The 60's hits of Louis Armstrong
Like any American, I have been surrounded by “Hello, Dolly!” and “What A Wonderful World” my whole life. It is just so great that Louis Armstrong is part of our musical culture in this manner. You can’t avoid Pops! He’s always there.
While researching “Louis Armstrong’s Last Word” for the The Nation, I took a fresh listen.
“Hello, Dolly” was written by Jerry Herman for the 1964 musical of the same name. Pops played it in a fairly old-school New Orleans fashion, featuring Tony Gottuso on banjo and Trummy Young on tailgate trombone. (Trivia: Tony Gottuso is the grandfather of noted contemporary drummer Scott Amendola.)
“What A Wonderful World” was written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss; Pops gets a lush orchestral setting typical for vocal stars in 1967.
Both songs exhibit up-to-date harmonic thinking, especially in the use of parallel diatonic triads, where the bass moves with the chord in a direct fashion.
In “Hello, Dolly!” the song starts with C major, A minor, and C major in sequence.
Towards the end, A minor and E minor seesaw back and forth.
The opening of “What a Wonderful World” also features many parallel diatonic triads, F, A minor, B-flat, A minor, G minor, F.
Parallel diatonic triads is an old idea, but at the time, this sound was fresh. Part of this development might have been prompted by the way the guitar had new prominence in popular music, for there is less European voice-leading available on the guitar then on the piano. (The famous flamenco harmonic sequence E major, F Major, G major, F major, E major is a good example of parallel triads, and is certainly something that a guitarist would come up with faster than a pianist.)
A lot of people regarded this kind of harmonic thinking as juvenile. In the 1964 movie Goldfinger, James Bond says, “There are some things that just aren't done, such as drinking Dom Pérignon '53 above a temperature of 38° Fahrenheit. That's as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.”
The Beatles emphasized the guitar more then the piano and had a lot of parallel triads in their hit songs. Maybe those parallel triads are why Bond wanted the earmuffs?
It is easy to understand why a midcentury songwriter might regard the above harmonization of “What a Wonderful World” as hopelessly misguided. Apologies! Here’s a harmonization with inversions in the bass line. You can take off the earmuffs now:
Of course, with this more conventionally elegant harmonization, the song loses some of its power. Horses for courses. Indeed, I speculate that if “Hello, Dolly!” and “What A Wonderful World” didn’t have the parallel triads, they wouldn’t have been hits for Louis Armstrong.
At the time, many jazz musicians didn’t know what to do with parallel diatonic triads, and to this day, it’s a bit of a specialized topic. Despite an infectious swinging beat, “Hello, Dolly!” is not a jazz standard, and that’s not just because it is “owned” by Louis Armstrong: It is also difficult to re-harmonize Herman’s theme with conventional jazz chords.
Compare “Hello, Dolly!” with “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever” by Burton Lane or “The Shadow of Your Smile” by Johnny Mandel, both from 1965. Those two pieces went into the world of jazz easily and instantaneously: try Wynton Kelly for “On A Clear Day” and Eddie Harris for “Shadow of Your Smile.” But when you attempt to do that sort of thing to “Hello, Dolly!” the song loses its shape.
(The man who understood the concept of parallel diatonic triads best may have been Keith Jarrett, who colored his jazz music with a huge swath of ‘60s pop. Jarrett can also play guitar as well as piano.)
Louis Armstrong was not the only older jazz master looking for a modern hit in that era. Armstrong succeeded in a way others did not partly because he wasn’t worried about the bones of a song. Pops could place his blues expression on top of any kind of harmonic concept and the result would be instant magic.
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