Friday, May 21, 2010

80 Years of "Tiger Rag" - Part Seven - First Show, January 21, 1959

On January 20, 1959, Louis Armstrong played two concerts at the Spothallen in Umea, Sweden, site of the ferocious version of "Tiger Rag" I closed my last post with. Then it was time to travel 1,295 kilometers (805 miles for my fellow Americans) to the Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen, Denmark where Louis would continue during two shows a day for the next five days.

Armstrong and his All Stars must have already been exhausted but this was nothing new, having grown used to traveling across the United States on an endless series of one-nighters. But this was Louis's first European tour since 1955 and it was going to be a killer, nearly six months long, almost always two shows a day. Louis was pushing 60 but--for now--he was ready to keep pushing.

One thing that made the grind more bearable was the reaction of his fans, especially those in Europe, who routinely greeted and treated Louis like a superhero. The fans in Copenhagen were especially ecstatic and it was their response to Louis's routine on "Tiger Rag" that inspired Pops to do some of the most jaw-dropping playing of his career.

The All Stars had a huge book but when Louis would embark on these European tours, he usually came up a pretty strict set list, at least at the start. After he would do his opening five or six numbers, he could change the rest of the show depending on how he felt and how the crowd was reacting. But the 1959 usually featured the same opening of "Sleepy Time Down South," "Indiana," "Basin Street Blues" (sometimes with an encore), "Tiger Rag" and "Now You Has Jazz." Louis was clearly in inspired form from the get-go of this Copenhagen concert and the audience already stirred him enough to do an encore on "Basin Street Blues."

But nothing could have prepared anyone in attendence--including the other musicians!--as to what was about to happen on "Tiger Rag." The All Stars went through their usual high-speed workout on the number and, as usually happened, took a fun encore. That was usually that--but not this time. As Billy Kyle started playing the arpeggio to signal the beginning of "Now You Has Jazz," Pops called another encore. Then another. Then one more. Four encores in all, topping himself on each one.

I posted the audio to this version back in December with little explanation and was thrilled when Jon Faddis told me he was so knocked out, he sent it to a bunch of trumpet players he knew. This time, I'll dig a little deeper with my description but for now, buckle your seat belt and enjoy this "Tiger Rag":


If you were here for my last entry, you know the drill: Danny Barcelona drum break, Louis leads the opening strains, passes the ball to clarinetist Peanuts Hucko and trombonist Trummy Young for solos, then takes a spot himself, usually made up of many quotes he first came up with in his 1930s recordings of the tune. A few bars of Pops's solo has been lopped off but it comes back in time for Louis's "Pagliacci" quote. He then holds a giant Ab and repeats it in my different ways in the last chorus, ending on a high Eb. So far, so good.

The encore begins at 2:30 with another round of solos by Hucko and Young. Then Louis jumps in with a quote from "I'm Confessin'," leading into a "Dixie" break, a chorus completely lifted from his 1930s set solo. At this point, Louis and Trummy would start blowing at each other, occasionally resulting in a chase around the piano. Instead of repeated high Ab's, Louis raises the stakes to high C's, though he indulges in a little "talking" playing with Young as the humorously "yell" at each other for a few seconds. Another high Eb finishes off encore number one.

At 4:08, you'll hear Billy Kyle almost automatically start his "Now You Has Jazz" arpeggio. But Pops calls him off and instead starts a second encore of "Tiger Rag"! By this point, Pops had pretty much exhuasted his set list of quotes and such so it's time to start improvising. And he comes up with a gassuh, by starting his solo with "Whispering"! He works it over twice before uncorking a terrific break made up of the melody to "Exactly Like You." He then holds another high C and tops it off with another chorus of high C after high C, finishing on another Eb.

Well, by this point, the bedlam can clearly be heard. Kyle attempts the "Now You Has Jazz" intro again, but--you guessed it--it's time for encore three, beginning at 5:55. This time, Louis remembers he still had one more quote left in his old stockpile so he begins with it, Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song." But then he's back to improvising some new ideas, completely in his own frame of time. He sounds like he almost gets turned around for a second but he soon relaxes and holds that high C to lead into the final chorus. After repeating Ab's in the first version and C's on the first two encores, there's nowhere to go but up. And that's just what he does with an astonishing chorus built on high Eb's. Even in his 1930s prime, high concert Eb is where Louis ended. On the 1937 Fleischmann's Yeast version had a similar final chorus and just like then, Louis goes one better and ends on a high F! Ridiculous...

More bedlam ensues and Louis can be heard shouting "The cats are gone!" Unable to stop himself, Louis calls for a fourth encore at 7:54. Give Peanuts and Trummy (jazz musicians don't have names like that anymore) credit for continuing to blow with such gusto (Trummy especially shows off some rapid playing). But it's still Louis's show and he uncorks a brand new chorus, pushing himself, creating new ideas with each passing bar--dig that wild break! Finally, towards the end, there's a hint that his lip might be giving out a bit. Instead of holding high C's or Eb's, he goes back to the Ab, which he held the first time through.

But don't let the momentary lower note fool you. From that Ab, Louis glisses all the way back to Eb! And he spends the rest of the final chorus taking batting practice, winding up and hitting these tape measure blasts, one after another, Eb to Ab, Eb to Ab. And once again, another high F. Amazing.

Louis, finally finished, tells the audience that when they have a crazy audience, they're crazy, too! He wasn't kidding. It was then time for "Now You Has Jazz" and the rest of the concert to proceed as planned. But that "Tiger Rag" was something special.

But the story is not over! Louis and the All Stars played two sets, Louis closing with more powerful playing on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" and "Royal Garden Blues." Then it was time to relax...but not for long. Louis would have to give one more concert THAT SAME EVENING. And don't you know, he played four encores on "Tiger Rag" AGAIN!? And it's even better than the version we just heard? Don't believe me? See you for part 8....

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