Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 5, 1929
Track Time 3:15
Written by Louis Armstrong and Eddie Condon
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Happy Caldwell, tenor saxophone; Joe Sullivan, piano; Eddie Lang, guitar; Kaisar Marshall, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8703
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it but it’s also on a bunch of compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes
A few years ago, I spent about a month on the blog covering the three classics Louis recorded 85 years ago today. Since it's the anniversary, I hope you don't mind if I revisit some of them, starting off with "Knockin' a Jug." Enjoy!
It’s classic of classics time today, folks, with the beginning of a three-part series that will chronicle the glorious music Louis Armstrong made in one single day of his life, March 5, 1929. “Knockin’ A Jug” was requested by loyal reader Mario Filipini about a month ago and that’s where I plan to start.
One thing I love about this blog is it allows me to go crazy and give in-depth analysis of Armstrong items that have fallen off the radar or have been just plain ignored. But then I run into these classic performances and really, it’s tough to write anything new since so much has already been written on them. But sometimes, the old words still hold up beautifully, and while I’ll give my opinions as I go along, I’m also going to use the words of others, of those who were there, to recreate one of the most memorable dates in jazz history, one that resulted in exactly 195 seconds of issued music that is still being heralded today.
So where was Louis Armstrong in March 1929? He was still performing in Chicago and making records for OKeh. His latest batch, recorded in December with Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano, continued to turn the jazz world on its ear. Armstrong’s recording director at the time was Tommy Rockwell. Rockwell knew that Armstrong had the talent to shake up the world but he felt he needed a little push out of Chicago. Based in New York, Rockwell arranged for Armstrong to travel east to play a short engagement with Luis Russell’s Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom.
Born in Panama, pianist Russell was practically a New Orleanian since he spent so much of his formative years in that city. He eventually joined King Oliver’s band in New York city and when that band floundered, cobbled together his own orchestra made up of many of the musicians in Oliver’s group. More than half the group hailed from New Orleans, though it wasn’t a BIG big band, originally featuring one trumpet (Louis Metcalf), one trombone (J.C. Higginbotham) and three reeds (Albert Nicholas, Teddy Hill and Charlie Holmes). However, the group had a rhythm section that positively propelled jazz into a very swinging future, as will be ably demonstrated by the end of this series.
After the Savoy engagement with Russell, Armstrong attended a banquet in his honor. He was the toast of New York during his stay with Fletcher Henderson from late 1924 through 1925 but he hadn’t been back since and the cream of the city’s jazz crop wanted to be there to greet him. One musician present was banjoist Eddie Condon, a man with many ideas and the nerve and gumption to get them done. As Condon later told it, “I looked around the table and shook my head; I had never seen so many good musicians, white and colored, in one place at the same time.”
The previous year, in February 1928, Condon organized a recording date for Victor that was positively revolutionary for the way it combined black and white jazz musicians in a loose, jam session setting (Jelly Roll Morton recorded with the all-white New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1924 but as far as interracial recordings went, that was it). Looking around the room, Condon had an idea. “You ought to make a record while Louis is here," he told Rockwell. Unsure, Rockwell responded, "I don't know about using a mixed group." But Condon stuck to it and argued, “If Victor can do it Okeh can do it.” Rockwell agreed.
Now, according to Condon, Rockwell already had a date with Russell’s orchestra lined up for nine o’clock in the morning with special guest Eddie Lang on guitar. If that’s true, that shows that Rockwell couldn’t have been that uneasy with the idea of an integrated recording since Lang was white. However, Lang had done many duets with black guitarist Lonnie Johnson and changed his name on those records to Blind Willie Dunn to cover up the scent of any mingling between the races. What’s not clear is if Rockwell was planning on recording Russell’s group with Lang AND Armstrong. I’d assume this to be the case since Rockwell recorded Armstrong regularly, wanted to see him thrive and arranged the New York trip in the first place.
Regardless, Rockwell bought Condon’s idea. “I've got a date at nine this morning with the Luis Russell band,” Rockwell told Condon. “I'll put it back in the afternoon. Get your boys together and I'll speak to Louis.” This conversation took place at four o’clock in the morning. Again, the stories get a little tangled up at this point. Condon claims that he came back to the OKeh studio at nine with white musicians Jack Teagarden and Joe Sullivan. They were joined by black musicians Armstrong, drummer Kaiser Marshall and tenor saxophonist Happy Caldwell. Condon says that nobody told Lang that the Russell date was rescheduled and he was already at the studio when everyone else showed up so he joined in.
However, drummer Marshall didn’t remember any off time. He later said, "We had been working the night before and the record dare was for eight in the morning, so we didn't bother about going to bed; I rode the boys around in my car in the early morning hours and we had breakfast about six so we could get to the studio at eight.” It’s definitely more romantic picturing the musicians discussing it at the banquet, having breakfast, getting drunk, maybe jamming a bit and then showing up.
Either way, all of the aforementioned musicians were assembled at nine...with one extra addition, the unbilled star of the date: the jug. According to Marshall, the gang had a gallon jug of whisky on hand and nobody was particularly shy about imbibing. In fact, according to Marty Grosz, Condon himself got so drunk he passed out and didn’t even end up playing on the date (though he is listed as co-composer; maybe ASCAP didn’t have a listing for Chivas Regal).
Once assembled, Armstrong immediately became taken with trombonist Teagarden. The two had met once before, years earlier, while Armstrong was still playing on a riverboat. They knocked each out then and Teagarden definitely listened to Armstrong’s 1920s recordings as they were released. According to the old biography, Jack Teagarden: The Story of a Jazz Maverick, “While the Okeh engineer limbered up and the unsegregated group booted a few practice choruses he got his first taste of Teagarden’s trombone. ‘It moves me,’ he said later, placing a hand over his heart. ‘It moves me right through here.”
Armstrong was so moved that, according to that book, “He walked slowly around the studio, seeking a spot from which best to hear the trombone sound. He found one at the top of a stepladder near the skylight. The engineer persuaded him to descend for the recording and after a final bout with the jug they bit into a blues as raw as the morning.” There’s something beautiful about picturing Pops on top of a ladder, beaming as he listened to Teagarden’s gorgeous sound. After Kid Ory’s battering ram approach and Fred Robinson’s forgettable sound, Teagarden’s genius must have indeed hit Armstrong right in the aorta.
A quick word about the other participants. Joe Sullivan was a dynamite pianist who hung around with the Condon crew. Armstrong must have remembered his playing fondly as he was Earl Hines’s replacement in the All Stars when Hines left the band at the end of 1951. (However, any fond memories disappeared when he heard Sullivan’s out-of-date style and tendency to get lost on things as simple as a 12-bar blues. He was also a champion drinker and, though that’s part of the romance of “Knockin’ A Jug,” Armstrong didn’t really tolerate it in his later years if it messed with a player’s performance. Sullivan barely lasted two months before he was replaced.)
Tenor saxophonist Happy Caldwell was a veteran of groups led by the likes of Mamie Smith, Elmer Snowden, Thomas Morris and Cliff Jackson. Kaiser Marshall was Fletcher Henderson’s drummer dating back to Armstrong’s time with that band so this was a reunion of sorts for them. And Lang was the first jazz giant of the guitar; everything he did, whether solo, in duets, backing greats like Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby, or in tandem with his frequent partner violinist Joe Venuti, still holds up beautifully today.
So that’s the cast, crew and backstory. A little after nine o’clock in the morning, Rockwell signaled everyone to be quiet. The recording light went on and this is what followed:
It never does get old, now, does it? I love polyphonic jazz but am almost grateful that this recording doesn’t feature any ensemble playing until the simple organ chords under Armstrong’s climactic solo. “Knockin’ A Jug” practically defines the jazz jam session and everything we dream about that notion. It’s a string of solos, everyone feeding off each other, working together and creating magic.
After Lang’s simple introduction, Jack Teagarden tacks the solo, backed by Marshall’s press rolls on the rims of his snare drum. In Teagarden’s second chorus, Marshall switches to brushes, replicating the pattern used by Zutty Singleton on Armstrong’s December recordings. Marshall sounds great but there’s a problem; he’s all you can hear. At this point, I want to stop writing and have you, dear reader, do me a favor. I want to click this link and head over to Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives column. Just a few weeks ago he wrote a beautiful, poetic essay on “Knockin’ A Jug” focusing on Marshall’s contributions. I cannot add a single word to what Michael wrote on the subject, only to say I agree with every word of it. Click that link NOW!
Back yet? Okay, back to the music. How about that Teagarden solo? Equal parts bluesy and boozy, it’s practically a composition onto itself. In my quick research for this blog, I found two different writers describing it as “rough-hewn” and that works for me. Teagarden was a marvelous blues player, but this one has a rougher quality to it than some of his other smoother outings. The one note he repeats into oblivion at the start of his second chorus, followed by that killer blue note, does remind me of a whisky-soaked Teagarden vocal. The booze seems to interfere with his technique for a nanosecond in the middle of his second chorus but hey, it’s a jam session and if it’s too perfect, they ain’t trying.
Besides Marshall’s stickwork and brushes, dig Lang’s constantly creative counterpoint. As Marty Grosz points out, “Lang opts to accompany with single-note lines, as he was wont to do on blues dates when a piano was present.” Grosz is baffled by the mystery of why Lang plucked the strings with his fingers, instead of using a plectrum, causing him to fade into the background a bit. But he follows Teagarden with a very good solo, one Marty expertly describes as “a model of relaxed economy.”
Caldwell then takes one and I like it. It kind of wanders aimlessly towards the end but I like his tone and the motives he works over in the first half. To my ears, he doesn’t sound too much like Coleman Hawkins, a rarity for 1929 saxophonists. Caldwell is followed by Joe Sullivan but you really have to strain to hear him. Sullivan beats the hell out of the piano, banging out the blues with heavy triplets, echoed nicely by Marshall’s drums.
But the whole thing is building up to the main event, Pops. Has there ever been a better entrance? Finally, after all the individual playing, the band gets together to collectively announce Armstrong’s presence with simple, dramatic held notes. Armstrong enters mysteriously, like he’s peeking around a corner at the other musicians. There’s a vocal quality to his murmurs. “Hey guys, I’m over here,” he seems to be saying, “And you know I’m READY!” He uses as few pitches as possible but once comfortable, he plants his feet firmly and a few runs just seem to cascade from his horn. Not ready to climax too early (insert dirty joke here), Armstrong goes back into the shadows for the next two bars, playing some seriously mellow phrases before some short bursts of fleet-fingered phrases. Finally, in the last four bars, he turns up the volume but for a brief, swashbuckling line of confidence. He pauses for a second, proud of who he is, and ends the chorus with another quiet, singable phrase.
After messing around with relaxation and velocity, Armstrong gets down to business in his second helping. He immediately goes into the upper register, playing what sounds, to me, like a distant relative of “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” (not a quote mind you, more like a fifth cousin in Aunt Hagar’s family tree). He has exclusive rights to exactly three pitches at the start of this chorus--Bb, Ab and F--and uses them to mold a spectacular opening. He breaks out of it for a surprising, piercing high concert C but muffs a lower note coming out of it (perhaps it was the jug talking).
Pops begins the next four bars with a searing gliss to a high Bb before he starts winding down with some more sober playing. He ends his solo back in the upper register, but not in the highest peaks of his horn. He maintains an air of dignity and winds up with another declarative phrase before one of my favorite parts of the record, a bubbling unaccompanied closing cadenza. What I love about is how Pops keeps perfect tempo throughout it. He’d go on to master the art of the closing cadenza in later years, but usually in dramatic, out-of-tempo fashion. Here though, you can hear the pulse racing through his head and for the first time, he gets himself heated up. He maintained his cool beautifully throughout those two choruses but he’s riled up and he takes off in a dazzling display of horn virtuosity. The band joins in him for the solemn finale, Armstrong hitting two notes that seem to say, “Oh yeah.” History.
What happened next led to the legend of how the song got its name. “After we recorded the number the studio man came around with his list to write down the usual information, composer, name of tune, and so on,” Marshall remembered. “He asked Louis what the tune was called, and Louis said, ‘I don't know!' Then he looked around and saw the empty jug sitting in the middle of the floor and said, 'Man, we sure knocked that jug---you can cal it 'Knockin' a Jug.' And that's the name that went on the record.”
But they assembly wasn’t quite finished yet. They next decided to tackle a song Condon’s previous integrated group (with Teagarden and Sullivan) waxed on that 1928 Victor session, “I’m Gonna Stomp Mister Henry Lee.” Unfortunately, whatever went down in the studio that day was deemed unfit to release by the OKeh powers that be. Was the music too wild and raucous? Was Marshall still too overrecorded? Did members have trouble with the tune? Was everybody too drunk to play coherently? We’ll never know as this recording has never showed up, a true lost treasure. But, trivia time! What became “Knockin’ A Jug’s” flip side when it was eventually released on OKeh 8703? “Muggles,” another immortal blues done with Hines during that December series of sessions. That’s one seriously bluesy coupling...
But now let’s flash forward to 1957 and the famed Autobiography sessions for Decca. On the very last session from January 28 of that year, Armstrong had a productive day, fronting Sy Oliver’s studio orchestra for spirited remakes of “You Rascal You” and “Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train,” backing Velma Middleton on a series of blues recreations, playing a stunning “Dear Old Southland” as a duet with Billy Kyle and recreating “Knockin’ A Jug” with members of the studio band. This time, Pops was joined by his regular All Stars Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Squire Gersh and Barrett Deems--always an integrated cast--as well as the guitar of Everett Barksdale and the tenor saxophone of Seldon Powell. Obviously, this version has none of the historic stigma attached to it as the original but it’s still an awesome recording and, as we’ll see, some very impressive listeners have deemed it an improvement over the original. Here ‘tis:
The remake follows the original to a tee so once again, we get an acoustic guitar introduction followed by a trombone solo with Deems replicating Marshall’s stickwork...at a much more appropriate volume! Trummy’s dynamite, opening with a Pops quote from his old “Savoy Blues” solo. In fact, there’s a very Armstrong-ian feel to Young’s entire outing. Like the original, Deems switches to brushes for Barksale’s mostly single-string effort. Powell’s tenor solo is also in there, maintaining the mood with an after-hours feel without raising the volume level. Kyle, for all his elegance, with a good blues player who often relied on tremolos and some Otis Spann-like pounding in the upper portion of the keyboard.
But as Kyle pounds away, you’ll hear a small click in the background as Deems switches from brushes to sticks. That only means one thing: Pops is up next and you can feel the tension mounting.
Armstrong opens with perhaps his very favorite blues phrase, here delivered in quite a lowdown manner. He then uses it as a jumping off point in his next four bars, turning it inside out and playing through the bar-lines with his own, internal tempo. His use of space is key to the great success of this solo. His last four bars keep up the mood, featuring a ridiculously lazy blue note, played after another rest...and I mean “lazy” in a good way. He’s so relaxed, yet is conveying the essence of the blues without hitting the listener over the head.
In the second chorus of the 1929 version, Armstrong jumped right up into the upper register and began pouring on the heat. Here, the climb is a bit more gradual. He opens the 1957 second chorus by massaging two notes, a Bb and and a Db. You teach a kid to play the blues by just showing them those two notes but Pops plays them in such a manner that all the simplicity is masked underneath a thousand pounds of soul.
Finally, after another pause, Armstrong plays an arpeggiated run up to a huge high G, still not as high as the notes played in 1929, but the ring and shake of that G is almost more dramatic. With the intensity of the organ chords slightly growing, Pops starts preaching. The weary mood of the first chorus is gone as Pops, still in the middle register, begins hammering home his point with a louder, more aggressive tone. Now beginning to sweat, Armstrong matches his 1929 original with a quick high Bb, shouting in the upper register. And after a pause, he finally hits another Bb and HOLDS it for a second or two. The effect is chilling and shows that almost 30 years later, Armstrong had arguably become a different, better storyteller. Don’t get me wrong, that 1929 solo is marvelous. But the slow build of the 1957 version up to that Bb is the work of a genius with a helluva lot of experience.
But we’re not through yet because there’s still the matter of the closing cadenza. In 1929, Armstrong was still full of piss and vinegar (well, perhaps piss and gin on the “Knockin’ a Jug” date) so, as I wrote, he steamed his way into the cadenza, chops flying everywhere, double-timing notes and showing off the complete mastery of his horn. 28 years of beat-up chops later, Pops could no longer get away with that kind velocity. But, my children, he had that experience and except for velocity, he was probably overall a better technical trumpet player at this late date (more on that in the “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” entry).
Thus, Pops starts out way up high with a short phrase and proceeds to unravel it, spinning it further and further down before building it right back up. And after a slight pause (no time for pauses in 1929), Armstrong inhales, blows an F and resolves it on another soul-shaking high Bb. The pure sound of that note can swallow a listener whole. From there, Armstrong tones it back down for the same, understated, almost pretty ending. But what a note.
So that’s the 1957 remake. Here are the words of Dan Morgenstern on that solo: “Louis, with organ background, starts down low (where Bunny Berigan dug him), rising through is second chorus with that matchless tone, and replicating his descending-ascending ’29 cadenza. Replicating? Improving! This Jug’ cuts the first one if you can remove the historic patina.”
Then there’s Whitney Balliett, who was no great fan of the All Stars in the 1950s, often knocking them in reviews of the period. But in a later review of the Autobiography, he wrote, “The remake of ‘Knockin’ a Jug’ is stunning....After Kyle’s solo, the reed section, anchored by a baritone saxophone, comes in, and Armstrong takes his two choruses, starting lower than on the original and gradually working his way up through his middle register, using several rests along the way. Halfway into the first chorus, he suddenly dislocates the time, charging quickly and briefly ahead, then falling back (all in the space of a measure) to the four-four flow of the chorus. It is one of the handful of classic recorded slow-blues solos, and its melancholy is almost palpable--everything down and out in Armstrong’s life compressed into twenty-four bars.”
Naturally, I agree with everything those heavy hitters wrote (and it took me about a thousand more words to convey it!). Me, I’ll take both versions of “Knockin’ a Jug.” You can’t replicate the history of that first one. But man, the feel, tension, mood and cadenza of the remake really knock me out. Both versions deserve to be celebrated.