Hello and welcome back to part 2 of what is going to turn out to be a long, long look at Louis Armstrong's history with "Muskrat Ramble." I guess you could say this is the long-anticipated sequel since part 1 was published about a month ago...and just lingered here for weeks until I played catch-up in every other aspect of my life. But here I am, ready to march forward with what should be a fun series.
In the first posting (which is still up, if you want to get caught up to speed), I discussed the tune's mysterious origins, Louis's claims to have written it and finally, the first, famous Hot Five version. It was a seminal recording, introducing "Muskrat Ramble" as a tune that seemed to have wide appeal to jazz musicians young and old. In the next 20 years, versions were recorded by everyone from Bunk Johnson and Wild Bill Davison to Lionel Hampton and Woody Herman. Though "Muskrat" was alive and well, one person refrained from recording or even performing it during the swing era: Louis Armstrong. Louis led a successful big band through the 1930s and much of the 1940s and though he occasionally looked backwards with new arrangements of old favorites like "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "West End Blues" and "Our Monday Date," "Muskrat Ramble" didn't share the same honor. Of all the Armstrong recordings and broadcasts that survive from 1925 to 1944, there's not a hint of "Muskrat."
Until January 18, 1944, that is. The occasion was the first, famed Esquire All American Jazz Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House featuring a band consisting of Louis, Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford and Sid Catlett (if you dare say "ho hum," please leave). Louis, suffering from a kidney stone, wasn't in peak form yet, though he was far from bad, as some critics made him out to be. The always feisty Roy Eldridge made the most of his outings, taking extra chorus on the jam session numbers in an effort to make Louis look bad and perhaps lure him into a cutting contest. Louis didn't take the bait, but still played excellently on "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "I Got Rhythm" and others.
In the second half of the concert, it was decided that a short look backwards was in order so "Muskrat Ramble" was called. Though they must have rehearsed it, I still hear it as a ragged affair. Because of it's two strains and built-in arrangement (the stop-time bit), it's a song you really have to know the routine of to play. Not everyone seems quite comfortable with it and they kind of get stuck on repeating the stop-time chorus over and over. Also, another tell-tale sign, provided to me by my pal Phil Person, is the key of Bb, which is rare for "Muskrat" which is usually played in Ab. But since Bb is THE jazz key, whoever started it off, must have guessed Bb was the safe choice. Alas, we'll never know how it started as the opening bars (perhaps more?) are missing forever as the surviving recording starts right in with Pops leading the troops through the stop-time bit. Let's pick it up right there:
Immediately, you can hear Louis sounding strong and confident, swung along by the cymbals of Big Sid Catlett (is that Catlett's voice letting out an audible "Yeah" early on?). After Louis, everyone uses the stop-time chorus as a framework for solos, Teagarden up first followed by Bigard and Hawkins. The stop-time stuff is only supposed to be used once but here it's like a kind of crutch. Finally after Hawkins, Teagarden goads everybody into the next part of the routine. After a chorus of muted ensemble playing, there's kind of an audible pause as everyone wonders what's going to happen next, solo or ensemble? Louis keeps playing (Roy on good behavior playing second), leading everyone into a jammed finish. Louis plays almost in his 1920s style, without any high notes or pyrotechnics, just that strong lead. Jack Teagarden almost forgets the closing tag, but he manages to recover with something similar to the original. All in all, not a shining moment in jazz history, but a fun performance, though super short at only 2:09 (again, the first chorus might be missing, but even with it, it still would have been less than three minutes at a concert where some numbers clocked in around seven or eight or even in double-digits).
The next time Louis confronted "Muskrat Ramble" was three years later at a Carnegie Hall concert done with Edmond Hall's sextet. This performance is almost eerily similar to the 1944 one we just heard: once again, it's in Bb (hmmm, maybe Pops called it in that key, forgetting the original key since he hadn't played it in 20 years?) and there's some confusion in the routine. Let's listen:
This time we get two full choruses of melody at the start, Louis sounding strong with typically fantastic backing by clarinetist Hall, who would join Louis full time in 1955. Then it's the stop-time choruses, as used in 1925, as just a setup to more ensemble jamming and a trombone solo from Henderson Chambers. Then it's Louis's time for a solo. He starts out with some quarter notes, perhaps thinking back to his original Hot Five solo, but perhaps realizing he's in another key, he goes for something different.
Unfortunately, the backing musicians go for something different, too, namely the chord changes! "Muskrat's" two strains aren't too similar, as the main strain starts on an Ab and features a fat minor chord in the middle while the second strain starts on a Bb and rides the Ab in the middle. Well, Louis is clearly improvising with one set of changes in mind, but the rhythm section plays the other, everyone playing somewhat hesitantly and listening to see how to get out of this alive. Louis simply stops playing towards the end, probably to make a "this way out" gesture, and comes back in with a held low note to signal the final chorus. They jam one out but again, Louis sounds harried, garbling his last phrase, again, probably to signal to Chambers to play the closing tag. Chambers improvises a new one and Louis glisses everyone to a tight ending. Once again, on a 2:26 performance and once again, everyone floating by the seat of their pants.
But even with its ragged moments, Louis's playing with Hall's small group created sensational buzz and led to the next great event in Louis's life, the Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947. This time Louis played with an all star group of musicians assembled by cornetist Bobby Hackett mostly from the Eddie Condon circle. These musicians knew "Muskrat Ramble" inside and out...including in the correct key of Ab! This version proved to be the smoothest one yet. Here's "Muskrat" at Town Hall":
This version charges right out of the gate at ferocious uptempo, Pops in the lead. Teagarden sounds ready to go the stop-time chorus after one time through, but Louis powers through a second ensemble chorus before the stop-time bit. After leading to a jammed chorus, it sets up an outing by Dick Cary before Louis explodes with a solo that references his Hot Five version! Maybe it's the correct key of Ab, maybe he had been listening to the original recording, who knows the reason, but it's the first time Louis seems to have that old solo in his mind and he nails it. It's not identical, mind you, (the tempo is almost doubled), but Louis clearly uses it as a frame of reference and creates something entirely fresh out of it, like much of the Town Hall concert.
After Teagarden plays the role of Kid Ory, blasting through the next chorus, Louis again recalls the 1925 record with a violent lip trill leading into the final ensemble...only it sounds like the other musicians don't know if it's the final ensemble! After the trill, Louis keeps blowing, but he's all alone out front, the other musicians perhaps in awe of what he was doing and just wanting to let him keep going. But Louis must have gave a signal of some sort as soon enough, everyone falls in for the rideout, Teagarden finally nailing the tag at the end. Definitely the best version yet, but still, with that hesitation in the final chorus, not quite perfect.
But the Town Hall concert was such a success, it led to the end of Louis's big band and the start of his own small group, the All Stars. But before the All Stars made their official debut in August 1947, Louis took part in another, shorter small group concert at New York's Winter Garden theater, with almost the entire Town Hall group intact--Bobby Hackett, Jack Teagarden, Peanuts Hucko, Dick Cary and George Wettling--along with the baritone saxophone of Ernie Caceres adding to the ensemble and Jack Lesberg replacing Bob Haggart on bass. Perhaps because many of these same musicians played the song the previous month, this one comes off without a hitch, with Pops in especially thrilling form...watch for that high note that leads into the final chorus!
Now that's it! Once again, the tempo is up but the structure is entirely in place and everyone sounds confident and swinging. And did that high note knock you out as much as me? Even Pops almost sounds surprised! I'm going to be sharing many, many more "Muskrat Ramble" in the next few weeks, but I don't think there's another where Louis heads into a final ensemble with such a high, hard one. Great stuff.
But what did we learn today? "Dixieland" tunes like "Muskrat Ramble" are not easy to jam on. You have to know the ins and outs of them and be comfortable with the routine. Each one of the four versions I shared today was from a jam session concert and though Pops acquitted himself ably on each one, there was always a degree of sloppiness in the execution of the routine that must have bothered him. But don't worry; two months after the Winter Garden show, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars debuted at Billy Berg's in Los Angeles with "Muskrat Ramble" an immediate early staple of the repertoire. It wouldn't leave the book for the next 20 years. Stay tuned for the next part as we'll hear how the earliest edition of the All Stars with Sid Catlett on drums approached the song and refined it into a thing of perfect over the course of the band's first two years in existence.