Friday, July 20, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: Alligator Crawl

Recorded May 10, 1927 
Track Time 3:13
Written by Fats Waller, Andy Razaf and Joe Davis
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8482
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes 

After numerous segues into other topics--"West End Blues," Louis's July 4 birthday, July 6 death date and the 5-year anniversary of this blog--I'm finally ready to go back to dissecting Louis's Hot Seven recordings, all of which were recorded 85 year ago. After tackling "Willie the Weeper" and "Wild Man Blues" blues on May 7, Louis rested on the 8th and then brought in his working band, Louis Armstrong and His Stompers, on May 9 to record three tunes, "Chicago Breakdown," "Sam Henry Blues" and "Poor Boy Blues." All three were rejected at the time (sacrilege!) and only "Chicago Breakdown" has surfaced. It's a wonderful record but I'll save that for another day.

The following day, May 10, Louis rounded up the Hot Seven again to record two more numbers. The second, "Potato Head Blues," is one of the great moments in the history of civilization; that'll be my next foray. But for now, I want to talk about the first song recorded on May 10, "Alligator Crawl."

This is a notable recording because it's the first time Louis recorded a Fats Waller composition under his own name. Previously, he recorded Waller's "Anybody Here Want to Try My Cabbage" and "Squeeze Me" with Maggie Jones and Eva Taylor respectively while in New York in the mid-20s. Louis obviously must have began enjoying Fats's company during his 13 months in the City with Fletcher Henderson from 1924-25. 

"Alligator Crawl" was originally titled "House Party Stomp" and "Charleston Stomp" before publisher Joe Davis gave it the final title, which Andy Razaf then wrote lyrics for (has anyone ever sung them? I'm drawing a blank.). In Bruce Bastin and Kip Lornell's biography of Joe Davis, "The Melody Man," they write, "The April 9, 1927 edition of 'Zit's Theatricaal News' carried the note that ['Alligator Crawl'] was the latest addition to the Triangle Family of 'Hot Tunes' and that Joe thinks that he will have another 'blues' hit to his credit.' 'The Metronome of the following week added that Davis 'claims this is a new rhythm in blues and will create a sensation among the orchestras.'"

Thus, with the song already getting some publicity in the press and with Louis being a friend of Fats's, "Alligator Crawl" was made the third Hot Seven number, recorded just 11 days before Waller's 23rd birthday (man, did he pack a lot of life into just 39 years). As a sidenote, Waller didn't get around to recording it until 1934 and when he did, he did it as a piano solo. This has nothing to do with Louis, but you can't go wrong with listening to Fats so let's hear how the composer treated it:

Always loved that one with Waller juxtaposing heavy boogie-woogie with his more typical light-as-a-feather technique.

But boogie-woogie wasn't on the scene yet when the Hot Seven tackled it, leaving them to treat it as a lowdown blues. Here's how it came out:

You know, I've always enjoyed "Alligator Crawl" but it sometimes seems to one of the lesser known Hot Seven performances as it's sandwiched between two out-and-out masterpieces. It might not have changed the shape of jazz to come but I still think it's pretty great. 

Louis opens it unaccompanied but "West End Blues" it ain't. He starts off confident but then seems to rush it a bit before calming down by setting the tempo with some quarter notes. Johnny Dodds then swoops in and plays the hell out of the blues for a chorus. The typical cliche when it comes to the clarinet is that it "moans"; well, I hate to trot that one but but my goodness did Dodds master the art of clarinet moaning. 

Louis then plays a stately pickup phrase as he and Honore Dutrey join in for an ensemble chorus of 12-bar blues. The interplay is great, with Dutrey playing some nice stuff in his upper register. I still don't hear the melody Fats played in his later solo but finally, after a brief arranged interlude, Louis heads into the song's better known "B" section. 

This is the highlight of the record, Louis backed by the rhythm section for 58 seconds of bliss. I know, 58 seconds sounds like so little time in this era of four-minute solos (minimum) but Louis does more in these 58 seconds than most musicians could do in 24 hours. 

For those who know the later Hot Seven record "Twelfth Street Rag" (which we'll get to....eventually), I hear the genesis of Louis's playing on that recording right here. He has the melody in front of him, he hints at it for a second and then he plays with it, taking the ascending four-note riff that makes up its basis, stretching it out, playing it three times instead of two, switching up the rhythm, really kind of turning it inside out. When he gets to the middle section, with those minor chords, you hear the dramatic side of him come out as he puffs out his chest and starts getting dramatic. He builds up to a high note that he holds (over descending chords from Lil's piano) and then tops himself, taking Fats's four-note riff, playing it high before shooting down to play it an octave lower before going back up to play with it some more. He continues floating across the bar lines until ending on a vintage 1927 break.

And notice the rhythm section behind him with Pete Briggs's tuba hitting the heavy "one" and "three" and Baby Dodds's cymbal crashing on "two" and "four." Nothing could be simpler but that's how Louis liked his rhythm sections, especially at tempos like this when he felt like he could take some extra chances. In just a few short years, tuba's would be passe and Louis would find himself fronting big bands but he still liked this feel, hence all those early 30s OKeh classics that feature saxophones riffing on one and three with drummers still whacking away at two and four. And over it all, Pops floating, teaching us what it means to be free.

After Louis's moment of glory, a change of pace as Johnny St. Cyr picks up his guitar for a sweet solo. Most think of St. Cyr as primarily a banjo player but on two of the Hot Seven's I've covered so far (the other being "Willie the Weeper"), he took terrific guitar solos. 

And then we're back to the blues, the entire ensemble punching out 12-bars of goodness, Louis riding on top, holding and shaking that high concert A for good measure before a little double timing. The ending is a tad abrupt; latter Hot Seven's and Hot Five's sometimes added cute arranged tags, but regardless, it's a fine ending to a great record.

But next up would be something for the ages: "Potato Head Blues." Til next time!

Friday, July 13, 2012

Five Year Anniversary!

Five years ago today, I finished a grueling summer day of painting houses for my father’s painting business, my summer job since high school and my permanent job since graduating with a Master’s degree from Rutgers in 2005. But this was an unusually exciting day, and not just because it was a Friday, the end of the week. I had the idea of starting this blog, one that would be devoted completely to Louis Armstrong’s music. I had been shopping around my book for a year and was getting soundly rejected at every turn so I figured it was time to try and make a name of myself. At 5:51 p.m., I made my first post, “Introduction to this Blog,” followed by my first real entry on “We’ll Be Together Again.”

It ended up being one of the most important decisions of my life.

As they say, the rest is history. It's been a joy doing this for the last five years. And the anniversaries have always been extra important to me because of what else was going on in my life. My first anniversary was less than one month away from my first appearance at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans and right after my first Armstrong lecture at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem . My second anniversary was right before I handed in my finished book manuscript to Pantheon (and I was also a new father!). By year three, I was the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Last year, I spent my fourth anniversary in a TV studio in Baltimore, celebrating the arrival of my book with a book tour through the east coast.

And today? Things keep getting more and more surreal (by that, I mean better). The book is now out in paperback and doing very well. I'm still the Archivist for the Armstrong House and I still pinch myself every time I show up for work. I'm now prepping for my FIFTH appearance at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans and--no joke--my 17th Armstrong lecture at the Jazz Museum in Harlem. 

And what an afternoon it will be. If you're anywhere near Harlem this Saturday, July 14, come out to the Jazz Museum because I'll be hosting a free panel from noon until 4 p.m. featuring four Pops-loving trumpeters: Bria Skonberg, Warren Vache, Jon Faddis and Joe Wilder! Don't worry, even if you're halfway around the world, there will be audio and I'll post it as soon as I can.

That's not the only thing I'm working on these days. Last summer, I helped Universal with their massive 10-CD boxed set, "Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz." There was a bonus disc featuring rare and unreleased material from Louis's studio sessions of the 1950s and 1960s. Well, next week Universal is offering a digital download featuring every scrap of music recorded on August 1, 1957, featuring Louis with the Oscar Peterson Trio and Louie Bellson. Take after take of "Makin' Whoopee," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Let's Do It" and "Willow Weep for Me," along with breakdowns, discussions and even a warm-up "Indiana." A day with Pops! I'll have more info when it's released.

Also, I've gotten into the producing side of the business and it's with great pride to announce that I'm co-producing a "Complete Satchmo at Symphony Hall" two-CD set with Harry Weinger that will be issued on Hip-O Select in October! It's going to be a dynamite set, the complete concert released for the first time, and it couldn't be done without Gosta Hagglof, my late friend and one of the first people to ever write me when I started this blog. Hagglof donated his entire collection to the Louis Armstrong House Museum and it was in there that I discovered his complete copy of the show. Kudos to Universal for realizing how important it was and for agreeing to issue it. I'll have more to post on it as we get closer, but it's been a fun process helping to get it released. I even wrote the liner notes, too.

Speaking of which, I was also recently contacted by Sony to write liner notes for another Armstrong boxed set, a 10-disc set featuring all of Louis's recordings as a leader of OKeh, Columbia and Victor from 1925-1933. That one should be out in October, as well. And I've hinted at another project I have my hands in that, if given the green light, will be a dream come true. But my lips are sealed until then....

None of these things would have happened if I didn't start the blog and I sure wouldn't have kept it going without the support, e-mails and comments from you, my dear readers. I'm sorry I don't get to post as regularly as in the old days but it's still a joy to be able to write anything I wand--and as much as I want!--about old Pops here whenever I can. So thanks for everything and here's to the next five years!

Friday, July 6, 2012

41 Years Ago

41 years ago this morning, Louis Armstrong passed away....or as David Ostwald likes to say, he "allegedly" passed away. Judging by the popularity of his music and the thousands of people that visit the Louis Armstrong House Museum each year, I'd say that Pops is in no danger of being forgotten.

I believe I've shared this before and I must share it again: here's how NBC News reported Armstrong's death on July 6, 1971, using "New Orleans Function" as the backdrop for a photo montage from Louis's life:

And this is something I've never shared, but it's quite good. After Louis died, Hearst Metrotone did a 12-minute special about Louis's death, hosted by Billy Taylor and including footage of the funeral, including words by Taylor and Fred Robbins and performances by Peggy Lee and Al Hibbler. More importantly, the footage you'll see from the end of Louis doing "Boy From New Orleans" is from the Waldorf Astoria in March 1971, Louis's last engagement! This is deep stuff:

July 6 is always a sad day but just listen to Louis's recorded legacy or watch him in action on YouTube and all will be right with the world. In fact, why don't you start with "West End Blues" again? On June 28, I re-posted an old exhaustive (and exhausting) blog I did on that seminal work but I didn't realize that most of the original links now led to nowhere. (Thanks for all the readers who wrote in to tell me!) I went in and fixed them all so you can now listen from scratch here: 84 Years of West End Blues.

Thanks everyone and thanks, Pops.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Birthday Pops! (You too, America!)

Today is the Fourth of July and that means a couple of things: fireworks, barbecues, American independence and Louis Armstrong. I know, I know, Louis was really born on August 4, 1901. That's fine...but there's just something about that July 4 date I, and many other Pops nuts, just can't give up. I think the big thing is that it was the date Louis himself celebrated for his entire lifetime. And have you ever seen Louis's draft card? There it is, a very unknown Louis in 1918 already claiming the July 4, 1900 date. Maybe he was already lying but something that's celebrated from 1918 to 1988 is hard to give up. And besides it's so damn perfect...what's more American than Louis Armstrong? The man owned the 20th century so he might as well have been born on July 4 of its first year.

I'm writing this at 8:38 in the morning here at the Louis Armstrong House Museum but there's already stuff jumping for dear old Pops. In fact, if you're in NY, come visit us because we're open and offering special birthday tours all day today with never-before-heard clips of Louis celebrating his big day. If you can't make it but, you're in the vicinity of the Internet (and to be reading this, I think that would be a given), head over to WKCR to listen to nonstop Pops until midnight tonight (Louis and Oscar Peterson is onright now..."What's New" is a gassuh!).

And if you're looking for something patriotic to play for the occasion, you can't miss with Louis's version of the "Star Spangled Banner." Here it is courtesy of YouTube: That performance comes from the Newport Jazz Festival, July 1, 1960...not quite July 4, but close enough. That entire concert is available to listen to for free atWolfgang's Vault so if you're bored at WKCR, head over there and listen one of my favorite Louis sets in glorious sound.

Of course, the most July-4th-themed song in the Pops canon is "Fireworks" so don't forget to listen to Louis and Earl Hines blast off on this Hot Five gem:

That'll do it for today but there's plenty of other Pops events going on. I'll be at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem every Tuesday this month, sharing treasures from my Pops collection, with a special afternoon session planned for July 14 at noon whereI'll be hosting a panel of trumpeters including Bria Skonberg, Warren Vache and Jon Faddis! Going to be a great time, guaranteed. Okay, friends, have a safe and happy fourth and don't forget to listen to nothing but Pops today (and every other day for that matter....).