As I mentioned at the end of my last post, "Tiger Rag" wasn't exactly a hip tune anymore as the 1940s began. All of a sudden Louis Armstrong, who had been pounding out live versions as late as 1937 and 1937, just stopped playing it. On the many, many, many broacasts that survive from the war period, none feature "Tiger Rag."
But by the mid-40s, the jazz wars (no relation to the world wars) were in full swing and a determined group of mouldy figs placed Louis, along with Bunk Johnson, as the king of their cause--even though Louis hadn't played small-group New Orleans-styled music with any regularity in over 20 years. But nostalgia was blossoming and as Louis gave looking backwards a try, "Tiger Rag" made its reappearance.
First up was the atrocious film "New Orleans," originally an attempt to tell the story of jazz's origins that, by the time it hit the screen, was nothing more than some silly melodrama caked with painful stereotypes. But it did give Louis a chance to play in a small group setting, surrounded by old associates like trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Barney Bigard, pianist Charlie Beal, guitarist Bud Scott, bassist Red Callender and drummer Zutty Singleton. The film has some very good musical scenes but the soundtrack, featuring many songs that didn't make into the movie, is fantastic from start to finish.
When Louis and the aforementioned musicians began recording the soundtrack on September 5, 1946, they started right off the bat with "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" and "West End Blues" (verisons I've shared in previous blogs on those specific tunes). Up next was "Tiger Rag" and here's how it came out:
Interesting, isn't it? Especially if you recently listened to Louis's barn-burning, exhibitionistic versions from the late 30s. The tempo is back to a more "normal" up speed and Louis sounds content playing good ol' New Orleans lead trumpet. Kid Ory does his smears, Zutty works the snare...it's like the Swing Era never happened!
Barney's clarinet is up first, nothing great, nothing terrible, just Barney, though Zutty's endless array of sounds is fun to listen to. Zutty then takes a great break before the rideout with Pops soaring over the ensemble. I've read some cranks complain that when Louis finally returned to small group jazz in the 1940s, he no longer played authentic lead, but instead spent too much time in the upper register. Well, for Christ's sake, it's Louis Armstrong! You know what you're going to get and you're know it's going to be good; why yearn for Percy Humphrey when you've got Louis Armstrong taking that ridiculous break towards the end of this version of "Tiger Rag" (no offense to Percy, whom I love). Louis is in scorching form, playing all new ideas without leaning back on a single lick from his 1930s set versions. It's short, but pretty thrilling, wouldn't you say?
About six months later, Louis did a concert at Carnegie Hall in which he fronted Edmond Hall's sextet for the first half before leading his usual big band after intermission. The reviews were ecstatic about the small group portion, creating another step in the direction of Louis abandoning his orchestra. "Tiger Rag" was played once again but this time Louis introduced it as a feature for Hall's terrific drummer, Jimmy Crawford. Louis also lets Hall's men get in some solo time so for scoring purposes, in addition to Hall's clarinet, the group features Irving "Mouse" Randolph on trumpet (he takes the first solo), Henderson Chambers on trombone, Charles Bateman on piano and Johnny Williams on bass. Here's that "Tiger":
Notice Louis's first note is an A natural before he fixes it immediately and starts playing the correct series of concert Bb's. This might seem like a small thing but it'll crop up again. I think the band a little tentative but Pops reins everyone in with his tight lead, while Hall takes some great breaks. For the first time in all these versions, Armstrong trots out Nick La Rocca's three-note riff chorus behind Hall's solo.
Then Pops grunts, singalling trumpeter Randolph to take a solo. Man, to take a trumpet solo--on "Tiger Rag," no less--in front of Pops, that couldn't be an easy thing to do. Randolph sounds a little nervous--a few times his tone seems to mirror his nickname "Mouse"--but he gets through it unscathed. Chambers takes a stomping solo, something Louis must have remembered as Chambers got the call a few years later to take over in the All Stars when Jack Teagarden fell ill for a few years.
Then it's time for Crawford, one of my favorite drummers. I'm pretty sure that's Crawford yelling along with his own solo (who can forget his vocal exhortations of the Fletcher Henderson alumni record "The Big Reunion"?). Crawford then indulges in some visual showmanship that alas, we can only guess about. He starts playing a heavy four-on-the-floor, splashing some cymbals at will (Pops can be heard saying, "Face is gone!") Then someone says, "Better catch it now," followed by a thump, silence and a roar of approval. Clearly some stick juggling was going down and Crawford must have pulled it off successfully. In fact, there's a couple of seconds of silence (did he get up from the set maybe?) before he returns to beat the daylights out of his snare.
The closing ensemble is even more exciting, I think, than the "New Orleans" version with Pops full of more new ideas. Instead of taking the break, Louis lets Crawford have it and he fills it beautifully. Crawford drives everyone home with a fat roll and as usual, Pops goes out on top.
The success of the Carnegie Hall show led the historic Town Hall concert a few months later with Louis fronting a small group consisting of Jack Teagarden, Peanuts Hucko, Bobby Hackett, Dick Cary and Bob Haggart with George Wettling and Sid Catlett splitting the drum duties. People have their guesses on which numbers feature Wettling and which numbers feature Catlett but I'm pretty positive the evening's only drum feature, "Tiger Rag," is all Big Sid. Here's Louis and Sidney:
Once again, Pops starts off unaccompanied by playing three A-naturals before again catching himself and starting again with the requisite Bb's. I don't know why he had brain farts with the beginning of this number but as we'll hear in the next installment, it took him a couple of seconds to get it right in 1955.
Once set, Louis and the entire band sound great, Catlett's drumming giving an extra kick. After the opening strains, Louis and Teagarden team up to play La Rocca's three-note riff as Hucko solos on top of it. Towards the end of the chorus, Louis could be heard giving some sort of direction as Hackett picks up the trumpet slack. Teagarden slides into his solo with one of his great licks as Pops leads the other horns in the familiar "Hold That Tiger" riff beneath him. Teagarden's plays a really hot solo. I should have mentioned that htis was the first full-band number after Louis opened the concert with four performances backed just by the rhythm section. Teagarden said it was a dream-come-true to be there and he plays like it on "Tiger Rag" (and throughout the rest of the night).
Then finally, in our third version today, we get a full-blown Louis solo and it's a good one, very fluent and again full of new ideas. It's like he completely forgot or just cast aside his 1930s showpiece version (though don't worry, it will be back...and how!). Louis can be heard going off-mike towards the end, obviously signalling Catlett to take it. Big Sid does what Big Sid does....just sit back and enjoy it. His snare work is flawless, not as choppy as Crawford's. He eventually makes a tour of the entire drumset before some of his patented quiet work on the toms (a drum solo that draws applause for getting quieter!?) before he drops a big fat conga beat. Catlett wrote the book on showmanship and like Crawford, clearly indulges in a bit of himself, probably doing some stick tossing and getting some cheers for his effort.
There's a second of confusion as the other musicians aren't sure when to come back--Louis's tiny, swallowed beep of a note still sounds like Louis--before everyone just goes for it, playing their hearts out for 16-bars as Big Sid lowers the boom and gives everyone a backbeat to go home on. A very exciting performance and only the start of what would be a historic evening.
About a month later, "New Orleans" had its New York premiere at the Winter Garden theater. For the occasion, Louis fronted another small group for an NBC broadcast hosted by Fred Robbins. Teagarden, Hackett, Hucko, Cary and Wettling were back from Town Hall, joined by Ernie Caceres's baritone saxophone, while Jack Lesberg replaced Bob Haggart on bass. Louis had some chops troubles that night but gradually warmed up as the broadcast progressed. The closer was "Tiger Rag" and as you'll hear Fred Robbins announce, a new drummer was brought in from the bullpen to replace Wettling: you know it, it's Big Sid again. Here's the audio:
This time, Louis quietly plays the first note by himself off-mike to make sure he has it...he does! Otherwise it's a fine opening strain, if not quite as intense as Town Hall. Hucko sounds positively polite during the first half of his solo (where's Edmond Hall when you need him?) but he gradually gets hot. Teagarden, though, does his best Kid Ory impression and I think he does it well, growling those smears for the "Hold That Tiger" chorus. Louis breaks free towards the end to signal Big Sid to do his thing. The sound quality is a little better hear than at Town Hall and the clasping of Catlett's hi-hat gives an added lift to his snare work.
With time running out on the broadcast, a bit of confusion takes over. As Catlett goes into another feat of stick twirling, Fred Robbins sees an opportunity to make the closing announcements. Sensing the broadcast coming to a close, Pops wanted to final say. He plays a quiet "Hold That Tiger" and Catlett gets the message, closing his solo with a the standard triplets that Louis loved all succeeding drum solos to end with (no matter who was doing the drumming). Louis sounds like he's playing at full power and completely washes away Robbins, who can only reply in euphoria, "Ohhh, Louie!" Realizing the man has to do his job, too, Louis backs off to let Robbins conclude his announcements. Louis could still be heard wailing as the broadcast fades out. Oh, to have 30 more seconds....
Well, two months later, Louis's All Stars were born, creating a small group platform Louis would stay with until he died. However, there are no surviving versions of "Tiger Rag" between the group's debut in August 1947 and December 1955! Louis gave a couple of interviews in the early 50s where he talked about playing different repertoire for different audiences, hitting older folks with light fare like "Tenderly" while the college kids always wanted to hear "Tiger Rag." So I'm sure it must have popped up every now and then. But then again, maybe not. There are so many surviving broadcasts and concerts and recordings from the first eight years of the All Stars and not a single one features "Tiger Rag," which has to say something.
But in December 1955, Louis was in the middle of recording his Columbia album "Ambassador Satch" when producer George Avakian was looking for something different to record. "Tiger Rag" was selected and the resulting performance would be a classic, one that almost immediately reinstated the tune into Armstrong's live shows. Come back in a couple of days for a REAL treat: we'll examine the "Ambassador Satch" version from every angle, including some completely unissued rehearsal takes to illustrate how this performance took shape.