Sunday, March 26, 2017

Louis Armstrong - New Orleans Days

Nearly two months into this blog, and no Louis Armstrong yet. That ain't right. There's a paradoxical duality about Armstrong; he was a popular entertainer with hit records, but he was also a virtuoso trumpeter and improvisational genius - the first genius jazz produced, and one of the greatest musicians the music has ever known.

I heard Armstrong on the radio before I was ten. My parents regularly listened to the easy-listening station in Atlanta when driving, so I heard Louis' versions of "Cabaret," "Mack the Knife," and "Hello Dolly." To my ears, it was pleasant, but unexciting music, and as I got older and started reading about jazz, it became harder for me to reconcile those hit records with the descriptions of Armstrong-as-genius found in books about jazz. It all clicked for me when I heard Armstrong's 1928 recording of "West End Blues" on a record I checked out from the library. The brilliance of his playing was stunningly apparent on that track, and other early sides from that library album. After that, I began to hear Louis-as-entertainer differently; he elevated every song he performed, turning the mundane into art. Louis-as-genius and Louis-as entertainer were just two sides of the same coin.

New Orleans Days is a ten-inch LP from 1950, and it's the first long-playing record Armstrong recorded. To clarify: this is the first LP that was recorded with the long-playing format in mind; there were a few Armstrong LPs that were issued earlier, but they were collections of previously-recorded singles. When Louis took his band, the All Stars, into a New York studio on April 26 and 27, 1950, it was to record longer tracks specifically for LP release. This album was the first of the two LPs issued from those sessions.

After leading a big band for years, Armstrong formed the small group known as the All Stars in 1947, and led versions of that group for the rest of his life. Their performances got more formulaic as the years passed, but this is the earliest and best version of the band. (Or nearly so, Cozy Cole had replaced original drummer Big Sid Catlett a year or so earlier.) Trombonist Jack Teagarden and pianist Earl Hines were nearly on Armstrong's level as musicians, and clarinetist Barney Bigard and Arvell Shaw acquitted themselves well. Everybody is near the top of their game here. The tunes are all New Orleans standards - notable is "New Orleans Function," an amusing seven-minute recreation of a jazz funeral.

From a strictly musical standpoint, the old Crescent City standard "Panama" probably shows off the band's abilities better:


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