Satchmo at Symphony Hall

Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars- Satchmo at Symphony Hall (Verve, 1954)

               Few musicians possess the skill and elegance that one encounters with artists like Louis Armstrong and His All Stars. A vision so flawlessly communicated that one does not know where to draw the distinction between the music and the musicians. Though often taken for granted, striking a balance between craftsmanship and showmanship is a very difficult feat. Like most triumphs its achieved by few through care, experience, luck, and hard work. Louis Armstrong and his trombonist Jack Teagarden did more than play jazz, they lived it. Each note they reached for, they reached for with experience. Unfortunately, memory has been less kind to Jack Teagarden, who never crossed firmly into the pop mainstream like Armstrong.
Armstrong and Teagarden had both defined what it meant to play their instruments as sidemen and soloists in the 1920’s and both had felt the swing and grandeur as bandleaders during the Count and Duke’s reign in the 30’s.  But during the war Armstrong was able to brand himself, play the game with Hollywood while big band musicians like Teagarden had trouble touring and was often cutting uneven sides at rushed sessions. It made a small difference at the time that makes a big difference now. It meant that after the war Armstrong had the connections and popularity to take an act on the road and guarantee an audience.
        There could not have been a better title for Louis Armstrong and manager Joe Glaser’s creation. The All-stars: Armstrong, clarinetist Barney Bigard, singer Velma Middleton, and Teagarden were supported by the precise and tastefully restrained rhythm section featuring pianist Dick Carey, drummer Sid Clarett and bassist Arvell Shaw.
Teagarden steals the show, however, with his near perfect version of “Stars Fell on Alabama”, from the moment he first mutters almost indecipherably, to his careful reinterpretations of the choruses that follow your attention is securely fixed on him. He was only matched in his purity of expression and brilliant technique by Louis Armstrong but never strictly surpassed. Armstrong, who can be heard on and off mic throughout the night scatting and humming along when not playing his trumpet, was a graceful yet forceful performer and could carry a show off his personality alone. But Armstrong rarely if ever seems to be crowding the spot light and he plays on this record with a subdued tenderness, and he plays with understanding.  On “Since I Fell for You”, another album highlight, both Teagarden and Armstrong dance around singer Velma Middleton’s incredibly honest voice with such grace one could find themselves lost in it on repeat for some days.
 Here on this 1947 live recording first released in 1954 (and re-mastered in 1996) on Verve is the performance of a band with a startlingly clear vision of the innately abstract idea of jazz. Gone is the fire and speeding melodic counterpoint of New Orleans’ brass bands and the baroque extravagance of the swing orchestra. Armstrong adopted the economic small band used by bop musicians for the better part of the decade and with it created something else entirely.  Something that included those developments of the past, but trimmed the fat. The music made by this line-up of the All-stars for all intents and documented purposes is Jazz itself. A form of jazz free from the structures of blues, stride, and ragtime yet removed in some slight but significant degree from the after hours theorizing that seemed to lend bop its distant charm. Whether you dig jazz or not there is an opportunity on this record that is very rare in music. The chance to hear that one moment where a genre or movement’s essence can said to be defined, as if as in a vacuum without precursors or out growths.
Armstrong didn’t invent jazz, he didn’t perfect it either but with his All-Stars he defined its place in pop music. And though the majority of credit should be given to the performers, its the selection and arrangement of the music that allows any music enthusiast to connect and wish they had been there. It’s pop in its most sophisticated and eloquent form, and I personally struggle for a better definition of jazz.

Other Recommended Listening:

Bunk Johnson & Leadbelly- New York Town Hall 1947 (American Music, 1994)
Two masters of American Popular Music share the stage for a night of incredible playing and fantastic standards. This set is an extremely fun listen, but serves as well as a delightful contrast to the All Stars set of the same year. Armstrong learned to play off of guys like Bunk but this disc compared to Symphony Hall shows you what Armstrong did with it. more information here and here

Louis Armstrong & His All Stars- Satchmo Plays King Oliver (best release Fuel, 2000) Here Satchelmouth reinterprets the music of his old bandleader in a deep blues haze. You can feel it on this entire session. Most CD versions of this album play the alternative takes directly after the LP version but I never mind. Press play, pour a glass and you won’t regret it. More information here .

Dizzy Gillespie & Charlie Parker- Town Hall, New York City, 1945 (2005)
On this disc the kings of bebop show you what a small band can really do and two years earlier than either of the Jazz greats mentioned above. Though Dizzy would become one of Jazz music’s greatest showman here he plays along the oracle of bop, Parker, and sails above the heads of almost everybody in the audience.

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