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

Duke Elling­ton once said of Louis Arm­strong, “He was born poor, died rich, and nev­er hurt any­one on the way.”

The grand­son of slaves, Arm­strong grew up in the poor­est neigh­bor­hood of New Orleans. As a child he was fas­ci­nat­ed with the march­ing bands that played in funer­al pro­ces­sions. At the age of sev­en he went to work for a junk deal­er. He would ride on the junk wag­on and, as he recalled lat­er, toot an old tin horn “as a call for old rags, bones, bot­tles or any­thing that the peo­ple and the kids had to sell.” When the young boy saw an old cor­net in the win­dow of a pawn shop, he asked his boss to loan him the five dol­lars to buy it. He learned to play the instru­ment in the Home for Col­ored Waifs, where he was sent for delin­quen­cy. The gift­ed young­ster soon caught the atten­tion of the pio­neer­ing jazz cor­netist Joe “King” Oliv­er, who became his men­tor. In 1922 Arm­strong joined Oliv­er in Chica­go to play in his famous Cre­ole Jazz Band. He was 21 years old. Before long Arm­strong set out on his own, and in 1925 began record­ing his leg­endary “Hot Five” ses­sions that estab­lished him as a vir­tu­oso and changed the course of jazz his­to­ry. Arm­strong’s horn play­ing and singing made an enor­mous impact on 20th cen­tu­ry music. In 2006, Wyn­ton Marsalis wrote:

Louis Arm­strong’s sound tran­scends time and style. He’s the most mod­ern trum­pet play­er we’ve ever heard and the most ancient…at the same time. He has light in his sound. It’s big and open with a deep spir­i­tu­al essence–a sound clos­est to the Angel Gabriel. You Can’t prac­tice to get Louis Arm­strong’s sound. It’s some­thing with­in him that just came out. Rhyth­mi­cal­ly, he’s the most sophis­ti­cat­ed play­er we’ve ever pro­duced. He places notes unpre­dictably with such great timing–always swing­ing, always coordinated–with over­whelm­ing tran­scen­dent pow­er.

Marsal­is’s com­ments are from the fore­ward to the Jazz Icons DVD Louis Arm­strong: Live in ’59. The con­cert, see Part 1 above, was filmed in March of 1959 in Antwerp, Bel­gium. (Here are the remain­ing parts: Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.) It may be the only full Arm­strong con­cert cap­tured on film. By the time it was made, Arm­strong was firm­ly estab­lished as a cul­tur­al icon. He was tour­ing Europe with the All Stars, a group he formed in 1947. The line­up at Antwerp fea­tured Arm­strong on trum­pet and vocals, Michael “Peanuts” Hucko on clar­inet, Trum­my Young on trom­bone, Bil­ly Kyle on piano, Mort Her­bert on bass, Dan­ny Barcelona on drums and Vel­ma Mid­dle­ton on vocals for “St. Louis Blues” and “Ko Ko Mo.” Here’s the com­plete set list:

  1. When it’s Sleepy Time Down South
  2. (Back Home Again in) Indi­ana
  3. Basin Street Blues
  4. Tiger Rag
  5. Now You Has Jazz
  6. Love is Just Around the Cor­ner
  7. C’est si bon
  8. Mack the Knife
  9. Stompin’ at the Savoy
  10. St. Louis Blues
  11. Ko Ko Mo (I Love You So)
  12. When the Saints Go March­ing In
  13. La Vie en rose

“By the time of the All-Stars per­for­mance in Bel­gium,” writes Rob Bow­man in the lin­er notes, “they were a well-oiled machine, per­form­ing sim­i­lar sets night after night.” But three months lat­er, Arm­strong suf­fered a heart attack in Spo­le­to, Italy, and his pace slowed down. The Antwerp film cap­tures Arm­strong when he was still going strong. It show­cas­es the craft of a con­sum­mate enter­tain­er from the old school, who strove always to please peo­ple. As Bow­man writes:

Com­ing of age as a pro­fes­sion­al musi­cian at the dawn of jazz record­ing, musi­cians of Arm­strong’s gen­er­a­tion thought of them­selves, first and fore­most, as enter­tain­ers. Great art might occur in the process, but at the end of the day it was their abil­i­ty to enter­tain that guar­an­teed them an audi­ence and a liv­ing year after year. The roots of such enter­tain­ment for African Amer­i­can musi­cians of Arm­strong’s gen­er­a­tion were min­strel­sy and vaude­ville. To that end, Arm­strong comes across as a larg­er-than-life char­ac­ter, clown­ing, grin­ning from ear to ear, rolling his eyes and mug­ging for the audi­ence through­out the show. That meant shtick like Arm­strong and Young’s parad­ing at the end of “Tiger Rag,” the corn­ball humor of “Now You Has Jazz” and the con­stant guf­faw­ing and drawn out cries of “Ahh” heard at the end of tunes were an inte­gral part of his show. While some con­tem­po­rary crit­ics accused Arm­strong of being an Uncle Tom, they sim­ply did­n’t get it. This was a per­for­mance aes­thet­ic from an ear­li­er point in time, and Arm­strong was a mas­ter.

Relat­ed con­tent:

10 Great Per­for­mances From 10 Leg­endary Jazz Artists: Djan­go, Miles, Monk, Coltrane and More

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