Wednesday, January 21, 2015

60 Years of Louis Armstrong "At The Crescendo"

When Louis Armstrong re-signed with Decca Records in 1949 after a three-year absence, he put his recording career in the hands of a man he knew he could trust: Milt Gabler. Louis loved Milt so much, he referred to him as "Angel Gabler." Milt was the right man for the job because he could get Louis hit records, but thanks to his days overseeing Commodore Records (and naturally, the Commodore Music Shop), Gabler had a deep appreciation for pure, no-frills jazz.

Thus, when Armstrong came back to Decca, Gabler was ready to showcase him to maximum effect in a variety of settings. First, there was the choir (and later, strings) of Gordon Jenkins, which helped Pops hit the charts with That Lucky Old Sun and Blueberry Hill. Next, Gabler teamed Armstrong with a variety of singers, including Billie HolidayLouis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald and more. Sy Oliver was enlisted to take other people's hits and retool them for Louis; the results--including La Vie En Rose, "C'est Si Bon," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "I Get Ideas" and more--still stand alongside Armstrong's most beloved recordings.

But Gabler also realized the value of the All Stars, one of jazz's most popular attractions. In April 1950, he turned the All Stars loose in the studio, having them wax definitive versions of some of their most popular live features ("New Orleans Function," "Panama," "That's For Me," and more) for two albums, New Orleans Nights and "Jazz Concert." Probably around that time, Gabler purchased Ernie Anderson's live recordings of the All Stars at Boston's Symphony Hall in November 1947 and released the results in January 1951 as Satchmo at Symphony Hall. That very same month, Gabler tried his hand at the live recording business and recorded the very fine Satchmo at Pasadena. It seemed like nothing Armstrong and Gabler did could miss.

But then things started to drift. Gabler continued recording Armstrong throughout 1952 and 1953 and though the results were often wonderful (and in dire need of reissue and reappraisal), they were admittedly more "commercial" in nature. The All Stars made a guest appearance on the soundtrack of The Glenn Miller Story in early 1954 but mostly, they were just used anonymously among the studio bands Gabler hired for Armstrong's recording sessions.

This was beginning to frustrate Armstrong. He was more proud of his All Stars than ever before, especially with the additions of trombonist Trummy Young and pianist Billy Kyle. He told the Voice of America in 1956 that he started telling the people at the label (Louis didn't mention Gabler by name but who else would it be?) that shouldn't the All Stars just be allowed to "tear out" now and then? He was told it was a good idea but first some Hit Parade numbers had to be recorded "and blah blah blah," as Armstrong said when telling the story.

Enter George Avakian. Seeing Armstrong's five-year exclusive Decca contract about to lapse, he waved some money at Joe Glaser and got him to let Columbia Records record an album with Louis. Avakian wanted the All Stars and let them "tear out" on 11 numbers written by W. C. Handy. The resulting album, Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy, was a critical and commercial smash. Jazz purists held it as an example of Decca spoiling Armstrong by allowing him to record so many "commercial" numbers.

The Columbia album was a one-off as Louis was back recording for Decca one-month later on August 13. But the resulting two-sided single of the South African song Skokiaan didn't make many fans of the jazz-centric  folks, nor did it make the charts (though it has gone on to be a hugely popular Armstrong recording). On September 1, Gabler had Armstrong take his classic "Muskrat Ramble" and sing the dopey lyrics recently made popular by the McGuire Sisters. And on January 18, 1955, Gabler rang in the New Year by having Armstrong record duets with Crosby....Gary, though, not Bing. And that same day, Louis tried out a few rock-and-roll ballads, "Pledging My Love" and Sincerely. Gabler had hit the jackpot with Bill Haley's recordings in 1954 so why not try Pops on some mellow rock? The results went nowhere.

Gabler was in the midst of a rut regarding Armstrong (commercially, if not artistically; when not compared to Avakian's towering recordings, these mid-50s Armstrong Deccas have plenty of enjoyable moments, not to mention a copious amount of powerhouse horn). So on January 21, 1955--60 years ago today--Gabler took a page from Avakian and let the All Stars simply tear out. But perhaps remembering the success of Satchmo at Symphony Hall and Satchmo at Pasadena, Gabler decided to record the group live at Gene Norman's Crescendo Club in Hollywood.

For the All Stars, the early-to-mid-1950s were the height of the popularity on the nightclub circuit. They still thrived on one-nighters but the itinerary was usually full of extended engagements in major cities, playing 3, 4 sometimes even 5 sets a night. The Blue Note in Chicago, Basin Street in New York, the Hangover in San Francisco, the Celebrity Club in Rhode Island and more. Just a couple of years later--after the All Stars' popularity really exploded in 1956--Joe Glaser phased the nightclubs out and booked the All Stars almost exclusively in concerts, jazz festivals and colleges, really ratcheting up the one-nighter count. Louis didn't appear at a New York City nightclub a single time between Basin Street engagements in 1956 and 1961 and after that, didn't do it again until appearing at the Latin Quarter in 1968.

But in 1955, Louis and the All Stars were living high on the nightclub scene. Gene Norman was perhaps best known as a disc jockey but he also ran festivals like the popular "Dixieland Jubilee" concerts; recorded live concerts and released them on his own GNP/Crescendo label; and owned the popular Crescendo Club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Norman loved Armstrong and recorded him at Pasadena in both 1951 and 1956 (Decca's Satchmo At Pasadena was a "Gene Norman Presents" event, as well). The venue would be a perfect spot to capture what the All Stars were doing night in and night out in this period.

The band Louis fronted at the Crescendo Club is the one most folks might know as "The Handy Band" or "The Satch Plays Fats Band." Louis was right in the middle of what I consider to be his prime 1953-1958 period during the All Stars years. Trummy Young's on trombone, raising hell throughout. Clarinetist Barney Bigard, bassist Arvell Shaw and vocalist Velma Middleton were the only ones (along with Louis) to have been on Gabler's previous concert recordings from 1947 and 1951. Shaw was sounding better than ever in 1955 and Velma and Louis now had more duets than ever to bring down the house. Alas, Bigard was almost running on empty, exhausted by the grind and possibly drinking too much. He's lost in most of the ensembles and his features meander a bit, but the Crescendo recording does capture a few sparkling moments from his New Orleans clarinet. Pianist Billy Kyle and Drummer Barrett Deems were the newest members but today, they remain two of the best loved. In fact, the entire Kyle-Shaw-Deems rhythm section is something to marvel at throughout the Crescendo performances. Gabler recorded them beautifully as they simply lock in and kick ass on number after number. With rock-and-roll on the upswing, it shouldn't be any surprise that the All Stars remained popular with young folks....they rocked--and swung--harder than any other band on the planet!

When George Avakian recorded the All Stars live multiple times in late 1955 and throughout 1956, he was always trying to get Armstrong to change his program and try different things out, often to no avail. Gabler knew better to not attempt to tell Louis Armstrong what to do on stage. Thus, there's a real spontaneous feel to the proceedings. Armstrong, for all of the criticisms about him playing "the same show every night," was known for not planning anything in advance. Yes, there were certain patterns--you knew you were going to get "Sleepy Time" and "Indiana" at the start--but often, he'd judge what was best for each particular audience on the fly. Sure enough, throughout the Crescendo recordings, if you listen carefully, you can hear Louis calling out the name of the next song to be performed to the other members of the band. On the third set opener, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," he can be heard quietly shouting during the piano solo, "'Lazy River' and 'Old Man Mose'!" Sure enough, those two numbers follow in order.

So without any special material to record or anything new to prepare, Gabler just hit the "record" button and captured a full evening by the All Stars in this mid-50s glory, three sets in all. First, I think for the first time (discographers, take note!), here's everything Gabler recorded at the Crescendo, courtesy of Gabler's own handwritten tape notes, copied from the files of the Institute of Jazz Studies.

When It's Sleepy Time Down South
Indiana (Back Home Again In)
The Gypsy
Someday You'll Be Sorry
Tin Roof Blues
My Bucket's Got A Hole In It
Rose Room (Barney Bigard feature)
Perdido (Billy Kyle feature)
Blues For Bass (Arvell Shaw feature)
Me And Brother Bill
When You're Smiling
Tain't What You Do (It's The Way That Cha Do It) (Trummy Young feature)
Lover, Come Back To Me (Velma Middleton feature)
Don't Fence Me In (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
Basin Street Blues
Mop Mop (unissued) (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (closing theme)

When It's Sleepy Time Down South (unissued)
Shadrack/When The Saints Go Marching In
C'est Si Bon
The Whiffenpoof Song
Rockin' Chair (Louis Armstrong and Trummy Young)
Twelfth Street Rag
Muskrat Ramble
S'wonderful (unissued) (Barney Bigard feature)
St. Louis Blues (Billy Kyle feature)
The Man I Love (Arvell Shaw feature)
Back O' Town Blues
Old Man Mose 
Margie (Trummy Young feature)
Big Mama's Back In Town  (Velma Middleton feature)
Big Butter And Egg Man (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
Baby, It's Cold Outside (unissued) (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
The Dummy Song (unissued) (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
Jeepers Creepers
Stompin' At The Savoy (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (closing theme)

When It's Sleepy Time Down South (opening theme)
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
Lazy River
Old Man Mose (second take)
My Bucket's Got A Hole In It (second take)
S Wonderful (second take) (Barney Bigard feature)
Big Mama's Back In Town (second take)  (Velma Middleton feature)
Since I Fell For You  (Velma Middleton feature)
Mop Mop (second take) (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (finale)

What a night! Now, how about some music and analysis before the thesis continues? First, the analysis. You can see that Louis had fallen into a comfortable pattern in the first set that would last for quite some time: he comes out and features himself for a bunch, then turns it over to Billy Kyle's piano, followed by Barney Bigard's clarinet and Arvell Shaw's bass, before coming back for a few himself, then turning it over to Trummy Young and Velma Middleton. After a duet with Velma, he closes with something big for himself and then a drum solo.

But just look at those sets. Those are some LONG sets. I clocked them, using the times we know, plus estimating the times of the unissued performances and this is what I got:

First set, approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes
Second set, approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes
Third set, approximately 40 minutes

That's 3 hours and 20 minutes of music in one evening. Throw in two probably 20 minute breaks and it's a 4 hour night at the club. That's a lot of work.

In his notes for the 1992 reissue, Dan Morgenstern makes a very good assumption that perhaps the third set was added only because Decca was recording; it's only 40 minutes and almost entirely made up of second takes of songs the group had already recorded. This would be the only example of Gabler inserting himself into the program, maybe giving Pops a list of songs to do over again. That's entirely possible and even probable. Three sets would have been unheard of in a concert, but as I mentioned earlier, I have found mentions of Louis playing three, four and even five sets during his nightclub engagements. I wonder what the Crescendo Club policy was? Maybe third sets were supposed to be short? In concerts, Louis would often play a much shorter second set when he was doing two shows in one day, often clocking in around 40 minutes. So it's also possible that people who came for the first set were gone by the third set so it didn't matter if Louis played some of the same songs over again and this was part of the routine.

But speaking of repeating songs and such. Louis was crucified for playing "the same songs every night." And you might glance at the above 3 hours and 20 minutes of music and think, "Yep, no surprises." But look at what he DIDN'T play that night:  "Blueberry Hill," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "Black and Blue," "New Orleans Function," "Sunny Side of the Street," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Ole Miss," "Royal Garden Blues," "La Vie En Rose," "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "West End Blues" and many more, all songs that could be found in Armstrong's mid-1950s concerts. If Gabler recorded the following evening, who knows what he would have captured? The All Stars book was DEEP.

But what beautifully paced sets. It's hard, but if forced to choose, I'm a sucker for the second set. In this period, the medley of "Shadrack/When the Saints Go Marchin' In" was the standard second opener. One year later, "Shadrack" was retired and "The Saints" was moved into the show closer spot.

After a swinging run-through of "C'est Si Bon," Louis then gives a master's class in how to combine hilarious comedy and good music. First, he teases the boppers with his parody of "The Whiffenpoof Song." He'd put on a red beret and sunglasses and skewer Dizzy Gillespie "and the boppin' faction." (Modern jazz fans were really angered by this routine.) But the first two minutes is taken up by Louis's beautiful, straight reading of the melody. This is followed by Louis and Trummy Young hammin' it up on "Rockin' Chair," but again, the short trumpet statement of the melody can give you the chills:

Rockin' Chair:

Next, Louis turns to the "Dixieland" side and teases them with a purposely corny treatment of "Twelfth Street Rag." There are moments (especially Barney Bigard's Boyd Senteresque work) where you hear the audience screaming with laughter....but Louis's lead playing in the ensembles is frighteningly fierce! And finally, after all these laughs, Armstrong announces something "for all the musicians in the house" and he and the All Stars proceed to turn in one of the most swinging performances of "Muskrat Ramble" of the 1950s--and beyond:

I've actually shared a decent amount of music from the Crescendo in the past. Here's a sample.

First, Louis's "Indiana" solo is unlike any he took before or after (and you can compare them all in my old Indiana blog):

On the second version of "Old Man Mose," Louis flubbed the lyric and restarted the performance without missing a beat: 

The Crescendo included perhaps my favorite version of Velma Middleton's "Big Mama's Back in Town":

Here's that killer version of "Shadrack" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In":

Billy Kyle's romping "St. Louis Blues" is one of my favorite Kyle features but it would be retired shortly after this concert when the success of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy forced Louis and Velma to start performing their fantastic duet on that number. Still, Billy SWINGS!

"Jeepers Creepers" wasn't a common choice in the All Stars years; this one features two exciting instrumental choruses up front:

And finally, rare live version of "When You're Smiling" at a swinging tempo. Doesn't get much better than this: the rocking rhythm section, the sound of Louis's trumpet, Trummy's dynamic it!  

I could keep going but the whole Riccardi clan has been sick this week and I've barely been able to get to my computer to upload the audio. But Trummy's features on "T'ain't What You Do" and "Margie" are knockouts, as are Arvell's "Blues for Bass" and "The Man I Love." There's a great "Basin Street" with some dynamite Billy Kyle and a lowdown "Back O'Town Blues" that's more exciting than the early 50s versions from Pasadena. And even when his lip should have been tired in the third set, Louis doesn't quit, soaring on "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "Lazy River," "The Bucket's Got a Hole in It" and more. Oh, and there's great Velma all around, including "Don't Fence Me In," a showstopper that sometimes gets forgotten after the more popular Louis-Velma duets of "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "That's My Desire." Only Barney's features on "Rose Room" and "S'wonderful" go on too long but even they have great spots for Pops (3 hours and 20 minutes of music and the only song Louis sits out is Kyle's "St. Louis Blues"...don't accuse him of coasting!).

With so much music to choose from, Gabler had his work cut out for him, too, from a producer's standpoint. As I wrote about in the liner notes to last year's Mosaic Records' boxed set on Louis's live Columbia and RCA Victor recordings of the 1940s and 1950s, the biggest need was always a desire for "fresh" material. If other recordings already existed of a particular number, why issue it again? This was Avakian's aforementioned challenge and he dealt with it in his own style, recording Louis in studio or "pseudo-studio" settings, giving him new material and treating the end results as being "live."

Gabler didn't go in for that, but confronted with the Crescendo Club tapes, he had to deal with a lot of repetition from other recent Decca albums, including Satchmo at Symphony Hall and Satchmo at Pasadena. He might have wanted to release nothing but Armstrong features, but it would have been tough: "Indiana" and "Baby It's Cold Outsider" were on Pasadena, "Muskrat Ramble" was on Symphony Hall, "Twelfth Street Rag" was part of the 1950 studio session, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" was recorded in the studio in March 1954 and "The Gypsy" was a studio single recorded in October 1953. Everything else, at least, was fairly fresh for an Armstrong release in 1955.

Gabler took the 3 hours and 20 minutes of recordings, edited it down (shuffling the order simultaneously) and released the results on two separate volumes, At The Crescendo Volume One and Two.

For those who might remember the original albums, here's how Gabler broke it down:

Volume 1
Side 1:
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
Jeepers Creepers
Tin Roof Blues
My Bucket's Got a Hole In It
Rose Room (Barney Bigard feature)
Brother Bill
Side 2
Lazy River
T'ain't What You Do (Trummy Young feature)
Perdido (Billy Kyle feature)
Blues for Bass (Arvell Shaw feature)
Don't Fence Me In (Louis and Velma)
Stompin' at the Savoy (Barrett Deems feature)

Volume 2
Side 1:
Ol' Man Mose
Rockin' Chair
C'est Si Bon
When You're Smiling
When the Saints Go Marchin' In
Side 2: 
Someday You'll Be Sorry
St. Louis Blues (Billy Kyle feature)
Back O'Town Blues
Big Mama's Back in Town (Velma Middleton feature)
Mop! Mop! (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South

Gabler had some work to do and by the time he edited the recordings into the two LPs and released the results, it was September 1955. Joe Glaser had decided to pit Columbia and Decca against each other for much of 1955. After the Crescendo recording, Gabler did two more studio dates, one with the All Stars in April and one with a Benny Carter-arranged studio orchestra in September. Once again, the results didn't do much at the cash register or for Armstrong's reputation (covering the Platters's "Only You" or the unpronounceable "Mm-mm" didn't help). Meanwhile, over at Columbia, George Avakian produced the timeless Satch Plays Fats. Both Satch Plays Fats and At the Crescendo were released around the same time (Satch Plays Fats actually was released in August but both were grouped together in a review in the October 1, 1955 Billboard). When pitted against the concept (Louis Armstrong Plays Fats Waller), the design (photos of Louis and Fats vs. a trumpet on a chair) and the overall Columbia Records machine, it was no contest. In that same October 1 issue, Billboard listed Satch Plays Fats as the number one selling album on the jazz charts and the number ten album on the pop music charts. At the Crescendo  finally hit the number eight spot on the jazz charts in February 1956 and disappeared. Two months later, Columbia released Ambassador Satch, THE definitive live Louis album of the era, another best-selling record. Even Louis, in an interview in the summer of 1956 told an interviewer that Ambassador Satch was better than At the Crescendo (the power of Edmond Hall!). He wasn't just blowing smoke; on his private reel-to-reel tapes, Louis dubbed Ambassador Satch on 18 of them, At the Crescendo, just 9 (and sometimes not both volumes).

To this day, the allure of Ambassador Satch remains undiminished. I spent the bulk of the past two years co-producing the Mosaic set, which is a love letter to that album. And I am continuously stunned when I meet young musicians in their 20s and 30s and they tell me that Ambassador Satch was their gateway into Louis and jazz in general. More than any other album (more than the Hot Fives and Sevens!), that's the one that gets mentioned.

But At the Crescendo? Not so much. Why? A few reasons come to mind. In the mid-50s, as Armstrong continued getting more and more popular, he increasingly became a target for the jazz critics, many of whom seemed to hate everything he, and especially his band, represented. Unlike W. C. HandyAt the Crescendo wasn't hailed as something for the time capsule. It was derided as too much show business, too many old routines, nothing groundbreaking--and way too many features. There were critics who still praised Louis but didn't like the members of the All Stars; devoting almost an entire side of volume 1 to sideman features could not have helped. (Hell, Leonard Feather's original liner notes spend about half the space on biographies on the sidemen, Feather assuming that readers already knew "the familiar facts of Louis' life.") To be fair, Ambassador Satch wasn't a favorite of the critics either and it devoted 2 of its 10 numbers to sideman features, but maybe because it was an instrumental-heavy single LP, it went over better with the general and jazz public.

But the reissue situation hasn't helped either. In 1992, Decca-GRP was cranking out a steady stream of jazz reissues, many overseen by legendary producer Orrin Keepnews. This was a series that was crucial to me in my early days as a jazz listener in the mid-90s. Decca GRP-GRD-4-613 was a 4-CD boxed set simply titled The California Concerts. It united Satchmo at Pasadena and At the Crescendo, cause enough for celebration. But Decca revisited the original tapes and ended up adding a ton of previously unissued bonus tracks, including 18 from the Crescendo evening, filling out both evenings until they were virtually complete (one track from Pasadena was withheld because of tape damage but Keepnews kept a handful of performances from the Crescendo in the vaults for personal reasons, as will be discussed shortly).

In 1992, though, we must remember that Louis's reputation hadn't fully been restored yet. Gary Giddins's Satcho book and documentary were tremendously important first steps but it still took some time. In 1994, the Louis Armstrong Archives opened at Queens College, Wynton Marsalis led a week-long tribute to Louis at Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian embarked on a traveling exhibit and Sony released Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a boxed set of Armstrong's 1923-1934 recordings. That was really the turning point, but for years and years and years, it only restored the reputation of Armstrong's early carer; later Louis was still something of a joke.

So in 1992, putting a set out like this wasn't a cause celebre in the jazz world.  Leonard Feather--who wrote the original liner notes!--praised Armstrong but called The California Concerts "heavily flawed" in the Los Angeles Times (but interestingly never detailed the flaws). I don't know much else about the 1992 reaction but I can't imagine it garnered much attention in the jazz world. It did remain in print for many years but carried a hefty price tag. Eventually, the CDs went out-of-print, but it's still available as a download, $37.99 on Amazon.

But now it's 2015. The California Concerts was released in 1992...23 years ago! That's a long time to be off the radar, especially since the project was never exactly on the radar. Plus, there was something unwieldy about; At the Crescendo started 6 tracks into Disc 2 and carried until the end of Disc 4. I love this set but even I'm sometimes hesitant to throw it in my car  because it's a little annoying, starting midway through Disc 2, switching after only ten tracks, etc. Once again, Ambassador Satch was reissued by Sony in 2000, a single-disc edition with some bonuses. That's probably the one many of the young musicians I mentioned earlier discovered. But I've never met any who've named The California Concerts as their seminal starting point.

Except me.

(The plot thickens!)

By now, most readers know that my life was changed when I discovered Louis Armstrong's music in October 1995. It was a compilation of George Avakian's 1950s Columbia recordings (yes, including tracks from Ambassador Satch). And as I wrote about recently, that Christmas, my parents gave me the Portrait of the Artist boxed set. But in those years, my parents and I had a condo in Deerfield Beach, Florida, where we would go down at least twice a year for vacation, often Christmas and Easter. We spent an insane amount of time in bookstores and music stores (there used to be a LOT in those days; now, not so much). At a Borders in Coral Springs, I saw The California Concerts and bought it (or more likely, convinced my parents to buy it for me!).

A few memories: the 1951 Pasadena portion left me a little cold. I liked it--and grew to love it--but I really didn't pay attention until disc 2 when At the Crescendo started. And I just absolutely loved it. I'd heard some live Louis compilations but now I was listening to him live, one evening, in his element, start to finish....and I loved it. Hell, my parents even loved it! They hated flying so the Florida vacations, which lasted until about 2003, were 2-day driving affairs. And each year, my mom especially looked forward to when I'd break out "The Crescendo Club" and we'd listen for 3 hours, almost making it through an entire state in the time it took to listen to it. And I still love it. To this day, when I'm in the mood for live Louis during a long day at work or during my long 3+ hour commute home, I'll often cue up The California Concerts, go to Disc 2 and plow through it all. It's just as good as being there.

But The California Concerts also turned Dan Morgenstern into my hero. I couldn't get enough of his notes to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man....but who was he? In The California Concerts, he explained in an essay titled "Some Notes from an Armstrong Fan." He opened, "I might as well come clean at the start: where Louis Armstrong is concerned, I am not a critic (never cared for that title) or historian (like that one better), but quite simply (or perhaps not so simply) a fan." Oh, I loved that! That one paragraph has fueled so much of my writing and work on Louis because at the end of the day, I'm a fan, too.

In his notes, Dan also took shots at "misguided psychobabbler James Lincoln Collier." I had checked out Collier's book from the local library and was horrified; reading Dan's take, I became happy I wasn't alone. Then, after addressing all the critics who complained about Louis in his later years, Dan wrote, "Listening to these performances, you will come as close as now is possible to an in-person encounter with the Armstrong All Star magic. You can then decide for yourself who was right: the throngs who cheered, or the critics who sneered. As for me, I've told you already; I was a fan." Man, that still makes me want to cheer!

And when Dan later wrote, "Someone ought to sit down and map out the travels of the All Stars, and then use a computer to discover how many hours of blowing Louis Armstrong did in a given year during the group's heyday." My brain read that sentence and translated it into, "Someone ought to sit down and write a book about the All Stars." Seriously. That essay and the music from the Crescendo Club had such an effect on the path I chose and the book I eventually wrote.

(And to really illustrate how surreal my life has become, this past Saturday, I played a piano gig with my pal Brendan Castner at d'jeet? in Shrewsbury, NJ. In the audience? Daryl Sherman and Dan Morgenstern. Crazy!)

So here we are in 2015, 60 years after that Crescendo Club evening. As I mentioned, you can still download The Crescendo Club for a decent price (but no liner notes; CD copies in good condition will cost you). But I'm getting restless. A few years ago, Universal Music put out Satchmo At Pasadena but it was a straight reissue of the original album without a single bonus track. That was before I got friendly with the Universal crew. Once I busted my way in, I managed to co-produced Satchmo at Symphony Hall 65th Anniversary: The Complete Performances as well as oversee the digital release of Louis's August 1, 1957 session with Oscar Peterson, A Day With Satchmo. They also called me in recently for another download-only release of Armstrong's studio recordings for a certain label that I can divulge now, but will offer all the details once it's off the ground.

Thus, don't worry, I'm trying to convince Universal that revisiting At the Crescendo would be worth its time. And to do it in COMPLETE form would be crucial. Orrin Keepnews is a legend but might not have been the best man for The California Concerts. For one thing, he was an old-school producer who believed in putting out the best product (like Gabler and Avakian) and wasn't much of a completist. Also, he was a serious man. He trounced an All Stars performance in a 1949 review, falling in line with all the other critics who bashed Pops in those years. Thus, there's all sorts of weird fades on The California Concerts and I think I know what some of them are: "tasteless" jokes. Louis used to introduce "Lover Come Back to Me" as "Lover Come BLACK to Me"; that intro is gone. Arvell Shaw used to talk about how announcing the title of "The Man I Love" made him "feel funny"; gone. And if you look at the above list of tunes from the session tapes, two were cut entirely, "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "The Dummy Song," two of Louis and Velma's silliest numbers. In his "Producer's Note" to "The California Concerts," Keepnews admitted his bias: "But two others, which shall remain unidentified, really were inadequate (neither one directly involved Armstrong), and I insist upon a producer's prerogative: to use those takes merely to achieve 'completeness' would be to demean the musicians."

Now, I've never actually heard "Baby, It's Cold Outside" or "The Dummy Song" from the Crescendo so maybe they are "inadequate" in some technical way; but I've heard other live performances from the period and they always are a lot of fun. I think they were just a little too much fun for Keepnews.

A few years ago, Universal put out Ella Fitzgerald's Twelve Nights in Hollywood, a CD-boxed set of recordings taken from a weeklong engagement at, you guessed it, the Crescendo. The thing was a smash, getting the kind of publicity unprecedented in jazz. Immediately, I thought a truly complete reissue of At the Crescendo ("One Night in Hollywood"?) would do the same. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't; my own Mosaic set might have stolen some of the thunder regarding another look at live Louis from the 1950s.

But At the Crescendo is ripe for rediscovery. There's been so much renewed interest in the All Stars years that it wouldn't be met with the kind of shrug it seemed to have received in 1992. Universal has already reissued the other two live Louis Deccas, so why let the Crescendo rot away in the vaults? Admittedly, we're still in the process of making sure the original tapes even still exist; sadly, this is not a guarantee. So please don't take this as a release announcement! Just know that I'm doing what I can to get this thing reissued so the jazz world can take a fresh listen at a full evening with jazz's greatest genius. (Would anyone out there--anyone, that is, still reading this--be interested in such a complete release? If the answer's no, I'll stop pushing!)

And hey, if I can't do anything, The California Concerts is still available as a download. It sure had an impact on me. Give it a listen and maybe it'll have one on you, too. It's could it not?


baz said...

I first became aware of the Crescendo recording way back in 1971 when Hugues Panassie described it in his book "Louis Armstrong"; he mentions it as being superior to Symphony Hall and Pasadena, first because the “recording is better and more lively,” and second because musicians are “more relaxed when playing in a nightclub than on stage, which is very noticeable here.”

What really got my attention though was his statement that Armstrong's trumpet “is wonderfully recorded with his real tone, his own color, his warmth and big volume...” I had been taken to a Pops concert when I was 10 in 1958, and I wanted to experience his tone again as closely as possible, so I immediately bought the LPs. The difficulty of catching a player's personal sound in a recording is a complex one and worthy of more discussion. Do you agree with Panassie's statement, Ricky, and in general which of Pops' recordings do you feel (or have you been told by people who heard him live often) captures that sound most realistically?

Ricky Riccardi said...

Hi Baz! Yes, Panassie was always a champion of the Crescendo recording. I think if I had to choose, Symphony Hall might be favorite because I love what Catlett and Teagarden play….but it's close! The Crescendo will always be my sentimental favorite.

You're so lucky you got to hear him live! Unfortunately, I was born in 1980 so I never got to hear him. I've heard various reports: that George Avakian's Columbia recordings are the closest to hearing him live, the the 1959-1960 Audio Fidelity recordings are the closest to hearing him live….but Dan Morgenstern said told me that none of them come really captured the way it sounded. But it's a great question! Perhaps I'll ask more people who heard him live and then I'll write a blog about it.

Thanks for reading!


baz said...

Pops always has a beautifully vocal sound on the horn, but he was also capable of both an intimate voice and a clarion one. There are many examples of his great operatic-sized sound on record, but I often like to focus on the more intimate side of his sound, where it seems he's speaking to you rather than storming the heavens. For this I go to situations where he had just rhythm backing – the Oscar Peterson record (and the ones with Ella and OP) is a favorite; I'd cite “Moon Song” as a good example of this “conversational” style.

From earlier days I have to mention the handful of 30s sides he cut with the Mills Brothers, where he scales his sound back to blend with their vocal “horns” – there I can feel him sing in a softer voice through his horn – it's magically personal. “Darling Nelly Gray” and “My Walking Stick” – ouch!

Dan said...

I heard Louis "live" on seven occasions from 1955 until 1965 and agree with Morgenstern that none of the recordings do the enormity of that sound justice. That said, the Avakian recordings done in Europe for Ambassador Satch and the ones for the W.C. Handy album come the closest. (The Fats Waller seems to have no mid-range and makes Louis sound thin, almost straight-muted.) I find the "dead" acoustics at the Crescendo narrows the range of overtones. The Audio Fidelity recordings are distractingly over-engineered.

Sebastian Claudius Semler said...

Part 1 of your wishes may just have been fulfilled: Essential Jazz Records published a 3-CD-Box of the Crescendo concert some weeks ago, starting with the concert's first title on CD 1 :-)

At the Crescendo 1955-Complete Edition, see

But - these are the same tunes as on the 1992 GRP-box. No 'Baby it's cold outside', np 'Dummy Song' none of the three other unissued tunes. The many bonus tracks of the box are from other concerts of this period.

[By the way: The Rheingold beer ad is also included - whereabout all discographers write it is sung to the melody of 'Ain't misbehavin'. I think this is wrong - it is the Rheingold Beer theme song "My beer is Rheingold, the dry beer..." which is definitely based on french classcial compopser Emile Waldteufel's "Estudiantina" waltz from the 1880s.]

But back to the Crescendo concert: I know it is great to bring back to light of the day recorded tunes in their original form. But if there had been editing in the original vinyl release, these edited versions are very familiar and have their own charme and historical worth (these are the versions which had become famous und successful!). - So, I'd wish they would always re-release BOTH versions in those so-called "complete editions" - the original recorded ones, full-length, AND the edited ones as released earlier. But most of the re-issues don't do this (see Musical Autobiography, Symphony Hall, Satch play Fats etc).
Concerning the Crescendo album, Jos Willems already pointed out that 'Ol' Man Mose' and some others are slightly edited, spliced versions from different takes.

But nonetheless: 'Crescendo' has always been one of my favourite Satchmo albums. The recording sound is wonderful considering the live technique of those days, the band is very relaxed, and produdced wonderful music this night with some repertoire which hasn't played so often during the 50s (e.g. Ol Man Mose, Me and Brother Bill, Don't fence me in). What is really extraordinary is the quality of the features of the sidemen: Trummy Young had rarely been better (his "Tain't what you do" is terrific), Billy Kyle is brilliant, and even often boring Barney Bigard had his moments that evening. And I'm not really a Velma fan - but here she sounds very nice and entertaining. I especially love her duet with Satchmo on 'Don't fence me in'.

So, on the whole, 'Crescendo' is one of my favourite Armstrong live albums. My Ranking:
1. Town Hall 1947
2. Crescendo 1955
3. Chicago concert 1956 (with Edmond Hall :-))

Best regards from Germany