Back in February, Wynton Marsalis & Friends (Wycliffe Gordon, Victor Goines, Walter Blanding Jr.) did a set of Louis Armstrong Hot Fives numbers for Jazz At Lincoln Center; that performance is archived online here. “SJI” pops up early in the second half of the roughly hour-long set.
During occasional breaks in the show, Marsalis talks about Armstrong, his influences, specific tunes, and so on. In the break right before “SJI” (about 36 minutes in), we hear from Gary Giddens, who comments on the impact that Armstrong had on jazz singing. Giddens makes the case that Armstrong had what a “vernacular voice,” meaning a range and style that previously would have made more sense in blues or gospel or hillbilly singing than jazz singing. And something else: “He brought this tremendous improvisational spontaneity. … The idea that you could re-compose, re-conceive a song while you were singing it, and make it better — this was just revolutionary.”
As Marsalis notes, what was revolutionary then is pretty much expected now. And then he transitions: “This next song is one that I grew up singing and hearing and playing as a traditional New Orleans song. The first charisma was sprinkled all over it by the great Louis Armstrong, of course, it’s entitled the St. James Infirmary.”
The band’s take starts low and slow, funeral-dirge New Orleans style. Marsalis’s playing is restrained and sweet. And he sings, which is something I’m not sure I’ve ever heard before. I must say he does a pretty good job, with his vernacular voice. The tempo picks up, and it gets pretty swingy, but not quite raucous. It’s nice.
But really, what I’m interested in are those comments — from Giddens and Marsalis.
The notion of rewriting the song in real time, partly by the way you sing it, and perhaps also by tweaking the words as you go, is of great interest to me. My whole take on “SJI” is that it’s almost less of a song than a kind of living document that’s been reinvented a million times and gets stronger with every variation. Its story, to me, throws into question the very notion of authorship.
That said, I am entranced with the idea that the line that means the most to me (about how “she” can search the whole world over, and, even in death, “never find another man like me”) somehow belongs, if not to Armstrong, then to New Orleans. (As I’ve noted before, I have not found any evidence of that particular line in the pre-Armstrong versions of the song’s assorted antecedents.)
I’m not suggesting I have proof of this. I don’t. And I am keenly aware that proof to the contrary might rise up at any time.
I was also happy to hear Marsalis talk of “SJI” as a traditional New Orleans song. Obviously it had a life before New Orleans jazz existed. But does that exclude the idea that it’s a traditional Orleans song? I think not.
But then, I would think not, wouldn’t I?