Tag Archives: Max Kaminsky

Louis Forever

Twenty years ago I celebrated Louis Armstrong’s influence with some of my favourite musicians for The Herald Magazine, in advance of a centenary concert at that year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival. It all still holds true – on the occasion of the 120th anniversary of the great man’s birth.

Jazz anniversaries come and go, but there is none as significant or as worthy of celebration as that of Louis Armstrong. He was jazz. No other jazz musician has had the impact or the profile that Armstrong had. While the general public remembers him primarily as a much-loved entertainer who came from a jazz background, the jazz world regards him as the single most important figure in 20th Century American music. Armstrong invented jazz as an art form, and he revolutionised popular singing. His influence was universal and enduring.

Genius springs from unlikely sources – and Louis Armstrong was no exception. He was born on August 4, 1901, in the seedy Storyville section of New Orleans. Just 21 years later, the waif who learned to play trumpet while in a home for wayward boys had musicians queuing up to hear him, and all of Chicago buzzing with talk of his brilliant on the bandstand with his mentor King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. His impact on jazz was immediate. His dynamic, driving playing revitalised the Fletcher Henderson band in New York in the mid-1920s. What he played one night would be copied all over town the next day. And when he first got into a studio with his own bands, specially created for recording sessions, the results turned the jazz community upside down.

The 64 sides Armstrong recorded between 1925 and 1929 with his Hot Five, Hot Seven and Savoy Ballroom Five line-ups shaped the course of jazz and are now regarded as the single most important body of work in jazz history. These were the records on which his genius burst out in all its glory for the first time. His fantastic playing – dazzling lyricism and originality, innate swing and daring stop-time solos – threw down the gauntlet to musicians everywhere. The late guitarist Danny Barker once said: “The Okeh record company released a record by Louis about every six weeks, and everybody waited for the records because each one of them was a lesson in something new; in things to come.”

Armstrong had already inspired other musicians who came to hear him, but the Hot Five records had an even greater impact. They are the DNA of jazz.

Trumpeter Max Kaminsky wrote: “Above the electrifying tone, the magnificence of his ideas and the rightness of his harmonic sense, his superb technique, his power and ease, his hotness and intensity, his complete mastery of the horn – above all this he had swing. No-one knew what swing was until Louis came along. It’s more than just the beat, it’s conceiving the phrases in the very feeling of the beat, moulding and building them so that they’re an integral, indivisible part of the tempo. The others had the idea of it, but Louis could do it; he was the heir of all that had gone before and the father of all that was to come.”

Had Armstrong never made a record after 1929, he would still be the most important figure in jazz. Critic Gary Giddens has said: “In those [Hot Five] recordings, Armstrong proves for the first time that an improvisation cane be just as coherent, imaginative, emotionally satisfying, and durable as a writer piece of music.”

As he played, Armstrong wrote the language of jazz, transforming an ensemble music into a soloist’s art. One of his contemporaries, trumpeter Mutt Carey, later remembered: “He tried to make a picture out of every number he was playing to show just what it meant. He had ideas, enough technique to bring out what he wanted to say. He made you feel the number and that’s what counts.”

Miles Davis, the trumpeter who himself broke plenty of new ground, said: “You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played – I mean, even modern.”

Not only did Armstrong influence his contemporaries; he has continued to influence generations of jazz musicians. Cornettist Warren Vaché says: “He was the 20th Century Beethoven as far as I’m concerned. Nobody every swung before Louis. He taught us all how to play in 4/4 time and swing like mad. He also invented the language of the trumpet and pretty much the language of improvisation, too. It just doesn’t get any better than him.”

Marty Grosz, the guitarist and singer, echoes the sentiment. “Let’s put it this way, Louis Armstrong was to jazz, or is still to jazz, what Shakespeare was to English literature. He somehow, innately, just knew what to do and when to do it. He was the bell-wether of everything that followed. He pointed the way. That’s not to say that there weren’t many other talented people, but somehow Louis rhythmically freed up the whole thing.”

Tenor saxophonist Scott Hamilton says: “There is no other single person who has had the kind of impact on how we play the music than Louis Armstrong had, and his Hot Five recordings were pioneer examples. He continued the rest of his life to influence people, and he continued to make influential recordings, but those ones from the 1920s were the ones which first showed the way.”

It’s also important to note that Armstrong showed the way, not only to trumpeters, but to players of every instrument – a rare legacy, as clarinettist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski points out. “There are a few people who have come through the jazz pantheon who do that: Charlie Parker’s one, but Armstrong was certainly the first.”

Armstrong’s phenomenal achievements as a pioneer don’t end with his trumpet playing. He was also, as Gary Giddens said in Ken Burns’ series Jazz, “the single most important singer that American music has produced.” His first big hit, Heebie Jeebies, introduced the world to his gravelly style of scat singing, and his way of improvising with his voice as freely as if it were an instrument was enormously influential.

Danny Barker said: “That’s when the song stylist came in. People began to buy records because they liked a certain personality – Louis Armstrong was responsible for that.” Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra are among those who were inspired by his looser style of singing, his way of personalising songs.

Ken Peplowski is one of a huge number of musicians – including clarinettist Artie Shaw and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins – who have credited Armstrong with inspiring him to create his own music. Shaw said that Armstrong taught him “that you should do something that was your own,” something that expresses who you are. Peplowski says: “He was a great entertainer and a great artist. He didn’t compromise either of these aspects – and almost refused to. He was one of the first people who presented himself in a very natural state – take it or leave it; this is what I do.”

But the last word goes to the late trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who memorably summed up the feelings of thousands of jazz musicians the world over when he said of Louis Armstrong: “Without him – no me.”

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Something About Lee

I’ve been a bit obsessed with Lee Wiley since the time I wrote most of this article, back in 1994. Around then, I’d fallen in love with her songbook albums – notably the Rodgers & Hart one, and such later recordings as Oh! Look at Me Now and R & H’s My Romance – surely the definitive version?

Whenever I revisit her recordings, I find new delights and have come to realise that not only was she one of the best interpreters of a lyric, but she was also a singer who expressed a distinctly female point of view through her song choices and her delivery of them – just listen to such songs as Any Time, Any Day, Anywhere (which she co-wrote), If I Love Again, A Woman’s Intuition, Who Can I Turn To Now and Can’t Get Out of This Mood. I’ll bet her recordings of these songs speak more to us women than they do to men.. 

Even among jazz fans, the name Lee Wiley is rarely heard. One of the most influential singers of her time, she remains –  to many people – little more than a name. Anyone who has heard her recordings, however, is unlikely to forget them: her voice is one which raises the spirits and exudes sheer class.  She could count among her admirers the likes of Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Marlene Dietrich;  the singers she influenced include Peggy Lee, and she regularly inspired critics to ecstatic, and near poetic, musings on her interpretations of the popular songs of the day.

A TV drama starring Piper Laurie and Claude Rains (and directed by Sam Peckinpah) based loosely on her life was made in 1963. It was entitled Something About Lee Wiley – a title which hints at the elusive quality of the Wiley voice.

You could describe it – as others have – as warm, sensual, fragile, husky, pure
and unpretentious. But there’s still something else; something that’s difficult to pin down. It could be the way she had of implying a note amid her breathiness, or of leaving a wisp of a note hanging in the air, lingering in the mind of her listener. Whatever it was she did, it was unique – and it enhanced every tune she caressed with her velvety vocals.

Lee Wiley was born on October 9, 1908 or 1910 (she claimed at one point that 1915 was the year of her birth) in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma – a town she described with characteristic irony as “about as small as a town can get”. Legend has it that she was of Cherokee Indian, Scottish and English ancestry, and musicians later nicknamed her Pocahontas or The Indian Princess. She certainly comes across as having been as sophisticated and elegant in appearance as her tasteful vocal style and regal nickname suggest.

Wiley was listening to the blues from an early age, and longed to be a singer. “I had a boyfriend who would skip school with me and we would go over to the local store and play records .. they called them ‘race records’ and they only sold them in a certain part of town -the coloured part,” she told one interviewer. Her favourite black singer was Ethel Waters. “I loved to hear her and I adapted her style and softened it to make it more ladylike.”

In her mid teens, Wiley left Oklahoma to sing with Leo Reisman’s band in New York. Working with him and the popular Paul Whiteman outfit on radio, she quickly graduated to her own show – The Pond’s Cold Cream Hour Starring Lee Wiley. Along the way, she suffered a couple of setbacks: suspected tuberculosis, which forced her to take a year off work, and later temporary blindness and disfigurement, the result of a fall from a horse – just as she was about to do a screen test in Hollywood.

When Wiley emerged from that catastrophe, she did so as a fledgling jazz singer. Whereas previously she had been singing with comercial bands for the mass audience of radio, it was the jazz fraternity which now took her under its wing, and provided the perfect musical settings for her intimate and swinging vocal style.

In 1939, backed by the likes of Max Kaminsky (trumpet), Fats Waller (piano and organ) and Bud Freeman (tenor sax), Wiley recorded what has become a classic: a collection of George and Ira Gershwin  numbers – many of them (though it’s hard to believe now) rescued from obscurity. Not only did Wiley set a trend by recording the first songbook album, she also scored a winner by transforming songs which were familiar only as showtunes into sensitive and dramatic jazz standards.

The album was recorded for Liberty, a high-class music shop with an elite clientele, and they (not to mention the messrs Gershwin) were so delighted with it that it was quickly succeeded by a Cole Porter equivalent. Porter was so taken with it that he was prompted to write: “I can’t tell you how much I like the way she sings these songs. The combination of voice and musical accompaniment is excellent. Please give my congratulations to Lee Wiley.”

Songbook albums of Rodgers & Hart and Harold Arlen followed soon afterwards, and – with her respect for the verse and the meaning of the lyrics – hers have become the definitive versions of many of the songs she recorded.  So much so that few have touched such gems as A Ship Without a Sail or Here In My Arms since.

Wiley was, as her friends have noted, a complex person. One defining characteristic, evident in her music, is her honesty and sense of conviction. She was also a free spirit, and seems to have been able to blend into any social circle.

Her friend Larry Carr said: “She loved the free-wheeling, barrel-house atmosphere of jazz clubs and musicians but there was also another, equally strong, side of her that appreciated the well-bred, genteel and chic side of society”. Just as Katharine Hepburn once said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers that he lent her class and she lent him sex appeal, the same applies to Wiley and jazz. She brought sophistication to the music, and it brought out her sexy side. It was the perfect relationship.

From 1943 until 1946, Wiley was married to the pianist Jess Stacy, and sang with his short-lived big band and Eddie Condon’s group. By the late 1940s, she was working on the nightclub circuit and beginning her slide into obscurity. However, her sumptuous 1950 Columbia album, A Night in Manhattan, won acclaim and led to more recordings in the mid-1950s – including another two classics, the sublime West of the Moon (with Ralph Burns arrangements) and A Touch of the Blues (with Billy Butterfield and His Orchestra, and arrangements by Bill Finegan and Al Cohn). Thereafter, she only made the occasional appearance on television and radio.

The TV film Something About Lee Wiley caused a resurgence of interest in her music but she didn’t record again until 1971. The superb Back Home Again – which teamed her with Dick Hyman –  proved to be her last album. She died in December 1975 after a long battle against cancer.

The tragedy of Lee Wiley is that her legacy of recordings is pretty slight, and there is no film footage of her singing. She was, by all accounts, too happy-go-lucky to be ambitious and too dismissive of commercial work – and this could be why, during her lifetime at least, she wasn’t as well appreciated as she should have been. Except by those who heard her: at her last public appearance, at the Carnegie Hall, as part of the 1972 Newport Jazz Festival, audiences went wild for her – an upbeat note on which to end her career.

Here are some of my favourite Lee Wiley recordings that are available on YouTube:

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