Saturday, March 29, 2008

Armstrong Odds and Ends

It’s that time again, folks. Spring is here and it’s a lazy Saturday morning here in New Jersey so I can’t think of a better time to visit the segment on Louis Armstrong upcoming and recent releases that we like to call “Armstrong Odds and Ends.” I might as well begin with the rapidly dying compact disc industry, which is still finding ways to pump out new Armstrong discs (or at least, new discs of old material). The last time I did one of these columns in January, I previewed TCB’s Live in Zurich Switzerland 1949 disc, which I paid extra to order from Europe at the end of last year. That disc finally arrived in America in February and is now available used for nine dollars on Amazon. It’s a great evening with the Armstrong-Teagarden-Hines edition of the All Stars. Pops sounds inspired and there’s even some loose jamming on Velma Middleton’s blues numbers. Not really an essential, mind-blowing release but it’s definitely worth picking up if you’re an Armstrong fan as it really captures the band on a hot night (though I hate that TCB didn’t keep the original order of songs as they were performed that evening). Here’s the link and here’s a picture:

The Decca/Verve/Universal Music Group jazz reissue program has become a joke in recent years. In the mid-90s, they had an unparalleled two-disc series and in the late-90s, they released dozens of titles under the “Verve Master Edition” banner. But reissues soon dried up and even a cheaper, no frills LP replica series soon came and went without much fanfare (though that series gave me my cherished disc of the Dot album, Slim Gaillard Rides Again). The Universal people obviously did a study about what jazz albums sold and when the results came back in favor of stuff like Ella and Louis, A Love Supreme and Getz/Gilberto, they began reissuing those same albums seemingly on an annual basis while so many wonderful records started rotting away in the vaults. Well, they’re giving it another go with a batch of “Originals,” as they call them now, which were released just a few weeks ago. I’ve already picked up the terrific Oscar Peterson Plays Count Basie and Jazz Giants 58, which teamed up Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Harry “Sweets” Edison (man, Norman Granz knew how to mix and match), but the reason I’m writing about all this is this “Originals” series included an Armstrong disc, New Orleans Nights.

It’s a straight reissue of an old Decca LP that collected six, count ‘em, six performances, all featuring the All Stars. Four of them come from a productive 1950 date that resulted in Armstrong’s first recorded performances of “New Orleans Function” and “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” Pops is in great form, turning in a series of hot breaks on “Bugle Blues/Ole Miss” and really tearing it up on “Panama,” where his solo showcases some very fleet-fingered playing. The other two tracks come from 1954 and feature the Trummy Young-Billy Kyle edition of the band. Kenny John’s on drums and those his tenure was short-lived, he sounds excellent on “Basin Street Blues” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Somehow, even without any new material or liner notes, Universal’s still charging $11.98 for the disc. Do yourself a favor and just download it on Itunes for $5.99.

Finally, a gentleman by the name of Andrew Ford has been doing some interesting work for the European-based Pristine Audio label. They’ve normally just dabbled with classical music but have recently begun branching into jazz and blues with wonderful results. Mr. Ford knows his stuff and he goes into technical detail about how he digitally cleans up these old records and, though I don’t know what he’s talking about, I’m not going to argue with the results. He’s already tackled stuff like Charlie Parker with strings, the Bird and Diz Massey Hall concert, Ellington at Carnegie Hall in 1944 and the complete Robert Johnson output and now he’s tackled Armstrong. I’ve only listened to the one-minute samples on his website, but the sound is stunning. It’s a collection of Armstrong’s best early works, spanning 1923 to 1940 and I’ve never heard the early, acoustic recordings sound better. The CDs aren’t sold by American websites, but you download MP3s right off the website (prices are in Euros). Here’s the link.

Turning from audio to video, the beginning part of this year is shaping up to be a very exciting one in terms of Armstrong on DVD. The Hip-O people have always done nice Armstrong projects. The three-disc box An American Icon, with liner notes by George Avakian, is still one of the best overviews of Armstrong’s later years. More recently, they’ve done a nice job in putting out “greatest hits collections,” the single-C.D. Definitive Collection, and the double-disc Gold. On January 29, they released a DVD, Louis Armstrong: The Ultimate Collection. Now, as I wrote last week, my wife and I recently purchased a house and well, we’re going to be saving money like freaks until we close in June, so I, alas, have not picked up this release yet. In fact, I didn’t even know about it until a freak Amazon search led me to it. Hip-O did the same thing with Billie Holiday a couple of years ago and that release was widely reviewed and featured on jazz websites and magazines at the time of its release. The Armstrong disc has been out for two months and it’s almost impossible to find information on it, another sign of the unfair neglect Armstrong has received in certain sectors of the jazz community.

Reading the one review I found from the All Music Guide, it sounds like a lot of the usual clips—Soundies, 1933 Danish performances, some Timex stuff, the Goodyear material in color—with a great bonus: “Louis Armstrong Talks On TV,” which apparently is over 40 minutes from an interview Pops did on television in the late 50s. This, coupled with a booklet by Dan Morgenstern and the chance to see so many of these great clips in remastered form seems to make this disc a pretty essential purchase for Armstrong novices and for the series collectors. Here’s the link and a picture:

Also, while making my daily YouTube search for Armstrong this week, I came across the following trailer for another Armstrong DVD to be released on April 29. The title is Louis Armstrong In Australia 1964, which immediately dismayed me because it’s an error! The concert in question is actually from an Australian TV show from March 1963, and a few numbers from this show were already released on a Time-Life Armstrong box set from 2006. Anyway, here’s the trailer:

So yes, the 1964 bothers me, but who cares? It’s a complete set from the All Stars and it’s from one of the deadest years in Armstrong’s career, 1963. Armstrong did not stop touring that year but he only made a few television appearances and no studio records, while none of his shows were recorded, bootlegged or broadcast. Of course, 1963 ended with the recording of “Hello, Dolly,” and that was the end of THAT dry spell! But this one’s already available for pre-order on Amazon so check it out by clicking here.

Speaking of YouTube, good stuff continues to pop up all the time. I’ve blogged about Armstrong’s duet with Johnny Cash on “Blue Yodel Number 9,” but right before that historic event, Armstrong came out and sang two numbers from his country and western album. He looks so damn happy in that giant white hat and he really puts a lot of conviction into these songs. The actual album has a lot of fun moments but I like this medley of “Crystal Chandeliers” and “Ramblin’ Rose” better than anything on the record. As usual, the jazz protesters did not want to see Louis Armstrong in this light, but he really sings these songs with a lot of heart, winning some unprompted applause from the audience towards the end. It’s a beautiful performance and this clip is in much better quality than the old VHS version I own. Watch it back to back with the Cash clip (which has almost 400,000 views!) and you’ll see that ol’ Satchmo still had a lot of life left in him in October 1970…though not literally, as sadly, he would be dead within a year. Still, what spirit:

And finally, I received a lovely phone call this week from Dee Barcelona, Danny Barcelona’s widow. Danny was one of the nicest people I’ve ever talked to and over the course of several hours and many conversations, I managed to record a pretty thorough oral history of the man who spent 13 years of his life serving as Armstrong’s drummer. Danny died one year ago on April 1 and I still miss calling him up and hearing his happy voice. So to close and to pay tribute to the “Little Filipino Boy” (or “Hawaiian” depending on Pops’s mood), here’s Danny playing “Stompin’ At The Savoy” in 1959:

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Swing That Music

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 18, 1936
Track Time 2:53
Written by Horace Gerlach and Louis Armstrong
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpets; Jimmy Archey, Snub Mosley, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophones; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 866
Currently available on CD: Three incredible versions are all available on volume 2 of the Ambassador series. Check out for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on Louis Armstrong; The Ultimate Collection and many others

A warning before reading today’s entries: this one is not for the feint of heart. If you take blood pressure medication, take it before proceeding. If you have a bad back, now is a good time to strap yourself in tight to your chair. If you have bad breath, chew some gum for heaven’s sake. Okay, all ready, kids? Let’s proceed with (drum roll please) “Swing That Music.”

Really, is there a more exciting tune in the Louis Armstrong discography than “Swing That Music.” I’ve never been able to listen to a single version of it without it resulting in my heart pounding through my chest or a bucket of sweat dousing my face. I once listened to it on a treadmill at the gym and somehow managed to run a three-minute mile. It’s that exciting...and then some.

I promise not to get too bogged down in the historical details because this entry is about the pure thrilling experience of listening to the tune in question. But because I just can’t help myself, I might as well give a little background. As I wrote about in my last entry, our hero returned from Europe in mid-1935, hired Joe Glaser as his manager and soon landed a contract with Decca records, recording a number of pop songs while fronting the Luis Russell Orchestra (when he first returned, he played in a band organized by his former second trumpeter Zilner Randolph but that band couldn’t get the Chicago union’s permission to play in New York when Armstrong got a booking at Connie’s Inn and thus unfortunately faded into obscurity ).

“Swing That Music” was recorded at Armstrong’s eighth Decca session, only 7 1/2 months after his first date for the label. The combination of Glaser’s managing, the popularity of the Decca records and a number of radio appearances gave Armstrong’s career quite a boost in 1936. That summer he would be prominently featured in the Bing Crosby film Pennies From Heaven and in November of that year, he would publish his first charming, if mostly ghosted, autobiography, titled Swing That Music. It was a fitting title for a book on Armstrong’s but it also cashed in heavily on the tune of the same name. In fact, the book carried transcriptions of solos on the song by the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Joe Venuti, Bud Freeman and Red Norvo. Even Ray Bauduc had a drum part for the song transcribed!

As for the song, it was co-written by the mysterious Horace Gerlach. Not much concrete information is known about Gerlach but he did co-write with Armstrong three songs that resulted in fantastic records of the Decca period, “If We Never Meet Again,” “Heart Full Of Rhythm” and “What Is This Thing Called Swing” (note the phrasing: these are not exactly fantastic songs, but what Armstrong did with them is truly marvelous, though “If We Meet Again” is quite lovely). Gerlach also wrote the Mills Brothers’s hit, “Daddy’s Little Girl” as well as “Love In the Air” with Jimmy Van Heusen.

This info on Gerlach comes from Dan Morgenstern’s forward to Da Capo’s 1993 reprinting of Swing That Music. Morgenstern also writes, “In a letter to [clarinetist Joe] Muranyi, [Gerlach] insisted that he was the sole author of this book’s title tune. That may be so; it would not be the first instance of a famous band leader getting his name on a copyright, though it seems unlike the Armstrong we knew. ON the other hand, a man capable of writing (about Armstrong’s trumpet playing) that ‘by skipping up or down in natural sequence, from one note to the next in position, he produces concordant melody’ is not to be trusted! Don’t get me wrong, Gerlach undoubtedly meant well, and in 1936 he was only 25, clearly caught up in the budding Swing craze of which this book was a product.”

So with that out of the way, let’s concentrate of the first recording of “Swing That Music,” which was waxed at a truly unbelievable session. On that May 19 date, Armstrong, in Herculean form, recorded six, count ‘em six songs, all of which feature some spectacular trumpet playing. How he didn’t destroy his lip for good that day is a miracle...hell, how he didn’t destroy it on “Swing That Music,” the date’s third tune is a miracle in itself! Without further ado, you can listen along thanks to this YouTube video (just a picture of Pops for a visual, but click “play” and BLAST IT!!!).

Now, Gerlach claimed he also wrote arrangements for the band and it’s possible that he did this one. What’s interesting is that the melody statement by the horns and reeds barely swings; instead it’s kind of stiff and corny but please, please, please, dig that rhythm section, especially the bass work of the great Pops Foster. Anyone who thinks jazz bass playing in the 1920s and 30s was just two-beat or straight quarters should give Pops a listen. He’s a one-man band throughout and he really drives the music. After one chorus of melody, Pops sings the lyrics, which are also rather dumb, but he sure sounds heartfelt. And listen to that pure tenor voice, without a trace of gravel. I once wrote many moons ago that I didn’t hear the real roughness start in Armstrong’s voice until 1937 and recently, I learned in Jos Willems’s All of Me that Armstrong went in for throat surgery in early 1937 so it is indeed possible that that’s when the gravel became a permanent part of the Armstrong vocal sound.

After the vocal chorus, it’s time for the reeds to step to the forefront with a tricky arranged passage that they execute quite well (this is somewhat reminiscent of that other, earlier trumpet showpiece, “Chinatown, My Chinatown” where Armstrong’s trumpet enters after a similar saxophone chorus).

Well, if you’ve made it through the first 1:12, you’re probably enjoying the tune, but you don’t know what all the hubub is about. Have no fear, dear reader, because the record still has 1:41 left and Louis Armstrong hasn’t even put his trumpet to his lips. Once he does, well, good night, nurse. This is one of the great Armstrong recorded solos of all time. It’s melodic but it also displays his free form sense of rhythm as it often floats above the frantic beat. Armstrong’s endurance is something to marvel at and the high note exhibitionism at the end is literally and figuratively jaw-dropping. Let’s go chorus-by-chorus, shall we?

Chorus 1: Armstrong enters after a modulation into Eb, playing the melody fairly straight. Yes, the rhythm section does seem to speed up a bit but I think that might have been planned, as will be seen when I get to discussing other versions. The little tumbling phrase at 1:23 is neatly executed but what’s better is the space he leaves after it before rushing in and rephrasing the second half of the melody.

Chorus 2: Here come the “variations,” as Armstrong might put it. It opens with two simple notes, Eb to G, still not stretching into the upper register, but definitely telling a story. He soon works out a five-note descending motif which he plays three times in a row, glissing up to the first note on the second and third times. Even those little glisses can be missed if you’re not paying attention but they’re extremely difficult to play and Armstrong tosses them around like confetti. Armstrong hits his highest note of the solo to this point at the 1:44 mark, a high concert C, the sixth of key of Eb and a favorite note of Pops (and Lester Young). Armstrong’s playing is very melodic but that lightning quick run at the 1:49 mark is almost proto-bebop. The second half of the chorus is filled with more delicious two-note motives, focusing on the Bb and Gb, the second note being the minor third of Eb, giving a little bluesy quality to playing. At the 1:57 mark, Armstrong reminds the listener of the tune he’s playing by inserting a snatch of melody, but after a pause for dramatic effect, he nails a high concert Bb, heralding the arrival of a new and even more exciting third chorus.

Chorus 3: Like the second chorus, this one also begins with two notes, but they’re quite a bit higher: Bb and C, that sixth again. The band is positively cooking behind him but Armstrong remains calm; just listen to his rhythmic mastery as he repeats those Bb’s, descending chromatically to a G. As the chord changes to Cm, Armstrong shoots up, playing a three-note phrase consisting of C, D (the ninth of Cm) and a lower G at the 2:08 mark. Then comes the biggest gliss of the record, rising like a tidal wave to another high concert C. The second half of the chorus features more stuff to marvel at, more short, seemingly simple motives that stick with the listener long after the record finishes. He’s so in control it’s scary, tossing off one phrase after another, each one landing on a different but perfectly placed and chosen high note. The band hits the dominant fifth chord hard, creating a tremendous sense of urgency and excitement as Armstrong responds with a crystal clear high C. Is he really going to do it? Does he have enough in the tank for one more chorus? Do you believe in miracles?

Chorus 4: Yes! Here’s where you call the kids over to the computer because Armstrong’s fourth and final chorus is something that the whole world should appreciate. Stories abound from Armstrong’s crazy days in the late 1920s and early 1930s where he would hit hundreds of high C’s each night as a means of impressing the audience. But after doing almost catastrophic harm to his lips, Armstrong cooled off during his European exile and when he returned, he claimed to put that stuff in the past and concentrate on pleasing his audiences, which didn’t necessarily want to hear 100 or 200 high C’s. However, on his first recording of “Swing That Music,” Armstrong closed that chapter of his career with a triumphant bang. Over 40 “bangs,” if you will. In fact, every time I listen I come up with a different number but tonight, counting the high C he plays to enter the final chorus, I count 41 high concert C’s, before resolving up to a D and a final high Eb (in trumpet terms, these would be high D’s, resolving to a final high F!). Now some might frown at such carrying on and one can even argue that the 41 high C’s don’t exactly swing. But who cares? Every human has a little gawker inside of him or her and this is, plain and simple, something to be amazed by. I still think it’s Armstrong’s most exciting solo on record.

Just a few months later, on August 7, 1936, Decca paired Armstrong with one of their other major sellers, Jimmy Dorsey and his big band. Though the book still wasn’t out yet, Decca thought it would be a good idea to record another “Swing That Music.” On the Red Hot Jazz Archive website, they give a link to “Swing That Music” that purports to be the May 18 version, but upon clicking it, it’s actually the Dorsey one. Thus, if you’d like to listen to the version with Jimmy Dorsey, please click here.

From the opening note, it’s clear that this is a more polished band than that of Armstrong’s, but the rhythm section is lacking Pops Foster’s drive. Armstrong’s vocal is nearly identical to the original, but the sax passage has some new twists and turns (Dorsey ate this stuff up and could crank out Rudy Wiedoeft-like solos with aplomb). Armstrong once again enters with a modulation and a seeming burst of speed as he prepares his next four-chorus foray into the land of “Swing That Music.” Let’s dig a little deeper:

Chorus 1: The excellent Dorsey drummer, Ray McKinley, immediately digs in and gives Pops his favorite backbeat as sticks strictly to snare drum support. Armstrong once again devotes this first chorus to the melody and it follows the original to a tee.

Chorus 2: Once again, Armstrong plays with those descending motives, but it’s different than the original. The choices of notes are different, the rhythms are different, only the ideas are similar. He keeps going the with idea in the second half of the chorus, coming up with continuously different variations on this descending theme. He ends this go-around by holding a G to lead into the third chorus, not exactly the high Bb he played at this juncture in May.

Chorus 3: The genius of Louis Armstrong. I just mentioned that held the Bb going into the third chorus in May but here he holds the G before nailing the Bb at the start of this chorus, which is almost more exciting. Armstrong continues with these descending chromatic passages but he doesn’t gliss as much, playing successive notes up to the high C at the 2:11 mark, where he just glissed up to it in May. But then comes a slightly odd moment: he drops out at the 2:13 mark and doesn’t return until 2:19. Six seconds might seems like a short period but it feels like an eternity as the band does nothing but riff like mad for six bars. Could the great Armstrong’s chops be fading? Is he planting his feet and taking his time for the perfect entrance? I don’t know for sure, but I don’t think it’s a chops problem as he enters by hitting a scintillating high Bb right on the nose, holding it for good measure.

Chorus 4: For those looking for 41 more high C’s, please refer back to the original May 1936 recording. But for those who want to hear more astounding Armstrong playing, keep listening Instead of the repeated notes, Armstrong keeps high C as the focal point of the solo but he hits as the final note of a bunch of four-note phrases. The tactic works; Armstrong and Glaser probably knew that the 41 high notes might have annoyed some of the squares in the crowd and this alteration kept the solo melodic and almost riff-like, while still maintaining the excitements of the various high C’s including the final climb to the high Eb. But as exciting as it is, I still prefer the May version.

Fortunately, Pops wasn’t quite done with “Swing That Music. And thanks to Gösta Hägglöf, the oracle of Armstrong, there are three more fantastic broadcast versions of the tune that are available as part of his Ambassador series. I don’t want to post all three here because I want as many Armstrong nuts as possible to seek out ALL of Gösta’s issues, but of the three (from 1937, 1938 and 1941), I’ve chosen to share the one from June 25, 1938. This is from a CBS “Saturday Night Swing Club” broadcast and it’s ludicrously exciting. The band is a studio band, not the regular Armstrong orchestra, but it’s still a lot of fun Listen along:

As you can hear, Pops’s voice is quite gravelly by this point. Also, the saxophone soli has been greatly condensed. But listen for the rhythm section go from lightening fast to warp speed when Armstrong enters (almost 400 beats per minute!). This was a device Pops liked to use, especially on live broadcasts (it can be heard on live 1930s versions of “Chinatown” and “Tiger Rag” as well as the 1934 European recordings of “Tiger Rag” and “St. Louis Blues” to name a few). I always admired how the rhythm section could change tempos and lock in like that without falling apart, though even I’ll admit the band sounds dangerously close to falling apart towards the end of Armstrong’s four-chorus solo. The other two broadcasts I mentioned featured the Armstrong band and they were clearly more adept at handling the piece since they probably played it every night. But if you overlook the sloppiness, the excitement is almost too much to handle and Armstrong sounds in top form. There’s no need to do a breakdown as this track is fairly similar to the Dorsey version, but Armstrong sounds a little stronger and more sure-footed. He now times all of his short little phrases perfectly with the band’s punctuations. And that held Bb going into the final chorus makes my hair stand on can hear the crowd begin cheering and really, who could blame them? Armstrong barely gets the final high Eb out but even that can be overlooked after the excitement that just preceded it.

And speaking of other versions of “Swing That Music,” I can’t forget to mention this one, one of the great lost opportunities regarding Pops. In October 1938, Hearst Metrotone’s “News Of The Day” newsreel featuring Pops playing “Swing That Music” and “Confessin’.” Unfortunately, the geniuses editing the footage only used 20 seconds of “Swing That Music” and the closing cadenza of “Confessin’.” Watching these 20 seconds is a killer because I would kill to see Armstrong in his prime play the entire solo but at least we have this precious chorus:

Armstrong continued to play “Swing That Music” until at least 1941 as another tremendous version from that year appears on the eighth volume of the Ambassador series. That one sounds like it was recorded in a toilet bowl but Pops’s strength comes through. However, as the 1940s progressed, “Swing That Music” seems to have disappeared as there are no further broadcasts of it from the big band period. However, Armstrong had one last rendezvous with it, performing two times in the month of September in 1949. Both performances were tone for television shows though I have never heard the second one, which was done with Don Redman’s big band (the mind boggles at the thought of Armstrong in 1949 performing it with an orchestra). But ten days earlier, Armstrong took part in a jam session for Eddie Condon’s TV show as fellow All Stars Jack Teagrden, Earl Hines and Arvell Shaw sat in with the Condon crew, which included Wild Bill Davison on cornet, Cutty Cutshall on trombone, Peanuts Hucko on clarinet, Ernie Caceres on baritone saxophone, Jack Lesbert on second bass, George Wettling on drums and Condon on guitar. This is a great recording but because it was a jam session atmosphere and everyone, including both bassists, had to get a solo, Pops is only reduced to two quick choruses at the end. And it’s a shame, because he sounds so strong, I would have loved to hear him go four. But I’ll quit complaining and will remain thankful for what we’ve got. Here ‘tis:

And that was the end regarding Louis Armstrong and “Swing That Music.” Fortunately, I have the handful of recordings and broadcasts Armstrong made of the tune in the 1930s, but really, if he only touched the piece on the May day in 1936, the song would go down in history as one of his finest. But though he was finished with it, the song does live on as it makes for a fine jam session number. I’ve seen both Wynton Marsalis and Jon Faddis put their own spin on it and David Ostwald’s Gully Low Jazz Band usually closes with a hot version of it during their Wednesday evening gigs at Birdland in New York. But I’ll quit tonight with two YouTube videos, one of Armstrong disciple Bobby Hackett performing it in 1962 with Dave McKenna, Urbie Green, Bob Wilber, Nabil Totah and Morey Feld and another video of the great Marty Grosz, one of my favorite performers, talking about Horace Gerlach and singing an Armstrong-Gerlach medley of “If We Never Meet Again” and of course, “Swing That Music.” Enjoy!

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I'm Puttin' All My Eggs In One Basket

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded February 4, 1936
Track Time 2:55
Written by Irving Berlin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bunny Berigan, Bob Mayhew, trumpet; Al Philburn, trombone; Sid Trucker, alto saxophone, clarinet; Phil Waltzer, alto saxophone; Paul Ricci, tenor saxophone; Fulton McGrath, piano; Dave Barbour, guitar; Pete Peterson, bass; Stan King, drums
Originally released on Decca 698
Currently available on CD: Available on volume 2 of the Ambassador series. Check out for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on Rhythm Saved The World

Happy Easter! To celebrate, I’ve decided to resurrect the blog after another week-long absence. No, loyal readers, I’m not dead, though I’ll continue to apologize for the low amount of blogs I’ve turned in this month. First the computer debacle, then about a hundred gigs, then the process of my wife and I purchasing a new house with all the fun mortgage and real estate meetings that come with it and now, my wife’s recovery from wisdom tooth surgery, which has left her pretty beat up (and in no mood to see me leave her to write about Pops!). But today’s Easter and a woman has to get dressed and put on her makeup at some point so while she does that, that’ll give me a little time to sneak in an entry on the only song in the Pops discography that I could connect to today’s holiday, Irving Berlin’s “I’m Puttin’ All My Eggs In One Basket” (well, there’s also “Cotton Tail,” but I’ll save that for next year).

The song was written for the 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Follow The Fleet. I love everything Astaire and Rogers did and if you’ve never seen their routine on this song, you’ve missed out...but not for long. Here ‘tis, courtesy of YouTube (and dig the dirty-sounding clarinet player around the 3:11 mark....shades of Edmond Hall):

Isn’t that a lot of fun? The song’s a winner, with a wonderful voice and Astaire sounds positively charming (though the song does test his range...he passes). Needless to say, various recorded versions began popping up in early 1936, including a typical swinging-like-mad recording by Stuff Smith, as well as a Chick Bullock version with a hot bridge by Bunny Berigan. But of course, our focus is on Pops and he had his turn on February 4, 1936.

This was something of an odd session for our hero. After his European sabbatical, Pops returned in 1935, now guided by Joe Glaser, and began making a series of recordings for Decca, fronting Luis Russell’s big band. His earliest Decca recordings are somewhat roughh-going for the Russell band, but Pops sounds fantastic and a lot of my favorites from this period come from those early 1935 sessions: “I’m In The Mood For Love,” “Was I To Blame For Falling In Love With You,” “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed,” “Thanks a Million,” “Shoe Shine Boy,” and others. But though the “I’m Puttin’ All My Eggs In One Basket” session was only Armstrong’s sixth for his new label, Decca already stripped him of the Russell band and instead hired a bunch of high quality studio musicians, including the famed Armstrong disciple Bunny Berigan.

Why would Decca do this so early? Goodness knows, Decca president Jack Kapp liked putting his artists in different settings and indeed, in the coming years Armstrong would record with Hawaiian musicians, with the Mills Brothers, with a choir, with small groups, etc. But I never fully understood the studio band sessions, of which there are a few. Perhaps Decca wanted to rush out a record of “Basket” and didn’t trust the sometimes shaky studio performance of the Russell band. But a later 1938 studio band session with some of the musicians turned out performances of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” songs that were in Armstrong’s live repertoire at the period. Thus, I have no concrete answer as to why the Russell band was asked to sit out some of these sessions, but to my ears, it’s a shame, because for all their occasional stiff performances and intonation troubles, they played with a better spirit and often used better arrangements than the studio groups.

But regardless, nobody’s listening to these recordings for Al Philburn’s trombone playing in the ensemble (my apologies to Mr. Philburn’s family). Pops is the main event and he always sounds good. You can listen to his lovely recording of “I’m Puttin’ All My Eggs In One Basket” by clicking here.

The record begins with one of Armstrong’s most relaxed opening cadenzas. This isn’t the in-your-face, daring “West End Blues” introduction; it’s amazing how much Armstrong matured in few short years after those groundbreaking 1928 recordings. It opens like he’s practicing, so relaxed and so in control of not just the notes he chooses to play but also where he chooses to play them. The rest of the record could be a polka; I’d buy it just for the opening, which really puts me in a content frame-of-mind. Armstrong then launches into the melody, another one that seems to have been written with him in mind, with all those repeated notes. The arrangement is kind of square but the very good rhythm section is solid, drummer Stan King offering some tasty cowbell accents during the A sections. Again, relaxation is the key and though I feel as if I’m overusing the word, I can’t think of a better one. Paul Ricci takes the bridge in a pretty straightforward fashion (I detect a tinge of Bud Freeman) before Pops reenters with a perfect little descending phrase. The notes just flow out of his horn, especially those quick descending swoons that sometimes get lost in the glare of the high notes.

Sid Trucker’s clarinet picks up the turnaround and the modulation into a key more suitable for Pops. As already stated, Berlin’s melody covers quite a range, but Pops is up for the challenge, hitting those deep low notes that sometimes sound like he’s duetting with himself. This is one of Armstrong’s most mellifluous vocals; you can hear him smiling throughout. There’s no scat interludes or anything except for a well-timed “honey” in the bridge but he sure sells the loving message of the song’s lyric.

Bunny’s trumpet is heard prominently in the modulation back to the original key for the final moments of blowing. The band gets a short turn in the spotlight, playing the stiff arrangement as well as it can be played (again, King sounds very fine on drums) but every time I get to this point of the record and I brace myself for some dramatic Armstrong, I’m always dismayed to look at the counter and see less than 40 seconds remaining! Forget the band, I want more Pops! Unfortunately, Armstrong gets to blow beautifully in his upper register for a grand total of eight bars before launching into a typical slow motion Decca ending, though this one resolves nicely as the band plays a minor chord before resolving to the final major chord under Armstrong’s crystalline final high concert Db. Thus, the 1936 “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” has some winning moments--the opening cadenza, Pops’s melody statement, the sunny vocal--but overall, it’s not all that could have been because the arrangement is lame and there’s not enough of the Armstrong trumpet.

Armstrong would get one more crack at “I’m Puttin’ All My Eggs In One Basket” in 1957, but once again his trumpet would have to take a backseat. In fact, his trumpet never even left the car, as this session occurred on August 13, 1957, a particularly rough patch for Armstrong’s lip as he was performing with the All Stars by night and recording for Norman Granz by day, resulting in much pained beauty on Armstrong’s big band and orchestra sessions arranged by Russ Garcia, sessions I’ve written about a few times before. But the day before the first Garcia session, Armstrong completed the final session for his second album with Ella Fitzgerald. Their first Verve collaboration from 1956 was a success and doing it again in 1957 was a no-brainer. I absolutely love all the Armstrong and Fitzgerald albums. Some people just have it naturally built into their heads that whenever superstars meet up, whether on record, in films or in sports, the result rarely matches the hype. While this is sometimes the case, I think the Armstrong and Fitzgerald Verve dates are 100% wonderful. There’s such a loose atmosphere, the Oscar Peterson + drummer group gives swinging backing, the songs are top choice and you have two of the greatest jazz singers ever interpreting these timeless melodies and lyrics in their own genius ways. What more does one want?

Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s first two Verve albums could have almost been called Ella and Louis Sing the Fred Astaire Songbook, as they do so many songs introduced by the great hoofer. This final session featured no trumpet playing on any of the five songs recorded that day but even without the horn, I prefer this version of “Basket” to the 1936 one. You can decide for yourself by listening along:

Oscar Peterson’s introduction is customarily perfect, setting up Armstrong’s tender reading of the verse, which he never got to tackle in 1936. The verse is a killer and Armstrong sounds wonderful on it (listen to his reading of the word “many” and Peterson’s quick-on-his-feet answer). When they get to the chorus, the tempo picks up to a faster clip than the Decca, how rhythm sections changed in the intervening two decades. One of my favorite sounds in the world is the Peterson trio chugging along with a drummer, in this case Louie Bellson, joining in on brushes. I couldn’t picture any better support for these artists. After Armstrong’s choruses, Ella takes it, singing the verse, too. The mood is so damn infectious and I cannot stop patting my foot. The arrangement is quite simple with Pops taking one, Ella taking the second and then both trading for the third and final chorus. Matters really take off when Bellson switches from brushes to sticks at the start of the third chorus, something he also did to great effect on Armstrong’s reading of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” recorded just 13 days earlier. At the bridge, Bellson begins clicking away on the rim of his snare, with guitarist Herb Ellis’s comping grows more riff-like, adding tremendous excitement to the proceedings. In the final eight bars, the two voices that couldn’t be any more different blend together in perfect harmony. Wonderfully happy, swinging, joyous music all around.

Well, the missus is dressed and the celebrations are about to begin in a matter of minutes so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. Once again, have a happy Easter and I promise to be back again in the near future with more on the wonderful world of Pops.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Cold In Hand Blues

Bessie Smith
Recorded January 14, 1925
Track Time 3:17
Written by Jack Gee and Fred Longshaw
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, cornet; Fred Longshaw, piano; Bessie Smith, vocal
Originally released on Columbia 14064-D
Currently available on CD: It’s on various Bessie Smith compilations, as well as Fremeaux and Associates’s second volume in their recent Complete Louis Armstrong undertaking.
Available on Itunes? Yes

Dear readers of this blog, I hope you’ll forgive the entry-less week that just preceded the publishing of today’s work. As I wrote last week, my computer of less than two years died a senseless death, so me and the missus decided to change things up a bit by going out and buying a Mac. We had both used them periodically in college but this is a whole new world and I think we made the right move. The nightmare was transferring my documents and music from the old PC to the new Mac. I paid Best Buy $99 to do it and they said, “Here’s your stuff,” handing me 11 DVDs in the process (I had already paid them $200 to fix it, only to get no refund when they said, “It’s not worth fixing). But when I uploaded it all, my Itunes was still missing 11,000 songs! So I plugged in the old computer, which was so shot, the mouse no longer worked and over the next seven days I managed to rescue my entire Itunes library, burning it all on to DVDs (a hassle without a mouse). So the moral…thanks Best Buy! This is a family blog so I’ll refrain from using some of the language I’ve uttered around the house when describing them this past week…

But now, all 20,000 songs are back, as are my documents, so I should be able start rolling these entries out again with a little more frequency…then again, my wife and I just made an offer today on a new house to buy AND I have four gigs in the next six days sooooo….well, let’s see what happens!

But today’s a special day because it introduces the legendary Bessie Smith into the fold. For the best telling of the story of the “Empress of the Blues,” look no further than Chris Albertson’s masterly Bessie, which can be purchased on Amazon by clicking here. She was starting to take off at the time of her first session with Pops, who, too, was making his mark on the New York jazz scene with his work with Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra. During his two years in New York, Armstrong made a huge number of recording sessions, none under his own name, but rather with a number of studio pickup groups under the leadership of Clarence Williams, as well as a series of blues records that found the young cornetist mastering the art of the obbligato as he backed singers ranging from Maggie Jones and Alberta Hunter to Sippie Wallace and Trixie Smith.

This is a period of Armstrong that I absolutely adore, but I don’t know it as well as everything that followed. I usually listen to the blues singer recordings in small doses because I have a hard time remembering the different singers and song titles when I listen to them for more than an hour straight. And on the Henderson titles, Armstrong’s solos sometimes fly by too fast to even digest what just happened. But there’s much classic music and as I wrote in my last entry, when you listen to it all in chronological order, which is possible thanks to the new series by Fremeaux and Associates, you really get a sense of how many different settings Armstrong recorded in while stationed in New York.

Armstrong’s first session with Bessie Smith came right in between two other January 1925 dates that demonstrated Armstrong’s versatility. Six days prior to his meeting with Smith, Armstrong dueled with Sidney Bechet on the timeless “Cake Walking Babies From Home,” arguably the most exciting jazz record ever recorded (I’ve never listened to it without losing my breath) and hinted at his future style during his passionate melody playing on “Pickin’ On Your Baby.” And just a short time later, at the end of January, Armstrong recorded pop songs like “I’ll See You In My Dreams” with the Henderson band.

But smack dab in the middle came the first landmark date with Smith. The session opened up with W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” and if that was all Smith and Armstrong recorded together, theirs would still go down as a classic partnership. Some of the blues singers Armstrong accompanied during this time were pretty dreary, but Smith was the top and her vocals on all five songs recorded that day are not only hauntingly emotional but they also bring out the best in Armstrong. Columbia recorded him pretty close to the microphone, lending a duet feel to the proceedings rather than the typical sound of a vocalist backed by a musician. Armstrong plays with his customary straight mute on “St. Louis Blues,” introducing some phrases that would become part of his “Back O’Town Blues” solo 20 years later, but on other sides recorded that day, he pulled out his plunger. Of course, Armstrong’s mentor, Joe “King” Oliver, was the master of the plunger and surely, Little Louis learned the art from him. He occasionally brought it out during his New York recordings, turning in a rip-snorting solo on “Everybody Loves My Baby” during this period, but though he used it well, the plunger-muted Armstrong just doesn’t sound right to me. Not bad, mind you, just not right. I mean, he gave up the plunger soon after so out of the almost 50 years of Armstrong records we have to listen to, the plunger only comes out on a handful, really making those sides stick out. And Armstrong doesn’t sound completely comfortable either, having trouble playing his customary double-timed phrases while controlling the mute at certain times, as will be discussed in further detail in a bit.

Today’s entry is on the fourth song recorded that day. I’ve listened to this entire session about five times over the last few days because I wanted to pepper my entry with information and opinions about all the songs, but each one could warrant an entry of its own so I’ll stick to the matter at hand, “Cold In Hand Blues.” If you’d like to listen along, please click here

This song was credited to Smith’s husband at the time, Jack Gee, as well as the session’s pianist, Fred Longshaw, but it’s very probable that Smith came up with the words. Because all five songs featured similar tempos, Armstrong changed up the sound of his horn on each performance, opening with the straight mute on “St. Louis Blues,” bringing out the plunger on “Reckless Blues,” playing open horn on “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues” and playing wah-wah style on “Cold In Hand Blues.” In fact, all Armstrong literally plays for a good chunk of the beginning of the record are just two notes at a clip, “wah” and “wah.” I think it’s a rather awkward moment for Armstrong. Part of me wonders if perhaps he was getting a little too ornamental on the previous number, “Sobbin’ Hearted Blues.” It’s a well-known fact that Smith preferred Armstrong’s fellow Henderson trumpeter Joe Smith as an accompanist and perhaps she told Armstrong to tone it down a bit for “Cold In Hand.” Literally, Armstrong only plays one pitch for the first 40 seconds of the record! After that, when Smith reaches the chorus, Armstrong plays like himself, turning in an obbligato with many phrases ripped straight from his customary vocabulary (I’m thinking of the one at the 1:18 mark). Armstrong really gets bluesy around the 1:32 mark, but then he reverts back to repeating notes, hammering the “wah wah” aspect of his playing into the ground. I’m actually glad he got rid of all of his mutes except the straight one, the one which least colored the glorious sound of his open horn.

Thus, at the two-minute mark, we have a wonderful Smith vocal and a fine Armstrong obbligato, though not one of his best ones, at least in my opinion. But then Smith gives him a solo and, though he keeps the mute in, he steals the record. More interestingly, Armstrong’s single chorus would turn up again later in 1925 almost played verbatim on one of the earliest Hot Five records, “Gut Bucket Blues.” It’s the kind of moment that once again proves the point that many of the early jazzmen worked on their solos and always had certain choruses they could pull out at the drop of a hat. Who knows—this “Cold In Hand”/ “Gut Bucket Blues” solo could have been something Armstrong had been playing since his days in New Orleans. And what’s wrong with that? Nothing because it’s a great solo. Here’s “Gut Bucket Blues,” if you’d like to listen to “Papa Dip’s” climactic solo, click here.

As you can hear, Armstrong plays the solo at a brighter tempo and without the mute on “Gut Bucket” but for all intents and purposes, it’s the same solo. I’ve written about this before in terms of Armstrong “borrowing” King Oliver’s “Jazzin’ Babies Blues” solo and using it as late as the 1961 “Black and Tan Fantasy” with Duke Ellington. This was a part of pre-bop jazz; not everyone did it but those who did shouldn’t be knocked, which happened to Armstrong when he played similar worked out solos night after night on the All Stars (though even then, there are plenty of differences when you listen to a number of versions of the same solo). Armstrong worked hard at mastering his solos and once he brought them to a level he saw fit, he didn’t see the need to change them. I mean, how could you top that solo on “Indiana”? That solo took about five years of improvising to perfect but once he nailed it, there was no need to change it because it was so damn good. Critics cried (and still do) but I won’t argue with music if it sounds good, improvised or not.

But back to Bessie…she returns for one chorus but now Armstrong is really feeling his oats. The redundant “wah-wahs” from the opening of the record are gone, replaced by startlingly tricky double-timed passages. Again, Armstrong’s execution doesn’t sound 100% comfortable to me because he has to work the mute while he’s playing, but his ideas are limitless. He fills each little space Smith leaves him with more ideas and creativity than some much longer jazz records provide.

But as stated earlier, this kind of playing probably didn’t sit too well with Smith, who preferred the relaxed style of Joe Smith. Armstrong returned in May 1925 to do two more sessions with Bessie but that would be it, a total of nine glorious records (plus two alternates). Armstrong clearly had a good time with Bessie, delighting in how, when he asked for change of a hundred, “…man, she just raised up her dress and, like where a carpenter keeps his nails, she had so much money, it killed me.” Armstrong’s famous quote about working with Smith was, “Everything I did with her I LIKE,” but Albertson also included this Armstrong quote from a 1952 interview, where he said, “Bessie Smith, I think she’s one of the greatest, the madam of the blues, that we are going to get for generations to come. It’s too bad that she didn’t live a little longer so that the younger generation could at least have heard her in person, you know.”

Smith might have died prematurely, but her musical legacy remains strong, as her recordings continue to be reissued on labels such as Colubmia, Frog and JSP. I love all of her work but to me, her peak recordings came when she was matched with one of her equals in the legend department, Louis Armstrong. Listening to Armstrong and Bessie Smith together had a profound effect on both Billie Holiday vocally and Lester Young musically and I think many younger jazz musicians can still learn a lot by listening to those timeless records.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Alone At Last

The Southern Seranaders
Recorded August 7, 1925
Track Time 3:12
Written by Ted Fio Rito and Gus Kahn
Recorded in New York City
Elmer Chambers, Joe Smith, trumpet; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Charlie Green, trombone; Buster Bailey, Don Redman, Coleman Hawkins, reeds; Fletcher Henderson, piano, leader; Charlie Dixon, banjo; Ralph Escudero, tuba; Kaiser Marshall, drums
Originally released on Harmony 4-H
Currently available on CD: It’s on the old Sony box-set, Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, as well as Fremeaux and Associates’s second volume in their recent Complete Louis Armstrong undertaking.
Available on Itunes? No

Slight change of plans, good people! Last weekend, my computer stopped recognizing the small fact that I had a mouse plugged into it. The next day, it told me the USB port I use for my Ipod every day no longer exists. With each vital organ failing one at a time, it was time to bring ol’ Betsy over to the Best Buy to see what exactly the problem was (I don’t know where “Ol’ Betsy” came from…but I wish I could give it back). The famed Geek Squad promised to give my computer the once over…once they did the same to my wallet. A few hundred dollars and two days later, the phone rang: “Mr. Riccardi, it seems to be a motherboard issue. This computer isn’t even worth saving.”

Having come to terms with putting my beloved machine to rest after less than two years (ripoff), I begged and pleaded with the guy to make sure my documents, files and over 20,000 Itunes song would survive. Yes, he assured me, they would all be backed up…for $99. Thus, I’ll have my complete library at my disposal once I decide to invest in a new computer, which should happen sometime this month. But for the time being, I’ll have to hold off on all my fancy entries that allowed me to post treasures from my personal Armstrong collection, including the promised “Swing That Music” entry I mentioned in my last entry. Thus, for the time being, I’m going to rely on pre-1940s Armstrong tracks I can use the Red Hot Jazz Archive for, as well as various YouTube videos. I’ve realized that writing entries without music is a waste of time, because if you, dear reader, don’t have the track I’m discussing, well, you might as well be reading the Chinese phone book (which, I do have more “Chins” than, for the record). So, with faith and support (and about $800 to get a new machine), we’ll get through this crisis together.

So let’s get started with one of my favorite examples of Louis Armstrong playing with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the 1925 recording of “Alone at Last.” Anyone who has found their way to this website must surely be familiar with the stage in Armstrong’s career: in 1924, he left his mentor, King Oliver, to go to New York City and join Fletcher Henderson, leader of the top black dance band at the time. Henderson’s band featured wonderful jazz musicians as Buster Bailey and Coleman Hawkins, but they weren’t strictly a jazz outfit. However, Armstrong, who never really meshed with the high-strung personalities in the band, managed to turn the band, and the entire city of New York, on its ear with his revolutionary playing and his whole concept of swing, a word Bailey never even heard applied to music until he heard Armstrong utter it. Hawkins learned invaluable lessons from listening to Armstrong night after night and the band’s arranger, Don Redman, began adapting Armstrong-inspired ideas into his arrangements, ushering in the birth of big band jazz in the process. Armstrong left Henderson a changed band in November 1925, their records sounding completely different from those made prior to his joining. However, Armstrong always maintained a degree of bitterness towards his former leader, as well as the other members of the band. This is from a letter Armstrong wrote to Max Jones on August 15, 1970:

“Now, in 1924, yes, I did leave Fletcher Henderson’s band. I stayed and tolerated those fellas and their cuttin’-ups on the bandstand. Instead of playing their music right, I stood around for it until I gave Fletcher my notice and joined Lil at the Dreamland in Chicago. Oh, I was so much relieved and happy over that. Mmm! The fellas in Fletcher’s band had such big heads until Mmmm, boy, you’re talking about big-head motherfuckers, such big heads even if they miss a note. So what? Mmmm.”

That passage illustrates Armstrong’s absolute intolerance of wrong notes and shoddy musicianship. Later in the same letter, Armstrong talks about Joe Garland, the one-time musical director of his big band, saying, “He disliked, man, I’ll say it again, he disliked bad notes the same as me. Like I mean, you can’t help it. I mean I ain’t perfect either. That’s why I hate ‘em because I don’t hear myself with ‘em. That’s why I try to make all my records with good notes at least and that’s the way they all came out. I wouldn’t let it pass. ‘Oh, that’s all right, let it go.’ Bullshit! It had to be OK by me as long as the notes were right, whatever I attempted to do, high or low.” And there’s another story about the photography Herb Snitzer watching Trummy Young practice. He asked him how long he had been at it and Young said, “About three hours. If Pops ever heard me play sloppy, I would never hear the end of it.” So Armstrong immediately was put off by the attitude of the Henderson men, thinking they were better than this southern hick trumpet player, but not caring when they hit wrong notes.

But Armstrong had the most resentment for Henderson himself. Again, in the letter to Jones, he wrote:

“Here’s a funny thing. Every time he’d give me credit for hittin’ a note, he always had a little pep talk for me. He’d say, ‘Boy that was wonderful. You know one thing, you’d be very good if you go and take some lessons.’ I’d say, ‘Yessir!,’ but in my head I’m saying, ‘You can go fuck yourself.’ But he didn’t’ dig me so the hell with it. There is something else I wanted to say. I was always hitting them notes that them cats couldn’t hit, ya know. With me, singing was out. As Fletcher were concerned, singing was out the whole time I was in the band. He wouldn’t listen to me sing nothin’. All the singing that I did before I joined Fletcher Henderson’s band went down the drain the whole time that I was with him. So you can imagine how glad that I was to join my wife Lil and her fine band. She had a damn good band. To me, it was better than Fletcher’s. Other than those big arrangements that Don Redman were makin’, I wasn’t moved very much with them too much. Too much airs and all that shit. Fletcher was so carried away with that society shit and his education, he slipped by a small timer and a young musician (me) who wanted to do everything for him musically. I personally didn’t think that Fletcher cared too much for me anyway. Tush. Thus. Isn’t that some shit? You never miss your water till your well goes dry.”

Henderson has rightly become a major figure in jazz history, for employing men such as Armstrong, Hawkins, Red Allen, Roy Eldridge and all, for pioneering the concept of the jazz big band and for creating so many of the wonderfully swinging arrangements that heralded in the Swing Era once they were played by Benny Goodman. But in the early to mid-20s, Henderson was primarily a dance band with the occasional hot solos. Thus, many jazz purists listen to corny, doo-wacka-doo sounds on early Henderson records and frown until Armstrong bursts through. I, too, celebrate what Armstrong does on these Henderson records but I don’t want to disparage the rest of that band’s early sounds. They were playing pop music, mainly for white audiences, and this was the style of the day. Yes, men such as Armstrong and Hawkins populated the band but that didn’t automatically make them a 100% jazz unit. Jeffrey Magee did a heroic job in discussing Henderson’s early, pre-Armstrong work in his book, Fletcher Henderson: The Uncrowned King of Swing.

So why am I making these points? My loyal readers know where I’m going…here, once again, is Louis Armstrong, tremendous jazz maverick of the 1920s, playing popular music in dance band arrangements on a nightly basis. The myths tell us that when Armstrong left the Henderson band, they were a pure swing band, recording stuff like “Sugar Foot Stomp” and “T.N.T.” As I mentioned earlier, those records are light years ahead of the kinds of things they were recording when Armstrong first joined but that doesn’t mean they threw those earlier arrangements in the trash bin. They were still a dance band and though Redman was incorporating more swinging arrangements, they still had to play pop songs in the fashion of the day.

Which leads us, finally, to the subject of today’s entry, “Alone At Last,” a pop song by the team of Ted Fio Rito and Gus Kahn, who were responsible for other hits of the day such as “Toot Toot Tootsie,” “Charley My Boy,” “Laugh Clown Laugh,” and one of my favorite Armstrong records, “I Never Knew.” The “Alone At Last” session has always had an air of mystery about it. According to Jos Willems’s All of Me, scholars debated for years about the personnel of the band, many assuming that because this session was released under the name of “The Southern Serenaders,” it possibly could have included members of both the Henderson band and another popular dance band of the period, Sam Lanin’s Southern Serenaders. Apparently, there’s a long essay on this session in Walter C. Allen’s Henderson bio-discography, Hendersonia, which I don’t have access to (going for $120 on Amazon…get ‘em while they’re hot!). Willems quotes this passage from Allen’s work: “Armstrong told Brian Rust that he never recorded with Lanin and that any such recordings were by the Henderson band; and Sam Lanin told Paul Burgess that there was never any Henderson-Lanin collaboration.”

Thus, this “Southern Serenaders” session, released on Columbia’s 50-cent Harmony label, was just another Henderson session. But I love the placement of this session: directly in between the final two Armstrong did that were released under Henderson’s name. The prior session, from May 25, featured Redman’s shining hour arrangement on “Sugar Foot Stomp,” adapted from “Dipper Mouth Blues,” as well as the hot “What-Cha-Call-‘Em Blues,” with a great trumpet spot for Joe Smith. And after the “Southern Serenaders” session, the Henderson band recorded the explosive “T.N.T,” always cited as proof of how far the group progressed after Armstrong’s arrival.

But then how does one explain the “Southern Serenaders” session? Placed smack dab in the middle of those two high-water marks for Henderson, it couldn’t be any more different. Besides “Alone At Last,” the session opened up with the ridiculous “I Miss My Swiss,” written by Wolfe Gilbert and Abel Baer and sung by a white singer, Billy Jones. Please listen along for popular music in all of its 1925 glory by clicking here to listen.

I find that stuff charming as hell but I guess I’m not the usual jazz snob because before I even knew what a blue note was, I was in eighth grade listening to Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson records from 1922 and I still have a deep affinity for that material. But for the first two minutes and 28 seconds of “I Miss My Swiss” there are absolutely no clues that this is Fletcher Henderson’s legendary “jazz” band. But then, wammo! Here comes Pops for a scintillating solo, concluding a quick chromatic phrase that made me think of “West End Blues” for half a second. And please dig Kaiser Marshall beating that cymbal on the backbeat. Pops and his backbeats! Again, the jazz people never got that and critics killed him for keeping “heavy” drummers like Barrett Deems and Danny Barcelona. But man, Pops could fly when he had that two-and-four being pounded behind him. Armstrong’s solo is too short but it wakes up the band, which swings merrily towards the end, Bailey’s clarinet and Charlie Grreen’s trombone making for a swinging polyphonic sound.

But before I move on to “Alone At Last,” I realize there might be some big fans of “I Miss My Swiss” out there. Fortunately, this was indeed a popular song and a few other renditions survive on the Red Hot Jazz Archive. Ted “Is Everybody Happy?” Lewis got to the song on June 23, recording it for Columbia. And is it me or does it begin with the same exact arrangement used by Henderson? Stay tuned for more on that in a bit, but for now, feel free to listen along by clicking here.

Three days after Henderson recorded it, Eddie Peabody, “The King of The Banjo,” recorded it with a vocal by Arthur Fields. Click here to listen along.

And two days after Peabody’s version, on August 12, Paul Whiteman, “The King of Jazz,” recorded his take on it with a funny vocal by Fritz Zimmerman, complete with yodeling. Here’s the link.

And finally, if you can’t get enough of Billy Jones, the vocalist on the Henderson “Southern Serenaders” version, here’s his second version, recorded again for the Harmony label on August 10 in tandem with Ernest Haye. Billed as “The Happiness Boys,” this record features some vaudeville patter at the start before the chorus kicks in (you’ll be singing this one all day, trust me). This one is preserved courtesy of YouTube so please enjoy the visual of a spinning record:

And for proof that this song refuses today, here’s a 2007 performance of it by Grant Barrett (and don’t worry, the guy who walks out at the start does come back…but seeing him walk out so early gave me a laugh).

Okay, I promise, that’s the end of our Swiss visit. But I offer the links to all these different versions to really hammer home the point that this was the world of music in 1925. There is nothing on any of these other versions quite like the short Armstrong solo on the Southern Serenaders record. He was a trailblazing genius who changed the sound of music forever, but I can never emphasize enough how much of a role popular music played in his 1920s career.

Which leads us to “Alone At Last.” This, too, was a popular song that had already been recorded by the completely unique Lee Morse in 1924. The sound quality is hideous but you can listen to her charming style by clicking

On July 13, 1925, the still popular (to lovers of nostalgia and old music) Coon Sanders Nighthawks Orchestra recorded a version of “Alone At Last” that, according to the Red Hot Jazz Archive, became one of their most popular records. It’s a very tight band a very good arrangement with a vocal by pianist and co-leader Joe Sanders. Here’s the link.

So now, the moment of truth. August 7, 1925 and the record of “Alone At Last” as done by the Southern Seranders. Click here to listen along.

Now I’ve seen this referred to as a Don Redman arrangement but anyone with working ears will recognize that the first half of the record features the exact arrangement as used by the Coon Sanders Orchestra. After the first chorus, though, when the Nighthawks’s arrangement turns more creative, the Henderson band simply returns to the original melody statement. Thus, after listening to Ted Lewis play “I Miss My Swiss” and Coon Sanders play “Alone At Last,” it becomes quite clear that the Henderson band was using stock arrangements based on those two earlier records. But there is no vocal on Henderson’s “Alone At Last.” Instead, we get something about a thousand times better: an all-time classic Louis Armstrong solo.

This was one of my favorite tracks to play my students when I taught Jazz History at Rutgers because it so completely illustrates where popular music was in 1925 and where Louis Armstrong was in 1925. Armstrong completely elevates the performance; the whole thing comes alive when he enters and dare I say it, the band even begins to swing a little. To me, this is one of Armstrong’s most Bix-ian solos, so relaxed and so melodic, with very few high notes, though the attack on the one note that heralds the second half of his solo is pure Armstrong. His thoughts are so organized and the structure of the solo cannot be topped, each phrase leading perfectly to the next. His use of double-timing is in prime form, but he still leaves plenty of space to not step on those quiet little saxophone phrases that crop up behind him. It would not surprise me if the Henderson band was already performing this tune live because Armstrong’s interaction with the saxes sounds too perfect to have been devised on the spot (but it IS Armstrong, so anything’s possible!).

As soon as Armstrong puts down his horn, the band goes back to playing the arrangement in the style of the day, though there are a few shaky off-pitch moments, especially the one missed trumpet note at the 3:02 mark (hmm, maybe they WERE playing this for the first time). I don’t know, this arrangement makes me want to watch a Valentino movie or something by Douglas Fairbanks, but most of all, it makes me want to listen to more Louis Armstrong.

So please don’t buy the baloney about the “two Armstrongs” or the fact that Armstrong went commercial in his later years by recording pop songs. I hear him improvise on a corny, dated 1925 arrangement of a pop song like “I Miss My Swiss” or “Alone At Last” and I personally don't hear any difference between that and him soloing later on an arrangement of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “I Get Ideas,” “Hello, Dolly” or “I Will Wait For You.” This is who Louis Armstrong was. He was an original voice and he changed music by applying that voice to any type of material that happened to cross his music stand. I love looking through the discography at all the types of different sessions he played in the 1920s. Just look at this run in 1925: solidifying the art of the obbligato on a serious of Bessie Smith records on May 26 and May 27; turning in some classic proto-big band jazz playing on “Sugar Foot Stomp” on May 29; applying some hot improvisations on pure 1925 pop songs such as “I Miss My Swiss” and “Alone At Last” on August 7; joining members of the Henderson orchestra to play on a series of records by the funny, vaudeville blues team of Leola “Coot” Grant” and Wesley “Kid” Wilson; and finally, taking part in small group sessions under Clarence Williams’s leadership in October.

In fact, just thinking about it now, even these Grant and Wilson dates clearly precede Armstrong’s later routines with Velma Middleton, routines critics blamed on Velma for dragging the poor little artist Armstrong into such banal show-biz excursions. Clearly, Armstrong loved these types of things, as I’ve written about before. But when you look at a five-month run of records like that, you see the totality of Armstrong’s music world and can come to better terms with the types of things he did later in his career. If you just know “West End Blues” and “Potato Head Blues,” you’re probably not going to understand what’s going on with the All Stars. But the All Stars were the final culmination of Armstrong’s entire career. Those obbligatos behind Bessie came back on Velma Middleton’s later features (just listen to him on “St. Louis Blues” or “That’s My Desire”). The pure jazz solos on stuff like “Sugar Foot Stomp” would come out in later instrumental performances with the All Stars such as “Royal Garden Blues” and “Muskrat Ramble.” The hot solos on pop songs like “Alone At Last” are heard throughout the All Stars period in solos like “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” and “The Gypsy.” And the hilarious interplay between Coot Grant and Kid Wilson, Butterbeans and Susie and May Alix and Ollie Powers, would come out in duets with Middleton on “Don’t Fence Me In” or the aforementioned “That’s My Desire.”

So please, good readers, seek out ALL the Armstrong recordings you can find, not just the “best-of” compilations or the most popular hits. Listening to Armstrong in as many different settings as possible is the only way to appreciate the full extent of his genius and to be able to debunk so many of the lousy myths that have led to his work to receive something of a collective shrug by most of today’s American jazz fans and writers. I’ll continue to try to reverse the trend, one blog entry at a time…once I get my damn computer back!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

March 2, 1948 - Paris Concert, 60 Years Later

As I mentioned at the end of my last entry, I was planning on blogging about “Swing That Music” the next chance I got. But while laying in bed this morning, I had a sixth sense about today’s date being somewhat important in Armstrong’s career. Thus, as soon as my wife got up to make coffee, I reached over for my trusty copy of All of Me and started looking up whatever Armstrong did on March 2. And there it was, March 2, 1948, 60 years ago today, Louis Armstrong and The All Stars played a concert at Salle Pleyel in Paris. It’s a concert I’ve mentioned before because I think it’s one of the finest from the early days of the All Stars, yet it has never received a C.D. reissue. All but the first two songs of the concert were issued on two LPs on the Italian “Two Flats” label. Last year, I transferred both LPs to C.D. at the Institute of Jazz Studies and since this wonderful concert probably won’t be coming to C.D. or even MP3 anytime soon, I might as well share some of the highlights right here in today’s blog entry. Now the concert did include 26 tracks and I’d be here all day uploading the whole damn thing so I’m going to focus on the more Armstrong-centric features because a lot of the sidemen features here were reprised from the Symphony Hall concert of November 1947 and that one’s still pretty easy to find.

Of course, a little background. To many, this is the Murderer’s Row edition of All Stars as it features Earl “Fatha” Hines, who joined the All-Stars for a four-week engagement at the Roxy Theater in late January. Hines originally shared piano duties with original All Stars pianist Dick Cary, but when the band’s road manager, Pierre “Frenchy” Tallerie, began spreading false rumors about Cary being a drug addict, Cary was let go, a shame, because he might have gone down as the All Stars’s greatest pianist if he stayed as long as, say, Billy Kyle. And when I say “greatest pianist,” don’t think I’m saying that Cary was a better piano player than Hines as he wasn’t. But he was more of a team player and he served Pops better than Hines, who had a huge ego, didn’t like playing second fiddle and occasionally lost his concentration in live performances. The concert I’m about to share today was technically from Hines’s fifth week with the band and he’s still shaky, starting one song in the wrong key and beating off “Muskrat Ramble” at too fast of a tempo (Pops halts him before he gets carried away).

Otherwise, the band featured the other stalwarts from this early edition, trombonist Jack Teagarden, clarinetist Barney Bigard, bassist Arvell Shaw, drummer Sid Catlett and vocalist Velma Middleton. On February 21, the All Stars landed in Nice to perform at Hughes Panassie’s Nice Jazz Festival, receiving a heroic reception from the jazz fans and a mixed reception from the European critics. Hugh Rees threw down the gauntlet, beginning the type of criticism of Armstrong’s later work that continues to plague him 30 years after his death. “It seems high time for a reassessment of Louis Armstrong’s importance,” Rees began before later launching into the meat of his argument: “It was fortunate for Armstrong that, around 1929, he was taken up by a commercially-minded manager. Louis is a natural showman, an adequate if unimaginative trumpeter and an original if sometimes incomprehensible vocalist. Negro artists are frequently at an advantage over their white competitors (so long as they remain on stage!) and Louis’ pigmentation together with his charming personality undoubtedly justified his manager’s hopes….But a truly great artist can never be satisfied with his achievements. Were Armstrong, as M. Panassie would tell us, ‘one of the greatest musicians that humanity has known,’ he would have developed. Instead, his approach has remained the same. His technique in a world of Gillespies, Hawkins, and Tatums seems childish. Every phrase that he uses he’s used a hundred times before so that now they all sound faded ....After hearing that sad little broadcast from Nice one must face the truth. Louis Armstrong is a bore, whose manner of telling the old, old story has not improved in the least after twenty-odd years of repetition!”

Ay yi yi. Suffice to say, Rees was wrong. I don’t know what happened to him, but I think everyone knows what happened to Louis Armstrong over the next 23 years!

On February 29, Armstrong arrived back in Paris, stopping to visit French clarinetist Claude Luter’s Dixieland band at the Lorientais on Monday, March 1. Luter had caused a sensation at the Nice festival and would always welcome Armstrong during Armstrong’s later European trips. (Bigard wasn’t a fan, though, quoted in Down Beat as saying, “They’re out of tune so bad it hurts yours ears.”) The next day, a press reception was given in Armstrong’s honor at the Club Malesherbes. That night, Armstrong played Salle Pleyel in Paris for the first time since 1934. There was a tense air due to an anonymous threat of violence against Armstrong before the concert, leading the trumpeter to be guarded by 15 police and secret service men on his way to the show. However, nothing materialized and Armstrong gave a tremendously well-received show to a crowd of thousands, which Down Beat described as “oversold and overcrowded.” So without further ado, let me take you through the concert as quickly as I can, letting the music speak for itself.

Of course, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” was Armstrong’s theme, but on most occasions in the early days of the All Stars, he did not sing the lyrics, instead only playing a few bars of the piece that always served as his theme. This was followed by “Where the Blues Were Born In New Orleans,” a song from the 1946 film New Orleans and a perfect way of introducing all the members of the band. Unfortunately, these two opening numbers didn’t survive. What does survive is the concert’s third track and it’s a special one: “Dear Old Southland,” done by the duo of Armstrong and Hines (with a little Catlett thrown in the background). Armstrong and Hines’s duets in the 1920s revolutionized jazz but they rarely did anything like them during their time in the All Stars together. However, here is “Dear Old Southland,” a frequent feature in the early parts of Armstrong concerts during the first year of the All Stars:

For the rest of his career, Armstrong would open his All Stars shows with between three and six songs that would feature him prominently…then would come a little rest with the sideman features. This pattern was in place from the beginning so it’s no surprise to find the dramatic blowing of “Dear Old Southland” followed by two more demanding numbers, “Black and Blue” and “Royal Garden Blues,” both issued on the Symphony Hall release from 1947. Listen for Hines beginning “Black and Blue” in the wrong key and for Armstrong’s very hot solo on “Royal Garden Blues,” a tune where he improvised a different solo just about every time he played it.

After being front and center for the first 20 minutes of the concert, it was now time to feature some of the other members of the All Stars. Jack Teagarden was up first with “Stars Fell On Alabama” and “Lover,” two more from Symphony Hall. I don’t want to waste a lot of time with the audio of the sidemen features but I can’t resist the beauty of “Stars Fell On Alabama” so here is this version:

Teagarden followed “Alabama” with his typically swinging variations on “Lover,” before Velma Middleton came out to sing “I Cried For You,” a frequent favorite of hers in the first five or so years of the All Stars. I should say that, though I mentioned Armstrong taking a rest for the sidemen features, it’s not like he left the stage and went to sleep. You can hear him play an obbligato throughout “Stars Fell On Alabama” and though he sits out the two minute run-through on “Lover,” he was back to lead the charge on “I Cried For You” and Middleton’s other feature, “Buzz Me Baby.” She was already doing “Velma’s Blues” at this point, but early on, she also was showcased on this Louis Jordan number. Because of the rarity of the performance, I’ll share it now with you fine readers:

With two of the sidemen out of the way, Armstrong stepped back into the limelight with “You Rascal You,” a song that was so identified with him in the 1930s and 1940s but disappeared from his live repertoire soon after this concert. This is a pity, because it’s such a fun performance and all of Armstrong’s future, infrequent performances of it are so damn good (I’m thinking the Louis Jordan duet, the recreation for the Autobiography and a 1962 performance of it for German television). Anyway, here it is live in Paris, more proof, also, that Sid Catlett was Armstrong’s most swinging drummer. You can hear Pops completely respond to those delicious Catlett backbeats. What a team!

After “You Rascal You,” Armstrong featured Barney Bigard on “Tea For Two” and Arvell Shaw on “How High the Moon,” two more holdovers from the Symphony Hall concert and two more features that found Armstrong playing even more horn. Then it was time for Armstrong’s recent composition, “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” in a version I blogged about many moons ago. The tempo has already picked up the lilting swing it would adopt fully by the mid-fifties and it’s simply irresistible.

It was then time for a mini-set to showcase Earl Hines, who truly went into this whole thing thinking he was a co-star who only going to be featured for a short time. He stayed for four years, bitter through much of it. Armstrong was already tearing up “St. Louis Blues” during early All Stars stage shows, but it was also a well-known staple for Hines, so Armstrong turned the piece over to his piano man, though, in these early versions, he still helped out with setting riffs in the background. Hines followed with a wonderful “Someone To Watch Over Me,” filled with typically unpredictable Hines-ian rhythmic mastery. I love Hines and can listen to records under his own name all day for the type of stuff he played during his features with the band. But as a band pianist, he left something to be desired. He closed his set with “Honeysuckle Rose,” which featured a little bit of Armstrong playing the melody in the background. In ensuing years, Armstrong would stop playing altogether on “Boogie Woogie on the St. Louis Blues” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”

After the piano features, Armstrong’s lips were sufficiently rested to blow out the lights on “Back O’Town Blues.” Down Beat caught a rare bit of friction between Armstrong and Catlett on this performance as, not liking what Catlett was laying down, Armstrong apparently turned to him and whispered, “Stay in the windows, man, for Chrissake,” an admonition to stay in the background a little more subtly. The remark did not leak onto the radio broadcast, as far as I can hear, but if anyone else can make it, let me know! Anyway, Armstrong always blew wonderfully on “Back O’Town,” but you knew when he was in top form when he’d nail that high Eb at the end, which is exactly what he does here:

With the end of the first set looming, it was time to turn Catlett loose on “Steak Face,” which was basically the All Stars’s version of “One O’Clock Jump,” right down to the modulation from the piano solo in F to the horns coming in in Db. Armstrong was killed in his later years for supposedly playing the same solos every night but he worked on those solos like a great composer and when he had a solo down pat, he’d be proud of it and didn’t see the reason to change it. Armstrong was not alone in that thinking, which was shared by many other jazz musicians of his generation and especially the other members of the All Stars. Teagarden and Bigard rarely changed the solos in their features. And though it might seem odd, this same habit extended to Catlett’s drum solos. I have three versions of “Steak Face” from the short period between November 1947 and March 1948 and I’m telling you, they’re almost identical. I’ve never sat down and taken notes on the solos, but they each feature identical little motives and oblivious feats of stick twirling and juggling that always get the audience and band members reacting at the exact same moments. Thus, I won’t share this version of “Steak Face” since the Symphony Hall one is still available on Itunes and isn’t much different. But if you’re a fan of melodic drum soloing, please check it out because it’s one of the finest extended drum solos I’ve ever heard.

The second half of the show began with another instrumental reading of the a half chorus of “Sleepy Time” before Pops again stepped to the forefront for two more of his standard showpieces, “Mahogany Hall Stomp” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” Yes, once again, both of these were featured at Symphony Hall, which is proof that in these infant stages of the All Stars, the band book hadn’t quite grown as large as it would become. Hell, it wouldn’t take long. By the time of a series of radio broadcasts from Philadelphia in the summer and fall of 1948, the All Stars were adding new pieces left and right, stuff like “That’s A Plenty,” “Together,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “I Surrender Dear,” “Brother Bill,” “Milenberg Joys” and many more. But there’s nothing wrong with listening to “Mahogany Hall” and “Sunny Side” once again. This version of “Sunny Side,” weighing in at over seven minutes is truly one of my favorites.

Next, Bigard was called up to do his bit on “High Society” but I’ve always viewed this as an Armstrong showcase for all the ridiculous lead playing he does. I wanted to share this one but I’m afraid that when I transferred it, I also transferred a skip in the record that’s pretty annoying. But as good as this version is, I think my all-time favorite “High Society” is still the Symphony Hall rendition, which really takes off. Dig that one. But for your listening pleasure, here’s something that wasn’t played at Symphony Hall: a feature for Teagarden on “Basin Street Blues.” Again, though Teagarden sings on it, takes a beautiful solo and a “tram-bone coda,” it’s Pops who steals the show on both this one and Teagarden’s next feature, “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” Listen to Pops almost quote “The Gypsy” during his break on “Basin Street,” something he did more blatantly on a Carnegie Hall performance of the tune in November 1947. And Pops is truly on fire on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home”…these were features for his sidemen for heaven’s sake!

With the concert winding down, Velma was brought out to do “Velma’s Blues” and “That’s My Desire.” Unfortunately, “Velma’s Blues” was only issued on a private 78 that I do not own so I cannot discuss it. But this “That’s My Desire” is a treat because Pops decides to surprise the French faithful in the audience by singing his chorus in what Down Beat called “a completely surrealist pidgin-French version.” It’s truly hilarious:

After Velma, Barney Bigard got two more turns up at bat, reprising both “C-Jam Blues” and “Body and Soul” from the Symphony Hall concert. Pops then called “Muskrat Ramble.” This piece opened both Armstrong’s Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall concerts in 1947, the Symphony Hall version becoming known as quite the classic after it was released on LP in 1950. As I mentioned earlier, Hines kicks it off too fast, earning a “Slow down” from Pops as Catlett’s hi-hat shows him the way. It’s a very confusing introduction (Pops was probably wondering where Dick Cary was at this point!) but once the band settles in, the piece really cooks. The background riffs that Pops was making up on the fly at Symphony Hall are now part of the piece and Armstrong improvises a new solo to boot. He really pushes himself in the closing ensemble, sounding like he’s ready to the explore the “I Dream of Jeannie” quote he would later incorporate into this tune. Catlett, though, is still the star of this performance…no wonder he was Armstrong’s favorite drummer. Here it is:

It’s assumed that “Muskrat Ramble” was the concert closer but during Hines’s solo, I think I hear Pops say “Mop Mop.” This would have made sense, but it was a common closer for Armstrong shows for the next 20 years as the drum feature would usually lead to the “Saints” or one last run-through of “Sleepy Time.” Thus, we might never know if there was any more to this concert but we can be thankful that so much of this wonderful music was captured that evening. And since it might never see the light of day on C.D., I hope you enjoyed the opportunity to devour some of the best music this early, truly all-star edition of the All Stars. NOW, I should be back next time with “Swing That Music”…til then!