Louis Armstrong & The All StarsSatchmo At Symphony Hall: 65th Anniversary The Complete PerformancesVerve
Writing about trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong
is difficult. In the most literal sense, he is the watershed of jazz. He was neither the first acknowledged genius of the music (soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet
was) nor its inventor, but in his wake, jazz was made in his image. The best of it still is, even as the image has become abstracted over decades.
Despite the world's seeing familiarity with "Satchmo," Armstrong has been largely misunderstood and underappreciated. Terry Teachout's 2009 biography, Pops
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), might be the best about a jazz musician to date. And Satchmo: The Wonderful World And Art Of Louis Armstrong
(Abrams, 2009), a coffee table book by Steven Brower, collects Armstrong's own art, memoirs, and ephemera into a gorgeous volume. The cumulative effect of the two books is to finally place Armstrong in a more accurate context as a self-made man of the people, whose creativity spilled over from music into collage and memoir. He was certainly not a saint, but-as Teachout said of him on C-SPAN-"the more of him you know, the more there is to love."
(Armstrong's house in Queens in New York has been restored and is now a museum. It's a must see for any music fan visiting New York.)
Conventional and inaccurate wisdom is that Armstrong's best days were over by 1928, with the last Hot Five session for Okeh, after which point he slowly and steadily slipped into Uncle Tom "Hello, Dolly"-dom. This is ignorant at best. Armstrong continued making astounding music into the 1960s. In fairness, he also made the kind of commercial entertainment records that undermined his legacy. In 1935, after spending a few years cutting decent big band records exclusively for Victor, he started recording concurrently for Decca, where he became America's most universally congenial black entertainer, recording pop songs, novelties, ersatz Hawaiian tunes, and almost everything else but small group jazz (although he did cut some memorable small group there stuff after the All Stars had proven successful). The jazz public continued to revere him, but the shadow he cast came of light shined on his early triumphs.
In all fairness, Armstrong never had a fallow period. A 1938 collaboration with the Mills Brothers
, "My Walking Stick," is among the great jazz records of that notable period. The Mills' backgrounds-which includes their voices uncannily imitating a horn section and a muted trumpet solo-would be quite enough to make the record notable, but the charm, invention, and sheer expressiveness of Armstrong's trumpet solo mark it as the stuff of genius. This is not to say everything he did was worthy of him, but he never failed to turn in a good performance. Even as forgettable a trifle as "On A Coconut Island"-of which you may likely never have heard, and for good reason-is transformed into a tiny treat, with a lilting vocal more gentle than what we generally associate with Armstrong, and a trumpet solo that is dauntingly expressive.
As Huntsville, Alabama jazz educator Jim Cavender
will tell you, the truest and most American artist embraces the cheesy stuff with the same gusto that characterizes his/her greatest art. The Armstrong that reeled off "Hello, Dolly" in 1964 is the very same one whose blazing sound and audacious rhythms opened "Drop That Sack" 38 years before. And just as surely as those Hot Five records transformed a world, "Dolly" did the unthinkable in 1964: it knocked the Beatles out of #1 on the singles charts. That's how great the The Beatles
were: it took Louis Armstrong to get an American back to the toppermost of the poppermost.
Armstrong never spoke of himself in terms of any art collective. He was very much a creative free agent, part of everything generally while no one group specifically. A compulsive home taper, Armstrong taped music, conversations, social gatherings and so forth, and he often recorded himself speaking. Since music was the central fact of his life, his views are captured in his own voice. On one tape, an unidentified voice asks him about progressive music, and he responds critically.
"Now what would be progressive music? A whole lot of stiff arrangements that the untrained ear can't understand? What's more progressive than my 'Blueberry Hill?'"
(Not "Weatherbird," nor "West End Blues," or any of his early world-changing masterpieces, but "Blueberry Hill.")
Armstrong was a working artist, deeply and thoughtfully intelligent but rarely intentionally cerebral. His objective as a musician seemed to be to go on the road and stay there. He was clearly aware of posterity-he left hundreds of pages of vivid memoirs-but was not the type to recast himself as an innovator or a maverick. Despite the "wilderness years" depiction of his career between 1929 and 1946, he was not only seemingly contented with his recording and touring situation during that time, he recalled much of it was pride and affection. He faced enthusiastic audiences every night, to the consternation of jazz fans who wanted to hear him back in front of a small hot jazz outfit. He seemed impervious to discontent. He turned in a little small combo work in the studio, notably for the film New Orleans
, but this wasn't really usual for him by the mid-1940s. In fact, his last time onstage as the leader of his own small group had been 1926. In 1947, promoter Ernie Anderson put together an Armstrong one-off small band concert that was mounted on May 17 at Town Hall, and the success of it was immediately felt.
Seemingly overnight, Armstrong dismissed his anonymous big band and replaced it with a small group of A-list traditional jazz musicians, key among them trombonist/vocalist Jack Teagarden
and seminal drummer Big Sid Catlett
, who were both in the Town Hall ensemble. Within a few short months, former Duke Ellington clarinetist Barney Bigard
would be on board, as would Arvell Shaw
(bass), Velma Middleton
(vocals), and pianist Dick Cary
. It is this line-up that was in place for a two-set concert at Boston's famed Symphony Hall on November 30 that same year.
And it is the recordings made this night that became the first commercially issued live recording of an Armstrong small group. Originally released in 1951 on the Decca label as a two LP set , Satchmo At Symphony Hall
cherrypicked the best performances of the two sets Louis Armstrong and the All Stars played that night. This reissue restores the night to its original sequence, with each CD containing one full set.
(Apparently the night's music had to be reassembled from a variety of old source materials in varying degrees of condition, but everything sounds great. Engineer Seth Foster deserves a special mention. The audio is spotless, and the listener never gets the sense that he's listening to something pieced together after the fact.)
Hearing a typical night in the early life of the All Stars is to know the Armstrong for whom jazz fans had been waiting hopefully. Finally, Armstrong was surrounded by peers, and his performance on this night is marked by the sound of discovery. These tunes were by 1947 oldies but goodies for the trad jazz set, but these performances show a group whose performances on this night-while supremely comfortable-are full of audible new ideas and new music spirit.
The front line of Armstrong, Bigard, and Teagarden was as great as any jazz has known. On this night, the delivery is easy, but these players are focussed on each other with intense concentration. Teagarden was the closest thing to an equal Armstrong ever had in one of his own bands, and the great love between these two makes itself felt in their every interaction. And while Bigard did not share the same long history with Armstrong as Teagarden had, he comes off every bit as integrated. Probably the most overtly New Orleans-styled of Ellington's first great crop of bands (Bubber Miley
notwithstanding), Bigard could spray serpentine, mercurial runs like vines around the other horns, or he could be a master of stark, expressive economy. His mastery of his own sound was something of which Ellington made great use in his big band. When turned loose in a smaller group, it counted for even more.
While this is definitely a return to roots for Armstrong, each set proves he was by this point a full-on entertainment veteran who didn't just form a band, he put together a show . Vocalist Velma Middleton was a comedienne as much as a singer, but history's painting of her as Margaret Dumont to Armstrong's Groucho Marx is unfair. She was a credible, bluesy singer, and her duet with Armstrong on "That's My Desire" is a delight. She never embarasses herself when it's time to hit a song straight on.
(Her onstage comedic antics undermined her musical gifts. A large woman, she was noted for doing rolling splits on stage, and this seems to be the lasting image of her. But she was an extremely effective and surprisingly versatile singer, a perfect foil for Armstrong, especially on record.)
The rhythm section of Catlett and Shaw was one of the best Armstrong ever had. Catlett was part of the same late 1920s Chicago scene as Armstrong, and was kind of the Roy Haynes
of his era. His playing spanned eras without being confined to any single approach. At the same time, he was as vibrant and stylized as any drummer of his generation, including Gene Krupa
or Chick Webb
. Armstrong (in another home tape) called Catlett "the greatest drummer who ever picked up a pair of sticks," adding "the man was just a born genius."
Hearing Catlett directing the horn players through "Royal Garden Blues"-with its menu of stop-times and breakdowns-is to understand what Armstrong loved about him. He outlines the arrangement with authority, cuing in ensembles and soloists with ferocity then laying down a swinging (even Count Basiesque) groove that never steps on the soloists. Shaw takes a surprisingly advanced bass solo. And the interaction between Armstrong and Teagarden brings to mind twin brothers who finish each others sentences. It brings to mind eras of great interactive jazz teams-John Coltrane
and Elvin Jones
, Bill Evans
and Scott LaFaro
, Bill Frisell
and Joey Baron
, Paul Desmond
and Dave Brubeck
Armstrong was a gracious bandleader, so the players each get their spotlight feature numbers, which means we get an ear as much to the parts as the sum. Probably the best of theese features is "Steak Face," a blues that gives Catlett an extended and dazzling solo. But Teagarden nearly steals this tune with a blues chorus that is at once sparking and laconic.
The greatness of this band is fully brought to life in the up-tempo retelling of the Hot Five chestnut "Mahogany Hall Stomp." Each of the three horn players is at their best, with Bigard sounding even a little boppish (pianist Cary seems to egg him on). Teagarden again makes a case for himself as Armstrong's equal, while Armstrong himself plays with ease and power scarcely ever matched in jazz or anyplace else.
The (roughly) next 15 years would be an artistically triumphant time for Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, despite relative indifference from jazz critics. There would be personnel shifts, but they weren't destructive. Cary lasted a few months, and was replaced Earl Hines
, with whom Armstrong had cut several masterpieces in the 1920s. But Hines and Armstrong had a contentious relationship, and Billy Kyle
wound up replacing him and staying for a matter of years. Teagarden would set out on his own after half a decade, and was replaced admirably by Trummy Young
. Catlett was replaced by Cozy Cole
(in 1949). Bigard stayed a decade. Bigard, Shaw, and Middleton-half the band on this night-lasted long enough to be on board with Armstrong to cut his 1954 masterpiece, Louis Armstrong Plays WC Handy
(Sony Legacy), which also feature Kyle, Young, and then-new drummer Barrett Deems
Armstrong's 1950s Columbia LPs-produced by George Avakian-befit his legend. While the other Decca records largely cast him as a pop singer, the Columbias show the great statesman of jazz, surrounded by like-minded musicians, playing monumental stuff. This golden period culminates in The Great Summit
(Roulette), a 1961 collaboration with Duke Ellington
, a program of Ellington tunes that features Louis Armstrong and the All Stars joined by Ellington on piano.
In Satchmo At Symphony Hall
, we hear the stage being set for those years of great jazz from Armstrong and his small group. This night sets the bar high. And damn if Armstrong and company didn't rise to it in the ensuing decade.
The legend of Armstrong looms so large that it might eclipse his work. Those who only know him for "What A Wonderful World" only have one tiny piece of the puzzle. It is tempting to say it's an inconsequential piece, but it's not. The smiling, older Louis of the "Hello, Dolly" years is just as real as the young Louis who touched off a joyous revolution. He has earned myth-in-emeritus status. The best way to cast perspective is to hear him earn that status, which he mostly certainly did, and on no one night moreso than the night this music was (fortunately) recorded. Here is the truest, greatest jazz musician at the second height of his powers, supported by a team of musicians worthy of him. This is truly wonderful.
Tracks: CD1: Introduction/Tune Up; When It's Sleepy Time Down South; Louis Introduces Musicians; Muskrat Ramble;(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue; Royal Garden Blues; Lover [From Love Me Tonight]; Stars Fell On Alabama; I Cried For You; Since I Fell For You; Tea For Two [From No, No, Nanette]; Body and Soul; Back O'Town Blues; Steak Face; I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues (Closing Theme). CD2: When It's Sleepy Time Down South; Mahogany Hall Stomp; On the Sunny Side of the Street; High Society; St. James Infirmary; Baby Won't You Please Come Home; Velma's Blues; That's My Desire; "C" Jam Blues; Barney Bigard Introduces Arvell Shaw; How High the Moon [From Two For the Show]; Mop Mop; Jack Armstrong Blues; I Gotta Right To Sing the Blues (Closing Theme).
Personnel: Louis Armstrong: vocal, trumpet; Velma Middleton: vocal; Barney Bigard: clarinet; Jack Teagarden: vocal, trombone; Dick Cary: piano; Arvell Shaw: bass; Big Sid Catlett: drums.