Thursday, April 30, 2009

It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)

Recorded April 3, 1961
Track Time 3:31
Written by Duke Ellington and Irving Mills
Recorded in New York City
Accompanied by Duke Ellington, piano, Trummy Young, trombone, Barney Bigard, clarinet, Mort Herbert, bass, Danny Barcelona, drums
Released on the Roulette LP "The Great Reunion"
Currently on CD: "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions"
Available on Itunes? Yes

Full disclosure: the wife and I watch American Idol. There, I said it. She enjoys pop music, 80s rock and all the rest of that ilk. I don't. But I do like a good competition and I can tell a good vocal from a bad one so I always get into it to see who does well and who falls on their face. Have I ever bought an album from a past Idol winner? Never even considered it. But we do watch it every week. I know, I know, it will take a lifetime to earn back your respect...

Anyway, this week was "Rat Pack Week," their way of saying "Standards Weeks." There was zero connection to the actual Rat Pack (the guest mentor was Jamie Foxx!?) but I thought the five kids did pretty good with their ballads. Yes, all five sang ballads, even though there was a big, fat band sitting right behind them. I told my wife I was disappointed with the lack of swingers and she rightly said, "Maybe they can't swing."

Well, last night, they opened with a group sing-a-long on "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (which host Ryan Seacrest introduced as "I Don't Mean a Thing," a beautiful Freudian slip). Suffice to say, it didn't mean a thing. Duke wrote such a hip tune but it's always the unhip who grab those "Doo wahs" and drown them with cruise ship cheese (I could smell their toothpaste through the television screen).

Anyway, after my little Ellington tribute yesterday, I figured I had to do an impromptu part two this morning. Here are the two masters themselves, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, giving a master's class in swinging on their joint version of "It Don't Mean a Thing" from 1961:



Now that's what I'm talking about. There's not a lot for me to analyze as it's just a pretty straightforward, swinging jam. But listen to Armstrong's freedom in the introduction. Ellington does a simple descending minor vamp for four bars before Pops swoops in and absolutely floats for about 25-bars. THen it's time for the vocal, Pops still battling that cold that had him sounding a little deeper than usual. His reading of the verse sounds like a sermon, as he half-speaks it in a righteous manner. When he gets to the vocal, he wisely avoids the "Doo wah's," handing the ball over to trombonist Trummy Yong and clarinetist Barney Bigard for short, four-bar statements during his first chorus.

But in his second chorus, stand back! Armstrong completely rephrases the melody and instead of singing the "Doo wah's," he goes for himself with some dazzling flights of scat fancy (Scat Fancy? I've heard of Cat Fancy magazine... I would definitely read something named Scat Fancy). I remember playing this for my then 12-year-old nephew and he was boggled by the fluidity of Armstrong's scatting. "How does he do that?" It's an art form, as silly as it sounds (literally). Sometimes on Idol, someone will break out a scat passage that gets the crowd cheering...and gets me squirming. Not as easy as it sounds, my friends....

After the vocal, Pops implores the trombonist to "Take it, Trummy," who listens well to instructions and engages in some trading with Bigard. Bigard came back to the All Stars for this 1960-1961 run with a little more juice in his tank; when he left in 1955, he was so out of gas that every time he traded with Trummy on Satch Plays Fats, drummer Barrett Deems had to switch to quiet cymbal patterns to make sure he didn't wake the clarinetist. But on the Ellington date, he held his own and the rhythm section responded by pushing him hard. He still goes for a few laughs and he's definitely not Edmond Hall, but he sounds better than he did in the mid-50s.

Ellington's bridge should be stamped "100% Pure Dukish." I love piano players who are instantly recognizable after just one chord and Duke more than fits that description. Trummy and Barney shout their way through the last eight bars before Pops swoops in for a terrific solo, carrying on the relaxed mood of his introduction. He keeps the melody in the forefront, but manages to create plenty of interesting variations around it. His improvisations have such a logic to them, it just makes me shake my head. The bridge is very nice, too, though the one high note sounds a tad bit strained (naturally, he had a cold and wasn't exactly well rested, but he still turned in some fantastic blowing over the course of those two days in April). A neat touch occurs at the end as Armstrong just goes for himself over a simple four-bar vamp. I love it because, though he doesn't shoot out the lights, every single note he plays just swings, swings, swings, and as the song title implies, that means everything.

S'all for now. I'll be back in a few days with a nice, long, look at "The Gypsy." Til then!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Don't Get Around Much Anymore - Revisited

Recorded April 3, 1961
Track Time 3:31
Written by Duke Ellington and Bob Russell
Recorded in New York City
Accompanied by Duke Ellington, piano, Trummy Young, trombone, Barney Bigard, clarinet, Mort Herbert, bass, Danny Barcelona, drums
Released on the Roulette LP "The Great Reunion"
Currently on CD: "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions"
Available on Itunes? Yes (The rehearsal is available only by purchasing the full album)

Hey everyone, today is Duke Ellington's birthday. The maestro would have been a ripe, old 110 today...if he made it, he'd probably have a little trouble doing the "finger snapping bit" but he's still be the hippest guy in the room. Anyway, in a perfect world where I slept for more than two or three hours at a clip, I would have had a nice long entry about Armstrong and Ellington's work together. Their 1961 sessions contain numerous masterpieces, in my opinion, and I would have loved to have gone into detail about some of my favorite tracks from that session. Alas, the time is just not there yet so I reached way back to the second post I ever did on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." As I like pointing out, the length of it is quite "normal" and to the point, but I was clueless about how to add music back then. Thus, here's the original post, complete with 10 minutes of rehearsal takes, plus the master take, to enjoy. Happy birthday, Duke!

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It's day two of this blog and I'm already kind of fudging things a bit. I pressed shuffle on my Ipod and the Armstrong-Ellington collaboration on "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" came up, a fine track by all means. But the 2000 Routlette CD issue of these recordings included a 10 minute, 43 second rehearsal of this performance that really adds to the experience of the master take, so I've decided to cover this track as well. This was from the first of two days of recording, a period when Armstrong was battling a cold. Now I know, Armstrong's vocal quality would never be mistaken for Johnny Mathis, but the cold does add a slightly nasal, deeper husk to his voice. Nevertheless, Ellington didn't bring any new material to the dates, which mainly consisted of Armstrong's All Stars, with Duke on piano instead of Billy Kyle, jamming on many of Ellington's most famous compositions. Thus, it's no surprise upon listening to the rehearsal that the musicians almost completely nail "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" on the first try. Before getting carried away, here's the entire rehearsal sequence, so you can listen along:



The potent duo of Armstrong and trombonist Trummy Young open the tune with a full chorus of melody, Armstrong staying in the middle register in the final eight, where he would go up higher on the master take. The vocal's a good one with fine support by ex-Ellingtonian Bigard on clarinet. A highlight is Armstrong boiling the descending melody to one note after the bridge. Duke's piano solo is a gem. His beginning sounds almost wrong, like he perhaps thought they were going right to the bridge. But he soon turns it into a motive, getting downright in Monkish is places (and kinda Dukish the rest of the time). Armstrong's trumpet picks up the last A section with a strong break and a nice high concert C towards the end. One problem: nobody knows how to end it! Armstrong starts to go into a typical ending and then realizes it's futile and asks Duke about making an ending. Armstrong's efforts, played a capella, are beautiful examples of the hugeness of his tone. Duke comes up with a simple ending for Barney and Trummy to play and they're off for another take.

The next time around is aborted after only one chorus. Armstrong gets bluesy in last eight bars and also breaks out of the middle register. Armstrong cracks his last note and the tune breaks down. It's hard to hear, but I think Duke jokes about spoiling "them good solos, like Cat, man," a reference to Ellington trumpeter Cat Anderson. Armstrong responds about "the one Duke plays with, he made a mistake," leading Duke to drop the name of another member of his trumpet section, "Willie Cook wouldn't stand for that." In a rare moment of humanness, Armstrong botches the opening phrase of the melody on the next take. Restarting yet again, Armstrong puts together his best opening solo yet. I love listening to these things gel. Armstrong's trumpet solo builds so logically, it's to marvel at, the vocal retains the one note phrasing, Ellington plays a more motivic, somewhat riff-based solo, really digging into the bridge. Armstrong's trumpet reentry is slightly delayed, but the solo contains another dramatic high note (a Bb, though, instead of a C). Only the ending still needs work. Armstrong climbs up high and holds a note, while Trummy and Barney botch the ending phrase, coming into to late. Duke and Pops scat how it should sound but on the master take, it's omitted completely; Armstrong hits the high note and the performance just ends, somewhat unresolved but it works.

The master take smooths out all the rough edges from the rehearsals. Here 'tis:


I love the interplay between Pops and Trummy. Often, the All Stars sounded like a quintet anyway when Barney was in the front line, as he would be drowned out by the trombone and trumpet. You don't even realize he's not playing on the opening chorus. Armstrong's trumpet chorus is textbook. It starts with just the melody, gradually improvising on the turnarounds before rhythmically rephrasing the bridge and bulding logically into the high register for the final eight bars. And let's give some credit to the rhythm section. Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona were often unfairly criticized because they didn't gave gaudy "all star" names but they swung effortlessly and they wouldn't have lasted so long if Armstrong didn't approve. Herbert's bass lines are particuarly effective behind the vocal. And Ellington uncorks yet another delicious piano solo on the master. The bridge is so relaxed, yet swinging at the same time, it's irristable. Pick up the complete sessions and you won't be disappointed....oh, just pick up anything from Armstrong and you won't be disappointed!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

So Long Dearie - Revisited

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded September 3, 1964
Track Time 2:15
Written by Jerry Herman
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Russell “Big Chief” Moore, trombone; Eddie Shu, clarinet; Billy Kyle, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums
Originally released on Mercury 72338
Currently available on CD: On a difficult-to-find German box, The Best of Louis Armstrong, which fortunately is available on Itunes
Available on Itunes? Yes

My previous "Revisited" posts have basically contained my original writings verbatim with music samples peppered in. But since I wrote about "So Long Dearie," the amount of performances I own of the tune has doubled...to four. Thus, I'm going to sprinkle in a little discussion on those, too, which will include an ultra-rare rehearsal take. Let's go...

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When Louis Armstrong entered a New York recording studio on December 3, 1963 to record two Broadway showtunes, no one was expecting much. Armstrong was reportedly dejected by the quality of material, though his good friend Jack Bradley predicted that one of the songs, “A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” could perhaps get some airplay with the right promotion. Of course, the other song recorded that day was “Hello, Dolly” and just a few months after its release, it was the number one record in the country, knocking the Beatles off the top of the charts at the height of their popularity.

The success of “Hello, Dolly” did wonders for Louis Armstrong’s performing career. He hadn’t stopped selling out shows for a minute but he had disappeared from the limelight a bit in 1962 and 1963, recording no albums whatsoever and making rare appearances on United States television. “Dolly” changed all of that. For the rest of his life, Armstrong was guaranteed bigger crowds than ever, all of them filled with new fans attending his shows for the first time. He was ubiquitous in films and on television and was the recipient of numerous profiles in magazines and newspapers. Only one aspect of his career suffered a bit: his studio recordings became more erratic than ever, though it was no fault of his own. Producers and A&R men saw the formula for the “Dolly” hit and decided to ape it for al lit was worth, hoping to catch lightening in a bottle once again. It never happened and because of that, Armstrong’s post-“Dolly” records are some of his least known (“What a Wonderful World” notwithstanding).

However, in my opinion, the best of the post-“Dolly” records was the very first one. After completing the album Hello, Dolly, and touring nonstop for a few months, Armstrong returned to the studio on September 3, 1964. Waiting for him was yet another song from the score of Hello, Dolly, “So Long Dearie,” another banjo player in the form of Everett Barksdale and another chance to sing the word “Louis.” It was Armstrong’s first session for Mercury Records, where Quincy Jones was an A&R man who worked a number of Armstrong sessions during this period. It’s not known if he was behind “So Long Dearie,” but whoever was sure wasn’t embarrassed about going to the “Dolly” well for a second time in such a blatant way.

Fortunately, “So Long Dearie” proved to be a highlight of Armstrong’s 1960s recording sessions, even though he doesn’t play one note of trumpet. What makes the record work is Armstrong’s enthusiastic singing, the intense swinging of the All Stars and a different song structure that allows for some exciting shifts in momentum. Before we get to the master take, though, let's listen to a rehearsal take from the session. Clearly, the band didn't expect it to be released as you'll hear a few voices at different points in the background (and even Louis himself makes some audible mental notes to himself), but it's a very impressive run-through:



There's a few points where Pops kind of misses the melody a bit, but after running it down, the band finally nailed it on take seven, the master:


Right from the start it’s like listening to “Hello, Dolly – The Sequel” as Barksdale’s banjo plays a prominent role in the introduction. How interesting it is that Armstrong hadn’t played with a banjo since about 1928, but after “Dolly,” the majority of his succeeding records all featured that instrument? Hell, even when Armstrong recreated the Hot Fives and Sevens for the Autobiography, he used George Barnes on electric guitar rather than bring back a banjo. Regardless, used in tandem with Billy Kyle’s piano and the swinging rhythm team of Arvell Shaw and Danny Barcelona, it makes for an exciting introduction. Pops begins singing the first strain with arranged support from Russell “Big Chief” Moore and clarinetist Eddie Shu, who joined the band only two months prior to the session. Because it was take seven, the band had some time to get used to the different structure and come up with some neat little arranging touches, most likely courtesy of Billy Kyle. Pops sounds effervescent, obviously digging the pretty chord changes that enter a minor territory on more than one occasion. And how could Pops resist a lyric that already had the phrase “you dog” built in?

For the first 32-bar strain, Shaw plays two-beat on the bass, which effectively sets up the swinging transition to the next strain. I personally this love the minor-keyed episode and a lot it has to do with the rhythm section’s will to swing. Shaw begins intensely alternating the root and the fifth, while Kyle hits some perfectly placed chords, echoing the “choo choo” Pops is singing about in the foreground. Barcelona steadily whacks the rim of his snare while Barksdale, a great guitarist, provides some nice, chunky rhythms. After 16 bars of dark swinging, the tune switches from major to minor and the band responds again, Shaw doubling up the notes of his bass line. And of course, though I’m spending my time extolling the virtues of the rhythm section, I don’t want to neglect Pops, who sounds like he’s having the time of his life, inserting the word “chick” and laughing heartily before the written-in two-bar interlude by Moore and Shu.

At this point, the structure of the song reverts back to the original chord changes, but now Armstrong leaves two-bar gaps for trombone and clarinet to fill in. Armstrong slyly says so long to “Dolly” this time around, but perhaps the climax of the record comes at the final bridge, which again goes back to a minor-key and allows Moore and Shu to ditch the arrangement and improvise polyphonically from the heart. As Pops builds up a nice head of steam himself, he sings in the final A section, “Wave your hand and whisper, So Long, Louis.” Clearly, referring to himself as “Louis” was a big part of “Dolly’s” charm so it couldn’t hurt to try it again. Overall, for a song with no Armstrong trumpet, “So Long Dearie” really is a home run for me.

Unfortunately for Mercury, it didn’t become the next “Dolly,” but it did make it up to #56 on the pop charts. Armstrong featured it for a while, including a performance on an Australian TV show from late 1964. Want to hear how it sounded live? Here 'tis:



The tempo's a little slower on the live one and, obviously, the banjo is gone but the spirit is still 100% contagious. Shu and Moore even have the background parts down pat, too, meaning Pops probably featured this tune live more than we think in late '64. In March 1965, Armstrong made a historical tour of Prague and East Berlin, finally cracking a bit of the Iron Curtain. In Prague, Armstrong was filmed at what appears to be an informal rehearsal session. I don’t know when it was filmed or who was in the audience, but Pops looks relaxed without his tuxedo. Meanwhile, the session is an important one because Eddie Shu plays the tenor saxophone throughout, making it perhaps the only time a tenor appeared in the standard All Stars front line. Shu was a talented multi-instrumentalist (he also played trumpet) whose main horn was the tenor so it’s no wonder that he sounds so comfortable here. During the same session, Armstrong blows a tremendous version of “Back O’Town Blues,” so his chops were in sparkling form, but again, there’s no playing on “So Long Dearie.”

Unfortunately, my original posting on "So Long Dearie" included a YouTube video of the Prague performance that has since been removed. The good news is that the performance is still available online but embedding is disabled so I can't share it here. But if you click here you'll go right to the video. I highly recommend as it's one of my favorite Armstrong film clips. The tempo in Prague is fairly slower than the studio record, but about on par with the Australian version. It takes a second to get used to after hearing the hard-charging swing of the Mercury version, but nonetheless, it builds up a pretty nice head of steam. The banjo is gone, so one can really focus on Arvell Shaw’s bass lines, once again offering two-beat in the beginning. Shu and new All Stars trombonist Tyree Glenn perform the same arranged background riffs as heard on the record. Armstrong really sells the song with his facial expressions and hand movements, waving “so long” at the appropriate time. If you listen carefully, it sounds like Shaw yells “Go Pops,” before the piece kicks into swing time for that wonderful minor strain. Again, Kyle really digs in and Shu sounds great behind Pops, playing some faintly Jewish-sounding melodies (Shu, real name Shulman, he used to do this on “When The Saints Go Marching In,” as well).

After the verse interlude, things settle into a comfortably swinging groove and Shu and Glenn get downright raucous in their instrumental responses to the vocal. However, for me, the highlight comes in the bridge of the last chorus, which captures Armstrong at his most relaxed. “I’ll be all dressed up,” he sings before adding a perfect little aside: “Sharp as a tack.” Then, with absolutely perfect phrasing, he sings the line “Singing that song” all on one note. I love everything about that moment: the swing of it, the little pause, the funny aside. He swings out ‘til the ending, though he sings “So Long Dearie,” instead of “So Long Louis,” as he did on the record. He catches himself and immediately sings, “Louis should have said ‘so long’ so long ago.” Shu continues his tasty playing until the very end as Pops swings to a happy finish.

For me, it’s a toss-up as to which version of “Dearie” I prefer, but I can officially say that I wish I had some more to choose from! “Dearie” seems to have been phased out, though Armstrong did perform it on the Dean Martin Show at the end of 1965. I went out of my way to obtain one of those Dean Martin best-of DVDs because it mentioned Armstrong’s appearance, hoping to catch him doing “Dearie,” but alas, it only had a medley duet with Dean (hey, NBC, let’s get some full seasons of the Martin show!). Though it might have disappeared from the All Stars’s stage show, Pops did like to keep it for rehearsals and informal sessions like the one from Prague. Clarinetist Joe Muranyi joined the band in June 1967 and he was one of the lucky ones to have an actual rehearsal before his first gig with Pops. Here’s what he told me about it:

“I just did the best I could and by the end of the evening, Pops was smiling. And I remember ‘So Long Dearie.’ I said, ‘Well, I can get through the chorus but I don’t know the verse too well.’ So he blows his horn into my fucking face and plays it for me! It was wonderful! I was such a fan, I didn’t know what to do. I mean, I got to listen and try to learn and as it turns out, we never did ever play it, but he played it for me as to how it went which is marvelous.”

So Pops kept “Dearie” around and even blew trumpet on it when he needed something different to warm up with or to rehearse, but really, it remains a lesser known “Dolly” knock-off from Pops’s erratic Mercury sessions. Hopefully this entry and the above YouTube video (courtesy of Effacers via Skitdat) will give you more appreciation for this swinging little tune.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Live At The 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival - Revisited

This is the post that started my full-on descent into Armstrong craziness, with regards to the length of my entries. Before this one, I usually wrote short blogs, suitable for human beings. But on this one, I opened up a bit and thought I got kind of out of hand. But I received a lot of feedback on it so I decided that maybe there was an audience for my deep, delving Armstrong rantings. So far, so good...

But alas, back then, I had no music samples to work with. Now, thanks to my Mac, I've become quite adept at editing. Thus, here's the new and improved look at Armstrong's 1958 Monterey set. Armstrong had some struggles that night but most reviewers didn't mention them and I even received some personal comments from people who claimed there was nothing really wrong. Well, since then, the disc has grown on me from an entertainment stand-point but I still hear some rough-going in the trumpet playing. Nothing bad, mind you; just the sound of Armstrong on a rough day, struggling but still hitting the high notes. Thus, I'm going to edit some of the solos from Monterey and juxtapose them with solos from later shows to hear how Armstrong handled them when everything was hitting on all cylinders. I've always feared that someone with little Armstrong in their collection would spot this disc on Emusic or Itunes, purchase it, hear the strained trumpet playing and think, "Well, I guess Louis Armstrong was spent by 1958!" Nothing could be further from the truth but the man did have his rough nights and Monterey was one of them. Here goes...

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In 2007, the Monterey Jazz Festival opened up their archives and released a handful of classic concerts featuring the likes of Miles, Monk, Dizzy and Louis Armstrong. New, previously unissued Armstrong recordings are always a cause for celebration and I awaited the Monterey release with great anticipation for the last four or five months. After receiving my copy, I listened to it a few times and am now prepared to commence with my verdict: it’s not an essential release and should really only interest Armstrong die-hards only.

I know, I know, I can’t believe I wrote that myself. I’ve embraced every note Armstrong ever played and I personally love the Monterey concert, but for different reasons than most. You see, there’s one major problem with this disc: Armstrong’s chops are down and it’s sad to hear him struggle. At the same time, the masochistic side of me finds it inspiring to hear Armstrong work through the pain to give the audience an incredible show. And thanks to the gorgeous sound of the disc, you can really hear the audience laughing and screaming their approval throughout the disc’s generous 80-minute running time. To set the stage quickly, the concert took place on opening night of the very first Monterey Jazz Festival on October 3, 1958. Concert producer Jimmy Lyons loaded the opening night with traditional jazz artists, climaxing in a performance by the All Stars in front a crowd of 5,000.

Lyons hired Dizzy Gillespie to introduce Armstrong, a moment captured at the start of the CD: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, just the greatest, the king, Louis Armstrong, Satchmo!” You can hear the mutual appreciation between the two trumpet masters as they greet each other onstage. Armstrong warms up a bit and we’re off with “Sleepy Time Down South.” Armstrong often began it by playing the melody for 16 bars, but here he only plays it for eight. I didn’t pay it no mind at first listen because I’m always swept away by any version of “Sleepy Time,” lulled into a state of mellow euphoria, knowing the delights that are to follow. And of course, “Indiana” follows, the customary warm-up. Some critics complained about the inevitability of “Indiana” but I always picture a concertgoer in the audience, seeing Armstrong for the first time, and hearing the absolutely blazing sounds that erupt from Armstrong’s horn on “Indiana.” I never get tired of listening to it and its fascinating to hear all the different variations in Armstrong’s solo between 1951 and 1956. It was in 1956 that he finally chiseled out a perfect solo and this one would remain “set” for years to come. And that’s the first thing that distressed me about the Monterey concert: Armstrong doesn’t solo on “Indiana.” He plays the standard two ensemble choruses at the beginning, tearing through them without a hint of a problem. But after solos by Billy Kyle’s piano and Mort Herbert’s bass, it’s almost a shock to hear Peanuts Hucko enter on clarinet instead of Pops. You can hear Armstrong say something during Kyle’s solo and he plays a quick, low pedal tone at the start of the bass solo, but he must have felt something was wrong to eliminate his solo. Of all the versions of “Indiana” in my collection (and you don’t want to know how many that is), this is the only one I know of until 1966 where Armstrong doesn’t play a solo. Hucko and Trummy Young solo well before Armstrong reenters to play the rideout chorus. Again, I’m not saying he sounds bad, but when you become so accustomed to hearing Armstrong play at full power, it’s noticeable when he’s not 100% and here that’s noticeable in the highest parts of his upper register, where he sounds like he’s really pushing to get those notes out. He gets them out all right, but you can hear the effort.

To prove it, I've done a little bit of audio editing. First, you'll hear Armstrong's rideout in Monterey. Then after a brief pause, you'll hear the same rideout from Armstrong's set at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1961. As I said, there's nothing bad about the Monterey one and Armstrong even handles the spraying, quick-fingered run after Barcelona's first drum break. But on the 1961 solo, he can do no wrong, plowing through it without any strain whatsoever. Here's the audio:



Next, Armstrong plays a request, “Blueberry Hill,” which conveniently rests his chops (the man did know how to pace himself!). There’s a lot of live Armstrong discs from the 1950s and it’s interesting to see how many don’t feature this Armstrong staple (the Crescendo Club from 1955, the Chicago Concert from 1956, Newport 1957, all the European stuff from 1959). Armstrong sings it beautifully and you hear the audience crack up at some of his humorous phrasing. Properly rested, Armstrong called “Tiger Rag,” which had emerged into a quick, two-minute romp played to get the audience’s blood pumping. Usually, Armstrong would have played “Indiana,” maybe “Basin Street Blues” or “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” before tearing through “Tiger Rag.” And when he was really feeling good, the encores would start flowing (as on volume four of the Storyville “In Scandinvia” series, covered in my "Tiger Rag To End All Tiger Rags" blog). But it wasn’t to be that night in Monterey. Like “Indiana,” Armstrong gets through the racehorse opening ensemble choruses without much of a struggle. And then Hucko solos…a note about Hucko: I must take back some of the harsh things I’ve said about Hucko in the past. Hucko joined in July and was obviously still full of inspiration at this October concert. I’ve never heard him play so well with Armstrong; by the 1959 European tour, he sounded bored and he left at the end of that year. But at Monterey, he was smoking.

Back to “Tiger Rag,” though. You can hear Armstrong play a few quiet notes behind Hucko to make sure his chops are together and then he’s off! This was another solo that Armstrong had pretty much set but this time, he doesn’t quite pull it off. His phrasing is a little slower than usual as he sounds almost too careful and on his first break, which usually featured a gliss into a high note or a fleet-fingered phrase, he instead flickers a valve quickly, producing a an exciting tremolo effect (reminds me of Red Allen), but it’s not as effective as what he played on a good night. After the break Armstrong goes into the “Pagliacci” quote he had been playing on “Tiger Rag” since the early 30s, but he actually mispitches one of the notes (a true rarity). It’s amazing listening to his brain work, though. He was a great editor and, knowing his limitations on that night, his phrasing has more of a legato feel and most of little quick phrases that dotted his solos are gone as he kind of floats through his statement. But then comes maybe the saddest moment of the disc. Armstrong would usually hold an Ab as the band would reenter to play the rideout chorus but when he tries it here, he again falters and loses it for an instant. But then this is followed by maybe the most triumphant moment of the disc: he continues to hold the Ab, slowly getting stronger before he gives his all in the ride out, hitting a series of high C’s. This was all part of the routine and Armstrong probably could have played it safe and improvised something in the middle register but on this night, in front of such a huge, adoring audience, he couldn’t. He keeps playing the two-note phrase, Ab to high C, over and over, glissing some of them, not exactly on top of the beat as he usually is, but he’s pretty damn close (chasing Trummy Young around the stage the entire time!). During the break he even glisses from high C, down to Ab and back up to C. As he continues driving home those high C’s, it’s clear that this is painful, punishing work. After listening to it a couple of times, tears actually welled up in my eyes, in awe of how much he gave his audiences no matter the shape he was in. He ends “Tiger Rag” on an even higher Eb, as the crowd roars its approval. Armstrong sounds pretty happy, too.

For the audio, here are the final two choruses from Monterey, consisting of Armstring's solo and those painful high C's. Again, after a slight pause, you'll hear the exact same choruses from a version done in Slovenia in May 1959 where Armstrong doesn't sound like he's struggling a bit. Give a listen:



And then it was time to rest the chops again with the medley of tunes from High Society. Armstrong was always proud of the songs he performed in films and he always performed them live. “A Song Is Born” stayed in the repertoire from the time of the original 1947 movie of the same name until about 1950, when Armstrong introduced “A Kiss to Build A Dream On” in The Strip. Trombonists Jack Teagarden and Trummy Young were always featured on “Basin Street Blues,” until Armstrong sang it in the Glenn Miller Story, at which point he reclaimed it, always announcing the song’s presence in that film. And after the huge popularity of 1956’s High Society, Armstrong would include “Now You Has Jazz” and “High Society Calypso” in his repertoire until around 1964, the dawn of the “Hello, Dolly” period. Critics frowned, wishing those spots in the show would be instead filled by “Beau Koo Jack” or something from the Hot Five days, but they’re fun numbers and audiences clearly dug them. One great thing about the Monterey recording is the way it captures the vibrant audience, laughing heartily at Armstrong’s reference to Trummy Young as “Bing Crosby in Technicolor” on “Now You Has Jazz” and to his mugging and singing on “Calypso.” There is one chorus of trumpet on “Now You Has Jazz” and it’s prefaced by a somewhat odd moment. When Armstrong had trouble with his chops, he would usually blow softly before his solos to make sure everything was in order. On “Now You Has Jazz,” Danny Barcelona would take a drum break, Trummy would say, “Now listen to/ you know who” and Armstrong would enter with one of his patented blues phrases. At Monterey, though, Barcelona’s in the middle of his solo when you hear Armstrong play the first phrase of his solo loudly. It almost sounds like he came in too early, but he’d played the song a hundred times by that point and obviously knew when to come in. He just plays the opening of his solo, lets Barcelona finish, lets Trummy introduce him, then starts his solo with the same exact same phrase…but then pauses. He obviously felt wrong something in his chops to stop for that second but once he rights himself, he blows one chorus of blues, displaying his fattest tone up to that point in the concert. Here's the audio of that moment:



After “High Society Calypso,” Armstrong tells the audience one of his favorite jokes, prefacing it by mentioning how he told it to the co-stars of High Society, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. Yes, it’s the “Alligator Story” and if you don’t know, it here’s how he told it that night in Monterey: “I was telling about the time when I was a cute little boy in Boutte, Louisiana and one morning, my mother sent me down to the pond to get the pail of water and when I come back, I didn’t have the water so Mayann, my mother, she said, ‘Boy! Where’s that water?’ I said, ‘Well, Mama, there’s a big, old, rusty alligator in that water and I didn’t get it, that’s all.’ She said, ‘Son, go get that water. Don’t you know that alligator is as scared of you as you is of him?’ I said, ‘Well, if that alligator is as scared of me as I as of him, mama, that water ain’t fit to drink!’” The laughter Armstrong receives sounds like a Redd Foxx record. It goes for about 15 seconds and even causes Armstrong to miss his entrance on “The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It!” Fortunately, Young and Hucko weren’t phased and they start playing their parts without Armstrong, but he quickly joins in, though you can hear him still laughing to himself before he starts his vocal. Trummy Young shares the vocal with Armstrong and during his chorus, you can hear Armstrong playing his trumpet mouthpiece in the background, still searching for something to get those chops warmed up. I love “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” and I think it’s one of the most irresistible staples of the All Stars’s repertoire. Armstrong might have been struggling with his embouchure but he still felt good enough to play an encore of “Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” something he did often in the Edmond Hall years but infrequently thereafter. He still doesn’t sound like he’s at ease, but he blows some exciting riffs, getting terrific backing from Trummy. By the end, Armstrong does the fast tremolo he did on “Tiger Rag,” and even finds the power to gliss way up from the customary final high C to a high F. He sounds happy as hell as the audience roars, alerting them that “The cats was wailin’ there!” I know that not everyone has the time to listen to four and five-minute songs so I've edited "Bucket" to start with Armstrong's rideout choruses, followed by the encore, as a means of saving time:



Continuing the pattern, after such fierce, probably painful blowing, Armstrong rests while featuring the other fellows in the band. Billy Kyle’s up first with “Perdido,” which gets off to an peculiar start as Kyle decides to extend his introductory vamp without bassist Mort Herbert knowing so Herbert ends up walking the chord changes too early, creating a bit of a clash. Otherwise, it’s a smooth solo, though once more, at 1:36, a few small beeps can be heard in the background as Armstrong prepares himself for his role in “Perdido,” a series of stirring F’s. He hits them, very strongly. Kyle then takes an encore, originally stomping at it off a ludicrously fast tempo, before settling in with the same uptempo swing. Just a few years later, he would indeed take it at that ludicrous tempo! The encore is interesting because Kyle was really a guy who never, ever changed his set solos, some of them staying in concrete for over ten years. But on the encore, he improvised a terrific, block-chorded bridge, hinting at Ben Webster’s solo on “Cotton Tail.”

Then it’s on to another rarity: a sideman feature where Armstrong doesn’t play. Armstrong usually played on everyone’s feature until Edmond Hall came around with “Daradenalla.” Hucko’s “Autumn Leaves” always gave Armstrong approximately two minutes to sit in the wings and rest. It’s a short solo, but a good one, the rhythm section locking into a nice groove. Hucko then follows with an exciting “After You’ve Gone,” Armstrong entering a minute in to play the melody, indeed sounding a bit refreshed. “After You’ve Gone” might contain Armstrong’s best blowing on the disc and at the end of the encore, Armstrong screams up to a high D, holding it before resolving to a higher F. On other, stronger occasions, Armstrong could be even more daring and exciting on “After You’ve Gone,” (check out the version on volume 3 of the “In Scandinavia” series), but on this grueling night in Monterey, it’s a highlight. Here's the audio:



Next up is bassist Mort Herbert, who joined the band in January of 1958. Herbert didn’t have the raw power and drive of Arvell Shaw but he still swung the band nicely and served Armstrong well for four years. Armstrong liked to give his bassists long solos and, perhaps needing to regroup after “After You’ve Gone,” Herbert takes two long, slow choruses on “These Foolish Things.” I think it’s a fine solo (Herbert was a good quoter) but the highlight is when Armstrong enters three-minutes in to play the melody. I don’t have any other versions of Herbert playing this as his feature (though newspaper reviews of the period mention him playing this), so it’s valuable to hear Armstrong play a standard melody not often associated with him. He sticks close to the melody, but infuses it with the usual Armstrong soul and feeling, making it a moment to remember. Herbert, too, gets an encore (the whole performance clocks in at a hefty 7:32) and on it, Armstrong still sounds like he’s pushing hard to get those notes out and when he gets to the high G at the end of the chorus, his tone has a little shaky feel to it that’s reminiscent of Armstrong’s trumpet work during the Russell Garcia-arranged Verve sessions of 1957, another time when his lip simply wasn’t rested. But after a humorous extended coda where Herbert quotes “Holiday For Strings,” Armstrong ends with a gorgeous high Eb. Here's an edited version, consisting of Armstrong's two trumpet statements and Herbert's finale:



“Mack the Knife” is up next, uptempo, though it would get even faster in the next couple of years before slowing back down to a medium pace in the 60s. The trumpet stays in good form here (with a little more blowing during the drum break to keep everything copasetic), though throughout the concert, his tone consistently sounds a tad smaller than usual, even a little cloudy at times. Every high note, even when he hits them right on, contains the sound of anguish. Still, he drives himself through Danny Barcelona’s drum feature on “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” an arrangement that featured a lot of trumpet, including playing the melody an octave higher than usual towards the end.

Trummy Young’s feature on “Undecided” was always fast and exciting but by the 1958, the tempo had started to creep into warp-speed territories. While still exciting, it became so frantic, it lost some of the effectiveness of versions from 1955 and 1956 (by 1962, it would become even faster and thus, became even less effective). Armstrong always took a monster solo on “Undecided,” upstaging Young at times (check out the Ambassador Satch version from ’55). But in Monterey, Armstrong struggles with the tempo, beginning with some phrases that border on incoherent before he relaxes and stops trying to keep up with the horserace going on behind him. As usual, he begins playing slower phrases, floating over the bar lines and sacrificing velocity for some stronger, higher notes. On the encore, he continues this trend to better effect and manages to gliss up to an impressive high F at the end of his solo. Nevertheless, compared to some other versions of “Undecided” in the Armstrong canon, this one is pretty forgettable.

For the audio, I've edited out young's sloppy opening statement. I've edited together Armstrong's painful solo from the first go-around followed by his playing on the encore, then followed by a much better solo on the tune from Stockholm, Sweden on January 16, 1959:



Velma Middleton joins the group for “St. Louis Blues,” always one of my very favorite All Stars performances. Honestly, when I first popped this disc in my CD player, I went straight to the final minute of “St. Louis Blues” because I love the transition from Trummy’s roaring trombone to Armstrong’s rideout lead so much. Listening to the entire track, it’s clear that something’s still wrong in the opening. The group usually played W.C. Handy’s 16-bar minor-strain as an introduction before Velma would begin. But after 16-bars, Armstrong keeps playing, realizes the introduction was supposed to end and improvises a confused sounding wrap-up phrase as Velma enters. In all, it’s a somewhat sloppy 18-bar introduction. The only way I can defend the All Stars without seeing this performance is offering a guess that maybe Velma hadn’t stepped fully up to the microphone yet as a performance of “St. Louis Blues” from Sweden in January 1959 has a similar confused introduction. Once Velma starts singing, it’s clear she’s having a good night, but Armstrong’s obbligato is very tentative. When Velma sings, “Louis Armstrong blows so nice and high,” Armstrong would usually respond with a cute quote of Handy’s “Memphis Blues.” However, on this night, Armstrong chose to play nothing at this point in the song. He just stops playing and scats softly. On top of that, the band would usually play one chorus of blues before Armstrong would sing but even that chorus is gone! The concert was nearing its end and Armstrong knew he had some fierce blowing to do at the end of “St. Louis Blues” so he was now conserving like crazy, eliminating obbligatos and complete choruses. Fortunately, the band strikes a helluva groove, everyone solos well and Armstrong summons up whatever he had left in his lip to blow two passionate rideout choruses, staying in upper register during the last 12 bars.

For the audio, I've done another juxtaposition. You'll hear the introduction, followed by Armstrong's tentative obbligato behind Middleton's vocal, followed by Armstrong's vocal entrance. Then, after a pause, we'll flash forward to the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival and you'll hear the intro to that piece, Armstrong's much stronger obbligato, the instrumental blues chorus he chose not to play in Monterey and his vocal entrance. Sounds like a lot, but it's only a couple of minutes:



For Velma’s second tune, they chose “That’s My Desire.” “Ko Ko Mo” was usually the second tune Armstrong and Middleton would perform during this period in the band’s history, but that piece had entirely too much trumpet work. On “That’s My Desire,” Armstrong just had to play behind Velma for 16 bars. However, as on “St. Louis Blues,” he begins to play his standard obbligato and then stops. Incredibly, Billy Kyle picks up the slack! Armstrong’s beautiful obbligato didn’t change over the years and when Armstrong’s stops playing it, Kyle steps in and plays Armstrong’s closing phrase perfectly on the piano. I thought it was a great moment of sympathetic teamwork and more proof that the All Stars were better with team players such as Kyle instead of egotists like Earl “Fatha” Hines. Armstrong and Velma slay the audience with their routine, a comedy exercise they hadn’t really changed since 1947 but one they always put over as if performing it for the first time.

My audio edit consists of the aborted Monterey obbligato followed immediately by another performance of the tune from Keesler Air Force Base in October 1959 where, once again, Pops has no troubles (and you'll hear the phrase clearly that Kyle saves at Monterey):



Finally, the end of the concert arrives with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” How Armstrong’s lip had anything left is a miracle and even at the beginning, his trumpet misses a note in the second phrase (the “in” in “go marching in”). His tone is now smaller than ever before but he goes on tentatively. Everyone solos, Armstrong lets them take a bow and then he picks up his trumpet one last time to blow the exciting outchoruses he had perfected with the All Stars over the last decade. He already noodled a bit more behind Trummy’s solo and even during Barcelona’s break, keeping the chops warm as the rideout approaches. The first time I listened, I actually felt nervous inside because I didn’t want to hear him suffer anymore. Armstrong plays the final three choruses and it’s tough going but it’s more triumphant than sad though there are some rough moments. His phrasing still isn’t as smooth as on other versions of “The Saints.” he cracks his “Here Comes The Bride” quote badly, and his lip gives out during the first phrase of the second chorus. But he recovers, eliminating some of the quicker notes in his set pattern to instead focus on hitting the high notes square, which he does, ending on a very strong high D. The crowd goes wild and the concert is over.

For the "Saints," I've edited together Armstrong's opening melody statement and the punishing rideout choruses, followed immediately by the rideout choruses Armstrong played in Umea, Sweden, January 1959:



Phew…after listening to it in such detail, I feel as tired as Armstrong’s lip after 80 minutes of blowing that evening. I’ve been writing this blog entry with whatever free time I’ve had over the last three days but earlier today, at work, I decided to listen to it one more time, but without focusing on the minutia and without constantly rewinding passages or raising the volume to see if I could make out voices in the background. I just listened to it in full as if I were in attendance in Monterey that evening and I don’t think it’s possible to be more entertained. The pacing of the show is so perfect that I don't think it's possible to ever fault Armstrong for sticking to what works. The lively instrumental showpieces, the swinging features for the other wonderful members of the bands, the comedy routines that are very funny…it works. Around the time of track eight, when Armstrong’s “Alligator Story” leads into the joyous romp on “Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” the thing feels like a damn party! Then, a little later on, Armstrong’s trumpet gives “These Foolish Things” such a wistful feel, I couldn’t help but shake my head at the pure beauty of his interpretation of the melody. And “St. Louis Blues” rocks, plain and simple, especially hearing Velma and the band members vocally exhorting every soloist on. “That’s My Desire” made me chuckle out loud and the “Saints” was as joyous a finish as could be. Again, it worked. In his liner notes, Richard Hadlock notes that the concept of a set “stage show” evolved from vaudeville and was a constant source of anguish for the hardened jazz critics who got sick of seeing the same routines over and over.

What’s important to understand is by this point in his career, Armstrong was touring at a nonstop pace. And the two-week stints in major nightclubs were becoming scarcer and scarcer as his popularity grew throughout the 50s. In fact, earlier in 1958, Armstrong played a tour that consisted of 61 colleges in a row! “I’ve got more alma maters than anybody,” he told Jet on April 17, 1958. “They’re all the same…they jump.” Armstrong knew what worked and always strived to put on the best show that was possible. It’s a tradition that’s still carried on with performers such as B.B. King and Tony Bennett. In the last five years, I’ve seen King six times in six different venues and Bennett five times in five different venues. Each time, their shows varied little. Even their between-song patter and jokes remained the same. And each time, the different audiences (including myself) were entertained beyond belief. I’d go back to see King or Bennett anytime, even if I know the songs and jokes aren’t apt to change, just because it’s such an entertaining show.

But what makes Live At The 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival so important is how it catches Armstrong on an off night, at least in terms of the trumpet. But even with all the problems with his chops I’ve detailed above, he still put on a masterful show. He paced himself with songs that featured his trumpet, never taking more than three or four minutes off at a clip. He eliminated choruses and obbligatos when he knew he couldn’t play them. All of this must have hurt him mentally, but he didn’t let it show. He sang his ass off, told the alligator joke, and kept the massive audience entertained the entire time. It’s one of the most noble entries in the Armstrong discography, even if I wouldn’t recommend it to a novice fan. I also wouldn’t recommend it to someone who bashes Armstrong’s later years. The set list contains no surprises (except maybe “These Foolish Things”) and his trumpet is not in peak form. It’s perfect fodder for people who don’t understand Armstrong’s later recordings to say, “See, there’s nothing great about this concert. It’s the same old songs and his trumpet sounds deteriorated. Back to the Hot Fives for me!”

And, to me, that’s nonsense. Listening to this concert caused my eyes to well up. Just think about how hard it was being Louis Armstrong in 1958. You’re 57 years old, you’ve changed music history, yet younger musicians are embarrassed by your antics and jazz critics constantly knock your live performances. You spend the bulk of the year in buses and in hotel rooms, dealing with racism and sometimes less-than-ideal performance conditions. You push yourself so hard that your lip sometimes gives out and you can’t play at full capacity, yet you still must go out and give the performance of your life. And when it’s over, it’s back to the bus for a night’s rest with the hope that for tomorrow’s show, your chops will return to form. It wasn’t easy to be Louis Armstrong in 1958 which is why I particularly love the cover photo of the Monterey Jazz Festival disc:



That’s not the grinning, Satchmo we’re used to seeing, the “buffoon,” as Gunther Schuller would put it. No, that’s a tired man. His eyes look heavy and there’s no trace of a smile. The scar on his lip looks more pronounced than ever before. Yet, when Dizzy introduced him, he came to life and still managed to give 5,000 people a tremendous show. It was not easy being Louis Armstrong and it’s about time that his later years start to receive more credit instead of just being shrugged off as the period where he played the same songs every night.

But even with such a high-profile release as this one from Monterey, critics still don’t seem to be listening. In his notes, Richard Hadlock admits to being one of the jazz writers from the 50s who was disappointed in the unchanging All Stars stage show (though it did change more than you’d believe...a subject for another blog…). Hadlock writes, “After ‘St. Louis Blues’ gave us Velma in good voice, highlighted by splendid trumpet passages, it spiraled down into a most un-Handy, somewhat grubby blues contest.” What does that even mean? First, Armstrong’s trumpet is not splendid in the beginning of “St. Louis Blues,” and I’m his biggest defender. The introduction is confused and he doesn’t play the full obbligato and he cuts a chorus of blowing before the vocal. And the song builds up to a real nice, rocking groove, reminiscent of the version from the W.C. Handy album it’s patterned after of. Grubby blues contest? That’s just silly. But even crazier is the review posted by Ken Dryden on allmusic.com. I like Dryden and he usually demonstrates good ears in his reviews, such as his recent one on the fourth volume of the In Scandinavia series. But his four-star review of the Monterey set is bizarre in that it’s basically a one-paragraph summary of Hadlock’s liner notes. Hadlock mentions the set routine of the show, praises Billy Kyle as being “underrated,” knocks Young’s feature on “Undecided” and mentions an audio balance problem due to the musicians moving on stage causing the balance to change at times. In his review, Dryden mentions the set routine of the show, praises Billy Kyle as being “underrated,” knocks Young’s feature on “Undecided” and mentions an audio balance problem due to the musicians moving on stage causing the balance to change at times! He even carries over the error from the back of the CD that credits Velma Middleton with singing three songs, even though she only does two! I don’t want to say Mr. Dryden didn’t listen to the disc but to not even mention the problems in Armstrong’s trumpet playing is a little bizarre.

To sum up, if you love Louis Armstrong, you’ll enjoy this disc. If you’re a casual fan, I’d say avoid it as there are better options. Hell, if you really want to hear what Armstrong could do in 1958, go to worldsrecords.com and order “Live North Bay, Ontario, May 15, 1958,” on the Sterling label. It’s unreleased material presented by jazz historian (and Jack Teagarden authority) Joe Showler and features 75 minutes of the All Stars playing at a half-empty dance in the middle of nowhere five months before Monterey. It was just another one-nighter and it demonstrates the different venues the band had to play. Picture it: playing in front of 5,000 people at the inaugural Monterey Jazz Festival one night, and playing for a couple of hundred dancers in the sticks another. Once again, Armstrong gives his all, fielding a number of requests including a scorching “Long Gone,” a song I never knew Armstrong to have performed live (and it’s clearly a request because Velma gets some lyrics wrong and the band’s a bit hesitant with the routine). Armstrong plays one of the most exciting “Muskrat Rambles” I’ve ever heard (with a rare encore that features him quoting “The Song Is Ended”) and there’s a Trummy Young feature on “You Can Depend On Me” that might be one of my top ten favorite All Stars performances of all time. If you really believe Armstrong’s trumpet skills eroded over time or that the All Stars played the same songs every night, please don’t hesitate and order this disc immediately.

And speaking of 1958….hey, Sony! Wake up! Columbia recorded Armstrong’s entire set at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival yet has never released it (yet we have alternate takes of Miles Davis coughing). Three tracks—“On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Rockin’ Chair” and “Ko Ko Mo”—have trickled out on three completely different samplers over the years and each one features gorgeous stereo sound. Armstrong’s in top form and the show even featured a Armstrong reunited with Jack Teagarden and Bobby Hackett. One song from this reunion is captured in the film Jazz on a Summer’s Day, but come on, they also played “Pennies From Heaven” that night and I want to hear it!

Well, I’ve gotten carried away and I’m sorry for the graphic length of this post. Allow me to recoup for a day or two and I’ll be back with some more song breakdowns by the end of the week. For now though, if you appreciate Louis Armstrong, check out the Monterey set and marvel at how he overcomes his lip troubles and plays through the pain to give a wonderfully entertaining concert. And it all goes to a good cause as the proceeds from the Monterey discs goes to serve a jazz education program for young people in California. Louis Armstrong would be proud….

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Onkel Satchmo's Lullaby

Ah, parenthood. Baby Ella continues to make me happier and happier with each passing day...except for the hours between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. where she conveniently forgets how to sleep. Delirium usually sets in as Margaret and I take turns rocking her, feeding her and doing everything in our power to put her to sleep and allow us to get some rest--any rest--before the sun comes up and she has two zombies for parents.

While rocking her one night, my wife told me to sing to her. I didn't know what to do (should I scat "Heebie Jeebies") so the word "lullaby" rolled around in my brain. And all of a sudden, I remembered "Onkel Satchmo's Lullaby" with its very pretty melodic hook. I gave it a whirl and, though it didn't have any immediate effect on the baby, it did give me an idea for a short blog posting.

50 years ago, on May 20, 1959--a month before the Spoleto, Italy heart attack, Louis Armstrong appeared in a German film, La Paloma. He had been on a marathon tour with the All Stars since January, appearing in numerous films along the way. Armstrong's mystical appearance in La Paloma was saved for the end, when he magically appeared onstage to play and sing "Onkel Satchmo's Lullaby," soon joined by Gabriele Clonisch. In the late 50s, Germany saw a boom in popular, young, recording artists, a fad that even got mentioned in the December 9, 1958 issue of Time magazine. I quote: "Most ardent believer is a brash, well-formed 15-year-old Berlin schoolgirl named Cornelia Froboess—known only as Conny—who has sold 1,450,000 records on the Electrola label this year, earned royalties of $60,000 (of which her father-manager doles out pocket money at the rate of 26¢ a month). Sighing with all the delicate modulation of a stricken heifer, she belts out Tin Pan Alley tunes and ersatz German approximations with equal gusto. Conny just finished her first movie, commands a following of 56 adoring fan clubs with about 10,000 members. She travels about Germany with a retinue that includes a tutor and a private secretary."

"In Conny's wake, a flock of single-named moppets have assaulted the recording studios. Among them: twelve-year-old Gabriele (Clonisch), whose Schokoladeneis (Chocolate Ice Cream) has already sold 250,000 copies, although she started singing into her businessman-father's dictating machine only a few months ago; and nine-year-old Brigitte (Reisberger), who has a big hit called Lieber Pappi, Mach Mai Sonntag (Dear Daddy, Take a Day Off)."

So Clonisch was a big, 12-year-old star at the time, big enough to share the screen with Pops. It's a supremely sweet piece of footage, as Armstrong rarely appeared more endearing (and that's saying a LOT). The song is quite pretty, too. Here's a recording of it in very nice quality:



But thanks to YouTube, here's the original clip:


Isn't that beautiful? Six years later, the All Stars embarked on a historic tour of Europe, cracking the Iron Curtain a bit in playing places like Prague and East Berlin. On March 25, the All Stars took part in a TV appearance in Hoechst, Germany, best known for a clip of Armstrong doing "Hello, Dolly" backed by Max Greger's big band. Unfortunately, the early part of the show, featuring the All Stars, doesn't survive as I've never heard or seen anything from it. But right before "Dolly," Armstrong introduced young Hansi Jochmann to do, you guessed it, a live version of "Onkel Satchmo's Lullaby." I Googled Jochmann and found an impressive website, with decades of credits as an accomplished actress on German stage, screen and television (she's the German voice of Jodie Foster in almost all of her movies!).

Pops obviously hadn't played or probably even thought of the song since the original movie but they obviously had a rehearsal, as the All Stars sound good. Also, Pops seems to look offstage a bit here and there, making me think that there might have been a cue card or two to refresh his memory. Unfortunately, there's no trumpet playing but Pops's warmth is better than the most expensive heating blanket you can buy. Dig it:


And that's that for "Onkel Satchmo's Lullaby." It's Ella's bedtime and I'll try giving it a whirl again. Even if it doesn't work now, I'm sure little Ella is going to get to know her "Uncle Satchmo" quite well in the years to come! Have a great weekend!

Loo-ra-loo-ra-loo.....loo-ra-loo-ra-li....

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lonesome - Revisited

Recorded September 13, 1961
Track Time 2:30
Written by Dave and Iola Brubeck
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Dave Brubeck, piano
Originally released on Columbia
Currently available on CD: The Real Ambassadors
Available on Itunes? Yes

As promised, with the arrival of baby Ella, there won't be much time in the near future for brand new entries. But over the weekend, while Ella slept--which was definitely wasn't much at night!--I refurbished some of my earliest entires, back from the days when I had no idea how to incorporate audio into these posts. So for about a week or do, I'll be re-posting some old ones, now with audio and some editions (I'm going to do one on "The Gypsy" with the new inclusion of the first surviving Armstrong inclusion of the tune, something I didn't possess at the time of my first post on that song, and I'm going to get into Armstrong's 1958 Monterey set more vividly with the use of a lot of audio edits). But first up is "Lonesome," which I thought picks up the ball from my last original posting on "The Lonesome Road" quite nicely (though being "Lonesome" is something that's pretty alien to me these days!). Enough from me...time for a diaper change! Enjoy:

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Today’s entry focuses on a record that is unlike any other in the Armstrong discography: “Lonesome.” On this one track you have Louis playing a solemn melody on the trumpet, delivering a sober spoken-word monologue at the same time and receiving first-rate accompaniment by a musician one wouldn’t normally associate with Armstrong’s circle, Dave Brubeck. It’s only two minutes and 30 seconds but it’s quite a touching record.

The track comes from The Real Ambassadors, the famous 1961 quasi-play/social statement composed by Brubeck and his wife Iola. Dealing with many social issues, including race, the Brubecks conceived of the entire project with Armstrong in mind from minute one, especially with Armstrong’s damning Little Rock comments still fresh in their minds. “I think that’s what we really tried to overcome when we wrote The Real Ambassadors because before we got into this project we didn’t really know Louis that well, but we sensed in him a depth and an unstated feeling we thought we could tap into without being patronizing, and I think that’s why he took to it,” Iola Brubeck remembered. They wanted to make a regular play out of it, but wanted to record the score first and foremost. They also wanted the great singer Carment McRae and the vocalese group Lambert, Hendricks and Ross to participate, all of whom agreed to do so immediately.

However, Armstrong was proving difficult to get a hold of, as Brubeck related in a piece titled “The Dave Brubeck-Columbia Records Story,” a compact-disc insert found in many Brubeck reissues. “But Louis’s road manager wouldn’t give me access when I wanted to discuss the project with him in Chicago, so I found out the number of Louis’s hotel room, sat in the lobby until room service came and hollered, ‘Hi, Louis’ when the door opened,” Brubeck remembered. “Louis invited me in, ordered me a steak and thought the idea was interesting. I gave him copies of the tunes to listen to on the road; and at the session, he was the first one in the studio and last guy to leave.”

Brubeck’s demo tapes of the material still exist at the Louis Armstrong Archives in Queens College. Listening to them today, they find a very polite Brubeck explaining the nature of the project and what Armstrong means to it. It is possible that Brubeck gave Armstrong the demo tapes of the songs in the summer of 1961 before the All Stars made a four-day tour of Germany because the tape begins with Brubeck saying, “I’ve just talked to Joe Glaser and he’s told me how difficult it will be for you to record any of these things before going to Europe. But I’m hoping you can figure out the backgrounds with my group playing and me singing the songs like you asked me to do.” When Brubeck first discussed the project at the aforementioned meeting in Chicago, he had brought along the lyrics to one of the songs to be performed, “Lonesome.” Not knowing the melody, Armstrong just read the lyrics, infusing them with a heavy dose of emotion which had a great effect on Brubeck. “Now I told my wife about the way you read the song ‘Lonesome’ in Chicago,” Brubeck says in his audio letter to Armstrong. “You didn’t sing it, you just read it and it was such a moving job that I thought maybe you would be able to read this on tape and send that back to us because this wouldn’t involve you singing or trying to match your voice with the backgrounds that I’ve sent you by my combo.”
The rest of the tape features Brubck and his trio playing the show’s originals with Brubeck singing the melodies (“I’m ashamed of the horrible way in which I sing,” he tells Armstrong at one point). Armstrong now had a copy of the material and would practice it whenever he had the rare luxury of free time. “Louis told everybody that we had written him an opera,” Brubeck remembered. “Isn’t that something?” The only problem was finding someone who wanted to record it. “All of the producers I took it to, thought it was great, but they’d give me all these excuses,” Brubeck recalled. “You weren’t supposed to have a message. I forget the word they used, but it meant you weren’t entertaining. We couldn’t lecture the American public on the subject of race.” Eventually, Brubeck’s own Columbia label agreed to record the material, which was done over the course of three sessions in September 1961.

Some of The Real Ambassadors sounds dated today and the efforts of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, whom I otherwise love, often get in the way. But Pops is prime form and his rapport with McRae has never been given its due. Sure, everyone knows that “Summer Song” is the album’s masterpiece, but I personally think “One Moment Worth Years” is ripe for rediscovery. The song would be a beautiful standard but I don’t think anyone besides Brubeck has ever recorded it. “I Didn’t Know Until You Told Me” is another beautiful duet with Armstrong offering McRae some absolutely gorgeous harmonies towards the end of the song.

Though “Summer Song” is about as melancholy as a song can be, “Lonesome” really hits some deep, low notes. Without further ado, here's the audio:


As Brubeck stressed in his audio tape to Louis, he only wanted Armstrong to speak the words. Perhaps Brubeck toyed with the idea of using his quartet to back Pops on this one but in the end, someone had the great idea of having Pops playing the melody on the trumpet while overdubbing his monologue on top of it. The result is almost an Armstrong sensory overload…he’s coming at you from all angles! I also think it’s a very modern sounding recording. Armstrong had been overdubbing since “Because of You” in 1951 but this time it’s a whole different feel. Hell, it almost sounds like a “remix” some producer would paste together in today’s music world…minus the obnoxious beats.

But back to the wonders of the Armstrong vocal/trumpet duet. What I love about it is the fact that you still get Armstrong singing the song, though he does it with his horn. Clearly, the Brubecks wrote these lyrics to fit to a melody and Armstrong plays it beautifully, with Brubeck giving him sympathetic support. But having him just speak the words without alluding to anything that remotely resembles a melody gives the song a chilling quality. For those who know me by now, I have a thing for typing out lyrics and I think the words of “Lonesome” should be written down for it truly is much more a poem then a song:

All of my life, I’ve been lonely
I’ll go way back in my past.
I’ll tell you about Lonesome,
How the winters last and last.

I know the loneliest autumns,
Watching the leaves slowly turn,
Sad as the tag end of summer,
When dreams with the leaves will burn.

I’ve stood alone in springtime,
High up on a hill,
Cried in the rain in springtime,
Cause no one’s there to share the thrill.

There’s a certain glory in summer,
Quiet, contagious joy.
There is a silent story in summer,
That calls the mind a young boy.

You fell in love in the summer,
Then grew up far too fast.
Still he returns each summer,
To visit in the past.
The past.
The past.


Even writing the words while listening to them is an emotional experience. I love Armstrong New Orleans accent slipping out on the word “burn,” turning it into “boin.” It’s a completely straight-faced performance, though he manages a slight chuckle after mentioning the “young boy.” His voice goes way down for the final repetitions of “the past.” He sounds tired and scarred, but it’s just the true sign of Armstrong’s acting ability. He was marvelous at conveying drama and “Lonesome” is one of his finest moments. And on the next song recorded that day, “King For A Day,” he sounds as ebullient as ever, sharing some vaudeville patter with Trummy Young, and joyfully singing, “Day—yay—yay—yay,” a far cry from his haunting reading of “the past” that he gave probably just a short time earlier.

In the jazz world, there are few names bigger than Armstrong and Brubeck (who were first and second respectively in terms of jazz musicians on the cover of Time magazine), but their one collaboration, The Real Ambassadors, has always escaped the spotlight. Of course, a big part of this has to do with the play only being performed live once, an evening event at the Monterey Jazz Festival that those in attendance have never forgotten. At the time, the show and the album were heralded as triumphs for both Brubeck and Armstrong but as the decades have passed by, it’s taken a back seat to the likes of “What a Wonderful World” and “Take Five” (never mind the back seat, it might be in the trunk by now). But there are some wonderful moments throughout: Armstrong tackling Brubeck’s melody on “The Duke,” playing it an octave higher and sounding frighteningly powerful; Trummy’s vocal support on “King For A Day”; the aforementioned duets with McRae; the jaunty swing of “Since Love Had Its Way”; the timeless performance of “Summer Song”; and the touching monologue on “Lonesome,” a completely unique Armstrong performance. If you haven’t listened to The Real Ambassadors in awhile, dig it out…and tell me what you think! Comments are always appreciated and you can always e-mail me at Dippermouth@msn.com.

Monday, April 6, 2009

We're Crazy 'Bout Our Baby...

...And Our Baby's Crazy 'Bout Us! Yes, friends, yesterday morning, Sunday, April 5, your friendly blogger officially became "Papa Dip" as Ella Rae Riccardi was born at 8:28 a.m. I am home for one hour to gather some stuff before running back to the hospital but I wanted to share the news...which, of course means that this blog will be on hiatus for at least a week. But I killed myself in running up the number of posts over the last few months so now there's about 200 posts to choose from with about 400 music samples to listen to. Feel free to dig around some past entries while I learn the intricate art of diaper changing.

Of course, to die-hard Armstrong fans, April 5 is a significant date as that was the day Pops made his very first records in 1923 with King Oliver. Crazy coincidence, huh? I swear I didn't plan it that way!

But the baby's beautiful, weighing in at seven pounds and 14 ounces which isn't bad for 10 days early! She has my thick black hair and so far, even my demeanor, as she's barely cried for more than ten seconds at a clip. What an incredible feeling...

So it's back to the hospital for myself to spend the rest of the day with Margaret and little Ella. I'll back back as soon as the smoke clears...til then!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Lonesome Road

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 6, 1931
Track Time 3:31
Written by Nat Shilkret and Gene Autin
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar, talk; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drumsl; Joe “Little Joe” Lindsay, woodblocks, talk
Originally released on OKeh 41538
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

Today’s entry is a request from one of my new online friends, Phil Ralph, and it’s a good one. One of my favorites actually. Louis Armstrong’s record of “The Lonesome Road” is such a fun record that for once I don’t even want to get into the background of the song, I just want to start right in with the music. I’ll get there momentarily and if you stick with me for awhile, I’m going to include two completely unissued later performances of the tune that I promise you’re not going to hear anywhere else (unless you’re in my company and I have my Ipod with me).

Quickly, the song was written in 1927 by the pianist Nat Shilkret and the very popular singer Gene Austin. In the 1929 film version of Show Boat it’s used in place of “Ol’ Man River,” but it actually was never part of the score of that famed show. Austin recorded the earliest version of the tune for Victor in 1927. Here’s how it came out:

Pretty haunting stuff, huh? The song began being performed by some as something of a quasi-spirtual (indeed, a number of gospel groups later cut versions of the tune). Well, that was all Louis Armstrong needed to hear. Armstrong had been chiding churches--and the people inside of them--since he was a boy in New Orleans. He remembered going to church with his mother and impersonating the preacher and humorously conducting the choir, winning applause from the other parishioners. When he made it to New York in 1924 to play with Fletcher Henderson, he again did his preacher impersonating bit if the crowd was right (though Henderson wouldn’t let him sing!). In Chicago, reviews exist citing Armstrong knocking audiences dead with his mock sermon while a member of Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra. Remember, these were the days of the “serious” artist, cutting the Hot Fives and not worrying about entertaining like he did in his later years. Yeah....right....

So on November 6, 1931, Armstrong decided to put his mock sermon bit on record for the first time. The results are simply hilarious. Clearly, Armstrong and the other members of his group indulged in a little bit of “gage” before the recording began. To help him, Armstrong brought along a friend from childhood, drummer “Little Joe” Lindsay, brother of Armstrong’s bassist John Lindsay. The recording is hysterical but Armstrong’s trumpet solo in the middle is as serious as your life. Give it a listen and get ready to smile:


The record starts with members of the band singing the melody straight while Armstrong responds with some guttural moans, almost speaking parts of the lyrics, already in the role of the “Reverend Satchelmouth.” Reaching back to his childhood, Armstrong even directs the choir with pleas of “Sing louder, sing louder.” He then addresses the audience and prepares to introduce the “new deacon,” a “creole boy,” Joe Lindsay. Lindsay asks the “members” to cough up some money and even throws in an utterance of one of Armstrong’s catchphrases, “Oh, you dog.” Armstrong responds, “And if you ever get it, Brother Lindsay, please don’t put it in your pocket, will you?” Someone even starts making the sound of coins being dropped in a can to give the full impression that we’re listening to a church service (the noise is probably Joe Lindsay's woodblock, as pointed out to me by Mr. Ralph).

Armstrong then starts greeting the other members of the church. I’m not sure who “Brother Jack Randall” is, but “Brother Preston” is trombonist Preston Jackson and “Brother Randolph” is trumpeter Zilner Randolph. Armstrong then introduces the reeds, who play a funky little unison part (the band is swinging nicely throughout, but it’s hard to pay attention to them).

After pointing out pianist Charlie Alexander and bassist John Lindsay, Armstrong calls out attention to “two little songwriters, here, little Louis Dunlap and Charles Carpenter.” True enough, Dunlap and Carpenter (along with Earl Hines) were behind “You Can Depend On Me,” which Armstrong had recorded the previous day. Armstrong points out that Dunlap and Carpenter are smoking cigars, which Carpenter later related as being true. Armstrong had recently returned from a triumphant six-week visit to his hometown of New Orleans where a cigar, the “Louis Armstrong Special,” was unveiled in his honor. Armstrong gets a plug in for his stogie and drops a righteous “More power to ya, boys” on them.

Armstrong then says “hello” to “Professor Sherman Cook,” described by Max Jones and John Chilton as “his valet, personal secretary and sometime Master of Ceremonies.” Cook, in fact, played a big part in getting the New Orleans stay off the ground, even arriving early to make sure Armstrong arrived to a celebratory party. Earlier in the year, Armstrong and his band ran into trouble in the south when the police discovered the white wife of Armstrong’s manager Johnny Collins on the band bus. The police harassed the black musicians and even threw some of them in jail. Armstrong was thrown in a cell with Cook. When Cook showed Armstrong a marijuana joint he had stashed in his pocket, Armstrong reasoned, “Hey, man, we can’t be in any more trouble than we are in right now.” As Pops put it, “...old Cook and myself, we demolished the evidence.” I’m sure plenty of “evidence” was demolished before recording “The Lonesome Road,” too...

Al Washington’s bluesy solo sends Armstrong before Pops brings guitarist Mike McKendrick up to the microphone to see if he has anything to say. “N-n-n-n-n-n-nothing,” McKendrick stutters, making Armstrong laugh (Lionel Hampton also got a laugh from stuttering on “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” recorded the previous year). Next, “Brother Randolph” steps up to the mike to explain that he hasn’t gotten his “dole money” yet before someone starts shrieking something in a high-pitched voice (can anyone make it out? I'm leaning towards “I’m trippin," which would make sense in the gage-induced haze of the recording studio!). Armstrong’s response--”What kind of church is this?”--always cracks me up.

But then it’s serious time as Armstrong picks up his horn and croons and absolutely soulful half-chorus, opening with a few bars that always remind me of “I Want a Little Girl.” Later that same day, Armstrong’s trumpet would be flying high through “I Got Rhythm” but all the pyrotechnics are shut down for “The Lonesome Road.” Such a gently, lyrical solo.

Armstrong then goes back into his preaching routine, thanking his congregation for their offering. “Of course it could have been better,” he says. “Two dollars more would have gotten my shoes out of pawn. But nevertheless I’m in love with you!” Someone then screams, causing Armstrong to say, “Hold that, Sister...but get off of my foot!” Hilarious! The fervor builds up--“Oh, Brother Armstrong, you’re killing me!”-- as scattered shouts of “Hallelujah” can be heard. The whole band starts singing the lyrics (someone with a high, tenor voice is really giving it his all) while Pops humorously hums and moans over the melody. The song ends...but not before Mike McKendrick gets in one last line: “Bye bye, you vipers!” Vipers, of course, were marijuana smokers and McKendrick basically gave away the secret to all the fun being had in the studio that day with his shout-out. A classic record.

Perhaps Armstrong performed “The Lonesome Road” live with the band--you know that would have been something to behold--but there’s no concrete evidence. For most people, that’s where the story of Louis Armstrong and “The Lonesome Road” comes to an end. But if anyone’s gotten to know anything from this blog, it should be the fact that I always have a few surprises up my sleeve. Of course, these aren’t my surprises. Jos Willems, the peerless Armstrong discographer, was generous enough to share them with me and I, in turn, would like to share them with my fellow Armstrong nuts reading this from around the world. Did you know that Louis Armstrong tackled “The Lonesome Road” two more times in the mid-50s? Well, you’re about to...

In November 1955, Armstrong was in the middle of a tour of Europe. George Avakian wanted to record some of the tour for a Columbia album and decided to do most of his recording in Milan, Italy on December 20 of that year. Armstrong and the All Stars played two shows that evening before heading to an empty movie theater where Avakian and his recording equipment were waiting for them. Avakian had some ideas for songs to record and they treated it as a regular recording session, complete with rehearsals. The band members brought some friends and a number of rabid Italian fans managed to come along, too, though Avakian mainly used fake applause on the finished album, Ambassador Satch.

If you’re familiar with that album, “West End Blues,” “The Faithful Hussar,” “Tiger Rag” and “Royal Garden Blues” all came from that session. But Avakian also recorded some other tunes that didn’t see the light of day, including “Clarinet Marmalade,” “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “You Can Depend On Me,” “That’s A Plenty,” and--you guessed it--“Lonesome Road.”

As Avakian told me in 2007, “We invited a bunch of people to come along and enjoy themselves and things got a little bit ragged because Louie wasn’t prepared. He was ad-libbling, doing the best he could. And ‘Lonesome Road’ was pretty sad because everybody wanted to rush up to the mike and sing harmony and I thought everybody’s having a good time so we’ll just treat the rest as if it was a party and that’s exactly what we did. But it didn’t turn out very well.” The truth is Avakian’s partially right; this performance is so ragged, it never could have been released. But it’s so much fun and again, Armstrong’s trumpet is something to behold.

First, let’s listen to a quick rehearsal that begins Armstrong doing an introduction of the tune they just finished, “You Can Depend On Me,” a feature for “Trombone” Young, as he calls Trummy. Armstrong talks over a couple of ideas and instructs the audience and band members on how he wants them to harmonize. Trummy Young and Edmond Hall come up with some harmonizing of their own and a tempo is chosen. Armstrong does seem a little baffled about how to explain a theater full of people on stage during what was supposed to be a live album but he talks himself into it by reasoning that sometimes bands play churches, too. Here’s the rehearsal:


And now, a track that’s still lingering in Sony’s vaults 54 years later (release it), the unissued “Lonesome Road”:


Isn’t that a lot of fun? I can see why it wasn’t released at the time but I think it’s a pretty entertaining track. You can hear Armstrong’s memory at work in the beginning as he struggles to remember lines from the original. On the original, he says, “Gonna speak to you this evening, and I ain’t gonna keep you here long.” In 1955, he opens with “I won’t be here long this evening.” He then goes right into the “two dollars to get my shoes out of pawn” line, though he changes the word “shoes” to “treadders.” He then asks the choir to sing and they do (Trummy Young can be heard). As George pointed out, some of the Italians got a little too close to the microphone. Armstrong points them out by saying, “Well, we don’t speak the same language but we can swing together.” The bridge is a mess as bassist Arvell Shaw clearly doesn’t know it. Armstrong also seems to get fed up with one of the locals, saying, “Don’t sing louder than me, brother!” He even revisits the original “get off my foot” line. It’s sloppy but it makes me laugh.

But stand back! Armstrong says, “Give me some of this” then the All Stars--once again, the peak edition--absolutely tear into a sublime instrumental interlude. Shaw’s lost again in the bridge but Pops’s lead (again opening with a quote from “I Want a Little Girl”) is a gem. The whole band rocks with authority. After the bridge, Armstrong goes back to singing, asking the others to harmonize and asking flat out for them to “give me that barbershop chord!” A righteous “Oh yeah” ends a performance that must have been a ball if you were in the theater that night. It’s still a lot of fun.

But we’re not finished yet! In December 1956, Armstrong flew to London to do a one-night performance for charity. Armstrong didn’t bring his All Stars, instead playing with some great British musicians, but the main event paired Armstrong’s horn and voice with a symphony orchestra conducted by Norman Del Mar. The night was an epic one with a ton of drama concerning Armstrong and Del Mar, all of which will be detailed in my book (Del Mar couldn’t stand how the crowd was going so crazy for Pops and ended up storming off the stage).

Somehow, decades later, audio turned up from the event and I must rate it as one of the greatest shows I have ever heard Louis Armstrong play. His trumpet is in astounding form form the beginning to the end, tackling numbers like the concert arrangement of “St. Louis Blues,” “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” and even “West End Blues.” But for me, the highlight of the night is “The Lonesome Road.” For once, there is no comedy. It’s just the sound of Louis Armstrong’s mournful trumpet backed by a bed of strings. There is so much soul in this performance, it’s scary. And when the tempo starts swinging in the end, Armstrong summons the powers of the gods. Seriously, the first time I heard this, I was simply in awe. The second time, I cried. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it since but it always moves me. I apologize that the sound quality isn’t exactly stereo but please, if you have three minutes to spare, listen to this performance:


I don’t think words can do that enough justice. To me, it’s one of the great moments of Louis Armstrong’s later years and maybe even his entire career. I’m just going to quit while I’m ahead and, as usual, thank the good lord for creating Louis Armstrong.