Here’s something that’s tough to do: write about music (in this case jazz) in a way that suggests a technical understanding of the art while still conveying the raw emotion & enthusiasm that comes with being a fan. James Marcus over at House of Mirth did just that with this marvelous riff on Louis Armstrong:
Another solace: hitting the repeat button on the iPod in my coat pocket so I could keep listening to Louis Armstrong’s 1933 version of “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.” At the time I wasn’t struck by the thematic consistency (he’s complaining, I’m complaining.) I simply got hooked on this gem from Armstrong’s big band phase in the early Thirties, which used to be the subject of endless bitching from his fans. Sure, the guys in Zilner Randolph’s orchestra couldn’t hold a candle to the rough-and-tumble rapport Armstrong elicited from the Hot Fives and Sevens. Still, you’d have to be deaf to miss the delights of this recording. After a brief intro, the leader sings the first two verses. His voice hadn’t yet attained the sandpaper sublimity of his final decades, but he was already balancing the beleaguered sweetness of his delivery with sudden plunges into a drawling, bluesier register. Then—with what sounds like a guttural yeah! from Armstrong—the fireworks begin. He plays the first of three trumpet choruses in synch with the ensemble. For the second, though, he jumps in ahead of the pack with a bright, declamatory D, holding it for seven beats, letting it decay just a little and then leaning back into it: bingo! He toys beautifully with the melody, floating high above the ensemble, then engineers an even more dramatic entrance into the third and final chorus. The effect is amazing—five stabbing B-flats, a slide down to A-flat, followed by a police-siren glissando all the way up to high D, which seems to work some euphoric magic directly on my nervous system. Despite everything I’ve just written, it really does leave me speechless. (Even a sobersides like Martin Williams finds the third chorus an absolute mind-blower: in his classic The Jazz Tradition he calls it one of Armstrong’s “most grand and eloquent transformations of a popular song.”)
Williams, by the way, urges in a footnote that listeners not forget Harold Arlen, who was the songwriter behind “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.” His concern was a real one: John Lahr, who profiled Arlen for The New Yorker last fall, lamented:
In 1955, at a concert in Cairo partly devoted to American music, five Arlen songs—“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” “Ill Wind,” “Blues in the Night,” “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” and “Stormy Weather”—were billed, without attribution, as American “folk songs.” Even this year, which happens to be the centennial of Arlen’s birth (he died in 1986), at a celebration for a postage stamp honoring the late lyricist E. Y. Harburg, with whom Arlen wrote a hundred and eleven songs, including the score for “The Wizard of Oz,” no one thought to even mention Arlen.
[January 18, 2006]