I come not to bury "Muskrat Ramble" today, but to praise it...okay, I'll bury it, too. Six parts is a long series (though last year's ten parts on "Tiger Rag" will be tough to top) and though I've peppered in other subjects along the way, my look at "Muskrat" has been ongoing since February and it's time to wrap it up (especially with the 75th anniversary of May 18, 1936 of one of Louis's greatest sessions. Don't know it? Just wait...)
When we last left our heroes, "Muskrat Ramble" was being swung down to a low gravy in front of a half-full (or half-empty depending on how you like your life) crowd in Ontario in 1958, with my favorite front line of Louis, Trummy Young and Edmond Hall leading the charge. Just a few weeks later, Hall left and the glory days were over, though Louis still had some incredible playing left in him, especially during a ridiculous six-month tour of Europe in 1959. A LOT of music was recorded during this trip and fortunately, two "Muskrat Rambles" survive. The song was no longer being performed each night but both versions are pretty fantastic. Here's one from an unknown location featuring Louis still blowing with tremendous fury:
[UPDATE: Thanks to drummer Bernard Flegar for identifying that Danny Barcelona is not using his usual drums and cymbals on this performance, therefore, it must be from Ljubljana, Slovenia on May 17, 1959....I love drummers!]
Still a great arrangement and Pops is killing it, right down to that giant high Eb at the end. And by the way, that's Billy Kyle on piano, Mort Herbert on bass, Danny Barcelona on drums and Peanuts Hucko on clarinet. One thing about Hucko is he must have not liked backing riffs because they disappeared on this song, "Indiana," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and others as soon as he joined. Also, the group vocal on "Down by the Riverside" is now a focal point of Trummy's solo.
All's well and good until June 1959 when Louis suffered a heart attack in Spoleto, Italy, something he never admitted, but his doctors later made it known that that was exactly what happened. Louis (and Joe Glaser) didn't want to make it appear that he was sickly so only a few weeks after the attack, Louis was back on the road. He was still playing wonderfully and would continue to blow in close-to-peak form until 1965, but he started having some trouble with endurance, possibly because of breathing problems. The first casualty was his epic three-chorus rideout lead on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." Also, he began losing a few miles off his fastball and started having trouble with dexterity, which he often found ways around through brute strength.
Barely a month after the heart attack, Louis found himself back in a recording studio, waxing "Muskrat Ramble" with the Dukes of Dixieland. It's a fine version that wasn't issued until the 1970s (and Louis's premature roar of approval at the end makes me wonder if this was simply a warm-up). Anyway, without his All Stars, the usual "arrangement" is gone in favor of a more loose, jammed version with solos for everyone. Here's Louis and the Dukes:
So much for that heart attack, huh? Like I said, occasionally Louis's phrasing is a little thick, but overall that is some powerhouse performance. He plays the lead in the beginning before handing it to Dukes trumpeter Frankie Assunto, who sets up the stop-time strain. Louis then takes his first solo before letting Assunto lead the ensemble for a bit. Louis then enters with a phrase that turns back the clock to 1947, one he played in his November Carnegie Hall solo and the Symphony Hall rideout from that same month. From there, he contributes a fairly new one-chorus solo, made up of some tested ideas, such as the quote from "The Song is Ended" and a remarkably powerful concluding phrase.
After the Dukes solo, Louis plows into the rideout choruses as if he has his All Stars with him, jumping in with that three-note clarion call, playing the quotes, you name it. The Dukes aren't familiar with it so just play for themselves but I'm always in awe by Louis's lead here. Maybe it's the Audio Fidelity recording, but Louis's sound is captured wonderfully, especially as he enters right after Assunto's solo and sounds like he's playing a different instrument. After the "I Dream of Jeannie" quote, it sounds like Louis is going to end it but he gets an energy burst and goes way up for one more thrilling chorus, topping the whole thing off with another gigantic high Eb. As Pops can be heard yelling at the end, "Ahhhhhh!"
In October 1959, the All Stars found themselves playing a long, two-set show at Keesler Air Force Base. Being an outdoor concert, on probably a cold night, Louis had a little trouble with his chops. Interestingly, the trouble seemed to be executing in his middle register; when he went high, no problem. As the concert wore on, Louis got stronger and stronger but still he knew his limitations and found new ways to play around them. By deep in the second set, it was request time and Louis announced he was going to honor "Muskrat Ramble." Because time was running out and the requests had piled up, Louis played a slightly pared down version with Hucko, Louis and Trummy taking one-chorus solos. Louis comes up with an entirely new solos here, his playing marked by a combination of relaxation and the usual feats of strength. Trummy must have known his leader was struggling a bit as you can hear him audibly offer some encouraging "Yeahs" during Louis's solo. And Louis's playing in the rideout choruses will probably make any trumpeters write in to me and say, "Jesus, I wish I could play like that when my chops weren't in 100% form!" Dig it:
The next time we confront "Muskrat Ramble" it's in 1960 and part of the studio album, "Bing and Satchmo." As I've written before on this blog, this album has some very enjoyable moments but overall it's just a little too overproduced for my tastes. I especially don't like the song choices, which veer towards the corny. I recently traded e-mails on this subject with Will Friedwald, who said he wished the session could have been more looser like "Ella and Louis" on Verve. We can dream, can't we? "Muskrat Ramble" served as the introductory song on the record, with Louis once more confronting Don Frye's lyrics that Louis recorded for Decca back in 1954, this time with a new verse and some further punching up by Johnny Mercer. Bing's "who dat boy" line makes me cringe but Louis's short burst of trumpet playing if more than enough proof that he wasn't anyone's "boy." Here's the recording:
Now the "Muskrat Ramble" story goes into fast-forward a bit as by the early 60s, it doesn't seem to have remained one of Louis's nightly choices in live performances. As usual, I may be wrong; Louis performed about 300 nights a year and in America, it seems like his shows were rarely bootlegged (I thought Louis was done with "That's My Home" in 1961, but recently read a review that mentioned him performing it in 1964 so who knows!). But a lot of shows do survive in this period, especially from 1962 and all we have to show for it is one condensed version from a fantastic German television show, "The Satchmo Story." Again, because it's television, it's boiled down to 3 1/2 minutes with everyone taking a one-chorus solo and only one rideout chorus at the end. By this point, Billy Kyle, Trummy Young and Danny Barcelona are still on board but now Joe Darensbourg is on clarinet and Billy Cronk is on bass.
The good news about this version is it's on YouTube (and has over 150,000 views). The bad news is embedding is disabled! Thus, here's the link. I'll wait until you come back...
Back? Wasn't that excellent? Pops is intense there and comes blazing into his solo with an exciting stream of quarter-notes. One more rideout might have pushed it into the pantheon but nevertheless, I like Louis's series of angry blue notes, alerting the band that they're heading home great stuff.
No "Muskrat's" have survived from 1963 and 1964 and the first one that exists from 1965 is from a London concert immediately after Louis's major dental surgery. As I've argued here and in my book, that was pretty much it for Louis's playing at its peak. He still could play wonderfully but it was never again quite as crackling as the 1950s. Unfortunately, I don't have this London version, though I listened to it at work in preparation for my book and can attest from memory that Louis is in great form. Because of the teeth problems and age, his solo is about 70% new but it's all good and the rideouts are still excellent. I know I've made this appeal on here before but if any collector has audio or especially video from this London show (it also contained interviews and was hosted by Humphrey Lyttelton), contact me. It does survive because footage appeared in a 1984 documentary "Laughin' Louis" and one version of "Back O'Town Blues" showed up on YouTube for a while. I'd love to see the whole thing!
By the fall of 1965, Louis was getting tired and, because of his diminishing capacity on the horn, a little depressed. Louis filmed a dramatic part for the film "A Man Called Adam" and performed four songs for the soundtrack. Unfortunately, two, including "Muskrat Ramble," were a little below his standards and were never released. Thanks to the kindness of Armstrong discographer Jos Willems, I have the two unreleased performances and will share "Muskrat Ramble" now. After listening to some of the sparkling versions I've shared over the previous five parts, this one might be a little sad, but Louis still pushes through some fine moments. The band still has Billy Kyle and Danny Barcelona but now Tyree Glenn is on trombone, Buster Bailey is on clarinet and Buddy Catlett's on bass. Here's the "Man Called Adam" unissued "Muskrat Ramble":
See what I mean? He just sounds tired. He hits a few flat notes and when he powers through, he gets the message across but it sounds like it hurts. For the rideout (only one chorus), he starts as usual but then has to come up with more ideas to get to the finish and that final high note. A tough day at the office but still some nice moments (though upon listening to it, Buster Bailey comes in at the wrong time, stepping on the beginning of Buddy Catlett's bass solo, so it sounds more like a warmup and something that never would have been released in the first place).
By December 1966, Pops's decline was in full force. Performing "Muskrat" at the Arie Crown Theater, the "arrangement" has completely been gutted since the old days. Let's listen:
Louis's lead is sprightly but it's all new phrases and instead of taking a solo, he just jams an ensemble chorus with the band. Then after solos by new pianist Marty Napoleon and bassist Catlett, Louis leads the way already into the rideout. Maybe they were running out of time and had to condense it as it's a bit odd that Bailey and Glenn don't take solos. But listen carefully to the rideouts. All of the old hallmarks--the quotes, the opening phrase, you name--they're all gone. But it's not like Louis is exactly fumbling around! Those blue notes at the start of the last chorus, coupled with Danny Barcelona's emphatic drumming, are very exciting. So when I say "Louis's decline was in full force," it's not like he was making bad music or not able to play the horn. He just could no longer do what he used to make sound so easy on this song between 1947 and 1959.
By 1967, Buster Bailey had died and Louis had to cancel a couple of months of engagements due to pneumonia. He was really breaking down but the rest did him some good at first. On his second night back, with new clarinetist Joe Muranyi aboard, Louis played wonderfully at the Ravinia Jazz Festival. Let's listen to this strong version:
Like the 1966 version, this one is a bit condensed. Louis's lead is great but now not only is the solo gone, so in the early ensemble jamming after the trombone-centric strain. The 1955 "Ambassador Satch" version contained over three minutes of fireworks, including a Louis solo, before he passed it over to the piano, but on this one, he's ready to take a break after 77 seconds (and notice how the tempo has dropped back to almost the original pace). Now it's solo time...except Louis doesn't take one.
Yes, my friends, it's official; that "Man Called Adam" is the last surviving solo I know of that Louis took on "Muskrat Ramble." I hope you enjoyed watching it grow with me over the years, but by the late 60s, it was gone. Louis does keep the chops limber by pulling out the old background riff behind Muranyi's first chorus, but then it's back to the sidelines (but dig Joe quoting "Hello, My Baby"!). There's no solo for Tyree Glenn as Louis pounds into the rideout with a variation on the phrase he used to open so many of his solos with in the past. From there, he improvises some beautiful lines, sounding like a strong, but mortal, New Orleans trumpeter (and honestly, a bit like his 1926 self, pushing the Hot Five to the finish line with some vibrant middle-register playing). And unlike the 1966 Chicago version, there's two rideout choruses, the second one featuring a fantastic episode of spinning triplets. He concludes on a high note, if nowhere near as high as he did on those 1958-1959 versions.
Louis might have sounded strong there but after a few weeks of nightly playing, he was shot, sounding tired during a broadcast in Atlantic City in late July and even worse during a Copenhagen concert a few nights later. But immediately after Copenhagen, the All Stars traveled to France for the Antibes festival and on the second night, Louis turned in some of his finest blowing of this period, some of it released on the old Vanguard two-album set "The Essential Louis Armstrong." Included in that package was the last surviving version of "Muskrat Ramble" in the Armstrong discography. Knowing what I know of 1968 Louis, I can't imagine him calling it much during that year but who knows, maybe one day someone will prove me wrong. Once again, there's no solo, but the lead is confident and the rideout even better than Ravinia (and the sound quality is excellent, too). Take it, Pops:
That's just about the end of the story but not quite. Hardcore Pops nuts might be thinking, "Hey, Ricky, what about the Hot Five reunion version at Disneyland?" As Louis would say, I had it in my back pocket the entire time. I thought it would be a good version to end with because Louis is still in peak form and it allows us to end where we started, with Louis flanked by Kid Ory and Johnny St. Cyr (though, if you remember what I wrote about Louis claiming ownership of the tune in my first part, you can imagine what was going through his head when he announces that Ory wrote it in this clip!). This was recorded in September 1961, 35 years after the original Hot Five record. I'm posting the entire clip in beautiful quality because it really should be scene but "Muskrat" begins at 4:37 for those in a rush. And dig Louis really setting the tempo with his rocking body motion as soon as he starts playing! Great stuff....thank you Louis, thanks to the Hot Five, the All Stars, the Dukes of Dixieland and all the other great musicians who helped create so many wonderful versions of this song over the course of the 40+ years Louis performed. Didn't they ramble? Yeah, man....