Time and time again on this blog, I find myself revisiting Louis Armstrong 1935-1947 big band period and making the argument that as great as the Decca recordings are from this period, there's many, many live performances from this era that make a compelling case for just how great this band was. Lately, at work, I've been spending more and more time with the collection of the late Gosta Hagglof, a big presence in the early days of this blog, and a man who opened my ears by including so many rarities on his chronological Ambassador CDs of the 1990s and 2000s.
While revisiting the Ambassadors and a lot of other gems from this period, I decided to open up my blog and post some of my favorite live Louis big band tracks. Many of these I've blogged about in the past, so some of my most ardent readers will be familiar with a lot of these choices. But whether you are or you aren't, you can't deny how great this band was (unless you're one of many jazz critics between the years 1935 and 2005 who spent an awful lot of time denying just how great this band was).
My original plan was one live track per year for 12 years but that would have required discipline, a concept I'm unfamiliar with. Thus, instead I've chosen my top 20, 10 from the 1930s and 10 from the 1940s. I thought about dumping them all here at once but with attention spans the way they are these days, some readers might begin to fade around 1941. Thus, let's start off with ten live gems today and finish it off in about a week. Sound good?
Louis returned the United States on January 24, 1935, his career at rock bottom. However, he sought out Joe Glaser and by the end of the year, he was fronting Luis Russell's orchestra and recording for Decca, an association that began on October 3 of that year. Two days later, Louis appeared on the "Shell Chateau Radio" on WEAF and performed two good old good ones to show he hadn't lost anything while he was in Europe for a year-and-a-half. Discographies list the backing band as a studio organization belonging to Victor Young, which is probably true. I wanted to keep the focus on Armstrong's actual big band but they probably didn't do much more than the Young band does here on this broadcast, so I'm going to share them anyway (they're also the only surviving live recordings from 1935.
1. "On the Sunny Side of the Street" was up first, which I originally blogged about here. Armstrong had been performing it live since the early 1930s but didn't get around to recording it until November 7, 1934 in Paris. This version is very similar, and though there's one or two fluffs, it's still as dramatic as ever.
2. "Ain't Misbehavin'" followed, again the subject of an earlier blog of mine. This is the first new version that survives after the original 1929 classic and you'll hear Armstrong's new, jumping approach to it. The ending knocked up out the first time I heard it because it features Armstrong showing off and gradually working his way higher and higher, backed only by drums, a trick he'd trot out for the fantastic version from the 1955 LP Satch Plays Fats. Here 'tis:
3. Now we get to hear Louis and Luis together, swinging out on "Dinah" from a "Norge Kitchen Committee Show," that Hagglof believed was from 1936 and Jos Willems believed was from early January 1937. Regardless of the date, it's a hot one! Louis originally waxed his classic interpretation of "Dinah" in 1930 and then perfected it in the immortal Danish film clip shot in October 1933. He never made another studio recording of the piece, but it stayed in the book for awhile in the 1930s. Part of the glory of the earlier versions was Louis's vocal transformation of the original lyric, but that's gone, instead replaced by four swinging instrumental choruses. Watch out for flying quotes!
4. From another "Norge Kitchen Committee" show, here's a similar short burst of "St. Louis Blues," only 90 seconds (after the brief theme). This time Louis steps aside for a wild trombone solo by Snub Mosely before the tempo gets even faster and Louis takes off for the stratosphere, the band in there, riffing away with him for some delicious call and response.
5. A little later in 1937, Louis took over hosting duties for Rudy Vallee's Fleischmann's Yeast Show,
a banner moment in his career at that point. When a new CD came out in 2008 featuring Armstrong's features from this show, I first went to down with the "Armstrong's-big-band-is-better-than-you-think" in this blog. I could have just shared this entire CD but instead I'll share two favorite arrangements by the great, unsung Chappie Willet. Here's his take on "I Got Rhythm," titled "Rhythm Jam" (while listening to this at the Armstrong Archives once with two young jazz musicians getting a Master's in jazz performance, they went crazy over Louis's bridge, saying everyone plays Rhythm Changes, but no one like that!).
6. And one more Willet arrangement from the Fleischmann's show, the fabulous "Prelude to a Stomp." This is another short one, but it cooks, propelled like all the Fleischmann's shows by the wonderful drumming of Paul Barbarin.
Armstrong’s favorite drummer, but this release makes a pretty strong case for Barbarin’s excellence in backing up Pops. Here’s “Prelude to a Stomp”:
7. "Swing That Music" was the title of Armstrong's 1936 autobiography and became one of his best-known songs of the period, as multiple versions survive between 1936 and 1941. Though I wanted to keep the focus on the Russell band, I also wanted to include something from the year 1938 and there's a frantic, exciting performance of the tune from a June 25, 1938 episode of "Saturday Night Swing Club" that's too much fun not to share. Pops sounds like Superman and the studio orchestra, conducted by Leith Stevens, sounds like they're hanging on for dear life!
8. By 1939, the Armstrong band was really percolating, especially with the addition of drummer Big Sid Catlett. On Catlett's first session, the group recorded "What Is This Thing Called Swing," a tremendously exciting record I blogged about here. But by the time the band got to perform it at Carnegie Hall on October 2, 1939, the tempo had gone through the roof! I don't know how they kept it together but it's exciting as hell and the extended solo by Catlett is a nice touch.
9. And finally, the most recent additions to the canon, courtesy of the Dutch magazine, "Doctor Jazz," come from a previously unknown Cotton Club broadcast from December 1939. You can read all about it here, but I must share two of the classics again now because not only is the band in great form, the fidelity is tremendous. Here, after a bit of "Sleepy Time," is "Sugar Foot Stomp," with solos by Louis, Bingie Madison J.C. Higginbotham and Rupert Cole, with Catlett sounding so beautiful in the rhythm section:
10. And finally, from the same Cotton Club broadcast, a dramatic version of "You're Just a No Account," featuring a completely different arrangement than the one Louis recorded for Decca just one week later. Drummer Hal Smith has already called this one of Louis's greatest solos and I won't argue!
So there's ten top choices featuring Louis and Luis Russell's Orchestra (most of the time), sounding like true Kings of the Swing Era. Any comments out there? Agreement? Disagreement? I welcome it all. I'm going to let these marinate for a bit and then will return with ten more live performances from 1940-1947....til then!