Saturday, January 8, 2011

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

I’ve watched New Orleans twice and have in the queue again, wish I could Watch Instantly. It’s bad movie, completely enthralling. Louis is the key and for the usual reasons. He does what he does impeccably. He is stalwart through the whole darn mess, the plot changes, the race lines. The movie was supposed to be the story of jazz AND the life of Louis Armstrong. That went by-the-by when the movie’s brainchild, Orson Welles, let go of the rights in the early 40s. By 1947, McCarthyism was vocal enough to have a hand in the new version as well.  Laurence Bergreen blames the plot shift to “the preposterous opera” on this.1 The point is the film is another example of Louis taking it all in, letting go of what he can’t change, and making a chocolate cake out of what’s left.
Netflix’s blurb for New Orleans starts out: As owner of a Bourbon Street gambling club, Nick Duquesne (Arturo De Cordova) sits at the center of the New Orleans jazz scene. His scruffy charm -- and the city's beguiling music -- is too much for a new girl in town (Dorothy Patrick). Note that when you listen to Billie Holliday sing "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans" with Louis playing his cornet (movie takes place in 1917, he played cornet not trumpet then) with his band.2 This is the story that counts but it all but disappears early on, soon after the moving street scene when everyone leaves Storyville.
Songs include Louis and band playing "New Orleans Stomp," "Buddy Bolden's Blues," "West End Blues," "Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble," and "Basin Street Blues." There’s a fine duet, Louis with Billie Holiday in "The Blues Are Brewin'."  Biilie Holliday is crucial in this movie. And there’s plenty written by her and others on her role that begins with her as a maid who morphs to jazz singer.
The film centers on the white story; it’s largely Miralee Smith’s (Patrick’s) struggle to turn herself into a jazz singer instead of the classical career her mother destined for her. More than once Miralee chirps her version of Holiday’s blues. Marjorie Lord as the mother is pretty great right from the first scene when she’s trying to dodge her gambling debt to De Cordova.
By 1947 jazz had shifted. Louis had heard it all, not just the Tomism but how dated he was. Angry sometimes, by then he’d resolved that bebop wasn’t a fad, jazz had several directions and his was but one. But he wasn’t sore anymore, he knew well his commanding place and had set about building a new house with the same tool box.

1 Laurence Bergreen, Louis Armstrong: An Extraordinary Life, 1997, 428-429.
2 trombone-Kid Ory, clarinet-Barney Bigard, guitar-Bud Scott, bass-“Red” Callender, drums-Zutty Singleton and piano-Charlie Beal and Meade “Lux” Lewis. Also Mutt Carey on cornet.

Here are links to reviews of New Orleans:

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