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.


Dan said...

Thanks, Ricky! Among the many delights of this tape (in its way) is hearing all those mid-westerners clapping on beats one and three throughout Twelfth St. Rag. I recall Duke Ellington once instructing his audience on which beats to snap their fingers on. I think he remarked that to snap on one and three was "too aggressive"!

Re: "High Society". I think this version of the band revived "HS" after doing the "autobiography" album for Decca. Ed Hall does much better with the famous Picou solo here than he did on the recording.

Brent Wyatt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brent Wyatt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brent Wyatt said...

Is it really necessary to insult "all those mid-westerners [sic]"? My father attended this dance and still fondly remembers Louis Armstrong and honors his performance that night.