Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Louis Armstrong: A Discussion on High Notes

Before resuming my regular blabbings about all-aspects of Louis Armstrong's music, I want to try something different today, something stemming from my series of "Tiger Rag" posts. Swedish Armstrong authority Håkan Forsberg is one of my heroes (and I should have mentioned that without Håkan, Jos Willems, Peter Winberg or the late Gösta Hägglöf, I wouldn't have had half of those later, live versions of "Tiger Rag" to share so please, thank them!). In the middle of my ravings about Louis's upper register work on those crazy 1959 live versions from Europe, Håkan was struck by an idea. Few people love Louis as much as Håkan but at the same time, he has admitted that he prefers lyrical Louis rather than just exhibitionistic streaks of high notes.

This led him to ask me a question last week: "Nevertheless – couldn’t you give me and other readers of your blog an idea of how high Louis played when compared to other trumpeters like Bunny Berigan, Buck Clayton, Harry James, Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, the Condoli brothers, Clifford Brown etc, etc - well also compared to Jon Faddis and other “young cats”. That Louis’ 'highnoting' was sensational in the 20s and early 30s we know but how sensational was it really in the late 50s? – And is it necessary to say that 'remember he was almost 60 years old etc'? A few words on this matter in your final Tiger Rag excursion could perhaps be in it’s place?!?"

Well, I think knew MY response: Louis's high-note work in his later years was pretty sensational! But the more I thought about it, who am I? I have never even attempted to play the trumpet so what do I know about high notes? Thus, I sent out an e-mail to a couple of trumpet players I know to get their reaction. (I didn't want to go overboard because I know many musicians and I hope more write in after reading this...so write in, Al and Phil and Herbert and Yves and so on!)

To compare Louis to others around him, the consensus was that yes, others did play higher than Louis, especially beginning in the 40s. The young trumpeter Gordon Au wrote to me, "I'd say off the bat yes, of course you're correct, Louis was a natural great when it came to high notes and other trumpet technique. In his early days, I think he was leaving other trumpeters in the dust, but for comparison, I think by 1950 Maynard Ferguson had joined Kenton's band and was doubling lead trumpet parts up an octave. Of course, that was not in the virtuosic soloing style that Louis could do, but as far as numbers go, it was higher than Louis generally played."

Jon-Erik Kellso agreed, saying, "I don't think I can give a very detailed answer, and really don't think in terms of who played how high, or who could play higher than who, as you might have guessed. I think it's safe to say that Louis raised the bar for high notes in the early days, and Jabbo Smith was probably similarly able to pop 'em out in those days. The Berigans and James's's of the swing era could play as high or almost as high as Louis. Roy could play even higher, as did guys like Al Killian and Charlie Shavers, and then a little later--Dizzy...then Cat Anderson...then later Maynard and his disciples took it up even higher. And of course there are guys now like Faddis who can play notes only dogs can hear."

Interestingly, Marc Caparone of California wrote almost the identical thing as Au and Kellso, regarding Louis being higher than all at first before gradually being surpassed by Roy Eldridge, Maynard Fergusson and Jon Faddis. But Marc had some wonderful insights into the pure sound of Louis's upper register playing: "Now, Pops didn't spend a lot of time up in his highest notes, generally he didn't go much higher than F over high C, but that leads me to the most important aspect of Louis's high register -- the SOUND of his high notes. I have never heard another trumpet player (Berigan and Eldridge came close) who put so much feeling and pathos into the high register. Louis' high notes covered the range from pure operatic grandeur to a banshee's wail, often in the course of the same solo. His high notes always sound higher than they really are, because of the way he plays them. I think that Louis' high notes sound absolutely sensational in the late 50's, even though players like Cat and Maynard Ferguson were playing higher. Again, not because they were spectacularly high, but because of the way they were played. The triumph of musicality over technique!"

Marc then wrote back to add, "Oh, and one more thing, I think is is very impressive that Pops had a good high register in his old age. Playing the trumpet is a lot of physical work, and many players embouchures tend to deteriorate as they get older, especially the high notes. Louis worked very hard to keep his technique at a high standard, and the various later Tiger Rags show that he was indeed very, very strong at age 60, and that he obviously had a good technical approach to the trumpet. Actually, the fact that Louis was still hitting those high notes in his 60's really shows that he did not have a 'primitive' technique as some folks have stated. Unschooled, perhaps, but not primitive."

Naturally, I couldn't agree more with Marc. I was even happier when Louis nut Dave Whitney--a terrific trumpeter and fellow blogger over at "Pete Kelly's Blog"--wrote in with his response. Here's Dave:

"I'm delighted to offer some opinions on Pops' Tiger Rag blowing etc.
First regarding the high notes- As we all know, Pops opened the door for high note playing. Bunny Berigan, a favorite of Pops got up to high F a lot and occasionally higher-he took many risks and made his share of fluffs, but like Pops was always musical and had a huge sound in all registers. Guys like Roy Eldridge, Charlie Shavers, Paul Webster, Dizzy, Cat Anderson and Maynard Ferguson all played higher than Pops, but all drew on him as the originator of high note playing.
Louis seemed to use high G as his cut-off. As you have stated, he probably went higher in practice. The thing about his high note work was how much control and sound he had up there-never straining or squeaking and such a huge sound. His shakes on the end of Avalon with the Dukes and Black and Blue from E. Berlin '65 are so huge and powerful. They just electrify the listener."

Quick musical interlude: Dave mentions Louis probably going higher in practice. For a remarkable example of that, here's 46 seconds of "Over the Rainbow," as played by Louis while warming up in a German dressing room, probably in the 1950s. This is taken from the absolutely essential two-disc "Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts" set:

Incredible, isn't it? But back to Dave, who had some words about Louis's exhibitionism. "As far as the exhibitionistic aspect of Tiger Rag- Yes it is, but Pops was so great at this kind of musical theatre and other trumpeters went for far sillier and unmusical displays. With Louis, he's making great improvisations as well as building tension with his high notes. Each encore has a surprise and he never fails to nail the big ending. As you have stated, sometimes his variations to accomodate the chops are equally brilliant-he knew how to edit his routines. Louis' blowing on the various Tiger Rags shows not only his sense of drama and willingness to please the audience, but it's also pretty amazing trumpet playing."

As for the "almost 60 years of age" factor, Dave writes, "Yes, it's pretty amazing. Especially considering how beat up his chops were and the punishing tour schedule he put in. Men much younger would never try his Tiger Rag routine at a concert for fear of failure and embarassment. The Trumpet is a tough, demanding instrument and when things don't go right it can be very humbling. Pops knew when his chops were up and used those times for the 'Tiger Rag' type of blowing. As you have mentioned, this tour pretty much ended that phase of his work, although he had many more amazing years of blowing thru '65. Even after, there are many great moments right to the end, even if the high-note days were over."

So there you have it...for now! I sincerely hope other musicians, scholars and fans write in with their take on the subject. Until then, I'll be back later this week with something else (don't worry, not "Tiger Rag"!).


MrJimmienoone said...

I think Marc Caparone is absolutely right. There is no greater difference than between playing high notes and playing high notes. Louis played those high notes AS IF they were low - with a broad and full "orchestral" sound, never near "squeezing" them out, as other trumpeters do. This is why most of the time you don't even realize how high he is playing - it just sounds so natural and easy. Only when you start trying to imitate his playing you realize: "Oops - what's this??"

Brassplyer said...

From a strictly technical vantage, Louis wasn't a high-note marvel even by the standards of the 20's and 30's. The highest note I've identified in the audio example above is an E over high C. Certainly it requires some maturity on the instrument but it's nothing freakish. I think the perception of "highness" is exaggerated a bit by the frequencies emphasized by the low-fi recording.

The trumpet universe was a lot wider than jazz. Old-school concert band soloists had superb skill and range. G over high C was effortless for Herbert L. Clarke - he includes an exercise in his "Clarke's Technical Studies" playing chromatically from low G below the staff to G above high C and back down again - he did this chromatic run 4 times in one breath as part of his daily practice and he felt it should be within the reach of a diligent student to do the same. It's widely acknowledged that Clarke had much more range than what he used in his recordings. If you can play that low G to high G exercise four times in one breath, I guarantee you've got more range than a high G.

High notes go back a lot farther than that - Michael Haydn's trumpet concerto from 1763 goes to a B over high C - and this was meant to be played on a natural baroque-era trumpet - long before the advent of valved trumpets.

That being said, Louis had a superb, unique, lyrical style of playing. He played high enough to create musical excitement. He made a lot of great music.

Brassplyer said...

Correcting my earlier comment since I don't see any way to edit, I apparently didn't listen to the whole sound file - Louis gets up to an F# at about :40 in. Still in the healthy but not freakish realm.