Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Videos of Chappie Willet-Fest 2009

Okay class, Mr. Riccardi needs a personal day today so pack your belongings and head over to Mr. Steinman's "Jazz Lives" blog. As I posted last week, my good pal John Wriggle gave a concert last week in New York City featuring the music of Chappie Willet, an unsung arranger of the Swing Era who wrote some of Louis Armstrong's best big band arrangements of the 1930s and early 40s. John did the transcriptions of the arrangements, which were performed live by the always fantastic Vince Giordano and His Nighthawks.

I couldn't make the concert but apparently there was a full house featuring all the luminaries you'd expect, such as Dan Morgenstern, Frank Driggs, Michael Cogswell, Will Friedwald and Michael Steinman. Steinman brought his trusty video camera and filmed the entire show. Yesterday, he shared some of it on his "Jazz Lives" blog and the results blew me away. For Armstrong fans, there's the particular delight of hearing Willet's arrangements of "Rhythm Jam," "I Know That You Know" and "Washington and Lee Swing" performed live (as well as "Prelude to a Stomp," which Willet originally did for the Mills Blue Rhythm Band). Those four tunes originally came from the Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts of 1937, which were released just last year (Wriggle works quick!). I think Vince's band is the only band in the country able to make this music sound so authentic and I have to give credit to the three-man trumpet section of Jon-Erik Kellso, Randy Reinhart and James Zollar for each playing the role of Pops so well.

If you'd like to hear the originals again, here are the links:
Washington and Lee Swing:

Rhythm Jam:

I Know That You Know:

Prelude To a Stomp:

But enough from me. If you haven't done so already, click here to go to "Jazz Lives" and please enjoy videos. Thank you Michael, thank you John, thank you Vince (and the band) and thank you Chappie!

Monday, March 30, 2009

What A Wonderful Book (To Look At)

About a month ago, I issued a heads up about Steven Brower's book of Armstrong's collages. Well, that book is now in bookstores everywhere and after picking it up, I can attest that it is a "gassuh."

As many people know, Louis Armstrong was a fanatic about tape recording. He recorded EVERYTHING: his own shows, other people's records, joke-telling sessions with friends, arguments with Lucille and even some humorous boozy getogethers with others (you have to hear a completely bombed Illinois Jacquet talking about the importance of Louis Armstrong). The tapes are magnificent and made up a huge chunk of research for my own upcoming book.

But even more interestingly, Armstrong spent a lot of his free time designing the drab cardboard boxes that encased the tapes. Here, Armstrong got to show off a side few knew about him, that of a visual artist. The Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College has all the tapes and all the collages but even they realize that not everyone get out to Queens to revel in them. Thus, first, a nice selection from the private tapes was released on disc two of last year's set of Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts. And now, Brower has done a heroic job designing a beautiful book of nothing but Armstrong's collages, with a couple of samples of Armstrong's writing thrown in for good measure.

If you've never seen an Armstrong collage, here are two examples I dug up from the Internet:

The first one is worded from I'm guessing was an official invitation for Armstrong's visit with the Pope in 1968. But notice how Armstrong cut out the words and reworded it so it starts by saying "Mr. and Mrs. Most Holy Father Louis Armstrong"! The second one with the four heads is pretty creative, too (and notice the contents of the tape: opera and Milt Hinton combo).

I didn't count how many collages Brower included but it's a lot and his comments on them are very perceptive. And, as already mentioned, adding touches of Armstrong's own typewritten and handwritten letters was a wonderful idea. This might be the most beautiful book I have ever held.

Unfortunately, Brower's sense of research kind of abandoned him in the text, which sometimes reads like a high school term paper. Fortunately, there's not much of it, just some brief biographical sketches, but the errors are glaring. Here's a few that stuck out:
*The opening timeline has a few mistakes. Armstrong recorded "The Saints" in 1938, not 1939 and he met Pope Pius XII in 1949, not 1950.
*Armstrong's name is given as Louis David Armstrong, a first. It's Louis Daniel Armstrong (and no one really knows where the Daniel came from)
*Armstrong didn't receive an Academy Award nomination for his work in the film Going Places. Only the song "Jeepers Creepers" was nominated.
*This sentence is a mess: "At the Hollywood Bowl in 1952 Louis good-naturedly parodied bebop, sporting a golf cap with a pom-pom on top, singing 'Bye Bye Bebop' to the tune of 'Bye Bye Blackbird.'" Where to begin? It wasn't 'Blackbird,' it was the "Whiffenpoof Song." It was recorded for Decca in 1954 and performed on television at the Hollywood Bowl later that year.
*Dizzy Gillespie and Armstrong didn't jam on The Jackie Gleason Show. It was a Timex Jazz Show hosted by Gleason.
*Armstrong was carried on a throne in Leonpoldville during his 1960 visit to Africa, not in 1956
*Armstrong never performed "Pennies From Heaven" on The David Frost Show (Laurence Bergreen made this same mistake). He just played it backstage when he saw Bing Crosby, as reported by Dan Morgenstern.

There are many more mistakes (that's not Joe Glaser in the collage on page 244!) but seriously, if you bought this book for the biographical sections on Armstrong, you've got to get your priorities straight. The biographical sections even read as if Brower was forced to write them (he goes off for long periods of time on film sequences that feel like they're there to beef up the word count). However, when Brower begins discussing the actual collages on page 74, his writing comes alive. Here, he feels confident in the subject and it shows.

But please, please, please, don't let some factual errors stand in the way of purchasing such an amazing book. If you're a Pops nut like me, you NEED this book as it paints some beautiful pictures of Armstrong's offstage life. I thank Steven Brower for his work and for creating such a gorgeous book. Go to Amazon or click here to order it NOW!

Friday, March 27, 2009

Mahogany Hall Stomp - Part 3

The third and final look at Louis Armstrong’s history with “Mahogany Hall Stomp” will focus on the All Stars years. When the All Stars made their debut in August 1947, they played a lot of clubs such as Billy Berg’s in Los Angeles and the Rag Doll in Chicago, playing multiple sets each night. But by the fall, they began a concert tour, playing premium venues and offering two long sets each night. In these early days, the pacing of these shows did not differ too much and everything usually fell into a pretty similar routine. Thus, in the set lists from the first months of the All Stars, you’ll find “Mahogany Hall Stomp” always located in the same place: first song of the second set, right after a brief instrumental version of the theme, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.”

Armstrong liked to open his second sets with something hard-charging (later years saw “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” “New Orleans Function” and others take the spot) and “Mahogany Hall Stomp” fit the bill. I’m going to start with an ultra-rare, unreleased version from a Carnegie Hall concert, November 15, 1947. The band features Jack Teagarden on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Dick Cary on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass and the great Sid Catlett on drums. Originally, when I conceived of this post, I thought only version from this period would suffice but people are crazy over Catlett, so I’ll share a few. Here’s the Carnegie Hall version, at a slightly slower tempo than usual, more in tune with the original 1929 version:

That’s a great one. If you listen carefully, you’ll hear all sorts of conversation and encouragement going on, which shows how loose and friendly the band was, treating Carnegie Hall’s hallowed stage as if it was just another nightclub. The band already set on a routine: the usual opening strain and blues chorus, then solos by trombone, piano, bass, Armstrong and clarinet before the rideout choruses. Pops liked to use the technique of soloing after the bass player’s turn because it provided a great change of dynamics (he also did it on “Indiana” and “Barbecue”). Armstrong relies on his 1929 solo, though the muted days are gone. Someone (possibly Sid) moans their approval as Armstrong’s solo unfurls and his held note is met with cries of “Hold it!”

I love hearing things take shape and a good example of that can be found in Armstrong’s third chorus, the ascending riff. The first time he plays it, Jack Teagarden plays a quiet low note. The second time, Barney Bigard plays a brief upward swoop but Teagarden stays silent. By the third time, they each play their part and it kind of locks in. Pay attention as this will become much tighter in the next few samples. Then Barney solos, still with plenty of energy (he wasn’t bored yet) but he receives no backing riffs, something that would also change. Pops again resorts back to the original version for some of his rideout playing, climaxed by a huge concert Eb in the last chorus. A great version.

Two weeks later, on November 30, 1947, the All Stars played a famous concert at Symphony Hall, famous because Decca released most of it on a double-LP set in 1950. Two weeks might not seem like a lot of time but everything’s tightened up a bit, starting with the tempo, which is now faster. Give it a listen:

Sid Catlett’s also a little more animated on the Symphony Hall version (dig him behind Cary’s piano solo). In fact, everyone sounds a little more super -charged. Catlett’s with Armstrong all the way during his solo and Barney and Teagarden have worked on their response to Armstrong’s riff and they sound a little tighter. Also, Bigard has some riffs to work with courtesy of Mssrs. Armstrong and Teagarden in his second chorus. A classic version.

I can keep going and going but instead I’ll offer just a solo as a change of pace. “Mahogany Hall” was even tighter by the time the All Stars hit Europe in 1948, Earl Hines now on piano. On March 2, they played Paris, a delightful concert that really should have been issued on C.D. by now. Unfortunately, my copy is pitched a little high (The blues in E? What is this a rock group?) but it’s worth sharing the solo because it really captures Catlett’s cymbal sound wonderfully:

Now let’s flash to March 1949, one of Catlett’s last dates with the band, the Hollywood Empire in Los Angeles. This is one of my favorite versions of the tune because the routine is polished to perfection. Everything, the riffs, the drum hits, Barney and Tea’s little background, is perfectly in place yet everything sounds spontaneous. And in one case, it truly is spontaneous: Armstrong plays a completely different solo! Here’s the full recording:

And for those with little time to spare, here’s the solo:

In my first lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies, I used this solo to demonstrate Pops’s ability to improvise and change it up a bit when he felt like it. Here’s a solo that was so famous most trumpet players--including himself--couldn’t play “Mahogany Hall Stomp” without quoting that 1929 outing in note-for-note fashion. But here’s Pops himself, using the original as a point of departure before creating something very fresh. He doesn’t even hold the Bb, instead coming up with some beautiful new lines. He almost sounds like he doesn’t even want to play the ascending riff as he rephrases it a bit the first time but realizing Jack and Barney are ready with their responses, he plays it as usual, ending the solo with a giant gliss.

Another “Mahogany Hall Stomp” exists from the summer of 1949 but I’m not going to share it because the sound quality is kind of cruddy. However, according to Jos Willems’s Armstrong discography, there are no surviving performances of the tune until 1956! Now, does that mean that Armstrong never performed it live? Of course not. In fact, one of his live performances caused such a sensation, it inserted “Mahogany Hall Stomp” back into regular rotation.

The version in question came from Armstrong’s May 1956 tour of London with the All Stars, now featuring Trummy Young on trombone, Edmond Hall on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano, Jack Lesberg on bass and Barrett Deems on drums, my favorite version (and Dizzy Gillespie’s, as I pointed out on Monday). At Empress Hall, Armstrong knew that 25-year-old Princess Margaret was in attendance and decided to play one for her, consequently making headlines. “Louis (Satchmo) Armstrong broke all rules of theatrical protocol before Princess Margaret tonight. And the princess apparently loved it,” Eddy Gilmore wrote in an Associated Press story picked up in many newspapers around the world. “‘We’ve got one of our special fans in the house,’ growled the gravel-voiced American trumpeter, ‘and we’re really gonna lay this one on for the princess.’ A gasp went over the huge audience in Empress Hall. Professional performers are not supposed to refer to members of the royal family when playing before them. ‘Yes, sir’ said Satchmo, as the princess grinned and hugged her knees, ‘we gonna blow ‘em down with one of those old good ones from New Orleans—“Mahogany Hall Stomp.”’ The princess applauded with marked enthusiasm.”

It made for a great story and all of a sudden, it seemed that no show was complete without “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Armstrong tour was filmed by Edward R. Murrow for the film Satchmo the Great. Armstrong’s producer at Columbia, George Avakian, wanted to do a soundtrack for the album, too. The Princess Margaret story had to be included in both. So before Armstrong’s July 14, 1956 concert at Lewisohn Stadium, Avakian recorded a bunch of tunes during an All Stars rehearsal. He later added applause and some of them made the final cut on the soundtrack. One was this exciting version of “Mahogany Hall Stomp”:

I love those early editions of the All Stars but when you listen to these versions back to back, this version really trumped them in terms of pure power and excitement (I love Deems but can you imagine if Catlett lived long enough to play with this edition?).

The solo order is almost exactly as it was in the late 40s but now Pops had the entire solo to himself, not getting any comments from Young and Hall, though Kyle plays some neat riffs under the held note. Hall gets his riffs but now is followed by Trummy Young’s roaring trombone, Deems ratcheting up the volume on his drumming as the tune gathers more and more steam. Very hot stuff.

In December, Armstrong remade “Mahogany Hall Stomp” for his Autobiography project on Decca. Sy Oliver wrote a nondescript arrangement with the additional reeds more or less just providing padding for what was the standard All Stars version. Here ‘tis:

The big differences in this version include the solo order (Edmond Hall now goes first and Trummy immediately follows the trumpet solo), there’s no bass solo (sorry Squire Gersh) and Armstrong’s held note gets a brand new riff. Also, as I’ve pointed out in past entries, The Barrett Deems Drum Machine 2000 (patent pending) never stops playing on the closed hi-hat, an order that must have been dictated to him by producer Milt Gabler since he sure as hell didn’t play like that normally. Never mind that though, as the stuff going on in the front line is ridiculously exciting (and I like the new riff Oliver throws in in the outchorus).

But to conclude this long look at “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” I have to end with perhaps my all-time very favorite version. If you only have time to listen to one of these music samples, make it this one:

Newport 1957 became a famous gig in the annals of Armstrong as it was the one when George Wein notified Armstrong backstage that Pops was to sit in with a bunch of different musicians, including Ella Fitzgerald, meaning Velma Middleton wouldn’t be needed. Armstrong didn’t like anyone messing with his show and when he saw Velma crying, he unleashed his wrath explosively. He went on with his All Stars and did his show, including Velma, refusing to sit in with anybody else.

Onstage, Armstrong didn’t show his anger. He put on his usual wonderful show and perhaps took out some of his rage in this absolutely stomping version of “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” The piece now mirrored the Autobiography as Pops got a riff under his held-note, but now bassist Squire Gersh got to solo. Deems is finally himself, bashing the hell out of his drums for all their worth. It’s a romping performance, capturing this edition of the All Stars at their peak but stay tuned for the surprise encore. Armstrong calls for one more and the ensemble takes two more choruses that are just plain remarkable with Trummy Young blowing his horn to bits and Armstrong snorting out some swinging blues on his horn. Incredible!

The All Stars continued to play “Mahogany Hall Stomp” frequently in 1957 (it even replaced “Indiana” as the opener once) and even played it during the first Timex television jazz showcase in December. And then it disappeared, at least according to the discography. There are literally no more surviving versions after 1957 except for one from 1962 on the German television show I’ve written about The Satchmo Story, where Pops revisited some of his early triumphs. An edited version was broadcast in Germany in the 90s and that’s been passed around by collectors with some performances ending up on YouTube. But “Mahogany Hall” didn’t make the cut so it’s still languishing somewhere in a German television vault...release it!

And that’s that for “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Somehow I cranked out five more posts this week, topping the 200th post mark, which I’m proud of. But I may be a father as soon as next week so I can’t promise this kind of activity for a while. But I have some older entries I want to update with some sound samples so look forward to those in the near future. Have a great weekend!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Mahogany Hall Stomp - Part 2

Part two of the saga of “Mahogany Hall Stomp” begins just three years after the 1933 Victor recording my last blog post ended on. But what a difference three years made...

As I wrote yesterday, Louis Armstrong was in peak form during those Victor sessions of 1932 and 1933. However, his chops were also finally starting to break down on him, something that can be heard on a few of the Victor alternates where he struggles a little bit here and there. After the Victor series, Pops headed to Europe and stayed there when manager troubles wore him out. He decided to rest his lip and keep a low profile for a year.

In 1935, he made his return to America and immediately hired Joe Glaser as his new manager. Glaser signed Armstrong to Decca and Pops began making celebrated recordings of pop tunes of the day. However, it wasn’t until Armstrong’s ninth session for the label that he was allowed a full-blown instrumental: a storming remake of “Mahogany Hall Stomp.”

The Decca version came at the end of one of Armstrong’s all-time greatest sessions. On May 18, 1936, Pops cut six, count ‘em, six tracks, each featuring incredibly trumpet playing. Most trumpeters would have been happy if they had just recorded the first two tracks, “Lyin’ to Myself” and “Ev’ntide” in a single session. But Pops was an iron man and followed them up with “Swing That Music,” a recording that leaves me speechless (but that didn’t stop me from pontificating about it in an earlier blog!). Then came “Thankful” and “Red Nose” with even more trumpet work. And finally--just about warmed up--”Mahogany Hall Stomp.”

In part one, I discussed “Mahogany Hall Stomp’s” relationship to the other big band music of the period. The 1929 version was a glimpse into the future, Armstrong dragging Luis Russell’s band behind them, imploring Pops Foster to walk the hell out of his bass and improvising figures that no doubt inspired future Swing Era arrangers. By 1932, the band was finally swinging on an even keel with Pops but there was a rough and ready feeling to the proceedings, almost a little reminiscent of some of Bennie Moten’s uptempo numbers (recorded in the same studio).

But while Pops was in Europe, the Swing Era “officially” began (take a bow, Mr. Goodman, though we all know it REALLY began when Pops joined Fletcher Henderson in 1924...but who’s keeping score?). Thus, the 1936 version just sounds like an above-average big band instrumental of the day. Pops makes it quite special but the rest of the music world finally caught up. Took ‘em long enough...

Once again, Armstrong’s backed by Luis Russell’s group, which he began fronting full-time in 1935. Russell, Charlie Holmes, Pops Foster and Paul Barbarin were all veterans of the original recordings and were back for the remake (Albert Nicholas and J.C. Higginbotham rejoined the following year). Enough from me, give a listen to the 1936 Decca recording:

The arrangement is fairly similar to the Victor one, though a wee bit slower. Pops takes his lead, as usual, though he hits some nice, dark lower notes. The band also gets a short interlude before Pops takes one chorus of blues. Jimmy Archey boots one out before a somewhat out-of-date tenor solo probably by Bingie Madison (Budd Johnson sounded more hip in 1933). Then it’s time for Pops’s solo:

Interestingly, after coming up with some brand new ideas in 1933, Armstrong falls back on his 1929 solo, playing it almost note-for-note in exactly the same fashion. I’m guessing that sometime in between 1929 and 1936, the solo became officially known as a bona fide classic. Perhaps that caused Pops to dig out the old record and re-learn it. Regardless, he nails it once again, spurred on by some hard-charging riffing from the band. And once again, please give the track another listen and try to block everything out except for Pops Foster. Foster was a swinging rock in 1929 but he was much more creative in 1936, coming up with all sorts of funky variations instead of just playing time, much as he did on that day’s “Swing That Music.” A lot of people think 1930s bass players could be a little stiff (I’m looking at you John Kirby) but Foster is as hip as they come. Dig him.

Charlie Holmes follows Pops with a strong alto solo (again, listen to Foster) before Pops comes back, dramatically wringing one note for all its worth. He’s in superb command of his horn, not quite as acrobatic as he was in 1933 but still telling a helluva story. In all , it’s a very swinging record, one that had an influence on our pal George Avakian. George had some of the Deccas but took a liking to “Mahogany Hall Stomp” because of its swinging, instrumental quality. When his friend Lester Koenig started playing George some Armstrong OKehs, George responded to qualities he already knew from the Decca “Mahogany Hall Stomp” and not the Decca pop tunes. The rest is history...

Now I’m going to take a stab and say that Louis must have played “Mahogany Hall Stomp” live with his big band at some point. It was such a great song for the Swing Era and Armstrong had no problem revisiting other earlier classics like “Tiger Rag,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Hustlin’ and Bustlin’ For Baby,” “I Surrender Dear” and more. However, no known broadcasts survive of Armstrong performing it with the big band so I’m just going on a whim.

However, 1946 proved to be a major year for Pops and “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” Interestingly, I’ve been charting the relationship between Armstrong’s different versions to the big band period of the time. By the time of the 1936 Decca, it was a solid Swing Era “killer diller.” But in 1946, Armstrong found himself still leading the big band but also serving as the fountainhead for the “moldy fig” followers of New Orleans jazz. That year, Armstrong appeared with a bunch of other jazz greats in the terrible movie New Orleans. The movie might have stunk but the music was dynamite and it allowed Armstrong to revisit many tunes he hadn’t played in years.

Two complete versions of “Mahogany Hall Stomp” survive from the soundtrack and I think both are worth listening to. The first was done with a small group featuring Armstrong, Kid Ory on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Charlie Beal on piano, Bud Scott on guitar, Red Callender on bass and Zutty Singleton on drums. For such powerhouse players, it’s a very restrained performance, everyone relaxing and just letting the swing speak for itself without pushing it. Give it a listen:

For me, the highlight is Pops’s solo, which can be heard here:

For a change, he only gets two choruses instead of three choruses but he makes the most of it with some incredibly fluent playing in his second chorus. In fact, he toys with the idea of holding the one note as he did in the other versions but midway through, he just goes for himself, almost as if he had so many ideas in his head, wasting the time on just one note wasn’t going to suffice. And he sounds stronger than ever in the closing ensemble, waking everybody up around him.

The soundtrack to New Orleans also featured possibly the most unique version of “Mahogany Hall Stomp” in the Armstrong discography. I mean, dig this line-up: Armstrong and Papa Mutt Carey on trumpet, Kid Ory again, Barney Bigard, Lucky Thompson (!) on tenor and the same rhythm section of Beal, Scott, Callender and Zutty. From Kid Ory to Lucky Thompson, it’s basically the history of jazz, 1900-1946. Here ‘tis:

Unlike the other version, the tempo is a little faster for this one and I think it makes a difference. Armstrong still takes the lead, Ory burbling all around him. When Pops branches out for his blues chorus, Zutty gives him some emphatic support. The transition from Ory’s growling to Thompson’s smooth eighth-note runs is a mind-bogglingly wonderful. It’s followed by Bigard’s echoes-of-Ellington clarinet leading into Mutt Carey’s ancient growling...the history of jazz from the past to the present and back again!

After the rhythm section works out, Pops takes two again, beginning off-mike. Here’s the solo:

Like the previous version, he sticks to the text for his first chorus, though he ends it with one of his patented sign-off phrases. And again, instead of holding the one note, Armstrong just improvises a brand new batch of ideas, sounding dynamic. Everyone jams it out for two choruses, Zutty driving the band beautifully with Pops riding high. One of my favorite versions.

To cash in on the New Orleans fervor, Victor recorded a session featuring a small group from the film billed as “Louis Armstrong and His Dixieland Seven.” Once again, the band featured Pops, Ory, Bigard, Beal, Scott and Callender but now Minor “Ram” Hall filled in for Zutty. They did another version of “Mahogany Hall” and here’s how it came out:

Man, now we know why they called Minor Hall “Ram”! He keeps that backbeat going viciously throughout which might not be to everyone’s taste but Pops thrived from it and I find it pretty exciting myself. Like the other New Orleans versions, Armstrong only gets time for two choruses. Instead of displaying all the inventiveness he did for the soundtrack, Pops resorts back to the original 1929 solo, which, of course, is not a bad thing. He even holds the high note but then almost abruptly cuts it off at the start of what should have been his third chorus, leaving an giant void filled by the quiet rhythm section. It’s kind of an abrupt jolt and I remember the first time I ever heard this version, I thought something was wrong, but no, that was just the routine. Still an exciting version though I don’t think it’s as good as that soundtrack version with Lucky and Mutt.

By February 1947, the clamor for Armstrong to front a small group was continuing to grow. At a Carnegie Hall concert that month, Armstrong sat in with Edmond Hall’s sextet for half the show, then led his regular big band for the second half. The next day, the small group section was the talk of the town. The writing was on the wall.

“Mahogany Hall Stomp” was the third tune played at the concert. I’ve always enjoyed these small band sides but there was so sloppiness in the early part, probably due to nerves and a lack of rehearsal (they’re not on the same page on the different strains of “Muskrat Ramble,” Pops botches the lyrics to “Black and Blue” and a few other minor incidents). Nevertheless, there’s something fresh and loose to the playing and Pops definitely sounds pretty inspired by the setting.

For “Mahogany Hall,” Pops practically sets the tempo with his unaccompanied introduction and it’s interesting to see that it’s slower than both the two big band remakes and two of the three versions from the New Orleans period. He thrived at all tempos but perhaps liked it a little better at this foot-pattin’ pace. The most curious aspect of the Carnegie Hall version, however, is that Armstrong doesn’t take his solo. In a tribute to the great man himself, Hall’s trumpeter Irving “Mouse” Randolph plays Armstrong’s original solo, mute and all. He doesn’t hold the note as long in the second chorus, solving the problem by repeating the note for a few bars until he gathered enough steam. It’s a nice tribute and Armstrong sounds like he approves. Otherwise, Pops plays the rest of the open-horn lead, sounding good and obviously digging the backing of Hall’s group, which definitely sounds like the proto-All Stars. Here it is, from Carnegie Hall, February 8, 1947:

In May, Pops played the famous concert at Town Hall that practically began his new career as a small-group leader. He didn’t play “Mahogany Hall” at the concert but by November, it was a standard part of the All Stars’s concert repertoire. It was frequently played in the late 40s, disappeared in the early 50s, came back with a vengeance in the mid-50s and eventually disappeared altogether by the 1960s. To hear Pops’s various versions with the All Stars, come back tomorrow for the exciting conclusion to this 80th anniversary look at “Mahogany Hall Stomp.”

Need more Pops to hold you over until then? My trumpet-playing pal from Boston, Dave Whitney, wrote a loving overview of Armstrong’s Autobiography album at his own blog, better known as “Pete Kelly’s Blog.” Dig it by clicking here.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Mahogany Hall Stomp - Part 1

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 5, 1929
Track Time 3:18
Written by Spencer Williams
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, clarinet; Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Eddie Condon, banjo; Lonnie Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8680
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it but it’s also on a bunch of compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes

It’s taken me a few weeks to deliver this entry as promised but hopefully it’ll be worth the wait. Today, I’ll be looking at the history of “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” which Pops first recorded 80 years ago this month. In fact, he recorded it the same day as “Knockin’ A Jug” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” so if you really want to know the full background of this session, seek out those marathon posts from earlier this month. Also, I’m going to try something a little different because I know that sometimes my exhaustive looks at certain Armstrong works can get a little exhausting. Thus, I’m going to do “Mahogany Hall Stomp” in three parts, dealing with the first two studio recordings today, some 1940s renditions of it tomorrow and finally, some 1950s performances on Friday. Thus, you’ll be able to clear your mind a bit in between entires...and I’ll have more time to write!

To quickly recap, Armstrong came to New York in March 1929 for a short period of time to perform with Luis Russell’s orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom and two record two sides with the Russell band for OKeh. At a party thrown in Armstrong’s honor the previous night, Eddie Condon convinced Tommy Rockwell of OKeh to record some of the musicians present--black and white--because it would be tough to ever get another gathering like this again. The next morning, over a jug of whisky, a small integrated group recorded the classic blues “Knockin’ A Jug.” Later in the afternoon, Armstrong returned to front the Russell band on his first great recording of a pop tune, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”

With that behind him, it was time to turn back to New Orleans to do a Spencer Williams composition, “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” I’ve seen it written before that this was an older composition, something the bands in New Orleans used to play, but I have not been able to pinpoint that as a fact. What is indisputable, however, is what the song was named after. I’m going to let Floyd Levin take over:

“Mahogany Hall was an imposing three-story structure built from rough-hewn granite blocks. It stood at 335 Basin Street near Iberville, just a block away from Tom Anderson’s landmark saloon, the first barroom illuminated by electricity in the country....According to [Anderson’s] Blue Book, ‘Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, aside from the handsome women, possesses some of the most costly paintings in the South.’ The city’s most famous bordello was housed beneath castle-like turrets. It faced the Mississippi River, approximately a half-mile from the Canal Street ferry landing. ‘Lulu White’s parlor had mirrors that cast $30,000,’ Jelly Roll Morton recalled during his Library of Congress interview with curator Alan Lomax. Historian Danny Barker told me, ‘The place was all colored lights and mirrors--lots of mirrors--some even on the floor where the girls danced. You talk about miniskirts--their dresses were up to here. They wore lace stockings and big garters and not much else. Each girl kept a bill inside her stocking way up by her thigh. The denomination of the bill was the girl’s price. Some had $2 bills, some $5. Occasionally you’d spot a ten--not often.’”

The internet is a wonderful place so here are some photos I dug up after a quick search. Here’s the outside of Mahogany Hall:

And the inside, complete with a few working ladies:

Here’s the inside again, sans ladies:

And finally, Ms. Lulu White herself:

As Levin points out, there was a pretty clear connection between the song’s composer and the hall’s proprietor: “The famed New Orleans composer Spencer Williams was born in Mahogany Hall, the most glittering of all the Basin Street mansions. His mother, Bessie Williams, was Lulu White’s sister and one of the ‘entertainers’ at the hall. His loving ‘ants’ helped raise him. Williams’ classic compositions, ‘Mahogany Hall Stomp’ and ‘Basin Street Blues,’ were musical tributes to his birthplace.”

Who knows how many of the musicians in Russell’s bands had fond memories of performing at Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall (and yes, I mean that in multiple ways). Almost the entire Russell band was made up of Crescent City natives, including the two guest stars, Armstrong and pioneering guitarist Lonnie Johnson. The band dug their heels into this one and produced a joyous masterpiece. Give a listen:

The actual composition of “Mahogany Hall Stomp” isn’t much. After an opening stop-time introduction, the band plays a strain that resembles the old spiritual “Bye and Bye.” And after that, it turns into a 12-bar-blues. Yep, a spiritual and some blues...sounds like New Orleans to me!

There’s a little bit of sloppiness in this original recording, but it all adds to the spirit. Armstrong disappears for a second in the opening but recovers with a fleet-fingered break before he begins playing a wistful lead, obviously thinking about the old days. Behind him, the other horns play a semblance of an arrangement but different voices occasionally poke out either suggesting sloppy reading or spirited ensemble playing. Either way, it’s not much of an arrangement, but Armstrong’s lead stands out.

When the tune switches to the blues, bassist Pops Foster sounds momentary lost, sawing away with his bow and hitting a few off notes behind Charlie Holmes’s very good alto solo. After Holmes, the band drops out (except for Russell’s piano comping) and lets Lonnie Johnson take it for a dazzling unaccompanied chorus (Eddie Condon was there with his banjo and he’s audible on “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” but I can’t hear him on this one). Johnson was a giant and I think deserves equal billing with Eddie Lang when people talk about the first jazz guitar virtuosos.

But something happens while Johnson solos. It’s almost as if Armstrong huddled together with the rest of the band and said, “Hey, cats, let’s begin the Swing Era...RIGHT NOW.” Obviously, he didn’t say anything like that but all of a sudden when Pops takes his solo, the piece zooms ahead from the shaky, 1917-style two-beat of the first section to pulsating, swinging, sweating, modern jazz. Pops Foster ditches the bow and starts walking, Johnson doesn’t quit playing countermelodies and Pops takes over, mute in bell, for three of the most perfect choruses he ever blew. Listen to the solo again:

It’s one of those great Armstrong moments, more than likely improvised on the spot yet I don’t think anyone could have composed anything any better. The Armstrong “Mahogany Hall Stomp” solo comes in three flavors: the first chorus is rather relaxed and finds Armstrong taking a rather simple motive and playing it from every angle possible. The second chorus finds Armstrong marrying great feats of skill with pure crowd-pleasing showmanship as he holds a high Bb for the entire 12 measures, the tension mounting with each passing second. And finally, in his third chorus, Armstrong equates swinging with simplicity as he repeats a simple five note riff six times, the first four notes ascending and the last note dropping all the way back down like a weightlifter who bit off more than he could chew.

And listen to Johnson in with him every step of the way; it’s practically a duet! The rhythm section couldn’t swing any harder and Pops responds. J.C. Higginbotham’s trombone is next and though Higgy could usually be counted on to generate serious heat, he’s rather subdued here, probably knowing he couldn’t top Armstrong’s effort. Armstrong’s back almost instantly to rescue Higgy and, dragging the band behind him, swings out for two choruses. Again, some of the band sounds like they’re playing an arrangement but the rest seem content to improvise quietly without getting in Armstrong’s way. Armstrong almost pays them no mind. He used to talk about listening to the “band in his head” whenever he wasn’t happy with what was going on around him. I don’t want to come right out and say Armstrong wasn’t happy, but he sounds removed from their clumsiness. His lead swings like mad, especially with the sharp notes he plays to connect the choruses (the same rhythm he used to connect the second and third chorus of his solo) and he absolutely nails the ending. Perfection.

Even until today, that three-chorus trumpet solo is usually played when a band tackles “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” It’s practically become part of the composition. Armstrong trotted it out countless times over the years but he also enjoyed tinkering with it and improvising fresh ideas. For example, let’s look at his first remake, done for Victor in April 1933. I’ve often argued that Armstrong’s absolute peak as a trumpet player came during the Victor sessions of 1932 and 1933. His lip was starting to give him problems during live performances but on records, he was able to do it all. His style was made up of equal parts of the dazzling virtuosity of his 1920s playing and the operatic, powerhouse playing that was to come.

For “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” Armstrong was leading his own band, featuring the likes of Scoville Brown on alto saxophone, Yank Porter on drums, a young Teddy Wilson on piano and the Johnson brothers, trombonist Keg and tenor saxophonist Budd. This is only four years later but listen to how different the band sounds. Armstrong taught the world how to swing in the 1920s and by 1933, the big band scene was beginning to catch up. Here’s the Victor:

The tempo’s up, but Armstrong’s more than ready, gently caressing the opening strain, mixing equal doses of fleet phrases and some huge, burning high notes, the band accenting the first beat behind him, something he thrived from. Brown takes the first solo and it’s a swinging one. The band is smoking behind him, riffing like mad. The great Budd Johnson follows with a big, Hawkins-like solo (someone shouts “In there!”) but again, the main event is Pops. Once again muted, someone obviously forgot to tell Armstrong that his original solo was so classic, he wasn’t supposed to play anything else. Instead, Armstrong comes up with something even more dazzling:

Armstrong opens with a similar idea but proceeds to improvise some completely new ones before beginning the world’s slowest gliss. He begins it at the turn-around at the end of his first chorus and builds ever-so-slightly, higher and higher, before finally reaching the destination of high concert Bb midway through his second chorus, holding all the way (guitarist Mike McKendrick does his Lonnie Johnson impression, setting Pops up with some nice fill-in-the-crack riffs). In his third chorus, instead of playing the ascending, five-note riffs, Armstrong eliminates the middle man and just starts hurling glisses, one after another. Like I said, the man was at his peak.

Armstrong’s quickly followed by an incredibly exciting effort by trombonist Keg Johnson, who comes out scattering notes all over the place. Armstrong’s rideout, backed by riffs, is stunning. The way he alternates between the two high notes in the start of the last chorus is something he often did (I’m also thinking “Cake Walking Babies From Home” right now) and apparently, it came from King Oliver. In a 1956 Voice of America interview, Armstrong talked about hearing Oliver play “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” during parades in New Orleans and he specifically sung that exact two-note rhythm. By the way, during the same Voice of America interview, Armstrong chose this version of “Mahogany Hall Stomp” to play instead of any other.

That’s all for today. Tomorrow, I’ll continue with the 1936 Decca and some 1940s versions. Til then (and New York memebrs,don’t forget about the Chappie Willet concert tonight by Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks!).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Watch This Video, Order This Set And Go To This Concert!

As mentioned a few months ago, the wonderful people at Mosaic Records have decided to give Armstrong's Decca recordings of 1935-1946 the "Mosaic treatment," releasing all the material completely in an upcoming seven-disc box set. As discussed in recent weeks, my friend, the late Gösta Hägglöf, did a knock-out job on this material on his Ambassador label, but the Ambassadors were never easy to find in America. Also, Decca itself abandoned its own CD-reissue project of this material in the 90s, quitting after only three volumes.

Thus, for many people, Armstrong's Decca recordings have sadly become some of his least known works, though they were the favorites of many musicians coming up in the 30s and 40s and have continued to be the favorites of authorities as Gus and Michael Cogswell. I've written love letters to the them numerous times in this blog and look forward to doing it again when the set officially ships out in mid-April.

Until then, to whet the appetite, the world-famous "JazzVideoGuy," Bret Primack, took his camera over to the Institute of Jazz Studies and filmed a nine-minute promotional video for Mosaic featuring a typically informative interview with Dan Morgenstern. Few people know this material better than Dan and he makes a pretty convincing argument as to the importance of this period in Armstrong's career. The generous audio samples and beautiful photos just hammer home the point even more convincingly. Here's the video:

And here's the link to the Mosaic page for the set, where you can read the discography, listen to music samples and pre-order a copy. Do it...NOW!

And for the New York readers, I need to call attention to a concert that is going to take place tomorrow evening, Wednesday, March 25 and in my opinion is an absolute music event. I've mentioned my good buddy John Wriggle in this blog before. John and I graduated together from Rutgers Newark's Master's program in Jazz History and Research. Before I even met John, I knew about him because I heard Lewis Porter telling Dan Morgenstern that a new student was entering the program who was "the world's foremost authority on Chappie Willet."

Who? Chappie Willet was a dynamite Swing Era arranger who is sadly almost completely forgotten today. However, John Wriggle hasn't forgotten him and has done everything in his power--a Master's thesis, an Institute of Jazz Studies lecture, journal articles, a doctoral dissertation--to spread knowledge of Willet's music. Well, tomorrow, everything John has worked for is coming to a head as he will be presenting an evening of Willet's arrangements as performed by none other than the superb Vince Giordano and His Nighthawks. Unfortunately, your friendly blogger will be unable to attend this once-in-a-lifetime show but I'm sure my colleague Michael Steinman will be there so I'll point the way to his "Jazz Lives" blog in the coming days.

You might not know Chappie by name but if you're an Armstrong fan and you're familiar with the Decca period, you've heard his "Struttin' With Some Barbecue":

Or perhaps "Alexander's Ragtime Band":

And if you're familiar with the Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts, then you're very familiar with Chappie's work as it features a bunch of unrecorded Willet arrangements, three of which will be played at tomorrow's concerts (but John won't tell!). Here's Chappie's "Rhythm Jam":

And "After You've Gone:

That's all Chappie Willet, folks (well, with help from Pops)! But enough from me. The following is John's official e-mail about the concert with all the official particulars. If you can get there, don't miss it!
Blue Rhythm Fantasy: The Music of Chappie Willet
March 25, 2009, Elebash Recital Hall
CUNY Graduate Center, 365 Fifth Avenue @ 34th Street, New York City
Presentation 7:30pm, Concert 8:00pm

At 7:30pm on Wednesday, March 25, John Wriggle will present Vince Giordano & His (Augmented) Nighthawk Orchestra in performance at the City University of New York Graduate Center's Elebash Recital Hall. The program features the jazz big band music of composer and arranger Francis "Chappie" Willet (1907-1976), one of the forgotten giants of the Swing Era music world. Willet was best known for providing the production music for such iconic New York City venues as the Cotton Club
and Apollo Theater; his arrangements were originally performed by the jazz orchestras of Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Gene Krupa, Jimmie Lunceford, Lucky Millinder, and Red Norvo, among others.

Many of the selections on this unique program were never commercially recorded, and have been reconstructed from archival manuscripts, obscure stock arrangements, or radio aircheck recordings. Celebrate the legacy of Chappie Willet and the great swing big band arrangers with this live performance by an augmented version of the leading period jazz orchestra in New York City, Vince Giordano & His Nighthawks. Admission is free,limited to the first 180 attendees (no reservations; hall opens at
7:00pm). Information: jwriggle@gc.cuny.edu.

This event is made possible through the generous support of the Baisley Powell Elebash Fund, the City University of New York Graduate Center Music Department, and the Graduate Center's PhD-DMA Concert Office.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Blow, Gabriel, Blow

I haven't posted a video in a while so I figured this is a good way to begin another dreary Monday. It's the All Stars, the prime edition--Pops, Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Billy Kyle, Squire Gersh and Barrett Deems. Just last week, my trumpet-playing friend Phil Person told me that he once talked to Deems and Deems told him that Dizzy Gillespie came to see this edition of the group back in the 50s and told him it was the hardest swinging traditional jazz group he had ever seen. I can't argue with Diz! So here's Cole Porter's "Blow, Gabriel, Blow" from CBS's Ford Star Jubilee - You're The Top, broadcast on October 6, 1956:

Friday, March 20, 2009

George Avakian's 90th Birthday Party At Birdland

It's been a very busy week for me as I'm getting close to the finish line of my Armstrong book, meaning I had to put the blog on the back burner. But I did make it out to Birdland on Wednesday for the wonderful occasion of celebrating George Avakian's 90th birthday (!) at Birdland where David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band (aka The Gully Low Jazz Band) delivered a super-charged, beautifully swinging performance. But because I'm perpetually on the go these days I'm going to quit while I'm ahead and direct you to Michael Steinman's "Jazz Lives" blog. Michael was there, too, and he wrote a great blog on the event, complete with videos. Run, don't walk (or at least move your hand to mouse quicker than usual) and click here to dig it in it's entirety ("The famous...Ricky Riccardi"? My mother is going to be so proud!).

Thanks, Michael...and thank you George for EVERYTHING! It's was George's recordings of Pops in the 1950s that completely changed my life when I checked out a copy of a Columbia Armstrong compilation, 16 Most Requested Songs, way back as a high school kid in 1995. Thus, Armstrong's music and George's production/liner notes really are what led me here today. Thanks, George and here's to many more!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Louis Armstrong's Greatest Broadcast?

Before getting started, let me apologize for the three songs I left dangling on the page all day today. My internet crashed badly while I was still prepping music for this entry and it wouldn’t allow me to check my mail or go on Blogger or Google until the late afternoon (though oddly, it did let me check my Facebook). Anyway, I noticed some people already gave some the music a listen. Trust me, this stuff is so good, you don’t need a blabbermouth like me fooling around with all the grisly details. But I cannot be stopped so...

The title of this post is obviously slightly hyperbolic...or is it? I have so many great Louis Armstrong broadcasts in my collection, calling one single one the “greatest” takes a bit of nerve. I mean, there’s the Fleischmann’s shows from 1937, the many wartime broadcasts from the 1940s, many broadcasts from Philadelphia 1948 and 1949, a bunch of great ones from the Blue Note and Basin Street in the 1950s, etc. But the one that’s the subject of today’s blog is particularly stunning. I am going to share a total of 25 minutes and 19 seconds of music today...and the first 3:11 doesn’t even feature Pops. But those last 21 minutes? They simply contain one of the greatest solid chunks of blowing from Armstrong’s entire career.

Why am I sharing it today? Because this is the fourth and for now, final tribute to my dear departed friend Gösta Hägglöf. I’ve been discussing Gus’s legacy for over a week now and I’m sure he’ll remain a part of this blog in the years to come. Gus’s greatest legacy is arguably the series of Armstrong releases he issued with extreme love and affection on his Ambassador label. In recent years, the costs to distribute the Ambassadors became more and more and you could only order them through Gus himself on his Classic Jazz Productions website (in the 90s, they used to be in a lot of major music stores). Gus kept making them right to the end and he was full of great ideas for projects even as he was dying. Fans of Pops will be glad to know that Gösta’s brother Jan has written me the following message: “Also, I promised him to keep CJP alive, so the albums will be available for some time into the future. As soon as things have settled a little orders will be effectuated again.” Definitely good news!

But one of Gus’s greatest releases that sadly flew under the radar was Louis Armstrong At The Cotton Club, the tenth volume of the Ambassador series. The disc featured all sorts of rare broadcasts from 1939 through 1943, capturing Pops as he sounded night after night, playing his one-nighters. For the first time, Gus hired someone to write thorough liner notes, in this case the great Michael Steinman, years before his “Jazz Lives” blog took off. Gus himself offered up some chronological details of Armstrong’s career in this period and even included a number of rare advertisements.

The highlights of the disc are numerous: a rare live reading of Chappie Willet’s arrangement of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” versions of “Cash For Your Trash” and “I Never Knew” that prefaced their later Decca recordings and even some songs Armstrong never got to record such as “As Time Goes By.” But for me, the disc could have just included the contents of today’s broadcast and that would have been good enough for me.

Quick backstory: the broadcast comes from the Casa Manana in Culver City, California, a town Armstrong took by storm during his 1930 sojourn to the west coast. It was a busy period for Pops. In addition to the nightly gigs at the Casa Manana, Armstrong recorded his final Decca session before the recording ban and filmed four “Soundies” shorts. The Casa Manana material was only discovered in recent years and the “Cotton Club” disc contains a bunch of different material from the April stay. But for our intents and purposes, the only date that mattered was April 2.

Here was the personnel of the Armstrong band at the time: Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Bernard Flood, trumpets; George Washington, James Whitney, Henderson Chambers, trombone; Rupert Cole, Carle Frye, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Joe Garland, clarinet, tenor saxophone, bass saxophone, arranger; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; John Simmons, bass; Sidney Catlett, drums. It was a particularly fine edition of the group, really driven by that ace rhythm section (Catlett, Catlett, Catlett) and immortalized in the “Soundies.”

Louis Armstrong the big band leader was slightly different from Louis Armstrong the small group leader. With the All Stars, Pops was the show. He played lead, sang, told jokes, acted as emcee, played backing riffs, called the numbers, took solos on others features, etc. Even when he took a break to let another musician have a feature, he was usually back in two or three minutes to play a solo or a rideout chorus.

But with the big band, Armstrong was free to take more time off. He could feature the entire band on a number of instruments (he always managed to feature trumpet great Henry “Red” Allen while he was in the band). He had a male vocalist AND a female vocalist and almost never played on their stuff. And even on his own features, he had arrangements that usually followed a pattern of a melody chorus, a vocal and a dazzling trumpet flight to end the piece. Armstrong still worked his ass off but he had more downtime with the big band to build up to those tremendous finishes.

Thus, the surviving Casa Manana show from April 2 opens with an instrumental number done right before the broadcast went on the air. And the song? “In the Mood.” Now, don’t get too excited, hepcats, because Pops doesn’t play on this Swing Era anthem. But the song was tremendously popular and was co-written by Armstrong’s musical director of the period, Joe Garland. So here’s the Armstrong band--sans Armstrong--warming up on “In The Mood.” I don’t know who takes the trumpet solo, but in the words of Steinman, “The unidentified trumpet soloist had absorbed some of what his contemporaries were doing--listeners can hear some embryonic harmonic explorations appropriate to 1940 Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the requisite Swing Era cliches.” Here’s “In The Mood”:

As you can hear, the song faded out before its completion. Unfortunately, the only downside of the broadcast is that, because this was before the age of tape, these recordings were made on individual records which sometimes ran out before the song ended. But there was no Pops on that one so no big loss, right? Here’s the official beginning of the broadcast, 49 instrumental seconds of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” (Remember, Pops rarely sang it until he recorded it for Decca in 1951; he sang it on the Soundie film, but recorded an instrumental version the same week.)

Then it’s time for “Shine,” also made into a Soundie that month. Armstrong originally turned it into a signature piece--even with its offensive lyrics--way back in 1931 during his first California visit.

The lyrics probably made some people squirm but Pops always managed to transcend them (though by 1943, he was singing new lyrics about shining away your “bluesies,” a whole different kind of offensiveness because of the stupidity of the lyrics). By the early 40s, Armstrong had a sleek arrangement of the tune (probably by Garland) featuring some nice reed work in the opening chorus. Armstrong doesn’t sing until about a minute in either but by the time he picks up his horn, it’s obvious that the chops are well rested and ready to go.

Armstrong’s entrance is a wonderful moment as he gingerly plays with one note while Sid Catlett playfully follows his lead. But by the midway point of the first chorus, Armstrong’s already in the upper reaches of his horn. He doesn’t miss a single note in this solo, gaining momentum as he goes into a second chorus. His high notes are crystal clear and when Catlett starts piling on the backbeats...well, let’s just say that Culver City residents might have thought an earthquake was occurring. Number of bars of trumpet played: 76.

Next, a real treat, “Shoe Shine Boy,” one of Armstrong’s greatest Decca’s:

Armstrong clearly loved this song and he always sung the hell out of it. The band takes an interlude after the vocal but then it’s all trumpet from there. He opens in an introspective mood before uncorking a gem of a phrase after the first eight bars. The variations start in the second eight bars but stand back for the brute strength of the bridge, bluesy and completely in command. Catlett starts laying down the press rolls as Pops takes it out. Unfortunately, the record ran out so we miss out on Pops’s complete closing cadenza but what does survive is stunning. Number of bars of trumpet played: 32.

Then it time for a popular novelty Armstrong never got to commercially record, “Zoot Suit,” written by Wofe Gilbert and Bob O’Brien and recorded by Kay Kyser, The Andrews Sisters, Paul Whiteman, Bob Crosby and others. Here ‘tis:

George Washington usually played Armstrong’s foil but Pops clearly says “Prince” so I’m guessing that’s Prince Robinson indulging in a little dialogue with Pops in the beginning (and as Steinman wrote, his later tenor saxophone bridge “is straight out of early Hawkins”). Armstrong delivers the fun vocal and though it isn’t exactly Gershwin, that doesn’t stop him from blowing an incredible solo. As usual, the master storyteller starts in an easygoing manner, repeating a single note and playing what sounds almost like a quote from “Judy.” He starts climbing the ladder in the second eight bars but pulls back and heads for lower ground, not wanting to blow his top too early. He clearly digs the first minor change in the bridge and comes out of it by blowing the melody an octave higher. But stand back! Armstrong punishes his chops in the upper registers, hitting concert E’s and F’s and making the listener’s jaw drop. After Robinson’s interlude, Pops takes it out with a vocal, making a reference to “Soldier Boy Stuff,” probably his good friend “Stuff Crouch.” Number of bars of trumpet played: 48.

Now it’s time to revisit one of my favorites, “Basin Street Blues,” which I originally wrote about in my December entry on the history of that tune. Here it is again:

Doesn’t get much better than that. The tempo is faster than one would expect, foreshadowing Armstrong’s 1950s and 60s versions which always featured an uptempo second half. The band has another longish intro, allowing Pops’s chops to reboot before he takes a fun vocal (“beating up your chops on Basin Street”). But again the highlight is the long trumpet solo, which just keeps going and going. Armstrong tops himself with each successive chorus--four in all--Catlett driving him to great heights. In my “Basin Street” entry I shared another broadcast version of the tune from 1941 that’s great but not even in the same ballpark as this version, proof that Pops was having an outstanding night at the Casa Manana. My favorite moment occurs at the very end where it sounds like Armstrong’s going to end on a high F but doesn’t, hitting a lower Bb. But it’s just a con because after short duet with Catlett, Armstrong does indeed end on a freakish F, hitting it and HOLDING that mother. Numbers of bars of trumpet played: 72

Next, to slow it down for the dancers, Armstrong revisited an OKeh classic, “I Surrender Dear”:

Armstrong’s muted trumpet rendering of the melody is quite lovely and he always summoned up an incredible amount of passion on this vocal (he sang the hell out of on “The Mike Douglas Show” as late as 1970). The band takes over after the vocal, splitting duties with Pops, who is in positively soaring form. The whole track is incredible...but that bridge! The gliss up to the high D and the chromatic descent from it kills me every time. Once again, like “Shoe Shine Boy,” Catlett lays down the press rolls as Pops heads to the finish line. And once again, like “Shoe Shine Boy,” the original record ran out, even though it lasted 4:13. Oh well...what’s there is priceless. Number of bars of trumpet played: 48.

But priceless can’t even begin to describe the next and final performance, “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Years ago, I became deeply enraptured with Eddie Condon’s Town Hall broadcasts of 1944. On one of the first ones, vocalist Liza Morrow said she was going to perform “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” causing Condon to say, “That’s the favorite song of Louie Armstrong’s, isn’t it?” Morrow replied, “Well, it was one of his favorites; he recorded it.” I was always baffled by that exchange because Armstrong never recorded of it so how could it be one of his favorites?

But, as usual, the records don’t tell the complete story. That broadcast was done two full years after the Casa Manana version so it must have been a staple of Armstrong’s live repertoire. And the message of the song even fit Armstrong’s mood at the time as he was in the process of divorcing his third wife Alpha and would marry his fourth and final wife Lucille in October 1942. Armstrong already recorded a serious version of “I Used To Love You (But It’s All Over Now)” for Decca in 1941 and Ernie Anderson always thought Armstrong wrote “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” with Alpha in mind. Clearly, Armstrong learned the meaning of the blues through Alpha.

Enough from me. Stay put for the next 4:47 and prepared to be dazzled by the Louis Armstrong that time has forgotten:

The oddest part of the record is the arrangement which doesn’t feature Armstrong at all for one minute and 53 seconds. Still, it’s a creative arrangement and sets up Pops’s vocal with a neat modulation. This is one of my favorite Armstrong vocals because he sounds so serious and in real dire straights. The bridge is tailor-made for him, even when he has to push his voice a little high in the second half. (And it’s always great hearing the New Orleans accent come out on “heart-boins”.) Armstrong’s vocal ends to great applause but you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Catlett’s tom-toms build up the tension for Pops’s entrance--look out, he cracks the third note!

No need to fret. The man was human after all and perhaps the three minutes between the end of “I Surrender Dear” and the start of his solo cooled down the chops a bit. But seriously, never mind that tiny crack and just pay attention to what he’s doing: his favorite bit of playing the melody an octave higher. Catlett’s backbeat could not be any more emphatic and Armstrong’s tone never sounded cleaner. The power and emotion of it all is enough to break me down but we haven’t even hit the main event yet: a Herculean bridge that makes me want to shout, “No, Pops, don’t do it! You’re not going to make it!” He plays a number of sickening high concert Eb’s and you know he’s going to do try to go one higher. And sure enough, he does, squeezing out a high E that must have taken every ounce of his soul. Instead of even finishing the bridge, he pulls the horn away from his mouth and gleefully yells, “That’s the one!” The audience hoots and hollers. I applaud in my basement (my wife thinks I’m nuts). Number of bars of trumpet played: 22.

Total number of bars of trumpet played (including the short “Sleepy Time”): 306. 306 of the most perfect bars of trumpet Armstrong ever played in his career in just over 20 minutes. For Pops it was just another one-nighter. Did he really expect some nut to be obsessing about it 67 years later? Never. But I really think it might be his greatest broadcast (and I mean that in the strict sense of the word; I’m not including concerts or other live recordings). And it’s only 20 minutes of one night. This is what he was doing night in and night out during this period, probably the most neglected one of his career.

Mosaic Records’s box set will hopefully go a long way to righting this wrong. Gösta Hägglöf knew the importance of this period and devoted his life to issuing this material in complete fashion. But Gus knew that the studio recordings only told part of the story and always made sure to include live broadcasts to demonstrate the kinds of acrobatic flights Pops took every night. Unbelievable stuff. So once again, here’s to Gus...and here’s to Pops!


George Avakian turned 90 over the weekend. I know. 90! The occasion will be celebrated publicly at Birdland on Wednesday night as David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band will be performing from 5:30 until 8. The band is an all-star congregation with Randy Sandke, Anat Cohen, Wycliffe Gordon, Mark Shane, Kevin Dorn and Osti himself. It is definitely a night you won’t want to miss and I’ll be there front and center covering it all. Look for a recap later this week.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Louis Armstrong's 50 Hot Choruses

Continuing with part three of my tribute to my dear departed friend, and all-around friend of Pops, Gösta Hägglöf, I want to spend some time with one of Gösta’s greatest projects: the recreation with Bent Persson of Louis Armstrong’s “50 Hot Choruses.” I already discussed it in my first entry of Gus and I even included a sample, “Tia Juana,” which I noticed has been listened to quite often this week. And after reading Michael Steinman's excellent tribute to Gus this week, focusing on the “50 Hot Choruses,” I wanted to do something on them myself.

So what are the “50 Hot Choruses”? Well, for the answer, we must go back to the year 1927 and pianist Elmer Schoebel. Here’s Schoebel in 1968 discussing the project:

“During the Chicago days I was sharing office with Walter Melrose of the ‘Melrose Music Co.’ One day in 1927, Melrose said he was going to publish a set of Louis Armstrong breaks, but there was a technical problem of getting the Armstrong ‘hot’ breaks down on paper. Finally Melrose and I hit on the idea of having Armstrong record his breaks. We bought a $15 Edison cylinder phonograph and 50 wax cylinders, gave him to Louis and told him to play. The cylinders were duly filled up by Armstrong and the ‘breaks’ were copied into written for. I transcribed the ‘breaks’ which were published. These were not orchestrated at any time and were not made for that purpose. I had all the records (cylinders), later I turned them over to Melrose. When I was in Chicago, in 1949, a collector was offering $1000 per cylinder but Melrose and I couldn’t find them.”

The cylinders have never appeared but many collectors still sought out the original folio, which looked like this:

I even found a website ("The Scream Online") that transcribed the original forward:

“Throughout the world the name of Louis Armstrong is known to thousands of musicians. It is a byword with the interpreters of jazz and commands at all times a place of honor. During the past few years jazz music has come into international vogue. Armstrong was among the pioneer proponents that brought it into popularity and has been a big factor in keeping it to the front. His influence is felt everywhere. Hundreds of jazz cornetists, who, by the way are an important feature in all dance orchestras, have adopted the Armstrong style of playing. His ability is enthusiastically endorsed by all the great and near great.
“The solos in this book depart in principle of production from any solos on the market. They are genuine inspirations obtained, not by the old method of the artist writing down his solos one note at a time, but from actual recordings. Special phonograph recording apparatus was employed to make them. They are red hot inspirations extracted from red hot jazz recordings.
“If you want to get hot and stay hot, play these solos. They will prove invaluable to all jazz cornetists as they can be used in playing any of the famous selections in this book. All cornet strains are indicated by letter or number and correspond with the same strain as marked in the orchestration. Therefore, all that is necessary is to place this book on the stand next to the orchestration—then when the orchestra reaches the cornet strain read your book instead of the orchestration. If you will do this and carefully observe all markings and phrasing, we guarantee that the results will be overwhelmingly satisfactory.”
Though the title said “50 Hot Choruses,” the book actually included 53 tunes and many breaks...125 to be exact. This was Louis Armstrong in his peak, 1927, the year of the Hot Seven and some of the greatest Hot Fives. And here he was, playing his heart out on many tunes he would never again perform (some, though, reappeared later in his career). Oh, how he must have sounded...
Well, that’s what Gus wanted to know, too. So with the help of the great Swedish trumpeter Bent Persson, the two began the project in 1974...and didn’t complete it until 2002! It took many years and many different people but Gus finally got the complete project done, issuing it originally on LPs and finally in complete fashion on his Kenneth label.

As I wrote earlier, Bent’s playing is something to marvel at but really, I love the idea of placing the solos and breaks in different settings: Armstrong with just a piano, in a Hot Five or Seven-surrounding, with a mock “Fletcher Henderson” group, with almost Bix-ian bands and so on.

For this blog, I don’t want to talk too much but I would like to share 11 of these performances, showcasing the many different settings featured in the series. For example: what if Armstrong recorded as part of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers? Here’s “Kansas City Stomps” from 1976. The original Armstrong solo comes at the 1:40 mark, the two 16-bar choruses in between the trombone statements. The breaks in the closing coda are also Pops’s:

For the next one, a bonus for all the musicians in the house. The website “The Scream” which I already linked to included a few examples from the book. Unfortunately, I can’t include them here but if you’d like to see the transcription for “Black Bottom Stomp” click here. And if you’d just like to listen, here ‘tis (Pops’s solo is the 16-bar one after the clarinet solo as is the break in the first ensemble chorus after the banjo solo):

For “Angry,” the group added a wonderful Pops-like vocal by Nils Rehman. The break before the verse is Pops but the actual verse playing over the banjo is Bent. However, the 32-bar solo after the soprano saxophone of Tomas Ornberg is Pops:

In 1979, the group did a hot version of “King Porter Stomp,” another Jelly Roll tune probably best known for the version(s) by Fletcher Henderson. Again, if you’d like to see the original transcription, click here. After the piano solo by Ulf Lindberg, it’s all Pops for a 16-bar chorus followed by an incredibly smoking 18-bar close. Scorching stuff!

Speaking of Henderson, Armstrong recorded “Sugar Foot Stomp” with that group in 1925 and this version mimics the original almost to a tee. Basically a reworking of King Oliver’s “Dipper Mouth Blues,” Pops liked to put his own spin on Oliver’s famed three-chorus solo. For another transcription, click here. For the music, complete with three choruses by Pops/Bent, this is the place to hear it:

And while we’re on the subject of Oliver, here’s “Jackass Blues,” featuring Pops digging out Oliver’s old “Jazzin’ Babies Blues” solo for the first time, used memorably in 1928 on “Muggles.”

How about a little trumpet and piano action? Here’s “High Society” featuring Bent and Ulf Johansson in 1977. I think Ulf’s great, with bits and pieces of Jelly Roll, Fatha Hines and even the pounding chords of Lil Hardin. Bent’s dynamite the entire time playing his own stuff, then takes off for Pops’s original transcribed solo, which takes up the final 32 bars of the song (the tune’s six breaks are all from Armstrong’s mind and Bent’s fingers, too).

Time and space prevents me from listing all the swinging Swedish musicians involved in the project but for an example of how hard these cats swung listen to this romp through Santo Pecora’s “She’s Crying For Me.” Only 16-bar trumpet solo is Louis’s; the rest is just wonderful hot jazz, backed by Christer Ekhe’s superb authentic drumming:

“Tin Roof Blues” became a staple of the All Stars years but here’s proof that Pops was familiar with it back in 1927. The two choruses after the piano solo are Pops’s (click here for more sheet music). Listen to the genius of Pops in full-flight in his second 12-bars as he completely deconstructs the melody of the song, much as he did with “Twelfth Street Rag” that same year:

“Tin Roof Blues” came from 1996. The project was still going strong at the time of its final session in 2002 which produced this neat version of “Maple Leaf Rag” placing Bent in a four-piece combo with Frans Sjostrom’s baritone saxophone, Ulf Lindberg’s piano and Jacob Ullberger’s banjo. The crazy breaks in the beginning are Armstrong’s, as is the trumpet chorus after the piano solo (again, the other fantastic playing is all Bent):

I want to close with “Milenberg Joys.” Persson originally recorded it as a duet with pianist Ulf Johansson in 1979. But in 2000, he remade it with a larger nine-piece group for this swinging performance. The three breaks, including the introductory one, are all Pops’s but the highlight is the closing 34-bar solo, which opens with such a righteous phrase, you can’t help but shout, “Yeah!” Pops even trots out a break he originally stunned the world with on Clarence Williams’s “Cake Walking Babies From Home.” One of my favorites:

So again, here’s to the late Gösta and to his partner-in-crime, the magical Bent Persson, for giving us this beautifully executed project. Please search the Internet for copies of all three volumes because they’re equally fantastic. And as always, here’s to Pops and his mind for giving us all those great choruses and breaks in the first place!

Now, who is going to find the original cylinders!?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

A Tribute To Gösta Hägglöf In Photos

After my personal tribute to the late Gösta Hägglöf on Sunday, I have received many e-mails, comments and even phone calls from people who were similarly touched by our friend Gus. Everyone agrees that few people have ever loved Pops more or done more for his music, making Gus's loss even more devastating. But at least we have a tangible legacy in the wonderful recordings he produced and reissued on his assorted labels. And for those who knew him, there will always be the memories.

As already stated, I only had an e-mail relationship with Gus but he always took time to offer stories, encouragement, questions, comments and other interesting facts in his letters. And though I never asked for them, he always attached photographs. Thus, in today's posting, I want to share some of the many photos of Pops he was gracious enough to share with me, as well as a few photos of Gus himself. What's a photo montage without music, though, right? So for a proper somber mood, feel free to listen along to this magical 1956 Armstrong version of "Memories of You" as we take a look at some memories of Pops and Gösta.

Gus's photos went way back, including this one of Louis, Lil, Earl Hines and others vacationing in Idlewild, Michigan in 1928:

Here's a fantastic action shot of Pops during his European sabbatical in Turin, Italy, 1934:

In October, Gus sent me an e-mail with the subject line, "Ships." "Hi Ricky," he wrote. "Thought you would be interested in how Louis travelled to Europe the first years. Enclosed you can see those steamships.: Majestic to England 1932, Homeric to England 1933 and Champlain (probably from Plymouth) to New York 1935. Dig!" Sure enough, attached three photos. Here's the Majestic:

The Homeric:

And The Champlain:

Armstrong took the Champlain back to New York to begin his "comeback." He soon hired Joe Glaser, got a contract with Decca and really took off. Here's a wonderful photo of Louis performing in 1935. I never got to ask Gus for his opinion, but I think this must be a performance of "Shoe Shine Boy." Sammy Cahn later gave an interview in which he said it was written for a stage show ("Connie's Hot Chocolates of 1936") for Armstrong to perform to a young actor portraying the titular character. Here's the wonderful picture:

The rest of the photos Gus sent me were mainly of Armstrong's last 20 years so there's no real need to keep a strict chronology. Here's a great shot of Armstrong and Robert Merrill from 1955. The two shared a bill in Vegas and did an act where Merrill would sing "Honeysuckle Rose" and Pops would do "Vesti la Giubba." They even got to do the act on the Ed Sullivan Show. I have the audio and it's a riot.

Here's Pops in all his glory:

This might be my personal favorite. Armstrong during a rehearsal before a show at Lewisohn Stadium. Worth a thousand (or more) words...

Here's a Jack Bradley portrait of Pops and arranger Tutti Camarata during the 1968 Disney Songs The Satchmo Way sessions:

Louis in Honolulu, I'm guessing during the All Stars's 1952 trip (Lucille looks pretty young):

Louis and Grace Kelly, who adored Pops and even invited him to her wedding in 1956 after the filming of High Society (he had to decline because the All Stars were booked on a tour of Australia):

Pops with his spectacles, a candid backstage shot:

Here's a Christmas greeting Gus sent me. I don't know if he made it or where he got it, but I like it!

Pops onstage in London, May 1956:

And finally, a fun shot of Louis and Lucillle on a plane. Where are they traveling? Could be anywhere...

I'd like to close this entry with some photos of Gus. I already included some in my last posting, including one of Joe Muranyi sitting in with Gus's band, the Royal Blue Melodians. Joe wrote me personally today, saying, "Gosta was a unique piece of work. The 'World of Louis Armstrong' has taken a big hit with his passing. He dug Louis!" Here's a picture of the two in 2005:

In 1977, Gus moved into the house he would occupy until his passing. George Avakian spent time there while visiting Sweden and wrote, "'Gus' Hägglöf was an unsung giant of research. (He was also an excellent host and cook – lunch at his home was a treat.) He remains irreplaceable." Gus was proud of it and even sent along this picture with a serious, but humorous note: " I had to enlarge the upper part getting more room for Pops."

Louis Armstrong is still quite a phenomenon in Europre and especially, it seems, in Sweden. Some of the top Pops experts in that country would meet on a yearly basis to do nothing but listen to, watch and discuss Pops. The meeting included a bunch of my readers, people I've mentioned many times such as Håkan Forsberg, Peter WInberg and Sven-Olof Lindman. Gus sent along this picture of their 2007 meeting, writing, " The 'frail' one in red is yours truly. Shit - one really looks 73! Say sump'n!" (Forsberg is in the background while Lindman is in between.)

Sven-Olof Lindman wrote me, too, after Gus's passing and included a photo of Gus in his music studio from May 2007. I think it's a wonderful portrait and a fitting conclusion to this second part of my tribute to Gösta. Next up, I'll examine some of those "50 Hot Choruses" recordings he made and finally, I'll play some of the ultra-rare broadcasts Gus helped share with the public. To Gösta!