Monday, June 1, 2009

Jazz Me Blues

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded July 5, 1951 and May 17, 1962
Track Time 3:44 in 1951 and 5:23 in 1962
Written by Tom Delaney
Recorded in Chicago in 1951 and Nice, France in 1962
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; In 1951: Jack Teagarden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums. In 1962: Trummy Young, trombone; Joe Darnesbourg, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Billy Cronk, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums
Currently available on CD: The 1951 version is on the Ambassador disc, When You and I Were Young Maggie; the 1962 version is on The Katanga Concert
Available on Itunes? Only the 1962

A common misconception about Louis Armstrong and the All Stars is that they were a Dixieland band. Yikes. Dixieland. The dreaded "D" word. Armstrong, a staunch opponent of categories, never thought of them as that, once saying about one of his records, "I wouldn’t call them Dixieland—to me that’s only just a little better than bop." But most people see the New Orleans front line of trumpet, trombone and clarinet, hear the seemingly frantic, collective ensembles and look at the traditional warhorses the group played such as "Muskrat Ramble" and "When the Saints Go Marchin'" in and immediately stamp them as a Dixie outfit.

But anyone who really, really listens to the All Stars knows this was simply not true. At the National Jazz Museum in Harlem last month, All Stars pianist Marty Napoleon discussed how when he was called to join the band in 1952, he thought he was joining a Dixie band. It only took a few seconds for him to realize that there was nothing old-fashioned about this group. "It was a swing band," Marty said and he wasn't kidding. The All Stars swung tremendously, with no hints of any stodgy Dixie two-beats. Soloists often got background riffs, another throwback to Armstrong's days as a big band leader. And when Armstrong did play a traditional warhorse, like the aforementioned "Saints," or "Basin Street Blues" or "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," it was because HE introduced it and an evening with Louis Armstrong often including nothing but songs associated with the man of the hour (he could have titled his All Stars shows "A Man and His Music," a la Frank Sinatra).

So that's a slightly long-winded attempt to debunk the myth that Louis Armstrong played Dixieland. And with that out of the way...let's listen to Louis Armstrong playing Dixieland.

Nothing's as simple as it seems, huh? In my research on Armstrong's later years, I've noticed some period articles referring to the All Stars occasionally playing Dixieland chestnuts such as "Fidgety Feet." Joe Darnesbourg admitted that Armstrong mostly played the same songs--the "hits"--at concerts, but at dances, anything went and he remembered Armstrong calling something like "Original Dixieland One-Step." Now, sadly, no recordings exist of the All Stars playing those numbers. There are many surviving exciting versions of "That's a Plenty," to name one, but really, the Armstrong discography is lacking in non-Armstrong-associated Dixie numbers.

And then there's "Jazz Me Blues." This number, often associated with Dixie groups, survives in exactly two recordings in the Armstrong discography: a broadcast from Chicago in 1951 and a concert from France in 1962. 11 years apart, two completely different bands, two completely different settings. Of course, this leads to the logical question, how many times did Louis Armstrong play this number when recording devices WEREN'T present? That we'll never know but it does throw a wrench into the thinking that the All Stars played the same songs rigidly every night. Complicated stuff...

But enough from me, let's get to the music. The two versions of "Jazz Me Blues" are very valuable because the equation of Louis Armstrong + Breaks always equals a good time. So without further ado, let's travel to Chicago, July 1951, to hear the first, hot, Armstrong version of "Jazz Me Blues":

Earl Hines sets a pretty brisk tempo during his introduction, winning Armstrong's approval, shown with an enthusiastically sung "Solid!" The band tears into the first strain, sounding pretty tight, and it's only a matter of seconds before Armstrong launches into his first dazzling break. When he comes out of it, he phrases the melody behind the beat a bit, leaving space at the beginning of his phrases before another break. The ensemble then takes two choruses of the main strain, Armstrong taking two full breaks, plus the stop-time passages that end each chorus. For the most part, he sounds dazzling but a couple of the breaks are a teeny bit shaky; okay, shaky's not the right word, but there's a difference between the smoking ones and some that are merely very good.

Hines takes a great solo, followed by a spot for Arvell Shaw's bass before another ensemble chorus with even more Armstrong breaks. Bigard takes a pretty good solo (Jack Teagarden sounds impressed by his break) before a great Teagarden outing. In the final chorus, Armstrong passes the breaks over to Shaw's bass before a standard All Stars ending. A very hot performance and a great showcase for Armstrong's breaks but honestly, I find the rest of the band to be sort of going through the motions. Really, they don't generate much heat and all the ensembles--minus Armstrong's scorching efforts--kind of pass by in almost a safe, harmless way. In a matter of months, Shaw, Hines and Teagarden would be gone; clearly this band was on fumes.

Now let's flash all the way to 1962. Armstrong was now 60 years old and had become an international icon. Critics complained that his repertory shrank and that his trumpet playing was out-of-date but Pops still had a lot of surprises left in him. I always defend the size of the All Stars band book but even I have to admit that by 1962, especially when playing in Europe, Armstrong had boiled it down to mainly his best-known numbers. Many concerts survive from that tour and there are very few surprises...but that's not to say that there's none. A show from Hildesheim, Germany featured a wonderful "I Get Ideas." And in Nice, France, Pops played "Jazz Me Blues," "C'est Si Bon," "Basin Street Blues" and "Margie," four songs that don't survive from any of the other concerts from that tour! So complicated...

The highlight of the Nice show undoubtably is "Jazz Me Blues." Armstrong doesn't shy away from its Dixie associations, introducing it as "a good, old Dixieland number" and mentioning that it's a request. It might have been a request, but the band sounds pretty comfortable with it so again, who knows how many times they played it. But I think it's one of the highlights of Armstrong's later years. I'm not alone, as it's also a favorite of All Stars clarinetist Joe Muranyi. Once, while talking to Joe about Armstrong's later years, he specifically brought up this performance. Pardon his French, but I think it conveys the excitement of this performance: "Louie plays ‘Jazz Me Blues’ and he plays fucking out of sight," Muranyi said. "He takes breaks and it’s like, Jesus Christ!" Give it a listen and maybe you'll have the same reaction:

Immediately, you'll notice a slower tempo than the 1951 version, the band settling into a two-beat groove that doesn't sound like the All Stars until they start swinging on the main strain. Perhaps Armstrong felt more comfortable at this tempo at the age of 60 and admittedly, it adds a lot more poise and logic to those breaks. And, what breaks! I just used the word logic and I'll use it again; every single break Armstrong takes on this performance is so logical and brilliantly executed that it makes the mind boggle. I'm not going to go break for break with passionate analysis; they speak for themselves. They also build in intensity; the first one of the second strain, where he plays that chromatic run up to the high note, is especially scorching. He follows it with another break that is a quote from WIllard Robison's standard "A Cottage For Sale." (Thanks to Boston hornmen Al Basile and Dave Whitney for clogging up my brain fart; how did I not know that when I first published this?) Armstrong was a master quoter but this is the only time I know of that he quoted this standard. A great moment.

Like 1951, the arrangement is the same, with piano and bass solos following the opening ensembles. After Billy Cronk's bass, Armstrong comes back to play lead for a full chorus, perhaps my favorite part of the performance. The sound quality almost gives out for a second but it comes back nicely for Armstrong's first break, which is dynamite. His lead playing is admirably relaxed, building up to my favorite break, one that ends with a phrase that was a calling card of the legendary stride pianist Willie "The Lion" Smith! Armstrong the genius, still full of ideas in 1962.

Clarinet and trombone solos follow before the final ensemble, where once again, the breaks are handed over to the bass player. I find Armstrong's lead playing remarkably assured, making those quarter notes swing much like his mentor, Joe "King" Oliver. By this point, I'm grooving to this tempo like mad; I love hot versions of "Jazz Me Blues" but by slowing it down a bit, he unleashed a whole other dimension of swing not present on the somewhat static version from 1951. A classic performance all around and another example of the glories of Louis Armstrong later career. Don't take anything for granted...just enjoy the music!


Rich said...

Thanks for sharing. I've become kind of obsessed with this song after hearing about 300 different Pete Fountain versions of this tune.

Uncle Jack said...

Most enjoyable commentary and sampling. Pete Fountain was another great musician who took a lot of pounding from critics for "going commercial" but to my ears he always swung no matter what he was playing or with whom.