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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When You're Smiling



I’ve watched many documentaries on Louis Armstrong and the history of jazz, including Ken Burns’ Jazz. The best for me is The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. It’s only an hour and five minutes yet this BBC production filmed in 2000 captures the mythology of the man. The story is decked out in sepia tones and vintage photographs. Corny as it sounds this works because the period stuff and romantic sea shots intended to suggest his traveling years float by without intruding. In the last section, Twilight Years, trees in winter glisten in ice and snow. Sounds bad Ken Burnsian, but it’s not appalling, just good background noise.

Like most Armstrong bios, this one emphasizes his vivacity and amazing development both playing and singing with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens in the 1920s. But the film praises no decade over another. The musicians and critics interviewed celebrate Louis’s music and indefatigable spirit throughout his life.
This video clip, though it’s just a photo over the sound instead of his performance, demonstrates how wonderfully Louis Armstrong sang in the 1950s and even the 1960s.  While Louis is singing, Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch comment on Armstrong’s 1957 rendition of “When You’re Smiling.” Giddins: “Compare this 1957 recording to the 1931 one. Both are good, but this one’s mind blowing, it’s the most gorgeous sound I’ve ever heard.” Cut to Grouch: “I don’t know anyone who could play that now. The sound he got, with the expressiveness. And he played it way up high in the upper registers for a long time.” Back to Giddens: Wynton Marsalis has said to me, no one can play that way. No one can play the way he did in the 1950s. His sound is so personal, it’s the way he builds it up from stored energy.” I’m paraphrasing here so if you put it in your Netflix queue, please don’t hold me to a word-for-word rendering.
I frequently celebrate life’s late period and this is partly the pleasure in watching this documentary. It illustrates the beauty of the man at the end of his life, bringing full circle the durability of his art. I like “durability of his art;” I borrowed it from Lawrence Gushee,[i] that the fungible nature of Louis’s oeuvre creates durability.
Driving to yoga this morning I listened to a story on Wanda Jackson’s new album with Jack White.  Here’s a link. You need to listen to it. The condensed version doesn’t capture her.


[i] Lawrence Gushee, “The Improvisation of Louis Armstrong,” In the Course of Performance, Bruno Nettl with Melinda Russell, eds., Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998, 291.

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