Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Tiger Rag To End All Tiger Rags - January 1959

Stand back.

That’s the only appropriate way to begin today’s entry on a single live performance of “Tiger Rag” from January 1959. Why just this one performance instead of doing an entire post on Armstrong’s history with the tune? That’s a good question. I have about 50 Armstrong “Tiger Rags” in my collection and I’ve even gotten a few e-mail queries about Armstrong renditions of the old warhorse. But last week, January 21 to be exact, was the 50th anniversary of my favorite Armstrong rendition of “Tiger Rag,” a version to end all other versions and one that has to be heard to be believed.

But first some real quick background on Armstrong’s history with the tune, which began way back in the 1920s when he used that song’s chords as the basis for “Hotter Than That,” a classic Hot Five performance. In 1930, Armstrong finally got around to recording the song in a terrific, quote-filled version done with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. After tinkering with it for two years, Armstrong had a better grip on the tune, in terms of quotes and such and ending filled with high notes, so he rerecorded it with own orchestra for OKeh, titling it “New Tiger Rag.” On that record, the tempo was through the roof and Armstrong announced it would take him about seven choruses to catch the tiger. By the time of the famous Scandinavian film performance of the song, Armstrong was taking five choruses to trap the animal. One year later, Armstrong remade it again as the “Super Tiger Rag” while over in Europe, coming up with all sorts of new ideas in a scintillating three chorus solo.

Armstrong kept the tune in his book throughout the 1930s, performing it on one of the Fleischmann’s Yeast broadcasts in 1937 (five choruses) and as discussed in December, Armstrong jammed the tune brilliantly on the Martin Block radio show in 1938 with Fats Waller and Jack Teagarden. But after that performance, the tune seems to have disappeared from Armstrong’s big band book--perhaps it grew to be too old fashioned? Well, by 1946, old-fashionedness was all the rage so Armstrong performed a short version of it on the soundtrack to the 1946 film New Orleans. Before officially forming the All Stars, Armstrong performed with small groups at three concerts in 1946--Carnegie Hall, Town Hall and the Winter Garden Theater--and he played “Tiger Rag” at all three. However, on these versions, Armstrong used the tune as a drum feature and though he sounded great in his ensemble playing, none of the versions featured any of Armstrong’s earlier pyrotechnics.

When the All Stars were formed in August 1947, “Tiger Rag” didn’t make it into the book, as hard as that might be to believe. There are no surviving Armstrong versions of the tune between June 1947 and December 1955. The 1955 version was done in a movie theater in Milan for the Columbia album Ambassador Satch. The album was meant to sound live but most of it was recorded at this theater in front of a small crowd of friends and fans. I have heard the session tapes and can attest that Armstrong was a bit rusty with the piece at first but in the end contributed a version of the tune he was quite proud of, telling one interviewer, “And ‘Tiger Rag,’ you ain’t never heard ‘Tiger Rag’ in your life like them cats, the longer they played it.”

Armstrong pulled out “Tiger Rag” again at the famous Chicago Concert of June 1, 1956 but gave a similar treatment as the Ambassador Satch version with Armstrong mainly sticking to a powerful lead in the exciting ensemble choruses, but not taking any solos. But by November 1957, the All Stars had finally worked out a routine for the song. The routine would be modeled after Armstrong’s early recordings with the ensemble playing the opening strains followed by a clarinet solo, a trombone solo and a concluding trumpet solo with simple support from the other horns. Armstrong’s solo would now be two choruses but in the second, he would square off with trombonist Trummy Young and the two would blow “angrily” at each other, sometimes “talking” with their playing and, when they felt like it, even chasing each other around the stage. It was great showmanship but it also always allowed Armstrong to turn back the clock in his closing solo, which be a condensed version of his younger solos, complete with quotes and ridiculous high notes. Often, when Armstrong felt up to it, he would call an encore.

This was the standard routine when the All Stars set foot in Sweden in January 1959. I already posted one version of it from a concert in Sweden on January 16, 1959, complete with encore. As I wrote in that entry, because the All Stars didn’t make it to Europe every year and because he was pushing himself to do two shows almost every day, the All Stars played a pretty set show performance after performance. Armstrong would always come out and do “Sleepy Time,” “Indiana,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Tiger Rag” and “Now You Has Jazz” before handing it over to his sidemen. But just because he opened almost every show with the same five songs, that doesn’t mean he didn’t change things up every now and then.

With that last sentence at a set-up, let us travel to the Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen, Denmark where Armstrong played about ten concerts in less than a week. At his first concert, Armstrong opened up in great form on “Indiana” and even took an encore chorus on “Basin Street Blues.” Clearly feeling good, it was time for “Tiger Rag.” Now, this entire performance is available on the fourth volume of Storyville’s Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia series and all nine minutes and 35 seconds (yes, you read that right) can be downloaded for just 99 cents on Itunes if you’d like to keep it in your collection and play it for your friends. I will post the entire performance uninterrupted towards the end of this post. But before writing this, I opened up my Mac’s Garage Band program and did some editing, separating the tune’s many parts so you can enjoy it with play-by-play commentary as the performance progresses. Again, if you don’t know what’s about to happen, stand back.

So here goes. The standard All Stars version of “Tiger Rag”:

Danny Barcelona’s drums set the ridiculous pace before the front line of Armstrong, Young and clarinetist Peanuts Hucko tackle the opening strains of the tune, Hucko taking the breaks. Armstrong loved taking “Tiger Rag” at inhuman speeds because he actually became more relaxed the faster the tempo. Armstrong tears through the famous “Hold That Tiger” strain with Young answering with some appropriate roars. Hucko doesn’t sound too comfortable with the tempo but he’s not bad by any means. For his solo, Hucko maintains a consistent relaxed flow, playing in half-time, which he didn’t always do. Young then follows with his boisterous set solo, complete with a quote from “Feniculi Fenicula.”

Then it’s Pops, charging out of the gate with some repeated notes before he begins dispensing with the 1930 vintage quotes of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Pagliacci.” (Just listen to that dazzling, lightening quick, almost smeared lead-in to the “Pagliacci” quote during the break.) Armstrong then hits and holds a high concert Ab (he played “Tiger Rag” in the same key), showing off his endurance and calling the troops home for the final chorus chase...and I mean chase in the literal sense as he would sometimes chase Young around the piano (as we’ll hear in it a bit). Armstrong liked to use this last chorus to revisit the exhibitionistic side of his youth and here he works over a two-note pattern, leading off with the same high Ab and resolving it to either a lower F or G. For the end, he jumps up to high C and he manages to end with a stunning high Eb. Great playing but that was just par for the course, as was the encore that followed. Give it a listen:

The crowd can still be heard cheering and Armstrong can be heard laughing as Barcelona sets the pace for round two. Hucko leads off, still in relaxed half-time but after an instruction to “Blow” from Pops, Hucko turns on the heat for a wild finish. Trummy, still thinking of Italy, opens with a tiny hint of “O Sole Mio” before going for himself.

Pops opens with another quote, this time “I’m Confessin’” before taking a trip to “Dixie” in the break. Even the way he comes out of the break is straight out of his 1930s playbook,showing he still had the chops to pull off his younger solos. Slowly moving up the ladder, instead of holding a high Ab, Armstrong climbs up to a high Bb to bridge the gap to the start of the final chorus. This time, he really hams it up with Trummy, indulging in some humorous “shouting” at each other. He also goes off-mike, which means the chase has clearly spread to the rest of the stage. But clowning aside, just listen to those notes. The first time around, Armstrong used the Ab as a point of departure and went down, to either F’s or G’s. Now, he uses the Ab as a spring board to go up, hitting one high C after another. He finally holds a gigantic high C and makes his way up to another high Eb and another triumphant ending.

And that, my friends, was usually that. Incredibly powerful, exciting playing, some fun clowning and overall, a showstopper. It was then time for “Now You Has Jazz” and if you listen to the end of that last track, you’ll hear the pianist start playing his introductory arpeggio.

But not so fast. This crowd was clearly in bedlam and though Kyle’s setting up the next tune, Armstrong can’t help signaling for one more (though he does it in his signature stage yelling, which I can never translate!). So get ready....for round three, second encore:

Armstrong can now be heard laughing behind Hucko’s solo. He’s having the time of his life! Never mind Hucko and Young, who both sound good (Trummy’s excellent). Armstrong enters with another quote from his 1930s “Tiger Rag” solos, one that’s become part of the lexicon and that I didn't know the name of until reader and trumpeter Chris Tyle wrote in this morning to identify it as Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song" from the 1898 Broadway musical The Fortune Teller. Thanks Chris!

After Armstrong plays the quote, he begins improvising in a very operatic manner. In fact, almost everything he plays from here on out has an air of opera to it. But dig that break: he plays two high C’s, hits one high Db...then scampers away like a child who just found the ocean to be too cold. It’s so playful but the the high Bb he holds again at the end of the chorus is as serious as your life. For the last chorus, he uses high C again as his main note until the break. This time, he heads right up to the high Eb he usually ends the piece with and nails it. And nails it again. And again. And again. Seven times in all. Before ending the tune...on a high F!

I mean are you kidding? This is almost a 60-year-old man! Naturally, the crowd goes berserk and just as naturally, Billy Kyle starts playing the “Now You Has Jazz” arpeggio again. Enough is enough, right?

Ding, ding, Round four!

Now Hucko’s on fire. Something special’s happening. During Young’s solo, listen closely and you’ll hear Armstrong blow three quiet harmony notes, giving the chops a quick test before heading into uncharted territory, a third encore. I’ve heard this a thousand times, but I still get nervous! For this outing, Pops dispenses with the quotes but keeps the same operatic style of playing in mind. Really, sing back his phrases but put on a serious face and wave your hand dramatically; it’s opera! He nails another high C in his break and this time, instead of holding an Ab or a Bb, he holds a high C into the final chorus.

But wait, high C? That’s pretty high, right? Where else can he go but up? You got it...like he’s 30 years old again, Armstrong sets his aim for that high Eb again. And what am I saying, like he’s 30 years old again? These Eb’s I’m writing about are actually F’s on the trumpet. When he was 30, Armstrong would play a hundred C’s and top out at the F but even on records like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” from 1929 and “You’re Lucky to Me” from 1930, he just about gets that last high F (concert Eb) out. But now here he is in 1959, getting killed by critics for being out-of-date and for not playing like he did when he was younger, but demonstrating a greater range and a better command of his instrument.

So let’s count along, shall we? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 Eb’s ending on a high F. Insane. Great job, Pops, let’s do “Now You Has Jazz,” okay? But the audience is still losing its mind, doing that unison clapping-on-the-beat that’s always been popular when European audiences want to signal their approval. So even though he did more than anyone expected him to, Armstrong signals for a fourth encore:

Hucko and Young sound good but both sound like they’re running out of gas a little bit (though, a moment of credit for the rhythm section of Barcelona, Kyle and bassist Mort Herbert for keeping this thing afloat for so long at such a ludicrous tempo!). Pops, ready for battle, starts off with more operatic playing, a little descending scampering and, my highlight, a quote from “Exactly Like You” in his break, perfectly placed. He then holds the high C again and gets ready for yet another chorus of high Eb’s. However, like an arm-weary boxer in the 12th and final round of a bruising slugfest, Armstrong barely misses the mark on his first two attempts, the first one sounding more like a squeak, while the second one is about a half-step too low.

But don’t cry for old Pops, just yet. He rallies back and soon begins hitting the Eb’s again, one after another. He carries on through the break and a little more space creeps in towards the finish line. Clearly tired and probably in pain, Armstrong gathers every last bit of endurance left in his body and in his lips and makes the climb to that final high F one last time. Bravo!

Nine minutes and 35 seconds of playing. One performance and four encores. Probably about a hundred notes, high C or above. So why do it? Armstrong explained in a little speech he gave right before he finally launched into “Now You Has Jazz”:

So there you have it. The audience was going wild and Pops couldn’t stop. In fact, he learned that Copenhagen in general was crazy about “Tiger Rag” and according to the discography, other surviving Copenhagen performances of the tune during that same January week featured either three or four encores. I have never heard these other performances but I’m sure they’re special. But I’m more than happy with this one, an incredible artifact.

One might be asking, “Why all the encores? Why didn’t Pops just play seven or eight straight choruses as he did in the 1930s?” It’s a great question and to me, I can only assume that it was a concession to age. Think about what Armstrong did to his chops in the 1920s and 1930s. That he even had such a long career is something of a miracle. And in the mid-to-late-50s, he was blowing at an incredibly high level. The only thing he required was more time to rest. Thus, he became a master at pacing the All Stars’s live shows. He knew when to sing more, when to throw it to a sideman, when to play an encore. I think if Armstrong played seven choruses in a row on that 1959 version, he would have been out of gas before the ending. But the encores allowed him that little resting period every time Hucko and Young took their solos. Thus, every time they finished, he was properly refreshed and ready to shoot out the lights. Only on that last attempt did any tiredness creep in and he still finished on top. Incredible playing. In fact, using my Mac again, I edited together all the trumpet playing into a single 3:43 long track, ten choruses in all. Enjoy:

When you listen to that, it’s no wonder that Pops had a heart attack in Spoleto, Italy just a few months later. He was pushing himself harder than ever, both on his body with the frequent concerts and on his chops. Sadly, one of the casualties of the heart episode was the shortening of “Tiger Rag.” From 1960 on, “Tiger Rag” became a 90-second scorcher to get the audience’s blood pumping. Armstrong usually only took a half chorus on it and still made the high notes at the end, but it wasn’t the same (and by 1967 and 1968, it became more of a clarinet feature, with Armstrong playing not quite as high and mainly sticking to the background).

But never mind anything that happened afterwards. At least the “Tiger Rag” from Copenhagen in January 1959 survives and 50 years later, it’s still just as thrilling to listen to as it must have been to experience at the Falconer Centtret that day. And now, I will shut up and allow you to listen to the full experience, unedited, in all it’s glory. Again, I warn you...stand back:


Jon-Erik said...

woohoo--you weren't kiddin'! I need to get that CD--is it actually a series of Pops in Scandinavia CDs?
Forgive me if you explained somewhere in the text and I spaced.
Jon-Erik Kellso

Anonymous said...

Great blog! I work as a volunteer at the Armstrong House in Queens so I know a little about Louis. How did you come to know so much at such a young age? BTW, the film Artists and Model from I think 1938 which features Louis will be on TCM next week. Keep up the excellent work. - Doug Schoppert