Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded December 23, 1930
Track Time 3:35
Written by Moises Simon and Marion Sunshine
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; McClure Morris, Harold Scott, trumpet; Luther Craven, trombone; Les Hite, alto saxophone, conductor; Marvin Johnson, alto saxophone; Charlie Jones, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Henry Prince, piano, percussion; Bill Perkins, guitar; Joe Bailey, bass; Lionel Hampton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41478
Currently available on CD: It’s on the recently reissued JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932. The alternate take in on an old Columbia disc Volume 7: You’re Driving Me Crazy.
Available on Itunes? Yes
The ol’ Itunes shuffle must have a thing for Armstrong’s California recordings of 1930. After “Ding Dong Daddy” in June and “You’re Driving Me Crazy” in August, it landed on “The Peanut Vendor,” a song recorded the same day as “You’re Driving Me Crazy.” That session also led off with one of Armstrong’s most unbeatable recordings, “Sweethearts on Parade,” making it possible for some to have either forgotten or denigrated Armstrong’s other offerings of that day. True enough, “The Peanut Vendor” doesn’t hold a candle to “Sweethearts on Parade” if you’re looking for mind-bending trumpet playing that changed the course of musical history for good. But that’s not an excuse to crap all over “The Peanut Vendor,” which is what Gunther Schuller did in The Swing Era. I quote:
“But on ‘Peanut Vendor,’ recorded the same session [as ‘Sweethearts on Parade’], even Armstrong gives up. He evidently felt he could add nothing to this tune (which has no changes, being a one-chord G major piece) other than a muted theme statement, which almost anybody could have played, and a scatty vocal with pseudo-Mexican allusions (although he keeps saying ‘Spanish, Spanish’). It is an interminable song, and very likely there was no time for a full-fledged Armstrong solo; or else he felt he could not function against the background of sloppily, stiffly played castantets and horrendously out-of-tune guitar strumming.”
Yeah, that’s it. I can see it now...
“Hey, Pops, you going to take a solo on this one?” “No, Gates, I’m giving up. It’s only got one chord and I refuse to play my trumpet if Prince is going to beat them castanets so stiffly. Let me just say, ‘Spanish, Spanish’ for a few minutes and I’ll go back to my life as a tortured genius forced to record drivel. Oh how I've failed my talent. Ready, boys? 1..2...”
Before I get carried away, a word or two about the song, known as the first Cuban number to really become a popular hit in the United States. Already popular in Cuba as “El Manisero,” it had an English lyrics written for it and was recorded by a slew of bands, including the California Ramblers, in late 1930 and 1931. The hit version was done by Don Azpiazu and his Havana Casino Orchestra and soon enough, the song was even being performed in films such as 1931’s The Cuban Love Song. Sadly, the one website offering free streaming audio of Azpiazu’s version isn’t working and I couldn’t find any other significant early or The Red Hot Jazz Archive. But a little digging on YouTube turned up a couple of fascinating early filmed documents of the tune. First, a short film apparently done in Astoria in 1930 of Don Azpiazu’s band, showing how the music travelled from Cuba to Amera. Azpiazu does a number of songs, including “Adela” and “Siboney” but at the 3:06 mark you’ll hear (and see) the earliest, most popular interpretation of “The Peanut Vendor,” vocal by Antonio Machin:
Great stuff! And some very hot muted trumpet playing, too, by the unknown Cuban trumpeter. Machin sells the song well; in fact, there’s another YouTube video of him still singing it on what looks like a 1950s television show. And did you notice the credits? The official name of the short is “New Rhythm” with a subtitle that states “A New Influence In American Jazz.” It’s true that the Latin Jazz movement probably got its start right here with “The Peanut Vendor” (unless you count Jelly Roll’s “Spanish tinge”) and it only makes sense for Armstrong to be at the forefront of yet another historical movement.
But before we get there, here’s something for those who like their nightmares to come alive! Check out this experimental animation film from 1933, done by Len Lye, with an unknown version of the tune sung with its English lyrics:
Crazy, huh? So “The Peanut Vendor” was everywhere in the early 30s, meaning that like many of the tunes of the day, it had to end up at Armstrong’s doorstep eventually. I’ve written about Armstrong’s California sojourn at length before, including detailed explanations of the bands he played with (Leon Elkins’s and Les Hite’s). Armstrong was paired with Lionel Hampton’s drums on his California recordings and it was a match made in heaven. At the time of this December session, Armstrong was riding high out west, though he was derailed a bit in early December when he busted for smoking marijuana with the white drummer Vic Berton, a story that made national headlines in the black newspapers. But that must have been all behind him at the time of this session as he sounds as free-wheeling and vivacious as ever before.
So without further ado, you can listen to “The Peanut Vendor” by clicking here
There’s really not a lot to say about the record, but I don’t think it’s as bad as Schuller makes it. If you’re looking for something revolutionary, look elsewhere. But the band does okay with the Latin vamp and Pops imbues the melody with his special muted sound. He barely improvises a note, but his phrasing is very pure and pretty. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to take off at all as alto saxophonist Hite, who already was featured on both “Sweethearts on Parade” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” takes the ball from Armstrong and holds it for a little too long. It would make a nice contrast on a typical dance band record but on an Armstrong disc, you can’t help but want a little more trumpet.
At the two-minute mark, Armstrong begins singing, though I think he sings “Marie” and instead of the original “Mani.” What’s a lot of fun is Armstrong more or less eschews the English lyrics, instead choosing to turn in some out-of-sight scatting. He gets a line or two in but really, he sounds like he’s having a ball with that stick-in-your-head main melody line. The funniest part is the one Schuller frowns upon, when Armstrong attempts to add a little Spanish flavor into his vocal by simply singing the word “Spanish!” It makes me laugh every time and I think that’s the point (as we’ll see in a minute).
The arguable highlight, though, is when Armstrong starts shouting “Spanish” in swingtime before some more daring scatting, tearing it up in such a way that years later, the New Orleans trumpet player DeDe Pierce would play Armstrong’s descending scat line as part of his trumpet solos in his many recordings of the piece. It’s a lot of fun but soon, Armstrong regains his composure and “Marie’s” his way out of the piece.
As already written, Schuller views “The Peanut Vendor” with contempt but clearly, it must have been a popular Armstrong record. How popular? Here it is again on a 1943 Jubilee broadcast, 13 years later but performed almost exactly like the original record. Listen for yourself:
Armstrong’s foil on the performance is trombonist George Washington and he gets in some good lines. The song remained popular in the 1930s (Cary Grant even sang it in 1939’s Only Angels Have Wings--check it out on YouTube) and I’m sure Pops enjoyed keeping it in the repertoire. The band is much better at the Latin feel than the original version, sounding very slick. Armstrong, again, chooses not to improvise but his way with the melody is quite beautiful. Instead of the lone figure of Les Hite, the entire reed section takes the next strain of the melody, though in the background, you can hear Pops and the audience whooping it up. Clearly someone in the band (possibly Washington) was doing some wild dancing as Pops says, “You can break your neck doing that, boy” when he approaches the microphone. Armstrong’s tenor voice sounds very appealing on the “Marie’s” and just as on the original, he gets a word or two of English in before going off on another scat-filled journey. The band sounds like they’re loving it and even Pops is having fun, alerting them to “Dig this” when he begins another strain.
Again, Pops utters a “Spanish,” which Schuller viewed as kind of dumb, but Washington plays it up with a bro
ad reaction, proving that all along, Armstrong knew he’d get laughs from it (musicologists are a tough crowd). Washington demands they return to Harlem and Pops responds with some hilariously scatting, reprising the spiraling scatting of the original. The audience cracks up and I always do the same. Armstrong’s final “Marie” is beautiful, before the band ends with a typical “cha-cha-cha” ending. Fun stuff.
So, with all apologies to Gunther Schuller, “The Peanut Vendor” is an important song in the Armstrong discography as it marked Pops’s stamp of approval on the burgeoning Latin Jazz movement. Yes, the trumpet playing is skimpy and the band is shaky but the vocal is a lot of fun and the record was obviously popular enough to stay in the repertoire into the 1940s. It’s still Pops, so you know it’s good!
That’s all for this one. In other news, Birdland was a trip last week as David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band tore it up with Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Ehud Asherie on piano and Marion Felder on drums. In the second set, the great New Orleans clarinetist Evan Christopher sat in, generating some fierce heat on a version of “Atlanta Blues” that positively cooked. Ostwald and his crew won’t be at Birdland this week but they’ll be back on the 24th and I’ll be there once again. Til next time!