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Louis Armstrong

Editor’s Note: I just watched this after having not done so for a while. Three things strike me: 1. This is pure joy; 2. Louis Armstrong, along with everything else, is a very generous performer. He was the most famous musician in the world, a legend, and he lets Danny Kaye lead; 3. Kaye was an amazing talent. 

Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye originally did this version of When the Saints Come Marching In in in the movie The Five Pennies.

Genius isn’t inventing or developing something out of thin air. Rather, genius is taking elements that already exist and putting them together in a monumentally new way.

Albert Einstein, of course, is the prototypical genius. His most important breakthrough was taking work by Max Planck and others and transforming it into a theory that illuminated the relationship between energy and matter. He took the hints that the earlier scientists used for mathematical constructs necessary to make equations work–but which they didn’t think actually exist in nature–and showed that they were real and defined the behavior of light and, indeed, all matter. (That, in any case, is my limited understanding.)

What does this all have to do with Louis Armstrong? Plenty. Armstrong is the Einstein of modern music. There were other Bohrs, Feynmans and Hawkings (Ellington, Monk and Parker is the start of a pretty good list). But only one guy is at the top of the heap. That is Louis Armstrong. Miles Davis, who reportedly didn’t like Armstrong because of the way the latter presented himself to white audiences, acknowledged his stature:

“You can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played.”

It isn’t that he necessarily was a greater talent than other jazz greats.  It was the talent plus the luck of being there at the right moment. The world was ready for Einstein to discover the relationship between matter and energy that would lead to quantum physics. And Armstrong was in the right place at the right time as well: Jazz was ready to move from an ensemble to solo art form. Many can describe Armstrong’s role far better than I.

It’s also very interesting to note the similarities between the lives of the two men. Both were amazingly charismatic and led uniquely American lives. Both saw their breakthrough grow to be something with which they were uncomfortable: quantum mechanics and bebop. (The purest manifestation of Armstrong’s breakthrough, by the way, can be listened to. It is said to be the first 13 seconds of the beautiful West End Blues.)

Like most geniuses, Armstrong and Einstein had their breakthroughs early in their careers and had to deal with an unrealistic expectations for decades afterwards. This was difficult for both men.

Armstrong, in some critics’ eyes, stopped innovating and became a jolly reactionary fighting against the innovations he made possible. Einstein rebelled against the quantum world (“God does not play dice with the universe”) and embarked on a quixotic quest for the unified field theory. (During the past year, the controversy over results that initially pointed to particles moving faster than light and the discovery of the Higgs Boson — a possible step toward a unified field theory — prove that a world of very brilliant people still is dealing with Einstein almost 60 years after he died.) Einstein’s research ended — literally — on his death bed. Armstrong was talking about touring when he died.

There is one Einstein music story. He played violin  in an orchestra at Princeton. During rehearsal of a particular piece, he jumped in at the wrong point. The conductor looked up and asked, “What’s the matter, Dr. Einstein? Can’t you count?”

Below Armstrong plays Hello Dolly! live (probably during the Korea era) and Mack the Knife.

Note: I am told by somebody who knows that the Hello Dolly! clip is from a military base in Texas in 1967, not Korea.