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!