Bing Crosby once called Louis Armstrong “the beginning and the end of music in America.”
Crosby’s summation of the great cornetist, trumpeter and singer has the ring of Ernest Hemingway’s famous statement on Mark Twain: “All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ” Crosby and Hemingway speak, of course, with some degree of hyperbole, but there is a rich kernel of metaphoric truth in what they say.
Armstrong--that is, the young, radically innovative fire-breather of the 1920s and ‘30s--was in many ways the Twain, the Hemingway and the Walt Whitman of American popular music.
Such hosannas to Armstrong may seem bizarre to younger listeners unfamiliar with his role as a bold, young innovator. Particularly for those whose collective memory of the jazz great--if there be any at all--is of an aging performer grinning toothily and mopping his perspiring brow with his omnipresent white handkerchief while knocking out his umpteenth version of “Hello, Dolly!”
As a corrective to that simplistic image, Columbia/Legacy has compiled a superb four-CD boxed set, “Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: 1923-1934" (list price, $59.99).
Here, young Armstrong single-handedly transforms jazz into an improvising soloist’s art with his bravura choruses, the likes of which had never been heard. His daring cadenzas, striking stop-time and double-time breaks, astounding melodic inventiveness and new, smoother sense of time pulled jazz into the age of modernism.
Armstrong was a pop Prometheus whose light set the stage and style for the Swing Era and influenced countless instrumentalists from Roy Eldridge to Wynton Marsalis, and vocalists from Crosby to Bobby McFerrin.
There are dozens of masterworks among the boxed set’s more than 80 selections featuring Armstrong with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith, Clarence Williams, Sidney Bechet, Lonnie Johnson, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Dodds and Earl “Fatha” Hines.
Best of all, the comprehensive collection includes the most important recordings by Armstrong’s celebrated Hot Five and Hot Seven. These combos created crown jewels of American music on thick, shellac 78-rpm discs that Okeh Records stocked in black, urban record shops throughout the United States.
Key among the gems is “Weather Bird,” a duet that paired Armstrong with his true peer, pianist Hines, on Dec. 5, 1928, a crucial turning point in jazz history. In just about three sublime minutes--the time limit imposed by the 78-rpm format--Armstrong and the swinging, ingenious Hines created one of the high-water marks in recording history.
Among the many high-caliber works from the Armstrong canon are “West End Blues,” “St. Louis Blues,” “Wildman Blues,” “Potato Head Blues,” “Hotter Than That,” “Basin Street Blues,” “No One but You,” “Beau Koo Jack” and “Tight Like This.”
Armstrong was not only one of America’s first superstars of the 20th Century, but also was a master of many pop styles, a maven-like forerunner of the versatile Ray Charles. Here he performs not just jazz and blues tunes, but also pop tunes and novelty numbers of the day, including a wacky fusion of jazz and Hawaiian guitar music on “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You).” He even dabbles in cowboy or country blues on a recording with Jimmie Rodgers, “the Father of Country Music,” a delight called “Blue Yodel Number 9.”
To those who are already Armstrong devotees, this massive retrospective will provide countless hours of delight. But to those who know little about him or his work, here are a few tips on how to best savor this rich slice of our cultural heritage.
Don’t plod methodically through the discs. The music is a joy and not meant as a pedantic exercise. Skip around. Something is sure to strike your fancy. And don’t be put off by the surface noise that crops up, especially on the early tracks.
Even amid the most paleolithic sound reproduction or the corniest musical backup, Armstrong emerges triumphant and modern.