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Beyond Satchmo

The beloved persona embodied in Louis Armstrong's nickname represents only a small part of who he was. Meet the real Louis, who died 25 years ago this week.

June 30, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

In the last years of his remarkable five-decade career as one of the world's most loved entertainers, Louis Armstrong was known to most of the general public as something of a caricature.

"Satchmo," as he was universally called, was a grinning, amiable figure, singing in an instantly recognized gravelly voice and carrying a golden trumpet that he occasionally used to play a few hot licks. (The "Satchmo" label traces to a shortening of "Satchelmouth," an appellation bestowed on him in his youth to describe his large mouth. Musicians morecommonly referred to him as "Pops.")

It was a characterization that had been part of Armstrong's persona since the early '30s, one facet of a complex musical personality. And it would give him worldwide fame, popping up over and over again in films and television, on recordings and concert stages.

Armstrong's album of the music from "Hello, Dolly!" was so successful that it knocked "The Beatles' Second Album" out of the No. 1 position on the pop charts in the spring of 1964, with Armstrong's rendering of the title song also reaching No. 1. His other pop hits included "Mack the Knife," "Blueberry Hill" and "What a Wonderful World" (when it was heard on the soundtrack of "Good Morning, Vietnam" in 1988, 17 years after Armstrong's death).

He appeared in Vincente Minnelli's first film, the highly stylized "Cabin in the Sky," in 1943 with Lena Horne, as well as in "High Society," the flat musical remake of "The Philadelphia Story," in 1956. And he showed up for one chorus of the title number in the Barbra Streisand film version of "Hello, Dolly!" in 1969, undoubtedly because of his earlier hit recording.

For Armstrong, who died 25 years ago this Saturday, "Satchmo" was intrinsic to his belief that there was no separation between art and entertainment. But the characterization, for all its commercial successes, represents only one aspect of who he really was, and what his true legacy has been. The complete Armstrong, the Armstrong who looms over the Satchmo persona, was a trumpeter first and foremost. And the sound and the substance of that trumpet composed the first great clarion voice in jazz history.

Very simply, he was the father of jazz improvisation, the first (and for some the most) influential jazz trumpeter and, with Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker, one of the music's trinity of great creators. In the 1920s, Armstrong formulated the essential elements of jazz--solos that soared above the basic harmonies of a song, a driving sense of instrument and a deep understanding of the blues.

And although the creative aspects of his work were less apparent in his Satchmo performances than in his astonishing, jazz-building efforts of the '20s and '30s, they nonetheless were always there, even in the performances in which he became a virtual caricature of himself.

"Louis Armstrong," says Wynton Marsalis, a champion of Armstrong's music from his position as artistic director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, "was the embodiment of jazz. And the thing you have to know about him is that whatever he played, it had the complete and total feeling of jazz in it."

Marsalis' point is precisely right. Armstrong's capacity to integrate the communicative qualities of the Satchmo personality with his essential, unerring musical creativity is the key to understanding and appreciating the importance of his total contribution to jazz.

In the years since Armstrong's death, jazz styles have come and gone, and there were times when Armstrong's upbeat approach to music virtually disappeared, when it seemed as though his legacy might be buried in a high-decibel wash of electronics and funk rhythms.

But in the last decade, the dark, introverted jazz of the '60s and '70s--much of it strongly inspired by the inner-focused work of Miles Davis--has begun to give way to a music that looks toward a broader view of the Armstrong legacy.

"It's his optimism," Marsalis says. "Louis doesn't have a whining type of thing in his music. It's heroic and optimistic. You don't hear that me-generation type of thing in his playing."

Marsalis, like Armstrong, is a product of the constantly simmering musical melting pot of New Orleans, and he sees in Armstrong a typically Orleans-style combination of outer ebullience and inner intensity.

"Everything about Louis is New Orleans," Marsalis explains. "His way of speaking, his easygoing manner. But also his fire, the range in his character and, especially, the way he could go from the profane to the sacred."

And Marsalis can take a good share of the credit for the return of the outward-looking, upbeat but determinedly creative Armstrong-like approach to jazz that is heard in the Marsalis-influenced young jazz lions of the '90s.

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