Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 4, 1931
Track Time 3:39
Written by Harry Barris, Ted Koehler and Billy Moll
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41530
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes
Last night, HBO's "Treme" closed out its second season with an unbelievable montage set to the sounds of Louis Armstrong's 1931 recording of "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." I've long loved this performance, which chokes up Steve Zahn's character, Davis, at its conclusion. I originally wrote about this song in the early days of the blog and it choked me up back then, too. So here's what I originally wrote in those crazy early days, also setting out some themes and quotes that are now appear in my book, "What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years." So thank you "Treme" for bringing this gem to the attention of the world. Dig Pops:
I haven’t had the opportunity to write about any of Armstrong’s early-30s big band recordings for OKeh but that all changed two minutes ago when I hit the “shuffle” button on my Itunes and “Wrap Your Trouble In Dreams (And Dream Your Troubles Away)” popped up. It’s one of the many songs that Armstrong helped turn into a jazz standard during this fertile, if somewhat neglected, period in his career. I’ve already made a passionate case for the reexamination of Armstrong’s Victor recordings of 1932 and 1933 but I don’t think I have to do the same about the OKeh big band sessions because some of them have become established, bona fide Louis Armstrong classics: “Lazy River,” “Star Dust,” “Memories of You,” “Sweethearts On Parade,” “When Your Lover Has Gone,” “Chinatown” and many others. However, because critics have targeted the dated arrangements, Guy Lombardo-saxophone moans and sometimes stiff and out-of-tune playing of the band itself, a lot of these records get swept under the rug. Sony/Legacy sure did a nice job with their Hot Fives and Sevens box about seven years ago but they currently don’t have a collection of Armstrong’s later OKeh big band recordings in print, which is a shame.
When Armstrong returned from California in early 1931, he began fronting a band assembled by the trumpeter Zilner Randolph. Like some later editions of the All Stars, this group didn’t have any big names or great talents but many in the group were from New Orleans, they gave their leader their all and later, Armstrong himself referred to them as his “happiest band.” Writing about this band to Robert Goffin, Armstrong remembered, “Now there’s a Band that really ‘deserved a whole lot of ‘Credit that they didn’t get.— They made some of my ‘finest recordings with me.” Armstrong goes on to list many of the OKeh records, including some of the lesser known ones, such as “Kickin the Gong Around” and today’s subject, “Wrap Your Trouble In Dreams.” He even takes pride in mentioning novelties such as “The Lonesome Road” and “Laughing Louie,” though that one was made for Victor, not OKeh.
But again, like the All Stars, though Armstrong loved the musicians in the band and though he fondly remembered the records, that wasn’t enough for the critics, who obviously know more about what’s good and what’s bad than the artists in question. Take our pal Gunther Schuller (BOOOOOOOOOOOOOO). In The Swing Era, Schuller does have some nice things to say about this period, such as when he writes about Armstrong’s January and March 1932 OKeh dates, “His playing on these particular recordings is beyond anything he had previously achieved.” But for the most part, Schuller can’t get past the band and their faults. Mike McKendrick is remembered for his “wildly out-of-tune playing,” Tubby Hall is referred to as a “thumpy-footed drummer” and the whole band is written off as “mediocre.” Even when he’s about to compliment a side, Schuller takes a swipe at the band, writing, “Yet, in the midst of this desert of divagation and mediocrity (the band’s), there would occasionally blossom a flower of superior beauty.”
Eventually, Schuller turns his attention to Armstrong himself, writing that, during this period, “Louis begins to weaken. His solos occasionally bog down; there are intonational slips, heretofore unknown with him; muffed notes; rehashings of earlier success (such as the West End Blues cadenza on Blue Again—but muffed at the end). There is also, very imperceptibly, less and less of Louis’s trumpet, and more and more of Louis’s vaudeville hokum and jive talk. And, above all, more and more of the grandstanding finales.” Though published in 1987, that paragraph serves as a perfect summation of the kinds of boneheaded criticism Armstrong had to wade through during the last 40 years of his life. Sure, Pops occasionally fluffed a note or two but to say he weakened in 1931 is absurd. I’ve written before about Armstrong maybe losing a mile or two off of his fastball in terms of rhythmic velocity, but in every other way, I don’t hear any signs of Armstrong weakening until at least 1966 and even then, he still contributed some beautiful moments in the ensuing years. And though this wasn’t a “great” big band in the sense of a Basie or Ellington group, who cares? Who is listening to Louis Armstrong records to hear saxophone solos? I know when the OKeh bands sounds like crap but does it stop me from enjoying Armstrong’s offerings? Never. Armstrong loved the musicians in this band (just try to listen to “Lonesome Road” and not smile) and they gave him the support and stress-free life he needed for over a year. Combine that with Armstrong in his prime and some of the best standards ever written and you have a recipe for some truly wonderful music.
Okay, soliloquy over, let’s move on to “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams.” The song’s lyrics were written by former “Rhythm Boy” Harry Barris, thus it made perfect sense that the song was introduced and made popular by that other former “Rhythm Boy,” Bing Crosby. Crosby was recording hit after hit during this period in his career and “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” was a perfect anthem for a country already mired in a depression. Crosby and Armstrong already had a mutual appreciation society by this point (Armstrong had already recorded another Crosby hit, “I Surrender Dear,” in April 1931) so once Crosby’s version, recorded on March 2, 1931, became a hit, it made perfect sense to have Armstrong record a version of his own in November of that year. For the rest of his life, Armstrong would continually laud Crosby as one of his favorite musicians, telling Time in 1955, “Bing’s voice has a mellow quality that only Bing’s got. It’s like gold being poured out of a cup.” Armstrong’s voice might have sounded like crushed ice being poured out of a running blender, but in terms of phrasing and heart, the two men shared a bond.
Before Pops got around to putting his stamp on it, Bing sang it in a Mack Sennett short, One More Chance. Thanks to YouTube, we can enjoy Bing’s singing during this performance (bizarrely sang to a bunch of smitten Native Americans!)
At the time of that film, Bing clearly had no idea how Armstrong would approach but you can hear some of Pops in Bing’s phrasing, namely in the way he goes up on the titular phrase 43 seconds in and sings it all on one pitch, which is very Pops. And in the bridge of his second chorus (the second eight bars of which are cut out), Bing takes more liberties with the melody, including that long pause between phrases, falling behind the beat, then rushing to catch up with it, a la Armstrong. But enough Bing, as great as he was. Let’s focus on Armstrong’s recording, which fortunately survives in two takes. The first take was a hair slower and resulted in a running time just shy of 3:40, which was really stretching the limit of a 78 (in fact, the Columbia 78 of this piece edits out the final coda). Care to listen along? Here 'tis:
Armstrong takes the melody at the onset of the record, playing with a straight mute, the only kind he used. I like the loose swing of the rhythm section of Charlie Alexander, Mike McKendrick, John Lindsay and Tubby Hall. Lindsay’s bass is especially propulsive. Armstrong’s backed by the moaning reeds he loved so much, with George James’s clarinet added to the mix. It’s not the prettiest sound in the world but it’s melancholy feel lends a subdued, nostalgic atmosphere to Armstrong’s reading of the melody. And besides, listen to the backing on Crosby’s film version: a muted trumpet plays the melody and obbligato over some mewing reeds. So don’t blame Armstrong for keeping with the times. Jazz be damned; this was how popular music sounded in 1931 and Armstrong played good music. He loved the sound of those reeds and the sound was “in” so why wouldn’t he exploit it? He floats over those reeds with that time feel that was so special to his playing, answering his own phrase at 27 seconds in, leaving pauses, playing short double time bursts, getting downright legato on the bridge and finally building up to that final, pretty gliss, setting up the reeds to take the last eight bars of melody. I know, I know, it’s out-of-tune in spots but hey, if I wanted to hear amazing reed passages, I’d start a Benny Carter blog (not a bad idea!).
Pops slides into his vocal with a prolonged “Ohhhh,” but when he begins, he gets backing from a different type of moaning: the voices of the band members give him a glee club backdrop, an effect Pops already utilized on earlier recordings of “Basin Street Blues” and “Squeeze Me.” As it turns out, the other members of the band had intonation problems with their voices, as well as their instruments, but it’s all in good fun and I can picture Pops and the cats in the band smiling as they went about their business.
Pops’s vocal, while very sober and Crosby-esque at times (dig the “bay-bay-bay,” after the first eight bars, an Satchmofication of Crosby’s “boo-boo-boo”), is a tour de force of melodic rephrasing. The song’s melody is already heavy on repeating notes, a frequent motif of many Armstrong vocals, so it’s interesting to find Armstrong repeating notes different from the written ones. The song’s in the key of C and, as written, the melody begins with two repeated E’s. That’s not good enough for Pops, who begins his vocal with a pause followed by seven G’s, followed by a quick little turn of a A-B-A phrase, exactly as he played it on his trumpet during the melody chorus. He then sings the melody straight for a bit (or at least as straight as he could sing it) before another overhaul, going down for the “dream your troubles away” line, instead of keeping it high as it’s written. The second eight bars are filled with more one-note motives, one of them featuring another quick triplet lick, C-D-C, though he hums the C down to a low E, much as he might on his Selmer. On the bridge, the choir shifts from a steady hum to an incessant emphasis one the first and third beats of every measure, a familiar pattern in most Randolph arrangements, including “Star Dust,” the other song recorded that November day. Again, as he often did with his trumpet, Armstrong plays against the tension of the one-and-three and comes up with a bridge that’s probably a ninth cousin of the written one. As he approaches the final A section, he finally gives the melody a chance, beginning on the written low E, instead of the string of G’s, but he punctuates the line with a typical “babe” for good measure.
After the vocal, George James returns to his usual instrument, the alto sax, and plays a melodramatic four-bar transition that allows Pops to gather his chops. What follows is relaxation personified. He opens with four quarter-note C’s, each one swung beautifully before he trails off softly. Five beats pass before the next phrase, nothing majestic, but perfectly placed, complete with its own trumpet obbligato. He continues swinging on the beat, obviously digging the tempo and the wistful nature of the song. He doesn’t try to change the world on this one, instead focusing on his skills as a storyteller. As he hits his second eight, the story begins to grow more intense, Armstrong building to a high A, the highest note of the record up to this point. He then spins the most delicate phrases imaginable, gently tumbling down from the A to a low G before leaving more space. He continues with this beautiful, almost rhythmically abstract playing until he grows more forceful at the bridge. The reeds give him the one-and-three treatment, much as the voices did and Pops responds with some signifying, including some nice double-timing, an almost violent descending phrase at the halfway point, another aggressive run followed immediately by a gentle gliss from an E to a lower C#. He goes up for another high G, holding it for drama before he settles back into his wistful mood for the last eight bars. Tears literally are forming in my eyes as I try to comprehend the genius of a solo I’ve literally heard a hundred times. The word “conversational” keeps coming to mind and I think it fits perfectly. I love all forms of jazz but I’m a firm believer that there’s nothing quite as “modern” as Armstrong’s rhythmic concept in the late-20s and early-30s. I seriously cannot comprehend it but am quite thankful I get to experience it.
Towards the end of the last A section, Armstrong plays his calling card, a C-A-C-A-E-E-C phrase. The band slows it down and Armstrong plays a short coda consisting of the same exact phrase, played slower and ending on a G, the fifth, instead of a C. For the entire 64 bars of playing, Armstrong never plays a note higher than that A in the second eight bars. This is strange during a period when most Armstrong solos frequently climbed to high C and beyond. It’s not like his chops were down—listen to the wondrous “Star Dust” that followed. It’s just beautiful, conversational playing, the kind of solo to play for those who think Pops was all high notes and grandstanding (Schuller doesn’t even mention this solo—he probably couldn’t listen past the vocal choir behind Pops’s vocal!).
A second take exists of “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” though it has never been issued on an American C.D. I don’t even know when it was discovered but it must have been within the last ten years since older Columbia collections of this material, such as the old Portrait Stardust disc, included other alternate takes, but not this one. Anyway, here is the audio:
As already mentioned, the 3:39 running time was pushing it so I’m guessing the band took another crack at it at a brisker clip to insure that it would meet the qualifying running time, which it does at 3:18. The song follows the same pattern as the issued take, so there’s not much use for detailed analysis. Pops is still relaxed but his opening melody statement, though similar, isn’t as effective as the one on the issued take. The vocal is similar, but the “bay-bay-bay” is out. On this take, Armstrong has fun with the beat, slowing down phrases dramatically (the first “dream your troubles away” unfurls in slow motion), then quickly shooting out the next line at a much quicker rate, much like Crosby did in the Sennett short. Pops seems to have trouble for a second catching up to the faster tempo during the bridge, but he pauses and solves his problem with a slurred phrase that reminds me of a Louie Prima vocal line. The trumpet solo follows the pattern of the issued take (who knows if the band was already performing this live) as Pops opens with another string of quarter-note C’s, though, because of the added lilt to the tempo, he now comes across as a little more aggressive. His second phrase is played almost completely in a shuffle rhythm, two eighth-notes at a time. He relaxes a bit after that before hitting that high A, this time at the start of the second eight bars. There’s a different, but still aggressive, bridge, though he gets a little tongue-tied at the very end. Overall, it’s a fine solo but the extra few beats of tempo cause that sublime relaxed quality of the issued take to go out the window. Pops must have realized he was pushing a little too much thus, even with a solid running time, the longer take was selected for release.
That’ll conclude this trip back to “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” one of the string of memorable big band recordings Armstrong cut for OKeh in the early 30s. But as great as it is, it’s no “Star Dust,” which, as already mentioned, was recorded the same day. That is my number one favorite Armstrong record of all-time (there’s a topic for a future blog), wheezing saxophones and all. Gunther Schuller might be a brilliant man but don’t let his condemnation of post-1929 Armstrong records scare you away. Some of Armstrong’s finest music was recorded in front of creaky big bands and “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” is no exception.