This American jazz icon is always in style
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.
"My sense is that people mostly want the new stuff, and aren't as interested in going back and exploring the roots of the music," says Jackson. Still, he adds, Armstrong has always been a consistent seller for the label, and the box set sold admirably when it was released in 1994.
In any case, Armstrong's new currency is less about moving units than about attracting new recognition as a jazz originator. Time magazine recently included Armstrong in its "Time 100" list of the century's most influential artists and entertainers, and Wynton Marsalis' school of "new traditionalist" jazz musicians often pays him homage.
It's hard to know where to start in rediscovering Louis Armstrong, whose vast recorded legacy has been packaged and repackaged over the years. But young swingers are onto something with their love of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens: These groups, springing out of the New Orleans "hot jazz" movement, were the alternative bands of their day, breaking rules and tearing up dance floors with hellzapoppin' fervor.
Columbia's three volumes covering the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are vital documents of this culturally explosive era. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man draws on a slightly broader period, sampling from Armstrong's early days with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band right up to the dawn of swing in the mid-'30s.
From that point on, Armstrong's approach gravitated toward larger bands and more vocal numbers, and for decades he played the part of America's arts ambassador with roly-poly gusto. His singing style was as influential as his playing, and his gregarious manner endeared him to millions. Some powerful recordings from this period include the rollicking Rhythm Saved the World (Decca Jazz), which finds him tearing up in New York City and breathing new life into pop songs; The Great Chicago Concert, from 1956 (Columbia Legacy); and Armstrong/Ellington: Together for the First Time (Mobile Fidelity), in which the two geniuses meet and make sparks in 1961.
Armstrong's reinvention as a vocalist and big-band leader was so complete that by the '60s it often overshadowed his earlier work. People saw the smiling showman and sometimes forgot that he'd blown the lid off jazz earlier in the century. As Laurence Bergreen documents in his recent biography, Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life (Broadway, 1997), Armstrong not only shaped the formation of jazz and pop music, pioneered scat singing, and hit high trumpet notes that could travel straight down your spine, he was also a giddy, reckless jokester with a steady stream of wives and girlfriends, an unquenchable appetite for "gage" (marijuana), and numerous run-ins with gangsters, con men, and prostitutes. Strip away the tuxedo—which Armstrong often did, wearing only his underwear backstage—and he was still as bawdy as the wide-open New Orleans that was his hometown.
"If it hadn't been for jazz," Armstrong once said, "there wouldn't be no rock 'n' roll." In this case, a man famous for hyperbole was probably right: Hot jazz and swing set in motion an attitude—aliveness, passion, abandon—that continues to rock our world. The neo-swing movement may fade, as all fads do, but Armstrong will endure, the grinning spirit of an American musical giant who'd rather play than sleep.