Wednesday, April 28, 2010

You're Just a No Account

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 18, 1939
Track Time 2:52
Written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2934
Currently available on CD: It's on Mosaic Records's boxed set of Louis's complete 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a few different compilations, including Thanks a Million.

Welcome back to the second and final part of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday Take On Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, December 1939. Last Friday, we listened to Louis's fantastic "You're a Lucky Guy," with its sweating, strutting tempo, as well as Billie Holiday's fine, if a little bland, recording of the same tune. During the same five-day period, Armstrong and Holiday also recorded "You're Just a No Account," so let's give it a whirl.

This was written for the same Cotton Club Revue as "You're a Lucky Guy." Because it was an all-black revue and because this song is nothing but a listing of another person's lazy traits, it has been called "racist bile" by Michael Brooks. I'm not going to argue that this is "Star Dust," nor a social commentary like "Strange Fruit," but I will call for a time out to let cooler heads prevail. Yes, we're treading on stereotypical waters but at the same time, lazy is lazy, black or white. These types of songs were somewhat common during the era (see "Lazybones," "Loafin' Time" and others). Some of these songs do make for some cringe-inducing moments but I've never felt that way about "You're Just a No Account" because of who's doing the singing: Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday were not for one minute lazy people. And to Louis, laziness was just about the worst trait a human being could have. Right up until his final television appearance on "The Tonight Show" in 1971, Louis was quick to impart the wisdom that "The Lord helps the poor, but not the poor and lazy." So a song sung by Louis Armstrong chastising someone else for being a "no account"? Makes sense to me!

Having said that, the lyrics still aren't Shakespearean. And while we're at it, the melody's not exactly timeless either. In fact, there isn't much melody at all, causing Louis to kind of talk-sing his vocal at points. For these reasons, "You're Just a No Account" pretty much died in 1939 (cause of death: lazy songwriting). But to me, Louis and Billie's versions have withstood the test of time and in the end, that's saying a helluva lot.

So let's listen to Pops first, shall we?

I've always enjoyed the introduction to this record for the glory of Sid Catlett's dancing drums; he's putting on a clinic back there, killing himself over an introduction! Gotta love it. Then Pops takes the vocal, really selling it, relying on his prodigious gifts as an actor. He's full of good humor and gentle kidding throughout his outing, enhancing Cahn's lyrics more than they deserved to be. But after a brief trombone interlude (someone's a little off or out of tune), Pops picks up the trumpet, which is always good news. But even better news? There's about 90 seconds of the record left and it's all Louis! (Those were the days, huh? Nowadays, most trumpeters need take five choruses to just warm up, never mind making an epic statement in under two minutes.)

I'll admit, I've always found the herky-jerky, sing-song nature of the first part of this solo to be very fine, but not quite as polished as what we're used to hearing from Pops, especially during this period. As I said earlier, there's not much melodic meat to the tune and he sounds like he's searching for one to sink his teeth into. What he improvises is melodic and full of tricky rhythms but there's a very brief fluff or two as it just sounds like he could have used perhaps one more run-through to iron it out. Nevertheless, it's still a swinging half-chorus, no doubt enhanced by Big Sid's fat hi-hat playing.

But on second thought, this take was probably more than good enough because what happens during the final minute is enough to make a grown man weep (grown man = me). For me, the glory starts at the 2:05 mark. The band swarms in and sounds like they're about to take over but Pops isn't finished. He floats over them, much more relaxed than he was just seconds earlier, before inserting the most ingenious quote of "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" imaginable. It fits like a glove and always sticks in my head long after the record ends.

After this passionate moment, Pops takes the tune into the gutter for its built-in, bluesy final section. Catlett, too, gets in the groove by laying down some thick press rolls, inspiring PLouis's march towards the finish line. And what a finish it is! You can feel the intensity, the drama, the feeling that something big is about to happen as Louis approaches the final bars of the tune. By this point, it's a given that the record is going to end on a high note, since that's what almost all of his Decca recordings did in this period. But nothing really prepares me for the superhuman feat of strength that occurs: six, count 'em, six gorgeous high concert C's, each one held for a full four beats. Hitting one of those must have been difficult enough. Hitting one and holding it four three or four seconds isn't exactly a piece of cake either. But Pops hits six in a row with the clearest tone one could ever attain up in the stratosphere like that.

But he's not finished yet! After the six high C's, he builds higher, hitting and holding a D before ending the recording with a freakish high E! If you listen closely, he almost loses that E, as it faintly cracks for a millisecond. But he recovers and keeps it going until the last kick of Catlett's bass drum. Oh, the beauty, the endurance, the wonder of it all. No wonder Pops didn't make another take of that one...he probably needed to lay down for a few minutes! (Though honestly, he was back in fighting form on the next and final track recorded that day, "Bye and Bye," which I blogged about in November 2008...dig it!)

The Billie Holiday recording of "You're Just a No Account" doesn't feature any similar grandeur but I find it more satisfying than her take of "You're a Lucky Guy." She seems to put a little more into her vocal; I just love the way she sings the opening reading of the titular phrase. She's full of the same loving spirit as Louis; neither sound trapped by "racist bile" in these lyrics. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself; here's Billie:

Isn't that a great vocal? Billie's followed by another great trumpet/drum combination as Buck Clayton takes a dramatic solo backed by some very emphatic accents from Papa Jo Jones. Lester Young takes the bridge sounding supremely relaxed; oh, if only he could have taken a full chorus. Instead, Billie comes back and finishes the tune with a vocal reprise, nothing to complain about. In fact, I don't anyone else could have made the lyrics, "We've got machines to do, the work for you," sound so sexy (I don't think any bosses have played this record while downsizing their staffs). Towards the end, Billie boils the melody down to a single pitch, very Pops-inspired. Great stuff.

So that ends our little look at Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday's recordings of "You're a Lucky Guy" and "You're Just a No Account." I hope you enjoyed it. In a perfect world, with free time (har har har), I'd like to celebrate the 60th anniversary of "New Orleans Function," which was recorded this week in 1950. Hopefully, I can pump something out on the subject this weekend. And next Tuesday, May 4 will mark the 80th anniversary of Louis's first recordings of "Dinah" and "Tiger Rag." Again, if I had the time, I'd do in-depth studies of Louis's history with both pieces, but that's not going to happen right away. So I'll put it up to a vote: leave a comment or send me an e-mail and whichever tunes gathers more interest, I'll blog about. Til then!

Friday, April 23, 2010

You're a Lucky Guy

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 18, 1939
Track Time 3:17
Written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2934
Currently available on CD: It's on Mosaic Records's boxed set of Louis's complete 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a few different compilations, including The Ultimate Collection.

After another whirlwind week left me blogless, I decided to spin the ol' Itunes shuffle at the first glimpse of spare time. It landed, as it usually does, on a winner: "You're a Lucky Guy," a classic Decca recording from 1939. Written by the team of Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, it was recorded the same day as another Kahn-Chaplin opus, "You're Just a No Account." For me, the two tunes have always been associated: recorded the same day, both written by Cahn and Chaplin, featuring the word "You're" in the title, etc. But there's also one more thing that I always think of when I think of these two tunes: they were also recorded by Billie Holiday five days earlier.

Thus, I figured why not start a two-part post, Armstrong and Holiday take on Cahn and Chaplin? Pops and Holiday had a mutual appreciation society and when you couple their transcendent singing with stellar musicians such as Buck Clayton, Lester Young, Sid Catlett and J.C. Higginbotham, well, how can you really lose?

Both songs were written for the sixth edition of the "Cotton Club Parade." If you've been with me for a while, you might remember that the same writers were responsible for "Shoe Shine Boy" from an earlier Cotton Club revue. Some listeners are probably offended immediately at the notion of two white songwriters writing supposedly demeaning material as "Shoe Shine Boy" and "You're Just a No Account" to by performed in all-black revues. Michael Brooks, for one, is positively apoplectic in his liner notes to a Billie Holiday boxed set when discussing these tunes, calling them "racist bile." I'm not exactly going to nominate these works for NAACP awards but in the end, as the old saying goes, it ain't the meat, it's the motion. Hearing Louis's warm, loving "Shoe Shine Boy" vocal, hearing sassy Billie chide someone for being "Just a No Account," hearing both of these artists express their happiness for some "Lucky Guy"....I don't know, to me, they transcend anything demeaning in the lyrics. And as I stated above, once Louis and Pres and Buck and that crew pick up their horns, I'm sorry, but Mr. Cahn's lyrics become immediately forgotten.

Because this is a Louis blog, I have to start with Pops's take, though it was recorded days after Billie's version. This was Louis's revamped big band after Joe Garland and Sid Catlett joined earlier in 1939. Garland's arrangements were a step above some of those stocks Armstrong's band used to play, while Catlett's drumming proved to be an ideal fit with Louis's playing (though his predecessor Paul Barbarin was no slouch either). After re-recording "Poor Old Joe" (something I blogged about many moons ago), Louis took a stab at "You're a Lucky Guy." Here's how it came out:

After the tempo-setting introduction (the reeds remind me of a Cab Calloway record), Louis starts right in with the vocal, sounding effervescent as usual (listen to Pops Foster's throbbing bass behind him...where has that sound gone?). Pops clearly digs the tune, as he righteously changes the melody in a lowdown way during the second eight bars, going down where the written melody went up. There's not much to the tune's bridge, so there's plenty of spaces to admire Garland's arrangement, as well as Catlett's throbbing hi-hat. And Louis sounds like he's having a pretty raspy day, huh? Either way, he again rephrases the melody during the last eight bars (it's an improvement). He really emotes towards the end, having a ball, but he's just warming up.

A sort-of dramatic interlude, with the reeds holding a trill, sets up an absolutely transcendent moment. On a break, Pops makes one of his terrific trumpet entrances, aided wonderfully by Catlett, each man pumping out three perfectly placed, perfectly swinging quarter-notes. Almost immediately, you might find yourself wondering, "Gee, this sounds kind of high. Maybe they should have modulated into a lower key?" Well, throw that out your mind, as Pops would later sing. This is 1939 Louis, aka Superman, so let him do his thing. He sticks closely to the melody but listen carefully to what Dan Morgenstern has called his "asides," those little phrases in between the bits of melody where it sounds like Louis is playing his own accompaniment.

Louis keeps pounding away, his tone absolutely gorgeous in the high register. As he approaches the bridge, one might expect him to pass the ball to another soloist...but not on that day. The arrangement turns on the heat (with Catlett stoking the flames) as Louis's unique, off-kilter lines must have given the great trumpeter Henry "Red" Allen some ideas (Allen was in the trumpet section). Louis even manages to squeeze in a quote from "Drdla Souvenir," as we heard last week with "Indian Love Call" (hmmm, now I have something new to listen for; when was the first time Louis quoted this melody?). With Catlett really pouring it on, an inspired Louis continues his flight into the final A section, still alternating gorgeous, unchanged melody with those little improvised fills (it's like he's playing an imaginary arrangement for the backup band in his head). This last section is filled with some repeated high concert Bb's, and even one high C, all featuring that impossibly plump tone.

At this point, the band starts shouting as Catlett works his snare drum over, setting up a quick trumpet tag by Louis. This leads to a neat unaccompanied, Louis-like interlude by the great trombonist J.C. Higginbotham, allowing Louis to approach the microphone for one last vocal reprise. Louis's personality shines as he half-talks his little rap (and as Morgenstern has pointed out, with its references to playing the numbers and such, this part was probably Louis's brainchild). The ending is triumphant, Catlett playing an exciting fill setting up Louis's final declamatory statement of this fellow's luckiness, the band glissing to a final high note as a means of punctuation. Dramatic, heart-pounding, inspiring music.

So now, let's backtrack and here what Billie Holiday did with this same tune just five days prior. With her, the usual no-names: Buck Clayton, Harry "Sweets" Edison, trumpet; Earl Warren; alto saxophone; Lester Young, tenor saxophone; Jack Washington alto and baritone saxophone; Joe Sullivan, piano; Freddie Green, guitar; Walter Page, bass; Jo Jones, drums. Geez, what a band! It's more-or-less a scaled down Basie band with the great Joe Sullivan subbing for the Count. Anyway, here's Billie's take:

Nice stuff, though I'll admit, the Armstrong version makes my heart pound a little more. I know some of you will cry out that I'm biased, but understand that Billie is on my musical Mount Rushmore and like Pops, I'm proud of my just-about-complete Itunes playlist of 712 Holiday tunes. But on the Louis version, Louis clearly felt the song and almost immediately began soulfully rephrasing the melody. Billie sings it well but, as a master of rephrasing herself, doesn't add much to it. For me, I love the sound of Jo Jones's hi-hat, Joe Sullivan's piano playing behind the vocal, the trumpet solo by Sweets Edison (some have written that this is Buck but it sure sounds like Sweets to me) and of course, a short offering by Lester, another off my immortals. Pres's offering is the highlight for me--dig how he returns to the melody a couple of times, a la Pops. Billie's vocal reprise is very fine, but again, not much in the goose pimple department. It's interesting how the tempo of the Holiday version is quicker than Louis's but to me, Louis's generates much more heat and drama. Agree? Disagree? Talk amongst yourselves and come back in a couple of days for "You're Just a No Account." Til then!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Indian Love Call

Louis Armstrong And Gordon Jenkins And His Orchestra
Recorded November 28, 1951
Track Time 3:12
Written by Rudolf Friml, Herbert Stothart, Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Chris Griffin, George Thow, Bruce Hudson, trumpet; Eddie Miller, Dent Eckels, tenor saxophone; Charles LaVere, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Phil Stephens, bass; Nick Fatool, drums; Unknown strings, Gordon Jenkins (arranger, conductor)
Originally released on Decca 28076
Currently available on CD: It's on Satchmo In Style.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on something called "Classic Song Book, Vol. 4."

Man, do I love writing this blog. One great thing about writing about Louis Armstrong is the unpredictability of the Armstrong songbook. Just glancing over my last couple of months of postings, I've written about a pop song based on two spirituals ("Dear Old Southland"), some timeless standards ("Pennies From Heaven," "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket"), a lesser known Hot Five number ("Irish Black Blottom"), a forgotten 1930s pop tune ("So Little Time"), a Cab Calloway hit about opium ("Kickin' the Gong Around"), a Fats Waller ballad ("Blue Turning Grey Over You") and some things that have been done to death ("When the Saints Go Marchin' In") and ABOUT death ("St. James Infirmary"). The fact that Louis recorded such different types of songs--and always managed to leave his imprint--is something I feel should be celebrated (hence, the blog).

Thus, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to learn that Louis recorded "Indian Love Call" for Decca in 1951. Many hardened jazz buffs started preaching about The Tragedy of Louis Armstrong as soon as he began recording pop tunes in the late 1920s. I feel bad for those people. But those pop recordings of the late 20s and early 30s have still been regarded as classics. Louis's next batch of big band sides, recorded for Decca between 1935 and 1946, have long been favorites of the Armstrong "in crowd," but they've pretty much been glossed over by the jazz press for decades, something that's finally changed a bit thanks to Mosaic Records's essential box set of this music, released last year.

But Louis's pop records of the 1950s have continued flying under the radar since their original waxing. Not all of them, of course; the ones that struck it big, remain popular: "Blueberry Hill," "La Vie En Rose," "I Get Ideas," "A Kiss To Build A Dream On," etc. But a lot of other stuff--covers of Patti Page and Tony Bennett hits--has always kind of made the jazz world shudder with mild embarrassment. "Poor Pops," they lament, "Recording 'It Takes Two To Tango' and 'Ko Ko Mo' when he should have been making the next 'West End Blues!'"

But as anyone who has read my blog for any period of time probably knows, I love, love, love Armstrong's Decca output. For one thing, Armstrong always sang every single song Decca handed him with tremendous sincerity. He didn't lampoon this material a la Fats Waller. He "saw the life" of everything he was handed and always managed to create special vocal moments. But the! The Decca studios already brought something magical out in Louis's horn work in the 1950s and anyone who ignores the pop records, really is ignoring some wonderful trumpet work.

Milt Gabler, Armstrong's Decca producer, threw all sorts of arrangers at Louis during these years: Sy Oliver, Jack Pleiss, Tutti Camaratta, Benny Carter, Bob Haggart. But one man loved Louis more than all the others and worked remarkably hard at creating perfect frameworks for his art. That man was also one of the most popular arrangers of the time and because of that, as his sentimental string sound, much of his work with Armstrong has been dismissed as commercial pap. Of course, I'm talking about Gordon Jenkins.

When Gabler first teamed Jenkins and Louis together in 1949, Jenkins was on the top of the music world, arranging, conducting and sometimes even writing numerous popular hits. Louis was also riding high (higher than some might want you to believe), with a remarkably popular live touring unit and numerous appearances on television and radio (not to mention the cover of "Time" magazine) under his belt. But one thing Louis hadn't had in years was a hit record and the Jenkins-arranged coupling of "Blueberry Hill" and "That Lucky Old Sun" gave him just that.

Louis might have been thrilled with the success of the record but Jenkins was the really in awe of just getting the opportunity to work with his idol. Gabler remembered Jenkins crying before the first session they did together, so overwhelmed was he. Naturally, Gabler would continue to go to the well a few more times in the ensuing years, throwing all sorts of odd material at the combination: popular songs ("It's All in the Game"), jazz classics ("Bye and Bye"), Louis specialties ("Butter and Egg Man"), showtunes ("You're Just in Love"), Christmas songs ("Winter Wonderland") and more.

But the real oddball choices usually revolved around ancient themes such as "Jeannine (I Dream of Lilac Time)," "Trees," "Listen to the Mocking Bird," "Chlo-E" and today's song, "Indian Love Call." These were not hit recordings of the 1950s and I don't think much of the listening public was clamoring for these tunes to be remade. Thus, I have no idea how they were chosen, but I'm not complaining. They're all sort of quaint tunes with very pretty melodies. Louis, a man who truly listened to ALL kinds of music, not just jazz, quickly found affection for all of these relics as he brought a warmth and sincerity to his performances of each of them. Again, to those who see the material and hear Jenkins's signature arranging hallmarks and immediately frown, I'm sorry, but you're missing some really beautiful music.

"Indian Love Call" was written at Armstrong and Jenkins's third Decca session. Interestingly, it was the first to feature Jenkins's famed string section. Their first date relied heavily on voices while their second pairing used a standard big band instrumentation. But on November 28, 1951, Jenkins brought out the strings in full force.

He also brought out the old songs: "It's All In The Game" (1911), "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" (1931), "Jeannine" (1928) and "Indian Love Call" (1924). "Indian Love Call" was written for the Broadway operetta "Rose Marie," which wa eventually turned into a film...and then another...then another....then one more (four filmed versions in all). Of couse, to loes of old pop culture, just the mere mention of the song title should conjure up images of Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. And thanks to the glory of YouTube, here are those images, from the 1936 film version of "Rose Marie":

Now, if you just watched that and wondered, "How the hell could that possibly make for a good Louis Armstrong record?" have no fear. Without further ado, here's the original Decca recording of "Indian Love Call":

As can be seen immediately, the solution for making it palatable for Pops was to just plain swing it. The opening duet between Armstrong's muted trumpet and Nick Fatool's drums is pretty great, setting the stage for Jenkins's strings to play the melody as only they can. Pops plays perfect fills around it, getting off his favorite quote of Vasa Prihoda's "Drdla Souvenir" in his second fill. Then another Jenkins trademark, and something of a pop music cliche from this period, as pianist Charles LaVere plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than normal (more on this in a bit). A nice touch in the arrangement occurs when the strings sweep back in to play the melody over a stiff two-beat rhythm. As the chorus approaches its ending and Armstrong gets ready to make his vocal entrance, Jenkins loosens them up and the rhythm section begins swinging hard.

Pops immediately feels it, creating an entirely new melody that's two parts English and one part scat. Louis swings like mad, as does the studio group, with shivers of strings occasionally filling in the gaps. A brief interlude by the horns sets up the highlight of the track: Armstrong's glorious trumpet trading with LaVere's single-note piano business. One of the glories of the Armstrong-Jenkins recordings is finding all the secret Armstrong licks Jenkins manages to hide in his arrangements. Here, there's no hiding it; every note LaVere plays is right out of the Armstrong playbook! It's a humorous little exchange, broken up by some dizzying writing for the strings, but I love it for the pure relaxation of Pops's phrasing. He's so calm and in charge....that is until the end of the string escapade. Then watch out! Now, Pops pumps up the volume and approaches center stage like a great opera singer, his tone bellowing, his phrasing grand. He runs up to a high concert Bb and works his way down during a sure-footed cadenza of sorts. But instead of ending with that, Louis returns with a delightful vocal reprise, swinging and smiling and putting a terrific little ending on a terrific little record.

Obviously, "Indian Love Call" wasn't the type of song Louis was going to start performing live with the All Stars. Also, it doesn't appear to have made any waves on the charts, either. But on June 8, 1952, over six months after the studio recording, Louis performed it on "The U. S. Royal Showcase," an NBC television show with a studio band conducted for the occasion by Gordon Jenkins. This performance was never issued commercially but I think it's a fantastic little rarity. Here's the audio:

Isn't that great? Armstrong probably hadn't thought of the tune since the previous November but he still nails it, right from the opening trumpet-and-drum duet and early quote of "Drdla Souvenir." The vocal is still a lot of fun with, I think, some even better phrasing during the second half (love that "Mama"!). But stand back for the trumpet-and-piano duet! Pops is full of all sorts of different ideas and sounds completely at ease. Right before the strings come in, there's a little confusion as he sounds a little unsure about whether or not he's supposed to keep playing; he just steamrolls any uncertainty with a giant high note! But nothing compares to that high Bb after the strings do their thing, as I think he holds it even longer on this performance. The following cadenza is a knockout, as well. And if that little vocal reprise doesn't have you smiling, I'm sorry, but the Miles Davis blog is thataway...

So that's a little taste of Louis and Gordon Jenkins. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. It's not exactly the Hot Seven stomping out some New Orleans Jazz but as Louis used to say, there's only two kinds of music, good and bad and his recording of "Indian Love Call" is definitely some of the good stuff.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Dear Old Southland - Louis and Billy Kyle, 1957

Sorry for taking so long to finish the saga of "Dear Old Southland," dear readers, but late last week, I was asked by the great Loren Schoenberg to pinch hit and deliver a lecture on Fats Waller at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem tomorrow (Tuesday) night so whatever free time I had this weekend, went right towards prepping for that (for my New York friends, I'll be discussing Fats as a pianist from 7 to 8:30 at the Museum....minimal mentions of Louis!).

But the saga of "Dear Old Southland" closes with a truly exquisite reading by the elder Pops from a January 28, 1957 session for the project Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. In my last installment, Earl Hines was disrupting the mood of Pops's operatic feature, bullishly running up and down the keyboard without any interest in the atmosphere Louis was trying to create. But as my friend from Germany Sebastian Claudius Semler wrote in the comments section for that post, Hines could indeed be a very sensitive accompanist when he chose to be...but with Pops on "Dear Old Southland," he sure as hell didn't choose to be that!

Fortunately, that won't be an issue in today's posting. Billy Kyle was definitely influenced by Hines as a pianist, but Kyle didn't seem to have that egotistic streak, which led to his being a terrific team player, doing his job with consistency, class and plenty of swing for his 12 years with the All Stars. As you'll hear in a minute, Kyle's accompaniment on "Dear Old Southland," is note-perfect, right up there Dick Cary's playing (though I think I still might prefer the Cary version).

But enough about pianists, let's close this series with the spotlight back on the man himself, dear old Louis. As I stated in the Hines blog, "Dear Old Southland" disappeared from the All Stars's repertoire very early in Hines's tenure. I have a few guesses as to why this occurred: first, Louis might have legitimately disliked playing it with Earl. Pops was famous for being able to tune out lousy musicians from around him and listen to the band in his head, but in a duo setting, Hines's "enthusiasm" might have been too much to endure. Also, "Dear Old Southland" was the kind of number to make old OKeh collectors and jazz nuts smile with nostalgia, but it wasn't exactly a popular hit. With each successive year during the All Stars periods, Armstrong usually hit upon some popular number that had to be put into the live shows to replace old favorites. As beautiful as it was, "Dear Old Southland" was expendable.

And finally, there's the issue of chops. As someone trying to make a living defending Louis's later years, I can attest to the remarkable trumpet playing he still produced in his last 25 years. But I can also attest to the woes that came with beat-up chops. The main reason Louis blew with such power and fury in the 50s and 60s was grounded in his ability to pace himself. Even if he took two choruses off, never mind two songs, it would be enough to get his strengh back to blow on the outchourses. I once posted a couple of crazy "Tiger Rags" here from 1959, with Louis taking five encores. Why take five encores when he could have just played eight straight choruses as he did in 1934? The applause and short clarinet and trombone spots gave his chops just enough time to recoup for another round of manic blowing.

"Dear Old Southland" is a pretty demanding piece, three-and-a-half-to-four minutes of straight blowing, with maybe 10 seconds off when the piano doubles the tempo. Pops knocked it out of the park at Town Hall but as I pointed out last week, the 1947 Winter Garden and 1948 European versions all contain traces of struggle. Mostly, it's stuff the average listener wouldn't pick up; it's not like he was fluffing notes and playing out of tune. But sometimes it's in the approach, such as hitting a few lower notes to get his chops straight before bounding up to the final high one. And on both European versions, Armstrong doesn't hold that final high note as long as he once did (he even cracks it for a second in Nice). Trumpet playing is tough business.

So "Dear Old Southland" got the boot for one or maybe all of my supposed reasonss and, as far as I can tell, was never played live by Louis again. But thank goodness for the Autobiography, a group of sessions from 1956 and 1957 that proved, with enough rest and ideal recording conditions, Louis could still do it ALL (see "When You're Smiling," "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "King of the Zulus" and about 30 more).

For "Dear Old Southland," Louis gave a spoken introduction where he referred to the original performance as the first piano-trumpet duet he ever recorded (man, he was really trying to forget Hines and "Weather Bird," huh?). But here now, weighing at three minutes and 55 seconds, is Louis's gorgeous 1957 interpretation of "Dear Old Southland" with Billy Kyle on piano. Play it LOUD:

Bravo! Bravo! Wow. Stunning, stunning, stuff. After four posts on the subject, I don't think I need to go blow-by-blow on the arrangement. Kyle shows off his Hines influence but never gets in the way, using his runs and arpeggios to enhance Louis's playing rather than steamrolling him with them. And Louis, dear Louis. That has to be one of the most majestic recordings of his career. Of couse, the sound quality captured in Decca's studio doesn't hurt things at all! That tone is something else, never to be completely duplicated.

The whole build-up to the climactic high notes, though he had been doing it for almost 30 years, still gives me the chills on this version. He also spends a little more time in the uptempo section, getting great support by Kyle. But how about that ending? No chops trouble, no "helping" notes to get him straight, no nothing. He just holds those high ones and shakes them for all their worth. A true operatic masterpiece. Bravo, Pops!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Dear Old Southland - Louis and Earl Hines, 1948

[Quick note: I wrote all of these "Southland" posts at once but mistakenly backdated the Earl Hines versions before the Dick Cary versions so no one really noticed the Hines ones. I'm posting it up front today and will conclude with Billy Kyle on the weekend. Thanks!]

Ah, the team of Armstrong and Hines....they sure made some stunning music together in the 1920s, didn't they? "West End Blues," "Muggles," "Beau Koo Jack," "Skip the Gutter," and so many more. It was a partnership that explored every possibility of great heights jazz could attain.

But that was the 1920s. Flash forward 20 years to 1948 and Hines's joining of Louis's small group, the All Stars. At the time, it was cause for celebration in the jazz world, seeing these two giants back in tandem again. For years critics would knock later editions of the All Stars, getting misty-eyed about the edition with Louis and Earl. This is something that still goes on today by people who don't understand Louis's later years and think that just because the 1948-51 edition had the most star power, it must have been the best edition.

Well, it wasn't and a lot of that stemmed from "the popular young man at the piano," as Louis used to introduce "Fatha" Hines. Hines had been a successful bandleader for almost 20 years but he had fallen on hard times when Joe Glaser called him up to join the All Stars in January 1948. Hines went for it, thinking it was going to be a short stint as featured artist. But Glaser basically tricked him into signing a contract and staying with the group as a sideman for three long years. That was too much for Hines and his ego to take. Accustomed to the spotlight shining on his pearly teeth, it gnawed at him to have to take a backseat to Louis for over 300 nights a year.

Hines's attitude often led to his mind wandering when he played live dates with the All Stars. His accompaniment sometimes didn't suit band and he could easily trip up a soloist by hogging the spotlight while comping. I don't mean to trash Hines in any way as he was a genius at the keyboard and often contributed some incredible playing when he was sufficiently inspired. But he wasn't a team player like later Armstrong piano men Billy Kyle and Marty Napoleon and especially not like his predecessor Dick Cary, who was an incredible fit and should have held down the the chair for years and years instead of just six months.

All of this backstory is just the lead-up to my sharing two versions of "Dear Old Southland" from the All Stars's tour of Europe in February and March 1948. As we heard yesterday, "Dear Old Southland" broke it up at Armstrong's famous Town Hall concert and it became a standard part of the All Stars show, usually placed towards the beginning of the first set or second set. When Hines's arrival caused Cary's departure, "Dear Old Southland" stayed in the show. I'll admit, the thrill of an Armstrong-Hines duet does lead some excitement to the proceedings. I mean, these were the guys who made the trumpet-piano duet a work of art with their jousting on 1928's "Weather Bird." So these versions of "Dear Old Southland" should definitely be of interest to any fans of jazz in general. But they also illustrate Hines's boorishness at the keyboard, often steamrolling over Louis's sober, operatic lead.

So first off, let's travel to Nice and hear how "Dear Old Southland" was performed in February 1948:

From the start, it sounds like this is Armstrong and Hines's first live attempt of this song because Hines sets about three different tempos in his introduction. Finally, he gets the idea that this is supposed to be fairly free in tempo and all he has to do is fill in the spaces around Armstrong's lead. Solid. For the first strain of "Dear Old Southland"--the "Deep River" section--Hines is actually on good behavior and the combination of these two legends is somewhat thrilling.

But Hines could only take the back seat for long and when it's time for the minor-keyed "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" strain, well, good night nurse. Hines's confounding runs are usually surprising and enjoyable but in this context, they're just out of place. I believe Louis might have given him a dirty look or something because Hines turns it down a couple of notches. He still gets off a few wild runs (one ending, I think, on a clam) but he places them more in Louis's silences.

For more proof that Hines doesn't exactly know the routine, listen to him start swinging the tune at a walking, medium tempo for about three seconds at a medium tempo. Then you'll hear a voice in the background shout something and Hines gets the message, with drummer Sid Catlett joining in, that this section is supposed to be UP. Hines tears out and Louis soon joins in and for a few seconds, memories of "Weather Bird" might come flooding back. Alas, this interlude is only that and things slow down for Pops's dramatic ending, which finds him hitting a couple of ascending notes before landing on his final high one.

For better or for worse, "Dear Old Southland" was now in the book and Armstrong and Hines trotted it out again in Paris about a week later. Here's the Paris version:

After a more appropriate introduction, it takes Hines about a half-a-second to start his world-record attempt for most notes in a short period of time. Again, I love Hines and what he plays is technically marvelous but it's so heavy-handed under Armstrong's gorgeous lead. I mean, he can't hold back for even five seconds. It'd hard to even concentrate on Louis; it sounds like someone has a radio on in the background with some manic pianist taking over the airwaves...

Fortunately, unlike Nice, Hines shows a bit more restraint on the "Motherless Child" strain and some lovely moments occur (Hines's tremolos really work here). And when Louis starts the double-timed section, he's locked in pretty tight with Hines and again, the two mean create an exciting moment. Louis then goes into his slow ending, cracking the final note for a second.

Overall, I don't know which version comes off better; it might have been nice to edit the first half of Nice with the second half of Paris. Either way, "Dear Old Southland" soon disappeared from the All Stars's bag of tricks. I'm sure Louis grew frustrated with battling Hines every time he played it. But also, it was a pretty demanding piece for a nearly-50-year-old trumpeter and on both of today's versions, you can hear Pops have a bit of difficulty with that final note. Maybe it was just time to retire it. However, Louis would dig it out one more time in the confines of the recording studio, this time with a much more sympathetic partner on the piano. For that version, come back tomorrow.....

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Dear Old Southland - Louis and Dick Cary, 1947

Louis Armstrong's Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947 was one of those evenings when every single aspect of every single performance came together brilliantly. The success of that night led to the full-time formation of Louis's sextet, the All Stars, and the death of his big band. I've shared many performances from that evening on this blog and I don't feel I need to rehash everything that's great about that evening all over again. But for me personally, I'll never tire of the greatness of Dick Cary's piano playing that evening.

Every introduction Cary took, every solo he unleashed, was so note-perfect, it's almost mind-boggling. It was an important night for Cary, a lifelong Armstrong nut, too, and he more than rose to the occasion, performing so well, he was Louis's first choice as pianist when the All Stars were officially formed a few months later.

The middle of the concert, featuring Louis with a small group featuring the horns of Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden and Peanuts Hucko, offered the most timeless performances, mainly because six songs from that portion of the concert were released by RCA Victor almost immediately, each one a classic. But I've always been more impressed with the earliest portion of the evening. Here's Louis, in front of a sold-out house, about to lead a small group for an entire evening. The anticipation was huge. And he comes out, backed just by a rhythm section, and absolutely knocks it out of the park, playing "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Butter and Egg Man," songs he probably hadn't touched in 20 years. Those two performances are positively thrilling and officially set the ball rolling for this last, 24-year phase of Louis's career.

But after the hard-charging swing of those two performances, Louis called "Dear Old Southland." Like the original 1930 recording, he did it backed solely by Cary's piano. The results were pure magic. I wish I could remember the exact source, but I remember reading somewhere that this particular rendering of "Dear Old Southland" is one of Wynton Marsalis's all-time favorite Armstrong moments. And with good reason; give it a listen yourself:

Stunning music. Unlike Buck Washington's cautious playing on the original, Cary is full of confidence, laying everything out perfectly for Pops. As we heard yesterday, Louis played "Dear Old Southland" in the early 40s, but he didn't approach it the same way as the 1930 recording. But at Town Hall, the intervening years disappeared and it was 1930 all over again. Pops plays his original solo in almost note-for-note fashion, with only maturity and years of beat-up chops slowing down some of those earlier, more rapid runs. But otherwise, the whole routine, the climaxes, the introduction of the blue notes, you name it, it's all here. Even crazier is the fact that Louis couldn't attend any rehearsals for the Town Hall concert so he and Cary were truly winging it, Louis from his memory of playing it 17 years earlier, Cary from his memory of listening to that record for probably as many years. Yes, Louis's doesn't hold those final notes as long as he did in 1930. But otherwise, his way of conveying the passion and feeling of this song is even more dramatic here, more sure-footed and purely operatic with less of the agitated, almost hyper burbling of the original. Add in Cary's perfect accompaniment and this becomes arguably the greatest "Dear Old Southland" in the Armstrong discography.

Just a few weeks later, Louis did it all over again, hiring many of the same musicians for a small group show at New York's Winter Garden Theater to celebrate the opening of the film New Orleans. A short set was broadcast and though it has its moments, Pops's chops were not in the best of shape. Still, though he wasn't 100%, he still called "Dear Old Southland." This version is not, I repeat, not as spine-chilling as the Town Hall one but it's still instructive to hear how Louis overcomes any problems with his lips. Granted, the problems are not graphic; most trumpeters would kill to have "problems" like these. But his tone is occasionally thin in the upper register. When he gets to the minor strain, he sticks mainly to the lower part of his horn and he sounds wonderful. But when it's time to start wailing, he doesn't hold many of those high notes, instead just hitting them and being thankful to get away with them. When it comes time for the climactic high Ab at 2:10, Armstrong has two hit two stepladder-type notes to vault himself up and once hit, he doesn't hold it for very long. He sounds fine on the swinging section but when it comes to the final climb up, it's clear that it hurts. He makes it all right, but don't expect him to hold any notes for nine seconds! Summoning up every ounce of strength and guile he has, Louis hits that final high concert A, barking out his unintelligible signs of approval as the crowd rewards the effort. Don't take my word for it; listen for yourself:

Once the All Stars were officially formed in August 1947, the "Dear Old Southland" duet became a staple of their early shows. I have an incomplete version (not worth sharing) from a Carnegie Hall concert in November, while contemporary reviews of Louis's shows sometimes made mention of it being performed during this period.

Alas, as great as Cary was for the band, Joe Glaser had his sights set on another pianist who was truly a star: Earl "Fatha" Hines. Hines soon joined and Cary was pushed aside. Tomorrow, we'll listen to Armstrong and Hines battle for the spotlight on "Dear Old Southland," but today, give thanks again for Dick Cary and the wonderful job he did for Pops, especially on that historic evening at Town Hall. Til tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dear Old Southland - Jubilee Broadcast, 1943

Welcome back to part two of my weeklong celebration of Louis Armstrong's versions of "Dear Old Southland." I'm assuming many Pops fans are familiar with the original OKeh recording I discussed yesterday. But today's version might be a surprise: it swings, it features two vocal chorus and puts Louis's big band up front. It comes from a Jubilee broadcast recorded some time in March or April 1943. This was the recording ban period, so Louis didn't have an opportunity to record many of the songs he broadcast during this period. So please, enjoy this rarity:

Ah, the sound of Ernie "Bubbles" Whitman as emcee (not the Bubbles of Buck and Bubbles fame). The arrangement, probably by Joe Garland, is plenty powerful, opening up with an almost violent rendering of the minor "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" strain. Soon enough, Pops emerges to play the melody, though he's somewhat overshadowed by the band. However, in his second time through it, he really wails and the effect is pretty exhilarating.

But then a real surprise: a vocal by Pops. He sings it straight the first time through before heaping in a generous amount of scat in the second chorus. By this point, we're in the main "Deep River" strain and Pops sounds very comfortable with it. But the highlight really occurs when he picks up his horn to blow through three choruses at the end, the last one modulated up a half-step for drama. Again, because of the recording balance, he's a little lost in the arrangement at times, but if you listen closely, he's playing some pretty powerful stuff, really wailing in his upper register. The endurance he displays towards the end is simply stunning and how he has enough gas in the tank to hit that final high concert Eb, I'll never know. An exciting little performance.

Tomorrow, Louis and Dick Cary make magic together at Town Hall.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Dear Old Southland - April 5, 1930

Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded April 5, 1930
Track Time 3:20
Written by Turner Layton and Henry Creamer
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, talk; Buck Washington, piano
Originally released on Okeh 41454
Currently available on CD: Volume four of the JSP Hot Five and Hot Seven series has it, as does volume six of Columbia’s old Armstrong series (St. Louis Blues).
Available on Itunes? Yes

April 5 was a good day for Louis Armstrong. On April 5, 1923, he made his very first recordings with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band. On April 5, 1930, he waxed two fine performances for OKeh, "My Sweet" and "I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me," recording with Willie Lynch's band that would eventually form the basis of the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. And on April 5, 1939, Louis successfully revisited his OKeh days for Decca, cutting remakes of "Hear Me Talkin' To Ya," "Save It Pretty Mama," "West End Blues" ad "Savoy Blues" with his big band. (April 5 is also a good day for me; my daughter Ella was born one year ago today!)

But for our purposes, I'd like to celebrate another song Louis recorded on April 5, 1930--80 years ago today--"Dear Old Southland." This song was tailor-made for Louis's operatic tendencies and became a special favorite feature of his, performing it live numerous times in the 1940s and recording it in the studio in 1957. Thus, with your kind permission, I'd like to celebrate the anniversary of this great recording by offering daily blogs on Louis's different versions of it, much as I did last month with "Pennies From Heaven." Come back tomorrow to hear a big band arrangement of the tune Louis broadcasted in 1943. On Wednesday, we'll listen to his duets with pianist Dick Cary. On Thursday, his duets with Earl Hines--their first duets since "Weather Bird" in 1928. And on Friday, Louis's final studio recording of it with Billy Kyle. Sound good?

But today, let's focus on the original, which has long been one of my favorite Louis records from a purely emotional standpoint. The song "Dear Old Southland" is actually based on two African-American spirituals: "Deep River" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," both originally documented in the 1870s. The melodies for both numbers were combined into "Dear Old Southland" by the African-American team of Henry Creamer and John Turner Layton, the men behind such early jazz classics as "After You've Gone," "Strut Miss Lizzie" and "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans." Courtesy of YouTube, here's one of the earliest versions of the tune, recorded by The Columbians in 1921:

For those already familiar with Louis's treatment, this uptempo take might seem a little jarring. By 1928, a slower, more reverent take on the tune could be heard on the first half of this version by Red Nichols, with a vocal by Scrappy Lambert. However, around the 2:15 mark, the band can't help swinging, leading to a hot duet between clarinetist Fud Livingston and guitarist Eddie Lang before Red Nichols and Miff Mole offer up their brand of 1920s modern jazz (Arthur Schut takes the piano interlude). Dig it:

So those are just two of the earlier approaches musicians took towards the tune in the 1920s. By the time Louis got a hold of it, who knows how long he had been playing it--that is, IF he had ever played it before. Because the song was nine years old and because Louis's first recording of it is so damned poised, I'm inclined to believe he had at least run through it a few times before the engineers fired up the wax. At this point, Louis had been recording almost exclusively with big bands for about a year-and-a-half, making records with the orchestras of Luis Russell and Carroll Dickerson, in addition to cutting some Don Redman arrangements in Chicago in late 1928. In the middle of those Chicago dates, Louis cut the seminal duet "Weather Bird," a dazzling sparring contest between Pops and pianist Earl Hines. Today, that record is so lauded, it's easy to assume it must have caused some sensation when it was released. However, it was so different from anything Armstrong had recorded at that point, OKeh decided to sit on it and withheld its release until it had something suitable for a flip side.

Thus, that's how "Dear Old Southland" came to be recorded. Once finished and once approved, it was released with "Weather Bird" as its flip side in 1930. I'm not going to claim "Dear Old Southland" to be an equal of "Weather Bird" because that's like comparing apples and oranges. "Weather Bird" is all about lightening fast reflexes and dazzling virtuosity. "Dear Old Southland" is about opera and is aimed squarely at the heartstrings.

Also, it's unfair to compare Louis's pianistic partners. For "Dear Old Southland," he was teamed with Buck Washington, half of the song-and-dance team Buck and Bubbles. Buck, born Ford Washington Lee, handled piano duties while Bubbles, born John William Sublett, was the main dancer and vocalist. They had a long-running career and knew Louis for decades (Bubbles's most famous filmed sequence occurred in Cabin in the Sky, which also featured Louis). Here's 55 seconds of Buck and Bubbles in action:

Louis loved show-biz acts like that (Bill "Bogjangles" Robinson was one of his heroes) and you could almost hear him laughing at Buck pulling out the cloth to shine Bubbles's shoes in that clip. Washington wasn't a piano revolutionary like Hines, but he was a great entertainer, a solid player and a good friend and colleague of Louis's. How else would you explain not using Willie Lynch's regular pianist, stride great Joe Turner, who was possibly in the studio that day and recorded with Louis the following month?

Either way, I'll quit with the backstory today (at least I won't have to repeat any of it in my next four entries!). Let's just get to the entree. Here's "Dear Old Southland":

A spoken monologue by Louis sets the scene as Washington goes into a pretty introduction. From Louis's slightly hushed, throbbing first note, I'm hooked. Louis is in a pure storytelling mindset, keeping that melody up front and center, but also finding the appropriate holes to fill up with subtle variations and more daring double-timed escapades. (And listen at the :59 mark as Louis trots out his calling card "doddle-doddle-dah-dah" phrase, one that was so central to his playing on "Weather Bird.") Washington's backing is somewhat tentative but I'm really not listening to him...

For the minor, "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" section, listen to how Louis sets it up with those urgent stabbing notes, simultaneously setting the tempo and feel for this strain and ratcheting up the intensity level a bit more, causing the listener to lean in a bit. In the natural gaps left by the original melody, Armstrong burbles and broods in his lower register before unleashing some free-floating improvisation, including a tumbling run. This almost scares Washington, who begins plunking out the written melody in single note style, just to keep it afloat until Pops returns from his trip to claim it. Armstrong continues playing in a slightly agitated, yet passionate, mood before taking a break and relaxing with some sweet-toned melody.

For the second go-around of the minor strain, Louis turns up the intensity even higher. As Washington lays down a "Spanish tinge" backing, Louis repeats the same pitch in almost a tempoless fashion seven times before playing his first serious blue notes of the solo. The notes sting and Armstrong pulls back, retreating back to the lower register for more speech-like murmurings and preaching. With Washington trying to hold it together by playing the melody, Louis really lays into a few more blue notes (Washington double-times his backing, but Pops ignores it). After repeating a two-note clarion call, Armstrong builds up to his first big climax, holding, hitting and shaking the hell out of a high concert Ab. Washington's with him as he closes out the minor strain by repeating a two-note riff three times before ending with a gorgeous, singing F.

Washington then fiddles around a bit, swinging the tune in double-timed fashion. For proof that they had rehearsed this, Louis warns him to "watch that chord there, Satchelmouth." Washington still sounds stiff and self-conscious but Louis couldn't be any more relaxed, pacing his entrance and effectively pounding out a series of repeated quarter-notes. Louis continues improvising beautifully while Washington's best moment occurs when Pops takes a brief pause and the pianist quotes what sounds to me like a snippet of "Dixie," an appropriate quote given the title of the song.

But in the middle of this relaxed swinging, Louis stops on a dime and builds up to one of his famed high note endings. In a few years, this is how just about EVERY Armstrong record ended but in 1930, it was still pretty novel for him. If I have been know to lose my emotions at the intensity of Louis's high G, held for nine glorious seconds, before resolving it to the final high A. I'm usually shouting "Bravo" at this point, dabbing a handkerchief at my eye.

Of course, not everyone feels that way. The great John Chilton, for one, was not a fan of this record, knocking Louis's playing as quasi-dramatic (call it what it is, John: FULLY-dramatic!). I think it's one of the great Pops-as-opera-singer-while-playing-the-trumpet moments. What do you think? Listen to it a few more times and feel free to share your opinion. Then come back tomorrow to listen to Louis and his big band tackle it in 1943. Til then!

Friday, April 2, 2010

I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket - 2010

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded February 4, 1936
Track Time 2:55
Written by Irving Berlin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bunny Berigan, Bob Mayhew, trumpet; Al Philburn, trombone; Sid Trucker, alto saxophone, clarinet; Phil Waltzer, alto saxophone; Paul Ricci, tenor saxophone; Fulton McGrath, piano; Dave Barbour, guitar; Pete Peterson, bass; Stan King, drums
Originally released on Decca 698
Currently available on CD: Available on the essential Mosaic Records boxed set of Louis's complete Decca recordings, 1936 -1946.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on Rhythm Saved The World

Happy Easter! To celebrate, I’ve decided to resurrect a blog I originally wrote two years ago (much as I recently revisited earlier blogs I wrote with Valentine's Day, Christmas and Thanksgiving themes). It's the only song in the Pops discography that I could connect to today’s holiday, Irving Berlin’s “I’m Puttin’ All My Eggs In One Basket” (well, there’s also “Cotton Tail,” but I’ll save that for another time).

The song was written for the 1936 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Follow The Fleet. I love everything Astaire and Rogers did and if you’ve never seen their routine on this song, you’ve missed out...but not for long. The original YouTube video I posted has been removed but just a few weeks ago, someone posted a version taped off their laptop so it's not exactly ideal. Still, enjoy it before it gets pulled again! (And dig the dirty-sounding clarinet player around the 3:18 mark....shades of Edmond Hall):

Isn’t that a lot of fun? The song’s a winner, with a wonderful voice and Astaire sounds positively charming (though the song does test his range...he passes). And since my original posting, someone uploaded the scene where Astaire pounds out the tune on the piano...I think he does a great job! Nothing to make Fats Waller or Earl Hines take up another instrument, but he has a pretty good beat and takes some fine, octave-filled breaks. Dig it:

Needless to say, various recorded versions began popping up in early 1936, including a typical swinging-like-mad recording by Stuff Smith, as well as a Chick Bullock version with a hot bridge by Bunny Berigan. But of course, our focus is on Pops and he had his turn on February 4, 1936.

This was something of an odd session for our hero. After his European sabbatical, Pops returned in 1935, now guided by Joe Glaser, and began making a series of recordings for Decca, fronting Luis Russell’s big band. His earliest Decca recordings are somewhat roughh-going for the Russell band, but Pops sounds fantastic and a lot of my favorites from this period come from those early 1935 sessions: “I’m In The Mood For Love,” “Was I To Blame For Falling In Love With You,” “I’ve Got My Fingers Crossed,” “Thanks a Million,” “Shoe Shine Boy,” and others. But though the “I’m Puttin’ All My Eggs In One Basket” session was only Armstrong’s sixth for his new label, Decca already stripped him of the Russell band and instead hired a bunch of high quality studio musicians, including the famed Armstrong disciple Bunny Berigan.

Why would Decca do this so early? Goodness knows, Decca president Jack Kapp liked putting his artists in different settings and indeed, in the coming years Armstrong would record with Hawaiian musicians, with the Mills Brothers, with a choir, with small groups, etc. But I never fully understood the studio band sessions, of which there are a few. Perhaps Decca wanted to rush out a record of “Basket” and didn’t trust the sometimes shaky studio performance of the Russell band. But a later 1938 studio band session with some of the musicians turned out performances of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” songs that were in Armstrong’s live repertoire at the period. Thus, I have no concrete answer as to why the Russell band was asked to sit out some of these sessions, but to my ears, it’s a shame, because for all their occasional stiff performances and intonation troubles, they played with a better spirit and often used better arrangements than the studio groups.

But regardless, nobody’s listening to these recordings for Al Philburn’s trombone playing in the ensemble (my apologies to Mr. Philburn’s family). Pops is the main event and he always sounds good. You can listen to his lovely recording of “I’m Puttin’ All My Eggs In One Basket” right here:

The record begins with one of Armstrong’s most relaxed opening cadenzas. This isn’t the in-your-face, daring “West End Blues” introduction; it’s amazing how much Armstrong matured in few short years after those groundbreaking 1928 recordings. It opens like he’s practicing, so relaxed and so in control of not just the notes he chooses to play but also where he chooses to play them. The rest of the record could be a polka; I’d buy it just for the opening, which really puts me in a content frame-of-mind. Armstrong then launches into the melody, another one that seems to have been written with him in mind, with all those repeated notes. The arrangement is kind of square but the very good rhythm section is solid, drummer Stan King offering some tasty cowbell accents during the A sections. Again, relaxation is the key and though I feel as if I’m overusing the word, I can’t think of a better one. Paul Ricci takes the bridge in a pretty straightforward fashion (I detect a tinge of Bud Freeman) before Pops reenters with a perfect little descending phrase. The notes just flow out of his horn, especially those quick descending swoons that sometimes get lost in the glare of the high notes.

Sid Trucker’s clarinet picks up the turnaround and the modulation into a key more suitable for Pops's voice. As already stated, Berlin’s melody covers quite a range, but Pops is up for the challenge, hitting those deep low notes that sometimes sound like he’s duetting with himself. This is one of Armstrong’s most mellifluous vocals; you can hear him smiling throughout. There’s no scat interludes or anything except for a well-timed “honey” in the bridge but he sure sells the loving message of the song’s lyric.

Bunny’s trumpet is heard prominently in the modulation back to the original key for the final moments of blowing. The band gets a short turn in the spotlight, playing the stiff arrangement as well as it can be played (again, King sounds very fine on drums) but every time I get to this point of the record and I brace myself for some dramatic Armstrong, I’m always dismayed to look at the counter and see less than 40 seconds remaining! Forget the band, I want more Pops! Unfortunately, Armstrong gets to blow beautifully in his upper register for a grand total of eight bars before launching into a typical slow motion Decca ending, though this one resolves nicely as the band plays a minor chord before resolving to the final major chord under Armstrong’s crystalline final high concert Db. Thus, the 1936 “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” has some winning moments--the opening cadenza, Pops’s melody statement, the sunny vocal--but overall, it’s not all that could have been because the arrangement is lame and there’s not enough of the Armstrong trumpet.

(2010 updates: last November, my trumpet-blowing pal Dave Whitney tackled the "Decca House Band Sessions" on his site, "Pete Kelly's Blog." Click here to dig Dave's terrific post. And more recently, Armstrong's Decca period was completely misunderstood in a troubling piece on the All About Jazz website. Fortunately, our hero Michael Steinman stepped forward and heroically defended our hero Louis Armstrong. Click here to savor Michael's indispensable work.)

Armstrong would get one more crack at “I’m Puttin’ All My Eggs In One Basket” in 1957, but once again his trumpet would have to take a backseat. In fact, his trumpet never even left the car, as this session occurred on August 13, 1957, a particularly rough patch for Armstrong’s lip as he was performing with the All Stars by night and recording for Norman Granz by day, resulting in much pained beauty on Armstrong’s big band and orchestra sessions arranged by Russ Garcia, sessions I’ve written about a few times before. But the day before the first Garcia session, Armstrong completed the final session for his second album with Ella Fitzgerald. Their first Verve collaboration from 1956 was a success and doing it again in 1957 was a no-brainer. I absolutely love all the Armstrong and Fitzgerald albums. Some people just have it naturally built into their heads that whenever superstars meet up, whether on record, in films or in sports, the result rarely matches the hype. While this is sometimes the case, I think the Armstrong and Fitzgerald Verve dates are 100% wonderful. There’s such a loose atmosphere, the Oscar Peterson + drummer group gives swinging backing, the songs are top choice and you have two of the greatest jazz singers ever interpreting these timeless melodies and lyrics in their own genius ways. What more do you want?

Armstrong and Fitzgerald’s first two Verve albums could have almost been called Ella and Louis Sing the Fred Astaire Songbook, as they did so many songs introduced by the great hoofer. This final session featured no trumpet playing on any of the five songs recorded that day but even without the horn, I prefer this version of “Basket” to the 1936 one. You can decide for yourself by listening along:

Oscar Peterson’s introduction is customarily perfect, setting up Armstrong’s tender reading of the verse, which he never got to tackle in 1936. The verse is a killer and Armstrong sounds wonderful on it (listen to his reading of the word “many” and Peterson’s quick-on-his-feet answer). When they get to the chorus, the tempo picks up to a faster clip than the Decca, how rhythm sections changed in the intervening two decades. One of my favorite sounds in the world is the Peterson trio chugging along with a drummer, in this case Louie Bellson, joining in on brushes. I couldn’t picture any better support for these artists. And please, give props to guitarist Herb Ellis, who passed away earlier this week. They're officially all gone: Oscar, Herb, Ray Brown, Bellson, Louis, Ella, Norman....very sad.

After Armstrong’s choruses, Ella takes it, singing the verse, too. The mood is so damn infectious and I cannot stop patting my foot. The arrangement is quite simple with Pops taking one, Ella taking the second and then both trading for the third and final chorus. Matters really take off when Bellson switches from brushes to sticks at the start of the third chorus, something he also did to great effect on Armstrong’s reading of “I Get a Kick Out of You,” recorded just 13 days earlier. At the bridge, Bellson begins clicking away on the rim of his snare, with Ellis’s comping grows more riff-like, adding tremendous excitement to the proceedings. In the final eight bars, the two voices that couldn’t be any more different blend together in perfect harmony. Wonderfully happy, swinging, joyous music all around.

The only 2010 note I can add is for those in the New York City area: the Louis Armstrong House Museum will be holding an Easter Egg Hunt on Sunday afternoon, complete with games, prizes and the never-to-be-forgotten sight of Armstrong super-fan Al Pomerantz as the Easter Bunny. Somewhere, Pops is smiling...