Thoughts on Louis Armstrong and A Few Words about Miles Davis

Louis Armstrong (August 4, 1901 – July 6, 1971)

The great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) is the subject of a one-man play now touring, Satchmo at the Waldorf, starring John Douglas Thompson.

The play contains three distinct roles, and Thompson by turn inhabits each of them: Louis Armstrong himself of course; Miles Davis, a younger rival who is outspoken about civil rights and thinks Armstrong is a sell-out; and Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s agent/manager. Glaser, though performed by Thompson without transformative make-up, is a white Jew and a stereotypical cigar-chomping show-biz fixer.

If I were to ask you (as a member of the general music-loving public that visits JustSheetMusic) what songs in particular you associate with Louis Armstrong, odds are very good you would mention one of three: Mack the Knife (1956 – Armstrong’s version preceded Bobby Darin’s by three years); Hello, Dolly (1964), and What a Wonderful World (1968).

I’d like to say a word about each of them. The one that gets the most discussion in the play (written by Terry Teachout, who is also the author of a biography of Armstrong) is Hello, Dolly.

Hello, Dolly

The set-up of the Teachout play, by the way, is quite simple. Satchmo has just performed at the Waldorf as the curtain opens, and he is walking backstage into his dressing room when we first see him. It is the spring of 1971, near the end of his life, and he chats with us as if the audience is a privileged visitor into that dressing room, telling us the story of his life, from New Orleans street urchin into the world of the mobbed up clubs of 1930s Chicago, and in time to the level of fame that gets a man a prominent role in a movie starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau.

Along the way, “Louis” and “Joe” alternate in telling us the story of how Hello, Dolly was cut as a single, how it surprised everybody involved by topping the charts (knocking the Beatles briefly out of the number #1 spot in the heyday of Beatlemania), and how Armstrong’s club-gig audiences started demanding the song before he and his band had even bothered rehearsing it.

The fictitious Louis on stage tells us that he doesn’t think much of the song. The tune (I paraphrase here) just circles around to no effect and the lyrics are nothing special. But he was an entertainer, and he gave his audience what they craved.

The author of that tune and those lyrics was Jerry Herman, who won a Tony Award for his work on this show.


Mack the Knife

Here is a clip of Louie playing and singing “Mack the Knife” in Stuttgart, Germany in 1959.

This song has a fascinating history. You likely have heard Bobby Darin’s version. Also, perhaps, Frank Sinatra’s and Ella Fitzgerald’s. Each brought something distinctive to it. Consider Ella, from Stockholm in 1963. Note that at one point she is doing an impression of Satchmo, around 2:33 into this clip.

The song’s composer was Kurt Weill (1900 – 1950), who was working with Bertolt Brecht. You can find it in German here.

In its first context, in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, Mack the Knife (or, in German, Die Moritat von Mackie Messer) was a bit of socialist propaganda. Brecht and Weill believed that the men who create and run banks are greater criminals and more subtle murderers than is a man who robs from one.

The song, as it has been taken over by the long line of English-language interpreters, seems to have been leached of such sociological significance, and to have become a paradoxically joyous invocation of a serial killer, not unlike the television show Dexter. I doubt that anyone, listening to the Armstrong version, has ever thereby felt stirred to participate in a revolution.

What a Wonderful World

It would truly be wonderful if we could listen to this without let or hindrance. Unfortunately, I’m finding it more difficult to find such videos than I used to because there seems to be a copyright crackdown underway. Still, I’ll continue to do what I can. And, as of the posting of this entry, that last link works.

The song “What a Wonderful World” was co-written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. According to some accounts, the recording session for this song was interrupted by a shouting match. Larry Newton, representing the label, ABC Records, had been under the impression the song would be an upbeat number akin to Hello, Dolly. He was furious when he discovered the tune was, rather, a slowly paced ballad, and he hated it so much he had to be physically ejected from the studio before work could proceed.

Not the first time that labor has had to overcome the objections of a representative of capital to make both of them some money.

Here are some thoughts on the song, from Just a Song, a very worthwhile blog.

As Roy notes there, the original recording didn’t sell well, because ABC did little to promote it. But Louis persisted in playing the song every time he had a chance, inclusive of television appearances, and when it was re-released three years later, it was a hit.

Nowadays, it is more than a hit. It is a standard.

Armstrong was renowned throughout his career for three gifts: his infectious smile, his distinctive voice, and his way with a trumpet. Another trumpet player, Krin Gabbard, has written about the history of that instrument. Gabbard writes, “[We] cannot imagine jazz without the trumpet, just as we cannot imagine modern America without jazz.” Nor can Gabbard conceive of either of those without Satchmo.

A Few Words About Miles

Miles Davis

I suspect many contemporary jazz aficionados would have as difficult as time imagining their beloved genre without the influence of the late Miles Davis, the fellow who serves as a foil, as Armstrong’s younger and angry rival, in Teachout’s play.

Davis died at the age of 65, in 1991, in Santa Monica, California. An admiring obituary by Jon Pareles, mentioned that Davis “never settled into one style; every few years he created a new lineup and format for his groups.”

Yet that protean quality was a contributor to the range of his influence. Pereles also says that each of Davis’ successive styles (cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, jazz-rock etc.) brought denunciations, yet almost every one of them “has set off repercussions throughout modern jazz.” You can read more to your heart’s content here.

Or you can just listen to Davis, doing “Summertime”

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