With the never-ending deluge of music related CDs and DVDs glutting the marketplace, it is easy to miss a rare gem quietly hidden amongst the offerings … but the Louis Armstrong edition of the Jazz Icons series is just such a find. It is equal parts historical documentation and respectful tribute to a legendary performer, and affords viewers a front row glimpse of Armstrong and his backing All-Stars.
Live in ’59 captures the jazz master on stage in Belgium in 1959, and is noted to be one of the only complete Armstrong concerts from the ’50s known to exist. The black and white footage is expertly filmed, and is comprised of 13 tracks lasting roughly an hour in length. Armstrong’s signature “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” opens the set, and the songs flow effortlessly from there. Alternating between playing and singing, Armstrong’s charisma is infectious, as he shares the spotlight with his supporting band. Though the All-Stars line-up shifted over the years, this roster provides a flawless compliment to Armstrong; each member is in total command of his respective instrument, and all are given the opportunity to show off their skills with some slick soloing. An added treat is the appearance of Velma Middleton who, having toured with Armstrong extensively in the past, adds vocals and some impromptu dance steps.
The set list includes a Baker’s Dozen of up tempo tunes, all of which should be well-known to Armstrong enthusiasts. From “C’Est Si Bon” to “When the Saints Go Marching In”, there is not a single moment where the show hesitates. And though the material originates from different sources, each song is made Armstrong’s own with the help of some All-Star flair.
By this juncture of his career, Armstrong was considered by many to be the face of jazz, and the ’59 footage is ample proof of his technical expertise and on stage aplomb. Interestingly, Armstrong’s enthusiasm and gregarious on-stage persona juxtapose the other image of jazz, most associated with practitioners like Miles Davis. Where Davis’ intense (and cerebral) presentation served to intellectualize his craft, Armstrong remained the consummate entertainer, deftly balancing musical precision with humor and showmanship. Armstrong’s smiling countenance is the perfect foil for his remarkable technical skills; his interaction with both audience and band is wonderfully disarming, making the music even more accessible. In many respects, Armstrong’s jovial command of his art and his audience resembles that of BB King and Bobby Short. And like King and Short after him, Armstrong succeeded in broadening his specific genre into the realm of popular music.
Live in ’59 is interesting from a formatting perspective. The stage arrangement is sparse, lacking any theatrical accoutrements, thus the focus is entirely on the band. With live music becoming such a visual medium over the last quarter century, the DVD harkens back to a simpler, less cluttered time, when sharply dressed musicians and their instruments were enough to satisfy. Watching Armstrong ply his trade in such unfettered confines is as pure a viewing experience as there is. Also worth noting, Armstrong suffered a heart attack a month after this performance, as the band readied itself for a music festival. Despite recovering, Armstrong’s health over the next decade affected his performances to varying degrees, thus, Live in ’59 is essentially the last concert in which he is at his best.
Though lasting only 55 minutes, the Live in ’59 performance provides an accurate thumbnail sketch of Louis Armstrong’s expansive stage resume. For veteran jazz enthusiasts, the DVD will augment existing multi-media documents of Armstrong’s life in music with an invigorating performance. For those less familiar with Armstrong, Live in ’59 provides a near perfect introduction to one of popular music’s most important performers.