Thursday, April 30, 2015

In Loving Memory of Marty Napoleon

Another great has left us. Pianist Marty Napoleon passed away on Monday night at the age of 93. If you knew Marty, you probably thought he'd live forever, as he remained sharp (what a memory!) and playing right to the end.

I'm a day late as I had a marathon in Newark yesterday so there's already been a wave of beautiful tributes (don't miss this one by Michael Steinman). I did a big birthday tribute for Marty's 90th focusing on his years with Pops so I'd like to reprise some of that and talk about my own personal memories of the man.

Marty's entire history is pretty fascinating but being an Armstrong blog, I'll focus on his multiple stints with Pops. He joined in February 1952, replacing Joe Sullivan and stayed for about a year, a year that found the All Stars making one of their most successful European tours. As Marty tells it, he never really took piano features until Louis's group. Louis wanted Marty to listen to Earl Hines's "St. Louis Blues" feature but when Marty called it one night on the bandstand, he was nervous and stomped it off a little too fast. The results completely broke up the crowd and Marty had a feature that would perform almost nightly in his first go-around with the All Stars. Here's Marty absolutely tearing it up in Amsterdam on November 2, 1952:

Now you know why I've frequently referred to Marty as the most exciting pianist the All Stars ever had. No one else could quite pound the piano like that and send the audience into such a frenzy.

After leaving to go back home to his wife and family in 1953, Marty was replaced by Joe Bushkin for Louis's famous debacle of a tour with Benny Goodman. After the tour, it was time to film the "Glenn Miller Story" and when Bushkin and Teddy Wilson couldn't do it, Joe Glaser called Marty, who came back into the fold and stayed for about six more months. From this stint, I'm going to share Marty's other big feature of the period, "Limehouse Blues," from the Blue Note in Chicago in July 1953. (I should point out the great work by Arvell Shaw on bass and Cozy Cole on drums on both performances that I've shared so far.)

Marty left to go back home the fall of 1953, replaced by Billy Kyle, who held down the chair until his untimely death in February 1966. In between, Kyle grew ill in early 1960 and was replaced again by Marty for another tour (including a trip to Cuba) but alas, no recordings have surfaced from this stint. But as soon as Kyle landed in the hospital, Marty got the call and ended up staying with Louis until his final engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1971 . Marty doesn't seem to have trotted out "Limehouse" or "St. Louis" during this final period, but he could still swing like hell on "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" and even "The Girl from Ipanema." Here's Marty working out on "Please Don't Talk About Me" in Copenhagen, Denmark on July 25, 1967:

And "The Girl from Ipanema" just a couple days later in Juan-Les-Pins, France:

Marty's other big feature in these years was "Sunrise, Sunset" from "Fiddler on the Roof." This feature was actually filmed in London in 1968 and can be viewed here (uploaded by Joel Ratner, another Pops lover and volunteer at the Louis Armstrong House Museum who passed away suddenly earlier this year):

And as a composer, Louis recorded two of Marty's compositions. One, "Mm-Mm," is a cute Louis-and-Velma Middleton duet recorded for Decca in April 1955. But the other one is much more interesting and is a real favorite of mine (and Ed Berger's, one of the few people I know who loves the song as much as I do!). The song is titled "Louie's Dream" and features Pops as co-composer. According to Marty, Joe Glaser asked him to write an original tune (I'm assuming so he could put Louis's name on it) and Marty responded with a piece entirely written in Armstrong's vocabulary. The first time Marty played it for Louis, he told him, "That's you." The charming tune was recorded for Brunswick in March 1967 and never issued on anything except a 45. Marty's introduction is wonderful and Pops, though he doesn't solo, plays some excellent lead horn for so late in the game. Dig "Louie's Dream":

After Louis died in 1971, Marty remained busy, especially around the New York area and on the festival circuit. He could still whip a crowd into a frenzy, as demonstrated in this 1982 video of his famed "St. Louis Blues" feature, backed up by Jack Lesberg on bass and Gus Johnson on drums:

Wee! On a personal note, I went to a centennial tribute to Louis at Carnegie Hall in 2001. Jon Faddis played the Louis parts and was sensational. The second half featured guest appearances by greats such as Clark Terry and Arvell Shaw. But then Marty came on and seriously wiped everyone out...and he was almost 80 at the time! Completely stole the show.

Five years later, I seriously started working on my Louis Armstrong biography. For me, the most important part was the chance to have the surviving All Stars tell their stories of life on the road with Pops. At the time--2006--there were five surviving members: Marty, Joe Muranyi, Danny Barcelona, Buddy Catlett and Jewel Brown. Jewel's the only one left and fortunately she's not going anywhere, as this recent article makes clear. Reports came in that she broke it up at Jazz Fest last week, too!

I set up a phone interview with Marty but we didn't quite get off the ground. His phone had a bad connection and his beloved wife Bebe was in failing health so he seemed preoccupied. Still, he gave me many great stories, which I crammed into the book. But three years later, I got a second opportunity to interview him, this time in public at the Jazz Museum in Harlem. This was actually the first time I met him--and his loving grandson, Brent--and I was just knocked out from the start over how warm he was.

We had a 90-minute conversation, which mostly consisted of Marty telling one great story after another while I just went along for the ride. His memory was frighteningly good. He recalled dates, places, songs, anything, and was on the mark every time. I learned that he had been keeping notebooks for decades charting all of his performances, with hopes to turn it into a book some day. I hope someone can still do it. Just from an itinerary standpoint, it's an incredible thing to behold, but it seemed like his memory soaked up every page and never forgot a gig. The Jazz Museum posted 20 minutes of what was about a 90-minute interview on their website and I urge you to check it out because he has some great stories about Louis. Here's the link.

After that, I sent Marty a bunch of CDs and DVDs of him and Pops and we'd have the occasional phone call, but I didn't see him again until September 2011, when the Institute of Jazz Studies gave me an event to celebrate the release of my new book. When I first started writing it, I used to daydream about having an All Stars reunion some day. That day never came but it was the honor of my life when Rutgers hired Marty and Randy Sandke to perform.

Photo by Ed Berger.
 Marty was in great spirits, telling stories and playing a bunch of his original compositions, including my request, "Louie's Dream."

Photo by Ed Berger.
But the most touching moment came when I surprised Marty by playing something he actually didn't remember: an excerpt of one of Louis's reel-to-reel tapes where Marty teaches Louis how to play "Mm-Mm." It's a beautiful moment with Marty first playing the melody and then singing it charmingly. Eventually Pops picks up the horn and figures it out and sings it with Marty chiming in almost like a duet partner to guide him through it. Marty had tears in his eyes listening to it. He wasn't alone.
Photo by Ed Berger.
 That evening was at the beginning of what one might call a Marty Napoleon renaissance. After his wife's passing, Marty spent more time at the piano and over a long stretch from about 2011-2013, was seen performing around the NY area, at Birdland with David Ostwald, for the Sidney Bechet Society, at Feinstein's and in and around Long Island. Again, check Michael Steinman's aforementioned tribute to Marty for a series of videos Michael shot during this time.

The last time I saw Marty was at a private party his family hosted in September 2013. Every party needs a band so who could blame the Napoleon family for hiring Marty's quartet with Bill Crow, Ray Mosca and Bria Skonberg!? I was thankful to be invited for it was truly a special night. Marty just looked like he was having the time of his life playing in front of a packed room of friends and family. The attendees were hooting and cheering him on and Marty responded, looking like he did in that old footage of him with Pops, feet stamping, head banging, broadly smiling, just putting everything into the music.

As always when someone we admire leaves us, there's feelings of regret. Over the past year, I had been in touch with Marty's dear friend Geri Reichgut about getting Marty out to the Armstrong Archives. I guess I thought Marty would be around forever and let the craziness of my life prevent such a meeting from happening. I wish we could have had a thousand such hangs but I do cherish the times I spent with him. Every time I spent time with him, I left in a better mood than I started.

And his music still moves me to no end. Like I said, I still think he's the most exciting pianist the All Stars ever had and I can't listen to his features without stomping my own feet, nodding my own head and smiling like crazy, too. One of my recent British friends, Jonathan David Holmes, had a memorable meeting with Marty a few years ago. Jonathan recently helped me unearth some ultra-rare footage of Marty with the All Stars, including his swinging take on "The Girl from Ipanema." It warms my soul that Jonathan sent it to Geri and Geri showed it to Marty shortly before he passed. The All Stars are leaving us one by one but we'll always have the music and memories to remember them by for eternity.

Thanks for everything, Marty.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Pops Appreciation Week at the IJS, MoMI and HJF!

Sorry for all the acronyms in the title of this post but all will be explained below. April is Jazz Appreciation Month but for me, the upcoming week is more like Pops Appreciation Week. If you're in the New York area and you love Louis--and hot jazz--there's three events coming up that I need to tell you about.

First up, on April 29, Scott Wenzel and I will be reprising our "vaudeville" act as we tell the inside story of how we put the Mosaic Records 9-CD boxed set of live Armstrong together at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers Newark. Regular readers of this blog already know all about it but Scott and I always have fun at these lectures, which open with the two of us reading excerpts for the three years of e-mails we sent each other when I practically begged him to do this set and he politely dismissed me every time....until I wore down his resistance and he went for it. And in breaking news, my liner notes were just nominated for "Best Liner Notes" by the Jazz Journalists Association so I'm more indebted to Scott than ever!

Our presentation will be part of the Institute of Jazz Studies' "Research Roundtable" series, which is like going home for me since my three annual appearances there between 2006 and 2008 were my first public Armstrong lectures. Scott and I will gab and play music from the set from 7-9 p.m. Oh, and it's free and open to the public! (And if you're near a computer, I'll be on the air on WBGO at 9 a.m. that day to talk Pops!)

The following day, April 30, is International Jazz Day. To celebrate, the Louis Armstrong House Museum is teaming up with the Museum of the Moving Image for a special evening where I'll be screening Louis's complete March 22, 1965 concert from East Berlin. Again, longtime readers might remember that I wrote breathlessly about this concert when the complete footage was discovered in 2013. Even though excerpts and a condensed hourlong version are on YouTube, the full 1 hour and 49 minute show is not. That's special enough but if you pay the $15 admission, you get to attend a reception where red beans and rice will be served AND you'll get to hear me run my mouth for 15 minutes before the show, putting it in context. As I write this on April 24, already about 100 tickets have been sold in advance which is unheard of and without naming names, I can attest that a who's who of the Armstrong world will be in attendance. It's shaping up to be quite an Event and I hope to see many Pops nuts there! For more information, click here!

And finally, May 3 is the third annual Hot Jazz Festival and I couldn't be any more excited. The first two were literally the musical highlights of my years. It's a marathon with almost too many great bands to choose from at any given time but by the end, you can't deny that the music--and especially Louis's influence--is alive in well with both musicians and listeners (especially those under the age of 40). I previewed the first one 2013 and the second one in 2014 so if you really want to know my feelings on the burgeoning New York "hot jazz" scene and Louis's feelings on how the music will never die, click one of those links. At last year's bash, I hosted six  hours of Louis Armstrong footage; Pops won't be directly represented this year (I'll be too busy enjoying the music) but his influence will be felt everywhere. Just click here for the schedule and roster of artists and try to keep from drooling.

So I don't know what it's like outside of New York and New Jersey but over the next ten days I'll be reliving the Mosaic madness at the Institute of Jazz Studies, sitting in packed movie theater watching Louis enthrall a modern day crowd on the big screen and then will absorb 14 (!) hours of music that would not be possible without Louis at the Hot Jazz Festival. Should be some week.....Pops is Tops!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Swinging a Joke

Heard any good jokes lately? No? Well, then visit me at the Research Collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, housed at Queens College. That's where I serve as Archivist, in charge of all of Pops's stuff: his trumpets, his reel-to-reel tapes, his photographs, his sheet music, his manuscripts, his books, his records...and his jokes. Oh, the jokes.

Louis loved telling jokes. He loved hearing jokes. And he loved collecting jokes: dirty jokes, corny jokes, ethnic jokes, poems, toasts, you name it. Starting some time probably in the late 1930s, Louis began typing his favorite jokes into book form. The first two books have apparently not survived, but we do have a large volume from 1943 that Louis calls his "third" anthology. He explains this in his "Forward," written to an imaginary audience he hoped would be reading this book one day.

But we have more than the joke book. Louis loved including jokes in letters to friends and fans, often opening with a short risque poem. His reel-to-reel tapes are filled with hours of Louis and friends in dressing rooms and hotel rooms swapping jokes. And when the spirit hit him, he wasn't afraid to tell a joke or two during his stage shows with the All Stars.

Bud Freeman once said that "Louis swings more telling a joke than most others do playing a horn." Unfortunately, I can't share the treasures from Armstrong's archives--come to Queens College--but there are two commercial examples of Louis telling two separate jokes that make for a fine illustration of Freeman's point.

Over and over, for decades, Louis would walk into a recording studio, be handed some written lyrics and asked to turn them into gold. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the same thing happened when he told his favorite jokes.

Let's start with probably Louis's best-known joke, the "Alligator Story." Louis always made it autobiographical, mentioning his mother and her hometown of Boutte, Louisiana. But in actuality, Louis lifted the joke from blackface comedian George Williams, who told it to Louis when they shared a bill with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the late 1930s. Here's Louis writing to Leonard Feather on October 1, 1941, relaying the joke (I have left all of Louis's unique punctuation marks and misspellings but did change one typo; he consistently spelled "pond" as "pound" and I didn't want it to cause confusion):

"While I was looking at Mr. Singleton's Alligators while he was feeding them-I told him the one that George Williams the Blackface Comedian whom works with the great Bill Robinsons Shows, and is very funny man - indeed he is . . . That 'Cat Kills, Me-just to look at him on the streets with his makeup off . . . So I told this one to Mr. Singleton since we were around Alligators and also on the subject . . . He (George Williams) said-when he was a little boy living way out in the country-one day his mother sent him down to the Pond to get a Pail of Water . . . She said - Boy run down to the Pond an fetch me a pail of water right away . . . So he went runnin down to this pond to get this water and the minute he went to dip his pail into this water he looked overthere and spied an Alligator lying in this water . . . George said he'd gotten so terribly frightened until he clear forget to get the water and immediately started to runnin to home . . . And no sooner then he'd gotten to the porch of his home his mother said to him-Boy - Wheres that water that I told you to get? . . . And George said-Mother-theres, an Alligator in that water-and his mother said--Aw-Boy-go an get me that pail of water-don't you know that 'that Alligator was 'As' Afraid of you as you were of him - and I said (sez George) well mother-if that Alligator was as 'Afraid of me as I was of him-that Water Isn't 'Fit To Drink. . . . . . . . . . . . . I guess he told he something . . eh? . . ."

Louis began telling this onstage with the All Stars (the earliest version I have is from 1953) and numerous examples exist of him breaking up concert audiences with it. But probably my favorite version comes from the making of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy in 1954. Producer George Avakian asks Louis to say something into the microphone to get a balance and Louis immediately responds with the "Alligator Story:"

What I love most about it is by personalizing it, Louis leads Avakian and the studio guests to think he's actually telling an autobiographical story. There's no, "Oh, here's a joke for you!" He almost starts deadpan, talking about the town in Louisiana and everything and BOOM, there goes the punchline! And listen to it while reading his typed version. He recites it quicker, knows how to edit the extra stuff, adds some strong new phrases (I love "big old rusty alligator") and overall improves the joke.

Another Armstrong favorite was the "Hamburger Story." This one I have traced back to one of Louis's friends, Redd Foxx. Louis adored Redd and had many of his albums. Joe Muranyi told me about playing Vegas in the late 1960s and seeing Louis and Foxx carrying on together offstage. Foxx told his joke as "Ham and Eggs":

"Guy goes every day to the same diner, looks over the menu, and always orders the same thing: ham and eggs. Every day, the same thing: ham and eggs. Waitress decides to play a trick on him and scratches it from the menu. He comes in, she says, 'You know that thing you like so much? I scratched it.' 'Well, wash off your hand and get me some ham and eggs.'"

Short and sweet. This one still lives on; a quick Google search led me to a Reddit upload of a similar joke as recent as 2014. But once again, Louis takes this material and makes it his own. For one thing, he changes it from "ham and eggs" to "hamburger." I know of his telling it four times in public--at a concert in New Orleans in 1952; at a Boston dinner thrown in his honor by George Wein also in 1952; in a video of Louis telling it to Duke Ellington onstage at Madison Square Garden in 1970 (the video only includes the punchline); and finally, Louis tells it to Hoagy Carmichael onstage at his 70th birthday tribute at the Shrine in Los Angeles. It was clearly one of his favorites.

But for me, the New Orleans version is my favorite. In between sets of an All Stars concert, there was a whole ceremony onstage to unveil a photo of the deceased clarinetist Leon Rappolo. Myra Menville, the secretary for the New Orleans Jazz Club, then gave Louis a certificate of merit and a key to the city on behalf of mayor DeLessups Morrison. It's a very nice little moment and Menville sounds read to move on when Pops grabs the mike to say a few words. Here, then, is the complete hamburger joke:

Isn't that great? I love how Louis always fakes the audience out with the "I just scratched what you like" line. The audience breaks up just at that (Menville clearly thinks it's over). Louis senses it and leaves a gigantic pause (master of timing). Then he lowers the boom with the real punchline and the REAL hysterics begin. Great stuff.

And like I said, Louis loved to underplay these jokes at seemingly inopportune times: a recording studio sound check; while being honored at a dinner in Boston; when about to unveil a portrait of a deceased musician; he once told the alligator story on stage in Africa as a "speech" at the end of a concert in 1956. It killed every time.

Finally, there's the "rye bread" joke, which Louis told onstage at the National Press Club in Washington DC on January 13, 1971. Recently, while going through one of Louis's note books from December 1970-January 1971, I found "THE SAGA OF THE JEWISH RYE BREAD" wiritten in Louis's handwriting. What follows is what he wrote:

"A young fellow went to a Jewish Doctor and told the doctor he was worried because he could not get an erection. Whereupon the doctor told him to eat Jewish Rye Bread. So on his way home, the young man stopped a Jewish Bakery and asked for 25 Loaves of Rye Bread. The Baker said--25 Loaves? - it will get hard before you get rid of it. Whereupon the patient in excitement said Give Me 50 Loaves.'''"

It's obviously an old joke and variations of it can be found online. Where did Louis get it? He was in Vegas when he compiled the notebook so maybe another comedian told him. It's also written without any of his usual "tics" so he might have copied it from a joke book. But he clearly liked it enough to tell it on stage in Washington a short time later. Here is how it came out:

This is probably the best example of Louis improving a written joke. Look at the way he wrote it: "Whereupon"? Twice? Interestingly, the notebook Louis wrote it in was mostly filled with lyrics. He started it in late 1970, obviously feeling well enough to go back to performing. He alphabetized the book from A to Z and began jotting down song titles. Then, for each song, he wrote the lyrics. There's some staples like "What a Wonderful World" but also newer material such as tracks from Louis Armstrong and His Friends and Louis "Country and Western" Armstrong. There's even old favorites like "I'm Confessin'" and "If We Never Meet Again." Many pages, though, are blank, probably because ill health stopped him in his tracks; he wrote all the titles of Dave and Iola Brubeck's Real Ambassadors score but never got around to the lyrics; was he really planning on singing some of those songs live one day?

But at the very end of the book, he wrote his "Daily Routine," a list of his main set from the Tropicana in Las Vegas, where he performed from December 26, 1970 through January 8, 1971, listing "alternate numbers" to be rotated in and out each night as well as a list of "Tunes to Call," songs he felt comfortable calling at this late stage in his career. This was clearly a book he was studying as he began performing again: lyrics to songs, a set list, an index of tunes....and a handful of written jokes.

He probably studied the joke just like he studied those lyrics and like he did with music time and again, knew how to make it his own, make it better. Again, listen to it while looking at how Louis wrote it down. It's now about his friend and instead of outright saying "erection," listen to how Louis draws out the phrase "trouble with his lower extremitiessss." Instead of a bakery, it's now a "delicatessen." (Great word.) And though the punchline is the same, Louis adds the part about the friend "smiling," pauses, and once again, wammo. Hysterics.

If you've ever seen me preach about Pops in public, I always defend his comic timing, saying that making people laugh and nailing the timing of a joke is harder than hitting a high C. The music community applauds the high C but gets uncomfortable around the jokes. I'll admit it: they're not GREAT jokes. But Louis's versions are great. Was "Somebody Stole My Break" a great song? "You've Got Me Voodoo'd"? "Ko Ko Mo"? No, but Louis's versions are great.

If you've made it this far, I'd like to add a little lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans. This is a joke that we do NOT have audio of Louis telling, I'm sorry to say. But it is clearly written in his voice and answers a question: "What the hell is 'Straighten Up and Fly Right' about?"

On November 30, 1943, the Nat King Cole Trio recorded "Straighten Up and Fly Right," the story of a monkey and buzzard in a tussle. From such source material, Cole had a hit record, one that is still performed today. Here's the original:

As you can imagine, such tales of animals have a deep tradition in American and African-American folklore, such as the Uncle Remus stories. While searching around Google, I found this American Folktales: From the Collections of the Library of Congress. In it, it has the transcription of a story simply called "Monkey adn Buzzard" and related by Cora Jackson, wife of Virginia blues musician John Jackson. This is how Coroa told it:

"There was the old buzzard. He wanted something to eat, and he went, first thing, he asked the old terrapin, said, 'You wanna take a ride?' Said, 'Yeah.' He hopped on his back and flied way up in the air, and he dropped him down and he busted him all to pieces, and he eat him up. Well, next, it was . . . the rabbit or something he picked up. It was the rabbit. He asked him, and he flew way up in the air with him, and he turned him loose, and he dropped him, and he eat him up."

"And then he came across a monkey. He flew way up in the air with the old monkey holding on. He said, 'Don't go too high. I get the swimming in the head.' 'Oh, no, I'm gonna give you a good ride.' He went way up in the air with this old monkey, so when he got ready to drop the monkey, that old monkey wrapped his tail around his neck. And he said, 'Hey, Mr. Monkey,' say, 'You choking me.' He said, 'Straighten up, damn you, and fly right then.' That broke the buzzard from carrying the monkey up in the air and dropping him on the ground."

Okay, now the King Cole song makes sense. It's a folk story that had probably been around forever and teaches some lesson about, I don't know, choking people who are trying to kill you or something. (Kidding.) I'm sure Cole knew, but I'm almost certain he knew the version that Louis wrote in his surviving joke book, which, again comes from early 1943. Here it is, in Louis's typewritten style (I haven't changed a thing) and most importantly, his voice:


The Buzzard*Rabbit*Monkey

Mr. Buzzard was Flying very low oneday and he saw Mr. Rabbit down on the ground minding his own business and all of a sudden Mr. Buzzard stopped his flying around and circled down to where Mr. Rabbit was eating ‘Cabbage – Grass—or—somthin . . . Anyway – Mr. Buzzard had his personal reasons for wanting to get down there besides Mr. Rabbit . . . . So he tells, Mr. Rabbit – How ‘doo ‘Br’er Rabbit – would you like to take a “Ride” up in the Air on my back? . . ‘T’would do yourself some good I’ll assure you . . . . So it did sound very good to ‘Br’er Rabbit . . . Sooo—right away ‘Br’er Rabbit said—Mr. Buzzard – I really don’t care if I do . . . And ‘Br’er Rabbit got on top of Mr. Buzzard’s Back – UMP—for the last time of his life . . . Because the minute Mr. Buzzard gotten ‘way up there into the Clouds-he commenced to ‘Wavin ana ‘Bobbin-with poor ‘Br’er Rabbit on top of his back which frightened ‘Br’er Rabbit terribly . . . But it didn’t do any good ‘at all . . . Because the minute Old Buzzard gotten to where he wanted to ‘Ditch Br’er Rabbit he made a funny kind of move and ‘Threw ‘Br’er Rabbit off of his back and Killed Br’er Rabbit Instantly . . . . Then Brother Buzzard flew back down to the ground where Br’er Rabbit ‘lay dead and ‘Ate him up for his Breakfast . . . . . . .


Now dinner time approached . . . . So quite naturally Mr. Buzzard came back down to earth to see what on earth could he see to ‘eat for his dinner . . . . . So he ran across Mr. Monkey . . . . . Mr. Monkey all sharp as a tack . . . Struttin down the lane to see his best gal . . . Mr. Buzzard appears on the scene where Mr. Monkey was . . . . . And said—How ‘Doo Mr. Monkey – would you like to take a little ‘Spin up in the Air on my back? . . . And Mr. Monkey said –Wel-ll – I don’t think I care – about refusing . . (Meaning) – yes . . . . . Mr. Buzzard (all ‘gayily ‘N’everything-said)-hop right on top of my back and I’ll take you for a ride . . . So Mr. Monkey hopped on top of Mr. Buzzard’s Back and the way they went up into the clouds . . . Now everything was going just fine until Mr. Buzzard’ started to making one of those ‘funny mysterious-Loop’De’Loops . . . . So Mr. Monkey he being a ‘hip’d youngster-immediately threw his ‘Tail around Mr. Buzzard’s Neck . . . Now Mr. Buzzard didn’t want to say anything to Mr. Monkey concerning his ‘Tail around his Neck . . . But tried to ‘Off Jive Mr. Monkey by making another one of those ‘Fancy ass ‘Loop ‘De ‘Loops again . . . ‘So Mr. Monkey ‘Tightened up on Mr. Buzzard’s Neck ‘Real Good this time . . . Halfway ‘Strangling Mr. Buzzard to death. That’s, when Mr. Buzzard (halfway choked to death) said to Mr. Monkey—‘Er’wa—Look ‘Out ‘there ‘Mr. Monkey – you have your Tail around my Neck and ‘Ol Man – you are nearly choking me to death . . . So ‘Nix Ol Man – ‘Nix (which means, to stop it) . . . . . Just then Mr. Monkey said to Mr. Buzzard . . . . . Well ‘Straighten Up Mr. Mother Fucker and ‘FLY RIGHT  . . . 

Now THAT is how to swing a joke!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

80 Years of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 5, 1930
Track Time 3:08
Written by Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ed Anderson, trumpet; Henry Hicks, trombone; Bobby Holmes, clarinet, alto saxophone; Theodore McCord, alto saxophone; Castor McCord, tenor saxophone; Joe Turner, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Lavert Hutchinson, tuba; Willie Lynch, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41415
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

This is one of my long-time favorite Louis Armstrong records and I'm surprised it has taken me this long to get around to it. I originally wanted to publish this on April 5, the actual 80th anniversary of Louis's recording of "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me" but I had to wait until the 7th, which seems appropriate as this is Billie Holiday's centennial birthday and this is one of her best-loved songs.

Billie wasn't alone. It seems like everyone has recorded this number at some time: a simple YouTube search of the title immediately calls up versions by Anita O'Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Dean Martin, Louis Prima, Artie Shaw, Bing Crosby, Django Reinhardt, Sidney name it, they've recorded it. (Anyone remember its 1950s revival in the fantastic Humphrey Bogart film, The Caine Mutiny? That's actually where I first heard it, being an old movie buff before a jazz fanatic.) But like everything else, it was Pops who put it on the jazz map.

He didn't put it on the overall map, though. "I Can't Believe That You're in Love With Me" (gee, that's a damn long title to keep typing) was written by the great Jimmy McHugh and Clarence Gaskill and published in 1926. McHugh was then writing songs for the Cotton Club and hadn't been teamed with Dorothy Fields yet. For Louis nuts, the name Clarence Gaskill might sound familiar as he's the one who wrote "Laughin' Louie" in 1933. Recordings started trickling out in 1927, with Roger Wolfe Kahn having the hit with his uptempo dance band arrangement:

How about that? I love 1920s dance band music but I have to admit the effect is a little jarring, especially considering how many artists have treated it as a ballad. Even the ones who took it up, like Jimmy Rushing, always swung like mad but this is in the standard two-beat feel of the day. But it's a peppy recording with a lot going on; they don't play the verse until 1:37 in. And how about that lead trumpet taking the melody? Oh, pre-Armstrong world, you were really something else. One thing, though, is I've always found this to be an absolutely lovely melody but at this tempo with the clipped phrasing of the opening trumpeter and later, the violins, it really loses its beauty. 

But Kahn wasn't alone in his approach. This was obviously the way the song was being performed in the period, as can be heard again in this 1927 record by Jack Payne, complete with pre-Armstrong vocal where the lyrics are sung just as written without as much as a single beat out of place:

Another peppy outing, with a little Bixian trumpet to boot. Not enough for you? Here's another one by the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band (listen to the intro and remember it!):

As far as I can tell, there weren't any "jazz" versions until Louis waxed it for posterity 80 years ago this week. Louis recorded it during his early days as a single act. After splitting with Carroll Dickerson in 1929, Armstrong began traveling the country, fronting other orchestras for a few years before he solidified one under his own name back in Chicago in 1931. In the spring of 1930, he was fronting drummer Willie Lynch's Coconut Grove Orchestra, which later morphed into the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. There's some good names in the band, including pianist Joe Turner and guitarist Bernard Addison.

The one thing we don't know is why Louis was recording a song that was already four years old at the time of this session. It might have been the McHugh connection; he had a big hit with "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" in 1929 and would record McHugh's "Exactly Like You" one month later with the same band. Armstrong also wasn't averse to performing and recording older numbers; the April and May sessions with the Coconut Grove band also found Louis digging back to "Dear Old Southland" (recorded the same day as "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me"), "Dinah" (which I hope to write about next month) and a real good old good one, "Tiger Rag." Armstrong also recorded "Indian Cradle Song" which we know he was performing with Dickerson in 1929. So it's possible that he had been playing this for a couple of years and finally got the opportunity to record it. Anyway, here's how it came out:
First off, did you hear that introduction? It's identical to the one we heard from the Devonshire Restaurant Dance Band, so this is clearly a doctored stock arrangement Louis is playing. Unlike the Devonshire band, Louis's arrangement leaves holes for him to state his case, which he does, relaxed and swinging from the start. Ah, swing! There it is. Louis finally turns down the tempo and in the introduction alone, it's an entirely different feel from the 1927 recordings. 

After the intro, Castor McCord takes the melody on the tenor. Interesting that Louis doesn't grab it for himself but I like McCord's outing. He's clearly been listening to Louis and rephrases the melody so that, for the first time, we can really appreciate the catchiness of the melody (there's a couple of nice breaks in there, too). I also love the almost ragtag rhythmic feel of the band. The horns swing out with some simple riffs, guitarist Addison offers some counterpoint, Lavert Hutchinson's tuba keeps it grounded and drummer Lynch really works the cymbals, offering some early "splang-a-lang" (as the kids call it).

Finally, at the bridge, Louis reminds us that it's his record, with another relaxed, loose outing; God, his time feel is just something to behold. He lets McCord take the final 8 but he's off-mike so it kind of sounds like the band just shuffling along aimlessly for a few seconds.

But then we get the vocal. And what a vocal! I've praised the melody over and over and kidded the 1927 singers for how they stuck to it. But here Armstrong uncorks something entirely different than what's written and it works like a charm. The whole appeal of the song is the whole descending motif:

D-C-A, D-C-Ab, D-C-G, etc.

Armstrong eschews it and builds his vocal around the D instead of the descending half-notes, repeating different D-C-D combinations until it sounds like a new song. In the second eight, he changes it up even more: listen to how the equal parts insistent and hesitant way he sings "You're telling everyone I know." For the bridge, Armstrong's voice goes way up for the little "Oh baby" and way back down when he scats his own obligato after the line "far above me." And listen to the way he gets out of the bridge, repeating "love me" to fit the chords changing underneath him. 

For the third and final A section, Armstrong approaches it a third and final way, this time now focused on the E higher than the D he was fixated on earlier. And the same thing when he sings that long-ass title again, coming up with another brand new way to phrase it, ending with a string of quarter note E's before finally landing on the tonic C. That is some  vocal (And props to Addison and Turner for their nonstop, but non-intrusive playing behind him throughout.)

Trombonist Henry Hicks now takes over, mostly sticking to the melody but with a jubilant tone and feel that carries over the joy of Armstrong's vocal. (And again, Willie Lynch is whipping those cymbals!) It's now showtime and Armstrong makes a dramatic entrance with a break that goes up chromatically from a high E. Instead of the bridge, Armstrong goes back to the beginning so he can improvise over a full 32-bar chorus. It's one of his most singable solos; seriously, listen to it a few times and sing along with the recording and you'll be shocked at how much you're swinging (those quarter notes, man!).

The bridge is another highlight as the rhythm shifts behind him, the reeds accenting two-and-four. Armstrong responds by playing with the rhythm, taking chances with his phrasing in accenting just about beat other than two-and-four, creating tension and loosening up the equilibrium until he centers everything with a dazzling break that always reminds me of one of his scat episodes.

Heading into the final 8, Armstrong finally toys with the descending half-step motif, but does so in his own way. The written melody starts with the high D-C and accents the descending note (A, then Ab, then G) but Armstrong starts with the lower notes and uses them as springboards to higher E's, the note he was emphasizing in the last 8 bars of his vocal. On top of the F chord under him, the E is a major7th interval, a favorite of Louis's ("Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" rely on them) and a very pretty effect. 

After that exciting bridge, Armstrong gets back to relaxed territory before syncing with the band for the neat arranged ending, where Armstrong blazes up to a high C. Bravo, Pops!

We don't know if this played a big role in Louis's live repertoire of the day but there are surely no mentions of it that I have found from 1930 or beyond. But Louis wasn't quite done with it, revisiting one more time in 1956 as part of the epic Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography sessions. Here's the remake:
For most of the Autobiography, arranger Sy Oliver followed the patterns of the original recordings, adding in his own touches where fit. But for "I Can't Believe That You're in Love with Me," he really created something new. First, the original stock intro is out as is another instrumentalist taking the lead. Now it's Pops from the start, backed by All Stars Edmond Hall and Trummy Young while Oliver's reeds hum the harmonies below. 

One thing has definitely changed: Armstrong now seems to relish the lovely melody and sticks closer to it in his opening statement, imbuing it with that trademark warmth of his. I'm not saying he's a slave to it like those 1927 dance bands; just listen to the repeated quarter notes at the end of the first 8 or how he fills in the cracks in the turnarounds. Young and Hall back off for the bridge, but rejoin for the end, Hall taking a typically spiky break as Louis gets to the microphone.

And again, Armstrong is much more respectful to the written music. To Armstrong, this was a sign of maturity. As I recently wrote in my "Irish Black Bottom" entry, Louis in the 1950s sometimes listened back to his recordings from the 1920s and disapproved of his own playing and singing, saying he was just playing "obligatos" and remember the Decca mantra of "Where's the melody?" In the 1956 version, you can't miss the melody and since that's one of the reasons the song has become such a chestnut, it's nice to hear how the mature Armstrong treats it. 

Still, there's some trademark Armstrongian touches: the larger-than-life "yes" at the end of the first A section, the way he still uniquely phrases "you're telling everyone you know," the "Oh baby" leading into the bridge, the quiet "oh" to mark the chord change in the middle of the bridge, the way he goes up for the final "to think that I'm the lucky one" and so on. Not as jaw-droppingly wild as 1930 but still the best vocalist in the game.

Trummy Young gets the post-vocal break before we have an entirely new treatment for the final chorus. Sy Oiver has his horns shout a series of repeated two-note riffs, while Louis floats around them, setting up a series of breaks. For the first one, Louis jumps right up to the high C he original ended the 1930 recording and repeats it a few times, demonstrating as he did throughout the Autobiography his better command of the upper register of his horn, before ending on a twisty little phrase. 

In the second 8, Oliver's writing gets a little intrusive. The horns continue riffing and All Stars pianist Billy Kyle starts hammering out some exciting chords but if you listen through it, you can hear that Louis is still in a relaxed mode, which is obscured a bit by the business around him. Still, he sounds great and manages to insert his favorite Drdla's "Souvenir" quote into his second break. 

Louis takes the lead for the bridge with Oliver's horns playing a different swinging riff over his signature two-beat feel. I love the break Louis takes here, repeating descending half-steps to perfectly set up the first chord change of the final A section. From here, the record resembles the 1930 version with Louis working over that pretty E and and reprising the original spiraling ending, with Louis hitting that final high C right on the nose. 

So there you have it, two different but wonderful versions of a song with a title too long to type yet again. I love them both but that 1930 recording is really something to behold, possibly because of the rhythmic feel and playing of the band, which would be rendered obsolete in a few more years. But I'm not done with the Coconut Grove Orchestra and will return to them in May to celebrate the 80th anniversary of their landmark May 4 session. 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Louis Armstrong at the University of Kansas, March 23, 1957

This is a big holiday weekend for those celebrating Passover and Easter, but it's also a big holiday weekend for those following the NCAA College Basketball tournament. Up until a few days ago, I didn't really have a way to connect Pops to the Final Four, but that has all changed. All I can ask, Pops Nuts, is do you have you 45 minutes of free time? You do? Good, listen to THIS!

If you don't have time (and really, you must make the time!), I'll offer a little backstory. On March 23, 1957, an epic NCAA championship game took place in Kansas City between the University of Kansas and North Carolina University. Led by future legend Wilt Chamberlain, Kansas pushed Carolina to the brink over THREE overtimes, but ended up losing 54-53. On campus, Kansas students watched the game together on television. Though the loss was a crushing one, the night was not a total waste: immediately after the game, Louis Armstrong and His All Stars would be playing a dance at the Student Union!

When one thinks of "jazz goes to college," Dave Brubeck is usually the first name that comes to mind. But throughout the 1950s, Louis and the All Stars often spent the months of February, March and April playing strings of colleges. On one of his tape recorded interviews from the 1950s, Louis mentions being in the middle of 55 (!) straight college dates! That might have been an exaggeration, but only slight; I have heard multiple stories--and seen multiple photos--of Louis partying all night at various frat parties.

This might have seemed like another one-nighter, but even Louis and the All Stars got swept away watching the basketball game on television. When the game was over, the All Stars did their thing and were persuaded to stay to play "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" for the returning Kansas basketball team when they got back to campus at 2:15 a.m. Armstrong obliged. Though Armstrong's appearance garnered a news clipping (which can be seen in this story), what happened that night would have to only exist in the memories of those who were there....

Except Don Potts was recording it!

Potts was a 22-year-old student employee who captured a good chunk of the All Stars performance, the welcoming back of the basketball team and most importantly, a short interview with Armstrong himself.  Potts, who later became a physician, kept the tape of the evening for nearly 60 years. David Basse, a jazz broadcaster with KPR Radio, got to know Potts, who told him about the tape. Recently, KPR had the tape transferred and last Saturday, Basse did a one-hour show about that night in 1957, including Potts as his guest.

I'm assuming for copyright reasons, only 45 minutes is streamed on the KPR website and almost every song has a fade or a section cut out; this could be on the original tape but it might be a way to prevent this material from being released illegally.

Once more, HERE IS THE LINK.

Those articles I've already linked to contain much of the backstory (here's another one with some images I provided from the Louis Armstrong House Museum) but since you're hear for Pops, let's talk about the music. If you only have time to skip around, here's how it breaks down.

The broadcast opens in the middle of "Royal Garden Blues," at a tempo slower than the famed Ambassador Satch version. Remember, this was a dance, so maybe that was a concession to the dancers but regardless, it works beautifully. The recording also allows us to appreciate the Billy Kyle-Squire Gersh-Barrett Deems rhythm section as they're a little up in the mix, but not in an intrusive way; you can feel their power! Armstrong's solo is on the money and again, different from Ambassador Satch.

After Basse talks to Potts, the next song is Trummy Young's feature on "Undecided" beginning at 5:40. So much for tempo! This one is as wild as ever with Trummy and Louis in top form. There's also a great encore. For me, I LOVE the sound of the cheering students. Rock and roll had already exploded, but these students cheer for the All Stars like they're Elvis Presley.

Speaking of explosions, do not miss "High Society" at 19:15 which is technically an Edmond Hall feature but also includes some stratospheric ensemble playing by Pops. This was a regular All Stars number for many years but until now, I couldn't find a live concert version after October 1955. So much for that! Who knows how much they were playing it? (More on that in a bit.) Maybe it wasn't a frequent call because there is some confusion in the encore as Hall seems to think the ensemble is coming back but instead gets another chorus to himself. This one is missing the introduction and fades at the height of the encore, but again, listen to those students! I don't think they were thinking of the basketball loss anymore. Pops heals everything!

Immediately after, at 23:30, is another Ambassador Satch favorite, "Twelfth Street Rag." Louis, sensing the lively crowd, tells them that they're "wailing" which gives a few students license to shout out things like, "Crazy, man, crazy!" "Twelfth Street Rag" gets the students clapping from the start--and they don't stop! Yeah, most of them are the wrong beat but the spirit is right so who cares? Billy Kyle's solo is missing but at least we get to hear Squire Gersh do some slapping in the only surviving version from his year with the All Stars. During Hall's solo, listen to him announce that he's doing "the cutout"; if you've seen Edward R. Murrow's original See It Now profile from 1955, it included footage of the All Stars doing this number and Hall does the same thing, breaking into a little dance in the same spot. Louis's ensemble lead is superhuman and Trummy does the boppish "Ooh-shoobee-doobee" break in Arvell Shaw's absence.

The five minute interview between Armstrong and Potts starts at 28:40 and it's a treat. It originally took place during the intermission and Louis mentions that they're supposed to play until 2 but are going to wait for the team to come back. Potts is nervous and mostly wants to talk basketball but Louis couldn't be any more charming, talking about how he watched the game on the edge of his seat. When the subject turns to music, Louis talks bout how one-nighters are his life (going to St. Joe's the following night) and musicians who don't want to do them are lazy. You always get the truth from Pops! Louis talks about looking forward to the opportunity to meet Wilt Chamberlain; I wish either man recorded their remembrances of that meeting. But the highlight of the interview, after Louis's story of playing basketball in the 1920s, is Louis slipping in "With Swiss Kriss, you can't miss!" to the unsuspecting Potts! Potts replies, "Hm?" and Louis lets him slide without further exploring his favorite subject. And listen as Potts wraps it up, Louis calls for Dr. Pugh, his valet and the man who acted as the dressing room gatekeeper. Clearly, someone was up next for their highlight-of-a-lifetime meeting with the great Satchmo.

At 34:30, we hear Louis's closing "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" theme. In the middle of his good night, he mentions that he bit off all of his fingernails watching the game! Then, at 36:15, we hear Louis's powerhouse rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."After a fade, Louis and the All Stars go into "When the Saints Go Marchin' In" at 38:00 but they're mostly drowned out by the cheering students, screaming their heads off at the return of Wilt Chamberlain and the near-champions. That's the end of Louis, but the broadcast ends with inspiring speeches by losing coach Dick Harp and the university's Chancellor, who thanks Louis for his part in what was a very memorable evening.

I had a busy week but listening to David Basse's KPR interview was definitely one of the highlights. And as postscript of sorts, let's talk about my favorite subject, the repertoire of the All Stars. This is something I spent many entries on, discussing the "Anatomy of an All Stars Concert" in the following eras:

In the 1957 entry, I discussed perhaps my favorite bootleg Armstrong concert of all time (still unissued), from Hinsdale High School on March 27, 1957...four days later. Let's look at the set list:

When It's Sleepy Time Down South
The Gypsy
Ole Miss
Blueberry Hill
High Society Calypso
Tin Roof Blues
My Bucket's Got a Hole In It
Sweet Georgia Brown
Riff Blues
Mack the Knife
Tenderly/You'll Never Walk Alone
Stompin' at the Savoy
Velma's Blues
That's My Desire
Ko Ko Mo
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
When the Saints Go Marchin' In
C'est Si Bon
La Vie En Rose
The Faithful Hussar
Muskrat Ramble
Clarinet Marmalade
St. Louis Blues
Mop Mop
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
The Star Spangled Banner

Now, Dr. Potts only recorded a handful of tunes, but look at what he captured just four days earlier:
Royal Garden Blues
High Society
Twelfth Street Rag

That's four songs that weren't played in Hinsdale just a few nights later. And if you look at other 1957 shows where the audio has survived, you'll find these Louis specialties:
Tiger Rag
Mahogany Hall Stomp
Lazy River
Ain't Misbehavin'
I Get Ideas
Dear Old Southland
Now You Has Jazz
Rockin' Chair
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
On the Sunny Side of the Street

There's probably more ("A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "Someday You'll Be Sorry," "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "Black and Blue," "Basin Street Blues," etc., which survive in 1956 or 1958) but I'll stop there. Again, I wasn't in the band. I'm sure it felt like the same thing every night when it was all blended together with bus trips, no sleep, bad food, etc. Edmond Hall left in 1958 claiming that and just recently, William Carter had a beautiful post about Squire Gersh where he says Gersh felt the same way. So obviously, there's a bit of truth in that; but simply analyzing and listening to everything that's out there tells a different story.

So thanks to the University of Kansas, to Dr. Don Potts, to David Basse and all involved who helped get this previously unknown treasure back into the ears of Louis fans around the world. The only way you can learn is to listen and I'll be listening to this Kansas material for years to come.