June 18, 2011


The Art of Staying Hot: Critics may have dismissed Louis Armstrong in his later years, but audiences loved him—with good reason (TOM NOLAN, 6/18/11, WSJ)

By the 1930s he was justly celebrated as a powerhouse performer. But over time he found himself eclipsed by new currents in jazz, which featured a more orchestral approach during the big-band era and, with bebop, more advanced harmonies. As jazz progressed, "smart opinion" relegated Armstrong to the status of mere entertainer.

And yet, as Mr. Riccardi reminds us, Armstrong's latter-day career highlights are extraordinary. He was a fantastically popular live performer throughout the 1950s and 1960s, drawing crowds around the globe—in Asia, Africa, Latin America and behind the Iron Curtain—and earning him the unofficial title of America's No. 1 ambassador of goodwill. In 1949, Armstrong's plane had to delay its landing in Stockholm because 40,000 fans had jammed the airport. At an open-air event in Ghana in 1956, Armstrong's combo drew a crowd estimated at 70,000. In Budapest, the crowd exceeded 100,000. When Armstrong visited the Belgian Congo during its civil war, Mr. Riccardi notes, "both sides stopped fighting and welcomed him grandly, bearing him on a red throne" before a huge concert in a soccer stadium. "Members of warring parties sat together, danced, and cheered the music." For sheer exuberance, Mr. Riccardi cites the 1959 world tour, which had Louis "blowing with sometimes frightening power . . . notes much higher than as a younger man . . . with astonishing ferocity."

The strength and melodic invention were present, as well, on the discs that Armstrong made in his final decades, including such superlative George Avakian-produced Columbia-label LPs as 1954's "Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy"—probably "the greatest album Armstrong ever recorded," according to Mr. Riccardi. Though the critics largely ignored these later albums, they were as important and beautiful in their way as the Columbia recordings of the same era by Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. Equally notable were Armstrong's collaborative sessions with Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson and Mr. Brubeck. With good cause Armstrong could state in 1956: "I'm playing better now than I've ever played in my life."

Then there were the out-of-the-blue 1960s hit records: "What a Wonderful World" (which made the international charts a second time after Armstrong's death) and "Hello, Dolly!," which knocked the Beatles off the hit parade's No. 1 perch at the height of the British group's 1963 mania.

Other matters, though, marred Armstrong's reputation, at least in America. His commercial success was thought antithetical to jazz, and critics decried his stage act's vaudeville antics—e.g., the dance splits of his vocalist Velma Middleton. Not that audiences seemed to mind. As one of his clarinet players said: "It's a show, not a jam session."

What really hurt was when his fellow African-Americans called Armstrong an Uncle Tom, not only for his "mugging" stage mannerisms but for his failing to take a strong public stand against racial intolerance. But when he did speak out, during the Little Rock, Ark., school-integration events of 1957—he chided President Dwight Eisenhower for not acting soon enough and denigrated Gov. Orval Faubus for his bullying obstructionism—he drew rebukes from certain blacks, who criticized his remarks as intemperate or hypocritical. Even so, he later spoke out again, saying (while in Denmark) of those who attacked voter-rights demonstrators in Alabama: "They would even beat Jesus if he was black and marched."

From the viewpoint of the afficianado, it is vital that the artist not produce art.

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Posted by at June 18, 2011 7:11 AM

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