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Jazz Album of the Week: Louis Armstrong 1946-'66 Box Set Offers New Insights, Unprecedented Access

July 19, 2021. Louis Armstrong is so often framed as a jazz forefather that it becomes easy to lose sight of how much music—really good music—he recorded in the late '40s, '50s, and even well into the 1960s.

With the release of The Complete Louis Armstrong Columbia & RCA Victor Studio Sessions, 1946-66, Mosaic Records presents a comprehensive and remastered compendium of later-stage Armstrong, along with more than enough never-before-released studio takes to satisfy the exhaustive and exhausting pedantic jazz historian living within most everyone who made it beyond the first sentence here.
And Mosaic does an excellent job of placing the seven discs worth of music here into context, thanks largely to an essay of mind-blowing thoroughness from Armstrong biographer Ricky Riccardi and over 40 photos from the collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum—the majority of which have never been published. Until now.

In addition to all 29 of Armstrong’s recordings for RCA Victor in 1946-47—including the Esquire All-American 1946 Award Winners date, Armstrong’s first recording release with Duke Ellington, and the albums of the late '40s with Bobby Hackett and Jack Teagarden that ushered in Armstrong’s return to small group playing with Louis Armstrong and His All Stars— the seven-disc set comprises three of Armstrong’s most memorable recordings for Columbia Records: Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy (1954), Satch Plays Fats (1955), and The Real Ambassadors (1961), with over 75 minutes of material not originally found on that latter collaboration between Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Carmen McRae, and the Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross vocal trio.

When we think of how jazz evolved in the post-war era into and through the 1950s, it’s the names of the bebop pioneers—Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Bud Powell, Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, et. al.—that come to mind. We know Armstrong was out there globetrotting as Ambassador Satch, but it might be argued that there’s a tendency to categorize him as an avuncular emeritus at that point. We tend to think of him as the top dog in another place and time, to associate the greatest expressions of his genius with the decades prior, particularly the 20s.
This collection presents ample fodder for framing Armstrong’s popular legacy differently. In fact, those who compiled this collection would almost certainly take umbrage with the notion that Armstrong’s vitality, musically and otherwise, was somehow lesser than in those earlier years. Armstrong certainly did, and in the liners here he’s quoted forcefully disabusing his detractors. “They don’t realize,” Armstrong says, “that I’m playing better now than I’ve ever played in my life.” In 1960, as he was going on 60, he had a pointed question for New York Times critic Gilbert Millstein: “How many modern trumpet players could play my solos? You’d have to carry ’em out on stretchers.”
The man who really helped Armstrong back up his talk during this period was legendary producer George Avakian. From 1954-on, Avakian might’ve been the one man not named Armstrong who most helped Satch attain the late-career renaissance that this collection celebrates. He did so by steering Armstrong back toward jazz-focused repertoire, first with 1954’s critically and commercially celebrated Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, then the next year with Satch Plays Fats and Pops’ smash rendition of “Mack the Knife.”

All of that music is here, fully remastered, and it sounds great. For the hefty price tag, you’d expect it to. What you might not expect—and what makes this set actually worth the investment, especially for collectors and audiophiles—are the hours of substantive extras included here.
You see, Avakian, known for exacting post-production work, rarely, if ever, issued complete, unedited takes. What you’d hear on the record would be the product of Avakian’s surgical work, the best moments from many different takes spliced together to create the “perfect” whole.

Here, you get the organic—hours of those complete takes that were never issued whole—right next to the engineered, allowing you to take the Avakian challenge, so to speak. And with audio of rehearsals and actual conversations between Armstrong, the All Stars, and Avakian himself, you’re really given a VIP pass into the recording studio and tremendous insight into both Armstrong’s and Avakian’s artistic process. For some, that will make this set, retailing at $119.00, priceless.

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.