Monday, December 28, 2009

End-Of-The-Year Odds and Ends

2009 is rapidly winding down meaning that this crazy blog of mine has survived another year. I don't quite know how it happened, with my daughter being born in April and the crazy daily commute I've endured since October. But here I am with blog number 118 for the year. And by the time you get to the bottom of this e-mail, you will have endured the 351st audio sample I have shared this year alone. Madness.

Of course, I'd have given up a long time ago without the support of my loyal readers. I receive e-mails almost daily from around the world and that's what fuels me to spend much of my free time keeping this blog going strong. Though I started it in July 2007, I never figured how out to track this site's traffic until this past March when I installed an invisible tracker. I was pleased with the initial returns in the spring but starting in September, my hits began going through the roof (don't get too excited; I'm not exactly breaking records here but for such a specialist's blog, I think I'm doing all right!). Since then, I've topped my previous high with each successive month and I sit here on Monday night 100 hits away from setting another personal high. So thank you, thank you, thank you to all of my readers, from the ones who have been with me from day one to the ones who are just finding this site for the first time.

I try to pack my posts with sometimes graphic amounts of information, hoping that when I hit the "publish post" button, I'll never have to revisit that topic again. Fortunately, I have generous readers who remind me of things I missed or sometimes just send me rare Armstrong material without my even asking. Thus, I've decided to re-open a few of my entires from throughout the year to share some things I missed the first time around.

Last January, I obsessed over what I called "The Tiger Rag to End All Tiger Rag's," a nearly 10-minute performance from January 21, 1959 in Copenhagen that found Armstrong taking four inhuman encores, hitting freakish high notes like he was a young man again. To read my original breathless account of that performance, click here. It wasn't long before my Swedish friend Peter Winberg wrote me to inform that he had a similar, four-encore performance of "Tiger Rag" FROM THE SAME DAY! (No wonder Pops had a heart attack that year.) Peter was kind enough to send me a copy of it, which I would like to share right now. Armstrong and the All Stars were doing two shows a day for most of the tour so this is the earlier version. It's not quite as poised as the evening version, but it's still exciting as hell, with a "Whispering" quote that always knocks me out. Here 'tis:


Pretty incredible, right? If you don't feel like immediately revisiting my older post and want to hear what Pops did with "Tiger Rag" later that evening, here's that audio again:



Back in September, I went through an Eddie Condon Floor Show phase, sharing the audio from four appearances Armstrong made on that pioneering television program. Once again, help arrived from Sweden in the form of the great Håkan Forsberg who sent me two discs of ALL the surviving Condon material with Armstrong including a bunch of tracks I missed the first time around. First up, two tracks from a November 23, 1948 broadcast, "King Porter Stomp" and "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans." Unfortunately, these are the only two songs to have survived, though we know that Armstrong and the All Stars performed others such as "Muskrat Ramble," "Don't Worry 'Bout Me" and "Small Fry." Hopefully those performances will turn up some day, but for now, enjoy these two stomping numbers. "King Porter" was one of the most exciting numbers of the early days of the All Stars so any surviving performances of it are welcome. Pinch hitting for the notoriously cheap Barney Bigard is clarinetist Peanuts Hucko (Bigard often turned down television appearances if the money wasn't right) while original All Stars pianist Dick Cary is onboard rather than Earl "Fatha" Hines. Here's "King Porter Stomp":



And from the motion picture New Orleans, here's the introduce-the-band number "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans":



On June 11, 1949, Armstrong turned in a performance on Condon's program that contained, in my opinion, some of the best trumpet playing of his entire career. But to demonstrate how those chops of steel could sometimes hit a rough spell, Armstrong returned to the show on July 30 completely unable to blow his horn, a real rarity for this point in his career. Instead, he led a Condon group with Hucko, Cary, Bobby Hackett and George Wettling, bringing along Earl Hines and Velma Middleton from his own All Stars. Armstrong did his best to lead the Condonites through his regular routines but clearly something's missing, though it's nice to hear "Brother Hackett" get a solo. Here's a medley of "Shadrack" and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In":


And here's "Velma's Blues." When the All Stars played this one, the routine was tight as a drum to correspond with Velma's dance choreography. Here, you can hear Pops probably trying his damndest to lead the musicians down the right path, but the overall result is a little sloppy though it fades out before anyone gets seriously hurt:


Now a real treat, courtesy of Mr. Forsberg. In my previous entries, I discussed Armstrong's performance of "Someday You'll Be Sorry" on the August 27, 1949 broadcast and "Going Back to Storyville" on the one from September 3. Well, earlier in the day on August 27, Armstrong rehearsed both of those numbers...and someone kept a tape recorder running! Thus, here's Louis Armstrong at work, going over keys and routines with vocalist Helen Cherell and the Swan-Tones on "Someday" and learning "Going Back to Storyville" with help from the tune's composer, pianist Joe Bushkin. Both rehearsals are incomplete, but offer fascinating glimpses in Armstrong's all-business rehearsal process. Here's the rehearsal for "Going Back to Storyville," done on August 27:


Clearly, they must have known it needed a little more work as the tune wasn't performed until the following week's broadcast. As I mentioned in my earlier entry, Pops still struggled a bit with his opening trumpet reading of the melody. On the rehearsal, he played it strongly but I think I know why. The rehearsal begins with Bushkin saying that they're going to play it in Db but first, they'll play it in the key it was written in for the trumpet, Bb. Armstrong plays it well but is thrown off for a moment when Bushkin modulates to Db for the vocal (for those with perfect pitch, the rehearsal is pitched a half-step too high). But when it came time to the actual broadcast, Bushkin played the whole thing in Db. Thus, you can hear Armstrong have a huge brain fart (official musicological term) as he takes a second or two to figure out what key he's in. Once settled, he shows his musicianship by playing it in the different key without a problem. Anyway, here's how it aired, complete with a wondrous Jack Teagarden solo:


The rehearsal for "Someday You'll Be Sorry" with Helen Cherrell and the Swan-Tones is just as fascinating. Armstrong starts off play playing it in his usual key until Cherrell mentions that she and the Swan-Tones have rehearsed their part in another key. No problem, as Pops modulates everything in his head to play it in Db on the trumpet before modulating to Bb for his vocal. These moments are priceless because they illustrate just how much of a professional musician Armstrong was. He could play just about anything in just about any key at the drop of a hat. Here's the rehearsal, which unfortunately is incomplete:


And here's how "Someday" sounded on the air later that day, with the proper modulation (and Earl Hines on piano instead of Bushkin):



We're going to leave the world of Eddie Condon and travel back to my home in "Indiana," a song that was the subject of a blowout entry for me back in 2008. I liked the way it came it out so I used it as the basis for a presentation I gave at the Louis Armstrong Symposium at the College of Staten Island in November. To mark the occasion, I updated my blog on the topic and thought that would be that. Well, literally a week or so after I published, here came another package in the mail from Mr. Forsberg in Sweden containing a version of "Indiana" from October 1954...WITH ANOTHER COMPLETELY DIFFERENT TRUMPET SOLO! First off, if you want to revisit the entire story of "Indiana" and Armstrong, click here. In my narrative, I discuss how Armstrong tinkered with that solo for about five years before all the pieces fell into place in 1956. By 1954, he had the final 16 bars pretty much set but was constantly looking for something solid for the first half. In May and August concerts from 1954, he was trying to work out a lick he originally played during the 1925 Bessie Smith recording of "St. Louis Blues" but it always came out a little awkward. I also shared versions from December 1954 and January 1955 that were completely different. And now thanks to Håkan, we can now hear an "Indiana" from around October 6, 1954. Here's the solo:



Isn't that terrific? He's really squeezing those blue notes. Here's the entire "Indiana," which unfortunately was butchered by whoever did the original recording (it was done for the U.S. Saving Bonds Division of the Treasury Department) with choruses missing and other odd edits. But it's still an exciting performance:



In November, I began a three-part expose on "On the Sunny Side of the Street," which you can revisit by clicking here. I opened it by mentioning that Armstrong must have been performing the song before he had the chance to record it because Chick Webb already recorded it with trumpeter Taft Jordan aping both Armstrong's singing and playing. I shared Webb's version from September 10, 1934 but a reader named Elliott wrote in to remind me that Webb recorded it on December 12, 1933 in a version that was slower and even more in an Armstrong bag than the one I used. He wasn't kidding; Jordan even closes by reprising the ending to Armstrong's 1929 record of "Black and Blue." Here's Webb's earlier version of "Sunny Side":


And I concluded my look at "Sunny Side of the Street" by writing that as far as I knew, Armstrong rarely played the tune with the All Stars after 1960. I still believe this is true but I forgot that on a 1970 NBC television special, "Sun City Scandals," he sang a wonderful version of the tune. In my second post on the subject, I shared a bit of editing I did linking together all the different scat breaks Armstrong utilized in his performances of the song. It's interesting that in his second chorus break, he perfectly reprises the one he was singing in the early-50s. (Hmm, does anyone else find that interesting?) Anyway, he swings beautifully and it's definitely worth a listen (and yes, that's Johnny Carson introducing him):


And finally, "Rockin' Chair," which I just wrote about a couple of weeks ago. One thing that looks like it will never get resolved is the "what cabin, joking/choking" line as I received written arguments for both sides. Desmond Polk wrote me to tell me that the Mills Brothers sang "what cabin, choking" on both of their 1930s recordings of the songs. And while listening to a broadcast of Armstrong singing "Accentuate the Positive" from the New Zanzibar in New York City in 1945, I was floored to hear Armsstrong sing during the bridge, "To illustrate, my last remark/ Jonah and the whale, Noah and the ark/ What did they do--CHOKING!--when everything seemed so dark?" The "choking" comes out of nowhere and it's clearly "choking" not "joking." On the vocal reprise, Armstrong elmininates "choking" and substitues "grabbin'" as an aside. "Grabbin'," too, was part of the "Rockin' Chair" routine. So I really think the only person who knows what Armstrong had in his mind with the whole "choking/joking" thing is Armstrong himself and unfortunately, it's too late to ask him!

I tried shaping my "Rockin' Chair" post to include only the essential versions but there are two from a Bing Crosby radio show from December 1950 that I wanted to share but didn't for the sake of time. Now, with a second chance, I'd like to lay 'em on ya. The first one is the standard Armstrong-and-Teagarden duet though it contains Armstrong's aside "you don't want no water, father," which he only did with Teagarden twice. Interestingly, they only sing one chorus before something rare occurs: Teagarden goes right to the bridge with his trombone with Armstrong providing quiet support behind him. Armstrong then steps in and passionately plays the last eight bars on the trumpet, the last time he ever did so. Here 'tis:


That episode of Crosby's show was dedicated to Bing's 20th anniversary as a solo performer. To mark the occasion, Armstrong, Teagarden, Dinah Shore and the Jud Conlon Rhythmaires stepped in to sing a parody version of "Rockin' Chair" that acted as a bit of a roast of Papa Bing. It's pretty funny but Louis's reading of the response, "Say, how long have you been blind?" always makes me laugh out loud. Give it a listen:



And that, I think, is that for my 2009 entries. Last year, I shared an Armstrong New Year's Eve broadcast on New Year's Eve and I still might do that but I think I might let this entry linger for a while because it would take about an hour to just get through the above audio samples. So again, I thank all of you for your interest, support and friendship and I look forward to another year of Armstrong crazienss in 2010 (especially with the book coming out in May!). Happy New Year!

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