Armstrong by Martin Heavisides

"I was tellin’ about the time when I was a little bitty boy in my mother’s hometown of Boutte, Louisiana. I was about five years old, cute little ol’ thing, too. Mayann, my mother you know, she said to me one morning, “Son, run down to the pond and get a bucket of water for your mama." And I cut out for that water, and Mayann dug me when I come back without the water and poooh, boy! She said, “Boy, where is that water?" I said, “Well, mama, there’s a big old rusty alligator in that pond and I didn’t get that water." She said, “Oh, boy, go get that water. Don’t you know that alligator is scared of you as you are of him?" I told her, “Mama, if he’s scared of me as I am of him, that water ain’t fit to drink."
As quoted in Gary Giddins, Satchmo



“Roses are red
Violets are blue
Lucille’s are pink
I saw them on the clothesline"


Incredibly enough, there are musical purists who think Armstrong’s artistry was seriously compromised by his decision to mingle singing with his superlative instrumental work on cornet. Beckett’s first appearance in 20th Century literature (stronger than many of his later appearances in propria persona) was in Louis’s 1929 recording of When You’re Smiling. (Baby It’s Cold Outside) the live duet with Velma Middleton is more like a Pinter play super-compressed to ten minutes.) Malcolm X never came close to delivering so fiery a denunciatory sermon (message conveyed purely by tone of voice) as Louis Armstrong’s Shine. Few vocalists have ever even attempted the lyric in full of Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It, and surely Armstrong’s remains the definitive rendition (though I’d be remiss in my patriotic duty if I didn’t cite the key importance in this recording of my countryman Oscar Peterson’s piano accompaniment.)
Even more incredible is the much larger contingent who think Armstrong’s comedy (“You weren’t at the studio you dog, you just/ Gone fishin’. . . “ “The Pope asked me if Lucille and I had kids and I said "No daddy, but we still whalin’." “What’s the matter witchou boy? Don’t you know I got a right to sing the blues?") detracted from his serious work as an artist. You never hear anyone say that about Chaplin, Keaton or Tati, I wonder why that is? (Chaplin had an amateur’s interest in piano, I understand, but Fats Waller or Art Tatum he wasn’t. I’ ve heard his singing voice once or twice, it was passable; but Louis was passable in his idiom the way Enrico Caruso was in his.)

“The most refined lady bugs do it
When a gentleman calls.
Moth in your rugs do it.
Well lookee here, what’s the use of balls?"

Roughly speaking (according to Fellini’s distinction in “I Clowns,") Duke Ellington was a white clown, Louis Armstrong an auguste. (I always have to look these up to be sure which is which, so this sentence’s shout out goes to Goodsearch.) The white clown is the aristocrat, the mask or painted face of authority. The auguste stands in for the common run of humankind. (Fusing the utmost discipline with a potent intuitive genius, the auguste gives humanity a dazzling pinnacle of achievement to aspire to.)
(How does this distinction play out among comics? Well. .. I’ d say the long-running feud between Jack Benny and Fred Allen was an inching territorial battle between two white clowns with complementary cracks of neurosis along their respective facades "between their personae that is to say, in real life they got along famously. Richard Pryor’s an auguste, though his character Mudbone is an unusually poignant example of the white clown perhaps that extreme rarity, an authority underscored by enough humanity to be actually legitimate. Don’t get me started on the white clowns in real life that have plagued human history: Napoleon who’s certainly more a macabre joke than anything else in Tolstoi’s definitive portrayal. Alexander the Great. Philip II of Spain, hey, hey! didn’t I tell you not to get me started?)
A quick-change character comedian like Lily Tomlin or Tracy Ullman may be a special case some of the roles they inhabit are white clown, some are auguste, but I’d say in propria persona both lean to the auguste. In joint interviews with her long-time partner Jane Wagner, Tomlin certainly plays auguste to Jane Wagner’s white clown.
On the record Fifteen Minute Intermission Cab Calloway plays white clown to a grousing band of augustes. “You’ll never get to heaven if you treat me this way.
“We want a fifteen minute intermission boss. "
It wouldn’t be easy to say which of these performing styles is more innately subversive. The white clown’s art is to show constantly, while appearing to want at all costs to conceal it, the complicated human face beneath inevitable cracks in the simple mask designed for show and command. Plus, the white clown fusing a potent discipline with the utmost intuitive genius, gives even doddering regal secretly terrified authority an humanity vaster and more magnanimous than it’s typically able to grasp

“The Dutch in old Amsterdam do it Not to mention the Finns.
Folks in Siam do it.
Think of the Siamese Twins."
One of Armstrong’s most mind-blowing verbal ad libs:

“Come climb the hill with me. We’ll see what we shall see.
I’ll bring my horn with me.
I’ll wait for you where berries are blue."
Blueberry Hill (Al Lewis, Larry Lawrence Stock, Vincent Rose)l

Yesterdays:
The other white nationalities kept the Jewish people with fear constantly. As far as us Negroes, well I don’t have to explain anything. Am sure you already know. At ten years old I could see the bluffing that those old fatbelly, stinking, very smelly dirty white folks were putting down. It seems that the only thing that they cared about was their shotguns, those oldtime shotguns which they had strapped around them. So they got full of their mint julep or that bad whiskey the poor white trash were guzzling down like water, then when they got so damn drunk they’d go out of their minds, it’s Nigger Hunting time. Any Nigger. They wouldn’t give up until they would find one. From then on, Lord have mercy on the poor darkie. Then they would torture the poor darkie, as innocent as he maybe.Then they would get their usual ignorant Cheshire Cat laughs before they would shoot him down like a dog. My my my, those were the days.
As cited by Gary Giddins, Satchmo, p. 59

Louis Armstrong was born July 4th 1900, in the Back O’ Town JANE ALLEY section in New Orleans. Mary Anne {was} the mother of two children who she raised and supported all by herself.

We did not have a father. They must have separated soon after we were born. Mama Lucy (my sister) nor I can recall seeing him. Anyway Mayann, that’s what everybody called her, worked hard to see that we had food and a place to sleep. We moved from Back O’ Town JANE ALLEY into the Third Ward (into the city), located at Franklyn and Perdido streets, where the Honky Tonks were located. A row of Negroes of all characters were living in rooms which they rented and fixed up the best way they could. We were All poor. The privies (the toilets) were put into a big yard, one side for the men and one side for the women. . . The folks, young and old, would go out into the yard and sit or lay around, or the old folks would sit in their rockin’ chairs, etc. Out in the sun until it was outhouse time. . .
Everything went on in the yard. I remember one moonlit night a woman hollered into the yard to her daughter, she said (real loud) “You, Marandy, you’d better come into this house, laying out there with nothing on top of you but that thin nigger. Marandy said, “Yassum."
As cited by Gary Giddins, Satchmo, p. 52

These are both quoted by Gary Giddins from unpublished documents he read while preparing his book. They can be matched by any number of equally frank passages in the published autobiography (intended to be the first volume only, and Armstrong said once the rest of it was so strong it could only be published after his death. Since when all trace of that extended manuscript has vanished the likeliest candidate for its suppression being his manager Joe Glaser. Why would Glaser want to suppress a document of such historical interest, as well as literary merit if it matched the first volume? My opinion is that he’d had enough trouble with Louis Armstrong’s outspokenness in life calling the white governor Faubus “an uneducated plowboy" when he sent out state troops to prevent school integration (I’m sure Armstrong found much choicer words than that in private, but in those days a newspaper wouldn’t print 'em or even imply they’d been said) suggesting in a letter to Eisenhower that the two of them go down to Mississippi, and Eisenhower take a black child by the hand and Armstrong a white child, and together usher them through the front doors of a contested school building, a breathtaking symbolic gesture Ike was just about the last person you’ d ask to attempt. If he did “disappear from those pages it was before Armstrong’s death, since he predeceased Louis. Pity, but no help for it unless the typescript reposes in some forgotten trunk or drawer. . . ) A little of Armstrong’s background in his own words, with the many-sided ironic inflection typical of him always, is useful in getting a true measure of his comedy. Hostile critics of his humour may trivialize and evanish the rich life experience it’s drawn from, but they’re blaming Armstrong for their own failure of vision.

In an essay on Genet’s The Blacks back in the fifties, Mailer remarked that until recently there’d been many great black performers but few great black actors and theorized this was because actors depended on direct address whereas performers could bury their darkest intentions in subtext: a performance might be innocent on the surface, but carry an underground theme of murder. It’s an odd remark. If there’s one theme black popular art you can generalize and say underclass popular art in any era, Jacobean theatre for example has never been reticent or especially sub textual about, it’s that one. Armstrong’s is the finest interpretation I’ve heard of.

“You see pearly browns In beautiful gowns. You see tailor-mades and hand-me-downs.
You meet honest men And pickpockets skilled.
You’ll find that business never closes until somebody gets killed."
W.C. Handy’s Beale Street Blues

Or what of a song that was. One of Louis’s signature tunes performed and recorded at every phase of his career, often with improvised insertions:
“You fed my wife Coca Cola
Just so you could play on her Victrola.
That’s right, you dog, You rascal you."

What’s the name of that tune? I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You. Really have to dig deep for the sub- text there, you bet.
Satchmo wasn’t entirely kind to James Stewart when Jimmy asked him if there were any exercises he could do to improve his embouchure for the clarinet scenes in The Glenn Miller Story: “Yeah daddy, get your old lady to sit on your face a couple of hours every night." I doubt it was Stewart he was angry at though; he was putting in cameo appearances in one more bio flick about a white musician with a talent not much above mediocre, the studios were giving it out that Miller and Goodman and an overheated performance by Kirk Douglas supposed to be based on the life of a true innovator among white jazz musicians, Bix Biederbecke all that mixed up mess of easy sentimentality was the history of jazz. They’d even hire a white musician to sing The Birth of the Blues! But was anybody rushing to make The Duke Ellington Story, The Count Basie Story, (not to put too fine a point on it) The Louis Armstrong Story? He knew exactly the right actor for at least one of those roles. Significantly, Armstrong disdained black entertainers who went along with the minstrel tradition, still rife in the 1920’s, of using burnt cork. Which is one reason he so admired dancer Bill 'Bojangles’ Robinson:


“To me he was the greatest. He didn’t need blackface to be funny. Comedian + dancer in my race. Better than Bert Williams. I personally admired Bill Robinson because he was immaculately dressed you could see the quality of his clothes even from the stage, stopped every show. He did not wear old raggedy top hat and tails with the pants cut off, black cork with thick white lips, etc. But the audiences loved him very much. He was funny from the first time he opened his mouth till he finished. So to me that’s what counted, his material is what counted."
Gary Giddins, Satchmo
(1927) Heart Beat Skin (Original composition)

Armstrong’s first charted hit was Muskrat Ramble in 1926, and he’s never been long off the charts after that year, not even in the almost forty since his death. 1927 was a breakthrough year featuring at least half a dozen hits, possibly more it all depends whose figures you trust (and there are good reasons for thinking none of them fully reliable). One of the most legendary hits of that year, with music and lyrics by Armstrong himself, in spite of the fact that (like The Trumpet Player’s Lament, a solo number cut from the release print of the 1938 movie Dr Rhythm) no copy of it seems to have survived not a single disc of the thousands sold that year or in the two or three following, was Heart Beat Skin. The only clear indication it existed was the frequency with which it was cited in the twenties and for decades after, in spite of the fact that Armstrong doesn’t seem to have performed it after 1932 at the very latest. He certainly didn’t record as many versions as he did of Hello Dolly, regrettably on both counts. Just the one of Heart Beat Skin so far as anyone knows, and that one hasn’t survived. Still, as recently as fifteen years ago there were aging residents of homes who didn’t need much prompting to spill vivid memories of the impact that song had on their lives when they were in their teens or early twenties. True, often as not they seemed to be describing Cornet Chop Suey, Potato Head Blues, Tight Light That or Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, but you’ve got to expect things to slide together in people’s memories at that age. Apart from these memories and impressions spanning seven decades, which give tantalizing notions of a musical classic that seems just on the edge of possibility to reconstruct, we have only three lines of lyric I would guess, the three opening lines:

“Where does the heart beat? All through the skin Everywhere a vein is, poundin’ like a drum.
Poundin’ from the inside, how’s about that?"

“I Look Through Him and See Jesus"

"Sometimes the picture of the passion and death of the Empire will be the face of the Crucified Christ; but often there will emerge the most fulfilled, the most shatteringly profound image ever, the laughing Christ of Creophylus."

R.A. Lafferty, The Fall of Rome

“For every thing that lives is Holy; life delights in life."
William Blake, Europe: a Prophecy

Louis Armstrong’s sister's real name was Beatrice but the family always called her Mama Lucy didn’t care for her brother’s rendition of When the 'Saints Go Marchin’ In. (Family dynamics probably entered in here. She wasn’t his older sister by much, but for care and correction both, she very likely always regarded him as her baby brother.)
(According to Gary Giddins this was the first jazz rendition of any spiritual and I can’t think of an earlier example, unless Fats Waller’s sublime organ rendition of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child predated it. If it did, Armstrong’s was still the first popular jazz spiritual. Waller’s plangent organ work with its tonal translucence has always been known to a minority of his huge following perhaps because it opens up more dimensions than they want to see of a remarkably multi-faceted artist at another extreme, far fewer people are familiar I suspect with Hold Tight than with Honeysuckle Rose or Ain’t Misbehavin’.
In some ways, following my usual procedure (see I AM BEING EVERYBODY THEY CRIED), I should perhaps be writing about Waller rather than Armstrong at this length and I’ m certainly not promising I never will. But an unjustly eclipsed reputation isn’t the only condition that calls for critical correction. There are reputations, like Armstrong’s, that are wide as the wide world but settle into stereotypes that conceal far more than they reveal. I’ m offering a few modest correctives to that tendency here.
I’ve no idea what the original sounded like, that Mama Lucy seemed to think he’d irreverently jazzed up, since his version supplanted it completely. He replied with friendly asperity that his sister didn’t seem to have any quarrel with bingo in church. The many recordings he made of spirituals over the years give ample evidence of his conviction that the Lord wouldn’t find anything sinful in making a joyful noise.
That exuberance bumps up the aggressive punch in a protest number--which many of the great spirituals are also. Doris Lessing once complained that the droning, dirge like melody of We Shall Overcome contradicted and overrode the defiance and resistance in its lyric. Fair enough unless you’ve heard the version Armstrong with an ever -growing chorus welling behind sang and recorded in 1970. Nothing somber or dirgelike in that performance, more nearly ecstatic. Nor does the fierce energy of his version ever diminish rather it multiplies the solemn majesty of Go Down,Moses:

“Well Israel was in egypt land (Let my people go!)
Oppressed so hard they could not stand (Let my people go!)
So the Lord said GO DOWN (go down)
MOSES Wa-----ay down into E------egypt la--and And tell old Phaaraoh
To LET MY PEOPLE GO. “
(As close as I can come by transcription. You really have to hear it of course.)

It’s instructive to look at only the song list of Porgy and Bess when listening to Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald singing it: what a minefield of impertinently imposed dialect they had to sidestep in their resonant transcription! On his most heard recording of Going To Shout All Over God’s Heaven, the white chorus backing Louis persistently sings “hebbin, hebbin"; Louis sings back “heaven, heaven". It may be just my magination but I hear a growing asperity in his voice each time he sings it right again and they give it back at him incorrect. What can you do? Some ofay cats won’t learn a proper lesson no matter what.
There are plenty of songs in Armstrong’s repertoire and catalogue that have a majesty in his transcription which, without his assistance, they consistently lack. This isn’t generally true of the spirituals, any more than the blues tunes he performed and recorded those have plenty of majesty on their own, but his free flowing approach, always rich in wit, never detracts and more often than not enhances their power. How much he was drawing on the robust tradition of black evangelical church choirs I don’t know, but there was a streak of un-healthy sobriety in many black congregations the kind that disapproves of sex standing up because it might lead to dancing and they were obliged to disapprove of Armstrong , and jazz generally, ferociously. Armstrong never forgave the Reverend Adam Clayton Powell the sermon against that devil music jazz he preached at the burial of Louis’ mentor King Oliver. If anyone was principally responsible for exorcising (so far as it has been) that devil of cynical solemnity from black congregations, so that the glorious tradition of gospel could more firmly flourish, out of which came Aretha Franklin, Smoky Robinson, so many of the greatest musicians and entertainers of successive musical eras, I’ d have to think that’ d be Louis’ work mostly too (though there’s another kind of grandeur, equally rich, in Duke Ellington’s sacred music).

“If all are made in the image of Thee, Could Thou, o God, a Zebra be?"

That humorously pointed comment on black and white shades of humanity, sharply aimed at specious notions of racial superiority, is from his collaboration with Dave Brubeck, The Real Ambassadors. The title of this particular song, They Say I Look Like God, might seem grandiose and overreaching if it weren’t squarely based on the Bible account in Genesis. (Certainly there’s nothing remotely sacrilegious here: Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’s oratorio delivery of the lines from Genesis (“God created man in his image and likeness") wouldn’t be out of place in St Michael’s Cathedral or the Vatican Chapel. And the comedy’s so much an ingrained element, not only of negro spirituals themselves (Satchmo expanded on that tradition, he didn’t invent it) but of satire aimed at religious hypocrisy such as Lonesome Road and the Elder Eatmore sermons, and the Cab Calloway character Deacon Lowdown, that to call it sacrilege in this instance would amount to blanket condemnation in all the others. That might be a little extreme.)
The same approach in Shadrach and Ezekiel Saw the Wheel creates a curious double impression: they can be richly enjoyed (seeping into the skin of consciousness) when heard indistinctly as part of the background, but if listened to closely their effect is sharp, dizzying, overpowering more so, not less, because of the comedy that infuses them.
On the other hand, in my view the best version he recorded of Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen is the one where his delivery’s most straight. Again a curious alchemy takes place: his voice is so crystalline and luminous, it lifts the song above lament to a rough and ready love of life with its punishments and travails.
Responding in 1949 to a “Blindfold Test", in which he was asked to rate unidentified records with one to five stars, Louis Armstrong said:
“I couldn’t give anything less than two stars. You want to know why? Well, there’s a story about the sisters who were talking about the pastor, and only one sister could appreciate the pastor. She said, "If he’s good, I can look through him and see Jesus. If he’s bad, I can look over him and see Jesus.’ That’s the way I feel about music."
Gary Giddins, Satchmo

“I’m Doing Something Different all the Time"

Miles Davis who to the best of my knowledge never said anything at all about Armstrong’s singing, and certainly disliked his comedy said everything that could be done with trumpet "even modern" was done by Satchmo. Not a bad authority to cite, but anyone who’s listened to a good deal of his music will have noticed the enormous range it covers form end-to-end of his career, the restless energy that drove him in ever new directions. This was brought home to me once when I was listening to an obviously very gifted trumpet player doing Summertime. I commented to a friend at the time that it was incredible trumpet but I couldn’t put a name "Miles, Clifford, Dizzy" no to the style. Then a pure-toned female voice came in over the trumpet Peggy Lee? Then the male vocal came in and I knew suddenly who’ d been playing. I also knew who the other singer was, because I’d read about their collaboration on a recording of Porgy and Bess, but this was the first time I’d heard any of it: Ella Fitzgerald. Louis Armstrong.
I ought to have known that. I’d listened to a great deal of Armstrong, from just about every point in his career, so how did so distinctive a shift of style sneak up on me like that? It obviously didn’t sneak up on Satchmo, but was elaborately and consciously devised as an approach to bring out the full resonance of the score. (The same is true of Ella Fitzgerald, particularly on Strawberries and O Doctor Jesus, which are quite unlike any of her earlier vocals that I’ve heard, even Miss Otis Regrets. Neither of them were resting on their laurels (or their hardys either).
It’s somewhat puzzling that what must surely be the definitive transcription of Porgy and Bess not to mention a high point in the career of Ella and Louis (and Oscar Peterson on piano) hasn’t been, either then or now, any sort of popular success. I suspect the timing was off. It has been speculated that Norman Granz, who brought together the creative team and produced the record, withheld it for commercial reasons until after the release of the soundtrack from Otto Preminger’s film version. An astute commercial calculation would have been to release it ahead of that soundtrack, because it’s so much more powerful than that pallid version it would have cast it into shadow. Instead of which it’s likely that a lazy listening public, bored with that soundtrack already, assumed that even Ella, Louis and Oscar would succeed only in giving them more of the bland, white bread same. Then again I’m hardly the go-to person for advice on how to succeed commercially at anything.
John Hammond the Columbia record executive thought Armstrong’s music in the fifties and sixties suffered from the fact that he rarely played with his musical equals. By that logic Armstrong’s music of the twenties, thirties and forties should have suffered just as much: there’s likely never been a ten piece band in the history of the world all of whom were his equal even on a single instrument, and while there’ve been moments in his lifetime you could’ve assembled five, it’s likely they wouldn’t all be on the same continent let alone in the same city: now of course they could use INTERNET technology to overcome even that barrier, but what there was of an INTERNET even in the early seventies was woefully inadequate to such demands. We can permit ourselves, nevertheless, a tantalizing speculation or two. Armstrong did work memorably with Dave Brubeck at the top of his form, and the most innovative vocal trio in the history of jazz, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, on The Real Ambassadors. Louis, Ella and Oscar, all at the top of their form on Porgy and Bess. A video recording was made the one time Louis and Dizzy played together in a cutting session in which neither was a winner or loser, at the close of which they embraced. What an album those two might have joined forces to make!
What an album Duke and Louis did join forces to make! A fusion of the two great originating styles of jazz on one compact disc. Henry Purcell never produced a better trumpet voluntary than Armstrong blew at the commencement of It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) (bada ba dup dup ba ba ba dup dup baaaa). Then he pulls a trick I’ve heard on many other records, always with astonishment he lowers the horn from his lips and without a pause for breath starts in to sing. Kids! Don’t try this at home.
Nina Simone? How they’d have gotten along? I don’t know, but Armstrong had an even way handling some pretty prickly and irascible personalities in his time. If they could have worked together, what facets to explore! How many permutations of Armstrong’s trumpet, Simone’s piano and their two astounding voices?
Charlie Parker? I rather suspect if he’d managed to live a decade or two longer they’d have played together at some point. I cannot even imagine (only that it would surely be delicious) what an album of duets with Betty Carter would sound like.
Davis and Armstrong? I honestly can’t see how that collaboration could ever have come off. Davis played with a lot of great musicians, but with serious horn rivals? not so much. Anyway Davis never dug anything of Armstrong’s act except his trumpet playing. He’ d probably have insisted Armstrong cut the clowning. Satchmo could do that easily enough, but I suspect he’d have refused since such a request is implicitly quite demeaning. Davis hadn’t much of an ear for comedy, maybe none of the boppers except Dizzy did, or he’d have understood Armstrong was a brilliant musical improviser in his rampant humour no less than his horn work.
I doubt there’s a greater master of dry, meticulous style than Miles Davis, but that itself may have put him at too far a remove to comprehend Satchmo altogether. Armstrong’s style, no less meticulous, was juicy (very much in the sense the word is used on the couplet he always tacked on at the end of Baby It’s Cold Outside when performing it live.)
“There Are No Bad Songs"

“Chim chim chimchiminee, chim chim chim chiminee, chim chim chim chiminee, chim chim chim chimine"

It’s one thing to make a deeply moving elegy and anthem of protest out of a song, remarkable in itself, that had never been seen in quite that light before, and always has been since (What Did I Do/To Be So Black and Blue?). To blow trumpet so high and wild its rumoured to have woken a few of the dead, who thought they were hearing Gabriel’s resurrection blast (It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing) when your starting point’s a tune composed by the immortal Duke. Even to push through the musical stratosphere a better than middling composition like Porgy and Bess. But to make inspired art out of a song of little or no intrinsic merit, or of negative worth such as the odious bundle of minstrel show stereotypes Shine?
Of course he achieves it here by a method untypical of him, maybe even unique to his interpretation of this one song. He gallops through the lyric in a rage, I bet the microphone at the end of this recording was well slicked down with spittle. It’s a masterpiece of vituperation, but his usual method with a lesser song was more wryly subversive. He doesn’t attack Jeepers Creepers, which scarcely deserves the Shine treatment, it’s not odious, it’s even borderline competent, but a charming novelty tune at best in anyone else’s hands; lighter, airier, more resonant every way when Armstrong performs it. Perhaps the correct word isn’t subversive but transcendent; or both about equally.

“There are o bad songs,’ he once told an interviewer, much as Van Gogh might have said there are no bad colours."
Gary Giddins, Satchmo, p. 111 .

More than one black musician had to learn to paint in the same way, adding breadth and depth, spice and flourish and wit and panache to tunes conspicuously lacking any those qualities: since (in the first half of the twentieth century particularly) the songs they were offered by Tin Pan Alley tended not to be top or even middle drawer. Bessie Smith, Waller and Ellington had an advantage here, being composers themselves (and in Waller and Ellington’s case, working with first rate lyricists like Andy Razaf and Billy Strayhorn), but easily half of Billy Holliday’s classic numbers, maybe more, particularly in the first two thirds of her career, would scarcely be remembered at all, let alone as classics, if we’ d never heard them in her voice.
Of course Armstrong was his own composer sometimes too, more rarely his own lyricist, always his own comedy writer, often enough I’ m sure delivering himself of material right on the spot even as he spoke. But even the musicians who composed and wrote performed their alchemy on more than one song dragged up from the dregs of the music industry, and eventually began to be given the best songs to record, seeing how supercompetent they were at transmuting and multiplying the associative power of the worst --

Chim chim chim chiminee, chim chim chim chiminee, chim chim chim chiminee, chim chim chim chiminee
I choose my bristles with care, yes I do,
A broom for the shaft and a brush for the flue. And though I spend time in the ashes and that, In this whole wide world there’s no happier cat.
Chim chim chim chiminee, chim chim chim chiminee, chim chim chim chiminee, chim chim chim chiminee

Barriers
I was quite enjoying an essay in Sex, Art and American Culture (on the whole and Camille Paglia is a decent stylist until she gets it into her head it’s time for a sample of her scathing wit, which more often than not produces a sample bereft of either quality), and then I ran up against this passage (particularly ludicrous in an essay properly chiding other scholars for their lack of serious reading in social and cultural history):
Elvis Presley, one of the most influential men of the century, broke down racial barriers in the music industry, so that my generation was flooded by the power, passion and emotional truth of African-American experience. Aretha Franklin, Levi Stubbs, James Brown, Gladys Knight: these voices and a hundred others are seared into our consciousness.(p. 211 )

Elvis Presley didn’t break down racial barriers in the music industry, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington did. Billie Holiday didn’t front vocally for Artie Shaw’s band in 1958, grace of Elvis, but in 1938. Fats Waller was one of the world’s biggest radio stars when Presley was in short pants, and if he’ d been alive still in 1957 maybe he’d have had a big hit with Hound Dog and we’d know at last how that song should be done. Flood-tide of African-American experience! Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Waller, Bessie Smith, Ivie Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Mahalia Jackson, Coleman Hawkins among many others, this was just an itsy bitsy teeny weeny wave perhaps? Art Tatum, Earl “Fatha Hines, Willie “the Lion Smith, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Henry “Red" Allen, Clark Terry, Shirley Horn, Betty Carter, Benny Carter, Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk? (all right enough already we get the idea!) Eartha Kitt, Sarah Vaughan, Lester Young, Trummy Young, Dexter Gordon, Ornette Coleman (hey! didn’t I say enough already? All right! listen up! no more chocolate for you.)
There were makeshift barricades erected or re-erected when Presley came along, but surely the man who kicked them to pieces, and intended to, was the man who first recorded Elvis, Sam Philips. And whatever Aretha, Gladys, Diana Ross, Otis Redding, the Staples Singers, Solomon Burke and a host of others might owe to Presley, they owe far more to Louis Armstrong. So do we all.
“I see skies of blue and clouds of white,
The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. . . “
(1967) What a Wonderful World (Bob Thiele, George David Weiss)

My niece Ula associated this song with Christmas. it gets a lot of play then, so I suppose by now a lot of people do. She was looking out her window in early December once she told us with snow gently falling, Louis coming through strong on the radio, that was her strongest memory of the song.

“I see trees of green, red roses too. I see them bloom for me and you"

Like Armstrong always at his finest never more directly than here it opens the shutter of the eye on a transfigured world, closely parallel to our own, that we can make a short visit to any time, or live in if we choose.
“I see friends shaking hands saying How do you do?
They’re really saying I love you.
I hear babies cry, I watch them grow.
They’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know
( Less they pay too much attention to teachers tellin''em "Don’t get smart!’) “And I think to myself. . . “

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The Linnet's Wings is an Irish Bases Literature and Art Magazine