No other musician in jazz history, not even Duke Ellington, ever garnered as much praise and as much criticism as Louis Armstrong did. His immense instrumental and vocal skills thrilled audiences around the world from the ’20s until his death in 1971, yet he was widely viewed during much of his life as a musical and cultural relic. As record companies, jazz musicians, and music fans prematurely celebrate Armstrong’s centennial this yearhe was actually born in 1901many questions and controversies that were debated throughout his career are again being examined.
From his beginnings in New Orleans riverboat bands and ensembles led by Joseph “King” Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, and Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong virtually wrote the jazz handbook. He wasn’t the first great soloistthat honor belonged to Sidney Bechetbut he was unquestionably the first widely imitated one. He convincingly proved that the trumpet could be a lead instrument, and his incredible solos and equally marvelous singing helped make jazz a vehicle for spontaneous creation. Armstrong was incomparable as a melodic interpreter, vocal accompanist, ensemble contributor, and soloist. He was also quite possibly the most versatile musician of all time; who else can boast of having backed or performed with Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Jimmie Rodgers, Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, and Leon Thomas, among many others?
Though no one ever questioned his talent, Armstrong’s retreat into traditional New Orleans music during the latter part of his career embittered fans and musicians who had once praised his dazzling contributions. He churned out endless versions of “Basin Street Blues,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” and “St. Louis Blues,” often employing players who weren’t even close to being equals. Armstrong viewed himself as a popular entertainer; he mugged and clowned relentlessly in live performance, to the point that he embarrassed ultra-serious or militant jazz types. Unlike Charles Mingus or Max Roach, who didn’t hesitate to speak out against racist injustices, Armstrong seldom made public political comments.
Still, if judged only on his earliest exploits, Louis Armstrong would be a legend. More importantly, in the nearly 30 years since his death, several reissues and newly discovered sessions have shown that Armstrong’s playing didn’t deteriorate nearly as much as some detractors insisted. Rather, he maintained instrumental and vocal excellence almost until the end, even in situations when everything and everyone else around him was at best average. Armstrong’s only sin was that he chose popularity over supreme artistic achievement. That decision still makes purists cringe today, but it satisfied his legions for almost six decades.
As with Duke Ellington and Hoagy Carmichael last year, Louis Armstrong will be the yearlong subject of numerous panel decisions, special concerts, documentaries, and tributes. In addition, Columbia (via its Sony/Legacy division) and BMG/RCA, the companies for whom he made arguably his greatest records, are marking the occasion with various releases. This wealth of reissued Armstrong material not only returns into circulation many vital titles, it provides another chance to evaluate the breadth and depth of his accomplishments.
At the top of the list is the four-disc Louis ArmstrongThe Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings (Legacy), due out Aug. 22. Though they’ve never been out of print, it’s impossible to overstate the importance of collecting these 90 cuts in one package. Armstrong was already a star by the time he made the Hot Five and Hot Seven releases, but they forever separated him from the jazz pack. Legendary numbers like “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Heebie Jeebies,” “West End Blues,” and the still incandescent “Weather Bird” duet with pianist Earl Hines turned jazz upside down, switching the focus from rigid collective improvisation to spotlight statements, and pointing the way for numerous future developments.
This fresh box-set edition makes some needed corrections in chronology and attribution; each song is placed in the original session it was recorded, while great care has been taken to highlight which musicians played on which dates. The sound is also vastly improved; you not only hear Armstrong’s vivid leads clearly, but the section interaction and collective segments are also full and shimmering. If you could only pick one Louis Armstrong record for evidence of his importance, The Complete Hot Five & Hot Seven Recordings without question would be that selection.
Among three new single-CD releases from Legacy just out this month, the finest is Satch Plays Fats: The Music of Fats Waller. For years, there was only a woefully mastered version of this great date available, and six of its nine songs were horrible alternate takes. This new reissue compiles all 20 selections as they were originally cut, including four bonus tracks and seven alternate takes. Armstrong’s renditions of “Ain’t Misbehavin,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” and “All That Meat and No Potatoes” are priceless, while he shows on “(What Did I Do) To Be So Black and Blue” the unmatched timing and decorative lyric skills that characterized his finest vocals.
The other sets, Satchmo the Great and Ambassador Satch, have more historical than musical value. Satchmo the Great featured music from a 1956 feature film of the same name narrated by Edward R. Murrow, whose booming voice also appears on the disc. Other than an entertaining version of “St. Louis Blues,” with Armstrong’s vibrant trumpet and vocals backed by an orchestra conducted by Leonard Bernstein, this is pro forma Armstrong. The same holds true for Ambassador Satch, despite good versions of “Muskrat Ramble,” “Tin Roof Blues,” and “Twelfth Street Rag.”
BMG’s pair of two-disc retrospectives offers one nearly forgotten treasure and a collection of familiar material. The Katanga Concert was cut during a State Department-sponsored journey to Africa in 1960. While it’s been available for years as a French import, this is the first time Americans have been able to obtain it domestically. Despite irritating sonic problems that the remastered edition doesn’t remedy, the recording shows that Armstrong was in high spirits throughout the concert. He doesn’t coast through shopworn numbers like “Tiger Rag” and “When the Saints Go Marching In”; instead, he frequently jump-shifts tempos and adds careening phrases and splendid turns. He also plays lesser-known pieces like “High Society Calypso” and W.C. Handy’s “Ole Miss.” The set includes seven numbers from a 1962 French concert as well, but the 10 songs recorded in Africa outshine the other material.
Louis ArmstrongA 100th Birthday Celebration serves as a blueprint both for everything great about Armstrong and for all the things that infuriate detractors about his late-period music. The 30 numbers cover the years 1932 through 1947, with Armstrong alternating between orchestral backing and various small groups. The dates with strings range from mind-numbing to excruciating: Armstrong’s beautiful vocals and glorious trumpet are utterly sabotaged by the horrendous backgrounds and arrangements.
The small-group dates are better but equally inconsistent. What salvages such cuts as “Rockin’ Chair,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” and “Back O’Town Blues” are the moments when Armstrong cuts through the muck with elegant scatting, elastic trumpet lines, or joyous yelps and commentary.
Regardless of the setting, what all of these reissues affirm is how much Armstrong loved playing and singing. That exuberance, coupled with his immense abilities, ultimately more than compensates for whatever alleged shortcomings he may have had. Louis Armstrong’s music uplifted and still enriches people’s lives; that is his greatest legacy.
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