Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Today's the Day!

Well, it's finally here. Four years ago I started this blog, promising to write a book one day about Louis Armstrong's later years and as of this morning, that day has arrived. It's been a helluva ride, as my longtime readers will attest, but I've had a ball. And frankly, I think the real ride is only just beginning!

Anyway, I'll have much more about the book in upcoming weeks but I did just want to say that it's in bookstores everywhere today and Amazon has already started shipping their copies, so stand back! And if you're still on the fence, don't mind me as I call attention to some recent reviews that needless to say have made me very, very proud. Here's Tom Nolan in the
Wall Street Journal. And here's Ted Gioia in the
San Francisco Chronicle. I've been a longtime admirer of both Nolan and Gioia and to read their words about my work, well, I don't know how to properly sum up my happiness. And if you want to read a short excerpt, head over to JazzWax, where Marc Myers has a bit about it today.

All in all, this is one of the most exciting times of my life and I thank all of you who have shown interest in my work over the years. Now go out there and grab a book...happy reading!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

85 Years of "Don't Forget to Mess Around"

Recorded June 16, 1926
Track Time 3:04
Written by Louis Armstrong
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8343
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Time for a revisit to an old post of mine, one of my earliest from back in 2007. 85 years ago, Louis recorded a really light-hearted, fun Hot Five session that the Gunther Schuller's of the world probably wish never existed. I wish I had time to discuss the whole session, but for a sense of the fun, you can't top "Don't Forget to Mess Around." Here's what I wrote back in 2007 (this was the first Hot Five I ever wrote about, hence the opening) and it still holds up today, laying out some of the themes that crop up in my book regarding Louis's early days (five days til publication!). Enjoy!


Finally, something from the sacred Hot Five series. And no, it's not "West End Blues" or "Weather Bird," but rather a lighthearted romp with a fun vocal about a dance. I'm actually happy this one came up in my shuffle because for quite some time, I've argued that more attention needs to paid to all the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, not just the ones critics and analysts tell us are the only ones worth remembering. And of course, many of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens are more important than others in the series but the point remains that by focusing just on Armstrong's greatest statements, it's easy to buy into the myth of, "Wow, he used to be some artist, playing stuff like 'Potato Head Blues' and 'Cornet Chop Suey.' It's a shame he gave it up to become an entertainer."

Nothing can be farther from the truth and as proof, I offer you the Hot Five session of June 16, 1926. Four tracks were recorded that day, three with ridiculously fun Armstrong vocals...and on the one he doesn't sing, he plays a slide whistle! The whole date has such a happy feeling to it but these four tracks rarely get reissued on best-ofs from the period (for the record, the others are "I'm Gonna Gitcha," "Dropping Shucks," and 'Who'sit," the latter with the slide whistle solo). "Don't Forget to Mess Around" led off the first Hot Five session since Februray 26, a date that produced three bona fide classics: "Heebie Jeebies," "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Muskrat Ramble." But please don't think Armstrong confined himself to just the Hot Five sessions in this period. He would enter the recording studio five more times between March and June, accompanying blues singers such as Sippie Wallace, recording with his regular band, Erskin Tate's Vendome Orchestra, and even doing a session under his wife Lil's name for Vocalion. Earlier on June 16, Armstrong had already recorded two tracks backing the singer Nolan Welsh. I have Armstrong's recordings arranged in chronological order and I think it's important to hear what he recorded in order because it's not just one small band classic after another. The Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions pop up sporadically and always manage to delight, but they were just a small part of what Armstrong was doing in Chicago during this period.

So when it comes to "Don't Forget to Mess Around," there's not a lot to analyze. Let's listen:

Armstrong plays two flawless one-bar breaks in the introduction and basically sticks to melody in his lead ensemble playing. "Charleston" was obviously the craze of the period and this Armstrong composition incorporates the "Charleston" beat very well. Like most originals from the period, it isn't a neat 32-bar AABA pop song but rather features a chorus followed by a verse, then back to the chorus with some neat arranged sections for the horns along the way. Towards the end of the verse, one notices Johnny Dodds disappears, only to return a few seconds later...on alto! Yikes, I'm not a big fan of Dodds's stiff alto playing, even though his high notes oddly still sound like his clarinet. Fortunately, Armstrong's right behind him with one of his most exberant, shouting vocals of the Okeh days. It's not Gershwin, but it's a lot of fun:

Don't forget to mess around/ when you're doing the Charleston...Charleston
First thing you do/ now when you rear...way back!
Say, you grab your gal/ and then you clap your hands
And you do the Eagle Rock/ but don't you stop at all!

Uncle Jack, that dancin' fool/ He would never do the Charleston...Charleston
When he learned of that brand/ new dance...such a prance!
And he forgot his name/ when he danced this brand new way
Then he yelled out/ don't forget to do your stuff/ when you dance the mess around!

Now, I'm usually good at translating the language of Armstrong but the quality of the recording coupled with Armstrong's shouting ways makes this a hard lyric to decipher. Only the next to last line, "And he forgot his name," might be wrong. That's what I think Wycliffe Gordon sings on a remake for David Ostwald's Gully Low Jazz Band recording of it (on "Blues In Our Heart"), but Armstrong kind of sounds like he's singing, "And he clean forget his aid/ when he danced this brand new raid." I don't even know if that makes sense, but obviously this isn't a lyric with deep emotional content. It's just supposed to convey a sense of fun and on that level it succeeds greatly. And besides, no one else was really singing like this during the period, though there are traces of Al Jolson in some of these early Armstrong vocals (on "Butter and Egg Man," Pops practically imitates Jolson at one point).

After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes a very aggressive clarinet solo, as if he's saying, "Please posterity, don't judge me by my alto playing!" Kid Ory takes a typical break towards the end before Armstrong takes one of his own, notable for staying in middle register before shooting up an octave to end it with a piercing high note. All in all, it's a lot of fun and if I say it again, not as important as a "West End Blues" but I think it's just as important in understanding Armstrong's entire career. Legendary producer George Avakian tells this story about this track:

"By 1926, Louis Armstrong was headlining at Chicago's Sunset Cafe and writing novelties which he performed nightly, in addition to recording them with his Hot Five for Okeh. During one of many happy afternoons of hanging out in Luois's upstairs den in his home in Corona, I asked Pops if the 'mess around' was an actual dance.' 'Yes, yes indeed,' he cried and leaped out of his chair. 'Went like this!' Well, there I was without a movie camera, but be assured of one thing--Louis was a great dancer and still light on his feet. 'Used to do that every show after the vocal, and then blow two choruses. Had to dance two, three encores on Saturday nights.'"

Picture that. The great, serious, artist, Louis Armstrong (before he went commercial), performing "Don't Forget To Mess Around" and then dancing for a few choruses. During the same year, newspaper clippings exist in Armstrong's scrapbook of rave reviews he received in Chicago for putting on mock sermons and singing "Heebie Jeebies" to the delight of the audiences. But the image of two different Armstrong persists to this day. Here's a Time magazine critic just last year reviewing a Hot Fives and Hot Sevens set: "Forget the Satchmo who sang and mugged his way through his later decades, wonderfully entertaining as he was. This is Armstrong the force of nature--exuberant, inspired, irresistible." When I first read that online, I mailed it to myself with the subject line, "Makes Me Sick." So sure, I have my moments where I just want to put in a best-of compilation and watch the hits keep coming: "Cornet Chop Suey" followed by "Muskrat Ramble" followed by "Potato Head Blues" followed by "West End Blues" followed by "Beau Koo Jack," and so on. But please don't forget that the same man made "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa," "Irish Black Bottom," "That's When I'll Come Back to You," and "Don't Forget to Mess Around," FUN songs that wanted to do nothing more than entertain and provide joy, which is what Louis Armstrong lived to do for his entire career.

(And a note on the great David Ostwald. He seems to understand this and on the wonderful Nagel-Heyer release "Blues In Our Heart," he dug out "Mess Around," "New Orleans Stomp" and "Who' Sit," from Armstrong's mid-20s period. The disc is wonderful, as are George Avakian's notes, from which I copped the earlier quote. David leads the Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland every Wednesday from 5:30 to 7:15 and I can't think of a better way to spend time in the city. Hopefully, as long as there's a New York City, there'll be a place for this wonderful group!)

In Between the Raindrops

Friends, I interrupt my barrage of book-related posts to point your attention towards a noble cause, especially if you're a jazz fan and a Louis Armstrong fan. A few weeks ago, while celebrating Marty Napoleon's 90th birthday, I listed the other surviving All Stars and included Buddy Catlett who sometimes unfairly gets looked over. He was with Louis day in and day out from June 1965 through September 1968, traveling around the world and playing on all of Louis's recording sessions in that period ("What a Wonderful World," "Cabaret," "Disney Songs the Satchmo Way," etc.). Buddy was a product of Seattle's burgeoning jazz scene in the 1940s 1950s and that's where he resides today.

It's the history of the Seattle jazz scene that is the subject of a new documentary, "In Between the Raindrops," produced by my friend Jessica Davis. Jessica has made this project a labor of love for quite some time and has already done a ton of work, including filming concerts and interviews with Quincy Jones, Ernestine Anderson and yes, Buddy Catlett. She's sitting on a mountain of footage guaranteed to make jazz fans celebrate but there's one thing that's standing in her way: financial support. To get the film edited, Jessica needs to raise $5,000 by the beginning of July and today, with 20 days to go, she's still $3,671 short. Fortunately, she's started a page for the documentary on kickstarter.com, complete with video clips. At Kickstarter, you can donate and believe me, no amount is too small. It's crunch time now and this is a film that really should be finished, especially with the love and hard work that's already been put into it. So if you can spare a little or a lot, head over to the Kickstarter page now and help Jessica get the chance to tell the story of these Seattle legends of jazz. Thanks and here's the official link:

In Between The Raindrops

Monday, June 13, 2011

More News and Reviews!

As the publication of my book gets closer by the second, the first wave of publicity has been trickling in. My longtime readers probably know everything there is to know about me but I've been getting more hits than ever before in recent weeks, I'd like to say hello to any new readers out there and thank them for stopping by. If you stumbled onto here because of my book, there'll be plenty more about it in future weeks....starting now.

First up, I did an interview with "Jazz Times" editor-in-chief Lee Mergner that is now up and running on their website. For more about me, my background and the book, check it out by clicking here.

And the great Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Jonathan Yardley published his review of the book yesterday in the "Washington Post." Here's the link.

And here's Dr. Glenn C. Altschuler's review in the "Florida Courier." Obviously, I disagree with Dr. Altschuler when he argues that Louis wasn't much of a civil rights pioneer, but the rest of the review is very complimentary. Check it out by clicking here.

Finally, if you're in the NY/Nj area, my official book party will be June 26 at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. If you're in the area, we'd love you to come but reservations are needed. For more information, here's the link

That's the latest for now but there'll be plenty more in the upcoming weeks, including a profile in this Sunday's "New York Times." And I've started an Amazon Author page with the latest on my book tour and such. Check it out here. (And don't forget, I'm on Facebook and Twitter for more up-to-the-minute stuff!)

I'll close today with a photo from home. I've spent a lot of time about my darling new baby daughter, Melody, but I don't want to forget my two-year-old, Ella. Here she is checking out a copy of the book:

A wonderful world indeed. I'll be back in a few days with more exciting news, including information about the Louis Armstrong boxed set to end all boxed sets. Til then!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Another Birth Announcement: Finished Books Are In!

Before I get started, thanks to my loyal readers who wrote in publicly or privately to wish me and my wife Margaret best wishes on the birth of our second daughter, Melody Patricia Riccardi. After four days in the hospital, we came last night for the first time to juggle the phenomenon known as two children. So far, so good. Margaret's coming along well after her second C-section surgery and our two-year-old daughter Ella stole the show when she saw Melody for the first time, smiled and said, "She's kooky!"

But I had another important announcement to make that day that I decided to shelve because I didn't want to take the spotlight away from my beautiful, growing family. As most of you probably know, my book, "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years," after a few delays, had finally been given a definite publication date of June 21. Well, what was my wife's official due date for this baby? You guessed it, June 21. I knew that neither of these things happen on time so I always joked to friends, could you imagine the book and the baby arriving on the same day?

Well, that's pretty much exactly what happened! On Memorial Day weekend, I received an e-mail from my publicist saying the finished books were in and I could pick mine up on Tuesday. I went to bed Monday night excited about the chance to finally hold it in my hands...until 1:29 Tuesday morning when Margaret woke me up to say, "It's time!" Flash forward 24 hours and we had a new beautiful baby daughter, we spread the news to friends and family from around the world and we greeted happy visitors at the hospital. But at the same time, I knew my book was sitting there at Random House's office on Broadway in New York.

The next morning, my wife was feeling okay and, surrounded by nurses and doctors, told me that this would be a good time to make the 75-minute haul into Manhattan to see the books. So that's what I did and at around 11:30 in the morning on Wednesday, I welcomed my second "child," one that had been in the womb for about 15 years. Here's a photo my publicist took of me with a stack of books (Publisher's Weekly named it their "Picture of the Day"!):

I don't think I can accurately put it into words what it felt like, holding that book for the first time, but it did make me feel very proud. And the higher-ups at Pantheon were very pleased with the buzz it's been generating. Last weekend alone, the Los Angeles Times included it in their summer biography preview, the Chicago Tribune named it one of the ten best biographies of the summer and the Christian Science Monitor named it one of the "Top 20 Smartest Nonfiction Books of the Summer," a list that included works about Al Qaeda and science...and me, with my Swiss Kriss stories! So far, so good...

From there, it was back to the hospital, where Margaret and Melody were waiting for me. Here they are, proud as can be:

It didn't take long before I got confused when Margaret asked me to dress and feed the baby:

But by the evening, I got my head on straight and was able to read Melody her first bed-time story:

(She seemed to enjoy the stories about Joe Glaser.)

So that's where I've been and where I'll be for a little longer. The actual book will be available on June 21 and if there's anyone out there even considering buying it, I'm touched. More on the book in the future, right now nap time is over and Papa Dip is back on duty. I wonder if Whitney Balliett ever had to change a diaper before one of his books came out...