Perhaps the greatest quasi-myth surrounding Louis Armstrong is that after the transformative glories of the small group Hot Five (1925-26, 1927, 1928) and Hot Seven (1927) recordings, Pops took his foot off the gas and proceeded to become an “entertainer” for the rest of his life. While no one is going to deny the power of the still astonishing improvisations that the young man with a horn effortlessly threw into songs like “Potato Head Blues” and “West End Blues,” it’s a gross oversimplification to dismiss his subsequent career as so much mugging.
The mid-1950s were perhaps the most creative time in Armstrong’s entire career. By then, he more than made up for his perpetual lip problems by being a seasoned, relaxed frontman with a sly sense of comedic timing and by using wise phrasing in his ever-improving vocals and his deft, inspired trumpet playing. As so often happens with brass players, the deterioration of his embouchure as he aged forced the gifted instrumentalist to find clever, new ways of expressing himself.
Working as a freelancer able to record for whatever label offered the best deal and most interesting ideas, Armstrong also made the best recordings in the middle ’50s that he’d made since his Hot Five/Hot Seven days. The two George Avakian-produced tribute albums he made for Columbia, Satch Plays W.C. Handy (1954) and Satch Plays Fats (1955) are, to many Satchheads, his finest studio albums post Hot Five/Hot Seven. The pair of duet albums he made with Ella Fitzgerald (Ella and Louis (1956), Ella and Louis Again (1957) ) for the Verve label are also a delight.
Armstrong’s live records are a subject fraught with controversy, with one camp convinced he was too quick to lay back on a well-worn book of numbers. For other listeners, no matter how familiar the repertoire, the energy, fun and easy rapport that Pops and his band mates could generate was magic. As with many great records, The Great Chicago Concert is a mashup of happy accidents and a triumph against the odds. The plan was to have Armstrong play a set that illustrated fifty years of jazz history with actress Helen Hayes reading bits of narration. When Avakian decided to record the show at the last minute, he found that Columbia’s remote unit was recording Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
The company’s only Chicago-based recording engineer was on a two-week vacation. So Avakian was forced to rely on radio engineers from the local CBS radio affiliate who assured him they had experience doing remote live recordings. After hearing the results, he was less than thrilled, and other than using two tracks as the opener for the Satchmo The Great album (1956), the concert was not released until 1980. The CD reissue in 1997 added three tracks including the rousing finale of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” Here, the concert has been reissued on Pure Pleasure Records in its finest form, pressed on three 180 Gram vinyl LPs, in a cloth-covered box with a 12-page LP sized booklet that reproduces the liner notes by Avakian and jazz scholar Dan Morgenstern, which also appeared in the CD reissue.
The quality of the playing throughout is extraordinary. One problem with this set, which is almost charming in retrospect, is that there are many off-mic antics throughout. The show starts with a march by the band through the crowd, simulating a New Orleans funeral procession with “Flee as a Bird To The Mountain” and “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble” that only gradually becomes fully audible. In a superb rendition of the Razaf/Waller tune “Black and Blue,” which the band had just recorded for the Satch Plays Fats album, Pops begins playing off-mic, slowly turning his horn toward the microphone. It’s hard not to smile when you hear clarinetist Edmond Hall literally walking away from the microphone while singing, “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”
Trombonist Trummy Young, always Armstrong’s most accomplished instrumental foil, is wonderful throughout. His instrument adds a new dimension to “West End Blues;” his surprising vocals bring fresh flavor. Velma Middleton, the rotund singer whose impromptu splits in the middle of songs left many a concert audience agape, enthusiastically belts out three tunes including “Big Mama’s Back In Town.” Perennially underrated drummer Barrett Deems is swinging and forceful throughout—at times breaking into rhythms reminiscent of rock ‘n’ roll. And pianist Billy Kyle and bassist Dale Jones complete the best rhythm section that ever coalesced among the All Stars’ ever-changing cast of players.
At the center of it all, of course, is Armstrong, who by 1956 was one of the finest vocalists in the history of popular music — a point he proves particularly on the old chestnut “The Gypsy.” There is no better example of Pops’ powerful one-two punch of singing and playing than this rendition of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans.” The kind of chance recording that often outshines more planned affairs, this is Armstrong and the All Stars magnificently showing what joy, artistry, esprit de corps and luck can achieve.