Sunday, March 29, 2015

Rappin' Louie: 75 Years of "You've Got Me, Voodoo'd" and "Hep Cats' Ball"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 14, 1940
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, alto saxophone, clarinet; Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 3052
Currently available on CD: It’s available on the Mosaic Records box of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings. 

When I got back from Bristol, I knew I wanted to celebrate Louis Armstrong's very busy day on March 14, 1940, when he recorded five tunes in one session: "Harlem Stomp," "You've Got Me Voodoo'd," "Hep Cat's Ball," "Wolverine Blues" and "Lazy 'Sippi Steamer." But the combination of jet lag, family leisure time, getting back to work and the need to write a wrap-post about my Bristol experiences made the March 14 anniversary pass by without a single word. 

But hey, it's never too late, right? It's still March, so even if I'm a few weeks behind, I still want to celebrate the 75th anniversary of at least two of the five songs recorded that day, "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" and "Hep Cats' Ball."

If you would have told me 15 years ago that "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" would be one of my favorite Armstrong numbers and one that I consistently pull out during student presentations, I would have thought you were nuts. When I first got into Armstrong, it was through the All Stars period and then I went back to the 1923-1934 era. When I finally started buying the old Chronological Classics discs covering the Decca years back in the late 90s, I enjoyed the music but it wasn't my favorite period of Pops. I'm sure there was some pre-loaded bias in my brain against this material because I hadn't read too many positive reviews of this era. Also, it was hard to find the discs since the Decca stuff never got first-class reissue treatment in the U.S. until Mosaic rolled around in 2009.

Don't get me wrong; there was plenty that I found absolutely lovely. But as the discs rolled on and the number of "novelties" started growing in the early 40s, I'd listen once or twice but didn't find much meat to keep going back to. When I went to Rutgers to get a Master's in Jazz History and Research, the entire class had to purchase these 40-CD German boxed sets full of public domain material. There was no rhyme or reason to the selections, but one of the Louis CDs was made up of just 1940-41 Deccas. The whole class had to listen and discuss and I spoke up and looking at a room of musicians and historians who hadn't really checked out Pops before, and pleaded, "Don't make this the only Louis Armstrong disc you listen to! He did so much better work!"And then I played "Chinatown" and some 1950s Columbia stuff to demonstrate.

But somewhere along the way, I learned to listen at a deeper level and all of a sudden, those Deccas started to pop. I loved Louis's fun vocals and the trumpet was consistently spectacular. I was already changing my tune when I started this blog in 2007. The late Gosta Hagglof befriended me and began sending me his Ambassador series of CDs (now available online through the Louis Armstrong House Museum). He would tell me about his favorites, such as "Cain and Abel" and other lesser-known "novelties." I began listening deeper to write about some of them and all of sudden, man, this was pretty great! And just like that, cue the good folks at Mosaic Records with their complete boxed set and that was that, the Decca period was IT for me, and probably the music I listen to most often at the Armstrong Archives today.

I think the turning point in my feelings on this period actually goes back to "You've Got Me Voodoo'd." I've never seen it on a "greatest hits" compilation or discussed as a "desert island disc." But the first time I noticed it is through Gary Giddins, who referred to it as a "roots of rap" number both in his book Satchmo and a later column that made it into the book Weather Bird. The Giddins mentions made me pay attention to the vocal, which, I always enjoyed. But what about the rest? Really, what else is there? The knock on the Decca recordings was woeful band + boring arrangements + weak soloists + novelty/commercial material = forgettable Louis Armstrong.

Enter John Wriggle. John joined the Rutgers Jazz History and Research program midway through my first year and immediately stood out. He had fully explored jazz history--especially the early stuff. He was not easily impressed, yet his droll wit was laugh-out-loud hilarious. And he was introduced to the class as "The World's Authority on Chappie Willet."


If you don't know Chappie Willet, well, don't feel bad, the majority of Americans don't--but that hasn't stopped John from trying. Instead of allowing me to explain who Chappie is, I'll let John do it. This is the link to a PDF of John's fabulous 2009 Annual Review of Jazz Studies piece, "Chappie Willet: Swing Era Arranger." If you click that link, it starts on page 101 and runs through 170; the 237 (!) endnotes run from 170-188. It'll perfectly whet the appetite for John's upcoming book, Blue Rhythm Fantasy: Big Band Jazz Arranging in the Swing Era (University of Illinois Press). (And if you'd like some video to accompany your reading, John has expertly transcribed many of Chappie's charts and hosted big band concerts devoted to performing them live. The great Michael Steinman captured one such 2009 evening here and here.)

Anyway, back at Rutgers, John did a Chappie Willet presentation and mentioned that he wrote many arrangements for Louis's big band: "Jubilee," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," "Alexander's Ragtime Band," "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" and more. John discussed some of Chappie's trademarks--minor interludes, marching trombones, whole tone passages--and illustrated them with audio. And when he played "You've Got Me Voodoo'd," it was like the first time I had ever heard it. All of a sudden, I was appreciating Willet's excellent craftsmanship, but also the dynamite swing of the band, Pops's proto-rapping vocal and the dramatic trumpet solo that brings it to a close. This is some record! 

Before rolling up my sleeves and tackling the audio, a couple of quick notes. First, "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" is credited to Louis Armstrong, Luis Russell and Cornelius C. Lawrence. We know Louis and of course, Luis Russell ran the band, but Giddins discovered that Lawrence was "an obscure playwright, actor, and lyricist who also wrote songs with the intriguing titles, 'Curfew Time in Harlem' and 'Ink Spink Spidely Spoo.'" Alas, Louis never spoke about this song or how this motley crew got together, so we don't know how much Louis actually contributed (but I can see him tossing in a few rhymes).

But "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" was the second song recorded that day. The first one, "Hep Cats' Ball," is also worth examining as a roots of hip hop example. "Hepcat" language was riding high in March 1940. Cab Calloway was one of the most popular entertainers on the planet, especially with songs like "The Jumpin' Jive," which he recorded in July 1939. That same year, Calloway published his famed Hepster's Dictionary, full of "jive" terminology. Well, Louis Armstrong was one of the kings of introducing slang into the jazz world: "cats," "swing," "every tub," "chops," "Gate," on and on and on. I think one of the goals of the March 14, 1940 Decca session was to brand Louis as the OG hepcat. With that in mind, let's listen to the session opener, "Hep Cats' Ball":

"Hep Cats' Ball" features Louis doing his best Cab impression, talk-singing another roots of rap vocal that drips with slang. But who are the composers? Louis Armstrong and Jack Palmer. Jazz fans might know Palmer as the co-composer (with Spencer Williams) of jam session favorites "Everybody Loves My Baby" and "I've Found a New Baby." But at the time of this session, he was composing jive-heavy songs with none other than Cab Calloway, including the aforementioned "Jumpin' Jive" and 1940's "Boog It" (covered by Louis and the Mills Brothers after the March 14 session). So Pops was going straight to Calloway's guy to help incorporate some more "jive" into his music, though again, Armstrong wasn't the kind of bandleader to put his name on every composition so he must have done something to contribute. [Note: The Mosaic set lists the great Willard Robison as another co-composer but I've never seen that anywhere else and it's not listed on the original 78 label so I'm sticking with Armstrong and Palmer.] Here's how it came out:

[Prologue, with the band responding instrumentally to Louis's questions]
Are you ready? Jump steady!
Now, I've got the stuff on the mellow side,
Let me be your worthy guide.
Are you ready? Then jump steady!

Now the Hep Cats' Ball is a jive affair,
Yep, yep, yep, you better be there.
So lace your boots and dig your fill,
Beat up your chops from 10 until.

The Hep Cats' Ball is a foxy hop.
Yep, yep, yep, it just won't stop.
You'll get hep when the cats come on.
That'll git it when it's almost gone.

If you don't collar all this jive,
You just a square on the uphep side.
So send yourself and spread some joy,
And if you can't make it, just send a boy.

Now the Hep Cats' Ball is a solid mess [mezz?]
Yep, yep, yep, it certainly 'tis.
So take it, Gate, come right on.
That'll git it when it's really gone.
(Yeah, man!)

It really does feel like a collaboration with Palmer mixing Calloway-associated phrase like "lace your boots" with pure Pops-isms such as "Beat up your chops." But Giddins's original point holds up: the way Armstrong talk-sings his vocal definitely points the way to hip hop and even a lot of today's pop music that features more talking than singing (looking at you, Ke$ha).  Combining the talking vocal with the relentless barrage of slang? Hey! Here comes Rappin' Louie!

Besides the vocal, "Hep Cat's Ball" features an excellent middle tempo in a Jimmie Lunceford groove, propelled by Sid Catlett's juicy cymbals. The chord changes aren't much, mostly just a descending line a la Lunceford's "For Dancer's Only." Wriggle doesn't think Willet did the arrangement and sure enough, there's none of his trademarks in it, but there is a neat little conversation between the repeating reeds and the mellow trombones that serves as an interlude between the vocal and the trumpet ending.

When Louis grabs his horn, he's in relaxed mode. Armstrong motto in life was to "play the melody" (and as discussed recently, Decca's mantra was "Where's the melody?") but without much of a melody to bite into, Louis goes for himself from the start. A short, almost hidden gliss launches him into a string of quarter notes, which Louis could play like no other. The arrangement smartly leaves room for Louis to take breaks, each one steeped in blue notes. Armstrong's improvisation is extremely singable (like everything else he ever played). 

During the bridge, the roles reverse and the band takes the lead with Armstrong answering their shouts with some piercing high Ab's of his own. His phrasing is masterful, too. The Ab's come in all shapes and sizes: he holds some, plays others in groups of three, there's another quarter-note episode. It's one of my favorite moments of the record.

The band gets a break coming out of the bridge and jumps into the final A section, giving Pops a short rest after that heroic bridge (Catlett's cymbals!). Louis comes back swinging, still in conversation with the band, but now playing a short row of repeated Bb's, warming up for the big ending. Louis is back on that Ab kick, repeating it over and over like a diver on a springboard before he launches himself skyward for that final high concert Eb (F on the trumpet, very near the top of his range). Yeah man, indeed.

And NOW, after the world's longest prologue, let's listen to "You've Got Me Voodoo'd":

Now THAT is a Chappie Willet arrangement. The whole exotic minor-keyed opening, complete with Catlett's jungle drums, is a Willet specialty. It doesn't have much to do with the tune, except for the minor-key thing, but it sure is an interesting way to start a record. But 30 seconds in, Pops steps up to the mike and starts dropping the rhymes:

Just like some magic potion,
You fill me with emotion
You control my very soul, 
You've Got Me Voodoo'd.
You knew the goddess Venus
Would start this love between us.
You inspired me with desire,
You've Got Me Voodoo'd.
You knew you had the power
And even picked the hour,
When the full moon was up above
I was hypnotized when I looked into your eyes,
My heart was filled with love.
Just like the siren Circe,
You've got me at your mercy,
Always to be brave and bold,
Mama, You've Got Me Voodoo'd. 

I love that vocal--and so have the classes I've played it for in the past few months. (More on that in a bit.) Louis splits, the band romps and Rupert Cole steps forward with a hot 16 bars before the band takes over for the final 8 of the chorus.

But just when you expect Pops to swoop in, Chappie intercepts with another prototypical interlude: minor-key, jungle drums, marching trombones, whole-note's Willet 101! (A course only John Wriggle is certified to teach.) It's a great little spot, reprising the mysterious opening and setting up some tension for when Louis finally enters.

And when he does, watch out! Louis always thrived in minor keys and "You've Got Me Voodoo'd"
is no exception. If you weren't able to pick out the melody during the mostly spoken "vocal," Louis plays it on the horn, a catchy riff that reminds me a bit of "It Ain't Right" (recorded by Stuff Smith a few years earlier). But with only a chorus to preach, listen to how Louis unfurls his solo. The first eight bars is mostly written melody, getting a little looser towards the end. In the next 8, he starts with the melody, but now starts turning it inside and out, gets in a little chromatic phrase and ends with a perfectly logical--and singable--swinging little phrase.

For the bridge, he goes way up to a concert Bb and skips down in half-steps before unraveling one of his pretty arpeggios. The second half of the bridge finds Louis pointing the way to the future with a few eight-note runs, in total command of his horn. For the final "A" section, he again phrases the main melody riff yet another different way before making his way towards the finish line, Catlett breaking out his toms toms one more time. But Chappie has another neat touch in store as the band holds a minor chord and Cantor Armstrong responds with some passionate playing before an operatic ending, holding the G before ending on a crystalline high C. Swing, Hip Hop, Blues, Jewish, Opera - that's Louis Armstrong!

But to bring everything full circle, I've found myself talking about Pops in many different classrooms since February, split between high school and college, mostly music majors, but many with no musical inclination at all. So I have to go in there and tell them why Louis Armstrong is important. It's not hard and they usually get it pretty quickly. But it's 2015 and playing the "Potato Head Blues" solo and saying, "How about THAT?" doesn't cut it anymore. I find myself playing lots of other 1920s music, then dropping Louis in the middle of it to see how he stood out.

But lately, the biggest reaction comes when I go down the hip hop road. I start by asking what are some of the themes of today's hip hop? Here come the answers: sex, violence, drugs, love, etc. No problem: I play them a junk of the original "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You" ("I'll be standing on the corner high, when they bring your body by" would be most appropriate in 2015.) So that covers the thematic content. And then I'll play them the talk-sung vocal on "You've Got Me Voodoo'd" to show them Armstrong, the master of rhymes. They get it. But I tell them that I know that this is old-sounding music and it might be difficult to hear what he's doing rhythmically. So I bring out the big guns, courtesy of YouTube. For the film, New Orleans, Louis recorded "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans." It's a fun "introduce-the-band" number but the lyric is once again, half-spoken, half-sung and just filled with short choppy rhymes. Here's the New Orleans clip:

And to make the point with a sledgehammer, YouTube user "carlfoshizi"took "Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans" and put the vocal over a simple hip hop beat. Simply titled, "Louis Armstrong Rapping," this has almost 50,000 views since the original 2007 upload and it breaks me up every time:

And THAT is when it all comes together and they hear it: the themes, the rhymes, the spoken vocals, the rhythm--Louis Armstrong was one of the first rappers, too!

Some who hate today's hip hop might shake their head at such a sentiment but it's all in good fun and just another example of how you can trace every strand of 20th and 21st Century popular music back to Louis Armstrong in some way, shape or form.


[I just dropped the mike....]

Friday, March 20, 2015

Ambassador To Ambassador Satch - Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival Recap

I woke up at 3:45 a.m. on the morning of March 2. This might sound ridiculous to some, but I normally wake up at 4 a.m. to go to work on Mondays so it wasn't that big of a deal. But I wasn't going to my usual job as Archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. No, about 16 hours later, I'd be having a drink with Denny Ilett in an underground pub in Bristol, England, about to preach about Louis Armstrong every day for the next week of my life. The Ambassador to Ambassador Satch was ready to go to work.

(Thanks to my old friend Chris Barnes for the Photoshop magic; I had always wanted to do that!)

I got back from Bristol on March 10, exhausted from the jet lag. It was the longest I had gone without my wife and kids so I took the rest of the week off and hugged them incessantly. When I went back to work on Monday, the 16th, I was way behind in needing to plan a new exhibit that would be installed at the Armstrong House in just two weeks. So I've been busier than a one-armed paper hanger with crabs (borrowed that one from Louis) and it won't be letting up until probably sometime in mid-May (probably; probably not).

But I didn't want to leave my old blog a wasteland while I was off doing Armstrong-related stuff around the world. I'd imagine many of my readers were following my exploits on Facebook; if not, here's a link to an album of over 100 photos from my British invasion. But for posterity, let me offer a (somewhat) quick wrap-up for the blog.

I was invited over to Bristol for the 3rd Annual Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival by the Festival's Executive Director, Colin Gorie, and the Artistic Director, Denny Ilett. Denny visited me in New York last year and pitched the idea of a "New Orleans Takeover" of the Festival, with a special focus on Louis. I was more than happy to represent the Armstrong House for what would be my very first trip to England in my 34-year-old life. I knew I was in the right place shortly after I landed. While going through customs, I had to explain just what I was doing in England. I had a letter prepared from the Festival but they still had lots of questions. Finally, they told me to wait a few minutes. They eventually called me back and said, "We checked your blog--everything checked out." I knew this blog would be good for something! They apologized for taking my time and I said I wasn't in a rush, causing the officer to respond, "Of 'Have All the Time in the World,' right?" Not even through the border and my first Louis Armstrong song reference! I was going to like it here....

Though the Festival was only Friday-Sunday, they flew me out on Monday so I could give some Louis lectures around Bristol in preparation for the main gigs on Saturday and Sunday. I arrived late Monday night and was already put to work on Tuesday afternoon, speaking to a handful of music students at the Cotham School. Coincidentally, "West End Blues" had been on the syllabus so the students had already studied it but they asked me to come in and two hours on just that song alone. That was no problem, as I had already written a 10,000 word blog on the subject a few years ago. But I decided to take them way back and played them records Louis had in his private collection--Caruso, Galli-Curci, Herbert L. Clarke--as well as other earlier Armstrong records where you can hear traces of the birth of the cadenza, including "Changeable Daddy of Mine" and "Once in a While." After about 45 minutes of pre-history, when they finally heard the famed 1928 recording again, it all made sense. The kids were great and thanked me for the graphic level of detail. Glad they weren't scared away!

The next day was a big promotional day, starting with a Festival preview in the Bristol Post with a big photo Yoni Brook took of me holding one of Louis's trumpets.  I also had a fun radio interview in the afternoon with Claire Cavanaugh of BBC Bristol. As I'm writing this, the audio is still up on the BBC website for 13 more days so if you'd like to listen to it, click here! (I start one hour and 45 minutes in.)

The bulk of that day was spent sightseeing around Bristol with the help of my friend, Jonathan David Holmes, a young hot jazz enthusiast who runs a popular YouTube channel devoted to vintage music, transferred from his ever-growing 78 collection. Jonathan met me at my hotel wearing a "Louis Sends His Love" button created by our mutual friend, Michael Steinman; needless to say, we got along famously! And before the BBC interview started, Jonathan--a BBC Bristol employee--sat down with me and recorded a 14-minute interview with yours truly about my background and love of Louis. Thanks, Jonathan!

That same day (it wouldn't quit!), I raced from the BBC to the Watershed Theatre to give a two-hour presentation on Louis Armstrong's movie appearances. We had a great crowd and I took them from Rhapsody in Black and Blue in 1932 to Paris Blues in 1960, closing with the famous "St. Louis Blues (Concerto Grosso)" with Leonard Bernstein from Satchmo the Great. I was honored to have the great New Orleans-born vocalist Lillian Boutte in the audience. It was the first time we had ever met, but we felt like old friends from the start. That "St. Louis Blues" emotionally affected Lillian....and she wasn't alone. Here we are right before the show started:

And I love this photo Denny Ilett snapped of me in mid-preach, probably threatening to fight members of the audience afterwards if they disagreed with my sentiments on Armstrong! (The biggest laugh of the night came when I stole Wild Bill Davison's line from Newport 1970: "If I told you how I really feel about Louis Armstrong, I'd be arrested for indecent exposure!")

I had been going nonstop since breakfast but I wasn't done yet. My originally scheduled event for Thursday was scrapped so I saw a small window to take a train to London and experience the big city for a day. My friend--and fellow Pops lover--Julio Schwarz Andrade welcomed me with open arms and I was thrilled to at least get in one day in London. Julio showed me the sights, such as Big Ben:

That was followed by a most memorable lunch with two long-time Facebook friends I had been looking forward to meeting for years: jazz historian Fernando Ortiz de Urbina and noted saxophonist/composer John Altman (that link takes you to John's Wikipedia page; if you don't know him, you do now....what a career!). The stories didn't stop for over two hours....wish we had recorded it!

It was back to Bristol on Thursday night as I had another lecture at the Bristol Institute of Modern Music first thing on Friday morning. This was FUN! In front of about 15-20 young music majors--most from a rock and pop background, but also some jazz singers and musicians--I once again preached about the importance of Pops to the history of pop music. Instead of just playing his greatest records, I played them a TON of stuff. By the end of the 90 minutes, they heard Louis, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Caruso, Count Basie, Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Ke$ha and more. Some of the students and faculty members have kept in touch and they even wrote a nice little recap of my visit on their website. I even got to sign their wall!

I had a wonderful Indian dinner that night with the noted sound engineer Dave Bennett, who does so much for Avid Records these days. In fact, he was behind the reissue of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography I wrote the liner notes for a couple of years ago (and he's planning more Pops as I write this; details to come!). Thanks for a great meal, Dave and Anne!

After that Friday night dinner, it was time for the actual Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival to begin. I only had time for one act that night....but what an act it was! I already mentioned my man Denny Ilett, the Artistic Director of the Festival. Denny is also an accomplished guitarist, arranger and vocalist and co-leads an 18-piece big band with trumpeter Jonny Bruce, The Bruce Ilett Big Band. They took out about half the chairs in old Colston Hall to open up the room for the dancing--and my goodness, the people danced. I'm terrible at estimating but I'd say there were probably 1,000-1,500 people at the concert and at least half of them were dancing all night. On top of that, at least 80% of the dancers appeared to be under the age of 40. The big band played all the hits: "April in Paris," "Cherokee" (Charlie Barnet's), "Tuxedo Junction," "Sing, Sing, Sing," lots of Harry James, etc. But I don't think I've ever heard a full evening of that music played by such a powerhouse band in front of a jam-packed room of dancers and listeners. It was more thrilling than any rock concert you can imagine. Anyone who dismisses big band or music or swing dancing should have been there for this. Hell, every human being should experience something like this at least once! No wonder this was America's popular music during The Swing Era...

Here I am with Jonny Bruce and Denny Ilett....keep doing what you're doing, fellas!

Somehow I went to sleep that night and had to be ready for my big showcase on Saturday, 75 minutes on "The Life and Legacy of Louis Armstrong." Dressed in a new jacket my wife picked out for me, I was ready, I was ready, so help me, I was ready:

With such an open topic of Louis's "life and legacy," I decided to skip most of the life and focus on how Louis's legacy has changed since he died. When he passed away in 1971, there was a large number of folks who believed Louis went commercial, stopped being a good trumpet player in the 1930s, was nothing but a clown and was an Uncle Tom when it came to issues of race. As I do in my book, I fought each one of those accusations, but I used materials from the Armstrong House's Archives: Louis's private tapes, Louis fighting against accusations of clowning, Louis on TV talking about racism in New Orleans, Louis playing "West End Blues" in 1961 and much more. I kind of piled up the emotional climaxes at the end, detailing Armstrong's final few months and the story of Louis Armstrong's last tape, which I've blogged about it in the past. Many folks later told me they cried and there were times at the end when I had to breathe and avoid breaking into tears myself.

It might have been one of the best-received lectures I've ever given, but I was helped by having many Facebook friends planted in the audience, including Denny Ilett, Jonathan David Holmes, Jim Denham and Hugh Flint, drummer for John Mayall's Blues Breakers (with Eric Clapton) and quite an Armstrong fan himself. Here's me and Hugh:

Fernando Ortiz de Urbina made the trip from London, as did Jon Hancock, author of the definitive book on Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. Afterwards, the weather was so lovely, we ate outdoors at a pub. We started talking about Pops and I got so carried away, I reached into my bag, pulled out my iPod and a small Bose speaker and started playing unissued Armstrong recordings in the afternoon air. Quite a memorable lunch....thanks Fernando and Jon!
My big showcase was through but Pops wasn't done yet. On Sunday, the final day of the Festival, Colston Hall hosted "The Louis Armstrong Story." This was an extra special occurrence. First, Denny assembled another world-class big band and I provided copies of Louis's original big band arrangements on "Sweethearts on Parade," "Lazy River" and "Swing That Music." Then Denny asked me to write up some of Armstrong's deepest comments regarding music, race and life itself, to be read by the wonderful actor Clarke Peters ("The Wire," "Treme"). Lillian Boutee would sing a handful of Louis's best-loved songs. James Brown's former bandleader Pee Wee Ellis would anchor the saxophone section. And a small group would be formed featuring trumpeter Enrico Tomasso, clarinetist Evan Christopher, trombonist Ian Bateman, banjoist Don Vappie, bassist Sebastian Giordot and drummer Julie Saury (Maxim's daughter). On top of it all, they asked me to introduce the show and say a few words about the Louis Armstrong House Museum....on stage at Colston Hall where Louis had played multiple times in the 1950s and 1960s. It was quite a moment.

The concert, needless to say, was unforgettable and one of the unquestioned hits of the festival. But for me, it was just a thrill to be among the cats. I finally got to meet the great Ian Batemen, who had to inhibit the roles of Trummy Young, Kid Ory, Jack Teagrden and Fred Robinson in the show, and who leads a sensational Armstrong tribute band with his trumpet playing brother, Alan:

Clarke Peters was an absolute gentlemen and it was an honor to give him a copy of my book:

I've loved Don Vappie for years but hadn't met him before Bristol. Not only a sensational musician, he was a lot of fun to talk to. Once again, I pulled out the iPod and Bose speaker to play him some private tapes of Louis badmouthing Jelly Roll Morton!

Don was over with Evan Christopher's Django a la Creole. I've known Evan for years and he's one of my favorite people on the planet (you might remember he ordered 30 copies of my book to give to every trumpet player in New Orleans....what a guy!). Django a la Creole absolutely tore it up the night before; since I've been back, I've been listening to their three CDs almost nonstop. Yeah, Evan!

Evan's bassist, Sebastian Giordot, was another Facebook friend I hadn't met in the flesh before. He was a monster during the Armstrong tribute, playing with that fat, popping New Orleans sound Louis loved (he did Pops Foster proud on "Swing That Music"!).

Every musician, top to bottom, were delightful to meet but for me, the biggest thrill was Enrico Tomasso. Perhaps you have seen a number of famous photos of Louis with a young man holding a trumpet, greeting Louis at an airport in England in 1968? That's Rico! He started playing when he was 5 (his father was a clarinetist) and was immediately engulfed in Pops after hearing the 1954 Decca "Basin Street Blues." When Louis heard him play as an 8-year-old boy in 1968, he fell in love with his playing, making him come backstage every night at the Batley Music Hall in order to impart wisdom such as "Marry a woman who knows the horn comes first" and "Don't play that jiu jitzu music." They traded letters until Louis died in 1971.

One of the most famous photos of Louis and Rico showed Louis kissing the younger trumpeter's hand in 1968. Naturally, when I met Rico, I had to do the same thing:
During the rehearsal for the concert, I pulled out my phone and shot a short video of Rico invoking the spirit--and sound--of Pops at the end of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." I had goose bumps watching this from the stage.

After the show was over, it was a fun hanging with Rico, Ian, trumpeter Ben Cummings, Ian's son and my London pal Julio for a few hours. We went to the Old Duke for drinks. I knew I was in the right place, when I spotted this Bob Parent photo of Louis and Bobby Hackett on the wall. I included this in my Hackett tribute in January but this was the first time I've ever seen the complete photo--that's Louis's friend, actor Slim Thompson, on the right!

And when we ended up at another Indian restaurant for dinner and realized we were the only ones sitting there, it was only a matter of time before the iPod and Bose came out for another listening session, including an unissued take of "St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, "West End Blues" from Freedomland in 1961 and most emotionally, an audio letter Rico and his family made for Louis when Louis was in intensive care in 1969. Rico hadn't heard it since he sent it 46 years ago. On the tape, he played trumpet on "Cake Walking Babies from Home," "Basin Street Blues" and what he introduced as his favorite song, "I Used to Love You," joined by his father, sister and brother. Rico had tears in his eyes by the end of the tape. I was honored to be able to make him hear it again after all these years.

With the end of "The Louis Armstrong Story," my job was over, so I got to hang out, meet new Armstrong fans and sign lots of books, including one for Lillian Boutte, who said, "This shit is mine!" as this photo was being snapped:

As a little laginappe, I went to hear Dr. John playing the Festival's closing show. He visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum in August, where I acted as a liaison. He was marvelous at the Armstrong House, relaxed and telling stories the entire time. Before he left, I gave him a copy of my book, too. Now, in Bristol, I was lucky enough to attend his soundcheck with maybe a dozen other people in the giant Colston Hall. He looked a little weary after the constant traveling and it was almost showtime, but I still wanted to shake his hand and maybe remind him about the Armstrong House and who I was. I didn't need to; as he was walked offstage, he took one look at me, smiled, and croaked out, "Man, I LOVED your book!" It might be the best endorsement I've ever received.....

So thank you, Bristol for a truly unforgettable visit! Talks have already begun to do it all over again next year. Count me in. And thanks to the Louis Armstrong House Museum for allowing me to go around the world to preach about Pops and the treasures found at the Armstrong House.

And thank you, Louis Armstrong. Thank you for EVERYTHING. It's my pleasure to be your Ambassador, Mr. Ambassador. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish Black Bottom - 2015 Update

Recorded November 27, 1926
Track Time 2:37
Written by Percy Venable
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Hy" Clark, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8447
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Hi everybody! I still need to recap my unforgettable trip to England last week but right now, it's St. Patrick's Day so it's time for a yearly tradition and listen to "Irish Black Bottom."  I originally wrote this in 2010 but keep reading for some new information I recently gleaned from one of Louis's private tapes. But first, raise a beer, slice some corned beef and the original 1926 recording of "Irish Black Bottom"!

Isn't that a lot of fun? No, it's not earth-shaking art as "Potato Head Blues" or "West End Blues" but who cares? "Irish Black Bottom" comes from a series of Hot Fives Louis made in 1926 that most stoic historians tend to frown on or, in the case of some like Gunther Schuller, attempt to ignore completely. Why? Because they get in the way of the myth of the young Louis being a serious artist, not some commercial clown.

But all it takes is one listen to the complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens to see that Louis was doing plenty of clowning during his "artist" days. On February 26, 1926, Armstrong's horn changed the world with his solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" and his stirring lead playing on songs like "Oriental Strut" and "Muskrat Ramble." But his voice also had equal impact that day as he rasped out the blues on "Georgia Grind" and popularized scat singing with "Heebie Jeebies." Naturally, the records all sold well with "Heebie Jeebies" causing a sensation.

OKeh was thrilled and corralled Armstrong into their studios for a string of sessions in June and another in late November. And these are the sessions that make the "serioius" Armstrong fans sweat: there's Louis shouting about doing the "mess around" or getting off eye-rolling lyrics on "Dropping Shucks." There's Louis playing a slide whistle on "Who'sit." There's Louis inviting vaudeville entertainers--friends of his--to the studio, people like Butterbeans and Susie, Clarence Babcock and Mae Alix. Here's Louis performing material he did nightly at the Sunset Cafe, songs written by that club's choreography Percy Venable. THIS is the Louis Armstrong of the 20s, not some frowning artist who forced to "go commercial" in later years.

And oh yeah, he still sounds like a genius on all of these cuts, taking a dramatic solo on "Skid-Dat-De-Dat" and one for the pantheon on "Big Butter and Egg Man." The critics particuarly adore that latter solo, with good reason, but they don't seem to want to discuss Mae Alix's booming vocal--she was a favorite of Louis's--or Louis's own Al Jolson-tinged offering. Nope, to them it's just about the trumpet, trumpet, trumpet. The trumpet IS brilliant...but they're missing a helluva lot of fun!

Which brings us to "Irish Black Bottom." Admittedly, this is not songwriting as its finest but as a novelty, it's good fun. The "black bottom" was a popular dance of the 1920s so this tune humorously pretends that it's also taken Ireland by storm. If Louis had to record something so silly in the 1950s, critics would scream at the producers for forcing it on him. But "Irish Black Bottom" was written by the aforementioned Percy Venable so more than likely, it was a staple of Louis's act at the Sunset. And can't you imagine Louis bringing down the house with that vocal? That "ha, ha" he gives after singing "And I was born in Ireland," breaks me up every time. I can only imagine what it did to the audiences who heard him do it live.

The song begins with the funny sound of Louis and his Hot Five swinging through a sample of the Irish classic "Where the River Shannon Flows" before Louis swings out with the main melody, which is predominantly in a minor mode until the end. Louis's lead sounds great and Dodds is bouncing around as usual but trombonist Hy Clark, a substitute for Kid Ory, sounds hesitant and doesn't add much. After a chorus and an interlude by pianist Lil Armstrong, Louis takes the vocal. If you can't make it out, here's what he says:

All you heard for years in Ireland,
was the "Wearin' Of The Green",
but the biggest change that's come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm's drivin' the folks insane.
I hand you no Blarney, when I say
that song really goes,
and they put it over with a wow,
I mean now.
All over Ireland
you can see the people dancin' it,
'cause Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy

I don't know how you can't get swept up in that offering. Armstrong doesn't so much sing it as shout it, or talk it, but his spirit sure gets the message across (though sometimes, he's so far from the written melody, it sounds like he's singing a different song on top of Lil's chording on the piano).

2015 update: I wrote those words about Louis's vocal in 2010. Just yesterday, I was paid a visit at the Armstrong Archives by the terrific singer Tara O'Grady, who has recorded "Irish Black Bottom" on her latest CD. I dug out one of Louis's private tapes, one I hadn't heard for a while, and though I can't share the audio, I do want to share Louis's very interesting thoughts. The tape was made in Chicago in 1951 and features Louis and a bunch of friends listening to the old Hot Five recordings. Armstrong puts on "Irish Black Bottom" and makes comments about how Percy Venable wrote it and how it was Lil on the piano (Armstrong says OKeh supervisor E.A. Fearn was responsible for the "ax hitting" Lil and Earl Hines being brought in in 1928; a subject for another day).

But when it comes to the vocal, Louis quietly starts humming along with the verse. But when it comes to the chorus, 1951 Louis shouts, "Here's the lead!" and starts emphatically scatting the written melody over 1926 Louis's shouted vocal on the record. He continues for the entire chorus, sounding quite wonderful (come to Queens one day and I'll play it for you!). He probably hadn't performed it in 25 years but every note of the original melody was firmly entrenched in his brain.

After scatting, Armstrong again moans, "That's the lead!" before imparting some self-critical analysis: "In those days, we sang just what you call 'obligato,' you know? And we commenced to hollering, 'Where's the melody?' See? First thing you see when you walk in the Decca studio, chick with her hair down to her asshole, hollering 'Where's the melody?' holding both of her hands out. Just like I say, we'll take this number…." At this point, 1951 Armstrong catches 1926 Armstrong playing the melody on the record and shouts, "There's the lead" before listening to it in silence to the end.

I find this a fascinating little insight because many writers and listeners--including myself--love listening to Armstrong's wild 1920s vocals and marveling at the chances he took with the written melodies. But here's Armstrong in the 1950s, almost disgusted by his younger self, calling that vocal style nothing but an "obligato" and recalling the advice from the famed Pocahontas photo Jack Kapp plastered around the Decca studios: Pocahontas with her arms outstretched in prayer and Kapp's mantra, "Where's the melody" written underneath. Anyway, that's the update, let's continue with the original analysis of the recording.

After the vocal, Clark and Dodds take forgettable short solos and breaks before Louis carries the troops home with brio. Louis's lip trill towards the end is particularly violent and right before his closing breaks, he dips into his bag for a favorite phrases, one that ended both "You're Next" and "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa." The concluding break is so perfect in its phrasing and choice of notes that I believe it might have already been set in stone by Pops during his live performances of the tune at the Sunset. Either way, that's no reason to criticize him; it's a perfect ending and puts an emphatic stamp on a very entertaining record.

That's all for now. Have a happy St. Patrick's day and don't forget to mix in a little Louis with your Guiness. I hand you no blarney, it's a great combination...