Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Louie, Louie - Louis Armstrong Meets Louis Jordan

Louis Armstrong With Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five
Recorded August 23, 1950
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Louis Jordan, alto saxophone, vocal; Aaron Izenhall, trumpet; Josh Jackson, tenor saxophone; Bill Doggett, piano; Bill Jennings, guitar; Bob Bushnell, bass; Joe Morris, drums
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: Both songs are on a variety of discs, "You Rascal You" being more ubiquitous.
Available on Itunes? Yes, both are on an Armstrong compilation, "The Wonderful Duets."

I'm a week late to celebrate the official anniversary of this momentous date as life (and "Confessin'") got in the way of me making this post on August 23, the 60th anniversary. You know, life is so peculiar but as everybody says, that's life. (Okay, I was originally going to go with "Better late than never" but I wanted less of a cliche and something more appropriate to the situation at hand!)

And pardon the joking "Louie, Louie" title but how can anyone not be inspired to clown around when in the presence of two of the greatest comedic geniuses jazz ever produced in Louis Armstrong and Louis Jordan. Seriously, these two men brought more smiles to the American public in the 1940s, 50s and 60s than anyone else that comes to mind (though you know Fats Waller would have given them a run for their money if he had lasted past 1943).

I don't think I have to go into too much background, but a few words are in order. As some of the Armstrong die-hards know, Louis Jordan's first appearance on record was as a member of a Philadelphia pit band orchestra that backed Louis on his two "Medleys of Armstrong Hits" recorded for Victor in 1932. Obviously, Jordan watched Armstrong very carefully and took copious mental notes about how to deliver a song with equal parts grin and swing.

After a few years, Jordan joined Chick Webb's orchestra, acting as frontman during live engagements. Though a terrific, gritty alto saxophone player, Jordan's personality is what really made him a star. Soon enough, he formed his own band. Instead of leaning towards a 16-piece aggregation, as was the custom of the day, Jordan started a small group, but one with the power of a big band. Known as the Tympany Five, it provided the perfect backing for Jordan's string hit Decca recordings in the 1940s. Jordan took his showmanship lead from Louis (as well as performing concepts such as setting solos and have a fixed live repertoire) but he also took something much more important: Louis's black audience. In fact, it wasn't just Louis's black audience; one could argue it was jazz's black audience, many of whom were turned off by bebop and went down the R&B path, following Jordan, Bull Moose Jackson, Wynonie Harris and others of that ilk (that fantastic ilk; I legitimately have a love affair with 1940s R&B).

As Armstrong's audience grew paler in complexion, he grew a bit hurt by this. Jack Bradley tells a story about a time Armstrong and Jordan appeared in the same town in Texas and all of that city's black audience went to hear Jordan, stinging Armstrong deeply.

But Armstrong didn't blame Jordan personally for this abandonment and the two men remained friendly, always with hopes of making a record. On August 23, 1950, that record became a reality. If you've heard this music before, you know how much fun it is. If you've never heard it, prepare to do a LOT of smiling for the next six minutes. And either way, I'm sure you'll join me in the camp of people who shake their heads and lament, "Geez, how did these two never make a dozen long-playing albums together???"

This session is a tremendous amount of fun but Armstrong plays a serious amount of horn, too. Part of me debated whether or not to share the following story now or wait until after I've discussed the music, but I'm going to share it up front because if anything, it'll make you appreciate the music even more. As Louis Jordan told it, Armstrong's chops and voice were in woeful shape when he showed up for the session that day. Through a weird combination of fruit, sandwiches and plain old killing time, Louis nursed them back into shape....and how! Terry Teachout used a bit of this quote in his Armstrong biography, but here is the entire story, told by Jordan himself in 1970:

Isn't that a riot? I've written before that Louis's chops never sounded at less than 100% form on any of his 1950s Decca recordings, but as Jordan's story shows, sometimes he had to work pretty hard to get to that 100% (Norman Granz recorded full albums in a single day, never mind three-minute pop songs, so he never had the time to let Pops go through his routine, which led to some very human playing on Armstrong's late-50s Verve material).

So with Pops's chops percolating, it was time for producer Milt Gabler to start recording the first song on the docket, "Life is So Peculiar." Naturally, with Mssrs. Armstrong and Jordan in town, Gabler wasn't about to call anything like "Strange Fruit." He knew these men better than most and managed to select a current song that would fit them like a glove. "Life is So Peculiar" was written by the more-than-formidable team of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke for 1950 film "Mr. Music," starring Bing Crosby. In fact, Bing performed the song in that flick with Peggy Lee. I love Bing and I love Peggy but I don't know, it all feels a little flat to me. The song isn't that great, the performance is more cute than funny and overall, it's just a little ho-hum. Watch it for yourself and see how you feel:

Okay, so you have that in your head now, right? Now stand back and listen to Louis and Louis make that song absolutely come alive:

You can stop smiling now! Right from Pops's signature scat break, you know you're in the company of two men who know how to have a good time. They each take turns singing lead while the other one jives around with comic asides. I do wonder how many takes it took to record this number because the whole thing is so funny and so tight, it's a little scary. Also, don't miss the first to this session's many references to "cabbage." I'm sure Burke meant it in the "corned beef and cabbage" way but one listen to Louis's aside, "I love cabbage," and you know that Louis isn't talking about food. If you still don't know what I'm talking about, Louis took part in a recording in the 1920s by Maggie Jones titled "Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage?" Case closed...

After the first vocal go-around, Armstrong and Jordan pick up their instruments for a scorching interlude, spurred on by drummer Joe Morris's ringing cymbals. Louis's chops show zero signs of distress as he jumps right in with a quote from "The Song is Ended," followed by a blistering, melt-the-saxophone-into-liquid outing by Jordan. On the bridge, Louis goes up and stays there, pounding out a series of high C's (on the trumpet; concert Bb's). Jordan wails a bit more before the two team up on a nifty little break. The sound of the cymbals disappears so abruptly that I feel that there might be a splice in there but who cares, the break is just a gassuh.

Armstrong and Jordan ham it up vocally for the final minute leading to the hilarious ending where Jordan throws in a snatch of a Satchmo impression. It's hard not to join both men in their joyous yelling of approval at record's close.

"Life is So Peculiar" is a very entertaining little platter but the flip side, "(I'll Be Glad When You're Dead), You Rascal You," is one for the time capsule. Seriously, force me at gunpoint to name my ten favorite Armstrong recordings and I'd have to list this version of "You Rascal You." Because this isn't a blog about that song, I'm not going to go into its history; Louis first introduced it on records in 1930 and it immediately became one of his best-known songs. He performed it in films, it was a staple of his live shows in the 1930s and 1940s and he even remade it once for Decca in 1941 (two words: Big Sid!). I have many broadcasts of this song, Louis played it often in the early years of the All Stars and he made one more incredible studio recording of it in 1957 for "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." But this is the version to end all versions.

As usual, when I'm confronted by a performance that I love so much, one that I have listened to at least a thousand times in my life, it's hard to come up with words to describe it. So for now, I won't try. Just hit the play button and start smiling:

Full disclosure; I wrote that last sentence before leaving my house for a doctor's appointment at 8:00 this morning. It is now 4:00 in the afternoon. In those eight hours I'm going to be conservative and say that I listened to "You Rascal You" ten times. I still don't know what to say about it; I do know I want to listen to it

Okay, maybe I'm addicted to this performance, but I'm not ready to kick it. Right from the dramatic introduction, Pops soaring over the other horns in Jordan's band, I'm hooked. Jordan takes the first lead, Louis coming up with endless variations in his obbligato. Louis puts down the horn long enough to shout, "Talk about him, Jordan, talk about him!" but then it's right back to blowing those inventive responses to Jordan's calls for action.

Finally, Louis takes the vocal spotlight with Jordan playing a groovy obbligato. And what do we have here...a new stanza about cabbage! (Hmm, it's almost dinner time and I have an insatiable hunger for cabbage....) The two men continue switching roles for the next two choruses. Jordan is fun as usual, especially in his vocal responses ("Catch up with him, catch up with him!"), but Louis (Armstrong) pretty much swallows the spotlight whole with his reading of the lyrics. That descending "Wonder wonder what you got" riff kills me every time, especially with the emphatic "I say" lead-in. These two men are swinging!

But soon enough, it's time to sweating. Louis puts in a request to "Blow him out, blow him out" and damn, he does just that in the final minute of the record. Anyone who thinks Pops's chops were gone in 1950, just slide them a copy of this record. And then think of Jordan's story about how much Louis struggled to just produce a sound earlier that day! Incredible.

The Tympany Five really turns on the heat in these outchoruses. Again, I have to give honors to the rhythm section with Bill Doggett's big block chords sounding sweet throughout the record. I also never fail to be moved by bassist Bob Bushnell's lines, especially when he goes from the root down to the lower third and works his way back up the is swinging! And I love Morris's swishing cymbals, especially as he plays closed hi-hat throughout the vocals, and opens up just in time for the jammed choruses. What a hot group!

But of course, highest props go to Pops for the way he soars over the insistent riffing of Jordan, tenor saxophonist Josh Jackson and trumpeter Aaron Izenhall. Louis so sounds so inspired, he almost blows his chops through his horn. At first, he's content to answer the riffs with perfectly phrased responses, turning up the heat in his second chorus. But at 2:36, he grabs onto a high G...and doesn't let go for 12 seconds! And when he lets go, he sends it off even further into the stratosphere by glissing to a higher B. And then he does it again, holding it for a shorter period of time, but still infused with enough of that special intense vibrato to make the listener reach for a cold glass of water. Rounding the third chorus and heading home, Armstrong tweaks his two-note motive from G-to-B to G-to-Bb, the flatted third adding a heap of blues to the proceedings. Jordan's horns respond each time Louis does right until Louis's final climb to a high concert D. Unbelievable!

I don't know about you, but I have to go somewhere and cool down. What a session! But as I alluded to in my opening, the crime of it all is that it was done only once. I don't think there was a bad-blood motive or anything behind it; the two men clearly loved performing together (or at least made it sound that way). As Jordan alluded to in the interview excerpt I posted, it was hard enough getting both men together in the studio for this one date, never mind a series of dates. These were two road warriors who never turned down the opportunity to play anytime, anyplace, anywhere. And besides, these men were superstars who, in the end, didn't need the other to make hit records. Louis duetted with many great artists during his Decca years but usually it was one session and done (that's how it went for his pairings with Jordan, Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby; Ella Fitzgerald and Gary Crosby each got to do two Decca sessions with Louis).

Interestingly, the session also represented a bit of a crossroads for both Louis's. Jordan might have had more hit records in the 1940s and he might have overtaken the black audience, but by 1950, the magic was disappearing. Jordan made many, many great records in his last 20 or so years but the days of #1 recordings were through and by 1954, Decca dropped him. Louis, on the other hand, had just recorded "La Vie En Rose" and "C'st Si Bon" and was about to embark on a run of hits at Decca including "I Get Ideas," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "It Takes Two to Tango." And though Jordan still has a deservedly large following (of which I'm a proud member) and his roll in laying the foundation of rock-and-roll has been acknowledged, he has never achieved the iconic status as Pops.

Either way, I don't want to turn this into a silly competition. I'm just glad we have so many wonderful Louis Armstrong records and so many wonderful Louis Jordan records (and completely off the subject, I'm also glad we have so many wonderful Louis Prima records!). But for 60 years after that August 23 day in 1950, I'm especially glad we have those two wonderful recordings of Armstrong and Jordan together.

Okay, time to listen to "You Rascal You" one more time. The last time, I swear!


hamfat said...

I'm glad to see this record get some attention - I've loved it for many years. The drummer who was part of this really great rhythm section was better known by his stage name "Chris Columbus" - he left Jordan shortly after this along with Wild Bill Davis and guitarist Bill Jennings to make "April In Paris" and "Azur Te".
I always wished Louis {Pops) had made more sides with these guys. He sounds so inspired by them.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate you taking the time to tell this story. These two songs are without question a pair of my all time favorites for exactly the reasons you discuss. When I first came upon them, on an Armstrong recording, I almost fell out of my chair when I heard Jordan come on. Like you, I played them over and over and over and over. They are just amazing and I had never read/heard the story until today- and it just so happens I just got back from the Louis Armstrong house in Queens. Thanks so much for doing this!