Saturday, May 11, 2013

Dusky Stevedore: 80 Years of Louis's April 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 2:57
Recorded April 24, 1933
Written by Andy Razaf and J. C. Johnson
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; Charlie Beal, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Big Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Victor 24320
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

I know this series hasn't exactly been "11 posts in 11 days" as originally advertised, but I'm not going to quit now! (Though this will take longer than expected; next Monday is the 75th anniversary of "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" and that must be celebrated!) When we last left Pops, he had just followed the priceless "Laughin' Louie" with the more forgettable "Tomorrow Night (After Tonight)," a song that featured some sloppiness from the band. It was the fifth tune recorded that day and almost everything that survives from the April 24 session has an alternate take, so you know it was a long day (they were also high as a kite, if Budd Johnson's testimony is to be believed).

"Dusky Stevedore," the fifth and final song recorded that day, was kind of an odd choice. Louis had recorded plenty of numbers written by Andy Razaf an J. C. Johnson, including "Honey, Do!" in January 1933, but "Dusky Stevedore" was from 1928. Why revive it five years later? Don't know. I'm sure Louis knew Razaf and maybe Andy pitched it to him after "Honey, Do!" After all, Louis's Uncle Ike Myles was a stevedore so maybe Louis took a liking to the song's thematic content (that's the only time the words "thematic content" and "Dusky Stevedore" have been used in the same paragraph). The tune has a catchy melody but oh, those lyrics, all about the happy dusky stevedore, who just loves his job so much, he can't stop singing and dancing. Sure he is.

Fortunately, Louis was ready, ready, so help him, he was ready for this one, turning in quite an exciting performance. But before we dive in, let's here how it was done in 1928 courtesy of the magic of YouTube. There's plenty of versions to choose from so let's start with one by Nat Shilkret and His Orchestra:

I like that record! It's a pure 1920s dance band recording, with duet vocal and a spot of hot trumpet ripped straight from the Beiderbecke playbook. But keep the melody, the feel, everything in mind for when we get to Pops's version. And here's something similar, Irving Mills' Merry Makers with Harry Reser and Tommy Dorsey and a vocal by Tom Stacks, also from 1928:


Al Bernard sings the verse on his version, mentioning how happy the "dusky" is singing and toiling away in the hot "Dixie" sun. Goodness, I hope they paid Razaf a lot to write this one!


One step closer to Louis, here's one of my favorites, Charlie Johnson's Orchestra, recording as "Jackson and His Southern Stompers," from 1928 and featuring the likes of Leonard Davis and Sidney Deparis, trumpet, Jimmy Harrison trombone, Ben Whittet, Edgar Sampson and Benny Waters, reeds and George Stafford, drums. Great band!


And finally, the non-Louis version most jazz fans know, Frankie Trumbauer and His Orchestra with Bix Beiderbecke, recorded July 5, 1928. This is fun, relaxed version (love the "Swanee River" intro), with nice Bix and Tram, some booting bass sax work by Min Leibrook and a vocal quarter made up of Trumbauer, Dee Orr, Harry Barris and Marlin Hurt. I'm sure Louis knew this record!


With those out of the way, let's flash forward five years to hear what Louis did with "Dusky Stevedore."

The music sure changed a lot in a short period of time, huh? Of course, Louis's introductory cadenza is worth the price of admission alone; it's kind of the history of jazz (music?) in 13 seconds, setting the tempo with those repeated F's, gradually alternating it with C's, his phrasing swinging, before uncorking that remarkable double-timed run. He pauses, glisses to a high C, marches his way down, explores the lower register briefly and sets everybody in motion at a high intensity level. The rest of the record could have been three minutes of a tuned tympani playing "The Man on the Flying Trapeze," and I'd be satisfied.

As I've written so much about these Victor recordings, I keep coming back to the idea that this was a transitional period for Armstrong, moving away from the faster, more frantic playing of the 1920s and into the grander, more operatic style of the 1930s. You can hear it all in that 13-second cadenza; in facts, that double-timed run might be Armstrong's swan song to that kind of uptempo playing. Of course, later critics would point to such flashy things as examples of the brilliance of the young Armstrong, drawing the conclusion that since such playing ceased to exist after 1933, Armstrong became a lesser trumpeter. Balderdash, I say....but you know that. Anyway, Miles said, "You can't play anything on the horn that Louis didn't play, even modern," and that into to "Dusky Stevedore" is a good example of Louis playing anything and everything.

But from there, the band is off and running with the verse. I've mentioned this before but it's worth repeating: Bennie Moten (with Count Basie) had just recorded those seminal December 1932 tracks for Victor, paving the way for all future jazz rhythm sections. Though Armstrong's section on this particular session is a little outdated with the tuba and banjo-like guitar from McKendrick, the feel is still light and swinging and a world away from what we heard on those 1928 tracks, even the jazzier ons by Bix and Charlie Johnson.

But back to "Dusky Stevedore," the tempo is UP, which Louis was always comfortable with. After tossing off the bridge, listen to how he transforms the melody. As you heard in the 1928 versions, the melody is actually quite catchy, with the words "he's just a" pitched up high before going down low for "stevedore." Louis, knowing that at this tempo, the tricky melody might sound jumbled, instead chooses a more abstract representation, sticking with just the higher first part of the phrase and turning it almost into a riff tune. He turns on the heat a little more during the bridge and finally starts working out in the upper register in the final 8, holding that A over the F chords for a long while, almost giving it a bit of unfinished tension; you expect him to resolve it to the F, but nope, he holds that A for all it's worth (and then some).

Next, anytime you want to kill a chorus with some first class improvisation, just call on the Johnson brothers! Tenor man Budd kicks it off with half a chorus, with his driving, Hawkins-inspired horn; he wouldn't smooth it out a little more until he heard Lester Young. Keg Johnson swoops in for the bridge, always his own man, and of the shouting variety Louis loved (see Trummy Young and J.C. Higginbotham) before brother Budd closes the chorus.

Pianist Charlie Beal takes the transition and then Pops sings a chorus. Like his trumpet playing, he doesn't touch the high-and-low aspects of the melody, instead choosing to shout it out over a pitch or two, taking a more rhythmically creative approach in his behind-the-beat phrasing and the words he chooses to hold and emphasize.

So far, we're off and swinging, everyone sounding great and putting the flaws of "Tomorrow Night" behind them...until the 1:55 mark when once again, everything nearly falls apart. Louis finishes his vocal, trombonist Keg Johnson steps in to take a wild break to allow Pops to get his chops together. But listen for when Louis returns with one dramatic note. More than half the band realizes this is stop-time so they hit a chord and wait. But Beal forgets and keeps laying down an oom-pah stride backing. Budd Johnson, oblivious, starts riffing. The rhythm section, panicking, joins Beal for a couple of beats, but then they realize it's stop-time so they, in effect, stop time...leaving poor Budd Johnson out there, still playing his riff! He finally wakes up and they all fall in line with the stop-time. The whole thing lasts only five seconds but it's pretty embarrassing, and I say that as someone who usually defends Armstrong's much-maligned early-1930s bands.

Fortunately, it's all in the background and it's not enough to stop Pops. He jumps out with three F's, each one turning into a falling gliss, before some operatic high stuff. But then it's almost as if he realizes he has two choruses to tell his story, so he puts on the breaks, turns down the volume and finishes the stop-time interlude by playing low and soft. It's only momentary, as he kicks it second gear in the bridge, playing some repeated notes, pausing, then diving into a break the finds up around high C. The band catches him with more stop-time for the final eight and Louis responds with more of that double-timed phrasing we heard in the introduction. Like I said, it wouldn't be around for much longer so it's nice that "Dusky Stevedore" has a few helpings of it.

He then holds an F for drama's sake, building into the final shout chorus (play your riff now, Budd Johnson!). He has the motif set that he wants to deliver, a two-note phrase from F to a high A, but that first A is a little cracked and a little on the sharp side. He follows it up with more A's, hit right on the nose, then starts floating over the beat--or should I say the cymbal backbeat of one Big Sid Catlett, certainly not the last time Catlett's heavy two-and-four inspired Louis. Catlett varies his rhythms during the bridge, which also seems to drive Louis to some wonderful playing. The band swings like mad throughout (never mind the lyrical content, the song's rather basic changes are great for improvising--and swinging) and Louis takes his F-to-A motif a step high, closing out the last eight by going from A to high C, once again almost losing the first C, but regaining his footing to close it out in style.

"Dusky Stevedore" has some great Pops but at times, it sounds like his chops are just hanging on, especially with those two sharpish notes in the last chorus. Remember, Pops's chops were in dire shape throughout this period and this was the fifth song he recorded that day, recording at least two takes of almost everything! Thus, even with the stop-time botch, I think everyone agreed day was done and it was time to call it a day. Another great, productive Victor session was over but there wouldn't be time to rest; two days later, they were back at it again to record SIX more numbers.

I originally wanted to do everything at once but I'm not calling a time out on this series to focus on "When the Saints Go Marching On." See you back here for that one on Monday!

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