Duke Ellington once said of Louis Armstrong, “He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone on the way.”
The grandson of slaves, Armstrong grew up in the poorest neighborhood of New Orleans. As a child he was fascinated with the marching bands that played in funeral processions. At the age of seven he went to work for a junk dealer. He would ride on the junk wagon and, as he recalled later, toot an old tin horn “as a call for old rags, bones, bottles or anything that the people and the kids had to sell.” When the young boy saw an old cornet in the window of a pawn shop, he asked his boss to loan him the five dollars to buy it. He learned to play the instrument in the Home for Colored Waifs, where he was sent for delinquency. The gifted youngster soon caught the attention of the pioneering jazz cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, who became his mentor. In 1922 Armstrong joined Oliver in Chicago to play in his famous Creole Jazz Band. He was 21 years old. Before long Armstrong set out on his own, and in 1925 began recording his legendary “Hot Five” sessions that established him as a virtuoso and changed the course of jazz history. Armstrong’s horn playing and singing made an enormous impact on 20th century music. In 2006, Wynton Marsalis wrote:
Louis Armstrong’s sound transcends time and style. He’s the most modern trumpet player we’ve ever heard and the most ancient…at the same time. He has light in his sound. It’s big and open with a deep spiritual essence–a sound closest to the Angel Gabriel. You Can’t practice to get Louis Armstrong’s sound. It’s something within him that just came out. Rhythmically, he’s the most sophisticated player we’ve ever produced. He places notes unpredictably with such great timing–always swinging, always coordinated–with overwhelming transcendent power.
Marsalis’s comments are from the foreward to the Jazz Icons DVD Louis Armstrong: Live in ’59. The concert, see Part 1 above, was filmed in March of 1959 in Antwerp, Belgium. (Here are the remaining parts: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.) It may be the only full Armstrong concert captured on film. By the time it was made, Armstrong was firmly established as a cultural icon. He was touring Europe with the All Stars, a group he formed in 1947. The lineup at Antwerp featured Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, Michael “Peanuts” Hucko on clarinet, Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano, Mort Herbert on bass, Danny Barcelona on drums and Velma Middleton on vocals for “St. Louis Blues” and “Ko Ko Mo.” Here’s the complete set list:
- When it’s Sleepy Time Down South
- (Back Home Again in) Indiana
- Basin Street Blues
- Tiger Rag
- Now You Has Jazz
- Love is Just Around the Corner
- C’est si bon
- Mack the Knife
- Stompin’ at the Savoy
- St. Louis Blues
- Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So)
- When the Saints Go Marching In
- La Vie en rose
“By the time of the All-Stars performance in Belgium,” writes Rob Bowman in the liner notes, “they were a well-oiled machine, performing similar sets night after night.” But three months later, Armstrong suffered a heart attack in Spoleto, Italy, and his pace slowed down. The Antwerp film captures Armstrong when he was still going strong. It showcases the craft of a consummate entertainer from the old school, who strove always to please people. As Bowman writes:
Coming of age as a professional musician at the dawn of jazz recording, musicians of Armstrong’s generation thought of themselves, first and foremost, as entertainers. Great art might occur in the process, but at the end of the day it was their ability to entertain that guaranteed them an audience and a living year after year. The roots of such entertainment for African American musicians of Armstrong’s generation were minstrelsy and vaudeville. To that end, Armstrong comes across as a larger-than-life character, clowning, grinning from ear to ear, rolling his eyes and mugging for the audience throughout the show. That meant shtick like Armstrong and Young’s parading at the end of “Tiger Rag,” the cornball humor of “Now You Has Jazz” and the constant guffawing and drawn out cries of “Ahh” heard at the end of tunes were an integral part of his show. While some contemporary critics accused Armstrong of being an Uncle Tom, they simply didn’t get it. This was a performance aesthetic from an earlier point in time, and Armstrong was a master.
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