“Ask any jazz expert to name the music’s greatest all-time figures and pretty quickly you’ll hear the name Louis Armstrong. Ask your expert to name his finest recordings and you’ll surely hear such titles as ‘West End Blues’ and ‘Potato Head Blues.’ You’ll hear this because Armstrong and those records are part of the jazz canon.
But where do such canons come from? Who said that Armstrong and ‘Potato Head Blues’ were so great in the first place? The answer is, George Avakian said so…. When Woody Allen told us in his movie Manhattan that ‘Potato Head Blues’ was one of the things that made life worthwhile, maybe it was because Mr. Avakian enabled him to hear it at an impressionable age.”
-John McDonough, The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 1997
JazzTimes asked George Avakian how the canonization of the Hot Fives and Sevens, all but forgotten at one point, came about. Avakian also produced three mid-’50s albums that Wynton Marsalis describes as “the greatest Armstrong recordings since the early 1930s.”
Four new Louis Armstrong CD reissues, just released by Columbia/ Legacy–The Complete Hot Fives and Sevens, Satch Plays Fats, Satchmo the Great and Ambassador Satch–represent landmarks in my much-cherished relationship with Pops. I established a lifelong friendship with Louis while still a college student, thanks to circumstances directly related to his Hot Five and Seven recordings–even though I had never heard one of these classic performances until the Saturday after Thanksgiving Day 1936, when I was 17.
Less than four years later these were the very recordings that led to my opportunity to produce the record industry’s first series of 78-rpm classic jazz reissues–both singles and annotated albums. This event was, in fact, the birth of Legacy itself, decades before Sony bought Columbia Records. Appropriately enough, the very first album in the new series was King Louis, a collection of eight Hot Fives and Sevens sides, including previously unreleased masters which I had found in the company’s vaults.
I became interested in jazz when I was 13, maybe 14. I would dial in some music late at night–surreptitiously and very softly, after my parents thought I was asleep–like the Casa Loma Orchestra, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong, whose records I started to buy, and by 1935 there was Benny Goodman, who shared a three-hour Saturday night program, Let’s Dance, with a couple of other bands that I yawned through.
By the time of my senior year of high school, in Sept. 1936, I supplemented my radio listening with a modest record collection built on an allowance of 50 cents a week. In November, I interviewed the King of Swing, Benny Goodman, for my school newspaper, the Horace Mann Record. A classmate, Julian Koenig, showed his older brother, Lester, what I had written.
“Does George know about Louis Armstrong?” asked Les.
“Yes; he thinks he’s real flashy and sings kind of funny, but he likes him,” explained Julian.
“Invite him to the house Saturday,” said Les. “Your friend needs to hear some real Armstrong.”
Wow! I got instant religion with a capital R. It was my introduction to “Cornet Chop Suey,” “West End Blues,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” and more. All the discs were thickly solid, with magenta or red labels bearing the name OKeh in script.
“Where can I buy them?” I asked.
“You can’t,” said Les. “They’re all out of print now. Brunswick owns OKeh, but they’re just sitting on them.”
“That’s criminal,” I said. “I’m going to write them a letter.” I did and received no answer.
Ten months later I arrived in New Haven as a Yale freshman. I rang the doorbell at 20 Lake Place, the address listed under the byline of Marshall Stearns’ Collector’s Corner column in Tempo magazine. I had learned from a fellow freshman, Jerry King, that this gracious man held an open house every Friday evening for anyone who wanted to listen to and talk about jazz records.
Marshall’s collection, one of the best in the world at the time, exposed me to virtually the entire gamut of early jazz records, as well as the rest of the Hot Fives and Sevens. I’d only been able to find perhaps five or six of these rarities, and it still rankled me that the public couldn’t buy them over the counter (though three or four had become available via special order through the United Hot Clubs of America, of which Marshall had been a principal organizer). By the end of my freshman year (June 1938), Marshall had tired of writing Collector’s Corner and turned it over to me. He and Jerry encouraged me to write again to Brunswick about starting a reissue program. This time I went well beyond the Hot Fives and Sevens, writing pages and pages of specifics concerning more than a dozen artists and citing the need for annotated albums because there was so little published information about the music and the performers. I got a brief acknowledgement letter in return, but nothing more.
By the end of 1939, the popular acceptance of swing music had aroused a glimmer of interest in its origins. The Columbia Broadcasting System had just bought the bankrupt American Recording Corporation and started phasing out its principal label name, Brunswick. Edward Wallerstein, president of the newly revived Columbia Records label, decided that the time was right for the company to embark on a serious program of jazz reissues. One of Columbia’s recording directors was John Hammond. Mr. Wallerstein asked him to inaugurate a reissue program, to be called “Hot Jazz Classics.” But John had helped launch the bandleading careers of Benny Goodman and Count Basie and was more interested in new record production. He told Mr. Wallerstein, “A young fellow I know writes a collector’s column for Tempo; he could do it better than I can, and he’s at Yale University, just 25 miles from our factory at Bridgeport.”
Mr. Wallerstein invited me to come to a meeting on Washington’s Birthday in 1940, at which the reissue idea would be discussed. He began by asking Mr. L. J. Morrison, the factory manager, to read some letters from the public about reissuing jazz. Mr. Morrison read one, and as he glanced with some misgiving at the pages of enclosures, I spoke up.
“Excuse me, sir, I think I wrote that letter in 1938.”
“So you did,” said Mr. Morrison. “Did you get a reply?” asked Mr. Wallerstein.
“Yes, sir; that this was a matter for the advertising department in New York to consider, and I would hear from them shortly.”
“And did you?”
“Well, you’ve got an answer now. We like your proposal of four albums and some singles on each release. Can you come to Bridgeport once a week?”
It was a dream come true. On Thursdays I had only one early class, and my roommate, Ray Fuller, had a reasonably reliable old sedan. At the Columbia factory there were three large rooms with thousands of metal masters, floor to ceiling, filed in numerical blocks. A great many had no other identifications, but armed with a 1938 edition of Charles Delaunay’s Hot Discography and my own notebooks, I started researching.
When I gave Louis a set of the newly discovered test pressings in the spring of 1940 (there were six Hot Fives and Sevens in all, plus half a dozen others) his delight was boundless, especially after we both realized that a few months later these unidentified metal masters would have been automatically recycled because wartime scrap drives had increased as Hitler’s armies advanced, even though America was still considered neutral.
Although I was half his age and still going to school, Louis treated me as a friend, not an eager fan. Shortly after I came home from World War II in 1946 and became a full-time Columbia employee, I saw Louis after a theater performance and he surprised me by remembering me the moment he saw me, although we hadn’t seen each other for three years. Eight more years would pass before a break in his virtually continuous association with Decca Records enabled me to record him at Columbia, but even before then, time and again when he had a week off from his constant touring, Pops would phone me with an invitation to stop by for an afternoon.
The Hot Fives and Sevens continued to play the leading role in the history of jazz reissues as the record industry entered a new phase. After the war, when I became director of popular albums at Columbia, we introduced the 33-rpm LP. The first multi-set 12-inch reissues led off with The Louis Armstrong Story in four volumes; the first three volumes consisted of all Hot Fives and Sevens!
For various reasons, Legacy decided not to have me work on the new CD box of the Hot Fives and Sevens, although that had been the company’s plan for many years and was reaffirmed in 1998. The same thing happened with new editions of two of the other three albums that have been rereleased, Ambassador Satch and Satchmo the Great. With Satch Plays Fats, I had already done almost all the restoration and remastering, as well as editing of fresh material from the 1955 tapes that had survived the ghastly error of someone scrapping more than half the originals in order to make room in the vaults for new recordings. (In 1993 and 1997 I managed to restore the original sound and musical content of two other sets which had suffered this fate: Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and Miles Ahead.)
Unfortunately, the rerelease of Satch Plays Fats, first discussed seven years ago, kept getting postponed. It was finally scheduled for the current year, but an intradepartmental snarl resulted in Legacy using only the 1955 notes and none of my new annotation, which corrected some longstanding errors and some new information.
Almost no Legacy reissue of a major artist has appeared in recent years without a new annotation, often with a reprint of the original LP notes as well. Inexplicably, three of Armstrong’s most important 1950s albums are reissued now with only the original annotations (and with certain inaccuracies intact). A fair amount of historic information could have been included in these sets, particularly in Satch Plays Fats, but it would have also been worthwhile to publish the background of how I came up with the title Ambassador Satch for the LP based on his European tour of late 1955, and how the Ed Murrow and Fred Friendly television program See It Now came to make Satchmo the Great. But Sony Legacy went with just the original annotations, which at the time told only a fraction of the background of these sets and of course could not foresee that they would play far-reaching roles in Armstrong’s career.
Among all the great performers I worked with over the last 61 years, Louis remains the artist I most admired and most enjoyed recording, by a distinct though relatively narrow margin–narrow because it was also an enormous pleasure working with Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Mahalia Jackson, Erroll Garner, Sonny Rollins, Dave Brubeck and a host of others who were not just great artists, but among the best friends I have ever had.