By Rob Shepherd, Nextbop
As Nextbop prides itself on presenting jazz of the present moment and the future, at first glance it may appear unusual for the site to review music recorded over sixty years ago. However, when provided with their proper historical contexts, the two previously unreleased live performances captured on Louis Armstrong Live in Europe, one from Nice, France on February 23, 1948 and the other from Berlin on October 12, 1952, proclaim a powerful message to the world, particularly the United States, as it enters the year 2020.
The older of the two recordings (Louis Armstrong Live in France) is from the inaugural Nice International Jazz Festival, the first event of its kind anywhere in the world, predating even the Newport Jazz Festival by six years. Starting in the 1920s, many in France flocked to jazz to try to alleviate their sorrow in the aftermath of the First World War. Support of the music in the French Riviera would continue throughout the 1930s, primarily due to the efforts of an organization known as The Hot Club, of which Armstrong was the Honorary President. During the Second World War, the area was under siege, first by Italian fascists then by the Nazi regime. Even during these dark times, jazz’s popularity remained strong as many in Nice viewed it as a way to resist foreign totalitarian control. This was even more so the case once the Nazis outlawed jazz music in 1935. After the war, the Hot Club arose again to try to make the art form a symbol of peace and hope in the eyes of the French people, ultimately resulting in the Festival. Joining the trumpeter/vocalist on the date was an all-star lineup of trombonist Jack Teagarden, clarinetist Barney Bigard, bassist Arvell Shaw, drummer Sid Catlett, and the father of modern jazz piano, Earl Hines.
The second performance (Louis Armstrong Live in Germany) occurred at Berlin’s Titania Palast. By 1933, the Palast, once a luxurious theatre, became the flagship for Josef Goebbels’ most vile and horrid Nazi propaganda. Somehow, unlike the city itself, the Titania Palast survived the war intact. By 1948, the building came under the control of American forces and four years later presented Armstrong’s performance captured on this release. At the time, Berlin was increasingly divided by the militarization between the Eastern and Western parts of the city and strict restrictions on people’s mobility. It has been well documented that Armstrong was particularly touched by the large audience size that night given how many likely did not even know how they would be able to get home afterwards. By this time, Satchmo’s band was a completely different lineup with the exception of Shaw on bass: Bob McCracket on clarinet, Trummy Young on trombone, Marty Napoleon on piano, Velma Middleton on vocals, and Cozy Cole on drums.
The music from both dates is classic Louis Armstrong: bold, clear, and soulful. Much like the clarion call of his horn, Armstrong’s voice is full of vigor and both bands work with him wonderfully. His pairing with Hines at the Nice Festival is particularly splendid. One remarkable highlight from 1948 is a long sustained note by Bigard on “Rose Room” and from 1952 a sublime version of “A Kiss to Build a Dream On”, perhaps one of the best of the bandleader’s many versions of the tune. And of course, Louis is himself; regardless of whether he is scatting, playing his horn, or interacting with the crowd. The audience is presented with an artist whom despite the countless many he still continues to inspire, remains inimitable to this day.
However, the most significant takeaway from these performances has far more to do with their circumstances than the actual recordings themselves. Both concerts broadcast the central message of music’s ability, particularly the unique improvisatory freedom provided by jazz, to heal even the freshest of wounds. For Nice, it was instrumental in not only helping those grieving from two major wars but also served as a method of countering the most brutal and repressive regime in history. In Berlin, it was the temporary theriac to the division of a nation and the separation of families, in some cases, for almost three decades.
At the thirtieth anniversary of the crumbling of the wall which once bifurcated the city, the Berlin experience is particularly insightful for Americans at the end of 2019. While paling in comparison to Berliners’ experiences in the 1950s, many in the United States are strongly divided along political lines. As another election year approaches, many on both sides of the political aisle will try to increase their power by only further inciting hatred, avarice, and discord among the populace.
This is not to say there are no significant issues which must be properly considered and debated. Even two songs from Louis Armstrong Live in Europe address some of the major issues of the time, namely discrimination (“Black and Blue”) and economic instability (“The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It”) which, in many ways, still endure. Nor is it to say that all will, or even should, have a shared perspective on how to solve the ills of modern life. Nevertheless, one hopes Americans will remember it is better to be united than divided. The individual liberty and self-expression of which the United States likes to pride itself are much the same qualities that provided solace to the French, Germans, and countless others through jazz music. One hopes, perhaps naively, that instead of falling for the calls for division, Americans will look to the soothing strength that Berliners found, even for just one night, in Armstrong’s 1952 performance.