Saturday, December 7, 2013

85 Years of Basin Street Blues

Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded December 4, 1928
Track Time 3:11
Written by Spencer Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Fred Robinson, trombone, humming; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, humming; Earl Hines, piano, celeste; Mancy Carr, banjo; Zutty Singleton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 8690
Currently available on CD: It’s on many compilations, including any complete Hot Five/Hot Seven box sets
Available on Itunes? Yes, on about 40 different albums, so take your pick!

Shoot. Pardon me for starting a blog in a bad frame of mind but I sat down yesterday morning to start writing about footage from a complete All Stars concert from East Berlin in 1965 that had online on the MDR website for the past week. I posted it on Facebook and it seemed to explode a bit there, but I've been so busy, I was waiting for the weekend to blog about it. Well, I just checked the link....and it's gone! Oh well, I can't get too mad; bless MDR for even hosting it on the web for a full week. Maybe they'll do it again in the future--or better yet, maybe it'll come out on DVD--but for now, we're stuck with the memories. It was an incredible piece of history.

So stuck for an entry, I'm reaching into my back catalog to spruce up an old anniversary post on "Basin Street Blues," which was recorded 85 years ago on December 4, 1928. I have some new stuff to add but for the most part, it will still focus on the major studio releases, a bunch of early All Stars versions to show how it took shape, then some highlights of a few later versions, with some videos thrown in for good measure. How’s that sound? Can’t go wrong with Louis and “Basin Street,” that’s for sure.

The tune was written by the great Spencer Williams and, as far as I can tell, Armstrong was the first person to get a crack at it in the studio. Armstrong hadn’t recorded for OKeh since the busy run of five sessions in late June/early July 1928, a run that included “West End Blues.” Back then, Zutty Singleton was using hand cymbals but by the time the band reunited for a series of December sessions, Zutty was using his kit. Earl Hines and Armstrong had an incredible partnership during this period, perhaps never better illustrated than on the 13 numbers they recorded together between December 4 and December 12, 1928. I should probably do 85 year anniversary posts of all them, but alas, that would probably kill me.

Anyway, the Spencer Williams tune was pretty bare bones when Armstrong got to it. There was no famous verse and no lyrics, just those very simple, very pretty 16 bars. Before playing it, why don’t we listen to DJ Louis Armstrong introduce the record?


Isn’t that nice? In 1956, the Voice of America asked Armstrong to play disc jockey for five one-hour programs, spinning his favorite records and talking about them. Only his voice is heard, not even that of an interviewer, though surely he had some guidance. David Ostwald lent me the tapes back in 2008 and they've become some of my most prized possessions. So with the introduction out of the way, let’s go back to Chicago, 85 years ago this week, to see what Armstrong and the gang cooked up on the very first “Basin Street Blues”:


Magic. From the start of the record, with Hines on the celeste, the whole record has the feel of something special. Hines solos like himself while the band plays the standard “Basin Street” harmonies behind him, without ever explicitly playing a melody (I love Zutty’s throbbing drums, too). After a note-perfect celeste break, Armstrong plays a pure 12-bar chorus of blues that has nothing to do with the “Basin Street” we all know and love, but seems to be a trademark of many early recordings of the tune. Armstrong’s very sober here, riding the pulsating wave of rhythm behind him. A swaying, stride interlude sets up the vocal as Armstrong scats brilliantly while trombonist Fred Robinson and clarinetist Jimmy Strong harmonize behind him, a throwback to Armstrong’s days singing in a quartet as a kid in New Orleans. It’s a very hornlike vocal, especially in the breaks, which are pure Armstrong.

Hines strides through another interlude before the main event, one of the greatest solos of Armstrong’s entire career. Armstrong was such a master of rhythm and often on this blog, I’ve discussed his uptempo work, where he seemed to float over the beat, playing as few notes as possible. But on something slower, like this one, Armstrong goes 180 degrees in the opposite direction, double-timing like a madman and showing the way towards jazz’s future. His opening arpeggiated phrase, followed be a few beats of silence, is perfection personified, while that break is as daring and wonderfully executed as anything else one can find in the jazz world of 1928 (not to mention 2013). The whole solo is so passionate and though much of it is double-timed, there’s a very vocal quality to it all; one can easily hear him scatting each and every note of the solo.

But even with the propensity of notes, the most spine-tingling moment comes when Armstrong simply plays one note, a searing high Bb that he uses in his final break, repeating it rhythmically before barely grazing on a higher D. Armstrong loved using the device of hitting and holding a high one in a break, going back to it again in later years on “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and “What is This Thing Called Swing” to name two examples. The ensemble joins him for the final 16 bars, getting quieter as they progress and finally playing the tune’s signature melody before Hines’s celeste puts the finishing touches on this masterpiece of a record.

Back to DJ Pops. Let’s listen to him wrap up the OKeh record, as well as discuss some of his other versions. I know it’s jumping the gun but he ends by perfectly singing the scat ending to his next studio record of “Basin Street Blues,” to be discussed here in a moment. But here’s Pops to tell you all about it:


I love the way he remembers that scat ending perfectly, 23 years later. As he says, you can approach “Basin Street Blues” in a bunch of different ways, something that will become apparent the longer and deeper we get into it. Armstrong remade the tune for Victor on January 27, 1933 with his band at the time, led by Zilner Randolph and featuring some very nice musicians, including pianist Teddy Wilson, drummer Yank Porter, reedman Scoville Browne and the great Brown brothers from Texas, tenor saxophonist Budd and trombonist Keg. This wasn’t the world’s greatest band but Armstrong was happy to front them.

I’ve argued time and again in this space for the importance of Armstrong’s Victor recordings, which really capture him in arguably his all-time peak form as a trumpet player. He could do no wrong, settling into the dramatic, operatic style of his mature years, yet still able to toss off daring, almost reckless phrases without missing a note. Victor signed Armstrong in late 1932 and though he was with the label for less than a year, they still knew his importance and had him remake many of his OKeh standbys, including two medleys of “Hits,” “High Society,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp” and “St. Louis Blues" (search the Archives of this blog from earlier this year to find individual blogs on each of these tunes, and more!). The remake of “Basin Street” was the made the day after an incredible session that found Armstrong doing some of the greatest blowing of his career on “I’ve Got the World on a String,” “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” “Sittin’ in the Dark” and three others. But enough from me, let’s listen to the astonishing Victor “Basin Street Blues”:


Wow. One can start a fight between Armstrong nuts about which version they prefer, the OKeh or the Victor. I’ll take ‘em both, but if forced at gunpoint, I might go with the Victor. The tempo is a shade brighter than the OKeh, for one thing. The Victor opens with a sparkling Teddy Wilson introduction before Keg Johnson plays the melody, interrupted only for a bubbling clarinet break. Then Armstrong once again plays a 12-bar chorus of blues, starting off with the exact notes used on the OKeh, before he settles into a riff that he can’t shake until the chorus is over (this part always reminds me of the non-vocal take of “Dallas Blues” from 1929). Then the band plays an arranged 12-bar chorus, the rhythm section almost marching, rather than swinging. For the vocal, Pops once again sticks to purely scatting over vocal harmonies from the band. His first vocal break is similar to the first one on the OKeh, but is delivered with more urgency.

Then, a glance at the clock shows 1:20 left for Pops to make his final statement. Once again, it’s a festival of double-timing, but it’s even wilder than the original with a break that knocks me out, highlighted by a massive gliss to a high D (please keep that break in mind). Armstrong calms down a bit to do some very hip swinging in the lower register (eliciting a “Yeah” from someone in the background) before he repeats the high Bb break from 1928. Oh, and remember how I said Armstrong “grazed” a high D on the original? Well, somebody must have been practicing because he absolutely kills it on the Victor! A clarinet trio joins Armstrong as he gradually winds down before ending the record with some more scatting, setting up the slow coda we already heard the Armstrong of 1956 sing. The closing “Yeah, man” pretty much sums it up. I’m sweating over here!

Armstrong wouldn’t make another studio recording of the tune for 20 full years but he did perform it live. We might have never known what it sounded like during his big band years without the one and only Gösta Hägglöf who issued not one, but two swinging versions of the tune on his Ambassador label. (And keep watching this space in the coming weeks for an announcement about those wonderful Ambassador discs!)

After the original OKeh recording, “Basin Street Blues” became something of a jazz standard. A 1929 version by the Lousiana Rhythm Kings included almost as much 12-bar blues playing as it contained solos on the “Basin Street” changes. It even included a humorous blues vocal by Jack Teagarden. By two years later, Teagarden took another crack at it for a Charleston Chasers record date. The tune had no lyrics to speak of so Teagarden and Glenn Miller wrote new ones, including a brand new verse, the famous “Won’t you come along with me” stanza. They never received credit but from then on, the Teagarden-Miller verse and lyrics became an integral part of the song.

The two surviving Armstrong big band broadcasts come from the early 40s and are very similar in that they’re unusually fast and feature Armstrong singing the new verse. However, the trumpet solos differ greatly on both and are really worth listening because, to me, they really remind me of the kinds of things Armstrong would start doing in the late 40s and 50s with the All Stars. Here, after a snatch of “Sleepy Time,” is “Basin Street” from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, November 17, 1941:


Great stuff, especially the line about “beating up your chops on ‘Basin Street.’” Armstrong’s four-chorus solo is a textbook example of the art of storytelling, getting wonderful accents from drummer Sid Catlett as he builds up a head of steam. The closing high Bb is very nice and all in all, it’s a great solo. That is, until you hear what he did on the tune on April 1, 1942 at the Casa Manana in Culver City, California, a broadcast that I rate as one of perhaps the five greatest recorded nights in Armstrong’s entire career. The vocal is delicious again, but feel free to fast forward just to hear the monster solo:


Unbelievable! He’s super-charged on this one, in complete command, even quoting something that sounds like an ancestor to “La Vie En Rose” at one point. Catlett responds with even more emphatic drumming, spurring Armstrong to even greater heights before an ending that finds Armstrong landing on an impossible concert F! Smelling salts please...

The next time Armstrong encountered “Basin Street Blues” was in 1944 when it was time for the legendary Esquire All American Jazz Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Many jazz fans might be familiar with that evening’s performance, featuring a dream band of Armstrong, Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford and Catlett. But two days before the show, a select small group of Armstrong, Teagarden, Hawkins, Tatum, Casey, Pettiford and Catlett did a promotional appearance on ABC’s “Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street,” another jewel we have Gösta Hägglöf to thank for. Since Teagarden had a hand in writing the words, the song had become a natural feature for the trombonist in the ensuing years. Thus, it made sense for Armstrong to share vocal duties with Big T. Give a listen to this rare performance:


Art Tatum is a monster throughout the beginning of the performance, drawing attention away from Teagarden’s vocal with his piano pyrotechnics. Teagarden then plays a chorus, sounding beautiful as always before Pops scats one, digging out his old records for the first break. Hawkins then roars in, in peak 1944 form (what a year he had) before a very good Armstrong solo, though he partially cracks a note or two. He’s full of new ideas, melodic throughout, getting spurred on by Catlett backbeats as he progresses. Teagarden’s vocal shows the way out for this very fine run-through. Two nights later, on the stage of the Met, it was even more exciting, as can be heard here:


Basically, it follows the broadcast version to a T (no pun intended...okay, maybe slightly), though I think Teagarden had a better solo on the earlier version. Pops got maligned for his performance that night by some critics, but I think he sounds great, both vocally and in the trumpet solo, which generates more heat than the version from two days prior. He clearly disturbs Hawk by coming in early, but after that, he gives another master’s class, his tone stronger than on the broadcast. Nothing earth-shattering, but some terrific playing by a dream band.

The following year, Armstrong played the Second All American Jazz Concert from the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans with a band that included Sidney Bechet, J.C. Higginbotham, James P. Johnson, Richard Alexis and Paul Barbarin. It was a contentious set with Armstrong often doing his damndest to play over Bechet but at the end, a very nice ceremony took place. Years earlier, to do away with the memory of Storyville, New Orleans’s red light district, Basin Street was renamed North Saratoga Street. However, after the popularity of “Basin Street Blues” and the ensuing New Orleans jazz revival, North Saratoga was once again renamed “Basin Street.” To officially commemorate it, the group played a way too-short version of “Basin Street” with Bunk Johnson joining in on second trumpet. Armstrong dominates everything, but turns in a great vocal though sadly it fades out on the slightly chaotic closing ensemble. It’s barely a minute but it’s worth a listen:


The following year, Armstrong took part in the filming of New Orleans, a movie that originally started out with the intention to tell the story of the birth of jazz but ended up being a pretty rotten melodrama. Still, much good music was made and Armstrong was often the center of it, leading a small group that consisted of Kid Ory on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Charlie Beal on piano, Bud Scott on guitar, Red Callender on bass and the original OKeh drummer Zutty Singleton. This is a terrific, relaxed version, with Armstrong singing the verse, the the main strain and even scatting a full chorus (asking for the band’s permission with a kind “One more, Faces, one more") while the band gives him some slightly pitchy vocal harmony in the background. After a blustery Ory and a somewhat alive Bigard (I’m used to the bored stiff version of circa 1955), Armstrong enters for one chorus, summoning the wild spirit of his earlier versions. His chops were in seriously good form for the film and he blows with abandon here, playing a mind-bending gliss before some scintillating phrases. You have to hear it to believe it:


Thus, “Basin Street Blues” became a symbol of Armstrong’s New Orleans days, the kind of number he trotted out on special occasions but probably didn’t play with his big band anymore. On April 26, 1947, the occasion of the opening of New Orleans in the city of the same, Armstrong appeared with another all-star group of old-timers on Rudi Blesh’s This is Jazz radio program. Surrounded by Wild Bill Davison, George Brunies, Albert Nicholas, Art Hodes, Danny Barker, Pops Foster and Baby Dodds, Armstrong performed this excellent version:


Armstrong’s two vocal choruses are a highlight and the loose nature of the program is illustrated by Armstrong’s impromptu instruction to clarinetist Nicholas to take a break. Armstrong only plays one chorus of trumpet but is in peak form. And dig that break: it’s “The Gypsy,” the Ink Spots hit that Armstrong would have a love affair with in the mid-50s.  Even when Armstrong was playing a New Orleans warhorse, he still had a pop tune close to his mind (and as I discovered a few years ago at the Armstrong Archives, his big band had an arrangement of "The Gypsy" that was never recorded, but must have been in live shows of the period). Baby Dodds really lays in the backbeat towards the end as Pops powers it home. A great one.

All these small group dates paved the way for the historic Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947. After the success of that date (which apparently didn’t feature “Basin Street Blues”), Armstrong ditched his big band and formed a small group, the All Stars. Before doing so, Armstrong fronted a small group for the New York premiere of New Orleans at the Winter Garden Theater in June 1947. Once again, Teagarden was along and, being respectful of the trombonist, Armstrong didn’t solo on “Basin Street,” though he turns in a helluva scat solo. He does play beautiful lines in the background, but otherwise, it’s the Teagarden show. You don’t HAVE to listen to this one but if you’re a big Teagarden fan (and who isn’t?), you’ll dig it:


The All Stars were officially born in August and by the time of a Carnegie Hall concert in November of that year, the routine was set. “Basin Street” was officially a Teagarden feature as Pops would introduce, “Mr. Teagarden is going to take over.” Armstrong no longer sang on the piece, leaving Teagarden to take the entire verse and chorus, as well as a trombone solo, vocal reprise and “tram-bone coda” or “cadenza,” depending on how the Texan felt. However, in between it all, Armstrong would take one chorus with a break (sometimes going back to "The Gypsy") and often stole the show from the trombonist! The first surviving All Stars version comes from an ultra rare Carnegie Hall performance on November 15, 1947....that won't be ultra rare come February, when it is released as part of the 9-CD All Stars boxed set I'm compiling for Mosaic Records! But don't worry, there's MANY more versions to share. Let's instead listen to a complete performance from Paris, March 2, 1948 (now with Earl Hines back in the band), just to get a feel for the early All Stars versions:

Terrific stuff. No, you might be thinking that I said I wasn’t going to share EVERY version yet here I am, so much time later, and I’m only on version 10 out of the 85 in my collection  (that's an estimation; my iTunes tells me I have 95 but some are duplicates). But don’t worry, here’s where we speed it up. Now that you’ve heard the basic routine, you can be assured that it never changed while Teagarden was in the band. However, Armstrong usually always changed some of his solo, including the break. So let’s take a tour of Armstrong’s solos, listening again to that unreal outing from the Salle Playel in Paris:


How about that break??? He starts with “The Gypsy” but soon goes all over the place, an incredible flurry of ideas. A few months later, at Ciro’s in Philadelphia, Armstrong abandoned “The Gypsy” and instead almost reverted back to his Victor break before stopping on a dime and again, assaulting the listener with a wild stream of notes. Here’s this solo:


By the time of the Dixieland Jubilee in Pasadena in October 1948, Armstrong’s “Basin Street” solo was slowing turning into a concrete statement, especially with those searing Bb’s after the break. Armstrong was now backed by shouts of “Go!” and “Wail!” while “The Gypsy” came back for this version, too:


An almost identical version was played at the Blue Note in Chicago in December of that year, complete with “The Gypsy” but something new and exciting cropped up in Armstrong’s solo by the time of a broadcast from The Click in Philadelphia in August 1949. I won’t spoil it:


Did you get it? It’s the Victor break! Somewhere along the way, Armstrong decided to abandon “The Gypsy” quote and instead started playing the original set-up and ridiculous gliss he played on the 1933 Victor (though admittedly, his descent isn’t as “wild” as it was on that one). Still, Armstrong now had a new break and it was this one that he played for the remainder of Teagarden’s time with the band. I’ll now skip over a bunch of versions since Pops pretty much had his chorus “set” by this point but once more, in great sound, here’s the solo from a December 1951 concert in Pasadena, a kind of last hurrah for Teagarden in the All Stars (he officially left the band a couple of months earlier but came back for this one show):



How about a video? From the film The Strip, here's a stripped down version of "Basin Street," only clocking in at 2:08 but giving a nice visual of the All Stars of the period. Pops's solo is way too short but he's on fire! (To the point where he's not even close to miming along with his pre-recorded track....)

In early 1952, Armstrong performed “Basin Street” on the Colgate Comedy Hour, a fun performance with a new trumpet solo and Armstrong’s first vocal on the tune in years. Here 'tis (I won't be offended if you stick around for the scorching "Bugle Blues" at the end of this clip!):

Soon after, Armstrong’s All Stars entered a rebuilding period with Russ Phillips replacing Teagarden on trombone. Phillips didn’t last very long as he was replaced by Trummy Young in September 1952. Armstrong immediately gave Young Teagarden’s feature on “Basin Street Blues,” as captured at this Stockholm concert from October 1952:


I love Teagarden, but I think that’s pretty wonderful. Trummy made the feature his own by playing a helluva lot of trombone, including a mini-tribute to Pops, playing segments of the trumpeter’s 1928 OKeh solo verbatim after the heartfelt vocal. Armstrong’s solo is still pretty much the same as it was during the Teagarden years but he gets an extra two bars because Trummy doesn’t come in with a vocal, but rather more trombone playing, including a quote from Rigoletto that Armstrong introduced to the jazz world. It’s a marvelous feature but perhaps Trummy wanted to make it even more his own, which would explain the following version from Italy just a few weeks later. This broadcast is not a strong point in the Armstrong discography as his chops were pretty erratic, especially in the upper register. Also, the sound quality is terrible; you really have to listen to feel the rhythm section and sense that the tempo has doubled since Stockholm, allowing the bopper in Trummy to get in some more modern double-timing. Also, Armstrong revives his old scat solo for the first time since 1947. The new approach forces Armstrong to improvise some fine new ideas but he also struggles mightily at other times, though he recovers nicely at the end. Here’s this completely different “Basin Street”:


The following summer, Louis Armstrong filmed a scene for The Glenn Miller Story, a major Universal picture starring Jimmy Stewart as the trombonist. Armstrong and the All Stars appeared along with tenor saxophonist Babe Russin, trombonist Joe Yukl (who dubbed in Stewart’s non-playing) and two drummers, Cozy Cole and Gene Krupa. The soundtrack prerecording was issued on Mosaic Records years ago and it’s very, very good but why listen when you can watch? The film edited out about a minute of music but otherwise, it’s a great clip of (a very fat!) Louis Armstrong in Hollywood:

The Miller arrangement was completely new with two tempos. The first is relaxed, yet swinging, allowing Armstrong to play a strong lead, complete with break and take a tour de force vocal. Armstrong calls some guests up to the stage and, after a short drum solo by Krupa, the tempo doubles for the most exciting Armstrong “Basin Street” since the big band days. Armstrong’s lead is glorious before Bigard, Russin, bassist Arvell Shaw and Yukl/Stewart pass the solo ball around. Armstrong’s lead is once again something to marvel at before he gradually turns down the volume setting up a drum battle between Cole and Krupa. A wonderful clip (and on a personal note, the one that made me pay attention when I was 15-years-old and say to myself, "Oh, I need to see more of this guy!").

Even after filming, The Glenn Miller Story wouldn’t be released until January 1954 so “Basin Street” remained a trombone feature for Trummy Young. An incredible concert from the summer of 1953 was issue on LP many years ago and needs to be put out on CD NOW (it was originally on two albums on the Rarities label as being from Cornell in 1954, but both the date and the location were wrong). Interestingly, the Italian experiment must not have worked out so the tempo was slowed down once more, Pops didn’t sing and Trummy quoted all of Armstrong’s old licks. Here, though, is Armstrong’s solo, one last time, complete with the Victor break and a dazzling ending, setting up Trummy’s return:


The Glenn Miller Story was released in 1954 and was a hit. For the soundtrack, Armstrong and the All Stars recreated “Basin Street Blues,” this time with only one drummer (Kenny John) and Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone. It’s a wonderful version, one that would later be used on Decca’s Autobiography project. Here ‘tis:


The tempo is still relaxed and Armstrong still kills it with both his horn and voice (dig that scatting). Billy Kyle had recently joined the band and this was his first studio solo with the group. You can hear him singing along with his solo and even playing steady left-hand chords a la Erroll Garner. John didn’t last long as a drummer (terrible personality and bad offstage habits) but he sounded phenomenal on this four-song date from 1954, especially on his solos on this tune. Again, the tempo jumps and the parade of solos begin (nice one from Freeman), including some roaring Trummy. The tempo is really kicking but Armstrong is in complete command, especially after John’s slightly extended solo. It’s a great version, yet another wonderful studio attempt to go along with Armstrong’s earlier ones.

“Basin Street Blues” now became a regular part of many Armstrong stage shows, always featuring the trumpeter as vocalist and the two tempo arrangement. Many terrific performances exist from the mid-50s but my favorite comes from a Colgate Comedy Hour broadcast from February 2, 1955. It appropriately takes place in New Orleans and is my favorite clip of the “W.C. Handy/Satch Plays Fats” band with Young, Bigard, Kyle, Shaw and drummer Barrett Deems. Enjoy!


I love it. The quality is subpar but the energy of the band comes through, especially during the uptempo part where they seem to be bouncing and breathing together in tempo.

From here out, I have a ton of versions of the tune, all great, but there’s really no need to share many of them because they’re so similar. Also, Armstrong stopped soloing on the tune, though his lead playing was always something to marvel at. For the die-hards, I must share at least one version from Edmond Hall’s tenure in the band. As a clarinetist, Hall was a much better fit than Bigard and for me, the group with Hall was the greatest edition of the All Stars. Naturally, “Basin Street” was a big part of the repertoire, often the second song of the second set, after “The Saints,” so I have a lot to choose from. Here's a great one from Stockholm in October 1955, about a month after Hall joined the band:

A great one, still sounding fresh after all those years, even with a few new touches: Billy Kyle now quoted the “The Campbells are Coming,” complete with a Scottish, bagpipe-like drone in the left hand (Pops always loved pointing it out) and the horns would quote “Jingle Bells” in the first ensemble after the tempo change. Hall was a great fit--my goodness, did you hear him going nuts in the final ensemble?--but he left in the summer of 1958. A few months later, in October, Decca called Armstrong in to once again rerecord his two numbers from the Glenn Miller Story soundtrack. This time, the All Stars were augmented by Al Hendrickson on guitar and Eddie Miller on tenor saxophone, while the personnel was almost completely different from the time of the original movie: Trummy Young was still there, but now Armstrong was surrounded by Peanuts Hucko on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano (Marty Napoleon was in the movie), Mort Herbert on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums.

Unfortunately, the fall of 1958 was a rough time for Armstrong’s chops. Just two days prior to the Decca session, Armstrong struggled a bit at the inaugural Monterey Jazz Festival, a concert I wrote about in great length about four years ago. The problems spread to this Decca session, which found Armstrong doing the two numbers from the Miller movie, as well as two dopey tunes with a vocal group, “I Love Jazz” and “Mardi Gras March.” I’ve listened to the session tapes for this date and can attest that Pops worked himself pretty hard, almost burning himself out on the two novelty numbers. Thus, when it got time to do “Basin Street,” a song the All Stars could have played in their sleep, it required two complete takes, a breakdown and two inserts. It’s interesting because almost everyone goofs: Kyle sloppily wraps up his piano solo, rushing at the end; Barcelona speeds up the tempo during some of his breaks, causing producer Milt Gabler to warn about doing that because then he couldn’t splice segments of different takes if the tempos varied; Trummy botches an entrance; one of the reeds plays a wrong note in the opening section, etc. Pops doesn’t do anything wrong, per se, but he’s at less than full strength here and there. However, he did rally for some of the outchoruses and in the end, Gabler managed to do some editing and produced a very worthwhile recording, Dan Morgenstern’s favorite of the three Decca studio attempts. Here it is:


Now, I didn’t want to spoil it out beforehand, but how about that tempo? For the first time since its days as a trombone feature, the first half with the vocal was slowed down dramatically. In some live versions, it would almost be a crawl. I think Pops liked the slower tempo a little more, as it allowed for a more stately lead and a relaxed vocal where he could really draw out the scat breaks. The second half more or less stayed at the same tempo and always featured some stunning lead but for all intents and purposes, this was it til the end.

Pops’s chops were back in prime form for his marathon tour of Europe in 1959 and “Basin Street Blues” was played at nearly every concert, usually the third tune of the show after “Sleepy Time” and “Indiana.” One of the finest versions was played in Stuttgart, Germany in February of that year at a concert that televised. This has become a very popular YouTube clip and after watching it, it’s easy to see why as it demonstrates what a captivating experience it was to watch and listen to Louis Armstrong play “Basin Street Blues” in his later years (it used to have hundreds of thousands of views but must have gotten taken down at some point because all the versions I found tonight in 2013 had about 5,000):

In my collection, I have a load of other versions of “Basin Street” but I’m not going to play them all because, well, I think there’s only so much one human being can take! But there’s one that I have to play because, just when you think Pops settled into a comfortable routine, he’d throw some curveballs. In the summer of 1960, the All Stars played at Ravinia Park in Highland Park, Illinois, an occasion that found Armstrong doing some absolutely spectacular playing. A fan in the audience had a tape recorder going (smart enough to not record the inaudible bass solos!) and though the sound isn’t ideal, it captures a wonderful version of “Basin Street” with some of Armstrong’s freshest playing. If you don’t have much time, just go to the rideout choruses after Trummy’s trombone solo: it’s completely different! There’s a dazzling sequence during the turnaround in bars seven and eight and somehow Armstrong begins playing with a three note motif that he turns into a full-blown quote of “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.” Listen for yourself:


Who knows how many times Armstrong had a night like this? The Ravinia material only came to light about five years ago and isn’t even listed in Jos Willems’s published discography. So anytime you’re confident that Armstrong grew content and simply played the same stuff the same way every night, think of Ravinia’s “Basin Street” and know that even he could freshen it up when you’d least expect it.

I have a few more versions from the early 1960s, but by this point, "Basin Street" was starting to become a more infrequently called number. However, there is a dynamite version from the otherwise sleepy Live in Australia DVD from 1963 that is definitely worth sharing because it's getting to be pretty late in the game, but Pops knocks it out without a problem in this beautifully filmed clip:

But as I wrote in my “Hello, Dolly” blowout the other day, Armstrong’s chops took a turn for the worse in the summer of 1965 and a lot of demanding pieces had to be retired. Armstrong sung “Basin Street Blues” a few times on television in ensuing years (including an unforgettable version on the Mike Douglas Show from 1970 that I've screened at the Satchmo Summerfest in the past), but as far as I can tell, the last times he really played it were on the historic tour of Iron Curtain countries in Europe in 1965. There's a fine version from Prague from March 1965, but instead, I'm going to close with the last surviving full version of the tune, from a historic outdoor concert in Budapest on June 9 of that year, historic because I believe it set a record at the time for most people at an outdoor concert.

Unfortunately, Pops had just gotten back from his layoff from dental surgery and the chops are a bit erratic. Not down, like the aforementioned Monterey concert from 1958, but he's having trouble executing ideas he was knocking out without a batting an eye just a few months earlier. You can actually listen to the entire concert on YouTube, a fine one, but not one of my favorites (bassist Buddy Catlett had also just joined the band and without a rehearsal, you can hear some pretty strange bass lines in the back as he's still trying to pick up some of the routines on the fly). Anyway, let's listen to this final "Basin Street":

I know I’ve made this reference in the past, but “Cootie Williams Syndrome” creeped into Pops’s playing in the mid-60s, meaning he started to lose some velocity, but his sound somehow got bigger. You can definitely hear that in the string of stomping quarter notes after Tyree Glenn’s trombone solo. But from then on, it’s the mid-50s all over again as he still blows the hell out of that rideout. One of the highlights of a sometimes shaky concert.

Armstrong struggled with his declining powers for a few months, saw no days off in sight and grew a bit dark and depressed offstage, something I tackle in my book. Eventually, the only way to deal with it was to start retiring numbers from the book and I can't find a trace of "Basin Street" in an All Stars show after the summer of 1965. Of course, I may be--and probably am--wrong (who saw that 1963 version of "That's My Home" coming that I posted a few months ago?). Crazy stuff keeps popping up all the time and it's possible that at a 1966 or 1967, Louis was feeling good and called it. But for our intents and purposes, our look (and listen) at "Basin Street Blues" ends in Budapest.

If you’re still sitting in one place, you’ve probably heard over two hours of music...but it’s Louis Armstrong and “Basin Street Blues” so is that really a bad thing? Almost anyone with a recording contract has tackled the tune--just a glance at Itunes shows versions by Julie London, Sam Cooke, Willie Nelson with Wynton Marsalis, Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, Bob Wills and hundreds of others--but for me, no one else quite owned it like Louis Armstrong. That’s because few songs better embody the city of New Orleans just as no one else has ever embodied that city as much as Louis Armstrong.

You know, nothing else embodies the city of New Orleans than the concept of lagniappe, that little something extra when it comes to food. Well, there's two more terrific video performances of "Basin Street Blues" from the early 1960s and I thought it would slow down the narrative so I axed them from above...but have to at least mention them and share them as bonus material. The first is another full version from one of my favorite pieces of Pops on film, the "Satchmo Story," filmed in Germany in 1962. I screened this at the Satchmo Summerfest last summer and more than one person said Louis looks higher than a kite. I can't deny it. He usually didn't get tall before playing, but he does seem a little more groovy on this one than the others from the early 60s. Check it out (and don't get excited by the title, there's no "Mahogany Hall Stomp" on this clip:

And finally--finally--from the Bell Telephone Hour in early 1965, Louis and the All Stars did a medley of five songs in about 12 minutes, shortening each one for the sake of television. "Basin Street" closed the medley, a 3-minute version with the tempo back at the more medium 1950s pace in the beginning, while the uptempo portion swings like hell thanks to Arvell Shaw's propulsive bass work. And two of Louis's more underappreciated front line partners--Russell "Big Chief" Moore and Eddie Shu--sound great, too. So let's go out swinging with one more version of "Basin Street Blues"!

2 comments:

Daniel Stein said...

Hi Ricky,

the link to the 1965 Berlin is still up (or up again): http://www.mdr.de/mediathek/fernsehen/video163366_zc-7931f8bf_zs-2d7967f4.html

Best, Daniel

bullterrier said...

Hi.
Somehow I managed to get the video file with the 1965 concert. I can send it to you via a transfer page, if you want to have it on your pc, not just to watch it online.