The Lawrence Welk Show: Forever Young – “Wunnerful, Wunnerful”

Watching the old Lawrence Welk television shows on PBS is like traveling through a time-machine for those of us who grew up during the era of the nineteen fifties, sixties, and on into the eighties.

Last night, as so often is the case, I went to my DVR and brought up recorded episodes of the Lawrence Welk show which still regularly play on PBS television. Experience has taught me that there is no better way to “wind-down” before bedtime after a hectic day than reliving music from that magical era, courtesy of Mr. Welk and his “Champagne Music Makers.” Sadly, today’s generation, by and large, would find watching and listening to Lawrence Welk quite beyond the pale. It is a shame that the concepts of “music” and “talent” have become so degraded in this day-and-age of uber-amplified sound and slurred, unintelligible lyrics.

I was in my early teens in 1955 when the Lawrence Welk show debuted on that also-adolescent medium called television. For twenty-seven years, the Lawrence Welk show came into our living rooms on Saturday night, sponsored first by Dodge, then Geritol (don’t laugh!), and later, via syndication. Now, in 2017, sixty-two years later, we can still watch the old shows on PBS. How many television shows have lasted that long on network reruns besides “Lucy,” or perhaps Dick Van Dyke/Mary Tyler Moore?

  

Last night, on my selected show from 1974, Mr. Welk proudly exclaimed that the “big-bands” were reportedly staging a comeback, quickly adding that “we never left!” Indeed, Lawrence Welk had been in the big-band game since 1924 when he left the farm in North Dakota to seek success in the music business. In the end, he outlasted all the big names including such luminaries as Benny Goodman, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw – all of whom are among my all-time favorite purveyors of jazz/swing. I love the big-band sound, and aside from periodic doses of schmaltz, Welk’s band could and did deliver. The group was comprised of seriously fine musicians, many of whom were with Mr. Welk for ten, twenty, even thirty years. The band could swing and did swing often on the great numbers made famous by Goodman, James, Dorsey and Shaw. It has always fascinated me to observe the pure joy of Welk’s musicians when the play-list presented them with the opportunity to “cut-loose” from an otherwise scripted, sometimes staid program. No, Welk’s fine musicians were not cut from quite the same cloth as a Benny Goodman or a Harry James, but the group played those great swing/sweet band numbers with virtuosity and enthusiasm.

Welk had many singers and dancers as well with which to front the band. All were excellent and versatile entertainers. As good a female singer as any I have ever heard was Ralna English whose distinctive, effortless vocals soared as she visibly sparkled in the intimate camera close-ups which were hallmarks of Welk telecasts. Although always the gentleman, Lawrence did like the pretty girls! Ms. English and then-husband, Guy Hovis, performed many memorable duets as well – across the full musical spectrum. Gail Farrell, Mary Lou Metzger, and “Champagne Lady” Norma Zimmer sparkled and shone with their wholesome beauty and talent. Several of the musicians were regular soloists: Bob Ralston on piano, Henry Cuesta on clarinet, and Myron Floren on accordion were as good as it gets as musicians. One of my favorites was trumpet man Johnny Zell who combined a showman’s flair with his obvious virtuosity. And finally, the dance duo of ex-Disney Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess and partner Cissy King was always a treat to behold. Their versatile dance routines with the band solidly behind them were, in a significant way, pioneering dance performances on early television.

Even the Great Harry James?

Auditioning and winning a performing spot in the Welk family required tremendous talent…and versatility – even as a musician. The reed section of the band which normally plays saxophone is often seen doubling on clarinet or even flute and piccolo! Harry James who went from lead trumpet with the great Benny Goodman band of 1937/38 to front his very own band for many years once auditioned with Mr. Welk prior to that time. Harry James was a prodigy, a virtuoso trumpet player as a youngster capable of handling lead trumpet with any top jazz/swing band in the early days, yet he did not receive an offer from Mr. Welk – ostensibly because the only instrument he played was trumpet! James went on to become a music legend in the 1940’s and 50’s – in my opinion, the finest, most versatile trumpet player, ever.

Lawrence Welk’s 1903 Birthplace: Strasburg, North Dakota

I suspect there may have been a personality/life-style disconnect between Harry James and Welk who tended to favor musicians with mid-west roots and attitudes – especially those from North Dakota, his home state. Lawrence Welk radiated conservative, middle-of-the-country attitudes, and to some viewers, seemed too “square.” He did have considerable trouble with his accent which produced such parodies as “Turna offa the bubble machine,” in reference to the “champagne music” bubbles which often floated among the musicians as they musically bounced their way through some bubbly, flagship-style musical arrangement. Welk was known for his staple responses to his performers such as, “Wasn’t that just wunnerful?” And then there was, “Wunnerful, wunnerful.” Yes, it seemed somewhat staid and square even back then, but in the harsh glare of today’s attitudes, watching Welk and his shows is a timeless reminder of a simpler time, a time when true talent and professionalism made an impression on audiences. I always liked and respected that about the Welk show.

Make no mistake about it: Lawrence Welk, himself, could really “swing out” on some of the legendary big-band numbers. My favorite images are of him in front of the band playing a swing classic like Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball,” baton on the beat and hips and feet moving in sync – just letting it all hang out! The joyous grin on his face completed the picture of a man lost in his music, oblivious to everything else.

Time Stands Still and We Are Forever Young!

Lawrence Welk passed away in 1992, ten years after the last installment of “The Lawrence Welk Show.” Mr. Welk left behind a considerable organization and fan-base which still thrives today, sixty-two years after his television debut in 1955. That is quite a tribute to the man and his impact on America. Then there is the great music he played and the way he and his musical family presented it. Today, watching his shows which replay annually on public television is the only real big-band experience left to us. The music of the great composers and song-writers should never be lost. Nor should the fabulous performances of the big-band era. Thank goodness for the PBS re-runs. It is always my hope that today’s youngsters might push aside cynical attitudes and recognize the quality entertainment that Lawrence Welk provided America for so many years.

Many of the musical stars in the Welk family that we grew up with are now gone. Through the miracle of television, we can still see and hear them perform once again, forty, fifty, or sixty years later, just as they did “live.” The graceful athleticism of dancers Arthur Duncan, Bobby Burgess, Cissy King, and Mary Lou Metzger is undiminished by time. The fresh, wholesome beauty of Welk’s female performers and the musical artistry of accordionist Myron Floren and all the other musicians still shine.

Watching the Welk show after all these years is akin to entering a time-machine tunnel and emerging to once again experience performers forever young…and so are we!

Keep a Song in Your Heart! Good advice.

Frank Sinatra After 100 Years: The Gold Standard

Pal Joey SinatraFrank Sinatra: Possibly the best-known name in the music business, yet under-appreciated by the public in certain respects. The other night, I watched a tribute to Sinatra via PBS broadcast from the Lincoln Center in New York City. The program celebrated the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth in 1915. Being a big fan of Sinatra’s talent and contribution to popular music, I had recorded the broadcast on our DVR, hoping that it would prove to be worthwhile viewing. Often, such tributes are disappointing – even “cheesy.” It was very late last Friday night after a long day for us, but I decided to que up the recording on our DVR merely to catch the flavor of the show – just five or ten minutes of viewing before going off to bed and watching it the next day… if it proved worthwhile. In minutes, I was hooked and watched the entire ninety minutes of the tribute, finally turning off the lights at 1:00 am. More on the program, later.

To fully appreciate Sinatra, is to know his personal history and timeline. Born Francis Albert Sinatra in Hoboken, New Jersey on December 12, 1915 to Italian immigrants, his prospects seemed no better than those of millions of other immigrant children. The mother, Natalina “Dolly” Garaventa Sinatra, apparently was the dominant influence on young Sinatra’s personality and self-confidence. Early in life, he discovered music as well as his idol, Bing Crosby, who was riding the top of the music charts in the early nineteen-thirties as the country’s premier male vocalist and pioneer of the genre. 1938 found young Sinatra menially employed as a singing waiter at a small roadhouse diner named “The Rustic Cabin,” in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, earning $15 per week! When he was not tending tables, he would front the small dance band and perform a few vocals.

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One such evening, fate stepped in and drastically altered young Sinatra’s life trajectory. He happened to be singing with the band that night while a local radio station broadcasted the dance music from The Rustic Cabin to a regional audience (a common occurrence during the infant days of radio). Fatefully, Louise Tobin, the young wife of another about-to-be-legend in the music business was tuned-in to the broadcast. Impressed by what she heard, she awakened her husband, the great jazz trumpet player, Harry James, from his nap and suggested he listen to this young singer on the radio. James’ newly formed band was just getting started and he was looking for a vocalist, so a few nights later, James drove over to New Jersey and The Rustic Cabin, introduced himself to young Sinatra, and not only offered him a job, but set in motion the whole of Frank’s incomparable music career. Suddenly, Sinatra was making a whopping $75 per week with James who, with his new band, was perched on the threshold of music greatness, as well.

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Harry James was the best thing that ever happened to Sinatra, for they soon recorded some fine hits together. Listening to Sinatra and his early live performances with the Harry James Orchestra at New York’s famed Roseland Ballroom in 1939, one hears a soft, immature, somewhat tentative delivery which nevertheless hints at greatness-to-be. The barely audible background noises of the Roseland dance crowd dining, drinking, clinking glasses, laughing, and finally applauding add immeasurably to the great charm of these early recordings.

James Sinatra CD

Others began to notice James and his young vocalist, particularly Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. Dorsey’s group was well-established by 1939 and rapidly cementing its status as the very best in the history of the big bands. The offer to join Dorsey for $125 per week as featured vocalist could not be denied, although Sinatra had barely been with James for one year of a two year contract. When the young singer apologetically approached James about leaving his band, James very willingly released Sinatra from the remainder of his contract with a sincere handshake and best wishes.

Harry-James[1]Sinatra never forgot James, his gracious gesture, and the wonderful times he had with Harry and his band. They remained lifelong friends, and when James was dying from terminal cancer decades later, Sinatra insisted that he deliver the funeral eulogy for his friend. Sinatra was a tough customer in many ways throughout his life, but he was loyal to friends and he had a decidedly sentimental streak which ran deep but wide through his personality. In addition to discovering the greatest male pop singer, ever, Harry James was the finest jazz trumpet player – ever.

Sinatra’s last performance with the Harry James band occurred on a very dark, snowy evening in Buffalo, New York on January 26, 1940. After the performance the band boarded the bus which would take them on to their next engagement. Sinatra recalled: “The bus pulled out with the rest of the guys after midnight. I’d said goodbye to them all, and it was snowing. I remember there was nobody around, and I stood alone with my suitcase in the snow and watched the taillights of the bus disappear. Then the tears started, and I tried to run after the bus. There was such spirit and enthusiasm in that band [that] I hated leaving it.”

Tommy Dorsey was both a superb musician and a great bandleader. His band and his music exemplified the highest musical standards possible. His musical arrangements and taste were simply beyond those of all the others in terms of beauty and complexity. He insisted upon total excellence not only from members of the band, but from himself as well. Dorsey was known as “the sentimental gentleman of swing,” reflecting his great hit and theme song, “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” which featured Tommy’s lilting trombone solo. Dorsey was decidedly un-sentimental, though, and undeniably one very tough customer who would come down hard on anyone who stepped out of line – with fists flying, on occasion.

Sinatra & Dorsey CD

It was with Dorsey and his band that Frank Sinatra developed into the great vocalist the public would ultimately recognize. For me, his numerous recordings with Dorsey constitute the finest of musical treasures in my fairly extensive music collection. Sinatra’s voice had now developed, the fine musical phrasing was there, and his dedication to and respect for song lyrics were evident. Much of the learning curve that made Frank Sinatra into history’s finest vocalist resulted from his two years under Dorsey’s tutelage and influence. Sinatra once remarked, “The only two people I’ve ever been afraid of are my mother and Tommy Dorsey.”

When Sinatra quickly exploded as a teenage idol drawing huge crowds for Dorsey, the youngster accurately foresaw the trend-line for popular music. The future did not include big bands; instead, the era of the pop vocalist would predominate…and it did, in several short years. The youngster took a huge gamble in 1942 by informing Dorsey that he wanted to leave the band and hit the performance trail as a solo act. Unlike the gracious Harry James, Dorsey fought back with lawyers making Sinatra’s departure an expensive one. Dorsey’s final farewell to Sinatra: “I hope you fall on your ass.”

I find it fascinating – the implausibility – that so much musical art came from certified tough characters like Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, and others in the music business. Often their personal lives were chaotic and regrettable, yet deep inside these rough exteriors, lurked a surprising creative sensitivity. Those who see only the rough exterior surely appreciate little of the musical artistry they left behind. Another facet of Sinatra’s considerable talent was his success in film.

When Frank’s musical career was completely stalled in the late nineteen-forties, his movie role in the film,“From Here to Eternity” kick-started his musical comeback. His deft performance in the film surprised everyone earning him the Oscar in 1953 as best supporting actor for his portrayal of “Maggio.” One of my favorite film clips from another film is the song-and-dance duet done with Sinatra’s boyhood idol, Bing Crosby, in the 1955 film, “High Society.” One of my favorite films: “Pal Joey” from 1957 starring Sinatra, Kim Novak, and Rita Hayworth. Joey, Sinatra’s character, is a knock-off of his own entertainer-persona which guaranteed the seamless portrayal he delivers in the film – with irreverent wit and great vocalizing. The musical score of Rodgers and Hart and the supporting female cast make for great entertainment. To see Sinatra staged perfectly and performing at his best, see this film.

5744094758_4fd5c7930c_b[1]By 1953, Sinatra had begun work with crack musical arranger, Nelson Riddle. Their collaboration quickly propelled Sinatra back and into a brighter limelight than ever before. An amazing career: From literally bringing down New York’s Paramount Theatre in the early forties as a young matinee idol, to suffering tiny audiences in that very same house by the late forties, to exploding again in 1953 to become the greatest male vocalist in pop music history!

That brings me full circle back to the PBS Lincoln Center tribute to Sinatra which took viewers through Sinatra’s personal history/timeline – so important to comprehend such a complex personality and career.

The production, hosted by a young fellow named Seth MacFarlane (who?) and anchored throughout by the venerable New York Philharmonic Orchestra, delivered BIG TIME. The entire production was first-class, in all respects. The New York Philharmonic is comprised, for the most part, of mature, seasoned musicians, but that staid-looking orchestra belied its image and delivered real punch and zing to its rendering of the musical arrangements which anchored Sinatra’s vocals during his prime in the nineteen-fifties. Swinging Sinatra favorites like “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” proved also to be ultimate classics of Sinatra’s favorite arrangers – Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, and Billy May, to name a few. Frank Sinatra insisted upon and got only the best arrangers, producers, and studio musicians for his performances and recording sessions – and it always showed in the finished product. Complex and challenging musical arrangements, these are, but the New York Philharmonic really delivered. I was overjoyed to watch them in action as fabulous camera choreography moved adroitly from trumpets to flutes to violins to trombones and back to vocalists – all right on the beat. So often, television concentrates, up-close, only on vocalists who are performing in front of a large orchestra. The talented musicians in the far background often seem merely like an assemblage of automatons from which music emanates. Not in this telecast with its excellent production values: All aspects of the musical performance come alive, including the orchestra members.

Host Seth MacFarlane provided a deft touch to the whole evening with scattered, light comic touches interspersed among the stories of Sinatra’s life and his music. Most importantly, Mr. MacFarlane can SING – an imperative for this production – and he did it very well, indeed. MacFarlane was ably assisted on stage by six great dancers and several renowned guest vocalists including Bernadette Peters, Christina Aguilera, Fantasia, and Sting, who, despite their diversity, all managed to entertain with the solid support of the peerless Philharmonic. As stated by the host, the whole production was truly a “labor of love” for all concerned in the project, and it showed – truly a fitting tribute to Frank Sinatra, the man and his music.

The Changing Face and Voice of Music: After 52 Years, Saying Goodbye to My McIntosh FM Tuner

The time has perhaps come to make a significant change in my life. This week, I put my beloved McIntosh MR-67 FM stereophonic tuner up for sale on E-bay.

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As with my vintage Apple II computer which I sold on E-Bay two months ago, parting with this piece of personal history will be difficult, but necessary at this stage of our lives as my wife and I attempt to simplify our existence…and create space in which to operate. I purchased my McIntosh tuner on December 17, 1963 almost exactly one year after completing my degree in electrical engineering at Stanford University and landing my first engineering position here, in Silicon Valley. I had moved back in with my parents in nearby San Mateo, California, while paying off student loans – which were modest compared to those of today.

In 1963, there was a tidal wave of general excitement over the technological improvements being made to audio equipment – all of which contributed immensely to the pleasure of listening to music. Premium FM stations were springing-up across the nation featuring popular music of the day with a fidelity which seduced the public. In 1963, the latest, greatest thing happening was the technology which brought stereophonic sound to these stations. That Hi-Fi audio excitement and the stereo trend led me to purchase my McIntosh FM stereo tuner.

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Iconic audio companies with names like Fisher, Harman Kardon, H.H. Scott, and Marantz moved to the fore-front of the public’s attention – much like the example of Apple, today. Most of these companies had their heyday for a number of years and eventually lost public visibility once the Hi-Fi / Stereo wave of public enthusiasm dissipated and computers became the next, great thing.

One audio company is a notably unique exception to this history. That company is McIntosh Laboratory, founded by Frank McIntosh in 1949 to design and sell quality audio gear.

Today, “Mac” equipment is still at the fore-front of the audio world and represents the extreme “high-end” of the genre. The 30 watt, monophonic power amplifier pictured in this early McIntosh ad sold for $143.50 – a lot in those days! It featured vacuum tube technology (no power transistors back in the fifties) and a McIntosh design innovation for the audio output transformers which drive the loudspeaker – an innovation which greatly improved the state-of-the-art.

McIntosh recently offered a gold-plated 50th anniversary version of their bread-and-butter, two-channel, vacuum tube stereo amplifier, the venerable MC 275 (twin 75 watt channels). The price tag: a whopping $6,500!

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Clearly, McIntosh is not your usual company in any sense of the term. The name has long enjoyed iconic status, not merely for its eye-catching products, but for its dedication to well-engineered, quality audio equipment. It was that successful blend of attributes that attracted young fellows like me to the brand in the early nineteen-sixties.

MR-67 WarrantyMcIntosh was the ONLY audio company that published – in technical detail, on their individual marketing flyers – industry-leading performance specifications for each piece of equipment along with the guarantee that the purchaser would receive a full cash refund should the equipment fail to meet those specs. Pictured, here, is the 3 year McIntosh “warranty” for my MR-67 FM tuner. In 52 years of ownership and at least 35 years of total use, one light bulb needed replacing, and one “weak” tube also needed replacing (in 1987). Yes, I am a first-hand believer in Mac quality and reliability. My MR-67 tuner still works great!

What about the situation, today? McIntosh represents the Rolls-Royce of audio equipment and is the granddaddy of the industry – one of the few survivors of that intoxicating period of Hi-Fi, vinyl LPs, turntables, amplifiers, tuners, FM stereo “multiplexing,” and so-on. McIntosh and other more affordable audio companies continue to cater to those for whom listening to music over IPod earbuds just doesn’t cut it.

My Latest Adventure in Listening: The iPhone / “UE Boom”

photoTechnology continues its relentless march, and, now, I frequently enjoy casual listening to my Amazon Prime playlists via laptop or iPhone through the compact Bluetooth wireless speaker called the “UE Boom.” My brother-in-law, Ken, brought his “Boom” to a recent family event, and that was my introduction to a new listening experience. During the outdoor festivities, I kept wondering where the enjoyable music was coming from – I saw no speakers anywhere. I finally asked Ken, “Where is that great sound coming from, out here, in the backyard?” He then showed me the small, wireless, cylinder that is the “Boom” sitting unobtrusively in the middle of the patio table. That was good enough for me: I promptly bought one.

The beauty of the scheme is that you have complete flexibility composing multiple playlists of favorite songs from various CD or streamed library files. With no single performer/group restrictions as imposed by a given CD album, the listening experience is truly a pleasure. More and more of my casual listening will be done this way; I may even check into an iPod, after all this time. Two “Boom” speakers are easily paired to provide full stereo playback via Bluetooth.

Back to the World of McIntosh, Once Again

There is no getting around the fact that serious music demands serious listening time and good equipment. On those occasions, I retreat to my “modern” McIntosh system with its superb B&W pair of speakers. I have two CDs whose recorded music far surpasses any others I own. The first is a Philips recording of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” as performed by the Kirov Orchestra – absolutely magnificent. The booming crescendo in the Pas-de-Deux can only be appreciated on a good sound system with fine bass capability. The other recording, a Telarc recording of Stravinsky’s “The Firebird” also deserves the best possible audio system – a truly amazing, ethereal CD, although perhaps not to everyone’s taste.

Nutcracker & Firebird

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These discs deserve dedicated listening time in front of a fine audio system. I like to hear them from a 200 watts-per-channel McIntosh MC 202 amplifier feeding my B&W Nautilus speaker pair: Pure joy!

In popular music, audio technology, and listening modes, most everything has changed, but a few things have not. The McIntosh mystique in audio remains as strong as it ever was, although the affordability of its gear is now beyond most of us. The iconic, illuminated green/teal “McIntosh” logo behind the ubiquitous, proprietary black glass panel is alive and well. I am thankful that I bought my Mac system components before retirement – when I could (at least) barely afford them. There was one exception to that last statement, and that involves my first McIntosh purchase of $299 – the MR-67 FM tuner. When I brought it home to my parent’s house that December of 1963, I owned virtually nothing else – not even an audio amplifier with which to play the tuner! I recall my parents just standing there, shaking their heads, as the crazy son excitedly unboxed his beautiful Mac tuner that first evening: Much water has passed under the bridge since that time, and I hope I have been able to convey, in this post, the nature and excitement of those earlier, gentler times, and why saying goodbye to this particular possession will be difficult. Maybe nobody will match the auction’s starting bid, and it will not sell, after all!

Note: As always, I have no special connection with or financial interest in any product or company featured or “endorsed” in my blog posts!

From Bing to Bix: Beiderbecke, That Is!

Last week’s post profiled Bing Crosby, an entertainer whose name is still widely recognized but whose historical importance and versatility as a performer are rarely appreciated. I like a good story – one with real interest, and the short life of this week’s subject easily fills the bill. So….here goes!

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Few of you will recognize the name or the image. Most of you with an interest in music history and early jazz will readily identify the “Young Man With a Horn” as the enigmatic, genius Cornet player from the nineteen-twenties, Bix Beiderbecke. In the early nineteen-twenties, jazz was still in its formative stages as a musical art form. Emanating primarily from New Orleans after the turn of the twentieth century, it was begun and shaped by black musicians who imbued it with deep-south cultural experiences, primarily the blues tradition which echoed the travails and sorrows of the field hands who worked barely beyond what were once slave conditions.

If you follow my blog, you are aware that Louis Armstrong was one of those born into the New Orleans culture which gave jazz its start. The jazz art form was subsequently refined up the Mississippi River in bustling, vibrant Chicago.

Bix Beiderbecke was born in 1903, in Davenport, Iowa, to respectable, upper class parents – far from the breeding grounds of jazz clubs and speakeasies in New Orleans and Chicago. At two years of age, Bix was already showing signs of musical precociousness. He was playing the piano by three, and soon, he could play by ear after hearing the piece once. By ten years of age, Bix was spending time at the end of town, down by the riverfront dock, waiting for the excursion boats to come in from down south replete with on-board bands playing the new, infant jazz. He reportedly heard the cornet playing of Louis Armstrong who regularly worked these excursion boats early in his career.

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Around 1918, Bix’s older brother brought home a Victrola phonograph along with records featuring the “Original Dixieland Jazz Band.” That seemed to be the seminal event in young Beiderbecke’s life, for he was soon hooked by the hot dixieland jazz sounds like Tiger Rag which poured forth. He sat in front of the Victrola for hours playing along on his cornet.

Beiderbecke floundered in high school as he began to play cornet in local bands at the age of seventeen. His refined, merchant-class parents had always looked down upon the new music and those who played it: For them, the music and those who immersed themselves in it bordered on the degenerate. They saw no good future for their son in such avante-garde activities.

Bix was sent to an exclusive boarding school in Lake Forest, Illinois, to get his schooling back on track – an unfortunate choice on the parent’s part due to Lake Forest’s proximity to Chicago where, by the nineteen-twenties, all the real jazz action was happening. Chicago was the welcoming ticket for the many aspiring black musicians who took a chance and traveled up the Mississippi River seeking greater fame and fortune. Chicago filtered out the best from the rest of these.

Beiderbecke was attracted like a moth to the bright lights of Chicago and the aural pleasures it offered. After a few weeks of cutting classes and spending late nights in Chicago’s jazz clubs and speakeasies, Bix was expelled from Lake Forest and sent home. He made it a point while in Chicago to get to the South Side to hear King Oliver and his jazz band at the Lincoln Gardens. It was about that time, in 1922, that Louis Armstrong arrived in Chicago from New Orleans to join his boyhood mentor and idol, Joe “King” Oliver at the Gardens. It was from that point in time and place that Louis Armstrong’s long, storied career in music was launched.

By 1923, Beiderbecke was now living in Chicago after a brief stint back in Iowa with his parents. He had acquired a strong fancy for alcohol (Gin preferred), a taste undoubtedly reinforced during his earlier sojourns to Chicago. His drinking, along with his academic failure, combined to doom his tenure at Lake Forest. After working odds and ends of musical gigs while living in Chicago, Bix joined the Wolverine Orchestra in late 1923. The group took its name after their signature piece, “Jelly Roll” Morton’s Wolverine Blues.

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The Wolverine Orchestra with Bix on cornet: Early 1924

Then as now, “cutting a record” was the ultimate achievement for any performer or musical group. On February 18, 1924, the Wolverines made their first recording at the famous Gennett Records studio in Richmond, Indiana.

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The Wolverine Orchestra at Gennett Records: Feb. 18, 1924

I love this photo showing a young Bix, second from right! Look carefully at the Gennett “recording studio” where they, and so many other jazz pioneers made their first recordings. Note the “air-conditioning” in the form of two fans on the shelf. Note also the large “horns” which feed a black hole into which the sound travels to a stylus which grooves the master disc. Pictures of the “studio” show few changes during these years – from 1923 on; the same two fans are always present!

In those days, there were no microphones and no electronic amplification of the music being played. The recording process relied on adequate sound-pressure coming from the musician’s instruments to cut record grooves.

An interesting sidebar at Gennett Records: When King Oliver’s group with Louis Armstrong first recorded their classic discs in 1923, Armstrong, with his power-playing on the cornet, was moved back away from the pick-up horn and into the hallway of the studio to prevent his robust sound from drowning out the rest of the group on the recordings!

Bix in the Big-Time: The Making of a Jazz Legend

In October of 1926, Bix Beidebecke joined the Jean Goldkette band out of Detroit. The band which was headquartered at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit was well-known and regarded. Bix and the band opened at the famous Roseland Ballroom in New York City opposite one of the best jazz ensembles of the time – the all-black Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. The resulting “Battle of the Bands,” as it was billed by Roseland, left Goldkette’s group with top honors – quite an upsetting experience for the seasoned Henderson group.

These were the early days of jazz when bands were segregated – either wholly white or black. Black musicians had literally birthed and raised jazz to its adolescence by 1926, and they still largely defined its direction.

The boyish-looking young white man from Davenport, Iowa, playing cornet for Goldkette was, by now, turning heads in the jazz world with his pure tone and his innovative jazz phrasing. White and black musicians alike were very impressed with his fresh style, reminiscent in some ways of the pioneering innovations of Louis Armstrong. By 1926, Louis, himself, had made it a point to see and hear this young white player perform his very own pioneering jazz style.

“Ain’t None of Them Play Like Him Yet”

Adolphus “Doc” Cheatham, a legendary black musician whose trumpet playing spanned from the early nineteen-twenties to well into his nineties, and who knew all of the great ones, stated that many cornet/trumpet players back then, white and black, tried hard to imitate Beiderbecke’s unique tone and style of playing: As hard as they tried, they found it impossible, he concluded.

Perhaps the finest tribute to Beiderbecke and his talent came from the great Louis Armstrong himself: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

Paul Whiteman: No Better Than This!

In October of 1927, Beiderbecke hit the top – an invitation to join the Paul Whiteman Orchestra…quickly accepted. When Whiteman came calling, few musicians turned him down. Even Bing Crosby’s young career got its kick-start as vocalist with the Whiteman Orchestra. Paul Whiteman, a violin player, had been billed as the “King of Jazz,” a decided misnomer even though he was a significant influence and his orchestra resided at the summit of the musical mountain. Perhaps you have heard that old tune, Whispering? Whiteman made that into a very big hit in the twenties. In 1924, he also premiered George Gershwin’s famous orchestral jazz composition, Rhapsody in Blue in New York City. Unfortunately, Bix’s arrival at music’s summit with the Whiteman Orchestra coincided with the beginning of his precipitous, personal fall.

Life in the Fast Lane – Then Suddenly Gone

Bix’s smooth run with Whiteman was to last no more than a year. By November of 1928, after a year of grueling touring and recording with Whiteman, Beiderbecke suffered a nervous breakdown in Cleveland. His troubles were unquestionably fueled by his love of gin and uncontrolled drinking which by this time had affected his health and his playing. Whiteman sent him home to his parents in Davenport to recover. When Beiderbecke returned after two such attempts at alcoholic recovery, Whiteman finally had to let him go. Beiderbecke spent his last months in a New York apartment in Queens where he died at twenty-eight years of age from failing health and pneumonia on August 6, 1931. Alcohol had literally robbed the cradle of one of music’s most illustrious, inventive musicians.

A Sad and Poignant Sidebar to the Bix Story

Bix’s body died from his flagrant misuse of alcohol, but his heart and soul likely were already dead from the steadfast lack of recognition and approval from his parents. In the euphoria of those occasions when Bix recorded with the Goldkette and Whiteman bands, he proudly sent copies of his records to his parents in Iowa to share with them his success. While he was at home in Davenport recuperating after his breakdown with the Whiteman band, Bix discovered the cache of records he had sent to his parents in celebration of his musical achievement stashed in a closet …the packages were never opened.

Knowing Bix: The Legend and the Cult

The life and career of Bix Beiderbecke holds a special fascination for most early jazz enthusiasts. For someone with so short a musical life, he has captured the imaginations of many fans over the decades – to the point of becoming a music legend.

I have his recordings, and I have listened. His cornet solos do stand apart from other players – I particularly love his rendition of I’m Coming, Virginia recorded with Frank Trumbauer in 1927 – a true classic. The fine jazz cornet player, Bobby Hackett, played that number in tribute to Bix at the memorable Benny Goodman jazz concert in Carnegie Hall, 1938. With respect to Hackett’s tribute, it is interesting for me to reflect upon my current, avid interest in Bix and my very first LP album purchased almost 60 years ago as a teenager – Bobby Hackett’s In a Mellow Mood! I still have that album – so many “connections” throughout life.

I had long wondered if the immense adulation heaped on Beiderbecke over all these years was, perhaps, a bit overdone. Was his legend the product of a cult mentality? After all, his short life has always seemed to me a series of shadows, barely glimpsed and recorded.

That all changed a few weeks ago when I stumbled upon a two hour DVD documentary on Bix filmed some years ago and released under the auspices of the Playboy Jazz Series. It is a film by Brigitte Berman, exquisitely crafted and featuring live interviews with many of the musicians who actually played with Bix, including Hoagy Carmichael of Stardust fame. I listened and heard the message voiced by so many who were there: Bix was a musical genius living in his own inner world. For him, music was life – there was nothing else…except alcohol. He never could “read” music in the true sense, something that bothered and hindered him, but a shortcoming that he overcame by virtue of his musical ear which allowed him to play anything he heard.

Bix’s improvisation skill was legendary. He often played without music even in Whiteman’s band. When asked to sit down with Beiderbecke and musically notate a piano composition of Bix’s, the poor producer found that whenever they had to run through a section of the piece several times, Bix played it differently each time through. The producer practically went nuts. Until he succeeded in getting some version down on musical staff paper, no one else could play the piece!

Here are the universally acknowledged attributes of his playing that the film highlighted through first-person testimony:

-His gorgeous tone on the instrument: “Each note like a small mallet hitting a chime,” to paraphrase his good friend, Hoagy Carmichael.

-His innate jazz phrasing and style which were so revolutionary coming from a white player in the early nineteen-twenties – and much of it was improvised on the spot! To repeat what Louis Armstrong said about the legions of  Bix’s contemporaries, white and black, who tried to imitate his playing: “Ain’t none of them play like him yet.”

-His social/historical impact. Beiderbecke and Armstrong reportedly met on at least one occasion to jam into the wee morning hours. This was no so-called “cutting” session to see who could outplay the other; by all accounts, it was a friendly, joyful collaboration between two virtuoso musicians wishing to make great music together. Such informal fraternity between black and white players was not at all unusual in those early days, although it was not until the mid-nineteen-thirties that mixed musical groups were seen performing. Bix was one of the first white players whose abilities the black jazz pioneers could relate to and respect. In that historical and human sense, he was a most interesting and important character.

The film by Ms. Berman is titled, simply, Bix and wonderfully reconstructs the aura of the jazz age and what it was like to be a musician during this most exciting and colorful period. The interviews and the many photographs of ballrooms and band ephemera help paint the vibrant picture it so successfully projects. I am a “Bix believer” after listening to his music and viewing the film’s testimonials from musical colleagues who fully support the legend.

The opening photos of this blog show Bix and his Vincent Bach “Stradivarius” model cornet. The Bach “Stradivarius” instrument was a legend in itself among horn players in those early days. Here is the factory production ticket for one of Bix’s horns, dated Feb.,1927. Note the name “Bix” engraved on the cornet bell. The horn is one fine reminder of the life and legend of Bix Beiderbecke.

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Do You Like Pop Music? If So, You Should Thank Bing Crosby!

 

If the name “Bing Crosby” kindles any response at all among younger readers of this post, it is likely the image of “that old-style crooner” who regularly surfaces once a year at Christmas time and sings the best-selling recording of all time (by far) – “White Christmas.”

Single_Bing_Crosby_-_White_Christmas_cover[1]The very same sparse reaction would be registered by most middle-aged readers who experienced Crosby in their youth and, even then, regarded him merely as a “pleasant crooner,” a purveyor of pop music. Such images fall far short of the reality of the man and his accomplishments. “Der Bingle” is factually remembered in show business as one of the great innovators in jazz and pop music and THE most versatile, prolific, and popular vocalist…ever.

Bing Crosby’s era is not defined solely by the familiar nineteen-forties, a decade in which he became the most popular singer of all time: Yes, that’s right – even more popular than his successor and closest competitor, a young fellow named Frank Sinatra. Crosby’s rise to prominence began way back in 1925 when bandleader Paul Whiteman first took note of the newly formed, young vocal duo of Crosby and buddy, Al Rinker. Whiteman hired them on the spot to perform with his “orchestra” which was already experiencing a steep rise to fame by capturing the public’s fancy while pioneering the newly-emerging jazz idiom along the way.

 The Greatest Male Pop Singer of Them All?

No, the greatest was not Bing Crosby: That is history’s verdict and my personal opinion, as well. That honor belongs to Frank Sinatra. The younger Sinatra followed Crosby, and by taking cues from the best vocalist of the nineteen-thirties and early forties, Sinatra learned much about style and phrasing. Style, phrasing, and attention to song lyrics were first introduced into vocals by Bing Crosby; Sinatra improved upon Bing’s model and added his own panache, as well.

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 Crosby, Grace Kelley, Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong in “High Society”

Tommy Dorsey who, besides having the finest big-band of all time, was also a very savvy and shrewd musician. Dorsey counseled his band vocalist, a very young Sinatra, to pay close attention to song lyrics – “like Bing Crosby.” Another great (white) big-band leader, the irrepressible Artie Shaw, singled out Bing Crosby as “the first hip white person born in the United States.” Contrary to the modern image of Crosby, Shaw was right-on: Crosby had what it takes.

Listen to Bing’s predecessors, vocalists like the band-leader Rudy Vallee and hear the difference. Early songsters sang “on the beat” – the precise way a song is notated on paper… and the style of the nineteen-twenties – but a style that soon proved tedious and unexciting. Crosby changed all of that with his innovative phrasing, style, and respect for lyrics. With his fine, mellow, baritone voice, Crosby set the standard for vocalists – until Mr. Sinatra came along and “did it his way.”

 The Thrill of “Finding Out” Such Things

If you have followed this blog, you already appreciate the effect that Ken Burns’ excellent film documentary, “Jazz,” has had on me. I am a “musician”… of sorts, and as I began to progress with my trumpet playing late in life, I reached out to learn more about the music I love – the early forms of jazz which led to swing and the big-band era. Along with much musical history, I learned one very important lesson from that film: Some of the performers who were already regarded as “old, tired, and predictable performers” when I was young in the nineteen-fifties had, in their own young, dynamic years, actually pioneered the new music called jazz and swing, and, by their influence, set the standard for much of the music heard ever since.

armstrongThe prime case in point is Louis Armstrong, a cornet/trumpet man from the slums of New Orleans via Chicago in the early twenties whose youthful talent on the instrument were both stirring and trend-setting. There was no one who played better trumpet and possessed the musical creativity/improvisation that Armstrong displayed. Indeed, the Burns film credits Armstrong with his power-playing, creative phrasing, and improvisation skills as the single individual most responsible for the evolution of jazz as we know it. What Armstrong did for instrumental music and the jazz idiom, Bing Crosby did for vocalizing. That is powerful stuff, and little did I appreciate the historical importance of these two legendary performers and just how far back in time they did go. These days, when I think of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby, a wholly different image of each appears in my mind’s eye. After many hours of pleasurable reading /researching the history of jazz and entertainment, I became very aware that both Crosby and Louis had great respect for each other’s talent and place in the history of music and entertainment. To experience that mutual respect, take a look at the famous segment from the fine movie, “High Society,” in which Crosby, with Armstrong and his small group perform the famous “Now You Has Jazz” number – not a bad performance for two old-timers, already well past their prime in 1955. In that same movie and vein, also take a look at the terrific “Swell Party” duet performed by Crosby and Sinatra which hints at their different styles while projecting great mutual respect and fantastic showmanship.

The Just-Released PBS American Masters Documentary
on Crosby: “Bing Crosby Rediscovered”

I watched the new PBS documentary last night and very much enjoyed it. Bing Crosby traveled many, many miles during a vibrant life. It was not always good, and it was not always pretty along the way, but the man left this earth with his feet firmly planted, and he deserves to be remembered for his contributions to music and to our culture. His life-long, chiding comic cohort, Bob Hope, put it this way referring to his pal, Bing: “Never before has someone done so much, for so long, with so little, for so much.” On the contrary, Crosby accomplished much over his lifetime…with much talent, talent deceptively masked by his greatest asset: The ability to make it all look so easy!

1024px-Bing_Crosby_star_HWF[1]Twenty-three gold and platinum records and forty-one hits reaching #1 on the charts is far beyond the stats of any other vocalist or group: That includes Sinatra, Elvis Presley, and the Beatles. And then there are the three separate stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame which speak to his versatility as a performer. It is said that Crosby’s is the most electronically-recorded voice in history. Yes, I can believe that, and he did much more during his career than record vocals on lacquer by also triumphing in the movies, radio, and television – truly an amazing life. The best-actor Oscar in 1945 for his priestly role in the fine film, “Going My Way,” speaks to the depth of his talent. As with Louis Armstrong, I quickly grasped Crosby’s importance to the music and entertainment culture after watching the Burns film, “Jazz.”

Bing BioAccordingly, I purchased Crosby’s definitive biography by Gary Giddens. I still recollect my parents relating attending Catholic mass with Bing, his second wife, Kathryn, and their family at Our Lady of Angels in nearby Burlingame, California. My parents lived just blocks from the church and the Crosbys lived in nearby Hillsborough.

Now, realizing just how extensive were Bing Crosby’s travels through a long and very colorful life, I am transfixed by the image of his gravestone in Culver City, California. It all ends right there: His long journey is over. Have a peaceful eternity, Bing…and thanks for the memories.

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For more of my posts on music and entertainment, go to the “Home” page, click on “Categories” in the right-hand column and then select “Music.”

From the Slums of New Orleans to the Palaces of Europe: Meet Louis Armstrong – Musician

Meet Louis Armstrong – musician. You, the reader, may be muttering, “You must be joking: Everyone knows Louis Armstrong – musician and trumpet player, and he’s still world- famous even though he is long-gone from this earth!” In reality, only a tiny fraction of the many people around the world who “know” Louis Armstrong actually does.

king_oliver[1]Joe (King) Oliver and the Creole Jazz Band – 1923. King Oliver is on muted cornet behind the kneeling Louis Armstrong and Armstrong’s future second wife, pioneer jazz pianist, Lil Hardin.

Years ago, as a teen-aged, aspiring trumpet player, I had Louis Armstrong pegged as an old-timer from New Orleans whose trumpet playing sounded frayed around the edges. His questionable virtuosity on the trumpet seemed somewhat offset by his appealing “feel” for the music of his home town. His was an infectious style of playing – real soul – the inevitable outcome of growing up in the “Big Easy,” I reckoned. That’s all.

And I knew of his singing with that raspy voice. Songs like “Mack the Knife,” “Blueberry Hill,” “Hello Dolly,” and “It’s a Wonderful World” were very popular back in the nineteen-sixties. Armstrong had an awful voice… yet listening to him was and is, strangely, a pleasurable experience. Why is that? One thing was certain: Mr. Armstrong was a unique entertainer with his ever-present smile which often verged on “mugging.”

I knew nothing about Louis Armstrong, in reality! I discovered Louis Armstrong – jazz pioneer and trumpet player without peer once I began to seriously delve into music and my own trumpet playing – late in life. The eye-opener for me was the Ken Burns video opus titled, Jazz. That excellent, comprehensive documentary on the history of jazz took me way back in time to Armstrong’s early years in New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. It was then that I realized what a sensational musician he had been on the trumpet in his prime and how he, perhaps more than any single individual, defined a new style of playing which ultimately evolved into the musical genre known as “jazz.”

Then I read more about Armstrong – biographical accounts, and I listened to his early recordings (now on re-mastered CDs). I quickly realized that this man was not only the finest trumpet player of his era – by far – he was also an irresistible force stirring the winds of change which brought us new music – music which ranged from New Orleans and Chicago jazz to the big-band swing tunes of Goodman, Dorsey, Shaw, and Harry James. Jazz has continued to evolve from the seeds planted and nurtured by Louis Armstrong – even today.

I ultimately appreciated that his true stature as a musician evolves from both the brilliance of his playing in the early years and his unique musical phrasing which freed musicians from the prison of playing the music exactly as written. Armstrong’s creative, improvisational style heralded the beginning of modern jazz. The well-regarded authority, Gary Giddins, has said there is virtually nothing musically that came along later that did not have echoes of Louis, Louis….Louis.

 Out of the Mud Grows the Lotus; A Most Improbable Story!

I agree that fact is stranger than fiction. I can think of no better illustration than the life-story of Louis Armstrong. Born in the slums of New Orleans at the turn of the twentieth century, his father nowhere to be seen, his mother a part-time prostitute, little Louis (not “Louie”) did what it took to survive, much as his mother Mary Ann (he called her May-Ann) did. The youngster was born at 723 Jane Alley, on the edge of black Storyville, the red-light district where black sex was readily for sale. He lived among the worst squalor extant in New Orleans, and it was there that he began to learn all there was to know about life and living. He, like so many of the black youngsters, moved readily among the pimps, prostitutes, and cut-throat thieves that inhabited that infamous section of New Orleans.

There was another small class of individuals that caught the attention of Armstrong and most of his young pals, and these folks were the local musicians who played in the whore-houses, bars, and honky-tonks. These people, although almost as poor as the rest of the residents, were held in quite high esteem and even idolized by the boys in the neighborhood. For most Storyville residents, life offered little of cheer beyond alcohol, sex….and music. Little Louis and the other boys heard their music from the sidewalk, listening while standing outside joints like the “Funky Butt Hall” located across the street from the Fisk School for Boys which Armstrong began attending in 1907.

Little Louis and the Karnofsky Family who “Adopted” Him:
A Lifelong Respect for Jewish Industry and Ambition

At seven years of age, young Armstrong was working for a large Jewish family, the Karnofskys. Their little business involved buying and selling rags, junk, and coal. Louis pushed his little coal-laden wagon around Storyville, delivering small quantities to various enterprises including those operating in prostitute’s cribs. The Karnofskys took a liking to little Louis, often inviting him to stay for dinner after the day’s work was done. He was frequently included in their daily family rituals.

I purchased a very enlightening book on Louis Armstrong several years ago at Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The title reads, Louis Armstrong in His Own Words – Selected Writings. It was edited by Thomas Brothers. Revealing his debt of gratitude to the Karnofsky family for their kindnesses shown him as a young boy, Armstrong pens some very strong words while comparing Jewish attitudes toward personal industry and self-improvement to the behaviors he had long observed on the part of poor black people, especially those he lived among as a boy. While blacks in the South were clearly “held down,” Armstrong saw, first-hand, similarly prejudicial attitudes toward poor Jews like the Karnofskys. In his opinion, Jews were not much better off in that regard. He also noticed that the Jews stuck together while patiently executing their self-crafted plans to lift themselves by their bootstraps – actions he claimed not to see from his black bretheren. Armstrong wore the Star of David for the rest of his life in remembrance of the Karnofskys.

These are startling accounts and accusations coming from a major adult black voice. His choice of words in the writings is blunt and brutally frank.

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When Armstrong left New Orleans to conquer the world with his talent, he often encountered racist attitudes which stung him and his fellow blacks. It is clear from his writings that these incidents left scars, yet he managed to defer the pain and embrace the white entertainment culture which quickly accepted him and made him a star. His willingness to play the white man’s game engendered criticism from many black colleagues at the time, some of whom accused him of “Uncle Tomming.”

Young Louis was once advised by an older, wiser black friend in New Orleans to, “Always have a white man in your corner.” The mature Louis took that advice to heart in the form of Joe Glaser, a tough character with mob connections who managed Armstrong’s career for decades. Despite the disparity of backgrounds and interests, they had mutual respect for one another, and Armstrong was freed to perform his music, free from the headaches of booking and book-keeping. For his all-inclusive role, Glaser received half of Armstrong’s considerable earnings!

The often present, toothy smile across Armstrong’s beaming face irritated some of his black critics, to be sure, and some white folks were not quite sure how to take him. His image was distinctly different from the smooth, sophisticated demeanor of a Duke Ellington, for example. To decipher Louis Armstrong, one must understand the forces that shaped him. I see him as a blend of two people: On the one hand, he was a basically kind, well-meaning human being who loved to please and who was easily pleased, needing not much more in life than his music, audience approval, and basic human respect; on the other hand, he was a worldly man, given his bulging dossier of life-experiences, many of which were bound to leave scars.

Louis, himself, confidently and proudly wrote (I paraphrase perhaps a bit), “There’s nothing I ain’t seen!” That certainly includes a lot of good and, undoubtedly, a bunch of “bad.”

It all began for little Louis Armstrong when the Karnofsky’s advanced him some pay so he could buy a battered, used cornet. He learned to really play his horn in the Colored Waif’s Home band where he found himself at age eleven, having been sent there for being involved in some Rampart Street mayhem on New Year’s Eve. After leaving the Waif’s home, young Louis hung around the local musicians, learning from them and finally coming to the attention of Joe “King” Oliver. Joe Oliver also played the cornet (a first-cousin of the trumpet which Louis later adopted) and fronted some local musical groups. When Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago in search of fame and fortune, he eventually called for Armstrong to come and join him, there. That was in 1922; from there, the rest is history as Louis proceeded to outplay everyone in sight with his unique musical phrasing, his pure tone, his high-register capability, and his overall technical proficiency. It was his phrasing, his interpretation of the written music, which made him the singularly most influential musician in the whole history of jazz and its development. It was his phrasing of music, his improvised elaboration of basic melodies that made listening to his vocals a pleasure despite his gravelly voice. And, always present and a significant factor, was his perfect intonation, or pitch.

Armstrong traveled the world, playing numerous command performances before kings, queens, and presidents. His real-life story makes Cinderella’s storybook transformation look rather mundane, by comparison. Later in life, as his raw talent on the trumpet declined, his music had become distinctly commercial. That was the Louis Armstrong I first encountered as a youngster. That was not the Louis Armstrong that garnered such musical acclaim as a young man – the musician you really should know and appreciate.

Armstrong and his wife Lucille lived their late lives in a very modest house in Queens, New York. There were no security guards; there was no gated property. At the end, Louis Armstrong was, fittingly, merely a “resident of the neighborhood” whom everyone knew just as he was in New Orleans at the beginning of it all.

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A good, readable biography is Pops by Terry Teachout.

It’s Not Your Nationality ( It’s Simply You )

My wife and I first saw it at Ellis Island during our 2012 vacation visit. Although only one of many sheet music titles related to immigrants and  Ellis Island displayed in one of the exhibits, this one caught our attention.

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As fate so often would have it, we came across this copy on a seller’s table at The Pleasanton Antique & Collectable Fair last weekend. We purchased it along with several other more conventional titles such as You’ll Never Know and Green Eyes.This piece was copyrighted in 1916 by Leo. Feist, Inc. Feist Building, N.Y.

While the song lyrics are typically quaint in the style of those times, they carry a distinct message. That message undoubtedly would resonate with recent arrivals at Ellis Island were it translated for them into their native tongues.

The message: It’s not about your nationality, it’s about you – how hard you work and your determination to succeed in America. It would seem to be a double-edged message which cuts both ways since immigrants arriving here often faced pre-conceived notions about their desirability as fellow countrymen – stereotypes based on nationality. For some, America’s welcome was warm; for others, distinctly guarded. For the former, the song’s admonition is a mild caution not to expect a warm welcome complete with entitlements. For the latter, it is a veiled warning of potential discrimination while, at the same time, offering hope of overcoming its effects through hard work and demonstrated ability.

It is a great message, the reassuring admonition that one will be judged not by one’s nationality, but by the “content of one’s character,” to paraphrase one of the great speech lines of all time.

Over the long-haul, character, ability, and hard work often did prevail to determine the immigrant’s fate, but the initial ordeal to assimilate and overcome the negative nationality stereotypes faced by many hopeful arrivals must have been difficult.

I am not sure which nationalities fared worst in terms of initial acceptance; it seems that most immigrants faced unfavorable stereotypes at one time or another, from one quarter or another except, perhaps, some western Europeans and English speakers. Regrettably, it was often nationality pitted against nationality among the recent arrivals that caused problems in communities.

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 Ellis Island – Gateway to America

The song lyrics proclaim that:

“It’s not your nationality,  It’s what you do, –  It’s not your  personality that always pulls you through.” Further along: “Just think of Henry Ford and his old Fliver bus, –  We laugh, but all the dough he’s got, he took away from us, –  So never mind your breeding, Keep a level head,  Face the world, prepare to knock ‘em dead,  It’s not your nationality,  it’s simply you ! – you!”

Our Ellis Island experience in 2012 was fabulous; everyone should go there – especially youngsters. For the young, the life-lessons on display can kindle an understanding of what “hunger” and “fear of failure” must have felt like for recent arrivals. For them, the hunger to succeed in their new lives was fueled not only by ambition, but by the dark portent of possible failure. There were few they could depend upon except immediate family members who also made the voyage. There were certainly no governmental safety nets for them. Nothing was taken for granted.

Like the song lyrics say, “it’s simply you and what you do.” Should not that always hold true?

See these posts in the blog archives: August 25, 2013, Two Sights in New York Every Youngster (and Adult) Should Visit and June 7, 2014, The Pleasanton Antique & Collectable Fair: A Day Well – Spent