For people with even a basic understanding of music in the 20th century, Louis Armstrong’s talent and reputation are undisputed. Still, for most people of certain generations, particularly those born after Armstrong’s heyday and lifespan, the songs that earned him that reputation are not promoted, and thus, go unnoticed.
Armstrong is well-known for songs like “What A Wonderful World,” “Hello, Dolly,” and his version of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But recordings like the series of nightclub recordings done in the 1950s, (titled “The Night Clubs”) reveal that Armstrong has a varied and interesting discography. One example of Armstrong’s work that is not always discussed is the song, “Lazy River.” The tune is also known as “Up the Lazy River.” It was written in the 1930s by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin.
“Lazy River” is slow-paced, but nuanced. Its lyrics are more like poetry than song lyrics. The description of the river, the scenes of places the river winds past, and the metaphors for the narrator and his beloved, all add up to the beauty of the song. The meaning isn’t deep, necessarily, but it is thoughtful.
“Lazy River” by Louis Armstrong
The song begins with an introduction by a nightclub master of ceremonies. The inclusion of his remarks, along with sounds of the crowd, gives listeners the feeling that they are there, too. Even as an audio illustration, the song serves to paint a picture of a very different time.
It should be noted that Armstrong recorded a version of “Lazy River” in 1931. In terms of the soundscape, it is like what he offers on the “The Night Clubs.” There are some vocal ad libs and live performance quirks that distinguish the later recording from the earlier one.
The strident toodle of horns is augmented by a resonant upright bass. The instrumentation is fascinating on its own as an example of historic jazz. The song dates back to the 1930s, and the elements of the blues are present as well. The strangled horn, the insistent piano, and the rollicking feel as short bursts from a trumpet play against other horns longer notes, all create tremendous excitement and texture in this track.
“Lazy River” is by Armstrong, so a facet not to be missed is Armstrong’s voice. The performer’s gravel-voiced delivery, and because this is a live recording, his humorous interactions with the crowd. For listeners generations removed from Armstrong’s heyday, this song is an excellent example of why he is so beloved. There is far more to Armstrong’s catalog than “What a Wonderful World.”
Beyond Armstrong’s delivery, which is more flexible than listeners might predict, there is his style. Armstrong manages to “scat” which, to call it a delight, is to ascribe whimsy to it that doesn’t do it justice. He plucks the syllables from the ether and strings them to the next one with ease. Audiences might find themselves enraptured by the sound of Armstrong’s scat. Also, the musician has fun doing it, and the performance gives modern listeners insight into his stage persona. There is a feeling of, if not nostalgia, certainly of history, in hearing Armstrong’s performance of “Lazy River.”