Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Celebrate the New Year with Pops!

2009 is upon us, my friends, but it's too late to squeeze in one last post in the old year. I know I've disappeared for the last week but after well-over a hundred posts this year, I think I could be forgiven for taking a little holiday break, the highlight of which came on Sunday night as I spent the evening with Margaret at David Ostwald's holiday party in New York. Naturally, it was a Pops love-fest with Ostwald, Dan Morgenstern, Joe Muranyi, Michael Cogswell and others in the house. And of course there was non-stop music, with a band full of revolving personnel, including Muranyi on clarinet, Sam "Leroy" Parkins on tenor saxophone (he made the 1933 Coleman Hawkins come alive), Dan Block on clarinet, Andy Farber on saxophone, Jim Freyer on trombone, Howard Alden on banjo, Cynthia Sayer on banjo, Alan Cary on guitar, Ed Polcer on cornet, Charlie (didn't get his last name but he was great!) on cornet, Giampaolo Biagi on drums (well, really, snare, hi-hat and ride, but oh did he make 'em swing) and Vince Giordano on bass, piano, guitar, drums and vocals.

The highlight of my night, and one of many from 2008, was when Ostwald asked if I wanted to sit in. I play frequently around the sleepy suburbs of south Jersey, but these guys were the pros so there was more than a little nervousness involved. But I hung in there and managed to have an incredible time jamming on the blues, "I Got Rhythm," "When Day is Done," "Dinah," "Sleepy Time Down South" and "Avalon." It was amazing, jamming with my heroes, and fortunately, I have a few photos to prove it! Here's myself and drummer Biagi getting the final jam of the evening started:

Vince Giordano sooned joined in on rhythm guitar:

Joe Muranyi couldn't resist and took the lead on "I Got Rhythm":

Finally, my favorite photo, the full "house rent party" jam on "Avalon":

A great time I'll never forget, that's for sure. 2008 was a year I'll never forget, of course, with the pregnancy, the new house, the New Orleans trip, the book deal and the general growth of this blog from completely unknown to marginally unknown. The anniversary posts got a lot of positive feedback and next year should be no different. It will be the 50th anniversary of Armstrong's mammoth 1959 tour of Europe and I have so much material from that trip that you can expect multiple postings on the subject. But there will be more: 85 years of "Everybody Loves My Baby" and "Cake Walking Babies," 80 years of "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Black and Blue," "When You're Smiling" and "Rockin' Chair," 75 years of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," 70 years of "What Is This Thing Called Swing," 65 years of the Esquire Metropolitan Opera House concert and the V-Disc jam session, 60 years of "Blueberry Hill" and so on. I don't know how many I'll get to do with the book and the baby increasingly taking up more time, but I'll definitely get to most.

But today is New Year's Eve and that's always a big day for a musician, including Pops. In my files, I have four separate Armstrong broadcasts from different New Year's Eves, which should give me at least something to post for the next four years. But where to start today? 1953? 1954? 1962? 1967? They all have great moments but right now I want to share one that recently came to make courtesy of the great Armstrong discographer Jos Willems. It's from December 31, 1967, fairly late in the game, but I think it's a wonderful little show.

Armstrong's health had been up and down for most of 1967 but by the end of the year, it stabilized and he continued working at his old non-stop rate. He didn't blow as much as he used to and sacrifices had to be made here and there but when he was on, he was on and on this broadcast, he's on. The All Stars consisted of Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Tyree Glenn on trombone, Marty Napoleon on piano, Buddy Catlett on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums and the venue was Las Vegas. Like everything else, the show began with "Sleepy Time":

And then it was on to "Indiana," the standard opener for so many years. I didn't have this version when I did my massive "Indiana" blow out a few months back but I think it's a great one. By this point, Armstrong stopped playing the famous solo, saving his chops for the two ensemble choruses up front and the rideout at the end and I think he sounds damned good throughout:

Then it was time for one of his most recent records, recorded in August 1967, "What a Wonderful World." Do I have to say any more?

Next was something to get the blood pumping, "Tiger Rag," which had lasted about 90 seconds since the early 60s. Armstrong used to blow like mad on this one but time and age took its toll a bit as Armstrong mainly stayed in the background and played a lot of quarter and half-notes. It's hard to hear much of what he plays but it's still a good feature for Muranyi and Armstrong does manage to hit the high note at the end:

Next, time for a feature as Buddy Catlett gets to "boot one out" on "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," featuring some more nice Pops towards the end:

And finally, my favorite moment of the show and one of my favorite moments from the period. The band goes into "Sleepy Time" and the announcer says that the broadcast is over. However, the announcer is a little premature and there's about a minute-and-a-half left so Armstrong keeps it up until he gets the signal that the show is over. He responds by improvising more than he usually did on his theme and I think he sounds wonderful. Enjoy it:

And that's that, a nice, short and sweet broadcast from 1967 showing that Armstrong was still getting it done so close to the end. I hope you enjoyed it and everything else shared year throughout the preceding year. Thanks to all those who have written with kind words and suggestions and I hope it continues into next year. Here's to 2009!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Very Satchmo Chrismas - 2008 Edition!

One year ago today, I posted a long entry discussing the six Christmas records Armstrong recorded for Decca in the 1950s. At the time, I was still a blogging novice and many times, instead of posting the audio as I do now, I would just search for videos on YouTube that featured the songs I was discussing. This worked extremely well for the Christmas post as all six songs were on YouTube in one way or another. However, on a whim this morning, I visited that old post and saw that five of the six videos have been removed due to violation! Thus, that post is severely out-of-date so it's time to update it. I'm not going to change much of the writing, since my opinions are pretty much the same, but the YouTube videos are gone, replaced by my own links to the audio.

So, as already mentioned, this entry will focus on the six Christmas records Armstrong made for Decca in the 1950s. And when I say records, I don’t mean long-playing discs but rather, six three-minute singles. It might seem odd that someone who brought more joy to the world than Santa Claus would have so few yuletide classics in his discography, but alas that’s the case. In fact, Armstrong didn’t get around to recording his first Christmas song until 1952, unless, of course, you count Armstrong’s two versions of “Santa Claus Blues” from 1924 and 1925.

When Decca finally corralled Armstrong into the studio to record some Christmas cheer, they gave him first-class treatment by backing him with the lush arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins’s sentimental string and voices sound revived Armstrong’s recording career with the 1949 hit “Blueberry Hill.” By the early 1950s, Jenkins was a veritable recording superstar. Anything with his name on it sold tremendously so it made sense for Decca to pair him with label stars like Peggy Lee and Armstrong. On September 22, 1952, Armstrong and Jenkins teamed up for their fourth session together. On one of their sessions, from February 6, 1951 Jenkins jettisoned his strings and turned in some very fine small-big band arrangements but for the 1952 session, the strings were the whole show on the Christmas number, though current All Stars Bob McCracken, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole were in the studio band that day (as was guitarist Art Ryerson, who would do many post-“Hello, Dolly” sessions with Pops in the 60s).

Both of the Jenkins Christmas numbers are unusually low-key. They feature no trumpet and no surges of emotion or anything. They’re very sober but the best word to describe them has to be “warm.” Pops is at his most tender, singing as if he’s whispering a loving lullaby to a small child. “White Christmas” is up first and, of course, was property of Armstrong’s friend and disciple, Bing Crosby. From the opening seconds, we know we’re in Gordon Jenkins country. “White Christmas” demonstrates that many of our best-loved Christmas songs feature quite a range of notes and you can hear Pops stretch here and there, but I always loved his tenor voice—as well as that basso profundo he would break out when necessary. Both are needed on “White Christmas,” which finds Pops reaching for a high D on “the ones” to the C an octave lower on “children.” On the final “be white,” Armstrong goes down to a low B on the coincidental word “be.” Where you’d expect a scat break or a “oh babe,” Pops lays out, leaving the gaps to be filled by Jenkins’s beautiful strings. After a brief string interlude, Armstrong reenters with the final eight bars, featuring, I think, some of his most touching singing. You can hear him smiling as he sings “and bright.” Again, he goes way down for that final “white,” holding it for an impressive amount of time. Very pretty stuff. Enough from me, enjoy it for yourself:

“Winter Wonderland” is up next and it’s more of the same. Though most performers do this one at an uptempo, Armstrong and Jenkins give it the same gentle ballad treatment as “White Christmas.” Again, Pops rarely deviates from the melody but he doesn’t have to, he’s singing it so sweetly. Am I weird for actually feeling warmed by the way Pops sings “as we dream by the fire”? Jenkins goes back to the bridge for another one of his trademark sounds. Marty Napoleon plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than you’d expect. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but hey, this was popular music in 1952 and it gave Jenkins an identity. Pops reenters for the final eight with a cute extended coda. Armstrong repeats the word “walking” while the pizzicato strings “walk” gingerly behind him. Finally, Armstrong unleashes a little bit of scat and the record comes to a mellow conclusion. Dig it:

Don’t worry, though. If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes Toots Camarata’s Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. I devoted an entire entry to this session in October because I believe it's one of the greatest dates Armstrong ever did in his entire career. The Commanders were a ferocious studio band co-led by arranger Camarata and drummer Grady. They were brass heavy—three trumpets, four trombones and only two reeds—and featured a peerless rhythm section propelled by Carmen Mastren’s rhythm guitar and Grady’s earth-shattering big band drumming. The October session began with two Christmas songs and both are a lot of fun. After trying out a few standards on the Jenkins sessions, Decca gave Armstrong a few novelties to cut up on and he does just that, infusing these two trite, silly songs with such enthusiasm that they’ve in turn had a shelf life of over 50 years of being listened to and enjoyed. First up: "Zat You Santa Claus?"

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

Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording. During my 50 trips to the mall this season, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball. Here 'tis:

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


Anyway, Decca wasn’t finished yet and two years later, on September 8, 1955, they brought Armstrong in to record two more Christmas songs, this time backed by a studio band arranged and conducted by the great Benny Carter. This has become one of those forgotten Decca sessions, never reissued on C.D. by the label itself but it is available on the Ambassador label’s Moments to Remember disc, which collects all of Armstrong’s Christmas work for the Decca, the entire Commanders session and other odds and ends that are hard to find on compact disc or Itunes. Carter wrote a great arrangement for Armstrong on The Platters’s “Only You” and Armstrong manages to sound quite tender on the Four Lads hit, “Moments to Remember.”

The first Christmas song that day was Dick Sherman and Joe Van Winkle’s “Christmas In New Orleans.” Here's the audio:

Carter’s arrangement begins with a hardened “Jingle Bells” quote that sounds like it belongs in an episode of Dragnet (remember, Carter was doing a lot of film work at the time). It soon settles into a gentle two-beat that really works for this song. The lyrics are almost a waste of time with their references to stuff like a “Dixieland Santa Claus,” but as always, Pops sounds like the happiest guy in the world. And how could he not? He loved Christmas and he loved New Orleans so any song that combined the two, even with dopey lyrics, was bound to inspire him. What’s truly inspired, though, is the trumpet solo. The tune starts off kind of like “Basin Street Blues” before it goes its own way but the changes obviously had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his chops into. This isn’t one of those grandiose high-note extravaganzas; however it is a good time to appreciate Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery. It’s one of those solos that I always enjoyed but never really devoted 100% attention to until an afternoon I spent in Joe Muranyi’s house. Muranyi recorded “Christmas In New Orleans” for his Jazzology C.D., Joe Muranyi With The New Orleans Real Low-Down. For the disc, he transcribed Armstrong’s solo to be played in unison by his clarinet, Duke Heitger’s trumpet and Tom Baker’s tenor sax. You get so used to hearing horns playing unison lines on bop heads and the like, but not on Armstrong solos and all of a sudden, this solo that I kind of took for granted, became a whole new thing. While listening to it with me, Muranyi said, “It’s tough to notate this part. I worked so hard on it. What you do is, I did it and then I put it away. I mean, I had done it maybe two or three years before this and when I took it out again and refined it, you keep finding little things. It’s not easy. It’s interesting to hear it in this context. It sounds more complex than when he plays it.” It really does. Here's Muranyi's performance:

For the final track on the date, Decca reached back and picked “Christmas Night In Harlem,” written by Mitchell Parish and Raymond Scott for the “Blackbirds of and 1934 and memorably recorded by Paul Whiteman with a vocal by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer. Carter’s arrangement begins with another Christmas quote—Billy Kyle playing the beginning to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—before the horns punch out a descending line that reminds me of a Ray Charles record (I think I’m thinking of “Greenback Dollar Bill”). Armstrong sings the first chorus harmlessly—it’s a pretty repetitive melody and he does his best with it. Carter’s arrangement swings after the vocal and you can hear Barney Bigard holding a high note. (This was Bigard’s next-to-last session with the All Stars as he would be replaced by Edmond Hall in a matter of weeks.) Armstrong’s trumpet solo is curiously low-key. He more or less sticks to playing the melody in the middle register. Naturally, the Armstrong sound makes it worth listening to, but he doesn’t really blow with any force until the last eight bars. It’s a fine solo but I think that Pops could have maybe used one more take to wail a little more. After the low-key solo, Pops returns to sing the bridge, which features a very funny moment. Armstrong sings, “Everyone will be all lit up,” and laughs to himself, “lit up” clearly having a different meaning to him than most. He swings the lyric on the final A section, boiling it down to one note, but the arrangement is now too polite; where’s Ed Grady’s drums to wake things up? The highlight of the record is Pops’s eloquent scatting and singing as the record fades. A charming record, but not my favorite Louis Christmas song.

And that ends this tour of Louis Armstrong’s Christmas recordings for Decca. Of course, Armstrong wasn’t completely done recording yuletide music as in 1970, he performed “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” for RCA. And Armstrong’s very last recording is a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that is quite charming and is one I hope to share this Wednesday. Til then...

Friday, December 19, 2008

Baby, It's Cold Outside

It's raining where I live in New Jersey but it's snowing pretty bad in New York City, causing Kathie Lee Gifford on the Today Show to sing a few bars of "Baby, It's Cold Outside." I've been hearing the tune in every mall I enter these days and it just made perfect sense to do a quickie entry on the tune. Frank Loesser wrote the famous duet in 1944 but it didn't reach the public until the 1949 film, Neptune's Daughter. After that, numerous duet recordings were made...go to YouTube, type in the song's title and enjoy the 1,400 results, including Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan, Hot Lips Page and Pearl Bailey, Margaret Whiting and Johnny Mercer, Jessica Simpson and the guy she divorced, and most disturbingly, one by Martina McBride and a dead Dean Martin (I hate technology).

The song blew up on the charts in May 1949 with dueling versions of Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark vs. the aforementioned Whiting and Mercer rendition. The song continued to be recorded throughout the summer of 1949 with a bunch of different recordings making the charts, but for our intents and purposes, our story starts on August 12, 1949 at The Click in Philadelphia. It's from this nightclub that Armstrong and Velma Middleton's first surviving broadcast of this duet survives. The two were a natural pair when it came to innuendo-filled duets and already had two in the books, "That's My Desire" and "Don't Fence Me In." With "Baby It's Cold Outside" all over the radio, it was a no-brainer to have Louis and Velma put their own spin on it. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like they rehearsed much; Pops seems to forget some of the words and much of routine is sloppy. Still, as an artifact, it's interesting and it still received from laughs. Give it a listen:

It's good but it's not great. But Armstrong was a genius as working a routine over until it was just right and by January 1951, Armstrong and Middleton were slaying audiences with it. The change? They slowed down the tempo to a crawl, allowing Armstrong to really milk his responses. Timing's everything in comedy and with the new tempo, Armstrong was better able to show off his comedic talents. Also, they had a whole new interlude in the middle, a little comedy sketch complete with pantomime of the two looking out a window at the winter weather. Even Earl Hines got into the act, interrupting Armstrong by claiming he saw Middleton hanging out at (fill-in-the-blank of a local neighborhood close to the theater).

On January 30, 1951, Armstrong and Middleton recorded their duet live before Decca's microphones at a Pasadena "Just Jazz" concert. The resulting album gave the pair a new song to be requested at most shows. In fact, at a North Carolina show in 1954, all Velma had to do was announce the word "Baby" and many in the audience began screaming their approval! The Pasadena version is great though the audience is a little stiff for my taste. Four nights earlier, the All Stars did it in Vancouver and tore the place down. Just listen to the ovation! I mean, it's the kind of performance that would make jazz critics hold their noses, but as pure entertainment, it's hard to beat. Without further ado, enjoy "Baby It's Cold Outside" and a have a great weekend!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

70 Years of The Martin Block Jam Session

For much of this year, my anniversary posts have centered on single songs: 80 years of “West End Blues,” 80 years of “Basin Street Blues,” “45 Years of Hello, Dolly,” 75 years of “Laughin’ Louis,” 70 years of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” etc. But today’s the anniversary of an event, a kind of once-in-a-lifetime meeting of the giants that fortunately took place in front of some microphones, allowing us all to revisit the music made that day.

The occasion was an episode of Martin Block’s WNEW radio broadcast, which usually featured an assortment of stars from the world of swing. Block threw a number of incredible jams in his studio, but none quite like this. In reverse order of importance: Bob Spergel on guitar, Pete Peterson on bass, George Wettling on drums (excellent choice), Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone (one of the tops), Jack Teagarden on trombone (oh man, it keeps getting better), Fats Waller on piano (are you sweating yet?) and of course, Louis Armstrong on trumpet (smelling salts, please!).

I don’t think I have to give much backstory on these musicians and their backgrounds. Armstrong and Waller were old pals from their days in Harlem in 1929 during the run of Hot Chocolates at Connie’s Inn. Since then, both men had climbed to the upper ranks of the entertainment field, appearing on radio, film and of course, on records, with Fats holding down a Victor contract while Armstrong recorded many of the same pop tunes for Decca. Jack Teagarden became enraptured with Armstrong after hearing him during Armstrong’s riverboat days and the two shared a recording date once on 1929’s famous interracial jam, “Knockin’ a Jug.” Freeman, as part of the Austin High Gang, marveled with the rest of his cronies at Armstrong’s genius during his days with King Oliver in Chicago and went on to make a bunch of timeless records with Teagarden. Teagarden and Waller also teamed up for some excellent records, including a hot and humorous “You Rascal You.” No need to keep going, they were all legends and I’ll just leave it at that.

Interestingly, though Waller was incredibly popular at the time, he clearly took a backseat to Armstrong on this occasion. Waller got to sing one blues chorus, he bellowed out some of his famous asides and got to play a quicky version of his signature tunes, “Honeysuckle Rose,” but otherwise, it was the Louis Armstrong Show Featuring An Incredible Cast Of Supporting Players.

Fortunately, some enterprising swing fan recorded the broadcast (though I’m guessing not the talking since I’ve never heard it issued) and since the dawn of the LP era, it has never exactly been hard to find. Well, perhaps I should rephrase that; it’s kind of a pain in the neck to find it complete as dozens of cheap, bootleg issues of both Armstrong and Waller sometimes include some of these performances without calling attention to the historic nature of the date or even who the participants were. Fortunately, Gösta Hagglof, our hero, released it in complete form on volume five of his indispensable Ambassador series. I know Mosaic is going to do a dynamite job with their upcoming box of Armstrong’s 1930s and 40s Decca recordings but it’s only on the Ambassador label that you can find such treats as this session (to give an example, volume five also has Armstrong’s appearances from the “Saturday Night Swing Club” in June 1938 and a Paul Whiteman Christmas Day concert at Carnegie Hall...priceless stuff).

However, there seems to be disagreement between the order of the songs performed. For this, I’m going to consult Jos Willems’s landmark Armstrong discography, “All of Me.” Jos begins the session with “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and that’s good enough for me. I should say that I’m not going to go into a graphic amount of detail on each of these songs because separately, each one deserves a blog of its own. With that out of the way, let’s begin!

Armstrong originally gave “Sunny Side” a ballad treatment and was still playing it that way on the Flesichmann’s Yeast Broadcast of 1937. But later in that year, Armstrong recorded a new uptempo take the tune and that’s how he would approach it until the days of the All Stars (but even then, the tempo would flip flop depending on the mood of the audience, and probably the trumpeter himself). Armstrong sounds great and, though I have an obsession with Fats Waller, it’s interesting hearing his backing as Armstrong rarely felt comfortable with stride piano players (Joe Sullivan lasted less than two months with Armstrong and sounds terrible on the few surviving live recordings from his stint). The ensemble cautiously stays out of Armstrong’s way before Pops gets a full improvised chorus to himself. Teagarden and Freeman solo well before an incredibly joyous vocal from Pops, with some almost stuttering scat at the end.

Fats announces his solo with a hearty “Hello” and even throws in a little “Stop it, Joe” aside to comment on his tickling. James Lincoln Collier later wrote about how serious Waller was during this session as opposed to Armstrong’s off-the-wall personality but I honestly think he must not have paid much attention to the actual music. Fats is subdued hear and there but that’s because Armstrong’s in the spotlight and, as just mentioned, during his own solos and his later vocal, there’s plenty of the Waller good humor in evidence.

Armstrong’s reentrance is wonderful as he rhythmically plays with just two pitches, driving them to the brink of swinging insanity. From there, Armstrong more or less plays the set solo he used on his ballad interpretations, though he finds a new way out of the bridge. We’re off and running! Next, “The Blues”...

In some ways, this is the highlight of the session as the opportunity to hear Waller, Armstrong and Teagarden trade blues choruses--vocally and instrumentally--is sublime. Everyone’s having a good time, with Waller obviously improvising his on the spot. Armstrong’s chorus about grabbing a picket off of somebody’s fence would resurface on his Columbia recording of “St. Louis Blues” in 1954, while Teagarden borrows a chorus he sang on the classic Commodore record “Serenade to a Shylock” in April 1938. Waller’s chorus is quintessential Fats and just listen to the little motive he uses to back Armstrong’s first chorus. Armstrong meanwhile really felt like dipping into his blues bag, opening with a quote from “Savoy Blues” before devoting his second chorus to King Oliver’s “Jazzin’ Babies Blues” solo, which I’ve written about before because it frequently came up in Armstrong’s career, including 1928’s “Muggles” (and dig Fats’s boogie bottom). Teagarden wails for two, with Armstrong encouraging to take another, before Pops shows the way out with another old solo from his bag, “Terrible Blues,” which, ironically, also reappeared on that 1954 “St. Louis Blues” recording. An incredible performance, but still perhaps not as wonderful as my personal highpoint of the session, “I Got Rhythm.” Here ‘tis:

Now, I’m not going to lie: it’s Sunday morning, my wife is probably going to want to go out soon and I can’t waste too much time here, so with your kind permission, I’d like to borrow the paragraph I wrote about this recording back in February: “After an ensemble chorus in the front, Pops steps up with the first solo, very flowing and melodic, with phrases that stick in your mind long after he puts down his horn. Freeman, Teagarden and Waller all solo with authority (Waller adding a happy “Hello” just for the hell of it) but the main event comes with the final minute and 13 seconds as Pops leads the ensemble through two rideout choruses. Every phrase Armstrong plays is sculpted perfectly and his upper register rarely sounded better. As Armstrong steams to the end of first ensemble chorus, it sounds like he’s building up to an ending, but Fats isn’t ready to let him go, shouting “Come on” and spurring Armstrong into one chorus. Pausing for a beat to collect himself, Armstrong calmly continues his charge, bouncing off a few glisses to Bb’s, playing a nimble little phrase then hitting the climax of the entire performance, a gliss that starts somewhere below the equator and rises up higher and higher to a freakish high F! I know an exclamation point might seem gratuitous but it’s the only way to properly convey the excitement of this F. Ever so slowly, Armstrong climbs back down for more fleet-fingered phrases throughout the bridge, throwing in some more quick glisses toward the end and finishing with a three note high C-D-Bb phrase. This is Pops at the peak of his powers and those final two choruses scare the hell out of me.” Almost, one year later, I still agree...that’s some scary playing. Next though, matters calmed down a bit for “Jeepers Creepers”:

Interestingly, “Jeepers Creepers” was written for the film “Going Places,” which was done in September 1938 and featured Armstrong introducing the tune. The film wouldn’t open until December 31 and Armstrong wouldn’t get around to officially waxing it for Decca until January 18, 1939. So this must have been a debut performance and it wouldn’t surprise me if the other musicians were playing off of lead sheets because no one in the world would have known the tune except for Armstrong and the musicians in the film. It’s a jolly performance and everyone sounds like they’ve been playing it for years, the true mark of professional musicians. Armstrong’s vocal is a lot of fun but I would have loved a little more trumpet. However, I can’t make that same complaint about the next tune, “Tiger Rag”:

Scorching stuff. The tune starts out fast enough, at almost the tempo Armstrong took it on his 1930 original recording and everyone plays beautifully (the rhythm guitar can finally be heard and appreciated), with Armstrong taking some great breaks early on. However, midway through, Armstrong stomps off a tempo that remarkably is even faster, which is just the way he liked it for “Tiger Rag,” the faster, the better. By this point, Armstrong had a pretty set routine but it never fails to astound. The quotes are always fun to identify but the sheer power and endurance is freakish. He cracks one or two but really, it’s an incredibly exciting test of strength, those Eb’s simply shrieking out of his horn, building up to the last soul-shaking concert F. This is prime stuff, my friends. Combine it with the Fleischmann’s recordings, the broadcasts on the Ambassador label and the Decca studio sides and I think it’s time for a reexamination of Armstrong’s 1935-1947 career (hmmm, maybe a second book for me?).

With time running out, the band stormed through 79 seconds of “Honeysuckle Rose,” a number Armstrong previously hadn’t recorded and wouldn’t until the 1955 “Satch Plays Fats” recording.

The opening chorus seems like two solos in one, as Teagarden and Waller offer an assortment of swinging ideas on top of each other. Then Pops comes on and for one, leading the ensemble beautifully (dig that gliss towards the end) but all of a sudden, it’s over before it started. You know, they would have loved to keep that one going for a while. But it’s officially time for me to get going myself, so I’ll call it quits while I’m ahead. I don’t think I have any more anniversary posts lined up but stay tuned as things return to normal in the next few weeks, with some looks at a couple of Pops’s Christmas outings. Til then!

Friday, December 12, 2008

80 Years of St. James Infirmary

Louis Armstrong And His Savoy Ballroom Five
Recorded December 12, 1928
Track Time 3:14
Written by Joe Primrose
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Don Redman, alto saxophone, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano, celeste; Mancy Carr, banjo, guitar; Zutty Singleton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 8657
Currently available on CD: It’s on any complete Hot Five/Hot Seven box sets and a bunch of compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes, a search of “Armstrong Infirmary” turns up 45 MP3s

As I started off my blowout post on “Basin Street Blues,” December 1928 was a fertile time for Louis Armstrong and OKeh records. I decided to celebrate the 80th anniversary of “Basin Street” last week and I’m celebrating the 80th anniversary of “St. James Infirmary” today, but really, if I felt crazy, I could have kept going and celebrated the 80th anniversary of EVERYTHING Armstrong recorded in December 1928: “No, (Papa No),” “No One Else But You,” “Beau Koo Jack,” “Save It Pretty Mama,” “Weather Bird,” “Muggles,” Heah Me Talkin’ To Ya,” “Tight Like This” and a Lillie Delk Christian session featuring a beautiful “I Must Have That Man.” It really hurt me to not do anything on “Beau Koo Jack” and “Tight Like That” since those are probably both on my list of top 10 favorite Armstrong records (I say probably because truthfully, my top 10 list has about 30 titles on it).

But in the end, I selected “Basin Street” and “St. James Infirmary” because they both remained in the Armstrong repertoire. And because of the kindness of some of my readers, I have some very rare recordings in my possession that I’d like to share with my fellow Armstrong nuts from around the world. Anyone can listen to “Beau Koo Jack,” dig it, pick up Gunther Schuller and analyze it...what more can I add? But for something like “St. James Infirmary,” I think I might have some nice surprises to listen to so don’t go anywhere.

Whenever I start one of these blogs, I always do a quick Internet search to see what background information I can gather about the song I’m about to dissect. Well, today, I found some online jewels and truthfully, I don’t want to go any further because these guys have EVERYTHING covered. First, there’s Robert W. Harwood, who recently published a book on the history of the song for Harland Press, titled quite naturally I Went Down to St. James Infirmary. Go here to read all about it.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg (or “ice-boig” as Pops might say). As I have mentioned before, even though I’m writing my book on Armstrong’s later years, the blog isn’t going anywhere. The blog allows me to share rare treasures, make bad jokes, share new information and go into the kind of sickening detail that would probably force my editor to tear up my contract. Mr. Harwood, too, has a blog and it’s a fascinating treasure trove of music, lyrics, research, pictures and even advertisements, including one for the Armstrong record we’re about to hear. He started it in August and has already amassed 30 entries. Please go here and check it out, then buy the book.

But I only found out about Harwood’s work through Robert Walker, author of Letters From New Orleans, and a St. James Infirmary historian in his own right. Walker has a similar blog, NO Notes, which has even more information on the tune, including an interview with Harwood. Check out Walker’s work by clicking here. I’m going to put links for both blogs in my list to the right of the screen so check ‘em out and I guarantee you’ll be addicted for days.

And finally, the massive pre-war blues site, “Honey Where You Been So Long” has a massive list of 121 versions of the tune, each one with a link so you can listen a long. Positively stunning. We’re going to come back to that one a little later because it includes an Armstrong version that I somehow don’t have (unbelievable!). Check it out here.

But our focus today is Pops. Again, I’m not even going to touch the long history of the song, but it does seem as if Armstrong’s record was the first to go by the title of “St. James Infirmary.” How’d Armstrong get it? Well, it’s possible that he heard it or even played it in New Orleans, but the man responsible for the record was Don Redman. Here’s Harwood, interviewed by Walker: “So, what Redman brought to Chicago was a version of the song worth recording. The song was making the rounds of the dance halls in the North, and Redman liked what he heard one December night in Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom. He took that arrangement with him to Chicago, although he no doubt altered it considerably. So he was the man responsible for Armstrong recording that song on December 12th.”

This is something that Armstrong himself admitted during the Voice of America interviews of July 1956, which I already posted a couple of samples of in my “Basin Street” entry. Armstrong played DJ for the session and before introducing “Tight Like This,” this is what he said: “It strikes me that this was a beautiful recording date because Don Redman came over from Detroit where he was playing at the Greystone Ballroom with McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. In fact, he was the arranger and the leader of that band. And Don, to me, was one of the greatest arrangers I’ve ever met. And in fact, he was one of the first one that I knew that arranged music until I got with Fletcher. We didn’t pay no attention to reading a whole lot of music other than brass band and things like that. And Don Redman came over from Detroit with this tune, ‘Tight Like This.’”

From there, Armstrong talks about “Tight Like This” and how everything was written into the arrangement, including the humorous dialogue. After playing that tune, Armstrong introduced the first “St. James Infirmary.” He gets nostalgic talking about Jack Teagarden’s love of the number, which we’ll get to a little later. But here’s DJ Louie, talking about the tune and introducing the original:

With that intro out of the way, let’s listen to it by clicking here.

Yeah, man. It’s a helluva arrangement, as it takes almost the entire record, but it’s good enough to make the listener not miss any Armstrong improvisation. After a spooky minor-opening with remnants of a funeral march lurking in the harmonies (listen to Zutty beating those toms), the group plays 16-bars of melody, Armstrong’s lead sobbing with sadness while a clarinet weeps and shrieks in the background. After this arranged chorus, Earl Hines takes a typically dazzling chorus, back by Zutty playing the signature brushes-on-snare-drum pattern that’s still the norm 80 years later.

Then it’s time for Pops’s vocal, singing the three most famous choruses with a lot of feeling, reaching up for some high notes and hitting. There’s no trace of a smile or any scatting in this vocal, that’s for sure. A brief interlude by Hines allows the horns to get their chops together to play Redman’s next arranged passage. Robinson’s trombone solemnly moans the melody while Armstrong and the two clarinets plays a dazzling countermelody around Robinson’s lead. Armstrong breaks out of the arrangement (or does he?) for an authoritative break but after another short interlude, comes back to play another arranged variation on the melody. In the final chorus, Armstrong dramatically holds an F before topping it with a concert Ab, a device he repeats twice before the sober ending.

All in all, it’s a classic record, though it’s arguably not a classic Louis Armstrong record because of its lack of improvising. But who I am kidding, I think Pops did a wonderful job singing the tune and nailing the arrangement, his unique tone and throbbing rhythm really conveying the song’s doleful mood appropriately.

Well, the Armstrong record must have sold quite well because a score of “St. James Infirmary” records hit the market in 1929 and 1930, many of which can be listened to at the Red Hot Jazz Archive or traced through the aforementioned websites.

Four years later, Louis Armstrong was in a different place. The “St. James Infirmary” session was Armstrong’s last in Chicago before he went to New York in 1929 and began taking over the world, singing “Ain’t Misbehavin’” on Broadway and recording pop tunes for OKeh. By 1932, Armstrong was in the middle of a vicious war for his services between OKeh and Victor. Victor won out and almost immediately, in their second session with Armstrong, had the trumpeter record two medleys of hit tunes. They would be 12-inch discs so they could accommodate 4 1/2 minutes of music. For one, Armstrong did “You Rascal You,” one of his greatest versions of “Sleepy Time Down South” and “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” a tune he had never previously record. The other medley consisted of “When You’re Smiling,” “St. James Infirmary” and “Dinah.” You can listen along by clicking here.

The medley opens with a happy chorus of Armstrong singing “When You’re Smiling” before the mood changes completely for “St. James Infirmary.” Or does it? I have to admit, this is a pretty righteous version of the tune. The band (a Philadelphia theater orchestra with a young Louis Jordan on alto saxophone) tears into the melody at a tempo faster than the OKeh (probably because they only had a minute-and-a-half to do it). After a chorus of melody, with Armstrong cheerleading in the background, Armstrong sings a couple of stanzas. Remember what I said about him not smiling on the 1928 record? Well, that’s out the window! This is Armstrong as Armstrong, on fire, in pure early-30s “lunatic” mode, changing lyrics (“Hot Papa!”), adding extra words (“Oh!” “Look here!”), swinging like hell and even breaking himself up at the end of the vocal. Nothing solemn about that!

Then it’s trumpet time and, though it’s too short, it’s a great glimpse of Armstrong in his relaxed prime. One can almost see him onstage, playing those repeated notes and devilishly walking away from the band towards the microphone. Armstrong builds slowly and surely to the hollering high Ab that marks the halfway point of solo. After that, he relaxes and stays content to float around the band’s stomping reading of the melody. This could be Armstrong at his most free or Armstrong watching the chops. December 1932 was a rough time for him as Mezz Mezzrow recounted the trouble Armstrong’s lip was in during his first Victor session, just 13 days earlier. And an alternate take survives of this medley where Armstrong plays a different, slightly more cautious solo and fluffs the transition over to “Dinah.” Regardless, it’s a short, but powerful statement and that vocal is pretty fantastic.

I don’t know if “St. James Infirmary” stayed in the repertoire for any length of time as there are no known surviving version after the 1932 Victor until the famous Town Hall concert of May 1947...and on that version, Armstrong doesn’t even blow or play a note! Still, I must share it because it’s one of the great moments of a concert that was filled with nothing but great ones. Armstrong finally took a break and let trombonist Jack Teagarden take over to do, as he calls it, “One of the oldest blues I know.” Teagarden plays it ferociously there before drawling out the lyrics that seemed written specifically for his bourbon-soaked Texan voice. A brief interlude by the rhythm section allowed Teagarden to prepare for one of his great party tricks: the removal of the bell of his horn, to be replaced by an empty water glass. The completely ethereal sound has to be heard to be believed (and it really should be seen, too, as I did once when Vincent Gardner recreated it during one of David Ostwald’s Wednesday night Birdland extravaganzas). Here’s that legendary moment:

Naturally, it became part of the show, as you heard Armstrong mention during the Voice of America interview earlier. A few months later, Teagarden replicated it at Carnegie Hall in an unreleased version. The routine is almost identical to Town Hall, but now there’s a tiny bit of Armstrong in the opening ensemble. Enjoy this rarity:

Now comes something that will probably get me thrown in the loony bin. In the Jos Willems Armstrong discography “All of Me,” I was always mesmerized by the listings of four concerts from the State Theater in Cincinnati in April 1949. There seemed to be a lot of great material and some songs the All Stars never played before or after. I wrote to Jos to see about hearing something from these dates and he wrote back that he was only going to send me one because they possessed the world’s worst sound quality. But really, how bad could they be? Well, be prepared to hear the world’s worst sound quality. Many of you will click this link, get blasted by an overstimulation of static, shake your head and immediately stop it. But for those who can muddle through, listen through the noise and behold Armstrong’s obbligato (yes, I know the sound drops out for a second). Two years had gone by and now Pops, after playing nothing at Town Hall and a little bit at Carnegie Hall, now contributed a very nice backing to the vocal. Teagarden’s almost inaudible and the whole band is muffled but Armstrong shines through. Give a listen...if you dare!

I know, I know, that probably wasn’t worth sharing but I’m sure there’s some fellow nut out there who got some kicks from it.

After Teagarden left the band, “St. James Infirmary” left with it, though as Armstrong said in the Voice of America interview, he continued to get requests for it. I don’t know how often he honored those requests but one surviving version exists from Armstrong’s 1955 tour of Europe...but please don’t get too excited. On that tour, Armstrong let Arvell Shaw sing “St. James Infirmary” as a feature and apparently two versions survive. I have one, from Amsterdam on October 30, the concert Columbia recorded for Ambassador Satch (but Sony refuses to release...come on!). Now, Arvell had a very good singing voice but this had to have been a joke. He sings the whole thing in this ridiculous over-the-top, almost Robeson-like baritone-bordering-on-bass-profundo, even cracking a bit when he sings a higher note. I know my Boston Louis nuts Dave Whitney and Phil Person get some laughs from it and hopefully you will too:

Finally, though, after all these detours, we come to Armstrong’s next studio version of the tune, a 1959 masterpiece from the Audio Fidelity album Satchmo Plays King Oliver. The final album would be something of a mixed bag but there’s no denying that “St. James Infirmary” is one of the highlights. The tempo couldn’t be any slower and mood couldn’t be any more mournful. This is funeral music of the finest pedigree. Armstrong plays the melody somberly while trombonist Trummy Young and clarinetist Peanuts Hucko moan behind him. I also love the little vocal harmonizing before Armstrong sings the vocal. Armstrong then delivers a vocal that’s somewhere between the 1928 and 1932 versions; it’s appropriately somber, but he can’t help smiling at times and throwing in little likes like the humorous “bragging” and “John B” asides. Like the Victor, he even laughs at the end, as if to prevent the listener from really wanting to kill themselves.

But there’s nothing funny about the closing trumpet playing. Remember, Armstrong was just recovering from a heart attack he suffered in Spoleto, Italy...this was only a few months later. Just listen to that final chorus and the little cadenza at the end. Like the 1928 version, Armstrong holds high F’s in the final choruses, before resolving them to higher A’s (this version is in Dm, the original was in Fm). The closing C# to freakishly high concert D gives me the chills every damn time I listen to it. Hopefully, it’ll do the same to you:

But even with such a great version in the can, “St. James Infirmary” didn’t become a regular part of Armstrong’s repertoire until 1966. By that point, Armstrong’s chops were on the decline and it’s interesting comparing the final five versions of I have because they all differ in length (from 1:47 to 4:11) and that’s because of the amount of trumpet playing done on each one. Armstrong was no dummy and he knew when his chops weren’t going to respond like he needed them to. So let’s compare and contrast five final versions from about an eight month span. First, an unissued concert from the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago, December 1966. This is an edition of the All Stars that isn’t well documented, featuring Buster Bailey on clarinet. You’ll hear that the tempo is similar to the 1959 version we just heard. Pops is very somber in the first chorus but then he really turns up the hear and roars in the second eight bars, sounding incredible. Unfortunately, the sound isn’t A-1 but it’ll convey Armstrong’s power at this late stage quite well:

After that trumpet solo, you can hear Armstrong sing the hell out of the song (with some humorous help from Tyree Glenn), building up a big crescendo at the ending. Very nice stuff...but what if Pops felt like blowing some more? Let’s flash forward to June 1967 and Sandusky, Ohio. Buster Bailey died and Pops had to take some time off due to bronchio-pnuemonia. He reformed the band with Joe Muranyi on clarinet in June 1967 and immediately started touring. The Sandusky version was from Muranyi’s second night in the band and features Armstrong sounding good, but still getting back to working shape after his layoff. This version was issued on an LP years ago and I, alas, do not have it but the aforementioned archive at “Honey, Where You Been So Long” contains it and I was thrilled to hear it for the first time in preparing for this entry. Armstrong’s first two choruses aren’t as thrilling as the Chicago version but after the vocal, he comes back for two more so you know he was ready to blow (there’s definitely some confusion regarding Armstrong’s reentrance so perhaps the band didn’t do this often prior to this performance). Armstrong’s not 100% but he’s bluesy as hell. He even holds the F’s and hits the A’s as in the other versions, but he’s an octave lower and has trouble with the first F. Still, he manages to make a heroic climb to final high A, capping off a very good performance. To listen to it, click here.

Just six days later, the All Stars played Ravinia Park in Highland Park, Illinois. Only about 30 minutes of (unissued) music survive from this appearance but there’s some pretty incredible moments. Anytime, Armstrong played Ravinia, it seems he brought his A+ game, possibly because old friends showed up from his Chicago days. In fact, at this same show, Armstrong introduced his second wife, Lil Hardin, who was sitting in the audience. So perhaps wanting to calm any doubts about his playing after his illness, Armstrong blew like a man possessed. This has to be my favorite live Armstrong “St. James” as he’s in control throughout, almost sounding angry at times, snarling darkly through his trumpet. Give it a listen:

Incredible stuff. The second chorus up front is pretty damned dirty but listen to how good he sounds after the vocal, much better than Sandusky. He still has to play the high notes an octave lower, but it works, right down to the high note ending. I played this version for Muranyi and he was completely blown away, though he said that he didn’t remember the tune lasting very long during his stay in the band.

Sure enough, less than a month later Armstrong hit a bit of a rough patch during a trip to Europe, producing some very erratic trumpet playing. In Copenhagen, Armstrong started off by playing the melody but obviously sensing something’s not right, he abandons it, sings the vocal and ends it right there. Here ‘tis:

And the following day at Juan-Les-Pins, Armstrong opened with “Sleepy Time” and “Indiana,” but perhaps feeling a little tired, didn’t even bother picking up the trumpet. Here’s all 107 seconds of this version:

It’s still a great vocal but at such a short length of time, it probably didn’t make sense to keep it around any longer. He apparently did play it again at a concert in Miami in November 1967, but I have not heard this concert and cannot attest to what he did or how he sounded. After that, “St. James Infirmary” disappeared, almost 40 years after that legendary first OKeh recording. I hope you enjoyed this spin through Armstrong’s history with “St. James Infirmary” on today, the 80th anniversary of that first recording. Hopefully, you’re not too depressed--you can always go to a funeral home or a hospital if you’re feeling awful sad--but after listening to so much good music, I’m feeling pretty damn good right now. That’s all for now, but I’ll back Sunday with yet one more anniversary posting.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Bob Wilber At Birdland

Just a real quick note to my New York/New Jersey friends to spread the word that the legendary Bob Wilber will be performing with David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland tonight at 5:30. The $10 cover charge is the best deal in the city and you can't go wrong with the music. And don't forget to say hello to your friendly blogger, who should most definitely be in the house. And for those who enjoy Turner Classic Movies on cable, tomorrow night they're having Bing Crosby night, which, for our intents and purposes, is of interest for the back-to-back whammy of "Pennies From Heaven" at 10:15 and "High Society" at 11:45. That's all for now as I'll be back Friday morning with yet another anniversary post (hopefully the over two-hours of music I posted last week has kept you sustained!). Til then...

Thursday, December 4, 2008

80 Years of Basin Street Blues!

Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded December 4, 1928
Track Time 3:11
Written by Spencer Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Fred Robinson, trombone, humming; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, humming; Earl Hines, piano, celeste; Mancy Carr, banjo; Zutty Singleton, drumd
Originally released on OKeh 8690
Currently available on CD: It’s on many compilations, including any complete Hot Five/Hot Seven box sets
Available on Itunes? Yes, on about 40 different albums, so take your pick!

I didn’t want to give it away the other day, but the main reason I posted my “Hello, Dolly” anniversary entry three days early was to let it settle for a while before today’s mammoth celebration of Louis Armstrong’s history with “Basin Street Blues.” Now, before I start, let me warn right here and right now that I will not be sampling ALL of Armstrong’s versions of the tune. I compiled the 55 versions I have into an Itunes playlist that said it would take 4.4. straight days to listen to the whole thing! Instead, I’ll focus on the major studio releases, I’ll sample a bunch of early All Stars versions to show how it took shape, then I’ll showcase some highlights of a few later versions, with some videos thrown in for good measure. How’s that sound? Can’t go wrong with Louis and “Basin Street,” that’s for sure.

The tune was written by the great Spencer Williams and, as far as I can tell, Armstrong was the first person to get a crack at it in the studio. Armstrong hadn’t recorded for OKeh since the busy run of five sessions in late June/early July 1928, a run that included “West End Blues.” Back then, Zutty Singleton was using hand cymbals but by the time the band reunited for a series of December sessions, Zutty was using his kit. Earl Hines and Armstrong had an incredible partnership during this period, perhaps never better illustrated than on the 13 numbers they recorded together between December 4 and December 12, 1928. I should probably do 80 year anniversary posts of all them, but alas, that would probably kill me (my wife couldn’t believe I devoted so much time to the “Dolly” blog with a book looming over my head...and she probably isn’t going to understand this one either...oh, the things I do for Pops!).

Anyway, the Spencer Williams tune was pretty bare bones when Armstrong got to it. There was no famous verse and no lyrics, just those very simple, very pretty 16 bars. Before playing it, why don’t we listen to DJ Louis Armstrong introduce the record?

Isn’t that nice? In 1956, the Voice of America asked Armstrong to play disc jockey for five one-hour programs, spinning his favorite records and talking about them. Only his voice is heard, not even that of an interviewer, though surely he had some guidance. David Ostwald recently lent me the tapes and I plan to use them wherever appropriate. So with the introduction out of the way, let’s go back to Chicago, 80 years ago today, to see what Armstrong and the gang cooked up on the very first “Basin Street Blues”:

Magic. From the start of the record, with Hines on the celeste, the whole record has the feel of something special. Hines solos like himself while the band plays the standard “Basin Street” harmonies behind him, without ever explicitly playing a melody (I love Zutty’s throbbing drums, too). After a note-perfect celeste break, Armstrong plays a pure 12-bar chorus of blues that has nothing to do with the “Basin Street” we all know and love, but seems to be a trademark of many early recordings of the tune. Armstrong’s very sober here, riding the pulsating wave of rhythm behind him. A swaying, stride interlude sets up the vocal as Armstrong scats brilliantly while trombonist Fred Robinson and clarinetist Jimmy Strong harmonize behind him, a throwback to Armstrong’s days singing in a quartet as a kid in New Orleans. It’s a very hornlike vocal, especially in the breaks, which are pure Armstrong.

Hines strides through another interlude before the main event, one of the greatest solos of Armstrong’s entire career. Armstrong was such a master of rhythm and often on this blog, I’ve discussed his uptempo work, where he seemed to float over the beat, playing as few notes as possible. But on something slower, like this one, Armstrong goes 180 degrees in the opposite direction, double-timing like a madman and showing the way towards jazz’s future. His opening arpeggiated phrase, followed be a few beats of silence, is perfection personified, while that break is as daring and wonderfully executed as anything else one can find in the jazz world of 1928. The whole solo is so passionate and though much of it is double-timed, there’s a very vocal quality to it all; one can easily hear him scatting each and every note of the solo.

But even with the propensity of notes, the most spine-tingling moment comes when Armstrong simply plays one note, a searing high Bb that he uses in his final break, repeating it rhythmically before barely grazing on a higher D. Armstrong loved using the device of hitting and holding a high one in a break, going back to it again in later years on “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and “What is This Thing Called Swing” to name two examples. The ensemble joins him for the final 16 bars, getting quieter as they progress and finally playing the tune’s signature melody before Hines’s celeste puts the finishing touches on this masterpiece of a record.

Back to DJ Pops. Let’s listen to him wrap up the OKeh record, as well as discuss some of his other versions. I know it’s jumping the gun but he ends by perfectly singing the scat ending to his next studio record of “Basin Street Blues,” to be discussed here in a moment. But here’s Pops to tell you all about it:

I love the way he remembers that scat ending perfectly, 23 years later. As he says, you can approach “Basin Street Blues” in a bunch of different ways, something that will become apparent the longer and deeper we get into it. Armstrong remade the tune for Victor on January 27, 1933 with his band at the time, led by Zilner Randolph and featuring some very nice musicians, including pianist Teddy Wilson, drummer Yank Porter, reedman Scoville Browne and the great Brown brothers from Texas, tenor saxophonist Budd and trombonist Keg. This wasn’t the world’s greatest band but Armstrong was happy to front them.

I’ve argued time and again in this space for the importance of Armstrong’s Victor recordings, which really capture him in arguably his all-time peak form as a trumpet player. He could do no wrong, settling into the dramatic, operatic style of his mature years, yet still able to toss off daring, almost reckless phrases without missing a note. Victor signed Armstrong in late 1932 and though he was with the label for less than a year, they still knew his importance and had him remake many of his OKeh standbys, including two medleys of “Hits,” “High Society,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp” and “St. Louis Blues.” The remake of “Basin Street” was the made the day after an incredible session that found Armstrong doing some of the greatest blowing of his career on “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” “Sittin’ in the Dark” and three others. But enough from me, let’s listen to the astonishing Victor “Basin Street Blues”:

Wow. One can start a fight between Armstrong nuts about which version they prefer, the OKeh or the Victor. I’ll take ‘em both, but if forced at gunpoint, I might go with the Victor. The tempo is a shade brighter than the OKeh, for one thing. The Victor opens with a sparkling Teddy Wilson introduction before Keg Johnson plays the melody, interrupted only for a bubbling clarinet break. Then Armstrong once again plays a 12-bar chorus of blues, starting off with the exact notes used on the OKeh, before he settles into a riff that he can’t shake until the chorus is over (this part always reminds me of the non-vocal take of “Dallas Blues” from 1929). Then the band plays an arranged 12-bar chorus, the rhythm section almost marching, rather than swinging. For the vocal, Pops once again sticks to purely scatting over vocal harmonies from the band. His first vocal break is similar to the first one on the OKeh, but is delivered with more urgency.

Then, a glance at the clock shows 1:20 left for Pops to make his final statement. Once again, it’s a festival of double-timing, but it’s even wilder than the original with a break that knocks me out, highlighted by a massive gliss to a high D (please keep that break in mind). Armstrong calms down a bit to do some very hip swinging in the lower register (eliciting a “Yeah” from someone in the background) before he repeats the high Bb break from 1928. Oh, and remember how I said Armstrong “grazed” a high D on the original? Well, somebody must have been practicing because he absolutely kills it on the Victor! A clarinet trio joins Armstrong as he gradually winds down before ending the record with some more scatting, setting up the slow coda we already heard the Armstrong of 1956 sing. The closing “Yeah, man” pretty much sums it up. I’m sweating over here!

Armstrong wouldn’t make another studio recording of the tune for 20 full years but he did perform it live. We might have never known what it sounded like during his big band years without the one and only Gösta Hägglöf who issued not one, but two swinging versions of the tune on his Ambassador label. (As I wrote last week, Mosaic Records is probably going to do a marvelous job with Armstrong’s Decca studio recordings of the late 30s and early 40s, but please pick up the Ambassadors if you want these rare goodies!)

After the original OKeh recording, “Basin Street Blues” became something of a jazz standard. A 1929 version by the Lousiana Rhythm Kings included almost as much 12-bar blues playing as it contained solos on the “Basin Street” changes. It even included a humorous blues vocal by Jack Teagarden. By two years later, Teagarden took another crack at it for a Charleston Chasers record date. The tune had no lyrics to speak of so Teagarden and Glenn Miller wrote new ones, including a brand new verse, the famous “Won’t you come along with me” stanza. They never received credit but from then on, the Teagarden-Miller verse and lyrics became an integral part of the song.

The two surviving Armstrong big band broadcasts come from the early 40s and are very similar in that they’re unusually fast and feature Armstrong singing the new verse. However, the trumpet solos differ greatly on both and are really worth listening because, to me, they really remind me of the kinds of things Armstrong would start doing in the late 40s and 50s with the All Stars. Here, after a snatch of “Sleepy Time,” is “Basin Street” from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, November 17, 1941:

Great stuff, especially the line about “beating up your chops on ‘Basin Street.’” Armstrong’s four-chorus solo is a textbook example of the art of storytelling, getting wonderful accents from drummer Sid Catlett as he builds up a head of steam. The closing high Bb is very nice and all in all, it’s a great solo. That is, until you hear what he did on the tune on April 1, 1942 at the Casa Manana in Culver City, California, a broadcast that I rate as one of perhaps the five greatest recorded nights in Armstrong’s entire career. The vocal is delicious again, but feel free to fast forward just to hear the monster solo:

Unbelievable! He’s super-charged on this one, in complete command, even quoting something that sounds like an ancestor to “La Vie En Rose” at one point. Catlett responds with even more emphatic drumming, spurring Armstrong to even greater heights before an ending that finds Armstrong landing on an impossible concert F! Smelling salts please...

The next time Armstrong encountered “Basin Street Blues” was in 1944 when it was time for the legendary Esquire All American Jazz Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Many jazz fans might be familiar with that evening’s performance, featuring a dream band of Armstrong, Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford and Catlett. But two days before the show, a select small group of Armstrong, Teagarden, Hawkins, Tatum, Casey, Pettiford and Catlett did a promotional appearance on ABC’s “Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street,” another jewel we have Gösta Hägglöf to thank for. Since Teagarden had a hand in writing the words, the song had become a natural feature for the trombonist in the ensuing years. Thus, it made sense for Armstrong to share vocal duties with the trombonist. Give a listen to this rare performance:

Art Tatum is a monster throughout the beginning of the performance, drawing attention away from Teagarden’s vocal with his piano pyrotechnics. Teagarden then plays a chorus, sounding beautiful as always before Pops scats one, digging out his old records for the first break. Hawkins then roars in, in peak 1944 form (what a year he had) before a very good Armstrong solo, though he partially cracks a note or two. He’s full of new ideas, melodic throughout, getting spurred on by Catlett backbeats as he progresses. Teagarden’s vocal shows the way out for this very fine run-through. Two nights later, on the stage of the Met, it was even more exciting, as can be heard here:

Basically, it follows the broadcast version to a T (no pun intended...okay, maybe slightly), though I think Teagarden had a better solo on the earlier version. Pops got maligned for his performance that night by some critics, but I think he sounds great, both vocally and in the trumpet solo, which generates more heat than the version from two days prior. He clearly disturbs Hawk by coming in early, but after that, he gives another master’s class, his tone stronger than on the broadcast. Nothing earth-shattering, but some terrific playing by a dream band.

The following year, Armstrong played the Second All American Jazz Concert from the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans with a band that included Sidney Bechet, J.C. Higginbotham, James P. Johnson, Richard Alexis and Paul Barbarin. It was a contentious set with Armstrong often doing his damndest to play over Bechet but at the end, a very nice ceremony took place. Years earlier, to do away with the memory of Storyville, New Orleans’s red light district, Basin Street was renamed North Saratoga Street. However, after the popularity of “Basin Street Blues” and the ensuing New Orleans jazz revival, North Saratoga was once again renamed “Basin Street.” To officially commemorate it, the group played a way too-short version of “Basin Street” with Bunk Johnson joining in on second trumpet. Armstrong dominates everything, but turns in a great vocal though sadly it fades out on the slightly chaotic closing ensemble. It’s barely a minute but it’s worth a listen:

The following year, Armstrong took part in the filming of New Orleans, a movie that originally started out with the intention to tell the story of the birth of jazz but ended up being a pretty rotten melodrama. Still, much good music was made and Armstrong was often the center of it, leading a small group that consisted of Kid Ory on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Charlie Beal on piano, Bud Scott on guitar, Red Callender on bass and the original OKeh drummer Zutty Singleton. This is a terrific, relaxed version, with Armstrong singing the verse, the the main strain and even scatting a full chorus (asking for the band’s permission with a kind “One more, Faces, one more) while the band gives him some slightly pitchy vocal harmony in the background. After a blustery Ory and a somewhat alive Bigard (I’m used to the bored stiff version of circa 1955), Armstrong enters for one chorus, summoning the wild spirit of his earlier versions. His chops were in seriously good form for the film and he blows with abandon here, playing a mind-bending gliss before some scintillating phrases. You have to hear it to believe it:

Thus, “Basin Street Blues” became a symbol of Armstrong’s New Orleans days, the kind of number he trotted out on special occasions but probably didn’t play with his big band anymore. On April 26, 1947, the occasion of the opening of New Orleans in the city of the same, Armstrong appeared with another all-star group of old-timers on Rudi Blesh’s This is Jazz radio program. Surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, George Brunies, Albert Nicholas, Art Hodes, Danny Barker, Pops Foster and Baby Dodds, Armstrong performed this excellent version:

Armstrong’s two vocal choruses are a highlight and the loose nature of the program is illustrated by Armstrong’s impromptu instruction to clarinetist Nicholas to take a break. Armstrong only plays one chorus of trumpet but is in peak form. And dig that break: it’s “The Gypsy,” the Ink Spots hit that Armstrong would have a love affair with in the mid-50s. So even when Armstrong was playing a New Orleans warhorse, he still had a pop tune close to his mind. Baby Dodds really lays in the backbeat towards the end as Pops powers it home. A great one.

All these small group dates paved the way for the historic Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947. After the success of that date (which apparently didn’t feature “Basin Street Blues”), Armstrong ditched his big band and formed a small group, the All Stars. Before doing so, Armstrong fronted a small group for the New York premiere of New Orleans at the Winter Garden Theater in June 1947. Once again, Teagarden was along and, being respectful of the trombonist, Armstrong didn’t solo on “Basin Street,” though he turns in a helluva scat solo. He does play beautiful lines in the background, but otherwise, it’s the Teagarden show. You don’t HAVE to listen to this one but if you’re a big Teagarden fan (and who isn’t?), you’ll dig it:

The All Stars were officially born in August and by the time of a Carnegie Hall concert in November of that year, the routine was set. “Basin Street” was officially a Teagarden feature as Pops would introduce, “Mr. Teagarden is going to take over.” Armstrong no longer sang on the piece, leaving Teagarden to take the entire verse and chorus, as well as a trombone solo, vocal reprise and “tram-bone coda” or “cadenza,” depending on how the Texan felt. However, in between it all, Armstrong would take one chorus with a break and often stole the show from the trombonist! I’m going to share an ultra rare version from Carnegie Hall, November 15, 1947 that has never been issued (it was also played at the more famous Symphony Hall on November 30, but that version has never been issued either). The sound quality is beautiful and Teagarden and Armstrong are on fire (listen to Teagarden’s break!). Catlett gives Armstrong some beautiful rolls while Pops responds with some relaxed playing and another quote of “The Gypsy” in his break. And just listen to how much fun the band is having, whether in the vocal responses in the beginning or the laughter during Tea’s coda. Here's the whole thing:

Now, I know what you’re thinking: I said I wasn’t going to share EVERY version yet here I am, so much time later, and I’m only on version 11 out of 55. But don’t worry, here’s where we speed it up. Now that you’ve heard the basic routine, you can be assured that it never changed while Teagarden was in the band. However, Armstrong usually always changed some of his solo, including the break. So let’s take a tour of Armstrong’s solos, beginning with an unreal outing from the Salle Playel in Paris, March 2, 1948 (now with Earl Hines back in the band):

How about that break??? He starts with “The Gypsy” but soon goes all over the place, an incredible flurry of ideas. A few months later, at Ciro’s in Philadelphia, Armstrong abandoned “The Gypsy” and instead almost reverted back to his Victor break before stopping on a dime and again, assaulting the listener with a wild stream of notes. Here’s this solo:

By the time of the Dixieland Jubilee in Pasadena in October 1948, Armstrong’s “Basin Street” solo was slowing turning into a concrete statement, especially with those searing Bb’s after the break. Armstrong was now backed by shouts of “Go!” and “Wail!” while “The Gypsy” came back for this version, too:

An almost identical version was played at the Blue Note in Chicago in December of that year, complete with “The Gypsy” but something new and exciting cropped up in Armstrong’s solo by the time of a broadcast from The Click in Philadelphia in August 1949. I won’t spoil it:

Did you get it? It’s the Victor break! Somewhere along the way, Armstrong decided to abandon “The Gypsy” quote and instead started playing the original set-up and ridiculous gliss he played on the 1933 Victor (though admittedly, his descent isn’t as “wild” as it was on that one). Still, Armstrong now had a new break and it was this one that he played for the remainder of Teagarden’s time with the band. I’ll now skip over a bunch of versions since Pops pretty much had his chorus “set” by this point but once more, in great sound, here’s the solo from a December 1951 concert in Pasadena, a kind of last hurrah for Teagarden in the All Stars (he officially left the band a couple of months earlier but came back for this one show):

A few weeks later, Armstrong performed “Basin Street” on the Colgate Comedy Hour, a fun performance with a new trumpet solo and Armstrong’s first vocal on the tune in years. However, it’s not on YouTube so alas, I can’t share it. Soon after, Armstrong’s All Stars entered a rebuilding period with Russ Phillips replacing Teagarden on trombone. Phillips didn’t last very long as he was replaced by Trummy Young in September 1952. Armstrong immediately gave Young Teagarden’s feature on “Basin Street Blues,” as captured at this Stockholm concert from October 1952:

I love Teagarden, but I think that’s pretty wonderful. Trummy made the feature his own by playing a helluva lot of trombone, including a mini-tribute to Pops, playing segments of the trumpeter’s 1928 OKeh solo verbatim after the heartfelt vocal. Armstrong’s solo is still pretty much the same as it was during the Teagarden years but he gets an extra two bars because Trummy doesn’t come in with a vocal, but rather more trombone playing, including a quote from Rigoletto that Armstrong introduced to the jazz world. It’s a marvelous feature but perhaps Trummy wanted to make it even more his own, which would explain the following version from Italy just a few weeks later. This broadcast is a low point in the Armstrong discography as his chops were pretty erratic, especially in the upper register. Also, the sound quality is terrible; you really have to listen to feel the rhythm section and sense that the tempo has doubled since Stockholm, allowing the bopper in Trummy to get in some more modern double-timing. Also, Armstrong revives his old scat solo for the first time since 1947. The new approach forces Armstrong to improvise some fine new ideas but he also struggles mightily at other times, though he recovers nicely at the end. Here’s this completely different “Basin Street”:

The following summer, Louis Armstrong filmed a scene for The Glenn Miller Story, a major Universal picture starring Jimmy Stewart as the trombonist. Armstrong and the All Stars appeared along with tenor saxophonist Babe Russin, trombonist Joe Yukl (who dubbed in Stewart’s non-playing) and two drummers, Cozy Cole and Gene Krupa. The soundtrack prerecording was issued on Mosaic Records years ago and it’s very, very good but why listen when you can watch? The film edited out about a minute of music but otherwise, it’s a great clip of (a very fat!) Louis Armstrong in Hollywood:

The Miller arrangement was completely new with two tempos. The first is relaxed, yet swinging, allowing Armstrong to play a strong lead, complete with break and take a tour de force vocal. Armstrong calls some guests up to the stage and, after a short drum solo by Krupa, the tempo doubles for the most exciting Armstrong “Basin Street” since the big band days. Armstrong’s lead is glorious before Bigard, Russin, bassist Arvell Shaw and Yukl/Stewart pass the solo ball around. Armstrong’s lead is once again something to marvel at before he gradually turns down the volume setting up a drum battle between Cole and Krupa. Unfortunately, Armstrong’s final chorus is edited out, but still, it’s a wonderful clip.

Even after filming, The Glenn Miller Story wouldn’t be released until January 1954 so “Basin Street” remained a trombone feature for Trummy Young. An incredible concert from the summer of 1953 was issue on LP many years ago and needs to be put out on CD NOW (it was originally on two albums on the Rarities label as being from Cornell in 1954, but both the date and the location were wrong). Interestingly, the Italian experiment must not have worked out so the tempo was slowed down once more, Pops didn’t sing and Trummy quoted all of Armstrong’s old licks. Here, though, is Armstrong’s solo, one last time, complete with the Victor break and a dazzling ending, setting up Trummy’s return:

The Glenn Miller Story was released in 1954 and was a hit. For the soundtrack, Armstrong and the All Stars recreated “Basin Street Blues,” this time with only one drummer (Kenny John) and Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone. It’s a wonderful version, one that would later be used on Decca’s Autobiography project. Here ‘tis:

The tempo is still relaxed and Armstrong still kills it with both his horn and voice (dig that scatting). Billy Kyle had recently joined the band and this was his first studio solo with the group. You can hear him singing along with his solo and even playing steady left-hand chords a la Erroll Garner. John didn’t last long as a drummer (terrible personality) but he sounded phenomenal on this four-song date from 1954, especially on his solos on this tune. Again, the tempo jumps and the parade of solos begin (nice one from Freeman), including some roaring Trummy. The tempo is really kicking but Armstrong is in complete command, especially after John’s slightly extended solo. It’s a great version, yet another wonderful studio attempt to go along with Armstrong’s earlier ones.

“Basin Street Blues” now became a regular part of many Armstrong stage shows, always featuring the trumpeter as vocalist and the two tempo arrangement. Many terrific performances exist from the mid-50s but my favorite comes from a Colgate Comedy Hour broadcast from February 2, 1955. It appropriately takes place in New Orleans and is my favorite clip of the “W.C. Handy/Satch Plays Fats” band with Young, Bigard, Kyle, Shaw and drummer Barrett Deems. It was somehow taken off of YouTube but I dug it out at Daily Motion (it’s also on the wonderful Armstrong Portrait Collection DVD). Enjoy!

I love it. The quality is subpar but the energy of the band comes through, especially during the uptempo part where they seem to be bouncing and breathing together in tempo.

From here out, I have a ton of versions of the tune, all great, but there’s really no need to share many of them because they’re so similar. Also, Armstrong stopped soloing on the tune, though his lead playing was always something to marvel at. For the die-hards, I must share at least one version from Edmond Hall’s tenure in the band. As a clarinetist, Hall was a much better fit than Bigard and for me, the group with Hall was the greatest edition of the All Stars. Naturally, “Basin Street” was a big part of the repertoire, often the second song of the second set, after “The Saints,” so I have a lot to choose from. After mulling it over, I’ll pick a rare one in great sound from Lewisohn Stadium, July 1956. This was the concert that featured Armstrong doing the concert version of “St. Louis Blues” with Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic. Decades after the concert, the Book-of-the-Month people put out a multi-LP set of “Rare and Unreleased” Armstrong that included this version of “Basin Street.” Now, over 20 years later, the complete Lewisohn set hasn’t been issued.

(Last week, I mentioned going to and voting for my idea to have Sony reissue more Armstrong from the 50s but no one’s done it so far. Just go there, signup (it’s free), type in Armstrong--you’ll see my blathering--and give it three votes!)

Anyway, here are the All Stars in their prime, July 1956, doing “Basin Street”:

A great one, still sounding fresh after all those years, even with a few new touches: Billy Kyle now quoted the “The Campbells are Coming,” complete with a Scottish, bagpipe-like drone in the left hand (Pops always loved pointing it out) and the horns would quote “Jingle Bells” in the first ensemble after the tempo change. Hall was a great fit--my goodness, did you hear him going nuts in the final ensemble?--but he left in the summer of 1958. A few months later, in October, Decca called Armstrong in to once again rerecord his two numbers from the Glenn Miller Story soundtrack. This time, the All Stars were augmented by Al Hendrickson on guitar and Eddie Miller on tenor saxophone, while the personnel was almost completely different from the time of the original movie: Trummy Young was still there, but now Armstrong was surrounded by Peanuts Hucko on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano (Marty Napoleon was in the movie), Mort Herbert on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums.

Unfortunately, the fall of 1958 was a rough time for Armstrong’s chops. Just two days prior to the Decca session, Armstrong struggled a bit at the inaugural Monterey Jazz Festival, a concert I wrote about in great length over a year ago. The problems spread to this Decca session, which found Armstrong doing the two numbers from the Miller movie, as well as two dopey tunes with a vocal group, “I Love Jazz” and “Mardi Gras March.” I’ve listened to the session tapes for this date and can attest that Pops worked himself pretty hard, almost burning himself out on the two novelty numbers. Thus, when it got time to do “Basin Street,” a song the All Stars could have played in their sleep, it required two complete takes, a breakdown and two inserts. It’s interesting because almost everyone goofs: Kyle sloppily wraps up his piano solo, rushing at the end; Barcelona speeds up the tempo during some of his breaks, causing producer Milt Gabler to warn about doing that because then he couldn’t splice segments of different takes if the tempos varied; Trummy botches an entrance; one of the reeds plays a wrong note in the opening section, etc. Pops doesn’t do anything wrong, per se, but he’s at less than full strength here and there. However, he did rally for some of the outchoruses and in the end, Gabler managed to do some editing and produced a very worthwhile recording, Dan Morgenstern’s favorite of the three Decca studio attempts. Here it is:

Now, I didn’t want to spoil it out beforehand, but how about that tempo? For the first time since its days as a trombone feature, the first half with the vocal was slowed down dramatically. In some live versions, it would almost be a crawl. I think Pops liked the slower tempo a little more, as it allowed for a more stately lead and a relaxed vocal where he could really draw out the scat breaks. The second half more or less stayed at the same tempo and always featured some stunning lead but for all intents and purposes, this was it til the end.

Pops’s chops were back in prime form for his marathon tour of Europe in 1959 and “Basin Street Blues” was played at nearly every concert, usually the third tune of the show after “Sleepy Time” and “Indiana.” One of the finest versions was played in Stuttgart, Germany in February of that year at a concert that televised. This has become a very popular YouTube clip and after watching it, it’s easy to see why as it demonstrates what a captivating experience it was to watch and listen to Louis Armstrong play “Basin Street Blues” in his later years:

In my collection, I have a load of other versions of “Basin Street” but I’m not going to play them all because, well, I think there’s only so much one human being can take! But there’s one that I have to play because, just when you think Pops settled into a comfortable routine, he’d throw some curveballs. In the summer of 1960, the All Stars played at Ravinia Park in Highland Park, Illinois, an occasion that found Armstrong doing some absolutely spectacular playing. A fan in the audience had a tape recorder going (smart enough to not record the inaudible bass solos!) and though the sound isn’t ideal, it captures a wonderful version of “Basin Street” with some of Armstrong’s freshest playing. If you don’t have much time, just go to the rideout choruses after Trummy’s trombone solo: it’s completely different! There’s a dazzling sequence during the turnaround in bars seven and eight and somehow Armstrong begins playing with a three note motif that he turns into a full-blown quote of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” Listen for yourself:

Who knows how many times Armstrong had a night like this? The Ravinia material was only discovered recently and isn’t even listed in Jos Willems’s published discography. So anytime you’re confident that Armstrong grew content and simply played the same stuff the same way every night, think of Ravinia’s “Basin Street” and know that even he could freshen it up when you’d least expect it.

I have about four more versions of the tune from the early 60s, including a wonderful one on the Live in Australia DVD that was released earlier this year, but isn’t on YouTube. But to close, here’s one of the last known examples of Armstrong singing and playing the full, two-tempo arrangement of “Basin Street.” As I wrote in my “Hello, Dolly” blowout the other day, Armstrong’s chops took a turn for the worse in 1966 and a lot of demanding pieces had to be retired. Armstrong sung “Basin Street Blues” a few times on television in ensuing years (including an unforgettable version on the Mike Douglas Show from 1970 that I screened at the Satchmo Summerfest last year), but as far as I can tell, the last times he really played it were on the historic tour of Iron Curtain countries in Europe in 1965. Thus, from Prague, in March 1965, here’s our final “Basin Street Blues”:

I know I’ve made this reference a thousand times, but “Cootie Williams Syndrome” creeped into Pops’s playing in the mid-60s, meaning he started to lose some velocity, but his sound somehow got bigger. You can definitely hear that in the string of stomping quarter notes after Tyree Glenn’s trombone solo. But from then on, it’s the mid-50s all over again as he still blows the hell out of that rideout.

And that’s that. If you’re still sitting in one place, you’ve probably heard over two hours of music...but it’s Louis Armstrong and “Basin Street Blues” so is that really a bad thing? Almost anyone with a recording contract has tackled the tune--just a glance at Itunes shows versions by Julie London, Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson with Wynton Marsalis, Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, Bob Wills and hundreds of others--but for me, no one else quite owned it like Louis Armstrong. That’s because few songs better embody the city of New Orleans just as no one else has ever embodied that city as much as Louis Armstrong.

That’s all for me, I’ve got a book to write! I’ll be back next week with two more anniversary posts (this month is a good one for Pops fans...but aren't they all?). Til then!