Two Far Gone

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington: If the music doesn't say it, it probably shouldn't be said

If working jazz musicians had to depend on audiences consisting of only intensely serious record collectors and historians, professional critics, and other musicians eager to cop their stuff, sit in, and perhaps nail the job for themselves, no one would be able to pay the rent.

So it was that, early on, some uncredited genius came up with the notion that perhaps it would not be a bad idea at all for his band to "play for the people," the ones who actually paid their own way, the ones who bought tickets, ordered drinks, and sometimes even tipped the band. A revolutionary concept, but what happened in the aftermath of its inception was even more earthshaking. For the first time there came about a divisiveness of theory among musicians as to what constituted their primary function as jazzmen. Were they to consider themselves artists or entertainers? Was their role in life to follow the instinctual, primordial urges of their creative spirit and strive for the fulfillment of their own inner goals? Or was it to devote their lives and God-given talents to the entertainment of others?

We could go on and on about this heady conundrum, a problem in aesthetics still unresolved even after long centuries of inquiry. But for the moment just consider the options open to talented people who never even had the chance to take Philosophy 101 -- for most of us, the ultimate answer to all of life's most perplexing quandaries. How were they to know, for example, that by directing their performances toward the satisfaction of the majority, they were at the same time alienating another, albeit smaller, coterie of followers who would soon rally against them and revile them as defectors from the cause?

Because there was no impartial, intelligent writing about jazz in the Twenties, the earliest documents stem from the Thirties. Some of these voiced the first complaints about Louis Armstrong's growing commercialism, i.e., his bravura forays into his trumpet's upper register were perceived as being little more than descents into tawdry exhibitionism, while his increasing use of second-rate Tin Pan Alley songs, at the expense of jazz-based material, was seen to be an outright act of treason.

At the same time, Duke Ellington was being found guilty of abandoning his hot "jungle band" style of the late Twenties for what the classically trained critics of the time thought was a pretension to the European symphonic tradition. (What they were referring to so heatedly was Duke's rather pleasant, though flawed, first attempt at blues-based extended composition, the 1932 "Creole Rhapsody." Neither freewheeling jazz nor a conventionally structured suite, despite the critics' grumbling, it nevertheless remains a landmark piece and the predecessor of much of value to come.)

There is no question that Louis Armstrong's technical and improvisational brilliance as a trumpet player, his universal appeal as a singer, and his immediately captivating stage presence did more to bring jazz into the lives of people across the world than any other single artist. Similarly, Duke Ellington, as bandleader/composer/arranger/pianist, exerted the most powerful single force in reshaping the relatively simple harmonic forms of early jazz into what would become, after the mid-Forties explosion of bebop, the modern jazz of today. But the oddity of all this is that neither Louis nor Duke worked in collusion with each other. They went their separate ways through the decades, each pursuing his own career, seemingly oblivious to the successes or failures of the other. The first time the Armstrong horn was heard with the Ellington orchestra was on an experimental, coast-to-coast network hook-up in 1945, when, as winners of Esquire's Second Annual All-American Jazz Poll, Armstrong, in New Orleans, and Benny Goodman, in New York, were supposed to "sit in" for choruses with Ellington's band in Los Angeles. A great idea on paper, it just didn't work out the way it was planned, simply because the engineers forgot to account for continental feedback delay.

The second and last time Armstrong played with Ellington was during a two-day recording session in 1961. Although no longer available on the original Roulette LPs, the entire output of this historic meeting can be found on Mobile Fidelity MFCD 2-807 under the title of Armstrong/Ellington: The Great Reunion. What is most remarkable about this recording is that Duke, for the first time in his long, illustrious career, is actually playing piano in somebody else's band, in this case Armstrong's. In addition to bass and drums, Armstrong's sextet sported famed New Orleans clarinetist Barney Bigard, formerly one of Ellington's most heavily featured soloists, and Trummy Young, who, from his early years with Jimmie Lunceford's popular swing band on, had been an important influence on trombonists everywhere.

Apart from its historical significance and musical value, this date poses an intriguing question. The young modern jazzmen of the Fifties and Sixties had long rejected Armstrong as an old-fashioned, handkerchief-head Uncle Tom who, to their way of thinking, was merely pandering to the worst of the white man's stereotypes. They were so vehement in their politically based denunciation of him they couldn't even hear what he played and sang. They were not only deaf to the heartfelt beauty and strength of his music, they were also blind to his genuine love for all mankind.

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