Sunday, July 13, 2014

60 Years of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (And 7 Years of This Blog!)

60 years ago today, Louis Armstrong walked into a Chicago recording studio and recorded this:

There are no words....but I'll try to find some.

That was Armstrong's second trip to Columbia's Chicago studio in as many days. The previous night, he and his All Stars had knocked off SIX master takes for a brand new album of W. C. Handy compositions, produced by then 35-year-old George Avakian. After knocking out "Memphis Blues" with relative ease, it was time to confront Handy's magnum opus: "St. Louis Blues."

Armstrong was far from a stranger with the jazz classic of them all. In fact, almost any time he played it in front of a recording device, the result was one for the time capsule. Take your pick: the emotional 1925 version sung by Bessie Smith; the rollicking 1929 version with Luis Russell's Orchestra (a favorite of many true Armstrong nuts, including Clint Baker); uptempo romps for Victor in 1933 and Vox in 1934; and so on.

But after featuring it in the early days of the All Stars, "St. Louis Blues" became a favorite feature of Armstrong's pianists, first Earl "Fatha" Hines and his "Boogie Woogie" treatment, and later Marty Napoleon with his thrilling turbocharged approach. But with an entire album of Handy tunes to record, is was inevitable that Armstrong would have to face "St. Louis Blues" once again. He was ready.

After a number of false starts with everyone trying to get the rhythms straight on the introductory habanera strain, the All Stars locked in and did not stop swinging for nearly nine minutes. "I did not expect what Pops gave me on that tune," Avakian told me in 2008. Apparently, neither did the other All Stars. Vocalist Velma Middleton wasn't sure when to enter and almost prematurely stepped on Armstrong's opening two-minute-20-second ensemble rendering of Handy's multi-strained piece. In the middle, Armstrong seemed to surprise sidemen Barney Bigard and Trummy Young when he led a spur-of-the-moment instrumental chorus, reaching far back into his memory to pluck out a blues lead he originally waxed on 1925's "Terrible Blues." Avakian sure didn't expect Armstrong and Middleton to start making up bawdy choruses--Middleton's about how all the boys like her because she "takes her time," Armstrong's about whipping her all over her head with a picket conveniently grabbed from a nearby fence.

Throughout this, the first complete take, one can feel that everyone knew something special was happening. Trombonist Trummy Young then produced perhaps the filthiest trombone solo of his lifetime, an epic moment only eclipsed by the titanic rideout playing of Armstrong and the entire band. When it came to an end, George Avakian uttered a spontaneous critique: "Louie, that was really a bitch!" And then various members of band shouted their battle cry, "Wail!" Listen for yourself:

If was after listening to that take that Avakian and the All Stars seized up what could be tightened. On the next go-around, it was perfected and Avakian had an opening track to his album, the roof-shaking performance that opened this blog. When the album, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, was released in late 1954, the jazz community--including many lunkheads who had written so much utter garbage about Armstrong supposed decline (is my bias showing?)--applauded wholeheartedly. Armstrong told Leonard Feather the recordings were "the tops" of his career. Nat Hentoff gave it five stars in Downbeat and wrote, "This LP is one of the greatest recordings not only of the year, but of jazz history. After years of wandering in a Decca desert (with very few oases) Louis finally had a full-ranged shot at the kind of material he loves, along with the kind of freedom that George Avakian provides at a jazz date....This album is an accomplishment Avakian can well be self-congratulatory about. By arranging this session and supervising it with this much unobtrusive skill and taste, Avakian, too--as well as W. C. Handy and Louis--has made a lasting contribution to recorded jazz."


Flash forward to October 1995. 15-year-old Ricky Riccardi (me) sees The Glenn Miller Story and has his mind blown by Louis Armstrong's performance of "Basin Street Blues." (Enough third person.) In a story I've told many times, my mother took me to the Ocean County Library in Toms River, NJ and a wall of Armstrong cassette tapes stared at me. I didn't know where to begin so I chose something that sounded promising: 16 Most Requested Songs. It was a compilation of Armstrong's 1950s Columbia recordings selected by--and with annotation by--someone named George Avakian.

The tape grabbed me from the opening notes of "Mack the Knife" and just did not let go. I knew I was getting in deeper and deeper with each passing track but it was number 14--"St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy--that did it. When Trummy went in the gutter and Louis called everyone home, I felt my life begin.


July 13, 2007. Since that fateful 1995 day, I had only gotten deeper and deeper, getting a Master's in Jazz History and Research, writing a 350-page thesis on Louis's later years, befriending George Avakian. But I wasn't doing much of anything else. I had been painting houses full-time for my father's company since graduating Rutgers in May 2005. I had an agent because I was confident that a book on the last 25 years of Louis Armstrong's life had commercial potential....but I seemed to be the only one to think that as my proposal had been rejected by everyone who had received it. Things were looking bleak.

And then it hit me: a blog! Everybody's doing it! Sure, I don't get paid or anything but what the hell, it's a way to make a name for myself and maybe get to meet some other Armstrong nuts from around the world. I made absolutely zero connection that July 13 was the same date as the recording of "St. Louis Blues." I just dove in and wrote the following for a first entry:

"Hello! My name is Ricky Riccardi and you can learn more about me in the (you guessed it) 'About Me' section of this blog. I just wanted to take a second and discuss what this blog is all about. There are tons of Armstrong videos on YouTube and in my Itunes, I have 2,408 Armstrong songs arranged in chronological order. I plan on hitting "shuffle" on my Itunes and whatever Armstrong track comes up first, I will discuss it. I'll provide the musicians, the writers, the soloists, I'll give some analysis of the recording and I'll even tell you where you can buy it or listen to it. On some days, I'll post a YouTube video and do the same. You're more than welcome to comment and offer your own opinions or disagreements to whatever I write. There's really no order to anything, just a (hopefully) daily celebration of Armstrong's music! Enjoy!"

The "daily celebration" aspect lasted a week; later it became weekly; these days, I'm happy if it's bi-monthly. But the celebration continues and as anyone who knows me can attest, I'm happy to almost be celebrating something different almost every day: the publication of my book, the new Mosaic box, my gig at the Armstrong House, etc.

But I didn't want this to turn into a full-blown look-at-all-the-lucky-Armstrong-stuff-I've-been-involved-with celebration (for that, there's always Mick Carlon's profile of me for Jazz Times....thanks, Mick!). When I saw that the anniversary date coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Handy album, well, something had to be done...because frankly, nothing was being done.

Jazz world! Hello! Where the hell are you? Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy is one of the great albums of all time. We're in agreement, right? Well, where's the magazine piece on the making of it? Where's the souped up, limited edition 60th anniversary boxed set? A podcast? A post to a message board?

Man, I can name some other albums from the 1950s and 1960s that have gotten MUCH more attention for their anniversaries (cough, cough, Miles, cough, cough) but the anniversary of ol' Pops's classic will pass without much fuss. I think that's a shame. Does anyone else agree?

One reason why I'm a little ticked is I KNOW what's out there and what could be done in terms of a bonus reissue of this material. There's a supposed "Complete" edition out there from one of the European bootleg labels. It's not complete. How do I know? Let me explain.

A lot of this--as well as the backstory on the making of the album and a track-by-track analysis--is in my book so I don't want to repeat too much of it but long story short, Sony hired George Avakian to put together a proper reissue of the Handy album in the mid-1990s, after they were crucified for a reissue heavy with unexplained alternate takes from the 1980s. Avakian brought along David Ostwald as his right hand man for putting together the reissue. When I became friends with Avakian and Ostwald after the 2008 Satchmo Summerfest, I told them about my book plans for Louis's later years. That's when they told me about the session tapes for the Handy album. I was allowed to copy them from somewhat shaky sounding cassette tapes and I told George and David I wouldn't post complete tracks or share them, which wasn't easy since my nature is to share, share, share.

But at least I had the tapes and I got to utilize them for my book. It's been six years and I'm almost at the point where I know some of the alternates as well as the masters. Well, that's great for me but I hate when I'm the only one with access to some spectacular Pops.

In the wake of posting on Facebook about the new Mosaic box of live Louis, I began getting questions about a similar box of alternates and masters from the studio Columbia sessions of the same period: the Handy date, Satch Plays Fats and the "Mack the Knife" single session, which included some stuff with Lotte Lenya. A 4 or 5-CD set could easily be done of the existing masters and the best of the alternates and unedited takes. I have absolutely no predictions about whether or not something like that will ever be released but do know that with the current Mosaic set out of the way, I'm ready, I'm ready, so help me, I'm ready!

How to prove it? By opening up the sacred Avakian-Ostwald Handy session tapes for the first time ever on this blog. In keeping with their wishes, I'm not going to share anything remotely complete. But after so many years, I just HAVE to share some of the unissued riches that do exist and hopefully can be made available to the public.

Already, above, I shared the unissued rideout to the first complete take of "St. Louis Blues." Perhaps you weren't aware of what you were listening to....go back and listening again! It's terrific and Louis's phrasing is different than it was on the famed master take. I'm not going to say any of the alternates were better than the masters--Avakian was the best at putting together the most effective parts of each take--but they're all very interesting and capture the band at the peak of its powers (oh, but only if Edmond Hall had been around one year earlier....).

A few examples then. The first song attempted at the first session on July 12, 1954 was "Aunt Hagar's Blues." After a few breakdowns, the All Stars finished a complete take on the fourth attempt. Louis was ready to blow. Here's the rideout:

Next up was "Hesitating Blues." On the 1997 re-issue, there's a fantastic "Rehearsal Take" that could have easily been issued except Velma used it to practice her lyrics quietly in the background. If you haven't listened to it in a while, do so now! "Ole Miss Blues" followed as a change of pace. Again, the band recorded a complete "Rehearsal Take" just to get used to the routine. Here it is from Pops's solo onward, including an extended bit of drumming by the newest member of the band, Barrett Deems:

"Beale Street Blues" followed, one of my favorite tracks on the album. There was only one complete take prior to the master and though very good, there's a few fluffs and it's not really worth sharing here (hopefully one day!). But that's when Avakian had a brilliant idea (though he also admits that he's not sure why he did it): he let the tapes roll for the ENTIRE sequences of putting together and recording "Loveless Love" and "Long Gone." On the 1997 reissue, there's about 6 or 7 minutes of each, edited beautifully by David Ostwald. But on the unedited tapes, each one goes on for 30-35 minutes! It's not ALL worthy of release but it is an absolutely fascinating look at how this band worked in the studio, especially on a night when they could do no wrong. Again, check that 1997 CD for David's edit of "Long Gone," but right now, here's the rideout to yet another one of those "Rehearsal Takes" on "Loveless Love." Remember: the band did not know this was being recorded and Avakian had no plans to issue it. Listen to how they all simply play like its their last night on earth. No coasting, no taking it easy. It's just full-on, 100% pure swing:

After that, the band called it a night, but six of the 11 tracks were in the can. The next day began with "Memphis Blues." After a botched first take, they completed a second try. There were a few mistakes and Avakian ended up using take three, but listen to the powerful, previously unheard rideout to take 2:

Then came "St. Louis Blues," where this blog began. The July 13 session ended with a romp on "Atlanta Blues." Here's a funny moment from the first complete take. They had the sheet music but I guess they hadn't really played it through. The band burns through the last few choruses and then Louis gets to the written ending, a completely old-timey "Good evening friends" lick ending on a dominant seventh. It catches him by surprise and the whole band breaks into hysterics. They got it right a few takes later:

The final session opened with one of the highlights of the entire album, "Chantez-Les Bas (Sing 'Em Low)." The band easily took to the blowing strain of this number as it was identical to the eight-bar blues of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It." One of the legends of this album is that on the master take, Trummy got so enthused, he didn't want it to end and kept on blowing, making Pops reach high for one more lowdown take. Well, the legend is true! The first complete take is one chorus shorter and though it sounds like Trummy wants to keep going, it halts. No one was going to stop him on the next try! Here's an edit I made with the rideout from take 1 first (previously unheard), followed by the more famous ending, Louis and Trummy's favorite moment on the entire album (as related on an interview on one of Louis's private tapes):

"Yellow Dog Blues" wrapped up the tunes for the album but the unissued alternates are pretty close to the master so I've chosen not to include it here (again, maybe someday!). And that was that. George went to work editing and splicing like crazy and a few months, a masterpiece hit the market. The 1997 reissue is still in print and still a big seller to this day.

That's it for my little look at Louis Armstrong's greatest album, though I could keep on going for thousands of more words. Maybe someday I'll get the opportunity on a deluxe edition of this set. Keep your fingers crossed but until then, the least you can do it give the original album a spin and give thanks to George Avakian, W. C. Handy and Louis Armstrong!


baz said...

Oh, those glisses at the end of "Chantez-le-Bas! I can feel 'em in my lips. Wow.

Craig McNamara said...

Earlier this week, I glued together the Master and Alternate versions of the W. C. Handy album into one album on my computer. Thank you for this Ricky. I will be the first in line to pick up the Louis Armstrong Complete Columbia Studio Sessions.

RICHIE said...

So many things make this a monumental album. Louis at the height of his powers, arrangements not being held to the 3.5 minute time limits and Mr Avakian's treatment of the music in the final product. I could go on about the obvious spirit of the band and each member playing at a level never before captured. So where is the Downbeat feature? How about Jazz Times? I don't get it but we have Ricky, David, Mr Avakian and all of the followers of this blog who understand and appreciate what this is, one of the most important documents of Jazz history ever recorded. Thanks Ricky, we all appreciate all you do in the name of Pops.

Tom Cunniffe said...

Another great column, Ricky! This material simply NEEDS to be issued. Make it happen, buddy!

Dan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan said...

Those complete studio sessions HAVE to see the light of day. They are the equivalent of the Beethoven sketch-books.

No name said...

Agreed that these are mind blowing and beyond wonderful.

Bootlegs are starting to show up on outside of US sites, and, in the us, on some of the streaming sites.

Hope Columbia does right and releases these correctly. Not only would they be commercially viable, they're historical documents.