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Laughin’ Louis Armstrong

It was quite a long time before I discovered that Louis Armstrong was a genius. In fact, it was quite a while before I knew what to make of him at all. Born in 1945, I grew up with television. That meant growing up on Louis Armstrong, who was a favored guest on talk and variety shows and could be seen as everything from star to supporting actor or cameo performer in films from the thirties and forties. All I knew was that he was the most unusual of all the celebrated personalities who guested on television. He was a man whose size changed from sleek to proverbial butterball in the many films I saw, celebrated or imitated by every comedian at loss for an impersonation. I found him very mysterious.

Armstrong’s sound, his manner, his facial expressions, all added up, for me, to some kind of secret language with which he consumed, reshaped, and reiterated songs, words, and music. Music I had become familiar with through radio, or television time, would dissolve in gravel, mugging, and a forward-leaning slight or broad trembling of the body which was physicalization of a vibrato. As he reared back while singing, say, “St. James Infirmary,” the width of his smile was heroic, yet it was more closely related to a grimace or the shadow world of irony and ambiguity than was suggested by the clapping of the audience or by the laughing of my mother as he would make an aside that held sentimentality or self-pity up for mockery, underlining it all with a handkerchief descending across his face, an open-armed gesture, or the motion of his head from side to side.

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Unlike my mother, my father didn’t find Armstrong charming or amusing; he found him despicable. My old man had been baptized in Lunceford, Ellington, and bebop. He considered Armstrong an embarrassment, a return to an unpleasant identity, or a man who had allowed white people to impose a ridiculous mask on him. In short, an Uncle Tom. But for all my old man’s fervor, I wasn’t going for it. Though I had no idea what was actually going on, I found Armstrong still mysterious.

But it wasn’t until I saw Armstrong in a film with Danny Kaye about the white cornetist Red Nichols that I got a glimpse of the master behind the mask. Nichols goes uptown to hear “the new bugler” play in Harlem. Drunk and laughing, he interrupts Armstrong (who is playing himself) as he gloriously trumpets the blues, and tells him that he is not as great as his father, the senior Nichols, who plays in the Midwest. With a gravity and confidence, a contempt and actuality that is rarely heard from Armstrong in any film when he is not performing musically, he replies, “If he ain’t Gabriel, he’s in trouble.”

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Nothing else Armstrong says or does in the film other than play is that authoritative, but that was enough. It prepared me for the photographs of Armstrong from the twenties with King Oliver or Fletcher Henderson. There we see an arrogant, surly young man who seemed to think himself handsome and was not to be fucked with. In Jazz Masters of the 1930’s, trumpeter Rex Stewart remembers Armstrong as a man who arrived in the North wearing a box-back suit, a cap cocked to the side, and some high-topped shoes, all of which were emblematic of a street tough. Armstrong himself has written of knife fights he witnessed, of women who sold their bodies for his benefit, and women who threatened him with knives — one eventually stabbed him in the shoulder. He also spoke of the many gangsters for whom he worked and the shootings he witnessed. At times, he carried two pistols himself.

In many ways, the genial persona Armstrong cultivated in the thirties was the result of advice from his manager, Joe Glaser. Glaser encouraged Armstrong to mug and sing, and many thought of the great brassman as no more than his lapdog. But one musician claims to have opened Armstrong’s dressing room door one evening to find him holding a knife to Glaser’s throat, saying, “I can’t prove it, but if I find out you’ve stolen one dime from me, I’ll cut your goddam throat.” Another says Armstrong knocked trombonist Jack Teagarden out cold one evening backstage for getting too familiar. He then calmly went onstage to grin broadly and speak through his teeth, saying, “Thank you very much, ladies, gen’mens. Our first number this evening is dedicated to our trombonist brother Jack Teagarden, who won’t be playing this show with us, and it’s called — ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”‘ And of course, very little is ever said about how strongly Armstrong spoke out about President Eisenhower’s indecisive­ness at Little Rock, and the fact that the next string of gigs he played was so bereft of audiences, artillery shells could’ve sailed through the rooms and harmed no one. Then there was the irony of his yucking it up on screen with white stars who never invited him to their houses. All of those things made Armstrong more than a little tough. No man of his background born in 1900 who was a professional musician for fifty years could even aspire to being a square, a lame, or a chump. The pressure flushed all punks.

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A recent RCA reissue on Bluebird, Young Louis Armstrong 1932-1933 (AXM2-5519), is invaluable to this discussion, just as it is musically invaluable. The double album contains material from a period most critics find lacking in artistic greatness, which is absurd. Not only does this recording contain some of the finest trumpet playing ever documented, it very clearly shows how influential Armstrong was on singers as different as Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Dean Martin. The emotional range of the work is exemplary and the variety of things Armstrong does with the horn often startles. Without a doubt, Armstrong was the greatest trumpet player of the century — the most powerful, the most touching, the most varied.

One performance,”Laughin’ Louie,” perfectly expresses the enigma of the great musician. It opens with a trite theme that collapses into a burlesque of sad jokes and buffoonery from both Armstrong and his band members. The music starts back up and, again, breaks into laughter, Armstrong and the band bantering back and forth. Then, out of nowhere, the trumpeter decides to play something from his New Orleans past. First, he sputters some individual notes; then there is a lovely passage, then more laughter before he quiets the band down for “the beautiful part.” Armstrong then plays in unaccompanied melody. Its rich tone conveys a chilling pathos and achieves a transcendence in the upper register that summons the cleansing agony of the greatest spirituals. The band drops a chord under him and it is over. The feeling one is left with is of great mystery. ❖

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It’s a Wonderful World in Satchmo at the Waldorf

Early in Terry Teachout’s one-man play, Satchmo at the Waldorf, the trumpeter declares his intention to “set the folks straight and tell it all now.” We learn in this moment, if we had any doubts, that the play is hardly more than an excuse to narrate a condensed version of Teachout’s Louis Armstrong biography, Pops. Thankfully, it is also an excuse for a tour de force by actor John Douglas Thompson, who deftly portrays not only Armstrong but also his uncompromising Jewish manager, Joe Glaser, and, briefly, Miles Davis, who was critical of what he considered Armstrong’s “Uncle Tom”–style stage antics.

Satchmo’s story, delivered in alternating monologues by Armstrong and Glaser, wanders widely over the life of the jazz great, but it centers on Armstrong’s perceived betrayal by Glaser. The story’s final revelations are surprisingly moving, but the anecdotal nature of the play often wears thin.

Even in representation, though, Armstrong is impossible not to love. Thompson’s rendition is sensitive and layered, presenting a man who is proud, naïve, passionate, and surprisingly self-aware. Casually inhabiting his crooked, aged gait except when snapping into Glaser’s straight-backed stride, Thompson makes music without playing a note. The chief pleasure of Satchmo, under Gordon Edelstein’s gentle direction, is to enjoy this exhumation of Armstrong’s one-of-a-kind charm.

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Punch Brothers

Inside Llewyn Davis executive music producer T Bone Burnett considers The Punch Brothers mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile the Louis Armstrong of our time for his genre-bending reshaping of folk classics, incorporating both classical and pop. That’s why he hired the Brothers to sing Irish folk ballad “The Auld Triangle” on the film’s soundtrack. Though it’s been a year since they released a new album, they’ll be ringing in 2014 with a three-night run of music that, like the film’s eponymous hero tells us, has timeless appeal: “If it was never new and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.”

Dec. 29-31, 9 p.m., 2013

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Chinese Rom-Com Finding Mr. Right Wants So Badly to be an American Rom-Com

Xue Xiaolu’s Chinese romantic comedy Finding Mr. Right wants to be an American romantic comedy so badly!

It begins with the Supremes’ “Someday We’ll Be Together,” ends with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” and sets a montage to Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” along the way, all without a hint of irony. None of this is a spoiler; remember that the title is Finding Mr. Right, which manages to be both generic and misleading.

The Finder in question is Wen (Tang Wei), a ditzy, rich Chinese woman sent by her sugar daddy to Seattle (portrayed by Vancouver) to give birth, thus circumventing China’s one-child policy.

She’s not seeking Mr. Right at first, but could it be Frank (Wu Xiubo), the scruffy driver who picks her up at the airport? And as Wen learns what’s most important in life — and we’re frequently reminded that it is not money — will she experience hilarious culture clash, including but not limited to tattooed punks straight out of Central Casting?

Finding Mr. Right would be banal if it were indeed an American film, but since it’s in Chinese and has a mild political edge regarding overseas birthing, it’s not without interest, and is a pleasant enough way to spend two hours if you’re not looking to be surprised.

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Ten (More) Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die

By Matthew Kassel and Alex W. Rodriguez

Yesterday’s much celebrated “Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die” post was a starter course, an easily digestible, rudimentary entry into the storied genre that not one person on the planet disagreed with. But today, we go further. Because for every Blue Train or Kind of Blue there’s a jazz album that’s as good, or better, but infinitely more obscure. Here are 10 of them, culled from about 100 years.

See Also:
Ten Jazz Albums to Hear Before You Die
Top Ten Jazz Shows in NYC This Month

10. Louis Armstrong Satchmo at Symphony Hall Louis Armstrong’s triumphant return to the small-ensemble format came with the trumpeter at the peak of his powers, and surrounded by virtuoso sidemen. In addition to Armstrong’s updated renditions of his classic repertoire, clarinetist Barney Bigard and trombonist Jack Teagarden give inspired performances during their respective features, making this a singular document of these original jazz giants at their absolute best.

9. Sidney Bechet Moasic Select: Sidney Bechet Sidney Bechet’s completely inimitable style is in full force on these remastered takes of his work with Columbia from the 1920s to the 1940s. Really, any record that features Bechet’s wild virtuosity and shuddering vibrato is worth a listen; this boxed set just happens to feature some of the most carefully-restored examples of it, which can be difficult to find. Or, you can hear his “Si Tu Vois Ma Mere” as the opening cut on the Midnight in Paris soundtrack — we can always leave it to Woody Allen to give the early jazz greats their due.

8. The Quintet Jazz at Massey Hall On May 15, 1953, the world heavy weight champion Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott to defend his title in a boxing match in Chicago. That same night Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus and Max Roach got on a stage in Toronto and played bebop standards with the same vigor with which a pugilist might throw his prize-winning punch. More people watched the boxing match 50 years ago, but you’d do well to check out this album now. Listen to Gillespie impetuously shrieking “salt PEE-nuts!” as Parker enters his solo.

7. Nancy Wilson with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley Nancy Wilson was only 24 years old when she joined Cannonball Adderley and his quintet to make this beautiful record. She sounds in complete command. Four of the tracks on this CD are instrumental, and they’re good post-bop numbers — featuring Louis Hayes on drums, Sam Jones on bass, Joe Zawinul on piano and Cannonball’s brother, Nat, on trumpet. But the group is at its best working behind Wilson, accentuating her impeccable voice.

6. Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Charles Mingus Money Jungle If you think of Duke Ellington as an even-tempered artist, then listen to Money Jungle, which he recorded in 1962 with Max Roach and Charles Mingus, and reconsider. This is an odd record, but its no exaggeration to say that it is one of the greatest piano trio recordings ever made. And if you’re looking for an album which showcases Ellington’s abilities as a pianist, this is the one to check out.

5. John Coltrane Quartet Crescent In 1964, John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme — his most exalted album — to express his admiration for God. It deserves every bit of the attention it gets. But Crescent, made earlier that very year, with the same unflappable quartet of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums and Jimmy Garrison on bass, may be the saxophonist’s deepest and most affecting CD.

4. Count Basie Count Basie Live at the Sands No jazz list is complete without a big band, and Count Basie’s New Testament band of the 1950s and ’60s is one of the form’s most dynamic and hard-swinging exponents. This album, a live take of one of Basie’s popular Las Vegas shows, opening for Frank Sinatra, serves up a satisfying blend of classic Frank Foster charts, clever re-workings of pop tunes like Ray Charles’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and in-the-pocket solos from star sidemen such as trombonist Al Grey and trumpeter Harry “Sweets” Edison.

3. Julius Hemphill Dogon A.D. On Dogon A.D. — one of the finest examples of loft jazz out there, from 1972 — you’ll hear complex funk, repeated melodic patterns and spare instrumentation. Like Ornette Coleman, Julius Hemphill, who founded the World Saxophone Quartet, was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in the 1930s, and he never abandoned his attachment to the blues, even at his most experimental. In 2011 this record was reissued in limited supply by the International Phonograph Inc. label after years of being out of print.

2. Maceo Parker Life on Planet Groove This unfathomably funky set of music comes from the horn section that helped make James Brown famous: Maceo Parker, Pee Wee Ellis, and Fred Wesley. This live recording captures a brilliant highlight of their post-Brown careers, featuring adventurous improvisation alongside passionate showmanship. Parker described the music as “two percent jazz, 98 percent funky stuff,” and he and his bandmates cooked up a potent mix of creative blowing and unstoppable groove.

1. Claudia Quintet Royal Toast There have been dozens of great jazz releases cut during the past few years that could make up a worthy list of must-hear musical titles, but this one from The Claudia Quintet stands out in particular. Drummer and composer John Hollenbeck’s mesmerizing loops and the group’s constant polyrhythmic interplay offer a compelling example of what 21st century jazz can sound like: both maddeningly complex and irresistibly hard-grooving, performed by dexterous improvisers who inject something new into every take.

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ON THE FLY

We in the New York area are surrounded by water, but how often do we get a chance to go fishing? You can hit the high seas with your tackle and bait today, courtesy of the Fisherman’s Conservation Association when they host their annual FCA Manhattan Cup. The FCA is a certified not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting the well-being of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut waters. Among their priorities are fighting the dumping of toxic waste in Jamaica Bay and protecting the striped bass game fish. The Manhattan Cup kicks off at 7:30 a.m. with all boats leaving the dock by 9. This is the tri-state’s largest catch-and-release tournament as anglers fish for striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish. The tournament is followed by a dinner with food, beer, and raffles. This is a unique opportunity but a day on a boat is not inexpensive—you must be pre-registered and expect to pay around $500. But how often do you get to be, as Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong sang, “Gone fishin’ instead of just a-wishin’ “?

Fri., May 20, 7:30 a.m., 2011

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BOY MEETS HORN

Wynton Marsalis’s jazz has long boasted cinematic qualities. His 1992 album Citi Movement was presented as a tone parallel to the dynamics of urban life, and that Pulitzer he earned for Blood on the Fields reminds us that dramatic narrative can be conjured by a small orchestra as eloquently as it can by a libretto. So when the trumpeter and his 10-piece ensemble play their original music to Dan Pritzker’s Louis, a silent-film homage to Louis Armstrong, the coordination between the eyes and ears should be jake. The film, which screens tonight as part of a five-city American tour, imagines the young Armstrong as a wide-eyed naïf who battles a Chaplin-esque villain in boudoirs and backstreets while assisting a damsel in distress and yearning to show off his horn prowess. Call it the Armstrong Story told in dreamscape cinematography that’s as fetching as Marsalis’s poetic motifs.

Mon., Aug. 30, 8 p.m., 2010

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WONDER TWINS ACTIVATE

Symmetry this perfect could only be found in jazz; the Anderson Twins, true to their name, are identical brothers and 23-year-old saxophonists, both of the clout to study jazz at the Juilliard School and perform professionally in various outfits around town, including with the spiffy David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. For the duo’s new run at 59E59, Pete and Will interpret two other natural, formidable rivals, trad clarinetists Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Of these legendary competitors, who will come out on top? Never mind, the Anderson gene pool already did.

Thu., May 20, 8 p.m., 2010

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O Rasp, All Ye Faithful: Bob Dylan’s Christmas Album

Jews suffer from holiday envy: Goyim get the choice gifts and classic songs, while we just light candles and nibble chocolate coins. Maybe that’s why, despite recent synagogue appearances, Bob Dylan did a 2006 Christmas special on his XM satellite-radio show. Hearing what fun he had with yuletide trivia, religious jokes, jive patter, holiday wishes, and poem recitals while playing Xmas-themed bop, calypso, garage rock, ska, mambo, early r&b, and lounge records, the announcement that he was recording a holiday album of his own didn’t seem that bizarre.

The self-produced, for-charity result, Christmas in the Heart, is itself a little bizarre, though, laboring as it does under the weight of too many standards he doesn’t have the pipes for (although, in all fairness, he wouldn’t have had the pipes in 1964, either). While Louis Armstrong sounded cute rasping through festive notes, Dylan’s own rasp is just painful, compounded by heavenly male and female choruses that might’ve wandered off a Lawrence Welk special. Mostly, those vocal helpers drown him out on a cheery take of “Here Comes Santa Claus” and a pious, hushed “Little Drummer Boy.”

Yes, you have to wonder why he thought he had the open-throated chops to hit the high notes on pop standards like “Winter Wonderland,” “The First Noel,” or “Silver Bells,” ordinarily the realm of braying, technically flawless divas. Which Bob, of course, is not. So while the low-key, loungey music gives off a cozy holiday vibe, Dylan himself keeps destroying the atmosphere—play Christmas at a holiday gathering, and you’ll get nothing but WTF looks. To his credit, he starts “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in the original Latin, but you’d still rather hear superior covers from Sinatra, not to mention the Brady Bunch, Twisted Sister, or Weezer.

It ain’t all gloom, though. The Tex-Mex sing-along “Must Be Santa,” the cute palm-tree-strewn novelty “Christmas Island,” and the languid harmonica showcase “Christmas Blues” are highlights, even if they sound like they floated in from another session. Plus, Bob really seems to be enjoying himself—this isn’t just a perverse joke, his not-exactly-golden throat be damned. Froggy tendencies aside, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “The Christmas Song” still come off as sweet and moving.

But overall, going up against the likes of Deano or Der Bingle doesn’t exactly flatter Bob—did he really think we’d prefer this to Dylan’s Rockin’ Xmas? As he proved on his XM show, he had much more appropriate material at his fingertips: His gravel-strewn voice could’ve easily torn into ye olde oldies from the likes of Leadbelly, Sonny Boy Williamson, and the Staple Singers. In fact, his radio show proved that he could take this strange concept even further and pull off a good holiday TV special based on that kind of rootsy material. It wouldn’t be any weirder than him peddling nighties, would it?

Music aside, you have to admire the audacious concept of this album, though. It took chutzpah for him to do something like this, unapologetically opening up his voice to ridicule. It’s charming to see that even Bob can get into the holiday spirit. And since Christmas is a time of forced cheer for many of us—full of familial anxiety and panicked shopping—an unerring record like this is more true to the occasion than any forced yuletide cheer. Really, it’s the holiday record we deserve.

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Mending the Levees

Sitting in a rented room in the Faubourg-Marigny section of New Orleans, around the corner from the jazz clubs lining Frenchmen Street, I thought about the late-August day that had just passed: the second anniversary of the floods resulting from the levee failures after Hurricane Katrina. President George W. Bush dipped his toe in the city for the occasion—dinner at a Creole restaurant, a quick address delivered at a Lower Ninth Ward school—and then slipped out of town again like a criminal on the run.

I had headphones on, listening to trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s new Blue Note CD, A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). But also rattling around my head was what Blanchard had told me months ago, when I visited his uptown home: “This president has gotten away with a lot. And in New Orleans, he got away with murder.”

I recall interviewing Blanchard in 2005, shortly after the floods: “For all those people to be stranded with no federal aid, it’s criminal.” And after he watched former FEMA director Michael Brown’s testimony on C-SPAN: “It’s insulting.” And after Bush failed to mention New Orleans in his State of the Union address: “Wow! He’s bold enough to announce to this city that he’s done with us.”

Louis Armstrong once rebuffed President Dwight D. Eisenhower, canceling a State Department tour over the school- integration controversy in Arkansas. “The way they are treating my people in the South,” Armstrong told newspaper reporters, “the government can go to hell.” Blanchard protested with absence last fall, opting out of a Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz reception hosted by the White House. “I couldn’t go,” he told me. “Couldn’t act like it was fine.”

Yet Blanchard’s association with the Monk Institute is now a particular point of pride: As artistic director of its innovative graduate-level jazz-performance program, he welcomed a new class of students to his hometown last month for their first semester at Loyola University, the program’s new home. The move (which Blanchard helped engineer) is important as both a symbolic and practical tool toward recovery. Train
ing also as teachers in New Orleans public schools, these grad students can make a dent in a daunting problem: a troubled school system that has nevertheless long been a breeding ground for jazz musicians.

Unlike Armstrong and Wynton Marsalis, who left New Orleans for fame and for good, Blanchard returned to his hometown mid-career, a decade ago. As a film composer (among others, he’s scored Spike Lee’s films for 20 years), he’s of singular distinction within jazz’s ranks. As a quintet leader, he blends the compassionate authority of his early employer, Art Blakey, with the empowering ingenuity of one of his heroes, Miles Davis. As a trumpeter, his technique distills the curled phrases and bent tones of his New Orleans predecessors without a hint of throwback or caricature.

For God’s Will, Blanchard adapted his compositions for Lee’s 2006 documentary When the Levees Broke into a suite for jazz ensemble and 40-piece orchestra, making use of all those attributes. He appeared in the film, too: One Levees scene found Blanchard escorting his mother back to her home, where she broke down crying with the realization that everything inside has been destroyed, right down to the family photos. “Spike’s film showed a very literal expression of what my family went through,” Blanchard says. “Now I can tell a little more of that story, taking my time and using the language I know best.” Violins voice the storm’s fury, woodwinds the foreboding calm of its wake, his horn the anguished cries of those left stranded. Blanchard’s requiem contains tightly composed passages but also moments during which he pushes his trumpet beyond its comfortable range. Not screeches, exactly— nothing close to Abbey Lincoln’s screams on Max Roach’s 1960 We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, but angrier and more daring than anything on his previous dozen albums.

The final product sounds like a complete artistic statement, “But the story in New Orleans goes on,” Blanchard says. As he performs the material in city after city, the telling does too.


Terence Blanchard performs at the Jazz Standard September 11-16, jazzstandard.net