Album review

‘The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Studio Sessions 1946-1966’ (Mosaic)

The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Studio Sessions 1946-1966
(Mosaic Records Limited Edition. Review by Leonard Weinreich)

This Mosaic collection, limited to 3,500 copies worldwide, chronicles two fascinating decades of Louis Armstrong’s recording activity. At no stage is it ever less than revelatory.

Seven CDs, as well as 30,000 words and some rare photos from Armstrong’s chief biographer and cheerleader, the indefatigable Ricky Riccardi, chart how Armstrong forsakes the big band and re-engages with smaller combinations of shifting personnel, eventually morphing into the celebrated All-Star format. His move to the Columbia label results in two inspired albums and considerably increased popularity. And then he enters uncharted territory to make an indelible mark.

But first, an instructive footnote. ‘Music To Shave By’, a single track among the seven CDs, also featuring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and the Hi-Lo’s, has been summarily ignored by critics, reviewers and, sometimes, even discographers. Never commercially released, it was written as a Madison Avenue jingle for Remington’s Roll-a-Matic electric shaver (sample lyric: “good for any kind of skin/makes you wish you had a double chin”) on a 6” cardboard mini-LP bound into Life, the U.S.’s top illustrated weekly magazine on 8 December, 1959. Artistically, not quite ‘Weatherbird’, but, having laboured in the murky arts of persuasion, this reviewer can vouch for its vital cultural significance.

A reminder of the American racial atmosphere in 1959: the South is still segregated. Nat ‘King’ Cole’s highly commended TV series finds it impossible to attract a sponsor (ad agency explanation: “erumwe don’t want to upset consumers in Mississippi”) and civil rights agitation has yet to bubble over. On the other hand, here in their leading illustrated weekly magazine, American consumers are being recommended Remington Shavers for their stubble by Louis Armstrong, who is indisputably a black man.

No surprise. By 1959, ad agency opinion research overwhelmingly confirms that Armstrong, born dirt poor in a New Orleans’ slum, has achieved celebrity status. ‘Satchmo’ exudes humanity to such an extent that his music and personality has entered the hearts of the U.S. public, racial bigots excepted.

He is seen nicking the screen effortlessly from contemporary Hollywood royalty like Crosby (who’d stated: “he’s the beginning and end of music in America”), Sinatra, Grace Kelly, Danny Kaye, Jimmy Stewart and Barbra Streisand (later, Armstrong’s ‘Hello Dolly’ was the first single in three months to topple the all-conquering Beatles from the top of the Billboard chart). But although Louis Armstrong is a peerless entertainer, the heft of his charisma is tending to eclipse musical contribution.

Jazz zealots are enraged. Purists resent any musician nudging, let alone crossing, the flimsy border between ‘artist’ and ‘entertainer’. They accuse the genius who’d virtually invented the jazz solo (Miles Davis: “you can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played”) and jazz singing of selling out and capitulating to commercialism.

While this Mosaic issue vindicates Armstrong the artist, it also indicates delusion among the zealots. Amid mounting evidence, despite his universal acceptance as a cuddly celebrity, Armstrong remains grounded, generous and wedded to his art, his exceptional abilities undented by fame. As Dan Morgenstern, doyen of jazz critics, noted in DownBeat, July 1970: “all true art partakes of the mysterious. Louis Armstrong has always been in style, and always will be.” The proof is here.

1946: Armstrong rehearses new material by Leonard Feather, jazz writer and producer at R.C.A. Photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

The RCA Singles

The first CD, devoted to RCA singles transferred from the original metal parts and remastered for improved fidelity, starts with the musicians who scored well in Esquire magazine’s 1946 jazz poll, finding the victorious Armstrong among some fast company (trumpeter Charlie Shavers, tenor saxophonist Don Byas, guitarist Remo Palmieri, bassist Chubby Jackson plus Duke Ellington and a clutch of Ellingtonians: clarinettist Jimmy Hamilton, alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges, pianist Billy Strayhorn and drummer Sonny Greer) to record ‘Long, Long Journey’ and ‘Snafu’ (U.S. army acronym: Situation Normal, A Fuck-Up’), a couple of twelve-inch 78rpm sides supervised by ubiquitous critic and press agent Leonard Feather, who coincidentally happened to compose the tunes. Armstrong opens ‘Long, Long Journey’ in stately style before breathing gruff life into Feather’s pedestrian blues lyrics.

Armstrong’s widespread popularity owes much to his vocal style. But, where Fats Waller (another giant who attracted an audience beyond jazz) acts the clown and ridicules his material, Armstrong’s hoarse delivery, gritty texture and phrasing transform the tritest lyrics, exposing undiscovered (and occasionally, unintended,) meaning. And, like his passionate fan, Billie Holiday, he has the ability to infuse sloppy sentimental schmaltz with genuine emotion.

The remaining RCA recordings consist of 10 big band tracks and a bunch of septets with varying personnel, including the diverse talents of trombonists Vic Dickenson and Jack Teagarden, ex-Ellington clarinettist Barney Bigard, trumpeter Bobby Hackett and drummers Zutty Singleton and the exceptional Big Sid Catlett. Two selections are associated with Armstrong movie performances: ‘Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?’ from the film New Orleans, in which he stars with Billie Holiday, and ‘A Song Was Born’ from the musical A Song Is Born, in which he appears with Danny Kaye, Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton. The standout RCA tracks (‘Jack-Armstrong Blues’, ‘Rockin’ Chair’, ‘Some Day’ and ‘Fifty-Fifty Blues’) feature his good chum Jack Teagarden, a laid-back trombonist and natural musical partner. In a sleeve-note to an earlier collection of the RCA tracks, Dan Morgenstern observes: “tone and conception have mellowed…now one note can tell a story, maturity has come into play, but the playfulness hasn’t disappeared…just transformed”.

1954: Composer Handy, producer Avakian and Armstrong recording ‘Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy’ at Columbia. Photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

By 1954, we turn our attention to George Avakian, born of Armenian stock in Russia. While still a Yale undergraduate, he befriends Armstrong and, on joining Columbia Records (the mighty U.S. label, home to Ellington, Miles, Garner, Monk, Mingus, Goodman and Brubeck), scours the archives to compile a classic collection of Armstrong’s 20s and 30s’ recordings including the indispensable Hot Fives & Sevens.

Now elevated to senior A&R (Artists & Repertoire) executive, Avakian is exasperated at the way the Decca label treats Armstrong, furnishing him with sub-standard material, relying on his artistry to convert garbage into gemstones. Avakian hatches plans: snatch the maestro and feed him Grade A jazz repertoire which will awaken his inspiration, propelling him to fresh, unimaginable heights. But only if the recording sessions are to be supervised by Avakian at Columbia.

The sole obstacle is Joe Glaser, Armstrong’s tough guy manager with sinister Mob connections. But Avakian pitches a smart case persuading Glaser to sign a two-year deal with Columbia. Avakian immediately puts his plans into action, commenting: “I felt the time had come for Louis to make important statements that were really worthy of him. The first was to do the album of W.C. Handy”.

The W.C. Handy Album

As early as 1912, W. C. Handy is the first composer to publish blues pieces, many incorporating traditional strains and lyrical imagery from rural black music whose folk roots lie deep in the era of slavery. Avakian’s selected Handy playlist includes ‘St Louis Blues’, ‘Yellow Dog Blues’, ‘Loveless Love’, ‘Aunt Hagar’s Blues’, ‘Long Gone (From The Bowlin’ Green)’, ‘The Memphis Blues’, ‘Beale Street Blues’, ‘Ole Miss Blues’, ‘Chantez Les Bas’, ‘Hesitating Blues’ and ‘Atlanta Blues’. Armstrong receives the playlist while on tour with his All Stars (clarinettist Barney Bigard, trombonist Trummy Young, pianist Billy Kyle, bassist Arvell Shaw, drummer Barrett Deems and vocalist Velma Middleton). And thanks to Armstrong’s rigorous work ethic, the band can play the songs and routines backwards when they hit the studio in Chicago. The session is completed in two days.

In Memphis Blues, Armstrong sings the line: “There’s a trumpet man leading the band and, man, he sure blows some horn”, a fair summary of the project. Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, an early jazz ‘concept album’ is an undisputed triumph, widely saluted as an artistic and critical tour de force (“This LP is one of the greatest recordings not only of the year, but of jazz history” announced Nat Hentoff awarding it the maximum five stars in a DownBeat review. In his column in Britain’s New Musical Express, Humphrey Lyttleton analyses one track from the album in depth every week). From track one, ‘St Louis Blues’, Kyle, Shaw and Deems establish a ferociously swinging powerhouse unit. Armstrong makes a swashbuckling entrance, confident and relaxed with immaculate timing. And freed from the handicap of having to invigorate corny pop, his trumpet soars. Throughout the album, Trummy Young, sometimes employing a rasp not dissimilar to a sawmill slicing a Douglas Fir, acts as cheerleader, heightening the excitement with raw passion and prompting Armstrong to even more audacious leaps (an All Stars’ version of Young’s old party piece with the Lunceford Orchestra, ‘T’ain’t What You Do’, was taped at this session but never issued. All the takes and studio conversation are here).

Towards the finale of ‘Chantez Le Bas’, a firecracker display of ascending glisses offers a masterclass in raising a head of steam at modest tempo. Armstrong, who originally polished his skill as an accompanist backing exacting divas, the blues singers of the 20s, supports and caresses Velma Middleton’s vocals and even his own, in ‘Atlanta Blues’, where Avakian, practising tape overdubbing witchcraft, has him supplying vocal and trumpet obligati to his own performance. Billy Kyle, whose arranging talent was crucial to the sessions and is heard too seldom here, slips in an elegant piano chorus.

This collection will have Armstrong scholars rubbing their hands in anticipatory pleasure over the multiple treats available including a raft of previously unreleased out-takes enabling precise identification of the choruses Avakian selected or rejected for splicing. They’ll also witness Armstrong’s inventive ability to coin fresh phrases on most takes, and be able to eavesdrop a fascinating interview between producer Avakian and composer W.C. Handy.

1955: Armstrong and Velma Middleton during recording of ‘Satch Plays Fats’ album at Columbia. Photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

The Fats Waller Album

In 1955, Avakian’s choice of composer for the next All Stars album is the prolific Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller. He selects nine songs, predominantly those with lyrics by the immensely talented and under-appreciated Andy Razaf (a Madagascan aristocrat born Andriamanantena Paul Razafinkarefo), a regular Waller collaborator. Together, they wrote ‘Honeysuckle Rose’, ‘Blue Turning Grey Over You’, ‘I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby’, ‘Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now’, ‘Black And Blue’ and ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’. The remaining titles’ lyricists were: Clarence Williams on ‘Squeeze Me’; Waller’s manager Ed Kirkeby on ‘All That Meat And No Potatoes’; Broadway showmeister Billy Rose on ‘I’ve Got A Feeling I’m Falling’, and Alex Hill on ‘I’m Crazy About My Baby’.

The album’s title, Satch Plays Fats, reflects a subtle change of atmosphere. As old Harlem drinking buddies, Armstrong and Waller share plenty of history so the prevailing mood is more about romping and less of the reverence reserved for Handy and his works. The All Stars personnel is unchanged but, from his lacklustre performance, it’s clear that clarinettist Barney Bigard is sadly off form (and soon to depart the band). Fortunately, the other All Stars more than compensate. From Kyle’s delicate intro to the verse of ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ all the way through to Armstrong’s bravura trumpet finale on ‘Squeeze Me’, the album is packed with affectionate humour and infectious swing. It’s almost impossible to improve on Armstrong’s statement of the theme of ‘Blue Turning Grey Over You’ until he produces his vocal. The magnificence of the final bars stirs the soul. On ‘I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby’, Trummy Young reinforces Armstrong’s vocal with a fitting obligato. And, on what has been described as ‘America’s first racial protest song’, ‘Black and Blue’ (Razaf was persuaded to write the poignant lyrics by the muzzle of murderous New York gangster Dutch Schultz’s pistol), Armstrong delivers a heartfelt and moving plea for tolerance.

1955: Lotte Lenya, singer and widow of Kurt Weill, composer of ‘Mack The Knife’ with Armstrong. Photo courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum

Mack The Knife

Although a strong instinct tells Avakian that ‘Moritat Von Mackie Messer’ (a.k.a.: ‘Mack the Knife’ by Kurt Weill, English lyric by Marc Blitzstein) has a future, a few singers he approaches to record it pooh-pooh his suggestion (“too bloodthirsty”). Finally, he shows the song to Armstrong who distils its essence (“I knew guys like Mac in New Orleans”) and, applying the undiluted force of his personality, turns it into a massive global hit and an enduring pop classic to be repeatably covered by other artists. Now, scholars can trace and analyse its studio development, take by take.

The Real Ambassadors

In 1961, Armstrong works on his last album for Columbia, possibly one of the more surprising and unconventional of his extraordinary career. The title is The Real Ambassadors, a jazz musical suggesting that a nation’s best ideals are more truthfully expressed by its artists and jazz musicians, rather than politicians and officials.

Here’s the background: during the end of the 50s, the U.S. State Department, waking to the fact that the foreign appetite for U.S. jazz is insatiable, decides to use it as Soft Power to influence developing countries. Louis Armstrong and the All Stars are despatched on a worldwide tour. Then Dave Brubeck’s Quartet is exported soon after. Brubeck is no bigot. He rejects a lucrative Southern tour with his refusal to replace his bass player Eugene Wright with a white musician. His response to his State Department trip highlights the hypocritical irony of representing a country whose policies, both foreign and domestic, don’t represent him. The Real Ambassadors is written by the husband-and-wife team, Dave and Iola Brubeck (lyrics: Iola; music: Dave), addressing the issues as best they can: musically. This, at a time when Brubeck is the hottest box office attraction in jazz and therefore able to exercise considerable control over his album material.

Inspired by Armstrong’s answer to a question posed on a TV show: “I think you’re wrong about me being the ambassador. I think JAZZ is the ambassador”, the Brubecks write the show around him. Five years later, in 1961, they’re offered a window in the ever-peripatetic Armstrong’s crowded schedule: five recording sessions only. They seize the opportunity, welcoming the unrefusable offer because it may be unrepeatable. However, once in the studio, the strictly rationed time means it’s only possible to record half the score. The Real Ambassadors is only performed live once, at the Monterrey Jazz Festival.

All the studio takes are here, the bits that worked and even those that didn’t. Like most musicals, it has some memorable tunes and flurries of witty lyrics. But no musical ever has a diamond-studded cast so well suited to the material: Louis Armstrong as hero, supported by Dave Brubeck (without Paul Desmond) and stellar voices, Carmen McRae, and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. All supervised by renowned producer, Teo Macero, and recorded in sumptuous mid-century sound.

Definitely worth a listen although, inevitably, as with most musicals, patches of the score are creaky (this reviewer is uneasy around preachiness), but the cast adds professionalism and passion available nowhere else. High points abound: Armstrong’s warm delivery of ‘Summer Song’; and ironic implications in ‘Cultural Exchange’ with lines like: “the State Department has discovered jazz,/it reaches people like nothing ever has”.

Carmen McRae assumes full charge of ‘Good Reviews’, ‘In The Lurch’ and ‘My One Bad Habit’, duetting with Armstrong on ‘I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me’ and ‘One Moment Worth Years’ (with ultra-sensitive support from Brubeck). Lambert, Hendricks & Ross apply their hipness to the title song, ‘The Real Ambassadors’ (and their warp-speed virtuosity in the second chorus). Plus, three unissued songs that didn’t make the final cut: ‘Nomad’, ‘You Swing Baby’, (a.k.a. ‘The Duke’) and ‘Lonesome’.

It’s a fascinating period piece and social document immaculately expressed in jazz terms by a brilliant combination of unlikely musicians. Perhaps for some future generation, The Real Ambassadors will be vital in decoding the beginning of the 60s.

In short, the entire collection is an intoxicating cocktail of profundity and joy.

LINK: Details of The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Studio Sessions 1946-1966

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