Louis Armstrong: Satchmo

The new Louis Armstrong box set isn’t the vast trunk you’d expect, more an overnight hag — but it has everything you need.

POP OWES MUCH to Louis Armstrong, the first great star of racy music with a groove, making him the effective forefather of Elvis, James Brown, even Lady Gaga (not actually a stretch, jazz trumpet featured heavily in her recent live shows).

Armstrong’s brand of “hot jazz” certainly made folk sweat (himself included, hence the ubiquitous dabbing hankie). His trademark scat singing, extraordinary vocal quality (described variously as “a lion on the make” and “rumblings down a coal-hole”), enormous grin and voracious appetite earned him the dubious soubriquet “satchel-mouth”. Satchmo’s early years were indeed racy — he married a prostitute named Daisy Parker at 16 and experienced his share of wild times — but his greatest fame came when he settled into his enduring image as Pops, a congenial force for good, the Ambassador of Jazz.

As an ambassador for his colour, who’d learnt to make his way in the white world in a very different age, he had to ride out accusations of tokenism and Uncle Tomming. Billie Holliday said, “Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart.” Celebrated racist Philip Larkin called Armstrong “an artist of Flaubertian purity and a character of exceptional warmth and goodness”. On some level, then, the tomming had a positive effect. He did speak out on race issues, but his cartoonish persona could be unsettling, especially in later years, approaching self-parody in some screen appearances or, occasionally, on record.

His great gift to the world, however, was swing, that inexplicable but immediately tangible quality that makes a performance groove, and by association invites you to haul booty. Armstrong didn’t invent it, but he showed a generation how to do it or use it, which led directly to the swing bands, jive bands, rock and roll and funk. We take for granted that he managed this with a trumpet (or, initially, the cornet), an instrument designed primarily for long blasts of sound and stately fanfares. The fluid, nimble runs he conjured from the thing, his trademark climbs and pealing riffs, were quite miraculous, inspiring every jazz trumpeter who followed. The light fantastic was duly tripped.

The trumpet was perfect for the Victrola, that horn-based reproduction system; brass stood out on 78s. The earliest sides here, from April 1923 with King Oliver, predate electrical recording and are irredeemably tinny, the playing’s rather clunky too. But things start getting frisky around 1925’s ‘Cake Walking Blues’. In November 1925 Louis records his voice for the first time on ‘Gut Bucket Blues’, and it’s more or less the same sound heard on ‘Hello Dolly!’ more than 40 years later. The swing truly arrives on Armstrong’s own 1926 composition ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ and the deathless ‘Muskrat Ramble’, a great tune later borrowed by Country Joe & The Fish. Many consider the Hot Five’s ‘West End Blues’ of June 1928, which opens Disc 2, to be the definitive trad-jazz recording — you’ll recognise it from Woody Allen movies; it’s slow but undeniably steamy. On this and ‘Weather Bird’ from December 1928 you can hear Armstrong’s distinctive trumpet tone being discovered. Again, it would last him a lifetime.

Louis was worked hard by his manager Joe Glaser, a hard-boiled guy from Chicago, with mob connections, who hooked up with his meal ticket in 1926 and managed him until the end. “The day off’ was an almost unknown concept to them; Armstrong’s band — for most of his career known as the All-Stars — travelled constantly across the US and around the world, coming off the road to go straight into recording studios, as if to stop for even a few days would be enough for Louis to lose his lip and his place in the showbiz constellation. He saw his home in Queens around two months in every year.

Considering the gargantuan output, you might think a 10-CD box is actually a stingy way to summarise a five-decade career — especially as one disc is a 72-minute interview, another a live show and the last a rarities collection including multiple takes of half-a-dozen tunes — and that maybe this set isn’t exhaustive enough to satisfy the kind of fan who has over 100 notes to blow. In fact, its comparative concision is a benefit, every track is a significant performance, plus you get a sumptuous, heavily illustrated hardback book by Richard Havers that amply covers the life and the music you’re hearing, all packed, with a handful of sheet music, in a replica trumpet case, a little treasure-trove of 20th century pop culture.

Nevertheless, it’s missing great moments from landmark albums like Plays W.C. HandySatch Plays Fats and Ella & Louis, and, incredibly, there’s nothing at all from Disney Songs The Satchmo Way. You can’t, it seems, have everything. But then, with Armstrong, you probably wouldn’t want it. This carefully condensed tribute to his greatness is feast enough.

© Jim IrvinThe Word, October 2011

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