Recorded September 13, 1961
Track Time 2:30
Written by Dave and Iola Brubeck
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Dave Brubeck, piano
Originally released on Columbia
Currently available on CD: The Real Ambassadors
Available on Itunes? Yes
Today’s entry focuses on a record that is unlike any other in the Armstrong discography: “Lonesome.” On this one track you have Louis playing a solemn melody on the trumpet, delivering a sober spoken-word monologue at the same time and receiving first-rate accompaniment by a musician one wouldn’t normally associate with Armstrong’s circle, Dave Brubeck. It’s only two minutes and 30 seconds but it’s quite a touching record.
The track comes from The Real Ambassadors, the famous 1961 quasi-play/social statement composed by Brubeck and his wife Iola. Dealing with many social issues, including race, the Brubecks conceived of the entire project with Armstrong in mind from minute one, especially with Armstrong’s damning Little Rock comments still fresh in their minds. “I think that’s what we really tried to overcome when we wrote The Real Ambassadors because before we got into this project we didn’t really know Louis that well, but we sensed in him a depth and an unstated feeling we thought we could tap into without being patronizing, and I think that’s why he took to it,” Iola Brubeck remembered. They wanted to make a regular play out of it, but wanted to record the score first and foremost. They also wanted the great singer Carment McRae and the vocalese group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross to participate, all of whom agreed to do so immediately.
However, Armstrong was proving difficult to get a hold of, as Brubeck related in a piece titled “The Dave Brubeck-Columbia Records Story,” a compact-disc insert found in many Brubeck reissues. “But Louis’s road manager wouldn’t give me access when I wanted to discuss the project with him in Chicago, so I found out the number of Louis’s hotel room, sat in the lobby until room service came and hollered, ‘Hi, Louis’ when the door opened,” Brubeck remembered. “Louis invited me in, ordered me a steak and thought the idea was interesting. I gave him copies of the tunes to listen to on the road; and at the session, he was the first one in the studio and last guy to leave.”
Brubeck’s demo tapes of the material still exist at the Louis Armstrong Archives in Queens College. Listening to them today, they find a very polite Brubeck explaining the nature of the project and what Armstrong means to it. It is possible that Brubeck gave Armstrong the demo tapes of the songs in the summer of 1961 before the All Stars made a four-day tour of Germany because the tape begins with Brubeck saying, “I’ve just talked to Joe Glaser and he’s told me how difficult it will be for you to record any of these things before going to Europe. But I’m hoping you can figure out the backgrounds with my group playing and me singing the songs like you asked me to do.” When Brubeck first discussed the project at the aforementioned meeting in Chicago, he had brought along the lyrics to one of the songs to be performed, “Lonesome.” Not knowing the melody, Armstrong just read the lyrics, infusing them with a heavy dose of emotion which had a great effect on Brubeck. “Now I told my wife about the way you read the song ‘Lonesome’ in Chicago,” Brubeck says in his audio letter to Armstrong. “You didn’t sing it, you just read it and it was such a moving job that I thought maybe you would be able to read this on tape and send that back to us because this wouldn’t involve you singing or trying to match your voice with the backgrounds that I’ve sent you by my combo.”
The rest of the tape features Brubck and his trio playing the show’s originals with Brubeck singing the melodies (“I’m ashamed of the horrible way in which I sing,” he tells Armstrong at one point). Armstrong now had a copy of the material and would practice it whenever he had the rare luxury of free time. “Louis told everybody that we had written him an opera,” Brubeck remembered. “Isn’t that something?” The only problem was finding someone who wanted to record it. “All of the producers I took it to, thought it was great, but they’d give me all these excuses,” Brubeck recalled. “You weren’t supposed to have a message. I forget the word they used, but it meant you weren’t entertaining. We couldn’t lecture the American public on the subject of race.” Eventually, Brubeck’s own Columbia label agreed to record the material, which was done over the course of three sessions in September 1961.
Some of The Real Ambassadors sounds dated today and the efforts of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, whom I otherwise love, often get in the way. But Pops is prime form and his rapport with McRae has never been given its due. Sure, everyone knows that “Summer Song” is the album’s masterpiece, but I personally think “One Moment Worth Years” is ripe for rediscovery. The song would be a beautiful standard but I don’t think anyone besides Brubeck has ever recorded it. “I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me” is another beautiful duet with Armstrong offering McRae some absolutely gorgeous harmonies towards the end of the song.
Though “Summer Song” is about as melancholy as a song can be, “Lonesome” really hits some deep, low notes. As Brubeck stressed in his audio tape to Louis, he only wanted Armstrong to speak the words. Perhaps Brubeck toyed with the idea of using his quartet to back Pops on this one but in the end, someone had the great idea of having Pops playing the melody on the trumpet while overdubbing his monologue on top of it. The result is almost an Armstrong sensory overload…he’s coming at you from all angles! I also think it’s a very modern sounding recording. Armstrong had been overdubbing since “Because of You” in 1951 but this time it’s a whole different feel. Hell, it almost sounds like a “remix” some producer would paste together in today’s music world…minus the obnoxious beats.
But back to the wonders of the Armstrong vocal/trumpet duet. What I love about it is the fact that you still get Armstrong singing the song, though he does it with his horn. Clearly, the Brubecks wrote these lyrics to fit to a melody and Armstrong plays it beautifully, with Brubeck giving him sympathetic support. But having him just speak the words without alluding to anything that remotely resembles a melody gives the song a chilling quality. For those who know me by now, I have a thing for typing out lyrics and I think the words of “Lonesome” should be written down for it truly is much more a poem then a song:
All of my life, I’ve been lonely
I’ll go way back in my past.
I’ll tell you about Lonesome,
How the winters last and last.
I know the loneliest autumns,
Watching the leaves slowly turn,
Sad as the tag end of summer,
When dreams with the leaves will burn.
I’ve stood alone in springtime,
High up on a hill,
Cried in the rain in springtime,
Cause no one’s there to share the thrill.
There’s a certain glory in summer,
Quiet, contagious joy.
There is a silent story in summer,
That calls the mind a young boy.
You fell in love in the summer,
Then grew up far too fast.
Still he returns each summer,
To visit in the past.
Even writing the words while listening to them is an emotional experience. I love Armstrong New Orleans accent slipping out on the word “burn,” turning it into “boin.” It’s a completely straight-faced performance, though he manages a slight chuckle after mentioning the “young boy.” His voice goes way down for the final repetitions of “the past.” He sounds tired and scarred, but it’s just the true sign of Armstrong’s acting ability. He was marvelous at conveying drama and “Lonesome” is one of his fines moments. And on the next song recorded that day, “King For A Day,” he sounds as ebullient as ever, sharing some vaudeville patter with Trummy Young, and joyfully singing, “Day—yay—yay—yay,” a far cry from his haunting reading of “the past” that he gave probably just a short time earlier.
In the jazz world, there are few names bigger than Armstrong and Brubeck (who were first and second respectively in terms of jazz musicians on the cover of Time magazine), but their one collaboration, The Real Ambassadors, has always escaped the spotlight. Of course, a big part of this has to do with the play only being performed live once, an evening event at the Monterey Jazz Festival that those in attendance have never forgotten. At the time, the show and the album were heralded as triumphs for both Brubeck and Armstrong but as the decades have passed by, it’s taken a back seat to the likes of “What a Wonderful World” and “Take Five” (never mind the back seat, it might be in the trunk by now). But there are some wonderful moments throughout: Armstrong tackling Brubeck’s melody on “The Duke,” playing it an octave higher and sounding frighteningly powerful; Trummy’s vocal support on “King For A Day”; the aforementioned duets with McRae; the jaunty swing of “Since Love Had Its Way”; the timeless performance of “Summer Song”; and the touching monologue on “Lonesome,” a completely unique Armstrong performance. If you haven’t listened to The Real Ambassadors in awhile, dig it out…and tell me what you think! Comments are always appreciated and you can always e-mail me at Dippermouth@msn.com.