Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing).
Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, The Beautiful American.

I loved and respected Louis Armstrong. He was born poor, died rich and never hurt anyone on the way.

Duke Ellington.

They had run into each other over the years, but had recorded together only once, on a forgotten track called "Long, Long Journey" in 1946. Finally, some fifteen years later, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong made an album. They spent two days in a New York studio: Ellington sat in with Armstrong's touring band, while Armstrong sang Ellington compositions.

As noted on this fine track-by-track Armstrong blog, the session was the inspiration of Roulette Records owner Bob Thiele. Ellington's label Columbia, during the '50s, had toyed with the idea of getting Armstrong and Ellington's orchestra together to make a LP, which sadly didn't come to pass. But the Roulette LP, while it doesn't capture the players at their peak, is still a valedictory of sorts for jazz's founding fathers.

So here's Armstrong at 60, still the sunny embodiment of jazz's capacity for joy, and Ellington at 62, still jazz's finest collaborator, both restless for new sounds (he would soon record with Mingus and Coltrane) and revering the history he had helped make. Armstrong's take on "It Don't Mean a Thing" makes the piece seem as though it had been written specifically for him; he turns the verse into a happy conversation with himself, offers the chorus as a national anthem.

And Armstrong's skills as trumpeter--listen to him rocket off as the out chorus approaches--are highlighted on a newer Ellington composition, "The Beautiful American," whose title could have been Armstrong's epitaph.

Recorded 3 April 1961 with Trummy Young on trombone (a Swing Era veteran, best known for his work with Jimmy Lunceford), Barney Bigard, Ellington's longtime clarinet player, Mort Herbert (b) and Danny Barcelona (d). Originally released on two Roulette LPs--Together for the First Time (1961) and The Great Reunion (1963); collected on The Great Summit.

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