The word "supergroup" first emerged in 1969 to describe rock bands comprised of at least three powerhouse musicians with reputations that were established in other groups. Top supergroups of the time included Cream; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; Blind Faith; Bad Company; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Derek and the Dominos and Asia. Supergroups were formed to create a stir, since three great musical minds were more likely to create better music than one. But supergroups also had commercial value—commanding larger gates and record sales than if the the same musicians had toured on their own (with Neil Young and Eric Clapton the lone exceptions).
But the supergroup concept wasn't new. It actually dates back to November 1925, when Louis Armstrong teamed with Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Lil Armstrong and Johnny St. Cyr to form his Hot Five. In the 1930s, the Benny Goodman Quartet was probably the most successful supergroup—with Goodman, Teddy Wilson, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa. Breakout supergroup ensembles like Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five and Duke Ellington's Duke's Men also were popular as bandleaders created small groups as a way to retain star musicians eager for a chance to shine.
In 1947, Louis Armstrong created another supergroup. His manager, Joe Glaser, insisted Armstrong establish a compact supergroup that would be less expensive and more nimble than his large orchestra. So Armstrong formed the first of his "All Stars"—a term that had its roots in baseball. Each year since 1933, the American and National leagues had squared off against each other in an All Star Game as a way to generate interest and drive up ad and ballpark revenue. In December 1941, Metronome magazine was first to pick up on the All Stars concept when winners of its annual poll gathered as the Metronome All Stars to record two sides of a 78 rpm. [Photo above of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars at Town Hall in 1947 by William P. Gottlieb]
Armstrong's touring All Stars septet featured the trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano, bass, drums and vocals—a sufficient mix to satisfy and entertain audiences. There were no real sidemen, just consummate soloists who had already made their names in other bands. What also made Louis Armstrong and the All Stars special at the time was its nostalgic quality. By the late 1940s, bebop's popularity was on the rise, appealing largely to younger jazz fans fed up with the rigidity and predictability of older jazz styles. But there were plenty of older jazz fans who still remembered the 1930s and sought out groups that played familiar songs with a steady, syncopated beat. For them, Louis Armstrong and the All Stars were a welcome relief, featuring artists who reached out to audiences rather than artists who compelled audiences to figure out what they were doing. [Above, Dizzy Gillespie in 1947]
The All Stars gave Armstrong a new opportunity to champion his brand of jazz and take fans back to the music they knew and loved. In many respects, Armstrong's jazz was more rural than the newer, more urban sound. It centered on New Orleans, steamboats, banjos ringing, singin' folks and red robbins bobbin' along. Simpler music reminiscent of a pre-war era—before unspeakable war crimes, the destruction of entire cities and the spectre of atomic war. The All Stars were masters of a fading jazz form at its finest.
Now Mosaic Records has released this supergroup's performance output for two labels over 11 years on Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. This nine-CD box set is warmly remastered by Andreas Meyer and includes a 38-page booklet with marvelous liners notes by Ricky Riccardi, research archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum at Queens College in New York. Like classic rock bands that still tour today hoping to attract older audiences eager to relive their youth, the All Stars showcased jazz from a time when its role was to lift Depression-era spirits.
What's startling about this box is how effortlessly the All Stars slid in and out of varied material with clock-like precision. Songs ranged from It's Sleepy Time Down South and The Gypsy to Stompin' at the Savoy, West End Blues and Body and Soul. In each case, songs were given a New Orleans flavor—with instruments coming and going but working together in support of Armstrong and other soloists. There are occasional breaks from this formula, including an oddly Latin How High the Moon and Mop Mop. But for the most part, what you hear is a group of artists from another time recapturing a bygone era and reminding audiences of the miracle known as jazz. [Photo above of the All Stars—with Cozy Cole, left, not Big Sid Catlett]
The Mosaic box features music from about a dozen concerts by the All Stars—including appearances at New York's Town Hall (1947), Carnegie Hall (1947), the Netherlands (1955), Milan (1955), Los Angeles (1956), Carnegie Hall (1956), London (1956), Ghana (1956), Chicago (1956), Newport, R.I. (1956), New York (1956) and Newport, R.I. (1958). There also are two conversations, one between Armstrong and Edward R. Murrow in Paris (1956) and the other with producer George Avakian in Los Angeles (1956). The Carnegie Hall concert from 1947 is heard here for the first time after mislabeled tapes were recovered. There are other previously unheard tracks as well. [Pictured above: Louis Armstrong in Ghana in 1956]
Among the most interesting tracks are two from Armstrong's 1956 concert in Ghana, where he seems just a bit uneasy thanks to the throngs gathered, and the relaxed Lewisohn Stadium studio rehearsals of July 1956 (Lewisohn Stadium was on the campus of New York's City College and was demolished in 1973.) But it's tough to place any single performance above the rest. The beauty of Armstrong is that he knew only excellence, which makes this set of 164 tracks a joyous journey back in time to moments when audiences yearned for an even earlier time. What we learn yet again is that Armstrong was and remains timeless. Jazz artists fall in and out of vogue and many wind up forgotten over time, but Armstrong is forever. [Photo above: Lewisohn Stadium in New York]
Leonard Bernstein, at the Lewisohn concert, said it best during his introduction included in the box: "What [Armstrong] does is real and true and honest and simple and even noble. Every time this man puts his trumpet to his lips, even to practice three notes, he does it with his whole soul. This is a dedicated man and we are honored." [Photo of Leonard Bernstein above by Ruth Orkin]
In this box set, we hear Armstrong in all his splendor—as a trumpeter, as a small-group leader and as an entertainer who, night after night, made audiences fall in love with him and the music he invented.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find the Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars (Mosaic ) here, along with sample tracks and information about the set.