We've come to the end, my friends...those of who you are left! It's taken a month and I realized pretty quickly I was in over my head but hey, if one has the opportunity to write about Louis Armstrong's history with "Tiger Rag," why do a half-assed job? I thank you for sticking with and can promise some good stuff in the coming weeks such as a 50th anniversary tribute to "Limehouse Blues," a 60th anniversary tribute to "La Vie En Rose" and a discussion with some top trumpeters and scholars about Louis's use of high notes, which is something I'm sure you've all gotten used to throughout all of these "Tiger Rag" posts.
As my last two entries showed, Louis was especially inspired on "Tiger Rag" during his marathon six-month tour of Europe in 1959. But in June of that year, he suffered a heart a attack in Spoleto, Italy. Louis and his team quickly covered it up ("It was just gas!") and to prove that nothing was wrong with their champ, Louis went back on the road about a month later. Honestly, nothing had really changed on the surface except for two routines: first, he found himself struggling to get through his patented three-chorus rideout routine on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" and had to find a way to alter it (as I've detailed in my February blog on that song). And the days of endless high notes and humorous quotations on "Tiger Rag" would be officially over.
But "Tiger Rag" always went over well and Louis wanted to keep it in the show. But from post-Spoleto on, it was always a 90-second performance that was more of a clarinet feature than a trumpet showcase. With the tempo still way up, Louis would play the opening strains, but sometimes in the background to allow the clarinet centerstage. Then after a full chorus by the clarinet and a half-chorus by the trombone, Louis would swoop in and take charge for the final 16 bars. Yes, no more eight chorus masterpieces of construction or live versions with multiple encores. It was now 16 bars and out.
So, for the clarinet fans in the house, I'll share a version featuring every All Stars clarinetist from 1959 through 1971. You'll also hear Pops's chops sadly fade, too, but he always managed to make that final high note. Okay, let's kill this "Tiger"...
First us, Peanuts Hucko. This is the same band as on all of the other wild 1959 performances but this tracks is from Keesler Air Force Base, an outdoor venue in Biloxi, Mississippi in October 1959, just four months after the heart attack. Here's the audio:
This complete show is one of my all-time favorite All Stars outings but Louis's chops took a while to warm up and you can hear him sounding strong at first but gradually growing weaker, especially during the "Hold That Tiger" refrain. In fact, if you have good headphones, you can almost hear Louis say something about it being cold out there out, which would make sense, being outdoors in late October. That couldn't have helped the chops. After Hucko and Young, Louis swarms in rejuvenated and indulges in a bunch of high notes, probably aimed at Trummy, an abbreviated version of their usual routine.
Pops must have known that not getting a full chorus to scream those high notes at Trummy wasn't worth the effort so something would have to be changed. The new routine can now be heard from the Newport Jazz Festival in July 1960, now with Barney Bigard on clarinet:
As can be heard immediately, Pops takes more of a backseat during the opening strains. Trummy now takes the melody while Louis dips in out with various phrases, including one giant gliss, sounding much stronger than at Keesler. But once they get to the "Hold That Tiger" strain, Louis passes it immediately to Bigard. After Trummy, Louis then revisits his old solo by entering with an "I'm Confessin'" quote before a series of high notes bring him to his closing Eb. This was now to be the routine for all future versions.
Naturally, the longer Louis played something, the more quotes he would find to insert. Thus, by the time Joe Darensbourg got around to playing the clarinet part on it in this 1962 versions, Louis's opening appearances now includes quotes from the "Wedding March" and Ravel's "Bolero" while the ending still featured "Confessin'" and that high Eb. Here's Darensbourg:
By 1965, Louis was still playing brilliantly but he had lost a few miles off his fastball. In the past, I've dubbed this loss of velocity as Cootie Williams-syndrome and I think it still applies. Louis's power and high notes are still there but he's almost playing in slow motion. The wedding march quote now takes a few extra bars and for "Bolero," he hits the first few high notes and just leaves it there, the bar lines moving too fast for him to resolve it. Eddie Shu is now the clarinetist and, being more of a bopper than a trad player, seems at home with the tempo and offers up something different from New Orleans homeboys Bigard and Darensbourg. Also, Tyree Glenn is now on trombone. Here's this 1965 version from Prague:
After returning from Prague, Armstrong took some time off for dental surgery. When he went back to playing in the summer of 1965, he still sounded fine, but not at the A+ level he was playing in early 1965. The combination of old age, abused chops, dental work and endless one-nighters was too much to overcome. The great decline had officially begun, though Louis was too smart to let it show. He eliminated tough showpieces from the All Stars book, eliminated certain demanding solos when he didn't feel up to it ("Indiana" and "Muskrat Ramble" being two examples) and either sang or featured his sidemen more. It was still a tremendous evening of entertainment, but for lovers of the trumpet, Louis in 1966 was quite different than Louis in 1964.
One version of "Tiger Rag" survives from 1966 and it's in pretty rough sound quality. I hesitated about showing it but I'm a completist and it's the only version that features Buster Bailey, the clarinet virtuoso who originally played with Armstrong with King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson in the 1920s. By this point, Louis began standing even more off-mike so you really have to turn it up to hear his contribution. But it's still there, the wedding march reference and a couple of high notes. But now, after Glenn's trombone solo, the "Confessin'" quote and the high notes are gone. Instead, Louis improvises basically on a series of half-notes though he makes sure to have enough to hit a final high note. However, that note is now a concert Ab, down a fifth from the Eb he ended every preceding version of this song. Here it is from 1966:
After Bailey's death and a short stint by Johnny Mince (who wasn't recorded), Joe Muranyi became Armstrong's final clarinetist. I have many "Tiger Rag's" from Muranyi's tenure in the band, some in great quality, some in poor, some with strong Pops, others with weak Pops. But for the sake of a narrative, I think I have to end with a sad one.
Muranyi joined after Pops had to lay off for about six weeks due to bronchial pneumonia. Armstrong emerged reenergized, as can be heard on the fantastic playing he did on the "Tonight Show" and at concerts in Sandusky, Ohio and Highland Park, Illinois in June 1967. But the grind of the one-nighters soon wore him down. By the time of a broadcast from Atlantic City's Steel Pier on July 22, Louis's lip was in bad shape. Right after, he had to fly to Europe for another series of concerts, a different city almost every day. Louis wasn't ready for this, as can be heard on a July 25 show in Copenhagen. Eventually, he settled down and sounded much better at Juan-Les-Pins, France on July 26 and 27 but on video from those performances, he didn't look quite right.
But I have to go back to that July 25 Copenhagen show. Why? Because it was in Copenhagen in January 1959 where Louis was pushing himself to the brink, contributing all those versions with either four encores or three encores, the ones I've been celebrating for two weeks. Back then, Louis was feeling great, killing himself for two shows a day, breaking up his crazy audience who demanded encore after encore on "Tiger Rag." Well, Louis, on pure talent and guile, broke 'em up in Copenhagen in 1967, but it was not the same trumpet player. Here's the audio:
Now Louis is REALLY off-mike. He gets off a few good runs but can't pull off the high note right before Muranyi takes over for the "Hold That Tiger" refrain (which he always began by quoting "Three cheers for the red, white and blue," a favorite quote of Captain John Handy's on this same number). He sounds better after the trombone and manages to work his way up to that final high Ab, even sliding up to a high C for good measure.
Then something bittersweet happens: the crowd goes wild and stars applauding together in march-like fashion. Perhaps Louis was transported back to 1959 where the very same fans in the very same city also went wild for "Tiger Rag." Seeing their appreciation, he calls for an encore, the only post-1959 suriving version of "Tiger Rag" in which he does this. As Muranyi takes over for another chorus, Louis quietly starts repeating the two-note phrase C to Eb in the background. That's how he began so many of those wonderful "Tiger Rag's" in the 1930s so it's hard not to get emotional hearing him doing it lower and so quietly in the background. After a jammed chorus, Muranyi takes over for a half-chorus. Pops then comes in, still not very audible, except for a triumphant ending where for the only time after 1966, he actually ends "Tiger Rag" on a high C. It's one of those do-you-cry-or-cheer moments, as it's sad as hell that he could no longer play as he did in 1959 but it's still admirable to hear him pushing right to the end, giving everything he had left in the tank. Here's the encore:
It seems that every Louis performance for the rest of 1967 and 1968 included this racehorse, 80-second version of "Tiger Rag." And according to John S. Wilson's review in the "New York Times," Louis even played it on the opening night of his final engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in March 1971. He had been through a lot with that "Tiger" since that first version from 1930. And we've been through a lot, too, with ten blogs on the subject, with 39 audio examples and three videos. I hope you enjoyed reading these blogs as much as I enjoyed putting them together. I'm going to recharge my batteries over the weekend and then it'll be on to other Louis-related material next week. Til then!