Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Eddie Condon Floor Show - August 27, 1949

Continuing onward with our look at Louis Armstrong's appearances on the Eddie Condon Floor Show, we're now going backwards to August 27, 1949 after listening to the September 3 and September 10 shows last week. As I mentioned, the All Stars began a long, record-breaking run at Bop City in New York in August so Pops had some free time on Saturdays to make the drive in from his home in Queens to do a TV spot before heading to his gig. (And Pops breaking records at a place named Bop City is as ironic as it gets since he spent the entire summer blasting that "modern malice" in every interview he gave.)

Once again, I've edited the four surviving Armstrong performances into one, long 26-minute track. I used three different sources to piece it together, and you'll easily hear the difference in sound quality. Regardless of that, the music is pretty special. Here's the audio:

We open with a real treat, "We Called It Music," a special number written to coincide with the title of Condon's great autobiography, just published the previous year. It features Jack Teagarden as the judge arguing about all the controversy in the music world and even gets in a swipe at "that re-bop slop." It's a pretty musical courtroom, with Teagarden introducing all the musicians one-by-one to take a chorus on the blues. Condon and his gang recorded a studio version of "We Called It Music" around this time, a rocking version complete with boogie-woogie piano and hand claps. If you'd like to hear the studio version, with Peanuts Hucko, Bobby Hackett, a growling Max Kaminsky and Ernie Caceres, click here:

Isn't that a lot of fun? As great as it is, though, I prefer the TV version because as much as love Hackett, Kaminsky and Hucko, I'll gladly propose a five-man trade to get Pops and Pee Wee Russell on my team. In addition to Pops, Pee Wee and Big T, Earl "Fatha" Hines also sits in, along with Condon regulars Jack Lesberg and George Wettling on bass and drums respectively. Teagarden is terrific in the role of the judge (bop is now "blee-bloop"), though he botches the introduction of the piano solo, calling out Joe Bushkin before he realizes it's Fatha Hines at the keys! Teagarden introduces Pops with a new introduction and Pops preaches for one before that rarity of rarities: a chorded Eddie Condon guitar solo...and he sounds good! The closing ensembles positively rock.

Next up, at 5:05, something completely different: a performance of Armstrong's own composition, "Someday You'll Be Sorry" that finds Pops joining forces with Helen Cherell and the Swan-Tones, a vocal group. I'm not usually too big on vocal groups but they sing it pretty and Pops's obbligato is worth the price of admission (though it's in a different key than Pops normally played it, so you can hear him testing the water for a couple of bars at the start). Proof, I think, that this tune could have been a commercial hit if promoted properly and covered by the right people. After a modulation into his regular key, Armstrong happily sings a chorus before instructing Teagraden to "play it pretty, Jack." Naturally, Jack does just that. Pops takes it out with another half-chorus of singing, ending a different, but no less successful, performance of an Armstrong standard.

The meat of the August 27 show begins at 8:45: Armstrong's 12-and-a-half minute reading of "The Three Little Bears," backed again by The Swan-Tones. I blogged about this charming performance back in February and even included a couple of beautiful pictures of the moment. If you'd like to read that piece, click here.

No one threw a concluding jam like Condon and this show's final jam session is good as it gets. The tune chosen was "Chinatown," one of Armstrong's big showpieces in the 1930s. Unfortunately for us (but probably fortunately for Armstrong's chops), Armstrong seemingly stopped performing the tune after 1937 and this Condon version is the only one that survives. Like the "Swing That Music" I shared last week, Armstrong doesn't replicate his original high note flights of fancy but still comes up with some scintillating stuff. It begins at 21:28 and immediately it's great to hear a front line of Pops, Teagarden and Pee Wee Russell...the anti-Barney Bigard! (And that's a good thing.) Armstrong ends with a "Dixie" quote setting up a storming chorus by Earl Hines and a typically agitated outing by Pee Wee. After spots for trombone, bass and even drums, Pops finally steps up for a fun vocal. After some more innings for Wettling, Pops picks up his horn to lead the charge out for the final two choruses. He's very nimble in the first one, all over his horn, before he hits a high one and holds it into the start of the final chorus (Pee Wee joins him, though a shade off--wasn't that part of his charm?). Armstrong plays with unbelievable power but also, the ideas keep flowing. Brilliant playing by all involved and a great end to another great show. Yeah, man!

I should be back Thursday or Friday with my final Condon posting, my favorite episode, from June 11, 1949. You are not going to want to miss that one. Til then!

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Eddie Condon Floor Show - September 10, 1949

As promised, I'm back today with another Armstrong appearance on the pioneering jazz television program, The Eddie Condon Floor Show. The other day, I shared about 47 minutes, nearly the complete show, from September 3, 1949. Today, I'm back with the show from a week later, on September 10, though this time I only have Armstrong's performances, adding up to only about 14 minutes, but each one is a good one.

Armstrong was still at Bop City for the September 10 show but his life was about to take a pretty big change as he had just recorded "That Lucky Old Sun" and "Blueberry Hill" for Decca on September 6. Armstrong and the All Stars would depart for a long European tour beginning in October and when they returned, Pops had his first bona fide hit record in years with "Blueberry Hill" becoming a song he performed almost every night for the rest of his life.

But "Blueberry Hill" was the probably farthest thing on Armstrong's mind when he got together with his friends in the Condon circle on the tenth. Here's the surviving audio:

During the announcer's introduction, listen to the background and you'll hear Louis and the boys warming up on "Our Monday Date." Once the intro is over, Armstrong goes about the business of greeting the other musicians, which could seem hokey and fake when done by someone with less personality, but Armstrong comes off as completely genuine. It's a lot of fun hearing Armstrong go around the room (Peanuts Hucko gives out with a bit of his Pops impression) and greet everyone. "Everyone" by the way included Bobby Hackett on cornet, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Hucko on clarinet, Ernie Caceres on baritone, Joe Bushkin on piano, Condon on guitar, Jack Lesberg on bass and George Wettling on drums.

Once everyone's "crumb crushers" are straight, they hit with "Royal Garden Blues" at the 1:18 mark. This tune was a mainstay for both Armstrong and Condon's groups so it's nice to hear this meeting of the "Royal Garden" giants. The whole band sounds great (I love the rhythm section, especially Wettling) and Pops uncorks some new ideas both in his single-chorus solo and during an unexpected closing break, the kind of thing Condon usually featured when he played "Royal Garden" but Armstrong never otherwise did. Pops sounds happy, remarking that everyone's "jumping" after he finishes playing lead during the opening choruses. Condon drives Teagarden during his solo and the closing ensemble positively rocks. We're off and running.

Then (after a horrible one second loud hiss--I'm sorry!), Armstrong introduces "Back O'Town Blues" at 4:30. This was another All Stars staple but its unfamiliarity with the other musicians leads to Bushkin kicking it off faster than Louis enjoyed. He comes in together with Jack to play the opening phrase and they immediately slow it down with their forceful playing ("Back O'Town" would eventually pick up a few miles of speed but not until the mid-50s). When the All Stars played it, Armstrong's vocal usually received all kinds of heckles and verbal responses from the other members of the band. But because they were all sitting at home except for Teagarden, it was up to Big T to do all the backtalk, which he does with great enthusiasm (still managing to play a trombone obligato in between his jokes). Armstrong's solo, set in stone since the mid-40s, is always a killer.

From there, at 9:11, it was time for "Me and Brother Bill," an Armstrong penned novelty originally recorded for Decca in 1939. It was always a fun number that allowed Pops to rest his chops and get a few laughs in the meantime. The Jos Willems Armstrong discography lists George Wettling as the drummer, but the drum responses to Armstrong's vocal sound a lot like the fills Sid Catlett used to play. And during the opening greetings before "Royal Garden" it almost sounds like Pops mentions "Big Sid" but I'm not sure. Regardless of whose on drums, it's a fun performance.

Finally, at 11:48, Condon calls a final blues in Bb. Unlike the show I posted the other day, Armstrong takes part in this final jam session and dominates it from the start, opening with one of his patented blues lines. An exuberant Pops asks for Teagarden to take another helping chorus, and Big T, too, responds with one of his patented riffs. And then it's Pops for two choruses, some of my favorite moments on the entire broadcast. In a quoting mood, he jumps in with Dvorak's "Going Home" and begins his second chorus with Irving Berlin's "The Song Is Ended." Pops is wailing, leading the charge into the final ensemble choruses...when a voice of doom--the announcer--breaks it all up to read the closing credits. The first time I heard it, I yelled, "Noooo!" The band's clearly swinging like mad in the background and probably could have kept going for another few minutes but alas, time was up and we have to be thankful for the two minutes we have.

S'all for now. I hope you're enjoying these Condon shows; I know I am! Next week I'll be back with two more, August 27 and June 11, 1949. I'm sorry for going out of order but I'm saving the best for last as I think the June 11 show is one of Armstrong's all-time great television appearances (even though the "appearance" aspect of it will probably never be seen). Til then...have a great weekend!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Eddie Condon Floor Show - September 3, 1949

I've spent so much of this month tooting my own horn or breathlessly writing about how Louis Armstrong tooted his, that I missed a very important anniversary: it was 60 years ago this month, on September 6, 1949, that Louis Armstrong's recording career received a tremendous boost when he recorded the coupling of "That Lucky Old Sun" and "Blueberry Hill" for Decca. I still might do a blog on that occasion, but even if I don't, rest assured that it gets a pretty good chunk of a chapter in my book manuscript. But also, Armstrong appeared on the Eddie Condon Floor Show twice that month, something I'd like to share right here on this blog.

Many moons ago, my pal Mario Filippini wrote in to request that I cover Armstrong's appearances on the Condon television program and I thought it was a swell idea. Michael Steinman over at Jazz Lives also did some posts on Condon's show a few months back, spurring me to tackle Armstrong's charming rendition of "The Three Little Bears." I wanted to do more on Condon and thought that celebrating the anniversaries of those shows in the summer months would be a good idea. Of course, the whirlwind summer came and went and with it, went my ideas to commemorate those appearances.

Well, the wait is finally over. In my files, I have all of Armstrong's surviving performances on Condon's shows of June 11, 1949, August 27, 1949, September 3, 1949 and September 10, 1949. Over the next two weeks, I'm going to share all of it, two shows a week. With your kind permission, I'm going to go out of order and start off with the September 3 show because in addition to Armstrong, it also features Billie Holiday and showcases the Condon-ites in all their glory.

A word about the Condon-Armstrong connection: I know I'm repeating myself, but since the earliest days of this blog, I've always argued that Armstrong's All Stars owed more of a debt to Condon's group of small group jazz than anything else. Like Condon's groups, the All Stars featured a traditional trumpet-trombone-clarinet front line, which made it easy for both Condon and Armstrong to get pigeonholed into the "Dixieland" category. Like Condon, Armstrong didn't care for the word "Dixieland" and always argued against categorizing music (Condon titled his autobiography We Called It Music, a pretty strong statement against such categories). What separated the All Stars and the Condon circle from most Dixieland groups was the rhythm section, always relentlessly swinging, featuring four-beat bass playing and strong drumming. Both Armstrong and Condon liked to play warhorses such as "Royal Garden Blues," "That's a Plenty" and "Ole Miss," but also had a strong affinity for pop tunes. Armstrong's "commercial" side is well known; Condon's really isn't, but if you have a few bucks to spare, head on over to Amazon and download some of Storyville's volumes of Dr. Jazz broadcasts from the early 1950s to hear Condon lead his men on such fare as "The Lady is a Tamp," "The Birth of the Blues," "It All Depends On You" and others.

Of course, in addition to stylistic similarities, Armstrong and Condon were friends since their Chicago days in the 1920s. Condon was instrumental in making the "Knockin' a Jug" date happen and even sat in for the "I Can't Give You Anything But Love/Mahogany Hall Stomp" session that followed. Armstrong never made an of Condon's broadcasted Town Hall Concerts from the mid-40s but when television came calling and Eddie got his own showcase, Pops became a a somewhat regular guest on this pioneering program. When Louis wasn't available, Condon's show would feature everyone from Sidney bechet and Hot Lips Page to Billyy Eckstine and Roy Eldridge.

The horrible tragedy of it all is that none of the video footage survives from any of Condon's programs. The good news is that much of the audio was captured and released on numerous albums in the LP era. But the bad news about that is the CD/MP3 era has never featured any comprehensive release of this material. Bootleg labels have sprung up all over Europe (I'm looking at you, Spain!), putting out LPs and live dates that would never otherwise see the light of the day in the United States, yet the Condon shows remain in the vaults.

Fortunately for me, I copied Armstrong's appearances off of a series of Queen LPs from Italy during one of my trips to the Institute of Jazz Studies. Other random tracks came from bootleg, no-name CDs, while some of the rarest moments were sent to me by my friend, Armstrong discographer Jos WIllems. Thus, I've been able to piece together a good deal of material to share right here on this blog in the coming weeks.

Enough with the preamble, onto the music. I should warn you that I didn't have time to break the September 3 show into a bunch of separate tracks. What you'll get is one fat 47-minute track that contains all that was released of the broadcast. Of course, the broadcasts were an hourlong so some stuff was obviously cut out for LP release (and I want to know, who did the cutting and where's the rest of it???). Fortunately, the sound clips I post have a timer so you're free to jump around and find what you're looking for at anytime. Here's the broadcast:

So what will you hear? Well, I think it's more proof that for all the celebrating that's being done to commemorate 1959 as jazz's golden year, 1949 wasn't exactly too shabby either. The broadcast begins with Condon's group tearing up "Walkin' My Baby Back Home," featuring Wild Bill Davison on cornet, Cutty Cutshall on trombone, Peanuts Hucko on clarinet, Ernie Caceres on baritone, Joe Bushkin on piano, Condon on guitar, Jack Lesberg on bass and George Wettling on drums. All the men, like most in Condon's circle, had connections to Armstrong: Hucko, Bushkin and Lesberg were future All Stars, Wettling played at the famous 1947 Town Hall concert and Caceres and Cutshall did session work with Pops (Wild Bill, as a cornet player, obviously had an unspoken debt to Mr. Strong, as Condon called Pops).

At the 5:43 mark, the great Billie Holiday joins the fold for three songs, in her late 40s prime, doing "Fine and Mellow," "I Want to Stay Here" and "Them There Eyes." Then the Condon-men return for an exciting run on "Running Wild," beginning at 12:32. At 15:48, Earl "Fatha" Hines is introduced and plays a wonderful "These Foolish Things." Hines was a member of Armstrong's All Stars but hated being just a lowly sideman. He probably relished this chance to be featured on his own, without mention of his current boss.

After a quick break, the second half of the program begins at the 20:00 mark with a hot "Swing That Music," featuring Pops and Earl Hines (Condon's voice can be heard early on calling our attention to "Mr. Strong and Mr. Hines!"). Fellow All Stars Jack Teagarden and Arvell Shaw are also on hand for this hot jam. This was one of Armstrong's most exciting big band numbers but it didn't survive into the All Stars years, which is a pity. Armstrong doesn't exactly revisit his earth-shattering climax from the big band days but he plays two incredibly exciting choruses at the finish. Immediately after, at 24:00, Jack Teagarden gets his innings on "Aunt Hagar's Blues," singing and playing with equal bluesiness (boozy-ness?), still backed by Hines.

After Teagarden's feature, Armstrong gets a feature all to himself at 27:44 and you don't want to miss it. It's "Heebie Jeebies," the Hot Five classic that popularized the use of scat singing. Armstrong tells the famous dropping-the-sheet-music story before recreating the performance. I love the vocal chorus because it features Condon's guitar playing, which I've always enjoyed. In most mixes, Condon's lost the in the shuffle, but occasionally he stood a little too close to the microphone, resulting in a chance to appreciate his driving pulse and seamless chord-work. Armstrong's on fire during the vocal, setting up some good solos (Hucko begins by quoting Armstrong's original scat solo!) before Pops up his horn for some absolutely dazzling playing. Overall, he takes three choruses , building to a ferocious climax driven by George Wettling's tidal wave of a roll. The original "Heebie Jeebies" is pretty historic but from a purely musical standpoint, this remake cuts the original to ribbons.

Next, at 31:40, is a real treat, a song titled "Farewell to Storyville," written by Joe Bushkin specifically for Armstrong. In Down Beat's celebration of Armstrong's 50th birthday the following year, they actually printed the sheet music for the song and said, "The Armstrong waxing of 'Storyville' is scheduled for release soon by Decca." Unfortunately, Decca never released such a recording and there are no indications that it was even recorded. Pops was obviously sight-reading it or playing it from a shaky memory because he starts off with a couple of rare fluffs. But please pay them no mind because he soon regains his footing for a soulful reading of the melody, followed by a delicious vocal at his storytelling best. A very atmospheric track (don't miss Teagarden's solo, either...what a sound!).

Speaking of Teagarden, he reprises his famous duet with Armstrong on "Rockin' Chair" at the 37:15 mark. After two years of playing it with the All Stars, the two had perfected every line, joke and retort but still managed to pull it off like it was completely spontaneous.

As the performance finished, Condon cheers them on then tells them to "Get back to Bop City, boys!" It might sound like a joke but it wasn't, as the All Stars were currently in the midst of a record breaking run at a New York City of that name. This, for me, has always been a huge regret...why couldn't Pops stay for the final jam session? It featured all of Condon's men AND Billie Holiday, but no Pops. It's a shame that Armstrong and Holiday didn't get to interact on this program but at least they'd get to make their one session for Decca later that month. Anyway, the jam session is still a good one (begins at 40:45), with Billie singing "Billie's Blues" at a rare uptempo. Everyone solos on the blues (Horace Henderson is now on piano and Condon threatens to call his brother Fletcher!) until Condon abruptly announces to go into "Ole Miss," the traditional jam session ending. WIth no seamlessness, Condon stops the band, explains the gameplan like a master general and Wettling takes him up on the offer, raising the tempo in his drum break and setting up the final, freewheeling choruses. A great show, wonderful to listen to...but imagine seeing it? Keep coming your basements and attics for kinescopes and I'll be back at the end of the week with another Condon and Armstrong summit meeting!


A quick note for my friends in the tri-state area: tonight, September 23, I'll be at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers in Newark, NJ for an evening that should be of great interest to Armstrong lovers: trumpet master Randy Sandke will be interviewing pianist Marty Napoleon and performing duets with the 88-year-old former All Stars pianist! It's a free event, held in the Dana Room on the fourth floor of the Dana Library, right down the hall from the Institute. I'll have my camera with me and hope to report on it in the near future. Til then...

Friday, September 18, 2009

Just Call Me Project Archivist!

I know that it's been an exciting year for me to break news on this blog: I'm going to New Orleans! I've got a book deal! My wife's having a baby! The book has a release date! My wife had the baby! I just wrote 3,000 words on "Shoe Shine Boy" in one evening! The Giants win the pennant!

Today, I have even more news to share and, on a personal note, it's almost as equally as exciting as the above. Beginning October 13, I will have a new line of work: I will officially be the new Project Archivist at the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College! It's literally a dream come true. In less than a month, I will have a full-time job literally archiving and preserving important artifacts located within the confines of the Archives. I spent many, many hours up there researching my book while I was writing it and it was always like visiting heaven: Armstrong's letters, private tapes, scrapbooks, photographs, you name it. I always said it was ambition to one day wind up there for good.

In the meantime, though, I continued my normal day job, which I've mostly kept hidden but I have mentioned it once or twice on this blog. I graduated with a Master's Degree in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers in 2005 and expected to take on the world. But let's just saw the Jazz History field isn't exactly America's most fertile job field. So, recently married and needing a paycheck, I turned to the family business, a job I had held for every summer since sophomore year of high school: I became a house painter.

Yes, a house painter. As one construction worker said on the job, "You know you're the only painter in New Jersey with a Master's Degree, right?" But I didn't mind. It was an honest living, I loved working with my father, brother and brother-in-law (my wife even joined the crew one summer!) and most importantly, it allowed me to listen to my Ipod for five to six hours a day, formulating many of the ideas and opinions that flowed into this blog after working hours ended.

I did have many great times painting, but it was hard work and as my father often told me, he didn't put me through college to be a painter for the rest of my life! So when I noticed the Project Archivist job posted on the Louis Armstrong House Museum website in August, I pounced. And after two rounds of interviews, I was officially selected for the position this week. Dream come true...

So what will I be doing as Project Archivist? Well, my biggest task concerns the Jack Bradley collection. Jack was one of Armstrong's good buddies, a frequent presence in Armstrong's circle between 1958 and 1971, usually with a camera in hand. On top of the thousands of photos he took of Pops, Jack became the foremost collector of all things Armstrong in the world. A few years ago, he reached a deal with Queens College to donate his massive collection to the Armstrong Archives. How large is this collection? It's going to take six years to fully transport the contents of Jack's collection. For a wonderful New York Times article on Jack and the collection click here.

The Archives has already made two trips to collect some of Jack's stuff but so far, everything they collected is undocumented. And that's where I'll come in. I'll literally be going photo by photo, album by album, letter by letter and cataloguing them into a computer program, Past Perfect. I'll have to use my ridiculous Armstrong knowledge to identify people in the photos and come up with years and dates as best I can. That might sound tedious to some, but for me, that's the fun part. During my interview, Director Michael Cogswell opened up one box of Jack's negatives to just give me a sample. The photos had no date or identification but I noticed it was a recording session with the All Stars with Big Chief Moore and Eddie Shu in the front line. "Fall 1964," I exclaimed like some kind of robot. "Mercury session. That was the only time that version of the All Stars recorded in a studio." Bingo. And the boy gets a cigar...

That will be my full-time job come October. It's a grant-funded job so I'm guaranteed to be doing this for two years. At the end of the two years, hopefully there'll be a long-term role for me in the growing Louis Armstrong House Museum enterprise. But for now, I'm content to be one of a small percentage of Americans who is truly going to love going to their job each and every day!

So what does this mean for the blog? Good question. My painting hours were always pretty flexible so I had plenty of time to write blogs and work on the book. Now, five days a week, I'll be gone from 5:30 a.m. til 5: 30 p.m., with a wife and baby waiting for me at home and on the weekends. If you look at it that way, it doesn't bode well for the blog. But I'm probably going to take the bus more often then not and with a laptop and an 80-minute bus ride (twice a day), I might be able to do more writing than I ever could have imagined. I'm sure, I'll still find time to pump out two or three entires a week because I truly love doing this and hearing from Armstrong fans from around the world.

But until then, it's back to celebrating for me. 26 more days til I officially begin a career in Louis Armstrong. Dream come true...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Complete List Of Armstrong Blogs

Hello all. My blog the other day on "Gut Bucket Blues" was my 250th post and I thought I should do something to commemorate it. My good friend Håkan Forsberg always comes up with good ideas (he requested I do the "Shoe Shine Blog" of two weeks ago). Håkan wrote me last week with a suggestion to list all of the songs I have already written about on this blog and include the original publication dates so it would be easier to find older entries. I thought this was a great idea since I seemingly have new readers finding this spot every week. So here is the complete list of every song I have blogged about, as well as some concerts, DVDs, videos and other such subjects, 195 in all. If you'll scroll to the right of this page, you'll find the years and months of all my posts so if you find something you want to check again or perhaps something you may have missed the first time around, now you'll have no trouble finding it. Enjoy and thanks to all of you for inspiring me to keep this blog going week-in and week-out...Pops lives!

Ain’t Misbehavin’ – July 2009 and August 2009
All of Me Discography – January 2008
Almost Persuaded – January 2009
Alone at Last – March 2008
Among My Souvenirs – November 2008
The Ampol Show – September 2008
A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody – July 2007
As Time Goes By – June 2009
Autumn In New York – September 2008
Baby (Lillie Delk Christian) – December 2007
Baby, It’s Cold Outside – December 2008 and December 2009
Basin Street Blues – December 2008
Because of You – January 2009
Be My Guest – July 2009
Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo – February 2009
Big Butter and Egg Man – May 2009
Black and Tan Fantasy – January 2008
Blow Gabriel Blow – March 2009
Blue Yodel Number 9 with Johnny Cash– August 2007
Bugle Call Rag video– May 2008
Bye and Bye – November 2008
Cain and Abel – April 2008
Camp Meeting Blues – October 2008
Canal Street Blues – January 2009
Chimes Blues (85 Years Ago) – April 2008
Chloe (Song of the Swamp) – May 2009
Christmas in New Orleans – December 2008
Christmas Night in Harlem – December 2008
Christmas Songs – December 2008
Christopher Columbus – October 2008
C-Jam Blues – September 2007
Cool Yule – December 2008
Cold In Hand Blues – March 2008
Congratulations to Someone – February 2008
The Creator Has a Master Plan – April 2008
Cuban Pete – July 2007
Darling Nellie Gray – July 2007
Dipper Mouth Blues (85 Years Ago) – April 2008
Disneyland After Dark– August 2007
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore – April 2009
Don’t Forget To Mess Around– August 2007
Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans – August 2008
Down in Honky Tonk Town– August 2007
Dream a Little Dream of My (40 Years Ago Today) – July 2008
DVD Round-up– May 2008
Eddie Condon Floor Show - June 11, 1949 - October 2009
Eddie Condon Floor Show - August 27, 1949 - September 2009
Eddie Condon Floor Show - September 3, 1949 - September 2009
Eddie Condon Floor Show - September 10, 1949 - September 2009
Fantastic, That’s You (40 Years Ago Today) – July 2008
Five Minutes – October 2008
Five Pennies Saints – July 2008
The Flat Foot Floogie – April 2008
Fleischmann’s Yeast Broadcasts – July 2008
Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong– May 2008
Froggie Moore (85 Years Ago) – April 2008
Georgia Grind – December 2007
Give Me Your Kisses (40 Years Ago Today) – July 2008
Gosta Hagglof Tributes – March 2009
The Gypsy – May 2009
The Gypsy In My Soul – August 2009
Hello Brother (40 Years Ago Today) – July 2008
Hello, Dolly – December 2008
Hollywood Palace 1965 – September 2008
Home – June 2008
The Home Fire (40 Years Ago Today) – July 2008
Hustlin’ and Bustlin’ for Baby – June 2009
I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None Of My Jelly Roll – December 2007
I Ain't Got Nobody - December 2009
I Can’t Afford To Miss This Dream (Commanders session) – October 2008
I Can’t Give You Anything But Love – March 2009
I Come From a Musical Family – August 2008
I Get A Kick Out Of You – February 2009
I Get Ideas (Adios Muchachos) – October 2007
I Got Rhythm – February 2008
I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues – January 2008
I Guess I’ll Get the Papers and Go Home (40 Years Ago Today) – July 2008
I Hate To Leave You Now – May 2009
I Laughed at Love– May 2008
I Love You Samantha – August 2009
I Must Have That Man (Lillie Delk Christian) – December 2007
I Used To Love You – September 2007
I Will Wait For You – April 2009
I’ll Keep the Lovelight Burning (In My Heart) – June 2008
I’m a Ding Dong Daddy (From Dumas) – June 2008
I’m Beginning to See the Light – June 2008
I’m Going Away To Wear You Off My Mind (85 Years Ago) – April 2008
I’m In The Market For You – September 2008
I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket – March 2008
I’ve Got a Gal In Kalamazoo – February 2009
I’ve Got a Secret – July 2008
I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed – November 2008
I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - December 2009
I’ve Got The World On A String – November 2007
Indian Cradle Song – January 2009
Indiana – August 2008 and November 2009
In The Gloaming – September 2009
It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing) – April 2009
Jazzin’ Babies Blues – September 2007
Jazz Me Blues – June 2009
Jeepers Creepers – January 2009
Jubilee – August 2009
Just Gone (85 Years Ago) – April 2008
Kaerlighedens Melody – January 2009
Kisses In Der Nacht – February 2009
Knockin’ A Jug – March 2009
Laughin’ Louie – April 2008
Little Joe – February 2009
Live at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival – April 2009
Live at the Blue Note, Chicago, December 1948 – December 2007
Live at the University of North Carolina 1954 – September 2007
Live in Amsterdam 1959 – February 2009
Live in Paris, March 2, 1948 – March 2008
Live in Sweden 1959 – January 2009
Lonesome – April 2009
Long Long Ago – January 2009
The Lonesome Road – April 2009
Louis Armstrong and The Commanders – October 2008
Louis Armstrong and His Hot Harlem Band – October 2008
Louis Armstrong’s Greatest Broadcast? – March 2009
Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia Box Set– August 2007
Mahogany Hall Stomp – March 2009
Martin Block Broadcast – December 2008
Money Blues – October 2008
Moonlight in Vermont – August 2008
Mumbo Jumbo - October 2009
New Orleans Stomp – July 2008
Newport 1958 – July 2008
New Year’s Eve 1967 – December 2008
The Night Before Christmas – December 2008
No Time Is A Good Good-Bye Time – August 2009
Now, Do You Call That A Buddy? – November 2008
Old Man Mose – November 2007
Onkel Satchmo’s Lullaby – April 2009
Only You – July 2009
On the Sunny Side of the Street – November and December 2009
Oriental Strut – November 2008
The Peanut Vendor – September 2008
Poor Old Joe – November 2007
Pretty Little Missy – October 2007
Ramona – August 2009
Red Allen Tribute – January 2008
Rock My Soul – February 2008
Rockin' Chair - December 2009
Rocky Mountain Moon – June 2008
Royal Garden Blues – October 2008
Royal Garden 1949 – September 2009
Savoyagers Stomp April 2008
Shanty Boat on the Mississippi – June 2009
Shoe Shine Boy – September 2009
Sincerely – January 2008
The Skeleton In the Closet – June 2008
Skokiaan (South African Song) – September 2008
Slivovice Interview - October 2009
Snake Rag – February 2008
So Long Dearie – April 2009
Someday Sweetheart – May 2009
Someday You’ll Be Sorry – August 2007
Song of the Islands – December 2007
Spooks! – October 2008
S’posin’ – June 2009
The Star-Spangled Banner/We Shall Overcome – November 2008
Static Strut – July 2008
St. James Infirmary – December 2008
Stomp Off, Let’s Go – July 2008
Stuttgart Videos – February 2009
Sugar – August 2008
Sweethearts on Parade (Lillie Delk Christian) – December 2007
Swing That Music – March 2008
Symphonic Raps – April 2008
Tenderly/You’ll Never Walk Alone – September 2008
Terrible Blues – September 2008
Thankful – November 2007
Thanks a Million – November 2008
That Old Feeling – October 2007
That’s For Me – February 2009
That’s When I’ll Come Back To You – February 2009
There Must Be A Way (40 Years Ago Today) – July 2008
There’s a Cabin in the Pines – October 2007
The Three Little Bears – February 2009
Tiger Rag – January 2009
To Be In Love – July 2009
Velma’s Blues – November 2007
Walkin’ My Baby Back Home – January 2009
Weather Bird Rag (85 Years Ago) – April 2008
We’ll Be Together Again – July 2007
We’re A Home – August 2009
West End Blues – June 2009
What Is This Thing Called Swing – January 2009
When the Saints Go Marchin’ In– May 2008
When the Saints Go Marchin' In with Gene Krupa - October 2009
When You Wish Upon a Star – May 2008
When Your Lover Has Gone – January 2008
When You'pre Smiling - November 2009
White Christmas – December 2008
Why Doubt My Love– May 2008
Willkommen– May 2008
Winter Wonderland – December 2008
Wolverine Blues – January 2009
The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise – October 2008
Wrap Your Trouble In Dreams – October 2007
Your Cheatin’ Heart – February 2008
Yours and Mine – September 2007
You’re Driving Me Crazy – August 2008
You’ve Got To Beat Me To Keep Me – October 2007
‘Zat You Santa Claus – December 2008

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Gut Bucket Blues

Recorded November 12, 1925
Track Time 2:45
Written by Louis Armstrong
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8261
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

The subject of today's blog, "Gut Bucket Blues," is of a pretty historic nature. Not only was it recorded at the first Hot Five session, but it was also the first of those numbers to be released. More than that, it contains the first ever glimpse of Louis Armstrong's personality, in all its glory. And, as I'll discuss in a minute, it's also evidence that this 24-year-old boy from New Orleans was already confident in his ability to entertain and in his ability to play the horn.

There's really no need to go into a thousand pounds of backstory as the facts are pretty well known. Armstrong joined King Oliver in 1922 and began recording with him in 1923. He left Oliver in 1924 and joined Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in New York. While with Henderson, he also became an in-demand presence on numerous OKeh record dates. By the time he headed back to Chicago towards the end of 1925, he had appeared on almost 70 recording dates. And out of all 70, his voice had only appeared one time, barking out a few seconds of encouragement at the end of Henderson's record of "Everybody Loves My Baby."

Armstrong was always quick to point out that singing was his "first hustle." He loved to sing but was discouraged from doing it during his tenure with Henderson, who felt that Armstrong's gruff voice and exuberant style was too unpolished for his primarily white audiences.

This is where Armstrong's early confidence comes in to play. Armstrong knew what he brought to the table but he wasn't exactly a go-getter out to make a name for himself. Later in life, he wondered why King Oliver didn't give him more solos on his records. In Armstrong's opinion, he could have taken the solos but Oliver could have kept his name on the record, so he could have made more money. Armstrong was in no hurry to grab the spotlight and have records made under his name, not when his mentor could have benefitted from his talent. And regarding Henderson, Armstrong complained about his lack of singing in that band, saying in 1960 that Henderson had "a million-dollar talent in his band and never though to let me sing."

So Armstrong would have been perfectly comfortable blowing like mad on Oliver records or singing up a storm for Henderson. But he was too respectful to assert himself and wound up feeling stifled during both experiences. Flash forward to 1925 and Armstrong's wife, pianist Lil Hardin, decided Armstrong needed a push. She brought him back to Chicago and billed him with her band as "Worlds Greatest Trumpet Player." Armstrong might have been confident in his ability, but that kind of bragging doubtlessly embarrassed him.

Just a short time after arriving back in Chicago, Armstrong was offered the chance to make records under his own name for the first time. He used a small group, known as the Hot Five, and in addition to Lil, chose three buddies from his New Orleans days, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds and Johnny St. Cyr. On November 12, 1925, the Hot Five made it first recordings for OKeh. They started off the date with two instrumentals, "My Heart" and "Yes! I'm In The Barrel," each one featuring extended glimpses of Pops's playing that were absent from all of his previous recordings.

With time for one more number, OKeh president E. A. Fearn requested an impromptu blues. I just want to take a minute call attention to Gene Anderson and Michael Budds's outstanding work, The Original Hot Five Recordings of Louis Armstrong, a meticulously researched, heavily analytical take on perhaps the most important jazz records of the 20th century. It's where some of my information on this tune comes from and I want to make sure they get the credit. Their book is available to browse on Google and you can purchase it from Amazon by clicking this link: Original Hot Five Recordings of Louis Armstrong (Cms Sourcebooks in American Music))

So Fearn suggested a blues, which Armstrong at first declined because he felt that all blues sounded the same, which is a pretty interesting comment from someone who played so much blues in his lifetime. But even in New Orleans, Armstrong later complained that while he was learning pretty tunes like "Russian Lullaby" from the Karnofsky's, his people didn't want to hear that kind of music in his part of down, instead preferring nothing but lowdown blues. Armstrong was a masterful blues player but he was so well-rounded musically that I think he naturally gravitated towards the pop songs and "commercial numbers" that followed the Hot Five period.

Anyway, Johnny St. Cyr offered to start off with a banjo solo, an idea Armstrong liked. Then Armstrong, whose voice had been silenced on the hundreds of records he had made to this point, decided to make his personality immediately known by shouting encouragement to each member of the group during their solos. That's one of the reasons I've always loved this record; it's as if Armstrong could not possibly wait another session longer without letting his personality and natural ability as an entertainer shine though. "Oh, play that thing, Mr. St. Cyr, lord. You know you can do it. Everybody from New Orleans could do it. Hey, hey!" It's a blast. No wonder it was chosen as the first Hot Five to be released...listen for yourself:

Besides Armstrong's exhortations to the other members of the band, "Gut Bucket Blues" contains some fine playing, too. Armstrong's lead in the opening chorus is dynamite, for one. Jack Teagarden would often borrow Kid Ory's opening trombone phrase. Dodds "toots that clarinet, boy" at his uniquely bluesy best. Pops makes a great cheerleader but who would step up to cheer him on? As the story goes, when the originally attempted to record it, Johnny Dodds was supposed to do it but when the time came, he suffered from a severe case of mike fright. Here's Armstrong in 1956 recounting what happened:

[Note for the obsessees out there: for his Musical Autobiography set from the late 50s, Armstrong told this story but during an introduction for "Gully Low Blues." That was a lapse of memory since he clearly meant "Gut Bucket."]

Once Dodds bombed, Kid Ory volunteered to step in, doing a great job in the end with his reference to Pops as "Papa Dip." As for Armstrong's one-chorus solo, it's pretty perfect. No fireworks, no flights of fancy, no high notes, just one chorus of pure blues storytelling. Every phrase is so logical, it almost seems composed...

...and that's because it kind of is. Earlier in the year, Armstrong performed on a Bessie Smith record, "Cold in Hand Blues." He took a solo on it and this is how it came out:

Flash forward to his "Gut Bucket" solo:

Sound familiar? They're virtually identical. Before you jump on me, I said virtually...Pops is muted on the Smith record, the tempo is slower and some of the improvisations in between the main phrases are different. But overall, it's proof that even at 24-years-old, Armstrong already had a "bag" of licks and set solos. He had been playing professionally for years and had performed so many blues pieces that he was already getting tired of the genre. Wouldn't it make sense that he honed a few of those choruses to perfection over the years?

Louis Armstrong was a genius at improvising, but jazz is much more than just improvising. Armstrong also worked hard on his solos until the point where he got them just right. This was something he got killed for in his later years, but I think it was something that was part of his style from his earliest days as a musicians. Besides, his mentor King Oliver did pretty well with a set solo on "Dipper Mouth Blues," right? In their Hot Five book, Anderson and Budds analyze Armstrong's "Gut Bucket" offering as if it was something fresh, with no mention of the its "Cold in Hand" ancestor. Sometimes, it's possible to get so closely involved with Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens, that it's possible to forget everything else he did--in record and in person--during that decade.

After Pops's solo, there's a terrific outchorus of riffing, which I've always heard as a kind of forbearer to the riffs at the end of "Savoy Blues." It's a great little chorus and Pops puts a perfect tag on it, starting with a neat rip up to a high note. It was a great record, but it still needed a title. Here's how banjoist Johnny St. Cyr told it:

"So we made a short rehearsal and cut the number. When Mr. Fern [sic] asked, 'What shall we name it?,' Louis thought for a while and then said 'Call it "The Gutbucket."' Louis could not explain the meaning of the name. He said it just came to him. But I will explain it. In the fish markets in New Orleans the fish cleaners keep a large bucket under the table where they clean the fish, and as they do this they rake the guts in this bucket. Thence 'The Gut Bucket,' which makes it a low down blues."

Over 30 years later, Armstrong revisited "Gut Bucket Blues" for his Musical Autobiography project for Decca. The piece was recorded on January 23, 1957 with Armstrong's All Stars of the time: Trummy Young on trombone, Edmond Hall on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano, Squire Gersh on bass and Barrett Deems on drums. The great George Barnes was added on electric guitar and the whole thing was overseen, arranged and conducted by Bob Haggart.

Now, I've always felt that the Autobiography is probably the single greatest document of Armstrong's trumpet playing abilities in the 1950s. But in this space, I've also taken the project to task a bit for what it did to Armstrong's naturally swinging rhythm section. Someone (Haggart? Milt Gabler) must have felt that because the original records didn't feature drums, Deems's contribution should be minimal. Thus, poor Barrett spent most of the sessions dutifully beating out time on a closed hi-hat cymbal like a drum machine. Armstrong always liked bass players to play four beats to the bar but again, probably trying to respect the older recordings, Gersh sometimes played a stiff two-beat. And though I love George Barnes's playing, did his tangy electric guitar playing really belong if every other aspect of the recreations looked backwards?

Having said that, "Gut Bucket Blues" was a real rarity for the sessions because for once, Deems was allowed to be Deems and he really sounds great here, changing his cymbals behind the solos and really swinging the band beautifully. All the soloists sound great (Barnes recreates St. Cyr's original introduction) and Pops sounds just as jolly as ever encouraging everyone on. Pops reaches back into his bag and nails his original solo, too, while the concluding riffs absolutely rock, thanks again to Deems's emphatic drumming. A real tasty performance. Here's the audio:

And that, my friends is the story of Louis Armstrong and "Gut Bucket Blues." Til next time!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

One Hot "Garden"...

Today is my birthday, number 29. When I started this blog in 2007, I was still 26. A 26-year-old Louis Armstrong nut? You don't see that every day. A 29-year-old one? Why, those are a dime a dozen! Might as well call me Old Man Mose...

Of course, I kid. I relish my role as Armstrong "freak show" and I hope keep doing this til I'm 80. (Wow, when I'm 80, "West End Blues" will be 132 years old!). Though I promised a blog on "Gut Bucket Blues" today, my "Shoe Shine Boy" entry from last week has been blowing up, earning a record number of hits for such a short period of time. Thus, I'm going to let it stew for a couple of more days to allow you to alert your friends and neighbors to the playing contained in it, especially that 1949 version.

The 1949 "Shoe Shine Boy" is the centerpiece of that blog, taken from the night Armstrong was crowned "King of the Zulus" on February 27 at the Booker T. Washington Auditorium. Today, as a birthday gift from me to you, I want to offer up the very next song played at that concert, one of the hottest "Royal Garden Blues" performances in the Armstrong canon. If you've been with me for a while, I knocked myself out last October with a massive blowout piece on Armstrong's history with "Royal Garden" (click here to see it). It featured over 30 music examples and thousands of words and frankly, I think it was a little overwhelming for those looking for a quick read...and not for an excuse to spend three days in front of the computer trying to get through one article!

But boy, I wish I had this "Royal Garden Blues" back then. It's truly a killer. I know there's a lot of Big Sid Catlett enthusiasts out there, myself definitely among them. Sid's a monster on this cut. Never mind pioneering bop drumming; he practically invents free jazz drumming. Listen to Armstrong's second solo chorus...it might as well be Don Cherry and Billy Higgins! Anyway, the whole group sounds great and Pops is tops, as usual. I'll close with the audio....enjoy!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Shoe Shine Boy

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 3:18
Written by Saul Chaplin and Sammy Cahn
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 572
Currently available on CD: It's on Mosaic's recent boxed set of Armstrong's complete Decca recordings, 1935-1946
Available on Itunes? Yes

[A quick note: this is probably going to be a somewhat long entry with at least four music samples to listen through. I realize that time is precious to all of my readers and most don't have the time to make it through all listening excerpts I post. However, if you only have six minutes to spare, skim through the text and go straight to the last sample from 1949...and be prepared to cry like a baby. If you do have some extra time, sit back, relax and prepare yourself for four completely different, breathtakingly beautiful Louis Armstrong performances of "Shoe Shine Boy." Either way, thanks for being here!]

Last week, the jazz world celebrated the centennial of one of my heroes, Lester Young. If I had all the time in the world, I would have done a Pops and Pres blog. They never performed together but there was definitely a mutual appreciation society. Lester told George Avakian that he learned the art of the obbligato from listening to Armstrong's records with the blues singers in the 1920s. Armstrong had a fondness for the "My Sweetie Went Away" quote that Lester immortalized at the end of his recording of "Sometimes I'm Happy." Naming a dream band for the April 1945 issue of Metronome , Armstrong named two tenor players, the being Pres (the other being Coleman Hawkins). And anyone who has listened to the 1952 Verve session Lester Young With The Oscar Peterson Trio, a true favorite of mine, has to detect a bit of an Armstrong influence in Young's melodic playing on "I'm Confessin'," "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," to name three songs associated with Pops (not to mention Young's vocal outtake from that session on "It Takes Two To Tango," then currently a hit for Armstrong).

I think Lester Young should be celebrated daily as much as Pops, but the main reason I'm conjuring up images of the President today is because I'm going to discuss Armstrong's history with "Shoe Shine Boy." Today, if you played free association with a knowledgeable jazz fan and said "Shoe Shine Boy," he or she would probably immediately say "Lester Young" and with good reason; it was the first tune tackled at Young's very first recording session on November 9, 1936 and featured an incredible solo by Young that turned the jazz world on its ear. (And as I've argued in my "Indian Love Call" blog, there's a break that Pops takes on that number that I see as an ancestor to Pres's opening call to arms.)

Lester's version is probably the most famous of all "Shoe Shine Boys," but it surely wasn't the only one from the period. Fletcher Henderson recorded it in a version that featured a vocal by Roy Eldridge and some buzz-muted playing from "Little Jazz" himself. Wingy Manone and Duke Ellington also took stabs at it around the same time. But it's safe to say that without Louis Armstrong, there never would have been a "Shoe Shine Boy" and it's Pops's versions that will be the focus of today's blog.

As Louis Armstrong's recordings grew in stature during the 1920s, songwriters took note. It was easy to incorporate various Armstrong-isms into popular songs of the day (for example, Harold Arlen's "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," which Pops immortalized in 1933). "Shoe Shine Boy" was written by the formidable team of Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin and Kahn was upfront in saying that the melody was inspired by a lick of Armstrong's. Here's Cahn discussing the origin of the tune on a Humphrey Lyttelton-produced tribute to Armstrong that aired on BBC radio shortly after the trumpeter's death:

In that clip, Cahn mentions the song being written for a show, but he doesn't mention it. The show was "Connie's Hot Chocolates of 1936" and here's a photo of the original sheet music to prove it:

Addition: my good friend and fellow jazz historian (we have master's degrees to prove it) John Wriggle wrote in today with some useful information: The revue at Connie's opened up on October 29, 1935. How do we know that? John even provided an advertisement from the New York Times as further proof (and check out the supporting cast...Billie Holiday!). Thanks, John!

The late Gösta Hägglöf used to send me photos of Armstrong all the time. One time he sent one simply named "LA on Stage 1935." I didn't realize it until I heard the Cahn interview, but the photo is obviously of Armstrong and that show's "shoe shine boy" character. I think it's a beautiful shot, capturing a resplendent Armstrong in a white suit at arguably the height of his status as a hero to the black community:

Now that we know the show opened on October 28, 1935, that means that Armstrong had been playing "Shoe Shine Boy" for nearly two months straight by the time he first waxed it for Decca on December 18, 1935. (I still want to write an appreciation for Mosaic Records's essential set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935 through 1946; until I do, I'll offer this simple phrase: BUY IT!) Here's how the performance--in my opinion one of Armstrong's finest Deccas--came out:

Lovely stuff. The band (Luis Russell's) leisurely starts things off with a pretty eight-bar intro before Armstrong comes right in with the vocal. The arrangement features a nice touch of the band playing the melody precisely as written. Cahn might have based it off an Armstrong-inspired idea, but listen to Armstrong's own phrasing, slightly ahead or behind the original melody. He even boils the “you’re content with what you’re got” line to one pitch.

Armstrong’s Decca records always featured some delicious scatting and “Shoe Shine Boy” is no different. “Shoe Shine Boy” is a little different in that Armstrong’s scat breaks are allowed to stretch out a bit. Thus, whereas his first break should have technically been for one bar, Armstrong actually stretches it to about one and three-quarters bars. The suspended time bit is actually even more effective coming out of the bridge (and dig that “Now look at-cha” that opens the bridge).

This was Armstrong’s fourth Decca session in three months and he still was still getting comfortable with the Russell band. Arrangements were exactly a priority and you can hear that on “Shoe Shine Boy” where the band stiffly repeats the same two bars they just played under the end of Armstrong’s vocal as a way of setting up the entrance of the trumpet. But who cares about such nonsense when the entrance is so sublime?

Armstrong only gets one chorus to make his mark and as was his wont, he knocks it out of the park. He pays Cahn’s melody the proper respect for about a bar-and-a-half before he immediately begins decorating it with subtle, yet touching flourishes. He continues alternating between the written notes and an improvised variation of It before he spins out a neat little turn of a phrase during the turnaround, almost echoing his first scat break to a tee.

Armstrong’s next eight bars are almost indescribable. His phrases are so slippery they almost defy transcription, translating all the wistfulness of the admiring lyrics through the bell of his Selmer trumpet. Dan Morgenstern has pointed out that this is romantic trumpet solo and I personally couldn’t think of a better way to describe it.

Armstrong’s bridge is fairly low-key but no less effective (dig the almost startling phrase he plays halfway through it; pretty modern stuff for 1935!). But just when he’s lulling you into a state of peace with his caressing playing, the opera singer in Armstrong comes out for a bit towards the end of the bridge, culminating in a little descending motif that almost sounds like he’s chuckling.

Instead of heading for the land of high drama, Armstrong continues his lyrical flow of ideas during his last eight bars (that funky, repeated half-valve effect is also pretty hip). After a slightly cracked note, Armstrong resorts to the melody (actually, not Cahn’s melody, but rather the way he sung it earlier) before the grand conclusion. According to my clock, there are 26 seconds left in the track and all Armstrong has to do is play the final two bars. And that’s where the operatic Louis returns once again for a spine-tingling ending. Many of his Decca records ended with such cadenzas, something that I’m sure grew tiresome to some listeners. I’m a sucker for them and especially this one. Those three final notes—a building G-A-C—are each held for inhuman amounts of time, each one throbbing with intensity, the final high concert C as pure and as crystal clear as a trumpet could produce. Bravo!

Armstrong put “Shoe Shine Boy” on the map and continued to perform it in the years that followed. There are numerous scattered broadcasts of Armstrong from 1935-1942 but the two largest surivivng bodies of work are the Flesichmann’s Yeast broadcasts of 1937 and the Casa Manana airchecks from 1942. I think it says something that Armstrong performed “Shoe Shine Boy” on each of those occasion, proof that this must have been one of his most frequently played tunes in live settings. First, we’ll examine the Fleischmann performance from May 28, 1937 (if you still haven’t purchased the historic Fleischmann’s broadcasts, stop reading and order it NOW). Here ‘tis:

Right off the bat, you can hear that the Russell arrangement hadn’t changed a bit in the previous 18 months except for a very Louie-like trumpet obbligato by (I believe) Louis Bacon behind the vocal.

The tempo is a shade faster, causing Armstrong to be a little looser in his vocal (the original barking “Now look at you,” becomes a friendly, “Now look at you, Gate”). The stretched out scat breaks are also eliminated as Armstrong does everything in time with the music. A great moment occurs in the bridge where Armstrong scats a descending chromatic run over a D-minor chord, a favorite lick of his (he ends both “Summertime” with Ella Fitzgerald and “I Will Wait For You” from 1967 with the same run). He even drops the final word of the bridge, turning the humorous “Brother, can’t you spare a shine” into “Brother, can’t you spare oh-ohhh.”

I’ve always marveled at Armstrong’s ability to make quarter notes swing. That was obviously something that enchanted Cahn as the three notes that correspond with the song’s title are all quarter notes. Coming out of the bridge, Armstrong sings the titular phrase all one on pitch, placing each one squarely on the beat and infusing it with just the proper amount of devilish soul in his voice to make it swing like mad. Great stuff.

The trumpet solo is a “gassuh,” too. (But before we get to it, notice the arrangement now has a new interlude, better than the stilted repeated two bars from the record.) Armstrong approaches it much like the record, playing some phrases verbatim, as in the turnaround phrase at the end of the first eight bars. But because of the faster tempo, the urgency of the band lends a hotter aspect to Armstrong’s playing, which practically bubbles over at the bridge. Notice, there’s now a bit of call and response in the bridge, a nice touch. Paul Barbarin boots things along nicely, too, obviously spurring Pops on with his playing (he sounds like he’s spanking a child at the end of the middle section). Armstrong’s final eight bars are full of bravura absent on the record; gone are those twisty half-valve effects. I love it all so don’t think that I’m complaining; in fact, I think this live solo builds up better towards the climactic cadenza, though it’s not quite as romantic as the original. Speaking of the cadenza, Armstrong misses the next-to-last note for a half-second but recovers quickly. As if to make up for the momentary display of mortality, he closes the performance by glissing to a ridiculous high F, pretty much the top of his range and a full fifth higher than the sparkling high C that ended the record. Amazing.

Flash forward five years to Casa Manana in Culver City, California and it’s clear that Armstrong’s chops hadn’t deteriorated in the least way. In fact, this past March, I blogged about this April 1, 1942 appearance, arguing that it might be possibly be the greatest radio broadcast of Armstrong’s career. For the rest of the surviving material from that evening (including the astounding “You Don’t Know What Love Is”) check out that entire piece. But for “Shoe Shine Boy,” look no further than this:

We’re five years down the road, but it’s the same arrangement, though the tempo is slowed down a bit to resemble the original Decca recording. The trumpet obbligato is back, too (not sure who, this time…Bernard Flood?). Armstrong’s vocal is just as warm as ever and his first scat break is pretty wild. Overall, it’s a softer vocal than the somewhat frantic Fleischmann’s offering.

During the interlude before the trumpet solo, you’ll hear one major difference: Big Sid Catlett is now on drums and all is right In the world. Armstrong’s first eight bars are marked by a halting quality, though he still uncorks that same run during the turnaround. His second eight bars are more relaxed, in a similar vein to the Decca record. But what a bridge! I mean, the bridge on the Fleischmann’s broadcast was hot as hell but this one is SCORCHING, especially that opening phrase. Coming out of the bridge, Catlett starts laying down the press rolls but Louis oddly reverts back to more lyrical playing at first. However, it only takes him a couple of bars to feel the spirit and he begins the bravura stuff in the upper register.

Unfortunately, whoever recorded the original acetates from this broadcast ran out of room before the end of the cadenza! So did Pops hit the high C? Gliss to the high F? Only the folks in attendance that night at the Casa Manana could have told us (another reason to bemoan the passing of Lawrence Lucie).

Now, up to about a year ago, that was pretty much the known history regarding Louis Armstrong and “Shoe Shine Boy.” And really, there’s no reason to complain with three monster performances like that, right? But when Jos Willems’s Armstrong discography came out, I immediately became fixated on a single entry located on page 188: February 27, 1949, Booker T. Washington Auditorium, New Orleans, “Shoe Shine Boy.” What could this be, I’d ask myself. A quick vocal, a request, what, what, what??? Well, eventually, Jos became the patron saint of myself and this blog, sharing with me some of his greatest treasures. When I asked him about this broadcast, it only took a few weeks for it to arrive in my mailbox as part of a disc compiled by Swedish Armstrong expert Håkan Forsberg (Håkan, by the way, requested that I do a blog on “Shoe Shine Boy” so if you’re enjoying this, thank him!).

When I popped in the disc and began listening, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was a radio broadcast of a concert Armstrong gave a couple of days before the famous Mardi Gras parade that featured him as King of the Zulus. It was at this concert that Armstrong was crowned King, which was thrilling to hear. The coronation occurred right before the second half of the concert, which, after the obligatory “Sleepy Time” theme, found the All Stars tackling an appropriate number for the occasion, “Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans.”

And then Armstrong announced “Shoe Shine Boy”: “We’re going to play one of our good ol’ recordings and it’s a beautiful tune titled ‘Shoe Shine Boy.’” I braced myself and went along for what turned out to be a majestic, six-minute ride. When it was over, I verbally said to no one in particular, “Oh my God,” and felt my eyes welling up. This was a special moment.

I soon shared it with Boston trumpeters Dave Whitney and Phil Person, each of whom was speechless. I then made a copy for tubaist and Armstrong scholar David Ostwald. He cried when he heard it. He told me about another trumpet player he played it for; that one cried, too. All of a sudden I began getting e-mails from major players like Jon-Erik Kellso and Joe Muranyi, asking about this “Shoe Shine Boy” they had heard so much about. It was taking on a life of its own…

Flash forward to the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans last month. On day one, Michael Cogswell was going to offer a presentation celebrating the 60th anniversary of Armstrong being named King of the Zulus. Michael prepared a typically authoritative and interesting lecture, complete with rare audio clips from Armstrong’s personal tape collection. It turns out that Armstrong’s private collection featured the coronation ceremony…but no “Shoe Shine Boy.” David Ostwald told Michael that he should let me play “Shoe Shine Boy” at the end of his presentation. Since I was up next anyway, it made for a neat segue and Michael was all for it.

As his presentation wound down, Michael called me and my trusty Ipod up to the podium. I gave a little background, hit play and played the entire six-minute track. For the entire duration, the room was almost eerily silent. By the time of Armstrong’s emotional ending, I could see people visibly moved. When Armstrong hit the final note, George Avakian was clearly broken up by what he had just heard. “I’ve never seen George like that,” Ostwald told me. Dan Morgenstern, Michael Cogswell, all the heavy hitters, were moved beyond belief. For the rest of the festival, the 1949 “Shoe Shine Boy” was something that frequently came up In conversation.

I think part of the emotional wallop contained in this version of “Shoe Shine Boy” has to do with its context. Armstrong was on top of the world, having just appeared on the cover of Time magazine. Yet, humble to the end, he was thrilled beyond belief to be able to go back to his hometown and serve as King of the Zulus, a lifelong dream of his. As David Ostwald put it, it was almost as if he called “Shoe Shine Boy” to tell his hometown fans, “I know I’ve gotten pretty big over the years, but don’t worry, I’m still the same hard-working, humble boy who grew up right here in this city.” And when you think about it that way, some of the lyrics become somewhat autobiographical: “You work hard all day,” “Got no time to play,” “You find joy in the things you do,” “Seldom ever blue,” “You’re content with what you’ve got,” “People look at you with scorn,” “Still you never whine,” etc.

Håkan Forsberg went a little deeper, writing to me, “Every recording of [“Shoe Shine Boy”] is however splendid. If one of these superb recordings should be ranked as his numero uno however, that recording, in my opinion, was the rendition of the tune he gave at the Booker T. Washington Auditorium in New Orleans in 1949 when he really poured his soul into it. Whenever I listen to that version I get the feeling that Louis, more than usual, wanted to send out a message of freedom and equality. – And perhaps that he found New Orleans to be the appropriate place to do it!” Amen, brother Håkan….

So have you had enough yet? Enough background, enough suspense? I’m sure you have. So without further ado, here’s “Shoe Shine Boy,” New Orleans, 1949 (the sound quality isn’t the greatest…but who cares?):

Everyone okay? Anyone need a tissue? I understand. So where to begin? Well, first, a theory of mine. Dan Morgenstern once wrote a blurb about this version without having heard it and assumed it was a request. It very well might have been but to my ears, the performance is way too tight to be a spur-of-the-moment creation. The breaks in the bridge, the ending, all of it seems like something they had done before. Perhaps it’s one of those tunes that just didn’t survive for very long in the All Stars book (maybe Armstrong thought that six minutes of such a slow ballad ate up too much time in his show). That’s just my opinion, but it definitely sounds like something that might have been a staple of the group’s early days, only to disappear too soon.

Also, I’ve been harsh on Earl “Fatha” Hines on this blog, hammering him for his careless, intrusive playing during his All Stars tenure. But I have to give Hines an A+ for his accompaniment on “Shoe Shine Boy.” Every run is perfectly placed and those tremolos could move mountains. Credit to the entire rhythm section, too, of Arvell Shaw’s bass and Sid Catlett’s drums for maintaining such a slow tempo.

This is the kind of tempo that Armstrong was comfortable with but I can’t think of many other jazz musicians who would feel the same way. Hines does seem to start it slightly faster than it becomes; Armstrong slows it down immediately with his playing and really turns it into a crawl during the vocal, extending his scat breaks almost to the point where any sense of a tempo disappears.

That vocal is tremendous, as tender and heartfelt as it gets, but really, it’s the trumpet playing that packs the biggest punch. Unlike the earlier versions, we get an entire chorus of trumpet playing at the front, two minutes of glory. Armstrong states the melody with plenty of passion but also finds plenty of room for embellishments (credit to Barney Bigard’s clarinet and Jack Teagarden’s trombone for offering appropriate support).

That first chorus is so gentle, so lovely, the kind of playing we heard yesterday on “In the Gloaming.” But it’s after the vocal that Armstrong really turns up the drama. The bad news is he only plays a half-chorus after the vocal. The good news? Just listen to that half-chorus and try not to be moved. There is so much passion behind every note of trumpet that I cannot even begin to put into words. The whole thing is so dramatic, yet so flowing, so free, so rhythmically complex, it boggles the mine.

But really, how about that ending? It was terrific on those early recordings, but it’s extra special here. Armstrong at his most operatic. He holds the next-to-closing note for seven seconds and that’s when I usually lose it. When it all erupts on that final high C., well, that’s just the sound of freedom my friends. Breathtaking.

There’s really not much else I can say on “Shoe Shine Boy.” For those who stuck with it until the end, I hope you got some enjoyment out of this piece and the music featured in it. I’m going to let it linger over the weekend and I’ll be back next week probably with “Gut Bucket Blues” on Tuesday or Wednesday. Please, though, I would love comments on anything discussed here, especially on that 1949 “Shoe Shine Boy.” Til then, have a great Labor Day weekend!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

In The Gloaming

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven
Recorded March 10, 1941
Track Time 3:00
Written by Annie Fortescue Harrison and Meta Orred
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Washington, trombone; Prince Robinson, clarinet; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Johnny Williams, bass; Sid Catlett
Originally released on Decca 3825
Currently available on CD: It’s on Mosaic's recent boxed set of Armstrong's complete Decca recordings 1935-1946
Available on Itunes? No

After a full day of celebrating the news about my book (it's listed on Amazon, too!), it's back to business today with "In the Gloaming," a pick from my Itunes shuffle. Louis Armstrong recorded many old songs, but this is ridiculous..."In the Gloaming" was composed in 1877! The Internet is a wonderful place for researching stuff like this so I was pleased to discover the story behind the song buried in the comment section of a YouTube video. It seems that the lyrics were originally a poem written by a governess in love with the son of a family she worked for. When the family forced them to separate, she wrote the lyrics, which were turned into a song by Anne Fortesque Harrison (who later married Lord Alfred Hills, comptroller to Queen Victoria). The song became a popular one...so popular that the governess's ex heard it, found her and married her. A sweet story. Is it true? Who knows, but it works.

Anyway, the song has gone one to become one of those pretty themes that's never truly gone away. If you do a YouTube search, you'll find a version from just about every decade over the past 100 years. For example--and to show what it sounded like when performed in a "straight" manner--here's a 1914 Edison recording of it by John Lovering:

In the jazz world, Fats Waller recorded a swinging take on the tune for Victor as an instrumental in 1938. According to Stephen Taylor's book Fats Waller On The Air, Waller performed it frequently during broadcasts in the ensuing years so maybe Decca felt that if it suited Fats, it could work for Pops. Armstrong recorded it on March 10, 1941 during the first of two terrific "Hot Seven" sessions, featuring a small group made up of musicians from Armstrong's big band. I've written about two of the songs from these sessions before ("Long Long Ago" and "Do You Call That A Buddy") and as I've pointed out--and Dan Morgenstern confirmed in his incredible notes to Mosaic's recent collection of Armstrong's Decca recordings--these Hot Seven dates really foreshadow the sound of the All Stars in many ways.

Nostalgia was the theme of the March 10 session; minutes after tackling "In the Gloaming," Armstrong and the gang tore up "Long Long Ago," a tune from 1833. Check out my blog on that piece to hear some dazzling Armstrong trumpet work (really locked in with Big Sid Catlett's drums) and a hilarious vocal where Armstrong even namedrops Joe Glaser. It's such a fun performance, that it almost seems hard to believe that the sober "In the Gloaming" was recorded the same day. But 'deed it 'twas (I've broken out my 19th century dialect to discuss these tunes) and here's how it came out:

Now isn't that pretty? Dan Morgenstern always finds the right words for the right occasions and his description of Armstrong's trumpet "showing us how to croon" hits the nail on the head. This must go down as one of the softest trumpet outings of Armstrong's entire recorded output. And you should know me by now: I jump up and down, shout and whistle when I hear those high notes. But I'm a sucker for the lyrical stuff, too, and Armstrong's gentle playing--and singing--on this tune really put me in a peaceful state of mind. His voice is just as smooth as his trumpet playing--not a trace of gravel--getting nice support by trombonist George Washington in the background. Even in the closing ensemble, the front line sounds like they're trying not to wake the neighbors until Armstrong finally turns up the volume for the final phrase of the tune. Gorgeous, breezy, melodic swing from start to finish.

(And I have to mention the guitar interludes by the great Lawrence Lucie, who sadly passed away on August 14 at the age if 101. It's a regret of mine that I never got the chance to meet Lucie, though I literally traded e-mails with Randy Sandke about paying him a visit just days before he died. He played with Pops from 1940 through 1944 and even served as best man to Armstrong for his wedding to Lucille. The last surviving musician to have recorded with Jelly Roll Morton and a man present for some of Armstrong's finest moments on stage and in the studio, Lucie will be missed.)

That's really all I have to say about Armstrong's touching recording of "In the Gloaming" but I do have a bit of a postscript to add. While in New Orleans last month, I picked up an American Music C.D. Bunk Johnson Plays Popular Songs. Armstrong got crucified by traditional jazz critics for playing "commercial" pop tunes but I think that was part of his New Orleans mentality. Do we really think he played nothing but "Tiger Rag" and the blues while he was a youngster? We know the theme of his vocal quartet was "My Brazilian Beauty," a pop tune and he also played popular songs with Fate Marable's riverboat band. Thus, even aside from Armstrong, a lot of producers and so-called experts insisted that jazz musicians during the New Orleans revival stick to "Muskrat Ramble," "The Pearls" and "Bill Bailey" instead of "commercial" stuff. But occasionally, the musicians would get a chance to play something popular and it usually came off beautifully. I treasure stuff like George Lewis playing "This Love of Mine," Billie and DeDe Pierce doing "Love Song of the Nile" or Kid Thomas Valetine punching out the lead on "Easter Parade."

Thus, a disc of Bunk Johnson doing material like "You Always Hurt the One You Love" and "Maria Elena" was right up my ally. The C.D. begins with Bunk in a trio with pianist Don Ewell and drummer Alphonse Steele performing "In the Gloaming." They do it considerably faster than Armstrong but for the first time ever, I was really struck by a likeness to Armstrong in Johnson's tone and even his phrasing. Give it a listen and see if you hear it the same as I heard it:

I mean, it's not 100% Pops (Bunk's aging chops are obviously not as strong), but I definitely hear some similarities (listen to the placement of the high note Bunk enters on after Ewell's piano solo). In the liner notes, Ewell is even quoted as saying he wished Armstrong himself could hear the recordings the trio made that day in 1946. As Bunk became a figurehead in the New Orleans revival, he often talked about how he taught "Little Louis." Some writers seized on this and while Bunk was alive, Armstrong went with it. But once Bunk passed away in 1949, Armstrong told the truth. So when listening to Bunk playing "In the Gloaming" and listening for similarities to his playing and to that of Armstrong's, it's all a coincidence. Why? I'll let Armstrong get in the final word in this, one of my favorite moments from his private tapes. Tell it like it is, Pops:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It's Officially Official!

I'm interrupting today's scheduling blogging to share some exciting news. I woke up this morning to find that my Armstrong book is officially listed on the Random House website, complete with a title, price and release date! Is the title going to change? Probably. Is the release date going to change? Possibly. But I don't care about any of that right now because just seeing this information on the web is enough to put me on clouds nine, ten and eleven. To check out the website, click here and be sure to sign up for any updates (though obviously, if you frequent this blog, you'll get plenty of updates!). In blogging news, I've done the prep work on three new ones ("In the Gloaming," "Shoe Shine Boy" and "Gut Bucket Blues") so keep checking back for those in the coming days. In the meantime, it's time to celebrate. Pops, give me something joyous...how about a little "Indiana"?