Sunday, November 29, 2009

On the Sunny Side of the Street: The 1930s Versions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 7, 1934
Track Time 6:02
Written by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields
Recorded in Paris, France
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Jack Hamilton, Leslie Thompson, trumpet; Lionel Guimaraes, trombone; Peter duConge, Henry Tyree, Alred Pratt, reeds; Herman Chitison, piano; Maceo Jefferson, guitar; German Arago, bass; Oliver Tines, drums
Originally released on Brunswic A 500491
Currently available on CD: It's on CD "Jazz In Paris, Vol. 51: Louis Armstrong and Friends"
Available on Itunes? Yes, on the above disc, split into two parts

Since I started the new job in Queens last month, I've been terrible with anniversary postings, watching "Blueberry Hill," "We Have All The Time In The World," "Everybody Loves My Baby" and more breeze right by me. But personally, the biggest omission occurred on November 7, when I missed the 75th anniversary of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," another song that's been covered by everyone (and his or her mother) but I think will always be most associated with Pops. I especially felt silly when David Ostwald played it at Birdland and asked me when Armstrong recorded it. "November 1934," I proudly answered...on November 5, oblivious that the anniversary was just hours away. Oops...

But thank goodness for Thanksgiving weekend, which is letting me stockpile a blog or two to take us through the rest of the fall. And finally, a few weeks late, I want to celebrate "On the Sunny Side of the Street" today with the first of three blog postings that will take you through a good chunk of the 30 or so versions of this standard that occupy space on my Ipod.

Of course, I start with a little history. The song was written by the formidable team of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields for Lew Leslie's Broadway production of "International Revue." The show opened in February 1930 and soon enough, recordings were popping up of the show's standout tune. One of the first to tackle it was Ted Lewis, whose version is fortunately available on YouTube. Give it a listen:

Is it me or is that pretty similar to some of Armstrong's recordings of the period? There's the saxophone reading of the melody, the lumpy two-beat feel, a touch of vibraphone and a crooning violin...shades of "Song of the Islands" to my mind. And there's Lewis, too, whose spoken-vocal style has more in common with Armstrong than with other pop balladeers of the period such as Smith Ballew or Seger Ellis. It's a real heartfelt version, though it picks up some marching-and-swinging steam in between the vocals. Charming stuff.

The other big hit in "International Revue" was "Exactly Like You," which Pops famously recorded on May 4, 1930. So why would Pops record one song from the show but not "Sunny Side"? I do not know the answer but do know that it didn't long before Armstrong began performing the song live. By the time of Armstrong's European tours of 1932 and 1933, it was a regular part of his show, even though he still hadn't recorded it in a studio! Fortunately, some genius managed to somehow record three live Armstrong performances in Stockholm, Sweden on October 28, 1933 (just a week after the famous Copenhagen film of Armstrong doing "Dinah," "Tiger Rag" and "I Cover the Waterfront"). The Stockholm material is arguably the first live concert recording ever and is fortunately available on Storyville's indispensable Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia series. The sound quality isn't that great and the performance isn't quite complete but we do get four full minutes of historic live Armstrong a full year before he waxed this tune for posterity. Here's the audio:


As can be heard, only the last eight bars survives from Armstrong's vocal before the band takes over for one (you can hear someone on the phone during pianist Justo Barreto's pianist, as the person recording the show was using a phone line from the theater...not exactly Rudy Van Gelder in Birdland but I'm not complaining!). The most exciting thing about the performance is that it features more trumpet than any other succeeding Armstrong version of "Sunny Side." It's truly a magical solo, Armstrong's delicate entrance alone being worth the price of admission. He takes his sweet time, playing the melody straight in the second eight bars, leaving plenty of space in the bridge and getting down right rhapsodic in the final eight.

Heading into the second chorus, Armstrong turns up the heat and I get the chills. His playing becomes more intense as he works wonders with just two pitches, concert C and E, as the band riffs behind him. (Pay attention to those first eight bars, because they'd become favorites of Armstrong's decades later.) Armstrong's bridge is as dramatic as one would imagine, topped off by the dazzling triplet-infused break that became the centerpiece of almost all future performances of this song. And Armstrong's long, drawn-out ending (complete with a little talking to the band and some audience titters) is proof that even two years before Joe Glaser and the Decca contract rescued Armstrong's career, he was already loving those types of endings. An absolutely stunning solo.

Armstrong remained in Europe throughout the rest of 1933 and all of 1934, taking a long layoff to rest his bruised chops. Meanwhile, back home, there was proof that Armstrong had been playing "Sunny Side" in the States before departing for Europe in 1933: on September 10, 1934, Chick Webb recorded a version of the song featuring trumpet ace Taft Jordan. If you were with me for my look at "When You're Smiling" a couple of weeks ago, I quoted Jordan at length on the influence that record had on himself and numerous other trumpeters of the time. Jordan admitted he played it a couple of times live, as well as Armstrong's "Shine" solo and with the Washboard Rhythm Kings, he sang and played like Pops on "Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby." For "Sunny Side," Webb chose a slightly brighter tempo than Armstrong's treatment. Jordan takes the melody muted up front, impersonates Armstrong for the vocal, then takes an open horn solo, complete with a dramatic, slowed-down ending. It's not note-for-note the same as Armstrong's, but it's clearly a tribute, proof that Jordan must have been quite familiar with Armstrong's playing of this song in the early 30s. Dig it:


Finally, on November 7, 1934, Armstrong made his first recording session in a year-and-a-half, laying down six songs for France's Brunswick label. It was during this session that Armstrong finally made his routine on "On the Sunny Side of the Street" immortal. And by this point, it clearly was a routine, as every note of it had been worked out on the stage. Because it was a long routine in live performances (the above Swedish excerpt is four minutes and is incomplete), Armstrong recorded it in two parts, totally six minutes and two seconds of playing time. Thanks to the magic of CDs and editing and such innovations, most issues magically splice the two parts together into one seamless track. And that, my friends, is what I'm going to share at this time. Preliminaries aside, here's Louis Armstrong's first official studio recording of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," recorded 75 years ago this month:


The tempo's a shade slower here than it was in Sweden, though it follows a similar pattern. After the band sets the scene with eight bars of melody, Armstrong enters for the first of two sublime vocal choruses. Again, this is pre-Glaser and pre-Decca, but his vocal quality is already similar to the recordings that were about to take place just a short time later. Armstrong's voice is crystal clear, conveying all the warmth of the tune's message in the first chorus ("I'll be rich as Rocky-fellow"), before he begins his dramatic variations on his second go-around. Armstrong's declamatory "Grab your coat" at the start of his second chorus always elicits a "Yeah, man" from me. He completely rephrases the melody, utilizing only a few basic pitches, but infusing everything with a gripping urgency (listen to the way he sings the word "leave"). The scatting asides are terrific, but it's the show-stopping bridge (literally) that gets me every time, with the most passionate uttering of the word "rover" to ever be found on a record.

The vocal ends at almost exactly the three-minute mark, at which point--in 1934--you'd flip your 78 record over onto the second side to hear the band playing the melody once again. I should have mentioned the great pianist Herman Chittison earlier, whose fills were all over Armstrong's vocal and the band's melody statements before he gets eight-bars of his own during a Hines-esque bridge, ending with some whole-tone chords in a very hip way.

After eight more bars of melody (I think the arrangement was only eight bars long, repeated ad infinitum), Armstrong finally enters for the main event. Unfortunately, in the year since the live Swedish version, Armstrong cut his playing down to just a lone chorus. Instead of building up to the declamatory statements that ended the Stockholm performance, Armstrong comes right in with them, alternating the C's and E's in a solo that's clearly already been set in stone (no surprise for those who slogged through my "Indiana" diatribe last week).

There is one new addition to the routine that needs to be pointed out since it will be heard multiple times in the upcoming posts: the bridge now has a new opening. It's a completely logical little motive that has always seemed like a natural part of the tune for Armstrong nuts who've heard it dozens of times. But it wasn't until last month, on a road trip to Jack Bradley's house, that my boss Michael Cogswell hipped me to the fact that Armstrong's quoting an old country standard, "Faded Love." I had never heard this before until Cogswell whipped out his Ipod and played me Patsy Cline's recording of this tune. I was blown away and promised to look into it. I've since discovered that the tune was written by Western Swing king Bob Wills, who had a hit with it in 1950. Wait...1950? How was Pops quoting it in 1934? Wills claimed it was an old fiddle tune that he learned from his father John Wills. Okay, but still, how did Pops come across it? Jamming with Jimmie Rodgers one night in California? Who knows? Anyway, listen to "Faded Love" by Wills now and you'll never hear Armstrong's "Sunny Side" the same way again:


After the "Faded Love" quote, Armstrong completely nails his break, a series of searing repeated triplet phrases before a slippery, sliding descent back to solid ground. From there, it's more passionate C's and E's (so much drama, so few pitches) before another extended, dramatic ending. A six-minute masterpiece. No wonder the song became one of Armstrong's most famous...

Flash forward one year: Armstrong's back in the United States, climbing out of his doldrums, now led by Joe Glaser, recording for Decca and fronting Luis Russell's orchestra. Armstrong's first Decca session was on October 3, 1935 but just two days later, he made time to appear on the "Shell Chateau Radio Show" in New York City to perform two good ol' good ones with a studio band conducted by Victor Young. One, "Ain't Misbehavin'," was discussed on this here blog in July. The, other, though was "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Armstrong nails this version of "Sunny Side," eliminating the full chorus in the middle that bridged the vocal and the final trumpet solo. Thus, it's a full minute shorter than the studio version and is wall-to-wall Armstrong. He's a little shaky one or two of the notes but otherwise, for a live reading, he kills it (and the final eight bars are phrased differently). The extended ending gets another laugh as we go out on another high note (after a quick fluff). A great live performance:


By the time of Armstrong's historic Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts in 1937, Armstrong had trimmed his arrangement of "Sunny Side" even more, down from six minutes to a lean and mean three-and-a-half. Now, there's only one vocal chorus (a post-throat operation Armstrong is more gravelly than ever, really reaching to hit those low notes). As often happened with set pieces performed night after night, the tempo gradually quickened over the years. Drummer Paul Barbarin sets Armstrong up with some thudding accents before Pops embarks again one his set flight of fancy, now almost sounding even more impressive at this tempo (dig that break!). Again, though, there are a few cracked notes; this was a tough solo, even during these years when Armstrong seemingly could do anything he wanted on his horn. Give it a listen:


Now, you might be saying, "Jesus, Rick, you're really going to sit here and bore us with the same solo, year after year, for the next 25 years? Time to go play online solitaire..." Don't go anywhere yet, is all I can say as on November 15, 1937, Armstrong came up with a new approach for "On the Sunny Side of the Street." On that day, Armstrong recorded it with a small group taken from Russell's orchestra (one trombone, two reeds and a rhythm section) at a completely new, swinging tempo. Composer Jimmy McHugh later wrote in a letter to Armstrong that it was Pops who "put the beat in 'On the Sunny Side of the Street.'" He wasn't kidding: this version SWINGS. Diggeth:


Right from the start, we're met with the extroverted, joyous sound of J.C. Higginbotham's trombone paraphrasing the melody, with a bridge by altoist Charlie Holmes. Russell's band always had a tremendous rhythm section and they can really be appreciated on this small group side. Armstrong then jumps in with an incredibly bouncy, gravelly vocal. I don't think he touches the original melody for more than a couple of notes at a time. You can almost see him bouncing in tempo, the swing is so palpable. There's a bunch of added asides, from the opening "Boy," to a later "no suh," a delicious growl during the bridge and a picture perfect scat break. Rompin', rompin'...

But if the vocal wasn't enough, there's more good news right around the corner as Armstrong picks up his horn for one-and-a-half choruses of pure improvisation. Well, he still can't resist the "Faded Love" quote, uncorking it during his first bridge, but otherwise every other note is freshly minted. And please, a round of applause for Paul Barbarin's ceaselessly creative drumming. Poor Paul usually gets the shaft these days as most listeners (deservedly) save the praise for Big Sid Catlett, but don't take Barbarin for granted. I've already written about his driving work on the Fleischmann's Yeast broadcasts and I think Pops would have loved to have him around for decades. Speaking about Cozy Cole in 1956, Armstrong said, '"I mean he coudn't play like Paul Barbarin who plays real New Orleans drums. It's a different beat altogether--if you don't believe me, just kinda listen. Catlett and Cole were good men, no doubt 'bout that, but they couldn't keep that tempo like Paul Barbarin can. He ain't got a beat, man, he's got the beat." So you know those cymbal splashes, press rolls and latin-accents were just driving Pops mad on the Decca "Sunny Side."

Our look at Armstrong's 1930s versions of "On the Sunny Side of the Street" concludes with the famous Martin Block jam session version of December 1938. This is one of the great broadcasts in jazz history, one I covered in detail last December, as it matched Armstrong with other immortals of the period such as Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden and Bud Freeman. Keeping with his Decca treatment, Armstrong kicks it off at a bright tempo again (and he truly kicks it off, playing the first few notes unaccompanied). Here's what happened next:



Armstrong sounds great and, though I have an obsession with Fats Waller, it’s interesting hearing his backing as Armstrong rarely felt comfortable with stride piano players (Joe Sullivan lasted less than two months with Armstrong and sounds terrible on the few surviving live recordings from his stint). The ensemble cautiously stays out of Armstrong’s way before Pops gets a full improvised chorus to himself. Teagarden and Freeman solo well before an incredibly joyous vocal from Pops, with some almost stuttering scat at the end.

Fats announces his solo with a hearty “Hello” and even throws in a little “Stop it, Joe” aside to comment on his tickling. James Lincoln Collier later wrote about how serious Waller was during this session as opposed to Armstrong’s off-the-wall personality but I honestly think he must not have paid much attention to the actual music. Fats is subdued hear and there but that’s because Armstrong’s in the spotlight and, as just mentioned, during his own solos and his later vocal, there’s plenty of the Waller good humor in evidence.

Armstrong’s reentrance is wonderful as once again, he rhythmically plays with just two pitches, driving them to the brink of swinging insanity. From there, Armstrong more or less plays the set solo he used on his ballad interpretations, though he finds a new way out of the bridge, eschewing the triplets and falling glisses in favor of giant gliss towards the heavens. A fantastic version from a fantastic jam session.

And that's all we know of what Louis Armstrong did with "On the Sunny Side of the Street" in the 1930s. Come back in a few days and hear how his big band jumped it and how the All Stars treated it in the 1940s. Til then!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks a Million - Again!

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 2:37
Written by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 666
Currently available on CD: It's on the new Mosaic box set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935-1946 (perfect for the holiday season!)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues (both takes are on something called “Knowing Louis”)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Two years ago, I covered Armstrong's version of "Thankful" on this day, while last year, I looked at "Thanks a Million." Unfortunately, that's pretty much where the theme of Armstrong giving thanks ends so I'm forced to reuse my post on "Thanks a Million," which I don't think anyone will mind as it's one of those tunes that all the real Pops lovers seem to have a soft spot for, especially trumpet players. Just off the top of my head, I know the song has been a favorite of hornmen from Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff to Randy Sandke, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dave Whitney. Though there’s no wild pyrotechnics, the song still exists as a standout example of Armstrong playing and singing a beautiful melody with a tremendous amount of warmth.

The song comes from the formidable talents of two great songwriters of the 1930s, Arthur Johnston and Gus Kahn. Throughout his career, Armstrong found Johnston’s songs especially suitable for blowing, Johnston having written “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Moon Song” and “Just One of Those Things,” to name a few, all subject to terrific Armstrong treatments. “Thanks a Million” was written for a 20th Century musical comedy of the same name starring Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak, as well as two great comedians of the era, Fred Allen and Patsy Kelly. In the film, Powell got to sing the title song, backed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra (with David Rubinoff on violin). Sadly, what a difference a year makes: the YouTube clip I shared last time out has been removed. Bah humbug...

Powell is harmless and has a very good voice but rhythmically, he’s the anti-Armstrong, very stiff and almost comically emotional (his hand gestures bordered on hilarious in the clip). Nevertheless, the song must have become pretty well associated with Powell as it became the title of a 1998 biopic and like I said, it’s harmless, with the very pretty melody coming through clearly. Sure enough, it would be a winner for Pops and indeed, he hit it out of the park. Here ‘tis:


Doesn’t get much better, eh? People sometimes refer to this a ballad but pay close attention to the tempo, which swings in a more medium groove thanks to Pops Foster’s bass. I think just because the tune is gentle and pretty, it could be confused into being called a ballad, but this version really isn’t (though almost any succeeding version I’ve heard is on the slow side).

Regardless, the main event is arguably Pops’s first chorus. He barely deviates from the melody, though when he does, such as the lightening quick descending run, it always works. He plays it fairly straight for half the chorus before hitting the magic elevation button and taking it up an octave, climaxing on a penetrating high C, followed immediately by an even higher concert Eb. He almost sounds like he’s sobbing in the way he descends from the high note. I know I’m almost sobbing over here listening to such beauty.

The Luis Russell band takes over, setting up Pops’s vocal, one of his finest of the period. He still hadn’t had his throat operation, which occurred in 1937 and seemed to add a quarter-pound of gravel to his already unique voice. Thus, we get that crystal clear tenor, something to marvel at. There’s no scatting, but the “Now mama” in the second half is priceless. An incredibly heartfelt vocal.

Russell’s piano leads to a modulation that finds Armstrong playing the melody one more time in a more human key, with no need to reach for those sickeningly beautiful high notes. Yet, because it’s a Decca record, you can bet your life that there’s going to be a slowed down coda. Sure enough there is, and once again Armstrong makes the angels weep with his final two notes, a gorgeous, throbbing Ab topped off with a ridiculously pure concert Db. Bravo, Mr. Armstrong.

“Thanks a Million” survives in another, almost identical take, as heard on volume one of the priceless Ambassador series. On this one, which was actually recorded first, Armstrong stays closer to the melody the first time around but otherwise all the hallmarks of take one are in place: taking the melody up an octave, the “Now, Mama” in the heartfelt vocal, the modulation and the gorgeous coda. For the nuts out there, give it a listen:


On a personal note, let me just say “Thanks a Million” once again to the readers out there who keep me going. I'd like to announce that this site has had more hits this month than any prior month...and there's still five days remaining! So welcome to all who are recently becoming attuned to my madness and thanks, as usual, to all the readers from around the world who have been with me from the beginning. I know it's been harder and harder to get new blogs out since I began my dream job at the Armstrong Archives, but I'm never going to quit, especially with the book around the corner (speaking of which, the good people at Random House have added a nice little summary of it on their website and on the Amazon listing. Click the link at the top of this page and check it out!).

But again, thanks to all who have supported me and especially who support Armstrong. The Armstrong community is incredibly generous; must have to do with the man’s spirit. About three years ago I gave a lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies and carried around my Ipod with 2,200 Armstrong songs arranged chronologically. Since then, I think I’ve bought maybe four or five new Armstrong CDs, yet somehow the number of Armstrong songs in my Itunes has jumped to 3,605! (When I wrote that sentence in 2008, it was, 3,395...not a bad year considering I bought zero Armstrong CDs!) How? Through the generosity of so many of you for offering up so much unissued Pops and thanks to anyone who has ever left a comment or written me an e-mail. For now, it’s time for scarfing. Happy Thanksgiving to all and thanks a million!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Indiana Revisited

As advertised, the Louis Armstrong Symposium took place yesterday at the College of Staten Island and to quote its inspiration, it was a "gassuh." Seriously, I had a great time from start to finish and can't thank Bill Bauer enough for putting the whole thing together. We learned about Armstrong's home record collection and about Orson Wells's attempt to make a film about jazz, while in-depth analysis was provided on everything from Armstrong's scat vocals to his 1931 "Star Dust" masterpiece to the pianists he performed with in the 1920s (let's hear it for Teddy Weatherford!). The legendary Dan Morgenstern brought it all together with his keynote address on "Why Armstrong Endures," sending everyone home in a righteous mood.

As for me, I dipped into my blog bag and turned one of my old posts on "Indiana" into a 20-minute defense of Armstrong's playing in his later years, simultaneously arguing that yes, Pops still could improvise, as evidenced by the many different solos he took on the piece between 1951 and 1956 but once he hit upon the forumal that created a "set" solo, why did he have to change? Who says that all jazz must be created freshly on the spot night-in and night-out? To illustrate my point, I used 23 music examples...in 20 minutes (lunacy, I know).

However, because I was the first act of a seven-and-a-half-hour bill, a good amount of people walked in at the end or missed it entirely. People approached me later saying they were sorry they missed it and asked if I had a copy of a "paper" or anything to send along. Instead, I've decided to update the "Indiana" blog from 2008, which, though it will take longer than 20 minutes to get through, pretty much hammers home all the points I tried making at the Symposium. And as always, there's audio-a-plenty, including some snippets not originally contained in the first go-around. Without further ado, here's "Indiana" all over again:

Recorded January 30, 1951 (and about a million other times)
Track Time 5:30 (other versions range from 3:50 to 5:48)
Written by Ballard MacDonald and James Hanley
Recorded in Pasadena, California (and everywhere else around the world)
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums (as well as versions with every succeeding edition of the All Stars)
Originally released on Decca DL 8041 (plus dozens of others, bootleg and legit)
Currently available on CD: The original “Indiana,” as well as an even better later version, can be found on The California Concerts. And if you’re looking for other versions, really, it shouldn’t be so hard!
Available on Itunes? Ditto.

“Ahhhhh, we’re going to jump the good ol’ good ones for you tonight, opening up with ‘Back Home Again in Indiana’....”

Well, I guess it had to happen sometime and it looks like that sometime is now. I can’t tell you how many times my Itunes shuffle has landed on “Indiana” but today’s the day I’ll attempt to scale Armstrong’s numerous versions of the tune, which might be like trying to scale Mount Everest. I have 71 versions of “Indiana” in my Itunes. Jos Willems’s “All of Me” discography lists the song on 82 separate pages, with some of those pages containing multiple versions. The tune must have literally been performed by Armstrong thousands of times without a recording device present. It’s one of the most exciting tunes the All Stars ever performed. And it’s also one of the most maligned songs in the entire Armstrong repertoire.

Critics have been using “Indiana” as a springboard for years to launch a steady stream of attacks on Pops: he played the same songs every night, he played the same solos every night, he was too old-fashioned, he didn’t know how to improvise, etc. To some degrees, these statements have slight bits of truth in them, but in no way are they 100% accurate. And if you have a couple of dozen hours, let me take you through the history of Louis Armstrong and “Indiana” and perhaps when I’m finished, you’ll have a new appreciation for Armstrong’s invariable and invariably exciting opening number.

For once, I don’t think I need to go into any backstory. The tune was published in 1917, stealing a bit from “On the Banks of the Wabash” in the process, and was immediately seized by jazz musicians, especially after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band chose it for their first Columbia recording session. In the ensuing decades, everyone took a stab at it; even the more “modern” factions used its changes for tunes like “Donna Lee” and “Ice Freezes Red.” But Louis Armstrong had no prior flings with “Indiana” until an All Stars concert in Pasadena on January 30, 1951.

“Wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “I thought Louis Armstrong opened EVERY show in the history of the All Stars with ‘Indiana.’ What gives?” Well, imaginary reader, that’s just the first of many myths that have to either leave the scene or at least be seriously revised. There are countless surviving All Stars documents, including many broadcasts from the late 40s. There are zero versions of “Indiana” from before 1951. He didn’t play it at Town Hall, he didn’t play it at Symphony Hall, he didn’t play it in Europe nor at a Philadelphia nightclub. In my extensive research, I have come across many concert reviews and magazine articles and there are absolutely no mentions of “Indiana” until that 1951 live performance.

So what did Pops open up with? It always changed, but it was usually an instrumental like “King Porter Stomp,” “Panama,” “Royal Garden Blues,” “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans,” “Muskrat Ramble” or “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” It didn’t matter what song it was, Pops just liked to open with something uptempo and instrumental, a vehicle to make sure the chops were in shape. At a Vancouver concert recorded just four days prior to the Pasadena outing, Armstrong opened with “Rose Room,” a tune that would go on to become a Barney Bigard clarinet feature.
So we’re already four years into the history of the All Stars and we haven’t come across any mentions of “Indiana.” But at Pasadena, Armstrong called it and an opener was born. Now, I highly doubt that Armstrong, knowing that Decca was recording this, would call a tune he had never played before for the first one of the evening, so he probably had played this at least a couple of times. But every time I listen to this first version, I’m always struck by the looseness of it all. Please give a listen:


Anybody who knows any later versions will immediately notice that the tempo is a little slower than it would become just a couple of years later. But here’s piece of evidence number one that this had to be one of the band’s first shots at the tune: Earl Hines’s piano intro. It’s kind of rambling and hesitant and he doesn’t even play the horns in. He only plays the first 16 bars, which sounds to my ears a little odd as the song’s built-in “C” section is a natural for a piano introduction. But then it’s Armstrong leading Teagarden and Bigard through two opening ensemble choruses. Armstrong once gave his improvising philosophy as follows: “The first chorus I play the melody. The second chorus I plays the melody round the melody, and the third chorus I routines.” Armstrong only plays two up front on “Indiana,” but I think playing “the melody round the melody” just about sums it up.

After solos from Hines and bassist Arvell Shaw, Armstrong enters with the very first “Indiana” solo he ever recorded. Now before I get carried away, I'd like to interrupt myself and share a solid version of the "set" solo, taken from the Chicago concert of June 1, 1956. This is the "Indiana" solo after all the tinking was finished. I think it's illuminating to hear it first, get it inside your head, then go backwards and hear how Armstrong added up all the pieces. So here's the "set" solo from 1956:



Got it? Okay, back to 1951. Armstrong always liked to follow bass solos, perhaps because the juxtaposition between the quiet bass and loud trumpet made for a more dramatic contrast. Regardless, here is just that first solo again:


It’s a damn good one and please take note that almost none of what Armstrong played here would appear in his later, “set” solo. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the opening of the solo because Shaw’s not back in place yet, so the bottomless sound is pretty empty. Armstrong also slightly cracks two early notes but he soon settles in for a solo that practically defines relaxation. Rhythmically, he’s his usual free-floating self, though I like how he ends the first half with a Pops-ian “doddle-doddle-da-da” phrase. The only part Armstrong would retain for later versions are the triplets in the last eight bars, giving the solo a touch of a 3/4 feeling, as well as the very last phrase of the solo. Nice stuff.

Bigard’s up next and Pops immediately lays some background riffs on him. Piece of evidence number two that this is one of the first versions, if not the very first: Teagarden’s following him, but they’re by no means tight. Armstrong’s leading the way and Jack is doing his best to follow his lead. After Teagarden’s solo, Armstrong reenters for the final charge, giving Cozy Cole a neat eight-bar drum break. Teagarden and Bigard are very reticent in the background; great players but this is not my favorite version of the All Stars. Pops ends on a high one and sounds happy with the results. Decca must have been happy, too; on the original “Satchmo at Pasadena” album, they cut out five or six numbers performed, but they did include “Indiana.”

So, you’re guessing, “Indiana” became the standard opener, Pops played the same solo on it every night and there’s no reason to ever listen to another version, correct? WRONG-O! In fact, it’s not even for certain that “Indiana” became the immediate opener after the Pasadena concert. A return to Pasadena in December 1951 found “Royal Garden Blues” in the leadoff spot while a trip to Boise, Idaho in February 1952 began with “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.” But a May 13, 1952 concert in New Orleans found Armstrong opening up with “Indiana” and after that, there was almost no turning back. “Indiana” was IT and that’s a good thing.

But surely, Armstrong ceased improvising in his later years and started playing the same solos over and over, right? Damn you, rhetorical voice, you don’t know what you’re talking about! Here’s the New Orleans version, featuring an almost entirely new line-up: Bigard and Cole are still around but now Russ Phillips is on trombone, Marty Napoleon is on piano and Dale Jones plays bass.:


Marty Napoleon’s intro is right on the money, very swinging, though like Hines, he, too, chooses to play only the first 16 bars. From there, the routing is identical to the earlier version and would remain so until the end: two ensembles up front, one piano, one bass, one trumpet, one clarinet with riffs, one trombone and a closing ensemble with drum breaks. Because of the sameness of the routing, the rest of this blog is going to focus on the development of Armstrong’s solo.

Now this is where things get complicated. From the beginning of the All Stars, Louis Armstrong began coming under attack for what critics called “playing the same solos every night.” Again, there’s an element of truth to this, but it’s not completely accurate. The only way to combat hasty conclusions is to listen, listen, listen. And that’s what I’ve done since Armstrong’s music hit me right between the eyes 12 years ago. The great Gary Giddins once wrote about the repetition of tunes in the Armstrong discography, saying something to the effect that even it one could listen to every recording Louis Armstrong ever made, one might not necessarily want to. Well, I do! And in doing the listening, I can tell you honestly that yes, Louis Armstrong did have some “set” solos but that doesn’t mean he didn’t change them when he felt like it and it doesn’t mean that always played them exactly the same way.

Mezz Mezzrow once was asked about this and I’d like to echo his response: “People who say that don’t really listen. Sometimes the variations will be in the phrasing rather than the notes, but those solos are always changing, depending on the tempo, the atmosphere, or who’s playing with him at the time.” Amen, brother Mezz.

You see, tackling this issue leads to some very complicated thinking. It’s almost philosophical in a way: Louis Armstrong IS jazz. Without him, jazz would not have followed the same path. However, Louis Armstrong also worked on solos and often didn’t change them. Louis Armstrong didn’t freshly improvise every note he played every night. Thus, if Louis Armstrong is jazz, shouldn’t we accept jazz musicians who don’t freshly mint every note they play?

This is where it gets dicey, because jazz is always practically defined as “improvised music.” If you’re not improvising, you’re not playing jazz, right? Isn’t that how it goes? You’re playing the same solos every night? Get out of here, stop wasting my time. This is a central line of thinking in jazz circles.

But with Louis Armstrong, things are different. People view him as an improvising genius in the 1920s who “changed” and began taking the easy way out, playing set solos in his later years. But what the hell do we know about Armstrong on a day-to-day basis in the 20s? He had features with Erskine Tate, songs like “Poor Little Rich Girl” that he played every night. He had features at Connie’s Inn, standing up to play “Ain’t Misbehavin’” every night. On some Fletcher Henderson alternate takes, you can barely hear him play a different note from his solos on the issued master. After decades of hailing “Cornet Chop Suey” as an improvised masterpiece, a Library of Congress deposit was found showing that Armstrong had written and copyrighted every note of that solo a few years before he even waxed it in the studio.

Of course, he improvised like a maniac on the Hot Fives and Sevens. But those were record dates, a slight diversion from Armstrong’s steady gigs. Sure, he improvised; he was creating some of those tunes on the spot. He also improvised like hell on his record dates in the 1950s and 1960s. That didn’t affect what he played on a nightly basis. And perhaps the same went for the dashing, heroic Louis Armstrong of the 1920s. Sure, when the musicians were in the house, he’d play 300 high C’s. And even in later years, he often came up with fresh ideas on tunes like “Royal Garden Blues” and “Muskrat Ramble,” so clearly he never lost the knack for improvising.

But listen to “Chinatown” in 1931, then listen to it in Stockholm in 1933 and on the Fleischmann’s Yeast broadcast from 1937. Do the same with “Tiger Rag.” Or the various “Dinah’s” from the 1930s. Sure, there are subtle differences, but those are show pieces and for the most part, they settled into pretty set patterns. He almost blew his lip out on the first “Swing That Music,” but on his second record of it, he had a new solo, one that he played live for years to come without much difference. And take “Sunny Side of the Street,” a tune that Taft Jordan recreated Louis Armstrong’s solo on ...years before Armstrong even had the chance to record it himself! Clearly, the pattern of Armstrong playing these set solos wasn’t something that happened only during the All Stars period.

But as Mezzrow said, there ARE differences in these versions, but sometimes they’re subtle, the kinds of things only nuts like me can discern. But just because Louis Armstrong did play these set solos, should we criticize him for it? Again, this can lead to some pretty fierce debating. As for me, I look at his contemporaries. I’d exclude Sidney Bechet, because Bechet was an improvising marvel until the day he died (though even he had pet phrases and routines on songs like “China Boy” and “St. Louis Blues”). Many trumpet players from Armstrong’s generation didn’t live as long as he did: King Oliver, Bix Beiderbecke, Freddie Keppard, Tommy Ladnier, Mutt Carey, all dead before 1950. We know Oliver sure as hell minted that “Dippermouth Blues” solo to the point where every trumpet player today still plays it (I heard it twice in New Orleans last week). And of course, Oliver was Armstrong’s mentor so that must have had an effect. And take the trombonists: Big Jim Robinson, one of my heroes, seemingly had about six different solos. Ory, too, while a master at tailgating, didn’t exactly provide a wellspring of different ideas in his solos.

The entire history of early jazz is featured with great solos that became set parts of the tune. I’m thinking of George Brunies’s trombone solo on “Tin Roof Blues” or Bix’s “Singin’ The Blues” masterpiece, soon copied by the likes of Rex Stewart. Man, in the 1920s, if you had a great solo, it was something to be proud of. Play that damn thing every night! You worked on that solo, you came up with those variations, they sound great, now stick with it. That was the mentality for a long time, probably until Lester Young came around and promised to not be a “repeater pencil,” whatever the hell a repeater pencil is (I’ve checked on eBay; they don’t exist).

(But even Pres played many similar versions of “Lester Leaps In” in the 1950s. And speaking of “Indiana,” that was one of the seeming dozen or so tunes that remained in his later repertoire and he always ended it with the same last eight bars or so on every live version I’ve ever heard him do.)

So Pops was of that mentality from the earlier generation: you work on your solo until you’re satisfied, then you stick with it. I always talk about my book here and trust me, I do find myself holding stuff back here because I want there to be some surprises in it when the day comes that it sees the light. Thus, I won’t share the entire quote because I need to save something, but trust me, I found an interview of Pops in the All Stars period talking about how he specifically tells the other musicians in the group to learn their solos and try to play them the same way night after night because he felt it made them better musicians.

Now wait a minute, wait a minute, waiting a minute!!! Louis Armstrong IS jazz. Yet, he’s telling his musicians to learn how to set their solos. This might make some people’s mind completely melt down but it’s true so you just have to learn to deal with it. And how do you do that? The best way I know of is to always keep in mind something Joe Muranyi told me: Louis Armstrong is a great composer. Yes, he’s the greatest trumpeter, greatest singer, greatest entertainer, greatest personality that jazz has ever seen (arguable, but really, what did you expect me to say?). But do not ever underestimate his ability as a composer.

And I don’t just mean writing tunes like “Some Day You’ll Be Sorry.” I’m talking about those incredible, mind-blowing solos. It’s so easy to roll your eyes and say, “Oh dear, another version of ‘Indiana’ with that same damn set solo. Ho hum.” But it’s entirely different to think about Louis’s thought process, knowing how hard he worked on those solos. Think about it: the man was a nut about tape recording. And what did he tape record? His own concerts. Every night. When the show was over and the revelers disappeared, Pops would go to his room and listen to that evening’s concert. Surviving members of the All Stars have told me that they would sneak away at night and ask the hotel for a different room on another floor because Pops would play his own stuff so loud! He’d listen to his own solos. See what he could keep and what he could change. He’d listen to the reactions his jokes got or the kind of receptions certain songs received. He studied every concert like an individual jewel yet so many people continue to write-off the entire All Stars period as if he was going through the motions, a commercial entertainer content to play it safe with the same songs and solos night and after night. It’s not fair.

So with the diatribe now over, let me get back to the topic at hand and demonstrate some of my beliefs the only way I know how: with cold, hard audio facts. We’re going to examine the process that Louis Armstrong took in the 1950s to “set” his “Indiana” solo. We’ve already heard the 1951 solo and we might as well hear it again:


Now, here’s the May 1952 New Orleans solo:


Again, the epitome of relaxation, but it shares almost nothing in common with the January 1951 solo. Though the genesis of the set solo can be heard in bars 20-23. Armstrong also clearly likes the “When I dream about the moonlight on the Wabash” melody in the last eight bars as he almost always plays it straight. He comes out of it with a nice gliss downward, which also would crop up. Finally, the very singable phrase that Armstrong plays in the last two bars obviously struck a chord with him. The wheels were turning...

So now let’s flash forward to October 1952 for a solo from a concert in Sweden:


Again, almost a completely new solo, complete with a “My Sweetie Went Away” quote borrowed from Lester Young’s “Sometimes I’m Happy” solo. Again, bars 20-24 are the same, as is the melody playing of the “Wabash” line, though this time it’s broken up by an earlier gliss. But now, the singable phrase that I said struck a chord with Pops is gone. Instead, he goes back to the triplets of the 1951 solo and hammers them home for four full bars, ending with a giant gliss.

Just a month later, Armstrong turned in a completely different solo in Lausaane, Switzerland. His chops were a little down on this occasion, so there's a conspicuous abscence of high notes, but there's definitely no lack of ideas:

By the summer of 1953, Armstrong was starting to turn up the heat on “Indiana,” with the tempo rising several degrees on this and subsequent performances. At an undisclosed location in that summer, the All Stars played a concert that featured Pops in absolutely peak form. However, on “Indiana,” he’s almost too excited and overblows a little bit:


He now officially has an entrance, perhaps feeling a little more comfortable diving right in at this tempo, leaving some of the relaxation of the earlier attempts behind. He sounds strong as hell but it sounds like he runs out of ideas at the halfway point a bit, reverting to some quarter notes. Also, the smoothing out process of the second half of the solo has begun. It’s a little shaky and he misses a note here and there, but he has almost set the back end of the solo. Notice the mixture of elements from the earlier versions: the “Wabash” melody, the gliss, the triplets and the perfectly concluding singable phrase.

But now he needed something for the first half and that could take some work. This next solo, from Japan on New Year’s Eve 1953 is unlike any other “Indiana” that I’ve ever heard:


He really charges out of the gate on that one. And what rhythm! The triplets, the fleet-phrases, the dramatic glisses, he’s all over the place and the result is thrilling. The second half of the solo is more improved than the previous example, with a killer chromatic run (you can hear bassist Milt Hinton yell, “Go Pops!”). He’s getting there...

Five months later, in May 1954, Armstrong played it an afternoon concert at the University of North Carolina. This concert, which I’ve blogged about in the past, features a heroically strong Armstrong but on “Indiana” he runs into a little trouble. Again, it’s at the halfway point as you’ll hear him attempt this long winding phrase that's based on a lick he originally played on the 1925 "St. Louis Blues" with Bessie Smith. Here's the lick:


Armstrong loved that lick (it became part of his "Back O'Town Blues" routine) but in Carolina, he gets tangled up for a half-second and has to resolve it with three quick quarter notes. After a moment to pause, he plays the second half beautifully, sounding stronger every time:


Also, you can hear the faster repeated triplets in the beginning of that solo, something that Armstrong clearly liked to play on the tune. Next, a version from Basin Street East in New York City in August 1954:


As you can hear, it’s very similar to the North Carolina one but now Armstrong plays the "St. Louis Blues" phrase without any problem, resolving it with a bluesy little flick of the valves, followed by some of those quicker triplets.

Though Pops ironed out that wrinkle, clearly, after some late-night listening in his hotel room he realized that that pattern of thinking wasn’t working out. He then begun blowing with hellish fury during those second eight bars. Here’s an example from New Year’s Eve 1954:


I love how he just steamrolls everything with that gigantic gliss up to a freakish high Eb, which I don't think he intended to hit. Arvell Shaw yells “Go, go” and Pops does. The high note is exciting but once up there, it’s a little bit of an awkward ride back down to terra firma. Nevertheless, remember Mezzrow’s words when listening to the second half. Just when we thought we had a set second half, he clearly changes some of the phrasing and ends with a series of triplets into a gliss, something we haven't heard since the Stockholm version of October 1952. Interesting...

Weeks later, in January 1955, Armstrong recorded another live version for Decca, this time from the Crescendo Club. Again, in the problematic second eight bars, Pops uses brute force, alternating high C’s and Db’s before skipping downward right into a daring chromatic turn of a phrase that always takes me by surprise. In fact, even before that Pops plays some new ideas. This might be one of the very hottest “Indiana” solos Pops ever took:


By the summer of 1955, Pops had it worked out. In those second eight bars, instead of a gliss to an impossible high note or alternating high notes of the Crescendo Club version, Armstrong now played a completely logical phrase building up to two high Db’s and a C. He then worked his way back down with those quick, repeated, almost ragtime-esque three-note phrase, as he had been fooling with for a while. Between June 1955 and March 1956, this is pretty much the "set" solo. I'll pick one example to demonstrate, from Sweden, October 1955:


So is that it, the set solo? Not quite! The longer Pops worked on his solos, the more they would sometimes get infiltrated with quotes (by the mid-50s, his "Muskrat Ramble" playing featured an astonishing collage of quotes strung together seamlessly). Thus, in March 1956, Armstrong elminated those bubbling three-note phrases in the first half and instead inserted a quote from "I Cover the Waterfront." On March 17, Armstrong played this solo at a Carnegie Hall concert. Here 'tis, the set solo:


Great stuff (though John S. Wilson gave the All Stars a bad review that evening and complained that Armstrong was playing the same stuff and putting on the same vaudeville show as usual). How set was that solo? Nine days later, a recording device captured it in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Using the magic of editing, here are both March 1956 solos being played at the exact same time:



Pretty consistent, eh? So think about it: “Indiana” didn’t enter the All Stars’s book until 1951, year four of their existence. Pops didn’t have a concrete set solo on it until 1956. That’s the ninth year of the All Stars! He spent FIVE YEARS tinkering with that thing, only to have people write it off today, “Oh, he always played the same solos.” That, my friends, is a masterpiece of composition. Listen to that solo again. Really study it. It’s a perfect solo. If I was to play a trumpet solo on “Indiana,” I would want it to be that one. When Hal Leonard printed a book of Armstrong trumpet transcriptions a few years ago, they included one of “Indiana.” They had a thousand to choose from but they chose one from Chicago, June 1, 1956 featuring my favorite front line with Armstrong, clarinetist Edmond Hall and trombonist Trummy Young. I already started this tour by playing the solo but I think the entire performance deserves to be heard in full:


Incredibly exciting stuff. And listen to how much Pops plays on the tune: it’s an eight-chorus song and Pops plays on five, leading two in the front, taking his own solo, setting riffs behind Hall and coming back for the rideout. He’s all over the damn thing. But it’s great solo, isn’t it? I just love when he refers to the original melody in the last eight bars, then hits that bluesy-as-hell concert B-natural and turns it into a falling gliss, sliding to a lower G. He’s in complete command: the high notes are popping, he’s very flexible, his rhythm is exemplary (dig the repeated Ab’s in bars 5 and 6, each one landing in between the beats), he’s just in great form. Even the contrast between a grandiose phrase like the build-up to the high Db’s in the eighth bar is immediately resolved by Armstrong happily skipping back downward with some swinging quarter-notes. There’s a lot of meat in a solo that so many people have taken for granted for so long.

It’s interesting because that Chicago version was performed at quite a time in Armstrong’s life. His popularity was hitting new highs: touring Europe as “Ambassador Satch,” being profiled by Edward R. Murrow, scoring a hit record with “Mack the Knife,” conquering Africa, etc. He was arguably more popular than ever before. Yet with that came the most scathing reviews of his career. 1956 is one of Armstrong’s greatest years as a player but man, you don’t want to read the reviews. Armstrong was no being called an “Uncle Tom” in places like Metronome magazine, “Down Beat” gave his set at the Newport Jazz Festival a scathing notice, John S. Wilson claimed the All Stars were more vaudeville than jazz...trust me, it got ugly. But I listen to that “Indiana” and can’t help but feeling pity for those critics and for anyone else who didn’t get riled up by such a wonderful group.

So now that we’ve reached the set solo, you might think it’s time for me to pack it in, but of course, I can’t do that yet. There’s some other versions I’d like to share (if you’re still with me) beginning with Armstrong’s only full-on studio version of the tune. It’s August 1957 and Armstrong was doing a date backed by the Oscar Peterson Trio and Louie Bellson on drums as part of the second album of duets with Ella Fitzgerald. Producer Norman Granz needed a balance and obviously the musicians wanted to warm up. Pops called “Indiana” and he was off, sounding hesitant in spots (this was a warm-up after all) but uncorking a lot of new ideas before finally settling into the set solo at the end. Here ‘tis:


One year later, Armstrong performed “Indiana” at the Monterey Jazz Festival, as issued on C.D. in 2007. Here’s this solo:


Wait, where’s the solo? Exactly. This is a red flag, my friends. Whenever you find a version of “Indiana” that goes from bass solo to clarinet solo, that only means one thing: Pops’s chops were down and he needed to pick his spots. Thus, there are multiple “Indianas” where Armstrong plays the ensemble choruses but has to bypass his solo spot because of chop troubles. It wasn’t easy being Louis Armstrong, that’s for sure...

But please don’t think Pops was a finished man in 1958. His European tour of 1959 was filled with wondrous moments and many great versions of “Indiana.” Let’s break it up a bit with a video, Pops and the All Stars (Trummy, Peanuts Hucko, Billy Kyle, Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona) doing “Indiana” in Amsterdam, February 7, 1959:

Armstrong sounds great, he’s having fun (listen to him singing behind the clarinet solo) and the solo is crackling with a new gliss in the second eight bars and some different phrasing in the second half. However, did you notice what happens after the solo? Along with Trummy Young, Armstrong plays the first few notes he had use to back up the clarinet solo since that first 1951 version. However, he then stops and he and Trummy begin laughing and slapping five like it’s a kind of inside joke. According to the great Dave Whitney, he heard that Peanuts was not fond of background riffs and asked for Armstrong not to play them behind him. Armstrong obliged both on this and "Struttin' with Some Barbecue." When Peanuts left, the riffs returned on "Barbecue" but not "Indiana."

As the 1960s dawned, Pops was still an incredible force, though slowly but surely, he was beginning to lose a little flexibility in his horn playing. Those delightful little fleet-fingered phrase became somewhat harder to execute as he began the next decade of his punishing career. Amazingly, at the same time, his tone actually appeared to get larger. I have dubbed this phenomenon “Cootie Williams Syndrome” (this not an actual medical condition) as it reminds me of the great Ellington trumpet player who often sounded like he was playing in slow motion in the 1960s, yet had a pure sound that could move mountains. Though “Indiana” had some tricky moments, Pops managed to keep much of his set material in place except for one spot: the always singable closing phrase of his solo, one that he had toyed with since 1952 and had kept playing since mid-1953. Now, he needed a new way to close the solo, often trying out different things. For example, in July 1960, Armstrong sounded like Hercules during some concerts in Highland Park, Illinois, outside of Chicago. Because of the location, Armstrong decided to conclude his solo with a three-note phrase that’s reminiscent of the standard “Chicago” before embarking on a huge gliss(he also quoted this at the June 1956 Chicago concert during “Ko Ko Mo”):


That same month at the Newport Jazz Festival, Armstrong reached all the way back to that Stockholm 1952 solo, ending with a series of slow triplets before another powerhouse gliss:


Armstrong came up with yet another way to end the solo at the 1961 Newport Jazz Festival:


Video time! Pops continued experimenting with the end of “Indiana” throughout 1961 and 1962. Here’s a full version from Sweden in 1962. Notice, he ends with some neat falling glisses:

On the same tour, Armstrong seemed to have a remedy: end the solo with some fierce high notes and a gliss. Here’s an example from a German concert in April of 1962:


Of course, some nights were a struggle for Pops. At a Paris concert 12 days after the above German clip,, Pops’s chops obviously had a rough time getting warmed up. But then again, that’s the point of opening with something familiar like “Indiana,” right? Listen to him heroically push his way through this solo, playing through the pain, and ending with one of the most suspenseful glisses he ever took. Does he make it!? Find out:


He made it! Phew... And to prove that he was back, here he is killing those last eight bars at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1962:



Unfortunately, I’ve never heard an “Indiana” from 1963, but I can attest that he was still knocking it out of the park during an Australian television appearance late in 1964 (do you really need audio evidence? Haven't the above 200 clips been enough for ya???). In March 1965, Armstrong embarked on a historic tour of Europe, conquering the Iron Curtain a bit by playing places like Prague and East Berlin, garnering some incredible ovations. He responded by doing some of the best blowing of his later years. Seriously, if you ever see a C.D. with stuff from this tour, grab it, because you won’t believe the form Armstrong was in.

Now keep in mind, by this point, “Hello, Dolly” put Armstrong back on top of the world. This gave jazz critics a whole new line of jive to complain about: Armstrong’s new fans were coming to see some old buffoon sing a showtune and had no idea that he was such a great trumpet player. Well, pretend you know nothing about Armstrong other than he’s a funny old cat you saw singing “Hello, Dolly” on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” So you get tickets to see him play and after a gentle “Sleepy Time Down South,” he plays “Indiana” and takes a solo like this one, taken from an East Berlin concert in March 1965:


I don’t know about you, but I would think that was a pretty damn good trumpet player up onstage, banging out those high C’s and glissing like that at the end! And really, that was what Louis Armstrong was all about: pleasing the public, knowing that every time he played a one-nighter, he wanted to give that audience his best, knowing it was comprised of many people who had never seen him before. So sure, the jazz critics could complain about the same songs and the same solos but if I was going to see him live for the first time, I’m sure the effect would have been electric. Hell, it still is for me and I know what’s coming half the time!

I know I’ve taken up entirely too much time but there’s not far to go because of the 10+ versions of "Indiana" I have from after 1965, there are zero that feature Armstrong taking a solo. Joe Muranyi joined the band in the summer of 1967 and he told me that Pops rarely played the solo and that one time he did and faltered badly. Again, Armstrong was still playing well but now the effects of age and decades of fierce blowing were taking its toll: the solo on “Indiana,” handcrafted over a period of five years in the 1950s, would have to be retired.

But he continued opening with the tune, still blowing two choruses up front and leading the charge during the rideout. He even had a nifty new quote: “Sidewalks of New York.” So let’s listen to the last recorded example of Louis Armstrong playing trumpet on Indiana, from England in July 1968:


He still sounds pretty good, right? He’s not Superman anymore but he’s still a pretty good lead trumpet player from New Orleans. Though notice how often he plays little runs to keep his chops up: there’s a note during the piano intro and he noodles behind both the clarinet and trombone solos, always testing his chops at every chance. But he still can play that thing, holding the high Ab at the end, glissing up to a C for good measure.

And that’s all I’ve got. I know it was exhaustive but if it makes you, dear reader, approach “Indiana” with a different mindset, I’ve done my job. Now it's off to listen to something else--anything!--because if I don't get this solo out of my head in the next 24 hours, I'm checking into Bellvue!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Louis Armstrong Symposium - November 21

I interrupt my regular ravings about Louis Armstrong and his music to offer a bit of publicity for an event I am really excited to be a part of. Next saturday, November 21, the College of Staten Island/CUNY is holding a Louis Armstrong Symposium from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. A slew of Armstrong historians will be hand to deliver short lectures on a variety of topics and Dan Morgenstern, the dean of us all, will be delivering the keynote address, titled "Why Armstrong Endures." I'll actually be the opening act, discussing Armstrong's treatment of his opener, "Indiana," an appropriate topic considering my placement on the bill. So if you're in the NY/NJ area and want to kill a day learning about Pops, you do not want to miss this event. Here's the official press release and I hope to see you there!

CONTACT: William R. Bauer
The College of Staten Island/CUNY
2800 Victory Boulevard
Staten Island, NY 10314
609/936.3719

Jazz Scholars to Present Research in The Louis Armstrong Symposium at the College of Staten Island/CUNY

Staten Island NY, October 23, 2009 -

On Saturday, November 21, 2009, a gathering of jazz scholars will present their research on various facets of Louis Armstrong's life and music at CUNY's College of Staten Island. The event will take place from 9 AM to 5 PM in Building 1P, Room 120, the Recital Hall of CSI's Center for the Arts. It is open to the public and admission is free of charge. However, due to limited seating capacity, advance reservation is strongly suggested.

To make reservations and for more information, contact William R. Bauer at: 718-982-2534, or at thearmstrongsymposium@gmail.com. For those who will drive, parking will be available in Lots 1 and 2. For directions to the College of Staten Island, visit the college website (click on prospective students and then on visit our campus): . For a campus map, go to:

The Louis Armstrong Symposium will feature a keynote address by Dan Morgenstern, jazz historian, author, editor, archivist, current Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies, and former chief editor of Down Beat magazine. The list of presenters includes Ricky Riccardi, Michael Cogswell, John Szwed, James Leach, William R. Bauer, and Jeffrey Taylor. In morning and afternoon sessions, each presenter will offer a distinct perspective on his subject.

Each session will be followed by an open-ended panel discussion and question-and-answer session that will elaborate on themes that emerged during the talks. A conceptual jam session for jazz scholars, this format will give scholars and audience members alike a forum for in-depth discussion about Louis Armstrong's musical and cultural legacy.

The presenters will explore a range of topics. Ricky Riccardi, who is currently writing a book about Louis Armstrong's later years, will use Armstrong's renditions of "Back Home Again in Indiana" to challenge the negative critical reception that the trumpeter often received during the latter part of his career.

Michael Cogswell, Director of the Louis Armstrong House Museum and curator of the Louis Armstrong Archive at Queens College's Benjamin S. Rosenthal Library, will share and discuss samples from Armstrong's vast collection of LPs and 78s.

John Szwed, Professor of Music and Jazz Studies at Columbia University and John M. Musser Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, African American Studies, and Film Studies at Yale University, will explore Armstrong's role in Orson Welles's unfinished movie The Story of Jazz, and in other projects the filmmaker was working on in 1941.

James Leach, who teaches jazz history and theory at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan, will focus on Armstrong's vocal and instrumental renditions of the Hoagy Carmichael classic "Stardust" in order to set in relief Armstrong's approach to singing and trumpet playing.

William R. Bauer, from the College of Staten Island and CUNY Graduate Center faculties, will present research from his current book project, an investigation into the jazz vocal techniques that Armstrong used in his early recordings

Jeffrey Taylor, Director of the H. Wiley Hitchcock Institute for Studies in American Music and Professor of Music at Brooklyn College, who also teaches in the CUNY Graduate Center's Ph.D. Program in Music and its American Studies Certificate Program, will consider the impact of various pianists on Armstrong's work during the trumpeter's Chicago years in the 1920s.

The scholarship presented at this symposium will both deepen and expand our understanding of this giant of twentieth-century music. The Louis Armstrong Symposium is produced with funding from the CUNY Research Foundation, and with support from the College of Staten Island and the Center for the Arts.

Monday, November 9, 2009

When You're Smiling - The Later Versions

I'm actually nervous as I set out on today's blog post. Armstrong's 1956 version of "When You're Smiling" is an incredibly emotional experience for me, probably my second all-time favorite Armstrong recording (only "Star Dust" tops it, personally). I'm not sure I can even find the right words to describe what that recording does to me but even if I fail miserably, you should at least listen to it in full as I can guarantee that it will contain the greatest four minutes of music you will hear all day.

First though, a little recap. Previously on "The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong" (sounds like a TV show), I discussed Louis Armstrong's landmark 1929 recording of "When You're Smiling," a masterpiece that featured a slower-than-expected tempo, a vocal full of sunshine and an epic trumpet solo consisting of Armstrong playing the melody an octave higher than expected. (I should apologize, though, for screwing up a bunch of the links, including the YouTube videos; everything's fixed so dig it all over again!). As I explained, more than any other version, Armstrong's "When You're Smiling" really put the song on the map. It became one of his big hits and something he was often requested to play during live performances...mostly by frustrated trumpet players who couldn't believe the endurance and range showcased in that concluding solo.

Truthfully, though, I don't think Armstrong's chops could quite handle the range and endurance to pull off "When You're Smiling" night after night. By 1932, 1933, Armstrong began battling lip troubles, about as deadly an ailment as there is for a trumpet player to face. He took some time off in Europe and came back to America blowing beautifully. As I've argued in this space before, I find Armstrong's late-30s period (the Deccas and Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts) to feature the absolute pinnacle of his trumpet playing.

Having said that, Armstrong also learned to pace himself a bit better in those years. The days of hitting 200 high C's and topping it off with a high F were over. He did keep lip-busting charts such as "Swing That Music," "Chinatown" and "Tiger Rag" in his live performances, but sometimes with notable differences. He never recreated his original Decca "Swing That Music" solo and he played fewer choruses on "Chinatown" and "Tiger Rag" than he did earlier in the decade. What he continued to blow was absolutely stupefying but he now knew how adjust these trumpet features a bit to keep his chop troubles behind him.

Thus, I don't know if he wanted to mess with "When You're Smiling" anymore when he returned from Europe. I'm sure he could still play but it might have burned him out. Of course, that's just a hunch, but it's a fact that there are no surviving recordings, broadcasts or other live performances of "When You're Smiling" between 1932 and 1950. And when we get to 1950, the surviving version, from an episode of Kay Kyser's NBC TV show, is only 43 seconds in length. Fortunately, it's a pretty stunning 43 seconds, as Armstrong just plays his concluding solo as a way of introducing himself to the audience. The tempo is much faster than it was in 1929--hence the shortened length--but Armstrong still takes it an octave up and still nails every note of it. Dig it:


Still nailed it, right? But then that's it again, no more versions until January 21, 1955. On that evening, Decca's engineers recorded three full sets by Armstrong's All Stars at Hollywood's Crescendo Club, eventually releasing it on a terrific two-LP set (in the 90s, almost the complete evening was issued on the four-disc Decca set, The California Concerts, which is still available as an MP3 download. It remains the definitive look at a typical evening at a nightclub with the All Stars in the 50s). Armstrong's group--with Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems--was going through a prime period, having recently recorded Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and about to record Satch Plays Fats, both seminal albums done for Columbia. (Clarinetist Bigard was just about out of gas but the rest of the band swung mightily.)

At the Crescendo, the All Stars played many of the popular tunes in their book, songs they often played night after night. But perhaps knowing that Decca wanted some different material (they already had two All Stars live shows on the market, Symphony Hall 1947 and Pasadena 1951), Amstrong also called a few surprises like "Tain't What You Do," "Old Man Mose" and, you guessed it, "When You're Smiling."

Now, was "When You're Smiling" a regular part of the All Stars's live shows during this period? I don't think so, but really, who knows? The band played over 300 nights a year and though a solid five or six shows/broadcasts survive from this period, I can't vouch for the other 295. At the Crescendo Club, Armstrong chose "When You're Smiling" as the 11th song of the first set. It followed "Me and Brother Bill," an Armstrong novelty that featured zero trumpet playing, as Pops obviously had to have the chops totally rested for what was about to follow. In fact, I don't need to share it here, but if you pull out your copy of this disc, you'll hear Armstrong announce "Me and Brother Bill" over the microphone, then turn and tell the band, "'When You're Smiling,' next. Jump it like it is." I always liked that moment because it illustrates Armstrong's mind, even with Decca professionally recording him, still working on the fly, improvising a set list as he goes. (I'll personally fight anyone in a parking lot tomorrow afternoon who throws the, "But he played the same show every night!" routine at me!)

Armstrong's instructions to "jump it" also makes me think this was a one-time only performance for Decca. Why else would he need to instruct the tempo? Anyway, the tempo is indeed faster than the original, though not dramatically so. The original vocal take clocked in around 120 beats per minute. The non-vocal alternate I shared in my last posting was 144. The 1955 Crescendo Club version is 160, not that much faster than the non-vocal take. It sounds faster, but that's really because of the "modern" 1955 rhythm section, complete with four-four bass and swinging cymbal patterns. Dickerson's 1929 band plodded away with such a two-beat that it naturally sounded much slower than it really was.

Enough yakking from me. Let's listen to the performance as think it's truly one of the All Stars's finest moments of the mid-50s, a period that was chock full of incredible performances. This band swung with almost ridiculous power and you'll hear what I mean by clicking here:


From Billy Kyle's opening piano introduction, the piece is already swinging. You'll hear Pops quietly tell his All Stars, "Wail, boys," and man, do they listen. Armstrong leads the ensemble with a chorus of melody, the rhythm section enhanced by Arvell Shaw doubling up notes in his bass line. After the first relatively straight chorus, Armstrong swings into a second chorus, now trotting out some variations, sounding beautiful. Trummy's with him the entire way and even Barney Bigard wakes up a bit for some hot playing.

Armstrong then follows with the vocal (Trummy sets him up with the original lead-in from the 1929 record). As he did in 1929, Armstrong rephrases the melody in a descending manner, showing no need for the static, ascending nature of the way the tune was written. He sounds great, throwing in bits of scat and really wailing on that final, high "when" (and do I detect a little Yiddish accent in Pops's final reading of "smiles" as "schmiles"?).

Armstrong closes his vocal by asking Trummy Young to take it. The rhythm section, backed by Deems's powerful backbeats, kicks it into second gear, as Trummy blasts forth a hard-punching solo, Pops giving him a quiet harmony note for his second eight bars. When they get to the bridge, Pops blows in, urged by Shaw's vocal exhortations to "Go, Pops!" Armstrong improvises an exciting new line over the bridge, before he hits the melody. And then, shades of B.A. Rolfe, Armstrong keeps going with the melody, playing the last eight bars an octave higher, killing every damn note of it, Shaw cheering him on in the background. My goodness, that band could swing!

I love that performance but relentless swing of the All Stars. Pops sounds amazing but of course, if you're looking for the octave-higher business, there's only the last 12 bars or so to satisfy you. But don't worry, Armstrong next--and final--recording of "When You're Smiling" would put every other performance of the tune, before and after, to shame.

Armstrong's final attempt at "When You're Smiling" came on December 12, 1956. It was recorded for the ambitious Musical Autobiography project for Decca, the end result being a four-LP set that found the mid-50s Armstrong recreating many of the tunes he originally made famous in the 1920s and early 30s. I've gushed about the Autobiography numerous times in the past and I'll probably never stop as I think it's the definitive look at Armstrong's trumpet playing abilities in the 1950s. He was in simply stunning form from the first session through the last, mainly thanks to a little strategy on the behalf of producer Milt Gabler. Gabler insisted that Joe Glaser not book Armstrong anywhere else in New York while Pops was doing this project. Gabler paid Glaser for the service, and even booked the sessions in the evening, when Armstrong's chops were most ready for an evening of blowing. Friends and family were invited, food and drink were served and by all accounts, it was a relaxed, truly special series of sessions. With such care and concern surrounding the dates, Armstrong responded with some of the greatest playing of his entire career.

Because of the conditions, it was an ideal chance for Armstrong to dig out "When You're Smiling" one final time. He could rest the chops before, rest them after, take a break, do whatever he had to do to get through this test of endurance one more time. The song was chosen to be second one recorded during the album's second session. The December 12 date led off with a swinging run-through on "Mahogany Hall Stomp," a piece the All Stars regularly played in 1956. Armstrong was familiar with it and knocked off his climactic three-chorus solo with ease.

Sufficiently warmed up, it was time for "When You're Smiling." Though the conditions were ideal, one small curveball threatened to make this performance a lot more difficult then it had to be: the tempo. Yes, at 120 beats per minute, the 1929 original was pretty slow. But for the 1956 remake, Armstrong and arranger Sy Oliver decided to up the ante...or is it lower the ante? Regardless, they dropped the tempo to an almost inhuman 88 beats per minute. 88 beats! That's fine for a resting heart rate, but for a song tempo? As Dan Morgenstern once wrote, this is "dangerous territory--to swing at this almost static pace takes some doing."

Fortunately, Armstrong was more than up to the challenge. The resulting four minutes of music, I think, constitute a high point for Armstrong's trumpet playing in the 50s...and that's saying a lot since it was a helluva decade for him and his chops. Enough from me, listen for yourself and just prepare to feel good about everything and anything:



Well, I'm emotionally knocked out...you? Where to begin? I guess at the beginning with Sy Oliver's reeds, mimicking the "Lombardo" saxes from the original. Trummy Young's obbligato is quite beautiful. After quietly clearing his throat, Armstrong enters his vocal with a righteous, relaxed scat-break. He still phrases the melody in his own way and still inserts all the bits of scatting in all the right places. By the final eight bars, it's simply joy personified. Armstrong's smile was arguably the greatest in show business and you can actually hear him smiling as he delivers the song's simple message. As warm a vocal as has ever been sung.

But that's just the appetizer; the main course is coming up and believe me, it's worth the wait. Billy Kyle's piano takes eight bars to allow Pops to get his lips in his horn. Once he's ready, well, good night nurse. Armstrong hits his first note at the 2:15 mark. The song is 4:03 long. It was tough enough work lasting the original 72 seconds in 1929. But lasting 108 seconds? With 55-year-old, battle-scarred lips? At 88 beats per minute?

Armstrong's trumpet enters with the exact same phrase he scatted as a lead-in to his vocal, but then it's melody time. Two giant quarter notes followed by an even bigger concert Ab, held and shook for all its worth. Oliver's reeds give him a sensuous cushion of harmony that just adds to the angelic feel of this performance (not even Gabriel could have blown anything so pretty). In the next eight bars, Armstrong now climbs higher to a Bb, again, holding it for an insane amount of time. That's the thing about a solo like this that some jazz fans, accustomed to strings of 16th notes chewing up the changes, might not get. Yes, it's quite a feat to play dozens of notes per bar. But this is something else. This is a test of endurance. This is high notes, held notes, gigantic notes, vibrato-filled notes. Each quarter note is worth more than any chorus of runs based on a lydian mode.

But back to the action. In between the strict melody playing, listen to Armstrong's asides, once again echoing his little scatted phrases. But it's still those held notes that take my breath away, such as towards the end of the second eight bars, when he hits a high G, hold it, plays it two more times, then hits again once more for good measure, holding it yet again. But the bridge is really where I begin to worry. I've heard this track about a thousand times but still there's that tension of "Is he going to make it?" After hitting multiple high Ab's and Bb's, it's the end of the bridge (corresponding to the lyrics "be happy again") where Armstrong finally makes high C. Once up there, he shows no quit, hitting it three more times going into the last eight bars.

And what bars they are. He's basically back to the melody by this point, but he's officially been up in the stratosphere for a minute-and-a-half. Trust me, I've listened to this track with world class head phones, looking for any evidence of a splice. There's nothing. This was all knocked off in four other-worldly minutes. Nearing the finish line, Armstrong pushes himself another step higher, hitting a high Db during the song's final phrase, "the whole world smiles with you." But he has one more trick up his sleeve; where the written melody makes those lyrics descend two notes at a time, Armstrong goes up one more time where the word "world," hitting a sickening Eb, the highest note of the solo. I mean, is this guy kidding or what?

Finally, it's time for the final two notes of the solo, "with you." On the second-to-last note, Armstrong plays a quick gliss to the high C. For me, it's his only teeny, tiny sign of tiring. He hit every other note square on the nose, but that last high C sounds like it needed a little push. Still, he hits it and safely lands at his final note, an Ab, not quite as high as some of the ones we've just heard, but still a freakishly high one to hit and hold after almost two minutes of pure chops-punishment. That last note, for me, is one of the great ones of Armstrong's entire career. Bravo, Pops...

Fortunately, the stars aligned beautifully to create that magical moment inside of Decca's New York studios that December day in 1956. But a piece like that required the absolute ideal circumstances, which Armstrong had for the Autobiography. It was too punishing a piece to be performed during a grueling evening with the All Stars, where Armstrong usually blew on about 95% of the songs performed each night (especially during that period). Thus, unless someone requested it with a tape recorder present, the 1956 masterpiece is the last surviving version of Louis Armstrong performing "When You're Smiling." What a way to go out!

Armstrong might have never played it again, but he was certainly proud of the Decca version. Dan Morgenstern remembered that when Armstrong was about to leave his Corona home to go on back on the road for another string of one-nighters with the All Stars, he'd blast the 1956 "When You're Smiling" to put him in the right frame of mind. Definitely something to be proud of. Even for me, it's the kind of performance that always puts me in the right frame of mind, too. No matter what's happening in my world, it's guaranteed to make me smile and marvel at our luck to have a performance like that to savor forever. Amazing stuff. I'm going to listen to it again....

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

When You're Smiling - The Early Versions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded September 11, 1929
Track Time 3:31
Written by Mark Fisher, Larry Shay and Joe Goodwin
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Homer Hobson, trumpet; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Bert Curry, Crawford Washington, alto saxophone; Carroll Dickerson, violin; Gene Anderson, piano, celeste; Mancy Carr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Zutty Singleton, drums; Carroll Dickerson, conductor, violin
Originally released on OKeh 41298
Currently available on CD: It's on the JSP disc Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Volume Four (as well as a thousand compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

The 1920s and 1930s were obviously a most fertile period in American popular song, with future standard after future standard being pumped out at almost alarming rates from the confines of Tin Pan Alley. I can sit here and about a thousand such songs, but in preparing for this blog, I began wondering to myself, are there any songs from that period as universally known as "When You're Smiling." Perhaps "Star Dust" still resonates, but I'm not sure if a great number of people under 30 know about Hoagy Carmichael's masterpiece. Yet Michael Buble has recorded "When You're Smiling" for the young nostalgists that make up his audience. It's still featured in movies and in television commercials. Traditional jazz bands play it, country groups have recorded it, it knocks 'em dead in senior citizen facilities (I know from experience). In the jazz world, it's been recorded musicians from Art Pepper and Lester Young to Lionel Hampton and the Dukes of Dixieland. New Jersey public access television legend Uncle Floyd Vivino uses it as his closing theme. So did Leadbelly. Judy Garland sang it at Carnegie Hall in 1961 and Rufus Wainwright recently sang it at his tribute to that event. Run 'em on down...Frank, Billie, Dean, Nat, Louie (Prima), Bing, they all lectured about the causes and effects of smiling vs. not smiling.

But it was Louis Armstrong who put the tune on the map with his epic recording of it 80 years ago. And it's his versions that have never been topped.

"When You're Smiling" was written in 1928 by the team of Mark Fisher, Larry Shay and Joe Goodwin. All three men were professional songwriters and frequent collaborators but as far as my exhaustive Internet search shows, they never came up with anything on the level of "When You're Smiling." Popularity level, I'm speaking of. As a song, "When You're Smiling" isn't exactly a revolutionary piece of art. The changes are basic, with a slip into minor during the bridge. The melody is a good example on how to take a four-note motive and drill it into the listener's head by shifting it around for 32 bars. The lyrics are simple and straightforward, with none of the wit or poetry associated with the finest Great American Songbook entries ("But Not For Me" it ain't).

But it works. The melody is simple and repetitive but it's catchy, something that most popular music still aspires to be. The
lyrics are easy to remember and come straight from the heart. They make you feel good. They make you smile. And in Louis Armstrong's ever-smiling voice, they make you positively beam.

Elsewhere on the Internet, I've seen people write that "When You're Smiling" was a cheer-up anthem of the Great Depression. Perhaps that's what it turned into but it was originally published in 1928, when everything was swinging. Even Armstrong's mellow, reflective version, was recorded over full month before Wall Street laid its egg. Thus, here's how it sounded as recorded by the Louisiana Rhythm Kings (a studio group usually led by Red Nichols but here, featuring many members of the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks):


Fun stuff, right? According to the Internet machine, the first major recorded version of "When You're Smiling" was done by our pal Seger Ellis, who hired Armstrong to back him up on three records earlier in 1929 (all of which I covered this past summer). I would love to hear what Ellis did with the tune but it's not up on YouTube, nor has it been issued on any CDs or in MP3 form (am I the only demanding Sony to open their Seger Ellis vaults?).

So let's skip the formalities for now and jump right in head first and listen to Armstrong's first, legendary recording of "When You're Smiling":



Smiling yet? That's the point! The first thing you'll hear is, though, might be a little jarring. If you're expecting a swinging big band, slashing high-hat cymbals, pulsating bass lines...you're going to be disappointed. Louis Armstrong might have invented the Swing Era but it took a while for the era to catch up to him. Thus, you'll hear crooning saxophones, a plinkling banjo and a plodding tuba. If you didn't know any better, you might as well be listening to Guy Lombardo.

And that, too, is the point. Jazz critics have been suicidal about the following point for 80 years now but I have to repeat it, even if the truth hurts: Louis Armstrong loved Guy Lombardo. Adored him. Said Lombardo was his "inspirator." I already covered this a bit in my last entry on Armstrong's only recorded meeting with Lombardo but it's on records like "When You're Smiling" where you REALLY hear the Lombardo influence, especially in the saxophone. It's pure melody and though it hasn't aged well over the decades, be sure that Armstrong himself was beaming in the studio while listening to the sweet sounds emanating from Carroll Dickerson's orchestra (that's Dickerson taking the bridge with his violin...Stuff Smith he ain't).

(If you don't know what I'm talking about, here's a later recording of Lombardo doing "When You're Smiling." Never mind the peppy tempo and corny melody, listen to that first chorus of melody...it's almost the same arrangement!)



After a minute of melody, a "boop-boop-a-doop" lick sets up Armstrong's delicious vocal. Listen to how Armstrong transforms the repetitive motive of the melody into something more genuine, something more warm. As written, the title phrase is an ascending one. But Armstrong comes in by singing the "When" and the "you" (he ALWAYS sang "when you smiling") on the same pitch before descending for the word smiling. And what does he do for the identical next line? He starts even higher before another descent. The next line? Even higher. It's almost as if he had the sheet music upside down or something. But my God does it work, right down to the "babe's" and quiet scatted asides. (And that's why Armstrong's still associated with the song...and I'm scouring the Internet for Seger Ellis records).

After the vocal, pianist Gene Anderson (Earl Hines's replacement in the Dickerson outfit) takes eight bars (little shaky) to allow Pops to get his chops together. And boy, are they together. It's one of Armstrong's most famous solos and he barely improvises a note on it. It's all melody but here's the rub: he plays it an octave higher than expected. It's startling from the beginning but the drama only grows as he goes on, especially into the bridge. "Is he gonna make it?" you might find yourself wondering. Well, as Armstrong liked to say, he had it in his pocket the whole time.

Armstrong's love of opera and his love of melody are really in the forefront here. The solo also has a very vocal quality. His only improvisations are the tossed off descending phrases after the main melody statements, exactly echoing his scatted asides during the vocal. But what it comes down to is a test of endurance, 72 seconds of upper register madness, with plenty of long, held notes, all done over a slowish tempo. Amazing.

So where did Armstrong come up with the idea of playing "When You're Smiling" an octave higher? From this man:


That's trumpet virtuoso B.A. Rolfe, a popular performer in the 1920s. Rolfe isn't very well known these days but he did make a series of records for Edison featuring a pretty hot dance band of the period. Rolfe wasn't a jazz player (though he was good with a mute), but he was definitely a virtuoso. There are plenty of examples of his playing on YouTube. Here's one, "Talking to the Moon":


Not bad, eh? Armstrong always delighted in telling the story of how he came to be inspired by Rolfe to include more forays into the upper register in his own playing. As the story goes, Armstrong saw Vincent Lopez's dance band with Rolfe featured on trumpet. Rolfe played a pop tune from 1915, "Shadowland," but the catch was he played it an octave higher than expected. Armstrong was blown away and responded by doing the same thing on "When You're Smiling."

It's a great story, but I can't do it justice. Here's Armstrong during a series of 1956 Voice of America interviews telling the story and even singing a bit of "Shadowland." (The VOA interviews featured Armstrong playing disc jockey, spinning some of his favorite records and tellings lots of priceless stories. Thus, you'll hear him open this clip by mentioning the record that just finished, Fletcher Henderson's "Mandy, Make Up Your Mind.")



Armstrong's insights into music are always fascinating; even the greatest of them all wasn't above from getting ideas from other ("I always wanted to hear the other fella"). I hoped and prayed that maybe Rolfe recorded some forgotten version of "Shadowland," but alas, it never happened. We already heard Armstrong sing a bit of it, but here's how it probably sounded when Armstrong heard Rolfe, in this version by the Castlewood Marimba Band:


Enough with "Shadowland," let's head back to September 11, 1929 for an alternate version of "When You're Smiling." Back then, record companies occasionally recorded non-vocal versions of tunes specifically for international audiences. Thus, the "When You're Smiling" alternate doesn't include Armstrong's glimmering vocal but what's in its place is just as exhilarating: a half chorus of Armstrong improvising on the trumpet. He doesn't knock himself out (probably saving himself for the grand finish), but it's a tour de force in how to develop a motif rhythmically. Armstrong comes up with one simple phrase and messes around with it for almost the entire solo. Remember what I said before about this record not swinging? I take it back. Armstrong's simplicity swings like mad, Zutty Singleton laying down a fat beat with his brushes. A wonderful interlude. Listen for yourself:


As you can also hear, Armstrong nails the high-note playing again at the end. Most trumpet players back then couldn't have played that solo twice in their lives, never mind twice back-to-back. But if you notice, the tempo is a shade faster, saving Armstrong about 13 seconds of chop-busting.

Well, Armstrong's "When You're Smiling" came out and soon became a bona fide hit with Pops becoming immediately associated with the tune. In fact, when Armstrong left OKeh and headed to Victor in 1932, one of the first things Victor did was have Armstrong record two medleys of hits. Naturally, "When You're Smiling" led off one of the medleys, though it's a vocal-only version that barely lasts a minute. But even without the trumpet playing, Armstrong's personality is through the roof. Enjoy 'When You're Smiling" but stay for "St. James Infirmary" and "Dinah" to really hear a genius in his prime:



On top of being a hit with the general public, Armstrong's treatment of "When You're Smiling" became all the rage with musicians. Here's trumpeter Taft Jordan discussing it in Stanley Dance's The World of Swing:

"Later on, I heard [Armstrong's] recording of 'When You're Smiling,' and every trumpet player around Norfolk tried to play that, but they'd begin petering out when they got around the last eight bars. The best of them even put out a rumor that Pops (Armstrong) was playing a special kind of trumpet, that it was the instrument and not the man."

Jordan continues by discussing an appearance Armstrong made in Norfolk soon after "When You're Smiling" caught on: "And he played and played. And people kept asking for 'When You're Smiling.' That was the big thing then. All the trumpet players around town were there, and I knew 'em all, but they didn't know me because I was still in the school band. They were all standing around with their horns, watching the way he fingered his. They thought it was probably not the same one he played 'When You're Smiling' on, but they kept asking him to play the song."

"'Okay,' he said. 'I'l play it for you later.' Well, right after intermission, they went into 'When You're Smiling, and the house as in an uproar. And just as suddenly it quieted down, because everybody wanted to hear this. After Louis got through singing it, the saxes came in for eight bars, and then he played, and they screamed again-and came right back down. Then he really got into playing 'When You're Smiling"! He had a great big Turkish towel around his neck, and perspiration was coming out like rain water. when he got to the last eight bars, he was getting stronger and stronger. Then he hit that top note and completed the tune."

Jordan then remembers the other trumpet players asking to see Armstrong's horn. After fingering scales on their instruments and Armstrong's, Jordan said, "It was all the same. It was no trick horn. It was just the man, the difference of the man."

"Nobody bothers with 'When You're Smiling' now," Jordan continued in this interview from 1971. All these high-note specialists, all these strong-lipped fellows--they jump over that. The feel Pops had on that tune, the way he delivered it....Even the fellows who played much higher than Pops ever recorded--and I've heard him play extremely high in practice--no one of them bothered with 'When You're Smiling' at that tempo. I've heard guys play it fast, but they're cheating it. Pops sang it, you know, on trumpet."

For the record, Jordan played Armstrong's "When You're Smiling" conception twice and "never cheated on it" but it became too grueling the second time around. "There was a physical thing involved. Pops was so powerful, and a little guy like me....I could do his other stuff,but when it came to something like that, it was too tough." K(eep that in mind when I cover Armstrong's 1956 version in the near future.)

If you're still with me (and God bless ya, if you are!), I'll close with a few treats: other recordings of the "When You're Smiling" from the period. First off, Armstrong's mentor, King Oliver. Oliver's chops were pretty much finished by this point but he knew how to hire good men to the job. In this case, it was Bubber Miley and Red Allen...nuff said. But listen to how similar the feel is to the Armstrong version, right down to the violin. And who is playing that violin? The same Carroll Dickerson who was leading the band for Armstrong's version! Also, the vocal by Frank Marvin is unintentionally hilarious. Speaking of unintentionally hilarious, listen to the last eight bars. There are three of the greatest trumpet players in jazz history, all surging with confidence that they might replicate Armstrong's high note ending. But once the going gets tough, they all head south! They're all playing different notes and though they end on an impressive high one, it's pretty funny to hear them approach Armstrong's heights only to back away screaming for their lives. Dig it:



For blatant Armstrong imitations, here's Duke Ellington's version, recorded in the beginning of 1930. Freddy Jenkins does a great job with the octave-higher stuff but notice that tempo is twice as fast...literally (Jenkins does in 35 seconds what Armstrong did in 72, and he muffs his final note). Here's Duke:



But the award for best Armstrong imitation has got to go to Lammar Wright for his work on Cab Calloway's version of May 21, 1936. Again, the tempo's faster than Armstrong's so Pops is still the champ but Wright nails it in every other way, including an Pops-ian coda:



And that ends this look at the early history of Louis Armstrong's relationship with "When You're Smiling." I made it a meaty entry because, these days, I don't know when I'll have the time to write again, so savor it until I come back. And you're not going to want to miss it because Armstrong's 1956 version of "When You're Smiling" is one of the great moments of his entire career. Til then!