December 2006 By Lee Mergner
Selling Out Is In
It’s an occupational hazard. Even when an issue doesn’t have an explicit theme, I seem to divine a common thread. For this issue I’ve conjured the implicit theme of “Crossover Without Compromise,” a personal favorite. Feature subjects Madeleine Peyroux, Tony Bennett, George Benson, Al Jarreau and Eddie Palmieri have all managed to reach large audiences, while maintaining their own artistic vision. There’s no shame in reaching a large audience. Or is there? Looking back at the history of jazz, we’ve seen many artists who’ve had hits or become celebrities and nearly all of them at one time or another have been upbraided for sacrificing their musical integrity at the altar of money and fame. Louis Armstrong, a founding father of jazz, was denigrated for many years for pandering to the audience. Thanks in no small part to Dan Morgenstern and Wynton Marsalis, the reassessment of Armstrong’s musical legacy has dimmed the memory of that time when Miles Davis said of Armstrong (and Dizzy Gillespie), “I hated the way they used to laugh and grin for audiences. I know why they did it—to make money and because they had families to feed. Plus they liked acting the clown.”
Such is Armstrong’s current reputation in the jazz community that many folks were horrified a few years ago when Kenny G did a simulated duet with Satchmo, post mortem. In one of the more widely circulated and vitriolic attacks on Mr. Gorelick, guitarist Pat Metheny said of that collaboration, “By disrespecting Louis, his legacy and, by default, everyone who has ever tried to do something positive with improvised music and what it can be, Kenny G has created a new low point in modern culture—something that we all should be totally embarrassed about—and afraid of.”
Putting aside the ethics of dubbing onto historical recordings, I hold the unpopular opinion that, were he alive today, Armstrong would have relished the chance to accompany the G-man, and not for the money, sizable though it might be. A fan of Guy Lombardo, Armstrong loved popular music and reaching large audiences. We may be protective about Armstrong’s legacy, but the man himself was neither snob nor saint. As Nat Hentoff points out in his column in this issue, Armstrong cared deeply about his fellow musicians.
In an essay Armstrong wrote for The Jazz Review in 1960, he told a wonderful anecdote about playing with so-called lesser musicians, recalling what a “sister” from his church in New Orleans said about why she responded so warmly to a substitute pastor. “She said, ‘Well, when our pastor preach, I can look right through him and see Jesus. And when I hear a preacher who’s not as good as ours—I just look over his shoulder and see Jesus just the same.’ That applies to me all through my life in music since I left New Orleans. I’ve been just like that Sister in our Church. I’ve played with quite a few musicians who weren’t so good. But as long as they could hold their instruments correct, and display their willingness to play as best they could, I would look over their shoulders and see Joe Oliver and several other great masters from my hometown. A musician is a musician to me.” Summing it all up for himself and us, Armstrong said, “Tell all the fans and all musicians, I love ’em madly.”
Originally published in December 2006