Unless you’re a baby boomer who elects to cite John Coltrane or Miles Davis as Ultimate Jazz Man No. 1, or perhaps a diehard Charlie Parker supporter, chances are you’d go with Louis Armstrong as king of the jazzers. This can be a bit of a tricky association, though. If you’re not hardcore into jazz, knee-jerk associations tend to accompany Armstrong’s music. One thinks of old-timey ragtime strains, antiquated instruments, old-fashioned vibes, a kind of corny musical American.
Armstrong has something to do with these notions in large part because of the music housed in this Mosaic box set, “Louis Armstrong: The Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars.” If you know Mosaic, then you know that the label is to jazz reissues what Criterion is to classic films or Purple Chick to Beatles bootlegs: the one/last stop, just about. And even by Mosaic standards, this is gargantuan: nine discs of Armstrong in concert (for the most part; there’s also a rehearsal and some quick studio work) from the late 1940s to the late 1950s. Which is to say, 20-plus years after Armstrong started to create the legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven sides, music as important as any from the 20th century, and a veritable Dead Sea Scrolls of jazz. Next time you’re at the Museum of Fine Arts, take a good look at that Picasso Cubist bust, then go home and listen to some Hot Sevens solos; you’ll sense more ideological overlap than you’d ever expect from dusty old jazz sides.
Having realized the stupefying achievement of creating a strain of Modernism that I would happily tout for in a battle with all of the giants — a Proust vs. Stravinsky vs. Matisse vs. Armstrong cage match — Armstrong retreated almost as quickly as he had innovated. And this is where the entire problem of his legacy lies. Trane and Davis had European elements in their music. The latter evolved into a sort of jazz chamber musician, whereas the former never felt very American at all, and, at times, not especially of this earthly plane. Armstrong, though, was as American as it gets — he’s the dude best suited for the postage stamp — and he blended post-antebellum traditions with a touch of Disney as he crossed the country with his All Stars, a term that to just about everyone at the time meant baseball, the American sport by as a wide a margin as football now is.
The consensual knock was that Armstrong became a caricature of himself, a man acting as a revivalist for his own work. You went out to the shows and got classic jazz — the old kind — which was then being eclipsed by Parker’s frenetic bebop experiments and breakthroughs.
So there’s the official history, more or less. But while Armstrong does “aw shucks” it up now and again on the gigs compiled in this box, he also brings the chops, big time. Is anything here particularly new? No. Do you need it to be? I don’t. Phil Spector once told someone that they had no idea how good Elvis was; this set makes me want to tell someone that they have no clue how good Armstrong was. Hendrix on guitar, Liszt at the piano, Keith Moon on drums, Paganini on violin, Armstrong with his trumpet: the best of the best of the best.
The track that opens the package, “Cornet Chop Suey” from a May 1947 Town Hall gig in New York City, is the bravura set piece that smashes through the corn, if you will. It’s virtuoso blowing time, and if you think music this old, this “un-electric,” sounds more like your great-grandmother’s thing, you’re in for one of music’s cooler epiphanies. No one ever really says this, but there is a lot of rock ’n’ roll in Armstrong’s music. If you’re in the car and Armstrong comes on on some old jazz radio program, you can crank it up pretty good, and then look down to see you’re 20 miles over the speed limit.
The quality of the dates here varies. Not surprisingly, Armstrong ups his game for an early June 1956 gig in Chicago, his adopted hometown. You wonder if he considered himself more of a singer than a trumpet player by this stage; I’ve always flip-flopped on what he might have been more influential as, if not better at. One could argue that Poe was a better critic than short story writer, and if you wanted to, you could make at least as compelling a case that Armstrong the singer had more of an impact on the musicians who followed than did Armstrong the horn man. (There’s Bob Dylan, for example.)
The All Stars themselves are consistently capable, and trombonist Jack Teagarden is a legend in his own right. But the real stud of the shifting rosters is drummer Sid Catlett, woefully underrepresented on record. Check out his 1947 solos on “Tiger Rag” and “Steak Face.” They’re so formally inventive and powerful, it’s almost like Catlett figured out how to play his kit this way after studying Armstrong’s trumpet solos. Which may have been the case.
Colin Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.