The Only Known Footage of Louis Armstrong in a Recording Studio: Watch the Recently-Discovered Film (1959)

1959 was a watershed for jazz, a form of music that often looks backward and forward at once. That year, virtuoso composers and soloists like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, and Ornette Coleman pulled jazz in all sorts of temporal and spatial dimensions, giving new shape to bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, and whatever Ornette Coleman was up to. 1959 also brought us perhaps one of the most traditional records by a jazz great that year, Louis Armstrong’s Satchmo Plays King Oliver, a tribute album to his “earliest musical hero,” writes Allmusic, “and the man who enabled two of his breakout gigs” in 1918 and 1922.

Armstrong reached back to those years in his selection of material, with his All-Stars playing such classic Oliver compositions as “New Orleans stomp” and “Dr. Jazz,” along with a handful of tunes Armstrong “admitted with a sly smile, ‘Joe [Oliver] might have played.’” The recording sessions for that album ended up on a “33-minute, 16mm film,” writes The Guardian. “The record producer, Sid Frey, had the film professionally shot but wound up not doing anything with it or telling anyone about it.” Just recently, that film was discovered in a storage facility and acquired by the Louis Armstrong House Museum. It’s the only known footage of Armstrong in the studio.

See Armstrong and his All-Stars record “I Ain’t Got Nobody” at Audio Fidelity in Los Angeles above. Here, as in the other cuts, Armstrong revisits his New Orleans swing and ragtime roots, in stark contrast to the forward-looking wave of records from a new generation. But in doing so, he also created an instant classic tribute that “deserves to be placed on the shelf alongside Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats,” writes Jazzviews, “and in some aspects is superior to them both.... ‘I Ain’t Got Nobody’ is a tune that could have been written by Louis and the group, it fits them well. The whole group are in top form and Louis’s vocal is a gem.” It certainly puts David Lee Roth’s hammy version to shame.

This represents one of “two complete takes,” The Guardian notes, presumably the first. Afterward, at 4:22, watch Louis and the band take five and talk things over. There’s no audio, but it’s cool nonetheless to see them casually lounge around smoking cigarettes and cracking jokes. “For now, the museum will post one complete song on its website and social media"---it’s current song being that above. “It plans to show the complete film at a future date.” For now, it's housed at the museum’s Corona, Queens location, “in the modest brick building where Armstrong lived for 28 years and died in 1971.”

Related Content:

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars Live in Belgium, 1959: The Full Show

The Cleanest Recordings of 1920s Louis Armstrong Songs You’ll Ever Hear

Louis Armstrong Plays Historic Cold War Concerts in East Berlin & Budapest (1965)

Watch the Earliest Known Footage of Louis Armstrong Performing Live in Concert (Copenhagen, 1933)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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