Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl: A Rare Concert Finally Reissued

Norman Granz’s 1956 bash featured Armstrong, Ella, Tatum, Oscar & more

In early 1945, impresario Norman Granz, then just 28, was enjoying the first flush of success with what would become his iconic Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. But, as described in Tad Hershorn’s insightful new biography Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice, he also faced a challenge. L.A.’s Philharmonic Hall, the venue that had provided the concert series the name it would keep for decades to come, refused Granz further access, citing the wildness of the SRO crowds that attended. Needing a new, ideally bigger showplace, Granz approached the powers-that-be at the Hollywood Bowl, and was turned down flat. Though the Bowl did, indeed, host popular music events, gladly welcoming such headliners as Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore, managing director Dr. Karl Wecker said he didn’t want the word “jazz” in any way associated with the fabled outdoor space, insisting that he was only interested in music that could be considered “the best of its kind.”

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Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald
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Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

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It took Granz a full decade to gain entrée, but when he did, presenting the Hollywood Bowl’s first full-fledged jazz concert on August 15,1956, he pulled out all the stops, attracting a capacity audience of 20,000. Crowding the bill were Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum and the Oscar Peterson Trio. The entire evening was recorded and released as the double album Jazz At the Hollywood Bowl on Granz’s Verve label, though for the final pressing he rearranged the performance order and had to omit the Armstrong set for contractual reasons. Jazz At the Hollywood Bowl went out of print in the late 1960s, long after Granz had sold Verve to MGM, and drifted into obscurity. Now, four decades later, the complete recording, in proper sequence, has been reassembled and issued on CD, as part of Verve’s ongoing series of deluxe Hip-O Select packages.

For the opening jam session (a cornerstone of all his JATP events, which Granz knew the Bowl audience would expect, even in abbreviated form), Granz plucked two JATP stalwarts, Roy Eldridge and Illinois Jacquet, augmented by Oscar Peterson and trio mates Herb Ellis and Ray Brown, plus Harry Edison, Flip Phillips and Buddy Rich. Compared to most JATP sessions, it is extremely short—just three numbers. But the assembled octet serves up a lively “Honeysuckle Rose,” followed by a superb ballad medley of “I Can’t Get Started,” “If I Had You” and “I’ve Got the World on a String.” They close with a blistering, 14-minute “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” where at last the players get to stretch out and take their solos.

Tatum, who Granz introduces as “the greatest jazz musician extant,” is next, and is in exquisite form across four numbers, beginning with a jaunty “Someone to Watch Over Me” and continuing with stellar interpretations of “Begin the Beguine,” “Willow Weep for Me” and “Humoresque.” It would prove to be the 46-year-old Tatum’s second-to-last recording. He would make one further album for Granz, with Ben Webster, before his premature death from uremic poisoning, just three months after the Bowl concert.

Ella concludes the program’s first half. It is the dawn of her golden period. Granz had only recently lured her away from Decca, signing her to his fledgling Verve label and also assuming responsibility for her personal management. Earlier in 1956, the first in her legendary songbook series, Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook, had become an enormous critical and popular success, far bigger than Granz ever imagined.

Her Bowl sidemen—drummer Alvin Stoller, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Joe Mondragon and pianist Paul Smith—are introduced first, and receive hearty applause. Ella’s entrance is, however, greeted with the sort of massively enthusiastic ovation that would welcome her for the next four decades. She leads off with two selections from the Porter canon, “Love for Sale” and “Just One of Those Things,” segues into a soft and lovely “Little Girl Blue” (though makes no mention of the fact that she’s soon to head back to the studio to explore the Rodgers and Hart songbook), then eases into what builds to a hotly swinging “Too Close for Comfort,” followed by a breezy “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” complete with a terrific impersonation of Armstrong that sends the crowd into a frenzy. She wraps her set with a spectacular, scat-lined “Airmail Special” that prompts two curtain calls.

The Peterson Trio leads off the second half with just two numbers—a rousing “9:20 Special” and peppy “How About You”— covering a scant eight minutes.

Armstrong’s set (until now, unreleased) is the evening’s longest, extending across 13 tracks. The quintet backing Armstrong includes three players—trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Ed Hall and pianist Billy Kyle (augmented by bassist Dale Jones and drummer Barrett Deems)—with whom he would share screen time that same year in the Frank Sinatra-Bing Crosby-Grace Kelly musical hit High Society. But nothing from that Cole Porter score is included on the Bowl set list. Instead, Armstrong, provided no introduction by Granz, offers up his standard opener, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” followed by “Indiana.” After “The Gypsy,” the Ink Spots hit covered by Armstrong in 1953 and thereafter occasionally included in his stage performances, he returns to his standard repertoire for “Ole Miss Blues” and “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” Kyle leads off a sizzling “Perdido,” then Hall introduces a sweet, mid-tempo “You Made Me Love You.” Armstrong returns center stage for “Mack the Knife” (he had made the Kurt Weill composition his own the previous fall, with a recording that would remain definitive until both Fitzgerald and Bobby Darin eclipsed him with radically different readings at decade’s end). Deems gets the spotlight on “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” then it’s Young’s turn on “You Can Depend on Me.” Armstrong and company sign off with a short (just under two minutes) but intense “Mop Mop.”

Armstrong returns with Fitzgerald for two numbers, reaching back to 1946 and their very first recorded pairing on “You Won’t Be Satisfied” and galloping through “Undecided.” Finally, Armstrong leads all the assembled talent in “When the Saints Go Marching In,” with shout outs to Jacquet, Edison, Eldridge, Rich, Brown, Tatum, Peterson and Fitzgerald, concluding with a blazing trumpet solo. As Ricky Riccardi observes of the Bowl concert in What a Wonderful World, his recent chronicle of Armstrong’s later years, “[He] always thrived when competing with other legends, and he responded that night by blowing with fearsome ferocity.” The very next day, Granz ushered Armstrong and Fitzgerald, along with Peterson, Ellis, Rich and Brown, into the studio for Ella & Louis, the first of their three landmark duet albums for Verve.

The two-disc Verve/Hip-O Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, produced in a limited edition of only 5,000 copies, is currently available at Amazon.com or directly through the Hip-O Direct site (Hip-O Select).

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