I’m always happy to see any coverage of jazz in The New Yorker, which has been my essential reading for forty years, ever since I discovered their fine short fiction, the drawings of William Steig and Saul Steinberg, and the irreplaceable writing of Whitney Balliett. But their latest coverage is profoundly disappointing, both in itself and its implications.
Here’s Colin Fleming’s piece in “Talk of the Town,” March 30, 2009, called MORE SATCHMO:
After virtually inventing the lexicon for jazz soloists with his epochal Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Louis Armstrong set up shop at Decca Records in the mid-thirties. The Armstrong Deccas have not fared as well as their forebears, having been knocked about on compilations of dubious legality and dogged by various aspersions-mainly, that Armstrong had become a puppet for his manager Joe Glaser, who had turned Armstrong into a happy-go-lucky song-and-dance man ready to ham it up on cue.
But as “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions, 1935-1946” (Mosaic Records) attests, Armstrong wasn’t one to be intimidated by his past. The corking take on “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” makes the Okeh version seem positively weak-kneed, with Armstrong’s big band ripping through the breaks. Armstrong the vocalist is arguably at his apex here, and it was through his vocalizations that Armstrong’s chamber jazz took on a second life as pure pop manna. “On the Sunny Side of the Street” is a glorious hybrid: a mix of Stephen Foster-esque Americana and unprecedented vocal inflections that must have pricked up the ears of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The Decca sessions even venture into hardcore R. & B. terrain, once the drummer “Big” Sid Catlett turns up. A fleeting discographical presence over his career, Catlett was at his best with Armstrong, his offbeat accents on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” presaging soul’s infatuation with syncopation.
As a trumpet player, there was no one to touch Armstrong, but Bing Crosby was an apt vocal foil. The two had their summit meeting in 1960, resulting in “Bing and Satchmo” (DRG Records), previously unavailable on compact disk. “Dardanella” suggests how keenly these men must have listened to each other: Crosby’s sly syllabic upticks at the end of each line show how readily he had absorbed Armstrong’s methodology, while Armstrong’s vocal is a blend of full-on melody and smart, conversational tones, a Crosby staple. Throughout, Billy May’s arrangements have plenty of starch to them, but “Lazy River” borders on a kind of laconic grace, two voices whiling the day away before drifting home. ♦
First, there’s Fleming’s remarkable prose style: exuberantly glib, cliched, and apparently unedited: he comes across as a writer in love with his own special effects. Then come the errors of fact (how casually Fleming, like Mosaic Records, dismisses the work of Gosta Hagglof). In addition, there’s his adolescent critical point of view, granting Armstrong’s singing special validity (“pop manna,” no less) because it must have caught the attention of Presley and Dylan, how Catlett’s playing prefigures rhythm and blues and soul’s “infatuation with syncopation.” The “old,” it seems, is meaningful only when it acts as a springboard for the “new.”
Perhaps I should be grateful that Louis Armstrong receives notice of any sort in The New Yorker, even if the praise is appallingly written and full of misinterpretations.
But in the same issue, Anthony Lane writes thoughtfully about a new book of Samuel Beckett’s early letters; Paul Goldberger has a beautifully provocative essay on the architect Palladio. So The New Yorker can and indeed does think some art that occured before the twenty-first century is worth serious consideration in serious prose. It’s a pity the magazine’s editors haven’t recognized that jazz might be owed equal respect.