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“LOUIS IN HOLLYWOOD” : PRESENTATION BY ARNOLD JAY SMITH @ UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA LAS VEGAS

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I presented the second in a series of lecture demonstrations at the Arnold Shaw Music Library at the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV).  In the Fall of 2013 the topic was “Aspects Of Duke (Ellington).”  In the Spring of 2014 the topic was “Louis (Armstrong) In Hollywood.”  The premise was to show film clips of the great cornetist/trumpeter and the creator of what we now know as jazz in various guises with and without guests.

Armstrong appeared in many films mostly playing himself or thinly veiled behind a fictitious handle.  Many were the times that his roles were excised when the film played the segregated south but when they were shown uncut usually at late-night encore showings viewers came to see him and not the rest of the film.

The night at UNLV began sans introduction with the complete production sequence from the movie “Hello, Dolly!” with Barbra Streisand, chorus, dancers and Armstrong leading the band.  I then walked onto the stage basking in Armstrong’s applause.  He was, after all, primary and me there just to offer some historical patter.

As anticipated, the audience were Armstrong lovers but unfamiliar with the fare I was presenting.  There were clips from “New Orleans” with a young Billie Holiday singing “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans.”  There was also a marching band of sanitation workers playing “Jubilee.”

Armstrong had done a series of short films including one where he is in someone’s dream standing in a sea of soap suds in a leopard skin singing “Shine.”  He rose above that terribly racist moment and played some of the first high C’s that were to become his trademark.

When he first visited Europe in the 1930′s Armstrong played Copenhagen.  Four tunes remain extant as someone astutely filmed them.  “Dinah” from that film showed him playing above the melody while saxophonist Wilner Randolph conducts local musicians behind him.

Time was rapidly encroaching on my presentment as I played clips from a little known 1950′s television soupçon called “Swinging Summit.”  The premise this time was that Secretary of State Kay Starr needed to appoint ambassadors of one stripe or another for a swinging cabinet.  (Think “The Real Ambassadors” on which I will report in a later post.)  It was a good enough reason for the likes of Tony Bennett, George Shearing, Armstrong and Starr to cavort and sing a few ditties.  Good fun too.

If truth be told Armstrong was the star of “High Society,” Cole Porter’s final film.  Oh yeah, there were people with names like Sinatra, Crosby and a new chick star named Kelly who went on to become a real-life Princess.  But to one viewer it was Armstrong’s flick all the way.  I showed every piece of the action in which Armstrong was in the background, foreground, or just on the soundtrack concluding with “Now You Has Jazz” with Bing Crosby.

While Frank Sinatra did not sing with Armstrong in “High Society” they did “Birth Of The Blues” together on what was essentially an infomercial for the then new Edsel automobile, a major marketing campaign which bombed as did the car.  It was “live” television at its worst in which Crosby and Armstrong reprised “Now You Has Jazz,” Crosby changing the lyric at the end.  Hey, that’s jazz!  Rosemary Clooney replaced Grace Kelly as the Thrush.

Also in the mix were “Paris Blues” with Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, and Ellington’s and Billy Strayhorn’s score.  They did a rousing “Battle Royale.”  And The Glenn Miller Story” with Jimmy Stewart and jazz guests, and “The Strip” with a drummer named Mickey Rooney.  Time ran out so left on the cutting room floor at UNLV were the two Danny Kaye flicks, “A Song Is Born” with many Swing Era Stars playing university professors, and “The Five Pennies,” a bio-pic about cornetist Red Nichols (Kaye), plus excerpts where Armstrong sings “Jeepers Creepers” to a horse (it became a hit!), “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” with singer/dancer Dorothy Dandridge, and showing off some acting talent high jinx, and more high C’s, on “Skeleton In The Closet.”

I cheated on the concluding clip as it was not from Hollywood.  It was Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie on the first Timex All Star Jazz Show, “live from New York.”   Jackie Gleason was the host.  The man who started it all and the man who changed it all together only once playing an Italian street seller’s waltz, “Umbrella Man.”  Armstrong who hated bebop; Gillespie who loved and revered Armstrong.,

At the after reception I passed around a sheath of stills from the movies.

My next presentation at UNLV, which houses my archives, will be “The Nat ‘King’ Cole Show.”  I have all of that one-season television series which was canceled by Cole himself over the controversy of the first black entertainer hosting a television show, and the lack of national sponsorship thereof.  N.B.C. was aboard for a second season, but…the south, again.  Cole was a masterful and influential pianist and there are video outtakes and radio duets which rarely get exposed.

© arnold jay smith May 2014


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