Louis Armstrong was a superstar, long before Andy Warhol popularised the phrase. Pops visited more countries around the world than any of his contemporaries, at a time when foreign travel by musicians was headline news; the fact that Louis Armstrong was a jazzman makes his achievements remarkable. As a black man - very definitely born on the wrong side of the tracks - it makes his achievements unique. And as Miles Davis said, 'You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played.'
As you would expect from someone who was recording for so long, Louis Armstrong has an enormous catalogue and it's full of great music. Knowing where to start is the thing. For the best introduction to his long career check out Louis - The Best of Louis Armstrong or the 4CD set, Ambassador of Jazz which includes some recently discovered unreleased material and an hour long interview with Satchmo that is riveting. His albums with Ella Fitzgerald, Ella & Louis and Ella & Louis Again define what it is to perform a jazz duet. Equally, Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson is another exercise in brilliance.
The documentary maker, Ken Burns in his series on Jazz said, "Armstrong is to music what Einstein is to physics and the Wright Brothers are to travel." Read on to find out just why this is so true.
The man who became known the world over as 'Satchmo' was an ambassador for joy and happiness. His trumpet, his smile, his laugh and his willingness to 'live for that audience' all helped to make him a 20th century icon. He was also a trumpet player of outstanding skill whose technical expertise and the genius of his musical imagination made him the model for virtually every jazz musician from the late 1920s to the outbreak of World War 2 and beyond.
From his first recording as the second cornet player in King Oliver's Creole Jazz band in April 1923 to his last public appearance at New York City's Waldorf Astoria in March 1971, Louis Armstrong always understood that he was there to "please the people." His recorded legacy is immense and in Armstrong's hands even mediocre material often succeeded in becoming great jazz.
But there are some people, especially those under 'a certain age', that think of Armstrong as a man who sang 'It's A Wonderful World', a Bond movie theme or Hello Dolly - a voice from a movie soundtrack or the backing track to a TV commercial. Through hearing those, for some over-played, songs they have gone on to discover his rich musical heritage and yet there are still some that fail to recognize Armstrong's remarkable musicianship.
Having learned his craft in the cradle of jazz he left New Orleans to join King Oliver's band in Chicago but he quit in 1924 to play with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra in New York City. Henderson recorded for the first time in the summer of 1921 and just a week after Louis joined, the eleven-piece outfit was in a New York studio recording two sides.Â A week later they did four sides including the wonderful 'Shanghai Shuffle' arranged by band member, clarinettist and saxophonist, Don Redman; Pops stayed with Henderson for a year before returning to Chicago to front his own band. Some of Armstrong's best recordings from these early years can be found on The Ultimate Collection.
It was in November 1925 that Louis along with his second wife, Lil, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Johnny St Cyr, the banjo player were in a Chicago studio to record. OKeh records, selling for 75 cents each, released 'Well I'm in the Barrel' and 'Gut Bucket Blues'; it was the start of one of the most exciting phases in jazz history - Louis Armstrong's legendary Hot Fives and Hot Sevens.
As 1929 dawned he was being billed as Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra. In March 1929 Louis and his Orchestra recorded 'Knockin' A Jug' at his first session with both black and white musicians - Jack Teagarden on Trombone, Happy Caldwell on Tenor sax, Joe Sullivan, piano, Kaiser Marshall on drums and the brilliant Eddie Lang on guitar. This wonderfully exuberant tune was made up in the studio and is the last of what is considered 'The Hot Fives and Sevens'.
In 1932 Armstrong toured Britain and Europe, not the first major jazz musician to visit Britain as both Jimmy Dorsey and Bunny Berigan toured in 1930, but Louis was certainly the one with the greatest reputation among musicians and lovers of 'Hot Music'. Throughout the 1930s Armstrong's reputation became somewhat tarnished as his recordings were considered safe and his appearances in films, in stereotypical roles for a black performer in Hollywood, seemed to take him further away from jazz.
By 1939 Armstrong's successes, few that there were, came from remakes of his classics, including 'West End Blues' and 'Savoy Blues' as well as New Orleans's stalwart, 'When The Saints Go Marching In'. Through the war years Armstrong's Decca recordings sold, but not well, and it was only the repackaged Hot Fives and Sevens under the guidance of producer George Avakian that seemed to hit the spot with jazz fans.
As the war was drawing to its end jazz was moving in a new direction, younger players were anxious to change what they viewed as 'traditional' jazz that to them seemed dull and boring. Louis hired some of these younger players, including Dexter Gordon who became one of the most respected tenor saxophonists of his generation.
Forty-five years of age is not the obvious time to be making a major career move but that's what happened to Louis when he played a momentous concert at the Town Hall in New York in May with a small group of some of jazz's great musicians. Soon he was playing Carnegie Hall, the prestigious venue he had hitherto only driven past, with his 'All Stars - Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Dick Cary, bass player Arvell Shaw, Big Sid Catlett and singer Velma Middleton; two weeks later they were in Boston's Symphony Hall, a gig that thankfully was recorded for posterity and released as Satchmo At Symphony Hall.
During the 1950s the All Stars, with its shifting personnel, regularly recorded with Armstrong, but he also did sessions with studio orchestras on more mainstream pop material featuring his unique voice. Louis recorded for Verve for the first time in August 1956 to record a fabulous set of duets with Ella Fitzgerald. Just under a year later he and Ella were back recording again, for what became the Ella & Louis Again album.
Following the sessions with Ella for what became their second album there was a marathon day of recording with an orchestra directed by Russell Garcia that yielded two albums, I've Got The World On A String and Louis Under The Stars. With just four days rest, fifty six year old Louis was once again in the studio, again with Ella, recording Porgy & Bess, together with Russell Garcia. Before the year was out Pops and Oscar Peterson recorded an album together entitled Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson. A complete days recording from the Oscar Peterson sessions is available for download only as A Day With Satchmo. It is a fascinating insight into the process of making a record.
During the 1960s, following his heart attack in 1959, Louis slowed down, a little, but ironically that is when he recorded much of what is his best known material, 'What A Wonderful World', 'Hello Dolly' and 'We Have All The Time In The World.'
On 6 July 1971 Louis Armstrong passed away in his sleep at home in Corona - Lucille, his fourth wife, found him dead in his bed. Two days later he lay in state in New York City where 25-30,000 mourners filed past his casket. Everyone from Jazz was at his funeral - Peggy Lee sang the Lords Prayer - after which Louis was buried in Flushing Cemetery in Queens, just a few miles from his home in Corona.
Louis Armstrong's life was not without controversy. He married four times, had affairs, smoked 'muggles' (marijuana) for most of his working life and upset some of the black community who accused him of selling out to white audience that exploited his 'Uncle Tom' approach to entertainment. Later Billie Holliday gave her unique take on Armstrong, saying. "Of course Pops toms, but he toms from the heart."
His photograph featured on the covers of both Time and Life magazines, while Variety named him one of the 'Top 100 Entertainers' of the 20th century; Time honoured him as one of the 100 most influential people of the century. He was the first person to be honoured in the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame; he's in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame and the ASCAP Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1972 he was posthumously honoured with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Arguably the accolade that Louis may have enjoyed most of all was when the city of New Orleans renamed its international airport after him.
When Louis Armstrong was asked to define jazz he said. "Jazz is what I play for a living." Few people have earned their living while giving so much to so many. His innate understanding of his instrument and how to combine his musicianship with his vocals, all topped off with his big personality, make him irresistible to millions of people around the world.
Louis Armstrong late in his career is still better than a lot of cats in their prime. These sides were recorded in the 1960s, and are not definitive performances by any means. That said, they are still a joy to listen to, and this serves as a very inexpensive beginner's collection on CD.
Words - Thom Jurek
Ella and Louis is a 1956 studio album by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, accompanied by the Oscar Peterson Quartet. Having previously collaborated in the late 1940s for the Decca label, this was the first of three albums that Fitzgerald and Armstrong were to record together for Verve Records.
Producer Norman Granz oversaw two Porgy & Bess projects. The first involved Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and came together during the autumn of 1957 with brassy big band and lush orchestral arrangements by Russ Garcia. This is the classic Verve Porgy & Bess, and it's been reissued many, many times. The second, recorded during the spring and summer of 1976 and issued by RCA, brought Ray Charles together with versatile British vocalist Cleo Laine, backed by an orchestra under the direction of Frank DeVol. A comparison of these two realizations bears fascinating fruit, particularly when the medleys of street vendors are played back to back.
Those peasant songs, used in real life to purvey honey, strawberries, and crabs, were gathered and notated by George Gershwin and novelist Du Bose Heyward in 1934 during a visit to Folly Island, a small barrier island ten miles south of Charleston, SC, known today as Folly Beach. As Charleston Harbor had been one of the major ports during the importation of slaves from Africa, the waterfront was mostly populated by Gullahs, a reconstituted community that retained and preserved its ancestral cultures and languages to unusual degrees. Gershwin, who even learned to chant with the Gullah, absorbed the tonalities of the street cries he heard and wove them -- along with all of the other impressions stored within his sensitive mind -- into the fabric of his opera.
What's really great about the Ella and Louis version is Ella, who handles each aria with disarming delicacy, clarion intensity, or usually a blend of both. Her take on "Buzzard Song" (sung 19 years later by Ray Charles) is a thrilling example of this woman's intrinsic theatrical genius. Pops sounds like he really savored each duet, and his trumpet work -- not a whole lot of it, because this is not a trumpeter's opera -- is characteristically good as gold. This marvelous album stands quite well on its own, but will sound best when matched with the Ray Charles/Cleo Laine version, especially the songs of the Crab Man, of Peter the Honey Man, and his wife, Lily the Strawberry Woman.
Words - Arwulf
Louis Armstrong's Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography was recorded as an oral memoir (with overdubbed background piano by Billy Kyle) combined with re-creations of many of his memorable recordings, as well as a few of the originals. Although such a project had the potential to become trite, the effort comes off very well indeed. This three-CD reissue has a few improvements as well. Almost every track that was previously edited to fit onto LPs has been restored to its original length. Louis Untermeyer's original liner notes have been augmented by excellent updated text by Joshua Berrett. And in spite of the warning about sound problems from using some deteriorated tapes and worn discs as source material, the audio experience is quite pleasing.
While these re-creations aren't meant to take the place of Armstrong's historic recordings from earlier decades with King Oliver, Earl Hines, and other greats, they have stood the test of time rather well, except for the, at best, average vocals of Velma Middleton; Armstrong's furor with the suggestion that he omit the plump singer from his set during the 1957 Newport Festival is described in detail in Berrett's notes. While this collection isn't the initial purchase a neophyte jazz fan would pick up from Armstrong's immense catalog, his interesting narrative and the enjoyable renditions of tunes closely associated with him make this a very worthwhile purchase.
Words - Ken Dryden
By 1957, hard bop was firmly established as the jazz of now, while pianist Oscar Peterson and his ensemble with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis were making their own distinctive presence known as a true working band playing standards in the swing tradition. Louis Armstrong was more recognizable to the general public as a singer instead of the pioneering trumpet player we all know he was. But popularity contests being the trend, Armstrong's newer fans wanted to hear him entertain them, so in retrospect it was probably a good move to feature his vocalizing on these tracks with Peterson's band and guest drummer Louie Bellson sitting in.
The standard form of Armstrong singing the lead lines, followed by playing his pithy and witty horn solos based on the melody secondarily, provides the basis for the format on this charming but predictable recording. What happens frequently is that Armstrong and Peterson play lovely ad lib vocal/piano duets at the outset of many tunes. They are all songs you likely know, with few upbeat numbers or obscure choices, and four extra tracks tacked onto the CD version past the original sessions. In fact, it is the familiarity of songs like the midtempo "Let's Fall in Love," with Armstrong's gravelly and scat singing, and his marvelous ability to riff off of the basic songs that make these offerings endearing.
A classic take of "Blues in the Night" is the showstopper, while choosing "Moon Song" is a good, off the beaten path pick as the trumpeter plays two solo choruses, and he leads out on his horn for once during the slightly bouncy, basic blues "I Was Doing All Right." Some extremely slow tunes crop up on occasion, like "How Long Has This Been Going On?," an atypically downtempo take of "Let's Do It," and "You Go to My Head," featuring Peterson's crystalline piano. Liner note author Leonard Feather opines that this is Armstrong's first attempt at the latter tune, and compares it historically to Billie Holiday.
There are the dependable swingers "Just One of Those Things," "I Get a Kick Out of You," and "Sweet Lorraine" with Peterson at his accompanying best; a ramped-up version of the usually downtrodden "Willow Weep for Me"; and a duet between Armstrong and Ellis on the sad two-minute ditty "There's No You." All in all, it's difficult to critique or find any real fault with these sessions, though Peterson is subsumed by the presence of Armstrong, who, as Feather notes, really needs nobody's help. That this was their only collaboration speaks volumes of how interactive and communal the session really was, aside from the music made being fairly precious.
Words - Michael G. Nastos
One of the lesser-known Louis Armstrong sets, this album was recorded on the same day that resulted in the similar I've Got the World on a String. The great trumpeter/singer is backed by a string orchestra arranged and conducted by Russ Garcia. He performs eight veteran standards, only one of which ("Body and Soul") had been associated with him in the past. Although the accompaniment is pretty straight and unadventurous, it is enjoyable to hear Satch's interpretations of such songs as "Have You Met Miss Jones," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Home," and "East of the Sun." Many of his trumpet solos in the medium-tempo material are brief but dramatic, and his singing is typically expressive and good-humored.
Words: Scott Yanow
Even in the pressure cooker of a marathon session, even when confronted with standards not often associated with him, Armstrong finds the essence of each tune, bending and projecting them with his patented joie de vivre and gravel-voiced warmth every time.
There are also lots of examples of his trumpet -- pithy, soulful, belonging to no one else -- although the index markings indicate that some solos are composite takes. While annotator Richard M. Sudhalter doesn't think much of arranger Russ Garcia's contribution, in fact, Garcia pulls off several charts for big band and/or strings that are among the most atmospheric ever accorded to Armstrong. The strings of incomplete takes are particularly interesting, for they reveal the working relationship between Armstrong and Norman Granz, with Armstrong basically subservient to his producer. At their best, these albums create a seductive nighttime ambience that'll draw you in every time.
Words - Richard S. Ginell
There are many Louis Armstrong anthologies, and this one is certainly outstanding, with 24 tracks running over 77 minutes, spanning all but the very earliest years of Satchmo's career. The majority of the album covers Armstong's various bands over the years, the Orchestra, Dixieland Seven and All Stars, but also featuring tracks such as "Only You" (1955) with the Benny Carter Orchestra, and "Dream A Little Dream Of Me" (1950) with Ella Fitzgerald and the Sy Oliver Orchestra. As the cover says "The sound quality is excellent for its period on all tracks, but inevitably various throughout the album. All tracks have been newly digitally remastered for this compilation from original source material." Thus "St. Louis Blues" from 1933 really swings, and "Pennies From Heaven" (1947) shines with authentic character despite a somewhat rough live recording. Well featured are trumpet-led tunes such as "Tiger Rag" (1947), as well as the later famous hits like "Mack The Knife" (1956) and "Moon River" (1964) dominated by that unmistakably rich voice. Most Armstrong anthologies include "What A Wonderful World", but this album also contains a fascinating alternative take from 1970. It's a difficult choice, but if you only have room for one Armstrong collection, this excellent release just might be it.
Words - Gary S. Dalkin
Verve's 2008 reissue of New Orleans Nights, a Louis Armstrong album originally released on Decca in 1957, is a compilation of recordings made in 1950 and 1954 by two different bands operating under the noble mantle of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. "Panama," "New Orleans Function," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It," and "Bugle Call Rag" testify to the integrity of the earlier group, with Armstrong leading Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw, and Cozy Cole, who is granted extra long drum breaks during the "Bugle Call Rag."
On "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and "Basin Street Blues," Tea is replaced by Trummy Young, Hines by Billy Kyle, and Cole by Kenny John. Tenor saxophonist Bud Freeman sat in on "Basin Street"; it's a pity that he didn't participate on "Barbecue," as the warmth and ease that characterizes this elegant update of Lil Hardin Armstrong's magnum opus would have fit Freeman's personality like a favorite pair of argyles.
Words - Arwulf
Over the years, there have been different incarnations of Ella and Louis Again, which has been a single LP, a two-LP set, a single CD, and a two-CD audiophile set from Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab. There are no compelling reasons why someone who already owns the audiophile version of Ella and Louis Again that Mobile Fidelity put out in 1995 would find this 2003 version to be an essential purchase -- Verve hasn't added any alternate takes or bonus tracks, and this double CD contains the very same selections in the very same order. Nonetheless, Verve's 2003 version is a nicely assembled reissue -- very nicely, in fact. From attractive packaging to excellent digital remastering, Verve treats Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's 1957 duets with the respect they deserve.
Verve maintains Norman Granz' original liner notes -- a wise move -- but they have also added insightful new liner notes by John Sinclair. And the performances, of course, are first-rate. Stylistically, singer Fitzgerald and trumpeter/singer Armstrong had very different histories; he started out in Dixieland before branching out into classic jazz and swing, whereas Fitzgerald started out as a swing-oriented big-band vocalist before becoming an expert bebopper. But the two of them have no problem finding common ground on Ella and Louis Again, which is primarily a collection of vocal duets (with the backing of a solid rhythm section led by pianist Oscar Peterson). One could nit-pick about the fact that Satchmo doesn't take more trumpet solos, but the artists have such a strong rapport as vocalists that the trumpet shortage is only a minor point. Seven selections find either Fitzgerald or Armstrong singing without the other, although they're together more often than not on this fine reissue.
Words - Alex Henderson
This obscure set by Louis Armstrong has its strange appeal. The great trumpeter/vocalist performs a dozen songs, all of which have "heaven" or "angel" in their title or lyrics, while backed by the Sy Oliver Orchestra plus a heavenly female choir. Satch gets off a few good trumpet solos and is quite cheerful throughout, even joking during "The Prisoner's Song" when the word "angel" finally shows up. Among the highlights are "When Did You Leave Heaven," "I Married An Angel" and "I'll String Along With You." Although more commercial than Armstrong's usual recordings of the era, this set is more memorable than one would expect and is worth searching for.
Words - Scott Yanow