Monday, November 23, 2015

Harpo and Satchmo

Today is Harpo Marx's birthday, a day of celebration for any fans of old comedy, the Marx Brothers or just plain humanity. I just put my 6-year-old daughter to bed but not before watching a few clips of Harpo on YouTube. I introduced her to the Marx Brothers about a month ago and though she admits she doesn't really understand what Groucho and Chico are saying, she has fallen in love with Harpo.

She's not alone. Yes, even kids raised in today's digital age respond to Harpo. In fact, there's another beloved entertainer who also elicits a similar response: Louis Armstrong. Day in and day out, school groups visit the Louis Armstrong House Museum and students from kindergarten to college walk away enchanted by Louis. What is it about Harpo and Louis that they still have this effect?

Well, for one thing both men was revered as near-saints offstage and I think audiences still admire them for being genuinely nice people. You really can't find a bad word about either man. They're also as funny as can be. For Harpo, one of the greatest comedians of all time, that's a given, but for Louis, that was something critics beat him up for for decades. "He's supposed to be an artist! Why is he making these jokes and funny faces?" Because Louis knew there was more than one way to be an entertainer and as he once put it, if his audience "is going to get a little laugh, I'm going to get one to!"

Still, critics called Louis a "clown" as if it was a derogatory thing, something he responded to beautifully late in life, telling Max Jones, "Critics in England say I was a clown, but a clown, that's hard. If you can make people chuckle a little; it's happiness to me to see people happy, and most of the people who criticize don't know one note from another." I've long said it's harder to make people laugh and nail a punchline with impeccable timing than it is to play high notes on a trumpet. Louis excelled at both but was only lauded for one of those gifts.

But both men also exhibited a sense of pathos that could make you cry when you least expect it. Some folks probably roll their eyes when Harpo pulls out the harp in the middle of the lunacy of the Marx Brothers but I always find those moments very emotional. Louis, too, could quickly go from giving audiences tears of laugher followed by tears of beauty in a matter of seconds.

Three quick examples. In A Night at the Opera, Harpo approaches a piano and proceeds to goof around with it (especially with its stool), making the kids in attendance literally scream with laughter. And then he sees his Harpo, gives it a passionate glance and plays such a beautiful rendition of "Alone," I had tears in my eyes when I showed it to my daughter for the first time last month:

And for Louis, I've written two blogs in the past about the glorious 1933 record "Laughin' Louie," stating that if you want to boil the complete Louis Armstrong Experience to about 210 seconds, this is the one I'd choose over avowed masterpieces like "West End Blues" because it has the comedy element. Louis and his friends are high as a kite in the first half of the record, as they do their own version of "The OKeh Laughing Record" but then Louis announces "the beautiful part" and plays an unaccompanied passage that, as Gary Giddins has written, could "make angels weep." From laughing to crying in three minutes. That's Louis. That's Harpo.

And of the 1947 Town Hall version of "Rockin' Chair," I've called it one of the great moments in western civilization and I stand by that. Louis and Jack Teagarden simply radiate love from the first note they sing but they're also really funny; the laughter in the audience is the type that just has to come out, it cannot be suppressed. And once you're exhausted from laughing, Bobby Hackett plays an emotional call to arms, Sid Calett starts unleashing his backbeats and Louis plays such a passionate ending, it always leaves me in a heap (I played this for my "Music of Louis Armstrong" course at Queens College last month and couldn't speak afterwards):

There's more parallels between Louis and the Marx Brothers. Louis is high as a kite and blowing like a wild man in 1933, 1934. The Marx Brothers are indulging in their most absurd comedies. Both are released from their contracts but in 1935, Louis signs with Decca and the Marxes sign with MGM. Both are taught to tone it down a hair to make it more palatable to a wider audience while still retaining the essence of their genius. Louis responds with "Shoe Shine Boy" and "Swing That Music." The Marxes respond with A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. Home runs all around.

I don't think Harpo ever spoke of Louis and I've never seen Louis speak of Harpo but the two giants did team up for a 1961 episode of The Chevy Show titled "Swingin' at the Summit" and also featuring Kay Starr, Tony Bennett and George Shearing. You can watch the complete show on YouTube:

It's a fun slice of early 60s TV but for me, the best thing to come out of it are these two photos. In one, Louis and Harpo are their naturally joyous selves:

In the other, they switch roles....and still make me laugh.

Bless you, Harpo. Bless you, Satchmo. They'll both live forever, making kids and adults both laugh and weep and feel good about humanity, even if just for a few minutes. 

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