In The Dust #9: Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars, ‘Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy’
Once a week In The Dust rolls up its sleeves and digs to the back of the rack to find that record, the one you never knew you always wanted, the one that’s lost but not forgotten.
Pops plays “The Father of The Blues.” Could it get much better? The answer, immediately apparent in the first three seconds of the album’s opener, “St. Louis Blues”, is found in seven notes from Armstrong’s horn: no, no, absolutely not.
W.C. Handy is a name that has been tossed around a few times in the history of In The Dust. It happens to be a very important one, particularly when concerning the blues. Popularly referred to as “The Father of The Blues,” Handy is most well known not for inventing the blues, but inventing its modern form and building the archetypal framework for cross-genre interpretations of the blues and visa versa. He introduced blues scaling, color and form into jazz music, a marriage that has stood the test of time and grown to become nearly one. Because of this, it is no surprise that Armstrong would select Handy as his subject of interpretation. However, when concerning Armstrong’s own personal history and musical development, it is a tad curious.
Armstrong grew up in a rough-and-tumble area of New Orleans known as “Back of the Town”. He attended a nearby boys’ school but did not last long. He dropped out at age eleven and joined a boys’ vocal quartet, but the unstructured, latchkey lifestyle led to trouble. Because of periodic delinquency, and firing a gun in a crowded square, Armstrong was sent to the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs. It is here he learned how to play coronet, joining a military-style brass band with an emphasis on discipline and musicianship. Despite just learning the instrument, Armstrong quickly became bandleader, garnering considerable attention for his command of the instrument at such a young age. Armstrong graduated to playing in city brass bands and fell under the tutelage of the great Joe Oliver, better known as “King”, of King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band.
Armstrong remembers Oliver thusly:
It was my ambition to play as he did. I still think that if it had not been for Joe Oliver, Jazz would not be what it is today. He was a creator in his own right.
Armstrong credits Oliver as a father figure, and the one who taught him nearly everything he knows, joining Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1922, the hottest and most popular New Orleans’ jazz band of the time, and playing with him off and on for the rest of Oliver’s career.
It is interesting to note that only three years later, in 1925, after Armstrong had moved to New York, joined Fletcher Henderson’s band and switched from the coronet to the trumpet, he played on Bessie Smith’s rendition of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” a recording that become of the most popular of the 1920’s and garnered Handy, and Smith, widespread fame and considerable pay.
Armstrong continued to revisit Handy’s work for the remainder of his career, and in full on this collection. Perhaps for economic reasons, perhaps for reasons unbeknownst to the author, but, while Oliver’s influence is the one that dominates Armstrong’s sound, it is the work of Handy that dominates his oeuvre. This collection asserts that, maybe, it is because no one but Armstrong can play Handy so beautifully.
“St. Louis Blues,” the song that inspired the foxtrot, also known as “the jazzman’s Hamlet”, opens the record, beginning with a classically beautiful Armstrong fanfare that, despite the year of this album’s recording, 1954, seems right at home snaking over the undulating dance floor of Harlem’s famed Savoy Ballroom or Cotton Club. The tempo and color when compared to Handy’s 1912 recording is indicative of Armstrong’s recognition of the need to modernize, while retaining the song’s essence and an eye, always, on New Orleans, an impulse that followed him, more or less at times, throughout his career. In his horn and the thick, sultry vocals of Velma Middleton you smell the Pastis and taste the Sazerac as the mixture cascades down upon impossibly slowly, like molasses, until you are encompassed and saturated with joy.
“Yellow Dog Blues,” follows, a lazy-river blues that relieves the tension of the terrifically jubilant, 8:50, “St. Louis Blues,” and sets a deep, upright bass-heavy groove that shines a light on Armstrong’s beautifully quirky and remarkably infectious voice. Drunken horns laugh in the background, cracking blue jokes and downing bourbon with droll, harping clarinets as Armstrong issues references to classic blues lore of the “easy rider,” the “bole weevil”, the “cotton stalk” and even those immortal words W.C. Handy first heard at the Tutwiler Station, waiting for his train, on the infamous day he first heard the blues and the namesake of this song: “goin’ where The Southern cross The Dog”.
“Beale Street Blues,” a true slow-blues standout, opens with soft-lipped clarinets over a fat backbeat, Armstrong singing what is one of the author’s favorite lines in all of music, and, more importantly, the spirit of New Orleans: “You’ll see pretty browns / In beautiful gowns / You’ll see tailor-mades / and hand-me-downs / You’ll meet honest men / and pick-pockets skilled / You’ll find that business never closes / Till somebody gets killed.” Armstrong unrolls his trademark vibrato like a red carpet unfurling, flapping and bouncing past drunks, bums, slinking adulterers, and down a gas-lit promenade. “If Beale Street could talk,” he growls, “if Beale Street could talk / Married men would have to take their beds and walk / Except one or two, who never drink booze / And the blind man on the corner / Who sings the Beale Street Blues”. An image echoed in blues from Blind Willie McTell and a host of others to follows in Handy’s footsteps, “Beale Street Blues” is the familiar smell and the feel against your cheek of the cool side of the pillow on your first night back home after a long time away. Perhaps you have never been to Beale Street, or New Orleans, but this Beale Street, and the warm, bright and perpetually breathtaking solos of Armstrong, are there to greet you and assure you that you never really left.
Armstrong selects “Atlanta Blues (Make Me A Pallet On The Floor)” to close out the collection. The tempo, walking bass line and shuffling hi-hat of “Atlanta Blues” makes a sly, joker’s nod-and-wink to the emerging bebop movement before returning to the rapturous, Charleston-ing blues bounce of Armstrong’s New Orleans, “hot” jazz, Dixie sound. Featuring some of his most boisterous and emphatic solos, it is clear that this song, in classic New Orleans style, is Armstrong’s give-it-your-all send-off. “Just make me a pallet on the floor,” Armstrong repeatedly suggests, as playing like that would leave anyone bushed, and a pallet will suit his humble needs just fine.
And in grand style, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars draw their tribute to W.C. Handy to a close, Armstrong repeating, “So please, just make me a pallet on the floor,” for once the listener has concluded the last track in this collection, is it not the end of their time together. The curious timbre and lovable theatricality of Armstrong’s voice, the amazement at his unparalleled virtuosity and his friendly, comforting persona will stay with you, as the most welcomed and celebrated houseguest, for some time.
This is a record not to be missed, with a place in every jazz or blues lover’s collection. Handy first appropriated the blues for jazz in 1912. Louis Armstrong, in 1954, re-appropriates Handy for everyone, and in gratitude, respect and pure love, we devote to them, and their brilliant careers, as much space as they should like.