH, and the love songs that were CIRCLE and SHORT BUT SWEET, the alcohol-free gathering of PARTY, and more.  Each song was its own brief dramatic playlet, with a good deal of Louis’ singing and short but very affecting trumpet interludes.

He was no longer the star of the Vendome Theatre show; he was no longer playing 250 high C’s at the end of CHINATOWN.  But those age-related limitations were, to me, a great good thing.  These trumpet interludes are incredibly subtle and moving because his wisdom. Young, he could dramatically create expansive masterpieces, sometimes on record, sometimes legendary and unrecorded.  And those creations are awe-inspiring displays of virtuosity.

But we hear that this older man, with fifty years’ musical experience behind him, knows so much more about what to play and what not to — so an eight-bar passage on any song is intense, full of emotion.  Every note counts, because it has to.  And if you think this is special pleading on behalf of the elderly, ask any improvising musician to listen deeply to one of these solos.

I am not yet a senior citizen.  But I think a good deal about aging and what the proper responses might be to the calendar, the passage of days measured in the speed I climb stairs or the ease with which I carry groceries.  For decades, I’ve looked to Louis as a spiritual model.  I don’t take Swiss Kriss; I don’t tell prospective life-partners “The horn comes first”; I’m not a Mets fan.  But I think the aging Louis — as icon, as artist — has so much to tell us, no matter how old we are now.

The question we must ask ourselves is large: “Since our time on the planet is finite, what should we do with it, even if we have a long time before the final years approach?”  I think his answer, audible on the Mercury sides, is plain: “Do what you and you alone do well.  Do it will your heart.  And strive to do it better and with greater purity of intent for as long as you can.  That action is you, and it will stop only when you do.”

Whether you subscribe to this philosophical notion or not, this music is seriously uplifting.  Thank you, Louis.

May your happiness increase!

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One response to “THE UNFAILING LIGHT OF LOUIS

  1. He takes a three-minute sample of musical ephemera and transforms it into some sort of time-suspended artifact of soulful beauty and irony.

    Dig the way he suspends the “yeeeeesss” in the out chorus of “Short But Sweet”…which it is.

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