But in the last few years, hot jazz/traditional jazz/swing/call it what you want has experienced a renaissance with musicians in their 20s and 30s. And I swear, every time I ask that question to one of those musicians, the answer is almost invariably Ambassador Satch.
At first I was surprised. Not the Hot Fives and Sevens? Not the other Columbia masterpieces like Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy or Satch Plays Fats? Not the popular albums with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald or Oscar Peterson? Nope, Ambassador Satch. And it's a funny thing because in overall jazz world (whatever that means), Ambassador Satch isn't exactly hailed as a groundbreaking work. The contemporary reviews of the 1950s were careful to put it in third place after Handy and Fats. It didn't get a proper CD reissue until 2001 and even then, Sony didn't include any new liner notes or make it a "Legacy Edition" with lots of bonuses.
Yet with the odds seemingly stacked against it, the album has continuously inspired countless musicians since it was released 60 years ago in early May 1956. Every time, I post the iconic album cover on my Facebook page, musicians young and old come out of the woodwork to discuss the impact Ambassador Satch had on them. The late Lester Bowie said, "I first heard Ambassador Satch, I guess I was about 13. I read the story of how Louis Armstrong got with King Oliver, so I used to practice with my horn aiming out the window, hoping that Louis Armstrong would ride by and hear me and hire me to play with him." Young trumpeter Bjorn Ingelstam calls it "One of the greatest albums ever." When I asked him what it means to him personally, he said, "There [are] not many words for me to use more than that this recording made all other music by other people sound like shit to me for about five years of my life. The level of music making here as a unit AND individuals on all positions is untouched by anyone including fantastic bands like Miles's, Blakey's and Oscar Peterson's trio, which is all constellations I consider to be up for discussion and I dearly love--but in my book, this is as good as it gets." Australian reed virtuoso Adrian Cunningham credits the album with making him want to be a jazz musician, saying, "I used to come home from school and put on the Louis Armstrong Ambassador Satch album, and play along with the clarinet, imagining I was in the band. What a thrill!" Trumpeter Rafael Castillo-Halvorssen recently visited and told the same story about the record, adding that he used to listen to it in awe with his mentor, the late great trumpeter Lew Soloff.
I almost thought of making this entire post a "What does Ambassador Satch mean to you?" discussion--and that can definitely be a sequel if enough people leave comments answering that question below!--but for the 60th anniversary, I thought it would be fun to just listen to the music. And to be specific, the music as issued by George Avakian in 1956.
How did I make it this far without mentioning George Avakian??? All hail, George Avakian! Ambassador Satch is a total George Avakian Production from inception to execution and he deserves nearly as much credit as Armstrong and His All Stars for the success of the album. If you're a longtime devotee of this blog, a Facebook friend, a relative or just someone who knows a little something about me, you know that I spent three years of my life working with Scott Wenzel on a 9-CD boxed set for Mosaic Records, Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, 1947-1958, which was released in 2014. For Ambassador Satch fans, the box is the Holy Grail as it unravels some of George's postproduction magic to present unedited takes, unissued tracks and in my 32,000 word liner notes, the entire back story of how the album came together.
Thus, if you're looking for the full story behind the album, see my notes to that set (basically the sequel to my book). But here's the short version for those looking for some quick answers as to how the album came about....and the sources George used to expertly cobble together the final product.
After recording "Mack the Knife" on September 28, 1955, the All Stars embarked on a three-month tour of Europe. Clarinetist Edmond Hall had just joined the band, raising the excitement quotient to off-the-charts levels. The rest of the band was made up of the stalwarts featured on Avakian's Handy and Fats works with Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass and Barrett Deems on drums.
Armstrong had always been a tremendous draw overseas but something was different on this 1955 tour: there were riots in Germany and France, major press coverage in the New York Times and U.S. News and World Report plus, on a tip from Avakian himself, the film cameras of Edward R. Murrow capturing priceless footage for an episode of See It Now that eventually morphed into the theatrical film, Satchmo the Great. Avakian knew the next album he had to record would feature excerpts from Armstrong's exceptional European tour.
He took the first steps on October 30, 1955 by recording an entire concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Neither Sony or George himself had the original master recording of the entire concert, which is a shame but a so-so quality bootleg has circulated for years and documents a very strong night by the band. However, George's notes on the concert do survive and have been uploaded to the blog of Chris Albertson. They're fascinating because they illustrate George's high standards (and his hatred of bass solos).
With Armstrong's regular show in the can, Avakian wanted to record some repertoire. But the All Stars were averaging two shows a day and had no time to put together anything new. Avakian had an idea: after the All Stars did two shows in Milan on December 20, Avakian rented out an abandoned theater and held and after-hours recording session. A few dozen wild Italian fans followed Armstrong and the All Stars to the theater and George let the tapes roll until after 5 a.m., getting different material like "West End Blues," "The Faithful Hussar," "That's a Plenty," "You Can Depend on Me," and "Tiger Rag." The Italian fans screamed their heads off but George still had to add a layer of fake applause to make the recordings seem like they were made during actual "live" shows.
Back in the States, Armstrong's previous label Decca reared its head and didn't allow Avakian to release anything Decca had released while they had Armstrong under an exclusive contract from 1951 to 1954. That eliminated a lot of what George had already recorded. Thus, he put together a full-blown studio session in Los Angeles on July 24, 1956 and waxed two more tracks for the album, "Twelfth Street Rag" and "All of Me."
After selecting ten songs (and fudging the recording dates for "Muskrat Ramble" and "Royal Garden Blues" so they could slip through the Decca restriction), Avakian went to work to give the album the true feel of what it felt like to see the All Stars live in Europe on this tour. Yes, that meant the usual practices of editing and splicing, as well as adding crowd noise, but Avakian really covered all bases: in Los Angeles, he recorded what the tape box described as "Theatre Voice Tks," a sequence of Armstrong shouting encouragement and the names of the band members to be separated and sprinkled throughout the final album like parmesan cheese on an Italian feast.
Normally on this blog, I upload audio to another site and post links to listen to it here. In this streaming era, the original album is sadly not on Spotify but it is still available as an MP3 download on Amazon. Find it there or dig it out on YouTube (it's all there) but here's some quick track-by-track notes!
Royal Garden Blues (Milan) - After a dramatic introduction from the emcee at the October 30, 1955 Amsterdam show and a shout of "Yeah!" from Armstrong that was recorded in Los Angeles (!), we move to the after-hours session in Milan for this barn-burning opening track. I've argued it for years--and it looks like I'm no longer alone!--but the Armstrong-Trummy-Hall front line was the most exciting one in All Stars history and this is a perfect illustration of it. Also, after the agile splicing work in the beginning, Avakian relaxed as the number was recorded in one complete take, plus an encore (well, there's lots of fake applause bursts but still, Avakian didn't need to break out the splicing block once the music started). For more on Pops and "Royal Garden Blues," see my 2008 blog.
Tin Roof Blues (Amsterdam) - This slow New Orleans Rhythm Kings favorite was recorded live in Amsterdam but Avakian couldn't help himself, repeating a few bars in two separate places (listen to the cymbals change early on) to cover up something he didn't like. Great lead playing by Louis and wonderful little solos by Young and Hall.
The Faithful Hussar (Milan) - Louis picked this one up in Dusseldorf as it was originally a German folk song known as "Der Treue Husar." In English, it was "The Faithful Hussar" but you can hear Louis butcher it as "Huzzah Cuzzah" in the intro. According to Avakian's handwritten notes he had two "exceptional" takes to choose from, eventually going with the bulk of take four, though the Philips single has another solo by Billy Kyle. The one really romps, powered along by the bass playing of Arvell Shaw and the rocking drums of Barrett Deems. Yes, there's some fake applause but listen through it for the real sound of the Milan fans screaming their heads off! The "yeah, yeah, yeah" as Swatson, I mean, Trummy starts to roar is also from Los Angeles.
Muskrat Ramble (Amsterdam) - Another legitimate live track with no postproduction work by Avakian. This, to me, is the great example of the Armstrong-Hall-Young band in full force. The opening ensemble choruses alone set the stage; the performance could have ended before the piano solo and no one would have complained. But the solos are wonderful, too, especially Louis with all of those quotes he unleashes throughout ("Louise," "Serenade," "Bye Bye Blackbird," the "Habanera" from "Carmen" and more. In my very first public lecture on Armstrong, done at the Institute of Jazz Studies in February 2006, I played this track from start to finish to illustrate the power and swing of this band. I can still see people's faces as they shook their head in wonderment of the interplay of this band. For more on this performance, see my old blog here.
All of Me (Los Angeles) - While in Milan, singer Ray Martino was asked to come up on stage and introduce Armstrong in Italian, which Avakian recycled for the start of side two. "All of Me" was always a feature for Velma Middleton but Avakian had the idea that Armstrong should record it since he helped put it on the map in 1932. It wasn't easy; it took the group nine takes (some very short breakdowns) to iron it out but an opening ensemble from take six and the rest coming from take nine, Avakian put together quite a winner (and the first Ambassador Satch track I ever heard as it was part of the 16 Most Requested Songs compilation that changed my life in 1995.
Twelfth Street Rag (Los Angeles) - This is a total Los Angeles special. Avakian originally recorded three takes of the introduction with Armstrong calling it "before his time" and Young and Hall inhabiting their stage personas to shout that there's nothing before his time (Hall, at one point ad libs, "He's older than Vaseline," breaking up the studio). Avakian cut it all except Armstrong's opening part, placing it over Kyle's piano introduction. The "Yeah, Edmond Hall" is another Los Angeles "theater voice track" Avakian peppered into the clarinetist's solo. This one, too, took six takes to perfect, Armstrong sounding like superman in the first few while Hall and Young didn't get sufficiently warmed up until take six. Armstrong had included this good-natured send-up of the cornier strands of Dixieland since the early days of the All Stars but this shorter version works especially well as a (somewhat) straightforward instrumental.
Undecided (Amsterdam) - Props to Avakian for allowing the other All Stars to shine on this record, too. Charlie Shavers's tune always made great fodder for Trummy to tear apart like a mad donkey (as he sometimes said), but Louis and Billy Kyle shine, too. The only editing Avakian needed to do was to fix the encore as the band had a quick collision coming in from the drum solo, all smoothed over on the final release.
Dardanella (Amsterdam) - Another All Stars feature taken from Amsterdam, this one spotlights Hall, who worked out this fun take on this 1919 song. It serves as a great intro to Hall's playing, capturing his unique tone, swinging feel and spiky exhalations.
West End Blues (Milan) - Again, it took nerve to tackle Armstrong's greatest moment from those glorious 1928 days but damn if they don't create another masterpiece. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is as important or better than the original. BUT on its own, I just love the hell out of it. For years, I, too, was biased and thought it was okay but no match for the original. And then trumpeter Ray Vega visited the Armstrong House years ago and told me he preferred the more dramatic, slower reading of the cadenza to the original. And then another trumpeter, Greg Hammontree, was working with me at the Archives and he kept having me play the last chorus over and over and he couldn't get over the high C Armstrong plays at the end after the descending arpeggios. After consulting with those two, I had a whole new appreciation, which has lasted until the current day when admittedly, I probably listen to this one more than the original! For my take on the entire "West End Blues" saga, here's the last blog I wrote about it in 2013.
Tiger Rag (Milan) - We conclude with a song that was somehow not in the All Stars's repertoire, one suggested by Edmond Hall at the after hours session in Milan. It knocked Louis out, who told a disc jockey after the album was released, "You ain't never heard 'Tiger Rag' in your life like them cats, the longer they played it." And all hail Barrett Deems! Critics loved to beat up his "heavy" style but like the Ambassador Satch album as a whole, more and more musicians I meet today just love his playing. Years ago, before the Mosaic set came out, I did an entire blog on this version, with a rehearsal and breakdown that didn't make the final set. You can read about it here.
And that's it for the finished album. Once the recordings were finished, Avakian wrote some typically evocative (if partially fictitious) liner notes and approved the album cover design, my favorite in the entire Armstrong discography. Check it out:
It's irresistible! In fact, in the August 11, 1956 issue of Billboard, a panel of "experts in the field of industrial design and graphic arts" named it the "winner of first place in the Pop category." I wonderful how many copies were sold on that cover design alone?
On April 25, Avakian wrote to Joe Moore about the album. I quoted from this in my book and the Mosaic set but here it is in full:
Following up our conversation with Joe Glaser at the Hickory House today, this is the information on the new Louis Armstrong album:
It was recorded in Europe last winter, in Amsterdam and Milan, in the course of his great tour. We are calling it Ambassador Satch, because I feel he is the best ambassador we have, and he is the one artist who is most universally appreciated throughout the world. I flew over just before the Ed Murrow See It Now sequences were shot in Paris, and then followed Louis to the completion of the album.
Included in the notes of the album is the story of the tour, and quotes from the New York Times article that hit the front page when Louis was in Geneva at the same time that the Big Four conferences were going on.
We announced the album yesterday to our distributors in a coast-to-coast CBS closed-circuit radio broadcast, in which we told them the background of the album and played extracts for it. ANd, I might add, solicited orders then and there. I don't think any album in record history has ever had such a send-off by any organization.
It will be out in a few days, and I will be pleased to send you a couple of copies.
The album made its first appearance in Billboard on May 12 in an advertisement for Columbia naming it the number two Best Selling Pop Album, right behind My Fair Lady and ahead of the likes of Songs of the West (Norman Luboff and Choir), The Eddy Duchin Story, Reflections of an Indian Boy (Paul Weston and Orchestra) and It's So Peaceful in the Country (Percy Faith and Mitch Miller). And as George always points out to me, Billboard didn't tabulate the sales in the Columbia Record Club, which was a phenomenon then. Who knows how many copies it sold through the subscription-based club?
The following week, the May 19 issue of Billboard gave it a short review, saying, "A souvenir-recorded on the spot of Armstrong's concert tour of Western Europe in the fall of 1955. This LP demonstrates how Armstrong wins friends for himself--and our country--everywhere he goes. The material itself is classic: 'Royal Garden Blues,' 'Tin Roof Blues,' 'West End Blues,' 'Muskrat Ramble,' 'Tiger Rag' and so on. Every time Armstrong plays them they have a new appeal it seems. The spontaneity of his re-creation of the New Orleans vintage is particularly marked here. 'Satch' handles all vocals himself. A big volume seller on the order of other recent 'Satch' LPs."
The last line proved prophetic. In addition to remaining on Columbia's Pop Albums chart, the album soon hit Billboard's jazz charts, which debuted in the fall of 1956. On November 3, 1956, it hit the number two Jazz spot. It was number three on November 24, bumped down one slot by the new number one champion: Ella and Louis. Browsing through Google's scans of Billboard, the album didn't go anywhere, still number three on the jazz charts on March 30, 1957, almost a year after its initial release.
It was a great time to be a Louis Armstrong fan but it was also a frustrating time as it was in 1956 that negative criticism of Armstrong hit a fever pitch in the jazz world. Ambassador Satch thus, only got three stars in DownBeat, the review stating, "Of Louis' three albums for Columbia in the last two years, this is the least satisfying. A large part of the reason is his band, whose weaknesses are more open-ended on stage than in a more controlled studio context. Trombonist Trummy Young's playing has become increasingly coarsened. The rhythm section is stiff, largely because of the unremitting heaviness of drummer Barrett Deems, who has not loosened up since joining Louis....The unit never sustains one whole number in irresistible collective flight."
That was around the same time Downbeat's Jack Tracy obliterated the All Stars's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival....and Metronome accused him of being an Uncle Tom....and the New York Times's John S. Wilson slammed THREE All Stars shows within one year. Armstrong's popularity put a target on his back in the jazz press in 1956, which is a shame, because 1956 might be my single favorite year in the Armstrong discography (add in the Chicago Concert, the footage in Satchmo the Great, all the material on the Mosaic set, High Society, Ella and Louis, the beginning of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography....see what I mean?).
But history has been very, very kind to Ambassador Satch as it continues to inspire generations of musicians not even born when Louis Armstrong left this planet 45 years ago today. Word of mouth lasts forever and as long as jazz musicians have ears, I'm sure there'll be someone somewhere saying, "Man, you've gotta hear Ambassador Satch!"
And a closing shoutout to George Avakian one more time. Speaking of lasting forever, George continues going strong at the age of 97. On April 30, International Jazz Day, he showed up to my screening of Satchmo the Great at the Museum of the City of New York. Check out this photo my friend James Demaria shot of George at the event:
God bless George Avakian. God bless Louis Armstrong. God bless the All Stars! God bless Ambassador Satch!