Louis Armstrong – was he really the greatest?

Louis Armstrong

The first and greatest soloist and improviser in Jazz, Louis Armstrong, nonetheless, has been misrepresented in jazz history, says Stuart Nicholson. Was he really the greatest thing in jazz?

It is difficult to think of any single artist who exuded the word jazz more completely than Louis Armstrong. He was a star performer who succeeded on recordings, on radio, on television, in the movies and on the concert platform in personifying jazz to the world. As influential as an instrumentalist as he was a singer, he was a key figure in transforming a polyphonic folk music into a soloist’s art while transcending the racial conventions of his day, thrusting open the doors for others to follow.

The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Columbia/Legacy) is probably the cornerstone of every jazz follower’s album collection. These recordings, together with the early big band sides and the best of his recordings for the Decca label provide testimony to his greatness. That he was a key figure in jazz is beyond debate. What is not beyond debate, however, is the tendency in recent years to go the whole hog and claim that all his work is equally great. While there is genuine pleasure to be had from some of the All Star sides, and among them classics such as Satch Plays Fats and Plays W.C. Handy, Armstrong’s later period often inspires affection rather than awe.

Today, Armstrong has been elevated into a father figure for jazz, a metonym for a grand artistic tradition, a patriarchal continuum of jazz artistry and wisdom. This omnipotence has tended to obscure the achievements of Henry ‘Red’ Allen, who, like Armstrong, also came from New Orleans and although, from time to time, he found himself a sideman in Armstrong’s big band, he was nevertheless a bravura trumpeter in the Armstrong mould in his own right. 

Fine examples of Allens playing can be found throughout his career, which began on record at the age of 21 in 1929 and include ‘Stingaree Blues’ with King Oliver, ‘Jersey Lightning’ and ‘Feelin’ the Spirit’ with Luis Russell and his Orchestra, ‘Roamin’’ and ‘Patrol Wagon Blues’ under his own name (with the Russell band recording for a different company), with the Billy Banks Rhythmakers, Spike Hughes and his Negro Orchestra, on ‘Shakin’ the African’ with Don Redman, with Horace Henderson on ‘Minnie the Moocher’s Wedding Day’ which inspired the Benny Goodman brass team of Harry James, Chris Griffin and Ziggy Elman to base their own trumpet soli on Allen’s solo (see the 1937-8 Columbia airchecks), on ‘Wrappin’ It Up’, ‘Down South Camp Meeting’ and ‘Queer Notions’ with Fletcher Henderson, and with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band.

Yet while Allen was an important contributor to jazz history in the late 1920s and 30s he has been curiously underrated. As Martin Williams has pointed out: ‘Hear Walter Fuller with Earl Hines; Harry James with Benny Goodman; Ziggy Elman with Goodman and Tommy Dorsey; Buck Clayton and Harry Edison in their early days with Count Basie, and many others, Louis Armstrong is clearly the inspiration, but Red Allen is the model.’ Yet although Allen remained under Armstrong’s shadow for the greater part of his career, towards the end of his life, during a period when he was playing Dixieland jazz at the Metropole in New York – by all accounts a rowdy tourist tavern off Times Square – his playing underwent an astonishing transformation indicative of continued artistic growth.

This transformation amazed fellow trumpet player and then avant-garde musician Don Ellis to observe in the 28 January 1965 edition of Downbeat magazine that ‘Every time I have gone to the Metropole to see Henry [Allen] during the last two or three years I have said to myself: “It can’t be true. He must be having a very good night. All those wild things he is doing must be lucky accidents! After all, he has been around for almost as long as Louis and it is simply impossible he could be playing that modern.” Well, a few weeks ago, after hearing Red on a slow Tuesday night with only a handful of people in the club – a type of night that would be very uninspiring to most artists – I became convinced that Red Allen is the most creative and avant-garde trumpet player in New York. He is one of the major improvisers in the truest sense of the word. Other trumpet players may be able to play faster or higher than Red (although his facility and range are remarkable), but no-one has a wider range of effects to draw upon and no-one is more subtle rhythmically and in the use of dynamics or asymmetrical phrases than Henry ‘Red’ Allen.

Allen made several recordings with Coleman Hawkins around this period, not least Ride Red Ride (RCA) from 1957 that included ‘I Cover the Waterfront’ which Gunther Schuller described in The Swing Era as, ‘One of the most magnificent extended trumpet solos of that or any period. It brims with interesting, bold, contrasting ideas, draws continually upon his lively creative imagination, is alternately gently ruminative and passionately expressive, and is played with a new, husky, breathy, singing tone… He can sound at times like a richly endowed Bobby Hackett or a wise, matured Miles Davis… as the years passed, Allen could embrace other styles without really ever going outside himself.’ In fact, Allen recordings from this period of career provide the kind of unequivocal pleasure that today’s revisionism tells us we should find in Armstrong’s later work.

In the Ken Burns book of the TV series Jazz, on the page devoted to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and the pace setting Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, Armstrong’s album Hello Dolly is featured. The implication is clear: here is an album that should be considered alongside these works. Indeed, Armstrong’s position in the jazz canon is now no longer just about his music, something that was bought home to me while I was in the States recently and met a leading Armstrong scholar: I gave him a copy of my Billie Holiday biography, pointing out an interesting snippet about Armstrong I had come across that had not – to my knowledge – appeared elsewhere.

In 1936 Armstrong appeared in a production Stars Over Broadway in which Billie also appeared, together with a host of other stars. But in March that year, New York Amsterdam News reported that Armstrong’s affair with an ‘ofay corine’ had ended in tragedy when she jumped out of a fifteenth storey window. With the girl’s mother threatening adverse publicity, Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser pulled Armstrong from the show and sent him out on the road. An interesting story, you might think, but it was greeted with horror – I well remember the academic’s expression, which said this kind of information was neither sought nor welcome.

Armstrong’s position in the jazz canon has been consolidated in part as a way of responding to the economic, racial and cultural legacy of the Reagan-Bush years since sadly, jazz history in America is becoming about ‘the negotiation of agendas’, as one leading musician put it. Politics to you and I. The tragedy is that this distorts history, marginalises the choice canvases of a minor master like Henry Red Allen and devalues Armstrong’s greatest masterpieces by claiming that all his work is equally great.

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This article originally appeared in the July 2002 issue of Jazzwise.

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