Friday, October 18, 2013

Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography - Avid Reissue

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how some friends recently asked about the download only release of Louis's August 1, 1957 session with Oscar Peterson, A Day With Satchmo. When I shockingly realized I never blogged about it, I turned in this entry. Well, it's happened again. On Facebook, I was contacted  by young Armstrong fan David Turner Smith about the availability of the 2000 Universal reissue of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. I knew it was available as a download but the physical CD set has become nearly impossible to find.

But I had good news to share: earlier this year, the Avid label from the United Kingdom reissued Satchmo on two double-disc volumes, the first two discs containing sides 1-6 of the original 4-LP set. Volume two contained the essential seventh and eighth sides and lots of bonuses: Satchmo Plays King Oliver complete, Louis and the Good Book complete and a selection of Satchmo Plays King Oliver alternate takes originally issued by Chiaroscuro as Snake Rag. Volume 1 is available on Amazon here, while you can get Volume 2 by clicking here.

(Actually, if you don't mind paying a little shipping, both sets are much cheaper through See here: Volume 1 and Volume 2.)

But when I saw David's message, my first thought was, "Damn, I didn't write about the Avid reissues either!" And this time I really didn't have an excuse because not only do I love these records more than almost anything else on the planet, I was honored by producer Dave Bennett to write the liner notes. Dave wrote in recently to let me know that sales have only been ho-hum, which kills me to here as in my utopia, people line up around the block every time new Louis hits the market. Of course, the major US jazz magazines have given it no attention but for my blog to be silent on them is inexcusable.

If you want to read all my opinions on Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, just search for that title here on the blog or check out my book. But with Avid's permission, I would like to share my liner notes for the new reissue. I think a few words changed, as did spellings, to accommodate the British pedigree of the label, but here they are (many thanks to Michael Steinman for his help and advice and for Bria Skonberg for the quote). Enjoy and if you somehow don't have this music yet, I hope it gives you the incentive to finally do so!


Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography is one of the great landmarks of Louis Armstrong’s massive discography. Made a time in his life when many artists start to wind down and rest on their laurels, Armstrong topped himself, turning in some of the most inspiring trumpet playing and singing in his career. Yet, it’s an album that has never received the full amount of respect it deserves, as most jazz neophytes are told to start with his more influential 1920s recordings—and to sometimes stop there, too.

No one can underestimate the importance of the recordings Louis Armstrong made in the 1920s, creating the vocabulary for all future jazz musicians and teaching the world how to swing with both his trumpet and his inimitable voice. He knew how important his early records were and so did his record labels of the 1930s as both Victor and Decca had him record multiple new versions of his OKeh hits. However, he continued to move forward, leading a popular big band throughout the 1930s, appearing on radio, in films, making hit records, breaking box office records wherever he went, all the while being loved by both critics and fans.

But in 1940, Columbia, with help from young visionary George Avakian, created the first series of jazz reissue albums. Armstrong was at the forefront of these sets of 78s, with many of his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings being reissued for the first time since their original release. This was the first time many Swing Era fans and critics heard those 1920s masterworks. Ironically, what was meant as a gift became a weapon used against the creator: almost immediately, the present day Armstrong became unfavorably compared with his younger self. Jazz critic Paul Edward Miller fired off the first salvo in April 1941: "Armstrong is no longer a vital force in hot jazz. His influence on other players, admittedly a widespread influence, has pretty much petered out. Creatively and artistically, Armstrong is dead.... Armstrong has chosen to play exclusively for the box office, has assumed a downright commercial attitude. Therein lies Armstrong's failure."

Critics began to fetishize the Hot Fives and Sevens, though Armstrong himself said in 1945, "You can't go back thirty years, man....Why should I go back?...Music's better now than it used to be." But when he broke up his big band and started a small group, the All Stars, in 1947, Time magazine wrote, "Louis Armstrong had forsaken the ways of Mammon and come back to jazz.”

It didn’t take long for those same critics to realize that even with the All Stars, Armstrong wasn’t interested in pretending it was 1925. The All Stars presented the total Armstrong package: the comedian, the emcee, the balladeer, the consummate entertainer. Away from the All Stars, he had a steady stream of pop hits, including “Blueberry Hill” and “La Vie En Rose,” material that couldn’t be further from the New Orleans jams of the Hot Fives and Sevens.

By 1956, Armstrong’s popularity was at an all-time high. That year, he was hailed for his work overseas (lending him the nickname “Ambassador Satch”), stole the film High Society from Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra and enjoyed another hit single, "Mack the Knife." Perhaps related, that same year found negative reviews of the trumpeter also reaching an all-time high. Reviewing a Carnegie Hall set in the New York Times, John S. Wilson wrote that Armstrong "has been increasingly emphasizing his notable talents as a popular entertainer at the expense of his abilities as a jazz musician.” Harold Lovette wrote in Metronome, "But as trumpet players go at this point, I am of the opinion that Louis is a much better singer." And in a devastating review of Armstrong's set at the Newport Jazz Festival, Downbeat's Jack Tracy bemoaned, "the only reign to fall was that of King Louis Armstrong."

Armstrong felt his critics weren’t listening. "Through the years, I've noticed you take, not only critics, you take the man on the street or some cat that think he knows a whole lot about music and records and things, they'll come up and say, 'Man, you're doing all right but I remember when you was really blowing that horn,’” he told the Voice of America in July 1956.  “And I'll look at him and say, 'Well, solid, Gate,' but he don't realize that I'm playing better now than I've ever played in my life." Though confident in his own abilities, he needed a bigger project to definitively prove that he was at the top of his game at this stage of his life.

Enter Milt Gabler, Armstrong's producer at Decca for many years, the mastermind behind many of the trumpeter's biggest pop hits but also one of jazz’s greatest champions, having broke into the business by forming Commodore Records in 1938. In 1954, Decca did a successful 5-LP boxed set, Bing Crosby: A Musical Autobiography, featuring the legendary crooner revisiting many of his old hits, offering for spoken introductions for each one. Not only would Armstrong be a natural for a similar project, it would also give Gabler clean-sounding recordings if they made a movie about Armstrong’s life (it’s 2013 and we’re still waiting).

The project provided Armstrong with quite a challenge: the 55-year-old trumpeter would be staring his 25-year-old self in the eye, after decades of having his output get unfavorably compared to what he did as a young man. He prepared for the sessions by training like a fighter.  Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso became close with Ruby Braff and related what Braff told him was "a highlight in his life: going to Pops' home to hear him spin his own old records, thinking out loud about what he might do differently, and what he thought ought to be done the same or similarly."

Gabler also wanted to do his part to make sure the sessions went off without a hitch. He made sure manager Joe Glaser didn’t book Armstrong anywhere else during the session dates, which were held in a party-like atmosphere, well-stocked with food and beverages and an in-house audience made up of friends such as June Clark, Reverend Harry Finkenstaedt, Jeann "Roni" Failows, Paul Studer, Slim Thompson and Lorenzo Pack (the latter two getting a hidden shout-out during Armstrong's scat chorus on "Song of the Islands").

Arranging chores were split between two wonderful musicians Armstrong had worked with in the past: bassist Bob Haggart handled all the small group recreations while Sy Oliver wrote new arrangements for songs from Armstrong's big band days. "Sy was funny," Gabler recalled. "He put the solo notation down on the lead sheet that was in front of Louis on the music stand, and wrote on it, 'Go for yourself.'"

Armstrong did just that, with scintillating results. Over the course of seven sessions--three in December 1956, four in January 1957--Armstrong recorded 43 new performances to go along with a handful of remakes Gabler included from other All Stars sessions of the period. Taken together, the performances that make up Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography form the definitive document of Armstrong's powers as a musician in the 1950s.

From the outset, Armstrong's work illustrates that even on an album based on recreating earlier works, the music itself would not be looking backwards. Though he still rattles off the original famed solos on pieces like “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Gully Low Blues,” Armstrong and the All Stars swing like it's 1957, not 1923 (trombonist Trummy Young even quotes Dizzy Gillespie's hip entrance from "Two Bass Hit" on "Dippermouth Blues"). The two-beat tuba-and-banjo feel of the original Hot Seven "Weary Blues," for one example, is dispensed with for an almost violently swinging approach, Armstrong shooting out strings of high C's nowhere to be found on the original recording. Never mind the Hot Seven; this is the Thermonuclear Seven!

Having said that, the only slight disappointments of the album come during the recreations of the 1920s numbers. Velma Middleton’s blues vocals won't make anyone forget the originals (though Armstrong’s obbligatos are positively incendiary) and Haggart occasionally tends to overarrange a bit, most notably, a disappointing stroll through "Potato Head Blues" that sounds like everyone's reading the charts and not playing in the moment. And though the All Stars play with inspired abandon throughout, Barrett Deems's drumming is too one-dimensional, sounding like a drum machine after awhile. This was no fault of Deems, however; a few of the surviving original Haggart arrangements clearly show Deems's part as simply playing "closed hi-hat" throughout. One has to wonder what the motivation was; possibly because many of the original 1920s recordings didn't feature drums, it was thought best to keep Deems in the background. Instead, it just stifled Deems and led critics to pummel his contribution when the original album was released (the original recordings didn't feature an electric guitar either but that didn't stop Haggart from using the George Barnes on the small group sessions, contributing several fine, if anachronistic solos).

Deems aside, the rest of the supporting cast performs admirably, especially Edmond Hall's gritty New Orleans tone choking and spitting out his solos and Billy Kyle’s tasteful offerings (listen to him make like his idol, Earl "Fatha" Hines, on "Two Deuces"). Bassist Squire Gersh had a big, popping sound that Armstrong thrived from. For the King Oliver numbers, Haggart's frequent partner, Yank Lawson, stepped in to recreate Papa Joe's original parts, though Armstrong steals the spotlight with his "Dippermouth Blues" solo and his powerhouse blues playing on "Snag It," the only tune in the set he had never previously recorded.

But at the end of the day, it's Armstrong's show and though it might sound sacrilegious, he tops his original approaches more times than expected, especially on a darkly-hued "Wild Man Blues" and a frighteningly intense "King of the Zulus." But he really hits his stride when Sy Oliver takes over for the big band recreations. Every note he plays from "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" onward is pure magic. On that number, Armstrong flexed his improved upper register, hitting and holding the final high F triumphantly, a note he barely squeaked out on pitch in 1929. Hearing this a few years ago, master trumpeter Randy Sandke conceded that Armstrong was a better technical trumpeter during the Autobiography period than he was in the 1920s. His closing cadenza on "Exactly Like You" is exemplary in its pacing and his emotional surge at the end of "Memories of You" marks that performance as yet another highlight. As a singer, hearing Armstrong interpret lyrics such as "Body and Soul" and "I Surrender Dear" with the wisdom and maturity gained by his later approach is a revelation, while his scatting on “Heebie Jeebies” and “Hotter Than That” is just as effervescent as it was in the 1920s. Armstrong makes one concession to age on the second half of this set, lowering "When You're Smiling" from the original key of Bb down Ab. But don't take that as a sign of weakness; he also cut the tempo almost in half, causing him to take almost two full minutes to play the melody an octave higher than expected, a feat of endurance and passion that moves this performance towards the top of the pantheon in Armstrong's fabled discography. 

It’s thrilling hearing Armstrong perform famed set piece solos on "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Lazy River" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" in such glorious sound. Those were solos that he chiseled to perfection while a young man, solos he never felt the need to change, even though critics griped. "So, like Heifetz and Marian Anderson, we play the same tunes; every time they play the same solo they get the applause--so do we,” Armstrong told Sinclair Traill the same week he recorded those three numbers in December 1956.

Like a good book, the whole Autobiography builds and builds, finally reaching its climax with "On the Sunny Side of the Street," Sy Oliver's reeds sounding like angels as they back one of Armstrong's most passionate vocals and trumpet solos.  It's a spine-tingling moment, as is Armstrong's following close to the proceedings, in which he earnestly tells his fans how much he loves them.  Though some of Armstrong’s spoken introductions are a bit stiff (they were written out for him by Leonard Feather), that final goodbye is as heartfelt as any of the playing and singing that preceded it.

Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography was released in September and immediately embraced as a triumph by the majority of reviewers. Of course, the more prominent, sour jazz critics couldn't resist a few swipes. Whitney Balliett had to get a dig in at Armstrong's "vaudeville antics" onstage, argued that "his technique is at best adequate" and wrote off the majority of performances as "inferior to the earlier ones." Nat Hentoff, writing in the Saturday Review, also couldn't resist complaining about the personnel of the All Stars and Milt Gabler's production values, writing, "this 'musical autobiography' could have been much, much better." But even after espousing the usual criticisms, Balliett concluded that "the album contains some of his most durable work" and Hentoff agreed that "many sections of his solos recalls his positions as the most satisfying, naturally mature soloist in jazz history."

Louis Armstrong had done what he set out to do: quiet his critics and prove that in his mid-50s, he was still "playing better now than I've ever played in my life." Needless to say, Armstrong was a big fan of the finished product, owning multiple copies of the set and transferring it to his reel-to-reel tape collection over a dozen times: more times than he listened to his original recordings of the 1920s and 30s.

Today, the griping of the critics is but a faint echo in history. Armstrong’s later work is getting more respect than ever before, with trumpeters young and old realizing that there's just as much to admire and learn from on sets like Satchmo as there is on the more vaunted Hot Fives and Sevens. Wynton Marsalis, for one, has called Armstrong’s later solos, “virtually impossible to learn.” And the popular young Armstrong-inspired trumpeter from Canada, Bria Skonberg, does not hide the fact that Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography is her favorite Armstrong release. 
I can dream of meeting Louis, but being born after his passing I never even had a chance,” she says. “The Musical Autobiography is truly a gift to us future admirers. Hearing his warm voice telling stories on these recordings so sincerely gives a glimpse of what that would have been like, and I am grateful he shared himself this way.  His trumpet is immensely inspiring throughout the whole album, fiery with the ideas of his youth played with the wisdom and command of age.”

Now in print again on Avid and sounding better than ever because of Dave Bennett's superb remastering, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography can be listened to with a fresh set of ears as one of the most important, challenging and inspiring testaments to Louis Armstrong's genius.

1 comment:

RICHIE said...

Great insight to this masterpiece of Jazz history. I have loved this set for years but your words bring a better understanding to Armstrong's challange and purpose of these recordings.