Friday, October 31, 2008


Louis Armstrong and Gordon Jenkins and HIs Chorus and Orchestra
Recorded April 13, 1954
Written by Harold Carr and Matt Dubey
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Billy Butterfield, Yank Lawson, Chris Griffin, trumpet; Lou McGarity, Cliff Heather, trombone; Milt Yaner, clarinet; Tom Parshley, Jack Greenberg, alto saxophone; Abraham Richmond, George Berg, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; George Barnes, guitar; Jack Lesberg, bass; Harry Jaeger, drums; Tom Frost, Julie Schacter, Julie Shaier, Harry Melnikoff, Max Hollander, Morris Lefkowitz, Sam Rand, Sid Brecher, violins; Harry Coletta, viola; Harry Shapiro, cello; Miriam Workham, Lois Winter, Audry Marsh, Geraldine Viti, Elise Bretton, Lillian Clark, Ray Charles, Arthur Melvin, Jim Farmer, Eugene Lowell, vocals; Gordon Jenkins, arranger, conductor
Currently available on CD: It's on Satchmo in Style, a collection of Armstrong's work with Gordon Jenkins
Available on Itunes? No

Louis Armstrong two really great songs that are perfect for Halloween, "Old Man Mose" and "The Skeleton in the Closet." Unfortunately, in the first year of this blog, I wrote about both so they're off limits for today. You can still enjoy each of them by clicking these links:
Old Man Mose
Skeleton in the Closet

But there's one more bona fide Halloween item floating around in the Armstrong discography and unfortunately, it doesn't exactly hold up like the above two. It comes from Armstrong's final session with arranger Gordon Jenkins, with whom Armstrong had already made a wonderful series of records, including the big hit "Blueberry Hill," the gorgeous "If" and a swinging "Butter and Egg Man." However, this 1954 session is the definition of a mixed bag. First off, Armstrong himself was suffering. Producer Milt Gabler recalled the following story:

"I remember a session in ’54 with Gordon Jenkins, a normal call to do four songs with orchestra and chorus in three hours at our Pythian Temple studio in New York. Everyone was on time except no Louis Armstrong. Louis had never been late before, so we rehearsed the orchestra and chorus. We rehearsed all of the songs, and still no Louis. I called Joe Glaser, and he was out. Two and a half hours late and straight from the dentist, Louis comes to the studio, full of remorse and with jaws full of Novocain. He could hardly talk. I asked him if he could work the next day, but Pops had other commitments. I told Gordon to start running the songs down with Louis. Maybe his jaws would loosen up."

Not only did Armstrong’s jaws loosen up, but as Gabler said, “We finished the four sides with only an hour of overtime.” First up was "Bye and Bye," the old spiritual that Armstrong had already recorded for Decca in 1939. This version featured some ferocious trumpet playing, proof that the jaws did indeed loosen up, but also a chorus of special lyrics where the Jenkins's choir gleefully runs down a list of jazz musicians who died prematurely! It's kind of gruesome, but the trumpet makes up for it. It was then followed by Armstrong's singing of Joyce Kilmer's poem, "Trees," perhaps the dullest performance in the Armstrong discography, though he gives it his all, vocally.

Then it was time for "Spooks!," written by Matt Dubey and Harold Carr (sometimes spelled Karr), the team behind a 1956 broadway musical, Happy Hunting," more memorable for their fighting with star Ethel Merman rather than any of the actual music they wrote for it. It's not much of a tune and there's not much to recommend: no trumpet, a silly introduction featuring screams and sound effects, a showcase chorus for the lame choir and finally (the elephant in the room), the uncomfortable spectacle of Armstrong singing a word that also doubled as brutal racial slur for years. I'm sure the black press must have shaken their heads when they heard this record...

So for 364 days of the year, "Spooks!" is best left alone. Yet, today, on Halloween, as you're answering the door for trick or treaters, indulging in the occasional peanut butter cup or Kit Kat as you make the trek, give "Spooks!" a listen, put whatever racial overtones there are aside and listen to Pops do his thing, especially in the funny "I'm cuttin' out of here" ending, with the cute response by the choir. It's no masterpiece, but it works today. So have a safe and happy Halloween and do your best to enjoy "Spooks!"

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Check Out The New Armstrong Website!

Hello all. Just a quick announcement that the official website of the Louis Armstrong House and Archives is up and running and it's truly a "gassuh." You can still type in the old address and it'll take you there but the official new address is Dig it!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Louis Armstrong - Play For Someone You Love

One of my most loyal readers, Uwe Zänisch, sent me a heads-up e-mail about a video that appeared on YouTube yesterday. It's an interview with Rich Matteson, who played bass and euphonium with the Dukes of Dixieland. Matteson was with the group when they made their classic album with Pops in 1960. The YouTube video isn't exactly "video" as the interview is about eight minutes of solid audio with photos of Armstrong playing throughout. Matteson's story is quite beautiful, I think. Enjoy:

And for completeness, here's the audio for the two tracks he talks about, two songs that deserve full blogs of their own in the future. Here's "Avalon":

And "Just a Closer Walk With Thee":

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

55 Years of Louis Armstrong and The Commanders

Louis Armstrong and The Commanders
Recorded October 22, 1953
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Billy Butterfield, Andy Ferretti, Carl Poole, trumpets; Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshall, Phil Giardina, Jack Satterfield, trombone; Hymie Schertzer, alto and baritone saxophones; Al Klink, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Sandy Block, bass; Ed Grady, drums; Toots Camarata, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: Moments to Remember in the Ambassador series has the complete session. It’s been spread across a few different American discs.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various separate sets

55 years ago today, Louis Armstrong took part in one of the greatest sessions of his career, though it’s one that rarely gets discussed and is somehow not available in complete form on an single American disc. It came at a time when Armstrong was recording with seemingly anyone and everyone who had a contract with Decca. He began 1952 with a date featuring his All Stars (augmented by another reed), followed it with a Sy Oliver-arranged date that spawned “Takes Two To Tango,” then recorded four songs with strings arranged by Gordon Jenkins (including two Christmas songs). He began 1953 with Sy Oliver again, covering “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” before another augmented All Stars date in April and a session backed by a big band arranged by Jack Pleis in July.

I love all of these records. The material widely varied but Armstrong always brought his “A” game, especially with his trumpet. It seems like he never blew a single shaky note on any of his Decca records from the period. But for me, the top of the heap is the session with the Commanders from October 22, 1953. Earlier in the year, Armstrong’s weight was at an all-time high but it was that year when he discovered Swiss Kriss. The pounds began melting off and, in possibly related news, his chops hit a new peak, one that would last until after the 1959 heart episode in Italy. And the chops were never on better display than on the Commanders session.

So, who were the Commanders? They were a studio aggregation who also might have toured a bit co-led by the dynamic drummer Eddie Grady and the arranger Tutti Camarata. Camarata was a trumpet player himself and a huge devotee of Armstrong. In fact, on his album Tutti’s Trumpets, he contributed an original titled simply “Louis,” now available as an MP3, that is a beautifully written and played tribute to Pops (Camarata later oversaw Armstrong’s album of Disney songs). Grady apparently was a child star on drums and eventually played with the likes of New Orleans trumpeter George Girard’s small group with Pete Fountain and Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra in the early 50s. As he grew older, he settled into steady work as a session drummer (a quick search shows a Benny Goodman Capitol date in 1954, a famous rockabilly date with “The Rock and Roll Trio,” as well as a Jackie Paris session with arrangements by the recently departed Neal Hefti). I always thought the Commanders were strictly a studio outfit but I did find a photo of the group with Vaughn Monroe at the Cavalier Beach Hotel in Virginia in July 1955 on Felix Mayerhofer's website (

Regardless of their live career, Grady was a helluva drummer and the Commanders were a helluva band. Earlier this year, the Jasmine label finally released a two-disc set of the Commanders’s complete Decca output, including the Armstrong session and others with vocalists Dick Todd, Delores Gray and Don Cherry, as well as a number of instrumentals such as “Swanee River Boogie.” Check it out at Worlds Records by clicking here.

The interesting part about Armstrong’s session with the group is the trumpeter seemed to have an unusual amount of input in the material selected to record. The date began with two novelty Christmas tunes that Armstrong was probably forced to record but the other three selections had to be Armstrong selections. Well, two of them, I know for certain were and the third, “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” was one of Armstrong’s own compositions.

Now, here’s the deal. Of the five tunes recorded on this day, I’ve already blogged about four of them! However, two were done in the days before I knew how to upload music to the blog. So I’m going to upload the MP3s of all five songs and I’m going to borrow heavily from what I’ve already written, but I’ll edit and enhance it where I see fit. Sound good? Let’s get started with the first tune, “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?”

Now, as I already mentioned, Armstrong had recorded two beautiful Christmas songs with Gordon Jenkins’s strings the prior year. If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes The Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Pops asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Pops, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Pops sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener. After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Pops and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song around. Pops’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” I love the way he sings that “please.” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Pops yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.

Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen.

Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording, guaranteed to be heard during any Christmas season trip to the mall. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music in such crowded places, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball.

The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louie Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Only the second half of the bridge doesn’t have “Rhythm,” as it’s punctuated by giant accents by the band on two and four. Again, Pops sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders. After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Pops instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge.

With the holiday fun out of the way, it was time to get down to business, opening with a recording of Armstrong’s celebrated composition “Someday You’ll Be Sorry.” He originally recorded it for Victor in 1947 in a gentle, almost lullaby-like version. He sings and plays the song so pretty on that date that it infuses the meaning of the song with a bit of a melancholy mood. However, after six years of playing it regularly with the All Stars, Armstrong now had a new approach to the soon. The tempo was ratcheted up a few notches and now Armstrong sang with gleeful abandon, changing the mood from one of longing regret to one of joyful celebration that person in question is thankfully gone and one day is really going to be sorry about how she/he treated ol’ Pops. Dig it:

Armstrong’s earlier versions of the tune sounded like he was trying to not wake the neighbors. This version sounds like he’s trying to break a lease! The tempo’s now around 138 beats per minutes, not much faster than where it was in the late 40s, but the rhythm section gives it a little more oomph, once again due to Grady’s rat-a-tat drumming. As with the All Stars, Armstrong takes his own melody in the beginning, playing with a soft mute in his horn, answering his melody statements with some nifty improvised phrases. The band ushers in the vocal with a literal explosion and it’s a fine vocal, as always. Live versions before and after usually kicked it over to a trombone solo at this point but on this record, the listener is treated to over a minute of pure Pops blowing. The tension begins to build as you can hear drummer Grady switch from brushes to sticks towards the end of the vocal. A perfect four-bar setup by the band leads to one of my favorite Armstrong solos of the 50s. Forgetting the melody, he begins low, playing a nice, tumbling low phrase towards the beginning of his solo (what rhythm this man had). The use of space is effective as well.

Sufficiently warmed up, Armstrong begins climbing high at 2:17 in, playing the melody up and infusing it with more blues than customary. The band rushes in like a tidal wave but Armstrong blows them back into the background, ripping off four high concert Bbs before deciding to play the melody an octave higher, a favorite trick of his he adopted after hearing B.A. Rolfe in the late 20s. It’s one of those, “He’s not going to make it moments” but of course he does, topping out at a dramatic high concert C that shakes this listener to his soul (and he ends the record with a high Db!). This version seemed to stay under the radar for years but Decca included it on one compilation a few years back and all of a sudden, it’s been on a ton of best-ofs and definitive collections. As well it should be as it’s, I think, one of Armstrong’s best solos of the 1950s, even if the pretty, soft feeling of the original performances of “Someday” is obliterated. Armstrong himself adopted the new approach to the tune in his live performances, usually introducing it as something he recorded specifically for Decca, almost as if the Victor record never existed.

The next tune to be recorded was one of Armstrong’s favorites, Billy Reid’s “The Gypsy, a sizeable hit in 1946 for Dinah Shore and the Ink Spots. Armstrong had a very sizeable record collection and he was definitely aware of “The Gypsy because he quoted it frequently in the late 40s, including the landmark version of “Save It Pretty Mama” from the 1947 Town Hall concert as well as a number of versions of “Basin Street Blues” from the same period. When he did get around to recording it, it was his pick, according to Milt Gabler. “Louis loved the song,” Gabler said. “He loved the lyric content, and he loved the tune of it, and he just loved to play it. And he came in; he said he wanted to record it. So we recorded it. That’s all.” This might sound a little odd as jazz critics at the time blasted Decca for “forcing” Armstrong to record pop tunes but Armstrong definitely had a say in what was recorded that October day in 1953. Here’s the beautiful studio recording:

“The Gypsy” begins with the wonderful trombone section, including two of Eddie Condon’s favorites, Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall. Armstrong sings it like he had been singing it for a decade, throwing in “yeahs” wherever he pleases. Armstrong clearly had a thing for gypsys; a few months later, on “St. Louis Blues” from the W.C. Handy session, Armstrong sang a few humorous gypsy-themed blues stanzas. Now what those lyrics had to do with St. Louis is anyone’s guess but Armstrong also had fun on “The Gypsy.” After singing the lyric, “But I’ll go there again cause I want to believe The Gypsy,” Armstrong adds as an aside, “Although I know she’s lying,” and giggles a bit.

But the highlight of “The Gypsy” is undoubtedly one minute and 45 seconds of gorgeous Armstrong trumpet. It’s one of my favorite Armstrong solos because it might contain the most relaxed playing he ever did. For those who just think of Armstrong as a high note player, he doesn’t get way into his upper register until the end of the bridge. Until then, it’s a textbook example of how to improvise around a melody while still keeping the melody somewhat in the forefront. There’s a pattern to this solo: Armstrong plays a snatch of melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, then begins the next eight-bar section with the written melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, and so on. His playing is also remarkably slippery on “The Gypsy.” There are few better places to study Armstrong’s unique concept of rhythm. His phrases come in quick bursts and slower, legato segments. He plays obbligatos to his own lines, infuses it with the blues and comes up with a masterpiece. And transcribing this thing would be a bitch!

Triumphantly, Armstrong builds to a climax at the end of the bridge when he plays the melody in his upper register. But he still follows that with some incredibly nimble phrases before a beautiful, typical ending where Armstrong slows it down and plays the last four bars dramatically, his tone never sounding bigger. I love, love, love, love this record. It’s not one of his best known records but even Armstrong himself later said of “The Gypsy,” “Well, you know, that record I think is one of my finest.”

Somehow, some way, Armstrong had enough gas in the tank for a fifth tune, “I Can’t Afford to Miss This Dream.” This song was always a mystery to me. Decca usually had Armstrong exclusively record other people’s hits. Yet, for all my research, I never came across a single other version of this tune. So how the heck did it wind up in Armstrong’s hands?

I received the answer during one of my many trips to the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College. I must have listened to dozens of Armstrong’s private tapes while I was up there and on one of them, I got my answer. The tape came from New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1952. Somehow, Armstrong didn’t have a gig so he threw a New Year’s party at his home in Queens, inviting all sorts of friends. At one point a woman, Lillian Friedlander begins singing “I Can’t Afford to Miss This Dream” She says, “I just keep writing and Pops promised to record for me. He’s going to do ‘I Can’t Afford To Miss This Dream.’” Armstrong’s friend Prince Gary of Honolulu responded, “If he promised something, he’ll make it.” Friedlander jokingly responds, “Oh, he will, don’t be so pessimistic.” A slightly tipsy Prince Gary, though, remains serious, saying, “I know that your patience are not thinking of stopping.” Friedlander responds, “No, never.” Prince Gary says, “Cause he is tops and if he says something, he means it.” Armstrong then asks her to sing her again to which Friedlander exclaims, “You really like it that much? I love you!”

Now this was New Year’s Eve 1952. Prince Gary was definitely right as Armstrong probably called Decca up soon after and told them about the song. All he had was Friedlander singing it to him on his reel-to-reel tape deck yet somehow he convinced the company to put one of their star big bands on the date with a lovely arrangement by Camrata and a breathtaking performance by Armstrong himself. Here ‘tis:

Gorgeous, gorgeous stuff, right from the dramatic introduction, where Armstrong jumps in from out of nowhere with that dazzling run up to high C (followed by a little quiet clearing of the throat). Let’s face it, it’s not the greatest song in the world but Armstrong was doing it for a friend and he really sells it. He gets off to a slightly rocky start as the melody seems to push his vocal range to it’s limit in the lower range but he makes up for it with some ebullient high notes towards the end of the chorus (in all, he shows off a range of more than an octave, from a low C to a high Eb, on this track).

But as charming as the vocal is, it all builds up to the trumpet solo which is a textbook example of how to tell a powerful story in such a short period of time. The band sets him up with a chord, over which he at first sounds like he’s going to roar, before putting on the brakes to play with a more quiet feel. The floating, ruminating playing from “The Gypsy” carries over to Armstrong’s first half of the solo as he rarely leaves the melody, but infuses it with an incredible amount of soul. You’d think he’s playing “Star Dust”! It’s further proof of the man’s genius in the lower register, too. What a sound...

But at the halfway point, Grady implies a double-time feeling with his brushes and Pops responds by once again playing the melody an octave higher than he just played it. There’s never been a sound quite like the one he gets here (man, did Decca know how to record him). But just when you think he’s through, he takes a bridge that might be the most passionate moment of a session filled with spine-tingling moments. The string of high Bb’s he plays brings me to my knees but the whole things builds up that to momentous gliss to a high concert Eb, his tone never clearer, before he skips down chromatically to a more human-like Bb. Amazing! There’s so much information and feeling and chops in this solo, that I can’t even begin to do it justice...yet it only lasts 20 short bars!

You can hear Armstrong’s voice grow in volume as he steps closer to the microphone with a roof-shaking “Yes.” He sounds so happy, bursting at the high note and delivering a sly British accent in his last reading of the title as “I Cahn’t Afford to Miss This Dream.” A beautiful, though unjustly neglected, gem.

And that was the end of what I consider one of Armstrong’s all-time greatest sessions. He sings warmly and plays his ass off throughout, always sounding as if he’s having the time of his life. And it’s more proof that Armstrong didn’t need great material to do his finest work. I mean, two Christmas novelties? An Ink Spots hit? A song his friend wrote that has never been recorded by anyone else? Who cares? It’s Armstrong in peak form and that’s good enough for me and a bunch of other esteemed Armstrong nuts who hold this session near and dear to their hearts, including Boston trumpeter Dave Whitney, the Swedish Armstrong oracle Gösta Hägglöf (who once travelled all the way to London to find a copy on English Brunswick!) and Dan Morgenstern.

In fact, speaking of Dan, as I did earlier this week, one of the big moments of my life was my first lecture on Armstrong at the Institute of Jazz Studies in 2006. My topic was Armstrong’s later years and I had about 90 minutes to make my case, with Dan at my side. I knew that if I messed up, Dan would be all over it so I really wanted to win him over. A big part of that first presentation was a look at the Commanders session, playing and analyzing the trumpet solos Armstrong took on that day. I’ll never forget setting it up by saying, “Right now, I want to focus on a session Armstrong did in October 1953 for Decca with a big band known as the Commanders” and looking to my left to see Dan nodding his head before putting his arm in the air and literally making a small fist pump gesture at my choice. I knew I was in!

A reminder: I’ll be at Birdland tonight to celebrate Dan’s pre-birthday from 5:30 to 7:15 as David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band takes center stage. I usually get there around 5 so feel free to say hello! S’all for now....

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

75 Years of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Harlem Band

This is a historic day for Armstrong fans because it was on this day 75 years ago that Louis Armstrong and His Hot Harlem Band stepped in front of some movie cameras in Denmark to film three songs to be used in a Danish "Big Broadcast"-type film, Kobenhavn, Kalundborg og -? As far as I know, these clips weren't even discovered and shown to the public until Armstrong had already died. Since then, however, it seems that they have made their way into ever documentary made about the man, as well as documentaries about the trumpet and the history of jazz itself. Ken Burns named Armstrong the star of his mammoth documentary and though it was much maligned in jazz circles, I got a kick out of reactions of non-jazz fans, including my Rutgers students when I taught Jazz History, as they were always blown away by Armstrong's vivacious 1933 performances.

How can you not be? This is the earliest surviving footage of Armstrong performing live. No overdubbed, Hollywood sound. He's not standing in soap bubbles. He's not chasing cartoon characters. It's Louis Armstrong, born genius, as he presented himself night after night for year after year in arguably his prime period. I have never gotten tired of watching these performances. He leaps off the screen and grabs the viewer's attention, displaying uncanny camera savvy as he looks directly into the lens when he goes off on a scat excursion.

On a personal note, I like discussing these performances in relation to my work on Armstrong's later years, when he got crucified for forsaking "art" to become a showman. In his 2000 book, Blue: The Murder of Jazz, the late Eric Nisenson wrote a chapter titled, "Genius: The Triumph and Tragedy of Louis Armstrong," where he trots out every wrongheaded idea I've been fighting to reverse for years now. Here's a sample: "Looking at photographs and especially at the few films of the young Louis Armstrong is bracing. He bears little resemblance to the lovable Uncle Louis of most of his later career." Wrong! All you have to do is watch these 1933 clips. Isn't he smiling, delivering that wonderful monologue on "Tiger Rag"?" He even uses the phrase "good old good ones." And when I look at some of those early publicity photos, they light up just like every other photo Armstrong ever took in his life. It's not like Armstrong was exactly brooding and serious in those early photos or film appearances. I mean, he sang "Jeepers Creepers" to a horse, for Christ's sake!

Anyway, enough of that. How did Louis Armstrong end up in Denmark to make this film? For the full story, told in remarkable detail, please consult Gösta Hägglöf's notes to the first volume of Storyville's In Scandinavia series, an essential purchase for Armstrong nuts. (Four discs for $30, used, on Amazon right now!) Gösta is the greatest and his work on this series is exemplary. He has every possible detail that one could wish for on the Scandinavia leg of this European tour. To quickly recap, Armstrong had already made one trip to Europe in July 1932. He returned in July 1933 for an extended stay (18 months in all) that included a series of Scandinavian concerts in October and November. Gösta's notes quote some illuminating news stories of the day that illustrate how famous he already was in this part of the world: "A Gigli or Horowitz arrive silently--but a Louis Armstrong is welcomed by the citizens of Copenhagen. Guards on both sides closed the hall of arrivals. It looked dangerous, since a couple of hundred people had climbed on top of the trains to get a glimpse of the black trumpeter."

The Danish press was also enthusiastic about Armstrong's concerts. One review stated, "Louis Armstrong plays better trumpet than any others I have heard. He plays devilishly, with solid knowledge and wild ideas. He is not the kind of trumpeter that 'musts' his trumpet or gets a sobbing, crying, singing or lamenting sound out of it. No, he plays for life, full of strength on the highest notes possible. It pierces like a steam whistle or razor edge, but it is brilliant." Another review said, "The musical battle was over, and when the audience had stomped and cried the concert hall into pieces, Louis came forward in a bathrobe and a handkerchief and shook his hands like a boxer--and it was over. But there was applause for another ten minutes. Hot! Very hot!"

(Interestingly, I have footage of Armstrong in Prague and East Berlin in 1965, receiving such prolonged ovations at the end of the concerts that--you guessed it--he had to take his curtain calls in a bathrobe! Old habits die hard, I suppose...)

Armstrong gave seven concerts at the Tivoli Concert Hall in three days, October 21 through October 23. And it looks like he played the same sets in every show! Again, something he got crucified for in his later years, but he knew the importance of having a working repertoire and how to play the hell out of it, making it sound fresh every night. Again, Gösta the great lists the concert rundown for those who are curious: "Them There Eyes," "I've Got the World On a String," "Dinah," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "St. Louis Blues," intermission, "That's My Home," "I Cover the Waterfront," "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues," "Rockin' Chair," "Chinatown" and "Tiger Rag." For encores, he did "You Rascal You" and "Hobo, You Can't Ride This Train." There were no attempts to do any Hot Five or Seven material, which the critics would begin clamoring for a few short years late. No, Armstrong stuck to pop songs and records he had made between 1929 and 1933, as well as two songs he hadn't even recorded yet, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I Cover the Waterfront."

While in the middle of the series of concerts at Tivoli Concert Hall, Armstrong and his group filmed their scenes for Kobenhavn, Kalundborg og -?. Armstrong didn't do any acting, instead simply performing as if he was at a live concert. He introduces himself ("Mr. Armstrong") and each song and takes off from there. Got your popcorn ready? Let's have a little filmfest! Up first, "I Cover the Waterfront" or as Armstrong introduces it, "I Cover the Waterfront, I Cover the Waterfront, I Like It.": There's so much I love about that clip. I love how Armstrong lurches toward the band in tempo with the introduction, the haunches over and dances a bit, feeling the music in every square inch of his body. Drummer Oliver Tines lays down some powerful press rolls before a few cymbal strokes herald the beginning of Armstrong's vocal (and a switch to brushes). This has long been one of my all-time favorite vocals. In fact, I think it's one of the greatest jazz vocals of all time. He gives the melody a decent amount of respect in the first chorus though it's tailor-made for the little scat episodes in between the eight-bar sections, and the beautifully swinging "Oh babe" before the bridge. I always like to point out Armstrong's unjustly ignored vocal range. Listen to him hit those low notes in the bridge, his head looking like it's about to implode and he digs deep, editing out certain words as he goes.

After one chorus, Armstrong dramatically looks away with his eyes closed, before turning back towards the microphone and giving the band a little wave with his left hand, signaling that he's about to take another chorus. I'm sure the band was well aware of this but it makes for good theater. This second chorus is the one that knocks me out every time. For those looking for examples of Armstrong's singing mirroring his trumpet playing, look no further. He literally continues singing every one of Edward Heyman's lyrics, though he makes mincemeat out of Johnny Green's melody. It swings so damn hard, it's ridiculous. He rushes the beat with "watching the sea, babe," and tosses off "one that I love" in a descending run that is ripped straight out of his trumpet vocabulary, much like the ensuing scat line. And just look at the posing in between lines! He's so in command, so confident in his performing ability and so endlessly entertaining. And when he gets to the bridge, he's simply on fire. Drummer Lines amps up the volume on his cymbal backbeat and Pops rides it all the way, swaying to the beat and swinging til the end of time, physically and musically. Just listen to the reeds playing the melody exactly as written, then listen to what Pops is doing to it. No comparison!

After another hysterical little pose, Armstrong finishes his remarkable vocal, grunts to himself in satisfaction, then races backwards, putting his chops in his horn. He begins stalking the stage playfully, playing the arrangement along with the band until he's situated dead center, at which point he stands up right and holds his horn up gallantly. And remember the descending line he sang on "one that I love." He plays the exact same phrase at the exact same time with his trumpet. The arrangement reminds me of something Zilner Randolph would have written as it's penned exactly in the language of Armstrong, which is why he sounds so comfortable playing it straight. Armstrong finally takes off on his own during the bridge over more cymbal backbeats (Lines using a mute). After more arranged playing, Armstrong settles into one of his patented slow endings, his tone positively singing those high concert C's. He ends on a concert Ab, glissing down a half-step to a G and back up to the Ab for good measure. Doesn't get much better...

...until the next performance, "Dinah," the clip that made Armstrong the talk of the Burns series, as well as one with almost 300,000 total views on YouTube. Here 'tis:

Once again, Armstrong introduces himself and the tune ("Dinah, Dinah") as one of them "good ol' good ones," a phrase for which he was crucified for by the critics in his later years. Armstrong originally recorded a classic version of the tune in 1930 before remaking it as one of the "Medley of Armstrong Hits" for Victor in 1932. Now, a year later, he has an even better grip on it. The reeds sound very good, especially on the bridge and the rhythm section swings nicely in the style of the day. Armstrong is digging it, that's for sure, facing the band, bent over with back spasms on the second beat of every measure (get that man to a chiropracter!). Every time I see that Dizzy Gillespie big band short from the 1940s, I'm reminded of this clip as Diz did similar things in front of his group.

Soon enough, Pops starts singing and the world starts changing. "Dinah" had been around for a while but Armstrong's girl sounds nothing like the "Dinah" most people knew at the time. He completely rewrites the melody, turning the titular word into a two-note descending motive, where, as written, it's supposed to be ascending. On the bridge, like "Waterfront," Armstrong can't help himself, bouncing uncontrollably before finally opening his eyes to look into the camera and deliver that knockout of a scat break, guaranteed to make audiences of all ages laugh every time. And they don't laugh because it's out-and-out funny, like an Oliver Hardy pratfall. It's almost a completely spontaneous, uncontrollable giggle to acknowledge that this man is a genius and his genius is so incomprehensible, all one can really do is laugh in awe. At least that's how I read it...

But Pops isn't through, swinging into another trumpet-like second chorus, holding long notes at first before taking the two syllables "Dine" and "uh" on a fantastic trip up and down an imaginary staircase. Once again, the bridge is smoking and Armstrong delivers the last eight bars with the posture of a crazy uncle trying to make his nephew laugh. Then up steps poor Charlie Johnson, who actually takes a nice little punchy solo but is still considered "poor" because he has the unenviable job of playing a trumpet solo in front of Louis Armstrong. Still, Pops seems to like it, as he does the hot alto solo by Peter DuConge of Paris. There's an odd edit during the alto solo as there originally appeared a few seconds of the actual film. But it's almost impossible to find a version with those seconds inserted as they're almost edited out of every clip.

But now it's time for Pops. I love the little hop he does, almost like a boxer, getting ready for battle as he puts the trumpet to his lips. Armstrong's first two notes are perfectly selected and perfectly placed, as if he's announcing, "I'm here!" He takes off in a relaxed, yet authoritative manner, though the camera gets a little too close and cuts off the top of his head. The band riffs furiously behind Armstrong, stopping for Armstrong's dramatic gliss break in the first bridge. As Armstrong heads into his second helping, holding a high Ab for good measure, drummer Lines switches from snare rolls to his cymbal, whipping it enthusiastically (hard to hear in this clip, but it magically comes alive on the Storyville disc). Armstrong powers into his second chorus with an ingenious quote of "Exactly Like You," playing it straight at first before stretching it out into a highly rhythmic, almost weightless example at how to keep your cool around so much heat. In the bridge, Armstrong digs out his favorite "Hootchy Kootchy Dance" quote before another delicious break that is emphasized by a perfect hit by the drummer. Armstrong builds the whole solo up to the high C that ends this legendary performance, perhaps the greatest three minutes of Armstrong ever captured on film.

Still, it's not like the next three minutes are too shabby. It's Louis Armstrong playing "Tiger Rag," always a cause for celebration. Here's the clip:

Armstrong stomps it off at a typically ludicrous tempo (some New Orleans cats like Baby Dodds practically gave lectures about the correct, medium tempo for this tune, but Armstrong always liked it up, up, up) before DuConge takes off with some incredibly hot clarinet playing, hotter than some of the All Stars in Armstrong's later bands (Joe Darensbourg, I'm looking at you). Armstrong then delivers one of his endearing monologues, alerting the audience that it's going to take a few choruses to catch this tiger and that he wants them to count along with him. With a cavalier-like "I'm ready," Armstrong gets his "Selmer trumpet" ready for takeoff. Armstrong originally recorded this at the same 1930 session where he debuted "Dinah," a big day for trumpet show-pieces. After a couple of years of playing it, Armstrong worked out a routine that was so tight, he went back into the studio and remade it for OKeh as the "New Tiger Rag" in March 1932. Almost all of it is worked out, but it never fails to excite the hell out of me. It's also a quote-fest, but I'm not going to go quote-for-quote. Instead, because I like comments, leave a comment with the correct quotes and win a prize...the chance to see your name in print!

After the quotes, Armstrong takes off on an endurance contest, holding high notes for incredible lengths of time before doing rhythmical intricate things with an Ab, a la "Swing That Music" from a few years later before making that high C at the end. An incredible feat of strength, especially since he was in the middle of playing so many shows at the Tivoli, including two that night!

(Sidebar: Joe Glaser wasn't in the picture yet but when he took over in 1935, he later claimed that Armstrong was killing himself for the sake of musicians, telling him to sing more and make faces. Glaser claimed that Armstrong listened and became a bigger star. But I don't know, watching these clips, Armstrong was sure singing the hell out of these songs and making plenty of faces. Also, "Dinah" and "Tiger Rag" lasted as showpieces well into the late 1930s, with "Tiger Rag" becoming a favorite of the All Stars. I think Glaser gave himself a little too much credit for the non-transformation of Armstrong.)

So that's the end of the the 1933 Louis Armstrong film festival but it wasn't the end of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Harlem band. Three days later, the band headed to Stockholm where once again, he was greeted by a huge number of fans. Armstrong's concerts sold out so fast, extra ones had to be added. Unfortunately, the Swedish press wasn't too kind when it came to Armstrong's stage persona. This disgusting review, again taken from the Storyville booklet, was written by Gösta Nystroem, a classical music composer: "Mr. King of Jazz and man-eater offspring, Louis Armstrong, shows his clean shaven hippopotamus physiognomy. Flapping with an ordinary trumpet and a giant handkerchief, he splashes up to the tribune, shows his teeth, snuffles, raises one of his wild negro african ancestor's primitive cries...alternating with a gravelly gorilla roar...Physically he probably comes from ancestors of gorillas." Another critic wrote, "This settles the old dispute about apes having a language." It's mind-boggling to comprehend that such horrible, racist bile was published just 75 years ago...

While the Swedish critics made asses out of themselves, at least the Swedish leg of the trip was good for one thing. The director of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation broadcasted the second half of Armstrong's October 28th concert. A telephone line connected the Auditorium Concert Hall stage and the SBC and an engineer recorded some of the concert directly off of the phone lines onto blank acetate discs (though for a couple of seconds, you can faintly hear people talking on the telephone!). Eventually, the tunes were released by the Sonora Record Company with the whopping total of 25 (!) copies made. Today, only two copies survive but again, God bless Gösta Hägglöf for finding a copy as well as a test pressing and mastering it all for release on the first Storyville In Scandinavia disc. These are quite probably the first live concert recordings to have ever survived, taken directly from the stage. For that reason alone, the jazz world should have done backflips when this disc was released but, like with a lot of new Armstrong releases, it seemed to have flown under the radar, a crime. Still, I'd like to share these three surviving broadcasts, "Chinatown My Chinatown," "You Rascal You" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street." "Chinatown' has always been one of my favorite OKeh trumpet showstoppers and this live version gives the studio version a run for its money. It follows the pattern of the record closely, though Armstrong doesn't talk about "argument" between the trumpet and the saxophones. He does stomp the tempo off faster when his trumpet enters but from there, it's same, slow, hair-raising climb to the final high Eb, with numerous high C's along the way. Because of the quicker tempo and the live setting, Armstrong takes a little more time getting there, but the result is no less thrilling. Here's "Chinatown":

Next up is "You Rascal You," getting another enthusiastic introduction from Armstrong himself, referring to it as a "good ol' good one." This was arguably Armstrong's biggest hit at the time as it had been featured in his first two major film appearances, Rhapsody in Black and Blue and the Betty Book cartoon I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You (both shorts). Unfortunately, it fades out just as it gets going, but it's still a worthwhile artifact:

"On the Sunny Side of the Street" is magical because this live performance is from a fully year before the the famous two-part studio recording. Unfortunately, the bulk of Armstrong's two vocal choruses is lost but at least we get to hear a little of his vocal. Then the band takes one with a piano bridge (here's where you can hear someone on the phone) but Armstrong takes two full ones. It's truly a magical solo and as Hägglöf's notes point out, it's a special favorite of the great Swedish trumpeter Bent Persson. I don't have much to add but just simply, relax and enjoy the power and the majesty of this solo:

After Sweden, Armstrong headed to Oslo before returning to Sweden and Denmark before leaving on November 7 for Amsterdam, The Netherlands. While there, two performances survive from a broadcast of a concert from The Hague on November 12. The two songs were released on a Timeless disc, Americans in Holland, a couple of years back and are quite valuable for yet another glimpse of Armstrong as he appeared on stage at this time. Even better, both performances, though the second is pretty awful, weigh in around the four-minute mark. This time, we get to hear a full version of "You Rascal You" with a very funny introduction followed by Armstrong taking his time getting his chops together. The routine was set in stone by this time with Armstrong alternating between playing and singing, sometimes within the same chorus. Again, the sound is atrocious but Armstrong still comes through:

And finally, we end up almost where we began, with another great version of "Dinah." Please listen along:

This time Charlie Johnson takes his chorus up front, sounding good with some fleet-fingered ideas, Armstrong singing along quietly the entire time. The vocal is almost identical to the Denmark film but the second bridge is different. DuConge takes off again with pianist Justo Barreto getting the bridge. But then it's Armstrong's turn and without the constraints of a film appearance or a record time limit, he stretches out for almost two full minutes. The extra time allows for a couple of new choruses. The second one has some great quotes, including "Lady Be Good," "Dixie" and the bridge to "Lover Come Back To Me." In the third chorus, I expected him to head into "Exactly Like You" but instead he improvises a number of new ideas, including a great bridge. Finally, in chorus four, "Exactly Like You" makes its appearance, followed again by the "Hootchy Kootchy Man." An unfortunate edit claims a couple of bars but we still get to hear Armstrong end on the high note. Another great performance and more proof that Armstrong always set certain elements of his solos, even when he was a younger man...and that it just doesn't matter when the solo is so damned good!

That'll do it for this look at the complete surviving audio and video of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Harlem band on the 75th anniversary of those immortal Danish film clips. Please seek out Storyville's "In Scandinavia' series for more information, as well as the opportunity to hear the audio from those film clips in remarkably vibrant sound. That ends this one but I'll be back with another long one tomorrow, celebrating the 55th anniversary of Armstrong's Decca date with the Commanders. Til then!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Celebrate Dan Morgenstern's Birthday at Birdland!

A quick announcement before regular Pops-worshipping resumes tomorrow. This Friday, October 24, is Dan Morgenstern's 79th birthday, definitely a cause for celebration in the Armstrong and jazz community. David Ostwald's Wednesday evening set at Birdland featuring his Louis Armstrong Centennial Band (the artists formerly known as the Gully Low Jazz Band) will be a birthday party of sorts for Dan so please feel free to stop by if you're in the area. David hits at 5:30 and runs until about 7:15, give or take a few bars of "Swing That Music." The $10 cover is a pretty cheap deal for the city and I'm sure there will be other luminaries in attendance if Dan is going to be the man of the hour. There aren't many others who love Louis as much as Dan does and I think Pops loved Dan a lot, too. Hell, he even kissed him at Newport in 1970:

In all honesty, I can thank Dan for setting me on the path I am on today, though he didn't know this until I was about eight years into my journey. When I first got into Pops as a pimple-faced, fat high school kid (the pimples are gone), it was Dan's writing about Armstrong that taught me more about Pops than any book I read at the time (or have read since). In one set of liner notes, Dan wrote that he didn't like the term "critic," he liked "historian" a little more but really, he just considered himself a fan. Once I read that, I knew that that was the kind of writer I wanted to be. I was born entirely too late to meet many of the jazz legends Dan got to know, but I feel like I've gotten to know them, too, through his writings, the best of which are collected in his book Living With Jazz.

To think that my Armstrong book is going to published by Pantheon, the same good people who did Dan's, makes my head spin. I've gotten to know Dan well since I was a student at Rutgers-Newark's Master's program in Jazz History and Research and can attest that's a genuinely great guy. And besides Pops and jazz, we've discussed our mutual loves of W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers and even obscure comedians like Charley Chase (Dan is encyclopedic about EVERYTHING). To paraphrase Dizzy on Pops, I'd like to thank Dan for my livelihood!

So come out to Birdland on Wednesday, say hello to your friendly blogger and don't forget to wish Dan a happy birthday!

Dave McKenna also passed away this weekend. Others have eulogized him much more eloquently than I could, though I'm a huge fan. McKenna's walking bass lines were also a huge influence on my own piano playing as I live in a small town in New Jersey where I pretty much am the entire jazz scene and have had to make due without a bassist for much of my career. McKenna's powerful left hand showed me how to make due. And regarding Pops, McKenna was the pianist at Armstrong's 70th birthday celebration at Newport in 1970. There's a great moment during rehearsal where Armstrong and Tyree Glenn teach McKenna the chord changes to "What a Wonderful World." Dave struggles for a while until Bobby Hackett discovers the secret: the tune is more or less "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" with a change to a flatted-sixth chord in the fifth bar! From there, it's smooth sailing. Alas, that clip isn't on YouTube, but here's my favorite, Pops singing "Pennies From Heaven" with a piano intro from the dear, departed McKenna:

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

85 Years of "Camp Meeting Blues"

King Oliver’s Jazz Band
Recorded October 15, 1923
Track Time 3:02
Written by King Oliver
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 14003 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.

The other day, I picked up my well-worn copy of Jos Willems's Armstrong discography All of Me and started perusing the late months of years that ended in 3 or 8, in hopes of doing some more anniversary-themed posts. Well, I hit a bunch of jackpots but I don't want to show my entire hand right here, right now so we'll just have to take 'em as they come. But 85 years ago, in October 1923, the King Oliver Jazz Band (they had lost their "Creole" touch) recorded a large chunk of their legacy, 16 titles in all. I could have almost picked any title for any day but today's October 16 and I have nothing else to write about's "Camp Meeting Blues"!

Actually, the Oliver band also recorded "New Orleans Stomp" on October 16 so if you would like to celebrate the 85th anniversary of that tune, check out my entry on it from a few months ago. The band also tackled Jelly Roll Morton's "London (Cafe) Blues" that is positively Morton-esque, but doesn't offer much for our heroes, the cornetists. Still, to be complete about such matters, you can listen to both these tunes by clicking these links:

London (Cafe) Blues
New Orleans Stomp

Good stuff all around. But now onto the main event, a pretty serious, lowdown blues that will probably feature some very familiar melodies to fans of early jazz. Unfortunately, there's not much to talk about regarding the cornets as both Oliver and Armstrong are stuck with playing lead throughout the record--no crazy harmonized breaks and famous muted solos. Before we get comfy, you can listen to the track by clicking here.

Lil Hardin, the future Mrs. Louis Armstrong, leads off with a simple introduction (it sounds written) before the band takes off with a couple of choruses of the theme, which bares a striking resemblance to another Jelly Roll tune, "Dead Man Blues." Oliver plays the lead muted but at times, if you listen hard, you can hear Armstrong's brighter 1923 tone overshadowing his mentor. It's a simple 12-bar blues but the rhythm sections sounds confused about where to change in bars nine and ten, sounding a little too static for my tastes. They finally straighten it out for the solos, leading off with Ed Atkins's muted trombone, sounding like about a dozen other trombone solos from the period.

But then pay close attention to Buster Bailey's solo...why, that's Ellington's "Creole Love Call." Verbatim! Sure enough, the Duke copped his more well-known song from the Oliver record, recording it in 1927. Oliver unsuccessfully tried to sue, yet another bad break in a career filled with them.

(Never mind all these dueling Armstrong movies. Someone should make the life story of King Oliver. You've got New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, California, Chicago, little Louis, etc. Then, talk about heartbreak! The man was selling fruit at the end! But then there's that great story of Armstrong visiting him in Georgia and Oliver getting all decked out to to catch his former pupil. Combine that with the heart-wrenching letters Oliver wrote to his sister when he knew he was dying...Jesus man, it would be incredible.)

Anyway, after the "Creole Love Call" chorus, Baile comes back for some effective breaks in the next chorus before Armstrong and Oliver show the way out with some stately lead playing. Nothing crazy occurs but they definitely create a strong blues favor. And dig the little tag, probably contributed by Lil and later recycled on Armstrong's Hot Seven recording of "Gully Low Blues."

So, there's a trace of "Dead Man Blues," the genesis of "Creole Love Call" and the first use of the ending of "Gully Low Blues." Nothing groundbreaking occurs during "Camp Meeting Blues" but it does play like "Best of 1920s Hot Jazz" if you're familiar with these other, truly classic performances. That ends this anniversary posting but I'll be back on Tuesday to celebrate something that happened 75 years ago on that day...the 1933 Denmark film clips of Armstrong! Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded February 7, 1959

Track Time 4:00
Written by Ernest Seitz and Gene Lockhart
Recorded live in Amsterdam, Netherlands

Louis Armstrong,trumpet; Trummy Young, trombone; Peanuts Hucko, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Mort Herbert, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums
Currently available on CD: It’s unissued, taken from a fantastic concert that deserves to be on C.D. (and especially DVD since videos of two performances from this show exist on YouTube.

Available on Itunes? No.

The Itunes shuffle must be digging features for the All Stars sidemen from the year 1959. Yesterday, I put up "Christopher Columbus," one of Mort Herbert's many bass features during his nearly four year tenure with the band. Today's subject was a feature for clarinetist Hucko from the same tour as Herbert's.

(In fact, this coming January marks the 50th anniversary of the mammoth European tour that featured some of Armstrong's greatest blowing but ultimately ended with his heart attack in Spoleto, Italy. I need to do something to commemorate it and it's either going to be a long series of posts or maybe I'll get creative and put my Mac to use and create some kind of multi-part "documentary" that'll feature the best audio and video from the tour, as well as newspaper reviews and anything else I can put my hands on. Stay tuned!)

This is a great edition of the All Stars, if slightly below the standard set by the previous Edmond Hall edition of the band. Regardless, it's much better than the band was during the Joe Darensbourg years when the repertoire narrowed a bit and Darensbourg contributed solos that ranged from passable to forgettable to just plain hokey. Hucko was something of a middle man as he usually managed to generate considerable heat in his solos but other times, could sound a bit bored, especially in ensembles when he sometimes sounded like he was going through the motions.

This edition of the All Stars clearly liked changing up their features and that's a good thing. Previously, Edmond Hall had about four features ("Dardanella," "Clarinet Marmalade" "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "You Made Me Love You"). Prior bassists Arvell Shaw, Dale Jones and Squire Gersh all played "Whispering" and usually one other feature ("How High the Moon" for Shaw, "Nobody" for Jones" and a short blues for Gersh, though Shaw sometimes played a blues, too). For a long time, Billy Kyle was content with "Perdido," "All the Things You Are" "Blue Moon" and "Pennies From Heaven."

But all of a sudden, with the addition of Hucko and Herbert, the All Stars became a band of many features. Hucko had "Autumn Leaves," "The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise," "Runnin' Wild," "Stealin' Apples," and "After You've Gone." Herbert had "Old Man River," "I Cover The Waterfront," "These Foolish Things," "I'm Beginning to See the Light," "Love is Just Around the Corner," "It's Only a Paper Moon" and "Christopher Columbus." Kyle added "Girl of My Dreams," "When I Grow Too Old To Dream" and even "Sweet Georgia Brown" to his list of stand-bys. Only Danny "Stompin at the Savoy/Mop Mop" Barcelona and Trummy "Undecided" Young remained true to their old faithfuls, though Young did give "I'm Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" a whirl in 1959.

An interesting thing to point it is that, of all the numbers listed in the previous paragraph, Armstrong played on each and every one of them except "Autumn Leaves" and "Girl of My Dreams." He always managed to contribute some melody and then some, blowing melodies an octave higher on some pieces and even contributing a vocal to "Old Man River." The man just did not know how to quit.

Case in point: "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise." This number will always be associated with Benny Goodman, who tore it up frequently, never better than on a Commodore record with the incredible Mel Powell (Goodman was billed as "Shoeless John Jackson" for contractual reasons!). Hucko was a Goodman man so the choice made sense. Only one version of the tune survives, from a February 7, 1959 concert in Amsterdam at the Concertgebouw. The generosity of Jos Willems has made me able to appreciate the many riches of this concert, including an unbelievable "Tiger Rag" that almost rivals the one heard on volume four of Storyville's In Scandinavia series (almost, not quite). The concert has never been commercially available on C.D. but the first two performances, "Sleepy Time" and "Indiana" are on YouTube. I would do anything to see the rest of the show and who knows, maybe one day we'll be so lucky.

But until that lucky day, let's get back to Hucko. Armstrong's 1959 concerts featured a similar pattern. He'd push the hell out of his chops early on with "Indiana," "Basin Street" and "Tiger Rag," then sing and play "Now You Has Jazz" with Trummy. At this point it was time to rest. If he really needed a rest, Billy Kyle would play two songs, the first of which would feature no trumpet. If Pops felt good, Kyle would play "Perdido" and Pops would come out blasting at the end. Then Hucko would do two features, opening with "Autumn Leaves," again without trumpet. But Hucko's second feature was always a high-flyer that would feature plenty of Pops. So without further ado, here's the lone surviving example of Peanuts Hucko playing "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise" with the All Stars:

Hot stuff! Hucko sounds great and the rhythm section really cooks. After a couple of choruses, Armstrong enters with the melody, phrasing it his own way. He does this for an entire chorus, ending with a high note that seems to propel Hucko into his next chorus with the effect of a catapult. Armstrong comes back for the second half and after a Barcelona drum break, takes it out with a high concert Db. That's impressive enough but then he calls it back for an encore, Armstrong taking more chances with the melody, but keeping it to a simmer as to not overwhelm Hucko. But after another Hucko solo excursion, Armstrong swarms back in for another half chorus, saving him for the big finish: after another drum break, Armstrong goes way up, ending with three notes--Db, Eb and F--that represent just about the highest peaks of his range. And this was on a clarinet feature! Again, the man just did not know how to quit.

That concludes this look at "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise" but before I go, a quick note: last week, in my "Royal Garden Blues" entry, I mentioned that Marty Napoleon and Randy Sandke were giving a presentation at the Institute of Jazz Studies tomorrow night, the 15th. Unfortunately, Marty is currently ill and the evening will be rescheduled. I'll post the new details as soon as I get them but I know I speak for all Armstrong lovers when I wish Marty a speedy recovery. Now, if you have nothing to do, you can go to Birdland at 5:15 and catch David Ostwald's Gully Low Jazz Band in action. I don't think I'll be there (I'll definitely be there next week) but if you still haven't made it, please go to my friend Michael Steinman's excellent "Jazz Lives" blog (link to the right) and check out the videos he took of the group last week (and while your there, scroll down for Michael's excellent "Basie's Bad Boys" session discussion. When I first looked at the length of it, I thought that maybe for a minute, he thought he was me! But it's truly an excellent piece, making me dig out my Lester Young Mosaic immediately, always a good thing.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Christopher Columbus

It's Columbus Day so take a few minutes to enjoy this Mort Herbert bass solo from 1959, available on the fourth volume of Storyville's In Scandinavia series. (And yes, Pops plays a little melody, too!)

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Royal Garden Blues

Louis Armstrong and the All Stars
Recorded numerous times between 1947 and 1965 (though never in a studio)

Track Time Ranges from 2:37 to 5:31

Written by Spencer Williams and Clarence Williams
Recorded all around the world with just about every different All Stars line-up one can think of

Currently available on CD: Numerous discs, as will be discussed below
Available on Itunes? Yes in at least 20 different versions

Today’s version is something of a prequel to my previous blowout on “Indiana.” For years, people have assumed that Armstrong opened all of his live All Stars shows with “Indiana” but as I discussed, the song didn’t appear in the band’s repertoire until January 1951 and it didn’t really stick as an opener until 1952. So what did Armstrong use as an opener in the first years of the All Stars? It was always an instrumental and at different times, the role was fulfilled by “Muskrat Ramble,” “Panama,” “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “King Porter Stomp” and “That’s A Plenty.” But more than any of these tunes, “Royal Garden Blues” usually served as the opener pre-”Indiana.” And even after it was replaced, the song remained in the band’s book until the mid-60s, frequently used as a set opener or a concert closer. Regardless, it always made for an exciting performance.

On top of that, it allows me to reintroduce my theories on Armstrong the improviser. Lately, I’ve done a lot of writing about the long painstaking process Armstrong used to “set” his solos, arguing that he had been doing it as early as his 1920s recordings and that it wasn’t something to be looked down upon. In my “Indiana” entry I charted the many different improvised solos Armstrong took on that tune in the early-50s, finally settling into a pretty concrete “set” solo in 1956 (I always put quotation marks around “set” because there were nights when he improvised more than usual and I want to cover my ass!).

The same principles apply to Armstrong’s “Royal Garden Blues” solos yet he never really hardened his solo into something he would repeat verbatim for years at a time. He worked on it, keeping certain phrases, discarding others and going through some phases where things didn’t change all that much. But, possibly because it was a basic blues, Armstrong really liked to change it up a lot on his “Royal Garden Blues” solos. So if you want to hear Pops improvise on blues changes in the later decades of his life, grab some popcorn, put the cell phone on silent and get ready for an interactive journey through Louis Armstrong’s history with “Royal Garden Blues.”

The song should be pretty familiar to anyone who frequents this space frequently (now that was redundant) but in case you’re in the dark, it was written by the great team of Clarence Williams and Spencer Williams (no relation) in 1919 and introduced on records by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1921. A multi-strained piece that owes something to ragtime, it has spots for a series of breaks before it launches into the blowing strain, a 12-bar blues based on an incredibly catchy riff. You’re lucky I’m not in one of my “Let’s listen to every other recording of this tune” moods as just typing the title into the Red Hot Jazz Archive resulted in 18 versions. Still, a little familiarity never hurt anyone so here is that first ODJB recording, from May 1921, featuring a vocal by Al Bernard:
Of the numerous versions from the 1920s, respect has to be paid to Bix Beiderbecke’s version from 1927:
I could go on and on, but I won’t...for now. It seems like anyone who was anyone recorded the tune at some point in the early days of jazz on record, though Louis Armstrong never got around to it. In fact, Armstrong never performed it a single time when recording devices were present until the Town Hall concert in 1947. However, we do know that he did play it in his early days in Chicago, something he was usually quick to point out when introducing later live performances of the tune. He played the Lincoln Gardens with King Oliver from 1922 to 1924 and I’m sure this was a popular number there thanks to the garden tie-in. In fact, the Lincoln Gardens was originally known as the Royal Gardens, so that explains the connection. (Some websites claim the tune was written to celebrate Oliver’s band at the Lincoln Gardens but he didn’t arrive until two years after the song was copyrighted.)

Everyone knows the story of the Town Hall concert and how it was the final nail in Armstrong’s big band coffin, paving the way for the birth of the All Stars, the sextet he would lead until the day he died. The concert, held on May 17, 1947, was an all-star affair itself, with a crew made up almost exclusively from the Eddie Condon circle. Armstrong brought along his favorite drummer, Sid Catlett, who I believe only played the first half. Otherwise, the musical director was a Condon favorite, Bobby Hackett, and Hackett hired musicians with Condon associations, which isn’t really a surprise since the concert was produced by one of Condon’s comrades, Ernie Anderson. Jack Teagarden, Peanuts Hucko, Dick Cary, Bob Haggart, George Wettling--it was a Condon band without Condon, something that was amplified at a Victor session the following month by the presence of yet another Condon-ite, Ernie Caceres. I’ve long argued that of all the jazz groups in existence in the mid to late-40s, the All Stars most resembled a Condon organization in that it maintained a standard “New Orleans” lineup, yet played with a relentlessly swinging rhythm section, as well as backing soloists with riffs, that seemed to come out of the Swing Era instead of Storyville.

Anyway, my point (I know there’s one in here somewhere) is that “Royal Garden Blues” was a standard Condon number and after an entire evening of playing nothing but Armstrong’s old hits, perhaps one of Hackett’s men, if not Hackett himself, suggested it because everyone was so damn familiar with it. 20 numbers survive from the concert and “Royal Garden Blues” was number 18 performed that night. Everyone’s loose and swinging as by this point, even Pops must have known that this was an evening for the ages. He’s a little shaky in the introduction, sounding like he’s thinking of the proper notes, but immediately after, he settles in, nailing all the strains and breaks, rephrasing where appropriate and taking a monster solo. Here ‘tis:

And we’re off! Hucko’s very bluesy in his solo before Pops takes two smoking choruses, turning up the heat in his second 12 bars, ending with a big gliss. Now, I’m not going to play every version of “Royal Garden Blues” I own in its entirety, but I am going to play many of the solos. So here is this first “Royal Garden Blues” solo:

After the solo, Armstrong leads the closing ensemble with a frightening ferocity over backbeats from Wettling. It’s a ridiculously exciting beginning and if Armstrong had never played the tune again, I’d be thankful to have those 3 1/2 minutes. The C.D. track is almost five minutes long as it contains a little conversing with emcee Fred Robbins that has nothing to do with “Royal Garden” but is touching for Jack Teagarden’s sincere comments.

Sure enough, the All Stars were born in August 1947 with Teagarden, Cary and Catlett being held over from the Town Hall concert. After receiving overwhelming responses in clubs like Billy Berg’s in Los Angeles and the Rag Doll in Chicago, the All Stars officially launched a fall “Concert Tour” in November. Critics were still too enraptured to notice, but the All Stars were already beginning to set some of their patterns. Both a Carnegie Hall concert on November 15 and a Symphony Hall concert from November 30 open with the same three tunes, “Muskrat Ramble,” “Black and Blue” and “Royal Garden Blues.” After that it was anything goes, but even at this early stage, certain aspects of the show were becoming regular.

Both the Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall versions of “Royal Garden Blues” feature a relentless, swinging medium tempo, slower than Town Hall but no less effective. The Symphony Hall version has been issued for almost 60 years and it’s tremendous. It’s also available on Itunes for anyone who wants to enjoy it. But portions of the Carnegie Hall concert exist in stunning sound and have never been issued. I hope I don’t get anyone in trouble, but I’d like to share this November 15, Carnegie Hall version as I’m sure very, very few people have ever heard it (please thank Jos Willems for his generosity in sharing it with me). Things to listen for: Sid Catlett is a monster, placing each accent with perfectly timed precision (listen to his swinging cymbals when Bigard solos; what shading!). Armstrong attempts to set some riffs behind Bigard, too. This must have been one of the first times they did this as Teagarden seems to be going along by ear, but Armstrong is solid and soon enough, the riffs would be, too. Of course, the Armstrong solo is great--so very relaxed--and it’s completely different from Town Hall. Teagarden’s solo is made up of set phrases, including a first chorus that he would later use on “C Jam Blues,” a Bigard feature, and a second chorus that begins with a tribute to George Brunies’s “Tin Roof Blues” solo. Here’s the complete performance:

And here’s the Armstrong solo from that version:

15 days later, the group played a spectacular concert at Symphony Hall in Boston. Here’s Armstrong’s solo, again, completely different including a second chorus with some earth-shaking Catlett backbeats:

A few months later, with Earl “Fatha” Hines aboard on piano, the All Stars headed to Europe to perform at the Nice Jazz Festival. While there, a fantastic concert was recorded at the Salle Pleyel in Paris (why this isn’t out on C.D. baffles me). This is a happily swinging version as the tempo has officially risen since the 1947 concerts. Hines sounds great here, probably because he thought he was a guest star only staying for a short while. After almost four full years of playing second fiddle, his ego could handle no more and he left, though his playing had already grown somewhat bored by then. Armstrong’s solo is different yet again, opening with an exciting string of quarter notes. He begins his second chorus with something that sounds like a quote from his old “Savoy Blues” solo. There’s a lot of fleet-fingered lines but the way that descending, slow-motion gliss in the sixth bar plays with the time always catches me by surprise. Here’s the complete performance:

And the solo:

There are some other great versions of “Royal Garden Blues” from the early days of the All Stars but I don’t think it’s worth it to play every second of every surviving version. Gösta Hägglöf released an excellent C.D. on his Ambassador label titled When You and I Were Young Maggie that features an exciting, though somewhat relaxed, version of the tune from Philadelphia in September 1949. Here’s Armstrong’s solo from that evening:

Notice that it’s beginning to firm up a bit? The “Savoy Blues” quote is still there in the second chorus and the gliss I called attention to from the Paris version is now much more pronounced. But don’t stop reading here because you feel that every version’s going to be the same from here on out.

Quite the contrary. An exciting version of the tune was played a Dixieland Jubilee concert just one month after the Philadelphia version and oddly enough, Pops doesn’t take a solo. In later years, he would forgo his solos when his chops were bothering him but all you have to do is listen to his playing in the ensembles to know that wasn’t the case. But even without the solo, this unissued performance is a great example of the Armstrong-Teagarden-Hines-Catlett band at their peak:

One month later, Armstrong more or less had a Town Hall reunion with Hucko and Cary rejoining their former leader for an episode of the Eddie Condon Floor Show. With a slower tempo than usual, Armstrong contributed this short, relaxed statement:

Again, one month later (this is four versions in four months for those keeping score at home), the group performed it at a Damon Runyon benefit at the Blue Note in Chicago, a version that is available on the Storyville label. Check it out on Itunes because it’s a cooker, but for our purposes, here’s Armstrong’s solo:

Yeah, man! Dig that second chorus. The somewhat awkward “Savoy Blues” is gone, replaced by a string of quarter-notes over more Catlett backbeats, followed that soul-shaking gliss. Getting better all the time...

Unfortunately, the next version I have in my collection comes from a European tour in the fall of 1949, after Sid Catlett left the band. Cozy Cole replaced him and though Cole was a fine technician, he was no match for Catlett. I have two versions from this tour, one from Zurich in October (recently issued on C.D. on the TCB label, also available on Itunes) and one from Trieste, Italy just nine days later. Both versions are very good but again, Catlett’s presence is missing. Also, Armstrong and Cole got off to a rocky start as Armstrong didn’t like his drumming at first; in fact, Arvell Shaw remembered the getting into a fistfight before the curtain rose at the Trieste concert! Anyway, here’s the band, in fine form, doing the tune in Zurich:

And here’s the brand new solo, ten months after our last example:

Notice that Pops now holds a high note for four bars in his second chorus and ends with a triplet-flourish followed by a gliss, the exact same way he ended a bunch of his early “Indiana” solos. Armstrong must have liked this because he repeated it almost verbatim in Trieste nine days later:

1950’s a slow year for “Royal Garden Blues” in my collection, though Pops did take a pretty wild chorus on a jam session version of the tune on Bing Crosby’s radio show in January of that year:

That one almost got away from him but instead it stands as a wonderful example of the velocity he could still achieve when nearing 50 years old. Again, after that, the pickings are fairly slim from this edition of the band. They played it at a concert in Vancouver in January 1951 but, perhaps running low on time, Armstrong eliminated all the solos after the piano and bass, going right into the rideout (he did the same on the following tune, “Ain’t Misbehavin’”).

By the end of 1951, Armstrong was getting ready for a rebuilding period. Teagarden and Arvell Shaw left amicably while Hines left not so amicably. While filming Glory Alley, Armstrong had one last fling with his old frontline, performing at a Pasadena concert with Teagarden and Bigard in front of a rhythm section consisting of west coast veterans Charles LaVere on piano, Nick Fatool and All Stars pioneer bassist Morty Corb. “Indiana” was floating around at this point, but Armstrong still usually opened with “Royal Garden Blues.” I’ll share this complete version because it’s interesting hearing Armstrong cope with the different rhythm section, including LaVere’s nicely voiced, but slightly outdated (for Armstrong) incessant stride playing (the pianist also takes a four bar intro when Armstrong clearly expected eight). Armstrong even jumps the gun a bit on the backing riffs to Bigard’s solo but it straightens itself out in the second chorus. But Armstrong’s solo is a gem with a completely righteous first-chorus that sounds like a preacher emoting from the pulpit. The second chorus still has the held note (held longer) and the triplets and that’s not a bad thing because it’s so damned exciting. Here it is complete:

And the solo:

As the All Stars embarked on a new year with a new edition of the band, “Royal Garden Blues” seems to have taken a backseat. “Indiana” was now the official opener while “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and “Muskrat Ramble” became the most frequently played instrumental romps. From that December 1951 Pasadena concert to the summer of 1953, only one version of the tune survives and I don’t own it. However, I have two from the summer of 1953 that definitely make up for it.

In July 1953, Armstrong and the All Stars did a number of NBC broadcasts from the Blue Note in Chicago. Bigard was still hanging on, though he had to take the second half of 1952 off. Cozy Cole was still on drums but he had two new partners in the rhythm section. The legendary Milt Hinton was on bass and though he didn’t last long in the group, he fit in perfectly. Marty Napoleon was on piano and though he’s not as well known as Hines and Billy Kyle, I think he was the most exciting pianist the group ever had.

(And if you’re in the tri-state area, he’s giving a presentation with the great trumpeter Randy Sandke next Wednesday night at the Institute of Jazz Studies on the Rutgers campus in Newark, NJ. It’s free and open to the public and I’ll be there for the 7:00 start.)

But the biggest change in the group was the addition of Trummy Young on trombone. Young’s boisterous solos and ensemble playing added a whole new level of excitement to the group. The early editions of the All Stars might have had the star-power but now, they were beginning to enter their golden period. On July 29, the All Stars opened their Blue Note with one of the all-time greatest versions of “Royal Garden Blues.” Armstrong’s in scary form throughout (he followed with an epic reading of “Confessin’”) and the rhythm section never sounded so good. Armstrong sounds proud to have Hinton in the band (he had literally just joined that week). Hinton’s solo gets some spontaneous applause and Pops can’t contain his laughter. There aren’t many surviving concerts with Hinton on bass but almost anytime he ever soloed, Armstrong always could be heard laughing in the background. Even Cole seems to have loosened up from his early days, getting a bit boisterous himself behind Trummy. But Armstrong’s the main event, taking a perfectly poised solo, one that Armstrong scholar Hangs Gerog Klauer said contains “one of the greatest trumpet solos ever heard” according to Håkan Forsberg. That might be a little strong, but it’s a dandy of solo. Here it is:

And the solo:

But just to prove that even Superman occasionally gets a cold, the Blue Note engagement featured another version of “Royal Garden Blues” that’s a telling example of Armstrong playing with his chops down. This version was broadcast on July 31, after the earlier one but it must have been pre-recorded from earlier in the week since Arvell Shaw is on bass. I don’t need to go into details but you can hear Armstrong struggling mightily in the early strains. He seems to have trouble with his velocity. The power is there but on the tune’s main riff, he has to edit it down but he has trouble with the phrasing. At one time, you can simply hear air come out. During Shaw’s bass solo, Armstrong plays some light harmonies in the background, testing the chops to see if it was worth playing a solo. He sounds okay behind Bigard then chooses to jump into his own solo. This is masochism at its finest, my friends. Why did he push himself so hard in his later years? I think it’s the only way he knew how to play. You can hear the pain in the opening notes of his solo but somehow he blows through it, getting loud encouragement in the background from just about every member of the band. There’s nothing quite as quick-fingered as the other Blue Note solo but he’s still coherent, getting stronger as he goes. And God bless him, he still holds the high Bb, though clearly he empties the tank with it. The triplets and final gliss cannot be executed but he plays a neat wrap-up phrase and escapes. What courage!

Unfortunately, he’s just about shot after that, muffing his reentrance in the rideout and again seeing the need to edit his playing of the simple melody. But again, just when you think he’s on the ropes, he musters every ounce of courage and strength he had left in his chops and plays a spectacular last chorus, landing on his usual final high note. It’s an amazing feat to blow through the pain with so much power but that’s what he did when his chops were down. Of course, he was no dummy. Knowing this was being broadcast nationally, Armstrong wanted to give his audiences the greatest show on earth. And if his chops were down, it was time to dip into the rest of his arsenal. He followed this painful “Royal Garden Blues” with “Me and Brother Bill” (humorous vocal, no trumpet), “You’re Just in Love” (fun vocal duet with Velma Middleton, simple, low-register trumpet reading of the melody, complete with more air notes), “Limehouse Blues” (piano feature, no trumpet) and a version of “Confessin’” where he only plays a half-chorus of simple melody and ends after the vocal, clocking in at about 3:40. On the later night with Hinton in the band--from the same week--he felt good enough to stretch it to 5:53! But knowing that the trumpet is where he lived and died, he still closed the broadcast with “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” skipping his solo but gathering every ounce of resolve he had left to make the high notes at the end (though he could barely play the closing “Sleepy Time” theme). Maybe one day I’ll share this material in full from the Blue Note in 1953, but for now it’s back to “Royal Garden Blues.” After all that discussion, here’s the full version as described above:

And the pain-filled, dramatic solo:

Again, “Royal Garden Blues” seems to have disappeared a bit as the next surviving version comes from the club Basin Street in New York City, May 28, 1955, almost two full years later. This is the golden edition of the band with Shaw back on bass, Young and Bigard still in the front line and new members Billy Kyle and Barrett Deems joining the rhythm section on piano and drums, respectively. The group had just finished the Columbia masterpiece Satch Plays Fats and was settling into an extended stay at Basin Street. Many sets were broadcast from the nightclub and Armstrong sounds very relaxed, happy to be in spot for such a long period and playing beautifully on a variety of material. Bigard, however, after his dreary playing on the Waller album, was clearly playing on fumes (his “Rose Room” feature from a May 21 broadcast might be his nadir with the group), but it didn’t matter since he was usually drowned out by Armstrong and Young.

In all honesty, this might be my favorite version of “Royal Garden Blues” but of course, I can’t say that definitively since my opinion will probably change in about ten minutes. Give it a listen:

The tempo is solid, faster than early versions but not as free-wheeling as some others. The first half of the performance is fine, with some nice playing in the opening ensemble strains, a good Kyle solo and a strong outing by Shaw. But things begin to pick up during the riffing behind Bigard’s solo, even waking up the clarinetist a bit.

But then it’s Pops, and what a solo! He opens with a “Stormy Weather” quote, one of his favorites, before a happily skipping, descending line. And that almost introverted phrase towards the end of the first chorus--hip stuff! The days of holding the high note in the second chorus have passed so he improvises an entirely new one, very melodic, with a stomping high Db blue note from which he wrings every last drip of blues from. More high Db’s follow before an insane gliss to a high D. I can’t get enough of that gliss, just the whole shape of it; it seems to descend at first before seamlessly reversing its course into the stratosphere.

But we’re not done yet! Trummy begins to dig in for his two choruses, getting very hip and exciting backing from Kyle, pounding home a series of rhythmic Bb’s. The rhythm section really cooks and Pops comes on strong at the end, working with a series of three-note descending phrases that would become the hallmark of almost all his succeeding versions of the tune. This is a great one and if you’d like to hear that solo again, click here (though I apologize that the final high D got cut off!).

A few months later, Bigard finally packed it in, though I wonder if he was “forced” into quitting since he was playing so erratically. His replacement was the fiery Edmond Hall and with Hall aboard, the All Stars now hit their peak. This greatest edition of the band embarked on a long tour of Europe in the fall of 1955 and “Royal Garden Blues” went along with it, often being performed in the second set, the third tune in after “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In” and “Basin Street Blues” (now THAT’s a trio).

I don’t own any of these early live recordings but, of course, I do have the most famous version from this trip, cut for the resulting Ambassador Satch Columbia album. Produced by George Avakian to appear as if it contained strictly live material, the album only included three performances that were done during concerts. Two songs were cut in a Los Angeles studio when the All Stars arrived back in the United States while the remaining five were done inside of an empty movie theater in Milan on December 20, 1955. I’ve written about this session before as it’s one of my all-time favorite Armstrong dates. The iron man had just given three shows and then had to go to this theater in the wee small hours of the morning to record in front of a group of friends and crazy Italian fans who managed to get in. After playing “Indiana,” “West End Blues,” “The Faithful Hussar” and “Tiger Rag,” the group cut this storming version of “Royal Garden Blues,” perhaps Armstrong’s most well-known performance of the tune:

Again, what you hear is canned applause, though some of the yelling was real, done by the enthusiastic small crowd of fans in attendance. The tempo is now faster than ever before but it just emphasizes the group’s tightness. Hall’s presence is immediately felt, an equal voice in the front-line instead of a weak-voiced third member. Armstrong sounds great in the opening ensembles, especially the last chorus, before the usual solos by Kyle and Shaw (quoting “Chicago”). Deems, perhaps unable to break his pattern of backing the feeble Bigard, gives Hall a closed hi-hat backing, which doesn’t really work too well, but when he switches to the ride cymbal for Pops, look out! Armstrong’s first chorus is perfectly poised; you can hear him spelling out the chord changes in his various runs. The second chorus features some angry hollering, alternating held high concert Bb’s with short, searing Db’s. This was the first “Royal Garden Blues” I ever heard Armstrong perform and that solo has never gotten old. The gliss with which he ends it is absolutely crazy. Here’s that solo:

For those listening along with the full performance (and really, you don’t want to miss one), the excitement level never drops for a bit during Young’s solo and the closing rideout (listen to Young quote the opening line of “Can’t We Be Friends” at one point). Armstrong’s descending lines swing with tremendous force--remember, he had already played three shows that evening! Armstrong then calls for a short encore, a favorite device of his, basically repeating the last two rideout choruses verbatim, driving the fake crowd crazy. This performance proved to be the perfect opener for Ambassador Satch, one of Armstrong’s greatest 1950s albums. Interestingly, when clarinetist Joe Muranyi told me he got the call to join the group in 1967, he spent the entire night before his first concert with the band listening to and playing along with this version of “Royal Garden Blues.”

50 years later, Hal Leonard did a book of Armstrong transcriptions and included the 1955 “Royal Garden Blues” alongside acknowledged early masterpieces like “Cornet Chop Suey,” “Basin Street Blues” and “Hotter Than That,” even going as far to transcribe Armstrong’s backing riffs behind Hall’s solo. Classic stuff.

But as I said, it was created in a empty movie theater and was steeped in fake cheering. Is this how it really sounded when performed live? Three days after the Milan concert, the All Stars did three shows in Barcelona. Armstrong didn’t know he was doing three shows, he was feeling under the weather and the long, hard, grueling tour was almost over. Still, he played through it all and even closed with this powerhouse “Royal Garden Blues,” complete with encore:

Almost identical to the Milan version...except for Armstrong’s solo. So much for no longer improvising! He opens with a line that I know is a quote from another blues number but is currently driving me nuts (I can even hear the rhythmic Basie-like “bump bump bump” as a response). He then comes up with some more new stuff before reprising the shouting second chorus, though his weakened state probably attributed to the slightly hoarse quality at the end of the final high D and the fact that there’s no gliss. Here’s the solo:

Young gets pretty carried away in his solo, though he sounds like he momentarily burst a brain cell at one point. Fortunately, he recovers quickly and joins Pops for the swining rideout choruses and the encore, Pops pushing through whatever sick and tired feelings he had to end the concert on a high note (a D to be exact).

“Royal Garden Blues” seems to have been a popular number with this edition of the group. They played it in Australia in March 1956 but I’m not going to share that one now because, first, it’s pitched in the wrong key (too fast) and second, I shared the link a few weeks ago to have you, loyal reader, download your own copy of the entire broadcast. Still, even though it’s in the wrong key, here’s the solo, almost identical to the Milan version, not the Barcelona one. Clearly, like “Indiana,” he liked what he did in Milan and that became the set solo for a while. Here it is:

In May 1956, the All Stars embarked on their historic tour through England and Africa, as captured by Edward R. Murrow’s documentary Satchmo the Great. Somehow, this wonderful film is not available on DVD but someone on YouTube posted a 4:34 round-up of highlights from the film. In Africa, the All Stars played “Royal Garden Blues,” inspiring some wild dancing in the crowd. Velma Middleton joined in, as did an African woman who reminded Armstrong of his mother. In the film, the sequence goes on for a long time and offers a great example of Pops improvising. The dancers don’t want it to quit, so Pops keeps blowing and blowing and blowing at a ludicrous tempo. This YouTube clip ends with about 1:10 of that performance. Enjoy...and listen carefully to Pops:

Damn, it’s too short compared to what’s used in the final film but it gives an idea of what Pops could still do if he stretched out, which, alas, almost never happened.

Again, “Royal Garden Blues” seems to have disappeared for a while as I don’t have another version until the spring of 1958, but then again, there aren’t many surviving All Stars concerts from 1957 so who knows what we’re missing (though “Mahogany Hall Stomp” became frequently performed in this period, perhaps taking its place). The May 1958 version I have is good but it’s too short. Armstrong uses it as a closer again, but realizes quickly that he doesn’t have time for a full performance so he goes into the wrap-up after Billy Kyle’s solo. The same thing happened in Denmark in January 1959, as heard on the fourth volume of Storyville’s Armstrong in Scandinavia series. Both versions have some great ensemble playing, but nothing worth sharing now since...well, since, if you’ve been with me from the beginning of this entry, you’ve probably lost about four hours of your life!

After the mammoth European tour in 1959, “Royal Garden Blues” doesn’t reappear until an episode of the Ed Sullivan Show from October 1961. Joe Darensbourg was now on clarinet while the rhythm section welcomed new members Danny Barcelona on drums (long-term) and Irv Manning on bass (short-term). Armstrong usually had to cut down his routines when he appeared with Sullivan and sure enough the bass solo is gone and the clarinet and trombone spots are cut and half. But Armstrong takes his two choruses and they’re fantastic, different from the 1950s offerings. He opens with a little bit of “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” before he paraphrases the old set solo, still nailing those high Db’s in the second chorus. Here’s the entire performance:

And the stomping solo:

There are many surviving concerts from 1962 but none featured “Royal Garden Blues.” However, the tune came back strong in 1963, 64 and 65. This next version comes from Ravinia Park in Highland Park, Illinois and was recorded in June 1964 with Armstrong at the top of the world due to “Hello, Dolly.” As I wrote in my “Indiana” entry, many critics took aim at Armstrong during the “Dolly” years, bemoaning the fact that so many people in the audience were coming to see Armstrong because of his personality yet they had no idea he was such a great trumpet player. To which I say...are you kidding? Say you only went because you liked “Dolly” and you heard this playing on “Royal Garden”:

You’d have to be nuts to think that Armstrong wasn’t playing much anymore at this point in his career. He’s on fire throughout, still pushing himself through the ensembles, the backing riffs and a scorching two-chorus solo with many new ideas in the first go-around before he starts hollering in his second chorus. Kyle revisits the Bb idea he toyed with behind Trummy Young at Basin Street in 1955, but this time it’s used to back up trombonist Russell “Big Chief” Moore (Eddie Shu’s on clarinet, Arvell’s back on bass, the rest of the band is the same). Here ‘tis”

And for those who just want the solo, here you are:

In early 1965, with Tyree Glenn now aboard, the All Stars undertook a major tour of Europe, tearing down the Iron Curtain a bit with performances in places such as Prague, East Berlin and Yugoslavia. Armstrong’s chops were in phenomenal shape on this tour as it probably contains the last truly great nights of no frills blowing in his entire career. He still made a lot of great music in the years afterward and still put on a helluva show with the All Stars, including a lot of wonderful trumpet playing, but in Europe he was a beast on the horn, pushing himself to the limit every night. Just dig this version of “Royal Garden Blues” from Prague:

I mean, he’s pushing there, he really is, almost flying by the seat of his pants in his solo. Here’s the solo:

No wonder the C.D. of this material (also available on Itunes) is simply titled Royal Garden Blues!

Just a few days, in East Berlin, Armstrong tackled it one more time. He’s play it again in London in June of that year but after that performance, it seems to have officially retired...though, as usual, I must say that not every performance survives so who really knows if he ever called it again. But the East Berlin version is as good as it gets...and the footage of it survives! I just received the third Jazz Icons box set in the mail and though they already did a great job with the Armstrong “Live in ’59” disc, they have to do more. There’s a lot out there but they really should go to Germany and dig out this entire concert since the highlights seem to have been aired on German television in the not-too-distant past.

Anyway, here it is, the final “Royal Garden Blues” I possess. And it’s really a great one. Notice, though, that a little “Cootie Williams Syndrome” has slipped in: Armstrong’s power and high notes are arguably stronger than ever, but he’s lost a few miles off his fastball, play half-notes and quarter-notes where quarter-notes and eighth-notes once roamed. Regardless, it’s a marvelous performance:

And that’s all I have. This entry has been over a month in the making and hopefully it’s been worth it. As usual, it could not have been done without the generosity of Jos Willems, Gösta Hägglöf and Håkan Forsberg, my European trio of Armstrong lovers who have so generously sent me so many rare Armstrong recordings, usually without asking. Without their help, this entry would have been pretty sad. God bless ‘em all and all Pops lovers around the world. That’s all for me though I’ll try to be back next week, perhaps with something on “Christopher Columbus” for Columbus Day. And don’t forget the new news about a new Armstrong film that I posed yesterday evening. S’all for now...