To celebrate Armstrong’s 100th birthday, Legacy has released three of his classic recordings from the mid-1950s. In August, Legacy will also release, to continue the celebration, a 4-CD box of the Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. For now, Satch Plays Fats, Ambassador Satch, and Satchmo the Great must satisfy us, and satisfy they do, as these releases give us quite a bit of Armstrong to digest.
I have always felt a conflicted about Louis Armstrong — not his music mind you, but his persona, his formulation, his reception. In the last few decades since his death (and not long from my birth!), an Armstrong collection always seemed a necessary accouterment to the white middle-class home. It sat alongside the Picasso or Matisse print and maybe leaned against Miles Davis LP. All these items carefully showed that the owner was in the know, was hip; the crazy sounds, like the improbable perspectives, became markers of sophistication. This bias is the wall through which I must move every time I hear Louis Armstrong. Not long ago, he sounded through the speakers at a very carefully planned and polite wedding I attended. I felt a little sick hearing Armstrong simultaneously used as a marker of class sophistication and as a music that could not possibly offend anyone in the room (but then isn’t this lack of offense part of the marker of contemporary middle-class bourgeois-ness?). Armstrong was so much more than polite, but hip, black euphony.
Satch Plays Fats
Satch Plays Fats is Armstrong’s tribute to Fats Waller played with his All-Stars. Though they played together only briefly in Erskine Tate’s band in 1925, Armstrong found himself regularly immersed in the influence of Fats Waller through show tunes, particularly those popularized by the revue Connie’s Hot Chocolates, for which Fats penned the music. Included here from that show are the “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue,” plus older versions of “The Rhythm Man” and “Sweet Savannah Sue.” Though this CD was re-released earlier in 1986, half of the tracks there were actually alternative takes from the album. On the Legacy release of Satch Plays Fats, this error has been corrected, but more importantly, this release includes four alternative takes of tracks from the original album plus seven cuts of Waller tunes from 1929-1932. Most of these tracks are Louis Armstrong with his (regular) All-Stars and include Velma Middleton on vocals on three tracks. More than just a digital repressing of Armstrong’s 1955 album, Legacy’s re-release of Satch Plays Fats gives us both more Fats and more Satch. Even if you have this LP sitting in a pile, you’ve got reason to get this version too.
For many people, Armstrong truly was an ambassador. People loved him everywhere he went. His charm and warmth enchanted audiences world-wide. In 1932, Armstrong toured and Europe and made himself into a household name. By 1955, when these tracks were recorded, Armstrong had become a top entertainer and public figure as he continued to stun audiences with his chops. These recordings, mostly taken from Armstrong and his All-Star’s 1955 tour in Western Europe tour, smoke and swing and you can feel the audience hanging on every note Armstrong blows. They absolutely love him! (Though the insertion of the audience’s enthusiasm is a great production trick too.) On this tour Armstrong seemed to focus more on older classics such as “West End Blues” and “Muskrat Ramble.” Though the producers have included the vocally-centered “All of Me” to offset some of the smoke generated by the All-Stars chops, most of the album includes really fast numbers from the All-Stars standard repertoire. Again, as a treat, Legacy has added three unreleased tracks to expand Ambassador Satch. If you are looking for more Armstrong that swings away from the standards in my vision of middle-class connoisseurship, Ambassador Satch will blow your socks off! To quote Armstrong himself, this album is “solid”!
Satchmo the Great
Lastly of the three Legacy re-releases comes the most interesting of the pile. In 1957, Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly of CBS produced a short (63 minutes) documentary on Armstrong , following him and his All-Stars throughout 1956 and 1957. Satchmo the Great is the soundtrack to this film. On Satchmo the Great, we get to hear Armstrong in his finest form, cutting from Dixieland to crooning to African music from Ghana. And all of this gets framed by the hyper-enunciated and flatly intonated Edward R. Murrow. At first listen to this collection, I found Murrow irritating, like watching old films in my 1970s gym class or old television shows on space shots. But then Murrow and Armstrong together began to mold together into an odd fusion of the super-cool husky-voiced black jazzman and insanely uptight white news anchor honky. They began to compliment each other. Some of Murrow’s question come across as extremely dated, but others put to Armstrong are hilarious. Murrow asks Armstrong some questions saying, “Now Louis, I know very little about music, as you know, would you like to educate me a little?” In a discussion of gutbucket, rock and roll, and being hip, Murrow sets up the image of the honky that we can follow on down to Pee Wee Herman. Here’s a few questions:
“Now what’s this rock and roll stuff? I don’t dig that at all (pronounced ‘a-tall’)?”
“What’s a cat?”
“Is there any relation between gutbucket and boogie-woogie?”
Murrow takes notes, just as his white audience must have, to stay on top of that leading edge that black music has so often been riding in the last one hundred years.
Though the Murrow-Armstrong dynamic may appear humourous and even dated, the music on this CD covers ground as wide as Armstrong career. We get classic Armstrong in tunes like “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” or even “Mack the Knife.” But we also get Armstrong playing and talking about New Orleans funeral music and, on the most interesting section of the CD, African music from Ghana. When Armstrong visited Accra, Gold Coast (which later became Ghana), Armstrong played a concert from which “Black and Blue” gets cut for this collection (he “lay[s] it on the Prime Minister). He also plays an “old Gold Coast favorite” now renamed “All for You Louis” complete with African drums and vocalizations. Satchmo is obviously enjoying himself. Though this CD plays a bit strangely in that Murrow is constantly introducing, interjecting, or explaining things, but the cuts collected here feel rough and gutsy and obviously from all over the world.
Together, the re-release of these classic Armstrong albums present a wonderful moment in music history. Now, in a cleaner digital format — and complete with some new tracks — we get this 1950s Armstrong replayed like it was then. My only gripe with these CDs is that they might be better packaged as a set, rather than as three distinct CDs. Together they all compliment each other, presenting a kind of retrospective on Armstrong’s mid-career life. Regardless, each of these CDs is worth the price by itself.