In 1979, Woody Allen directed, co-wrote and starred in the film Manhattan, a romantic comedy-drama set in New York City. In the film, Isaac Davis, the character Allen plays, is asked the question: “Why is life worth living?” In his lengthy and now-famous answer he includes four people – Groucho Marx, Willie Mays, Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra – and two pieces of music: the 2nd movement of the Jupiter Symphony (by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) and Louis Armstrong’s recording of “Potato Head Blues.”
I saw that movie and the line about Louis Armstrong stuck with me. Several years later, following my brother-in-law David’s recommendation, I purchased The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (Revised Edition) and was quite pleased to see “Potato Head Blues” among the eleven tracks in the collection featuring Louis Armstrong.
“Potato Head Blues” was recorded by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven on May 10, 1927 in Chicago, Illinois for OKeh Records.
The musicians on the recording are: Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba and Baby Dodds, drums.
I hope you listened to that.
The Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz (Revised Edition) was released in 1987. In the book that accompanies the recordings in this outstanding boxed set, author and Jazz historian Martin Williams quotes from author Richard Hadlock’s 1965 book, Jazz Masters of the Twenties in the entry for “Potato Head Blues.”
Mr. Hadlock described the performance by Louis Armstrong & His Hot Seven as: “a triumph of subtle syncopation and rhythmic enlightenment; strong accents on weak beats and whole phrases placed against rather than on the pulse create delightful tension. This tension is then suddenly released with an incisive on-the-beat figure, which in turn leads into more tension-building devices. Thus does Armstrong build the emotional pitch of the solo over a full chorus.”
On the indispensable website, AllMusic.com, in a Song Review of “Potato Head Blues,” Thomas Ward writes: “Armstrong’s trumpet begins rather sedately, but builds and culminates in perhaps the most remarkable solo in the history of Jazz.”
Mr. Ward concludes his review by saying that “Potato Head Blues” is “One of the most astonishing accomplishments in all of twentieth century music.”
What did you think of “Potato Head Blues?”
Louis Armstrong was born on this day, August 4, in 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He passed away on July 6, 1971.
Louis Armstrong once said: “All music is folk music. I ain’t never heard a horse sing a song.”
If you’d like to read another post of mine celebrating Louis Armstrong’s birthday, go to the blog archives for August 2010 and scroll down until you find the one titled: “On This Day In Music History: Louis Armstrong.”
As always: “Good music doesn’t get old.”