Not just the result of his glowing, relentlessly grateful stage presence (that continues to vex grumpy intellectuals), but due to the sheer optimism of his voice and trumpet, especially the big golden horn that remained instantly recognizable right through to his last recordings (which bother the same sophisticates), Louis Armstrong is synonymous with joy. It’s why his expressions of sorrow stand out like pictures from a funeral in a family photo album.
Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi cites a performance of “Black And Blue” from 1965 in East Berlin as one example of Armstrong’s awe-inspiring melancholy. The “frustration, rage and deep seriousness” described by Michael Steinman is all the more stirring because it conveys a sense of positive belief in the world, now dashed. Ultimately Armstrong’s dejection is still rooted in hope:
A catalog of lachrymose “Louie” would probably be sparse but powerful. It’s much harder to find cynicism in Armstrong’s music. Throughout his career he could convey surprise, act out playful sarcasm, even feign a warm condescension, but an outright denial of hope is harder to locate in Armstrong’s work. Yet there it is in 1925, while Armstrong was still a young man, given instrumental form on Bessie Smith’s “Cold In Hand Blues”:
Armstrong’s resigned, almost sardonic harping on the same note in the opening verse and the way he moves from a bluesy depiction of madness to a shrugging gesture and finally to indifferent decoration answering Smith in the second blues chorus doesn’t merely throw “cold water” onto her stanzas. Armstrong’s asides are more like projections of Smith’s own internal doubt; he’s too synced up with her musically, especially through his subtle but effective harmonization behind the vocal, to just be an antidote to the text. Yet Armstrong’s double-time responses in the final chorus, chatty rejoinders that seem to say “yes, yes, yes of course you’ll find another man,” show he isn’t taking the words at face value, either.
Emotional explication is ultimately a very personal, and therefore subjective, exercise. Perhaps what’s most astonishing about this performance is that even if you didn’t speak English and had no idea that blue notes and minor chords signified any type of emotional idea, this performance would still work on purely musical grounds. The variety of inflections, the contrast between Smith’s girth and Armstrong’s squawk, pianist Fred Longshaw’s rhythmic accompaniment and Armstrong’s solo (starting out with a figure that trombonist Kid Ory would duplicate beside Armstrong on “Gut Bucket Blues” several months later) would impress a Martian on purely sonic terms. We can debate what Armstrong meant to say, but his saying it was more than enough.