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.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Great article, and best reason for visiting in a while!
Peter Lundberg