The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (#257)

“I used to go to this company that I record with, one of them there, and I used to tell them, ‘Well, man, why don’t you turn us loose in the studio here and let us wail?’ They’d say, ‘Well, that’s a good idea.’ And I’d say, ‘It’s a very good idea. If them people listen to our concerts and give us thunderous applause over these tunes we play, you know they would like to have it in their files. So why don’t you just record these things, the same as we’re on the stage?’ ‘That’s nice, but we’ve got a few pop tunes here I think is going to be on the Hit Parade’ blah blah blah. And that’s when you look around, people are wondering, ‘What happened to Louie Armstrong?’ So here come another fellow, say, ‘Well, you just tear out, man.’ So that’s why you got Handy albums, and oh, you got Ambassador Satch… and they’re all a-wailin’.” – Louis Armstrong, Voice of America program, July 1956

In July 1956, Louis Armstrong, after over 40 years of performing and over 30 years of recording, was at the height of popularity in his career. Just days after his interview for the Voice of America in Washington D.C., he’d be performing at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City with a symphony orchestra made up of members of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Edward R. Murrow would be on hand to film the occasion for a theatrical documentary. And the other “fellow” Armstrong referred to in the above quote—George Avakian—would be there as well, recording it all for Columbia Records.

Avakian had been exclusively producing Armstrong since September 1955 and it is no coincidence that Armstrong’s popularity began to skyrocket in this span of time. However, Armstrong’s relationship with Columbia would more or less end at Lewisohn Stadium; a fallout with Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser over signing a long-term contract with the label caused Armstrong to become a free agent, recording for over a dozen different labels in the last 15 years of his life. Though he still recorded some outright classics and had some bona fide hit records in that time, he never again received the care and attention on those dates as he did from Avakian. And Armstrong knew that, as the above quote makes perfectly clear.

Armstrong’s small group, the “All Stars,” was formed in 1947 and was a top-drawing live attraction from night one. But Joe Glaser wanted hit records and RCA Victor’s few recordings with that group didn’t sell especially well. In 1949, he signed Armstrong up with Decca, where Milt Gabler would oversee Armstrong’s recorded output for the next five years.

Gabler, as the founder and longtime head of Commodore Records, knew and loved pure, no-frills jazz but more importantly to Glaser, he knew how to make records that sold in large quantities. Though he threw the All Stars an occasional bone—resulting in some wonderful albums such as Satchmo at Pasadena, New Orleans Days and At the Crescendo—Gabler mostly featured Armstrong covering other people’s hits, backed by larger studio groups. The result was a string of commercially successful records: blueberry hill, that lucky old sun, la vie en rose, c’est si bon, a kiss to build a dream on, i get ideas and more.

But it also added fuel to the flame of long-standing criticism of Armstrong, that he had “gone commercial.” Armstrong liked to claim that he didn’t read reviews, but clearly, he knew the cries of “commercialism” were harming his reputation as the world’s greatest jazzman. Hence his line, “And that’s when you look around, people are wondering, ‘What happened to Louie Armstrong?’” in the Voice of America program.

Armstrong was proud of his All Stars and knew what they were capable of based on the reactions they received during their live performances. But he needed a producer to trust that instinct fully and put the pop tunes on the back burner for a while. That producer was George Avakian.

This set is indisputably a tribute to Avakian (although he only produced roughly two-thirds of the music heard on this set), as well as to Armstrong’s All Stars. Both have had their critics over the years. In Avakian’s case, it was because of his pioneering use of splicing and editing. Some jazz producers of the 1950, including Norman Granz, deplored such methods, arguing that the full, unedited take, warts and all, was a truer representation of the music than anything created in postproduction.
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