Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Kickin' the Gong Around

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded January 5, 1932
Track Time 3:13
Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, clarinet, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drumsl; Joe “Little Joe” Lindsay, woodblocks, talk
Originally released on OKeh 41550
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

You know, it's almost March and I've spent the first two months of this year doing anniversary posts, revisits to older entire and other odds and ends without ever hitting the famed shuffle button on my Ipod, which was the whole reason for this blog back when I started it in 2007. So with a little free time this past weekend, I hit the shuffle button and as usual, Itunes picked a winner with this one, a fairly unheralded Armstrong performance of a tune normally associated with the great Cab Calloway.'

In 1931, Calloway was riding high off the popularity of "Minnie the Moocher," probably the greatest call-and-response song about drug addicts ever written. It only made sense for the sequels to be written. And in Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, Cab had a helluva team to drum up those future scenarios for Minnie and all the other cokies. Arlen and Koehler later presided over "Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day" but first up was "Kickin' the Gong Around," a slang term of the day for smoking opium. I thought maybe the Internet machine would perhaps give a little more background but all I could find was this from "The Mavens' Word of the Day" in 1998:

"Kick the gong around is first found in the late 1920s. It is based on the earlier (1915 or so) gong and gonger, both meaning 'an opium pipe'. The origin of these words is not clear; gong could be a shortening of gonger or the inspiration for it. It it not known whether gong is the same word as gong meaning 'a large bronze disk that produces a vibrant tone when struck', which is a borrowing from Malay or Javanese, presumably of imitative origin. Opium pipes do not have any disk-like parts, but the relationship (if any) could simply be that both gongs and opium are associated with East Asia."

Makes sense to me.

Anyway, Cab recorded the tune in late 1931 and got to immortalize it in the 1932 film The Big Broadcast. Here's the footage (dig Cab's dancing!):

Isn't that great? I love Cab; he was a helluva entertainer. Armstrong and Calloway didn't covery too many of the same tunes but on January 25, 1932, the executives at OKeh figured they'd try one of Cab's numbers on Pops to see how it fit. Before doing they, they threw another Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler number at Louis, "Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea." What Pops did with that song has justifiably been elevated to classic status for decades. "Kickin' the Gong Around" isn't exactly in that same immortal class but it's a lot of fun. Listen for yourself:


The recording comes out swinging right from the gate with an arranged introduction (Armstrong's reeds always had an unusual, if distinct, intonation), taking the piece at a faster trot than Calloway. Armstrong emerges from the ensemble with a big gliss that launches him into a poised break. Armstrong takes the melody, his reeds providing the responses, without changing it up too much, but I love the two-note riff he plays during the turnaround after the first eight bars, almost like a fanfare to call everyone's attention to what he's about to go down. In his next eight bars, he's more free with the melody and very sparing with his choice of notes.

A neat tricks occurs when Armstrong dips down to a rare low note and holds it right into the bridge, repeating it a few times for good effect. The bridge is very mellow except for the surprising break. From there, Armstrong turns on the heat, coming up with another clarion call of a riff that he hammers into the start of the vocal.

The vocal is a lot of fun but Armstrong seems to start singing it straight before he gets to the title of the song. At that point, he can't resist chuckling over the subject matter of the tune and uttering a hilarious "Ohhh, Lord." After the next eight bars, Armstrong instructs his band to "Double it up, Gate," which they do. Armstrong takes off on a dazzling scat interlude that is very much in tune with his trumpet conception, especially the break. Armstrong's joy continues through the end of the vocal, a fun one.

From there, Armstrong's trumpet section (aka Zilner Randolph)takes the lead during a somewhat dissonant interlude (Pops digs it, yelling out "Yeah" in the background). Louis rejoins the group for a modulation but for the most part sticks to playing with the band, poking his head out now and then to recast the melody where he sees fit. The whole trumpet solo comes to life during the bridge. Remember that low note Louis held the first time around? Well, now he uses the same concept, but this time with a high note. He swings mightily on some quarter notes and keep building upward to a thrillingly passionate end to the bridge. That bridge always, to me, foreshadows something he would have played in the 1940s or 50s, right?

The bridge is the highlight of the record but Louis still plays with authority until a cute arranged ending that finds him and the band creeping upward towards the finish line.

"Kickin' the Gong Around" might not be the greatest recording he ever made but it's still a good ol' good one for those two trumpet bridges and that contagious vocal. Ohhhh, lord, indeed!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If the jazz age were to happen now, instead of 80 years ago, it would be televised. Given that, I think the common appreciation for it would be immeasurably increased and the historic stature of such telegenic entertainers such as Cab would be greatly elevated. Hearing a record is one thing; seeing a an electric performance like those given by Calloway is another thing altogether.