In the 1920s, jazz was one of the most actively developed musical tendencies, styles, and movements in the United States. “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” written by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf in 1929 became a jazz standard associated with the blacks’ hopes, feelings, sufferings, and desires. The song was originally performed by Edith Wilson in the Broadway show “Hot Chocolates”, and it attracted the public’s attention because of the combination of humorous words and sorrowful tunes (Meckna, 2004, p. 37-38). However, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” became extremely popular while being performed by Louis Armstrong who not only changed the words of the song but also added the social meaning to the lyrics as well as developed the unique sound.
Armstrong’s Interpretation of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” as the Illustration of Jazz Characteristics
In order to start the discussion of Armstrong’s unique interpretation of “Black and Blue”, it is necessary to focus on the musician’s approach to reflecting the characteristic features of jazz in the 1920s in the work. Thus, jazz of the 1920s was a specific phenomenon which developed under the influence of ragtime and blues. During the decade, jazz changed intensively, and more attention was paid to the improvisation and cross-rhythms and timbre which were characteristic for the black music (Teachout, 2009, p. 138-139). Armstrong added significantly to the progress of jazz during the era because of focusing on improvisation and solos. If the beginning of the 1920s was characterized by jazz influenced with black blues and cross-rhythms, the end of the decade was characterized by the focus on much improvisation and vivid solos.
Armstrong was one of the most talented trumpeters of his age, and his approach to solos made a significant change in the whole jazz sound in the 1920s. That is why, now Armstrong’s “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” began with the impressive trumpet solo which reflected the inner sufferings of the performer. In this case, the trumpet solo and Armstrong’s improvisation worked to add the unique meaning to the performer’s feelings expressed not only in words but also in music.
From this point, Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” illustrates how important was improvisation and solos in jazz of the 1920s (Meckna, 2004, p. 37-38). Furthermore, it is possible to state that these musical expressions were expected by the public because Armstrong was that person who reformed the jazz sound in the late part of the 1920s.
Comparison of the Original Context of the Song with Armstrong’s Performance
“(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” was composed by Fats Waller for “Hot Chocolates” under the impact of Dutch Schultz who controlled finances and other aspects of the show. Much attention was paid to the lyrics because the text was expected to make the audience laugh at the fate of blacks. Andy Razaf’s lyrics were rather comic and focused on the personal feelings of the dark-skinned woman who suffered because of being alone in the world of blacks (Singer, 1992, p. 217-218). If Razaf concentrated on the comic effects of discussing the intra-racial prejudice, Armstrong chose to remove the verse explaining the woman’s sadness and emphasized the general idea of the racial discrimination in the American society.
Thus, Wilson sang about the personal pain of the black woman who could not find her love. It was stated in the verse, “Browns and yellers, all have fellers, / Gentlemen prefer them light, / Wish I could fade, can’t make the grade, / Nothing but dark days in sight” (Singer, 1992, p. 217). In his turn, Armstrong concentrated on the pain of the whole race because of being discriminated in the American society: “I’m white, inside / But that don’t help my case / Cause I, Can’t hide / What is in my face” (Teachout, 2009, p. 138-139).
Words in Armstrong’s song were more socially acute than the words sung by Wilson because of reflecting not personal feelings, but the despair of all blacks. Armstrong shifted the focus from the personal lyrics at the beginning of the song to the impressive trumpet solo which illustrated the feelings of performer. The used recitative vocal style added to the acuteness of the socially important song.
“(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue” in the Larger Framework
The rendition of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” performed by Armstrong can be considered as an effective attempt to discuss the problem of racism in the American society. Armstrong was in active opposition to the racist policies followed in the United States in spite of his image of a perfect entertainer. The social position of the performer was strict, and during the period of Cold War, Armstrong even became the US cultural ambassador (Von Eschen, 2004, p. 58-59).
Armstrong’s vision of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” helped create a more vivid background for the discussion of the problem of racism. Armstrong’s sorrowful and expressive trumpet solos as well as accentuated words about being black and blue served as the markers to pay attention to the problem which was obvious, but really concealed in the society.
It is possible to state that Armstrong was effective advocate for racial tolerance and supporter of the idea of equality in the American society because his words and melodies attracted the public’s attention, and he could be heard by the wide audience. Armstrong was frequently accused of working for the whites as the elite of the American society, but the musician’s works served to draw the whites’ attention and focus it on the social problem of racism (Teachout, 2009, p. 138-139).
Armstrong’s performance of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” was full of bitterness, and humorous words about the empty house where there were not even a mouse emphasized the problem (Singer, 1992, p. 219). Listening to Armstrong’s song as the statement of the racial discrimination in the American society, it was possible to rely on more reaction from the public because of Armstrong’s reputation.
Louis Armstrong’s variant of “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue” became a real sensation because the comic song with the meaning developed to make the audience laugh caused the audience think about the problem of discrimination as one of the most acute pains in the American society. Using such features of jazz as solos and improvisation, Armstrong made the song become the bitterest statement of the black’s reasons to become blue.
Meckna, M. (2004). Satchmo: The Louis Armstrong encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Singer, B. (1992). Black and blue: The life and lyrics of Andy Razaf. New York, NY: chirmer/Macmillan.
Teachout, T. (2009). Pops: A life of Louis Armstrong. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Von Eschen, P. M. (2004). Satchmo blows up the world: Jazz ambassadors play the cold war. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.