Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards
Recorded April 21, 1927
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Jimmy Blythe, piano; Jimmy Bertrand, washboard, cymbals
Originally released on Vocalion 1099/1100
Currently available on CD: On the excellent Frog CD, "Johnny Dodds and Jimmy Blythe 1926-1928."
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a JSP disc, "All Star Jazz Quartets"
This weekend, I had two Louis Armstrong anniversaries to choose from to commemorate: on April 22, 1927, Louis recorded with Johnny Dodds's Black Bottom Stompers (Johnny and Baby Dodds, Earl Hines, Barney Bigard, etc.) and waxed some classic material: "Weary Blues," "New Orleans Stomp," "Wild Man Blues" and "Melancholy."
But that's a fairly well known date that has been written about many times before. And three of the songs would be recorded by Louis's Hot Seven the following month and I plan on celebrating that series in just a few weeks (the fourth, "New Orleans Stomp," was already the subject of an old blog of mine).
So with that in mind, I've chosen another Vocalion date from the previous day that is much less known: Louis and Johnny Dodds recording as part of Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards.
Louis finished 1926 with a flurry of recordings for OKeh in November in that month. But he didn't return to record for that label until May of the following year. Though we focus so much on Armstrong, it should be noted that clarinetist Johnny Dodds was quite a popular musician himself, often recording under his own name in 1926 and 1927. On April 21 and 22, the Vocalion label wanted to stock up on some Dodds recordings and Dodds graciously brought along Armstrong to spice things up a bit.
This wasn't the first time Louis snuck away to Vocalion. On May 28, 1926, he recorded two sessions for the label, one with Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra and one with the Hot Five, renamed "Lil's Hot Shots." On those recordings, he didn't hide who he was in the least; he even took a vocal on "Georgia Bo-Bo"! But as the famous story goes, Louis was called into OKeh's offices and played those recordings. When asked who was on the trumpet, Armstrong supposedly replied, "I don't know....but I won't do it again!"
But a gig was a gig and Louis wasn't one to turn down any bread for a recording date. So he did the two Vocalion sessions in April but this time he didn't sing and more importantly, he kept some of his more identifiable, dramatic tendencies to a minimum.
Of course, he couldn't quite keep it all in on the Dodds Black Bottom Stompers date; the combination of Louis's playing, the repertoire and the caliber of sidemen has made that a classic date. But with Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards, Louis indeed scaled down the high notes and played in a consistently peppy, hot style that, while undoubtably him, might have fooled those not paying attention.
So we all know Louis and we all know Johnny Dodds. Who was Jimmy Bertrand, the leader of the session? Bertrand was a Chicago percussion legend and a member of Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra, making his mark on the aforementioned Vocalion session of 1926. Bertrand was a master showman and stick juggler and is mostly known today for his mentoring of two other master showmen and stick jugglers, Lionel Hampton and Big Sid Catlett. Full drum kits were still mostly taboo at the time of this session (that would change by the end of the year) but washboard groups were in. Bertrand's washboard playing is incredibly rhythmic and swinging; he really boots these sessions along in fine fashion.
And the fourth man was pianist Jimmy Blythe, known mainly for his accompaniment to many blues singers of the period, but also as a fine blues-based man whose "Jimmy's Blues" provided the inspiration for "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie." The sound of the washboard sometimes obscures his efforts but if you listen, you'll hear some energetic two-fisted work (though we could dream about what the session what have sounded like with Earl Hines or Teddy Weatherford).
As for the individual songs, I don't feel the need to get all note-by-note crazy. This is hot jazz evocative of the Chicago 1920s nightlife; it didn't change history but who cares? Louis is in a real King Oliver bag at times (especially all those three-quarter-notes-in-a-row phrases) but when he gets a break, it's the dazzling Louis we all know and Love from this period.
Up first is Roy Bergere's "Easy Come Easy Go Blues," which isn't a blues but does have a catchy melody that always gets stuck in my head:
That's followed by "The Blues Stampede," credited to Irving Mills and again, not a blues. I particularly love Louis's outing here, as it leads into the final joyous ensemble:
Next up, a tune by the young Fats Waller, "I'm Goin' Huntin'." This is the one track from this session that sometimes gets excerpted on compilations and with good reason, as it's the first "Satch Plays Fats," beating "Alligator Crawl" by a few weeks. (I have audio of a 1957 concert in Hinsdale, IL in which Louis was interviewed during the intermission. After the interview, a member of the audience comes up and requests "I'm Goin' Huntin'"! Louis graciously doesn't turn him down but says he'll see what he could do. Naturally, I'm sure none of the All Stars--or even Louis--knew the tune.)
And finally the very exciting, "If You Want to Be My Sugar Papa (You Gotta Be Sweet to Me)," with some great ensembles at the end (though you could hear Louis holding back a bit in that last chorus....he wanted to blow!):
So I hope you've enjoyed listening to these fun, unheralded numbers from one of the most heralded times of Louis Armstrong's life. That's all for now but make sure to come back at the end of the week for some exciting announcements!