teaching mark s a *LESSON* response four: LOUIS PRIMA

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Louis Prima/ Basin Street Blues/When It's Sleepy Time Down South

Proposed by Martin Skidmore

In Trevor Griffiths?s 1976 tv play Comedians, the middle-aged stand-up is giving nightclasses, in some godforsaken technical college in Manchester, to a handful of wannabe funnymen.

Retired and disillusioned himself, he pours crafts and convictions into a new generation of hopefuls. They want success, fame, security - but way beyond all this they hunger, desperately, for flight from backbreaking rubbish meaningless working class toil, the grim awfulness of their lives. He wants them to know and understand what he believes: that while good comedy may be about knowing and using the established craft conventions, great comedy is about truth. It isn?t a distraction from pain: it?s an exploration of the wounds, perhaps even a step towards healing?

And it?s the night of their big chance: a talent-spotter is up from London ? one of them will get to leave the pitiful local workingman?s club circuit, to play Music Hall countrywide, maybe even get on television. How will they handle it?

The play predates Alternative Comedy in the UK; it was surely a catalyst for its arrival, though, and it perfectly predicts its dilemmas, its compromises. It?s about selling out your principles, and - nobbled by the talent spotter, an old enemy of the stand-up - EVERY SINGLE ONE of the would-be comics betrays his teacher, each one in a different way, by being rubbish, by being unprincipled (telling easy and ugly stereotype jokes, racist and sexist and cynically cliched), and ? in the most complicated betrayal ? by being absolutely principled and politically hard (about class and hatred) but not, in fact, being funny.

The final betrayal is the conflict-nub of play, clearly: what this "stand-up" (he?s called Gethin Price) does is utterly daring and scary "performance art", playing on the Historical Social Role of the Licensed Jester blah blah, *but* Price pisses on his teacher also. Because what he says is that, morally, truth-in-the-service-of-radical-social-value simply demolishes the entire idea of "funny". If poetry can?t survive Auschwitz, how the fuck will Stand-up?


Louis Prima (1910-78, born and died New Orleans) was a Louis Armstrong copyist of Italian lineage who just squeaks into jazz encyclopaedias by virtue of unimpeachable undeniable astonishing jawdropping vocal technique, only to be IMMEDIATELY consigned to don?t-bother footnote territory by the encyclopaedias with pretensions to SERIOUSNESS, for being an entertainer not an innovator, a showbiz trouper not an artist (in his book Satchmo, for example, Gary Giddens claims that you can trace Prima?s entire career to what Armstrong does with the version of "I Surrender Dear" that he recorded in Chicago in 1931). In other words, Prima gets dealt with as if he?s nothing but prime Las Vegas jazzcheeze; you only ever find his records under "Easy Listening" ? the collection I bought for this, I assume part of some cheapie primer series for elderly 12-CDers, lists no other musicians (except wife and sometime co-singer Keely Smith), only dates half of them, and uses a single very weirdly colorized photo no less than four times on the two sides of the insert (weirdly colorized: as in, Prima?s suit ? which judging by texture seems to be made of some kind of slimming crispbread ? is given a tinge of turquoise that turns his face diseased and purple...).

And of course, as Amiri Baraka and Wynton Marsalis wd both agree to note through gritted teeth with unending not-unreasonably anger, Prima?s white, and hey didn?t he do King Louis?s voice in Disney?s "Jungle Book" which is great and all but but but ew argh ugh.....

The specific Prima song medley Martin pointed me to was "Basin Street Blues"/"When It?s Sleepy Time Down South" (rec.for Capitol 1956) => In other words, a medley of two of the most important songs from Armstrong?s 1928 recordings, which rocketed him up to join the world-historical greats. (Giddins says that Armstrong went on record the former 53 times, his third most rerecorded song; and the latter, his declared themetune, 98 times!)

Anyway, the point I?m crawling towards is that I think we live in an era in music where the actual thing that Prima does with his voice, right here at the heart of unapologetically mainstream pre-rock leisure culture (most of the songs on my collection were released on Capitol in the mid-late 50s), could *not* NOW emerge from R&B or hiphop or metal or indie or gospel or any of jazz, trad to improv, COULD NOT POSSIBLY HAPPEN IN ANY KIND OF "WESTERN"* "POP"**, however trivial, however learned, however whatever. Along with the arrival of the basic cultural tact NOT to associate Armstrong with a comical cartoon monkey (which I think we can agree is a step forward, somehow, no?), did something go missing? "Rock" knows more than the world before it, yes, but it just doesn?t know this ? the supremely casual way Prima can just take a beat and play with it, around it, through it, via free-improv rhythm and babbled syllable shifts (half Armstrong dreamchatter, half Neapolitan slang), jumpcutting us out of the body of one song into another, hair-raising hairpin bends taken in supremely cheerful and unbothered style ? yes of course like Armstrong except freed from the ghastly prison of half his listeners thinking "this guy changed the course of music history you know". It?s not Cap-A Art, it?s not show-off "technique for the sake of technique", it?s *so* not trapped inside any idea whatever of Higher Social Worth. There?s no countercultural crusade here (including obviously no Marsalisoid counter-countercultural crusade); the only conventions are vaudeville?s pragmatic-mercenary laws viz GRAB THE AUDIENCE AND HOLD THEM AND TAKE THEM WHERE I TAKE THEM. He sings cheesy standards; he is in NO SENSE the author of his wider context (let alone at war with this context). So in a way Prima ? with this beautiful lazy, funny, easy, joyful shtick, as brilliantly bubblicious as like, I don?t know, Bootsy, except in an ABSOLUTELY unpoliced and unabsolved, uncareful-unpolitical-unartful context ? is as true to his principles, the exact material craft of his calling, as Gethin Price, and therefore, somehow, up there on-stage grinning in Vegas, even *more* heroically uncompromised. (Did he betray HIS teacher? Well, DID he? I mean, did anyone ever so perfectly recognise and celebrate and adore the exact magnificent power of what their teacher achieved? In a way, isn?t the entire history of jazz the story of people foolishly attempting to improve on Armstrong when he SO DOESN?T NEED IMPROVING ON?)

So (as usual) the question comes down to, what is lost with the arrival of self-consciousness? How d?you recover the wonder, if you decide the world needs changing? If everything is locked into the ahem Revolution, how d?you ever imagine freedom again, let alone express an idea of it? Whatever the answer (ps i don?t know it) it?s totally NOT about eliminating all schooling: Prima is like TOTALLY A SCHOOLED MASTER of what he does, of the technical perfection of his own talent (except that makes it sound cold when it SO isn?t...): more than this, he "got" rhythm and blues when it first emerged, unlike pretty much everyone in GROWN-UP jazz, white OR black (AND haha Keely Smith recorded an LP of Beatles covers in 1964!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

(*cf this thread for what is meant here maybe by "western", acknowledging that it is a vague and therefore incredibly risky and dumb and potentially bothersome word in many many ways) (I mean, like, how is EEK-A-MOUSE not "western" etc?)

(**Exception: in principle, just about, could a present-day Prima actually emerge from eg the talent-show reality-TV er "hell" of American Idol et al, where just enough of the "old" leisure-industry craft values are fleetingly given the nod ? except that of course it?s actually totally imbued with and in thrall to "counterculture" and "cool" values... ??)

mark s (mark s), Sunday, 22 June 2003 14:52 (nineteen years ago) link

cf also obv Frank Kogan’s idea of "Free Lunch" and Manny Farber’s idea of "Termite Art"

mark s (mark s), Sunday, 22 June 2003 14:54 (nineteen years ago) link

I'm delighted to see this, Mark, even though I was a bit bemused by the opening for a moment or two. I think the story of Louis Armstrong's mob-manager asking him if he wanted to be a great artist or rich (apocryphal or not) is a key moment in musical history. Prima had abandoned any interest in Great Art by this point if he ever had any, and was certainly aware of the musical trends going on - he felt his young audience was turning to the developing rock 'n' roll, and therefore he made his music faster and punchier. But really, I love this because nothing sounds more like ectasy condensed into music, no music makes me happier than this, or makes me laugh more.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Sunday, 22 June 2003 15:12 (nineteen years ago) link

David Lee Roth to thread!

david q, Sunday, 22 June 2003 16:19 (nineteen years ago) link

Lou Bega gave it a stab as well. wait, was that his name? Keely Smith is infinitely more interesting to me than Louis. Someone should write a book about what she did with HER voice. Her early solo records break my heart a hundred different ways.

scott seward, Sunday, 22 June 2003 16:25 (nineteen years ago) link

'Lou Bega gave it a stab as well'
Spade Cooley gave it a shovel!

dave q, Sunday, 22 June 2003 16:28 (nineteen years ago) link

Martin, in the box of assorted LP's I got last week were 6 copies of Hot News and Rhythm record review from 1935. I'll be posting some stuff about it elsehwere as it's interesting that the dialogue which takes place in Hot News is little different to what goes on on ILM 70 years later.

Anyway, there's a review of the first Louis Prima disc Breakin' the ice - Jamaica shout, "a grand and glorious noise". If you're interested I'll scan it and mail to you.

Billy Dods (Billy Dods), Sunday, 22 June 2003 16:56 (nineteen years ago) link

Only vaguely, Billy, so don't go to the trouble for me.

Martin Skidmore (Martin Skidmore), Sunday, 22 June 2003 17:25 (nineteen years ago) link

post it to the board, Billy!

M Matos (M Matos), Sunday, 22 June 2003 19:56 (nineteen years ago) link

Yeah, go for it Billy!

As a jazzbo snob, I'm more than happy to accept that Prima is the king of gd-time estatic showbiz-jazz joyfulness, and can happily enjoy his recs on that basis ("he's got good tunes and he swings", to paraphrase Gil Evans on Ornette Coleman) but the total LACK of any shade to his light makes me equally 'comfortable' w/ the fact that Prima's recs are filed under 'Easy' rather than jazz. I mean, Armstrong's 'West End Blues' seems a world away from "ectasy condensed into music", or the blues as a music of ANGER, as Fahey insisted. Armstrong is the 'greater' artist because his music could incorporate (overrated!) sheer joyfulness AND blues misery/melancholy - not to mention space for improvisational thinking and plentiful demonstrations of superior technical chops.

I think Mark's original post is real rich meat, but I'd say he slightly overstates the case abt Prima's DIFFERENCE to today's pop - haven't Eminem's osmotic tongue talents made him a rich man? - and 'obv' I can't agree that "the entire history of jazz [is] the story of people foolishly attempting to improve on Armstrong when he SO DOESN’T NEED IMPROVING ON?" I'm sorta shamefaced abt how little I know abt Armstrong's recordings/career, but in a lot of ways I find his style/idiom/sound to be far more alien and unreachable NOW than most recs by Prima and Keely and dear old Sam Butera, let alone Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Woody Shaw, Dave Douglas blah blah. And I'd like to know the date for that anecdote abt Armstrong and his manager.

Andrew L (Andrew L), Sunday, 22 June 2003 20:43 (nineteen years ago) link

OK folks, enjoy...

"Breakin' the Ice"-"Jamaica Shout" by Louis Prima and his New Orleans Gang. DECCA F 5459

Here is a newcomer to the lists, but I hope he is going to stay, for his first record is amongst the best things of the month.
Louis Prima hails from New Orleans, the home town of that other Louis, and he has got together a gang of old-timers who play in an old-time way, but for all that they are as modern as most other bands. That fact ought to prove something, but I don't quite know what.

Louis plays trumpet - a whole lot of trumpet. he starts in right from the beginning. then he puts down his instrument for a chorus and sings. His phrasing, both instrumental and vocal is somwhat reminiscent of Louis Armstrong, but sufficiently different to be his own; while his tone is very definitely his own. After the vocal there is a swell clarinet passage by Sidney Arodin of the Dixieland Jazz band; some good piano by a man I don't know; and some trombone, also swell, by George Brunies, of the New Orleans Rhythm Kngs. yes these boys are really old-timers, After Brunies is through, friend Louis decides it's time for some more trumpet and carries on to the end with the band playing all-in for the last bars.

He is a crazy player, and a crazier singer, but he and his gang all march along the right road, so what does it matter?

"Jamaica Shout" is, I think, the craziest record I have ever heard: but I love it. i don't think that any one of the gang has a very clear idea of what he is doing, and I am sure that nobody cares anyway.

There is first all-in. Then Arodin, Brunies, the pianist, the drummer, the banjo player, Prima, and the bass player, all take it in turns to get away, more or less i that order. And they are all swell, particularly Prima, who goes completely mad in his last chorus.

I don't know whether or not it is usually considered complimentary to accuse a man of being insane, but from me it is the highest form of flattery - where musicians are concerned that is. If I say aman is crazy, you may be sure that I think he is very, very good. (All musicians please note, and American papers please copy)

Seriously though; "Jamaica Shout" is not jazz in it's highest form I know, but it is a grand and glorious noise. I should hardly think that Horace Henderson ever intended it to be played that way when he wrote the number, but I have no doubt that he enjoyed it when heard it. I did, and you will too, I hope.

Billy Dods (Billy Dods), Sunday, 22 June 2003 21:45 (nineteen years ago) link

That is what all the reviews I will write from now on will read like.

M Matos (M Matos), Sunday, 22 June 2003 21:46 (nineteen years ago) link

it's like the girl in strangers to paradise (or whatever that jarmusch film is called), talking about screamin jay hawkins: "he is a wild man, so bug off!"

mark s (mark s), Sunday, 22 June 2003 21:51 (nineteen years ago) link

Prototype of all Jandek reviews or of all Robbie Williams ones?

Ned Raggett (Ned), Sunday, 22 June 2003 23:15 (nineteen years ago) link

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