You know, friends, even though I live for Louis Armstrong and have been blessed to have been part of so many worthwhile Pops projects, there are times when my faith wavers a bit and I think, "Am I the only one out there who feels that way?" Okay, I know I'm not the ONLY one out there but anytime I glance at the mainstream jazz press, Pops is absent. I remember when I first started this blog in 2007, I lamented about how it had been years since a major jazz magazine did a cover story on Louis. That sure as hell hasn't changed six years later.
Case in point: the results of the 2013 NPR Jazz Critics Poll were just released. I was curious about the reissue category since I had two ponies in the race: Satchmo at Symphony Hall 65th Anniversary, which I co-produced and wrote the liner notes for, and The OKeh, Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings, 1925-1933, which I also wrote the liners for. Both came out to almost humorously little fanfare. My man Skip Heller covered Symphony Hall almost immediately over at All About Jazz but it took about eight months before Downbeat and Jazz Times picked up on it. I had spent about a year putting together a complete version of a historic concert by one of the music's undisputed geniuses....and it was met by a shrug for the most part in the jazz press.
Thus, it really wasn't a surprise when I checked the NPR poll's results in the reissue category: Miles in first with 81 votes, followed by a lot of the usual suspects: Woody Shaw, Jack DeJohnette, Clifford Jordan, Miles again, Paul Motian, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, etc.
And Pops? Two votes for the Okeh/Columbia/Victor set, putting it in a tie for 53rd place. And dear old Symphony Hall? One lowly third place vote, putting it in a tie for 73rd--and last--place.
So it's those moments when I think, "Why? Why does the jazz world go into hysterics over Miles and Coltrane reissues but completely ignores Pops? Why I am I killing myself day and night on this Mosaic set when a Clifford Jordan set is going to get more respect, coverage and yes, votes, when all is said and done?" Those are low moments.
Fortunately, those are fleeting moments because they are usually consumed by other, larger moments when I am told without a doubt that love for Louis Armstrong is alive and well around the world and not only am I not alone, but there's a bunch of Pops nuts out there who feel just as deeply about this man and his music as I.
Why the dramatic (partially depressing) opening to what should be one of the more exciting blogs I've ever written? Because of what I've experienced the last few weeks since the compete video of the All Stars' March 22, 1965 East Berlin surfaced. Let me quickly take you through the story, if you don't mind. A couple of days after Thanksgiving, I was contacted by the fantastic German drummer Bernard Flegar (and a true All Stars fanatic), telling me that German television showed this concert the previous night...and it was streaming online!
I freaked out. I was very familiar with the concert. The Jazzpoint label released it on two separate CDs (Volume 1 and Volume 2 are here but the order is all scrambled) and many years ago, my friend Ingo Ruppert sent me a one hour edited copy of the footage, which proved extremely helpful in the writing of my book (seeing Louis perform "Black and Blue" gave me the climax of my narrative). The one-hour version finally surfaced on YouTube on January 24, 2013 and in less than a year, has amassed over 70,000 views. Great!
But I knew, I KNEW, the footage of the complete concert existed and thanks to Bernard, I was now watching it at home on my computer, my jaw on the desk. I quickly opened Facebook, posted the link and watched Armstrong fans around the world, joyously digging it along with me. Michael Cogswell and Jennifer Walden-Weprin from the Armstrong House, Daniel Andersen from Israel, the descendants (Tyree Glenn Jr. and Dana Barcelona), Zan Anderle of Slovenia, Sven-Olof Lindman of Sweden, Sharone Williams of California, Dave Laczko of Austin, Phil Person and Dave Whitney of the Boston area, Simone Dabusti of Italy, the swinging Bateman Brothers of the UK, the Louis Armstrong Facebook page (more than 1 million likes), Brent Broussard of New Orleans, Nou Dadoun of Canada, Michael Steinman of Long Island, Robert Klein of North Carolina, the swinging drummer Hal Smith and MANY others joined in, spreading the Pops love from around the world.
I knew I had to write the blog of the century about this concert but I just didn't have any time. Finally, I found my opening, went to the website to get the link....and it was gone. Panicking, I decided to revise an old blog on "Basin Street Blues" but in my opening paragraph, I expressed my lament about not being able to write about the 1965 concert because the link was no longer there. That was it, one little paragraph....and all of sudden, the comments, e-mails and Facebook messages started pouring in. Some people saved the concert; others wrote the German station; others offered to send me copies. It was a Christmas miracle! It was so incredibly touching because it definitively demonstrated that not only am I not alone in my Pops fandom, but there's others out there who want to share this stuff as much as I do. Many, many thanks to Daniel Andersen, Daniel Stein, Sebastian Claudius Semler, Claus Uwe Zanisch, Sven-Olof Lindman, Ron Cannatella, Horatio Vasilescu, Ole Mathiasen, Len Pogost, Stefano Zenni and everyone else who wrote in, inquiring about the concert, offering to help and wanting to help in getting it back up.
The link DID start working again and there was rejoicing (it was up during a dinner party at David Ostwald's house and he showed it to his guests, Quincy Jones and George Avakian. Wrap that around your heard.). But I checked again this morning and it's gone. But not to worry. Thanks to one of the above-named people (he knows who he is), I was able to upload the concert on YouTube! Now, if you notice, I have not named the German network and the YouTube link doesn't mention Louis's actual name. I don't know why I'm so scared since the one-hour version, aired by the same network, has 70,000 views, as I mentioned, and doesn't seem to be going anywhere. But I don't want to tip the wrong people off, who might demand it be taken down. And that will be a dark day. I will use my connections to attempt to pitch this as a DVD to some of the labels I've worked with but until that lucky day, enjoy the complete concert!
Now, with my Christmas epiphany out of the way, let's get to the music. I don't want to go too much into the backstory, as I have almost an entire chapter in my book about this tour and if you speak German, Stephan Schulz wrote an entire book about Armstrong's 1965 visit to Germany. It was a historic tour as it marked the first--and only--time Louis cracked the Iron Curtain. Controversy was also swirling around as earlier in March, the bloody violence of the march on Selma, Alabama, caused Armstrong to lash out in the press, saying, "They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched," a line that made headlines. Armstrong was too smart to talk about it once he got behind the Iron Curtain, but he did start playing "Black and Blue" every night on the tour, a song he hadn't played regularly in years and one that carried quite a strong message.
This, to me, was also one of the finest editions of Armstrong's All Stars. Billy Kyle on piano and Danny Barcelona on drums had been playing together since 1958 and with the addition of familiar face Arvell Shaw on bass in 1963, the group sported a top-notch rhythm section. In the front line, Tyree Glenn had just joined a few weeks earlier but as can be seen, he fit like a glove from the start. I've always liked Tyree but I'm more of a Teagarden-Trummy man. However, watching--and listening--to him in this concert, he impressed me more than ever before. What a musician! (And a great showman to boot.) Clarinetist Eddie Shu is sometimes listed as one of those "also-ran" All Stars but I think he acquits himself marvelously here (the late Joe Muranyi was also a fan). I think it was Joe Darensbourg who mentioned that Shu's father was friendly with Joe Glaser and Glaser got him into the All Stars for a one-year (almost to the day) stint. Shu was something of a bopper but he could also swing, as he often proved during his long partnership with Gene Krupa. However, Shu wasn't much of a showman and it could be a little disturbing at first to see Louis and Tyree smiling so broadly and having a ball and Shu next to them unable to even muster a fake grin. In the end, it's his playing that matters and he plays great.
And then there's Pops. What can be said about Pops? Well, for one thing, this is one of the great last stands of his chops. A month later, he had dental surgery and some new bridgework put in his mouth. He took six weeks off to recover but his chops were never quite the same. He might have been in some pain in East Berlin, but my goodness does he blow like a man possessed. He also looks tired when he's not in the spotlight with good reason: he was tired. Any footage--or even concert recordings--of Louis in the 1950s, man, he's a ball of fire. But in the 1960s, he started having more trouble hiding how tired he was, something a few reviewers spotted in this period, especially since in certain venues--like in East Berlin--his resting spot consisted of three chairs ON STAGE behind the piano! But when he steps up to his spot, stand back....
A few words on the songs is due:
When It's Sleepy Time Down South - I don't think I've ever seen the All Stars get introduced so it was pretty neat seeing them come out and take their positions (each one to different drum pattern from Danny Barcelona) before The Man arrived to lead them into "Sleepy Time" without saying a word (though dig the way he appears from behind that curtain!). As always, "the warmth is there," as Pops liked to say about his longtime theme song.
Indiana - I've used this clip in presentations before because by this point, two of the normal complaints about Louis were, "Oh, no, not 'Indiana' again!" and "These poor fans are only coming to see him do 'Hello, Dolly,' but they have no idea that he was a great trumpeter!" I think this version refutes both of those statements. Yes, Armstrong had been leading off with "Indiana since around 1951 but my goodness is it an exciting opener and his trumpet sounds superhuman. I remember the first time David Ostwald saw this at a Satchmo Summerfest presentation I did in 2008, he remarked that because of the camera angle, Armstrong's trumpet looked like a bazooka on his shoulder, as he launches those high notes to the heavens. Safe to say that if you did come for "Dolly," it would only take a few bars of "Indiana" to KNOW that this man was still a great trumpet player.
Black and Blue - As I mentioned, this is the climax of my book so this performance has special meaning to me. I've been showing it at lectures for six years and it almost always makes the room tear up. The tempo is so slow, his vocal is so full of hurt ("I'm RIGHT inside") and the trumpet lead at the end is so emotion, I don't know what else to say about it. On the hourlong edit of the concert, the end would always cut to the Louis clapping for Billy Kyle's feature, which always took some of the steam out of it. The complete concert finally allows us to appreciate Pops taking a very deep bow. He knew what he accomplished.
Tiger Rag - It's tough to follow something so heavy and "Tiger Rag" might seem like it's coming from another planet but it's still fun. Louis's 1950s versions of the old warhorse were epic but after his heart attack in 1959, he cut it down to about 90 seconds of fury, usually featuring his clarinetist. Here, Shu (who lowers the mike just in time!) shows off some of his boppish, fancy fingering but Pops still brings it home with that freakish high F. He looks VERY happy to be able to still hit it on the nose!
When I Grow Too Old to Dream - Time for the first All Stars feature with Billy Kyle in the spotlight. Kyle usually did "Perdido," which I love, but I'm happy to not have it here as it got a little TOO fast by 1965 (and there's a fine version of it on the Australia DVD from 1963). This is one of my favorite Kyle features because when he dug into these medium-tempo pieces, he could really swing like a mother, pumping out some bluesy, two-handed offerings (I'm no Billy Kyle but his medium-tempo features have always been a big influence on my own piano stylings). Shaw and Barcelona are in the pocket and when Barcelona switches from brushes to sticks, watch out!
However, Kyle is overshadowed on this video by what's going on directly behind him. Armstrong, Glenn and Shu occupy three chairs to take a little break, have a sip of water and some smokes. Goodness knows they deserve it but there's something about seeing Pops decompress like that that's almost unnerving at first. There's no smile, no reacting to the music. He looks down, he wipes his brow. He looks like a boxer in between rounds of a ferocious fight. This is hard work. He's not "coasting" as some critics claimed (and still claim) and for a few minutes, the toll of it all is right there for us all to see. The director obviously felt the same way as most of "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" is focused on Pops relaxing than Kyle. For the rest of the broadcast, the director occasionally flashes over to the band relaxing but on this number, it's almost an obsession. And a valuable one at that, too. Also, much has always been made of Louis looking weary backstage, then walking through the curtain and coming alive. You can see that time and again throughout the concert and it's really something to marvel at.
Hello, Dolly! - Case in point: how does someone who just looked so beat pick himself up and get it together to deliver a performance that is six minutes of nothing but joy? I already wrote about this in my 50th anniversary post on "Dolly" earlier this month as it's long been one of my favorites. Everyone's having a ball, the trumpet playing is as full-toned and spectacular as you can imagine and each successive encore is more and more infectious. Also, remember that no Louis Armstrong records were even available in East Berlin before Pops got there so the reaction of the crowd is fully the reaction to the man on the stage. Most of those in attendance probably didn't know about "Dolly" but once you watch a performance like that, how could you not flip out?
Memories of You - Eddie Shu time and it's a knockout. When I celebrated Louis's history with this tune a few years ago, I got more reactions to Shu's version than Louis's. I'm not saying it's better than what Pops did on it, but it will surprise you if you don't know what to expect from Shu. He's got his own sound, he knows how to play the melody, he gets to show off his technique on the double-time section and at one point, he gets so bluesy, you can hear Arvell Shaw groan in approval. And as a bonus you get Pops shooting the lights out with that gorgeous Eubie Blake melody he immortalized 35 years earlier. Doesn't get much better from a feature standpoint and again, the tremendous ovation Shu receives is completely earned.
Lover Come Back to Me/Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man - Next up, female vocalist Jewel Brown is featured on a few standards. I know some Armstrong devotees who are a little cool on Jewel because she was so young, beautiful and polished, it was a striking contrast to the earthy nature of Velma Middleton. Also, she never did anything with Louis so she always seemed like her own woman. I'm a Velma nut but I never minded Jewel as she could clearly sing and had a lot of fun on stage. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to see a LOT of Armstrong fans revising their opinions on Jewel in the comments on the video on my Facebook page. Sometimes, you have to see someone in action to really appreciate the total package. The way she reacts to Kyle's too-fast kickoff tempo on "Lover" is funny and if "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" is a bit theatrical, no one can deny that she sings the shit out of it.
When the Saints Go Marchin' In - To close the first set, Armstrong calls his big pre-"Dolly" closer, "The Saints." The tempo of this number really slowed in the early 60s but it gradually began rising as the decade played out, hitting a happy bounce here. Jewel's cheerleading was a little obnoxious on the famous 1962 Goodyear version but she's much more tolerable here, getting everyone to clap along. Eddie Shu also loosens up, hitting a home run with his clarinet during Tyree's solo. Pops sounds wonderful at the start but like almost all post-1959 versions, he chooses to end with a singalong vocal, still effective if not quite as exciting as the old three-chorus solo.
Interestingly, at the 43-minute mark, Armstrong calls an intermission. In the early days of the All Stars, Pops would do two sets, usually an hour each. By the mid-50s, he's make the first set top heavy, usually coming in at 80-90 minutes and then doing a short 30-40 minute second set. In the mid-60s, he reversed it, doing 43 minutes here and 75 minutes in the second set. Take a break, then, because it's intermission!
OK, ready for more? Let's commence with the second set:
Struttin' With Some Barbecue - This number had been Armstrong's second set opener for years, an exciting instrumental way to open round two. This was another number Armstrong spent years crafting a "set" solo and once he got it, he didn't change it. But by the 1960s, as he started having difficulty executing some of the more fleet-fingered phrases, he'd begin to improvise. This solo is almost has lots of different touches than the others (save the usual "That's My Home" closing quote) and it's a knockout, another one fans mentioned to me in the various messages I received about this concert this month. And the rideout has Louis reaching for--and hitting--some higher notes than normal. He's ready to blow!
The Faithful Hussar - Of course, being in Germany, it was a natural for Louis to call his favorite German folk song. This is a fun performance, with a great vocal from Pops, some riotous trombone from Tyree (he wasn't as blustery as Trummy but he could whoop it up) and that ridiculous upper register final lead playing from Pops. This one stayed in the book until at least 1967 but he wasn't able to go that high after the dental work, making this the last peak version of "Hussar."
Royal Garden Blues - Man, you KNOW he was feeling good, calling three demanding trumpet numbers in a row. The tempo is turbospeed but doesn't throw Louis off as he just sounds as relaxed as ever, focusing on hitting the high hard ones on the nose rather than any flashy phrases (Eddie Shu barely gets out of the way after his solo with Pops breathing down his neck!).
Blueberry Hill - With those trumpet specialities out of the way, it was time for Pops to treat himself to an all vocal number, "Blueberry Hill." This was another one he had been singing for 16 years, so critics would roll their eyes and look at the their watches. I admit, sometimes if I'm not in the mood, I'll skip "Blueberry" when listening to a concert recording (rare, but it has happened). But please, if you feel that way, take the time and watch this performance. Again, there's something about seeing him in action that makes one appreciate what he brings to a performance like this one. His phrasing, the gestures, the love in his face....again, how could you not give him the ovation he gets?
Without a Song - After nearly twenty minutes in the spotlight, it's time for Louis to finally take a break and hand it over to the All Stars for the two of the longer features of the night. In fact, you might have noticed that in the 40s and 50s, the sidemen like Teagrden, Young and Hall used to take three-to-four minute features; why is everyone in Berlin stretching theirs out to six and seven minutes? Well, to give Pops a rest, of course, but this was a practice that actually started around 1959, when Louis began having the All Stars play two short features each night. By 1965, the thinking must have been why play two short ones when one long one takes the same time? After a humorous extended introduction, Glenn goes into one of his best specialties, featuring that unique plunger sound of his. Glenn was like Pops in that when he had a set that, that remained his thing. The Wolfgang's Vault website has a recording of Glenn's set as a leader at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960 and his closer was "Without a Song," breaking it up in the same arrangement we hear here, right down to the party-like, rumbling latin-vamp at the end. Yeah, Tyree!
How High the Moon - And speaking of set solos, here's Arvell Shaw with "How High the Moon" which he originally introduced in 1947 and never stopped playing. For years, it remained the same but he after staying away from Louis between 1956 an 1963, he came back to the band with a new, more modern--and more violent--conception. He's bowing, scratching, going out and really dominating the that bass for about eight minutes. One of the most "modern" solos in All Stars history, but there's a also a good amount of "show business," as Shaw calls out, down to the quotes, the high notes and his roundhouse kicks and almost Elvis Presley-type moves at the end! Again, the crowd eats it up. Really, EVERY sideman feature completely breaks it up on this concert, something that wasn't always the case in earlier incarnations. I'll say it again but the youngsters coming to see the old man who did "Hello, Dolly" in this period saw a LOT of great music!
Mack the Knife - From the beginning, "Mack the Knife" almost always followed the bass feature (just in case the bass solo put the audience to sleep, what better to follow than with a big hit?). This is a swinging performance with Louis improvising some new ideas in his second chorus. From there, he takes it out as a vocal, the rhythm section really swinging behind him midway through (Danny Barcelona's snare drum rim hits are right on).
Stompin' at the Savoy - And speaking about Danny, here's his moment in the sun...and what a moment! "Savoy" had been the drum feature of choice for the All Stars since the Cozy Cole days. Cole and his successor Barrett Deems usually took much shorter solos, with Armstrong calling them back for encores if needed. When Barcelona joined the band, he took over and started playing five and six minute versions, always breaking up the crowd. Well, Louis must have approved because here we are in 1965 and Danny almost has ten minutes to himself! I love Danny but again, like "Blueberry Hill," if I'm not in the mood for a ten-minute drum solo, I'll sometimes skip his 1960s features when I'm listening to the band. But watching him in action is a whole different story. It's a marvelous solo technically but there's something so infectious about Barcelona's joy in playing. And for the first time all night, we see the All Stars--led by Pops--put down their cigarettes and really enjoy a sideman's feature. Barcelona plays to them and when he flings those bell-sticks over his shoulder, it's one of the big laughs of the concert (kudos to the director for catching Arvell Shaw's bent-over-in-laughter response). Yeah, Danny! And God bless him, the only guy who doesn't break the entire night! He looks spent when he's done but he keeps swinging to the end (Pops, too, showing no quit with those high notes when he re-enters at the end). People sometimes wonder how Barceona lasted for 13 years in the All Stars; there's your answer.
I Left My Heart in San Francisco/My Man - Jewel Brown's back, opening with another of her big ballads. I've always liked this one, especially the reentrance on the eight bars, which she completely kills. She sang this on The Mike Douglas Show in 1964 and Douglas was so moved, he said that after hearing Jewel sing it, "No one's going to touch that song any more!" "My Man" is Jewel's version of a Velma-type blues but again, she updates it with some hip scatting (no split, either). However, Pops finally sounds like his tank is almost empty as he sounds hesitant and uncomfortable during his two-chorus spot. He does get it together for the final high note.
Mop Mop - Pops also sounds strong for this short version of "Mop Mop" that plays Brown off, also allowing Danny Barcelona one more chance to wow the crowd. In the Catlett and Cole days, "Mop Mop" was an extended feature but by this point, it was super short and usually led right into the final theme of....
When It's Sleepy Time Down South - Phew, we've made it to the end. (Rest those chops, Pops.) Louis sings eight bars and then goes around thanking each All Stars, each of whom gets a deserved large ovation. And then, at the 1 hour, 45 minute mark, "Ol' Satchmo takes a bow." The All Stars modulate and the ovation start...and keeps going....and keeps going....and keeps going....and doesn't end for two full minutes. The only way to properly close would be one more chorus of "Hello, Dolly!" with the audience clapping along. And when it's over, the curtain comes down, but the ovation only gets louder. After receiving flowers, it comes down again. The ovation only gets louder. Pops comes out with his jacket off and tie undone. The curtain closes. The ovation only gets louder. He comes out one more time in nothing but a checkered bath robe. People shriek. The ovation only gets louder. And he's gone.
I don't know about how, but I still want to keep that ovation going here at the end of 2013 and judging by the aforementioned outpouring of love I experienced recently for Pops and this concert in particular, I know I'm not alone in keeping that ovation going, definitely into 2014, which will be another big year for our hero. The jazz critics will continue to focus on "The Complete Miles Davis Farting and Coughing at Columbia (in Mono!)" but I know the world will be with me in celebrating Pops day in and day out and especially with that Mosaic set around the corner. Thanks for watching with me....and thanks, Pops!