Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 11, 1932
Track Time 3:20
Written by Nick La Rocca
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41557
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from 1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes
When we last left our hero, he had successfully slain "Tiger Rag" for the first time 80 years ago this week. His high-note studded, quote-filled version became a template for other trumpeters of period on how to tackle the tune. Many musicians and commentators would later remember Louis performing "Tiger Rag" live as his showstopper number, pulling it out to wow audiences and slay musicians, though the damage he did to his chops on numbers like this almost did him in for good. Between "Tiger Rag" and "Shine," Louis had two showpieces to choose from on which he would conclude by hitting at least 100 high C's, topped by a high F. Musicians present at such performances never forgot it though Louis himself later admitted that the public thought he was a maniac and that he was heading in the wrong direction.
But in 1932, he was still in his 100-high-C's mode. Because records were limited to about three-and-a-half minutes, it would be impossible for him to replicate his routine on wax (and it might have been a little monotanous...though fascinating!). Nevertheless, after almost two years of featuring it in his live performances, Louis felt the need to record his new, improved routine on the tune. Thus, on March 11, 1932, with his regular orchestra (the Zilner Randolph band) backing him up, Louis recorded what was known as "New Tiger Rag." Buckle your seat belt...
It doesn't take a licensed musicologist to realize that the tempo of "New Tiger Rag" is a bit on the up side. Frankly, it makes the 1930 version sound like a ballad. This is "Tiger Rag" on steroids. (I attempted to use an online metronome to get a number of beats per minute but my computer caught on fire.)
For Pops, the faster, the better. He wasn't really comfortable until he hit warp speed, at which point he'd be free to float around the bar lines without any gravity (if you ever need to explain how gravity and space travel works, just play a fast Louis Armstrong record from the early 30s). As for the other musicians in his band, well God speed. The horns and even the bass or piano could give it a two-beat feel and play at half the tempo but poor Mike McKendrick on guitar and poor Tubby Hall on drums sound like they're dying. In fact, Hall's later replacement Harry Dial, who joined the following year, once said about Louis, "He'd make me so mad on 'Tiger Rag' that I wouldn't know what to do. He'd want me to ride the cymbals on the last three choruses. I'd grab the cymbal around the eight chorus and start riding it, and by the end of the tenth it would sound good to him and he'd hit with one finger, which would mean one more chorus...and he'd play ten more choruses....That guy worked me to death."
Other New Orleans musicians, including drummer Baby Dodds, practically gave lectures on why "Tiger Rag" was not to be played too quickly. Pops obviously didn't attend those lectures!
Unlike the original version, Pops does play the first strain, though he doesn't so much play it verbatim as suggest the general shape of it by playing a pared-down, free-floating variation centered on few pitches. He then steps up to the mike and gives a cute little monologue about the "novelty" we're about to hear. Novelty, yes. Pops knew that this wasn't high art, this was something fun and exciting, a little showmanship and grandstanding to makes every jaw in earshot turn slack with awe. You want to hear the lyrical Pops? Just turn the 78 over and listen to the beautiful flip side, "Love, You Funny Thing." You want a little "novelty" to get the blood pumping? You've come to the right place!
After announcing that he's gone and singing a delightful, sighing, "Oh babe," Pops gets his chops together and comes out of the starting gate with a perfect little opening phrase. Louis was the ultimate master of pacing himself and constructing a exciting solo. Thus, there's plenty of space in his first offering, spending most of his time simply alternating between two notes, before he warms up a bit towards the end. Interestingly, perhaps because of time constraints, Louis's first chorus is actually only a half-chorus, but I'm not going to penalize him for shaving 16 bars off.
A voice bellows out, "Two!" letting us know that round two is about to begin. Pops gets himself in a tizzy during his break, rapidly alternating between a C and an Eb, keeping it going for a few bars into the next chorus, before a shouting high Ab. This is the highest note of the solo thus far but Louis doesn't stay there for long. He leaves a little space after it and when he makes his return, it's to play the "Singin' in the Rain" quote from the 1930 record. Armstrong then breaks into a fluent run, which might sound like eighth-notes but are actually quarter-notes, each placed on the beat of this ridiculous tempo.
For the start of his third chorus, Armstrong holds that high Ab again before going into a whirlwind quote from "Dixie," ending it with a high C, the new highest note of the solo. Again, not wanting to peak too quickly, he hits the C and does a swan dive with it, glissing down to shallow waters. Once poised, he throws in a familiar lick, which sounds like it might be from something specific since it's been a part of the jazz vocabulary ever since.
Chorus four begins a new quote, Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song," another lick that would be found in improvisations for decades to come. Now he's really floating, playing as few notes as possible but still managing to swing them in a slightly altered state. He wakes up for a scorching repeated motif at the start of the fifth chorus but soon he's back to weightless territory, milking his trademark "doddle-doddle-da-da" lick for all its worth. He then turns one of his lines completely around the beat--what time this man had!--before repeating a couple of large Ab's and building up to chorus number six.
The sixth chorus might begin with a quote but I'm not sure what it is. However, I do know what comes at the midway point: our old pal "Pagliacci," straight from 1930. Armstrong's seventh chorus is truly in another time zone as he glisses to some more high Ab's in almost slow motion. To show a bit of endurance, he hits one and holds it into his eighth chorus (Pops announced it would take seven choruses to catch the tiger but obviously, this is one fast cat!). Armstrong again reaches back to 1930 by hammering out the "National Emblem March" twice to begin his eighth and final chorus. The rest of the record features more high notes, mostly Ab's, but he does rise to the occasion and ends with that same searing high Eb (high F on the trumpet).
"New Tiger Rag" isn't exactly a melodic masterpiece; in fact, I know some Armstrong worshippers who simply don't go for this kind of exhibitionism. But as I've proven before, I have no taste and little standards so I'm always wowed.
"Tiger Rag" was definitely a mainstay in Louis's repertoire throughout the 1930s. The following year, in October 1933, a Danish film crew captured Armstrong performing three numbers for use in a film. These are some of Louis's most renowned clips and with good reason: this is young Louis in his element, on stage, in peak form both with his vocals and trumpet. "Dinah" is probably the most famous of the three performances captured and indeed, it's a doozy. Louis also did "I Cover the Waterfront" in a version that, I think, features one of the greatest vocals in jazz history. The third number was "Tiger Rag," captured in a performance remarkably similar to the OKeh record we just heard. Here's this historic video:
Armstrong introduces it as "one of the good old swing numbers"...two years before the history books tell us the Swing Era began! Armstrong was always ahead of the curve...
He stomps it off at a typically ludicrous tempo before Peter DuConge takes off with some incredibly hot clarinet playing, hotter than some of the All Stars in Armstrong's later bands (Joe Darensbourg, I'm looking at you). Armstrong then delivers one of his endearing monologues, alerting the audience that it's going to take a few choruses to catch this tiger and that he wants them to count along with him. With a cavalier-like "I'm ready," Armstrong gets his "Selmer trumpet" ready for takeoff. Armstrong's first chorus is different as, along with the band he simply repeats a note every two bars, testing the waters. He's already rhapsodizing by the end of the chorus, setting up his first quote, "Gypsy Love Song" at the start of his second go-around. As a break, he plays that standard lick I couldn't identify earlier, while he begins his third chorus with the "National Emblem" quotes. Clearly, Pops had his ingredients lined up but it seems that he never put them together in the same combination two times in a row. Also, this is a shorter version, so he probably wanted to get the quotes out of the way before the endurance contest.
And what an endurance contest, Armstrong holding high notes for incredible lengths of time before doing rhythmical intricate things with an Ab, a la "Swing That Music" from a few years later. This version doesn't quite have the super slow motion floating of the "New Tiger Rag" from 1932; I wouldn't be surprised if that rendition was fueled by a certain illegal substance. Armstrong still gets off some nice glisses but really, his playing is more intense; those repeated Ab's at the end are like punishing jabs thrown by a championship boxer. The final high Eb is the knockout blow. An incredible feat of strength, especially since he was in the middle of playing so many shows at the Tivoli, including two that night!
I included video of that performance in a blog of mine from 2008 but I noticed today that the video was removed. Because this might happen again, I'm also going to include audio of that performance, taken from Storyville's essential "Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia" set. The sound quality is remarkably bright and clear; you can actually hear the rhythm section including drummer Oliver Tines switching from snare to riding the cymbals at the 2:15 mark, as Pops liked it. Here's the audio:
Though he was greeted as a hero in Europe, Louis was going through a rough period plagued by lip troubles and bad management. He decided to cool it in Europe for a while and wouldn't return to America until 1935. But before he did, Louis took part in a Polydor recording session on November 7, 1934, a super session that illustrated that he was definitely overcoming any chops troubles that plagued him during this period. In addition to standard features like "St. Louis Blues" and his first recording of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," Louis dusted off "Tiger Rag" again, this time recording it as "Super Tiger Rag." The title is not mere hyperbole; this is Dan Morgenstern's favorite version and from this period, I think it's my favorite, too. But I'm going to have to make this another cliffhanger (really, how many high notes can a person listen to in one posting). Part three of this long look at Louis's history with "Tiger Rag" will include the Paris "Super Tiger Rag," a version from the Fleischmann's Yeast Show and a tremendous jam session version with Jack Teagarden and Fats Waller. Not to be missed!