Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rappin' Louie: 75 Years of "You've Got Me, Voodoo'd" and "Hep Cats' Ball"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 14, 1940
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, alto saxophone, clarinet; Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 3052
Currently available on CD: It’s available on the Mosaic Records box of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings. 

When I got back from Bristol, I knew I wanted to celebrate Louis Armstrong's very busy day on March 14, 1940, when he recorded five tunes in one session: "Harlem Stomp," "You've Got Me Voodoo'd," "Hep Cat's Ball," "Wolverine Blues" and "Lazy 'Sippi Steamer." But the combination of jet lag, family leisure time, getting back to work and the need to write a wrap-post about my Bristol experiences made the March 14 anniversary pass by without a single word. 

But hey, it's never too late, right? It's still March, so even if I'm a few weeks behind, I still want to celebrate the 75th anniversary of at least two of the five songs recorded that day, "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" and "Hep Cats' Ball."

If you would have told me 15 years ago that "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" would be one of my favorite Armstrong numbers and one that I consistently pull out during student presentations, I would have thought you were nuts. When I first got into Armstrong, it was through the All Stars period and then I went back to the 1923-1934 era. When I finally started buying the old Chronological Classics discs covering the Decca years back in the late 90s, I enjoyed the music but it wasn't my favorite period of Pops. I'm sure there was some pre-loaded bias in my brain against this material because I hadn't read too many positive reviews of this era. Also, it was hard to find the discs since the Decca stuff never got first-class reissue treatment in the U.S. until Mosaic rolled around in 2009.

Don't get me wrong; there was plenty that I found absolutely lovely. But as the discs rolled on and the number of "novelties" started growing in the early 40s, I'd listen once or twice but didn't find much meat to keep going back to. When I went to Rutgers to get a Master's in Jazz History and Research, the entire class had to purchase these 40-CD German boxed sets full of public domain material. There was no rhyme or reason to the selections, but one of the Louis CDs was made up of just 1940-41 Deccas. The whole class had to listen and discuss and I spoke up and looking at a room of musicians and historians who hadn't really checked out Pops before, and pleaded, "Don't make this the only Louis Armstrong disc you listen to! He did so much better work!"And then I played "Chinatown" and some 1950s Columbia stuff to demonstrate.

But somewhere along the way, I learned to listen at a deeper level and all of a sudden, those Deccas started to pop. I loved Louis's fun vocals and the trumpet was consistently spectacular. I was already changing my tune when I started this blog in 2007. The late Gosta Hagglof befriended me and began sending me his Ambassador series of CDs (now available online through the Louis Armstrong House Museum). He would tell me about his favorites, such as "Cain and Abel" and other lesser-known "novelties." I began listening deeper to write about some of them and all of sudden, man, this was pretty great! And just like that, cue the good folks at Mosaic Records with their complete boxed set and that was that, the Decca period was IT for me, and probably the music I listen to most often at the Armstrong Archives today.

I think the turning point in my feelings on this period actually goes back to "You've Got Me Voodoo'd." I've never seen it on a "greatest hits" compilation or discussed as a "desert island disc." But the first time I noticed it is through Gary Giddins, who referred to it as a "roots of rap" number both in his book Satchmo and a later column that made it into the book Weather Bird. The Giddins mentions made me pay attention to the vocal, which, I always enjoyed. But what about the rest? Really, what else is there? The knock on the Decca recordings was woeful band + boring arrangements + weak soloists + novelty/commercial material = forgettable Louis Armstrong.

Enter John Wriggle. John joined the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program midway through my first year and immediately stood out. He had fully explored jazz history--especially the early stuff. He was not easily impressed, yet his droll wit was laugh-out-loud hilarious. And he was introduced to the class as "The World's Authority on Chappie Willet."

Who?

If you don't know Chappie Willet, well, don't feel bad, the majority of Americans don't--but that hasn't stopped John from trying. Instead of allowing me to explain who Chappie is, I'll let John do it. This is the link to a PDF of John's fabulous 2009 Annual Review of Jazz Studies piece, "Chappie Willet: Swing Era Arranger." If you click that link, it starts on page 101 and runs through 170; the 237 (!) endnotes run from 170-188. It'll perfectly whet the appetite for John's upcoming book, Blue Rhythm Fantasy: Big Band Jazz Arranging in the Swing Era (University of Illinois Press). (And if you'd like some video to accompany your reading, John has expertly transcribed many of Chappie's charts and hosted big band concerts devoted to performing them live. The great Michael Steinman captured one such 2009 evening here and here.)

Anyway, back at Rutgers, John did a Chappie Willet presentation and mentioned that he wrote many arrangements for Louis's big band: "Jubilee," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" and more. John discussed some of Chappie's trademarks--minor interludes, marching trombones, whole tone passages--and illustrated them with audio. And when he played "You've Got Me Voodoo'd," it was like the first time I had ever heard it. All of a sudden, I was appreciating Willet's excellent craftsmanship, but also the dynamite swing of the band, Pops's proto-rapping vocal and the dramatic trumpet solo that brings it to a close. This is some record! 

Before rolling up my sleeves and tackling the audio, a couple of quick notes. First, "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" is credited to Louis Armstrong, Luis Russell and Cornelius C. Lawrence. We know Louis and of course, Luis Russell ran the band, but Giddins discovered that Lawrence was "an obscure playwright, actor, and lyricist who also wrote songs with the intriguing titles, 'Curfew Time in Harlem' and 'Ink Spink Spidely Spoo.'" Alas, Louis never spoke about this song or how this motley crew got together, so we don't know how much Louis actually contributed (but I can see him tossing in a few rhymes).

But "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" was the second song recorded that day. The first one, "Hep Cats' Ball," is also worth examining as a roots of hip hop example. "Hepcat" language was riding high in March 1940. Cab Calloway was one of the most popular entertainers on the planet, especially with songs like "The Jumpin' Jive," which he recorded in July 1939. That same year, Calloway published his famed Hepster's Dictionary, full of "jive" terminology. Well, Louis Armstrong was one of the kings of introducing slang into the jazz world: "cats," "swing," "every tub," "chops," "Gate," on and on and on. I think one of the goals of the March 14, 1940 Decca session was to brand Louis as the OG hepcat. With that in mind, let's listen to the session opener, "Hep Cats' Ball":


"Hep Cats' Ball" features Louis doing his best Cab impression, talk-singing another roots of rap vocal that drips with slang. But who are the composers? Louis Armstrong and Jack Palmer. Jazz fans might know Palmer as the co-composer (with Spencer Williams) of jam session favorites "Everybody Loves My Baby" and "I've Found a New Baby." But at the time of this session, he was composing jive-heavy songs with none other than Cab Calloway, including the aforementioned "Jumpin' Jive" and 1940's "Boog It" (covered by Louis and the Mills Brothers after the March 14 session). So Pops was going straight to Calloway's guy to help incorporate some more "jive" into his music, though again, Armstrong wasn't the kind of bandleader to put his name on every composition so he must have done something to contribute. [Note: The Mosaic set lists the great Willard Robison as another co-composer but I've never seen that anywhere else and it's not listed on the original 78 label so I'm sticking with Armstrong and Palmer.] Here's how it came out:

[Prologue, with the band responding instrumentally to Louis's questions]
Are you ready? Jump steady!
Now, I've got the stuff on the mellow side,
Let me be your worthy guide.
Are you ready? Then jump steady!

[Chorus]
Now the Hep Cats' Ball is a jive affair,
Yep, yep, yep, you better be there.
So lace your boots and dig your fill,
Beat up your chops from 10 until.

The Hep Cats' Ball is a foxy hop.
Yep, yep, yep, it just won't stop.
You'll get hep when the cats come on.
That'll git it when it's almost gone.

If you don't collar all this jive,
You just a square on the uphep side.
So send yourself and spread some joy,
And if you can't make it, just send a boy.

Now the Hep Cats' Ball is a solid mess [mezz?]
Yep, yep, yep, it certainly 'tis.
So take it, Gate, come right on.
That'll git it when it's really gone.
(Yeah, man!)

It really does feel like a collaboration with Palmer mixing Calloway-associated phrase like "lace your boots" with pure Pops-isms such as "Beat up your chops." But Giddins's original point holds up: the way Armstrong talk-sings his vocal definitely points the way to hip hop and even a lot of today's pop music that features more talking than singing (looking at you, Ke$ha).  Combining the talking vocal with the relentless barrage of slang? Hey! Here comes Rappin' Louie!

Besides the vocal, "Hep Cat's Ball" features an excellent middle tempo in a Jimmie Lunceford groove, propelled by Sid Catlett's juicy cymbals. The chord changes aren't much, mostly just a descending line a la Lunceford's "For Dancer's Only." Wriggle doesn't think Willet did the arrangement and sure enough, there's none of his trademarks in it, but there is a neat little conversation between the repeating reeds and the mellow trombones that serves as an interlude between the vocal and the trumpet ending.

When Louis grabs his horn, he's in relaxed mode. Armstrong motto in life was to "play the melody" (and as discussed recently, Decca's mantra was "Where's the melody?") but without much of a melody to bite into, Louis goes for himself from the start. A short, almost hidden gliss launches him into a string of quarter notes, which Louis could play like no other. The arrangement smartly leaves room for Louis to take breaks, each one steeped in blue notes. Armstrong's improvisation is extremely singable (like everything else he ever played). 

During the bridge, the roles reverse and the band takes the lead with Armstrong answering their shouts with some piercing high Ab's of his own. His phrasing is masterful, too. The Ab's come in all shapes and sizes: he holds some, plays others in groups of three, there's another quarter-note episode. It's one of my favorite moments of the record.

The band gets a break coming out of the bridge and jumps into the final A section, giving Pops a short rest after that heroic bridge (Catlett's cymbals!). Louis comes back swinging, still in conversation with the band, but now playing a short row of repeated Bb's, warming up for the big ending. Louis is back on that Ab kick, repeating it over and over like a diver on a springboard before he launches himself skyward for that final high concert Eb (F on the trumpet, very near the top of his range). Yeah man, indeed.

And NOW, after the world's longest prologue, let's listen to "You've Got Me Voodoo'd":



Now THAT is a Chappie Willet arrangement. The whole exotic minor-keyed opening, complete with Catlett's jungle drums, is a Willet specialty. It doesn't have much to do with the tune, except for the minor-key thing, but it sure is an interesting way to start a record. But 30 seconds in, Pops steps up to the mike and starts dropping the rhymes:

Just like some magic potion,
You fill me with emotion
You control my very soul, 
You've Got Me Voodoo'd.
You knew the goddess Venus
Would start this love between us.
You inspired me with desire,
You've Got Me Voodoo'd.
You knew you had the power
And even picked the hour,
When the full moon was up above
I was hypnotized when I looked into your eyes,
My heart was filled with love.
Just like the siren Circe,
You've got me at your mercy,
Always to be brave and bold,
Mama, You've Got Me Voodoo'd. 

I love that vocal--and so have the classes I've played it for in the past few months. (More on that in a bit.) Louis splits, the band romps and Rupert Cole steps forward with a hot 16 bars before the band takes over for the final 8 of the chorus.

But just when you expect Pops to swoop in, Chappie intercepts with another prototypical interlude: minor-key, jungle drums, marching trombones, whole-note writing....it's Willet 101! (A course only John Wriggle is certified to teach.) It's a great little spot, reprising the mysterious opening and setting up some tension for when Louis finally enters.

And when he does, watch out! Louis always thrived in minor keys and "You've Got Me Voodoo'd"
is no exception. If you weren't able to pick out the melody during the mostly spoken "vocal," Louis plays it on the horn, a catchy riff that reminds me a bit of "It Ain't Right" (recorded by Stuff Smith a few years earlier). But with only a chorus to preach, listen to how Louis unfurls his solo. The first eight bars is mostly written melody, getting a little looser towards the end. In the next 8, he starts with the melody, but now starts turning it inside and out, gets in a little chromatic phrase and ends with a perfectly logical--and singable--swinging little phrase.

For the bridge, he goes way up to a concert Bb and skips down in half-steps before unraveling one of his pretty arpeggios. The second half of the bridge finds Louis pointing the way to the future with a few eight-note runs, in total command of his horn. For the final "A" section, he again phrases the main melody riff yet another different way before making his way towards the finish line, Catlett breaking out his toms toms one more time. But Chappie has another neat touch in store as the band holds a minor chord and Cantor Armstrong responds with some passionate playing before an operatic ending, holding the G before ending on a crystalline high C. Swing, Hip Hop, Blues, Jewish, Opera - that's Louis Armstrong!

But to bring everything full circle, I've found myself talking about Pops in many different classrooms since February, split between high school and college, mostly music majors, but many with no musical inclination at all. So I have to go in there and tell them why Louis Armstrong is important. It's not hard and they usually get it pretty quickly. But it's 2015 and playing the "Potato Head Blues" solo and saying, "How about THAT?" doesn't cut it anymore. I find myself playing lots of other 1920s music, then dropping Louis in the middle of it to see how he stood out.

But lately, the biggest reaction comes when I go down the hip hop road. I start by asking what are some of the themes of today's hip hop? Here come the answers: sex, violence, drugs, love, etc. No problem: I play them a junk of the original "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You" ("I'll be standing on the corner high, when they bring your body by" would be most appropriate in 2015.) So that covers the thematic content. And then I'll play them the talk-sung vocal on "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" to show them Armstrong, the master of rhymes. They get it. But I tell them that I know that this is old-sounding music and it might be difficult to hear what he's doing rhythmically. So I bring out the big guns, courtesy of YouTube. For the film, New Orleans, Louis recorded "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans." It's a fun "introduce-the-band" number but the lyric is once again, half-spoken, half-sung and just filled with short choppy rhymes. Here's the New Orleans clip:


And to make the point with a sledgehammer, YouTube user "carlfoshizi"took "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans" and put the vocal over a simple hip hop beat. Simply titled, "Louis Armstrong Rapping," this has almost 50,000 views since the original 2007 upload and it breaks me up every time:


And THAT is when it all comes together and they hear it: the themes, the rhymes, the spoken vocals, the rhythm--Louis Armstrong was one of the first rappers, too!

Some who hate today's hip hop might shake their head at such a sentiment but it's all in good fun and just another example of how you can trace every strand of 20th and 21st Century popular music back to Louis Armstrong in some way, shape or form.

BOOM!

[I just dropped the mike....]

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ambassador To Ambassador Satch - Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival Recap

I woke up at 3:45 a.m. on the morning of March 2. This might sound ridiculous to some, but I normally wake up at 4 a.m. to go to work on Mondays so it wasn't that big of a deal. But I wasn't going to my usual job as Archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. No, about 16 hours later, I'd be having a drink with Denny Ilett in an underground pub in Bristol, England, about to preach about Louis Armstrong every day for the next week of my life. The Ambassador to Ambassador Satch was ready to go to work.



(Thanks to my old friend Chris Barnes for the Photoshop magic; I had always wanted to do that!)

I got back from Bristol on March 10, exhausted from the jet lag. It was the longest I had gone without my wife and kids so I took the rest of the week off and hugged them incessantly. When I went back to work on Monday, the 16th, I was way behind in needing to plan a new exhibit that would be installed at the Armstrong House in just two weeks. So I've been busier than a one-armed paper hanger with crabs (borrowed that one from Louis) and it won't be letting up until probably sometime in mid-May (probably; probably not).

But I didn't want to leave my old blog a wasteland while I was off doing Armstrong-related stuff around the world. I'd imagine many of my readers were following my exploits on Facebook; if not, here's a link to an album of over 100 photos from my British invasion. But for posterity, let me offer a (somewhat) quick wrap-up for the blog.

I was invited over to Bristol for the 3rd Annual Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival by the Festival's Executive Director, Colin Gorie, and the Artistic Director, Denny Ilett. Denny visited me in New York last year and pitched the idea of a "New Orleans Takeover" of the Festival, with a special focus on Louis. I was more than happy to represent the Armstrong House for what would be my very first trip to England in my 34-year-old life. I knew I was in the right place shortly after I landed. While going through customs, I had to explain just what I was doing in England. I had a letter prepared from the Festival but they still had lots of questions. Finally, they told me to wait a few minutes. They eventually called me back and said, "We checked your blog--everything checked out." I knew this blog would be good for something! They apologized for taking my time and I said I wasn't in a rush, causing the officer to respond, "Of course....you 'Have All the Time in the World,' right?" Not even through the border and my first Louis Armstrong song reference! I was going to like it here....

Though the Festival was only Friday-Sunday, they flew me out on Monday so I could give some Louis lectures around Bristol in preparation for the main gigs on Saturday and Sunday. I arrived late Monday night and was already put to work on Tuesday afternoon, speaking to a handful of music students at the Cotham School. Coincidentally, "West End Blues" had been on the syllabus so the students had already studied it but they asked me to come in and two hours on just that song alone. That was no problem, as I had already written a 10,000 word blog on the subject a few years ago. But I decided to take them way back and played them records Louis had in his private collection--Caruso, Galli-Curci, Herbert L. Clarke--as well as other earlier Armstrong records where you can hear traces of the birth of the cadenza, including "Changeable Daddy of Mine" and "Once in a While." After about 45 minutes of pre-history, when they finally heard the famed 1928 recording again, it all made sense. The kids were great and thanked me for the graphic level of detail. Glad they weren't scared away!

The next day was a big promotional day, starting with a Festival preview in the Bristol Post with a big photo Yoni Brook took of me holding one of Louis's trumpets.  I also had a fun radio interview in the afternoon with Claire Cavanaugh of BBC Bristol. As I'm writing this, the audio is still up on the BBC website for 13 more days so if you'd like to listen to it, click here! (I start one hour and 45 minutes in.)



The bulk of that day was spent sightseeing around Bristol with the help of my friend, Jonathan David Holmes, a young hot jazz enthusiast who runs a popular YouTube channel devoted to vintage music, transferred from his ever-growing 78 collection. Jonathan met me at my hotel wearing a "Louis Sends His Love" button created by our mutual friend, Michael Steinman; needless to say, we got along famously! And before the BBC interview started, Jonathan--a BBC Bristol employee--sat down with me and recorded a 14-minute interview with yours truly about my background and love of Louis. Thanks, Jonathan!


That same day (it wouldn't quit!), I raced from the BBC to the Watershed Theatre to give a two-hour presentation on Louis Armstrong's movie appearances. We had a great crowd and I took them from Rhapsody in Black and Blue in 1932 to Paris Blues in 1960, closing with the famous "St. Louis Blues (Concerto Grosso)" with Leonard Bernstein from Satchmo the Great. I was honored to have the great New Orleans-born vocalist Lillian Boutte in the audience. It was the first time we had ever met, but we felt like old friends from the start. That "St. Louis Blues" emotionally affected Lillian....and she wasn't alone. Here we are right before the show started:


And I love this photo Denny Ilett snapped of me in mid-preach, probably threatening to fight members of the audience afterwards if they disagreed with my sentiments on Armstrong! (The biggest laugh of the night came when I stole Wild Bill Davison's line from Newport 1970: "If I told you how I really feel about Louis Armstrong, I'd be arrested for indecent exposure!")



I had been going nonstop since breakfast but I wasn't done yet. My originally scheduled event for Thursday was scrapped so I saw a small window to take a train to London and experience the big city for a day. My friend--and fellow Pops lover--Julio Schwarz Andrade welcomed me with open arms and I was thrilled to at least get in one day in London. Julio showed me the sights, such as Big Ben:


That was followed by a most memorable lunch with two long-time Facebook friends I had been looking forward to meeting for years: jazz historian Fernando Ortiz de Urbina and noted saxophonist/composer John Altman (that link takes you to John's Wikipedia page; if you don't know him, you do now....what a career!). The stories didn't stop for over two hours....wish we had recorded it!


It was back to Bristol on Thursday night as I had another lecture at the Bristol Institute of Modern Music first thing on Friday morning. This was FUN! In front of about 15-20 young music majors--most from a rock and pop background, but also some jazz singers and musicians--I once again preached about the importance of Pops to the history of pop music. Instead of just playing his greatest records, I played them a TON of stuff. By the end of the 90 minutes, they heard Louis, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Caruso, Count Basie, Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Ke$ha and more. Some of the students and faculty members have kept in touch and they even wrote a nice little recap of my visit on their website. I even got to sign their wall!



I had a wonderful Indian dinner that night with the noted sound engineer Dave Bennett, who does so much for Avid Records these days. In fact, he was behind the reissue of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography I wrote the liner notes for a couple of years ago (and he's planning more Pops as I write this; details to come!). Thanks for a great meal, Dave and Anne!


After that Friday night dinner, it was time for the actual Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival to begin. I only had time for one act that night....but what an act it was! I already mentioned my man Denny Ilett, the Artistic Director of the Festival. Denny is also an accomplished guitarist, arranger and vocalist and co-leads an 18-piece big band with trumpeter Jonny Bruce, The Bruce Ilett Big Band. They took out about half the chairs in old Colston Hall to open up the room for the dancing--and my goodness, the people danced. I'm terrible at estimating but I'd say there were probably 1,000-1,500 people at the concert and at least half of them were dancing all night. On top of that, at least 80% of the dancers appeared to be under the age of 40. The big band played all the hits: "April in Paris," "Cherokee" (Charlie Barnet's), "Tuxedo Junction," "Sing, Sing, Sing," lots of Harry James, etc. But I don't think I've ever heard a full evening of that music played by such a powerhouse band in front of a jam-packed room of dancers and listeners. It was more thrilling than any rock concert you can imagine. Anyone who dismisses big band or music or swing dancing should have been there for this. Hell, every human being should experience something like this at least once! No wonder this was America's popular music during The Swing Era...

Here I am with Jonny Bruce and Denny Ilett....keep doing what you're doing, fellas!


Somehow I went to sleep that night and had to be ready for my big showcase on Saturday, 75 minutes on "The Life and Legacy of Louis Armstrong." Dressed in a new jacket my wife picked out for me, I was ready, I was ready, so help me, I was ready:



With such an open topic of Louis's "life and legacy," I decided to skip most of the life and focus on how Louis's legacy has changed since he died. When he passed away in 1971, there was a large number of folks who believed Louis went commercial, stopped being a good trumpet player in the 1930s, was nothing but a clown and was an Uncle Tom when it came to issues of race. As I do in my book, I fought each one of those accusations, but I used materials from the Armstrong House's Archives: Louis's private tapes, Louis fighting against accusations of clowning, Louis on TV talking about racism in New Orleans, Louis playing "West End Blues" in 1961 and much more. I kind of piled up the emotional climaxes at the end, detailing Armstrong's final few months and the story of Louis Armstrong's last tape, which I've blogged about it in the past. Many folks later told me they cried and there were times at the end when I had to breathe and avoid breaking into tears myself.


It might have been one of the best-received lectures I've ever given, but I was helped by having many Facebook friends planted in the audience, including Denny Ilett, Jonathan David Holmes, Jim Denham and Hugh Flint, drummer for John Mayall's Blues Breakers (with Eric Clapton) and quite an Armstrong fan himself. Here's me and Hugh:


Fernando Ortiz de Urbina made the trip from London, as did Jon Hancock, author of the definitive book on Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. Afterwards, the weather was so lovely, we ate outdoors at a pub. We started talking about Pops and I got so carried away, I reached into my bag, pulled out my iPod and a small Bose speaker and started playing unissued Armstrong recordings in the afternoon air. Quite a memorable lunch....thanks Fernando and Jon!
My big showcase was through but Pops wasn't done yet. On Sunday, the final day of the Festival, Colston Hall hosted "The Louis Armstrong Story." This was an extra special occurrence. First, Denny assembled another world-class big band and I provided copies of Louis's original big band arrangements on "Sweethearts on Parade," "Lazy River" and "Swing That Music." Then Denny asked me to write up some of Armstrong's deepest comments regarding music, race and life itself, to be read by the wonderful actor Clarke Peters ("The Wire," "Treme"). Lillian Boutee would sing a handful of Louis's best-loved songs. James Brown's former bandleader Pee Wee Ellis would anchor the saxophone section. And a small group would be formed featuring trumpeter Enrico Tomasso, clarinetist Evan Christopher, trombonist Ian Bateman, banjoist Don Vappie, bassist Sebastian Giordot and drummer Julie Saury (Maxim's daughter). On top of it all, they asked me to introduce the show and say a few words about the Louis Armstrong House Museum....on stage at Colston Hall where Louis had played multiple times in the 1950s and 1960s. It was quite a moment.

The concert, needless to say, was unforgettable and one of the unquestioned hits of the festival. But for me, it was just a thrill to be among the cats. I finally got to meet the great Ian Batemen, who had to inhibit the roles of Trummy Young, Kid Ory, Jack Teagrden and Fred Robinson in the show, and who leads a sensational Armstrong tribute band with his trumpet playing brother, Alan:

Clarke Peters was an absolute gentlemen and it was an honor to give him a copy of my book:



I've loved Don Vappie for years but hadn't met him before Bristol. Not only a sensational musician, he was a lot of fun to talk to. Once again, I pulled out the iPod and Bose speaker to play him some private tapes of Louis badmouthing Jelly Roll Morton!



Don was over with Evan Christopher's Django a la Creole. I've known Evan for years and he's one of my favorite people on the planet (you might remember he ordered 30 copies of my book to give to every trumpet player in New Orleans....what a guy!). Django a la Creole absolutely tore it up the night before; since I've been back, I've been listening to their three CDs almost nonstop. Yeah, Evan!


Evan's bassist, Sebastian Giordot, was another Facebook friend I hadn't met in the flesh before. He was a monster during the Armstrong tribute, playing with that fat, popping New Orleans sound Louis loved (he did Pops Foster proud on "Swing That Music"!).



Every musician, top to bottom, were delightful to meet but for me, the biggest thrill was Enrico Tomasso. Perhaps you have seen a number of famous photos of Louis with a young man holding a trumpet, greeting Louis at an airport in England in 1968? That's Rico! He started playing when he was 5 (his father was a clarinetist) and was immediately engulfed in Pops after hearing the 1954 Decca "Basin Street Blues." When Louis heard him play as an 8-year-old boy in 1968, he fell in love with his playing, making him come backstage every night at the Batley Music Hall in order to impart wisdom such as "Marry a woman who knows the horn comes first" and "Don't play that jiu jitzu music." They traded letters until Louis died in 1971.

One of the most famous photos of Louis and Rico showed Louis kissing the younger trumpeter's hand in 1968. Naturally, when I met Rico, I had to do the same thing:
During the rehearsal for the concert, I pulled out my phone and shot a short video of Rico invoking the spirit--and sound--of Pops at the end of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." I had goose bumps watching this from the stage.


After the show was over, it was a fun hanging with Rico, Ian, trumpeter Ben Cummings, Ian's son and my London pal Julio for a few hours. We went to the Old Duke for drinks. I knew I was in the right place, when I spotted this Bob Parent photo of Louis and Bobby Hackett on the wall. I included this in my Hackett tribute in January but this was the first time I've ever seen the complete photo--that's Louis's friend, actor Slim Thompson, on the right!



And when we ended up at another Indian restaurant for dinner and realized we were the only ones sitting there, it was only a matter of time before the iPod and Bose came out for another listening session, including an unissued take of "St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, "West End Blues" from Freedomland in 1961 and most emotionally, an audio letter Rico and his family made for Louis when Louis was in intensive care in 1969. Rico hadn't heard it since he sent it 46 years ago. On the tape, he played trumpet on "Cake Walking Babies from Home," "Basin Street Blues" and what he introduced as his favorite song, "I Used to Love You," joined by his father, sister and brother. Rico had tears in his eyes by the end of the tape. I was honored to be able to make him hear it again after all these years.



With the end of "The Louis Armstrong Story," my job was over, so I got to hang out, meet new Armstrong fans and sign lots of books, including one for Lillian Boutte, who said, "This shit is mine!" as this photo was being snapped:


As a little laginappe, I went to hear Dr. John playing the Festival's closing show. He visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum in August, where I acted as a liaison. He was marvelous at the Armstrong House, relaxed and telling stories the entire time. Before he left, I gave him a copy of my book, too. Now, in Bristol, I was lucky enough to attend his soundcheck with maybe a dozen other people in the giant Colston Hall. He looked a little weary after the constant traveling and it was almost showtime, but I still wanted to shake his hand and maybe remind him about the Armstrong House and who I was. I didn't need to; as he was walked offstage, he took one look at me, smiled, and croaked out, "Man, I LOVED your book!" It might be the best endorsement I've ever received.....

So thank you, Bristol for a truly unforgettable visit! Talks have already begun to do it all over again next year. Count me in. And thanks to the Louis Armstrong House Museum for allowing me to go around the world to preach about Pops and the treasures found at the Armstrong House.

And thank you, Louis Armstrong. Thank you for EVERYTHING. It's my pleasure to be your Ambassador, Mr. Ambassador. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish Black Bottom - 2015 Update


Recorded November 27, 1926
Track Time 2:37
Written by Percy Venable
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Hy" Clark, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8447
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Hi everybody! I still need to recap my unforgettable trip to England last week but right now, it's St. Patrick's Day so it's time for a yearly tradition and listen to "Irish Black Bottom."  I originally wrote this in 2010 but keep reading for some new information I recently gleaned from one of Louis's private tapes. But first, raise a beer, slice some corned beef and the original 1926 recording of "Irish Black Bottom"!


Isn't that a lot of fun? No, it's not earth-shaking art as "Potato Head Blues" or "West End Blues" but who cares? "Irish Black Bottom" comes from a series of Hot Fives Louis made in 1926 that most stoic historians tend to frown on or, in the case of some like Gunther Schuller, attempt to ignore completely. Why? Because they get in the way of the myth of the young Louis being a serious artist, not some commercial clown.

But all it takes is one listen to the complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens to see that Louis was doing plenty of clowning during his "artist" days. On February 26, 1926, Armstrong's horn changed the world with his solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" and his stirring lead playing on songs like "Oriental Strut" and "Muskrat Ramble." But his voice also had equal impact that day as he rasped out the blues on "Georgia Grind" and popularized scat singing with "Heebie Jeebies." Naturally, the records all sold well with "Heebie Jeebies" causing a sensation.

OKeh was thrilled and corralled Armstrong into their studios for a string of sessions in June and another in late November. And these are the sessions that make the "serioius" Armstrong fans sweat: there's Louis shouting about doing the "mess around" or getting off eye-rolling lyrics on "Dropping Shucks." There's Louis playing a slide whistle on "Who'sit." There's Louis inviting vaudeville entertainers--friends of his--to the studio, people like Butterbeans and Susie, Clarence Babcock and Mae Alix. Here's Louis performing material he did nightly at the Sunset Cafe, songs written by that club's choreography Percy Venable. THIS is the Louis Armstrong of the 20s, not some frowning artist who forced to "go commercial" in later years.

And oh yeah, he still sounds like a genius on all of these cuts, taking a dramatic solo on "Skid-Dat-De-Dat" and one for the pantheon on "Big Butter and Egg Man." The critics particuarly adore that latter solo, with good reason, but they don't seem to want to discuss Mae Alix's booming vocal--she was a favorite of Louis's--or Louis's own Al Jolson-tinged offering. Nope, to them it's just about the trumpet, trumpet, trumpet. The trumpet IS brilliant...but they're missing a helluva lot of fun!

Which brings us to "Irish Black Bottom." Admittedly, this is not songwriting as its finest but as a novelty, it's good fun. The "black bottom" was a popular dance of the 1920s so this tune humorously pretends that it's also taken Ireland by storm. If Louis had to record something so silly in the 1950s, critics would scream at the producers for forcing it on him. But "Irish Black Bottom" was written by the aforementioned Percy Venable so more than likely, it was a staple of Louis's act at the Sunset. And can't you imagine Louis bringing down the house with that vocal? That "ha, ha" he gives after singing "And I was born in Ireland," breaks me up every time. I can only imagine what it did to the audiences who heard him do it live.

The song begins with the funny sound of Louis and his Hot Five swinging through a sample of the Irish classic "Where the River Shannon Flows" before Louis swings out with the main melody, which is predominantly in a minor mode until the end. Louis's lead sounds great and Dodds is bouncing around as usual but trombonist Hy Clark, a substitute for Kid Ory, sounds hesitant and doesn't add much. After a chorus and an interlude by pianist Lil Armstrong, Louis takes the vocal. If you can't make it out, here's what he says:

All you heard for years in Ireland,
was the "Wearin' Of The Green",
but the biggest change that's come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm's drivin' the folks insane.
I hand you no Blarney, when I say
that song really goes,
and they put it over with a wow,
I mean now.
All over Ireland
you can see the people dancin' it,
'cause Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy

I don't know how you can't get swept up in that offering. Armstrong doesn't so much sing it as shout it, or talk it, but his spirit sure gets the message across (though sometimes, he's so far from the written melody, it sounds like he's singing a different song on top of Lil's chording on the piano).

2015 update: I wrote those words about Louis's vocal in 2010. Just yesterday, I was paid a visit at the Armstrong Archives by the terrific singer Tara O'Grady, who has recorded "Irish Black Bottom" on her latest CD. I dug out one of Louis's private tapes, one I hadn't heard for a while, and though I can't share the audio, I do want to share Louis's very interesting thoughts. The tape was made in Chicago in 1951 and features Louis and a bunch of friends listening to the old Hot Five recordings. Armstrong puts on "Irish Black Bottom" and makes comments about how Percy Venable wrote it and how it was Lil on the piano (Armstrong says OKeh supervisor E.A. Fearn was responsible for the "ax hitting" Lil and Earl Hines being brought in in 1928; a subject for another day).

But when it comes to the vocal, Louis quietly starts humming along with the verse. But when it comes to the chorus, 1951 Louis shouts, "Here's the lead!" and starts emphatically scatting the written melody over 1926 Louis's shouted vocal on the record. He continues for the entire chorus, sounding quite wonderful (come to Queens one day and I'll play it for you!). He probably hadn't performed it in 25 years but every note of the original melody was firmly entrenched in his brain.

After scatting, Armstrong again moans, "That's the lead!" before imparting some self-critical analysis: "In those days, we sang just what you call 'obligato,' you know? And we commenced to hollering, 'Where's the melody?' See? First thing you see when you walk in the Decca studio, chick with her hair down to her asshole, hollering 'Where's the melody?' holding both of her hands out. Just like I say, we'll take this number…." At this point, 1951 Armstrong catches 1926 Armstrong playing the melody on the record and shouts, "There's the lead" before listening to it in silence to the end.

I find this a fascinating little insight because many writers and listeners--including myself--love listening to Armstrong's wild 1920s vocals and marveling at the chances he took with the written melodies. But here's Armstrong in the 1950s, almost disgusted by his younger self, calling that vocal style nothing but an "obligato" and recalling the advice from the famed Pocahontas photo Jack Kapp plastered around the Decca studios: Pocahontas with her arms outstretched in prayer and Kapp's mantra, "Where's the melody" written underneath. Anyway, that's the update, let's continue with the original analysis of the recording.

After the vocal, Clark and Dodds take forgettable short solos and breaks before Louis carries the troops home with brio. Louis's lip trill towards the end is particularly violent and right before his closing breaks, he dips into his bag for a favorite phrases, one that ended both "You're Next" and "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa." The concluding break is so perfect in its phrasing and choice of notes that I believe it might have already been set in stone by Pops during his live performances of the tune at the Sunset. Either way, that's no reason to criticize him; it's a perfect ending and puts an emphatic stamp on a very entertaining record.

That's all for now. Have a happy St. Patrick's day and don't forget to mix in a little Louis with your Guiness. I hand you no blarney, it's a great combination...

Friday, February 27, 2015

Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival - England Bound!

After starting the year with an onslaught of thick, new blogs, I'm sorry for disappearing after Valentine's Day. Fortunately, it was for a good reason: on Monday, March 2, I'm flying to England for the first time to spread the gospel of Pops at the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival!

And what a week it is shaping up to be. I will be in England from March 2 through March 9 and I have something booked for every day except March 5 (where I might escape from Bristol to London for one day just to see it in the flesh). On two of the days, I'll be giving private lectures for Bristol students, but three of the events in Bristol are ticketed-affairs open to the public and I do hope to see some of British Pops nuts in the audience!

On March 4 at 18:30, I'll be hosting An Evening With The King of Jazz at the Watershed movie theater. When asked to present Pops in such a setting, it seemed appropriate to screen clips of Louis in films. I'll be running the gamut from everyone's favorites ("The Five Pennies Saints," "Now You Has Jazz") to some rarer offerings ("Kisses in Der Nacht," "The Beat Generation," "That's What the Man Said" from Glory Alley and an extended sequence from Edward R. Murrow's Satchmo the Great). If you want to see why Pops was a popular presence in over 30 films, don't miss this one.

Then on March 7, I'll have my own showcase at the Lantern at 12:45, as part of the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival. The official topic is The Life and Legacy of Louis Armstrong and I'm really breaking out the big guns for this. I'm going to examine how perceptions of Louis's legacy have changed since he died (He went commercial! He was an Uncle Tom! He clowned too much!) to today, using Louis himself to make my points with excerpts from his private tapes, audio of previously unissued performances and most of all, some of my favorite rare pieces of Pops footage (all different from the Watershed evening).

Finally, no Louis Armstrong fan is going to want to miss The Louis Armstrong Story at Colston Hall at 14:00 on Sunday. I'll be offering a short introduction but then will get out of the way as a band of international all stars (including Evan Christopher, Lillian Boutee, Don Vappie, Denny Ilett, Enrico Tomasso, Ian Bateman and others!) will pay tribute to the various stages of Armstrong's career. The Louis Armstrong House Museum has provided copies of some of Pops's original big band arrangements so I'm particularly excited to hear them live for the first time. And playing the role of Pops will be the acclaimed actor Clarke Peters, who will be reading Louis's own words throughout the performance. If you have your doubts, watch Peters read one of Louis's letters in this fantastic video from the Southbank Centre last year:


So there you have it. It'll be a great big Pops lovefest in England next week and I'm honored to be a part of it. More details and updates to come and I really hope to meet some of my Armstrong loving friends from the UK while I'm there!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) - Valentine's Day 2015

I'm usually a stickler for tradition. For the past six Valentine's Day, I always share the same post on Louis's unspeakably beautiful 1950 recording of "That's For Me." 24 hours ago, I was about to do the same for today; why change perfection?

But then late last night, I was at my daughter's Girl Scouts meeting and realized I hadn't updated the Louis Armstrong House Museum Facebook page. All week, I had been sharing great Louis love songs in honor of Valentine's Day and thought of "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)," the well-known standard Louis put on the map in 1930. I was about to upload that classic first version when a YouTube search revealed that my man Austin Casey had uploaded one of my all-time favorite pieces of Pops footage: Louis on The Frank Sinatra Show, January 1, 1952, doing one of his finest ever versions of the tune. I shared it to the Armstrong House page, but then shared it on my own page and watched as Armstrong fans around the world delighted in it, much as I have since I first saw it about seven years ago, thanks to another friend, Dave Whitney.

So please, if you have time, click that top link and listen to and read about "That's For Me," as it really will put you in the right frame of mind for this day of romance. But for now, to break with tradition, I'm going to share that video of Pops doing "Confessin'" on the Sinatra show. It's better than candy and roses....


I don't think that requires much analysis, but I'll say a few words. The opening trumpet spot, though short, is just a great example of how to caress a melody to maximum effect. Interestingly, Louis looks downward the whole time, pointing his horn to the floor, uncharacteristicly  looking a bit solemn. But then he starts singing....and watch out! He is on fire. Everyone on the set--the actors and actresses behind him, pianist Bill Miller, even Sinatra himself (heard scatting at one point offscreen)--is just completely enchanted by everything this little giant is so offering. He bobs up and down, tilts his neck, smiles throughout, mugs a bit, even holds his hands in a charming, angelic pose in the bridge. If you watch it with the sound off, you're likely to be just as enchanted.

But keep that sound on because in the middle, he takes the bridge on the trumpet, so relaxed, so poised, the trumpet's posture getting more elevated as he goes, topped off by a pitch-perfect bridge. When he resumes the vocal, the actress directly behind him simply stares with her mouth agape. She ain't acting. I'm sitting at home in 2015 and I'm doing the same thing. Louis takes it out with an extended scat cadenza, looking directly at Sinatra as he goes into his closes. I hope Frank enjoyed that master's class in how to sell a song....looks like he did!

So for Valentine's Day--or any day--this clip should put you in a righteous mood. I'll never forget my first time to Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans in 2008, when I was completely unknown, showing this performance and watching George Avakian holding his head in astonishment. He had never seen it before and after the entire hourlong presentation was over, all he wanted to talk about was that "Confessin'." You don't need to talk about Pops tonight, but confessin' that you love your significant other is never bad advice. Thanks, Pops!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Louis Armstrong on Desert Island Discs

Anyone remotely familiar with my work with Louis Armstrong knows that I'm always on a crusade.

"Hey, no one's paying attention to Louis Armstrong's later years! I know, I'll write a book on it!"

"Hey, Universal, Gosta Hagglof passed away and in his collection is a complete version of Louis's 1947 Symphony Hall concert....release it!"

"Hey, Sony is sitting on all this unreleased live Armstrong from the 1940s and 1950s...this would be perfect for Mosaic Records!"

I'm always looking out for ways to make Pops available to the public. Just last week, I was back in the studio for Universal, helping to oversee the production of a deluxe edition of Louis's Mercury album Mame, complete with a ton of alternate takes. But I couldn't just rest there, and spent most of the time in the studio talking about how they should release Louis at the Crescendo Club in complete form. They'll look into it....

This is what keeps me going. But when I'm not crusading, I happen to have the world's greatest day job as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the world's largest archives for a single jazz musician. Even there, I'm surrounded by Louis's tapes, trumpets, manuscripts, photographs, etc. and I daydream about ways to get those priceless materials more available to the public.

But sometimes I can be so close to the real gold, that I miss an opportunity even when it's right under my nose.

That's what happened this weekend when the BBC released Louis Armstrong's 1968 appearance on Desert Island Discs available to the public for the first time. The media has blown up over this and rightly so, as it's a delightful broadcast. I'm happy to have played a role in this drama and was interviewed by The Guardian and quoted by BBC itself on their story that appeared over the weekend. Social media is buzzing and Louis nuts around the world have been listening and sharing their thoughts with me since it hit. All great!

But in a way, it's funny for me because I have been so familiar with this broadcast for nearly 10 years. As those articles make clear, Louis finished the broadcast and probably requested the BBC send him a copy for his personal collection. They did, putting "Desert Island Discs" on side 2 and an earlier 1965 Humphrey Lyttelton-hosted documentary that originally aired as a BBC Television Show of the Week in 1965 on side 1 (hey BBC: any way you can release the video of that one while we're at it?). They shipped the tape to Louis's Corona, Queens home.


In 1969, Louis emerged from two stints in intensive care in rough shape and was told by his doctors to stay home and rest. Lucille Armstrong had remodeled his den with two new Tandberg tape decks and sometime in late 1969, Louis went back to work, re-catlaloging old tapes and making new ones. He numbered each one, starting with #1. Probably sometime in early 1970, Louis got to the BBC reel and made it Reel 46, affixing a photo of trombonist Tyree Glenn on an exercise bike to the front of the box:

Louis put it back on his shelf and that was that. He passed away in 1971. Lucille Armstrong never threw anything away (bless her) and she passed away in 1983. The tapes--and everything else in the House--eventually made it to nearby Queens College. Michael Cogswell was hired as Archivist in 1991 and immediately started copying Louis's tapes, making them available to the public when the Armstrong Archives eventually opened in 1994. In 2002, Cogswell--now Director--hired an audio engineer to make CD copies of Louis's tapes so now researchers could come in and request reference CDs of just about everything Louis recorded. So the "Desert Island Discs" episode has been available to the public for a minimum of 13 years but most probably, it's been hanging out since the Archives opened in 1994. 

As for me, I made my first trip to the Archives as a researcher in January 2006. I immediately dove into the tapes and didn't emerge for quite some time. On, I believe, my second trip, I requested this tape and loved it. Quotes from both the Lyttelton show and Desert Island Discs made it into my book. Terry Teachout was also visiting the Archives in 2006 and also listening to the Desert Island Discs tape, which made it into his book Pops in 2009. I don't think either of us knew at the time that this was such a rarity. More on Terry in a bit. 

But the main reason I didn't think it was this rare treasure was because of my late friend, Jos Willems. In 2007, I started this here blog and was befriended by Willems, author of the essential Armstrong discography All of Me. Jos used to send me package after package of rare Armstrong recordings and footage. Incredible. And one of those discs included the two July 1968 BBC appearances, Desert Island Discs and Be My Guest. In July 2009--before I had my Armstrong Archives gig--I celebrated the two-year anniversary of this blog by posting the entire audio of Be My Guest. If only I had chosen Desert Island Discs, I could have been in all the British papers six years earlier! 

In 2011, the BBC decided to start a priceless website dedicated to past episodes of Desert Island Discs. On April 4 of that year, Armstrong superfan--and regular reader of this blog--James P. Ralph wrote me personally to tell me that Louis was included and his chosen records were listen....but no audio. What a shame, but again, for all my crusading nature, I never thought, "Hmmm, I should alert the BBC about this immediately!" I just assumed that for whatever reason, rights or permissions or something, they just chose not to share the audio. My mistake.

But cut to November 2014 and the aforementioned Terry Teachout did just that, alerting the BBC that a copy of Armstrong's Desert Island Discs episode did indeed survive at the Armstrong Archives. A short time later, a BBC representative wrote me to see if it was true and I said it was....would they want a copy? Would they! Flash forward to this weekend and the whole world is digging Pops and reading these stories about the finding of the tape. Again, I'm thrilled to have played an important role and getting the audio back to the BBC but I just wanted to take this time to say it was a multi-person effort, starting with Louis Armstrong, who cataloged it; Lucille Armstrong, who saved it; Michael Cogswell, who transferred it and made it available to the public; Terry Teachout, who alerted the BBC that we had it; the BBC, who followed the lead and tracked me down; and yours truly, who was happy to send the audio back across the pond so it could it could be shared again worldwide.

So that's the full story of how the tape made it back to the BBC...but how about the audio? Well, in case you didn't click on it the first time, here it is again. Louis Armstrong on Desert Island Discs - LISTEN NOW! It's about 30 minutes. I'll be waiting...

Done?  Wasn't that great? I think it deserves a few words, but first, let's look at the choices. If Louis Armstrong was stranded on a mythical desert island, these are the eight records he would have brought with him:

"Blueberry Hill" by Louis Armstrong
"Mack the Knife" by Louis Armstrong
"What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong
"Bess, You Is My Woman Now" by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald
"Stars Fell on Alabama" by Jack Teagarden (with Louis Armstrong)
"New Orleans" by Bobby Hackett
"People" by Barbra Streisand
"Bye Bye Blues" by Guy Lombardo

For me, it's been fascinating to see the reactions to listeners on Facebook. Some, seeing how many of his own records that he chose, have assumed that Armstrong didn't truly understand the rules of Desert Island Discs. My friend Michael Steinman made the perceptive point that Louis chose so many of his own because he didn't want to hurt the feelings of any friends he might have omitted. This is a great point as that's the very reason Louis shied away from questions of who his favorite musicians were. 

But after nearly 20 years of studying Armstrong and out, that list is a perfect representation of exactly what Louis Armstrong would have brought with him to a desert island. Let's break it down.
Louis Armstrong loved his own music. To non-musicians, that might not sound like headline news. But go find a musician, any musician, and ask them if they enjoy listening to their own recordings, morning, noon and night. I bet most would run away screaming at the mere notion.

But not Louis. He tried collecting all of his records and when he got his first reel-to-reel tape deck in 1950, immediately started making tapes full of his own music. Some might argue that he did this for study purposes. Yes, he'd occasionally record his own live concerts and would study them assiduously to see what worked and what didn't do he could put on the best live shows imaginable. And as he says on Desert Island Discs after saying he'd also like to bring his own book, "Like I hear my records, all from the first record, you can learn something, I feel. Now I feel just as fresh if I want to play the old tune or the new ones, I've got them right there. Don't have to worry about the arrangement loss. I've got them right there."

But it's more than that. He legitimately was entertained by his own records. I mean, can you blame him?

Armstrong frequently said, "I'm my own audience" and it wasn't just a stock line, Armstrong was 100% real every time he hit the stage. He loved what he did. When I was writing my recent blog on the Crescendo Club date, I listened to him and Trummy Young do "Rockin' Chair," a routine Armstrong had been doing for 25 years at that point. But more than once, he laughed so heartily at some of Trummy's lines that it hit me just how much he really loved those routines. You can't fake that.

Again. to those who think Louis didn't understand the concept or are worried that he was really an egomaniac, he answers all of that when host Roy Plomley asks him if he was surprised about his recent pop hits. "I ain't surprised. Why? If I please myself, I know somebody in the audience is going to have the same mind and thoughts I have about music."


So yes, there's some ego involved...how could there not be? He had been told for 40 years that he changed the sound of music. He was mobbed every time he walked out into the public. He stopped a war. You know that must seep in. "Sometime you've got to pat yourself on the shoulders," he says at the end of Desert Island Discs. Didn't he deserve to do that? In 1959, he told another British journalist, "Whatever it is, can't nobody do what I do," and freely admitted, "Now I'm egotistical to say that..." The most important thing is he didn't let it affect his humanity. He could listen to one of his records and say, "Can't nobody touch that," as he told Richard Meryman in 1965. But then he'd stop and talk to some kids, and handout money to some broken-down friends, write long letters to fans he didn't know and settle into his working class home in Corona, Queens. He remained humble to the end...even if he knew that his music was second to none.

And what of his choices? I'm sure there are purists grumbling, "Hurumph, he didn't even choose 'West End Blues'," This true but don't devalue the power of a hit recording. Louis was still playing "Blueberry Hill," "Mack the Knife" and "What a Wonderful World" nightly in 1968 and he could see how much his audiences loved them. That meant more to him than some scratchy 78s.

And besides, he identified with those tunes. While venting about "commercial" music to Meryman, Armstrong said, "But all songs display my life somewhere, and you got to be thinking and feeling about something as you watch them notes and phrase that music--got to see the life of the song. 'BlueberryHill that could be some chick I ain't seen for twenty years, who cares. 'Mack the Knife,' I seen many a cat in New Orleans lying around with a knife to slip in your back and take your money. And I think of that, even if the songs is so commercified."

Of "What a Wonderful World," Louis told the BBC that same week on "Be My Guest" that it brought him "back to my neighborhood in Corona, New York. Lucille and I, ever since we're married, we've been right there in that block. And everybody keeps their little homes up like we do and it's just like one big family. I saw three generations come up on that block. And they're all with their children, grandchildren, they come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille. That's why I can say, 'I hear babies cry / I watch them grow / they'll learn much more / than I'll ever know.' And I can look at all them kid's faces. And I got pictures of them when they was five, six and seven years old. So when they hand me this 'Wonderful World,' I didn't look no further, that was it. And the music with it. So you can see, from the expression, them people dug it. It is a wonderful world."

So a song that made him think of past loves, a song that reminded him of his upbringing in New Orleans and a song that transported him back to his humble, children-filled neighborhood in Queens. Keep your cadenzas, I think those are pretty great things to be reminded of when alone on a desert island.

Armstrong's other choice involving himself is "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," from Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald. Louis was proud of that work and if you question his choosing it, well, I'll just assume you've never actually heard this track. If that's the case, take five minutes and have your life changed.

So those are the four Armstrong recordings, though technically there's a fifth in there as "Stars Fell on Alabama" is technically from Satchmo at Symphony Hall. But Louis chose it because he'd like to hear Jack Teagarden on his desert island. Who wouldn't? Teagarden was more than just a trombonist to Armstrong; Armstrong admitted, "he's like my brother," and when pressed to name his all-time favorite musician in 1958, Armstrong responded, "Easy. It's Jack Teagarden." Obvious choice. And if you read my latest blog on Louis's special relationship with Bobby Hackett, you shouldn't be surprised by his choosing Hackett's gorgeous 1955 version of "New Orleans" (with Teagarden again).

Moving on, there are still folks out there who are surprised Louis loved Guy Lombardo so much. It shouldn't be a surprise anymore. Louis made records from 1929-1932 that smacked of Lombardo's influence and he spent much of his life talking about how Lombardo's musicians were his "inspirators." He told Murray Kempton, "They ask me my favorite band and I tell them Guy Lombardo. They say you don't really mean that. And I say you asked me, didn't you?" Plomley inserted "Bye Bye Blues" as Louis's next pick but really, as Louis made clear, it could have been any Lombardo record.

And that leaves one more record, Barbra Streisand's "People," though clearly, if Louis had his way, he would have played his duet with Babs on "Hello, Dolly!" which he had just filmed but wouldn't be released for another year-and-a-half. (Don't worry, he dubbed it to at least ten separate reel-to-reel tapes in the last two years of his life.) Again, this was not a fluke. During the same 1968 UK tour, Louis wasn't traveling with his tape player, but rather a portable turntable and about 20 LPs. Showing them to Max Jones, he said, "But I've got Barbra Streisand--she can sing awhile, can't she?" He then put on an acetate of the duet on "Hello, Dolly" and said, "Sings her ass off," adding, "Say what you like, daddy, but she's outswinging every ass this year." He then told a story of filling out his Playboy musicians poll, saying, "Yeah, on the three places on the poll form for singers, first, second and third, I wrote on mine 'Barbra Steisand' and 'Ditto' and 'Ditto.'" Sounds like desert island material to me!

So those are my explanations as to why Pops's "desert island" choices were so appropriate. Having said that, you can only do so much with eight sides; given a few more, I'm sure Louis would have selected a Bing Crosby number. I'd like to think he'd choose a King Oliver but he was always critical of the 1923 Creole Jazz Band recordings, complaining that you could never hear the lead because Oliver's chops were so weak. And let's not forget about opera; next to his own recordings, Armstrong probably owned more opera records than anything else and I'm sure he would have liked to add a Caruso record or two.

As a postscript of sorts, Louis was asked to do something similar, though on a smaller scale, in July 1956, when he took over the Voice of America, playing disc jockey for five hours. It's one of my favorite broadcasts in the history of recorded sound, one that George Avakian found in his basement, copied for David Ostwald, Ostwald copied for me and I've been quoting and sharing bits and pieces ever since. For the full five hours, all you hear is Armstrong's voice, but clearly there's someone there guiding him. It's also well prepared as Armstrong has all the personnel and discographical info at his fingertips.

Nevertheless, Armstrong devoted one full hour to his favorite music by other musicians and this is what he chose:

"When the Saints Go Marchin' In" by Bunk Johnson
"West End Blues" by King Oliver (the 1929 remake)
"From Monday On" by Paul Whiteman (featuring Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby)
"You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" by Bing Crosby (with Bob Crosby)
"Summertime" by Sidney Bechet
"St. James Infirmary" by Jack Teagarden (HRS version)
"New St. Louis Toodle-oo" by Duke Ellington
"You Won't Be Satisfied" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
"'Bout to Wail" by Dizzy Gillespie

Interesting choices, right? The VOA obviously wanted Louis to stick in a jazz direction because after he discusses Diz's record, there's an abrupt shift to him talking about Guy Lombardo. He must have chosen a Lombardo record but it got cut out of the final show (it was taped, not aired live) but the producers decided to leave Louis's Lomardo story in.

The other four hours are devoted to Louis's own music so that love of his own sounds holds over to the 1968 Desert Island Discs. He also chooses a duet with Ella and a feature for Jack Teagarden so ditto on those. I mentioned that he must have chosen a Lombardo disc so Guy remained a favorite. And in the final hour, Louis played his own "Rockin' Chair" from Town Hall and made a point to point out Bobby Hackett's work, calling him one of his favorite trumpet players. So except for neat things like Oliver and Bix and Bing and Duke and Bechet (and Dizzy!), Louis's tastes in 1956 really carried over into 1968.

That ends my little delving into the story of Louis Armstrong's recently unearthed Desert Island Discs appearance. What a pleasure to take a role in the unearthing! There's  lot more I could write about what Louis listened to but I'll save that for another day. Thanks for reading!