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Remembering Louis Armstrong. Sort Of.

Monday, December 07, 2009

I didn’t grow up in a house with a lot of music, and there was virtually no jazz.  But still, I knew who Louis Armstrong was: he was the guy who sang “Hello Dolly.”  (And like almost everyone else, I pronounced his first name as if it were “Louie,” even though he clearly sings “This is Louis, Dolly” in that song.) 

It's a measure of his popularity that people who had no connection to jazz whatsoever knew who he was -- his work on TV and film made sure of that.

So when I hit my teen years and began to discover some of the jazz greats of the past (and present – Miles was still alive then, Thelonius Monk too), I remember hearing about how pivotal a figure Armstrong was in the history of jazz. I thought, "Really? The 'Hello Dolly'guy?" All of that popularity and visibility might have been a double-edged sword, since I'm sure there were many other fans throughout the world who thought of him as an actor/singer/all-around entertainer and were largely unaware that he was a singular force in the development of jazz.

As Terry Teachout writes in Pops, his new biography of Louis Armstrong, Armstrong saw himself as an entertainer too - whether that was on TV with his voice and his often comic faces, or on the trumpet. In the jazz world, this was something that caused some friction. People like Miles Davis saw his on-screen mugging as a kind of throwback to the days of minstrelsy and blackface. In the much wider world of pop culture, many knew nothing of this critique. We knew the amiable face and the gravelly voice. And because it was the world of pop culture, that was all we needed to know. It may seem strange, in an age when a golfer hitting a hydrant in front of his own house with his car can set off a media frenzy, but maybe that's all we wanted to know.


Who was Louis Armstrong for you?  Did his pop star status do him a disservice?


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Comments [2]

Roseann Fitzgerald from Worcester, MA

I'm definitely going to read Mr. Teachout's book about Louis Armstrong and would love to see the Museum in Corona, NY. For those interested in hearing some Louis Armstrong's mentor, King Oliver, track to track down this recording by the great jazz pianist Butch Thompson. See review attached from 1990 release on Bluebird records:

Dec. 07 2009 10:33 PM
Charles Zigmund from Carmel, NY

Terry Teachout's opinion that Louis Armstrong's later work was on a par with his earlier work, is more or less the current party line by critics and some prominent musicians (e.g., Wynton Marsalis). IMO, not so. I've been listening to the Hot Fives and Sevens, and the early big band Louis (including up to 1931) fairly consistently for over 50 years. I could not do that with his later work. The singing is always great, but the trumpet creativity takes a decided dive. After 1931, Satch uses a limited number of trumpet variations and phrases over and over, no matter what the tune. In the 1920s, on the other hand, the new ideas are boiling out of his brain so continuously that he can hardly keep up with them on the horn. The reason this is a hot button issue for me is that in the 1920's sides, the other msicians are operating on such a primitive level that, together with the poor sound quality, they are hard for modern ears to listen to. So music lovers need to make an effort to stay with them. Saying, as many experts do, that the later sides are just as good as the 1920's ones leaves the impression it's OK to skip most of the Hot Fives and Sevens. Anyone who does so is depriving herself of one of Western civilization's greatest treasures.

Dec. 07 2009 03:03 PM

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