How Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday saved New Orleans from the Yankees
Yes, Orson Welles was a hyperventilating egomaniac with a penchant — nay, genius — for self-destruction, but he did have good jazz ideas.
One of the roughly half-million ideas that were swarming in Welles’ head when he hit Hollywood in 1940 was a film that would tell the story of jazz, how it started in Storyville with Buddy Bolden and King Oliver and made it up the river to Chicago before taking the world by storm. Welles was a true jazz aficionado. While most Americans were listening to Tommy Dorsey, the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing, Welles was listening to King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Welles wanted to make a film about the blacks who invented jazz, not the whites who profited from it, a film largely based on the life of Louis Armstrong.
Naturally, Welles being Welles, he couldn’t help gilding the lily. The plot outline he dictated for the proposed film was a multigenerational epic running from 1899 to the present (present-day 1940), similar in scope to both Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Welles hired Duke Ellington as a consultant, auditioned Billie Holiday, and paid expatriate Elliot Paul1 to write the script.
On radio, it might have worked. One can imagine a Mercury Theater presentation, complete with cornpone accents, stentorian narration, windy, “Popular Front” speeches (“Jazz isn’t American, you say? Why, it’s as American as baseball, as skyscrapers and the assembly lines or the comic strips! …”), and, here and there, some good jazz. But in Hollywood, such an eccentric, egocentric project was almost a guaranteed non-starter. And Welles’ Hollywood career, the most spectacular flame-out in Tinseltown history, was surely enough to seal the film’s fate.
Except that, somehow, it didn’t. There were people in Hollywood who wanted to make the film, with Welles or without him. The film that eventually emerged in 1947, New Orleans, is an unprepossessing curio, with a bad plot, stilted dialogue, and painfully bad acting. In jazz circles, the film is infamous for putting Billie Holiday in a maid’s uniform, and it’s painful to see her dressed like that, but fortunately we see her functioning as a nightclub singer for most of the film.
Holiday has three songs, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” “Farewell to Storyville,” and “The Blues Are Brewing,” all of which are pleasant enough, but none of them really catches fire. What really makes the film worth seeing, or rather hearing, is Louis Armstrong. We hear on the soundtrack bits and snatches of many of his most famous numbers, including “West End Blues,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” “Dipper Mouth Blues,” and “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.” There’s also some excellent clarinet from Barney Bigard, and boogie-woogie legend Meade Lux Lewis has a cameo doing a few choruses of “Honky-Tonk Train Blues.” Armstrong pretends to play the cornet on these numbers, because he didn’t switch to trumpet until after he left New Orleans. However, to my inexpert ears, at least, it sounds as though he’s really playing a cornet on “Dipper Mouth Blues,” in salute to his mentor, Joseph “King” Oliver. We never get to hear enough of Armstrong, but if you care about his music it’s touching to see him paying tribute to his early days as a musician.2
By the time New Orleans was made, a new generation of jazz musicians considered Armstrong to be an embarrassment. “How can you listen to him? He’s such a Tom,” a musician asked Billie. “I know, but Pops toms from the heart.”
New Orleans ends in the worst possible manner, a “Salute to Jazz” featuring a classically trained white singer (Dorothy Patrick3) fronting Woody Herman’s band (all white as well). Herman was playing very advanced music in 1947,4 but you’d never guess it from this film. The band simply grinds out a pedestrian arrangement of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” and that’s it.
New Orleans is available on a DVD from Kino that includes two musical shorts, Symphony in Black and A Rhapsody in Black and Blue. Symphony in Black, featuring both Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, is from 1935. Billie only appears briefly. A Rhapsody in Black and Blue, from 1932, stars Armstrong. The clip is screamingly racist (Louis as a “savage”) but features screaming hot trumpet as well (“I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead” and “Shine”). There’s also an offbeat essay about the offbeat history of New Orleans, by Bret Wood. JSP Records has a four-CD set of Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, recorded from 1925 through 1930, that includes the originals of many of the tunes Armstrong plays in New Orleans. These are classic recordings, excellently remastered and available at a budget price. If you really want to go back in time, Milestone has remastered the 1923 recordings of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which were the first recordings Armstrong ever made.
For more about Billie Holiday, see the review of The Sound of Jazz in this issue.
- Paul, perhaps most famous as the author of The Last Time I Saw Paris, edited transition, the once-famous expatriate magazine that celebrated the Paris of Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and James Joyce. [↩]
- Armstrong includes in his band authentic New Orleans veterans Kid Ory, Mutt Carey, and Zutty Singleton. [↩]
- Earlier, Patrick has a pretty nice aria that sounds Wagnerian to my still inexpert ears. She may have been dubbed, because she spent most of the rest of her career in B westerns. [↩]
- Although Herman was not one of the founders of bebop, he recorded some of the earliest bop records, buying arrangements like “Woody’n You” and “Disorder on the Border” from Dizzy Gillespie. In the late forties he led the best of the “Progressive” white bands, with hits like “Northwest Passage” and “Caledonia.” [↩]