Saturday, April 19, 2008

Symphonic Raps/Savoyager's Stomp

Carroll Dickerson and His Orchestra
Recorded July 5, 1928
Symphonic Raps Track Time 3:15
Savoyager’s Stomp Track Time 3:13
Symphonic Raps Written By Bert Stevens and Irwin Abrahams
Savoyager’s Stomp Written by Carroll Dickerson
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, Homer Hobson, trumpet; Fred Robinson, trombone; Bert Curry, Crawford Wethington, alto saxophone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Earl Hines, piano; Mancy Carr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Zutty Singleton, hand-cymbals; Carroll Dickerson, leader
Originally released on Odeon 193329
Currently available on CD: It’s on volume three of JSP’s “Hot Fives and Sevens” collection
Available on Itunes? Yes

I’ve been keeping this blog afloat since last July and it’s taken this long to finally tackle one of the great Armstrong/Earl Hines records of 1928, but as the old cliché goes, better late than never. And no, the ol’ Itunes shuffle didn’t land on a famous masterpiece like “Basin Street Blues” or “West End Blues” (though I’d like to something on the 80th anniversary of “West End” this June), but rather one of two tracks Armstrong recorded with his regular working band, Carroll Dickerson’s Savoyagers. I’ve decided to tackle both of the Dickerson songs recorded that day but as always, a little context, if you will…

Armstrong first played with Dickerson’s group at the Sunset Café in Chicago in 1926. “Carroll Dickerson was a violin player, a very good one,” Armstrong later wrote. “And was well known to the public and very very popular among the Chicago musicians. At the time, he was playing at the Sunset Café for Joe Glaser whom I later worked for, and now my present manager. Dickerson’s band was the best Cabaret Band, on the South Side of Chicago at that time.” Armstrong split duties with Dickerson’s Orchestra and Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra (and later Clarence Jones’s Orchestra) before he took over Dickerson’s band in 1927 after Dickerson was fired for showing up drunk. Glaser renamed the band Louis Armstrong and His Stompers and Pops was now officially a leader…though pianist Earl Hines thought it should have been HIS band since he was music director and had been with Dicerkson longer than Armstrong. Armstrong and Hines made a lot of timeless music together, but their egos would continue getting in the way of their relationship for decades to come.

By November 1927, Armstrong found himself out of work after his regular gigs at the Sunset and with Clarence Jones dried up. Armstrong met the drummer Zutty Singleton and together with Hines, the threesome set out to start their own band, even opening up their own venue at Warwick Hall. However, the club was a failure and the trio soon found themselves scuffling. Meanwhile, Carroll Dickerson soon became the leader of the house band at the new Savoy Ballroom and by March 1928, Armstrong was once again working for his old leader, with Zutty joining in on drums. “If I have to say it myself—We made up one of the Damndest Bands, there were and taken it into the Savoy Ballroom and Battled ol’ Clarence Black’s Band down to a Low Gravy,” Armstrong later wrote.

Earl Hines had joined clarinetist Jimmie Noone by this point, so he was replaced by Gene Anderson. But when OKeh began using Armstrong once again in June 1928, Hines became his pianist of choice, though the rest of the personnel on these sessions came from the Dickerson band. Together, Armstrong and Hines revolutionized jazz and their riveting work on records like “Skip The Gutter,” “Beau Koo Jack” and the seminal duet, “Weather Bird,” has rarely been surpassed in terms of importance or even excitement.

But as was the case in those days, these 1928 sessions, credited to either the “Hot Five” or “Savoy Ballroom Five,” were clearly studio affairs as Armstrong spent his evenings in the confines of the Dickerson band. Perhaps Dickerson featured numbers like “Sugar Foot Strut” or “Knee Drops,” but we can’t be certain. Fortunately, Dickerson did make two sides with his working band, with Hines sitting in, and they offer wonderful glimpses into the kinds of music Armstrong was making on a nightly basis.

But before getting carried away this July 5, 1928 session, it’s interesting to take a listen to Dickerson’s only prior session, recorded May 25, 1928 for the Brunswick label. Here’s the catch: Louis Armstrong rejoined the Dickerson band at the Savoy in March 1928 and this recording features the exact personnel of that band, right down to Zutty Singteton on drums and Gene Anderson on piano. However, Armstrong is not present, instead replaced by Willie Hightower (not to be confused with the soul singer of the same name). Why wasn’t Pops there? I wish I knew. Perhaps it was a contractual thing as maybe OKeh didn’t want him recording for Brunswick…though he had done it before by slipping away and recording for friends on the Vocalion label. Also, he hadn’t made a new record for OKeh since December 1927, which was somewhat odd. Regardless, something kept him out of this session and it’s a shame because Hightower, though a respected leader in Chicago, seems like he’s in over his head. If you’d like to listen along, here’s the links for “Black Maria” and “Missouri Squabble.”

Black Maria
Missouri Squabble

Interestingly, both songs were pop tunes, with “Black Maria” being recorded by the likes of Flecther Henderson and the Wisconsin Roof Orchestra (the latter can be heard on YouTube). The band sounds very relaxed on “Black Maria,” executing the arrangement well and sounding quite tight. Jimmy Strong takes a decent (for him) low-register clarinet solo, getting great backing from Singleton’s cymbals, while Fred Robinson also sounds better than he would on his later sessions with Armstrong. But the record leads up to the stop-time trumpet solo, which Armstrong must have nailed in live settings. Unfortunately, either Hightower was unfamiliar with the arrangement or he just wasn’t a very good trumpet player, but he sounds stiff, with none of Armstrong’s daring sense of rhythm and swing. Hightower sounds better at the start of “Missouri Squabblin,’ but this one really showcases the prowess of the band. Gene Anderson gets a solo spot and as Pops said, he was a “First Class man,” but he’s no Hines (who was?). Hightower doesn’t try to sound too much like Armstrong and instead comes off better and more relaxed. But for those who know the Dickerson recording of “Symphonic Raps,” keep your ears open because the trumpet solo at 2:13 and the way the band handles the changes at 2:28 foreshadow that later recording. Of course, the changes on this section are the same on both records (“Tiger Rag”) and “Symphonic Raps” was written by entirely different writers (Bert Stevens and Irwin Abrahams), but whoever did the arranging in the Dickerson band (possibly Dickerson himself) obviously had some similar ideas.

But those recordings are important because they definitely showcase the sound and style of the band Louis Armstrong spent most of 1928 playing in. Now let’s move on to that July 5 session. Armstrong returned to OKeh on June 26, 1928 and made four sessions in four days. After a week off, he returned to record one more song with the “Hot Five” personnel, as well as two with the Dickerson band. The session opened up with the ultra-hot “Knee Drops,” which has a ridiculously swinging Armstrong solo over Zutty Singleton cymbals. I won’t say any more about that one because it deserves an entry of its own.

With the one small group session out of the way, it was time for the Dickerson Orchestra to take center stage. Hines remained at the keyboard and Jimmy Strong, Fred Robonsin, Mancy Carr and Singleton of the “Hot Five” were now augmented by Homer Hobson’s second trumpet, Pete Briggs (of “Hot Seven” fame) on tuba and two alto saxophonists, Bert Curry and Crawford Wethington. Up first was the aforementioned “Symphonic Raps” and if you’d like to listen along, please click here,.

This must have been some pretty hip stuff in 1928 as the song is filled with whole-tone passages and harmonies that must have sounded pretty “out” to those accustomed to the mostly staid popular dance band arrangements of the time. But even with the “modernistic” harmonies, the record still reeks of the 1920s, which is a good thing. This makes me think of silent movies, of black-and-white cartoons with bouncing characters, it makes me think of Babe Ruth rounding the bases faster than humanly possible and it makes me think of every generic piece of flapper/speakeasy stock footage I’ve ever seen on a documentary of that roaring decade. But except for a saxophone break and some typically creative work from Hines in the background, there are no solos for almost the first 90 seconds of the record. But then…stand back! Hines is up first and it’s peak Hines. Compared to Gene Anderson, the band doesn’t sound prepared to cope with Hines’s continuously shifting rhythms and on both of their entrances, Briggs’s tuba comes in late as it sounds like he wants to be sure he’s on the right beat! But Hines is so damn tricky, striding away like a Harlem master, then offering up those little stutters that always come as a surprise.

But then it’s time for Pops and he’s on fire (let’s hope Willie Hightower wasn’t hanging around the studio because he probably would have pawned his horn after hearing this solo). Jazz’s most important tastemaker, Gunther Schuller, had no patience for what the Dickerson band represented, writing, “Dickerson’s ‘large’ ten-piece band espoused the new ‘arranged’ style, with its overtones of show business, its Tin Pan Alley popular tunes (as opposed to real jazz or New Orleans material), and its general aura of commercial sophistication.” Ah, Gunther—“show business,” “Tin Pan Alley,” “real jazz” “commercial”—it’s been 40 years of trying to undo the damage he did to Armstrong’s legacy with his sloppy generalizations. But even Schuller took the time to transcribe the ten bars of Armstrong’s “Symphonic Raps” solo, writing about the “absolute authority” of Armstrong’s entrance.

(Note: I beat up Gunther Schuller from time to time here and I don’t want that sentence about “damage” to Armstrong’s legacy to be taken the wrong way. If anything, Schuller did more to enhance Armstrong’s reputation as a jazz maverick in the 1920s. Hell, he even titles his chapter on Armstrong, “The First Great Soloist.” Early Jazz is a supremely important book and Schuller deserves his place in the jazz writing Hall of Fame. However, his taste was such that he only liked what he referred to as “real jazz” and when confronted with pop songs or humorous material, he rolled his eyes. And when he skipped over some of those early Hot Five sessions, it’s almost like they never existed! The tracks he lauded have gone on to become central parts of the canon. But unfortunately, his writing led many to believe that, “Wow, Louis of ‘West End Blues’ was sure a genius but too bad he went on to make so many commercial records and partook in all that clowning and smiling.” That stuff is damaging as I feel to truly appreciate Armstrong’s genius you have to accept ALL of him. End of rant.)

Anyway, Armstrong’s a man possessed on “Symphonic Raps,” really leaning on that G# at the start, the “+” of the C+ chord he’s improvising on. The “broken record” motif is also genius, especially how the tension is resolved in that dizzying break. He just repeats and repeats that phrase until the listener can’t take it before he shakes it off with an incredibly flurry of notes. My goodness, he had such command of his horn…

He begins the second half of his solo by referencing the beginning of the first half, though he’s slightly more melodic this time with his use of a perfectly place three-quarter-note phrase that’s pure Armstrong 101. He continues onward, displaying great symmetry in his lines; everything just makes so much SENSE. The band comes in to help him finish off his chorus, but he’s not done yet, taking an exciting break that reminiscent of something he would scat (I’m thinking “Monday Date”). The band then takes it out by basically replaying the arrangement from the beginning again though this time, instead of a stiff saxophone, Armstrong takes yet another break that sounds like early bop, though he leaves a perfect millisecond of space before landing right on the beat. Zutty ends the record with some of those patented cymbal “clops,” perhaps not a symphonic “rap,” but it works.

In fact, in preparing this entry, I wanted to do a little further research into Zutty’s “hand-cymbals.” Though recording engineers were slowly starting to let drummers use their full kits, Zutty was stuck with somewhat odd-sounding cymbals during these summer of 1928 sessions. I Googled “Zutty Singleton hand-cymbals” and found an explanation on a Bix Beiderbecke forum from the fantastic drummer, Hal Smith: “The instrument that Zutty was using on those recordings was a pair of small cymbals mounted on a setup with two grips and a spring--not unlike garden shears. The cymbals were invented by Billy Gladstone, the percussionist who was famous for his orchestra work at Radio City Music Hall. Gladstone was quite an inventor and also designed and built custom drum sets. The cymbals themselves were small and thick, with raised domes. They could be played with a stick in the right hand, as the left hand operated the grips. There were several variations on the original Gladstone design and major drum companies came up with several different names for the contraption in their catalogs. My favorite is ‘bock-a-da-bock cymbals,’ though I forget whether that was in a Ludwig, Leedy or Slingerland catalog.

Smith goes on to write, “SABIAN makes a modern-day version of the Gladstone cymbals called ‘Hand Hats.’ The cymbals are mounted vertically, in the manner of hi-hats, rather than horizontally as the Gladstones were constructed. There is a single handle and a trigger for operating the cymbals. The Sabian ‘Hand Hats’ are harder to use than the Gladstones, but since those are scarce, the Sabians are a good alternative.

Here’s a picture of the Sabian “Hand Hats” Smith refers to:

Zutty’s prescence is also felt on the other Dickerson item recorded that day, “Savoyager’s Stomp,” but more on that in a bit. This record’s meat can be found in the opening 38 seconds but before getting into that, please listen along by clicking

The Red Hot Jazz Archive lists Armstrong and Hines as the composers of “Savoyager’s Stomp,” but Jos Willems lists Dickerson and I tend to go with Dickerson. Besides, why would Hines and Armstrong write and arrange a piece for a band Hines wasn’t even a part of anymore? Then again, the song is nothing but a slowed down “Muskrat Ramble” and goodness knows, that was a tune Armstrong was very familiar with (he claimed to have written it) so perhaps it was Pops’s idea to slow it down and see what would happen.

Well, what happens is pure magic. A simple introduction sets up Armstrong’s opening solo, arguably the highlight of the record. The rhythm section simply stuts as Briggs’s tuba keeps a funky two-beat going while Zutty fills in the cracks with Pops’s favorite backbeat. Zutty obviously doesn’t have a full kit so he just uses his cymbals, but it’s still a pretty forceful emphasis on beats 2 and 4, something Armstrong always loved. Thus, it’s not a streamlined, Basie-like swinging 4/4 but it definitely has a New Orleans flavor to it and Armstrong responds by floating through his 16 bars. His pick-up phrase once again leads to three quarter-notes placed squarely on the beat, the ultimate Armstrong-ian declaration of, “Look out, Jack.” It’s one of those solos that I would hate to transcribe. There’s a descending arc to many of Armstrong’s phrases, and none of these descents utilize simple rhythms. And then there’s those unexpect rips, such as the one just 11 seconds in.. Then there’s the mirroring triplets, one Ab-high-C-Ab, followed immediately by Eb-F-Eb in the fifth bar, so well thought-out with that quick leap up to the high C something to marvel at. The highlight for me comes during the minor chord change, about 18 seconds in: three lightening fast descending runs. The velocity of these phrases is almost incomprehensible; how does a human being have time to think that fast? He then tops it with a freakish flurry that I almost want to call a break, though the band keeps playing. In it, I hear traces of “West End Blues,” which was just recorded the previous week. Still in a flashy mood, Armstrong pauses for a second, then begins his second half with a wailing high C before playing with the rhythm so much that words cannot sufficiently explain what he’s doing. Then, heading to the finish, he reprises the three-quarter notes again, a nice throwback to the opening of his solo before some relaxed strutting that includes all sorts of horn trickery, including a bent note or two. He’s still hammering away at a two-note phrase when Jimmy Strong’s tenor saxophone butts in and ruins our fun.

Pops really sounds like he could keep blowing for another ten minutes but I’m telling you, there’s more meat, more ideas, more creativity in those 16 bars than many jazz musicians are reponsible for in an entire evening. Unfortunately, the other soloists (save Hines) aren’t in Armstrong’s league, but even that makes for illuminaiting listening because it illustrates just how advanced Armstrong’s conception was in 1928. Jimmy Strong’s tenor is somewhat stiff, but even he tries out Armstrong’s three quarter-note phrases at the 45 second mark. He sounds releaxed and smooth early in his solo but when he heads to his upper register, Strong is pretty week (ouch; pun intended but that doesn’t make it any better).

Fortunately, Fatha Hines is right around the corner for what must rank as the second highlight of track. Hines plays a duet with Singleton that is simply mysitifying. First off, pay attention to Singleton’s cymbal playing. I think this has to be one of the first recorded example of the standard jazz/swing “ding-ding-a-ding” cymbal pattern. On later recordings in 1928, Singleton also pioneered the use of the standard brushes-on-snare-drum pattern, as well. Here, though he simply keeps the beat and it’s a good thing because the last thing on Hines’s mind is strict tempo. This must rank as one of Hines’s finest solo efforts. Remember, these are “Muskrat Ramble” changes and I dare you to pick them out. Trust me, they’re there, but Hines is simply in another universe. This solo knocked Gunther Schuller out and since I already beat him up a bit today, let me quote some right-on-the-money things he has to say about it: “Not its quarter triplets and bars one and two, the very sparse third and fourth bars, his elimnation of the stride left-hand until the middle of the sixth bar, the amazing ascending left-hand chromatic run against the laping, syncopated right hand—compare all this withi any other pianist of the day, and Hines’s superiorrity becomes obvious.” Amen, brother Gunther…

I did a Google search on “Savoyager’s Stomp” before starting this entry today and found out that for a track that’s 80 years old, it still mightily impresses the members of one of the most popular acts in jazz today, The Bad Plus. On their blog, “Do The Math,”they wrote in 2006, “One of our favorite tracks in [Armstrong’s] vast discography is ‘Savoyager's Stomp.’ Armstrong plays great on it, but the short Earl Hines/Zutty Singleton duet midway through is some of the weirdest music ever recorded. Ethan and Dave once listened to this together--they were reassured to know that no matter how hard they tried, they could never play anything this weird.” Ah, music from 1928, still kicking ass and causing heads to scratch 80 years later…

After Hines’s gymnastics, the band more or less quotes “Muskrat” verbatim behind trombonist Fred Robinson’s solo effort, which isn’t quite terrible, but how could it possibly compare to what Armstrong and Hines accomplished? The reeds than take it for an arranged passage that again seems to hide the “Muskrat” changes, though they’re there. There’s a “sweet” element to some of these phrases that show a trace of the Guy Lombardo influence that was really about to start taking hold of some of Armstrong’s records (much to Schuller’s dismay). The tuba lays out while Hines and banjoist Carr comp on all four beats, giving the impression of a smooth 4/4 swing before the final chorus, when the tuba reenters and Pops leads the ensemble through one more glorious ensemble strut. Again, the band basically plays “Muskrat Ramble” while a supremely relaxed Armstrong floats above it all. He gets frisky with one double-timed phrase but really, he’s content to just float and the effect is mellow as a cello, to quote Slim Gaillard. There’s a neat little unresolved ending made up of some more modern harmonies, but really, this record could have ended with a gong and a gunshot and it wouldn’t have changed the great stuff that preceded it.

Armstrong remained with Dickerson for a while, taking the whole band with him when he made it to New York in 1929. But eventually, Armstrong’s fame began skyrocketing and Dickerson found himself back in Chicago. He died in 1957 at the age of 62 and I’m not really sure if anyone ever got the chance to really interview him or get his memories on those swinging Chicago days. But at least we have those 1928 sessions, though interestingly, OKeh chose not to issue them when they were originally recorded. Instead, they managed to somehow turn up on the Argentine Odeon label where “Symphonic Raps” was titled “Stomp Con Variaciones” and “Savoyager’s Stomp” was renamed “Blues Con Variaciones.” Regardless of the titles, this music holds up beautifully 80 years later as an example of interesting big band writing of 1928, pioneering drumming by Zutty Singleton and the always inspiring team of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, playing in their primes and changing the scope of jazz 16 bars at a time.

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