I wrote the “Masterpiece” column in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal. The subject is Louis Armstrong’s 1955 record of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife.” Here’s an excerpt.
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For all the enduring success of their other collaborations, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill are both best remembered for “Die Dreigroschenoper” (“The Threepenny Opera”), their caustically witty 1928 adaptation of John Gay’s 1728 “Beggar’s Opera,” which portrayed low life in 18th-century London. But it was not until 1955 that the American public at large first heard any part of “The Threepenny Opera”—and it was Louis Armstrong, the most important figure in the history of jazz, who introduced them to it.
In September of that year, Armstrong and His All Stars recorded “Mack the Knife,” Marc Blitzstein’s English-language version of “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer,” a “murder ballad” about the vicious exploits of the show’s principal character that was the most popular number in “The Threepenny Opera.” Armstrong’s deliciously swinging cover version became a hit single, one of a handful of small-group jazz recordings ever to do so, and he would perform it the world over until he died in 1971.
Armstrong was introduced to “Mack the Knife” by George Avakian, his producer at Columbia Records. Mr. Avakian, who was determined to put his beloved Satchmo back on the pop charts, had recently seen the 1954 off-Broadway revival of “The Threepenny Opera.” While the original 1933 Broadway production had closed after just 12 performances, this small-scale staging, newly translated by Blitzstein, the author of “The Cradle Will Rock,” became a sleeper hit, ultimately running for six years. Mr. Avakian came home certain that “Mack the Knife” had the makings of a hit single…
Armstrong found the song richly evocative of his New Orleans childhood, laughing out loud as he listened to the demo. “Oh, I’m going to love doing this!” he told Mr. Avakian. “I knew cats like this in New Orleans. Every one of them, they’d stick a knife into you without blinking an eye!”…
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Read the whole thing here.
Louis Armstrong and the All Stars perform “Mack the Knife” on ABC’s Hollywood Palace in 1965: