Tuesday, December 8, 2009

On the Sunny Side of the Street: 1956-1970

Finally, the saga of Satchmo and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" concludes today (it's about time, I know). When we last left Pops, he was performing "Sunny Side" infrequently with the All Stars in the early-to-mid-50s. Yet every time he called it, he would change up the tempo or take a different trumpet break at the end or perhaps change his scatting or sing two choruses instead of one. There are no two versions quite the same during the All Stars years.

My last posting ended with Armstrong's fantastic "Chicago Concert" version of June 1956. Six months later, Armstrong cut a studio recording of "Sunny Side," the third such one of his career and the first one in almost 20 full years. The recording was made for Decca's Musical Autobiography project, which found Armstrong revisiting many of tunes he originally made famous in the 1920s and 1930s. If you've followed my blog for a while, then you know my feelings on the Autobiography: yeah, there's a couple of performances are so-so and the rhythm section is uncharacteristically plodding at times, but overall, it's the definitive statement of Armstrong's trumpet playing abilities in the 1950.

"Sunny Side" was tackled on the very first date, December 11, 1956. This was quite a period for Armstrong's chops and he knew it. Besides all the work he did on the Autobiography that month (arguably, the set's finest moments, including December 12th's "When You're Smiling"), Armstrong took the time to fly to London for a one-nighter charity concert that is quite possibly my all-time favorite live Armstrong document (I've shared "Lonesome Road" and "West End Blues" in best blogs). While in London, Armstrong bragged about how good he was feeling, his chops and about this edition of the All Stars (the Trummy Young-Edmond Hall band), saying they were his very finest. Definitely a prime period.

The December sessions attempted to recreate Armstrong's big band recordings of 1929-1934. To do this, Armstrong's standard All Stars were augmented by the reeds of George Dorsey, Dave McRae and Lucky Thompson, while Everett Barksdale's rhythm guitar enhanced the rhythm section. Sy Oliver was responsible for the arrangements, often using the simplicity of the originals as a foundation, but still managing to bring them up to date a bit.

For "Sunny Side," Oliver picked the exact same tempo as the 1934 Paris recording, but instead of letting the reeds drearily state the melody. he gave that chore to Armstrong and the All Stars, a welcome delegation. What happened next was pure magic. Get ready to be in a good mood for the rest of the day:


Ahhhh, did you feel the sunshine? My goodness, I don't think there's another recording in the history of recorded music that radiates such warmth. Truly, it's as close to basking in sunshine as you can get without leaving the house (and I'm writing this in the middle of a rainy/snowy evening in New Jersey).

Armstrong's introduction, though simple, serves as a clarion call, demanding you start paying attention NOW. After cameos from stalwarts Trummy Young and Billy Kyle, Armstrong embarks on a reading of the melody that's full of poise. Feeling stressed out? That melody reading should do the trick. And unlike "When You're Smiling," Armstrong strays from the melody enough to make it his own. It's technically a solo, there's so much rephrasing. But it's the relaxed atmosphere that gets me, especially the way he approaches the song's built-in high notes, hitting them almost gently, no need to get operatic so damn early in the record.

But as beautiful as that first chorus is, the real magic begins with the vocal. Oliver's writing for the reeds is particularly beautiful; they nothing but hold notes, but it sounds like a gang of angels, adding to the touching atmosphere at hand. And Armstrong, though he probably sung this song over a thousand times in 25 years, infuses every syllable with such meaning, it sounds like he's doing it for the first time.

After that first chorus, though, hold on to your seats. After being lulled into a state of peaceful bliss, Armstrong turns up the drama factor and begins preaching, much as he did on his original 1934 recording of the tune. The written melody is completely discarded as Armstrong boils each phrase to a series of single pitches, filling the gaps with scatting and putting his whole soul into those words. The scat break is pure perfection, too (and different from any others).

After ending with a triumphant reading of the song's title, Trummy Young swoops in for his eight-bar spot, keep the mood of the piece intact. Pops then enters with three descending repeated triplets, a dramatic entrance to a dramatic solo. As discussed in my last post, he began coming in eight bars earlier in late 1955 after years of coming in on the bridge. Eight bars doesn't sound like a whole lot, but Armstrong makes each one of them count, working over a motive like a baker kneads dough. Deems turns up the volume on his backbeat, Young and Hall continue their quietly conversational ensemble responses and Oliver's reeds still harmonize like angels.

If you've been with me since last week, the bridge will present no surprises: the "Faded Love" quote, the giant high concert B, the triplets and descending glisses, all of it in place as it had been in 1934. But there's something about the atmosphere, about everything that's preceded it, about the backing, the insistent riffs, the pure sound of Armstrong's horn...it all adds up to an unforgettable bridge.

The bridge is really the climax, but Armstrong keeps the drama high, storytelling in an operatic way by continually finding new ways and rhythms to approach an E, hammering it home right until the final slow ending, topped off by a high C.

I have always had a soft spot for this version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." But about a year or two ago, my wife sent me out for ice cream. I had a Pops compilation in my car with this version and through it on. By that point, I had been enjoying this performance for well over a decade. But something hit me right in the gut on this occasion and I still don't know what it was. There was nothing serious going on in my life, no crisis, no breakdown. I was just overwhelmed the beauty of all six minutes of it. By the start of Armstrong's second vocal chorus, tears were streaming down my face. When he picked up the horn at the end for that entrance, every hair on my body stood at attention as I cheered him on, "Go, Pops!" It was such an emotional experience and though I've listened to it dozens of times since then and have never quite had that same experience again, it still moves me enough to be considered in my top five favorite Armstrong recordings of all time.

Well, after all of THAT, you might think I'm tapped out, but I still have a few versions to cover that I feel are worth giving a listen to. Almost a year after the Autobiography version was recorded, the All Stars found themselves in Buenos Aires, mobbed by fans and performing in front of adoring crowds. Only two radio broadcasts survive from this tour, both in far from ideal quality. Yet they capture the Armstrong-Young-Hall All Stars at their peak, tearing through numbers such as "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "I Get Ideas," "Tiger Rag" and "Ain't Misbehavin'." On of the broadcasts, Pops called "Sunny Side." He now found a tempo that suited him best, that walking medium pace that first showed up at the Chicago concert and continued in the above version. I'm not going to lie, there's not too much different in this performance from others I've shared so that combined with the poor quality warning practically guarantees that no one will listen to this sample. But if you have the time, click on it, wait for it to load and just start it about three minutes in. Armstrong's final trumpet solo is super-charged, featuring some new phrasing here and there. And I love hearing the crowd absolutely explode when Armstrong nails the trumpet break. Dig it:



Okay, it's video time! Five months later, on April 30, 1958, Armstrong performed "On the Sunny Side of the Street" on the second Timex jazz show. He still had his front line and he still had Billy Kyle but now Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona rounded out the rhythm section. I've shared this video before on the blog and I've shown it in New Orleans. It was used in Gary Giddins's Satchmo documentary and Terry Teachout has been screening it nightly during his book tour. (Quick note: it might seem like I'm the last person in America to comment on Teachout's new Armstrong biography. The reason for this is I have reviewed it for the San Francisco Chronicle and I wanted to let that review run first before I dove into here. Hopefully, it'll run any day now...stay tuned.) But even if you've seen this clip a thousand times, I don't know how you could not watch it again. There's really no substitution for seeing Armstrong in action. Watching him sing, shaking his head and neck for vibrato purposes, closing his eyes, mugging a bit, he's a force of nature. And that trumpet solo...good God, with his eyes rolling back in his head and everything. What he put into a performance like this is indescribable and the fact that he did night after night, well, it's something to marvel at. So start marvelling:

I know I should really quit after that, but I'll quickly share a few more (if you want to leave now after watching that to go out and celebrate and just enjoy life, I'll understand; the audio isn't going anywhere!). In July 1958, Armstrong appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival, performing a set that I've ranted about for years because it's a travesty that Sony has never released it (thought with the website Wolfgang's Vault recently acquiring the Festival's catalog, there's finally hope). Before going on with the All Stars, Armstrong sat in for one number, "Sunny Side," with Marshall Brown's International Youth Band, a large group featuring jazz musicians from around the globe (including George Gruntz, Gabor Szabo and many others). This version really takes us back because not only does Armstrong get big band backing (and not just harmonized chords and riffs as in Sy Oliver's arrangement) but the tempo is way down again back in ballad territory. It's beautifully recorded and features perhaps the funniest scat break of Armstrong's entire career:


Armstrong plays the melody beautifully in the first chorus but there's a little tentativeness here and there, which explains his calling for a glass of water as soon as he starts singing (can't let the chops get too dry). The vocal is typically wondrous, with that pleading, emotional second chorus. But seriously, that scat break knocks me on my ass every time. You can hear his mind pause for a second, grasping for something--anything--to sing. And what was always on the tip of Armstrong's brain? Swiss Kriss, of course! I think "Swiss Kriss gets it Jack" is a better slogan than "Leave it all behind ya."

Like the old versions, Armstrong enters at the bridge instead of eight bars earlier but he postively soars over the band. Whitney Balliet was a critic who had no trouble criticizing Armstrong's vaudvillian nature in the 1950s but even he was emotionally blown away by seeing this performance live.

In January 1959, the All Stars embarked on a marathon tour of Europe, from which hours and hours of audio survives. Somewhere in Europe during that tour (it's literally not known where or when), the All Stars were recorded in terrific sound quality taking "Sunny Side" out for another spin, following their usual arrangement of one Armstrong vocal chorus (dig Trummy and clarinetist Peanuts Hucko's little riff behind the vocal, something that started cropping up during the Timex show period). Armstrong enters eight bars early and blows wonderfully until the close. No real surprises, but the sound quality is nice so if you want to hear how Armstrong was blowing this tune right before his heart attack, click here:


And if you want to hear how Louis was blowing on this tune right after his heart attack, then you've come to the right place. My final clip is from a concert given by the All Stars in the summer of 1960 in Highland Park, IL. Armstrong was feeling his oats that day, blowing the roof on numbers like "Bill Bailey," "The Faithful Hussar" and yes, "West End Blues." He had performed "Sunny Side" twice on television that year (one, a reunion with Herman Chittison, the pianist on the original 1934 recording, is something I would love to hear) so clearly he was enjoying playing it.

The Highland Park version exists in poor sound quality with the first half of it pitched too fast (you'll hear it slow down and get straightened out during the vocal). Still, you can pick up on the crowd digging it, clapping on the wrong beat throughout the first chorus. Everything is perfect, the melody chorus, the vocal, the trumpet entrance, the "Faded Love" quote...until the break. It's clear that he wants to do his triplets-and-glisses bit but he can't execute the triplets as fast as he'd like (as fast as he had the previous year). Instead, he plays three slower triplets and tops it off with a giant descending gliss. He hadn't lost his power and he nails the gliss, along with everything that follows. But the velocity was going and not being able to nail those rapid triplets must have killed him. Here's how it came out that day:


And that, my friends, was that for "On the Sunny Side of the Street," at least as far as surviving recordings go. I'm sure he continued to play it a bit longer; Jack Bradley remembered him ending a set with a stirring rendition of it at Freedomland in 1961, as a dedication to Armstrong's friend Slim Thompson. But there are other concert recordings from1 1960, some from 1961, a ton from 1962 and there are no "Sunny Sides." I think Pops knew it was time to put the tune out to pasture, though I'm sure if it was requested or if he was really feeling 100%, he'd still call it.

But what a run, huh? I hope you got some enjoyment out of this four-part examination of 27 year of Louis Armstrong playing "On the Sunny Side of the Street," one of the best combinations in jazz history.

1 comment:

Randy said...

Ricky - Another stunning job and a pure pleasure to read, and listen to. Sadly, the video was taken down fro you tube for some 'usage' reason. Keep up the great work. And since I live in the SF Bay Area I look forward to your review of 'Pops'. I'm reading it right now and it is wonderful! Finally, somebody got it right.
Randy