Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Recorded September 6, 1946
Track Time 3:25
Written by Maceo Pinkard, Edna Alexander and Sidney D. Mitchell
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Vic Dickenson, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Charlie Beal, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Red Callender, bass; Zutty Singlteon, drums
Originally released on Swing 251
Currently available on CD: It’s on Louis Armstrong: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings, as well as a few compilations (one named Sugar)
Available on Itunes? Yes

After yesterday’s entry dealing with Louis Armstrong introducing a new popular song at the time it was written, today’s opus will focus on Pops recording a song 20 years after it was originally introduced, yet still making the tune all his own. The song in question is “Sugar,”with music written by Maceo “Sweet Georgia Brown” Pinkard in 1926. The song was a hit almost immediately off the bat with versions pouring in from the likes of Ethel Waters, Paul Whiteman, Fats Waller (at the organ) and Fletcher Henderson. It was the kind of the tune that hard to botch; the melody was catchy with a great bridge and the words are unforgettable, playing on the notion of calling someone “Sugar” while also punnily referring to the actual sweet stuff with references to “confectionary” and “granulated.”

Perhaps my favorite early version is the 1927 McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans take on the tune, featuring the Austin High School Gang (with the likes of Gene Krupa, Jimmy McPartland, Frank Teschmaker, Bud Freeman and others) in full flight. The song became a started part of the Eddie Condon/Chicago Jazz school becoming the subject of many freewheeling instrumental performances. But vocalists dug the song, too, none more so than Lee Wiley, who practically owned the song. Somehow, though, with seemingly everyone in the jazz world tackling it at one time or another, Armstrong didn’t get around to it until 1946.

Armstrong recorded it while in Los Angeles, beginning the filming for the movie New Orleans. Armstrong had been playing with big bands steadily for over 20 years, but he found the time to make the occasional small group session, whether on a Decca date, the 1944 V-Disc gathering or the various, infrequent all star concerts, such as the one from the Metropolitan Opera House. New Orleans would find Armstrong surrounded by associates from his hometown including Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, Bud Scott, Mutt Carey and Zutty Singleton. The notion of Louis Armstrong playing the old hot jazz classics in a New Orleans small group format must have left some of the old-time jazz purists awake at night. To capitalize on the small group fever, the French jazz writer Charles Delaunay organized a session to be released on the Swing label. Delaunay asked the jazz critic Leonard Feather to help out with the date and Feather obliged, bringing along two original blues compositions, sitting in on piano for both performances.

Delaunay and Feather made an interesting team because they had recently become quite critical of traditional jazz, favoring the more modern sounds emanating from the bebop world. Delaunay engaged in some very public sniping with his former associate Hughes Panassie, while Feather tormented musicians who played in older styles to the point of actually engaging in fisticuffs with Muggsy Spanier. However, both men remained devoted to Armstrong throughout the unfortunate “jazz wars,” as evidenced by this Swing session.

The session paired Armstrong with six other musicians, four of which came from the set of New Orleans: Bigard, Beal, Callender and Singleton. The two different choices turned out to be brilliant choices: guitarist Allan Reuss gave an up-to-dat Freddie Green-feel to the rhythm section while Vic Dickenson, one of the greatest jazz trombonists, always enlivened any date he appeared on. Dickenson loved Armstrong and wanted to join the All Stars when Trummy Young left at the end of 1963, but Joe Glaser turned him down because of what he perceived to be Dickenson’s lack of personality. A regular pairing of Armstrong and Dickenson in the front line is the stuff that dreams are made of and the fact that it didn’t happen has to be one of the big regrets of Armstrong’s later years.

At least, though, we have the 1946 Swing session, which began with another old standard, “I Want a Little Girl.” “Sugar” was up next and you can listen to it by clicking here:

I like that record a lot. Pops sounds great and everyone sounds relaxed (though Bigard’s clarinet solo is a little too relaxed for my taste, kind of going nowhere). To me, this session has always sounded like a precursor to the All Stars; it maintains a traditional, New Orleans lineup, but is more swing-based than one might expect. There’s not much free-wheeling polyphone in the ensembles, as there would be on the “Dixieland Seven” date of one month later, with Ory replacing Dickenson. Just listen to Pops’s opening statement, which gets a descending harmonies played in tandem by Bigard and Dickenson, almost like an arrangement, which makes sense since both men had lots of big band experience. Only at the end does everyone blow for themselves, but even then, it’s not an old-fashioned New Orleans jam session.

The New Orleans revivalists so wanted Pops to go back to his roots but his 1940s small group sessions always felt more like small group swing sessions rather than Dixieland offerings. This must have rankled some purists, who also probably didn’t appreciate that these records were attributed to “Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven.” Armstrong had dug out the “Hot Seven” moniker for a couple of 1941 Decca dates and even those centered on swinging novelty tunes, most with group singalongs. Pops had no interest in playing like it was 1915 again and on these records, it showed.

Only the rhythm section kind of clashes on this date, including on “Sugar.” Red Callender and Allan Reuss were younger, big band musicians and they lock in tightly together, providing a very nice swing feel. However, Beal and Singleton were older and it shows. Beal continuously pounds out chords and occasionally dabbles in light stride while an almost inaudible Singleton sounds content to play brush strokes on every beat. The combination of all four musicians accenting all four beats at all times leads to a somewhat rigid, almost marching feeling to the rhythm section. By this point, Armstrong required more “modern” piano players (Billy Kyle and Marty Napoleon fit in much better with the All Stars than Joe Sullivan) and swinging drummers (even Danny Barcelona’s simple swing beat fit better than a faded Singleton tapping out stiff patterns on every beat). Louis Armstrong had moved on, something some New Orleans jazz enthusiasts still can’t deal with even today (as I learned during my trip to New Orleans).

But Pops is Pops and Dickenson is Dickenson and for those two men alone, “Sugar” is full of great moments. Armstrong’s vocal is a gem, changing the melodic pitches of the two nights that make up the title phrase and rearranging the tune’s rhythms as he goes along--dig the way he phrases the words “I made” before the bridge. His concluding trumpet solo is also solid, opening with the trademark Satchmo “calling card” phrase playing during a break before some very relaxed, flowing playing, free of any grandstanding. But, if I have to give an MVP award out for the record, I think I just might have to give it to Dickenson. His eight bars before the vocal perfectly set the mood while his 16-bar solo is so damn lyrical, it can get stuck in your head for days after listening to it. Seriously, just listen to it two or three times in a row and I guarantee you won’t forget any of Vic’s incredibly melodic ideas. What a player...

This session was eventually sold to Victor (not a stretch as it was recorded in Victor’s L.A. studios) and released in America on that label, though it was now credited to “Louis Armstrong and His Hot Six.” I love the entire session, but nothing exactly stuck to Armstrong’s repertoire. He never performed the other tunes ever again but he did take one more crack at “Sugar” on 1960 album with Bing Crosby.

I’ve blogged about the missed opportunities of Bing & Satchmo in my earlier blog on “Rocky Mountain Moon” so I won’t reprise that argument here. The album does have some misfires, but some songs do click and one them that is an undeniable highlight is the remake of “Sugar,” the first tune recorded at the album’s first date. Armstrong and Crosby were backed up by an excellent big band made up of some of California’s finest traditional jazz musicians with arrangements by Billy May and special lyrics written by Johnny Mercer. Mercer really had a field day with “Sugar,” getting downright scientific at many instances are there of Bing Crosby singing about a “Bunsen Burner”??? It’s a pretty fun five-minute ride so give it a listen by clicking here:

I like May’s brassy orchestration, especially the introduction, which really sets the relaxed mood of the performance. True enough, the tempo is slower than the 1946 version and it’s in a completely different key (Db, way off from the Ab of the earlier record). Bing starts off by singing an entire chorus by himself, in strong, full-throated 1960 form. I like his opening “Ahhh,” which reminds me of Pops, as does some of Bing’s subtle changes to the written melody. Pops peaks his head in during the bridge, contributing a soft, tasteful obbligato for eight bars.

After another repetition of the introduction, Pops steps up to the mike, singing the original lyrics while Crosby fills in the gaps with some “purely scientific” utterances, sounding like he’s studying for a junior year chemistry test (my wife, a high school chemistry and physics teacher, would appreciate Bing’s part).

The band vamps for a bit, allowing Pops to get his chops in his horn, before the highlight of the record: 24 bars of pure, unadulterated power blowing by Armstrong, in his late period prime. My, my, my, what strength he had, especially in the bridge, which, because of the different key, is much more dramatically played than it was in 1946. Those bluesy triplets at the end of the solo are particularly righteous.

Unfortunately, there’s one element that mars Pops’s solo: Bing keeps going with Mercer’s “funny” lyrics, going on about making flapjacks, marmalade and other silly nonsense. Couldn’t they have just given Pops a chance to solo by himself? He plays at full strength, almost like he’s not even aware Bing is still going. Thanks to stereo technology, you can listen to the performance and remove your left earphone, which will place Bing further in the background and allow Pops to take his rightful turn in the spotlight (of course, I know there are some Bing fans out there who probably hear this track and think, “Damn it, Armstrong, put down your horn so I can hear Bing sing!”).

Pops joins Bing for the last eight bars and the coda, getting some of Mercer’s lyrics for himself (including a “morning time, evening time” reference that seems to echo “Bess You Is My Woman Now” from Porgy and Bess). The ending is all happy-like and as it comes to an end, it’s fun to reflect on five solid minutes of 1960’s entertainment at its finest. Good stuff.

Tomorrow, I hope to be back with a short look at “I Come From a Musical Family.” I say a “short look” because, given the subject matter, there’s not much I can say about such a dog of a tune. Til then....

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