"I wasn't a lover of Carnatic music to start with. Till I was nearly 30 I was only fond of Western music. I loved Beethoven and Brahms, Chopin and Tchaikovsky. I loved New Orleans jazz, and I admired Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. I was thrilled by the powerful voices of Mario Lanza, Benjamino Gigli and Paul Robson. . . " -- So I had written in an article in the Evening News in New Delhi in 1975, which I recalled in my blog How The Maestro Gave Me A Glimpse Of God And Converted Me To Carnatic Music!
For half a century my fascination for Louis Armstrong had been based on my impressions gained mainly from a few long-playing records and marginally from radio broadcasts. It's only in the Internet era that I've been able to hear his music extensively, thanks to YouTube. And in 2008 I happened to read some books on his life and music, from which I was tempted to quote some significant thoughts in the following article:-
November 28, 2008
The magic of Satchmo
Two weeks ago in this column (November 14), I had used a rather unusual but significant expression ‘classical jazz’, referring to the early styles of jazz which had evolved in America (mainly in New Orleans, Chicago and New York) in the first half of the 20th Century. These were the trends known as Dixieland Jazz, Swing, and Dixieland Revived. Recently I have been refreshing my impressions of classical jazz with some serious reading and some online listening. And I’ve come across such well-expressed views on Louis Armstrong -- alias Satchmo, the towering black musician who dominated those trends and influenced them forcefully -- that I am tempted to string together a few detailed quotations here.
Growling and glowing
Lawrence Bergreen, a distinguished American journalist and biographer, describes Louis Armstrong’s unique musical skills as follows : “There was, initially, a cornet -- and later a trumpet -- that was more expressive than a mere instrument : sweet, singing, lilting, cajoling, teasing, ebullient. And then there was his . . . unforgettable voice which behaved like a huge instrument : growling, laughing. . . . soothing, fierce.
"The combination of the voice that sounded like an instrument and the instrument that sounded like a voice created the universally recognized persona of Satchmo. He looked and felt like a glowing lump of coal, hot and alive and capable of igniting everything around him. For him, music was a heightened form of existence, and he sang and he played as if it could never be loud enough, or go deep enough, or reach high enough.” (Louis Armstrong : An Extravagant Life, Broadway Books, New York, 1997).
In fact, Armstrong’s rustic and rasping voice often echoed the vigorous and vibrant tone of his horn, infusing very ordinary lyrics with a soulful quality ; sometimes even scat-singing (which meant producing senseless vocal effects such as ‘rip-bip-ee-doo-dee-doot-doo...’) in fascinating ways. And one of his most famous gramophone records (1928) attracts the following rave review from Bergreen :-
“If a single recording could be said to represent the peak of Louis’s art, it would be West End Blues. Like many of his other masterpieces, the tune . . . was unremarkable on its own . . . (But) in Louis’s hands, (it) became a tapestry of pain, joy and transcendence through musical artistry. He starts off with what would become the most famous horn solo in jazz, a nine-measure opening cadenza of dizzying difficulty that for decades aspiring horn-players would struggle to imitate. It is a summons to the soul, dignified and daring.
“Once the horn has gotten the listener’s attention, the song shifts gears, slows down and dawdles along, until Louis begins scat singing in a light, delicate voice, trading phrases with the clarinet, and trolling in the lower registers. Then, without explanation or apology, Louis takes a second solo, holding a note for so long that it pierces through the fabric of the music like a gleaming arrow. With brilliant timing, he finally lets go of it . . . with a shudder of . . . cymbals.”
Hallmark of excellence
Now let us also hear what the authors of two other important books on jazz have to say about this supreme example of technical and artistic excellence. Richard Hadlock, jazz critic and American radio host, says : “West End Blues, perhaps Armstrong’s finest recorded performance of his career. . . has everything : big-toned bravura trumpet-playing ; effective contrast of expressive simplicity and instrumental complexity ; logical development of mood and theme from beginning to end ; a heart-warming, tender scat vocal refrain ; a perfect balance of all historical aspects of the Armstrong musical personality. . . West End Blues is a milestone in the history of jazz". (Jazz Masters of the Twenties, Collier Books, New York, 1974).
Gunther Schuller, horn-player, composer, and president of the New England Conservatory of Music, Boston, says: “When on June 28, 1928, Louis Armstrong unleashed the spectacular cascading phrases of the introduction to West End Blues, he established the general stylistic direction of jazz for several decades to come . . . The clarion call of West End Blues served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression". (Early Jazz -- Its Roots and Musical Development, Oxford University Press, New York, 1968).
If you wish to understand the true significance of those glowing words of adoration and critical acclaim, all you have to do is to look online for West End Blues (easily accessible on YouTube) and play the three-minute 78-rpm gramophone plate of OKeh Records made 80 years ago, which, according to the overall assessments by eminent and sensitive observers in America, features the finest sample of Louis Armstrong’s music. And if you do take the trouble of getting that far, surely you will not be able to resist hearing many other recordings of the maestro, all of which invariably contain the very essence of what I call classical jazz!