A Rare Live Recording of Louis Armstrong at the Top of His Game in Europe
Today we celebrate 4/20 with the stoner king of jazz trumpet, Louis Armstrong. Satchmo was by all accounts a Snoop Dogg-class smoker who always carried the finest mezz. How stoned does he sound on the recently discovered Armstrong in Europe – streaming at Spotify – a live set recorded at the 1948 Nice International Jazz Festival,, leading a quintet with pianist Earl Hines, trombonist Jack Teagarden, bassist Arvell Shaw, drummer Sid Catlett and clarinetist Barney Bigard?
Not at all, actually. If anybody seems high, it’s the other guys in the band. After the intros – Hines noodling away behind them – the group racewalk through a brief couple of verses of the dixieland-flavored Muskrat Ramble. Armstrong and Teagarden then share sly vocals on the slow blues Rocking Chair, the trombonist’s blip of a solo followed by a flare of a trumpet coda from Satchmo.
The rest of the record is a lot like that. This is a boisterously entertaining party album in rustic mono sound that varies from track to track, up and down volumewise: audience applause is kept to a minimum for the most part. On the mic, Armstrong teases the rhythm but he is all business when he picks up his horn.
They follow with Rose Room, a briskly tiptoeing platform for spiraling, crystalline, drolly ostentatious clarinet accented by the bandleader. Royal Garden Blues has some neatly triangulated conversations between the horns, Hines adding vaudevillian flourishes.
Hines imbues Panama with ragtime sparkle alongside the animatedly intertwined horns. Armstrong’s strutting take of On the Sunny Side of the Street gets more winkingly genial as it goes along: the audience loves that. His ambered, straightforward playing on the gospel-infused Mahogany Hall is one of the high points of the show; the band mess with the audience via a series of false endings as they careen their way out.
The midtempo drag Black and Blue has a similar, circumspect soulfulness: “My only sin is in my skin” packs a nonchalant wallop. From there the band scamper through Them There Eyes and back away for a more wrly somber take of This Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.
They keep the Big Easy vibe going tightly with Way Down Yonder in New Orleans, then offer a nod to the crowd with Coquette, Hines and Teagarden taking centerstage. Guest chanteuse Velma Middleton takes over on a slightly more low-key Lover Come Back to Me; then, on Can Anyone Explain she has to summon the bandleader to the mic for a dirty joke that these Francophones completely miss.
Tin Roof Blues, the quietest song of the set, is ironically a lauching pad for the most compelling solos of the night. The group close counterintuitively with the slow, lushly nocturnal A Kiss to Build a Dream On. At the time this recording was made, jazz was the western world’s default dance and party music, to a large extent because of these guys onstage.