Tuesday, July 29, 2008

New Orleans Stomp

King Oliver’s Jazz Band
Recorded circa October 16, 1923
Track Time 3:00
Written by Louis Armstrong and Lil Hardin
Recorded in Chicago
King Oliver, cornet, leader; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Ed Atkins, trombone; Buster Bailey or Jimmie Noone, clarinet; Lil Hardin, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Columbia 13003 D
Currently available on CD: The best version be heard on the recent Archeophone release, Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings
Available on Itunes? Yes, if in inferior sound to the above C.D. release.

As already mentioned in this space last week, tomorrow, the Missus and I head off for New Orleans for the Satchmo Summerfest. It will be my first trip to the Crescent City and I can’t think of a better way to make my entrance, celebrating Pops’s life and music and delivering lectures in the company of Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Gary Giddins, Michael Cogswell, Randy Sandke and Peter Ecklund. Because I won’t be back home until next Monday, regular blogging will be put hold...emphasis on “regular.” If all goes according to plan, my wife is bringing her laptop and I’ll have my digital camera so I’ll attempt some live blogging as the trip unfolds.

But to send me off, I figured I had to blog about something in Pops’s discography that was related to New Orleans...I know, I know, that’s like saying I want to blog about Muhammad Ali, but only something that’s related to boxing. Pops did so many tunes about his hometown, that it’s hard to pick one, but I decided to pick one of his own compositions, a tune he recorded in three distinct variations, “New Orleans Stomp.”

Well, before I get too carried away, did Armstrong really write “New Orleans Stomp”? Jos Willems lists Armstrong and his future wife Lil Hardin as composers and that makes perfect sense as the tune has a distinct, Armstrong-ian melody and multiple strains were nothing out of the ordinary for him (see “Weather Bird Rag”). Armstrong joined the band in 1922 and when they started recording in 1923, Oliver had no problem recording the his protégé's original compositions, including “Dipper Mouth Blues,” “Canal Street Blues,” (both co-credited to Oliver), “Where Did You Stay Last Night” and “Tears” (the last two co-credited to Hardin).

However, in the notes to their definitive “Off The Record” two-disc reissue of the 1923 Oliver material, David Sager and Doug Benson list it as a composition by Oliver and New Orleans clarinetist Alphonse Picou. In fact, doing a Google search for the tune and Picou’s name lead to 337 results, including the official website of the New Orleans Jazz Historical Park, which mentions it in sentence form.

Thus, who to believe? I’m sure someone has done the digging and come up with the right answer, but I still go with Armstrong and Hardin as the composers. Of course, Oliver and Picou weren’t exactly strangers, having written at least two other songs recorded by Oliver in 1923, “Alligator Hop” and”Chattanooga Stomp.” The latter tune was recorded a day prior to “New Orleans Stomp” and perhaps led to some confusion when the original Columbia index cards were filed.

Regardless, the tune is a swinger. I love and treasure the Red Hot Jazz Archive, but not as much as Benson and Sager’s set, so here is their transfer of Oliver’s “New Orleans Stomp,” in the correct key and sounding incredibly good:

Fun stuff, huh? The record opens with a couple of go-arounds on the main strain, one that sticks to the listener’s brain like glue. People who saw the band live always used to complain that the Oliver records didn’t do the band justice. Perhaps, but I think the records represent kind of a pinnacle of improvised, polyphonic small group improvisation. The opening ensembles are so flowing, even with so much going on. Truly an art form.

40 seconds in, the next strain is introduced and though he’s somewhat hard to hear, Pops can be heard playing a discreet, improvised countermelody behind the King’s lead. There’s room for breaks, as well, from the unknown clarinetist (Willems says Jimmie Noone, Benson and Sager say Buster Bailey), though sadly none from the trumpets. After playing this strain twice, Ed Atkins’s trombone leads the way for the third strain at the 1:32 mark, ushered in by Hardin’s piano and backed by some simple, static one-note riffs by the trumpets. Finally Armstrong rears his head at at 1:39 and takes the lead for a while, before giving it back to Atkins, who gets some gets propulsive support by future Hot Five stalwart Johnny St. Cyr. Once again, the pattern repeats itself as Armstrong takes the ball from Atkins, though he plays in a very subdued fashion, as not to upset or disrespect his mentor, the King.

After playing each strain twice, the band returns to the main strain at the 2:11 mark. I really like what Sager writes about this passage: Notice at the end of the trio strain where the band returns to the A section--they all stop on a dime and play the pick up half note with the kind of authority that makes one aware of how effective the simplest musical device can be.” This was always something I took for granted, but after reading Sager’s description, I can never listen to this record without paying attention to the precision of that perfectly timed stop. When they swing into the rideout, the whole thing really takes off. Sager points out Oliver’s use playing three notes “squarely and righteously swung on the beat,” a definite hallmark of Armstrong’s style.

Speaking of Pops, though he stays in the background, he can’t resist the urge to raise a little hell at the 2:31 mark, playing a vicious lip trill reminiscent of his work on the Erskine Tate sides I wrote about last week, as well as a Hot Five record like “Sweet Little Papa.” Pops outgrew this device as he matured, but it sure suited his take-no-prisoners 1920s style. St. Cyr’s banjo really gives the band a lift as they continue steaming towards the finish. It’s almost as if everyone and no one is playing the lead simultaneously; the joy of New Orleans jazz!

Oliver’s “New Orleans Stomp” is a great record and the last 45 seconds of ensemble playing over the main strain is the epitome of excitement. However, there are no solos to speak of whatsoever. Naturally, this began to change as Armstrong’s solos on records by Fletcher Henderson, various blues singers and his own Hot Five, forced jazz to make the transition from an ensemble-driven form to a soloist’s art. For a great example of this, look no further than Armstrong’s next recording of “New Orleans Stomp” (this time credited to Hardin and himself).

On April 22, 1927, the Vocalion label gave clarinetist Johnny Dodds a record date. Armstrong had already played on one Vocalion date under Lil’s name and got in trouble for it. As the legend goes, Armstrong’s bosses at OKeh played him a Vocalion record and asked him who the cornet player was. “I don’t know,” replied Armstrong, “but I won’t do it again!” Well, Armstrong did do it again, but he kind of learned his lesson and decided to hold back a little bit. His playing on “Weary Blues,” “Wild Man Blues” and “Melancholy” is fantastic, but nowhere near as rambunctious and fiery as his own Hot Seven versions, all of which were recorded in the following month.

But on “New Orleans Stomp,” Armstrong didn’t hold anything back. Give it a listen for yourself:

So much for ensemble improvisation! After the short “Charleston”-infused introduction, it becomes the Louis Armstrong Show! He takes off on the main strain, playing the melody, but improvising like crazy around it, backed only by the rhythm section for the first 20 seconds of the record, something that would have been unheard of on an Oliver record (naturally, there are solos on Oliver’s records but even on something like the famous “Dipper Mouth Blues” solo, you can hear the other musicians noodling behind him). And his two double-timed breaks are daring, yet incredibly sure-footed, each one resolved with utmost logic and swing. The band jumps in for some spontaneous playing during the second strain, but really Armstrong’s still the main event. He’s in the front of the mix and everybody seems to be cautiously trying to stay out of the way as the ideas continue to unfurl out of his horn.

Finally, after those 38 whirlwind seconds, a breather, as banjoist Bud Scott takes a single string solo on the third strain, struggling a for a second here and there, but overall contributing a fulfilling outing. Next is future Armstrong clarinetist, unfortunately on the tenor saxophone, which suffice to say, was the not the instrument he was born to play. Bigard’s sax playing is ponderous to say the least. It’s interesting to point out that he plays a lot of those three quarter-note phrases, too, a la Pops and Oliver but his placement of those phrases has absolutely none of the swing and timing of the great trumpeters (or cornetists, if you’re really that picky). Bigard’s ending makes me laugh, but somehow I don’t think he had that in mind.

Finally, Pops, Dodds and trombonist Roy Palmer rush in to save the day, swinging the trio strain with incredible verve before they hand the ball over to pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, who takes a too short spot, but managed to convey his asymmetrical genius, something he would go to demonstrate with Pops in the series of the records they would make the following year (this was their first session together).

Dodds is up next and being the leader (even if in name only), he takes a longer outing than everyone else, starting out high and flighty, taking a real hot break the first time around, before displaying his lower register chops in the second half of his solo.

But then Dodds scampers away to make room for Pops--the more subdued Pops, right? Not to my ears! Armstrong dives right into the main stream for a solo that literally dances across the bar lines. Three quarter notes get Armstrong into his solo, but he takes off from there, in complete command of his instrument. After a little double-timed flurry, he pauses, swings out with a held, singing high F and then takes a break that never fails to make me clap my hands in funky enjoyment. He plays the first two notes of the break on the first and third beats of the measure, creating a delicious starting off point for the swinging phrase that stems off of this perfect opening. There’s some very righteous about this break; I can hear it being scatted, I can hear it being preached, I can hear it in the on-the-beat phrasing of a piece like “Cornet Chop Suey”...there’s nothing technically dazzling about it but the rhythmic placement and the choice of notes give it a helluva down home feeling.

Of course, the great Armstrong isn’t finished. He continues bubbling right over the break, playing a nimble upward phrase that practically skips up to two high A’s before working its way back down a bit. After a brief pause, the operatic Armstrong bellows out a dramatic E before concluding his solo with a darting-in-and-out double-timed phrase that, like all Armstrong, confounds the listener with its logical note choice and devil-may-care execution.

Armstrong calls the rest of the band in with a series of frantic C’s, each one alternating being placed on the beat and in between the beats, before a dramatic rip up to the C an octave higher. It seems to take everyone a second to get their bearings, but Armstrong doesn’t mind as he continues steamrolling through the main strain right into his next break, a classic quote from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” one of his favorite quotes (Trummy Young used to use it a lot with Pops, too). He executes it so deftly, it clearly demonstrates his familiarity and love of the opera. Armstrong continues steaming right through to the end of the record, including a patented short extended tag, the rage of 1927 jazz records. Phew, what a hot record!

I don’t know why Pops didn’t record “New Orleans Stomp” with the Hot Seven, especially when considering how he remade every other tune on the Dodds session. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t play it during the period. Around the same time as the Dodds session, Armstrong was approached by the Melrose Music Company to record some solos and breaks on many popular jazz tune’s of the day. Armstrong did just that, the solos and breaks were transcribed by pianist Elmer Schobel--of “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” fame--and Melrose released them in two books, “Louis Armstrong’s 125 Jazz Breaks For Cornet” and “Louis Armstrong’s 50 Hot Choruses for Cornet.” Unfortunately, the original Armstrong records of the solos and breaks, made on cylinders, have been lost for past 81 years (and the next 81 don’t look too promising!).

However, here’s where the one and only Gösta Hägglöf comes in. Beginning in the 1970s, Gus, as friends now him, began the massive project of having the great Swedish trumpeter Bent Persson recreate the original Armstrong solos and breaks from the Melrose book. Instead of just recording 16 bars at a time, Gus surrounded Persson with different sized bands to replicate the many different units Armstrong played in during the 1920s: small groups, medium-sized big bands, duets with pianists, etc. Persson played his own ideas throughout each performance, which is a wonderful thing since he comes so close to Pops’s sound and thoughts. But of course, the main event of each piece comes when Persson plays one of the original Armstrong transcriptions. Most are only 16, 24 or 32 bars long, but hey they give us worthy examples of the kinds of things the Louis Armstrong of 1927 did indeed play on material such as “Wolverine Blues,” “Dr. Jazz,” “Mobile Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” “Libery Stable Blues” and many more jazz classics of the 20s. Gus has released three volumes of this material, spanning 1976 to 1996, on his own Kenneth label. You can find out more information and order them directly from Gus’s website, www.classicjazz.se, which is also the place to find the indispensable Ambassador series that I will never tire of talking about.

So here are 16 fresh bars of 1927 Louis Armstrong, as recreated by Bent Persson, on “New Orleans Stomp.” The 16 bars are included at the very beginning of the record, Persson’s playing of the 16-bar main theme. After that the record goes on for another five minutes and though there are no more Armstrong recreations, Persson does an incredible job driving the Swedish band, which includes, Tomas Ornberg on clarinet and soprano saxophone, Ulf Johansson on piano and Holger Gross on banjo. Enjoy!

Pretty hot stuff, huh? A bunch of Persson videos were recently uploaded to YouTube by Bob Erwig and I highly recommend checking them out.

But back to Pops. “New Orleans Stomp” disappeared from Armstrong’s career at this point, never making the transition to his big band, nor the All Stars. It wasn’t even recreated for the “Autobiography” project. However, he did have one more version of the tune in him and it’s a good one. From September 30 through October 2, 1959, Armstrong and the All Stars worked on an album for Sid Frey’s Audio Fidelity label. The title of the album would be “Satchmo Plays King Oliver” and if one were to judge the album based only on that title, it would be an utter failure. However, if they chose to called “Satchmo Plays Some Really Old Tunes,” maybe more people would take it seriously. Marty Grosz told me that Frey was a cheapskate who liked his artists to play as many public domain titles as possible, which left Pops and the All Stars peppering a supposed Oliver tribute with the likes of “Frankie and Johnny,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Hot Time Int he Old Town Tonight” and “St. James Infirmary.” When they did tackle an actual Oliver item, like “Chimes Blues,” “Snake Rag” and “Dr. Jazz,” certain members of the All Stars had to be taught the tunes from scratch. Of course, Pops’s memory faded a bit by this time and occasionally, entire strains were left out and on “Snake Rag,” Armstrong got the chord changes wrong on the blowing strain, as discussed here in an earlier blog.

But complaints aside, if one just judges the album for the music contained on it, and not for what it doesn’t include, it’s a actually a very good work. Armstrong, barely three months over his heart attack in Spoleto, Italy, is in peak form, blowing the lights out on “St. James Infirmary,” “Butter and Egg Man,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Panama,” “Jelly Roll Blues” and others. It’s not the All Stars’s greatest moment--oh, what George Avakian could have done with an Armstrong tribute to Oliver!--but it’s a damn fine work regardless of its shortcomings.

“New Orleans Stomp” was recorded for the album, but it wasn’t included on the original Audio Fidelity issue. Only years later, did Chiaroscuro discover it and “Snake Rag,” issuing them on an album that included alternate takes of the numbers from the original album. Oddly enough, many of the songs from “Satchmo Plays King Oliver” seemed to have dipped into the public domain themselves; they’ve been issued on more junky C.D. and MP3 compilations than I can count (I had a poor education and can’t count past 15).

For the remake, Armstrong’s memory probably didn’t remember the exact details of the second and third strains of “New Orleans Stomp,” even though he probably wrote the tune. Also, he lowered the key a step, playing it in Eb, down from the original F of the Oliver and Dodds versions. He also cut the tempo in half, creating a mellow atmosphere that makes the melody seem a whole lot prettier than it did on those earlier versions. And finally, he improvised a new vocal chorus, obviously making up the fun words on the spot. Here’s the 1959 version:

Lovely stuff. The more mature Pops doesn’t feel the need to do any razzle-dazzle with the melody, content to let a straight lead speak for itself. Naturally, I’m the one who is clapping his hands and cheering on the razzle-dazzle of the 1927 recording, but I can’t argue about the beauty of Pops’s lead playing here. As I said, he really puts a lot of feeling into the melody, making one hear things that seem to fly by on the earlier versions. The sound cuts out a bit when clarinetist Peanuts Hucko solos--perhaps this is why the tune was originally excluded (or perhaps I am losing my hearing). Hucko’s solo is a gem, keeping with the relaxed nature of the tune and playing many melodic phrases that stick with me after each listen. Then Pops steps up to the mike for his vocal. He improvised a lot of words on the Audio Fidelity sessions (I guess Sid Frey didn’t want to pay for sheet music) but his chorus on “New Orleans Stomp” is a classic:

(Yes) New Orleans, the land of beautiful Queens,
The prettiest gals you ever seen,
They’ll tell you yockety, yockety, yockety, yockety yock!
In New Orleans (my hometown, you know), the land of the red beans,
Don’t forget those ham and greens,
Down in New Orleans!

It’s a riot, especially the banjo-like “yockety” line. His phrasing of the second “In New Orleans” that immediately follows is vintage Pops, each note phrased on the beat and on a single pitch. A soulful, yet incredibly fun vocal.

As Pops finishes, trombonist Trummy Young takes the handoff, playing some real gutbucket muted horn, getting lowdown as Danny Barcelona digs in behind him on drums. Billy Kyle’s lyrical, elegant piano takes over, changing the mood of the record and probably preventing the police from breaking down the session after such a funky trombone solo. Then it’s Pops with more lead, though he now adds simple embellishments to the melody, keeping it in the forefront again, but taking a few more chances in and around its gaps. The record ends with Armstrong holding a lovely D, the major 7th of the key of Eb. Real, relaxing stuff that makes me continue to count the minutes until I arrive in the “land of the red beans.”

And that was that for Pops and “New Orleans Stomp,” though the number seems to be a favorite with Armstrong tribute bands and general modern day New Orleans revival-type units both here in America and abroad. Typing the tune’s title into YouTube revealed four live versions from Europe. One of my favorite newer versions comes from David Ostwald’s Gully Low jazz band, on an album produced by George Avakian for the Nagel-Heyer label, “Blues In Our Heart.” In addition to Ostwald’s tuba, the rest of the band features Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Ken Peplowski on clarinet, Mark Shane on piano, Howard Alden on banjo, Herlin Riley on drums and my Satchmo Summerfest comrade Randy Sandke on trumpet. The album’s incredible and this track should make you want to run out and buy it download it immediately (or if you’re in New York, check out Ostwald’s Armstrong tribute every Wednesday evening at 5:30 at Birdland).

And that’s it for me. The wife is yelling from upstairs for me to come up and help finish packing so for now, duty calls! I’ll try to post again later this week from New Orleans. Til then!

Post-script: Michael Johnston of the terrific “Sinatra Club” wrote in today to tell me that for only $9.99, you can download the essential, out-of-print “Louis Armstrong: The Complete RCA Victor Records.” That’s ten bucks for 75 incredible tracks...what are you waiting for!?!?!?

1 comment:

Stuart Vail said...

Regarding Louis Armstrong, I thought you'd be interested in this article:

I found the book at the Universal Studios Music Library.