Friday, August 31, 2007

Blue Yodel Number 9 - With Johnny Cash

Mr. Håkan Forsberg has written me with a request to do an entry on the Armstrong and Johnny Cash's version of "Blue Yodel Number 9" from Cash's 1970 TV show. I couldn't be happier to oblige so here is the video:

It's one of my favorite clips...and before YouTube exploded, it was one of the prized possessions of my Armstrong video collection. I own the entire episode and when I showed this clip at a lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies, it was a hit as Armstrong historians such as Dan Morgenstern and Ed Berger said they hadn't seen it since it originally aired. Flash forward two months and there it was on YouTube! And as of today, it's had 110,632 views and as of September 18, thousands more will see it when it's released on a new DVD collection of "The Best of The Johnny Cash TV Show." So much for collector's items...

But it wouldn't be a blog entry without some backstory, so here goes. There are 190 comments on the YouTube video and most are from musically ignorant people who think it's cool to see the man in black from that Joaquin Phoenix movie sing with the goofy guy who sings "It's A Wonderful World" (yes, I spelled it wrong on many young fans of "What a Wonderful World" know that there's an actual standard titled "It's A Wonderful World"?). Reading through the comments is painful, though the great Phil Person of Berklee does his best to set the record straight. What most of the 110,000 probably don't grasp is the historical significance of this clip.

Okay, Armstrong Mythology 101: Louis Armstrong grew gravely ill in the late 60s and spent his final years unable to play the trumpet, relying only on his voice to entertain. His final albums are sad, commercial affairs and his final gig at the Waldorf-Astoria got bad reviews and still caused Arvell Shaw to weep at the mention of it 30 years later. Louis Armstrong died a few months later. The End.


I'll try to do this without a million more details (six more entries, and the book I'm working on will be worthless!), but here are the cold, hard facts. In September of 1968, Armstrong did finally start to break down. Excessive weight loss earlier that year led to extreme exhaustion at first. He was expected back on stage in March of 1969, but in February, kidney ailments and heart problems felled him again. Armstrong remained home in 1969 and often battled depression. A private tape of him at home with friends that year finds a subdued Armstrong reflecting, “Now all I got to do is scan my life back and see what I was doing wrong. Like I didn’t get enough rest. I was always afraid I was going to miss something.” He spent his days writing letters and listening to his own albums, secretly yearning to play trumpet again.

Well, as the year progressed, Armstrong gradually grew a tad bit stronger, but not strong enough to perform. Still, in the fall of 1969, he was approached to sing the title song of a new James Bond movie, On Her Majesty's Secret Service. A very frail Armstrong gave an emotional reading of the song, "We Have All The Time In The World," which would climb back on the UK music charts 25 years later after being used in a beer commercial. [A quick scan of a James Bond web site says this was the last song Armstrong ever recorded before he "died in 1970" - Armstrong mythology, still going strong!] Anyway, many people know about the Bond song and in one documentary, the song's composer, Hal David, talks about how sick Armstrong was and how they didn't think he'd get through the session and so on and so forth. It's a beautiful story but no one ever mentions the other song recorded at that October 28 session: Armstrong and Billy Kyle's composition "Pretty Little Missy." The first time I heard this track, I didn't know what to expect but Pops sounds very happy, if a little weak, singing over the medium-paced shuffle beat. But nothing prepared me for what happened at the 1:20 mark: Armstrong picks up his trumpet and blows a wonderful half-chorus solo! The tone is fragile in the beginning but it gradually swells and though he has a little trouble with a high note towards the end of the solo, it's a swinging outing, full of classic Armstrong ideas and phrases. The first time I heard it, I actually cheered! And when he reprises the vocal and sings the cute lyrics over surging strings, I welled up with tears. The track is a triumph and it marked the last time he would ever play the trumpet in the studio...but nobody ever mentions this hidden gem, which has never been on CD and has only been released on one German LP and a handful of 45s.

Moving on: by the beginning of 1970, Armstrong had obviously practiced enough trumpet to bring it out in public once again. I've described his bittersweet solo on "Someday You'll Be Sorry" from the Dick Cavett Show on January 13 of that year. Listening to Armstrong struggle to get into the upper register is tough going and he obviously knew he wasn't ready to return full-time to playing the trumpet just yet. So 1970 continues with Armstrong making many TV appearances, celebrating his 70th birthday at the Newport Jazz Festival and the Shrine Auditorium and recording two albums on which he played no trumpet. The first album is the erratic Louis Armstrong And His Friends, which literally features selections from the ridiculous (Armstrong intoning "Jesus! Jesus" on "His Father Wore Long Hair") to the sublime (touching versions of standards "Mood Indigo" and "My One and Only Love").

The other vocals-only album was Louis "Country & Western" Armstrong. The first time I played this album, I was expecting to hate it because it usually gets knocked whenever it gets mentioned but it actually has a lot of fun moments, even if it's not a Satch Plays Fats. The opening "Miller's Cave" literally features a laugh-out-loud moment at the end when Armstrong's echoing voice shouts a bunch of nonsensical jokes as if he's yelling from inside a cave ("Mr. Miller was a killer diller!"). The same thing happens on "Almost Persuaded," where Armstrong once again has to improvise over a closing vamp. What he comes up with is a gas: "Oh, I tell ya, those strange chops! Oh, I'd love to kiss them strange chops! Oh, they knock me out...crumb crushers! Oh, come here baby and buss me one!" Fun stuff.

The release of the album made Armstrong's appearance on Johnny Cash's TV show a logical stop to promote the record. What's not on YouTube (but is on my video...take that!) is Armstrong's first performance, a medley of "Crystal Chandeliers" and "Ramblin' Rose." Armstrong appears wearing a giant white cowboy hat, the same one he's shown wearing on the original album cover. Armstrong's never looked happier and the audience showers him with love, breaking into spontaneous applause at Armstrong's heartfelt coda on the latter song. It's a wonderful moment and if I knew how, I'd throw it on YouTube myself (it's not going to be on the aforementioned Cash DVD, either).

After a commercial break, Cash and Armstrong tell the story of the original recording of "Blue Yodel Number 9," where Armstrong and his wife Lil backed up the father of country music, Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers showed his Armstrong pedigree by quoting liberally from Nolan Walsh's "The Bridwell Blues," which Armstrong also played trumpet on in 1926. The original "Blue Yodel Number 9" is a treat because it's fascinating to hear Armstrong cope with Rodgers's I'll-change-chords-whenever-I-feel-like-it style. Cash and pianist Bill Walker stick within the eight-bar blues structure without a problem but they're secondary players to the main event: Armstrong's trumpet playing. This was another one of those moments that when I first popped in the tape, I did not know what to expect. Even after watching it a hundred times, I still don't know how to explain it. Pops sounds INCREDIBLE...he plays as if it's 1924 all over again. Remember, Velma Middleton died in 1960 and Armstrong rarely played on Jewel Brown's features so it had been some time since he played a pure blues obbligato (I think you'd have to go back to the "Autobiography" sessions with Velma) but he demonstrates on the Cash clip that he hadn't lost his knack for accompaniment. And that trumpet solo - it's terrific! His tone is so pretty and golden and he has perfect command of the entire horn. And except for the scatting on the yodeling excursions, Pops plays for almost the entire four minutes, never running out of ideas or out of steam. It's one of most triumphant moments of Armstrong's later years.

But he wasn't done yet...12 days later he appeared on The Flip Wilson Show. Though he doesn't play the trumpet, he seems in good spirits on "Mack The Knife." However, Armstrong wore a blue sweatshirt and baseball cap during a final medley with Wilson and the attire does make him appear quite small and frail. But during the month of October, Armstrong reassembled the All Stars and did a long stand at the International Hotel in Las Vegas where he played trumpet nightly. And in February and March 1971, Armstrong appeared on the "David Frost Show," the "Dick Cavett Show" and the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Each time out, he played trumpet and he never sounds in poor shape (though he does have a little trouble coping with "Ole Miss" on the Cavett show...nevertheless, just the fact that he called that number on national television says something!). The Carson appearance comes from the time of Armstrong's last engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria and on the show, Pops sounds full of life telling stories and on "Pretty Little Missy," he blows an even better trumpet solo than the one from the 1969 recording session! Also, the New York Times gave Armstrong a positive notice and clarinetist Joe Muranyi remembered Armstrong as being a little wobbly, but stressed that the Waldorf gig wasn't as sad as Arvell Shaw made it sound. In fact, on the last night, Armstrong called Muranyi aside and told him that he was checking himself into the hospital again but not to worry because "We're going to go around the world one more time." Well, Armstrong did check himself into the hospital and grew weaker still but even the day before he died in July, he was preparing to call the All Stars together for a rehearsal.

So hopefully these tales lend a little more significance to the video of Armstrong on the Johnny Cash show. Don't believe everything you hear about Armstrong's last couple of years. He was frail and had to overcome some pretty debilitating health problems but from October 1970 to March 1971, he was blowing again and as can be heard on "Blue Yodel Number 9," he still had some pretty potent ideas left in that horn.

(And to BrunoLeich44, who left a comment on the YouTube video, "This stinkt," all I have to say, Mr. Leich, is no, sir, you stinkt.)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

99 Cents Well Spent - Struttin' With Some Barbecue/When It's Sleepy Time Down South

Recorded June 11, 1949
Track Time 6:33
Written by Louis Armstrong
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet; Ernie Caceres, baritone saxophone; Joe Bushkin, piano; Jack Lesberg, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally filmed for the "Eddie Condon Floor Show"
Currently available on CD: NO
Available on Itunes? Yes (See Below)

I check out Itunes every couple of day because new Armstrong releases show up frequently—even though most of the releases are the same usual compilations (either the same pre-1940 selections in terrible sound or another repackaging of “What a Wonderful World” or “Hello, Dolly”). But every now and then, a good one slips through the cracks and that happened the other day as Itunes began offering A Portrait Of Louis Armstrong – Birth of the All Stars. Issued by a company I’ve never heard of called Upbeat Jazz (I guess no ballads are allowed), the release features a pretty good cross-section of Armstrong from 1947 to 1949, with one track from 1954 thrown in for good measure. Because Itunes doesn’t offer any details, I used my all-knowing ears to listen to the track samples and here’s what I came up with:

The first three selections are from the February 8, 1947 Carnegie Hall concert with Edmond Hall’s Café Society Uptown Orchestra (a fancy name for “sextet”). This is followed by the first four tracks from the famous Town Hall concert, all of which feature Armstrong either with just a rhythm section or in duet with pianist Dick Cary. I’ve always felt this version of “Cornet Chop Suey” to be an important one as it shows how Armstrong wasn’t going to be content to sit around and recreate his Hot Five triumphs. The rhythm section swings—a bopper in 1947 could have played with this section, and many did, in fact play with drummer Sid Catlett—and Pops’s playing is incredibly lively. He even rephrases the stop-time solo, alluding to his original masterpiece, but in the end, I think he comes up with something fresher. Anyway, tracks eight through 12 come from the Winter Garden concert that came just a month after the Town Hall shows. In the summer of 1947, before the All Stars made their official debut, Armstrong filmed A Song Is Born. The title track, and “Goldwyn Stomp,” both somewhat hard to find on C.D., follow the Winter Garden material. By the time of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the All Stars were an official band. This performance comes from a concert in Nice, France on February 28, 1948 and is a relaxed antidote to the classic stomping version of the Fats Waller opus from Town Hall the previous year.

By track 16, we’ve moved to a September 10, 1949 episode of the Eddie Condon Floor Show, one of the first live television jazz showcases. Armstrong brought Jack Teagarden from the All Stars and sat in with a typical Condon band including future All Stars Peanuts Hucko, Joe Bushkin and Jack Lesberg (with prior recording mates Bobby Hackett, Ernie Caceres, George Wettling and Condon himself rounding out the group). “Royal Garden Blues” has never been on C.D., so grab it (the other two tracks, “Back O’Town Blues” and “Me and Brother Bill,” have been on pretty obscure releases, mostly of foreign origin, so grab them, too!). The disc then goes back a week to a September 3, 1949 episode of the Condon show that featured Armstrong and Teagarden doing “Rockin’ Chair.” This track is on about a hundred bootlegs, but judging from the 30 second sample, the Itunes version is in much better sound than any version I’ve ever heard.

And then it’s time for the pièce de résistance (and the reason for the title of this blog entry). Going backwards, yet again, this version of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” comes from a June 11, 1949 episode of the Condon show (without Condon, who was in hospital). This entire episode features Armstrong at his most inspired and why it’s never been issued on C.D. is a mystery. I’ve transferred the original Queen LP to C.D. and I never get tired of listening to Armstrong’s ideas on “Them There Eyes” and “Sweethearts on Parade,” (on the latter, he even works up the nerve to hit the same huge high C during the final bridge as he did in 1930). The whole show is great but it all builds up to a version of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” where Armstrong simply plays over his head. The two most accessible versions of “Barbecue” from the early days of the All Stars are shortened versions from Town Hall and a 1948 radio broadcast from the Click in Philadelphia, both clocking in around two-and-a-half minutes. A rarer version comes a June 4, 1948 broadcast from Ciro’s in Philadelphia and the later set All Stars routine for “Barbecue” is almost there: Armstrong plays two ensemble choruses in the beginning, a one-chorus solo later on, and then the rideout.

But on the Condon show, any semblance of a routine was thrown out the window in exchange for a freewheeling blowing session on the Hot Five classic. Armstrong gives the grieving Condon a shout-out in the hospital (“Look out, Condon”) at the start of the performance. With no set pattern, he can also be heard telling pianist Joe Bushkin to lengthen his introduction (“Give me four more, Homes”). Armstrong takes the lead in the opening ensemble, getting fine backing from Teagarden, Hucko and the terrific burps and hiccups of Ernie Caceres’s baritone. A string of solos follows, Bushkin to Hucko to Teagarden to Caceres to Lesberg to Catlett, with Armstrong heard vocally encouraging everyone in the background. And then it’s time for Pops, getting a backing riff from the other horns. It’s a wonderful chorus and a great example of Armstrong’s genius for melody. It’s a very improvised solo, but he consistently keeps going back to melody, sometimes just for a phrase at a time, but always keeping it in the forefront. Armstrong then barrels into a second chorus with a motive that would become part of his set “Barbecue” solo in the 1950s. But there’s nothing set on this one as you can hear Armstrong just plain taking chances. He plays the motive and almost sounds like he surprises himself, as he continues the line upward to an unsuspecting high C, not quite hitting it 100% solid but he gets points from this judge for taking the chance and going for it. He is improvising and feeling damn good as the whole solo has a delightful bubbling quality to it. I just love Armstrong’s concept of rhythm. 1949 was a very harsh year as Armstrong and the boppers traded barbs in the jazz press. How anyone could accuse a solo like this of being out-of-date is absurd. Continuing into his second chorus, the horns, not ready to create a rideout atmosphere, continue lightly riffing in the background as Armstrong takes off into the stratosphere during the second-half of his second chorus, pounding out some more high C’s. And then there it is: Armstrong’s quotes “That’s My Home,” the song he originally recorded for Victor in 1932 and a quote that would become an integral part of all future “Barbecue” solos. It’s not certain when he started using this quote, but it’s not in the June 1948 version from Ciro’s and this is the earliest I ever heard him use it. Nevertheless, it fits like a glove.

But wait, there’s more! After these two exciting solo choruses, Armstrong launches into the rideout with aplomb…in fact, the whole solo reminds me of the boxing legend with the same last name, Henry Armstrong, who specialized in “perpetual motion.” Without even stopping to think, he just plows into final ensemble, a man possessed. If you know Armstrong’s later “set” solo, you’ll hear snatches of phrases that would become embedded in Armstrong’s playing over the years, but for the most part, he seems to be flying by the seat of his pants, too inspired to stop for even a second. The repeated note leading into the drum break would also become part of the standard All Stars routine. Just when the excitement level threatens to boil over into dangerously fun territory, Sid Catlett takes a short drum solo, the show runs out of time and Armstrong calms things down with a few bars of “Sleepy Time Down South.”

Armstrong continued to work on “Barbecue” for the years and when he had it as tight as could be, he recorded it with the All Stars for Decca on March 19, 1954. I’ve always loved this version (Kenny John’s drums sound wonderful) and I think it’s a testament to Armstrong’s sustained brilliance to point out how he made three completely different studio records of this tune over the years (1927, 1938 and 1954) and each one is a delight for different reasons. But for my money, his three rollicking choruses on the 1949 version of Barbecue deserve to be placed next to his work on those earlier versions (though I think the Chappie Willet-arranged 1938 Decca will always be my favorite). Nevertheless, as the title of this entry says, if you have 99 cents, download the Condon show version and marvel at Armstrong’s genius on a version of a song that has never been reissued in the compact-disc era.

And though that’s a pretty good wrap-up part for this entry, I just wanted to trot out one of my other pet theories. I love Eddie Condon and his whole concept of jazz (though I won’t put meaningless labels like “Chicago Style” or “Dixieland” on it). I think Armstrong’s All Stars owed something to the Condon sound, a point rarely made. Condon’s rhythm sections always swung hard and in a straight-forward fashion, without a trace of New Orleans-style drumming or two-beat. Armstrong’s All Stars always featured the same types of rhythm sections. Also, Condon liked the whole trumpet-trombone-clarinet front line, as did Armstrong. But Condon also understood the effectiveness of background riffs, something else Armstrong shared with him (listen to the All Stars play “Panama” or “Indiana” or “Barbecue” and listen to the Condon band riff behind Armstrong on “Barbecue” and you’ll get my drift). I listen and love all forms of pre-bop jazz and the All Stars don’t sound like a Sidney Bechet group, they don’t sound like a Wingy Manone group, they don’t quite sound like Bob Crosby’s Bobcats or Dorsey’s Clambake Seven, they don’t sound like the traditional jazz being recorded for Blue Note, they don’t sound like the white revival bands from the west coast such as Lu Watters and they don’t sound like the rediscovered New Orleans bands led by the likes of Bunk Johnson and George Lewis. But listen to Condon’s Commodore recordings or anything from the epic 1944 Town Hall concerts and I can’t help but hear a little bit of what the All Stars would go on to achieve: swinging rhythm sections, jammed, front-line opening and closing ensembles, background riffs and a wide range of material in the bandbook. I’m not saying Armstrong formed the All Stars and specifically thought, “I want this band to sound as if Eddie Condon was the leader” but I do think the two men shared similar ideas on small jazz groups and I don’t think this point has been made. “But, wait,” the uninformed, category-loving critic cries out, “Are you saying Louis Armstrong played ‘Chicago jazz’ and Eddie Condon played ‘New Orleans jazz?’ That’s preposterous!” Yes, a statement like that is preposterous and that’s why categories should be banned. Armstrong once said, “There’s only two kinds of music: good and bad,” and Condon wrote a book whose very title decried the concept of categories: We Called It Music. Amen.

That’s all for now…dig that change out of the sofa cushions and when you hit the 99 cent mark, marvel at the genius of Louis Armstrong on “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue!” (Special thanks to Itunes for putting stuff out there that the C.D. labels refuse to issue.)

Monday, August 27, 2007

Live At The 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival

Last week, the Monterey Jazz Festival opened up their archives and released a handful of classic concerts featuring the likes of Miles, Monk, Dizzy and Louis Armstrong.
New, previously unissued Armstrong recordings are always a cause for celebration and I awaited the Monterey release with great anticipation for the last four or five months. After receiving my copy, I listened to it a few times and am now prepared to commence with my verdict: it’s not an essential release and should really only interest Armstrong die-hards only.

I know, I know, I can’t believe I wrote that myself. I’ve embraced every note Armstrong ever played and I personally love the Monterey concert, but for different reasons than most. You see, there’s one major problem with this disc: Armstrong’s chops are down and it’s sad to hear him struggle. At the same time, the masochistic side of me finds it inspiring to hear Armstrong work through the pain to give the audience an incredible show. And thanks to the gorgeous sound of the disc, you can really hear the audience laughing and screaming their approval throughout the disc’s generous 80-minute running time. To set the stage quickly, the concert took place on opening night of the very first Monterey Jazz Festival on October 3, 1958. Concert producer Jimmy Lyons loaded the opening night with traditional jazz artists, climaxing in a performance by the All Stars in front a crowd of 5,000.

Lyons hired Dizzy Gillespie to introduce Armstrong, a moment captured at the start of the CD: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, just the greatest, the king, Louis Armstrong, Satchmo!” You can hear the mutual appreciation between the two trumpet masters as they greet each other onstage. Armstrong warms up a bit and we’re off with “Sleepy Time Down South.” Armstrong often began it by playing the melody for 16 bars, but here he only plays it for eight. I didn’t pay it no mind at first listen because I’m always swept away by any version of “Sleepy Time,” lulled into a state of mellow euphoria, knowing the delights that are to follow. And of course, “Indiana” follows, the customary warm-up. Some critics complained about the inevitability of “Indiana” but I always picture a concertgoer in the audience, seeing Armstrong for the first time, and hearing the absolutely blazing sounds that erupt from Armstrong’s horn on “Indiana.” I never get tired of listening to it and its fascinating to hear all the different variations in Armstrong’s solo between 1951 and 1956. It was in 1956 that he finally chiseled out a perfect solo and this one would remain “set” for years to come. And that’s the first thing that distressed me about the Monterey concert: Armstrong doesn’t solo on “Indiana.” He plays the standard two ensemble choruses at the beginning, tearing through them without a hint of a problem. But after solos by Billy Kyle’s piano and Mort Herbert’s bass, it’s almost a shock to hear Peanuts Hucko enter on clarinet instead of Pops. You can hear Armstrong say something during Kyle’s solo and he plays a quick, low pedal tone at the start of the bass solo, but he must have felt something was wrong to eliminate his solo. Of all the versions of “Indiana” in my collection (and you don’t want to know how many that is), this is the only one I know of until 1967 where Armstrong doesn’t play a solo. Hucko and Trummy Young solo well before Armstrong reenters to play the rideout chorus. Again, I’m not saying he sounds bad, but when you become so accustomed to hearing Armstrong play at full power, it’s noticeable when he’s not 100% and here that’s noticeable in the highest parts of his upper register, where he sounds like he’s really pushing to get those notes out. He gets them out all right, but you can hear the effort.

Next, Armstrong plays a request, “Blueberry Hill,” which conveniently rests his chops (the man did know how to pace himself!). There’s a lot of live Armstrong discs from the 1950s and it’s interesting to see how many don’t feature this Armstrong staple (the Crescendo Club from 1955, the Chicago Concert from 1956, Newport 1957, all the European stuff from 1959). Armstrong sings it beautifully and you hear the audience crack up at some of his humorous phrasing. Properly rested, Armstrong calls “Tiger Rag,” which had emerged into a quick, two-minute romp played to get the audience’s blood pumping. Usually, Armstrong would have played “Indiana,” maybe “Basin Street Blues” or “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” before tearing through “Tiger Rag.” And when he was really feeling good, the encores would start flowing (as on volume four of the Storyville “In Scandinvia” series). But it wasn’t to be that night in Monterey. Like “Indiana,” Armstrong gets through the racehorse opening ensemble choruses without much of a struggle. And then Hucko solos…a note about Hucko: I must take back some of the harsh things I’ve said about Hucko in the past. Hucko joined in July and was obviously still full of inspiration at this October concert. I’ve never heard him play so well with Armstrong; by the 1959 European tour, he sounded bored and he left at the end of that year. But at Monterey, he was smoking.

Back to “Tiger Rag,” though. You can hear Armstrong play a few quiet notes behind Hucko to make sure his chops are together and then he’s off! This was another solo that Armstrong had pretty much set but this time, he doesn’t quite pull it off. His phrasing is a little slower than usual as he sounds almost too careful and on his first break, which usually featured a gliss into a high note or a fleet-fingered phrase, he instead flickers a valve quickly, producing a an exciting tremolo effect (reminds me of Red Allen), but it’s not as effective as what he played on a good night. After the break Armstrong goes into the “Pagliacci” quote he had been playing on “Tiger Rag” since the early 30s, but he actually mispitches one of the notes (a true rarity). It’s amazing listening to his brain work, though. He was a great editor and, knowing his limitations on that night, his phrasing has more of a legato feel and most of little quick phrases that dotted his solos are gone as he kind of floats through his statement. But then comes maybe the saddest moment of the disc. Armstrong would usually hold an Ab as the band would reenter to play the rideout chorus but when he tries it here, he again falters and loses it for an instant. But then this is followed by maybe the most triumphant moment of the disc: he continues to hold the Ab, slowly getting stronger before he gives his all in the ride out, hitting a series of high C’s. This was all part of the routine and Armstrong probably could have played it safe and improvised something in the middle register but on this night, in front of such a huge, adoring audience, he couldn’t. He keeps playing the two-note phrase, Ab to high C, over and over, glissing some of them, not exactly on top of the beat as he usually is, but he’s pretty damn close (chasing Trummy Young around the stage the entire time!). During the break he even glisses from high C, down to Ab and back up to C. As he continues driving home those high C’s, it’s clear that this is painful, punishing work. After listening to it a couple of times, tears actually welled up in my eyes, in awe of how much he gave his audiences no matter the shape he was in. He ends “Tiger Rag” on an even higher Eb, as the crowd roars its approval. Armstrong sounds pretty happy, too.

And then it was time to rest the chops again with the medley of tunes from High Society. Armstrong was always proud of the songs he performed in films and he always performed them live. “A Song Is Born” stayed in the repertoire from the time of the original 1947 movie of the same name until about 1950, when Armstrong introduced “A Kiss to Build A Dream On” in The Strip. Trombonists Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young were always featured on “Basin Street Blues,” until Armstrong sang it in the Glenn Miller Story, at which point he reclaimed it, always announcing the song’s presence in that film. And after the huge popularity of 1956’s High Society, Armstrong would include “Now You Has Jazz” and “High Society Calypso” in his repertoire until around 1964, the dawn of the “Hello, Dolly” period. Critics frowned, wishing those spots in the show would be instead filled by “Beau Koo Jack” or something from the Hot Five days, but they’re fun numbers and audiences clearly dug them. One great thing about the Monterey recording is the way it captures the vibrant audience, laughing heartily at Armstrong’s reference to Trummy Young as “Bing Crosby in Technicolor” on “Now You Has Jazz” and to his mugging and singing on “Calypso.” There is one chorus of trumpet on “Now You Has Jazz” and it’s prefaced by a somewhat odd moment. When Armstrong had trouble with his chops, he would usually blow softly before his solos to make sure everything was in order. On “Now You Has Jazz,” Danny Barcelona would take a drum break, Trummy would say, “Now listen to/ you know who” and Armstrong would enter with one of his patented blues phrases. At Monterey, though, Barcelona’s in the middle of his solo when you hear Armstrong play the first phrase of his solo loudly. It almost sounds like he came in too early, but he’d played the song a hundred times by that point and obviously knew when to come in. He just plays the opening of his solo, lets Barcelona finish, lets Trummy introduce him, then starts his solo with the same exact same phrase…but then pauses. He obviously felt wrong something in his chops to stop for that second but once he rights himself, he blows one chorus of blues, displaying his fattest tone up to that point in the concert.

After “High Society Calypso,” Armstrong tells the audience one of his favorite jokes, prefacing it by mentioning how he told it to the co-stars of High Society, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. Yes, it’s the “Alligator Story” and if you don’t know, it here’s how he told it that night in Monterey: “I was telling about the time when I was a cute little boy in Boutte, Louisiana and one morning, my mother sent me down to the pond to get the pail of water and when I come back, I didn’t have the water so Mayann, my mother, she said, ‘Boy! Where’s that water?’ I said, ‘Well, Mama, there’s a big, old, rusty alligator in that water and I didn’t get it, that’s all.’ She said, ‘Son, go get that water. Don’t you know that alligator is as scared of you as you is of him?’ I said, ‘Well, if that alligator is as scared of me as I as of him, mama, that water ain’t fit to drink!’” The laughter Armstrong receives sounds like a Redd Foxx record. It goes for about 15 seconds and even causes Armstrong to miss his entrance on “The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It!” Fortunately, Young and Hucko weren’t phased and they start playing their parts without Armstrong, but he quickly joins in, though you can hear him still laughing to himself before he starts his vocal. Trummy Young shares the vocal with Armstrong and during his chorus, you can hear Armstrong playing his trumpet mouthpiece in the background, still searching for something to get those chops warmed up. I love “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” and I think it’s one of the most irresistible staples of the All Stars’s repertoire. Armstrong might have been struggling with his embouchure but he still felt good enough to play an encore of “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” something he did often in the Edmond Hall years but infrequently thereafter. He still doesn’t sound like he’s at ease, but he blows some exciting riffs, getting terrific backing from Trummy. By the end, Armstrong does the fast tremolo he did on “Tiger Rag,” and even finds the power to gliss way up from the customary final high C to a high F. He sounds happy as hell as the audience roars, alerting them that “The cats was wailin’ there!”

Continuing the pattern, after such fierce, probably painful blowing, Armstrong rests while featuring the other fellows in the band. Billy Kyle’s up first with “Perdido,” which gets off to an peculiar start as Kyle decides to extend his introductory vamp without bassist Mort Herbert knowing so Herbert ends up walking the chord changes too early, creating a bit of a clash. Otherwise, it’s a smooth solo, though once more, at 1:36, a few small beeps can be heard in the background as Armstrong prepares himself for his role in “Perdido,” a series of stirring F’s He hits them, very strongly. Kyle then takes an encore, originally stomping at it off a ludicrously fast tempo, before settling in with the same uptempo swing. Just a few years later, he would indeed take it at that ludicrous tempo! The encore is interesting because Kyle was really a guy who never, ever changed his set solos, some of them staying in concrete for over ten years. But on the encore, he improvise a terrific, block-chorded bridge, hinting at Ben Webster’s solo on “Cotton Tail.”

Then it’s on to another rarity: a sideman feature where Armstrong doesn’t play. Armstrong usually played on everyone’s feature until Edmond Hall came around with “Daradenalla.” Hucko’s “Autumn Leaves” always gave Armstrong approximately two minutes to sit in the wings and rest. It’s a short solo, but a good one, the rhythm section locking into a nice groove). Hucko then follows with an exciting “After You’ve Gone,” Armstrong entering a minute in to play the melody, indeed sounding a bit refreshed. “After You’ve Gone” might contain Armstrong’s best blowing on the disc and at the end of the encore, Armstrong screams up to a high D, holding it before resolving to a higher F. On other, stronger occasions, Armstrong could be even more daring and exciting on “After You’ve Gone,” (check out the version on volume 3 of the “In Scandinavia” series), but on this grueling night in Monterey, it’s a highlight.

Next up is bassist Mort Herbert, who joined the band in January of 1958. Herbert didn’t have the raw power and drive of Arvell Shaw but he still swung the band nicely and served Armstrong well for four years. Armstrong liked to give his bassists long solos and, perhaps needing to regroup after “After You’ve Gone,” Herbert takes two long, slow choruses on “These Foolish Things.” I think it’s a fine solo (Herbert was a good quoter) but the highlight is when Armstrong enters three-minutes in to play the melody. I don’t have any other versions of Herbert playing this as his feature (though newspaper reviews of the period mention him playing this), so it’s valuable to hear Armstrong play a standard melody not often associated with him. He sticks close to the melody, but infuses it with the usual Armstrong soul and feeling, making it a moment to remember. Herbert, too, gets an encore (the whole performance clocks in at a hefty 7:32) and on it, Armstrong still sounds like he’s pushing hard to get those notes out and when he gets to the high G at the end of the chorus, his tone has a little shaky feel to it that’s reminiscent of Armstrong’s trumpet work during the Russell Garcia-arranged Verve sessions of 1957, another time when his lip simply wasn’t rested. But after a humorous extended coda where Herbert quotes “Holiday For Strings,” Armstrong ends with a gorgeous high Eb.

“Mack the Knife” is up next, uptempo, though it would get even faster in the next couple of years before slowing back down to a medium pace in the 60s. The trumpet stays in good form here (with a little more blowing during the drum break to keep everything copasetic), though throughout the concert, his tone consistently sounds a tad smaller than usual, even a little cloudy at times. Every high note, even when he hits them right on, contains the sound of anguish. Still, he drives himself through Danny Barcelona’s drum feature on “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” an arrangement that featured a lot of trumpet, including playing the melody an octave higher than usual towards the end.

Trummy Young’s feature on “Undecided” was always fast and exciting but by the 1958, the tempo had started to creep into warp-speed territories. While still exciting, it became so frantic, it lost some of the effectiveness of versions from 1955 and 1956 (by 1962, it would become even faster and thus, became even less effective). Armstrong always took a monster solo on “Undecided,” upstaging Young at times (check out the Ambassador Satch version from ’55). But in Monterey, Armstrong struggles with the tempo, beginning with some phrases that border on incoherent before he relaxes and stops trying to keep up with the horserace going on behind him. Like the Armstrong of the early 30s, he begins playing slower phrases, floating over the bar lines and sacrificing velocity for some stronger, higher notes. On the encore, he continues this trend to better effect and manages to gliss up to an impressive high F at the end of his solo. Nevertheless, compared to some other versions of “Undecided” in the Armstrong canon, this one is pretty forgettable.

Velma Middleton joins the group for “St. Louis Blues,” always one of my very favorite All Stars performances. Honestly, when I first popped this disc in my CD player, I went straight to the final minute of “St. Louis Blues” because I love the transition from Trummy’s roaring trombone to Armstrong’s rideout lead so much. Listening to the entire track, it’s clear that something’s still wrong in the opening. The group usually played W.C. Handy’s 16-bar minor-strain as an introduction before Velma would begin. But after 16-bars, Armstrong keeps playing, realizes the introduction was supposed to end and improvises a confused sounding wrap-up phrase as Velma enters. In all, it’s a somewhat sloppy 18-bar introduction. The only way I can defend the All Stars without seeing this performance is offering a guess that maybe Velma hadn’t stepped fully up to the microphone yet as a performance of “St. Louis Blues” from Sweden in January 1959 has a similar confused introduction. Once Velma starts singing, it’s clear she’s having a good night, but Armstrong’s obbligato is very tentative. When Velma sings, “Louis Armstrong blows so nice and high,” Armstrong would usually respond with a cute quote of Handy’s “Memphis Blues.” However, on this night, Armstrong chose to play nothing at this point in the song. He just stops playing and scats softly. On top of that, the band would usually play one chorus of blues before Armstrong would sing but even that chorus is gone! The concert was nearing its end and Armstrong knew he had some fierce blowing to do at the end of “St. Louis Blues” so he was now conserving like crazy, eliminating obbligatos and complete choruses. Fortunately, the band strikes a helluva groove, everyone solos well and Armstrong summons up whatever he had left in his lip to blow two passionate rideout choruses, staying in upper register during the last 12 bars.

For Velma’s second tune, they chose “That’s My Desire.” “Ko Ko Mo” was usually the second tune Armstrong and Middleton would perform during this period in the band’s history, but that piece had entirely too much trumpet work. On “That’s My Desire,” Armstrong just had to play behind Velma for eight bars. However, as on “St. Louis Blues,” he begins to play his standard obbligato and then stops. Incredibly, Billy Kyle picks up the slack! Armstrong’s beautiful obbligato didn’t change over the years and when Armstrong’s forced to give up playing it, Kyle steps in and plays Armstrong’s closing phrase perfectly on the piano. I thought it was a great moment of sympathetic teamwork and more proof that the All Stars were better with team players such as Kyle instead of egotists like Earl “Fatha” Hines. Armstrong and Velma slay the audience with their routine, a comedy exercise they hadn’t really changed since 1947 but one they always put over as if performing it for the first time.

Finally, the end of the concert arrives with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” How Armstrong’s lip had anything left is a miracle and even at the beginning, his trumpet misses a note in the second phrase (the “in” in “go marching in”). His tone is now smaller than ever before but he goes on tentatively. Everyone solos, Armstrong lets them take a bow and then he picks up his trumpet one last time to blow the exciting outchoruses he had perfected with the All Stars over the last decade. He already noodled a bit more behind Trummy’s solo and even during Barcelona’s break, keeping the chops warm as the rideout approaches. The first time I listened, I actually felt nervous inside because I didn’t want to hear him suffer anymore. Armstrong plays the final three choruses and it’s tough going but it’s more triumphant than sad though there are some rough moments. His phrasing still isn’t as smooth as on other versions of “The Saints.” he cracks his “Here Comes The Bride” quote badly, and his lip gives out during the first phrase of the second chorus. But he recovers, eliminating some of the quicker notes in his set pattern to instead focus on hitting the high notes square, which he does, ending on a very strong high D. The crowd goes wild and the concert is over.

Phew…after listening to it in such detail, I feel as tired as Armstrong’s lip after 80 minutes of blowing that evening. I’ve been writing this blog entry with whatever free time I’ve had over the last three days but earlier today, at work, I decided to listen to it one more time, but without focusing on the minutia and without constantly rewinding passages or raising the volume to see if I could make out voices in the background. I just listened to it in full as if I were in attendance in Monterey that evening and I don’t think it’s possible to be more entertained. The pacing of the show is so perfect, I’ll never fault Armstrong for sticking to what works. The lively instrumental showpieces, the swinging features for the other wonderful members of the bands, the comedy routines that are very funny…it works. Around the time of track eight, when Armstrong’s “Alligator Story” leads into the joyous romp on “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” the thing feels like a damn party! Then, a little later on, Armstrong’s trumpet gives “These Foolish Things” such a wistful feel, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the pure beauty of his interpretation of the melody. And “St. Louis Blues” rocks, plain and simple, especially hearing Velma and the band members vocally exhorting every soloist on. “That’s My Desire” made me chuckle out loud and the “Saints” was as joyous a finish as could be. It worked. In his liner notes, Richard Hadlock notes that the concept of a set “stage show” evolved from vaudeville and was a constant source of anguish for the hardened jazz critics who got sick of seeing the same routines over and over.

What’s important to understand is by this point in his career, Armstrong was touring at a nonstop pace. And the two-week stints in major nightclubs were becoming scarcer and scarcer as his popularity grew throughout the 50s. In fact, earlier in 1958, Armstrong played a tour that consisted of 61 colleges in a row! “I’ve got more alma maters than anybody,” he told Jet on April 17, 1958. “They’re all the same…they jump.” Armstrong knew what worked and always strived to put on the best show that was possible. It’s a tradition that’s still carried on with performers such as B.B. King and Tony Bennett. In the last five years, I’ve seen King six times in six different venues and Bennett five times in five different venues. Each time, their shows varied little. Even their between-song patter and jokes remained the same. And each time, the different audiences (including myself) were entertained beyond belief. I’d go back to see King or Bennett anytime, even if I know the songs and jokes aren’t apt to change, just because it’s such an entertaining show.

But what makes Live At The 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival so important is how it catches Armstrong on an off night, at least in terms of the trumpet. But even with all the problems with his chops I’ve detailed above, he still put on a masterful show. He paced himself with songs that featured his trumpet, never taking more than three or four minutes off at a clip. He eliminated choruses and obbligatos when he knew he couldn’t play them. All of this must have hurt him mentally, but he didn’t let it show. He sang his ass off, told the alligator joke, and kept the massive audience entertained the entire time. It’s one of the most noble entries in the Armstrong discography, even if I wouldn’t recommend it to a novice fan. I also wouldn’t recommend it to someone who bashes Armstrong’s later years. The set list contains no surprises (except maybe “These Foolish Things”) and his trumpet is not in peak form. It’s perfect fodder for people who don’t understand Armstrong’s later recordings to say, “See, there’s nothing great about this concert? It’s the same old songs and his trumpet sounds deteriorated. Back to the Hot Fives for me!”

And, to me, that’s nonsense. Listening to this concert caused my eyes to well up. Just think about how hard it was being Louis Armstrong in 1958. You’re 57 years old, you’ve changed music history, yet younger musicians are embarrassed by your antics and jazz critics constantly knock your live performances. You spend the bulk of the year in buses and in hotel rooms, dealing with racism and sometimes less-than-ideal performance conditions. You push yourself so hard that your lip sometimes gives out and you can’t play at full capacity, yet you still must go out and give the performance of your life. And when it’s over, it’s back to the bus for a night’s rest with the hope that for tomorrow’s show, your chops will return to form. It wasn’t easy to be Louis Armstrong in 1958 which is why I particularly love the cover photo of the Monterey Jazz Festival disc:

That’s not the grinning, Satchmo we’re used to seeing, the “buffoon,” as Gunther Schuller would put it. No, that’s a tired man. His eyes look heavy and there’s no trace of a smile. The scar on his lip looks more pronounced than ever before. Yet, when Dizzy introduced him, he came to life and still managed to give 5,000 people a tremendous show. It was not easy being Louis Armstrong and it’s about time that his later years start to receive more credit instead of just being shrugged off as the period where he played the same songs every night.

But even with such a high-profile release as this one from Monterey, critics still don’t seem to be listening. In his notes, Richard Hadlock admits to being one of the jazz writers from the 50s who was disappointed in the unchanging All Stars stage show (though it did change more than you’d believe...a subject for another blog…). Hadlock writes, “After ‘St. Louis Blues’ gave us Velma in good voice, highlighted by splendid trumpet passages, it spiraled down into a most un-Handy, somewhat grubby blues contest.” What does that even mean? First, Armstrong’s trumpet is not splendid in the beginning of “St. Louis Blues,” and I’m his biggest defender. The introduction is confused and he doesn’t play the full obbligato and he cuts a chorus of blowing before the vocal. And the song builds up to a real nice, rocking groove, reminiscent of the version from the W.C. Handy album it’s patterned after of. Grubby blues contest? That’s just silly. But even crazier is the review posted by Ken Dryden on I like Dryden and he usually demonstrates good ears in his reviews, such as his recent one on the fourth volume of the In Scandinavia series. But his four-star review of the Monterey set is bizarre in that it’s basically a one-paragraph summary of Hadlock’s liner notes. Hadlock mentions the set routine of the show, praises Billy Kyle as being “underrated,” knocks Young’s feature on “Undecided” and mentions an audio balance problem due to the musicians moving on stage causing the balance to change at times. In his review, Dryden mentions the set routine of the show, praises Billy Kyle as being “underrated,” knocks Young’s feature on “Undecided” and mentions an audio balance problem due to the musicians moving on stage causing the balance to change at times! He even carries over the error from the back of the CD that credits Velma Middleton with singing three songs, even though she only does two! I don’t want to say Mr. Dryden didn’t listen to the disc but to not even mention the problems in Armstrong’s trumpet playing is a little bizarre.

To sum up, if you love Louis Armstrong, you’ll enjoy this disc. If you’re a casual fan, I’d say avoid it as there are better options. Hell, if you really want to hear what Armstrong could do in 1958, go to and order “Live North Bay, Ontario, May 15, 1958,” on the Sterling label. It’s unreleased material presented by jazz historian (and Jack Teagarden authority) Joe Showler and features 75 minutes of the All Stars playing at a half-empty dance in the middle of nowhere five months before Monterey. It was just another one-nighter and it demonstrates the different venues the band had to play. Picture it: playing in front of 5,000 people at the inaugural Monterey Jazz Festival one night, and playing for a couple of hundred dancers in the sticks another. Once again, Armstrong gives his all, fielding a number of requests including a scorching “Long Gone,” a song I never knew Armstrong to have performed live (and it’s clearly a request because Velma gets some lyrics wrong and the band’s a bit hesitant with the routine). Armstrong plays one of the most exciting “Muskrat Rambles” I’ve ever heard (with a rare encore that features him quoting “The Song Is Ended”) and there’s a Trummy Young feature on “You Can Depend On Me” that might be one of my top ten favorite All Stars performances of all time. If you really believe Armstrong’s trumpet skills eroded over time or that the All Stars played the same songs every night, please don’t hesitate and order this disc immediately.

And speaking of 1958….hey, Sony! Wake up! Columbia recorded Armstrong’s entire set at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival yet has never released it (yet we have alternate takes of Miles Davis coughing). Three tracks—“On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Rockin’ Chair” and “Ko Ko Mo”—have trickled out on three completely different samplers over the years and each one features gorgeous stereo sound. Armstrong’s in top form and the show even featured a Armstrong reunited with Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. One song from this reunion is captured in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, but come on, they also played “Pennies From Heaven” that night and I want to hear it!

Well, I’ve gotten carried away and I’m sorry for the graphic length of this post. Allow me to recoup for a day or two and I’ll be back with some more song breakdowns by the end of the week. For now though, if you appreciate Louis Armstrong, check out the Monterey set and marvel at how he overcomes his lip troubles and plays through the pain to give a wonderfully entertaining concert. And it all goes to a good cause as the proceeds from the Monterey discs goes to serve a jazz education program for young people in California. Louis Armstrong would be proud….

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Ory And Muskrat Ramble

My good friend John Wriggle left me my first comment below on the Armstrong-Kid Ory "Disneyland After Dark" video (sounds like a dirty HBO America Undercover documentary, huh?). He asked if there's any other videos of Ory doing "Muskrat Ramble" and I found two more. This one is from Paris, 1956 and features Alvin Alcorn, trumpet, Phil Gomez, clarinet, Cedric Heywood, piano, Wellman Braud, bass and Minor "Ram" Hall on drums:

This one is also from Paris, 1959 and features Henry Red Allen, trumpet,Cedric Haywood, piano, Alton Redd, drums and William Girsback (or as Armstrong dubbed him, Squire Gersh), bass. On clarinet? No joke....Bob McCracken! (An old inside joke between me and John.)

Ory sings lyrics Armstrong originally recforded for Decca in 1954 but he never sang them live. Ory, on the other hand, loved the lyrics and sang them all the time. I also realize I might have been a little too harsh on the Disneyland version of "Muskrat," where the two-beat of the Ory group sounded too corny. The Ory band rarely played that way and instead swung much like the All Stars (ever hear Ory's Verve recordings? Sounds like a Basie rhythm section at times!). Anyway, I haven't ordered it, but the concert with Red Allen is apparently available on a video on the website These clips come from it out as there's some good stuff not on YouTube.

As for me, I'll be back soon with a post on the new CD issue of Armstrong's 1958 concert at the Monterey Jazz Festival...til then! (And keep those comments coming!)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Disneyland After Dark

As promised, it's time to check out some of Pops on YouTube. Today, I've selected Armstrong's appearance in a "Disneyland After Dark" film from 1961. The appearance takes place on the Mark Twain riverboat and is notable for reuniting Armstrong with his Hot Five sessionmates Kid Ory and Johnny St. Cyr. Singer Monette Moore opened with a shouting version of "Kansas City" before Pops's sequence (Moore's performance is also available on YouTube). Here's Armstrong's scenes, spread across two parts:

Now some historical odds and ends and personal opinions. The other members of the band, in addition to Ory on trombone and St. Cyr on banjo, are Mike DeLay, trumpet, Paul Barnes, clarinet, Harvey Brooks, piano and Alton Redd, drums. A bass is definitely present in the mix but Jos Willems's Armstrong discography doesn't identify him. The film was shot on Mark Twain on September 30, 1961, just 11 days after Armstrong finished up recording Dave Brubeck's "Real Ambassadors" album. Quite a contrast, huh, recording Brubeck's original, challenging tunes one week, then having a Hot Five reunion just days later. It was nothing new for Pops as 1961 also featured the Duke Ellington sessions, a TV appearance on a show with Tony Bennett and Harpo Marx (!) and the usual nonstop touring with the All Stars.

While there's a bit of a staged feeling to the proceedings, there's also a natural vibe throughout, especially the reaction of the audience, obviously enjoying basking in the warmth of the great Satchmo. "Lazy River" is an inspired choice for the first selection. Armstrong performed it frequently in 61 and into early 62 but then it was retired. Thus, this is valuable for being one of the final recorded examples of Armstrong blowing the wonderful "Lazy River" solo he first wowed the world with on November 3, 1931. This recreation, 30 years later, follows the original pattern quite well, a pattern that had also carried over into the All Stars's live performances of "Lazy River." Armstrong sings it with plenty of feeling, barely hinting at the original melody (by New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Arodin, lyrics by Hoagy Carmichael), before he doubles the tempo for a half chorus of scatting that's swing personified (and it's nice to hear the crowd clapping on the right beat, something they couldn't do for Monette Moore just a few minutes earlier!). Armstrong even carries over the "Boy, am I riffin' this evenin'" aside from the 1931 record, a nice touch. Armstrong being given a horn is kind of hoaky, but I like the little wave of appreciation he gives to the other musicians as he walks up to the bandstand. Naturally, the centerpiece of the trumpet solo is that gigantic gliss, which he still pulls off here at 60 years of age, getting the appropriate applause for his effort. A wonderful performance all around.

Armstrong then happily greets pianist Harvey Brooks with Kid Ory kind of forcing a smile behind them. Ory would be 75 in December of 1961 and hadn't played with Armstrong since they appeared in the 1946 film "New Orleans." Armstrong seemed to have odd, somewhat strained relationships with other New Orleans musicians (see Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, Armstrong and Pops Foster, Armstrong and Edmond Hall, Armstrong and Zutty Singleton, etc.) and it's not impossible to sense a bit of strain between Armstrong and Ory. Ory gave Armstrong's career a huge boost when he hired the teenager to play lead trumpet in his band when Joe Oliver left New Orleans. Armstrong would later hire Ory to play on the Hot Five sessions but by the 30s, the younger man was an international star, while Ory had to temporarily retire to a chicken farm. Later, Armstrong gave Ory's record of "Creole Bo Bo" only two-and-a-half stars in a Leonard Feather Blindfold Test and famously refused to jam with Ory, Red Allen or any of the other special guests assembled for Armstrong's birthday celebration at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1957. In the late 60s, Armstrong toured Hawaii with the All Stars. Clarinetist Joe Muranyi was in the group and remembered Ory, who retired to Hawaii, coming to hear the band. As he told me, "They were uncomfortable with each other."

And of course, there was "Muskrat Ramble." Recorded by the Hot Five in 1926, the composition was credited to Kid Ory. Of course, it became a traditional jazz standard and Ory definitely benefited from the royalties. It wasn't until a 1965 interview with Dan Morgenstern that Armstrong said, "I wrote 'Muskrat Ramble.' Ory named it, he gets the royalties. I don't talk about it.'" Thus, since he hadn't admitted it yet in 1961, one could only imagine what went through Armstrong's mind when he cheerily announced on the Mark Twain, "And you no one thing folks? Kid Ory wrote that tune!" Hmmmm...

Anyway, they play "Muskrat Ramble" and it's a spirited enough performance but it's amazing how different it feels from the way the All Stars played it at the time. First off, there's the banjo which immediately gives it an old-timey feeling. Now make no mistake, I love the banjo but it definitely makes the performance sound too much like a recreation rather than a current, swinging piece of music. Also, the unknown bassist insists on playing two-beat style, which completely clashes with the swinging, backbeat-driven drumming of Alton Redd. And of course, Ory's trombone style was as anachronistic as it comes. Armstrong's trumpet was timeless and he sticks to the set solo he had worked out over the years though dammit, there's a huge edit in the middle of the piece that makes it go from solos to midway through the rideout chorus. Armstrong sounds great and his little cadenza features some monumental high notes. Overall, it's a fun enough performance but I think it pales when compared to how the All Stars usually played it. To compare, here they are on a 1958 Timex jazz show:

Now, that's as swinging as it comes, even if it was taken a little faster than Armstrong usually played it because of TV time constraints. Anyway, I think it's key to understanding the music of Armstrong's All Stars that he never saw the group as a old-fashioned throwback kind of thing. The All Stars always swung and Armstrong always played in the present without feeling the need to always recreate the past.

Anyway, the Disneyland film ends with Armstrong and Monette Moore duetting on "Bourbon Street Parade," another suitably fun performance of a song Armstrong rarely played (he did record it with the Dukes of Dixieland). Armstrong's scatting obbligato around Moore is a gas. Armstrong leads a march around the room, doing the little sideways strut he did when he performed "Jubilee" in "Every Day's A Holiday" (Joe Muranyi titled a segment of his "Dippermouth Suite" "Satchmo's Strut" after this little step). Overall, it's a historical clip because of the Hot Five reunion and Armstrong plays and sings fantastically....but I'd still take the All Stars any day of the week!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Down In Honky Tonk Town

Recorded May 27, 1940
Track Time 3:06
Written by Chris Smith and Charles McCarron
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone; Claude Jones, trombone; Luis Russell, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Wellman Braud, bass; Zutty Singleton, drums
Originally released on Decca 18090
Currently available on CD: Volume 7 of the wonderful Swedish Ambassador series (1940-1941) has both takes
Available on Itunes? Yes

Sorry for the slight delay in posting as both me and the missus had to overcome respective colds but I'm back with a song from Armstrong's studio reunion with Sidney Bechet from 1940. Bechet was two years older than Armstrong and the two apparently got along while growing up in New Orleans but by the time of their first record collaborations in 1924, a spirit of competition had very obviously infiltrated their relationship. Bechet is the dominant force on early recordings like "Texas Moaner Blues" and the Red Onion Jazz Babies version of "Cake Walking Babies From Home," but Armstrong stands up to the older man by the time of their 1925 sessions, blowing Bechet out of the studio on their remake of "Cake Walking Babies From Home," one of the most exciting records in jazz history. In the 15 years between the 1925 New York sessions and the Decca reunion, one couldn't imagine two musicians's careers taking such different paths: Armstrong changed jazz history with the Hot Five and Seven records, started making standards out of pop tunes, toured the world with big bands and starred in major Hollywood movies. Bechet, on the other hand, spent time in jail, ran a tailor shop in New York, toured with a big band and made a series of modest selling records under his own name.

But by the late 30s, the New Orleans jazz revival was starting to blossom and, championed by French critic Hughes Pansassie, Bechet became a hero to the moldy fig fans of this music, in addition to making a popular record in 1939 with his rendition of "Summertime." The reunion was a wonderful idea in a period when Decca experimented greatly with Armstrong. From March 14, 1940 through April 11, 1941, Armstrong made seven sessions for Decca, but only two featured his regular touring big band; the others featured Bechet, the Mills Brothers and a small group dubbed the "Hot Seven" for nostalgic reasons.

Unfortunately, what once passed for extreme competition had now blossomed into a slight feeling of animosity between the two New Orleans giants. Bechet was jealous of Armstrong's success and besides, never had much use for trumpet players. Armstrong was used to being the dominant ensemble musician because of the pure power of his trumpet and didn't want to have to compete with Bechet's clarinet and louder soprano saxophone. However, according to the other musicians present, the two men got along without any problems as Armstrong showed a great deal of respect to Bechet, willingly following any of the older man's suggestions. The session began wonderfully with "Perdido Street Blues," Bechet's clarinet especially declamatory in the opening and closing minor-keyed strains. Armstrong's three-chorus solo unfurls beautifully with Bechet and trombonist Jones riffing urgently in the background. It's the kind of performance that causes the listener to sweat with excitement, propelled greatly by master of New Orleans drumming Zutty Singleton. "2:19 Blues" followed with Armstrong's vocal being the centerpiece of a very mellow performance.

Then it was time for "Down in Honky Tonk Town," a piece from 1916 co-written by Chris Smith of "Ballin' The Jack" fame. Fortunately, it exists in two takes so here is take

The tempo's up and it's a very exciting record but sparks on the magnitude of "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home" never materialize (though yes, those are some pretty high standards!). Two takes survive so I'll begin with the unissued first take. The front line comes charging out of the gate with trombonist Jones playing the melody with Armstrong as Bechet harmonizes with low soprano notes. Armstrong then take the melody of the first strain, backed by simple glisses by Jones. Bechet reenters on the main strain and there's some nasty clashes between Bechet and Jones in the ensemble. Jones was the only one at the session who wasn't raised in New Orleans and the polyphonic style wasn't his strong point. Armstrong sticks to the melody, with Bechet filling the very small gaps with some more simple low notes. Bechet gradually gets a little higher, warming up for his solo, which he sails into before Armstrong's even finished playing the melody. It's a typically exciting Bechet affair with some especially violent phrases around the 1:23 mark. He alludes to the melody before going out high, much like a trumpet. Jones is up next and his solo is a mess. He's playing notes all right and I suppose they're the right ones but there's no feeling or swing. Fortunately, Bernard Addison is right behind him and his acoustic, chorded guitar solo is on the money. Zutty's up next with a 24-bar drum solo, exploring all the different sound possibilites of his drum set, before the horns rush in to complete the final eight bars of the 32-bar main strain (that sentence featured more bars than the Jersey Shore...and I know because I live minutes from Seaside Heights!). Armstrong's still on the melody before he finally improvises an exciting rideout, though the melody's never far away. Bechet's with him the entire time (Jones works that tiny-toned gliss to death) and it builds up some nice steam but the piece could have used some more free-for-all blowing or even some breaks.

Take 2 was issued and it is indeed tighter. You can listen to it here.
Jones doesn't play the melody at the start this time, instead shrinking to the background to offer some quiet responses. "Down in Honky Tonk Town" features a pretty repetitive melody and it's instructive to listen to how Armstrong alters it here and there to keep it from becoming monotonous--doubling a note a few times, allowing certain phrases to breathe a little better, etc. He was a master of taking stiff melodies and making them come alive. Once again, I found myself with take 1 coming through my left ear and take 2 coming through my right. Armstrong's subtle changes are always fun to hear, as are his incredible similarities, such as the way he smears a concert Db into three connected notes about 22 seconds in. Armstrong also enters the main strain on the issued take with a much flashier phrase than the held single note on take 1. Bechet's solos contain some similar phrases, but the upper register work on the master isn't quite as violent.

Listening to both recordings, what's funny is Claude Jones's trombone playing, almost identical from take to take, except for the solo, which begins with a very effective opening phrase on the issued take, but then deviates into meaningless meandering by the end. In John Chilton's masterful Sidney Becehet biography "The Wizard of Jazz," Jones is quoted as saying, "Louis and Bechet were in peak form that day, but the recording manager just wore me down. He kept coming out of his sound-proof box and shouting, 'Give that horn more tailgate, Jones, more tailgate,' and he got me so mad in the end that I messed up my solo in 'Down in Honky Tonk Town.'" At least he knew it! Otherwise, I think the rideout features more aggressive playing by Armstrong on the master take. On the alternate, it sounds like a damned good New Orleans ensemble trumpeter: mostly melody, allows Bechet some space, doesn't get up in the high upper register until the end, etc. On the master, however, he sounds more like Louis Armstrong: alludes to the melody but improvises more, plays more quarter notes than half notes and is already hitting some high notes in the second 16 bars of the chorus. Armstrong's use of space is genius. The way Armstrong rhythmically accents the ascending phrase at 2:48 in is my favorite moment.

Bechet's clearly audible throughout and what he plays sounds exciting enough but it's Armstrong's show, which must have rankled Bechet, especially since he had recently made some wonderful records in a quartet setting with a much more sympathetic brassman, Muggsy Spanier. Some people, such as Bechet disciple Bob Wilber, knocked Armstrong's ensemble style from the 40s on because it was too showy, full of too many high notes and wasn't a true New Orleans lead (whatever that is). While it's true to an extent, I don't think it's a reason to knock Armstrong. This is who he was. Even by 1927, he was dominating his own records and making jazz more of a solo art. I love Armstrong's ensemble playing, especially with the All Stars, and especially when he had a sympathetic front line.

Bechet's a genius but he wasn't sympathetic. In fact, the next time Armstrong and Bechet locked horns was at an Esquire Awards concert in New Orleans in 1945. Apparently, the respect Armstrong showed Bechet in 1940 had eroded over the ensuing five years. The two butted heads at rehearsal with Armstrong reportedly yelling at Bechet, "I ain't gonna have no two leads in my band." On the broadcast of the concert it shows, especially during "Back O'Town Blues" when the hall-of-fame front line of Armstrong, Bechet and trombonist J.C. Higginbotham consistently clash as they each try to blow over each other. That performance is funny because after Armstrong sings, Bechet hits a high note as if he's about to begin a solo, but as quick as possible, Armstrong gets the trumpet to his lips and proceeds to blow over Bechet! Two years later, Bechet was supposed to appear at Armstrong's Town Hall concert in May but called out sick...only to be spotted by trumpeter Max Kaminsky playing at Jimmy Ryan's later that night!

Thus, it's a shame that the relationship of Bechet and Armstrong deteriorated over the years but their timeless 1920s recordings and the very, very, very good reunion from 1940 should always be cherished. "Down In Honky Tonk Town" is a very exciting recording but I still prefer "Perdido Street Blues" from the session but if you're going to pick one Bechet-Armstrong battle, I've got to recommend (yet again) the 1925 "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home" which I guarantee will melt your speakers at first listen! Coming up next will be a YouTube video review...of what, I don't know but stay tuned anyway!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Don't Forget To Mess Around

Recorded June 16, 1926
Track Time 3:04
Written by Louis Armstrong
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8343
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes
Red Hot Jazz Archive Link:

Finally, something from the sacred Hot Five series. And no, it's not "West End Blues" or "Weather Bird," but rather a lighthearted romp with a fun vocal about a dance. I'm actually happy this one came up in my shuffle because for quite some time, I've argued that more attention needs to paid to all the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, not just the ones critics and analysts tell us are the only ones worth remembering. And of course, many of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are more important than others in the series but the point remains that by focusing just on Armstrong's greatest statements, it's easy to buy into the myth of, "Wow, he used to be some artist, playing stuff like 'Potato Head Blues' and 'Cornet Chop Suey.' It's a shame he gave it up to become an entertainer."

Nothing can be farther from the truth and as proof, I offer you the Hot Five session of June 16, 1926. Four tracks were recorded that day, three with ridiculously fun Armstrong vocals...and on the one he doesn't sing, he plays a slide whistle! The whole date has such a happy feeling to it but these four tracks rarely get reissued on best-ofs from the period (for the record, the others are "I'm Gonna Gitcha," "Dropping Shucks," and 'Who'sit," the latter with the slide whistle solo). "Don't Forget to Mess Around" led off the first Hot Five session since Februray 26, a date that produced three bona fide classics: "Heebie Jeebies," "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Muskrat Ramble." But please don't think Armstrong confined himself to just the Hot Five sessions in this period. He would enter the recording studio five more times between March and June, accompanying blues singers such as Sippie Wallace, recording with his regular band, Erskin Tate's Vendome Orchestra, and even doing a session under his wife Lil's name for Vocalion. Earlier on June 16, Armstrong had already recorded two tracks backing the singer Nolan Welsh. I have Armstrong's recordings arranged in chronological order and I think it's important to hear what he recorded in order because it's not just one small band classic after another. The Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions pop up sporadically and always manage to delight, but they were just a small part of what Armstrong was doing in Chicago during this period.

So when it comes to "Don't Forget to Mess Around," there's not a lot to analyze. Armstrong plays two flawless one-bar breaks in the introduction and basically sticks to melody in his lead ensemble playing. "Charleston" was obviously the craze of the period and this Armstrong composition incorporates the "Charleston" beat very well. Like most originals from the period, it isn't a neat 32-bar AABA pop song but rather features a chorus followed by a verse, then back to the chorus with some neat arranged sections for the horns along the way. Towards the end of the verse, one notices Johnny Dodds disappears, only to return a few seconds later...on alto! Yikes, I'm not a big fan of Dodds's stiff alto playing, even though his high notes oddly still sound like his clarinet. Fortunately, Armstrong's right behind him with one of his most exberant, shouting vocals of the Okeh days. It's not Gershwin, but it's a lot of fun:

Don't forget to mess around/ when you're doing the Charleston...Charleston
First thing you do/ now when you rear...way back!
Say, you grab your gal/ and then you clap your hands
And you do the Eagle Rock/ but don't you stop at all!

Uncle Jack, that dancin' fool/ He would never do the Charleston...Charleston
When he learned of that brand/ new dance...such a prance!
And he forgot his name/ when he danced this brand new way
Then he yelled out/ don't forget to do your stuff/ when you dance the mess around!

Now, I'm usually good at translating the language of Armstrong but the quality of the recording coupled with Armstrong's shouting ways makes this a hard lyric to decipher. Only the next to last line, "And he forgot his name," might be wrong. That's what I think Wycliffe Gordon sings on a remake for David Ostwald's Gully Low Jazz Band recording of it (on "Blues In Our Heart"), but Armstrong kind of sounds like he's singing, "And he clean forget his aid/ when he danced this brand new raid." I don't even know if that makes sense, but obviously this isn't a lyric with deep emotional content. It's just supposed to convey a sense of fun and on that level it succeeds greatly. And besides, no one else was really singing like this during the period, though there are traces of Al Jolson in some of these early Armstrong vocals (on "Butter and Egg Man," Pops practically imitates Jolson at one point).

After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes a very aggressive clarinet solo, as if he's saying, "Please posterity, don't judge me by my alto playing!" Kid Ory takes a typical break towards the end before Armstrong takes one of his own, notable for staying in middle register before shooting up an octave to end it with a piercing high note. All in all, it's a lot of fun and if I say it again, not as important as a "West End Blues" but I think it's just as important in understanding Armstrong's entire career. Legendary producer George Avakian tells this story about this track:

"By 1926, Louis Armstrong was headlining at Chicago's Sunset Cafe and writing novelties which he performed nightly, in addition to recording them with his Hot Five for Okeh. During one of many happy afternoons of hanging out in Luois's upstairs den in his home in Corona, I asked Pops if the 'mess around' was an actual dance.' 'Yes, yes indeed,' he cried and leaped out of his chair. 'Went like this!' Well, there I was without a movie camera, but be assured of one thing--Louis was a great dancer and still light on his feet. 'Used to do that every show after the vocal, and then blow two choruses. Had to dance two, three encores on Saturday nights.'"

Picture that. The great, serious, artist, Louis Armstrong (before he went commercial), performing "Don't Forget To Mess Around" and then dancing for a few choruses. During the same year, newspaper clippings exist in Armstrong's scrapbook of rave reviews he received in Chicago for putting on mock sermons and singing "Heebie Jeebies" to the delight of the audiences. But the image of two different Armstrong persists to this day. Here's a Time magazine critic just last year reviewing a Hot Fives and Hot Sevens set: "Forget the Satchmo who sang and mugged his way through his later decades, wonderfully entertaining as he was. This is Armstrong the force of nature--exuberant, inspired, irresistible." When I first read that online, I mailed it to myself with the subject line, "Makes Me Sick." So sure, I have my moments where I just want to put in a best-of compilation and watch the hits keep coming: "Cornet Chop Suey" followed by "Muskrat Ramble" followed by "Potato Head Blues" followed by "West End Blues" followed by "Beau Koo Jack," and so on. But please don't forget that the same man made "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa," "Irish Black Bottom," "That's When I'll Come Back to You," and "Don't Forget to Mess Around," FUN songs that wanted to do nothing more than entertain and provide joy, which is what Louis Armstrong lived to do for his entire career.

(And a note on the great David Ostwald. He seems to understand this and on the wonderful Nagel-Heyer release "Blues In Our Heart," he dug out "Mess Around," "New Orleans Stomp" and "Who' Sit," from Armstrong's mid-20s period. The disc is wonderful, as are George Avakian's notes, from which I copped the earlier quote. David leads the Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland every Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:15 and I can't think of a better way to spend time in the city. I saw them last week with Ed Polcer on cornet, Vincent Gardner on trombone, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Howard Alden on banjo, Kevin Dorn on drums and David himself on tuba. I couldn't imagine a tighter group (and the personnel changes every week!) and the song selection was sublime. Hopefully, as long as there's a New York City, there'll be a place for this wonderful group!)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Someday You'll Be Sorry

Recorded June 10, 1947
Written by Louis Armstrong
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bobby Hackett, cornet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Ernie Caceres, clarinet, baritone saxophone; Johnny Guarnieri, piano, celeste; Al Casey, guitar; Al Hall, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released as “Some Day” on Victor 20-2530
Currently available on CD: It’s on about a million CDs. The original can be found on Falling In Love With Louis Armstrong RCA Victor 63623-2
Available on Itunes? There are over 30 versions of this song on Itunes (though, yes, many are duplicates)

Well, it took long enough, but after over a month of keeping up this blog, my Itunes shuffle finally caught a track that became a staple of the All Stars’s regular repertoire. If you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about how the song evolved in different performances from the last 24 years of Armstrong’s life (and if you do mind, quit now because this might take a while!). Armstrong wrote, “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” though the melody is very, very similar to a pop song, “Goodnight Angel,” written by Herb Magidson and Allie Wrubel and recorded by Mantovani, Artie Shaw and even Armstrong himself on the 1957 Decca album Louis and the Angels. But Armstrong always liked telling the story about how he wrote the song. Here’s his telling from a U.S. News & World Report feature on Armstrong from 1955: “We was in North Dakota or South Dakota, or somewhere. It was cold and this thing kept runnin’ ‘cross my mind, like dreamin’ a musical comedy. And this ‘Someday’ was the theme of this show. So, we was asleep. Lucille was sound asleep. But I got up in my pajamas and got me a piece of paper and pencil out. I say, ‘I’m gonna lose it if I don’t write it down.’ And she wakes up and say, ‘Are you all right?’ I said, ‘I’m all right.’ But the next day I had it, and we looked at it…and everybody liked the tune.” Armstrong would also say he wrote the lyrics with his third wife, Alpha Smith, in mind.

On May 17, 1947, Armstrong headlined the famous concert at Town Hall where the All Stars would be born. On June 10, Armstrong made a session for Victor under the “All Stars” banner, even though the official band hadn’t debuted yet (and wouldn’t until an August stay at Billy Berg’s in California). Held over from Town Hall were Bobby Hackett on cornet, Jack Teagarden on trombone and Peanuts Hucko on clarinet and tenor saxophone. Armstrong also obviously had fond memories of a V-Disc session he did in 1944. In addition to Teagarden and Hackett, that session also featured Ernie Caceres on clarinet, Johnny Guarieri on piano, Al Hall on bass and Cozy Cole on drums, four musicians recruited for the Victor session (with Caceres sticking mostly to baritone this time around). A hot “Jack-Armstrong Blues” and a version of “Rockin’ Chair” were already in the can when Armstrong recorded “Some Day.” It must rate as one of the most delicate recorded performances of Armstrong’s career, made moreso thanks to the elegant touch of Guarieri’s celeste. Even Down Beat magazine described “Some Day” as “a pretty thing not in the usual Satchmo groove.”

Armstrong’s horn plays the melody fairly straightforward with emphatic support by the rhythm section. This performance has the feel of a ballad but actually has a nice walking swing to it, coming in around 100 beats per minute. The horns come in with the vocal, playing a tightly arranged obbligato that sounds like something Armstrong would have played. His vocal is very tender and heartfelt without a trace of joking around or scatting. Teagarden’s up next with a beautiful trombone solo that remained in all of the live performances of the number. Armstrong doesn’t play any more trumpet but he doesn’t have to as the vocal is beautiful enough.

Nine days later, another pre-All Stars concert was held at the Winter Garden Theater in New York at the premiere of the movie New Orleans. Once again, Armstrong was joined by Hackett, Teagarden, Hucko and Caceres, while, from the Town Hall concert, Dick Cary now played the piano and George Wettling and Sid Catlett split the drum duties (Jack Lesberg, a future All Star, was on bass). Fred Robbins introduces it as Armstrong’s newest composition and talks about how it came to Armstrong in his sleep. Then Teagarden begins playing the melody in what sounds like the wrong key! Naturally, being Teagarden, he creates a gorgeous 12-bar introduction that sticks with the listener after he or she hears it, but soon Armstrong enters with a modulation and plays his melody in the correct key. The tempo is a shade slower than the studio record and this time the horn harmonize behind the trumpet lead (with a typically lovely Hackett obbligato peaking around the sunshine). Unlike the record, the band doesn’t play the arranged lines behind the vocal; instead, snippets of cornet and clarinet can be heard softly in the background. Teagarden phrases the melody beautifully in his eight-bar spot before Armstrong finishes it vocally. (This version is available on the Storyville CD Live at Winter Garden, New York and Blue Note, Chicago, also on Itunes.)

Flash forward to March of 1948. The All Stars are officially a band with Teagarden, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Arvell Shaw on bass, Sid Catlett on drums and new member Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano. The band was recorded performing it in Paris and from the outset, things are swinging. From 100 beats a minute, we’re now around 130. Hines’s introduction is a little off and he seems to hit a few wrong notes around the ways, but he manages to stay busy, as usual. Bigard stays in the chalumeau register of the clarinet during the opening ensemble and it’s lovely. Together, Bigard and Teagarden continue to play ensemble roles behind the Armstrong’s vocal “lead.” I love Sid Catlett, but his accents don’t sound totally appropriate…slowly the delicacy of the original recording is wearing off! Teagarden’s trombone solo, complete with playing the melody higher in the second half, is becoming set. Sadly, this version isn’t available on disc and that’s a crime (wake up, Europe, the copyright ran out nine years ago!).

Hines has a better grip on the song by the time of a broadcast from Ciro’s in Philadelphia on June 5, 1948. The tempo’s almost the same, maybe a shade slower and Catlett’s drumming fits better than it did in France. Teagarden improvises a completely different beginning to his solo before playing with the melody in the second half. The performance is much tighter had gelled very nicely in the year since the original recording. This is how Armstrong would continue to record it for some time but on August 27, 1949, Armstrong appeared on The Eddie Condon Floor Show where he performed “Someday” with vocal backing by Helen Cherell and The Swan-Tones. So used to playing the melody straight with the All Stars, Armstrong’s enters by playing the melody at the same time the Swan-Tones start singing it. Realizing it clashes (and that he’s master of the obbligato), Armstrong begins improvising a perfect obbligato around the vocal group, the first time his trumpet has played anything but straight melody since the original recording. The tempo is still in a medium groove and Teagarden responds well with an almost completely new, improvised solo. Armstrong’s vocal takes it out as usual but it’s a worthy performance to hear the trumpet obbligato in the beginning (this one is available on some cheapie discs, including a disc on Itunes, The Early Years, Recorded Live 1938-1949).

By 1951, Sid Catlett had moved on (and then passed on, incidentally) and he was replaced by the somewhat dry Cozy Cole. This edition of the band played “Someday” at a Pasadena concert in January 1951, recorded by Decca and currently available on The California Concerts. Interestingly, the tune seems to have gone backwards in tempo at this point. Armstrong sounds like he tells Hines, “Nice and easy” in the introduction and now the tempo is around 120 beats per minutes instead of 130. In this performance, delicacy is back in a big way. Cole’s brushes simply beat the time with few accents. Arvell Shaw’s bass plays a two-beat pattern and Bigard once again sticks to his lower register. Teagarden’s busy but Hines is almost lost in the mix…they sound like they’re trying not to wake up the neighbors in the opening chorus. But then Bigard seems to perk up before the vocal, while Arvell starts walking. Armstrong sounds completely joyous as the vocal and even exhorts Teagarden to “Play it pretty, Jack,” which Big T naturally does. This is a lovely version, one that has been included on a few Armstrong compilations but it serves as one of the last times Armstrong played “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” so softly.

Why? Because on October 22, 1953, Armstrong entered the Decca recording studios make one of the best sessions of his later years, fronting a Toots Camarata led studio band dubbed “The Commanders.” Armstrong’s chops were in phenomenal shape on this date but he really outdid himself on the majestically swinging version of “Someday.” Never mind not waking the neighbors; this version sounds like they’re trying to break a lease! The tempo’s now around 138 beats per minutes, not much faster than where it was in the late 40s, but the rhythm section gives it a little more oomph, led by Ed Grady’s explosive drumming. As with the All Stars, Armstrong takes his own melody in the beginning, playing with a soft mute in his horn and now answering his melody statements with some nifty improvised phrases. The band ushers in the vocal with a literal explosion and it’s a fine vocal, as always. But instead of getting eight bars of trombone, the listener is treated to over a minute of pure Pops blowing. The tension begins to build as you can hear drummer Grady switch from brushes to sticks towards the end of the vocal. A perfect four-bar setup by the band leads to one of my favorite Armstrong solos of the 50s. Forgetting the melody, he begins low, playing a nice, tumbling low phrase towards the beginning of his solo (what rhythm this man had). The use of space is effective as well. Sufficiently warmed up, Armstrong begins climbing high at 2:17 in, playing the melody up and infusing it with more blues than customary. The band rushes in like a tidal wave but Armstrong blows them back into the background, ripping off four high concert Bbs before deciding to play the melody an octave higher, a favorite trick of his he adopted after hearing B.A. Rolfe in the late 20s. It’s one of those, “He’s not going to make it moments” but of course he does, topping out at a dramatic high concert C that shakes this listener to his soul (and he ends the record with a high Db!). This version seemed to stay under the radar for years but Decca included it on one compilation a few years back and all of a sudden, it’s on a ton of best-ofs and definitive collections. As well it should be as it’s, I think, one of Armstrong’s best solos of the 1950s, even if the pretty, soft feeling of the original performances of “Someday” is obliterated.

With a brand new way of approaching the song, it was time to update the All Stars’s treatment of “Someday.” As I said, the Decca big band version was from October 1953 and the next recorded All Stars version of it is from a broadcast from New York’s Basin Street club in August of 1954. It’s a fine performance, but it’s clear that some kinks have to be worked out. Barney has no problem as he basically plays the same part he always has. But Pops now takes a second trumpet chorus in the beginning where he incorporates some of his improvisations from the Decca record. He sounds stiff at a few points and he’s still in the formation stage of working out his solo, but it’s still nice to hear him improvise on the tune’s great changes. Having already doubled the length of his trumpet solo, Armstrong also sings two choruses, the second one filled with scats, little asides and even a well-placed “Mama.” It swings like mad but again, the tenderness of his early vocals is pretty much gone, but you can’t argue when presented with such swinging joy. Armstrong also worked out a routine where he would say as an aside, “Broken record,” then start chanting, “Take it, Trummy, take it, Trummy,” much like, well, much like a broken record. Young’s solo would become pretty set in due time so it’s interesting to hear him work out his ideas. In his obbligato behind the vocal, he hints at a quote from “Can’t We Be Friends” (the first line, “I thought I found the man of my dreams”). Obviously seeing it fits, he places it at the start of his second eight bars and it fits like a glove, remaining there until Young left at the end of 1963.

Just five months later, in January of 1955, the All Stars recorded it live for Decca during a long concert at Hollywood’s Crescendo Club (also available on The California Concerts). The tempo, around 140 beats per minute is absolutely ideal (kudos to the swinging rhythm section, now with Barrett Deems’s tasteful brushes) and Pops sounds much surer of himself in the opening trumpet choruses. Trummy and Barney still improvise quiet obbligatos behind the vocals but Trummy’s muted solo is now explosive, Deems switching to sticks behind him. This might be my favorite live version by the All Stars.

Less than a year later, in December 1955, the All Stars found themselves in a movie theater in Milan, Italy, where they recorded a batch of numbers for inclusion on the album Ambassador Satch. One of the numbers was “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” and though it wasn’t released until the year 2000, it’s a damn good version. Edmond Hall is now on clarinet and though he follows Barney’s low register blueprint, his choice of notes and overall grittier sound fit the ensemble better. Pops’s second trumpet chorus (still muted) now has a little more juice, shooting out a couple of remarkably high concert Dbs towards the end. Differences: the tempo is now around 150 bpm and to compensate, Arvell Shaw plays two-beat patterns until the vocal, at which point he begins to walk. Also new is the nifty little riff behind the vocal. After years of soft improvising by the other horns, Trummy, Edmond and Billy Kyle team up on a catchy riff (it’s been used by others but the one example to leaps to my mind is the opening of Hal Singer’s “Cornbread”). This would be the pattern Armstrong would follow quite some time, though the tempo never again was quite as fast as in Italy: Shaw continued the two-beat, Trummy was told to “take it” like a broken record and responded by quoting, “Can’t We Be Friends,” the horns riffed behind the vocal and everything swung happily. It was the kind of song that Armstrong didn’t play at every concert and by the late 50s, he seemed to be phasing it out, saving it for movies (The Beat Generation) and TV appearances…ASCAP royalties always helped out! Dale Jones joined on bass in 1956 and dispensed with the two-beat playing in the opening ensembles. Also, Armstrong stopped going for the Dbs, and instead smoothed out a tricky quick-fingered phrase he first worked out on the Basin Street and Crescendo Club appearances. By June 1956, the horns had another riff to place after the “Cornbread” riff. The All Stars were no “Dixieland” band and hearing the smoothness of the background riffs is a testament to the solid swing and updated sensibility of the group.

Speaking of Dixieland, Armstrong recorded “Someday” with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1959, giving the opening melody to Dukes trumpeter Frank Assunto, played over two-beat rhythm before Armstrong enters with his set solo over a more swinging backdrop. Not using a mute, Armstrong wails a bit more towards the end, hitting the high Db and glissing down to an F…very impressive playing for a guy who newspapers were reporting to have died just three months earlier! The Dukes really swing out on Armstrong’s second vocal chorus, coming up with a different, simple riff that really seems to spur Armstrong on. On an alternate take, Armstrong’s trumpet enters very unsteadily but the rest of his solo is fine. Why Armstrong’s complete recordings with the Dukes aren’t available on CD is another crime and would make a perfect project for a Mosaic Select box set. Anyway, if you go on Itunes and look up the different Armstrong versions of “Someday,” there’s a bunch that clock in between 4:08 and 4:10…those are the versions with the Dukes, even though none is labeled that way. Definitely worth checking out.

In 1962, Armstrong performed “Someday” for a film made by Goodyear. The tempo is perfect and the rhythm section anchored by Danny Barcelona’s drums and Billy Kronk’s bass really swings (no brushes or two-beat here!). And Pops’s chops are in A-1 shape, nailing those Dbs he didn’t always go for in the second chorus. The background riffs are tighter than ever (though the second riff debuted in 1956 is gone). Enough words from me, thanks to the power of YouTube, enjoy it for yourself!

I’m telling you, if you don’t feel it when Armstrong launches into that second vocal chorus with “Lookee here, mama” and when Trummy bounces to his own solo, you’re not living!

Still, perhaps the tightest version of “Someday” Armstrong ever performed with the All Stars was done for the Hello, Dolly album. By this point, the band knew the routine so well, they could probably play it in their sleep. But again, the rhythm section does wonders (aided by the Freddie Green-style guitar by Glen Thompson) and new trombonist Russell “Big Chief” Moore fits perfectly (he always claimed this was one of his favorite songs). Armstrong only plays one chorus of trumpet but he conveys all he needs to in it, splitting the chorus between melody and improvisation. The Hello, Dolly album is sometimes shrugged off as an album of showtunes and remakes but I love the remakes of this one, “Blueberry Hill” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” three songs that the All Stars became so tight on as the years passed. Compilations always choose the original studio versions, and there’s obviously nothing wrong with them, but these tight, swinging studio remakes are wonderful in their own right.

“Someday” disappeared for the most of the rest of the 60s but did return at the very end. Returning after his long illness in 1968 and 1969, Armstrong made a number of TV appearances in 1970, usually playing his own compositions, “Someday” and “Pretty Little Missy.” One of the most poignant moments of Armstrong’s career came on the Dick Cavett Show on January 13, 1970. It was Armstrong’s first day back on TV since the illness (earlier that day, he had performed “Someday” on the Today Show) and feeling strong, he decided to bring his trumpet along, against doctor’s wishes. I haven’t heard the Today Show version but I know it was done with Doc Severinsen’s orchestra and that Armstrong played trumpet on it. Maybe he burned himself out, but by the time he performed it on the Cavett show, his chops were tired. What’s worse is that instead of taking a short solo, the arrangement forces Armstrong to take two full choruses in the beginning AND a solo after the vocal AND a final trumpet break! In 1960, it would be been a great arrangement but in 1970, it’s just a little too much for the ailing Armstrong to handle. He starts off with his usual melody chorus but the tone isn’t as bright as it used to be. Where he once went up in the second eight bars, he’s forced to go down. He plays the melody well but it sounds like he’s blowing with all he’s got and it’s still hard to even produce this much volume. Still, he soldiers on to a second chorus, which he always used to begin with three Dbs leading up to an F. Playing it safe, he sticks to four low Dbs, though his phrase still epitomizes swing. When he tries to hit a simple Eb, it cracks a bit. As he goes on, he gets stronger, still not hitting anything above a Db but there’s a melancholy feeling to the solo that works, especially when he reverts back to the melody a few times. Fortunately, his voice is in fine shape and he sings his customary two choruses. And then it’s time for another trumpet solo. There’s a very delayed entrance as he obviously makes sure his chops are ready to blow. Again, the tone is tired and the sound is smaller than ever but the solo still has dignity and he even hits an F above the Db he couldn’t get past in his first two choruses. After a half-chorus, he starts sounding more comfortable, when all of a sudden he remembers he’s supposed to come back with the vocal, which he does, reprising the old “Broken record” line and listening carefully as the band goes into a extended coda. The arrangement ends with a spot for a perfect Armstrong trumpet break but he only gets five notes out, cracking the last one, before he rips the horn from his mouth to sing a final, “Someday!”

When I first heard this version of “Someday” on an obscure Italian CD on the Moon label, tears welled in my eyes. It’s so sad to hear him so diminished but as I’ve listened to it more and more, I’ve learned to look past the sadness of it and embrace the dignity of the solo. Playing the trumpet was his life and he was going out doing what he loved. He put down the trumpet for a while and when he returned to the Cavett show on July 29 of 1970, Armstrong once again performed “Someday” but stuck purely to singing, leaving the trumpet at home. The arrangement is the same, minus the trumpet spots and Armstrong fills in the break at the end with some very exuberant scatting.

But don’t cry for Louis Armstrong. By the end of 1970, he was once again playing the trumpet, if not as much as he used to (for a fantastic example of what he could still do, search YouTube for the clip of Armstrong on the Johnny Cash Show in October 1970….it’s 1924 all over again!). Armstrong even returned to the Cavett show in February 1971 and played trumpet on “Ole Miss.” Lucille Armstrong told Cavett’s announcer Jack Barry, “You know, Louie’s been quite sick. I’m so happy to see him back there. All he was worried about, would he ever blow that horn again.”

[Note: I’m getting my Cavett information from the private tapes at the Armstrong Archives at Queens College. DVDs of Cavett’s shows are starting to pop up, including one whole volume devoted to Ray Charles’s appearances. Armstrong should get the same treatment as these are some of the last testaments of the greatest jazzman of all.]

Well, that’s all I have for “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” one of my favorite Armstrong songs and a song that works well at all tempos (check out Eddie Condon’s group tearing it up on Columbia in the 50s). Hopefully, the next time I hit shuffle, it’ll be a singular track so I don’t find myself writing a term paper again, but I hope this stuff is interesting to somebody, anybody, out there. It keeps me listening closely to Armstrong and even on a song on which I have about 20 versions in my collection, I’ll always keep hearing new things. Til next time….Red beans and ricely yours,