Listening to the Book: Chapter 10

If you know anything about me or my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, then you probably know that I'm a bit of a fan of the music of Louis Armstrong's last 25 years. But pin me down in a corner and ask me to name just one favorite period and I'd probably have to select the six or seven months covered in chapter 10 of the book, which begin with one high point (the June 1 Chicago Concert), end with another (Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography) and is crammed with other incredible moments such as the first Ella and Louis album, a concert at Lewisohn Stadium with Leonard Bernstein and many other incredible nights by the All Stars. Needless to say, this is going to be a post very heavy with audio links....

As promised, this chapter begins with a night so legendary that all you have to do is say the words Chicago Concert to an unsuspecting Armstrong fan, and be prepared for an obsessive, emotional, passionate tirade that will only end when said Armstrong nut leaves to go listen to it again. Of course, if you know the backstory, it's kind of a miracle that we even got to hear this music in the first place. George Avakian had recorded it for Columbia but not sensing any different material or anything special about it, he let it languish in the vault...until producer Michael Brooks stumbled across it in 1980 and immediately issued it on a 2-LP set with incredible notes by Dan Morgenstern. George himself contributed more backstory--and a couple of extra tracks--when he reissued the concert on CD in 1997 as The Great Chicago Concert (still in print and modestly priced as a download).

I've long argued that this edition of the All Stars--with that front line of Louis, Trummy Young and Edmond Hall--was the best and the "Chicago Concert" captures one of their finest evenings (I only know of one other that might top it, and that's completely unissued and not listed in any discographies, an evening in Hinsdale, Illinois in 1957...maybe one day it will see the light of day!). I've come back to the "Chicago Concert" many times in this blog, thus, I have plenty of good material to choose from. But really, check it out in full if you want to to hear the whole thing--then visit me at the Armstrong Archives for the full story as we have Helen Hayes's script (written by Jack Tracy), an original concert program, correspondence between George Avakian and Joe Glaser about the concert, Louis's signed contract with Avakian and--something that still makes me sweat when I see it--Louis's set list, handwritten by the man himself in green ink on the back of an envelope. (Though even I haven't gone as far as the great clarinetist Pete Martinez, who made the pilgrimage out to the site of Chicago's Medinah Temple....which, by the time he got there, was turned into a Bloomingdale's.)

Enough from me, these posts are supposed to be about listening (I just wanted to convey my love for this concert as again, a lengthy, breathless description of it ended up, for the most part, on the cutting room floor). These are all tunes I've covered in full in other blogs so you want to read the backstory, just Google the tune title and my name and you should be good. Let's start with "West End Blues."

And how about a little "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," my favorite version:

"On the Sunny Side of the Street":

A medley of "Tenderly" and "You'll Never Walk Alone":

And how about a little "Back Home Again in Indiana":

To me, that version of "Indiana" might be the definitive one. To see what I place it and how it falls into the history of Louis's versions of the tune, be sure to check out my magnum opus on "Indiana" here.

In July 1956, Louis did a major concert at Lewisohn Stadium. George Avakian recorded the concert (still unreleased! Come on, Sony!!!!) as well as a rehearsal, in which he had Louis play some different things such as "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," a version of "Blueberry Hill" where Louis plays trumpet, and "Mahogany Hall Stomp." The latter turned out so hot that George added in some fake applause and added it to the "Satchmo the Great" soundtrack:

And speaking of "Satchmo the Great," that legendary Edward R. Murrow film climaxed with an Alfredo Antonini "concerto grosso" arrangement of "St. Louis Blues" performed the All Stars and the Lewisohn Stadium Symphony Orchestra (mostly made up of members of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Leonard Bernstein). It's a magic moment; when I screened the footage at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans this past August, people went nuts. I can't do that here, but I can share the audio. Enjoy!

A few days before the Lewisohn Stadium concert, Louis sat down for a series of Voice of America interviews that I quote throughout the book. In one segment, Louis really expounded on issues of race, and especially his view that the black community was not sticking together to support the few superstars they had on top. For the entire context of this clip--and why Louis is defending Nat King Cole--you'd have to pick up the book, but even without it, I still think it's pretty damn interesting:

On the night of August 15, 1956, Louis took part in a Norman Granz extravaganza at the Hollywood Bowl. He did a full set with the All Stars that remained locked away for 55 years but this year, it has been released TWICE, once on Universal's Satchmo: America's Musical Ambassador box and, more recently, on a Hip-O Select release of the entire concert, released simply as Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl. I have known this music for years but I picked up the Hip-O set and have not stopped listening to it. The packaging is beautiful and the sound quality flawless (great notes by Bob Porter, too!). But really, it's about the music and if you can find a greater assemblage of talent in one evening (particularly one that was recorded in full), let me know. I've admitted this in the past, probably to the distress of some friends, but I'm a Jazz at the Philharmonic/Norman Granz junkie, so this concert really speaks to me, with a jam session featuring Roy Eldridge, Sweets Edison, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, the Oscar Peterson trio and Buddy Rich. But that's followed by a solo set by Art Tatum, shortly before his passing. Then a set by Ella Fitzgerald. then one by the Petersons. Then maybe the finest single set by the All Stars ever recorded. Then Louis and Ella duet. Then EVERYBODY jams "The Saints." Sweating yet!? Go out and get it! (Or since there aren't places to go to buy these things any more, just order it!).

Louis knew that some of the biggest names in jazz were waiting backstage, listening in on old Satchmo to see what he could still do. Louis always brought his "A" game but on this night, he brought his "A+," definitely sending a message to everyone else present. Again, you really must listen to the whole set to get the full experience, but here's a taste. Here's "The Gypsy:

And here's perhaps my favorite version of "My Bucket's Got a Hole In It." Watch out for those encores!

The very next day, Armstrong and Fitzgerald went into a Los Angeles studio and recorded the entire first Verve Ella and Louis album (can you image cutting a single album in one day?). Somehow, I haven't covered that embarrassment of riches very often on the blog, but I will share my two favorite numbers from that date right now. Here's a sublime "Stars Fell on Alabama" with absolutely chilling harmonizing:

And a gorgeous version of "The Nearness of You"--this was the first take, folks!

Okay, this post is long enough to be a book of its own, and I've only covered about two months of music. Let's skip to December 1956....and it's about to get a whole lot longer! I spend a lot of time in this chapter writing about a Hungarian Relief benefit concert Louis did in London with a group of British musicians and a symphony conducted by Norman Del Mar. The entire concert turned to shambles--and I detail every grisly detail in chapter 10--but the music itself is absolutely stunning; just last week, Dan Morgenstern and I were talking about how it really should be issued commercially. Perhaps one reason it hasn't been is the sound quality; this ain't hi-fi. But listen through it for some remarkable moments. Here's "West End Blues" again:

And one of my favorite moments of Louis's later years--if not his entire career--"Lonesome Road." If you're scrolling through this post and only have time to listen to one sound clip, make it this one:

The Hungarian Relief concert took place in the middle of a month of sessions Louis made for Decca that resulted in Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. Anybody who has been to the blog knows my feelings for this masterful work. One reviewer gave my book a knock because of excessive cheerleading (he hadn't been to the blog), complaining that I used seven different superlatives to describe one session. That sessions was the Autobiography and that reviewer has obviously never listened to it....I could have used 70 and it wouldn't have been enough! I won't say any more, but because I've written about so many tracks before, I have plenty of audio to share. Call out of work and turn the speakers up; here's some of the best of the Autobiography, starting with "On the Sunny Side of the Street":

And here's a link to my original blog that featured a discussion of this version (all of these links will include the links to my original blogs that dealt with the songs): On the Sunny Side of the Street blog

"Memories of You":

Full blog: Memories of You blog

This version of "Dear Old Southland" got an entire blog devoted to it: Dear Old Southland blog

"Song of the Islands":

Full blog: Song of the Islands

"Hotter Than That":

Full blog: Hotter Than That blog

The epic "When You're Smiling":

Full blog: When You're Smiling blog

"Knockin' a Jug":

Full blog: Knockin' a Jug blog

"I Can't Give You Anything But Love":

Full blog: I Can't Give You Anything But Love blog

Phew....that should keep you satisfied for now, but I know, no "King of the Zulus," "Wild Man Blues," "Them There Eyes," "You Rascal You,"...check out the whole album!

As soon as the "Autobiography" sessions ended, Louis recorded a more "commercial" album, Louis and the Angels. I was forced to edit some coverage of this one in the book, to the point that some friends wrote to me to say they got the impression that this wasn't one of my favorites. Nothing could be further from the truth; I think it's one of the most underrated Armstrong albums ever made. I've been sharing clips from it all week on Facebook and I usually include something from it in my book lectures because the "commercial" nature has scared away so many jazz fans, they've missed some of Louis's most impassioned playing. For example, here's "Angela Mia":

See? And to close, my blog on this song, with a very personal story about this song's effect on two of my interns: Angela Mia blog

And that is that! Wow, that's a lot of music...but what a period for Pops! Hope you dug it all and for those reading along, extra special thanks. I'll let this percolate for a while and will be back in a few days with more book-related audio, as well as a major announcement from the Louis Armstrong House Museum about our newest collection. Till then!


mario alberto said…
Great.I ll be waiting for the first South American tour on 1957.
Dave said…
I am writing through tears after listening to only the opening bars of "Lonesome Road". How can one person convey such depths of human emotion through only a few notes on one musical instrument? There is an entire SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA there.

Thank you Ricky; you are indeed Louis' ambassador. Keep up the good work! I have been listening to his music for over 50 years and your efforts about his life and music ought to become a fixed segment of middle-school education world wide.

In the 1930s an American anthropologist (forget his name) carried with his expedition some 78s of Caruso and other classical artists into the jungles of Africa, but also some of Louis' 78s. The native peoples stood in silent curiosity while the classical discs were played (on a wind-up Victrola), but when Louis was put on, he reported that they broke into broad grins and instantly started dancing, asking that his few discs be played over and over.

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