Saturday, May 28, 2011
85 Years of Louis Armstrong's Session With Erskine Tate
Hello friends. Sorry for digging up another old post instead of creating something fresh but things continue to be crazy in a good way. My wife is expecting our second daughter any second now (which included a long false alarm scare at the hospital the other night!) and my book is due out in just a few weeks (though finished copies are in and I might have one later today!). I'm going to have a lot more about the book in future weeks (don't forget, you can pre-order it by clicking the Amazon link on the upper right of the page!), but for now, I'd like to resume regular blogging. Thanks to Dan Farber's magnificent ears, I've been getting more requests to do a "Louis and Quotes" blog and I still might do this--"Ko Ko Mo" would be excellent fodder--but for now, I can't resist another anniversary posting. Recently, was taking a glance through Jos Willems's "All of Me" discography and I noticed that Louis's lone session with Erskine Tate was recorded 85 years ago today. Three years ago, I wrote about this session in the early days of the blog and much of it has held up. I've tinkered with it a bit but otherwise, let's go back to Chicago 85 years ago today to hear what Louis Armstrong in his natural working environment sounded like....
Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra
Recorded May 28, 1926
“Static Strut” Track Time 2:50
“Stomp Off, Let’s Go” Track Time 2:55
“Static Strut” written by Phil Wall and Jack Yellen
“Stomp Off, Let’s Go” written by Elmer Schoebel
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, James Tate, trumpet; Ed Atkins, trombone; Angelo Fernandez, clarinet, alto saxophone; Stump Evans, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone; Norval Morton, tenor saxophone; Teddy Weatherford, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; John Hare, sousaphone; Jimmy Bertrand, drums, washboard; Erskine Tate, leader, shouting
Originally released on Vocalion 1027
Currently available on CD: Both tracks are on a Johnny Dodds compilation on the Frog label, “New Orleans Stomp” - even though Dodds doesn’t play on either track!
Available on Itunes? Yes, “Static Strut” is on a compilation, “The Essential Louis Armstrong” while “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” can be found on “Louis Armstrong: The Ultimate Collection.”
As the story goes, Louis Armstrong returned to Chicago from his somewhat unhappy New York stay with Fletcher Henderson in 1925. He immediately began working with his wife Lil’s band at the Dreamland Cafe. He soon got a second job playing with “Professor” Erskine Tate, a violinist, who had led an orchestra at the Vendome Theater since 1919. A fixture as a showband and as accompaniment to silent pictures, the Tate band had already recorded two sides before Armstrong even joined the band, waxing “Chinaman Blues” and “Cutie Blues” for OKeh on June 23, 1923. For proof that Tate’s bands usually featured the cream of Chicago’s jazz crop, this 1923 date included Buster Bailey on alto saxophone and clarinet and the great New Orleans cornetist Freddie Keppard. Here's a little "Cutie Blues" from that session:
Pretty good, huh? I’m almost surprised it's from 1923 when I listen to it. It's jazzier than Henderson’s more dance band oriented records of the period, effectively blending written passages with some good, old fashioned New Orleans-style polyphony. Keppard’s playing is pretty good but nothing spectacular, though I really do admire the band’s spirit and arrangements. Remember, this was the exact same time Armstrong was recording with King Oliver, so the jazzish, arranged band style was already being ably demonstrated by Tate’s band in Chicago.
When Armstrong joined Tate in 1925, it was quite an honor. “I had become so popular at the Dreamland until Erskine Tate from the Vendome Theater came to Hire me to Join his Symphony Orchestra,” Armstrong later wrote. “I like to have Fainted.....And for anyone to play in Tate’s Band was Really Really Somebody.” Though it was a great offer, Armstrong was a little nervous about accepting it. Lil put an end to that quickly, telling him, “Boy---if you don’t get out of this house and go down there to Erskine Tate’s rehearsal, I’ll Skin you Alive.” Needless to say, Armstrong went!
“I went down there and the opening night was sensational,” Armstrong continued. “I remember the first Swing Tune we played--Called ‘Spanish Shawl.’ I wasn’t in Tate’s Orchestra 2 weeks before I was making Records with them for the Vocalion Recording Company. I became quite a Figure at the Vendome. Especially with the Gals.” Armstrong’s stay in Tate’s band made him something of a hero in Chicago. Audiences screamed at the mere sight of the young trumpeter, who was regularly featured playing tunes such as “Poor Little Rich Girl” or grabbing a megaphone to sing “Heebie Jeebies.” Armstrong’s abilities as a reading musician also were put to the test as he had to play overtures, backgrounds for the silent movies and even classical pieces. Reviews from the period make Armstrong out to be quite a sensation and when listening to the two surviving artifacts of the Armstrong-Tate collaboration, one can see why.
After arriving back in Chicago in late 1925, Armstrong had recorded a grand total of 31 tunes for OKeh, many as a leader. But on May 28, 1926, the Vocalion label wanted to get in on the Armstrong action, recording two tunes with the Hot Five (renamed “Lil’s Hot Shots” for contractual reasons) and two tunes with Erskine Tate’s band all in the same day. The matrix numbers, which are usually never wrong, make it appear as if the Tate numbers were recorded first, but Lil Armstrong and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr both remembered recording Lil’s session first, followed by the Tate tunes (Lil said she went home when she was finished, while St. Cyr agreed to stay and sit in with Tate). This is rather interesting when one considers one of the tunes recorded under Lil’s name, an original Armstrong composition titled “Drop That Sack.” This performance has always made Armstrong fans scratch their heads as it features their hero hitting some completely wrong notes in the introductory breaks, as well as some fluffed lead playing later in the piece--on both takes!
John Chilton argued that perhaps Armstrong’s chops were tired after the manic blowing of the Tate sides and this could very well be. But on the other hand, if “Drop That Sack” came first, could this be the first example of Pops struggling with his chops, perhaps not being warmed up enough to tackle “Drop That Sack”? Anyone can have a bad day and of course, Pops had plenty of days where the chops just refused to percolate. But when I listen to the scorching runs and fiery outbursts on the Tate sides, I can’t imagine that the same shaky playing on “Drop That Sack” was made the same day, regardless of what came first or second.
As usual, I can’t just allow Armstrong’s work to speak for itself. I’m all about context so as I tackle each tune, I’ll offer some other versions of the same songs from around the same period for your listening pleasure. This way, you’ll get to appreciate what hot dance music sounded like with and without Pops...a mighty difference!
First up, let’s examine the first tune recorded that day with Tate, “Static Strut.” This was already a popular number written by Jack Yellen (the man behind “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Happy Days Are Here Again”) and pianist Phil Wall. The tune was waxed by many different bands in early 1926, so let’s give a listen to some of these treatments. First up, courtesy of YouTube, is the Paul Specht Orchestra’s version, recorded for Columbia in January 1926. This band contained the tune’s co-composer Wall on piano, as well as Sylvester “The Gloucester Gabriel” Ahola trumpet (he tries to take a flashy break but kind of peters out). It’s a hot group and the arrangement is a good one (dig the whole tone break).
Next comes a record done by Armstrong’s old boss, Fletcher Henderson, recording under the name “The Dixie Stompers” for the Harmony label on April 14, 1926. I love Henderson’s band but this version of “Static Strut” kind of leaves me cold. It’s pretty much the same arrangement as the Specht band’s (right down to the whole tone break), but it’s a little sloppy at times and doesn’t feature the same feeling of joy and abandon as the earlier version. It does have a Coleman Hawkins solo, though, and that’s always interesting. Alas, the original Red Hot Jazz link is down and no one has uploaded it to YouTube. Don't worry, you're not missing much!
Two days later, the Original Memphis Five recorded a version for a Victor. Though a much smaller band, the OM5 successfully translates the big band arrangement into a swinging feature for the tight little group, propelled by Frank Signorelli’s piano and some swinging drums by Jack Roth. Trumpeter Phil Napoleon takes a short muted solo and though I like Napoleon’s work, this one, too, loses its steam midway through. Maybe I’m biased because I’ve listened to Pops’s version 20 times in the past couple of days...but don’t worry, you’ll feel the same way in just a few minutes. Here’s the Original Memphis Five’s version:
So I think you get the point about “Static Strut.” It’s a hot little tune with some built-in breaks and it was covered by a lot of popular bands in 1926 (the California Ramblers got to it in late April, while the Varsity Eight recorded it in June of that year). Thus, the tune was probably a relatively new one for Erskine Tate’s band, but one they probably enjoyed playing enough to immortalize it in wax. Thus, without further ado, here is Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra with Louis Armstrong on trumpet, Teddy Weatherford on piano and Jimmy Bertrand on drums, tearing apart “Static Strut” (I usually use the Red Hot Jazz Archive’s links, but their versions of the songs done at this session are pretty sorry sounding; I’ve decided to upload my own versions, transferred by John R. T. Davies for a Johnny Dodds disc on the Frog label...the sound is positively incredible!)
What a band! The spirit is there from note one as one can feel the influence of Bertrand’s propulsive drumming from note one (he was a mentor and influence on Lionel Hampton and it shows!). The band is tight and clearly adept at reading and though he’s kind of buried, Teddy Weatherford is a constant presence on the early part of the record as well (more on him in a bit). But the sun really begins to shine when Armstrong steps out front to take a stop-time break that modulates into a solo the is simply brimming with confidence and swing. Armstrong might have been playing some pretty revolutionary stuff on the Hot Five records, but this is the man in his element, playing with his working band, sounding comfortable and happy, pouring out a dazzling stream of ideas from out of his horn. Where do I even begin? The beautifully swinging opening part of the solo, which reminds me a bit of a fast “Song of the Islands”? The first break, where he almost gets trapped in a corner, only to fight his way out with a complex, dizzying array of notes? The singing high concert Ab that appears out of nowhere, a sign of things to come? The ridiculous break at the 1:14 mark, opening with a gurgling chromatic run, topped off four barking high Bb’s? The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rip that immediately follows? The breaks towards the end of the solo, with yet another piercing high Bb? Incredible!
And I love how, after that last break, the tuba steps in for a little humorous touch. Again, this was a tight, well-rehearsed show band and a little funny moment like that was probably good for a laugh. But Pops plays like a man possessed. I will never devalue the Hot Fives as long as I live, but more people should pay attention to “Static Strut” since this is probably how the man sounded on a nightly basis.
Armstrong is followed by the incredible Teddy Weatherford, another figure who is forgotten today, but that’s more of Weatherford’s fault since he barely recorded the left the United States in late 1926, spending the bulk of his too-short life in places such as Shanghai, Indonesi and Calcutta. But if you’d like to do a blindfold test on someone who has never heard “Static Strut,” they might identify the pianist as Earl Hines. Weatherford definitely had a Hines streak in him as his left hand rhythms were never content to simply provide a simple oom-pah beat. His dexterity in both hands is something to marvel at and, as a pianist myself, makes me want to take up the bagpipes.
Unlike the other versions of “Static Strut,” this one doesn’t rely much on the arrangement. Instead, it’s really a string of solos,demonstrating that even smallish big bands like Tate’s were turning jazz into a soloist’s art, much as Pops was doing on his own records at the time. Weatherford is followed by Angelo Fernandez’s alto and Stump Evans’s booting baritone, both fine solos, if not on par with Armstrong and Weatherford’s outings.
With the record winding down, why not hand the ball over to Pops one last time? He makes the most of his stop-time offering, contributing some more dizzying fluries, but also trademarks like the three quarter notes and the concluding “jada jada jing jing jing” phrase, for lack of a better term. And listen carefully to the phrase Armstrong plays at 2:33: it’s the same on that he would use to end the Hot Seven classic “Potato Head Blues” one year later. An incredible record, though one that’s not really well known.
However, the other Tate offering from that day, “Stomp Off, Let’s Go,” has been reissued a bunch of times and with good reason, as it’s one of Armstrong’s hottest records of the 20s (and beyond). This tune came from the pean of the pianist Elmer Schoebel, the man responsible for other jazz classics such as “Prince of Wails,” “Copenhagen,” “Bugle Call Rag” and “Nobody’s Sweetheart.” This seemed to be a big hit in 1925, as the Red Hot Jazz Archives lists four versions of the tune being recorded between May 1 and November 13 of that year. It was played in groups ranging from Vincent Lopez’s Hotel Pennsylvania Orchestra, to Tuschinsky Bercely’s Jazz Band of Amsterdam, Holland. Two of my favorite versions were done by the New Orleans Owls for Columbia and by a studio group, the Cotton Pickers, for Brunswick. Here's the New Orleans Owls:
I personally LOVE the version by the New Orleans Owls. It’s exciting, the solos are good and it builds up quite a head of steam by the end, making its 3:16 running time seem much longer. The band only recorded 18 sides and only Nappy Lamare seems to have gone on to bigger and better things but man, they were a hot group. In my original post, I shared Red Hot Jazz Archive audio from The Cotton Pickers, but it's now down. I can tell you that they chose a slightly slower tempo, which works in the beginning but as the tune goes on, it starts to stiffen up. Also, the Tate seemingly played the same stock arrangement used on this version.
Fortunately for us, two takes of Tate’s “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” survive. Armstrong is still a force of nature on both, but on the first take, he gets stuck a couple of times, which is probably why it wasn’t chosen as the master. But please, enjoy both takes right here, right now and I’ll meet you back in six minutes for the discussion
Never fails to put me in a good mood. Once again, my wife thinks I’m nuts as I sit here with one headphone from my Ipod in one ear and another headphone from the computer in my other ear, comparing the two takes, but hey, it’s the only way to accurately hear the differences in Armstrong’s playing from take to take. This might have been a commonly played tune by the Tate orchestra, but Armstrong didn’t have a set solo on it, though he did have some ideas he obviously liked to utilize. From the opening, Armstrong’s lead is more forceful on the issued second take, especially in that snorting chromatic run at the 13 second mark. At the end of the end of the first strain, Armstrong hits and holds a G on the first take, though he breaks it into two hotter notes on the master. At this juncture, Jimmy Bertrand switches over to his washboard for some tap-dance-like rhythms; the man was indeed a wizard of the washboard! Armstrong’s lead features more chromatic spurts on the master as he continues onward and upward after the short washboard interlude.
The next strain is highlighted by two completely different Armstrong breaks. On take one. Armstrong plays a characteristic phrase, highlighted by three quarter-note Eb’s before a rip up to a Bb. The master take break is much more flashy as Armstrong starts off with an “In the Mood”-like phrase before unfurling an exciting descending run made up of triplets played at a great velocity. Never mind Earl Hines’s “trumpet-styled piano”...this is piano-styled trumpet! Weatherford takes the next break, the same one on each take, ending with a showy glissando flourish. Armstrong’s next, extremely short break is also the same on both performances.
The next strain shows off the band’s great use of dynamics, bringing things down to a hush (though the rhythm section continues right on swingign) before yet another Armstrong break. This time, the one on the first take is the flashier as it features the same crazy “piano-styled trumpet” descending phrase he’d use earlier in the second take. Thus, this was something Armstrong clearly liked to pull out of his bag of tricks. The break on the issued take is fine but not as death-defying as his other playing on the date. What I love about these Tate sides is that they’re the perfect balance between arranged and improvised. Every time you hear a part of an arrangement, listen carefully and there’s always at least one horn improvising a countermelody. Even when he’s playing lead, Armstrong changes phrasing from take to take. This kind of loose, arrangement-based but still polyphonically driven big band style is truly a lost art.
Teddy Weatherford’s moment in the sun occurs in the middle of the piece and it was obviously a set solo as it barely changes at all on either take. Some discographies claim a second piano player to be present, which is a helluva compliment to Mr. Weatherford. There are times when I wonder if I heard one, too, as there seems to be a steady oom-pah at times while the left hand chords and rhythms are consistently shifting, all while the right hand is pumping out an octave-based improvisation. But I have read that professional pianists have analyzed this solo and came to the conclusion that it could indeed have been played by one person. So please, stand up and take your bow, Teddy, as that is a tremendous feat of pianistic gymnastics!
Next comes Pops’s moment in the spotlight, a delicious stop-time chorus. He enters on a break, the more daring of which comes on take one. In fact, the whole beginning of Armstrong’s first take solo is arguably the better of the two, but at the 2:09 mark, he hits a wall and struggles noticeably. He recovers, of course, and continues blowing well, but not quite with the fierceness of earlier in the take. Maybe deep down, he knew that he had botched the take and didn’t want to kill himself. The issued stop-time solo is quite interesting because it’s safer, mainly revolving around different inflections of an Ab, but at the halfway point, he attempts a rip up to an Ab an octave higher and barely gets the note out. Undeterred, he repeats exactly what he just played but on the second try, nails the high Ab. Having made it through, he improvises some new lines, duetting with Bertrand’s washboard, and playing with an incredibly melodic, lyrical ability; after listening a couple of times, you can sing along to this part of the song without any problem.
Both takes end with Armstrong playing a violent lip trill on a concert Eb, setting up a final rideout chorus where the entire band cuts loose, Pops leading the way out. It’s a tremendously exciting finish to a timeless recording. Unfortunately, that would be it Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra on records. It’s a shame, because he didn’t even get to bring his string section into the studio (not like an A&R man would have allowed it, obviously preferring a black band to play hot jazz, leaving the classics and dance tunes at home).
On my Ipod, my over 3,000 song Armstrong collection is arranged in a chronological playlist. When I’m in the right mood, I like to listen to Armstrong’s recordings in the order he made them to catch stylistic changes, the introduction of quotes and patented phrases, the days when his chops are a bit down, etc. Thus, when I get to 20s, I rarely listen to just the Hot Fives and Sevens in order. I have those records mixed in with the blues material, with the Butterbeans and Susie stuff, with everything else Armstrong was making during the period. But let me tell you, nothing sticks out more than those two Tate tracks. They sound unlike anything else from that period and are arguably more exciting than anything he did with Henderson. The importance of these records cannot be underestimated because they, more than any of the others, demonstrate the style of trumpet playing Armstrong featured on a nightly basis, the style that made him a star in Chicago once and for all time.