Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Luck's In My Corner: The Life And Music Of Hot Lips Page

I know, I know…it’s been over a week since I last checked in and once again, I have nothing to offer but apologies. Working, gigging, writing and making preparations for the new house have completely sapped away my time…and in the next 12 days, I’m working by day and playing at least three hours of piano EVERY DAY. Somehow, I’ll try to keep things afloat, either with little YouTube videos or something, so please don’t give up on this site for all your Louis Armstrong needs!

But today, Pops is going to sit one out as I focus a little bit on Oran “Hot Lips” Page, one of my all-time favorite trumpet players. Page is the focus of a new biography by one of my good friends, Todd Bryant Weeks. This book, Luck’s In My Corner, is worth checking out because it’s the total package.


Todd’s research is monumental and he’s a fine writer, never letting the details bog down the narrative…though there’s plenty of details in the endnotes (this is one of those books you have to read with a split-fingered grip: one finger on the page you’re reading and one finger for the corresponding notes because there’s some real gems in there). Todd’s also fine trumpet man and he brings that know-how to the table during his musical discussions, which are very rich. The book made me dig out my Lips collection to listen along as I read and Todd’s remarks were always on the mark, while his transcriptions are invaluable. Trust me, this book will truly make you try to dig out as much Lips as possible and that’s a beautiful thing.

Of course, that’s more difficult than it sounds as Lips’s mostly forgotten status has made the bulk of his records extremely difficult to find. Why is this so? Well, as the story goes, Lips was a wonderful entertainer, a monster trumpeter and a terrific vocalist, but total stardom always eluded him (the title of Todd’s book, Luck’s In My Corner, is the definition of irony but it also reflects Lips’s endless optimism). He was inspired by Armstrong but was also a master of mutes, a matchless creator of riffs and perhaps the greatest blues trumpet player of them all (as Dizzy Gillespie put it, “When Lips gets on the blues, don’t mess with him; not me, not Roy, not Louis—nobody!”). He played with Bennie Moten and Count Basie in Kansas City, but signed with Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager, instead of staying with Basie. Armstrong was receiving a throat operation at the time and Glaser saw a star quality in Lips that would translate well if Armstrong was unable to perform again. Naturally, Armstrong came roaring back and Glaser managed to sit on Lips for awhile. Some put all the blame on Glaser for Lips not becoming the star he deserved to be and Weeks tackles this issue fairly throughout the book.

As life went on, Lips became a musical chameleon, sitting in with the young boppers at Minton’s, jamming with the Eddie Condon crew in the village, making records with big bands and small groups, paving the way for rhythm-and-blues and rock music, recording novelties, joining Artie Shaw’s orchestra as a featured trumpet player and co-starring on Pearl Bailey’s smash record of “Baby It’s Cold Outside/The Hucklebuck.” Listening to Lips’s music today is tremendously rewarding and one can’t help but also feel frustrated that he didn’t achieve the success of musicians such as Armstrong, Louis Jordan and even Wynonie Harris, whom Lips backed on some seminal R&B dates.

Well, now I’m getting too deep into the saga of Lips. I’ll just say that he was responsible for a ton of great music and it’s a tragedy that he passed away at the age of 46 in 1954 (Page was born in 1908, making this year his centennial). Luck’s In My Corner tells the rest of the story beautifully. And on a personal level, I couldn’t be more proud of Todd. We met while obtaining our Master’s degrees in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers. When I found out that he was writing his thesis on Lips Page, I was thrilled because Lips was always a hero of mine and someone that I would have loved to write a book on as well. But Todd’s done such a heroic job that I don’t think anyone else can write another word on Lips without it being compared to this magnificent work.

And Bravo for Routledge press for taking a chance on a book about a lesser-known figure in the jazz world. Todd even tackles the issue of whether Lips “matters” in his superb coda, which is excerpted in the following All About Jazz profile on the book. Click the following link to read this piece.

For the Armstrong devotees, it’s needless to say that Lips’s biggest inspiration was Armstrong and Pops crops up from time to time in the narrative (he even gave Lips some pointers early in his career). Lips claimed to have seen King Oliver and Armstrong together and leave it to Weeks’s diligent research to come up with an approximate date for the event! Todd also worked at the Louis Armstrong House and Archives for a while and believe me, he knows and loves his Pops.

But this book is Lips’s story and Todd really makes every aspect come alive, painting vivid portraits of the Texas towns Lips grew up in, as well as the worlds of Kansas City and Harlem of the 1930s and 1940s, two towns Lips probably could have run for the title of “Musical Mayor.”

But the most important part of the book, to me, is that it makes the listener want to listen to as much Hot Lips Page as is humanly possible (a discography at the end of the book makes it even more helpful). Unfortunately, the status of Lips on CD and even MP3 is pretty sad. His early leader recordings are out-of-print on the Classics label and are selling for astronomical prices on Amazon. My favorite sampler is ASV’s Pagin’ Mr. Page, which features Lips is many settings, including dates with Bennie Moten, Basie, Condon, Shaw, Albert Ammons and other. Check it out by clicking here.

On the internet, the only free Lips I could find comes from the Red Hot Jazz archive. On December 13, 1932, the Bennie Moten Orchestra of Kansas City made a session for Victor that’s become known as one of the greatest pre-Swing Era sessions of all time. Forget that, I say…this might be the greatest Swing Era session of all-time and I can almost say that Swing Era hit its peak that day in Camden, NJ. The marathon session produced ten classic tracks from a band that swung like no other in that period, one that consisted of greats like Count Basie, Ben Webster, Eddie Durham, Eddie Barefield and Walter Page. There’s a looseness and a drive to this music that still gives me the chills 76 years after it was created. Every track is a classic, but please listen along to “Toby,” “Moten Swing,” “Blue Room” and “Lafayette,” the latter being one of the most swinging pieces of music ever recorded. Lips is a monster on every track, channeling his inner Armstrong on “Moten Swing,” while violently working that plunger over on “Lafayette.” Take your blood pressure now, listen to these four tracks, then take it again…guaranteed to send it shooting at least 10 points higher without fail!

Toby
Moten Swing
Blue Room
Lafayette

It just doesn’t swing any harder than those recordings. But finding more Lips on the MP3 front isn’t much easier. A compilation titled All of Me is a reissue of the old album Hot Lips Page Plays the Blues in B and it has some fine tracks, though the sound quality is erratic at best and it even includes some record skips! But available just about everywhere is After Hours In Harlem, a set of recordings that should have made Lips Page a book-worthy figure even if he never recorded another note.



Columbia student Jerry Newman was a ubiquitous presence at many of the famed swing-to-bop jam sessions in Harlem in the early 1940s. He recorded whatever he could and those live records, featuring the likes of Charlie Christian, Joe Guy, Thelonious Monk and others are immortal. Newman also captured the after hours side of Lips, the jam session king, setting riffs, challenging other trumpet players, singing the blues, scatting up a storm and unfurling a seemingly endless amount of creative ideas from his horn. I’ve decided to upload Lips’s version of “I Got Rhythm” from this series of recordings because once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget the name of Hot Lips Page again. It was made at a party and the atmosphere is clearly as loose as can be as Lips and the wonderfully exciting/eccentric saxophonist carry on a hysterical musical conversation over the unwavering stride piano of Donald Lambert. Weeks managed to transcribe Lips’s three choruses and he spends about three pages analyzing in tremendous details. It makes for a great read, but the music is an even greater listen:


So is your appetite whet NOW? Good, just click here and pick up a copy of this wonderful book. Yes, yes, Todd’s a good friend of mine but this isn’t about friendship. I’ve been a Lips worshipper for years and to see his live and music finally get the credit it’s always deserved in such a thorough, entertaining book is of supreme importance to me. I don’t care if David Ortiz wrote this book, I’d still recommend it (I’m a Yankees fan, by the way). But again, thanks to Todd for doing Lips’s legacy such justice. Check out this book and then check out some Lips and you seriously will not be disappointed.

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