Throughout his remarkable and influential career, Louis Armstrong recorded in a variety of styles for a number of labels. In April, some of his most significant sides for both RCA Victor and Columbia are coming to CD in a new box set from the fine folks at Mosaic Records. The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-1966 is a sprawling and comprehensive 7-CD collection with all 29 of Satchmo’s 1946-47 RCA sides plus his ’50s Columbia LPs with producer George Avakian (Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, Satch Plays Fats); Dave and Iola Brubeck’s starry concept album The Real Ambassadors; and subsequent cuts overseen by Teo Macero and Bob Johnston. This set promises to be an ideal complement to the (now sadly out-of-print) 2014 box Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and The All-Stars.
The box begins in January 1946 with a session featuring Duke Ellington on one track and Neal Hefti on another; it continues through October 1947. At RCA, Armstrong recorded with both his regular live band and in a small group setting; the latter sessions with Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden would lead Armstrong to form his own small group, The All-Stars. All 29 of these recordings have been newly transferred from the original metal parts.
Following his RCA years, Armstrong signed with Decca Records where he honed his crossover success with pop audiences at the expense of the support of some in the jazz community. But in 1954, George Avakian – still in the midst of his innovative 12-year stay at Columbia during which time he nurtured the careers of artists from Miles Davis to Johnny Mathis – lured Armstrong to the fold for what was intended to be a one-off album. The result was 1954’s Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, a full-length tribute to the “Father of the Blues.” The trumpeter-vocalist tapped into his roots on such tracks as “St. Louis Blues,” “Beale Street Blues,” and “Long Gone” with The All-Stars: Trummy Young (trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet), Billy Kyle (piano), Arvell Shaw (bass), Barrett Deems (drums), and Velma Middleton (vocals). Avakian himself penned the liner notes for the triumphant return to form which is today regarded as perhaps Armstrong’s finest album statement.
Plays W.C. Handy was so successful that Avakian lured Armstrong back for a follow-up the next year. Satch Plays Fats Waller celebrated the life of the stride piano legend and included many of his most famous (and famously playful) compositions such as “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Squeeze Me,” and “Black and Blue.” The producer again annotated the LP which featured the same All-Stars lineup. While a later 1955 session didn’t yield a full album, it did garner Armstrong a bona fide standard. His Columbia recording of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s “Mack the Knife” (in its 1954 American translation by Marc Blitzstein) was the first to bring the song to the forefront of the U.S. pop consciousness, inspiring later takes by just about everybody, but most notably Bobby Darin and Louis’ sometime-duet partner, Ella Fitzgerald.
The third major Columbia LP covered in this set was an all-star (if not All-Star) affair. In September 1957, Armstrong took a courageous public stand against the injustices being perpetrated against African-American students attempting to integrate in Arkansas. Pianist Dave Brubeck and his wife Iola believed passionately in what the musician was saying and conceived a big Broadway musical about the cultural ambassadors of the world – people like Louis Armstrong. It was titled The Real Ambassadors, and the Brubecks drew, too, on their own experiences touring the world on behalf of the U.S. State Department, sharing American music. While the musical never got off the ground despite (or maybe because of) addressing such weighty issues as civil rights and America’s standing in the Cold War era, the score premiered at the 1962 Monterey Jazz Festival and on disc by Columbia Records under the auspices of Teo Macero. Louis starred alongside Dave Brubeck, Carmen McRae, and the vocal trio of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross. The 60-year-old artist brought a lifetime of experience to the role, and it remains some of his most affecting work at Columbia or anywhere else.
All three Columbia LPs are presented in new remasters of their original albums, but Mosaic being Mosaic, that’s far from all. Each album is now accompanied by never-before-heard session material totaling more than three hours of listening. As Avakian relied heavily upon editing and splicing the jazz recordings he produced, the Columbia archives housed numerous alternate takes, rehearsals, and even in-studio talks. All of those are presented here including over 75 minutes of outtake material from The Real Ambassadors.
That’s still not all. The box also has a handful of other rarities including a Remington shaver ad with Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and The Hi-Los; and Louis’ 1966 Columbia single of “Canal Street Blues” b/w “Cabaret” from the Broadway musical of the same name (the cast album rights for which were held by Columbia). By that point, Armstrong’s popularity had once again skyrocketed thanks to his once-in-a-lifetime, Grammy-winning recording of Jerry Herman’s “Hello, Dolly!” for the Kapp label. (When “Dolly!” reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 1964, it ended The Beatles’ streak of three chart-toppers over fourteen consecutive weeks on the chart. Louis also became the oldest artist to reach No. 1.)
The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Studio Sessions 1946-1966 will be packaged with Mosaic’s usual attention to detail. The booklet includes a 30,000-word essay by Armstrong historian Ricky Riccardi (author of What a Wonderful World: Louis Armstrong’s Later Years and Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong) as well as over 40 photos (many never before published) from the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation. Sound quality promises to be exceptional, too. Mosaic indicates that “via Sony’s archives we were able to get the original RCA Victor metal parts and test pressings of the pre-tape material and for the Columbia sessions we had access to all of the reel-to-reel tapes which were lovingly transferred by Matt Cavaluzzo of Battery Studios. For the Columbia LPs, we kept the order in which they appeared on the original LPs and as for the alternate takes we had our restoration engineer Andreas Meyer restore previous edits and splices.”
The box set is limited to 3,500 copies and is scheduled for release exclusively through Mosaic Records on April 10. Pre-orders are open now at the link below.
For complete track listing and Armstrong sessionography for the period covered in this box set, please visit Mosaic Records here.