Friday, January 16, 2009

50 Years Ago Today - The All Stars in Sweden

To many, 1959 is pretty much the quintessential year in jazz history. It seemed like EVERYBODY was still alive (though Billie and Pres didn’t quite make the end of the year) and in peak form: Pops, Duke, Basie, Miles, Trane, Brubeck, Monk, Ornette Coleman, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson, George Lewis, Eddie Condon, Ben Webster, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz...the mind boggles, especially when one adds in all the historic albums recorded that year like Giant Steps, Kind of Blue, Time Out, Mingus Ah Um, The Shape of Jazz to Come and so much more.

So what was Louis Armstrong doing during 1959? Alas, Pops sometimes gets left out of the great 1959 discussions because he spent about half the year abroad, fell ill in Spoleto, Italy and returned to playing and touring the United States in the summer, recording two albums for Audio Fidelity before the year was up, one not released at the time and the other (Satchmo Plays King Oliver) a very good, though not classic, date. Thus, while he didn’t do any groundbreaking, essential work, I have a deep appreciation for the 1959 European tour. For starters, Pops was in phenomenal shape throughout the entire stretch, fronting a very, very good edition of the All Stars. But more importantly, Europeans loved (and loves) Satchmo and did everything they could to document almost every step Pops took and every note Pops played throughout. Thus, there’s multiple videos from the tour on YouTube and even Pops’s one Jazz Icons DVD is from a 1959 show in Antwerp. He also managed to make some film appearances, three of which are on YouTube. And when it comes back to live recordings....stand back. I personally have 104 songs from the tour on my Itunes and that’s nowhere near complete (though some more is on the way...thank you, Peter!).

So that leaves me in a helluva spot. It’s not worth sharing all 104 songs since that would be way too time consuming for all involved. The same goes for the surviving videos, which I originally wanted to share in a single post. However, to get the most mileage out of the tour, I’m thinking of doing multiple entries as the year goes on, celebrating Armstrong’s different stops on the days they originally took place. Thus, here’s how it would breakdown.

*Today, January 16, I’ll talk about Pops in Stockholm and share some music.
*Next week, between the 21st and the 26th, I’ll share of his Copenhagen concert material (stand back for “Tiger Rag”!), as well as a film appearance
*On February 7, I’ll share some highlights from a phenomenal concert Armstrong did in Amsterdam
*February 15 will be video day as six songs survive from an appearance in Stuttgart, all available on YouTube
*We’ll watch Armstrong’s appearance in Kisses In Der Nacht on February 23
*The Antwerp appearance occurred sometime in March 1959 and though the Jazz Icons footage is not available online, I have the audio and would still like to talk about it
*A fabulous Armstrong TV appearance is also on YouTube from Italy on May 7, well worth celebrating
*I have Armstrong’s entire Slovenia show from May 17, 1959 and will gladly share some highlights on that date
*And finally, Armstrong’s appearance in La Paloma, shot on May 20

Now, by the time this endeavor reaches its conclusion, I’ll be the father of a bouncing baby girl so who knows the shape of this blog in April and May. Thus, I’m also thinking of doing a massive, massive posting at some point that would just be comprised of what I consider to be the highlights of the tour, one version of each song, a bunch of videos, everything in one package. That, I’d like to get to but who knows where or when. But enough of my potential plans, let’s get to the musical meat!

Okay, so where was Louis Armstrong at the start of 1959. Let’s go backwards a slight bit. Armstrong hit new levels of popularity in 1955 and 1956 thanks to records like “Mack the Knife” and appearances on television and in films such as High Society. At the end of 1957, Armstrong made headlines with his comments on the Little Rock school integration flap, but when the uproar died down, he was still packing them into his shows. Armstrong made one album in early 1958 (Louis and the Good Book) and a quick Decca session that October, but really, the endless strings of one-nighters was where it was at. He didn’t leave the U.S. in 1958, a rarity, touring nonstop and even appearing in two more films, The Five Pennies and The Beat Generation. In fact, he hadn’t made a major tour of since late 1955 (he also made two trips to England in 1959). If the Europeans were craving Armstrong, they were going to get their chance to satisfy that craving during a tour that would begin in January 1959 and wouldn’t end until the beginning of June.

Armstrong brought along his All Stars, a very good edition of the band. I should probably use the word “great” but it’s hard because Edmond Hall left the band in July 1958 and THAT edition is truly great, the best organization Armstrong ever led. Hall was replaced by Peanuts Hucko, a fine, Goodman-inspired player and a better one than the likes of Barney Bigard and Joe Darensbourg. However, Hucko occasionally grew a little bored and you can hear it in his playing, which sometimes sounds as if he’s going through the motions. The rest of the band was first-class with long-time supporters Trummy Young and Billy Kyle still anchoring the trombone and piano chairs respectively. Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona formed the rhythm section, each one joining in early 1958 and soon becoming best friends. Neither was a household name but they gave their all for Pops, giving the band a swinging, driving foundation. And Velma Middleton still did the job as Armstrong’s female vocalist/comic foil better than anyone.

Armstrong and the All Stars arrived in Stockholm at 12:15 p.m. on January 15. Before going any further, I want to say that a lot of my information (and some of the music) comes from the one and only Gösta Hägglöf, one of the greatest Armstrong fans in the world. What Gösta has done for Armstrong’s music cannot be fully appreciated with words. In addition to his essential work on his own Ambassador label, Gösta produced four discs for Storyville under the title Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia. I’ve written about this set before as I find them truly essential documents of Armstrong’s later years and at a $39.98 asking price for the entire box, it’s quite a bargin. Gösta selected all the music and wrote the wonderful notes, complete with an itinerary of the tour and some wonderful photos. Please check out the box and be sure to thank Gösta for all his hard work and dedication to preserving Armstrong’s musical legacy.

Back to the tour. Armstrong arrived in Stockholm on January 15, about to give six shows there in the course of three days before heading to other parts of Sweden and Copenhagen. According to Gösta, “Tickets had been sold as Christmas gifts in Sweden in a specially designed envelope with Louis wearing a Santa’s cap. All the concerts were sold out before Christmas--14 in Sweden and 15 in Denmark!”

Clearly, Armstrong a busy schedule, usually doing two shows a day. Thus, this is a good time to look at the group’s repertory and stage show during the period. I’ve made the argument here--and I really make it in my book--that the notion of Armstrong playing the same songs every night in his later years is a myth. The All Stars had a huge band book and could draw from it at any time. If you look at any of the various live Armstrong discs from the late 1940s and 1950s, it’s easy to see a lot of the same songs included...until you look at what songs AREN’T included. The Crescendo Club concert of 1955 doesn’t have “Black and Blue” or “La Vie En Rose” or “Blueberry Hill” or “On the Sunny Side of the Street” to name a few. The Chicago Concert of 1956 doesn’t have “Blueberry Hill” or “Muskrat Ramble” or “Ole Miss” or “Someday You’ll Be Sorry.” The Monterey Jazz Festival Concert issued in 2007 doesn’t have “Basin Street Blues” or “Sunny Side” or “C’est Si Bon” or “Black and Blue,” etc.

So do you see how many songs the All Stars had in their repertoire? It’s more than many think. And you can examine many set lists and you’ll be hardpressed to find two that are identical. However, when Armstrong embarked on something like this, a painstaking, seemingly endless tour comprised of multiple shows a day, he didn’t mess with it. Thus, the 1959 tour features many similarly designed shows. Yeah, shows. That describes it best. Armstrong wasn’t putting on staged jam sessions but rather a “show,” something the All Stars could tear up and make sound fresh even if they were doing it 20 times in 10 days.

The 1959 tour, thus, usually followed a pattern and I’d like to take you through the pattern with some sound samples from Armstrong’s Stokholm concerts on January 16, 50 years ago today. Armstrong gave two concerts that day and both were recorded but no one quite knows which tunes come from which concert. Regardless, the surviving music is all great so get ready to enjoy Pops in Sweden.

Okay, so a typical 1959 European concert would open up with a lot of Pops. Naturally, “Sleepy Time” opened the proceedings:



And of course “Indiana” followed. This is a great one, with a strong Pops solo, meaning the chops were up and he was ready. Interestingly, Armstrong and Young always liked to play background riffs behind the clarinet solo but Peanuts Hucko did not like riffs. Thus, throughout the tour, you’ll hear Armstrong and Young play their first two notes in unison, then kind of trail off, a kind of inside joke that their riffs were no longer needed.



“Basin Street Blues” would follow. Just two months earlier, Armstrong recorded it for Decca, slowing down the first section dramatically. This is how he presents it here and in a very good version, complete with an encore, that weighs in at around eight minutes!


After “Basin Street,” his exhibitionistic side would come out on “Tiger Rag,” sometimes with multiple encores. This hot version has one encore with Pops shooting out the lights with some humorous “talking” playing, yelling at Young’s trombone as the two would chase each other around the stage, before some freakish high notes.


, before he’d do “Now You Has Jazz” from High Society. Armstrong always placed a high premium on songs that came from his films. A Song Is Born was a dud of a movie but Armstrong continued to play the title tune for at least four years while he also always introduced “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” as being from the little-seen The Strip (with “Mackie” Rooney). Thus, with High Society such a hit, no Armstrong show could go on without finding Armstrong doing “Now You Has Jazz” with Trummy Young in the role of Bing Crosby. Here ‘tis:



Those first five numbers usually ate up about 30 minutes, all of it featuring Armstrong. Needing a break, he’d throw it to pianist Billy Kyle for a feature. If Armstrong was feeling particularly hot, it would be a feature with some trumpet playing, like “Perdido” or “Sweet Georgia Brown.” If he really needed a few minutes (possible Swiss Kriss break!), the ball would be passed to Peanuts Hucko, who always opened with a pretty, three-minute reading of “Autumn Leaves” sans Armstrong. But after the two features, Armstrong was usually primed and would blow like mad on the next song, which would be another Hucko feature, one of many like “After You’ve Gone,” “Stealin’ Apples” or “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.” Here’s “After You’ve Gone”:


After the Kyle feature and two Hucko features, Armstrong usually liked to come back and feature himself on a number such as “I Get Ideas,” a beautiful performance that became a staple of the 1959 tour:


Then it was time to feature bassist Mort Herbert, who had many features such as “I Cover the Waterfront,” “These Foolish Things” and “Love is Just Around the Corner.” Armstrong would always play on Herbert’s features but a true highlight would occur when Armstrong would allow Herbert to do a second feature in a row: “Old Man River,” complete with an Armstrong vocal! Dig it:


Thus, you can hear that Pops almost always got involved with his sidemen’s features, singing, playing, doing it all. After Herbert’s turn in the spotlight, Armstrong would come back with the ever popular “Mack the Knife.”


Armstrong, a master of pacing, would then play something pretty, such as his medley of “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” gorgeously presented here:


After calming down the audience with that medley, Armstrong would drive them back to bedlam with an extended Danny Barcelona drum feature on “Stompin’ At The Savoy.” “Sleepy Time” would be played and an action packed set, weighing in between 60 and 70 minutes, would be concluded.

Because he usually played two shows a day, Armstrong’s second sets during the trip would usually be much shorter. After “Sleepy Time,” Armstrong would usually begin with an instrumental such as “Royal Garden Blues,” which he played in Stockholm, but I don’t have. However, I do have a hot version of “Ole Miss” and I’m not exactly sure where it fits, so I think it’ll work here. Trummy Young was a relentless master of energetic playing but a little tiredness seems to have crept into his playing as he has trouble mustering some steam to propel into his second chorus. Regardless, Pops is out of control in the ensembles, especially with a crazy gliss in the rideout. Incredible playing:


Armstrong also saved his requests for the second set, possibly getting one in this show for “The Faithful Hussar.” This is a favorite of mine and one day will get a blog entry of its own. By this point, Armstrong was singing the silly lyrics he originally began doing a couple of years of earlier. Armstrong and Trummy sound great but I think Peanuts sounds a little bland in the ensemble, often just harmonizing Armstrong’s lines and not really generating any heat of his own. But Armstrong does take it back for an encore where he plays the melody an octave higher, always a great device:


If there was time, Trummy would get a feature, such as the “Undecided” he played in Stockholm but on a lot of these European dates, Trummy didn’t get one of his own, probably because he already shared the spotlight on “Now You Has Jazz.” Regardless, after only three or four tunes, Velma Middleton would be brought out. She always liked to open with a blues and by this time, she usually used the extended treatment of “St. Louis Blues” from the Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy album. The Stockholm rendition is an odd one because the tempo is a little slower than usual, resulting in a nearly eight-minute version. But the craziest moment occurs at the beginning where perhaps a little tiredness crept into Armstrong’s playing. He opens by playing “Twelfth Street Rag” but the band comes in with the minor intro to “St. Louis Blues.” Perhaps Pops was about to play a request but the band saw Velma coming? Pops tries to straighten himself out of the mess, putting down his horn to introduce Velma but when he picks it back up, he starts blowing the proper minor introduction...while the band is already on to the major blues section! It’s a rare moment of discord in an All Stars show and as my friend, Boston trumpeter Phil Person once put it to me, it sounds like Pops had a simple “brain fart.” It guess it happens to everyone, even Pops! Regardless, though the slower tempo is a little disconcerting a first, this version builds up quite a head of steam as it goes on, with the audience clapping along during Trummy’s solo. Armstrong’s rideout choruses are always something to marvel at:


Velma would hang around for “Ko Ko Mo,” which was played in Stockholm, but alas I don’t have it. And just like that, the quick second set would be over with a final, fast version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Trummy and Peanuts had only been together for about six months but listen to the background riffs they worked out while Pops did the closing announcements (there would be more as the trip progressed). Armstrong takes it with his classic three-chorus rideout solo and the show is over:


That’s a helluva lot of entertainment in one evening. The crowd loved it and even the reviews were positive, something Armstrong wasn’t accustomed to anymore in the U.S. One said that “a gesture or a trumpet or vocal phrase is enough to spellbind the audience. His performances are entertainment as well as jazz music--a kind of one man show. He looks healthier and happier than during his last visit in 1955.”

The above rundown relates the typical framework of Armstrong’s 1959 European show but don’t think he stuck to it rigidly. He honored a lot of requests and there are many more songs to share in the coming months: “C’est Si Bon,” “La Vie En Rose,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Muskrat Rambles,” “Black and Blue,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” “Struttin’ WIth Some Barbecue” and more. Stay tuned in the coming months as we’ll relive the tour together so until the next stop, have a great weekend!

2 comments:

Per Ahlstrom said...

I grew up in the 50s in Sweden. The local big band, Kaj Johansson's Orchestra was very good. The band leader Kaj Johansson was a very good trumpeter and of course had Louis Armstrong as his idol.
In his late years Kaj Johansson bragged about holding the rocord for the biggest audience evern in the Västerås Folkets Park, with over 10,000 people. Kaj Johansson's band played the dance music, and in the interval a guy from New Orleans and his band played. He was called Louis Armstrong or something like that...

Per Ahlstrom said...

I found the ad for the event described above. It happened in September 1957.
By the way, my mother heard Louis Armstrong in Stockholm, Sweden in 1934 or 1935 in a venue called "Sveasalen". It must have been a great experience as she talked about it for the rest of her life.