Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Live at the University of North Carolina, May 8, 1954

A lot of people have written to tell me that they enjoyed my review of the C.D. Armstrong’s set at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival so I think I’ll add a new feature to this blog and once in awhile offer a “Classic Concert” review. Many people believe all All Stars shows were the same but that couldn’t be farther from the truth and hopefully, through the usual blow-by-blow descriptions and intensive listening, I can give each of these concert recordings the individual respect they deserve. Today, I’m going to start out with a release that’s not very well-known but since I’m endless crusade to hip the world towards all things Armstrong, I might as well talk a little bit about it. On May 8, 1954, Louis Armstrong and the All Stars performed two shows in one day at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The first was an afternoon concert for the students at Memorial Hall while, in the evening, they played the “Spring Germans” fraternity formal dance at a UNC gymnasium.

Somehow, the afternoon concert was recorded but went undocumented for years, never even appearing in any earlier Armstrong discographies. Only a few years ago, while doing an internet search for rare All Stars shows, did I notice that almost anybody who was selling bootleg concerts over the web also offered this show! It was strange seeing “for trade” lists with scores of rock concerts, no jazz at all, and then one entry: “Louis Armstrong, University of North Carolina.” Eventually, it appeared on eBay as “The Lost Concert” and I bought it. Well, I’ll give whoever sold it credit because they outdid themselves on the packaging, choosing nice photos, putting a fake copyright on the back, issuing it on “Verve” (even using their logo), including an original review of the concert in the liner notes and incorporating some Japanese characters to make it look foreign. Of course, whoever was in charge knew nothing about jazz, hence, a few comical song listings. “Didn’t He Ramble” became “The Life of Didley Rambo,” Billy Kyle’s feature on “Pennies From Heaven” became “Billy Kyle Piano Jam,” and inexplicably, “Margie” became “My Sweet Baby”! Nevertheless, I treasured it because the sound quality was surprisingly good except the drums were a little loud (more on that in a bit) but Pops was in outstanding form and the crowd sounded like they were in a frenzy the entire time.

I thought I had a little rare gem on my hands until the Avid label, straight from the United Kingdom, officially released the concert on a double-C.D. last year. I like the Avid label and was happy to see it get the deluxe treatment with some nice photos, good liner notes by trumpeter Digby Fairweather, some very rare bonus tracks and improved sound courtesy of producer Dave Bennett. It’s a great package but like most All Stars reissues, it landed with a thud in today’s jazz world. None of the major magazines reviewed it, Itunes and Emusic, both of whom offer many Avid releases, didn’t even bother to carry it and, except for the two Virgin Megastores in New York City, I never saw in any other store where music is sold. Fortunately, there’s the good old Internet, and if this review stirs something inside of you, it can be from Amazon sellers in the $12-$16 price range, a bargain for a set that retails at $30. But enough about that, let’s get onto the music!


The University of North Carolina concert caught the band nearing the end of a transitional period. Trummy Young joined in 1952 and he wouldn’t leave until the end of 1963 so he was settled. Barney Bigard rejoined the band in early 1953 and he more than a year left in him after this May 1954 concert. But interestingly, just the previous summer, the band had an entirely different rhythm section consisting of Marty Napoleon on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Cozy Cole on drums. That group is responsible for one of the hottest All Stars concerts ever recorded, from an unknown date in 1953, one that the good people at Avid should really look into reissuing (it used to be given as Cornell and was issued on two old Rarities LPs). According to Jos Willems’s Armstrong discography All of Me, it’s not clear whether Billy Kyle or Kenny John entered the band first but I spoke to Marty Napoleon and he said that he never played with John so Kyle obviously entered the band first, in the fall of 1953, with John appearing soon afterwards. Napoleon and Cole left for the same reasons everyone did: they got sick of traveling. Napoleon never wanted to leave his family in the first place but Joe Glaser managed to convince him to stay after filming The Glenn Miller Story. Napoleon only stayed this time (his second stint with the band) for six months. Cole had been with the band since 1949 and now wanted to settle in New York, where he would run a drum school for a while with Gene Krupa.

Their replacements couldn’t have been any more different. In Billy Kyle, the All Stars got a very respected jazzman, with years of experience, most notably in John Kirby’s sextet. Kyle was the definition of a team player, influenced by Earl Hines’s playing but with none of Hines’s ego and he would stay with Armstrong until the day he died in February 1966. Drummer Kenny John wasn’t exactly built to last, however. He was performing with Marty Napoleon’s trumpeter uncle Phil Napoleon (also managed by Joe Glaser) when he joined the All Stars. John first performed at the age of three and by ten was touring. He worked for MGM Studios in Hollywood and in the bands of Alvino Rey and Raymond Scott before joining the All Stars. “Well, Kenny’s been around,” Armstrong told an interviewer. “He’s just a kid. About 25, he looks like he’s 16. He’s played with Raymond Scott. You know, he plays some hard music.” Milt Hinton described him as “a short, thin, pale, blond kid who’d been fairly successful as an actor in Hollywood and was also a good drummer. But he had some serious problems. He’d gotten his way most of his life and that’s probably why he’d fallen into some bad habits which were destroying him.” Barney Bigard summed him up as “a real young guy who drank plenty, but could play good drums.” The University of North Carolina concert is notable because it was one of John’s last nights in the band. And after listening to the show, it’s easy to see why!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Avid release begins with an unknown announcer introducing the musicians one by one and you can hear immediately that this is a rowdy crowd. You can also hear Kenny John beating on his drums like a toddler, hitting them just for the sake of hitting them, a bad habit he continues throughout the concert. Armstrong’s greeted like a king and after quickly tuning up (he can make a low A sound beautiful), he lets out a happy laugh, excited to start playing. Well, that little giggle causes the audience to break into cheers. There are few concert recordings that capture an audience so entirely spellbound by every aspect of Armstrong’s persona. Soon, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” begins and the crowd continues hooting and cheering behind Armstrong’s gentle vocal, eventually exploding when Armstrong sells the word “Yeah” when coming out of the bridge. The roar is huge and even Armstrong says, “Yes indeed, folks, we’re going to have a lot of fun here, this evening,” eliciting more cheers—it sounds like a college concert from 2007, never mind 1954!

Naturally, “Indiana” opens up the proceedings and Billy Kyle’s introduction is already set in stone (it was just about there on a New Year’s Eve 1953 concert from Yokohama, Japan, though he was still finding his way in his solo that night). The ensemble is powerful as all hell but, though John swings beautifully, his one fatal flaw exposes himself early: a tendency to pound two-and-four on the snare and the bass drum. Now, I’ve defended backbeats time and again in this blog and goodness knows Armstrong lived for them, but the bass drum is a little too heavy and especially since this isn’t a professional recording, sometimes gets a little irritating. But otherwise, John swung harder, I think, than Cozy Cole (check him out on the Decca session from March 19, 1954) and he definitely paved the road for the man who would replace him, Barrett Deems. Anyway, “Indiana” is one of those songs that again, many feel Pops played the same night but between 1951, when he started playing it, and 1956, he changed his solos almost night. He eventually settled on a closing four-bar phrase that fit perfectly but it was anything goes for the first 28 bars. Armstrong taped all of shows and would listen to them all night and morning in his hotel room so you know he studied his solos to see what fit and what didn’t. In 1953 and 1954, Armstrong tried fitting a phrase in his second eight bars that sounds like a quote, maybe something operatic. Sometimes it fit but it was kind of awkward and in Carolina, he plays the phrase, gets a little tongue-tied for a second and recovers with three notes placed directly on the beat. But the second half of his chorus shows that he was nearing the finish line in sculpting what would be come the perfect “Indiana” solo (but if you really want to hear him take some chances, dig up that Yokohama LP I mentioned). Bigard’s solo was pretty well set, as was Young’s, which is very relaxed on this particular occasion. The crowd responds to John’s drum breaks and Pops takes it out on top.

“A Kiss to Build a Dream On” is up next, Armstrong introducing it with the same “Macarooney” (instead of Mickey Rooney) joke he would use until 1968. The tempo grew slower in the 1960s so it’s nice to hear it a gentle, medium sway, though John’s still a little heavy in the opening ensemble. Armstrong mixes up the lyrics at one point but no one notices and when he picks up his trumpet, anyone who did notice probably forgot about it. Naturally, when Armstrong inserts the word “chops” for “lips” during the vocal reprise, the crowd eats it up.

Next, Armstrong announces a trip to his hometown of New Orleans, which, again, inspires a roar of approval from a crowd that sounds like they were ready to cheer just about anything. The tune is “The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” and Armstrong announces it as being written “during the days of rushing the cans.” That’s a reference to the kids whose job it was to bring beer to the bordellos. Jelly Roll Morton, on his seminal 1939 recording of “Mamie’s Blues,” opens with a spoken introduction where he says, “This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life. Mamie Desdunes, this is her favorite blues. She hardly could play anything else more, but she really could play this number. Of course, to get in on it, to try to learn it, I made myself the, the can rusher.” Armstrong usually announced “The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” as being played by Joe Oliver in New Orleans and it was recorded in the 1920s by the likes of Lil Johnson and Washboard Sam, with composer credit going to Clarence Williams. However, the song didn’t really become well-known until country musician Hank Williams had a hit with it in 1949. A year later, Armstrong recorded a slow, bluesy version for Decca, obviously giving it the slow drag kind of feeling Joe Oliver must have given it. However, by the time of Armstrong’s ill-fated tour with Benny Goodman (and later Gene Krupa) in 1953, the tune was being jumped and that’s the way it would remain for the next decade. Armstrong always really got into the tune, as can be seen by watching the All Stars perform it in Edward R. Murrow’s Satchmo the Great, bending over, snapping his fingers, closing his eyes, sometimes getting the audience to clap along. Armstrong sounds like he’s trying to get the audience to clap on the beat during Billy Kyle’s opening boogie-woogie introduction as he can be heard off-mike yelling, “Slow down” at one point and then happily exclaiming, “Ahhh, right there, right there” a few seconds later as the audience starts clapping along properly. John’s drumming gets a little irritating on this one as his accents are inserted randomly (none of Sid Catlett’s finesse) and those bass drum hits on two and four get exasperating. Otherwise, the number jumps and Trummy’s roaring solo stirs up the crowd, much as it did everywhere else he played it. Armstrong yells encouragement towards Young and even though Trummy overblows his final note, the spirit of the solo is more than enough to get excited about. Armstrong’s trumpet is extremely powerful in the closing choruses—later, starting around 1956, whenever he really felt in the mood, he’d add encore choruses, resulting in perhaps the greatest version from the “Chicago Concert” of June 1, 1956.

“Blueberry Hill” follows, dedicated to a “party” in attendance. Listening to the audience yell with excitement at the mere mention of the tune reminds me of one of the meanest things ever written about Armstrong. On page 197 of The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller writes about Armstrong’s later career: “But the end was not what it should have been. Nat Hentoff once suggested that Louis should at least have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, or been accorded a Pulitzer Prize in music. Or better yet—my suggestion—as America's unofficial ambassador to the world, this country should have provided him an honorary pension to live out his life in dignity, performing as and when he might, but without the need to scratch out a living as a good-natured buffoon, singing ‘Blueberry Hill’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ night after night.” Armstrong truly loved “Blueberry Hill” as it revitalized his recording career and throughout the 50s and 60s, he usually named it as his most popular song with audiences. Fittingly, it was the last song he ever performed on television, singing it on The Tonight Show on March 1, 1971, just four months before the end. Because Schuller couldn’t see the beauty of how many people were entertained by “Blueberry Hill,” I think it makes him come off as cold and bitter. Millions of people loved “Blueberry Hill” and Armstrong absolutely loved singing it so to write him off in his later years as a “buffoon” for performing it is completely unfair. Even as late as 1968, when pressed by a BBC show to name one record that he would take to a desert island, Armstrong said, “I’d like to take ‘Blueberry Hill,’ cause right now, it’s like the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in America when I sing it.”

“Tin Roof Blues” followed, dedicated to New Orleans Rhythm King clarinetist Leon Roppolo. Roppolo died in 1943 at the age of 41 so the dedication is a nice touch, but it also allows Armstrong to get a gag in as he first mentions a “young clarinetist,’ causing Barney Bigard to chuckle and take a bow. Armstrong, of course, tells Barney it’s not him and even hilariously refers to him as an “old reprobate.” As for “Tin Roof Blues,” it was a song where the routine never changed over the years, as Armstrong never soloed on it. Instead, he stuck to playing soulful lead, leaving the solos to Bigard and Young (though he can be heard talking behind the solos, obviously having a good time with the other members of the band). It was one song where the tempo never grew faster over the years; Armstrong obviously liked it slow and the tempo never raised above the daring crawl he took it. Interestingly, when the band plays the famous second strain melody for the first time (the part already discussed in my entry for “Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues”), the audience starting reacting with surprised approval. Why? Because Jo Stafford had a hit with a song called “Make Love to Me,” which was basically just “Tin Roof Blues” with lyrics. Stafford’s record hit in March 1954 and stayed at number one for seven weeks so it was still fresh in the public’s mind at the time of the May University of North Carolina concert—especially in the minds of young college kids, with a title like “Make Love to Me”! Even Decca got involved and brought the All Stars into the studio in April of 1955 to record their version of “Tin Roof Blues,” but without that “Make Love to Me” title or lyrics, it didn’t exactly become a hit.

Next comes the “vittle” song, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” which this exact group recorded for Decca in March of 1954. The live version follows that routine very closely, though Armstrong trots out some new ideas in the second opening ensemble chorus. Billy Kyle’s solo would become set in cement in a short time but he plays a lot of fresh ideas here, except for the final eight bars, which would never change. Arvell Shaw takes a very fine bass solo but there’s nothing like Pop’s entrance. He often liked to follow bass solos (think “Indiana”) and the juxtaposition between the quiet bass and the wailing trumpet worked very well. Unfortunately, the original tape faded out right before the final rideout so those notes are lost to posterity (though I’m sure it didn’t differ much from the studio version).

At this point, Armstrong had been on stage for a little over 30 minutes, blowing on every song except “Blueberry Hill” but being involved constantly. It was time for a breather, but I don’t remember another breather quite like this one. Bigard’s up first with “S’wonderful” followed by a feature for Kyle on “All the Things You Are” and then finally, an Arvell Shaw feature on “The Man I Love.” Until Pops comes in with his trumpet midway through Shaw’s feature, he is off the stage for 18 minutes and 46 seconds! This was highly unusual and I have a theory about the Carolina that I’ll discuss in detail a little further down but I think it might have had to do with Swiss Kriss! I have many, many All Stars concerts and nowhere else does Armstrong take a break like this. s Even in 1965, when he began to let his sidemen take longer features so he could rest more, Armstrong never sat our for more than eight or nine minutes. On top of that, he usually played a melody chorus on “S’wonderful,” which is absent from the Carolina concert. Also, the tempo of “S’wonderful” is way down from what it would be just eight months later when it would be recorded at the Crescendo Club for Decca. I think Pops had to go to the bathroom so Bigard was forced to stretch out at a slower tempo and without Pops’s help. I actually like this tempo for “S’wonderful” and Bigard does a great job…until about the five-minute mark when the endless little trades with John’s drums grow tiring. A review of the concert from the University newspaper mentioned this as a highlight of the show. “Then, breaking all concert tradition, Louiis and three of his boys left the stage, leaving only the clarinet man, Barney Bigard [and] drummer Kenny John,” Jerry Reece wrote in The Daily Tar Heel. “The crowd seemed a little awed at this and Barney soon gave it reason to be. He blew some of the hottest and sweetest licks to be heard in the old hall for a long time.” Thus, it’s the definition of a “you had to be there moment” as it really gets on my nerves after awhile—the whole feature goes on for nine minutes!

With Pops not back yet, Bigard becomes emcee. When someone yells, “Louie!” Bigard calms him down, saying, “He’ll be on, don’t worry about it, everything is straight.” He then introduces Kyle, mentioning that Kyle had just finished a three-year run as the pianist for Guys and Dolls on Broadway. Kyle then performs “All the Things You Are,” which isn’t one of my favorite Kyle showpieces. The opening reading of the melody is very beautiful and when he improvises in the middle, it swings, but overall, the thing reeks of novelty piano, beginning with the silly, ornate introduction and the endlessly modulating worked-out middle section. Kyle had many better features and on almost all of them (“Perdido,” “When I Grow To Old To Dream,” “Girl of My Dreams,” etc.), Armstrong played some trumpet. I think he only called the other ones (“All the Things You Are,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “St. Louis Blues”) when he needed a break or when he had to go to the bathroom. Again, just a hunch…

Bigard then introduces Shaw, who had just rejoined the band in March. As Bigard points out, Shaw made some records with Julius LaRosa in the time he spent away from the band. Shaw gets an easy laugh from the college crowd, mentioning that, “Whenever I announce the title of this tune, I feel sort of silly: ‘The Man I Love.’” Shaw’s features were always exciting (he quotes “Rhapsody in Blues,” something Kyle did on the previous track, as well) and it sounds like it might have been the first time he played it with John on drums since he yells, “Fast!” to alert the drummer to the upcoming tempo change. But the audience doesn’t start buzzing until Armstrong makes his way onstage three minutes in, initially providing harmony as Shaw plays the melody. But then Pops takes the bridge and the final A section and all of a sudden, one forgets it’s a bass feature! Whether Pops was just resting because he knew he had another show that evening or ingested too much Swiss Kriss, it’s clear very quickly that it was not a chops problem as he’s in terrifyingly good shape as soon as he comes back.

The same can be said of the next performance, a feature for Trummy Young on “Margie,” which was also recorded at that March Decca session (In Carolina, Pops lets Trummy introduce it, jokingly saying, “Here’s Trummy Young and his toilet, er, trombone!”). Trummy always did a beautiful job on this number, with a Pops-influenced vocal and trombone solo (dig the Rigoletto quote during the break), but Armstrong always had his say, too, providing a nice obbligato behind the vocal and usually taking over during the final rideout. Well, you could always tell how good Pops was feeling by counting the number of encores he would call on “Margie.” I always thought the best version was from the Crescendo Club where Pops calls for two supercharged encores but at Chapel Hill, he really outdid himself, offering up three encores and blowing with more and more fury with each passing one. During the actual first performance, Pops can barely be heard but beginning with the first encore, he gradually begins taking over. By the second encore, the ridiculous glisses start pouring out of the trumpet and the crowd is in bedlam. But on the third and final encore, Trummy steals the show back and there might be a few reasons why, though I can’t be certain. There are pictures of Young in his early tenure with the All Stars playing the trombone with his foot and it’s possible he did that hear since he goes way off mike in the final encore. However, in one of Armstrong’s private scrapbooks of a May 1956 tour of London, there’s a very funny picture of Young laying down on stage with a caption mentions Young acting passed out after blowing three encores on “Margie.” Thus, because he’s basically inaudible at the end, I think this scenario is the most plausible. Either way, the ovation is riotous (though John can’t stop dropping bombs for no reason) and even Pops says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, Trummy—we got his crown waiting for him, boy,” and then, before introducing Velma Middleton, says, “Right now we’re going to let Trummy thaw out a little bit.” So obviously, there were some funny visuals that night but as for me, I’m more than happy to have he audio of Pops wailing on this version of “Margie.”

But yes, it was blues time, folks, and the students at Chapel Hill greeted Velma Middleton as if she was Marilyn Monroe. She does “Big Mama’s Back In Town” and has the crowd in the palm of her hands with her very first line, “Here’s news for you, baby, Big Mama’s Back In Town.” After singing a few choruses, Velma goes into her dance and it’s pure bedlam. From that point on, the crowd doesn’t stop yelling as if they’re at a rock concert (remember, 1954 also saw the release of “Rock Around the Clock” and the youth was getting a little rowdy!). Pops’s horn is scorching, with its set quotes of “Moon Over Miami” and “My Sweetie Went Away,” and he even glisses up to a high concert E, something I don’t think he does on any other version of “Big Mama.” I can only imagine what that crowd must have looked like when Velma did the split!

After nearly a 25-second ovation, Velma introduces the next number, their version of one of their “recordings” of “Baby”—that’s all she has to say before the crowd goes wild yet again—“It’s Cold Outside.” It’s interesting to point out, that Armstrong and Middleton’s routines on numbers like this one and “That’s My Desire” were actually never done in a studio and were only known from their appearance on live Decca records. Still, those records must have reached the University of North Carolina as the crowd gives “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” perhaps the greatest ovation it ever received, only challenged by a January 1951 date in Vancouver, just four days before recording it live for Decca in Pasadena. As Billy Kyle vamps and Velma lets out innocent, “Hoo-dee-dee’s,” Armstrong mutters a reference to Swiss Kriss. Again, if you’ve made it this far, stay tuned for more about Swiss Kriss in just a short while! But as for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” everyone seems to be having a good time as even the band members, especially Barney, can be heard laughing as if this was the first time they heard the routine. Also, every time Louis and Velma performed it, they had a set part of the routine where Velma would mention which part of town she lived on. Someone at the theater would obviously slip Velma the name of a town beforehand so when she would drop the name of a street or section of town, the audience would always laugh in a happily surprised fashion. At the University of North Carolina, Pops asks where she’s staying and she replies, “In Frat Court,” getting great applause and cracking herself up in the process. It’s the kind of performance that simply radiates the great warmth generated by these two great artists.

Kenny John closes the first set with a feature on “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” which clocks in around only two minutes, though it does sound like it might be edited in the middle (later versions featuring Barrett Deems and Danny Barcelona would go much longer). The second set begins with “Professor Bigard” reading an advertisement for the “Barefoot Ball” on May 15 (“75, stag or drag”), a cute little moment that really captures the nature of this gig (huge festivals were right around the corner for the All Stars). Anyway, “New Orleans Function” opens the second half, the great pairing of “Flee As A Bird” and “Didn’t He Ramble” as originally recorded by Pops for Decca in 1950. As Digby Fairweather points out in his notes to the Avid set, you can hear Pops admonish Kenny John at the start of “Flee As A Bird.” John leads off with some drum theatrics before Pops comes in with “Flee As A Bird.” However, as soon as the band hits their first note, John unleashes a tremendous bomb, whacking his snare, bass and cymbal at the same time. Pops stops the band and says, “Hold that there, son. You don’t hit no cymbal in a funeral. You’ll wake up the man up!” It’s a funny line but Armstrong obviously didn’t deliver to the audience to get a laugh as all you hear is some nervous tittering in the crowd, though Bigard sounds like he’s finding it all very humorous. Anyway, I think Armstrong was legitimately miffed at John but, professional that he was, tried making light of it. Anyway, I’ll have more on John in a bit (I’m becoming king of the blog cliffhanger!). “New Orleans Function” is a performance that contains the essence of Louis Armstrong in one single performance. The reading of “Flee As A Bird” is so passionate and somber, it can make one cry. It’s then followed by a funeral scene with the band “crying” so loud, it’s difficult not to laugh. Then the band marches around the stage, playing “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” a sight that I’m sure made those in the audience smile. And finally, John goes into swing time and the band tears into “Ramble,” Trummy raising hell and Pops causing the listener to sweat and marvel with each passing high note. It’s all there in one performance and I love it.

“C’est Si Bon” is up next and a loose spirit seems to have invaded the band. The tempo is faster than it was ever played and Pops changes up the way he plays the melody at the start. It’s as if everyone was feeling high and happy and it shows.

The next performance really demonstrates the kind of night Pops was having. He mentions that he heard that “Lazy River” was a popular record in “the frat house” so he decides to play it for the students (ah, a frat house that worships a record from 1931—now there’s a fraternity I would join!). Billy Kyle had been in the band for about six or seven months but he obviously had never played “Lazy River” before. Fortunately, Barney Bigard’s there to guide him through it. After Pops plays the melody, Trummy takes over and you can hear Bigard tell Kyle that Pops is going to take sing choruses and that the second one is going to played in double-time. You can even hear Kyle respond, “The second one’s doubled,” and Bigard responds in the affirmative. As Pops finishes his first chorus, Bigard can be heard reminding Kyle, “Now double it.” I think it’s a nice portrait of teamwork and by the time of the Crescendo Club, Kyle had “Lazy River” down pat.

But Pops is the main event on “Lazy River,” as his scat break completely breaks up the audience. And his trumpet playing is downright scary. The famous glissed break that had turned the trumpet world upside down in 1931 is pulled off with aplomb, his tone remarkably huge, eliciting another burst of applause from the audience. But he saves the best for last: he ends “Lazy River” with a jaw-dropping high concert D, something he only did when he felt special. He didn’t do it in 1931 and he wouldn’t do it at the Crescendo Club in 1955, on the Autobiography session of 1956 or at Newport in 1957. And hell, during the 1940s big band days, he usually ended not with the trumpet but with a scat break after a vocal reprise. No, Pops was feeling good that night in North Carolina and though you can hear him hesitate for a fraction of a second, thinking about whether he really wanted to do this, he hits that D with bell-like clarity.

But wait, there’s more! If you think I’ve been enthusiastic up to this point, I don’t know how I’m going to convey the wild roller coaster ride that is a ten-minute medley of “Shadrack” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” After another long piano introduction (you can hear Armstrong make a reference to the Ink Spots), “Shadrack” begins with an absolutely infectious minor vamp (think “Hit the Road, Jack”) and it’s impossible to not get carried away by it. Unfortunately, by this point in the show, something went awry with the tape machine. All of a sudden, John’s drums sound louder and Pop’s voice sounds distant. After “Shadrack,” the band swings into the “Saints” and though it takes some effort to listen for it, what follows might be the most scorching, free-spirited playing of the entire All Stars period. It begins like every other version of the “Saints” and after solos by Bigard and Young, Armstrong leads the way with his set three-chorus rideout pattern, Bigard and Young with him all the way. Armstrong had worked on this routine for years and it works. The song ends on another huge high D and it’s over. The audience goes wild and Pops counts off the tempo for an encore, done at the same tempo. This encore was also pretty set and it, too, works as Pops blows another set of variations before ending on another high D. So far, so good but it’s not over yet. John takes a drum break and we’re off for a second encore, now at warp speed. Now’s where the improvisation begins as Armstrong first plays around with the melody then launches into a positively demonized second chorus, where he blows like it’s his last night on earth, hitting high G’s, smearing phrases, playing some very fleet-fingered ideas and showing complete command of the horn before pushing himself to play the melody a full octave higher than usual in the third chorus, nailing every note before ending on a sickening high E!

And he’s still not done.

He counts off one more time, and this time the band sounds like they didn’t even expect it. Shaw starts walking, John joins in but Pops is the only horn playing for a few seconds. Who needs anyone else when Armstrong is blowing with such fury? Armstrong now turns back the clock and it’s now 1932 again. He starts showing his endurance, hitting high G’s and holding them, the first one for five seconds before glissing to a higher B, the second one for four seconds, before another B and finally a third for three seconds before yet another gliss to yet another B. I’m glad I don’t play the trumpet because I would probably start crying and put my instrument up for sale after listening to this. Then once more, he plays the melody an octave higher, sounding a little shaky at first but almost immediately finding his footing, blasting it out with authority. Bedlam erupts and even Armstrong can’t help laughing his funny high-pitched laugh he only trotted out when he was especially titillated. I wish this was on Itunes and I wish more people had heard it so I wasn’t the only one raving like a lunatic about it, but it truly is one of my favorite Armstrong moments and it’s more than worth the price of the set.

Any other human would have probably ended the show right there, but no, Pops then called “High Society,” yet another number that required another test of endurance. Once again, a problem with the tape machine leads to a large middle chunk being edited out, but the rideout exists and it’s a burner, Armstrong still tearing up in the upper register of his horn…in a Hall at the University of North Carolina…in the afternoon….of an evening where he would play a dance in a gymnasium. If doesn’t show just how hard he pushed himself in his later years and how much he gave at every single show, then I don’t know what else to say.

As Armstrong told an interviewer after the show (a segment unfortunately not included on the Avid disc, but is on my bootleg copy), “High Society” was supposed to be the finale. Barney Bigard especially hated playing overtime…unless he was getting paid for it (for more on that, read George Avakian’s liner notes to the 1997 Sony reissue of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy). Bigard wanted to pack it up but Armstrong, sensing the crowd’s enthusiasm, wanted to give them more. “They were just wonderful,” he told the interviewer. “They just stood up and cheered and applauded….It just makes you feel great. In fact, we went overtime. Barney said, ‘That should have been the last,’ and I say, ‘How can we pay any attention to a clock working like we do and the people are so enthusiastic?’ So it just didn’t bother, we just went on down the line.” Isn’t that beautiful? Thus, when “High Society” ended, Armstrong called on Billy Kyle to do another feature that didn’t require any trumpet playing, “Pennies From Heaven.” Where’d Armstrong go during the number? No, no, not the bathroom…instead, he went and brought back Velma Middleton, remembering how wonderfully she was received in the concert’s first half (because it was a shorter than usual show, Velma wasn’t needed for the second half).

They decided to close with “The Dummy Song,” a silly trifle Armstrong recorded for Decca on July 16, 1953. On that occasion, Armstrong was backed by a studio band (including all of the All Stars) arranged and conducted by Jack Pleiss. However, on live recordings, Velma joined with a new chorus of special lyrics filled with all sorts of topical references. The song was originally in 1925 written by Lew Brown, Billy Rose and Ray Henderson and featured two verses about a soldier on furlough who catches his “hon” cheating on him with both his sergeant and Colonel so he declares that he’s going to make a “dummy” because he’ll get more lovin’ from that dum-dum-dummy that he ever got from her. The melody basically ripped off from the “Washington and Lee Swing” and how it ended up in Armstrong’s hands 28 years after it was written is anybody’s guess. On the live version, Armstrong delivers his chorus in an appropriately fun manner before Velma takes over at a slower tempo. She drops references to Marilyn Monroe and Dr. Kinsey but the topper has to be the line, “I’ll take a diet from Gayelord Hauser.” This is the key to putting a time-frame on one of the most mystical aspects of the Armstrong persona: his use of the herbal laxative Swiss Kriss!

Yes, everyone associates Armstrong with Swiss Kriss. He mentioned it on talk shows, inserted it into songs (“South,” with the Dukes of Dixieland), inserted it into scat solos (“Umbrella Man” with Dizzy) and even gave a lecture on Swiss Kriss at the Stanford Research Institute at Palo Alto in 1956. But when did he first start using it?

Armstrong always had a fixation with laxatives, a love affair instilled by his mother, who taught her kids to stay “physic-minded.” Armstrong was a big fan of Pluto Water, which came in big glass bottles that were difficult to travel with. Eventually, Armstrong remembered, “Then here come this book—a health book written by Gayelord Hauser. When I read down to the part where he recommended some 'herbs’—herbal laxatives—I said to myself, 'Herbs—Hmmm, these herbs reminds me of the same as what my mother picked down by the tracks in New Orleans.' Right away I went to the Health Store and bought myself a box of Swiss Kriss and took a big tablespoonful--make sure it worked me the same as other laxatives. Yes it did. Wow! I said to myself, yes indeed, this is what I need from now on—and forsake all others.” The small packets of Swiss Kriss were easier to carry around than Pluto Water and just like that, Armstrong was off, pedaling his newfound wonder product for the rest of his life. So when can we speculate this big change occurring? I’m going to guess around 1953. Ever see a picture of Louis Armstrong in 1952 or 1953? Ever seen The Glenn Miller Story?


That is one fat trumpet player. And it might have affected his trumpet playing a bit, especially when you listen to something like the All Stars live in Prato, Italy in October of 1952, where Armstrong sounds like he’s having issues with his upper register. Now flash to the end of 1953, when Armstrong is blowing incredibly for Decca in October of that year. Before an engagement at the Chicago Theater, Armstrong did an interview with the radio station WGN. The announcer made a reference to how good Armstrong was looking because he was a little “chunky” the previous year. Naturally, Armstrong make a joke—“It was just gas”—but something had to happen in that year in between to cause Armstrong to lose so much weight. And I think that something was the publication of Hauser’s 1952 book, Be Happier, Be Healthier. All of a sudden, Armstrong shed a graphic amount of weight and for all the concert recordings I have of the All Stars, the one from the University of North Carolina is the first one with a mention of Swiss Kriss (on the already mentioned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”), as well as the little name-drop of Gayelord Hauser in “The Dummy Song.” So why else would Armstrong take 18 minutes off, not even appearing to announce the next number or play a background riff? Call me crazy, but I think he might have taken a little more Swiss Kriss than he could have handled!

Anyway, “The Dummy Song” is a fun way to go out. It begins with Kyle taking another ornate introduction before Pops hits him with the line, “Liberace in Technicolor,” which causes the audience (and Velma) to lose it. Some critics frowned at the line, mentioning it with scorn in contemporary reviews, but Armstrong loved it and eventually adapted it to “Now You Has Jazz,” where he would refer to Trummy Young as “Bing Crosby in Technicolor.” Political correctness be damned, Pops was a down home kind of guy and the line always killed.

And that was that, another triumph for the All Stars. In 2004, Gavin O’Hara of North Carolina’s Independent Weekly did a story about that night in Chapel Hill. He wrote about how UNC did not allow black students at the time of the concert, which took place while Brown v. Board of Education was taking place in the United States Supreme Court. In a matter of months, the University would slowly start the process of integration, which was in effect by the time Armstrong returned in February 1955. O’Hara also refers to the post-show interview contained on the bootlegs but not on the Avid release. The interviewer says, “If they [the students] had their way, you’d be down here going to school with us.” “Yes, sir,” Armstrong responds, “That’d be wonderful at that.” It’s a very sweet moment and as O’Hara writes, “It speaks volumes about Armstrong's character that he was able to laugh at the irony of the moment. Here was a man at the pinnacle of popular music—a hero to millions with every skin tone imaginable—who had traveled the world as jazz's greatest ambassador. But if he had wished to enroll in the fine UNC music department in 1954, he couldn't have.” Just one year later, Armstrong refused to play in front of segregated audiences, resulting in his staying away from his hometown of New Orleans for a decade. (And while on the subject of Pops the racial pioneer, let me point out that it was 50 years ago this week that Louis’s reactions over the Little Rock school desegregation crisis made headlines around the world.)

As for the All Stars, they were just entering their golden period, which would officially begin on July 12, 1954 with the recording of Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy for Columbia. However, on that recording, Barrett Deems was the new drummer. And according to Willems’s discography Deems joined in May of 1954. Since the Carolina concert occurred on May 8, it’s even more historically important because it captures one of John’s final days in the bands. As already discussed, Armstrong didn’t sound pleased with John’s playing on the “New Orleans Function” and he couldn’t have liked his incessant crashes, bangs and booms that occurred between every song. But…okay, I promised myself I wouldn’t do this. As many readers know, I’m deep into the process of writing a book on Louis Armstrong’s later years and the research process has led to me to listen to well over a hundred of Armstrong’s private tapes at the Armstrong Archives at Queens College. Well, these tapes provide a pretty large cornerstone of my work and I really didn’t want to use any of it in my blogs as I have to save something for the book! But if you’ve made it this far in this dissertation of an entry, I guess I’ll share a little something. One tape is undated but I researched some of the comments made on the tape to date around the early part of 1954. Armstrong is somewhere with his secretary/mistress “Sweets” and he’s venting about a fight he just had with his drummer, Kenny John (Armstrong doesn’t use his name, but like I said, I boiled the choices down and it couldn’t be anybody else). “I told him, ‘You’re playing too fast, man,” Armstrong says. Later, he adds, “I caught up with him, still salty about what I said. I said, ‘Well, fuck you. I’m the leader, man.’ Shit, and all backstage, we was getting ready to tie asses. I said, ‘I’m the leader and I’ll go down with this fucking ship cause I’m playing right and you got to play it right.’ And everybody told him he was too fast. He’s got a nervous foot. He can’t play a slow tempo to save his life. I haven’t seen one tempo yet that he didn’t finish up faster. I dig all them drummers. They’re all nuts, motherfuckers. All of them, nuts.”

So in the case of Kenny John, that’s one example of an All Star who definitely didn’t leave because he was tired of the road! Pops was fed up with his playing, his attitude, his drinking, everything and took matters into his own hands to get rid of him (nothing else is known about John’s post-Armstrong career, not even when he died). Deems, who was playing with Muggsy Spanier at the time, joined the band and proved to be a perfect fit. “My current aggregation,” Armstrong said of the 1954 Deems edition of the band, “is about the greatest. Without them, I don’t know what I’d do.” And according to trombonist Jim Beebe, Trummy Young told him that Deems was the “swingingest drummer I’ve ever played with.” Deems stayed with the band for many wonderful record dates and tours, but the traveling was difficult to deal with, even early on. “Traveling with Louie is a lot of fun,” Deems said in 1954. “I get my kicks. It’s better to play with Louie than anyone else but I’m afraid I’m going to be the richest corpse in the cemetery!”

Well, now I’m getting ahead of myself. I just wanted to get the word out the Avid’s two-disc release of Armstrong’s 1954 University of North Carolina concert is pretty special. And I haven’t even discussed the bonus tracks: six unreleased songs from Armstrong’s 1956 Newport Jazz Festival appearance, Armstrong and Sidney Bechet’s set from the second Esquire jazz concert and the soundtrack to Armstrong and Martha Raye’s production number on “Public Melody Number One” from Artists and Models. Avid did a great job and hopefully they’ll see it fit to issue more rare dates from the All Stars (their most recent release contains Armstrong’s mid-50s Columbia recordings on a two-disc set). In the meantime, I think this blog had enough information for one week so I’m going to shut it down for a few days and concentrate on the book. I’ll be back next week with more blogs on individual Armstrong songs. Until then, feel free to leave comments or e-mail me at dippermouth@msn.com.


Suzanne John Dillman said...

Everybody, He was a fantastic drummer, as is his son Kenny John. I am
the daughter Suzanne John Dillman

jazzcat1228 said...

I just found a bootleg version of this show. Your insightful blog entry increased my appreciation for what I was hearing. Thank you for your efforts at keeping Pops ever alive and swinging!

eduard linshalm said...

Nice to read about that great enigma of the 1954 edition of Armstrong's All Stars - Kenny John. To be honest, I can hardly believe Satch was talking about him when he said somebody was playing too fast. Kenny John had a fine sense of rhythm, and his playing on "Basin Street Blues" and "Struttin'..." (Decca, March 19, 1954) impressed me when I first heard it. In fact, these tracks are among my all-time favourites.

David T. said...

Kenny John is great. The Decca 10" Glenn Miller story, with "Basin Street" and "Struttin'" - is that available on CD?? It is some of my favorite too.