Sunday, March 11, 2012

80 Years of Louis's March 11, 1932 OKeh session ("New Tiger Rag," "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" and "Lawd You Made the Night Too Long")

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 11, 1932
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, clarinet; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41557
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from 1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

Last time out, I discussed "Love, You Funny Thing" on the 80th anniversary of Louis Armstrong's recording of that tune. If you made it to the end of my manifesto, you probably got confused by my conspiracy theories regarding the possibility of another song--"New Tiger Rag"--also being attempted at that March 2 session. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong but nine days later, we do know that Pops did wax the master of "New Tiger Rag" while still in Chicago. He also found time to record two more new songs, "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" and "Lawd You Made the Night too Long" for what would turn out to be his final OKeh session. Since all of this happened 80 years ago today, I figured let's break out the cake (and Swiss Kriss) and celebrate yet another anniversary.

"New Tiger Rag" is up first and if you were with me in 2010, you might remember my epic, seemingly never-ending ten (10!) part series on Louis's history with that pesky tiger. You can search for any of the previous entries on the upper right of this page but I'm going to dive right in with what I wrote about this performance, which was Louis's second recording of the tune.

The first "Tiger Rag" was recorded in 1930 and Louis's high-note studded, quote-filled version became a template for other trumpeters of period on how to tackle the tune. Many musicians and commentators would later remember Louis performing "Tiger Rag" live as his showstopper number, pulling it out to wow audiences and slay musicians, though the damage he did to his chops on numbers like this almost did him in for good. Between "Tiger Rag" and "Shine," Louis had two showpieces to choose from on which he would conclude by hitting at least 100 high C's, topped by a high F. Musicians present at such performances never forgot it though Louis himself later admitted that the public thought he was a maniac and that he was heading in the wrong direction.

But in 1932, he was still in his 100-high-C's mode. Because records were limited to about three-and-a-half minutes, it would be impossible for him to replicate his routine on wax (and it might have been a little monotanous...though fascinating!). Nevertheless, after almost two years of featuring it in his live performances, Louis felt the need to record his new, improved routine on the tune. Thus, on March 11, 1932, with his regular orchestra (the Zilner Randolph band) backing him up, Louis recorded what was known as "New Tiger Rag." Buckle your seat belt...


It doesn't take a licensed musicologist to realize that the tempo of "New Tiger Rag" is a bit on the up side. Frankly, it makes the 1930 version sound like a ballad. This is "Tiger Rag" on steroids. (I attempted to use an online metronome to get a number of beats per minute but my computer caught on fire.)

For Pops, the faster, the better. He wasn't really comfortable until he hit warp speed, at which point he'd be free to float around the bar lines without any gravity (if you ever need to explain how gravity and space travel works, just play a fast Louis Armstrong record from the early 30s). As for the other musicians in his band, well God speed. The horns and even the bass or piano could give it a two-beat feel and play at half the tempo but poor Mike McKendrick on guitar and poor Tubby Hall on drums sound like they're dying. In fact, Hall's later replacement Harry Dial, who joined the following year, once said about Louis, "He'd make me so mad on 'Tiger Rag' that I wouldn't know what to do. He'd want me to ride the cymbals on the last three choruses. I'd grab the cymbal around the eight chorus and start riding it, and by the end of the tenth it would sound good to him and he'd hit with one finger, which would mean one more chorus...and he'd play ten more choruses....That guy worked me to death."

Other New Orleans musicians, including drummer Baby Dodds, practically gave lectures on why "Tiger Rag" was not to be played too quickly. Pops obviously didn't attend those lectures!

Unlike the original version, Pops does play the first strain, though he doesn't so much play it verbatim as suggest the general shape of it by playing a pared-down, free-floating variation centered on few pitches. He then steps up to the mike and gives a cute little monologue about the "novelty" we're about to hear. Novelty, yes. Pops knew that this wasn't high art, this was something fun and exciting, a little showmanship and grandstanding to makes every jaw in earshot turn slack with awe. You want to hear the lyrical Pops? Just turn the 78 over and listen to the beautiful flip side, "Love, You Funny Thing." You want a little "novelty" to get the blood pumping? You've come to the right place!

After announcing that he's gone and singing a delightful, sighing, "Oh babe," Pops gets his chops together and comes out of the starting gate with a perfect little opening phrase. Louis was the ultimate master of pacing himself and constructing a exciting solo. Thus, there's plenty of space in his first offering, spending most of his time simply alternating between two notes, before he warms up a bit towards the end. Interestingly, perhaps because of time constraints, Louis's first chorus is actually only a half-chorus, but I'm not going to penalize him for shaving 16 bars off.

A voice bellows out, "Two!" letting us know that round two is about to begin. Pops gets himself in a tizzy during his break, rapidly alternating between a C and an Eb, keeping it going for a few bars into the next chorus, before a shouting high Ab. This is the highest note of the solo thus far but Louis doesn't stay there for long. He leaves a little space after it and when he makes his return, it's to play the "Singin' in the Rain" quote from the 1930 record. Armstrong then breaks into a fluent run, which might sound like eighth-notes but are actually quarter-notes, each placed on the beat of this ridiculous tempo.

For the start of his third chorus, Armstrong holds that high Ab again before going into a whirlwind quote from "Dixie," ending it with a high C, the new highest note of the solo. Again, not wanting to peak too quickly, he hits the C and does a swan dive with it, glissing down to shallow waters. Once poised, he throws in a familiar lick, which sounds like it might be from something specific since it's been a part of the jazz vocabulary ever since.

Chorus four begins a new quote, Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song," another lick that would be found in improvisations for decades to come. Now he's really floating, playing as few notes as possible but still managing to swing them in a slightly altered state. He wakes up for a scorching repeated motif at the start of the fifth chorus but soon he's back to weightless territory, milking his trademark "doddle-doddle-da-da" lick for all its worth. He then turns one of his lines completely around the beat--what time this man had!--before repeating a couple of large Ab's and building up to chorus number six.

The sixth chorus might begin with a quote but I'm not sure what it is. However, I do know what comes at the midway point: our old pal "Pagliacci," straight from 1930. Armstrong's seventh chorus is truly in another time zone as he glisses to some more high Ab's in almost slow motion. To show a bit of endurance, he hits one and holds it into his eighth chorus (Pops announced it would take seven choruses to catch the tiger but obviously, this is one fast cat!). Armstrong again reaches back to 1930 by hammering out the "National Emblem March" twice to begin his eighth and final chorus. The rest of the record features more high notes, mostly Ab's, but he does rise to the occasion and ends with that same searing high Eb (high F on the trumpet).

"New Tiger Rag" isn't exactly a melodic masterpiece; in fact, I know some Armstrong worshippers who simply don't go for this kind of exhibitionism. But as I've proven before, I have no taste and little standards so I'm always wowed.

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Most trumpet players--and musicians--would have called it a day at that point but Louis was only getting started. Next up, he had a brand new tune waiting for him written by his friends Andy Razaf and Fats Waller. That pair had penned "Ain't Misbehavin'," which provided Louis with one of the breakout hits of his career. When they penned something of a sequel, titled "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now," it made sense for them to present it to Louis. Interestingly, I just tried to find some other versions of the song from this period as I always love to compare what Louis was doing with what else was going on in the popular music world. But this time, I couldn't find anything! Maybe I'm too immersed in the world of hot jazz (not a bad place to me), but I've always thought of the song as something of standard. But really, it doesn't seem to have inspired many recordings in the early days. Fats Waller himself didn't record it until his solo piano version of 1937. Tommy Dorsey and Lee Wiley recorded versions in the 1930s and 40s but really, that's pretty much all I can find. Oh well, at least we Louis's great recording. Listen along here:



Louis and the band start right out with an introduction made up of the last four bars of the melody, Louis handling the lead with the reeds doubling it with their trademark intonation (you be the judge if this is a good or bad thing). Louis gives himself some breaks to trot out some very nimble double-timed phrases, still feeling his oats after his victory over the tiger. His second break allows him to roam around freely, which he does before hitting a high one and holding it for good measure. Then he leads the troops through the song's rarely heard verse, the group swinging in their slightly ragged, yet foot-tapping style. The saxes get a little loud in the mix (intonation!) before Louis finally gets to the song's main, slightly odd 20-bar melody. He plays it fairly straight, relaxed and swinging with little changes in the phrasing as he goes on. And then he passes the ball to the alto saxophone of Lester Boone, who takes off in precisely the opposite manner of Louis: not relaxed, herky-jerky, full of double-timing that doesn't mean much, etc. Not awful, but not one of my favorite sideman solos.

But then it's time for Louis's vocal, which is completely charming. There's a little slight hesitation here and there that makes me think he really must have picked up this song for the first time at this session. But he completely sells the sentiment of it and really starts swinging like hell towards the end (from the giant "Oh baby" onward). A beautiful vocal.

Then the tenor saxophone of Albert Washington creeps in on a wrong note before he puts together some puttering ideas. Louis then rises out of the ashes with a giant gliss and some passionate playing. Washington trades another four with him but is further buried with an even bigger gliss and some melodic playing an octave. Washington and Louis trade mild-mannered two's to end the chorus and then it's time for "every tub" to take the tune out, Louis playing lead with the section and also improvising some more scorching lines (with, yes, yet another gliss at one point). Midway through, he breaks free and comes up with a line that, to my ears, would morph into Hoagy Carmichael's composition "Judy" a few years later. And while I've been teasing the reeds a bit, I do like this rhythm section; hear bassist percussive double-timing as Louis heads to the final eight bars. Louis's playing is very relaxed, yet powerful; I wish he played for himself throughout. But interestingly, even when he plays with the sections, he still sounds like he's improvising because Zilner Randolph's arrangement is made up mostly of Armstrong licks. One more dash upward and Louis ends with a full, lush high note.

"Keepin' Out of Mischief Now" has some great moments but I don't know, I wouldn't rate it as a classic of classics, I guess because the band sounds pretty rough in spots. Personally, I've always been much more satisfied with the 1955 remake on the album "Satch Plays Fats." Maybe one day I'll revisit this tune and discuss that version in detail but I think I'll share the audio now.



Which version do you prefer? Feel free to leave a comment!

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When it comes to the final tune recorded on March 11, 1932, there's no denying that it's an all-time classic: "Lawd You Made the Night Too Long." Oh man, I just got excited typing that title! This has always been one of my favorites but it's never gotten the universal acclaim I think it has deserves (which explains why I included it when I helped with the track listings of last year's 10-CD Universal boxed set, "Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz"). The song itself was written by Sam Lewis and Joe Young, the team behind "Dinah." Louis wasn't the first to record it, but he was close; 10 days earlier, pianist Russ Carlson recorded it for Crown Records with a vocal by Dick Robertson and some nice muted trumpet playing possibly by Mannie Klein. If you know Louis's version, this should come as a surprise. (It did for me, I'll admit that!)

It's the same arrangement! I mean, it's identical. Zilner Randolph must have gotten a copy of the stock and just tweaked it to serve Pops, but otherwise, it's the same (even the same key). But what Louis does on top of it....well, all due respect to Carlson's crew, but this is the work of a genius. Listen with me:



Over the opening descending minor-keyed vamp, Louis shouts "Hallelujah" over and over, setting something of an ominous mood. Like the Carlson version, Louis take the melody in sober fashion, hitting upon a two-note clarion call of sorts that he repeats a few times, eventually setting his focus directly on the second note--a concert A--which he works over and over, giving it different inflections each time. He continues the low-key playing throughout his bridge, getting in a passionate trademark lick before going low to end his spot. Just an excellent reading of a melody, something that's harder than it sounds.

The reeds come in to take the final eight-bars, Lester Boone's alto once again out front, but the overall section giving a hint of the Guy Lombardo sound that Louis loved so much. Speaking of Lombardo, Guy eventually recorded this song with his Royal Canadians for Brunswick on April 7, 1932, less than a month after Louis's version. I know we're skipping ahead, but if you're interested on how the actual Lombardo organization sounded on this number, check it out on YouTube:

Back to Pops. After the reed interlude, it's time for a masterful vocal by The Man. I actually like Dick Robertson's vocal on the Carlson version but wow, Louis was in another universe during this time. He's so soulful throughout this outing, which also has some trumpet-like moments: Louis holds the first titular "long" as he would hold a high note, and even bends it to a higher note that would sound perfectly natural on his trumpet; there's a little triplet twist on the word "spring" that comes from Louis's instrumental conception; after singing the next phrase all on one pitch, he goes up for the word "song" and slides down like a gliss, etc.

The bridge is interesting; compared to the vocals on the Carlson and Lombardo versions, Louis starts his phrases a little late, perhaps due to unfamiliarity with the lyric, but he pulls it off, gradually building his emotions to a crazy level as he shouts, "What good is a heart and what good is a cabin" as if he's trying to get the good lord (lawd?) to hear him directly. Can't picture Robertson pulling that one off...

After ending the bridge on another falling vocal gliss, Louis continues his dramatic recasting of the melody but singing the next lines on a single pitch, completely leaving the written notes behind (much as he did on Young and Lewis's "Dinah"....I wonder if they appreciated the liberties he took with their songs?). I love Louis's pronunciation--and emphasis--on the word "earth" as "oy-th" before the gorgeous way he sings, "but who am I to say you're wrong." When he gets to the final reading of the title, his passion is positively jumping out of the record. I've said this before and I'll say it again; yes, Louis wrote the book on jazz singing but there wouldn't be any soul/R&B singing without him either.

He ends the vocal with such a flourish, picked up by the urgent descending vamp again, that I almost feel my heart racing before he even picks up that little Selmer trumpet; what is about to happen is going to be special. And naturally, it is! A master of the entrance, Louis enters with the most swinging goddamned phrasing imaginable (sorry, I'm getting worked up now!). He enters so simply with two notes, places three quarter notes, pauses and hits another one. It could not be any more simper on paper but he places each one so perfectly, he is giving anyone with working hears and aural definition of swing. He follows that with space, always a good thing, but more preaching. Up to this point, he's been pretty mournful but then it's time to turn up the head.

And how does he do it? With the break to end all breaks. I know that I've been harsh on Gunther Schuller in the past, both on this blog and in my book. Let's face it: Schuller and I will never see eye-to-eye on the last 30 years of Armstrong's career. But when he's right, he's right. I can get myself into a fervor trying to describe this break but I'll let Schuller take the lead, as seen in "The Swing Era": "Again, there is a break which must be heard to [be] believed. It is virtually unnotatable, not only rhythmically but also because it features a little trick Louis had been working up over the last year of embellishing notes with tiny grace-note scoops from below. This effect is technically extremely difficult to manage, even in moderately paced passages. In the 'Lawd' break, Louis unleashes a veritable cascade of these flip-floppy scooped notes, in a clear attempt to break beyond the boundaries of even his own formidable technique and conception." To that, all I can say is yeah, man....

But even after that spellbinding break, Armstrong isn't done yet. He sounds like he knocked himself out, too, for a moment as his playing grows quieter for a few bars....until he shatters the proceedings with a stirring rip into the stratosphere. From there, he takes us to end with some more swinging quarter notes and blues-drenched playing, ending up where we started with that descending vamp. Armstrong fills in the gaps of the vamp until the band finally holds a chord, allowing Louis to play a sure-footed, beautiful cadenza ending up high. Bravo, Pops.

As great as this session is from a musical standpoint, it's also important from a historical one: it would be the last one Louis would make for OKeh records. After all the years of Hot Fives, Hot Sevens, Earl Hines, Carroll Dickerson, Hot Chocolates sessions, all those future standards, the Cotton Club band, etc. etc., the OKeh days were over. Behind the scenes, Louis was in the middle of a war for his contract between Johnny Collins and Tommy Rockwell. Armstrong was even held at gunpoint once, which made the black newspapers in January 1932. When Rockwell and the Immerman brothers, Connie and George, tried suing for Armstrong's services, a trial was held where "experts" representing Louis's side had to testify that Armstrong's talents were not "unique and extraordinary"!

It was getting too much for Louis. Before a trip to California, a headline ran in the "Chicago Defender" on April 9, "Louis Armstrong Goes Back to Cotton Club; May Retire." By the summer, "Time" magazine ran its first profile of Louis, making it public that OKeh was at war with Victor over Armstrong's services. Louis and Collins decided to get away from it all and head to London, which is where Louis was when he received the news about his recording contract. "Here's some more good news for ya," he wrote to Mezz Mezzrow on September 18. "The Victor Record Co., has just won the case from the Okeh Recor Co. and wired Mr. Collins that all's well and I can start on my new Victor contract which replaces the Rudy Vallee anytime. Gee, Gate, what a victory from our boy Rockwell. Looka heah, Looka heah. Now just watch those good royalties--dividends--shares--'n' everything else. Ha. Ha. And the contract pop's (MR. COLLINS) made with these people for me, why you've never heard of one like it before. And that includes the ole King of Jazz himself Paul Whiteman. Nice, eh?"

It was nice and yes, Louis's Victor recordings are pretty marvelous (though the 80th anniversary of the first sessions doesn't come until December so stay tuned for that). But what Louis did for OKeh between 1925 and 1932 is one of the great artist-and-label runs in music history. And as the music discussed in today's entry proves, Louis went out on top--with a high note, natch.

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