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!


LOUIS said...

As you stress, thanks to everyone from Pops to Jeff S. Dommann and John Phillips, and thanks to you Ricky, for thinking of us.
5 sets a day ! Who would play 5 sets a day nowadays, and keep the quality of the music up until the wee hours of the morning ?...

Sahfen said...

Thanks Ricky, Jeff and John for sharing this gem!! A thanks to Pops!...


Sebastian Claudius Semler said...

Thanks for this great post. Very interesting.
I really love those 1947 recordings (especially Town Hall concert). And may it be because of being tired or not - I definitely prefer this more relaxed tempo compared to these extroverted dixieland explosion versions of the 50s. It has much more pulse and more space for pauses in the improvisations. (And Dick Cary's playing ist delicate, especially during Shaw's bass solo.)
Thanks an best regards,

Dave Sills said...

This is why the internet is great. My grandfather & great-Uncle, Maury & Jack Peretz, owned the Rag Doll. I was just scanning in some old photos of them from the Rag Doll era (also their other place, The Little Club).