Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded in Early 1943
Track Time 3:58
Written by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren
Recorded in Los Angeles, California
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Bernard Flood trumpet; George Washington, James Whitney, Henderson chambers,, trombone; Rupert Cole, Joe Hayman, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, Joe Garland, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Ted Sturgis, bass; Chick Morrison, drums
Currently on CD: Only on Radio Days, an obscure release on the Italian Moon label and possibly a few budget, "best-of" discs
Available on Itunes? Yes on two cheapie compilations
Today’s entry has been about a month in the making. Last month, the great Michael Steinman over at the Jazz Lives blog posted an entry titled “Louis And ‘That Modern Malice.’” In it, he quoted a memory from the wonderful saxophonist and clarinetist Sam “Leroy” Parkins. Here are the words of Sam:
I heard Louis Armstrong the music critic at that dance in Lexington KY, spring 1945. A very clear statement about his loathing for modern music, coming at him like a tornado. Music lesson: For preceding centuries, a song or a complete chorus ended on what’s called the “tonic” - the home key, and the chord that preceded it was called the “dominant”, 4 notes below. Here comes modern, and by 1944 the “dominant” was often replaced by a somewhat purple 7th chord a half-step above the “tonic”. Let’s put our mythical tune in the key of F major; at least 20% of the standard repertoire is in F. Eddie Condon called F “the key of love”. Means the traditional “dominant” chord is C, usually with a 7th. So I’m grooving away with Louis blowing his heart out over the band, and come to an ending, where his up-to-date arranger has modernized things with a G-flat 7th before the “tonic” F. Louis slashes an angry C triad right across it, making him play at least two “wrong” notes, and Louis was incapable of playing wrong notes. “That for your godamned modernism!”
(To read the post in its original context, click here. while there, you will easily get sucked into Michael’s world of hot jazz so please make a point to check out Sam’s other ruminations on Popshere.)
As soon as I read Sam’s words, I thought it would be fun to listen through Armstrong’s various radio broadcasts of the war years to see if I could find a song that ended as Sam remembered it, descending from the “two” chord then to another chord a half-step down then finally to the tonic. I finally came up with just such an ending on Pops’s broadcast version of “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” from an AFRS “Downbeat” Program from Los Angeles recorded sometime in early 1943.
The song “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” has some pretty corny elements to it but in the right hands, it’s a lot of fun. Written by the formidable team of Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, the song made its debute in the 1942 film Orchestra Wives, where it was performed by Glenn Miller’s and His Orchestra with a vocal by Tex Beneke and The Modernaires. Here’s the complete clip, courtesy of YouTube, complete with the astounding tap dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. (Regarding the vocal by Tex and The Modernaires, I once showed this to an old friend from high school and all he could say was, “White people....ugh.”)
So that’s how “Kalamazoo” took off, eventually winning an Oscar for Best Original Song and becoming a smash hit. Thus, it was an easy new choice for Armstrong’s band book. Armstrong’s war years are probably the least discussed in his entire career and it’s easy to see why: the recording ban kept him out of the studio from April 1942 to January 1945 (he cut three tunes for Decca in August 1944 but they were all rejected at the time). Thus, because the history of jazz is often the history of jazz records, it’s easy assume that because Armstrong had no records to speak of in this period and because the big band days were coming to end, his career stalled as he probably just kept playing the same tunes every night.
Naturally, that couldn’t be more wrong. Pops was a frequent presence on radio during the war (soldiers couldn’t get enough of him) and fortunately, many broadcasts survive and have been issued since the days of the LP. You might have to look hard to find these broadcasts but once you do, you’ll hear that in addition to favorites like “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Shine,” “Coquette” and “Lazy River,” Pops was playing live versions of pop hits like “As Time Goes By,” “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “Caldonia,” “I Couldn’t Sleep A Wink Last Night” and many more. Thus, when the critics blew their tops in the early 50s claiming that Pops finally “went commercial,” they obviously hadn’t paid attention to what he did in the early-to-mid-40s.
So “Kalamazoo” was in the book though only the “Downbeat” version survives. To give you some period flavor, here’s Pops trading scripted jokes with announcer Dick Joy (oh, how the musicians must have had fun with that name). Pops’s comic timing is good as ever, but the material is weak and as a straight man, Joy is no Bud Abbott. Here’s the patter:
And now “Kalamazoo”:
Armstrong enthusiastically counts off the number but sticks to just leading the band through the first chorus of melody. It’s a decent arrangement, though nothing special and the band is a little ragged in places (the muted trumpets sound like a 1924 Fletcher Henderson record for a couple of bars before they pile on some atomic power). I don’t know who wrote the arrangement (it doesn’t have any of Chappie Willet’s trademarks so it might have been from then-director Joe Garland), but it has some slightly modern voicings and the too-heavy power of most big bands of the period. Armstrong’s band would continue to get brassier and brassier in the coming years, reflecting the influence of Stan Kenton, I suppose. Anyway, they get tighter as they go on, drummer Chick Morrison on top of all the accents.
Pops gets ready for his vocal by asking the band to lay it on him and starts right in with the famous “ABCDEFG” line, proof that he could have swung the alphabet song if given the chance. Armstrong sounds happy with the song, swinging nicely and rephrasing where fit in the second A section and even getting a third-person reference to “Mr. Satchmo” in the bridge. By the end, he’s shouting in fine bluesy fashion before handing it over to the band to take it through a short interlude, setting up a modulation for Pops’s climactic solo.
Armstrong enters with a quick peep of a high concert Ab, before he switches gears and starts repeating the same note an octave lower, getting the solo of to a driving start. Knowing he only has one opportunity to play, he achieves a perfect balance of keeping the melody prominent while still coming up with all sorts of improvised ways to rephrase it.
The bridge is a hot one, with Armstrong pounding out some high C’s before hitting a pretty modern note: a concert Gb, the flatted fifth of the C-chord that starts the bridge and the flatted ninth of the F chord that follows it. He continues to generate more and more heat before snarling out and built-in blues inflections. But then dig the ending: what Pops plays is pure Armstrong; C-C-C-C-Db-D-Eb. But behind him, the band plays chords descending chromatically, as Sam Parkins remembered. Here, though Armstrong doesn’t sound angry and what he plays fits like a glove, but it’s definitely a more modern voicing in the arrangement that what Armstrong was used to. I could see him getting fed up with it two years later at the dance Sam attended as bop started rising and Pops started getting knocked for being too old-fashioned...
So that’s “Kalamazoo” but if you continue listening, you’ll hear announce Joy continue his patter with Armstrong’s female vocalist Ann Baker. (His pun about her last name is so bad that I secretly wish Baker slapped him the face like Moe Howard of the Three Stooges.) I’m not including Baker’s song but trust me, you’re not missing much. The meat is “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” another unsung, almost completely forgotten performance from the war years of Louis Armstrong.
Birdland alert! I’ll be at New York’s friendliest jazz club tomorrow evening (Wednesday) to catch David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band, which will featuring Ed Polcer on cornet, Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Ehud Asherie on piano, Kevin Dorn on drums and Ostwald on tuba. I’ll be having a powwow with my agent about book-related items, but don’t hesitate to stop in and say hello to your friendly blogger. I still think the $10 cover is a bargain and the band is always top notch. Til next time...