Sunday, January 8, 2012

Listening to the Book: Chapter 17

Hello and Happy New Year everybody! Sorry it's been over a week without a post but my year is off to a roaring start as I'm in the middle of giving six book-related lectures at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem this month. The first two are behind me, including a panel I led yesterday afternoon that featured Dan Morgenstern, David Ostwald and George Avakian (don't worry, it was recorded and audio will be available soon). For those in the NY area who interested in the rest of the series, I'm going to send you over to Michael Steinman's blog to read the details as written by myself (yes, I could have eliminated the middle man and just posted them here, but I want you to head over to Michael's blog because once there you won't be getting off the computer for at least 3 hours!).

Anyway, it's back to business for me as we near the finish line of my "Listening to the Book" series, continuing on with Chapter 17 of my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, which is the last music-heavy chapter of the book (I'll be able to combine the audio from the final two chapters into one final blog).

If you were with me for my last post (or if you have the book and read chapter 16), you might remember that we left off with Pops's abilities on the trumpet fading slowly as the years of non-stop touring and blowing were catching up with him. March 1967 found Louis and the All Stars recording a bizarre session for Brunswick, one that even Brunswick must have realized was a dud because the four tracks recorded that day were released on two 45s....and that's it. No LP, no tape, no CD, no download. Marty Napoleon wrote the session's bright spot, a rare All Stars instrumental titled "Louie's Dream," but he recently told me that he received something like $4 in royalties because the record had no promotion and almost immediately disappeared. That's a shame, because I love "Louie's Dream" and wish that more people knew about it because maybe it would still be played! Louis doesn't solo on it but he plays a very pretty lead. In addition to Marty, the All Stars are Tyree Glenn, Buster Bailey, Buddy Catlett and Danny Barcelona:



That was the good news. The bad news was this session led to what some (including my friend Dave Whitney) feel to be Louis's lowest moment on records, a cover of the Lovin' Spoonful's "Daydream." The arrangement is sad (and underrehearsed) and though Louis's trumpet solo is relaxed and kind of lyrical, for the most part, this is a moment best forgotten:




Not too long after that, Buster Bailey passed away (those two events are not connected--I don't think). Louis's health had held up for much of the decade but not long after, a bout of pneumonia forced Louis to cancel six weeks worth of gigs. However, when he returned to performing in June 1967 (now with Joe Muranyi on clarinet, after a brief spell by Johnny Mince), he was feeling his oats and blowing tremendously. He made his comeback on the "Tonight Show," playing this strong solo on "Hello, Dolly":


A few days later, at Ravinia in Highland Park, Illinois, Louis blew with tremendous ferocity on "St. James Infirmary":



It seemed like the good times were back...until Louis started performing nonstop and his chops soon began to turn erratic again. A broadcast from Atlantic City on July 22 caught him struggling, including on this "Hello, Dolly" solo:


A few days later, it was off to Europe, where he had to cut out the blowing on "St. James Infirmary" that he did at Ravinia. In fact, two blogs of mine really take you through this period in detail so if you want more, check out my old posts on St. James Infirmary and Hello, Dolly. And Louis's struggles with "Tiger Rag" in Copenhagen are discussed in my tenth and final Tiger Rag blog.

But the day after Louis's weak Copenhagen performance, he and the All Stars found themselves in Juan-Les-Pins, France for the Antibes jazz festival. There, Louis bounced back, as captured on this video of Cabaret (sorry, embedding disabled by request) and this performance of "Muskrat Ramble":



Feeling good, Louis headed back into the recording studio on August 16 to record some different material for Bob Thiele. First up was the syrupy "Sunshine of Love," which Louis managed to make swing like the clappers:



And the other tune recorded that day was something called "What a Wonderful World." I don't know what ever came of it....




Alas, a month later, Louis got sick again and had to cancel more gigs. The writing was on the wall that something was wrong, but Louis didn't pay it any mind (or maybe I should say Joe Glaser didn't pay it any mind) and Louis was back in action soon. And like in June, he was playing beautifully. At the Louis Armstrong House Museum, we have breathless postcards from Joe Muranyi to Jack Bradley, raving about how Louis was blowing, especially on a by-request version of "When You're Smiling"--if only it was recorded! But was recorded a one-nighter in Miami in November. Maybe I'm nuts, but I would love to see this concert commercially issued as it is the finest complete show that I know of from the years 1966-1971. The chops are up and Louis improvises entirely new solos on "Cabaret," "Ole Miss" and a version of "St. James Infirmary" that's one of the highlights of Louis's later years:


I knew I couldn't devote much space to that performance in the book, though I wanted to, so I just wrote a blog about it, which you can read here.

By this point, Louis was recorded for Brunswick again, this time performing corny arrangements by Dick Jacobs (a "schmuck" in the parlance of Joe Muranyi). The resulting album, "I Will Wait for You" is not one of my favorites, as Louis doesn't play much, the songs are inferior and the arrangements get under my skin (I can't listen to "The Happy Time" for more than 12 seconds without blowing up my speakers). But there are some good moments. "I Believe" was a song that I thought I hated until I really listened to what Pops was putting into it. Here's the audio:


And here's blog about my epiphany with that song.

Louis had been playing a medley of "Tenderly" and "You'll Never Walk Alone" since the early 50s. When his chops started going, he didn't want to give up the medley so he began singing "You'll Never Walk Alone," turning it into an incredibly moving show closer. Jacob's churchy setting works on this one, which I think is ripe for rediscovery via a movie or TV commercial:


And recorded in 1968, the album's title track is my favorite, featuring a fantastic opening trumpet cadenza. Here's "I Will Wait for You":


And here's an old blog I wrote about it: I Will Wait for You Blog

In the middle of all these sessions, Jacobs oversaw a bizarre experiment that actually worked when Louis was brought in to sing four songs in Italian at the end of 1967! "Dimmi, Dimmi, Dimmi" is my favorite, with one of Louis's finest trumpet solos of the period (Phil Person, you know what I'm talking about!):



And in the book, I write about what I consider one of Louis's last triumphs, his performance of "Mi Va Di Cantare" at the San Remo Song Festival in February 1968. Louis performed the song on the first day of the festival and played a neat 12 bar solo. But something happened and by the time of the second day, Louis was ready to blow, catching the band by surprise by blowing past the expected 12 bars (ending with the "Stormy Weather" quote) and going on for 40 more bars! I used to use the audio for many of my lectures but then video turned up, which has always been a hit with audiences I've played it for (including in Italy!). Unfortunately, embedding is disabled, but you can go to YouTube and watch it by clicking here.

Back in the United States, Louis embarked on another potentially strange project but this one worked: "Disney Songs the Satchmo Way." This is really Louis's last great album, featuring fun moments like "Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo":



And maybe the most emotional performance of this period, "When You Wish Upon a Star":


Here are blogs on both songs, When You Wish Upon a Star and Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.

By this point, "What a Wonderful World" was a number one hit in England, Louis and the All Stars traveled overseas for a British tour. Two weeks at Batley Variety Club found Louis comfortable and improvising different variations on "Hello, Dolly." Sound quality isn't ideal, but here's one solo from Batley:


And here it is the night after that one:


Also in England, Louis sat down for a half-hour interview on "Be My Guest" which has some wonderful quotes and stories that made it into the book. You can listen to whole thing in this old blog.

On July 2, the All Stars did two one-hour sets for BBC TV. How this material hasn't been commercially issued is beyond me but some of it has popped up on YouTube (with embedding disabled again...no luck today!). Here's the link to a swinging "Indiana" and here's another one for "The Bare Necessities.

As you can see in that clip, Louis had lost a LOT of weight by that point. He was bragging about it and saying he felt better than ever. Back in the States, Louis filled out the rest of an album devoted to "What a Wonderful World" by recorded eight songs in Las Vegas. I covered those sessions four years ago in this blog (with audio).

And that was it. Louis continued touring into September but then his health failed. Kidneys and heart trouble would sideline Louis from performing live with the All Stars for two years. But he still made some records and TV appearances and all of those will be covered, along with Louis's final recordings, in the next and final part of this series. Til then!

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