Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded January 24, 1930
Track Time 3:31
Written by Charles E. King
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Otis Johnson, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano, vibes; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums; 3 unknown, violin
Originally released on Okeh 41375
Currently available on CD: Volume four of the JSP Hot Five and Hot Seven series has it, as does volume six of Columbia’s old Armstrong series (St. Louis Blues). It’s also available on about a hundred other discs!
Available on Itunes? Yes
With Christmas fast approaching, I might as well begin with, as Bing Crosby once sung, “Mele Kalikimaka,” which is Hawaiian for “Merry Christmas” (don’t just believe Bing; the Andrews Sisters were in on it, too). The reason for the Hawaiian greeting? Because today’s entry will deal with Charles E. King’s 1915 opus, “Song of the Islands,” which on some releases gets the subtitle, “Na Lei O Hawaii.” Now, I don’t speak Hawaiian, but I do believe that that must be Hawaiian for “Song of the Islands.” Pretty bright am I, eh?
I have no idea how this song wound up at a Louis Armstrong session, but after hearing the end results, I’m not complaining (though I wouldn’t be surprised if The Polynesians recorded “Dippermouth Blues” by accident that day…). Hawaiian music must have been on the upswing when Armstrong recorded the song in 1930, as the sheet music for the then-14-year-old song was reissued in 1929. Here’s a copy of this artifact, courtesy of eBay (please, no bidding):
Now, in writing these little entries, I usually like to do a little research on the song and the songwriter. So who was Charles E. King? A Google search turned up some information on the songwriter from—no joke—Hana Hou, “The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.” I quote: “On occasion, Queen Lili‘uokalani taught music, and one of her students, Charles E. King, wrote Hawaii’s best-known opera, Prince of Hawaii, which debuted in 1925. A tale of love and machinations in ancient Hawaii—replete with prince, princess, hula dancers, a chorus and musicians—Prince contained twenty-four songs, several of which have become Island classics, including ‘Beautiful Kahana’ and ‘Ke Kali Nei Au’ (better known as ‘The Hawaiian Wedding Song’).” Thus, King knew his Hawaiian sounds and it’s no surprise that “Song of the Islands” has lived on in countless film and cartoon appearances as a way of setting a Hawaiian atmosphere.
What is surprising is that King’s simple 16-bar melody would become a jazz standard, performed and recorded by the likes of Count Basie, Gene Ammons, Earl Hines and many more. Of course, it’s not so surprising when one considers that Louis Armstrong introduced it to the jazz world, much as he did the same with so many other future standards with his records of 1929-1933. When Armstrong entered OKeh’s New York studios on January 24, 1930, he was still more or less a freelance musician. His first New York session on March 5, 1929 was done with members of Luis Russell’s band. Armstrong obviously felt at home with the group, which featured a number of musicians from New Orleans, as they again backed Armstrong up on two classic sessions from December 1929. On “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “St. Louis Blues,” Armstrong even let young trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen blow a bit. Allen was obviously influenced by Armstrong (who wasn’t?) but he was really his own man, with a thoroughly modern approach to trumpet playing that hinged on devil-may-care rhythmic phrasing and the exciting use of nonchord tones. At the time, some accused him of playing wrong notes but he was just ahead of his time, though once the bop school started being hailed for playing those same “wrong notes,” Allen became a largely neglected figure. In taking a jazz historiography class at Rutgers while obtaining my Master’s degree, I was stunned that the majority of the class had no real clue of what a genius Red Allen was. A crime.
Anyway, on January 17, 1930, the Russell band backed Armstrong for a one-nighter at a midnight dance at Baltimore’s New Albert Auditorium, drawing 1,400 people. One week later, the Russell band shared an OKeh date with Armstrong, recording two of their own arrangements, plus “Song of the Islands” with Pops. The Russell band was up first with “Saratoga Shout.” I absolutely adore Luis Russell’s own recordings and I think his rhythm section deserves credit for being one of the first truly swinging units in jazz history. You can hear them in their glory by listening to “Saratoga Shout” by clicking here.
Red Allen’s hot solo on “Saratoga Shout” was taken with Armstrong looking on, as John Chilton writes in his marvelous Allen biography, Ride, Red, Ride. “Louis was visibly impressed by Red’s startling 32-bar-chrous on ‘Saratoga Shout’ and offered genuine congratulations, much to the young man’s delight. One suspects that Louis, even, then, knew that Red would never overtake him, but nevertheless Red, on top form, was a formidable rival.” Chilton goes on to quote Armstrong’s second wife, Lillian Hardin, who once was caught listening to a Red Allen record in Armstrong’s prescence. “He must have stood there for a minute with an angry expression on his face, then, after a bit, he smiled and said, ‘Yeah, he’s blowing,’” Hardin remembered.
With the Russell band sufficiently warmed up, it was time for Pops to perform “Song of the Islands.” Though it might have been something of a crazy idea from the a-and-r man, the group definitely had “Song of the Islands” down by the time they recorded it. I’m also guessing they must have given it a test spin at that Baltimore dance the previous week. Also, the Russell band was augmented by three violinists whose names have been lost to posterity, though Allen remembered them as white musicians from a local theater orchestra, according to Chilton. Before I go any further, why don’t you have a listen to the relaxing sounds of “Song of the Islands” by clicking here. Grass skirts are not mandatory…
From the opening note of the record, we’re already shrouded in controversy. We hear a vibraphone (ten months before Lionel Hampton used it to introduce “Memories of You”) but the question is who is playing it? According to Chilton, Red Allen remembered every detail of his sessions with Armstrong and he made an effort to let discographers know that Armstrong’s valet played drums on “Song of the Islands” while Russell band drummer Paul Barbarin played the vibes. Chilton refers to the valet as “Tout Suite,” which sounds like a mishearing/misspelling to me. There’s a photo of Louis and some friends fooling around on a fake boat at Coney Island in 1929 (the photo can be found on page 143 of Michael Cogswell’s Armstrong book, among other places). Standing tall in the photo is a man clearly wearing a valet’s uniform. Armstrong labeled the photo and next to this man, he wrote, “Too Sweet, our chauffer.” Thus, I tend to believe his name was “Too Sweet” rather than “Tout Suite,” but regardless, he did exist and Red Allen seemed pretty sure that he played drums. This could indeed be true because the entire record features nothing but a simple brush pattern on the snare drum. The tempo never lags but there’s no accents (notwithstanding one cymbal hit) or anything flashy whatsoever. Perhaps “Too Sweet” knew a thing or two about the drums and he maintain one pattern at one tempo for three minutes. However, the revered Jos Willems has listened carefully and he doesn’t buy the “Too Sweet” argument. Willems makes the convincing point that the drumming is identical to Barbarin’s work on “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” See what you think by clicking here.
Willems makes a good point. So who is playing vibes? Willems notes that no piano is heard until the seventh bar of the theme statement so that makes Luis Russell a good candidate. But though I agree with all of Willems points, why would Allen vividly remember the valet playing drums? It seems like something he wouldn’t make up but I guess we’ll never know. Chalk it up to another unsolved jazz mystery, I suppose.
Anyway, I’ve only discussed six seconds of the record and I haven’t even gotten to the part that makes most jazz purists throw up their lunch. Immediately after the vibe introduction, the melody of “Song of the Islands” is sweetly played by the three unknown violinists. With the vibraphone still going on in the background and Pops Foster bowing a two-beat pattern, this does not quite sound like a Louis Armstrong or a Luis Russell record, but maybe more like something by Andy Iona. This goes on for 16 bars before a commercial sounding arranged passage that sounds like quintessential 1920s dance band music. We’re 36 seconds into the record and Gunther Schuller has already contemplated suicide. Don’t believe me? Here’s Schuller himself: “By January 1930 the crrpy tentacles of commercialism had begun to exert an alarming degree of stylistic constraint. On Song of the Islands we can hear the results. A painful mélange of non-jazz elements intrude upon Armstrong, and he himself does not escape entirely unscathed. And how could he?”
Ah, Gunther. Doesn’t the man have any sense of period charm? So the first 40 seconds of “Song of the Islands” isn’t great jazz. So what? I’m sure the guys in the band thought the same thing, but I’m sure they must have had a good time making a Hawaiian sounding record. Regardless, when Pops enters, it does become a great jazz record, so really, why get so bent out of shape about a couple of violin players and a vibraphone? At least Schuller did come up with the perfect adjective for Pops Foster’s bass playing during this segment of the song: “voompy.”
Anyway, when Pops finally does enter, muted, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Am I the only one who thinks that the sappy violins and faux-Hawaiian atmosphere actually enhance Pops’s playing? He’s light years ahead of the arrangement and I think more can be said about his contribution to the song than the “commercial” aspects. I actually find it somewhat comical when I hear his entrance. He’s from a different planet. It’s like the Harlem Globetrotters ending up on Gilligan’s Island.
As I already said, “Song of the Islands” isn’t exactly a work of Gershwin or Ellington. It’s 16 simple bars and almost the entire written melody consists of whole notes or quarter notes. And out of such shoddy mud, Armstrong sculpts a masterpiece of storytelling. He takes the simple melody and keeps it simple, though his subtle repetitions of the main pitch practically define swing, especially in his second bar. He leaves plenty of space in those first four bars, but in bar five he begins to loosen up with a phrase that is 100% out of the Armstrong vocal book (I’m thinking “Don’t Play Me Cheap” or “Some Sweet Day,” among other examples). Heading into the second eight bars, he leaves two more beats of space before playing a neat little triplet figure in the turnaround. He then runs up and down with an arpeggio made up of a couple of more triplets before settling on the concert F of the original sheet music. He repeats it a few times, relaxed, before another rhythmically slippery phrase that sounds like he’s playing an obbligato to his own reading of the melody. After two more beats of space, Armstrong concludes his statement with more of the melody, though his phrasing couldn’t be more smooth and cloudlike.
Armstrong then hands the ball over to the great J.C. Higginbotham, who gives the melody more respect than it deserves, but he does repeat a few notes much as Armstrong did. A modulation from Ab to F sets up Armstrong’s wordless vocal, sung with glee club backing by a few members of the Russell band. People like Schuller hate this stuff, but Armstrong’s performing career began by singing in a vocal quartet in New Orleans and many of his classic early records feature this device (“Basin Street Blues,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” “Squeeze Me” and more). This is one of the most trumpet-like scat solos Armstrong ever took. It’s almost completely centered around swinging repetitions of a single note or two. Again, do you want to define the feeling of swing? Listen to the vocal a few times until it’s drilled in your head. Then, tap your table or desk at the same time as every one of Armstrong’s individually scatted notes. Then, sing it in your head and just tap. The combination of on-the-beat phrases juxtaposed with the notes placed in between the beats, well, if that’s not swing, I don’t know what is.
The band then takes a 16-bar arranged passage, a good opportunity to grab a quick beverage. Please, don’t judge the Russell band by a performance like this. This is just a dead arrangement but in a matter of seconds, you’ll forget all about it as Armstrong reenters, this time playing back in Ab. Much like his opening outing, Armstrong begins by working over that concert Eb. Again, in bar five, where he originally inserted that vocal-ish phrase, he plays another incredibly smooth arpeggio, beginning on an Ab, heading down to a low D, then right back up to a higher C, repeated three times before Armstrong bends and stretches an Eb like Silly Putty. After the usual amount of space, Armstrong begins the next eight bars with six repeated Eb’s, all on different beats, before a nifty little Eb-F-Eb turn of a phrase. Then, much like he did the first time around, Armstrong plays the F’s from the melody, then improvises a new little obbligato based around the notes of a Bb7 chord. Then it’s back to the melody. It’s a fine chorus with some nimble phrases but nothing earth-shattering. Until…
Armstrong joins the band for two bars of an arranged passage that leads to a modulation to the key of Db. Now Armstrong demonstrates the pure power and brilliance of his chops. He approaches the tune in much the same way as his first two go-arounds, but because of the key change, he’s now pumping out high Ab’s instead of Eb’s…a big difference. He still leaves plenty of space, allowing the listener all the more time to marvel at the beauty of his tone. In the sixth bar, Armstrong plays his calling card phrase, Bb-Db-Bb-Db-F-F-Db before uncorking another series of arpeggios in bar seven. The notes of a Db chord? Db-F-Ab. The notes of Armstrong’s arpeggio? Ab-F-Db-F-Ab-Db-Ab-F-Db-F-Ab. Armstrong rattles it off like it’s simple and again, I’ll use the word “smooth” to describe the flow of his faster phrases. But with the velocity shelved, Armstrong concentrates on power and drama for the ending. Immediately, from the start of the key change, you know what Armstrong has to do if he’s really going to play the melody that high. And of course he does it, letting a high Bb ring out clearly before toping out at a spine-tingling high C. Having reached his climax, Armstrong builds downward and ends on a low-key Db-Eb-Db phrase. Someone, anyone, strikes a somber chord on the vibraphone and the record comes to a close. A gem of Armstrong’s OKeh big band period.
For many, this is where Armstrong’s association with “Song of the Islands” ends, but he did revive it with his big band. A new uptempo arrangement of the song was performed on a couple radio broadcasts from 1940 and 1941, available, as usual, on the peerless Ambassador label. The first one comes from the Cotton Club in April 1940 and though it’s ten years later, Armstrong’s still fronting the Russell band with Red Allen, Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes and Pops Foster still aboard. This arrangement has nothing to do with the relaxed, Hawaiian feel of the original. It’s about twice as fast and opens with the reeds only alluding to the melody in between responses from the brass. It’s a nice example of the Swing Era being “orchestrated Armstrong,” as some have called it. All traces of dance band-sounding violins and vibes are gone. It now swings from note one and the casual rephrasing of the melody stems very much from Armstrong’s language.
After one chorus, Higginbotham takes one on his “tram-boon.” All it takes is one listen and you can understand why Pops enjoyed Trummy Young’s blustery playing so much in the 1950s. Higgy’s entire solo is proto-Trummy and it’s exciting as hell. And in a nod to Armstrong’s original, J.C. plays that Armstrong vocal-type phrase in the same exact place Armstrong played it in 1930. Like the original, the tune modulates for an Armstrong scat vocal, once again over glee club backing. This time Armstrong takes two choruses, a break joining them and the band indulges in some arranged singing, repeating Armstrong’s last phrase, to allow Armstrong to get his chops together. And when he does, stand back! There’s no more modulating. Armstrong begins right off in Db and wails for four full choruses, sticking exclusively to the upper register throughout. He sticks closely to the melody for much of it, but still finds time to throw in some nimble improvisations such as, you guessed it, that same vocal phrase in bars five and six. With each passing chorus, Armstrong shows off the pure raw power of his 1940 chops. In 1930, the buildup to that high C is very dramatic; you see it coming and when he hits it, you feel exhilarated. By 1940, every chorus featured a high C hit seemingly without any effort. Armstrong’s favorite drummer, Sid Catlett, really knew how to drive Pops and Pops responds with some real exciting work in the last two choruses. It’s tremendously exciting and is all over in two minutes and 30 seconds, a full minute shorter than the original. This particular version is available on the Ambassador disc, At the Cotton Club, which should have been hailed by the jazz community but instead is almost impossible to find. You can find out more about it by visiting Ambassador’s website at www.classicjazz.se. Ah, where would us Armstrong lovers be without Gösta Hägglöf!?
Volume eight of Ambassador’s Armstrong series contains an extremely rare broadcast from the Grand Terrace in Chicago on November 27, 1941. The quality is poor, but I’m just thankful the music survives. The fast arrangement of “Song of the Islands” is trotted out again, picking up with Louis’s scat solo. Armstrong’s four-chorus improvisation is very similar to the one he played at the Cotton Club the previous year. As always, I argue that this is not a bad thing. Armstrong was from the generation who worked on their solos until they were perfect. This didn’t mean that Armstrong didn’t improvise but sometimes, when he had a good solo “set,” it remained that way. And again, this is not a bad thing. Never mind the critics who might complain about such matters. I picture a dancer at the Cotton Club in April 1940 or someone standing around the bandstand of the Grand Terrace in November 1941. They were the ones Armstrong was playing for, not some critic writing 65 years later, and I’m sure they were gassed by “Song of the Islands” when they heard it. How could you not be?
Now let’s flash forward to 1956 and Louis Armstrong’s last run-in with “Song of the Islands” from the Autobiography. As I’ve stated a hundred thousand times, I’m a big big big supporter of the Autobiography project where the 55-year-old Armstrong tackled man of the songs he originally made famous in the 1920s and 1930s. Some people are so anal about Armstrong’s greatness as a young man that they don’t give the Autobiography sessions a fair shake. I think this is big mistake. Armstrong was completely relaxed for the Autobiography with no other gigs to occupy his time or chops. He was going through a peak period of blowing between 1953 and 1959 and he had the finest edition of the All Stars backing him up, the one with Trummy Young and Edmond Hall. Armstrong responds with brilliant playing on every track, sometimes topping his original efforts. For a great example, listen to Armstrong crack the final high Eb on the original 1929 “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” just barely getting it out. Then listen to the Autobiography version where he hits it and holds it. After playing this example during one of my Armstrong lectures at the Institute of Jazz Studies, esteemed trumpeter Randy Sandke remarked that he had no doubt that Armstrong was a technically better trumpet player in his 50s than he was in his 20s. And the Autobiography is filled with dozens of these great moments, though of course, it’s not without its flaws. Some of the Hot Five/Seven number arranged by Bob Haggart are a little weak, notably “Potato Head Blues.” And because many of the originals featured no drums, someone at Decca thought it would be a good idea to keep that sound by just giving Barrett Deems a hi-hat, snare and bass drum! Thus, Deems doesn’t have much to do and naturally, his playing was killed by many jazz critics when the records first came out, even though he sounded different on other albums and in live performances. Velma couldn’t quite replicate the greatness of the 1920s blues divas either.
But these small flaws are completely overcome by the remarkable Sy Oliver sessions. Oliver was hired to recreate the OKeh and Victor big band recordings and these sides, to me, are the Autobiography’s masterpieces. The December 13, 1956 session started right off with “Song of the Islands.” Oliver usually kept his arrangements pretty streamlined, but he brought the original ones at least somewhat into the future. Thus, the vibraphone and violins are out on “Song of the Islands,” replaced by a delicate Billy Kyle piano intro and the melody stated by the rich reed section made up of great players like Hilton Jefferson and Lucky Thompson. The tempo’s a little slower than the original, which lends an even more relaxed feeling to the proceedings. Pops enters in Ab, gently massaging the Eb. The “vocal phrase” in bars five and six is gone, replaced by a neat little downward phrase that sounds like he’s skipping downhill. Armstrong really sticks to the melody here, not offering many frills but his tone is beautiful and he his last two bars are rhythmically tricky.
As in 1930, a trombone solo follows and it’s a mellow one played by Trummy. After the modulation for the vocal, Armstrong begins his scat solo, but this time he’s all alone with no other voices to back him up. This is one of my very favorite scat sessions. As I already mentioned, Armstrong was very relaxed during the Autobiography sessions. Decca producer Milt Gabler made sure the All Stars had no other bookings and he made sure to stuff the sessions full of good food and good friends. One of those good friends was the actor Slim Thompson, who, according to IMDB, had four roles in movies of the 1930s, including The Petrified Forest and Green Pastures, before leaving the film industry. I have seen rare photos of these sessions at the Armstrong Archives and Thompson is highly conspicuous, clowning around with Pops and even with a harp from the Louis and the Angels session made the day after the Autobiography sessions ended. Since “Song of the Islands” was first up, it’s easy to picture Armstrong arriving at the studio, warming up and welcoming his friends, perhaps telling a dirty joke or two.
Thus, when Armstrong began his scat vocal on “Song of the Islands,” he almost immediately slips in the phrase “Slim Thompson-face” into his scat! I can only imagine the smiles in the studio at that one. Three seconds later, Armstrong encodes some more secret meanings into his scat with something about “Rinsofax.” I don’t know about the fax part, but Rinso was a popular laundry detergent that sponsored the Amos and Andy radio show in the 1940s. I don’t know how it got into Armstrong’s mind, but it did and by him scatting it, it was probably meant as another inside joke for someone, probably Thompson, in the studio that day. Two seconds after “Rinsofax,” Armstrong sings, “What you say, Gate?” so clearly, he didn’t care about the record any more. He was giving a performance to those in the studio and I’m sure they were loving it.
As the scat goes on, Armstrong lets the listeners in on why he loves “Song of the Islands” so much. Take away the Hawaiian elements, the violins and vibraphone on the original. Take away the swinging call and response of the 1940 broadcasts. Take away the glee club backings and scat vocals. What attracted Armstrong to “Song of the Islands”? He reveals the secret at the 2:27 mark in yet another aside to the studio crowd: “Them changes gate.” It might have only been 16 simple bars, but Armstrong dug the chord changes. There’s the opening (in Ab) Ab-Adim7-Eb/Bb and the Ab to F7 to Bb7 in the second eight, two somewhat sentimental patterns that Armstrong must have felt to be quite beautiful. And in his horn, they are.
Like 1930, the tune modulates back to Ab for Armstrong’s trumpet reentrance, which is one of my favorite moments of the performance. Three declamatory notes followed by six beats of space before Armstrong tip-toes back in to create some very lucid ruminations on the melody. It’s all tone and damn, what a tone it is. At the end of these 16 bars, the band prepares for the climactic modulation, rewritten by Oliver to sound much more exciting with Trummy’s trombone on top. Armstrong enters with that beautiful high Ab, the band digging in behind him over backbeats by Deems. On the original, Armstrong stuck mainly to that Ab, but in 1956, Armstrong goes up to a Bb, a welcome addition to this gorgeous solo. The buttery smooth arpeggios and double-timed phrases are gone but like a pitcher who loses a few miles off their fastball with age and has to become a finesse pitcher (unless he’s Roger Clemens—insert steroids joke here), Armstrong made due in his later years with a huge sound, a golden tone and a relaxed phrasing that still defied conventional rhythm while defining the concept of swing. Armstrong floats through this portion of “Song of the Islands” until it’s time to hit the high Bb’s, which he does beautifully. I love the sound of his tone on the repeated Bbs. It’s so pure and he doesn’t even sound like he’s struggling, though God knows what this did to his chops. The high C sings like a bird but instead of replicating the original low-key ending, Armstrong plants his feet firmly, hits a high C and ends with a gigantic high Db, higher than any note he played on the 1930 original.
“Song of the Islands” is one of my favorite highlights of the Autobiography, but that December 13 day was just getting started when you look at the amazing blowing that followed: “That’s My Home,” “ Memories Of You” and “Them There Eyes.” Unbelievable stuff. But I think to write any more about “Song of the Islands,” I would have to actually fly to Hawaii. Or maybe read a Hawaiian in-flight magazine. Regardless, if you’re planning on celebrating a merry Kalikimaka next week, don’t forget to throw a little of Pops blowing “Song of the Islands” on the turntable. And if you’re not celebrating a merry Kalikimaka next week…well, don’t forget to throw a little of Pops blowing “Song of the Islands” on the turntable!