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...