Thursday, November 3, 2011

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's November 1931 Chicago Sessions

After the endless "Listening to the Book" posts and the madness of my attempts to cover "anatomies" of All Stars concerts (I can now type "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" quicker than it takes to blink an eye), I thought it would be good to change things up a bit with an old-fashioned anniversary post. And what an anniversary: eight songs, almost all classics, recorded 80 years ago this week in Chicago. Because of the nature of my life (I'm writing this at 5:30 in morning with a baby at my side and my two-year-old daughter sleeping), I don't have the time to give some of these songs the full details they deserve. But for now, I'll say a little bit and at least share the audio so you can rejoice in this music again.

So what songs am I talking about? Only these: "Lazy River," "Chinatown, My Chinatown," "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," "Star Dust," "You Can Depend On Me," "Georgia On My Mind," "The Lonesome Road" and "I Got Rhythm." Wow. Fortunately, I've blogged about three of these so I'll borrow in those cases. And really, songs like "Lazy River," "Chinatown" and "You Can Depend On Me" deserve blogs of their own so stay tuned for when that day comes.

But for now, let's go back to Chicago in 1931 and see where Louis Armstrong was in his life. Earlier that year, Louis ran into some trouble for marijuana possession while out in California. He emerged relatively unscathed and headed back to Chicago, a man without a band. Since 1929, Louis had been pretty much working as a single, fronting whatever bands he could, including the Coconut Grove Orchestra (the future Mills Blue Rhythm Band), Zack Whyte's band in Ohio and groups led by Leon Elkins and Les Hite at the Cotton Club in Culver City, CA.

Back in Chicago and with his troubles behind him, Louis actually formed his own Orchestra, made up mostly of New Orleans musicians who had relocated to Chicago. Personnel included Zilner Randolph on trumpet (Randolph was kind of the group's leader and main arranger), Preston Jackson on trombone, Lester Boone, George James and Al Washington on reeds and a rhythm section of Charlie Alexander (piano), Mike McKendrick (guitar), John Lindsay (bass) and Tubby Hall (drums). Critics had few kind words to say about this band but Louis always called it his happiest band and personnel remained quite stable until Louis went to England in 1932.

After a flurry of recording activity in Chicago in April 1931 (and I'm sorry I missed those anniversaries), mob trouble brought upon by Louis's manager Johnny Collins forced Louis and the band to avoid New York and Chicago for much of the year, touring the midwest and the south (including Louis's triumphant return to New Orleans). But in November, they were back in Chicago and as OKeh liked to do, recorded another flurry of songs, eight songs in four days, two songs a day. I'm of the opinion that the band must have been performing some of these numbers nightly (Lionel Hampton mentioned Louis performing "Star Dust" in California) so the band came to the studio with these songs prepared and, in Louis's case, with his epic solos possibly worked out and honed to perfection in advance. Because they are pretty damn perfect.

So let's jump right in, shall we?

November 3, 1931
Lazy River
"Lazy River" was up first and the results were so good, it became a fixture in Louis's repertoire into the 1960s. Some people refer to this as a Hoagy Carmichael tune and yes, Hoagy wrote the lyrics, but the melody was by New Orleans clarinetist Sidney Arodin. Let's listen to what Louis did with both the words and music:

Wow. To quote the man himself during that vocal, boy, was he riffin' that evening! Arodin's ascending-and-descending melody is nowhere to be found as Louis boils the essence of the tune down to only a few pitches, his placement of notes providing a textbook definition of swing. After a dynamite break, the reeds finally play Arodin's melody as written as Louis urges them on. And then it's gone again as Louis, using the same principles behind his trumpet opening, sings the majority of the lyrics on a single pitch. It's such a note-perfect vocal that Louis never felt the need to change it in the dozens of recordings of the tune made in the years that followed. And in his second chorus, Louis uncorks a whopper of a scat solo, most of it in double-time (and probably pleasing to the ears of any young and future boppers listening in). Louis's "Oh you dog! Boy, if I ain't riffin' this evening! I hope something...." is completely spontaneous and proof that even he was knocking himself out.

Everything's been relaxed and swinging in a lazy mood but then Louis picks up his trumpet for the final chorus and it's time for high drama. With the band providing a simple backdrop of sustained chords, Louis goes into his upper register and wails til close. The quarter notes he opens up with practically define swing. And then there's the gliss-heard-round-the-world, something that convinced other trumpet players that Louis must have been using a slide trumpet (he wasn't). From top to bottom, one of Louis Armstrong's finest records.

Chinatown, My Chinatown
Damn, I can say that about this one, too. To think it was recorded on the same day as "Lazy River" "Chinatown" had been around since 1910 but that didn't stop Louis from updating it in the best 1931 fashion. Let's listen:

Wee! When I was first getting into Louis's early music, my guiding light was the "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" boxed set. When I got to "Chinatown," I couldn't stop listening to it over and over. 15 years later, I still feel the same way! Unlike the easy-going "Lazy River," "Chinatown" is positively frantic and exciting as hell. Louis, possibly a little high (or a lot), opens with a cute monologue, introducing the "argument" between his trumpet and the saxophones like an announcer setting up a prizefight. Louis is relaxed and the slang just falls out of him so naturally--"chirp a few," "before we riff," "get your chops together," "mug lightly, slightly and politely"--he's practically inventing a new language that musicians still use.

Then another fun vocal with Louis once again breaking himself up with his scatting (throwing in a well-timed "You Rascal You," an allusion to a hit record he had made in April). Louis sets up the saxophones to do their bit and they do it well; it's not Benny Carter's band but they play with plenty of spirit and I do love the New Orleans drive of the rhythm section. But then Louis intones that's he's ready, so help him, he's ready (Zilner Randolph's clue that Louis was high) before launching into one of the all-time great storytelling trumpet solos of all time. The tempo is way up but Louis could not sound more relaxed; you can sing every one of his phrases from his first few choruses. Ever so gradually he builds higher and higher, tossing in glisses, riffs, held notes....a tour de force from start to finish. A lot of trumpet players I players I've played this one for seem to dig it, which is no surprise, as it was a heavy influence on Roy Eldridge in demonstrating how to build a solo to a climax. Whew, I think it's time to listen to it again....

November 4, 1931
Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams
Because I've blogged about this one in the past, I can offer some more details (I'm eliminating my open so if you really want to read the whole thing, complete with Bing Crosby clip, look it up in my July 2011 posts on the side of this page). 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.

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 mute. 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, in Bing Crosby's filmed version of the tune, 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 (Gunther Schuller doesn’t even mention this solo in "The Swing Era"—he probably couldn’t listen past the vocal choir behind Pops’s vocal!).

A second take exists of “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” and 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 Mack 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.

Star Dust
Now it's time for the main event. I've said it before and I'll say it again, THIS is my favorite Louis Armstrong recording. I don't know how I can be so certain but I am. If you need to play just one track to illustrate Louis's greatness, this is my choice. It might be the greatest vocal he ever took and the trumpet solo makes me cry. One day I'll do a blog about these two versions and analyze them in the same blow-by-blow fashion I did "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams." But for now I just want to get the audio out and say a few words. So here it is, my favorite take, best known as the "Oh memory" take:

The greatest! I don't know what to say. In this case, Louis's band is perfect for what Louis needed to do. The held chords at the beginning, the heavy accents on one and three while the rhythm section emphasizes two and's not very technical but clearly, it inspired Louis to great heights.

And I think one of the reasons I have such a love affair with this performance is the fact that it's "Star Dust" for heaven's sake! I mean, everyone knows "Star Dust," everyone loves "Star Dust," it's Hoagy Carmichael's shining moment (with timeless lyrics by Mitchell Parish). And to hear Louis turn it on its head is positively thrilling. That vocal...what can be said? It's all there, the repeated notes (listen to his entrance!), the dramatic rephrasing of the melody, eliminating words ("Melody, memory"), all the mumbled asides and of course the greatest ending in the history of music (can you tell I'm excited?), the swinging repeated riff on the words "Oh memory." And then he picks up the trumpet and if that ain't opera, I don't know what is. It's so swinging, yet so urgent and at the same time, so passionate and beautiful. I'll quit now before I end up on the floor.

Fortunately, "Star Dust" exists in a second take and it's very nearly as good. I mentioned that Louis had already been performing this since his California days and there are some set elements, notably in the closing trumpet solo, but really, it's quite a different performance, Louis full of a little more moxie; the opening arpeggios are faster and the closing solo is a little more playful. And the vocal is even different, too, without the "Oh memory" riff, but with plenty of deconstruction. Dig it for yourself:

It's ridiculous that any single human being could make music like that so I'm going to quit analyzing it and just enjoy it.

November 5, 1931
You Can Depend On Me
After "Star Dust," anything else would be anticlimactic and so it is with "You Can Depend On Me." The song was written by three friends of Louis's, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Charles Carpenter and Louis Dunlap (the latter two will appear again in the following session, this time in person) and you can tell Louis's affection for it immediately. But or many critics, this is where they point to illustrate how lousy Louis's band was. And sure, the intonation is pretty rough-going at times (thank goodness I don't have perfect pitch). And Louis pretty much joins the trumpet section after his vocal, hands the final bridge to one of the saxophonists and uncorks a series of glisses at the end and not much else.

And yet, and yet....there's something so tender about the vocal that I think that alone made the record into a hit and turned the song into a standard that is still performed today. And though the band's intonation is problematic, there's still the swinging rhythm section that really makes this thing move. Listen along:

See, it's not so bad, right? Not one for the time capsule but it does have its moments, especially that beautiful vocal. Still, this would be one Louis would approve upon in his 1950s versions, both vocally as a ballad (Pasadena 1951) and as an instrumental swinger.

Georgia On My Mind
Man, Hoagy was all over these sessions, huh? This is another song that has become so identified with Ray Charles that people don't even know that Louis beat him to it by 30 years (and recorded a helluva remake in 1956, too). Everyone should know this song so let's just dive in and hear how it came out:

Louis caresses the two note melody in his introduction over Tubby Hall's thumping bass drum before he begins exploring the melody, finding parallels in it with "Basin Street Blues." The band doesn't quite swing as they do march behind Louis's trumpet, but Louis swings no matter. He then sings the hell out of the song, illustrating his range, going up for "sweet and clear" and immediately down low for "as the moonlight." Louis's moans are especially prevalent in this vocal, sounding exactly like his descending trumpet glisses.

After the fantastic vocal, Louis turns it over to his band for a while. Again, they're a little shaky, but like in the All Stars years, Louis knew the importance of sometimes letting the other men in the band blow and I'm sure he enjoyed it. The band actually goes through the verse pretty late in the song but then Louis swoops in for a dramatic bridge, the instrumental highlight of the performance. After that, the last eight-bars get the double-timed treatment, the band sounding pretty woeful in spots. Louis cedes the closing spot to another alto but he does manage to swoop back in and get off the final high note. Because of how much of the record is devoted to the other musicians--and to the sloppy section playing--this is another one that's kind of slipped under the radar. But it was a big one when it was first released--British trumpet player Nat Gonella pretty much based his entire career off of it--and for the vocal, the opening trumpet spot and that closing bridge, it's a good one.

November 6, 1931
The Lonesome Road
We've arrived at the final session and a pair of fun performances, both of which have the subjects of past blogs so here they are in some more detail. First up was "The Lonesome Road," written in 1927 by the pianist Nat Shilkret and the very popular singer Gene Austin. The song began being performed by some as something of a quasi-spirtual (indeed, a number of gospel groups later cut versions of the tune). Well, that was all Louis Armstrong needed to hear. Armstrong had been chiding churches--and the people inside of them--since he was a boy in New Orleans. He remembered going to church with his mother and impersonating the preacher and humorously conducting the choir, winning applause from the other parishioners. When he made it to New York in 1924 to play with Fletcher Henderson, he again did his preacher impersonating bit if the crowd was right (though Henderson wouldn’t let him sing!). In Chicago, reviews exist citing Armstrong knocking audiences dead with his mock sermon while a member of Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra. Remember, these were the days of the “serious” artist, cutting the Hot Fives and not worrying about entertaining like he did in his later years. Yeah....right....

So on November 6, 1931, Armstrong decided to put his mock sermon bit on record for the first time. The results are simply hilarious. Clearly, Armstrong and the other members of his group indulged in a little bit of “gage” before the recording began. To help him, Armstrong brought along a friend from childhood, drummer “Little Joe” Lindsay, brother of Armstrong’s bassist John Lindsay. The recording is hysterical but Armstrong’s trumpet solo in the middle is as serious as your life. Give it a listen and get ready to smile:

The record starts with members of the band singing the melody straight while Armstrong responds with some guttural moans, almost speaking parts of the lyrics, already in the role of the “Reverend Satchelmouth.” Reaching back to his childhood, Armstrong even directs the choir with pleas of “Sing louder, sing louder.” He then addresses the audience and prepares to introduce the “new deacon,” a “creole boy,” Joe Lindsay. Lindsay asks the “members” to cough up some money and even throws in an utterance of one of Armstrong’s catchphrases, “Oh, you dog.” Armstrong responds, “And if you ever get it, Brother Lindsay, please don’t put it in your pocket, will you?” Someone even starts making the sound of coins being dropped in a can to give the full impression that we’re listening to a church service (the noise is probably Joe Lindsay's woodblock, as pointed out to me by Mr. Ralph).

Armstrong then starts greeting the other members of the church. I’m not sure who “Brother Jack Randall” is, but “Brother Preston” is trombonist Preston Jackson and “Brother Randolph” is trumpeter Zilner Randolph. Armstrong then introduces the reeds, who play a funky little unison part (the band is swinging nicely throughout, but it’s hard to pay attention to them).

After pointing out pianist Charlie Alexander and bassist John Lindsay, Armstrong calls out attention to “two little songwriters, here, little Louis Dunlap and Charles Carpenter.” True enough, Dunlap and Carpenter (along with Earl Hines) were behind “You Can Depend On Me,” which Armstrong had recorded the previous day. Armstrong points out that Dunlap and Carpenter are smoking cigars, which Carpenter later related as being true. Armstrong had recently returned from a triumphant six-week visit to his hometown of New Orleans where a cigar, the “Louis Armstrong Special,” was unveiled in his honor. Armstrong gets a plug in for his stogie and drops a righteous “More power to ya, boys” on them.

Armstrong then says “hello” to “Professor Sherman Cook,” described by Max Jones and John Chilton as “his valet, personal secretary and sometime Master of Ceremonies.” Cook, in fact, played a big part in getting the New Orleans stay off the ground, even arriving early to make sure Armstrong arrived to a celebratory party. Earlier in the year, Armstrong and his band ran into trouble in the south when the police discovered the white wife of Armstrong’s manager Johnny Collins on the band bus. The police harassed the black musicians and even threw some of them in jail. Armstrong was thrown in a cell with Cook. When Cook showed Armstrong a marijuana joint he had stashed in his pocket, Armstrong reasoned, “Hey, man, we can’t be in any more trouble than we are in right now.” As Pops put it, “...old Cook and myself, we demolished the evidence.” I’m sure plenty of “evidence” was demolished before recording “The Lonesome Road,” too...

Al Washington’s bluesy solo sends Armstrong before Pops brings guitarist Mike McKendrick up to the microphone to see if he has anything to say. “N-n-n-n-n-n-nothing,” McKendrick stutters, making Armstrong laugh (Lionel Hampton also got a laugh from stuttering on “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” recorded the previous year). Next, “Brother Randolph” steps up to the mike to explain that he hasn’t gotten his “dole money” yet before someone starts shrieking something in a high-pitched voice (can anyone make it out? I'm leaning towards "Untruthful, untruthful!" which was suggested by one of my readers but I'm not quite sure. Armstrong’s response--”What kind of church is this?”--always cracks me up.

But then it’s serious time as Armstrong picks up his horn and croons and absolutely soulful half-chorus, opening with a few bars that always remind me of “I Want a Little Girl.” Later that same day, Armstrong’s trumpet would be flying high through “I Got Rhythm” but all the pyrotechnics are shut down for “The Lonesome Road.” Such a gently, lyrical solo.

Armstrong then goes back into his preaching routine, thanking his congregation for their offering. “Of course it could have been better,” he says. “Two dollars more would have gotten my shoes out of pawn. But nevertheless I’m in love with you!” Someone then screams, causing Armstrong to say, “Hold that, Sister...but get off of my foot!” Hilarious! The fervor builds up--“Oh, Brother Armstrong, you’re killing me!”-- as scattered shouts of “Hallelujah” can be heard. The whole band starts singing the lyrics (someone with a high, tenor voice is really giving it his all) while Pops humorously hums and moans over the melody. The song ends...but not before Mike McKendrick gets in one last line: “Bye bye, you vipers!” Vipers, of course, were marijuana smokers and McKendrick basically gave away the secret to all the fun being had in the studio that day with his shout-out. A classic record.

I Got Rhythm
With everyone in good spirits, it was time to tackle “I Got Rhythm,” the Gershwin classic that debuted in "Girl Crazy" in October 1930 and wasn't quite a jazz standard yet. Armstrong, after speaking for most of “Lonesome Road,” would continue his role as master of ceremonies on “I Got Rhythm,” not even needing to pick up his horn until the final two choruses. This is the band’s time to shine and almost every one of them gets their name called or a short solo. Sure, they’re rough and ready but the spirit is there, they swing hard and they know how to stay out of the leader’s way, even when playing in polyphonic ensemble form. Having said that, I don’t view Armstrong’s “I Got Rhythm as one of the full-on classics of those OKeh days but it’s a fun record nonetheless and Armstrong still sounds great. Here 'tis:

As record executives continued to take be wowed by Armstrong’s natural effervescent personality, they began making more and more use of it on records with such things as spoken introductions and little comedy routines, something that was done now and then on the Hot Fives (“Gut Bucket Blues” and the banter with Earl Hines on “Monday Date” spring to mind), but really continued on the OKeh and Victor big band sessions. “I Got Rhythm” opens with a jokingly grumpy Armstrong. “All right, you cats been talking about you got rhythm, you got this and you got that and the other. I got rhythm! I’m going to see what you all got, joking.”

(Okay, sidebar. Does Armstrong say “joking,” “choking” or something else? Whatever it is, it’s the same thing he sang on “Rockin’ Chair” for 40 years: “What cabin, joking, father.” I’m only writing “joking” because that’s what it kind of sounds like, but that really makes no sense. Will Friedwald once asked the same exact question on a Jazz Research list that included the likes of Dan Morgenstern and George Avakian…and nobody came up with a reasonable answer. Louis also includes it in his live 1940s radio broadcasts of "Ac-Cent-Tu-Ate the Positive." If you know what Pops is referring to, leave a comment or drop me an e-mail at! Back to your regularly scheduled blogging…)

Armstrong then instructs his band to “swing out,” counts off the tempo and we’re off! I like drummer Tubby Hall’s quick two tom hits, setting up the reeds playing the melody fairly straight. Pops immediately starts encouraging the band and saying stuff like, “I Got Rhythm is right” as if this is a prototype Fats Waller and His Rhythm record. The arrangement isn’t too creative, just inserting a bent blue note in the seventh and eighth bars of the A sections (watch that intonation, Gates). Armstrong lets out a quiet, “Oh, you dog,” at the end of the bridge…how many jazz musicians had national catchphrases in 1931? He then announces that he’s going to begin to introduce some of the members of the band for a series of eight bars solos. Preston Jackson scores with his trombone, followed by alto saxophonist Lester Boone in a pretty good spot. Armstrong’s second trumpet man, and the band’s straw boss and arranger, Zilner Randolph, takes the bridge muted, running into a bit of trouble, before saxophonist George James picks up his soprano, opening with a long gliss before some corny stovepipe blowing.

Armstrong, perhaps knowing the band’s erratic tendencies, alerts them to “Watch that break chorus there.” True enough, the band goes into stop-time, allowing Mike McKendrick to run away with a guitar solo. As the band nails their stop-time accents, Armstrong says matter-of-factly, “That’s better.” Obviously this passage presented trouble earlier in the session. Armstrong then throws it to John Lindsay’s, swinging, popping, New Orleans-infused bass thumping. While Lindsay swings, Armstrong calls attention to “Charlie Alexander backing him up.”

The next solo is from Al Washington’s tenor and clearly he must have been one of the most gifted improvisers because he gets an entire half of one chorus, including a swinging opening and a real tricky break, eliciting an excited, “Yeah! Get a load of that break,” from Armstrong (drummer Tubby Hall also gets a shout out during Washington’s turn). As Washington winds down and Armstrong prepares for his entrance, he says, “Every tub,” alerting the full band to begin playing with abandon, a phrase that would be immortalized in jazz circles by Count Basie’s record of the same name. You have to wonder how many little phrases like “Every tub” and “swing out” were picked up by jazz musicians from around the country after listening to records like this one.

When Armstrong enters, it truly is “every tub.” These cats might have had trouble with arrangements every now and then, but they give Pops a purely improvised backdrop for one chorus and no one gets in each other’s way, which is arguably more impressive than ripping off an arranged chart flawlessly. Only the reed riffs sound arranged but they’re so loose, it sounds more like a jam session. Speaking of loose, dig Pops. He enters with one single Bb, right on the beat. He then proceeds to play nothing but Bbs for an entire half chorus, dropping them like bombs out of a B-19. Some land on the beat, others in between, some are dropped together, others have long gaps in between them. He then swings into the bridge with a string of D’s, each one on the beat. So we’re about 18 bars into a 34-bar song (remember, jazz musicians still improvised on the tag back then), and with the exception of I believe two other quiet notes in the second A section, Armstrong has basically played nothing but two pitches. It’s the definition of relaxation, but you just know something big is brewing. The relaxation continues throughout the rest of the first chorus, until a loud F heralds a more exciting second go-around. I listen to this solo and I don’t hear the Louis Armstrong of 1931; I hear the Armstrong of 1951. (Or should I just say I hear Louis Armstrong because it was the same man in 1931 and 1951, critics be damned!) This is a very mature solo, very floating, but without a lot of the double-timed fireworks that are the trademarks of the 30-year-old Armstrong. I especially love the phrase he begins the second eight bars of his second chorus with, which would become a standard part of his solo on “Basin Street Blues.” He emphasizes high A’s during the bridge and a three-note motif in during the final A section consisting of G-A-and a low D, a sixth, major seventh and third of Bb. The band slows it down and the reeds take a funny, purposely corny coda, something that might have been thought up during the (possibly) high times of “Lonesome Road.”

Like I said, Armstrong’s “I Got Rhythm” is one of the lesser discs from the OKeh period but it does give Armstrong a chance to showcase his personality as well as his free-floating sense of rhythm. According to Joel Whitburn’s somewhat unreliable “Pop Memories” book, Armstrong’s record reached number 17 (if there were actually charts back then), so it did its job in maintaining the popularity of the song.


And that's that. 8 tunes, 4 sessions, 1 long-ass blog. Hope you enjoyed listening and reading along and celebrating the immortal music Louis Armstrong made 80 years ago this week in Chicago. Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

No reason for doubt because of "long-ass" blogs, my friend. Your blog's awesome as ever. There's stuff enough for a next book.

All the best
Uwe (from Germany)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful blog! I am a total ignoramus when it comes to jazz but so keen to learn more, especially about the great Louis Armstrong. This blog could not be better! I have enjoyed looking through the archives and am really looking forward to reading more in the future.

Amy in Sweden (now obviously coveting the In Scandinavia recordings)

Avida Bailar said...

I love your blog, it has special significance for me. I am the great grand niece of the late Prof. Sherman Cook, mentioned in the Nov 4 1931 session of the Lonesome Road recording. We have a picture of the band that he sent to his brother Mason, when Johnny Collins was managing the band. I'd love to know more about his position with the band. Was he a musician with the band or not? Thanks again for the history lesson, which has special significance for me and my family.

Best Wishes to you and yours in the new year: AB.