Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thankful - 2013 Edition

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 18, 1936
Track Time 3:06
Written by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Jimmy Archey, Snub Mosley, trombone; Henry James, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 866
Currently available on CD: Available on the indispensable Mosaic Records boxed set of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes.

In honor of today being Thanksgiving, I think it’s only appropriate to discuss Armstrong’s 1936 record of “Thankful.” Actually, I've had this thought before: back in November of 2007, just a few short months after starting this here blog. I wrote a short piece on it, included the audio and that was that. Beginning in 2008, I switched to "Thanks a Million" and continued updating the same piece of writing every year from 2008 through 2012, always using "Thanks a Million" to commemorate the day of thanks.

But earlier this afternoon, I got a text message from my man in New Orleans, Jon Pult. Jon's a true Armstrong nut but heard this song on the radio today and wanted to know more about it. I shot him the link, but paused when I saw the date of 2007. My goodness, a lot has changed since then. I don't have to recount it all but if you've been a regular reader of mine over the years, you know the story. Thanksgiving 2007 was spent while I was a house painter, living with my wife in a one-room "apartment" attached to my parents' house, my book proposal getting rejected almost monthly. Low times.

I started this blog in July of 2007 and by October, was starting to hear from future friends such as the late Gosta Hagglof, Hakan Forsberg, Terry Teachout, Dave Whitney, Phil Person and more. One person reading the blog around this time was THE Jon Pult! In 2008, Jon asked me to come down to the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans, the most important weekend of my life, and one that ended with a standing ovation. Weeks later--while driving the damn work van home from a day of painting--my agent called and said we got the book deal. And then one year later, in 2009, I began working as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Today, Thanksgiving 2013, I'm still at the Armstrong House, the book is in paperback, I'm co-producing the Armstrong set for Mosaic Records, helping Universal do a compilation next week, preparing to meet Quincy Jones at the Armstrong House gala and trading all sorts of wonderful photos and stories with Armstrong lovers around the world thanks to this blog and Facebook (and my wife and I--and our two kids--are living in the house I grew up in while my parents have taken over the one-room apartment we used to live in...crazy, huh?). So yeah, I tend to eat myself into a coma every Thanksgiving (today was no exception) but I dare you to find a more thankful cat than I to be able to live this life I do. It's not a cakewalk (I still have to paint every now and then to help make ends meet) but I truly love what I do and feel blessed to do it on a daily basis.

But enough about me, you're hear for Pops. And of course, we should all be thankful for every note Louis Armstrong ever played, right? Let's now get to “Thankful," which was written by the team of Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin, who contributed some wonderful songs for Armstrong to record for Decca with his big band, including “You’re Just a No Account,” “You’re a Lucky Guy” and “Shoe Shine Boy.”

“Thankful” was recorded at a legendary session that featured a staggering six recordings, including the first “Swing That Music.” And the session started with two wonderful Hoagy Carmichael compositions, “Lyin’ To Myself” and “Ev’ntide” before Pops tackled “Swing That Music.” I don’t care if the session only featured two songs, after that “Swing That Music,” Pops should applauded for recorded anything else, never mind three more songs. “Thankful” was up next and I think at that moment, the thing Pops was most thankful for was that chunks of his lip hadn’t come flying off during “Swing That Music.” But “Thankful” is a lovely record and you can listen along by clicking here:

Behind Pops Foster’s huge bass sound, the band staggers through a two-beat introduction, before Pops comes in with a beautiful vintage 1936 vocal. He’s in fine tenor voice without a hint of gravel. He sings with a lot of feeling and doesn’t feel the need to add much. After the bridge, he sings a nice deep-throated “baby” that almost sounds like half-scat with a neat little “Mm-mm” coming a few bars later. The vocal ends, the band modulates and looking at my C.D. player, there’s a solid 91 seconds of trumpet ready to brew. He starts with some pure melody, adjusting the phrasing to achieve a more relaxed swing at times. He bridges the two A sections with a perfect adjoining phrase before he starts opening up his solo for more improvising. He begins the next eight bars by playing the exact four-note phrase he sang as “Thankful, baby,” another example of the link between his singing and playing. He continues on in those eight bars with snatches of melody, followed by his own obbligato, always a winning combination.

The bridge is the main event of the song. The band goes into stop-time and Pops proves ready for the challenge with some nimble double-timing at the start. But why settle for just double-timing when you have a sense of rhythm unlike anyone else in jazz? All of a sudden the notes and phrases start almost stuttering along (I’d hate to transcribe this stuff), though he slightly cracks a couple of notes, probably leftover remnants of the strain of “Swing That Music.” However, he fights it off with a stirring gliss up to a high Bb. He then plays something that reminds me of Red Allen as he works out a tension-filled motif on a high Ab. In a series of two-note phrases, he plays an F# leading to the Ab, an F leading to the Ab, then an E natural leading to an F# before resolving on an Eb and moving on from there. It’s exciting stuff and a little “out” for a Louis Armstrong record of 1936.

But even after that daring bridge, Pops proves he has more in the gas tank by going up for the last eight bars for a series of high Bb’s. He eventually comes back down to earth to stick to a little more melody as the band plays is in a stately fashion behind him. Cue up the patented Decca coda ending and what you have is a neat little record. And just think, he still wasn’t done yet as he still would contribute stirring solos on “Red Nose” and a remake of “Mahogany Hall Stomp.” I might be thankful for a lot of things but man, I’m thankful for Louis Armstrong’s music every day of the year.

(And I’m also thankful that his lip didn’t explode that May day in 1936.)

Happy Thanksgiving! And don’t forget the Swiss Kriss if you get built up with gas…

Friday, November 22, 2013

Birth of the All Stars - Royal Garden Blues, September 27, 1947

Every time I express excitement at some new Armstrong discovery, someone always seems to say, "Really, there's more? Don't you have everything?" And I have to keep explaining that new stuff is turning up all the time. Just look at the last five years: the Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts, those spectacular 1939 broadcasts I posted a few months ago, the Louis at Freedomland tapes donated to the Louis Armstrong House Museum that we featured on International Jazz Day, and of course, the upcoming Mosaic Records box which will be chock full of material that Pops nuts from around the world have never heard.

And it keeps on happening. Last month, I was contacted by Jeff S. Domann, a jazz fan who possessed a true rarity: two tapes of Louis at the Rag Doll in Chicago. That's great on it's own merits but dig the date: September 27, 1947. The All Stars debuted at Billy Berg's in August 1947, but no audio seems to have survived (still don't quite believe that, given the publicity of the gig and how much stuff survives from other artists at Billy Berg's during the same period). The Mosaic box is going to include 90 minutes of a Carnegie Hall concert from November 15, 1947, which, to me, made it the earliest surviving audio of the All Stars. Nope!

Thanks to Domann, I now know that a fan named John Phillips set up what had to be an early reel-to-reel tape recorder at the Rag Doll on September 27, 1947 and filled up two magnetic tapes. According to his notes on the box, Louis played five sets and Phillips recorded the third set and fifth and final set in the wee hours. Apparently, 15 tunes survive but several are fragments and all the vocals and announcements are way off mike. However, the instrumentals are recorded beautifully and include "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," "Royal Garden Blues," "Lover," "C-Jam Blues," "Muskrat Ramble, a slow blues and a partial "Mop Mop."

Domann had read about the Mosaic set and hoped maybe these tracks could have been added. Alas, we're too far down the road to add anything new (and besides, everything we've cleared is Sony owned). I did ask if he'd be willing to donate a CD copy of the tapes to the Armstrong Archives, so scholars and researchers can at least listen to them (with me!) in Queens, which I'm happy to report he has agreed to do. But when he wanted to me to at least hear, he included in an e-mail the aforementioned version of "Royal Garden Blues."

It was terrific and historically important. I asked him if I could do a blog about it and post the audio of "Royal Garden" so my readers could appreciate it, too....and he agreed! So without further ado--and with huge thanks to Mr. Domann--here 'tis, the earliest known audio we have of Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, doing "Royal Garden Blues":

There you have it! Now, as an All Stars freak, I find it fascinating for a number of reasons. It's clearly the last set as Louis is playing like a boxer in the 15th round; he conserves where he has to and doesn't shoot out the lights like he would not too long after.  It's interesting to note that he might be running out of gas in 1947 but would (usually) show no signs of slowing after a long show in say, 1957. I don't think he was quite used to playing so much after all those big band years....especially not five sets, front and center. Pacing would become of Armstrong's biggest strengths: when to sing, when to feature a band member, when to go for it, etc. Note, I'm not saying Armstrong sounds bad or that there's even chops trouble. He's just a little more reserved than we're used to and I think it might be because it's the fifth set.

Anyway, this leads a very relaxed feeling to the proceedings, as even the tempo is slower than the later versions, especially those from the 1950s and 1960s (Louis entering the space race!). Needless to say, Sid Catlett is in sterling form, making his presence felt throughout the early opening choruses, Louis punching out the lead, relying on those three-repeated quarter notes like his mentor, King Oliver. The tempo is perfect for dancing (and I say this entirely from a non-dancer's standpoint), especially during the famous riff, when things start to really coalesce.

We then get a solo by Dick Cary, whose tenure in the band was entirely too short. Arvell Shaw is next and he was the newest member of the band. Morty Corb was the bassist at Billy Berg's and some other early California gigs but Corb didn't want to leave the west coast, so Shaw was called in to replace him. Interestingly, he's the youngest, newest member of the band but his solo is the closest to what would become his set solo a few months later, right down to his favorite "Ornithology" quote.

Barney Bigard meanders a bit in his first chorus but then he hits his stride in the upper register, a pattern that would also become part of his set "Royal Garden" routine. But more interestingly, listening in the background as Louis tries setting riffs. He's obviously coming up with them on the spur of the moment and Jack Teagarden is doing his best to follow along. The riffs would continue to be different at Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall, but they, too, would gel along the way.

And then it's time for Pops and if you're as familiar with his dozens of other "Royal Garden Blues" solos as I am (see here), you'll be surprised to hear absolutely nothing of what would become his master solo. This is a 100% fresh improvised solo and it, like the rest of the performance, is very relaxed, but when you expect Louis to head upstairs in his second chorus, he stays in the middle, again, a sign, to me, that he didn't feel comfortable in the stratosphere at that time. Still, a terrific solo, with great backing from Sid (though I could have used some more of those roof-shaking backbeats).

Teagarden's up next with two choruses full of favorite blues phrases, a great outing, before Louis shows everyone the way out with more fresh playing. He finally starts climbing high in the final rideout and Sid sounds like he wants to unleash those backbeats....but Louis seems to back off just a bit and Sid follows his lead. Sid's final drum break is a gassuh (I always assume that any silence in a Sid Catlett drum break, even if only for a fraction of a second, is because is stick is being tossed in the air somewher) and Pops takes it out with a funky, declarative final phrase. Yeah!

Though it's a fine performance, I do prefer the November 1947 ones (and still like the mid-50s versions better than them all). Still, it's not only great music, but it's historically important, hearing the "set" solos still in embryonic phase and how the band was already coming together after barely a month of playing together.

On this Thanksgiving week, a million thanks to John Phillips for recording it and for Jeff Domann for graciously allowing me to share this performance with you here on the ol' blog. If you enjoyed it, let me know and feel free to send your own thanks to Jeff. And as always, biggest thanks go to Pops for creating this marvelous music in the first place!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Armstrong Odds and Ends: Mosaic Update, Professor Riccardi and More!

I haven't posted one of these "odds and end" updates in a while but there's been a lot of stuff going on related to dear old Pops and I thought some short updates were due. Ready? I'm ready, I'm ready, so help me, I'm ready.....

First off, earlier this year, I almost burst apart at the seams with excitement over the announcement that Mosaic Records was going to put out the Armstrong set I had been pitching for six years, as detailed here. We rushed like mad trying to get it ready for a late summer release but just before entering the mastering stage, Mosaic got word that a Chick Webb-Ella Fitzgerald set they had already started working on the previous year, finally got green-lighted from Universal and would become the Fall release. (I got it this week by the way, and it is dynamite! Grab it for the holidays--or for any reason--here.)

Thus, Louis was put on the back burner....until last week, when EVERYTHING showed up at audio guru Andreas Meyer's studio in Astoria. I'm happy to report that for the past two weeks, Andreas has been knocking everything out beautifully, most of the time with Mosaic's Scott Wenzel by his side. I was fortunate enough to be a part of two sessions and it was thrilling. This is what Andreas and Scott do so they were probably bored with my excitement but since I don't know if I'll ever get to do this kind of thing again, I just HAD to take some photos to document the experience.

For the first session, we had the six originally released tracks from the historic May 17, 1947 Town Hall concert on everything possible: metal master, test pressings, lacquer discs, etc. We sat there and played every single track, choosing the very best sounding version for release. Here's Scott and Andreas listening hard to "Rockin' Chair":

 And have you ever seen a metal master, dear reader? Behold, again from Town Hall:


And then it was time to move on to the tapes, the glorious tapes. It was a week full of surprises, all good. The previously unissued November 15, 1947 Carnegie Hall concert is going to be a highlight of the set for many. It's not the complete concert as some tunes were removed by RCA in the 1950s and have not been located. But the copy I had from the late discographer Jos Willems included many incomplete performances. Well, I'm happy to report that we found some of the missing segments and Andreas is putting them back together meaning there's going to be even more great stuff to enjoy....including a full Sid Catlett feature on "Steak Face" from two weeks before Symphony Hall! And then we moved on to the George Avakian-produced material from the 1950s which is so exciting, it almost boggles the mind. Scott and I just kept turning to each other, expressing utter amazement at how much fire that Armstrong-Hall-Young band produced. Here's Scott and I holding up one of the original tapes: 

I could keep going and going and going.....but that's why liner notes were invented. I'll continue polishing those, Andreas and Scott will keep doing what they do and hopefully, sometime in January, the All Stars Set To End All All Stars Sets will be released, 9 discs of glory. Start saving NOW!

More exciting news, though on a much smaller, more personal scale. First, a sad bit of business: trumpeter, historian, educator and author Howard Brofsky passed away in October. Howard was a great, great man and a lover of Louis, as related in this obituary by Tom Reney. Howard was more responsible than anyone else from the Armstrong House and Archives going to Queens College back in 1987. I was lucky to meet him a few times and he was always so warm and enthusiastic about the music he loved.

Though 86, Brofsky will still playing bebop in Brooklyn and teaching a Jazz History course to jazz performance majors at Queens College. When he passed in the middle of the semester, the College was stuck for an immediate replacement to handle the final eight sessions. The great pianist and QC alum Jeb Patton picked up four of the eight but they still needed someone to pick up the rest. I agreed to do it on a Sunday night and was in the saddle by Monday afternoon. I had no time to prep and didn't know what they had been taught but when I noticed they seemed sketchy on their knowledge of Armstrong, I dove right in. When I finally stopped the following week, it was clear that they had got it (some didn't even want me to move on from Pops).

It's been a pleasure introducing these young performers to Louis, Chu Berry, Red Allen, Pee Wee Russell, Jack Teagarden and other greats from the Swing Era. I taught Jazz History back at Rutgers in 2004 and always wanted to get back into. Fortunately, Queens College, apparently satisfied with my job and pleased that I stepped in for Professor Brofsky, have given me my own class to teach next semester! And the subject? Music of Louis Armstrong!

I can't tell you how excited I am to be doing this. As far as I know, it's the first semester-length survey of Armstrong....can anyone out there tell me of another? And instead of graduate student musicians, it will be an undergraduate course as part of the "Writing About Music" curriculum. 25 students, 3 hours a week, 15 weeks, all Louis. It's going to be a gassuh. 

And in my six years on Facebook, I've posted photos of the births of my daughters, the publication of my book, my wife and dozens of doughnuts, but nothing has ever quite exploded like this simple screenshot of the Queens College class description:

In case you're curious, my birth name is Ricky, not Richard; I think as "Assistant Professor," the college thought "Richard" sounded classier! Regardless, "Professor Riccardi" does have a nice wring to it...

A quick book recommendation for the fabulous, gigantic, beautiful Verve: The Sound of America. I don't think I've ever owned a more eye-pleasing book. So many gorgeous photos and literally thousands of Verve album cover are reproduced throughout the 400 pages. It wouldn't mean a damn if the text was terrible, but fortunately, Richard Havers--the man who wrote the book included in (and was a driving force behind) the 10-CD Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz Universal boxed set from 2011. Richard does a great job telling not only the history of the label (lots of great spotlights on classic Verve albums) but also the history of jazz in general. Another perfect gift for the jazz lover in your family this holiday season (and as we know, every family has a jazz lover....even if it's one kind-of-weird uncle who complains about Christmas music and rails against other family members clapping on 1-and-3).

(Speaking of which, I went to the mall with the family. Everything has been Christmas'd up since Halloween ended, which is a little ridiculous. I've been moaning every time I hear a Christmas carol played in the single digits of November....but tonight I heard Pops! Yeah! 'Tis the season, right? It was "Zat You Santa Claus," a good ol' good one from 1953. But through the din of the mall, something didn't sound right. It was Pops, but something was amiss. I literally walked the kids to a quieter part of Macy's and listened carefully: an electric rock guitar! Tutti Camarata's swinging arrangement butchered to pieces! Single lines in the original arrangement repeated over and over for no good reason! It was.....a REMIX! Why, in the name of the Lord, must we remix classic Christmas songs? I know there's only about a dozen good ones so I understand when singer after singer and musician after musician continues to tackle the same songs each December; it comes with the territory. But let's stop remixing the classics, okay? And no more duets with dead people either. That's just creepy. And that ends my Scrooge-rant....)


And finally, a plug for the Louis Armstrong House Museum (my employer), who is throwing its third annual gala on December 11. This is a big one because among the four honorees are two legends and friends of Pops: Dan Morgenstern and Quincy Jones! Yes indeed, Quincy will be in the house. And on top of that, music will be provided by the always-terrific Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. So it is going to be THE thing to do on December 11....or dare I say the event of the YEAR. (Decade, too, while we're at it.) If you're in NY, you can purchase tickets by clicking here and if you are not in NY, you can still support us with a small donation by clicking that same link. Might I recommend becoming a member, which includes two issues of "The Dippermouth News," our Armstrong House newsletter, now being edited by yours truly. And as always, if you're coming to Queens, let me know and be sure to say hello!

I think that's all the Armstrong-related activities going on now but I'll be back shortly with a real rarity: audio of the first surviving All Stars performance ever. Don't miss it....til then!

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Definition of DEEP - Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen, September 29, 1957


Such a simple, stupid little word. What does it even mean anymore? I know I overuse it like crazy in conversation; I recently described an experience with a pizza as “deep” (and it wasn’t even deep-dish pizza).

But every so often, something hits you between the eyes and you jump up and say, “Oh, now, that….THAT is DEEP.”

Dear readers, what I am about to share with you today practically defines DEEP. If you’re friends with me on Facebook or “like” the Louis Armstrong House Museum on any social media platform, then you already know this since that’s the word I kept coming back to the three times I posted this video last week. It’s the only word that suffices, once you catch your breath.

Backstory time: in September 1957, Louis Armstrong put his entire career on the line by blasting the United States government—and President Dwight Eisenhower and Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in particular—for the way it was handling the “Little Rock Nine” high school integration mess down south.

As the story has been told so many times over the years, Louis finally lost it to reporter Larry Lubenow on September 17, telling him “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell. It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country.” 50 years later, Lubenow  admitted that Armstrong also called Faubus a “no-good motherfucker” and sang his own version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” with lyrics such as “Oh say can you motherfuckers see by the motherfucking early light..” Lubenow didn’t publish those words but he printed just about everything else, which exploded in newspapers across the nation on September 19.

It turns out that Lubenow wsan’t the only person Armstrong vented to about the incidents in Little Rock. Earlier this year, while working at my day job as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I stumbled across a tape Louis marked as a “special” one. On it, he sat down for two interviews, one in Spokane, one in Edmonton, Canada. Both times, he talked about Little Rock. Both times, he tape-recorded the results. Both times, his comments went unnoticed by the general media. In Spokane, he said, “Why do we have to suffer so much for people to realize we’re all right?” In Edmonton, he added, “I don’t feel so good about what happened this morning. I feel terrible….You can’t smile through all of that.”

Louis Armstrong was in Spokane on September 8. He was in Edmonton on September 10. He had been talking about Little Rock and blasting Faubus for almost ten full days before Lubenow’s words spread. Armstrong’s interview with Lubenow wasn’t a brief explosion brought on by injustice that rankled Armstrong that same day. No, it was the final manifestation of something that had been building for well over a week. Louis was going to keep talking about Little Rock until he was heard.

And boy, was he ever heard.  The fallout has been chronicled in many books, including my own, so there’s no need going into all the details here about how Louis was criticized by both white and black figures and how those who had spent years calling him an “Uncle Tom” (such as Dizzy Gillespie, who called him that in Esquire as recently as May 1957) disappeared. On September 26, after Eisenhower finally sent the troops in to make sure the school children entered the high school safely, Louis wrote his famous telegram to the President, praising him and the United States in general.

But he didn’t take back a word he said about Little Rock. In fact, the most brutal column featuring Armstrong’s words didn’t run in the Pittsburgh Courier until September 28, which quoted the trumpeter as saying, “My people—the Negroes—are not looking for anything—we just want a square shake. But when I see on television and read about a crowd in Arkansas spitting on a little colored girl—I think I have a right to get sore…Do you dig me when I still say I have right to blow my top over injustice?”

The following night, September 29, Armstrong was set to make his first television appearance since the controversy on an episode of the DuPont Show of the Week titled “Crescendo.” He wouldn’t be alone. To quote one Internet description: “Rex Harrison is a visiting Englishman who takes a dim view of American culture. To overcome his skepticism, he is introduced to a wide variety of American musical styles and artists. During his tour he runs into Julie Andrews, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Diahann Carroll, Peggy Lee, Eddy Arnold, Mahalia Jackson, Sonny James, Dinah Washington, Stubby Kaye, Stanley Holloway, Turk Murphy, Lizzie Miles and the Norman Luboff Choir.”

I had obviously known about this broadcast for years but didn’t think  anything existed from it, until December 21, 2010 when a clip of Armstrong and Harrison doing “Now You Has Jazz” surfaced on YouTube in the worst quality ever. Still, it was quite an odd clip with Armstrong almost groping Harrison and Harrison, well, being Harrison. It did make its way around the internet, though (over 60,000 views in two years). I screened it for the first time at the Satchmo Summerfest this past August and people were screaming with laughter. See here:
After searching through the internet, I found a collector who offered it so I jumped and got it. However, my copy was 60 minutes and the original show was 90. I now had the Harrison clip but now I was missing the most tantalizing moment from the show, something that had been taunting me in discographies for years: Louis apparently doing a duet with Diahann Carroll on “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

Getting deeper.

Alas, I couldn’t find it. But earlier this year, again at work, I transferred one of Louis’s reel-to-reel tapes and sure enough, he taped the audio from the “Crescendo” show. I finally got to hear Carroll beautifully sing the old spiritual followed by Armstrong playing two choruses of trumpet. And at the start of the second chorus, he quoted “The Star Spangled Banner.”


Armstrong knew this was special. He dubbed it once, dubbed it again and then dubbed it a third time just from the trumpet solo. But we don’t share any of the audio of Louis’s private tapes at the Armstrong Archives and because I’m always drowning in work, it was one of those, “Wow, that’s great, too bad I can’t share it, time to move on to something else” moments.

And then last Wednesday, I woke up early and headed to the bathroom. Brushing my teeth with one hand and checking my iPhone with the other (21st century, folks), I saw my friend, the Italian Armstrong worshiper Simone Dabusti, posted on my Facebook page: a YouTube video of “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen," uploaded by the user Rowoches. I had to watch it right then and there, the hell with it being 5:15 in the morning with everyone sleeping. Naturally, my wife opened the door when she heard the trumpet through the noisy fan and shot me a tired, "Are-you-nuts-the-kids-are-sleeping!" look. I got it and figured I'd wait until I got to work to really enjoy it (mostly because I didn't want to cry on the bus).

Wednesdays are the days I open the Armstrong House. After doing that and cashing in, I sat in the welcome center--two floors down from where Pops dubbed the audio to tape 56 years ago--and watched it. Watched this:


That's when it really hit me, watching it in silence in Louis Armstrong's house. My heart raced and I got chills. I watched it two more times and then began sharing it on social media. It seemed to wow my friends on Facebook but kind of died on the Armstrong House pages; indeed, after over a week, it only has about 390 YouTube views and all the comments revolve around Carroll's beautiful vocal.

But I'm sorry, I know I'm biased but it's Louis that gets me right in the heart. For one thing, he's sitting in a rocking chair, which I guess makes for nice scenery (oh, how I wish a better quality clip came along) but interestingly enough, Louis HATED sitting and playing. We have the unedited tape at the Armstrong Archives of Louis's 1954 Blindfold Test with Leonard Feather and he went on for some time about "lazy" players who sat down when they took a solo. But here he's sitting and I don't know, it kind of works, the rocking chair lending an extra heap to the proceedings, and perhaps inspiring Art Kane's beautiful shots of Louis in one from the following year:
Armstrong does slightly crack his first note but even that makes it all more vulnerable, more human. He then settles in and phrases it from the heart; gorgeous playing of a song he had just recorded for Verve in August and would remake for Decca in January 1958. Clearly, it meant a lot to him.
But that "Star Spangled Banner", my, my. On live television. Talk about a statement. What was Dizzy doing on September 29, 1957? Where was Miles? Where was Mingus? Only Pops was on national television, incorporating the National Anthem into perhaps the most autobiographical song Armstrong ever touched. He doesn't open his mouth, but the message rings loud and clear: sometimes I'm up, sometimes I'm down, sometimes I'm almost to the ground. Oh yes, Lord.

As the camera pulls back and Louis goes into one of his slow, quiet endings, I tear up. I teared up at the Armstrong House. I teared up watching it for reference right now.

And if that's not DEEP, I don't know what is.

Armstrong's "Crescendo" appearance came and went but he was due back on the air in two weeks on an episode of Bing Crosby's Edsel Show with Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney. The Dupont show aired on NBC but Bing's show was going to be on CBS and they still didn't want anything to do with Armstrong (and searching around Google, I did find reference to a newspaper column of September 20 where NBC tried getting Louis not to appear on "Crescendo"; can't find the full article, alas). As Gary Giddins tells it, Bing basically said, "If Louis doesn't appear, I don't appear." Louis appeared. The clips from that show have become pretty famous and the story of Bing's stance still gets told. But I've never heard a single person reference Louis's playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" on "Crescendo."

It's tempting to read something hopeful into Armstrong's quote of the National Anthem, especially since he just wrote to Eisenhower and called America "the greatest country." But I don't buy it. For one thing, Armstrong was taking a break from playing "The Star Spangled Banner," which he used to end his concerts with. Just a few weeks later, Armstrong was in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the first stop on an incredibly successful tour of South America (now being celebrated in an exhibit I curated for the Armstrong House). While in his hotel room, being photographed by the legendary Lisl Steiner, Armstrong received a phone call from the United States Ambassador to Argentina....asking him to play "The Star Spangled Banner." I interviewed Steiner in September while planning the exhibit and she remembered Armstrong's words vividly 56 years later: "Mr. Ambassador, you can go and fuck yourself because I can't even get a hotel room in Times Square!" He then hung up the phone and raised his hands triumphantly. Steiner snapped this photo:
Armstrong taped many of his concerts on that South American tour, from Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Caracas and other stops. He did not close any of his shows with "The Star Spangled Banner."

Like I said.