“What a Wonderful World” is an appreciation of Louis Armstrong.

June 10, 2011

The “later years” of Louis Armstrong lasted almost a quarter century, from the first performance of his new small group at Town Hall in New York on May 17, 1947, until his death in his modest house in Queens on July 6, 1971. In the life of this extraordinary man, it is a period that has long been marked by controversy. As Ricky Riccardi writes, “The myth of the ‘two Armstrongs’ continues: the young serious artist and the old entertainer.” The myth was spread largely by a handful of critics, principally the musically astute but humor-challenged Gunther Schuller, who argued that Armstrong peaked in the 1920s with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and subsequently was little more than what Schuller called “a good-natured buffoon, singing ‘Blueberry Hill’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ night after night.”

By now the myth has been quite thoroughly punctured, first by Gary Giddins in his slender but authoritative “Satchmo” (1988) and then by Terry Teachout in his definitive biography, “Pops” (2009). Both writers understand that Armstrong was a natural entertainer whose clownish on-stage antics were expressions of his ebullient personality, and both insist that the level of his musicianship during this period was far higher than his detractors are willing to concede. Now comes Riccardi, a younger student of Armstrong’s career, to make the case once more:

“In many ways, these were the most important years of Armstrong’s life. With a bruised lip and an almost inhuman, punishing schedule, Armstrong worked harder than ever before to attain new heights of popularity, staying relevant and in demand at an age when most performers start to fade. With each passing year, the popularity of jazz in America diminished while, simultaneously, the popularity of Louis Armstrong around the world only grew. Because many jazz critics can’t embrace popular acts — and because ‘new’ is so often equated with ‘better’ — a lot of Armstrong’s most lasting works of those years were repudiated.”

The “new” that supposedly was “better” included bebop and the other forms of “modern” jazz that subsequently evolved from it. The decade and a half after World War II was a pivotal moment in jazz history. On the one hand, almost all the great founders of jazz and swing were very much alive and performing — Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday et al. — while on the other hand, the next generation was aggressively asserting itself: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker (until his death in 1955), Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis et al. To all intents and purposes the big-band era was dead, and with it jazz’s standing as a genuinely popular musical form. The younger generation was less interested in pleasing audiences than in pleasing itself, and its hostility toward its more outgoing elders was palpable.

Many older musicians felt this antagonism, but none more persistently or strongly than Armstrong. Not only did he clown unashamedly in the course of his act — and having seen that act many times during these years, I can testify that he was often flat-out hilarious — but there was a widespread feeling among African Americans, especially among musicians, that at times he descended into offensive black stereotypes. Because of this, and because by the 1950s his audiences were predominantly white, he was regarded in some quarters as “good ol’ Uncle Tom Satchmo, the smiling, grinning Negro.” Never mind that he repeatedly refuted this both in words (most famously, his attack on President Eisenhower during the Little Rock school crisis of 1957 as “two-faced” and having “no guts”) and in deeds (his refusal to perform in his beloved hometown of New Orleans until it would receive him “without racial distinction”). The calumny had remarkable staying power, and he never fully got out from under it.

Part of the problem was that Armstrong’s sense of humor was so irrepressible that it colored almost everything he said and did. Once in the late 1960s while he was performing at Basin Street East in Manhattan, the great pianist Erroll Garner greeted him with, “Hey, Pops, how’s everything?” to which Armstrong replied without missing a beat, “White folks still in the lead.” Though Armstrong could indeed be serious, and when alone could slip into reflective moods that struck some who glimpsed them as almost mournful, in his heart he really did believe that, well, it’s a wonderful world. Joe Muranyi, who played clarinet with his All-Stars in the late 1960s, told Riccardi:

“He was the greatest star I’ve encountered because he really was a star but he didn’t act like one. He was very real. There wasn’t a phony bone in his body. And he liked people. And he liked poor people. And he liked crippled people and fat ladies. He loved the humanity aspect. And he was just wonderful, I can’t tell you.”

The All-Stars with whom Muranyi played were the last in the line tracing back to the May night in 1947 when Armstrong took the stage at Town Hall with Jack Teagarden on trombone, Bobby Hackett on trumpet, Sid Catlett and George Wettling on drums, Dick Cary on piano and Bobby Haggart on bass. That performance, available on CD as “The Complete Town Hall Concert 1947,” left no doubt that Armstrong hadn’t lost a thing musically since the legendary glory days of his youth, and led to the formation of the first touring All-Stars later that year: Armstrong, Teagarden, Catlett, Cary along with Barney Bigard on clarinet, Arvell Shaw on bass and Velma Middleton on vocals. In November this group went to Boston for a concert that has been preserved for the ages on “Satchmo at Symphony Hall,” one of the absolutely indispensable jazz recordings.

The original All-Stars didn’t stay together long. The greatest loss was Teagarden, who stayed on until 1951, leaving a disconsolate Armstrong to complain: “What really bothers me, Pops, is losing Jack. That Teagarden, man, he’s like my brother.” Riccardi stoutly defends the later All-Stars — he says “their golden era” began in late 1951 — and indeed during the last two decades of its existence the group made at least one classic recording, “Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy,” and two smash-hit singles: “Mack the Knife” and “Hello, Dolly.” (The ubiquitous “What a Wonderful World” was recorded with a studio orchestra and choir.) To my taste, though, Armstrong’s postwar years reached their musical apogee with those first All-Stars.

During those years Armstrong was on the road all the time, doing one-night stands across the country and around the world. Toward the end, his health suffered, and he had to pull back, though he hated to do so. His need to entertain was as powerful as his need to make music, and it kept him going past the point of exhaustion. It is amazing, all things considered, that he lived as long as he did, dying four weeks before his 70th birthday.

Riccardi writes about Armstrong with self-evident and infectious love. “What a Wonderful World” could have profited from some judicious pruning — fewer accounts of recording sessions and road itineraries — but it is written in a generous spirit and indeed enhances our understanding of just how good Armstrong really was in the postwar years.

WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD

The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years

By Ricky Riccardi

Pantheon. 369 pp. $28.95

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