Louis Armstrong: The Editor as Star

Louis Armstrong elevates the performer to unparalleled dignity in his 1929 recording of “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue.” He edits the song; by dropping the first verse and introducing the lyrics with funereal strains on his trumpet, Armstrong makes a new composition. He removes the original narrative – the story of a black woman losing her man to a lighter-skinned woman – but retains the first-person voice and generalizes the story, speaking for anyone who can identify with the protagonist’s position. In Armstrong’s hands, the lament no longer dwells on lost love, but on the suffering of a whole race exposed to conditions of poverty, misery, violence, and despair.

Armstrong, perhaps the greatest inventor in jazz, was also its greatest storyteller, knowing what to put in to a song and what to leave out. In jazz, the player makes something new of the song; he makes the song express what he wants it to express. Another word for this practice is editing. In oral cultures, poets “riff” on existing stories, do their editing on the spot, in front of an audience, just as Armstrong did in front of crowded theaters, recording equipment and television cameras. In literate cultures, composers do their editing laboriously, over time, and out of sight. Armstrong never labored over editorial decisions; he edited joyously, spontaneously, in full view. By elevating the performer (one who edits on the spot) above the composer (one who edits out of sight), jazz inverts the hierarchy of European music; the performer no longer pretends to represent the absent composer’s “intentions.” He signals his own.

Leonard Bernstein once suggested that the reason philistines think jazz a “low class” music (he was writing in 1955) is that “historically players of music seem to lack the dignity of composers of music.” He argued, however, that “the player of jazz is himself the real composer, which gives him a creative, and therefore more dignified status.” (Giddins, 165)

Armstrong brought the tradition of oral poets into the electronic age. Like them, he took pleasure manipulating known material to his own ends. But unlike a poet or musician in an oral culture, Armstrong had a range of literate traditions from which to draw. Starting with the recordings of 1928 in New York City, Armstrong added the songs of many composers, including the Gershwins, Porter, Berlin, Kern, and Carmichael – highly literate craftsmen – to his repertoire. Armstrong honored the composers’ melodies but invented on them constantly (with his unique rhythms, vocal inflections, and performance styles). His practice of “editing on the spot” became as important to the future of jazz as the repertoire he introduced, elevating the performance and, with it, the dignity of the performer.

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