Sunday, January 6, 2008

Louis Armstrong's Later Years - Where To Begin?

To get the New Year rolling, I’d like to tackle a question that “John in D.C.” asked a few weeks ago. I quote:

“Glad I stumbled upon your site. I need to swallow the essay in one sitting, which isn't this wee hour, but I will be back. Thank GOD for giving us all Louis after the advent of tape and video. Treasures. If you have recommendations for me on definitive Louis to buy from the 1950s, '60s, I'd appreciate them. I've heard the California Concerts are terrific and they are awful scarce and expensive, but I'm looking for the best. I've got the Hot 5s and 7s, but I love hearing Louis play and sing. Peace and love and thanks to you. -- John in d.c. “

Well, John, you basically opened up a Pandora’s Box with that query because an answer would basically sum up my whole goal in life with regards to Louis Armstrong: to spread the joys of his entire musical output with a special emphasis on his later years. Many jazz fans, like yourself, test the water with the Hot Fives and Sevens and then don’t know where to go from there. More importantly, some faithful followers of the Hot Fives and Sevens stubbornly don’t want to explore the rest of Armstrong’s career because they’ve been scared off by the mythical notions of an “Uncle Tom” Louis “going commercial.” Some people believe that Armstrong’s playing diminished greatly in his later years and other people have taken his small group, the All Stars, to task for featuring journeymen musicians and stale repertoire. I have spent years working on a book that will (hopefully) disprove all these myths once and for all but I’ve always found that the simplest way of doing this is by listening to the music of Armstrong’s later years with objective ears and then deciding for yourself. So where to begin? Yikes. I might have to break this down into a few categories but don’t worry, I won’t list anything too hard-to-find or expensive. So let’s give it a whirl!

General Overviews

The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong

This easy-to-find Time-Life box set was released in 2006 and is a wonderful starting point for anyone who wants to begin exploring Armstrong’s later years. Yes, there are a few scattered tracks from the 1920s and 1930s but they’re thrown in at the end of discs one and two and don’t feature anything by the Hot Five or Seven. There’s really no rhyme or reason to the track order except that it looks like disc one is made up of material owned by the Universal Music Group while disc two features tracks owned by Sony/BMG. Thus, there’s no strict chronology but I cannot argue with the song selections. Sure, the hits are here—“Dolly,” “Wonderful World,” “Mack the Knife,” “Blueberry Hill”—but there’s also four tracks from Armstrong’s mid-50s Verve dates, two from the Autobiography, two from the W.C. Handy album and two from the Fats Waller tribute, with various other great tracks thrown in, including “Summer Song” with Dave Brubeck and some nice big band work from the 30s and 40s. For the Armstrong completist, there’s a bonus DVD that, at first glance, might appear to be a rehash of the usual footage but instead includes incredibly rare material from a 1963 Australian TV show as well as some nice Timex show items. Great notes by Will Friedwald and some previously unpublished photos make this set a no-brainer for a beginning Armstrong fan. And right now, you can go to Amazon and get it for as cheap as $19.44. Click here for more information.

An American Icon

This three-disc box from the Hip-O label is currently out-of-print but is available for a good price on Amazon (click here for details). This set came out in 1998 and didn’t leave my side for quite some time (in fact, I won a New Jersey college journalism award for my very first jazz column in the year 2000 on this set…I’ve been an Ambassador of Ambassador Satch for as long as I can remember!). It was crafted with love by Armstrong’s two main producers from the 1950s, Milt Gabler and George Avakian. Avakian also contributed the superb booklet which gives detailed information on each track. There are some snafus along the way: Avakian writes about “Basin Street Blues” from the Crescendo Club but a 1954 studio recording actually appears on the set. And “That’s For Me” has a little skip that causes an Earl Hines interlude to repeat itself. But otherwise, the song selection is magnificent, though, for some reason, only two tracks from Avakian’s Armstrong association are included: “Mack the Knife” and “Hesistating Blues.” Only nine performances overlap between this set and the Time-Life one described above. An American Icon includes many Decca pop tunes, material from The California Concerts, a good chunk from the Autobiography, many duets with Ella Fitzgerald, the very best tracks from the Duke Ellington collaboration and some great material recorded with the late Oscar Peterson. This is really a tough one to beat, but it is out-of-print and the lack of 1950s Columbia material is a drawback. But there are ways of fixing that…

The Essential Albums

Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy

It just doesn’t get any better than this one, folks. When people ask me the standard “desert island” questions, I always have an easy answer: leave me stranded with this disc and I’ll be just fine, thank you very much. It’s my favorite album in my entire collection and I don’t know what I would do without it. The All Stars are in tremendous form, Pops is at his peak, the choice of material suits him like a glove and the sound quality couldn’t be better. Add in producer George Avakian’s liner notes and some rehearsal tracks and you have the world’s most perfect C.D. Oh, and Amazon is selling it new for $6.97. Know someone who doesn’t have it? Buy them a copy! When I gave my first Armstrong lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies, I bought and brought five copies just to give them out to students who didn’t own it. If you don’t have it in your collection, you have no collection and if you don’t like it, you’re not human. Okay, perhaps I’m going overboard, but man, do I love this album. The opening “St. Louis Blues” was the track that exploded my soul and got me into Armstrong when I was a pimply-faced 15-year-old high school sophomore. It still has the same effect on me 12 years later. Buy the album here.

Satch Plays Fats

If you like the W.C. Handy album, then this one’s a no-brainer. This is the 1955 sequel with the same exact group interpreting jazz classics written by the great Fats Waller. There’s only nine tracks and some of them are too short, but otherwise, everything I said about the Handy album applies here, though clarinetist Barney Bigard really sounds like he’s going through the motions. “Blue Turning Grey Over You” is one of Armstrong’s most emotional performances, while he swings with fury on “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby.” And that tempo on “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now” is so foot-tappingly good, I wish it went on for an hour. This one also available at a very good price from Amazon, as can be seen by clicking here.

Ambassador Satch

Unfortunately, this one’s somehow out-of-print (it was released the same day as Satch Plays Fats…damn you Sony!!!) but please try to track it down (it can be downloaded on Itunes) It’s a mish-mash of live concert performances from 1955 and fake concert performances recorded in a studio from 1956. There are features for All Stars members Edmond Hall and Trummy Young and there’s some good-natured horseplay on “Twelfth Street Rag.” But this was the greatest edition of the All Stars and the album would be a classic, for me, if it just contained “Royal Garden Blues,” “Muskrat Ramble,” “All of Me,” “The Faithful Hussar” and “Tiger Rag.” And do not overlook that “West End Blues.” Is it on par with the 1928 original? No, but what does that matter? I find it quite stirring and the All Stars give Armstrong better support than the 1928 Hot Five did (save Earl Hines). One day, I hope to write more about Armstrong’s later versions of “West End Blues” because they’ve never been given the proper respect (Laurence Bergreen writes that Armstrong “mangled” it but he’s not exactly the world’s greatest Armstrong authority). It’s a very moving performance and this is an exceptionally exciting album.

Satchmo Serenades

This album probably wouldn’t make many people’s lists of essential Armstrong but John from D.C. wanted to know where to start exploring Armstrong’s 1950s recordings and if you’re going to do it the right way, you better make peace with Armstrong’s “commercial” recordings for Decca. This is a very stellar collection with some big hits (“Kiss to Build a Dream On,” “La Vie En Rose”), some cover songs (a startling “Because of You” and a funky, two-beat Sy Oliver take on “Your Cheating Heart”) and some almost completely unknown songs that Pops beautifully renders (“I Can’t Afford To Miss This Dream”). There are also swinging studio versions of All Stars staples “C’est Si Bon” and “Someday You’ll Be Sorry’ and more majestic trumpet on “I Get Ideas” and “Kiss of Fire.” Not every track is a classic of classics but Armstrong was always in marvelous form on his Decca dates, both vocally and with the horn. This is a good place to start these records. Here’s the Amazon

The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong On Verve

I love this music. You have arguably the two greatest vocalists in jazz history singing nothing but timeless standards while backed sublimely by the Oscar Peterson trio with either Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson added on drums. Do I really need to say anything more? I think Pops and Ella had great chemistry together and it’s so nice to hear Pops sing something like “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” or “April in Paris.” “The Nearness of You” is one of my all-time favorite performances by anyone of anything but for pure joy, I still smile and laugh every time I hear the hilarious rehearsal take of “Stompin’ At The Savoy.” And on disc three of this box, you get the complete Porgy and Bess session, with Armstrong reaching new levels of emotional depth on “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess” and “I Wants To Stay Here.” And trust me: try to resist Verve’s 101 different compilations of the same Armstrong and Fitzgerald material. Once you buy one sampler, you’re just going to want it all and 11 years later, this box is still in print. Here’s the

Satchmo—A Musical Autobiography

This might be a hefty choice for someone who is just starting to explore Armstrong’s later years, but I still stand by the greatness of this music. Sure, Velma’s vocals aren’t the best and some of the small group remakes are lacking, but overall, the great majority of the tracks are responsible for some of Armstrong’s finest work of his career. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Memories of You,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Hotter Than That,” “Lazy River,” “Song of the Islands,” “Canal Street Blues,” “If I Could Be With You,” “You Rascal You,”…my goodness, I think I’m going to stop typing and just listen to the damn thing again! Here’s the Amazon link.

Essential Live Dates
Okay, when you have some of the classic studio dates in your collection, you’re going to want to start exploring the seemingly endless amount of live All Stars shows available on C.D. Here’s four places to start:

The California Concerts

John from D.C. mentioned this one so I’ll start here. This one was a big one for me in my early days of exploring Armstrong’s recorded output. The beautiful notes by Dan Morgenstern presented such a convincing argument for the merits of the All Stars that it was right there, at about 15 years of age with maybe 10 Armstrong discs to my name, that I vowed to collect everything and anything All Stars related. The four-disc set contains two concerts by two different editions of the All Stars, recorded four years apart, almost to the day. I find the All Stars’s stage shows to be irresistible and it’s hard to find a better representation of them than these shows. The 1951 show is great, with wonderful readings of “My Monday Date,” “You Can Depend On Me” and “That’s A Plenty,” among others but this wasn’t my favorite edition of the band and Earl Hines and Cozy Cole seem to sleepwalk through certain parts of the program. On the other hand, Teagarden is well featured and how can you argue with that? The 1955 Crescendo Club concert captures a typical multi-set nightclub performance, something that would almost disappear in the ensuing years as the All Stars became a hot concert and festival commodity. This is the same band from the Handy and Waller albums and everyone plays beautifully, especially Trummy Young and Billy Kyle. Highlights for me are a “jumped” “When You’re Smiling,” “Muskrat Ramble,” “Old Man Mose,” “Jeepers Creepers” and “Margie,” to name just a few.

However, as John pointed out, it is out-of-print and is being sold on Amazon right now for the hefty sum of $59. However, it is on Itunes for $39.96, still pricey and without Morgenstern’s booklet, but still worth the money.

The Great Chicago Concert

A very strong candidate for “Best All Stars Show of the 1950s,” this show features the greatest edition of the All Stars, with Edmond Hall replacing Barney Bigard. Sound quality is shaky at times but overall, there’s no better place to hear the full power of the Armstrong-Young-Hall front line. The concert also features the most exciting version of “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” imaginable. Alas, it, too, is out-of-print on C.D. but can be downloaded on Itunes for $16.99.

Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia

Finally, something that’s in print! I won’t talk about this one too much here since I’ve done nothing but talk about it since its release last summer (my massive blog on it can be found in my archive from August or on the Storyville website). The box spans from 1933 to 1967 and features no less than five different incarnations of the All Stars. Sound quality varies but is generally very good to excellent and though the music is taken from many different sources, there is very little overlap of songs. The jazz world more or less gave this release a shrug (it’s not even mentioned in the latest Jazz Times “Year in Review”), but I’ll never tire of stumping for it because I truly believe it’s essential. Grab it now by clicking here.

The Complete Town Hall Concert

I still have this on the old RCA Jazz Tribune two-disc set but it’s finally available on a single C.D. This is history but again, the sound quality isn’t exactly crystal clear so I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. However, if that kind of stuff doesn’t bother you, then by all means, jump right in because this was one of the finest nights in Armstrong’s career. There’s a fresh and exciting feel to the entire concert that’s simply irresistible and the versions of “Save It Pretty Mama,” “Rockin’ Chair” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” were arguably never topped. If you have a few extra bucks, pick up this three-disc release from Spain that also includes the equally indispensible Symphony Hall concert from November 1947 as well as various other odds and ends from the period.

Where do go from here?

Okay, so with those essentials out of the way, here’s a quick listing of where to go next:
Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington: The Great Summit – Louis with the All Stars and Ellington on piano playing a selection of Duke’s greatest hits. What more do you need?
Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson – Armstrong sings and plays some beautiful standards backed by O.P.’s swinging trio with Louie Bellson on drums. “Sweet Lorraine” gets me every time.
The Complete Louis Armstrong With The Dukes Of Dixieland – I recently knocked Essential Jazz Classic’s half-assed reissue of this important material, but I can’t knock the music, which is simply thrilling.
Satchmo In Style – Armstrong backed by Gordon Jenkins’s lovely arrangements is a combination that some purists gag over but you can hear Jenkins’s love for the great man in every performance and Armstrong responds with some very warm performances.
Hello, Dolly – This album was produced quickly to cash in on the monster hit single of the same name, but it includes some of Armstrong’s finest studio work of the 1960s, including a delicious “Moon River.”

Well, hopefully that’s enough to get started with (I know, I know, I forgot Satchmo Plays King Oliver, The Real Ambassadors, Louis And The Good Book, Live In Berlin and so many more!). Trust me, in my early days, I bought sampler after sampler until I realized I needed to hear every damn scrap of music the man recorded. This may or may not happen to anyone else, but the above discs are guaranteed to be most enjoyable. And to sum it all up, if you only have, say, $50, go for the Time-Life set because of the song selection and DVD, the W.C. Handy album and the Scandinavia box. That’s a helluva way to begin exploring the wonderful world of Louis Armstrong’s later years!

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