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!

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