Louis Armstrong: Stardust (aka Star Dust)

Track

Stardust (aka Star Dust)

Artist

Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals)

CD

Stardust (Portrait RK-44093)

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Musicians:

Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals),

Zilner Randolph (trumpet), Preston Jackson (trombone), Lester Boone (clarinet, alto sax), George James (clarinet, alto & soprano saxes), Al Washington (clarinet, tenor sax), Charlie Alexander (piano), Big Mike McKendrick (banjo, guitar), John Lindsay (bass), Tubby Hall (drums)

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Composed by Hoagy Carmichael & Mitchell Parish; arranged by Zilner Randolph

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Recorded: Chicago, November 4, 1931

Albumcoverstardust-louisarmstrong

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

In his book Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller writes that the second and third measures of "Stardust" contain exactly the same notes and chord as two bars of Louis Armstrong's ad lib solo in "Potato Head Blues," recorded before "Stardust" was published. Others have likened the unusual intervallic leaps in Hoagy Carmichael's melody to his pal Bix Beiderbecke's cornet phrasing. Here, then, we have the unusual situation of Louis Armstrong, who possibly originated part of the melody, performing a song that also evokes his ill-fated contemporary Bix, who died three months before this track was recorded. And as if that weren't convoluted enough, Armstrong's "Stardust" veers so far from Carmichael's original that it might as well be a new song, without sacrificing the music's emotional essence.

Years ago, I tended to dismiss Armstrong's early-1930s work as a letdown after his trailblazing recordings of the 1920s. Not that I was alone. In the mainstream of received opinions, most critics show little patience with Depression-era Armstrong. But my editor at Oxford University Press, Sheldon Meyer (1926-2006), argued with me on this. A brilliant man who regrettably never wrote books himself, Sheldon was a big fan of those early 1930s Louis Armstrong sides. On his prodding, I spent considerable time with this music, and emerged convinced that he was right.

Admittedly, the band arrangements were inferior. Which is why these sides are usually forgotten, and why I'm surprised that the Recording Academy has honored this track as a 2009 inductee to its Grammy Hall of Fame. Yet Armstrong's trumpet work is so good that it's worthwhile blocking out the band and focusing on the horn. With evidence such as this, one could make a persuasive case that Armstrong reached his peak as an instrumentalist during the 1929-31 period. Not surprising, since a lot of trumpeters reach the height of their powers in their late 20s. But I would call particular attention to his range, his fluidity and his endless supply of swinging phrases. Armstrong's recordings from this period, also including "Shine," "Sweethearts on Parade," "Body and Soul," and "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" are neglected gems that almost no one listens to these days. Heck, I'm going to pull out the CDs and listen to them again myself.

Editor's Note: On November 4, 1931, Louis Armstrong recorded "Stardust" twice, singing the words "Oh, memory" three times to conclude his vocal chorus on the slightly longer take but not on version 2. Over the decades, many collectors (reputedly including Hoagy Carmichael) have expressed a preference for the longer take. The Recording Academy, however, has not specified which take is being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Reviewer: Ted Gioia

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  • 1 Jamaica // Dec 05, 2008 at 11:47 AM
    Carmichael, himself, said that Bix's cornet playing on" Singin' the Blues," inspired "Stardust." Where's the confusion? The composer ought to know.
  • 2 Alan Kurtz // Dec 06, 2008 at 07:06 PM
    Jamaica, with respect, there is no confusion in Ted Gioia's review. He describes the trail from "Potato Head Blues" to "Stardust" as convoluted, but the reason there are two distinct words is because convolution and confusion have different meanings. Indeed, convolution isn't even among the 9 synonyms and 13 related words listed under "confusion" in Merriam-Webster's Online Thesaurus. Moreover, the issue isn't who or what "inspired" (a nebulous term at best) Hoagy Carmichael, but whether or not Louis Armstrong, as Gunther Schuller contends, originated two bars of the melody and harmony of "Stardust." While it's true that "Singin' the Blues" was recorded three months before "Potato Head Blues," as far as I know, no scholar of Schuller's stature has suggested that any part of Armstrong's solo was derived from either "Singin' the Blues" or an unpublished "Stardust." Alan Kurtz, Music Review Editor, Jazz.com