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.)

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