Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck: Summer Song

Two minutes and two seconds of bliss — Pops and Brubeck show how it's done.

Two minutes and two seconds of bliss — Pops and Brubeck show how it's done.

I am sweating and more than happy about. I take to winter like a duck to hunting season. Too much time indoors, compounded by the fact that I work in my basement studio, where light and heat are hard to come by, when spring finally shows up, I’m translucent and barely thawed. Emerging from my protective cocoon of cotton and wool, I try to store my emotional armor for a few months — songs are called for.

Summer songs, that is. Everybody has their favorites, including me.  I won’t be doing bullet points, though. Instead, I’ll suggest a little known, but great song to add to your playlist. It’s a safe bet you will thank me if you haven’t heard it. It’s called Summer Song —  this video is one of the most literal photo-montages I’ve ever seen (that is, until Ella Fitzgerald, who isn’t on this recording,  shows up out of nowhere). It’s performed by Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck.

It was written by Brubeck and his wife and collaborator, Iola, who just died in March at age 90. She had been very important in his early success, booking him on campuses, helping to establish his popularity with young hipsters. Evidence of her lyrical prowess starts with the lovely first couplet and continues to the end:

Love, to me, is like a summer day

Silent 'cause, there's just too much to say

Still, and warm, and peaceful,

Even clouds that may drift by

Can't disturb our summer sky

I'll take summer, that's my time of year

Winter's shadow, seems to disappear

Gay is swanee season,

That's the reason I can say

That I love a summer day

I hear laughter, from the swimming hole

Kids out fishin', with the willow pole

Boats come driftin', round the bend

Why must summer, ever end...

Love, to me, is like a summer day

If it ends, the memories will stay

Still, and warm, and peaceful,

Now the days are getting long

I can sing my summer song

This song would be a sweet accompaniment to the recent biography of Armstrong, Pops, by Terry Teachout. It’s a must-read tale of early deprivation and unbelievable success later on. (Did you know Armstrong once had some serious mob connections? I didn’t! He wasn’t really the type, it’s just that, when one of those Chicago guys says he’s managing you, it’s very hard to say no thank you.)

This performance showcases Satchmo’s later, more pop-friendly persona — the same one we associate with Wonderfull World  and Mack The Knife —  I’ve never had a problem with that. Some jazz purists will tell you to listen to his early recordings only. Of course those are good and also very important, but there is a lot of love and generosity in his tender reading of this song. If it’s short on doctrinaire purity, I’m OK with that.

Louis Armstrong is at the top of of my list of twentieth century voices. He may not be alone there, but above him and few select others, it’s all thin air. The owner of a miraculous vocal instrument that was unique in every way, he could express joy, sorrow and all points in between with humor and bonhomie. If it feels like he invented something profoundly modern, it’s because he did.

Blending his band with Brubeck’s, Armstrong delivers a straightforward reading of this wistful minor key ballad. It captures, in words and music, the melancholy beauty of this season as well as anything I’ve ever heard.  it was recorded in the early ‘60s for a show called The Real Ambassadors, which tackled, sometimes satirically, civil rights and other issues they had experienced on the travels representing America as ambassadors of jazz. On some of the songs, Pops decided to forego the more ironic feel in the lyrics, concentrating on the drama. It was a smart decision that worked wonders on the more serious racial themes and just what was called for in this lazy pastoral.

It has a universality that is unshakeable. Even when he sings “gay in swanee season,” (which I couldn’t make out till I checked the lyric) you remind yourself that gay was once a very different word and give Iola points for a clever nod to Stephen Foster. All this song needs is it’s own Good Morning, Vietnam! moment and it will be on everyones playlist. Till then, it’s on mine and I hope yours.