Last year sometime, Mark asked if I'd be willing to play something in front of the orchestra. I thought about this for a while and concluded that I wanted to focus on Louis Armstrong.
When I was a dumb kid taking lessons and in jazz band, Louis Armstrong just wasn't thought of at all in my circles. We were obsessed with the higher and louder bands - Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich, Chicago, Blood, Sweat, & Tears, and, of course, Chase. At best, we thought of Armstrong as a has-been and just not relevant.
In fact, Louis Armstrong was one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, possibly THE most important and influential. Everything changed when Armstrong came on the scene. Certainly no one played trumpet with his power, range, and technical ability combined with his joy and imagination. When touring in Columbus, Ohio in 1931, local classical trumpet players were shocked to see that Armstrong used a regular trumpet and mouthpiece. They were convinced there was some trickery involved for Armstrong to played the way he played it – well beyond the range thought possible at the time. His singing style was completely original and copied everywhere -- one can hear that influence today.
What first intrigued me about Armstrong was a documentary on the US State Department tours in the 50s and 60s. This was the idea that the US would promote democracy abroad by sending jazz musicians overseas to improve the public image, to counter criticism from the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war. The idea that jazz, invented in America, with its reliance on improvisation, was a perfect way to promote freedom and democracy. (The irony was not lost on the African-American musicians whose freedoms were severely curtailed at home, to put it politely.)
Louis Armstrong, the most famous musician in the world, was signed up for a tour of the Soviet Union in 1957 when he was asked about the Little Rock Nine being stopped from attending high school. Armstrong then made worldwide news with his very colorful criticism of President Eisenhower and the governor of Arkansas, and cancelled his tour.
A decade later, "What A Wonderful World" was written for Armstrong by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. Weiss said he wrote the song specifically for Louis Armstrong as he was inspired by Armstrong's ability to bring together people of different races. First recorded in 1967, it became a lasting hit, and enjoyed a resurgence with its use in the Robin Williams 1987 movie "Good Morning Vietnam". With everything going on in the world, how could anyone sing such a song without it being banal, a satire? But Armstrong does -- and is quite aware of the potential irony. At the beginning of the 1970 recording, Armstrong introduces the song, saying:
Some of you young folks been saying to me "Hey Pops, what you mean 'What a wonderful world'? How about all them wars all over the place? You call them wonderful? And how about hunger and pollution? That ain't so wonderful either."
Well how about listening to old Pops for a minute. Seems to me, it ain’t the world that's so bad but what we're doin' to it. And all I'm saying is see what a wonderful world it would be if only we'd give it a chance. Love baby, love. That's the secret, yeah. If lots more of us loved each other we'd solve lots more problems. And then this world would be gasser.
That's what ol' Pops keeps saying.
Fast forward to last summer when WSO Music Director Mark Latham and I agreed to put this on the Holiday Concert program . . . we had no arrangement to play. As the fall arrived, I found very few orchestra arrangements of this, and none that were suitable. Then I found a lovely arrangement performed by the WDR Orchestra on YouTube (WDR is a German public radio station.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=87AybO2csjQ
I contacted the arranger, Matthäus Crepaz, and we purchased the arrangement. I stole the melody from the bassoons, mostly, and we added a repeated section to which I added my own solo. As we rehearsed it, a few more tweaks were applied and, voila! a finished performance piece. I'm pleased to say it all worked out and the performance was received very well and I had a lot of fun doing it. The support from the orchestra and the comments from many who attended where also quite wonderful.
No one could do it like Louis Armstrong – hopefully this performance will get him a few more listeners.
Chris Ten Eyck
Principal Trumpet, Wellesley Symphony Orchestra