Friday, April 6, 2012

The Swan Song of Pops

I've confessed this for many times. Most recently, I told it to an interviewer from Q show of the CBC radio: how like so many other jazz lovers around the world, I owe my interest in jazz and my life in jazz to the charisma and mastery of  Louis 'Satchmo' Armstrong.

Nothing has changed about Satchmo. Having heard anything from King Oliver to Anthony Braxton, still Pops is Socrates of jazz for me. Every time you hear him, you're unreservedly moved. It was in here that I wrote how even playing his more "popular" tunes can be a revelation.

I mentioned these insignificant incidents in my life, just to remind myself how Satchmo, beyond the musical heritage, had been also a guiding light in my life. Therefore, anything related to him, naturally comes to there center of my attention, no matter what is the output; a new recording, a note, or just a smile. So release of a new album by Louis Armstrong, definitely can not be missed:

Louis Armstrong with actor Ralph Meeker
In 1971, Satchmo played in an award ceremony at the National Press Club in Washington. It was one of his last concerts before he passed away five months later. Now the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings is going to release the Armstrong cuts from that date, plus six tracks from Armstrong's band member, Tyree Glenn who plays in the first set, and then later, when Pops is gone, returns to the club to pay tribute to his mentor.

The Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours, originally a limited vinyl release by the National Press Club in 1972, will be available widely for the first time via Smithsonian Folkways Recordings on April 24th as part of the Smithsonian’s celebration of the 11th annual Jazz Appreciation Month.
When in Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours, the Rockin' Chair tune arrives, listener accustomed to hearing a duet between Pops and Jack Teagarden, by not hearing Teagarden who had died some seven years before, feels somehow melancholic. I don't know what we can call it. Nostalgia? Not exactly. Maybe a vivid and joyful picture of something which is essentially sad: passing of time. In a sense, all art forms are courageous struggles against time, and the history of mankind is the history of the honorable defeat of mankind in the face of time. But it seems that in every age we repeat the same struggle.

I have a notion about great artists in their later days, when they are fragile, old, and physically (or sometimes mentally) unable to present their art, as precise, powerful and spontaneous, as the old days. I believe, in these last years, if not technically, but spiritually, they can be better than anytime. It is the painstaking process of creation itself that touches us. Take Matisse for instance. In the last years, sick and bed-driven, he was far from his glory days, but painting in bed by gigantic pain brushes on the walls of his rest room are the real manifestations of art. I find them deeply moving and more influential (at least on me) than the actual paintings. The old Armstrong, like old Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young is the continuance of a struggle against brutality of time.

The death, or more likely the earthly absence of Satchmo, is described beautifully in a poem by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:
Great Satchmo plays all bathed in sweat,
A salty Niagara pours from his brow,
But when the trumpet rises to the clouds,
It growls and roars.

But if it happens--Play!
let the good times roll once more!
Shake up that boring state of little angels.
But so there'll be no remorse in hell,
So death will cheer us sinners up,
Archangel Gabriel,
Pass your horn to the better player
To Louis!
Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours: Satchmo at the National Press Club (with Tyree Glenn), a set of standards (from Royal Garden Blues to Hello Dolly), due to Louis Armstrong's physical condition is not as brilliant as one expects. But again for the very same reasons we discussed above, the "sound" and the "spirit" is there.


  1. The aging artist transcends the aging body to give us deep truths. The heart only grows wiser and more loving with time. Having Louis guide you is a sign that you are on a rewarding path. May your happiness increase! Michael