Thursday, January 31, 2008

Black and Tan Fantasy

Recorded April 4, 1961
Track Time 4:00
Written by Duke Ellington and Bubber Miley
Recorded in New York City
Accompanied by Duke Ellington, piano, Trummy Young, trombone, Barney Bigard, clarinet, Mort Herbert, bass, Danny Barcelona, drums
Released on Roulette
Currently on CD: "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions"
Available on Itunes? Yes (The rehearsal is available only by purchasing the full album)

Ah, you can’t go wrong with Louis and the Duke. When I hit on an obscure Armstrong song like “Sincerely” or one that he recorded more than one time, I usually like to go into all-out details mode. But come on, this is Louis and the Duke! Ellington wrote it so you know it’s good and on this version, Armstrong plays it, so you know it’s great. What else do you need to know?

Okay, okay, real briefly, Ellington co-wrote the piece in 1927 with his growl trumpet specialist of the time, Bubber Miley. The song encompasses many moods in its differing strains, with plunger-muted trumpet establishing a somber state of affairs over minor blues changes at the start, followed by a wistful, romantic alto saxophone-led second strain, some solos over standard blues changes, and another plunger excursion at the end, leading to the final, haunting quote of Chopin’s Funeral March. If you’ve never heard it, you’ve really missed out on some glorious early jazz, passionate music that can easily make you laugh and cry within the span of three minutes. If you’d like to hear a Brunswick version from April 1927, click here.

Over the years, Ellington continued to tinker away at “Black and Tan Fantasy,” recording updated versions and continuously playing it at live engagements, later in a medley with two of his early works, done in “Jungle Music” style, “The Mooch” and “Creole Love Call.” I happen to love this medley, which is captured in living color in this YouTube clip (with Cootie Williams working the plunger).

In April 1961, Bob Theile of Roulette records hit upon the idea of teaming Armstrong and Ellington together. They had made one record together (“Long, Long Journey”) in 1946 and participated in the messy jam session of “Perdido” from a Timex jazz show from 1959. George Avakian told me in great detail about his plans to pair Armstrong with the Ellington orchestra for a Columbia album in the 1950s, but, thanks to Joe Glaser, the idea was put on the shelf. This must be one of the great regrets of all-time because Armstrong was in peak form in the mid-50s and so was the Ellington band.

Nevertheless, at least we still have the Roulette albums, which are quite wonderful in their own way, with Ellington simply replacing Billy Kyle in the All Stars instead of carting his big band along for the ride. The recorded material consisted of nothing but Ellington originals and it’s a gas to hear Pops interpreting ballads like “Azalea” and “I Got It Bad,” just as it’s a complete joy to hear him romping on “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Cotton Tail.” Enough material for two albums was recorded over two consecutive days in April 1961 and judging from the excerpts of the session tapes released on Capitol’s two-disc reissue from 2000, a loose, fun atmosphere was maintained in the studio.

Fortunately, for this entry’s purposes, the second disc of that Capitol release contained seven minutes of unreleased attempts to work out “Black and Tan Fantasy,” which was recorded near the end of the second session. Listening to how the master take shaped up is quite fascinating, mainly because of the failure of Barney Bigard part of the original routine of the song, something he heard almost nightly for 15 straight years with the Ellington band. Bigard’s clarinet sound is one of the hallmarks of Ellington’s great early big bands and though he continued to play for almost 40 years after leaving Duke, Bigard never quite sounded as good as he did when he had Ellington to guide him. The Ellington-Armstrong session was a reunion for the clarinetist and his former boss and generally, Barney plays quite well throughout, but the session tapes do capture some uneasy moments on “Black and Tan Fantasy.”

Alas, the Capitol issue begins with the musicians working out a routine for take three, so we’ll never know exactly what went on during the first two takes. But one thing’s for sure: Barney is having a tough time remember the second strain of the song, which, in the Ellinton band, was usually handled by an alto saxophonist, Otto Hardwicke early and Russell Procope later. The track opens with Bigard playing the correct notes but trying to determine exactly where to play them. Ellington suggests playing them an octave lower, but Bigard maintains, “It’s all right, right there, it’s all right.” However, when Bigard tries to continue playing the melody, about 64% of the notes he plays are wrong. He then heeds Duke’s advice and plays it an octave lower, but in the end, determines, “It’s too low.” When he plays it lower, though, he plays all the correct notes, but you can sense him hesitating. Clearly, there was no music present and he was just relying on his ear, which, during a long recording session where as many tunes have to be recorded as humanly possible, doesn’t always work.

Take three begins with Duke taking an ominous intro, backed by Mort Herbert’s bass and Danny Barcelona’s drums. Armstrong and trombonist Trummy Young then enter with the melody, Young muted a la Ellington, but Armstrong using his trusty clear plastic straight mute, which least distorted the beautiful sound of the trumpet he loved so much. Obviously, growing up at the knee of King Oliver, Armstrong knew a thing or two about growling and he proved to be quite adept at it during a 1924 Clarence Williams version of “Everybody Loves My Baby.” However, by the late-20s, Armstrong retired his plunger and decided to spend the rest of the career by emphasizing his pure trumpet tone, only spicing it up a little big with a straight mute from time to time.

Armstrong and Trummy sound good together during this third take, though Armstrong plays a different melody note in the fifth bar, not wrong, as it works harmonically, but not the written note (again, no sheet music). Behind them, Herbert alternates between walking and stop-time, while Barcelona quietly swings out on his hi-hat. This chorus is followed by a very timid sounding Bigard attempting to play the second strain but fumbling badly. “Hold on,” booms the voice of presumably Theile and with that, Bigard was relieved from his duties. A small gap of silence lets us know that the tape probably stopped rolling to allow the boys to get the arrangement down and during this unrecorded discussion, it was agreed that Duke would play that strain with Barney only needing to cool his heels until his solo, Duke pointing out that he’d play the first break, “Herbert’s got the second break,” then Pops. Theile stresses to Barney that he only needs to come in during his “jazz solo,” but then the Ellington mind, always thinking, comes up with an idea. “Put a glissando in the break, in the first break there, on top of me,” Duke says, playing the chords to emphasize just where he’s talking about. This discussion is kind of hard to hear because through it, Pops decides to warm up his chops and begins blowing a blues chorus accompanied, his tone sounding beautiful and very full (he was suffering from a cold during the sessions, but it sure didn’t affect his blowing). As Bigard continues noodling and awaits the start of take four, he quietly sums up his feelings with a tired, “Ohhhh shit.”

Again, silence fills the void where take four was once performed, but we do get a false start to take five as Ellington can’t quite decide the tempo during his introductions. Ellington piano intros frequently played with the tempo until he got it right, but he couldn’t do that here with Herbert and Barcelona following his lead (I think it’s Barcelona, though, who apologizes to Duke). When the producer asks about the tempo. Ellington launches into one of his strictly Ducal philosophies: “Oh, the tempo don’t mean a difference, don’t make no difference in the introduction—nobody’s dancing, they didn’t even get out of their seats yet!” You can hear Pops breathing out a silent a chuckle at this notion.

Finally, with take six, we get a complete alternate and it’s a good one, about 80% there. During Pops and Trummy’s melody chorus, Herbert and Barcelona now play stop-time together. Ellington then takes the strain that gave Bigard so much trouble, hitting all the right notes, though he sounds kind of tentative. However, in the turnaround after the first half, where Barney was supposed to swoop in, there’s no clarinet, which seems to throw Ellington off a bit. He recovers to finish the strain, passing the ball to Herbert, who takes a bass break that’s quickly usurped by the furious sounds of Louis Armstrong about to take a blues chorus. Pops takes two, using phrases almost consistently from his vocabulary. But my, what a vocabulary! Armstrong plays with a lot of soul and I like how after most of his phrases, he ends a shorter, higher phrases, almost like a vocal obbligato where he’d say “Yeah” or “Mm-mm.” For his second chorus, he trots out King Oliver’s solo from “Jazzin’ Babies Blues,” which I went into more detail about in an older entry. Pops must have loved that solo as he famously borrowed it on his 1928 record of “Muggles.” Even for his 1927 book, “50 Hot Choruses,” Armstrong played that same solo on “Jackass Blues.” You can’t blame him…the solo really works. I love the perfect Barcelona thwack on his snare rim after Pops’s first phrase of the second chorus. Pops’s really gets pretty lowdown here though one or two notes might not have come out as desired.

Trummy’s up next with some violent growling. Young usually isn’t associated with being a master of growling but he knew when to bring it out, as on “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” However, with Duke present, it must have really inspired him to go way down in the alley and blow some real gutbucket phrases. Barney, perhaps trying to erase the memory of his struggles, plays a great solo here, with a lot of force and bluesy moans. For me, though, I love listening to the rhythm section. Ellington, at least on this song, comped a lot by using riffs. For Bigard’s solo, he plays a simple ascending and descending motif that, after playing it through a couple of times, is picked up by bassist Herbert, who carries it through the rest of the chorus. It’s a great example of musicians listening to each other and it’s more great work from the rhythm team of Herbert and Barcelona, who did some of their finest work on the Ellington sessions. Danny always told me that Mort was one of his closest friends in the band and they really worked well together. When people talk about All Stars rhythm sections, they usually name Sid Catlett or Barrett Deems as drummers or Arvell Shaw as bassist but it’s interesting to point out Barcelona and Herbert played together for three years and four months, the longest of any other drum/bass combination in the group (second place goes to Barcelona and Buddy Catlett with three years and three months, then Shaw and Cozy Cole, who played two years uninterrupted from May 10 1949 to July 1951, then another year from the summer of 1952 to August 1953, giving them a total of three years and two months together).

Back to take six: after Bigard’s solo, Pops reenters to replicate Miley’s original breaks, consisting mainly of a ripped high Bb and a series of lower Bb’s. The first time around, Pops phrases the Bb’s with an evenly shuffling rhythm, speeding them up a bit during the second break (listen to the low register of Ellington’s piano linger through). The band reenters to swing through the coda which, of course, enters with the Funeral March and some nice dissonance from Ellington and Bigard. Take away Bigard’s missed entrance and Ellington’s hesitation and take six almost could have been the master. Fortunately, they gave it another go and eventually came up the master take, which is available for listening on YouTube as a series of stills of Pops and Duke plays before your eyes. Give it a listen:

Because I’ve already given some details on the alternate take, I don’t have to go as crazy with the master as it follows it very closely. There’s still one shaky moment: after Duke’s piano introduction, Barcelona forgets about the stop-time and swings on his hi-hat for about six beats before he catches himself. Pops plays the right melody notes and blends beautifully with Trummy. Ellington plays the second strain with confidence and Barney, as per Duke’s suggestion, swoops in during the turnaround with some nice phrases (Duke always knew what would work). In the second half of the second strain, though, Duke plays the melody an octave lower, as he originally suggested Barney to play it; he really wanted to hear it down low!

Instead of giving Herbert a full break by himself, he plays a short rhythmic episode while Barcelona continues swinging and Duke plinks a chord or two, setting the stage for Pops’s staggering two choruses. Ellington gives him more than just riffs for accompaniment, laying down some wonderfully dissonant phrases. As Pops reaches the King Oliver chorus, Ellington begins riffing and the whole piece begins to take off. It’s nothing monumental in Armstrong’s careers, but it’s two incredibly great choruses of blues. Young continues getting downright funky with his trombone solo, sounding even dirtier than on the alternate. Bigard, however, starts off a little more tentatively than on the alternate, but he quickly gathers steam. Herbert simply walks for four bars but when he catches Ellington playing that same riff he played during take six, he picks up on it again and plays it in unison. Pops varies the Bb’s during his final breaks, but those high rips sound like ferocious snorts. The Funeral March and the dissonance once again take us out, a fine recording from a great meeting of legends.

With that, another month of blogs winds down to a close. Time killed me for a while there, as I only pumped out one blog a week for a little bit, but I made up for it with three in the last six days this week so if you haven’t checked in in awhile, look backwards as you may have missed some good stuff. For February, there’ll be more of the same, though I’d like to write another “Classic Concert Review,” as well as devote more attention to some Armstrong YouTube clips. But speaking of Armstrong footage, my next lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers Newark has been moved from April 14 to February 20 so again, while I prepare for that one, I might disappear for a little bit. But if you’re in the New York/New Jersey area, mark down that calendar as I’ll be showcasing some of the rare Armstrong footage I’ve collected through the years, much of it given to me by some of the great people who read this blog and correspond with me regularly. If you’d like to write an e-mail, drop a line to or just leave me a comment! As Pops would write….S’all!

Wednesday, January 30, 2008


Recorded January 18, 1955
Track Time 3:02
Written by Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Pete Candoli, trumpet; Trummmy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Donald Ruffell, Check Gentry, Josh Cook Koch, saxes; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums; Sonny Burke, conductor
Originally released on Decca 29421
Currently available on CD: Moments to Remember, a compilation on the Ambassador label ( for more info)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a compilation, “The Magic of Music”

Here's the audio for Sincerely

Uh oh. It looks like ol’ Ricko won’t be getting much sleep tonight. This isn’t one of Louis Armstrong’s greatest records but it has a moment that, once it enters my brain, well, it might as well invest in an overnight parking space. The moment in question is Armstrong’s trumpet entrance during the bridge, which never fails to move me. However, the rest of the record isn’t the most interesting thing in the world, but it is a good example of the lengths at which Decca was going in the mid-50s to get Armstrong (well, really, Joe Glaser) a hit record.

Since Armstrong signed with Decca again in the late 40s, the sole goal of Joe Glaser was to get Louis Armstrong back on the charts. Decca producer Milt Gabler did his best by keeping a close ear on the popular trends in music, then squeezing Armstrong in wherever he saw fit. When Gordon Jenkins was ruling the pop music world with his lush strings and choir sound, Gabler got him to arrange “Blueberry Hill” for Pops and just like that, a hit was born. When Tony Bennett exploded onto the scene in 1950, Gabler paid attention and soon gave Armstrong two Bennett hits, “Cold, Cold Heart” and “Because of You.” Edith Piaf came over with “La Vie En Rose,” which, thanks to Gabler, soon became property of Pops. When Hank Williams had a hit with “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” Pops was cheatin’ right along with him. Of course, there are many other examples: “Kiss of Fire,” “I Get Ideas,” “It Takes Two To Tango,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” and more, all songs that were other people’s hits before Pops had his way with them. The fact that Armstrong made such wonderful records out of such pop tunes in the early 50s is a testament not only to Armstrong’s genius but to the sound of the popular music world of the era which, if not exactly producing works worthy of the Great American Songbook, at least put together enough pretty melodies and interesting chord changes to allow Pops to do what he had been doing for decades.

But by the mid-50s, the times, they were a-changin’. Rock and Roll was just about ready to explode, but in the meantime, the rhythm and blues charts were featuring a new vocal group sound that didn’t exactly sound like the Ink Spots. The sound was “Doo Wop” and it was slowly churning out hit records for groups like The Five Keys, the Flamingos and the Orioles. Enter Alan Freed, the famous disc jockey who began spreading the sounds of black Doo Wop groups to his white audiences. Freed sometimes gets credit with coining the phrase “Rock and Roll,” which is ridiculous; in fact, earlier today, I heard Red Allen sing it on the record “Get Rhythm In Your Feet,” from around 1935. Though he would later fall victim to the payola scandals of the late-50s, payola is exactly what put Freed on the map in the mid-50s. If you wanted Freed to play your records, you’d have to grease his palm a little bit, maybe even add his name to the song as a co-writer.

Of course, once the music started spreading to white audiences, it was only a matter of time before the time-honored tradition kicked in of white people stealing the music of blacks. Enter the McGuire Sisters. In 1954, a black group, The Moonglows, had a #1 R&B hit with a song called “Sincerely.” The song was written by the group’s founder, Harvey Fuqua, who would later become a successful producer for Motown and RCA Records. Websites claim that the Moonglows were “mentored” by Freed and Fuqua himself said that Freed was their first manager, but I highly doubt Freed did any of the actual pen-and-music-paper songwriting when it came to “Sincerely.” Regardless, the McGuire Sisters were a female vocal trio that landed on the music scene in 1952. Now, for those who are wondering if this still a Louis Armstrong blog, have no fear, as there’s an early connection. In 1954, the McGuire Sisters had a hit by singing the new, dopey lyrics to “Muskrat Ramble,” the same ones Pops recorded for Decca on September 1, 1954. The McGuire’s version hit the Billboard charts on October 23, 1954, reaching as high as number 11 (Pops’s went nowhere and he thankfully kept it as an instrumental in his live shows). Thanks to YouTube, here’s that McGuire Sisters version:

To tie everything up, while the Moonglows were seeing R&B success for “Sincerely,” the McGuires covered it at the end of 1954 and by February 12, 1955, had the number one hit in the country. It would remain number one for six weeks. For the nostalgia buffs in the crowd, here’s that hit single, again, courtesy of YouTube:

Thus, with this new sound floating through the charts, Decca thought it might have been time for Louis Armstrong to get a chance to put his mark on it. On January 18, 1955, Pops headed to Decca’s Los Angeles recording studios for one of the oddest four-song sessions of his career. For the date, the All Stars were augmented by the late Pete Candoli on trumpet and a three-man reed section. Seeing how “Muskrat Ramble” became rediscovered with some silly lyrics, the same thing was done to “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Gary Crosy was brought in to duet with Pops and the result, to my ears, is a mess. Armstrong plays beautifully and he sounds like he’s having a fun time, but the lyrics are dreadful and Crosby is obnoxious with his terrible Satchmo impressions. The next song up fully embraced the Doo Wop sound: “Ko Ko Mo.” One day I hope to write a long blog on Pops’s many “Ko Ko Mo’s,” but to quickly sum up, it was originally recorded by Gene and Eunice (two of the song’s writers, Forest Gene Wilson and Eunice Levy; the third writer was Jake Porter). A version by The Crew-Cuts would reach the Billboard charts just 11 days after Armstrong’s Decca session so it was clearly a part of the early 1955 musical climate. For this track, Crosby does his best to sound hip, failing for the most part, and Jud Conlon’s Rhythmaires are brought in to give quasi-authenthic Doo Wop backings, consisting mainly of repeating the syllables “Hoo wah.” Pops again sounds like he’s having a ball, scatting an obbligato and harmonizing with Crosby’s lead. He also takes a roaring trumpet solo, though it’s a bit odd hearing the elegant Billy Kyle banging away at the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis at times. The record’s not exactly a classic, but I’m glad for all the many swinging Pops and Velma performed of it.

So with all that background information, I know come to “Sincerely,” a recording I can probably sum up in about a paragraph! The changes are beyond simple: 1-6-2-5 in Eb (that’s two bars each of Eb-Cm-F7-Bb) for the A sections and a lovely bridge that capitalizes on the major-to-minor harmonies of many 1950s R&B and early rock ballads. Like the McGuire Sisters record, Armstrong’s version, arranged by Sonny Burke, begins with almost the same simple sax riff (somewhere, Alvin and the Chipmunks are getting ready to sing). It’s not so much an introduction as a hook—we’re in the era of rock, my friends!

Fortunately, Armstrong sings the song, well, sincerely, receiving very nice muted trumpet work from Candoli behind him. He barely changes a line of melody or adds any scatting, but it’s pretty enough. The band sure hammers out that five chord after the first A section, huh? The bridge, though, is this song’s bread-and-butter and Pops sings it wonderfully, getting great support by Kyle and Trummy Young. It’s a fine vocal but the song takes so long to sing that one chorus almost takes up two minutes of the three-minute record.

But don’t worry, help is on the way! I cannot describe how much I love Armstrong’s bridge on this song. His entrance is the most relaxed thing I’ve ever heard and the padding the reeds give him is quite lush (Deems’s cymbals sound good, too). Pops feels the song and plays with that slippery phrasing that is the definition of rhythmic trickeration (though now dictionary probably has a definition for rhythmic trickeration). When the chords change to F7, he plays one of his famous licks ascending phrases, landing on a few G’s, the ninth of the F7, He ends his brief outing with a break whose of notes are utterly logical, all leading up to a giant gliss up to a high Bb. It’s only eight bars, but it makes the record, especially with that superb entrance that will now be stuck in my head for at least three or four hours (not a bad thing).

Pops, feeling the spirit, hits that Bb, quickly pulls the horn from his mouth and manages to make it back to the mike in time to shout out, “Lookee here, Sincerely,” all on one pitch, a high Eb. He opens his next line with a soulful “Oh” and in delivering the final lyric, he phrases it up high, much as he might have played it on his trumpet. The band plays a final chord but listen for Pops, yelling out the final word, “Mine,” one last time in the background of all the reeds and brass.

“Sincerely” is a harmless record with some lovely moments, but to me, it’s in the bottom half of Armstrong’s Decca pop songs. Still, it’s not as weak as the final offering from that January 1955 session, a cover of Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” complete with Billy Kyle playing what sounds like church bells. Once again, I’ll offer my usual reminder: these are not BAD records per se. Armstrong always makes them interesting and his tender vocal and quiet trumpet solo does exactly that on “Pledging My Love,” but otherwise nothing much happens and the arrangement is very dated.

Clearly, Decca was losing their grip on Armstrong’s studio recordings during this period, but they at least still had some good ideas for non-studio Armstrong records. Just three days after the “Sincerely” session, Decca recorded an entire evening of music from Hollywood’s Crescendo Club, gathering a lot of great material for LP release (available on “The California Concerts” box). But in the studio, Armstrong did three so-so sessions in a row for Decca from September 1954 to April 1955. Much of the music is good, but too often, Decca tried for the hit, with Armstrong singing all these covers (including “Muskrat Ramble,” which he claimed he wrote). The April 1955 Decca session gave Marty Napoleon some ASCAP royalties for his song, “Mm-Mm,” and allowed the All Stars to do their thing on “Tin Roof Blues” and the first recording of “Pretty Little Missy.” But the same session also offered up trite songs like “Yeh!” and “Baby, Your Sleep is Showing.”

Bookending those three Decca sessions were two of Armstrong’s finest, the W.C. Handy dates from July 1954 and the Fats Waller album from the end of April 1955. Both of these albums were made for Columbia, whose producer, George Avakian, loved Armstrong and knew him well, thus, knew he was above just being a simple hit-maker. Avakian let the All Stars stretch out on familiar material and the results were acclaimed albums that remain in print today. Meanwhile, nothing from the “Sincerely” session has ever been issued on an American C.D.

In September 1955, Decca gave it one more shot, having Armstrong cover the Platters’s “Only You” and the Four Freshmen’s “Moments to Remember,” both lovely records with Benny Carter arrangements that did nothing on the charts. The next day, Armstrong reunited with Gary Crosby on one fine standard, “Easy Street,” as well as digging up one unfortunate number that should have stayed in the cemetery, “Lazybones.” Three weeks later, Avakian landed the All Stars to do another quick session for Columbia. The result was “Mack the Knife,” and once again, Glaser had his hit. Armstrong was a recording free agent by this point and obviously liking their direction (and their price), Glaser kept Armstrong out of the Decca studio from September 1955 to December 1956. Avakian recorded European concerts, studio dates, the Chicago concert, a set at the Newport Jazz Festival and other odds and ends, all of which capture the All Stars at their peak, but didn’t offer any hit singles. For the time being, Glaser moved beyond his infatuation with singles and allowed Armstrong to make some high-profile albums, such as his first collaboration with Ella Fitzgerald from the summer of 1956. When Decca finally got back into the act, Gabler didn’t have any more pop covers but rather, the wonderful Autobiography project, followed by two concept albums, Louis and the Angels and Louis and the Good Book, from 1957 and 1958 respectively, albums that were marketed at mass audiences but again, didn’t provide any hit singles.

But by this point, Armstrong didn’t need them as he was more popular than ever. Thus, Glaser raised his price and everyone scurried. There were no more Columbia recordings after 1956, no more Verve dates after 1957 and nothing more for Decca after a four-tune session from October 1958. In fact, sessions done for the sole purpose of making hit records disappeared for the next few years. Armstrong recorded a King Oliver tribute in 1959, two Audio Fidelity albums with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1959 and 1960, a Capitol collaboration with Bing Crosby in 1960 and albums with Duke Ellington and Dave Brubeck in 1961. After leaving Columbia’s studio after the last Real Ambassadors session of September 19, 1961, Armstrong would not step foot into another recording studio until December 3, 1963. And of course, that session would provide “Hello, Dolly.” As Glaser supposedly exclaimed when he first heard it, “It’s a fucking hit!” It was, indeed, and it allowed Armstrong to go on making erratic recording sessions until the day he died, once again with hopes of landing another hit.

And much like those mid-50s Decca sessions that aped the changing sounds of popular music, Armstrong had to do it all over again in the late 60s, covering the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Daydream,” showtunes like “Mame” and “Cabaret,” country songs like “Get Together” and “Ramblin’ Rose,” movie hits like “Rose” and “Willkommen” and pure hit records like “Everybody’s Talkin’” and “Give Peace a Chance.” Most of these records aren’t very good, but I don’t regret their being made. As I’ve written before, my whole theory in my Armstrong research relates to the fact that there was only one Louis Armstrong, not this earlier artist and the later commercial clown. Armstrong performed and recorded popular music from his youth. What were the first two songs he learned to play on the trumpet? The blues and “Home Sweet Home,” the gutty roots of jazz and a popular song everyone knew. You know he played more with Fate Marable and Fletcher Henderson, his feature with Erskine Tate was Noel Coward’s “Poor Little Rich Girl” and once OKeh slipped him “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” he spent decades transforming popular songs into great jazz. Most jazz fans go along with Armstrong through all of that but when popular music began changing, that’s when the critical knocks get pretty rough for Armstrong. But don’t blame Pops. Popular music changed, not Armstrong. He just went along doing what he always did: music was music and if in 1970, he had one recording session with “Mood Indigo” and “My One and Only Love” one day and “The Creator Has A Master Plan” and “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the next, who cares, it was all music, it was all the same. And you know if Armstrong lived until 1981 instead of 1971, we would have had the Armstrong disco album! (Ever go to YouTube and check out Cab Calloway’s disco version of “Minnie the Moocher” from the late 70s? Here 'tis!

So as always, I’m off the topic of “Sincerely,” but hopefully this all gives a little perspective to what is a pretty nondescript record in the Armstrong discography. All of Armstrong’s Decca records from the 1950s are worth checking out, but it’s become harder and harder to do that in America. Fortunately, there’s the Ambassador label, which I’ll never tire of endorsing. Gösta Hägglöf produced three discs that comprise all of Armstrong’s Decca studio work from the 1950s except for the Autobiography. The discs are arranged by theme, but it’s the only way to get this stuff in complete form (the “Happy Fifties” box contains all three discs in one set). Go to for more information and please Gösta, keep up the great work!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded January 26, 1933
Track Time 3:02
Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Yank Porter, drums
Originally released on Victor 24233
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Ah, the Itunes shuffle works in mysterious ways. After my “When Your Lover Has Gone” entry of last week, I set out to write another one today, hit the shuffle button and came up with another Armstrong big band classic from the early 30s that he revisited for the same 1957 Russell Garcia-arranged album as he did “When Your Lover Has Gone.” The song is “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (or “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues” for those sensitive about the English language out there) and it’s an undisputed highlight of Armstrong’s wonderful Victor big band recordings of 1932 and 1933. This was recorded the same day as “I’ve Got the World on a String,” which I have already written about. Both songs were written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, but for different shows, “String” being utilized in a “Cotton Club Parade” while “Blues” debuted in “Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1932.” Ethel Merman seems to be first to record the latter, waxing a medley of Carroll’s Vanities songs (“Right to Sing the Blues” and “Anything Goes”) on September 29, 1932 with Nat Shilkret and His Orchestra.

Victor obviously wanted to push these songs and in November 1932, they had Cab Calloway record each of them, “String” on November 2 and “Blues” on November 30. Calloway introduced “World on a String” in the aforementioned “Cotton Club Parade,” but he later became associated with “Right to Sing the Blues” after singing it in the popular 1937 short “Hi De Ho.” As usual, this film is available on YouTube but the uploader has disabled embedding (booo!) so I can’t post it here. But thanks to the magic of links, you can click here and fast-forward to the 1:29 mark to enjoy this performance by another great showman of the era (though stay and watch the whole short if you have the time, because it’s a lot of fun).

And I couldn’t get through one of these blogs without illustrating how a non-Armstrong, “popular” version of a tune sounded, so here’s another YouTube capture of a 78 record of “I Gotta Right to Sing The Blues.” The YouTube video says it’s the Victor Young Orchestra but I have this one on a Mosaic Records Bunny Berigan box set and they say it’s the Dorsey Brothers band. Regardless, this is no ordinary hotel band with the likes of a Paul Small singing. We’ve got Bunny playing and the great Lee Wiley singing and though it was recorded in March 1933, two months after Armstrong, it’ll give a good illustration of how a popular dance band would have approached the song, complete with Wiley singing the verse. And for visuals, enjoy some photos of Greta Garbo (?) as the music plays:

Okay, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s turn our attention to Pops. Armstrong’s January 26, 1933 session was the first one he did with his own big band for the Victor label, though he recorded two sessions for them the previous December, one with Chick Webb’s group and one with a Philadelphia theater orchestra. Armstrong’s previous recording session was a March 1932 one for OKeh, his last for that label. The summer of 1932 featured much fighting between OKeh and Victor over the rights to record Armstrong, as was pointed out in a Time magazine story on Armstrong from June 13 (thanks to fellow Armstrong biography Terry Teachout for pointing the way to this story). The article, titled “Black Rascal,” states, “In Depression not many phonograph artists are worth fighting over but Victor and Okeh are both aware that more than 100,000 Louis Armstrong records sold during the past year, that he is one of the few orchestra leaders whom radio has not overpopularized.” When the smoke cleared, Armstrong was a Victor recording artist.

I think I spent much of my “There’s a Cabin in the Pines” entry stating the case for Armstrong’s Victor period, so there’s no need to go over all that again since you can look it up in my November archives. But I might as well say it again: for whatever problems one might have with the sound of the Armstrong band during this period or with the repertoire Victor chose to have him record, there’s no denying the graphic strength of his trumpet playing during the five months he spent recording for that label. To me, it’s the height of his playing, the perfect transitional period between the daring, faster playing of the 1920s and the sure-footed, more dramatic, operatic style of his future years. Armstrong on Victor can execute just about anything he desires and that makes for some thrilling listening.

With the infomercial over, let’s turn to “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.” You can listen along by clicking here. The January 26 date (hey, what a coincidence, that’s 75 years ago yesterday!) began with “World on a String,” which opened with Armstrong counting off for the band. Clearly, they saw Armstrong as more than just a trumpet player and they wanted to wanted to showcase every facet of his personality, including his speaking voice. Thus, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” opens with this monologue:

“What’s the matter with you, boy? Don’t you know I gotta right to sing the blues? Listen at this…look out! One…two….”

And with that, we’re off. The horns play a simple intro, eliciting a mellow “Yeah” from their leader before young Teddy Wilson plays an Earl Hines-like interlude to allow Pops to get ready for his close-up. I don’t know if there are any specific quotes from Harold Arlen about Louis Armstrong but clearly, he must have loved Pops for many of his songs seem to be peppered with the Armstrong vocabulary. Armstrong had already recorded Arlen and Koehler’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” a relaxed melody that reeks of Armstrong, while “I’ve Got the World on a String” features a bridge steeped in Pops. “Right to Sing the Blues” might be the most Pops-ified (not a real word) of them all since it relies so much on repeated notes in its melody. Because of that, Armstrong doesn’t feel the need to take many creative liberties with the written tune. He sings it beautifully, making great use of his high tenor voice of the period, while the band swings lightly behind him, clarinetist Scoville Browne and tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson improvising polyphonically behind him. Armstrong throws in a “babe” early on, but with 16 bars down, it’s all Arlen.

That changes immediately after Arlen’s heroic stop-time bridge. Armstrong works himself up with the lyrics, “Babe, all I see for me is mis’ry,” but where he’s supposed to sing the title phrase, he instead substitutes a passionate “Oh” and the most mellifluous “Mm-mm,” I’ve ever heard, insinuating everything about the mood of the title phrase without actually using the English language. Feeling high and happy, Armstrong reverts back to Koehler’s lyrics but now takes some chances, singing the phrase “Moan and sigh,” before giving himself an obbligato of his own, re-singing “moan and sign” an octave lower, sounding like a character out of an old horror movie or something. In fact, the tune was a good one to demonstrate Armstrong’s range as he goes way down for the line, “Down around the river.” Approaching the last eight bar “C” section, Armstrong swings out a perfectly placed “Oh babe,” before singing the last eight bars with all those repeated notes Arlen must have written with Pops somewhere in the back of his mind.

After the vocal, the band swings out for awhile, Armstrong clearly enjoying their playing, growling out a “Yeah” when they begin. Teddy Wilson sounds especially good here, as does the entire band, propelled by Bill Oldham’s big-toned bass (when he switched to tuba for the April 1933 sessions, it was a step backward). It’s a long showcase for the band but fortunately, there’s 90 seconds of record left and Pops makes the most of it, opening with one of his all-time greatest entrances: a single held D (listen for one of the saxes goof up and hit a quick note under it). Perhaps the Armstrong of 1928 would have played something flashy and jaw-dropping in this two-bar break, but the Armstrong of 1933 had already matured greatly and he knew he could convey just as much drama and feeling with a perfectly placed held note. I mean, really, how do you make one held note swing? It’s all in the placement, my friends. Armstrong hits it a shade after the beat and the whole thing swings. Genius.

For his solo, Armstrong improvises quite a bit, alluding to Arlen’s melody here and there, but taking more chances than he did in his vocal. Another favorite part of mine is a quote Armstrong plays in the second eight bars, dropping in a snatch of Jack King and Dorothy Parker’s 1929 song, “How Am I To Know,” a song Armstrong is said to have featured himself on during live performances in the early 1930s. Anyone familiar with the song would be correct to assume that Armstrong was born to play Arlen’s rising stop-time episode in the second eight bars. However, genius that he is, Armstrong doesn’t play it as written but instead blasts out one high Bb after another while the band, in stop-time form, plays the melody as written. Each pulsating Bb glimmers with intensity before a soul-stirring glissando, starting around the southern tip of Florida and ending somewhere in Detroit…or low F to a freakishly high D for those keeping score at home. Armstrong played hundreds of glisses on record but this is one of the greatest.

After the gliss, Armstrong stays in the upper register, but he doesn’t feel the need to shoot off anymore fireworks. There’s not much more I can say than it swings relentlessly. And kudos to the rhythm section of Oldham, Wilson, guitarist Mike McKendrick and drummer Yank Porter who clearly give Armstrong the kind of pulse he thrived off of. And your honor, for example #201 of Armstrong trumpet player mirroring Armstrong the vocalist, listen at the 2:34 mark where Armstrong plays the “moan and sigh” part of the melody followed immediately by a lower, obbligato-ish paraphrase of the same line…JUST as he sang it a couple of minutes earlier.

There’s something so beautiful about the concept of Armstrong’s rhythm that I never get tired of. Listen to his attack at the 2:42 mark and how those he accents those G’s that pop in and out of his improvisation. Armstrong calms down for the final eight bars, sticking to the melody (where, here, almost naturally alludes to “How Am I To Know”) before ending on a high Bb. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect record.

Now before I flash forward to Armstrong’s remake from 1957, I’d like to point out that “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” did turn up again frequently in the early years of the All Stars…but not as a feature for Pops. After Armstrong recorded it, trombonist Jack Teagarden later made a record of it and soon thereafter, it became his theme song. In fact, at the famous Esquire Metropolitan Opera House concert of 1944, Teagarden played it as his feature, with Armstrong backing him up on the trumpet, taking a wonderful solo in the process at a very relaxed tempo. Much has been written about Armstrong being in bad shape on that evening, but his work on “Right to Sing the Blues,” both in solo and obbligato, is quite gorgeous.

When Teagarden joined the All Stars, he was still associated with the song. Since Armstrong loved Teagarden like a brother and since Armstrong, maybe more than anyone else, knew the importance of having a theme song, Armstrong closed many live shows and broadcasts with Teagarden’s theme instead of his own. Beginning early on, “Right to Sing the Blues” was also used to allow Armstrong to announce intermissions. Thus, many versions of the tune survive from the early days of the All Stars of varying lengths. Teagarden would usually play the lead, though Pops occasionally usurped him with his responses, such as what he plays on a broadcast from Ciro’s on June 5, 1948, a version that the announcer introduces by asking Armstrong to play a “little of that very famous theme of yours.” At the Click in Philadelphia on September 11, 1948, Armstrong introduces the band during it and says, “We’re now into Teagarden’s theme song, ‘I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,’ which he’ll chirp a chorus right through here, folks.” Pops plays in the turnaround and combines with Barney Bigard on improvised obbligato behind Teagarden’s mellow drawl of a vocal, interrupted by an announcer who interestingly refers to the band as “Louis Armstrong and His Esquire All Stars.”

Otherwise, I have over a dozen more broadcasts of this tune during Teagarden’s stay with the band, ranging from 26 seconds to over two minutes, but there’s not really much worth discussing. The band always plays nicely, but to me, it’s a bit of a downer of an ending after the typically exuberant All Stars stage show that just preceded it. After Teagarden left the band in September 1951, he played a reunion concert of sorts with Armstrong and Bigard (and a California rhythm section) in Pasadena on December 7, 1951. Because Teagarden was going off on his own, Armstrong featured him heavily and for one more night, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” was the closer. Soon after, it would be “Sleepy Time” and that’s how it would remain until later years when the “Saints” or a medley of the “Saints” and “Hello, Dolly” would send audiences home on a far happier note.

Anyway, it’s off 1957 for the Russell Garcia Verve albums I just wrote about in my last entry on “When Your Lover Has Gone,” which started off the same August 14 session that ended with “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues.” This session must rank as one of most painful of Armstrong’s career. He was gigging with the All Stars at night and he just didn’t have the full capacity of his chops for the Verve dates. However, without many high notes, he turned in a very expressive, beautifully fragile solo on “When Your Lover Has Gone” and on “We’ll Be Together Again,” he managed to squeeze out some high ones though at other times, he sounded like he needed a break (the latter was the subject of my very first blog). However, on “Stormy Weather,” Armstrong was almost overmatched. This was another Arlen-Koehler tune, though one that Armstrong had never recorded. Verve put out all the takes of this one on their C.D. reissue of the set, “I’ve Got The World On A String/Louis Under the Stars,” which is available on Itunes these days. Listening to the progression is pretty tough as there are time where you can hear Armstrong blow and nothing comes out. Garcia made amends by giving the bridge to pianist Paul Smith instead of Armstrong, which greatly helped the trumpeter who can be heard saying between takes, “That bridge—takes a whole lot of weight off me, man.” In the end, Armstrong turned in one of his bravest performances, one I absolutely love and cannot listen to without wanting to cry.

With three tracks in the can, it was time to tackle “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and fortunately, all five takes were issued on the Verve reissue so one can really reconstruct how the date went down. Immediately before the start of the first take (hidden on the C.D. at the end of an alternate of “World on a String”), you can hear Armstrong play a couple of notes, warming up, making sure the strong feeling he had at the end of the last take of “Stormy Weather” was still with him. The first take is a false start as one of the trumpet players in the studio band botches the very first note, causing a little laughter. The remake is in Db, up from the Bb of the original. After the intro, Armstrong plays the melody almost as written, sounding fairly strong, if not perfect but he soon runs into trouble about six bars in as, after hitting a high Ab, Armstrong completely hits two wrongs notes, prompting producer Norman Granz to ask for a “time out, Russ.” The next take is even sadder as Armstrong plays the first phrase without a problem but then immediately cracks the first note of the third bar. It’s not a complete failure so Granz let’s the take continue. However, he should have stopped the fight when he had the chance. As Armstrong goes up to hit the high Ab he hit in the previous take, almost nothing comes out, just a little, timid toot of a note with a lot air mixed in. Hearing the great Armstrong’s chops fail him like that is a humbling experience, but a reminder of what he put himself through in his later years. If you listen closely, it sounds like Garcia asks Armstrong if he needs a break, but Pops confidently responds, “No, man.” He then proved it by playing a fine solo on take four. At times his tone sounds a little smaller than usual, but for the most part he does all right, sticking mostly to the melody but throwing in a quick hint of “How Am I To Know.” Somehow, his chops hold up for the stop-time B section, though it clearly hurts. As the band picks up the melody, Armstrong sticks to an obbligato, though he’s off-mike. There’s a fragile quality to his tone when he comes back to the forefront and he doesn’t quite pull off the last high Gb, but overall it’s an affecting solo.

A modulation to F sets up the Armstrong vocal, a good one, though he sounds like he’s having trouble with the lyrics early on, like he was reading too closely and not caring too much about the phrasing. He probably knew this take wasn’t going to be used anyway, but he at least needed to familiarize himself with the text. Armstrong ends with a scat vocal and it’s clear that he almost has it down. In fact, as soon it’s over, you can hear him say, “I’m ready. Got the hang of it.” He did have the hang of it and take five would be the master with no edits or inserts necessary.

After the string-and-brass-heavy introduction, Armstrong plays his best solo yet. His tone is still a little smaller than usual and more burnished—I should just refer to it as his “Verve Tone”—but like the remake of “When Your Lover Has Gone,” it adds a human quality to the proceedings that’s not evident in the superhuman original treatments of both numbers. Armstrong sounds particularly strong in the upper register on the master take and I like how alternately attacks the notes violently and seductively in the second eight bars. He nails the stop-time climb, ending on that high Ab, which is a concession to age and chops. In 1933, Armstrong pumped out a string of high Bb’s during this section, topping it off with that soaring gliss to a high D. In 1957 and in a lower key, he effectively builds up to only an Ab, but please, don’t start writing letters about Armstrong’s chops not being what they were in his early days. For the Autobiography project recorded just eight months prior, Armstrong tackled many of his early masterworks not only in the same keys as the originals but in many cases, actually hitting and holding higher notes than he did as a young man (check out the end of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”). Armstrong’s chops had a bad stretch in mid-August 1957 but he still had a lot of high notes left in him.

After the stop-time section, Armstrong plays a supremely relaxed obbligato that makes for an interesting contrast to the paint-removing playing of the melody by the brass section. The three-note motif Armstrong plays at the 1:10 was something he developed in the All Stars days, playing it against Teagarden’s lead. Verve got great sound on these dates and you can hear Armstrong flicking his valves as the band finishes his statement. Then, like his wonderful 1933 entrance, Armstrong hits and holds an F in the exact same spot, an effect that still works wonders. Armstrong closes out his final eight bars with that melody he clearly loves so much (no “How Am I To Know” in this version), sounding strong throughout.

With his strenuous blowing done for the day, Armstrong sings a chorus, clearly sounding like a man with the right to sing the blues. He actually doesn’t sound very happy; I mentioned parts where you can hear him smile on the remake of “When Your Lover Has Gone” but on this one, he maintains a pretty lowdown mood, perhaps burnt out by how much blowing he had to coax out of his chops that day. There are no “babe’s” or other inflections, just a lot of melody, but it’s such a good one, you really can’t complain. Only at the end, Armstrong throws in a “Mama” and after the long, flowing scat cadenza, he finally chuckles a bit during his last syllable. All in day’s works for the mighty Mr. Armstrong…

According to the discographies, Louis Armstrong never played “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” again after this recording, but between the grandstanding 1933 version, the superbly composed 1944 Opera House solo and the fragile 1957 studio remake, he said all that could possibly be said on Arlen and Koehler’s great tune. He did more than just sing the blues; he played the blues, scatted the blues, caressed the blues and laughed at the blues in its face and we the listeners are lucky for it.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

When Your Lover Has Gone

When Your Lover Has Gone
Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 29, 1931
Track Time 3:08
Written by Einar Aaron Swan
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; unknown, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41498
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

Okay, it’s been almost a month, but I think it’s about time I resurrect the original format of this blog: no-details-spared examinations of individual Louis Armstrong performances. Today, I hit the shuffle on my Itunes it landed on “When Your Lover Has Gone,” a haunting song that Armstrong definitely had a hand in making it the jazz standard it has long since become. The song was written by alto saxophonist Einar Aaron Swan, who played with popular dance bands such as those led by Sam Lanin and Vincent Lopez and even wrote some arrangements for Fletcher Henderson. “When Your Lover Has Gone” would prove to be his best known composition (though he also wrote “In The Middle Of A Dream” for Tommy Dorsey in 1939). The song was written for the James Cagney-Joan Blondell film Blonde Crazy, a fun slice of pre-code Warner Brothers mayhem. The film premiered on November 14, 1931 but the song’s publishers must have been hustling the piece while the film was still in production since it had already been the subject of numerous records before the film was even launched. (A previous Cagney film, Public Enemy, memorably featured “I Surrender Dear” in the background of one of its scenes.)

Perhaps the earliest version of “When Your Lover Has Gone” came from a Charleston Chasers record with a vocal by Paul Small (stage name anyone?). Ah, the days of the band vocalist. Small’s from the Chick Bullock/Seger Ellis school…a university that went bankrupt around 1934. Please, though, listen to his vocal because when we get to Armstrong, the difference is frightening. Oh, and also listen to the work of a few slouches with names like Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa and Dick McDonough. This comes from February 9, 1931 (and though the song is on the Red Hot Jazz Archive, I’ve chosen to use a YouTube version of it for the lovely pictures of Jean Harlow…she had nothing to do with the song but it’s better than staring at a RealPlayer!).

For a torch song, it’s pretty jaunty, but it’s a nice period performance. I’ve always loved the verse to this song and, like many records of the day, it’s buried in the middle, after the vocal, a nice change-of-pace strategy that’s rarely employed today.

The very next day, February 10, 1931, Columbia tried the song out on Ethel Waters (the Charleston Chasers record was released as Columbia 2404-D; Waters’s is 2409-D). Waters’s record is quite lovely, in my opinion. The tempo isn’t exactly a dirge, but it is slower than the Charleston Chasers record. Waters starts in with the verse and really gives the lyrics the feeling of despair that they cry out for. However, in the instrumental interlude, the band begins swinging a bit, if not like Basie, with a steady, shuffling chug, which causes Waters to feel the spirit and start taking chances with her phrasing. Waters’s voice soars on the phrase “Life can’t mean anything,” which, as written by Swan, is a perfect climax, very suitable for trumpet playing, as we shall see. But for now, again, courtesy of YouTube, here’s Waters’s recording of the tune:

Now just because YouTube is chock full of good stuff, here’s another 1931 version of “When Your Lover Has Gone” (don’t know the date) from a British dance band, Henry Hall and His Gleneagles Hotel Band. This is pure dance band fun and if you’re a hardened jazz lover, please skip ahead. But I enjoy this kind of stuff, right down to the stiff-upper-lip vocal (though please pay attention to the transition immediately after the vocal as we’ll be hearing it again very soon). Here goes:

Okay, so now off to Pops. Louis Armstrong’s record of “When Your Lover Has Gone” was the final one he made during a tremendous month of April. Armstrong made three sessions for OKeh in April 1931, waxing classics such as “I Surrender Dear,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” “Blue Again” and “You Rascal You.” He was backed by his working band, arranged and led by trumpeter Zilner Randolph (I wrote more about this band in my older entry on “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”). This was no great orchestra but it was a happy band fill with New Orleans homeboys and they often gave their leader enthusiastic, if a little pitchy, support.

The band recorded four songs across two sessions on April 28 and 29. The session on the 29th opened with a swinging romp on “Them There Eyes,” a song that would be associated for years with Pops (Chick Webb loved to hear him play it and Billie Holiday more or less aped Armstrong’s vocal on the tune for her famous recording of it). Armstrong was clearly in good blowing form that day and the band was more than ready to tackle “When Your Lover Has Gone.” They couldn’t have been playing it for long since the song was brand new, but they had enough of a handle on it to bang out the master take in one try. This is classic stuff. Listen for yourself by clicking here.

The record begins with the always perfect combination of Louis Armstrong and a minor key. The arrangement, presumably by Randolph, opens with a somber, modulating eight-bar introduction that alludes to the verse, which soon follows. Armstrong plays it brilliantly, but the work of the reeds kind of gets in the way. Armstrong plays it fairly straight for eight bars before the reeds take the baton, only to pass it to Preston Jackson’s lone trombone. A modulation then leads to the vocal…and what a vocal.

Mind you, Swan’s lyrics, as the title implies, aren’t exactly optimistic. In fact, I can think of few songs in the Armstrong discography that emit such despair. As already heard, Waters’s version is a downer and later performances by the likes of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra can wring tears from the listener’s eyes. But not Pops. He was too young and too vivacious to instill such an emotional lyric with the quiet passion it deserves. No, to the Louis Armstrong of 1931, lyrics were just words, notes to be swung and on “When Your Lover Has Gone,” he swings with ease.

He immediately opens by changing Swan’s melody, which is heavily centered on the major seventh. Armstrong sings it in G and as written, it simply descends, F#-F#-F natural-E. Pretty, but not good enough for Pops, who turns it into five notes, F#-F#-D-F#-E. However, from there, he stays pretty straight, offering no scatting or anything, but not exactly sounding doleful (you can hear him smile on the word “alone”). He even gets tripped up briefly by one of the lyrics, “There is no sunrise,” singing it as “There is no sun, sunrise.” However, this quick slip-up is immediately followed by the highlight of the vocal. Armstrong leaves a few beats of space, allowing the clarinets to shine through with a sad, but pretty, statement. Armstrong then only has to sing the title phrase. Once isn’t good enough for the young genius, so he repeats it three times. The first time is on a high D, all on a single pitch. He then drops to the D an octave lower and moves up to the neighboring E for the word “gone.” And for the third repetition, he starts at the G right smack dab in the middle of the D’s and ends on an F#. The whole thing has a sing-song quality that just plain swings, though again, I think any phrase could have sounded as good and not just the sad titular phrase (try “When the liver is done”).

Halfway there, Armstrong begins the second 16 bars in a straight fashion, almost like an impish prankster who knows he’s gone too far with his frivolity. But the trickster in Armstrong can’t be suppressed so he just can’t help winking at the listener and singing the word “hours” as “how-ers,” perhaps adding a subtle British tinge to his voice (like the “cahn’t” in “Put ‘Em Down Blues”). He’s having fun; he sounds like he’s happy his lover is gone (wasn’t Lil on the outs by this point?), but all kidding aside, his tenor voice sounds quite lovely in its upper register, especially on the words “Like” and “Life.”

Then after singing “Life can’t mean a thing,” Armstrong attempts to set the record for the most repetitions of the syllables “bay” and “bee” in the span of about three seconds. As my ear hears it, he sings, “Life can’t mean a thing, bay bay bay bee,” followed by a soulful “Oh, baby, bay bay, When Your Lover Has Gone.” First off, the written lyric is “Life can’t mean anything,” but Armstrong felt the need to edit down to just “a thing.” And as I’ve written before, I think Armstrong’s “baby’s” during this period reflect Bing Crosby’s “Boo-boo-boos.” But just listen to the bluesy way Armstrong sings the final “When Your Lover Has Gone,” without hitting any blue notes, just by merely rearranging the melody. Is it wrong to feel so joyful after hearing such a tragic song?

Now if you listened to the Harry Hill hotel band version from above you should have heard some familiar stuff in the Armstrong version. First, the clarinet backings I mentioned briefly above are lifted straight from the Hill record but the biggest steal is the trumpet modulation from the end of the vocal (in G) to the start of Armstrong’s trumpet solo (in Bb). Jos Willems has the trumpeter listed as “Unknown,” but it must be Zilner Randolph. Whoever it is, he plays the same part that can be heard on the Hill record. Now, whose record came first? That’s a good question and because I don’t know the answer, it’s possible that Hill took these elements from the Armstrong record but more simply, I believe both Armstrong and Hill were working off stock arrangements. However, the Armstrong stock was a little more suited to its leader, as we shall hear during the magnificent trumpet solo.

Armstrong the trumpet player often showed the humorous qualities as Armstrong the vocalist, usually in the use of quotes, but Armstrong was also able to maintain more of a straight-face behind his horn and thus, was able to instill his trumpet solos with some of the serious passion that is often missing in his vocals (not a complaint of course. Listen to the “When Your Lover Has Gone” vocal again…who needs serious passion when you have THAT?). But regardless of whether he was singing or playing, Armstrong was born to swing and there’s no better illustration of that than in the opening of his “When Your Lover Has Gone” solo. Here’s a song with a melody tailor-made for pure lead playing but Armstrong decides to edit it, only keeping the most important notes. And what phrasing! Please, tap your left hand to the steady 4/4 of the song, then tap your right hand every time Armstrong hits a note at the start of his solo. When you listen to it, it sounds so daring and complex but look at how many of those opening notes land squarely on the beat. I marvel at it every time I hear it.

Armstrong continues in a very flowing mode, jumping up to a singing high G, then tumbling down with some casually tossed-off ruminations. In bar 7, he hits on a double-timed, double-note motif that reminds me of the opening cadenza of “Blue Again.” This immediately segues into the famous Armstrong calling card: Bb-G-Bb-G-D. There’s nothing more I can add to the next eight bars. He opens with pure melody, but throws in a few extra notes that would have easily been “baby’s” if he was singing instead of playing. Then, right where he repeated the title phrase during the vocal, he employs a similar tactic, repeating three notes, F-G-A (“When Your Love”) three times, which really grabs the listener’s attention. The slowly spiraling phrase he resolves this motif with is full of tricky rhythmic turns.

Then, leaving a little space for his solo to breathe, Armstrong returns with the most passionate moment of the record. Here’s where Randolph probably doctored the stock arrangement, giving Armstrong something that he always loved to blow over during this period: the reeds churning out notes on the first and third beats of the bar. As written, the melody would be A-A-Ab-G. Seeing the motif of the melody, Armstrong blasts out a high A, waits, hits the Ab, then G, then repeats the three notes, slightly faster, then again, in and around the beat, then once more even faster, catching up with the beat, before holding the Ab, skipping the A and ending this part of the solo with the G. Have I used the word genius lately? This segment is pure passion and conveys the message of the song better than the any of the lyrics could possibly do. It’s as if Armstrong’s screaming, “Please! Don’t! Go! Please Don’t Go! Please Don’t Go! Please! Don’t! Go! Please…Go!” It brings me to my knees every time.

Armstrong then reverts to the middle register to do some conversing because screaming didn’t do the trick to lure his lover back. He plays a few arpeggios before a quiet low phrase that almost sounds like mumbling. He doesn’t even allude to the melody in this section but since the written line has such a strong ending, Armstrong can’t resist passionately playing melody in the final eight bars. It’s a beautiful moment but just when you think he’s going to end way up high, he resorts to the middle register again to end the 32 bars, bending his next-to-last note to emphasize his melancholy mood. Instead of ending right there, there’s a quick coda, with Preston Jackson’s moaning trombone seemingly telling Pops, “Keep your chin up, pal.” Armstrong answers, still in the middle register, with repeated Bb’s and G’s before heading up for a triumphant final high Bb. A magnificent record.

Unlike the other song recorded that day, “Them There Eyes,” which was a staple of Armstrong live performances for the next decade, “When Your Lover Has Gone” looks like it disappeared. There are no broadcasts or concert versions of it and no mentions of it in period reviews from the 30s and 40s. When the Autobiography project came around in 1956, Armstrong remade “Them There Eyes,” but left out “When Your Lover Has Gone.” But the following summer, in August of 1957, Armstrong recorded two albums for Norman Granz’s Verve label, both featuring big band and string arrangements by Russell Garcia. On this occasion, Armstrong decided to tackle a few more songs of his youth, including “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Home” and yes, “When Your Lover Has Gone.” Unfortunately, like most of Armstrong’s Verve work, he was never completely rested for a Granz session, always having performed the night before. On an August 1 session with the Oscar Peterson Trio and Louie Bellson, Armstrong’s trumpet sounded in fine form on a warm-up “Indiana” and on “Willow Weep For Me.” But by the time of the final Ella and Louis Again session of August 13, Armstrong’s chops must have been hurting because he didn’t pick up his trumpet once during the five-song session.

Unfortunately for Pops, Granz had much more planned for August 14, 15 and 16, the Garcia dates, which would result in Armstrong recording four songs the first day, six on the second and a ridiculous eight on the final session. These sessions contain some of Armstrong’s most “human” playing, especially on “Stormy Weather,” where you can just hear the pain in his solo. In 1999, Verve issued this material on two discs, with plenty of alternate and breakdown takes that illustrate just how much difficulty Armstrong was having blowing the horn during these sessions. Fortunately, Granz took a day off on August 17 and what a difference a day made as Armstrong’s trumpet sounds quite wonderful on the Porgy and Bess sessions of August 18 and 19.

But back to the Garcia sessions. The very first one began with “When Your Lover Has Gone” in a treatment that couldn’t be any more different than the 1931 original. Instead of casting the song in a swinging light, Garcia saw it for the brooding tune it is, with grumpy horns moaning throughout. The tempo is slow and stately and Armstrong responds.

Unlike the original, Armstrong sings the remake in the key of F, down a step. The tempo’s slow, but it’s not a dirge; the rhythm section, with Paul Smith on piano, swings lightly and Armstrong seems to dig the feel. He sings the first chorus almost unusually straight, giving the tune a lot of respect. You can still hear him smile here and there, but really, it’s a pretty solemn reading from a man many critics spent the summer of ’57 calling a clown and an Uncle Tom (of course, Little Rock was only a month away). It’s a very mature vocal and though it doesn’t have the contagious enthusiasm of the original, it effectively conveys an entirely different, lowdown mood.

The same goes for the trumpet solo, which is one of my favorites from Armstrong’s later years. While listening to Armstrong play “Sweet Lorraine” in one of my Rutgers Master’s classes, Lewis Porter commented that on that solo, from another Verve session with Oscar Peterson from October 1957, Armstrong “out-Mileses Miles!” I’ve always loved that expression. For all the heart-pounding enjoyment I get out of Armstrong wailing away in the upper register, hitting those sickeningly good high notes, I always love his more reflective playing. Who knows, perhaps Armstrong would have approached the song differently if his chops were in better shape, but I love the feel and the tone of this version of “When Your Lover Has Gone.”

You can always tell when Louis Armstrong’s lips were bothersome by listening to how much he futzed with his horn, constantly noodling behind other musicians and drum solos before he would step into the spotlight. Grans’s recording engineer captures a great moment as you can hear Armstrong’s lip flutter quietly in his mouthpiece as he places the trumpet to his lips, followed by a quick flicker of the valves. He starts out by quietly pushing out the first four notes of the melody, with that slightly burnished glow of his lower register playing. He leaves the requisite space before going for himself. He sounds so relaxed—there are some nimble little phrases buried in all the soul—and I especially love how he holds that low E in the fourth bar before resolving it to two D’s. The next bar is pure Armstrong but then he rips out that short, descending chromatic phrase, pausing to squeeze out that Db, sounding very hip and a little like Red Allen—or is it the other way around?. In fact, if Red Allen and Miles Davis had a baby, it would probably play a solo like this one.

Unfortunately, and probably because of chops trouble, Armstrong only plays a half-chorus solo, but what’s there is hauntingly beautiful. Armstrong continuously throws in snippets of melody in between all these slithering phrases. Rhythmically, he’s floating and harmonically, he’s pretty modern. There’s a complexity to this solo that I find irresistible, though it might sound somewhat subdued and simple at first or even second hearing. But really, dig this one out, and play those 16 bars a few times and I guarantee you, you’ll be surprised.

With the blowing down, Armstrong then sings another full chorus, this time rephrasing the song to fit his needs. This is good stuff. He’s not as impish as in 1931, but he truly does create a new melody and I particularly like his phrasing on “the magic moonlight dies,” separating it into two phrases, “the magic,” pause, “moonlight dies.” Instead of a hundred Bing-like “Baby’s,” Armstrong places once solitary “Baby” at the 3:21 mark and the result is mellifluous. Then, in a throwback to the 1931 original, Armstrong sings the title phrase three times, this time singing each one on the same pitch, a C, before humming a lower D-F-E, turning the hum on the E into a righteous “Yeah.”

Heading into the final 16 bars, Armstrong reverts back to the melody, leading into some of the phrases with an “Oh” or a raspy grumble. When he gets to the climax of the final eight bars, Armstrong goes up, as he did in 1931, on the line, “Life can’t mean anything,” before singing a high “Oh yes,” that lands on a high F. It’s the same spot where his trumpet solo climaxed and clearly, he felt the need to make the most of it. After the “yes,” Armstrong scats a closing cadenza before singing the title phrase once more, holding the final “gone” for an impressive nine seconds.

As always, choosing is no fun. I’d have to go with the 1931 original because it’s long been one of my favorites. That vocal is all over the place (in a good way) and the passion of the trumpet solo gets me every time. But do not forget about that 1957 remake because I think it’ll surprise you if you haven’t heard it in a long time. Pardon my language, but there’s some deep shit on that record.

Okay, with the juices flowing once again, I hope to be back in a couple of days with yet another song that Armstrong recorded in the early 30s, only to remake with Garcia on the same August 14, 1957 session: “I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues.” Til then!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Louis Armstrong At The Cotton Club

Anthony Coleman recently left me a comment that I'd like to share. He wrote, "WKCR recently celebrated Laurence Lucie's 100th birthday, and as part of doing so, played a bunch of incredible early-40's broadcast performances which I have since been trying to track down. I bought Ambassador Volume 8, which has 5 - of which Exactly Like You is a total revelation. You should write about it! But they played many more - any ideas where they are obtainable?"

Yes indeed, my friend. Those broadcasts are all available on volume 10 of the Ambassador series, Live at the Cotton Club 1939-1943. You mentioned that you purchased volume eight of this wonderful series (and yes, "Exactly Like You" is a gasser), so you might be wondering why you haven't heard of this tenth volume. I wish I had a simple answer, but it's never been available in America. Amazon has never listed it for a day, new or used, and neither have other online outlets such as or I only found out about it because the Jos Willems discography All of Me kept having these mysterious entries of early 40s radio broadcasts that all seemed to flow from the CD "Ambassador CLA 1909." I searched the internet and ended up finding it on the Tower Records DUBLIN (!) website where, with shipping and all, it came out to over $30.

However, it's the best $30 I've ever spent. I cannot stress the importance of this CD. To hear Pops tackling material like "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "As Time Goes By" is breathtaking. There are broadcast performances of "I Never Knew" and "Coquette" from BEFORE the Decca session where they were officially waxed. There's arrangements for "Darling Nellie Gray" and "A Zoot Suit" that I have never heard before and one April 1, 1942 broadcast from the Casa Manana in Culver City might be Armstrong's single greatest 30-minute broadcast ever (no just have to hear how much blowing he does on seven songs in a row...what chops!).

The disc, like all Ambassador releases, is the result of the tireless Armstrong oracle, Gösta Hägglöf. Gösta recently started a website,, where you can find more information about all of his CDs. Please check it out and then do what it takes to bring home this Cotton Club CD. It should have been the most important jazz release of 2006 but because Louis Armstrong wasn't born with the name "Charlie Parker" or "John Coltrane," it slid by completely under the radar, which is a shame. In the meantime, here's a picture of the front and back covers:

That's all for now, though. I know I've been slacking but I have some good ideas so keep checking back and I'll have a bunch of new posts in the coming weeks. Here's to Pops!

Monday, January 7, 2008

Happy 100th Birthday Red Allen!

It's almost 8:00 at night as I write this but I had to post an emergency blog after finding out that today, January 7th is Red Allen's centennial birthday! I learned the news from Doug Ramsey's always excellent Rifftides blog and his entry for today not only includes a nice eulogy, but also a YouTube video of Red leading a band on the historic 1957 Sound of Jazz telecast, as well as another link to a beautiful Allen tribute by Jim Denham. Click here to go to Doug's page, then follow the links and have a ball.

If you're a jazz fan and you're not acquainted with Henry "Red" Allen, you should be ashamed, but don't worry, it's not your fault. He came up in the shadow of Louis Armstrong and really, that's a pretty tough star to eclipse and though he had a successful career, Allen couldn't break into the suuperstar echelon. The same thing happened to another of my favorites, Hot Lips Page and he, too, is also similarly forgotten, too, but not if my good friend Todd Weeks has anything to do with that; check out his lecture on Lips at the Institute of Jazz Studies on January 23. Anyway, I digress...when Red first came up, he did a pretty credible job of sounding like Armstrong. How credible? Listen to "I Ain't Got Nobody" from 1930 where the two trumpet players trade eights and it's tough to tell whose who. Click here to listen.

Soon enough, though, Allen demonstrated that he was his own man, with a sense of rhythm and harmony that was way too ahead of its time to be fully respected. One of the best lines ever written about Allen comes from Richard Sudhalter, who said, "The 'wrong' notes his colleagues sometimes derided had a way of turning up years or decades later, hailed as brilliant discoveries when someone else played them."

Allen was a mainstay in Luis Russell's Orchestra and he later played with, Fletcher Henderson the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and Armstrong's late 1930's big band, too. Fortunately, he was well recorded in the 1930s, appearing on small group sessions led by the likes of Lionel Hampton, Sidney Bechet and Billie Holiday, in addition to leading many fine small band sessions of his own. I urge you to seek out these records, though they're increasingly difficult to find (paging Mosaic Records!). The Collector's Classic label did the best job and if you can find any of their six volume Allen series, grab 'em.

Fortunately, we do have the Red Hot Jazz Archive, so here are the links to a bunch of my favorite Allen songs (though not all...please listen to his 1935 "Body and Soul" right now!). Allen's first session as a leader, done for Victor in the summer of 1929, is a classic and all four tracks deserve examination. Here they are:
Biffly Blues
Feelin’ Drowsy
It Should Be You
Swing Out

A few months later, Red took part in a pickup date with a Fats Waller led small group featuring the likes of Jack Teagarden, Pops Foster and Gene Krupa. Disregard the singing of The Four Wanderers and listen to red tear apart Lookin’ Good but Feelin’ Bad.

The Luis Russell band was one of the great big bands of all time and for me, their rhythm section laid the blueprint for all future swinging jazz rhythm sections. Allen was always well featured and here are some of my favorites:
The New Call Of The Freaks
Jersey Lightening

In September 1930, Armstrong's mentor King Oliver called on Allen to play trumpet on a record date. Oliver's chops were in failing shape and he began to play less and less on his recordings. On "Stingaree Blues," Oliver actually plays a muted chorus but the main event is Allen's two final choruses. Listen here.

In 1932, Allen took part in perhaps the hottest series of records ever made, those under the banner of The Rhythmakers. Unfortunately, the Red Hot Jazz Archive doesn't house "Bugle Call Rag," which is positively smoking, but everything this all-star studio group record is legendary. Here's the entire session from July 26, 1932, featuring vocals by Billy Banks and a band that included Pee Wee Russell on tenor saxophone, Eddie Condon, Pops Foster, Zutty Singleton and some remarkable Fats Waller piano solos.
I Would Do Anything For You
Mean Old Bed Bug Blues
Yellow Dog Blues
Yes Suh

Allen joined Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra in 1932 and immediately formed a partnership with tenor saxophone titan Coleman Hawkins. Here's a YouTube video that features the tandem of Allen and Hawkins swinging "Jamaica Shout."

Meanwhile, with Henderson, Allen turned in many some breathtaking solos. Here's Red stretching out on King Porter Stomp and here he is at his most "modern" on Queer Notions.

Unfortunately, there's almost nothing of Red's to share from the late 30s and that's my favorite period of his. However, here is a very fine "Canal Street" blues from 1940 that features Allen's frequent partner, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham (how haven't I mentioned him until now???) and future Armstrong associate Edmond Hall.

By the early 40s, Red was ready to go out on his own and for the rest of his life, he would lead various small groups, usually with Higginbotham by his side. Here’s a video of them playing “The House On 52nd Street” from a 1946 short film:

On that track, you can here some of Allen’s delightful vocalizing. He was a born showman, which turned off the younger generation and no doubt has led to his being something of an outcast to today’s younger jazz fans. He was a natural leader for jam session environments and though everyone seems to know his work on The Sound of Jazz, here’s a wonderful clip of him playing “Rosetta” from an Art Ford Jazz Show in 1958. The includes Higgy, Buster Bailey, Hal “Cornbread” Singer, Willie “The Lion Smith, Matty Matlock, Cliff Leeman, Vinnie Burke and others. Red at his finest, with a supremely relaxed solo beginning at the 5:27 mark:

Quick sidebar: in 1957, Allen recorded “Ride Red Ride In Hi-Fi,” his greatest album. It was issued on C.D. as “World On A String” and is available for download. If Red only recorded the versions of “I Cover the Waterfront,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Sweet Lorraine” and “Algiers Stomp” from this album, he’d be an immortal. Please check it out if you don’t own this music.

In 1959, Red joined forces with Kid Ory for two wonderful Verve albums and a successful tour of Europe (there’s a great Storyville disc of a Denmark show). Fortunately, footage exists from this partnership, so let’s enjoy the group blowing the hell out of “Tiger Rag,” with former All Star Bob McCracken on clarinet:

On an erratic 1959 television special, “Chicago and All That Jazz,” Red and Ory were joined by a gang of Armstrong associates: Johnny St. Cyr, Zutty Singleton, Buster Bailey, Milt Hinton and even Armstrong’s second wife, Lil Hardin. They play Jelly Roll Morton’s “Original Jelly Roll Blues” and the highlight is the beatuiful opening to Red’s solo:

In the 1960s, Allen continued playing at the Metropole in New York City as well as touring the United States and Europe. In England, Allen did some of his finest latter-day work with Alex Welsh’s jazz band. There’s a C.D. on the Jazzology label with some of Allen’s final performances but a televised show with Welsh from 1964 features some of my all-time favorite moments. I can never get enough of this version of “St. James Infirmiry.” If you don’t find yourself yelling, “Oh yeah,” check your pulse.

Allen died on April 17, 1967 at the age of 60. The ensuing years haven’t been very kind to Red, but his music is still out there if you search for it and once you do, you’ll be a fan for life. And please check out John Chilton’s excellent biography Red Ride Ride for more information. It’s 10:51 now so technically I can still post this on Red’s centennial but then again, I can celebrate Red Allen’s music every day of the year.


Quick note: one of my best Armstrong-related friends is the marvelous trumpet player from Boston, Dave Whitney. We correspond about Louis quite frequently and Dave has been most gracious in filling some of the holes in my Armstrong collection (and like me, he loves Louie Prima and The Three Stooges…take that, snobs!). Dave wrote to remind me about two releases that I really should have included in my All Stars primer yesterday. First off is Disney Songs The Satchmo Way, which I seriously don’t know how I forgot. It’s a great starting point because it allows Armstrong to take familiar Disney standards that everyone knows and “Satchurate” them into some pretty wonderful performances. It’s late in the game, but “When You Wish Upon A Star” might be Armstrong’s most moving performance and his trumpet sounds quite daring on “Chim Chim Cheree.” Also, I listed Live in Berlin as a toss-off towards the end of my blog because Armstrong did some tremendous blowing on that 1965 tour but Dave thankfully reminded me that there’s a disc out there, Royal Garden Blues, that contains just the Armstrong features from a slightly earlier concert in Prague. Me and Dave mention this 1965 tour almost every time we speak because of the power of Pops’s chops and this disc, available on Itunes, features some freakishly powerful playing from a 63-year-old man. Thanks to Dave for those recommendations and please if anyone out there has any more or if you’d like to share your thoughts on Red Allen, leave me a comment!

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Louis Armstrong's Later Years - Where To Begin?

To get the New Year rolling, I’d like to tackle a question that “John in D.C.” asked a few weeks ago. I quote:

“Glad I stumbled upon your site. I need to swallow the essay in one sitting, which isn't this wee hour, but I will be back. Thank GOD for giving us all Louis after the advent of tape and video. Treasures. If you have recommendations for me on definitive Louis to buy from the 1950s, '60s, I'd appreciate them. I've heard the California Concerts are terrific and they are awful scarce and expensive, but I'm looking for the best. I've got the Hot 5s and 7s, but I love hearing Louis play and sing. Peace and love and thanks to you. -- John in d.c. “

Well, John, you basically opened up a Pandora’s Box with that query because an answer would basically sum up my whole goal in life with regards to Louis Armstrong: to spread the joys of his entire musical output with a special emphasis on his later years. Many jazz fans, like yourself, test the water with the Hot Fives and Sevens and then don’t know where to go from there. More importantly, some faithful followers of the Hot Fives and Sevens stubbornly don’t want to explore the rest of Armstrong’s career because they’ve been scared off by the mythical notions of an “Uncle Tom” Louis “going commercial.” Some people believe that Armstrong’s playing diminished greatly in his later years and other people have taken his small group, the All Stars, to task for featuring journeymen musicians and stale repertoire. I have spent years working on a book that will (hopefully) disprove all these myths once and for all but I’ve always found that the simplest way of doing this is by listening to the music of Armstrong’s later years with objective ears and then deciding for yourself. So where to begin? Yikes. I might have to break this down into a few categories but don’t worry, I won’t list anything too hard-to-find or expensive. So let’s give it a whirl!

General Overviews

The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong

This easy-to-find Time-Life box set was released in 2006 and is a wonderful starting point for anyone who wants to begin exploring Armstrong’s later years. Yes, there are a few scattered tracks from the 1920s and 1930s but they’re thrown in at the end of discs one and two and don’t feature anything by the Hot Five or Seven. There’s really no rhyme or reason to the track order except that it looks like disc one is made up of material owned by the Universal Music Group while disc two features tracks owned by Sony/BMG. Thus, there’s no strict chronology but I cannot argue with the song selections. Sure, the hits are here—“Dolly,” “Wonderful World,” “Mack the Knife,” “Blueberry Hill”—but there’s also four tracks from Armstrong’s mid-50s Verve dates, two from the Autobiography, two from the W.C. Handy album and two from the Fats Waller tribute, with various other great tracks thrown in, including “Summer Song” with Dave Brubeck and some nice big band work from the 30s and 40s. For the Armstrong completist, there’s a bonus DVD that, at first glance, might appear to be a rehash of the usual footage but instead includes incredibly rare material from a 1963 Australian TV show as well as some nice Timex show items. Great notes by Will Friedwald and some previously unpublished photos make this set a no-brainer for a beginning Armstrong fan. And right now, you can go to Amazon and get it for as cheap as $19.44. Click here for more information.

An American Icon

This three-disc box from the Hip-O label is currently out-of-print but is available for a good price on Amazon (click here for details). This set came out in 1998 and didn’t leave my side for quite some time (in fact, I won a New Jersey college journalism award for my very first jazz column in the year 2000 on this set…I’ve been an Ambassador of Ambassador Satch for as long as I can remember!). It was crafted with love by Armstrong’s two main producers from the 1950s, Milt Gabler and George Avakian. Avakian also contributed the superb booklet which gives detailed information on each track. There are some snafus along the way: Avakian writes about “Basin Street Blues” from the Crescendo Club but a 1954 studio recording actually appears on the set. And “That’s For Me” has a little skip that causes an Earl Hines interlude to repeat itself. But otherwise, the song selection is magnificent, though, for some reason, only two tracks from Avakian’s Armstrong association are included: “Mack the Knife” and “Hesistating Blues.” Only nine performances overlap between this set and the Time-Life one described above. An American Icon includes many Decca pop tunes, material from The California Concerts, a good chunk from the Autobiography, many duets with Ella Fitzgerald, the very best tracks from the Duke Ellington collaboration and some great material recorded with the late Oscar Peterson. This is really a tough one to beat, but it is out-of-print and the lack of 1950s Columbia material is a drawback. But there are ways of fixing that…

The Essential Albums

Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy

It just doesn’t get any better than this one, folks. When people ask me the standard “desert island” questions, I always have an easy answer: leave me stranded with this disc and I’ll be just fine, thank you very much. It’s my favorite album in my entire collection and I don’t know what I would do without it. The All Stars are in tremendous form, Pops is at his peak, the choice of material suits him like a glove and the sound quality couldn’t be better. Add in producer George Avakian’s liner notes and some rehearsal tracks and you have the world’s most perfect C.D. Oh, and Amazon is selling it new for $6.97. Know someone who doesn’t have it? Buy them a copy! When I gave my first Armstrong lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies, I bought and brought five copies just to give them out to students who didn’t own it. If you don’t have it in your collection, you have no collection and if you don’t like it, you’re not human. Okay, perhaps I’m going overboard, but man, do I love this album. The opening “St. Louis Blues” was the track that exploded my soul and got me into Armstrong when I was a pimply-faced 15-year-old high school sophomore. It still has the same effect on me 12 years later. Buy the album here.

Satch Plays Fats

If you like the W.C. Handy album, then this one’s a no-brainer. This is the 1955 sequel with the same exact group interpreting jazz classics written by the great Fats Waller. There’s only nine tracks and some of them are too short, but otherwise, everything I said about the Handy album applies here, though clarinetist Barney Bigard really sounds like he’s going through the motions. “Blue Turning Grey Over You” is one of Armstrong’s most emotional performances, while he swings with fury on “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby.” And that tempo on “Keepin’ Out Of Mischief Now” is so foot-tappingly good, I wish it went on for an hour. This one also available at a very good price from Amazon, as can be seen by clicking here.

Ambassador Satch

Unfortunately, this one’s somehow out-of-print (it was released the same day as Satch Plays Fats…damn you Sony!!!) but please try to track it down (it can be downloaded on Itunes) It’s a mish-mash of live concert performances from 1955 and fake concert performances recorded in a studio from 1956. There are features for All Stars members Edmond Hall and Trummy Young and there’s some good-natured horseplay on “Twelfth Street Rag.” But this was the greatest edition of the All Stars and the album would be a classic, for me, if it just contained “Royal Garden Blues,” “Muskrat Ramble,” “All of Me,” “The Faithful Hussar” and “Tiger Rag.” And do not overlook that “West End Blues.” Is it on par with the 1928 original? No, but what does that matter? I find it quite stirring and the All Stars give Armstrong better support than the 1928 Hot Five did (save Earl Hines). One day, I hope to write more about Armstrong’s later versions of “West End Blues” because they’ve never been given the proper respect (Laurence Bergreen writes that Armstrong “mangled” it but he’s not exactly the world’s greatest Armstrong authority). It’s a very moving performance and this is an exceptionally exciting album.

Satchmo Serenades

This album probably wouldn’t make many people’s lists of essential Armstrong but John from D.C. wanted to know where to start exploring Armstrong’s 1950s recordings and if you’re going to do it the right way, you better make peace with Armstrong’s “commercial” recordings for Decca. This is a very stellar collection with some big hits (“Kiss to Build a Dream On,” “La Vie En Rose”), some cover songs (a startling “Because of You” and a funky, two-beat Sy Oliver take on “Your Cheating Heart”) and some almost completely unknown songs that Pops beautifully renders (“I Can’t Afford To Miss This Dream”). There are also swinging studio versions of All Stars staples “C’est Si Bon” and “Someday You’ll Be Sorry’ and more majestic trumpet on “I Get Ideas” and “Kiss of Fire.” Not every track is a classic of classics but Armstrong was always in marvelous form on his Decca dates, both vocally and with the horn. This is a good place to start these records. Here’s the Amazon

The Complete Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong On Verve

I love this music. You have arguably the two greatest vocalists in jazz history singing nothing but timeless standards while backed sublimely by the Oscar Peterson trio with either Buddy Rich or Louie Bellson added on drums. Do I really need to say anything more? I think Pops and Ella had great chemistry together and it’s so nice to hear Pops sing something like “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” or “April in Paris.” “The Nearness of You” is one of my all-time favorite performances by anyone of anything but for pure joy, I still smile and laugh every time I hear the hilarious rehearsal take of “Stompin’ At The Savoy.” And on disc three of this box, you get the complete Porgy and Bess session, with Armstrong reaching new levels of emotional depth on “Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess” and “I Wants To Stay Here.” And trust me: try to resist Verve’s 101 different compilations of the same Armstrong and Fitzgerald material. Once you buy one sampler, you’re just going to want it all and 11 years later, this box is still in print. Here’s the

Satchmo—A Musical Autobiography

This might be a hefty choice for someone who is just starting to explore Armstrong’s later years, but I still stand by the greatness of this music. Sure, Velma’s vocals aren’t the best and some of the small group remakes are lacking, but overall, the great majority of the tracks are responsible for some of Armstrong’s finest work of his career. “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Memories of You,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Hotter Than That,” “Lazy River,” “Song of the Islands,” “Canal Street Blues,” “If I Could Be With You,” “You Rascal You,”…my goodness, I think I’m going to stop typing and just listen to the damn thing again! Here’s the Amazon link.

Essential Live Dates
Okay, when you have some of the classic studio dates in your collection, you’re going to want to start exploring the seemingly endless amount of live All Stars shows available on C.D. Here’s four places to start:

The California Concerts

John from D.C. mentioned this one so I’ll start here. This one was a big one for me in my early days of exploring Armstrong’s recorded output. The beautiful notes by Dan Morgenstern presented such a convincing argument for the merits of the All Stars that it was right there, at about 15 years of age with maybe 10 Armstrong discs to my name, that I vowed to collect everything and anything All Stars related. The four-disc set contains two concerts by two different editions of the All Stars, recorded four years apart, almost to the day. I find the All Stars’s stage shows to be irresistible and it’s hard to find a better representation of them than these shows. The 1951 show is great, with wonderful readings of “My Monday Date,” “You Can Depend On Me” and “That’s A Plenty,” among others but this wasn’t my favorite edition of the band and Earl Hines and Cozy Cole seem to sleepwalk through certain parts of the program. On the other hand, Teagarden is well featured and how can you argue with that? The 1955 Crescendo Club concert captures a typical multi-set nightclub performance, something that would almost disappear in the ensuing years as the All Stars became a hot concert and festival commodity. This is the same band from the Handy and Waller albums and everyone plays beautifully, especially Trummy Young and Billy Kyle. Highlights for me are a “jumped” “When You’re Smiling,” “Muskrat Ramble,” “Old Man Mose,” “Jeepers Creepers” and “Margie,” to name just a few.

However, as John pointed out, it is out-of-print and is being sold on Amazon right now for the hefty sum of $59. However, it is on Itunes for $39.96, still pricey and without Morgenstern’s booklet, but still worth the money.

The Great Chicago Concert

A very strong candidate for “Best All Stars Show of the 1950s,” this show features the greatest edition of the All Stars, with Edmond Hall replacing Barney Bigard. Sound quality is shaky at times but overall, there’s no better place to hear the full power of the Armstrong-Young-Hall front line. The concert also features the most exciting version of “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” imaginable. Alas, it, too, is out-of-print on C.D. but can be downloaded on Itunes for $16.99.

Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia

Finally, something that’s in print! I won’t talk about this one too much here since I’ve done nothing but talk about it since its release last summer (my massive blog on it can be found in my archive from August or on the Storyville website). The box spans from 1933 to 1967 and features no less than five different incarnations of the All Stars. Sound quality varies but is generally very good to excellent and though the music is taken from many different sources, there is very little overlap of songs. The jazz world more or less gave this release a shrug (it’s not even mentioned in the latest Jazz Times “Year in Review”), but I’ll never tire of stumping for it because I truly believe it’s essential. Grab it now by clicking here.

The Complete Town Hall Concert

I still have this on the old RCA Jazz Tribune two-disc set but it’s finally available on a single C.D. This is history but again, the sound quality isn’t exactly crystal clear so I wouldn’t recommend starting with this one. However, if that kind of stuff doesn’t bother you, then by all means, jump right in because this was one of the finest nights in Armstrong’s career. There’s a fresh and exciting feel to the entire concert that’s simply irresistible and the versions of “Save It Pretty Mama,” “Rockin’ Chair” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” were arguably never topped. If you have a few extra bucks, pick up this three-disc release from Spain that also includes the equally indispensible Symphony Hall concert from November 1947 as well as various other odds and ends from the period.

Where do go from here?

Okay, so with those essentials out of the way, here’s a quick listing of where to go next:
Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington: The Great Summit – Louis with the All Stars and Ellington on piano playing a selection of Duke’s greatest hits. What more do you need?
Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson – Armstrong sings and plays some beautiful standards backed by O.P.’s swinging trio with Louie Bellson on drums. “Sweet Lorraine” gets me every time.
The Complete Louis Armstrong With The Dukes Of Dixieland – I recently knocked Essential Jazz Classic’s half-assed reissue of this important material, but I can’t knock the music, which is simply thrilling.
Satchmo In Style – Armstrong backed by Gordon Jenkins’s lovely arrangements is a combination that some purists gag over but you can hear Jenkins’s love for the great man in every performance and Armstrong responds with some very warm performances.
Hello, Dolly – This album was produced quickly to cash in on the monster hit single of the same name, but it includes some of Armstrong’s finest studio work of the 1960s, including a delicious “Moon River.”

Well, hopefully that’s enough to get started with (I know, I know, I forgot Satchmo Plays King Oliver, The Real Ambassadors, Louis And The Good Book, Live In Berlin and so many more!). Trust me, in my early days, I bought sampler after sampler until I realized I needed to hear every damn scrap of music the man recorded. This may or may not happen to anyone else, but the above discs are guaranteed to be most enjoyable. And to sum it all up, if you only have, say, $50, go for the Time-Life set because of the song selection and DVD, the W.C. Handy album and the Scandinavia box. That’s a helluva way to begin exploring the wonderful world of Louis Armstrong’s later years!