Louis Armstrong died of a heart attack in 1971. I’m not being tongue in cheek at all when I say that he totally deserved to have an airport named after him. He should be on money. I’d much rather spend traffic time on The Louis Armstrong Highway than The Ronald Reagan.
Armstrong is an important figure in the history of jazz music in particular, but also in the history of music as a whole. He’s certainly important to me. He was somewhere around seventy when he died—a good run—but I can’t help but wish sometime that he was still alive to make music. What would his voice sound like these days? My friend Ryan used to say that Tom Waits was Louis Armstrong’s evil vocal twin. Would Armstrong’s voice be anywhere near as decimated if he had lived to be one hundred years old? I wonder what kind of music he’d be making if he were around today. Some new recordings from Satchmo would surely be a nice treat from time to time. I’ve heard everything that’s already available, time and again. It’s still good, but I’m a patriotic American, so I always want more.
What would the king of the Zulus be playing today if he were still in business? Hopefully not modern R&B, which is way too produced for my taste. Hopefully he’d steer clear of the hip hop beats and duets with Norah Jones. Dippermouth has to be dirty, he’s got to be real. I would hope his new songs would be true to form, traditional affairs.
I first became a serious fan of Louis Armstrong when my grandfather made a cassette copy of his ‘What A Wonderful World’ CD for me. I already knew the title song, because they played it every year at the Dayton Airshow while the Blue Angels would fly, and my parents took us regularly. I was eleven years old when I climbed up on the top bunk of the bunk bed I shared with my little brother, and popped my grandfather’s tape into a little battery powered cassette player. ‘What A Wonderful World’ is an awesome song, but that whole album is killer. The song ‘Hellzapoppin’’ really got me--especially as I moved into my teens—with its Dionysian defiance:
“Raise your glass...the party will be riotous
What a gas...the cops will never quiet us
There's no stoppin'...hellzapoppin'...hellzapoppin'
We'll be hellzapoppin' till the night is through”
Yeah! Total punk rock, but with more humor and less affectation. 'Hellzapoppin' is a great song, but so is ‘Cabaret’, ‘The Home Fire’, and ‘I Guess I’ll Get The Papers And Go Home’. ‘Hello Brother’ has become something of an anthem for me as a family man:
“A man wants to work...for his pay
A man wants a place...in the sun
A man wants a gal proud to say
That shell become his lovin’ wife
He wants a chance to give his kids a better life
Well hello ah.... hello brother”
What working man can’t feel that? And don’t take my word for it: You don’t get the whole vibe until you’ve heard Louis sing it.
‘What A Wonderful World’ led me to Armstrong’s earlier works with The Hot Fives and Sevens, and other early works, where he got his reputation as a radical trumpet player. He was so aggressive in his playing that he permanently deformed his upper lip, so much so that he was forced to change his playing style later in life (focusing more on vocals), because his embouchure caused him so much discomfort. Sometimes his lip would fill up with pus, and he would pop it (to the disgust of those around) with a pen knife. Speaking of which, no one has been able to touch Armstrong's rendition of 'Mack The Knife'.
I’ve always admired this aspect of Louis Armstrong. He loved his art so much that he let it permanently transform him physically. Just as it should be: Carpenters have rough hands, mechanics have dirty nails, historians have bad eyes. Our passions should ravage us. The world should be able to tell a true craftsman by admiring their deformity.
Louis Armstrong opened the door to jazz for me. Mr. Morgan, my sixth grade music teacher, pushed me along further with a video of a Harry Connick, Jr. concert that he brought in to our class one Friday when (I guess) he didn’t feel like teaching us a new song. Then came the Jazz rich films of Woody Allen, which I explored with my friend Ryan. Jazz got into me. Thanks, Louis! Somebody said jazz is an acquired taste that needs to be eased into, like lobster. Well, I like lobster too. I’m not sure how I eased into the shellfish, but Louis Armstrong helped me ease into jazz.
In Michel Houllebecq’s ‘H.P. Lovecraft: Against The World, Against Life’, he says about both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft that:
“To understand what’s at issue, one must appreciate the strength of that sense of frustration that overran England at the death of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle had no choice: he was forced to revive his hero. When, defeated himself by death, the author in turn laid down his arms, a feeling of resigned sadness passed over the world. They would have to be satisfied with the fifty or so existing Sherlock Holmes stories, reading and rereading them all tirelessly. Receiving with a resigned smile the inevitable (and rarely amusing) parodies, keeping in their heart the dream of an impossible prolongation of the central core, of the real heart of the myth. An old Indian army packing-case, where, magically, are discovered some unknown Sherlock Holmes stories…”
And that’s how I feel about Louis Armstrong. He contributed heavily to the mythical structure of my life, and it would be great to hear some newly discovered lost recording. But it’s not to be. There’s not going to be a second act for Louis, just as there’s not going to be one for Doyle or Lovecraft; Apparently, God is as indifferent to jazz as he is to good pulp. Or maybe he’s hording it all for himself.
Either way, we’ll have to survive with what fragments we have of the legends in our lives. We’ll have to patiently wait for that ultimate horn blast that will knock us on our collective asses for good, inevitably with the opening strains of ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’…