2014: The Year of the Mosaic

This has been one helluva year for me in the world of Louis Armstrong: lectures in Detroit, New Orleans, Jazz at Lincoln Center and more; TV appearance on ABC; radio appearance on Voice of America; met so many great people passing through the Armstrong House and Archives (especially the trumpet players!); curated a Jack Bradley exhibit that was covered by the Associated Press and the New York Times; hit my 600th blog entry; and more, I'm sure.

But really, I can sum up the whole year with two words: Mosaic Records. Okay, a few more words: The Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. (Both those links go to the same place.) What started as a crazy idea back in 2008 was picked up by Scott Wenzel in 2011 and edited to perfection by Andreas Meyer before being released in May of 2014. I've already written about a dozen posts chronicling the making and reception of the set but I wanted to bring it back one more time because the holidays are upon us and well, Louis Armstrong is the gift that keeps on giving.

This set was years in the making and one never knows how such a personal project is going to be received. Fortunately, I can state that every review I have found of the set has been a positive one. For me, this was a tremendously gratifying experience. When I was 15, my world changed when I encountered the music that George Avakian produced for Louis Armstrong in the 1950s. It didn't take long for me to start reading how this music was perceived in the jazz community: embarrassing, commercial, Uncle Tomish, shadows of a great artist who changed the world when he was a younger man. Yikes.

I never bought that narrative for a second and through my research, my blog, my book and now, the Mosaic set, I've worked for years to garner new respect for Armstrong's later years. That's a lot of "my, my, my's" and "I's, I's, I's" but don't think I'm patting myself on the back. My only motive has been to let Louis do the heavy lifting. By relying so heavily on Louis's own words in my book, by traveling around giving presentations based solely on footage of Louis and now, by producing these CDs of mostly unissued Armstrong recordings from the 1940s and 1950s, my goal has only been to get Louis out there. Exposure is the key. If you can read his words on race and then listen a complete All Stars show and STILL think he's an Uncle Tom who only recorded sappy showtunes, well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree....

Reading through all the reviews has been illuminating because many of the critics refer to how Armstrong's later years are perceived....before basically admitting that this Mosaic set blows those opinions out of the water. So, if you're still on the fence about the worth of this set, let me present--uncredited and in no particular order--some of my favorite snippets from the many reviews that appeared in 2014:

*"This nine-CD set spans 1947-58, an era when the rising tides of bebop, hard bop, cool jazz and what-not allegedly rendered Armstrong out of date. The ebullience of his solos, the radiance of his high notes and the unmistakable gravel of his vocals argue powerfully to the contrary."

*"Through a combination of intricate research and unbridled enthusiasm, Ricky Riccardi has become the 21st century's foremost expert on Louis Armstrong. His book, 'What a Wonderful World,' called for a re-evaluation of Armstrong's later years, and a new Mosaic set, 'Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars,' acts as a companion volume, amplifying Riccardi's fervent opinions through the music itself...In the final analysis, this Mosaic set will certainly validate Riccardi's assertions that Louis Armstrong's All-Star recordings rate with his early masterpieces."

*"It's interesting how time seems to serve an artist when offering a better perspective of a particular time period or body of work. Such is the case with Louis Armstrong. Critics often cite his earliest recordings as the be all and end all, as if he had never recorded another note past 1950. In fact, Armstrong was still a few years away from his 60th birthday when he was captured on tape at Newport doing what he did best-interacting with an audience."

*"All together, though, Mosaic’s assemblage (completed with extensive notes by Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardi) contains no duds, and is a worthy addition to the jazz canon. Can’t its merit be taken for granted? It’s Pops, after all; who but a sociopath can listen for more than 15 seconds without smiling?"

*"When Armstrong broke up his big band that year and reverted to his Dixie roots, the jazz world cheered, even as it prepared to divest  its trad wing to the Dukes of Dixieland. Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis were creting a new modernity for a more elite auidience where Armstrong would be duly honored by thoroughly ignored. But he soldiered on, still a breathaking player, performing to millions on the music's periphery to whom he became the personification of substance and spirit."

*"In the late 1940s, fronting a big-band out of step with the times and recording best-selling but saccharine-sounding vocal platters, Armstrong was being scorned by jazz critics and despaired over by devotees of the earlier hot music he'd helped invent. The renaissance in his sound and reputation came in 1947, when the charismatic performer pared down his ensemble to a combo of "All Stars" for a series of concert-hall appearances that played to his strengths as a virtuoso trumpeter, an inspiring leader, and a witty and emotional singer. That period of reinvention is vividly presented on "The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars," an ear-opening, nine-CD Mosaic boxed set to be released next week."

*"A medley of "Bugle Blues" and "Ole Miss," as well as "Indiana," find the All Stars inspired for their '56 performance, Kyle's sparkling piano and drummer Barrett Deems' incendiary stick work booting things along with vim and vigor. So much for those critics who claimed Armstrong and crew were merely going through their paces."

*"There are still too many listeners — and writers, unfortunately — who hold to the great myths we so love in this century — the great narrative of Early Promise and Later Stagnation.  Louis has been a true victim of such mythography: people who don’t listen think that he stopped being creative in 1929, that the All-Stars’ performances were simply crowd-pleasing note-for-note repetitions of perhaps a dozen tunes. I do not write what follows casually: the music contained on these nine compact discs (over eleven hours of music) will be a revelation."

*In the final analysis, no better tribute could be given to Armstrong than the hard work given to restore this music to its rightful place among the trumpeter's discography." 

*"These recordings, many of which have been unearthed for public enjoyment for the first time, tell a triumphant story. Listening to Armstrong in command of his sound in a period when he was often written off is simply inspiring. He faced adversity with a smile, while committing loving acts of sonic heroism. "

*The Mosaic set is not a loving tribute to a failing Elder; it is an explosive package of evidence showing that Louis was truly powerful and energized in his forties and fifties, playing and singing wonderfully — full of life.   Louis plays, throughout this set, like a man on a fierce mission of joy. Forget the cliche of the small, stocky, tired man, sweating and grinning and mopping his face while he grins his way through some paper-thin song about what a wonderful world it is or some woman named Dolly or Mame.  What you hear on these discs is not tired, not ever."

*"The beauty of Armstrong is that he knew only excellence, which makes this set of 164 tracks a joyous journey back in time to moments when audiences yearned for an even earlier time. What we learn yet again is that Armstrong was and remains timeless. Jazz artists fall in and out of vogue and many wind up forgotten over time, but Armstrong is forever."

Hooray for Pops! However, there's still work. Many of the same reviews that produced the above accolades also included some head-scratching statements that illustrate that some of the criticisms of Armstrong's later years are still not ready to go away, even in the face of 11 hours of music. A sampling:

*"A hardened entertainer, Armstrong repeated some of his solos note-for-note across these performances--a suspect practice in jazz. But they were generally worth repeating."

*"Things were different by then. The All Stars had rotated in competent but lesser musicians like trombonist Trummy Young and clarinetist Edmond Hall. The music had settled into a pattern. "

*"In many respects, Armstrong's jazz was more rural than the newer, more urban sound. It centered on New Orleans, steamboats, banjos ringing, singin' folks and red robbins bobbin' along. Simpler music reminiscent of a pre-war era—before unspeakable war crimes, the destruction of entire cities and the spectre of atomic war. The All Stars were masters of a fading jazz form at its finest."

*"Having realized the stupefying achievement of creating a strain of Modernism that I would happily tout for in a battle with all of the giants — a Proust vs. Stravinsky vs. Matisse vs. Armstrong cage match — Armstrong retreated almost as quickly as he had innovated. And this is where the entire problem of his legacy lies."

*"...[H]e blended post-antebellum traditions with a touch of Disney as he crossed the country with his All Stars, a term that to just about everyone at the time meant baseball, the American sport by as a wide a margin as football now is. 

*"Deep inside this stage ace lived a great jazz band....If it was all undervalued then, however, it should not necessarily be overvalued today--merely appreciated as the work of a great artist who tried to give every audience the show it expected."

remember: all of those are from otherwise overwhelmingly POSITIVE reviews! I know every critic has to get a little actual "criticism" in there, but there's some stuff in there I'd fight. Trummy and Edmond Hall as "competent but lesser musicians"? A "hardened showman"--like that's a bad thing? The All Stars as a "rural band"? Fading jazz form? Hmmmm.....

So maybe I'm guilty of "overvaluing" this music? I don't think so. I think Louis Armstrong has been "undervalued" for so long that any effusive praise has to be tampered down a little bit almost out of force of habit. For years, Louis got blasted and only a chosen few--Dan Morgenstern, Gary Giddins, etc.--fought back. A few months ago, the "New York Times" published a negative review of the new John Coltrane Offering recording, criticizing Coltrane's late music in general. My goodness, the jazz social media world revolted. A couple of years ago there was the young musician who took a swipe at Wayne Shorter. He was almost burned at the stake. But there's still these little, almost subversive digs at Louis and the jazz community still accepts them as gospel. 

The generation that followed Bird, Diz and Miles away from Louis in the 40s and 50s became the next generation of major jazz educators. And for many of them, Louis was not something they were eager to teach. Sure, he made jazz a soloist's art and was an unquestionably influential figure.....but, well, here's "West End Blues" and let's move on. I gave a lecture a college class of Jazz Performance MASTER'S degree students in October. I opened by asking how many students in there had really given time to studying Louis; listening to more than one CD, maybe reading a book about him, doing a transcription. I was greeted with silence. It was frightening. 

So there's still work to do. And as the first batch of quotes illustrates, old stances are loosening. Last year, I complained that in the NPR Jazz Critics poll, the reissue I co-produced of Satchmo at Symphony Hall received one lowly third place vote. While I was writing this piece, the 2014 NPR poll came out and the Mosaic Pops box came in fifth overall in the reissue category, garnering a number of first place votes from respected authorities as Dan Morgenstern and W. Royal Stokes. That's what I'd call an improvement! (Of course, Louis came behind Miles and Coltrane and Charles Lloyd and Jimmy Giuffre, each of whom are more associated with "JAZZ" today than Mr. Jazz himself, Louis Armstrong.)

And in New York alone, I've befriended a number of top musicians on the exploding "hot jazz" scene, musicians in the 1920s and 1930s who have told me that their gateway into this world was Louis Armstrong. And not the Hot Fives; the Louis Armstrong of "Ambassador Satch," the Louis Armstrong represented in the Mosaic set, the Louis Armstrong that changed my life. Pops can do that to you if you only give him a chance. Exposure.

I'll close this little missive on an upbeat note. Bjorn Ingelstam is a trumpeter from Sweden still in his mid-20s. He's now living in New York and is starting to make a name for himself. His father, trombonist Hans Ingelstam, raised him on Louis and today, Bjorn says that Louis is the most important person in his life (after his mom and dad). He now attends the New School in NY, where he says almost none of his fellow students have checked out Pops. But Bjorn warms up by playing Louis's solos on "Mahogany Hall Stomp" and "When You're Smiling."

Last week, before heading back to Sweden for the holidays, he visited me at the Louis Armstrong House Museum's Archives at Queens College. I let him play one of Louis's Selmer trumpets from the mid-1940s. Inspired, he chose to play "Dear Old Southland," specifically mentioning his love of the 1947 Town Hall version (as heard on the Mosaic set). Here is his rendition:

The sound you hear at the end is me laughing. Pure joy. Pops's message isn't going anywhere in the 21st century. We've come a long way from the constant slings and arrows flung at Louis during the last years of his life. And there's still some distance to go. But thanks to the good folks at Mosaic Records, the distance has grown shorter. Thanks to anyone and everyone who has checked out this set this year and will check it out (hopefully) after the holidays. I'll say it again: Louis Armstrong....the gift that will never stop giving!


Mike T. said…
Amen, brother! The torch you're carrying will eventually be passed on. Long Live our Pops!

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