Louis Armstrong, The 'Decca Sessions'

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new seven-disc set that chronicles the trumpeter's big band performances. Mosaic restored and remastered each of the 166 tracks from Decca Records' original recordings.

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TERRY GROSS, host:

Louis Armstrong began and ended his career playing mostly in small New Orleans-style jazz bands. But in the 1930s and most of the '40s, he worked with a large orchestra, while recording side projects with other singers and bands. The recordings he made for Decca between 1935 and '46 are collected in a new box set. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it confirms the range and depth of Armstrong's art.

(Soundbite of song "On A Little Bamboo Bridge")

Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG (Musician): (Singing) On a little bamboo bridge by the waters of Kalua, beneath Hawaiian skies, I fell in love with you.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Louis Armstrong on a rare dip into Hawaiian music with Andy Iona and his Islanders in 1937. It's almost a jazz axiom that singers who can swing any material will be called on to do so, and no exaggeration to say Armstrong made swinging popular to begin with. He sounded so good doing it, everybody wanted it, singers and players both.

(Soundbite of song, "(I'll Be Glad When You're Dead) You Rascal You")

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) I'll be glad when you're dead, you rascal you. I'll be tickled to death when you leave this Earth you dog. I took you for my friend and you drank up all my gin. I'll sure be glad when that cat's dead and buried.

WHITEHEAD: Louis Armstrong on trumpet 1941, fronting the Luis Russell Orchestra that had backed him often since 1929. They had more New Orleans feeling than the average swing band. With them in 1938, Armstrong introduced what had become Dixieland music's national anthem, though his original version is still the one to beat.

(Soundbite of song, "When the Saints Go Marching In")

WHITEHEAD: There were other good soloists in Luis Russell's band, but they had the same problem top players usually have recording with Armstrong. Almost everyone sounded like a letdown compared to him. But he welcomed fellow singers onto his dates and loved being their comic foil. His guests in the '30s and '40s included old friend Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald in the first of their glorious match ups, future film star Dorothy Dandridge and most often the four Mills brothers. They help Armstrong give the needle to Steven Foster's ode to plantation living, "The Old Folks at Home."

(Soundbite of song, "The Old Folks At Home")

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Now, brothers, it was way down upon the Swanee river.

THE MILLS BROTHERS (Musicians): (Singing) Far, far away.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Dere's wha my heart is turning ever.

THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) Dere's wha de old folks stay.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Don't you know one thing? All up and down de whole creation…

THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) Sadly he roam.

Mr. ARMSTRONG (Singing): Now look at that, dat's where my heart's still longing for de plantation.

THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) And for de old folks at home.

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Now sing brothers.

THE MILLS BROTHERS: (Singing) All we were then…

WHITEHEAD: Louis Armstrong in sermonizing mode. In the '30s, he also recorded a couple of comedian Bert Williams's comic sermons and absorbed a lot of his half-sung, half-spoken delivery. Like fellow Williams fan Fats Waller, Armstrong heard how swing feeling and comic timing flow together. Both are a matter of precisely placed beats, anticipation and knowing just how long to delay a payoff.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Consider this funeral oration written by Hoagy Carmichael.

(Soundbite of song, "Poor Old Joe")

Mr. ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Now poor old Joe, he's gone and dead, a mean bad brother is gone to his reward, old Joe led the life too fast, now here is my story, poor old Joe liked his liquor straight and strong, poor old Joe liked women lean and long, yes sir, tried to go at much too fast a pace, he came in second place to the (unintelligible) ha, ha, ha…

WHITEHEAD: All this music comes from Mosaic's "The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions: 1935-1946" - seven CDs worth by big and little bands expertly annotated by the finicky dean of Armstrong annotators, Dan Morgenstern.

(Soundbite of music)

WHITEHEAD: Pops's Decca sides demonstrate his excellence as a singer, how he infuses even offhand solos with rhythmic genius and how he came to personify jazz's twin impulses: to make it new and revel in old glories. Even as he kept refining his language, producers had him revisit some of his milestones. Updating 1928's "West End Blues" 11 years later, Armstrong showed he'd listened to the original as much as everyone else.

(Soundbite of song, "West End Blues")

WHITEHEAD: By 1939, Armstrong's original "West End Blues" was revered as a classic. His old, improvised solo all but chiseled in stone. In a way, such revivals of his oldies anticipate the nostalgic New Orleans-style groups he'd returned to later. By the late 1930s, Louis Armstrong had achieved mythic stature in jazz, before he even turned 40.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches at the University of Kansas and he's a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed the complete Armstrong "Decca Sessions: 1935-'46" on the Mosaic label. You can download Podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org.

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