Here's a question: will Louis Armstrong's big band ever get the respect it deserves?
For almost 80 years, the standard line has always been that Louis Armstrong's big band during the Swing Era (really Luis Russell's outfit) was never worth anything; the arrangements were sparse, the section work sloppy, the solos mediocre. BUT, it is always added, it never needed to be a good band like a Basie or Ellington organization. No, they were only there to be a framework for Louis's dazzling features and as far as that goes, they did their story. And that's that until Louis finally got rid of them and went back to small group roots with the All Stars. Phew! Disaster averted.
You know me by know; I never fully bought this. However, I could, at times, see where the critics were coming from: Bingie Madison's clarinet solos were always a chore (tune up, man!), some of the first arrangements from 1935 and early '36 are kind of square and performed a bit stiffly, some of the tune choices were dopey, etc. But I could never commit to this idea because there'd always be a J.C. Higginbotham solo lurking around the corner, or a Chappie Willet arrangement that swung and dazzled simultaneously. And really, why was Russell's band so vaunted in the late 20s, but so brutalized in the late 30s when many of the same men--Red Allen, Charlie Holmes, Higginbotham, Paul Barbarin, Pops Foster, etc.--were still present? I knew the Decca recordings only focused on Louis, but still, it's not like the rest of the band was falling apart behind him.
And then, in the late 2000s, things began to change. The late Gösta Hägglöf had always peppered his Ambassador series of Armstrong recordings with excellent live broadcasts but they always went unnoticed. Finally, he went in whole hog with the tremendous CD, Live at the Cotton Club, a collection of live material from the Cotton Club and from California, 1939-1943, that was simply marvelous. I blogged about a 1942 broadcast from the Casa Manana as possible Armstrong's all-time greatest radio appearance. Unfortunately, the CD got almost no distribution, which means it got almost no attention and disappeared under the radar (but for those in NY, we do have copies at the Louis Armstrong House Museum for sale).
Then, in 2008, the next bomb went off when the Armstrong House partnered with the Jazz Heritage Society and put out Armstrong's Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts, or at least Armstrong's features from that historic 1937 series of broadcasts. I wasn't working for the Armstrong House at the time, but that didn't stop me from writing this passionate blog, which was my first attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of the Russell-led Armstrong big band. Once again, I waited on the sidelines for a tremendous publicity blitz, akin to what Monk and Coltrane at Carnegie Hall and Bird and Diz at Town Hall had received a short time earlier. But Jazz Heritage Society had an odd system to purchase the CD at first--you had to be a member--and once again, under the radar they went. The CD is now on the brink of going out-of-print but its still available as an MP3 download.
So even with over 160 minutes of prime live material on the market, most fans ignored it. Then Mosaic Records came along with their Grammy-winning box of Decca 1935-1946 records, which DID get great reviews but mostly of the, "Gee-Louis-Armstrong-sure-did-some-great-stuff-after-the-Hot-Five" variety, but nothing really focused on the band behind Pops.
Well, here we go again! Last month, I got an e-mail from Loren Schoenberg, curious as to my opinions on Louis's December 11, 1939 Cotton Club broadcast. December 11, 1939? I checked my beaten copy of Jos Willems's discography, All of Me: nope, nothing there. Pray tell, Loren....what broadcast are you referring do?
That's when he told me that a Dutch magazine, Doctor Jazz, was celebrating its 50th anniversary with a special 2-CD set, Dinnertime for Hungry Collectors, featuring mostly unissued performances from 1926-1952. And on this set were three performances from Armstrong's big band from December 11, 1939, unknown by any members of my circle of friends/collectors, and not even hinted at in any discographies.
I hope all of my readers go out and purchase the set because, well, it's fantastic. But for now, I just have to share the Armstrong performances because they are a revelation--or they're not, if you've heard all the other live big band material I referenced above! But better than anything is the sound quality; never mind Pops, this is one of the best-sounded broadcasts I have ever heard from the entire Swing Era. Unreal quality, which comes in handy when the drummer is none other than Big Sid Catlett. If you need any more proof that Big Sid was the greatest of them all, give me ten minutes. Seriously, this is epic stuff, completely bridging New Orleans-to-Swing-to-Bop drumming. I LOVE Jo Jones but I don't know if there was anyone else doing what Sid was at this point, in combining the past and the future into this dynamic slice of the 1939 present.
Before we dig into the music, here is the personnel...not exactly an indifferent bunch of nobodies!
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums.
Now, let us begin. First off, we get a short instrumental theme of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" (remember, Louis did not start singing it regularly in live performances until 1952) followed by some jive from the announcer. And then we're off and swinging with "Sugar Foot Stomp"....don't say I didn't warn you about the gorgeous sound quality!
Am I right? Maybe I'm biased but I think that's a helluva band. If you have the "Fleischmann's" set, you already know that this arrangement of "Sugar Foot Stomp" had been in the book for at least two years (it is NOT the more laidback version Louis did with Jimmy Dorsey's band in 1936). Louis doesn't enter until a minute and 45 seconds have passed, allowing us to dig the band.
And there's plenty to dig. It's a fine arrangement (Chappie Willet? Joe Garland? Luis Russell?), with the reeds doing a nifty paraphrase of King Oliver's old melody in the first chorus (just dig that stomping team of Pops Foster and Catlett....they've got rhythm!). The second chorus features the trombones in the lead (Catlett accenting perfectly). A splash of trumpets and once again the reeds take it in the third chorus, Catlett growing looser and more interactive by the second. Then it's time for the solos, with Bingie Madison leading it off on tenor. He was a better tenor player than clarinet player but his phrasing is a little old-fashioned. Still, nobody gets hurt and the background riffs and rhythm section playing offer more than enough to savor.
Then watch out, it's Higgy time! He enters on a typically dazzling break and preaches from there, getting great support from the reeds. Higgy was simply a force of nature in that decade, wasn't he? Rupert Cole smartly picks up on Higgy's concluding phrase and uses it as the basis for his entrance break, before he gets the stop-time treatment that goes back to Oliver's 1923 recording of "Dippermouth Blues." He holds a note or two possibly in deference to Johnny Dodds's original outing, but really goes for himself, especially when he throws himself into a second chorus, Catlett's fat hi-hats slashing behind him.
A little interlude with a lot of Catlett prodding (the brass lick is reminiscent of the opening to "Rhythm Jam" so this might be a Chappie Willet arrangement after all...paging John Wriggle!) sets up Louis's entrance. And by God, if this isn't heaven, I don't want to know what is. Armstrong of course was by Oliver's side when the King made the "Dippermouth Blues" solo into something immortal in 1923. But though Oliver (deservedly) gets all the credit for it, Louis picked it up not long after and made it into a specialty of his own, recording it with Fletcher Henderson in 1925, then getting great reviews for playing it as one of his features with Erskine Tate in 1926. After a long cap, the Dorsey recording followed, then these late 30s broadcasts, so this was nothing new for Pops.
He enters by following the Oliver model, but whereas the King could only get backed by Baby Dodds's woodblock and tom-tom in 1923, Armstrong has the benefit of being pushed by Catlett's wonderous Chinese cymbal; what a sound! Armstrong floats through his three choruses, Catlett really getting intense as the second chorus turns into the third, Armstrong hitting and holding a high one. After the seminal "Oh, play that thing!' Armstrong surprises everyone by going WAY up in the stratosphere of his horn; in fact, he sounds like he surprises himself because he quickly heads back down, hitting a slight clam along the way, but it only last a second; listen to the power of the band as everyone hits that note on the nose on the fourth bar of the chorus. Everyone continues swinging away (oh, to be a dancer when this was the pop music of the day) until the end when Armstrong gears up for a high note ending, but decides to play it safe by darting down to a final Bb. Don't get me wrong, it's still a high note but on the Fleischmann's version, he ended by going way up to the F! Still, a tremendously exciting way to start a broadcast.
But what follows night might be the highlight of this too-short set: "You're Just a No Account." Pops recorded this Saul Chaplin-Sammy Kahn on December 18, 1939 and made a classic out of it, one that I got all worked up about in this blog of last year. Discographies showed that no live versions existed...until this one turned up, performed a week EARLIER than the Decca session! And in a completely different arrangement! Listen to this, let it soak in, but don't forget to listen to the Decca version either before or after to hear two totally different, yet wonderful, treatments of the same song within a single week. Here 'tis from the Cotton Club:
Music to move mountains by. A trombone blast and a Russell arpeggio set Louis up, first with a spoken admonishment to the song's protagonist followed by a real treat: the verse, something definitely not on the Decca version. I doubt the band had performing it for long as they were probably just trying to get a feel for it before the session. Thus, there's a little trepidation in finding a tempo for the verse, but it eventually settles in before the horns punch in their comments on Armstrong's commentary. Then we're into the main session, taken at a tempo slower than the Decca version. Catlett sticks to his snare drum though you can also feel his four-to-the-floor bass drum (like I said, a master of the past). The background parts are a little muddy but overall fine for Pops to deliver a jewel of a vocal (I love his aside, "Here's another thing!") and Catlett's cymbals make some effective comments on the "we've got machines to do the work for you" line.
After a short interlude, well, hold on to the roof, check your blood pressure, hide the women and children. Louis launches into his solo, with Catlett laying down the tightest support imaginable, keeping things simmering with a closed hi-hat, a relentless backbeat and some doubled-up bass drum accents; it's so damn simple but my goodness, does it work (and it's ever-so-slightly-funky, too). Louis starts way down low and is already into variations in his first four bars. He then plays a snatch of melody but then he's off and running, gliding around this rarely used register of his horn.
But midway through the second eight, he begins his climb and then it's goose pimple time. As he hits the midway point, Catlett plays a quick accent and the reeds start riffing, Armstrong building higher and higher with that crystal clear tone of his. But just as it appears the ending to all endings is on the way....he pulls the horn from his chops and gets back to singing, ending the performance with more of the vocal. I can't complain as, again, Louis's charmingly sings it to the close, the band getting bluesy behind him. "Niiiiice," Louis moans to the band upon it's conclusion and it is.
But now's the time to click that above link and listen to what happened seven days later. We can only imagine what happened but my take is Louis--or someone--realized that that trumpet solo was just too good to quit. Someone--or Louis--might have thought the tempo was too sluggish. Whatever the case, the Decca recording featuring no verse, a quicker tempo and as dramatic trumpet solos as they come, Armstrong hitting a series of repeated high notes at the end that never fails to give me the chills.
Still, the Cotton Club version gave me the chills, too. How lucky are we to now have two great, different versions of Louis performing this tune!
And finally--yes, finally (it's over so fast!)--something new and exciting, "Jammin'," a Sam Coslow tune already recorded by Tommy Dorsey in 1937 (thanks for the tip, Michael Steinman!). Here's Dorsey's version with a vocal by Edythe Wright:
That's a helluva record, with some great Max Kaminsky trumpet and the always marvelous Dave Tough on drums. It's yet another pop tune that Louis never recorded but still performed live (others on the Fleischmann's Yeast and Cotton Club CDs I mentioned earlier include "The Love Bug Will Bite You," "You Don't Know What Love Is" and "As Time Goes By"). Who knows how big the band book was at this time. Well, actually, at the Armstrong House, we have Louis's last band book from when he broke up the band in 1947 and we have about 300 arrangements, so this was a band that was ready to play almost anything at anytime.
Anyway, here's "Jammin'":
The tempo is less frantic than the Dorsey one, though it's still up. The groove allows Catlett to again dig in with his hi-hat, always a pleasure. After the arranged melody chorus, Higginbotham steps forward for another great episode (Catlett dropping some bombs behind him). The tune has interesting changes and Higgy's ready for them with some great double-timed phrases. Louis seemingly shouts, "We're going out," in the background, perhaps cutting someone else's solo because he knew the broadcast was about to end. That doesn't deter the Higgy-and-Catlett show, both men making things sweat until Louis enters.
And talk about sweating, Sid switches to the Chinese cymbal and again, it's euphoria. Louis is so, so relaxed, again, taking his time and starting fairly low (though Sid's fill midway through the first chorus....DAMN!). But just when everything's cooking, the announcer starts jabbering....no! The broadcast is coming to a close! Louis might be holding back in the background to let him get his announcement out, but maybe not, since it's still in that low-key, relaxed feel. A modulation sets Armstrong off and everything really comes together, the horns riffing, the rhythm section swingings its ass off, Pops floating above it all....and then, after some violent snare work by Big Sid, it all just fades out. It's our loss but I guess there's something romantic about the music leaving us dangling, the open-ended feeling reminding us that though CBS was signing off, this band would be swinging like this all night.
What a band! Can I get an amen? Please. Seriously, a simple "amen" would do. If I'm nuts, tell me I'm nuts. I'm not saying let's rewrite the history books and say that Louis Armstrong led the greatest big band in the history of the music; no, maybe it's not Duke or Basie. But it is damn good and any half-assed criticisms about it being indifferent or sloppy or filled with poor soloists must be ignored from here on out. This was a GREAT band and if you don't believe me, well, take an hour or three and listen to all these wonderful live broadcasts that have turned up in the last five years. And I'm sure more will turn up...it always does!
Thank you Louis, Luis, Big Sid, Higgy, Nick, Pops and all the rest...you guys made the Swing Era swing as much--or more--than any other unit on the scene. And thank you Doctor Jazz for making these treasures available for the first time ever! The wonders never cease.