Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Eddie Condon Floor Show - June 11, 1949

After promising it for a week, today I'd like to present my all-time favorite Armstrong appearance on the Eddie Condon Floor Show, this one coming from June 11, 1949. It's my favorite for a number of reasons: Armstrong's personality shines through tremendously as he's obviously comfortable with the surrounding musicians his humanity also comes out during his exchanges with his adopted son Clarence; and music-wise, he plays some astounding horn. I think it's some of the best playing of his later years, if not his entire career. So, where to start? How about with the 30-minute audio track:



The show opens with a few bars of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," Armstrong's theme song. It's presented as an instrumental, which is how Armstrong opened all of his shows until he finally began singing it in early 1952. As you'll soon hear, Eddie Condon was ill in the hospital, thus could not make the show. Instead, hosting chores are taken over by pianist Joe Bushkin, a good friend of Pops's, a future (short-lived) All Star and a fellow viper. Speaking of vipers, I wouldn't be surprised if a little "gage" was being passed around before the show. Pops is so loose and funny throughout the broadcast that it makes me wonder, but by this point in his career, he usually didn't indulge before performing so it's doubtful. I just think he felt totally comfortable surrounded by these musicians and without any scripted jokes to read, he got to relax be the good-humored, quick-witted offstage Pops many of these cats knew when the cameras weren't on and when the curtain closed. In 1950, Bushkin said of the experience, "I couldn't possibly describe the joy of playing the piano for Louis again. The next best kick was having dinner with the master between rehearsal and the program. Satch's round table dialog tops even money." So we know Pops was already holding court before the show and that mood permeates the actual broadcast.

(Nice to hear him use the expression "holler at my boy" in 1949 since it seems to really have taken off in the slang of recent years. You could probably surprise a lot of people by telling them that Pops was talking like that 60 years ago...and probably even longer than that!)

Armstrong and Bushkin allow Jack Teagarden to say a few words to Condon, too, before they strike up the first tune, "Them There Eyes." Along with that swinging triumvirate, the band also features Peanuts Hucko on clarinet, Ernie Caceres on baritone saxophone, Jack Lesberg on bass and most specially, Big Sid Catlett on drums. It's tempting to think that Armstrong brought Teagarden and Catlett with him from the All Stars but the truth is, Big Sid quit the band on April 11, 1949 due to illness. Unable to travel much anymore, Catlett settled on the New York scene and often took part in Condon's TV shows. Catlett died on March 25, 1951 and this is the last aural evidence we have of one of the great partnerships in jazz, Louis Armstrong backed up by Sid Catlett.

As we've heard in the last couple of weeks, the Condon show was great for letting Armstrong play tunes he normally didn't play any more, stuff like "Chinatown" and "Swing That Music." The June 11 show is no different, starting right out with "Them There Eyes," which begins at 2:15. A favorite from Armstrong's big band days, it never became a feature for the All Stars. However, this version, along with the studio one done in 1956 for the Decca Autobiography project made it clear that Pops still had a lot of ideas left for the song.

Armstrong asks Bushkin for four bars on the piano, then almost immediately asks for four more to have enough time to get his chops in his horn. The tempo's up and though his health was in decline, there's nothing amiss in Catlett's playing, as he sounds as strong and swinging as ever (oh, those accents). It's a great ensemble, the art of collective improvisation in full bloom, anchored by Ernie Caceres's fat-bottomed barks. Pops closes it with a high note then immediately launches into his standard vocal on the number, boiling much of the written melody to a single note (Billie Holiday knew Armstrong's original recording very well). Catlett's accents behind the vocal are positively emphatic throughout. A nice touch is Pops's unexpected second vocal chorus. Never mind boiling phrases down to a single pitch; Armstrong discards chunks of words at a time, only keeping the pertinent rhymes ("certain...flirtin'" he sings, conveying all we need to know).

Everyone then solos in top form, probably inspired by Pops's presence (Armstrong gives Hucko's clarinet a simple backing riff that sounds more like he's just keeping the chops warm). Caceres is especially hot, entering with a great opening phrase and only getting more gritty from there. After a spot for Sid (Lesberg, aka "Bass Face" to Pops, takes eight in the middle), Armstrong storms in to the his solo with a three-note descending riff somewhat reminiscent of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" before the ideas just start spilling out of his horn for the next 32 bars (dig that break!). He holds an absolutely gigantic high Bb into the final chorus which I want to call an ensemble but the other horns play so quietly, it's almost like they don't want to miss anything Pops plays! Could you blame them when the man's so on fire? Sid gets a few more shots in the last chorus, but really it's Armstrong's show, right up to the final scintillating high concert Eb, held for all its worth. We're off and running...

At 7:25, Armstrong introduces "Jackson" Teagarden to play his feature on "St. James Infirmary." Last December, I did a long recap on Armstrong's history with this tune and I included a couple of Teagarden versions but forgot about this one. I'm glad I can make up for it today as it's a gassuh. The Town Hall version from 1947 will always be the high standard but once Teagarden began playing it with the All Stars, it took on the added attraction of an Armstrong trumpet obbligato behind the vocal. The slide-and-water-glass stuff is here, too, always a killer. As Pops says, he really blew that one, papa.

At 11:27 comes one of the true highlights of the broadcast, "Sweethearts on Parade." Of course, Armstrong's original 1930 recording of this Carmen Lombardo tune is one of the high points in a career filled with them. He remade it for Decca 1940 in a version that features some nice ideas on the horn but overall, isn't in the same universe as the original. For the 1947 Town Hall concert, he played it as a beautiful ballad. He didn't tackle it for the Autobiography project but he did turn in a swinging version with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1959. However, for my money, it's this Condon version that rates as second to the original OKeh disc.

The tempo's lightly swinging thanks to Sid's brushwork, slightly faster than the original. Armstrong's single-chorus reading of the melody is simply beautiful. He doesn't deviate from the melody much but he phrases it in such a way that it becomes more appealing than how Lombardo originally notated. Bushkin (he sounds GREAT throughout the show) and Teagarden (ditto) take full choruses before a charming Armstrong vocal, which explores his tenor range, sans gravel. except for one righteous "Oh, babe" leading into the bridge. And though I don't have a copy of the original sheet music with me, I highly doubt the original lyrics ended with "Take four bars, gizzard."

While brother Bushkin takes those four on the piano, I'd suggest buckling your seatbelt to prepare for Pops's work in the final chorus. He opens with a nod to his original solo before going completely for himself in his best late-1940s form. In the late 40s, Pops showed tremendous command on his horn, often scatting nimble, floating phrases all over his horn; not quite bop, mind you, but still, he crossed plenty of barlines in his day. By the 50s, which I think is the best decade of his later years, he had lost a couple of miles off the ol' fastball but his power, range and mind were always in A+ form. Finally, in the 60s, the ol' fastball got traded in for some offspeed stuff but he still made it work for as long as he could. But in the late 40s, he was all over that horn and the results were often magical.

But that's not why you called. Back to "Sweethearts"...in the middle of all these great ideas, Pops flexes his muscles in the second eight with a ridiculous, almost out-of-nowhere climb to a high concert E, just about as high as he could go, though he usually saved those notes for the ends of his solos, not the beginnings! Just as much fun is his slippery descent from atop the high E, very tricky stuff that he pulls off without a problem. But for me, the main event occurs during the bridge, where just as in 1930, Armstrong soars to a high C. It was a move he never attempted on any of his other remakes of this tune, but my goodness does it give me chills every time I hear it on this one. Armstrong leaves just a couple of bars of space towards the end of the bridge and Catlett fills them up like a pro, building to the inevitable backbeat-fuled rideout. Armstrong even closes with a surprise dash of the bugle call he opened and closed with on the 1930 original. Just a terrific performance from start to finish.

Next up, at 16:00, it's time to relax with a lazy, wistful version of "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans." By this point, it had been in the All Stars's book for two years so Armstrong and Teagarden's joint vocal patter was already pretty solidified but their genuine love of performing together shines through and makes every word sound completely spontaneous (though I'm not sure if Pops ever referenced "ham and cabbage" on any other version!). From there, it's the straight All Stars ending, meaning it's a spectacular one. Teagarden takes one, then Pops leads the final ensemble with Hucko taking the bridge (a bridge he'd have to cross again when he joined the All Stars and would play this tune 10 years later). Armstrong's final climb and slow ending, though it never changed, always thrills.

What follows, at 20:22, is a real treat: a rare appearance by Armstrong's adopted son Clarence. I actually wrote about this clip last year and it's worth sharing again. Clarence was the son of one of Armstrong’s cousins who died while giving birth. Armstrong, then only 14 years old “adopted” Clarence and took care of him for the rest of his life. A nasty fall at a young age injured Clarence’s brain, leaving him mentally disabled. “That fall hindered Clarence all through his life,” Armstrong recalled. “I had some of the best doctors anyone could get examine him, and they all agreed that the fall had made him feeble minded.” Because of this, Armstrong took extra good care of Clarence, always making sure he had, as Michael Cogswell has written, “a place to live, clothes, pocket money, and even companionship.” There are some wonderful photos of Armstrong and Clarence in Cogswell’s book, The Offstage Story of Satchmo, an essential work for Armstrong fans.

As you can here, Armstrong's love for Clarence clearly comes through in their short exchange. There's a real sense of pride in Armstrong's voice; could you imagine if he had children of his own? A beautiful little moment.

After Bushkin previews the following week's show (Armstrong's fun mood continues with his reference to "Count Baseman!"), Armstrong calls "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," which begins at 23:00. Please, if you only have six minutes to spare, click the audio button above, wait for it to load, scroll it over to 23:00, then really buckle in your seatbelt (and if your office chair has a seatbelt, now is the time to use it). Now, with your kind permission, I'd like to plagiarize myself for a few paragraphs. Back in the early days of this blog, before I knew how to include audio, I wrote about this track because it popped up on Itunes and I implored my readers to download it (I even titled the posting "99 Cents Well Spent"). Here's what I wrote about it back then and I think it still applies.

Armstrong gives the grieving Condon a shout-out in the hospital (“Look out, Condon”) at the start of the performance. With no set pattern, he can also be heard telling pianist Joe Bushkin to lengthen his introduction (“Give me four more, Homes”). Armstrong takes the lead in the opening ensemble, getting fine backing from Teagarden, Hucko and the terrific burps and hiccups of Ernie Caceres’s baritone. A string of solos follows, Bushkin to Hucko to Teagarden to Caceres to Lesberg to Catlett, with Armstrong heard vocally encouraging everyone in the background. And then it’s time for Pops, getting a backing riff from the other horns. It’s a wonderful chorus and a great example of Armstrong’s genius for melody. It’s a very improvised solo, but he consistently keeps going back to melody, sometimes just for a phrase at a time, but always keeping it in the forefront.

Armstrong then barrels into a second chorus with a motive that would become part of his set “Barbecue” solo in the 1950s. But there’s nothing set on this one as you can hear Armstrong just plain taking chances. He plays the motive and almost sounds like he surprises himself, as he continues the line upward to an unsuspecting high C, not quite hitting it 100% solid but he gets points from this judge for taking the chance and going for it. He is improvising and feeling damn good as the whole solo has a delightful bubbling quality to it. I just love Armstrong’s concept of rhythm. 1949 was a very harsh year as Armstrong and the boppers traded barbs in the jazz press. How anyone could accuse a solo like this of being out-of-date is absurd. Continuing into his second chorus, the horns, not ready to create a rideout atmosphere, continue lightly riffing in the background as Armstrong takes off into the stratosphere during the second-half of his second chorus, pounding out some more high C’s. And then there it is: Armstrong’s quotes “That’s My Home,” the song he originally recorded for Victor in 1932 and a quote that would become an integral part of all future “Barbecue” solos. It’s not certain when he started using this quote, but it’s not in the June 1948 version from Ciro’s and this is the earliest I ever heard him use it. Nevertheless, it fits like a glove.

But wait, there’s more! After these two exciting solo choruses, Armstrong launches into the rideout with aplomb…in fact, the whole solo reminds me of the boxing legend with the same last name, Henry Armstrong, who specialized in “perpetual motion.” Without even stopping to think, he just plows into final ensemble, a man possessed. If you know Armstrong’s later “set” solo, you’ll hear snatches of phrases that would become embedded in Armstrong’s playing over the years, but for the most part, he seems to be flying by the seat of his pants, too inspired to stop for even a second. The repeated note leading into the drum break would also become part of the standard All Stars routine. Just when the excitement level threatens to boil over into dangerously fun territory, Sid Catlett takes a short drum solo, the show runs out of time and Armstrong calms things down with a few bars of “Sleepy Time Down South.”

Armstrong continued to work on “Barbecue” for the years and when he had it as tight as could be, he recorded it with the All Stars for Decca on March 19, 1954. I’ve always loved this version (Kenny John’s drums sound wonderful) and I think it’s a testament to Armstrong’s sustained brilliance to point out how he made three completely different studio records of this tune over the years (1927, 1938 and 1954) and each one is a delight for different reasons. But for my money, his three rollicking choruses on the 1949 version of Barbecue deserve to be placed next to his work on those earlier versions (though I think the Chappie Willet-arranged 1938 Decca will always be my favorite). Bushkin was still talking about it for Down Beat magazine in 1950 saying, "Satchmo's first chorus of 'Strumttin' with Some barbecue' brought the combined staff orks of NBC and ABC to the scene, and, gates, that's a crowd!"

So as the final strains of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" fade out, that'll conclude our look at Armstrong's June 11, 1949 appearance on the Eddie Condon Floor Show, one of Pops's all-time great television appearances. Wouldn't you agree? I'm sorry it took a week longer than promised for me to finally get this post out, but I hope it was worth the wait. Til next time!

1 comment:

Michael Steinman said...

Extraordinary music and an extraordinary post -- mutual inspiration! Two things: I think Louis is making a joke about Count Basie (who didn't live that far away in Queens) as "Count Basement"! and I find it interesting that Louis makes a point of his authorship of BARBECUE -- wasn't that one of the songs that Lil said she had written? And some critic whose name I forget recently opined that it was in fact Lil's composition, but at a slow waltz tempo, originally. Here, at least, Louis wants to make sure that the ASCAP man has heard and will forward those royalties.

Thank you, Homes!