"Showy" has long been a suspect word when used to describe jazz performers, suggesting musicians obsessed with superficial, crowd-pleasing antics rather than with solid musicianship.
But in the quarter century since the death of trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong, his shadow looms larger than ever for musicians and jazz fans because of how eloquently Armstrong fused showmanship and musicianship.
The best evidence of that fusion can be discovered on a new four-CD box, Louis Armstrong: The Complete RCA Recordings (BMG). The 75 recordings collected here, spanning 1932 to 1956, showcase Armstrong with big bands and small combos.
His trumpet solos, particularly from the '30s, rank among his most magisterial on record, with energetic high notes arching toward heaven. However dated some of the material might be - "He's a Son of the South" and "Snowball" are appropriately mawkish minstrel show fare - Armstrong manages to forge meaning with trumpet lines blazing with clarity and tonal beauty.
But Armstrong's singing is the primary place to look for the perfect balance of showmanship and jazz chops. That gruff, unschooled and bluesy voice immediately catches your attention by projecting a cheery but ultimately tricksterish dramatic identity.
There is a persistent sense that Armstrong is sharing deeply held and sincere convictions - yet only sharing a fraction of his true self.
Listen to his vocal on "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" - you're caught up with missing it too, even if it isn't, as it was for Armstrong, your hometown. Yet the tune has a peculiar twist revealed in the final verses: The woman the singer adores is missed more than New Orleans would ever be missed. So Armstrong's singing takes on a slightly bemused quality during the final verse, missing the lover and city, and yet not pining overly for either.
"Laughin' Louis," presented here in two versions, finds Armstrong simultaneously mocking his stage persona, full of spontaneous tomfoolery ("Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I want to tell you all that I'm going to do a little practicing this evening on this little Selmer trumpet....") while demonstrating with steely precision and objectivity his highly refined trumpeting.
Armstrong's sheer pleasure in showing off his swinging jazz technique is perfectly complemented by his sparkling humor and his projection of a warm humanity.
The high point of this set occurs during the small combo performances of 1947. An unusual sense of intimate musical communication can be sensed between Armstrong and trombonist Jack Teagarden on songs like "Ain't Misbehavin."
They spar and jive with one another, use their horns as extensions of their singing voices, and combine hammy extraversion with a winning sense that they may just mean every note they play.
Jazz, including much of Armstrong's New Orleans-based repertoire, is taught internationally to players of all ages and backgrounds today, but few can begin to work Armstrong's magic in forging a meeting ground of the worlds of show business and jazz.
One young trumpeter who has followed in Armstrong's wake effectively is Leroy Jones. His newest CD, a tribute to Armstrong entitled, "Props for Pops," on the Columbia label, combines classic Armstrong numbers ("West End Blues," "What a Wonderful World") with original compositions embodying sharply crafted facets of New Orleans funk and jazz.
Jones lacks that steel-woolly vocal tone of Armstrong's, but his pleasingly smooth and warm vocals as well as his brashly bold trumpeting convey much of the Master's whimsy and charm.