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Masters of American Music: Satchmo

Medici Arts 2057088



1. Opening
2. A New Kind of Music
3. The Early Years
4. Achieving Stardom
5. Lady Armstrong
6. Ambassador Satch
7. A True revolutionary
8. Credits


This 1989 DVD achieves the virtually impossible task of compressing Louis Armstrong's career into about 86 minutes. Its excellence is probably due at least partly to jazz expert Gary Giddins, who wrote and co-directed the film.

The DVD covers the life of a man whose childhood in New Orleans was marked by poverty and a period in a waifs' home - as well as facing for most of his life the indignities of racism which was then sadly common in the USA. He overcame these problems with determination and an almost unflagging good humour.

The DVD traces how the 65 recordings that Louis Armstrong (alias "Satchmo") made with his Hot Five and Hot Seven changed the face of jazz, because he front-lined the individual soloist who, before that time, had been part of an ensemble rather than a star in his own right. He also had a virtually unmatched technical expertise and the ability to take daring liberties with rhythm. "Louis was very strong on rhythm", says All Stars' clarinettist Joe Muranyi. This is exemplified by his extraordinary introduction to West End Blues, which is usefully shown on screen in musical notation as we hear Armstrong play it.

The story is illustrated throughout by well-chosen film footage, which is remarkably clear and fresh. The early film clips include Louis singing and playing Ain't Misbehavin' - as he did to great acclaim in the 1929 Broadway show Hot Choclates. Satchmo even appears in a Betty Boop cartoon singing I'll be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You. Other film includes a lovely duet between Armstrong and Jack Teagarden on Rockin' Chair and a friendly trumpet battle with Dizzy Gillespie. And film of him playing Sunny Side of the Street with his All Stars proves his astonishing trumpet virtuosity.

We are reminded that Louis was almost as influential a singer as a trumpeter. He popularised scatting - wordless vocalising - which "Doc" Cheatham noted was a New Orleans tradition. And Tony Bennett points out the Armstrong influence on such singers as Billie Holiday. Armstrong's singing, together with his trumpet-playing, made him a much-loved star performer throughout the world, becoming known as "Ambassador Satch". Of course, in his later years he reached even wider audiences through such hits as Hello Dolly and What a Wonderful World.

Perhaps the best service that this DVD achieves is to set the record straight about the false accusations of "Uncle Tom" levelled at Satchmo in the 1950s. First of all, he outspokenly criticised President Eisenhower for allowing the continued segregation in Southern schools. Armstrong's success as a performer alongside such white entertainers as Bing Crosby aided the acceptance of African-Americans. Milt Gabler remembers that Louis refused to enter New York clubs where he had earlier experienced racial intolerance ("He didn't want to feel the hurt again"). Lester Bowie says in the film that Louis was "a true revolutionary" because he effected change not by marching in the streets but simply by being his generous, affable self, and developing jazz music as an art form.

Some of the interviewees are difficult to hear, and subtitles would have been useful for such speakers as the slurring saxophonist Dexter Gordon. Apart from this, the DVD is exemplary in telling the story of one of the greatest exponents of what Tony Bennett calls "America's classical music".

Tony Augarde

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