Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Ain't Misbehavin': The 1940s Versions

As usual, I must begin with my usual apology for the graphic delay in between these posts. This has been by far one of the busiest months of my life, but all in a good way. My three Armstrong lectures in Harlem were a blast but now, in exactly 48 hours, I'll be touching down at Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans for this year's Satchmo Summerfest. I'll be making three more presentations down there and talking non-stop Pops with heavy hitters like Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, Robert O'Meally, Michael Cogswell and David Ostwald. It's going to be a ball and like last year, you can expect some live blogging, photos and other information as I live out what should be a glorious weekend (though I'll be away from the wife and baby and that's bumming me out). And while I'm down there, on August 1, I'm contractually obligated to hand in the manuscript of my Armstrong book to my editor at Pantheon. There's a long way to go there--editing, fact-checking, photo selection, so much more--but it still represents a major step.

With all of that looking me in the eye, I still wanted to make time to get another one of these "Ain't Misbehavin'" blogs out there. Today will focus on the 1940s, which was THE decade of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in Armstrong's career. I have over ten versions in my collection from this decade...and I'd be a nut to share all ten. But I'd at least like to pepper in four or five because this is probably going to me last "normal" blog until I get back from the Crescent City, so you can savor each version at your own pace over the coming days.

So let's jump right in with the first version I'd like to share, taken from a Jubilee radio broadcast down in the early spring of 1943. In my last post, I shared two broadcast versions (with Victor Young's orchestra and Benny Goodman's sextet) and the 1938 Decca studio version made up by a group of session musicians. Finally, for the first time since 1929's original recording, we'll hear how Armstrong's own big band tackled the timeless Fats Waller standard. Dig it:

The band stomps it off at a jumping medium tempo, driven by drummer Chick Morrison's accents and four-to-the-floor bass drum playing. After eight bars, Armstrong's trumpet enters to play eight bars of melody and the bridge, sticking fairly straight to the written music. The band swings out the final eight (Armstrong shouting his approval in the background) before Joe Garland tenor saxophone break sets up Armstrong's vocal, almost every syllable--English and scatted--perfectly in place (listen to what he does on one pitch in the final eight bars). I believe that's Garland's tenor following the vocal, while (again, a guess), Rupert Cole's alto handles the bridge. Then Armstrong enters with his signature spiraling downward breaks for a good run at his set solo (hello, "Rhapsody and Blue" quote, our old friend). Armstrong and the band wail towards the finish before Pops goes into a fun extended coda, urged on by the hand-claps and cheerleading of trombonist George Washington. Pops gets downright bluesy and the slow climb the top is a fun trip. Good stuff.

The following year, Armstrong appeared in a Republic film, Atlantic City, performing "Ain't Misbehavin'." Armstrong was set up by a young Dorothy Dandridge doing "Harlem on Parade," leading seamlessly to Armstrong's performance of today's featured number. It's a good version because the tempo is the slowest we've hard possibly since the original 1929 recording. Unfortunately, the only version of it uploaded online abruptly ends during Armstrong's trumpet solo. It's a shame because, as you can hear, Armstrong was full of all sorts of new ideas for the occasion. Still, it's a joy watching him sing it in the only surviving footage of Pops perform this number:

During 1944 and 1945, Armstrong performed "Ain't Misbehavin'" almost every time he appeared on the radio, perhaps because of the exposure from Atlantic City. We'd be hear for a month if I shared all of them so I've decided to pick my favorite one from an ABC Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands broadcast of September 12, 1944. This version has a lot to recommend besides Armstrong's terrific singing and playing. For one, there's the hilariously unhip announcer joyfully introducing it as "Ain't Misbelievin'"! But for the sake of jazz history, it's a great glimpse of young Dexter Gordon, who was personally hired by Pops after he heard the tenor legend at a Los Angeles jam session. Gordon's deep in his Lester Young bag here (save for a few Illinois Jacquet-type squeals) in his final eight and it's a kick hearing Pops intone, "Brother Dexter!" It's only a year after the Jubilee broadcast but the arrangement is different, eliminating Armstrong's opening reading of the melody as well as the extended coda. Enough from me, here's the audio:

We're now going to swing out all the way to 1947, usually known as the year of the famed Town Hall concert and the birth of Armstrong's small group, the All Stars. But before getting to Town Hall, Armstrong spent some time experimenting with small groups earlier that year. On February 7, he took part in a Carnegie Hall concert that found him fronting Edmond Hall's sextet for a set of good old good ones, mostly songs Armstrong probably hadn't played with regularity in years. The second half featured Armstrong's regular big band with special guests Billie Holiday and Big Sid Catlett but the next day, all anyone could talk about was hearing Armstrong in that small group setting during the first half. Honestly, the first half had its share of ragged moments but it cannot be denied that Armstrong definitely played with a sense of inspired abandon. The first half closed with this romp on "Ain't Misbehavin'":

With no big band and no arrangement, Armstrong was forced to jump headfirst into the opening ensemble with 24 bars of melody playing, handing the ball over to trumpeter Irving "Mouse" Randolph for the final eight. The vocal is a swinging one with great Hall backing before the spiky clarinetist takes a free-wheeling half-chorus, driven by Jimmy Crawford's drumming (that's Henderson Chamber's trombone on the bridge if you're keeping score at home). Then Pops enters with his patented break and tears into his established solo. The rest of the band doesn't quite know what to do behind him, some playing countermelodies, others holding harmony notes but finally, after the bridge everyone jumps in for a jammed ending, finding Armstrong taking some chances. It was a swinging way to end a pretty historic set.

Two months later, on April 26, 1947, Armstrong appeared on a WNEW broadcast of the Saturday Night Swing Show, hosted by Art Ford. One again, Pops was placed in a small group setting, joined by Jack Teagarden on trombone in the front line...and the accordion of Irving "Roy" Ross, whose contributions are perfectly suitable for the occasion. After the Town Hall version, this is my favorite one from the 1940s. Here 'tis:

The tempo is up again (dig Big Sid on drums) and Pops is incredibly inspired form, tearing through the opening ensemble and crafting one of the best vocals he ever took on this song. Just listen to those last eight bars, where he sings it all on almost one pitch, goes up for the word "radio"...and just holds it! Apologies to Andy Razaf for leaving out a chunk of his lyrics, but it's a terrific touch. Teagarden then takes 16 (Pops warming up quietly in the background) before a surprising half-chorus by Pops made up of entirely fresh ideas. The inspiration continues into the final chorus where, except for the patented breaks, Armstrong infuses his playing with a number of fresh ideas. One of my favorites.

Less than a month later, the historic Town Hall concert took place. I shouldn't have to go into too much detail on that evening other than to say that what started out as a one-time-only concert opened the door for the last 24 years of Armstrong's career as the leader of a small group. The concert was recorded but for decades, Victor only released the six sides they deemed to feature the best sound quality. All six are classics of classics but finally, when the rest of the concert surfaced, listeners could finally hear that the entire evening's performance, not just those elite six, were ones to remember. But "Ain't Misbehavin'" was one of the six originals to be released and has been granted legendary status for over 60 years. There's not much I can say other than please give this one a listen and be prepared to spend four of the best minutes you'll have all day!

Doesn't get any better, right from the opening ensemble. Armstrong's inspired from note one, getting tremendously creative backing by Sid Catlett, who should get a co-starring credit on this performance. The final eight bars of the opening chorus are handled by the evening's music director, cornetist Bobby Hackett, an Armstrong worshipper tried and true. Armstrong, as usual, sings the hell out of it, getting nice backing by Dick Cary's piano, Jack Teagarden's trombone, Peanuts Hucko's clarinet and Hackett. Armstrong sings more than just the "radio" line this time around but still edits out the final "for you" in order to bring Hucko up for a solo (I love Sid Catlett). Hackett then takes a typically lyrical 16 bars (I love Sid Catlett) before Teagarden takes a full chorus--a classic--getting some light riffs behind him at the start (I love Sid Catlett). And then it's time for Pops, who plays his set solo that we've heard now multiple times. But this time it seems different; there's the historic nature of the night, the empathetic playing of the other musicians on stage, the drumming of Sid Catlett (I love Sid Catlett), everything, all the stars aligned to create this truly timeless performance.

Well, as history goes, Town Hall showed Armstrong (and Joe Glaser) the road to take and by August of 1947, the All Stars were born. In February 1948, they headed to Europe for the first time to play Hughes Panassie's international jazz festival in Nice, France. A recording survives of the group tackling "Ain't Misbehavin'" there and after the fireworks of the Town Hall version, it makes for an interesting listen:

First off, you can hear the tempo is back down to a medium bounce, almost on the slow side, the slowest tempo we've encountered since the 1944 film clip. Also, it opens with the Armstrong vocal, which makes me wonder if this was an incomplete performance. You can hear Armstrong sweating and swinging on the uptempo versions but there's something equally gratifying at hearing him relax and indulge in a little more storytelling at this tempo (dig Sid Catlett giving him some stop-time accents during the bridge, though nobody else stops). The tempo is slow enough for Armstrong to immediately pick up his horn and go into his concluding solo. "Rhapsody" is there but otherwise, this is a relaxed, free-floating solo, in relation to the 1929 version in terms of approach. Catlett begins laying out the backbeats during the bridge and Pops rides them beautifully, right into the finish line. A nice, relaxed performance.

There aren't many surviving versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'" in the All Stars discography but there's at least one version from every year between 1947 and 1952; thus, if there's one version, you can probably multiply it by one hundred to get a grasp of how many times Armstrong played it each year. To close out this look at "Ain't Misbehavin'," here are the All Stars playing it at The Click in Philadelphia on August 5, 1949, with Cozy Cole replacing Catlett on drums. Here 'tis:

Well, I suppose I should apologize for the somewhat annoying sound quality early on, with a sound that I once described as sounding like someone tapping on a glass bottle for about half the performance. It's annoying, but don't let it detract you from the superb music. Once again, the tempo is up a bit, but not quite the quick pace of those 1947 versions. Armstrong's back to playing a chorus of melody up front. After the vocal, we hear from Jack Teagarden, opening with a quote from "Mean to Me." Clarinetist Barney Bigard takes the bridge, but unfortunately, Pops swoops in and takes eight exciting bars towards the finish and never plays his entire chorus. Were they running out of time? We'll never know for sure why Pops cut it short but still, it's a very nice version and Teagarden's playing gets me every time.

That concludes this look at "Ain't Misbehavin'" in the 1940s. I'll be back later in the week with updates from New Orleans before completing the "Ain't Misbehavin'" saga next week. S'all for now, I'm off to the land of the red beans!

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