Saturday, December 14, 2013

Armstrong, Waller, Teagarden and Friends: 75 Years of the Martin Block Jam Session!

For much of this year, my anniversary posts have centered on single songs: 85 years of “West End Blues,” 85 years of “Basin Street Blues,” 50 Years of Hello, Dolly,” 80 years of “Laughin’ Louis” (and those other 1933 Victor gems), 75 years of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” etc. But today’s the anniversary of an event, a kind of once-in-a-lifetime meeting of the giants that fortunately took place in front of some microphones, allowing us all to revisit the music made that day.

The occasion was an episode of Martin Block’s WNEW radio broadcast, which usually featured an assortment of stars from the world of swing. Block threw a number of incredible jams in his studio, but none quite like this. In reverse order of importance: Bob Spergel on guitar, Pete Peterson on bass, George Wettling on drums (excellent choice), Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone (one of the tops), Jack Teagarden on trombone (oh man, it keeps getting better), Fats Waller on piano (are you sweating yet?) and of course, Louis Armstrong on trumpet (smelling salts, please!).

I don’t think I have to give much backstory on these musicians and their backgrounds. Armstrong and Waller were old pals from their days in Harlem in 1929 during the run of Hot Chocolates at Connie’s Inn. Since then, both men had climbed to the upper ranks of the entertainment field, appearing on radio, film and of course, on records, with Fats holding down a Victor contract while Armstrong recorded many of the same pop tunes for Decca. Jack Teagarden became enraptured with Armstrong after hearing him during Armstrong’s riverboat days and the two shared a recording date once on 1929’s famous interracial jam, “Knockin’ a Jug.” Freeman, as part of the Austin High Gang, marveled with the rest of his cronies at Armstrong’s genius during his days with King Oliver in Chicago and went on to make a bunch of timeless records with Teagarden. Teagarden and Waller also
teamed up for some excellent records, including a hot and humorous “You Rascal You.” No need to keep going, they were all legends and I’ll just leave it at that.

Interestingly, though Waller was incredibly popular at the time, he clearly took a backseat to Armstrong on this occasion. Waller got to sing one blues chorus, he bellowed out some of his famous asides and got to play a quick version of his signature tunes, “Honeysuckle Rose,” but otherwise, it was the Louis Armstrong Show Featuring An Incredible Cast Of Supporting Players.

Fortunately, some enterprising swing fan recorded the broadcast (more on that) and since the dawn of the LP era, it has never exactly been hard to find. Well, perhaps I should rephrase that; it’s kind of a pain in the neck to find it complete as dozens of cheap, bootleg issues of both Armstrong and Waller sometimes include some of these performances without calling attention to the historic nature of the date or even who the participants were. Fortunately, Gösta Hagglof, the late Swedish Armstrong devotee and a hero of mine, released it in complete form on volume five of his indispensable Ambassador series, which I will have an announcement about in the near future.

When I originally celebrated the 70th anniversary of this historic broadcast in 2008, there seemed to be disagreement about the original track order so I used the order on Gösta's CD. But then I got an e-mail from the great Belgian Armstrong discographer, Jos Willems, telling me that not only did he have damn near the complete broadcast but he had just dropped a copy in the mail....my blog hadn't even been up for 24 hours! Sure enough, Willems's care package arrive about a week later and there it was, not only all the music I had known for years but even bits of chatter. I went back to my original blog and rearranged the track order but I didn't include any of the extras because 2009 had already started and I was moving on. Now, for the 75th anniversary, I'm going to revisit Willems' CD. Unfortunately, neither Gösta or Jos are with us any more, something that makes me sad every time I think about it, especially since they worked tirelessly for years on stuff like constructing a complete version of Satchmo at Symphony Hall or trying to figure out the discographical maze that was Louis's mid-1950s Columbia recordings. I'm happy that I've been entrusted with sorting out such mysteries in recent years but boy, do I wish they were here to share it all with me. I dedicate this post--and pretty much everything I do--to them.

Thus, for the first time ever (unless you were close with Willems), let's listen to the beginning of the broadcast with host Block introducing the participants. Everyone's in good form, Fats joking about being a "fullback" after Block alluded to his making a "comeback" on the show and I'm a sucker for Freeman's pompous British accent (immortalized on the Commodore classic "Private Jives"). Pops can be heard getting off a deep laugh at a line about Tegarden being a gentleman and then we're off with "On the Sunny Side of the Street," after much laughter about setting the tempo. With the introductions out of the way, let’s begin!





Armstrong originally gave “Sunny Side” a ballad treatment and was still playing it that way on the Flesichmann’s Yeast Broadcast of 1937. But later in that year, he recorded a new uptempo take the tune and that’s how he would approach it until the days of the All Stars (but even then, the tempo would flip flop depending on the mood of the audience, and probably the trumpeter himself). Here, you can hear him say Teagarden suggested it and Louis lets him set the tempo, but clearly he was comfortable playing it at just about any clip. Armstrong sounds great and, though I have an obsession with Fats Waller, it’s interesting hearing his backing as Armstrong rarely felt comfortable with stride piano players (Joe Sullivan lasted less than two months with Armstrong and sounds terrible on the few surviving live recordings from his stint). The ensemble cautiously stays out of Armstrong’s way before Pops gets a full improvised chorus to himself, Fats giving him great backing (love some of the voice leading stuff throughout, especially on the bridge). Teagarden solos well, phrasing like Louis by the end while Freeman gets bluesy before an incredibly joyous vocal from Pops, with some almost stuttering scat at the end.

Fats announces his solo with a hearty “Hello” and even throws in a little “Stop it, Joe” aside to comment on his tickling. James Lincoln Collier later wrote about how serious Waller was during this session as opposed to Armstrong’s off-the-wall personality but I honestly think he must not have paid much attention to the actual music. Fats is subdued here and there but that’s because Armstrong’s in the spotlight and, as just mentioned, during his own solos and his later vocal, there’s plenty of the Waller good humor in evidence.

Armstrong’s reentrance is wonderful as he rhythmically plays with just two pitches, driving them to the brink of swinging insanity. From there, more or less plays the set solo he used on his ballad interpretations, though, after his patented "Faded Love" quote, he finds a new way out of the bridge. We’re off and running, Fats shouting "Well all right then!" and "That's what I'm talking about!" upon its conclusion.  Block then makes a request for an impromptu blues with vocals by Waller, Teagarden and Armstrong. A bit of the original broadcast is lost as you'll hear the tape speed up during Block's speech (don't worry, he didn't have a stroke) but what follows is incredible: “The Blues.”

In some ways, this is the highlight of the session as the opportunity to hear Waller, Armstrong and Teagarden trade blues choruses--vocally and instrumentally--is sublime. Everyone’s having a good time, with Waller obviously improvising his on the spot. Armstrong’s chorus about grabbing a picket off of somebody’s fence would resurface on his Columbia recording of “St. Louis Blues” in 1954, while Teagarden borrows a chorus he sang on the classic Commodore record “Serenade to a Shylock” in April 1938. Waller’s chorus is quintessential Fats, digging into an atypical boogie bass line with aplomb, and just listen to the little motive he uses to back Armstrong’s first chorus. Armstrong meanwhile really felt like dipping into his blues bag, opening with a quote from “Savoy Blues” before devoting his second chorus to King Oliver’s “Jazzin’ Babies Blues” solo, which I’ve written about before because it frequently came up in Armstrong’s career, including 1928’s “Muggles” (and dig Fats’s boogie bottom). Teagarden wails for two, with Armstrong encouraging to take another, before Pops shows the way out with another old solo from his bag, “Terrible Blues,” which, ironically, also reappeared on that 1954 “St. Louis Blues” recording. I should mention that Louis had acetates of the performances from this session in his private collection and dubbed them to tape; it's not out of the question that he would have dubbed it around the time of the "Handy" album and put some of his work here in the back of that steel-trap mind of his. Seriously, think about how much blues Louis Armstrong played in his life, especially when he was hired to play nothing but the blues in some of the New Orleans honky-tonks. He obviously minted some choruses that were so perfect, he'd file them into his ridiculous memory, to dip into whenever he felt like it. And on this jam session, Dipper did plenty of dipping.

"The Blues" is pretty great, but still perhaps not as wonderful as my personal highpoint of the session, “I Got Rhythm.” Here ‘tis:

This four-minute jam really showcases Pops is at the peak of his powers. After an ensemble chorus in the front, Pops steps up with the first solo, very flowing and melodic, with phrases that stick in your mind long after he puts down his horn.  Freeman then follows with a typically funky chorus, getting downright "Eel"-like in places. Teagarden brings the Gershwin's melody back to the forefront a few times before Fats adds some blues to the proceedings with his authoritative outing (adding a happy “Hello” just for the hell of it).

But the main event comes with the final minute and 13 seconds as Pops leads the ensemble through two rideout choruses. Every phrase he plays is sculpted perfectly and his upper register rarely sounded better. As Armstrong steams to the end of first ensemble chorus, it sounds like he’s building up to an ending, but Fats isn’t ready to let him go, shouting “Come on” and spurring Pops into one more chorus. Pausing for a beat to collect himself, Armstrong calmly continues his charge, bouncing off a few glisses to Bb’s, playing a nimble little phrase then hitting the climax of the entire performance, a gliss that starts somewhere below the equator and rises up higher and higher to a freakish high F! I know an exclamation point might seem gratuitous but it’s the only way to properly convey the excitement of this F. Ever so slowly, Armstrong climbs back down for more fleet-fingered phrases throughout the bridge, throwing in some more quick glisses toward the end and finishing with a three note high C-D-Bb phrase. Again, not to diminish what he did in the 1920s, but this is Pops at the peak of his powers and those final two choruses scare the hell out of me. "The jam session to end all jam sessions" is the way Block describes it when it's over and I don't know anyone who would argue that.

Next though, matters calmed down a bit for “Jeepers Creepers”:

Interestingly, “Jeepers Creepers” was written for the film “Going Places,” which was done in September 1938 and featured Armstrong introducing the tune. The film wouldn’t open until December 31 and Armstrong wouldn’t get around to officially waxing it for Decca until January 18, 1939. So this must have been a debut performance and it wouldn’t surprise me if the other musicians were playing off of lead sheets because no one in the world would have known the tune except for Armstrong and the musicians in the film. Teagarden gets the only real solo and he does sound like he's sticking to the melody pretty closely at times, perhaps playing it safe because of unfamiliarity (he does great in his obbligato behind the vocal, though he's a little too far away. It’s a jolly performance and everyone sounds like they’ve been playing it for years, the true mark of professional musicians. Armstrong’s vocal is a lot of fun but I would have loved a little more trumpet. However, I can’t make that same complaint about the next tune, “Tiger Rag”:


Scorching stuff. The tune starts out fast enough, at almost the tempo Armstrong took it on his 1930 original recording and everyone plays beautifully (the rhythm guitar can finally be heard and appreciated), with Armstrong taking some great breaks early on. It's interesting hearing this because with his own bands, Armstrong usually let the clarinet lead off. He played lead on "Super Tiger Rag" in Paris but still didn't take any breaks, like he does on this one. After great solos by Freeman, Teagarden and Waller at a righteous tempo, Armstrong stomps off a tempo that remarkably is even faster, which shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with Armstrong's long history with this song (which I chronicled in a TEN-part serious back in 2010. I'm nuts.). After a few seconds of confusion, Louis hands it off to Geroge Wettling to take an exciting, snare-fueled solo.

Once Louis picks up his horn, he goes into, what, by now, was his set opening, the two-note, repeated stuff. But immediately into his second chorus, he uncorks a quote from "I'm Confessin'" that works like a charm (and one he would come to in his 1950s versions). He works "Confessin'" into a motive and improvises it for a while before holding a note. By third chorus, Louis is back in set territory: a quote from "The National Emblem March," follow by the gliss followed by a held Ab. The fourth chorus is made up of high C's before Louis starts knocking out those Eb's again in his fifth and final chorus. It's an incredibly exciting test of strength, those Eb’s simply shrieking out of his horn, building up to the last soul-shaking concert F. This is prime stuff, my friends.

With time running out, the band stormed through 79 seconds of “Honeysuckle Rose,” a number Armstrong previously hadn’t recorded and wouldn’t until the 1955 “Satch Plays Fats” recording.


The opening chorus seems like two solos in one, as Teagarden and Waller offer an assortment of swinging ideas on top of each other. Then Pops comes on and for one, leading the ensemble beautifully (dig that gliss towards the end) but all of a sudden, it’s over before it started. You know, they would have loved to keep that one going for a while, but Block comes back on and makes it clear that the broadcast is over (hey, Fats has to get back to the Yacht Club....wish we could go with him!).

The broadcast ends right then and there but now for a bonus. I hope you enjoyed it but now for the aforementioned bonus. In August 2010, the jazz world was turned topsy-turvy by the news that the Jazz Museum in Harlem, spearheaded by my friend Loren Schoenberg acquired the collection of the legendary engineer Bill Savory, capturing hundreds of hours of previously unheard of Swing Era radio broadcasts recorded professionally. In all of the hours of material that was rescued, Schoenberg told me that there's really not a lot of Louis. But what does survive in there is the complete Martin Block broadcast as recorded by Savory himself. Remember when I said that this material had probably been recorded by some enterprising swing fan sitting home by the radio? Well, Savory wasn't sitting at home; he did his recording in the studios, using the professional microphones and setup available to him.

When the news of the Savory collection broke in the New York Times, that paper's website hosted a bunch of 30 second clips of material that had never been issued before. But they also put up the COMPLETE "Blues" from the Armstrong-Fats jam session and it is simply stunning hearing it in this fidelity. All of a sudden, you're no longer struggling to listen through the cracks to make out the bass or drums. No, now you are in the studio with these giants thanks to Savory, a giant himself. Go here and scroll to the bottom right to hear it. It will be the highlight of your day.

And that's that for this 75th anniversary celebration of one of the great nights in radio. Will the Savory version be commercially released by the time of the 80th anniversary? Fingers crossed...

(And before I close, many thanks to a LOT of you who wrote in when I complained that the complete 1965 Louis Armstrong East Berlin performance was no longer up on the MDR website. I'm happy to report that it's back and I hope to have something on it later this week. Thanks to all of you who wrote from all over the world....Pops is Tops!)

2 comments:

Sebastian Claudius Semler said...

Great Blog about a great Session. On Sunny Side the great Fats seems to be a bit uncomfortable with the tune (which he reoorded only once, in 1937, backing singer Peggy Dade, nearly playing anything himself) and the chord changes seem to be played not homogenous. The rest is really great, and Bud Freeman is an equal fourth soloist.
MANY THANKS for linkt to the Savory collection - the sound of "The Blues" is really wonderful!
(If anybody is looking for the URL of the sound file:
http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/audio/arts/20100810-savory-collection/the_blues.mp3)

Jeffrey Lax said...

Is there any chance that the Savory collection will be out there any time soon? Sigh... Why the delay? Rights?