Liner Notes for Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings Of Louis Armstrong And The All Stars
In 2014, I was proud to help co-produce with Scott Wenzel a 9-CD boxed for Mosaic Records, Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong And The All Stars. You can still search my old blogs from 2013-2014 when I posted about the making of the set on a consistent basis. It was a true dream come true to help put it together, especially with the blessing and help of George Avakian, to whom the set was dedicated.
The set did well critically and commercially and even one a Jazz Times Reader's Poll as the best historical reissue of the year (I won't get into the Grammys snub.....). But like all Mosaic Records sets, it was a limited edition and after selling out in 2017, it disappeared into the out-of-print graveyard, to be sold at astronomical prices on eBay and Amazon until the end of time.
But wait--it's back! Kind of. Sony still owns the recordings and though Mosaic did unbelievable work with the mastering by Andreas Meyer and the beautiful packaging, Sony can do what it wants with the finished product. I guess they have no intention of of putting it out as a series of separate CDs but they did the next best thing: they dumped all 9-CDs onto Spotify! This news will make some people curse and will make others rejoice; I'm of the latter camp as I do just about all my listening through streaming services these days (I pay for Spotify and Apple Music subscription).
Even though I live on streaming services, I do miss the glory of liner notes, which is how I learned just about all I know about jazz history. I'm happy that Universal and Dot Time have continued putting out physical Armstrong discs as they've allowed me to keep writing liner notes about Louis. But a 9-CD Mosaic Records box--about 11 hours of music--just dumped onto Spotify without any context? Without the big, beautiful booklet Scott Wenzel and I worked so hard to put together.
Something had to be done and I did it: I made a PDF of my 28,000 word essay and of the discography. I uploaded the PDF to Dropbox and you can download it by clicking here. I'm going to post the text of my notes below but it might be a bit unwieldy so the PDF should make for easier writing and even printing (though a warning: it's 70 pages!).
And without further ado, here are the Spotify links, broken up into three volumes:
Volume 1 Discs 1-3:https://open.spotify.com/album/7GwSrFicvM59OYCAFsDB4q
Volume 2 Discs 4-6: https://open.spotify.com/album/5oPUTne7UdDcLUsRKpODvW
Volume 3 Discs 7-9: https://open.spotify.com/album/6caWTu3uR6ykaFv1asaqwG
So now you have access to the music, to my liner notes and to the discography. Whattaya waiting for? Happy listening and reading!
LOUIS ARMSTRONG, THE ALL STARS, AND GEORGE AVAKIAN
“I used to go to this company that I record with, one of them there, and I used to tell them, ‘Well, man, why don’t you turn us loose in the studio here and let us wail?’ They’d say, ‘Well, that’s a good idea.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s a very good idea. If them people listen to our concerts and give us thunderous applause over these tunes we play, you know they would like to have it in their files. So why don’t you just record these things, the same as we’re on the stage?’ ‘That’s nice, but we’ve got a few pop tunes here I think is going to be on the Hit Parade’ blah blah blah. And that’s when you look around, people are wondering, ‘What happened to Louie Armstrong?’ So here come another fellow, say, ‘Well, you just tear out, man.’ So that’s why you got Handy albums, and oh, you got Ambassador Satch… and they’re all a-wailin’.” – Louis Armstrong, Voice of America program, July 1956
In July 1956, Louis Armstrong, after over 40 years of performing and over 30 years of recording, was at the height of popularity in his career. Just days after his interview for the Voice of America in Washington D.C., he’d be performing at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City with a symphony orchestra made up of members of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Edward R. Murrow would be on hand to film the occasion for a theatrical documentary. And the other “fellow” Armstrong referred to in the above quote—George Avakian—would be there as well, recording it all for Columbia Records.
Avakian had been exclusively producing Armstrong since September 1955 and it is no coincidence that Armstrong’s popularity began to skyrocket in this span of time. However, Armstrong’s relationship with Columbia would more or less end at Lewisohn Stadium; a fallout with Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser over signing a long-term contract with the label caused Armstrong to become a free agent, recording for over a dozen different labels in the last 15 years of his life. Though he still recorded some outright classics and had some bona fide hit records in that time, he never again received the care and attention on those dates as he did from Avakian. And Armstrong knew that, as the above quote makes perfectly clear.
Armstrong’s small group, the “All Stars,” was formed in 1947 and was a top-drawing live attraction from night one. But Joe Glaser wanted hit records and RCA Victor’s few recordings with that group didn’t sell especially well. In 1949, he signed Armstrong up with Decca, where Milt Gabler would oversee Armstrong’s recorded output for the next five years.
Gabler, as the founder and longtime head of Commodore Records, knew and loved pure, no-frills jazz but more importantly to Glaser, he knew how to make records that sold in large quantities. Though he threw the All Stars an occasional bone—resulting in some wonderful albums such as SATCHMO AT PASADENA, NEW ORLEANS DAYS and AT THE CRESCENDO—Gabler mostly featured Armstrong covering other people’s hits, backed by larger studio groups. The result was a string of commercially successful records: BLUEBERRY HILL, THAT LUCKY OLD SUN, LA VIE EN ROSE, C’EST SI BON, A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON, I GET IDEAS and more.
But it also added fuel to the flame of long-standing criticism of Armstrong, that he had “gone commercial.” Armstrong liked to claim that he didn’t read reviews, but clearly, he knew the cries of “commercialism” were harming his reputation as the world’s greatest jazzman. Hence his line, “And that’s when you look around, people are wondering, ‘What happened to Louie Armstrong?’” in the Voice of America program.
Armstrong was proud of his All Stars and knew what they were capable of based on the reactions they received during their live performances. But he needed a producer to trust that instinct fully and put the pop tunes on the back burner for a while. That producer was George Avakian.
This set is indisputably a tribute to Avakian (although he only produced roughly two-thirds of the music heard on this set), as well as to Armstrong’s All Stars. Both have had their critics over the years. In Avakian’s case, it was because of his pioneering use of splicing and editing. Some jazz producers of the 1950, including Norman Granz, deplored such methods, arguing that the full, unedited take, warts and all, was a truer representation of the music than anything created in postproduction.
Avakian disagreed. As the man who popularized the use of Long-Play records, Avakian felt like his mission was to present the best total listening experience. And if that meant splicing in a better solo from a breakdown take or adding fake applause to make a studio date appear “live,” so be it. “I hate it when people get into the files at Columbia as they do now and then and come up with the ‘terrific discovery’ that there were three takes used in something,” Avakian told me in 2007. “That doesn’t matter! What matters is you’ve got to get the right performance that’s right for the artist.” More importantly, Avakian was proud to have the artists on his side. After he used splicing on a Dave Brubeck track, he was hammered by the editor of a jazz magazine, saying, “How can you do that? You’re altering the artistry of the musician, and you’re putting out a recording of something he didn’t actually play.” Avakian sent the editor to Brubeck, who simply responded, “George saved my ass.”
In some ways, this Mosaic Records boxed set reveals some of Avakian’s magic; the live albums he created with Armstrong—namely AMBASSADOR SATCH and SATCHMO THE GREAT—are still masterpieces in their original form (and easy to find and download online at iTunes and Amazon, among other places). As the decades have passed, there is more interest in Armstrong—and especially his All Stars period—than ever before. Delving into Sony’s vaults—and occasionally Avakian’s own basement—Mosaic is able to present many of these performances and concerts as they were originally performed. In some cases, Avakian’s edits saved Armstrong and the All Stars’ asses, but hearing the unvarnished performances better illustrates what this band could do night in and night out, often when suffering extreme exhaustion. This was a hard-working band of road warriors and they played at 110% all of the time, with or without postproduction edits.
Of course, that wasn’t enough to spare them from some of the most mean-spirited criticism of the decade in the 1950s. While his records were being derided as “commercial,” reviews of Armstrong’s live shows with the All Stars often focused only on the non-musical portions of the show. Quotes from critics of the era saw him as “mugging like mad,” complaining that the act “may have had its merits as vaudeville” and that it “[seldom rose] above the plane of a coon carnival” and that Armstrong was “generally lowering himself as a human being.”
This angered Armstrong to no end since he was just doing what he had always been doing: entertaining audiences with an ingenious mix of high-quality music, showmanship and comedy. Even the vaunted Hot Five recordings were filled with humorous moments, but critics in the 1950s liked to complain that Armstrong abandoned being a “serious artist,” a theory Humphrey Lyttelton punctured in the 1957 book, Just Jazz. “In the light of all this, it’s difficult to see any relevance in the criticism that Louis Armstrong deserted jazz at some stage in his career,” he wrote. “You cannot abandon principles which you have never held. If jazz is really some sublime, art-for-art’s sake form of music, quite untainted by commercialism, then it would be more honest to come right out and say that Louis Armstrong never did play jazz. And nor, for that matter, did the majority of the most successful and revered jazzmen of the Golden Age.”
Armstrong frequently defended his choice to be a showman AND a serious musician. A 1959 interview in London preserved on Armstrong’s private reel-to-reel tapes found the trumpeter in a testy mood, ably defending himself against the frequent barbs he received in this era. “As long as I feel and hit the notes, I’ve got my own audience and no critic in the world can tell me how I should play my horn and I won’t do it anyway. That’s why they brought me over here, to be myself….[I]f they say ‘clowning,’ what is clowning? Anything to make the people get a little laugh, to put humor in your program and the note still comes out, that’s not clowning. Clowning’s when you can’t play nothing. And always remember that. So I don’t think that’s such a cute phrase.” Armstrong then summed himself up: “You don’t play 45 years and hit notes and do things nobody else can do. You’re not slipping….Whatever it is, can’t nobody do what I do. Now I’m egotistical to say that because I feel if they can try to get a little laugh, I’ll get one, too.”
Though Armstrong made it clear in interview after interview that he was serious about his music, critics couldn’t get past something else: the feeling that Armstrong played the same songs and same solos every night and thus was somehow taking it easy. This is something else that followed Armstrong around in the last 20 years of his life, and still dogs his later reputation to this day. While the truth is the Armstrong band book was larger than given credit for (a subject for another essay), it cannot be denied that Armstrong, being so famous and having so many well-known songs, had to play the hits every night. On top of that, Armstrong was from an earlier generation of jazz musicians, a generation that worked on their improvised solos and once they had it set, never changed it (see the examples of his mentors, such a King Oliver’s “Dipper Mouth Blues” or Kid Ory’s “Savoy Blues” solos). “And always, once you got a certain solo that fit in the tune, and that’s it, you keep it,” Armstrong told Richard Meryman in 1965. “Only vary it two or three notes every time you play it—specially if the record was a hit. There’s always different people there every night, and they just want to be entertained.” Armstrong even told his All Stars to remember what they played in the spontaneous-sounding ensembles, telling an interviewer in 1952, “Whatever we play together, we try to remember that. It’s just like an arrangement.”
Critics tried to claim Armstrong was coasting by playing many of the same songs and solos every night but most never seemed to take into account how much strength and endurance it took to perform those solos (deemed by Wynton Marsalis as “virtually impossible to play”) night after night always in front of completely different audiences. “What he played was Louis and nobody else could do it that well,” trombonist Trummy Young recalled. “I played the same numbers over and over with him and every night they sounded pretty to me. Because Louis felt it every night. He had one thing he went by—If you’re playing it good, it doesn’t matter. And also—If you don’t feel it, you can’t make them feel it. And he was right. There was a lot of logic in what he said. What most people overlook is that Louis was very sincere and very dedicated [in] what he did. He worked hard at making his music sound good all the time.”
Trumpeter Max Kaminsky agreed with comparing Armstrong’s perfectly chiseled solos to great classical performances, telling Steve Voce in 1957, “The accusations they’ve been making about Louis….There’s four or five of these big guys been spreading stories about Louis being ‘Uncle Tom’ and Louis playing the same two choruses on a number for the last two years, and so on. To say these things about a man of Louis’ caliber is the grossest stupidity and insult. Suppose he had been playing these choruses the same way for some time—there isn’t anybody else could make them sound that way, anyhow. It’s like calling Tchaikovsky a bum because his piano concerto sounds the same way each time you hear it.”
Yes, certain songs are repeated multiple times in this set, but that allow listeners to hold Armstrong’s consistency in high regard and marvel at how he was able to execute these “virtually impossible” solos night after night, over 20 years after chops trouble almost made him put the horn down for good. One can equally appreciate his expert comic timing and completely natural way of making an audience laugh. And don’t forget that this was also the man who invented jazz singing and continued to refine his vocal approach, with remarkable results, in his later years. A triple threat performer, Armstrong’s mastery of the stage is what led him to reach new heights of popularity with the All Stars at a time when jazz began struggling to maintain a sizeable audience (a struggle the music is still dealing with today). Armstrong had the best defense against his critics in that 1958 interview: “So, whatever they're going to say about Louis Armstrong, all they say is, 'He blow like hell every time he hits that stand.' And that makes them mad. But I have to live my life and that's that.”
One could argue that Avakian himself inadvertently caused the backlash against the trumpeter in his later years about “going commercial” and not being the “serious artist” he was in the 1920s. By the end of the 1930s, Armstrong was still a major star—recording for Decca, appearing in movies and on the radio—and a musician both respected by critics and other musicians. But in 1940, Columbia Records began a new series of reissue “albums,” reaching into their back catalog to put out new collections of a single artist’s work. Avakian, then a 21-year-old student at Yale University, was put in charge of the Hot Jazz Classics series. Armstrong was the first artist featured with a collection of his seminal Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings from the 1920s, aided by a few previously unissued performances Avakian turned up in the Columbia vaults. The results were a big success Columbia, critically and commercially.
There’s no denying the importance of the Columbia reissues in cementing the reputation of Armstrong as one of the visionaries of jazz in the 1920s, but in some odd way, the caused the reputation of the living, breathing, performing Armstrong of the 1940s to suffer in comparison. New Orleans-centric “moldy fig” jazz fans already fed up with the Swing Era, rediscovered the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and celebrated the younger Armstrong while denouncing the older veteran as a commercial artist and showman. “Armstrong is no longer a vital force in hot jazz,” critic Paul Edward Miller wrote in April 1941. “His influence on other players, admittedly a widespread influence, has pretty much petered out. Creatively and artistically, Armstrong is dead….Armstrong has chosen to play exclusively for the box office, has assumed a downright commercial attitude. Therein lies Armstrong’s failure.”
Armstrong paid it no mind and continued moving forward throughout the 1940s with his big band. But by 1947, his, like many others of the period, was experiencing hard times. Throughout the decade, Armstrong had occasionally performed with small combinations of all-star musicians at special occasions, making it clear that he never lost his ability to play in a small group setting. In late 1946, he had a large role in New Orleans, a fairly rotten film that nonetheless gave the moldy figs their dream image of Armstrong in a small group setting surrounded by other masters such as Kid Ory and Zutty Singleton.
In 1947, the small-group performances were growing, including a successful Carnegie Hall set with Edmond Hall’s sextet in February and two different radio broadcasts with two different small groups on April 26. In each case, Armstrong sounded at home, pleasing listeners and fans more than he had in quite some time with his struggling big band.
It was at this point that press agent Ernie Anderson had an idea and decided to run it past Armstrong during an engagement at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia at the beginning of May. Anderson told this story numerous times throughout his life. This passage is taken from his final public telling on a BBC radio’s “Armstrong Legacy” documentary series hosted by Campbell Burnap in 1995, the year of Anderson’s passing:
[Armstrong] said, 'I can't do anything until Mr. Glaser tells me it's okay.' So we're back to square one. We had to somehow convince Joe Glaser of this. So I went back to New York with [cornetist] Bobby [Hackett]. And I didn't have much money, but I got together a thousand dollars and I went to the bank and I got a cashier's check made out for a thousand dollars. Then I went up to Joe Glaser's office. There was a little window in the wall where a switchboard operator operated and I walked up to the window and walked up to the glass and said, 'Would you please give this to Mr. Glaser?' And I handed her a check made out to Joe Glaser, a cashier's check for a thousand dollars. That was quite a bit of money in 1947. And she said, 'What should I do?" I said, 'Just give it to Joe Glaser and tell him that I'm out here.' Well, a couple of minutes later, Joe Glaser opened that door and he's holding the check in his hand and he says, 'What are you trying to do, you jerk?' He called me a jerk! That was the first thing he said. I said, 'Joe, Louie Armstrong is getting $350 a night for playing with a 16-piece band. That's for one night without the 16-piece band.' Well, he finally asked me to come in the office. I knew that he had that check in his hand. It was just like cash, a cashier's check, he'd never give that check up, I knew that because Joe was very hard with a dollar, you know. He was rude to me, but he couldn't give up the check so he agreed to the date.
The date was set for May 17, 1947. Anderson named Hackett as the evening’s musical director. A favorite of Eddie Condon’s circle of musicians, Hackett assembled a band that would have been comfortable at one of the guitarist’s own Town Hall Concerts of the 1940s (which were also produced by Anderson). Trombonist Jack Teagarden first recorded with Armstrong in 1929 and the two had performed at various all-star occasions in the ensuing years. Peanuts Hucko, a veteran of Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman’s big bands, and also part of Condon’s circle, got the call on clarinet. For the rhythm section, the great Bob Haggart was brought in on bass; Haggart was also a fine arranger who had dome some work for Armstrong at Decca in 1945 and 1946. Two drummers alternated, both legends: Condon favorite George Wettling and Armstrong favorite “Big” Sid Catlett, “the greatest drummer to ever pick up a pair of sticks” in the trumpeter’s estimation. The least known musician, though, made one of the biggest impressions: multi-instrumentalist Dick Cary manned the piano at Town Hall and impressed Armstrong mightily.
As Anderson told it, “We came to the hall at six o'clock, everybody that was on the concert that night to rehearse with Louie. We had cleared the hall for two hours and we were going to rehearse. And Louie came on the stage and he greeted everyone. He knew everyone, of course, and he was so pleased to see them. He just talked for a few minutes and Louie said, 'We don't need any rehearsal.' I was really hurt. I thought, 'Gee, this might end up being a clambake.' And he said, 'I'm going to go home to Corona and I'll come back and we'll hit at 11:30.' Well, he came at 11:30 and he started with 'Cornet Chop Suey' and it was just like 20 years ago. It was just wonderful!”
SESSION (A), TOWN HALL, NYC, MAY 17, 1947
The 20 numbers that have survived from Town Hall, may or may not make up the complete concert (contemporary reviews featured differing numbers of how many songs were performed, one reviewer saying 20, another saying “no less than 27”). In 1983, French RCA released the THE COMPLETE CONCERT on its “Black and White” imprint. In the notes, Jean-Paul Guiter alluded to “the recent discovery of the original acetates” without giving any background as to their provenance, though it’s assumed that Anderson had it recorded. But no matter if this is 100% complete or not, the nearly 80 minutes that have survived are positively exhilarating, a priceless document of a historic evening.
For one thing, Armstrong is at the center of the entire show, from start to finish. After the birth of the All Stars, he always made a special point to feature his sideman, though he’d always find a way to play or sometimes sing on those features. That wasn’t the case at Town Hall. In their conversation before “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” Teagarden and Fred Robbins do reference an “intermission,” so Armstrong did get a short bit of rest, but other than three-and-a-half minutes on ST. JAMES INFIRMARY, he is front and center on 19 of the 20 surviving tracks. Goodness knows what his chops looked like the next day!
Armstrong throws down the gauntlet on the opening number, CORNET CHOP SUEY a perfect beginning to this last phase of his career. Here was one of the vaunted Hot Five masterpieces, the kind of instrumental showcase that purists bemoaned the lack of in Armstrong’s big band repertoire. Armstrong probably hadn’t played it in two decades, but still manages to knock it out of the park.
Most importantly, he never tries recreating the sound of the 1920s. He might have been playing his old hits, but from “Cornet Chop Suey” on down, Armstrong and the other men on stage treated everything as if it was the music of 1947. The rhythm section swings mightily, Wettling catching all of Armstrong’s phrases (big thanks to drummers Hal Smith and Kevin Dorn, who helped identify which tracks featured Wettling and which tracks featured Catlett). Cary’s piano is full of interesting harmonic touches in his own unique style.
When Armstrong gets to the climactic stop-time chorus, he plays just enough of the original to show he remembered it, but also adds new phrases and twists and turns, swinging into a brand new rideout chorus with a high-note cadenza that is pure 1947 Armstrong.
With that demanding opening number out of the way, Armstrong strolled through a swinging version of Earl Hines’s OUR MONDAY DATE, playing well but also sounding like he was improvising a new set of lyrics during the bridge.
What followed was one of the highlights of the evening, Armstrong and Cary’s duet on DEAR OLD SOUTHLAND. Originally recorded in 1930 by Armstrong and pianist Buck Washington, Armstrong was performing a more uptempo arrangement of it with his big band in the 1940s. The Town Hall version is not only stunning from a technical aspect (one of Armstrong’s finest operatic solos), but also because Armstrong probably hadn’t performed it this way in 17 years and was being backed by a pianist with whom he’d never played before—all without rehearsal. Armstrong would revisit this routine until at least 1957 with a variety of pianists, but he never topped this Town Hall version.
BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN opens with a little good-natured confusion. Poor Dick Cary has been blamed for the mess-up for years but to my ears, it’s Armstrong who blends BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN into OUR MONDAY DATE in his second eight bars. Listening intently, Cary and Haggart change to suit the leader’s direction, right into the bridge, when Armstrong realizes he’s playing the wrong song. Without panicking or breaking down, Armstrong coolly steps up to the mike, to introduce BUTTER AND EGG MAN, winning some laughs from those in the know.
Like OUR MONDAY DATE, Armstrong makes up some new lyrics during the vocal. The Hot Five version featured one of those perfect solos that has been analyzed for decades for the logical flow of its improvisation (though it was likely worked out and set in advance, like many of his later solos with the All Stars). Armstrong’s two-chorus outing at Town Hall is ripe for similar exploration, featuring some of his most rhythmically advanced playing of the period and building to a ferocious climax, obviously inspired by driving support of the rhythm section. I think it stands up with any of the other great jazz trumpet solos being performed in 1947 by Gillespie and the “bopping faction,” as Louis would say.
While an entire concert of Armstrong fronting a rhythm section would have been a true dream, TIGER RAG brings on the rest of front line and also introduces Sid Catlett on drums. Everyone seems to have a little nervous energy to burn on this one—Armstrong almost starts it in the wrong key—but he relaxes as it goes on, taking yet another free-flowing solo, eschewing the high note pyrotechnics of his 1930s. Catlett unleashes the only extended drum solo of the evening and, as with all of his features, it’s not only a pleasure to listen to, but makes the listener wonder what it must have looked like, as his feats of showmanship frequently break up the audience.
STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE gets a good groove going and one can hear Armstrong organizing the jam session (“Look out there, Peanuts!” he shouts before Hucko’s solo). Once more, he sounds relaxed, spurred on by Hackett’s background figures to create playing unrelated to version of “Barbecue” before or after.
The original 1930 version of SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE was soft and lightly swinging, but in retrospect, sounds like a stomp when compared to the ballad treatment given to it here, Armstrong and company treating Carmen Lombardo’s opus as a gentle lullaby. Where the original also featured some of the trumpeter’s proto-bebop double-timing, this version is a seminar in melodic phrasing. After the vocal, Catlett turns on the heat in the last eight bars, creating a spine-tingling rideout.
ST. LOUIS BLUES is given another loose jam session treatment, Armstrong and Catlett really whipping matters up into a frenzy in the habanera sections. The recording quality kind of obscures Catlett’s cymbal work but you can just feel his Chinese cymbal pushing everyone along. Hackett’s rehearsal also comes into play with some nice responses to Armstrong’s clarion calls.
With PENNIES FROM HEAVEN, we’re finally into the first of six performances originally released by RCA Victor as an album of 12” 78s in 1948. While many musicians prefer to treat this number as a swinger, Armstrong always gave it a tender treatment. Instead of an opening instrumental chorus, Armstrong comes right in with the vocal. Hackett’s beautiful obbligato nearly stealing the show from Armstrong’s crooning. In fact, in a later interview held on one of Armstrong’s private tapes, he singled out Hackett’s work on this track, driving the point home by singing the first few bars of Hackett’s backing. When Brian Priestly praised Hackett’s work with Armstrong in 1974, Hackett responded, “Oh, you think that's easy, huh? I had such awe for the man that I was always a little shook up always in his presence, you know. And then to have to play the trumpet besides is a little too much. But he was so kind and would always make you feel comfortable. But it's a situation that's hard to explain because there wasn't anything that I could play that I didn't steal from him, something he did years ago. Well, it was always a thrill to be in the same city as him.” After the vocal, Armstrong shouts “Every tub” during Teagarden’s solo and everyone goes home together for 16 glorious bars.
ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET is a tune we’ll encounter three separate times in this set, in three completely different approaches. At Town Hall, Armstrong gave it a swinging, uptempo take, much as he did with the big band in the 1940s. Catlett, as usual, is something to marvel at with his backing of Hucko and Teagarden and those roof-shaking backbeats in the outchorus. I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE also gets the swinging treatment, Armstrong on fire during his vocal (listen to him patting his foot during the break). “Take it piano!” ushers in another Cary solo—Cary makes his presence felt on every song—before Armstrong takes charge with a calm, “Let’s knock it out.” Like the bridge to SUNNY SIDE. Armstrong relays on a set pattern on his outchorus, solo, nailing the demanding high note excursion he had been playing on this tune for much of the decade (his concluding phrase, almost a nod to some of the Hot Five endings, is a decisive definition of swing).
BACK O’TOWN BLUES and the next two numbers are also from the 1948 album, justly celebrated for the last 65 years. Though Armstrong sings and plays wonderfully, this particular version is best known for Armstrong’s sharp “Shut up, boy” takedown of a talkative audience member who was feeling the spirit a little too much. Never one to abandon something that works, future versions would cast members of the onstage All Stars in the roles of various hecklers. Teagarden’s solo is also spot-on, opening with a lick Armstrong originally played on Bessie Smith’s 1925 recording of ST. LOUIS BLUES and later incorporating a snatch of Dhrdla’s SOUVENIR that Armstrong first quoted on Clara Smith’s COURTHOUSE BLUES, also from 1925. SOUVENIR became a favorite quote of both Teagarden and Armstrong during the All Stars era.
Armstrong originally recorded AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ in 1929 and performed it consistently for the following 18 years. Though every note of his concluding solo was minted before the great stock market crash, it still sounds as riveting as ever here. One reason why this version heads towards the top of the pantheon of all the surviving versions of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” in the Armstrong discography (and there are many) is that everyone plays at peak form, contributing one top-notch solo after another, all enhanced by the mighty backing of Catlett. When Armstrong dubbed the 1948 RCA album to his reel-to-reel tape collection, he dedicated the entire reel to Catlett. No surprise with drumming like that.
With ROCKIN’ CHAIR, we move from a highlight of the concert to a highlight of western civilization. Hyperbole aside, this is as good as it gets. This was another 1929-vintage routine, one Armstrong had performed with a variety of “fathers,” but never Teagarden. Without any rehearsal, the two men simply nailed it, Teagarden, with his cool Texas drawl, providing the perfect foil for Armstrong’s more excitable character. But more than just going for laughs, there’s clearly a love between Armstrong and Teagarden that the audience in Town Hall felt that evening and that audiences listening at home can feel today. The laughter you hear in the audience is 100 percent genuine and completely contagious. When the routine is over and Armstrong leads the way out with his horn, the emotion of it all is enough to bring one to tears. In many ways, it’s a quintessential Armstrong performance: laughter, warmth and heavy drama, all in about five minutes.
It would have been tough to top that climax…and MUSKRAT RAMBLE doesn’t. With Wettling back on drums, it’s one of the sloppier performances of the evening, mostly due to the multi-strained nature of the composition. There seems to be a hesitation throughout the early going, as some musicians aren’t quite sure of when to insert the breaks or change strains. Everyone seems to sense this and Armstrong pulls the plug after barely two minutes. Wettling makes his presence felt with some superlative brushwork on SAVE IT, PRETTY MAMA. Like all the ballads performed that evening, it’s a masterpiece, Armstrong playing and singing with tremendous feeling. In his outchorus, listen for a quote from the pop tune “The Gypsy”; we’ll be hearing more from that later in this set.
Armstrong finally takes a break as Teagarden steps up for his feature on ST. JAMES INFIRMARY, the final of the original six released performances. A true tour de force, Teagarden plays straight, sings the blues, then shows off his unique trombone-slide-and-water-glass sound in the last chorus. Everything you need to know about Jack Teagarden in just a few minutes.
Armstrong originally jammed ROYAL GARDEN BLUES with King Oliver in Chicago in the 1920s, but this is the first time he ever performed it in front of a recording device. He sounds unsure of a few notes in the introduction, but soon settles into the routine, one that would become an All Stars favorite into the mid-60s. After a touching impromptu speech by Teagarden—“I’m really in heaven tonight,” he says—emcee Fred Robbins brings us up to date by introducing DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS, the theme of the brand new motion picture, New Orleans. Professionals that they were, the new song sounds like an old standard in the hands of this band. In fact, Teagarden sounds like he wants to take a solo after the vocal, but Armstrong stays in front, playing a heartfelt lead until the finish.
For a closer, Armstrong and Teagarden reprise their 1944 V-Disc performance of JACK ARMSTRONG BLUES, with Catlett back on drums. Both men seem a little unfamiliar with the original routine, Teagarden making up the lyrics and Armstrong missing his entrance and sitting out a chorus. But once he starts, watch out! Though they had been playing for almost 80 minutes and the clock was now past 1 a.m., everybody sounds as fresh as when the concert began (though not the recording equipment; apparently, the extra poor audio quality on this number was due to the acetate disc cutters overheating). Armstrong really digs into the solo, and especially comes alive with the organ backing provided by Hackett and company. A favorite moment occurs towards the end as Armstrong gets to the close of his third chorus. Not sure of when to end it, he pulls the horn from his lips and obviously makes some sort of “one more” gesture. As Catlett fills in the silence, Armstrong plays an ascending phrase that tops out on a jaw-dropping high concert F, the top of his range. That one note always surprises me as it’s one Armstrong didn’t reach for unless he was feeling extra good—of course, the first 79 minutes already illustrated that extremely well!
“The concert was a tremendous hit,” Ernie Anderson concluded. “I mean, everybody just adored it. The reviewers were, to a man, overwhelmed by it. And I asked Joe Glaser what he thought of it and he said, 'Oh, it was wonderful.' And he said, 'I want to see that Jack Teagarden in my office tomorrow morning at 9 o'clock.' When Jack Teagarden came to his office, Joe Glaser signed him up to a contract for seven years, which is the most time you could hold a man to a contract in those days. And of course, at the same time, he gave the notice to the 16 musicians that had been traveling with Louis in the bus.”
Indeed, the writing was on the wall for Armstrong’s big band after the success at Town Hall, as it was officially broken up when Armstrong went to California for a month to film A Song is Born in July. Glaser would use the time to organize Armstrong’s new sextet, getting them a debut booking at Billy Berg’s in Los Angeles starting in August.
In addition to Teagarden, Sid Catlett was a natural holdover from Town Hall to join the group. Dick Cary’s playing had also impressed Armstrong to no end. While Glaser originally wanted to go after a bigger name like Earl “Fatha” Hines, Armstrong argued, “That little ofay who played Town Hall would be pretty good.” Instead of Hucko, Barney Bigard was brought in on clarinet. A native of New Orleans, Bigard was most noted for his long tenure with Duke Ellington. He was already based in California in the mid-1940s, enjoying the New Orleans revival scene, leading his own band and playing with the likes of Kid Ory. Another Californian, Morty Corb was hired as the group’s first bassist.
On August 13, 1947, “Louis Armstrong and the Esquire All Stars” debuted at Billy Berg’s, breaking box office records and garnering incredible reviews. Time famously said, “Louis Armstrong had forsaken the ways of Mammon and come back to jazz.”
Though the nightclub engagement was a smash, Glaser was more impressed the concert-style setting of Town Hall. For the fall of 1947, he began booking the All Stars (they soon lost their Esquire sponsorship) in more and more concert halls. Armstrong had seen everything from the honky-tonks in New Orleans to the speakeasies in Chicago to the dancing crowds of the Swing Era; he would now have to get used to almost exclusively playing in front of quiet, sitting audiences, with all of their attention focused on what was happening on stage.
Armstrong knew he would have to offer a show and more than just the Town Hall style jam session night after night. His first move was to bring back female vocalist and comedic foil Velma Middleton, a longtime hit with his big band. A frequent target of critics because of her large size and ability to do splits, Armstrong was more interested in her ability to bring down the house, which she always did.
Next, when Corb chose to stay in California instead of touring with the All Stars, Armstrong reached into the personnel of his final big band and hired young Arvell Shaw of St. Louis as a replacement. In a band of so many heavy hitters, Shaw was the least heralded, but he was a swinging player, adept at soloing and a showman to boot. In 1950, Armstrong told The Record Changer that Shaw’s showmanship and ability to play featured solos were important to the success of his band. “If we're going to give concerts, that's the only kind of band I've got to have,” Armstrong said. “We got to stand out there two hours and a half, three hours and play. You've got to get somebody more than just play ordinary.” While the critics might have wanted to scream, “No! You don’t need to do that!” Armstrong’s method of quality music-plus-showmanship guaranteed a packed house every night for years to come.
SESSION (B), CARNEGIE HALL, NYC, NOVEMBER 15, 1947
In November 1947, Armstrong had two high profile concert hall dates, first at Carnegie Hall on November 15 and then at Boston’s Symphony Hall on November 30. Anderson was all about documenting performances for posterity (later, his actions influenced Armstrong to purchase his first reel-to-reel tape deck for the purpose of recording his own shows in order to study them afterwards). After recording the Town Hall show, Anderson set it up to record both major concerts in 1947. Armstrong’s label at the time, RCA Victor, chose to put out the Town Hall album in 1948. By 1949, Armstrong was signed with Decca. Not long after, Anderson sold the Symphony Hall acetates to Milt Gabler, who released Satchmo at Symphony Hall on January 15, 1951 to rave reviews, the double-LP set immediately becoming known as one of the finest documents of a live All Stars concert (in 2012, Hip-O Select released SATCHMO AT SYMPHONY HALL 65TH ANNIVERSARY: THE COMPLETE PERFORMANCES).
But what of the Carnegie Hall performance? Interestingly, many Armstrong aficionados don’t even know this performance exists. It seems that Anderson also brought the acetates to RCA Victor shortly thereafter. Someone at RCA transferred about 90 minutes of the concert from acetate to tape. Why only 90 minutes? We can only speculate: perhaps they thought these were the best performances; perhaps Anderson didn’t have a good grip on the acetate disc cutter (some performances are incomplete). But the tapes were mislabeled as being from Symphony Hall (probably because Teagarden misspeaks on BASIN STREET BLUES and says “Symphony” instead of “Carnegie”) and they languished on the shelves until Ben Young discovered them in the RCA archives in 2001. He shared it with Belgian discographer Jos Willems, who immediately identified it as being the November 15, 1947 Carnegie Hall concert. Unfortunately, RCA was scaling back on its jazz issues at the time and the performance remained in the vaults for 13 more years, until this moment.
Even though this is not the complete performance, this is historic stuff. For one thing, after being so familiar with SATCHMO AT SYMPHONY HALL or decades, it’s a real ear-opener to listen to so many of the same songs performed in the same way at Carnegie Hall two weeks earlier. The band had only been together for three months, yet they had their act down to a science. Though Armstrong was the one who later took all the criticism for playing set solos, it’s clear that the first edition of the All Stars featured many like-minded musicians. Everyone’s features are set in stone, from Teagarden’s showcase on LOVER to Arvell Shaw’s extended solo on HOW HIGH THE MOON (including Catlett’s joke, “Go ahead and have a fit then!”) to Catlett’s own legendary feature, STEAK FACE, with large chunks performed exactly the same way at Symphony Hall two weeks later.
Armstrong’s showcases include ROYAL GARDEN BLUES and MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, each one taken at more foot-pattin’ medium tempos than they would sport in the ensuing decade. We also finally hear from Velma Middleton on I CRIED FOR YOU, one of her pop tune features. A few of the highlights from Town Hall are also reprised here, including a terrific BACK O’TOWN BLUES, with Armstrong going for a piercing high concert F towards the end.
Oddly, Armstrong seems to be losing his voice as the evening goes on. For all the impersonations and laughs about his unconventional, gravel voice, it was always remarkably full-bottomed and he always sang in tune. But by the time, they get to ROCKIN’ CHAIR, it’s clear he’s struggling. Fortunately, he has a sympathetic partner in Teagarden, who turns in his most aggressive turn as the father, coming up with more quips than usual to mask his leader’s fading vocal cords (this performance marks the only known time Teagarden uttered the autobiographical line, “I had 23 years of one-nighters—I don’t care to go no place!”).
In fact, where Catlett is the MVP of the Symphony Hall show (after Armstrong, of course), Teagarden is really the backbone of Carnegie Hall. In addition to LOVER and ROCKIN’ CHAIR, Teagarden also scores with his sentimental ballad, STARS FELL ON ALABAMA and a romp on BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME, as well as of his old stand-bys, BASIN STREET BLUES. Of course, Armstrong himself had a history with that tune so it’s no surprise that he almost steals it with his solo—featuring a break once again made up of a quote from THE GYPSY. And at the end, after Catlett’s MOP MOP feature, Armstrong throws it over to Teagarden one more time to do ST. JAMES INFIRMARY, the big success from Town Hall. Teagarden’s role is pretty much the same as that iconic performance but this one has an extra benefit in that Armstrong gets to play a little horn in the background, always a nice touch. Armstrong even plays Teagarden’s theme song, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, as the closing theme, something he continued to do while the trombonist was in the band.
As at Town Hall, Fred Robbins is the emcee, making another fine speech (it’s no wonder he was chosen to deliver the eulogy at Armstrong’s funeral in 1971). “It’s really a thrill to be able to revel in a genius while we have him,” he says. “Not to be able to talk about him years from now but to appreciate him and enjoy him while he’s still able to put that vibrating lip to his golden horn.” It’s a wonderful sentiment and of course, one that adoring audiences would embody after every Armstrong performance for the next 24 years—except for many members in the jazz community. But once the novelty of the All Stars wore off, they became jazz’s favorite target, with Armstrong getting blasted by both critics and younger musicians.
By 1954, the personnel of the band had changed dramatically. Armstrong was now surrounded by Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano and Barrett Deems on drums, in addition to original stalwarts Bigard, Shaw and Middleton. Though Young, Deems and Kyle didn’t have the hall-of-fame credentials as Teagarden, Catlett and Earl “Fatha” Hines (who replaced Cary at the start of 1948), in many ways, they were better team players, there strictly to support Armstrong. Teagarden, Catlett and Hines were all former leaders who all eventually grew antsy playing sideman for Armstrong and left to go back on their own. Young, Deems and Kyle were just happy to be with a legend and gave him their all. And their resumes were nothing to sneeze at, Young being long featured with Jimmie Lunceford and later with Dizzy Gillespie and at Jazz at the Philharmonic; Kyle, as a member of the John Kirby Sextet, influenced young Bud Powell; and Deems, billed as “The World’s Fastest Drummer,” enhanced the bands of Joe Venuti, Wingy Manone and Muggsy Spanier, among others.
The All Stars had also become a global phenomenon by this point, conquering Europe in 1948, 1949 and 1952, Japan in 1953 and Australia in 1954. In a January 16, 1954 letter to Glaser, Armstrong already remarked about being called an “ambassador of goodwill.” But not only were the criticisms leveled against him reaching a fever pitch by this point, he hadn’t had a solid hit record since 1951.
Enter George Avakian. After Avakian pioneered the jazz reissue series with releases of Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens in the 1940s, he continued to do this in the long-play era, specifically with a best-selling four-volume series, The Louis Armstrong Story. Armstrong was paid a flat rate for those records in the 1920s and early 1930s so he received no royalties from any of the reissues. Avakian had grown dismayed about Armstrong recording almost nothing but pop tunes for Decca and wanted nothing more than to record the trumpeter in his present form, but Armstrong was locked in an exclusive contract with Decca from 1949-1954.
Avakian had an idea: he offered Glaser royalties to Armstrong on all sales for THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG STORY series in return for permission to have him record an Armstrong album of W.C. Handy compositions. Glaser agreed and the result, LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYS W. C. HANDY, became one of the high-points of Armstrong’s career. Not only was it a strong seller, but it pleased the trumpeter (“They’re perfect—they’re my tops, I think,” he told Leonard Feather) and the critics (Nat Hentoff gave it five stars in DownBeat and wrote, “This LP is one of the greatest recordings not only of the year, but of jazz history. After years of wandering in a Decca desert (with very few oases) Louis finally had a full-ranged shot at the kind of material he loves, along with the kind of freedom that George Avakian provides at a jazz date.”).
Glaser couldn’t deny the results. He refused to sign another exclusive contract with Decca, instead letting both labels take turns recording Armstrong throughout 1955. In April of that year, Avakian came up with the home run idea of having the All Stars cover nine tunes written by Fats Waller. SATCH PLAYS FATS once again became a hit, critically and commercially. Decca, meanwhile, was having Armstrong cover the Crew Cuts’ KO KO MO with Gary Crosby and doing his own versions of other people’s hits including early rock ballads like SINCERELY, PLEDGING MY LOVE and ONLY YOU The results didn’t make a dent in the charts. By September 1955, Glaser had seen enough; Avakian would have full reign to record the trumpeter over the next year.
But time was already ticking: on September 30, the All Stars were due to leave on a three-month tour of Europe, not returning to the States until December 31. On September 19, Avakian wrote to Glaser with an idea to record Kurt Weill’s MORITAT (BALLAD OF MACK THE KNIFE). Glaser finagled Armstrong’s schedule to have the All Stars record MACK THE KNIFE and BACK O’ TOWN BLUESfor Columbia on September 28, and the resulting single was an absolute smash hit for Armstrong, giving him another song he would have to perform at every concert for the rest of his career.
Avakian was now three-for-three with his Armstrong recording projects and he wasn’t about to let the European tour stop him. In fact, he was more inspired than ever after seeing the reception Armstrong was getting in Europe this time around. It was time to record “America’s Ambassador of Goodwill” in action and Armstrong creating tremendous buzz and even literally causing riots from overly enthusiastic fans in Oslo and Hamburg, Avakian was ready to rely on the entire Columbia media empire to do it.
SESSION (C), AMSTERDAM, OCTOBER 30, 1955
The first order of business would be recording a complete All Stars concert, which Avakian did at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on October 30. The band had a new clarinetist in time for the tour in the form of Edmond Hall of New Orleans. Bigard had grown bored and tired by the end of his tenure and he could no longer disguise that fact in his playing. When Hall arrived in September, Armstrong wrote to Joe Glaser, “You sure did send a good man this time…Yea—Edman [sic] Hall is one of the very best, there is, on the Clarinet…A man whom I’ve always admired as a great musician, from the very first time I heard him, until, this very day…I personally, think that he will lift up the band a hundred percent.”
Armstrong was right. Hall’s fire meshed perfectly with Armstrong’s powerful lead and Young’s roaring trombone. In the opinion of many—including this writer—this would be the greatest edition of the All Stars Armstrong would ever lead.
Avakian recorded the complete concert, but didn’t think much of it was up to his high standards. His notes on the recording survive and contain complaints like, “Not very useful,” “not too good” and “tempo drags.” There’s also keys into Avakian’s mind in how he could salvage certain tracks: “Cut out bass solo (sloppy time),” “Cut Ed Hall's vocal and jump to his clarinet solo?,” “There are drum crashes before reprises of lst chorus which may be useful for cover-ups,” “Repair 1st phrase by copying repeat” and more.
In the end, Avakian would use two tracks, WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH and INDIANA, on Satchmo the Great, and four—TIN ROOF BLUES, DARDANELLA, UNDECIDED and MUSKRAT RAMBLE—on Ambassador Satch. He also saved edited versions of a few numbers (making the edits based on his aforementioned notes), a complete BACK O’TOWN BLUES that he did like and a closing SLEEPY TIME that could serve as a possible album closer. Unfortunately, that is all that apparently survives from Avakian’s recording; neither Sony’s vaults, nor Avakian’s private collection (now housed at the New York Public Library) contains the original Columbia reels of the full, unedited concert. A low-quality version of the complete concert does survive in the private hands of collectors and it illustrates a much better evening than Avakian’s notes allude to.
Clearly, what does survive is top notch. After Teagarden left in 1951, Armstrong recorded a vocal version of WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH with a Gordon Jenkins arrangement for Decca. Instead of offering it as a short, instrumental theme, he began singing it at the start of every show. “The people who are there come there to hear what we swing,” Armstrong said in a later television interview. “From the moment we hit ‘Pale moon shining,’ you know, the theme song, everybody sits right there and relax. And from that first note on, the warmth is there.”
INDIANA followed, part of the standard one-two opening of almost every All Stars show, though the song doesn’t show up in the Armstrong discography until January 1951, when Armstrong called it to open his SATCHMO AT PASADENA show, recorded by Decca. It didn’t become the regular opener until after that album was released in 1952. He soon discovered that the tune made for an ideal warm-up for him to get his chops settled into a groove. Dedicated Armstrong fans could tell if their hero was going to have a good night or a great night based solely on his playing on “Indiana.” From that first 1951 performance to the 1955 version at the Concertgebouw, Armstrong rarely played the same solo twice. He worked on his 32 bars every night, first solidifying four bars, then eight and so on until he finally had a set solo he was proud of by 1956; once set, he rarely changed it into the late-1960s, when diminishing chops forced him to cut the solo entirely.
TIN ROOF BLUES always made for a nice change of pace, a slower-than-slow blues originally made famous by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. It only appeared infrequently in the early years of the All Stars but after Jo Stafford had a hit record with a vocal version titled MAKE LOVE TO ME in 1954, it became a standard part of every show, always during Armstrong’s “trip down to my hometown of New Orleans, Louisiana.” It’s an atmospheric treatment with few fireworks. This is not a bad thing; Armstrong’s lead playing is unwavering while Young and Hall take sober, effective solos.
Young and Hall are also featured on UNDECIDED and DARDANELLA respectively, two of their most frequently called showcases. Early versions of “Undecided” swung at an uptempo but Young began counting it off faster and faster as the years went by; later versions are even faster than this one. Though Young’s playing is as exciting as ever, Armstrong—like he did on many trombone features—almost steals it with his fiery solo and ensemble playing. The band messed up their entrance on the reprise, but Avakian smoothed it over with some fancy editing. Hall worked out the memorable treatment of “Dardanella” with pianist Kyle and it’s a good one, offering the clarinetist a chance to play softly at the start and finish, with his spiky tone generating heat in the middle.
BACK O’TOWN BLUES is the only complete unissued performance that survives from Amsterdam (we have chosen not to included edited versions of MY BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT, PERDIDO, PRETTY LITTLE MISSY and BLUEBERRY HILL because they appear in complete form elsewhere on this set). Compared to the 1947 version, this one is pretty raucous, with a slightly faster tempo, more catcalls from the All Stars, a roaring Young solo and some more of that roof-shaking blues playing from Armstrong (who offers the quote of “Souvenir” that Teagarden introduced to the piece at Town Hall in 1947).
MUSKRAT RAMBLE—dedicated to “all the musicians in the house”—is one of those performances that in just about six minutes completely sums up everything that made this edition of the All Stars so exciting. Though the band was technically playing an “arrangement”—the ensemble work and Armstrong’s strings of quotes had been chiseled and polished after years of performances—it’s still an intensely exciting performance as they pile up one climax after another. “Louis Armstrong and Trummy Young, those two guys…and Edmond Hall, that band, they could play louder than a nine man brass section of a big band, you know?” Arvell Shaw recalled. “And it wasn’t loud unpleasant, it was loud, it was just power, because those guys, they, they lived with their…profession, and they trained for it.” According to Phil Person, Dizzy Gillespie caught this edition of the All Stars and told drummer Barrett Deems that this was the hardest swinging band playing that style of jazz he’d ever heard. He’s still right.
SESSION (D), PARIS INTERVIEW, C. NOVEMBER 17-DECEMBER 6, 1955
Avakian now had an All Stars concert in the can, but he was only getting started. While in Europe for Armstrong’s tour, he ran into Edward R. Murrow, then at the height of his fame as the host of CBS television’s popular and influential documentary series, See It Now. Avakian told Murrow that he was in Europe recording Armstrong for Columbia and that Armstrong was blowing up as an ambassador of goodwill; perhaps Murrow wanted to film some of the tour? Murrow thought it was a great idea and built it into his trip, filming Armstrong’s arrival in Switzerland a week after the Amsterdam performance and some concert footage in Paris a week later, when Armstrong began a 19-day engagement at the Olympia Theater. After hours one night, Murrow sat down with Armstrong for an extended PARIS INTERVIEW, one that captured the trumpeter at his most animated and the journalist at his more stilted (has “boogie woogie” ever been pronounced with so much stiffness?). Armstrong’s in control from the outset, telling stories (the “solid-salad” one is a classic), teasing Murrow (“Dig Murrow, to-morrow!”), getting philosophical (his whimsical definition of a “cat”), getting in a knock at bop (“a passing fancy, dancy”) and even offering the time-honored story of the birth of the nickname “Satchmo” without being prodded.
Murrow rushed the footage back to New York and it aired on December 12, 1955 on See It Now as part of an episode titled “Two American Originals” (the other being Grandma Moses). In the meantime, the publicity over Armstrong’s European tour had only continued to grow. On November 16, the front page of the New York Times featured an influential article by Felix Belair Jr. titled, “United States Has Secret Sonic Weapon—Jazz.” Running alongside a picture of Armstrong, Belair’s opening lines would be quoted in Murrow’s segment: “America's secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key. Right now its most effective ambassador is Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong. A telling propaganda line is the hopped-up tempo of a Dixieland band, heard on the Voice of America in far-off Tangier.” This was really the start of jazz musicians being viewed as an important tool in foreign relations. The State Department wasn’t involved yet but they didn’t need to be with the job Armstrong was already doing.
Murrow and producer Fred Friendly loved having Armstrong as a subject and the positive reaction to the See It Now profile already had them thinking of ways to expand into a theatrical film. But before that could be done, Avakian still had an album to produce, one whose title now practically wrote itself: AMBASSADOR SATCH. Avakian met up with Armstrong at his hotel in Paris with an idea for a photo to use on the album’s eventual cover. “I decided that the album we would record would be called AMBASSADOR SATCH for the simple reason he was the greatest ambassador the United States could possible have,” Avakian said in 2014. “And to illustrate it properly, I thought why not have Louie on the cover of the album wearing an ambassador's morning clothes—but where do you get that in Paris on short notice?” Avakian asked Piet Beishuizen, Philips Records’ publicity director, where they could rent such an outfit. Beishuizen had the answer: “Oh, we don't have to do that,” he told Avakian. “Dr. E. B. W. Schuitema, the president of Philips, is going to give a speech tomorrow at an assembly of company presidents. He brought his morning clothes and we'll borrow it for the photograph from Dr. Schuitema."
Avakian was skeptical. “And I said, 'Well, you can't do that! After all, he's the president of Philips Phonogram and what's more, Louis is 5 feet 4 inches tall and Dr. Schuitema is more like 6 feet 2!" And Piet said, ‘It's not a problem. Lucille [Armstrong] can pin up the back of the jacket and we'll pin up his pants and it'll get by in the photograph.’” Avakian agreed and told Armstrong, who laughed and said, “Oh yeah, that’s the way to go!” Beishuizen and Avakian arrived at Armstrong’s suite with a photographer and did their best to make the suit fit the trumpeter, who chose to wear loafers for the occasion. (Avakian remembered his reaction: “Oh hell, he's wearing loafers.”)
Everything went smoothly from then on but Avakian did relate one humorous incident to me in our 2014 conversation: “One of the delightful things about it is Louie took his horn out to blow a few notes for the hell of it—it had nothing to do with the photograph—and to my horror, he hit the spit valve, which means he ejected saliva that was clogging up part of the tubing, and spit landed, plop, just below the knot of the ascot that Louie had already put on! And I thought to myself, 'Well, it'll never show.' Of course, it did! But you know, of all the thousands of people who have seen that photograph, not one person commented on the fact that there seems to be a dark spot below the knot of the ascot. Nor did any one notice that Louie's trousers are flopping over the lip of the loafers—or even that he was wearing loafers with the morning clothes!”
Now, with his cover photo already selected, it was time for Avakian to record more music.
SESSION (E), MILAN, DECEMBER 20, 1955
Avakian next caught up with Armstrong in Milan, Italy, where the trumpeter was immensely popular. After attending so many All Stars concerts on the three-month tour, Avakian knew that band was practically playing the same show every night, one that was very similar to the one he recorded in Amsterdam. He could have recorded a show in Milan and hoped for better quality performances, but instead, he had a smarter idea: to record the All Stars after an evening of playing and to treat it like a studio session instead of a live recording.
Avakian booked the empty Teatro Leonardo da Vinci for the session, commencing at 1 o’clock in the morning immediately after the All Stars played two concerts at Teatro Nuovo (though Armstrong himself later claimed he performed three).
The theater wouldn’t be empty for long. Armstrong and the All Stars arrived with not only their usual entourage of wives, friends, girlfriends, valet and road manager, but also a few dozen overly enthusiastic young Italian fans. The revelers took their place in the seats but Avakian still wanted to treat it like a studio session, planning to add fake applause in postproduction. He demanded quiet and recorded the first number, another rollicking version of INDIANA, probably Armstrong’s request to make sure the chops were still “percolating” after such a long evening’s work. They certainly were.
But at this point, Avakian, probably taken in by the spirit of the fans who crashed the session, told the young fans to cheer and react as if it was a concert. They were more than up for the challenge, which turned out to be a smart move as Armstrong was always extra inspired performing in front of enthusiastic fans. A party atmosphere of pure love and joy between performers and fans began to arise.
SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY was the next choice, Armstrong’s own composition that he debuted on record shortly after the Town Hall concert. He originally gave it a tender, ballad treatment but after Trummy Young joined the All Stars and their excitement quotient rose as a result, Armstrong began to jump SOMEDAY, always with fine results. Takes two and four are included here, both infectious and consistently excellent. Surviving correspondence shows that Avakian loved this performance and even worked out a deal with Decca to get permission to release it but for some reason, it didn’t make it on to the final album.
Next Edmond Hall was given a chance to record CLARINET MARMALADE, one of his most exciting features. To give the impression that this was recorded in France, Avakian even had Armstrong record an introduction in French, with humorous results. He was covering all bases, recording announcements and even encores when appropriate, though this number also was left off the finished product.
Because the second reel from Milan is missing, the next three performances are heard as originally issued on AMBASSADOR SATCH, with Avakian’s postproduction work in place. WEST END BLUES is a special choice, as the 1928 original recording was one of the milestones of 20th century music. This one isn’t but that’s no reason to disparage it; in fact, it’s still an outstanding performance, one that has grown on me so much over the years, I listen to it almost as often as the iconic original version. The opening cadenza is slower and more dramatically paced than the original; he takes his time, to great effect. He might have lost a few miles off his fastball and a little of his breath control (he can’t hold the climactic note for the full four bars as he did in 1928), but just listen to his tone and the way he hits the high notes on the nose, especially the gigantic fat high C he hits after the descending arpeggios, conveying everything he wants to in just a single note. (Only a couple of sections from Trummy’s solo come from take 1—notice the change in cymbals. The rest is all take 2.)
The next tune only needed one take to nail, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES. Unlike the fast, but not-too-fast (half-fast?) versions from 1947, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES got a turbocharged treatment in the mid-50s and beyond. Like MUSKRAT RAMBLE from Amsterdam, it’s another one of the great Armstrong-Hall-Young performances in terms of excitement, with Armstrong in Herculean form during his solo and the encore. Avakian knew he had a winner and made this the opening track on AMBASSADOR SATCH.
Up to this point, the All Stars had recorded only numbers already in their book but Avakian’s next choice came from out of left field: THE FAITHFUL HUSSAR, a German folk song originally known as DER TREUE HUSSAR and written circa 1825. Armstrong heard it in Dusseldorf but probably never played it until Milan. Fortunately for Avakian, it fit the band like a glove, especially Armstrong, with its melody based on three quarter-notes at a time (a rhythmic hallmark of King Oliver’s playing). Shaw also deserves credit for his tremendously powerful bass lines. Avakian recorded multiple takes, notating that take three was “exceptionally wonderful” and questioning that take four might have been “better?” Back in New York, he edited the best parts together to form a rocking, six-minute performance, complete with some gutbucket shouting by Young and Armstrong’s time-honored feat of playing the melody an octave higher in the encore (Armstrong also calls Billy Kyle “Crazy Otto,” a reference to the popular German jazz and pop pianist Fritz Schulz-Reichel). A humorous aspect involves Armstrong never being able to remember the title, leading him to announce it as “Huzzah Cuzzah.” Even though this was a session and Avakian could have corrected him, Armstrong’s mangling of it was too good to leave out. We have also included an edited single that Avakian rushed out for release on Columbia’s international label, Phillips, featuring none of the fake applause of the AMBASSADOR SATCH version and a different solo by Kyle (with Trummy Young shouting out the name of boogie woogie pianist “Pete Johnson” amidst Armstrong’s cries of “Crazy Otto!”).
The rest of the Milan session does survive in full, allowing listeners the opportunity to hear how the rest of the issued—and unissued—material originally sounded in those early morning hours. TIGER RAG was an inspired choice Avakian credited to Hall. Though long associated with Armstrong, the tune does not seem to have made it into the All Stars’s repertoire after the 1947 Town Hall version. Thus, a bit of rehearsing had to be done as the band found a key, straightened out the changes and worked out a routine, centered around Armstrong and Young panicking about a tiger going to bite them, breaking up the Italians in attendance. Once everything was settled, the All Stars caught fire and delivered two burning takes, plus an encore, with the best parts spliced together to create the finale track on AMBASSADOR SATCH (a separate edit was issued as a single by Philips). The unedited takes can now be heard heard here for the first time without the fake applause. Hall especially commands attention with both his scorching solo and ensemble work.
Trummy was up next with YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME, which Armstrong introduced in 1931 and was still featuring himself on at Pasadena in 1951. On December 6, Young and Shaw broke away in Paris one evening to record an LP for the Ducretet-Thomson label, TRUMMY YOUNG AND HIS FIFTY-FIFTY BAND with the likes of Guy Lafitte, Andre Persiany and Kansas Fields. A jumped version of YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME was a highlight of the session so it made sense for Young to call it two weeks later in Milan, even though this edition of All Stars had never played it together (the original session tape features Kyle leading the band through the bridge to make sure they have the right changes). Once the impromptu rehearsal ended (with Shaw instructing everyone to “Wail!”), the band again demonstrated just what pros they were by nailing it in one take, plus performing an extra encore. Young demonstrates the smooth, double-timed lines that made him an associate of the early boppers, as well as his more shouting style that endeared him to Jazz at the Philharmonic audiences (dig his quote of CANDY). Armstrong owns his solo and especially his full chorus and rideout lead during the encore; how much swinging can one band produce in a single night?
Avakian’s next choice, LONESOME ROAD, might have seemed like a good idea on paper but it wasn’t suitable for the album. In 1931, Armstrong and his big band (and various friends) recorded a hilarious version of the quasi-spiritual, everybody taking turns joking around with “Reverend Armstrong.” Avakian thought they could recreate in Milan with the excited Italian fans, but without any rehearsal, the results have a “you-had-to-be-there” feeling, with some of the fans getting a little too anxious to sing along (the fan Armstrong tells, “Don’t sing louder than me, Brother” was Gianni Tollara, who still got a featured role in Avakian’s liner notes to the album). Once again, though, the All Stars’s instrumental spot is as serious as it gets, Deems really laying it down, while Armstrong alludes to I WANT A LITTLE GIRL at the start (right after he, too, can be heard urging the band to “Wail” in the background before picking up his horn).
For the final All Stars full band feature, Avakian chose the demanding THAT’S A PLENTY, which the All Stars probably hadn’t played since Young’s first night with the group in 1952. After a bit of rehearsing and a couple of false starts, everything came together for a positively incendiary take, Armstrong’s trumpet still hitting the high, hard ones after playing multiple concerts and a recording session that was now into overtime. An encore seemed like the perfect punctuation mark to the session—only for Avakian to call out, “Once again, would you?” Instead of balking, they counted it right off and did it one more time, though Young and Shaw can’t seem to get together on what strain they’re playing during the trombone solo, one of the pitfalls of the early jazz repertoire (Young actually seems to anticipate the changes incorrectly both times during the second strain). Everything eventually syncs, leading up to another exciting closing ensemble, Armstrong still knocking out those repeated high concert Bb’s, topping it off with a high concert D. Bravo, Pops.
With that, Armstrong earned a much needed rest, but Avakian still wasn’t done, wanting to capture Hall’s DARDANELLA again. On the two previously unissued takes here, Hall comes up with some new ideas but everyone sounds a little tired (with good reason); Avakian still ended up using the live version from Amsterdam. With that, the session was finally waved off in the early hours of the morning, Billy Kyle playing a few triumphant bars of Paramount’s newsreel theme as a humorous way to conclude what must have been one of the most exhausting nights of Armstrong’s life.
But instead of asking for pity, Armstrong felt triumphant. After the album was released, Armstrong sat down for a radio interview with disc jockey Joe Jeru in Benton Harbor, Michigan. When Jeru complimented Armstrong on his AT THE CRESCENDO live album for Decca, Armstrong responded by making no secret of his preference. “Okay, but you can get a later album than that,” he said. “AMBASSADOR SATCH. That I made in Milano, Italy, just coming out over here. It’s better than THE CRESCENDO. Dig that. And we made that after the third concert in Milano. We did three concerts that day, with intermission included. And 1:00 that night, we begin to record that AMBASSADOR SATCH. And at 5:00 in the morning, we’re wailing WEST END BLUES. See what I mean? And TIGER RAG, you ain’t never heard TIGER RAG in your life like them cats, the longer they played it. But that’s what I’m talking about. If you didn’t feel good, you couldn’t do that. You can’t force those things.”
After the HANDY and FATS albums, MACK THE KNIFE, the New York Times story, Murrow’s See It Now special and the Amsterdam and Milan recordings, Avakian was more sure than ever that Armstrong’s boost in popularity would only benefit Columbia. On December 29, he prepared to sign Armstrong to an exclusive contract with his label. In a letter to Goddard Lieberson, the head of the entire record division, Avakian recounted a phone conversation he had with Glaser in which Glaser said it would take a $50,000 advance to sign Armstrong. It was a lot of money, but he told Lieberson, “In any case I feel that to make a large advance to get Armstrong would be a worthwhile investment because Armstrong is certain to emerge in the immediate as well as long-range future as one of the very few great jazz musicians of all time. I think that any money invested in him now is better spent than it would be for any other purpose that I can think of off hand.”
Avakian came back to the States with hours of material from Amsterdam and Milan to edit an entire album from. However, it didn’t take long before he received a devastating piece of news: Decca came out of the woods claiming that any Armstrong recording they released between 1951 and 1954 had a five-year restriction and could not be recorded and released by any other label within a five-year period of time. This included the complete SATCHMO AT SYMPHONY HALL, which Decca was holding to a January 15, 1951 release date, instead of the 1947 recording date, as well as SATCHMO AT PASADENA, recorded on January 30, 1951 and released in 1952.
Those two albums alone contained a number of tracks Avakian could not release: MUSKRAT RAMBLE, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY (rerecorded for Decca in 1953, as well), YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME, THAT’S A PLENTY, WHEN IT’s SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH and INDIANA. In short, a good chunk of the recordings Avakian had already earmarked for AMBASSADOR SATCH were now off the table.
Avakian dealt with this in two ways. After the All Stars arrived back in the States on December 31, 1955, they were in Hollywood by January 6 to begin filming High Society with Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. While out there, Avakian scheduled a studio date in Los Angeles on January 24, 1956 to record a few more numbers for the album. He then realized that January 24 was nine days after the January 15, 1951 five-year restriction date for the SATCHMO AT SYMPHONY HALL tracks. Shrewdly, he gave MUSKRAT RAMBLE from Amsterdam and ROYAL GARDEN BLUESLos Angeles matrix numbers in line with the January 24 session. Decca couldn’t touch them because Columbia’s files said they were recorded after the restriction date. Of course, this threw discographical research into disarray for decades; as late as 2007, Avakian was still confused, telling me that those two numbers must have been done in Los Angeles because of the matrix numbers. It wasn’t until I had the time to study the Armstrong file Chris Albertson rescued from the trash at Columbia in the 1970s that it all made sense to me, with Avakian writing “Via 1-24-56 date” after “Royal Garden” and “Muskrat” on a list of “free and clear” tunes for the AMBASSADOR SATCH album. (It should be noted here that all the preceding and following quotes from Avakian memos, letters or session notes come from Albertson’s file. We owe him a heavy debt of gratitude for not only rescuing it, but for sharing the contents with the world on the internet.)
After some debating over choices, Avakian chose to go with four tracks from Milan and four tracks from Amsterdam. He still needed two more and those would be recorded in Los Angeles.
SESSION (F), COLUMBIA STUDIOS, LOS ANGELES, JANUARY 24, 1956
After going from an actual concert recording to a “live” session with a partial audience, the final AMBASSADOR SATCH date was a regular studio session with no audience present. First up was TWELFTH STREET RAG, a longtime staple of the All Stars’s repertoire and one that was a highlight of the See It Now piece. Avakian might have felt a connection to the piece since it was one of the “lost” Hot Seven recordings that he discovered and issued for the first time back in 1940. TWELFTH STREET RAG was Armstrong’s good-natured satire on the more corny strain of traditional jazz. On it, he always encouraged his sidemen to ham it up; onstage, Edmond Hall would break into a dance during his solo, Trummy Young would play hunched over, his slide almost hitting the floor, Barrett Deems would stand up and crash two hi-hat cymbals together bombastically with his hands and Arvell Shaw would take a bop-inspired “Oo-Shoo-Be-Do-Be” scat break. Everyone always had a good time though oddly enough Armstrong, for all the cries about his clowning, usually played quite seriously on TWELFTH STREET RAG, leading the ensembles with great strength and taking two riveting breaks in the first chorus.
On the Los Angeles date, Avakian first let the band perform its full arrangement as if they were on stage before suggesting they shorten it by having everyone split choruses. The sixth take was marked as the “Master” and we have treated it that way, but in actuality, the final master was made up of bits of takes three, five and the bulk of six, each heard here completely undoctored. Armstrong’s trumpet playing sounds a little strained by the sixth go-around but that’s when Hall and Young hit their groove. Young attempted to play smoother than usual on the first five takes but when he let loose a bit on the sixth take the way he normally he did on stage, Avakian grabbed that one for the master. Choices like this caused critics to complain that Young had become nothing but a “tasteless battering ram” (in the words of Jack Tracy in Down Beat) but the unissued takes showed he still possessed a smooth touch.
On the issued version, Armstrong could be heard speaking occasionally in the background, cheering on the soloists, but all of that was done in Los Angeles. Avakian simply recorded Armstrong in the studio shouting brief bits of encouragement (“Yeah yeah!”) and the names of his sidemen (“Edmond Hall!” “Yeah, Trummy!”). He chopped them up and peppered them throughout the album in postproduction; you can also hear it on ROYAL GARDEN BLUES and THE FAITHFUL HUSSAR. He really did think of everything!
The next—and final AMBASSADOR SATCH—track would be ALL OF ME, a brilliant choice. Armstrong first recorded it in 1932 and had a sizeable hit with it, but with the All Stars, it was a feature for Velma Middleton. Avakian recorded Middleton’s version in Amsterdam but wasn’t too thrilled by it so in Los Angeles, he suggested they do it as an Armstrong feature. It wasn’t easy; it would require nine takes to complete it, many early takes breaking down because of unfamiliarity with how they were going to approach it (on one early take, Armstrong angrily shouts, “Break, dammit!” when the rhythm section forgets to stop during his vocal). The previously unissued third take was the first complete one finished but one can hear the band still piecing it together, Armstrong verbally calling out in the background, “Next chorus, play the same thing we play for Velma,” a reference to the triplet phrases in the middle of the rideout, as well as the break and short tag at the end. Armstrong ends on a fat high note causing everyone to say, “Yeah,” upon its conclusion but Armstrong’s internal clock knows something is wrong, as he immediately says, “Too long.” Indeed, on ensuing takes, Hall and Young would split a chorus but there’s still some bumps along the way as even on take seven, there’s a misplaced break in the rhythm section during the vocal. But Armstrong and the All Stars overcame the challenges to turn in one of the highlights of the album. Hearing the unissued takes, Armstrong, in particular, was feeling creative, singing a completely different vocal on each take. The ninth and final take was the best from start to finish except for a trumpet clam in the opening chorus. Avakian spliced in the first chorus from the sixth take (which was a breakdown) and then bathed the result in fake applause, with a dramatic introduction in Italian by vocalist Ray Martino, recorded in Milan. For this set, instead of issuing partial takes, Andreas Meyer has replicated Avakian’s original splice between the sixth and ninth takes to offer an unfiltered listen to a track that has delighted Armstrong fans for nearly 60 years.
With that, AMBASSADOR SATCH, was a wrap. Avakian did his edits, rushed it through postproduction and released it in late April. On April 25, Avakian wrote, “I don’t think any album in record history has ever had such a send-off by any organization.” Even the cover photograph of Louis in Dr. E. B. W. Schuitema’s morning clothes in front of a plain white background created a buzz. Avakian originally wanted to just use the photo from the waist up, but when he saw how “wonderful” Armstrong looked standing up in the suit—even with the pants draped over his loafers—Avakian knew he had to use the whole image. “That picture really said the whole thing,” he said in 2014. “You look at it and there he is, smiling away happily, resenting the greatest democracy on the face of the earth and the most democratic music of all.” 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.”
The Los Angeles session even featured a 16-minute conversation between Avakian and Armstrong, to be used as part of the promotion. Once again, Avakian tried maintaining the European feel of the album by pretending they were in Milan onstage after the session in December. It’s a wonderful snapshot of a long-standing friendship between two giants of jazz, Armstrong more relaxed around his friend than he was with Murrow (and for those listeners who don’t know why Avakian jokes about being uncomfortable with Armstrong wanting to go “around the world” with him, well, Google it!).
Avakian now had enough material for the album, but he still wanted to record two more songs to make a single, considering that MACK THE KNIFE had officially become a hit while Armstrong was overseas. One tune he chose was the old Al Jolson chestnut, WHEN THE RED, RED ROBIN (COMES BOB, BOB BOBBIN’ ALONG), which was then featured in the Lillian Roth biopic, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, as sung by Susan Hayward. Though the finished performance clocked in at barely two minutes, it’s a pretty explosive, the final outchorus showing that the All Stars could find the heat in just about any material. A neat touch was Armstrong trading with himself, splitting a short muted trumpet spot with his scat vocal, something assumed to have been overdubbed later, but after hearing the two different takes included here, it’s revealed that Armstrong actually picked up his horn with lightning speed to contribute the different statements on each take. Avakian ended up making a few different edited masters, including adding fake applause to one 45-rpm release to pass it off as a live recording on some European issues. Once again, we’ve unraveled everything to include two complete, untouched takes.
Avakian was so impressed with the All Stars’s performance of THE FAITHFUL HUSSAR in Milan that he smelled the makings of a hit. Back in the States, he wrote new lyrics to the old German song and called the result SIX FOOT FOUR. It was kind of silly, but as always, Armstrong sells it. After first attempting it at the same tempo as the Milan version, Avakian asked them to do it a quicker pace. Once they nailed it, he still wasn’t satisfied and after RED, RED ROBIN was in the can, Avakian had Trummy Young overdub some spoken responses behind Armstrong’s vocal, as well as having the trumpeter add an obligato to his own voice. This set includes a complete earlier, slower take, as well as the master with Louis and Trummy doing their thing.
Though the album was finished, Columbia still didn’t have an official signed contract from Joe Glaser. Five days before the Los Angeles session, Avakian wrote to Columbia President Jim Conkling and told him how important it was to finalize the contract for AMBASSADOR SATCH “before anything happens like Decca casting our relationship with Armstrong into some sort of turmoil.” Glaser had made some last-minute financial demands and Avakian wanted to satiate him. However, Conkling was wary, writing back, “George, I am against this (because of the Economics) but am sending it along as you requested—to get the Album—and to keep Decca away for the moment.”
With the album approved, Avakian set his sights on signing Armstrong to a long-term contract with Columbia. He even had a summary of royalties drawn up for everything Armstrong had been paid on the four LOUIS ARMSTRONG STORY albums, plus LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYS W. C. HANDY, SATCH PLAYS FATS and MACK THE KNIFE. Columbia started paying Armstrong royalties for the early albums in 1954 as part of the HANDY deal; from that point to January 31, 1956, Armstrong had earned $22,089.74, which would amount to about $190,000 in 2014 money. Avakian was sure Glaser would be impressed and make a deal to stay with the label.
Glaser wasn’t planning on going anywhere else for the time being. On February 2, Avakian and Glaser worked out a deal for Armstrong and Dave Brubeck to perform—and record—at Lewisohn Stadium in July. However, when the Stadium requested an additional date in case of rain, Glaser angrily wrote back that Armstrong was receiving between $4,000 and $6,000 per night and holding a rain date would result in conceding that kind of money. Clearly, the real money was being made in the live performances, not the recordings and that was something Glaser did not want to mess with.
At the same time, Glaser informed Avakian that Armstrong would be performing at a special concert on June 1 in Chicago, one that would be hosted by Helen Hayes and would benefit the Chicago chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Glaser wanted Avakian to record it, but Avakian wasn’t impressed. Not only was he unsure of Hayes was going to do but after recording Armstrong in Europe and coming up against all the Decca restrictions, Avakian wasn’t ready to run back so quickly and record another live album. “Next, I will have to make sure that Armstrong plays some repertoire which we can record,” Avakian wrote in a memo to Conkling. “This last is a point which I don’t want to stress to Glaser yet, but once we sign Louis I will have to shape his repertoire so that it includes material which he has not recorded in the last few years. It will not be easy to do this, and I will have to ask Glaser to put his foot down on the subject, and if necessary have the band lay off for a few days simply to rehearse new repertoire. I know from experience that they won’t do it while they are also working.”
SESSION (G), CARNEGIE HALL, NYC, MARCH 17, 1956
Avakian already had success in helping to shape Armstrong’s repertoire because the trumpeter had started featuring MACK THE KNIFE in his live shows in early 1956. A battle with conjunctivitis (caused by constant cigarette smoke getting in his eyes from the cigarette holder he held in High Society) landed Armstrong in New York’s Eye and Ear Infirmary in early February, before one more trip to Los Angeles at the end of the month to finish working on High Society. On March 9, the All Stars launched a joint tour with Woody Herman that would occupy them until April 1. It was at Carnegie Hall on March 17, that this fine version of MACK THE KNIFE was recorded, the All Stars already sounding very comfortable with it, though they had only been playing it live for a few weeks. Arvell Shaw’s bubbling two-beat bass playing is especially effective behind the vocal.
Avakian liked this performance—and undoubtedly, Armstrong’s impromptu dedication of it to him—and later issued it in full on the later Satchmo the Great album. However, Avakian didn’t record Armstrong at Carnegie Hall; more-than-likely, it was recorded by Stephen F. Temmer, the founder of Gotham Studios and a man who frequently recorded performances at Carnegie Hall and who released another performance from this concert on an unnumbered Gotham LP. My conclusion is Temmer recorded the entire concert, knew Avakian would dig Armstrong’s dedication, made a copy of just MACK THE KNIFE and gave it to him because the this is only tune on the surviving reel. Avakian loved it and issued it but since he didn’t have permission to record it, gave it a Lewisohn Stadium location and a July 14 date. Though still sharp as a tack at age 94, Avakian is the first to admit that putting together these albums was such a whirlwind that he no longer remembers where all of the finished masters come from.
Glaser was at Carnegie Hall—Armstrong calls out to him jokingly on THAT’S MY DESIRE—but might have been in a bad mood because of his most recent dealing with Columbia over SIX FOOT FOUR. Because THE FAITHFUL HUSSAR was a public domain number to begin with and only he was responsible for the new lyrics, Avakian was prepared to release the tune giving himself credit as lyricist (under the pseudonym “Dots Morrow”) and publishing it with April Music. But Glaser angrily wrote to Avakian that Armstrong should receive composer credit for THE FAITHFUL HUSSAR, co-composer credit for SIX FOOT FOUR and that the tune should be published with Glaser’s firm, International Music, instead of April. He was also upset about how Columbia wanted to split up the royalties.
Avakian didn’t budge. “I gave Joe some mild but firm hell about how he always brags that his word is so good, and here he was not only going back on his word but also his signature,” he wrote to his bosses at Columbia. “He simply repeated, ‘It’s a bad deal and Decca wouldn’t never hold me to it,’ so I told him I would cancel the record at once.”
Withholding the record bothered Glaser tremendously. He wrote to Avakian on March 22, “Under the situation that prevails, I have no alternative but to advise you and your associates that we will forget about recording Louis Armstrong in the future with Columbia Records.” Avakian figured Glaser was bluffing and told him to compare what Armstrong made from Columbia with what he made from Decca. But when Glaser did this, he compared Armstrong’s two years with Columbia with his 21-year back catalog at Decca. Naturally, the Decca numbers looked more favorable when skewed that way. Glaser ran with it and wrote to Avakian on March 28, “I deeply regret the fact that unless you want to give me the same terms on Louis Armstrong’s music, songs, etc. that I have obtained from Decca and Victor in the past, as I advised you in my recent letter, I am not interested in any contract with Columbia.”
This could not have happened at a worse time. On April 2, Armstrong was heading to Australia and Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly planned on following him there to record more footage for an expanded See It Now profile. “Also, we do not as yet have Armstrong under contract, although Friendly doesn’t know this—I didn’t tell him,” Avakian wrote to Conkling and Lieberson on April 2. “Therefore we can’t be very firm in our dealing with Murrow and Friendly at the moment.”
There was no more time to play hardball. That same day, Avakian wrote a separate memo to Conkling and Lieberson in which he laid out the terms of a proposed long-term contract for Armstrong at Columbia: “Length of contract: 5 years’ exclusivity for $250,000 advance (including talent cost of sessions), to be spread over 10 years. (I believe we gave in on our wish to make it 7 years, and I know we gave in on the idea of $200,000 for 5 years plus option for $50,000 for 2 more years.)....Minimum sides: 36 per year, costs deducted from advance. We also told Joe we would record as much more as was felt would be worthwhile, as we were anxious to build catalog. We said we would shoot for 48.”
Glaser wouldn’t commit to any deal at the moment, which was okay because the filming of the Australian tour fell through, buying Avakian some extra time.
SESSIONS (H AND I), EMPRESS HALL, LONDON AND ACCRA, GHANA, MAY 1956
By early May, Murrow and Friendly did get the green light to continue their Armstrong film. Not only would they shoot the band during Armstrong’s first trip to London since 1934, but Murrow had Glaser squeeze into Armstrong’s itinerary a three-day tour of the Gold Coast of Africa, soon to become Ghana. Murrow’s cameras caught many priceless images during this month: a stomping live performance of MY BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT at Empress Hall in London; the sound of the All Stars joining various African musicians on SLY MONGOOSE, re-titled ALL FOR YOU, LOUIS for the occasion; and a hot, extended jam session on ROYAL GARDEN BLUES that became the soundtrack to a stirring scene in which the native Africans enthusiastically danced with their American counterparts including Lucille Armstrong and Velma Middleton.
Murrow knew he had captured some scenes that would really strengthen his resulting documentary, to be titled first, The Saga of Satchmo, and finally later, Satchmo the Great. Because the recording quality from the television cameras wasn’t as good as professional recording equipment, Avakian loaded up the eventual soundtrack with similar performances he had recorded in this period, only using “Sly Mongoose” directly from the soundtrack. Avakian’s brother, Aram, served as an editor of the film and he made copies of all of the film’s audio. In preparing this set, we found Aram Avakian’s original reels, made before Murrow overdubbed narration on top of the performances. “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” and “Royal Garden Blues” are being released here for the first time, the latter definitely worth some extra attention as it is a rare “jam session” performance from the All Stars as they improvise new variations for chorus after chorus, never letting the intensity drop (even though the tempo sure rises!) while playing for the dancers.
Jack Lesberg joined the band on bass for their overseas swing through Australia, the United Kingdom and Africa, later saying, “Nothing could ever top touring with Louis.” He replaced Arvell Shaw, who left on bad terms although the two men did settle their differences, with Shaw returning from 1963-1965, and once again for Armstrong’s final engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1971. Shaw spoke of Armstrong only in glowing terms after the trumpeter passed, but he also managed to stretch the truth a bit, always placing himself on Armstrong’s two African tours, when in actuality, he made neither.
SESSION (J), MEDINA TEMPLE, CHICAGO, JUNE 1, 1956
While the All Stars were making headlines with their performances in the United Kingdom and Africa, preparations were underway for the Multiple Sclerosis Society benefit concert in Chicago with Helen Hayes. Though Avakian still didn’t have a long-term contract with Glaser, he did agree to record the concert to appease him. “Frankly, I expect nothing to come of the Armstrong-Hayes album idea,” Avakian wrote to Conkling back on March 23. “But I expect the collapse to come on Glaser’s side, and I also want to prevent Glaser from ever saying in his peculiarly charming way, ‘When I wanted you to record Louis Armstrong with Helen Hayes, you people. . . .”
Glaser was still gung ho about the event so there was no collapse on either side. Glaser actually agreed about the need for different repertoire, writing to Avakian that “it would be silly to record a concert with Helen Hayes if he were to record the numbers he’s playing.” Glaser added, “However, if a deal can be worked out, I will see that Louis plays many different tunes as he has many, many numbers in his repertoire—unless you would have some specific numbers in mind for him to do and if so, let me know and I will discuss all this with Louis on Thursday of this week when he comes in for the concert at the Fox Brooklyn Theatre.”
Armstrong always gave hell to anyone--including Glaser--who tried to tell him what to play onstage so Avakian might have feared broaching the subject. But he still had a job to do and had to at least make some suggestions of different material for Armstrong to perform in Chicago. On May 11, he wrote to Glaser with a list of songs Armstrong hadn’t played since the 1920s such as “Potato Head Blues,” “Wild Man Blues” and “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind.” Down Beat Editor Jack Tracy wrote a script for Hayes to read on the theme of the evening, “Fifty Years of Jazz.” Armstrong would perform in sections on New Orleans, playing on riverboats, Chicago and New York, each one interspersed with Hayes’s narration. After an intermission, the All Stars would finally get a chance to tear out with their customary set.
Glaser agreed with the setup, though he warned Avakian in a letter from May 12, “Since Louis is in Europe and I don’t know whether he has the various numbers you mention in his book or whether the men he has with him now are familiar with the numbers, I am not in a position to confirm any recording date in Chicago whereby Louis will play these numbers.”
Sure enough, there was no physical way for the All Stars to rehearse any new material. After the grueling United Kingdom tour, there were the three nonstop days in Africa. The All Stars flew back on May 26 and were performing again in Asbury Park on May 28, just four days before the Chicago concert. Armstrong did read through the script and chose numbers from his current repertoire that would be appropriate for each section. He wrote them down in green ink on the back of a torn envelope, a precious artifact that survives in the Jack Bradley Collection at the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Avakian didn’t attend the Chicago concert but he heard from Mason Coppinger, his engineer in that city, on June 4, Coppinger telling him, “The show was very well received here.” However, there were some problems: “I had trouble trying to get Louis to work on our mike,” Coppinger wrote. “For the most part he used the P.A. mike.” There was also difficulty with Hayes’s narration, though she pre-recorded it just in case. Jack Tracy’s script wasn’t exactly a work of art; he sent his copy to Avakian with an almost apologetic note, signing off with, “At any rate, this is it.”
All of Avakian’s original suspicions about the night had come true: the script was weak, Hayes’s narration wasn’t worth listening to and Armstrong didn’t play any of his suggestions—in addition to playing portions of a few numbers into the wrong microphone. Avakian did use BLACK AND BLUE and part of the New Orleans funeral medley of FLEE AS A BIRD and OH, DIDN’T HE RAMBLE on Satchmo the Great and he’d pass off INDIANA as being from Armstrong’s forthcoming At Newport album, but that was about it. The tapes went back on the shelves and that was that…
…until 1980. It was then that Columbia reissue producer Michael Brooks saw some reel-to-reel tapes about to be discarded from the vaults. He investigated and saw the full tapes of the June 1, 1956 Chicago concert. He rescued them and issued it as a two-LP set, Chicago Concert, eliminating Hayes’s narration and offering indispensable, Grammy-nominated liner notes by Dan Morgenstern. Armstrong had been dead for almost a decade and all worries about playing the same songs every night and Decca “five-year restrictions” had dissipated. Instead, the issue was fully embraced for presenting an incredible evening of entertainment from Armstrong’s most exciting edition of the All Stars.
Though it had been an exhausting year, the band doesn’t sound remotely tired in Chicago. Lesberg didn’t stay on with the band when it returned to America, so Dale “Deacon” Jones was called in to fill the bass chair. Jones had already replaced Shaw once before in the summer of 1951, staying for over a year. Though his solos sometimes fell apart a bit rhythmically, Jones’s swinging lines and great use of showmanship made a fan of Armstrong. On one of his private tapes, Armstrong related that the addition of Jones over Shaw elevated the quality of the band a great deal in his opinion.
The Chicago event was more of a show than a standard concert; along with Hayes’s narration, sets were built onstage and the All Stars had to indulge in a little choreography. Thus, the opening funeral medley featured the band marching into the hall, Barrett Deems playing a snare drum on the back of the wagon. Hayes then talked about the riverboat days and Louis playing with Fate Marable. Armstrong made some concessions to the show here, playing ultra-short versions of MEMPHIS BLUES and FRANKIE AND JOHNNY before settling in on a lightning-paced version of TIGER RAG. Armstrong loved performing that number in Milan and after Ambassador Satch was released in late April, it made its way into the repertoire. He dominates this version more than in Milan—perhaps because he wasn’t as exhausted.
After Hayes discussed the closing of Storyville, the All Stars returned for wonderful versions of DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS (taken at a perfect tempo) and BASIN STREET BLUES, which Armstrong had commandeered back from trombonists Teagarden and Young after he successfully performed it in the film, The Glenn Miller Story. BLACK AND BLUE offers a nice change of pace at this point. A staple in the early days of the band, it disappeared in the early 50s until it showed up as a highlight of Avakian’s 1955 album, SATCH PLAYS FATS. Armstrong had performed it for Gold Coast Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah just a week earlier, Murrow’s cameras catching Nkrumah wiping a tear from his eyes. Armstrong’s opening is off-microphone but he still sings Andy Razaf’s heartbreaking lyrics with plenty of feeling.
WEST END BLUES opened up the Chicago section of the show, after Hayes discussed Armstrong’s records of the 1920s, “some of the most glorious discs ever produced” according to Tracy’s script (no argument here). Unfortunately, the famed cadenza and first chorus are both off-mike, but with that gigantic tone of his, you can still tell that he nailed it. Armstrong’s breath control was better in Chicago than in Milan, as he holds the climactic high Bb a bit longer, but his tone on the following runs was stronger in Milan. Still, it’s always a pleasure having another version of this demanding showpiece.
Our second visit with ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET finds it taken at a medium tempo that is ideal for swinging, but still given the characteristic oomph that was a hallmark of this edition’s rhythm section. It’s a compact performance with Armstrong only singing one chorus, but it’s still a great one, the concluding trumpet work always raising the hair on my arms. STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, concludes this portion of the program in its regular All Stars arrangement, perhaps a little quicker than usual, which only results in more fireworks from the front line.
At that point, Armstrong announced an intermission with a bit of WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH. In his notes to the 1997 reissue, Avakian wondered if Armstrong prematurely called this because he was sick of following the program. In actuality, Tracy’s script calls for an intermission at this exact moment, with Hayes opening the second half with a section about New York. This, however, seems to be the moment where Armstrong called off the shenanigans. Tracy’s script called for the All Stars to start playing MANHATTAN softly to commemorate Armstrong’s arrival in New York. She would then read two paragraphs summing up Armstrong’s career from 1929 to 1947 and then Armstrong would have the stage to himself.
However, the All Stars seem very hesitant on MANHATTAN probably never having played it before, as Armstrong plays the “A” section twice before jumping to the end. Then, instead of waiting for Hayes or any other cues, Armstrong’s plays a patented lick and segues right into a full WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH. It’s not known if Hayes ever got to read her two paragraphs but it seems doubtful; Armstrong was now ready to do his show and though the script alluded to a set of “40 minutes or more,” Armstrong wouldn’t do less than an hour.
And what an hour it is. Armstrong was already well warmed up when he called his usual warm-up, INDIANA, so he is in extra fine form on this version. After five years of tinkering with it, Armstrong finally had a set solo he was proud of, the final piece being a quote from I COVER THE WATERFRONT he had recently added. This is the INDIANA solo and it’s a great one; critics carped but how could you improve on it?
Then we finally get to hear THE GYPSY after Armstrong quoted it on the two earlier 1947 concerts. He finally got to record it for Decca in 1953 and performed it almost every night from 1954 through 1956. Some might have written it off as a simple pop tune but it’s a tremendous showcase for all of Armstrong’s talents: his opening chorus is a textbook lesson in how to play a melody, then he sings the hell out of it (Morgenstern has pointed out that you could hear what Billie Holiday got from Armstrong when listening to him sing this tune), he gets some laughs with his asides to the original lyrics (“Though I know she’s lying!”) and then picks up the horn for a half-chorus of improvising (never the same phrasing twice), with one of those endurance-taxing high note endings.
Next up, fresh from AMBASSADOR SATCH, comes THE FAITHFUL HUSSAR, still being introduced as “Huzzah Cuzzah” (“Something like that,” he could be heard saying when Trummy Young breaks up at his announcement). This must have been one of the first times the band performed it live because the tempo is faster than any ensuing version. Though it loses some of the “rocking” quality of the Milan version, there’s no denying that this version swings like mad. Armstrong clearly had a ball playing it, not wanting it to stop as he calls encore after encore. The tempo would drop a bit in the near future but Armstrong now had a new staple he’d perform until the late 1960s.
Up to this point, it has been all trumpet, something that Avakian probably didn’t appreciate fully in 1956, but something that has made this such an important document of Armstrong’s 1956 superpowers. Finally, on ROCKIN’ CHAIR, Armstrong takes a long rest from the horn to goof around with Young (though not a total break; playing that bit of melody at the start in the upper register is still quite demanding). I like Armstrong and Young’s camaraderie, though it’s different from the more loving bond between Armstrong and Teagarden. Armstrong and Young were two natural hams who loved telling jokes offstage, so they latch on to that aspect of their personalities to deliver an infectious performance of the old routine.
After that “break,” the All Stars really get the blood pumping on MY BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT. Though he had performed it with the All Stars for years, it really entered another realm when Hall joined the band. Armstrong realized this and almost every surviving version from the Hall era features multiple encores, each one more intense than the one that preceded it. A ridiculously exciting performance, only rivaled by a version from the Hollywood Bowl later that summer.
(In case you’re wondering about the encores, this was something that Armstrong learned in New Orleans, when the “second line” would demand brass bands play encores of well-received numbers. In the All Stars era, Armstrong fell back on this practice, not only because it generated a positive reaction but also because those 10 or 15 seconds of applause allowed Armstrong’s chops to regenerate and get ready to do it all over again, usually ending up pushing himself harder and higher with each encore.)
Finally, it’s time for the All Stars to take their features, Billy Kyle up first with his venerable PERDIDO before Hall sets off fireworks with a version of CLARINET MARMALADE even hotter than the attempt from Milan. MACK THE KNIFE follows and breaks it up as usual. Interestingly, Armstrong next calls his waltz-medley of TENDERLY and YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE, which was usually reserved for a change of pace, allowing Armstrong to play dramatic lead on two of his favorite standards. But starting in 1956, Armstrong almost always called it after MACK. I sometimes wonder if this was to quash any possible riotous reactions in these early days of rock and roll riots (a review of Armstrong’s recording in The Gramophone warned about MACK’S “unnecessarily long, and in places, revolting lyric that might easily incite impressionable teenagers to violence (and has had that effect in America, I understand).”) The waltz medley at least allowed everyone to relax a little bit.
But not for long! Deems is up next with his usual feature (and the feature for all All Stars drummers post-Sid Catlett), STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY. When Deems’s name elicits cheers from the crowd, Armstrong makes the connection that it’s because Deems is a “Chicago boy.” Armstrong loved Deems’s ability to work up a crowd; knowing he had many hometown friends in the house, Armstrong lets Deems go, offering more encores than usual, making this one the longest surviving versions of SAVOY.
Trummy’s next with his big feature from the Lunceford days, MARGIE. When he joined the All Stars, Young not only stepped up the tempo on it, but he also stepped up the showmanship, using his foot to play the trombone slide on the encores and eventually fake “collapsing” on his back at its conclusion. We can’t see any of that on this performance but we sure can hear Armstrong’s remarkable upper register playing on the encores. He performs that way all night, never taking a single song off.
“It’s blues time, folks,” brings Velma Middleton front and center with her showpiece, BIG MAMA’S BACK IN TOWN. For years, the climax was Middleton’s split but by this point, her obesity was beginning to slow her down. Not only does it sound like there’s no split on this version, but if you listen to the last chorus here, it ends after only four bars; it had been a full 12 bars during versions in 1955 but clearly, that was leaving her gasping for breath a little too much. She’s still catching her breath at the start of THAT’S MY DESIRE but that doesn’t stop her and Armstrong from doing their usual, side-splitting job of breaking up the audience. What comedic timing they possessed! The Crew Cuts’ KO KO MO seemed like an unlikely number to make it into the All Stars book but Armstrong adapted it as a duet between himself and Middleton. It had become a hit with audiences, something Armstrong and Middleton performed every night until Middleton tragically died while on tour in Sierra Leone, Africa in 1961. One fun aspect of the various surviving versions is the opening vamp on which Armstrong improvised a new solo every night, often sneaking in as many different quotes as he could fit. This one includes THE PEANUT VENDOR, WE’RE IN THE MONEY, YOU ARE TOO BEAUTIFUL and a witty comment on the surroundings, CHICAGO (THAT TODDLIN’ TOWN)
A super short Deems feature on MOP MOP concludes the All Stars’s explosive set. Hayes was then brought back to read a “finale” speech about jazz being an international language before Armstrong played a crowd-pleasing version of WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN and a dramatic STAR-SPANGLED BANNER to punctuate the evening.
Knowing what Avakian was going through at the time—battling Glaser, watching the Decca restrictions, trying to get Armstrong to record new tunes—one can understand why he chose to pass on the Chicago performance when the reels were handed to him the following week. But endless thanks to Michael Brooks for having the foresight to realize that one label’s garbage contained an undeniable treasure. (Though one has to wonder if the complete Amsterdam concert and second Milan reel from 1955 bit the dust in another round of Columbia “spring cleaning” around the same time…)
SESSION (K), NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL, JULY 6, 1956
By July, the prospects of signing Armstrong to a long-term contract were looking bleak. The Newport Jazz Festival was founded by George Wein in 1954 and was a huge success that year and in 1955. Avakian, always on the cutting edge of recording trends, wanted to get in on the act, so he arranged to record multiple acts at the 1956 festival for Columbia, including Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Buck Clayton and more.
Wein, the festival’s impresario, had agreed to pay Armstrong a discounted $2,500 for his appearance in 1956. But Glaser was notified that Avakian had offered to reimburse the Festival “and charge one-third of same to Louis’ royalty account.” Glaser announced that he would not stand for this, tearing into Avakian in a letter from May 26, “George, I have no intention of allowing you or George Wein to charge Louis Armstrong one single penny of the money that Louis is receiving to play the Festival.” Realizing Glaser was slipping away, Avakian wrote him on June 13 to let him know that he finally agreed to Glaser’s demands regarding SIX FOOT FOUR giving the copyright to International Music. It didn’t matter; four days later, Glaser asked Avakian for a list of tunes Armstrong had recorded for Columbia because Norman Granz was now interested in recording Armstrong for Verve but only wanted fresh material.
Avakian’s dream of an extended, exclusive contract between Armstrong and Columbia Records was seemingly dead, but he still had deals to record the Newport set (once he acquiesced to Glaser’s demands), plus the Lewisohn Stadium performance he had set up with Glaser back in February.
Armstrong performed at Newport for the first time in 1955, but was far from happy with how it turned out. After the performance, he sat down and typed out a two-page manuscript about it to be used in a potential autobiography. In the unpublished chapter, Armstrong complained “some of the artists performed too long,” leaving him with only 35 minutes to perform. “Some [in the audience] shouted to me, ‘Hey Louis play some more.’ Disgusted, I said in an undertone, ‘The show is all over, they cut my time,” Armstrong wrote in the document, also currently housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. When Wein invited Armstrong to an after party, Armstrong refused, writing, “The members of my group and I felt as though we hadn't been fairly treated, and decided to go home to relax and prepare for our next day's work.”
For the 1956 Festival, Armstrong’s displeasure must have made itself known because he was given a full hour on the Festival’s second night. He responded by giving a more jazz-centric performance than normal. After strong versions of SLEEPY TIME, INDIANA and THE GYPSY, we get something different, the medley of BUGLE BLUES and OLE MISS. This had been in the books for years but usually as a drum feature. After swinging just OLE MISS on LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYS W. C. HANDY, the drum feature aspect was eliminated. After Newport, BUGLE BLUES and the stirring breaks that went with it would be retired, but OLE MISS was just getting started; Armstrong would continue to play it nightly, often with encores, right up until 1971.
Next, the “trip to New Orleans” results in two more excellent performances of TIN ROOF BLUES and MY BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT, the latter with another dynamic encore (which Armstrong can be heard calling for-”Put an encore on this”). Armstrong opened with six straight numbers, totaling over a half hour, and they all featured the trumpet; no BLUEBERRY HILL no A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON, or any other “commercial” hits. Then it was time for the All Stars to do three more instrumentals, with Kyle leading off with PERDIDO again. Hall then played one of his specialties, a ballad version of YOU MADE ME LOVE YOU, the second half played in a peculiar, breathy style that almost sounds like its going for laughs, but is really just part of Hall’s unique interpretation.
Dale Jones gets the spotlight on WHISPERING, doing a nice job, though its Armstrong and the rest of the All Stars that score extra points in the ensembles, Armstrong’s muted tone especially shining during his solo. After MACK THE KNIFE, Deems is unleashed for STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY (much shorter than in Chicago) and Trummy tears out like a “mad donkey” on UNDECIDED. Velma has time for her two blues, KO KO MO really going over well (Armstrong’s opening solo includes a bit of MARYLAND, MY MARYLAND). Deems is the only All Star besides Middleton to get two helpings, getting to work out on a short MOP MOP, including a nifty bit of showmanship where he would stand up and continue soloing on the cymbals at a rapid tempo while walking around his set. SLEEPY TIME closes the show, though a couple of loud louts continue shouting requests until the very end.
From a repertoire standpoint, this set’s co-producer Scott Wenzel made a salient point about the breadth of the band’s repertoire: there’s traditional jazz in numbers like INDIANA and TIN ROOF BLUES, Swing Era favorites PERDIDO, UNDECIDED and STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, a pop tune in THE GYPSY, Armstrong’s big hit of the moment, MACK THE KNIFE a touch of bebop with MOP MOP and a strong dose of rock-and-roll on Velma’s two features, as well as MY BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT (Leave it to Armstrong to draw a straight line between New Orleans and 1950s rock on that number.) It was impossible to pigeonhole this band into one style.
Avakian also achieved the perfect recording balance for the band, allowing the listener to appreciate their “elegant roughness,” in the words of jazz blogger Michael Steinman, better than ever. The All Stars are on fire throughout, with everyone taking chances on solos they had all played countless times; one couldn’t accuse the band of coasting on that night.
However, one man in attendance accused the band of much worse, penning a review that went off like a gunshot in the jazz community: DownBeat Editor Jack Tracy, the same writer who contributed the “Fifty Years of Jazz” script in Chicago.
“Although this was the evening following the great downpour, and though the crowd of some 8,000 came wrapped timorously in foul weather gear, the only reign to fall was that of King Louis Armstrong,” Tracy began. “He demonstrated with finality that it takes more than rolling eyes, handkerchief on head and chops, and the same old Paramount theater act to warrant using an hour's time at an American festival of jazz. Sure, Louis flashed the majestic tone and ingrained feeling that has made him an undeniable great in jazz, but he did so seldom and only while playing the same old tunes and fronting the same indifferent band he's been working with for too long. Armstrong made his appearance at Newport seem commonplace...just another job...and this coming from a man so universally regarded as a legend was an insult to an audience that was there to hear the best from everyone.” After tearing apart the individual All Stars (“Trummy has become a tasteless battering ram; Billy Kyle…doesn’t care anymore; Deems is heavily unswinging.”), his final summary of the day’s events was succinct: “A good concert till Louis came on.”
Armstrong had received plenty of negative reviews from the jazz press over the years, but Tracy’s review was one of the harshest. Also, being published in the number one jazz periodical of the time, it was seen by many eyeballs. Only Max Jones and Sinclair Traill rushed to Armstrong’s aid, publishing a defense of him and the band and a condemnation of Tracy in London’s Melody Maker. Other than them, no one else spoke out; for the next 15 years, Armstrong would have to deal with many more reviews that were from the Tracy template. He paid them no mind; the sound of the audience’s applause—as heard on the Newport recording—is what kept him going night after night.
For years, Armstrong devotees were curious about Armstrong’s Newport 1956 set; could it have been as bad as Tracy made it seem? One couldn’t tell from the original Columbia release. For one thing, Avakian decided to split the LP between Armstrong and Eddie Condon, so he only had to fill up one side. BUGLE BLUES/OLE MISS was a natural choice because it was something different but other than that, Avakian had to resort to his usual methods, trying to put out the most pleasurable album giving the experience of hearing Armstrong at Newport…even if the results weren’t exactly Armstrong at Newport. He used INDIANA from the Chicago concert (without the bass solo), cut out Dale Jones’s entire opening chorus on WHISPERING (if you haven’t noticed, he was unimpressed by many of Armstrong’s bass outings) and created a real mutt of a master on MACK THE KNIFE, with a vocal made up from an unissued studio take from September 1955 (Shaw on bass) and instrumental portions from a later version at the Lewisohn Stadium rehearsal (Jones on bass). It was reasoned that if Avakian had to go through such lengths to put out a listenable product, maybe the All Stars really did have an off night.
It wasn’t until the production of this boxed set that it all became clear. Not only was Avakian recording the Festival for Columbia, but the Voice of America was also recording it to be broadcast overseas. As mentioned, Avakian got a tremendous mix with the musicians, but the for the entire set, Armstrong sang into the Voice of America microphone! Fortunately, thanks to the wizardry of audio engineer Andreas Meyer, we were able to save the better-recorded vocals from the otherwise distorted Voice of America tapes and splice them into the warmer, fuller sounding Columbia mixes—a modern day evocation of Avakian’s methods to get the best possible sound throughout!
Thus, for the first time since July 1956, we can listen to Armstrong’s set in its entirety. Either you listen to it and agree with Tracy or, if you’re like me, you listen to it and think, “What concert did Tracy attend?” To each his own.
SESSIONS (L AND M), LEWISOHN STADIUM, JULY 14-15, 1956
Glaser still had one obligation to Avakian after Newport and that was to allow him to record the All Stars at Lewisohn Stadium, where Edward R. Murrow would be filming him performing a “Concerto Grosso” version of “St. Louis Blues” with members of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. This would be a major event.
Of course, to Armstrong, it was just another gig and he was relaxed as ever. The same couldn’t be said for Bernstein. Armstrong recalled that the conductor “was more nervous for me, and I had to look at him, because he was so anxious for us to come out right….He was explaining this cadenza I had to make….He say, ‘Now, when you get to this cadenza and you get a little nervous or something, you know, well, just kind of shorten it or whatever it is.’ I said, ‘Okay, daddy.’ Well, you know, I warm up at home. I hit the stage, I’m ready, whether it’s a rehearsal or anything. See? From the first rehearsal on down we wailed. Well, from then on, he got confidence. It don’t take long for a person to relax once they hear me go down with the arrangement. After that, he got himself straightened.”
Avakian was on hand to record the rehearsal, which took place earlier in the same day as the concert. The surviving audio is a raggedy affair, as the All Stars and the orchestra work section by section on getting it right, with many clams along the way. They never did rehearse a complete take (at least not on the surviving reels) but once everyone was comfortable with the routine, the orchestra left the stage.
But the All Stars weren’t quite through. Avakian, always a quick thinker, saw an opening: the All Stars had some down time before the show but now they were warmed up and the recording equipment was in place. Would they care to record a few numbers? Joe Glaser wasn’t around so he couldn’t stop anything. Armstrong, always happy to help his friend, agreed.
All of a sudden, it was Milan all over again. In front of smattering of friends, associates and Philharmonic musicians, Avakian started an impromptu recording session to record some different repertoire. He knew he had limited time so he couldn’t ask the band to whip up something new. But he did ask them to reach deep into their book for a couple of rarely played instrumentals: WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS and MAHOGANY HALL STOMP. By this point, it should come as no surprise that the All Stars swung the hell out of both numbers.
Armstrong almost always improvised the bulk of his solo on WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS, though he always began by quoting Lester Young’s solo on YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME with Count Basie (something pointed out to me by Loren Schoenberg). He’s in total command of the horn on this one, even showing off some fast-fingering at times. Jones’s bass solo was edited out by Avakian when this was originally released years later (no surprise there) but it has been restored for this set.
Then it was time for MAHOGANY HALL STOMP in two tries. Armstrong nails the three-chorus solo both times (still sounding fresh though it was of 1929 vintage) but the other All Stars change their solos from take to take, with varied results. Kyle especially sounds less sure-footed on the first version, which didn’t have a take number, so he might have been assumed this to have been a rehearsal by the musicians (Young also forgets the riff behind Hall’s solo). Deems seems to speed up a bit each time during Trummy’s solos, but it all adds to the excitement; Kyle can be heard asking Armstrong if it was too fast immediately after and Armstrong answers, “No, it’s good!” Both closing ensembles work up quite a head of steam, but Trummy gets a little too carried away the second time, botching the ending. Once again, in an effort to “save their asses,” Avakian used the complete introduction and the clean final ending from the first try for the SATCHMO THE GREAT master, but the entire middle was made up of the second take. Avakian’s final edit (including adding a copious amount of fake applause) is a strong one, but once again, his postproduction work has been stripped to present these two differing performances exactly as they sounded at Lewisohn Stadium.
Next, Avakian realized he didn’t have a good version of Armstrong’s old Decca hit, BLUEBERRY HILL. The All Stars tossed it off without any problem on this first, previously unissued take at a unique faster-than-usual tempo (Armstrong can be heard telling Kyle to “swing it like we used to do it,” perhaps an allusion to how this tune had fallen out of the band’s regular rotation in recent months). Then the producer had a suggestion: could Armstrong open with a chorus of trumpet? Armstrong had never picked up the trumpet in the seven years he had been performing this number but that didn’t stop him. After needing a couple of takes to work it out, he eventually turned in a lovely muted reading of the melody. Though he sounds great, Armstrong resumed his vocals-only version immediately after, making this the only known version of BLUEBERRY HILL to feature a full chorus of trumpet.
As can be heard, the sound of the crowd grows more authoritative by the end of BLUEBERRY HILL people were starting to notice that Armstrong was putting on an unplanned show and they wanted to take it in. This was a man who lived for his audience, so he wasn’t about to quit, honoring a request for MACK THE KNIFE and dedicating it “for the audience.” After giving credit to “our boy” George Avakian in his introduction, the All Stars swung old MACK down again. Unfortunately, it’s not a complete performance. Someone—perhaps Avakian himself—must have thought, “Well, we don’t need MACK again” and switched off the recorder midway through Louis’s vocal. However, after a quick change of heart, the machine was flipped back on a few seconds later. Examining the original reels, there’s no signs of splicing so the only explanation was the machine was turned off and back on. Nevertheless, the performance is worth reissuing because it captures the loose spirit of the rehearsal session (and also because the opening and closing choruses ended up on the released version from AT NEWPORT.
Avakian was satisfied with four numbers in the can and he didn’t want to overburden Armstrong so the rehearsal session ended right there. Later that night, the Stadium’s first “Jazz Jamboree” took place in front of an outdoor crowd of over 21,000 fans. The Dave Brubeck Quartet led things off with a full set, which Avakian recorded (it remains unissued).
But then he did an interesting thing: as Armstrong led off the second half of the evening, Avakian turned off the recording equipment. After so many battles over repertoire, he probably felt sure that, between Amsterdam, Milan, Chicago, Newport and now the Lewisohn rehearsal recordings, he had recorded everything he’d ever need. It’s entirely possible (and even probable) that Armstrong performed his standard rundown of tunes with the All Stars that evening but we’ll never know because there’s no record of what he featured during his set. (Armstrong’s set did get another high-profile negative review, this time courtesy of John S. Wilson in the New York Times, lamenting, “Except for occasional instances it would be misleading if the antics of Mr. Armstrong and his colleagues were to be accepted as representative of well-played jazz.”)
Avakian was ready, though, to get the climactic ST. LOUIS BLUES (CONCERTO GROSSO) performance. So was Edward R. Murrow, who had his cameras in place. The resulting ten-minute performance would be a highlight of both the Satchmo the Great film and soundtrack album. However, Armstrong fans with discerning ears have always claimed that the album performance differed from the album. It was assumed that Avakian being Avakian, perhaps he spliced in some better solos from that day’s rehearsal. But that wasn’t the case.
It wasn’t until the preparation of this set that the entire story of ST. LOUIS BLUES became clear. And because the story is so riveting—and the music is so good—we’re issuing the entire sequence of events, only eliminating some quieter passages when the stage was being set up. Taken as a whole, it makes up one of the most thrilling moments of Armstrong’s career and another near-riotous moment to rival what Ellington had done at Newport one week earlier (though to considerably less publicity…this is only going public for the first time in 2014!).
The concerto arrangement for ST. LOUIS BLUES was done by Alfredo Antonini, who had just conducted “Italian Night” at Lewisohn Stadium the previous week. The classical sections are pretty ponderous, but nobody gets harmed (except for a bad clarinet clam on the first try). Armstrong, feeling the long-haired spirit, enters with a dramatic cadenza that makes reference to Stravinsky’s PETROUCHKA SUITE a work the trumpeter owned in his personal collection (thanks to trumpet master Brian Shaw for hipping me to this similarity). From there, the All Stars take over for an entire 52-bar chorus of the tune—the trumpet positively soaring—before Armstrong finally joins in with the strings, playing a lovely obbligato. A tempo change brings on hot solos by Young and Hall before Armstrong leads the way out, his tone still rising above the closing crescendo.
With the audience going crazy, Armstrong feels the need to play one of his patented encores. Of course, that’s not an easy thing for an 88-person Symphony Orchestra to do, so after a brief discussion—Armstrong can be heard imploring everyone to hurry up because the audience is waiting—they decide to come back from the tempo change. Everyone is feeling their oats, with Young almost blowing his trombone to pieces and Armstrong working a repeated Db blue note over and over with great results. Again, the result is bedlam.
But then Leonard Bernstein speaks and in this unissued segment, reminds the audience that this is a recording session in addition to the scene of a film shoot and asks for them to remain quiet throughout the next take. Next take? Okay, so it was performed twice. Mystery solved…partially.
Avakian’s reel ran out while the cameras set up for take 2, unfortunately missing the first few words of Bernstein’s impromptu, heartfelt tribute to Armstrong, which had to be redone in the studio sometime after the concert. In the final edit of the album and the film, Bernstein’s speech comes after the performance and is followed immediately by Armstrong’s. But here, as soon as Bernstein finishes, they do it all over again. After it concludes, Armstrong delivers his own very personal speech (“It gassed me, man, it gassed me!”) paying tribute to W. C. Handy, 83 and blind, in attendance that evening.
With everything in the can, Armstrong calls WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN as a finale of his own. The whole performance emits a kind of valedictory joy; this was a long day, but Armstrong wanted to go out with a bang. This version is looser and even more exciting than the one from Chicago, though Trummy sounds like he’s hurting. Armstrong empties the tank by calling an encore that features a faster tempo and the trumpet taking the melody an octave higher than expected. An unbeatable finale.
Only there was a problem: when the SAINTS concluded, word spread that the cameras malfunctioned during the second take! They would have to be fixed, reloaded and they would have to do “St. Louis Blues” again. On the session reel, you can hear much discussion, Armstrong repeatedly mentioning “the audience, the audience.” He asked how much longer it would take to fix the problem. With 21,000 fans still in their seats—many chanting, “We want Louie!”—Armstrong decided to perform for them. After a quick discussion with the band (Deems, feeling fresh, asks for MOP MOP), they decide to go with BASIN STREET BLUES. The crowd cheers wildly at the introduction and the All Stars swing mightily for six minutes, Armstrong somehow still sounding mighty fresh himself and Young sounding rejuvenated after the respite.
Murrow himself then came out to explain to the crowd about the camera, but promised them one more chance to enjoy the ST. LOUIS BLUES. After getting the 88-members of the Symphony Orchestra in place and tuned up, they did it one more time. For those who have seen Satchmo the Great, you’ll recognize the uptempo portion as being from this take (Young, perhaps commenting on the evening’s unexpected course of events, opens with a quote from SOME ENCHANTED EVENING. After one final high note ending, Murrow emerged again to thank the audience and say good night.
It was definitely a night to remember. During a 1973 tribute to Armstrong on his WOR radio show, host John Wingate fielded a phone call from a woman who was at the Stadium that night (unfortunately, she didn’t give her name). “There we were sitting on these little wooden chairs, but we didn’t mind a bit,” she told Wingate. “And the audience applauded. And he kept saying he’s not leaving. And whoever had arranged it kept coming up to him after every number and say, ‘Well, come on, let’s go,’ and he’d say, ‘No, I’m going to play for the people because I love them.’ He was so sincere with the love and the pleasure that he brought. I’ll never get over that night.”
Armstrong himself was pleased. “After the performance, [Bernstein] liked to shake my hand off. Then, while I’m on stage, he would get the lowdown from my wife, Lucille, on how I stay up like I do and keep myself up. She told him about Swiss Kriss, too [Armstrong’s laxative of choice]. And when I came out the wings from taking my bow, he says, ‘Man, I’m going to take some Swiss Kriss tomorrow.’”
Avakian had another set of strong recordings but he was also sick of dealing with Glaser. On July 3, Glaser had written another nasty letter, unwilling to accept the contracts Avakian presented him with to record Armstrong at Chicago and Newport. Avakian made the changes to satisfy Glaser and sent them back. However, when Glaser returned them, he forgot to have Armstrong initial the changes. Avakian didn’t care. On July 17, three days after Lewisohn Stadium, Avakian wrote to Walter Dean, Columbia’s head of business affairs, “If my assumptions are correct, I suggest that you hold on to what you’ve got in the form of one of the carbons and ask Glaser to have the other two initialed, because the situation with Armstrong and Glaser is very touchy and once we have everything nailed down, I think we are through, in capital letters and underlined thickly, with Mr. Glaser.”
Indeed, he was; by August, Glaser was writing to Avakian and bragging about Armstrong’s success at a Hollywood Bowl concert produced by Norman Granz. The whirlwind two-year relationship between Armstrong and Columbia was over. There would be no long-term contract.
But was there ever going to be an exclusive contract? I don’t think so. Glaser complained about things like SIX FOOT FOUR and the royalties comparisons with Decca, I think, to dissuade Columbia from even wanting to make such a deal. In February, when Glaser was bragging about Armstrong making $4,000-$6,000 a night, he gave a clue to where the real money was. Once he received Columbia’s lucrative offer, he had a number in writing; the new game would be, who would top it? Glaser would never again sign an exclusive contract for Armstrong to record with any label. Armstrong’s went to the highest bidder, which, in the next 15 years, would include Verve, Decca again, Audio Fidelity, Kapp, Brunswick, Mercury and more.
Avakian truly loved Armstrong and tried his best to play hardball with Glaser, but Glaser was a man who would settle for only what he wanted, what he felt was best for his client and nothing less. Armstrong considered Avakian a close friend, but in the end, had to follow Glaser’s lead. (Avakian did receive the strange compliment from Glaser that he was “the only man to have ever hung up on me—and lived!”)
Avakian still had to put together the SATCHMO THE GREAT album, though he’d have to resort to a little more trickery to pull it off, not telling Lewisohn Stadium about the rehearsal session and assigning those tracks different dates and locations, leaving discographers scratching their heads for almost 60 years about where some of those mid-50s live performances emanated from. Now, thanks to Mosaic Records, it is all straightened out.
Avakian continued to record masterpieces for Columbia until March 1958, when he left his longtime label to join World Pacific Records. Though he continued to record many great albums for a variety of different labels in the ensuing decades, it was his work with Armstrong that he was most proud of. And though Armstrong worked for many great producers in his career—including Norman Granz, Milt Gabler, Jack Kapp and even Quincy Jones—he never received the same love and attention in the studio from them as he did from Avakian. When it came to loving and admiring Louis, Avakian might have only taken second place to Lucille. “Among all the great performers I worked with over the last 61 years, Louis remains the artist I most admired and most enjoyed recording, by a distinct though relatively narrow margin—narrow because it was also an enormous pleasure working with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Mahalia Jackson, Erroll Garner, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck and a host of others who were not just great artists, but among the best friends I have ever had,” Avakian recalled in Jazz Times in 2000.
In 2013, Avakian visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where he got to spend time with Programs Coordinator Ben Flood, a young saxophonist having his first face-to-face time with Avakian. Flood tried taking advantage of this and asked the 94-year-old Avakian about a variety of musicians he worked with, including Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and others. But each time Avakian answered about the musician in question, he’d follow up immediately with a story about Armstrong. “It was like that was the one relationship that meant more to him than anything else,” Flood said of the meeting. Two years might not seem like a lot in a recording career that spanned 48 years, but jazz fans owe Avakian a tremendous amount of gratitude for what he managed to record of Armstrong both in studio and on the road between 1954 and 1956. Those 1950s Columbia recordings easily stand alongside any of Armstrong’s best recordings from any period of his career.
SESSIONS (N, O AND P), NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL, JULY 6, 1958
After Lewisohn, Avakian had one more reunion with Armstrong, if in an indirect way. Columbia’s series of albums from the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival were very successful, causing Norman Granz to commandeer the 1957 Festival, recording almost every set for Verve. Columbia muscled its way back in to be the official label of the 1958 Festival and with that, came the opportunity to once more record the All Stars in a live setting, but Avakian had already left the label in March of that year. However, photographer Bert Stern was planning on filming portions of the Festival for an eventual documentary, Jazz On a Summer’s Day. He didn’t know much about the music so he hired George to be his Musical Director, while George’s brother, Aram Avakian, would serve as editor. Thus, though no longer officially affiliated with the label, Avakian would still have a relationship to the music performed that year.
Armstrong’s relationship with Newport remained rocky going in to the 1958 Festival. In 1957, George Wein became the next person who attempted to shake up Armstrong’s live show, bringing in various guest stars for Armstrong to play with—but not telling him until the day of the show. Armstrong exploded when told that Velma Middleton couldn’t appear because Ella Fitzgerald was on the bill, shouting, “I’m playing with my band and my singer and none of this other shit.” He did just that; when Wein told him the other musicians were waiting for a final jam session, Armstrong cut him off saying, “No one hangs on my coattails.”
For 1958, Wein learned his lesson and made sure to run his plans by Armstrong ahead of time. First, Armstrong would make a special appearance with Newport’s International Youth Band, directed by Marshall Brown and featuring an assemblage of top young jazz musicians from the around the world (among them, pianist George Gruntz and guitarist Gabor Szabo). And after the All Stars did their thing, Armstrong would be joined by Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett, two musicians always welcome to share his stage.
Backed by the Youth Band, Armstrong did a marvelous version of ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET. We’ve heard this piece as a romp at Town Hall and as a medium-tempo swinger in Chicago and now we finally have the original ballad treatment at Newport. This is a special version. He caresses the melody during the opening chorus but there’s just a touch of wear and tear around the edges of some of his notes, enough for him call for a glass of water at the start of his vocal. He sings beautifully, especially his emotional second chorus, highlighted by a one-time-only break consisting of the phrase, “Swiss Kriss gets it, Jack!” His chops sufficiently moistened, he soars in his concluding solo, the only word to describe it being “majestic.” Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker was there that day, and though he had little tolerance for the All Stars, SUNNY SIDE stopped him in his tracks, writing about it with affection in a 1994 profile of the trumpeter.
After that, it was time for the All Stars, with half the band made up of new faces since the last time we heard from them. In the rhythm section, Mort Herbert was on bass, having joined in December 1957. Herbert had a more modern background, recording an album for Savoy with Sahib Shihab and playing with Gene Krupa for a while, but he loved being with the All Stars, staying with them until 1961, when he left to become a lawyer. Armstrong loved having him, too; when Joe Glaser approved Arvell Shaw’s return to the band in 1960, Armstrong found out and tore up Herbert’s release so Herbert could stay, a rare instance of the trumpeter overruling his manager..
Barrett Deems was a one-of-a-kind drummer but he was also a one-of-a-kind person, without any filter between his mouth and his brain. Eventually, his personality quirks became too much to overcome and he was let go at the beginning of 1958. His replacement, Danny Barcelona, was a recommendation from Trummy Young as he had played with the Filipino drummer regularly while living in Hawaii. Barcelona knew how to swing and his firm beat and crowd-pleasing solos made him a good fit with the band. Occasionally, he sped up the tempo during his breaks, but that never bothered Armstrong, who was more impressed that Barcelona was a “nice fella,” who always arrived on time and with a smile on his face. He’d remain with Armstrong for 13 years until the last gig at the Waldorf.
The other replacement arrived with a little more fanfare. Edmond Hall proved that he was the ideal clarinetist for the band, but by the spring of 1958, he was worn down from traveling and tired of playing many of the same tunes night after night. He quit the band at the end of June, right before high-profile gigs at Lewisohn Stadium and Newport. But instead of just resigning like other All Stars did, Hall went to the press and took shots at his former leader, saying he had to take a vacation “to get Louis Armstrong out of my system.” “I was with him exactly three years and Louis wouldn’t take a vacation that whole time,” Hall complained. “That just got too much for me. He was afraid to stop playing for four or five nights for fear he’d go bad. He was afraid that his lip would give out. This was all mental, of course.”
Armstrong read Hall’s quotes and vented about them in a taped interview from San Francisco later in 1958. “To me, the New Orleans musicians for generations always had malice and never did stick as one,” he said, adding later, “They all have that little inferiority complex.” Armstrong then told the story of Hall’s departure, with Hall waiting for Armstrong to say something about it after he handed in his notice: “I said, 'Well, I don't blame you.' I say, 'Very few people could take this road like an old Trojan like me.' That's all I told him. He said he's tired of the road. Well, what does he want me to do? Quit, too? You know what I mean? I got a wife, she travels, she understands. His wife travels with him, you understand? But there's something in them people's mind—all I had to say was, 'Man, what you quittin' for? Don't quit! Come back!' I ain't supposed to do that; I didn't even hire him!”
The departure of Hall was the end of the All Stars’s golden period but at least he had a good replacement in Peanuts Hucko, whom Armstrong admired ever since the Town Hall concert. Hucko was a fine, Benny Goodman-inspired technician with the ability to play exciting features, but he lacked Hall’s intensity in the ensembles to assert himself next to Armstrong and Young. However, he does sound very inspired at Newport, eager to be playing with Armstrong again, even though he was still learning the routines on the job. A grueling six-month tour of Europe the following year seemed to take some of the steam out of Hucko’s playing and he eventually left in early 1960.
Armstrong’s Newport 1958 set not only features fantastic playing by the All Stars, but it also features a lot of different repertoire. Hall, Avakian and even Glaser might have complained about Armstrong doing the same songs, but if this boxed set proves anything, it should be that the band had a deep book of songs to choose from. For example, the 1947 Carnegie Hall concert bears almost no resemblance to the sets from 1956; the band’s book was constantly evolving. And if you compare the 1956 Newport show with the one from 1958, there’s actually only five overlaps, not counting SLEEPY TIME.
Armstrong opens with SLEEPY TIME, but interestingly, it’s an instrumental treatment, which is how he often performed it in 1957 and 1958, before going back to the vocal version in 1959. But then comes a shock: no INDIANA! We can only guess why this is but I have two speculations: Armstrong had to squeeze in the guest appearances by Hackett and Teagarden, so he had to cut something and also, maybe he felt his chops were sufficiently warmed up on SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET
Regardless of the reason, the next number is PRETTY LITTLE MISSY, an Armstrong-Kyle collaboration based a riff on Kyle’s PERDIDO solo. Armstrong loved performing the tune, recording three different studio versions, but it never caught on as a hit. Still, it’s an exciting performance with a neat little arrangement by Kyle featuring a half-chorus insert of Ralph Flanagan’s HOT TODDY, some roaring Young and a typically stratospheric bridge by the leader.
Armstrong then calls a new tune to this collection, but not to his repertoire, LAZY RIVER, which he had been performing regularly since 1931. Armstrong gives the old routine a good going-over, the trumpet especially knocking out the high notes—and that gliss—like it’s nothing. This is one of four performances Bert Stern included in the concert film, Jazz On a Summer’s Day.
Armstrong is in great spirits, sounding effervescent throughout the set; in fact, careful listening reveals a number of profanities picked up by the Columbia microphones! (Another reason this set wasn't issued?) He shouts "Kiss my ass" during his onstage interview with Willis Conover, right before telling his offcolor story about meeting the Pope; he slips in a "fuckin'" after his "Jesus, boy," reaction to Danny Barcelona's drum break on NOW YOU HAS JAZZ, which seems to break himself up; after his risque joke at the end of HIGH SOCIETY CALYPSO (the only surviving example of him telling this particular joke), he exclaims, "Jesus Christ!"; and during the bridge of his vocal on PRETTY LITTLE MISSY he clearly changes the second "Pucker up" to "Fuck her up!" There shouldn't be anyone left who is surprised that that gentle, smiling Satchmo had quite a bawdy sense of humor!
TIGER RAG follows and was also in Stern’s film. The “Tiger” had grown into something quite different from the previous versions we’ve heard. At Town Hall, Milan and even Chicago, Armstrong treated it as a jam session, improvising new lines every time. But once he decided to enter it full-time into the repertoire, he went back to his original 1930s recordings, studied his solos and trotted out old quotes of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIn, PAGLIACCI, I’M CONFESSIN’ and DIXIE, all at a breakneck pace. In the last chorus, Armstrong added some visual humor as he would point his horn at Young and sometimes chase him around the stage. As usual, critics complained about the hokum but there’s nothing funny about those high notes, Armstrong hitting those high C’s, one after another, like he did when he was a young man, topping out on a high Eb.
Next, something entirely different, two tunes from the 1956 film High Society. Armstrong always loved performing the tunes he made popular in his movies and when High Society turned out to be a hit, NOW YOU HAS JAZZ and HIGH SOCIETY CALYPSO were added to the show, Young filling in for Bing Crosby on the former (“Bing Crosby in Technicolor,” as Armstrong calls him). Both numbers always went over with the audience and CALYPSO allowed Armstrong to sing over a different kind of rhythm, though the highlight was always the dazzling scatted ending.
After the aforementioned risqué joke, the All Stars launch into OLE MISS. Almost immediately after Newport 1956, Armstrong retired the “Bugle Blues” introduction and focused on his powerhouse lead playing, those two rideout choruses always creating a stir. There’s even an encore here with Armstrong flexing his chops on some repeated glisses before ending with another remarkable high Eb. This is peak form Armstrong.
After telling the nervous Wein, “It’s in the bag” (Wein was probably scared Armstrong wasn’t going to leave time for the guest spots), it was time for the All Stars, Billy Kyle opening with something different, GIRL OF MY DREAMS. Kyle had a nice assortment of foot-stomping medium tempo features that displayed not only his double-timing prowess but also his bluesy, two-fisted side. Hucko follows with a new one (you can hear Armstrong asking what key it’s in), AFTER YOU’VE GONE, which swings mightily and ends too soon (also, listen for Kyle calling Peanuts “Cashew” early on!); Armstrong liked this one and after a few months, would often call for encores, during which he usually wrestled the spotlight from Hucko (he even kept it in the book after Hucko left). Mort Herbert changes the pace with a lovely THESE FOOLISH THINGS though Armstrong, possibly getting nervous himself about the packed show, enters early, stepping on Herbert’s usual second chorus to shorten the performance. Though Herbert is fine, the stirring sound of Armstrong’s tone while playing THESE FOOLISH THINGS is the main event.
MACK THE KNIFE follows in its usual post-bass-feature slot, the tempo up a few notches from the 1956 versions. It would continue to get a little faster until Armstrong slowed it down dramatically in the early 1960s. And like we heard in Chicago, Armstrong cools down the crowd with his medley of TENDERLY and YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE. The routine is shortened here as Armstrong now splits the first chorus with Kyle’s flowery solo, but it’s not like he made it so much easier on his chops; in all, he plays that strong lead in the upper register for three minutes and 50 seconds of its 4:45 running time. Endurance personified. Armstrong’s friend, Jeann Failows, was in the audience and wrote, “Watching the reactions of the audience as Louis played YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE, we realized that most of them were transfixed; we saw tears.”
Barcelona then whips the crowd back into a frenzy with his playing on STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, Armstrong throwing him some encores for good measure. Crowds always responded to Armstrong’s smiling “little Hawaiian boy” on the drums (though some nights, he was a “little Filipino boy”!). Trummy follows with a rather sloppy UNDECIDED compared to the gems we heard in 1955 and 1956. The tempo is the fastest yet and his chops see to have trouble keeping up. Armstrong also almost messes up the ending, and the whole thing hangs together by a thread until the finish.
Velma Middleton begins her set with a blues but no longer BIG MAMA’S BACK IN TOWN. Instead, we get the righteously rocking ST. LOUIS BLUES. After it served as the epic opening track on LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYS W. C. HANDY, it became part of the show, a dynamite feature for the two vocalists. The tempo is particularly lowdown on this version, everything building towards Armstrong’s climactic two rideout choruses; goodness knows what those high notes sounded like in the open Newport air.
KO KO MO is heard at a faster tempo than in Chicago and with some all new quotes from Armstrong, including SAILING, SAILING, OH, LADY BE GOOD, CHEEK TO CHEEK, YOU ARE TOO BEAUTIFUL and, with the rest of the band, a reprise of SLY MONGOOSE to commemorate Armstrong’s 1956 tour of Africa. Armstrong and Middleton do their thing (that instrumental interlude is pretty wild) and then Barcelona kicks off the opening drum solo for WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN. This was the usual nightly routine at this point, but the band forgot about the special guests! After 39 seconds, Armstrong shouts, “Here’s Jackson Teagarden—hold it there!” He then formally introduces Teagarden and “Little” Bobby Hackett and—coming full circle in this boxed set—announces some tunes from the 1947 Town Hall concert.
ROCKIN’ CHAIR is first and if you’ve ever seen Jazz On a Summer’s Day, I don’t need to tell you how heavenly it is (even in its edited form in the film). Even though Teagarden had been out of the band for seven years, the warmth returns as soon as he opens his mouth (they had performed ROCKIN’ CHAIR on a Timex All Star Jazz Show on NBC the previous December, so they still knew the routine). Though there’s no triumphant closing ensemble as there was at Town Hall, there’s still enough love radiated in this duet to make this another moment for the ages.
BABY WON’T YOU PLEASE COME HOME wasn’t performed at Town Hall but it was one of Teagarden’s frequent features during his tenure with the All Stars. Armstrong’s trepidation with unrehearsed jam sessions is borne out in the beginning when Kyle starts it off at too slow a tempo and the rhythm section takes more than a few bars to realize that Teagarden is singing it in half-time. But once everyone clicks in, stand back! In fact, I find the instrumental chorus to be almost overwhelming (in a good way): in 32 bars, it’s a perfect microcosm of Louis Armstrong’s onstage life from 1947-1958—everything we’ve heard up to this point in this set. There’s Teagarden, Hackett and Hucko from Town Hall; Young and Kyle from the golden mid-50s period; Herbert and Barcelona, swinging hard, as they would continue to do for Armstrong into the early 60s; and riding above it all, Armstrong himself, his glorious high notes sounding fuller and stronger than ever before. It’s a chilling moment; just close your eyes and let it wash over you.
Armstrong next moves over to allow the spotlight to shine on Hackett. I already mentioned how much Armstrong loved Hackett’s playing in the background on PENNIES FROM HEAVEN at Town Hall. At Newport, Armstrong lets Hackett take an entire chorus by himself, and Hackett delivers the beautiful playing we expect of him, a lovely, lyrical, swinging chorus. Armstrong then sings a chorus with more of that tasty Hackett backing. A rideout with Armstrong on trumpet would have been the only thing to improve the performance; nevertheless, it’s a fine feature for one of Armstrong’s favorite musicians.
With the clock ticking, Armstrong launches into a riotous version of WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN, also the climax of his appearance in Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Time was obviously short so Armstrong eschews both a full vocal and the introduction of the band members, just so he can jump back in and swing out those final three choruses, reaching from within to finish it up an octave higher, all the horns riffing furiously behind him. It’s clocks in at less than two minutes but is still one of the most exciting performances of the set.
THE SAINTS would have made for a most satisfying conclusion but Armstrong tops it by closing with THE STAR-SPANGLED BANNER. We’ve already heard it in Chicago but there’s something extra emotional about this version, the combination of the recording of Armstrong’s tone and the harmonies provided by the other musicians on stage. Dan Morgenstern was in the audience, standing next to author James Baldwin. “You know,” Baldwin told him, “that’s the first time I’ve ever liked that song.”
Armstrong could have that effect on people, even those who had trouble with his stage persona. In his contemporary review of the Festival, Balliett summed it up by writing, “The Festival was closed that night by Louis Armstrong’s small band, whose past Newport performances have been mostly vaudeville in nature. There was still plenty of vaudeville in evidence—off-color jokes and words, facial contortions and the like—but in at least half of his twenty numbers Armstrong played with a controlled, feverish lyricism (in such numbers as SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, MACK THE KNIFE and THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER) that suddenly dispelled the chromium-and-tail-fins pall that had hung over most of the weekend.”
However, when it was all over, Columbia chose not to release Armstrong’s 1958 set at Newport. There’s no concrete evidence but it could be a result of a variety of factors: duplication of repertoire, issues with the sound (Armstrong switched between two onstage mikes so his voice sometimes is in the left channel and sometimes in the right) or most probably, Joe Glaser, who commanded $25,000 alone for 12 minutes of Armstrong’s set to appear in Jazz on a Summer’s Day. Columbia had been down that road before and even with Avakian gone, they weren’t eager to go back down it again.
Our journey with Armstrong and the All Stars ends here but they still had plenty of accomplishments in the next decade, including hit records and many successful world tours. But the All Stars periods in the late 40s and mid-50s were never topped. If anything, hopefully this set proves once and for all that Armstrong never stopped creating important, challenging and entertaining works of music. Because after all, all you can say about Louis Armstrong is he blew like hell every time he hit that stand.
Ricky Riccardi is the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum and author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years. He also runs the popular online blog, “The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong,” at dippermouth.blogspot.com. He personally wishes to thank Michael Steinman and David Ostwald for their help in shaping his notes, which are dedicated to the memories of two late Armstrong scholars, Gösta Hägglöf and Jos Willems. Both men spent years trying to straighten out the discographical aspects of Armstrong’s 1950s recordings for Columbia and this set would not have been possible without their pioneering research on these matters.