So this box includes both the complete concerts of the title and some additional performances from around the same time, including a performance held before a movie premier for a movie Armstrong was starring in, and some other miscellaneous recordings Armstrong features on that don’t really feel apiece.
On the one hand, these concerts – in particular the Town Hall concert – are seen as really important step for Armstrong: the first time he had played with a small group in a really long time. And though I am not yet familiar with his big band work, I can see why people would welcome that. Here is a band of all star jazz musicians playing the original style of jazz, arguably as good as its been played by anyone – though not better than the Hot 5s and 7s – and the whole thing was a bit of whim. As someone who loves dixieland, a lot of this is a treat.
However, there’s another way of looking at this: Bop had just begun and here is the king of traditional jazz being placed back in his original setting (small group) playing traditional music – and also playing the part of entertainer – to a rapturous audience we can fairly assume included some who thought that bop didn’t even qualify as music. That is to say this concert is in many ways the very expression of conservatism in music. And worse, if you interpret it the way Miles Davis might have, it also represents Armstrong as the silly old man who just wants to have a good time and is just so gosh down happy to be there. I always thought Davis was a little harsh but I understood why he did not appreciate the hi-jinks so associated with traditional jazz. And those are present here (though more so on the additional material).
The result is something that is tearing at me: it’s great dixieland played by some dixieland all-stars but it’s great dixieland recorded two decades after its heyday, almost against the new music, and very much as an act of reassurance that, yes indeed, one could still escape to the past and away from the noise of people actually pushing creative boundaries and trying do something new. I mean, how dare they.