Louis Armstrong’s “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”

photo of Louis ArmstrongI think Louis Armstrong’s 1929 recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, is beautiful because—with charm, subtlety, audacity and sincerity—Armstrong puts opposites together—principally, personal and impersonal. In its 3 minutes and 21 seconds, this recording is like a concerto in miniature, with Louis Armstrong first on muted trumpet, then as vocalist, finally on open trumpet. Listen to how it begins: [Ex. 1] 

In Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?, first published in 1955, Eli Siegel asks:

“Does every instance of art and beauty contain something which stands for the meaning of all that is, all that is true in an outside way, reality just so?—and does every instance of art and beauty also contain something which stands for the individual mind, a self which has been moved, a person seeing as original person?”

Armstrong, as soloist, stands for “the individual mind, a person seeing as original person,” while the accompanying orchestra we can see as standing for the world, “reality just so.” And being a jazz performance, there is the additional way the soloist is personal: Louis Armstrong is improvising on this popular classic. As he embellishes the original melody, varies it, or plays a whole new melody, we feel he is definitely “a person seeing as original person.” We can hear that clearly in this, the conclusion of the opening chorus: [Ex. 2]

How beautifully Armstrong goes along with the orchestra, is fair to the original song, and imaginatively just to the beat—all of which stand for the impersonal world in relation to him.


Throughout the arrangement, with only two short but important exceptions, the orchestra plays the melody very straight; there’s a kind of cheerful loping quality to its phrasing. Meanwhile, as Armstrong plays over and against this, he seems both sympathetic and gently contradictory. Mostly, he lags behind, echoing the melody and making it his own. He begins each of his phrases close to the original, and then adds notes, commenting on what came before and leading us to the next phrase. Particularly moving to me is the way he ends this section, making for a feeling of yearning. This is the entire first chorus, which is finished out by the trombone player, J. C. Higginbotham. [Ex. 3] 

As you could hear at the end of that example, in the second chorus Louis comes in singing. His voice, unmistakable and beloved the world over, has something of the roughness and grit of earth itself, and at the same time is so sweet, warm, tender. In his singing, Armstrong puts together personal and impersonal in another way. I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism that the human voice stands for something more personal than musical instruments, which, unlike our throats, are outside of us. But as Edward Green showed in his important paper Aesthetic Realism Explains the Beauty of Jazz and of Duke Ellington, jazz brought something new to these opposites—the voice is used more like an instrument, and the instruments sound more like human voices. Louis Armstrong does this greatly, including what he does with the word “baby.” In addition to the quality of his voice, he shows he is “seeing as original person” in the way he changes the melody of this song—so much, that if it weren’t for what the orchestra is doing and those familiar words, we wouldn’t know it’s the same song. This is what that melody sounds like: [Piano Example 1]

And this is what Louis Armstrong sings, paraphrasing that melody: [Piano Example 2]

(Note: The transcription below of Louis Armstrong’s playing, and the above rendition on piano are approximations of his great rhythmic flexibility.)

Louis Armstrong's "I Can't Give You Anything but Love"--comparing his melody with the original melody

As you’ll hear on the recording, sometimes Armstrong’s voice sounds like an instrument, as he leaves the words behind and scats. Yet we don’t feel he’s disregarding the original words or being disrespectful of them; in fact, the way he changes the song adds to it in a loveable, irrepressible way. Then, when he goes back to the words and sings, “Gee, I’d like to see you looking swell,” the orchestra behind him plays what is called “stop time,” which makes for new energy. Here is the entire vocal chorus: [Ex. 4] 

There’s yearning in the song, the pain of a person not having money enough—which people all over America feel right now—and there is also such affection, as he sings about his fervent desire to give his best to a woman. To say “I can’t give you anything but love” sounds so modest, but really it’s the most valuable, precious gift—if it’s the real thing. And I’m grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that when love is the real thing it always is good will, which Eli Siegel described as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”

I’m very fortunate to have been learning from Aesthetic Realism what good will is, and that the very technique of music can teach me how to have it, including in love. This is so different from how I once saw music—using it not to be kinder, but to impress and feel I deserved special treatment. I would try to charm a woman, act smoothly confident, thinking I was all she needed. I wanted to have a big effect, guide a woman, take her to impressive places, while I kept myself essentially to myself and was not interested in knowing her deeply.   With all of this, by the time I reached my late twenties, I was increasingly worried I would never have the feeling I was hoping for. In an Aesthetic Realism consultation, I was asked:

Consultants: You have wanted to be hidden for a long time, haven’t you? And you didn’t think women were too strong, or worthy of your thought, your candor, or your good will.

This was so true. Then, to have me see the relation of love to my work as a musician, they asked:

Consultants: Do you think you have to be affected if you’re going to be part of a jazz ensemble?

Alan Shapiro: Oh, yes—definitely!

Consultants: And the more deeply you’re affected or stirred by what other musicians play, the more you’ll express both yourself and what’s good for the ensemble?

And they said:

Consultants: Good will is as original as Beethoven’s 9th, because no one told him to put a chorus in, yet it was right.

Through what I’ve learned, I’ve been able to change from the conceited, cold person I was, and become warmer, kinder. I now love a woman very much—my wife, Leila Rosen, who is an Aesthetic Realism associate and high school English teacher. I’m grateful that together we are studying in professional classes taught by Ellen Reiss, leaning how to have good will for each other, for our families, our friends, the students we teach.


In the final section of this recording, Louis Armstrong plays on open trumpet, and there is a culmination as we hear his generous, wide-ranging sound. Where the melody in the original song spans only one octave, during this solo, he spans two. He’s deeply affected by the music, and as original as anything! Like his earlier vocal improvisation, we feel this one, with all its flourishes, honors the melody. Throughout, we feel a self proudly, triumphantly expressed in a way that is warmly sympathetic, just to what is outside of him. This is the first part of his final chorus: [Ex. 5] 

I think people have loved this song—and Louis Armstrong’s rendition of it—for so many years because, in its depth and pizzazz, it’s a saying that the way we’re going to be ourselves, express our individuality is by being fair “to the meaning of all that is, all that is true in an outside way.” Aesthetic Realism taught me—and it can and should teach the whole world—that being fair to what is not ourselves is the same as a good time, as the most intelligent, radiant, swinging self-expression! As musical illustration, listen now to the second half of this great recording by Louis Armstrong: [Ex. 6]