Louis Armstrong: The Essential Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong
The Essential Louis Armstrong

There are too many sets with the present title!

Armstrong is Essential, and not to be confused with the image in the minds of a couple of American friends who remembered when Armstrong was near the end of his life, and supposed him to be yet another past-it representative of American Ent*rt*nm*nt, listened to for the associations of earlier days.

Nobody has yet worked out who his father was, the man who paid for what turned out to be the act of conception. Musical genes? The child Armstrong’s time in a detention center for juveniles was due no doubt to this lack of parental supervision, as well as the accident of a firearm having come into his hand and he having discharged it, apparently to nobody’s detriment. There he did things with the cornet or trumpet which were attempts at keeping him out of trouble, and the signs of him having the potential to become a musician of some quality (which were taken up for their own sake rather than for sheer lucre) turned out with the passing years to have been signs of musical genius. James Lincoln Collier presents the evidence very clearly as to quite what Armstrong did that had never been done before. I don’t mind the equation of Armstrong’s talent with Beethoven, it actually has a basis in each man’s capacity to distil melody and to read and establish harmonic relationships. They both had a history as improvisers, rather before recording machines existed to preserve the resultant music. Beethoven wrote some things down, Armstrong managed to encapsulate some things, and for an example of this hear the incredible three-chorus solo in “Tight Like That”. There is some hokum about the general conception of the piece, but Earl Hines’s piano break does paraphrase Chopin, and Armstrong sets up the greatest climax in recorded jazz thus far, simply in his first chorus. He transcends it in the second and transcends the second in the third.

This ain’t the Essential Armstrong because it doesn’t have the “Weather Bird” duet with Earl Hines, a hearing of which brought tears to the eyes of Freddie Hubbard a couple of years back in a German magazine blindfold test. He had never heard this, and there should have been more such recordings. The initial sample, what got recorded first of all, was untidy. Double CD selections such as this one start at a disadvantage. Last year I picked up a Scandinavian CD for two Euros in a German bargain bin and to my astonishment I find that nothing in that run of 16 consecutive Armstrong recordings from 1927-28 is on this set. The ones that are here are very good indeed.

One classic mistake in compiling sets like this is the book approach, which is to say trying to chronicle every stage of a career rather than compiling a CD on sheer musical grounds. Fletcher Henderson’s “Sugar Foot Stomp” is historically important and musically OK, but not essential. The two Clarence Williams Blue Five numbers are maybe not the ideal choices either from that group’s yoking together of Armstrong and Sidney Bechet. One of them even puts egg on the face of Dan Morgenstern, who does not often make jazz mistakes. Here he describes the 1929 “Black and Blue” (cf. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man) as the first secular protest song on record. WRONG: “Pickin’ on Your Baby (because I’m a Piccaninny Rose)” is the third track here and does, as the awesome Morgenstern says, have an extremely good and probably unprecedented Armstrong solo. Eva Taylor sings the role of a child who cannot understand why she is treated as she is. Back to the book approach, “Heebie Jeebies” was perhaps Armstrong’s first hit, but that could have been said in the notes and something more interesting included on the disc. Between a 1926 cornet blues solo and a 1927 trumpet one there was an amazing visionary awakening in Armstrong’s soloing. Even between “Willie the Weeper” and “West End Blues” thirteen months later.

The 1929-31 period is represented by sixteen of the thirty-seven titles (the one I didn’t remember is “Blue Again”). These titles range from the good to the brilliant, but I would suggest that the very best music from those years is not here, presumably because of the book approach of choosing items because their titles feature highly in the remembered Armstrong repertoire. He did them time and again and what’s here ain’t necessarily the best he did on many of them.

The second big problem Armstrong encountered in the 1930s was with his lip, the playing part of which suffered compression and needed surgery if that loose flap wasn’t to prevent him playing ever again (rather than the surgery, which Armstrong performed with a razor-blade). This was a consequence of lack of technique, and so was the lung trouble that shortened alike his breathing years and his playing years.

His first big problem in the 1930s was the mob, as the financial and ent*rt**nm*nt asset he had become might well have been abruptly liquidated (bang: cancelled as capital rather than turned into cash). The musical one was somewhat better appreciated during his period of refuge in Europe. There’s nothing here from between 1931 and 1938, but then the selection is again on the basis of hit songs and familiar titles. This set was compiled with access to items from Decca and Victor and even Verve catalogues, and we could have done without the “Blueberry Hill”.

1920s titles to look for elsewhere include “Melancholy” and “I’m Goin’ Huntin”, the latter under the name of Lionel Hampton’s teacher Jimmy Bertrand (the present set does include Hampton’s alleged first recording of any sort on vibraphone, from 1930). I could think of some more. “Mahogany Hall Blues Stomp” is a masterpiece, there’s a “St. Louis Blues” with Luis Russell’s New York based New Orleans style master-band with the first powerhouse brass playing in jazz. “Dallas Blues”? The “Dear Old Southland” duet with Buck Washington on piano? There’s some wonderful playing on “Wolverine Blues” from the late 1930s Deccas also sampled here. In 1946 there was a prizewinners band recording of “Snafu” with Johnny Hodges beside Armstrong, and this is one of the best examples of Armstrong’s restrained lyrical playing from that period. There is nothing here by the first version of the later “All-Stars”. This selection was not made on unsentimental musical grounds with Armstrong’s singularity as sheer musician and trumpet player in mind.

No such CD appears to have been compiled thus far. Better buy the 1928 recordings first, or the 1929-31 ones not ideally sampled here. It was with them that the later Louis Armstrong image came America-wide into being. It never did him justice as a musician.