Saturday, April 11, 2015

Swinging a Joke

Heard any good jokes lately? No? Well, then visit me at the Research Collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, housed at Queens College. That's where I serve as Archivist, in charge of all of Pops's stuff: his trumpets, his reel-to-reel tapes, his photographs, his sheet music, his manuscripts, his books, his records...and his jokes. Oh, the jokes.

Louis loved telling jokes. He loved hearing jokes. And he loved collecting jokes: dirty jokes, corny jokes, ethnic jokes, poems, toasts, you name it. Starting some time probably in the late 1930s, Louis began typing his favorite jokes into book form. The first two books have apparently not survived, but we do have a large volume from 1943 that Louis calls his "third" anthology. He explains this in his "Forward," written to an imaginary audience he hoped would be reading this book one day.

But we have more than the joke book. Louis loved including jokes in letters to friends and fans, often opening with a short risque poem. His reel-to-reel tapes are filled with hours of Louis and friends in dressing rooms and hotel rooms swapping jokes. And when the spirit hit him, he wasn't afraid to tell a joke or two during his stage shows with the All Stars.

Bud Freeman once said that "Louis swings more telling a joke than most others do playing a horn." Unfortunately, I can't share the treasures from Armstrong's archives--come to Queens College--but there are two commercial examples of Louis telling two separate jokes that make for a fine illustration of Freeman's point.

Over and over, for decades, Louis would walk into a recording studio, be handed some written lyrics and asked to turn them into gold. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the same thing happened when he told his favorite jokes.

Let's start with probably Louis's best-known joke, the "Alligator Story." Louis always made it autobiographical, mentioning his mother and her hometown of Boutte, Louisiana. But in actuality, Louis lifted the joke from blackface comedian George Williams, who told it to Louis when they shared a bill with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the late 1930s. Here's Louis writing to Leonard Feather on October 1, 1941, relaying the joke (I have left all of Louis's unique punctuation marks and misspellings but did change one typo; he consistently spelled "pond" as "pound" and I didn't want it to cause confusion):

"While I was looking at Mr. Singleton's Alligators while he was feeding them-I told him the one that George Williams the Blackface Comedian whom works with the great Bill Robinsons Shows, and is very funny man - indeed he is . . . That 'Cat Kills, Me-just to look at him on the streets with his makeup off . . . So I told this one to Mr. Singleton since we were around Alligators and also on the subject . . . He (George Williams) said-when he was a little boy living way out in the country-one day his mother sent him down to the Pond to get a Pail of Water . . . She said - Boy run down to the Pond an fetch me a pail of water right away . . . So he went runnin down to this pond to get this water and the minute he went to dip his pail into this water he looked overthere and spied an Alligator lying in this water . . . George said he'd gotten so terribly frightened until he clear forget to get the water and immediately started to runnin to home . . . And no sooner then he'd gotten to the porch of his home his mother said to him-Boy - Wheres that water that I told you to get? . . . And George said-Mother-theres, an Alligator in that water-and his mother said--Aw-Boy-go an get me that pail of water-don't you know that 'that Alligator was 'As' Afraid of you as you were of him - and I said (sez George) well mother-if that Alligator was as 'Afraid of me as I was of him-that Water Isn't 'Fit To Drink. . . . . . . . . . . . . I guess he told he something . . eh? . . ."

Louis began telling this onstage with the All Stars (the earliest version I have is from 1953) and numerous examples exist of him breaking up concert audiences with it. But probably my favorite version comes from the making of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy in 1954. Producer George Avakian asks Louis to say something into the microphone to get a balance and Louis immediately responds with the "Alligator Story:"

What I love most about it is by personalizing it, Louis leads Avakian and the studio guests to think he's actually telling an autobiographical story. There's no, "Oh, here's a joke for you!" He almost starts deadpan, talking about the town in Louisiana and everything and BOOM, there goes the punchline! And listen to it while reading his typed version. He recites it quicker, knows how to edit the extra stuff, adds some strong new phrases (I love "big old rusty alligator") and overall improves the joke.

Another Armstrong favorite was the "Hamburger Story." This one I have traced back to one of Louis's friends, Redd Foxx. Louis adored Redd and had many of his albums. Joe Muranyi told me about playing Vegas in the late 1960s and seeing Louis and Foxx carrying on together offstage. Foxx told his joke as "Ham and Eggs":

"Guy goes every day to the same diner, looks over the menu, and always orders the same thing: ham and eggs. Every day, the same thing: ham and eggs. Waitress decides to play a trick on him and scratches it from the menu. He comes in, she says, 'You know that thing you like so much? I scratched it.' 'Well, wash off your hand and get me some ham and eggs.'"

Short and sweet. This one still lives on; a quick Google search led me to a Reddit upload of a similar joke as recent as 2014. But once again, Louis takes this material and makes it his own. For one thing, he changes it from "ham and eggs" to "hamburger." I know of his telling it four times in public--at a concert in New Orleans in 1952; at a Boston dinner thrown in his honor by George Wein also in 1952; in a video of Louis telling it to Duke Ellington onstage at Madison Square Garden in 1970 (the video only includes the punchline); and finally, Louis tells it to Hoagy Carmichael onstage at his 70th birthday tribute at the Shrine in Los Angeles. It was clearly one of his favorites.

But for me, the New Orleans version is my favorite. In between sets of an All Stars concert, there was a whole ceremony onstage to unveil a photo of the deceased clarinetist Leon Rappolo. Myra Menville, the secretary for the New Orleans Jazz Club, then gave Louis a certificate of merit and a key to the city on behalf of mayor DeLessups Morrison. It's a very nice little moment and Menville sounds read to move on when Pops grabs the mike to say a few words. Here, then, is the complete hamburger joke:

Isn't that great? I love how Louis always fakes the audience out with the "I just scratched what you like" line. The audience breaks up just at that (Menville clearly thinks it's over). Louis senses it and leaves a gigantic pause (master of timing). Then he lowers the boom with the real punchline and the REAL hysterics begin. Great stuff.

And like I said, Louis loved to underplay these jokes at seemingly inopportune times: a recording studio sound check; while being honored at a dinner in Boston; when about to unveil a portrait of a deceased musician; he once told the alligator story on stage in Africa as a "speech" at the end of a concert in 1956. It killed every time.

Finally, there's the "rye bread" joke, which Louis told onstage at the National Press Club in Washington DC on January 13, 1971. Recently, while going through one of Louis's note books from December 1970-January 1971, I found "THE SAGA OF THE JEWISH RYE BREAD" wiritten in Louis's handwriting. What follows is what he wrote:

"A young fellow went to a Jewish Doctor and told the doctor he was worried because he could not get an erection. Whereupon the doctor told him to eat Jewish Rye Bread. So on his way home, the young man stopped a Jewish Bakery and asked for 25 Loaves of Rye Bread. The Baker said--25 Loaves? - it will get hard before you get rid of it. Whereupon the patient in excitement said Give Me 50 Loaves.'''"

It's obviously an old joke and variations of it can be found online. Where did Louis get it? He was in Vegas when he compiled the notebook so maybe another comedian told him. It's also written without any of his usual "tics" so he might have copied it from a joke book. But he clearly liked it enough to tell it on stage in Washington a short time later. Here is how it came out:

This is probably the best example of Louis improving a written joke. Look at the way he wrote it: "Whereupon"? Twice? Interestingly, the notebook Louis wrote it in was mostly filled with lyrics. He started it in late 1970, obviously feeling well enough to go back to performing. He alphabetized the book from A to Z and began jotting down song titles. Then, for each song, he wrote the lyrics. There's some staples like "What a Wonderful World" but also newer material such as tracks from Louis Armstrong and His Friends and Louis "Country and Western" Armstrong. There's even old favorites like "I'm Confessin'" and "If We Never Meet Again." Many pages, though, are blank, probably because ill health stopped him in his tracks; he wrote all the titles of Dave and Iola Brubeck's Real Ambassadors score but never got around to the lyrics; was he really planning on singing some of those songs live one day?

But at the very end of the book, he wrote his "Daily Routine," a list of his main set from the Tropicana in Las Vegas, where he performed from December 26, 1970 through January 8, 1971, listing "alternate numbers" to be rotated in and out each night as well as a list of "Tunes to Call," songs he felt comfortable calling at this late stage in his career. This was clearly a book he was studying as he began performing again: lyrics to songs, a set list, an index of tunes....and a handful of written jokes.

He probably studied the joke just like he studied those lyrics and like he did with music time and again, knew how to make it his own, make it better. Again, listen to it while looking at how Louis wrote it down. It's now about his friend and instead of outright saying "erection," listen to how Louis draws out the phrase "trouble with his lower extremitiessss." Instead of a bakery, it's now a "delicatessen." (Great word.) And though the punchline is the same, Louis adds the part about the friend "smiling," pauses, and once again, wammo. Hysterics.

If you've ever seen me preach about Pops in public, I always defend his comic timing, saying that making people laugh and nailing the timing of a joke is harder than hitting a high C. The music community applauds the high C but gets uncomfortable around the jokes. I'll admit it: they're not GREAT jokes. But Louis's versions are great. Was "Somebody Stole My Break" a great song? "You've Got Me Voodoo'd"? "Ko Ko Mo"? No, but Louis's versions are great.

If you've made it this far, I'd like to add a little lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans. This is a joke that we do NOT have audio of Louis telling, I'm sorry to say. But it is clearly written in his voice and answers a question: "What the hell is 'Straighten Up and Fly Right' about?"

On November 30, 1943, the Nat King Cole Trio recorded "Straighten Up and Fly Right," the story of a monkey and buzzard in a tussle. From such source material, Cole had a hit record, one that is still performed today. Here's the original:

As you can imagine, such tales of animals have a deep tradition in American and African-American folklore, such as the Uncle Remus stories. While searching around Google, I found this American Folktales: From the Collections of the Library of Congress. In it, it has the transcription of a story simply called "Monkey adn Buzzard" and related by Cora Jackson, wife of Virginia blues musician John Jackson. This is how Coroa told it:

"There was the old buzzard. He wanted something to eat, and he went, first thing, he asked the old terrapin, said, 'You wanna take a ride?' Said, 'Yeah.' He hopped on his back and flied way up in the air, and he dropped him down and he busted him all to pieces, and he eat him up. Well, next, it was . . . the rabbit or something he picked up. It was the rabbit. He asked him, and he flew way up in the air with him, and he turned him loose, and he dropped him, and he eat him up."

"And then he came across a monkey. He flew way up in the air with the old monkey holding on. He said, 'Don't go too high. I get the swimming in the head.' 'Oh, no, I'm gonna give you a good ride.' He went way up in the air with this old monkey, so when he got ready to drop the monkey, that old monkey wrapped his tail around his neck. And he said, 'Hey, Mr. Monkey,' say, 'You choking me.' He said, 'Straighten up, damn you, and fly right then.' That broke the buzzard from carrying the monkey up in the air and dropping him on the ground."

Okay, now the King Cole song makes sense. It's a folk story that had probably been around forever and teaches some lesson about, I don't know, choking people who are trying to kill you or something. (Kidding.) I'm sure Cole knew, but I'm almost certain he knew the version that Louis wrote in his surviving joke book, which, again comes from early 1943. Here it is, in Louis's typewritten style (I haven't changed a thing) and most importantly, his voice:


The Buzzard*Rabbit*Monkey

Mr. Buzzard was Flying very low oneday and he saw Mr. Rabbit down on the ground minding his own business and all of a sudden Mr. Buzzard stopped his flying around and circled down to where Mr. Rabbit was eating ‘Cabbage – Grass—or—somthin . . . Anyway – Mr. Buzzard had his personal reasons for wanting to get down there besides Mr. Rabbit . . . . So he tells, Mr. Rabbit – How ‘doo ‘Br’er Rabbit – would you like to take a “Ride” up in the Air on my back? . . ‘T’would do yourself some good I’ll assure you . . . . So it did sound very good to ‘Br’er Rabbit . . . Sooo—right away ‘Br’er Rabbit said—Mr. Buzzard – I really don’t care if I do . . . And ‘Br’er Rabbit got on top of Mr. Buzzard’s Back – UMP—for the last time of his life . . . Because the minute Mr. Buzzard gotten ‘way up there into the Clouds-he commenced to ‘Wavin ana ‘Bobbin-with poor ‘Br’er Rabbit on top of his back which frightened ‘Br’er Rabbit terribly . . . But it didn’t do any good ‘at all . . . Because the minute Old Buzzard gotten to where he wanted to ‘Ditch Br’er Rabbit he made a funny kind of move and ‘Threw ‘Br’er Rabbit off of his back and Killed Br’er Rabbit Instantly . . . . Then Brother Buzzard flew back down to the ground where Br’er Rabbit ‘lay dead and ‘Ate him up for his Breakfast . . . . . . .


Now dinner time approached . . . . So quite naturally Mr. Buzzard came back down to earth to see what on earth could he see to ‘eat for his dinner . . . . . So he ran across Mr. Monkey . . . . . Mr. Monkey all sharp as a tack . . . Struttin down the lane to see his best gal . . . Mr. Buzzard appears on the scene where Mr. Monkey was . . . . . And said—How ‘Doo Mr. Monkey – would you like to take a little ‘Spin up in the Air on my back? . . . And Mr. Monkey said –Wel-ll – I don’t think I care – about refusing . . (Meaning) – yes . . . . . Mr. Buzzard (all ‘gayily ‘N’everything-said)-hop right on top of my back and I’ll take you for a ride . . . So Mr. Monkey hopped on top of Mr. Buzzard’s Back and the way they went up into the clouds . . . Now everything was going just fine until Mr. Buzzard’ started to making one of those ‘funny mysterious-Loop’De’Loops . . . . So Mr. Monkey he being a ‘hip’d youngster-immediately threw his ‘Tail around Mr. Buzzard’s Neck . . . Now Mr. Buzzard didn’t want to say anything to Mr. Monkey concerning his ‘Tail around his Neck . . . But tried to ‘Off Jive Mr. Monkey by making another one of those ‘Fancy ass ‘Loop ‘De ‘Loops again . . . ‘So Mr. Monkey ‘Tightened up on Mr. Buzzard’s Neck ‘Real Good this time . . . Halfway ‘Strangling Mr. Buzzard to death. That’s, when Mr. Buzzard (halfway choked to death) said to Mr. Monkey—‘Er’wa—Look ‘Out ‘there ‘Mr. Monkey – you have your Tail around my Neck and ‘Ol Man – you are nearly choking me to death . . . So ‘Nix Ol Man – ‘Nix (which means, to stop it) . . . . . Just then Mr. Monkey said to Mr. Buzzard . . . . . Well ‘Straighten Up Mr. Mother Fucker and ‘FLY RIGHT  . . . 

Now THAT is how to swing a joke!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

80 Years of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 5, 1930
Track Time 3:08
Written by Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ed Anderson, trumpet; Henry Hicks, trombone; Bobby Holmes, clarinet, alto saxophone; Theodore McCord, alto saxophone; Castor McCord, tenor saxophone; Joe Turner, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Lavert Hutchinson, tuba; Willie Lynch, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41415
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

This is one of my long-time favorite Louis Armstrong records and I'm surprised it has taken me this long to get around to it. I originally wanted to publish this on April 5, the actual 80th anniversary of Louis's recording of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" but I had to wait until the 7th, which seems appropriate as this is Billie Holiday's centennial birthday and this is one of her best-loved songs.

Billie wasn't alone. It seems like everyone has recorded this number at some time: a simple YouTube search of the title immediately calls up versions by Anita O'Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dean Martin, Louis Prima, Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby, Django Reinhardt, Sidney name it, they've recorded it. (Anyone remember its 1950s revival in the fantastic Humphrey Bogart film, The Caine Mutiny? That's actually where I first heard it, being an old movie buff before a jazz fanatic.) But like everything else, it was Pops who put it on the jazz map.

He didn't put it on the overall map, though. "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" (gee, that's a damn long title to keep typing) was written by the great Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill and published in 1926. McHugh was then writing songs for the Cotton Club and hadn't been teamed with Dorothy Fields yet. For Louis nuts, the name Clarence Gaskill might sound familiar as he's the one who wrote "Laughin' Louie" in 1933. Recordings started trickling out in 1927, with Roger Wolfe Kahn having the hit with his uptempo dance band arrangement:

How about that? I love 1920s dance band music but I have to admit the effect is a little jarring, especially considering how many artists have treated it as a ballad. Even the ones who took it up, like Jimmy Rushing, always swung like mad but this is in the standard two-beat feel of the day. But it's a peppy recording with a lot going on; they don't play the verse until 1:37 in. And how about that lead trumpet taking the melody? Oh, pre-Armstrong world, you were really something else. One thing, though, is I've always found this to be an absolutely lovely melody but at this tempo with the clipped phrasing of the opening trumpeter and later, the violins, it really loses its beauty. 

But Kahn wasn't alone in his approach. This was obviously the way the song was being performed in the period, as can be heard again in this 1927 record by Jack Payne, complete with pre-Armstrong vocal where the lyrics are sung just as written without as much as a single beat out of place:

Another peppy outing, with a little Bixian trumpet to boot. Not enough for you? Here's another one by the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band (listen to the intro and remember it!):

As far as I can tell, there weren't any "jazz" versions until Louis waxed it for posterity 80 years ago this week. Louis recorded it during his early days as a single act. After splitting with Carroll Dickerson in 1929, Armstrong began traveling the country, fronting other orchestras for a few years before he solidified one under his own name back in Chicago in 1931. In the spring of 1930, he was fronting drummer Willie Lynch's Coconut Grove Orchestra, which later morphed into the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. There's some good names in the band, including pianist Joe Turner and guitarist Bernard Addison.

The one thing we don't know is why Louis was recording a song that was already four years old at the time of this session. It might have been the McHugh connection; he had a big hit with "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" in 1929 and would record McHugh's "Exactly Like You" one month later with the same band. Armstrong also wasn't averse to performing and recording older numbers; the April and May sessions with the Coconut Grove band also found Louis digging back to "Dear Old Southland" (recorded the same day as "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me"), "Dinah" (which I hope to write about next month) and a real good old good one, "Tiger Rag." Armstrong also recorded "Indian Cradle Song" which we know he was performing with Dickerson in 1929. So it's possible that he had been playing this for a couple of years and finally got the opportunity to record it. Anyway, here's how it came out:
First off, did you hear that introduction? It's identical to the one we heard from the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band, so this is clearly a doctored stock arrangement Louis is playing. Unlike the Devonshire band, Louis's arrangement leaves holes for him to state his case, which he does, relaxed and swinging from the start. Ah, swing! There it is. Louis finally turns down the tempo and in the introduction alone, it's an entirely different feel from the 1927 recordings. 

After the intro, Castor McCord takes the melody on the tenor. Interesting that Louis doesn't grab it for himself but I like McCord's outing. He's clearly been listening to Louis and rephrases the melody so that, for the first time, we can really appreciate the catchiness of the melody (there's a couple of nice breaks in there, too). I also love the almost ragtag rhythmic feel of the band. The horns swing out with some simple riffs, guitarist Addison offers some counterpoint, Lavert Hutchinson's tuba keeps it grounded and drummer Lynch really works the cymbals, offering some early "splang-a-lang" (as the kids call it).

Finally, at the bridge, Louis reminds us that it's his record, with another relaxed, loose outing; God, his time feel is just something to behold. He lets McCord take the final 8 but he's off-mike so it kind of sounds like the band just shuffling along aimlessly for a few seconds.

But then we get the vocal. And what a vocal! I've praised the melody over and over and kidded the 1927 singers for how they stuck to it. But here Armstrong uncorks something entirely different than what's written and it works like a charm. The whole appeal of the song is the whole descending motif:

D-C-A, D-C-Ab, D-C-G, etc.

Armstrong eschews it and builds his vocal around the D instead of the descending half-notes, repeating different D-C-D combinations until it sounds like a new song. In the second eight, he changes it up even more: listen to how the equal parts insistent and hesitant way he sings "You're telling everyone I know." For the bridge, Armstrong's voice goes way up for the little "Oh baby" and way back down when he scats his own obligato after the line "far above me." And listen to the way he gets out of the bridge, repeating "love me" to fit the chords changing underneath him. 

For the third and final A section, Armstrong approaches it a third and final way, this time now focused on the E higher than the D he was fixated on earlier. And the same thing when he sings that long-ass title again, coming up with another brand new way to phrase it, ending with a string of quarter note E's before finally landing on the tonic C. That is some  vocal (And props to Addison and Turner for their nonstop, but non-intrusive playing behind him throughout.)

Trombonist Henry Hicks now takes over, mostly sticking to the melody but with a jubilant tone and feel that carries over the joy of Armstrong's vocal. (And again, Willie Lynch is whipping those cymbals!) It's now showtime and Armstrong makes a dramatic entrance with a break that goes up chromatically from a high E. Instead of the bridge, Armstrong goes back to the beginning so he can improvise over a full 32-bar chorus. It's one of his most singable solos; seriously, listen to it a few times and sing along with the recording and you'll be shocked at how much you're swinging (those quarter notes, man!).

The bridge is another highlight as the rhythm shifts behind him, the reeds accenting two-and-four. Armstrong responds by playing with the rhythm, taking chances with his phrasing in accenting just about beat other than two-and-four, creating tension and loosening up the equilibrium until he centers everything with a dazzling break that always reminds me of one of his scat episodes.

Heading into the final 8, Armstrong finally toys with the descending half-step motif, but does so in his own way. The written melody starts with the high D-C and accents the descending note (A, then Ab, then G) but Armstrong starts with the lower notes and uses them as springboards to higher E's, the note he was emphasizing in the last 8 bars of his vocal. On top of the F chord under him, the E is a major7th interval, a favorite of Louis's ("Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" rely on them) and a very pretty effect. 

After that exciting bridge, Armstrong gets back to relaxed territory before syncing with the band for the neat arranged ending, where Armstrong blazes up to a high C. Bravo, Pops!

We don't know if this played a big role in Louis's live repertoire of the day but there are surely no mentions of it that I have found from 1930 or beyond. But Louis wasn't quite done with it, revisiting one more time in 1956 as part of the epic Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography sessions. Here's the remake:
For most of the Autobiography, arranger Sy Oliver followed the patterns of the original recordings, adding in his own touches where fit. But for "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me," he really created something new. First, the original stock intro is out as is another instrumentalist taking the lead. Now it's Pops from the start, backed by All Stars Edmond Hall and Trummy Young while Oliver's reeds hum the harmonies below. 

One thing has definitely changed: Armstrong now seems to relish the lovely melody and sticks closer to it in his opening statement, imbuing it with that trademark warmth of his. I'm not saying he's a slave to it like those 1927 dance bands; just listen to the repeated quarter notes at the end of the first 8 or how he fills in the cracks in the turnarounds. Young and Hall back off for the bridge, but rejoin for the end, Hall taking a typically spiky break as Louis gets to the microphone.

And again, Armstrong is much more respectful to the written music. To Armstrong, this was a sign of maturity. As I recently wrote in my "Irish Black Bottom" entry, Louis in the 1950s sometimes listened back to his recordings from the 1920s and disapproved of his own playing and singing, saying he was just playing "obligatos" and remember the Decca mantra of "Where's the melody?" In the 1956 version, you can't miss the melody and since that's one of the reasons the song has become such a chestnut, it's nice to hear how the mature Armstrong treats it. 

Still, there's some trademark Armstrongian touches: the larger-than-life "yes" at the end of the first A section, the way he still uniquely phrases "you're telling everyone you know," the "Oh baby" leading into the bridge, the quiet "oh" to mark the chord change in the middle of the bridge, the way he goes up for the final "to think that I'm the lucky one" and so on. Not as jaw-droppingly wild as 1930 but still the best vocalist in the game.

Trummy Young gets the post-vocal break before we have an entirely new treatment for the final chorus. Sy Oiver has his horns shout a series of repeated two-note riffs, while Louis floats around them, setting up a series of breaks. For the first one, Louis jumps right up to the high C he original ended the 1930 recording and repeats it a few times, demonstrating as he did throughout the Autobiography his better command of the upper register of his horn, before ending on a twisty little phrase. 

In the second 8, Oliver's writing gets a little intrusive. The horns continue riffing and All Stars pianist Billy Kyle starts hammering out some exciting chords but if you listen through it, you can hear that Louis is still in a relaxed mode, which is obscured a bit by the business around him. Still, he sounds great and manages to insert his favorite Drdla's "Souvenir" quote into his second break. 

Louis takes the lead for the bridge with Oliver's horns playing a different swinging riff over his signature two-beat feel. I love the break Louis takes here, repeating descending half-steps to perfectly set up the first chord change of the final A section. From here, the record resembles the 1930 version with Louis working over that pretty E and and reprising the original spiraling ending, with Louis hitting that final high C right on the nose. 

So there you have it, two different but wonderful versions of a song with a title too long to type yet again. I love them both but that 1930 recording is really something to behold, possibly because of the rhythmic feel and playing of the band, which would be rendered obsolete in a few more years. But I'm not done with the Coconut Grove Orchestra and will return to them in May to celebrate the 80th anniversary of their landmark May 4 session. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Louis Armstrong at the University of Kansas, March 23, 1957

This is a big holiday weekend for those celebrating Passover and Easter, but it's also a big holiday weekend for those following the NCAA College Basketball tournament. Up until a few days ago, I didn't really have a way to connect Pops to the Final Four, but that has all changed. All I can ask, Pops Nuts, is do you have you 45 minutes of free time? You do? Good, listen to THIS!

If you don't have time (and really, you must make the time!), I'll offer a little backstory. On March 23, 1957, an epic NCAA championship game took place in Kansas City between the University of Kansas and North Carolina University. Led by future legend Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas pushed Carolina to the brink over THREE overtimes, but ended up losing 54-53. On campus, Kansas students watched the game together on television. Though the loss was a crushing one, the night was not a total waste: immediately after the game, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars would be playing a dance at the Student Union!

When one thinks of "jazz goes to college," Dave Brubeck is usually the first name that comes to mind. But throughout the 1950s, Louis and the All Stars often spent the months of February, March and April playing strings of colleges. On one of his tape recorded interviews from the 1950s, Louis mentions being in the middle of 55 (!) straight college dates! That might have been an exaggeration, but only slight; I have heard multiple stories--and seen multiple photos--of Louis partying all night at various frat parties.

This might have seemed like another one-nighter, but even Louis and the All Stars got swept away watching the basketball game on television. When the game was over, the All Stars did their thing and were persuaded to stay to play "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" for the returning Kansas basketball team when they got back to campus at 2:15 a.m. Armstrong obliged. Though Armstrong's appearance garnered a news clipping (which can be seen in this story), what happened that night would have to only exist in the memories of those who were there....

Except Don Potts was recording it!

Potts was a 22-year-old student employee who captured a good chunk of the All Stars performance, the welcoming back of the basketball team and most importantly, a short interview with Armstrong himself.  Potts, who later became a physician, kept the tape of the evening for nearly 60 years. David Basse, a jazz broadcaster with KPR Radio, got to know Potts, who told him about the tape. Recently, KPR had the tape transferred and last Saturday, Basse did a one-hour show about that night in 1957, including Potts as his guest.

I'm assuming for copyright reasons, only 45 minutes is streamed on the KPR website and almost every song has a fade or a section cut out; this could be on the original tape but it might be a way to prevent this material from being released illegally.

Once more, HERE IS THE LINK.

Those articles I've already linked to contain much of the backstory (here's another one with some images I provided from the Louis Armstrong House Museum) but since you're hear for Pops, let's talk about the music. If you only have time to skip around, here's how it breaks down.

The broadcast opens in the middle of "Royal Garden Blues," at a tempo slower than the famed Ambassador Satch version. Remember, this was a dance, so maybe that was a concession to the dancers but regardless, it works beautifully. The recording also allows us to appreciate the Billy Kyle-Squire Gersh-Barrett Deems rhythm section as they're a little up in the mix, but not in an intrusive way; you can feel their power! Armstrong's solo is on the money and again, different from Ambassador Satch.

After Basse talks to Potts, the next song is Trummy Young's feature on "Undecided" beginning at 5:40. So much for tempo! This one is as wild as ever with Trummy and Louis in top form. There's also a great encore. For me, I LOVE the sound of the cheering students. Rock and roll had already exploded, but these students cheer for the All Stars like they're Elvis Presley.

Speaking of explosions, do not miss "High Society" at 19:15 which is technically an Edmond Hall feature but also includes some stratospheric ensemble playing by Pops. This was a regular All Stars number for many years but until now, I couldn't find a live concert version after October 1955. So much for that! Who knows how much they were playing it? (More on that in a bit.) Maybe it wasn't a frequent call because there is some confusion in the encore as Hall seems to think the ensemble is coming back but instead gets another chorus to himself. This one is missing the introduction and fades at the height of the encore, but again, listen to those students! I don't think they were thinking of the basketball loss anymore. Pops heals everything!

Immediately after, at 23:30, is another Ambassador Satch favorite, "Twelfth Street Rag." Louis, sensing the lively crowd, tells them that they're "wailing" which gives a few students license to shout out things like, "Crazy, man, crazy!" "Twelfth Street Rag" gets the students clapping from the start--and they don't stop! Yeah, most of them are the wrong beat but the spirit is right so who cares? Billy Kyle's solo is missing but at least we get to hear Squire Gersh do some slapping in the only surviving version from his year with the All Stars. During Hall's solo, listen to him announce that he's doing "the cutout"; if you've seen Edward R. Murrow's original See It Now profile from 1955, it included footage of the All Stars doing this number and Hall does the same thing, breaking into a little dance in the same spot. Louis's ensemble lead is superhuman and Trummy does the boppish "Ooh-shoobee-doobee" break in Arvell Shaw's absence.

The five minute interview between Armstrong and Potts starts at 28:40 and it's a treat. It originally took place during the intermission and Louis mentions that they're supposed to play until 2 but are going to wait for the team to come back. Potts is nervous and mostly wants to talk basketball but Louis couldn't be any more charming, talking about how he watched the game on the edge of his seat. When the subject turns to music, Louis talks bout how one-nighters are his life (going to St. Joe's the following night) and musicians who don't want to do them are lazy. You always get the truth from Pops! Louis talks about looking forward to the opportunity to meet Wilt Chamberlain; I wish either man recorded their remembrances of that meeting. But the highlight of the interview, after Louis's story of playing basketball in the 1920s, is Louis slipping in "With Swiss Kriss, you can't miss!" to the unsuspecting Potts! Potts replies, "Hm?" and Louis lets him slide without further exploring his favorite subject. And listen as Potts wraps it up, Louis calls for Dr. Pugh, his valet and the man who acted as the dressing room gatekeeper. Clearly, someone was up next for their highlight-of-a-lifetime meeting with the great Satchmo.

At 34:30, we hear Louis's closing "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" theme. In the middle of his good night, he mentions that he bit off all of his fingernails watching the game! Then, at 36:15, we hear Louis's powerhouse rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."After a fade, Louis and the All Stars go into "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" at 38:00 but they're mostly drowned out by the cheering students, screaming their heads off at the return of Wilt Chamberlain and the near-champions. That's the end of Louis, but the broadcast ends with inspiring speeches by losing coach Dick Harp and the university's Chancellor, who thanks Louis for his part in what was a very memorable evening.

I had a busy week but listening to David Basse's KPR interview was definitely one of the highlights. And as postscript of sorts, let's talk about my favorite subject, the repertoire of the All Stars. This is something I spent many entries on, discussing the "Anatomy of an All Stars Concert" in the following eras:

In the 1957 entry, I discussed perhaps my favorite bootleg Armstrong concert of all time (still unissued), from Hinsdale High School on March 27, 1957...four days later. Let's look at the set list:

When It's Sleepy Time Down South
The Gypsy
Ole Miss
Blueberry Hill
High Society Calypso
Tin Roof Blues
My Bucket's Got a Hole In It
Sweet Georgia Brown
Riff Blues
Mack the Knife
Tenderly/You'll Never Walk Alone
Stompin' at the Savoy
Velma's Blues
That's My Desire
Ko Ko Mo
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
When the Saints Go Marchin' In
C'est Si Bon
La Vie En Rose
The Faithful Hussar
Muskrat Ramble
Clarinet Marmalade
St. Louis Blues
Mop Mop
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
The Star Spangled Banner

Now, Dr. Potts only recorded a handful of tunes, but look at what he captured just four days earlier:
Royal Garden Blues
High Society
Twelfth Street Rag

That's four songs that weren't played in Hinsdale just a few nights later. And if you look at other 1957 shows where the audio has survived, you'll find these Louis specialties:
Tiger Rag
Mahogany Hall Stomp
Lazy River
Ain't Misbehavin'
I Get Ideas
Dear Old Southland
Now You Has Jazz
Rockin' Chair
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
On the Sunny Side of the Street

There's probably more ("A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "Someday You'll Be Sorry," "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "Black and Blue," "Basin Street Blues," etc., which survive in 1956 or 1958) but I'll stop there. Again, I wasn't in the band. I'm sure it felt like the same thing every night when it was all blended together with bus trips, no sleep, bad food, etc. Edmond Hall left in 1958 claiming that and just recently, William Carter had a beautiful post about Squire Gersh where he says Gersh felt the same way. So obviously, there's a bit of truth in that; but simply analyzing and listening to everything that's out there tells a different story.

So thanks to the University of Kansas, to Dr. Don Potts, to David Basse and all involved who helped get this previously unknown treasure back into the ears of Louis fans around the world. The only way you can learn is to listen and I'll be listening to this Kansas material for years to come.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[I just dropped the mike....]

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ambassador To Ambassador Satch - Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival Recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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