Thursday, May 22, 2014

Surprise! Louis Armstrong Meets Horace Heidt

It shouldn't be a surprise that I live for new Louis Armstrong discoveries, especially if it's footage. Since 2008, I've gone to the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans every year to show at least three hours of Pops videos and after doing this for six years, I'm starting to repeat myself. And though it doesn't happen often, anytime anything new pops up, I'm all over it.

Earlier this week, I was in a zombiefied state riding the bus to work one day after I spent 16 hours soaking in the music at the incredible New York Hot Jazz Festival. I wasn't sure if I could fully function but then I checked Facebook and my friend Simone Dabusti had something stronger than coffee: a brand new 8:26 long video of Louis on Horace Heidt's TV show, "The Swift Show Wagon," broadcast live from New Orleans on February 26, 1955! Eureka!

For years, I saw this entry in Jos Willems's Armstrong discography and wondered what it was all about (Willems might not have known either as he only listed an "unknown studio orchestra" and not the All Stars, who are clearly visible onstage). Then, when I started working at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I found that Louis had the audio of this entire segment on one of his private reel-to-reel tapes. I listened to it and loved it but mistakenly described it as a "radio" broadcast (something I'll fix next week!). But would the visuals ever service?

When it comes to early TV broadcast, the answer is usually "no," but things keep popping up all the time. A few weeks ago, as part of the wonderful month-long "Marxfest" celebration that is currently gripping New York, I attended a presentation by the great Robert S. Bader on an upcoming boxed set he's producing for Shout Factory of rare Marx Brothers TV appearances. He told the stories of how he found most of them and sure enough, a good deal of kinescopes were found in the closets and attics of the Marx's descendents. Thus, it was no surprise to see the Horace Heidt video uploaded by an account called "Horace Heidt Productions" as Heidt's family must be the only ones to have the original film. And to upload it on YouTube? Bless them!

I'm going to shut up for a minute and share the video and then we'll give it the blow-by-blow analysis:


Heidt, of course, was one of the most popular bandleaders in the country at the time and a fixture on the radio since the early 1930s. Louis never talked much about him, only having one record in his collection ("Rain"), but one can imagine he was a fan since he had a sweet tooth when it came to some of his tastes in music (paging Guy Lombardo!). For this summit meeting, Louis back in his hometown of New Orleans, where he had been filmed on the "Colgate Comedy Hour" one week earlier. This would be his last trip home until 1965; in 1956, the city passed a law prohibiting integrated bands from performing in public and Louis, who was proud of his integrated All Stars, stayed away for ten years.

The All Stars can be seen in this clip, but they're mostly in the background. Still, this is the great "W.C. Handy/Satch Plays Fats" edition with Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems and it's always great to see them. They open with an appropriate choice, "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," which had been in the band's book for years. However, this is a different version, complete with a key change and a three-chorus solo by Armstrong that builds higher and higher until he's wailing the melody an octave higher by the end, with plenty of improvised--inspired--phrasing. It's a swinging start....though the dancers could have used a little more rehearsal!

Then it's time for Louis to indulge in the usual white-guy-tries-hip-talk routine that he had to endure almost anytime he showed up on TV, too (he wasn't alone). But Louis, as always, is a natural, even with corny scripted comedy, delivering lines like "Horace Heidt, the corn cobbler" and later, "Dig you? I'll bury you!" with that impeccable comedic timing. I laughed.

And then a real neat thing, Louis introducing Faye Emerson by playing snippets of "'A' She's Adorable," "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" and "Sophisticated Lady." The latter is only two bars long but hearing Louis play Ellington's melody even so briefly is simply breathtaking. If only he had recorded a full version!

The finale is a "hot vs. sweet" battle between the "hot" Armstrong and Heidt's "sweet" saxophonist, Tony Johnson. It's a fun novelty with Pops blowing like made on "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise," a tune that was not in the repertoire, but he was in an improvising mood that day and sounds great (though I'm sure some in certain parts of white America at the time, the sweet sound of Johnson's alto was preferred!). Both bands then join forces on an exciting "Muskrat Ramble," with the Charleston dancers returning, still not quite together. A lovely moment is when the house lights are turned on the audience; everyone's clapping on a different beat (some in between!) but they're having a great time. Oddly, the microphone doesn't seem to be catching Pops, as his tone could normally cut through anything. Fortunately, after a short Trummy Young break, Louis takes it up and out and everyone goes home happy.

This is the second time in the last six months that a terrific piece of rare Pops television footage has shown up on YouTube (the other being the jaw-dropping "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" from 1957's "Crescendo" that I blogged about here). I know there's more out there...may they keep turning up! (And how nice would a "Louis Armstrong on Television" DVD set be? We can dream, can't we?)

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