Saturday, April 27, 2013

Celebrate International Jazz Day With The Louis Armstrong House Museum - And Me!

I interrupt my series of 80th anniversary posts on Louis Armstrong's April 1933 Victor recordings to bring you some important news: this Tuesday is International Jazz Day! That's not the news, though. As you probably know, I'm the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum (aka dream job). We've decided to get involved in the Jazz Day festivities and it should be of great interest to Armstrong fans from around the world.

A few weeks ago, in my interminable "Anatomy of an All Stars Concert" series, I analyzed a set list from Freedomland on September 7, 1961, taken from two reel-to-reel tapes donated to the Museum. Alas, there are no commercial plans to release the recordings but on April 30, at 2p.m. (eastern time), I'll be hosting a presentation about Louis Armstrong at Freedomland.

It promises to a be an action-packed event. I'll be showing extremely rare Jack Bradley photographs from Freedomland, scanned from the original negatives (by my diligent intern, Brynn White). Then I'm going bring out my hero, Dan Morgenstern, who was at Freedomland (he's in some of Jack's pictures and wrote about the September 7 performance). Dan will give his memories of Freedomland and seeing Louis there, which should be illuminating.

And then we'll have a listening party! I'm going to play 3 or 4 tracks from the Freedomland tapes--including "I Surrender Dear," "Jazz Me Blues" a stunning "West End Blues," the last surviving version in the Armstrong discography! I think I'm the only human who has heard the tapes so Dan, and everyone else listening, will be able to react and comment with fresh ears.

I think that's more than enough but for you, dear loyal readers, the event will end with a surprise announcement. Many months ago, on this here blog, I said that I had my hands in a project that would cause Armstrong nuts to rejoice. For over a year, I haven't been able to say a word about it publicly, because it wasn't approved and could fall apart at any time. Well, I'm beyond happy to report that as of now, the project will be green lit and my dreams will become a reality (it's go time, Pat Goodhope). All we be known a few minutes before 3 on Tuesday.

Though the event is being put on by the Louis Armstrong House Museum (and with strong support by the Jazz Journalist's Association), buzz has been so strong that we've had to move the event from the small Armstrong House exhibit area to the much more roomy auditorium at nearby Langston Hughes Library and Community Center (100-01 Northern Boulevard for the locals). Food will be served and I'm told there'll be some trumpeters in the house, too!

So why am I running my mouth about an event in Queens, when most of my dedicated readers are not in Queens, and many aren't even in the United States? Because--dig this--the afternoon will be live streamed on the Internet! So, if you're even remotely near a computer at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, go here and watch me and Dan talk about Louis and Freedomland, listen to those rare treasures and stay for the big announcement. Again, if that link doesn't work, here's the address: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/louis-armstrong-house-museum. For now, as far as I know, the event will be streamed live and might be available to be archived on the web until a later date (if ever) so do what you have to do to catch it live....and of course, come back to the blog next week for some more details on the project.

My series on the Victor recordings WILL continue soon but this is something I thought takes precedence for now. So spread the word and if I can't see you, hopefully you'll be watching me talk about Pops online on International Jazz Day. Til then!

Friday, April 26, 2013

Laughin' Louie: 80 Years of Louis's April 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 24, 1933
Track Time 3:30
Written by Clarence Gaskill
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Brown, George Oldham, alto saxophone; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Charlie Beal, piano; Mike MicKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Bluebird B-5363
Currently available on CD: Available on The Complete RCA Victor Recordings of Louis Armstrong.
Available on Itunes? Yes,

Apil 24 marked the 80th anniversary of what I’ve always considered to be one of the quintessential Louis Armstrong records, “Laughin’ Louie.” Some in the crowd might think that’s blasphemy because to many ears, the vaudeville routines are difficult to stomach. “Surely,” some would say, “‘West End Blues,’ or ‘Potato Head Blues’ or ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ are more indicative of our hero.”

Not quite, says I. If you want to boil down the “Louis Armstrong Experience” to 210 seconds, then “Laughin’ Louie” gives you everything. It was recorded during Armstrong wondrous Victor big band days, when he was absolute control of his horn, yet was killing his chops with each passing session. “Laughin’ Louie,” might sound like a nothing tune but it was actually written by Clarence Gaskill, who had a hand in writing standards like “Minnie the Moocher,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” and “Prisoner of Love. In later interviews, Lucille Armstrong (who, admittedly, was not there) claimed that the whole thing was made up in the studio; the routine obviously was, but they did have a song to work from.

“Laughin’ Louie” is no great piece of writing, but I think the band knows that, which leads to a lot of the fun. Of course, marijuana also led to a lot of the fun. Tenor saxohponoist Budd Johnson later remembered, “We were floating when we made that ‘Laughin’ Louie’ and Louis played that trumpet like a bird.”

Besides knowing that the band was high as a kite, the only other background information you might need to know is that after the vocal, “Laughin’ Louie” becomes a parody of the famous 1923 “Okeh Laughing Record,” one of the biggest-selling novelty records of all. On it, a somber trumpet is heard at the start before you start hearing some giggling. As the record goes on, the trumpet playing grows worse and the laughing becomes uproarious. You can listen to the original online here:


Louis loved "The Okeh Laughing Record" and owned a copy of it, transferring it to reel-to-reel tape many times and even joining in with the laughter one time when dubbing it with some friends. With the preliminaries out of the way, let us listen to “Laughin’ Louie” in all its glory. Yesterday, I shared the alternate take of "Mississippi Basin" and then ran my mouth about it so long, I had nothing to say when I got to the master. Because both takes of "Laughin' Louie" are so similar, I'm going to share them both here. So first, the classic master:



And the alternate, probably recorded first:




The band attacks the corny introduction as if they’re sitting in a vaudeville pit before Pops steps up to the mike and introduces his vocal, announcing he’s going to play his Selmer trumpet (“bless its little heart) after he “chirps” the song. Armstrong had talked to his trumpet before but I believe this is the first time he gave Selmer an endorsement, surely brought upon by his first trip to Europe in 1932 and his receiving a Selmer from King George V (now on display at the Louis Armstrong House Museum). Everyone’s laughing and obviously feeling high and happy. Armstrong sets off his vocal with a neat little scat introduction before he delivers the inane lyrics:

Laughin’ Louie, I’m Laughin’ Louie
Yeah man, I’m Laughin’ Louie, yes sir,
Ain’t no phooey, Laughin’ Louie
Boy...ha ha ha
Look here! I wake up every morning and I have to laugh
Cause I look on the wall and see my photograph!
Yeah man, they call me Laughin’ Louie but you cats must play yourself because you won’t let me swing there.

Not exactly “Prisoner of Love” but Louie has a ball with it, laughing hysterically after almost every line. The Johnson brothers, the best improvisers in the group, split a swinging chorus before Pops comes up for another monologue, using the phrase “one of those old-time good ones,” a close relative to the “good old good ones” that would be in his vocabulary before the year was out. Armstrong then sounds like he moves 20 feet away and starts noodling on the trumpet, one sad note at a time. This is where Armstrong turns it into the “OKeh Laughing Record Parody,” and besides the laughter, some friends in the studio get in on the act. His adopted son, Clarence Hatfield Armstrong, is the one who shouts “Look out there, Pops!” Listening to it in his Corona, Queens home in 1951, Louis called out the rest of the personnel, mentioning not only Clarence, but also Joe Lindsay (who also made an appearance during the 1931 "Lonesome Road" hilarity), "Stumpy" and what sounds like "Lil' Chord." I don't know who they are, but their voices are immortal!

But at the 2:18 mark, Pops starts blowing and it’s more serious than your life. At 2:30, he plays a double-time break that sounds like pure proto-beboop to these ears. Not wanting to get too serious, everyone laughs at Pops’s ending and someone yells, “Change ‘em P-wops!” Pops breaks up but then announces, “Here comes the beautiful part.” He’s not kidding...

What follows is one of the most astounding Louis Armstrong trumpet solos ever recorded. I can’t do it justice in words but I’ll just say that the slow climb to that high concert F almost always brings a tear to my eye. Some notes hurt more than others but damn it, he gets there. And throughout, he’s in complete control, throwing in small glisses and all his other tricks. Vince Giordano later discovered the song to be Minnie T. Wright’s “Love Song,” a silent movie cue from 1920 and something Pops probably played in his days accompanying silent movies with Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra.

UPDATE: The late Swedish collector Gosta Hagglof heard it played by a violin in the score of a Charlie Chaplin silent, but I could never find which one. While going through his papers at the Louis Armstrong Archives, I came across a note of it being featured in the 1917 short "Easy Street." I knew 1917 was too early for musical soundtracks, so I went to YouTube and found the 1938 "Charlie Chaplin Festival," which combined "The Adventurer," "The Cure," "The Immigrant" and "Easy Street" AND included a score, plus sound effects and even occasional dialogue. And bless Hagglof, there it is, at 1:08:46, as played by the violin! Thanks to people with big ears like Vince and Gosta (and Louis, who remembered the tune), we can finally hear it in its original silent movie context:  



Back to "Laughin' Louie." Armstrong's playing of "Love Song" is beautiful and though no one else is playing, you can hear the chord changes through Pops’s playing. And when he’s finished, the band hits a corny “ta-da” kind of static chord and the record’s over.

I played this record for my bass player a few months ago, describing it as the “quintessential Louis Armstrong” record and I stand by that. It’s the artist and the entertainer as one. He’s laughing, he’s mugging, he’s scatting and dropping all sorts of slang into his speaking. And then he picks up the horn and makes you cry. If one recording sums up everything that made Louis Armstrong such a great figure, then it has to be “Laughin’ Louie.” I hope you enjoyed the chance to celebrate it on its 80th anniversary (and if you chose to get high while listening, then I KNOW you really enjoyed it!).

Tomorrow: Two takes of "Tomorrow Night (After Tonight)."

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mississippi Basin: 80 Years of Louis's April 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 
Recorded April 24, 1933
Written by Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Charlie Beal, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Big Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Victor 24321
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Continuing on, the next song recorded on April 24, 1933 was "Mississippi Basin," written by two esteemed songwriters, Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe. Razaf and Foresythe had joined forces to compose "He's a Son of the South," which Louis recorded successfully in January. Hoping to go to the well one more time, they composed "Mississippi Basin," another paean to the "dear old southland" (actually referred to that in the lyrics).

It's kind of a dramatic thing, alternating between minor and major passages. Fortunately for us, it survives in two takes. The first take was never issued; let's give it a listen:



The opening ascending phrase is quite dramatic and gives us a sense that we might be in for an exciting romp of sorts. Alas, it's just a ruse as Louis and the reeds gently descend following the stomping opening. But worry, there's still plenty of drama as they descend into a A-minor chord that Louis uses to launch into quite a wailing cadenza. He comes right in on a high A and turns it into a three-note A-Bb-A phrase, repeating it an octave lower for good measure. Chilling stuff, reminiscent of the howls of a cantor (not Eddie). Louis brings everything to a hush by ending on a quiet A yet another octave lower. I told you there would be drama!

Finally he comes in with the melody, with its pattern of four bars of minor alternating with four bars of major. This is one of those great melody choruses that Louis simply excelled in during his entire career (see my recent blog on "April in Portugal" for another example). He knows he has only one chorus to sell the melody and make his statement. He starts by playing the melody fairly straight (with the built-in responses from the windy reeds), though wish his typical floating phrasing, once again exploring the lower range of his horn in a way he rarely did.

For the second eight, the variations start, as does the ascent into the upper register. Once again, he starts turning on the heat but holds back for possibly the most relaxed bridge of any tune he ever performed. I mentioned that gage was being passed around that day and it sure sounds like Louis is floating!  The reeds come in and perform the last eight bars straight; just listen to how they phrase the melody, all insistent and staccato. Compare it to how Louis just played it and well, there is no comparison.

Then it's time for the vocal, which is quite delicious. Again, Louis starts out in a low-key mood, singing  very earnestly about the South, as he always did--though he perhaps makes an editorial comment with a record-breaking "Mmmmmm-hmmmmm" after the mentions washing his "face in that 'Mississippi Basin' back home" (nice internal rhyme, Mr. Razaf). He picks it up a bit in the bridge, exploring the upper register of his voice (listen to either trumpeter Zilner Randolph or Ellis Whitlock making like Pops in the back) and getting positively righteous with his quarter-note cries on "Dear old southland, baby." And listen to the master of the phrasing get ahead of the beat with "Soon I'm gonna make a beeline" before pausing, falling behind the beat and then coming in the with the next line. Are you listening, young Billie Holiday?

Up to this point, all is well, but Charlie Beal's piano interlude falls apart a little (paging Teddy Wilson!). But everything's built up to the ending where Louis, unaccompanied, trades one-bar phrases with the reeds until launching into a closing cadenza. He starts off strong with the melody and first double-timed passage but when he gets to the stop-time section, he loses his footing ever so slightly. I'm sure every trumpeter in the Western Hemisphere would like to lose his or her footing like that, as he still plays some killer stuff, including that closing gliss to high F. But there's just enough minor hesitation in there that he probably knew he could do it better.

Thus, another take was called and on this one, he nailed it. Here's the master of "Mississippi Basin":




There you go. Everything follows the same patterns but the differences are interesting to point out. During the opening minor cadenza, instead of playing a three-note phrase, Armstrong trots out a flashier eight-note run, then repeats it an octave lower before settling on that low A. Armstrong's reading of the melody is also a little more electric throughout. When he steps on the gas during the second eight, he really pushes it out there. His bridge, though still relaxed, isn't quite as woozy as the first go-around--I love the sly accent he gives to those repeated notes--but he still passes the ball to the reeds on a mellow note.

The vocal follows a similar pattern though again, there's a bit more urgency to the vocal, probably because the tempo is slightly faster. Man, just listen to how almost every line he sings during the first half of the vocal consists of repeated single pitches. Unreal. And the bridge is even more righteous as he explores his voice, swinging those quarter notes, emitting barely a rasp, going way down to a full-throated bottom and more, all in eight bars.

Charlie Beal's piano interlude is on target this time; he even jumps the gun into the end of Pops's vocal, so eager is he to get it going! And then it's time for the Louis show. His first salvo sounds slightly strained and a bit staccato. Remember, Louis was apparently engaged in life and death struggles with his lip in this period and my first thought is, "Uh oh, please hold up." Naturally, he comes roaring back with a double-timed phrase. And when it's time for the stop-time ending, Louis again goes way up but sounds much more poised this time around, taking a four-note motif, and playing it four different ways before that final high F. A fine record and the right choice to be the master.

I don't know of anyone else recording "Mississippi Basin" after 1933, but it's a neat tune. At the time, they tried making a hit out of it; the Casa Loma Orchestra in June with a vocal by Pee Wee Hunt and Chick Bullock sang it on a Oriole 78. The only other version to survive on YouTube comes from my heroes, the Washboard Rhythm Kings. They were aping everything Louis was doing in this period, including other Victor obscurities like "Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby." In August 1933, they tackled "Mississippi Basin" with bassist George "Ghost" Howell taking the vocal. The tempo is faster than Louis's--more in line with Armstrong's introduction--and it works (though the reharmonization in the last chorus is so-so). I don't know who the trumpet is--don't think it's Taft Jordan--but it's clear that the entire band was digging Louis:



But then again, who didn't dig Louis? Tomorrow, I'll cover a record that is the absolute essence of Louis Armstrong: "Laughin' Louie"!

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Honey, Don't You Love Me Anymore: 80 Years of Louis's April 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:01
Recorded April 24, 1933
Written by Fred Meadows and Terry Shand
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Charlie Beal, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Big Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Victor 24335
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

As advertised, here we go with an 11-part look at Louis Armstrong's April 1933 Victor sessions. Back in January, I devoted 12 blogs to Louis's January 1933 Victor sessions, featuring classics such as "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," "I've Got the World on a String," "Basin Street Blues," "Mahogany Stomp" and more. Louis's band was brand new at the time, organized by Zilner Randolph after Louis had spent his time since returning from Europe fronting other people's bands.

By April 1933, the personnel was still pretty much intact except for two big changes in the rhythm section. Teddy Wilson had made his recorded debut with Pops back in January but by April, he was replaced by Charlie Beal. Beal was from Los Angeles and played with Les Hite in 1930. Though he didn't make any records with Louis when Armstrong fronted the Hite band in 1930-31, it's probable that Louis heard him at some point in his California sojourn. Beal would stay with Louis until Louis left for Europe at the end of 1933 and later reunited with him in the 1947 film, New Orleans.

The other change is more significant. Yank Porter anchored the drum chair for the January sessions but by April, Pops was without a drummer. So for the April 24 session, 23-year-old Big Sid Catlett filled in, making his first appearance with Louis, beginning one of jazz's great partnerships. For whatever reason, it was only temporary as two days later, Harry Dial took over for the April 26 sessions and stayed there for the bulk of 1933. But Armstrong didn't forget and Catlett would return later in the decade for lengthy stays with Armstrong's big band and eventually, the charter edition of the All Stars.

Otherwise, the rest of the personnel was the same as in January, including the Johnson brothers, Keg and Budd on trombone and tenor saxophone respectively. However, there was one difference that I'll come back to often, I'm sure: in January, Bill Oldham stuck to walking bass but on the April sessions, he inexplicably switched to tuba. Well, I say inexplicably; I'm sure there was an explanation, but I can't guess it. The Swing Era was right around the corner, pushed ahead by the efforts of Bennie Moten's big band during their Victor sessions of December 1932. The switch to tuba pushes the overall feel of Armstrong's band backwards to the 1920s.

When Armstrong and the band arrived in Victor's Chicago studios on April 24, they had five songs waiting for them. Up first was "Honey, Don't you Love Me Anymore," written by the team of Fred Meadows and pianist Terry Shand. Shand would later write a number of tunes for Armstrong's Decca period, including "I Double Dare You," "Shanty Boat on the Mississippi" and "Mexican Swing"; this was the first time Armstrong tackled one of his compositions. Meadows is fairly unknown, as far as I can tell, cranking out some forgotten pop tunes until penning a winner with Patsy Cline's "You Were Only Fooling" in 1948.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let's listen to the first song from the April 24, 1933 session, "Honey Don't You Love Me Anymore":



The first thing we hear is Louis leading the band through a slightly convoluted introduction (everything under him sounds muddy, including the thumping tuba) before he takes the lead on Shand's melody. The first half of the first chorus features Louis splitting the melody with the Johnson brothers in a series of 8-bar trades. Trombonist Keg Johnson almost sounds like he forgets his turn is up, waking up in the second half of his spot with some shouting. For his second go-around, Louis lets us know that the chops are up, taking the melody an octave higher, topping out on a high concert B, before Budd Johnson blusters through his eight.

Louis has the bridge to himself, entering with his patented quarter notes. Louis always sounds good in minor, tossing in a huge gliss to another high B. He calms down after that, laying low with some more quarter notes. Pianist Beal gets the last eight to himself and he, like almost all of Louis's pianists, shows an Earl Hines influence, if not quite as adventurous as the Fatha.

Beal modulates and Louis enters with the vocal. You've already heard the melody; it's catchy but I can't picture anyone singing it straight. Louis wisely transforms it into something more manageable and swinging, showing off his vocal range, really exploring its depths on the titular phrases. On the bridge, he sticks on one pitch for the entire eight bars! (And I love his insertion of the word "cat" there, too.) His last eight is propelled by an elongated "Hmmm" before he starts happily barking the lyrics, clearly in great spirits (possibly aided by an herb of some kind, as will be discussed later in this series). His descending rephrasing of the title at the end is righteous..."yeah," indeed!

A short interlude featuring Budd Johnson follows, the kind of thing that the band usually played to allow Louis time to get his chops together. I wonder if he was planning on pacing himself for the long session because instead of Louis, it's Keg Johnson who enters with 16 bars of mellow trombone, mostly sticking to the melody. I like Keg but that's an awful lot of time to devote to a sideman when normally it's Louis who takes over those last choruses. Sid Catlett's brushes sound nice, but they're a little obscured by Oldham's four-beats-to-the-bar tuba playing...take a breath, Bill!

But don't fret, he's back for that minor bridge, entering high (possibly in more ways than one) and staying up there, throughout the rest of the bridge (dig the little glisses, up and down) and the concluding eight bars, where he sticks to the melody. I don't know if they really thought this thing would be a hit, but I can't think of many other Armstrong songs that feature the written melody as much as this one.

At least he gets a closing cadenza, always a pleasure, foreshadowing the Decca records of just a few years later, where so many tunes ended in this fashion. Louis does end a little lower, however, holding the concert Ab for the longest amount of time and then working down to a closing F. He sounds great, but again, on top of the braying tuba and Mike McKendrick's banjo-like guitar, it does sound like Louis is still playing with Erskine Tate or Carroll Dickerson in the mid-20s.

"Honey, Don't You Love Me Anymore" has a wonderful vocal, two great trumpet bridges and that dramatic cadenza but otherwise, isn't one for the time capsule. However, after having listened to it a few times in a row while writing this, I can attest that's it's a damn catchy tune--it's going to be stuck in my head for the rest of the week!

Tomorrow: "Mississippi Basin" in two takes.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

60 Years of "Ramona" and "April in Portugal"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 21, 1953
"Ramona" Track Time 2:45
"April in Portugal" Track Time 2:42
"Ramona" Written by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Mabel Wayne
Written by Raul Ferrão and Jimmy Kennedy
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Milt Yaner, Dick Jacobs, alto saxophone; Sam Taylor, tenor saxophone; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Joe Bushkin, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca 28704
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Serenades
Available on Itunes? Yes


60 years ago, Louis Armstrong recorded two pop tunes for Decca, both personal favorites of mine, but generally ignored by the jazz purists. Both of them were previously covered by the blog in years past so I've combined them today and updated them a bit so you can celebrate them with me. Here goes (and be sure to come back on Wednesday for the start of my 11-day tribute to Louis's April 1933 Victor recordings!):

***********************

Ever get a song stuck in your head that you don't really know how it ended up there...but you don't mind it? Well, welcome to my world. Since immersing myself in jazz 18 years ago, almost a minute doesn't go by without some fleeting melody bouncing around my brain. And oddly enough, I usually like and feel the need to jump in. I might as well warn you: I'm a serial whistler, a foot stomper, a head nodder and above everything else, a tapper. Oh boy, when I get tapping, stand back! I once got in a gang of trouble back in high school when I started a four-man percussion section, all of us using our hands....during study hall in the school library! The librarians did not appreciate our polyrhythms.

Friends would watch me tap on a desk and say, "Geez, do you have ADD or something?" I would brush them off and say, "Oh, you're missing out because you can't hear the song in my head!" And then I'd go back to tapping out patterns learned from Sid Catlett or Cozy Cole.

I usually walk around by myself with an Ipod and even at work, there's usually form of Armstrong coming from my desk. I don't like silence and if I'm surrounded by it, well, here comes the whistling and tapping!

Anyway, this is all a prologue to today's blog. I obviously have been slow as molasses getting these things out but I knew I'd have a bit of time this afternoon. But what to write about? I didn't really have anything planned and I didn't feel like spinning my Itunes shuffle. But while out to breakfast with my wife and daughter this morning, I realized I couldn't get the damn bridge to "April in Portgual" out of my head...and I liked it! More or more, it played on repeat, and occasionally I joined in with a whistle or by singing a lyric or two to myself. Somehow it got planted in my brain--I don't think I've listened to the track in weeks--but once I realized it, I figured I'd share it with the world and see if it could get stuck in the collective brains of my loyal readers.

The tune "April in Portugal" was originally an instrumental, by Raul Ferrão with the original title "Coimbra" about a city in Portgual. In 1947, Jimmy Kennedy wrote English lyrics and re-named the tune, "April in Portugal" (I guess it was catchier than "April in Coimbra"). But as far as I can tell, the tune was under the radar until it exploded in 1953. Les Baxter's instrumental version spent 22 weeks on the chart beginning on March 28 of that year. To hear the sound that captivated the nation, we turn our eyes (and ears) to YouTube:
Yep, that's the sound. Three other versions--Richard Haman's, Freddy Martin's and Vic Damone's--also charted in April and May 1953. The world had gone "Portugal" mad. And that meant one thing: it was time for Louis Armstrong to cover it!

You have to give Milt Gabler of Decca some credit; he knew Pops. Sometimes, Decca was maligned for having Armstrong cover other people's hits but Gabler always made appropriate choices. I just consulted the online "Cash Box" charts from April 1953 and do you know what was the number one hit for that entire month? Patti Page and "The Doggie in the Window." 'Nuff said.

So Gabler knew what songs to avoid but more importantly, he knew how to select songs that Armstrong could really dig into. Another song with Spanish origins was also burning up the chart in early 1953, "Ramona." Gabler saw a pairing of "Ramona" and "April in Portugal" as a natural and he was correct. We'll get to to the backstory of "Ramona" in a minute but first, it's off to "Portugal." Give a listen:


In the words of our hero, "Yeah, man!" (or in Portguese, "Sim Man"...thank you, Internet). The recording was made by the All Stars augmented by three reeds and guitar. Though he's not listed in the discography, I'm willing to wager money that Sy Oliver contributed the arrangement because the strutting two-beat feel has Oliver's name all over it. For Armstrong's take on the tune, the tempo was slowed down a bit, only allowing enough room for a single-chorus vocal. Thus, the trumpet playing you hear at the beginning is IT. Armstrong was aware of this and conducted one of his lessons in telling a complete, exciting story in less than a minute.

Right from the start, it's clear that Pops's chops were in top shape (you'd know that already if you listened to "Ramona"!). His intro is so simple but my goodness, how he makes those quarter notes swing. Arvell Shaw's bass rolls out the red carpet for Armstrong to play a touch of melody (Barney Bigard sounds like he had some coffee...he's all over his horn!). Armstrong infuses the melody with his special sound before he lets loose and starts improvising, wailing to the close of his potent, but too-short solo.

Then Armstrong takes the vocal, which is a ball, because it tests his range. He passes the test but it's always fun hearing him reaching for those high ones. I've always loved the tune's minor bridge the best; Armstrong at first sounds a bit tentative but he really digs in to the word "Portgual" (this is the part stuck in my head) and ends with some passionate vocalizing. Armstrong goes back to crooning the melody sweetly (listen to him holding the middle syllable on romance, shaking it a bit like his trumpet) until the scat-filled close. With the band wailing, Armstrong's "and Portugal too" is a nice punctuation mark. A fine record.

Naturally, Armstrong's cover didn't exactly burn up the charts but as is usually the case with Pops, his version seems to have endured better than the popular versions from the period. When I typed "April in Portugal" into YouTube, Armstrong's version was one of the first to come up, clocking in with over 77,000 views. (Only Perez Prado's version has more views...dig if it you're a fan of the mambo; it's great!). 

But speaking of YouTube, that's where the flip side, "Ramona," really has thrived in the 21st century. As of today (April 21, 2013), it's clocked over 273,000 views! I'm not even sure if 273 hardened jazz fans have even heard it (put the Hot Fives down for a second, for Pete's sake (not Pete Briggs)!) 



The song was written in 1928 by two Americans familiar with writing tunes that dealt with other nationalities and countries, lyricist L. Wolfe Gilbert ("The Peanut Vendor," "I Miss my Swiss") and Mabel Wayne ("In a Little Spanish Town," "It Happened in Monterey"). It was introduced in a 1927 film of the same name and first became a smash hit in 1928 thanks to a version by Dolores del Rito. YouTube loves "Ramona" so if you're interested in some of these early versions, stay put. Here's del Rito's original waltzing treatment:, complete with broken English (it took me a few seconds to hear if she was singing in English or Spanish):


Del Rio had such a hit, it was only a matter of time before the cover versions started rolling out. Here's Mr. 1920s himself, Gene Austin's take:

And here's the always original "Whispering" Jack Smith's cover. I don't own any Smith, but thanks to YouTube and such, I've developed an admiration for his talking style. Dig it:


Interestingly, "Ramona" didn't seem to break into the jazz world. Paul Whiteman did a straight cover of it in 1928 and Benny Goodman swung an Eddie Sauter arrangement over it over a decade later, but otherwise, it does not seem to have made much of an impact of the jazz fraternity.

So how did Louis Armstrong end up recording it for Decca in 1953? Well, if you know anything about Armstrong's recording relationship with Decca during this period, there could only be one answer: like "April in Portugal," he was covering a recent popular hit. So who dug up "Ramona" 25 years after its inception? That would be The Gaylords, a popular male vocal group of the era (with a name that's unlikely to be revived in today's pop music world). Here's their original Mercury recording (stay for the shuffling, swing treatment midway through...where's Louis Prima when we need him?).


According to old Billboard magazines (now available on Google), The Gaylords's take on "Ramona" was pretty popular on jukeboxes during the first months of 1953, and figured in multiple ads, such as those for Mercury Records's best-selling discs. Covers were quickly made by Les Brown, Gordon McRae, Tony Martin, Vic Damone and--you guessed it--Pops. Armstrong recorded his version on April 21, 1953, while in the midst of his infamous tour with Benny Goodman. Armstrong played so much horn on that tour, he almost killed Goodman, as Bobby Hackett put it, and that good form shows on "Ramona" and as we've already heard, "April in Portugal."  Armstrong had his All Stars with him, including pianist Joe Bushkin, who just joined for the Goodman tour. Also, three saxophone vets of the studio scene filled in the harmonies, including raucous R&B tenor man Sam "The Man" Taylor and Dick Jacobs, the man behind some of Armstrong's weakest recordings of the 1960s. No one seems to know who did the arrangements for the date but Sy Oliver wouldn't be out of the question.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let's hear how Armstrong performed "Ramona":


The record opens with the always-welcome sound of Pops's voice, intoning the song's namesake. Barney Bigard gets off one of his patented runs--a pretty hot one--and Trummy Young answers with some sober playing. Armstrong then sings the vocal passionately, barely deviating from the written melody. The rhythm section is decidedly two-beat, but in a Lunceford-ian way, which makes me think this is the work of Sy Oliver (compare the feel to "Your Cheatin' Heart," recorded earlier that year). Armstrong shows off his vocal range throughout the first chorus, exuding warmth with each gravel-coated syllable.

But stand back for the main event. After a neat setup by Barney and Trummy (Trummy still sounding very smooth in his quick muted run), Pops steps up to the mike for a powerful half-chorus of trumpet playing. Again, he sticks close to the melody but it's where he plays it that kills me every time. He could have easily asked for a modulation...but then, he wouldn't be Armstrong. So he just jumps in and plays it in the upper stratosphere of his range. It's one of those, "He's not going to be able to do it" solos but sure enough, he nails it and even tops it off with a superb break. Gorgeous stuff.

Armstrong reprises his vocal, just as warm as the first time around, and even extends the ending with a little scatting and a devilishly insinuating "Mm-hmm" before picking up the horn for one last run up to the heavens. A beautiful little record.

Armstrong's version wasn't a hit by any means but it did get a positive review in the May 30, 1953 issue of Billboard: "Gravel-voiced Louis awards the recently revived evergreen a reading full of the individual appeal that has build him his large following. Armstrong fans will grab; others may sample."

Armstrong never played "Ramona" again, as far as I can tell, but the song still had a couple of surprises in it. It became a number one hit in Germany thanks to a version by the Blue Diamonds (also available on YouTube). And in 1968, Billy Walker's country-fied (country-fried?) take on the tune cracked the top 10 charts in America. It's an endearing tune and I think we should be thankful that Decca passed it along to Pops to create something so warm and so memorable.

[And quick 2013 tag: two years ago, trumpeter Greg Hammontree worked for me at the Louis Armstrong Archives while he was completing a Master's degree in Jazz performance. He didn't know much Louis before joining me so naturally, every day was a crash course. Without any preconceived notions (ex: "Louis's pop covers = garbage"), he listened to everything with open ears. He enjoyed it all and became quite an admirer of Louis. But one of the only times he stopped what he was doing to express amazement at what he was listening to was the trumpet interlude on "Ramona." Sensing his reaction, I played it for him three times in a row and made a copy of it for him. More proof that Louis's pop sides of the 1940s and 50s could still be influential on the current crop of young jazz musicians if only they knew where to find them. Hopefully they'll get the proper rediscovery and reevaluation in the not-too-distant future!]

Friday, April 19, 2013

Coming Soon...11 Posts in 11 Days!


Back in January, I was hit with a sudden burst of inspiration to cover Louis Armstrong's January 1933 sessions, when Pops recorded 12 songs in three days. I knocked them off one at a time for twelve straight days and then needed to recuperate. But now, it's that time again: 80 years ago, at the end of April 1933, Louis once again recorded for Victor, this time knocking off 11 tracks in two sessions. And once again, I'm going to try to tackle them by posting about one song a day for 11 straight days, beginning on April 24. 

This next batch doesn't have quite as many classics as the January sessions, but they still capture Pops in ridiculous form, including a few for the time capsule, most notably "Laughin' Louie." But still, after giving the January sessions so much attention, it's only fair to pay the same respect to the April offerings. 

Now, if you want to go back and refresh yourself with the January series, start here. If you don't, here's something I wrote about Louis's Victor recordings way back in the early days of this blog, in 2007. This was originally part of the introduction to my entry on "There's a Cabin in the Pines," the first Victor recording I ever wrote about. That song will be covered in this upcoming series but I thought a soliloquy on these sessions in the middle of everything would stick out like a sore thumb (or sore chops). Fortunately, it mostly holds up though since 2007, the Decca recordings got the deluxe Mosaic Records treatment. That, and the release of the live 1937 "Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts" have led me to waver a bit and start thinking that the late 30s was really Louis's prime, a time when he could truly do anything. Still, there's nothing else quite like the Victor period, that perfect balance of 1920s wildness and 1930s operatic grandeur.  So here it is, to get the ball rolling. See you in a few days!

**************** 
I might as well as lead off with the hyperbole: with all due respect to the Hot Fives and Sevens and to the later recordings that make up the bulk of my Armstrong research, these Victor records capture Armstrong at the absolute peak of his playing powers. And as I’ve made abundantly clear, I’m a fan of every note that ever came out of the Armstrong horn. From week to week, I go through phases—maybe a week of Decca big band records, maybe a week of Earl Hines sessions, maybe month of All Stars live dates, maybe an hour of Dick Jacobs arrangements (I have my limits), but anytime I dig into the Victor sessions, they absolutely blow my mind like nothing else in the Armstrong discography. I think every trumpet player hits a prime period where they are in complete control of their instrument and can do no wrong every time they press their horn to their lips. For me, Armstrong hit that peak in 1932 and 1933, beginning with some of the final OKeh recordings, which include some of my all-time Armstrong favorites, including “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “All of Me” and “Lawd, You Made the Night Too Long,” three songs that act as signposts towards the shape of jazz to come. But the Victor recordings are extra special for a number of reasons I hope to touch on here.

First, there’s the sound quality of the recordings. I love everything Armstrong did for OKeh, but the sound of OKeh’s Chicago studio pales in comparison with the brilliant work of Victor’s recording engineers in Camden and Chicago. These records are 75 years old [now 80!], yet sound remarkably clean and vibrant (much like other Victor recordings of 1932, including sessions by Duke Ellington and Bennie Moten). Then there’s the material: standards such as “I’ve Got the World on a String” and “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” jazz favorites like “Basin Street Blues,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” “High Society,” and “St. Louis Blues” and some just plain funny showpieces such as “Laughin’ Louie” and “Sweet Sue.” Armstrong’s big bands often got knocked and sure this edition had some problems staying in tune and the tuba in the rhythm section sounds a little out of date, but any band with the likes of Teddy Wilson, Budd and Keg Johnson, Sid Catlett, Mike McKendrick, Scoville Browne and others can’t be that bad.

But naturally, the main reason I find the Victor period so irresistible is Armstrong himself. Vocally, he was the king (his vocal on “Some Sweet Day” might be in my list of top ten Armstrong vocals), but the trumpet work is what really pushes these recordings over the top. He is in absolute complete command of his instrument and he’s eager to show it off on every recording. The wild double-timing and quick flurries of notes associated with the Hot Fives and Sevens is still there (“Basin Street Blues” is remarkable) but he’s slowly entering the next phase of his trumpet playing career: more high notes, more drama, a more sure-footed style with operatic tendencies and no shortage of endurance. He’s harmonically advanced on “Swing You Cats,” he glisses with freakish power on “Right to Sing the Blues,” he bubbles over with enthusiasm at the start of “Dusky Stevedore,” he creates a typically beautiful opening cadenza on “You’ll Wish You Never Been Born,” he plays arguably the greatest solo he ever played on “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” on the 1932 "Medley" version and he shows off with abandon at the end of “Sittin’ in the Dark,” hitting high note after high note and topping it off with some giant glisses all for the sole purpose of making the listener marvel at the greatest trumpet player jazz ever produced (Sun Ra, by the way, was profoundly affected by that last record). Armstrong is at his peak and every solo he plays for Victor demonstrates it beyond a shadow of a doubt. By the time of the Decca records of 1935, Armstrong’s style had matured greatly, eliminating much the velocity of his playing while emphasizing melody, high notes and dramatic climaxes.

Why have the Victor recordings been given the shaft? Well, first off, I should say that they haven’t been given the total brush off—no, that distinction goes to Armstrong’s big band Decca recordings, which have never been issued in complete form in America (thank you Ambassador label!) and which most jazz critics and historians completely ignore. At least the Victor recordings were the recipient of a beautiful box set produced by Orrin Keepnews with essential liner notes by Dan Morgenstern. But even when that box was released, it didn’t get the publicity garnered by the later release of Sony’s Hot Fives and Sevens box. The sheer number of standards recorded and introduced by Armstrong has led to the OKeh big band recordings to receive a fair amount of notice, but those Victor big band records remain in the shadows of everything that came before them.

Again, why? I think there are multiple reasons starting with the aforementioned knocks about the out-of-tune big band and occasionally dated song choices. Armstrong’s greatness is all that stands out on some of these tracks; there’s no Earl Hines or Johnny Dodds to talk about in relation to Armstrong and certain songs, like “Snowball” and “Mississippi Basin” aren’t exactly “Stardust” or “Body and Soul.” Also, jazz’s resident tastemaker, Gunther Schuller, didn’t exactly wax poetic about the Victor records. He only devotes four pages to them in The Swing Era and though he finds praise for some of the recordings, he mainly complains about Armstrong’s high notes (“It was the tendency towards showy grandstanding cadenza-endings, imitating the worst of operatic traditions contrived by sensation-seeking divas and prima donnas”) and the playing of the band, calling some of the records “disasters.” And as it’s been for the last 40 years, whatever Gunther says, goes.

... I don’t know what Schuller was listening to. He knocks the band’s entire performance of that April 26 day but I think they sound pretty good, swinging hard behind Pops on “St. Louis Blues,” executing a tricky passage for the reeds on “I Wonder Who” and finding a foot-tapping groove on “Don’t Play Me Cheap.” That last song was written by the band’s drummer, Harry Dial, and recorded by Armstrong as a favor. And of course, on “Sweet Sue,” Budd Johnson sings one in “the Viper’s language,” and even Budd later talked about all the marijuana smoke in the studio during some of these sessions. Everyone was having a good time, Pops was amongst friends like Randolph and the Johnson brothers, recording songs as a favors and playing at his peak. If you haven’t done so in a while, give the Victor sessions another spin because Armstrong’s playing will truly blow your mind.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Operation: Entertainment

Video time, again, folks. Once more, I'm dipping into the never-ending bag of YouTube gifts courtesy of German jazz historian, Franz Hoffman. Last month, Franz started uploading one Armstrong rarity after another, causing me to write this tribute. Inspired, I started a new series of breaking down these videos, starting with a 1968 episode of The Bell Telephone Hour titled Jazz: The Intimate Art. That special was recorded in February 1968 and aired soon after. In my blog on it, I talked about the circumstances of Louis's life in this period, as he spent much of 1967 sick and tired, something that occasionally couldn't hide itself in his shows.

But after shutting it down for the second time in September 1967 due to pneumonia, Louis bounced back with a good stretch of strong playing in late 1967, into 1968--though, as "Jazz: The Intimate Art" demonstrated, he was still tired and pretty run down away from the spotlight. For my second choice in this series, I wanted to choose something from the same period: Louis's appearance on the ABC special Operation: Entertainment.

Operation: Entertainment debuted on January 5, 1968. Produced by the one and only Chuck Barris, the show capitalized on the raging Vietnam War, traveling around to various military bases around the world to showcase various top acts entertaining the troops. Terry Gibbs ran the house band and the show featured different hosts every week. The January 5 premiere was hosted by Rich Little and featured the likes of Vikki Carr and the Lennon Sisters. The following week, George Carlin hosted and presented Roy Clark and Bill Dana (as Commanding General Jose Jimenez). Week 3 aired on January 19, was hosted by Dick Cavett and showcased Joannie Sommers, Richard Pryor, magician Harry Blackstone Jr., the Korean Kittens and Louis Armstrong.

Though it aired on January 19, 1968, the show was filmed at Fort Hood Army Base on December 20, 1967. As I said, this was a very, very good stretch for Louis; a taped show from Miami in November is probably the finest late Louis live show and he sounds great on the later "Jazz: The Intimate Art." I'm sure there were rough nights in between, but those two--and another fine New Year's Eve broadcast from Las Vegas--show that the batting average was quite high in this period.

It doesn't seem like video has surfaced of any of the other Operation: Entertainment episodes (there were 31 in all), if YouTube is to be believed, so we should be extra thankful that Louis's segment exists and is a meaty 8+ minutes. So sit back, relax and enjoy Pops on Operation: Entertainment:


Young Dick Cavett does the introduction (every time Louis appeared on Cavett's talk show in 1970 and 71, Cavett did a variation on this kind of tongue-in-cheek "this is his big break" joke) and them Pops bounds out to Gibbs's big band playing "Hello, Dolly!" He looks good, a little fuller than he would on "Jazz: The Intimate Art," which is from only two months later. He'd continue to lose and lose and lose more weight until he ended up in intensive care in September 1968.

The All Stars are waiting for him when he gets to center stage: Tyree Glenn, trombone, Joe Muranyi, clarinet, Marty Napoleon, piano, Buddy Catlett, bass and Danny Barcelona, drums. With a nice chunk of time to stretch out, Louis opens with his longtime theme, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." A beautiful touch are the close-ups of the soldiers in the crowd, digging it (and you can hear them cheering and shouting every eye-roll and touch of scat). A rousing "Good evening, everybody" has everyone feeling righteous.

After a plug for New Orleans and gumbo, Louis performs his recent record of "What a Wonderful World." Recorded in August 1967, record company ABC-Paramount put almost no money into promoting it in the United States as the company's president, Larry Newton, thought Bob Thiele had created a dud of a record. However, Louis truly did love the song because it brought him right back to his neighborhood in Corona, Queens. Even though it wasn't selling, Louis performed it on many TV shows during this time, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Jackie Gleason Show. Even with that kind of exposure--and the fact that Louis was performing it every night after "Indiana," the song couldn't catch on in the US without the almighty radio play. But Newton didn't think of its international appeal and by the spring of 1968, it was a number one hit in England, South Africa and other places around the world.

Back-to-back ballads might seem like an odd way to begin his segment but both songs are simply beautiful and featured a heavy dose of sentimentality, which was not lost on the soldiers. Interestingly, Louis botches the lyric at the end of the second eight bars, but recovers quickly. I've always wondered if that flub has caused this clip to not get the airplay it should. VH1 or MTV once used it on a segment on Louis, but after the first few lines, the faded in the original studio recording. Yeah, Louis has a momentary brain fart but that's a small price to pay for the chance to see him sing it and to see the looks on the faces of the soldiers.

Of course, it wasn't until it was used in the 1986 film Good Morning Vietnam that "What a Wonderful World" finally blew up in the United States and it hasn't looked back since (says the author of the book of that same name). Thus, retrospectively, it's even more touching SEEING Louis sing it to the Fort Hood soldiers, many of whom were probably getting ready to go off to Vietnam, some of them not coming back.  There are those who view "What a Wonderful World" as a sentimental song, a tear-jerker, an optimistic plea for love and tolerance or an ironic commentary on this imperfect civilization of ours...you can view the Fort Hood version and make a case for any reading of it.

After the two ballads, Louis leaves them swinging with one of my favorite interpretations of "Hello, Dolly!" Though the height of its fame was over three years earlier, there's no question that "Dolly" still killed when you hear the reactions of the soldiers to Marty Napoleon's piano introduction. Louis sings it with plenty of gusto, but it's the instrumental interlude that contains the most meat. Both Buddy Catlett and the late Joe Muranyi told me how much they enjoyed playing "Dolly" but Louis had quite a few variations to his playing and they never knew what he was going to throw at them (compare this one to the chorus shown on "Jazz: The Intimate Art" to see what they're saying).

For me, and I'm guessing so many others, I first saw this clip in the terrific PBS "American Masters" documentary, Satchmo, based on the Gary Giddins book of the same name. I first saw that when I was a 15-year-old kid, shortly after hearing Louis's music changed my life. That big bang came after already seeing Louis in action in The Glenn Miller Story, but it was Satchmo that really put the whole thing together, with all those great performance clips. The instrumental portion of "Dolly" comes early on in that special and it knocked me out from the beginning--still does! Of course, I had no idea at the time that Louis was going through a life-and-death struggle with his health in 1967 and would be forced to put the horn down for two years less than a year after this performance was filmed. That only makes me treasure it that much more today.

After that terrific chorus (with the requisite quotes of "Stormy Weather" and "Japanese Sandman"), Louis takes it out with the vocal and throws in an encore with everyone clapping along and bedlam ensuing when Tyree Glenn breaks into the twist. I'm sure somewhere that night, some hardened jazz fan watched this segment and groaned: a ballad about the sleepy South, a sentimental paean to war-engulfed world and then a corny showtune that ended with jazz's greatest genius acting as the ringleader of a damn circus instead of presenting the artiste he truly was. Hell, there are still some out there clinging to that line of thinking.

I feel sorry for those people, I truly do. Because it was also in this era of Louis's life that he famously said that he was there "in the cause of happiness." One look at the faces of those soldiers during "Dolly" shows once and for all that Louis never failed that cause a single time in his career. You could sit around and argue about what Louis should have done or didn't do but it's all immaterial. At the end of the day, Louis lived for his audiences and the opportunity to make them happy, even when he was feeling dangerously ill himself. Operation: Entertainment shows this off beautifully and like everything else Louis did, should be celebrated as yet another triumph in a career overstuffed with them.

Friday, April 5, 2013

90 Years Ago Today: Louis Armstrong's First Records

90 years ago.

90 years!  Today should be a national holiday. 90 years ago today, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band made its first records for the Gennett label Richmond, Indiana. Makin the trip to Richmond were Oliver on cornet, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Honore Dutrey on trombone, Lil Hardin on piano, Bill Johnson on banjo (louder for recording than his normal bass) and Baby Dodds on drums (though technically woodblocks and briefly, a Chinese tom tom).  Oh, and also the band's second cornetist, young, 21-year-old Louis Armstrong.

Yes, 90 years ago today, Louis Armstrong stepped in front of a recording device for the very first time. Just think of what would follow over the next 48 years.

And really, how lucky are we that Louis was born in 1901 instead of 1801. Imagine if music history proceeded as it did--minstrels, ragtime, New Orleans jazz, etc.--but a hundred years earlier: no recording devices. Someone surely would have recognized Armstrong's genius and there would have been transcribing parties to notate his improvisations. Maybe some would miss the mark; maybe others would transcribe them perfectly. Regardless, we'd be left with folio's of great Armstrong solos of the 1800's and trumpet players would do their best to play them. But even if that was the case, no amount of written music could convey Armstrong's feeling, his vibrato, that tone.

No, we should be thankful every day that Louis was born in the early days of recording. When he first stepped into a studio on this date in 1923, the methods were acoustical and primitive...but it worked. The last time he stepped into a studio in 1970, he recorded in stereo with a Nashville rhythm section while the tracks were edited in postproduction and overdubbed later with a horn section. The technology--and music--had changed but Louis was still Louis and he had left behind 48 years of recordings: with big bands, small groups, with just piano accompaniment or guitar, with Hawaiian musicians, New Orleans musicians, other singers and entertainers, etc. All because Louis Armstrong was born at the right place at the right time.

I don't have the time to do a blow-by-blow blowout on that first Oliver session of 90 years ago. But the music should at least be listened to and celebrated on this date. If you really want to do them justice, stop reading right now and pick up Doug Benson and David Sager's labor of love, Off the Record. Benson's superb transfers will never be bettered and I learn something new every time I read though Sager's indispensable notes. It's the best way get all of Oliver's 1923 sides and will likely remain that way until the end of time.

Still, I want to say a few words about the music. If you've heard it, you know this isn't stereophonic sound, but if you concentrate and listen to it in a quiet place, you can hear some marvelous things. Unfortunately, Oliver's tone is a little thing and Louis had to much respect to play over him so sometimes, the leads are bit blurred. Gennett's engineer famously had to place Louis apart from the band so his tone wouldn't overpower his mentor's. "When we made those 'Gennett' records Joe wasn't in his prime, like he was before he sent for me," Louis wrote in 1950. "To show you how much stronger I was than Joe: those were acoustical records, with big horns; Joe would be right in the horn blowing and I would be standing back in the door playing second trumpet."

Actually, some of Oliver's best recorded playing comes on the very first selection, "Just Gone." Technically, for the trivia buffs out there, this is Louis Armstrong's first record. Alas, he's almost inaudible the entire time but Oliver is captured very well, giving us a great opportunity to his rhythmic way of phrasing on the beat:



Canal Street Blues was next, co-composed by Louis and Oliver. If you click that link in the title of the song, that'll take you to a blog I wrote on Louis's history with that song; you'll hear the Oliver recording, read my analysis and then listen to Armstrong's remakes in the 1950s and 60s. Worth checking out on this anniversary!

"Mandy Lee Blues" is up next, featuring a very nice balance of the band. It's entirely too short (2 minutes and 13 seconds) but a highlight is when Baby Dodds breaks out his tom-tom behind brother Johnny. Oh, if only Baby could have recorded with his full kit!


"I'm Going to Wear You Off My Mind" follows and is one of those tracks where the playing of the cornets is muddled throughout. As Sager points out in his liner notes, the engineer probably changed the band's positioning to accommodate Lil's piano solo.


And then finally, the main event, "Chimes Blues." On this, the fifth song recorded that day, Oliver let his disciple take a two-chorus blues solo, whose main motif sounds written out or at least pre-arranged. Nevertheless, Louis steps up close to the recording horn and commences with 24 bars of magic, his tone already present at such a young age. The rest of the performances features the chime-like effects from Lil's piano; it's cute and was probably thought to be the original centerpiece of the record (hence the title "Chimes Blues") but today, 90 years later, it's that first record Louis Armstrong solo that thrills us. Listen to it twice!


So that was just the beginning of one of the most fruitful recording career's in the history of modern music. The Oliver band wasn't done; on April 6, they recorded four more songs, each one a classic, including one named after one of Louis's nicknames, "Dipper Mouth Blues." They were paying tribute to him after one day! Okay, maybe I'm getting carried away but the April 6 sessions are for another day. Today, just take a few minutes to marvel at the fact that Louis Armstrong's conquering of the music world truly began on this date, 90 years ago today.