Louis Armstrong: (What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue (1955)


(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue (1955)


Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals)


Satch Plays Fats (Columbia)

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Louis Armstrong (trumpet, vocals), Trummy Young (trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Billy Kyle (piano), Arvell Shaw (bass), Barrett Deems (drums).

Composed by Fats Waller, Andy Razaf & Harry Brooks


Recorded: New York, April 26, 1955


Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

That remarkable songwriter, musician and world-class character Thomas "Fats" Waller wrote this tune for the 1929 Broadway musical of and performed by African Americans, Hot Chocolates. "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue" was originally the lament of a dark-skinned woman who lost her man to a lighter-skinned gal. In Louis Armstrong's hands, it was transformed into an anthem of complaint and powerful protest against racial discrimination, as well as a magnificent musical creation. It is a testament to the power of Armstrong's recordings of this song that they moved Ralph Ellison to talk of their impact and beauty in the beginning of his landmark novel, Invisible Man.

Satch Plays Fats, from 1955, was a match made in jazz heaven. This track opens with a kind of overture, the band playing subtle, soulful variations on the marvelous and memorable theme. The "overture" and beginning of the tune are played at modest volume, allowing for a gradual buildup of intensity, as well as tension, as this profound protest and cri du cœur unfold. Satchmo plays his heart out, employing his superb tone and capacity to construct such marvelous musical lines, and using slides, slurs and at least one glissando to convey further feeling and meaning. Trummy Young's trombone, Billy Kyle's piano, and Barney Bigard's clarinet provide perfect support and added dimensions to the musical mosaic. Particularly noteworthy, at the end of the main set of vocal choruses, is Bigard's exquisite swoop up the scale, portraying both mounting pain and rising expectations.

This recording also demonstrates something not discussed enough. Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are rightly praised as early jazz landmarks. But listening carefully to his singing on those late-'20s recordings, we hear vocal tone and approach that are still fairly crude, even though his rhythmic feel and coordination with the instrumental music was excellent—and was beginning to change popular singing forever. But by the time of this recording, Satch's vocal work had developed extraordinary depth of nuance and expressive capacity, and his timing and phrasing had become sublime, in addition to that celebrated combination of grit and soulfulness in the character of his voice. All this and his experience as an African American he drew upon to sing these lyrics with profound poignancy and power. This is not only great music, it is also a very important cultural expression.

Its timing puts this impassioned performance in context, coming eleven months after the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. In the months before and after, there were a series of brutal murders of blacks in Mississippi and elsewhere (most famously, Emmett Till); and in December '55, Rosa Parks sparked the prime active phase of the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her bus seat. Two years later, Armstrong spoke out sharply against President Eisenhower's reluctance to act when African-American teens were barred from Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. All this was "in the air" at the time; Louis Armstrong and musical partners recorded an ultimate articulation of those concerns.

Reviewer: Dean Alger

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