The modernity of Louis Armstrong

Don’t say I never give you nothing. This 1927 recording of Louis Armstrong‘s Hot Five features a duet passage with guitarist Lonnie Johnson in which, as Gunther Schuller points out in his classic Early Jazz, Armstrong is scatting in 3/4 while Johnson is playing in 4/4; the passage in question starts at 1:40. Polymetric stuff like this is how jazz got to be an influence on people like Elliott Carter. Moreover, it’s just some fucking awesome early jazz. Enjoy.

The modernity of Louis Armstrong

Duke at Newport

I’ve been reading John Fass Morton’s Backstory in Blue, a labour of love on its author’s part, but also a fascinating piece of history about one of the greatest live albums ever made, Duke Ellington‘s Ellington at Newport. If you don’t own Ellington at Newport you should, because it’s the sound of history in the making.

In 1956 Ellington’s career was at a bit of a low ebb. The glory years of the 40s were long gone, and although Ellington had a thriving creative collaboration with Billy Strayhorn (whose biography by David Hajdu is another great Duke book) he was aware that even the jazz that came after him was now being superseded in the public’s mind by rock & roll. Ellington even tried to get in on the action, claiming to have written a few rock and things which he would release in due course. But a 1955 season as the house band at Billy Rose’s Aquacade was a low point in Ellington’s career. By the time he agreed to appear at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, his star had revived a bit, but he seriously needed a boost.

The Ellington band played late on a Saturday night after a weekend of rain, and Ellington was gambling that his newly-composed Festival Suite would win the crowd back to his side. They played a short set at 8.30pm and then had to go off, returning to the stage around midnight.

Backstage, Ellington instructed the band to play the suite and then announced that after that they’d have a bit of fun and play ‘Diminuendo in Blue’ and ‘Crescendo in Blue’, with an interlude featuring the band’s bop-styled tenor sax man Paul Gonsalves, a notorious goof and a man somewhat overfond of Jack Daniels who was nevertheless a great crowd-pleaser and a fine, subtle ballad player. Gonsalves pretended not to know the tune, but he knew it all right. A few years earlier, they’d raised the roof at Birdland by doing the same two tunes with Gonsalves playing a long solo in the middle. Ellington was gambling that if it worked at Birdland, it would work at Newport.

To begin with, Ellington’s worst fears came to pass. The band went onstage to warm applause but the three movements of the not-very-inspired Festival Suite got an increasingly lukewarm response. Ellington cued Jimmy Grissom to sing ‘Day In, Day Out’ and sat at the piano, not playing; Morton reproduces a fabulous photograph, here, of a road-weary Duke staring stonily at the audience, looking like he’s really had it with this shit.

Then, Jimmy Grissom having had the least warm response yet (in spite of what I think was a really nice, suave performance), Duke announces the Diminuendo/Crescendo duo, misspeaking the interlude as an ‘interval by Paul Gonsalves’.

At some point between the announcement and his return to the piano stool, Ellington gathered his considerable resources. From his first pissed-off, dissonant piano chord, there’s a new energy in the playing. You can hear what sounds like his foot aggressively tapping. Bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Sam Woodyard join in, rather startled, and Ellington skilfully builds the tension until he cues the band with a shout, and ‘Diminuendo in Blue’ kicks off.

It was a cunning choice of works. ‘Diminuendo in Blue’ starts loud and gets gradually quieter, until it’s just Ellington, Woode and Woodyard minding the store, with a serious R&B groove well established. Ellington once again draws out the tension with his trademark piano filigrees, then Gonsalves leaves his sax chair and comes out front.

Gonsalves’ first phrase is a beautifully odd one; it’s completely out, a simple eight-note arpeggiated figure involving notes that are completely wrong for this harmony, such as a minor second and a diminished sixth. Then, having signalled that things are going to get weird, he digs into the blues, and keeps going.

Gonsalves soloes for 18 choruses (not 27, as some sources claim, at least by my count), with Ellington, Woode and Woodyard slowly ratcheting up the intensity, and as it goes on you can hear the crowd getting more and more excited, until by the point the band comes back in, the crowd is going nuts. As ‘Crescendo’ gets louder and louder, and Cat Anderson whips them up with his high trumpet, you’ve got pandemonium. Every time I listen to this track, it catches my breath and I want to cheer.

They played a few more numbers after that, mostly in an attempt to calm the crowd down. But after that, Duke Ellington’s career never seriously faltered. He appeared on the cover of Time — which maybe ought not to be a thing, but is, given that Ellington always wanted to be taken seriously.

The 1956 Diminuendo/Crescendo performance, with Gonsalves’ solo, is one of the ultimate answers to anyone who thinks that improvisation isn’t important, or is merely embellishment, as opposed to the beating heart of a certain kind of music. The excitement that Gonsalves and Ellington and the whole band generated served not only to revitalise the whole concert; it revitalised the lives of many people in it, including Ellington himself.

Duke at Newport

Scaruffi on jazz

In a follow-up to my already celebrated (heh) post on Piero Scaruffi, I decided to see what the great man had to say about jazz. This was prompted by his page on the Best jazz albums of the 1940s, which contains nothing by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk. Given that very few jazz albums were released in the 1940s, is this an unfair call? Well, no: even his Best jazz albums of the 1950s page doesn’t contain the two volumes of Thelonious Monk’s Genius of Modern Music for Blue Note, and it only has two of the more than a dozen classic albums Monk made for Riverside, including Thelonious Monk meets John Coltrane, one of the greatest albums ever made. Nor does it contain Charlie Parker’s even more awesome The Charlie Parker Story, released posthumously in 1956 but consisting of the classic November 1945 session that yielded ‘Billie’s Bounce’, ‘Now’s the Time’, ‘Warming up a Riff’, ‘Meandering’, ‘Thriving from a Riff’ and ‘Ko-ko’, and therefore one of the motherlodes of bebop. Nor does it contain the foundational texts of Bud Powell’s entire legacy, the first two volumes of The Amazing Bud Powell.

So that’s not a good sign. But let’s start with the single most important figure in the history of jazz, Louis Armstrong.

I take Armstrong’s pre-eminence to be not a matter for debate, for reasons I went into in my earlier post. I see no reason to disagree with the likes of Gary Giddins, Whitney Balliett, Stanley Crouch (‘if there was one musician who most completely wrote the Declaration of Musical Independence, it was Armstrong’) and basically every other jazz critic ever, even if I’d dissent from Hugues Panassié, who thought that jazz after Armstrong wasn’t even jazz, let alone good jazz.

To be fair to Scaruffi, he clearly has some admiration for Armstrong. But he combines immense condescension with an amazing inability to understand anything at all about Armstrong’s music, such as why it’s both good and important, or even what it was.

Armstrong’s trumpet solos were majestic, phantasmagoric and full of drama.

Majestic, good God yes. Full of drama, sure. ‘Phantasmagoric’? The OED defines the word as ‘Of, relating to, resembling or reminiscent of a phantasmagoria’ — ‘phantasmagoria’ itself, in all its meanings, has strong connotations of being an illusion or deception. So Scaruffi, whether he knows it or not, is suggesting that there is something essentially illusory or deceptive about Armstrong’s improvising, as if he was playing at being something that he wasn’t. It’s fair to say, I think, that this is not something that has occurred to anyone else who’s written about Armstrong, ever.

His experience with blues singers had prompted him to develop a trumpet style that was a mirror image of human singing. His trumpet was literally the instrumental counterpart of blues singing.

As misuses of the word ‘literally’ go, this can perhaps be put down to indifferent translation. But ‘literally the instrumental counterpart of blues singing’ would be blues trumpet. Armstrong knew how to play blues, but he was a jazz musician, not a blues musician.

Armstrong had introduced a dose on [sic] individualism in jazz that was the antithesis of its original socialist principles.

Jazz had ‘original socialist principles’? I would like to chalk this one up to appalling translation and assume that he means ‘collectivist’ rather than socialist.

Armstrong applied a similar technique to his vocals, which did more than just popularize “scat” singing (wordless vocalizing): they invented a way to sing without singing. His singing often sounded like a conversation. Sometimes his vocals were so estranged from the music that it sounded like he didn’t know what song he was singing.

If Scaruffi is implying that Armstrong really didn’t know what song he was singing, that amounts to calling the father of jazz an imbecile. If he isn’t implying that, then he must mean that Armstrong sang songs with a total insensitivity to their semantic and emotional content, which amounts to calling Armstrong an incompetent singer. Louis Armstrong carried a dictionary around with him on tour, wrote obsessively, developed a highly distinctive and effective prose style, and is to my knowledge the only jazz musician whose Selected Writings have been published by Oxford University Press. I feel like any attempt to defend his singing style would be an insult to his memory, and I personally resent the fact that Piero Scaruffi has such a tin ear that he would not only think something like this, but feel that his idiotic opinion is worth sharing with the world, thereby forcing me to rebut it.

Armstrong became famous with his improvisations on covers of blues and pop standards. In many ways, he taught the whole jazz world how to improvise on a theme. At the same time, the charming and flamboyant player knew how to entertain an audience with the humblest of musical tools.

Louis Armstrong had ‘the humblest of musical tools’?

Let’s just run that sentence past us again. Louis Armstrong had ‘the humblest of musical tools’?

Louis fucking Armstrong?

But his contributions as a composer are rather dismal.

This is where we get to the heart of Scaruffi’s failure. He thinks that the greatest musicians in the world are composers, of some sort or another. You can tell as much from his list of the essential classical compositions: it’s so predictable, it could be a playlist for Classic FM. (His much longer list of classical masterpieces only looks like it makes sense; for example, he lists William Byrd’s “Motets”, as if that’s a work, but leaves out Byrd’s Masses, which are the pinnacle of Byrd’s music. The same list doesn’t contain a single Bach cantata, or any of Handel’s operas. This is the kind of thing you come up with when you get your information not from an encounter with the music, but from reading outdated encyclopedia articles about the music.)

The point is, you don’t have to be a great composer to be a great jazz musician. What you have to be is a great improviser, and Armstrong was the first great improviser. That’s how jazz works, and it’s what makes it different from most other kinds of music. Scaruffi doesn’t understand this. He seems to think that greatness in music has something to do with the ability to be a great composer. It doesn’t, but he never argues the point, so there’s no engaging with him on this.

He was more of a popular icon and entertainer than an auteur. This too influenced generations of jazz musicians who cared more for the marginal contribution of their delivery (for the “look and feel” of their music) than for the core contribution of their compositions.

This is going into crazy-land, now. It seems as if Scaruffi doesn’t realise that jazz musicians improvise — or if he does, he doesn’t consider it a very important fact about their music, when it’s only the whole point of jazz. Without improvisation, jazz is unthinkable, but Scaruffi appears to have little understanding of what improvisation even is, let alone how it forms the lifeblood of jazz. Without improvisation, there is no jazz.

With Armstrong jazz became more style than substance.

I’m tempted just to say ‘We are talking about Louis Armstrong here, right? Not Kenny G?’ It has been argued that with Armstrong, jazz achieved substance for the first time. This is unfair on his predecessors; but what’s certain is Scaruffi applying this particular cliche, in this particular context, is a new low in critical inanity. To say that ‘with Armstrong jazz became more style than substance’ is the kind of statement that scientists describe as not even wrong, in that it’s so utterly confused that it’s impossible to tell what the author was even trying to say. Since Scaruffi is supposed to be a scientist, you’d think he’d have radar for this kind of thing. I suspect that this has to do with his general worship of composers and his contempt for improvisation, which, as should be obvious by now, rules him out as a serious commentator on jazz.

His influence was enormous, but it is debatable what kind of influence it was. He was certainly instrumental in making jazz music acceptable by the white middle class, and in making it a worldwide phenomenon.

The first sentence is only half-true; you can tell that Scaruffi basically thinks that Armstrong was an Uncle Tom who made a few OK recordings and then laffed it up for the white folks, of whom (needless to say) he is himself one. You can also tell that Scaruffi thinks that the reach of Armstrong’s music is a sign of how bad it was, because Scaruffi believes in the ‘masses’, and he thinks that they’re stupid, or at any rate fatally deceived by the culture industry, and so nothing that lots of people like can be all that good. So if Armstrong helped make jazz ‘acceptable by the white middle class’ and a ‘worldwide phenomenon’, that’s bad, because the only good stuff is the stuff that isn’t a worldwide phenomenon and isn’t acceptable by the white middle class. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Scaruffi that Armstrong’s popularity might not have been a capitulation to something, but rather a seed of its opposite. But he seems to have got his cultural politics straight from the Adorno of Minima Moralia , swallowing it whole without bothering to compare it against his own experience. Then again, I have my doubts about the extent to which Scaruffi is capable of having experiences, which I’ll get to in a minute.

If you still think that Scaruffi has made even the most polite effort to take Armstrong seriously, consider that in his list of capsule biographies of jazz musicians, from which the above quotes are taken, his entry on the jazz-folk violinist Darol Anger is, in the original Italian, 1,676 words long. (Presumably nobody is interested enough in Darol Anger to translate the whole thing into English.) His entry on Armstrong, in its English version, is 917 words long. I have no doubt that Darol Anger — a very fine musician, but not a game-changer of Armstrong’s stature — would be mortified at this.

That Scaruffi isn’t mortified is not, as he and his fans think, evidence of his sturdy independence of mind. It’s evidence of pig-ignorance.

Reading Scaruffi on jazz made me wonder for the first time whether he actually listens to any of the music he writes about. I have started to believe that he doesn’t.

So, okay, how about a more radical musician. I give you Scaruffi on Charlie Parker.

Parker extended both the melodic and the rhythmic range of jazz music in a systematic way. His solos seemed to have no rule, occasionally sounding arbitrary in the context of the group’s playing. Thus each solo appeared to be unique in nature, not the repetition of a distinctive pattern. The polyrhythmic essence of his playing was emphasized by the detours of his rhythm section, but made possible by his melodies, that toyed with beats and with the space between beats. Parker was an oxymoron of sorts: the player of a melodic instrument who indirectly focused on rhythm. His music was revolutionary because it was based on discontinuity instead of harmonious flow. His phrasing sounded hysterical and contradictory. His playing did obey a meta-rule, though: emotion. Whatever he was doing with the saxophone, he was trying to secrete as much emotion as possible.

Okay, to show that I’m willing to be fair-minded, here’s a critic I normally can’t stand, Ian Penman, writing about Parker in the London Review of Books:

I love Parker’s music, but it’s not what I’d choose to smooth anyone into jazz appreciation. It can seem hard-shelled, intransigent. (The two words of true-believer praise that crop up most are ‘virtuosity’ and ‘velocity’.) If you did have to play devil’s advocate, the brief might go: for all his technical verve and power, Parker’s is a limited palette; his playing, while breathtaking, rarely admits softer moods or qualities – anything of drift, reflection, loss. The one time he instigated a more calmly interpretative project – 1950’s Bird with Strings – it was not an unqualified success. Parker’s impatient stiletto tone guts the delicate membrane of his chosen mainstream standards; it doesn’t sound as if he is interpreting these popular songs so much as assailing them, giving them a hard time to see if they pass muster.

I happen to disagree with Penman — you do wonder, from the above passage, what on earth about Parker’s music he can possibly “love”, given how much he appears to find it repellent — but at least I can see where he’s coming from. The thing is, Penman wants music to be about emotions like drift, reflection and loss and doesn’t really like music bursting with power, vitality and cheek. He thinks it’s ‘intransigent’, or in the case of Frank Zappa, annoying. The interesting thing is that Penman, who is a real critic even if he’s fatally addicted to romanticism and anecdote rather than truth and analysis, comes to the opposite conclusion from Scaruffi. Penman thinks that Parker is too aggressive and not emotional enough. Scaruffi thinks that Parker is Ben Webster.

Scaruffi saying that Parker’s ‘solos seemed to have no rule, occasionally sounding arbitrary in the context of the group’s playing’ is completely inexplicable. Even when I was first listening to Parker’s music aged 14, and knew nothing of jazz theory or the song forms that he was playing in, his solos clearly made sense to me. I could hear that he was steeped in blues but also knew a lot of advanced harmonic stuff, and if I didn’t understand that he was altering chords and playing chromatically, I sensed that it was possible to learn how this was done and apply it yourself. It wasn’t just random tooting, as Scaruffi seems to experience it.

‘Thus each solo appeared to be unique in nature, not the repetition of a distinctive pattern’ — again, what the hell? It’s called improvising. Unless, of course, Scaruffi is claiming that each of Parker’s solos is idiomatically distinct from all the others, which is demonstrably not the case. Criticism is supposed to make things clearer, but as usual, Scaruffi is muddying the water.

‘The polyrhythmic essence of his playing was emphasized by the detours of his rhythm section, but made possible by his melodies, that toyed with beats and with the space between beats.’

Scaruffi uses technical terminology the way my seven-year-old daughter uses big words she doesn’t really understand; she throws them in there with more hope than certainty, because she wants to sound more grown-up. In her, it’s cute and I love it. In a grown man pretending to have things to say about music, I find it embarrassing.

To clarify: Parker didn’t have the same rhythm section for his whole career but, like most bebop musicians, played with whoever was available at any given time. Therefore, his rhythm section was not always consistent; he didn’t always have brilliant Max Roach and immensely reliable Tommy Potter at his back, but sometimes had nobodies. Therefore, his rhythm section wasn’t always taking ‘detours’, whatever that means, which could emphasise the ‘polyrhythmic essence of his playing’. Moreover, Parker’s playing was not polyrhythmic. For polyrhythm to happen, you can’t be playing a monophonic instrument like a saxophone; you have to be an ensemble, and in any case, polyrhythm is all over jazz from its earliest recordings, but it’s a characteristic of an ensemble, not of a solo player. Parker sometimes played in a contrapuntal way, suggesting parallel melodic lines by switching back and forth between them, but that’s not the same thing. Parker’s rhythmic innovations, while real, are not described here with anything approaching accuracy.

‘His music was revolutionary because it was based on discontinuity instead of harmonious flow.’ Parker’s music was revolutionary not because it was ‘based on discontinuity’, which it wasn’t, but because he brought an unprecedented level of harmonic and rhythmic sophistication into jazz.

Once again, and I say this as someone who considers himself on the political left, Scaruffi’s dunderheaded cultural politics are leading him by the nose, here. Scaruffi likes Parker; Scaruffi likes the idea of revolution; revolution is discontinuous; therefore Parker must be revolutionary in the same way. This is crap. You can read many, many testimonies to Parker’s influence on other musicians, but none of them liked him because they thought he was importing Trotskyism into music by other means. They liked him because he saw a way out of a stylistic dead end that jazz had got itself into. To other musicians, Parker stood for a kind of freedom, and you can make of that what you will, but to suggest that Parker’s music is some sort of direct analogue of, or substitute for, political revolution, is an insult to both music and the revolutionary impulse.

‘His phrasing sounded hysterical and contradictory.’ No it didn’t; not to the musicians it inspired, anyway. It sounded like that to the ‘moldy figs‘ who disliked it, but to musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Red Rodney and Thad Jones, it was the new thing that they knew was right and which they’d been waiting for without realising it. As Jones put it about both Gillespie and Parker, with remarkable generosity, ‘They spoke our minds.’

Scaruffi on John Coltrane is more problematic, in that I share his reverence for Coltrane, the only difference being that I know a little bit about what Coltrane was doing, whereas Scaruffi doesn’t:

Coltrane introduced elements of Indian philosophy (if not music) into jazz, as well as a much stronger and deeper spiritual dimension.

You don’t have to be Ravi Shankar to be able to hear the extent to which Coltrane introduced elements of Indian music into jazz. I would describe myself as someone with the most basic acquaintance of Indian classical music, in that I’ve (very) briefly studied it at college level. Nevertheless, even I can hear it. It’s blindingly obvious that Coltrane uses elements of Hindustani classical music in some of his improvisations; he starts using the additive technique of Hindustani music (playing short bits that you then repeat and add bits to) around the time of the 1961 Village Vanguard recordings; this is also the time that Coltrane started using drones (‘India’ being the canonical example) and playing long pieces on just one chord, another example of the influence of Indian music on his own music. If Scaruffi is implying that Coltrane’s spirituality was ‘stronger and deeper’ than that of everybody in the Indian subcontinent who has any kind of spirituality whatsoever, well, that would be highly unfortunate. Not to mention yet another example of the extraordinary, casual racism that his hipster fans seem to be blind to.

Next, his thoughts — no, wait, not ‘thoughts’, the shit he has to say — about the jazz musician most beloved to me because he was the first one I obsessively listened to, Bud Powell.

Earl “Bud” Powell (1924) was the pianist who adapted the bebop style of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the piano. He boldly disposed [sic] of the left hand striding and of Art Tatum’s baroque embellishments to coin an anti-virtuoso style that relied more on melodic invention and on subtle irregularities, while releasing an almost demonic energy.

Once more, not even wrong: Powell developed his style alongside Parker and Gillespie, he didn’t ‘adapt’ their style to the piano. He didn’t ‘dispose of’ stride piano, and you can hear Tatum all over his playing. If Tatum wasn’t about melodic invention, Tatum was nothing. As for Powell’s ‘anti-virtuoso style’ … well, here’s Bud Powell playing ‘Tea for Two’. You tell me if this isn’t virtuosic.

Thank me later.

His playing was apparently schizophrenic, but in reality Powell was “drumming” with his left hand while unleashing phrases at breakneck speed with the right hand.

Powell didn’t have schizophrenia. He had undoubted mental problems, but not that particular illness. Nor was he ‘drumming’ with his left hand but, at least when he was at his best, playing the chordal accompaniment to what his right hand was doing. As usual, Scaruffi – who thinks that every musician he likes basically reinvented music – overestimates the degree to which Powell was doing something for the first time, and praises him for things he wasn’t doing, meanwhile failing to praise him for what he was actually doing, namely extending and expanding on an existing tradition and building something new using older materials. There is already a blurry line between composition and improvisation, but Scaruffi’s prioritising of composition, and his lack of any respect for (or even elementary understanding of) improvisation, cripple his already limited capacity to understand jazz.

Elsewhere in Scaruffi’s jazz pages, I find little but obsessive discographising and inane bullshit about stuff he doesn’t understand. He is sometimes, very infrequently, accurate: he describes Lennie Tristano’s music as ‘frigid and lifeless’, and even those of us who (like him) actually enjoy Tristano’s rather clinical take on jazz must admit that this is true, but even then he’s absurdly inconsistent: if he thinks Tristano’s music is so frigid and lifeless, how come he calls Tristano’s Crosscurrents album the best jazz album of the 1940s? A decade in which, as we’ve seen, bebop erupted and Ellington was at the peak of his powers. In his list of the greatest jazz albums of all time, Crosscurrents is No. 14, ahead of Bitches Brew, Brilliant Corners, Free Jazz, Mingus Ah Um, Saxophone Colossus, Giant Steps, Pithecanthropus Erectus and Nefertiti, the Beautiful One Has Come. That should tell you something about the quality of his ear. If it doesn’t, it should tell you something about the quality of your ear.

I love Cecil Taylor at least as much as Scaruffi thinks he loves Cecil Taylor, but the statement ‘His fusion of exuberance and atonality was particularly influential’ is ridiculous; few great jazz musicians have been less influential, because hardly anyone has the nerve to be influence by Cecil Taylor.

Finally, in his biography of the greatest composer in the history of jazz, where you’d expect him to finally give nothing but unrestrained praise, he still manages to make Duke Ellington look like a failure: in writing about Ellington’s last albums, he says ‘He was trying to give a more organic structure to his genius.’ As if Ellington had not already proven his supremacy over and over again.

I am now done with Scaruffi, having proven to my own satisfaction that even if he does listen to the music that he writes about, which I personally doubt, he certainly hasn’t heard it, and if he has heard it, he hasn’t understood it. Comments on this article will be moderated, by which I mean, if you just want to see yourself calling me a dick in public, you will be disappointed.

Scaruffi on jazz