Hello all and welcome back to the fourth part in my seemingly never-ending series on "Muskrat Ramble" (which I think will end with six parts). When we last left our heroes, they were performing "Muskrat Ramble" almost nightly in 1947 and 1948, gradually tightening it with each passing performance. Louis tried it at some different tempos and improvised many different solos (all with superb backing from Big Sid Catlett) but by the final version I shared, from December 1948 at the Blue Note in Chicago, things were really coming together.
Unfortunately, that December 1948 version is the last full All Stars version I have until 1952! I only have the opening two minutes of one from Paris in November 1949. In Pasadena in 1951, the All Stars played a fun jam session version with the Firehouse Five Plus Two but it's pretty short and Pops sounds like he's looking for a way to end it. But in between, I do have a fun performance to share that should give us an idea of how "Muskrat Ramble" was being performed in this period. It comes from a radio broadcast done for Standard Oil, titled "A Musical Map of America." It was recorded on January 20, 1950 and features Louis with Jack Teagarden and Earl "Fatha" Hines from the All Stars, along with clarinetist Lyle Johnson, guitarist Clancy Hayes and unknown bass and drums. The rhythm section is fine, if undistinguishable, while clarinetist Johnson is a bit of a mess. But Pops is superhuman and if you have that December 1948 version in your head (and I do advise going back to familiarize yourself with it), you'll hear the elements really clicking on this one:
The routine follows the All Stars one pretty closely, except there's no bass solo and clarinetist Johnson doesn't benefit from Armstrong and Teagarden's backing riffs. But Louis is on fire from the start, taking his first solo on the second strain of the piece, nodding back to his original 1926 version, but by this point, solidified into a hot new creation. His actual two chorus solo begins at 3:08 and is great. By this point, Louis's opening eight bars were set in stone (and why not? They're great!), but he improvises all new stuff until the beginning of his second chorus, when he slyly inserts a quote from "Bye Bye Blackbird" that started in 1948 (Hines is with him all the way). But even after that all new up until that bravado-filled closing.
Teagarden wails for two before Louis leads the way home with his clarion call phrase. With the regular All Stars, it was always echoed by Teagarden and clarinetist Barney Bigard but here, Johnson doesn't see it coming and there's an odd gap until Teagarden picks it up. Louis improvises an entirely new lead until the second chorus, when he and Teagarden team up for that fantastically exciting descending riff (also dating back to December 1948) and the high triplets. But what Louis plays after that is simply crazy! He flies up the horn and twists his way sneakily back down, a terrific moment that is in no other version of "Muskrat" (but again, might have been regular in other, non-surviving versions from this period). Pops is simply superhuman, and that is that.
By the time of the next surviving full version from the All Stars, it's not even the All Stars that you might recognize. Teagarden's gone, replaced by Russ Phillips. Earl Hines is gone, replaced by Marty Napoleon. Arvell Shaw is gone, replaced by Dale Jones. And Big Sid, who was the star of my last post, left in 1949 and was replaced by Cozy Cole. Thus, it's only Louis and Barney Bigard from the original days. This 1952 edition was kind of a rebuilding phase before the Trummy Young-Billy Kyle years began in late 1953. It's a fine edition, though unheralded, and I think we should give them the respect to hear their version of "Muskrat Ramble." It should surprise no one that it's very similar to the earlier ones....when Pops had an arrangement down, even if it wasn't written down, that's how he liked to play it. So here's the 1952 All Stars live in New Orleans on May 13, 1952, a fantastic concert that's sadly still unissued:
As usual, Louis is outstanding but there's some problems with the band. First off, I should say that I do like Cozy Cole very much but after all that Big Sid, he kind of pales in comparison here. Gone are all those unbelievably creative fills; Cole is content to mainly stick to time-keeping, which he did with a somewhat (to my ears) stiff pattern, more of a straight ding-ding-ding instead of a looser ding-ding-a-ding.
Then there's Dale Jones's solo, which, like most of his, kind of disintegrates before its finished. But Jones was apparently a great showman (you can hear the audience applauding him) and Louis, on one of his private tapes, said that Jones raised the quality of the band after the departure of Arvell Shaw, so what do I know? I enjoy Russ Phillips's smooth playing but he's obviously a Teagarden man and again, after hearing Jack, it's a tough act to follow. Louis personally asked Phillips to join as Phillips had once sat in with the All Stars when Teagarden was sick so he definitely liked his playing. But after a short time, I think Louis wanted something different. In February 1952, the All Stars went to Hawaii and that's where Louis heard Trummy Young and pretty much asked him to join on the spot. Young couldn't until September so Phillips stayed until then, giving his best, a sadly forgotten All Star.
But Marty Napoleon, still going strong (and about to turn 90!) is, in my opinion, the most exciting pianist the All Stars ever had; I think he sounds great. And Barney's still in there, not quite as bored and distant as he'd become in ensuing years.
But I want to focus on Pops, Pops, Pops. He jumps out of the gate with his standard opening eight bars sounding great. and then he plays this:
It's a perfect lick and I know that it just has to be a quote but damned if I know what it is. Please write in if you know it! Regardless, it fits like a glove and would occupy this space in almost all future Armstrong "Muskrat" solos. The descending three-note riff he plays coming out of it would be refined into a trickier triplet feel, as we'll soon here, but otherwise, it's the first major change to the solo we've heard in four years.
Louis's second chorus still opens with "Bye Bye Blackbird" but he tries some scorching new ideas in the middle until he hits upon his ideal closing phrase. After Philips's smooth solo, Louis sounds the clarion call into the final ensemble, echoed by Bigard and Phillips. After some strong lead, it's time for another new addition to the routine: Louis humorously quotes "I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair." He had clearly been doing this for some time as Phillips is right in there with him. The final chorus has also been polished to a high gloss: the violent descending riffs, the triplets into the drum break, the high notes, the melodic paraphrase, all of it fantastic. We're five years into the history and it's almost there.
Now I know my analysis has been pretty thick so far, so I think it's time for me to shut up and for you to do more listening. Let's fast-forward to Louis's hugely successful European tour of 1952. Personnel had changed yet again with Arvell Shaw back on bass and Bob McCracken replacing Barney Bigard on clarinet. Also, Trummy Young joined the band just days before leaving for Europe, so he's still fresh, perhaps not knowing that the next 11 years of his life would be spent as an All Star.
I want to showcase two versions from this trip, just spotlighting Louis's solo, Trummy's solo and the rideout choruses. First up is Oslo, Norway on October 5, 1952:
The tempo is slightly slower than the New Orleans version and Louis sounds very relaxed. It's all there: the opening phrase, the quote he introduced in New Orleans (along with the trickier triplets coming out of it), the "Bye Bye Blackbird" reference, etc. All that's missing is an ending, so he tries something new: giant abstract glisses, leading into a perfect ending phrase. Then it's time for Trummy, sounding a little tentative at first. But he quickly starts jumping and wakes up Cozy Cole in the rhythm section, a small hint of the excitement he can generate. Humorously, Trummy doesn't have Louis's three-note clarion call down yet so when Louis plays it and McCracken repeats it, there's a bit of odd silence! But from there, the ensemble simply rocks.
Now, let's skip ahead a month to Lausanne, Switzerland. By this point, you might be saying, "Hm, these versions are getting awfully similar...don't I have more important things to do?" Well, just give a listen to this solo:
See? Aren't you glad you stuck around? The Lausanne show is a funny one; Louis seems to want to avoid the upper register so on song after song, he improvises swinging new solos around the middle part of his horn. I mean, literally every line of that solo is completely new. If the chops were hurting, I'm sure there's a thousand trumpeters out there who wish their chops hurt like that! I don't know, maybe he was just in an improvising mood because after Trummy's solo, Louis goes into the usual routine on the rideouts. Trummy's in there with Louis's opening phrase finally and the ensemble smokes to the finish, the faster tempo generating more excitement.
Soon after, though, "Muskrat" settled back into the more comfortable medium groove. On July 11 at the Blue Note in Chicago, the song was stretched to almost seven minutes long. It's a great performance but the sound quality isn't ideal and it's pretty similar to what we've heard, with every aspect of Pops's solo in place...with one new addition. In the first rideout chorus, Louis adds a new quote immediately after "I dream of Jeannie": "Every little breeze seems to whisper Louise." It's a great touch, and again, would get Pops one step closer to a perfect, "set" performance.
But there was still one thing to change: the tempo. As we've heard, it bounced back and forth a couple of times between medium and up but in the fall of 1953, the tempo went up and stayed there. I liked the medium tempo but I don't know, sometimes it dragged a bit. At the new faster clip, "Muskrat" became more exciting than ever, bolstered in the summer of 1953 by the addition of Milt Hinton to the band on bass (also, Barney Bigard's back on clarinet). Thus, I think it's time to listen to a full version. I must apologize for two terrible skips; I transferred this directly from LP and the copy I used had two skips that I couldn't do anything with (and for some godforsaken reason, this concert isn't out on CD!!!). But here's the All Stars, swinging hard in 1953:
That's the stuff! The faster tempo adds a whole new dimension of swing and the Marty Napoleon-Milt Hinton-Cozy Cole rhythm section cooks more than any other one since the Big Sid days. After the exciting opening choruses, Marty wails for two--even though I butchered his first outing with a gruesome skip, his second chorus shows how damn exciting his playing could be. Then Milt comes up and really, what can I say? Milt was THE bassist meant for Pops and I wish he lasted for 20 years with him. You can picture him smiling to beat the band, breaking up the audience with that quote from "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'." And catch the inside joke with Louis; I mentioned that a few months earlier, Louis started quoting "Louise" in the rideout chorus. Well, Milt quotes it first here, leading Louis to jokingly mutter, "Oh, leave Louise out of here, boy!"
Barney's solo is off-mike but it allows us to appreciate the power of the Armstrong-Young team as they push him along with those great background riffs (or, as my friends Dave Whitney and Phil Person refer to them, "trumpet foregrounds"). Then Louis, in peak form, every aspect of his solo that he had worked so hard on for six years coming together at the right time. He's absolutely on fire and you can hear Milt and Trummy shouting encouragement from the heart in the background. Trummy's also more comfortable, now with a quote from "The Lady in Red" and still a storming second chorus. The rideout choruses, too, generate more heat than ever before. And did you catch when Louis quotes "Louise"? You can hear Milt respond with a mock-incredulous "Hey!" in the background. Great showmanship, great musicianship, an all-around classic "Ramble."
Within a few months, this edition of the All Stars would lose its rhythm section. First, Billy Kyle replaced Napoleon and proved to be an ideal fit in the group. Then Arvell Shaw came back yet again as Milt decided to live in the studios. And after an erratic period with Kenny John replacing Cole on drums, Barrett Deems joined in May 1954. While Big Sid's the king and Cole was probably a better technician, Deems was a powerhouse with a heavy beat and driving sound, his drums bubbling over like a caldron of swing. This group went into the studio in July 1954 to cut the immortal "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy." Then they returned to the studio two months later to cut the less-than-immortal "Muskrat Ramble" with lyrics by Ray Gilbert.
Gilbert's trite lyrics were recorded by the McGuire Sisters in 1954 and soon became a hit on the charts. Decca producer Milt Gabler always had one eye on the charts and as soon as this one looked to be a hit, Gabler thought of Louis. The All Stars recorded their version on September 1, but it didn't go anywhere on the charts. The lyrics might be dumb but Louis invests everything he has in them; still, stick around for the hot instrumental interlude, taken directly from the All Stars's routine:
Louis seemed to know that it wouldn't be worth keeping these lyrics in the show as I have never found an example of him performing them live (unlike his duet with Gary Crosby on "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," which was a bit of a hit and led Louis to try it out with Trummy Young as his vocal partner for a short time). The usual instrumental routine remained the norm, hotter than ever in this Trummy-Bigard-Kyle-Shaw-Deems edition. The boys turned in one of my all-time favorite performances of it in January 1955 at Hollywood's Crescendo Club. Though it was not released by Decca at the time, this one never fails to get my blood pumping. And for once, I don't think I have to say much about it. There are no surprises and finally, about 7 1/2 years after the birth of the band, Louis has sculpted the performance into a work of art. But the whole band is in fantastic form (even Barney and especially Trummy, who inserts a bit of "Down By The Riverside" into his solo that would remain) and the sound quality is the best I've shared yet. So here is the perfected "Muskrat" in 1955...play it loud!
Yeah, man! I could listen to that one all day. And though you might think, "Well, that's it, no reason to keep going," Louis did change things up every now and then. During a run at Basin Street in New York in July 1955, Louis turned in an especially frisky solo, eschewing his usual quote eight bars in (the one I can't name!) for something that sounds even more like a quote (perhaps a TV jingle or theme song?). Here's Louis's solo, Trummy's solo and the rideout from Basin Street:
And here's that "quote" isolated in case anyone can place it:
However, it was during that same run at Basin Street that Barney Bigard turned in one of his worst performances, a mess on "Rose Room," cracking notes and strictly going through the motions. He was officially on fumes and ready for a change. Louis knew it and in September 1955, a change was made as Edmond Hall joined the band. That change would be for the better and Louis's history with "Muskrat Ramble" was about to get even hotter. Stay tuned for the Edmond Hall and Peanuts Hucko versions in the next installment...til then!