This is the post that started my full-on descent into Armstrong craziness, with regards to the length of my entries. Before this one, I usually wrote short blogs, suitable for human beings. But on this one, I opened up a bit and thought I got kind of out of hand. But I received a lot of feedback on it so I decided that maybe there was an audience for my deep, delving Armstrong rantings. So far, so good...
But alas, back then, I had no music samples to work with. Now, thanks to my Mac, I've become quite adept at editing. Thus, here's the new and improved look at Armstrong's 1958 Monterey set. Armstrong had some struggles that night but most reviewers didn't mention them and I even received some personal comments from people who claimed there was nothing really wrong. Well, since then, the disc has grown on me from an entertainment stand-point but I still hear some rough-going in the trumpet playing. Nothing bad, mind you; just the sound of Armstrong on a rough day, struggling but still hitting the high notes. Thus, I'm going to edit some of the solos from Monterey and juxtapose them with solos from later shows to hear how Armstrong handled them when everything was hitting on all cylinders. I've always feared that someone with little Armstrong in their collection would spot this disc on Emusic or Itunes, purchase it, hear the strained trumpet playing and think, "Well, I guess Louis Armstrong was spent by 1958!" Nothing could be further from the truth but the man did have his rough nights and Monterey was one of them. Here goes...
In 2007, the Monterey Jazz Festival opened up their archives and released a handful of classic concerts featuring the likes of Miles, Monk, Dizzy and Louis Armstrong. New, previously unissued Armstrong recordings are always a cause for celebration and I awaited the Monterey release with great anticipation for the last four or five months. After receiving my copy, I listened to it a few times and am now prepared to commence with my verdict: it’s not an essential release and should really only interest Armstrong die-hards only.
I know, I know, I can’t believe I wrote that myself. I’ve embraced every note Armstrong ever played and I personally love the Monterey concert, but for different reasons than most. You see, there’s one major problem with this disc: Armstrong’s chops are down and it’s sad to hear him struggle. At the same time, the masochistic side of me finds it inspiring to hear Armstrong work through the pain to give the audience an incredible show. And thanks to the gorgeous sound of the disc, you can really hear the audience laughing and screaming their approval throughout the disc’s generous 80-minute running time. To set the stage quickly, the concert took place on opening night of the very first Monterey Jazz Festival on October 3, 1958. Concert producer Jimmy Lyons loaded the opening night with traditional jazz artists, climaxing in a performance by the All Stars in front a crowd of 5,000.
Lyons hired Dizzy Gillespie to introduce Armstrong, a moment captured at the start of the CD: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, just the greatest, the king, Louis Armstrong, Satchmo!” You can hear the mutual appreciation between the two trumpet masters as they greet each other onstage. Armstrong warms up a bit and we’re off with “Sleepy Time Down South.” Armstrong often began it by playing the melody for 16 bars, but here he only plays it for eight. I didn’t pay it no mind at first listen because I’m always swept away by any version of “Sleepy Time,” lulled into a state of mellow euphoria, knowing the delights that are to follow. And of course, “Indiana” follows, the customary warm-up. Some critics complained about the inevitability of “Indiana” but I always picture a concertgoer in the audience, seeing Armstrong for the first time, and hearing the absolutely blazing sounds that erupt from Armstrong’s horn on “Indiana.” I never get tired of listening to it and its fascinating to hear all the different variations in Armstrong’s solo between 1951 and 1956. It was in 1956 that he finally chiseled out a perfect solo and this one would remain “set” for years to come. And that’s the first thing that distressed me about the Monterey concert: Armstrong doesn’t solo on “Indiana.” He plays the standard two ensemble choruses at the beginning, tearing through them without a hint of a problem. But after solos by Billy Kyle’s piano and Mort Herbert’s bass, it’s almost a shock to hear Peanuts Hucko enter on clarinet instead of Pops. You can hear Armstrong say something during Kyle’s solo and he plays a quick, low pedal tone at the start of the bass solo, but he must have felt something was wrong to eliminate his solo. Of all the versions of “Indiana” in my collection (and you don’t want to know how many that is), this is the only one I know of until 1966 where Armstrong doesn’t play a solo. Hucko and Trummy Young solo well before Armstrong reenters to play the rideout chorus. Again, I’m not saying he sounds bad, but when you become so accustomed to hearing Armstrong play at full power, it’s noticeable when he’s not 100% and here that’s noticeable in the highest parts of his upper register, where he sounds like he’s really pushing to get those notes out. He gets them out all right, but you can hear the effort.
To prove it, I've done a little bit of audio editing. First, you'll hear Armstrong's rideout in Monterey. Then after a brief pause, you'll hear the same rideout from Armstrong's set at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1961. As I said, there's nothing bad about the Monterey one and Armstrong even handles the spraying, quick-fingered run after Barcelona's first drum break. But on the 1961 solo, he can do no wrong, plowing through it without any strain whatsoever. Here's the audio:
Next, Armstrong plays a request, “Blueberry Hill,” which conveniently rests his chops (the man did know how to pace himself!). There’s a lot of live Armstrong discs from the 1950s and it’s interesting to see how many don’t feature this Armstrong staple (the Crescendo Club from 1955, the Chicago Concert from 1956, Newport 1957, all the European stuff from 1959). Armstrong sings it beautifully and you hear the audience crack up at some of his humorous phrasing. Properly rested, Armstrong called “Tiger Rag,” which had emerged into a quick, two-minute romp played to get the audience’s blood pumping. Usually, Armstrong would have played “Indiana,” maybe “Basin Street Blues” or “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” before tearing through “Tiger Rag.” And when he was really feeling good, the encores would start flowing (as on volume four of the Storyville “In Scandinvia” series, covered in my "Tiger Rag To End All Tiger Rags" blog). But it wasn’t to be that night in Monterey. Like “Indiana,” Armstrong gets through the racehorse opening ensemble choruses without much of a struggle. And then Hucko solos…a note about Hucko: I must take back some of the harsh things I’ve said about Hucko in the past. Hucko joined in July and was obviously still full of inspiration at this October concert. I’ve never heard him play so well with Armstrong; by the 1959 European tour, he sounded bored and he left at the end of that year. But at Monterey, he was smoking.
Back to “Tiger Rag,” though. You can hear Armstrong play a few quiet notes behind Hucko to make sure his chops are together and then he’s off! This was another solo that Armstrong had pretty much set but this time, he doesn’t quite pull it off. His phrasing is a little slower than usual as he sounds almost too careful and on his first break, which usually featured a gliss into a high note or a fleet-fingered phrase, he instead flickers a valve quickly, producing a an exciting tremolo effect (reminds me of Red Allen), but it’s not as effective as what he played on a good night. After the break Armstrong goes into the “Pagliacci” quote he had been playing on “Tiger Rag” since the early 30s, but he actually mispitches one of the notes (a true rarity). It’s amazing listening to his brain work, though. He was a great editor and, knowing his limitations on that night, his phrasing has more of a legato feel and most of little quick phrases that dotted his solos are gone as he kind of floats through his statement. But then comes maybe the saddest moment of the disc. Armstrong would usually hold an Ab as the band would reenter to play the rideout chorus but when he tries it here, he again falters and loses it for an instant. But then this is followed by maybe the most triumphant moment of the disc: he continues to hold the Ab, slowly getting stronger before he gives his all in the ride out, hitting a series of high C’s. This was all part of the routine and Armstrong probably could have played it safe and improvised something in the middle register but on this night, in front of such a huge, adoring audience, he couldn’t. He keeps playing the two-note phrase, Ab to high C, over and over, glissing some of them, not exactly on top of the beat as he usually is, but he’s pretty damn close (chasing Trummy Young around the stage the entire time!). During the break he even glisses from high C, down to Ab and back up to C. As he continues driving home those high C’s, it’s clear that this is painful, punishing work. After listening to it a couple of times, tears actually welled up in my eyes, in awe of how much he gave his audiences no matter the shape he was in. He ends “Tiger Rag” on an even higher Eb, as the crowd roars its approval. Armstrong sounds pretty happy, too.
For the audio, here are the final two choruses from Monterey, consisting of Armstring's solo and those painful high C's. Again, after a slight pause, you'll hear the exact same choruses from a version done in Slovenia in May 1959 where Armstrong doesn't sound like he's struggling a bit. Give a listen:
And then it was time to rest the chops again with the medley of tunes from High Society. Armstrong was always proud of the songs he performed in films and he always performed them live. “A Song Is Born” stayed in the repertoire from the time of the original 1947 movie of the same name until about 1950, when Armstrong introduced “A Kiss to Build A Dream On” in The Strip. Trombonists Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young were always featured on “Basin Street Blues,” until Armstrong sang it in the Glenn Miller Story, at which point he reclaimed it, always announcing the song’s presence in that film. And after the huge popularity of 1956’s High Society, Armstrong would include “Now You Has Jazz” and “High Society Calypso” in his repertoire until around 1964, the dawn of the “Hello, Dolly” period. Critics frowned, wishing those spots in the show would be instead filled by “Beau Koo Jack” or something from the Hot Five days, but they’re fun numbers and audiences clearly dug them. One great thing about the Monterey recording is the way it captures the vibrant audience, laughing heartily at Armstrong’s reference to Trummy Young as “Bing Crosby in Technicolor” on “Now You Has Jazz” and to his mugging and singing on “Calypso.” There is one chorus of trumpet on “Now You Has Jazz” and it’s prefaced by a somewhat odd moment. When Armstrong had trouble with his chops, he would usually blow softly before his solos to make sure everything was in order. On “Now You Has Jazz,” Danny Barcelona would take a drum break, Trummy would say, “Now listen to/ you know who” and Armstrong would enter with one of his patented blues phrases. At Monterey, though, Barcelona’s in the middle of his solo when you hear Armstrong play the first phrase of his solo loudly. It almost sounds like he came in too early, but he’d played the song a hundred times by that point and obviously knew when to come in. He just plays the opening of his solo, lets Barcelona finish, lets Trummy introduce him, then starts his solo with the same exact same phrase…but then pauses. He obviously felt wrong something in his chops to stop for that second but once he rights himself, he blows one chorus of blues, displaying his fattest tone up to that point in the concert. Here's the audio of that moment:
After “High Society Calypso,” Armstrong tells the audience one of his favorite jokes, prefacing it by mentioning how he told it to the co-stars of High Society, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. Yes, it’s the “Alligator Story” and if you don’t know, it here’s how he told it that night in Monterey: “I was telling about the time when I was a cute little boy in Boutte, Louisiana and one morning, my mother sent me down to the pond to get the pail of water and when I come back, I didn’t have the water so Mayann, my mother, she said, ‘Boy! Where’s that water?’ I said, ‘Well, Mama, there’s a big, old, rusty alligator in that water and I didn’t get it, that’s all.’ She said, ‘Son, go get that water. Don’t you know that alligator is as scared of you as you is of him?’ I said, ‘Well, if that alligator is as scared of me as I as of him, mama, that water ain’t fit to drink!’” The laughter Armstrong receives sounds like a Redd Foxx record. It goes for about 15 seconds and even causes Armstrong to miss his entrance on “The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It!” Fortunately, Young and Hucko weren’t phased and they start playing their parts without Armstrong, but he quickly joins in, though you can hear him still laughing to himself before he starts his vocal. Trummy Young shares the vocal with Armstrong and during his chorus, you can hear Armstrong playing his trumpet mouthpiece in the background, still searching for something to get those chops warmed up. I love “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” and I think it’s one of the most irresistible staples of the All Stars’s repertoire. Armstrong might have been struggling with his embouchure but he still felt good enough to play an encore of “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” something he did often in the Edmond Hall years but infrequently thereafter. He still doesn’t sound like he’s at ease, but he blows some exciting riffs, getting terrific backing from Trummy. By the end, Armstrong does the fast tremolo he did on “Tiger Rag,” and even finds the power to gliss way up from the customary final high C to a high F. He sounds happy as hell as the audience roars, alerting them that “The cats was wailin’ there!” I know that not everyone has the time to listen to four and five-minute songs so I've edited "Bucket" to start with Armstrong's rideout choruses, followed by the encore, as a means of saving time:
Continuing the pattern, after such fierce, probably painful blowing, Armstrong rests while featuring the other fellows in the band. Billy Kyle’s up first with “Perdido,” which gets off to an peculiar start as Kyle decides to extend his introductory vamp without bassist Mort Herbert knowing so Herbert ends up walking the chord changes too early, creating a bit of a clash. Otherwise, it’s a smooth solo, though once more, at 1:36, a few small beeps can be heard in the background as Armstrong prepares himself for his role in “Perdido,” a series of stirring F’s. He hits them, very strongly. Kyle then takes an encore, originally stomping at it off a ludicrously fast tempo, before settling in with the same uptempo swing. Just a few years later, he would indeed take it at that ludicrous tempo! The encore is interesting because Kyle was really a guy who never, ever changed his set solos, some of them staying in concrete for over ten years. But on the encore, he improvised a terrific, block-chorded bridge, hinting at Ben Webster’s solo on “Cotton Tail.”
Then it’s on to another rarity: a sideman feature where Armstrong doesn’t play. Armstrong usually played on everyone’s feature until Edmond Hall came around with “Daradenalla.” Hucko’s “Autumn Leaves” always gave Armstrong approximately two minutes to sit in the wings and rest. It’s a short solo, but a good one, the rhythm section locking into a nice groove. Hucko then follows with an exciting “After You’ve Gone,” Armstrong entering a minute in to play the melody, indeed sounding a bit refreshed. “After You’ve Gone” might contain Armstrong’s best blowing on the disc and at the end of the encore, Armstrong screams up to a high D, holding it before resolving to a higher F. On other, stronger occasions, Armstrong could be even more daring and exciting on “After You’ve Gone,” (check out the version on volume 3 of the “In Scandinavia” series), but on this grueling night in Monterey, it’s a highlight. Here's the audio:
Next up is bassist Mort Herbert, who joined the band in January of 1958. Herbert didn’t have the raw power and drive of Arvell Shaw but he still swung the band nicely and served Armstrong well for four years. Armstrong liked to give his bassists long solos and, perhaps needing to regroup after “After You’ve Gone,” Herbert takes two long, slow choruses on “These Foolish Things.” I think it’s a fine solo (Herbert was a good quoter) but the highlight is when Armstrong enters three-minutes in to play the melody. I don’t have any other versions of Herbert playing this as his feature (though newspaper reviews of the period mention him playing this), so it’s valuable to hear Armstrong play a standard melody not often associated with him. He sticks close to the melody, but infuses it with the usual Armstrong soul and feeling, making it a moment to remember. Herbert, too, gets an encore (the whole performance clocks in at a hefty 7:32) and on it, Armstrong still sounds like he’s pushing hard to get those notes out and when he gets to the high G at the end of the chorus, his tone has a little shaky feel to it that’s reminiscent of Armstrong’s trumpet work during the Russell Garcia-arranged Verve sessions of 1957, another time when his lip simply wasn’t rested. But after a humorous extended coda where Herbert quotes “Holiday For Strings,” Armstrong ends with a gorgeous high Eb. Here's an edited version, consisting of Armstrong's two trumpet statements and Herbert's finale:
“Mack the Knife” is up next, uptempo, though it would get even faster in the next couple of years before slowing back down to a medium pace in the 60s. The trumpet stays in good form here (with a little more blowing during the drum break to keep everything copasetic), though throughout the concert, his tone consistently sounds a tad smaller than usual, even a little cloudy at times. Every high note, even when he hits them right on, contains the sound of anguish. Still, he drives himself through Danny Barcelona’s drum feature on “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” an arrangement that featured a lot of trumpet, including playing the melody an octave higher than usual towards the end.
Trummy Young’s feature on “Undecided” was always fast and exciting but by the 1958, the tempo had started to creep into warp-speed territories. While still exciting, it became so frantic, it lost some of the effectiveness of versions from 1955 and 1956 (by 1962, it would become even faster and thus, became even less effective). Armstrong always took a monster solo on “Undecided,” upstaging Young at times (check out the Ambassador Satch version from ’55). But in Monterey, Armstrong struggles with the tempo, beginning with some phrases that border on incoherent before he relaxes and stops trying to keep up with the horserace going on behind him. As usual, he begins playing slower phrases, floating over the bar lines and sacrificing velocity for some stronger, higher notes. On the encore, he continues this trend to better effect and manages to gliss up to an impressive high F at the end of his solo. Nevertheless, compared to some other versions of “Undecided” in the Armstrong canon, this one is pretty forgettable.
For the audio, I've edited out young's sloppy opening statement. I've edited together Armstrong's painful solo from the first go-around followed by his playing on the encore, then followed by a much better solo on the tune from Stockholm, Sweden on January 16, 1959:
Velma Middleton joins the group for “St. Louis Blues,” always one of my very favorite All Stars performances. Honestly, when I first popped this disc in my CD player, I went straight to the final minute of “St. Louis Blues” because I love the transition from Trummy’s roaring trombone to Armstrong’s rideout lead so much. Listening to the entire track, it’s clear that something’s still wrong in the opening. The group usually played W.C. Handy’s 16-bar minor-strain as an introduction before Velma would begin. But after 16-bars, Armstrong keeps playing, realizes the introduction was supposed to end and improvises a confused sounding wrap-up phrase as Velma enters. In all, it’s a somewhat sloppy 18-bar introduction. The only way I can defend the All Stars without seeing this performance is offering a guess that maybe Velma hadn’t stepped fully up to the microphone yet as a performance of “St. Louis Blues” from Sweden in January 1959 has a similar confused introduction. Once Velma starts singing, it’s clear she’s having a good night, but Armstrong’s obbligato is very tentative. When Velma sings, “Louis Armstrong blows so nice and high,” Armstrong would usually respond with a cute quote of Handy’s “Memphis Blues.” However, on this night, Armstrong chose to play nothing at this point in the song. He just stops playing and scats softly. On top of that, the band would usually play one chorus of blues before Armstrong would sing but even that chorus is gone! The concert was nearing its end and Armstrong knew he had some fierce blowing to do at the end of “St. Louis Blues” so he was now conserving like crazy, eliminating obbligatos and complete choruses. Fortunately, the band strikes a helluva groove, everyone solos well and Armstrong summons up whatever he had left in his lip to blow two passionate rideout choruses, staying in upper register during the last 12 bars.
For the audio, I've done another juxtaposition. You'll hear the introduction, followed by Armstrong's tentative obbligato behind Middleton's vocal, followed by Armstrong's vocal entrance. Then, after a pause, we'll flash forward to the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival and you'll hear the intro to that piece, Armstrong's much stronger obbligato, the instrumental blues chorus he chose not to play in Monterey and his vocal entrance. Sounds like a lot, but it's only a couple of minutes:
For Velma’s second tune, they chose “That’s My Desire.” “Ko Ko Mo” was usually the second tune Armstrong and Middleton would perform during this period in the band’s history, but that piece had entirely too much trumpet work. On “That’s My Desire,” Armstrong just had to play behind Velma for 16 bars. However, as on “St. Louis Blues,” he begins to play his standard obbligato and then stops. Incredibly, Billy Kyle picks up the slack! Armstrong’s beautiful obbligato didn’t change over the years and when Armstrong’s stops playing it, Kyle steps in and plays Armstrong’s closing phrase perfectly on the piano. I thought it was a great moment of sympathetic teamwork and more proof that the All Stars were better with team players such as Kyle instead of egotists like Earl “Fatha” Hines. Armstrong and Velma slay the audience with their routine, a comedy exercise they hadn’t really changed since 1947 but one they always put over as if performing it for the first time.
My audio edit consists of the aborted Monterey obbligato followed immediately by another performance of the tune from Keesler Air Force Base in October 1959 where, once again, Pops has no troubles (and you'll hear the phrase clearly that Kyle saves at Monterey):
Finally, the end of the concert arrives with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” How Armstrong’s lip had anything left is a miracle and even at the beginning, his trumpet misses a note in the second phrase (the “in” in “go marching in”). His tone is now smaller than ever before but he goes on tentatively. Everyone solos, Armstrong lets them take a bow and then he picks up his trumpet one last time to blow the exciting outchoruses he had perfected with the All Stars over the last decade. He already noodled a bit more behind Trummy’s solo and even during Barcelona’s break, keeping the chops warm as the rideout approaches. The first time I listened, I actually felt nervous inside because I didn’t want to hear him suffer anymore. Armstrong plays the final three choruses and it’s tough going but it’s more triumphant than sad though there are some rough moments. His phrasing still isn’t as smooth as on other versions of “The Saints.” he cracks his “Here Comes The Bride” quote badly, and his lip gives out during the first phrase of the second chorus. But he recovers, eliminating some of the quicker notes in his set pattern to instead focus on hitting the high notes square, which he does, ending on a very strong high D. The crowd goes wild and the concert is over.
For the "Saints," I've edited together Armstrong's opening melody statement and the punishing rideout choruses, followed immediately by the rideout choruses Armstrong played in Umea, Sweden, January 1959:
Phew…after listening to it in such detail, I feel as tired as Armstrong’s lip after 80 minutes of blowing that evening. I’ve been writing this blog entry with whatever free time I’ve had over the last three days but earlier today, at work, I decided to listen to it one more time, but without focusing on the minutia and without constantly rewinding passages or raising the volume to see if I could make out voices in the background. I just listened to it in full as if I were in attendance in Monterey that evening and I don’t think it’s possible to be more entertained. The pacing of the show is so perfect that I don't think it's possible to ever fault Armstrong for sticking to what works. The lively instrumental showpieces, the swinging features for the other wonderful members of the bands, the comedy routines that are very funny…it works. Around the time of track eight, when Armstrong’s “Alligator Story” leads into the joyous romp on “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” the thing feels like a damn party! Then, a little later on, Armstrong’s trumpet gives “These Foolish Things” such a wistful feel, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the pure beauty of his interpretation of the melody. And “St. Louis Blues” rocks, plain and simple, especially hearing Velma and the band members vocally exhorting every soloist on. “That’s My Desire” made me chuckle out loud and the “Saints” was as joyous a finish as could be. Again, it worked. In his liner notes, Richard Hadlock notes that the concept of a set “stage show” evolved from vaudeville and was a constant source of anguish for the hardened jazz critics who got sick of seeing the same routines over and over.
What’s important to understand is by this point in his career, Armstrong was touring at a nonstop pace. And the two-week stints in major nightclubs were becoming scarcer and scarcer as his popularity grew throughout the 50s. In fact, earlier in 1958, Armstrong played a tour that consisted of 61 colleges in a row! “I’ve got more alma maters than anybody,” he told Jet on April 17, 1958. “They’re all the same…they jump.” Armstrong knew what worked and always strived to put on the best show that was possible. It’s a tradition that’s still carried on with performers such as B.B. King and Tony Bennett. In the last five years, I’ve seen King six times in six different venues and Bennett five times in five different venues. Each time, their shows varied little. Even their between-song patter and jokes remained the same. And each time, the different audiences (including myself) were entertained beyond belief. I’d go back to see King or Bennett anytime, even if I know the songs and jokes aren’t apt to change, just because it’s such an entertaining show.
But what makes Live At The 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival so important is how it catches Armstrong on an off night, at least in terms of the trumpet. But even with all the problems with his chops I’ve detailed above, he still put on a masterful show. He paced himself with songs that featured his trumpet, never taking more than three or four minutes off at a clip. He eliminated choruses and obbligatos when he knew he couldn’t play them. All of this must have hurt him mentally, but he didn’t let it show. He sang his ass off, told the alligator joke, and kept the massive audience entertained the entire time. It’s one of the most noble entries in the Armstrong discography, even if I wouldn’t recommend it to a novice fan. I also wouldn’t recommend it to someone who bashes Armstrong’s later years. The set list contains no surprises (except maybe “These Foolish Things”) and his trumpet is not in peak form. It’s perfect fodder for people who don’t understand Armstrong’s later recordings to say, “See, there’s nothing great about this concert. It’s the same old songs and his trumpet sounds deteriorated. Back to the Hot Fives for me!”
And, to me, that’s nonsense. Listening to this concert caused my eyes to well up. Just think about how hard it was being Louis Armstrong in 1958. You’re 57 years old, you’ve changed music history, yet younger musicians are embarrassed by your antics and jazz critics constantly knock your live performances. You spend the bulk of the year in buses and in hotel rooms, dealing with racism and sometimes less-than-ideal performance conditions. You push yourself so hard that your lip sometimes gives out and you can’t play at full capacity, yet you still must go out and give the performance of your life. And when it’s over, it’s back to the bus for a night’s rest with the hope that for tomorrow’s show, your chops will return to form. It wasn’t easy to be Louis Armstrong in 1958 which is why I particularly love the cover photo of the Monterey Jazz Festival disc:
That’s not the grinning, Satchmo we’re used to seeing, the “buffoon,” as Gunther Schuller would put it. No, that’s a tired man. His eyes look heavy and there’s no trace of a smile. The scar on his lip looks more pronounced than ever before. Yet, when Dizzy introduced him, he came to life and still managed to give 5,000 people a tremendous show. It was not easy being Louis Armstrong and it’s about time that his later years start to receive more credit instead of just being shrugged off as the period where he played the same songs every night.
But even with such a high-profile release as this one from Monterey, critics still don’t seem to be listening. In his notes, Richard Hadlock admits to being one of the jazz writers from the 50s who was disappointed in the unchanging All Stars stage show (though it did change more than you’d believe...a subject for another blog…). Hadlock writes, “After ‘St. Louis Blues’ gave us Velma in good voice, highlighted by splendid trumpet passages, it spiraled down into a most un-Handy, somewhat grubby blues contest.” What does that even mean? First, Armstrong’s trumpet is not splendid in the beginning of “St. Louis Blues,” and I’m his biggest defender. The introduction is confused and he doesn’t play the full obbligato and he cuts a chorus of blowing before the vocal. And the song builds up to a real nice, rocking groove, reminiscent of the version from the W.C. Handy album it’s patterned after of. Grubby blues contest? That’s just silly. But even crazier is the review posted by Ken Dryden on allmusic.com. I like Dryden and he usually demonstrates good ears in his reviews, such as his recent one on the fourth volume of the In Scandinavia series. But his four-star review of the Monterey set is bizarre in that it’s basically a one-paragraph summary of Hadlock’s liner notes. Hadlock mentions the set routine of the show, praises Billy Kyle as being “underrated,” knocks Young’s feature on “Undecided” and mentions an audio balance problem due to the musicians moving on stage causing the balance to change at times. In his review, Dryden mentions the set routine of the show, praises Billy Kyle as being “underrated,” knocks Young’s feature on “Undecided” and mentions an audio balance problem due to the musicians moving on stage causing the balance to change at times! He even carries over the error from the back of the CD that credits Velma Middleton with singing three songs, even though she only does two! I don’t want to say Mr. Dryden didn’t listen to the disc but to not even mention the problems in Armstrong’s trumpet playing is a little bizarre.
To sum up, if you love Louis Armstrong, you’ll enjoy this disc. If you’re a casual fan, I’d say avoid it as there are better options. Hell, if you really want to hear what Armstrong could do in 1958, go to worldsrecords.com and order “Live North Bay, Ontario, May 15, 1958,” on the Sterling label. It’s unreleased material presented by jazz historian (and Jack Teagarden authority) Joe Showler and features 75 minutes of the All Stars playing at a half-empty dance in the middle of nowhere five months before Monterey. It was just another one-nighter and it demonstrates the different venues the band had to play. Picture it: playing in front of 5,000 people at the inaugural Monterey Jazz Festival one night, and playing for a couple of hundred dancers in the sticks another. Once again, Armstrong gives his all, fielding a number of requests including a scorching “Long Gone,” a song I never knew Armstrong to have performed live (and it’s clearly a request because Velma gets some lyrics wrong and the band’s a bit hesitant with the routine). Armstrong plays one of the most exciting “Muskrat Rambles” I’ve ever heard (with a rare encore that features him quoting “The Song Is Ended”) and there’s a Trummy Young feature on “You Can Depend On Me” that might be one of my top ten favorite All Stars performances of all time. If you really believe Armstrong’s trumpet skills eroded over time or that the All Stars played the same songs every night, please don’t hesitate and order this disc immediately.
And speaking of 1958….hey, Sony! Wake up! Columbia recorded Armstrong’s entire set at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival yet has never released it (yet we have alternate takes of Miles Davis coughing). Three tracks—“On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Rockin’ Chair” and “Ko Ko Mo”—have trickled out on three completely different samplers over the years and each one features gorgeous stereo sound. Armstrong’s in top form and the show even featured a Armstrong reunited with Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. One song from this reunion is captured in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, but come on, they also played “Pennies From Heaven” that night and I want to hear it!
Well, I’ve gotten carried away and I’m sorry for the graphic length of this post. Allow me to recoup for a day or two and I’ll be back with some more song breakdowns by the end of the week. For now though, if you appreciate Louis Armstrong, check out the Monterey set and marvel at how he overcomes his lip troubles and plays through the pain to give a wonderfully entertaining concert. And it all goes to a good cause as the proceeds from the Monterey discs goes to serve a jazz education program for young people in California. Louis Armstrong would be proud….