Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy

Louis Armstrong

Columbia Records, 1954


REVIEW BY: George Agnos


There were two sides to the late Louis Armstrong. There was the public Armstrong: a smiling, charismatic, gravelly voiced singer and trumpet player who sang memorable pop songs such as "What A Wonderful World" and "Hello Dolly". This is the Armstrong that most people know.

However, there was another side to Armstrong that many people are not aware existed: a musical genius who helped invent two indispensible styles to jazz music: the instrumental solo and scat singing. His early recordings as a leader with his band known as the Hot Fives and later the Hot Sevens are not only blueprints for virtually every jazz record that came after it, but many pop recordings immediately after (two of the biggest singers of the standard era, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, both sited Armstrong as a major influence).

If you are looking for the genius side of Armstrong, then the CD Louis Armstring Plays W.C. Handy will not disappoint. This 1954 album was his first for Columbia and has Armstrong and his band, The All Stars, interpreting the music of W.C. Handy, one of the earliest blues songwriters. Handy was still alive at the time of this recording and visited the sessions. Armstrong rose to the occasion to perform many familiar songs of his youth and gave one of the most spirited performances he had ever put on record, much to Handy's apparent delight, and of course the delight of many Armstrong fans.

From the very first song, "St.Louis Blues", you know this is not going to be a pop recording. The song lasts over eight minutes long, starting out with a lengthy Armstrong solo on trumpet. The first vocal we hear is from singer Velma Middleton (this song was written from the woman's point of view). Armstrong joins in on vocals, and his banter with Middleton is pure delight. Then we get solos from clarinetist Barney Brigard, and trombonist Trummy Young, and a duet with Armstrong and Young that ends this wonderful rendition with a bang.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

While Armstrong and the All Stars show considerable chops on this CD, it is the feeling of the playing that makes this such an enjoyable recording. They never lose their touch as entertainers. For example, "Long Gone (From Bowling Green)" is a humorous song with Armstrong and Middleton ad-libbing, and Young playing jaunty trombone passages that keep the mood light.

However, much of Handy's music depicts the quality of life for turn of the 20th Century African-Americans. While there is a playful side to this CD, there is also clearly a serious side as well. A definite highlight here is the band's rendition of "Beale Street Blues". As a singer, Armstrong effectively tells the story of life in this section of Memphis, but it is when he picks up the trumpet that he tells an even more vivid story without the benefit of words. His solo on this song drips with passion, and if you doubt his genius, then you need to listen to this performance.

There are a few other songs in the same vein: with "Yellow Dog Blues", "Aunt Hagar's Blues" and "Chantez La Bas", Armstrong shows the same degree of depth in both his vocal and instrumental performances. At this point of his career, he did not quite have the explosive energy he had with the Hot Fives and Sevens, but he more than makes up for it with world-weary experience. It's as if he had an understanding of the material that he couldn't possibly have had as a young man.

Armstrong remained a dixieland musician and never embraced the bop style that was prevelent in jazz at the time of Louis Armstring Plays W.C. Handy, much to the consternation of jazz critics of the day. I think history has proven those critics wrong, and what could be more jazz than the instrumental "Ole Miss Blues"? The band is incredibly tight, thanks to a great rhythm section highlighted by bassist Arvell Shaw.

"Atlanta Blues" is another jazz number that percolates. This song uses studio trickery of having Armstrong briefly singing and scatting at the same time. That technique is old hat now but was quite innovative for its day. Kudos to producer George Avakian for not only his imagination, but his respect for the material and the players. He may add some production touches but never gets in the way of letting the band just flat-out play.

Those of you that are used to Armstrong as a pop crooner may need a little time to get used to Louis Armstring Plays W.C. Handy, but it is time well spent. This is accessible music that should grow on you. Jazz fans will love it and might not realize Armstrong had it in him. I think this is easily a top five album in Armstrong's long and fruitful career.

Rating: A

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© 2001 George Agnos and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.