Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1923-1934
Sep 23, 1995
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN 1923-1934, Louis Armstrong (Columbia, 4CDs)
If you want to know what this prehistoric package is doing in a ‘rock’ column, you can trace the direct line from Louis Armstrong to any of today’s rock groups via Louis Jordan, who idolised and recorded with him, and was in turn idolised by Chuck Berry, who inspired the Beatles and Stones, who inspired everybody else.
But, really, no excuses are needed. Louis Armstrong effectively cleared the path for all the Western music that followed him, including anything ever reviewed in this column. As the first African-American superstar, he symbolised a new age in which American music – in particular that stemming from blacks – would rival, and then supersede, the dominance of European classical traditions.
What’s more, he still sounds great today. What was the quality that made Armstrong’s music so enduring? Critic Gary Giddins called it “a spirituality that shivered the nervous system and focused the mind in a manner reminiscent of Bach”.
Both as a singer and cornet/trumpet player, Armstrong remains probably the most ebullient performer ever captured on disc. These recordings – heard now at the end of the century they helped shape – still explode from the speakers with energy, warmth and wit.
These four dazzling discs are merely an introduction, and sample only the first 11 years of a recording career that lasted more than four decades. But, even in this short period – still an age away from signature pop hits such as ‘Mack The Knife’, ‘Hello Dolly’ and ‘What A Wonderful World’ – Armstrong produced a lifetime’s worth of listening. Because his talents and vision were so expansive, there’s something here for every kind of music fan. Want proof?
For the jazz fan: Naturally, it all starts here. His virtuosity and imagination showed the exciting and infinite possibilities of improvised soloing. This opened the way for other great improvisers such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
For the blues fan: Armstrong was, among other things, a great blues singer (hear ‘Texas Moaner Blues’), but also worked with more traditional blues musicians. Listen to guitarist Lonnie Johnson (a crucial influence on both Robert Johnson and T-Bone Walker) play the proto-lead break on ‘Hotter Than That’, classic blues mama Bessie Smith sweetly wail her ‘Sobbin’ Hearted Blues’, or obscure Mississippi-style vocalist Nolan Welsh declare ‘The Bridewell Blues’.
For the world music fan: It is clear that Armstrong saw no musical boundaries, loved diverse musical situations and could make good music with good musicians anywhere. Later this would mean team-ups with Hawaiian (Check out the recordings by Louis Armstrong and the Polynesians!), Cuban, African and English players. Here, it means the first inter-racial jazz recordings, with trombonists Jack Teagarden and Tommy Dorsey.
For the fan of hot dance beats: They may not have the slam and punch of punk or funk, but the two-beat rhythms of the various Armstrong bands have more spring than a Citroen, and Zutty Singleton’s drum breakers are a sampler’s goldmine yet to be discovered.
For the country fan: One of the more surprising items here is ‘Blue Yodel #9’, a 1930 recording by Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman, accompanied by Louis and his pianist wife Lil Hardin. For years, country fans did not know who the guest soloist was, while jazz fans were unlikely even to have heard the recording.
The Broadway/Hollywood musical fan: Standards such as ‘Stardust’, ‘On The Sunny Side Of the Street’ and ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ are among the finest songs to emerge from the show tradition, and you won’t find better versions than these.
The lo-fi fan: Some of these tracks were made before electrical recording.
The hi-fi fan: The remastering is amazing.
The protest fan: ‘(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?’
The pop fan: Michael Jackson can call himself king of anything he pleases, but popular music has never produced another figure who conveyed universal feelings of love, loss and laughter with as much passion, humour, inventiveness or generosity of spirit as Louis Armstrong.