Friday, January 23, 2009

Canal Street Blues

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
Gennett Recorded April 5, 1923
Track Time of Gennett 2:33
Written by Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong
Recorded in Richmond, Indiana
OKeh Recorded in Chicago
King Oliver, cornet, leader; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Hardin, piano; Unknown, banjo (Probably Bud Scott, possibly Bill Johnson or Johnny St. Cyr (see posting of January 25); Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Gennett 5133
Currently available on CD: The best version be heard on Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings
Available on Itunes? Yes, if in inferior sound to the above C.D. release

The King Oliver recordings of 1923 are justifiably famous for a number of reasons, but really only a fraction of the tunes have become standards in the traditional jazz repertoire: there’s “Dipper Mouth Blues,” “Froggie Moore,” “High Society Rag,” “Riverside Blues,” “Weather Bird Rag,” “Chimes Blues” “Sobbin’ Blues” and the subject of today’s blog, “Canal Street Blues.” Of course, Louis Armstrong was present on all of these sessions but very little in the Oliver repertoire stuck with Armstrong after he left his mentor in 1924. He did numerous versions of “Dipper Mouth” (aka “Sugar Foot Stomp”), “High Society” was a staple of his live performances with the All Stars and he made later recordings of “Chimes Blues,” “Riverside Blues” and “Snake Rag.” Thus, when I cover an Oliver tune here, it’s usually just the one version and done.

But not so, with “Canal Street Blues.” It was never a standard part of Armstrong’s concert material, but he did cut two, count ‘em, two studio versions later in his career, played it live once at a high profile jazz festival and even performed it for a German television broadcast. Add it all up and we’ve got a pretty packed blog.

The original “Canal Street Blues” is a classic performance, with features that have been maintained in almost every succeeding version. The song was credited to both Oliver and Armstrong and was the second title cut at Oliver’s landmark first Gennett session of April 5, 1923. I could use the link from the invaluable Red Hot Jazz Archive site but really, once David Sager and Doug Benson remastered the Oliver tracks for their complete, two-disc release on the “Off the Record” label, there’s really no other way to hear it. So here is their remastering of the original recording, sounding better than ever:

The tune begins with a neat four-bar introduction before the band tears into the first strain. As Sager points out in his notes, pay close attention and you’ll hear that the simple but catchy melody might sound like it’s coming from one cornet but is actually done by Armstrong and Oliver passing it back and forth in a seamless example of call and response, two minds thinking as one. Even in the second chorus, when there’s a few neat pickup phrases and some rephrasing of the melody, it’s almost impossible to hear who is taking the chances (I think it’s Pops but I wouldn’t put money on it).

After those first two blues choruses, the band enters the careening, dizzying second strain, not dizzying because of anything technical but because of the tension inherent in the first part of written melody (I somehow always picture Harold Lloyd dangling from a building when I listen to this strain). Trombonist Honore Dutrey joins the the cornets to harmonize the melody while clarinetist Johnny Dodds does what Johnny Dodds does best, making prickly variations on the melody. According to Sager, this strain is based on a sacred song of 1892, “The Holy City,” also utilized in another Oliver composition, “Chimes Blues,” recorded later that day.

Then it’s time for the stomping third strain, the cornets gathering steam as they answer Dutrey’s simple moans. Drummer Baby Dodds gets to play a few perfect accents and the whole thing really swings, if not like Basie, but with a definite, thrilling sense of forward motion. Dodds takes a clarinet solo that may or may not have written; I only throw that out there because a) it’s a note perfect solo and b) it would become a standard part of almost all succeeding versions (as we’ll see in a bit). As Sager points out in his notes, pay close attention to Bill Johnson’s banjo and remember that he usually played bass with the group. Surely, those single-note lines would have sounded more natural on the bass but the Oliver sessions didn’t feature bass because it would have been inaudible in the final mix. Thus, with Johnson walking lines on the banjo and Baby Dodds dispensing those beautiful accents on woodblocks, it makes the mind spin to think about what the band sounded like in person and without any limitations.

That thought really springs to my mind after the Dodds solo when the band takes it out with over 40 seconds of glorious ensemble improvising on the third strain. They play two hot choruses (goodness knows how many they’d play at the Lincoln Gardens!), four voices demonstrating a complete mastery of ensemble playing, before the cute ending (a Lil Hardin addition? She seemed to specialize in cute endings).

After leaving Oliver, Armstrong probably never tackled “Canal Street Blues” again until January 25, 1957 when he recreated it for the famed Autobiography project. This has always been one of my favorite Armstrong works as I think it contains some of the best playing and singing of his entire career, not just his later years. However, it’s not a flawless effort. There are no bad tracks, per se, but some of Bob Haggart’s arrangements for the small group tunes are a little stilted. Also, there’s problems in the rhythm section, which I attribute to Milt Gabler. Barrett Deems was a great drummer with a powerful beat, just as Pops liked it. On any other recording he made with the All Stars, live or in the studio, Deems demonstrated he was more than a one-trick pony, playing open hi-hat, closed hi-hat, with brushes, on the ride cymbal, you name it. But for almost the entire Autobiography Deems stuck to a simple closed hi-hat beat, never changing, no matter how hot the music got, rarely even playing an accent. He was torn apart by the critics in reviews of this project but I don’t think it’s his fault because his playing on these sessions was so uncharacteristic. I really believe producer Milt Gabler wanted these sessions to sound as “authentic” as they could, at least keeping true to the original recording, which either did not feature drummers or had drummers playing on limited sets. Well, Louis wasn’t going to leave his drummer at home so I think someone (who knows, maybe Bob Haggart?) thought Deems should play simply throughout instead of how he would have played naturally. I have no proof of this but it’s the only I can think of. Oddly enough, the rhythm section also featured the modern sounds of electric guitarist George Barnes, a wonderful player who takes some great solos on the sessions but is a little out of place at times in the rhythm section, especially with Deems’s monotonous drumming. Odd stuff, all around...

Anyway, “Canal Street Blues” was recorded at the end of the next-to-last Autobiography session, a fine one that led off with the remarkable “King of the Zulus.” The date ended with three Oliver recreations so Gabler brought in Haggart’s frequent partner Yank Lawson to play the role of the King. Before listening to the track, all I can tell you is that it’s Yank’s show for the first 50 seconds of the record, playing the introduction, the first two choruses (where he only touches on the original melody here and there, but sounds great going for himself), and the second strain, which only gets played for one chorus. Pops then takes the lead for the riffing third strain, which you’ll hear for yourself by listening here:

I should go backwards for a minute and mention that the rest of the band consisted of Armstrong’s peak edition of the All Stars with Trummy Young on trombone, Edmond Hall on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano and Squire Gersh on bass. I think the ensemble sounds good but there’s something unsettling about Deems’s drum machine (seriously, pick any spot in the track; it never changes) and the oom-chuck of Barnes’s twangy electric guitar accenting the afterbeats. Fortunately, Gersh swings nicely and though it’s annoying, at least Deems is playing a swinging pattern. However, I do like how they try to make it sound like a 1957 record instead of a recreation of 1923, swinging smoothly throughout. As Dan Morgenstern wrote about the Oliver sides on the Autobiography, “These Creole Jazz Band pieces are not really recreations of the Oliver band’s style, and maybe that’s just as well. But they are fine Louis Armstrong music!”

Back to the tune. So Armstrong, sounding a little subdued (or at least a little too far back in the mix) leads the group for a chorus before a wonderful Edmond Hall solo. He uses Dodds as an inspiration, playing Johnny’s original chorus verbatim before he goes off on his own in his second helping. And what a helping it is! There have been plenty of dirty-toned clarinetists, but no one with Hall’s level of dirt and grit. Just listen to the few high notes he holds in his second chorus. Listen to that ridiculous wail that takes over the third and fourth bars of that chorus, then pause the track and let it play around in your mind a little bit. I mean, what planet did that sound come from? It sounds like he’s figuratively playing a high note and choking the holy hell out of it until it becomes a petrifying, shrill scream. It’s not very pretty, but hot damn, I love it.

And I also love Trummy Young’s boisterous, muted solo. He really knew how to get lowdown with a mute (listen to “St. Louis Blues” on the W.C. Handy album or any live version of “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It”) and he sounds great here. Is it ironic that the Oliver sessions were masterpieces of ensemble interplay but on these tracks, though the ensembles are good, it’s the solos that make the performance memorable?

Speaking of which, enter Pops, stage right. There were no trumpet solos on the 1923 recording but hey, you’re standing across from Louis Armstrong in prime mid-1950s form, he’s well rested and he’s feeling good. Let’s give the man a solo, okay? Pops gets to take two going right into the final arranged ensemble so it’s like a three-chorus explosion, one of the many high points of the Autobiography for me. The first chorus starts off very vocal-like with Pops playing some nifty melodic ideas and almost answering them himself with lower asides. By the end of the chorus, he’s raising the volume a bit, set to wail in the second chorus, backed by organ chords from the other horns--it’s note a 1923 device but it works!

Armstrong starts pumping out the high C’s in the second go-around before more perfectly placed melody ideas. After a slight pause he goes up for a high A, hitting it and holding it and shaking it with that huge vibrato, bridging the gap to the final chorus, which features the horns playing an arranged riff while Pops continues wailing on top, almost snorting out his phrases in declamatory fashion, before an arranged ending recalls the original Oliver recording. Like Morgenstern said, it’s not a great recreation of the Oliver band but it’s a wonderful example of Armstrong and the All Stars stomping the blues in 1957.

Armstrong didn’t confront “Canal Street Blues” again until 1962 (his recording of “Riverside Blues” with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1959 was labeled “Canal Street Blues” on the original Audio Fidelity release, but that was a mistake). In the spring of 1962, the All Stars went on another tour of Europe, from which an extraordinary amount of music survives. As I wrote in my blog last week about Pops’s 1959 trip to Sweden, when Armstrong went on these European tours, he usually played a more set show than normal, giving the fans all the hits and not really deviating much from playing many of the same songs every night (though, the usual caveat...he did play surprises from time to time and I can prove it!).

While in Germany, Armstrong was asked by a German disc jockey Werner Gotze to do basically a televised version of the Autobiography titled “The Satchmo Story.” Gotze would discuss (in German) various moments in Armstrong’s career while Pops and the All Stars would respond with appropriate tunes, many of which he hadn’t played in years. Armstrong usually didn’t like to go off his set routines and also, the German show was filmed in a cold studio without an audience. Because of this, Armstrong looks unusually subdued at the start, not smiling at the conclusion of some songs, almost looking unhappy. However, his playing is sensational throughout, very relaxed and completely full of fresh ideas. I have only seen 45 minutes of the show (it was originally broadcast in two parts) but someone out there (hello Jazz Icons!) must issue the complete material on DVD because it was Armstrong’s farewell to tunes like “You Rascal You,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp” and “High Society.

Naturally, the show opened up with a segment on the Oliver years. After a swinging “Dippermouth Blues,” the band played “Canal Street Blues.” Fortunately, my good friend from Germany, Ingo Ruppert, uploaded this performance onto YouTube. Unfortunately, he disabled embedding so I cannot include it here. But the URL is and you can also get there by clicking here. Go there right now and watch the video, which will only take two minutes and four seconds. Then return for the discussion...

Back yet? Good. As some people pointed out in the comments, this performance bears only a passing resemblance to “Canal Street Blues.” It’s definitely a blues, but is it “Canal Street”? I can attest that before the clip begins, the All Stars play something that resembles the original Oliver introduction so they clearly had the “Canal Street” in mind but, with little rehearsal, they decided to just wing a blues once they got past the intro. Sure, they played it on the Autobiography, but Trummy Young probably didn’t remember it. New clarinetist Joe Darensbourg probably knew it but it was just easier to jam on the blues.

Regardless, Pops leads the ensemble for two choruses in the beginning, sounding in command. And ahhhhh, a sigh of relief as I listen to the rhythm section, swinging beautifully, anchored by Danny Barcelona’s drums and Billy Kronk’s bass. There’s momentary confusion as Darensbourg begins his clarinet solo as everyone seems confused about whether or not to do a stop-time chorus or not (they had just done one during the clarinet solo on “Dippermouth Blues”). Kronk starts playing one, abandons it and starts swinging, then hears Pops playing softly, so he returns to stop-time for the rest of Darensbourg’s good, but not Edmond Hall-great, solo.

During the stop-time business, Trummy reached over to the piano and grabbed his mute. Much like the Decca recording, he roars and growls through a smoking hot chorus, the rhythm section really locking in (Barcelona and Young had years of experience working together in Hawaii and he knew how to push the trombonist, here using stick accents on the snare drum rim). Like the Autobiography version, Pops takes two, the second one with organ backing, before leading the rideout. He doesn’t generate the same level of heat as on the previous performance but it’s still a terrific solo, very poised, and the closing ensemble positively smokes. They forgo the original “Canal Street” ending in favor of a typical All-Stars-with-drum-break finish but it works. A great performance and a terrific video (let’s get it out on DVD...NOW!).

Just two months later, on July 7, 1962, Armstrong was once again confronted with Oliver tunes but this time at the Newport Jazz Festival. As already stated, Armstrong didn’t like to mess with his set but if he had to, he could lead the way as demonstrated on that last video. But throw in a special guest star and no rehearsal and well, things can get messy. For the Newport festival, Yank Lawson was asked to reprise the role of King Oliver for live recreations of “Dippermouth Blues” and “Canal Street Blues.” The All Stars had just played about a half-hour set and Pops sounded great. But the mass confusion at the start of “Canal Street Blues” almost sinks the piece and one can only imagine what was going on in Pops’s head onstage.

As the German performance showed, Pops and the rest of the All Stars probably didn’t remember much of the “Canal Street” melody or structure. But Yank Lawson was intimately familiar with this kind of stuff so it was decided that he’d play lead, as he did on the album. Lawson announces that they’re going to “try to play ‘Canal Street Blues’” and he ain’t kidding. Here’s the audio. You’re going to want to squirm in the beginning but trust me, it gets better as it goes:

So Armstrong tells Lawson, “Start it off,” and Lawson does just that, big and strong with Pops finding a quiet harmony note behind him. However, the rest of the group obviously didn’t know the routine as only Billy Kyle and Trummy Young were on the Autobiography and the German version was just jammed. Thus, no one probably knew just how long the two-trumpet intro was going to take. As it turns out, it was only a typical four-bar intro but the band didn’t know that which is why the first bar of the melody is still played by the two trumpets...and nobody else! After a few beats, a nervous-sounding Danny Barcelona realizes that he should be playing so he starts...on the wrong beat! I’ve been there before as a musician and there’s nothing rougher than a drummer accidentally turning the beat around and unable to get out of it.

You can hear Pops growl loudly in the background, probably signaling the band to join in...NOW! With Barcelona on the wrong beat, the other horns sound nervous and scared, barely contributing anything (so much for great ensemble music!). Kronk’s bass doesn’t enter until midway through while Kyle’s piano finally shows up at the end of the chorus.

But after all the chaos, Barcelona finally senses something’s off during the turnaround and he manages to realign the rhythm in the second chorus, which is a thousand times better than the first one. Lawson’s lead is still bold and powerful and he even goes into the second strain in the next chorus, Pops seeming to remember it on the fly, but not hitting it on the nose as Yank does. Still, the last two ensemble choruses were better, propelling Armstrong into a solo that begins on a delightfully mellow kick, complete with a “My Sweetie Went Away” quote. He gets tripped up for a bit in his second four bars, but he recovers and really wails in the second chorus, channeling any frustration he had with the performance through the power of his horn.

Trummy, sadly unmuted, blows through one (backed again by Barcelona’s rim accents) but doesn’t muster the same steam as those earlier solos. Perhaps he would have if he kept going but you can hear Pops clearly say, “Only one, Trummy.” Clearly, he wanted this “special attraction” to end quickly! Darensbourg takes one before Armstrong tells Lawson to “Take it, Pops.” Lawson does for a brash chorus, sounding great. Then it’s time for the very good rideout highlighted for me by one great moment as Lawson sounds off two blue notes, echoed quickly by Pops playing three of the same variety. The typical All Stars ending rounds out the performance and Pops sounds happy when it’s over. For all the horrors of that beginning, it’s a very good impromptu performance and I dig Pops’s solos. The band sounds even better on “Dippermouth” but I’ll save that for another blog.

Armstrong still had one more performance of “Canal Street Blues” up his sleeve, though. He actually recorded it one more time in a studio for Columbia on August 25, 1966. I truly have no idea how this came about. Armstrong hadn’t recorded for Columbia in a decade and George Avakian was no longer part of the label. Still, he managed to make one single session, primarily to recorded the latest showtune, “Cabaret,” complete with strings. Thus, it’s easy to imagine this as a pop-oriented date. But for the other side, why choose “Canal Street Blues”? The song has Robert Dominick added on banjo so there must have been a small hope to mimic some of the success of “Hello, Dolly’s” nostalgia. But there’s no vocal, it’s a tune only jazz aficionados know and it wasn’t part of Armstrong’s regular repertoire. Still, I’m not complaining because many of Armstrong’s records in this period featured poor song choices so a complete three-minute record of Pops in 1966 blowing a King Oliver tune is something to be treasured.

Quick backstory: Barcelona was still on drums, but otherwise, this was a completely different group of All Stars. Buster Bailey was on clarinet and he played with Armstrong and Oliver in 1923 so maybe he requested it? Tyree Glenn was now on trombone, Marty Napoleon was on piano and Buddy Catlett played bass, a very underrated edition of the group as they didn’t record much. Alas, Pops’s blowing in 1966 if pretty erratic. Very little exists from this year and what is issued doesn’t feature Armstrong at 100% (a concert from Chicago in December of that you is much better but still features him scaling down a bit, not playing with quite the force and abandon of 1965). So if you’re expecting to hear the Armstrong of 1957 (or even 1962) wailing on this version, I’m sorry but it doesn’t happen.

However, in the ultimate example of things coming full circle, we get Armstrong playing a strong, stately lead much in the tradition of his idol, King Oliver. In those days, Armstrong was the brash youngster while Oliver’s best days were behind him. Armstrong probably thought long and hard about Papa Joe as he remade “Canal Street Blues” in 1966, his best days behind him. Here’s the record:

And speaking of full circle, we’re back to the 1923 arrangement, right down to the introduction. Armstrong doesn’t solo on the track but leads the ensemble through five choruses in beginning, a wonderful, rare, late example of him playing for 95 straight seconds (no Yank Lawson here!). He’s slightly weakened when compared to the scorching playing of 1957 but his natural instincts are there to put forth a very melody, strong lead part. I love that he plays all three of the original strains for five choruses, just like it’s 1923 again and he’s now in the role of Oliver. Touching stuff...

Buster Bailey’s up next and pays tribute to the Johnny Dodds solo before a wailing second chorus that’s possibly his finest surviving moment with the All Stars. Then it’s back to the ensemble, the rhythm section digging in and Pops playing the original riff. In the last chorus, he continues with the same riff but in classic New Orleans tradition, comes up with some variations on it, namely a little chromatic run. They even remake the original ending and Pops goes up--not way up, but up--for a high F to finish the piece. Full circle. Armstrong as King Oliver, still getting it done though the chops had diminished, relying on every lesson his mentor taught him. Swinging, dignified playing right to the end. Real soul music.

(Again, my thanks to reader James Proctor for requesting the tune. Have a great weekend, everybody!)


mario gonzalez said...


Ricky Riccardi said...

You know how to pick 'em, Mario. March 5 will be the 80th anniversary of that classic so I'll definitely tackle it in the near future. Thanks,