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Gotta respect this hard-working genius,
This review is from: Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong (Hardcover)
My starting point for POPS was Hot Fives and Sevens, which sustained me recently during my workouts at the gym. (I'm the skinny mature guy on the recumbent bike.) My reaction to these CDs was: Lots of this is really good. But what exactly am I listening for? Well, POPS turned out to be an outstanding guide for my listening experience, since it contains remarks from many of Armstrong's contemporaries, as well as terrific analysis from Terry Teachout, explaining why his music is exceptional. For example:
o Jazz historian Gunther Schuller: "...a dazzling lesson in how to mix primary thematic material with purely ornamental passages without ever losing the sense of the overall melody."
o Pianist Teddy Wilson: "It was a privilege to hear that man play every night. He was such a master at melodic improvisation, and he never hit a note that didn't have a great deal of meaning. Every note was pure music."
o Teachout: "...dispense almost completely with Arlen's melody, substituting instead a series of rhythmically free phrases that lead upward to a high B-Flat. Four times he falls off from that shining note--and then comes the fifth fall, at the bottom of which he changes course and swoops gracefully upward to a full-throated high D whose vibrancy..."
Armstrong had a very long career, which is the primary subject of POPS. In following this subject, Teachout shows the phenomenally talented young Armstrong emerging from a New Orleans style of jazz, where teamwork dominated, and developing a form of jazz (now called classic) where the solo is king. Thereafter, Armstrong's career had its ups and downs, with Armstrong gradually becoming a top-tier celebrity in mainstream American culture while he continued to perform his music, often with mediocre sidemen.
Anyone out there ever find themselves in that unhappy situation? That is, you have to maintain standards while your colleagues can't or don't care? Well, Armstrong had the answer. "I work with two bands, the one on the stage and the one in my head. If they sound good on stage, O.K., I'll play with them. If not, I just turn up the volume of the band in my head."
In following Armstrong's career, Teachout also provides many interesting insights about turning points in jazz history. Here, for example, is Armstrong's opinion of bebop. Bop "...doesn't' come from the heart the way real music should... You won't find many of them cats who can blow a straight lead. They never learned right. It's all just flash." And "...you get all them weird chords, which don't mean nothing, and first people get curious about it just because it's new, but soon they tired of it because it's really no good and you got no melody to remember..."
Meanwhile, here's Gil Evans on Miles Davis, who represents another turning point: "Miles changed the tone of the trumpet for the first time after Louis. Everybody up to him had come through Louis Armstrong." Adds Teachout: "Davis's style was a pared-down, more overtly lyrical version of bop whose simplicity and directness appealed to listeners ill at ease with Charlie Parker's electric frenzy, ...and his fragile, shiveringly poignant abstractions... spoke to the young people of the fifties the way that Armstrong's "Star Dust"... had spoken to their parents."
Jazz cognoscente might find POPS basic. But for the rest of us... recommended.