Sunday, April 20, 2014

The "Return" of Pianist Jessica Williams

N.B.: Following a two-year convalescence from back surgery, pianist Jessica Williams has announced on her website that she will be performing on May 17, 2014 at a house concert in Seattle, Washington.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would celebrate this forthcoming occasion by re-posting this piece that appear shortly before Jessica underwent her procedure and entered into the long period of recovery from its effects.

Welcome back, Jessica!

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


The editorial staff at JazzProfiles was prompted to put this piece together by the arrival of the correspondence that closes it.

I first “met” Jessica around 1980. This was back in the days when one could kill a few minutes waiting for a business appointment or a luncheon while perusing the local record store.

Usually privately-owned and operated, every community in southern California seem to have one and some of these Mom-and-Pop stores even had a Jazz section.

It was during one such diversions that I noticed an LP in the cut-out bin by Jessica Jennifer Williams entitled Orgonomic Music [Clean Cuts CC703]. On the back of the album sleeve was the following quotation by Wilhelm Reich:

"Love, work and knowledge are the well-springs of our life. They should also govern it.”

I didn’t know who Reich was, nor did I know anything about “Jessica Jennifer Williams” and the only musician in the sextet featured on the album that I was [barely] familiar with was trumpet player Eddie Henderson.

But what the heck, Philip Elwood of The San Francisco Examiner said of Jessica that she was a devotee of Reich’s whose sentiments I agreed with, the LP was only a buck, so I gave it a shot.

Boy, am I glad I did. I’ve been listening to everything I can get my hands on by Jessica ever since.

However, it wasn’t until 1992, thanks to a fortuitous business trip to San Francisco, that I had the opportunity to hear Jessica in person as a part of pianist Dick Whittington’s on-going Maybeck Recital Hall series.

I “stayed close” to Jessica’s music in the 1990’s thanks to my association with Philip Barker, the owner of Jazz Focus Records for whom Jessica made a number of recordings including her Arrival CD which has the distinction of being the very first disc issued by Philip’s label [JFCD001].


Thanks to a tip from Gene Lees in one of his JazzLetters, I was also able to score one of the limited edition [1,000] Joyful Sorrow compact discs that Blackhawk Records issued as her solo piano tribute to the late, Bill Evans.

It was recorded at The Jazz Station, CarmelCA on September 15, 1996 on the 16th anniversary of Bill’s death.

Sadly, too, The Jazz Station in Carmel is no more, but Joyful Sorrow endures as just about my all-time favorite Jessica recording.


Thankfully, Jessica has subsequently released quite a number of solo piano and trio Jazz recordings, many of which are available as audio CD’s and Mp3 downloads.

Jessica is a powerful and pulsating pianist.  He music literally “pops” out at the listener it’s so full of energy and enthusiasm.

She records many solo piano albums, a format which can sometimes be a recipe for self-indulgence and excessive displays of technique.  But Jessica’s music is always tasteful and informed. You can hear the influences from the Jazz tradition in her playing, but you also hear innovative probing and forays into her unique conception of what she is trying to say about herself and how she hears the music.

Her touch on the instrument is such that she makes the piano SOUND! It rings clear and resonates as it only can in the hands of a masterful pianist.

As Grover Sales, the distinguish author and lecturer on Jazz has commented:

“Jessica Williams belongs to that exclusive group Count Basie dubbed "the poets of the piano" that includes Roger Kellaway, Sir Roland Hanna, Ellis Larkins, Jaki Byard, Bill Mays, Alan Broadbent, Cedar Walton, the late Jimmy Rowles and of course, Bill Evans. All share in common a thorough working knowledge of classic piano literature from pre-Bach to contemporary avant garde as well as the classic jazz tradition from Scott Joplin to the present.

All developed an astonishing and seemingly effortless technique that enabled them to venture anywhere their fertile imaginations wished to take them. All take to heart the dictum of Jelly Roll Morton in his epic 1938 interview for the Library of Congress: ‘No pianist can play jazz unless they try to give the imitation of a band.’

 And for all of their varied influences from Earl Hines to Bill Evans and beyond, all are instantly identifiable—unique in the literal sense of this often misused word.”


Writing in the insert booklet to Jessica’s Maybeck Hall CD [Concord CCD-4525], Jeff Kaliss notes:

“It's all there in the first track. Within a few choruses, Jessica Williams shows her hand, or hands: the harmonies in seconds (hit way off to the side of the piano), the punchy attack, the dust-devils in the upper octaves, the nutty quotes. It's familiar Jessica, but she's got plenty up her sleeve for the rest of this remarkable entry in the Maybeck menagerie. …

She came to my awareness as a word-of-mouth legend, a Baltimore-bred genius whose history and personality were said to be as mysterious and unpredictable as her keyboard inventions. As soon as I got to hear her, I was into the reality of her spontaneous magic and not much concerned with the legend. …

[She] has remained a best-kept secret … commanding awe and quiet in the clubs she visited … [her playing] filled with energy and imagination.”

One gets more about her sense of “energy and imagination” when one reads the following notes that Jessica wrote about herself and her music for her Intuition CD [Jazz Focus JFCD 010]:

“I'm occasionally asked where I studied to learn to do what I do; who taught me, what "tricks" are involved, what secrets enable me, how does the process occur... how does one "distill magic out of the air?" The truth is that there are no practice techniques, no miracle drugs, no mantras, no short-cuts to creativity. I tell them that I've played piano since I was four, that I've played jazz since I was twelve, that I've never taken another job doing anything except what I've always known I should be doing in this life: playing music. And maybe that's a part of the answer, if indeed there is one. It's about Castenada's PATHCampbell's BLISS; you follow it no matter where it leads, and over many years you learn to control it, channel it, allow it to happen.

You become the bow; the arrow is the gift. You never fully own it, just as you can never explore all of its depths, because it springs from the infinite possibilities within you. In this realm, your only ally, your only guide, is intuition. It is seeing instead of looking, knowing instead of believing, being instead of doing. It is Coltrane on the saxophone, Magic Johnson on the court, Alice Walker on the printed page; it is the primary intuition of "right-brained" activity, the birthing of idea into existence.

Perhaps it cannot be taught, but it certainly can be shared...and it is in the sharing that we all experience the best parts of ourselves. We instinctively intuit our organic truth; when we learn to live it, our planet could be paradise.

Your dreams are your sacred truth. …”

You can listen to Jessica’s quite stunning pianism on the audio track of the following video tribute to her on which she performs Alone Together from the Joyful Sorrow Bill Evans tribute CD.



Saturday, April 19, 2014

Gil Evans, Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and "The St. Louis Blues"

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.



“Cannonball runs away with the album [New Bottle, Old Wine: The Great Jazz Composers Interpreted by Gil Evans ]; his voice predominates. The scores sound like what Gil might have written for Charlie Parker if he had been unencumbered by the mishaps that occurred in his work with Parker in 1953. Gil tailored the arrangements to Cannonball's strengths — his warm sound, his bop-oriented cascading improvisations, and his unflagging energy.”
- Stephanie Stein Crease, Gil Evans Out of the Cool His Life and Music

Most Jazz fans are aware of the significant role that arranger-composer Gil Evans played in the seminal 1949 Birth of the Cool Recordings under Miles Davis’ nominal leadership and the larger, orchestral recordings that he made with Miles beginning with the 1959 Columbia release of Miles Ahead which was quickly followed by their collaboration on Columbia’s Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain.

But shortly before Gil began applying his “... imaginative and often startlingly daring orchestral concepts” in these larger projects with Miles, Gil weaved his magic with alto saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley for a Pacific Jazz recording entitled New Bottle, Old Wine: The Great Jazz Composers Interpreted by Gil Evans [CDP 7 46855 2].

As explained in the liner notes to the recording:

“As with the now classic Miles Davis collaborations this album is a joint effort between two giants of this music. Gil Evans and Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley. Gil has been since his early work with the Claude Thornhill band and the Miles Davis Nonet, a trailblazer and pacesetter with this imaginative and often startlingly daring orchestral concepts. Cannonball has, since his arrival in New York in the mid-1950's, established himself as one of the important musicians of our era irrespective of genre.

This album consists of compositions written by and/or associated with major figures in this music including Louis, Lester, Bird and Dizzy, all of whom transformed the aesthetic vis-a-vis the improvisor. The rest, W. C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk are all important composers.”

The eight tunes on New Bottle, Old Wine are St. Louis Blues, King Porter Stomp, Willow Tree, Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, Lester Leaps in, ‘Round Midnight, Manteca and Bird Feathers.

And while all of them are magnificently arranged by Gil and memorably performed by Cannonball, St. Louis Blues has always remained my favorite largely for the reasons described in this excerpt from the liner notes:

“Cannonball with his ultra personal and warmly beautiful sound opens THE ST. LOUIS BLUES with an excellent paraphrase of the melody. The second chorus spotlights a background of trilling guitar and sustained chords vaguely reminiscent of Armstrong's "West End Blues'.'The next section, in minor, with muted brass and using substitute chords is especially beautiful and evolves into a Cannonball double time. Punching antiphonal brass undergird Cannonball s theme restatement and lead back to the original swing tempo. Check out Harvey Phillip's tuba on the restatement.”



Here’s more information about the evolution of this recording from Stephanie Stein Crease’s Gil Evans Out of the Cool His Life and Music which, incidentally, was the winner of the 2002 Deems Taylor Award for excellence on the subject of music [paragraphing modified]:

“...  George Avakian again became a key figure [for Gil's next recording project under his own leadership]. Avakian left Columbia in early 1958, warned by his doctor to slow down. His eight-year tenure as A&R director for jazz and international pop albums at Columbia Records had been literally gold-plated, and he left the label with a star-studded jazz roster. But Avakian seemed unable to stay out of the recording business. He was invited to form a partnership with West Coast producer Dick Bock, owner of the World Pacific label, with tempting conditions: fewer recordings, less bureaucracy, and the freedom to make quick decisions. Avakian accepted. World Pacific (Pacific Jazz), flourishing from the success of its recordings by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker, now had an active on-the-scene jazz producer on both coasts.

Shortly thereafter, Avakian ran into Gil, who said that he had some ideas for an album along the lines of Miles Ahead. Gil wanted to feature Cannonball Adderley, an alto saxophonist with a joyous sound a la Charlie Parker, who had been getting a lot of attention as a sideman with Miles Davis; Cannonball was also between labels. Avakian suggested they could do something for World Pacific. The result was New Bottle, Old Wine, which was recorded in New York in four sessions in April and May 1958.

The album, subtitled "The Great Jazz Composers Interpreted by Gil Evans and His Orchestra," romps through jazz compositions by some of Gil's favorite composers and performers. It moves chronologically through pieces by W. C. Handy, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie, and ends with Charlie Parker's rousing "Bird Feathers." Its buoyant mood contrasts starkly with the brooding beauty of Miles Ahead. The rhythm section—bassist Paul Chambers with Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones on drums—delivers a powerful swing to the mid- and up-tempo numbers.

Cannonball runs away with the album; his voice predominates. The scores sound like what Gil might have written for Charlie Parker if he had been unencumbered by the mishaps that occurred in his work with Parker in 1953. Gil tailored the arrangements to Cannonball's strengths — his warm sound, his bop-oriented cascading improvisations, and his unflagging energy.

The arrangements were written for three trumpets, three trombones, French horn, and tuba; Cannonball, two other woodwind players, guitar, bass, and drums completed the fourteen-piece ensemble. Gil plays piano on Waller's "Willow Tree" and Monk's "'Round Midnight." The transition from " 'Round Midnight" to "Manteca" renders the two pieces a suite, the latter performed with a relentless drive reminiscent of Gillespie's own late 1940s big band. Gil's arrangement of "Bird Feathers" by Charlie Parker opens with a unison-with-a-twist—flute, muted trumpet, and brushes, in this case—which brings out new facets of the composition.

In 1959 Evans recorded a sequel for World Pacific, Great Jazz Standards, produced by Dick Bock. (Avakian had moved on to start a pop division at Warner Brothers Records.) This album included some musicians new to Gil's work on record, notably drummer Elvin Jones and veteran tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson, who, along with most of the other musicians — Steve Lacy, Johnny Coles, Bill Barber, Jimmy Cleveland, Louis Mucci, and Al Block - would play and/or record with Evans frequently over the next few years. As a group they added as much substantive personality to Gil's music as did long-term members of Ellington's band. Gil, like Ellington, wrote expressly for his players, targeting them for certain pitches and effects, certain nuances. Their unique voices were inseparable from the character of the composite sound Gil was after.

Great Jazz Standards was recorded in February 1959, shortly after Gil played at Birdland for two weeks with approximately the same personnel. Gil again used "great jazz composers" to tie the album together and wrote arrangements for compositions by Bix Beiderbecke, Thelonious Monk, Don Redman, John Lewis, and Clifford Brown; the album includes one Evans original, "La Nevada" (Theme). This album, like New Bottle, Old Wine, was marked by a strong rhythmic drive not often associated with Evans's work, delivered on most selections by Elvin Jones's drums.”

You can sample the music from New Bottle, Old Wine: The Great Jazz Composers Interpreted by Gil Evans [CDP 7 46855 2]on the following video montage of images of old St. Louis which uses Cannonball and Gil’s expressive performance of St. Louis Blues as its soundtrack.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Revisiting Ted Gioia's The Birth [and Death] of the Cool

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it might be fun to repost this feature so as to have more of Ted Gioia's wonderful writing on these pages and in order to add the video tribute to Bix which you will find at the conclusion of this piece.


Regular readers of the blog may recall that the JazzProfiles editorial staff has a particular fondness and high regard for the writing and the writings of Ted Gioia.

In its estimation, Ted is right up there with Gene Lees, Doug Ramsey, Nat Hentoff and a host of others who have taught us so much about Jazz over the years and enriched our listening experience with their unique insights and knowledge about the music and its makers.

You can imagine our pleasure, then, when we received copyright permission from Ted and his publisher to feature on the site the following chapter from his latest book - THE BIRTH {And Death} OF THE COOL.

Although a portion of the title of Ted’s book refers to one of the most famous records in the history of Jazz – The Birth of the Cool - the work is not about the music of Jazz, per se.  Rather, both figuratively and literally, it is about an attitude or way of being that “Cool” came to signify in American culture and its subsequent demise.

As explained in the publisher’s leaflet:

“It’s hard to imagine that ‘the cool’ could ever go out of style. After all, cool is style. Isn’t it? And it may be harder to imagine a world where people no longer aspire to coolness. In this intriguing cultural history, nationally acclaimed author Ted Gioia shows why cool is not a timeless concept and how it has begun to lose its meaning and fade into history.

Gioia deftly argues that what began in the Jazz Age [Bix Beiderbecke] and became iconic in the 1950s with Miles Davis, James Dean, and others has been manipulated and stretched, and pushed to the breaking point – not just in our media, entertainment and fashion industries, but also by corporations, political leaders, and special institutions.

Tolling the death knell for the cool, this thought-provoking book reveals how and why a new cultural tone is emerging, one marked by sincerity, earnestness, and a quest for authenticity.”

You can obtain information on ordering directly from Speck Press – Fulcrum Publishing by accessing this link: Speck Press or you can order the book from Amazon.com. 

© -Ted Gioia, reproduced with permission. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.


CHAPTER 4 The Progenitor of Cool: Bix Beiderbecke


“Long before it had a name, a cool attitude thrived in the jazz world. But even here—or especially here—the paradox at the very core of cool made itself felt. When jazz first captivated the American public during the 1920s, the most common adjective used to describe this music was hot. Fans spoke of "hot jazz" or sometimes left out the jazz entirely and just called it "hot music." No matter, everybody knew what they were talking about. Louis Armstrong's most famous recording bands of the era were known as the Hot Five and the Hot Seven. Jelly Roll Morton called his band the Red Hot Peppers. Even overseas, when the first great European jazz band was formed by guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli, the group rose to fame as the Quintette du Hot Club de France.

How could something so hot also be so cool? This music seemed to exist on two levels. There was a surface level, all fire and energy, a sound and fury so direct and unapologetic, so in your face, that all other styles of musical performance of that era seemed restrained by comparison. Yet below this loomed a hidden level, an interior landscape, a reserve behind the hot that imparted an aura of mystery, of cool aloofness to
the whole proceedings. This is signifying at its highest pitch— contrary meanings coexisting in the discourse of African American culture, even when put on the stage as commercial entertainment and polished art. As we shall see, paradox is always at the root of modern cool, and this particular one is the most important of all. It stands out as the alluring contradiction that set everything in motion.

From the start, the white commentators who tried to come to grips with jazz sensed—and were fascinated by—this duality, the cool behind the hot. As early as 1919, when few recordings of African American jazz had been released on the market, Swiss conductor Ernst-Alexandre Ansermet managed to hear London performances by the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, which featured the great New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Bechet. Ansermet was awestruck by what he encountered, and in the article he wrote for La Revue Romande—the first attempt by a serious musical mind to write a real critical appreciation of jazz—he touched on precisely the enigma of this hidden dimension in the music.


This band's music represented, in Ansermet's words, a "mysterious new world," and though the conductor tried to analyze the songs played by the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, he was forced to admit that "it is not the material that makes Negro music, it is the spirit." He reached for a clumsy mixed metaphor combining the cool and the hot in his attempt to explicate meanings only partially glimpsed: "It seems as if a great wind is passing over a forest or as if a door is suddenly opened on a wild orgy." Yet Ansermet did not shy away from grand pronouncements. He proclaimed that Bechet was an "artist of genius," predicted that this music might be "the highway the whole world will swing along tomorrow," and even offered high-flown comparisons to Mozart and Haydn.

Ansermet apparently tried to talk to Bechet to find out more about the hidden sources of this multifaceted music. What did he learn? Bechet was the prototype of what would later be called cool. On the surface, he was genial and conciliatory. He "is very glad one likes what he does," Ansermet explained, and the conductor noted, "What a moving thing it is to meet this very black, fat boy." But when he tried to break through this surface cordiality, Ansermet got nowhere. He writes, in evident despair, that Bechet "can say nothing of his art" except that "he follows his ‘own way."'1

Just as white writers tried to probe the cool underbelly of jazz, white jazz musicians were especially interested in cultivating it. The term cool jazz would not become widely used in the jazz world until the fifties, but when later commentators tried to write its early history, they inevitably traced this music back to the most celebrated white jazz player of the twenties, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke who, more than anyone, deserves the title of founding father of cool jazz. In this fascinating figure from the Jazz Age, we encounter all the inner contradictions of cool personified.

Someday a great psychologist will write a study of the psyche of the white jazz musicians from the early and middle decades of the twentieth century; in many ways they are the forerunners of the personality type that became dominant among the baby boom generation in the late sixties. The white jazz player is the outsider among outsiders, but has voluntarily chosen this double exclusion, even takes satisfaction in its far remove from social norms and expectations. He roots for the underdog and the misunderstood, and he often sees himself in these terms, even if his own background marks him as a child of privilege. He likes the improvisatory aspects of his chosen art form and brings the same celebration of spontaneity to his life, which is often as experimental as his music. At least it is in his eyes— the more straitlaced would simply see his offstage behavior as wasted and debauched. But for the jazz player, the creative ferment on the bandstand inevitably carries over into day-to-day life, and his ways of dealing with circumstances and situations radiate an artistic quality that persists even amidst dissipation and squalor. He flouts the rules, which he sees as applying to others, not him. He values experiences the way a banker hordes capital. Even if he achieves great success— a rarity, but possible in the case of a few white jazz players such as Stan Getz or Chet Baker or Bill Evans—he still feels like an outcast beyond the scope of mainstream society.


Bix Beiderbecke was the first great white jazz player and the most fascinating case study of them all. During his lifetime, the newspapers almost completely ignored his artistry, but after his untimely death, a host of writers were drawn to his tragic tale. Little wonder it served as inspiration for a successful novel, Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker, and later a movie, or that more than a half dozen biographies have been published focused on an artist whose whole recording career spanned a mere six years. He captivates our attention, not just for his artistry, but also because so much in Bix anticipates the future. Too many later jazz players would unconsciously follow the same path, a self-destructive rise and fall, not because they had studied Beiderbecke's life and times—far from it—but seemingly due to some inner momentum of the jazz lifestyle and the ways it intersects with surrounding social norms and institutions.

To those who knew him, Beiderbecke was larger than life. Yet so much of his story, as it is commonly told and mythologized, would have been commonplace in the late sixties. A youngster finds himself at odds with the values of his bourgeois family, his rebellion facilitated by their doting indulgence. He has run-ins with school authorities and sometimes with the law. Parents and grown-ups want him to pursue a stable career, but he prefers to find himself, to follow his own muse. He experiments with illegal substances, which eventually prove more harmful than he realizes. He shocks the older generation with his transgression of community mores. He embraces the most raucous and uninhibited music he can find, not just for how it sounds, but also as a symbol of his way of life. How much things change over a half century! Beiderbecke's friends saw him as one of a kind—Benny Goodman wondered which moon he came from,2 and Jimmy McPartland called him a mystery3—but he would have been a familiar type on a 1960s college campus.


Above all, Beiderbecke anticipated the later rise of the cool in the remarkable malleability of his life. As I suggested above, cool became a dominant social paradigm because it was a game everyone in America could play, at least to some degree. Whether they were rich or poor, black or white, young or old, cool offered a path—or at least a few steps—toward the sublime. Who better to prove this than Bix Beiderbecke? He was Everyman, but with a horn in hand.

Born in DavenportIowa—the heart of Middle America, only a few hundred miles from the geographical center of the continental United States—on March 10, 1903, Bix faced all the typical constraints that turn-of-the-century America imposed on its youth. He was the grandson of immigrants, surrounded by a social milieu full of middle-class rectitude and striving, but with little opportunity for individuality and self-expression. Grandfather Carl Beiderbecke had abandoned his plans to be a Lutheran minister in West Prussia and instead settled in Davenport, where he married Louisa Piper, another immigrant, newly arrived from Hamburg. Bix's parents, Bismark Herman Beiderbecke and Agatha Hilton, remained in Davenport, as did much of the extended family. Here Bix could easily have lived and died, following in the footsteps of his grandfather the grocer or his father, who dealt in wood and coal.

The young Beiderbecke's personal attributes were modest. His health was poor, his grades were worse, his work ethic almost nonexistent. His looks were anything but glamorous— the inevitable adjective one would apply to his appearance is baby faced. His one gift was for music, and he did almost everything possible to squander it. He never learned to read music with any skill or to even play the horn with proper fingerings. He would rather drink than practice. Not much opportunity for fame and fortune seemed in store given these predispositions, which might have predicted a nondescript life of insignificant proportions or out-and-out failure. And to become a legendary jazz musician would seem an impossible dream for this cherubic white boy surrounded by the cornfields of Iowa.


And yet...Beiderbecke broke through every one of these constraints and reinvented his life in stylish, sometimes outrageous ways on the largest stage imaginable. He not only transformed himself, but exerted a magnetic pull on those around him. The significant term that comes up in their accounts is idol. Describing his first encounter with Beiderbecke, a moment he calls "one of the great thrills of my life," saxophonist Bud Freeman exults, "Our eyes seemed to meet. Here I was facing this great genius I so idolized."4 "I worshipped the man," clarinetist Pee Wee Russell proclaimed.5 And Russell was no wide-eyed fan, but roomed with Beiderbecke, traveled with him, drank and performed with him. "Bix was a boyhood idol of mine," Ralph Berton has offered, "whom I had for one brief spring, summer and fall the privilege of worshipping at point blank range (somewhat to his vexation)."6

"Anecdote grew upon Bix like ivy on a wall," Berton continues. "His most ordinary words and acts often took on a fabulous, legendary quality.. .There was something about Bix that was enigmatic, edged, baffling—that made you want to do something about him, you couldn't say exactly what." Berton might have added the word cool to the list of adjectives he conjures up for the cornetist, but as we have seen, it didn't have the same meaning back in the Jazz Age as it does today. Yet Beiderbecke, more than anyone of his generation, would define the attitude and lifestyle that would become known as cool.

Various tales culled from the many Beiderbecke left behind define different aspects of the cool ethos in formation. Eddie Condon tells of Beiderbecke making dismissive comments on the need for schooling and education, and Condon responding by trying to point out the cornetist's ignorance: "’By the way,' I said, ‘Who is Proust?' He hit a chord, listened to it, and then said, casually, ‘A French writer who lived in a cork-lined room. His stuff is no good in translation.' I leaned over the piano. 'How the hell did you find that out?' I demanded. He gave me the seven veils look. ‘I get around,' he said."7 The nonchalance, the conveyed sense that much was going on below the surface under the tip of the oh-so-cool iceberg, Beiderbecke throwing off comments and chord voicings with equal disdain, his ambiguous boast that he gets around.. .We don't even need to be told that the complete English translation of Proust's masterwork A la recherche du temps perdu had not even been published in the United States at the time of Beiderbecke's death to appreciate the rich new character type, the cool cat, on display for Condon's edification.


The ultimate test of cool, of course, is the ability to maintain the pose even in the face of physical danger, and Beiderbecke had mastered this even before James Dean was born. Mezz Mezzrow offers an account of Beiderbecke almost being hit by a train while in pursuit of liquor buried near some railroad tracks. With Mezzrow and Russell in pursuit, Beiderbecke takes them on a wild journey through fields, over a barbed-wire fence, and finally to the buried treasure. Mezzrow continues:

Sure enough, he dug out a jug, handed it to Pee Wee, and started back. But as we were hopping the fence Pee Wee got stuck on the wire and just hung there, squealing for help and hugging the jug for dear life. If he let go of that crock he could have pulled him­self loose, but not Pee Wee—what's a guy's hide compared to a gallon of corn? By this time Bix, hav­ing staggered down to the railroad tracks, found he had a lot of sand between his toes, so he sat down on the rail and yanked his shoes off to empty them. Just then we saw a fast train coming round the bend. All of us began screaming at Bix to get the hell out of there, but he thought we were just kidding him and he threw stones at us. That train wasn't more than a hundred feet away when he finally woke up to what was happening. Then he just rolled off the track and tumbled down the bank head first, traveling so fast he didn't have time to snatch his shoes off the rail. Those funky Oxfords got clipped in half as neatly as if they'd been chopped with a meat-cleaver. "That just goes to show you," Bix told us, "it's dangerous for a man to take his shoes off. First time I took those things off in weeks and you see what the hell hap­pens. It just ain't safe to undress."8


So many stories have gathered around Beiderbecke over the years that they have almost obscured the real story: his music. A cornet solo may seem less cinematic than a looming train accident, but the horn is what allowed Beiderbecke to transform himself from Davenport ne'er-do-well to New York sophisticate. In account after account, those who knew this artist remarked that music was his overriding passion, the magnetic force around which his existence revolved. "Music was the one thing that really brought him to life," Mezzrow would later comment. "Not even whiskey could do it, and he gave it every chance." 9 Wingy Manone makes the same point: "He was always talking music, telling us, 'Let's play this chord/ or 'Let's figure out some three-way harmony for the trumpets after the job tonight/ It seemed to us he didn't want us to enjoy life."10 How odd that Bix Beiderbecke, the man who destroyed himself through his out-of-control lifestyle and the shaper of the cool attitude in the American psyche, should be recalled by those who knew him best as preventing others from having fun...because he was so fixated on his craft. The bad boy of jazz may not have had the patience to study music, he merely obsessed over it.

It is here, in his music, that Beiderbecke's role as progenitor of the cool is most assured. His friend Ralph Berton put it best: "Bix was one of the rarest artists our American culture ever produced: inventor of a new music sound, cool, lonely, inward-looking, as lonely as his own soul must have been in its solitary chamber...born far out of his time."11 Cool jazz could hardly be said to exist before Beiderbecke. The very phrase might even have seemed an oxymoron to the first generation of jazz fans, akin to "peaceful bare-fisted boxing" or "nonalcoholic moonshine." Jazz was the hottest style of music on the planet, and the great cornetist/trumpeter of the era, Louis Armstrong, was trying to make it even hotter. If you could measure Armstrong's fiery horn lines on the Scoville scale, they would rank somewhere north of the jalapeno and habanera. His solos, rich in syncopation and spiced with high notes and flashy phrases, would exert an influence over all later jazz. Yet this was more than just the personal magnetism of Armstrong's virtuosity—he also seemed to capture the very essence of the jazz art form, which has always tended toward explosiveness, intensity, and high drama.


Compare this with Beiderbecke, whose music was "like a girl saying yes," in the words of Condon. Rex Stewart, who was playing with the celebrated Fletcher Henderson Orchestra when it lost a legendary battle of the bands with Beiderbecke and Jean Goldkette's "Famous Fourteen," later recalled: "You know I worshipped Louis at that time, tried to walk like him, talk like him, even dress like him...Then, all of a sudden comes this white boy from out west, playin' stuff all his own. Didn't sound like Louis or anyone else. But just so pretty. And that tone he got knocked us all out."12 Again and again, we hear contemporaries of Beiderbecke talk about his tone, the distinctive sound quality he got from his horn.

The poor recording technology of the twenties did not do justice to Beiderbecke's artistry, so dependent as it was on aural nuances. Yet those seeking to understand the cool ethos need to seek out three performances, three short tracks that established the cool as a viable path for a creative mind operating in the midst of the hectic American Century. In "Singin' the Blues" from February 1927 and "I'm Coming Virginia" from May of that same year, Beiderbecke essentially invents the lyrical jazz ballad style, a new approach to improvisation that aims more to move the listener's heart than the dancer's feet. The cornet solo lines bob and weave and float over the rest of the band, which is struggling to move beyond the oompah 2/4 time of traditional jazz and embrace a more modern aesthetic. There is still an edgy jazz quality here, spiced by the syncopations and blues notes of the New Orleans and Chicago traditions, out of which Beiderbecke built his sound. But there is something else, a looser conception, more relaxed and tender, that breaks free of precedents and instead looks toward the future. And not just the future of jazz...the later evolution of popular music would change as a result of this intervention.


Sometimes this transformation would take place in response to an artist's direct contact with Beiderbecke—as one sees, for example in the work of Bing Crosby, who worked alongside Bix in the Paul Whiteman ensemble and adopted many of the cornetist's innovations in his own crafting of a new pop singing style. "The first thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States," Artie Shaw would later explain to Crosby's biographer Gary Giddins; much of this coolness—both in its musical and nonmusical dimensions—resulted from the personal influence of Beiderbecke.13 In other instances, Beiderbecke would impact the later course of American music through more indirect lines of influence, especially through the work of his frequent collaborator, saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer, who would serve as a role model for Lester Young, the most important cool jazz player of the late thirties and forties.

The third Beiderbecke track that signals his break with the jazz tradition is one on which he, strangely, does not touch his horn. Beiderbecke would leave behind only one piano recording, and even that single testament of his keyboard work would never have come to us if his friend and bandmate Trumbauer had not prodded him to give it a try during a September 1927 session in New York. Even today, jazz critics still argue about "In a Mist," as this song was named. Some refuse to accept that this peculiar track has anything to do with jazz. Others hail it as a visionary musical landscape, a snapshot of a future jazz that might have been, if only...If only Beiderbecke had lived longer, if only he had applied himself to formal musical studies, if only other players had been advanced enough to follow up on his leads. But none of these might-have-beens came to pass. As a result, "In a Mist" is a one-of-a-kind performance, unlike any other jazz composition of its era.


Yet if we fast-forward several decades, we can see that Beiderbecke was exploring the same pathways that the cool jazz musicians of the fifties would later travel. Here are the same impressionist harmonies, reminiscent of Debussy's and Ravel's classical music, that jazz pianists and composers would adopt during the close of the Eisenhower years. Here is the attenuated sense of rhythm, more floating than driving, and with a less overt use of syncopation, that reminds us of so many jazz performances from the second half of the twentieth century. While other jazz keyboardists of the twenties hold on to the heavy stride beat they inherited from ragtime, Beiderbecke hears another way of integrating the left and right hands. Here he crafts a unique sound that has freed itself up from clichĂ©, from the expectations of dancers, from the heavy anchor of the ground rhythm. The mood captures perfectly the paradox of cool, offering both an emotional immediacy yet also an impenetrable aloofness—a formula that defies precise formulation yet is so pervasive in later pop culture. The music invites us into the composer's inner sanctum, yet vigilantly defends a psychological border beyond which the listener is not allowed to pass. "In a Mist"—the title is apt. For instead of the clang and clash of typical 1920s jazz, we have something less clearly defined, seen through a glass darkly, yet cool and brisk, invigorating in its willingness to go against the crowd.


This should have been the start of Beiderbecke's great years. And, for the briefest of spells, it seemed as if his moment had arrived. A few weeks after this recording, the cornetist was invited to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the most popular commercial band of its day (that year alone, Whiteman had eighteen hit recordings). Yet this ensemble was not a full-fledged jazz outfit, and much of its reputation was built on intricate charts that flummoxed Beiderbecke, who was still a poor reader of music. The financial aspects of this relationship were no doubt more to his liking: Beiderbecke was now paid
$200 per week. This might have been the middle of the band's pay scale, but a sizable salary at a time when the average American family made $1,300 per year. Even so, too much of Beiderbecke's earnings went to support his drinking habit.


Before the close of 1928, Beiderbecke found himself a patient at River Crest Sanitarium. He had passed out during a concert in Cleveland and was in such bad physical condition that he was unable to leave town with the Whiteman band. When Beiderbecke returned to New York, the bandleader insisted that his star soloist receive medical care and even arranged for his hospitalization. Beiderbecke may have been just twenty-five years old, but he was already a wreck. He suffered from fatigue, pneumonia, alcoholic polyneuritis, malnutrition, and delirium tremens. Soon after his release, Beiderbecke returned to Davenport for a month of rest and recuperation surrounded by family and friends in his hometown.

Beiderbecke returned to New York in March 1929, but his playing from this point on no longer showed the confident, carefree artistry that had characterized his finest earlier work. Just looking at him, people could tell something was wrong. He had pains in his lower limbs and started walking with a limp. In time, he would use a cane—an ominous sign for a young man in his twenties. He suffered from cramps as well as memory lapses, shortness of breath, shakes, and convulsive movements that disturbed his sleep. He looked pale and was chain-smoking; worst of all, he was drinking excessively again. By September, Beiderbecke was back in Davenport, trying once again to regain his lost health. He was institutionalized at the Keeley Institute in DwightIllinois—the Betty Ford clinic of its day—where he remained for five weeks.


While Beiderbecke was undergoing treatment, the rest of the country witnessed the stock market crash, the symbolic starting point of the Great Depression. Beiderbecke, who was in no shape to rejoin Paul Whiteman, saw his own earning power plummet. Even under the best of circumstances, these would be difficult years for jazz artists. But Beiderbecke was now entering his final tailspin, and earning a livelihood required him to leave Davenport behind and return to New York, where all his best intentions were soon overcome by easy access to alcohol. The official cause of his death, on August 6, 1931, was pneumonia. But more than a decade of heavy drinking and a lifestyle out of control were the real culprits. As a result, the father of cool jazz never lived long enough to see how his musical stylings would influence later jazz artists. And, even stranger, how his eccentric, out-of-this-world personality would be echoed in the experimentation and attitudes of the baby boomer generation.”


NOTES: Chapter 4 - The Progenitor of Cool: Bix Beiderbecke
1.    Ansermet, "Bechet & Jazz Visit Europe, 1919," 115-122.
2.    Sudhalter, Lost Chords, 29.
3.    Lion, Bix: The Definitive Biography, 29.
4.    Freeman and Wolf, Crazeology, 11.
5.    Hilbert, Pee Wee Russell, 44.
6.    This and below from Berton, Remembering Bix, xii.
7.    Condon, We Called It Music, 121.
8.    Mezzrow and Wolfe, Really the Blues, 79.
9.    Ibid., 79.
10.  Manone and Vandervoort, Trumpet on the Wing, 60.
11.   Berton, Remembering Bix, 401.
12.  Sudhalter, Evans, and Dean-Myatt, Bix: Man and Legend, 185.
13.  Giddins and Schoenberg, "Jazz Dialogue."


Thursday, April 17, 2014

Ricky Riccardi: An Interview with the Author of “What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years” [From The Archives]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


“I loved and respected Louis Armstrong. He was born poor, died rich and never hurt anyone along the way.”
- Duke Ellington

When the world was young and college students read books, one of my professors assigned our class a series of period novels.

“How can you understand what the world was like then if you read about it in books written now?”

“Context is everything.”

“These novels will give you the ‘flavor of the times.’”

In addition to offering a detailed view of the stateside and overseas musical journeys of the last two decades of Louis Armstrong life, this is exactly what Ricky Riccardi succeeds in doing in his book - What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years.

He puts Louis’ life in the context in which he lived it: the US and the world as it existed in the 1950s and 60s. Equally as important, Ricky stresses the continuity of all aspects of Pops’ life as a musician and entertainer. One now understands Pops as a totality.

What emerges as a result is a fitting tribute to a man, who by any standard of judgment, was a creative genius and not the Jazz equivalent of Pagliacci, the [operatic] clown, an epithet hung on Pops during his later years by those who never fully understood him or appreciated him.

The magnitude of Louis Armstrong’s achievements during the last 20 years or so of his life and author Ricky Riccardi’s work in documenting them is underscored in the following quotation from Dan Morgenstern, Director of The Institute of Jazz Studies, Rutgers University:

“This is not only a tale of interest to Jazz fans or academics but the climatic portion of the inspiring life story of a man who, against all odds, rose from extreme poverty and discrimination to become, indisputably, one of the stellar figures of the twentieth century…. We need this book.”

Or as, Terry Teachout, the esteemed writer about Jazz and American culture, states:

“The story of Louis Armstrong’s later years is the great untold tale of postwar Jazz. Now Ricky Riccardi has told it to perfection. What a Wonderful World is a unique and indispensable landmark in American scholarship, a weathervane that will point the way to all future writings on his life and work.”

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles is honored that Ricky Riccardi consented to the following interview. You can find out more about Ricky and his continuing activities on behalf of Pops and the Louis Armstrong House by visiting his website.

I would also like to thank Josefine Kals, Publicist at Pantheon and Shocken Books, for her consideration and for arranging the interview with Ricky.




01.  Many Jazz fans view Pops’ early career as separate and distinct from the popular figure he became in his later years. What gave you the idea to see the continuity between these two periods?

It was just from doing the listening.  Anyone can go out and get a “Best of the Hot Fives” disc, listen to only “West End Blues,” “Potato Head Blues” and “Cornet Chop Suey” and come away with the impression that Louis was a pioneering jazz trumpet player of the 1920s…and that’s about it. Though they did not change the course of jazz, I think it’s important to listen to and appreciate “Sunset CafĂ© Stomp,” “Irish Black Bottom,” “That’s When I’ll Come Back to You” and the other more humorous Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.

Second, I did a lot of work with Louis’s scrapbooks and reading about his day-to-day activities.  The Hot Fives and Sevens were blips on his radar; he didn’t think he was changing jazz history, he just wanted some quick money!  But when you read about him playing pop tunes nightly, singing, getting laughs, doing comedy routines, dancing, you realize that the trailblazing trumpet playing was only one aspect of a man who was a genius all the way around.  So, as I ask in the book, why not take all of him?

02.  How did you - someone born about a decade after Pops died - ever become interested in Pops’ music to the extent that you have?

I was born in 1980 and have enjoyed very little popular music created after 1980.  In elementary school, I was listening to Motown and 1950s rock and roll.  In middle school, I went backwards to Al Jolson and ragtime. Thus, I’ve always enjoyed old sounds and especially old movies.  When I was 15, I rented “The Glenn Miller Story” with Jimmy Stewart.  I knew nothing about Louis, but when he came on and did “Basin Street Blues,” it knocked me out.  I immediately asked my mother to take me to our local library and I checked out a cassette, “16 Most Requested Songs,” a compilation of Louis’s 1950s Columbia recordings.  Well, the rest is history….

03.  What is your background in music?

I’ll be 31 in September and I’ve been playing the piano since I was 7 or 8.  Just basic lessons and then I taught myself jazz and how to improvise when I was in high school.  I formed a trio in my senior year and though the personnel has changed, I’m still leading it out of Toms River, NJ.  I love playing but I’ve never taken it too seriously.  I’m not an innovator by any means; I just like playing songs I like and bringing the sounds of jazz to an area that really doesn’t know what it is (I once jokingly billed myself as “The Jazz King of Toms River” because I’m the entire Toms River jazz scene!).


04.  What was your purpose in writing this book?

I just wanted more people to respect the entirety of Louis Armstrong’s life and career.  This is one of our great geniuses; hundreds of years from now, he will be discussed like we talk about Bach and Beethoven.  Since he’s died, it’s become okay again to admire the Hot Fives and Sevens, but no one really feels the need to go any further.  Online jazz forums barely mention Louis; he might get one article a year in the major jazz magazines.  I think too many people take him for granted:  “Yeah, he was incredibly important in the 1920s but then he went all showbiz and I never bothered checking anything else out.”  Those people are missing out.

And then there’s the people who have problem’s with Louis’s persona and still think he was soft on racism.  By using so many of Louis’s private tapes, I’ve tried painting a full portrait of the man, someone who had very complex feelings about racism and a man who was a real Civil Rights pioneer.  It’s time he gets respected for that, too. 

05.  If the reader had to take away three main points about Pops after reading your book, what would these be?

1) Louis Armstrong was nobody’s Uncle Tom and took heroic stands for his race in the 1950s and 1960s.  2)  There’s no such thing as the two Armstrong’s:  the young genius and the old clown; it’s one man.  3)  Louis Armstrong made some of his greatest and most challenging works in those last 24 years of his life….get out and listen to them!

06.  Joe Glaser, the impresario, was a key figure throughout Pops’ career. How would you describe the relationship between he and Pops?

Complex.  Many people have painted Glaser as nothing but a slave driver, working Louis too hard and getting rich from it.  And yes, there’s an element of that.  But people don’t realize that Louis had a lot of control; he WANTED to work that hard and would get upset if Glaser gave him too many days off.  And Louis was not afraid to stand up for himself, threatening to retire if Glaser couldn’t make things happen for him.
          So for all of Glaser’s faults, he gave Louis a stress-free life for the last 36 years of Louis’s life: he never had to worry about money, about taxes, about hiring and firing musicians, about getting gigs, nothing.  All he had to do was show up and play and I think a lot of musicians would have killed for a deal like that.


07.  It’s not uncommon for fans of an earlier era of a musician’s career to dislike the music of these musicians as their careers progress: Miles Davis comes to mind with his transition from hard bop to fusion & rock; Stan Kenton’s playing of the music of the Beetles during his orchestra’s last decade in the 1970s; Pops’ move to popular songs such as Hello, Dolly, Mack the Knife and What a Wonderful World. Why do you think that this is so?

Ah, I think sometimes an artist is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.  If Louis went around playing in Hot Five settings from 1925 to 1971, people would have wrote him off as someone simply repeating himself and never offering anything new.  Louis changed with the times but never compromised his art; he still sounded like Louis Armstrong, whether it was “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” on Decca, “Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy” on Columbia, singing the Great American Songbook on Verve or doing “Hello, Dolly.” Louis loved ALL kinds of music and always said that where he came from, a real musician was taught to play different kinds of music, not just one style. 
So people and critics might grab on to one part of a musician’s career—the Hot Fives and Sevens make up about three total hours of Louis’s life in the 1920s—and bemoan everything else as this great change, but they don’t realize that artists change themselves.  Lester Young got it in the 1940s and 1950s because he wasn’t the swashbuckling playing of “Shoe Shine Boy.”  So what?  He was Lester Young and he had a story to tell and you should listen to it.  Same with Louis; he matured over the years and learned how to say more with less.  In 1956, he was claiming he was playing better trumpet than ever before in his life, but it’s like people expected him to say, “Boy, I’m not playing like I used to in the 1920s, I might as well keep making commercial songs.”  No, Louis was still doing great things and he knew it.  I quote a lengthy conversation Louis had with a disc jockey who described one of Louis’s Decca pop records, “I Laughed at Love,” as a “commercial” number. Louis scolded the D.J. and said there was “nothing that can outswing it.”  There’s this thing where people feel, “Well, I don’t like it so the artist must not have liked it either.”  Not true. So you have to stop listening with preconceived notions and appreciate who the artist was in those moments, not who he or she wasn’t.


08.  Over the years, Pops played with many musicians. Who among them were his favorites and why?

He seemed to have a thing for trombonists:  he absolutely adored Trummy Young, Jack Teagarden and Tyree Glenn and they all became his closest friends when each was an All Star.  He was often hard on his drummers, though, and really did not get along with Earl Hines during his tenure with the All Stars.  But those trombonists, they were super close with Louis.

09.  In coming to know Pops as you have through your research, what were you say were some of his strong points both as a person and as a musician; what were his weak points?

Got time for another book?  There’s too many strong points to list but I’ll make a go of it.  As a person, he was just an incredible human being.  He treated fans like he had known them for years.  He was incredibly generous.  He demanded respect—and if you didn’t give it to him, watch out for his temper!.  He decried social injustice and had no tolerance for violence of any kind.  He put his audiences first and lived to make them happy.  He was a complete professional who worked strenuously to make sure his live performances were top notch, giving 110% even if there were a handful of people in the room.  And as a musician, I don’t think there’ll ever be another who had such an impact as a trumpeter AND as a singer. 

But of course, he was no saint.  He smoked marijuana religiously, he cheated on his wives at pretty much every chance he got.  He could be stubborn.  And perhaps he didn’t speak up enough for certain things he believed in, such as some ideas that George Avakian had for Louis to record at Columbia, but Joe Glaser killed them without a fight for Louis.  I write about Louis singing the word “darkies” as late as 1951 and that’s nothing to be proud of.  So the man did have his faults and I’m not afraid to call out a recording that I find so-so.  But the good far outweighs the bad.

10.  In your book, you identify Pops’ May 17, 1947 concert at Town Hall in NYC as a sort of a turning point in terms of what was to follow later in his career. Why this performance and not a different one?

Town Hall is where the writing on the wall really became apparent.  Louis had success with Edmond Hall’s sextet at Carnegie Hall in February, but his big band shared the bill on that one.  And he played with small groups on a “This is Jazz” radio broadcast, and another broadcast with Jack Teagarden, on the same day in April 1947.  But Town Hall was an entire evening devoted to small group performances.  It surrounded Louis with some of the finest musicians then on the scene.  The concert sold out immediately and was a hit with critics.  The big band era was dying out and that one evening at Town Hall made it abundantly clear that this was the way to go.


11.  Although Jazz critics viewed them as “commercial,” why was Pops’ so comfortable with A Kiss to Build A Dream On, Lucky Old Sun, Blueberry Hill, Mack the Knife, Hello, Dolly, and, What a Wonderful World.

Because these were songs where he could “see the life of them,” as he put it.  Louis, as I mentioned, believed in playing all kinds of music.  He didn’t think he just had to play straight jazz or standards.  He loved sentimental songs and novelties.  So he never prejudged a tune.  When he was handed “Blueberry Hill,” he thought about “some chick” he once knew.  When he was handed “Mack the Knife,” he thought of some characters out of New Orleans.  When he was handed “What a Wonderful World,” he thought of the kids he watched grow up on his block in CoronaQueens.  So he never complained, “Oh no, what is this, I should be recording nothing but instrumental hot jazz!”  He found something to relate to in every song he performed, which is why when you listen to Louis in such settings, he always sounds completely connected to the tune and never like he’s just slumming.

12.  When they were appearing together in the 1953 movie, The Glenn Miller Story, the legendary actor, Jimmy Stewart, said of Pops: “That man really is Jazz personified.” What did Jimmy Stewart mean by that remark?

To probably the great majority of inhabitants of the planet earth in 1953, that if you heard the word jazz, you thought of Louis Armstrong.  And it’s true.  Think of that whole package, the trumpet playing, the high notes, the solos, the improvisations, the compositions, the singing, the scatting, the repertoire, the man WAS jazz.  And obviously, I still feel that way though I think that to the majority of people who hear the word “jazz” today, they’ll think of Miles or Monk or Coltrane.  Louis has kind of been put on the back burner a little bit and that shouldn’t be.  Why?  Because he was funny and recorded pop songs?  He was just as serious about his music as the rest of them.

13.  What brought about Pops’ 1954-55 “Columbia [Records] Masterpieces;” which recordings are included and why are they deemed so?

It’s more of a “who” brought them about:  it was the legendary producer George Avakian, still going strong at 92.  George had ideas to have Louis and his working group, the All Stars record material by great composers such as W. C. Handy and Fats Waller, stuff that wasn’t in Decca’s plans for Louis.  After some wrangling with Joe Glaser, Avakian was allowed to make two albums, “Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy” and “Satch Plays Fats,” two of the greatest albums Louis ever made and really, two albums that belong in the pantheon of great jazz works created in the 50s.  Both albums were critically lauded and sold well so Glaser let Avakian record Louis exclusively for almost a full year, starting in September 1955.  Avakian came up with a hit record when he had Louis record “Mack the Knife,” then followed it with the turbo-charged album, “Ambassador Satch,” capturing my favorite edition of the All Stars at their peak on a variety of live and studio performances.  But just as Avakian was getting rolling, Louis’s popular started climbing into the stratosphere.  In the book, I detail how Glaser strung Avakian along for a while but refused to sign an exclusive contract, knowing that there was more money to be made by using Louis as a free agent, available to only the highest bidders.  So the Columbia era ended too soon—it lasted from 1954 to 1956—but the material Louis turned out in those years can stand alongside the best of his 1920s and 1930s works.

14.  Besides the obvious monetary relationship, what do you think accounts for Joe Glaser’s unflagging support of Pops’ during the “[racial] showdown of 1957”?

I think Glaser truly admired Louis and you can even say he loved him.  That didn’t stop him from taking advantage of him and stuff like that but I think he admired Louis’s courage in taking that stance against Eisenhower and the government.  Others, such as Louis’s road manager, a cronie of Glaser’s named Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie, tried to downplay Louis’s words to the press but Glaser never budged and was quoted in newspapers and magazines such as “Jet” saying how proud he was of Louis for saying this.  I’m sure deep down, he was having a heart attack over it, but he knew he wasn’t going to change Louis’s mind so he did the next best thing and stood behind his prized client during a pretty tenuous situation.


15.  “Entertaining” and “show business” were always a big part of Pops’ life. How would you describe Pops’ philosophy of entertaining and why was it so important to him?

Louis was a natural “ham actor,” as he once put it.  Even in his early days, when he was supposed to be such a “serious” artist, he was known just as much for his onstage antics as he was for his trumpet playing.  He was a true entertainer and saw no problem with mixing music and showmanship….especially because he took his music so seriously.  As he once told an interviewer, getting applause for showmanship and jokes is nice, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not playing the notes correctly.

And remember, yes, Louis was heavily influenced by musicians like King Oliver but he also never got tired of talking about his love of vaudeville entertainers such as Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Bert Williams. Some people try making it a “minstrel” thing but Louis just loved comedians.  His personal record collection was filled with albums by Redd Foxx, Moms Mabely and Pigmeat Markham.  And his private tapes are filled with hours and hours of Louis and friends telling jokes offstage…always with Louis telling them the best and laughing the loudest.  He even typed about his favorite jokes in a 100+ page manuscript that is absolutely fascinating (and available to researchers visiting the Louis Armstrong House Museum’s Archives at Queens College, where I’m the Archivist).  Sometimes nailing a punchline  with perfect timing is harder than hitting a high C and Louis was great at doing both.

16.  Why was Pops’ performance in Dave and Iola Brubeck’s The Real Ambassadors such a moving and meaningful experience for him? Does this project have a special significance in Pops’ life beyond the music itself?

I think it does.  First, there was the challenge of learning an entire score of new material, something he really had never done before.  Even on Verve albums with Ella such as “Porgy and Bess,” I’m sure he was at least familiar with some of those great songs.  But the Brubecks wrote all these new songs with Louis in mind and Louis rose to the challenge by nailing it.  Also, there was the subject matter, songs about race, politics, religious, etc.  This was deep stuff and Louis responded with more seriousness and sensitivity than even Brubeck imagined bringing tears to those who heard Louis in the studio or those who witnessed the only live performance of “The Real Ambassaors” at Monterey in 1962.  I really think he considered it one of the highlights of his life (he dubbed it many, many times on his private tapes, right up to the end of this life) and proudly told reporters that Brubeck had written him “an opera.”


17.  To elaborate further on a portion of an earlier question, what were the factors that made Hello, Dolly such a wildly unexpectant hit for Pops?

It’s one of life’s great mysteries but the simple explanation is that it’s a fun, catchy, swinging Louis Armstrong record.  No one knew the song; the play wasn’t even open when Louis recorded it.  The Beatles were all over the place, not small-group Dixieland complete with banjo.  And Louis hadn’t even stepped foot in a recording studio in two years so it wasn’t like his records were exactly hot commodities.  But the stars really aligned for that record.  Some people bought it as soon as they heard Louis’s personal touch, “This is Louis, Dolly.”  Those in his band said Louis wasn’t a big fan of the song but again, he gave it his all, played some fine trumpet and when all was said and done, he had the biggest hit of his lifetime, at 63-years-old.  It’s quite stunning but if you just taken it for granted, give “Hello, Dolly” a fresh listen and I guarantee you’ll find it pretty irresistible.

18.  Why did Patrick Scott’s 1965 Toronto Globe Mail article and Richard Meryman’s 1966 Life Magazine profile have such a huge impact on Pops’ later life?

Those articles didn’t have as much of an impact on Louis’s later life as they reflected Louis’s mental state in what was a pretty rough time for him.  He had major dental work in the spring of 1965 and when he got back to playing, things weren’t exactly the same.  He still sounded great but he could no longer execute his solos and ideas 100% as he had just a few months earlier.  He was in his mid-60s and tired and needed more rest.  But at the same time, because of “Hello, Dolly,” he was more popular and more in demand than ever before so he kept pushing himself, even though internally, he was getting more depressed.

The Scott and Meryman articles are important because they caught Louis with his guard partially down and Louis’s depressed state comes through loud and clear.  The Scott article recounted events from the summer of 1965, while the “Life” piece, though not published until April 1966, was also done around September 1965.  And in both pieces, Louis wonders if he should have stayed in New Orleans and never become famous.  He hints at retiring but tells Scott that he was afraid to talk to Joe Glaser about it.  He wants to just be a civilian and doesn’t want to be Satchmo anymore.  It’s real depressing stuff but honestly, it didn’t have much of an impact publicly speaking.  It didn’t cause headlines.  No other writer or jazz magazine picked up on Scott’s writings, which have remained pretty much ignored for over 45 years.

But I do think it must have gotten back to Glaser.  Because in 1966, you start seeing more days off in between tours of one-nighters and in one remarkable stretch, Louis had a steady gig at Jones Beach in Long Island between June and September 1966, getting to stay at his home every night for four months.  So I do think Glaser made an effort to give Louis a little more breathing room but there were still plenty of grueling tours left.  Two All Stars, Billy Kyle and Buster Bailey, even died in 1966 and 1967 respectively.

The postscript to it all is Louis finally got his wish in 1968 when ill health forced him to pretty much retire for two years.  He made TV appearances and the occasional record but really just lived at home, practiced a bit of trumpet and worked on his hobbies.  But once doctors gave him clearance to play with his All Stars again, he came to life and even though those few engagements probably contributed to his death, he was back onstage and for all the depressing thoughts he told Scott and Meryman, he lived to be on that stage, entertaining his fans.


19.  If the general public associates Pops’ with one, particular tune, it may be What a Wonderful World. How did this recording come about?

The producer Bob Thiele took credit for it.  After “Dolly,” Louis began making a series of erratic recordings for Mercury and Brunswick, the great majority of which were complete rip-offs of the “Dolly” formula.  Thiele thought Louis should go in a different direction:  a ballad, but not just any ballad, a message song backed by strings and a choir.  Apparently, Louis’s first reaction wasn’t too enthusiastic but when he spent more time with the lyrics, he began associating it with his neighborhood in CoronaQueens and grew to love the tune. However, the president of ABC records thought it was suicide and didn’t want to release it.  He eventually did but gave it zero promotion in the United   States and the record barely sold here.  But he didn’t think about the rest of the world and it became a huge international hit!  Louis performed it every night until he died but still, the song was fairly little known in the U. S. until it was used in [the film] “Good Morning Vietnam.”


20.  On page 277 of you book you state: “Before singing What a Wonderful World on the 1970 David Frost Show, Armstrong said about the lyrics, ‘They mean so much.’ Is Pops’ comment an appropriate summation for the main theme of your work: “The Magical World of Louis Armstrong?” Put another way, did Pops’ view his life as a “magical world?”



I think he did and he didn’t.  In many ways, he downplayed a lot of what he did, referring to himself as a “salary man,” living in a modest home, wanting to be treated as any ordinary working citizen.  He felt he got as far as he did through hard work and by not being lazy and in that sense, he probably didn’t see any “magic” in it.  But at other times, he did look at his life and express some amazement at where he came from and what he became.  When asked about being called an “Ambassador of Goodwill,” he once replied, “It’s nice because, I mean, the kid has come a long way.”  And he knew the effect he had on his fans around the world. It truly was magical.  “A note’s a note in any language” he was fond of saying.  He could go behind the Iron Curtain, where you couldn’t find a single Louis Armstrong record, and end up a hero, winning standing ovations and being mobbed for his music.  He stopped a Civil War in the Congo in 1960. He took mediocre songs and made timeless music with them.  He changed the world.  And all with a dirt poor background and fourth grade education.  If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.