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From the 1920’s, when he made his pioneering recordings
with the Hot Fives and the Hot Sevens, until his death in 1971,
at the age of sixty-nine, Louis Armstrong had been a presence
in the musical world equaled by few and exceeded by none.
Although often thought of as “merely an entertainer,” his
importance in the history of Jazz was huge, particularly with
regard to the art of solo improvisation on a single instrument,
which he initially illustrated on the aforementioned Hot Fives
and Hot Sevens sessions. Before then, Jazz improvisation
was primarily manifested in group settings. Louis Armstrong
led the way for trumpet and cornet soloists, as did
Coleman Hawkins on the tenor saxophone.

Following these important sessions in the 1920’s, Armstrong’s
“importance” was perhaps not as great from a developmental
standpoint, as other Jazz icons would come to the fore and
advance the musical form in other innovative ways. Henceforth,
he would be known as a consummate entertainer, as a trumpeter,
cornetist and singer, often appearing as himself in motion pictures.

In January of both 1951 and 1955, Armstrong recorded the two
“California Concerts” that I heard on this four-disc set. By that time,
he was an entertainment “institution,” in the best sense of the
term, and played with his “All Stars,” which were originally formed
in 1947, using varying personnel. As of their 1951 concert at the
Pasadena Civic Auditorium, this group included Jack Teagarden
on trombone and Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano. Duke Ellington
alumnus Barney Bigard was featured on clarinet, with Arvell Shaw
on drums. Velma Middleton was occasionally featured on vocals,
providing a comedic “foil” to Armstrong. After all, this was
“entertainment!”

The much longer 1955 concert was recorded at the Crescendo Club
in Los Angeles. By then, Trummy Young, Billy Kyle and Barrett Deems
had replaced Teagarden, Hines and Cole, respectively.

These discs capture the entire concerts, and the remastered
sound is quite good, allowing the listener to feel as though he
or she were there in person, as much as possible. Of course,
the music played was in the New Orleans/Dixieland style for
which Armstrong was best known and clearly, his aim was to
provide an enjoyable show for his audience. His trumpet playing
was spectacular, with that inimitable vibrato that made him so
famous, and he also sang. Later, during the 1960’s,
Louis Armstrong would have huge hits as a vocalist, with songs
like “Hello Dolly,” and “Wonderful World.” Perhaps Ethel Waters
(1896-1977) predated him in this respect, but Armstrong was
nevertheless a pioneer of “scat” singing, which he included
in these shows.

I was also impressed with Barney Bigard’s clarinet playing,
and I was reminded of the abundance of “star” players that
Duke Ellington had in HIS band(s), over the years. All of these
musicians were clearly “on point” at these gigs, and a sense
of communal fun prevailed. The songs performed included
favorites, such as “Body and Soul,” “Old Man Mose,”
“Jeepers Creepers,” “Muskrat Ramble,” and “Basin Street Blues.”
Many of these performances had never been released before,
thereby making this 1992 set invaluable.

Personally, I tend to prefer Jazz that is more “compelling”
and “searching,” not to mention “challenging,” from a harmonic
standpoint. However, having said that, I also realize that there is a
need for variety. Jazz is a huge genre with many offshoots and
tributaries. I believe that it’s best for me to explore all of them,
particularly when they are performed by musicians at the top
of their game. Therefore, I highly recommend this set, and
believe that it’s an essential one for Louis Armstrong fans.

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