It seems loony through the long lens of 2021, but by the mid-1940s many people considered Louis Armstrong passé and past his prime. The man who shaped the entire course of jazz and revolutionized trumpet playing had, in the eyes of his critics, stopped innovating, given in to commercial trends, and resorted to clowning. His most fertile period was behind him, in other words. True, he would never again reach the heights he did with the Hot Five and Hot Seven, but that’s like saying Shakespeare went downhill after Hamlet. And let’s be honest: No one has outdone Armstrong’s 1920s work. But a quarter-century after those historic sessions, he was playing and singing as well as anyone else, while bringing jazz to the masses by making it accessible and fun, and what’s wrong with that?
Seven years after issuing its nine-CD box chronicling Armstrong’s live Columbia and RCA Victor recordings, Mosaic has released a seven-disc set collecting his studio tracks for the same labels from 1946 to 1966. It dispels the notion that Pops was a has-been and puts to shame much of what’s on the radio today. The set gathers his 78s and 45s over those 20 years plus the three albums he recorded for Columbia in that period: two of them classics, the third a commercial flop. There are lots of outtakes, alternate takes, rehearsals, false starts and studio chatter, expertly curated to avoid duplication and to present only what illuminates the creative process. It’s fascinating to hear Armstrong and His All Stars work out the kinks of “Mack the Knife” and try it at different speeds. The versions include a pretty terrible workout with actress/singer Lotte Lenya, who has no sense of swing and drags the song down—but that’s why it’s included here, for posterity and to demonstrate what goes into revisions.
Everybody’s familiar with the two classic LPs here, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats. They feature Pops at the top of his game while adding the outtakes that help us see how the records came to be. The third album, 1961’s The Real Ambassadors, is a curiosity that’s typically associated with Dave Brubeck, because he and his wife Iola wrote all the songs. A collaboration among Armstrong, the Brubecks, Carmen McRae, and Lambert, Hendricks & Ross that was supposed to be a musical dealing with racism, music criticism, and jazz itself, it sold barely any copies and sounds awkward 60 years later. The musicianship and singing are superb, especially the vocalese trio’s rapid-fire delivery on “Cultural Exchange” and “Blow Satchmo,” and the melodies are catchy, but the lyrics are corny, which ruins the whole thing.
The singles, which take up the first two discs, are the pièces de résistance and the real reason to invest $119 in this set, particularly if you already own Armstrong’s W.C. Handy and Fats Waller records (and why wouldn’t you?). He gives us bold, brassy solos, like the one on “Sugar” and his blistering break on “Mack the Knife,” and soulful vocals, like that on “Blues for Yesterday.” He teams with Duke Ellington, who introduces and comps on “Long Long Journey,” and reunites with Hot Five trombonist Kid Ory on a few numbers from the 1947 movie New Orleans, including a powerhouse “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” We hear, for the first time, the master take of “’Taint What You Do” (the one we’re all familiar with is cobbled from two takes), and we get an instance of pure silliness: a novelty medley called “Music to Shave By” featuring Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney, Bing Crosby, and the Hi-Lo’s that was released as a cardboard record in a 1959 issue of Look magazine. Every melody on these first two discs will stick in your brain for days.