Forty-three years after his death, Louis Armstrong’s later career is undergoing a serious reevaluation. Historians are re-examining the critical consensus that Armstrong’s brilliance was confined to his early career. No one disputes that his early recordings, including the magnificent Hot Five and Hot Seven sides from 1925-28, set a standard for jazz performance that carries through the history of the music. Though Armstrong continued to be a commercial success until shortly before his death in 1971, most biographers and critics pretty much wrote him off as a creative force in his later years, emphasizing that he had turned into a popular entertainer whose trumpet playing was severely limited by physical problems. But the young Armstrong matured into a different brand of musical genius and blossomed over the course of his career into a masterful singer, a canny and indefatigable bandleader and a complete player whose full, beautiful tone mesmerized audiences the world over.
Fortunately, there is ample evidence to spur this reevaluation in the form of live recordings from Armstrong’s later years, some of which have just been issued for the first time on a nine-CD box from Mosaic Records, The Complete Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, that offers irrefutable evidence of Armstrong’s enduring greatness. The material covers the period of Armstrong’s resurgence in popularity during the years 1947-1958, when he disbanded his big band and returned to the small group format of the All Stars. Ricky Riccardi, the archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York and author of one of the key texts in the critical rehabilitation of Armstrong’s postwar recordings, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, contributes a detailed essay to this essential piece of research and rediscovery.
Though there are 75 previously unreleased tracks on the collection, there is nothing included here that offers a hitherto unknown aspect of Armstrong’s greatness. The set does, however, answer a series of questions about Armstrong’s history that have long been unresolved. And it clears up a lot of the unresolved discographical problems that have kept this era of Armstrong’s recording career awash in historical chaos until now. Most importantly, the Mosaic box offers proof that this period of Satchmo’s career is an accurate reflection of his absolute genius well worthy of consideration alongside his history-making ’20s recordings. The breadth and completeness of the material included here is its greatest virtue. We have in their entirety two essential live-concert recordings from Armstrong’s catalog: the historic May 17, 1947 date at Town Hall in New York City originally released over the course of several 78 rpm records and an LP on RCA Records; and the June 1, 1956 recording at Medina Temple in Chicago, later released by Columbia as The Great Chicago Concert. A previously unissued Carnegie Hall concert from November 15, 1947 is a vivid companion piece to the well-known Satchmo at Symphony Hall, recorded in Boston 15 days later. We are treated to a reconstituted-but-incomplete version of the October 30, 1955 All Stars set from Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw featuring six songs that appeared on subsequent releases and two previously unissued takes. The box also includes the complete All Stars set at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, the historic concert with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at Lewisohn Stadium in New York on July 14, 1956, and the 1958 All Stars set at Newport. All of these concerts are augmented by previously unissued material.
Riccardi’s meticulously crafted liner notes to the box connect the dots to clear up many of the confusions surrounding Armstrong’s discography during this period, including some crucial detective work that uncovered producer George Avakian’s reasons for deliberately obscuring the provenance of some tracks and mislabeling others in order to release material that had been embargoed by a five-year exclusivity clause with Armstrong’s previous label, Decca.
Live material on both Ambassador Satch and Satchmo the Great was deliberately misdated by Avakian on the master recordings in order to allow Columbia to release it. The Mosaic box documents the sessions that made up those two live albums, including numerous previously unreleased recordings.
Avakian knew that Armstrong’s best playing came in front of live audiences that gave him emotional feedback, but live concerts didn’t offer as much technical control as studio recordings and didn’t allow for multiple takes of the same song. Avakian came up with the idea to have Armstrong and the All Stars record a session before an invited audience on December 20, 1955 at the Teatro Leonardo da Vinci in Milan, Italy. This is some of the most hair-raising playing included here, a wild performance that puts the lie to the contemporary criticisms that Armstrong had lost his edge by this time. A little more than half of this incredible night’s music has never been released—until now. The band had already played two sets earlier in the evening and this romp kicked off at 1 a.m. and lasted more than four hours. The breakneck version of “Tiger Rag,” heard here in two takes, has to be heard to be believed. Armstrong later boasted to an interviewer about the performance: “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.”
One of the most remarkable things about this collection is how the same material can sound so different from one concert to another. The Town Hall concert starts things off on a high note as Armstrong dominates the performance with a tour de force of playing and singing, taking the spotlight on all but one track, trombonist/vocalist Jack Teagarden’s signature rendition of “St. James Infirmary.” Armstrong begins the set backed only by pianist Dick Cary, bassist Bob Haggart and drummer George Wettling before Teagarden, Peanuts Hucko on clarinet and Bobby Hackett on cornet join in, with Sid Catlett taking over from Wettling on drums. This band just lifts off, with Catlett dropping bombs and swinging the pulse like mad on “Tiger Rag” and engaging in a wild exchange with Armstrong on “St. Louis Blues.”
By the time we get to the 1955 version of the All Stars, with Trummy Young on trombone and vocals, Edmond Hall on clarinet and vocals, Billy Kyle on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass and vocals, Barrett Deems on drums and Velma Middleton on vocals, we hear a huge difference, the veritable definition of the difference between swing and the hyperactive rhythms that drove rock ’n’ roll. Deems in particular pushes this band relentlessly from behind the drum kit (“Muskrat Ramble” really does rock out and “Tiger Rag” is a different animal here). Judging from the reaction from crowds in Amsterdam and Milan, we’re hearing the kind of crowd mayhem associated with the rock ’n’ roll riots of the era. Riccardi speculates that by 1956, Armstrong had rearranged his set to have the waltz-time medley of “Tenderly”/”You’ll Never Walk Alone” follow the show-stopping “Mack the Knife” “to quash any possible riotous reactions in these early days of rock ’n’ roll riots.”
The Mosaic box also includes multiple takes of songs in both live and studio settings that were skillfully edited to produce composite performances that included the best parts of each take. Avakian was a pioneer of this approach to making records, an idea that was controversial then but has proved to be commonplace over the years. Another Columbia producer, Teo Macero, adopted another version of this procedure in his work with Miles Davis. Riccardi argues persuasively that the Mosaic box is in part a tribute to Avakian’s unique understanding of and simpatico with Armstrong’s work. Avakian was unquestionably Armstrong’s best producer and one has to wonder what might have happened had Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser signed him to the long-term contract that Columbia sought from him. As it happened, Glaser fought with Avakian and signed Armstrong to a series of cash-over-content deals to companies that envisioned no horizon for Armstrong’s music beyond dollar signs. As a result, one of the unintended lessons provided by the Mosaic box is that Glaser was, in the long, run a shortsighted manager.
Armstrong deserved a creative environment that nurtured him as a great American artist, not simply a celebrity commodity to be exploited. Avakian, who engineered the revival of interest in his ’20s classics through the reissues and the resurgence of his art through the Louis Armstrong Plays W.C.Handy and Satch Plays Fats projects, gave him that setting. Glaser knew Avakian was good for Armstrong but his greed got the better of him. He broke with Avakian and Columbia and signed his client to a series of contracts with various labels looking for the golden goose, but big-money advances were not consistent with a strategy that paid attention to the music itself or the artistic context that generated it. We are left to wonder what Armstrong might have accomplished had Avakian been able to facilitate his recordings over a longer period of time.
It’s somewhat astonishing that a figure as well known as Armstrong can undergo such a dramatic historical revision so long after his death. The Mosaic box makes a case for the 1947 to mid-’50s version of Armstrong’s All Stars as one of the highlight periods in his career. It’s a repackaging of known work with crucial, previously unreleased additions that cast new light on this music in a similar way to the effect that the repackaging of Robert Johnson’s Columbia recordings boosted his reputation. The music on this set speaks for itself, impassioned performances that embody the joy of the human spirit that Armstrong exuded every time he hit the stage. And that, to be sure, is what I’m talking about.