Masters Of American Music: Louis Armstrong

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Details At A Glance

Category Documentary Main Menu Introduction 
Main Menu Audio and Animation
Menu Audio 
Biography - Cast 
Gallery (6) 
Audio-Only Tracks (2) 
Web Links
Year Released 1988
Running Time 86:24 minutes
RSDL/Flipper No/No
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region 1,2,3,4,5,6 Director Gary Giddins
Kendrick Simmons
Columbia Music Video 
Sony Music
Starring Louis Armstrong
Hattie Winston (Narrator)
Case Black Brackley
RPI $34.95 Music Louis Armstrong

Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English (Linear PCM 48/16 2.0, 1536 Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1
Macrovision ? Smoking Yes
Subtitles None Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits Yes, partly during credits

Plot Synopsis

    Three days after my birthday, we will celebrate the centenary of the birth of the man credited with defining Jazz as a music form. I seriously doubt that anyone, including myself, will celebrate my birthday. No doubt the world should and will celebrate with gusto the centennial of the birth of Louis Armstrong. If Benny Goodman was the King of Swing, then Satchmo was simply the King, long before Elvis usurped the title. It might well be pushing things to call him the inventor of Jazz, but there certainly is no argument over the fact that he had a very substantial say in the way that it developed. It is thus somewhat pleasing to see that the centennial of his birth, and coincidentally the thirtieth anniversary of his death, as celebrated by the release to DVD of this quite enthralling, albeit somewhat brief, look at the life of one of the most beloved and influential performers ever.

    Coming out of the ghettos of New Orleans, Louis Armstrong became one of the most recognizable names in world entertainment. He toured extensively overseas, led a very interesting life and had hits from the 1920s through to the 1960s. He lived through the Swing era (an era very much influenced by him), he survived the Be Bop era (an era that he in many ways despised) and still played on as only he could. Those golden notes from his cornet and those gravely warblings from his throat were just about the most recognizable things in music for many years. He endured the stereotypes inflicted upon black performers in film and television and did so with that instantly recognizable grin of his still firmly fixed upon his face. Yet he was also a leader in the push for equal rights and suffered the consequences of that. He lived a full life and in many ways did it all his own way. He will probably never die in one sense, as his contributions to film let alone music will be remembered for many years to come.

    This documentary presents a decently encapsulated glimpse of his musical life, and does so with the aid of interviews with musicians he played with, as well as archival footage of interviews with the man himself. But the real tour de force here is the collection of footage from various sources showing Louis Armstrong in performance. This covers performances from as early as 1932 through to the 1960s and whilst there are no truly complete performances of any tunes here, there sure are plenty of extended bites from many of his works, including excerpts from films in which he appeared.

    This is really good stuff and thoroughly enjoyable. Whilst the man perhaps deserved a little more than the 86 minutes we get here, it is a decent enough place to start investigating one of the true icons of American music of the Twentieth Century.

Transfer Quality


    Considering that the archival footage here dates from the 1920s through to the 1960s, there are some serious allowances necessary with the material. However, with some obvious exceptions, this is better than average quality stuff and not liable to cause problem to any other than the most fastidious digital lovers out there.

    The transfer is presented in Full Frame format and is not 16x9 enhanced. This is an NTSC transfer so therefore you will need a display device capable of handling the signal, otherwise basically you will have wasted $35!

    Most of the interview footage dates from the 1980s, presumably shot specifically for the documentary. This is generally pretty decent stuff - not really sharp but with a softness to it that is not too worrying, and with decent enough detail. However, the earlier footage is very divergent in its quality with some early stuff being really very diffuse and almost completely lacking in any sort of detail or definition at all. Not even sticking on my new glasses could make some of this material look any better. Generally however, the sharpness is on the diffuse side and the detail is not especially wonderful. Shadow detail is generally adequate, although some footage of the man in interview descends to pretty shocking. Clarity at times leaves a bit to be desired and the odd murkiness here and there does not help proceedings. Overall, grain is not too bad but certainly becomes noticeable at times. There is nothing in the way of low level noise in the transfer.

    The more modern interview footage has decent enough colour, not spectacular and not really vibrant but reasonably watchable. Some of the film footage is stunning and on the basis of the snippet included here, High Society should be especially good looking if it ever gets a DVD release here. The colour footage does not suffer from oversaturation but rather could be classified as slightly undersaturated throughout. The black and white footage, though, is really all over the place. Some interview footage of the man is way too dark in tone so that it almost looks like black on black. Obviously there were some extreme problems with the source material at times! There are the odd pieces of footage in some fairly ropey grey on grey murky tones, with little in the way of definition, but the black and white tones are generally pretty decent without being anything close to vibrant.

    There are no significant MPEG artefacts in the transfer. There did not appear to be any significant film-to-video artefacts in the transfer. There is a decently extensive collection of film artefacts in the transfer, exactly as we would expect in material dating back as far as some of this.

    The overall impression here is of some at times rather ropey quality source material given as good a transfer as you could reasonably expect. You would certainly not be expecting to toss this into the player to demonstrate how good DVD can look, even though this is as good as this material is ever going to look I would suggest.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-to-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    There is just the one soundtrack on offer on this DVD, being an English Linear PCM 48/16 2.0 soundtrack.

    The narration from Hinnie Winston comes up very well in the soundtrack, as does all of the interview material and the archival audio material. There are no serious audio sync problems with the transfer, although some of the archival footage is a little out.

    The music of course comes from Louis Armstrong with the help of a whole bunch of arrangers and writers, and naturally enough is quite wonderful.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong at all with the soundtrack itself, and this does a pretty decent job of conveying the narration and music. It should be noted however that some of that music is getting on in years and the sound itself can at times get a little hissy. If you are a devotee of historic recordings on CD, then you probably would recognize this as being quite reminiscent of the CBS Masterworks CDs. They were not always the best in the way of transfers and when some of the original sound material is as bad as it is, untold amount of miracles are going to be needed to turn it into crystal clear sound - and so we did not get it. Having been so used to some of the CD recordings, believe me when I say that there is nothing here that I find bothersome - I have heard plenty worse. However, if you like modern digital recordings (as bad as they generally are), then this is going to perhaps disappoint a little. Obviously lacking any surround and bass channel use, the soundscape is very frontal but reasonably bright.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


    Not too bad an effort considering the age of the original video tape.


    Quite nicely presented with some decent audio and animation enhancement to help things along.


    As typical of the recent efforts seen from Sony Music in this Legacy range, the discography is only of available Columbia Records CDs at the time of the DVD being produced (which may well mean that some will have been deleted). Quite detailed indeed, you get full track listings, catalogue numbers and a shortish audio bite from one track on each CD. Very nicely done even though a full audio track for one title on each CD would have been much appreciated.


    A quite reasonably detailed effort that in broad terms ranks as one of the best I have yet seen on DVD. If you want more stuff, then you definitely want to indulge in a proper biography or two.

Gallery (6)

    The six galleries can be broken into: Album Covers (10), Labels (6), Sheet Music (2), Posters (2), Stamps (6) and Miscellaneous (5). It is good to see the original album covers, but really could we not get a whole lot more than just 10? Whilst I doubt that it would be possible to get all the record labels for his releases, these six are quite decently done - with the added bonus of having the tune shown on the respective label played over the still! Nice stuff. The rest are not really essential but make decent filler.

Audio-Only Tracks (2)

    The two tracks are West End Blues (one of his classics) and Potato Head Blues. They just play over the menu, which is not the most exciting thing in the world, but are nice inclusions despite the hissy sound.

Web Link

    Just the address if you are interested.


    As far as we have been able to ascertain, there are no censorship issues with this title.

R4 vs R1

    Since this is an NTSC format, all region code DVD it would seem that there is no difference between the various regions.


    Satchmo is a quite interesting documentary about one of the icons of music of the Twentieth Century. Whilst the source material at times certainly looks its age and more, there is nothing here to really complain about. Whatever problems there are are definitely source material related and are not DVD related. Well worth getting a look at this one, and a another case of the whole being far more than the sum of its pieces.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Ian Morris (have a laugh, check out the bio)
4th April, 2001

Review Equipment
DVD Pioneer DV-515; S-video output
Display Sony Trinitron Wega 80cm. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Audio Decoder Built in
Amplification Yamaha RXV-795. Calibrated with the NTSC DVD version of Video Essentials.
Speakers Energy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL