Friday, October 7, 2011

Listening to the Book: Chapter 11

Chapter 11 of my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, is a pretty dramatic one, focusing on offstage events such as the bomb that went off during an Armstrong concert in Knoxville, Armstrong's blowup backstage at Newport and of course, his Little Rock comments that shocked the world. Thus, this post won't have the seemingly endless supply of audio links like my previous one...but don't worry, there's still plenty for me to share.

I want to open up with something special and something that's not even mentioned in the book...technically. Towards the end of the writing process, I received an e-mail from Dan Morgenstern saying he was cleaning off his desk at the Institute of Jazz Studies and he found two cassette tapes of a previously unknown All Stars concert at a high school gymnasium in Hinsdale, Illinois on March 25, 1957. He graciously copied the material for me. The next sound you heard was my mind being blown to bits. This, to me, was the motherlode. Sure, there were plenty of great Armstrong concerts released in the past but a lot of them were either big occasions (Pasadena, Symphony Hall, Newport, etc.) or ones that were being recorded for major labels (the Crescendo Club, the "Ambassador Satch" sessions). Not Hinsdale; this was a one-nighter, a typical two-and-a-half hour show that the All Stars gave night in and night out. And it is so spirited and Louis is on such fire that it is simply stunning to wrap your mind around the fact that this is really how the band performed every night. Early in this chapter, I have some beautiful quotes from a David Halberstam profile of Louis from this period. In them, Louis talks about not even thinking about retiring. When listening to Hinsdale, it's clear to see why; this is a man blowing at the absolute peak of his powers. (And if you have my book, you've probably enjoyed three photos taken by Swiss photographer Milan Schijatschky, as well as the image on the back cover of the book. That's an incredible story for another occasion....)

I would love to sit here and share everything recorded that evening in Hinsdale but I have hopes that a record label might want to do something with it if I make enough of a fuss, so please understand my decision to only share one track right now. But whatta track! It's "Ole Miss" and it really captures the Armstrong-Trummy Young-Edmond Hall front line at their peak. It's a tremendously exciting performance as is but what brings it to the next level are the encores, each one finding Louis playing with more intensity and ending on even higher notes. Must be heard to be believed....and again, this is just a typical one-nighter at a high school, Louis and the All Stars not even thinking they were being recorded and that this would be being shared 54 years later.

See what I mean? I've been giving a ton of Armstrong lectures since the book came out and I always like to include a tribute to the Armstrong-Young-Hall edition of the All Stars. The encores on this performance have become my go-to choice. But before I discovered Hinsdale, I used to use "Mahogany Hall Stomp" from Newport in 1957 and (perfect transition!) that's what is up next. The book has all the dirt about what happened backstage that day at Newport. But onstage, it was business as usual....meaning hold on to your hats, this is more ridiculously exciting stuff:

My goodness, someone's going to call the police if I keep sharing such incendiary music. But why stop now? We bid adieu to the All Stars and turn our attention to Louis's main activity from the summer of 1957, recording for Norman Granz. First up was the dynamite "Ella and Louis Again." I've never done a blog on "Stompin' at the Savoy" but it's one of my all-time favorite moments in civilization. Dig it:

For that album, Ella and Louis also got to stretch out on some solo numbers. Louis really shined on "I Get a Kick Out of You":

I did an in-depth blog about that performance after Louie Bellson died. Check it out here: I Get a Kick Out of You blog

After the sessions with Ella, Norman Granz surrounded Louis with the big bands and strings of Russell Garcia's orchestra. Unfortunately, the sessions were in Los Angeles....while Louis was performing with the All Stars nightly in Las Vegas. This took a toll on Pops's chops, forcing him to eliminate a lot of trumpet solos. When he did play, he didn't concede anything, but it was clear that it hurt. On Verve's 1999 reissue, they included a lot of alternate takes and breakdowns. "Stormy Weather" is one of my favorites from these sessions and on one take, you can hear Louis pushing through the pain, flying high...until after the bridge, he plays a painful air note. No panic, Granz just called for an insert take to begin at the bridge and then Pops nailed it. Granz edited it together and made a great master take....but I'm sharing the breakdown and the insert so you can really hear what Pops was up against:

Weeks later, Louis's chops returned just in time for another seminal LP, this of of "Porgy and Bess" tunes, once more with Ella Fitzgerald. The height of their "whipped cream and sandpaper" interplay, for me, is "Bess, You Is My Woman Now":

And Louis's shining moment on the album--and really, a shining moment in his career--is his solo take on "Oh Bess, Where's My Bess." This is the one that even stunned Ira Gershwin in its beauty and emotion. Time for chills....

And that's really it from a musical perspective, as the rest of the chapter focuses on Louis and Little Rock. But if you, dear reader, have been gracious enough to pick up my book and enjoyed some of the themes in this chapter, let me point you to two new essential works both written by friends of mine who happen to be excellent writers and researchers. First off, there's Tad Hershorn's Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice which I, and the rest of the jazz community, has been looking forward to for years. And David Margolick's brand new Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock has a whole segment on Louis and Little Rock, since David was the guy who found Larry Lubenow and really added a whole new dimension to this classic tale. So please check out Tad and David's works....but if you're still holding on to mine, don't go anywhere, I'll have plenty more good tunes to share in just a few days as I head towards chapter 12.

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