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Louis Armstrong: the Wonderful World That Almost Wasn't

Annals of broken-limbs-and-books dpt.: recently I broke my right arm in a bike accident. The only good thing that ensued from said accident was a chance to spend several days catching up on my reading (kids, don't try this at home), and one of the books I got around to was Ashley Kahn's story of Impulse Records, The House That Trane Built. Kahn, who's previously written books on the making of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, focuses as much on Creed Taylor and Bob Thiele, the producers who successively oversaw the rise of Impulse, as he does on the musicians such as Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and others who gave the label its critical and commercial cachet. He also fills the book with overviews of various Impulse albums, and I ended up jotting down numerous titles of which I'd previously been unaware-Mal Waldron's soundtrack for the 1967 Dick Gregory movie Sweet Love, Bitter and the 1958 Taylor ABC project The Sound of New York are just two examples.

In addition to broadening the perception of what Impulse's catalogue might represent to casual listeners-not to mention the label's famous gatefold sleeves, with their orange-and-black "ebony-and-fire" motif-Kahn provides some good behind-the-scenes stories of the recording sessions that yielded so much canonical jazz. The following story, about Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" (recorded for Impulse's parent company, ABC-Paramount) has evidently been told before, but Kahn's book provided my first encounter of it. The song, of course, would become a hit 20 years after Armstrong waxed it, figuring prominently and poignantly in the Robin Williams movie Good Morning, Vietnam, where the images it accompanies degenerate into the terrible, chaotic, and amoral violence of that war. Could any other singer have underlined such a song with the powerful sentiment that Satchmo does? In most vocalists' mouths it would have turned to mush (though I have a bit of a soft spot for punk-rock icon Joey Ramone's latter-day version). Turns out, though, that the recording almost didn't happen. Kahn writes:

But Thiele's ongoing struggle at ABC came down to one man-ABC-Paramount president Larry Newton-and one head-to-head encounter at a session with his greatest hero: Louis Armstrong.

The salient details are: in July 1968, Thiele had successfully arranged a producer's Daily Double. Not only had he secured the legendary trumpeter to release his next performance on ABC, but he persuaded Armstrong to record a song that Thiele had helped create: "What a Wonderful World." A handsome payday for both label and producer was almost certain.

The purpose of Newton's appearance at the studio that day was ostensibly to meet Armstrong and shoot some publicity photos. But when the label head heard a ballad was to be recorded-rather than a more upbeat Dixieland number like "Hello, Dolly!"-a screaming match ensued. The session was completed, apparently with Newton physically barred from the studio, furiously banging on the door.

Who knew? There's a more detailed account in Thiele's autobiography. Kahn also seems to imply that Thiele may have juiced up the tale a bit in his retelling:

No one else present (among those in the studio were drummer Grady Tate, trumpeter Joe Wilder, and engineer Bob Simpson) seems to have witnessed the confrontation, but no matter. In the long view, whatever happened is now less important than the fact that Thiele viewed it as a defining point in his career... Whatever his success at Impulse, Thiele began to look for a way out.

Thiele would go on to found the Flying Dutchman label (where Armstrong would record a different version of "What a Wonderful World")-a catalogue worthy of some literary examination itself, as well as more frequent reissue. In the meantime, have a happy Thanksgiving...avoid broken limbs and screaming matches.

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