The Infinite Jukebox: Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’

When I say I’m not into Jazz, I’m aware that that’s a hopeless over-simplification. Jazz is not merely Jazz, it is an ever-widening delta of different sounds, techniques and approaches, very few of which I have any aural experience, and subtleties beyond the ability of my ears to distinguish. Or comprehend, for that matter.
When I think of Jazz, as one must inevitably do from time to time, the Jazz that I instinctively associate with the term is traditional jazz, the kind that involves trumpets and trombones and the banjo chugging away in the background. That I do not like with a passion. Should I ever again be subjected to ‘When the Saints go Marching In’ in that style, I will not be responsible for my actions.
There are the usual odds’n’sods that I like: The Dave Brubeck Quartet, with particular reference to ‘Take Five’, ‘Stranger on the Shore’. And some exponents of Jazz-rock who don’t lean too heavily on the Jazz end of that combination, such as Steely Dan over the first three albums.
But sometimes, when all around you is cracking up and so are you, when you want a warm and reassuring sound, that is big and naive but amazingly comforting, you take it from anywhere you can find it, and if that means Jazz, you suck it up baby and you luxuriate in the sound.
And I can’t think of anything more all-embracing than Louis Armstrong and his 1968 British UK no. 1, the great and sentimental ‘What a Wonderful World’.
The song originally came out in America in 1967, and I remember being thrown by its anachronistic use on the soundtrack to Good Morning Vietnam, when my then girlfriend and I went to see that. It was a flop in the USA thanks to the adverse response of Satchmo’s manager but Britain took it, whole-heartedly, making Armstrong, aged 67, the oldest man then to top the British charts.
Armstrong was a true Jazz legend, a phenomenal trumpeter and a well-rounded man whose music was full of life. He also possessed a rich, growling singing voice that, whatever he did with it, was singing through the grin he always seemed to wear. And Armstrong’s grin was full of warmth, encompassing everybody within range.
And I wonder about that grin, that inhabited everything Armstrong did and was, how did he really feel? Armstrong’s public persona was not too far removed from the minstrel acts, the black performers turning themselves into clowns, loveable and harmless, subservient to the whites who, for the most part of Louis Armstrong’s life, were his masters who he’d better not get to uppitty with, no matter what the real truth of talent, wisdom, wit and humanity between them.
Armstrong played the black man of no threat, the clown America wanted to think of. He made brilliant music doing that because he was so good a musician, so inventive and active. He made Jazz that even I could like.
And four years from the end of his life, he made ‘What a Wonderful Life’. The song was made for him, there wasn’t another musician who could have been so simple and honest to sing lyrics that were naive and hopeful, lyrics that wore their rose-tinted glasses on the inside. Armstrong sung, with a deliberately naive awe, about trees of green, red roses, coming into bloom for me and an unnamed you, a you who is not an individual but all of us rolled into Armstrong’s gaze without discrimination or distinction, included in his almost-child-like acclaiming of what a What a Wonderful World.
Of course it wasn’t, not in 1968, nor since, no matter how much Armstrong reinforced it with that deep, reminiscing burr of a voice. Satchmo is looking through a very narrow eye, seeing only what he wants to see, that all is for the best in the best of all worlds, but his gift is not just to make you want to see it through his eyes, see only the good and the blessed, but to draw you into the curve of his vision so that for three minutes or so, you believe and you see, and you think to yourself, What a Wonderful World.
Oh yeah.

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