Artist Feature: Angles of Louis Armstrong

Of the digitised part of the collection we have currently, a whopping 21 videos ring up when you search for “Louis Armstrong.” That translates to something like 7.6% of the archive, which is actually enormous when you realize how many other musicians and performances are represented within it. But I don’t really need to hammer the point – Louis Armstrong is perhaps the most popular jazz musician, an icon and legend to both diehard jazz aficionados and laymen pop lovers alike. As far as famous personnel in the genre go, he is really only rivalled by Miles Davis (and they’re both trumpet players, I might point out 😉). Most of the videos we have on him are up on YouTube or elsewhere on the internet, but the problem is that they’re rarely organized in any meaningful way, and even when they are grouped together on some website the organization can be rather arbitrary. You almost need to have a large amount of the right knowledge prior to attempting to piece together the history behind the videos. So I thought Louis Armstrong would be a perfect case study for the use of an archive such as the Altman-Koss’s, where you can quickly and easily study, in the context of jazz, a musician, place, year, or event in remarkable depth, and in a larger sense explore the world of jazz according to your own criteria.

Looking for variety, I went through the listing of Armstrong’s tapes and checked the “Content” column. Eventually I settled on five tapes: 14, which contains an interview; 57 and 58, which feature Louis on two different types of TV shows; 75, an infamous and rather unfortunate film short starring Louis; 140, a full performance of the Louis Armstrong and his All Stars at a music festival. I selected these five because I thought they provided a holistic snapshot of Louis Armstrong’s career: more than a musician, he was an entertainer in the fullest sense, with a career spanning five decades.

To start, tape 14 showcases an interview with Armstrong on Jazz Casual in 1963, where the interviewer plays his old records and asks him questions about what they heard. They start with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, playing “Snake Rag.” This is early on in Louis’s career, where he’s playing 2nd cornet under King Oliver and growing from the latter’s mentorship. The camera closes in on Louis’s face, and you get to see his expression as he listens to this piece of his career from 40 years earlier. Afterwards, the interviewer asks, “Do these records do that band justice?” “It’s pretty good but we didn’t have drums [like in the recording], you know? And we didn’t have mics, we had one big horn. We stood in front of this horn and played, and any man who had a solo would get up or else they wouldn’t be heard, you know? So that’s the advantage we have today… No trouble at all, to make those records, ‘cause you’d make one after the other… it wasn’t as particular as it is today.” The interviewer replies, “Well you don’t think you made mistakes in there, do ya?” and laughs. This prompts Louis to go more into the process of recording back in the 1920s, including how much of an issue balancing was. He seems a little regretful when talking about how much of the lead trumpet got cut out of the final track, and how drums were sparingly used because they covered up other parts.

He goes on to talk about playing with Kid Ory in 1919, the Tuxedo Brass Band in 1922, and finally leaving his nest in New Orleans to join King Oliver in Chicago, where his career really began to blossom. He describes how big that was for him, making that particular leap. What the interview. As for actually writing the songs, he describes how King Oliver would crank out a song right before they recorded, and they would just “rehearse on the job [00:27:00].” Improv clearly defined Louis’s experience in King Oliver’s group, even though he seldom took a solo; instead of playing off written parts, he would listen to Oliver and make up a part that sounded good with him. “You could tell what that man was going to play when he was lead, I figured out my notes [00:28:30].”

As someone who has listened to hours of Louis’s playing just trying to absorb his sound, I’m fascinated to hear him actually speak about his music and give some background on his work and experiences. It’s insightful; how recording used to be, what challenges musicians confronted back them that are surprisingly similar to many situations today, what you can do on the spot with a good ear and skill in improvisation.

It’s equally interesting to watch him perform in contexts that would just never make sense in sound recording. A great example is Armstrong’s 1952 appearance on The Frank Sinatra Show on CBS, to be found on tape 57, where the whole episode is a skit of Sinatra throwing a New Year’s Eve party. But his servants and entertainers cancel last minute, so, in a bind, he has some of his “guests” help out. The Three Stooges, first to arrive, comically fill out the roles of butler and coat-taker, while Louis, an evening guest itching to play, shows up with trumpet in hand. Sinatra greets him and tells him they’d have noisemakers to celebrate the New Year at midnight, but Louis insists he’s not going to wait that long and takes his place by the piano. His performance at 1:47:00 is so good it almost breaks the skit; everything else about it is so silly, with the Sinatra getting progressively angrier at the Stooges as they trip over guests, but Louis’s performance (and later Rosemary Clooney’s) add substance to the whole show. It’s not that the performances themselves are serious (quite the opposite) – more that it’s impossible not to be caught and taken in by Louis’s sound, in any context. Luckily we have the cheesy commercial breaks and over-the-top product placement to bring us crashing back to Hollywood’s version of reality.

The very next tape, 58, also features Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Rosemary Clooney, but the context is different. Instead of comedy and acting, this 1957 recording of the Edsel Show contains a string of various singing and dancing performances. Bing Crosby introduces Armstrong (as “You Know Who”) at 1:40:00, and he takes a solo before joining Crosby in singing a duet. Excellent performance, not just in the actual music but in the showmanship involved. The shots are close up enough that you can see the little techniques in Louis’s playing: his fingerings and characteristic shakes, his clearly defined facial muscles as he leaps up and down his range. He’s back at 2:15:00, after some dancing and a Ford car commercial, to play again.

I have to include tape 75 because it’s so important historically and depicts some of the harsher realities of show business. Nevertheless, it’s an unpleasant reminder of the racism present in the history of this genre. “A Rhapsody in Black and Blue,” written by Phil Cohan, is an important early example of a music video, featuring Louis as both the actor and singer/instrumentalist in a fictional plot. In Cohan’s film, a lazy husband gets beaten by his wife when he listens to jazz instead of working. He falls asleep and dreams about becoming king of “Jazzmania,” where Louis Armstrong performs for him dressed in a leopard suit. The short is chock full of blatantly racist stereotypes, excruciatingly clear looking back from the 21st century. It was shockingly offensive to Black America at the time, and this film provides an example for Miles Davis’s criticism of the legendary trumpet master: “I loved Satchmo, but I couldn’t stand all that grinning he did.” He felt Louis participated in the harmful black minstrel trope in American show business that plagued black performers long after the practice was abandoned. But Krin Gabbard explains, “Joe Glaser [Armstrong’s trusted manager] seized any opportunity to find work for Armstrong, and if Glaser made no effort to ask if the movies were good for the Negro people, neither did Armstrong.” This leads to what I think is the most likely defence of Armstrong’s appearance in this film, which is that it was made in 1932; still early in Armstrong’s career, while he needed to establish himself and might not have been able to turn down any opportunity to showcase his talents. To be sure, the music in the video is the one redeeming part about it: Louis kills the performance and makes the music his own.

Finally, tape 140 gives us a performance of Louis Armstrong and his All Stars performing at the Stuttgart music festival in 1959. Here we see Louis late in his career, heading his own group with exemplary leadership, showmanship, and musicality. His backing musicians are truly All Stars, and one of the most exciting moments of the concert comes at 2:05:02, where Danny Barcelona, the drummer, features heavily on “Stompin’ At The Savoy. His solos and fills are sensational.

For anyone wanting more festival performances by this group: their full Belgium ‘59 and Berlin ‘65 performances are up on YouTube, in full and for free. I’m having trouble finding the Stuttgart concert online, but the full concert is stashed in the Altman-Koss archive.

This has been a longer post than usual, and I’ll have to cut it here – I could easily go on for a lot longer! We’re lucky to have so much footage of Louis’s playing, both in the archive and online, and hopefully what I’ve written serves as a bit of an introduction to the various (and sometimes surprising) contexts in which Louis made his mark on jazz history.

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Video on Video: Finding Old Films in the Archive

One class of treasures to be found in the jazz archive are the many films, either full of music or else somehow related to jazz, that have been included in full length and quality. Curious about why Altman and Koss chose to make sure the archive contains this footage, I looked into three tapes of the 275 we have currently documented: one containing a handful of Duke Ellington film shorts, one with two movies featuring The Glen Miller Orchestra, and one starring Marilyn Monroe. In particular, I wanted to find movies that were older than 1960: easy to do if searching the catalogue for the “film” tag and checking the dates. I found myself getting sucked into these films: despite their age, I felt each one held up to today’s entertainment standards because of the remarkable quality of music, dance, and plot. Moreover, as a musician, I really did find myself paying close attention to the scenes that depicted live performance.

The Duke Ellington film shorts feature Duke Ellington, both acting and playing piano, sometimes with other musicians coming over. Ellington is famous in part for bringing jazz onto the big stage, both in film, theatre, and even opera. Tape 31 conveniently features several of his film shorts in a single, chronological sequence: Black & Tan Fantasy (1929), Bundle of Blues (1933), Symphony in Black (1935), and Perfume Suite (1947). They’re all interesting, differing in music and plot and having the Duke take a role both as an actor as well as a musician, but Perfume Suite particularly catches me because in addition to live-action acting and piano playing, it adds some cartoon/stop-motion effects, which (in my limited general film knowledge) looks really advanced for the late 1940s.

Tape 156 is totally centered on The Glenn Miller Orchestra, containing two full-length feature films that portray fictional stories of big band jazz orchestra musicians. These two films are the first and last time this orchestra took a role in a film like this, which is unfortunate, because they’re fine Hollywood entertainers. Both Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942) are chock full of music, musicians (both actors and real musicians from the orchestra, including Glenn Miller himself). They’re both still fun films to watch, but I had a hard time tearing myself away from Orchestra Wives; not only is it a bit of a rom-com, but the music is incredible and the scenes actually show the band playing. Especially around 1:35:00 on the tape, where the orchestra is performing at a wedding. They begin to play the famous jazz standard “At Last,” and it may be the most captivating version of it I’ve ever heard. The scene cuts between depictions of the orchestra on a gazebo and the audience out on the grounds, and audience is full of beautifully-dressed people with open mouths and awed expressions. It’s wonderful acting, probably because they weren’t acting: with the singing duet alternating with the standing solo trumpet player (and dubbed over by the orchestra’s actual soloist, Johnny Best), the performers commanded total attention, and I’m sure the effect was even stronger on set. I couldn’t watch the entire thing because I had more videos to research, but I’m planning on sitting down with some fellow jazz musicians and watching it soon…

While investigating which artists deserve credit for a clip, I’m sometimes surprised to find names that I initially would not have associated with the jazz world. Marilyn Monroe is one of those finds, and she’s the central star on tape 236’s Some Like it Hot (1959).  Adolph Deutsch composed the amazing music here, and the synopsis is about two jazz musicians who have to disguise themselves as women to escape the mafia; they end up joining an all-women’s jazz big band, where they meet Marilyn Monroe’s character. Wildly successful at the time of its release, it is still considered one of the greatest film comedies of all time. Which is amazing considering it was filmed without permission from the Motion Production Code that major studios in the United States generally adhered to from 1930 to 1968. The producers decided they didn’t want to censor the film’s use of drag and suggestion of homosexuality, so they just didn’t bother with the rules; instead, they broke these codes and helped to end them. It’s still funny by today’s standards, interesting in its depiction of female musicians and suggestions of homosexuality, and the music and dance is seriously high quality stuff. So if you want an afternoon to absorb some jazz and jazz history in a highly entertaining way, I can’t recommend this tape or either of the other two enough.

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About the Altman-Koss Video Jazz Archive

The collection was donated to the University’s Music Department by an alumnus, the distinguished film and television composer and producer, John Altman. The collection comprised approximately 1600 VHS tapes of footage of jazz performances recorded off-air from television broadcasts. Altman, along with his colleague the late Eric Koss, established a network of collectors who had been exchanging and sharing the footage over a period of some years.

The School of Media, Film and Music has started to digitise this footage in order to enhance access to the collection for students, and for visiting scholars.

The Centre is highlighting this to improve knowledge and understanding of the collection. This will allow the collection a new lease of life, preserving footage that might otherwise have been lost from studio archives. Having the collection in one place provides the opportunity for researchers to look at it in a broader context and to readily compare material across a wide range of sources.

The physical collection also includes meticulously hand typed index cards which will be documented along with the footage, as well as a number of notes to and from various collectors, along with newspaper cuttings from some of the broadcasts. It also includes several revised catalogues with details of when and where the material was collected. Over time the carefully catalogued tapes have been subject to the slow shuffle of entropy, so it is hoped that the digitisation of the collection will preserve their order. As an artefact, the collection bears the marks of a community of avid collectors who put huge amounts of time and effort into an area of study that Heile notes had hitherto been overlooked. As the title of one of the catalogue attests, the collection is the extraordinary result of the dedicated efforts of a ‘video freak’. The collection will be made available through the School of Media Film & Music’s Resource Centre to current students and to visiting scholars.

– From the University of Sussex website

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Ronnie Scott and Ronnie Scott’s

With the first 275 digitized videos of the collection catalogued, I now have the chance to take a breath, step back from the spreadsheet, and actually use it to explore the wealth of information contained in this fraction of the archive. Having recently seen Ambrose Akinmusire perform at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, I realized I knew little about the actual tenor saxophone player for which the venue is named, and decided I might as well familiarize myself. A quick search pulled up three entries: one of a performance at the eponymous club, and two others of Ronnie himself. The first, tape 211, was a solid, high-quality video of George Adams; he and his group are ripping it up in the otherwise cool, cozy jazz club, and you get to see up close what all the players are doing during their solos, but clips of the performance are already on YouTube, so I didn’t linger long. The next video, number 215, was likewise available on the internet, although it was older and featured Ronnie playing with Ronnie (Stephenson) and Wes Montgomery for a workshop on NDR (Nordeutscher Rundfunk, a historic radio station in Hamburg, Germany).

The last video, however, caught my eye and my ear. Ronnie is a lot older in this one, and not only can I not find a version of it on YouTube, but I can’t seem to find any mention of it anywhere on the internet. Which is strange, because the recording is excellent in quality; clearly, it was meant to air on TV and had been directed and produced by Liam Miller. In any case, tape number 269 shows something about Ronnie that he is famous for but doesn’t come across in his audio recordings: his brilliant raconteuring, propelled by an unstoppable barrage of jokes. In fact, one of his jokes in the video actually popped up on his obituary:  “…A chap came by and asked if we played requests. Ted told him we would try and asked him what he would like to hear. `Oh, anything at all,’ said the Irishman”. The guy clearly indulged in being a showman. That being said, he didn’t hog the stage and often featured other members of his quintet. At one point he introduces the trumpet player, Dick Pearce, to lead the next song, and then actually walks offstage. Keep in mind, the group is called The Ronnie Scott Quintet. After the song’s over, he comes back and introduces Martin Drew, the drummer,  with more of his infamous jokes (something about Japanese herpes…?). Then the group lights into the coolest arrangement of “What Is This Thing Called Love” I’ve ever heard (starting at 2:43:44). It’s fast, bebop-y, and Ronnie and Dick split the head by having the former take the A section and the latter the B section. Compared to the Cole Porter original, it sounds as if the musicians chugged a pot of coffee each before picking up their instruments. Ronnie and Dick are great, but the drummer really is the star here – his solo, starting at 2:47:25, goes on for more than 4 minutes, never letting up.

Ronnie Scott

Ronnie worked with the likes of Maynard Ferguson, Clark Terry, and even The Beatles (he plays the solo on “Lady Madonna”), and opened his club with fellow tenor saxophonist Pete King in 1959. He was deeply inspired by New York’s jazz scene, which he made a point of visiting frequently. He loved the club culture that dominated there, and wanted to bring it back to London with him. He was definitely successful; the place has the same casual yet classy atmosphere as Yoshi’s in Oakland, except instead of specializing in sushi, they dish out high-end hamburgers and espresso martinis.

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Two Johns: Coltrane on his 50th Anniversary and Altman on the Archive

June 18th, 2017 marks 50 years since the death of John Coltrane, who passed away at the age of 40. This is yet another milestone reached this year, which sees the centennial anniversary of the first jazz recording (Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band’s “Dixie Jass Band One Step” and “Livery Stable Blues”).

To celebrate, I figured I’d highlight video 168 from the archive, which features a program that documents the discovery of Monk and Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, back in 1957. This is a clip that, like with some videos in the Altman-Koss collection, was an undiscovered gem hidden in a gigantic VHS archive that was only rediscovered years later by people digitising and maintaining the tapes. At 1:10:05, one commentator exclaims, “It’s the best music we have of these two people playing together, I think” The value of the discovery of this clip is reinforced when a few minutes later,  another says, “Thelonious Monk and The John Coltrane playing together, is of enormous historical importance, because this is a relationship that was relatively, in fact, greatly, undocumented.” The tape goes on to detail John Coltrane’s life while he was working with Monk, including commentary from Ravi Coltrane and other jazz greats. There’s a section describing Coltrane overcoming his drug addiction, a pivotal moment in the musician’s life, and the advice Monk gave to snap him back to sobriety: “‘If you take care of the music, the music will take care of you, and you’ll be alright.’ And that was Thelonious’s way to get through to Coltrane: immerse him in the music.” Shortly after that, Coltrane quit cold turkey, and claimed to have a spiritual experience that coupled with a vast improvement in his playing. This was such a critical moment in Coltrane’s life, yet that whole time period of when he was playing with Monk largely slipped into the past without making it into the annals of history. Finding this video, years after the actual performance, actually had a real impact on our collective record of jazz history and understanding of John Coltrane. Of course, the documentary inspires me with the prospect of finding our own treasures in the dusty pile of VHS tapes at University of Sussex.


That same tape also has Nnenna Frelon’s album Blueprint of a Lady, Herbie Hancock on Travis Smiley Show and The Tonight Show, Bill Ware and Vibes at the Knitting Factory in NYC, and Joshua Redman on EGG The Arts Show at Blues Alley in Washington D.C. In other words, it’s a packed spanning decades of jazz history.

The bonus celebration is that Professor Ed Hughes and I got to actually meet John Altman today, on the seafront in Hove. We asked him how the archive got started in the first place; apparently he had just bought a VHS player (this was in the early 1970s) and was traveling through Europe, but as the technology was still new, he couldn’t get anything to watch. He arrived in Germany to work on a commercial, and had just checked into his hotel. Everything in the town was closed: food, shops, music and entertainment venues. So he went back to his hotel room and started flipping channels, and all of a sudden he came across the Berlin Jazz Festival live. Immediately absorbed, he spent the night watching it, and the next day when the director asked him how his night was, John described how pleasantly surprised he was to catch live jazz on television. “Oh, we have jazz on TV all the time,” the director replied. “I’ll tape it and send it to you.” Meanwhile, Eric Koss, a European accountant and John’s friend, had been privately and meticulously amassing his own jazz VHS collection; John reached out to him and said, “If we could find someone everywhere you went who knew the music, we’d get some good tapes.” The first place they check was at a jazz club in Sweden. They arrived, asked if anyone around was into jazz on video, and were immediately pointed to a guy in the corner who had been responsible for every broadcast on Swedish TV since the 1950s. He had a personal archive and agreed to make the two some tapes. One of those tapes turned out to be an entire Charles Mingus concert with Eric Dolphy, unedited. Then Eric Koss went to Denmark, and quickly came across a man who Chet Baker stayed with when he was in the country. Quickly, the collectors began to build a tape-swap network that spanned the European continent.

This is the amazing thing about this collection: from the very beginning, it’s been about so much more than having a set of historical records (although that’s still a valuable aspect to the collection). It was something that the musicians, impresarios, and enthusiasts where making and sharing with each other because they love the music. To me, the swap-meet element of the archive adds a living aspect to it, where the goal wasn’t just to preserve, but to interact. I was more and more convinced of this as Altman described the reactions of some musicians watching videos of themselves that he and Eric had collected: Gil Evans, staying with Altman, watching his own performance and going crazy because he thought it hadn’t been recorded.  Stan Getz seeing a concert of him with Kenny Barron, and being so excited at the tape that he insisted they put it out on CD (and so they did). Sonny Rollins’s Stockholm set in 1959, which became the album Sonny Rollins in Stockholm 1959. And this is just what the collectors thought to share; with so many tapes in the collection, they couldn’t feasibly have gone through everything thoroughly. Hopefully the digitsation and publication of the archive will lead to a renewal on this kind of living interaction.

John mentioned that he remembered the day Coltrane died: the legend was supposed to perform with Miles Davis in Europe that year, but as a result paired the tour with Archie Shepp. Altman went to see them play in England, and Miles played first. After he finished, half the audience walked out! But of course John stayed, and as a sax player himself, was taken by Archie’s wild improvising.

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Welcome to the Altman-Koss Video Jazz Archive! We are currently in the process of digitising the archive and updating its information catalogue, which can be found here. Eventually, every video in the archive will be accessible at the University of Sussex. For now, please enjoy exploring the catalogue as it grows, and reading our posts as we publish articles on the archive.

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