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!

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