Welcome back to my look at Louis Armstrong's history with "Muskrat Ramble." When we last left our hero, he was performing the tune at various all-star small group concerts of the mid-40s, sometimes with shaky results due to sideman unfamiliar with the routine. By this point in his life, Louis disliked simply jamming and preferred more structure in his live performances. When he formed his small group, the All Stars, in August 1947, it seemed to critics like Louis had "come home" and was going to spend the rest of his life loosely jamming on the old New Orleans classics. But over 20 years with big bands taught Louis the importance of arrangements and routines and having a sure thing to present to audiences night after night instead of meandering aimlessly on his horn for a couple of hours.
Having said that, Louis still didn't like actual rehearsals. As he told "Time" magazine before the All Stars made their debut at Billy Berg's, "I don't need no rehearsals. I don't go through that and never will. All these cats I'm playing with can blow. We don't need no arrangements. I just say, man, what you going to play? They say Musk'at Ramble. I say follow me, and you got the best arrangement you ever heard."
This might have been true...at first. But after calling "Muskrat Ramble" nightly, it didn't take long before an arrangement began to form. Not a written arrangement, mind you, but a routine that would be followed, with certain phrases and riffs becoming a concrete part of each performance. It wasn't something that happened overnight but watching it gradually occur is pretty fascinating (to me).
There are no surviving recordings of the All Stars in the first 2 1/2 months of their existence, but there's two from November 1947 and both featured "Muskrat Ramble" as the opening number (remember, Louis didn't get around to "Indiana" until 1951 and didn't perform it as the regular opener until 1952). The first version, from Carnegie Hall on November 15 survives in unlistenable sound; literally it sounds like someone recorded it inside of a toilet. The second version, from Symphony Hall on November 30, might be the best "Muskrat Ramble" played by anyone at any time. Because of the poor quality of the Carnegie Hall version (you can't even make out the piano or bass solos) and the fact that a chunk of the opening choruses is missing, I'm just going to share Louis's solo, Jack Teagarden's trombone offering and the closing two ensemble choruses. Listen to them through all the racket and take notes because some stuff you hear here will crop up again:
Pretty great, huh? First thing to pay attention to is Louis's opening phrase, which might be a quote, but even if it isn't, it became his standard way of opening many of his "Muskrat" solos. From there, Louis simply improvises...okay, I'm assuming that (he had been playing the song for three months), but his playing is full of creative new ideas (no quotes) that didn't make it into future versions. Except for one phrase...at the start of Louis's second chorus--0:22 of that clip--Louis plays a little melody (again, a quote?) made up of some held notes that crops up again. And the last three notes of the solo are pretty perfect and became a part of the routine. And finally, how about Big Sid Catlett? Even through the lousy quality (his cymbals are silenced), Sid's creative accents are something to marvel at.
After two choruses from Jack Teagarden, let's listen to the closing ensemble. Clarinetist Barney Bigard is kind of lost in the mix, but Louis and Teagarden are a helluva time, especially with Big Sid backing them up. Everything seems to be loose and improvised except they all know to hold a note (with Sid rolling away underneath them) to push it into the final chorus. Again, Louis is a man on fire until the end with Big T playing the little tag and Louis glissing up to the final high note. Great stuff...
...but not quite as great as what occurred two weeks later on the stage of Boston's Symphony Hall. This version was recorded by Ernie Anderson and eventually released on Decca in 1951. Of all the countless versions of "Muskrat" that have been played for 85 years, I don't know if this one's ever been topped. Let's listen to it from the beginning so we can hear the whole routine:
Well, did it live up to expectations? I know it did for me and I've heard it about 785 times. The tempo is perfect, fast but not too fast (half-fast?). I'll get it out of the way so I don't just repeat myself for the next few paragraphs but Big Sid is a MONSTER on this track; some of the most swinging drumming I've ever heard, with every accent and bit of accompaniment simply spot on.
As for the routine, Pops leads the ensemble through the first strain twice and then it's time for the stop-time strain, which, as I demonstrated in the last post, has different chord changes. Like the the original, it sets up a solo by Teagarden followed by a chorus by Louis that nods backwards to his original Hot Five solo from 1925 (which was on this strain). Then another part of the original routine, going back to the first strain's changes with Teagarden blasting out smears a la Kid Ory and Louis answering with the appropriate riff. At 1:55, Louis holds a note and blows into another high-octane ensemble chorus (Sid!). Louis ends this ensemble chorus with the three-note phrase he ended his Carnegie Hall solo with, a fitting cap to two minutes of 15 seconds of fantastic blowing. I think any other band would have been happy to quit right there; sure enough, every pre-All Stars version I shared last week ended around the 2:10-2:20 range so the All Stars could have called it a day right there. Instead, that's only the end of act one as it's time for solos.
Dick Cary's up first and his solo, as usual, is swinging and tasteful (Sid!). Bassist Arvell Shaw follows with a two-chorus solo he'd gradually refine over the years (Sid! The man changes cymbals for every soloist!) Then Bigard steps up for his outing, Louis and Teagarden riffing behind him. The riffs are still loose here, with Louis leading the way and Teagarden following, but not quite in there with him. Two weeks earlier at Carnegie Hall, they were even farther apart. Louis loved setting riffs behind his clarinetists (rarely his trombonists) and in time, Louis and Teagarden and every succeeding trombonist would hit upon a series of perfect riffs that didn't need changing.
Then it's time for Pops! Now, I realize time is precious and my dear readers don't have time to listen to one six-minute version of "Muskrat" after another. Thus, like my old "Indiana" and "Royal Garden Blues" posts, I'm going to excerpt Louis's solo here, as well as Teagarden's follow-up and the closing ensembles. The whole thing cooks and should be appreciated from start to finish but if you only have limited time, at least try to listen to how Pops changed his solo and how the rideouts developed over time:
First off, I told you to keep in mind Louis's opening phrase on the Carnegie Hall solo but he doesn't play it at Symphony Hall, instead opting for a series of quarter notes before a dancing little phrase that's perfectly echoed by Catlett. Like the Carnegie Hall solo, Louis improvises entirely fresh phrase. This time, pay attention to the middle of Louis's second chorus (0:26 if you're listening to the above excerpt), as he plays a wild tremolo into a high note, a little touch that would sometimes find its way into the closing ensembles.
After two great choruses by Teagarden (Sid's backbeats!), Louis charges into the ensemble with the same little melodic passage he played in the middle of his Carnegie Hall chorus; he clearly dug it and perhaps thought it fit better here. The ensemble builds up quite a head of steam especially as it heads into the second chorus, Shaw repeating a single note and Teagarden positively blowing his ass off. Oh man, do I love Big T, but honestly by the time he left the All Stars, he sounded a little tired. But in the early days, he was definitely playing with brio and wow, does it come through on this recording. Louis continues marching along on his own path, Teagarden and Bigard in there with him, until the patented coda and high note ending. Magic.
The All Stars continued playing "Muskrat Ramble" into 1948, when Earl Hines replaced Dick Cary on piano. Hines might have had star power--in fact, he thought he had a little too much star power--but he was as sympathetic a player as Cary. Louis and Hines might have been friends and musical mavericks in the 1920s but there was definitely some friction between them during the All Stars years. Anyway, let's listen to one more complete "Muskrat Ramble" from this period, live in Paris on March 2, 1948:
Hines immediately makes an impression...but to Louis, it's the wrong one! Perhaps they hadn't played it much, but Hines, who had been in the band over a month, kicks it off overly fast. You can hear Louis sternly say something like, "Slow down, Pops" and Catlett immediately drops the tempo into the pocket where he knows Louis wants it. Hines stops for a second feels it, and continues at that pace. Louis was not afraid to assert himself in this band of stars. The intro continues wandering aimlessly until Pops barges in and leads the opening ensemble, probably daydreaming about Dick Cary.
The opening ensembles are still excellent with Pops particularly frisky in his opening solo, with slight nods to the 1925 original, but full of more daring flights. He even reprises the angry lip trill from the original as he pushes the group into the second ensemble chorus before the solos. After Hines and Shaw, it's time for Bigard with more riffs from Louis and Teagarden. It's a little hard to hear Teagarden at first but Louis seems to have his riffs set and it sounds like Tea is in there a little tighter than at Symphony Hall.
Then it's time for Pops and again, for those in a hurry, here's Louis's solo through the end of the performance:
Okay, the original opening phrase from Carnegie Hall is back (Catlett in there with him), along with a little triplet flourish, but from there it's all new, though he does seem to peter out a bit towards the end of the first chorus. But no worries, he pauses for a second and comes back with a series of searing high quarter notes, kind of echoing his entrance at Symphony Hall, only higher. In the middle of the second chorus, Louis toys with his Symphony Hall tremolo, but instead of doing just that, he instead hits a series of more high notes preceded by tiny grace notes, all still building to that high concert C. Louis's concluding phrases are all new and SCORCHING.
After Teagarden, it's time for the closing ensembles. Are going to get that same little passage Louis played in his Carnegie solo and Symphony Hall rideout? Nope, Louis opts for an entire chorus of new ideas until it's time to get ready for that final go-around. At Symphony Hall, I praised the group all holding notes to build up the excitement but Louis simply tops himself here, holding a high C and glissing to a high Eb, for an effect that is positively orgasmic. He then heads downward, seemingly with "I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair" on his mind, though he only hints at it. From there, it's all new, with Sid especially making his presence felt...my goodness, I can't stop writing about Sid and the man never even takes a solo throughout the entire performance! A helluva performance; take away Fatha Hines's initial confusion and the fact that this version has never been issued on CD and it definitely rivals Symphony Hall.
The next surviving "Muskrat Ramble" in the Armstrong discography comes from a broadcast in Chicago on April 4, 1948. This was a studio show hosted by Dave Garroway and the All Stars were obviously pressed for time. Thus, they only take one chorus each as a solo, but still save room for a two-chorus rideout. Here it is, from Louis's solo onward:
Okay, now we're getting somewhere. It's interesting to hear Louis's mind editing his two-chorus solo down to just the big stuff in order to get it across in one chorus. He opens with his usual phrase (we've heard it open three out of four solos now), Catlett even more in there with him than ever before. Then the part he had been playing in the middle of his second solo chorus, first a tremolo, then a series of quarter-notes with grace notes and now a kind of straighter eight-note feel, alternating G's and Ab's before peaking with a high C. He improvises for a bit with a nice downward skipping phrase but his closing lick is perfection.
As for the ensemble, it's all new and incredibly exciting. The super high note from Paris is gone, but he still holds one into the final chorus, as he would continue to do. Notice, the tempo was much faster too, probably another nod to the constraints of the broadcast. While playing it live, Louis continued to like it at a more medium-up pace. By the time we reach my next version from Philadelphia's Click club on September 18, 1948, the tempo had dropped to an even slower pace than before. This tempo didn't last long but this might very well be the most rocking "Muskrat Ramble" in the Armstro,g discography. I won't share the whole thing but here it is beginning with Louis's solo:
Yeah, man. Pops opens as usual, though the tempo brings out an extra sense of relaxation to his playing. The phrase he plays in the last four bars of his first chorus fits like a glove, and he'd refine it to make it become part of the solo in ensuing years. But the almost abstract glisses at the start of his second chorus are definitely a new touch! And listen to how Sid catches them...talk about telepathy. Even when Louis breaks out his G-Ab tremolo up the high C, he leaves a tiny opening of space and Catlett's right in there with four emphatic beats. After that Louis improvises four bars before uncorking his fantastic closing phrase.
Don't get upset during Teagarden's solo as damage to the original tape caused the end of Teagarden's solo and the beginning of the ensemble to disappear for ever. But what has survived is incredible as Pops leads the ensemble through an earth-shaking second chorus...too bad they didn't utilize this tempo more often! Even Hines sounds engaged and incredibly enthusiastic throughout. Louis is still full of new phrases...so much for the old theory that Louis couldn't improvise anymore!
Louis was improvising like mad but certain things were starting to fall into place by December 1948. I'm going to close today's thesis with two completely different versions from Chicago's Blue Note in the same month, December 1948. We know this first one was from an ABC broadcast on December 11, but the second excerpt is only known as being from the month of December. I'm going to assume it's later because as we'll hear, something slips into the closing ensemble that would never leave.
But first, let's listen to the December 11 Armstrong solo and closing ensemble:
Okay, the tempo's up again and Louis's opening phrase is in place, but after that stand back! It's all fresh including fantastically exciting series of glisses at the start of his second phrase. And just when I thought he was getting complacent with the alternating G-Ab business, Louis goes another new way and instead plays with a triplet phrase. The opening phrase and the closing phrase are now in stone but everything in between, wow.
After Teagarden's outing, though, listen for the start of the closing ensemble. Louis plays a little phrase, ascending then descending, then holds the last note. Bigard immediately echoes it...and Teagarden follows in suit! It's a brilliantly little worked out routine that obviously started sometime after the Click broadcast but from this moment forward, it's how Louis launched into every concluding "Muskrat" rideout. I love it as it really sounds like the calvary is coming...Pops is saying, "Follow me to freedom!" After that it's all new except for the held note in the middle (man, Catlett really doesn't want to let go of that drum roll!). Everything else is improvised but Pops now has a set open to his solo, a set close and a set way to get into the closing ensemble. So far, so good...
...but wait, there's more! As advertised, here's the next "Muskrat Ramble" from the same engagement at the Blue Note in December 1948:
Okay, the tempo's the same and Pops is off and running with the same phrase but then again, he finds new things to say on these old changes. But listen closely to the start of Louis's second chorus...a quote! Once I read some writer say Louis quoted "Buffalo Gals" on "Ramble" and that was good enough to me until one of my interns at work, David Engelhard, pointed out that it's really "Bye Bye Blackbird." That is similar to "Buffalo Gals," but I now completely hear it David's way so I'm calling it a quote from "Blackbird." It's the first quote to creep into Louis's solo...and it won't be the last. It really does sound like the first time Louis ever played it (I know, I have no proof) as it launches him into a tumbling improvisation that is simply thrilling. In fact, Catlett seems almost ready for the G-Ab alternation and launches into a dramatic drum roll to accent it, but Pops skates right by it and continues flying by, with some glisses, some downward skipping phrases, a bit of everything until his patented closing phrase. Wee!
But don't quit now. After more great Teagarden (and Catlett), Louis once again charges into the closing ensemble with his little fanfare, picked up by Bigard and Teagarden. All is well and swinging until the start of the second chorus. Again, maybe he had played it before or maybe it's just divine intervention, but after holding that high Ab, Armstrong begins a descending pattern, two Ab's, two G's, two F's. It works so he repeats it twice, the last time turning it into a skyrocketing gliss. It might not sound like much now but that Ab-G-F riff would soon become an integral part of all future "Muskrat" rideouts. But if you really want to have you mind blown to bits, listen to the next gliss Pops uncorks....what planet is THAT from!? As we've heard, he hasn't played anything remotely like that in any previous version so I don't know where it came from but it sure is insane (in a good way).
I don't know about you, but I think that's as much good music as I can handle for one evening. I hope you enjoyed this look at how "Muskrat Ramble" evolved in the first year-and-a-half history of the All Stars...and we ain't finished yet! Though I will calm you down and say it's not going to continue at this pace. I only have one "Muskrat" from 1949 (and it's incomplete), one from 1950 (without Bigard) and one from 1951 (a short throwaway jam session with the Firehouse Five Plus Two) so the next phrase and going to move into the 50s much quicker. But 1952-1958 was another great time for "Muskrat Ramble" in the Armstrong discography and we'll have a lot of fun seeing how Pops took the seeds of what he played on these 1947 and 1948 versions and sculpted it into arguably the most exciting and tightest performance in the All Stars book.
But before then, a quick note that I am heading to Milan, Italy on April 4 for the Piacenza Jazz Fest, where I'll be giving a lecture on Loius's later years. It'll be my first trip to Italy and needless to say, I'm thrilled. But as I prepare for it this week, I'll let this post linger until I get back. Until then!