Tag Archives: blackface

“EVERYONE KNOWS HIS CREATIVE PERIOD WAS BEHIND HIM BY _______.”

Louis Armstrong reached his artistic peak somewhere before 1929, when his recording of commercial songs — I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE as opposed to POTATO HEAD BLUES — was ruinous.  Right?

As we say in my country, “Oh, please!”

You play what you are!  And Louis in 1954 and 1960 still embodied the deepest human truths of joy and sorrow.

These two videos are now available widely thanks to the tireless collector, historian, and archivist Franz Hoffmann.

The first, from May 9, 1954, is part of a wonderfully odd CBS-TV program,
“YOU ARE THERE: “THE EMERGENCE OF JAZZ,” which purports to recreate the closing of Storyville as if it were a news story happening at the moment.  In 1954, I wasn’t sufficiently sentient to have been watching this episode, but I gather that this neat gimmick allowed various actors to recreate events in history — with light brushes with accuracy and the help of Walter Cronkite to make it seem “real.”  Here, Louis was asked to become King Oliver, fronting his own All-Stars . . . all African-Americans, with the exception of drummer Barrett Deems, who had his face blacked to fit it.  The other band members are Barney Bigard, Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw.  In other segments, Louis Mitchell was played by Cozy Cole and Jelly Roll Morton by Billy Taylor. No doubt.  Here, much of the fun is that the Oliver band is “challenged” by an offstage White band — the Original Dixieland Jazz Band — impersonated by Bobby Hackett, Bill Stegmeyer, Lou Stein, Cliff Leeman, and Lou Mc Garity.  To see and hear Louis play BACK O’TOWN BLUES and read his lines is enough of a pleasure; to hear Louis and Bobby improvise on the SAINTS is a joy.

Six years later, with no faux-news report, just a substantial production for a BELL TELEPHONE HOUR (January 1, 1960), we see Louis in magnificent form (although this segment is taxing).  After SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET and LAZY RIVER — with the plastic mute Jack Teagarden made for him — there is one of the most touching episodes of Louis on film, beginning at 3:30.  If you ever meet anyone who doubts Louis’ sincerity, his acting ability, his skill in conveying emotion, please play them this video and let them hear and see the ways he approaches SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE A MOTHERLESS CHILD, intensely moving.  Then the mood switches to an early-television meeting of Louis with an unidentified vocal quartet for MUSKRAT RAMBLE.  In all, eight minutes plus of wonderful music.

Louis sustains us as he sustained himself.

Thanks to Franz Hoffmann and of course to Ricky Riccardi, who has done so much to remind us that Louis never, ever stopped creating.

May your happiness increase.

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OFFENSIVE YET ENTHRALLING

Courtesy of Hans Koert’s “Keep Swinging” blog, here is a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon, “TIN PAN ALLEY CATS.”  It offers a buffet of demeaning racial stereotypes and is thus not available on American DVD collections.  It is shocking that such caricatures could be shown in public in America so late in our history, although not terribly surprising.

But after I got through being offended, I was amused — subversively tickled.  And I don’t know: does it denigrate or slyly celebrate Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Slam Stewart, Leo Watson, African-American night life and religious fervor, two sides of the same coin?  Add in sideswipes at Al Jolson, blackface, the Mills Brothers, the Ink Spots, and Fats’s own 1942 “By the Light of the Si;very Moon” for good measure.  Then there’s the idea that jazz leads straight to Hell.

This cartoon was surely Caucasian Middle America’s idea of Blackness — exuberant, uncontrolled, foolish, Godless.  But joyous, too.  And we note that so much of the cartoon’s seven-plus minutes are given over to a tut-tut and tsk-tsk depiction of Hot and Naughty . . . . with much less attention paid to old-time-religion.  I doubt that James Baldwin had ever seen this, but doesn’t it noisily depict the conflict between Sacred and Profane that emerges again in his story “Sonny’s Blues”?

As Kevin Dorn once pointed out to me, the Bad Night Life portrayed in the Fallen World segment of “It’s A Wonderful Life” still seems reasonably appealing, even when you consider the charms of Goodness, friends, family, and Donna Reed.

One never knows, DO ONE?