Friday, September 26, 2014

Perfection

Over at The New Yorker this week, Richard Brody shared his list of Perfect Jazz Recordings. It's a a good list, but like all lists, no one's going to agree with all of it. There's plenty to agree with but of course, plenty that also, for the sake of a tamer phase, inspires discussion.

For one thing, Brody's 66 choices are all pre-1973...but only a small amount are from the pre-bop era. He admits this up front: "Idiom: bebop and after. I've noticed a preponderance of performances from the mid-forties onward." Well, duh. The majority of jazz fans still believe that the music didn't start getting good until Charlie Parker came on the scene (most young jazz musicians feel the same way). I've vented about this for years so it's not worth going to town on it again. I did unload on this on my Facebook page recently and it's worth repeating that when Lester Young died in 1959, Ralph J. Gleason wrote, "[Young] was one of the three great instrumental soloists in jazz who changed the course of this music--the other two, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker." Sounds right to me. Yet, of those three, Bird is the only one who is still worshipped and treated as The Creator. Parker was a genius and I love him but he spent his formative years studying Armstrong ("West End Blues" cadenza) and Young ("Shoe Shine Boy") solos until he could incorporate them into his playing. But today, countless musicians learn their Omnibook solos in every key and can't talk about Pops or Pres to save their lives. Brody's list just follows the trend.

He does have a possible explanation: "I think it's because of the liberated role of the drum in bebop and post-bop eras." Right. Sid Catlett, Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton, Baby Dodds, Paul Barbarin, Zutty Singleton, Chick Webb, Alvin Burroughs and other greats were simply human metronomes, just waiting for Max Roach to teach them to drop a bomb and liberate themselves. 

But again, with these picked nits aside, I can't argue with Brody's choices as there's lots of great music on that list. But what of Louis Armstrong, you say? Yeah, he's there. One selection. "Potato Head Blues." Of course, a common choice. But that's it. John Kirby's on there twice (go Billy Kyle!) but Pops is one and done.

However, it's not like everyone else got lots and lots of selections; Brody does try to be balanced so other, later greats like Parker, Coltrane and Davis only have two apiece (tied with John Kirby!). But it did get me thinking. If someone asked me to create a list of "perfect" jazz recordings, first, there'd be a lot of names missing here--Bobby Hackett, Roy Eldridge, Fats Waller, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Jack Teagarden, Erroll Garner, etc. But what about Louis? I could list 66 perfect Louis Armstrong recordings and not even touch the surface.

Oh, wait a minute....blog idea!

So here goes. No one asked me and this is admittedly ridiculous, but here are the first 66 "perfect" Louis Armstrong recordings that come to mind. No particular order, I'm just going to think and type. I'm not even going to look at the discography or my iTunes to give me food for thought. Obviously, the ones I think of first will be towards the top of my personal list, but I'm sure I'll forget something. And when I'm done, feel free to comment with some of your personal Pops favorites that didn't make my list. Let's go:

1. Stardust
2. St. Louis Blues (from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy)
3. When You're Smiling (from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography)
4. Blue Turning Grey Over You (from Satch Plays Fats)
5. On the Sunny Side of the Street (from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography)
6. King of the Zulus (from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography)
7. Beau Koo Jack
8. Tight Like This
9. Struttin' with Some Barbecue (1938 Decca version)
10. Muskrat Ramble (from Satchmo at Symphony Hall)
11. Black and Blue (live in Berlin, 1965)
12. Lazy River (1931 original)
13. I Never Knew
14. When It's Sleepy Time Down South (Decca instrumental)
15. Hotter Than That
16. I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues
17. Mahogany Hall Stomp (1929 original)
18. Butter and Egg Man (1926 original)
19. Sweethearts on Parade (1930 original)
20. Dinah (1933 Copenhagen film)
21. The Nearness of You (with Ella)
22. Dream a Little Dream of Me (with Ella)
23. Stompin' at the Savoy (with Ella)
24. Rockin' Chair (1947 Town Hall)
25. Because of You
26. Pennies from Heaven (1947 Town Hall)
27. Ain't Misbehavin' (1929 original)
28. I Can't Give You Anything But Love (1929 original)
29. West End Blues (1928 original)
30. Hello, Dolly! (yeah, I went there!)
31. That's For Me
32. On a Coconut Island
33. Avalon (with Dukes of Dixieland)
34. Azalea
35. Summer Song
36. Sweet Lorraine
37. Keepin' Out of Mischief Now (from Satch Plays Fats)
38. The Faithful Hussar (from Ambassador Satch)
39. I Get Ideas
40. La Vie En Rose
41. Song of the Vipers
42. Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen (from I've Got the World on a String)
43. Weather Bird
44. Short But Sweet
45. A Kiss to Build a Dream On
46. Ev'ntide
47. Swing That Music (1936 original)
48. I'm a Ding Dong Daddy
49. Cake Walking Babies from Home (with Clarence Williams' Blue Five)
50. There's No You
51. Chantes-Lez Bas (Sing 'Em Low)
52. Jack Armstrong Blues
53. Someday You'll Be Sorry (1953 version with The Commanders)
54. When You Wish Upon a Star
55. Chinatown, My Chinatown
56. Bess, Oh Where's My Bess
57. Wolverine Blues (1940 Decca)
58. That's My Home (1932 original)
59. Laughin' Louie
60. Moon River
61. I Get a Kick Out of You
62. Muggles
63. I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good
64. You Rascal You (with Louis Jordan)
65. I Ain't Got Nobody (from Satchmo Plays King Oliver)
66. Potato Head Blues

Whew, there it is! Oh damn, what about "St. James Infirmary"? "I've Got the World on a String"? "Cornet Chop Suey"? "What a Wonderful World"? Impossible to even keep it to 100 but I'll quit here....and think I'll have a little Louis listening session of the above!

So what did I miss? Tell me in the comments section below!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

85 Years of Some of These Days

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded September 10, 1929
Track Time
Written by Shelton Brooks
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Homer Hobson, trumpet; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Bert Curry, Crawford Wethington, alto saxophone; Gene Anderson, piano; Mancy Carr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Zutty SIngleton, drums; Carroll Dickerson, conductor
Originally released on OKeh 41298

"Some of These Days" is a song that has never really gone away. Sophie Tucker made her own in 1911--103 years ago!--while Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks backed up Kathy Brier on a version of the song in 2010 that currently has over 110,000 YouTube hits and was included on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to HBO's Boardwalk Empire. And in those ensuing years, it seems that just about anyone with a voice has tackled this song at some point or another.

But today, like all days around here, we're here to examine what Louis Armstrong did with it, first 85 years ago today and then later in his life when he revisited it for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography.

First, though, there's the song, which was written by Shelton Brooks, the man also responsible for hit tune of that period such as "Darktown Strutters' Ball" and "I Wonder Where My Easy Rider's Gone." Brooks's song is a doozy but I might not be writing this today if it was for "The Last of the Red Hot Mamas" herself, Sophie Tucker.

Born in 1887, Tucker originally hit the stage in 1907, spending her first two years doing a blackface act. Eventually, she lost the burnt cork and joined the Ziegfeld Follies of 1909, but was let go when the revue's other female members refused to share the stage with her. She was picked up by William Morris himself, who guided her career and saw to it that she record "Some of These Days" in 1911. Here's the original:

What a voice. Remember, this is years before blues and jazz were being recorded but she definitely has the feeling; listen to the way she belts the word "far" in "far away." The backing is kind of sad but all you need is Sophie.

The song launched Tucker into stardom but it seems that it took a while for the song itself to catch on. The next version I can find is by Bennie Kruger's Orchestra from October 1922. I hadn't heard it before writing this blog and expected something of a quaint dance band performance....but this is some jazz stuff! Great tempo, strong trumpet, a loose rhythmic feel and the interesting front line of trumpet, trombone and violin. There's even some stop-time saxophone breaks. Check it out:

Remember, that's before Oliver, Armstrong and Bechet had a chance to record. I'm not saying it's a revolutionary piece of music, but it shows that a lot of dance bands were incorporating elements of jazz into their performances.

Of course, most of these bands experienced jazz for the first time through the Original Dixieland Jazz Band explosion of the late-teens. On January 3, 1923--years after conquering New York and London--the ODJB recorded their own version of "Some of These Days" for OKeh. Perhaps the influence went both ways as by this point, the band added a saxophone to kind of hammer home the melody for much of the record, like some of the dance bands of the day. But for those who like their ODJB when they're imitating animals, Eddie Edwards takes a few such breaks, apparently with his "kazoo mute" in place. Also notice the common practice at the time of breaking up the arrangement by playing the verse about a minute and 50 seconds in. Here's the ODJB:


The following year, the popular Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawks Orchestra gave it a peppy treatment for Victor on November 13. I like this arrangement: there's breaks, a modulation and lots of fun stuff going on.


All these versions are fine but it wasn't until November 1926 that "Some of These Days" really exploded. And who put it back on top? Sophie Tucker herself, with these heavily jazzed-up version featuring Ted Lewis and his Band. Notice how the backing has changed but Sophie still sounds like Sophie. If anything, she's even looser than in 1911. Give it a listen:

With that record, Tucker had a bona fide million-seller, one that was the top selling record in the country for at least five weeks. By 1927, other artists such as Ethel Waters and Fletcher Henderson were putting their own fresh spins on the old stand-by. But it remained Tucker's tune, to the point that she reprised it in the 1929 film Honky Tonk.

Honky Tonk was released in theaters on August 31, 1929. Thus, it's really no surprise to see Louis recording his own version less than two weeks later, on September 10. He had his loyal orchestra with him, the group he brought from Chicago earlier that year, fronted by Carroll Dickerson and featuring old friends and associates such as Zutty Singleton, Fred Robinson, Jimmy Strong, Mancy Carr and Pete Briggs (all Hot Five and/or Hot Seven alumni). It was with this group that Louis conquered New York with his nightly performance of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in the revue Connie's Hot Chocolates. Feeling confident and ready to blow, he tore into "Some of These Days"like a man possessed:



Wee! Where to begin? Well, how about that introduction? Yikes. The reeds kind of stick together, mostly in tune, ascending into a clarinet trill...the "West End Blues" cadenza this ain't. The group settles into some light tempo with Zutty on brushes, setting the stage for Louis's magnificent vocal. After spending much of the 1920s singing the blues and scatting on records, Armstrong was getting more and more English words to sung in 1929, having already waxed "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "Ain't Misbehavin'" and "Black and Blue" that year, three performances that changed the direction of American popular singing.

Armstrong immediately makes the song his own, completely changing the phrasing of the titular phrase, going up on "Days" instead of down, and repeating "Babe, babe, babe" for good effect. Then, instead of singing, "You'll be lonely," he changes it to, "Lonely babe." He then repeats the title phrase on one high pitch, repeats "day" in descending fashion and rather than singing actual words, does a bit of neat scatting. Sorry Shelton Brooks!

He continues in this fashion, singing the melody higher than it's written; it's almost as if he's singing a harmony part. And please dig what he does with the word, "You," sliding down it like a trumpet gliss. More good stuff: his new melody on "When you're gone away." Sorry, Shelton, it's an improvement.

Armstrong treats the middle portion with respect (though again, he has fun with the word "you") before the blues enter in the last eight bars, Armstrong really emoting on the word "grieving." It all builds up to possibly my favorite part, Armstrong singing, "You'll miss your little brown skin papa, MAMA, Some of These Days!" That "papa-mama" thing fractures me.

With the vocal gymnastics out of the way, a saxophone break allows Armstrong to get some chops in his horn. His entrance spins like a top before he plays the verse, opening with a string of quarter notes. As  Zutty whips them cymbals, Armstrong heads upstairs, incorporating a snatch of "The Hoochie Coochie Dance" to humorous effect (Zutty catching him on the toms).

He then rests while the saxophone section tepidly plays a written part. Trombonist Robinson swings the middle eight with more of that good Zutty backing but the reeds swarm back in to close the chorus. It's easy to be underwhelmed but the Guy Lombardo fan in Louis loved saxophone sections so I'd rather picture him beaming.

But then. Then. The entrance to end all entrances: a single low trumpet note, placed perfectly. Armstrong spent much of the 1920s dazzling listeners with what he could pack into a short break but by the end of the decade, he was beginning to realize that less was more. He holds it, gingerly repeats it twice, them goes an octave lower to sound it two more times. Notated, it must like beginner's music but it's so damn effective.

Armstrong stays in the basement, mysteriously playing with these low notes when, after a pause, he jumps up with a striking minor phrase reminiscent of some of his work on the previous year's "Tight Like This." But instead of peaking too fast, he step on the brakes and floats through the next eight bars in the middle register, really taking his time. A break features a quick flurry but he's still laying back. Oh, the tension!

He kicks off the second half of his first chorus with a phrase that defines swing. Seriously, listen to it and sing it back; you just learned to swing! Congratulations. Then slowly he begins to rise with a series of twisty phrases that seem to grow organically from each note that precedes it.

He then goes for a high concert Ab but hits a G first, then the Ab. A mistake? It might be but quick-thinking Louis immediately mirrors it by playing an echoing two-note Eb to E phrase a little lower so the whole thing seems logical. And it is!

Stick, even with these high notes, the master of suspense pulls back, finishing his chorus with some supremely melodic playing. You can sing every note of it. The reeds swoop in to say "You ain't heard nothin' yet" and that's when Pops really explodes. He goes sky high to play the melody an octave higher than expected. He'd do it again with more famous results the very next day when he tackled "When You're Smiling" but "Some of These Days" shows he already had the idea in mind.

He still phrases it in his own way, filling in the spaces with some pretty notes and boiling the melody to its essence. At the way point, you wonder if he's really going to go higher. Of course, he does, hitting a high C smack on the nose. On and on he marches toward the end, generating enough heat to be considered a possible cause of global warming. Heading to the last eight bars, he hits the climax, hitting a high D and holding it for four bars. He repeats it a few times then ends with one of his patented endings from the Hot Five days. Perfection.

To do that once in a lifetime would be enough for most mortals but Pops had to do it again immediately. OKeh was experimenting in this period, releasing vocal versions of some Armstrong tunes on its popular series and having him record instrumental versions of the same songs for its race series. I still don't quite understand the rationale behind that thinking--by the next year, all Armstrong records would be on the pop label--but at least it gives us a bunch of alternate performances during Armstrong's 1929-30 series of recordings. So here's the non-vocal "Some of These Days" recorded later that same day:

After the reeds once again open the proceedings, Armstrong's vocal is replaced by a full chorus of Robinson's trombone. It's okay, but an extra helping of Pops would have been nice. He does swoop in for the verse again, playing an even longer series of quarter notes before some slightly different playing leads to the big "Hoochie Coochie" finish. The next chorus is as it was one the first take with the reeds splitting the bill with Robinson.

But then it's time for Pops's two-chorus main event...and what an event. It's no surprise that Armstrong used to set his solos so there's some similar stuff here to the vocal take but also a lot that's different. For instance, his entrance is still on one note but he's in more of a playful mood and doesn't quite dip as low as before. There's also some different stuff before the almost identical break. The swinging phrase that follows it is also spot on.

But now notice: when he goes up for the Ab, there's no G, though he still doesn't exactly hit it square. To me this means the first take probably contained an accident, but Armstrong brilliantly worked into his improvisation. Here, without that to worry about, he just goes off in some new fleet-fingered directions.

The last chorus, though, mirrors the first take closely. The octave up stuff is in place, there's the high C midway through, the long, piercing high D and the Hot Five phrase at the end. Some of the upper register phrasing is different, but overall, the second chorus is a good example of Pops not messing up a perfect, demanding approach to his solo.

Alas, that's all we have of Pops playing this tune until the Autobiography sessions of 1956. Coincidentally, this time the roles were reversed with Louis blowing that immortal, slow version of "When You're Smiling" first, then immediately following it with "Some of These Days." When I first heard this music about 15 years ago, this immediately became a track I listened to repeatedly. Still applies. Here's the remake:

Arranger Sy Oliver wisely trimmed all the dated elements of the original arrangement so now we have the modern sounds of Billy Kyle's piano playing the introduction. Almost 30 years have passed, but Armstrong still sings the melody in the same rephrased, higher fashion. He still repeats "Days, days, days" the first time but overall, it's a more coherent vocal, as Pops learned to respect the lyrics more as he got older. This means he doesn't elongate the word "you" or blow his top on the word "grieving" (no papa-mama stuff either) but he still swings his ass off.

Armstrong approaches the verse almost identically as he did in 1929: first the spiraling break, next the quarter notes and then swinging mightily into "Hoochie Coochie Man" at the end. Trummy Young and Edmond Hall split a chorus, each man sounding in top form.

But what about old man Pops? The man routinely blasted by the jazz press. The man ignored by so many young musicians. Could he still pull it those two choruses off???

What do you think?

The single note break once again ushers him in before he finds a new way to float down low. He shouts a bit but soon returns to relaxing...before that break! He NAILS it like its 1929 again. The second half of the first chorus begins a lot like it did in 1929 but notice he edits out a note or two for maximum effect. He works his way up to that high Ab, making it part of a three note phrase before improvising a bit, adding a three quarter-note phrase a la King Oliver. But does he cede to the reeds before that final chorus?

Nope! He hits a high, hard one, squeezes it and then goes into the octave higher bit, sounding like a kid again. It's all there: the high C in the middle, the held high D, even the tight Hot Five ending. Is it any wonder Louis repeatedly said he was playing better than anytime in his life in 1956?

The only slight drawback is the All Stars rhythm section. As I've complained about in the past, someone in the room thought the Autobiography should have a restrained rhythmic feel so drummer Barrett Deems sticks to closed hi-hat while bassist Squire Gersh thumps away on 1 and 3. This is NOT how those two played nightly with the All Stars but it's a small price to pay to hear Pops blow like that on so many songs he hadn't touched in years, sometimes decades.

"Some of These Days" never did make it into the band's book but he did have one last rendezvous with it in Rome, Italy in April 1962. For this TV broadcast (I assume the visuals are lost), Pops brought along All Stars Trummy Young, Joe Darensbourg, Billy Kyle, Billy Kronk and Danny Barcelona for a version that found Pops sharing vocal duties with the Peters Sisters, Nini Rosso and Nunzio Rotondo. The vocal stuff is fun in a weird way but the highlight is hearing Louis play the melody at the song's usual medium tempo. He sounds great, as usual.

And with that, my look at Pops's history with "Some of These Days" comes to end. They're all great so feel free to listen to them again....and again....and again....and again....

Saturday, September 6, 2014

65 Years of That Lucky Old Sun and Blueberry Hill

Louis Armstrong hated the word "commercial." When a disc jockey made the mistake of introducing one of Armstrong's early 1950s recordings as "a commercial approach," Armstrong stopped him dead, saying, "You take a guy that wants to be hip to the tip and he say, 'That guy's commercial,' you know, you're about calling that guy a dirty name, in a way f saying. Why don't you say just 'a good musician' or 'a good swing man' or 'someone that plays music, period'? A musician ain't supposed to just play one type f music. When they ask me, say, 'Why do you play "Cold, Cold, Heart," why do you play this?' I play anything where I come from."

But by the time of that 1952 exchange, cries over Armstrong having "gone commercial" had been ringing in his ears for decades. To some, the moment occurred when he stopped recording blues and New Orleans jazz with the Hot Five and started recording pop tunes with a big band. To others, it was the late 1930s Decca years, finding him recording with choirs, Hawaiian bands and other eclectic combinations, all while supporting star turns on the silver screen in films with the likes of Bing Crosby and Mae West.

Yet there's one date that all of the "commercial" naysayers could (and can still) point to as a red letter day in the supposed commerification (did dat come outta me?) of Louis Armstrong: September 6,  1949, the day he recorded "That Lucky Old Sun" and "Blueberry Hill" for Decca.....backed by Gordon Jenkins's Orchestra.....and a choir.....and without playing a single note of trumpet.

The fact that the resulting record was one of Armstrong's biggest sellers (and just a tremendous example of his singing abilities) doesn't mean a thing in some circles. They see Louis Armstrong, the trailblazer who blew the glorious cadenza on "West End Blues" in 1928, and Louis Armstrong, the gentle singer simply crooner a couple of pop tunes in 1949, as two completely different human beings. On top of that, they value the first one more than the second.

I've argued against this line of thinking for years. Hell, I wrote a book on it. There was only Louis Armstrong. The same guy who recorded "West End Blues" in 1928 also recorded lots of novelties and spent his time on stage playing pop songs, singing through a megaphone, dancing the mess around, impersonating a preacher and doing routines in drag. And the guy who crooned "Blueberry Hill" in 1949 was also playing blistering trumpet 300 nights a year with the All Stars, as evidenced in the recent Mosaic set. One guy with one total goal in mind: entertaining his audiences.

In Danny Barker's autobiography, My Life in Jazz, he writes about working at the New Orleans Jazz Museum in the 1960s and the various types of visitors who came in, armed with their opinions. "Then, before Louis Armstrong's death, there were the many who came in, looked at the Armstrong horn and Louis's historical dates before shouting, 'Armstrong is finished-playing all that commercial crap. He didn't have to do that. He clowns too damn much." Barker's next line is perfect: "I stayed clear of them because it was obvious they never did dig Louis." Yes! If you didn't get that he was ALWAYS clowning and ALWAYS singing pop tunes, you really never did dig Louis.

So with the thesis out of the way, let's look at how Pops ended up at that Decca studio with these two songs 65 years ago today. Armstrong had a very successful run at Decca Records from 1935-1946, but by the final few years of the contract, he barely recorded anything at all. The recording ban shut him down for most of 1942 and all of 1943 and producer Milt Gabler rejected the numbers he recorded for the label in 1944. "I Wonder" became a big hit in 1945 but that was the only thing Armstrong recorded that year. He started off 1946 with his first duet with labelmate Ella Fitzgerald, but his manager, Joe Glaser, was looking for a change.

Later that year, RCA Victor swooped in and signed an exclusive contract with Louis, recording his big band multiple times in 1946 and early 1947 and eventually recording the first two small-group sessions by Armstrong's brand-new All Stars, as well as releasing an album of selected tracks from the famous Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947. There's some really fine items during this RCA period--but not a single one scratched the charts. What's more, a recording ban at the end of 1947 would keep Louis out of the studios in 1949.

It didn't really matter because the All Stars were packing them in nightly and starting to conquer Europe. But every artist likes a hit record and more than that, every artist's manager, REALLY likes a hit record.  So in 1949, Glaser negotiated a five-year contract to return to Decca with Milt Gabler overseeing Armstrong's recordings on a full-time basis. This was a very smart decision. Coming from his days running Commodore Records, Gabler loved no-frills jazz and made sure the All Stars got featured on albums like Satchmo at Symphony Hall, New Orleans Days, Satchmo at Pasadena and Jazz Concert.

But Gabler also had a gift for identifying sounds that would appeal to the general public. With Armstrong back in the fold, Gabler made it his business to scour the pop music charts, look for songs that had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his teeth into, then stand back while Armstrong made each song his own, backed by studio orchestras. Armstrong was happy, Gabler was happy and most of all, Glaser was happy. "Glaser never asked to see the material," Gabler recalled. "He used to say, 'Give him a Top Ten hit!' That's what he wanted."

The great experiment began on September 1, 1949. Gabler had Sy Oliver put together a band (with Buck Clayton, Budd Johnson, Horace Henderson, Wallace Bishop, etc.) and arrangements for two current pop hits, Patti Page's I'll Keep the Lovelight Burning in My Heart and Dick Haymes's "Maybe It's Because." The results were very good (I especially love "Lovelight"...click the link for an old blog entry on it) but again, the results were far from being a hit.

So on September 6, 1949, Gabler brought in the big guns: arranger Gordon Jenkins, a choir and the biggest hit in the country, "That Lucky Old Sun." Jenkins was really hitting his stride in those days, composing songs like "Goodbye" and the popular Manhattan Tower suite, as well as being in demand as an arranger. "Everyone wanted to work with Gordy, and as you look back, he was making history back then," Gabler said. "He's the one who brought background vocals into combination with musicians. The Armstrong sessions really typified that."

For this date, Jenkins did not have his signature strings on hand, but he did have a choir, which he wanted to weave into the arrangements. And as already mentioned, Louis got to leave his trumpet at home as Jenkins and Gabler just wanted to concentrate on his singing. (Two top trumpet men were on hand in the band in Billy Butterfield and Yank Lawson; a coin flip decided that Butterfield would handle the Armstrong-esque obbligatos.)

The "A-side" of the record would be "That Lucky Old Sun." Frankie Laine, then at the height of his popularity, had the big hit with this sentimental old to the working man, hitting Billboard's charts on August 19 and staying there for 22 weeks, hitting number one during the run. Here's his original recording:

Laine delivers a characteristically emotional vocal with his unique deliver ("Good lord above, can'cha know I'm pinin'...."), building up to the big climax at the end of the bridge into the belted ending. It's pretty hard to resist. But also notice the prominence of the choir, integrated into the arrangement, doing more than just "oohing" and "ahhing" in the background. That's probably the sound that told Gabler and Jenkins to stick with voices behind Pops instead of strings.

At the Armstrong session, Jenkins was overwhelmed with emotion to be working wit his hero. "I cracked up," he said. "I walked into the studio, looked over there, saw Louis and broke down. Cried so hard I couldn't even see him." With the tears out of the way, Jenkins lifted his baton and conducted Armstrong through an emotional version of the song. Here is Louis Armstrong's "That Lucky Old Sun."

Chills. I get the chills every time I hear. Jenkins's intro with the somber choir and repeated low clarinet sets the mood. Then it begins. Your first thought might be, "Whoa, is that Louis singing?" People love to impersonate his deep gravely voice but he was most comfortable singing at a tenor range. Still, Jenkins starts him off as low as he can go, a low C. At the end of the bridge, he hits a D over an octave higher. Impersonate his "funny" voice as much as you want. The man could sing and had an impressive range.

Then there's the lyrics. "Up in the morning...out on the job...work like the devil for my pay." Now if that's not autobiography, I don't know what is. (Hmm, with the later "toil for my kids," it works for me, too!) Louis sings with so much passion because, as he often said, he liked to "see the life of a song." He lived the life of this one so he didn't have to look far.

Notice how Jenkins uses the voices like he would his signature strings, swooping in around Pops after each eight bar section. They swell underneath him during the passionate bridge--notice the absolute lack of gravel in his voice, too. Armstrong ends the bridge with that high D, before swooping way down low for the last eight bars. The choir takes the bridge with Butterfield sounding a few Armstrong-esque notes.

Louis re-enters with a soulful "Mmmm." All soul. The vibrato on it and the following "river" are reminiscent of his own trumpet playing. Extra points go to Bernie Leighton's tasteful piano fills and the steady, unobtrusive drumming of Johnny Blowers.

Finally, we get to the lovely extended ending, the choir repeating "Heaven, heaven, heaven" while Louis--audibly smiling--answers them. He then goes way down low for that final "day," once again the C, hitting aand it holding it while the choir and voices swell around him. Like I said, I get the chills every time.

The hardened jazz fans might have blanched, but the record-buying public went for it in a big way. The November 12, 1949 issue of Billboard gave it a high rating of 88 and wrote, "A standout Armstrong vocal and the usual smart Gordon Jenkins production backing makes this an excellent entry in the 'Sun' stakes." The record eventually hit #24 on the pop charts but scanning back issues of Billboard on Google shows how it remained on the list of most popular disc jockey and jukebox discs for years, Jet estimating it had sold over 300,000 copies by 1951.

Then again, perhaps "That Lucky Old Sun" wasn't the only reason the record took off; it had a lot of help from the flip side: "Blueberry Hill." In fact, for all of its popularity, "That Lucky Old Sun" never entered the All Stars' repertoire. There's one surviving live version from the Apollo Theater in late 1949 and once again, it features Louis backed by a choir (on one of his tapes, he mentions that Velma Middleton's mother was in it). Perhaps he felt like it needed the choir for full effect. Here's the live version, with a different vocal arrangement and some prominent trombone, quite possibly by Jack Teagarden:


That's all for "That Lucky Old Sun" and Louis Armstrong. But "Blueberry Hill"....that's a different story. Once Louis began singing this one live, he never stopped, telling the BBC as late as 1968 that it was still his most requested number and people responded to it like they did the "National Anthem."

But the question remains: why the hell was Louis Armstrong recording "Blueberry Hill," a song written in 1940, in 1949?? It wasn't on the Hit Parade. No one had seemingly recorded it for years. The excellent Gordon Jenkins biography Goodbye states Louis suggested it, which is possible, but I've never seen that anywhere else. I assume Milt Gabler was familiar with the original recordings by Gene Autry and Glenn Miller and thought it would be appropriate for Pops. He was right.

If you only know Louis's version or Fats Domino's later hit, check out Gene Autry's 1941 take....it's right in the wheelhouse of "The Singing Cowboy,"a charming country ballad without any of the later jazz or R&B connotations:


"Blueberry Hill" was recorded multiple times in 1940 and 1941 but the biggest hit was by Glenn Miller. Here it is, a sweet big band arrangement at a suitable ballad-with-a-bounce tempo:
 
But after those early versions, I can't find any other covers of it between 1941 and Pops's version in 1949. Such a strange choice but talk about paying off on a gamble!

Armstrong sure appreciated the choice. Later in life, when people would get on him for "going commercial," Armstrong argued back, "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. 'Blueberry Hill,' that could be some chick I ain't seen for twenty years--which chick, who cares?...And I think of that, even if the songs is so commercified."

Jenkins doubled down on tying "Blueberry Hill" into the trumpeter's life. concocting an entire second chorus of special lyrics from Armstrong's vantage point, beginning with, "Come climb the hill with me, baby / we'll see what we will see / I'll bring my horn with me." As Jenkins's special lyrics continued, they originally ended with, "Each afternoon we'll go / Higher than the moon we'll go / Then to a saloon we'll go." But according to Gabler, the sensors made them change the "saloon" line. Gabler suggested, "To a wedding in June we'll go," but always regretted it, saying in Goodbye, "Every time I hear it, I think about the time I loused up Gordon's great lyric."

With the arrangement set, the lyrics in place and Butterfield the winner of that coin toss with Jenkins, the stage was set for one of the most enduring recordings of Armstrong's entire career:


Interestingly, I was at the Detroit Jazz Festival last week and this record came up during a panel discussion with Wendell Brunious, Marcus Belgrave and myself. Wendell instructed the audience to go home and listen to it that evening because Louis just sang it so beautifully. He's right. I hope you all took the time to listen to that, even if you've heard it two thousand times. Listen again.

The tempo swings lightly, faster than later versions. Louis again sounds crystal clear, sticking to the melody closely during the entire first chorus. Butterfield's muted obbligato is also spot on. After the choir takes the bridge, Armstrong with more melody and nice vibrato. Then the voices sing the melody while Louis answers them with Jenkins's special lyrics, now rephrasing the melody sweetly and finally bursting out with a well-timed bit of scat after Gabler's "wedding in June" line. Louis sings the bridge this time then swings out the last eight, first repeated the lyrics on a single pitch, gradually adding in responsive bits of scat and finally shouting and scatting a bit high note at the end. Bravo.

Armstrong frequently talked about the end of the record and how the lead female singer belted out a high G at the end. Again, to the critics, Jenkins's choir was a sure-fire sign of commercialism but to Armstrong, that final G--and really the work of the choir during the entire session--brought him right back to his days of going to church with his mother Mayann in New Orleans. "The life of a song"....

Billboard once again approved, writing, "The Armstrong-Jenkins combination projects a standout ballad of some years back with feeling and charm."  By January 14, 1950, Armstrong was featuring it during an appearance on Bing Crosby's Chesterfield Show as a duet with Papa Bing. It proved to be such a hit, they reprised it on Bing's December 14th show later that year. Here's Louis and Bing's take:
But here's a funny thing: after recording it on September 6, 1949, there are no surviving examples of the All Stars playing the tune until February 1, 1952, and even that's not the full band. On that date, Pops played Kitsilano High School in Vancouver, bringing along All Stars Russ Phillips, Joe Sullivan, Dale Jones, Cozy Cole and Velma Middleton (no Barney Bigard) and sitting in with some musicians from the high school. The song might have been almost 2 1/2 years old but listen to the reaction of the audience; this is a HIT record:


Finally, the next night, with Barney back, the All Stars performed their usual routine on it at the Palomar Supper Club in Vancouver. Alas, this was one of the weakest editions of the All Stars, specifically the rhythm section. Pianist Joe Sullivan meanders too much during the introduction, bassist Dale Jones hits a few clams and drummer Cozy Cole's time isn't quite steady as a rock. But I do admire trombonist Russ Phillips's lovely obbligato on both Vancouver versions:

As you might imagine, I have more versions of "Blueberry Hill" than I can count. Seriously, it's a lot. And as beautiful as Pops sang it, he rarely changed the routine, so there's no reason to share a hundred versions. But a few must be shared, plus videos are always a good idea, so we must press on.

On July 14, 1956, the All Stars found themselves at Lewisohn Stadium, rehearsing for a big gettogether with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. After rehearsing with the orchestra, Columbia Records producer George Avakian saw an opening and held an impromptu recording session in the afternoon, getting multiple takes of "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Blueberry Hill" and "Mack the Knife." All of this--and more--can be heard on a certain new boxed set on the Mosaic Records imprint....

Anyway, by this point, "Blueberry Hill" strangely had dropped from being an every night staple of the All Stars' act. Avakian had recorded a lot in Europe but didn't have a version of "Blueberry Hill" he could release (he got one in Amsterdam but Louis introduced it as his "Decca recording" and that was forbidden on the Columbia label). So George called for "Blueberry Hill" and Louis obliged, telling Billy Kyle to "jump it like we used to." They did and the result, as heard for the first time on the Mosaic set, is a flawless version of the routine.

But George wasn't satisfied. Could Louis blow a little on it? He hadn't ever done so but why not. Takes 2, 3 and 4 survive but were not included on the Mosaic set because each was a breakdown, with Louis hitting light fluffs each time as he felt his way around the melody. Nothing egregious, but very cautious playing. If my memory serves me, he almost made it through a full chorus on take 4, but I think Trummy Young might have botched it. Anyway, on the fifth go around--with a small audience gathered--Louis, with his mute in, played a full chorus in his inimitable way. Listen for how he phrases it just like his vocal in the last eight bars, as well as Billy Kyle's excellent, echoing fills:


Fantastic, still my favorite version of the tune. It was even issued as a single on the Phillips label, but that would be it: except for a short interlude on a 1965 version during an episode of The Hollywood Palace, Louis Armstrong would never again blow a note of trumpet on "Blueberry Hill." Clearly, the song had a purpose in giving Pops's chops a little rest in the middle of each night of fierce blowing and he didn't want to mess with it--nor did he need to.

Interestingly, later that same year of 1956, Armstrong's original 1949 Decca version ended up back on the pop charts. Why? Because that fall, another New Orleans native, Fats Domino, recorded this version of the song:


Yep, it's a classic and was a huge hit in Domino's career. In fact, today, more people probably associate "Blueberry Hill" with Domino than Armstrong (arguable, of course, when you factor in Armstrong's international popularity; Vladamir Putin, of all people, showed he was more familiar with Armstrong's take on it when he covered the Gordon Jenkins arrangement a few years ago!). Anyway, Decca rushed out a single of Armstrong's original version and it at least charted, even if it didn't touch Domino's version.

One would think that this would have caused Armstrong to make sure "Blueberry Hill" was an integral part of every show....but it didn't....maybe. There's a lot of Armstrong shows that survive from 1957, '58 and '59 and in all three of those years, exactly two of those shows featured the song. Again, this is not scientific; hundreds of shows do not survive and Trummy Young for one, said he never forgot the endless routine of "Sleepy Time" followed by "Indiana" followed by "Blueberry Hill." But he sure didn't play it at Newport from 1955-1958 and the heavily recorded 1959 European tour features zero versions.

And then came the heart attack. In June 1959, Pops was stricken ill while in Spoleto, Italy. He rushed back to work to prove he could still do it--and he did, as some of the most spectacular blowing of his career occurred between 1959 and 1961. But he also made concessions: no more grandstanding on "Tiger Rag," no more three-chrouses of trumpet playing during the rideout to "When the Saints Go Marchin' In"...and a LOT more "Blueberry Hill."

In fact, from 1960-1971, it's almost impossible to find a Louis Armstrong show where he doesn't perform "Blueberry Hill." They're all great. But again, super similar. So here's my two favorite versions from the 1960s. The first is from the 1964 Kapp album Hello, Dolly!, a quickie recorded in April of 1964 to cash in on the song that was about to hit number one on the pop charts. I sometimes get the feeling that this album gets taken for granted but I really love it. For one thing, Armstrong revisited a lot of old favorites and after years of performing these things night after night, really turned in definitive treatments of songs such as "Someday You'll Be Sorry," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and this delightful remake of "Blueberry Hill." That Russell "Big Chief" Moore on trombone and Joe Darensbourg on clarinet. The strings and rhythm guitar are also a nice touch. Check it out:


And I think we're overdue for a video, huh? If you go to YouTube and search for Louis Armstrong and "Blueberry Hill," you'll have plenty of great choices, including a touching one from a BBC TV show done in July 1968, the same time Louis said that this song was the most popular one he performed--which is saying a lot considering this was after "Hello, Dolly!" and during the time "What a Wonderful World" was a hit in England. But for now, let's go back a few years and watch him tell a story at a deliciously slow tempo in East Berlin, March 22, 1965:

After Louis got sick in the late 1960s and had to take some time off, he came back in the summer of 1970 just in time to celebrate what he believed to be his 70th birthday. Versions survive from the Shrine in Los Angeles and the Newport Jazz Festival but they're rough because though Armstrong was surrounded with top-flight musicians, they didn't know the All Stars' routine and it leads to some shaky moments, especially at the Shrine. Eventually he got his band back and eventually the old routine came back with them, but Pops's final act wasn't to be a very long one.

We'll end our journey in 1971, shortly before the end, with Louis appearing on the February 10 episode of The David Frost Show. Bing Crosby was the other main guest. Louis and Papa Bing had a ball reminiscing before they decided to reprise their old radio show duet on "Blueberry Hill." Something was different after 20 years, though: Louis had performed the song roughly 5,000 times but Bing probably hadn't done it once. Thus, you'll hear Bing really searching for the lyrics at times, asking Louis to give him some hints along the way. The ending is hilarious, though, when Bing attempts to end it during Armstrong's patented scat ending, causing Louis to interrupt him by shouting, "I ain't over that hill yet, Daddy!"

So quick-witted, so hilarious, so warm, right to the very end. Alas, after Louis died, "Blueberry Hill" became one of the poisonous numbers critics used to attack his legacy, Gunther Schuller specifically citing it when needed an example of Armstrong "scratching out a living as a good-natured buffoon." But if you got anything from this post, it's that Louis truly loved both of these songs because he understood "the life of them." And like everything else he did, he was 100% real in everything he did.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Detroit Jazz Festival, Mosaic Roundup and a House Call from Dr. John

And we're back! It took me some time to decompress and get back to the swing of things after the Satchmo Summerfest, but there's no rest for the weary. Next weekend, I'll be flying to Detroit to attend the very popular Detroit Jazz Festival. I'm really looking forward to it as it'll be my first time in Detroit and I've heard nothing but good things about the Festival. I'll be taking part in two different talks. On Sunday, August 31, I'll be part of a panel on "Louis Armstrong and American Music," featuring two top trumpet men, Wendell Brunious and Marcus Belgrave, and moderated by Bob Porter. (Brunious and Belgrave will also be joining Nicholas Payton for a musical salute to Pops that same afternoon.) Then on Monday the 1st, I'll be talking about my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, and showing lots of footage to support some of my themes. Signed copies of the book will also be available on the grounds of the fest all weekend long. If you're attending, please say hello! (See JazzTimes for a preview of the other fabulous lectures and presentations lined up in the Jazz Talk Tent next weekend.)

******************

The Mosaic Records box of Pops I co-produced with Scott Wenzel keeps rolling along. For one thing, the 4-LP set containing just the complete 1956 and 1958 Newport Jazz Festival concerts is now available. If you already have the 9-CD set, there's nothing different from a content perspective but my notes have a different opening section and according to our engineer, Andreas Meyer, "This was a pure analog chain: original master three track reels, mixed in analog, mastered in analog and delivered on 30ips half inch analog tape to the vinyl cutters for 180 gram pressings. Audiophiles, drop the needle and eat your heart out!"

  
Me and the LP set. 




 
The reviews keep coming in for the 9-CD set and so far, we're still batting a thousand. One of my very favorite reviews came from John Swenson in the New Orleans periodical Offbeat. Other good ones have arrived from Scott Yanow and Sally Young of WWOZ. Thanks all! And I'm happy to report that both the set itself and my liner notes have been submitted to the Grammys for consideration as of last week. Note: this is NOT a nomination. Far from it. But it's in the running and by December, we should know how it stands. I'm a bit superstitious about the whole thing and don't even want to talk about it or get my hopes up....but one helluva endorsement came from Terry Teachout earlier this month, who wrote, "It was assembled, and the superlative liner notes written, by Ricky Riccardi, the well-known Armstrong blogger and biographer, and if it doesn't win him a Grammy Award, there is no justice in this world." For your consideration, Grammy voters out there....
Scott Wenzel and I in front of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, holding the Mosaic set, August 16, 2014.
Also last week (it's been a busy month), the one and only Dr. John stopped by the Louis Armstrong House Museum. His new album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, was released this past week, leading Mr. Rebennack to do a whirlwind of publicity in New York City. While there, he made his first trip out to Corona to sit for a photo shoot and interview for Esquire. I had some free time that afternoon and made my way from the Armstrong Archives at Queens College over to the House for a most memorable experience. Dr. John was just so relaxed, so real, so down-to-earth. He spoke of meeting Louis at Joe Glaser's office in 1968, the same year Dr. John and B.B. King were signed by Glaser's Associated Booking outfit. I gave him a copy of my book and he promised to "read the shit out of it."
Ricky Riccardi, Dr. John and Hyland Harris at the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Before the photo shoot officially began, Dr. John asked if he could play Louis and Lucille's piano in the living room. We treat the piano as a museum artifact and don't let anyone play it....but there's obviously exceptions to be made! I gave it my blessing, he sat down and started playing some soulful slow blues. Immediately, my brain exploded with a tough decision: I wanted to get photos....but I also wanted to shoot a video! So I split the different and shot 95 seconds of him playing. When my ears heard him go into a bridge, I took it as a sign to switch to taking still photos. While still on the subway home that day, I began posting some images to the Louis Armstrong House Museum's Facebook and Twitter pages....and the damned things blew up. Finally I got around to uploading the video I shot, which has gotten almost 7,000 views in one week!

Something else, huh? Don't miss the finished Esquire piece by Jacob Blickenstaff, filled with some striking black-and-white images.


That's all for now; believe me, there's more (a lot more) but as I once joked on this blog, this is "The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong," not "The Wonderful World of Ricky Riccardi" (which is also known as my Facebook page) so I'm going to quit with these few odds and ends, get ready for Detroit and hopefully resume writing just about Louis--the man, and his music--come September. Requests are already coming in for some subjects, plus I'd like to revive the "Encounters with Louis Armstrong" series I started earlier this year (did you encounter Louis? Tell me all about it!). And as always, there'll be news; I can't say anything yet but let's just say it looks like I'll be co-producing yet another Armstrong release before the year is out so stay tuned for that announcement, as well.

All Pops, all the time!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Satchmo Summerfest Recap

The 14th annual Satchmo Summerfest has been here and gone...but it definitely won't be forgotten. A record-breaking crowd of over 57,000 people spent three days basking in Pops and believe me, it was heaven right here on earth. I haven't missed one since 2008 and though I might say this every year, this time it's really true: this was the best Summerfest yet!

I've been posting incessantly about this year's Summerfest on my Facebook page so I don't want to repeat myself here. If you'd like to see over 90 photos of me, my wife, friends, musicians and food, click here. No, for me and my circle of Armstrong nuts, it was all about the seminars, which fortunately were filmed, streamed live and currently housed on the web. There's LOTS of great stuff from historians and scholars such as Bruce Raeburn, Thomas Brothers, Michael Cogswell, Randy Fertel, Wycliffe Gordon and more. You can spend hours and hours and hours reliving it all simply by clicking here.

I've always done multiple presentations but this year, I broke a record: a keynote conversation with Scott Wenzel on the Mosaic set, three video presentations, two joint presentations with Dan Morgenstern and Daryl Sherman, one piano performance with a band of "All Stars" and three presentations where I supplied nearly all the content beforehand or from the sidelines. Phew, I'm tired just writing it out, but I can't really complain because it's all Pops.

The Mosaic set was really the star of the Summerfest. Scott and I had a ball delivering the Keynote as we took turns reading the e-mails we sent to each other during the original planning phase between 2006 and 2011, when I had the idea and basically wore down Scott's resistance until he caved. Mosaic sent 20 sets to the Summerfest....and they sold out within one day!

The Producers: Ricky Riccardi and Scott Wenzel at the Satchmo Summerfest Opening Reception. Photo by Rachel June.
The next day, Scott and I, along with Summerfest Director Marci Schramm, did an interview about the set with Keith Hill on WWOZ. We had a great time and even got to play a few tracks. If you'd like to hear it, here it is in its 45-minute entirety:



But after that, it was seminar time. I already shared the link to the complete set, but here's some of the ones I was involved in if you're interested. First, a screening of the ultra-rare "Satchmo the Great." The quality isn't great as it's basically a camera shooting a TV screen (a modern day kinescope!) but I like it as you'll hear the live audience react to the film:
Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

The next day, I teamed up with Dan Morgenstern to do something on Louis's rich history in Denmark:
Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

I closed day two with some of my favorite examples of Louis Armstrong on television, including some things that have only recently surfaced (some thanks to my pal, Robert S. Bader):
Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

If you need a break from me, the one real can't-miss seminar came from clarinetist Evan Christopher, who discussed and demonstrated the different ways New Orleans clarinetists (Johnny Dodds, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall and Sidney Bechet) played with Louis. Brilliant, brilliant stuff (and I'm always a fan of anything that references the Three Stooges, as Evan does here!):



Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com



Then it was music time, as I was made leader (in name only) of the second annual edition of the Satchmo Summerfest All Stars. Besides myself on piano, you'll see and hear Yoshio Toyama and Brice Miller on trumpet, Louis Ford and later, Evan Christopher, on clarinets, David Ostwald on tuba, Keiko Toyama on banjo and Bruce Raeburn on drums. Every band needs a vocalist and this one had two: the great Daryl Sherman and my hero, Dan Morgenstern! In fact, it's been five days and people are still telling me that Dan's vocal on "You Rascal You" was a highlight of the Summerfest! What a joy to play with such fine musicians (though I'm only sorry the director didn't move the camera over when Daryl and I did a four-hands piano duet on "Swing That Music"; it sounds like chaos without seeing us constantly running around each other!):

Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

And finally, I closed with a look at the last two years of Louis's life, once again including rare footage of Louis on "The Dick Cavett Show" given to me by Robert S. Bader. Lots of tears flowed at the end of this one, which resulted in Louis getting a standing ovation (I just push buttons and talk; he did all the hard work):

Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at livestream.com

That's just a small taste of what happened last weekend. I encourage you to watch some more of the seminars while they're still up on the web for next month or so....and even more, I really encourage you to make your reservations NOW for next year's Satchmo Summerfest!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Billy Kyle Centennial Celebration!

July 14 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great pianist Billy Kyle. I had just published my little tribute to Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, plus I've been drowning in trying to prepare everything needed for next week's Satchmo Summerfest, so this is almost two weeks late but I just had to post something on one of my favorite members of Louis's All Stars, so here goes.

Originally, I just was going to focus on Kyle's work with Louis between 1953 and 1966, but then I realized that to most jazz fans, all they know about Kyle is his association with Pops, an association that didn't begin until after he had been recording for about 18 years.

Kyle was born in Philadelphia but his hero was from Pittsburgh: Earl "Fatha" Hines. Kyle is always mentioned as a disciple of Hines and that cannot be denied. But to my ears, Kyle smoothed out some of Hines's rough edges and also eschewed Fatha's volatile left hand, and in the process, became a key transitional figure in those swing-to-bop days. Kyle's approach to the keyboard was more refined and much like another Hines disciple, Teddy Wilson, quite debonair. Of course, Hines's unpredictability and ability to take risks are what has led him to immortality. Kyle didn't cause a piano revolution but he did have an impact, most notably on young Bud Powell, who consistently named Kyle as one of his biggest influences.

So with the preamble out of the way, I don't want to do much writing, so let's spend the rest of our time celebrating the Billy Kyle centennial by listening, listening and listening some more. Kyle's style was pretty much intact from his earliest recordings onward. Just listen to the 22-year-old supporting Henry Red Allen on "Let's Put Our Heads Together" from December 29, 1936:


The following year, bassist John Kirby started a sextet full of top musicians: trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, saxophonist Russell Procope, drummer O'Neil Spencer and Kyle on piano. If it had just been a regular small-group-swing jam band, the results would have been memorable. Instead, Kirby strove for intricate arrangements, tightly played and "The Biggest Little Band in the Land" was born. I forgot who it was, but one jazz writer described the Kirby band as "tight-assed" and for a long time, I agreed, preferring my jazz a little more open and loose. But revisiting this material, I do marvel at the band's ability to nail the complex charts, while the solos are also always of a high caliber. The Kirby sextet was one of the most original sounding groups of the period and it's a shame they're so little known today.

Maxine Sullivan's vocals with the Kirby group landed them a few hits, most notably "Loch Lamond," allowing Kirby the chance to record many of the band's top arrangements. One of them, contributed by Kyle, definitely points the way forward: "From A Flat to C."



Some other Kirby favorites: "Rehearsing for a Nervous Breakdown."


"Blue Skies":


A burning "Royal Garden Blues":


And the band's big instrumental hit, composed by Charlie Shavers, "Undecided." Kyle's solo is one of his finest; he would retain parts of it in the 1950s when this became one of Trummy Young's big features with the All Stars, in addition to a dynamite Buck Clayton jam session version of it from 1954. Here's the original:



The exposure Kyle received with Kirby allowed him to make occasional records under his own name. Here's one from Billy Kyle and His Swing Club Band with Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Tab Smith on alto, Ronald Haynes on tenor and a rhythm section of Kyle, Danny Barker, John Williams and Fran Marx. This is one of Kyle's later All Stars features, "Girl of My Dreams," from July 23, 1937:


Alas, Kyle didn't get as many dates as a leader as he should have, but on May 23, 1939, Decca threw him a bone and allowed him to record two tracks backed only by Dave Barbour on guitar, Marty Kaplan on bass and O'Neil Spencer on drums. They're two of my favorites and a great place to start if you're looking to explore the Kyle style. Here's the swinging "Finishing Up a Date":

And I haven't mentioned it yet, but Kyle had an affinity for the blues, which comes out on the lovely "Between Sets":


Other than that, Kyle was content to stay in the background, recording with Nat Gonella, the Ramblers, organist Milt Herth and Jack Sneed and His Sneezers, the latter group waxing a version of the African song, "Sly Mongoose," one Kyle would get to know again in 1956 when it was renamed "All for You, Louis" during Armstrong's first trip to the Gold Coast of Africa:

Kyle also got the call for some truly all star sessions. Here's Lionel Hampton's famous 1938 recording of Benny Carter's "I'm in the Mood for Swing," with Kyle taking a typically elegant bridge towards the end:


That same year, Kyle was featured on a Victor date by Timme Rosenkrantz and His Barrelhouse Barons. The great Danish jazz fan and supporter was in New York and though he didn't play an instruement, he was still able to organize this fine session. And dig the band: Rex Stewart on cornet, Billy Hicks on trumpet, Tyree Glenn on trombone and vibes, the wild Rudy Williams on alto, along with Kyle's Kirby-mate, Russell Procope, Don Byas on tenor saxophone (making his recording debut) and a rhythm section of Kyle, guitarist Brick Fleagle and from the Basie band, Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones on drums! Leo Mathiesen contributed the arrangements, including this too-short breeze through "The Song is Ended" featuring Kyle at his most Hines-inspired:
 
Kyle must have made an impression on Rex Stewart as he the pianist of choice on Stewart's 1940 recording of "Bugle Call Rag" featuring Ellingtonians Barney Bigard, Lawrence Brown and Wellman Braud, plus the great drummer Dave Tough and the omnipresent Fleagle on guitar. This 12-inch 78 stretches to over four minutes and segues into another song Kyle would become very familiar with in his Armstrong days, "Ole Miss":


Like so many of his generation, Kyle was drafted into the army during World War II. In fact, his induction made headlines in the December 8, 1942 edition of "The Afro American" (Kyle was replaced int he Kirby Sextet by another swing-to-bop transitional figure, Clyde Hart). Kyle joined the legendary 93rd Infantry Division of the army, but also got to keep his piano chops up, performing with the 368th Infantry Battalion Band. One Special Services newsletter, quoted in Maggi M. Morehouses's "Fighting in the Jim Crow Army," announced, "The whole Division has taken the 'Deep River Boys' to its heart. The 368th orchestra gives out with some 'pick up' acts. Pvt. Lawrence Neely emcees, and Billy Kyle at the piano steals the show for a thunderous moment of applause. They're warmed up now. The jam session is on. 1,200 hearty voices cheer as Billy Kyle's piano thunders the 'Bivouac Bounce.'"

Upon discharge, Kyle rejoined Kirby for a short bit but also started making records under his own name, including four for the Hot Record Society label with future All Stars Trummy Young and Buster Bailey. On April 11, 1946, Kyle, backed by Kirby and guitarist Jimmy Shirley, recorded a showpiece version of the then in-vogue "All the Things You Are," a favorite of the up and coming boppers. But instead of going the more modern route, Kyle instead finds some connections between Jerome Kern's tune and the classical music Kyle grew up playing in Philadelphia. Here is the result:


Kyle also left Kirby in 1946, joining Sy Oliver's Orchestra for a few years. Kyle never was at a loss for work but after that September 1946 H.R.S. date, he never led another session under his own name, a true shame. However, his name was still big enough to be featured on the labels of some records made by some of the best singers of the day. Here's Kyle's trio backing Ella Fitzgerald on "I'm Just a Lucky So and So":

And another Decca recording from the same period, Kyle's trio backing Billie Holiday on "Baby  I Don't Cry Over You":

Kyle obviously impressed both Milt Gabler at Decca and his then-boss, Sy Oliver, as he became a regular pianist on many Decca dates of the late 1940s and 1950s...including those featuring Louis Armstrong. Kyle's first meeting with Armstrong came on a September 30, 1949 date arranged by Sy Oliver and featuring the only recorded meeting between Armstrong and Billie Holiday on "You Can't Lose a Broken Heart" and "My Sweet Hunk O'Trash." Kyle was there again on August 31, 1950 for another Oliver-arranged Decca date, producing "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" and "That's What the Man Said."

On July 24, 1951, Kyle made his presence felt during another Armstrong Decca date that ended up with two sizeable hit records: "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "I Get Ideas." Kyle was a master of introductions and his lead-in to "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" beautifully sets up what follows. And his dramatic, cocktail-esque interlude on "I Get Ideas" also fits the romantic pop nature of that recording. The following year, on August 25, 1952, Kyle again made a positive contribute to Armstrong's recording of "I Laughed at Love" and another hit, "Takes Two to Tango." Armstrong must have been impressed and kept Kyle in the back of his mind.

Kyle wasn't going anywhere, just yet. In 1950, the smash hit Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway with none other than Billy Kyle on piano. It was the very beginning of black musicians being allowed to play in Broadway pit bands, Kyle being joined for this show by trumpeter Joe Wilder and trombonist Benny Morton. Kyle was content, working six days a week in New York and picking up session work whenever available.

Playing for a Broadway show turned out to be great training for Kyle's eventual joining of the All Stars. I've discussed this a million times but it's worth bringing up again. To some, jazz is only associated with improvisation. Every night, different songs, different solos, always reaching, always trying to create something new, even if what you played the night before was spectacular. This kind of thinking has always been around, to an extent. But for many decades, the key ingredient to good jazz wasn't just improvising something new everything but providing the best possible show for your audience night in and night out. So if you stumbled across a solo that flowed beautifully and knocked the crowd out, that was it, that was your solo. This was Louis Armstrong's philosophy; he knew that you couldn't improve upon his "Indiana" solo or his "Sunny Side of the Street Solo" or his "Mahogany Hall Stomp" solo, etc. Sure, some nights he was an improvising mood so he'd change them up. But he knew how good those solos were and he knew that they were virtually impossible for others to play (and he also knew that he was in a different city every night and that the majority of concertgoers were always hearing him for the first time), so he kept them set. He took criticism for years for this (and still gets it; I recently had a conversation with someone who used the dreaded word "coasting," much to my chagrin) but he was far from alone.

In the All Stars's case, Louis's piano players had different philosophies when it came to this. Earl Hines bugged Louis because he refused to play his solo on "West End Blues" as he did on the 1928 recording; Louis said that whatever Hines improvised paled in comparison. But Hines also had his set pieces and rarely changed a note on his approaches to numbers like "Honeysuckle Rose," "Pale Moon" and "Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues." After a disastrous stint by Joe Sullivan, Marty Napoleon joined in 1952. He was thrilled to be part of the band, but told me that he was spooked one night at the Apollo Theater when he launched into his solo on "Muskrat Ramble" and could hear the other members of the band humming along. Was he going stagnant? He used to always play the same interlude in the middle of one of Louis and Velma Middleton's numbers, when Velma would turn it over to Louis. On this one particular night, he felt the need to change, so he just started playing whatever came to mind....but Louis didn't enter. Finally, Marty played his standard lick on the tune and Louis entered on cue. It was at that moment that Marty, a true improvising musician, needed to get out.

When Marty left in late 1953, that allowed Billy Kyle to make his entrance. Joe Glaser usually did the hiring and firing of Armstrong's musicians but one can imagine that Armstrong had a say in hiring Kyle.  With Kyle, Louis finally had the ideal pianist for the group. His features always impressed audiences (as we'll see), he was much more of a team player than Hines (whose askew fills sometimes threw the soloists off) and was a rock solid accompanist. And with three years playing the exact same things night after night on Broadway, eight shows a week, he had no troubles playing many of the same songs--and solos--night after night with the All Stars. In fact, once Kyle hit upon a set solo or introduction, he never wavered, remaining more tied to his "set" excursions than even Armstrong.

Kyle joined the band just in time for a December 1953 tour of Japan, from which a broadcast survives. He already sounds at home but as one could imagine, he didn't just arrive with a bag of set solos on Armstrong's regular repertoire like "Indiana," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Surviving broadcasts from late 1953 and early 1954 find Kyle improvising all the time. In fact, some discographies doubt Kyle is on a January 1954 broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco, primarily because his solos don't sound like they would in just a few short months. There's enough mannerisms on these broadcasts to tell my ears that it's Kyle, but one can also hear him singing along with a lot of his solos, working hard to make them work. He can be heard doing it faintly on his first official recording session with the All Stars from March 16, 1954, a date that also found him doing some almost Erroll Garner-esque left handed "strumming" on "Basin Street Blues" and "Otchi-Tchnor-Ni-Ya." Sure enough, if I had all the time in the world, I could share a million great solos Kyle took with the band in his years.

But Kyle also had a million great features and that's really where I want to focus on today. On those aforementioned late-1953, early-1954 broadcasts, Kyle gets no features so we'll dive in with the first of features that survives, taken from a May 8, 1954 date at the University of North Carolina. It's a reworking of his 1946 recording of "All the Things  You Are," expanded and further tightened after eight years of playing it. This is a great concert, but Louis takes a rare break during the first set, sitting out for almost 15 minutes during some of the features (perhaps he took a little too much Swiss Kriss?). Kyle kept returning to this one for years, with no changes. Louis never played on it, either, which is a shame as he would have sounded incredible playing this melody. Anyway, here's Kyle's "All the Things You Are" backed by Arvell Shaw on bass and Kenny John on drums in 1954:

Of course, if you're an All Stars nut and you read just the title of this post, you might have immediately thought, "Perdido." The Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol jam session favorite was first performed by Kyle in front of a recording device during a WNEW broadcast from American Legion Park in Ephrata, Pennsylvania on August 19, 1954. It's no exaggeration to say that Kyle probably played this thousands of times in the next 12 years. Here's the first one we know of:

It's close but still a work in progress. Some of Kyle's lines aren't as clean as they'd be a short time later and around the 2:10 mark, he seems to anticipate the next chorus four bars early, repeating his riff longer than normal. But it wouldn't take Kyle long to work it all out. By January 1955, he was ready to record it live at the Crescendo Club while Decca recorded the results. Here it is, at an irresistible foot-pattin' tempo, backed by Shaw and Barrett Deems:

It's a classic but it wouldn't take too long before Kyle started slowly raising the tempo. We'll check in with a faster version in a little bit. But first, a quick visit to an offshoot of "Perdido," "Pretty Little Missy." Louis liked the riff-based chorus Kyle played before the horns entered and thought it had the makings of a song. Kyle and Armstrong threw together some lyrics and recorded the results for Decca in April 1955. It never became a hit but Louis never tired of playing it, even recording it again for Mercury in 1965 and United Artists in 1969 (it's also on Armstrong's Newport 1958 set on the new Mosaic box, though keep the kids away when Louis changes the line "Pucker up" to something a little more x-rated!). Also note that Armstrong keeps in Kyle's flatted fifths during the bridge; he gradually smoothed them out into something a little less boppish by the 1960s, but here, he plays and sings them on the (flatted) nose:

Back to the Crescendo Club for a minute, now. Decca recorded three full sets, allowing the All Stars to perform multiple features. Kyle's second feature that night was "St. Louis Blues." One must wonder how much of it was his choice or how much of it was Armstrong's, who liked to recycle features. Cozy Cole brought in "Stompin' at the Savoy," but it became the drum feature for Kenny John, Barrett Deems and Danny Barcelona. Arvell Shaw's most known for "How High the Moon," but when he left, Armstrong gave it to bassists Jack Lesberg and Squire Gersh. Earl Hines wrestled "St. Louis Blues" away from Armstrong with his "Boogie Woogie" treatment. When Marty Napoleon entered the band, Armstrong played Hines's version for him to learn from. Napoleon got the gist but shot the tempo through the roof for one of his most exciting features (and one he continued to play for decades). Thus, with Kyle barely in the band for a year, one can easily imagine Armstrong saying, "Hey, do you play 'St. Louis Blues'?" Kyle's version is completely his own, with none of Hines's boogie-woogie, nor Napoleon's fierce riffing. It still swings mightily, Kyle showing off his bluesy side, inspiring the other band members to shout encouragement in the background (that's Trummy Young yelling, "Let 'em roll!") and building to the climactic riff introduced in the 1940s by Lionel Hampton but at the time, about to blow up the charts on Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Here 'tis:

Louis doesn't play on "St. Louis Blues," but just a couple of months earlier, the album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy was released with W. C. Handy's blues classic serving as the opening number. Once the overwhelmingly positives reviews trickled in, Armstrong regained control of "St. Louis Blues," performing it almost nightly with Velma Middleton by his side. This left Kyle down a feature, but not for long. "Blue Moon" was one of his go-to choices in the late 1950s, again at a strutting medium tempo and always featuring some scintillating horn from Pops:


That version was from a concert at Seattle's Orpheum Theater on September 7, 1957. That same night, Louis played his touched medley of "Tenderly" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." Though Armstrong's lead playing on the latter tune could give one the chills, "Tenderly" was often ceded to Kyle, who always turned it into something of a rhapsody. Some might complain that it's a little too "lacy," but as a pianist, I admire Kyle's touch tremendously. As Trummy can be heard yelling, "Oh, you play so sexy!"


Kyle came to the band with another stomping feature, "Pennies from Heaven," which he originally played at the aforementioned 1954 North Carolina concert. This one also stayed in the act until Kyle's death and was always a crowd-pleaser. My favorite version is this one from North Bay, Ontario in 1958. Mort Herbert on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums really kick this one along, Kyle turning some powerful two-handed work by the end. Exciting stuff!


When clarinetist Edmond Hall joined the band in 1955, "Sweet Georgia Brown" became one of his best-known features. After he left in 1958, it seems like the All Stars weren't ready to bid adieu to Miss Brown. During a 1959 tour of Europe, Kyle, perhaps looking for something other than "Perdido" to turn into a barn-burner, took over "Sweet Georgia Brown," replicating Hall's arrangement, right down to the breaks. It doesn't seem to have lasted past this performance, but Kyle convincingly makes it his own, with support by the Armstrong-Young-Peanuts Hucko front line:


Also at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Kyle dipped back into his bag and called a tune we originally heard him wax in 1937, "Girl of My Dreams." The Newport 1958 version (on the Mosaic box) is great, but I've always been partial to this later version from Newport in 1960, again with Mort and Danny:


"Blue Moon" seems to have been phased out by the early 1960s, with another good-old-good-one taking its place in the medium-tempo stomp category: "When I Grow Too Old to Dream." In fact, this might be Kyle's most oft-played feature of the 1960s (next to "Perdido," of course). The pattern is the same as some of the others we've heard, but it always gets me, especially when Barcelona switches from brushes to sticks and when Pops swoops in heroically towards the end. This version is from Chicago in 1962 with Billy Cronk on bass and Danny on drums.


By 1965, Kyle was mostly choosing between "Perdido," "Pennies from Heaven" and "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" as his features, but in June of that year, after six weeks off while Louis recovered from dental surgery, he emerged with a swinging take on "It's Easy to Remember," recorded in Paris with Buddy Catlett on bass and Danny again on drums.


I mentioned that by this point, "Perdido" was fast approaching warp speed. A fast version of Kyle's showcase was filmed in Australia during a 1963 tour, with Arvell Shaw on bass and Danny still on drums. I remember that when I first saw this, I was impressed with how hard Kyle was working. He hadn't changed a note in almost a decade, but like Armstrong's solos, pulling this thing off is HARD! Watching him tear it up only adds to my personal appreciation of his command of the instrument:


Kyle was truly the ideal pianist for the All Stars but his only problem was he was quite the drinker and loved to party (especially with women). It never seemingly affected his playing but it did affect his health. He broke down multiple times during his 13 years with the All Stars, his health problems always due to his drinking. Marty Napoleon had to spell him for a while in late 1959 and the little known Nick Rodriguez did the same in the spring of 1960. Kyle got the message and apparently cut his drinking way down (possibly entirely out) in the early 1960s. He supplanted the drinking with eating and gradually began to gain weight as the decade progressed. By the winter of early 1966, he was at his heaviest, with the band still grinding out one-nighters, often in a bus with heat that didn't often work.

As chronicled in my own book, Kyle was ailing by this point. At a performance in Ohio, Buddy Catlett told me, "Number one, they had to help him up the stairs--there were some stairs to get up to the stage. And he was out of breath and couldn't hardly make it. But he played everything he knew. It was just magnificent playing. That's the way I heard it." The band knew something was wrong when Kyle didn't come out of his room the following morning. Sure enough, his liver had erupted. He was kept alive for a week, but died on February 23, 1966. He was 52 years old.

It's still surprising to me that Kyle isn't as well known as he should be, seeing that he spent the majority of his career in two supremely popular organizations--John Kirby's and Louis Armstrong's. But Kyle was content with being a sideman and I suppose that's the sideman's curse. Without an album of his own music from 1946-1966, all we can point to are these features he took night in and night out with Louis Armstrong. As this post hopefully showed, Kyle was a fantastic musician, a classy presence on stage, a bluesy two-fisted swinger, a superb accompanist and a perfect fit with any band he played in. Don't forget about him.