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Collection Showcases 20 Years Of Louis Armstrong's Studio Work


This is FRESH AIR. There's a new box set of recordings that trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong made between 1946, when he'd been recording for decades, and 1966, five years before his death. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's mostly for Armstrong experts, but it's also a fascinating look at an artist at work.


LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) King Arthur was a hero who was famous everywhere. He had a big round table because he couldn't stand a square. You don't learn that in school. I said, you don't learn a lot in school. Oh, there ain't no doubt about it. Learn it in school.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Louis Armstrong, 1947, on his last recording as big bandleader. It's in a new seven-CD Armstrong box from mail-order champs Mosaic Records, "The Complete Columbia & RCA Victor Studio Sessions, 1946 - '66" (ph). It's really three sets in one. The first two discs chart Armstrong's 78s and singles, mostly from 1946 and 7, when he was turning away from his orchestra towards smaller groups. He had occasional lip trouble but still struck his notes like a hammer on a silver anvil.


WHITEHEAD: The middle chapter of Mosaic's new Armstrong box looks at a couple of repertory projects his All Stars recorded in the mid 1950s. The first album, one of his best, was devoted to blues and songs by W.C. Handy, that artful polisher and embellisher of traditional blues lyrics and melodies. The band eats it up like an 11-course dinner. Twenty alternate takes and rehearsal extracts let you hear the music take shape. This stuff is really for Armstrong nerds, but there are some finds here, like this passage from St. Louis Blues with trumpet behind Velma Middleton, the way Louis backed blues singers in the 1920s.


VELMA MIDDLETON: (Singing) Hey, I hate to see that evening sun go down. Yes, I hate to see that evening sun go down. It makes me feel like I'm on my last go-round.

WHITEHEAD: George Avakian, who produced the 1954 Handy sessions, spliced together solos and vocals from several takes to make the album versions. Hearing full takes that he drew from let you hear how the sausage got made and how much fun they were having. The All Stars played New Orleans-style traditional jazz at the highest level, not least on this session, which lit a fire under trombonist Trummy Young. They all came back the following year for a sequel of Fats Waller tunes. It's good but less explosive. The weirdest Waller and the new Armstrong box is a miniaturized "Ain't Misbehavin'" with an altered lyric, part of an ad campaign for an electric razor.


ARMSTRONG: (Vocalizing, singing) I feel ecstatic. I'm having fun. My Roll A Matic will make me the smoothest one. Ain't misbehaving. I'm shaving myself for you.

WHITEHEAD: Part 3 of Mosaic's new Armstrong set focuses on composer Dave Brubeck and lyricist Iola Brubeck's big-hearted musical about jazz as a medium of cultural exchange, "The Real Ambassadors." The tunes were recorded in 1961, sung by Armstrong, Carmen McRae and the trio Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. To my ears, it has not aged well, though Armstrong is perfectly cast as himself, a figure beloved around the world whose tours helped serve American foreign policy.


ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Remember who you are and what you represent. Jelly Roll and bass (ph) helps us to invent a weapon that no other nation has, especially the Russians can't claim Jazz. Remember who you are and what you represent, represent.

WHITEHEAD: That's hardly the worst of it. The didactic story has pops on the road encounter some mixed-up Africans from a made-up country. But the alternate takes yield one treasure, an early version of the ballad "Summer Song" with a disarmingly vulnerable vocal.


ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Now love to me is like a summer day. If it ends, the memories will stay. Still, warm and peaceful. Now the days of getting long. I can sing my summer song. I hear...

WHITEHEAD: After that somber take, Brubeck put it in a brighter key, and Armstrong punched it up, put more Satchmo in it. There are other treasures in this Armstrong anthology, such as Pops trading licks with electric guitar or with singing trombonist Jack Teagarden, and multiple takes of his 1955 hit "Mack The Knife," including a celebrated sequence where Louis does his best to get German singer Lotte Lenya to swing the ending.


ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Oh, the line forms on the right, dear.

LOTTE LENYA: (Singing) Now that Mackie's back in town.

WHITEHEAD: Armstrong's complete "Columbia & RCA Victor studio sessions, 1946 - '66," contains only one single from that final year. The A-side is a new showtune he was assigned in the wake of "Hello, Dolly!" - a new tune that suited him a little better, even with the plinking banjo. All in all, the set confirms the sheer variety of the mature Armstrong studio sides and shows how much work went into making them sound casual and spontaneous.


ARMSTRONG: (Singing) No use permitting a prophet of doom. Wipe every smile away, yes. Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed Louis Armstrong, "The Complete Columbia & RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946 - '66" from the mail-order Mosaic label. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review two new semi-comic novels about love and family. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.