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Wynton Marsalis and Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives, Jazz at Lincoln Center


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The sound of Armstrong's trumpet is simply unmatched by anything today.
Wynton and Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives
Jazz at Lincoln Center: Rose Theater
New York, NY
September 30, 2006

Arguably the most influential recordings in the history of jazz, Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens were the occasion for three Jazz at Lincoln Center concerts in the Rose Theater, Sept. 28-30, featuring Wynton Marsalis and eight other musicians. As my first visit to New York in several years and my first chance to see the new digs of Jazz at Lincoln Center, I made a point of catching the Saturday night performance which, like the other two, bore the title: "Wynton and Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives."

From the outset, I'll confess that for the greater part of the past 25 years Wynton Marsalis has been a kind of personal cultural hero, occupying a place comparable to T. S. Eliot's with respect to the traditions of Western literature. Eliot insisted that twentieth-century poetry must reclaim its authentic tradition, which in his view was not to be found in the self-indulgent, romantic excesses of 19th-century poetry but in the 16th-century "metaphysical" poets who achieved an organic unity of style and substance, of emotion and intellect. Moreover, tradition, Eliot insisted, must not be thought of something that is "past"; rather it is concurrent with the present, insuring that "new" poetic forms are grounded in a legacy that is inexhaustibly rich and alive, resonating with all the luminous texts that have preceded it.

Marsalis talks much the same game as Eliot, the main exception being the foreshortening of the traditions and movements which preoccupy him. For 19th-century romanticism, substitute 1970s fusion music; for John Donne and the metaphysical poets, substitute Louis Armstrong and the emerging African-American artist-innovators of the 1920s. In retrospect, Eliot's influence can be seen in the institutionalization of literary studies and the huge academic enterprise that grew around them; Marsalis's effect can be seen in the grant moneys he attracts along with the powerful institution for which he serves as artistic director.

For many of us, the Marsalis factor was felt long before his more recent prestigious appointments. Whereas in the '70s it was fairly common to hear musicians, sometimes including music educators, dismiss Louis Armstrong as an "entertainer" and Duke Ellington's as a "sloppy" aggregation compared to the machine-like precision of other big bands, such glib pronouncements along with the ignorant attitudes they betrayed quickly fell out of favor in the post-Wynton days of the '80s. No matter that the jazz heritage had an equally eloquent spokesperson and dominating musical performer in Dr. Billy Taylor; he lacked the boundless energy, youthful persona, and irresistible charisma of Marsalis, whose introduction of the language of the streets to the halls of academe practically forged—and created a whole new audience for—a level of discourse as hip and winsome as it was cerebral and reactionary.

But now that Marsalis has brought unprecedented visibility and profitability to the art, what is the fallout? Practically paraphrasing Eliot, Armstrong's heir-apparent proclaimed at the top of the program, "We don't believe in any era of music. We play in all eras at one time." The result of Eliot's credo was The Wasteland, the notoriously surreal, complex and groundbreaking poem that became the cornerstone of modernism. The music that followed Marsalis' pronouncement was hardly modern or groundbreaking. In fact, the lively and colorful contributions of individual musicians notwithstanding, the entire performance could not quite free itself from the musty aroma of a museum piece (a feeling that was enforced by the Preservation Hall configuration of the seated members of the ensemble). Neither fish nor fowl, the crowd-pleasing sounds that filled the auditorium Saturday night manifested a higher level of musicianship and far more respect for the authentic tradition than even the best and most well-intentioned "Dixieland" bands. But the guest of honor and grand patriarch of that tradition, the mother lode himself—namely, Louis Armstrong—was mostly conspicuous by his absence.

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 heights—like 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

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