Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Money Blues

Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra
Recorded May 19, 1925

Track Time 3:01

Written by Dave Leader, G. M. Coleman, Harry Eller

Recorded in New York City

Elmer Chambers, Joe Smith, trumpet; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Charlie Green, trombone; Buster Bailey, Don Redman, Coleman Hawkins, reeds; Fletcher Henderson, piano, leader; Charlie Dixon, banjo; Ralph Escudero, tuba; Kaiser Marshall, drums 
Originally released on Columbia 383-D
Currently available on CD: It’s on Fremeaux and Associates’s second volume in their recent Complete Louis Armstrong undertaking. 

Available on Itunes? Yes, on Fletcher Henderson 1924/1927

Sometimes it’s just too easy. Last week I dedicated “I’m in the Market for You” to all the big financial companies that were going kaput before our very eyes. This week, after the bailout bombed in Congress and the Dow went through the basement on Monday, I wanted to commemorate this miserable time in America with an Armstrong blog and I think “Money Blues” says it all. There’s no vocal and the tune’s actually kind of jaunty, but really, I know of no better title in the Armstrong discography to write about on a day like this (though “S.O.L. Blues came to mind, too).

The tune comes from Armstrong’s days with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, which I wrote about in greater detail in an old entry on “Alone at Last.” Armstrong joined the popular black dance band in New York in 1924, soon taught them (and the entire city) how to swing, and in the process, transformed it into the prototype for all swinging big bands to come, thanks to pioneering arrangements by Don Redman. But don’t think that the Henderson band did a complete 180, burning their dance band arrangements in the alley behind the Roseland Ballroom because they had seen the light. No, on the contrary, they remained a dance band and even a blues tune like “Money Blues” was treated like a peppy dance tune.

Now, if you really have the money blues and you need some consolation, enjoy this version from May 4, 1925, sung by the one and only Bessie Smith. Click here to enjoy the Empress backed by Henderson on piano and her favorite trumpet player, Joe Smith, who was Armstrong’s sectionmate in the Henderson band.

When it came time for Henderson’s orchestra to record the tune just two-and-a-half weeks later, he transformed into an entirely different sounding piece. Don Redman probably wrote the bouncy arrangement and solos were given to Armstrong, clarinetist Buster Bailey and the daddy of all tenor players, Coleman Hawkins, sounding twice as good as he did when Armstrong joined. “Money Blues” exists in two takes and here they are:
Money Blues Take 1
Money Blues Take 2
Both takes are very similar, though take two comes out of the gate a little faster before eventually settling in a tempo that is perhaps a single hair quicker than take one. Since the song had been around for at least a few weeks, the band probably had been playing it at Roseland, not only to get the arrangement down pat, but also the solos. Here we go again with a recurring theme, but the early generations of jazz musicians didn’t feel the need to improvise every solo they played from scratch each time. Hawkins and Bailey’s efforts barely change from take to take and the same goes for our hero. Common myths tell us that Armstrong improvised with wild abandon in his youth before getting lazy in his later years, playing the same solos the same way every night.

Well, that’s wrong for a number of reasons as Armstrong did indeed change up his solos somewhat often, as we’ll hear when I finally get to “Royal Garden Blues.” But as illustrated in my “Indiana” post, other solos he worked on until he was proud enough to “set” them, at which point he rarely deviated except for maybe small examples of phrasing. This was common to Armstrong throughout his entire career, not just his later years. To prove it, I did a little computer experiment. I’m finally getting comfortable with Mac’s “Garage Band” program so you can get used to more stuff like this in the future. I overlapped Armstrong’s “Money Blues” solos on top of each other. They started out at the same tempo before one began to lag ever so slightly so I had to make a little edit to get those tuba thumps and backbeats in order. Otherwise, you’ll hear that 90% of the solo is the same on each take except for the phrasing in the third bar and a brief spot in the middle, which again might be do to a shift in tempo (I didn’t spend that much time on this!). Give it a listen:

So you see that Armstrong was even setting his solos as early as 1925. This is not a bad thing, especially when confronted with such a swinging solo, full of all kinds of Armstrong hallmarks. A good solo is a good solo so don’t get sad if it wasn’t improvised completely fresh on the spot. I don’t know about you, but listening to Pops cures my “Money Blues” all the time...except when I spend $30 for a European disc to get two scratchy tracks I’ve never heard before. At that point, he causes my money blues, but regardless, if you’re fearing another great depression, remember one thing: Pops got us through the last one and he can do it again!

“I’m Louis Armstrong, and I approve this blog’s a gassuh!”

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