Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Terrible Blues

The Red Onion Jazz Babies
Recorded November 26, 1924
Track Time 2:43
Written By Clarence Williams
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, cornet; Aaron Thompson, trombone; Buster Bailey, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Buddy Christian, banjo
Originally released on Gennett 5607
Currently available on CD: It’s on the first volume of Integrale’s Complete Louis Armstrong series, as well as the old Milestone collection, Louis Armstrong and King Oliver (though it’s in the wrong key on that one)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on Louis Armstrong and King Oliver

Time to reach way back to 1924 for one of the many studio sessions Armstrong made while a member of the Fletch Henderson Orchestra in New York City. Many small group dates Armstrong participated in featured vocalists but for this November session, two instrumentals were waxed, the subject of today’s entry and “Santa Claus Blues.” The group was billed as the Red Onion Jazz Babies...oh, how I love early jazz band names! The Original Dixieland Jazz Band? Too self-explanatory. The Creole Band? Boring! But just a short while later, here comes records by Spike’s Seven Pods of Pepper, the Red Onion Jazz Babies, Jelly Roll’s Red Hot Peppers, Bechet’s New Orleans Feetwarmers...ah, those were the days (and in the case of the first three I listed, they actually make me kind of hungry). Would history have changed if the Beatles instead decided to call themselves The Liverpool Feetwarmers? The mind boggles....

Anyway, I digress (not the first time, won’t be the last). Armstrong made a few different sessions under the Red Onion Jazz Babies label, each with varying personnel, some discs pairing Armstrong with Sidney Bechet for some intense sparring. For “Terrible Blues,” Armstrong was joined by some regular associates in the Clarence Williams circle, having already made dates with trombonist Aaron Thompson and banjoist Buddy Christian. Buster Bailey, of course, was an Armstrong associate from the King Oliver days and was currently playing alongside Armstrong in the Henderson band at the time of the session. On piano, Armstrong’s recent wife Lil sat in. So now that you know the official particulars, you can listen to “Terrible Blues” by clicking here.

And there it is. Not exactly a classic of classics but a very good example of some jazzed-up blues circa 1924. After a melody statement by Armstrong, Bailey takes over, backed by intense pounding from Lil’s piano and Christian’s banjo. Then it’s back to the ensemble, Armstrong content to play stately lead, nothing too flashy.

But, ah! There it is, around the 1:25 mark. Armstrong takes a down-home solo that might sound familiar because it became one of favorites. Not one of his favorite licks or favorite quotes but a favorite solo. On the 1938 Martin Block broadcast with Fats Waller and Jack Teagarden, Armstrong played it verbatim on the improvised blues performed that day (sometimes known as “In the Crack”). And, more famously, on Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy--30 years later--Armstrong again played it in the same note-for-note fashion in the chorus after Velma Middleton’s first vocal on “St. Louis Blues.” Clearly, he worked on it and liked it to keep it afloat for a number of decades (and who knows how many times he performed it live and away from microphones?). It’s a terrific blues solo, the kind that makes you yell “Yeah” after Armstrong’s entrance.

Then it’s off to a little arranged passage, allowing Bailey to take a short break or two. They repeat this segment in the next chorus with Armstrong taking the breaks, again not offering anything revolutionary (which is why this track is probably not one of his best known) but his second break is steeped in the blues and brilliantly executed. And dig that pure-1920’s finish, ending a a 12-bar-blues in the key of G with a minor third Bb. And that’s that for “Terrible Blues”...nothing terrible about it, especially with that righteous Pops solo.

In other news, thanks to those who sent in their birthday greetings. I had a great number 28, receiving the two new Mosaic Records box sets (Lester Young with Count Basie and Oscar Peterson) and more gift certificates to Amazon and such than I know what to do with (though I quickly figured it out). I alluded the other day that a possible trip to Birdland could take place tonight and as I write this at 7:13 in the morning, I’m 95% on for that trip. However, with a pregnant wife at home, she can easily feel terrible and need me to stay so I can’t exactly promise anything, but as of now, I have her blessing. I spoke with David Ostwald last night and tonight will be a good one Jon-Erik Kellso playing trumpet, Vincent Gardner on trombone and the one and only Joe Muranyi on clarinet. $10 gets you in and the show starts at 5:30 (I’ll probably be there at five).

And also, yesterday I had a request to post audio of Armstrong’s 1967 version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I had written about the performance in November so I reposted it, now new and improved with some audio clips. Since I did that one last night and I’m posting this one just 12 hours later, you might miss it. It should be directly below this post...enjoy!

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