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.

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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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.

Music Mysteries – Part 2

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Last week’s post highlighted some intriguing aspects of music and its power to move us listeners. We saw that the ancient Greek philosopher/mathematician Pythagoras was the first to decipher the hard-wired nature of our brains when it comes to musical harmony. He demonstrated that we are physiologically designed to accept and reject certain tonal combinations (harmony). Those preferences influence our tastes in melodic sequences (melody) as well, from complex works of the great composers to simple tunes. Stevie Wonder’s “I Just Called to Say I Love You” strikes me as a modern-day example of a simple, but very “catchy” melodic construct. It has appealed to a very wide audience! Another hard-wired part of our musical brains clearly involves the influence of rhythm, or beat – as in “The Beatles.” 

Given Pythagoras’ findings to partially explain our musical preferences, how do we account for the generational preferences so obvious in the history of the music business? If our parents’ generation loved Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and the big-band sound of the 30’s and 40’s based on musical merit, should not their grandchildren and great-grandchildren be attracted to it as well? That may be true based on physiology and musical merit alone, but the premise does not take into account important emotional/generational factors. After all, how many of today’s teenagers are listening to their grandparents’ music?

 It seems that musical appreciation is very much related to both the times in which the musical genre surfaced and the memories which are evoked in those who grew up with the music. For many of us, the 50’s was the decade of our maturing, and we were enjoying the simple vocal/orchestral tunes at the top of the charts like the McGuire Sisters’ Sincerely, and Rosemary Clooney’s Hey There. We were adolescents leaving childhood and receptive to the moods and messages of 50’s music – the music we were hearing. Pleasant memories flood back when I hear some of these tunes even though many now, in hindsight, seem musically simple and, yes, even inane and laughable.

Perez PradoCherry Pink 45 1955

One tune from 1955 that topped the charts then and still raises my hairs is Perez Prado’s very popular Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White with its featured trumpet and Latin rhythm. That’s the one that originally “connected” me with music as a teenager and fueled my lifelong passion for the trumpet – powerful stuff, music!

 The venerable music-writer and author James Lincoln Collier stated where he was coming from musically in Ken Burns’ documentary, Jazz. I will loosely paraphrase his love of the big-band era: “When you need solace, you turn to the music of your youth. The big-band sound was where I was coming from – that was my kind of music.” He went on to describe the excitement of going to a place like New York’s Paramount Theatre in the late 30’s – early 40’s to hear a featured band like Benny Goodman or Tommy Dorsey. The first sounds of the band filtered outside the theatre to the folks in line, getting louder and louder as you approached the entrance. Once inside, the music became full-bore as the stage slowly elevated from the pit on hydraulic risers to the audience level. That was chills up your back, as he put it!

 I suppose being born in 1940, I have a memory connected, probably through my parents, to the mood of those times and to war-time sentiments – a powerful adjunct to the mystique of the big-band era. Additionally, I think my personal hard-wiring has something to do with my enthusiasm for the music of those times. One specific aspect of biological influence might explain my love for Chopin’s music – I am half Polish from my mother’s side, so there is a common thread with the composer. I have recordings of two of the all-time great pianists playing Chopin – Vladimir Horowitz and Artur Rubinstein. I once tried a little experiment and proceeded to play, side-by-side, identical numbers as performed by each. Both were top keyboard technicians, but the musical phrasing and interpretation by the Polish Rubinstein is so superior (my opinion only!) to that of Horowitz that I was literally startled at the difference I experienced. Despite a reticence to draw such conclusions, I have come to believe, to the point of making jokes, that Chopin’s music can best be appreciated by a Polish person hearing a Polish pianist interpret the Polish composer! It makes me think even more about that hard-wired business in terms of musical DNA. I do have a distant memory of my mother once commenting that Rubinstein was respected as much for his musical interpretation, especially of Chopin, as he was for his technical mastery of the keyboard. To dispel any notions of a resulting bias on my part, I could easily have chosen his renditions over those of the Russian Horowitz in a blind-test comparison.

 New generations like new musical “ideas.” So do musicians who love to invent and improvise. Even the great Artie Shaw quickly became sick and tired of playing his all-time 1939 hit, Begin the Beguine. He chafed at the ballroom crowds wanting to hear the same thing over and over again while he wanted to push the musical envelope with new ideas. He actually walked out on his great band right at the peak of its popularity because of his discontent. So, the attitude of “our music” has influenced the music business from both sides – the performers and the (young) listeners. As a result we have transitioned from ragtime to jazz/swing to be-bop (where wild improvisation is king) to rock-and-roll to heavy metal, and to where we are today, and I am not really sure just where we are today.

 I do know two things: First, that Louis Armstrong, a great jazz improviser himself, was right: As an improvising performer striving to be “creative,” do not stray too far from the melody line, he admonished. That solid advice came from the great cornet player and his boyhood mentor in New Orleans, Joe “King” Oliver. Second, I know that the musical “talent” of today’s most visible performers catering to young audiences rarely matches that which was obvious many years ago. I am not hearing any modern-day vocalists remotely comparable in musicality to the great ones of decades past like Sinatra, Dick Haymes, Nat King Cole, Helen Forrest, Eydie Gorme, etc. – and where are the songwriters? The truly accomplished musical performers of today are much less visible, ensconced in the many symphony orchestras and stage productions across this country. Today, big concert money and big-time marketing aimed at the young have built musical castles out of sand which the waves of time will quickly wash away.