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.