Sunday, July 27, 2014

Billy Kyle Centennial Celebration!

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

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

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

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


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

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



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


"Blue Skies":


A burning "Royal Garden Blues":


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



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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

60 Years of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (And 7 Years of This Blog!)

60 years ago today, Louis Armstrong walked into a Chicago recording studio and recorded this:



There are no words....but I'll try to find some.

That was Armstrong's second trip to Columbia's Chicago studio in as many days. The previous night, he and his All Stars had knocked off SIX master takes for a brand new album of W. C. Handy compositions, produced by then 35-year-old George Avakian. After knocking out "Memphis Blues" with relative ease, it was time to confront Handy's magnum opus: "St. Louis Blues."

Armstrong was far from a stranger with the jazz classic of them all. In fact, almost any time he played it in front of a recording device, the result was one for the time capsule. Take your pick: the emotional 1925 version sung by Bessie Smith; the rollicking 1929 version with Luis Russell's Orchestra (a favorite of many true Armstrong nuts, including Clint Baker); uptempo romps for Victor in 1933 and Vox in 1934; and so on.

But after featuring it in the early days of the All Stars, "St. Louis Blues" became a favorite feature of Armstrong's pianists, first Earl "Fatha" Hines and his "Boogie Woogie" treatment, and later Marty Napoleon with his thrilling turbocharged approach. But with an entire album of Handy tunes to record, is was inevitable that Armstrong would have to face "St. Louis Blues" once again. He was ready.

After a number of false starts with everyone trying to get the rhythms straight on the introductory habanera strain, the All Stars locked in and did not stop swinging for nearly nine minutes. "I did not expect what Pops gave me on that tune," Avakian told me in 2008. Apparently, neither did the other All Stars. Vocalist Velma Middleton wasn't sure when to enter and almost prematurely stepped on Armstrong's opening two-minute-20-second ensemble rendering of Handy's multi-strained piece. In the middle, Armstrong seemed to surprise sidemen Barney Bigard and Trummy Young when he led a spur-of-the-moment instrumental chorus, reaching far back into his memory to pluck out a blues lead he originally waxed on 1925's "Terrible Blues." Avakian sure didn't expect Armstrong and Middleton to start making up bawdy choruses--Middleton's about how all the boys like her because she "takes her time," Armstrong's about whipping her all over her head with a picket conveniently grabbed from a nearby fence.

Throughout this, the first complete take, one can feel that everyone knew something special was happening. Trombonist Trummy Young then produced perhaps the filthiest trombone solo of his lifetime, an epic moment only eclipsed by the titanic rideout playing of Armstrong and the entire band. When it came to an end, George Avakian uttered a spontaneous critique: "Louie, that was really a bitch!" And then various members of band shouted their battle cry, "Wail!" Listen for yourself:



If was after listening to that take that Avakian and the All Stars seized up what could be tightened. On the next go-around, it was perfected and Avakian had an opening track to his album, the roof-shaking performance that opened this blog. When the album, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, was released in late 1954, the jazz community--including many lunkheads who had written so much utter garbage about Armstrong supposed decline (is my bias showing?)--applauded wholeheartedly. Armstrong told Leonard Feather the recordings were "the tops" of his career. Nat Hentoff gave it five stars in Downbeat and wrote, "This LP is one of the greatest recordings not only of the year, but of jazz history. After years of wandering in a Decca desert (with very few oases) Louis finally had a full-ranged shot at the kind of material he loves, along with the kind of freedom that George Avakian provides at a jazz date....This album is an accomplishment Avakian can well be self-congratulatory about. By arranging this session and supervising it with this much unobtrusive skill and taste, Avakian, too--as well as W. C. Handy and Louis--has made a lasting contribution to recorded jazz."


*

Flash forward to October 1995. 15-year-old Ricky Riccardi (me) sees The Glenn Miller Story and has his mind blown by Louis Armstrong's performance of "Basin Street Blues." (Enough third person.) In a story I've told many times, my mother took me to the Ocean County Library in Toms River, NJ and a wall of Armstrong cassette tapes stared at me. I didn't know where to begin so I chose something that sounded promising: 16 Most Requested Songs. It was a compilation of Armstrong's 1950s Columbia recordings selected by--and with annotation by--someone named George Avakian.

The tape grabbed me from the opening notes of "Mack the Knife" and just did not let go. I knew I was getting in deeper and deeper with each passing track but it was number 14--"St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy--that did it. When Trummy went in the gutter and Louis called everyone home, I felt my life begin.

*

July 13, 2007. Since that fateful 1995 day, I had only gotten deeper and deeper, getting a Master's in Jazz History and Research, writing a 350-page thesis on Louis's later years, befriending George Avakian. But I wasn't doing much of anything else. I had been painting houses full-time for my father's company since graduating Rutgers in May 2005. I had an agent because I was confident that a book on the last 25 years of Louis Armstrong's life had commercial potential....but I seemed to be the only one to think that as my proposal had been rejected by everyone who had received it. Things were looking bleak.

And then it hit me: a blog! Everybody's doing it! Sure, I don't get paid or anything but what the hell, it's a way to make a name for myself and maybe get to meet some other Armstrong nuts from around the world. I made absolutely zero connection that July 13 was the same date as the recording of "St. Louis Blues." I just dove in and wrote the following for a first entry:

"Hello! My name is Ricky Riccardi and you can learn more about me in the (you guessed it) 'About Me' section of this blog. I just wanted to take a second and discuss what this blog is all about. There are tons of Armstrong videos on YouTube and in my Itunes, I have 2,408 Armstrong songs arranged in chronological order. I plan on hitting "shuffle" on my Itunes and whatever Armstrong track comes up first, I will discuss it. I'll provide the musicians, the writers, the soloists, I'll give some analysis of the recording and I'll even tell you where you can buy it or listen to it. On some days, I'll post a YouTube video and do the same. You're more than welcome to comment and offer your own opinions or disagreements to whatever I write. There's really no order to anything, just a (hopefully) daily celebration of Armstrong's music! Enjoy!"

The "daily celebration" aspect lasted a week; later it became weekly; these days, I'm happy if it's bi-monthly. But the celebration continues and as anyone who knows me can attest, I'm happy to almost be celebrating something different almost every day: the publication of my book, the new Mosaic box, my gig at the Armstrong House, etc.

But I didn't want this to turn into a full-blown look-at-all-the-lucky-Armstrong-stuff-I've-been-involved-with celebration (for that, there's always Mick Carlon's profile of me for Jazz Times....thanks, Mick!). When I saw that the anniversary date coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Handy album, well, something had to be done...because frankly, nothing was being done.

Jazz world! Hello! Where the hell are you? Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy is one of the great albums of all time. We're in agreement, right? Well, where's the magazine piece on the making of it? Where's the souped up, limited edition 60th anniversary boxed set? A podcast? A post to a message board?

Man, I can name some other albums from the 1950s and 1960s that have gotten MUCH more attention for their anniversaries (cough, cough, Miles, cough, cough) but the anniversary of ol' Pops's classic will pass without much fuss. I think that's a shame. Does anyone else agree?

One reason why I'm a little ticked is I KNOW what's out there and what could be done in terms of a bonus reissue of this material. There's a supposed "Complete" edition out there from one of the European bootleg labels. It's not complete. How do I know? Let me explain.

A lot of this--as well as the backstory on the making of the album and a track-by-track analysis--is in my book so I don't want to repeat too much of it but long story short, Sony hired George Avakian to put together a proper reissue of the Handy album in the mid-1990s, after they were crucified for a reissue heavy with unexplained alternate takes from the 1980s. Avakian brought along David Ostwald as his right hand man for putting together the reissue. When I became friends with Avakian and Ostwald after the 2008 Satchmo Summerfest, I told them about my book plans for Louis's later years. That's when they told me about the session tapes for the Handy album. I was allowed to copy them from somewhat shaky sounding cassette tapes and I told George and David I wouldn't post complete tracks or share them, which wasn't easy since my nature is to share, share, share.

But at least I had the tapes and I got to utilize them for my book. It's been six years and I'm almost at the point where I know some of the alternates as well as the masters. Well, that's great for me but I hate when I'm the only one with access to some spectacular Pops.

In the wake of posting on Facebook about the new Mosaic box of live Louis, I began getting questions about a similar box of alternates and masters from the studio Columbia sessions of the same period: the Handy date, Satch Plays Fats and the "Mack the Knife" single session, which included some stuff with Lotte Lenya. A 4 or 5-CD set could easily be done of the existing masters and the best of the alternates and unedited takes. I have absolutely no predictions about whether or not something like that will ever be released but do know that with the current Mosaic set out of the way, I'm ready, I'm ready, so help me, I'm ready!

How to prove it? By opening up the sacred Avakian-Ostwald Handy session tapes for the first time ever on this blog. In keeping with their wishes, I'm not going to share anything remotely complete. But after so many years, I just HAVE to share some of the unissued riches that do exist and hopefully can be made available to the public.

Already, above, I shared the unissued rideout to the first complete take of "St. Louis Blues." Perhaps you weren't aware of what you were listening to....go back and listening again! It's terrific and Louis's phrasing is different than it was on the famed master take. I'm not going to say any of the alternates were better than the masters--Avakian was the best at putting together the most effective parts of each take--but they're all very interesting and capture the band at the peak of its powers (oh, but only if Edmond Hall had been around one year earlier....).

A few examples then. The first song attempted at the first session on July 12, 1954 was "Aunt Hagar's Blues." After a few breakdowns, the All Stars finished a complete take on the fourth attempt. Louis was ready to blow. Here's the rideout:


Next up was "Hesitating Blues." On the 1997 re-issue, there's a fantastic "Rehearsal Take" that could have easily been issued except Velma used it to practice her lyrics quietly in the background. If you haven't listened to it in a while, do so now! "Ole Miss Blues" followed as a change of pace. Again, the band recorded a complete "Rehearsal Take" just to get used to the routine. Here it is from Pops's solo onward, including an extended bit of drumming by the newest member of the band, Barrett Deems:


"Beale Street Blues" followed, one of my favorite tracks on the album. There was only one complete take prior to the master and though very good, there's a few fluffs and it's not really worth sharing here (hopefully one day!). But that's when Avakian had a brilliant idea (though he also admits that he's not sure why he did it): he let the tapes roll for the ENTIRE sequences of putting together and recording "Loveless Love" and "Long Gone." On the 1997 reissue, there's about 6 or 7 minutes of each, edited beautifully by David Ostwald. But on the unedited tapes, each one goes on for 30-35 minutes! It's not ALL worthy of release but it is an absolutely fascinating look at how this band worked in the studio, especially on a night when they could do no wrong. Again, check that 1997 CD for David's edit of "Long Gone," but right now, here's the rideout to yet another one of those "Rehearsal Takes" on "Loveless Love." Remember: the band did not know this was being recorded and Avakian had no plans to issue it. Listen to how they all simply play like its their last night on earth. No coasting, no taking it easy. It's just full-on, 100% pure swing:


After that, the band called it a night, but six of the 11 tracks were in the can. The next day began with "Memphis Blues." After a botched first take, they completed a second try. There were a few mistakes and Avakian ended up using take three, but listen to the powerful, previously unheard rideout to take 2:


Then came "St. Louis Blues," where this blog began. The July 13 session ended with a romp on "Atlanta Blues." Here's a funny moment from the first complete take. They had the sheet music but I guess they hadn't really played it through. The band burns through the last few choruses and then Louis gets to the written ending, a completely old-timey "Good evening friends" lick ending on a dominant seventh. It catches him by surprise and the whole band breaks into hysterics. They got it right a few takes later:


The final session opened with one of the highlights of the entire album, "Chantez-Les Bas (Sing 'Em Low)." The band easily took to the blowing strain of this number as it was identical to the eight-bar blues of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It." One of the legends of this album is that on the master take, Trummy got so enthused, he didn't want it to end and kept on blowing, making Pops reach high for one more lowdown take. Well, the legend is true! The first complete take is one chorus shorter and though it sounds like Trummy wants to keep going, it halts. No one was going to stop him on the next try! Here's an edit I made with the rideout from take 1 first (previously unheard), followed by the more famous ending, Louis and Trummy's favorite moment on the entire album (as related on an interview on one of Louis's private tapes):


"Yellow Dog Blues" wrapped up the tunes for the album but the unissued alternates are pretty close to the master so I've chosen not to include it here (again, maybe someday!). And that was that. George went to work editing and splicing like crazy and a few months, a masterpiece hit the market. The 1997 reissue is still in print and still a big seller to this day.

That's it for my little look at Louis Armstrong's greatest album, though I could keep on going for thousands of more words. Maybe someday I'll get the opportunity on a deluxe edition of this set. Keep your fingers crossed but until then, the least you can do it give the original album a spin and give thanks to George Avakian, W. C. Handy and Louis Armstrong!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mosaic Round-Up

It's been almost three weeks since my last entry and in that time, the news about the new Mosaic Records Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars continues rolling along so how about a little round-up? If you roll your eyes, don't worry, next week is the SEVENTH anniversary of this blog plus the 60th anniversary of Louis's greatest album so I hope to have an entirely non-Mosaic-related post about that in the coming days.

But for now let's stick with the Mosaic. For a real in-depth exploration of the box, Thomas Cunniffe produced a 3,500 word piece for his Jazz History Online website, with some nice disc-by-disc analysis. Shorter reviews have also appeared from Bret Saunders in the Denver Post, Jeff Simon in the Buffalo News and most recently, Colin Fleming in the Boston Globe.

Over at Downbeat, the eminent critic John McDonough was kind enough to lay 4 1/2 stars on the set. Unfortunately, the review is not on the Downbeat website, but here is a shot I captured from the online PDF. Click on it to read it a little clearer:

And finally, it was a pleasure to receive a rave review from Marc Myers of the great blog, Jazzwax. However, Marc also wrote me personally with a valid complaint and I wanted to respond with a public apology here on the blog. There was originally a great rush to attempt to put the Mosaic set out last fall. Feeling the pressure, I wrote 32,000 words of liner notes in a week. I knew I wanted to include one of George Avakian's favorite stories, about the time a magazine editor decried George's use of splicing on a Dave Brubeck album, George told the editor to contact Dave and Brubeck simply responded, "George saved my ass."

George has told me that story at least three times, including during our first interview for my book in 2007, as well as in public at the Satchmo Summerfest. However, needing to finish the liner notes in a hurry, I Googled the punchline "George saved my ass" to see if I could find the story online instead of taking the time to transcribe it from my cassette. When I did that, there was the story in a Google Books search result from Myers's critically-acclaimed book, Why Jazz Happened. I grabbed one line since it seemed to echo what George had told me repeatedly: "He asked, 'How can you do that--you're altering the artistry of the musician, and you're putting out a recording of something he didn't actually play?'" That line made the final draft of the Mosaic notes....but without attribution to Marc's work. As someone whose Armstrong research has gotten "borrowed" without proper attribution many times in the past, I can attest to how frustrating that can feel, so let me apologize to Marc again for not giving him the proper credit for that Avakian line. Now stop reading this and grab his book!

Moving on from reviews to the realm of live events, if you live in New York or New Orleans, you have two opportunities in the next month to see me and Scott Wenzel gab about the Mosaic set in person! On Tuesday, July 15, Scott and I will be hosting a Listening Party for the box at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. That event will be from 7-8:30 and is free to the public. (And speaking of New York, a reminder that the Mosaic set is currently available in the gift shop of the Louis Armstrong House Museum....with the liner notes booklet signed by yours truly!) Then on July 31, Scott and I will be delivering the Keynote Conversation at the 14th annual Satchmo Summerfest. We'll be recapping the entire saga of putting this set together, in grisly detail.

I'll be back in a few weeks with a personal preview of the Satchmo Summerfest as I'm currently involved in SEVEN different seminars! But it has been a joy reading all the positive feedback for this Mosaic set. Please, if you have stories, opinions, photos or anything else to share about your experience with it, let me know! And I'll be back next weekend with a personal tribute to Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Latest on the Mosaic Set (and a visit with George Avakian)

It's been just about two-and-a-half weeks since I finally held the new Mosaic Records Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars 9-CD box and as I wrote in my last entry, I expected to take a brief hiatus from the blogging life because I was simply exhausted from all that went into putting that set together.

But what I didn't fully expect was an absolute outpouring of beautiful comments from friends around the world, each of whom has received the set and is seemingly enjoying the hell out of it. That has made the whole experience so, so worthwhile. Thanks to all who have written in and especially those who have shared pictures of their sets. Here's a few of my favorites!

German drummer Bernard Flegar befriended Barrett Deems and is right up there with yours truly when it comes to loving the All Stars. I was thrilled when Bernard sent me this one:
 Randy Bright is a friend and graphic artist who has donated some of his great works on Pops to the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Randy almost cleared out our gift shop last time he visited the House and had been looking forward to this one for quite some time. Yeah, Randy!
 I have over 40 Mosaic sets, as I've been collecting them since high school. Some of the best ones have featured essential liner notes by Loren Schoenberg. This might just look like a simple pic of a Mosaic set....but it's Loren's copy, and I'm thrilled he shared it (and called it "a classic"!).
 Berklee professor, violinist and professional Pops nut Matt Glaser and I have teamed up for two NPR interviews in the past two years, but we still haven't met! Matt was so eloquent in describing Louis's epic contributions to the world back in Ken Burns's jazz documentary, so again, it was a joy to see Matt lurking behind his copy of the set.
But by the topper was by my close friend, David Ostwald. Anytime I need to crash in New York, I stay in David's apartment, in a room christened "The Riccardi Room" and decorated with photos of myself (it's a long, but funny story). So here's David with the set in said room:



Others have not only sent their congratulations, but they've also sent in their set numbers, which I've seen as low as #48 and as high as #967! Remember, this is a limited edition of only 5,000 and to see Mosaic pushing the 1,000 mark not only three weeks in must be a good sign. Reviews have also been trickling in, all of a positive nature. Last time, I shared Tom Nolan's rave in the Wall Street Journal; he's since been joined by Eric Alterman in The Nation and George W. Harris of Jazzweekly, while John McDonough told me he has a review slated to be published in the next issue of Downbeat.

And in other exciting news, as of yesterday, the Mosaic set is now for sale at the Louis Armstrong House Museum gift shop in Corona, Queens! Mosaic is famous for being mail-order-only but they're allowing the Armstrong House to sell it in-house only, which we're grateful for. Thus, if you're in the NY area, want to see Pops's House and pick up the set, come on out to 34-56 107th Street. Here's a picture of it standing proudly in the shop:

 
But by far--there'll never be a second place--the highlight of this whole experience came on June 4 when David Ostwald and I visited the legendary George Avakian. I've written time and again on this blog about the importance of George in my life and Scott Wenzel and I specifically dedicated this set to him. When David and I got there, the box had just arrived earlier that day and George hadn't really looked at it. We spent two hours with the 95-year-old legend and he was so impressed with the set and touched by the whole thing. Here's a few pictures we snapped of an evening I'll never forget:

We looked at the booklet, played examples from the set and just plain talked Pops. When it was time to leave, I asked George to inscribe my booklet:

 Here's what he wrote:
"This is for Ricky--if he weren't around, we'd have had to invent him! George Avakian. Bless you Ricky."

I'll never fully be able to convey what that means to me, especially since it's been almost 19 years since an Avakian-produced compilation changed my life in 1995. If that's the only feedback I ever receive on this set, I'll die happy....but I'm so happy that so many others feel similar about this set, so what can I say: keep those cards and letters (and pictures) coming and I'll continue to update everyone on the reception of the set in the coming months. Thanks, everybody!

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Mosaic Has Landed

On June 23, 2006, I took a few minutes to write an e-mail to Mosaic Records, pitching them a crazy idea I had to do what I estimated as an 8-10 disc boxed set of live recordings Louis Armstrong recorded for George Avakian at Columbia throughout the 1950s. Scott Wenzel wrote back and said he'd look into it.

On May 27, 2014, a 9-CD Mosaic Records boxed set arrived at my front door: Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. Co-produced by Scott Wenzel and Ricky Riccardi. Liner notes by yours truly.
   
Ta da! Seconds after opening it.
It's been nearly eight years since I first had the idea and anyone who has followed this blog for the past year knows that it's been full of all sorts of craziness. But now it's over. The set is here, it is real and if I say so myself, it is fantastic.

This is slightly old news if you follow me on Facebook as I've pretty much devoted every post this week to basking in the glow of this set. It's been absolutely beautiful hearing from Armstrong fans from all over the world who are just as excited by it, telling me when they're getting shipping notices and when their credit cards have been charged! Right now, I feel like I'm one of only a handful of people to have experienced this set (almost literally a handful; my set number is 8 out of 5,000!). I'm really excited for that number to grow in the coming weeks and years. Please, please, please let me know what you think of the set. Leave a comment, find me on Facebook, shoot me an e-mail, I'd love to hear from you.

I've already heard from one person who has enjoyed the set....a person with a huge audience, to boot! Imagine my surprise when I'm getting ready to go to sleep on Memorial Day (still without a set) and I get a Google alert with a link to a rave review in the Wall Street Journal by Tom Nolan! I'm still in shock but completely thrilled by Mr. Nolan's comments. He really got the point of this set and I'm hoping others do, too.

And though it's lovely that people keep congratulating me, please, please, please also give thanks to my co-producer, Scott Wenzel, and our engineer, Andreas Meyer. I just had the idea and wrote a lot of long e-mails, playing detective and trying to avoid catastrophes. Scott brought the usual class and thoroughness that we've come to expect from Mosaic Records. Seriously, no one else would do a set like this and if they did, it wouldn't be without the care and commitment that Scott brought to this project. And as I've chronicled before, Andreas Meyer was an absolute wizard in the studio, saving Louis's Newport 1956 vocals and making like a modern day George Avakian, with all sorts of crazy splices and edits to make. He nailed every one.

And obviously, this has been a very personal project for me, as well. Three years ago tomorrow (also my daughter's birthday), I saw my book for the first time. And here we go again with the Mosaic set, which is truly a sequel, or at least a companion, to the book, right down to the cover photos, which come from the same Paris concert in late 1955:


This here blog has been pretty much dedicated to Mosaic updates and news for the past year. I know some readers out there are anxious for me to get back to my excitable commentary on Armstrong recordings...and I'm anxious to get back to that myself. I'm sure I'll continue to have Mosaic news to report throughout the summer--reviews, public appearances, etc.--but once the excitement dies down, I, too, am planning to get back to tackling so many of the Armstrong recordings I've yet to write about.

But not yet. If you need me, I'll be listening to this set!

Thanks for all the support and for those who have purchased it and are planning to purchase it, please enjoy!

And as always, Pops, it's all for you, Louis, all for you.

Standing in the den of the Louis Armstrong House Museum with Pops smiling over my shoulder.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Surprise! Louis Armstrong Meets Horace Heidt

It shouldn't be a surprise that I live for new Louis Armstrong discoveries, especially if it's footage. Since 2008, I've gone to the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans every year to show at least three hours of Pops videos and after doing this for six years, I'm starting to repeat myself. And though it doesn't happen often, anytime anything new pops up, I'm all over it.

Earlier this week, I was in a zombiefied state riding the bus to work one day after I spent 16 hours soaking in the music at the incredible New York Hot Jazz Festival. I wasn't sure if I could fully function but then I checked Facebook and my friend Simone Dabusti had something stronger than coffee: a brand new 8:26 long video of Louis on Horace Heidt's TV show, "The Swift Show Wagon," broadcast live from New Orleans on February 26, 1955! Eureka!

For years, I saw this entry in Jos Willems's Armstrong discography and wondered what it was all about (Willems might not have known either as he only listed an "unknown studio orchestra" and not the All Stars, who are clearly visible onstage). Then, when I started working at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I found that Louis had the audio of this entire segment on one of his private reel-to-reel tapes. I listened to it and loved it but mistakenly described it as a "radio" broadcast (something I'll fix next week!). But would the visuals ever service?

When it comes to early TV broadcast, the answer is usually "no," but things keep popping up all the time. A few weeks ago, as part of the wonderful month-long "Marxfest" celebration that is currently gripping New York, I attended a presentation by the great Robert S. Bader on an upcoming boxed set he's producing for Shout Factory of rare Marx Brothers TV appearances. He told the stories of how he found most of them and sure enough, a good deal of kinescopes were found in the closets and attics of the Marx's descendents. Thus, it was no surprise to see the Horace Heidt video uploaded by an account called "Horace Heidt Productions" as Heidt's family must be the only ones to have the original film. And to upload it on YouTube? Bless them!

I'm going to shut up for a minute and share the video and then we'll give it the blow-by-blow analysis:


Heidt, of course, was one of the most popular bandleaders in the country at the time and a fixture on the radio since the early 1930s. Louis never talked much about him, only having one record in his collection ("Rain"), but one can imagine he was a fan since he had a sweet tooth when it came to some of his tastes in music (paging Guy Lombardo!). For this summit meeting, Louis back in his hometown of New Orleans, where he had been filmed on the "Colgate Comedy Hour" one week earlier. This would be his last trip home until 1965; in 1956, the city passed a law prohibiting integrated bands from performing in public and Louis, who was proud of his integrated All Stars, stayed away for ten years.

The All Stars can be seen in this clip, but they're mostly in the background. Still, this is the great "W.C. Handy/Satch Plays Fats" edition with Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems and it's always great to see them. They open with an appropriate choice, "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," which had been in the band's book for years. However, this is a different version, complete with a key change and a three-chorus solo by Armstrong that builds higher and higher until he's wailing the melody an octave higher by the end, with plenty of improvised--inspired--phrasing. It's a swinging start....though the dancers could have used a little more rehearsal!

Then it's time for Louis to indulge in the usual white-guy-tries-hip-talk routine that he had to endure almost anytime he showed up on TV, too (he wasn't alone). But Louis, as always, is a natural, even with corny scripted comedy, delivering lines like "Horace Heidt, the corn cobbler" and later, "Dig you? I'll bury you!" with that impeccable comedic timing. I laughed.

And then a real neat thing, Louis introducing Faye Emerson by playing snippets of "'A' She's Adorable," "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" and "Sophisticated Lady." The latter is only two bars long but hearing Louis play Ellington's melody even so briefly is simply breathtaking. If only he had recorded a full version!

The finale is a "hot vs. sweet" battle between the "hot" Armstrong and Heidt's "sweet" saxophonist, Tony Johnson. It's a fun novelty with Pops blowing like made on "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise," a tune that was not in the repertoire, but he was in an improvising mood that day and sounds great (though I'm sure some in certain parts of white America at the time, the sweet sound of Johnson's alto was preferred!). Both bands then join forces on an exciting "Muskrat Ramble," with the Charleston dancers returning, still not quite together. A lovely moment is when the house lights are turned on the audience; everyone's clapping on a different beat (some in between!) but they're having a great time. Oddly, the microphone doesn't seem to be catching Pops, as his tone could normally cut through anything. Fortunately, after a short Trummy Young break, Louis takes it up and out and everyone goes home happy.

This is the second time in the last six months that a terrific piece of rare Pops television footage has shown up on YouTube (the other being the jaw-dropping "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" from 1957's "Crescendo" that I blogged about here). I know there's more out there...may they keep turning up! (And how nice would a "Louis Armstrong on Television" DVD set be? We can dream, can't we?)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

New York Hot Jazz Festival 2014 - This Sunday!

I must take a break from Louis and Mosaic Madness to quickly mention that this Sunday is the event to end all events for lovers of traditional jazz and swing: the Second Annual New York Hot Jazz Festival. Seriously, if you within a 50 mile radius of The Players Club in New York City on Sunday and you choose NOT to go to the NY Hot Jazz Festival....all I can say is, for shame....

I don't think I have seen a lineup quite like this one, with a unbeatable mix of established veterans in this field like Vince Giordano (who will be featuring the great Catherine Russell), David Ostwald and Ken Peplowski, coming together with some of the emerging young stars like Bria Skonberg, Adrian Cunningham and the Hot Sardines. Take a minute and just look at the schedule....I still don't think I've wrapped my mind around it.

And I'm honored to be taking part and representing Pops throughout the first half, as I'll be showing five hours of Armstrong footage in the first floor grill room. Now, with so many living, breathing musicians in the building, I wouldn't suggest spending the first five hours watching old videos. But it IS Louis and as I wrote last year, these are Louis's grandchildren so even if you just need a breather to get "Dipp-ed" for a minute, please say hello! (I still haven't finalized my clips but do expect rare appearances of Louis on TV, in films and concert, as well the complete rarity of rarities, Satchmo the Great.)

The festivities start at 1 p.m. and will be running at the Players Club until 1 a.m., with an after-after party at Mona's from 1 a.m. until, I don't know, maybe Memorial Day. Last year, I was one of the few and proud who was there from the first note through the last and I expect to do the same this year. (Special thanks to coffee...a great invention I didn't discover until I turned 33 last September!)

Now, if you haven't noticed, the hot jazz movement has been building steadily for the past few years. Last year, it erupted in the first annual Hot Jazz Festival on August 25, 2013. If you don't mind, I'd like to quote some of what I wrote back then because I think it holds true (if you'd like to read the entire original post, click here):

"Hot jazz hasn't exactly been in the mainstream of modern pop music, but it's never gone away. Anyone who has spent just a few minutes at my brother Michael Steinman's Jazz Lives blog, already knows that this swinging style of music is alive and well both in New York and California, while friends of mine have told me about scenes in Boston, Portland, Austin and elsewhere (not to mention New Orleans, where I don't think it has ever slowed down)."
"Of course, don't tell this to the jazz mainstream press. Anytime a writer from the New York Times or Down Beat or whatever decides to go slumming into a city's traditional jazz scene, it's always to write a "nostalgia" based piece. None of the musicians who play this music get the cover of Jazz Times (hell, can anyone name the last time Louis was on the cover of a jazz magazine? 2001?). Bop came in in the 1940s, everything before it got relegated to the museum and that's pretty much been the story for the last 65 years, with every magazine and column covering the modern-bop-free stars of today and yesteryear, but turning a blind eye to anyone who just wants to swing and play hot music, preferably for dancers."

"Well, even though the above cities I listed all have popular, if underground, traditional scenes, the reality is for any kind movement to really gain traction, it has to blow up in New York City at some point. And that's what is happening now....I've noticed it for years now: more and more young musicians popping up all over NY interested in Louis Armstrong and the pre-bop style, musicians who find more of a challenge in ensemble interplay than running Coltrane substitutions. (Disclaimer: no disrespect to Coltrane or any of the other modern jazz stylists. I love all kinds of jazz, though my heart is with the traditional/swing stuff. The point is, it's a big world and there's plenty of room for anyone to play any style they like. There might not be plenty of gigs for that, but I see no need in reviving the jazz wars of the 1940s and to start calling out moderninsts and for them to start mocking the traditional players. No one's getting rich, so can't we all just play the music we want? End of rant.)"

"I've said it for years (to no one in particular) but the whole pre-bop aesthetic, to me, has always seemed like the only type of jazz that really gets people going, makes them want them to dance, makes them want to scream. I've been in those types of audiences, where the surge of emotion and noise is coming from both directions, on and off the bandstand. I've been in plenty of concert halls and respected plenty of quiet policies, but at some point, it's fun to let loose. I listen to broadcasts and concerts from the 1950s all the time--Louis, the George Lewis band, "Dr. Jazz" broadcasts from Central Plaza, etc.--and it's always blown me away, hearing the sounds of obviously younger people screaming and clapping for this style of music. That generation wanted to have fun and this music encouraged it. When the other styles of jazz said, "Shh, pipe down and listen," those fans got up, went to rock and roll, went to Ray Charles, went to Motown, and went right on down the line of American pop music, leaving jazz in the dust. But I've seen it for myself too many times now that when this style gets cooking, it elicits the same reaction in young people in 2013 as it did in 1953, 1943, 1933 and 1923. And it's not about nostalgia, it's about music that makes you feel good and want to move."

That was written BEFORE the first Hot Jazz Festival. The actual day's events ended up going down as one of the most memorable days I've ever spent as a jazz fan. The music was great, needless to say, but there was something about the audience that was especially heartening: about 80% seemed to be younger than 35 and they were not there from an ironic perspective. As I wrote in the previous paragraph, they were there to have a good time....and brother, they did. I'll never forget standing wall-to-wall in a crowd of people, standing, drinking and dancing to the music of trumpeter Bria Skonberg. At one point, she threw it to soprano saxophonist Aurora Nealand for a thoroughly New Orleans-ized (?) version of "Margie." People were going nuts. I was happy to be standing next to David Ostwald, who has been immersed in this music since the early 1970s. Even he had never seen anything like it. When everyone was screaming to "Margie," I turned to David and screamed, "Listen to this! They're screaming their heads off and dancing to a song written in 1920 by Con Conrad and J. Russell Robinson!" We just shook our heads in disbelief and went back to enjoying the music.

Fortunately, some videos popped up so if you think I'm just running my mouth for the helluva it, check these out.

Mona's Hot Four doing Bechet's "Chant in the Night":


The Hot Sardines tackling "Them There Eyes" (the opening "woo" is by the aforementioned David Ostwald):


And a few videos of the jam session shot by yours truly. First, everyone singing along (at about 1 a.m.) to "I'll Fly Away":


And finally, another jam session number, "Shine":


There's even more videos on Facebook but I'm going to quit while I'm ahead. So if you need me on Sunday, you'll know where to find me (and you might know where to find me on Monday, too: bed). But like last year, I'll leave Louis with the last words, taken from a letter he wrote to young trumpeter Chris Clifton on February 6, 1954 (you can read the whole thing here), after Clifton wrote him and told him he was a young trumpeter playing "Dixieland." Take it, Satch:

"‘Man, – you haven’t the least idea – how thrilled, I am, to be able to sit down and write to a ‘Cat, who feels the same way that ‘I do about the greatest music on this man’s earth,—DIXIELAND… ‘Lawd-today…’Gate—you’re a man after my own heart… I’ve always said—Dixieland is Universal… From one end of the earth to the other–the music’s the same, so help me….."

"Which again, makes my word come true, especially when I said – music is, er, wa, – Universal….. You yourself – could have done the same…Because, from the way that I dugged your very fine letter, – you take your horn serious the same as ‘I do…. God Bless Ya Son [...] And every country that we travel into, our music was the same… So you see in case you’d decide to make a tour to anywhere in the world, have no fear because our music (I’d say) is more of a Secret Order [...] real honest to goodness dixieland music will live for ever – without a doubt…"

"There was a certain big time musician, who made a nasty crack, as to, Dixieland Music, is ‘first grade music… Now – maybe you dont pick up on this Cat…But, I, being in the game for over forty years, etc, can easily see, that this young man who said it, the reason why he said it because he hasn’t the soul enough to express himself in dixie land music like he really would like to… So, he’ll say those slurring words knowing that the country’s full of idiots (also) who will believe him for a while, thinking that there really is such things as to different grades of music for the world to abide by [...] Where I came from, there weren’t but two kinds of music, – good or bad [...] Anyway my friend…Don’t let no one change your mind…Play the music that your heart tells you to play…There will always be somebody to gladly live it with you…"

Friday, May 9, 2014

50 Years Ago Today....Hello, Dolly at #1

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars
Recorded December 3, 1963
Track Time 2:28
Written by Jerry Herman
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Joe Darensbourg, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Tony Gottuso, banjo; Arvell Shaw, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums
Originally released on Kapp K-573
Currently available on CD: Close your eyes and pick an Armstrong C.D. and most likely, you’ll find one with “Dolly” on it
Available on Itunes? Yes, more versions than you can count
 
Back in December, I published this gigantic history of Louis Armstrong's relationship with "Hello, Dolly!" on the 50th anniversary of the recording of the song. Well, today is arguably an even bigger anniversary: today's the day when "Dolly" did the unthinkable and hit number 1 on the Billboard pop record charts! The Beatles had owned the top of the pops for 14 weeks but they were finally derailed by Pops himself.

Tomorrow, if you're in New York, I'm going to be taking part in a celebration of Hello, Dolly! at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, co-presented by the Louis Armstrong House Museum. After a dessert reception at 1 p.m., I'm going to give a 15-20 minute history of Louis and "Dolly" complete with audio and some footage of Pops performing Jerry Herman's tune live. And then at 2 p.m., the film Hello, Dolly! with Barbra Steisand and 90 seconds of Louis will roll. It should be a fun afternoon but if you can't make and want the whole story, allow me to re-post the whole thing here. Enjoy....and yeah, Pops, still #1 to me!

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50 years ago this week, Louis Armstrong walked into a recording to studio for the first time in over two years. He hadn’t needed records for a while as he consistently sold out his live shows around the country and around the world. But on December 3, 1963, Armstrong and the All Stars recorded two Broadway showtunes as a favor for a friend of Joe Glaser. Much focus was put on one song, “A Lot of Livin’ to Do” from Bye Bye Birdie, a song Armstrong’s friend Jack Bradley predicted could become a hit with the proper push on the radio. The other song, “Hello, Dolly” was for a Broadway show that hadn’t even opened yet. Armstrong wasn’t too impressed but gave it his all. The date was over and that was that.

Well, of course, you know what happened. Armstrong forgot all about the tune until people in the audience of his shows began shouting for it. He had no idea what it was all about until he was reminded that it was from this forgotten record date. Using a record as a guide, the band worked out a routine and began featuring it. The result was bedlam and soon enough, Armstrong’s Kapp single began climbing the charts, entering on Cash Box at number 68 on February 22. The following week it was number 35. Slowly it climbed, even with the Beatles looming large at the top of the charts. That didn’t deter the “Hello, Dolly” express which hit number one in Billboard on May 9 and number 1 on Cash Box on May 16. Once again, Louis Armstrong was on top of the world.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Jesus, Rick, you write six pages on the history of ‘I’m in the Market for You’ but ‘Hello, Dolly’ gets two paragraphs? Are you feeling okay?” The truth is I’ve never felt better but there’s a few reasons for my unexpected backstory brevity. First, this special 50th anniversary post is an update of something I published on December 1, 2008 on the 45th anniversary of the tune. And it was in this paragraph that I teased the fact that both my then-upcoming book and Terry Teachout's then-upcoming book would have much new information on the song.

Well, five years have passed and both my work and Terry's work are in paperback. The story is out there in all its glory.

But only here, my friends, will you get the traditional Riccardi blowout examination of all the versions of “Hello, Dolly” in my collection, numbering over 20. Now before you immediately close down this window and switch back to Facebook, let me state that I’ve done my usual editing job so don’t worry, you won’t have to sit through a bunch of six-minute versions with a ton of encores. Instead, I’ve pulled out a lot of the trumpet solos because the truth is, “Dolly,” though not a tremendous piece of songwriting, featured a different set of chord changes that Armstrong responded to with great affection. He loved changing up his solo on this one, even if it was only a few notes at a time. We’re going to look at a bunch of those solos but first, to all get in the mood, let’s listen to the classic 1963 recording in all its splendor:


You’ve got to admit, it’s a pretty great record. The jazz world loves to crap on it, with people crying outrage when it was included in Ken Burns’s Jazz documentary. It’s no “West End Blues” but damn, it’s a lot of fun, starting right off with Tony Gottuso’s banjo introduction, which Gary Giddins once likened to an alarm clock. Then there’s the ingenious touch of “This is Louis, Dolly,” one of Armstrong’s all time greatest lyric changes. Okay, that is something that Terry and I covered that is worth mentioning again. It was session producer Mickey Kapp who suggested to Louis to sing something like "This is Louie, Dolly," causing Armstrong to respond, "It's Louis!" And sure enough, that's how he sang it. At the Louis Armstrong Archives, we have Louis's part from the session and sure enough, in somebody's handwriting, "It's Louie" is written on the lyrics. Louis went his own way and gave posterity a clue on how to pronounce his name properly.

The record is like an audible Red Bull, so peppy and infectious (and without the chemicals). Trummy Young, making his last recording date with the band, sounds great playing a muted trombone obbligato while the rhythm section makes the two-beat feel bounce appropriately before swinging hard during the trumpet solo (notice, an almost perfectly edited splice before the trumpet comes on, allowing Armstrong time to get his chops in his horn). If you listen carefully to the version I posted, you’ll hear soft strings and a pounding tack piano, two additions made in post production by producer Mickey Kapp, though thankfully you really have to listen to hear it. Don’t strain yourself and instead enjoy a wonderful, seamless ensemble chorus by the All Stars, an incredibly professional unit til the end.

Armstrong’s trumpet is a gem though it’s clear he’s working on about 95% power. Still, he swings with relaxed ease, turning up the heat in the second half. And for someone who apparently didn’t think much of the song, he sings the hell out of it in the reprise, a muted Trummy powering him along. Classic stuff.

On March 22, 1964, with “Dolly” in full flight, Arlene Francis asked Armstrong to sing a chorus during his appearance on What’s My Line. Armstrong happily obliged, turning in a full a cappella outing do huge applause, a clip that is excerpted in the Gary Giddins documentary Satchmo but somehow is not on YouTube. Just two weeks later, Kapp brought the All Stars into the studio to record an entire album to be titled, you guessed it, Hello Dolly! Armstrong got to record some of his old stand-bys (“Blueberry Hill,” “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” “Someday,” “Jeepers Creepers”) while Kapp saddled him with a few more showtunes from the okay (“You Are Woman, I Am Man”) to the timeless (“Moon River”). It’s a very, very good album and naturally, it sold very well. On top of the world, Armstrong and the All Stars debuted “Hello, Dolly” on national television on The Hollywood Palace, an episode taped in April and aired in May, but one that I have never seen. We do have audio of this one at the Armstrong Archives, as all two other early versions from the summer of 1964, one from Sparks, Nevada in June and another from Ottawa. Both are terrific with completely different trumpet solos from later versions. Alas, because they're property of the Museum, I can't share them here but if you come visit me at Queens College, I'll play them for you all day long!

Armstrong eventually did it on the Ed Sullivan Show on October 4 and finally, it’s a version I have so we can begin the musical tour right here. Again, Armstrong sounds great but not quite 100% but still, it’s the only “Dolly” to get an introductory cadenza, so it gets points for that. Dig it:


I love Armstrong’s yell after the trumpet intro. He clearly loves the tune and delivers it with even more enthusiasm than the studio record. The trumpet solo is pretty spectacular, too, hitting some notes higher than any approached on the single. For those who want to just follow the trumpet solos, here it is again:


In early 1965, Armstrong and the All Stars embarked on a historic tour of Europe that finally found Armstrong breaking down the Iron Curtain by playing in places such as Prague and East Berlin. Numerous shows exist from this tour, all of them capturing Armstrong in peak form for one last extended period. In my collection, I have three complete versions (with encores) from the 1965 tour, as well as a video of another and one more extended performance from Paris in June of 1965. Examining all these versions is proof that Armstrong hit on a “set” solo for “Dolly” and rarely deviated from it during this period. But before we get into the nuts and bolts of the trumpet playing, why don’t you settle down for six minutes and enjoy “Hello, Dolly” in all its post-stardom glory. In my 2008 version of this blog, I posted the audio, but thanks to my man Austin Casey, here it is on YouTube from East Berlin, March 22, 1965 (and I hope to have a LOT more about this concert in a couple of days so come back soon!):


Pretty infectious stuff. It’s just six minutes of joy personified, with the band swinging like crazy and Armstrong sounding happier than ever. But pay attention to that trumpet because Armstrong played some wonderful stuff on “Dolly.” As I said, his solos didn’t change much, but there are some subtle differences and there. I’ve edited them all out, 43 seconds at a clip so here they are, beginning with Prague:


Isn’t that great? It’s one of those solos where Armstrong placed each note perfectly, treating them like individual diamonds in an elaborate setting. There are no quotes except something that’s very similar to “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” leading into the second half. Still, even Superman occasionally goofed as could be heard in this solo from Armstrong’s last Prague performance. He muffs an early phrase but actually finishes a little stronger than the first solo (sorry, it’s pitched a little too fast):


Now here’s the Berlin solo you just heard in the complete version:


And a version from Paris a few months later:


Those are both pretty damn strong. But what about the encores? Even they stayed pretty much the same during this period. Let’s go back to the first Prague:


Quote city! He starts with “Here Comes the Bride,” plays a snatch of “Dixie,” improvises a bit, then quotes “Stormy Weather,” leading perfectly into “Japanese Sandman.” Four quotes in 40 seconds? You’ve got to give the man credit for that. Needless to say, with something so worked out, there’s very little variation in the other versions from this period. There is SOME variation, but not enough to waste a couple of minutes of your time. But how about a video? During the same tour, Armstrong did a TV appearance with tenor saxophonist Max Greger’s big band. Armstrong did “Dolly,” naturally, playing his normal solo once then coming back for an encore, which consisted of a vocal first before a trumpet solo of monumental strength. I have the full clip at home and can attest that Armstrong quickly fluffs a note in his first solo and finds time to have a quick sip of water to soothe his dry chops. However, of the five (!) different versions of this clip on the Internet, each and every one of this has this first solo edited out, which is a shame. But here’s the encore, and as you’ll hear, it’s different than the encore played above (no “Here Comes the Bride”). I like to play this during my Armstrong video presentations because few clips better capture the ridiculous large sound of Armstrong’s horn in the mid-60s. He lost a little velocity, but geez, what power, especially when backed by the big band. Even Armstrong worshipper George Avakian, no fan of "Dolly," told me after seeing this clip at Satchmo Summerfest, "Geez, I might have to change my opinion on that song!" Here ‘tis (over 6.5 million views on YouTube as of 12/3/13!):


Naturally, Armstrong continued to perform “Dolly” each night, but in my collection, I don’t have another version after the June 1965 Paris one until a Chicago concert date at the Arie Crown Theater in December 1966 (I do have video of Pops doing it on ABC's Shindig in July 1965 and it's great, but alas, not on YouTube and I don't have the audio). Armstrong still had his sound but in the interim period, a bunch of punishing songs took their final bows in the All Stars repertoire. It seems that there would be no more “Basin Street Blues” or “Royal Garden Blues” or “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Some songs stayed but with differences: he began editing out his solos on “Indiana” and “Muskrat Ramble” and though he continued to play brilliantly on something like “The Faithful Hussar,” he had to come down a few notes from the crazy endings he played on it in 1965. “Dolly” was still around and it still had its encores but now all the encores would be sung, leaving Pops with a one chorus “Dolly” solo each night. Interestingly enough, it’s here where we’ll begin to hear Pops changing things up a bit. First, here’s the solo, in rough sound quality, I know, from Chicago, December 1966:


The entire first half is almost completely new and he even throws “Japanese Sandman” into the second half. He sounds great from top to bottom. In 1967, pneumonia kayo’d Armstrong for a bit but when he recovered, he proved that he was ready to blow by making an appearance on The Tonight Show that found him turning in strong solos on “Dolly” and even “Mame,” a song on which he never took a solo on otherwise. Here’s the driving “Dolly,” with two All Stars (Tyree Glenn and Marty Napoleon) and some personnel from the Tonight Show Orchestra, including Tommy Newsom on clarinet, Tony Mottola on banjo, Ed Sanfranski on bass and Ed Shaughnessy on drums, all terrific musicians:


It’s almost completely different from Chicago, opening with what sounds like a touch of “Idaho” while, later, he throws in both “Stormy Weather” and “Japanese Sandman.” But in between all the fun quotes, there’s a lot of different phrases. Just a few nights later, Armstrong and the All Stars were ready to go back out on the road, this time with a new clarinet player, Joe Muranyi. Muranyi told me about how the critics brushed off this edition of the All Stars, saying, “Oh, he’s just playing ‘Hello, Dolly’ all over again.” I’ll let the late Muranyi take over, an interview I conducted with him in October 2006:

“Now granted, yeah, he was playing ‘Hello, Dolly’ but he varied it. He varied it. I’ll tell you something interesting. I joined the band, we’re playing ‘Hello, Dolly.’ Okay, it’s not a bad song when you get down to it. Better than most rock that goes on today. But we got it so the ensemble worked very good. Tyree sort of led the way. He had been playing it, he had worked out these things. And I tell you, it’s an interesting thing, some people learn their own chorus and repeat it. Louis had some of that, but that’s a very deep sort of thing. But I didn’t, I kept trying. So we had a version of ‘Hello, Dolly’ that just by night after night after night was pretty good. I was smart enough to know that he leaves holes. There are many great things about him, that he did first or was very good at it, was the best, and one of them was that he was a perfect natural in terms of phrasing. He would leave holes for the clarinet and trombone to fill. And it was just a wonderful thing. And when he played, a lot of times, he makes a phrase, there’s a pause, and he does something. He sets himself, like call and answer, he’s doing both parts! I never knew if it was intuitive—I think there was a lot of that—or if he worked it out but I think he had a very profound mind in a way. I mean, I don’t want to make a god out of him. So we have this ‘Hello, Dolly’ down and I’m saying, ‘Okay, Hello, Dolly….uh! He’s changed!’ There’s another one. With little subtleties. I said, ‘Oh, isn’t this interesting.’ So I got that one down and one night, he goes back to one! But he’s got to know what he’s doing. And then we go right back to one and two, one and two, one and two and then one night--three! And I don’t know if we ever got more than three, but I’m not sure. So maybe for an audience, it was just ‘Hello, Dolly’ again, but I never got bored with it.”

So Pops had his three or so variations of the “Dolly” solo, of which can be heard on the following series of clips. Here’s the band at Ravinia Park in Illinois, June 30, 1967, Muranyi’s first week with the band:


It’s a good solo but the first half is almost identical to the Tonight Show version. But dig the second half: no “Japanese Sandman” and some new stuff. A few weeks later, Armstrong did a broadcast from the Steel Pier in Atlantic City on July 22. He wasn’t having one of his best nights and you’ll hear that he sounds awfully weak in the beginning. But in the middle, he eschews both “Stormy Weathe” and “Japanese Sandman” and comes up with different ideas, including a short descending motif that he works over brilliantly with his unfaltering sense of rhythm. Here it is:


Later that week, Armstrong embarked on a tour of Europe that featured some very erratic moments. But he always thrived on “Dolly.” Here it is from Juan-Les-Pins, France, July 26, 1967:


Now that’s a helluva solo. No quotes and he’s in command throughout. I love the stuff he does in the middle, always changing. He even toys with the descending idea he played in Atlantic City four days earlier, but quickly discards it in favor of something fresh. 24 hours later, still at Juan-Les-Pins, he turned in this solo:


Just one day later and it’s completely different with both “Stormy Weather” AND “Japanese Sandman” back in there. Now do you see what Muranyi meant? You never knew what Pops had in mind on this tune. In fact, let's take a little audio break and watch Pops in action, okay? Last time we saw him, it was in East Berlin in 1965. Now let's watch the entire Juan-Les-Pins performance from July 27, 1967 to see how he was doing the whole routine then, including encore:

Six months later, on December 20, 1967, Armstrong tore it up on “Dolly” again during an Operation: Entertainment ABC broadcast from the Fort Hood Army Base in Kileen, Texas, playing a solo similar to the one we just heard. But fortunately, this one exists on YouTube so we get to see how Armstrong worked over the crowd on the song. Here's the entire terrific segment, with "Dolly" starting at 5:40:


In February 1968, Louis was filmed for an episode of the Bell Telephone Hour called "Jazz: The Intimate Art." I blogged about the entire 16-minute clip here earlier this year. It's worth watching in total but there's a great excerpt of "Dolly" live in Pittsburgh, a version Joe Muranyi was very proud of, with good reason. Starting around bar 14, Louis plays a lot of new ideas but leaves those "holes" Joe told me about, allowing Muranyi to create an effective response each time. Here's the clip:


In June 1968, Armstrong headed to England for a relaxed stay that actually found him staying put for an unusual length of time, playing nightly at the Variety Club in Batley, Yorkshire, England for a couple of weeks. Two “Dollys” survive from the run, recorded within a day of each other. Here’s the first, again in shaky sound, from June 18:


I know what you’re saying: that was very similar to the ones we heard with both quotes in the middle. But here it is the following night, June 19:


Look ma, no quotes! Further proof that Pops continued switching things up on an almost nightly basis with "Hello, Dolly!"

Right before Armstrong left for England, he filmed a short role in the 20th Century Fox film of Hello, Dolly, starring Barbra Streisand, one of Armstrong’s favorite singers. Armstrong only appeared in the film long enough to sing one chorus but he received nearly top building and is an unquestionable bright spot in the film. Here’s the clip:

Louis Armstrong & Barbra Streisand [Hello Dolly] by ghaw2007

Unfortunately, by the time the film was released, Armstrong was suffering from a variety of a ailments that kept him away from performing for the entire year of 1969. When he returned to the public eye in 1970, he made a lot of television appearances but always as a singer, often doing “Dolly” (he once did it on the Mike Douglas Show as a duet with Pearl Bailey...via phone!). Around this time, he made a surprise appearance at a Duke Ellington tribute in Madison Square Garden and, after telling his favorite "hamburger" joke, sang a couple of choruses backed by the Ellington Orchestra, B.B. King and Ray Charles on organ! Insane. Here 'tis:


July 1970 found Armstrong celebrating what he believed to be his 70th birthday around the country. On July 3, he appeared at a tribute at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles and he couldn’t resist closing the show with “Sleepy Time,” “Blueberry Hill” and “Hello, Dolly.” I love this version because the band (which included Clark Terry, Tyree Glenn, Barney Bigard and Louie Bellson) originally kicked it off at a fast, corny, two-beat Dixie pace before Armstrong halted them in their tracks. As the track begins, you’ll hear Armstrong count it off in the proper tempo and when they get it, he yells, “Hold that shit right there, Pops!”


By the end of 1970, Armstrong was playing trumpet again, sometimes incredibly well. However, sometimes his stamina went on him, such as a one-night Command Performance he did in England in October, an event that was filmed for a documentary, Boy From New Orleans. In the rehearsal for the show, Armstrong sounded very strong on “Dolly” but after a full day of rehearing and warming up, he was out of gas when showtime hit, playing quietly on “Dolly” before smiling and handing the ball over to Tyree Glenn to finish it out, kind of a sad moment.

But there’s nothing sad about my final clip. On January 29, 1971, less than six months before his death, Armstrong appeared at a function for the National Press Club. He brought along Tyree Glenn but otherwise, the band was made up of local musicians. Armstrong played a little trumpet on “Sleepy Time” but saved the best for “Dolly,” one of my all-time favorite versions. The first time I heard this, I cheered because I couldn’t believe my ears. Here it is:


Isn’t that something? The first half is almost exactly like it was in 1968 but then he goes on an entire new direction including a beautiful tribute to another fallen king by quoting “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” right down to the “your nasty, your filthy, take it away” line. Then he comes up with this ingenious little chromatic device, which he places brilliantly. The tone isn’t as strong as it was on those 1965 clips, but it’s still him and clearly the mind is still sharp. A great way to close out this look at the musical content of one of Armstrong’s best-known songs.

I’ll be back in a few days with another major anniversary post but for now, I’m going to leave Armstrong with the final word. “Aw, I am paid to entertain the people,” he told Larry L. King in 1967. “If they want me to come on all strutty and cutting up—if that makes ‘em happy, why not? For many years I blew my brains out. Hitting notes so high they hurt a dog’s ears, driving like crazy, screaming it. And everybody got this image I was some kind of a wild man. Joe Glaser told me, ‘Play and sing pretty. Give the people a show.’ So now I do Dolly how many times? Six jillion? How ever many you want to say. Do it every show. And you got to admit, Pops, it gets the biggest hand of any number I do.”