That’s the only appropriate way to begin today’s entry on a single live performance of “Tiger Rag” from January 1959, one that I previously blogged about in January 2009under the title "The Tiger Rag to End All Tiger Rags." I still standy by that title. As promised, this version was recorded the very same night as the mind-blowing, four-encore version I posted last Friday. Clearly, the crowd at the Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen, Denmark inspired Pops beyond belief!
After taking a break between shows, Armstrong opened his second performance on January 21 with the usual trio of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," "Indiana" and "Basin Street Blues" before it was time for “Tiger Rag.” Now, this entire performance is available on the fourth volume of Storyville’s Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia series and all nine minutes and 35 seconds (yes, you read that right) can be downloaded for just 99 cents on Itunes if you’d like to keep it in your collection and play it for your friends. I will post the entire performance uninterrupted towards the end of this post. But before writing this, I opened up my Mac’s Garage Band program and did some editing, separating the tune’s many parts so you can enjoy it with play-by-play commentary as the performance progresses. Again, if you don’t know what’s about to happen, stand back.
So here goes. The standard All Stars version of “Tiger Rag”:
Danny Barcelona’s drums set the ridiculous pace before the front line of Armstrong, Young and clarinetist Peanuts Hucko tackle the opening strains of the tune, Hucko taking the breaks. Armstrong loved taking “Tiger Rag” at inhuman speeds because he actually became more relaxed the faster the tempo. Armstrong tears through the famous “Hold That Tiger” strain with Young answering with some appropriate roars. Hucko doesn’t sound too comfortable with the tempo but he’s not bad by any means. For his solo, Hucko maintains a consistent relaxed flow, playing in half-time, which he didn’t always do. Young then follows with his boisterous set solo, complete with a quote from “Feniculi Fenicula.”
Then it’s Pops, charging out of the gate with some repeated notes before he begins dispensing with the 1930 vintage quotes of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Pagliacci.” (Just listen to that dazzling, lightening quick, almost smeared lead-in to the “Pagliacci” quote during the break.) Armstrong then hits and holds a high concert Ab (he played “Tiger Rag” in the same key), showing off his endurance and calling the troops home for the final chorus chase...and I mean chase in the literal sense as he would sometimes chase Young around the piano (as we’ll hear in it a bit). Armstrong liked to use this last chorus to revisit the exhibitionistic side of his youth and here he works over a two-note pattern, leading off with the same high Ab and resolving it to either a lower F or G. For the end, he jumps up to high C and he manages to end with a stunning high Eb. Great playing but that was just par for the course, as was the encore that followed. Give it a listen:
The crowd can still be heard cheering and Armstrong can be heard laughing as Barcelona sets the pace for round two. Hucko leads off, still in relaxed half-time but after an instruction to “Blow” from Pops, Hucko turns on the heat for a wild finish. Trummy, still thinking of Italy, opens with a tiny hint of “O Sole Mio” before going for himself.
Pops opens with another quote, this time “I’m Confessin’” before taking a trip to “Dixie” in the break. Even the way he comes out of the break is straight out of his 1930s playbook, showing he still had the chops to pull off his younger solos. Slowly moving up the ladder, instead of holding a high Ab, Armstrong climbs up to a high Bb to bridge the gap to the start of the final chorus. This time, he really hams it up with Trummy, indulging in some humorous “shouting” at each other. He also goes off-mike, which means the chase has clearly spread to the rest of the stage. But clowning aside, just listen to those notes. The first time around, Armstrong used the Ab as a point of departure and went down, to either F’s or G’s. Now, he uses the Ab as a spring board to go up, hitting one high C after another. He finally holds a gigantic high C and makes his way up to another high Eb and another triumphant ending.
And that, my friends, was usually that. Incredibly powerful, exciting playing, some fun clowning and overall, a showstopper. It was then time for “Now You Has Jazz” and if you listen to the end of that last track--much as what happened earlier in the day--you’ll hear the pianist start playing his introductory arpeggio.
But not so fast. This crowd was clearly in bedlam and though Kyle’s setting up the next tune, Armstrong can’t help signaling for one more (though he does it in his signature stage yelling, which I can never translate!). So get ready....for round three, second encore:
Armstrong can now be heard laughing behind Hucko’s solo. He’s having the time of his life, doing this craziness twice in one day! Never mind Hucko and Young, who both sound good (Trummy’s excellent). This time Armstrong enters with another quote from his 1930s “Tiger Rag” solos, one Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song," which Pops forgot about until his third encore earlier that day.
After Armstrong plays the quote, he begins improvising in a very operatic manner. In fact, almost everything he plays from here on out has an air of opera to it. But dig that break: he plays two high C’s, hits one high Db...then scampers away like a child who just found the ocean to be too cold. It’s so playful but the the high Bb he holds again at the end of the chorus is as serious as your life. For the last chorus, he uses high C again as his main note until the break. This time, he heads right up to the high Eb he usually ends the piece with and nails it. And nails it again. And again. And again. Seven times in all. Before ending the tune...on a high F!
I mean are you kidding? This is almost a 60-year-old man! Naturally, the crowd goes berserk and just as naturally, Billy Kyle starts playing the “Now You Has Jazz” arpeggio again. Enough is enough, right?
Ding, ding, Round four!
Now Hucko’s on fire. Something special’s happening. During Young’s solo, listen closely and you’ll hear Armstrong blow three quiet harmony notes, giving the chops a quick test before heading into uncharted territory, a third encore. I’ve heard this a thousand times, but I still get nervous! For this outing, Pops dispenses with the quotes but keeps the same operatic style of playing in mind. Really, sing back his phrases but put on a serious face and wave your hand dramatically; it’s opera! He nails another high C in his break and this time, instead of holding an Ab or a Bb, he holds a high C into the final chorus.
But wait, high C? That’s pretty high, right? Where else can he go but up? You got it...like he’s 30 years old again, Armstrong sets his aim for that high Eb again. And what am I saying, like he’s 30 years old again? These Eb’s I’m writing about are actually F’s on the trumpet. When he was 30, Armstrong would play a hundred C’s and top out at the F but even on records like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” from 1929 and “You’re Lucky to Me” from 1930, he just about gets that last high F (concert Eb) out. But now here he is in 1959, getting killed by critics for being out-of-date and for not playing like he did when he was younger, but demonstrating a greater range and a better command of his instrument.
So let’s count along, shall we? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 Eb’s ending on a high F. Insane. Great job, Pops, let’s do “Now You Has Jazz,” okay? But the audience is still losing its mind, doing that unison clapping-on-the-beat that’s always been popular when European audiences want to signal their approval. So even though he did more than anyone expected him to, Armstrong signals for a fourth encore:
Hucko and Young sound good but both sound like they’re running out of gas a little bit (though, a moment of credit for the rhythm section of Barcelona, Kyle and bassist Mort Herbert for keeping this thing afloat for so long at such a ludicrous tempo!). Pops, ready for battle, starts off with more operatic playing, a little descending scampering and, my highlight, a quote from “Exactly Like You” in his break, perfectly placed. He then holds the high C again and gets ready for yet another chorus of high Eb’s. However, like an arm-weary boxer in the 12th and final round of a bruising slugfest, Armstrong barely misses the mark on his first two attempts, the first one sounding more like a squeak, while the second one is about a half-step too low.
But don’t cry for old Pops, just yet. He rallies back and soon begins hitting the Eb’s again, one after another. Earlier that day, he spent the fourth encore lobbing those huge, slow glisses around from Ab to Eb. But this time he keeps repeating these quicker, shorter glisses up to the Eb, carrying on on through the break, though a little more space creeps in towards the finish line. Clearly tired and probably in pain, Armstrong gathers every last bit of endurance left in his body and in his lips and makes the climb to that final high F one last time. Bravo!
Nine minutes and 35 seconds of playing. One performance and four encores. Probably about a hundred notes, high C or above. So why do it? Armstrong explained in a little speech he gave right before he finally launched into “Now You Has Jazz”:
So there you have it. The audience was going wild and Pops couldn’t stop, much like earlier in the day. But one might be asking about today's entry and my last one, “Why all the encores? Why didn’t Pops just play seven or eight straight choruses as he did in the 1930s?” It’s a great question and to me, I can only assume that it was a concession to age. Think about what Armstrong did to his chops in the 1920s and 1930s. That he even had such a long career is something of a miracle. And in the mid-to-late-50s, he was blowing at an incredibly high level. The only thing he required was more time to rest. Thus, he became a master at pacing the All Stars’s live shows. He knew when to sing more, when to throw it to a sideman, when to play an encore. I think if Armstrong played seven choruses in a row on that 1959 version, he would have been out of gas before the ending. But the encores allowed him that little resting period every time Hucko and Young took their solos. Thus, every time they finished, he was properly refreshed and ready to shoot out the lights. Only on that last attempt did any tiredness creep in and he still finished on top. Incredible playing. In fact, using my Mac again, I edited together all the trumpet playing into a single 3:43 long track, ten choruses in all. Enjoy:
When you listen to that, it’s no wonder that Pops had a heart attack in Spoleto, Italy just a few months later. He was pushing himself harder than ever, both on his body with the frequent concerts and on his chops. And he continued doing crazy things with "Tiger Rag" throughout the trip. I'm going to share two more of my favorites from the 1959 European tour in my next part before finally wrapping things up with part ten early next week. But to close, I will shut up and allow you to listen to the full experience of today's version of "Tiger Rag," unedited, in all it’s glory. Again, I warn you...stand back: