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.”

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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.

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