Sunday, July 6, 2008

50 Years Ago Today...

50 years ago today, Louis Armstrong and The All Stars appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival. They had been staples of the popular Rhode Island festival since 1955, though their appearance in 1957 was somewhat controversial. Armstrong, expecting to put on his usual show with the All Stars, was offended when told at the last minute that he’d be expected to sit in with all sorts of special guests. He really exploded when he was told that his usual singer, Velma Middleton, would have to sit out the appearance in order to make room for Ella Fitzgerald. Armstrong unleashed his wrath backstage and suffice to say, when the curtain rose, Armstrong and the All Stars--with Velma--put on their usual incredible show. Armstrong cut the birthday celebration short right before the guests were to come on, getting some ugly press in the aftermath.

However, by 1958, all was forgiven. Festival producer George Wein realized that the main reason Armstrong was so upset was that he was told about the changes at the last minute. Knowing what to expect, Wein made sure it would be all right for Pops to sit in with the “International Jazz Band” as well as to include Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett in his regular set with the All Stars. Pops gave the okay and some terrific music was made that July 6 day.

Unfortunately, we may never get to hear this music. Columbia recorded it in gorgeous stereo sound, but has only released a grand total of three performances from the concert in the 50 ensuing years. Today, Sony has the complete performance in their archives but they have no plans to reissue it, even turning down original producer George Avakian’s request to get a copy.

I know I’m repeating myself, but this infuriates me. Sony has gone out of their way to release every single note Miles Davis blew for them, including his set at the 1958 festival. Sony hasn’t released EVERY Duke Ellington record from his 1956-1962 stay at the label, but they’ve released the majority of them, including his sets at the 1956 and 1958 festivals. Ellington’s original 1958 Newport album was comprised mainly of studio performances, which were reissued by Mosaic Records. Dave Brubeck’s set was a tribute to Ellington and like Armstrong hasn’t been issued on C.D. However, it was originally released as an LP and was reissued on a Japanese C.D., so that’s farther than Pops’s set ever got.

So 50 years later, we’re stuck with no possible way to ever hear Pops eschew “Indiana” and open with “Pretty Little Missy.” This gig was Peanuts Hucko's first night with the band and we'll never be able to fully appreciate how he fit it in so well without much, if any, preparation. We’re not able to hear him lead the charge on “Ole Miss” or play those wonderful rideout choruses on “St. Louis Blues.” We can only imagine what the medley of “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sounded like as played to a festive Newport audience. And what about the special tracks with Hackett and Teagarden, including “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” and “Pennies From Heaven”? I can only imagine “Pennies From Heaven.” Pops didn’t play it often enough but when he did, such as Town Hall 1947 and Sweden 1952, it was always magic. I’m sure this one is pretty magical, too, but I’ll never know for sure until Sony deems us listeners worthy enough of spending our cash to get the opportunity to hear it.

But, I would like to share the three tracks Columbia has had the brains to release. First, a gorgeous 6:22 stroll down the “Sunny Side of the Street” with Pops getting big band backing by the “International Youth Band,” led by Marshall Brown. The arrangement is lovely, Pops’s vocal is life-affirming (dig the Swiss Kriss break) and the trumpet solo is simply majestic. Whitney Balliett was often hard on Pops during Armstrong’s All Stars period for their “vaudeville” tendencies but even he was profoundly moved by this performance:


Next is something that profoundly moves me every time I hear it: the grand reunion with Jack Teagarden on “Rockin’ Chair.” I love Trummy Young to death and he’s probably my favorite trombonist in the history of the All Stars but after listening to this track, one can’t help but feel the immense love shared between Armstrong and Teagarden. This has to be my second favorite “Rockin’ Chair,” only to be topped by Armstrong and Teagarden’s first attempt at it at the 1947 Town Hall concert:


And finally, Louis and Velma in all their glory on “Ko Ko Mo,” Armstrong having a ball with his quote-filled solo over the opening vamp (no two versions are alike) and taking a scorching solo after some good-natured fooling around with the loyal singer whom he had fought for just one year earlier:


And that’s all there is...well, from a recording standpoint. Fortunately, Bert Stern filmed a lot of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival for his film Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Armstrong gets about ten minutes in the film, playing “Lazy River” and “Tiger Rag” like it’s 1930, warmly duetting with Teagarden on an edited version of the aforementioned “Rockin’ Chair,” and finally, playing “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” like it’s his last night on earth, taking the melody up an octave, Stern’s two juxtaposed camera perfectly capturing the intensity of the genius’s playing. Here’s the full clip, courtesy of YouTube:


Well, that’s all I have. I wish I could share more but the way things are going, I might be waiting for the concert’s 60th anniversary before Sony gets around to reissuing it. Still, at least we’ve got the above snippets to enjoy and they’ll have to suffice until the real thing comes along.

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