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Music: Louis Armstrong’s Renaissance on Record – WSJ.com

Music: Louis Armstrong’s Renaissance on Record – WSJ.com


His Renaissance on Record

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) performed in public for most of his life: singing for coins as a child in the roughest streets of pre-World War I New Orleans, playing trumpet and vocalizing in legendary Chicago and New York jazz bands of the 1920s and '30s, and entertaining huge throngs from the U.S. to Europe to Africa to Asia in the '50s and '60s. Performing for audiences (along with making records and movies) made "Satchmo" Armstrong one of the most famous and beloved persons on the planet.

And it was in-person performing that rescued Armstrong's music from the artistic doldrums into which it had drifted after World War II.

A new nine-disc boxed set documents Louis Armstrong's resurgence with his 'All Stars' band. © Bettmann/CORBIS

In the late 1940s, fronting a big-band out of step with the times and recording best-selling but saccharine-sounding vocal platters, Armstrong was being scorned by jazz critics and despaired over by devotees of the earlier hot music he'd helped invent. The renaissance in his sound and reputation came in 1947, when the charismatic performer pared down his ensemble to a combo of "All Stars" for a series of concert-hall appearances that played to his strengths as a virtuoso trumpeter, an inspiring leader, and a witty and emotional singer.

That period of reinvention is vividly presented on "The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars," an ear-opening, nine-CD Mosaic boxed set to be released next week. Annotated by Armstrong biographer and archivist Ricky Riccardi, the package documents performances from 1947 to 1958 in venues from New York to Amsterdam to Accra.

The first instance here of the All Stars template Armstrong would follow the rest of his career is a late-night recital at New York's Town Hall in the spring of 1947. Armstrong commands immediate attention with the up-tempo "Cornet Chop Suey," a rhythmically intricate number he wrote in 1924—and plays here with a lively urgency that makes it seem as fresh as a Dizzy Gillespie bebop line. The brooding, soaring "Dear Old Southland" (copyright 1921), based on the spiritual "Deep River," is done by Armstrong in duet with pianist Dick Cary and sounds even more soulful for its secular setting. "Our Monday Date," "Pennies From Heaven," "Ain't Misbehavin'"—the hits from decades past keep coming, infused by Armstrong and colleagues with matchless fire and poignancy.

"This is American music, concert-style," emcee Fred Robbins states during the next recorded All Stars gig, six months later at Carnegie Hall. Among Armstrong's steady colleagues now are trombonist-singer Jack Teagarden, clarinetist Barney Bigard and vocalist Velma Middleton. All the stars through the years would be given featured numbers—including bassists and drummers. Teagarden is outstanding in 1947 on "St. James Infirmary"; Bigard makes an engaging showcase out of "Tea for Two." But even in these spotlight numbers, Armstrong is a vital presence: playing a late-chorus counterpoint to Bigard, for instance, upping the energy toward a big-finish finale.

And when not playing, Armstrong is also a driving force: shouting encouragement to sidemen (some of it quite profane, in previously unreleased tracks) and uttering other heartfelt expressions of joie de vivre. He also directs the spectators from time to time: telling an enthusiastic Milano paisan, "Don't sing louder than me, brother!" and addressing a terse (but funny) "Shut up, boy" to a boisterous Town Hall patron.

Audience response to Armstrong's All Stars is at its most tumultuous in New York's Lewisohn Stadium in the summer of 1956: While Edward R. Murrow's CBS camera crew works through technical glitches between takes of the combo's scheduled concert-arrangement performance of "St. Louis Blues" with an 88-piece symphony orchestra led by Leonard Bernstein, a large portion of the 21,000 spectators begin shouting "We want Louis," prompting Armstrong and his band to wow them with an unplanned "Basin Street Blues."

Forty-six of the 97 tracks in this Mosaic box are marked "previously unissued." Some earlier-released cuts, sonically amplified 50 or 60 years ago, have had their dubbed-in applause removed. Certain performances once presented as concert takes are now revealed to have been done in a studio. Other selections made to seem then as if played before a large crowd were in fact swung in front of a smaller audience. Mr. Riccardi's instructive notes tell us what inventive steps were taken back in the day by producer George Avakian not only to enhance the listener's experience but to evade obstructive legal roadblocks set up by rival record companies and other factions.

Whether played in an outdoor stadium or an indoor studio, there's a copious amount on these Mosaic discs of truth, beauty, spontaneous joy and technical prowess—be it the fierce ensemble swing generated on "Royal Garden Blues," the sweetness of "Faithful Hussar" (a European folk tune in which Armstrong seems to scat sing in German) or the at-home party feel of trombonist Trummy Young on "You Can Depend on Me." Armstrong's upper-register notes—a stunning array of high C's, D's, E-flats and even an F—are especially heart-piercing on the slow-drag "Back o' Town Blues," while his loose and winning way with a lyric is demonstrated through three separate versions (at three different tempos) of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." And not until Jimi Hendrix deconstructed the national anthem at Woodstock a decade later would there be anything to rival the ripping, impassioned, bravura "Star Spangled Banner" with which Armstrong caps the All Stars' set at the Newport Jazz Festival of 1958.

As Teagarden drawls in appreciation on his first 1947 concert date with the All Stars: "I'm really in heaven tonight." Or as Louis shouts at the end of a raucous 1958 Newport number: "Shake 'em on down!"

Mr. Nolan is the author of "Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times" (Norton).




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