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.

With Ellington, it was somewhat different. Armstrong thought of himself primarily as an entertainer and only secondarily, if at all, as the creative jazz innovator that millions had worshipped for decades, whereas Duke regarded his role with more intellectual detachment. And because of his superficially hip, elegant public persona, not to mention his use of more advanced harmonic techniques in his music, boppers retained respect for him while at the same time trashing Armstrong.

If these two Olympian gods had ever troubled to observe the mortal rumblings going on beneath them, they would most certainly have been more confused than amused. Their minds were on loftier planes of concern than such superficialities as styles of demeanor or the manner of their deportment on stage. But where Ellington had become, without artifice, the embodiment of the middle-class black's hope for social acceptance in white America, Armstrong symbolized an embarrassing step backward. It seems fair to say that Louis as entertainer was loved by whites everywhere because he represented no threat to tradition. But to increasingly younger generations of blacks, he -- or, more accurately, his stage persona -- was a constant reminder of a past best forgotten.

In the early Thirties, when Armstrong's work grew more formulized and less innovative, Ellington's writing became increasingly experimental and challenging. From the point of view of harmony, counterpoint, melodic inventiveness, and tone color, no one in the world was writing like Duke Ellington. Nor did anyone ever have a band like his, especially in the prewar years. But while Ellington's star was in ascendance, Armstrong's was falling. Saddled with one mediocre, poorly rehearsed band after another, and dreary, uninspired, hack arrangements of Tin Pan Alley pop tunes, Armstrong had only himself to rely on. It's miraculous, indeed, considering all of these odds against him, that he turned out as many good records as he did during these years. His playing and singing on a long string of Decca 78s, soon to be reissued in their entirety by GRP, should be a revelation to a whole new generation of listeners. Just don't expect his band to sound as exotic or as provocative as Ellington's, as swinging as Basie's, or as well drilled as Lunceford's. Just concentrate on him, and you'll get your money's worth.

Since the Thirties, many critiques have been written about Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, their various musical contributions and slips from artistic grace, their relative ups and downs over the course of their equally long careers (Armstrong died in 1971, Ellington in '74, both while still professionally active), and, least important of all, their perceived failures as spokesmen for the political demands of Afro-Americans. From the critical perspective, it's perfectly reasonable to castigate an artist for "selling out" to commercial interests, even if it does help him meet his bills. That is a legitimate ground for complaint, for it is a violation of artistic responsibility. But to fault an artist for not taking a stand on a political issue is to miss the point of artistic expression. Picasso made his feelings about war eminently clear with Guernica. Should we expect more from a jazz musician?

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