Monday, October 28, 2013

80 Years of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Harlem Band

I originally wrote the bulk of this blog back in 2008 for the 75th anniversary of Louis's 1933 Scandinavian tour, originally posting it on the specific date Louis filmed those three classic performances in Copenhagen. I'm a week late this year because I chose to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Louis's 1953 session with the Commanders first, but I still think the Scandinavian tour is worth celebrating. Also, at work, I recently finished cataloging the Gösta Hägglöf Collection for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, a monumental collection donated by my old friend and mentor. Needless to say, his collection was heavy on research from this tour so I've added some of that the proceedings. So sit back and relax and enjoy this trip back to Sweden and Denmark in the fall of 1933.


This is a historic week for Armstrong fans because it was at this time 80 years ago that Louis Armstrong and His Hot Harlem Band stepped in front of some movie cameras in Denmark to film three songs to be used in a Danish "Big Broadcast"-type film, Kobenhavn, Kalundborg og -? As far as I know, these clips weren't even discovered and shown to the public until Armstrong had already died. Since then, however, it seems that they have made their way into ever documentary made about the man, as well as documentaries about the trumpet and the history of jazz itself. Ken Burns named Armstrong the star of his mammoth documentary and though it was much maligned in jazz circles, I got a kick out of reactions of non-jazz fans, including my Rutgers students when I taught Jazz History, as they were always blown away by Armstrong's vivacious 1933 performances.

How can you not be? This is the earliest surviving footage of Armstrong performing live. No overdubbed, Hollywood sound. He's not standing in soap bubbles. He's not chasing cartoon characters. It's Louis Armstrong, born genius, as he presented himself night after night for year after year in arguably his prime period. I have never gotten tired of watching these performances. He leaps off the screen and grabs the viewer's attention, displaying uncanny camera savvy as he looks directly into the lens when he goes off on a scat excursion.

On a personal note, I like discussing these performances in relation to my work on Armstrong's later years, when he got crucified for forsaking "art" to become a showman. In his 2000 book, Blue: The Murder of Jazz, the late Eric Nisenson wrote a chapter titled, "Genius: The Triumph and Tragedy of Louis Armstrong," where he trots out every wrongheaded idea I've been fighting to reverse for years now. Here's a sample: "Looking at photographs and especially at the few films of the young Louis Armstrong is bracing. He bears little resemblance to the lovable Uncle Louis of most of his later career." Wrong! All you have to do is watch these 1933 clips. Isn't he smiling, delivering that wonderful monologue on "Tiger Rag"?" He even uses the phrase "good old good ones." And when I look at some of those early publicity photos, they light up just like every other photo Armstrong ever took in his life. It's not like Armstrong was exactly brooding and serious in those early photos or film appearances. I mean, he sang "Jeepers Creepers" to a horse, for Christ's sake!

Anyway, enough of that. How did Louis Armstrong end up in Denmark to make this film? For the full story, told in remarkable detail, please consult Gösta Hägglöf's notes to the first volume of Storyville's In Scandinavia series, an essential purchase for Armstrong nuts. (Four discs for under $30 on Amazon right now!) Gösta is the greatest and his work on this series is exemplary. He has every possible detail that one could wish for on the Scandinavia leg of this European tour. To quickly recap, Armstrong had already made one trip to Europe in July 1932. He returned in July 1933 for an extended stay (18 months in all) that included a series of Scandinavian concerts in October and November. Gösta's notes quote some illuminating news stories of the day that illustrate how famous he already was in this part of the world: "A Gigli or Horowitz arrive silently--but a Louis Armstrong is welcomed by the citizens of Copenhagen. Guards on both sides closed the hall of arrivals. It looked dangerous, since a couple of hundred people had climbed on top of the trains to get a glimpse of the black trumpeter."

Indeed, quoting from Hägglöf's notes to a 1983 LP of recordings from this tour, "On Thursday, the 19th of October 1933, Louis Armstrong arrived at the Central Station in Copenhagen, where he was greeted by 5,000 people, quite possibly the greatest turnout for him up to that time. There was almost complete chaos at the station and the musicians of the Erik Tuxen orchestra, who had come to salute their colleague were unable to play. A total of seven concerts were given at the Tivoli Concert Hall from the 20th to 23rd and Louis was given very good reviews and great press coverage, including some interviews."

Again, in later years, Armstrong was vilified for "playing the same show every night" but as I've taken great pains to prove in the past, that was never really true in the All Stars years. But how about when he was a dashing young "serious artist"? Well, judging by surviving programs and contemporary reviews, Armstrong performed the same exact show each night in Copenhagen! The first half consisted of "Them There Eyes," "I've Got the World on a String," "Dinah," "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "St. Louis Blues." Then after intermission, Armstrong played "That's My Home," "I Cover the Waterfront," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "Rockin' Chair," "Chinatown" and "Tiger Rag" in the second half, coming back for encores of "You Rascal You" and "Hobo, You Can't Ride This Train." There were no attempts to do any Hot Five or Seven material, which the critics would begin clamoring for a few short years later. No, Armstrong stuck to pop songs and records he had made between 1929 and 1933, as well as two songs he hadn't even recorded yet, "On the Sunny Side of the Street" and "I Cover the Waterfront."

Even with the sameness of each show, the Danish press was enthusiastic about Armstrong's concerts. One review stated, "Louis Armstrong plays better trumpet than any others I have heard. He plays devilishly, with solid knowledge and wild ideas. He is not the kind of trumpeter that 'musts' his trumpet or gets a sobbing, crying, singing or lamenting sound out of it. No, he plays for life, full of strength on the highest notes possible. It pierces like a steam whistle or razor edge, but it is brilliant." Another review said, "The musical battle was over, and when the audience had stomped and cried the concert hall into pieces, Louis came forward in a bathrobe and a handkerchief and shook his hands like a boxer--and it was over. But there was applause for another ten minutes. Hot! Very hot!"

(Interestingly, I have footage of Armstrong in Prague and East Berlin in 1965, receiving such prolonged ovations at the end of the concerts that--you guessed it--he had to take his curtain calls in a bathrobe! Old habits die hard, I suppose...)

While in the middle of the series of concerts at Tivoli Concert Hall, Armstrong and his group filmed their scenes for Kobenhavn, Kalundborg og -?. Armstrong didn't do any acting, instead simply performing as if he was at a live concert. He introduces himself ("Mr. Armstrong") and each song and takes off from there. Got your popcorn ready? Let's have a little filmfest! Up first, "I Cover the Waterfront" or as Armstrong introduces it, "I Cover the Waterfront, I Cover the Waterfront, I Like It.": There's so much I love about that clip. I love how Armstrong lurches toward the band in tempo with the introduction, the haunches over and dances a bit, feeling the music in every square inch of his body. Drummer Oliver Tines lays down some powerful press rolls before a few cymbal strokes herald the beginning of Armstrong's vocal (and a switch to brushes). This has long been one of my all-time favorite vocals; in fact, I think it's one of the greatest jazz vocals of all time. He gives the melody a decent amount of respect in the first chorus though it's tailor-made for the little scat episodes in between the eight-bar sections, and the beautifully swinging "Oh babe" before the bridge. I always like to point out Armstrong's unjustly ignored vocal range. Listen to him hit those low notes in the bridge, his head looking like it's about to implode and he digs deep, editing out certain words as he goes.

After one chorus, Armstrong dramatically looks away with his eyes closed, before turning back towards the microphone and giving the band a little wave with his left hand, signaling that he's about to take another chorus. I'm sure the band was well aware of this but it makes for good theater. This second chorus is the one that knocks me out every time. For those looking for examples of Armstrong's singing mirroring his trumpet playing, look no further. He literally continues singing every one of Edward Heyman's lyrics, though he makes mincemeat out of Johnny Green's melody. It swings so damn hard, it's ridiculous. He rushes the beat with "watching the sea, babe," and tosses off "one that I love" in a descending run that is ripped straight out of his trumpet vocabulary, much like the ensuing scat line. And just look at the posing in between lines! (And I don't mean posing in a the negative sense of the word; he's theatrically posing!) He's so in command, so confident in his performing ability and so endlessly entertaining. And when he gets to the bridge, he's simply on fire. Drummer Tines amps up the volume on his cymbal backbeat and Pops rides it all the way, swaying to the beat and swinging til the end of time, physically and musically. Just listen to the reeds playing the melody exactly as written, then listen to what Pops is doing to it. No comparison!

After another hysterical little pose, Armstrong finishes his remarkable vocal, grunts to himself in satisfaction, then races backwards, putting his chops in his horn. He begins stalking the stage playfully, playing the arrangement along with the band until he's situated dead center, at which point he stands upright and holds his horn up gallantly. And remember the descending line he sang on "one that I love." He plays the exact same phrase at the exact same time with his trumpet. The arrangement reminds me of something Zilner Randolph would have written as it's penned exactly in the language of Armstrong, which is why he sounds so comfortable playing it straight. Armstrong finally takes off on his own during the bridge over more cymbal backbeats (Tines using a mute). After more arranged playing, Armstrong settles into one of his patented slow endings, his tone positively singing those high concert C's. He ends on a concert Ab, glissing down a half-step to a G and back up to the Ab for good measure. Doesn't get much better...

...until the next performance, "Dinah," the clip that made Armstrong the talk of the Burns series, as well as one with almost 300,000 total views on YouTube. Here 'tis:

Once again, Armstrong introduces himself and the tune ("Dinah, Dinah") as one of them "good ol' good ones," a phrase for which he was crucified for by the critics in his later years. Armstrong originally recorded a classic version of the tune in 1930 before remaking it as one of the "Medley of Armstrong Hits" for Victor in 1932. Now, a year later, he has an even better grip on it. The reeds sound very good, especially on the bridge and the rhythm section swings nicely in the style of the day. Armstrong is digging it, that's for sure, facing the band, bent over with back spasms on the second beat of every measure (get that man to a chiropracter!). Every time I see that Dizzy Gillespie big band short from the 1940s, I'm reminded of this clip as Diz did similar things in front of his group.

Soon enough, Pops starts singing and the world starts changing. "Dinah" had been around for a while but Armstrong's girl sounds nothing like the "Dinah" most people knew at the time. He completely rewrites the melody, turning the titular word into a two-note descending motive, where, as written, it's supposed to be ascending. On the bridge, like "Waterfront," Armstrong can't help himself, bouncing uncontrollably before finally opening his eyes to look into the camera and deliver that knockout of a scat break, guaranteed to make audiences of all ages laugh every time. And they don't laugh because it's out-and-out funny, like an Oliver Hardy pratfall. It's almost a completely spontaneous, uncontrollable giggle to acknowledge that this man is a genius and his genius is so incomprehensible, all one can really do is laugh in awe. At least that's how I read it...

But Pops isn't through, swinging into another trumpet-like second chorus, holding long notes at first before taking the two syllables "Dine" and "uh" on a fantastic trip up and down an imaginary staircase. Once again, the bridge is smoking and Armstrong delivers the last eight bars with the posture of a crazy uncle trying to make his nephew laugh (I speak from experience). Then up steps poor Charlie Johnson, who actually takes a nice little punchy solo but is still considered "poor" because he has the unenviable job of playing a trumpet solo in front of Louis Armstrong. Still, Pops seems to like it, as he does the hot alto solo by Peter DuConge of Paris. There's an odd edit during the alto solo as there originally appeared a few seconds of the actual film. But it's almost impossible to find a version with those seconds inserted as they're almost edited out of every clip.

But now it's time for Pops. I love the little hop he does, almost like a boxer, getting ready for battle as he puts the trumpet to his lips. Armstrong's first two notes are perfectly selected and perfectly placed, as if he's announcing, "I'm here!" He takes off in a relaxed, yet authoritative manner, though the camera gets a little too close and cuts off the top of his head. The band riffs furiously behind Armstrong, stopping for Armstrong's dramatic gliss break in the first bridge. As Armstrong heads into his second helping, holding a high Ab for good measure, drummer Tines switches from snare rolls to his cymbal, whipping it enthusiastically (hard to hear in this clip, but it magically comes alive on the Storyville disc). Armstrong powers into his second chorus with an ingenious quote of "Exactly Like You," playing it straight at first before stretching it out into a highly rhythmic, almost weightless example at how to keep your cool around so much heat. In the bridge, Armstrong digs out his favorite "Hootchy Kootchy Dance" quote (which has now been appropriated in Ke$ha's "Take It Off," as is frequently pointed out by school kids watching this performance at the Louis Armstrong House Museum every day...ugh) before another delicious break that is emphasized by a perfect hit by the drummer. Armstrong builds the whole solo up to the high C that ends this legendary performance, perhaps the greatest three minutes of Armstrong ever captured on film.

Still, it's not like the next three minutes are too shabby. It's Louis Armstrong playing "Tiger Rag," always a cause for celebration. Here's the clip:

Note the introduction: "one of those good old swing numbers!" Two years before The Swing Era supposedly started, Louis already had his "old swing numbers" down to a science. The man invented everything.

Armstrong stomps it off at a typically ludicrous tempo (some New Orleans cats like Baby Dodds practically gave lectures about the correct, medium tempo for this tune, but Armstrong always liked it up, up, up) before DuConge takes off with some incredibly hot clarinet playing, hotter than some of the All Stars in Armstrong's later bands (Joe Darensbourg, I'm looking at you). Armstrong then delivers one of his endearing monologues, alerting the audience that it's going to take a few choruses to catch this tiger and that he wants them to count along with him. With a cavalier-like "I'm ready," Armstrong gets his "Selmer trumpet" ready for takeoff (a gift from King George V of England, it now sits on display in the same room as the aforementioned school groups who watch "Dinah" at the Armstrong House). Armstrong originally recorded this at the same 1930 session where he debuted "Dinah," a big day for trumpet show-pieces. After a couple of years of playing it, Armstrong worked out a routine that was so tight, he went back into the studio and remade it for OKeh as the "New Tiger Rag" in March 1932. Almost all of it is worked out, but it never fails to excite the hell out of me. It's also a quote-fest. After testing the waters at the beginning of the first chorus by simply repeating a note every two bars, Armstrong starts rhapsodizing by the end, setting up his first quote, "Gypsy Love Song," at the start of his second go-around. As a break, he plays one of his standard licks on this tune that I can't quite identify, before beginning his third chorus with a quote from the "National Emblem March." Clearly, Pops had his ingredients lined up, but comparing it to other versions from the period, it seems that he never put them together in the same combination two times in a row.

After the quotes, Armstrong takes off on an endurance contest, holding high notes for incredible lengths of time before doing rhythmical intricate things with an Ab, a la "Swing That Music" from a few years later before making that high C at the end. An incredible feat of strength, especially since he was in the middle of playing so many shows at the Tivoli, including two that night!

(Sidebar: Joe Glaser wasn't in the picture yet but when he took over in 1935, he later claimed that Armstrong was killing himself for the sake of musicians, telling him to sing more and make faces. Glaser claimed that Armstrong listened and became a bigger star. But I don't know, watching these clips, Armstrong was sure singing the hell out of these songs and making plenty of faces. Also, "Dinah" and "Tiger Rag" lasted as showpieces well into the late 1930s, with "Tiger Rag" becoming a favorite of the All Stars. I think Glaser gave himself a little too much credit for the non-transformation of Armstrong.)

So that's the end of the the 1933 Louis Armstrong film festival but it wasn't the end of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Harlem band. Three days later, the band headed to Stockholm where once again, he was greeted by a huge number of fans. Armstrong's concerts sold out so fast, extra ones had to be added. Unfortunately, the Swedish press wasn't too kind when it came to Armstrong's stage persona. This disgusting review, again taken from the Storyville booklet, was written by Gösta Nystroem, a classical music composer: "Mr. King of Jazz and man-eater offspring, Louis Armstrong, shows his clean shaven hippopotamus physiognomy. Flapping with an ordinary trumpet and a giant handkerchief, he splashes up to the tribune, shows his teeth, snuffles, raises one of his wild negro african ancestor's primitive cries...alternating with a gravelly gorilla roar...Physically he probably comes from ancestors of gorillas." Another critic wrote, "This settles the old dispute about apes having a language." It's mind-boggling to comprehend that such horrible, racist bile was published just 80 years ago...

While the Swedish critics made asses out of themselves, at least the Swedish leg of the trip was good for one thing. The director of the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation broadcasted the second half of Armstrong's October 28th concert. A telephone line connected the Auditorium Concert Hall stage and the SBC and an engineer recorded some of the concert directly off of the phone lines onto blank acetate discs (though for a couple of seconds, you can faintly hear people talking on the telephone!). Eventually, the tunes were released by the Sonora Record Company with the whopping total of 25 (!) copies made. Today, only two copies survive but again, God bless Gösta Hägglöf for finding a copy as well as a test pressing and mastering it all for release on the first Storyville In Scandinavia disc. These are quite probably the first live concert recordings to have ever survived, taken directly from the stage. For that reason alone, the jazz world should have done backflips when this disc was released but, like with a lot of new Armstrong releases, it seemed to have flown under the radar; a crime! Still, I'd like to share these three surviving broadcasts, "Chinatown My Chinatown," "You Rascal You" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street." "Chinatown" has always been one of my favorite OKeh trumpet showstoppers and this live version gives the studio version a run for its money. It follows the pattern of the record closely, though Armstrong doesn't talk about "argument" between the trumpet and the saxophones. He does stomp the tempo off faster when his trumpet enters but from there, it's same, slow, hair-raising climb to the final high Eb, with numerous high C's along the way. Because of the quicker tempo and the live setting, Armstrong takes a little more time getting there, but the result is no less thrilling. Here's "Chinatown":

Next up is "You Rascal You," getting another enthusiastic introduction from Armstrong himself, referring to it as a "good ol' good one." This was arguably Armstrong's biggest hit at the time as it had been featured in his first two major film appearances, Rhapsody in Black and Blue and the Betty Boop cartoon I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You (both shorts). Unfortunately, it fades out just as it gets going, but it's still a worthwhile artifact:

"On the Sunny Side of the Street" is magical because this live performance is from a full year before the the famous two-part studio recording. Unfortunately, the bulk of Armstrong's two vocal choruses is lost but at least we get to hear a little of his vocal. Then the band takes one with a piano bridge (here's where you can hear someone on the phone) but Armstrong takes two full ones. It's truly a magical solo and as Hägglöf's notes pointed out, it's a special favorite of the great Swedish trumpeter Bent Persson. I don't have much to add (I did blog about it in more detail a few years ago) but just simply, relax and enjoy the power and the majesty of this solo:

After Sweden, Armstrong headed to Oslo before returning to Sweden and Denmark before leaving on November 7 for Amsterdam, The Netherlands. While there, two performances survive from a broadcast of a concert from The Hague on November 12. The two songs were released on a Timeless disc, Americans in Holland, a couple of years back and are quite valuable for yet another glimpse of Armstrong as he appeared on stage at this time. Even better, both performances, though the second is pretty awful, weigh in around the four-minute mark. This time, we get to hear a full version of "You Rascal You" with a very funny introduction followed by Armstrong taking his time getting his chops together. The routine was set in stone by this time with Armstrong alternating between playing and singing, sometimes within the same chorus. Again, the sound is atrocious but Armstrong still comes through:

And finally, we end up almost where we began, with another great version of "Dinah." Please listen along:

This time Charlie Johnson takes his chorus up front, sounding good with some fleet-fingered ideas, Armstrong singing along quietly the entire time. The vocal is almost identical to the Denmark film but the second bridge is different. DuConge takes off again with pianist Justo Barreto getting the bridge. But then it's Armstrong's turn and without the constraints of a film appearance or a record time limit, he stretches out for almost two full minutes. The extra time allows for a couple of new choruses. The second one has some great quotes, including "Lady Be Good," "Dixie" and the bridge to "Lover Come Back To Me." In the third chorus, I expected him to head into "Exactly Like You" but instead he improvises a number of new ideas, including a great bridge. Finally, in chorus four, "Exactly Like You" makes its appearance, followed again by the "Hootchy Kootchy Man." An unfortunate edit claims a couple of bars but we still get to hear Armstrong end on the high note. Another great performance and more proof that Armstrong always set certain elements of his solos, even when he was a younger man...and that it just doesn't matter when the solo is so damned good!

That'll do it for this look at the complete surviving audio and video of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Harlem band on the 80th anniversary of those immortal Danish film clips. Please seek out Storyville's "In Scandinavia" series for more information, as well as the opportunity to hear the audio from those film clips in remarkably vibrant sound. And if you're in New York--and can speak Swedish!--meet me at the Louis Armstrong Archives, where there's dozens and dozens of articles from this tour just waiting to be translated. Hopefully I'll have even more to add for the 85th anniversary of this truly timeless music.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

60 Years of Louis Armstrong and The Commanders

Louis Armstrong and The Commanders
Recorded October 22, 1953
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Billy Butterfield, Andy Ferretti, Carl Poole, trumpets; Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshall, Phil Giardina, Jack Satterfield, trombone; Hymie Schertzer, alto and baritone saxophones; Al Klink, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Sandy Block, bass; Ed Grady, drums; Toots Camarata, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: Moments to Remember in the Ambassador series has the complete session. It’s been spread across a few different American discs.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various separate sets

60 years ago today, Louis Armstrong took part in one of the greatest sessions of his career, though it’s one that rarely gets discussed and is somehow not available in complete form on an single American disc. It came at a time when Armstrong was recording with seemingly anyone and everyone who had a contract with Decca. He began 1952 with a date featuring his All Stars (augmented by another reed), followed it with a Sy Oliver-arranged date that spawned “Takes Two To Tango,” then recorded four songs with strings arranged by Gordon Jenkins (including two Christmas songs). He began 1953 with Sy Oliver again, covering “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” before another augmented All Stars date in April and a session backed by a big band arranged by Jack Pleis in July.

I love all of these records. The material widely varied but Armstrong always brought his “A” game, especially with his trumpet. It seems like he never blew a single shaky note on any of his Decca records from the period. But for me, the top of the heap is the session with the Commanders from October 22, 1953. Earlier in the year, Armstrong’s weight was at an all-time high but it was that year when he discovered Swiss Kriss. The pounds began melting off and, in possibly related news, his chops hit a new peak, one that would last until after the 1959 heart episode in Italy and into the early 1960s. And the chops were never on better display than on the Commanders session.

So, who were the Commanders? They were a studio aggregation who also might have toured a bit co-led by the dynamic drummer Eddie Grady and the arranger Tutti Camarata. Camarata was a trumpet player himself and a huge devotee of Armstrong. In fact, on his album Tutti’s Trumpets, he contributed an original titled simply “Louis,” now available as an MP3, that is a beautifully written and played tribute to Pops (Camarata later oversaw Armstrong’s album of Disney songs). Grady apparently was a child star on drums and eventually played with the likes of New Orleans trumpeter George Girard’s small group with Pete Fountain and Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra in the early 50s. As he grew older, he settled into steady work as a session drummer (a quick search shows a Benny Goodman Capitol date in 1954, a famous rockabilly date with “The Rock and Roll Trio,” as well as a Jackie Paris session with arrangements by the recently departed Neal Hefti). I always thought the Commanders were strictly a studio outfit but I did find a photo of the group with Vaughn Monroe at the Cavalier Beach Hotel in Virginia in July 1955 on Felix Mayerhofer's website (

Regardless of their live career, Grady was a helluva drummer and the Commanders were a helluva band. In 2007, the Jasmine label finally released a two-disc set of the Commanders’s complete Decca output, including the Armstrong session and others with vocalists Dick Todd, Delores Gray and Don Cherry, as well as a number of instrumentals such as “Swanee River Boogie.” Check it out at Worlds Records by clicking here.

The interesting part about Armstrong’s session with the group is the trumpeter seemed to have an unusual amount of input in the material selected to record. The date began with two novelty Christmas tunes that Armstrong was probably forced to record but the other three selections had to be Armstrong selections. Well, two of them, I know for certain were and the third, “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” was one of Armstrong’s own compositions.

Now, here’s the deal. Of the five tunes recorded on this day, I’ve already blogged about four of them! However, two were done in the days before I knew how to upload music to the blog. So I’m going to upload the MP3s of all five songs and I’m going to borrow heavily from what I’ve already written, but I’ll edit and enhance it where I see fit. Sound good? Let’s get started with the first tune, “‘Zat You, Santa Claus?”

Now, as I already mentioned, Armstrong had recorded two beautiful Christmas songs with Gordon Jenkins’s strings the prior year. If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes The Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Pops asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Pops, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Pops sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener. After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Pops and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song around. Pops’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” I love the way he sings that “please.” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Pops yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.

Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. In fact, the demo recording given to Armstrong for him to learn the tune from featured a live performance of "Cool Yule" by Allen as broadcast on his TV show. You can hear that if you visit me at the Louis Armstrong Archives (the ultra-square demo for "Zat You Santa Claus" exists there, too!) but for now, here's Louis's take:

Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording, guaranteed to be heard during any Christmas season trip to the mall. In fact, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music in such crowded places, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball.

The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louis Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Only the second half of the bridge doesn’t have “Rhythm,” as it’s punctuated by giant accents by the band on two and four. Again, Pops sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders. After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Pops instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge.

With the holiday fun out of the way, it was time to get down to business, opening with a recording of Armstrong’s celebrated composition “Someday You’ll Be Sorry.” He originally recorded it for Victor in 1947 in a gentle, almost lullaby-like version. He sings and plays the song so pretty on that date that it infuses the meaning of the song with a bit of a melancholy mood. However, after six years of playing it regularly with the All Stars, Armstrong now had a new approach to the soon. The tempo was ratcheted up a few notches and now Armstrong sang with gleeful abandon, changing the mood from one of longing regret to one of joyful celebration that person in question is thankfully gone and one day is really going to be sorry about how she/he treated ol’ Pops. Dig it:

Armstrong’s earlier versions of the tune sounded like he was trying to not wake the neighbors. This version sounds like he’s trying to break a lease! The tempo’s now around 138 beats per minutes, not much faster than where it was in the late 40s, but the rhythm section gives it a little more oomph, once again due to Grady’s rat-a-tat drumming. As with the All Stars, Armstrong takes his own melody in the beginning, playing with a soft mute in his horn, answering his melody statements with some nifty improvised phrases. The band ushers in the vocal with a literal explosion and it’s a fine vocal, as always. Live versions before and after usually kicked it over to a trombone solo at this point but on this record, the listener is treated to over a minute of pure Pops blowing. The tension begins to build as you can hear drummer Grady switch from brushes to sticks towards the end of the vocal. A perfect four-bar setup by the band leads to one of my favorite Armstrong solos of the 50s. Forgetting the melody, he begins low, playing a nice, tumbling low phrase towards the beginning of his solo (what rhythm this man had). The use of space is effective as well.

Sufficiently warmed up, Armstrong begins climbing high at 2:17 in, playing the melody up and infusing it with more blues than customary. The band rushes in like a tidal wave but Armstrong blows them back into the background, ripping off four high concert Bbs before deciding to play the melody an octave higher, a favorite trick of his he adopted after hearing B.A. Rolfe in the late 20s. It’s one of those, “He’s not going to make it moments” but of course he does, topping out at a dramatic high concert C that shakes this listener to his soul (and he ends the record with a high Db!). This version seemed to stay under the radar for years but Decca included it on one compilation a few years back and all of a sudden, it’s been on a ton of best-ofs and definitive collections. As well it should be as it’s, I think, one of Armstrong’s best solos of the 1950s, even if the pretty, soft feeling of the original performances of “Someday” is obliterated. Armstrong himself adopted the new approach to the tune in his live performances, usually introducing it as something he recorded specifically for Decca, almost as if the Victor record never existed.

The next tune to be recorded was one of Armstrong’s favorites, Billy Reid’s “The Gypsy, a sizeable hit in 1946 for Dinah Shore and the Ink Spots. Armstrong had a very sizeable record collection and he was definitely aware of “The Gypsy because he quoted it frequently in the late 40s, including the landmark version of “Save It Pretty Mama” from the 1947 Town Hall concert as well as a number of versions of “Basin Street Blues” from the same period. When he did get around to recording it, it was his pick, according to Milt Gabler. “Louis loved the song,” Gabler said. “He loved the lyric content, and he loved the tune of it, and he just loved to play it. And he came in; he said he wanted to record it. So we recorded it. That’s all.” This might sound a little odd as jazz critics at the time blasted Decca for “forcing” Armstrong to record pop tunes but Armstrong definitely had a say in what was recorded that October day in 1953. Here’s the beautiful studio recording:

“The Gypsy” begins with the wonderful trombone section, including two of Eddie Condon’s favorites, Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall. Armstrong sings it like he had been singing it for a decade, throwing in “yeahs” wherever he pleases. Armstrong clearly had a thing for gypsys; a few months later, on “St. Louis Blues” from the W.C. Handy session, Armstrong sang a few humorous gypsy-themed blues stanzas. Now what those lyrics had to do with St. Louis is anyone’s guess but Armstrong also had fun on “The Gypsy.” After singing the lyric, “But I’ll go there again cause I want to believe The Gypsy,” Armstrong adds as an aside, “Although I know she’s lying,” and giggles a bit.

But the highlight of “The Gypsy” is undoubtedly one minute and 45 seconds of gorgeous Armstrong trumpet. It’s one of my favorite Armstrong solos because it might contain the most relaxed playing he ever did. For those who just think of Armstrong as a high note player, he doesn’t get way into his upper register until the end of the bridge. Until then, it’s a textbook example of how to improvise around a melody while still keeping the melody somewhat in the forefront. There’s a pattern to this solo: Armstrong plays a snatch of melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, then begins the next eight-bar section with the written melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, and so on. His playing is also remarkably slippery on “The Gypsy.” There are few better places to study Armstrong’s unique concept of rhythm. His phrases come in quick bursts and slower, legato segments. He plays obbligatos to his own lines, infuses it with the blues and comes up with a masterpiece. And transcribing this thing would be a bitch!

Triumphantly, Armstrong builds to a climax at the end of the bridge when he plays the melody in his upper register. But he still follows that with some incredibly nimble phrases before a beautiful, typical ending where Armstrong slows it down and plays the last four bars dramatically, his tone never sounding bigger. I love, love, love, love this record. It’s not one of his best known records but even Armstrong himself later said of “The Gypsy,” “Well, you know, that record I think is one of my finest.” (And venting to Leonard Feather in a 1954 Blindfold Test about the limitations of modern trumpet players, Louis asked, "How many of them could play my solo on 'The Gypsy'?" before scatting a bar or two of his solo. He could have said "West End Blues," "When You're Smiling" or any of the classics, but he knew how difficult that playing on "The Gypsy" was to execute.)

Somehow, some way, Armstrong had enough gas in the tank for a fifth tune, “I Can’t Afford to Miss This Dream.” This song was always a mystery to me. Decca usually had Armstrong exclusively record other people’s hits. Yet, for all my research, I never came across a single other version of this tune. So how the heck did it wind up in Armstrong’s hands?

I received the answer during one of my many trips to the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College. I must have listened to dozens of Armstrong’s private tapes while I was up there and on one of them, I got my answer. The tape came from New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1952. Somehow, Armstrong didn’t have a gig so he threw a New Year’s party at his home in Queens, inviting all sorts of friends. At one point a woman, Lillian Friedlander begins singing “I Can’t Afford to Miss This Dream” She says, “I just keep writing and Pops promised to record for me. He’s going to do ‘I Can’t Afford To Miss This Dream.’” Armstrong’s friend Prince Gary of Honolulu responded, “If he promised something, he’ll make it.” Friedlander jokingly responds, “Oh, he will, don’t be so pessimistic.” A slightly tipsy Prince Gary, though, remains serious, saying, “I know that your patience are not thinking of stopping.” Friedlander responds, “No, never.” Prince Gary says, “Cause he is tops and if he says something, he means it.” Armstrong then asks her to sing her again to which Friedlander exclaims, “You really like it that much? I love you!”

Now this was New Year’s Eve 1952. Prince Gary was definitely right as Armstrong probably called Decca up soon after and told them about the song. All he had was Friedlander singing it to him on his reel-to-reel tape deck yet somehow he convinced the company to put one of their star big bands on the date with a lovely arrangement by Camrata and a breathtaking performance by Armstrong himself. Here ‘tis:

Gorgeous, gorgeous stuff, right from the dramatic introduction, where Armstrong jumps in from out of nowhere with that dazzling run up to high C (followed by a little quiet clearing of the throat). Let’s face it, it’s not the greatest song in the world but Armstrong was doing it for a friend and he really sells it. He gets off to a slightly rocky start as the melody seems to push his vocal range to it’s limit in the lower range but he makes up for it with some ebullient high notes towards the end of the chorus (in all, he shows off a range of more than an octave, from a low C to a high Eb, on this track).

But as charming as the vocal is, it all builds up to the trumpet solo which is a textbook example of how to tell a powerful story in such a short period of time. The band sets him up with a chord, over which he at first sounds like he’s going to roar, before putting on the brakes to play with a more quiet feel. The floating, ruminating playing from “The Gypsy” carries over to Armstrong’s first half of the solo as he rarely leaves the melody, but infuses it with an incredible amount of soul. You’d think he’s playing “Star Dust”! It’s further proof of the man’s genius in the lower register, too. What a sound...

But at the halfway point, Grady implies a double-time feeling with his brushes and Pops responds by once again playing the melody an octave higher than he just played it. There’s never been a sound quite like the one he gets here (man, did Decca know how to record him). But just when you think he’s through, he takes a bridge that might be the most passionate moment of a session filled with spine-tingling moments. The string of high Bb’s he plays brings me to my knees but the whole things builds up that to momentous gliss to a high concert Eb, his tone never clearer, before he skips down chromatically to a more human-like Bb. Amazing! There’s so much information and feeling and chops in this solo, that I can’t even begin to do it justice...yet it only lasts 20 short bars!

You can hear Armstrong’s voice grow in volume as he steps closer to the microphone with a roof-shaking “Yes.” He sounds so happy, bursting at the high note and delivering a sly British accent in his last reading of the title as “I Cahn’t Afford to Miss This Dream.” A beautiful, though unjustly neglected, gem.

[2013 update: I always heard Louis's reading of "cahn't" as being "British," as mentioned above. But recently, I heard one of Louis's private tapes at the Armstrong Archives where he laughed uproariously with a friend at how he managed to slip the daddy of all curse words onto this record. I won't repeat it because this is a family blog but it ain't far off and Louis sure knew what he was doing. Oh, Pops....]

And one more serious 2013 update on this number and proof that you just never know who is out there. Again, this is a pretty unknown song, one that I don't think has ever been recorded by anyone else. But would you believe one year ago this month, I was contacted--separately--by the offspring of both of the composers of "I Can't Afford to Miss This Dream"??? It was incredible. The first e-mail came from Lillian Friedlander's daughter, Eileen Chupak Baranes (turns out Friedlander was her maiden name and the one she used on her songs.) She wrote the following:

"My mother was a very special person. She was very ambition and very centered and really loved music and wanted to be on the hit parade. When she was about 40, she was diagnosed with MS and from then on was handicapped. But she never stopped writing music even when she was in nursing homes. She passed away at 52 years old. Louis Armstrong was my mother's friend. He even babysat for me when I was about 3 years old backstage at the Apollo Theater so my mother could go and sign some contract with a record company. If I remember this myself, I can't be sure but it is a true story. And I ate all his rice and ice cream. That is how the story goes. I do remember being back stage in the Apollo. A number of times. My mother took me everywhere."

I decided to play the New Year's Eve tape of Lillian singing her song for Eileen and her siblings, Ronni and Mitch. Tears flowed. Eileen wrote, "Now that I have stopped crying, I want to thank you for bringing me back my mother for a little while. I don't know what more to say. It is something that is just like a dream to hear her once again."

I was touched, too, and tipped my cap in Louis's direction for making the tape in the first place and what a beautiful gesture it was on his part to record Friedlander's song for Decca. But would you believe (I'm stating to sound like Maxwell Smart) that just six days later, I received a blog message from Rob Waldman, son of Edwin Waldman, Friendlander's arranger and co-composer! And he had no idea that I was in such close contact with Friedlander's children, he was just throwing it out there in case Eileen was out there and wanted to connect. And all of this took place in October 2012, 59 years after the original session. I don't always believe in fate but

Anyway, "I Can't Afford to Miss That Dream" that was the end of what I consider one of Armstrong’s all-time greatest sessions. He sings warmly and plays his ass off throughout, always sounding as if he’s having the time of his life. And it’s more proof that Armstrong didn’t need great material to do his finest work. I mean, two Christmas novelties? An Ink Spots hit? A song his friend wrote that has never been recorded by anyone else? Who cares? It’s Armstrong in peak form and that’s good enough for me and a bunch of other esteemed Armstrong nuts who hold this session near and dear to their hearts, including Boston trumpeter Dave Whitney, the late Swedish Armstrong oracle Gösta Hägglöf (who once travelled all the way to London to find a copy on English Brunswick!) and Dan Morgenstern.

In fact, speaking of Dan, as I did earlier this week, one of the big moments of my life was my first lecture on Armstrong at the Institute of Jazz Studies in 2006. My topic was Armstrong’s later years and I had about 90 minutes to make my case, with Dan at my side. I knew that if I messed up, Dan would be all over it so I really wanted to win him over. A big part of that first presentation was a look at the Commanders session, playing and analyzing the trumpet solos Armstrong took on that day. I’ll never forget setting it up by saying, “Right now, I want to focus on a session Armstrong did in October 1953 for Decca with a big band known as the Commanders” and looking to my left to see Dan nodding his head before putting his arm in the air and literally making a small fist pump gesture at my choice. I knew I was in!

And speaking of Dan, I’ll be at Birdland tomorrow night, October 23, to celebrate Dan’s pre-birthday from 5:30 to 7:15 as David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band takes center stage. I usually get there around 5 so feel free to say hello! S’all for now but I'll be revisiting another old anniversary post of mine in a few days on Louis's incredible October-November 1933 tour of Scandinavia with his "Hot Harlem Band." Til then!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography - Avid Reissue

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how some friends recently asked about the download only release of Louis's August 1, 1957 session with Oscar Peterson, A Day With Satchmo. When I shockingly realized I never blogged about it, I turned in this entry. Well, it's happened again. On Facebook, I was contacted  by young Armstrong fan David Turner Smith about the availability of the 2000 Universal reissue of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. I knew it was available as a download but the physical CD set has become nearly impossible to find.

But I had good news to share: earlier this year, the Avid label from the United Kingdom reissued Satchmo on two double-disc volumes, the first two discs containing sides 1-6 of the original 4-LP set. Volume two contained the essential seventh and eighth sides and lots of bonuses: Satchmo Plays King Oliver complete, Louis and the Good Book complete and a selection of Satchmo Plays King Oliver alternate takes originally issued by Chiaroscuro as Snake Rag. Volume 1 is available on Amazon here, while you can get Volume 2 by clicking here.

(Actually, if you don't mind paying a little shipping, both sets are much cheaper through See here: Volume 1 and Volume 2.)

But when I saw David's message, my first thought was, "Damn, I didn't write about the Avid reissues either!" And this time I really didn't have an excuse because not only do I love these records more than almost anything else on the planet, I was honored by producer Dave Bennett to write the liner notes. Dave wrote in recently to let me know that sales have only been ho-hum, which kills me to here as in my utopia, people line up around the block every time new Louis hits the market. Of course, the major US jazz magazines have given it no attention but for my blog to be silent on them is inexcusable.

If you want to read all my opinions on Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, just search for that title here on the blog or check out my book. But with Avid's permission, I would like to share my liner notes for the new reissue. I think a few words changed, as did spellings, to accommodate the British pedigree of the label, but here they are (many thanks to Michael Steinman for his help and advice and for Bria Skonberg for the quote). Enjoy and if you somehow don't have this music yet, I hope it gives you the incentive to finally do so!


Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography is one of the great landmarks of Louis Armstrong’s massive discography. Made a time in his life when many artists start to wind down and rest on their laurels, Armstrong topped himself, turning in some of the most inspiring trumpet playing and singing in his career. Yet, it’s an album that has never received the full amount of respect it deserves, as most jazz neophytes are told to start with his more influential 1920s recordings—and to sometimes stop there, too.

No one can underestimate the importance of the recordings Louis Armstrong made in the 1920s, creating the vocabulary for all future jazz musicians and teaching the world how to swing with both his trumpet and his inimitable voice. He knew how important his early records were and so did his record labels of the 1930s as both Victor and Decca had him record multiple new versions of his OKeh hits. However, he continued to move forward, leading a popular big band throughout the 1930s, appearing on radio, in films, making hit records, breaking box office records wherever he went, all the while being loved by both critics and fans.

But in 1940, Columbia, with help from young visionary George Avakian, created the first series of jazz reissue albums. Armstrong was at the forefront of these sets of 78s, with many of his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings being reissued for the first time since their original release. This was the first time many Swing Era fans and critics heard those 1920s masterworks. Ironically, what was meant as a gift became a weapon used against the creator: almost immediately, the present day Armstrong became unfavorably compared with his younger self. Jazz critic Paul Edward Miller fired off the first salvo in April 1941: "Armstrong is no longer a vital force in hot jazz. His influence on other players, admittedly a widespread influence, has pretty much petered out. Creatively and artistically, Armstrong is dead.... Armstrong has chosen to play exclusively for the box office, has assumed a downright commercial attitude. Therein lies Armstrong's failure."

Critics began to fetishize the Hot Fives and Sevens, though Armstrong himself said in 1945, "You can't go back thirty years, man....Why should I go back?...Music's better now than it used to be." But when he broke up his big band and started a small group, the All Stars, in 1947, Time magazine wrote, "Louis Armstrong had forsaken the ways of Mammon and come back to jazz.”

It didn’t take long for those same critics to realize that even with the All Stars, Armstrong wasn’t interested in pretending it was 1925. The All Stars presented the total Armstrong package: the comedian, the emcee, the balladeer, the consummate entertainer. Away from the All Stars, he had a steady stream of pop hits, including “Blueberry Hill” and “La Vie En Rose,” material that couldn’t be further from the New Orleans jams of the Hot Fives and Sevens.

By 1956, Armstrong’s popularity was at an all-time high. That year, he was hailed for his work overseas (lending him the nickname “Ambassador Satch”), stole the film High Society from Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra and enjoyed another hit single, "Mack the Knife." Perhaps related, that same year found negative reviews of the trumpeter also reaching an all-time high. Reviewing a Carnegie Hall set in the New York Times, John S. Wilson wrote that Armstrong "has been increasingly emphasizing his notable talents as a popular entertainer at the expense of his abilities as a jazz musician.” Harold Lovette wrote in Metronome, "But as trumpet players go at this point, I am of the opinion that Louis is a much better singer." And in a devastating review of Armstrong's set at the Newport Jazz Festival, Downbeat's Jack Tracy bemoaned, "the only reign to fall was that of King Louis Armstrong."

Armstrong felt his critics weren’t listening. "Through the years, I've noticed you take, not only critics, you take the man on the street or some cat that think he knows a whole lot about music and records and things, they'll come up and say, 'Man, you're doing all right but I remember when you was really blowing that horn,’” he told the Voice of America in July 1956.  “And I'll look at him and say, 'Well, solid, Gate,' but he don't realize that I'm playing better now than I've ever played in my life." Though confident in his own abilities, he needed a bigger project to definitively prove that he was at the top of his game at this stage of his life.

Enter Milt Gabler, Armstrong's producer at Decca for many years, the mastermind behind many of the trumpeter's biggest pop hits but also one of jazz’s greatest champions, having broke into the business by forming Commodore Records in 1938. In 1954, Decca did a successful 5-LP boxed set, Bing Crosby: A Musical Autobiography, featuring the legendary crooner revisiting many of his old hits, offering for spoken introductions for each one. Not only would Armstrong be a natural for a similar project, it would also give Gabler clean-sounding recordings if they made a movie about Armstrong’s life (it’s 2013 and we’re still waiting).

The project provided Armstrong with quite a challenge: the 55-year-old trumpeter would be staring his 25-year-old self in the eye, after decades of having his output get unfavorably compared to what he did as a young man. He prepared for the sessions by training like a fighter.  Trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso became close with Ruby Braff and related what Braff told him was "a highlight in his life: going to Pops' home to hear him spin his own old records, thinking out loud about what he might do differently, and what he thought ought to be done the same or similarly."

Gabler also wanted to do his part to make sure the sessions went off without a hitch. He made sure manager Joe Glaser didn’t book Armstrong anywhere else during the session dates, which were held in a party-like atmosphere, well-stocked with food and beverages and an in-house audience made up of friends such as June Clark, Reverend Harry Finkenstaedt, Jeann "Roni" Failows, Paul Studer, Slim Thompson and Lorenzo Pack (the latter two getting a hidden shout-out during Armstrong's scat chorus on "Song of the Islands").

Arranging chores were split between two wonderful musicians Armstrong had worked with in the past: bassist Bob Haggart handled all the small group recreations while Sy Oliver wrote new arrangements for songs from Armstrong's big band days. "Sy was funny," Gabler recalled. "He put the solo notation down on the lead sheet that was in front of Louis on the music stand, and wrote on it, 'Go for yourself.'"

Armstrong did just that, with scintillating results. Over the course of seven sessions--three in December 1956, four in January 1957--Armstrong recorded 43 new performances to go along with a handful of remakes Gabler included from other All Stars sessions of the period. Taken together, the performances that make up Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography form the definitive document of Armstrong's powers as a musician in the 1950s.

From the outset, Armstrong's work illustrates that even on an album based on recreating earlier works, the music itself would not be looking backwards. Though he still rattles off the original famed solos on pieces like “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Gully Low Blues,” Armstrong and the All Stars swing like it's 1957, not 1923 (trombonist Trummy Young even quotes Dizzy Gillespie's hip entrance from "Two Bass Hit" on "Dippermouth Blues"). The two-beat tuba-and-banjo feel of the original Hot Seven "Weary Blues," for one example, is dispensed with for an almost violently swinging approach, Armstrong shooting out strings of high C's nowhere to be found on the original recording. Never mind the Hot Seven; this is the Thermonuclear Seven!

Having said that, the only slight disappointments of the album come during the recreations of the 1920s numbers. Velma Middleton’s blues vocals won't make anyone forget the originals (though Armstrong’s obbligatos are positively incendiary) and Haggart occasionally tends to overarrange a bit, most notably, a disappointing stroll through "Potato Head Blues" that sounds like everyone's reading the charts and not playing in the moment. And though the All Stars play with inspired abandon throughout, Barrett Deems's drumming is too one-dimensional, sounding like a drum machine after awhile. This was no fault of Deems, however; a few of the surviving original Haggart arrangements clearly show Deems's part as simply playing "closed hi-hat" throughout. One has to wonder what the motivation was; possibly because many of the original 1920s recordings didn't feature drums, it was thought best to keep Deems in the background. Instead, it just stifled Deems and led critics to pummel his contribution when the original album was released (the original recordings didn't feature an electric guitar either but that didn't stop Haggart from using the George Barnes on the small group sessions, contributing several fine, if anachronistic solos).

Deems aside, the rest of the supporting cast performs admirably, especially Edmond Hall's gritty New Orleans tone choking and spitting out his solos and Billy Kyle’s tasteful offerings (listen to him make like his idol, Earl "Fatha" Hines, on "Two Deuces"). Bassist Squire Gersh had a big, popping sound that Armstrong thrived from. For the King Oliver numbers, Haggart's frequent partner, Yank Lawson, stepped in to recreate Papa Joe's original parts, though Armstrong steals the spotlight with his "Dippermouth Blues" solo and his powerhouse blues playing on "Snag It," the only tune in the set he had never previously recorded.

But at the end of the day, it's Armstrong's show and though it might sound sacrilegious, he tops his original approaches more times than expected, especially on a darkly-hued "Wild Man Blues" and a frighteningly intense "King of the Zulus." But he really hits his stride when Sy Oliver takes over for the big band recreations. Every note he plays from "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" onward is pure magic. On that number, Armstrong flexed his improved upper register, hitting and holding the final high F triumphantly, a note he barely squeaked out on pitch in 1929. Hearing this a few years ago, master trumpeter Randy Sandke conceded that Armstrong was a better technical trumpeter during the Autobiography period than he was in the 1920s. His closing cadenza on "Exactly Like You" is exemplary in its pacing and his emotional surge at the end of "Memories of You" marks that performance as yet another highlight. As a singer, hearing Armstrong interpret lyrics such as "Body and Soul" and "I Surrender Dear" with the wisdom and maturity gained by his later approach is a revelation, while his scatting on “Heebie Jeebies” and “Hotter Than That” is just as effervescent as it was in the 1920s. Armstrong makes one concession to age on the second half of this set, lowering "When You're Smiling" from the original key of Bb down Ab. But don't take that as a sign of weakness; he also cut the tempo almost in half, causing him to take almost two full minutes to play the melody an octave higher than expected, a feat of endurance and passion that moves this performance towards the top of the pantheon in Armstrong's fabled discography. 

It’s thrilling hearing Armstrong perform famed set piece solos on "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Lazy River" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" in such glorious sound. Those were solos that he chiseled to perfection while a young man, solos he never felt the need to change, even though critics griped. "So, like Heifetz and Marian Anderson, we play the same tunes; every time they play the same solo they get the applause--so do we,” Armstrong told Sinclair Traill the same week he recorded those three numbers in December 1956.

Like a good book, the whole Autobiography builds and builds, finally reaching its climax with "On the Sunny Side of the Street," Sy Oliver's reeds sounding like angels as they back one of Armstrong's most passionate vocals and trumpet solos.  It's a spine-tingling moment, as is Armstrong's following close to the proceedings, in which he earnestly tells his fans how much he loves them.  Though some of Armstrong’s spoken introductions are a bit stiff (they were written out for him by Leonard Feather), that final goodbye is as heartfelt as any of the playing and singing that preceded it.

Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography was released in September and immediately embraced as a triumph by the majority of reviewers. Of course, the more prominent, sour jazz critics couldn't resist a few swipes. Whitney Balliett had to get a dig in at Armstrong's "vaudeville antics" onstage, argued that "his technique is at best adequate" and wrote off the majority of performances as "inferior to the earlier ones." Nat Hentoff, writing in the Saturday Review, also couldn't resist complaining about the personnel of the All Stars and Milt Gabler's production values, writing, "this 'musical autobiography' could have been much, much better." But even after espousing the usual criticisms, Balliett concluded that "the album contains some of his most durable work" and Hentoff agreed that "many sections of his solos recalls his positions as the most satisfying, naturally mature soloist in jazz history."

Louis Armstrong had done what he set out to do: quiet his critics and prove that in his mid-50s, he was still "playing better now than I've ever played in my life." Needless to say, Armstrong was a big fan of the finished product, owning multiple copies of the set and transferring it to his reel-to-reel tape collection over a dozen times: more times than he listened to his original recordings of the 1920s and 30s.

Today, the griping of the critics is but a faint echo in history. Armstrong’s later work is getting more respect than ever before, with trumpeters young and old realizing that there's just as much to admire and learn from on sets like Satchmo as there is on the more vaunted Hot Fives and Sevens. Wynton Marsalis, for one, has called Armstrong’s later solos, “virtually impossible to learn.” And the popular young Armstrong-inspired trumpeter from Canada, Bria Skonberg, does not hide the fact that Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography is her favorite Armstrong release. 
I can dream of meeting Louis, but being born after his passing I never even had a chance,” she says. “The Musical Autobiography is truly a gift to us future admirers. Hearing his warm voice telling stories on these recordings so sincerely gives a glimpse of what that would have been like, and I am grateful he shared himself this way.  His trumpet is immensely inspiring throughout the whole album, fiery with the ideas of his youth played with the wisdom and command of age.”

Now in print again on Avid and sounding better than ever because of Dave Bennett's superb remastering, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography can be listened to with a fresh set of ears as one of the most important, challenging and inspiring testaments to Louis Armstrong's genius.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Anniversary Madness - Louis Armstrong House Museum Turns 10!

Man, it's anniversary madness at the Louis Armstrong House Museum these days! Where to begin? Well, let's begin with the two people responsible for the Armstrong House: Louis and Lucille Armstrong, who were married on October 12, 1942. Here's a photo from their wedding day, taken from the Louis Armstrong House Museum Online Catalog:

After months of living on a band bus during one of Louis's endless tours of one-nighters, Lucille campaigned to buy an actual home, settling on the modest space at 34-56 107th Street. It was purchased for $8,000 on March 15, 1943 and the rest is history.

Louis and Lucille lived there until their respective deaths in 1971 and 1983. She left the House and all its contents to the City of New York and they, in turn with the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, anointed Queens College to administer it all. All of Louis's tape recordings, photos, scrapbooks, band arrangements, books, trumpets, mouthpieces, you name it, were donated to the College, which set up a Louis Armstrong Archives, opened by Michael Cogswell in 1994.

I first visited the Archives in January 2006, a day that truly changed my life. I was sitting on a 350 page thesis on Louis's later years but my research was missing one thing: Louis's voice. That January day, I only had time to listen to a couple of private tapes but on each one, Louis  basically repeated some of the themes of my research: he was playing better in the 1950s than any other time in his life, he didn't believe in categories, he was no Uncle Tom, etc. From 2006-2009, I made multiple trips to the Archives, exploring different things, but always returning to the tapes, which I listened to dozens of in a four year stretch.

And then, on October 13, 2009--four years ago yesterday--I was named Project Archivist of the Armstrong Archives. I truly landed a dream job, writing about it as soon as I got the news in this blog from September 2009. I spent my first year processing the monumental Jack Bradley Collection, then spent the next year working on the Archives' other major collections and building up the aforementioned Online Catalog. When I was retained as full-time Archivist after my original grant ended, I continued to hit the ground running, rewriting every entry on the Online Catalog on Louis's private tapes and even transferring 130 of them that had never been heard, resulting in this other blog from earlier this year that I'm very proud of. (And yes, I think I'm the only man alive who has listened to all 700-or-so tapes.)

Last week I finished cataloging the massive collection of an early friend of this blog, influence and mentor, Gösta Hägglöf, and I continue to stumble across incredible new discoveries on almost a weekly basis. My co-workers and interns have all been great, as have the hundreds of people who have visited me at my post. And I hope they keep coming because I know I'll never get tired of wheeling out the case with Louis's trumpets....

But enough about me; my anniversary was yesterday and it's now time to focus on tomorrow: the ten-year anniversary of the opening of the Louis Armstrong House Museum! If you're in the NY area, we're having an event that is the definition of bang for your buck. Dig this: $30 gets you in, gets you a Creole dinner by the Cooking Channel's Tamara Reynolds, gets you beer and wine, gets you a look at the House and gets you a concert by the Hot Sardines! Seriously, if you have an excuse not to go, well, I'm not buying it. Tickets are still available and can be purchased here.

In addition to that, my new exhibit on Louis's 1957 tour of South America will be up and running, featuring many photographs, including unpublished ones, by the legendary Lisl Steiner. And even more excitingly, we're unveiling a "life mask" of Louis that was created in the 1950s and was hung on the walls of the Armstrong House into the 1960s. It has never been displayed to the public and after some recent conservation overseen by our Curator, David Reese, it simply looks stunning. Here's a photo of Louis with the mask and two people we're assuming to be the original creators. Has anyone out there ever seen this before? I've been researching Louis for 18 years and have never come across a mention of it and Louis never discussed it either (though he made three tape box collages out of photos from this occasion!).

There is definitely a buzz around the Louis Armstrong House Museum these days....but especially today. Thanks to the tireless efforts of our Marketing Director, Jennifer Walden Weprin, the Associated Press wrote an article about our tenth anniversary that has been spreading like wildfire today. I noticed it trickling out around 6:45 this morning. As I write this at 2 p.m., it has been picked up by 278 outlets, including a lot of big shots (USA Today, Huffington Post, ABC News) etc. It's a wonderful story and I encourage you to check it out--and spread it around your friends!--by clicking here.

And finally, to bring back to a personal note: my memory is fading, but I know for a fact that the music of Louis Armstrong changed my life when I went to my local library in Toms River, NJ and checked out a Columbia compilation, 16 Most Requested Songs, in October 1995. I wish I remembered the date or I'd be celebrating that, too. My memory is telling me October 5, 10 or 12--there was a time in high school when I knew--but I can't remember. Regardless, every October I offer an internal celebration of the anniversary of the big bang moment that really changed my life. I never really thought I'd make a living being a giant Armstrong nut but somehow it's happened, thanks to my association with the Armstrong House. So I'm personally very grateful for everything that happened and all involved--Louis and Lucille picking Corona, Lucille's will, the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, Queens College, Michael Cogswell and everything and everyone in between--to even make the Armstrong House a reality and to give a schlub like me a livelihood.

And a humorous aside: when my 15-year-old self got hit with the Armstrong bug but naturally, being a moldy fig jazz fan doesn't make a prom king so for much of my high school existence in the late-90s, my jazz obsession was kept to myself and my circle of close friends. It could only stay bottled up for so long and by my senior year, it was part of my reputation. Still, I had some horrific experiences in my teenage years with members of the female persuasion. Enough to fill up a blog just about that. (Thank goodness Margaret came along ten years ago and I've never looked back!) So it was pretty surreal when on Friday--which might have been the anniversary of the big bang for all I remember--I spent an hour of my afternoon talking about Louis and the Louis Armstrong House Museum on a radio interview with two teenage girls, Rachel Trachtenburg and Julia Cumming, on their show Pure Imagination. If you would have told 15-year-old Ricko that almost 18 years to the day later, he'd be preaching about Pops on a radio show aimed at teenagers, he would have told you you're nuts....but I'm not complaining! And the show was a ball; click that link to listen.

So happy anniversary Louis and Lucille, happy anniversary to my job as Archivist, happy anniversary to the Armstrong House and keep celebrating all things Louis-related EVERY day of the year.