After jazz, my other two great interests in life are comedy and baseball. When I was five years old, the minute I learned how to read, I memorized every World Series winner and loser and soon became a party trick at family functions. I still eat up baseball stats at a maddening pace (and have my beloved Yankees on in the background as I write this). The following year, when I was six, I caught a Three Stooges short on TBS before school (I still remember it, "A Gem of a Jam") and instantly needed to know everything about them imaginable.
This led to grade school years filled with devouring Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton, you name it. Old sitcoms were a great love, especially "The Honeymooners," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Odd Couple," "The Phil Silvers Show" and "I Love Lucy" (with my name, I had no choice on that last one). Woody Allen eventually became a hero. The whole time I was growing up, I was also plugged into the current comedy scene, obsessed with sitcoms like "Seinfeld," sketch comedy such as "Mr. Show" and silly movies, some too embarrassing to mention here. The profane and vulgar didn't bother me; I've said it before, I have low class. Funny's funny to me, whether it's a Buster Keaton stunt or a sexual misunderstanding from Larry David.
I've also always loved stand-up comedy. My wife and I particularly share this love, often going to see favorite acts such as Louis C. K. and Jim Gaffigan live. Thus, I was in heaven on earth last Friday night when HBO aired a new special called "Talking Funny," a roundtable discussion about comedy with Jerry Seinfeld, Ricky Gervais, Chris Rock and Louis C. K. Some people have argued about comedy (and jazz) that the more you analyze it, the less fun it becomes. I guess that's true, but I'm sucker for comedy analysis, especially from the pros, not critics.
The special was fantastic but when it was over, more than ever before I saw a connection between jazz and stand-up comedy and especially as it relates to Louis Armstrong. Anyone who has stumbled upon this blog for even a minute knows the story: in his later years, Louis carefully perfected his act with the All Stars, improvising solos and routines and gradually sculpting them into perfect little performances. Critics balked--"That's not jazz, jazz is spontaneous!"--but Armstrong said that was how it always was done when he was coming up and besides, audiences always turned up in droves.
Well, stand-up comedy is similar in that way. Some comedians start with nothing, gradually improvise or try out a few bits, see what sticks and slowly but surely, build up an act, 10 minutes at first, then 20 and so on. When they have a polished hour, they hit the road...and repeat that hour night after night. When it's really flying, they might film that hour for posterity.
But naturally, not every comedian does this. Some like to improvise every night and don't want to get into a rut so they abandon jokes that work after short periods of time, afraid of going stale. While watching "Talking Funny," I felt like I could have been watching a roundtable discussion with Louis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman. Almost immediately, the comedians got into it about how they approach their performances. Louis C. K. now writes a full new hour every year, which is pretty unheard of. He feels it keeps his audience coming back because they know it's going to be new. But once he gets that hour...that's the hour. My wife and I have seen him three times now, completely different each time. But we've also seen two of his filmed specials that were identical to the shows we saw live. No problem, we laughed just as hard at home.
Chris Rock will throw the audience some things they want to hear but prefers doing an entirely new show every time he goes out on tour, gradually changing it nightly until he gets it perfect, at which point he films it and moves on. Ricky Gervais is the renegade, a recent convert to stand-up, who feels the need to change it up every night, who hates going for easy laughs, who wants no polish whatsoever. He's there to create and try to do something no one in the audience can do.
And then there's Jerry Seinfeld...our Louis Armstrong figure. Seinfeld's an icon, arguably the biggest name we have these days. He perfected a popular observational style of comedy in the 1980s and helped create arguably the greatest sitcom of all-time. He's no longer an innovator, which he's fine with, and still sells out wherever he goes instantly. But on "Talking Funny," Jerry talks about professionalism and "the act." "The people that write about comedy, and I know it's not their business, these critics, they should understand what an 'act' is. When I go to see somebody work, I don't want to see your new hour. I want to see the act." He then expounds that every year, he might change 10-20% of it, but he has jokes that have been in the show for over 10 years. They're perfected, they're the "core things," as Seinfeld says and they work. He says you have to include some new stuff but people also want to see the "greatest hits." He asks about the audience, "Are they coming to see you or the act?"
The discussion goes on and on and I won't go any further--don't worry, this is still the Louis Armstrong blog--but I found fascinating parallels in this discussion and how some people approach jazz. Louis played a lot of the same songs and solos every night; they worked, he perfected it, it was a great "act." Duke had his way to keep the audience happy (the hits medley, for example), but he also liked to sneak in his recent compositions. Bird might play the same songs every night, but almost always improvised new stuff. And with an Ornette, no one knew what could happen night after night. All valid approaches, but critics will always find something to complain about.
And one more aspect related to comedy. Paul Provenza interviewed one of my comedic heroes, Bob Odenkirk, for his book "Satiristas," and asked him about the popularity of "improv" comedy troupes, the ones that come out, take a suggestion from the audience and spontaneously come up with routines out of thin air. Odenkirk appreciates it but calls it a "parlor tricks." Provenza argues that improv is "verbal jazz" and there's a tight-rope element to it. Odenkirk argues that the "tightrope aspect is not good. It causes a lot of artificial reaction. Most everybody who is getting a laugh through improvisation is getting it because the tightrope is what's generating it." Damn, I thought to myself, how many times have I seen a sad jazz musician get a hand just because he or she improvised something, even if it's lousy.
Odenkirk then argues that EVERYTHING is improvised at some point. "When you sit at a desk and try to write something, you make shit up, come up with a scenario, make some more up, sometimes talk out loud and try out a line--you're improvising. And then you clear out all the crap, find the point, and go further."
Now, let me quote Louis Armstrong after getting criticized for playing a set solo on "Indiana" and no longer improvising every night. "When I improvise something, I don't forget it! If it's good, of course I remember it. Every note! That's why I play it again. Nearly everything I ever play I improvised at some time or other."
See the parallels? This is a topic that, I don't know, might be ripe for a journal article or a blog or some other forum. But it hit me as I prepared for today's blog on the late 50s "Muskrat Rambles." Because honestly, with Edmond Hall aboard, these might be my favorite versions of the song in Armstrong's recorded output. But also honestly, I've shared about a dozen previous versions and these today are not very different from the last couple I shared in my last post. So it's easy for me to get all worked up about an Amsterdam version from October 1955, share a link and then have a reader say, "Hm, that sounds almost identical to the Crescendo Club version you shared two weeks ago from January 1955. Poor Louis Armstrong was repeating himself and couldn't create anything."
So my argument is, no! Louis Armstrong created THIS! It's a masterpiece. He plays his ass off. The whole band does. That Symphony Hall version of "Muskrat" from 1947 is pretty special (take a bow, Mr. Catlett) but if I had to choose, I think the Amsterdam version heard on the Columbia LP "Ambassador Satch" is my favorite. I've played it at lectures before and it never fails to get a huge ovation. It's a performance that was improvised--at one point--but is now a finely crafted work of art. And difficult as hell to play. Not a single musician in the band goes through the motions. Everyone plays it like it's the first time they ever saw it and that's what audiences responded to and why they kept coming back. Critics did a helluva lot of complaining in the the 1950s and 1960s but the fact is Louis never played in front of an empty house. The people came to see him, not the act, and didn't give a damn how much was improvised fresh each night. They wanted a show...and he gave them the best one in the business.
So with all preliminaries out of the way, let's travel to Amsterdam, October 30, 1955. This was a concert completely recorded by George Avakian at Columbia. Avakian used four tracks from it and some other selections from Milan and Los Angeles to create the masterpiece "Ambassador Satch," sweetening the mix with dubbed in applause at time to make it feel more "live." But the entire concert was recorded and is sitting there, rotting away in Sony's vaults. Makes me sick (but don't worry, their new 20-CD boxed set, "Miles Davis Farts and Coughs").
To hear the final version in all its splendor--and sweetened applause--dig up "Ambassador Satch" or download it. I love my readers and if you're still with me after this diatribe, how about a little treat? Here's the very same "Muskrat Ramble" as recorded off the sound system that night at Concertgebeow. The sound quality is a little rougher than the finished version but the spirit shines through. As Arvell Shaw said, this edition of the All Stars had the power of a big band packed into a little sextet. He wasn't kidding. Here's my favorite "Muskrat Ramble" as never heard before:
Now how can anyone argue with that? The whole thing is one climax after another. Listen to Armstrong, trombonist Trummy Young and clarinetist Edmond Hall completely burn through the ensemble at 1:24 into the performance. They're on fire and they're only getting started. Everyone solos well, but listen to Edmond Hall and compare his work with Barney Bigard's. Actually, Bigard had a pretty exciting set solo on this song but he had nothing behind it in previous versions. Hall swings dangerously backed by those super-tight riffs.
And Louis is in great form, too, rephrasing that elusive quote at 3:40 that none of my friends have named yet (though as Michael Steinman probably guessed correctly, it must be some commercial jingle or theme song that's been lost to time). And Louis has a new ending, too. After many versions with those abstract glisses, he now plays a little ascending run echoed by pianist Billy Kyle. Trummy's solo now features a little "Down By the Riverside" singalong and more good fun ("The Lady in Red" anyone?). And if you can find anything more powerful then those closing ensembles, contact me immediately. Even with the parade of quotes, this is a band intent on kicking your ass...mission accomplished!
That version of "Muskrat" was recorded during a three-month tour of Europe that found Louis followed not only by Avakian's microphone but Edward R. Murrow's camera crew filing a report for "See It Now." Meanwhile, back home, Armstrong's latest record, "Mack the Knife," was climbing up the charts. When he stepped foot back in America, he only had a couple of days off before flying to Hollywood to film "High Society." Armstrong's career was hitting new peaks of popularity with almost each passing week.
But what does this mean for us? It means that he started becoming a hit on the newly formed jazz festival circuit. He did a big tour with Woody Herman. He shared a bill with Teddy Buckner in Pasadena. He darted in and out of a Helen Hayes narrative at the "Chicago Concert" in June 1956. This is all my way of saying that almost every surviving All Stars set from 1956 and 1957 is a streamlined one. The 1953 version I shared last time with Milt Hinton, the Crescendo Club, the Amsterdam show, those were all full evenings with the All Stars, shows ranging from two to three hours. But at a Newport Jazz Festival or when he appeared on a bill with other artists, Louis would only have to do an hour. In that short time, he'd manage to play the hits, feature each All Star and contribute his usual freakish horn work on favorites like "The Gypsy" and "The Bucket's Got a Hole In It." When it was time to dedicate something "to all the musicians in the house," he frequently began choosing "Ole Miss," giving a plug to his album "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy" in the process.
Thus, for all the hours and hours of All Stars material that survives in 1956 and 1957, I only have one real version of "Muskrat Ramble" in my collection and alas, it's incomplete, cutting out during the rideout choruses. I'm sure Pops continued to play it reguarly as his one-nighters didn't exactly stop during this period, but nothing much survives from this time so until some collectors step forward with some bootlegs, we have to fast forward to 1958. Hall, Young and Kyle are still there but now Mort Herbert is on bass and Danny Barcelona's on drums. In April of that year, they appeared on a "Timex All Star Jazz Show" and opened with an extra firery "Muskrat." Because of the time constraints of live TV, Louis was probably told to play a shortened version. Thus, he cut the routine severely and ratcheted the tempo through the roof. The result is short but one of the most exciting pieces of footage, if not the most exciting footage ever captured of the Armtrong-Young-Hall front line. Hold on to something before watching this...
That final note is positvely scary. Just a few weeks later, the All Stars found themselves playing in front of a smaller-than-usual crowd in North Bay, Ontario, far from the glitz of Amsterdam, a "Timex" TV studio or the Newport Jazz Festival. No cameras or recording microphones in sight. Yet listen to how they absolutely tear into this number like complete professionals. Danny Barcelona's drums are a bit over-miked but I like his driving style and heavy backbeat so I'm not complaining. And for the first time in our history of "Muskrat" we actually get an encore with Pops slipping in another quote, this time a new one, of "The Song is Ended." Here's the All Stars in Ontario:
So on those swinging notes, I'm going to conclude for the day (actually days it took me to write this). I know I'm only in 1958 and it probably looks like I'll never end but I think I can wrap it up in one more post. A preview: 1959 pre-heart attack, 1959 post-heart attack, studio recordings with the Dukes of Dixieland and Bing Crosby and final surviving versions from 1966 and 1967 with chops fading, no more trumpet solos and yet gallant playing til the end. Til then!