Sunday, January 30, 2011

60 Years of "Satchmo at Pasadena"

Hello all, and especially to you newcomers. In recent weeks, Patrick jarenwattananon of NPR's excellent jazz site, A Blog Supreme, has given me two appreciated shout-outs while Michael Steinman over at Jazz Lives, was kind enough to give my upcoming lectures at the Louis Armstrong House Museum on "Louis and Race" a nice plug (more on those as we get a little closer). On top of that, the good folks at Pantheon, publishers of my upcoming book, "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years," called attention to the blog on their Facebook and Twitter pages. As this has been happening, I've watched my climb tremendously, which made me very happy. I still feel like a new kid on the block but I've been keeping this thing going for almost four years and for hundreds of posts so this is no novelty. So welcome to any new readers or Armstrong fans out and I hope you enjoy the lunacy. There's a vast archive of posts to search through on the left side of the page and in upcoming months, this is the place where I'll be sharing any new news about the book (such as the new official release date: June 21!). So again, welcome to my new readers and thanks for my long-term fans who have been with me for a long, long time. This is only the beginning, my friends....

With the pleasantries out of the way, let's get down to business. 60 years today, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars played a "Just Jazz" concert at the Civic Auditorium in Pasadena, California. The "Just Jazz" series was run by disc jockey and concert promoter Gene Norman and Louis was no stranger to the event. After the All Stars debuted at Billy Berg's in August 1947, one of their next stops was to play a concert for Norman in Pasadena. Norman broadcast their 1948 "Dixieland Jubilee" show on his radio show (for another day, kiddies, for another day) and the All Stars always seemed to make an annual appearance in Pasadena for Norman's events. The choice of venue was the Civic Auditorium (NOT the Shrine, as I originally posted yesterday...oops!, Here's an image from the stage to give you an idea of what the musicians saw from their vantage point:

Though Louis's Pasadena shows were a regular occurrence, the January 30, 1951 concert was extra special because Decca was there to record it. With LP technology taking off, live concert recordings were becoming all the rage. Ernie Anderson had recorded Louis's show at Symphony Hall in Boston in November 1947 and sold the tapes to Decca. Decca would release them later in the summer of 1951 and it immediately became a best-seller, cracking the Billboard Top 10 immediately (thank you Google for the use of the Billboard archives!).

Decca probably knew it was going to release "Satchmo at Symphony Hall" first but it didn't hurt to have another live album ready to go in the can. And sure enough, though recorded on January 30, 1951, "Satchmo at Pasadena" wasn't released until September 1952. And though Decca had enough material for another two-LP set, producer Milt Gabler picked what he viewed to be the highlights and changed the original order of the performances to make for a fast-moving, fantastic portrait of the All Stars in action. Here's the original LP cover, as reissued on CD and MP3 in 2009 as part of Universals "Decca Originals" series:


I can't argue with Gabler's choices: "Indiana," "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "My Monday Date," "You Can Depend On Me" and "That's a Plenty" are fantastic Armstrong performances, while Velma Middleton gets the spotlight for two songs, "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and "The Hucklebuck" and the other three big names in the group, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Barney Bigard, get "Stardust," "Honeysuckle Rose" and "Just You, Just Me." The original is a great little album, was another best-seller and must have been a favorite of Pops's, as he copied it to reel-to-reel tape in his private collection multiple times.

And that would have been the end of the story...until 1994. It was in that year when Decca decided to empty the vault. With legendary producer (and recent NEA Jazz Master) Orrin Keepnews at the helm, the label released a four-C.D. set, "The California Concerts." The set contained 18 songs from the Pasadena concert instead of 10 (only a "That's My Desire" didn't make the cut, having survived in inferior sound), as well as three sets from the All Stars's evening at the Crescendo Club (another Gene Norman venue) in January 1955, part of which was also released in the 1950s by Decca. The four-discs are about as fine a portrait of the All Stars as one can find and when you throw in Dan Morgenstern's notes, the package is essential (and I can admit that those notes were very influential on my teenaged self, lighting the fire early on that something in-depth had to be done about Louis's later years).

Alas, that set is long out-of-print, but at least the MP3s can be downloaded on Amazon or Itunes for under $40. It's the still the way to go, as far as I'm concerned. I know what Universal is doing with their "Originals" series, but a straight reissue without those eight extra tracks is kind of silly; they should have included at least a few "bonus tracks." But hey, download the "California Concerts" set and you won't be wrong.

Okay, enough about Decca and the Shrine and the reissues, let's get to the music! So where were Louis and the All Stars at this point in their existence? They were doing pretty damn good, I'll say that. When an ailing Sid Catlett left in the spring of 1949 and Cozy Cole entered on drums soon thereafter, the personnel of the All Stars locked into place for two years with Jack Teagarden on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Earl Hines on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass, Cole on drums and Velma Middleton on vocals. They conquered Europe in 1949 and broke records at venues such as Bop City in New York. Louis was growing more popular all the time, with hit records such as "Blueberry Hill," "That Lucky Old Sun," "La Vie En Rose" and "C'est Si Bon." Hollywood also came calling as most of the band had just filmed "The Strip," a little noir film starring Mickey Rooney, for MGM in December 1950.

Things would continue to get better and better for Louis throughout the 1950s, but this version of the All Stars didn't have much longer to go at the time of the Pasadena concert. Arvell Shaw was first, as he left for Switzerland to study music in June of 1951. Jack Teagarden soon followed. Louis and Teagarden loved each other but Big T was growing weary of the constant traveling and besides, had enough money to start a small group of his own, which he'd lead until his death in 1964. Earl Hines was next but that departure was much less amicable. Hines hated being treated like a sideman and was itching to leave pretty much since the time he joined in 1948. Louis was happy for Hines "and his ego" to leave in the fall of 1951. Thus, one year after the Pasadena show, all that remained were Bigard, Cole and Middleton, setting up a "rebuilding" phase that culminated in an even better edition, with Trummy Young and Billy Kyle, just a few years later.

Despite its flaws--Hines sometimes didn't pay attention, Bigard usually sounded pretty bored, Cole was a dry drummer, no match for Catlett--this was still a pretty special band and the Pasadena night captures them a their finest. They opened with a short instrumental version of Louis's theme, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South"; this is how "Sleepy Time" was always treated until Louis recorded a vocal version with Gordon Jenkins in November 1951 and soon began singing it nightly. "Sleepy Time" was followed by "(Back Home Again in) Indiana," which might make some casual Armstrong fans say, "Duh, of course it did." Sure enough, the "Sleepy Time/Indiana" combination did open almost every All Stars show...but not before the Pasadena concert. In all the research I've done, I have not found a single version of "Indiana" even mentioned in any contemporary reviews of the All Stars before this one. Maybe they had played it before, but it couldn't have been a regular thing. In fact, there are no other versions of "Indiana" to compare it to until May 1952, so it's not like it was always the regular opener ("Sleepy Time" the theme; the next song was technically the "opener").

As some might know, I have a special relationship with "Indiana," having done lectures on the subject, as well as a massive blog about it that can be accessed by clicking here. I'm not going to share the audio of the entire Pasadena concert, but I would like to include a few highlights and "Indiana" fits that description. Here's the audio, as well as part of what I wrote about it in my earlier post on the subject:


Anybody who knows any later versions will immediately notice that the tempo is a little slower than it would become just a couple of years later. But here’s piece of evidence number one that this had to be one of the band’s first shots at the tune: Earl Hines’s piano intro. It’s kind of rambling and hesitant and he doesn’t even play the horns in. He only plays the first 16 bars, which sounds to my ears a little odd as the song’s built-in “C” section is a natural for a piano introduction. But then it’s Armstrong leading Teagarden and Bigard through two opening ensemble choruses. Armstrong once gave his improvising philosophy as follows: “The first chorus I play the melody. The second chorus I plays the melody round the melody, and the third chorus I routines.” Armstrong only plays two up front on “Indiana,” but I think playing “the melody round the melody” just about sums it up.

After solos from Hines and bassist Arvell Shaw, Armstrong enters with the very first “Indiana” solo he ever recorded. It’s a damn good one and please take note that almost none of what Armstrong played here would appear in his later, “set” solo. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the opening of the solo because Shaw’s not back in place yet, so the bottomless sound is pretty empty. Armstrong also slightly cracks two early notes but he soon settles in for a solo that practically defines relaxation. Rhythmically, he’s his usual free-floating self, though I like how he ends the first half with a Pops-ian “doddle-doddle-da-da” phrase. The only part Armstrong would retain for later versions are the triplets in the last eight bars, giving the solo a touch of a 3/4 feeling, as well as the very last phrase of the solo. Nice stuff.

Bigard’s up next and Pops immediately lays some background riffs on him. Piece of evidence number two that this is one of the first versions, if not the very first: Teagarden’s following him, but they’re by no means tight. Armstrong’s leading the way and Jack is doing his best to follow his lead. After Teagarden’s solo, Armstrong reenters for the final charge, giving Cozy Cole a neat eight-bar drum break. Teagarden and Bigard are very reticent in the background; great players but this is not my favorite version of the All Stars. Pops ends on a high one and sounds happy with the results. Decca must have been happy, too; on the original “Satchmo at Pasadena” album, they cut out five or six numbers performed, but they did include “Indiana.”

Armstrong always opened his concerts with himself in the spotlight for a while and that's how it was in Pasadena, as "Indiana" was followed by two Louis originals, "Some Day (You'll Be Sorry)" and "Back O'Town Blues." Both songs are given rather gentle treatments, though Armstrong sounds majestic as usual, playing and singing. "Some Day" would pick up in tempo after he recorded it for Decca in 1953, while "Back O'Town" grew somewhat more raunchy after Trummy Young entered the band to bruise it up a bit. In fact, I prefer later versions of both songs to these, but again, Louis sounds spectacular. Louis then ended his moment in the spotlight with a scorching instrumental of "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans." This is song I haven't covered before and it deserves it's own in-depth post as Louis kept returning to it until at least 1965, always with different variations. Here's the audio:


Notice that it follows the same pattern as "Indiana" with two ensemble choruses up front, then piano, bass, Louis, clarinet (with riffs), trombone and ensemble, a common routine for All Stars instrumentals such as "Muskrat Ramble," "Royal Garden Blues" and "Ole Miss." This was a number that Louis always changed up his solo but he never budged with that intro which, as Loren Schoenberg has pointed out to me, was copped from the beginning of Lester Young's "You Can Depend on Me Solo" with Count Basie (oh, Louis and Lester...that would have been a pairing for the ages).

Louis's five opening numbers took about 22 minutes, at which point it was time for the parade of sideman, opening with Jack Teagarden and his breathtaking treatment of "Star Dust." This is so damn beautiful, I don't know what to say, but I have to share it for those who have never heard (and for those who have, dig in):


Next up was Velma Middleton, who appeared earlier in the set than she would a few years later when she almost always closed Armstrong's first and second sets. Middleton delivered a fun version of "The Hucklebuck," though her dancing seemed to cause her to lose her breath during the instrumental interlude--she sounds winded on the vocal reprise! Louis is dynamite here with two choruses of blues (I can't share EVERYTHING...download it!). Velma usually did at least two numbers so this was probably followed by the "That's My Desire" with faulty sound. Decca probably didn't care since they had the terrific version from "Satchmo at Symphony Hall" in the can, ready for release.

Next up was Earl Hines and "Honeysuckle Rose." Hines sometimes sounds like he's not paying attention in his accompaniment, but he always woke up for his features and "Rose' is no exception. Interestingly, when he first joined the band, Louis used to play on this one, but on this version, he doesn't play a single note. You have to wonder...as the years progressed, did Louis decided he needed a longer break? Or did Hines politely (or not-so-politely) ask for the spotlight all for himself? I tend to go with the latter theory but we'll probably never know.

Arvell Shaw's up next with "How Hight the Moon," a routine he had perfected back at the Symphony Hall concert in 1947. Shaw didn't change it for years but when he rejoined Louis for two years in the 1960s, he played with more intensity and some pretty modern ideas (dig a version from Australia on YouTube). It's always nice hearing Louis play the melody of this bop anthem, too. Barney Bigard's up next for "Just You, Just Me" and like most Bigard features, if it ended at three minutes, it would have been fine. But most of Bigard's features ended with minute-after-minute of Barney noodling around, trading with the drummer and indulging in some horseplay. It gave Louis a break and audiences seemed to enjoy it but I can never listen to a Bigard feature from start to finish too many times.

Armstrong used to like to close sets in this period with drum features and though there's no sign of this, it's quite possible that the All Stars played two sets at Pasadena and "Bugle Blues" ended the first set. It always featured Louis on a scintillating series of breaks before settling into the familiar groove of "Ole Miss." In ensuing years, especially after the "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy" album, the breaks, the "Bugle Blues" portion and the lengthy drum solo disappeared and Louis was content to just jam on "Ole Miss." As I mentioned earlier, Cozy Cole was no Sid Catlett in terms of creativity, but I always dug his features; he could build up to a helluva climax and you can really hear the audience screaming and digging it as he goes on. If it did end the set, it was an exciting conclusion.

The next three numbers are so incredible, I have to share the audio for all of them, even if they were on the original LP (and part of me thinks that there might have been a second set as Louis would usually open sets like this, with three or four numbers featuring his horn right up front). The first two were Earl Hines compositions, which must have made the grumpy pianist happy. First up was "Monday Date," immortalized by the Hot Five in 1928. That version might have the "all-time-classic" status but I personally love the Pasadena version to no end. It was even used on the later Decca set, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." In his liner notes to the reissue, Joshua Berrett complained that this version couldn't compete with the original. Okay, the original is pretty terrific and naturally, more historic, but as an example of Louis and the All Stars in 1951, I think this "Monday Date" is as good as it gets. Dig it:


The whole band sounds great and it's nice to dig Louis's vocal but again, it's the trumpet solo that gets me. He's so relaxed, so inventive and very fleet-fingered, getting around his horn in total command. It's a shame that this song left the group's repertoire when Hines left the band.

Next was "You Can Depend on Me," which Louis recorded for OKeh in 1931. That version is fine but not quite a classic as Armstrong's band at the time sounds pretty woeful and Louis sticks to playing a series of stunning glisses, but not much else. The Pasadena version cuts it to ribbons, in my opinion. First off, there's the trumpet playing that just knocks me to my knees. At these slow tempos, Louis tended to play more notes and though I'm not the kind of person who feels that "more notes equals good jazz," there's something to marvel at in Louis's dexterity here. He's just on fire and the ideas simply rush out of his horn, much like the similar "That's For Me" recorded for Decca in April 1950. But then there's that vocal, which might be in my top 5 or 10 favorite Louis vocals of all time. One day I'll do a complete post on "You Can Depend on Me" (Trummy Young had a swinging instrumental feature on it later in the 50s) so I won't say more except just listen:


The third song in this stunning sequence is a breakneck version of "That's a Plenty" that is as exciting as it gets. For those who have never heard it before, buckle your seatbelts. However, I've heard many versions from this edition of the band and can tell you that this is a pretty set performance: most of the solos and especially the ensembles had been worked out after playing the tune almost nightly for years. This is the kind of thing that critics who followed the All Stars around started complaining about but I don't care. It's just a perfect performance and if you had never heard it before, you'd be knocked out. It all works: Louis's quote of the "National Emblem March," the held note, Cozy Cole's accents, Louis and Teagarden's insistent riffs at the end (and Bigard's answers)...what a band! Dig it:


At this point, it was time for Louis to take another breather. Teagarden stepped up to play a beautiful "Body and Soul," which was usually a feature for Bigard (and one of his better ones). I don't know why it changed this evening but I'm not complaining and Teagarden played the hell out of it. Then Velma came back on for "Big Daddy Blues," singing, dancing and yes, even doing her famous split. Without seeing it, it's still fun to listen to the group steaming along, especially Louis and his endless sequence of quotes: "Isle of Capri," "My Sweetie Went Away," "Honeysuckle Rose," "Moon Over Miami" and more. I did an early post on the history of Velma's blues features but that was in the days before I knew how to include audio. One day I'll do it again from scratch, with audio.

Velma stayed for one more duet and it became one of her best-loved features with Louis: "Baby, It's Cold Outside." For two years, I've shared versions of this tune on this blog, but I didn't do it in 2010. To make up for it, here's the classic Pasadena version. I've always thought the audience was a little subdued but don't mind them...Louis and Velma are HILARIOUS. Enjoy it (and damn, it is cold out there these days, isn't it?):


It was tough to follow that and end of the Pasadena concert was indeed a bit anticlimactic. Gene Norman's "Just Jazz" and "Dixieland Jubilee" bashes usually made it a point for one act to perform a number with the band that was to follow. I can't imagine anyone following Louis but in this case, the always fun Firehouse Five Plus One joined in for a too-short version of "Muskrat Ramble." Everyone sounds good and there's a little heat in the ensembles, but everyone's a little tentative regarding the routine ("Muskrat" has multiple strains and not every band moves from strain to strain at the same time) and the whole thing ends too early. Still, a fun ending to a wonderful evening of music.

This post has gone on long enough and if you're still with me, you're a trouper (I guess this is a good time to say good-bye to any new readers!, but I want to end with one more little section on Louis and repertoire. One of the big complaints about the All Stars is that they played the same songs every night. This simply wasn't true. I'm not going to argue that didn't play some of the same songs nightly--Louis had his hits and he knew audiences wanted to hear them--but you can't find two All Stars shows with exact same set orders. Louis always changed things up and the band had a very large pool of songs to choose from, larger than a lot of other jazz artists at the time. The perfect example of this regards the Pasadena show and a concert from Vancouver recorded on January 26, 1951, just four days longer. A lot of the Vancouver concert has been issued, some of it remains unissued and in two cases, only a few bars of music survive, letting us know what was played but not letting us hear how it went down. Regardless, compare the set lists of Louis in Vancouver and Pasadena, four days apart in 1951:

January 26, 1951 – Vancouver..............January 30, 1951 - Pasadena

Rose Room...........................................Sleepy Time Down South
Back O’Town Blues...............................Indiana
C’est Si Bon..........................................Someday You’ll Be Sorry
Way Down Yonder In New Orleans........Back O’Town Blues
Stardust...............................................Way Down Yonder In New Orleans
The Hucklebuck...................................Stardust
Can Anyone Explain.............................The Hucklebuck
Rockin’ Chair......................................That's My Desire
Big Daddy Blues..................................Honeysuckle Rose
Baby It’s Cold Outside.........................How High The Moon
C Jam Blues.........................................Just You, Just Me
Stomping At The Savoy........................Bugle Blues
I Used To Love You.............................My Monday Date
La Vie En Rose....................................You Can Depend On Me
Lover..................................................That’s A Plenty
I Love The Guy....................................Body And Soul
That's My Desire.................................Big Daddy Blues
High Society........................................Baby It’s Cold Outside
Royal Garden Blues.............................Muskrat Ramble
Ain’t Misbehavin’
Steak Face
Love Me Or Leave Me
How High the Moon
Tea For Two
Bugle Blues

As can be shown, only eight songs were repeated and the order is completely different. Certain things stayed the same because Pops must have liked they way it flowed: "Way Down Yonder" into "Star Dust" into Velma or Barney into a drum solo, but otherwise, it's very different. You also start realizing what wasn't played at each show. "Louis didn't play 'Some Day' in Vancouver? And he didn't play 'La Vie En Rose' in Pasadena? I thought he played the same songs every night!" And here's the topper: if you happened to be a big Armstrong fan in Pasadena and went to see him later again in November 1951, Armstrong performed 13 more numbers…only three were repeated from the January concert: “Sleepy Time Down South,” “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” and “Back O’Town Blues.” And "Blueberry Hill," one of Armstrong's biggest hits, wasn't included in either of the earlier 1951 performances, just the November one.

So take it for what it's worth, but I think it's worth a lot in changing how people view the All Stars. Naturally, some of this is ground I'll cover in my book but the blog lets me get into all sorts of boring details that wouldn't have held up in book form! And don't worry, the book will contain PLENTY of good stuff to explode people's minds all over the country. But that's note until June 21, my friends. Until then, enjoy "Satchmo at Pasadena" and keep coming back for more Pops!

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