Sunday, February 23, 2014

Encounters with Louis: Frederick C. Wemyss

Today's "Encounter with Louis" comes from Facebook friend, Frederick C. Wemyss, who originally wrote this piece in 2010 and is gracious enough to allow me to share it here. Did you encounter Louis? Please let me know all about it by e-mailing me at Take it, Fred (and stay for the updated ending)!


The year before he died, Louis Armstrong made a surprise appearance at a jazz concert at Walt Whitman High School here in Huntington, New York. I was ten and got to see him. This was 1970.
My mother was a speech teacher at BOCES. A friend of hers who taught at Walt Whitman High told her about a charity event for autistic children. It was going to be a concert featuring Arvell Shaw, a bass player. She gave my mother secret information. Louis Armstrong was going to appear at the end. This was very much on the Q. T.

I was just old enough to remember "Hello, Dolly" as a hit single. My brother Bob and I used to imitate Louis Armstrong's raspy voice whenever the song came on. We loved the song. When my mother told us we might have a chance to see Louis Armstrong we were very happy. We kept imitating "Hello, Dolly" for two days. I was in my school band and played the cornet. I was always listening to the Tijuana Brass, so I related to the trumpet (and, hence, the cornet.)

Twenty-five years later, when I had become a collector of Louis Armstrong music, I learned that Arvell Shaw was the bassist in Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, the small combo which began in the mid-1940s.

I liked the concert, but, child that I was, I was distracted, waiting for a surprise appearance by Louis
Armstrong. If there was an intermission, I'm sure I began thinking he wasn't really going to show. Word was he was ill. Putting it together, I imagine he came in from Corona, Queens, where he lived. This was an hour away and is now the Louis Armstrong House Museum. I imagine most of the audience did expect him. It was not a capacity crowd. It was, if I remember, an afternoon concert. There was a teenager in the audience with a huge scrapbook.

Finally, an announcement was made and suddenly Louis Armstrong came out between two curtains. I can't remember if he had his trumpet with him, but, whether he did or not, I am quite certain he didn't play it. He sang "Hello, Dolly." The audience clapped along. I can't remember if he sang anything else. I feel he only sang that. Then he walked into the audience and sat down next to the kid with the scrapbook. The kid showed him every page in it. It had pictures of Louis Armstrong, newspaper clippings about him, placards and index cards, 8 by 10 glossies and Louis Armstrong signed every picture on every page, talking to his fan in a quiet voice. My brother and I saw this from a few seats away.

"I want to get his autograph," I said.

"I told you not to bother him," my mother said.

"I want his autograph, too," said my brother.

We took our flyers and ran to him.

We watched him sign a few pages of the fan's scrapbook. "Can I have your autograph?" said my brother. Louis Armstrong looked up, quietly took the flyer, wrote a giant signature and handed back the flyer.

My brother walked a little away and I walked up to Louis Armstrong. "Can I have your autograph, too?" I said. Louis Armstrong signed the book a little more and looked up at me the way he'd looked up at my brother. He signed the flyer.  I think I said "Thank you."

I had that flyer, with the giant "L" at the start and the giant "A" for "Armstrong," for twenty years. I moved from one room in my house to another and, somehow, couldn't find the flyer when I'd finished moving. I used to open it up and look at it. It was next to the mute for my cornet, an instrument I abandoned at the age of thirteen.

The Christmas after he died, a 45 of his reading of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS appeared at our supermarket. My mother bought it. Each Christmas Eve since then, we play that record. It was one of the last things he ever recorded, There's no music on it, just the voice of Louis Armstrong, giving the poem a charm and drama no one else had ever given it. I wonder if there had been a plan to put music behind it. It's great the way it is.

About ten years ago I dreamed there was a knock at my old bedroom door. It was the room I'd lived in when I still had the autograph. I opened the door and Louis Armstrong was there. He held out his hand and whispered something. I took the flyer from its place next to my mute and handed it to him. He looked at it, folded it up and put it in his shirt pocket. He turned and walked downstairs.

I can hear his autograph, however, on those signature licks waxed during the lifetime of the great jazz pioneer.

Now, for the 2014 update, Fred writes, "At the end of the essay, I mention that I lost the autograph. Shortly after I wrote it, I found it, and I'm including a picture of it. (It is now somewhere in my stacks of books, CDs and what have you. I wish I'd taken a picture of the reverse side of the flyer Louis Armstrong signed, which shows that this was at a concert led by Arvell Shaw at Walt Whitman High School in Huntington Station, NY in 1970.)" Here's the pic!

Thanks, Frederick! I hope to have another encounter to share soon, as well as an update on the Mosaic box and some of my usual blatherings about Pops.But one final question....who was the kid with the scrapbook and where is he--and the scrapbook--now!?!?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Encounters With Louis: Yoshio Toyama

Earlier this month, I debuted a new series on this blog, Encounters With Louis, where I ask readers to send in their memories of spending some time in the presence of Louis Armstrong. If you have such a story, please send it to me at One person who did that was one of my favorite human beings on the planet, Yoshio Toyama, also known as the "Satchmo of Japan."

Yoshio is simply a beautiful cat from start to finish but he's also a marvelous player, the closest I've ever heard a trumpeter approximate Louis's gigantic sound. Here he is doing justice to Pops's chop-busting "Chinatown, My Chinatown" solo, backed by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks in August 2011:

See? "We are prisoners of jazz for the rest of our lives, being fascinated by the romance of jazz history and the extraordinary life of Satchmo," Yoshio wrote. "'Hello Dolly,' 'La Vie en Rose,' 'When the Saints go Marching In,' 'What a Wonderful World.'  That’s Satchmo. We play a lot of his numbers and we just love every thing about him as do millions of people all around the world. No matter how many times a day we play these tunes with our band, we never get tired of them. Each time we play them it’s such a delight to see people in front of you enjoying the music so much. All smiles! It means we’ve come a long way in our lives, getting to be more matured musicians."

A love of New Orleans jazz and Louis Armstrong in particular grabbed hold of Yoshio and his future wife, Keiko (who plays banjo and piano), when they were inspired by visits from Louis and the All Stars and clarinetist George Lewis to Japan in the early 1960s. Yoshio and Keiko even lived in New Orleans from 1968 to 1973, where they really learned the style from all the early pioneers who were still active in that period. Yoshio wrote a wonderful book (in Japanese) on these experiences, titled in English, "The Holyland New Orleans, The Saint Louis Armstrong." Yoshio translated (with the help of Bob Greene) his section on meeting Louis backstage and sent it along to me so I could share it with my readers. Here 'tis....thanks Yoshio!

Wonderful World of “Real Jazz” by Yoshio Toyama

I blew King’s trumpet!

1963 What a year for us! George Lewis’s dream band from New Orleans was enough sensation for us, but that same year Louis Armstrong made his visit to Japan with his All Stars. And that was not all. Adding to George Lewis and Satchmo, from 1963 to 1965 jazz giants such as Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Ella Firzgerald, Eddie Condon, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey all came to Japan, one after the other. For most of them it was their first time in Japan, except Satchmo. Thanks to my broken English, my stage door experience taught by Allan Jaffe, plus my nerve, I found clever ways to enter the concert halls through the dressing room entrance. I could listen to the performances often from a side of the stage backstage and even visit the musicians in their dressing rooms. I can never forget my brave visit to Satchmo’s dressing room when he came to Japan in 1964 with his world hit, “Hello Dolly.”

During his Kyoto concert I sneaked past security and went back stage. I managed to find his dressing room and knocked on the door. “Come in!” I heard that hoarse voice on the other side. I opened the door and there he was! Satchmo was smaller than I thought, just sitting in the room. I don’t remember what I said with my broken English. I said hello or something, and on the table by the door I found his trumpet case open, with his shinning gold trumpet lying there. “May I see it?” I asked. “Yes,” he said with that VOICE! I picked up KING’S HORN, feeling it so light like a feather perhaps because I was too excited. And then I looked at him and saw him smiling. I wanted to blow it so bad!!! And I blew KING’s Angel Wing feather light gold trumpet!

I tried to play the famous solo of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” his jazz classic recorded in 1927. But his mouthpiece was much bigger than mine and it did not work so well. I grappled with the mouthpiece for about a minute. Then the trumpet was taken away by KING with that VOICE. I told him, “Thank you.” I was shaking with so much excitement that I came out from his dressing room almost frozen!

When I look back I really wondered why he just watched an unknown young kid, who had intruded into his dressing room, pick up and blow his trumpet. But somehow, I think Satchmo might have understood my enthusiasm for his music and New Orleans. Somehow he knew. It was three years after this unforgettable incident that Keiko and I left Japan on an immigrant boat for New Orleans.

Friday, February 14, 2014

That's For Me - Valentine's Day 2014

Recorded April 26 or 27, 1950
Track Time 5:08
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstien
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: On the Hip-O box set, An American Icon
Available on Itunes? Yes

Valentine’s Day is here again and instead of choosing one of the very many love songs Pops recorded in his career--“Let’s Fall In Love,” “I Was Doing All Right,” “I Married An Angel,” “If I Could Be With You,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “Fantastic, That’s You” immediately spring to mind—I decided to revisit the same song I covered for my last six Valentine's Day entries, "That's For Me."

For me, “That’s For Me” is one of Pops’s all-time greatest records, treasured by those who know it, but unknown to most of the world. I couldn’t believe when I just searched for it on Itunes and it only came up twice, once on a cheapie compilation and again on Louis Armstrong: An American Icon, a wonderful box set on the Hip-O label that is now out-of-print on C.D. (though it’s available on Amazon). It was on the Mosaic collection of Armstrong’s Decca recordings with the All Stars, but that’s out-of-print, as well. (I insisted it be included on Universal's 10-disc "Ambassador of Jazz" box from 2011, but that's now out-of-print) But hopefully, by the end of this blog, you’ll have a new appreciation for this neglected gem.

The song “That’s For Me” was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1945 musical, State Fair. Dick Haymes sang it in the film and had a hit record of it, as did Jo Stafford. After listening to various versions of it on Itunes, it appears that it was originally conceived as a sort of snappy number, not fast and uptempo, but with a lilting beat that makes the singer sound pretty confidant that he knows what he likes and likes what he sees (substitute “she” if necessary).

I never understood how it got into Armstrong’s hands, but I’m glad it did. Armstrong was performing it live for at least a few years before he recorded it; the Louis Armstrong House Museum holds an arrangement used by Armstrong's big band before it broke up in 1947. None of the big band versions survive, but there is an early version by the All Stars. Now, this is some pretty sad audio quality, but please, have a listen to this early version from a broadcast from Philadelphia’s Click, August 7, 1949:

Again, the quality is atrocious (why does it sound like someone’s beating time with a coke bottle?). One thing’s for sure is that the band sounds like they have the routine down, meaning they had probably been performing it for some time. When I tackled this song back in 2008, I complained that the tempo was a little too fast for my taste until it was pointed out to me that, being an unmastered bootleg, it's pitched too high and thus, artificially fast...oops! Earl Hines sounds particularly good but the record obviously centers around Pops’s heartfelt vocal, which showcases his range, especially his beautiful tenor register. The tempo’s a shade too fast to allow him to feel completely at ease with the lyrics, but he does a beautiful job. Much like the later “Gypsy,” the song has a built in space for applause after the vocal, as Earl Hines repeats the last few bars to allow Pops to get his chops in his horn. And it’s a wonderfully poised trumpet solo, no high notes or real drama, just a lot of melodic flurries that stick with the listener long after the song has ended. Pops reprises his vocal at the bridge and continues on until the nice, slowed down ending. Even through the abysmal sound quality, Pops’s warmth shines through.

I didn’t want to spend too much time on the blow-by-blow of that version because the real main event comes with the Decca studio recording of 1950. Over two days in April of that year, the All Stars recorded ten of their finest concert numbers in a studio setting. Pops had already embarked on his string of pop records for Decca but for this occasion, producer Milt Gabler allowed Armstrong to record whatever they wanted from their live repertoire. Armstrong’s picks are interesting because instead of just featuring himself all day, he gave each of his sidemen one feature of their own choice. Like most sidemen features, Armstrong doesn’t exactly stay in the background, taking a series of stirring breaks on “Bugle Call Rag/Ole Miss,” singing a chorus on “I Surrender Dear” and stealing the show from Jack Teagarden with his trumpet solo on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” For the other five numbers, Armstrong chose one romp the band had been playing since their inception, “Panama,” one stage set-piece, “New Orleans Function,” one comedy number, “Twelfth Street Rag,” and a lowdown blues song that was about to become a staple of almost every All Stars show, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”

For a tenth song, Armstrong could have chosen any of the All Stars’s great numbers from the period: “I’m Confessin’,” “Back O’Town Blues,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Basin Street Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” “That’s A Plenty,” anything. But instead he chose “That’s For Me,” which he really must have loved to perform. So without any further ado, let’s listen to this classic, classic recording from April 1950.

Now, I’m sorry, but that’s the most beautiful piece of music you’re going to hear all day. The slow tempo strips Armstrong’s vocal from any confidant leanings and instead makes it a charming, fragile ode from a man who truly cannot believe how lucky he is to be in love with the woman “that’s for him.” If you’re reading this on Valentine’s Day morning and still need an inscription for your card, you can’t go wrong with this offering from Oscar Hammerstein:

I saw you standing in the sun
And you were something to see.
I know what I like, and I liked what I saw
And I said to myself "That's for me."
"A lovely morning," I remarked,
And you were quick to agree.
You wanted to walk,
And I nodded my head
As I breathlessly said "That's for me."
I left you standing under stars,
The days adventures are through.
There's nothing for me but the dream in my heart,
And the dream in my heart, that's for you.
Oh, my darling, that's for you.

Doesn’t get much better than that. But listening to the record is a marvelous experience. The opening ensemble is perhaps the most tender one in All Stars history, clearly one that had been perfected on the bandstand. Bigard sticks to his low, chalameau register, playing the melody straight in the second half while Armstrong plays lead, opening with those gorgeous quarternotes, phrasing the melody where it feels best for him and sounds best for us. Teagarden plays quietly, but he later makes his presence felt with a lovely obbligato. Hines, maintaining the proper mood for a change, sets Armstrong’s vocal up with a perfect interlude and then we’re off to heaven.

Just listen to quality of Armstrong’s voice, brilliantly captured by Decca’s engineers. There’s barely a trace of gravel and though you can hear him struggle to sing those high notes, that all adds up to the charm of the record. He clearly loves the melody, not even infusing it with a single scat syllable or a even a “mama.” Tegarden’s obbligato is a highlight of the record, as he quotes liberally from the Armstrong vocabulary, especially the phrase he plays at 2:17 in, a quote from the Drdla Souvenir that Pops loved to sing and play (thanks to reader Anthony Coleman who pointed that out to me, something I did not know a year ago!). Hines again sets the stage for Armstrong’s lightly muted trumpet offering, which, repeats some of the phrases from the 1949 broadcast, but is much more effective at this gentle tempo. The double-timed opening phrase never fails to give me the chills as Bigard noodles around in the low register and the rhythm section begins swinging ever so lightly. The rhythms in this Armstrong solo are mind-boggling. Really, how many more times am I going to write this? I guess one more can’t hurt…I would hate to transcribe a solo like this one! It’s so flowing, so melodic, yet it’s also so unpredictable and quite daring. Armstrong goes into the upper register to bridge the two halves of his solo, but otherwise, he’s content to play circles around the melody, offering snippets of Rodgers’s original notes here and there as points of reference. Please, listen to this one 10 or 11 more times. It never ceases to surprise and it never ceases to move.

After the solo, you can hear Armstrong quietly clear the rubble out as Hines and Teagarden play a Satchmo-fied phrase (shades of Django’s “Nuages”?) Pops reenters with the “I left you standing under stars phrase,” which sounds like a bridge, but the melody reverts right back to that of the first two A sections (this is an oddly structured song, but it works). Teagarden plays that Pops phrase in obbligato once again at the 4:10 mark. Finally, though he’s made it this far, Armstrong sings a perfectly placed “Babe” before his final climb into the highest registers of his voices. I don’t think there’s a lovelier phrase in the history of Armstrong’s recorded vocals than that “Oh my darling,” leading to the sublime coda, with a little subdued scatting. You can hear Armstrong smiling as he hits the final “You,” Hines’s playing pretty descending runs behind him while Bigard and Teagarden harmonize. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful ending to a more beautiful record.

In my research, I’ve come across a concert review from, I believe, 1951 that mentions a live performance of “That’s For Me,” but it soon after disappeared from the All Stars’s band book. That’s not to say he forgot about it completely. In a 1968 interview for the BBC radio program “Be My Guest,” Pops spoke about the inspiration for his recording that song: his fourth wife, Lucille. At that time, I didn't have my Mac so I was clueless about editing tracks but now I'm a whiz so here it is, a beautiful, short excerpt from the interview climaxed by the 67-year-old Armstrong singing "That's For Me" completely a capella:

“That was for Lucille.” Ah, love. Pops had it for Lucille and it's safe to say, the world still has it for Pops. I hope you enjoyed "That's For Me" half as much as I did and I wish all of you a very Happy Valentine's Day!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Encounters With Louis: Michael Drust

This series has been a long time coming and I'm just sorry it has taken me this long to get it off the ground. My friend Michael Steinman first had the idea a couple of years ago of occasionally turning my blog over to some lucky person who got to spend some time with Louis, whether an actual hang or just a minute backstage. I get e-mails from Louis nuts all the time and lately I've gotten a few from fans who wanted to tell me about their encounter with Louis. Since I was born nine years too late to have even met the man, I relish every single one of these stories. 

I don't know how regular of a feature this will be but I'd like to keep it going. Thus, if you have a story you'd like to share about meeting Louis Armstrong, feel free to e-mail me at and I'll share your story right here on my blog. 

First up is Michael Drust. While reading my book on Armstrong, he got to page 240 where I devote a paragraph to Armstrong's July 1965 performances at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City. In my book, I mention how many kids attended the shows, something that Pops picked up on. He was quoted at the time as saying, "Man, them kids are something else. Who say they don't know good music from bad?" 

Well, Michael Drust was one of those kids and he couldn't wait to tell me about his encounter with Louis. I've included it just as he sent it to me but I've also added a bunch of Jack Bradley photos taken that weekend, all from the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Enjoy Michael's story and I hope to hear from more of you out there with memories of dear Louis!
Pops on the Pier: My Youthful Encounter with Louis Armstrong

Every summer during the 1960s my parents took us on vacation to Atlantic City (long before gambling), and God bless them, they planned their week around the entertainers that my sister and I wanted to see at the Steel Pier. In addition to the famed diving horse, the Pier offered top-notch entertainment performing multiple shows daily, all included in your admission to the Pier. We saw rock’n’roll groups (Dave Clark 5, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Herman’s Hermits), “parent-oriented acts” (Al Martino, Bob Crosby & The Bob Cats), and comics (Pat Cooper, Totie Fields). But one entertainer who played the Pier rose above them all – Louis Armstrong.

It was Independence Day weekend, 1965 – a very hot summer day in Atlantic City. The Steel Pier wasn’t air conditioned, but it had outdoor walkways along the sides of its huge enclosed rooms, reaching out a quarter mile to the ocean. My parents, sister and I decided to go outside and enjoy the wonderful balmy breezes. Impetuous 10-year-old that I was, I left my parents sitting on a park bench and broke loose, walking by myself along the boardwalk pier with no one in sight. Things were quite different in 1965 – safety wasn’t the issue it is today, and as long as I was in ear shot of my folks, they, and I, were fine with that.

I turned a corner in the blinding hot sun, with the sound of seagulls calling overhead, when I saw about a half dozen men gathered around a bench, talking and laughing. As I continued to walk in their direction, one man was sitting in the middle with a do-rag around his head, black sunglasses (that could have been Ray Bans), shorts and knee-high black socks, smoking a cigarette. The chatter and laughter continued as I got closer, and then I heard that voice. Only one man sounded like that. I knew that Louis Armstrong was appearing in the big ballroom today – and there he was! 
My inner child chutzpah must have kicked in, and I walked right up and said, “Hello Mr. Armstrong!” Astonished, he broke into that famous big smile that rivaled the sun and laughed his throaty laugh. “Oh, here’s my little buddy – you gonna see our show today?” “Yes,” I replied, “are you going to play ‘Hello Dolly’?” This really cracked him up, and he laughed hard, breaking into a cough, along with the men standing around him, who must have been the All-Stars. “Look at that,” he said to the others, pointing at me, “this little guy knows my music!” Everyone laughed, and I looked straight at him, and to this day remember that big smile. It looked like there was a Lifesaver candy embedded under his cracked lips, one circular gray half under the top lip and the other half under the bottom, not realizing it must have been the callous from over 50 years of trumpet playing. He reached out and rubbed my head, and I said something like “see you later” and he said “you be a good boy” or something to that effect, as I skipped away.

I don’t recall many details of their concert inside the Pier, other than it was very hot, Pops wore a white shirt and tie, and was sweating profusely. And they played “Hello Dolly”…
When I read Pops’ quote in Ricky’s book about young fans knowing his music (page 240), I couldn’t help but wonder whether our encounter might have the influenced his statement.

Michael Drust

Saturday, February 1, 2014

75 Years of "What Is This Thing Called Swing"

Recorded January 18, 1939
Track Time 2:42
Written by Louis Armstrong and Horace Gerlach
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Otis Johnson, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Albert Nicholas Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2267
Currently available on CD: The studio version is on volume five (1938-1939) of the wonderful Ambassador series, while the live version is on volume six; both are available only at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The studio version is also on Mosaic Records' indispensable box of Armstrong's 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes (the live one, too)

Like "Jeepers Creepers," "What is This Thing Called Swing" was originally recorded on January 19, 1939. I'm a couple of weeks late, but it's still a track worth celebrating. I wrote the following blog a few years ago but I think the sentiments more than hold up. Enjoy!

Having Louis Armstrong do a song titled “What is This Thing Called Swing” is like having Frank Sinatra sing “What is This Thing Called Love.” And as Dean Martin said when he heard Frank sing that tune at a Rat Pack show in Vegas, “Man, if you don’t know, then we’re all dead.” I think the same comment applies to Pops and the song that’s the subject for today’s entry.

However, “What is This Thing Called Swing” wasn’t some dopey pop tune forced upon our hero. No, it was co-composed by Armstrong himself with his frequent collaborator of the period, Horace “Dutch” Gerlach. It seems that Armstrong couldn’t do much offstage with Gerlach, who co-composed “Swing That Music,” “If We Never Meet Again” and “I’ve Got a Heart Full of Rhythm”with the trumpeter and served as primary ghostwriter on Armstrong’s first autobiography, also titled Swing That Music. Not much is known about Gerlach and in the introduction to a reprint of Swing That Music, Dan Morgenstern kind of fluffed Gerlach off, but someone who knew Gerlach wrote to David Ostwald that “Dutch was a white pioneer in using five brass in the bands he conducted and arranged for. Black bands initiated this trend and Dutch was scoring in this fashion even before Casa Loma.” (Sorry I don’t know the full name of the friend, Ostwald just let me copy the letter.)

So Gerlach clearly knew a thing or two about music and I have to admit that the four Armstrong-Gerlach collaborations are all great tunes and tremendous records. Who knows how much Armstrong contributed to the writing of these songs, but each one inspired him to make a fantastic record.

“What is This Thing Called Swing” was recorded the same day as “Jeepers Creepers” so this is a 75th anniversary post, as well. It’s not a very celebrated tune but I find it positively thrilling. Give it a listen and then we’ll discuss:

Ah, the first thing that hits your ears is the tonality: we’re in a minor mode, something Pops always dug, so you know it’s going to be good. Based on the above quoted letter, Gerlach probably wrote the arrangement and it’s a good one. The band hits it very powerfully, with an extra boost from their new drummer, the one and only Sid Catlett.

Armstrong starts by singing the very, which is actually more spoken than sung. In fact, when David Hadju was doing a piece about proto-rap/spoken lyrics songs, I suggested this one for it’s use of rhymes and for Pops’s delivery (Pops was definitely a grandfather of rap!). The verse makes it clear that the song is about a bandleader who is clueless about swing. Armstrong lost his patience very early when it came to categorizing music and I think these lyrics express that frustration well:

What is this thing called swing?
What is this thing called swing?
Is it jazz or drag time, futuristic ragtime?
What is this thing called swing?

Jazz, ragtime, drag time, Pops liked to say, there were only two kinds of music, good and bad. Anyway, with the singing out of the way, the band vamps, as Pops reverts back to his spoken style, introducing the various sections of the band. The saxophones are up first, executing the difficult passage very well (not A+ but still pretty good). Catlett drives them with those ferocious press rolls, a hallmark of Armstrong’s previous drummer, Paul Barbarin, but Catlett was more of a master of accents, as can be heard throughout the record.

In fact, Catlett’s up next, as the lone representative of the “rhythm section” Armstrong sings about. Catlett takes off for a great solo while Messrs. Russell, Blair and Foster probably went out for a smoke. Pops then asks the brass section to get their chops together and after a few hot bars, tightly played, they put down their horns and begin shouting at Armstrong: “Take your horn, Pops, beat it out/ show the world what swing’s about!” (Punctuated by another great thud on Catlett’s bass drum.)

Armstrong humorously acts surprised and requests a second to get his horn up to his mouth. There’s still almost a minute left and all I can say is stand back! He enters by repeating one note, calling attention to the song’s relation to “St. James Infirmary.” Just listen to Catlett (again) cranking up the four-on-the-floor action to give Armstrong a little extra oomph. Armstrong’s in complete command in the first chorus, allowing the reeds to respond to his every move.

After this first chorus, Armstrong trades places, letting the brass take the lead as he now responds to them. Armstrong’s playing grows hotter by the second as the brass backs off for a bit to leave Pops in the spotlight. They come back to wrap up the chorus, setting up my favorite moment of the record: a break, taken by Pops, that consists of one perfectly placed note. It’s reminiscent of the break he took on “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” in 1933, as well as on a few other songs. As I said about that performance, it’s tough to make one note swing but Armstrong does just that by placing it perfectly on the second beat of the break. The pure throbbing sound of that single, reverberating Ab is like listening to a jolt of electricity in action.

Now there’s nothing stopping the man. Catlett starts whipping the cymbals, the rhythm section digs in and the flaming reeds and screaming brass pour it on in tandem. Armstrong’s now in the upper register and hits upon a tension-filled three-note motif, B natural-C-Db, back and forth, back and forth, playing it at his own pace as the hectic tempo of the pieces passes underneath him. He works over this motif like someone trying to maintain their balance, finally landing strongly on a high C. He hits again, the band answers with him, almost pleading with intensity for him to do it and sure enough he does it: he ends of the record on an insane high F. Wow! Interestingly, the band ends on an F major chord instead of an F minor but who cares about them; it’s Armstrong’s show and that, my friends, is some dazzling trumpet playing.

Though “What is This Thing Called Swing” isn’t one of Armstrong’s best-known records (especially compared with its A-side, “Jeepers Creepers”) it did maintain a place in Armstrong’s live shows, where it got a slight increase in tempo. Slight? You thought the Decca record was fast? Armstrong’s live performances of the tune make the studio version sound like a soggy ballad. Well, actually, I should say live “performance” as only one is known to survive...but what a performance it is. Here goes, from October 2, 1939 at Canegie Hall’s “ASACAP 25 Year Festival” (and yes, Armstrong collected some ASCAP change that evening by doing this tune and “Old Man Mose,” both compositions of his own):

Yeah, man! I love how Armstrong’s personality comes through beautifully, cracking up the audience multiple times. (I’m pretty sure that’s trombonist George Washington, Armstrong’s frequent comic foil, answering Pops’s question during the introduction.) Armstrong calls for three beats and the band responds like a hurricane. The tempo might be too hot to handle but it works. Armstrong sounds like he barely has time to take a breath during the vocal but he gets through it unscathed, the band’s answers sounding more urgent than before.

For the introductions of the various sections, Armstrong reverts back to his spoken style, though he does it at his own tempo as the band vamps furiously, sounding even more like some sort of proto-rap. By this point, tenor saxophonist Joe Garland was in the band, poised to take over as music director. He must have worked the section pretty hard because, even at ludicrous speed, the reeds handle their section solo better here than on the record.

Next up is the rhythm section, aka Catlett. This is a pretty neat moment as Armstrong just lets Catlett tear it up for a while. I don’t know how common extended drum solos were at this time, but Armstrong always loved making sure everyone in his bands got featured. Catlett takes off for about a minute-and-a-half, ending with the typical triplet phrase every succeeding Armstrong drummer would end just about every succeeding drum solo with.

Pops breaks me up with his next introduction, announcing the brass then telling the audience, “Give them boys a chance to get them lips in their horns. I’ll be right with you” before some muttering breaks up the crowd again. The brass nails their part again, winning Armstrong’s approval. He makes them repeat their “Beat it out” chant again for good measure, before Armstrong prepares to take it out (I wonder if the reeds went nuts repeating that vamp?).

From here, Armstrong takes three choruses, repeating everything he played on the record almost verbatim, including the one-note break, the three-note motif and the high F at the end. He hits a small snag or two in his first chorus, but is on top for the second and third go-arounds, prodded hard by Catlett’s drumming, now more intense than ever (I love when he switches to the toms briefly in the second chorus). In all, I don't know if anyone could dance to it but both the studio and live versions of "What is This Thing Called Swing" inspired some of the most exciting performances from Louis and his big band during the entire Swing Era....and beyond!

That’s all for now, but I'll close with a quick update on the Mosaic box. Last week, we finished the final transfers and submitted my notes and the photos to the printer! Next step will be the remastering, which will take some time for a 9-CD set. The last e-mail I received spoke of a possible late March release date. More details to come as I get them....thanks, all, for your interest!