In a recent edition of Desert Island Discs the playwright Ronald Harwood chose a Louis Armstrong record as one of his eight. This wasn't because he was a covert jazz fan. Far from it - he didn't mention jazz at all in the whole programme. This was how he explained his reasons for picking a Louis record:-
‘My last record combines two things which I hope are to be found in my plays ... One is that the world is unbearably funny and the other is that the world is unbearably sad, and in choosing Louis s Armstrong singing “Wonderful World”, I feel that the words are almost banal in their happiness, and his voice is so tragic that the combination is almost irresistible.’
Well, that kind of thinking must be pretty baffling to a jazz fan. For a start, it is his trumpet playing that makes him the jazz star he is. If he had never played an instrument, only sung, I do not think he would have become world-famous, and to go on Desert Island Discs and then choose a Louis Armstrong record for his singing alone is, in jazz terms, weird. Secondly, jazz people don't find his voice tragic. Quite the opposite. That gravelly, rough voice, the kind of voice, which in an actor would take 200 cigars a day to achieve, is always thought of as a warm, cheerful voice. If Louis Armstrong had chosen to be threatening, it would have sounded a pretty scary voice, but he always kept it comically rough-edged and unmenacing.
(Not a thing of beauty, though. However much critics praise the natural warmth of his voice, they ought to admit that it was a grotesque singing and speaking voice. Eroll Garner knew better. On his recording of ‘Concert By The Sea’, the compère tried to make Garner open his mouth and do an announcement, which he never normally did. ‘I insist you hear his voice,’ says the compère. ‘He's got a beautiful voice’ To which Garner says, in the only time I ever heard his voice outside his constant humming, ‘It's worse than Louis Armstrong...’)
The fact is that Louis Armstrong was a bundle of contradictions. The legend about Louis was that he was a simple soul who happened to be a genius and got caught up in worldwide fame, but it was never that simple. He was a smart guy who appeared in lots of films, yet always played a buffoon figure. He was no fool, but he let himself be run by a ruthless if not crooked white businessman for half his life. Yes, he was a genius because he became the first jazz soloist and played the trumpet in a way that it took lesser people ten years to catch up with. On the other hand, that's not why he became famous; he became famous because he was a showman and appealed to hordes of people who couldn't care less about jazz, playing and recording stuff for them that his jazz followers preferred to ignore.
Even jazz fans are split about him. Some feel that all his best work was done by 1930 and you don't hear any good new stuff after that. Others, notably Humphrey Lyttelton, insist that he kept on changing and that every period of his life is good in different ways - it is always a joy on ‘The Best Of Jazz’ to hear Humph losing his temper when he comes across any other theory about Louis.
Other contradictions? Well, the feeling that he was a simple soul who lived a clean life is marred, if only slightly, by the fact that he smoked cannabis all his life and even went to jail for a few months for it in the late 1920s. The feeling that he owed everything to dear old New Orleans is slightly marred by the fact that he had a horrendously hard childhood there as the son of a prostitute in the First World War, and never went back there after he had made the break to Chicago. His status as a New Orleans musician is marred by the fact that he did more than anyone else in the world to destroy New Orleans jazz by making it old-fashioned.
Hard to know where to stop with these contradictions, really. Even the basic details don't match. We are always taught that he was born in 1900 and thus was as old as the century, but research has changed all that now and made him a bit older. Why, we can't even get his name right. The Americans always pronounce the -s on the end of Louis, as in Lewis, but we over here like to call him Looee, in the French style...
I can't even make my own mind up about him. Whenever I listen to one of his great 1920s tracks such as "Potato Head Blues", or “Muggles”, or “Weather Bird” with Earl Hines, or “Twelfth Street Rag” ( the way he alters the timing of the corny tune in the first chorus is still breathtaking enough to bring the hairs up on end), I feel that nobody since then has ever had such a grand vision of improvisation. When I hear some of his corny later productions I wonder why anyone ever went to hear him. I loved his trumpet, didn't care that much for his singing. I went to see him once, just as I once went to see Muhammad Ali in an exhibition bout, and on both occasions I realised within five minutes that I should have saved my money and stayed at home. Yet if I hear a couple of bars of one of his early records I am still transfixed....
Strange guy. The only other person in jazz I ever heard with a voice a bit like Armstrong's was Miles Davis. But Miles Davis - and I don't think I have ever seen this pointed out - Miles Davis was the first jazz trumpeter who never sang. Until Miles came along, all trumpeters, even Dizzy, sometimes put down their horns and sang. Not Miles. Maybe that's the way to sum it up. The great thing about Louis was that he started the tradition of jazz musicians singing. The great thing about Miles was that he stopped it.