Louis Armstrong Comes Marching Back In

This American jazz icon is always in style


| January-February 1999


Satchmo must still be laughing.

In 1964, the 63-year-old music innovator was considered past his prime, pushed aside in jazz circles by beboppers and in the pop world by rock 'n' roll. But "Pops" wouldn't go down easy. "Hello Dolly,” a single he tossed off to promote a new Broadway show, shot to number one, displacing the Beatles and reviving his flagging career.

Louis Armstrong died in 1971, but that didn't stop him from staging another comeback in 1987. The movie Good Morning, Vietnam repopularized his wistful version of "What a Wonderful World," a song that has echoed through the public consciousness ever since. Armstrong's profile has recently gotten another boost, this time from neo-swing revivalists. Among today's jivin', jitterbuggin' set, many see Armstrong as a god—not for his immortal vocal hits of the '50s and '60s, but for his blazing innovation as a trumpeter and bandleader in the '20s and '30s.

"Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are the shit," Scotty Morris of the swing band Big Bad Voodoo Daddy recently told an interviewer, referring to Armstrong's early small-group sessions.

Few contemporary swing bands even attempt to tackle the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens tunes, whose skittering rhythms and dazzling polyphony are hard to duplicate. Any band that can do this music justice has truly earned its zoot suits.

So far, the rekindled interest in Armstrong hasn't translated into big sales, says John Jackson of Columbia Legacy. The recording label owns a good chunk of the Armstrong catalog and a few years ago released the landmark box set Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a sampler of Armstrong's fiery formative years.