Forty-five may not the obvious age to be making a major career move, but that’s exactly what Louis Armstrong decided to do. He had been playing and touring with his orchestra, a big band by any other name, but in May 1947 Louis played a momentous concert at the Town Hall in New York with a small group of musicians, after which there seemed to be no going back. But his appearance with his ‘All-Stars’, as they were soon called, was not just something out of the blue. As is so often with an event that occurs in a blinding flash, things that occurred in the build-up are obscured by the intensity of the white light of publicity.
Carnegie Hall, two blocks south of New York City’s Central Park is one of the most prestigious concert venues in the world. The 2,800 main auditorium has featured just about every great name in 20th century music, but up until February 1947 Louis had only ever driven by Carnegie Hall, never having he been inside. It was critic and Down Beat writer Leonard Feather that suggested Louis make his debut there in February 1947 with a six-piece band led by Edmond Hall.
“I had always enjoyed Edmond’s playing and he had some fine musicians in his band whom I knew from the good old Harlem days. They could all blow their ass off.”
Hall, born in New Orleans three months before Louis, certainly had the musical pedigree, although Hall thought of himself as a swing rather than Dixieland player; whatever the case he was good and his band had the residency at both of New York’s legendary Café Society Clubs – the one in Greenwich village, the other on 58th Street between Lexington and Park Avenue. Louis jumped at the chance to play with Hall, but ever loyal he insisted that his own Orchestra closed the show.
Pops in the second half of the Carnegie Hall concert with his orchestra
The first half featured a veritable array of early Louis classics, from ‘Dippermouth Blues’ to ‘Muskrat Ramble’ and ‘Rockin Chair’ to ‘West End Blues’ and a plethora of other great tune in the New Orleans tradition. For his Orchestra spot Louis had Billie Holiday as a guest on ‘Do you know what it means to Miss New Orleans’. “He is as old as New Orleans and as new as tomorrow,” wrote Nora Holt in the New York Amsterdam News, one of the largest African American dailies in the US. “And his genius will live in history as a fundamental part of American music, whether from the soil or the symphony.” Prosaic and prophetic.
Armstrong’s old friend Eddie Condon’s press agent was at Carnegie Hall and he instantly hit on an idea. Take Louis, put him with a fabulous group of musicians in a small group setting and present them in a New York concert of material very similar to those played in the first half of his Carnegie Hall show. All he needed to do was convince Armstrong’s manager Joe Glaser and the only way to do that was with f money, and so he visited Glaser, with a cashier’s check for $1,500, and explained that it was for Louis to appear along with a group of the best musicians. . .done deal.
“Ever since I can remember playing music the white musicians always were glad to see the colored musicians. And you know? The colored guys were always the same.”
Anderson enlisted the help of cornetists, Bobby Hackett and the two of them went to Louis was a list of milestone recordings from the glory days that the band could perform. Jack Teagarden and Sid Catlett were both quickly enlisted to play and they joined Louis and Hackett along with clarinetist and saxophonist Peanuts Hucko, Dick Cary on piano, Bob Haggart on bass and George Wettling who shared the drum stool with Big Sid. Sidney Bechet had been asked by Hackett to appear, but at the last minute decided not to participate suggesting he was ‘ill’.
The All Stars at The Town Hall July 1947
The repertoire was perfectly picked – they opened with ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ – the playing superlative from each member of the band and it was as though Louis had shed a couple of decades from his playing. True to say that not every number came together on the night, partly because Louis did not see the need to rehearse.
Following the birth of the All-Stars at the Town Hall Glaser set about capitalising on their success. Less than a month later this early All Stars line-up went into Victor’s New York studio to record. Nine days later they played the Winter Garden Theater in New York City and before the year was out Louis and his All-Stars played Carnegie Hall with a line-up of Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Dick Cary, bass player Arvell Shaw, Big Sid and Velma Middleton singing; two weeks later on 30 November 1947 they were in Boston’s Symphony Hall. The complete Symphony Hall has been reissued on CD; if you’ve never got what all the fuss about Louis and the All Stars is all about, this will show you.
Before all the excitement of lavish gigs in symphony halls Louis and the All-Stars played Billy Berg’s Vine Street Jazz club in Los Angeles for their West Coast debut as a band. Louis had been filming A Song Is Born in Hollywood during July along with Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton and Tommy Dorsey; the film starred Danny Kaye. Reviews of the All-Stars shows at Bill Berg’s were almost identical to those from his big East Coast appearances; Satchmo had once again found jazz after years spent in the big band wilderness.
In the immediate aftermath of the Symphony Hall concert Joe Glaser’s phone rarely stopped ringing. Everyone wanted to book the All-Stars and not just in America. In February 1948 Louis and the band flew to France to appear at the Nice Jazz Festival; it had been fifteen years since Louis had played outside of North America, he for one had probably surmised his days of playing abroad had gone. In the course of just a year Louis’s career had taken yet another extraordinary turn. It was the beginning of the most amazing period in Louis Armstrong’s career…