Tuesday, May 4, 2010

80 Years of "Tiger Rag" - Part One (of many)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 4, 1930
Track Time 3:14
Written by Nick La Rocca
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ed Anderson, trumpet; Henry Hicks, trombone; Bobby Holmes, clarinet, alto saxophone; Theodore McCord, alto saxophone; Castor McCord, tenor saxophone; Joe Turner, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Lavert Hutchinson, tuba; Willie Lynch, drums
Originally released on OKeh 8800
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Recordings, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

80 years ago today, Louis Armstrong stepped into OKeh's New York studio and recovered four timeless tracks: "Indian Cradle Song," "Exactly Like You," "Dinah," and "Tiger Rag." I've already blogged about "Indian Cradle Song" in the past and would like to do one on "Exactly Like You" in the future. But "Dinah" and "Tiger Rag" are truly monumental songs in the Louis canon so I just had to celebrate one or the other today. And after putting it up to a vote, "Tiger Rag" won by a nose.

This didn't surprise me. I've been to Preservation Hall twice in the last two years and both times, witnessed foreigners with just a tiny grasp of fractured English request this tune--then dance and smile in ecstasy once the band tackled it. The song just doesn't die. Even my past blogs that have touched on the tune became some of my most read entries, inspiring e-mails on the subject from all around the world. I still might cover "Dinah" (definitely a tune worth celebrating), but for now, it's time to hold that "Tiger" (and definitely a timely tune considering the prowess of Mr. Woods).

First off, I don't think it's necessary for me to go into my usually labored backstory on the tune. "Tiger Rag" is "Tiger Rag." The Original Dixieland Jazz Band was the first group to record it and they gladly took composer credits. Did they write it? Probably not. There are many tales of the tune's history in early New Orleans (Jelly Roll Morton's demonstration on how he composed it, while probably not 100% true, is one of the highlights of his Library of Congress sessions) and we'll probably never know its exact origins.

However, as a jazz musician coming up in that city in the late teens and early 20s, Louis Armstrong definitely played it. He often spoke about his treasured copies of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recordings. Plus, in some interview, he even remembered when the tune was named "Jack Carey," after a New Orleans trombonist famed for featuring it.

By the 1920s, "Tiger Rag" was the "I Got Rhythm" of its day, its chords used as the basis for numerous jazz compositions. In 1927, Louis recorded "Hotter Than That," which many writers say was based on "Tiger Rag's" changes. And they're right. I always assumed this to be true until talking with a few established musicians who mentioned in passing about "Hotter Than That" being based on "Bill Bailey." Now, for all the musicians in the house, "Tiger Rag" and "Bill Bailey" do have the same exact changes but they're almost always played in different keys. "Hotter Than That" is in Eb while every one of Louis's recordings of "Tiger Rag" is in Ab. So perhaps Louis and Lil did have "Bill Bailey" on the brain when they recorded "Hotter Than That." Food for thought (more like food for mental patients as about 20 readers just left to check the baseball scores).

So let's just flash forward to May 4, 1930. If you've been with me for a while, I've been doing plenty of anniversary postings on Louis recordings from 1929 and early 1930. Once Louis became a star for his performance of "Aint' Misbehavin'" in "Connie's Hot Chocolates" on Broadway, he began touring and performing as a single. At first he fronted his usual backup band, Carroll Dickerson's Orchestra, but when that band broke up, he made a series of recordings with Luis Russell's Orchestra between December 1929 and February 1930.

By April 5, Louis had a new unit at his disposal, drummer Willie Lynch's Coconut Grove Orchestra, more commonly known as the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, a hot unit featuring excellent players such as guitarist Bernard Addison and pianist Joe Turner. Armstrong only recorded six numbers with this group but they're all winners in my estimation. The arrangements are usually mediocre but Lynch's band plays with a pretty good drive.

So enough with the background, let's get to the music. Here's Pops's first recording of "Tiger Rag," the fourth and final tune recorded at this session, 80 years ago today:

Without any introduction or device to set the tempo, the band comes out simply wailing on "Tiger Rag's" first strain. I once saw a transcription of Armstrong solos that included this "Tiger Rag" and included a transcription of the opening, single-note trumpet lines as part of it. I don't know, to my ears, that's not Louis's tone up front, that sounds like Ed Anderson. Regardless, the introduction is an interesting mash-up of a New Orleans trumpet-trombone-clarinet front line and what sounds like an arranged part for the McCord brothers's saxophones. It's a bit messy but fairly exciting, with clarinetist Bobby Holmes executing all the breaks.

Once they get into the main blowing strain, the band really starts swinging. From here on out, the horns stick to driving riffs while the rhythm section simply cooks (thank you, Mr. Addison). Clarinet's first up, bearing a resemblance to Buster Bailey, before trombonist Henry Hicks boots out a half of chours. A nervous break by Theodore McCord launches his fine half-chorus.

But finally, after nearly two minutes, Louis makes his entrance, with one of his perfectly poised breaks, alternating just two pitches in a declamatory, swinging manner. And then he's off, beginning his solo with a paraphrase of a quote of "The Irish Washerwoman." It's just the first quote of many. In fact, when you couple this recording with "Dinah," this session featured more quote's than an edition of Bartlett's.

Gunther Schuller, for one, lambasted these quotes, claiming that Pops was simply playing for "audience titters." True enough, I've always belived Louis's use of quotes to be a sort-of musical showmanship, a way of getting a laugh with horn, but I see no reason to knock him for it. I, speaking for myself, don't need high art every time out; laughter's fine by me anytime. But it's like Pops is doing it in an over-the-top, exaggerated, "Look at me!" style. No, his use of quotes was always very musical as he sometimes made the damned tunes fit inside his improvisations in a perfectly logical manner. According to Taft Jordan, Louis was the one who pioneered this and got all the other musicians quoting other tunes in their solos. By the bop era, Dexter Gordon and Charlie Parker would get lauded for their marvelous use of quotes. Pops? Playing for "audience titters." Hurrumph....

Anyway, "The Irish Washerwoman" is only step one; look out for the ingenious use of "Singin' in the Rain" at 1:53, "National Emblem March" at 2:13 and "Pagliacci" at 2:30 (am I missing any?). But in between the quotes is a beautifully constructed solo, full of virtuosity and all sorts of surprising turns of phrases. You want to talk about blurring the bar lines? Jesus, what more are you looking for? The tempo is up, which always allowed Pops to float along the beat, sounding unusually relaxed at such demanding paces.

For example, take a listen to Louis's second chorus. His break is nothing but a demanding gliss, always a hallmark of his style. He glisses right up to the first note of the "National Emblem" quote. After this quote, though, listen to how relaxed he becomes. He plays something that sounds very similar to "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" (not sure if I want to call it a direct quote), but he stretches it out and bends a couple of notes to make it appear that his brain is functioning at a completely different tempo. But then he snaps back into it with a whipping rip to a high note, leading into a cluster of phrases but another high rip. For his next break, instead of a gliss, he double-times it, with some "modern" harmonic note choices. It's the whole push-and-pull that's positively thrilling: here's a gliss, here's a quote, here's some relaxtion, here's some virtuosity, here's another quote....it might appear manic and disjointed in other hands, but Pops constructs everything so perfectly that it just ends up making too much sense.

And listen to the little motive he works over before the final chorus, a three-note descending pattern that he carresses almost tenderly...while the band is smoking "Tiger Rag" behind him! But finally, in that last chorus, Louis shows off a bit, still using his own conception of time. In fact, it's almost impossible to anticipate what he's doing. The whole chorus is nothing but a series of high concert Ab's with the occasional Bb thrown in for spice, all of it leading to the final screaming high Eb. But each Ab is placed on a different beat, giving the whole chorus a unique equillibrium: the first one is directly on the beat, the next one is seven beats later, the next one six beats later, the next one kind of one the beat...I don't even know. It's pretty remarkable because on one hand, it sounds like simple high-note grandstanding, but rhythmically, it's some seriously complex stuff. And that final Eb? Wow...

Needless to say, Louis's "Tiger Rag" became a sensation among other trumpet players. All you have to do is listen to Duke Ellington's "Daybreak Express" (based on "Tiger Rag," with Cootie Williams on trumpet) or the Washboard Rhythm King's version with Taft Jordan (who borrows the "National Emblem" quote!) to know the effect it had.

So what was Louis to do? Well, as was his nature, it was time for refinement. Louis continued featuring "Tiger Rag" nightly until he developed a new routine which can be summed up as more virtuosity, more quotes, more high-notes and more tempo. Once read, he remade "Tiger Rag" in 1932....and for that version, come back tomorrow for part two!

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