I am presently reading Ricky Riccardi’s What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. Plenty of research went into this book, and the result is certainly worth reading. The premise is a revisionist take on the last 25 years of Armstrong’s life, a period in which his music-making was commonly held in low esteem by critics, even while his popularity with the public soared. I think the book is right to assert that the story of that period in Armstrong’s career is more complicated than some would assert – there are certainly very fine performances and recordings from this period. But the book has not yet convinced me that the achievements of these years were the equal of an earlier period in Armstrong’s work.
Part of the problem here is that the bar was set incredibly high by Armstrong’s early work – realize that this is a man who not only invented the notion of the virtuoso soloist in jazz, but created the naturalistic approach to singing pop songs that has mostly prevailed ever since. (You may disagree with Wynton Marsalis about a lot of things, but these assertions and more that he makes about Armstrong in Ken Burns’ Jazz are essentially correct.) It seems unfair to complain that Armstrong didn’t grow as an artist, given that he didn’t just excel at these art forms, he gave them to us.
Riccardi is right to encourage us to accept the fact that entertainment and art were intertwined in Armstrong’s work all through his life, not just in his last decades. We can spend so much time admiring West End Blues that we forget the silly stage routines that existed alongside sublime art.
I wrote a bit about the issue of questioning what one values in the work of jazz musicians in the comments on this post.
And yet, I would be more convinced by Riccardi’s thesis if he engaged the music more deeply*. The reason why Gunther Schuller’s assessment of Armstrong is so convincing (including his negative take on the later years) is that he engages the music, he analyzes the notes and rhythms. (Although that engagement is more with the early music than with later examples. I wish Gunther had bolstered his assertions with some transcriptions of Armstrong’s later work). Riccardi is too often content to offer quotes from various sources about how great Armstrong played on this or that occasion, though he does sometimes go into a bit more musical detail about Armstrong’s work in this period. Yes, Armstrong was a fabulous entertainer who consistently gave his all on a punishing tour schedule (one European tour offered a single day off in six weeks), but was he really playing, as he is quoted as saying in 1956, “… better now than I’ve ever played in my life”?
Miles Davis, and, to a lesser extent, John Coltrane are jazz artists who re-invented themselves in the way Picasso or Stravinsky did. Even the majestic breadth of Ellington’s achievement does not involve such large stylistic changes. Louis Armstrong did not reinvent himself – he was always Louis Armstrong. That’s a lot to be grateful for, through every decade of his life. Thanks to Ricky Riccardi for reminding us of that.
*) Riccardi’s excellent blog offers much more musical detail, although it tends to be descriptive rather than technical.