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 www.classicjazz.se 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 end...you 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!