Pardon the silly title for this blog. I have a "Google Alerts" set up for Louis Armstrong that lets me know daily every time Louis Armstrong's name is newly mentioned in the online world. Most of the mentions are forgettable; a 14-year-old proclaims his or her love of "What a Wonderful World," or something dull happens at Louis Armstrong airport in New Orleans. But occasionally something grabs my attention and makes my blood boil.
As most of my readers now, Armstrong's later years are my specialty ad the focus of the book I've been writing for a few years now. I focus on the later years because I feel they're the most misunderstood. A lot of people feel the need to knock Armstrong's last two decades in order to make a point about how great and "serious" he was as a youth. I'll never disparage Armstrong's early years but please, the myths surrounding Armstrong's later years have got to be put to rest.
The good news is the tide has been turning for some time now. Of course, Dan Morgenstern will always be the greatest champion of Armstrong's later years...and Armstrong himself period. But I receive e-mails from people all the time who "get it" and even some writers such as Gary Giddins, Will Friedwald and Terry Teachout have written eloquently on Armstrong's later period. Terry, of course, has his own Armstrong biography which promises to be quite definitive when it hits the shelves in December.
But until then, the Armstrong bookshelf is pretty lacking when it comes to that department. Laurence Bergreen spent 424 pages on the first 43 years of Armstrong's life before rushing through the last 28 in just 70 pages. And don't get me started on James Lincoln Collier. Unfortunately, for most people looking for an Armstrong biography, these are the writers they turn to, which has led to the endurance of the myths and legends surrounding Armstrong's later period.
Which brings us back to Google Alerts and one of this week's Armstrong results. I don't want to give the person's name because he's not a jazz expert and I don't want to humiliate him. I'm not even going to give the website. But this week, a Canadian librarian decided to write a column about Armstrong to demonstrate how his town's citizens could use their library to learn more about Pops. Great! Well, the headline is "A Good Read" and plastered right under it is a picture of Collier's Armstrong biography. Then came the lead paragraph:
"For most of us growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Louis Armstrong was almost a caricature: 'Satchmo' grinning and sweating as he appeared in mainstream movies and television programs, seeming like a real-life manifestation of Uncle Tom. What is remarkable is that many respected critics regard Armstrong as the greatest of jazz musicians, or even, to quote Steve Leggett, 'perhaps the most important American musician of the 20th century.'"
Shot through the heart! Grinning, sweating, Uncle Tom...but oh, those early years! Yeah, like the Scandinavian clips from 1933 where he grins and sweats and mugs through "Dinah" and "Tiger Rag"...genius! Here's how our librarian sums up the Armstrong's final period: "Although Armstrong enjoyed the respect and admiration for his jazz skills, he saw himself as a popular entertainer and not just as a jazz musician. Armstrong wanted to be — needed to be — loved by audiences and this accounts for the stereotyped but loveable character he presented to his public. As his fame and popularity grew, he got further and further from his jazz roots but he saw this not as selling out but as part of his natural evolution as a performer."
I'm not going to deny that Armstrong saw himself as a popular entertainer but the "needed to be" loved by audiences is pure Collier psychobabble, while the growing further from his jazz roots is also nonsense. As I'll argue in my book, Armstrong's upbringing in New Orleans found the trumpeter influenced by just about every type of music known to man. He sang and performed pop songs, waltzes, marches, spirituals, you name it...oh, and jazz, too. He listened to opera and was obsessed with Guy Lombardo. Sure he revolutionized jazz but once OKeh executives saw what he could what a pop song in 1929 ("I Can't Give You Anything But Love,") well, good night, nurse, the rest is history.
I know I'm being harsh on the librarian but I have some pretty strong opinions on Armstrong's later period. I'll get off my soapbox for now but not before leaving a little musical treat from Armstrong's later years. In fact, it's one of my favorite performances from Armstrong's later years...and I'm not even going to give the title! Just give it a listen and let those preconceived notions of grinning, sweating "Uncle" Satchmo melt away and try not to be moved by the power of his music. The man was a genius from day one til day none so I say let's enjoy ALL of it and not just those early masterpieces. Dig THIS and have a great weekend: