Louis Armstrong – The Great Chicago Concert 1956 – Columbia Legacy/ Pure Pleasure PPAN 65119 – Mono 180 gm (3-LPs) ****:
(Louis Armstrong, trumpet and vocal; Edmond Hall, clarinet and vocal; Trummy Young, trombone and vocal; Billy Kyle, piano; Dale Jones, bass; Barrett Deems, drums; Velma Middleton, vocals on “Big Mama’s Back in Town, “That’s My Desire”, and Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So))
On June 1, 1956, Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars played a benefit for multiple sclerosis at the Medina Temple in Chicago. Fifty-five years later, Pure Pleasure has issued a beautiful box set of three 180 gm albums documenting that evening, along with the original liner notes and a remembrance by producer George Avakian.
Due to technical difficulties the recording sat in the tape vaults of Columbia Records, and was not issued on LP until 1980, twenty-four years after the concert. It was not again until 1997 that Columbia saw fit to issue a 2-CD set. At last fourteen years later, Pure Pleasure Records, from England, has given the Chicago concert its proper honor with a remaster by Ray Staff. Staff has done his usual exemplary job and listeners will find the fidelity to be improved, keeping in mind the miking, and concert technical issues that kept this material under wraps for so long.
The concert began with a New Orleans type parade onto the stage by the band with a medley of “Flee as a Bird to the Mountain” and “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble.” It was a recreation of a New Orleans traditional march to the graveyard mated to the celebration on the return.
Medleys were big that evening and Pops strings together three of them during the evening starting off with “Memphis Blues, Frankie and Johnny” and “Tiger Rag.” Especially after the events of Hurricane Katrina, it is a welcome respite to hear Armstrong play “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans” followed by his version of “Basin Street Blues.”
Armstrong and Trummy Young play in ensemble on “Black and Blue” before Pops scats. His voice was still in prime form in 1956. On “West End Blues” miking problems (there were not nearly enough onstage) are present on the first chorus, before the horn soloists step up to the microphone and then the sound improves considerably, especially with Billy Kyles’ stride piano solo, as the piano is well-recorded. “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” is Dixieland bliss, but we get only a snippet of one of Armstrong’s nightly favorites, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” before an impromptu call for an intermission by Louis. Luckily, the song is later repeated as part of a medley with “Manhattan.”
Duo vocals were a strong part of an Armstrong band repertoire, and we get treated to Trummy Young and Louis sharing “Rockin’ Chair,” followed by Edmond Hall and Armstrong on “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” with Hall’s poignant clarinet solo, and then the three horns blowing taking the tune out. “Perdido” is a feature for pianist Kyle, while Edmond Hall’s hot clarinet and drummer Barrett Deem’s brush work are featured on “Clarinet Marmalade.”
Side E features a very early performance of “Mack the Knife.” Armstrong beat Bobby Darin to the punch by three years. On the final Side F, fans of Armstrong’s vocalist, Velma Middleton, are rewarded for spending a long evening at the Medina Theater by getting to hear Velma wail on “Big Mama’s Back in Town,” “That’s My Desire” (where Pops and Velma flirt together), and “Ko Ko Mo.” The crowd reaction is boisterous for Velma. Louis closes the evening with the obligatory, “When the Saints Go Marching In” and a straight up classic version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which would be quite the surprise in a jazz concert today, but not uncommon for an Armstrong performance then.
Though the sound is less than perfect, even after Ray Staff’s rescue mission, there is a good argument for owning this LP set as among the best testament to the strengths of late period Armstrong All-Stars, before Louis concentrated mostly on vocals during the last decade of his life after a heart attack in June 1959.
Medley: Flee as a Bird to the Mountain, Oh, Didn’t He Ramble
Medley: Memphis Blues, Frankie and Johnny, Tiger Rag
Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans, Basin Street Blues
Black and Blue, West End Blues, On the Sunny Side of the Street, Struttin’
With Some Barbecue, When It’s Sleepy Time Down South
Medley: Manhattan, When It’s Sleepy Time Down South
Indiana, The Gypsy, The Faithful Hussar
Rockin’ Chair, Bucket’s Got a Hole In It, Perdido, Clarinet Marmalade
Side E: Mack the Knife
Medley: Tenderly, You’ll Never Walk Alone
Stompin’ at the Savoy, Margie
Big Mama’s Back in Town, That’s My Desire, Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So),
When the Saints Go Marching In, The Star Spangled Banner
— Jeff Krow