Wynton Marsalis and Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Not that Marsalis and company didn't do their best to honor the spirit of the music while offering a varied, communicative, and impressively executed performance of some of Armstrong's most sparkling recorded gems. The leader himself played with plenty of flare and fire, effectively bringing "Cornet Chop Suey" to life in a new millennium with his vigorous musical diction. And Wycliffe Gordon practically accomplished the impossible: upstaging the leader. Alternating among trombone, trumpet, acoustic bass, tuba, musical mouthpiece (!), a variety of mutes (including a black cloth), and lots of scat singing, Gordon at times seemed like a one-man version of the Hot Five. Nineteen-year-old Jonathan Batiste managed to play with some of the serene self-confidence and rhythmic complexity of a young Earl "Fatha" Hines, but clarinetist Victor Goines, while a polished and accomplished musician, was less successful in summoning up the passionate, blues- immersed sound and spirit of Armstrong's clarinetist, Johnny Dodds.
L:R Johnny St. Cyr, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin-Armstrong
Besides his musicianship, Marsalis was, as always, the genial, expressive, articulate host. Rather than focusing on the specifics of Armstrong's musicianship, he told stories that tended to "humanize" jazz's canonized founding father as an earthy musician's musician, a regular sort of guy not averse to using some profanity and smoking some dope. Some knowledgable listeners might question the selection of repertory for the evening (how can you omit "West End Blues" on such an occasion?), the decision to go with nine rather than five musicians, and the failure to as much as mention any names other than Armstrong's and Kid Ory's (the latter introduced so Marsalis could tell a story about musicians' nicknames). I would have liked to have seen a first act "dramatization," or reenactment, of the circumstances of the original recordings, with a combination of recorded and live music, followed by a second act concert like that delivered Saturday night. On the other hand, most of the seats were filled at $50 to $100 per patron, so one can't fault the promoters for finding a formula necessary to the success of a rather daring and inarguably important enterprise.
As for the memory of Louis Armstrong, the best one might hope for is that some of those in attendance will get their hands on the original recordings and, like the rest of us for whom Armstrong is a towering yet accessible and living genius, have one hand on the record arm (or CD player) and the other opened to the appropriate page in an authoritative, detailed text like Gunther Schuller's Early Jazz. We may think we "know what we like," but the opposite approach often produces the deepest knowledge and most abiding passions. It takes a little effort (but not much) to hear Louis today as he must have sounded to his contemporaries: a rapidly developing embryo, soon incarnating itself as a majestic eagle and ultimately ascending to Olympian heightslike the thrilling glissandos of Armstrong's trumpet itself.
The sound of Armstrong's trumpet is simply unmatched by anything today. Perhaps Leonard Bernstein expressed it best in his musical essay, What Is Jazz? Comparing Armstrong's vocalizing and trumpet playing, he emphasized their similarity, calling special attention to the "hint of pain" in both. As much as we might be inclined to suppress the pre-historic tale of darkness and suffering, of fear and trembling, it's out of that grim and tragic narrative that a strange new beauty was born, at once inspiring, triumphant, and very much alive.
Personnel: Wynton Marsalis: trumpet; Wycliffe Gordon: tuba and trombone; Vincent Gardner: trombone; Victor Goines: clarinet; Walter Blandings: tenor sax; Jonathan Batiste: piano; Carlos Henriquez: bass; Ali Jackson: drums; "Papa" Don Vappie: banjo