Saturday, December 26, 2015

Reflections on "Music of Louis Armstrong" at Queens College - Pops IS Tops!

As mentioned before on this blog, 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the first time Louis Armstrong's music hit me between the ears and changed my life. It was an incredibly fulfilling year: a whirlwind, dream-come-true trip to England; another successful journey to New Orleans, making special memories with the likes of Dan Morgenstern and Jewel Brown; evening hangs with David Ostwald and 96-year-old George Avakian; more lectures (Institute of Jazz Studies, Jazz at Lincoln Center) and radio appearances (WBGO, the Paul Leslie Show, WWOZ); my usual day-to-day work at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, including being promoted to Director of Research Collections and helping to launch a major exhibit in New Orleans on Louis and his hometown; and more, I'm sure.

But without a doubt, the most fulfilling Armstrong-related part of 2015--and I think, my entire Armstrong-fueled career--came during a spell of 15 weeks from August 31 through December 14. In that time, I taught "Music of Louis Armstrong" to graduate students at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. To say this was a dream come true is an understatement but even I wasn't quite prepared for how much the course would move me, inspire me and even teach me.

First, how did I get there? The great jazz critic David Adler has been teaching Jazz History at Queens College for a number of years and has always been nice enough to recruit me when he arrived at Armstrong's point in the semester. My boss, Michael Cogswell, and I had floated the idea of an entire course devoted to Armstrong in the past, but never got any traction out of it. However, when David was asked to teach a "special topics" semester of Jazz History, he demurred, saying the only special topics course that should be taught should be one on Louis Armstrong and the only person to teach it would be me. I'm still touched beyond belief at David's generosity as without him going to bat for me, I wouldn't be typing this right now.

I always loved addressing the students during my guest lectures but also always came away with a slightly nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach at how little they knew about Armstrong. These were graduate students, most of them getting degrees in Jazz Performance and every semester, I'd ask, "How many of you have really checked out Louis Armstrong?" and every semester, I'd get blank stares and somewhat embarrassed glances at the floor. How did this happen? I had my theories but was determined not to let my students go down that path. No, they would be Satch-urated to the fullest extent. 

Having never taught this course before, I came up with a gameplan in August that seemed reasonable: there would be weekly reading and listening assignments; each student would have to visit the Armstrong House, the Armstrong Archives and attend a live "traditional" jazz show; they'd have to transcribe a Louis solo and a comparable solo by another artist on the same tune to analyze the differences in style; there'd be a final paper of some sort based upon research done at the Archives; and most of all, they'd have to show up, as my nearly three-hour weekly sermons would feature audio and video they wouldn't have access to anywhere else. 

Again, it seemed reasonable to me but as the semester progressed, some of the students made it clear that he two hours of listening I had assigned was "too much" (in addition to listening, I asked for comments--opinions--on each track). I didn't back down, feeling that whatever they were going to get out of this course, they had to listen and comment on two hours of Louis each week AT MINIMUM. That wasn't going to change (what did they listen to? Stay tuned for the answers in a future blog post). They also read Satchmo: My Life in New Orleans, my own What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years and selected writings by Max Jones, John Chilton, Terry Teachout, Gunther Schuller and Humphrey Lyttelton.

The "mutiny" was short-lived as the students slowly began to come around to Pops. I don't think they ever had anything against him. But in the early weeks, I played a lot of inferior-sounding recordings and threw everything at them: Sousa, B.A. Rolfe, John McCormack, Billy Murray, Enrico Caruso. the ODJB, Johnny Dunn, Paul Whiteman, Guy Lombardo, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Lillie Delk Christian and more. The combination of the poor quality and the corny recordings, I think, was starting to drive them crazy. 

Which was the point. Because then Louis started making his mark with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and everyone sat up. They applauded spontaneously at the end of "Beau Koo Jack." The transcription assignments began and people started talking about the difficulty of transcribing Armstrong's rhythm and pointing out when Armstrong played "bebop phrases" (which, I'd always point out, was reversed: the boppers were playing "Armstrong phrases"). 

From then on, it was really smooth sailing. Bria Skonberg came in to talk about being inspired by Armstrong in 2015 and the burgeoning "hot jazz" scene that's happening around the world. The class viewed Satchmo the Great and Armstrong's complete 1965 East Berlin concert. After my wife gave birth and I spent precious little time at the Archives, I scrapped plans for them to write a research paper, instead giving them a presentation as a group at the Archives, unleashing my favorite rare video clips and treasures from Louis's private tape collection and letting them all take photos holding one of Armstrong's trumpets.

With each passing week, their homework comments grew deeper and more powerful. Why hadn't they checked out Louis before? Why isn't Louis taught first instead of bebop? In my last class, I spent almost the entire three hours going over Louis's triumphant but ultimately sad final four years. It was pretty emotional; more than one student told me they cried. After wrapping it all up, we took this photo, which I'll always cherish. Not only is the entire class there but also some folks not even enrolled:  Caroline Fernandez and Adriana Filstrup from the Armstrong House are there, as well as my pal David Smith and yes, on the left, David Adler sat in on the last class, too. Oh, and one student is on Caroline's iPhone, Skyping from Mexico because she didn't want to miss the final class.

By the time I walked out of the class for the last time, I had already assigned the students their final paper--but just barely! With about a week to go, I was starting to sweat. I canceled any research paper ideas and even made the idea of transcribing another artist's solo optional as extra credit. (They struggled enough with Louis's transcriptions, though that became a highlight of the semester for me. Only 1 of the 17 students played trumpet so hearing Louis's lines on piano, saxophone, guitar, upright bass, even vibes was a thrill!) I promised there'd be a final paper of some sort but it would be opinion-based. I just had no idea about what exactly to ask!

Finally, it dawned on me. On the first day of class, I shared with them Downbeat's "Roses for Satchmo," the beautiful set of tributes to Louis compiled by Dan Morgenstern, Harriet Choice and Jack Bradley for Louis's 70th birthday in 1970. For part one, I asked them to contribute a similar "rose for Satchmo," explaining what Louis now meant to them. I then asked which Louis recordings they would play for someone to get them interested in Louis (answers mostly fell into two camps: Hot Fives and Sevens or 1950s records such as Plays W.C. Handy and Ella and Louis). Then I had them read a favorite Humphrey Lyttelton piece from 1956 where Lyttelton defended Armstrong against the typical critical accusations being hurled at him (too much clowning, set solos, commercial records), making it into a larger issue of was Louis even a jazz musician at all. After the reading, they had a series of what I called "mystical" questions to answer, such as "How could studying Louis Armstrong's life and music in 2015 help today's musicians?" and "What lessons did Pops embody that might not be taught in today's Jazz education programs?"

I didn't put a word count on it or make any specific parameters. I figured they had each come into a class on Louis Armstrong admitting on the first day that they hadn't really checked him out. 15 weeks, two books and about 30 hours of listening later, what stood out? Did anything hit them the way it hit me 20 years ago?

Now, before I go any further, I did not set out to make their responses  public. But damn it, reading them made me so emotional, I want other Armstrong fans around the world to have the opportunity to read their feelings, too. I have edited each response to only include "the meat" of their answers so some of the answers jump around or address a specific question not represented here. Still, their feelings come through. I should also mention that over half the class came from places around the world--Israel, Germany, Mexico, China, Korea, Russia, etc.--so their English skills were varied; I only did minimal cleaning up of grammar but the "worldwide" perspectives on Ambassador Satch are quite beautiful. So here they are, my favorite student responses after studying Louis Armstrong this past semester. Remember, only 1 or 2 of these students admitted to having checked out Armstrong before this course (besides the usual "West End Blues"/"Potato Head Blues" Jazz History "canon" stuff). I hope this is only the first of many such courses (on many different campuses around the world!). Enjoy!

 I really can't imagine how the jazz would have looked like without having Louis Armstrong in it. I feel he taught us so much about sound, feeling, rhythm, swing, listening, responding, honesty, "New Orleans style" and more…And still teach. He definitely changed me as a musician and still does. Listening and watching him taught me a lot about different kind of "attitudes" towards music, such as playing with a group, playing a duo, and more combos. He is giving me so much inspiration, teaching me that "Less is more", especially having all of the different types of music which are happening today – it so easy to forget.

I can tell about myself, that Louis Armstrong taught me to be honest with myself regarding the type of music my heart is willing to follow, and no matter what "Style of music" I like and believe in, I should continue following it, play it, regardless the variety of Jazz styles which are happening today. It so easy to get loss. Listening to Louis play, sing, hearing his true, honest music, remind me I should always do it, no matter what kind of music I'm playing or have to play. For some ears, "Louis music" might be sounded "too easy", "too simple", well not to my ears. After listening to his music during this course (and I still have to listen), I reveled so many layers of Louis: his musically, technically, creativity and more…HE IS AN AMAZING MUSICIAN. With everything which happening in today's music world, particular jazz, many classes in school try to teach you how to handle all of those types of music, and bring this "Modernization" in to your music. I don't think it's wrong, not at all, but I'm sure and believe that first we must to know and learn the roots of the music, the roots of Jazz, such as the music of Louis Armstrong. Why? Because you can find everything inside of it: from rhythm, groove, style, culture, swing, roots of jazz and swing, joy, improvisation, development, technique, virtuosity, scatting, to emotions, joy, popularity, love and much more. Thank you dear Satchmo, the great Louis Armstrong. Thank you dear Ricky. 


I think the biggest thing that I got out of this class is that it has given me a greater respect for Louis Armstrong. While I always knew that Louis was a great trumpet player, I didn’t realize that he was such an influence on both instrumental and vocal soloists in the jazz genre. He was one of the founders of jazz music, created his own style of playing trumpet to include full-toned high notes that most players could only dream of, and he had a style of improvising that others wanted to emulate. He was also known as the greatest jazz soloist, which is saying a lot! 

Most importantly, Louis taught us that we should use our gifts to spread love throughout the world.

Ambassador Satch’s legacy will continue to live on, because his lessons in music and in life will continue to teach our future musical generations how to be great like he was.


Personally, this class has substantially changed the way I see my career going in the future and it is for the better! Louis Armstrong is a prime example of what artists should aspire to be and I look forward to seeing how this course affects many more in the best way! 

Musicians and scholars do not pay attention to Louis Armstrong as much as they should because the curriculum itself does not stress his importance not only in Jazz but in American history. Today you look at the standard college jazz program and the classes range from Music theory to private lessons, but nothing on Louis Armstrong. There is no doubt that the majority of today’s jazz musicians have had formal musical training to an extent. If they are not exposed to Armstrong during these college years let alone childhood, there is almost no hope for them to be exposed to him later on. The result is an endless cycle of ignorance within music education. 

Louis Armstrong can teach a great deal to today’s musicians about being a good artistic communicator. Not only was he a genius musician in all aspects of virtuosity, taste and showmanship, he knew how to deliver. He can play the most complex thing and make anyone understand what he was doing. By the studying the way he engages with his musicians on stage and people in the audience, one can learn how to get people to appreciate your art. Even by the way he looks at the audience, they already feel like they understand him and that is what makes him successful. In today’s jazz programs, there is not enough emphasis on being a good communicator to your audience. That is what makes a musician survive. Without anyone to listen, there is no music. Just by listening to the way Armstrong addresses his audience, one can learn how to engage them therefore like the individual as a person rather than just the music itself. 


Louis Armstrong is one of the most important musicians that ever lived. His music really captures the joy of life. Louis taught the world to swing and he made jazz more individualistic with the sheer force of his talent. The man was excellent his entire life and his longevity is really something to be admired. It didn’t matter what material he was recording or what band he was playing with, he always transcended any limitations of circumstance. Louis’s music was a music of the people. It was inclusive and despite what you might have heard, it was brilliant throughout his entire career.

I could go on, but the main point is that very few people have taken the time to learn about Armstrong on their own, and as a result most people’s opinions on his and his career are the result of preconceived notions that have developed from other people’s impressions of him. The scholars romanticize the bebop rebellion and the listeners and musicians of today are heavily influenced by the narratives that the scholars present.

There are a lot of lessons that we can take from Louis Armstrong. His artistic integrity was second to none. Despite criticisms of his later more “commercial” periods, Louis never stopped trying to better himself as a musician and singer. His trumpet playing increased in quality over the years as he became more mature and continued to develop his technical skills. He also refused to let the critics dictate what he should do. He trusted and stayed true to himself throughout his career. That’s an important lesson to learn. No matter what you do, there will always be some who don’t like it. You have to soldier on, be true to yourself, and try to better yourself as a musician. Louis trusted in his own judgment and he trusted that he knew his audience.

Louis was a kind and generous man. He truly appreciated his friends, family and fans. He was sympathetic to people who had fallen on hard times. He was endlessly loyal to the people who had made a positive difference in his life. Until the day he died he gave credit to Joe Oliver and Joe Glaser, and his loyalty to them never wavered. He was inclusive, and that’s why he always sought a broad audience. His perceived “commercialism” wasn’t some cynical ploy to make money. In his heart of hearts, Louis just wanted to invite everyone in the world to the party. He wanted everyone to feel welcome.

Louis Armstrong represents so much of what is right with humanity. In a world of violence, ignorance, racism, and greed, it’s easy to become a cynic but the boy from New Orleans hints at the other side of the coin. He reminds us about love, generosity, bravery, talent and beauty. So sit back and listen to one of his records and remember that hope isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity. Thank you, Louis Armstrong. The world owes you one.


Louis Armstrong in the jazz world, or even in the world of music, is as great as Shakespeare is to literature, or as Picasso is to art.  He was a master, and an ambassador of music.  After diving into his life and music, it changed the way I perceive jazz and most American music.  Then I started to realize how almost everything that I have played in my life, almost everything I've heard from other people comes down to a single point. That point is Louis Satchmo Armstrong.  I began to hear the seeds he planted all over the music of his time and beyond.  We owe it all to you Satchmo!  


Armstrong is an inspiration for everyone. He managed to keep up with the new music sounds for over 50 years. His passion for music is just beyond amazing. Armstrong played concerts/recording sessions almost every day of his career. Louis understood the importance of music and how music can touch and bring together people from different cultures (East and West Germany for example). The audience was most important to Armstrong, he didn’t care about critics and other musicians, he just wanted to make people happy. Off stage, he lived a very humble life. He used his money to help family and friends rather than spend it all on materialistic objects. In short, Louis Armstrong changed the life of so many people by his music, his statements to the press, and his actions in life.

Unfortunately Jazz becomes more and more a high art. Many musicians see music as a competition. They want to play faster and put more notes into their improvisation as any of their peers. If you go to any Jam session in New York, you always get this impression. The same holds true for compositions. Nowadays musicians write difficult harmony with odd meters. Armstrong, with his concept of playing music for the audience and treating everyone the same and on the same level doesn’t offer what a lot of new scholars and music students are looking for. 

In my opinion, more people should focus on Armstrong first in order to learn how to play as soulful as he did. All the notes in the world don’t do you any good if you can’t back it up by a strong rhythm and a beautiful melody.

Besides being an incredible musician, Armstrong was even a better human being. He shared everything he had with his family and friends. If more celebrities acted like him, we would live in a better world. Armstrong didn’t need to drive expensive cars, live in a big mansion, and wear the most expensive wardrobe. He lived a modest life and financially assisted anyone that needed help. Imagine more rich people would spend their money towards medical research, development in third world countries, and education. All these aspects would already be more advanced.


Before this class I didn’t know so much about Louis. Now I can say that he is a great human being and just unbelievable musician.  I feel like he’s the guy who invented jazz music and we should be thankful for that. I respect Louis because he devoted his life to music and became an example to follow.  He is a king of Jazz for me.

Has he changed me as a musician? Yes, he did! I don’t know if it reflects on my technique or musicality but in a way he changed my mind a bit. I started to think differently in some situations, which is really cool experience. It means that I’m growing as a human being.

As it written there Louis broke up all (nowadays) rules of jazz playing. He was playing all the same stuff night after night etc. Also I think because of his latest career after 1930 when he started to entertain more onstage and press named him “Clown” or “Commercial guy” or something else. And after all that people started to think the same way about Louis and what he’s doing. You definitely need to study his life before making some statements. So I don’t think it’s right that they don’t pay attention to this genius. 

 First lesson is play for your audience.  You should love your audience and make them feel good because as far as I know we’re playing music for somebody else, not only for yourself or other musicians. Second lesson is love what you’re doing. That’s important thing. If you don’t love your music or what you’re doing then nobody is going to love it. Then it’s for nothing. Third lesson is -don’t pay attention to what other people think about you. Just do what do and that’s it. Don’t listen to critics.

That’s it pretty much. 


To me, Louis is a kind of like a spiritual mentor.  He’s an inspiration, a sound and a mentality to model.  Louis speaks his mind, he tells it like it is, and he’s got no time for bs.  He plays with soul and passion, and he sings in a way that connects with everyone on a personal level.  But possibly the best part about it is that to Louis, he just wanted to play his horn, pure and simple.  The idea of maintaining simplicity in both playing and mentality is one of my big takeaways from “my time” with Louis.  That, and a new found desire for liberal application of shakes and lip trills in my playing.  I’ll miss this.

Studying Louis in today’s world is refreshing.  Not only is it a great reminder that “there’s nothing we can play on the horn that Louis hasn’t played”, it’s helped me personally to keep my priorities in check and life stress in perspective.  To Louis, the biggest thing was playing his horn and his music, that’s it.  Simple, easy.  Today's musicians could learn a lot from this mentality.  Forego unnecessary stress and perpetual distractions, and just play.


What does Louis Armstrong mean to me? This is an easy question to think about but very hard to answer. Louis Armstrong means a lot of things to me. First of all, he is the father of jazz and overall the father of music; he influenced the music we hear today greatly and he made jazz what it is today as well. Second, Louis is the best example of what an artist should be. Louis devoted his life to music, made a living as a musician, had a family, loved his fans, made money, traveled the world, became an ambassador, made the top 1 in the world, played with as many musicians he could have played, and yet, the most important thing about his career is that he did all this only because he wanted to and he enjoyed it with all his heart. In few words, Louis means honesty, soul and true music. 
Nowadays I tell my friends and people I know about what I have been doing with the Louis Armstrong course. I tell them, I did not imagine the importance of this artist for the history of music and specially the history of Jazz. I first recommend them to listen to his early recordings, just to understand where he was coming from. Also, I would recommend to pay attention to the later years on which we learned there is so much happening in terms of music, politics, arts etc. 

First of all, somebody who is studying Jazz at an Institution and is not exposed to the roots of Jazz, cannot possibly know the importance of it. Even though it is the musician’s responsibility to research and know about this, nowadays, Young musicians study at Universities that do not talk about anything before bebop. This is a big mistake because if we understand the development of the art form called Jazz, we know that the blues and what happened after that, is important and necessary to understand, analyze and play. Today’s musicians are either too concentrated to bebop (which is very challenging) or modern jazz and are not related to the music before that on which Louis Armstrong is one of the main characters of it. I also think that the influence of the critics about Louis and the fact that people categorize him as a commercial musician, make jazz musicians to be away from it due to the fact that no jazz musician wants to be considered pop or commercial. This is not only a huge mistake but a tragedy because they are neglecting the opportunity to learn and understand what Louis did and how much music he made and left behind in our history. 

Louis Armstrong did everything a musician could have done in a long period of time and in a successful way so studying his career, a musician can understand the music business of an artist and the art form of it. 
In terms of technicalities, Louis did so much for this music that we could learn rom him until we die. His rhythm, his phrasing, his sound and swing are component we should embrace and learn; he made the most complicated things sound easy and that ain’t easy at all. 
Finally, the main fact that I think, every musician and artist should learn from Louis Armstrong is that everything he did came from the honest and pure heart he had. He was devoted to music and his audience appreciates it. If there is something I learned form him (out of many things) is that he was not playing no bullshit whatsoever; he was true, he was real, he let music happen and I believed him.


  Louis passes the true spirit of this music to me. The reason I describe with the word “true” is because after living in New York for over year, I could strongly feel the intense and competitive vibe when some musicians play this music, like the sessions at Smalls and Zinc bar. People want to show out what they have, to prove they can play, but most of the time that’s just a bunch of notes without love. It was Louis leads me back to the true spirit of this music: with love, joyful and story-telling. He makes me reconsider the meaning of improvise. He teaches me to be brave to play less, leave more space, and shape the melody.

Nowadays the jazz program in many other conservatories all intend to teach students intricate theories and harmony stuff (no offense, this is also an important part). But neglect the importance of feel this music. This is what Pops taught us: enjoy this music and keep smiling.

I barely saw musicians smiling while play in sessions nowadays.  Because they are too busy to play a bunch of notes, show out themselves and the egos. This is another thing Pops taught me, no egos.


If you wanna play swing, play like Louis Armstrong! No more than him!

First of all, today’s jazz education does not have good musicianship class. Louis always thought about what audiences want; however, school does teach only skills and never teaches good musicianship like Louis did.

 Second, Jazz program does not include New Orleans style’s ensemble class. This class teaches only theme melodies and students learn chord progression and improvise using by their ears like Louis did. Also, this course should be required class before students start ensemble classes.
Finally, students must analyze at least 20 patterns of Louis’s rhythms. After that they have to write and do presentation! Everybody can play Jazz!!!!


Louis Armstrong has become a symbol of musical integrity in an otherwise commercially run and disheartening music industry. His authentic musical offerings, which he cultivated over time lasted over 50 years- a feat that cannot be underestimated for its enduring effect on popular music in America and around the world. I think the fact that he was able to be productive for so long despite the criticisms and judgmental B.S. which surrounded him is a true testament to his unending commitment to his horn and to conveying the finest music possible to the public without fail.

People can learn all types of valuable lessons from Armstrong’s life and commitment to his craft. The way he played and the seriousness he had when dealing with his Trumpet is almost unfathomable. That type of focus is something that I think lacks in today’s world. His focus and morals are something everyone can learn from. To study his life and tunes is also a great peek into the whole evolution of jazz as a style of playing. His talent was as unique as anything the world has ever and will ever see.


Louis Armstrong is the root of jazz. The real jazz started and preached by Louis. Jazz music or American music industry involved person you must know the name of Louis Armstrong and his music which is the bible of black soul. He was the real ambassador of American music, jazz, love, courage, faith and forgiveness. He put all the materials into his music. He had lived with people and for people. He made us laughing, crying and feeling the glorious by his own voice and activities. He was also a mediator between white and black by his music. His music changed my view of music and attitude definitely!

Louis had desire to play and make music for people until he passed away. He put philosophy inside of his music. The love, forgiveness, piece, soul and glory.
 He was a mediator connecting people. In musically Louis focused the sound, melody and rhythm. His solo was simple comparing to bop players to contemporaries.
 Some of my teachers also emphasis having the sense of melody and groove like Louis but they did not play like that. Louis showed me how he approached music and how to sound the own voice. Also his attitude has to be respected and taught to the student. He never ignored playing different style or genre of music but he swung for every music and he made people swinging!

These kind of things are not being taught in today’s jazz education program I think. Of course some of them do this I guess but not every one. Thank you so much Ricky and Pops! 


I sometimes feel the Jazz nowadays tend to be too "intellectual" and lack meaning into it. Louis' music was deeply rooted in where he came from and how he grew up, and always from his heart. That was the most meaningful lesson for today's musicians.


Once again I would like to say what a pleasure it was to take this course, not only have I learn more about Louis Armstrong and jazz music in general, I feel like I have improved as a person and as a musician. 

When I think of Louis Armstrong, I think of the word pioneer. He was a pioneer for jazz, having single-handedly taught the entire world how to swing. He was a pioneer for race relations being one of the first musicians to play for integrated audiences. He was a pioneer for showmanship, showing a score of musicians how to entertain an audience. As far as my own musicianship, he has showed me how to put the melody first in the music. The melody would be what draws you and the audience together.

The thing that I took away from in this course was that Louis Armstrong was of the people. He didn't just sit in a practice room and work out his ideas and present them in front of people without actually talking to them. I think most certainly that many musicians who are school educated don't get out enough in public and learn how to play for people and talk to them about what they like as an audience. In other words, you have to know what people like in order to entertain them and I think Louis Armstrong did that very well. The other key thing about Louis was that he was about the melody in his music. Many times musicians are just constantly trying to evolve their ideas and they get so far away from the melody that the audience is lost. Honestly those are the two biggest takeaways that I have had in this music.


 I was really happy that I could learn about Louis Armstrong such as his life, music, think and I’ve been to his house during this class.

I would like to say, he was really pioneer in jazz music. I also had prejudice that old jazz standard music is boring and sounds, solo skills also old. Actually I still have little beat boring about early 1920s big band music. But the more I heard Louis Armstrong's music, the more interested I become. His simple melody solo, his trumpet is very soft also strong. I really like his singing style. Everything is good.


Louis Armstrong was a true genius of his time.  Not only did he help invent and popularize jazz music but he became a household icon to most.  Not only with his killer smile and enthusiasm, but with his amazing talent and humble personality.  Without Louis music would not be the same today.

Studying Louis in 2015 could really help in my opinion. If you would get a good grasp on how Louis played you would have a good base of swing, melodic improvisation, and style.  Most people try to jump in over their head in jazz and don't understand some of its complexity and checking out Louis could help fix that.  I also think if he was to give a lesson or tip to today’s young musicians it would be to always have fun with your music and just because a few people don't like what you play doesn’t mean everyone else thinks that.

Thanks again for the awesome semester!!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Night Before Christmas

Well, today is the day before Christmas, so what better way to celebrate than by listening to Louis Armstrong's reading of "The Night Before Christmas." (I've been posting so much lately, I didn't have time to post my usual round-up of Louis's Decca Christmas recordings, but you can still read last year's version here.) I've shared this in previous years, but I think it's only an appropriate annual tradition. This was Armstrong's final record, made February 26, 1971 in his home in Corona, just a few days before his last extended engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria, an engagement that pretty much sealed the fate of the frail trumpeter. He passed away on July 6, 1971.

But enough sadness! Louis Armstrong was the personification of joy and the man was terrific around children, two attributes that come to the forefront of this reading. And I recently learned some new information about this record that I'd like to share. One of Louis's private tapes housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (aka my employer) featured a tape contents sheet inside of the box on which Louis wrote, "Louis Satchmo Armstrong talking to all the kids from all over the world - at Xmas time." Here it is, from the Armstrong House Online Catalog (as you'll see, the rest of the tape featured a 70th birthday tribute to Louis given to him by his friend Millie Hoffman, as broadcast by Chuck Cecil on December 26, 1970):

Lo and behold, when I played the CD, it opened with TWO versions of "The Night Before Christmas"! What's crazier is the sound quality was better on the tape then on the final released record. I listened to them both and it struck me: they were two different readings. Louis's first reading is delightful, but he's a tad hesitant at the start and at one point has trouble turning the page (causing him to ad-lib, "Good old Santa!"). The second take was mostly used for the master though, they edited out Louis's clearing his throat early on.

Thus, we may never know how this recording came to be. Did Louis do it on a whim and someone--maybe Lucille?--brought it to the attention of Continental Records? Or did Continental ask him to record it (in February, two months after Christmas) but Louis, ailing a bit and probably unable to go to a recording studio, just recorded two versions in his den and sent it over to Continental to edit together the best parts? My assumption is that it was spurred on by the record label because why else would Louis read "The Night Before Christmas" two months after Christmas?

According to the October 9, 1971 issue of "Billboard," though Continental produced it, it was actually distributed by the tobacco firm, Lorillard. If you bought a carton of cigarettes, you'd get a free record! (Where have those promotions gone?) Lorillard printed up one million copies to start selling for Christmas of that year and they even awarded Lucille with a gold record, which we have at the Armstrong Archives.

Both surviving takes are very special and if you were to make an appointment to visit the Armstrong Archives at Queens College, I'd definitely recommend a listen. And thanks to the Louis Armstrong House Museum Online Catalog, here's the very cute collage Louis made for the tape box, probably made right before the Waldorf gig:

Louis, Lucille and a trumpet....who can ask for anything more?

Now, let's listen to the original released version (call the children to the computer!):

Later, when Brunswick issued it, they added some silly sound effects and background music. To hear that version, click here:

Thanks for listening and I wish all of you a wonderful holiday...and that goes for Satchmo, too!

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Very Satchmo Christmas - 2015 Edition

Don't let the "2015" fool you, as this is pretty much the same exact thing I used to post a few years ago.  But a few folks have asked if I had ever done anything on Louis's Christmas classics and seeing as I hadn't posted this since 2012, it was time to dig it out of retirement.  I feel like the six Christmas songs Armstrong recorded for Decca in the 1950s are worth celebrating every year at this time so let's do it one more once. Crank up the speakers, pour some egg nog (or Slivovice) and get ready to enjoy them all over again.

As already mentioned, this entry will focus on the six Christmas records Armstrong made for Decca in the 1950s. And when I say records, I don’t mean long-playing discs but rather, six three-minute singles. It might seem odd that someone who brought more joy to the world than Santa Claus would have so few yuletide classics in his discography, but alas that’s the case. In fact, Armstrong didn’t get around to recording his first Christmas song until 1952, unless, of course, you count Armstrong’s two versions of “Santa Claus Blues” from 1924 and 1925 (still a subject for a future blog!).

When Decca finally corralled Armstrong into the studio to record some Christmas cheer, they gave him first-class treatment by backing him with the lush arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins’s sentimental string and voices sound revived Armstrong’s recording career with the 1949 hit “Blueberry Hill.” By the early 1950s, Jenkins was a veritable recording superstar. Anything with his name on it sold tremendously so it made sense for Decca to pair him with label stars like Peggy Lee and Armstrong. On September 22, 1952, Armstrong and Jenkins teamed up for their fourth session together. On one of their sessions, from February 6, 1951 Jenkins jettisoned his strings and turned in some very fine small-big band arrangements but for the 1952 session, the strings were the whole show on the Christmas number, though current All Stars Bob McCracken, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole were in the studio band that day (as was guitarist Art Ryerson, who would do many post-“Hello, Dolly” sessions with Pops in the 60s).

Both of the Jenkins Christmas numbers are unusually low-key. They feature no trumpet and no surges of emotion or anything. They’re very sober but the best word to describe them has to be “warm.” Pops is at his most tender, singing as if he’s whispering a loving lullaby to a small child. “White Christmas” is up first and, of course, was property of Armstrong’s friend and disciple, Bing Crosby. From the opening seconds, we know we’re in Gordon Jenkins country. “White Christmas” demonstrates that many of our best-loved Christmas songs feature quite a range of notes and you can hear Pops stretch here and there, but I always loved his tenor voice—as well as that basso profundo he would break out when necessary. Both are needed on “White Christmas,” which finds Pops reaching for a high D on “the ones” to the C an octave lower on “children.” On the final “be white,” Armstrong goes down to a low B on the coincidental word “be.” Where you’d expect a scat break or a “oh babe,” Pops lays out, leaving the gaps to be filled by Jenkins’s beautiful strings. After a brief string interlude, Armstrong reenters with the final eight bars, featuring, I think, some of his most touching singing. You can hear him smiling as he sings “and bright.” Again, he goes way down for that final “white,” holding it for an impressive amount of time. Very pretty stuff. Enough from me, enjoy it for yourself:

“Winter Wonderland” is up next and it’s more of the same. Though most performers do this one at an uptempo, Armstrong and Jenkins give it the same gentle ballad treatment as “White Christmas.” Again, Pops rarely deviates from the melody but he doesn’t have to, he’s singing it so sweetly. Am I weird for actually feeling warmed by the way Pops sings “as we dream by the fire”? Jenkins goes back to the bridge for another one of his trademark sounds. Marty Napoleon plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than you’d expect. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but hey, this was popular music in 1952 and it gave Jenkins an identity. Pops reenters for the final eight with a cute extended coda. Armstrong repeats the word “walking” while the pizzicato strings “walk” gingerly behind him. Finally, Armstrong unleashes a little bit of scat and the record comes to a mellow conclusion. Dig it:

Don’t worry, though. If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes Toots Camarata’s Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. I devoted an entire entry to this session in October 2013 because I believe it's one of the greatest dates Armstrong ever did in his entire career. The Commanders were a ferocious studio band co-led by arranger Camarata and drummer Grady. They were brass heavy—three trumpets, four trombones and only two reeds—and featured a peerless rhythm section propelled by Carmen Mastren’s rhythm guitar and Grady’s earth-shattering big band drumming. The October 1953 session began with two Christmas songs and both are a lot of fun. After trying out a few standards on the Jenkins sessions, Decca gave Armstrong a few novelties to cut up on and he does just that, infusing these two trite, silly songs with such enthusiasm that they’ve in turn had a shelf life of over 50 years of being listened to and enjoyed. First up: "Zat You Santa Claus?"

Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Pops asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Pops, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Pops sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener. After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Pops and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song ever recorded. Pops’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” I love the way he sings that word “please.” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Pops yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.

Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording. During my 50 trips to the mall this season, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! (2015 update: this still applies, now that I have kids. My daughter Ella hears it at the mall and shouts to me, "Louie!") Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball. Here 'tis:

The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louie Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Only the second half of the bridge doesn’t have “Rhythm,” as it’s punctuated by giant accents by the band on two and four. Again, Pops sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders. After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Pops instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge. But as much fun as “Cool Yule” is, it’s also responsible for this:


Anyway, Decca wasn’t finished yet and two years later, on September 8, 1955, they brought Armstrong in to record two more Christmas songs, this time backed by a studio band arranged and conducted by the great Benny Carter. This has become one of those forgotten Decca sessions, never reissued on C.D. by the label itself but it is available on the Ambassador label’s Moments to Remember disc, which collects all of Armstrong’s Christmas work for the Decca, the entire Commanders session and other odds and ends that are hard to find on compact disc or Itunes. Carter wrote a great arrangement for Armstrong on The Platters’s “Only You” and Armstrong manages to sound quite tender on the Four Lads hit, “Moments to Remember.”

The first Christmas song that day was Dick Sherman and Joe Van Winkle’s “Christmas In New Orleans.” Here's the audio:

Carter’s arrangement begins with a hardened “Jingle Bells” quote that sounds like it belongs in an episode of Dragnet (remember, Carter was doing a lot of film work at the time). It soon settles into a gentle two-beat that really works for this song. The lyrics are almost a waste of time with their references to stuff like a “Dixieland Santa Claus,” but as always, Pops sounds like the happiest guy in the world. And how could he not? He loved Christmas and he loved New Orleans so any song that combined the two, even with dopey lyrics, was bound to inspire him. What’s truly inspired, though, is the trumpet solo. The tune starts off kind of like “Basin Street Blues” before it goes its own way but the changes obviously had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his chops into. This isn’t one of those grandiose high-note extravaganzas; however it is a good time to appreciate Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery.

 It’s one of those solos that I always enjoyed but never really devoted 100% attention to until an afternoon I spent in Joe Muranyi’s house. Muranyi recorded “Christmas In New Orleans” for his Jazzology C.D., Joe Muranyi With The New Orleans Real Low-Down. For the disc, he transcribed Armstrong’s solo to be played in unison by his clarinet, Duke Heitger’s trumpet and Tom Baker’s tenor sax. You get so used to hearing horns playing unison lines on bop heads and the like, but not on Armstrong solos and all of a sudden, this solo that I kind of took for granted, became a whole new thing. While listening to it with me, Muranyi said, “It’s tough to notate this part. I worked so hard on it. What you do is, I did it and then I put it away. I mean, I had done it maybe two or three years before this and when I took it out again and refined it, you keep finding little things. It’s not easy. It’s interesting to hear it in this context. It sounds more complex than when he plays it.” It really does. Here's Muranyi's performance:

For the final track on the date, Decca reached back and picked “Christmas Night In Harlem,” written by Mitchell Parish and Raymond Scott for the “Blackbirds of and 1934 and memorably recorded by Paul Whiteman with a vocal by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer. Carter’s arrangement begins with another Christmas quote—Billy Kyle playing the beginning to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—before the horns punch out a descending line that reminds me of a Ray Charles record (I think I’m thinking of “Greenback Dollar Bill”). Armstrong sings the first chorus harmlessly—it’s a pretty repetitive melody and he does his best with it. Carter’s arrangement swings after the vocal and you can hear Barney Bigard holding a high note. (This was Bigard’s next-to-last session with the All Stars as he would be replaced by Edmond Hall in a matter of weeks.) Armstrong’s trumpet solo is curiously low-key. He more or less sticks to playing the melody in the middle register. Naturally, the Armstrong sound makes it worth listening to, but he doesn’t really blow with any force until the last eight bars. It’s a fine solo but I think that Pops could have maybe used one more take to wail a little more. After the low-key solo, Pops returns to sing the bridge, which features a very funny moment. Armstrong sings, “Everyone will be all lit up,” and laughs to himself, “lit up” clearly having a different meaning to him than most. He swings the lyric on the final A section, boiling it down to one note, but the arrangement is now too polite; where’s Ed Grady’s drums to wake things up? The highlight of the record is Pops’s eloquent scatting and singing as the record fades. A charming record, but not my favorite Louis Christmas song.

And that ends this tour of Louis Armstrong’s Christmas recordings for Decca. Of course, Armstrong wasn’t completely done recording yuletide music as in 1970, he performed “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” for RCA. And Armstrong’s very last recording is a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that is quite charming and is one I hope to share this Thursday. Til then...

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Hanging Out With Louis Armstrong - FIVE HOUR Voice of America Interview Now Online!

Oh, the internet can be an infuriating place (I'm starting to dread signing on to my beloved Facebook as we get deeper into election season here in the U.S.), but every so often, something comes along that makes you go, "Aha! That's why they invented the internet!"

Such a thing is the mind-blowing contents of the Willis Covoner Collection being regularly transferred and uploaded by my pal Maristella Feustle as part of the University of North Texas's Digital Library. If you don't know who Willis Conover was, you should (Doug Ramsey's Wall Street Journal article anad this NPR piece are good places to start). As the Voice of America's resident jazz disc jockey, Conover broadcast the sounds of American freedom around the world, giving many fans their first exposure to jazz. But Conover also interviewed musicians, edited together documentaries and even hosted special programs from festivals such as Newport.

Conover's collection included 22,000 sound recordings--with many of Conover's original broadcasts on reel-to-reel tape---and ended up at the University of North Texas in 1997.  There, the tapes could have sat quietly on the shelves, waiting for researchers with intimate knowledge of how to operate reel-to-reel equipment to come in and give them a spin. Instead, Maristella sought out funding and received a grant from the Grammy Foundation to not just digitize the tapes, but to make them available online.

This was cause for celebration in the jazz community, as fans flocked to the UNT Digital Library website in September to hear the first batch of uploads, including interviews with Milt GablerBenny GoodmanArt TatumDuke EllingtonGeorge AvakianEddie Condonand others, as well as music by Bill EvansDizzy Gillespie at Birdland and more. (Seriously, those are all working links--take a day off and check them out!)

Of course, Willis Conover and the Voice of America loved Louis Armstrong, so there was some examples of Louis in the first batch Maristella uploaded. I had been meaning to write about them for some time but the combination of my "Music of Louis Armstrong" Queens College course and the arrival of baby daughter Lily put the blog on the back burner. Still, it's not too late to hear a reel Louis made for Joe Glaser in 1959 after recording "Uncle Satchmo's Lullaby" for the film La Paloma, or part one and part two of a rollicking interview with Conover, Woody Herman, Barney Bigard and Bobby Hackett in 1955.

But as they say, better late than never, because I'm writing today to report some of the most exciting Louis Armstrong-related news of the year. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hang out with Louis Armstrong for FIVE HOURS, listening to him tell stories about his life, discuss race frankly, give dietary advice, make observations about living "like an athlete" and most importantly, spinning his favorite records?

Well, if this sounds remotely like your idea of a good time, call out of work and spend the next five hours on the UNT's Digital Library site.

On a personal note, I've been intimately familiar with this material for years. George Avakian found a copy in his basement about ten years ago, had it copied, made a copy for David Ostwald and David Ostwald made me a copy in 2008. It was life changing; I quoted it heavily in my book, including the very first quote before the introduction. I proceeded to share excerpts on my blog in its early days and ended up making copies of it it various Armstrong scholars and musicians who've asked for it over the years. When I started working for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in 2009, I was happy to discover that Louis kept a copy of the program on a set of acetate discs, which were transferred to CD years ago. Anytime a researcher came and didn't know where to start, I'd direct them to the Voice of America series. Hell, I even played chunks of it for my class just last month.

But that was just me and my little world at Queens College. Now, thanks to Maristella and the Grammy Foundation, anyone, any place, any time can listen to this series of interviews and feel like they, too, are hanging out with Pops.

Here's a little backstory on the program before I start dispensing with the links. Anytime I've referenced this in my own writings as an "interview," Ostwald gently scolds me, reminding me that an interview is a "two-way" occurrence. On the five Voice of America hours, you only hear one voice: Louis Armstrong. Of course, Willis Conover's presence is felt; you can hear Louis occasionally pause, as if someone's telling him he's off track or to save that story for later. Judging by this photo (which I'm assuming is from the July 1956 sessions), Conover was right next to Louis, armed with LPs:

Obviously, Conover put in the time and dedication before hand to select the records with Louis and have the records and personnel at hand for Armstrong's introductions. But for all intents and purposes, this is Louis Armstrong, Disc Jockey and Jazz genius.

The five hours were recorded in early July 1956, while Louis was in Washington D.C. and just before he went to New York to perform the big Lewisohn Stadium concert with Leonard Bernstein and members of the New York Philharmonic on July 16 (he references it in the final hour). 1956 might be my single favorite one of Louis's "later years" so for me, this is prime time. Thus, the first time I heart him brag about playing better horn at that point than any other point in his career, I knew I had found the opening quote of my book.

Okay, okay, enough from me, let's get to the audio! I'll post the links first and then a brief description of each part.


After the opening At the Crescendo version of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," Louis dives into tales of growing up in New Orleans, notably the impact of hearing Joe Oliver at such a young age. "New Orleans Function" is played in conjunction with Armstrong's memories of the New Orleans funerals. He then discusses King Oliver in depth, a fascinating segment where Armstrong laments that Oliver should have let Armstrong take more solos and play more lead on those 1923 recordings. Armstrong says he gladly would have let Oliver get the credit and the extra record sales but alas, it wasn't to be.

Part One also features stories of Armstrong's days with Fletcher Henderson, including the importance of hearing Vic d'Appolito and B.A. Rolfe at the Roseland while with Henderson (there's also the hilarious story of Armstrong vomiting on Henderson during his farewell party).  Bessie Smith makes an appearance (Louis calling Fred Longshaw "Bradshaw"), as does Lil Hardin. You'll also hear the true backstory behind the title "Muskrat Ramble" (plus Louis's first claim as the tune's composer). Louis skips ahead to "I Can't Give Anything But Love" and tells a rarely heard story of playing it for King Oliver in New York in 1929. The first part ends with "Royal Garden Blues," taken from Ambassador Satch, released just a few months before this Voice of America interview.


I've already blogged about the 90th anniversary of the first Hot Five session and just this week, I installed a new exhibit at the Louis Armstrong House Museum on the Hot Fives so this second hour is perfect as it features nothing but Louis spinning the music of the Hot Fives and telling stories in between each selection. Heaven! Armstrong tells a lot of his favorite stories--Johnny Dodds getting tongue-tied on the first attempt on "Gut Bucket Blues," the "dropping the paper" story on "Heebie Jeebies" and more. There's also some deeper subjects, such as Louis's still simmering resentment at Earl Hines and how Hines always improvised new solos on "West End Blues" when he was with the All Stars from 1948-1951 and how his new solos always paled next to the 1928 original. There's also stories of Erskine Tate, Don Redman, Fate Marable (where Louis first composed "Weather Bird") and more.


People always ask, "What did Louis Armstrong listen to?" and this hour gives us a glimpse as it features Armstrong playing other people's records. I'm assuming because of Conover's jazz slant, Armstrong was asked to stick to his favorite jazz recordings because any list without Enrico Caruso, Guy Lombardo and others of that stripe is incomplete (see Louis's 1968 appearance on Desert Island Discs for another example of Louis selecting his favorite records, though on that one, he mostly sticks to his own!). Here's what Louis picked and discussed for the Voice of America:

"When the Saints Go Marchin' In" by Bunk Johnson
"West End Blues" by King Oliver (the 1929 remake)
"From Monday On" by Paul Whiteman (featuring Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby)
"You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" by Bing Crosby (with Bob Crosby)
"Summertime" by Sidney Bechet
"St. James Infirmary" by Jack Teagarden (HRS version)
"New St. Louis Toodle-oo" by Duke Ellington
"You Won't Be Satisfied" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
"'Bout to Wail" by Dizzy Gillespie

Armstrong closes with the Gordon Jenkins arrangement of "Bye and Bye" where the choir pays tribute to many the deceased jazz musicians. I always thought it was a bizarre touch but Louis obviously took it seriously and used here at the end of the hour, it's a nice tribute.


This is my favorite of the four hours and again, if you've read my book, my blog or my liner notes, some of this will sound awfully familiar. It's kind of a hodgepodge theme, Conover probably cobbling these various different subjects together because they didn't quite fit any of the other "themed" hours. After "Boff Boff," Louis goes off for about six minutes on how he's playing better than ever, the importance of showmanship and how he detests vacations and prefers to "live like an athlete."

Then, after "Mahogany Hall Stomp," Louis discusses race, something he rarely did in public. He uses his time to mostly scold his race for not sticking by him and other artists like Nat "King" Cole, saying that there were only a few African-Americans on top in the music business and there might be a few more if his people stuck together. It's really a deep topic and Louis does say African-Americans are beginning to "get with it" a little more but I think he was just saying it; he'd continue to lose his African-American audience in years to come, even after he spoke out against injustice in Little Rock in 1957. Armstrong even plays "Shine" and "Black and Blue," naming them as two songs African-Americans criticized him for playing because of the titles but Armstrong proudly plays them and implores the audience to "listen to all that music."

After such a serious discussion, part four ends with Armstrong the Dietician, whipping out a copy of his "Lose Weight the Satchmo Way" diet chart and spending at least five minutes going over his health regime in detail, with special mentions of Swiss Kriss. To me, the beautiful thing is he's not doing it for laugh; he really feels like he's found the secret to a healthy life and can't wait to share it with this worldwide audience.


The final part is something of a "best-of" Armstrong's 1947-1956 peak All Stars years, opening with the 1954 Decca "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and going back to the epic 1947 Town Hall performance of "Rockin' Chair." Before "C'st Si Bon," Louis tells a funny story about a drunk asking Louis who played the solo on it, thinking it couldn't have been Louis because he was "an old man." In the story, Louis mentions "a chick" who ran the drunk out of the room, which is how I reported it in my book, but Louis also told this story a few times on his private tapes and on those tellings, he made it clear that the "chick" was none other than Billie Holiday! Don't know why he omitted her name here.

After the glorious "Blue Turning Grey Over Your," Louis plays a selection of tunes from the film High Society, which was released in theaters on July 17, about a week after this interview. This stuff was brand new at the time, so Louis plays the opening overture, "Now You Has Jazz" with Bing Crosby and "High Society Calypso." (Listen to Louis burp after "Calypso," laugh, and blame it on "that caviar!")

By this point, Louis was coming to the end of the glory years recording for George Avakian on Columbia so it makes sense to follow with his big hit, "Mack the Knife," and the nine-minute "St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy.

After that selection, Louis wraps everything up, mentioning Conover and saying he had been there for a week recording these broadcasts. He then thanks everyone he can think of from around the world, including Hugues Panassie in France, Clara Gunderloch in Germany, Montmarte soul food chef Leroy Haynes and members of the British Royal Family Louis had just entertained during his trip to England in May 1956. It's a touching ending and a definitive punctuation mark on Armstrong's "Ambassadorial" status of the time and why he was so popular with the Voice of America audience.

So there you have it, five hours hanging out with Louis Armstrong, listening to him spin his favorite records and tell stories. It's just about as close as we'll get in 2015 to hanging out with Pops (the closest you'll get is by making an appointment with me at the Armstrong Archives on the Queens College campus to hear Louis's own private tapes, complete with cursing, dirty jokes and more. Louis's tapes aren't available online so come to New York and listen!). I don't think Armstrong fans can thank Maristella Feustle, the Grammy Foundation and the University of North Texas enough for all of their efforts in getting this material preserved and made available online. It's the best Christmas gift we'll get this year and for years to come. Bravo!

A final note: At the Armstrong Archives, we have an organic chemistry book from 1964, Interpretation of the Ultraviolet Spectra of Natural Products, written by A. I. Scott of Yale University and dedicated to Armstrong and Conover "for the hours of pleasure" Conover's broadcasts and Armstrong's music gave him "during the writing of this book." Pops and Willis touched everyone! Now, time to listen to those five hours yet again…...

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong - Centennial Edition

Frank Sinatra was born 100 years ago today. Let that sink in a minute. 100 years. I'm happy it's on a Saturday because if there's ever been a cause for the schools to be closed, it's for his birthday (he's done more for Italian-Americans than Columbus).

Last week, CBS aired a tribute show titled Sinatra 100. I didn't get to see it but just about everyone on my Facebook feed did and the opinion was nearly unanimous. though there were some moments to savor, most of today's pop stars forgot an essential element of Sinatra's music: they forgot to swing. Or many they never knew. As Loren Schoenberg wrote on Facebook, it was clear that today's singers, even if they admire Sinatra, haven't actually studied him and they surely haven't studied where it all came from: Louis Armstrong.

When you think of folks associated with Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong might not be the first person you think of. But Sinatra himself admitted, "Early on, my phrasing developed from a combination of musicians and singers that I heard....Louis Armstrong had a great effect on me." There you have it. Sinatra also talked about the influence of Billie Holiday and Bing Crosby on him. Well, Louis had a great effect on them, too.

Thus, it wasn't surprising that the guy who stole the show on Sinatra 100 was Tony Bennett, someone quoted as saying, "The bottom line of any country in the world is what did we contribute to the world? We contributed Louis Armstrong."

But I don't want to use Sinatra's centennial to talk about Armstrong's greatness; both men were giants whose independent work will be celebrated for eternity. (I should mention that as the son of two 100% full-blown Italian-American parents, I can say that a love of Frank Sinatra was in my blood from birth. And my iTunes tells me I have over 2,400 Sinatra songs at my fingertips, probably second only to Pops in my library.)

But fortunately for music lovers everywhere, Armstrong and Sinatra did cross paths and I think it's fun to see and hear them in action together. The first time was on a Jubilee radio broadcast from September 1945. Sinatra sang "Blue Skies" with Armstrong contributing a scorching half chorus of trumpet. Here's that recording:

The next time their paths crossed was on Sinatra's CBS television show from New Year's Day 1952. I own this episode on video (courtesy of the great Dave Whitney) and it's a fun one (the Three Stooges are the other guests and they're also heroes of mine....the combination of Sinatra, Armstrong and the Stooges, well, that's the stuff that dreams are made of!). This is one of my favorite solo Armstrong performances of "Confessin'" but it's worth sharing here to see the love Sinatra has for Armstrong, including throwing in a little scatting in the background at one point:

Later in the episode, the two men did combine on an out-and-out duet on "Lonesome Man Blues" and it's a doozy. Sinatra is ghosting at the piano but Armstrong brings out his bluesiest side:

A couple of years later, Armstrong and Sinatra teamed up for a planned animated movie of Finian's Rainbow. The project was eventually abandoned, but before that happened, a lot of the soundtrack was recorded, included Armstrong and Sinatra's scat-filled duet on "Ad-Lib Blues." Sinatra rarely indulged in scatting, but for Pops, he gave it a whirl and sounds pretty good, though Pops outsouls him. Listen for yourself:

Armstrong and Sinatra's next film pairing actually saw the light of day and became quite a hit, though the film, High Society, didn't feature the two men together, instead focusing on Armstrong's more natural rapport with Bing Crosby. But the following year, in 1957, Armstrong, Sinatra and Crosby met up again for a special episode of The Edsel Show. On the show, Armstrong and Sinatra teamed up for this immortal version of "Birth of the Blues"

Armstrong opening trumpet notes always make me curious. He's clearly struggling but I don't think it's chops. Rather, he seems to be finding his way, perhaps trying to figure out the correct key or something. He was familiar with the song as he had already sung it twice on television, with Eddie Fisher in 1954 and with Gordon McRae in 1955. But once Pops finds his footing, he turns in a vintage 1925 obbligato, sticking to the low register for the most part and really playing some funky blues. When Pops enters with his vocal, Sinatra can't hide his joy. Sinatra might have been one of the biggest names in music at the time, if not THE biggest, but on this performance, he looks like he's honored to simply share the stage with Pops, who influenced him and every other singer of his generation. Pops really sells his vocal and wails on the trumpet during the extended ending, sounding positively angry in some of his phrases. Dig how Armstrong gets so into it, he starts bending his upper torso all the way to his left, doing his impression of a lowercase "r." It's a great televised moment in both men's careers.

At the end of the show, Armstrong led Sinatra, Crosby and Rosemary Clooney in a too short version of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Pops's horn is very strong and he demonstrates some of the parade marching that served him so well as a teenager in New Orleans. Notice how his feet move exactly on the beat and he even does that little stooped over bend move that Joe Muranyi dubbed the "Satchmo Strut."

Two years later, in 1959, Armstrong and Sinatra appeared together on the Oldsmobile Show, once again with Bing. Armstrong got a few solo spots and a long medley with Bing but he only appeared in one song with Sinatra and Peggy Lee, the charming "We're Not Young Anymore." Louis sounds a little under-rehearsed but it's still good fun. Sinatra and Lee also showed up at the end of the closing "Now You Has Jazz." Both clips can be viewed here:

According to the discographies, Armstrong and Sinatra never appeared together after that but Sinatra had one final tribute in store for Armstrong. Armstrong's recording of "Hello, Dolly" hit number one on the charts in May 1964. On June 10 of that year, Sinatra recorded his own version of "Dolly" backed by the Count Basie Orchestra with arrangements by Quincy Jones. After singing it straight once, Sinatra sings a second chorus with special lyrics that pay tribute to Satch. Here they are:

Hello, Satch!
This is Francis, Louie, it's so nice to see you back where you belong
You're back on top, Louie, never stop, Louie
You're still singing, you're still swinging, you're still, going strong
You' get the room swaying when you start in playing
One of your great songs, or songs from way back when
Blow your horn Louie, sing up a great big storm, Louie
Promise you won't go away, promise you won't go away, promise you won't go away again!

After an Armstrong-inspired jammed interlude, Sinatra ends with a resounding, gravelly "Oh yeah!" It's such a beautiful tribute and I'd like to share it, so if you'd like to listen along, click here:

For his part, I should mention that Armstrong owned over a dozen Sinatra records and dubbed many o them to tape. He was most definitely a fan. And in 1967, Armstrong returned the compliment in Larry L. King's Harper's profile, "Everybody's Louie," telling King "Frank Sinatra--now there's a man carries a lot of water for his friends. A most accommodating gentleman--if he digs you." All one has to do is listen to Frank Sinatra swing and it becomes immediately clear that he dug Louis Armstrong. Happy 100th Birthday, Francis Albert!