Louis Armstrong – The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-1966 – Mosaic Records # MD7-270 – 7 CD
Evaluating the later period discography of Louis Armstrong is a daunting task. Armstrong, known affectionately as “Satchmo” or “Pops,” had a career spanning from the mid 1920s, until his death in 1971. His studio recordings in the ’20s with his Hot Five and Hot Seven aggregations set the standard for that time period. Both his baritone vocals, and blistering trumpet playing and improvisations, inspired jazz musicians-especially trumpeters that lead into the Swing period. Louis outlasted the bop onslaught of the late 40s and early 50s. He had his own Orchestra that lasted till the late 40s, but a full big band was never his forte. His favorite grouping included Barney Bigard on clarinet, and Trummy Young on trombone. That group was titled Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars. Pianists, bass players, and drummers varied by session.
Mosaic Records has already documented his live RCA and Columbia recordings, from that time period, on a now out of print 9 CD collection. We’re lucky, however, that Mosaic has just released in a limited 3500 box set edition, TheComplete Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946 to 1966. It is comprised of 29 recordings from three albums, and numerous singles. The album index is made up of a 78 rpm, two 10 inch LPs, seven 12 inch LPs, and 3 digital CDs. The acoustics are amazingly pristine as they were taken from metal parts, vinyl test pressings, and reel to reel tapes. Digital transfers were done at Battery Studios in NYC, and sound restoration and mastering by Meyer Media. All should be commended.
There are three (!) hours of bonus material – unissued takes, rehearsals, and false takes. You are taken “into” the studio to hear Louis and producer, George Avakian, commenting about the quality of takes.
Avakian and Armstrong’s manager, Joe Glaser, had a lot to do with Satch’s life during this time period for different reasons. Avakian was the Houdini involved with helping to present the finished product. Whether encouraging or cajoling Louis to do another take, insert an intro, or adjust tempo; George had virtual full control on editing, mixing takes, and deciding on master take selection. Glaser, on the other hand, helped make business decisions, and seemed to have an iron hand in which project should be undertaken. (More on that later.)
This was during a time period, when jazz critics criticized Armstrong for being behind the times, “coasting,” and taking on pop tunes (i.e “Hello Dolly,” “Cabaret,” “Mack the Knife”). Pops was easygoing, and was hurt about the criticism. He felt (rightfully so) that he still had his “A” game and could match any jazz trumpeter, both in intensity and improvisations.
The first two CDs in the set are made up of RCA and Columbia singles. The first two tracks (oh, how I wish there were more!) have Satch playing with the Esquire (Magazine) All-American 1946 Winners. Imagine a front line of Charlie Shavers, Jimmy Hamilton, Don Byas,and Johnny Hodges. The rhythm section is a grouping of Duke Ellington, or Billy Strayhorn, with Remo Palmieri on guitar; Chubby Jackson on bass, and Sonny Greer. It was the only time that Armstrong recorded with Hodges. As you might expect, the results are sublime on “Long Long Journey” and “Snafu.” Next there are recorded sessions with late period Hot Seven with Vic Dickenson and Barney Bigard.
The sessions with the All Stars, especially when Bobby Hackett or Jack Teagarden are aboard are much more successful than the Orchestra material, as a full big band often seems to get in the way of Pops, and you find yourself waiting for Armstrong’s solos and vocals. It’s always a treat to hear Teagarden and Louis goad each other while singing on “Rockin’ Chair” and “Jack Armstrong Blues.” The Dixieland Seven recording from 1946 has Satch and Kid Ory together on likely their last recording together. (Louis came up decades before playing in Ory’s band.) On “Where the Blues Was Born” Louis gets into a “rhyme- a- thon” vocal that Armstrong’s biographer, Ricky Riccardi, on his brilliant 40+ page essay/liner notes, believes is a precursor to a “rap” feel of today. Louis does these vocal gymnastics while introducing his band members on this track.
Discs #3 and #4 are the highlight of the set for me. They are the Columbia album tributes to W.C Handy and Fats Waller. These albums are available on CD, however this is the first time that you get to experience the work that went into each album with rehearsals, inserts, false takes and in-studio conversations documented in rich detail. The influence of producer, George Avakian, is on full display as he could be a gentle taskmaster, consumed with getting the best from Armstrong, Bigard, Young, and company. The piano skills and influence of Billy Kyle is also revealed here.
Major tracks on these two albums include the iconic, “St. Louis Blues” recorded at a medium tempo with a 2 ½ opening instrumental, Louis’ ad-lib vocal and spine tingling trumpet. Barney Bigard’s sensuous solo (reportedly his favorite ever with Pops), and especially two choruses of verve and aggression with growls and snarls from Trummy’s trombone.
Armstrong’s cohort on vocals on a lions share of this material, Velma Middleton, deserves special mention as she both flirts with Satch on vocals, but also keeps him in line with her rejoinders, when needed. Without the give-and- take it wouldn’t bring out the best in Satchmo.
“Long Gone” with its ensemble vocalizing (“Long Gone John from Bowling Green”) is a gas. The horns blow with glee, and Trummy is the star here. Armstrong does his only recording of Handy’s famous “Beale Street Blues,” with the refrain “I’m going to the river. The river’s wet and Beale Street done gone dry..” Everyone solos on “Ole Miss Blues.” Even bassist, Arvell Shaw gets some action.
The Fats Waller tribute is highlighted by Pops’ vocal on “Blue Turning Gray Over You.” It’s a tender reading and as close to sadness as Armstrong ever gets. “I’m Crazy About My Baby” has jaunty piano from Billy Kyle, and Young’s backing on Satch’s vocal. It swings like mad. Lots of strutting goes on with “All That Meat and No Potatoes,” and although some may disagree, I feel some double entendres going on. Lastly, Armstrong swings for the fences, reaching the stratosphere on the classic “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”
The closing LP is The Real Ambassadors. It was a project of Dave and Iola Brubeck that featured a meeting between Armstrong, and Carmen McRae with Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. It honored the period when American jazz artists were sent on goodwill missions out of the country to foreign lands, with Africa being the focus. Its pop vocals seem quite dated now, but during this period (1950s), these “missions” were novel. The dark side of this period was that these jazz artists (i.e. Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong) were told that they could not discuss politics or anything the least bit controversial. It almost had a vibe like freed slaves sent out to entertain.
There was a side theme (that doesn’t date well) of Armstrong going to a fictional African country of “Talgalla” where he serves as an ambassador, as well as King for a Day, and has a romantic interlude with a local, vocalized by Carmen McRae. The title track is now the most well known on this set, but the highlight to me is “Summer Song.” It has Armstrong ruminating with deep emotion about growing old and falling in love for the last time. Armstrong’s vocals reportedly brought misty eyes into the studio.
This project was delayed for several years due to the intransigence of Pop’s manager, Joe Glaser. He felt it was too pop oriented and commercial for Armstrong. That opinion is up for debate now. Louis gamely gave his full effort, and for that the Brubecks were eternally grateful.
Along with this marvelous music comes the full Mosaic deluxe treatment. It includes a 30,000 word essay by Armstrong’s biographer, Ricky Riccardi, who has devoted much of his life as an Armstrong historian. There are also 40 photos from the Armstrong Museum, many never published before. Mosaic also includes 75 minutes of material not on any prior The Real Ambassadorsissues before.
For Louis Armstrong completists, this is a must purchase. It is also highly recommended as well for fans who would enjoy being a “fly on the wall” witnessing historical jazz recordings, forming their own opinions on the choices that artists, and their producers make in determining which song tracks to release. And then there is the fact that the artist IS Louis Armstrong, the iconic jazz legend…
(This box set can be purchased from www.mosaicrecords.comTheir website has full discography on display. Don’t procrastinate as there are only 3500 copies being pressed)
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