Monday, January 26, 2015

Joe Sullivan, Short-Lived All Stars Pianist

Today's post is one I've wanted to write for a while, but it took a blizzard and a few friendly Facebook requests to make it happen. Unlike most of Armstrong posts, which seem to explode from joy, this one will be a sad one as it will examine the short-lived All Stars tenure of piano great Joe Sullivan.

I wish I didn't have to provide much backstory for Sullivan, but alas, he seems to have slipped through the cracks when it comes to examining jazz history. Oh, how I wish Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Red Allen, Louis Prima, Stuff Smith, Chu Berry, Pee Wee Russell and my other heroes of 1930s jazz were better known today. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to discover these unsung greats (as long as you know they exist in the first place). So let's take a 12 minute recess and listen to four Joe Sullivan piano solos, recorded in his prime in 1935: "Honeysuckle Rose," "Gin Mill Blues," "Little Rock Getaway" and "Onyx Bringdown":


Can't argue with that! As you can hear, Sullivan's playing with saturated with Fats Waller's influence, but Sullivan was still his own man, occasionally taking Earl Hines-esque chances with the time. Sullivan was the pianist of choice for many years of the Chicago school (aka Condon school) of playing, first  recording with the seminal McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans in 1927. He first encountered Louis Armstrong on the famed integrated 1929 recording of "Knockin' a Jug" and later had an uncredited reunion with him in the 1936 Bing Crosby film, Pennies from Heaven; that's Sullivan's dazzling piano playing on Pops's showpiece, "The Skeleton in the Closet".

A bout with tuberculosis halted Sullivan's tenure with the Bob Crosby band for a while, but he eventually rejoined in 1939 for some classic recordings, including this big band spin on Sullivan's composition (based on a strain of James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout"), "Little Rock Getaway":


Sullivan eventually left Crosby supposedly due to bad health but it was probably the first example of his having to leave a band because he was drinking too much. Still, Sullivan landed on his feet, making scores of memorable recordings as a leader and sideman and becoming a popular presence at New York's Cafe Society in the 1940s. Also, in 1942, Sullivan backed Armstrong at a typically-Condonfied jam session at the Walt Whitman School, photographed beautifully by Charles Peterson (for the story behind the photo, click here):

Now, let's flash forward to 1951. Louis is leading the All Stars and the personnel has been solid for a few years: Pops, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole. But in the summer of 1951, things began to crack. First, bassist Shaw left the band to study in Switzerland. He was replaced by a veteran, the relatively unheralded Dale Jones, in July. Next, Teagarden, Armstrong's closest friend in the group, got the itch to lead again and eventually also left. Armstrong remembered trombonist Russ Phillips, who once subbed for an ailing Teagarden in Denver, and offered him the trombone chair in September.

Finally, pianist Hines jumped ship, too. This was not a happy breakup. Hines never really wanted to join the All Stars and be a sideman again. He sulked for most of his three years with the band and finally broke free in October. Louis was angry and went to the jazz press to rant about "Hines and his ego, ego, ego!" My book has more quotes on the subject but I recently discovered some fresh rantings that Louis gave historian Bill Russell in 1953, saying, "Hines! I wouldn't use Hines again if he was the last piano player in the world. I'd get a zither or something."

It's romantic to think of that early 50s band as a happy conglomeration of some of jazz's biggest names, working together to create memorable music onstage and having fun carousing and laughing in their downtime. Naturally, it wasn't quite like that. Louis told Russell, "Soon as Hines joined the band, the got a clique--Hines, and Cozy Cole and Shaw. They decided they wouldn't sign any programs or meet the customers. Hines just hates everybody. You can't run a band like that. You're in show business. If you don't keep people happy, get out of it, Pops."

With half the sextet gone, it was time for a rebuilding phase. Louis took some time off at the end of 1951 to film Glory Alley but debuted his new All Stars with a two-week stint at the Club Oasis in Los Angeles on December 18. Jones had been playing with the group since July and Louis told friends on one of his tapes that he was better than Shaw (to my ears, he wasn't, but Jones was apparently a great showman--no films of him exist--and as the above quote illustrates, Shaw was on Louis's bad side). Phillips had been there since September and was doing his best to fill Teagarden's big shoes. But at the Oasis, Louis would showcase his new pianist: Joe Sullivan.

Louis was excited, saying of Sullivan, "Pops plays fine piano." For the first four years of their existence, the All Stars were truly ALL STARS. But now, with lesser-lights like Jones and Phillips in the band, it was probably good for business to have an established name like Sullivan at the keyboard.

Unfortunately, what was good for business was bad for music. Sullivan, by this point, was a raging alcoholic. Perhaps Joe Glaser hoped Sullivan could get his act together by joining Louis but Sullivan's disease was too far gone and had begun to affect his playing.

The All Stars spent January in 1951 in California, first at the Oasis, then the Hangover in San Francisco and then a week in Sacramento. With a solid month under his belt, one would hope that Sullivan would have gotten the hang of the All Stars book. He hadn't. As will be demonstrated momentarily, not only was Sullivan prone to making sloppy mistakes at the piano, the times had passed him by. Believe me, I LOVE stride piano more than any other piano style and Sullivan was one of the best at it. But Louis Armstrong never sounded sounded comfortable with stride backing. His music always seemed to charge forward, swinging all the way (Baby Dodds said Louis was the one who made him play 4/4 instead of 2/4). Sullivan's accompaniment rarely strayed for a deadening oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah, halting any sense of swing Jones and Cole were trying to generate behind Louis.

After the month in California, the All Stars headed north of the border for Vancouver, Canada. On February 1, they'd play in front of a nearly hysterical crowd at Kitsilano High School, an afternoon gig that was recorded by disc jockey Jack Cullen. The next night, they played the Palomar Supper Club in Vancouver and again, a handful of recordings survive. Then during a string of one-nighters, Louis and the All Stars broadcast from Boise, Idaho on February 22.  The next night, a drunk Sullivan fell off the piano bench and was fired immediately.

That's it. One afternoon at Kitsilano High School, a few numbers from the Palomar Supper Club and a 30 minute broadcast from Boise. That's all the audio that survives from Joe Sullivan's tenure with the All Stars. And I can say without hesitation that taken as a whole, they make up the weakest recordings in the 24-year history of the All Stars.

Of the three, Kitsilano is still the best solely because of the reaction of the audience. These are children of World War II, the same kids who would be screaming their heads off at Elvis and rock and roll a few years later. But on February 1, 1952, they just wanted to scream at Louis Armstrong....and scream they did! I can't think of another All Stars recording made in front of such an enthusiastic crowd. (Quick shoutout to my friend Bud McNeely who has devoted many years to documenting the backstory of the Kitsilano gig in videos such as this one.) On a few numbers, Louis even sits in with some of the Kitsilano jazz band students, making for some sweet, if shaky, sounds. The funny part is the Kitsilano student pianist accompanies everything is a stiff oom-pah--and when Sullivan rejoins, he doesn't sound much better.

For example, here's "Steak Face," the 12-bar-blues drum feature that originated with Sid Catlett. The 1947 Satchmo at Symphony Hall version is the classic; I've heard Loren Schoenberg gush about the powerful swing of the rhythm section. But at Kitsilano? Not so much. For one thing, "Steak Face," like Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump," starts in F and modulates to Db; Sullivan misses the modulation (he'd been in the band for six weeks already and obviously still didn't have the routine down or at least wasn't paying attention to Louis). Once he catches himself, it's oom-pah time, killing the momentum of the piece both before and after Cole's drum theatrics:




But to give credit where credit is due, Sullivan could still play when the spotlight was on him. Here he is still tearing up "Little Rock Getaway":


Now that's more like it. Sullivan would get that one feature each night to shine but the rest of the night would be pretty rough. On "Blueberry Hill" the following night at the Palomar in Vancouver, listen to the dead rhythm section, Louis tapping and stomping his foot to get them together. Sullivan even seems unsure of the changes under the bridge, which you'd hope he'd have under his fingertips after six weeks with the band:



Finally, a selection of performances from Boise, which was broadcast nationally and even recorded by Louis. Louis enjoyed studying his shows on reel-to-reel tape; I can't imagine he was thrilled with how this one turned out. This isn't a train wreck, but again, I want to include it just to give an idea of how this band sounded and how Sullivan's accompaniment, after the lively introduction and romping solo, gets rather frustrating as the performance goes on:



Now for the real train wreck: "Back O'Town Blues." Sullivan was a master slow blues player (see "Gin Mill Blues" again from 1935) and learning how to navigate the 12-bar-blues is something that beginners can master. But on this "Back O'Town Blues," Sullivan takes a meandering introduction, Louis steamrolls him....and Sullivan gets lost. Utterly, helplessly lost. He can't hear the rest of the band and continues changing the chords at all the wrong times for at least the first two minutes of the performance. I shudder every time I hear this one:



That's pretty rough but hey, it's one song, it can happen to anyone, right? (I know it's happened to me!) But the VERY NEXT SONG is Barney Bigard's romp on "C-Jam Blues" and once again, Sullivan gets stuck in Ellington's riff melody and changes at the wrong time for the first minute. Pay attention, Joe! Poor guy.

But again, Sullivan wakes up when it comes time for his feature, in this case, an exciting two-fisted romp on "I Found a New Baby":



As exciting as his features are, though, Sullivan was also hired to be a band pianist and he just couldn't cut it. After falling off the bench the next night, Marty Napoleon were hired in a hurry, just in time for Louis's first major tour of Hawaii. One of the shortest tenures in All Stars history was over.

There doesn't seem to be any bad blood between Armstrong and Sullivan. I don't think either talked much about this incident. And in one of Louis's scrapbooks housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, there's an ultra rare photo of Louis and Joe together during this period, lovingly inscribed by Sullivan.

But like a sports team, all working bands must go through a rebuilding phase at some point and the beginning of 1952 was the All Stars's most troubling period. Fortunately, it didn't last long. Marty Napoleon proved to be the most exciting pianist Louis ever hired, and someone who was able to stabilize the shaky rhythm section. Jones kept the bass chair swinging--and Louis happy--until Shaw returned, reenergized in the summer of 1952. I admire Russ Phillips's Teagarden-inspired playing but during the aforementioned Hawaiian trip, Louis ran into old friend Trummy Young and started lobbying to get Trummy to join the band, which finally happened in September 1952. Now, compare the All Stars playing "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" in Stockholm, Sweden in October 1952 (with Bob McCracken replacing Barney Bigard, who also needed a little break) with the version we heard from Boise in February of the same year; it's like listening to different band:


And there was more greatness to come! But in early 1952, the All Stars were struggling and a lot of it was because of the inner struggle of pianist Joe Sullivan. Somehow, Sullivan hung out for almost 20 more years, passing away in October of 1971. He spent those years bouncing from gig to gig, mostly out of the spotlight. It's a sad ending for someone who was a part of so many memorable record dates in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Louis never directly addressed Sullivan's stint as an All Star but in the same 1953 conversation with Bill Russell that he slammed Earl Hines, Armstrong did say, "Musician can't drink and work." Asked by Russell, "Do you object to drinking in your band," Armstrong gave the following answer, probably with Sullivan in mind: "I don't tell them anything. If they can play, I don't care what they do. But they can't play if they're drunk." The few surviving recordings of Joe Sullivan with the All Stars offer definitive proof of that.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

85 Years of "Song of the Islands"

Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded January 24, 1930
Track Time 3:31
Written by Charles E. King
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Otis Johnson, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano, vibes; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums; 3 unknown, violin
Originally released on Okeh 41375
Currently available on CD: Volume four of the JSP Hot Five and Hot Seven series has it, as does volume six of Columbia’s old Armstrong series (St. Louis Blues). It’s also available on about a hundred other discs!
Available on Itunes? Yes

After spilling out thousands of new words this month on a variety of Louis Armstrong classics, pardon me as I revisit one of my "greatest hits." I originally wrote about "Song of the Islands" in 2007 and then updated it with new information from my pals Dave Whitney and Michael Steinman, as well as a LOT of audio clips. I haven't added much but this is such a favorite performance of mine, I wanted to at least post my entry again for today, the 85th anniversary of its original recording. And I'm updating this while it's snowing outside....hopefully Pops and his Hawaiian opus can keep me warm. So it's revisiting time once again, friends...grass skirts optional.

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Today’s entry will deal with Charles E. King’s 1915 opus, “Song of the Islands,” which on some releases gets the subtitle, “Na Lei O Hawaii.” Now, I don’t speak Hawaiian, but I do believe that that must be Hawaiian for “Song of the Islands.” Pretty bright am I, eh?

I have no idea how this song wound up at a Louis Armstrong session, but after hearing the end results, I’m not complaining (though I wouldn’t be surprised if The Polynesians recorded “Dippermouth Blues” by accident that day…). Hawaiian music must have been on the upswing when Armstrong recorded the song in 1930, as the sheet music for the then-14-year-old song was reissued in 1929. Here’s a copy of this artifact, courtesy of eBay (please, no bidding):

Now, in writing these little entries, I usually like to do a little research on the song and the songwriter. So who was Charles E. King? A Google search turned up some information on the songwriter from—no joke—Hana Hou, “The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.” I quote: “On occasion, Queen Lili‘uokalani taught music, and one of her students, Charles E. King, wrote Hawaii’s best-known opera, Prince of Hawaii, which debuted in 1925. A tale of love and machinations in ancient Hawaii—replete with prince, princess, hula dancers, a chorus and musicians—Prince contained twenty-four songs, several of which have become Island classics, including ‘Beautiful Kahana’ and ‘Ke Kali Nei Au’ (better known as ‘The Hawaiian Wedding Song’).” Thus, King knew his Hawaiian sounds and it’s no surprise that “Song of the Islands” has lived on in countless film and cartoon appearances as a way of setting a Hawaiian atmosphere.

What is surprising is that King’s simple 16-bar melody would become a jazz standard, performed and recorded by the likes of Count Basie, Gene Ammons, Earl Hines and many more. Of course, it’s not so surprising when one considers that Louis Armstrong introduced it to the jazz world, much as he did the same with so many other future standards with his records of 1929-1933. When Armstrong entered OKeh’s New York studios on January 24, 1930, he was still more or less a freelance musician. His first New York session on March 5, 1929 was done with members of Luis Russell’s band. Armstrong obviously felt at home with the group, which featured a number of musicians from New Orleans, as they again backed Armstrong up on two classic sessions from December 1929, as discussed on this blog just last month. On those 1929 sessions, Armstrong even let young trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen blow a bit. Allen was obviously influenced by Armstrong (who wasn’t?) but he was really his own man, with a thoroughly modern approach to trumpet playing that hinged on devil-may-care rhythmic phrasing and the exciting use of nonchord tones. At the time, some accused him of playing wrong notes but he was just ahead of his time, though once the bop school started being hailed for playing those same “wrong notes,” Allen became a largely neglected figure. In taking a jazz historiography class at Rutgers while obtaining my Master’s degree, I was stunned that the majority of the class had no real clue of what a genius Red Allen was. A crime.

Anyway, on January 17, 1930, the Russell band backed Armstrong for a one-nighter at a midnight dance at Baltimore’s New Albert Auditorium, drawing 1,400 people. One week later, the Russell band shared an OKeh date with Armstrong, recording two of their own arrangements, plus “Song of the Islands” with Pops. The Russell band was up first with “Saratoga Shout.” I absolutely adore Luis Russell’s own recordings and I think his rhythm section deserves credit for being one of the first truly swinging units in jazz history. You can hear them in their glory by listening to “Saratoga Shout” here:


Red Allen’s hot solo on “Saratoga Shout” was taken with Armstrong looking on, as John Chilton writes in his marvelous Allen biography, Ride, Red, Ride. “Louis was visibly impressed by Red’s startling 32-bar-chrous on ‘Saratoga Shout’ and offered genuine congratulations, much to the young man’s delight. One suspects that Louis, even, then, knew that Red would never overtake him, but nevertheless Red, on top form, was a formidable rival.” Chilton goes on to quote Armstrong’s second wife, Lillian Hardin, who once was caught listening to a Red Allen record in Armstrong’s prescence. “He must have stood there for a minute with an angry expression on his face, then, after a bit, he smiled and said, ‘Yeah, he’s blowing.'"

With the Russell band sufficiently warmed up, it was time for Pops to perform “Song of the Islands.” Though it might have been something of a crazy idea from the a-and-r man, the group definitely had “Song of the Islands” down by the time they recorded it. I’m also guessing they must have given it a test spin at that Baltimore dance the previous week. Also, the Russell band was augmented by three violinists whose names have been lost to posterity, though Allen remembered them as white musicians from a local theater orchestra, according to Chilton. Before I go any further, why don’t you have a listen to the relaxing sounds of “Song of the Islands":


From the opening note of the record, we’re already shrouded in controversy. We hear a vibraphone (ten months before Lionel Hampton used it to introduce “Memories of You”) but the question is who is playing it? According to Chilton, Red Allen remembered every detail of his sessions with Armstrong and he made an effort to let discographers know that Armstrong’s valet played drums on “Song of the Islands” while Russell band drummer Paul Barbarin played the vibes. Chilton refers to the valet as “Tout Suite,” which sounds like a mishearing/misspelling to me. There’s a photo of Louis and some friends fooling around on a fake boat at Coney Island in 1929 (the photo can be found on page 143 of Michael Cogswell’s Armstrong book, among other places). Standing tall in the photo is a man clearly wearing a valet’s uniform. Armstrong labeled the photo and next to this man, he wrote, “Too Sweet, our chauffer.” Thus, I tend to believe his name was “Too Sweet” rather than “Tout Suite,” but regardless, he did exist and Red Allen seemed pretty sure that he played drums. This could indeed be true because the entire record features nothing but a simple brush pattern on the snare drum. The tempo never lags but there’s no accents (notwithstanding one cymbal hit) or anything flashy whatsoever. Perhaps “Too Sweet” knew a thing or two about the drums and he maintain one pattern at one tempo for three minutes. However, the revered Jos Willems has listened carefully and he doesn’t buy the “Too Sweet” argument. Willems makes the convincing point that the drumming is identical to Barbarin’s work on “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” See what you think by listening to that seminal recording, recorded just one week later:



Willems makes a good point. So who is playing vibes? Willems notes that no piano is heard until the seventh bar of the theme statement so that makes Luis Russell a good candidate. But though I agree with all of Willems's points, why would Allen vividly remember the valet playing drums? It seems like something he wouldn’t make up but I guess we’ll never know. Chalk it up to another unsolved jazz mystery, I suppose.

Anyway, I’ve only discussed six seconds of the record and I haven’t even gotten to the part that makes most jazz purists throw up their lunch. Immediately after the vibe introduction, the melody of “Song of the Islands” is sweetly played by the three unknown violinists. With the vibraphone still going on in the background and Pops Foster bowing a two-beat pattern, this does not quite sound like a Louis Armstrong or a Luis Russell record, but maybe more like something by Andy Iona. This goes on for 16 bars before a commercial sounding arranged passage that sounds like quintessential 1920s dance band music.

Flash-forward to just last week when suntanned Michael Steinman, doing a bit of investigative reporting from Maui, wrote me about a 1929 short featuring Ben Pollack and His Orchestra. The short ends with Pollack's men--featuring the likes of Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy McPartland and Ray Bauduc--playing a chorus of "Song of the Islands" with violins taking the melody, a bowed bass and vibes in the background! I couldn't believe it when I saw, especially the vibes are being manned by Jack Teagarden. The short is from 1929 and Armstrong recorded his in January 1930 so obviously he was copping Pollack's idea or perhaps it was all written into a stock arrangement the two men shared. Anyway, here's the entire eight-minute short. Fast-forward to 7:00 to catch the "Islands" and see what you think. Thanks Michael!


Back to the task at hand. We’re 36 seconds into the record and Gunther Schuller has already contemplated suicide. Don’t believe me? Here’s Schuller himself: “By January 1930 the creepy tentacles of commercialism had begun to exert an alarming degree of stylistic constraint. On Song of the Islands we can hear the results. A painful mélange of non-jazz elements intrude upon Armstrong, and he himself does not escape entirely unscathed. And how could he?”

Ah, Gunther. Doesn’t the man have any sense of period charm? So the first 40 seconds of “Song of the Islands” isn’t great jazz. So what? I’m sure the guys in the band thought the same thing, but I’m sure they must have had a good time making a Hawaiian-sounding record. Regardless, when Pops enters, it does become a great jazz record, so really, why get so bent out of shape about a couple of violin players and a vibraphone? At least Schuller did come up with the perfect adjective for Pops Foster’s bass playing during this segment of the song: “voompy.”

Anyway, when Pops finally does enter, muted, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Am I the only one who thinks that the sappy violins and faux-Hawaiian atmosphere actually enhance Pops’s playing? He’s light years ahead of the arrangement and I think more can be said about his contribution to the song than the “commercial” aspects. I actually find it somewhat comical when I hear his entrance. He’s from a different planet. It’s like the Harlem Globetrotters ending up on Gilligan’s Island.

As I already said, “Song of the Islands” isn’t exactly a work of Gershwin or Ellington. It’s 16 simple bars and almost the entire written melody consists of whole notes or quarter notes. And out of such shoddy mud, Armstrong sculpts a masterpiece of storytelling. He takes the simple melody and keeps it simple, though his subtle repetitions of the main pitch practically define swing, especially in his second bar. He leaves plenty of space in those first four bars, but in bar five he begins to loosen up with a phrase that is 100% out of the Armstrong vocal book (I’m thinking “Don’t Play Me Cheap” or “Some Sweet Day,” among other examples). Heading into the second eight bars, he leaves two more beats of space before playing a neat little triplet figure in the turnaround. He then runs up and down with an arpeggio made up of a couple of more triplets before settling on the concert F of the original sheet music. He repeats it a few times, relaxed, before another rhythmically slippery phrase that sounds like he’s playing an obbligato to his own reading of the melody. After two more beats of space, Armstrong concludes his statement with more of the melody, though his phrasing couldn’t be more smooth and cloudlike.

Armstrong then hands the ball over to the great J.C. Higginbotham, who gives the melody more respect than it deserves, but he does repeat a few notes much as Armstrong did. A modulation from Ab to F sets up Armstrong’s wordless vocal, sung with glee club backing by a few members of the Russell band. People like Schuller hate this stuff, but Armstrong’s performing career began by singing in a vocal quartet in New Orleans and many of his classic early records feature this device (“Basin Street Blues,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” “Squeeze Me” and more). This is one of the most trumpet-like scat solos Armstrong ever took. It’s almost completely centered around swinging repetitions of a single note or two. Again, do you want to define the feeling of swing? Listen to the vocal a few times until it’s drilled in your head. Then, tap your table or desk at the same time as every one of Armstrong’s individually scatted notes. Then, sing it in your head and just tap. The combination of on-the-beat phrases juxtaposed with the notes placed in between the beats, well, if that’s not swing, I don’t know what is.

The band then takes a 16-bar arranged passage, a good opportunity to grab a quick beverage. Please, don’t judge the Russell band by a performance like this. This is just a dead arrangement but in a matter of seconds, you’ll forget all about it as Armstrong reenters, this time playing back in Ab. Much like his opening outing, Armstrong begins by working over that concert Eb. Again, in bar five, where he originally inserted that vocal-ish phrase, he plays another incredibly smooth arpeggio, beginning on an Ab, heading down to a low D, then right back up to a higher C, repeated three times before Armstrong bends and stretches an Eb like Silly Putty. After the usual amount of space, Armstrong begins the next eight bars with six repeated Eb’s, all on different beats, before a nifty little Eb-F-Eb turn of a phrase. Then, much like he did the first time around, Armstrong plays the F’s from the melody, then improvises a new little obbligato based around the notes of a Bb7 chord. Then it’s back to the melody. It’s a fine chorus with some nimble phrases but nothing earth-shattering. Until…

Armstrong joins the band for two bars of an arranged passage that leads to a modulation to the key of Db. Now Armstrong demonstrates the pure power and brilliance of his chops. He approaches the tune in much the same way as his first two go-arounds, but because of the key change, he’s now pumping out high Ab’s instead of Eb’s…a big difference. He still leaves plenty of space, allowing the listener all the more time to marvel at the beauty of his tone. In the sixth bar, Armstrong plays his calling card phrase, Bb-Db-Bb-Db-F-F-Db before uncorking another series of arpeggios in bar seven. The notes of a Db chord? Db-F-Ab. The notes of Armstrong’s arpeggio? Ab-F-Db-F-Ab-Db-Ab-F-Db-F-Ab. Armstrong rattles it off like it’s simple and again, I’ll use the word “smooth” to describe the flow of his faster phrases. But with the velocity shelved, Armstrong concentrates on power and drama for the ending. Immediately, from the start of the key change, you know what Armstrong has to do if he’s really going to play the melody that high. And of course he does it, letting a high Bb ring out clearly before topping out at a spine-tingling high C. Having reached his climax, Armstrong builds downward and ends on a low-key Db-Eb-Db phrase. Someone, anyone, strikes a somber chord on the vibraphone and the record comes to a close. A gem of Armstrong’s OKeh big band period.

For many, this is where Armstrong’s association with “Song of the Islands” ends, but he did revive it with his big band. A new uptempo arrangement of the song was performed on a couple radio broadcasts from 1940 and 1941, available, as usual, on the peerless Ambassador label, now available from the Louis Armstrong House Museum's online gift shop.. The first one comes from the Cotton Club in April 1940 and though it’s ten years later, Armstrong’s still fronting the Russell band with Red Allen, Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes and Pops Foster still aboard. This arrangement has nothing to do with the relaxed, Hawaiian feel of the original. It’s about twice as fast and opens with the reeds only alluding to the melody in between responses from the brass. It’s a nice example of the Swing Era being “orchestrated Armstrong,” as some have called it. All traces of dance band-sounding violins and vibes are gone. It now swings from note one and the casual rephrasing of the melody stems very much from Armstrong’s language. Here's the audio:


After one chorus, Higginbotham takes one on his “tram-boon.” All it takes is one listen and you can understand why Pops enjoyed Trummy Young’s blustery playing so much in the 1950s. Higgy’s entire solo is proto-Trummy and it’s exciting as hell. And in a nod to Armstrong’s original, J.C. plays that Armstrong vocal-type phrase in the same exact place Armstrong played it in 1930. Like the original, the tune modulates for an Armstrong scat vocal, once again over glee club backing. This time Armstrong takes two choruses, a break joining them and the band indulges in some arranged singing, repeating Armstrong’s last phrase, to allow Armstrong to get his chops together. And when he does, stand back! There’s no more modulating. Armstrong begins right off in Db and wails for four full choruses, sticking exclusively to the upper register throughout. He sticks closely to the melody for much of it, but still finds time to throw in some nimble improvisations such as, you guessed it, that same vocal phrase in bars five and six. With each passing chorus, Armstrong shows off the pure raw power of his 1940 chops. In 1930, the buildup to that high C is very dramatic; you see it coming and when he hits it, you feel exhilarated. By 1940, every chorus featured a high C hit seemingly without any effort. Armstrong’s favorite drummer, Sid Catlett, really knew how to drive Pops and Pops responds with some really exciting work in the last two choruses. It’s tremendously exciting and is all over in two minutes and 30 seconds, a full minute shorter than the original. This particular version is available on the Ambassador disc, At the Cotton Club, which should have been hailed by the jazz community but instead is almost impossible to find. Ah, where would us Armstrong lovers be without the late Gösta Hägglöf!?

Volume eight of Ambassador’s Armstrong series contains an extremely rare broadcast from the Grand Terrace in Chicago on November 27, 1941. The quality is poor, but I’m just thankful the music survives. The fast arrangement of “Song of the Islands” is trotted out again, picking up with Louis’s scat solo. Armstrong’s four-chorus improvisation is very similar to the one he played at the Cotton Club the previous year. Armstrong was from the generation who worked on their solos until they were perfect. This didn’t mean that Armstrong didn’t improvise but sometimes, when he had a good solo “set,” it remained that way. This is not a bad thing. Never mind the critics who might complain about such matters. I picture a dancer at the Cotton Club in April 1940 or someone standing around the bandstand of the Grand Terrace in November 1941. They were the ones Armstrong was playing for, not some critic writing 65 years later, and I’m sure they were gassed by “Song of the Islands” when they heard it. How could you not be? Here's how it came out at the Grand Terrace:


Now let’s flash forward to 1956 and Louis Armstrong’s last run-in with “Song of the Islands” from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. As I’ve stated a hundred thousand times, I’m a big big big supporter of the Autobiography project where the 55-year-old Armstrong tackled man of the songs he originally made famous in the 1920s and 1930s. Some people are so anal about Armstrong’s greatness as a young man that they don’t give the Autobiography sessions a fair shake. I think this is big mistake. Armstrong was completely relaxed for the Autobiography with no other gigs to occupy his time or chops. He was going through a peak period of blowing between 1953 and 1959 and he had the finest edition of the All Stars backing him up, the one with Trummy Young and Edmond Hall. Armstrong responds with brilliant playing on every track, sometimes topping his original efforts. For a great example, listen to Armstrong crack the final high Eb on the original 1929 “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” just barely getting it out. Then listen to the Autobiography version where he hits it and holds it. After playing this example during one of my Armstrong lectures at the Institute of Jazz Studies, esteemed trumpeter Randy Sandke remarked that he had no doubt that Armstrong was a technically better trumpet player in his 50s than he was in his 20s. And the Autobiography is filled with dozens of these great moments, many courtesy of the remarkable Sy Oliver sessions.

Oliver was hired to recreate the OKeh and Victor big band recordings and these sides, to me, are the Autobiography’s masterpieces. The December 13, 1956 session started right off with “Song of the Islands.” Here's how it came out:


Oliver usually kept his arrangements pretty streamlined, but he brought the original ones at least somewhat into the future. Thus, the vibraphone and violins are out on “Song of the Islands,” replaced by a delicate Billy Kyle piano intro and the melody stated by the rich reed section made up of great players like Hilton Jefferson and Lucky Thompson. The tempo’s a little slower than the original, which lends an even more relaxed feeling to the proceedings. Pops enters in Ab, gently massaging the Eb. The “vocal phrase” in bars five and six is gone, replaced by a neat little downward phrase that sounds like he’s skipping downhill. Armstrong really sticks to the melody here, not offering many frills but his tone is beautiful and he his last two bars are rhythmically tricky.

As in 1930, a trombone solo follows and it’s a mellow one played by Trummy. After the modulation for the vocal, Armstrong begins his scat solo, but this time he’s all alone with no other voices to back him up. This is one of my very favorite scat sessions. As I already mentioned, Armstrong was very relaxed during the Autobiography sessions. Decca producer Milt Gabler made sure the All Stars had no other bookings and he made sure to stuff the sessions full of good food and good friends. One of those good friends was the actor Slim Thompson, who, according to IMDB, had four roles in movies of the 1930s, including The Petrified Forest and Green Pastures, before leaving the film industry. Since “Song of the Islands” was first up, it’s easy to picture Armstrong arriving at the studio, warming up and welcoming his friends, perhaps telling a dirty joke or two.

Thus, when Armstrong began his scat vocal on “Song of the Islands,” he almost immediately slips in the phrase “Slim Thompson-face” into his scat! I can only imagine the smiles in the studio at that one. Three seconds later, Armstrong offers a shout-out to another friend. This was a mystery scat for years; the great Dan Morgenstern thought it was something about "Rinsofax" and though it made little sense, that was good enough for me. But leave it to the sharp ears of the great Dave Whitney who heard it as Armstrong calling out the name of his good friend "Lorenzo Pack." Once you think of it that way, you'll hear "Lorenzo Pack" for the rest of your life. Pack was a boxer in the 1930s with a record of 19 wins, 9 losses and 1 draw. According to his record at www.boxrec.com, he was knocked out by both Jersey Joe Walcott and "Two Ton" Tony Galento. In addition to being a good friend of Armstrong's, Pack wrote the song "This Black Cat Has Nine Lives," which Louis recorded on the 1970 album Louis Armstrong and His Friends. I always thought that was a pretty weak tune and maybe Louis was recording it as a favor...I think I was right!

Two seconds after calling attention to Pack, Armstrong sings, “Whatcha say, Gate?” so clearly, he didn’t care about the record any more. He was giving a performance to those in the studio and I’m sure they were loving it.

As the scat goes on, Armstrong lets the listeners in on why he loves “Song of the Islands” so much. Take away the Hawaiian elements, the violins and vibraphone on the original. Take away the swinging call and response of the 1940 broadcasts. Take away the glee club backings and scat vocals. What attracted Armstrong to “Song of the Islands”? He reveals the secret at the 2:27 mark in yet another aside to the studio crowd: “Them changes gate.” It might have only been 16 simple bars, but Armstrong dug the chord changes. There’s the opening (in Ab) Ab-Adim7-Eb/Bb and the Ab to F7 to Bb7 in the second eight, two somewhat sentimental patterns that Armstrong must have felt to be quite beautiful. And in his horn, they are.

Like 1930, the tune modulates back to Ab for Armstrong’s trumpet re-entrance, which is one of my favorite moments of the performance. Three declamatory notes followed by six beats of space before Armstrong tip-toes back in to create some very lucid ruminations on the melody. It’s all tone and damn, what a tone it is. At the end of these 16 bars, the band prepares for the climactic modulation, rewritten by Oliver to sound much more exciting with Trummy’s trombone on top. Armstrong enters with that beautiful high Ab, the band digging in behind him over backbeats by Deems. On the original, Armstrong stuck mainly to that Ab, but in 1956, Armstrong goes up to a Bb, a welcome addition to this gorgeous solo. The buttery smooth arpeggios and double-timed phrases are gone but like a pitcher who loses a few miles off their fastball with age and has to become a finesse pitcher (unless he’s Roger Clemens—insert steroids joke here), Armstrong made due in his later years with a huge sound, a golden tone and a relaxed phrasing that still defied conventional rhythm while defining the concept of swing. Armstrong floats through this portion of “Song of the Islands” until it’s time to hit the high Bb’s, which he does beautifully. I love the sound of his tone on the repeated Bbs. It’s so pure and he doesn’t even sound like he’s struggling, though God knows what this did to his chops. The high C sings like a bird but instead of replicating the original low-key ending, Armstrong plants his feet firmly, hits a high C and ends with a gigantic high Db, higher than any note he played on the 1930 original.

“Song of the Islands” is one of my favorite highlights of the Autobiography, but that December 13 day was just getting started when you look at the amazing blowing that followed: “That’s My Home,” “ Memories Of You” and “Them There Eyes.” Unbelievable stuff. But I think to write any more about “Song of the Islands,” I would have to actually fly to Hawaii. Or maybe read a Hawaiian in-flight magazine. Either way, listening to it will give you at least a few minutes of warmth to combat what is turning into a ferociously cold winter here in New Jersey.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

60 Years of Louis Armstrong "At The Crescendo"

When Louis Armstrong re-signed with Decca Records in 1949 after a three-year absence, he put his recording career in the hands of a man he knew he could trust: Milt Gabler. Louis loved Milt so much, he referred to him as "Angel Gabler." Milt was the right man for the job because he could get Louis hit records, but thanks to his days overseeing Commodore Records (and naturally, the Commodore Music Shop), Gabler had a deep appreciation for pure, no-frills jazz.

Thus, when Armstrong came back to Decca, Gabler was ready to showcase him to maximum effect in a variety of settings. First, there was the choir (and later, strings) of Gordon Jenkins, which helped Pops hit the charts with That Lucky Old Sun and Blueberry Hill. Next, Gabler teamed Armstrong with a variety of singers, including Billie HolidayLouis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald and more. Sy Oliver was enlisted to take other people's hits and retool them for Louis; the results--including La Vie En Rose, "C'est Si Bon," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "I Get Ideas" and more--still stand alongside Armstrong's most beloved recordings.

But Gabler also realized the value of the All Stars, one of jazz's most popular attractions. In April 1950, he turned the All Stars loose in the studio, having them wax definitive versions of some of their most popular live features ("New Orleans Function," "Panama," "That's For Me," and more) for two albums, New Orleans Nights and "Jazz Concert." Probably around that time, Gabler purchased Ernie Anderson's live recordings of the All Stars at Boston's Symphony Hall in November 1947 and released the results in January 1951 as Satchmo at Symphony Hall. That very same month, Gabler tried his hand at the live recording business and recorded the very fine Satchmo at Pasadena. It seemed like nothing Armstrong and Gabler did could miss.

But then things started to drift. Gabler continued recording Armstrong throughout 1952 and 1953 and though the results were often wonderful (and in dire need of reissue and reappraisal), they were admittedly more "commercial" in nature. The All Stars made a guest appearance on the soundtrack of The Glenn Miller Story in early 1954 but mostly, they were just used anonymously among the studio bands Gabler hired for Armstrong's recording sessions.

This was beginning to frustrate Armstrong. He was more proud of his All Stars than ever before, especially with the additions of trombonist Trummy Young and pianist Billy Kyle. He told the Voice of America in 1956 that he started telling the people at the label (Louis didn't mention Gabler by name but who else would it be?) that shouldn't the All Stars just be allowed to "tear out" now and then? He was told it was a good idea but first some Hit Parade numbers had to be recorded "and blah blah blah," as Armstrong said when telling the story.

Enter George Avakian. Seeing Armstrong's five-year exclusive Decca contract about to lapse, he waved some money at Joe Glaser and got him to let Columbia Records record an album with Louis. Avakian wanted the All Stars and let them "tear out" on 11 numbers written by W. C. Handy. The resulting album, Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy, was a critical and commercial smash. Jazz purists held it as an example of Decca spoiling Armstrong by allowing him to record so many "commercial" numbers.

The Columbia album was a one-off as Louis was back recording for Decca one-month later on August 13. But the resulting two-sided single of the South African song Skokiaan didn't make many fans of the jazz-centric  folks, nor did it make the charts (though it has gone on to be a hugely popular Armstrong recording). On September 1, Gabler had Armstrong take his classic "Muskrat Ramble" and sing the dopey lyrics recently made popular by the McGuire Sisters. And on January 18, 1955, Gabler rang in the New Year by having Armstrong record duets with Crosby....Gary, though, not Bing. And that same day, Louis tried out a few rock-and-roll ballads, "Pledging My Love" and Sincerely. Gabler had hit the jackpot with Bill Haley's recordings in 1954 so why not try Pops on some mellow rock? The results went nowhere.

Gabler was in the midst of a rut regarding Armstrong (commercially, if not artistically; when not compared to Avakian's towering recordings, these mid-50s Armstrong Deccas have plenty of enjoyable moments, not to mention a copious amount of powerhouse horn). So on January 21, 1955--60 years ago today--Gabler took a page from Avakian and let the All Stars simply tear out. But perhaps remembering the success of Satchmo at Symphony Hall and Satchmo at Pasadena, Gabler decided to record the group live at Gene Norman's Crescendo Club in Hollywood.

For the All Stars, the early-to-mid-1950s were the height of the popularity on the nightclub circuit. They still thrived on one-nighters but the itinerary was usually full of extended engagements in major cities, playing 3, 4 sometimes even 5 sets a night. The Blue Note in Chicago, Basin Street in New York, the Hangover in San Francisco, the Celebrity Club in Rhode Island and more. Just a couple of years later--after the All Stars' popularity really exploded in 1956--Joe Glaser phased the nightclubs out and booked the All Stars almost exclusively in concerts, jazz festivals and colleges, really ratcheting up the one-nighter count. Louis didn't appear at a New York City nightclub a single time between Basin Street engagements in 1956 and 1961 and after that, didn't do it again until appearing at the Latin Quarter in 1968.

But in 1955, Louis and the All Stars were living high on the nightclub scene. Gene Norman was perhaps best known as a disc jockey but he also ran festivals like the popular "Dixieland Jubilee" concerts; recorded live concerts and released them on his own GNP/Crescendo label; and owned the popular Crescendo Club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Norman loved Armstrong and recorded him at Pasadena in both 1951 and 1956 (Decca's Satchmo At Pasadena was a "Gene Norman Presents" event, as well). The venue would be a perfect spot to capture what the All Stars were doing night in and night out in this period.



The band Louis fronted at the Crescendo Club is the one most folks might know as "The Handy Band" or "The Satch Plays Fats Band." Louis was right in the middle of what I consider to be his prime 1953-1958 period during the All Stars years. Trummy Young's on trombone, raising hell throughout. Clarinetist Barney Bigard, bassist Arvell Shaw and vocalist Velma Middleton were the only ones (along with Louis) to have been on Gabler's previous concert recordings from 1947 and 1951. Shaw was sounding better than ever in 1955 and Velma and Louis now had more duets than ever to bring down the house. Alas, Bigard was almost running on empty, exhausted by the grind and possibly drinking too much. He's lost in most of the ensembles and his features meander a bit, but the Crescendo recording does capture a few sparkling moments from his New Orleans clarinet. Pianist Billy Kyle and Drummer Barrett Deems were the newest members but today, they remain two of the best loved. In fact, the entire Kyle-Shaw-Deems rhythm section is something to marvel at throughout the Crescendo performances. Gabler recorded them beautifully as they simply lock in and kick ass on number after number. With rock-and-roll on the upswing, it shouldn't be any surprise that the All Stars remained popular with young folks....they rocked--and swung--harder than any other band on the planet!

When George Avakian recorded the All Stars live multiple times in late 1955 and throughout 1956, he was always trying to get Armstrong to change his program and try different things out, often to no avail. Gabler knew better to not attempt to tell Louis Armstrong what to do on stage. Thus, there's a real spontaneous feel to the proceedings. Armstrong, for all of the criticisms about him playing "the same show every night," was known for not planning anything in advance. Yes, there were certain patterns--you knew you were going to get "Sleepy Time" and "Indiana" at the start--but often, he'd judge what was best for each particular audience on the fly. Sure enough, throughout the Crescendo recordings, if you listen carefully, you can hear Louis calling out the name of the next song to be performed to the other members of the band. On the third set opener, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," he can be heard quietly shouting during the piano solo, "'Lazy River' and 'Old Man Mose'!" Sure enough, those two numbers follow in order.

So without any special material to record or anything new to prepare, Gabler just hit the "record" button and captured a full evening by the All Stars in this mid-50s glory, three sets in all. First, I think for the first time (discographers, take note!), here's everything Gabler recorded at the Crescendo, courtesy of Gabler's own handwritten tape notes, copied from the files of the Institute of Jazz Studies.

FIRST SET
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
Indiana (Back Home Again In)
The Gypsy
Someday You'll Be Sorry
Tin Roof Blues
My Bucket's Got A Hole In It
Rose Room (Barney Bigard feature)
Perdido (Billy Kyle feature)
Blues For Bass (Arvell Shaw feature)
Me And Brother Bill
When You're Smiling
Tain't What You Do (It's The Way That Cha Do It) (Trummy Young feature)
Lover, Come Back To Me (Velma Middleton feature)
Don't Fence Me In (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
Basin Street Blues
Mop Mop (unissued) (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (closing theme)

SECOND SET
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (unissued)
Shadrack/When The Saints Go Marching In
C'est Si Bon
The Whiffenpoof Song
Rockin' Chair (Louis Armstrong and Trummy Young)
Twelfth Street Rag
Muskrat Ramble
S'wonderful (unissued) (Barney Bigard feature)
St. Louis Blues (Billy Kyle feature)
The Man I Love (Arvell Shaw feature)
Back O' Town Blues
Old Man Mose 
Margie (Trummy Young feature)
Big Mama's Back In Town  (Velma Middleton feature)
Big Butter And Egg Man (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
Baby, It's Cold Outside (unissued) (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
The Dummy Song (unissued) (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
Jeepers Creepers
Stompin' At The Savoy (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (closing theme)

THIRD SET
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (opening theme)
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
Lazy River
Old Man Mose (second take)
My Bucket's Got A Hole In It (second take)
S Wonderful (second take) (Barney Bigard feature)
Big Mama's Back In Town (second take)  (Velma Middleton feature)
Since I Fell For You  (Velma Middleton feature)
Mop Mop (second take) (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (finale)

What a night! Now, how about some music and analysis before the thesis continues? First, the analysis. You can see that Louis had fallen into a comfortable pattern in the first set that would last for quite some time: he comes out and features himself for a bunch, then turns it over to Billy Kyle's piano, followed by Barney Bigard's clarinet and Arvell Shaw's bass, before coming back for a few himself, then turning it over to Trummy Young and Velma Middleton. After a duet with Velma, he closes with something big for himself and then a drum solo.

But just look at those sets. Those are some LONG sets. I clocked them, using the times we know, plus estimating the times of the unissued performances and this is what I got:

First set, approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes
Second set, approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes
Third set, approximately 40 minutes

That's 3 hours and 20 minutes of music in one evening. Throw in two probably 20 minute breaks and it's a 4 hour night at the club. That's a lot of work.

In his notes for the 1992 reissue, Dan Morgenstern makes a very good assumption that perhaps the third set was added only because Decca was recording; it's only 40 minutes and almost entirely made up of second takes of songs the group had already recorded. This would be the only example of Gabler inserting himself into the program, maybe giving Pops a list of songs to do over again. That's entirely possible and even probable. Three sets would have been unheard of in a concert, but as I mentioned earlier, I have found mentions of Louis playing three, four and even five sets during his nightclub engagements. I wonder what the Crescendo Club policy was? Maybe third sets were supposed to be short? In concerts, Louis would often play a much shorter second set when he was doing two shows in one day, often clocking in around 40 minutes. So it's also possible that people who came for the first set were gone by the third set so it didn't matter if Louis played some of the same songs over again and this was part of the routine.

But speaking of repeating songs and such. Louis was crucified for playing "the same songs every night." And you might glance at the above 3 hours and 20 minutes of music and think, "Yep, no surprises." But look at what he DIDN'T play that night:  "Blueberry Hill," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "Black and Blue," "New Orleans Function," "Sunny Side of the Street," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Ole Miss," "Royal Garden Blues," "La Vie En Rose," "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "West End Blues" and many more, all songs that could be found in Armstrong's mid-1950s concerts. If Gabler recorded the following evening, who knows what he would have captured? The All Stars book was DEEP.

But what beautifully paced sets. It's hard, but if forced to choose, I'm a sucker for the second set. In this period, the medley of "Shadrack/When the Saints Go Marchin' In" was the standard second opener. One year later, "Shadrack" was retired and "The Saints" was moved into the show closer spot.

After a swinging run-through of "C'est Si Bon," Louis then gives a master's class in how to combine hilarious comedy and good music. First, he teases the boppers with his parody of "The Whiffenpoof Song." He'd put on a red beret and sunglasses and skewer Dizzy Gillespie "and the boppin' faction." (Modern jazz fans were really angered by this routine.) But the first two minutes is taken up by Louis's beautiful, straight reading of the melody. This is followed by Louis and Trummy Young hammin' it up on "Rockin' Chair," but again, the short trumpet statement of the melody can give you the chills:

Rockin' Chair:


Next, Louis turns to the "Dixieland" side and teases them with a purposely corny treatment of "Twelfth Street Rag." There are moments (especially Barney Bigard's Boyd Senteresque work) where you hear the audience screaming with laughter....but Louis's lead playing in the ensembles is frighteningly fierce! And finally, after all these laughs, Armstrong announces something "for all the musicians in the house" and he and the All Stars proceed to turn in one of the most swinging performances of "Muskrat Ramble" of the 1950s--and beyond:


I've actually shared a decent amount of music from the Crescendo in the past. Here's a sample.

First, Louis's "Indiana" solo is unlike any he took before or after (and you can compare them all in my old Indiana blog):



On the second version of "Old Man Mose," Louis flubbed the lyric and restarted the performance without missing a beat: 


The Crescendo included perhaps my favorite version of Velma Middleton's "Big Mama's Back in Town":


Here's that killer version of "Shadrack" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In":


Billy Kyle's romping "St. Louis Blues" is one of my favorite Kyle features but it would be retired shortly after this concert when the success of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy forced Louis and Velma to start performing their fantastic duet on that number. Still, Billy SWINGS!


"Jeepers Creepers" wasn't a common choice in the All Stars years; this one features two exciting instrumental choruses up front:



And finally, rare live version of "When You're Smiling" at a swinging tempo. Doesn't get much better than this: the rocking rhythm section, the sound of Louis's trumpet, Trummy's dynamic solo.....love it!  


I could keep going but the whole Riccardi clan has been sick this week and I've barely been able to get to my computer to upload the audio. But Trummy's features on "T'ain't What You Do" and "Margie" are knockouts, as are Arvell's "Blues for Bass" and "The Man I Love." There's a great "Basin Street" with some dynamite Billy Kyle and a lowdown "Back O'Town Blues" that's more exciting than the early 50s versions from Pasadena. And even when his lip should have been tired in the third set, Louis doesn't quit, soaring on "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "Lazy River," "The Bucket's Got a Hole in It" and more. Oh, and there's great Velma all around, including "Don't Fence Me In," a showstopper that sometimes gets forgotten after the more popular Louis-Velma duets of "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "That's My Desire." Only Barney's features on "Rose Room" and "S'wonderful" go on too long but even they have great spots for Pops (3 hours and 20 minutes of music and the only song Louis sits out is Kyle's "St. Louis Blues"...don't accuse him of coasting!).

With so much music to choose from, Gabler had his work cut out for him, too, from a producer's standpoint. As I wrote about in the liner notes to last year's Mosaic Records' boxed set on Louis's live Columbia and RCA Victor recordings of the 1940s and 1950s, the biggest need was always a desire for "fresh" material. If other recordings already existed of a particular number, why issue it again? This was Avakian's aforementioned challenge and he dealt with it in his own style, recording Louis in studio or "pseudo-studio" settings, giving him new material and treating the end results as being "live."

Gabler didn't go in for that, but confronted with the Crescendo Club tapes, he had to deal with a lot of repetition from other recent Decca albums, including Satchmo at Symphony Hall and Satchmo at Pasadena. He might have wanted to release nothing but Armstrong features, but it would have been tough: "Indiana" and "Baby It's Cold Outsider" were on Pasadena, "Muskrat Ramble" was on Symphony Hall, "Twelfth Street Rag" was part of the 1950 studio session, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" was recorded in the studio in March 1954 and "The Gypsy" was a studio single recorded in October 1953. Everything else, at least, was fairly fresh for an Armstrong release in 1955.

Gabler took the 3 hours and 20 minutes of recordings, edited it down (shuffling the order simultaneously) and released the results on two separate volumes, At The Crescendo Volume One and Two.



For those who might remember the original albums, here's how Gabler broke it down:

Volume 1
Side 1:
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
Jeepers Creepers
Tin Roof Blues
My Bucket's Got a Hole In It
Rose Room (Barney Bigard feature)
Brother Bill
Side 2
Lazy River
T'ain't What You Do (Trummy Young feature)
Perdido (Billy Kyle feature)
Blues for Bass (Arvell Shaw feature)
Don't Fence Me In (Louis and Velma)
Stompin' at the Savoy (Barrett Deems feature)

Volume 2
Side 1:
Ol' Man Mose
Rockin' Chair
C'est Si Bon
When You're Smiling
When the Saints Go Marchin' In
Side 2: 
Someday You'll Be Sorry
St. Louis Blues (Billy Kyle feature)
Back O'Town Blues
Big Mama's Back in Town (Velma Middleton feature)
Mop! Mop! (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South

Gabler had some work to do and by the time he edited the recordings into the two LPs and released the results, it was September 1955. Joe Glaser had decided to pit Columbia and Decca against each other for much of 1955. After the Crescendo recording, Gabler did two more studio dates, one with the All Stars in April and one with a Benny Carter-arranged studio orchestra in September. Once again, the results didn't do much at the cash register or for Armstrong's reputation (covering the Platters's "Only You" or the unpronounceable "Mm-mm" didn't help). Meanwhile, over at Columbia, George Avakian produced the timeless Satch Plays Fats. Both Satch Plays Fats and At the Crescendo were released around the same time (Satch Plays Fats actually was released in August but both were grouped together in a review in the October 1, 1955 Billboard). When pitted against the concept (Louis Armstrong Plays Fats Waller), the design (photos of Louis and Fats vs. a trumpet on a chair) and the overall Columbia Records machine, it was no contest. In that same October 1 issue, Billboard listed Satch Plays Fats as the number one selling album on the jazz charts and the number ten album on the pop music charts. At the Crescendo  finally hit the number eight spot on the jazz charts in February 1956 and disappeared. Two months later, Columbia released Ambassador Satch, THE definitive live Louis album of the era, another best-selling record. Even Louis, in an interview in the summer of 1956 told an interviewer that Ambassador Satch was better than At the Crescendo (the power of Edmond Hall!). He wasn't just blowing smoke; on his private reel-to-reel tapes, Louis dubbed Ambassador Satch on 18 of them, At the Crescendo, just 9 (and sometimes not both volumes).


To this day, the allure of Ambassador Satch remains undiminished. I spent the bulk of the past two years co-producing the Mosaic set, which is a love letter to that album. And I am continuously stunned when I meet young musicians in their 20s and 30s and they tell me that Ambassador Satch was their gateway into Louis and jazz in general. More than any other album (more than the Hot Fives and Sevens!), that's the one that gets mentioned.

But At the Crescendo? Not so much. Why? A few reasons come to mind. In the mid-50s, as Armstrong continued getting more and more popular, he increasingly became a target for the jazz critics, many of whom seemed to hate everything he, and especially his band, represented. Unlike W. C. HandyAt the Crescendo wasn't hailed as something for the time capsule. It was derided as too much show business, too many old routines, nothing groundbreaking--and way too many features. There were critics who still praised Louis but didn't like the members of the All Stars; devoting almost an entire side of volume 1 to sideman features could not have helped. (Hell, Leonard Feather's original liner notes spend about half the space on biographies on the sidemen, Feather assuming that readers already knew "the familiar facts of Louis' life.") To be fair, Ambassador Satch wasn't a favorite of the critics either and it devoted 2 of its 10 numbers to sideman features, but maybe because it was an instrumental-heavy single LP, it went over better with the general and jazz public.

But the reissue situation hasn't helped either. In 1992, Decca-GRP was cranking out a steady stream of jazz reissues, many overseen by legendary producer Orrin Keepnews. This was a series that was crucial to me in my early days as a jazz listener in the mid-90s. Decca GRP-GRD-4-613 was a 4-CD boxed set simply titled The California Concerts. It united Satchmo at Pasadena and At the Crescendo, cause enough for celebration. But Decca revisited the original tapes and ended up adding a ton of previously unissued bonus tracks, including 18 from the Crescendo evening, filling out both evenings until they were virtually complete (one track from Pasadena was withheld because of tape damage but Keepnews kept a handful of performances from the Crescendo in the vaults for personal reasons, as will be discussed shortly).

In 1992, though, we must remember that Louis's reputation hadn't fully been restored yet. Gary Giddins's Satcho book and documentary were tremendously important first steps but it still took some time. In 1994, the Louis Armstrong Archives opened at Queens College, Wynton Marsalis led a week-long tribute to Louis at Lincoln Center, the Smithsonian embarked on a traveling exhibit and Sony released Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a boxed set of Armstrong's 1923-1934 recordings. That was really the turning point, but for years and years and years, it only restored the reputation of Armstrong's early carer; later Louis was still something of a joke.

So in 1992, putting a set out like this wasn't a cause celebre in the jazz world.  Leonard Feather--who wrote the original liner notes!--praised Armstrong but called The California Concerts "heavily flawed" in the Los Angeles Times (but interestingly never detailed the flaws). I don't know much else about the 1992 reaction but I can't imagine it garnered much attention in the jazz world. It did remain in print for many years but carried a hefty price tag. Eventually, the CDs went out-of-print, but it's still available as a download, $37.99 on Amazon.

But now it's 2015. The California Concerts was released in 1992...23 years ago! That's a long time to be off the radar, especially since the project was never exactly on the radar. Plus, there was something unwieldy about; At the Crescendo started 6 tracks into Disc 2 and carried until the end of Disc 4. I love this set but even I'm sometimes hesitant to throw it in my car  because it's a little annoying, starting midway through Disc 2, switching after only ten tracks, etc. Once again, Ambassador Satch was reissued by Sony in 2000, a single-disc edition with some bonuses. That's probably the one many of the young musicians I mentioned earlier discovered. But I've never met any who've named The California Concerts as their seminal starting point.

Except me.

(The plot thickens!)

By now, most readers know that my life was changed when I discovered Louis Armstrong's music in October 1995. It was a compilation of George Avakian's 1950s Columbia recordings (yes, including tracks from Ambassador Satch). And as I wrote about recently, that Christmas, my parents gave me the Portrait of the Artist boxed set. But in those years, my parents and I had a condo in Deerfield Beach, Florida, where we would go down at least twice a year for vacation, often Christmas and Easter. We spent an insane amount of time in bookstores and music stores (there used to be a LOT in those days; now, not so much). At a Borders in Coral Springs, I saw The California Concerts and bought it (or more likely, convinced my parents to buy it for me!).

A few memories: the 1951 Pasadena portion left me a little cold. I liked it--and grew to love it--but I really didn't pay attention until disc 2 when At the Crescendo started. And I just absolutely loved it. I'd heard some live Louis compilations but now I was listening to him live, one evening, in his element, start to finish....and I loved it. Hell, my parents even loved it! They hated flying so the Florida vacations, which lasted until about 2003, were 2-day driving affairs. And each year, my mom especially looked forward to when I'd break out "The Crescendo Club" and we'd listen for 3 hours, almost making it through an entire state in the time it took to listen to it. And I still love it. To this day, when I'm in the mood for live Louis during a long day at work or during my long 3+ hour commute home, I'll often cue up The California Concerts, go to Disc 2 and plow through it all. It's just as good as being there.

But The California Concerts also turned Dan Morgenstern into my hero. I couldn't get enough of his notes to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man....but who was he? In The California Concerts, he explained in an essay titled "Some Notes from an Armstrong Fan." He opened, "I might as well come clean at the start: where Louis Armstrong is concerned, I am not a critic (never cared for that title) or historian (like that one better), but quite simply (or perhaps not so simply) a fan." Oh, I loved that! That one paragraph has fueled so much of my writing and work on Louis because at the end of the day, I'm a fan, too.

In his notes, Dan also took shots at "misguided psychobabbler James Lincoln Collier." I had checked out Collier's book from the local library and was horrified; reading Dan's take, I became happy I wasn't alone. Then, after addressing all the critics who complained about Louis in his later years, Dan wrote, "Listening to these performances, you will come as close as now is possible to an in-person encounter with the Armstrong All Star magic. You can then decide for yourself who was right: the throngs who cheered, or the critics who sneered. As for me, I've told you already; I was a fan." Man, that still makes me want to cheer!

And when Dan later wrote, "Someone ought to sit down and map out the travels of the All Stars, and then use a computer to discover how many hours of blowing Louis Armstrong did in a given year during the group's heyday." My brain read that sentence and translated it into, "Someone ought to sit down and write a book about the All Stars." Seriously. That essay and the music from the Crescendo Club had such an effect on the path I chose and the book I eventually wrote.

(And to really illustrate how surreal my life has become, this past Saturday, I played a piano gig with my pal Brendan Castner at d'jeet? in Shrewsbury, NJ. In the audience? Daryl Sherman and Dan Morgenstern. Crazy!)


So here we are in 2015, 60 years after that Crescendo Club evening. As I mentioned, you can still download The Crescendo Club for a decent price (but no liner notes; CD copies in good condition will cost you). But I'm getting restless. A few years ago, Universal Music put out Satchmo At Pasadena but it was a straight reissue of the original album without a single bonus track. That was before I got friendly with the Universal crew. Once I busted my way in, I managed to co-produced Satchmo at Symphony Hall 65th Anniversary: The Complete Performances as well as oversee the digital release of Louis's August 1, 1957 session with Oscar Peterson, A Day With Satchmo. They also called me in recently for another download-only release of Armstrong's studio recordings for a certain label that I can divulge now, but will offer all the details once it's off the ground.

Thus, don't worry, I'm trying to convince Universal that revisiting At the Crescendo would be worth its time. And to do it in COMPLETE form would be crucial. Orrin Keepnews is a legend but might not have been the best man for The California Concerts. For one thing, he was an old-school producer who believed in putting out the best product (like Gabler and Avakian) and wasn't much of a completist. Also, he was a serious man. He trounced an All Stars performance in a 1949 review, falling in line with all the other critics who bashed Pops in those years. Thus, there's all sorts of weird fades on The California Concerts and I think I know what some of them are: "tasteless" jokes. Louis used to introduce "Lover Come Back to Me" as "Lover Come BLACK to Me"; that intro is gone. Arvell Shaw used to talk about how announcing the title of "The Man I Love" made him "feel funny"; gone. And if you look at the above list of tunes from the session tapes, two were cut entirely, "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "The Dummy Song," two of Louis and Velma's silliest numbers. In his "Producer's Note" to "The California Concerts," Keepnews admitted his bias: "But two others, which shall remain unidentified, really were inadequate (neither one directly involved Armstrong), and I insist upon a producer's prerogative: to use those takes merely to achieve 'completeness' would be to demean the musicians."

Now, I've never actually heard "Baby, It's Cold Outside" or "The Dummy Song" from the Crescendo so maybe they are "inadequate" in some technical way; but I've heard other live performances from the period and they always are a lot of fun. I think they were just a little too much fun for Keepnews.

A few years ago, Universal put out Ella Fitzgerald's Twelve Nights in Hollywood, a CD-boxed set of recordings taken from a weeklong engagement at, you guessed it, the Crescendo. The thing was a smash, getting the kind of publicity unprecedented in jazz. Immediately, I thought a truly complete reissue of At the Crescendo ("One Night in Hollywood"?) would do the same. Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't; my own Mosaic set might have stolen some of the thunder regarding another look at live Louis from the 1950s.

But At the Crescendo is ripe for rediscovery. There's been so much renewed interest in the All Stars years that it wouldn't be met with the kind of shrug it seemed to have received in 1992. Universal has already reissued the other two live Louis Deccas, so why let the Crescendo rot away in the vaults? Admittedly, we're still in the process of making sure the original tapes even still exist; sadly, this is not a guarantee. So please don't take this as a release announcement! Just know that I'm doing what I can to get this thing reissued so the jazz world can take a fresh listen at a full evening with jazz's greatest genius. (Would anyone out there--anyone, that is, still reading this--be interested in such a complete release? If the answer's no, I'll stop pushing!)

And hey, if I can't do anything, The California Concerts is still available as a download. It sure had an impact on me. Give it a listen and maybe it'll have one on you, too. It's Pops....how could it not?

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Bessie Smith Meets Louis Armstrong: 90 Years Later

Five classics in one session.

Just let that sink in for a minute. Many artists are lucky to record five classics in one lifetime. But 90 years ago today, on January 14, 1925, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Fred Longshaw met in Columbia Record's New York recording studio and waxed five classics. Not a dud in the bunch. Nothing that can even be described as a "throwaway" or "lesser."

Five recordings. All classics.

Granted, Smith and Armstrong had unusually high batting averages throughout their careers so it's not entirely fathomable. But even their later meeting in May 1925 didn't produce the kind of time capsule classics as the January date. That kind of magic only comes around once in a great while and we should be truly thankful that it happened in front of an acoustic recording device.

This blog is about Louis Armstrong (hell, my life is about Louis Armstrong), so it's easy for me to talk about Louis, Louis, Louis. But we must remember that at the time of this session, Louis hadn't recorded a single song under his own name. If you were in Chicago and saw him with King Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens, you knew who he was. And if you were in New York and saw him stand up and swing out hot choruses with Fletcher Henderson at the Roseland Ballroom, you knew who he was. But still, you might not have even known his name.

And if you were a record collector, maybe you marveled at the cornet breaks on King Oliver's "Tears" or the daring solo on Fletcher Henderson's "Go Long Mule" but did you know who was playing them? Musicians did; they talked. But for all the immortal work Louis was turning out live and in the studio those days (see my last entry on what he managed to turn out less than a week before the Bessie Smith sessions), who else really knew who he was? Just an incredibly talented sideman.

But Bessie Smith? She was BESSIE SMITH. After Mamie Smith (no relation) started the "blues craze" with her recording of "Crazy Blues" in 1920, record companies were looking for as much blues as they could (even if it wasn't the standard 12-bar variety; just stick the word "blues" at the end of almost any title and voila: instant blues!). Bessie's entire story will never be told better than what Chris Albertson did in his book, Bessie, so there's no need to go into too much of her backstory. But do know that her ascent was swift: she began recording in 1923 and by the end of 1924, was being billed as "The Greatest and Highest Salaried Race Star in the World." 

By the time Louis was waiting for her on January 14, 1925, Smith had already cut over 50 sides. She was no stranger to the Fletcher Henderson band, often recording with Henderson on piano and other Henderson musicians such as trombonist Charlie Green and cornetist Joe Smith (whom some have claimed Bessie to have preferred over Louis).

Also on the date was Fred Longshaw, who would man the harmonium for the first two numbers and then move over to his usual piano chair for the remaining three. Longshaw had already recorded with Smith and would continue to do so, sometimes bringing some of his own compositions to the dates (including "Cold in Hand Blues"). Longshaw's harmonium is an interesting choice; the best way to describe it is "wheezing" (looks like I'm not alone; a Google search for "Fred Longshaw wheezing harmonium" brings up 219 results). Besides this date, it's probably best known for being played by Stan Laurel in Laurel and Hardy's Below Zero. But it works, lending a Southern church feel to the proceedings, an environment southerners Smith and Armstrong were quite familiar with.

For the first song recorded, they picked quite possibly the most famous blues of them all, W. C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Though now that I write it like that, I'm sure Bessie Smith's 1925 version vaulted it to the elevated status it is still held in today. The story of how Handy "composed" it (really "borrowing" certain lines and elements he heard and mashing it all together) is quite interesting but can be found elsewhere. After originally being published as "Jogo Blues," it was renamed "St. Louis Blues" and published in 1914. It didn't begin to attract much attention until a few years later, possibly spurred on by Ethel Waters's live performances of it beginning in 1917.

That same year, "St. Louis Blues" was waxed by Ciro's Coon Club Orchestra, a rare recording recently brought to light by Allen Lowe. It's notable for being uptempo and for those strings combining to make some pretty swinging rhythms underneath the fairly inaudible singer:


Most early recorded versions, including ones by James Reese Europe's Hellfighters, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and even a marimba-heaven All Star Trio, kept a medium-to-uptempo rocking feel. In 1920, Marion Harris became the first white female to record it and also one of the first to really slow down the tempo:


On and on I could go. W. C. Handy finally recorded a fairly up version in 1922, the same year that Ted Lewis treated it almost as a stomping march. And then the well runs dry; I can't find mentions of versions cut in 1923 and 1924. So in it's first ten years, it sold a lot of sheet music, was performed by Ethel Waters and others on stage and was responsible for some fine, if not legendary, recordings. Was this really the greatest, most famous, most recorded blues song of them all?

And then Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong and Fred Longshaw did this:


There really are no words, 90 years later. I can do my second-by-second breakdown but why bother? It's 3 minutes and 13 seconds of perfection. And it's something you really can't break into sections--"So-and-so takes a solo, watch out for that rideout," etc.- It's three human beings working as one and all we can really do is stand back and marvel.

Still, something has to be said. It only takes a second to realize that these are now the BLUES. The tempo is a crawl; they only get through Handy's multi-strained piece (2 12-bar choruses, a 16-bar minor-keyed "habanera" section and one more 12-bar chorus) a single time. This is sad music, deep music, emotional music. There's a minor-section, but it sure ain't no habanera. No one feels like dancing here.

Smith is a force of nature, slowly and steadily building throughout. In the second "feel like tomorrow" stanza, there's a hint of wistful melancholy to her tone. But when we get to that minor-strain, stand band! The intensity grows, finally building up to the climactic "Nowhere…..NOWHERE." After that, she preaches,  throwing a hint of gravel into the mix as she growls repeatedly in the last 12-bars. Empty out the cliche bucket: a woman possessed, a tour de force. It's all true.

And Louis! He doesn't even solo, but he doesn't have to. Lester Young told George Avakian that he learned how to play those fantastic saxophone obligatos behind Billie Holiday by listening to Louis's 1920s recordings with the blues singers; I'm sure he soaked "St. Louis Blues" in deeply. I almost hesitate to describe this as a "vocal with obbligato"; this is a duet. Louis never steps on her and always knows the perfect phrase for the tiny cracks she leaves open.

There's lots of beautiful touches: Louis's string of repeated Eb's after Smith's first "I hate to see, the evening sun go down"; Armstrong and Longshaw, in perfect harmony, descending two-by-two after the first 12-bar stanza; the quiet harmonies behind Smith's singing in the minor-strain, balanced by the more intense playing every time Smith stops; and perhaps most memorably, the phrase Louis plays at the 2:35 mark, after Smith's first utterance of "blue as I can be" in the final 12-bars. It starts out with two notes, a quick Bb then up to a high Eb, which Armstrong holds, before resolving in tricky, spinning cascade of notes. This has always sounded like a quote to me, or at least a fanfare of sorts; it's definitely classical in nature and more proof, as I wrote about last week, that Louis was listening to more than just New Orleans jazz and blues in this period of his life. This little phrase would go on to have quite a life of its own. Duke Ellington borrowed it and turned it into the opening motif on Barney Bigard's "Clarinet Lament" feature of 1936. At Louis's famous Town Hall concert on May 17, 1947, Jack Teagarden played it at the start of "Back O'Town Blues." Louis owned the RCA Victor 78s and must have liked what he heard, as he started playing it himself on "Back O'Town Blues" not long after (he also owned a ton of Bessie Smith recordings, including test pressings given to him by young George Avakian, so it's possible he influenced himself).

If Smith, Armstrong and Longshaw looked around and said, "Okay, I think that's enough today, let's get something to eat," we'd still be celebrating this anniversary today. What a record.

Fortunately, they weren't done! Far from it. Next up was "Reckless Blues":



Two-for-two! This song was credited to Smith’s husband at the time, Jack Gee, as well as the session’s pianist, Fred Longshaw, but it’s very possible that Smith came up with the words. Because all five songs featured similar tempos, Armstrong changed up the sound of his horn on each performance, opening with the straight mute on “St. Louis Blues,” bringing out the plunger on “Reckless Blues,” playing open horn on “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues” and playing wah-wah style on “Cold In Hand Blues.”

"Reckless Blues" is very similar to "St. Louis Blues": the tempo is way down, Longshaw sticks to the wheezebox and Louis doesn't solo. But like "St. Louis," Armstrong's horn and Smith's voice intertwine so effortlessly, it's incredibly satisfying to just sit down and marvel as it washes over you.

Unlike "St. Louis," there's no minor-strain, just a string of 12-bar-blues choruses. Louis, though perhaps not comfortable with the plunge mute, was not afraid to use it. He opens with some very typical blues phrasing for him, the kind of line he'd play behind Velma Middleton in the All Stars days.

Smith sings with her usual deep emotion, the climax of this one being the way she pleads the word "Daddy" in the last chorus. Here's the lyrics for those who want to sing along:

When I was young, nothin' but a child
When I was young, nothin' but a child
All you men, tried to drive me wild.

Now I am growin' old
Now I am growin' old
And I've got what it takes to get all of you men told.

My mama says I'm reckless, my daddy says I'm wild
My mama says I'm reckless, my daddy says I'm wild
I ain't good lookin' but I'm somebody's angel child.

Daddy, mama wants some lovin'
Daddy, mama wants some huggin'
Darn it pretty papa, mama wants some lovin' I vow
Darn it pretty papa, mama wants some lovin' right now.

I do want to praise Smith's phrasing. "Now I am growin' old" doesn't give her a lot of syllables to stretch over two four-bar repeats, but wrings it for all it's worth. Then she speeds it up for "And I've got what it takes to get all" before slowing down again to finish it off with "of you men told."And like I said, those "Daddy's" just kill me; I could only imagine the reaction they got in live performance.

Longshaw's effective backing is noteworthy for its consistent use of a 1-3-5-b7 "boogie" bass line, which helps push things along with a steady pulse. But Louis....man. It's interesting; Louis played thousands of hours of blues in New Orleans but it wasn't his favorite style. Johnny St. Cyr remembered Louis complaining about being asked to record another blues during the Hot Five sessions, complaining that they all sound alike. And sure enough, he had some stock phrase; after Smith's chorus, he seems to want to do the same two-note descending motif he did on "St. Louis Blues" but he catches himself and turns it into something else.

But my goodness, he was so GOOD at it, especially the obligatos. He really squeezes those blue notes out after the first "Now I am growin' old" (and listen to him quietly go from major to minor right at the chord change in the next four bars) and especially after hearing Smith sing the world "wild"; the second time she says it, he just hits one and makes it cry. Also nice is how he echoes Smith's cries of "Daddy" in the last chorus. Masters, all of them.

Time to listen to the third song of the session, Perry Bradford's "Sobbin' Hearted Blues":



Immediately we hear that Longshaw has switched to piano. He sounds more comfortable, immediately tossing off some tremolos and generally keeping his comping lively, though out of the way.

"Sobbin' Hearted Blues" also gets us out of a strict 12-bar blues form as it opens with an 8-bar verse (I like Armstrong and Longshaw almost vamping until ready):

You treated me wrong, I've treated you right,
I worked for you both day and night!
You bragged to women that I was your fool
So now I've got them Sobbin' Hearted Blues. 

At this point, we're back into 12-bar territory, Smith singing three choruses, opening them with what has become a famous blues strain, one most famously used in 1926's "Trouble in Mind" (Louis was there for that one, too!) among other places:

The sun don't shine in my back door some days
The sun don't shine in my back door some days
It's true I love you but I won't take mean treatments any more.

All I want is your picture, it must be in a frame.
All I want is your picture, it must be in a frame.
When  you go, I can see you just the same!

I'm gonna start walkin', cause I got a wooden pair o' shoes.
I'm gonna start walkin', I got a wooden pair o'shoes,
Gonna keep on walkin' till I lose these Sobbin' Hearted Blues.

Smith's vocal is pretty even-tempered here, sad and doleful but without the intensity of the "Nowhere" of "St. Louis Blues" or the aching of the "Daddy" on "Reckless Blues." It's a sad story and Bessie tells it that way, without any bells or whistles (or melisma!) you might get from today's singers. Louis remains fairly sober, but he gets busier as he goes on, hitting a high note after the first utterance of "It must be in a frame" but staying in the same intensely cool mood of the performance. The little coda is a nice touch. Another great one, if possibly a (small) step down from the first two performances.

But up to this point, we have not heard Louis take a solo. That was about to change on "Cold In Hand Blues":


We're back to songwriters Jack Gee and Fred Longshaw but again, like "Reckless Blues," it was probably a combination of Longshaw and Smith. Like the previous number, Smith sings a scene-setting verse that breaks up the 12-bar chroruses a bit:

I've got a hardworkin' man,
The way he treats me I can't understand;
He works hard every day
And on Saturday throws away his pay!
Now I don't want that man,
Because he's gone Cold in Hand.

And then, the blues:

Now I've tried hard to treat him kind,
I've tried hard to treat him kind,
But it seems to me his love has gone blind.

The man I've got must have lost his mind,
The man I've got must have lost his mind,
The way he treat me, I can't understand.

I'm gonna find myself another man, 
I'm gonna find myself another man,
Because the one I've got has done gone Cold in Hand.

Louis always remembered Smith making up choruses and titles as she went along and this sounds like it might be an example of that; "lost his mind" and "I can't understand" don't exactly rhyme. But regardless, it's another fine Smith vocal. When I listen to Louis's 1920s blues recordings, I have to listen in small doses because sometimes it all starts to sound the same. Also, the singers were sometimes of lesser quality (not to mention the acoustic recordings were also of lesser quality). But Bessie's vocals with Pops are always worth paying attention to.

As for our hero, Armstrong works out his wah-wah style on this performance, something he's generally not known form. In fact, all he literally plays for a good chunk of the beginning of the record are just two notes at a clip, “wah” and “wah.” I think it’s a rather awkward moment for Armstrong. Part of me wonders if perhaps he was getting a little too ornamental on the previous number, “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues.” As I mentioned earlier, it’s always been said that Smith preferred Armstrong’s fellow Henderson trumpeter Joe Smith as an accompanist and perhaps she told Armstrong to tone it down a bit for “Cold In Hand.” Literally, Armstrong only plays one pitch for the first 40 seconds of the record! After that, when Smith reaches the chorus, Armstrong plays like himself, turning in an obbligato with many phrases ripped straight from his customary vocabulary (I’m thinking of the one at the 1:18 mark). Armstrong really gets bluesy around the 1:32 mark, but then he reverts back to repeating notes, hammering the “wah wah” aspect of his playing into the ground. I’m actually glad he eventually got rid of all of his mutes except the straight one, the one which least colored the glorious sound of his open horn.

Thus, at the two-minute mark, we have a wonderful Smith vocal and a fine Armstrong obbligato, though not one of his best ones, at least in my opinion. But then Smith gives him a solo and, though he keeps the mute in, he steals the record. More interestingly, Armstrong’s single chorus would turn up again later in 1925 almost played verbatim on one of the earliest Hot Five records, “Gut Bucket Blues.”  It’s the kind of moment that once again proves the point that many of the early jazzmen worked on their solos and always had certain choruses they could pull out at the drop of a hat. Who knows—this “Cold In Hand”/ “Gut Bucket Blues” solo could have been something Armstrong had been playing since his days in New Orleans. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing because it’s a great solo (and dig Longshaw's backing, too!.

But back to Bessie…she returns for one chorus but now Armstrong is really feeling his oats. The redundant “wah-wahs” from the opening of the record are gone, replaced by startlingly tricky double-timed passages. Again, Armstrong’s execution doesn’t sound 100% comfortable to me because he has to work the mute while he’s playing, but his ideas are limitless. He fills each little space Smith leaves him with more ideas and creativity than some much longer jazz records provide.

With four records in the can, it was time to record the session's final number, and a little something different at that: "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon":



Smith's title of "Empress of the Blues" is indisputable but she could also put over humorous songs with great style, making her a favorite on the vaudeville circuits. "You've Been a Good Ole Wagon" isn't exactly a farce and Smith doesn't indulge in a more "jokey"style as, say, Armstrong would have, but it's still good fun:

Lookee here, Daddy, I wanna tell you, please get out o' my sight,
I'm playin' quits now, right from this very night!
You've had your day, don't stand around and frown,
You've Been a Good Ole Wagon, Daddy, but you done broke down!

Now you better go to the blacksmith's shop and get yourself overhauled
There's nothin' about you to make a good homin' for!
Nobody wants a baby when a real man can be found,
You've Been a Good Ole Wagon, Daddy, but you done broke down!

When the sun is shinin' it's time to make hay,
I've seen the 'mobiles operate, you can't make that wagon pay!
When you were in your prime, you loved to run around,
You've Been a Good Ole Wagon, Daddy, but you done broke down!

There's no need to cry and make a big show,
This man has taught me more about lovin' than you will ever know!
He is the king of lovin', has manners of a crown,
He's a Good Ole Wagon, Daddy, and he ain't broke down!

Good stuff! Smith really sells the double entendre lines in the middle and when she finally drives the final nail in her lover's coffin in the last chorus, she leaves no doubts about her choice. Louis is still in "wah wah" mode but he catches the humorous spirit of the lyrics; some of his fills are quite funny. He seems to laugh "ha ha" after Smith's line about going to the blacksmith's shop to "get yourself overhauled" and he almost lets out a little cry when Smith sings "Nobody wants a baby." He plays more "pretty"  phrases in the third chorus, especially the memorable one after "it's time to make hay" (and dig Fred Longshaw getting a taste after the next line), but the last chorus is almost laugh-out-loud funny. Smith sings "There's no need to cry" and Armstrong full-blown imitates a crying baby, much in the manner of his idol, King Oliver. And when she follows that with, "And make a big show," Louis almost farts out an over done "wah wah" that sounds like a precursor to the "sad trombone" of sitcom and game show fame. Still feeling frisky, Armstrong gets on a repeated kick, doing some fancy fingering on a repeated note, all while working his mute. You know, maybe it wasn't his specialty, but he did know how to work that mute.

Because of the wordiness of the tune, Smith pushes it to the 3:30 brink of a 78, leaving no room for an Armstrong solo. But I'll repeat myself yet again: who cares! These are duets of the highest caliber. Someone should rerecord them with a female singing Smith's choruses and a male scatting Louis's lines....it would sound like completely natural, like an Ella and Louis duet of 30 years later (if they sang slow blues instead of the Great American Songbook).

All in a day's work. Five songs, all classics. For Louis, it was back to Fletcher Henderson at night but he'd have one more reunion with Bessie in May of 1925. After the Hot Fives took off, Armstrong put his blues obligato side on ice, but he never lost the knack. You hear it as he backs Velma Middleton on Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and especially on Middleton's four 1920s blues recreations on Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. Many critics have complained about those performances, saying Velma was no Bessie Smith. Well, of course she wasn't; who was!? But Velma's Velma and I don't mind her approach, even if it's a little pedestrian. But if you have the time, dig out that set and listen to Louis's obligatos on those four numbers....ON FIRE.

If you're still with me, I'll close with a little bonus. Armstrong clearly had a good time with Bessie, famously saying, "Everything I did with her I LIKE." Albertson also included this Armstrong quote from a 1952 interview, where he said, “Bessie Smith, I think she’s one of the greatest, the madam of the blues, that we are going to get for generations to come.  It’s too bad that she didn’t live a little longer so that the younger generation could at least have heard her in person, you know.” In 1956, Louis hosted a five hourlong broadcasts for the Voice of America, selecting his favorite records and telling stories about each one. He naturally chose "St. Louis Blues" with Bessie and though his memory failed him on Fred Longshaw's name (he calls him Bradshaw), it's still a charming little memory. This is the introduction and then a few seconds of what Louis said after playing the record:


Smith might have died prematurely, but her musical legacy remains strong, as her recordings continue to be reissued on labels such as Colubmia, Frog and JSP. I love all of her work but to me, her peak recordings came when she was matched with one of her equals in the legend department, Louis Armstrong. Listening to Armstrong and Bessie Smith together had a profound effect on both Billie Holiday vocally and Lester Young musically and I think many younger jazz musicians can still learn a lot by listening to those timeless records.

It's been a fun start to the New Year, reliving Pops's triumphs of 1925 but next week we're going to look at one of my favorite live All Stars evenings from 30 years later in 1955. Til then!