Empress Hall 1956 - Satchmo the Great Clips

It’s back to YouTube for today’s entry, a film clip uploaded by Jim (aka kpjazz) just two days ago. It’s from Satchmo the Great, Edward R. Murrow’s documentary film about Armstrong’s European and African tours of 1955 and 1956. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the fact that Satchmo the Great has never been on video or DVD is a crime, now more than ever with the recent resurgence of interest in Murrow. Only Trio, a small cable network, showed it a few years ago so fortunately I have a copy from there, but it’s the kind of film that really should be available to anyone with a DVD player. One of my favorite clips from Satchmo the Great is a version of “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” featuring my favorite edition of the All Stars with Pops, Trummy Young and Edmond Hall holding forth in the front line. Here’s that clip (note: you’ll see a running time of about seven minutes, but the performance only lasts 2:40. The rest of the clip is some fast-forwarded footage and a blue screen so don’t waste your time!):

That performance was filmed at London’s Empress Hall in May 1956. From the same performance, Murrow included a clip of the All Stars doing “Mack the Knife.” Jim uploaded this one a few months ago and it’s a delight. Here ‘tis:

Great stuff, all the way. Instead of my usual background information on the songs, I’d rather talk about that particular tour instead. Pops arrived in London on May 3, 1956, greeted by two British bands playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Armstrong had last played London 21 years earlier and was welcomed like a hero. Ten shows were scheduled at Empress Hall with Armstrong sharing the bill with vocalist Ella Logan, one-legged tap dancer “Peg Leg” Bates and Vic Lewis and His Orchestra. Advertisements appeared in the London newspapers touting that “Louis Armstrong appears on the spectacular revolving stage with the new ‘Ultrasonic’ sound system.”

Harold Davison presented the group in London and as he later discussed, a couple of American promoters operating out of Australia “decided to build in the center, somewhat similar to a boxing ring, a revolving stage. Apparently this has been very successful [in] Australia, and they thought it would happen in London. And this massive hall, this six-piece orchestra, whole band, sitting on this little stage slowly revolving like a record, going around and around with a dismal sound, dismal vision. And it was ghastly, absolutely ghastly.” Davison added, “Unfortunately, it was far from successful. It was a failure financially and from Louis Armstrong’s point of view it was a dismal failure, and certainly from the audience point of view it was a failure.” Charles Hamblett wrote at the time, “For the past week or two Armstrong has been playing to British audiences, and, despite such difficulties as having to play against the acoustical impossibilities of the giant Empress Hall, has given virtuoso demonstrations of real New Orleans jazz-playing such as have not been heard, live, in this country for almost a quarter of a century.” British trumpeter and Armstrong disciple Nat Gonella attended some of the shows at Empress Hall and agreed. “On the roundabouts you’d hear Armstrong playing; and then he’d go away in the distance,” he said. “Then you’d have to wait till…they made the full circle again before you really heard him strong again.” Newspaper reports of the period refer to the problem with the acoustics but, except for the first performance, where the house was nearly empty, every other Empress Hall show was sold out.

In addition to the poor acoustics, the fans in attendance grew impatient with the opening acts. Ella Logan fared the worst as the Daily Mirror wrote of fans booing Logan’s seven-song set and chanting, “Where’s Louis?” As time went on, the opening acts lessened their sets and apparently the sound even improved, according to London newspapers. This engagement is also notable for an example of Armstrong listening to his critics. In the Evening Standard on May 5, 1956, Kenneth Allsop wrote a review with the headline “Genius is rationed.” “A great deal of wrapping had to be peeled off—introductory music by British Vic Lewiss’s band, a one-legged tap dancer and singer Ella Logan—before the pearl in the parcel was reached. And even then, although the Armstrong All-Stars played for an hour, there seemed to be more all-stars than Armstrong,” Allsop wrote. And traditional jazz expert James Asman wrote in the Record Mirror, “A young enthusiast near my seat was I could see out of the corner of my eye, gripping the side of his chair and muttering, ‘This isn’t New Orleans jazz! What’s happened to Louis?’”Asman concluded, “The magic of Louis remained, but it was the magic of a superb showman and personality rather than that of a top rank jazz musician.” But as an Associated Press story later reported, “A few of Britain’s highly informed jazz fans told him very plainly that he was coasting, that he was letting the rest of the band do too much playing, that the people were dishing out their shillings to hear him. ‘That did it,’ said Louis. ‘Them cats put it to me. I couldn’t let ‘em down. Maybe I’ll blow my teeth out, but I decided to blow more.’ At his next performance he included six old New Orleans classics which require a lot of effort and bruised his lips until they looked like beaten beef steak.”

All the major London newspapers had daily stories on Armstrong and many of them focused on Swiss Kriss, which was now becoming and indelible part of the Satchmo persona. But even then, the British papers could occasionally show a brand of racist reporting that echoed the American south. Elizabeth Frank of the News Chronicle quoted Armstrong talking about his diet in a horrid dialect: “Ah keep ma health up; ah tell ma physician what to tell me; ah’m ma own dietician (remember me in the 30s? Ah was a real gross man!) Ah go to bed and sleep; ah still got all ma teeth and that horn don’t hate me yet.” It was also in England where Pops first uttered what would become a somewhat well-known quote. Asked, “What do you think of folk music?” Armstrong replied, “Folk music. Why, Daddy, I don’t know no other kind of music but folk music—I ain’t never heard a hoss [ed. horse] sing a song.”

The most famous aspect of the Empress Hall run concerned the 25-year-old Princess Margaret, who attended one of the All Stars’s shows and consequently made headlines around the world. “Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong broke all rules of theatrical protocol before Princess Margaret tonight. And the princess apparently loved it,” Eddy Gilmore wrote in an Associated Press story picked up in many newspapers around the world. “‘We’ve got one of our special fans in the house,’ growled the gravel-voiced American trumpeter, ‘and we’re really gonna lay this one on for the princess.’ A gasp went over the huge audience in Empress Hall. Professional performers are not supposed to refer to members of the royal family when playing before them. ‘Yes, sir’ said Satchmo, as the princess grinned and hugged her knees, ‘we gonna blow ‘em down with one of those old good ones from New Orleans—“Mahogany Hall Stomp.”’ The princess applauded with marked enthusiasm.” Another AP story in the New York Times added, “Princess Margaret began applauding with the first tune, ‘Sleepy Time Down South.’ Then she started to beat her feet up and down in full view of hundreds when an old New Orleans clarinetist, Edmond Hall, began to improvise on ‘Clarinet Marmalade.’ She applauded enthusiastically and Mr. Hall played ‘High Society’ as an encore.” The Duke of Kent also attended a show at Empress Hall but only one unknown reporter noted the following: “At one point in his concert the unpredictable Satchmo announced with a mischievous grin, ‘We’ll drape this one on the Duke of Kent, one of our fans here tonight. Here it is—Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Seeing how that quote didn’t spread, I tend to believe this journalist made it up completely to cash in on the Princess Margaret stories but I guess we’ll never know.

Anyway, onto the music at hand, you’ll notice Jack Lesberg on bass on those YouTube clips. Lesberg joined the band at the end of March and stayed through May tours of Europe and Africa (his feature in the band was “Lullaby of the Leaves”). I love Arvell Shaw’s playing but be very wary of the Armstrong stories he told in later years. He would always be quick to discuss both All Stars visits to Africa, the Gold Coast visit in 1956 and the State Department sponsored tour of 1960. However, he wasn’t a part of either tour! Lesberg played in 1956 and Mort Herbert played during the 1960, facts corroborated by filmed footage of both tours. Thus, Arvell clearly had a lot of love for Pops, but sometimes he liked to insert himself into true stories that he was never a part of.

Regarding “Mack the Knife,” Armstrong had recorded it in September 1955, before another three-month tour of Europe. On that tour, his valet, Doc Pugh, didn’t bring the music, so Armstrong didn’t begin performing it live until January of 1956. Thus, this is pretty early in “Mack’s” tenure with the band and it’s interesting to hear the fast clip the band takes it at (which would remain until about 1961, after which Pops began slowing down many regular numbers). I love “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” but the sound quality of this performance is lacking as Lesberg’s bass and Billy Kyle’s piano are almost completely absent. Fortunately, the front line more than makes up for it. Edmond Hall looks very happy and I love seeing Pops strutting around, eyes closed, snapping his fingers and clearly enjoying the tune’s gutbucket groove.

As already hinted at, Armstrong received his fair share of criticism during his London performances, mainly from the New Orleans revival camps but also from those of the modern school who found him hopelessly out-of-date. For example, in a Sunday Times story titled “Jazz In Turmoil: The Flight from ‘Uncle Tom,’” Iain Lang wrote about how Armstrong’s impact had lessened over the previous 15 years on young jazz musicians in the states because of his Uncle Tom characteristics.

However, British trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton remained one of Pops’s staunches allies. During a May 13 performance, Lyttelton appeared on stage with a homemade crown, placing it on Armstrong and announcing, “On behalf of all British jazz musicians I would like to crown Louis Armstrong undisputed King of Jazz.” After leaving London, Armstrong continued traveling the area, performing in places such as Scotland, with Lyttelton’s band joining him for this leg of the tour. By May 24, the All Stars were in Africa and London was coming down from their case of Louis Armstrong fever. In a June 1 article for The Musical Express, Lyttelton summed up his feelings in a column titled “Satchmo Post-Mortems.” “I heard him at Nice in 1948 and in Paris last year,” Lyttelton wrote. “And, considering the time allotted to him, I thought he did us better in London than at either of the previous places. I do not comprehend the criticisms about showmanship. For years, our local critics, professional and armchair, have derided British bands for their stolidness, their stiff, inhibited behavior onstage. Along comes an American group with an entirely appropriate brand of showmanship and up go the noses in the air!”

“As I sat in the audience at Birmingham, I was never more ashamed at having been associated with the New Orleans Revival,” Lyttelton continued. “If all that we have done is to nurture a generation of jazz fns who are so ignorant as to dismiss the greatest jazz when it is laid on their doorsteps, then we deserve a heretic’s fate.”

Pretty strong words but after watching those YouTube clips, it’s hard to disagree with Lyttelton. 1956 was a prime year for the All Stars and thanks to Edward R. Murrow’s film crew and the glory of YouTube, we can get a little glimpse of what caused such a fuss at Empress Hall in May of that year.


Satchfan said…
Hi Ricky,
This is a great feature. I am a drummer from the UK and like you a huge Louis fan. I have been trying for several years now to get ahold of a copy of Satchmo the Great on DVD. I can't believe no-ones released it!
Anyway that aside, I noticed you mention that you have a copy. Could you sell me a copy (purely for my own personal pleasure).
Cheers, Peter
Debra L. said…
The Mack the Knife video clip is enchanting and I'm addicted to it, I put it on my blog artsmeme.

I'm interested by the backstory of these London shows, but it kind of dampens the joy of the music. The blather of those critics (I'm one of them) really pales in the face of his talent. I'm sorry he had to tolerate it.
Maurice L said…
I saw this concert when I was 16 years old I remember the Allstars and Vic Lewis. The Empress Hall was just a big tin shed.

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