What a wonderful world Armstrong made

CDs, museums, and books celebrate the centennial of the 'Mount Rushmore of American music,' Louis Armstrong.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Recent generations may know jazz giant Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) best as the singer of "What a Wonderful World" as reprised in the 1987 Robin Williams film "Good Morning, Vietnam," and for an onscreen appearance alongside Barbra Streisand in "Hello Dolly!" Yet Armstrong's centenary celebrations look likely to be a revelation of far vaster cultural and even spiritual importance. A new museum, a first-ever glimpse of his private writings, and much magical music will celebrate a man some critics have called the "Mount Rushmore of American Music."

In August, Columbia/Legacy recordings will reissue Armstrong's "The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings," a four-CD set that captures the trumpeter-vocalist in the 1920s at his youthful best. They include joyous and invigorating numbers like "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Sugar Foot Strut." Yet there is room for majestic mournfulness, as in "St. James Infirmary," a lament for a lost lover. The intensity of Armstrong's drive and intonation reaches into even an overtly bawdy tune like "Tight Like This." Other Columbia/Legacy Armstrong reissues this summer include "Satchmo the Great," taped during a 1956 tour to Africa, where Armstrong plays the pointed racial statement, "Black and Blue," to leader Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana. "Satch Plays Fats" and "Ambassador Satch" are other irresistible items.

As complements to these musical treasures, Oxford University Press has just published "Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words: Selected Writings," edited by professor Thomas Brothers of Duke University, a musicologist who usually specializes in late medieval works.

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This extraordinary book establishes that Armstrong, for all his comic ways onstage, had a serious take on human rights. He canceled a scheduled 1957 US State Department tour to the USSR to protest against race riots surrounding integration in Arkansas. The Oxford Press book also reveals Armstrong's abundant faith not just in music, but in herbal remedies, including marijuana and a laxative called "Swiss Kriss" that was touted by 1950s health guru Gaylord Hauser. Indeed, he signed messages to many correspondents, "Swiss Krissly yours, Louis Armstrong."

Armstrong was no plaster saint: He buoyantly reported in letters to perfect strangers not only the state of his bowels, thanks to Swiss Kriss, but details of his conjugal life. But his tolerance was utterly serious, as expressed in a touching autobiographical essay, "Louis Armstrong and the Jewish Family in New Orleans, La., the Year of 1907." Therein Armstrong describes how as a youngster in his hometown, he was employed and encouraged by a local family of junk dealers named Karnofsky. They fed him, praised his musical talent, and advanced him money to buy his first cornet.

As a black musician in a recording industry dominated by whites, Armstrong became an expert in race relations. On the "Satchmo the Great" CD there is much interaction between Armstrong and the decidedly unhip broadcaster Edward R. Murrow. The precious results show how humor and magnificent artistic ability can bridge racial divides. Likewise, in a fascinating new release from Sony Masterworks Heritage, "Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill, Volume II," Armstrong is heard in a previously unpublished eight-minute rehearsal segment coaxing a delightful performance out of Lenya.

The trumpeter from the Big Easy will be further honored next year when his longtime home in Corona, Queens (N.Y.), opens as a public museum. Details of the museum's projects and operations can be consulted on an official Web site, appropriately called www.satchmo. net. Among the treasures are hundreds of hours of informal tapes of Armstrong telling anecdotes and playing his horn.

An exhibit of these tapes may be seen and heard at the Rosenthal Library of Queens College in New York, where the Louis Armstrong Archives are housed, until Aug. 31. Another exhibit also runs until Aug. 31 at the Tourneau TimeMachine in Manhattan: "Louis Armstrong: Making Every Minute Count."

This summer, jazz festivals from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Vienne, France, will feature tribute concerts to Armstrong, some starring surviving members of his 1950s band like bassist Arvell Shaw. Also among the celebrants is trumpeter/composer Wynton Marsalis, who says Armstrong "took two different musics [blues and Tin Pan Alley] and fused them so that they sounded perfectly compatible."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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