Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanks a Million

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 2:37
Written by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 666
Currently available on CD: Both 1935 takes are available on the first volume of the indispensable Ambassador series. Check out for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues (both takes are on something called “Knowing Louis”)

Last Thanksgiving, I used my blog to take a look at Armstrong’s Decca tune “Thankful” so it only makes sense to examine Armstrong’s other “thanking” tune, “Thanks a Million.” This one of those tunes that all the real Pops lovers seem to have a soft spot for, especially trumpet players. Just off the top of my head, I know the song has been a favorite of hornmen from Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff to Randy Sandke, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dave Whitney. Though there’s no wild pyrotechnics, the song still exists as a standout example of Armstrong playing and singing a beautiful melody with a tremendous amount of warmth.

The song comes from the formidable talents of two great songwriters of the 1930s, Arthur Johnston and Gus Kahn. Throughout his career, Armstrong found Johnston’s songs especially suitable for blowing, Johnston having written “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Moon Song” and “Just One of Those Things,” to name a few, all subject to terrific Armstrong treatments. “Thanks a Million” was written for a 20th Century musical comedy of the same name starring Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak, as well as two great comedians of the era, Fred Allen and Patsy Kelly. In the film, Powell got to sing the title song, backed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra (with David Rubinoff on violin). I couldn’t believe it, but I did a chance search and sure enough, this clip is on YouTube:

Ah, the joys of hearing other “period” singers not named Armstrong or Crosby. Powell is harmless and has a very good voice but rhythmically, he’s the anti-Armstrong, very stiff and almost comically emotional; those hand gestures border on hilarious. Nevertheless, the song must have become pretty well associated with Powell as it became the title of a 1998 biopic and like I said, it’s harmless, with the very pretty melody coming through clearly. Sure enough, it would be a winner for Pops and indeed, he hit it out of the park. Here ‘tis:

Doesn’t get much better, eh? People sometimes refer to this a ballad but pay close attention to the tempo, which swings in a more medium groove thanks to Pops Foster’s bass. I think just because the tune is gentle and pretty, it could be confused into being called a ballad, but this version really isn’t (though almost any succeeding version I’ve heard is on the slow side).

Regardless, the main event is arguably Pops’s first chorus. He barely deviates from the melody, though when he does, such as the lightening quick descending run, it always works. He plays it fairly straight for half the chorus before hitting the magic elevation button and taking it up an octave, climaxing on a penetrating high C, followed immediately by an even higher concert Eb. He almost sounds like he’s sobbing in the way he descends from the high note. I know I’m almost sobbing over here listening to such beauty.

The Luis Russell band takes over, setting up Pops’s vocal, one of his finest of the period. He still hadn’t had his throat operation, which occurred in 1937 and seemed to add a quarter-pound of gravel to his already unique voice. Thus, we get that crystal clear tenor, something to marvel at. There’s no scatting, but the “Now mama” in the second half is priceless. An incredibly heartfelt vocal.

Russell’s piano leads to a modulation that finds Armstrong playing the melody one more time in a more human key, with no need to reach for those sickeningly beautiful high notes. Yet, because it’s a Decca record, you can bet your life that there’s going to be a slowed down coda. Sure enough there is, and once again Armstrong makes the angels weep with his final two notes, a gorgeous, throbbing Ab topped off with a ridiculously pure concert Db. Bravo, Mr. Armstrong.

“Thanks a Million” survives in another, almost identical take, as heard on volume one of the priceless Ambassador series. On this one, which was actually recorded first, Armstrong stays closer to the melody the first time around but otherwise all the hallmarks of take one are in place: taking the melody up an octave, the “Now, Mama” in the heartfelt vocal, the modulation and the gorgeous coda. For the nuts out there, give it a listen:

On a personal note, let me just say “Thanks a Million” once again to the readers out there who keep me going. Yesterday’s post was number 150 and the only reason I keep going is I love all the feedback I get from Pops fans around the world. Writing the book is going to get a little nuts over the next year or so but I’ll always continue to do my damndest to keep these blogs going. I know for a fact that the book isn’t going to have the ridiculous details of these entries so I’ll always need an outlet to spill my Pops-lovin’ guts after a long day of editing stuff out of my manuscript.

But again, thanks to all who have supported me and especially who support Armstrong. The Armstrong community is incredibly generous; must have to do with the man’s spirit. About two years ago I gave a lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies and carried around my Ipod with 2,200 Armstrong songs arranged chronologically. Since then, I think I’ve bought maybe four or five new Armstrong CDs, yet somehow the number of Armstrong songs in my Itunes has jumped to 3,395! How? Through the generosity of so many of you for offering up so much unissued Pops and thanks to anyone who has ever left a comment or written me an e-mail. For now, it’s time for scarfing. Happy Thanksgiving to all and thanks a million!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Oriental Strut

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 3:03
Written by Johnny St. Cyr
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8299
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Before I dive into an examination of this Hot Five classic, Legacy Records has started a “Reissue Request” forum on their website. They’re asking for regular listeners like you and I to suggest material from the Legacy catalog, which encompasses RCA and Columbia records, that we would like to see eventually dug out of the vault and issued. You can register with your e-mail address and cast votes for whichever sets sound like a good idea. Well, naturally, I entered one for Pops, demanding they issue some of his Columbia live material from the 1950s. I included my name, mentioned the book and the upcoming movies and the fact that an Armstrong revival is upon us and Sony shouldn’t get left behind! I listed a bunch of stuff that we know is in their vault, including the 1958 Newport concert I’ve written about here. If you have a second, go there and register, dig me out (I should be on the bottom with three measly votes!) and give my idea some votes so perhaps Legacy will come to their senses and give Armstrong the same treatment they’ve given to Miles for so many years. Here’s the link.

Moving on, the Itunes shuffle landed on a great Hot Five number, though one that’s been overshadowed by three other songs recorded the same day, “Heebie Jeebies,” “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Muskrat Ramble.” My goodness, what a day of music! But enough has been written on those tunes; let’s give a listen to Johnny St. Cyr’s composition, “Oriental Strut.” You can listen by clicking here.

Joy personified. The title makes it sound like it’s going to be some kind of pentatonic-fest, complete with Asian-inspired hokum. Alas, there’s none of that and, except for the interesting chord changes, the only vaguely “foreign” sound to the piece comes during the exotic, minor banjo-and-piano vamp at the end. Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr got credit for writing the tune but like many Hot Five classics, it might have been a collaborative effort on the spot. Perhaps, St. Cyr thought of some of the chord changes or the vamp. Or who knows, he might have written the entire thing out as it does encompass three strains and, like I said, the changes are anything but ordinary in the blowing strain.

Regarding the title, these sort of ethnic things were common in the 20s (Johnny Dodds did a small group number, complete with vocal, called “Oriental Man” around this time). The Hot Five also did “Irish Black Bottom,” while there was also the Jamaican routine on “King of the Zulus.” Later Armstrong went Hawaiian with “Song of the Islands,” Native American with “Indian Cradle Song” and really, really white with the vocals of Seger Ellis on “To Be In Love.”

Regardless, let’s get on with the music. The introduction is pretty tight so obviously the musicians had rehearsed this one pretty good. After the exotic vamp, Armstrong leads the group through two go-arounds of the eight bar A strain, based on a descending chord pattern in Dm (the chords don’t quite descend--Dm, Dm7, Gm6, A7--but Ory uses a D-C-Bb-G pattern from the changes to make it work). Also, am I on the only one who thinks of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” when I hear Armstrong play for the first few bars of this strain?

Then it’s off to the B strain, which slickly moves from Dm to a major, D7 tonality. I don’t know what’s written and what’s not but I like how Armstrong leans on the Bb in the second bar of this strain, which is the flatted sixth of the D7 chord in question. The second half of the B strain heads to Bb before a short circle of fifths (A7-D7-G7-C7) leads to the final blowing strain.

I’m usually not so technical, but I’ve always found the chords of this section to be rather interesting. Two bars of an F immediately go to two bars of Db, which is a neat little surprise. The next two bars of F resolve to a D7, which also works nicely. After two bars on Gm, the piece turns minor again for the next two, A7 and Dm. But then it gets sunny again with two more odd choices for the key of F, E7 and A, before the A leads to a C which leads to a turnaround and we’re off again from the beginning. If you’re not a musician, sorry if that bored you, but I think it’s interesting because a lot of these Hot Five tunes are pretty complex, with multiple strains and some challenging changes, with a little more meat than “old-timey” jazz is sometimes given credit for.

Ory plays the incredible sparse melody, made up of almost nothing but whole notes and half notes, with less than a handful of quarter notes. At the same time, it’s the kind of melody that sticks with you long after listening. After Ory’s somber statement, Dodds comes in with some variations but he seems a little weary of the changes. For instance, when he gets to the second change to Db, he responds by rhythmically repeating a string of Db’s! However, he makes it through the rest of his solo without a problem as the E7 and A7 are replaced by a simple 2-5-1 at the end of his chorus, Gm to C7 to F.

A short interlude by composer St. Cyr’s banjo sets up the main event, a dazzling stop-time solo by Armstrong. I’ll admit, this isn’t a flawlessly executed outing, like a “Potato Head Blues” or “Cornet Chop Suey” (whose solo was pre-written) but it’s quite exciting hearing Armstrong think, inventing ideas with abandon and taking chances as the bars pass him by. His opening phrase, of course, smacks of “Potato Head Blues,” which would be recorded the following year, but after that, it’s a whirlwind of invention. Unlike Dodds, he isn’t daunted by the Db, playing a descending phrase made up of all chord tones before turning an F chord completely inside out. He’s very melodic, but some of the notes are slightly cracked around the eight bar mark, not terribly, but not hit on the nose as he might have liked. The band swings for three bars setting up a simple break which leads to Armstrong’s second stop-time helping.

Pops begins the second half with a slicing rip up to an A an octave higher than written before he makes mincemeat out of the Db with a lightening fast triplet phrase he liked to employ during this period (it crops up near the end of “Ory’s Creole Trombone” to name one example). His rhythm then gets even more daring as he goes on; I love the way he hits the low A and kind of lets it linger in the third bar of this half. Soon, the band starts swinging behind him, but Armstrong continues powering through, playing a sweetly singing high E with an attractive vibrato. But then it’s time to get nasty as he trills a snarling C to signal one more joyous chorus.

And it’s a good one, with Armstrong at his most New Orleans-centric. Not too much longer after this, Armstrong would begin pulling away in his ensemble playing, exploring the higher register of his horn and generally dominating the records. Here he’s on good behavior, hitting a few higher notes here and there but mainly keeping it peppy, playing around St. Cyr’s melody but always keeping it somewhat in the forefront. A short four bar coda ends the song with a cute Charleston beat.

That’s all I have on this fun record, one unjustly dismissed by many of the elite jazz writers, though good musicians always know a good record when they here it; this is the record that so knocked Jack Teagarden out, Wingy Manone remembered Big T actually burying a copy of the OKeh 78 underground to keep it preserved forever!

That’s all for now but I’ll be back tomorrow with a special Thanksgiving blog. And don’t forget to vote for my Pops listing on the Legacy site. It still only has three votes but someone else has already commented about it being a good idea. Come on, Legacy, open those vaults!

Friday, November 21, 2008

I've Got My Fingers Crossed

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 21, 1935
Track Time 2:30
Written by Jimmy McHugh and Ted Koehler
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry James, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 623
Currently available on CD: Both 1935 takes are available on the first volume of the indispensable Ambassador series. Check out for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues

As usual, I can never just set right in with an entry without a few preliminary announcements...especially as it’s been ten full days since my last posting. After breaking my record for most posts in October, I fell off the wagon in November, but it’s all for the greater good as I’ve been working on the book a lot for the past week, whittling my research down to something manageable. Two nights ago, I went up to Birdland with my agent to finally meet my terrific editor with Pantheon, Erroll McDonald, and sign the contract. Ain’t no turning back now...the story of Armstrong’s later years is officially on!

So that’s exciting piece of news number one. While there, I talked to Dan Morgenstern for a while and he let me in on some more recent developments in Pops-land. Namely, the good folks at Mosaic Records are preparing a box that might be out in the next year or two that collect Armstrong’s complete Decca recordings from 1935 to 1946! This is tremendously exciting news for Pops fans. Coincidentally, earlier in the day, while complaining to my agent about the lack of respect Pops gets in the jazz world these days, I specifically griped about the fact that Armstrong’s big band Decca records have never been issued in complete form in the United States, a travesty. Well, now Mosaic is going to right that wrong with Dan doing the liner notes for what will be a seven-disc set.

Until then, as I’ve written about a thousand times, Gösta Hägglöf has done a heroic job with his Ambassador label, currently the only way to hear this material in complete, chronological form. I still urge all serious Armstrong fans to continue seeking out the Ambassador label (see the above-mentioned website) as Gus’s discs feature great sound and a number of rare, live broadcasts that really demonstrate the kinds of trumpet acrobatics Armstrong continued to display during his live shows of the period. The Mosaic set won’t feature these broadcasts, which is why it’s two discs shy of the Ambassador series, and it will only feature one new alternate take, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” from 1938. But Mosaic always does a beautiful job with the packaging and booklet, especially with the photos and the notes. With Dan doing the notes, it’s going to be an indispensable set for Armstrong scholars and hopefully it’ll finally bring some long-deserved justice to this almost completely bypassed era of Armstrong’s career.

And speaking of which, the Itunes shuffle just can’t get enough these days and it chose “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” from Armstrong’s second Decca session after his European sabbatical. As discussed before, Armstrong returned from Europe, hired Joe Glaser, signed a contract and began fronting Luis Russell’s band in New York (he originally played with a band organized by Zilner Randolph in Chicago but union problems prevented them from making it to New York and they never had the chance to record).

Decca immediately began pumping Armstrong full of the day’s pop hits and movie songs. Right off the bat, Armstrong recorded “I’m In The Mood For Love,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “La Cucaracha” and “Got a Bran New Suit” in his first session Armstrong was at least allowed to bring two original compositions to his next session, “Old Man Mose” and “Was I To Blame For Falling In Love With You,” but he still had to record two numbers for the 1935 film King of Burlesque, “I’m Shooting High” and today’s song in question, “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed.”

Both tunes were written by Jimmy McHugh and Ted Koehler, two popular songwriters whose work Armstrong was more than a little familiar with. Armstrong had already sung Koehler’s lyrics on “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “Wrap Your Troubles in Drams,” “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and “I’ve Got the World on a String,” while he recorded McHugh’s music to classic tunes like “I’m in the Mood for Love,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Exactly Like You,” “Blue Again,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” “I Must Have That Man” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”

King of Burlesque is a harmless backstage-musical film starring Warner Baxter, Alice Faye and the always-fun Jack Oakie. For most jazz fans, the film is essential for one of the the few film clips of Fats Waller in his prime. Waller also recorded a killer version of “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed” for Victor (one week AFTER Armstrong’s version) but for now, you can enjoy this very fun performance from the film, courtesy of YouTube (that’s Dixie Dunbar doing the hoofing):

We’re fortunate in that two takes survive of Armstrong and the Russell band doing “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed.” On volume one of the Ambassador series, Gösta Hägglöf speculated that the two versions came from two different sessions because the sound balance of the group changed and the session(s) also featured two completely different arrangements of “Old Man Mose.” It’s a good guess but Armstrong discographer Jos Willems did his research using MCA’s original files and he concluded that everything was done on one date, November 21, 1935. Regardless, both takes have their differences, the first one demonstrating that even Armstrong had his human moments...while the second, issued take is more proof that Pops was anything but human! So here’s take one:

And now take two:

Take one is slower, adding 19 seconds to the running time of the master. It gets off to a fine start with a very effective Armstrong vocal, including the righteous “yeah” at the end of the bridge. Armstrong sticks very close to the written melody but he still sells it beautifully. After a couple of time-killing saxophone breaks, Armstrong begins his solo, very relaxed. The first eight bars are lovely but he hits is first snag in the second eight, garbling one note for a second. The band then takes over for the rest of the chorus, playing lightly and politely before a short interlude section that Armstrong must have forgotten about because he comes in wailing with a high note only to disappear, slinking away quietly to let the band do its thing.

Perhaps knowing the take was ruined, Armstrong continued blowing to see work on some ideas. He still sounds great, opening his attack with a few piercing jabs. In the second chorus, he takes the melody up an octave, sounding like he just thought of it on the spot, hitting the high D beautifully but slightly cracking a note on his way down. He recovers for a perfect bridge but a strutting final eight-bars, complete with a quote from “I Got Rhythm.” Unfortunately, he almost completely botches his break before the humorous, whole-tone ending. Clearly, another take would be needed.

Take 2 is jumping, almost where Waller tackled it. Again, Armstrong pays the melody a great deal of respect though he rephrases it differently here and there (the “yeah” is still a killer in the bridge). Armstrong now plays muted during his first solo for contrast, delaying his entry, creating tension in the process. He opens by dipping a few toes in the pool before, liking what he feels, diving right in to a swinging half-chorus solo. Very relaxed playing, very flowing. The band then takes over right into the short interlude, which Pops abstains from the second time around!

Armstrong’s closing solo is, to my ears, a gem from the period. It’s got all the intricate rhythmic mastery we’ve come to expect from the master, taking chances left and right, swinging throughout but playing all sorts of phrases of various shapes and sizes, always something unexpected, whether a quick triplet or a short gliss out of nowhere. In the second eight, he takes the melody up an octave again but this time with more confidence, hitting the high concert D without any apparent effort. And dig the way he gets out of those second eight, with that repeated, almost angry triplet, before the life-affirming playing in the bridge, Armstrong dancing across the bars like Dixie Dunbar (hmmm, there’s something I never thought I’d ever write!). He doesn’t play any clams in the closing break, the whole tone passage comes without a problem, as does the standard chromatic ending. Bravo!

And that’s that for this Decca gem, currently available on the Ambassador label and about to be released in the next year or two on Mosaic Records, a label that I feel I own stock in since 31 Mosaic boxes line my shelves. The Armstrong renaissance is upon us, my friends...and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Among My Souvenirs

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 17, 1942
Track Time 3:27
Written by Edgar Leslie and Horatio Nicholls
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Bernard Flood, trumpets; George Washington, James Whitney, Henderson Chambers, trombones; Rupert Cole, Carl Frye, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Joe Garland, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Johnny Simmons, bass; Sid Catlett
Originally released on Decca 4327
Currently available on CD: It’s on the eighth volume (1941-1942) of the peerless Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? Yes, on three budget, no-name sets.

First off, let’s get the preliminaries out of the way: it’s a girl! Yes, my wife and I found out yesterday that we’ll be having a girl so little Ella Ann Riccardi will be arriving around April 15 (little? I’m 6’ 3’’ and my wife is 6 foot even so there won’t be anything little about her...she’s probably going to come out with a job!). So little Louis will have to wait until attempt number two...unless it’s a girl again. Then what, Velma? Lillian? Mayann? Mama Lucy? I don’t think I can get my wife to agree to any of those. (And if you think I, Ricky Riccardi, is going to name my daughter Lucy or Lucille Riccardi, you’re nuts!)

On to Pops. As promised, the Itunes shuffle landed on “Among My Souvenirs,” yet another somewhat unknown Armstrong big band record from the early 40s, never issued on an American C.D. (thank God for Gösta Hägglöf and the Ambassador label). It was recorded at Armstrong’s final Decca session before the recording ban kept him out of the studios until 1944. It was kind of a looking-back type of session as Pops, after waxing Fats Waller’s new composition, “Cash For Your Trash,” spent the rest of his time recording old standards from the 1920s, “Coquette,” “I Never Knew” and “Among My Souvenirs.”

“Among My Souvenirs” dated back to 1927. Here’s an early version by Paul Whiteman & His Concert Orchestra in a typically sprawling arrangement with a vocal by the King’s Men, courtesy of YouTube:

The song doesn’t seem to have been a favorite of many jazz musicians, though Benny Carter and Art Tatum took separate stabs at it. It’s the kind of standard that’s actually touched other genres of music other than jazz, with popular versions recorded from Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby to Connie Francis and country music star Marty Robbins. There are many versions of the tune of YouTube but I won’t bore you by playing them all here. However, one sticks out for Armstrong buff and I think it’s worth giving it a listen. It’s by B. A. Rolfe and His Palais D’Or Orchestra, recorded for Edison in 1928.

If you know your Armstrong, than Rolfe’s name should be very familiar. He was a virtusoso trumpet player who led a dance band in the 20s. He didn’t play jazz per se, but his music has a hot edge to it. Armstrong says he saw Rolfe play a tune called “Shadowland” an octave higher than it was written. It inspired him so much, he decided to try it out on his next recording session, playing the melody of “When You’re Smiling” an octave higher. Naturally, Armstrong killed it and he now had a new device to resort to for the sake of drama, something he continued to do for decades when the spirit hit him. I was expecting to hear Rolfe play this melody in such a fashion, but alas, he sticks to a short muted spot showcasing some fast-fingering and not much else. However, what blew me away about this recording is I finally think I identified one of Armstrong’s favorite licks, both vocally and instrumentally. The violins play it at the 30 second mark, soon answered by the horns about 45 seconds later as the simple phrase becomes a motif throughout the arrangement (it’s back at 2:30 for a while). Armstrong always included it in his playing and singing and when Jack Teagarden was in the band, he, too, would quote it frequently almost as a way of tipping his hat towards Pops. I always wondered what the heck it was and now I seem to have my answer:

Perhaps other songs used it as well, but this is the first recording I’ve ever heard to so prominently feature the lick and we know Armstrong loved Rolfe and “Among My Souvenirs” so that’s a good enough for me. There’s no Rolfe whatsoever in the MP3 world but there’s a fair amount on YouTube. I think I’ll do some more listening and see what else Pops got from this forgotten virtuoso of the trumpet.

Back to “Among My Souvenirs.” As clearly seen in the above discussion, Armstrong loved music, regardless of the genre, and he had a soft spot for dance bands who stuck to the melody. Well, no band did that quite as well as Guy Lombardo and Armstrong always drove the jazz cognoscenti mad when he went off on one of his Lombardo-praising tangents. After Leonard Feather played a Lombardo record for Armstrong during one of his “Blindfold Tests,” Armstrong responded, “Give this son of a gun eight stars! Lombardo! These people are keeping music alive—helping to fight them damn beboppers. You know, you got to have somebody to keep that music sounding good. Music doesn’t mean a thing unless it sounds good. You know, this is the band that inspired me to make “Among My Souvenirs.” They inspired me to make “Sweethearts on Parade”. They’re my inspirators!”

As far as I can tell, Lombardo never recorded “Among My Souvenirs” but perhaps they performed it live. Or perhaps Armstrong had Rolfe in mind and momentarily confused his record with one of Lombardo’s (not out of the question). How could he have done that? Well, remember what I said about Rolfe inspiring Armstrong to play melodies an octave higher? Here’s the Decca:

Now is that ending Rolfe enough for ya??? But before we get to the end, let’s go back to the beginning. It’s a very good arrangement and though I can’t say it for certain, I think it’s from the pen of Sy Oliver. I know for a fact that Oliver also did the arrangement for “I Never Knew” recorded the same day and some of the voicings sound similar, especially in the punch of the muted brass, so I think it’s a good guess. Regardless, the band plays it very tightly and the rhythm section is guaranteed to make your foot tap uncontrollably (this also might be restless leg syndrome, so be sure to see a doctor).

Armstrong sounds like he’s in heaven, blowing the pretty melody with such a relaxed feeling, his straight mute creating enough warmth to melt the polar ice caps (hmmm, did Armstrong contribute to global warming?). His vocal also captures him at his sweetest. There’s some of the soulful breathing at the end of certain phrases reminiscent of some of his OKeh big band vocals and he keeps it remarkably scat-free (excluding the “uhhh, uhhh” at the end of the bridge). Like yesterday, there seems to be a conscious effort to not get too gravelly...he sounds almost ethereal singing the high notes in the bridge. And he swells on the last syllable of “Souvenirs” like any good trumpet player would.

After the band takes over for a bit, Pops returns for the last eight bars and--you guessed it--he takes the melody up an octave higher, a la Rolfe. His tone is remarkably pure as tops out with those high concert Eb’s at the end. All in all, a lovely record. An alternate take survives that’s almost identical to the master except it’s faster. How much faster? Enough to shave about 15 seconds off the running time. It jumps a little more but I don’t think it works as well, especially as the band gets a little sloppy around the time of Pops’s final trumpet entrance. There’s nothing relaxed about it and the delicately loping feel of the master is gone. Give it a listen:

There are no other surviving instances of Pops playing “Among My Souvenirs” after this session but he clearly held it in high esteem, rattling it off to Feather over 10 years later. And with good reason...if I hit high notes like that, I’d remember it, too!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Now, Do You Call That A Buddy

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Recorded April 11, 1941
Track Time 3:27
Written by Wesley “Kid” Wilson
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Washington, trombone; Prince Robinson, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Johnny Williams, bass; Sid Catlett
Originally released on Decca 3756 (Originally issued as “New Do You Call That a Buddy,” probably a typo)
Currently available on CD: It’s on the eighth volume (1941-1942) of the peerless Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? Yes, on two budget, no-name sets.

The ol’ Itunes shuffle picked out a winner tonight, though it’s one that I don’t have to spend TOO much time talking about. Instead, it features some of my favorite elements of classic Armstrong: a minor key, a dark-hued trumpet solo and two minutes straight of Louis Armstrong, Master Storyteller.

First, a little background. The song was written by Wesley “Kid” Wilson, someone Armstrong had a little history with. Wilson was a partner with Leola B. “Coot” Grant, a popular vaudeville duo and Armstrong backed them on four Paramount sides during his first stint in New York in 1925. Wilson returned the favor by later recording another original composition, “Toot It Brother Armstrong.” “Do You Call That a Buddy” is almost something of a funeral version of “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You.” The way it goes, the “buddy” in the title phrase, slept with the singer’s wife/girlfriend/lover, causing the somber vocalist to sing about how well he treated his old friend, only to see it blow up in his face, building up to a crescendo every time he thinks about seeking violent revenge.

According to some quick online research, Wilson himself persuaded a young Louis Jordan to record “Do You Call That a Buddy” for Decca in 1940. Jordan had been recording for the label since the end of 1938 and hadn’t cut anything that remotely resembled a hit. On September 29, 1940, Decca had Jordan record a vocal version of Charlie Barnet’s instrumental hit, “Pompton Turnpike,” while “Do You Call That a Buddy” (with “Dirty Cat” added a parenthetical subtitle) was relegated to “B” side status. According to John Chilton’s Jordan biography, Let the Good Times Roll, “Do You Call That a Buddy” proved to be the more popular of the two, not quite reaching the chart but still selling 62,000 copies and putting Jordan on the map. Jordan’s one of my heroes and I think it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to dig his somber take on Wilson’s tale of infidelity:

Great stuff, though Jordan doesn’t pick up his horn (Chilton writes of Jordan’s alto playing on the number but there is none). There’s traces of the signature Jordan humor as he gets worked up about what he’s going to do to his buddy, but really, it’s a pretty chilling vocal performance. Within a year, Jordan was singing about the same theme, this time threatening to move to the outskirts of town. That record was a smash and the rest is history...

Though Jordan’s “Do You Call That a Buddy” didn’t exactly top the charts, it was big enough to inspire a number of covers, including versions by Larry Clinton and the Andrews Sisters (it was at this point when Don Frye’s name magically appeared as a co-composer; Frye had written some of the Andrews’s biggest hits but I don’t think he had anything to do with this one). Naturally, it made perfect sense for Decca to pass along the tune to Jordan’s session-mate, Louis Armstrong. Armstrong was a major influence on the alto saxophonist, who played on an Armstrong session for Victor in December 1932 (the one with the “Medleys” of Armstrong hits).

Decca, ever restless of settings for their trumpet-playing superstar, had recently begun embracing the past. After years of recording pop songs, Armstrong began looking backwards a bit in 1939, remaking earlier OKeh recordings such as “Rockin’ Chair,” “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” “Save It Pretty Mama,” “West End Blues,” “Savoy Blues,” “Confessin’” and “Our Monday Date.” In 1940, Armstrong reteamed with Sidney Bechet, his old recording partner from the 1920s, and even cut a remake of “Sweethearts on Parade.”

That same year, a young George Avakian discovered some unissued Armstrong sides from the 1920s in the OKeh vaults. He immediately had them reissued, something that would have made him sainted in the jazz community if he had done nothing else after (though thank God he did!). Avakian found some recordings by Armstrong’s “Hot Seven,” a famous name in jazz history. Perhaps aware of this, Decca decided to dust off the name for two sessions in March and April 1941.

The sessions yielded eight results but they are hardly known today and I think I know the reason why. People hear the phrase “Hot Seven” and immediately conjure up audible images of 1920s New Orleans small band classics like “Potato Head Blues” and “Weary Blues,” with an fat tuba bottom and a joyous cacophony in the ensembles. The 1941 Hot Seven sessions are the polar opposite. They sound like 1941, not 1927, and I think this is important.

Armstrong was always looking ahead. When he remade those earlier OKeh tunes he did so in souped up new, swinging arrangements. When he was placed in a deliberately old-fashioned setting, as in the Bechet date, he played like it was 1940, not 1924, proceeding to stubbornly blow over and through Bechet, creating something of a fractious atmosphere. And when he had to revive the old “Hot Seven,” he selected what was basically a New Orleans lineup, but made sure the horns had arranged parts to do. He also recorded some novelty numbers, many with band vocals, and even an old standard, “I Cover the Waterfront.” On “I’ll Get Mine Bye and Bye” he played a daring, almost strikingly modern solo. He sounds like he’s having a great time and the band is truly an ancestor to the All Stars with the finest cats from the Luis Russell band, including George Washington on trombone, Prince Washington on reeds and the entire Russell rhythm section anchored by the one and only Sid Catlett. Thus, it’s easy to dismiss these “Hot Seven” recordings if you’re only looking for the Armstrong of 1927. But if you want to give the Armstrong of 1941 a try, give ‘em a listen and I think you’ll be presently surprised.

So with the preamble out of the way, let’s get to the main event, Armstrong’s cover of “Do You Call That a Buddy.” You can listen along by clicking here.
Righteous. Isn’t that opening trumpet solo haunting? Armstrong loved minor keys and he really responds to the shadowy nature of the tune without resorting to high-note fireworks. He always loved that descending chromatic run when dealing with minor tunes (he even sang it on “Summertime” and “I Will Wait For You”). Robinson and Washington lay down a solid bed of harmonies over which Armstrong begins his preaching, backed by the soft, yet soul-shaking brushes of Catlett. I get the chills when the rest of the band drops out for a couple of bars and it’s just Armstrong’s horn and Catlett’s prodding brushes.

Armstrong’s trumpet, though he plays a lot of melody, also has some husky, modern touches in his note choices and the way he bends the hell out of a couple of them. The little flickers he adds to some of his phrases also always catch me by surprise.

But then it’s time for the vocal, Armstrong calling for everyone’s attention. I love Louis Jordan to death but I think I Armstrong’s personality outshines him on this one. After the opening “Look here, boy” and “I don’t dig you,” Armstrong keeps the hokum to a minimum, but you can definitely hear him smiling as he delivers some lines, especially the threats of violence. First he threatens to shoot him, then kill him, then finally, poison him, pronounced "pie-zin" in Pops's unique New Orleans-ese (thanks to the great Al Basile for setting me straight!).

It’s a remarkably chilling, yet fun vocal, and it’s hard not to start chiming in with the band’s “yes, yes,” “no, no,” responses. Notice, Armstrong sings some different lyrics--perhaps this is where Don Frye came in, even though he wasn’t mentioned on the label? Anyway, Armstrong’s in great voice, without much voice, and the little slice of scat in the coda is delicious.

(Also, Jordan must have enjoyed this record himself. At one point, trombonist Washington, yells out, “Shot him in the foot, boy, shot him in the foot!” Nine years later, when the stars aligned and Armstrong and Jordan teamed up for their only session, Jordan repeated the exact same thing, breaking Armstrong up on the greatest ever version of “You Rascal You.”)

“Do You Call That a Buddy” has lasted as a standard til this day, mainly adopted by blues bands. B.B. King recorded it in 1965 and YouTube features a couple of other blues bands doing effective live versions of the tune. Even Dr. John recorded it not so long ago. The song is pretty much can’t-miss if you have the personality to carry it off...and goodness knows Pops had that personality!

I hope you enjoyed this look at a forgotten Armstrong gem from 1941. It looks like the Itunes shuffle is enjoying this period as I just gave it a spin and it looks like I’ll be back later this week with “Among My Souvenirs” from well as some exciting personal news: will my wife be giving birth to little Louis or little Ella? We’ll know this week...stay tuned!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Star-Spangled Banner/We Shall Overcome

History was made last night, my friends. I'll save the political discourse but whichever way you voted, you should at least be able to appreciate the significance of this moment in our history. To commemorate it, I'd like to post two Armstrong performances to capture the spirit of this historical day: "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "We Shall Overcome." Here's "The Star-Spangled Banner" from Newport 1960. Dan Morgenstern likes to tell the story about the time at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival when he stood next to James Baldwin as ARmstrong played the Nation Anthem. Baldwin turned to Dan and said, "You know, that's the first time I've liked that song."

And finally, "We Shall Overcome," a very emotional performance from 1970's Louis Armstrong and Friends album. Play it loud.

And finally, a genius YouTube video that combines some of Barack Obama's speeches to the strains of "What a Wonderful World," emphasizing the shared birthday of both African-American heroes:

And THAT ends my career as a political blogger. I'll go on feeling insanely proud and will hopefully be back in the near future with more Pops...though I think I have to listen to that "Star-Spangled Banner" one more time...

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Bye and Bye

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 18, 1939
Track Time 2:35
Written by Traditional
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Col, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 3011
Currently available on CD: Volume six of the indispensable Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? Yes, on Inspirational Louis Armstrong

A reader with the screen name “Copen” requested Armstrong’s version of ‘Bye and Bye” from his first session with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1959. I’ve decided to do him one better and discuss Armstrong’s four studio recordings of the tune in short amount of time I have before the polls close and I become glued to the election coverage (I promise not to turn this into a political form but I voted for the guy who coincidentally shares Pops’s birthday!).

As for the tune, it’s an old gospel favorite, though don’t confuse it with “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,” an altogether different tune, though one that’s often favored by bands with the regular “Bye and Bye” in their repertoire. And while we’re at it, don’t confuse it with the pop song of the exact same name as recorded by Armstrong with Fletcher Henderson in 1924, a gaffe that can be found in Satchmo: A Louis Armstrong Encyclopedia for one.

Armstrong recorded “Bye and Bye” a year after his big band treatment of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” New Orleans music had fallen on hard times but Armstrong got the ball rolling with his classic reading of “The Saints.” Soon enough, Bunk Johnson was found, given a new set of choppers and presto, a New Orleans Revival was born (reborn?). Still, some New Orleans enthusiasts cast Armstrong as a hero while others viewed him as the devil for maintaining a big swing band for such a long period of time.

Armstrong didn’t care as he was perfectly happy fronting Luis Russell’s swinging group. Still, his heart always remained in his hometown so it was no surprise when he reached way back to his youth to record numbers such as “The Saints” and “Bye and Bye.”

The first recording that I have found of “Bye and Bye” seems to have been done by the Reverend Edward W. Clayborn in the late 1920s. It’s a pretty jaunty version, featuring the Reverend’s rough and ready vocals and guitar playing. Give it a listen:

So “Bye and Bye” always had a joyous feel to it, something that Pops amplified tremendously in his swinging big band version. I’m assuming that most readers are familiar with Armstrong’s 1938 Decca version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” which I blogged about in graphic detail in May, but even if you’re not, take it from me that the original Armstrong “Bye and Bye” borrows greatly from that record. Give it a listen and stay for the discussion:
Bye and Bye
Big Sid Catlett’s drums open the proceedings, an apt touch as he’s one of the stars of the record. After the short intro, Pops bursts forth with the melody in what can almost be described as an arranged New Orleans ensemble. The other trumpets sit out, leaving Pops with the lead, while the trombones and reeds play written responses to the melody, as if played spontaneously in a polyphonic front line.

A saxophone break leads to Armstrong’s happy vocal. There’s no monologue from “Reverend Satchelmouth” this time, but like “The Saints,” Armstrong uses the close of his vocal choruses to introduce solos from a couple of the band’s members, once again starting with the always exciting J. C. Higginbotham. Higgy starts off fairly relaxed but he gets in a few shouts in the second half before a wonderful ascending scat break propels Armstrong into his second helping, now with “glee club” backing. This time Armstrong passes the ball to Catlett for a too-short outing (the record’s only 2:35, give the man a full chorus!).

But then it’s over to Pops, always the main event. Notice after his quick call to arms, he practically plays the same ascending phrase he had just scatted seconds earlier. He tells a wonderful story, starting out with more melody, slightly rephrased. The turnaround is slightly awkward as Armstrong plays a neat pair of matching phrases implying chord changes that the band doesn’t exactly play. Nonetheless, he steams ahead gallantly, even throwing in a touch of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” an integral part of his “Saints” solo.

Feeling his oats, Armstrong holds a high concert Ab, the New Orleans way of signaling the start of the climactic last chorus. Armstrong’s rideout is a beautiful example of the man’s rhythmic mastery at fast tempos, sounding so relaxed, yet playing those high notes with so much power. He works over a slow-motion three-note motif that always reminds me of “The Entertainer” while Catlett piles on his favorite backbeats underneath. Armstrong builds up beautifully to the final high Eb, ending another test of endurance with a passing grade.

Gunther Schuller hates the record (calling it a “grandstanding travesty on ‘When the Saints Go Marchin’ In”) but he seems to be a minority. Much like “The Saints,” Armstrong had introduced a new tune to be blown apart by more traditional minded bands as it became a staple in bands led by the likes of George Lewis and Eddie Condon.

However, Armstrong doesn’t seem to have played or broadcast it again until the same April 13, 1954 Decca session that “Spooks!” comes from. I know I just told this story in my last entry but I can’t resist again, especially when one listens to “Bye and Bye” from this session. Here’s the date’s producer, Milt Gabler:

"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."

With that in mind, I won’t say any more until you’ve finished listening to this version of “Bye and Bye”:

I’d say his jaws loosened up! Jesus, that introductory cadenza is positively mind-blowing, harkening back to the the old days in the 1920s. Jenkins knew his Pops and knew how to frame him and you can’t as for anything better than the opening 27 seconds. That closing gliss is superhuman. The band swings out a chorus before modulating for Armstrong’s vocal. He sings two, modulating for a second chorus of special lyrics by Jenkins:

Yes, Bye and Bye, yes, on that judgement day
We’ll meet our friends, our boys that moved away
All those fine musicians, mm, jumping on the cloud
We will all be united, Bye and Bye.

After such a swinging chorus about dead jazz musicians, Jenkins’s squeaky-clean choir swoops in and mentions some of them by name:

Cause Bix is up there! And Bunny’s up there! And Jack Jenney is living up there!
Fats is up there! Big Sid is up there! King’s Oliver’s living up there!
But Louie’s down here! Yes, Louie’s down here! And we’re lucky he’s living down here!
Louie never, never, Louie never stops, get a load of Pops!

Now the other day, I referred to the above choruses as “gruesome.” I can’t deny that I’ve always felt the winsome nature of the choir coupled with the death roll call of the lyrics to be kind of an odd mix. But last week I was given something Louis Armstrong did in 1956. The Voice of America asked Armstrong to play disc jockey for five hours, picking the records as he chose and speaking about them as he went along. It’s a fascinating document and some of Armstrong’s comments will definitely land in my book. The fourth hour is devoted to Armstrong’s favorite records by other musicians. After playing tunes by Bunk and King Oliver, Bix and Bing, Ella and Bechet, Dizzy and Duke, Armstrong decides to close the hour with this rendition of “Bye and Bye.” Here’s his introduction:

“Now here’s a record that will always stick by me. It’s ‘Bye and Bye’ that mentions a lot of the real star musicians that has cut out, but still never forgotten. The tune is ‘Bye and Bye’ and I played it with Gordon Jenkins and his fine orchestra.”

So clearly Armstrong was proud of the record and especially the listing of dead jazz musicians, all of whom he was close to. So now I look at those choruses a little differently but my opinion of Armstrong’s closing trumpet choruses is unchanged: this is mind-blowing stuff.

Harry Jaeger’s drums set Armstrong up perfectly (I like the sound of his ride cymbal) before Pops takes off on a solo that, I think, dwarfs the original, which, as already stated, was pretty impressive itself. Armstrong only plays two choruses instead of three but what he plays is astounding. He forgoes a melody chorus and starts improvising with great authority in the first chorus before the old standby of playing the melody an octave higher than written in the second chorus, touching a freakish high concert E for a second towards the end. For a record done 15 years after the original, it’s quite a testament to the strength of Armstrong’s chops in the 50s (the Voice of America interviews also find Armstrong coming right out and say that he felt he was blowing better in the mid-50s than ever before and that he grew frustrated with people who came up to him to talk about the old days when he “was really blowing”).

The choir and strings come in for a few seconds, sounding like someone flipped a radio dial to another station. Pops sings the last line before a signature Jenkins touch: having the trumpet section conclude the record with a closing cadenza made up of nothing but Pops-isms. A nice touch.

As great as the Jenkins record is, Armstrong still never made “Bye and Bye” part of his regular repertoire though he still wasn’t done with recording it in the studio. Five years later, Armstrong returned from his heart attack in Spoleto, Italy by recording an album with the Dukes of Dixieland in early August 1959. Though only about six weeks after the near fatal incident, Armstrong proved he hadn’t lost anything by contributing some sterling blowing to the Dukes date (he sounded even better on their 1960 sequel). “Bye and Bye” was left off the original record but was eventually released on a Chiaroscuro LP of alternate and unissued takes from the session (it’s since been on about a thousand Armstrong bootlegs). Here’s “Bye and Bye”:

Armstrong used the 1939 version as a template in that he started off with one chorus pure melody playing before singing. After a fun vocal, Armstrong began introducing the Dukes individually. Frank Assunto’s trumpet, Fred Assunto’s trombone and Jerry Fuller’s clarinet respond with fine solos but the highlight is Armstrong’s vocal introductions, obviously coming off the top of his head. Also, he refers to Jerry Fuller as “Freddy,” perhaps causing the slightly agitated state of Fuller’s solo and also perhaps the reason why it was left off the original album.

Like the Decca, Norman Hawley’s drums set up the rideout chorus and though it’s exciting, it’s a little sloppy. “Bye and Bye” was the next to last tune recorded during the three days of sessions and I think Pops’s chops might have been beat a bit (a vocal-only version of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” followed and that was that). The band sounds like they’re ready to swing one more chorus and I’m sure it would have been a hot one, but Pops goes up high and signals for the abrupt ending. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun record.

We now flash forward five more years to November 1964 (Armstrong only recorded “Bye and Bye” in years that ended in 9 or 4!). “Hello, Dolly” propelled Armstrong to the top of the music world and now he was once again in the recording studio, this time waxing tunes for Mercury. Armstrong’s Mercury sides are almost completely unknown; some are best left that way, but he still had some surprises left and some are genuinely great records, such as “So Long Dearie,” “Pretty Little Missy” and “Short But Sweet.”

Because of the success of “Dolly,” every Mercury side aped that record’s formula, which is why you’ll hear the banjo of Walter Raim in the mix. Otherwise it’s the All Stars, an underrated version with Russell “Big Chief” Moore on trombone, Eddie Shu on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums. This will be a pleasant surprise for those who haven’t heard it as Armstrong plays twice as much trumpet as he did on the Dukes recording. Here it is:

Yeah, man! I keep forgetting how good that record is. Barcelona’s cymbals set up the ensemble with Pops taking lead for two, count ‘em, two go-arounds, sticking pretty close to the melody in both but sounding rather strong. Shu takes a good clarinet solo before Armstrong sings one (nice harmonies by the horns), before Big Chief takes over as Higgy did 25 years earlier. Armstrong rephrases the melody a bit in his second chorus, swinging nicely before taking a second to put his chops in his horn. Feeling good, he embarks on two ensemble choruses, improvising a lot. He’s not quite as fluid as he once was, but the power is right there, as evidenced in the gliss in the second chorus, the patented held “shake” on the high notes and the repeated high C’s at the end.

And that was it regarding Armstrong and “Bye and Bye,” though it did manage to make one more cameo in Armstrong’s later years. Around 1967, Armstrong really began editing his work on the horn. Where he once went WAY up, he now had to keep it under control a little bit. On “Ole Miss” he usually blew like a freak in the rideout chorus but since that was no longer an option, he found his way around it by using the opportunity to quote “Bye and Bye” literally. Dig this version from Juan-Les Pines, July 1967:

And that’s that for “Bye and Bye.” The polls are almost closed and results should be trickling in soon so I’m off to wave “Bye and Bye” to our outgoing president! Til next time...