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!

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