Night Lights Classic Jazz

It’s All In The Game: Louis Armstrong, 1947-1957

Jazz writer Dan Morgenstern and historian Michael McGerr join us to talk Louis Armstrong and bebop, pop ballads, the Cold War and more.

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  • Armstrong Carnegie

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    Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

    Jazz prophet at a crossroads: Louis Armstrong in 1947.

  • Armstrong Town Hall

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    Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

    Armstrong's 1947 Town Hall concert in New York City provided a summary point for the moves the trumpeter had already been making back to a small-group format.

  • Armstrong Satchmo in Style

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    Photo: Album cover art

    Decca producer Milt Gabler showcased Armstrong's vocal performances in lush pop-ballad settings by arranger Gordon Jenkins.

  • Armstrong entertainer

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    Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

    Younger African-American musicians scorned Armstrong's entertainer approach, seeing it as a kind of racial grovelling. In later years artists such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis would proclaim admiration and respect for Armstrong.

  • Armstrong backstage

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    Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

    Road rites: Armstrong kept up a grueling pace of live performances throughout the 1950s, but he still found time to reflect on his past, writing the memoir that would be published in 1954 as SATCHMO: MY LIFE IN NEW ORLEANS.

  • Armstrong Plays Handy

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    Photo: Album cover art

    Columbia Records producer George Avakian envisioned a series of "Armstrong Plays..." LPs that would feature the trumpeter performing the work of early jazz standard-bearers. Tributes to blues composer W.C. Handy and jazz pianist Fats Waller followed, but Armstrong manager Joe Glaser's propensity for shopping his star around to various labels prevented the appearance of further volumes.

  • Armstrong trumpet 2

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    Photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress

    Satchmo, still blowing strong: Louis Armstrong in mid-career.

  • Armstrong Satchmo Musical Autobiography

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    Photo: Album cover art.

    Armstrong revisited his musical past on the 1956 multi-LP MUSICAL AUTOBIOGRAPHY set.

  • Ambassador Satch

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    Photo: Album cover art

    Mid-1950s trips to Europe and Africa and an Edward R. Murrow documentary film of his travels led to Armstrong's "Ambassador Satch" image. Little did the State Department know the reason for Armstrong's smile on this LP cover--according to Terry Teachout's POPS biography, the trumpeter, a longtime devotee of marijuana, was carrying a newly-acquired supply of "fine mutah" in his satchel.

  • Armstrong Little Rock Nine

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    Photo: Wikimedia

    "The way they are treating my people, the government can go to hell," an angry Armstrong declared in 1957 as President Dwight Eisenhower wavered during a segregation crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas. Eisenhower eventually ordered the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division to the city to provide an armed escort for nine African-American students who were attempting to enroll in Little Rock Central High School.

  • Ella and Louis

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    Photo: Album cover art

    Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald had recorded as a duo before (for Decca in the 1940s), but jazz impresario Norman Granz brought them together again in the mid-1950s for three classic albums of American songbook material.

In the spring of 1947, 45-year-old trumpeter Louis Armstrong was considered by some critics and fans to be all but washed up, with his best years behind him and his music rendered irrelevant by the rising force of bebop. For 20 years he had been one of jazz’s most influential figures. He was appearing in a new movie set in his hometown, New Orleans, and he remained a popular artist. Yet he faced some daunting challenges as commercial and aesthetic styles began to change rapidly, in the years that followed the end of World War II.

The Concert That Changed Everything

A concert at New York City’s Town Hall in May of 1947 came to be seen as a turning point for Armstrong. That show placed him in the company of sympathetic musicians like trumpeter Bobby Hackett and trombonist/singer Jack Teagarden.

It also marked the beginning of one of the most interesting stretches of Armstrong’s career, a ten-year period that would find him hitting the charts with pop ballads, forming the small group All-Stars (which would sustain him for years as a live performer), and becoming a symbolic ambassador of jazz for the United States during the Cold War.

On The Show

Jazz writer Dan Morgenstern and historian Michael McGerr join us on this episode of Night Lights with insights into Armstrong’s relationship with young bebop musicians, his success with those lushly-orchestrated pop ballads he made for the Decca label, his move to the small-group format, and his cultural significance in the context of the Cold War and the growing civil-rights movement of the 1950s.

Listen Now

Listen to this Night Lights outtake from the show, a segment in which Michael McGerr and Dan Morgenstern talk about Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden, followed by Teagarden and Armstrong’s performance of “Rockin’ Chair” from the 1947 Town Hall concert:

…And here are some more tracks from my interviews with Michael McGerr and Dan Morgenstern:

You can watch Armstrong and Bing Crosby perform “Now You Has Jazz” from the 1956 film High Society, here

…and for more Louis on Night Lights, see below:

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Music Heard On This Episode

Moon Song
Louis Armstrong/Oscar Peterson — Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson (Verve, 1957)
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Moon Song
Louis Armstrong/Oscar Peterson — Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson (Verve, 1957)
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Back o' Town Blues
Louis Armstrong — Complete RCA Victor Recordings (RCA Victor, 1947)
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New Orleans Function/Oh Didn't He Ramble
Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars — A Musical Autobiography (UMVD, 1950)
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That Lucky Old Sun
Louis Armstrong — Satchmo in Style (UMVD, 1949)
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It's All in the Game
Louis Armstrong — Satchmo in Style (UMVD, 1951)
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C'est Si Bon
Louis Armstrong — Satchmo Serenades (Polygram, 1949)

Notes: Midpoint music bed.

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The Whiffenpoof Song
Louis Armstrong — Satchmo in Style (UMVD, 1954)
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Memphis Blues
Louis Armstrong — Plays W.C. Handy (Columbia, 1954)
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I Can't Give You Anything But Love
Louis Armstrong — A Musical Autobiography (UMVD, 1956)
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Mack the Knife
Louis Armstrong — Satchmo the Great (Columbia , 1955)
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A Foggy Day
Louis Armstrong/Ella Fitzgerald — Ella and Louis (Polygram, 1956)
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David Brent Johnson

Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, David Brent Johnson moved to Bloomington in 1991. He is an alumnus of Indiana University, and began working with WFIU in 2002. Currently, David serves as jazz producer and systems coordinator at the station. His interests include literature, history, music, writing, and movies.

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