Louis Armstrong: Hailed in Copenhagen and celebrated in New Orleans
[Ed. note: This post was originally published on August 4, 2015]
“If you don’t love him, I don’t think you really know how to love.” Mahalia Jackson on Louis Armstrong
I assume the Danes who filmed Louis Armstrong in 1933 knew what a service they were providing humanity. There’s no shortage of film on the great trumpeter later in his career, but this is the first footage we have of Pops in his early prime. Armstrong’s performances of three songs, “I Cover the Waterfront,” “Dinah,” and “Tiger Rag,” were filmed on a sound stage with an audience superimposed to make it look like a concert. They look delighted, and in Armstrong-ese, “that’s no stage joke.” The Danes loved Louis.
Dan Morgenstern knows from Armstrong and from Denmark. I wrote an appreciation of Dan (that’s linked here) on his 85th birthday last October. The dean of jazz critics was born in Munich in 1929 and spent nearly a decade living in Vienna until Hitler’s annexation of Austria in 1938. The Anschluss led the Morgenstern family to flee in separate directions, his father to France, Dan and his mother to Copenhagen. It was there where he heard Fats Waller in concert, an experience that “fascinated” the ten-year-old who reveled in Waller’s “enormous energy and good humor.” In 1943, when the Danish underground learned that the Nazis were about to round up all Jews for deportation, the Morgensterns were spirited to safety in Sweden. They moved to the U.S. in 1947.
In his Grammy-winning liner note essay on Armstrong, “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” Morgenstern wrote, “Armstrong’s reception in Copenhagen [in 1933] was the most enthusiastic he had yet received. A crowd estimated by the un-hyperbolic Danes at some ten thousand awaited his arrival inside and outside of the train station; there was a band, a sea of flowers, and a motorcade. Not until after World War II would there be anything comparable in the way of public demonstration of affection for Armstrong, and he was very moved– at first he thought all those people were waiting for someone else.”
In his autobiography, Swing That Music, Armstrong recalled, “All I remember is a whole ocean of people all breaking through the police lines and bearing down on us until I got afraid we were going to get stomped underfoot. They pushed a big trumpet, all made out of flowers, into my hands and put me into an automobile and started a parade…You’d of thought I had been some kind of a national hero to them.”
Terry Teachout, in his biography of Armstrong, Pops, says that the Copenhagen footage “testifies to the accuracy of the contemporary newspaper stories that describe his onstage behavior. As the film rolls…we are brought face-to-face with the stage-show Armstrong: the white handkerchief, the crouching and springing, the dancing in place…[and] the sudden stillness and concentration each time he puts his horn to his mouth.”
This latter feature cannot be over-emphasized, for throughout his career, Armstrong’s “stage-show” often led to his music being devalued by critics, among them Gunther Schuller and John S. Wilson. A headline in Melody Maker about his performance at London’s Holborn Empire later in 1933 summed it up: “Amazing Reception for Armstrong: Frenzied Applause for Meaningless Performance.” Max Jones’s biography, Louis: The Louis Armstrong Story, adds, “His act was castigated as 50 percent showmanship, 50 percent instrumental cleverness, but ‘about naught percent music’.”
It’s true, of course, that Armstrong could be given to an excess of theatrics. The drummer Harry Dial, who worked with him in the early thirties, said that when he joined Pops, he thought “the band was slipping because Louis had gone in for all the showmanship stuff, you know, the high notes, gestures, and I thought he couldn’t play anymore. I soon lost that opinion when I began working with him. We used to get out in those little towns…where people didn’t know him too well and he’d sit down and really play horn…He’d play “High Society” and “Tiger Rag,” which used to work the stew out of any drummer.”
The English perspective may have caused him to reconsider the showmanship. Jones writes, “At home, for some years past, he had been ‘sending’ his listeners with a hundred or more high Cs on “Tiger Rag.” At the Holborn Empire the journalists complained of a “Shine” which afforded him the opportunity of whipping out ‘unaccompanied and ad lib a series of 70 high Cs culminating in a top F’. It was alleged [in] the following week’s [Melody Maker] that he had noted the well-meant criticism and mended his ways.” Jones adds, “In all probability he did his best to cut down the fireworks.” In 1959, another English critic, Albert McCarthy, looking back at Armstrong’s 18-month-long European sojourn of 1933-’34, wrote, “At that time nobody knew it, but this was to be the end of the pure virtuoso phase, and in the next year Armstrong’s style was to undergo a change in the direction of greater simplicity.”
Today is Louis Armstrong’s 114th birthday anniversary. Legend has it that he was born on July 4, 1900, but a baptismal certificate from Sacred Heart of Jesus Church at 139 South Lopez Street in New Orleans, stating August 4, 1901 was discovered in the mid-eighties, and it’s become widely accepted as the true date of his birth. The annual Satchmo Fest adheres to document over legend, and this year’s took place between July 29 and August 2. Among the speakers was Dan Morgenstern, who gave a stirring address in which he took issue with how George Wein described Armstrong’s appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival. As Dan recounts what was going on in Armstrong’s career around 1957, he touches on some of the same charges that were first made about the trumpeter 25 years earlier. It makes for one of the most compelling hours of jazz scholarship I’ve ever heard.
I was impressed at the outset of the address to hear Dan’s revised claim of July 4, 1900, as Pops’ birthday. But in revving up for tonight’s three-hour Armstrong birthday special in Jazz à la Mode, I opened his liner note essay for Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and read, “Louis Armstrong, born out of wedlock on August 4, 1901.” Morgenstern now makes light of the baptismal certificate, but the Catholic Church is famously fastidious about facts of this kind, so I’m going with the document too. But either way, if there’s one 20th century hero’s birth worth celebrating twice a year, it’s Louis Armstrong’s!