Live at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival
#9 Boxed Set/Live Album/Music DVD for 2007
First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Thu October 4, 2007, 6:00 AM CDT
"Man, all my shows are special."
– Louis Armstrong
By 1958, Louis Armstrong was an artist in a paradoxical position. He was a grizzled survivor from the early days of jazz, and his best work was recorded decades in the past. Yet, much like it often is true of those at the forefront of a genre, it took the general public years to appreciate his contributions. At this late date in Satchmo’s life, he was just entering the height of his commercial popularity. Numerous film appearances, notably his role alongside Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra in the 1956 box office hit High Society, had raised his public profile to an unprecedented level. These, coupled with then-recent albums that showcased Armstrong as a popular singer rather than as a musician and bandleader — Hello Dolly being the most widely recognized — helped to recast him as jazz music’s first crossover superstar.
As the 1950s drew to a close, jazz was entering a new era, and a younger generation of players was helping to expand and redefine the art form. Many of these developing artists, which included Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, often were critical of Armstrong and the image he portrayed. For as great a trumpeter as Satchmo still was, Davis was particularly savage in his attacks of the man, saying that his perpetual grin and "Uncle Tom showboating" were doing a disservice to the music and to black performers in general. Stung by these criticisms, Armstrong responded by stating that he was no one’s Uncle Tom and that given the extremely racist environment in which he came of age, he had done all that he could have to assert himself as a black musician. Indeed, from the early days of his career, Armstrong refused to play at hotel clubs where he was not also welcome to stay as a guest. A deeply private man, he preferred to let his music do his talking for him, and when he took the stage before a rapt audience at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958, he and his trumpet spoke volumes, clearly melting the hearts of the staunchest critics in his audience.
At Monterey, Armstrong essentially delivered the same set, with only a few substitutions, that he routinely played 200 nights a year in front of audiences from all over the world. There were few surprises in the song selections as every number on the program had been played to death by Armstrong and his band. Yet, listening to the concert almost 50 years after it was recorded, it is easy to find a lot to enjoy and appreciate. Armstrong, himself, is in fine form. Every note from his horn and every phrase that he sings exude joy and effortless virtuosity. He was a consummate showman, and it is obvious that he held the entire audience in the palm of his hand.
Beginning with his signature song When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, Armstrong offered a mixture of classic, New Orleans tunes as well as new numbers, such as Blueberry Hill and Mack the Knife. There are no wasted notes or unnecessary gestures anywhere in his performance. Though his solos are shorter and less emphatic than they were during his heyday in the ’30s and ’40s, there is a kind of zen simplicity to them that easily demonstrates the lessons he learned during his life on the road. Armstrong’s focus is phenomenal throughout Live at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival, and his ability not only to hone right in on what is important in each phrase but also to deliver the goods with a minimum of fuss is unparalleled in jazz. One would be hard pressed to find a recording anywhere that expresses more delight in exploring a simple melody than his solos on Autumn Leaves and These Foolish Things do.
As good as it is, however, Live at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival is not an ideal starting point for comprehending Armstrong’s work. His early recordings with The Hot Five were more incendiary and groundbreaking, and his sessions with trombonist Jack Teagarden, his duets with Ella Fitzgerald, and his collaborations with Duke Ellington are all more essential. Regardless, there’s no disputing that Live at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival is a lovely set. It is full of wonderful tunes and spectacular performances, and it offers a remarkable opportunity to spend an hour with one of the 20th Century’s great musical minds.
Other Monterey Jazz Festival CDs
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box