Through the snow patches of ground appear. I have no desire to put my knees in the dirt—yet. Louis says it, singing a line in “Azalea”: “I’ve yet to get that same strange feeling.” Gardening begins in remembering the year before and feels its way forward. The vegetable seeds arrived the other day. Today I dream of flowers, seeds and a few perennial plants. Before I sit down to order seeds and plants, a few varieties that Louis and Lucille might enjoy, I play “Azalea.”
It is or is about to be azalea time in the south. Living in the Northeast, it’s hard to wax melodic on the pleasures of growing azaleas. They stumble along, scrubby bushes putting out few tight blooms well after the triumphal entry of spring. But in the South, they are magnificent. In Swing That Music Armstrong describes a picnic up river near Baton Rouge. Here azaleas abound:
Our picnic party landed on the low, yellow-mud bank on the other side and very soon we were in pretty country. As I have said, it was spring and the azaleas were blooming, white and pink and red. I spoke before about the magnolias, and the next sweetest, to me at least, are the azaleas…I guess there are hundreds of different kinds of flowers in New Orleans in the spring. Folks who live in the North don’t know what it’s like. Everywhere you go there are flowers…The magnolias come a little later on after most of the others are gone, like a featured actress who’s got to have the stage to herself and can dish it out alone.
The azaleas often grow right up near to a cypress swamp and sometimes, if the swamp isn’t too very wet for them, they grow all on through it. There was a cypress swamp near by the place our picnic stopped to spread the lunch and rest, and I could see the azalea plants were blooming inside.
Though I’ve read most of Armstrong’s second autobiography, Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, I’ve barely dipped into Swing That Music. Whether or not Armstrong wrote any or all of it has been debated since the first biography, Louis Armstrong American Genius, by James Collier was published in 1976. Subsequent biographies and jazz historians say that Collier got in wrong in calling all of Swing That Music (published 1936) ghost written. This is a complicated tale and it belongs elsewhere. I bring it up only to say that the possibility that it was written by someone other than Armstrong put it way down on my reading list. There is so much authored by him, I figured why go to the possibly unreliable.
Then I came across the song “Azalea,” which makes a direct hit on Swing That Music. Terry Teachout and Laurence Bergreen, in their biographies of Armstrong, mention that Duke Ellington wrote the lyrics for “Azalea.” Both note Ellington’s source is Swing That Music. I’d like to read the new and enormous Ellington biography, Duke Ellington’s America, but so far I’m swamped with reading Armstrong and jazz history books. A big biography on a jazz figure is too much in the present moment, though I’d like the back story on Ellington reading Swing That Music around 1945 and being so taken by Armstrong’s description that he wrote words and music precisely compressing Armstrong’s words.
On April 4, 1961 Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington recorded The Great Summit. They recorded for Roulette Records, a small, not well known label. The company was shady, but the producer, Bob Thiele, was not. He gave his impression of the surroundings in his autobiography, What a Wonderful World, “The miasmal hoodlum atmosphere at Roulette Records was so heavily oppressive that it was often difficult for me to concentrate on the musical matters that were my direct and only responsibilities. Everyone was diligently circumspect about my ‘civilian’ status and left me alone, even though every day I felt I was trapped in a grade B gangster epic.” Ellington and Armstrong were merely acquaintances, so neither felt at ease as they came together to hammer out the record. The result is splendid.
The original plan called for Armstrong performing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. The way it worked out, Ellington played piano with Armstrong’s All Stars. For “Azalea” the instrumental arrangement is simple, sparse—Ellington, piano;Danny Barcelona, drums; Armstrong;trumpet, vocal. Here are the lyrics:
T’was such a fine spring day
Down Louisiana way
With fragrance divine oh Baby!
And such magnificent regalia
Oh, so fine Azalea
Oh, what a lovely sight
In red and pink and white
Can’t help but believe
That nothing evil can assail ya
So naïve Azalea
You were at ease on the knees
Of the moss covered trees
Whose tops meant to make a high ceiling
In the church-like clump
In a cypress swamp
I’ve yet to get that same strange feeling
I’ve got to go back there
And find that blossom fair
I always dream of
Because with you
Who could ever be a failure?
My first love Azalea
I searched online for the lyrics and did not find them. Curious since lyrics can be found for almost any song. I’m not great at these searches, maybe you can find them and let me know if it’s church-like clump or thump. Or perhaps they’re not readily available because this is the only time Armstrong recorded this song. (Again, to my knowledge.) This is rare thing. He almost always recorded songs more than once.
The significance of these words, given by Armstrong and adapted by Ellington, resonates twice. First, Armstrong captures the beauty and fear held in the cypress swamp. As he continues his picnic story, he details the cypress trees:
The moss hangs down from the trees everywhere and almost reaches the ground and it’s partly the moss and partly the knees, I guess, that makes a cypress swamp so scarey. These knees are the roots of the cypress trees which come up out of the ground like a man’s knee and go back down again. Any good sized cypress tree will swing up twenty or thirty of more knees, so that the swamp is just covered with them. That’s one reason why it’s bad to be caught in a cypress swamp after dark.
He falls asleep, wakes up frightened. It’s late and dark. The ending is quick and smooth, he makes his way out, finds it is still light beyond the swamp and his friends are still there.
Second, Ellington’s music is perfect for his lyrics. Together they fasten on fearsome beauty that Armstrong delivers in his story. And more, Ellington’s allusions, for example, “You were at ease on the knees of the moss covered trees” extend Armstrong’s intended meaning to another place, a place firmly grounded in Armstrong’s observation of the natural world.