Monday, February 28, 2011

Muskrat Ramble - Part 1

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 3:03
Written by Kid Ory
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8300
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Finally--two days after the actual anniversary--we arrive at "Muskrat Ramble," the sixth and final song recorded by the Hot Five on February 26, 1926. "Heebie Jeebies" and "Cornet Chop Suey" are rightly known as major Armstrong landmarks but of all the songs recorded that day--and possibly in the history of the Hot Fives and Sevens--I don't think there's any other song that's had the life of "Muskrat Ramble," which continued popping up as a hit record in the 50s and 60s and is still one of the good old good ones in today's traditional jazz scene.

But where did "Muskrat Ramble" come from? Well, that's going to take some detective work and I don't know if we'll ever know for sure. The song has always been attributed to Kid Ory since the very first version was released by the Hot Five in 1926. Ory made it his big feature and never stopped playing it. Ory claimed he wrote it in 1921 while still in Los Angeles, taking the gist of the tune from a book of saxophone exercises. That's fine, but then there's Sidney Bechet, who said it was an old tune already popular in New Orleans, performed as early as the Buddy Bolden era, and known then as "The Old Cow Died and the Old Man Cried." Hmmm...

And there's Louis. Louis performed the song with the Hot Five, seemed to forget about it for a couple of decades, then featured it regularly with his All Stars from inception in 1947 until at least 1967, when his chops began to give out. Louis played it hundreds, if not thousands of times and each time he called it, in the back of his mind, he must have thought, "Damn Ory, I wrote this song."

Finally, in 1965, Louis publicly broke his silence. Louis was hosting his friends Dan Morgenstern and Jack Bradley in his den one afternoon in May of that year. Dan had brought along his tape recorder and turned the results into a wonderful profile of Louis published in "DownBeat" that summer (and currently found in Dan's essential anthology, "Living with Jazz"). Fortunately, years after the interview was published, the complete, unedited tapes were found and aired by Phil Schaap on WKCR. Since then, the interview has become known as the "Slivovice interview," named after the bottle of plum brandy the three polished off over the course of the afternoon (I posted the full audio right here on this blog back in October 2009).

Louis was in the middle of a discussion about original compositions. Morgenstern and Bradley asked if he had written much after his 1947 song "Someday (You'll Be Sorry)." Louis admitted that he really hadn't and the few ideas he did have in mind, he didn't even know where to bring them anymore. He then discussed how it was different with the music publishers in the 1920s and how he was willing to write songs and sell them outright, just to get some quick money. It's at this point that Jack Bradley asked him point blank, "Pops, did you write 'Muskrat Ramble'?" Here's Louis's answer:

So there it is. Morgenstern published Louis's answer but it didn't really make any waves. Louis clearly didn't want to make a fuss about it and it had already been known as Ory's tune for almost 40 years, so nothing really changed. But Louis must have felt strongly about it, because he made similar accusations during his series of Voice of America interviews in July 1956, interviews that were far less conspicuous in that period, especially compared to a "DownBeat" cover story.

Last week, I shared Louis's Voice of America introductions and stories revolving around "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Heebie Jeebies" and now I'll do the same with "Muskrat Ramble." It's fascinating because not only does Louis insinuate that the song was made up in the studio and Ory was the only one with the nerve to claim it--9 years before the Slivovice interview, remember--but it's the only time I've ever heard the full story of the title of the tune and what muskrats were used for in Southern homes: a means to stop bed wetting! Don't believe me? Listen to Louis for yourself:

Isn't that a riot? Louis almost sounds embarrassed telling the story. Interestingly, he said Ory named it and got to claim it, but Ory said Lil Hardin Armstrong was the one who named it. So it's safe to say, we'll never know who named it and who wrote it but that shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying it.

I will say that "Muskrat Ramble" isn't exactly something simple to just jam on, like a 12-bar blues, whipped up in the studio in no time. The song, like "Cornet Chop Suey," had multiple 16-bar strains, echoes of the ragtime era. Each strain features different changes and a different melody, there's an ensemble that features big fat punches from Ory and responses from the band, Ory's solo is set up with accents by the other horns, there's a perfectly executed tag by the trombonist...I don't know, if this was indeed whipped up in the studio, bravo gentlemen and lady.

Okay, I think I've said all that can be said about the backstory and we're still where we started. So forget about all of that and enjoy the first version of "Muskrat Ramble":

Yeah, man, that's still a fun wonder the tune keeps going strong. The very opening of the ensemble is arguably more evidence that this piece was more arranged than given credit for: Louis plays the melody with an earthy lead, Ory plays nothing but quarter notes and Dodds kind of has a harmonized countermelody he works over for a while before he starts to go off on some of his more typical flights the second time through. After that second time, the band heads into the second strain, everybody hitting those accents nice and tight while Ory really gets around on his horn; he's definitely very comfortable with the routine.

Ory's solo, with those giant smears, is a great summation of the Kid's style, but I don't think it's his best work (he sounds better in the ensembles). Louis, however, uncorks a gem. Right from those opening three quarter-notes, you know you're about to hear some good stuff. There aren't many pyrotechnics, but Louis's sense of swing and choice of harmonies (dig that held high G, representing Louis's favorite major-seventh off the Ab chord) is in another world from Ory and Dodds, who follows with a typically insistent solo.

After the round of solos, Ory's smears again take center stage while Louis answers them with the melody and Dodds continues to play harmonized countermelodies instead of going too far off the reservation. Louis then uncorks one of his angry lip trills to lead into the exciting rideout chorus. Louis didn't break out the trill often in his later years, but he loved it in the mid-20s (see "Oriental Strut" from the same session and "Sweet Little Papa" from a few months later for just a couple of examples). After Louis's trill, the whole thing takes off in 16 bars of pure euphoria. Louis's lead is so swinging and strong, but without any crazy high notes (moldy fig critics of Louis's later style often point to this as an example of Louis's pure New Orleans lead, without the need for any upper register know, the stuff that made Louis sound like Louis). Meanwhile, Ory's aggression effectively pushes everyone along, with Dodds really breaking out of his shell, too. And how about that rhythm section? St. Cyr's banjo is supremely driving and creates a unique kind of swing that would disappear soon after in mainstream jazz. And then there's Ory's tag, which would become part of just about every succeeding performance of the tune.

Great stuff, but for Louis Armstrong it was only the beginning. In a few days, I'll be back with parts 2, 3 and who knows how many to tell the story of Louis's history with this tune. Til then!


Anonymous said...

Ricky, as always, simply great. Cannot wait for more.



clbobman said...

Lovely article , one little error in your article, the track time you have written is a minute long. Thanks a lot

clbobman said...

Or do i have a wrong version..please help. The original is in Ab right

clbobman said...

Another thing, I have just done a bit of work on the original version to teach a class and I thought the solos would be over the two strains but they really only seem to be over the B section, i.e. the two 8 bar sections where they go briefly up to the Bb chord for one bar which kind of creates a II V I progression in Ab over three bars but in dom 7th chords. Oh how I would love to see an original chart of this. They play the A progression in the trombone hits and the final blowing "out head." So I am a bit confused where this idea of soloing over the two strains has arisen in modern charts. Please correct me if I am wrong.