Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington "Jazz At Its Warmest and Tightest"

Jul 24, 2017

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington recorded only one album together, and it was a long time in coming.  The Great Summit was made for Roulette Records in 1961, decades after these giants of jazz had come to prominence in the twenties, and several years after George Avakian proposed such a meeting for Columbia Records in 1955.

Avakian had been the producer of two concept albums that Armstrong made in the mid-fifties, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, and its successor, Satch Plays Fats.  Both were critical and commercial successes; the Handy album, which was recorded with the "Father of the Blues" in the studio, may be the finest studio session by Armstrong’s All-Stars, the name he gave the succession of small groups he worked with after disbanding his orchestra in 1947. Avakian also produced Armstrong’s classic recording, “Mack the Knife,” and he helped define the late-career Armstrong legend with an album of European concert performances entitled Ambassador Satch. A New Yorker cartoon from the period shows a group of political leaders holding a strategy session with one of them asking, “Should we send John Foster Dulles [who was Secretary of State] or Louis Armstrong?”

Avakian’s ultimate wish for Armstrong was to showcase the trumpeter with the orchestra of his one true peer, Duke Ellington.  Both were receptive to the idea, but by the time it was proposed, Armstrong’s Columbia contract had expired, and his manager Joe Glazer threw a wrench in the works when instead of agreeing to a contract extension, insisted that Avakian put his proposal on paper. Glazer was a notoriously tough agent whose primary considerations were first, last, and always his and his number one client’s financial security. 

Ellington grouped Glaser and Armstrong in his autobiography, Music Is My Mistress, and wrote, perhaps with a little envy, “Then you realize that in spite of how well Joe Glaser did for himself, Louis still ended up a very rich man, maybe the richest of all the trumpet Gabriels. This is not a fact to be ignored, for what more can one man do for another: Joe watched over Louis like the treasure he was, and saw to it that his partner was well fixed for the rest of his life…He didn’t really have to work…but the fact that he did…showed how it is when a musician is married to his horn…Louis Armstrong was the epitome of jazz, and always will be. He was also a living monument to the magnificent career of Joe Glaser.”

Glaser’s MO meant something different to Avakian, who fifty years later offered this recollection to Armstrong biographer Terry Teachout. “I didn’t trust Joe not to take my ideas to another label for more money than Columbia was offering…I decided that I didn’t want to go into it like that.” So Avakian abandoned the idea and continued his estimable work at Columbia with Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and the Ellington orchestra, and a few years later with Paul Desmond and Sonny Rollins.

In 1959 and ‘60, Armstrong and Ellington crossed paths on a couple of occasions. For the Paul Newman-Sidney Poitier movie Paris Blues, Armstrong’s character, Wild Man Moore, plays the Ellington numbers “Battle Royal” and “Wild Man.” Duke spent three weeks in Paris composing music for the film and hanging out, a break from concertizing that he described as “the closest thing to a vacation” he’d ever taken. A second encounter, one much closer to Avakian’s ideal, occurred with Louis playing “Perdido” with the Ellington Orchestra over the closing credits of a Timex All-Star Jazz TV special in 1959.

Otherwise, Armstrong had recorded surprisingly few Ellington tunes over the years; these included a superb treatment of “In My Solitude,” in 1935, and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” and “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me” on a studio album with Russ Garcia’s orchestra in 1957. Nonetheless, Ellington’s English-born chronicler Stanley Dance, who was at the session, said “Armstrong was so quick to grasp the whole concept of an interpretation, and on several numbers, he seemed to know the Ellington routines better than Barney [Bigard],” the clarinetist who’d spent fifteen years with Duke before joining Armstrong in 1944. “C Jam Blues,” which was re-born as “Duke’s Place” on the Pops-Duke session, had been a feature for Bigard during his decade-plus with Armstrong’s All-Stars. Of the session, he said, “The main thing was that Louis got along so great with Duke…two prominent leaders on one date could have been rough, but we had no problems.”

Bob Thiele, who produced The Great Summit and co-wrote the lyric for “Duke’s Place,” had been a record company executive since the early forties, working with a wide array of jazz and pop artists including Coleman Hawkins, Errol Garner, Buddy Holly, and Pat Boone.  Soon after this date, he founded Impulse Records, the iconic jazz label synonymous with John Coltrane and a Thiele-fostered roster of artists that ranged from avant-gardists Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders to the mainstream icons Johnny Hodges and Pee Wee Russell.

For The Great Summit, it was decided that Duke would sit in with the All-Stars on a program devoted exclusively to Ellington songs, 17 in total, recorded on April 3 and 4, 1961. Jazz historian Dan Morgenstern was present on the second day and wrote about “how quickly and effectively each tune took shape for effective performance.” He credited Armstrong with being “one of the quickest studies to ever set foot in a studio.” Duke introduced two new tunes at the date, an up-tempo blues entitled “The Beautiful American,” and “Azalea,” a ballad he’d attempted to record twice before with other singers.  Armstrong lent it the emotional reading it deserved. 

“Azalea” was the session’s biggest surprise. Ellington’s lyric was inspired by the way Armstrong wrote about the gardens of his native New Orleans in his first memoir, Swing That Music. Morgenstern, who directed the Instiute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers for many years, was especially impressed with how Louis handled it. He said, “Duke mustered up the courage to dig out a lead sheet for “Azalea.” He pulled up a chair, sat down facing Louis, and held up the words and music. Louis donned his glasses, smiled that matchless smile, and began to hum and sing. An expert sight-reader, he soon had the melody down…As all this was taking shape, Ellington was positively beaming, and when a take had been made, he was ecstatic. If indeed he’d had Louis in mind when he created this hothouse conceit, he had chosen properly.”

Armstrong digs into the rest of this set of Ellington standards with relish. In Louis Armstrong: An Extravagant Life, Lawrence Bergreen wrote, “He treated every syllable and note as if it contained essential truths.” Louis wrings deep feeling from “The Mooche,” “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good),“ and “Mood Indigo,” which became part of his repertoire thereafter. He produced a magisterial two-chorus solo on “Black and Tan Fantasy.” The Ellington classic with strains of Chopin’s Funeral March was co-written with Bubber Miley and became a prominent feature of his Cotton Club shows in the late twenties. In his Ellington biography, Beyond Category, John Edward Hasse noted that over the course of his 38-month engagement at the famed Harlem nightclub, “Ellington [rose to] a position equal to Louis Armstrong as the leading figure in jazz—Armstrong the greatest soloist; Ellington the greatest bandleader and composer.” 

In Ellington’s vast discography, the rendition of “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” with Armstrong offers a unique example of Duke accompanying a singer without additional ensemble backing. Anyone doubting Ellington’s genius as a pianist should pay attention to the penetrating touch, propulsive chords, and imaginative backgrounds that are so prominent here and throughout The Great Summit. Stanley Dance wrote, “The pianist’s part in this performance is exemplary. Duke’s surpassing ability as an accompanist should be studied and enjoyed, for it is even more readily apparent in this context than it is with his own band.” Dance’s compatriots Max Jones and John Chilton agreed, albeit more succinctly. In their biography, The Louis Armstrong Story, they praised the trumpeter's performance as "testimony to his continued greatness," then added, “The pianist is no slouch either.”

The Great Summit is generally regarded as the last great album-length performance by Armstrong, whose chops declined throughout the sixties. But his singing and outsized persona remained prominent, and two more big hits lay ahead, “Hello Dolly” in 1964, and “What a Wonderful World” in 1968. The latter, co-written and produced by Bob Thiele, may stand today as the best-known of Armstrong’s records. Ironically, as Ricky Riccardi relates in What A Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, while the song was being recorded, a nasty dispute was being played out in the studio between Thiele and ABC-Paramount president Larry Newton who questioned its commercial viability.

Ellington’s career continued to flourish over the next decade as he and Billy Strayhorn collaborated on suites and commissioned works, and Duke played command performances, earned honorary degrees, the keys to cities, and a 70th birthday party celebration at the White House. One of his most celebrated late career works was The New Orleans Suite, which included the "Portrait of Louis Armstrong." The trumpeter’s influence was reflected not only in the work of Cootie Williams, Freddy Jenkins, Ray Nance, and several other trumpeters, but on trombonist Lawrence Brown, and the greatest Ellingtonian, saxophonist Johnny Hodges, who credited Armstrong with his approach to rhythm and phrasing. Wynton Marsalis revived the Armstrong tonal portrait 25 years ago with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. For its 1970 premiere, it featured Cootie Williams, who’d first joined Duke in 1929. Here he is 41 years later.

Reflecting on The Great Summit, Dan Morgenstern wrote, “The easy, warm rapport between these two great artists, their understanding of each other’s needs, their mixing of high seriousness and frivolous banter, were a unique personification of jazz, at its warmest and tightest. It was  a joy to be there, and a wonder to reflect on and bask in the youthful presence and spirit of these two men in their seventh decade of life, still finding challenges and discovering joy in their work.”

Louis Armstrong died in 1971, Edward Kennedy Ellington in 1974. Between the two, Armstrong has been the more unsullied figure in historical treatments and biographies. Even the scepter of “Uncle Tom” that shadowed the outsized Satchmo during his career, and that Ellington essentially concurred with in an interview with Carter Harman in 1964, has faded. But Ellington is increasingly cast as manipulative in his personal and professional relationships, and deceptive in his assignment of lucrative composer credits with sidemen and colleagues, especially Billy Strayhorn. I’m wary of what may be ulterior motives in some of Ellington’s accusers and detractors, and I recognize that Duke’s undertakings and collaborations were much larger and more complex than Armstrong’s.

In this context, Ellington's moving eulogy of Armstrong might be read as unwitting self-revelation. At the conclusion of his tribute to Pops in Music Is My Mistress, he wrote, “I loved and respected Louis Armstrong. He was born poor, died rich, and never hurt anyone on the way.”