Sunday, September 30, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: Twelfth Street Rag

Recorded May 11, 1927 
Track Time 3:09
Written by Euday L. Bowman
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Columbia 35663
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 

Ah, time for a real personal favorite of the Hot Sevens and one that I've used a bunch of times in public presentations....but also one that might never have been discovered without an intrepid young researcher named George Avakian. Yes, "Twelfth Street Rag" was one of the rare 1920s Louis Armstrong recordings that caused OKeh executives to listen, scratch their heads and say, "Nah."

Why? To me, "Twelfth Street Rag" is both too far ahead of its time from a creative perspective AND also a little too comedic and jokey for the serious-minded listeners out there. But if you like good comedy with your daring jazz, it's tough to beat. 

The actual song, composed by Euday L. Bowman and named after a street in Kansas City, was already 13 years old by the time Armstrong got to it. Thanks to YouTube, here's a 1914 piano roll to illustrate how "Twelfth Street Rag" originally sounded when it caught on with the public (you'll hear the rarely played introduction, too): 

So there it is, that repeated, jackhammer-like riff that still gets played when Marv Albert trots out his round-up of sports bloopers on Letterman. The song took off and became on the big ragtime numbers of the teens. In 1920, a trio of Wheeler Wedswort (c melody saxophone), George H. Green (xylophone) and Victor Arden (piano), recorded their own version for Victor, billed as an "All Star Trio":


I like that, one of those records that's not quite jazz, but the musicians are picking things up that were in the air at the time, each offering their own variations on the melody. Still, just a catchy piece of ragtime...until this 1923 recording by Ted Lewis. Lewis actually plays it slower than expected but his gaspipe clarinet (really, is there any other way to describe it?)--along with song's built-in cornball transitional phrases--leads a jokey atmosphere to the proceedings. Now, the song, nearly a decade old, sounds like a relic from another era and these musicians tease it a bit with a tongue-in-cheek arrangement. Listen for yourself:


But how were actual jazz bands performing the song in the 1920s? The best example is a hot recording by Bennie Moten from June 11, 1927...one month to the day after Armstrong recorded his take on it. I want to play Moten's first because obviously, he hadn't heard Louis's (no one would until 1940) so this is a good example of how the piece was treated in this period. It's actually a very creative arrangement with modulations and nice reed writing but there's something about that melody at this tempo that just can't get away from being a little corny (thanks to Todd Weeks for hipping me towards this recording many moons ago):

Ragtime! I like the heavy bouncy bottom of the Moten rhythm section but the combination of that and the syncopated melody sounds like it's from another planet when compared to what Louis was doing that same year (hell, listen to Moten just a few years later to hear the effect Armstrong had on his band, Kansas City and civilization).

So now, with all those different versions floating around inside your head, let's hear what happened when Louis and the Hot Seven took a crack at "Twelfth Street Rag" on May 11, 1927:

Wow....I say it again, what planet was Louis from? That first chorus is simply stunning. To take the hokiest, repetitive melody ever created and just rhythmically deconstruct it to turn it into something so daring, so tension-filled, so humorous, well, that's jazz (and that's Pops). But there's something else going on here: everyone's having a good time and playing in a pretty tongue-in-cheek style throughout. I really think that Louis and the other musicians felt this tune to be a little out-of-date so they decided to have some fun with it. I don't think it's quite an outright parody--Louis must have liked the main riff because he quoted it minutes earlier on "Weary Blues"--but it's close.

First, there's the tempo, slower than pretty much any other treatment of "Twelfth Street Rag," before or since. Next, they take the corny phrase used to launch into the closing riff in the sheet music and use it as an introduction, something many later versions have done. By playing it so dramatically--and passing the last part to the tuba--they create a kind of comic fanfare that lets listeners in on the joke early.

But then Louis starts playing and it's time to stop laughing (unless, you express awe through laughter, which I sometimes do). If you don't mind, I'm going to take a pass from trying to analyze this solo bar-by-bar; just listen and enjoy. He does everything with the beat that is humanly possible: playing in front of it, behind it, alongside of it, in between it, you name it. Strangely, he keeps the three notes that make up the melody front and center so you can always pick it up, even when he's flying around his horn. 

Remember, this was a period when Louis was already working on the art of perfecting his solos; the stop-time solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" was written down and copyrighted two years before he recorded it. But he's clearly going for himself on "Twelfth Street Rag" and its not without some sloppy moments: the double-timed break peters out and kind of goes nowhere and when he turns on the gas and jumps up an octave higher, some of the notes are a little thin. Whattaya gonna do, he's only human and besides, those moments last fractions of a second. In fact, Louis gets stronger as he goes on; the final series of bravura breaks are structured so beautifully and logically, you can't help but applaud when he's done (always awkward when I listen to this on the subway).

But then John Thomas elbows Armstrong out of the way with a gruff break and the joke starts to show again. Thomas's woozy solo, to me, definitely sounds like it's being played for laughs. I've read Thomas get knocked for this outing but I think he knew what he was doing by taking it down this road. Another playing of the transitional fanfare follows (Louis going way up), leading into Johnny Dodds's solo. Now pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong does her part by playing the melody riff under Dodds's playing. Dodds doesn't do anything overtly funny like Thomas but there's a certain stiffness at points that makes me wonder if he had a Ted Lewis/Boyd Senter in the back of his mind (Dodds detractors will say, "No, that's just Dodds being Dodds"). 

Anyway, Dodds wails on until he's finally joined by the other two horns for some ensemble playing, Louis still having rhythmic fun with the melody while Thomas shouts out single notes, sounding a bit like Kid Ory. Dodds gets the final breaks, which he turns into the blues, before everyone heads for the exit. But before they go, they play a short three-note arranged ending that lets you know that this wasn't ALL spontaneous, something had to be worked out in the studio before the red light went on. 

But what happened after the light went on wasn't enough to convince OKeh to release it. Even I'll admit, it's a strange little record, with sloppy moments, parody and a trumpet solo that would scared the hell out of most executives (and musicians) of the period. "Twelfth Street Rag" was rejected....but not destroyed! In 1940, 21-year-old George Avakian was given the job of a lifetime, asked by Columbia Records to comb through their vaults and find material for their first series of jazz reissue albums. Avakian came across a number of unreleased Hot Five's and Seven's, including "Twelfth Street Rag," and Columbia was smart enough to know what these meant, and had them released almost immediately on 78.

By the early 40s, "Twelfth Street Rag" was still being recorded by jazz artists, but almost always as a ridiculously fast-paced flagwaver, as can heard in versions by Lionel Hampton and Sidney Bechet, among others. In fact, Louis himself performed a similar version, live on the "Saturday Night Swing Club" on June 25, 1938, backed by Leith Stevens's studio orchestra. This is only 2:01 long but hold onto your chair, it's a hot one!

Good stuff. The tempo's up with the band taking two choruses up front, with spots for Walter Gross's piano and some nice drumming by Billy Gussak. Then Pops comes in for one chorus and kills it in his best late 1930s manner, floating across the beat, in full command of his horn and never rushing (though the band does grow a little more frantic as it goes on). You can hear a pleased Louis yell, "Yeah, man" at the end of his chorus before he turns it over to Stevens's group, which works up quite a head of steam in their three choruses; when they finally trot out the melody, it's actually pretty damn exciting instead of being corny. Louis gets off a few exciting phrases but he's buried in the mix, though you can hear his high note ending.

A fine little anomaly but I doubt Louis thought much about "Twelfth Street Rag" for the next decade. In fact, when "Esquire" asked him to comment on his 1920s records in 1951, when he got to "Twelfth Street Rag," Louis eluded the subject by telling a story about how he used to have all his records but friends would borrow them and never give them back so he hadn't heard that one in years (though he assumed--rightly--that it was "a living aspirin"). 

But in September 1948, Louis had to start thinking of "Twelfth Street Rag" again; the whole country was thinking about it. Trombonist Pee Wee Hunt, who played the Casa Loma Orchestra and shared vocals with Louis on his 1939 Decca records of "Rockin' Chair" and "Lazybones," scored a NUMBER ONE hit record with his treatment of "Twelfth Street Rag" in the fall of 1948. Number one. On a purposely corny version of a 34-year-old ragtime hit. The story has it that Hunt and his band, recording for Capitol, were feeling goofy and decided to record a completely satirical version of the song, playing in the best "old-timey" manner. This is what resulted:

A number one hit! You never know what's going to do it with the public, right? There was definitely a segment of the population who liked these throwback tongue-in-cheek numbers (ask Joe Darensbourg, who'd have a later unexpected hit with his gimmicky slap-tongue-in-cheek version of "Yellow Dog Blues"). It's all here on the Hunt recording: the introduction, silly trombone breaks, gaspipe clarinet, honky-tonk piano and even a doo-wacka-doo chorus seemingly left off a 1924 Fletcher Henderson recording. 

Add it all up and it was a hit record. It only took Pops a few months before he--or perhaps another of the All Stars--looked around and said, "Hey, we could do that!" A lot of the additions to the All Stars book came from Louis's recordings or movies but occasionally, they came from the hit parade: "Since I Fell for You," "The Hucklebuck," "Maybe You'll Be There," etc.  The first known Armstrong performance of "Twelfth Street Rag" comes from Cincinnati, OH on April 26, 1949....and I don't have it. (Don't worry, even if I did, what I have of these Cincinnati concerts from April 1949 borders on unlistenable so you wouldn't have been able to make out much.) A few months later, they played it during a broadcast from The Click in Philadelphia on August 4, 1949. Here's how it came out:

Great stuff. After Earl Hines's truncated intro, the All Stars front line of Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard refashion the melody in a very non-corny, 1949 way, swinging it and changing just enough of the phrasing to make it actually sound a little hip (the rhythm section of Hines, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole swing hard from the getgo, Cole getting in some nice fills). The highlights of the first chorus, though, undoubtably are Louis's scorching breaks; this tune was still built for him!  Hines plays a pretty “normal” solo (referencing "Lullaby in Rhythm" at the beginning), as does bassist Arvell Shaw, though Cole’s heavy drum accents towards the solo gets a little snicker. 

However, with Barney Bigard’s solo, we’re firmly in the land of parody as Bigard mews and moans with glee, throwing in some Larry Shield-ian barnyard sounds for good measure, with Louis urging him on to "get hot" and to "swing it, Barney." Hilarity ensues (you can hear it). Cole changes his drum patterns to almost circus drumming, with heavy bass drum accents on one and three.  Teagarden’s trombone opens up in the same corny manner and even includes a way low “Salt Peanuts”-type phrase and a snatch of "Rhapsody in Blue." Cole’s drumming continues in its over-the-top fashion until the closing ensemble when the group brings the song back up-to-date with a new, harmonized riff and an exciting drum break. Armstrong’s trumpet leads the way out and the audience begins applauding before the song is even over. Clearly the combination of parody and swinging jazz worked as the song would remain in the repertoire for years.

Needless to say, I have over 25 versions from 1949-1959 but most follow the same pattern so I'm just going to hit on some of the highpoints. In April 1950, just a few short months after the Click version, the All Stars entered Decca’s recording studio to record ten songs that had been polished to perfection during all the one-nighters. One of the songs chosen was “Twelfth Street Rag” and though it follows the same pattern as the live version discussed above, there are some changes, most notably a more relaxed medium tempo. Let's listen:


Armstrong, Teagarden and Bigard still play the melody together but 20 seconds in, Armstrong can’t resist tampering with it, eliminating two of the melody’s three main notes and emphasizing the one left over to great effect. Teagarden also plays more tailgate trombone in the opening ensemble and considering that wasn’t his forte, it’s like a prelude to the shenanigans that are about the follow. You can hear what playing a song regularly does to a band as Hines and Cole have some set-up interplay in the middle of the piano solo. Shaw’s bass solo, complete with double-stops, is terrific but again, the comedy doesn’t begin until the Barney Bigard show rolls into town as Bigard plays almost the same exact solo he had played on the 1949 live versions (though now someone in the band yells, “Get hot, Boin!"). He also throws in a break made up of George Lewis's "St. Phillip Street Breakdown," though played as stiffly and awkwardly as possible. Teagarden also reprises his solo though he now throws a different part of “Rhapsody in Blue” in for good measure. Again, the band swings the final chorus but now Shaw takes a vocal break: “Hot sausage and a cup of hot coffee!” It’s silly but Armstrong’s following trumpet is searing. Cole takes a trite break using only a cymbal but if you still didn’t know it was a parody, you’ll get the point at the very end when Pops says, “Them cats was really boppin’ that time, wasn’t they, folks?”

“Twelfth Street Rag” wasn’t performed every night but it did continue to crop up throughout the fifties. A January 1954 broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco shows that the routine hadn’t changed much though the entire band, except for Bigard, was different from the earlier versions. Let's listen to this one:


This one begins with brand new All Star Billy Kyle's piano introduction, as he seems to be searching for the right tempo until drummer Kenny John sets one up for him. Pops sounds wonderful in the opening ensemble (getting a shout of approval from bassist Milt Hinton during his first break) and the first chorus now ends with a new phrase played by Armstrong, Bigard and trombonist Trummy Young. This broadcast, available on the Storyville disc "Louis Armstrong and His All Stars," (and part of Storyville's "The Armstrong Box" that I wrote notes for last year) was one of Kyle’s first and you can hear him singing along with his solo, truly improvising until his solo would eventually become somewhat set (in his Armstrong discography, Jos Willems doesn’t believe Billy Kyle to be at the piano for this session but I do because he was at other Club Hangover broadcasts from that week. I just think Kyle was so new to the band that he was feeling his way and his solos didn’t sound like they would just a few months later). Besides Armstrong’s trumpet work, the highlight of the performance has to be Hinton’s slap-bass solo…it’s a shame he didn’t last longer in the All Stars. Bigard’s solo is still a comedic exercise, now complete with a quote from “Melancholy Baby.” At the end of his solo, Bigard doesn’t play his usual breaks but instead must break into a dance, judging by the absence of his playing and the shouts from the band and crowd as drummer Kenny John takes over. John whacks the cymbals for Trummy’s extroverted turn, which includes a quote from “Somebody Stole My Gal.” Take away John’s goofy drumming and this sounds like a typically shouting Young effort! In the final chorus, Bigard takes over for Shaw when it comes to the vocal break but instead of singing about sausage and coffee, Bigard shouts, “Ooh-shoo-be-doobie, ooh, ooh,” a little swipe at one of the big bop vocal numbers.

The longest and loosest version of “Twelfth Street” comes from the Crescendo Club performance of January 21, 1955 (on the C.D. boxed set "The California Concerts," now only available as a download). This was performed in the second set, two songs after Louis's bop parody on "The Whiffenpoof Song"; parodying bop, parodying Dixieland, Louis taking shots at all categories within minutes. Weighing in at 7:34, it's two full minutes longer than the versions we've already heard. Let's listen:


Armstrong introduces it as being from before his time, joking that Bigard played it with Buddy Bolden. The tempo had gone way down since 1949 and this struts in a nice medium groove. Arvell Shaw rejoined the band in 1954 and his bass propels the opening ensemble with great force. It’s been a year since the Club Hangover and Billy Kyle now has a set solo, complete with an opening phrase that inspires a glee club response from Armstrong, Bigard and Young. Drummer Barrett Deems sticks to the rims behind Kyle and you can hear a lot of happy conversation between Armstrong and the other members of the band, everyone obviously having a good time (Armstrong yells at Kyle, “Play it, Meade Lux Lewis!”). There are more laughs during Shaw’s solo—only those in attendance at the Crescendo Club that evening can know what was going down on stage. Bigard now debuts a new solo, though it’s still in the cornier-than-thou bag as his past ones. One of his phrases inspires Shaw to cry out, “Oh, he plays so sweet!” Bigard and Shaw even have a routine worked out on one of the breaks and Shaw plays the second break with a bowed bass—is Bigard dancing, is he miming playing to the bass? We’ll never know but the audience eats it up. Young’s next with his funky solo, Deems backing him up appropriately. Edward R. Murrow filmed the All Stars doing this number in Europe later in 1955 for "See It Now" and though it's no longer on YouTube, I can tell you that when Young would play this solo, he would be bent all the way over, snapping his fingers and dancing to his own solo, a hilarious visual to compliment to already fun music. The more relaxed tempo makes the closing ensemble swing more than ever and Shaw now takes the bop vocal break (clearing his throat before stepping up to the mic). After the break, Pops plays some of the finest horn he ever played on any version of “Twelfth Street.” The Murrow film also captured for posterity what Deems did during his final break, standing up and grabbing his hi-hat cymbals, banging them together, one in each hand, like a kid in a high school orchestra. Great to listen to but even greater to see.
By the end of 1955, the All Stars had a new clarinetist, Edmond Hall. The band embarked on a three-month tour of Europe, beginning in October. "Twelfth Street Rag" was a mainstay of this trip, always killing whenever it was played. In fact, three versions survive with encores that bring the total running time to nearly 9 minutes! Unfortunately, the sound quality isn't great on those and every one else plays exactly as you just heard except for Hall, who, unlike Bigard, plays a straight, typically funky Hall solo but stops at the end to break into a dance (something else captured in "See It Now"; there, he announces he's doing "the cut out" and demonstrates some excellent moves).

Upon returning to the states, George Avakian of Columbia Records called the All Stars into Columbia’s Los Angeles studio to record some more tracks to be released on the "Ambassador Satch" album, much of which was recorded in Amsterdam and Milan. Back in Los Angeles, Avakian had the All Stars record “All of Me” and “Twelfth Street Rag” and had fake applause dubbed in to pass them off as live (hope I'm not ruining anyone's fantasies here!). Avakian tried recorded the full in-concert arrangement in the studio but weighing in at nearly eight minutes, something had to be trimmed. Thus, Kyle and Shaw split a chorus and Hall and Young split a chorus, bringing the running time to a lean 4:59. I still meet Armstrong nuts who LOVE this performance. And with good reason....listen for yourself:

Yeah, that's the one I first fell in love with, I'll admit. It’s a fairly tight version and without an audience to entertain, there’s more playing and less dancing. Kyle’s solo still gets the vocal response from the front line and Shaw still does his vocal break but otherwise, there’s a lot of serious playing. Avakian's captured Armstrong's brilliant mid-50s sound like no one else; wow, what a tone! And how about Kyle's solo? Definitely have to give him some props for those Hines-inspired double-timed runs that made him a favorite of many young modernists (both Bud Powell and Dave Brubeck remarked about listening to Kyle when they were still learning the instrument). A very fine version from one of my all-time favorite Pops LPs.

"Ambassador Satch" was released in early 1956 and became a hit. "Twelfth Street Rag" obviously had a big following; at Newport that year, you can hear someone in the audience breathlessly shouting out for Pops to play it (alas, Louis had a short, single set and couldn't oblige). Interestingly, we know the All Stars continued to play it, judging by some reviews of the time, but no other live versions were captured, except portions from a South American tour in 1957.


But good news: the final surviving version of "Twelfth Street Rag" is a video! This comes from Italy, May 17, 1959 (not 1961 as the video says) and is terrific. Some of the cast has changed as Mort Herbert is now on bass, Peanuts Hucko is on clarinet and Danny Barcelona is on drums, but the routine is identical, proof that Louis had continued playing it for years, even though so few versions were captured. Grab some popcorn and dig this, always a favorite when I've shown it at Pops presentations, from Harlem to New Orleans:

We're a long way from the Hot Seven, but it's great to see, isn't it. As guessed, Louis is all business when he picks the trumpet up--no mugging or eye rolling--but he's having a ball the rest of the time, singing along with Kyle's solo opening, cracking up at Mort Herbert's solo (love Herbert playing the bass on his knee), encouraging the usually straight-faced Hucko during his partially one-handed outing, and just setting the mood with his smile, hand claps and little dances. And when the band swings out at the end, Danny Barcelona digging in on drums, how could you not stop your feet from patting? Louis sounds wonderful, going way up high in this, the last surviving performance before his heart attack in Spoleto, Italy one month later.

After the heart attack, Louis may or may not have continued performing "Twelfth Street Rag," but there are no surviving versions from the 1960s. Spoleto seemed to kill this number from the book, but I'm thankful to have so many wonderful live recordings, that hotter than hot 1938 radio broadcast and of course, our reason for gathering today, that 1927 "lost" masterpiece with a first chorus that is simply a knockout. Anytime you get Louis and "Twelfth Street Rag," you know you're going to get an unbeatable mixture of topnotch jazz AND comedy--Louis's live persona encapsulated in one song. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: Weary Blues

Recorded May 11, 1927 
Track Time 3:02
Written by Artie Matthews
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8519
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 


Time for a hot one! Louis Armstrong Hot Seven's are some of the finest recordings jazz has to offer but on the whole, the tempos are mostly on the medium-to-slow side. They opened with a bang with a romp on "Willie the Weeper" but then took it way down for "Wild Man Blues" and "Melancholy Blues." "Alligator Crawl" has more of a walking pace but isn't exactly a barn-burner. Louis's mastery on "Potato Head Blues" can cause one's blood pressure to rise but the tempo is more lightly rocking than blood pumping.


That all changes with "Weary Blues." As I've hopefully demonstrated in this series, everything recorded up to this point was fairly fresh for 1927, but "Weary Blues" is the first "good old good one," written by Artie Matthews and published in 1915. Unlike some of the other Hot Seven "blues-but-not-really-a-blues" numbers ("Potato Head," "Melancholy," etc.), the first strain of "Weary Blues" is very much a blues. The second part has its own set of chord changes, identical to another jazz standard, "Farewell Blues," (more on that in a minute). The second strain sometimes features "Shake it and break it and throw it against a wall" lyrics (first recorded, I believe, by Wingy Manone on his 1930 version), leading to some performances of "Weary Blues" to be dubbed "Shake It and Break It." Of course, there's another multi-strain piece floating around out there that was copyrighted "Shake It and Break It" by H. Qualli Clark and Fiscoe Louchiha in 1920 (Bechet recorded a phenomenal version) but that has no relation to the original "Weary Blues." Confused yet? Good.


(Okay, a little more confusion: a couple of years ago, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band recorded a version of "Shake It and Break It" featuring Andrew Bird that had some relation to the second "Weary Blues" strain but overall, a different melody and chord changes. Go figure.)


Yellow Nunez was the first jazz musician one to record "Weary Blues" in 1919 with the Louisiana Five (alas, not available on YouTube). It became a favorite of all the early New Orleans/Chicago bands including that perfect New Orleans/Chicago hybrid, the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. But it was through the NORK that the second strain of "Weary Blues" split off and became a standard all its own. While playing "Weary Blues" live, the band hit upon a train whistle motif. According to trombonist George Bruinies, "We were playing the 'Weary Blues' one night, ao all of a sudden Rapp [clarinetist Leon Rappolo] takes a chorus, just playing to himself, man. He didn't care nothing about the people, he's high....So they  made a number out of it, the 'Farewell Blues.'" At their first recording session on August 29, 1922, the NORK--recording under the name Friars Society Orchestra--waxed their version of "Farewell Blues," based on the chord changes of the second strain of "Weary Blues":


Hot stuff! Clearly a band that had been soaking in King Oliver's sounds at the Lincoln Gardens (Louis had just joined a few weeks before that session). "Farewell Blues" took off and a number of bands recorded it throughout the 20s--check YouTube for Isham Jones, Red Nichols, Roy Smeck and more--and beyond (the song seems to be a standard in bluegrass world, as well).

But the following year, the NORK hit up Gennett's recording studios and decided to romp on the actual "Weary Blues." Maybe they wanted to dig into the blues section and offer up some different solos without resorting to the train effects. Here's how it came out:


Another hot record but keep in mind a few things, notably George Brunies's trombone solo and Leon Roppolo's lower-register work during his outing. But even after that fine recording, "Weary Blues" seemed to take a backseat to "Farewell Blues" for the next few years.

That is, until the spring of 1927 when our hero recorded not one, but two renditions of Artie Matthews' original piece--no "Shake It and Break It," no "Farewell Blues," just the "Weary Blues" of 1915. The first version was recorded as the opener of the Johnny Dodds Black Bottom Stompers Vocalion session of April 22, 1922. I've already covered the Dodds versions of "Wild Man Blues" and "Melancholy" in separate entries since they were both tackled again by the Hot Seven (for completeness sake, if you want to read about the history of the fourth tune recorded that day, "New Orleans Stomp," here's the link to a 2008 blog I did on that one). Here's the Dodds version:


From the outset, the band's on fire, hitting those first three chords on the nose before letting Dodds loose. One great thing about the Vocalion session is brother Baby Dodds's drums are well recorded; you can hear his bass drum from the start and he really does push things along. Most bands repeat the opening breaks the second time through but after just one 12-bar-blues chorus, we're and off and running with the solos, first Dodd's urgent clarinet and Barney Bigard's relaxed tenor. 

After those two solos, the descending three notes comes back from the beginning, acting as a springboard for Pops  to take a break featuring some of his rhythmic licks (the clarion call opening repetition of two notes comes back many times, including the start of Lester Young's "Shoe Shine Boy" solo). Louis's lead is very strong throughout the next chorus.


Then it's time for a neat transition into the second strain as the band hits stop-time accents on two-and-four while Louis rides over them with some relaxed phrasing. More and more, when I read Armstrong's own comments about music, he tends to use the word "relaxed" for things he likes, including his own music. In 1969, when he made a tape for drummer Danny Barcelona of a BBC All Stars concert from July 2, 1968, he called it "the most relax thing we've ever done."  The word also comes up in a series of beautiful letters Louis wrote to Chris Clifton, which can be read at Michael Steinman's Jazz Lives blog.  No matter the tempo, Louis always sounded relaxed and that relaxation was the key to his swinging.


Anyway, after the transition, we're firmly in the second strain. Everyone piles on for a hot ensemble chorus (though it sounds like Bigard is just holding notes). Baby Dodds really pushes with that bass drum, which oddly gets a little quieter after a few bars; did someone in the control room flag him down to ease up a bit? After the ensemble, Dodds takes a solo, sticking to his low register, as Leon Rappolo did on that New Orleans Rhythm Kings version from 1923. Next, trombonist Roy Palmer goes one step further, taking a solo that quotes George Brunies' original outing verbatim at times. That NORK record really got around....


Palmer does sound a little old-fashioned and blatty, though, especially with what comes next, a perfectly flowing, elegant, swinging chorus by none other than Earl "Fatha" Hines. Hines is a two-handed monster, driven by Dodd's four-on-the-floor drumming behind him. Hines is followed by the only man around at the time who could do so, Pops. If you remember the story, Louis wasn't supposed to be recording for another company so he attempted to conceal his style by being a bit less explosive. Maybe it worked, maybe it didn't but it only takes a second to hear that tone and that phrasing and think, "Yep, it's Louis!" He sticks to one chorus, cramming it full of information, but mostly sticking in the middle register until holding a high note at the end for punctuation. The high note calls everyone and for the final ensemble chorus, he punches out a firm lead while everyone gets in on the act, Dodds making his presence felt as he did throughout the entire session (it was his name on these records, after all). A neat little arranged ending adds a little polish and shows that the fellows had worked this one through beforehand. A mighty fine record. 


But again, Louis gets the last word and I don't think I'm being biased when I say the Hot Seven version is preferable to the Dodds. Listen with me and you be the judge:


Louis's recording opens in the same fashion as the Dodds (and pretty much every other version) with the three opening notes leading into a wild break by Johnny and some fine ensemble interplay. On the Hot Seven records, Baby Dodds is more in the background than on the Vocalion discs, but the Hot Seven has the weighty Pete Briggs to holding things down on the bottom with his tuba, adding a nice drive to the proceedings (and besides, his 1, 2, 1-2-3 patterns are similar to Dodd's bass drum). One thing is different: the tempo is a little slower, still allowing the band to generate plenty of heat but overall, it's a little more, shall I say, relaxed....just the way Louis's liked it.

Louis's lead is definitely a little more enthusiastic than it was on the Dodds, but nothing crazy, as he still plays those three-repeated-quarter-notes frequently in his best Joe Oliver style. Then it's time to shine the spotlight on the rhythm section for a couple of choruses. I believe the first chorus is supposed to feature trading between Lil Hardin Armstrong's piano and Johnny St. Cyr's bass but Lil's a little lost in the mix so it's a good chance to admire St. Cyr's banjo work, both as accompanist and chordal-soloist. The next chorus features more trading, this time the front line horns chasing Briggs's tuba for a fun jaunt. 


With time for one more blues chorus, Louis finally announces his presence with a break that's positively in there. A little more jamming leads to the same stop-time transition we heard on the Dodds recording. In fact, Louis's line is almost identical to what he played two weeks earlier; yes, these men often worked on their solos and once they had something that worked, didn't bother to change it. Shhhh, don't tell the jazz purists....


At this point, the record becomes The Johnny Dodds Show and that's not a bad thing. Louis gives his clarinetist two full choruses to establish the second strain and Dodds does so completely in his chalumeau register, with that big fat tone of his shining through. Trombonist John Thomas opens on a break, holding a note for good measure before embarking on a solo over stop-time chords. It's not bad but it's a little stiff; trombonists seemed to have the hardest time adapting to Louis's relaxed swing. Miff Mole got it but he was already a virtuoso. It wasn't until Jack Teagarden and Jimmy Harrison came on the scene not long after that trombonists had new Armstrong-inspired models to emulate.


Then it's time for the main event, Louis, Louis, Louis. He takes a tricky, tension-filled ascending break before he lands up high, at which point, he really begins showing off, playing with a speedy triplet riff that seems partially based on "Twelfth Street Rag," the next tune to be recorded that day. Louis is simply light years ahead of the world, to my ears, with a solo like this. He's in the upper register, which already would have blown away the majority of trumpeters on the scene. And rhythmically, he marvelous, getting around his horn sublimely with those double-timed runs. After dazzling us for two-thirds of the solo, he plants his feet in the ground and plays some purely swinging phrases, still over that stop-time backbeat (my, my, my did he love two-and-four). 


Probably my favorite part of the entire solo is the ending when Louis works rhythmic wonders with one pitch, a concert F. At first he plays in and around the accents, never landing in the same place, until Baby Dodds catches him with his cymbals and the two join forces to create this feeling of tension that finally explodes when everyone re-enters to blow the outchorus, Dodds whipping those cymbal backbeats as he did on "Willie the Weeper," obviously inspiring Louis to great heights (literally). Briggs gets in a couple of double-timed licks, Louis gets bluesy, it's joy and euphoria the whole way out. They add a little trick ending, with Louis repeating the same two-note concert G-based phrase for six bars at the end, adding a couple of measures for good measure. On one of his private tapes made in 1951, Bobby Hackett sat with Louis, listening to these recordings. At the end of "Weary Blues," Hackett burst out in euphoria and laughter. "You like that huh?" asked Pops. How could you not?


Like most of the Hot Sevens, there's no signs that Louis ever played "Weary Blues" again in front of a recording device....until 30 years later, when he returned to the song for the landmark 4-LP project, "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography." This was recorded immediately after the half-baked version of "Potato Head Blues" I discussed 

here last month. I still say that version needed less of an arrangement by Bob Haggart, a few notches up in tempo and maybe another take to get everything square. But for proof that Louis and the All Stars weren't having a bad day that day, just listen to what happened next:

Wee, now that's a barn burner! I love that performance. I'm not going to argue if it's better or worse than the original but on it's own, it's pretty great. There's nothing backwards-looking about it; this is jazz of 1957. Some might miss the tuba on the bottom, the banjo, the two-beat feel, the 1927 tempo, etc. But music had changed--because of Louis--and Louis, in turn, had changed because of the music (does that make sense?). Armstrong pretty much invented the concept of swing and once the rest of the world--and it's rhythm sections--caught up with Louis, there was no sense in looking back. Louis loved 4/4 rhythm sections and whenever the All Stars had to approximate a two-beat band in the 50s and 60s, they--and Louis, to an extent--always sounded uncomfortable. So it's full steam ahead on the 1957 "Weary Blues," just as Louis wanted it. 

Everyone should know the routine by now, so there's really no surprises in the layout (though interestingly, the arrangement by Bob Haggart omits the original arranged touches such as the transitional interlude between the strains and the stop-time solos). As usual, the clarinet gets the early breaks, here taken by the one and only Edmond Hall, whose scorching breaks only make me think, "God DAMN, Edmond Hall!" 


Louis keeps it low key with his early lead, staying in the middle and making nice with front line partners Hall and Trummy Young. After two choruses of blues, the performance mimics the 1927 record by having a chorus of piano and banjo trading. Only this time, the banjo has been replaced by George Barnes's thoroughly 1957-ified electric guitar. I love Barnes but I always thought this was a bit of an odd addition. I've complained thousands of times about poor Barrett Deems being forced to play a closed hi-hat for sessions at a time, most probably because the original recordings didn't feature drums. Okay, that's fine if Haggart/Milt Gabler wanted to be purists about it...but then why add Barnes's electric guitar? Hmmmm. Anyway, Barnes's spiky lines blend well with Billy Kyle's spiky lines and all is well that ends well. 


For the next chorus, the front line trades with the rhythm section again, a la 1927, but instead of Pete Briggs's tuba, this time it's Barnes's chunky chords that provide the responses. The next chorus hands the breaks over to Pops and he responds by nailing his 1927 original before getting a little more animated with his ensemble work, ending with a perfect concluding phrase. I once had a Louis listening session with the late Joe Muranyi and Joe used to marvel--and get teary-eyed--about the "logic" of Louis's lines, how everything is so balanced and well, logical, and so perfectly thought out and executed. To which I say, amen.


Without the little stop-time interlude, the band plows ahead with the blowing strain, which is shared by the threesome of Hall, Barnes and Kyle, a neat touch. Hall keeps his ad-libs in the lower register, too, a nod to Dodds. 


But then, what's this? Louis! In the middle of the performance, Louis swarms in, opening his unexpected solo with a phrase that lands on a high Bb, higher than anything he played in 1927. He completely goes for himself, not even referencing anything he did 30 years earlier, but flowing beautifully and flexing his muscles in his best 1957 style. The highlight is when he squeezes the life out of a blue Ab, holding it and molding it into something special before going out on a high note. A great solo!


Trummy's up next, opening with a blast before a fairly relaxed outing by the usually blustery trombone master. Hall follows and again, starts off low before turning into Edmond Hall and gradually building higher and higher until he's barking and making a sounds that few other humans have ever produced, let alone clarinetists. This is followed by a great moment when Louis begins the closing ensemble with low Bb's on beats 1 and 3 and Hall responds with high Bb's on beats 2 and 4, which, if you're not paying attention, sounds like one instrument playing repeated Bb's octaves apart. 


We're now in the realm of my favorite All Stars front line of all time so I can say is close your eyes, board up the windows and let the fury wash over you. Louis plays like a human for the first chorus but they keep pounding into a second rideout (something this song naturally lends itself to) and that's when Louis heads upstairs and starts shooting the high Bb's out of his rocket launcher masquerading as a trumpet. They come one at a time, first held dramatically, then gradually stretching the beat until they come out straight quarter notes. On and on he goes, Messrs. Hall and Young in there with him all the way, creating such a head of a steam, it's entirely possible that the entire room was reduced to nothing but vapors by the conclusion. For the ending, they revisit the same repeated "trick" device, Louis hitting those same high G's as he did in 1927, rattling up to a high Bb to end on a (literal) high note. 


So Pops was still getting it done potently in 1957 but again, that's not to denigrate anything from 1927. While I was typing this, my iTunes kept running and the Hot Seven version came on. And damn, that really is a classic, classic record that belongs in a time capsule somewhere. So there's no use arguing about which one is better or lamenting that Louis never added it to his live repertoire. Three tremendous versions of "Weary Blues" exist with Louis at the helm and I don't know if global warming could stand the heat generated by any others. 


Next time, we'll cool it down and have our minds collectively blown with "Twelfth Street Rag." Til then!

Thursday, September 6, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: Melancholy Blues

Recorded May 11, 1927 
Track Time 3:05
Written by Marty Bloom and Walter Melrose
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8496
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 

[Note: This blog was written on Sunday, September 2, but when I went to upload my audio through Hipcast, nothing showed up. So I gave up and figured I'd try later in the week. Then I received an e-mail saying, "Um, why do you have five links to the audio of 'Melancholy' on your blog?" Oops! So I hope you enjoyed listening to them but here's the words that were supposed to go with it!]

When we last left our hero, he had just made music history with his momentous performance on "Potato Head Blues." That song concluded the quick May 10, 1927 Hot Seven session, but there wouldn't be much time to rest. One day later, the group was brought back to record three more numbers, this time with trombonist John Thomas replacing Honore Dutrey.

Two of the numbers were quite familiar to about half the members of the group as they were recorded at a Johnny Dodds Vocalion session that took place on April 22, just 19 days prior to this session. The first song was "Melancholy," or as it was labeled on Louis's record, "Melancholy Blues." It's pretty much a rip-off of "I Ain't Got Nobody," the Spencer Williams chestnut that was originally published in 1916 and would eventually be recorded in 1929 and 1959 (to read about those versions, here's an old blog I did on the subject).

Why update "I Ain't Got Nobody"? Well, why not, when there's money to be made. Armstrong's record credits the song to Marty Bloom, who had composed another Hot Seven number, "Willie the Weeper," and Walter Melrose, he of the Melrose Brother publishers, the team that worked with Jelly Roll Morton's catalog, and who recently added Louis's name to Morton's composition, "Wild Man Blues" (also recorded by the Hot Seven and the Dodds group in April 1927). A quick Google search shows that some sheet music adds pianist Elmer Schoebel's name to "Melancholy," which makes sense since Schoebel was also part of the Melrose fold, having helped Armstrong on his "50 Hot Choruses" and "125 Jazz Breaks" book projects. (One sheet online also gives a credit to Walter Donaldson, but I'm not so sure I buy that as Donaldson was pretty prolific and Bloom-Melrose-Schoebel were all associates.)

Anyway, Melrose had a new tune so it was time to push it on Chicago's top black jazz artists. Dodds had the first crack at it, surviving in two different takes.  Here's the first go:

Without any introduction, the record begins right as Armstrong hits the first note of the melody. He leads the ensemble through eight bars of the main strain with Dodds sounding prevalent in the mix (it was his record after all!). Dodds then takes the verse, set up by some smears from Roy Palmer's trombone (nice accents by brother Baby Dodds on the drums). Dodds holds his final note which is then picked up--with the exact same vibrato--by Barney Bigard's tenor saxophone. Bigard sticks to crooning the melody pretty much as written before Pops comes in--anticipated by a killer bass drum bomb by Dodds--for the bridge. He also sticks to the melody for a while--remember, he didn't want to play too much like himself on this session because he wasn't supposed to be recording for another label--but he eventually starts playing around a bit towards the end of the bridge, sounding loose and swinging. He catches himself and heads back to the melody for his final eight bars but his closing phrases are so, so relaxed and melodic. 

Armstrong barely has the trumpet out of his mouth when the sound of a piano tremolo tells us that that's none other than Earl "Fatha" Hines at the keyboard. Hines's tremolos are a nice touch but even he sticks pretty closely to the melody; perhaps Melrose was in the studio, telling them he wanted drilled in the public's heads (perhaps forgetting that Spencer Williams had already done that 11 years earlier). Hines does switch it up a bit in the turnarounds; on one of them, he plays an Armstrong lick, something Pops used towards the end of his solo just seconds earlier--trumpet-style piano from top to bottom!

A few "modern" 1920s whole tone-ish chords set up another spot for the leader's clarinet, who improvises a variation on the bridge, sounding a little stiff but still with that identifiable tone. Everyone swoops in for the final eight, Louis leading the way out on top of more fat accents by Dodds. Hope Louis's high note ending didn't give his identify away!

As I mentioned, two takes from the Dodds session survive. Here's number two:

The second take is almost identical to the first except it's a little looser--and sloppier--than the first take, which incidentally, was the issued one. The routine is identical; the differences are in some of the improvisations. Armstrong's solo follows the same pattern but he goes another way at the end, still nice and melodic but not as perfectly constructed as on the issued take (one low note gets a little choked). Hines, on the other, takes more chances, especially with his wild run in the middle of his spot--piano-style piano! Dodds actually eschews more improvising and sticks a little closer to the melody in the final bridge before Louis once again leads everyone up and out.

Dodd's "Melancholy" is a fine record, but I personally don't think it's one for the time capsule. Let's listen to the Hot Seven and see how it compares:

Now that's more like it! The Dodds record almost sounds like a society band in comparison to what the Hot Seven put down. Instead of every soloist repeating the melody for three minutes, the Hot Seven takes chances from the start, letting its leader set the pace.

Instead of opening with the melody, there's a short arranged introduction featuring the three brass instruments before Louis sets out on an exploration of the theme. He takes a full chorus up front, just with rhythm section backing. It's one of those moments where, after listening to the Dodds record, you think, "Oh, now I see why jazz started going in a soloist's direction." Armstrong, as he always did, keeps the melody within ear shot, but really, he's creating his own melody here, playing the written line slightly behind the beat at time, and filling some spaces with quick little flurries of notes. By the second eight, he's already playing variations on it. He handles the bridge in stop-time, tossing in a few double-timed phrases, though he seem to momentarily lose his footing midway through, a slight, unusual stiffness creeping in for a quick second. But he regains his equilibrium in no time to make the most of a repetitive motif before shooting for the stars in his final eight, going for--and hitting--a searing high note more dramatic than anything he played with Dodds. At the end, he seems to have the end of his solo on take 1 of the earlier performance on his mind, but--remembering he's Louis Armstrong, dammit--he shakes things up with an unexpected rip into the upper register, an aural exclamation point to a great solo.

Then it's time to go back to the verse, a hallmark of many 1920s recordings. Louis still takes control with Dodds playing some nice harmonized lines with him. But after a few bars, Louis leaves everyone in the dust with a wild, double-timed run. I don't know if it was planned or if everyone else was too scared to play anything, but clearly Louis was feeling his oats and running away with the thing. Order is restored in the second half of the verse as Armstrong and Dodds continue to play well together. 

John Thomas's first solo with the Hot Seven follows. He ain't bad but he lacks the punch of a Kid Ory or the singing quality of Honore Dutrey. He does have a grasp on the blues and it comes to the forefront in his outing, which earns this record's title of "Melancholy Blues." Actually, Dodds picks up on Thomas's lead and really gets bluesy in his bridge. Interestingly, the bridge is the exact same spot in the tune that he took in April but he sounds more passionate here than he did on his own record. He, too, momentarily battles a little hesitation towards the end, but in all, it's a pretty wailing eight bars. 

For the final rideout section, the ensemble gets together to blow it out, Louis sticking to the melody a little closer, while Baby Dodds's cymbal accents are a nice touch (too bad it seems like he wasn't allowed to bring his bass drum). An arranged ending adds a dash of polish to the proceedings, much like the intro, both possibly products of Lil Hardin Armstrong's mind. 

Louis's "Melancholy Blues" is a terrific record but admittedly, it doesn't seem to get the attention of some of the bigger and better known Hot Seven outings. What to you think about it? As always, I'd love to hear other opinions on the recordings. Next up, though, is a hot one, "Weary Blues." Til then!