Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Beautiful American


The Beautiful American


Louis Armstrong (trumpet) and Duke Ellington (piano)


The Great Summit: The Master Takes (Roulette/Blue Note 7243 5 24547 2 3)

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Louis Armstrong (trumpet), Duke Ellington (piano), Trummy Young (trombone), Barney Bigard (clarinet),

Mort Herbert (bass), Danny Barcelona (drums)


Composed by Duke Ellington


Recorded: New York, April 4, 1961


Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

What does it mean to be an American? When Louis Armstrong was coming up in New Orleans, it meant being an orphan and second- or third-class citizen, but with a first-class spirit and a talent for trumpet way beyond the barriers of race. Duke Ellington might have called that "beyond category." While his own Washington, D.C., upbringing was somewhat easier (as a middleclass kid cushioned by family support), even the Duke met the usual racial slings and arrows in the early decades; but his elegant style and creative juices and canny business sense made him a composer and bandleader without peer. And Satchmo? That mouth and set of chops and irrepressible joie de vivre soon produced an ambassador to the world.

Two Black Americans better than most of their nation could have imagined, or likely wanted, back then. When the two nonpareil jazz titans finally met in a recording studio in 1961 (other encounters had been too fleeting or too controlled by circumstances) for the sessions of Ellington standards combined on one CD as The Great Summit, Duke also roughed out a new instrumental for the occasion. Untitled at first, then called (courtesy of Stanley Dance) "The Unquiet American," the arrangement came together quickly Duke singing the tune, working out horn parts, finding a makeshift mute for Trummy Young's trombone, and then signaling the control booth to proceed.

The resulting performance is a quiet world-beater almost literally, as Satch's solos manage to quote from classical music, New Orleans warhorses, and pop melodies, not to mention demonstrate his own unequaled ability to get around on a trumpet; Duke and Louis had worked together briefly in France for the film Paris Blues a year or two earlier, and some of that Old World savoir faire must have carried over. At any rate, after Ellington and the rhythm guys set the pace (shout-outs for that inimitable bouncing-in-place piano and Mort Herbert's perfect bass solo near the end), and then Barney Bigard's and Trummy's mellow exuberance set the stage, Armstrong proceeds to smile, sinuate and sing out with his trumpet so convincingly, so effortlessly, so quintessentially Louis in fact, that Duke's tune immediately acquired its final title: "The Beautiful American."

Reviewer: Ed Leimbacher


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