Tuesday, October 28, 2014

45 Years of "We Have All the Time in the World" (and "Pretty Little Missy"!)

45  years ago today, Louis Armstrong began his comeback. What was he coming back from? Plenty. His health had been in steady cline during the second half of the 1960s, especially in 1967 when he had to cancel a slew of engagements--twice--for bouts with pneumonia. By 1968, he had dropped a dramatic amount of weight, but it didn't help. In September of that year, he ended up in intensive care for heart and kidney trouble, came home in January and ended up back in intensive care shortly after, this time until April. While at Beth Israel, Armstrong's longtime manager Joe Glaser was admitted after complications from a stroke; he passed away in June. A grief-stricken Armstrong, having lost his manager and facing the prospect of never being able to perform again, turned his despair into prose, handwriting a somewhat bitter manuscript about how his African-American fan base betrayed him. Things were bleak (for those interested in the nuts and bolts, my book covers the last few years of Armstrong's life in detail).

But slowly, he got out of it. ABC news visited him at his home in Corona, Queens on his July 4 birthday and filmed him playing a snippet of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" on the trumpet. When the newscaster asked Armstrong if there was anything he still wanted to accomoplish, Armstrong replied, "Yeah, keep living. I ain't through yet."

Still, Armstrong had to remain at home convalescing until the doctors gave him the okay. He still hit the scene occasionally, singing with Duke Ellington's band at the Rainbow Room and catching Russell "Big Chief" Moore and Emmett Berry at the Riverboat in Long Island that summer. On October 16, he and his wife Lucille attended game 5 of the World Series, watching his neighbors, the Miracle Mets, clinch the championship.

But Armstrong lived to make music and even though he was almost a full year away from being able to do concerts, he still yearned to make music for his public. On October 28, 1969 he got the chance through a very unlikely situation. Composer John Barry personally visited Armstrong in Corona with the opportunity to record "We Have All the Time in the World," a brand new song that would be used in the upcoming James Bond film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service.

Armstrong, as popular as he was, probably wasn't the public's first choice to record the new song for the latest Bond film. "'All the Time in the World' is my personal favorite," Barry said. "I think that might have a lot to do with the experience we had in New York with Louie Armstrong and that afternoon we recorded it. It wasn't the popular choice at the time, because we always used, you know, the Tom Joneses, the Nancy Sinatras. And i said, 'Look, it's about a man singing about the September of his years.' And I thought Louie Armstrong singing 'We Have All the Time in the World,' it just rung true and [producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli] loved the idea, there were no arguments. But to work with this guy in the studio, he was the sweetest, humblest guy."

Armstrong prepared for the session, writing out the lyrics in long hand and studying them (his handwritten lyrics are still part of the collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum). When he arrived to the studio, he remained ever the professional, even though his health was precarious. Lyricist Hal David remembered, "He was a sick man at the time. After he did his first take, he came over to me and, you know, 'Did I do it good? Don't be afraid to tell me, I want to do it good.'" Armstrong's friend Jack Bradley was there and snapped this photo of David and Barry with Pops:

In the end, Armstrong was more than good. Barry was right; Armstrong was the ideal person to sing the sentiment of the song, especially with everything he had gone through the previous year. His voice was now "burned to a husk" in Gary Giddins's phrase, but that just lent a deeper emotion to the performance. Here's the original recording:

Armstrong loved the song and was happy to have had the opportunity to record it. "He came across and he thanked me for asking him to sing the song in the movie, which--I mean, I was in such awe of the gentleman that the fact that he took it upon himself to sing the song for us, we were so honored that he should come across and very gently say, 'Thank you,'" Barry remembered. "It was a testament to the gentleman, the kind of gracious gentleman that he was."

Unfortunately, On Her Majesty's Secret Service was kind of a dud and Armstrong's recording never made a dent on the charts. That didn't stop him from performing it on television after the film came out. I don't have these versions to share, but on Louis's reel-to-reel tapes are lovely live versions from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in February and The Merv Griffin Show in March. But like "What a Wonderful World," it would take a posthumous use of the song to bring about its revival.

In 1994, 25 years after the original recording and 23 years after Armstrong's death, Guinness used "We Have All the Time in the World" in a television commercial that ran in the UK. All of a sudden, people were clamoring for this long-forgotten Louis Armstrong recording, to the point that it hit the UK music charts! Here's that original commercial:

In the ensuing 20 years, the song has become one of Louis's best-known, garnering over a million YouTube views and being a favorite at weddings. Just add it to the list of posthumous Louis Armstrong rediscoveries that keep happening every time his music is used in film or on TV. Timeless.

But wait, there's more!

The "We Have All the Time in the World" story has become somewhat well-known but nobody (except me, I think) ever talks about the flip side recorded that same day, "Pretty Little Missy." This was a composition based on "Perdido" that was put together by Armstrong and longtime pianist Billy Kyle, based on a riff Kyle used to play on his "Perdido" piano features. Armstrong seemed to legitimately love it (and especially the way he could subversively transform "Pucker up" into "Fuck her up" without the audience noticing), recording it multiple times over the years and performing it often in concert.

He hadn't done "Missy" in a while at the time of the 1969 session and Kyle had died on the road in February 1966. So with a comeback looming and a possible James Bond-associated hit record in the can, why the hell would Louis Armstrong record "Pretty Little Missy" as the flip side? Simple: Louis Armstrong was a smart man. When Joe Glaser died in June 1969, he left Louis Armstrong all of his shares of his publishing company, International Music. Some have brushed this off as Glaser's final insult but it was a big deal, something that kept Armstrong's bank account full when he wasn't able to work (telling Mike Douglas in 1970, "I've been out of work for two years and haven't asked for anything yet") and allowing Lucille to never need to work during her 12-year widowhood. The money and royalties that came from Armstrong's compositions (and others) through International Music was quite sizable.

So Armstrong's not dumb. Now that he's getting a bigger piece than ever of International Music, he makes frequent TV appearances in the last two years of his life performing either (or both) "Someday You'll Be Sorry" or "Pretty Little Missy," telling Dick Cavett in July 1970 that he was going to play "Someday" "to pick up a little ASCAP change."

Armstrong must have put in his request to do "Missy" early because at the October 28 session, he had a full-blown arrangement by the great Torrie Zito made for the full orchestra, including strings and an organ. Unlike every previous version, which tended to be fast an exciting, the 1969 "Missy" has a gently loping shuffle feel to it, allowing Armstrong to really relax. Armstrong’s voice, though charred a bit more than usual, radiates its usual warmth and joy….though I think he manages to stick in a "Fuck her up" the second time on the bridge, no?

But the main event is a half-chorus of trumpet playing that proves that there was still some life in that old horn. The tone is fragile in the beginning but it gradually swells and though he has a little trouble with a high note towards the end of the solo, it's a swinging outing, full of classic Armstrong ideas and phrases. The first time I heard it, I actually cheered! And when he reprises the vocal and sings the cute lyrics over surging strings, I welled up with tears. The track is a triumph and it marked the last time he would ever play the trumpet in the studio. How fitting that the last thing he played was that signature little lick that everybody still uses to this day to impersonate him?

Without further ado, here's "Pretty Little Missy," transferred from a 45 I bought on eBay and pitch-corrected by my pal Phil Person:

So why does everybody know "We Have All the Time in the World" but nobody knows "Pretty Little Missy"? Guinness aside, the original United Artists 45 seems to have barely been circulated. After the 1994 revival, "We Have All the Time in the World" has been issued on a variety of CDs, but "Pretty Little Missy" never graduated beyond a handful of European 45s and one German LP.

A few years ago, my friends at Hip-O Select put out a 2-CD set, Hello, Louis! The Hit Years, 1963-1969, which collected the full Hello, Dolly, Mame, and What a Wonderful World albums in one place, plus a few obscure Kapp singles from 1968 and "We Have All the Time in the World" from 1969. It was a well-done set but when it came out, I was disappointed that the included "We Have All the Time" but not "Pretty Little Missy" and took them to task for it right here on my blog. Producer Andy McKaie was kind enough to write back with the sad news: "We tried to license in 'Pretty Little Missy' (the B side of the Bond theme), but found no one who would step up and acknowledge ownership, neither EMI (who now own U.A. Records) or MGM, to whom the Bond theme reverted would claim ownership of the B side, unfortunately."

There you have it. When possibly the biggest music corporation in the world can't license this song, the prospects of it ever getting a decent release in digital age are grim. I'm not saying it's "West End Blues" (and some readers out there might be rolling their eyes at how long I'm devoting to an obscure version of "Pretty Little Missy") but it would be nice to hear it in decently remastered sound, not from my personal crackly 45 copy.

Anyway, Louis Armstrong's comeback began 45 years ago today and though he died less than two years later, let's be honest, Armstrong's music is better appreciated today than ever before. We have all the time in the world to attempt to grasp the enormous impact he had on our music and our world.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Happy 85th Birthday to Dan Morgenstern - Crack Open a Bottle of Slivovice!

Today is a very special day in both the Armstrong community and the jazz world: it's Dan Morgenstern's 85th birthday, something truly worth celebrating. Any fan of Louis Armstrong has probably had his or her listening experience enhanced by Dan's peerless liner notes. His writing on Pops was my single biggest influence when I first got in him 19 years ago (this month, actually, October 1995), an influence that hasn't stopped as my own writings on Armstrong have spanned from college newspaper articles to a master's thesis to this blog to my book and recent set of liner notes for the Mosaic Records box.

This tribute is based in part on one I wrote in 2009 for Dan's 80th birthday. I was already close with Dan back then but my goodness what these five years have included. Dan was gracious enough to write a beautiful endorsement for my book; we've shared panels at the Satchmo Summerfest, the Greenwich Library and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem; Dan hosted a book party for me at the Institute of Jazz Studies and I spoke at his subsequent retirement party after his distinguished tenure as Director; we debuted previously unheard recordings of Louis at Freedomland on International Jazz Day; deep, I've listened to some truly memorable stories just spending time with him in a green room or on a outdoor bench or really anywhere we meet; and I've accompanied him on piano during his vocal performances at the Satchmo Summerfest and at Birdland.

Seriously! Don't believe me? This past summer, Dan broke it up with his vocal on "You Rascal You" with the Satchmo Summerfest All Stars. It was a joy to be on stage for this moment. Here's the footage:

So as you can see, Dan is showing no signs of slowing down, making his Festival singing debut at age 83 and still turning out quality columns, liner notes (and even e-mails) every time he sits in front of a computer. He's still my idol all these years later and will always be the greatest figure to ever write about Louis Armstrong.

On reason for that is Dan knew Louis so well. In fact, in 2012, I had the opportunity to write about Dan's relationship with Louis for the online journal Current Research in Jazz. I knew there was nothing I could say about it so I strung together Dan's own words--from liner notes, magazine articles, interviews, etc.--to make his relationship with Louis come alive again. Click that link if you're interested in exploring further.

But as I did in 2009, I'd like to do something special, something that I think is going to be a little more fun than a list of reasons of why Dan is great. Today, I'll once again be sharing the Slivovice interview.

The what, you say? If you missed my earlier tribute and still don't know, the Sliovice interview, a legendary occasion for the crazed sector of Armstrong nuts that have heard and absorbed it since Phil Schaap used to play it during WKCR's Armstrong marathons. Here's the backstory:

In July 1965, the world was preparing to celebrate what was then perceived as Louis Armstrong's 65th birthday. Dan decided to mark the occasion by interviewing Pops at his Corona home in May for Down Beat's "Salute to Satch" issue. The resulting portrait would be published in the July issue. If you'd like to read it, it appears in Dan's indispensable Pantheon volume Living With Jazz. But if you'd like to HEAR it, you've come to the right place.

Though Dan had known Armstrong for about 15 years, he hadn't ever been to the Armstrong home. Thus, he asked Louis's good friend Jack Bradley to put in the good word. Jack did just that, got the okay and accompanied Dan on May 22, taking a bunch of photos, some of which appeared in the final Down Beat article. Armstrong's career was just as busy as ever, but Dan actually caught Louis during a rare break. After a historic tour that found Armstrong breaking down the Iron Curtain by playing such places as East Berlin, Prague and Yugoslavia in March and April, Armstrong took over a month off for a dental procedure to fix his chops. Armstrong's mentor King Oliver lost his chops because of bad teeth (pyorrhea) and Armstrong wasn't about to do the same.

Unfortunately, from what my ears tell me, Armstrong was never the same trumpet player after this procedure. His playing during the March 1965 tour featured some of his finest horn work of the decade. But beginning in the summer of 1965, I find his chops to have become much more erratic, both in live performances and with the All Stars. By 1966, he stopped taking solos on numbers like "Indiana" and "Muskrat Ramble" when he didn't feel like it and by 1967, numbers like "Basin Street Blues," "Black and Blue" and "Royal Garden Blues" were permanently retired, though they were all part of the 1965 tour. Of course, I am generalizing a bit; a concert I acquired from November 1967will blow the minds of any who detract Armstrong's final years.

But I digress. During Dan's interview Armstrong was resting from the dental procedure, but about to embark on yet another tour of Europe. Surrounded by his friends Jack and Dan (with Lucille chiming in now and then from the background), Louis sounds very relaxed and friendly. But there was something else present that made for the relaxed atmosphere: a bottle of Slivovice plum brandy Armstrong brought back from Europe earlier that year. Slivovice (now known as Slivovitz) is still around as an online search quickly shows. Louis and Lucille both testify early on about the powers of Slivovice. They warn Dan and Jack that it's pretty much going to knock them on their asses. Dan and Jack are up for the challenge, so the bottle of Slivovice is cracked open. Not only will you hear the sound of ice clinking around the glasses during this interview, but you'll also hear Dan and Jack get progressively sillier as the interview goes on. Pops doesn't change much but the laughter certainly gets goofier towards the end. Here's a rare Jack Bradley photo of Louis and Dan and the bottle of Slivovice that day:

Speaking of the end, I should mention the length of the Slivovice interview: two hours and ten minutes. Thus, I obviously don't expect anyone to set in front of their computer for the next 130 minutes and listen to every second of this. But I still want to share it and let it be known that it will always be here to savor if you want to listen to it in bits and pieces. And to make it easier, I've broken it into three small segments. Here's the 50-minute first part:

Here's the 50-minute second part:

And finally, the 30 minute third part:

It's a fascinating interview from start to finish (this is the one where Pops finally came out and admitted he wrote "Muskrat Ramble") but it's also a fun way to feel like you're spending an afternoon with the Armstrong's in Corona in 1965. Thanks to David Ostwald for the tapes and thanks for Dan and Jack for just plain being there.

Oh, and as a postscript, a new exhibit I curated on the Jack Bradley Collection at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, blew up this week, with numerous items being printed worldwide, including, the New York Times. Having Jack's artifacts here is a trip and in my previous exhibit, a 20th anniversary of the opening of the Louis Armstrong Archives, I was most excited to display this one:

Yes indeed, that's the ORIGINAL Slivovice bottle polished off by Jack, Dan and Louis on that May day in 1965, now an artifact that's been preserved and displayed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Incredible. So on behalf of all the Armstrong nuts from around the world, happy birthday Dan...and we hope you get to enjoy some Slivovice on this special occasion!

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Ambassador Satch Meets Tricky Dick? Not So Fast....

As long as I have been studying Louis Armstrong (19 years this week), I feel like I've always known about the famous story of then-Vice President Richard Nixon unwittingly carrying Louis Armstrong's marijuana stash across customs. In the beginning, I wanted to believe it because it's such a good story, but then I wavered and now think it's pure fiction.

However, it's back in the news in a big way. It seems to have stemmed from an opinion piece by Roger Stone that ran in the Daily Caller on August 13. Here's Stone's telling of it:

"Richard Nixon could be quite naive. In the late 1950s, the U.S. State Department made jazz legend Louis Armstrong a 'Goodwill Ambassador' and underwrote a concert tour in Europe and Asia. On his return from the first two tours, Armstrong and his entourage were waived through customs without a search based on Satchmo's ambassadorial status, but when he landed at Idlewild Airport in New York in 1958, he was directed toward the customs lines. Customs agents had been tipped off that contraband was being imported into the country. Armstrong joined a long line of travelers lined up for insprections. Unfortunately, the jazz trumpeter was carrying three pounds of marijuana in his suitcase. Once Armstrong realized he was about to be busted and would bring shame on the country he was traveling on behalf of, he began sweating profusely."

"Just then the doors swung open and Vice President Richard Nixon, in step with his security detail, swept in the room followed by a gaggle of reporters and photographers. Nixon, seeing an opportunity for a wire-photo with Armstrong, went up to the jazz man. 'Satchmo, what are you doing here?' a surprised Nixon asked. 'Well, Pops, I just came back from my goodwill ambassador's tour of Asia and they told me I had to stand in this line for customs.'"

"Without hesitation, Nixon grabbed both of Satchmo's suitcases. 'Ambassadors don't have to go through customs and the Vice President of the United States will gladly carry your bags for you,' Nixon said. Whereupon The Vice President 'muled' three pounds of pot through United States Customs without ever knowing it. When Nixon was told what happened by Charles McWhorter, who served as a traveling aide to Nixon (who heard the tale from one of the jazz musicians traveling with Satchmo),  a startled Nixon exclaimed, 'Louis smokes marijuana?'"

There you have it. After Stone's story ran in August, it was picked up by a number of outlets: the Niagra Falls Reporter, Marijuana.com, Classicalite, Hempyreum, Reddit and more. It even crowded my Facebook page for a few days. I admitted it was a helluva story but explained why I didn't buy it. Others disagreed with me, citing famous jazz musicians who have told this story as fact over the years.

I said what I had to say and was prepared to leave it at that but this week, a press release came across my e-mail. For a book about Richard Nixon. Written by Roger Stone. And featuring a single excerpt of the book to sell it. "Richard Nixon could be quite naive," it began. You know the rest.

When some jazz historians I  greatly admire started passing the press release to me a few days ago, I knew it was time to say something. So here's my take on why this story rings false.

First off, the facts as Stone relates are all messed up. Let's take them one at a time, Stone's words in italics:

In the late 1950s, the U.S. State Department made jazz legend Louis Armstrong a 'Goodwill Ambassador'....

Nope. Louis's nickname became "Ambassador Satch" in the mid-1950s and the press liked to refer to him as an "Ambassador of Goodwill" but it was not an official title. Louis never made an official State Department tour until 1960. In 1959, Louis spoke about this on one of his private tapes, telling Babe Wallace, "And then they ask me, 'Did the State Department send you?' And I say, 'You know no State Department sent me over here. It's the fans."

...and underwrote a concert tour in Europe and Asia. 

Stone places this story in 1958. Armstrong did not leave U.S. soil in 1958. He hadn't been to Asia since 1953. He hadn't been to Europe since 1956.

On his return from the first two tours,...

Again, Armstrong hadn't made any State Department tours but he made plenty of overseas trips, much more than two. France in 1948, Europe in 1949 and 1952, Japan in 1953, Australia in 1954, Europe in 1955, etc.

Armstrong and his entourage were waived through customs without a search based on Satchmo's ambassadorial status, but when he landed at Idlewild Airport in New York in 1958, he was directed toward the customs lines.

Armstrong believed his "ambassadorial status" would get him through customs? (Even though he didn't fly from overseas in 1958?) Nixon might have been naive but Armstrong wasn't.

Unfortunately, the jazz trumpeter was carrying three pounds of marijuana in his suitcase. Once Armstrong realized he was about to be busted and would bring shame on the country he was traveling on behalf of, he began sweating profusely.

Okay, stop the presses. Let's stop and think about this for a minute. Louis Armstrong had been smoking marijuana on almost a daily basis since the 1920s. He'd flown around the world numerous times since the early 1930s. But during this one trip, he's dumb enough to carry THREE POUNDS OF MARIJUANA through customs? And now he's sweating profusely? And Vice President Nixon just happens to be there at the same time? Really? Really!?

"Just then the doors swung open and Vice President Richard Nixon, in step with his security detail, swept in the room followed by a gaggle of reporters and photographers. Nixon, seeing an opportunity for a wire-photo with Armstrong, went up to the jazz man.

Stone included a photo of Nixon and Louis together with his press release. "Ah ha! There's the photo! It DID happen!" Not so fast. That photo was taken in July 1957 while Louis was playing in Washington D.C. and had lunch with Nixon while there. The photo appeared in newspapers across the country, as you can see here.

'Satchmo, what are you doing here?' a surprised Nixon asked. 'Well, Pops, I just came back from my goodwill ambassador's tour of Asia and they told me I had to stand in this line for customs.'"

Not Asia in 1958. (Though keep that in the back of your mind....)

"Without hesitation, Nixon grabbed both of Satchmo's suitcases. 'Ambassadors don't have to go through customs and the Vice President of the United States will gladly carry your bags for you,'


When Nixon was told what happened by Charles McWhorter, who served as a traveling aide to Nixon (who heard the tale from one of the jazz musicians traveling with Satchmo),  a startled Nixon exclaimed, 'Louis smokes marijuana?'"

I will admit that's the only line that made me pause. I had never heard of the McWhorter connection before so of course wondered who the musician might have been that told him. And that's when I started wondering, "Who started this damn story in the first place???"

Doing a little research, the earliest telling of the tale that I can find comes from Al Aronwitz, "The Blacklisted Journalist," in a piece he wrote about the Louis Armstrong and His Friends record date. Aronwitz published it in 1996 and told it this way:

"So, finally Miles said OK and, as we were on our way, Miles told me a story which he said came from Tommy Flanagan, the keyboard player in Satchmo's band when Satchmo and his troupe were waiting in the VIP Lounge at Orly Airport in Paris for a flight to Moscow. Satchmo and his band were on a State Department "good will" tour when, all of a sudden, Richard M. Nixon, then America's Vice-President, walked into the lounge with his Secret Service guards. When Nixon saw Satchmo, the Vice President immediately rushed up to him, and, almost getting down on his knees, grabbed for Satchmo's hand as if to kiss it. Slobbering all over Satchmo, Nixon began telling Satchmo what a national monument Satchmo was."

"'You're like the Statue of Liberty!' Nixon said. 'You're a national treasure! I'm your biggest fan, Mr. Armstrong.' It turned out that Nixon was going to Moscow, too. When the flight was announced and everybody started getting up to board the plane, Nixon kept asking: 'Are you sure there's nothing I can do for you, Mr. Armstrong?'"

The band had a lot of luggage. Louis picked up a couple of pieces and handed them to Nixon, saying: 'Yeah! Would you mind carrying these, Mr. President?; And that, according to Flanagan, was how Louis' band got its stash past Russian customs on that particular trip."

Okay, here we go again. Check out this sentence:

Miles told me a story which he said came from Tommy Flanagan, the keyboard player in Satchmo's band when Satchmo and his troupe were waiting in the VIP Lounge at Orly Airport in Paris for a flight to Moscow.

Time out! My goodness, can it be possible to have a sentence where every single fact in it is wrong? First, Tommy Flanagan never played with Louis, not even a guest shot. In fact, Flanagan told JazzTimes in 2001 that he only began to appreciate Armstrong recently, in the beginning of the 21st century. That's a huge red flag. But a flight from Paris to Moscow? Louis Armstrong never traveled to Moscow. Never. Not once. 

So that telling of the story is a disaster but that's the way Miles Davis of all people was telling it in 1970. Can you imagine how many musicians it passed through from 1970 until Aronwitz published it in 1996? Once Aronwitz published it, that's how it was related for years to come, including a 2002 article on the Cannabis Culture website that included the Russia stuff and a mention of "Armstrong's keyboard player Tommy Flanagan." D'oh!

Now you know a little about why I feel the current telling of the Armstrong-Nixon story is bunk. Stone smoothed out some of the obvious errors--no mention of Flanagan or Russia--but invented new ones and can't hide the whiff of the myth. 

But now, a little something for the conspiracy theorists. My book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, was published in 2011 and included an entire chapter where Louis threatens to retire from performing unless his manager, Joe Glaser, got him a "permit" to "smoke all the reefers that I want to when I want to." His wife Lucille had just been arrested in Hawaii for possessing a small amount of marijuana after a flight from Japan and Louis was livid. If you've ever wondered what Louis Armstrong thought about marijuana, look no further than here. His arguments are the same ones being used in today's legalization battle. "If I should feel that I'd like a few drags, it's just got to be all right, that's all. Because gage ain't nothing but medicine. Everyone that's in [J. Edgar] Hoover's regiment knows gage is not habit-forming, or dope. It's a damn shame as much s I try to live just to make the whole world happy, they have never been able to prove marijuana as a narcotic."

Armstrong continued, "I'm not so particular about having a permit to carry a gun. All I want is a permit to carry that good shit....One an die quickly from a gun. A man carry a gun, he'll shoot it; yes he will, especially if he gets mad enough. Gage, just the opposite, you dig? You'll say present, no one could make you mad. So dig that." 

One person who read this chapter with interest was marijuana advocate and California NORML Deputy Director Ellen Komp. A trumpet player had told Komp that Armstrong had told him this story and said it happened in Japan. And remember above, Stone's dubious telling of included Armstrong saying that he had just returned from Asia. Well, Komp did her research and for the entire time Nixon was vice president, he and Armstrong were only overseas at the same time in the same place a single time: in December 1953, in Japan, right before Lucille's bust for possession. 

Komp turned her theory into a new piece for Cannabis Culture that was published on January 16, 2013. You can read it by clicking that link. I do find it a fascinating coincidence. If someone had written the Armstrong-Nixon story with actual facts and placed it in Japan in 1953, I'd pause. I will say that I might be the only person (besides Louis Armstrong) who has listened to all 750 private tapes he made, including the numerous ones in which he goes into great detail about marijuana. I've also read two autobiographical manuscripts that were unpublished in his lifetime that also dealt heavily with marijuana. And I've interviewed numerous friends and musicians who really knew Armstrong inside and out (some, like Jack Bradley, who got high regularly with him). And in all these cases--the tapes, the manuscripts, the letters--not a single trace of Nixon or this story.

Personally, I still don't believe it but I'll give it a sliver of a chance of happening in Japan. It's still not likely as Nixon returned to D.C. on December 14 and I can only pinpoint Armstrong's arrival in Japan as "mid-December" (Jet magazine said it was a "month-long" tour but they didn't publish that until December 24 and Louis was out on December 31). So even if by some chance it did happen in Japan, it definitely did not happen the way it's being told. For one thing, Lucille was arrested for having a tiny amount, one full cigarette and two stubs, hidden in her eyeglass case. That's not the same as "muling" three pounds of it. Louis was too smart for that and wouldn't have been "sweating" in fear of what he was trying to do.

Some Armstrong fans might be upset with my conclusions as the Nixon story is such a good one. But you don't need Nixon to beat up to admire Armstrong's stance on marijuana, a stance that, with the recent strides in legalization, is proving that he was on the right side of history after all. 

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Louis Armstrong at Carnegie Hall - October 2, 1939

75 years ago this week, Louis Armstrong took part in a major concert at Carnegie Hall, an all-too-short appearance that's so explosive and exciting, it's still worth celebrating.

The occasion was part of ASCAP's "Twenty Five Year Festival," a celebration of music's top licensing organization. The October 2 concert was dedicated to African-African American composers and Pops was included to do two of his own compositions, "Old Man Mose" and "What Is This Thing Called Swing."  I've covered both of those pieces in full before (just click the links in the previous sentence) but wanted to revisit the Carnegie Hall performance as a whole.

Even though he didn't compose it, Louis wouldn't be caught dead without opening with his theme song, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." After a few bars of it--and a terse "Cease!"--he tears into his hit of 1935 (co-written by Zilner Randolph), "Old Man Mose." Watch out!

This is one of my favorite versions. The tempo is a little brighter than the original, more like later versions by George Lewis (and current versions by the fabulous Shotgun Jazz Band of New Orleans). The routine is in stone but lots of little comments throughout, mostly from the band's other comedian, trombonist George Washington, who was adding some of his own shouted responses to Armstrong's lyrics. For my money, though, the guy who steals the show is Sid Catlett, whose slashing hi-hat cymbals, bass drum accents and humorous “knocks” demonstrate why he was Armstrong’s favorite drummer. 

Next up was "What is This Thing Called Swing," written by Armstrong's frequent collaborator of the era, Horace Gerlach. This is a HOT performance:

As I wrote in my original entry, 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. The original Decca recording is very exciting but this Carnegie Hall version makes the studio version sound like a soggy ballad.

I love how Armstrong’s personality comes through beautifully, cracking up the audience multiple times. (Again, I’m pretty sure that’s Washington 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 practically talk-sings his entire vocal, a good example of his being 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 the lyrics, with their references to "jazz," "ragtime," "drag time" and "swing," effectively summarize the confusion. No wonder Louis liked to say there were only two kinds of music, good and bad....

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 on the Decca recording. After the vocal, the band vamps and Armstrong introduces the reed section, the rhythm section and the brass section.
For the introductions of the various sections, he 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 ever end every succeeding Armstrong 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 a remarkably effective one-note break between choruses. 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, an incredibly exciting performance, topped off with a ridiculously full high F. Bravo!

Alas, that was it for Pops, but he was happy. The very next day, October 3, 1939, he wrote a letter to his friend Bill Russell, a letter that's famous for Armstrong's raving about Russell's "Jazzmen" and promising to send a horn to Bunk Johnson. But earlier in the letter, Armstrong wrote (odd punctuation is his), "Well I've just returned from the Carnegie Hall where 'Handy and all of us Song Writers (ha ha) gave a Concert...I took my Band over there and Swung Out Two Numbers for the Folks and they appreciated our efforts 'Velly Velly Much....We 'Played 'Ol Man Mose and 'WHat Is This Thing Called Swing....And Boy--when we got through, you'd a thought the damn house was falling in...Tee Hee....It was really swell..."

Armstrong wasn't the only one who knew he brought down the house. A few years ago, my good friend from Sweden, HÃ¥kan Forsberg, wrote in to share a review of the concert written by Dan Burley. It's tedious at times--just one list after another--but it's fascinating to see how Armstrong killed, especially after he followed a tribute to minstrel songs (15 years later and reporters would have said Armstrong belonged in the minstrel part of the evening). And the ending is good, too, because it focuses on how the lack of then-present-day composers in the jazz field were pretty much given the shaft. 75 years later, "Enough-of-the-old-timers-what-about-today's-generation" is still a common gripe in the jazz world. Here's the complete review:

WRITERS LEFT OFF PROGRAM - Most of ASCAP Night Devoted to Serious Minstrel Music - by Dan Burley

The younger generations among the monster turnout at Carnegie Hall Monday night at the second concert in the festival of American music given under the aegis of American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) were provided with a liberal education in the contributions the Negro has made to American music. But because of the length of the program and attention given to oldtime writers, many of the present-day group of composer were plenty sore.

Not only the youngsters, but an appreciable lot of the oldsters of both races learned for the first time that many of the songs they have whistled, sung or heard since childhood were from the pens of colored writers whose genius has been neglected and all but forgotten over the course of the years.

From mighty symphonic works, spirituals, minstrel songs, blues, jazz and down to swing ran the program by W.C. Handy, and his staff of Joe Jordan, Charles L. Cooke and others, and while the presentation might well have been spread over three or four of the nights set aside by ASCAP to honor its members, it did serve the purpose of giving the public for the first time a mass introduction to the Negro composer.

A 70-piece symphony orchestra, three choirs, Louis Armstrong and Claude Hopkins and their swing bands, specialty singers, topped by Cab Calloway, dancers, guest composers and the composers themselves constituted the biggest massing of Negro musical production talent ever assembled. It was nearly 1 o’clock in the morning before the affair reached its climax.


The symphonic compositions were conducted by the writers James P. Johson, who flails a lot of boogie-woogie piano when in the mood, conducted the orchestra in his “From Harlem.” Dr. Cooke led the orchestra in his “Sketches of the Deep South” and world-famed William Grant Still conducted two movements from his “Afro-American Symphony” and “Summerland.” The Southernaires sang a medley of Will Marion Cook’s melodies, while Harry T. Burleigh was on hand to hear Jessie Zackery sing some of his spirituals, while the Abysinian Choir sang R. Nathaniel Dutt’s “Listen to the Lambs.” Juanita Hall Choir did an interesting interpretation of “Go Down Death” from “God’s Trombones” by the late James Weldon Johnson and a fine presentation of “De Little Black Train” arranged by Miss Hall with Robert Hall as soloist. Minto Cato effectively sang Alex Hill’s “How the First Song Was Born.’ These numbers composed part one of the program and dealt with the serious side of Negro musical composition.

Part two of the program, coming after the intermission, was an impromptu minstrel show with members of the Crescendo Club, all of whom are ASCAP composers, grouped in minstrel style. Laurenza Deas, Pinkney Hill, Chris Smith and Chappie Chappelle interpreted dance routines of the ’90’s and early 1900 period while James P. Johnson, Clarence Williams, William Edmondson of the Southenaires, Tim Brym, Joe Jordan, Luckey Roberts, Donald Heywood, and Henry Troy did the conducting of the singing and of the orchestra. The Southernaires came back to feature on the numbers.


In the minstrel group, which drew much criticism, were such numbers as “In the Evening by the Moonlight,” “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny,” and “Carve Dat Possum” by James Bland; “Listen to the Mocking Bird” (Sam Lucas); “Pas Mala,” (Ernest Hogan); “Baggage Coach Ahead,” (Gussie I. Davis); “All I Want Is My Chicken” (Laurence Deas); “Darktown Is Out Tonight” (Will Marion Cook); “Shine” (Mack, Brown & Dabney); “Maple Leaf Rag” (Scott Joplin); “Wish I Could Shimmy Like My SIster Kate” (Piron & Cl. WIliams); “Nobody” (Alex Rogers & Bert Williams); “Some Of These Days” (Shelton Brooks); “Under the Bamboo Tree” (Cole & Johnson); “Ballin’ the Jack” (Chris Smith & Jim Burris); “Please Go Away and Let Me Sleep” (Tim Brym & Cecil Mack); “Just One Word of Consolation” (Tom Lemonier & Frank Williams); “I’m Just Wild Abot Harry” (Sissle & Blake); “Lovey Joe” (Joe Jordan); “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” (Cl. Williams & Cl. Warfield); “Oh Say Wouldn’t It Be a Dream” (Joe Jordan); “Junk Man Rag” (Luckey Roberts); “Dearest Memories” (Will Vodery); “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” (Evertt, Robbins & Porter Grainger); “Mammy O’Mine” (Maceo Pinkard) played by Mr. Pinkard and sung by Mrs. Edna Pinkard; “Maori” (Will Tyler); “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” (Creamer & Layton); “I’m Coming Virginia” (WIll Marion Cook & Donald Heywood); and “Smile” (Heywood). The 40-voiced choir Mr. Heywood is rehearsing for his “Caribbean Cruise” sang the last two numbers.


The length of the program was apparent and sighs were beginning to come with alarming frequency when out popped His Majesty of Jazz and Swing, “Satchmo” of the trumpet, Louis Armstrong. Louie came to Carnegie Hall red-hot and lowdown and when he got through leading his orchestra in “Ol’ Man Mose,” and “What Is This Thing Called Swing,” little was left but to go home. Armstrong provided the comic relief after the long and tiresome minstrel episode.

Cab Calloway came minus his orchestra, but sang “Jumpin’ Jive” accompanied by his pianist, Benny Payne.

The program closed with W.C Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”


Immediately after the houses emptied, squawks were heard from many of the modern composers listed on the program who didn’t get a play because of the time devoted to the symphonic, spiritual and minstrel days part of the show. Such writers as Perry Bradford, Jelly Roll Morton, J.C. Johnson, president and founder of the Crescendo Club, Andy Razaf, Edgar Sampson, Walter Bishop, Frede Norman, Joe Grey and Wilbur Sweatman, Reddie Blake and McPherson, Kaye Parker, Bennie Carter, Claude Hopkins, and Slim and Slam were left holding the bag when it was decided the program had run long enough and the curtain came down.

Said Andy Razaf: “More music of present-day colored songwriters would have climaxed a grand show.  Someday we will realize that the present and future are just as important as the past. Only then will such efforts have balance and accuracy.”

If the program had not been designed to perpetuate the works of the older writers, it could not have done a better job in giving the breaks to men, many of whom are dead. Many in the audience came to hear songs they knew about and to applaud the men who wrote them. They didn’t hear them. They squawked. 


And that's how it went down at Carnegie Hall on October 2, 1939 when Armstrong "saved" the big night. Thank Goodness those two performances were recorded and Thank Gosta (Hagglof) for making it commercially on his Ambassador label. By the way, if you'd like a copy for your personal collection, you can order this Ambassador volume here from the Louis Armstrong House Museum website (the last remaining place to buy the Ambassadors). Coming up next: a big blow-out tribute to the six songs Louis recorded in Paris 80 years ago in 1934.