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 (http://www.felixmayerhofer.com/gallery.sw)

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 sometimes.....wow.

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!


LOUIS said...

What a line-up !
Noone could ever go wrong with such a backing, and Pops did never go wrong with any backing.
Thanks for another wonderful piece of history, Ricky.

David T. said...

The Gypsy is absolutely one of his best! What he said in the blindfold test is 100% - jazz guys are always either dissing or ignoring Louis, when none of the "modern" guys could play his solos on The Gypsy, Potato Head Blues, etc... it can be frustrating to be a Pops fan because you have to constantly educate people who think they know about jazz music.

RICHIE said...

I picked up this CD at the Armstrong House last week and what blew me away was how the spirit of this band driven by some exciting drumming that pushed Pops to deliver some of his most beautiful playing of the period. After listening to the Autobiography with Barret forced to lay low through the entire session it felt like the horse got out of the barn on the Commanders sides.