Artist Feature: Angles of Louis Armstrong

Of the digitised part of the collection we have currently, a whopping 21 videos ring up when you search for “Louis Armstrong.” That translates to something like 7.6% of the archive, which is actually enormous when you realize how many other musicians and performances are represented within it. But I don’t really need to hammer the point – Louis Armstrong is perhaps the most popular jazz musician, an icon and legend to both diehard jazz aficionados and laymen pop lovers alike. As far as famous personnel in the genre go, he is really only rivalled by Miles Davis (and they’re both trumpet players, I might point out 😉). Most of the videos we have on him are up on YouTube or elsewhere on the internet, but the problem is that they’re rarely organized in any meaningful way, and even when they are grouped together on some website the organization can be rather arbitrary. You almost need to have a large amount of the right knowledge prior to attempting to piece together the history behind the videos. So I thought Louis Armstrong would be a perfect case study for the use of an archive such as the Altman-Koss’s, where you can quickly and easily study, in the context of jazz, a musician, place, year, or event in remarkable depth, and in a larger sense explore the world of jazz according to your own criteria.

Looking for variety, I went through the listing of Armstrong’s tapes and checked the “Content” column. Eventually I settled on five tapes: 14, which contains an interview; 57 and 58, which feature Louis on two different types of TV shows; 75, an infamous and rather unfortunate film short starring Louis; 140, a full performance of the Louis Armstrong and his All Stars at a music festival. I selected these five because I thought they provided a holistic snapshot of Louis Armstrong’s career: more than a musician, he was an entertainer in the fullest sense, with a career spanning five decades.

To start, tape 14 showcases an interview with Armstrong on Jazz Casual in 1963, where the interviewer plays his old records and asks him questions about what they heard. They start with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, playing “Snake Rag.” This is early on in Louis’s career, where he’s playing 2nd cornet under King Oliver and growing from the latter’s mentorship. The camera closes in on Louis’s face, and you get to see his expression as he listens to this piece of his career from 40 years earlier. Afterwards, the interviewer asks, “Do these records do that band justice?” “It’s pretty good but we didn’t have drums [like in the recording], you know? And we didn’t have mics, we had one big horn. We stood in front of this horn and played, and any man who had a solo would get up or else they wouldn’t be heard, you know? So that’s the advantage we have today… No trouble at all, to make those records, ‘cause you’d make one after the other… it wasn’t as particular as it is today.” The interviewer replies, “Well you don’t think you made mistakes in there, do ya?” and laughs. This prompts Louis to go more into the process of recording back in the 1920s, including how much of an issue balancing was. He seems a little regretful when talking about how much of the lead trumpet got cut out of the final track, and how drums were sparingly used because they covered up other parts.

He goes on to talk about playing with Kid Ory in 1919, the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1922, and finally leaving his nest in New Orleans to join King Oliver in Chicago, where his career really began to blossom. He describes how big that was for him, making that particular leap. What the interview. As for actually writing the songs, he describes how King Oliver would crank out a song right before they recorded, and they would just “rehearse on the job [00:27:00].” Improv clearly defined Louis’s experience in King Oliver’s group, even though he seldom took a solo; instead of playing off written parts, he would listen to Oliver and make up a part that sounded good with him. “You could tell what that man was going to play when he was lead, I figured out my notes [00:28:30].”

As someone who has listened to hours of Louis’s playing just trying to absorb his sound, I’m fascinated to hear him actually speak about his music and give some background on his work and experiences. It’s insightful; how recording used to be, what challenges musicians confronted back them that are surprisingly similar to many situations today, what you can do on the spot with a good ear and skill in improvisation.

It’s equally interesting to watch him perform in contexts that would just never make sense in sound recording. A great example is Armstrong’s 1952 appearance on The Frank Sinatra Show on CBS, to be found on tape 57, where the whole episode is a skit of Sinatra throwing a New Year’s Eve party. But his servants and entertainers cancel last minute, so, in a bind, he has some of his “guests” help out. The Three Stooges, first to arrive, comically fill out the roles of butler and coat-taker, while Louis, an evening guest itching to play, shows up with trumpet in hand. Sinatra greets him and tells him they’d have noisemakers to celebrate the New Year at midnight, but Louis insists he’s not going to wait that long and takes his place by the piano. His performance at 1:47:00 is so good it almost breaks the skit; everything else about it is so silly, with the Sinatra getting progressively angrier at the Stooges as they trip over guests, but Louis’s performance (and later Rosemary Clooney’s) add substance to the whole show. It’s not that the performances themselves are serious (quite the opposite) – more that it’s impossible not to be caught and taken in by Louis’s sound, in any context. Luckily we have the cheesy commercial breaks and over-the-top product placement to bring us crashing back to Hollywood’s version of reality.

The very next tape, 58, also features Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Rosemary Clooney, but the context is different. Instead of comedy and acting, this 1957 recording of the Edsel Show contains a string of various singing and dancing performances. Bing Crosby introduces Armstrong (as “You Know Who”) at 1:40:00, and he takes a solo before joining Crosby in singing a duet. Excellent performance, not just in the actual music but in the showmanship involved. The shots are close up enough that you can see the little techniques in Louis’s playing: his fingerings and characteristic shakes, his clearly defined facial muscles as he leaps up and down his range. He’s back at 2:15:00, after some dancing and a Ford car commercial, to play again.

I have to include tape 75 because it’s so important historically and depicts some of the harsher realities of show business. Nevertheless, it’s an unpleasant reminder of the racism present in the history of this genre. “A Rhapsody in Black and Blue,” written by Phil Cohan, is an important early example of a music video, featuring Louis as both the actor and singer/instrumentalist in a fictional plot. In Cohan’s film, a lazy husband gets beaten by his wife when he listens to jazz instead of working. He falls asleep and dreams about becoming king of “Jazzmania,” where Louis Armstrong performs for him dressed in a leopard suit. The short is chock full of blatantly racist stereotypes, excruciatingly clear looking back from the 21st century. It was shockingly offensive to Black America at the time, and this film provides an example for Miles Davis’s criticism of the legendary trumpet master: “I loved Satchmo, but I couldn’t stand all that grinning he did.” He felt Louis participated in the harmful black minstrel trope in American show business that plagued black performers long after the practice was abandoned. But Krin Gabbard explains, “Joe Glaser [Armstrong’s trusted manager] seized any opportunity to find work for Armstrong, and if Glaser made no effort to ask if the movies were good for the Negro people, neither did Armstrong.” This leads to what I think is the most likely defence of Armstrong’s appearance in this film, which is that it was made in 1932; still early in Armstrong’s career, while he needed to establish himself and might not have been able to turn down any opportunity to showcase his talents. To be sure, the music in the video is the one redeeming part about it: Louis kills the performance and makes the music his own.

Finally, tape 140 gives us a performance of Louis Armstrong and his All Stars performing at the Stuttgart music festival in 1959. Here we see Louis late in his career, heading his own group with exemplary leadership, showmanship, and musicality. His backing musicians are truly All Stars, and one of the most exciting moments of the concert comes at 2:05:02, where Danny Barcelona, the drummer, features heavily on “Stompin’ At The Savoy. His solos and fills are sensational.

For anyone wanting more festival performances by this group: their full Belgium ‘59 and Berlin ‘65 performances are up on YouTube, in full and for free. I’m having trouble finding the Stuttgart concert online, but the full concert is stashed in the Altman-Koss archive.

This has been a longer post than usual, and I’ll have to cut it here – I could easily go on for a lot longer! We’re lucky to have so much footage of Louis’s playing, both in the archive and online, and hopefully what I’ve written serves as a bit of an introduction to the various (and sometimes surprising) contexts in which Louis made his mark on jazz history.

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