A Classic Gift From an American Icon


A few years ago, the week of July 4, 2000, was a much anticipated event--the 100th anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong. As it turned out, the traditional patriotic image of Satchmo as a Fourth of July baby was a bit off-base.

The first slip in accuracy occurred when the commonly accepted birth date of July 4, 1900, turned out to be a year too soon. Then writer Gary Giddins' book, "Satchmo," offered baptismal and census records clearly indicating that Armstrong was actually born August 4, 1901.

Too bad. The symbolism linking the birth of the nation with the birth of one of its most illustrious artists--perhaps the most pivotal figure in American 20th century music--was a natural. Armstrong apparently was perfectly content, throughout his lifetime, to accept the association. (He died in 1971, a month short of his 70th birthday.)

So, with the correct Armstrong birth date rapidly approaching, but with the symbolic date already upon us, Verve Records--perhaps in acknowledgment of both--has just released one of his most unusual and fascinating recordings: "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography."

The collection was originally released in 1957, during a particularly active period for Armstrong. Derided by some for what were described as Uncle Tom mannerisms, he was beginning to take vigorous public positions on civil rights, specifically in reference to the then-hot issue of public school integration in Little Rock, Ark. His autobiography, "Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans," had been published a few years earlier, and Armstrong's playing was still at its peak.

Most of the music in the three-CD set consists of remakes of classic numbers from the 1920s and '30s, ranging from early material with King Oliver, accompaniments for blues singers such as Bessie Smith, and numbers from the Hot Five. The titles are virtually all familiar: "Basin Street Blues," "Muskrat Ramble," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "Dipper Mouth Blues," "Potato Head Blues," "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Wild Man Blues," to name only a few of the 50 or so numbers included in the collection.

Most of the music is performed by ensembles that include many of his frequent associates (most working with him at the time in his Louis Armstrong All-Stars), including trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Edmond Hall, pianist Billy Kyle and drummer Barrett Deems. And, while few would pick most of these renderings over the white-heat inspiration of the originals, there are many surprisingly intriguing moments.

Even the most dedicated Satchmo fans, for example, might find his stop-time solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" easily comparable to his classic first version. And the famous "Dipper Mouth Blues" (from the Oliver years) is presented in a recasting (one of numerous arrangements by Bob Haggart and Sy Oliver) that both updates the original and provides a new perspective. And it's great fun to compare Armstrong's vocal on "Heebie Jeebies"--identified by many as the first scat singing--with his first effort.

The bottom line is that the 1957 Armstrong is not the 1927 Armstrong. But the differences have more to do with maturity and setting than with any lapse in creativity. And one of the great values of this collection is the complete picture it provides of Armstrong at his fully developed best, playing material he has played hundreds of times, once again bringing it to life in his inimitable fashion. (For those who have the original release, note that this version includes restoration of the full versions of some tracks that were edited for the LP set, and "Frog-I-More Rag," recorded for but omitted from the initial version of the "Autobiography," is added here as a bonus track.)

All this would be more than enough reason to pick up "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." But what makes it an even more desirable collection is the interstitial commentary by Armstrong placed between the numbers. Delivered in his characteristic tone, with his always witty emphasis, his remarks (despite occasionally sounding a bit scripted) are for the most part marvelous, an in-person historical overview of his early years. The moments when he simply wings it--as in his spontaneous offering of a few bars of his blues singing in the introduction to "See See Rider"--are pure gold.

What is ever-present, in the music and the comments, is the record of a remarkable life, of a spirit that survived an astonishingly difficult childhood to become an icon of a society far more willing to relegate him to the status of secondary citizenship.

But Armstrong, like the Buddha, simply smiled and stayed within himself.

And a typically soulful observation from gospel singer Mahalia Jackson provides the best summation of what Satchmo was really all about.

"If you don't like Louis Armstrong," she said, "you don't know how to love."

Riffs: The Henry Mancini Institute's 2001 summer season at UCLA kicks off Aug. 3 preceded by several high-visibility performances, including appearances by the HMI Orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl with Diana Krall on July 25, and with Dianne Reeves and Shirley Horn on Aug. 1. This years's 84-piece ensemble includes seven scholarship winners from Southern California. The Mancini Institute also has scheduled a series of free performances at the Wadsworth Theatre, UCLA's Schoenberg Hall and other locations around the city. Info: (310) 845-1900 or at the HMI Web site at www.manciniinstitute.org. . . . The eighth annual Hawaii International Jazz Festival returns July 19-22 with a special tribute to Stan Kenton, featuring such former alumni as Gabe Baltazar, Buddy Childers, Bud Shank and Eddie Bert. Four-day passes for the event are $120, and the festival is offering favorable travel packages. Info: (808) 941-9974.

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