Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Play The Melody!

Pardon the title of this blog, which isn't an appreciation of Louis Armstrong's ability to take King Oliver's advice to "Play the melody, play the lead and learn." No, it's my way of announcing that as of 5:56 a.m. on May 31, I became a father for the second time, welcoming little Melody Patricia Riccardi into the world! My first daughter is named Ella but my wife and I vetoed any other immediate Louis-related names when choosing a moniker for our second: Lucille, Lil, Velma, Jewel, Bessie, Bertha, Alpha, Daisy, you name it, they were out.

But then I heard Louis's voice talking about the importance of playing the melody. And I thought of "The Song is Ended (But the Melody Lingers On)." And I thought of my wife and I and our mutual love affair of music. I suggested the name, my wife loved it and that's how a song was born.

So pardon me if I disappear for a slight bit into the world of diaper changes and midnight feedings but I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world. But don't worry, I won't be gone for long: do you know what else arrived at Random House's office today? Yes, the finished copies of my book. So indeed, I'm putting a red circle around May 31, the day my book and my baby--my two great creations--both arrived! I'm going to be posting much, much more about the book as we get closer but for now, it's back to fatherhood. Call me Papa Dip!

Happy 90th Birthday to Marty Napoleon!

The surviving members of Louis Armstrong's All Stars have dwindled down to a precious few. There are four left, by my count: Jewel Brown, Buddy Catlett, Joe Muranyi and Marty Napoleon. All four deserved to be celebrated but this is an extra special week as Marty turns 90 on June 2! And don't worry, Marty is a very young 90. Don't believe me? Check out this video:

See? Marty's still going strong and he's still playing. I interviewed him at the Jazz Museum in Harlem a couple of years ago and was almost frightened by the accuracy of his memory. It's truly astonishing how much he can recall. The Jazz Museum posted 20 minutes of what was about a 90-minute interview on their website and I urge you to check it out because he has some great stories about Louis. Here's the link.
Marty's entire history is pretty fascinating but being an Armstrong blog, I think I'll focus on his multiple stints with Pops today. He joined in February 1952, replacing Joe Sullivan and stayed for about a year, a year that found the All Stars making one of their most successful European tours. As Marty tells it, he never really took piano features until Louis's group. Louis wanted Marty to listen to Earl Hines's "St. Louis Blues" feature but when Marty called it one night on the bandstand, he was nervous and stomped it off a little too fast. The results completely broke up the crowd and Marty had a feature that would perform almost nightly in his first go-around with the All Stars. Here's Marty absolutely tearing it up in Amsterdam on November 2, 1952:


Now you know why I've frequently referred to Marty as the most exciting pianist the All Stars ever had. No one else could quite pound the piano like that and send the audience into such a frenzy.

After leaving to go back home to his wife and family in 1953, Marty was replaced by Joe Bushkin for Louis's famous debacle of a tour with Benny Goodman. After the tour, it was time to film the "Glenn Miller Story" and when Bushkin and Teddy Wilson couldn't do it, Joe Glaser called Marty, who came back into the fold and stayed for about six more months. From this stint, I'm going to share Marty's other big feature of the period, "Limehouse Blues," from the Blue Note in Chicago in July 1953. (I should point out the great work by Arvell Shaw on bass and Cozy Cole on drums on both performances that I've shared so far.)


Marty left to go back home the fall of 1953, replaced by Billy Kyle, who held down the chair until his untimely death in February 1966. In between, Kyle grew ill in early 1960 and was replaced again by Marty for another tour (including a trip to Cuba) but alas, no recordings have surfaced from this stint. But as soon as Kyle landed in the hospital, Marty got the call and ended up staying with Louis until his final engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1971 . Marty doesn't seem to have trotted out "Limehouse" or "St. Louis" during this final period, but he could still swing like hell on "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" and even "The Girl from Ipanema." Here's Marty working out on "Please Don't Talk About Me" in Copenhagen, Denmark on July 25, 1967:

And "The Girl from Ipanema" just a couple days later in Juan-Les-Pins, France:


Marty's other big feature in these years was "Sunrise, Sunset" from "Fiddler on the Roof." This feature was actually filmed in London in 1968 and though embedding is disabled by the uploader, you can watch Marty demonstrate why the piano is really a percussion instrument by clicking here.

And as a composer, Louis recorded two of Marty's compositions. One, "Mm-Mm," is a cute Louis-and-Velma Middleton duet recorded for Decca in April 1955. But the other one is much more interesting and is a real favorite of mine (and Ed Berger's, one of the few people I know who loves the song as much as I do!). The song is titled "Louie's Dream" and features Pops as co-composer. I've interviewed Marty two times and each time, ran out of time before I could ask him how this composition came about. Louis wasn't really one to throw his name on a tune if he had nothing to do with it, but it did happen occasionally, as he shared composer credits with Billy Kyle on "Pretty Little Missy" and "Throw It Out Your Mind," two songs that began as Kyle piano improvisations. The fact that "Louie's Dream" has that title makes me think that Louis must have had something to do with it; remember, he always said "Someday You'll Be Sorry" came to him in a dream so perhaps he dreamt up a lick and sang it to Marty, who fleshed it out. This is all guesswork, but the tune is charming. It was recorded for Brunswick in March 1967 and never issued on anything except a 45. Marty's introduction is wonderful and Pops, though he doesn't solo, plays some excellent lead horn for so late in the game. Dig "Louie's Dream":


After Louis died in 1971, Marty remained busy, especially around the New York area and on the festival circuit. He could still whip a crowd into a frenzy, as demonstrated in this 1982 video of his famed "St. Louis Blues" feature, backed up by Jack Lesberg on bass and Gus Johnson on drums:

Wee! On a personal note, I went to a centennial tribute to Louis at Carnegie Hall in 2001. Jon Faddis played the Louis parts and was sensational. The second half featured guest appearances by greats such as Clark Terry and Arvell Shaw. But then Marty came on and seriously wiped everyone out...and he was almost 80 at the time! Completely stole the show. Since then, Marty entered an assisted living facility to be with his ailing wife, who passed away two years ago. But he continues playing, especially for his fellow residents, as could be seen in that first video I shared above.

And please, if you're in the New York area this week, come to Birdland this Wednesday evening at 5:30 where David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band will be paying tribute to Marty's 90th with the man himself in the house. Will Marty get up and join the band? I hope so! Happy Birthday Marty!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

85 Years of Louis Armstrong's Session With Erskine Tate


Hello friends. Sorry for digging up another old post instead of creating something fresh but things continue to be crazy in a good way. My wife is expecting our second daughter any second now (which included a long false alarm scare at the hospital the other night!) and my book is due out in just a few weeks (though finished copies are in and I might have one later today!). I'm going to have a lot more about the book in future weeks (don't forget, you can pre-order it by clicking the Amazon link on the upper right of the page!), but for now, I'd like to resume regular blogging. Thanks to Dan Farber's magnificent ears, I've been getting more requests to do a "Louis and Quotes" blog and I still might do this--"Ko Ko Mo" would be excellent fodder--but for now, I can't resist another anniversary posting. Recently, was taking a glance through Jos Willems's "All of Me" discography and I noticed that Louis's lone session with Erskine Tate was recorded 85 years ago today. Three years ago, I wrote about this session in the early days of the blog and much of it has held up. I've tinkered with it a bit but otherwise, let's go back to Chicago 85 years ago today to hear what Louis Armstrong in his natural working environment sounded like....

Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra
Recorded May 28, 1926
“Static Strut” Track Time 2:50
“Stomp Off, Let’s Go” Track Time 2:55
“Static Strut” written by Phil Wall and Jack Yellen
“Stomp Off, Let’s Go” written by Elmer Schoebel
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, James Tate, trumpet; Ed Atkins, trombone; Angelo Fernandez, clarinet, alto saxophone; Stump Evans, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone; Norval Morton, tenor saxophone; Teddy Weatherford, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; John Hare, sousaphone; Jimmy Bertrand, drums, washboard; Erskine Tate, leader, shouting
Originally released on Vocalion 1027
Currently available on CD: Both tracks are on a Johnny Dodds compilation on the Frog label, “New Orleans Stomp” - even though Dodds doesn’t play on either track!
Available on Itunes? Yes, “Static Strut” is on a compilation, “The Essential Louis Armstrong” while “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” can be found on “Louis Armstrong: The Ultimate Collection.”

As the story goes, Louis Armstrong returned to Chicago from his somewhat unhappy New York stay with Fletcher Henderson in 1925. He immediately began working with his wife Lil’s band at the Dreamland Cafe. He soon got a second job playing with “Professor” Erskine Tate, a violinist, who had led an orchestra at the Vendome Theater since 1919. A fixture as a showband and as accompaniment to silent pictures, the Tate band had already recorded two sides before Armstrong even joined the band, waxing “Chinaman Blues” and “Cutie Blues” for OKeh on June 23, 1923. For proof that Tate’s bands usually featured the cream of Chicago’s jazz crop, this 1923 date included Buster Bailey on alto saxophone and clarinet and the great New Orleans cornetist Freddie Keppard. Here's a little "Cutie Blues" from that session:

Pretty good, huh? I’m almost surprised it's from 1923 when I listen to it. It's jazzier than Henderson’s more dance band oriented records of the period, effectively blending written passages with some good, old fashioned New Orleans-style polyphony. Keppard’s playing is pretty good but nothing spectacular, though I really do admire the band’s spirit and arrangements. Remember, this was the exact same time Armstrong was recording with King Oliver, so the jazzish, arranged band style was already being ably demonstrated by Tate’s band in Chicago.

When Armstrong joined Tate in 1925, it was quite an honor. “I had become so popular at the Dreamland until Erskine Tate from the Vendome Theater came to Hire me to Join his Symphony Orchestra,” Armstrong later wrote. “I like to have Fainted.....And for anyone to play in Tate’s Band was Really Really Somebody.” Though it was a great offer, Armstrong was a little nervous about accepting it. Lil put an end to that quickly, telling him, “Boy---if you don’t get out of this house and go down there to Erskine Tate’s rehearsal, I’ll Skin you Alive.” Needless to say, Armstrong went!

“I went down there and the opening night was sensational,” Armstrong continued. “I remember the first Swing Tune we played--Called ‘Spanish Shawl.’ I wasn’t in Tate’s Orchestra 2 weeks before I was making Records with them for the Vocalion Recording Company. I became quite a Figure at the Vendome. Especially with the Gals.” Armstrong’s stay in Tate’s band made him something of a hero in Chicago. Audiences screamed at the mere sight of the young trumpeter, who was regularly featured playing tunes such as “Poor Little Rich Girl” or grabbing a megaphone to sing “Heebie Jeebies.” Armstrong’s abilities as a reading musician also were put to the test as he had to play overtures, backgrounds for the silent movies and even classical pieces. Reviews from the period make Armstrong out to be quite a sensation and when listening to the two surviving artifacts of the Armstrong-Tate collaboration, one can see why.

After arriving back in Chicago in late 1925, Armstrong had recorded a grand total of 31 tunes for OKeh, many as a leader. But on May 28, 1926, the Vocalion label wanted to get in on the Armstrong action, recording two tunes with the Hot Five (renamed “Lil’s Hot Shots” for contractual reasons) and two tunes with Erskine Tate’s band all in the same day. The matrix numbers, which are usually never wrong, make it appear as if the Tate numbers were recorded first, but Lil Armstrong and banjoist Johnny St. Cyr both remembered recording Lil’s session first, followed by the Tate tunes (Lil said she went home when she was finished, while St. Cyr agreed to stay and sit in with Tate). This is rather interesting when one considers one of the tunes recorded under Lil’s name, an original Armstrong composition titled “Drop That Sack.” This performance has always made Armstrong fans scratch their heads as it features their hero hitting some completely wrong notes in the introductory breaks, as well as some fluffed lead playing later in the piece--on both takes!

John Chilton argued that perhaps Armstrong’s chops were tired after the manic blowing of the Tate sides and this could very well be. But on the other hand, if “Drop That Sack” came first, could this be the first example of Pops struggling with his chops, perhaps not being warmed up enough to tackle “Drop That Sack”? Anyone can have a bad day and of course, Pops had plenty of days where the chops just refused to percolate. But when I listen to the scorching runs and fiery outbursts on the Tate sides, I can’t imagine that the same shaky playing on “Drop That Sack” was made the same day, regardless of what came first or second.

As usual, I can’t just allow Armstrong’s work to speak for itself. I’m all about context so as I tackle each tune, I’ll offer some other versions of the same songs from around the same period for your listening pleasure. This way, you’ll get to appreciate what hot dance music sounded like with and without Pops...a mighty difference!

First up, let’s examine the first tune recorded that day with Tate, “Static Strut.” This was already a popular number written by Jack Yellen (the man behind “Ain’t She Sweet” and “Happy Days Are Here Again”) and pianist Phil Wall. The tune was waxed by many different bands in early 1926, so let’s give a listen to some of these treatments. First up, courtesy of YouTube, is the Paul Specht Orchestra’s version, recorded for Columbia in January 1926. This band contained the tune’s co-composer Wall on piano, as well as Sylvester “The Gloucester Gabriel” Ahola trumpet (he tries to take a flashy break but kind of peters out). It’s a hot group and the arrangement is a good one (dig the whole tone break).


Next comes a record done by Armstrong’s old boss, Fletcher Henderson, recording under the name “The Dixie Stompers” for the Harmony label on April 14, 1926. I love Henderson’s band but this version of “Static Strut” kind of leaves me cold. It’s pretty much the same arrangement as the Specht band’s (right down to the whole tone break), but it’s a little sloppy at times and doesn’t feature the same feeling of joy and abandon as the earlier version. It does have a Coleman Hawkins solo, though, and that’s always interesting. Alas, the original Red Hot Jazz link is down and no one has uploaded it to YouTube. Don't worry, you're not missing much!

Two days later, the Original Memphis Five recorded a version for a Victor. Though a much smaller band, the OM5 successfully translates the big band arrangement into a swinging feature for the tight little group, propelled by Frank Signorelli’s piano and some swinging drums by Jack Roth. Trumpeter Phil Napoleon takes a short muted solo and though I like Napoleon’s work, this one, too, loses its steam midway through. Maybe I’m biased because I’ve listened to Pops’s version 20 times in the past couple of days...but don’t worry, you’ll feel the same way in just a few minutes. Here’s the Original Memphis Five’s version:

So I think you get the point about “Static Strut.” It’s a hot little tune with some built-in breaks and it was covered by a lot of popular bands in 1926 (the California Ramblers got to it in late April, while the Varsity Eight recorded it in June of that year). Thus, the tune was probably a relatively new one for Erskine Tate’s band, but one they probably enjoyed playing enough to immortalize it in wax. Thus, without further ado, here is Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra with Louis Armstrong on trumpet, Teddy Weatherford on piano and Jimmy Bertrand on drums, tearing apart “Static Strut” (I usually use the Red Hot Jazz Archive’s links, but their versions of the songs done at this session are pretty sorry sounding; I’ve decided to upload my own versions, transferred by John R. T. Davies for a Johnny Dodds disc on the Frog label...the sound is positively incredible!)


What a band! The spirit is there from note one as one can feel the influence of Bertrand’s propulsive drumming from note one (he was a mentor and influence on Lionel Hampton and it shows!). The band is tight and clearly adept at reading and though he’s kind of buried, Teddy Weatherford is a constant presence on the early part of the record as well (more on him in a bit). But the sun really begins to shine when Armstrong steps out front to take a stop-time break that modulates into a solo the is simply brimming with confidence and swing. Armstrong might have been playing some pretty revolutionary stuff on the Hot Five records, but this is the man in his element, playing with his working band, sounding comfortable and happy, pouring out a dazzling stream of ideas from out of his horn. Where do I even begin? The beautifully swinging opening part of the solo, which reminds me a bit of a fast “Song of the Islands”? The first break, where he almost gets trapped in a corner, only to fight his way out with a complex, dizzying array of notes? The singing high concert Ab that appears out of nowhere, a sign of things to come? The ridiculous break at the 1:14 mark, opening with a gurgling chromatic run, topped off four barking high Bb’s? The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it rip that immediately follows? The breaks towards the end of the solo, with yet another piercing high Bb? Incredible!

And I love how, after that last break, the tuba steps in for a little humorous touch. Again, this was a tight, well-rehearsed show band and a little funny moment like that was probably good for a laugh. But Pops plays like a man possessed. I will never devalue the Hot Fives as long as I live, but more people should pay attention to “Static Strut” since this is probably how the man sounded on a nightly basis.

Armstrong is followed by the incredible Teddy Weatherford, another figure who is forgotten today, but that’s more of Weatherford’s fault since he barely recorded the left the United States in late 1926, spending the bulk of his too-short life in places such as Shanghai, Indonesi and Calcutta. But if you’d like to do a blindfold test on someone who has never heard “Static Strut,” they might identify the pianist as Earl Hines. Weatherford definitely had a Hines streak in him as his left hand rhythms were never content to simply provide a simple oom-pah beat. His dexterity in both hands is something to marvel at and, as a pianist myself, makes me want to take up the bagpipes.

Unlike the other versions of “Static Strut,” this one doesn’t rely much on the arrangement. Instead, it’s really a string of solos,demonstrating that even smallish big bands like Tate’s were turning jazz into a soloist’s art, much as Pops was doing on his own records at the time. Weatherford is followed by Angelo Fernandez’s alto and Stump Evans’s booting baritone, both fine solos, if not on par with Armstrong and Weatherford’s outings.

With the record winding down, why not hand the ball over to Pops one last time? He makes the most of his stop-time offering, contributing some more dizzying fluries, but also trademarks like the three quarter notes and the concluding “jada jada jing jing jing” phrase, for lack of a better term. And listen carefully to the phrase Armstrong plays at 2:33: it’s the same on that he would use to end the Hot Seven classic “Potato Head Blues” one year later. An incredible record, though one that’s not really well known.

However, the other Tate offering from that day, “Stomp Off, Let’s Go,” has been reissued a bunch of times and with good reason, as it’s one of Armstrong’s hottest records of the 20s (and beyond). This tune came from the pean of the pianist Elmer Schoebel, the man responsible for other jazz classics such as “Prince of Wails,” “Copenhagen,” “Bugle Call Rag” and “Nobody’s Sweetheart.” This seemed to be a big hit in 1925, as the Red Hot Jazz Archives lists four versions of the tune being recorded between May 1 and November 13 of that year. It was played in groups ranging from Vincent Lopez’s Hotel Pennsylvania Orchestra, to Tuschinsky Bercely’s Jazz Band of Amsterdam, Holland. Two of my favorite versions were done by the New Orleans Owls for Columbia and by a studio group, the Cotton Pickers, for Brunswick. Here's the New Orleans Owls:


I personally LOVE the version by the New Orleans Owls. It’s exciting, the solos are good and it builds up quite a head of steam by the end, making its 3:16 running time seem much longer. The band only recorded 18 sides and only Nappy Lamare seems to have gone on to bigger and better things but man, they were a hot group. In my original post, I shared Red Hot Jazz Archive audio from The Cotton Pickers, but it's now down. I can tell you that they chose a slightly slower tempo, which works in the beginning but as the tune goes on, it starts to stiffen up. Also, the Tate seemingly played the same stock arrangement used on this version.

Fortunately for us, two takes of Tate’s “Stomp Off, Let’s Go” survive. Armstrong is still a force of nature on both, but on the first take, he gets stuck a couple of times, which is probably why it wasn’t chosen as the master. But please, enjoy both takes right here, right now and I’ll meet you back in six minutes for the discussion





Never fails to put me in a good mood. Once again, my wife thinks I’m nuts as I sit here with one headphone from my Ipod in one ear and another headphone from the computer in my other ear, comparing the two takes, but hey, it’s the only way to accurately hear the differences in Armstrong’s playing from take to take. This might have been a commonly played tune by the Tate orchestra, but Armstrong didn’t have a set solo on it, though he did have some ideas he obviously liked to utilize. From the opening, Armstrong’s lead is more forceful on the issued second take, especially in that snorting chromatic run at the 13 second mark. At the end of the end of the first strain, Armstrong hits and holds a G on the first take, though he breaks it into two hotter notes on the master. At this juncture, Jimmy Bertrand switches over to his washboard for some tap-dance-like rhythms; the man was indeed a wizard of the washboard! Armstrong’s lead features more chromatic spurts on the master as he continues onward and upward after the short washboard interlude.

The next strain is highlighted by two completely different Armstrong breaks. On take one. Armstrong plays a characteristic phrase, highlighted by three quarter-note Eb’s before a rip up to a Bb. The master take break is much more flashy as Armstrong starts off with an “In the Mood”-like phrase before unfurling an exciting descending run made up of triplets played at a great velocity. Never mind Earl Hines’s “trumpet-styled piano”...this is piano-styled trumpet! Weatherford takes the next break, the same one on each take, ending with a showy glissando flourish. Armstrong’s next, extremely short break is also the same on both performances.

The next strain shows off the band’s great use of dynamics, bringing things down to a hush (though the rhythm section continues right on swingign) before yet another Armstrong break. This time, the one on the first take is the flashier as it features the same crazy “piano-styled trumpet” descending phrase he’d use earlier in the second take. Thus, this was something Armstrong clearly liked to pull out of his bag of tricks. The break on the issued take is fine but not as death-defying as his other playing on the date. What I love about these Tate sides is that they’re the perfect balance between arranged and improvised. Every time you hear a part of an arrangement, listen carefully and there’s always at least one horn improvising a countermelody. Even when he’s playing lead, Armstrong changes phrasing from take to take. This kind of loose, arrangement-based but still polyphonically driven big band style is truly a lost art.

Teddy Weatherford’s moment in the sun occurs in the middle of the piece and it was obviously a set solo as it barely changes at all on either take. Some discographies claim a second piano player to be present, which is a helluva compliment to Mr. Weatherford. There are times when I wonder if I heard one, too, as there seems to be a steady oom-pah at times while the left hand chords and rhythms are consistently shifting, all while the right hand is pumping out an octave-based improvisation. But I have read that professional pianists have analyzed this solo and came to the conclusion that it could indeed have been played by one person. So please, stand up and take your bow, Teddy, as that is a tremendous feat of pianistic gymnastics!

Next comes Pops’s moment in the spotlight, a delicious stop-time chorus. He enters on a break, the more daring of which comes on take one. In fact, the whole beginning of Armstrong’s first take solo is arguably the better of the two, but at the 2:09 mark, he hits a wall and struggles noticeably. He recovers, of course, and continues blowing well, but not quite with the fierceness of earlier in the take. Maybe deep down, he knew that he had botched the take and didn’t want to kill himself. The issued stop-time solo is quite interesting because it’s safer, mainly revolving around different inflections of an Ab, but at the halfway point, he attempts a rip up to an Ab an octave higher and barely gets the note out. Undeterred, he repeats exactly what he just played but on the second try, nails the high Ab. Having made it through, he improvises some new lines, duetting with Bertrand’s washboard, and playing with an incredibly melodic, lyrical ability; after listening a couple of times, you can sing along to this part of the song without any problem.

Both takes end with Armstrong playing a violent lip trill on a concert Eb, setting up a final rideout chorus where the entire band cuts loose, Pops leading the way out. It’s a tremendously exciting finish to a timeless recording. Unfortunately, that would be it Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra on records. It’s a shame, because he didn’t even get to bring his string section into the studio (not like an A&R man would have allowed it, obviously preferring a black band to play hot jazz, leaving the classics and dance tunes at home).


On my Ipod, my over 3,000 song Armstrong collection is arranged in a chronological playlist. When I’m in the right mood, I like to listen to Armstrong’s recordings in the order he made them to catch stylistic changes, the introduction of quotes and patented phrases, the days when his chops are a bit down, etc. Thus, when I get to 20s, I rarely listen to just the Hot Fives and Sevens in order. I have those records mixed in with the blues material, with the Butterbeans and Susie stuff, with everything else Armstrong was making during the period. But let me tell you, nothing sticks out more than those two Tate tracks. They sound unlike anything else from that period and are arguably more exciting than anything he did with Henderson. The importance of these records cannot be underestimated because they, more than any of the others, demonstrate the style of trumpet playing Armstrong featured on a nightly basis, the style that made him a star in Chicago once and for all time.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The "Muskrat Ramble" Mystery Solved!

I knew I could count on my readers out there! A few weeks ago, during my never-ending series of posts on "Muskrat Ramble," I grew fixated on something Louis played during this solo, beginning in 1952 and lasting for a good decade. It was something that obviously sounded like a quote, but I couldn't put my finger on it. I asked for help and received some good guesses but nothing 100% on the mark. I convinced myself that it must be some long lost commercial jingle and forced myself to move on...

...until today, when Dan Farber of Portsmouth, RI, wrote in with the following comment:

"The lick at 3:40 of the Amsterdam Muskrat Ramble is the first phrase of Sigmund Romberg's "Over Hill the Moon is Beaming from the operetta, THE STUDENT PRINCE. (Near the end of the solo, Louis quotes a phrase from the ballet music in Verdi's AIDA.) As I'm sure you know, he had a musical mind like a vacuum cleaner!"

Could it be? I scurried to Google and found out that this phrase is part of the "Serenade" from "The Student Prince," composed by Sigmund Romberg. I couldn't get to YouTube fast enough. Sure enough, Dan nailed it...get that man a cigar! For those who don't know what I'm talking about, here's Louis playing this quote in 1952:



And here is "Serenade" from "The Student Prince," courtesy of Mantovani:


Fantastic, right! So I wasn't finished at this point; I knew this wasn't a fluke. So I hit up the Online Catalog of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, aka my baby (the catalog, not the House). If you're still not using it, you're missing out. Here's the link; literally thousands of new things have been added since we launched it in December. Anyway, in the Keyword Search, I typed in "The Student Prince" and sure enough, four results popped up. Two are on Louis's private tapes; on one, he's with Zilner Randolph and Randolph's family, spinning records, and he chooses "Serenade." On another, Louis recorded the audio of an appearance on a 1953 television program "Nothing But the Best" (on which he duetted with Lee Wiley on "On the Sunny Side of the Street), including a performance of "Serenade" by James Melton and the Firestone Orchestra.

The other two results are even more interesting: a 10" commercial LP of "The Student Prince" by Paul Baron, issued on Mercury in 1950. And an ancient 12" 78 of "Selections from The Student Prince," issued on His Master's Voice and performed by the Victor Light Opera Company. Google tells me that this was recorded on April 17, 1925, so Louis must have had it for some time. And the record features one of Louis's personal "Recorded" stickers, meaning he had already transferred it to his tapes.

Thus, this was obviously a light operatic theme that Louis loved and he must have been tickled to be able to quote it in "Muskrat Ramble." And as Dan pointed out, Louis quotes from "Aida" later in the same solo and "Immediately following the Romberg phrase is a quotation from Bizet's CARMEN (the Habanera)." So after writing so much about "Muskrat Ramble" and seeing how many quotes of pop tunes Louis inserted--"Bye Bye Blackbird," "Louise," etc.--now I have to thank Dan Farber for pointing out how many quotes of classical works Louis inserted into the same solo. Listening to it is like having a window into Louis's musical mind. All I can say is, thank you Dan...and listen to those "Muskrats" all over again!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

75 Years of Louis Armstrong's Unbelievable May 18, 1936 Decca Session

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 18, 1936
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpets; Jimmy Archey, Snub Mosley, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophones; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Currently available on CD: The entire session is on Mosaic's essential box, "The Complete Decca Recordings of Louis Armstrong, 1935-1946."
Available on Itunes? Yes, all are around, you just have to look for them.

Back in February, I spent a few weeks on a single session in Louis's life, when he recorded six songs in one day with his Hot Five on February 26, 1926, including landmarks like "Heebie Jeebies," "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Muskrat Ramble." But back then, I said that it wasn't the only time Louis attempted such a feat. 75 years ago today, Louis recorded six songs in one day for Decca in a session that is positively superhuman. There used to be an old LP with the contents of this session on it; the simple title of the LP was "May 18, 1936," and to Louis fans, that was all they needed to know. Each one of these tracks is a gem. The fact that they were all recorded in one session? Mind-blowing.

This was Louis's eighth Decca session and found him still fronting a big band led by Luis Russell. A year earlier, he was at rock bottom, coming back to America without a band or a recording contract, hiring Joe Glaser and hoping for a comeback. By May 1936, he was recording for Decca and about to have a featured role in "Pennies from Heaven" and publish his autobiography, "Swing That Music." His records must have been doing well and Decca obviously wanted to capitalize on his rising popularity, hence this mammoth session.

Decca was all about recording plug tunes, which led Louis to record a dog every now and then, but the May 18 session got off to a terrific start with two new songs by Hoagy Carmichael, "Lyin' to Myself" and "Ev'ntide." I know I've written this before but if anyone lives in Spain and wants to start a bootleg CD company with no regards to copyrighted material, a "Satch Plays Hoagy" disc is a natural. Everybody knows the biggies--"Lazy River," "Star Dust," "Georgia on My Mind," "Rockin' Chair," etc.--but "Lyin' to Myself" and "Ev'ntide" are near to my heart because they are pretty much the sole property of Louis. And he performs them both beautifully. Let's start with "Lyin' to Myself":


Well, we're off an running! In fact, Louis sure is, right from the first note, diving right in with the attractive melody at an easy loping tempo that has become an endangered species these days. Louis sticks to the lower register for much of the first half, grumbling a bit like his homeboy (and future bandmate) Red Allen. He turns up the heat during the bridge and ends with a searing gliss, but then passes it over to Luis Russell's orchestra as he prepares himself for the vocal.

And what a vocal it is! Man, this is as good as it gets and it really demonstrates Louis's ability as an actor. Can't you see him featuring this in a film or at the very least, on stage? I love his opening lines and the sense of despair they convey. He sings beautifully without a trace of gravel, but throws in a few asides that almost remind me of Fats Waller. The bridge is high but the tenor Louis of 1936 handles it charmingly for the first half before barking out the second part. Just a delightful vocal from start to scat-infused finish.

Unfortunately, we're already at the 2:30 mark so you know there's not going to be much blowing, but Louis makes the most of it, swinging out with some declamatory melody before one of his patented Decca-era endings. This is one of the longest ones I know of, clocking in at almost 40 seconds before that beautiful final high concert Eb. Bravo, Pops.

"Lyin' to Myself" is a great opener, but the next one is even better (not that this is a competition...everything recorded on this day was a winner). "Ev'ntide" is a Louis masterpiece and I like to think that so few people have ever attempted it since because how can you top perfection? Don't know what I'm talking about? Don't go anywhere for the next 2:53....


See? After an atmospheric intro by pianist Luis Russell (one of his most memorable to me, maybe because I've listened to it thousands of time), Pops opens with the vocal. The same qualities that made "Lyin' to Myself" such a winner are apparent here. He's utterly charming and completely sells the song, clearly in love with the song's many three-note repetitions. The bridge is very dramatic...you can tell that this song was made for him and can only wait to hear what he does with it on the trumpet.

Fortunately, that's right around the corner. Unlike "Lyin' to Myself," the vocal is out of the way fairly quickly in "Ev'ntide" leaving a full 90 seconds to listen to Satch and his little Selmer trumpet (bless its heart). He takes a full chorus and again, credit to Carmichael for creating such a wonderful song with built-in drama. All Louis has to do is play the melody, with occasional variations in and around it, and it's a masterpiece. Naturally, the bridge is a killer, Louis topping it off with several repeated A's before a high C and swooning descending gliss. Carmichael's composition is also noteworthy for an entirely different melody after the bridge (no going back to the "A" section this time) and Louis milks it for all its worth before another out-of-tempo cadenza ending on a high C. Two for two!

At this point, it was time for the main event, in my opinion, "Swing That Music." I fell all over myself in writing about this tune a while back so if you don't mind, I'm going to plagiarize myself on this original recording. Because seriously, this one is not for the feint of heart. If you take blood pressure medication, take it before proceeding. If you have a bad back, now is a good time to strap yourself in tight to your chair. If you have bad breath, chew some gum for heaven’s sake. Okay, all ready, kids? Let’s proceed with (drum roll please) “Swing That Music.”

Really, is there a more exciting tune in the Louis Armstrong discography than “Swing That Music”? I’ve never been able to listen to a single version of it without it resulting in my heart pounding through my chest or a bucket of sweat dousing my face. I once listened to it on a treadmill at the gym and somehow managed to run a three-minute mile. It’s that exciting...and then some.

The song co-written by the mysterious Horace Gerlach (and according to a copy of the original handwritten lead sheet at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the original title was the less-than-catchy "My Heart Gets a Chill," more of an ode to arrhythmia than swing music). Not much concrete information is known about Gerlach but he did co-write with Armstrong three songs that resulted in fantastic records of the Decca period, “If We Never Meet Again,” “Heart Full Of Rhythm” and “What Is This Thing Called Swing” (note the phrasing: these are not exactly fantastic songs, but what Armstrong did with them is truly marvelous, though “If We Meet Again” is quite lovely). Gerlach also wrote the Mills Brothers’s hit, “Daddy’s Little Girl” as well as “Love In the Air” with Jimmy Van Heusen.

This info on Gerlach comes from Dan Morgenstern’s forward to Da Capo’s 1993 reprinting of Swing That Music. Morgenstern also writes, “In a letter to [clarinetist Joe] Muranyi, [Gerlach] insisted that he was the sole author of this book’s title tune. That may be so; it would not be the first instance of a famous band leader getting his name on a copyright, though it seems unlike the Armstrong we knew. ON the other hand, a man capable of writing (about Armstrong’s trumpet playing) that ‘by skipping up or down in natural sequence, from one note to the next in position, he produces concordant melody’ is not to be trusted! Don’t get me wrong, Gerlach undoubtedly meant well, and in 1936 he was only 25, clearly caught up in the budding Swing craze of which this book was a product.”

So with that out of the way, let’s concentrate of the first recording of “Swing That Music." Remember, this is the third of SIX songs to be recorded that day! How he didn’t destroy his lip for good that day is a miracle...hell, how he didn’t destroy it on “Swing That Music,” the date’s third tune is a miracle in itself! Without further ado, here's "Swing That Music":


Now, Gerlach claimed he also wrote arrangements for the band and it’s possible that he did this one. What’s interesting is that the melody statement by the horns and reeds barely swings; instead it’s kind of stiff and corny but please, please, please, dig that rhythm section, especially the bass work of the great Pops Foster. Anyone who thinks jazz bass playing in the 1920s and 30s was just two-beat or straight quarters should give Pops a listen. He’s a one-man band throughout and he really drives the music. After one chorus of melody, Pops sings the lyrics, which are also rather dumb, but he sure sounds heartfelt. And listen to that pure tenor voice, without a trace of gravel. I once wrote many moons ago that I didn’t hear the real roughness start in Armstrong’s voice until 1937 and recently, I learned in Jos Willems’s All of Me that Armstrong went in for throat surgery in early 1937 so it is indeed possible that that’s when the gravel became a permanent part of the Armstrong vocal sound.

After the vocal chorus, it’s time for the reeds to step to the forefront with a tricky arranged passage that they execute quite well (this is somewhat reminiscent of that other, earlier trumpet showpiece, “Chinatown, My Chinatown” where Armstrong’s trumpet enters after a similar saxophone chorus).

Well, if you’ve made it through the first 1:12, you’re probably enjoying the tune, but you don’t know what all the hubub is about. Have no fear, dear reader, because the record still has 1:41 left and Louis Armstrong hasn’t even put his trumpet to his lips. Once he does, well, good night, nurse. This is one of the great Armstrong recorded solos of all time. It’s melodic but it also displays his free form sense of rhythm as it often floats above the frantic beat. Armstrong’s endurance is something to marvel at and the high note exhibitionism at the end is literally and figuratively jaw-dropping. Let’s go chorus-by-chorus, shall we?

Chorus 1: Armstrong enters after a modulation into Eb, playing the melody fairly straight. Yes, the rhythm section does seem to speed up a bit but I think that might have been planned, as will be seen when I get to discussing other versions. The little tumbling phrase at 1:23 is neatly executed but what’s better is the space he leaves after it before rushing in and rephrasing the second half of the melody.

Chorus 2: Here come the “variations,” as Armstrong might put it. It opens with two simple notes, Eb to G, still not stretching into the upper register, but definitely telling a story. He soon works out a five-note descending motif which he plays three times in a row, glissing up to the first note on the second and third times. Even those little glisses can be missed if you’re not paying attention but they’re extremely difficult to play and Armstrong tosses them around like confetti. Armstrong hits his highest note of the solo to this point at the 1:44 mark, a high concert C, the sixth of key of Eb and a favorite note of Pops (and Lester Young). Armstrong’s playing is very melodic but that lightning quick run at the 1:49 mark is almost proto-bebop. The second half of the chorus is filled with more delicious two-note motives, focusing on the Bb and Gb, the second note being the minor third of Eb, giving a little bluesy quality to playing. At the 1:57 mark, Armstrong reminds the listener of the tune he’s playing by inserting a snatch of melody, but after a pause for dramatic effect, he nails a high concert Bb, heralding the arrival of a new and even more exciting third chorus.

Chorus 3: Like the second chorus, this one also begins with two notes, but they’re quite a bit higher: Bb and C, that sixth again. The band is positively cooking behind him but Armstrong remains calm; just listen to his rhythmic mastery as he repeats those Bb’s, descending chromatically to a G. As the chord changes to Cm, Armstrong shoots up, playing a three-note phrase consisting of C, D (the ninth of Cm) and a lower G at the 2:08 mark. Then comes the biggest gliss of the record, rising like a tidal wave to another high concert C. The second half of the chorus features more stuff to marvel at, more short, seemingly simple motives that stick with the listener long after the record finishes. He’s so in control it’s scary, tossing off one phrase after another, each one landing on a different but perfectly placed and chosen high note. The band hits the dominant fifth chord hard, creating a tremendous sense of urgency and excitement as Armstrong responds with a crystal clear high C. Is he really going to do it? Does he have enough in the tank for one more chorus? Do you believe in miracles?

Chorus 4: Yes! Here’s where you call the kids over to the computer because Armstrong’s fourth and final chorus is something that the whole world should appreciate. Stories abound from Armstrong’s crazy days in the late 1920s and early 1930s where he would hit hundreds of high C’s each night as a means of impressing the audience. But after doing almost catastrophic harm to his lips, Armstrong cooled off during his European exile and when he returned, he claimed to put that stuff in the past and concentrate on pleasing his audiences, which didn’t necessarily want to hear 100 or 200 high C’s. However, on his first recording of “Swing That Music,” Armstrong closed that chapter of his career with a triumphant bang. Over 40 “bangs,” if you will. In fact, every time I listen I come up with a different number but tonight, counting the high C he plays to enter the final chorus, I count 41 high concert C’s, before resolving up to a D and a final high Eb (in trumpet terms, these would be high D’s, resolving to a final high F!). Now some might frown at such carrying on and one can even argue that the 41 high C’s don’t exactly swing. But who cares? Every human has a little gawker inside of him or her and this is, plain and simple, something to be amazed by. I still think it’s Armstrong’s most exciting solo on record.

Thank you Ricky Riccardi of 2008; now let's turn to the Ricky RIccardi of 2007 for the next tune recorded that day. “Thankful” was up next and I think at that moment, the thing Pops was most thankful for was that chunks of his lip hadn’t come flying off during “Swing That Music.” But “Thankful” is a lovely record and you can listen along by clicking here:



Behind Pops Foster’s huge bass sound, the band staggers through a two-beat introduction, before Pops comes in with a beautiful vintage 1936 vocal. He sings with a lot of feeling and doesn’t feel the need to add much. After the bridge, he sings a nice deep-throated “baby” that almost sounds like half-scat with a neat little “Mm-mm” coming a few bars later. The vocal ends, the band modulates and looking at my C.D. player, there’s a solid 91 seconds of trumpet ready to brew. He starts with some pure melody, adjusting the phrasing to achieve a more relaxed swing at times. He bridges the two A sections with a perfect adjoining phrase before he starts opening up his solo for more improvising. He begins the next eight bars by playing the exact four-note phrase he sang as “Thankful, baby,” another example of the link between his singing and playing. He continues on in those eight bars with snatches of melody, followed by his own obbligato, always a winning combination.

The bridge is the main event of the song. The band goes into stop-time and Pops proves ready for the challenge with some nimble double-timing at the start. But why settle for just double-timing when you have a sense of rhythm unlike anyone else in jazz? All of a sudden the notes and phrases start almost stuttering along (I’d hate to transcribe this stuff), though he slightly cracks a couple of notes, probably leftover remnants of the strain of “Swing That Music.” However, he fights it off with a stirring gliss up to a high Bb. He then plays something that reminds me of Red Allen as he works out a tension-filled motif on a high Ab. In a series of two-note phrases, he plays an F# leading to the Ab, an F leading to the Ab, then an E natural leading to an F# before resolving on an Eb and moving on from there. It’s exciting stuff and a little “out” for a Louis Armstrong record of 1936.

But even after that daring bridge, Pops proves he has more in the gas tank by going up for the last eight bars for a series of high Bb’s. He eventually comes back down to earth to stick to a little more melody as the band plays is in a stately fashion behind him. Cue up the patented Decca coda ending and what you have is a neat little record.

Any normal human being would have called it day right then and there but instead, Louis still had TWO more songs to go. First up is "Red Nose," another forgotten tune, though not quite the gem as Carmichael's offerings from earlier in the session. Still, you have to give credit to Pops for treating everything like it could be a masterpiece; and when he's done with 'em, they are. Here's "Red Nose":


A lovely record. Louis shows off his range during the see-sawing vocal, which has a very passionate bridge. Once again, there's about 90 seconds left for a trumpet solo but after the pyrotechnics of "Swing That Music" and that wild stop-time bridge and high-note ending on "Thankful"--and knowing that "Mahogany Hall Stomp" was next--Louis contributes his most relaxed solo of the date on this track. It's not a world-changer but it sure is excellent, tasteful music making. Louis clearly feels the tempo, swinging along with quarter notes whenever he can. He gets excited for the bridge and hits a high note towards the end, though he cracks it slightly, fatigue setting in a bit. He redeems himself with a higher note hit on the nose a few seconds later; had it in his pocket the whole time, as he might say. But just when it's over comes my favorite part, a relaxed little coda where Pops puts a mute in his horn and simply swings his was to a dreamy little ending. No opera here, just a charming performance.

Okay, with one song to go, it was time to leave everything in the studio with "Mahogany Hall Stomp," Louis's third studio recording of the tune in seven years. I blogged about a bunch of "Mahogany Halls" over a series of blogs back in 2009. In the first part, I discussed “Mahogany Hall Stomp’s” relationship to the other big band music of the period. The 1929 version was a glimpse into the future, Armstrong dragging Luis Russell’s band behind them, imploring Pops Foster to walk the hell out of his bass and improvising figures that no doubt inspired future Swing Era arrangers. By 1932, the band was finally swinging on an even keel with Pops but there was a rough and ready feeling to the proceedings, almost a little reminiscent of some of Bennie Moten’s uptempo numbers (recorded in the same studio).

But while Pops was in Europe, the Swing Era “officially” began (take a bow, Mr. Goodman, though we all know it REALLY began when Pops joined Fletcher Henderson in 1924...but who’s keeping score?). Thus, the 1936 version just sounds like an above-average big band instrumental of the day. Pops makes it quite special but the rest of the music world finally caught up. Took ‘em long enough...

Once again, Armstrong’s backed by Luis Russell’s group, which he began fronting full-time in 1935. Russell, Charlie Holmes, Pops Foster and Paul Barbarin were all veterans of the original recordings and were back for the remake (Albert Nicholas and J.C. Higginbotham rejoined the following year). Enough from me, give a listen to the 1936 Decca recording:


The arrangement is fairly similar to the Victor one, though a wee bit slower. Pops takes his lead, as usual, though he hits some nice, dark lower notes. The band also gets a short interlude before Pops takes one chorus of blues. Jimmy Archey boots one out before a somewhat out-of-date tenor solo probably by Bingie Madison (Budd Johnson sounded more hip in 1933). Then it’s time for Pops’s solo:


Interestingly, after coming up with some brand new ideas in 1933, Armstrong falls back on his 1929 solo, playing it almost note-for-note in exactly the same fashion. I’m guessing that sometime in between 1929 and 1936, the solo became officially known as a bona fide classic. Perhaps that caused Pops to dig out the old record and re-learn it. Regardless, he nails it once again, spurred on by some hard-charging riffing from the band. And once again, please give the track another listen and try to block everything out except for Pops Foster. Foster was a swinging rock in 1929 but he was much more creative in 1936, coming up with all sorts of funky variations instead of just playing time, much as he did on that day’s “Swing That Music.” A lot of people think 1930s bass players could be a little stiff (I’m looking at you John Kirby) but Foster is as hip as they come. Dig him.

Charlie Holmes follows Pops with a strong alto solo (again, listen to Foster) before Pops comes back, dramatically wringing one note for all its worth. He’s in superb command of his horn, not quite as acrobatic as he was in 1933 but still telling a helluva story. In all , it’s a very swinging record, one that had an influence on our pal George Avakian. George had some of the Deccas but took a liking to “Mahogany Hall Stomp” because of its swinging, instrumental quality. When his friend Lester Koenig started playing George some Armstrong OKehs, George responded to qualities he already knew from the Decca “Mahogany Hall Stomp” and not the Decca pop tunes. The rest is history...

And that, my friends, is that. Who knows if Pops had to go out and play a show that day; I think he would have been happy to go home, light up and relax, able to look back on a day's output that many musicians would kill to equal in a lifetime. 75 years is a longtime but it's safe to say that the music Louis created on that momentous May 18, 1936 session will be around forever.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Muskrat Ramble - Part 6 - 1959-1967

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....