Wednesday, January 30, 2013

High Society: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:25
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Porter Steele
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Yank Porter, drums
Originally released on Victor 24232
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Okay, after those slight cracks at the end of "Sittin' in the Dark," now's probably a good time for Louis to rest, maybe scat a bit or throw it over to Teddy Wilson and Budd Johnson for a while....

Nope! Instead, after four, medium-paced, foot tappers, Louis calls a flagwaver for his fifth song of the session. And it's not just any old song...well, actually it is a pretty old one, Porter Steele's march of 1901, "High Society." Unlike the rest of the session's newly minted pop tunes, this is "a good old good one" from Louis's New Orleans days. Later in 1901, Robert Recker did an arrangement of "High Society" with a tricky piccolo part that was adapted to the clarinet by early master of the music, Alphonse Picou. From that moment forward, the "Picou solo" became a test piece for all New Orleans clarinetists, up to this day over 100 years later (I heard Evan Christopher absolutely nail it in concert this past November....still sounds great!).

Louis was no stranger to the tune as he probably had to play it countless times in New Orleans. It was as a youngster that Sidney Bechet was knocked out by hearing Little Louie play the Picou solo on his cornet! In 1923, Armstrong took part in the first recording of "High Society" with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (and don't worry, one day, maybe later this year, I'll do a whole blog on Louis's association with this piece as it lasted until at least 1962).

But after Oliver's recording...nothing. I'm sure "High Society" has been recorded a thousand times by a thousand different traditional bands but no one grabbed it after Oliver until Louis's version ten years later. And after that, I don't see another version until Jelly Roll Morton's in 1939 with Bechet and Albert Nicholas. But after the floodgates, the New Orleans Revival was on!

There was no "New Orleans Revival" in 1933 so it's interesting that Armstrong chooses to look backwards at a time when the music was moving forward into the Swing Era. The little monologue he delivers at the start is also a neat touch, the first time Louis tells his listeners he's going to take them "all the way down to New Orleans," something that became a nightly part of his act in the All Stars era. Between stuff like that, Louis's autobiographies about his hometown and the countless stories he told in interviews about growing up there, it's safe to say that Louis loved reliving and retelling those years, especially with music. He had been recording this music for a decade but this is the first time, he specifically takes the listener on a nostalgia trip.

It's not the first time he revisited "High Society" with this Zilner Randolph arrangement (which Randolph copyrighted). One year earlier, Louis appeared in the Betty Boop cartoon, I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You, which started off with about two minutes of "High Society," including tenor saxophonist Al Washington taking the Picou chorus. I won't discuss the cartoon further here, but you can watch it if you'd like here:
As you can hear, there's nothing nostalgic about this music; this is tremendously exciting swing of a 1933 vintage. Listen along now to the Victor recording:
Louis's spoken introduction promises to give us an "idea of one of them street parades" but I doubt they marched to anything this fast in New Orleans!  (He also mentions this being a "Creole arrangement" but Randolph was born in Arkansas, went to school in Wisconsin and settled in Chicago so I don't believe there was much Creole blood in Zilner....)

Drummer Yank Porter plays the standard parade beat intro (with Louis doing the traditional two-note riff call-to-arms) but immediately, the horns enter with some exciting call and response (and real tricky reedwork) before another Louis gliss sets everybody off and swinging. Keg Johnson's trombone handles the melody over righteous responses from the reeds, Louis joining in on the break and making his presence felt in the second half of the first strain, topping out on a concert G.

After another tricky break, Louis continues playing the lead in the section. Now he's living in the upper register, starting with the high G he just played and working higher, eventually to that same concert Bb he just worked over on "Sittin' in the Dark," holding it for the sake of drama. In the next chorus, the reeds take the lead, but Louis answers them with more Herculean glisses to that same Bb, juxtaposing it with a lower A for the sake of music theory.

One more held high Bb and then Louis rejoins the section again, his sound absolutely penetrating. He's there for the interlude into the next strain, where he finally tops himself with a high concert C! Insanity.

Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
Fortunately for Louis, he gets a bit of a rest during the famous strain. Randolph takes the melody muted while the three reeds join forces to make Alphonse Picou proud. I've heard some writers and historians absolutely tear this band to shred; one friend of mine is fond of talking about how the band falls apart on this very version of "High Society" with Louis basically dragging them along for the ride. I'll admit, this isn't the most polished band in the world (especially when compared to the Bennie Moten outfit that made history for Victor the previous month). As the Betty Boop cartoon showed, the arrangement had been in the band for at least a year, though admittedly, only two musicians (Randolph and guitarist Mike McKendrick) were with the band for the Boop short. Though this was a fairly new band, I'm sure Louis was playing it live with them before the session. They don't embarrass themselves, at least not to my ears.

However, I will say that Randolph's small tone, even muted, is almost humorous compared to Pops's sound. Louis re-enters on the dramatic minor strain, doubling some notes for emphasis. He then settles down and plays the pure lead, holding those high notes...what a sound! As everyone buckles up for the rideout, Louis outdoes himself, alternating between high concert Bb's and C's with delirious abandon. I believe he might be channeling Joe Oliver here, as I once mentioned in an old blog on "Cake Walking Babies from Home." Louis used to love to talk about a time Oliver played "It's a Long Way to Tipperary"while marching in New Orleans and it caused a baseball game to break up so the players could run over and hear him. Every time he told the story, he sang the same two-note riff to simulate Oliver's playing, a pattern that later came back in Louis's outchoruses on "Cake Walking Babies" and this version of "High Society." Here's Louis telling that story in 1956:
Right? I doubt Oliver played those high Bb's and C's that Louis does here (never mind topping out with that freakish Eb!), but I could see Louis putting his mentor's phrasing in the back of his mind, especially with a number that's specifically being played to emulate the good old New Orleans days. Just a hunch. Whatever was going through his mind, bless him because that last chorus is ridiculous. To quote my friend Loren Schoenberg, it sounds like Louis is trying to break the microphone with those repeated C's. Like "Sittin' in the Dark," he ends on that high concert Eb again, though if you listen carefully, he loses it at the last fraction of a second. Only human, you know....right? Even I'm not sure anymore....

Tomorrow: The music is hot when Louis sings and plays "He's a Son of the South."


Dan said...

14 years later in Boston's Symphony Hall, Louis was to "lose" that high E-flat yet again at the end of "High Society". (See Satchmo at Symphony Hall) Never heard him lose any high F's or G's though!!

Anonymous said...

In some ways, Louis kept the sound of what NOLA music was to the nation. I hear these two 30's versions, and feel like that we are hearing what the Banner Band or Kid Howard's big band may have been playing live, esp that glimpse of the 1931 item from the Betty Boop's short. The 1933 recording is superb, can never get enough of it, but to hear my friend Al Washington play it on tenor on the earlier version,is a special thrill, even if I have to wade through the talking - is there a soundtrack without her monologue? Thanks in advance ... Yves