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...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this awesome work.

Without any doubt after listening to the music it became clear that Satchmo was one of the most important blues musician in every age of his life.

UWE from Germany