Wednesday, January 04, 2006


Holiday blahs, Louis Armstrong to the rescue

The holiday blahs rolled in right on schedule, during the third week in December, and hung on until well after the ball dropped on New Year's Eve. Sometimes there's nothing to be done. I took solace from rereading one of my favorite novels, J.F. Powers's Wheat That Springeth Green, with its pragmatic credo: "As for feeling thwarted and useless," muses the priestly protagonist, "he knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality."

Another solace: hitting the repeat button on the iPod in my coat pocket so I could keep listening to Louis Armstrong's 1933 version of "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." At the time I wasn't struck by the thematic consistency (he's complaining, I'm complaining.) I simply got hooked on this gem from Armstrong's big band phase in the early Thirties, which used to be the subject of endless bitching from his fans. Sure, the guys in Zilner Randolph's orchestra couldn't hold a candle to the rough-and-tumble rapport Armstrong elicited from the Hot Fives and Sevens. Still, you'd have to be deaf to miss the delights of this recording. After a brief intro, the leader sings the first two verses. His voice hadn't yet attained the sandpaper sublimity of his final decades, but he was already balancing the beleaguered sweetness of his delivery with sudden plunges into a drawling, bluesier register. Then--with what sounds like a guttural yeah! from Armstrong--the fireworks begin. He plays the first of three trumpet choruses in synch with the ensemble. For the second, though, he jumps in ahead of the pack with a bright, declamatory D, holding it for seven beats, letting it decay just a little and then leaning back into it: bingo! He toys beautifully with the melody, floating high above the ensemble, then engineers an even more dramatic entrance into the third and final chorus. The effect is amazing--five stabbing B-flats, a slide down to A-flat, followed by a police-siren glissando all the way up to high D, which seems to work some euphoric magic directly on my nervous system. Despite everything I've just written, it really does leave me speechless. (Even a sobersides like Martin Williams finds the third chorus an absolute mind-blower: in his classic The Jazz Tradition he calls it one of Armstrong's "most grand and eloquent transformations of a popular song.")

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