Saturday, March 30, 2013

Jazz: The Intimate Art - Louis Armstrong on "The Bell Telephone Hour"

Time for something new! In the nearly seven years I've kept this blog afloat, I've always tried different things: spinning the iTunes shuffle, celebrating anniversaries, the "Listening to the Book" series, "Anatomy of an All Stars Concert," "revisited" posts and who knows what else. And now, it's time for the "Franz Hoffman Video of the Week" (month? day? still not sure how many I'll crank out but it'll be worth it).

In case you missed it, last week I praised German jazz researcher Franz Hoffman to no end for his generously uploading rare Armstrong treasure upon rare Armstrong treasure on his YouTube channel. These were all videos that have never been on YouTube before, real favorites of mine that I could never really blog about because there was nothing to share. But now, since so many are up, I'd like to write blow-by-blow blogs on some of them, with all the relevant backstory and such.

This week, I'm starting with an episdode of NBC's long-running Bell Telephone Hour titled "Jazz: The Intimate Art" and providing a wonderfully intimate look at Louis onstage, offstage and in the recording studio. It originally aired on April 26, 1968 but was filmed in February of that year.

This was Louis's third time on The Bell Telephone Hour. The first two appearances are also highlights of Louis's television years: in 1960, he appeared solo, backed by a large orchestra and gospel quartet to do a four-song medley featuring a chilling "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child." In 1965, he returned with the All Stars in tow to do anything medley of five favorites, plus a version of "Hello, Dolly!" with the entire cast.

The 1968 episode was a different affair. This episode was a documentary following four major, but different figures of jazz: Louis, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Brubeck and Charles Lloyd. I have only seen the Louis segments (and that's all Franz has uploaded) so I can't vouch for the whole special but I'd imagine the other segments are worthwhile, too.

So where was Louis in February 1968, when this was filmed? To backtrack a little and rehash some stuff I covered in my "Anatomy of an All Stars Concert" series. In mid-1965, Louis had major dental surgery after a grueling tour of the Iron Curtain. When he went back to performing in the summer, his chops weren't 100% and he was tired. A bit of depression and weariness crept into his interviews as he fretted about being a "prisoner of this grind I'm in." He was booked solid from the summer of 1965 until the beginning of 1966.

But Joe Glaser listened (a bit). In 1966, there were no overseas tours, more days off than normal, plus a four-month summer engagement at Jones Beach in New York that meant Louis could live for a long stretch at his Corona, Queens home.

But in 1967, Louis continued to break down further. Two bouts with pneumonia caused him to miss long stretches of gigs from May-June and September into October. His trumpet playing grew erratic; he still had great nights but on many nights, he had to sing much more than play. A European tour in the summer of 1967 was particularly grueling.

By the end of 1967, though, Louis had stabilized a bit. He was playing well; he was feeling better after dropping some weight; he was recording frequently for Brunswick; Glaser continued peppering in the days off. Still, more than anything, he was tired. By September 1968, the weight loss and touring caught up with Pops and put him in intensive care--twice--keeping him off stage for nearly two years.

The Bell Telephone Hour catches Louis in the middle of this, still putting on a wonderful show onstage but unable to hide his tiredness in the interview segments. He had just done two days in San Remo, Italy and then had a few days off in New York before going back on the road to play at the Webster-Hall Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on February 9. This is where the Bell Telephone Hour filmed the performance clips. In them, you'll see Louis in great form backed by Tyree Glenn on trombone, Joe Muranyi on clarinet, Marty Napoleon on piano, Buddy Catlett on bass, Danny Barcelona on drums and Jewel Brown on second vocals on "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Nine days later, Louis and the All Stars had a rehearsal at Decca's 57th Street studios in New York City for a Kapp recording session that was to take place the next days. The Bell Telephone Hour didn't film the recording session but they did film the rehearsal, which, as you'll see, proved to be more interesting.

Probably sometime in between, the show caught up with Louis at his Corona, Queens home and filmed an interview with him in his den (it's possible they did this the next day, the day of the session, because at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, we have Jack Bradley photos of Louis wearing the same shirt at a 1968 recording session).

So that's the backstory. Sit back and enjoy the next 16 minutes and then I'll be back with some comments:

Wasn't that wonderful? Where to begin? I love Louis in the beginning, looking beat, but proud that you could identify his tone in five notes (he wasn't kidding!).

The All Stars footage is very strong; Joe Muranyi for one used to tell me how proud he was of it. Louis slowed down "The Saints" in the early 60s but in 1967, he picked it back up again. The band is romping and Louis sounds very strong on those two opening choruses. The "Hello, Dolly" excerpt at 7:03 is even better, especially Louis's lead playing in the ensemble.

But the juxtoposition between Louis onstage and off is striking. Anyone who has ever read Gary Giddins' Satchmo remembers the story of Louis appearing at Grinnel College, looking old and ashen backstage....and then Giddins watched him walk through the curtain and everything transformed; even his skin color brightened. Well, that Grinnel gig was October 28, 1967, about three months before this special so you can really see it here when "Dolly" fades into Louis at home, serious-faced, his head resting in his hand.

There's something about the serious Armstrong that always spooks those not accostumed to it. When the smile breaks out, it's like the sun shining again (esepcially when he demonstrates the kind of breaks he played with King Oliver), but those serious moments are very valuable. For decades, Louis spoke of King Oliver in nothing but reverent tones, focusing on Oliver being the King of New Orleans, his mentoring of Little Louis, the good times they had in Chicago, etc. But starting in 1965, as Louis began to fade, he began talking more about Oliver's downfall. First, he told Richard Meryman the story of his last run-in with a destitute Oliver, selling vegetables on the side of the road and sweeping up pool halls. Here, he's even more blunt, lamenting that Oliver died "a very pathetic man." Louis might have been tired and breaking down but he still had confidence in his music and was proud of his ability to still blow the horn and "stay before the public" with his hit records and sellout concerts at an age 15 years older than Oliver was when he died.

One of the ways Armstrong did this was with his records. After "Dolly," Armstrong went on recording "Dolly"-esque numbers in "Dolly"-type settings for the next four years. He hadn't recorded for Kapp since the original Hello, Dolly! album so his return there in February 1968 was probably met with the hope of capturing another hit record for the label. Unfortunately, the final session would drown in a sea of "Dolly-ness": banjo strumming away too loudly in the mix, Louis mentioning his name (pronounced "Lew-is") at least three times, etc. Also, Dick Jacobs was on hand, fresh from the Brunswick dates of late 1967. Jacobs's ultra-square commercial style--based on a small choir of voices and the leaden thump of an electric bass--was not right for Louis. Armstrong always did his best and occasionally hit a home run (like "I Will Wait for You," which I covered last week) but most of Armstrong's collaborations with Jacobs are sorry affairs.

But when he showed up to the rehearsal, he had "Rose" waiting for him and in one of the most striking segments of the Bell Telephone Hour special, Louis shows his displeasure with the song (Jacobs is the man with the glasses, holding the arrangement). For years, Armstrong critics had crucified record labels for forcing insipid material on the trumpeter, even when Louis always defended those choices, talking about how he could see the "story of a tune" such as "Blueberry Hill" or "Mack the Knife." The "Rose" sequence makes it clear that Louis called the shots. If he really didn't like a tune, he didn't hide those feelings. Apparently, he didn't care for "Hello, Dolly" but that was a favor for Joe Glaser so he did his best. But otherwise, if he didn't like it, he wasn't going to record it. (Also note that on the final session, Louis played no trumpet; but he has it at the rehearsal and--always a great sight readers--uses it as his way to learn the music.)

Fortunately, George Weiss--who wrote "What a Wonderful World"--was on hand with "Kinda Love Song" and after a quick run-through, Louis dubs it a better song. Unfortunately, there's no music! You can hear George Weiss offer to write an arrangement that evening. Weiss takes over the piano, plays the changes that only exist in his head, Louis sings and the All Stars feel their way. It's a great sequence, especially as everything comes together and Louis--with those horn-rimmed spectacles--really starts emoting with his vocal. "Kinda Love Song" is actually a very fine record; Weiss outfitted the final version with some special lyrics that made it a very autobiographical tune and a pretty touching record for this stage of Louis's career (alas, the flip side, "The Life of a Party" is a dud, though Louis does his best, as usual).

Dizzy's got the final word: "Without Louie Armstrong, I don't think there'd be any of us." I belive that this quote later got corrupted to the more oft-quoted, "No him, no me," which I've never seen directly attributed to Dizzy in any primary sources. Semantics aside, I couldn't agree more and in these 16+ minutes, the Bell Telephone Hour did a heroic job in illustrating how hard Louis was still working to entertain his fans, 55 years after getting sent to the Colored Waif's Home. We still appreciate that hard work to this day.

Thanks again to Franz Hoffman....more of these to hopefully folllow!

2 comments:

RICHIE said...

Loving the Hoffman videos you brought to our attention. This one really gives us a Louis we read about but rarely see. Your insight fills in the story and I look forward to what you have for us next. Thanks for sharing with us.

Lemonlymelon said...

This is great! It's striking to see Louis off the stage, all serious. Gives me chills. It really shows the depth oh his character. Thank you so much for sharing, this really is wonderful!


(also, i think you made a mistake in your post - ...lamenting that Louis died "a very pathetic man."