Loyal readers, thanks for being patient with me during my recent disappearance. The book, the family, the job, some gigs, everything has put the blog on the back burner...along with e-mails, phone calls and other correspondence with the good people who try to contact me almost daily. I love you all and promise I'll catch up...as soon as I can breathe again!
But today's a good day for a little catchup because I'm off from work and the baby is sleeping. The major focus of this post will be the worth-the-wait DVD release of Louis Armstrong's 70th birthday tribute at the Newport Jazz Festival, but I want to cover a bunch of little matters, too, before I quit. But first, the DVD:
I think I speak on behalf of all Pops nuts when I say, it's about time! George Wein, the man behind the Newport Jazz Festival, had the cameras rolling that July day in 1970, capturing rehearsals, Armstrong's arrival and the main performances that took place that evening. He even filmed Armstrong in his den a few months later, talking about the entire event and his life. And since that day 40 (!) years ago, it's been nearly impossible to see this footage. A PBS special used a bunch of it in the 1970s, but that just whet the appetite for more. Occasionally, Wein has been able to screen it at places like Columbia University but was unable to do much more with it.
Personally, I had an edited copy of the material given to me by a German collector. It was great to see it, but every time Armstrong spoke, a narrator spoke over him in German! Thus, after so many years, it was beginning to look like this footage would never get to see the light of day.
But finally, in 2008, Albert Spevak reedited the footage and repackaged it as "Good Evening Ev'rybody," a 92-minute documentary that aired on some PBS stations across the United States. It never aired on mine so I was in the dark but finally, thanks to the magic of DVD, it's out. And boy, is it worth it...
Because Wein shot so much, some of it still ended up on the cutting room floor. That meant bad news for my pal Lars Edegran's New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra whose set was eliminated and not even mentioned on the disc. It could have at least been a bonus feature, right? And also, the day's events are slightly out of order, beginning with Louis rehearsing "Hello, Dolly" instead of his arrival and ending with a rehearsal of "What a Wonderful World," trying to cash in on the current popularity of that number. (I know the feeling...have you seen my book lately?)
But in between, it's pure magic. To some accustomed to seeing the larger-than-life Pops in performance, the skinny, gaunt figure you'll see in this film might be a little jarring. He had been off from performing for almost two years thanks to a variety of ailments and life-threatening illnesses. But by the time of (what he thought to be) his 70th birthday, the whole world was in the midst of a giant Armstrong lovefest. He made frequent appearances on television, recorded a major album in May and celebrated his birthday at the Shrine in Los Angeles and at Newport. After being derided by so many in the jazz world in the 1950s and 1960s, it must have been gratifying to see this outpouring of love and admiration so late in the game.
That love and admiration shines through in the other trumpeters featured in the film: Bobby Hackett, Dizzy Gillespie, Wild Bill Davison, Joe Newman, Ray Nance and Jimmy Owens. Each man got to blow for Pops and this DVD features their individual numbers virtually unedited (Dizzy loses his opening chorus of "Confessin'" and if each man played more than one song, those results didn't make it). But just seeing those five men on the same stage--along with trombonists Tyree Glenn and Benny Morton, pianist Dave McKenna, bassist Larry Ridley and drummer Oliver Jackson--is quite special. I've always loved Joe Newman but I sometimes make the mistake of forgetting about him. He blows the lights out on "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" and even takes the lead during the six-trumpet version of "Sleepy Time." And it's nice to see Pops's singing persona reflected in both Dizzy and Ray Nance's performances. Hearing Louis's comments on each man is a beautiful touch.
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band even gets an entire number to themselves, romping on "I Want a Little Girl" with Billie and De De Pierce, Jim Robinson, Willie Humphey, Captain John Handy, Allan Jaffe and Cie Frazier, one of the best editions of this group (I'm a sucker for Handy's alto playing). My mentor Lewis Porter was present and still talks about the power this group generated during their set. We're fortunate to hear some of it on this one (slightly edited) number and on "Bourbon Street Parade," which is located on the bonus features.
Mahalia Jackson even shows up for an explosive four-song set before she joins Pops for the finale, duetting on "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" (watch her feeding Louis the lines!) and "The Saints." Louis kept an eye on the rain and you can hear him rushing to get his numbers in because dammit, he had waited long enough out there and he wasn't about to lose that audience!
In addition to his own features--including a wonderfully swinging "Pennies From Heaven"--Armstrong can also be glimpsed at work during the rehearsal sequences, still smiling and swinging during the tunes, but also showing the seriousness with which he took his craft as he guides his fellow musicians through his routines. (Speaking of which, Armstrong's clarinetist Joe Muranyi is still rightly upset that the All Stars weren't called in for the occasion. They had just done a TV show with Louis in June and Pops sounded as proud as could be to have them back. At least they knew the routines and wouldn't have needed as much--if any!--rehearsal.) And on a personal note, I got a kick out of seeing Jack Bradley prowling around in the background with his camera as I just spent the week cataloging the photos that Bradley took of this occasion! Jack was everywhere...
The DVD also has some nice bonus features, including "The Story Behind the Film" and short featurettes on Preservation Hall and "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." The rehearsal of latter song contains the most drama of the entire event as Louis fought to keep it as his opener and I was originally dismayed when it was edited in the actual 92-minute film. Some more of the drama appears in "The Story Behind the Film" but it's not complete. Armstrong's rehearsal performance and the a capella version he sang at his home are in the "Sleepy Time" featurette. Got it? I know it sounds confusing but at least most of this important sequence made the DVD so that's all that matters. (Actually, Ken Burns did the finest job of telling this story in the tenth of final part of his jazz epic.)
In the end, if I was a critic, I'd give "Good Evening Ev'rybody" ten thousand stars. Click here to go to Amazon to order your copy NOW.
(And now that this has made it to DVD can Sony finally release Satchmo the Great on DVD???? Please?
Speaking of the Newport Jazz Festival, the good people at Wolfgang's Vault have continued sharing treasures from the Newport archives. I've mentioned them before as they have started streaming--for free--audio from mostly unissued sets from Newport's golden era. They finally got around to Pops last week, offering Armstrong's set at the 1960 festival. You can stream it for free but it doesn't cost much to download it for personal use. The Omega label released this set many years ago on CD and it's always been a personal favorite of mine. It's only 10 years prior to the 1970 tribute but what a difference those 10 years made! (Though like 1970, it was raining in 1960, too.)
Louis and the All Stars are in peak form, Pops sharing the stage with stalwarts Trummy Young, Barney Bigard (going through a reinvigorated period of blowing during his third tour of duty with Louis), Billy Kyle, Mort Herbert, Danny Barcelona and Velma Middleton. There are no surprises on the set list but as I often say, who cares? Just listen to it from start to finish and be amazed and how damn entertaining it is. It's perfectly paced, with instrumental burnups ("Indiana," "Ole Miss"), songs from films ("Now You Has Jazz," "High Society Calypso"), Armstrong's big hits ("Mack the Knife," "Blueberry Hill"), features for the sidemen ("Girl of My Dreams," "C Jam Blues") and two riveting duets with Middleton ("St. Louis Blues" and "Ko Ko Mo"). The Armstrong horn is in glorious form--listen to that "Ko Ko Mo" solo!--and he proves that his mind was still sharp as a tack. Listen in "St. Louis Blues" as Louis quotes the "every time it rains, it rains" line from "Pennies From Heaven," a humorous comment on the pouring weather!
It's a perfect little set by the band. If you're the type who says, "Ho hum, it's the same songs Louis played every night," let me point out that this was a one set festival appearance. Most evenings Armstrong played two sets and in the months before and after Newport 1960, he dug out numbers such as "Back O'Town Blues," "Muskrat Ramble," "Black and Blue," "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," "The Faithful Hussar," "Bill Bailey," "West End Blues," "Basin Street Blues," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and more. So don't underestimate the size of the All Stars's bandbook, just enjoy the music. Click hereto go to Wolfgang's Vault to listen to the set. And Wolfgang, while your at it, let's hear Pops's complete sets from 1955, 57 and 58, okay? Thanks!
I mentioned the Preservation Hall Jazz Band earlier. On the "Good Evening Ev'rybody" DVD, Louis himself can be heard extolling their virtues. Personally, the PHJB should get almost equal billing to Pops in starting my interest in jazz. In the summer between eighth and ninth grade, I was going through a Woody Allen phase (I didn't have many friends) and fell in love with the soundtrack to the 1973 film "Sleeper." When I saw that the music was done by the Preservation Hall band, I went out and bought one of their cassettes and loved the hell out of it. A couple of months later, in August 1995, they came to Atlantic City, where I went to see them with my parents and grandparents. It was my first live jazz concert and I bought it hook, line and sinker: the ensembles, the hand clapping, the "Saints," the marching around the theatre, you name it. I needed to hear more of this stuff.
At the same time, I was going through a Jimmy Stewart phase (I told you I didn't have many friends, didn't I?) so I rented The Glenn Miller Story. Well, when I saw Armstrong do "Basin Street Blues," I connected it with the Preservation Hall sound. But Louis's sheer personality completely won me over and I've never been the same since. And though my interests in jazz kept evolving through swing, bop, Coltrane and all, I still kept coming back to Louis...and to Preservation Hall. Even with all those early legends dying off, I still would purchase their new CDs and catch them when they came to Jersey. And it was a thrill of thrills to actually visit Preservation Hall and see them in action during the Satchmo Summerfest the past two years.
Thus, it's with great regret that I have to write to criticize part of their latest release, "Preservation," a disc of all-star collaborations. And on "Rockin' Chair," who is the all-star they decided to collaborate with? None other than Pops himself. Oy. First off...."Rockin' Chair"? A vocal that relies on two people? They used Louis's vocal from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (not 1962 as they're claiming) but they edited out Jack Teagarden's responses so it's just Louis. In the "Rockin' Chair" routine (which I blogged about in December), Pops would do the responses in the first chorus and sing lead the second time around. For the "Preservation" disc, they edited together some of Pops's leads and his responses to make it sound coherent but at times, especially during the bridge, it sounds like he's talking to himself. The "year-and-a-half" line makes no sense without Teagarden's setup!
The end result isn't as bad as Kenny G doing "What a Wonderful World" but I'd rather let sleeping jazz musicians lie. Besides, on their other recent recordings, the PHJB has done original takes on Louis standbys such as "Heebie Jeebies" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," bringing them up-to-date through the vocals of Carl LeBlan and Clint Maedgan respectively. But carving out the voice of Pops--on "Rockin' Chair" of all things!--is just silly (though trumpeter Mark Braud plays well, as usual). To see an NPR story on the song with a link to listen to it, click here.
To wrap everything up, George Wein is still going strong these days and is planning on bringing more great jazz to New York City this summer with his upcoming CareFusion Jazz Festival. For those who can make it, the fest will feature a can't-miss evening of live music as David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band will be performing in the garden of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens. And it's only $15! Yes, I work for the House Museum but even if I didn't, it's an event I wouldn't be able to stop talking about. Tickets go on sale in March. Purchase information will be available through the Armstrong House website, which be found in my list of links or by clicking here
And speaking of David Ostwald's group, I recently headed to Birdland, where they perform every Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. (this is their tenth year!). I brought along my Flip camera and captured two performances by this edition of the group, featuring Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, Anat Cohen on clarinet, Jim Fryer on trombone, Ehud Asherie on piano, Marion Felder on drums and Ostwald on tuba. The video quality isn't ideal (no tripod, bad lighting) but the sound comes through nicely. Here's "Indiana":
And "St. James Infirmary":
Okay, well that's I think five posts for the price of none so I'll quit while I'm ahead. Quickly though, my friend and fellow blogger Michael Johnston wrote to me last weekend to share an article that announced that Blogger--my host--pulled the plug on ten popular music blogs because they shared MP3s of music. All I could say was....yikes. Fortunately, I don't actually allow anyone to download the music, I just stream it. Also, I get as many hits in a year as some of those sites probably get in a day so I think I'm flying under the radar. But in case I disappear, don't worry, everything's been saved and I'll make to pop up somewhere (though possibly sans music). Stay tuned....I hope!