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!

1 comment:

mario gonzalez said...

Good work about this radio-session.I would like to hear more SATCH at the EDDIE CONDON S FLOOR SHOW .
GOOD YEAR 2009.