A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: Murray, this is Louis Armstrong, from the record The Best of the Decca Years, Vol. 1. Now, there's a lot of Louis Armstrong in the world. Why did you pick this particular one?
MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: You know, I've given this some thought, A.B., because it's like saying, "OK, we're gonna start reading Shakespeare now — which play do want to start out on?" And uh, it may have something to do with the fact that these were the first Louis Armstrong records I ever heard when I was growing up in what I shall call the 1950s.
But I think more than that, I think this is a real good starting point to be introduced to the spirit, joy, humanity, and the artistry of Louis Armstrong.
HORWITZ: These records, to me, give you a sense of who he was, of what made him a great star, and of what made him a great musician. He just has fun on every one of these, and he invites us to have fun with him.
SPELLMAN: But Murray, why is Louis Armstrong such an important trumpet player and why is he such an important singer?
HORWITZ: Oh, boy, that's the toughest question I've ever had to answer. I guess the starting point is his rhythm. He used to say that he carried around two drummers with him — the one that was on stage and the one that was in his head.
Louis Armstrong almost singlehandedly invented swing — that way of taking the shuffle rhythm of the blues (the duh-di-duh-di-duh-di-duh) — and putting it in everything, and then challenging it, playing with it, putting notes and accents in odd places where you'd never expect them but which make perfect sense. They make you want to get up and dance and have a great time. He did that with his voice and he did that with his trumpet.
SPELLMAN: Now he is the first really great jazz soloist, isn't he? He also sort of makes jazz — especially small band jazz — a soloist's music.
HORWITZ: That's true, and one of the things I like about this CD is while you hear that small group setting occasionally you also hear him in big orchestral arrangements. You hear him with the big band of Sy Oliver, and you hear one of the things he was able to do as well or better than anybody in jazz, and that was to play duets and sing duets with, on this record, the Mills brothers, Louis Jordan, and Bing Crosby.
SPELLMAN: Now why was Louis so important as a vocalist, Murray?
HORWITZ: Again, that's a really hard question to answer. He used the same phrasing and the same kinds of astonishing rhythmic and melodic choices that he used in his trumpet playing, but the famous story about Louis Armstrong is he pretty much invented "scat" singing. He may not have been the first, but he was the first one to record it consistently.
This recording has one of his greatest scat solos of all time. It's "Up a Lazy River," and in it, he gets so carried away that you can actually hear him break down and start laughing... so delighted is he with his own artistry.
SPELLMAN: We've been listening to one of the saints of jazz, on a record we think should be included in your Basic Jazz Record Library. This has been Louis Armstrong, and the recording is The Best of the Decca Years, Vol 1. It is on Decca/MCA Records. For NPR Jazz, I'm A.B. Spellman.
HORWITZ: And I'm Murray Horwitz.