On January 17, 1945--65 years ago last weekend--Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet locked horns for the last time. If you've been following this series, you know the story: the two geniuses took part in two historic slugfests on the tune "Cake Walkin' Babies from Home" in the mid-20s, creating spectacular fireworks with their competitive playing. When they reunited in 1940 for a small group session on Decca, they were different men. Armstrong was the star and was determined to dominate, a role Bechet was often accustomed to, leading to a bit of friction. They still turned in two very exciting takes of "Down in Honky Tonk Town," but Bechet was unhappy with the results, blaming Armstrong for turning it into a "bucking" contest.
Five years later, the two tangled for the last time. Like some boxing trilogies, the third contest was a bit ugly and anticlimactic--think of the foul-filled Pep-Saddler fights or think of Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran boring people to tears in 1989. Still, it's worth listening to as an example of egos in action and as evidence that sometimes the most star-powered "super groups" in the world can provide disappointing music when the members don't play nice.
Esquire magazine was a major friend to the 1940s jazz scene. Their annual awards were usually celebrated by all-star studio recordings while in 1944 and 1945, they slapped their name on two extravaganza concerts. The 1944 Metropolitan Opera House featured a dream band of Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford and Sid Catlett, with vocals by Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey (ho hum). It was a marvelous night though Armstrong was plagued by kidney stones and a pain in the neck--the latter being in the form of Roy Eldridge, who tried his best to lure Armstrong into a cutting contest by consistently taking exhibitionistic solos throughout the evening. Even with that--which led to Armstrong getting some negative reviews--it was still a successful night and the music holds up well today.
The following year Esquire decided to throw another concert, this time going all out by making it a three-city extravaganza: Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, Benny Goodman in New York and Duke Ellington in Los Angeles, along with small groups and celebrities such as Jack Benny and Danny Kaye.
By this point, the moldy fig movement was turning into an uprising (notice, no full-on bop was played at either concert). Armstrong was still toting his big band around, which made the purists ill. Thus, there were big expectations of putting Armstrong back in his hometown fronting a small group with the dream team front line of Pops, Bechet and J.C. Higginbotham and a dynamite rhythm section of James P. Johnson, Richard Alexis and Paul Barbarin. What would go wrong?
Obviously, everything. As discussed last time, Armstrong had no patience with Bechet's dominating ways, leading him to blow with fury as to not allow Bechet a chance to take over, annoying Bechet in the process. Well, it was more of the same in 1945 and this time the ugliness reared its head at the rehearsal. According to John Chilton's essential Bechet biography, "Other musicians (including Alphonse Picou and Henry Allen, Sr.), who were seated in the auditorium during the run-through, observed that Armstrong became very angry and showed this by yelling at Sidney, 'I ain't gonna have no two leads in my band.' thereafter the trumpeter played as though he was determined not to give Bechet any room to manoeuvre."
Chilton wasn't kidding. At the concert, Armstrong and Bechet teamed up for "Back O'Town Blues," "Confessin'," "Dear Old Southland" and "Basin Street Blues." Would you believe that on all four numbers, Bechet takes ZERO solos???
The closest Bechet came to taking a solo was on the opening number, "Back O'Town Blues." On paper, the front line of Armstrong, Bechet and Higgy sounds like something to drool over. But just listen to the first ensemble chorus and prepare to grimace. Bechet starts off low for a second, but immediately jumps into his upper register, determined to make his presence felt. And Higgy, God bless him, sounds like he had too much to drink. Armstrong loved Higgy but his playing is all elbows. Armstrong keeps his lead up front, not allowing anyone to take over, but the result is like listening to three people trying to shout over each other.
After this collision course, Armstrong sings his fun vocal on the tune, with Higgy and Bechet still trying to chew the scenery in the background. But listen closely to the cruelest moment, though it's kind of funny in a sadistic way. Armstrong finishes his vocal and Bechet immediately swoops in with a dramatic high note. "This is my moment," he seems to be saying, ready to take over...until Armstrong--in a record-breaking display of getting his chops in his horn--swarms in and takes over the closing ensemble. Higgy and Bechet put up a brave fight but Armstrong smotes them both with a perfect punch: a searing high Eb that he usually didn't go for on this piece. No one could touch Pops when he played angry...
Listen to the blow-by-blow yourself:
After James P. Johnson restored order with a stroll through the "Arkansas Blues" it was time to feature Armstrong once again, this time on "Confessin'," one of his great ballad showpieces. This time, Higgy and Bechet behave themselves in the first chorus, allowing Armstrong to have the spotlight to play the melody (maybe he beat them into submission during "Back O'Town"). Higgy takes an out-of-this-world break before Pops croons the melody beautifully as usual. Armstrong then instructs Higginbotham to take eight bars but even during this brief solo, Armstrong starts turning up the volume on his backing, making sure Bechet doesn't get a word in. Then it's Armstrong's turn for 16 spectacular bars topped off by an absolutely stunning break. The crowd cheers wildly and Armstrong, carried away a bit, continues playing for a second until he realizes it's time to close the number out on a break. The only person not impressed? Bechet, who, immediately after the break plays perhaps the most demeaning note in jazz history. It's a sarcastic little moan that seems to say, "Oh wow, that's SOOO impressive...big deal!" Makes me laugh every time. Still, he can't steal Armstrong's thunder. What a feature! Here 'tis:
Next up, "Dear Old Southland," a number identified with both Pops and Bechet. So who would come out on top this time around? Alas, the answer is Higgy, who uses it as his feature. Finally, the two main combatants play nice and back J.C. with some light riffs, though Higgy still sounds like he's having an off night. No need to share this one.
Finally, a little treat, as old Bunk Johnson was dusted off to join in with Pops for a few choruses of "Basin Street Blues." Unfortunately, it's too short but it's still a fascinating glimpse at the different sounds of two of New Orleans's best-known hornmen. Here's the audio:
Bechet was completely stifled, shut out in the solo department. However, he managed to fix his sights on Johnson, with whom he'd team up with for an engagement soon thereafter. Bechet treated Johnson as a sparring partner, completely dominating him until Bunk quit the gig.
As for Pops, there was no quit in him. There was some messy music played that night in New Orleans but Armstrong's ego and temper instilled his playing with quite a bit of heat. He definitely won this one by knockout.
Though Bechet lived for 14 more years, his path never again crossed with Louis. Bechet was supposed to perform at Armstrong's famed Town Hall concert but at the last minute, he called out sick (though witnesses said he spent the night playing with Max Kaminsky at Jimmy Ryan's). 10 years later, Bechet was expected to fly to America to take part in Armstrong's 1957 birthday celebration at the Newport Jazz Festvial but that fell through, too.
In the end, for all their combativeness, Armstrong and Bechet did have respect for each other. Bechet, after knocking the 1940 Decca sessions, spent some time praising Armstrong's ability as a "musicianer" in his autobiography. Armstrong played at Bechet's memorial concert at Carnegie Hall and during a 1956 Voice of America interview, named Bechet's Blue Note recording of "Summertime" as one of his personal favorites. So all might have ended well, but it's those dramatic moments they spent together on stage and in the studio that will truly live forever. Not all of the music produced was of A+ quality but the inherent edge in their collaboration always made for fascinating listening.
Boxing had Ali and Frazier. Jazz has Armstrong and Bechet.