I missed the Bad Plus Joshua Redman show in Philly tonight – in lieu of a report, here are some videos, the first with the trio plus Redman from a few years ago, the second with just the trio, posted fairly recently. My post title refers to a Louis Armstrong recording, but also honors the rhythmic gamesmanship of the first song on the trio video. I’d welcome comments on what you hear going on in this tune.
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.
Louis Armstrong was in the habit of traveling with a reel-to-reel tape deck when on his endless tours. Although he seemed to prefer Guy Lombardo recordings to lull himself to sleep at night, his tape collection constituted a remarkably varied playlist. According to Terry Teachout’s biography Pops, it included:
“Walter Gieseking playing Debussy, Helen Traubel singing the “Liebestod”, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Shostakovich’s First Symphony, the original-cast albums of The King and I and South Pacific, recordings of Julius Caesar and Don Juan in Hell, and jazz and pop in profusion: Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berrigan, Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Bert Williams, and a surprising amount of modern jazz, including albums by Stan Kenton, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, and George Shearing.”
Would you have thought Armstrong’s listening would be that wide-ranging?
-I have finally gotten around to reading Terry Teachout’s biography of Louis Armstrong, Pops. It truly does deserve all the accolades it received when it came out last year. The book is full of fresh insights buttressed by fresh research, all couched in elegant prose.
-Yes, I know the proper way to learn jazz repertoire is by studying the recordings – but for those of us who need a little help, there are transcriptions. I am enjoying reading the Fats Waller transcriptions in Paul Posnak’s collection of piano solo pieces, although enjoyable is not exactly the word for trying to reach some of Waller’s widely spaced left hand voicings. Perhaps I need some help of this kind.
-Dr. Guthrie Ramsey’s blog is now including posts by the professor of MusiQology himself, in addition to an archive of student contributions mentioned here previously. Dig the videos he has posted, including some Cab Calloway. He also found footage of the Nicholas Brothers together with Michael Jackson (I would not have guessed they were alive at the same time.) Congrats, Guy, on co-curating the Apollo Theatre exhibit which recently opened at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
-I have been meaning to write about these discs for a while now, and I do want to post about them in more detail, but let me give a quick mention here of Miranda Cuckson’s superb discs of violin music by Ralph Shapey and Donald Martino. Fascinating repertoire, commanding performances. Much more to say, coming soon.
There is a saying attributed to Aaron Copland that “If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong.”
One such literary man is the distinguished poet Edward Hirsch. In his book “The Demon and the Angel”, a collection of brief essays on artistic inspiration, Hirsch writes as follows about the Louis Armstrong masterpiece “West End Blues”: “One feels the duende, for example, in the mood nocturne of Louis Armstrong’s celebrated “West End Blues”, which he recorded with the Hot Fives in 1928.” Hot Fives? Each member was a “five”? Well, that’s not exactly a musical error, simply a copy editing problem. But you tell me what a “mood nocturne” is. What’s more mystifying is the description of the opening cadenza: “It takes a mere twelve seconds and consists of four notes that feel like a clarion call rising out of Armstrong’s rough-and-tumble past, an orphanhood.” What could Hirsch possibly mean by “it consists of four notes”? Maybe he is referring to the opening four notes, which group together by virtue of their equal duration? At least Hirsch can count the choruses in the piece. He writes of how the cadenza is “followed by an odd kind of ensemble chorus” (what is odd about it?) “and then a chorus of trombone.” OK, so that’s two choruses. Hirsch then quotes Wilfred Mellers, who writes that “After the first chorus, however, Armstrong does not play trumpet, instead he scat-sings” (why the hyphen? perhaps a Britishism?) “in duologue” (dialog(ue) isn’t good enough for you?) “with [the] clarinet.” The “duologue” is, of course, the third chorus, not the second. Perhaps Mellers meant that after playing on the first chorus, Armstrong, on his next appearance, does not play trumpet…
Hirsch is right to honor Armstrong alongside Lorca and Rilke, and his reflections throughout the book are intense and beautiful. But why can’t the details be more precise when it comes to music? Or are there similar problems with his writing about poetry?
I came upon this passage the same week that a piece on André Aciman’s “Eight White Nights” in the New York Times Book Review describes a character in the novel as “listening raptly to one of Alexander Siloti’s Bach transpositions.” (Probably the Prelude in B Minor.) I suppose points should be granted that somebody (it’s not clear if the error is the reviewer’s or the novelist’s) knew about Siloti’s arrangements of Bach, but shouldn’t a copy editor have caught the fact that what was meant was a Bach transcription, not transposition?