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!