Wednesday, August 19, 2015

85 Years of "Confessin'" and "If I Could Be With You"

Last month, I kicked off my celebration of Louis Armstrong's 1930-31 California recordings with a post about the first two tracks Louis recorded under his own name out west, "I'm a Ding Dong Daddy (from Dumas)" and "I'm in the Market for You." Not a bad start! After spending a few weeks slaying the Hollywood elite nightly at Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City, Louis returned to the studio on August 19 to wax two more classics, "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)" and "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)."

This is a crucial session, in my opinion. In the 1950s, jazz critics started frowning at Louis being given tunes like "La Vie En Rose" and "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" to record. "Commercial!" they shouted (and in some parts of the world, still shout). But here he is in 1930 singing two true love songs. And let's not beat around the bush: this is a 29-year-old black man recording for OKeh's popular series (not race), coming right out and singing lyrics like "I'm Confessin' that I love you, tell me that you love me too" and "If I could be with you, I'd love you strong / If I could be with you, I'd love you long." This is sexual stuff, folks, and I can't think of many (any?) other black artists before Nat King Cole who could sing so passionately of love and desire on records.

As I mentioned, in his later years, Louis took quite a bit of heat for recording pop tunes and love songs, seen by some in jazz circles as having gone "commercial." But Louis addressed this issue towards the end of his life by tying it in with "Confessin'" in what is one of my all-time favorite quotes: "I came off one night after playing 'Tenderly' I think it was, and this man got all steamed up with me. He said, 'I heard yuo playing that love song, and I'd hoped you were going to play some of the great old jazz tunes you did in the 1930's.' 'Hell,' I said, 'I recorded "Confessin'' about that time and that sure ain't a hate song.'" Amen, Pops...

So let's start with "Confessin'," which I originally tackled in a series of blogs in 2010 (I'll post links in  bit). This became one of Louis's signature tunes and one he would perform for 40 years (his last known public performance of it is a charming version sung to his wife Lucille on the "Mike Douglas Show" in 1970). The song was written by Ellis Reynolds and Doc Daugherty with lyrics by Al J. Neiburg, the man responsible for "Under a Blanket of Blue" and "It's the Talk of the Town" to name two standards.

But as many hardcore fans of early jazz might now, these songwriters must have been big fans of Fats Waller. The previous year, Waller recorded a song titled "Lookin' for Another Sweetie," which I've seen credited to the team of "Smith and Grant." I've also seen it credited to Waller and Fred Saintly. Either way, it's a carbon copy of "Confessin'" and it was recorded in 1929 while "Confessin'" wasn't published until 1930. Clearly, there was some dirty work afoot. The Waller performance, though it boasts a sad vocal by Orlando Roberson (the more "neutered" type of black vocalist commonly singing love songs before Louis brought a new level of passion), is a classic featuring a remarkalbe group with Red Allen, Leonard Davis, Jack Teagarden, J.C. Higginbotham, Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, Waller, Pops Foster, Kaiser Marshall and others (Jesus, my fingers started sweating as I typed those names!). If you've never heard it, you can listen to it now here:

Alas, "Lookin' for Another Sweetie" went nowhere (though some folks, such as Lonnie Johnson, continued to perform it instead of the newer ripoff) and when "Confessin'" came around a few months later, it was a bona fide hit thanks to versions by Rudy Vallee and Guy Lombardo. In fact, let's take a second to hear Vallee's version:

There you have it, 1930s crooning at its finest (or at least its most popular). I admire this stuff from a period perspective and I admire Vallee for his championing of Armstrong but I have also discovered that when I address young folks in 2015, when I play a Vallee vocal, it usually elicits laughter and fake snoring (sometimes real snoring) and when I play Armstrong singing the same song, it causes an eruption of cheering and smiles. I've said it before but it's like Louis came from another planet.

And again, just for context, here's Guy Lombardo's hit version:

Louis worshipped Lombardo and had already encountered him during his Chicago years so he must have sought out this record. The tempo has a bright bounce to it with a stately trumpet reading of the melody and some very nice guitar playing but the vocal is once again bland city.

OKeh records had been getting quite comfortable in passing along the latest pop hits for Louis to record and in "Confessin'" they had a tune that was a perfect fit. Armstrong recorded it in California on August 19, 1930 with Leon Elkins's band from Sebastian's Cotton Club, a band that included youngsters Lawrence Brown on trombone and Lionel Hampton on drums (not bad!).

Louis's record of "Confessin'" contains what some might deem a slightly bizarre accompaniment courtesy of Ceele Burke's Hawaiian guitar. Many jazz purists have scratched their heads at this novelty addition but I don't know, after listening to this recording about a thousand times, I find it charming. The only explanation I can muster for its presence is that earlier in the year, Louis recorded "Song of the Islands" for OKeh with violins. Perhaps it sold well and OKeh though Louis should record something else with a Hawaiian element so they asked for some steel guitar. Who knows, but I'll let you decide whether or not it works. But steel guitar aside, this is one magical recording. Listen for yourself:

Lovely, lovely stuff. After Burke's intro, Louis comes right in with the vocal, and it's a damn touching one. It really unfurls like one of his classic solos; he opens by sticking pretty close to the melody before he gradually begins to take more chances with it, throwing it snatches of scat and eventually rephrasing it with a tremendous passion. Great moments: Louis boiling down "But your lips deny they're true" to one pitch; his repetition of "making them blue"; the little two-note descending scat motif in the middle of the bridge. and the aforementioned passionate rephrasing of the final eight bars, bubbling into an ecstatic bit of scat. A fantastic vocal, and I repeat, it must be a somewhat historic one as it's a black man coming right out and singing the phrase "I love you," something that I don't think was very common back then. You just couldn't stop Louis...

The vocal leads into a nifty trombone solo by Lawrence Brown, his sound and style already formed at age 23. Then it's time for Louis, who enters with an almost fragile hesitation to his playing, riding one note for a while and finally letting it all come together in a break that Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton would "borrow" a few years later in the tune "Pick-A-Rib." Don't believe me? Here's Louis's break:

And here's the "head" of "Pick-a-Rib":

How many Armstrong improvisations crept their way into Swing Era compositions, arrangements and solos? Countless...

After Louis's shining eight bars, one of the saxophones picks up the bridge, playing with some passion but with also plenty of the dated mannerisms of other saxophonists of that era. Fortunately, our hero is there to swoop in and save the day with eight bars of bravura melody. You can hear Louis's mature style evolve with each passing bar; he keeps the melody front and center but what he plays in between it is mind-boggling. At such a slow tempo, he's swinging like mad, playing in the upper register before reeling off a dazzling break that actually ends in the lower register of the horn.

And with that, a masterpiece was born and jazz had one of its first great ballad recordings. I forget the story (I think it's in a Stanley Dance book), but decades later, a group of top Swing Era trumpeters were joking around during rehearsal when someone mentioned Louis's "Confessin'" solo and everyone of those musicians--years and years later--sang Louis's solo together with note-for-note perfection. This was some influential stuff.

(And if you'd like to continue "Confessin'" here's the links to my 2010 series, starting with Part 2 - The Big Band VersionsPart 3 - The 1940s Small Group Versions and finally Part 4- The All Stars.)

Next up was "If I Could Be With You (One Hour Tonight)," written by the top team of James P. Johnson and Harry Creamer. It was published in 1926 and a piano roll was cut in 1927 featuring none other than Johnson and pupil, Fats Waller! It has some of the typically mechanical feel of piano rolls but there's still some nice stuff, including the different rhythmic feel in the last chorus:

The first record of "If I Could Be With You" was done in 1927 by Clarence Williams's Blue Five with a vocal by the great Eva Taylor and some excellent cornet work by Jabbo Smith:

That's a great little recording. Everything you need is all there but for some reason the song didn't take off. In 1929, Coleman Hawkins gave it a first-class ballad treatment on the classic Mount City Blue Blowers version, "One Hour," but the song didn't really take off until 1930 when McKinney's Cotton Pickers recorded it in January 1930. Here's their pretty version, with vocal by George "Fathead" Thomas:

Thomas's vocal sure doesn't represent the future of jazz singing but I still like it. Apparently, so did the world; chart information is notoriously unreliable for this era but apparently McKinney's version of "If I Could Be You" hit the #1 spot. That was enough for the recording companies to take notice; a simple YouTube search of "If I Could Be With You" 1930 calls up versions by Ruth Etting, Hal Swain, Tom Gerun, Jack Albin and Gene Austin. I know I'm getting carried away but I think I should share the Gene Austin version since he was the preeminent pre-Crosby crooner and a good example of American popular singing before full exposure to Louis Armstrong:

Charming and harmless but kind of a limp reading of the melody, note-for-note as Johnson wrote it. Zzzzzzzz......

Wake up! Time to hear Louis Armstrong transform this number, teaching the world a little about love and passion along the way:

Hoowee, is it getting hot in here? Just the introduction alone is unlike anything we've heard in the previous versions. The band hits a dramatic chord, Louis oozes his way up to the mike and moans, "Ohhhh baby.....mmmmm baby.....I want to be with you to-NIIIGHT....." The record is ten seconds old and Louis has let the listeners know what his intentions are (can you say "the vonce"?).

After a somewhat dramatic piano interlude by Harvey Brooks, Louis picks up his horn and caresses the melody ofter an old-fashioned two-beat rhythm. He had more or less moved past this feel--tuba on one and three, banjo chunking on two-and-four--but it works here. He sticks to the melody for about four bars before he starts in with the very pretty variations. He works his way up to a high concert G at the midway point, works it over a few times them bursts into one of those ascending-and-descending chromatic runs he had played on "I'm in the Market for You" the previous month (and as I mentioned there, something that became part of Roy Eldridge and Dizzy Gillespie's vocabulary).

For the second half of the first chorus, Louis takes his time, working his way down from that explosive burst with some almost "Pretty Baby"-like phrasing, heading down south. He continues in this vein for a few bars, letting loose with a wild flurry of descending notes that's a little sloppier than we might expect from Pops but he catches himself and again piles on the lyricism; my, my, how you can (and should) sing his solos. He ends his chorus with a smooth run up to an Eb, the band with him; if the record faded right there, it would still be a dandy!

Fortunately, it doesn't end. Another dark interlude by pianist Brooks sets up one of Louis's finest vocals of this or any other period. As was his wont, Louis creates a brand new melody, trading in Johnson's chromatic episodes for more single-pitch excursions. On top of the new melody, there's his phrasing, so relaxed, so conversational. When he pauses and sings, "I want you to know, I wouldn't go," he sounds like he's speaking.

In the second half of the vocal, he really emotes, again singing the titular phrase on a single pitch but with such declamatory urgency; he is pleading for that one hour tonight! When he follows by singing, "If I were free to the things I might," he kind of repeats/mumbles "things I might," to hammer home the delight he gets from thinking about such "things." A few bars later he goes one step further; had anyone ever sung "Mmmmmm, baby" quite like Louis Armstrong before this record?

Like most of the great California recordings, the next voice we hear is the trombone of Lawrence Brown, scoring another bullseye with prodding by the suddenly walking rhythm section and the riffing horns. Brown gets a full chorus before turning it over again to one of the saxophones (Leon Herriford or Willie Stark), who gets bluesy over a different backing feel.

It's very generous for Pops to hand over so much time to his sidemen (and hearing Brown is a delight), but the time is ticking and we eagerly await his return. Finally, with half a chorus to go, Louis swoops in, taking the melody up an octave for a bit, working over a strong descending motive and finally charging up and hitting a high concert Bb smack on the nose, holding it like he great opera singer he was. He continues playing passionately until a little arranged ending where he leaves some spaces for Lionel Hampton's snare drum rolls. The band hits the final chord and Louis plays a little F-G-Bb-G-F-F phrase that, too, would become part of the standard Swing Era vocabulary.

A beautiful record but alas, the song doesn't seem to have ended up in Louis's regular repertoire. Fortunately, he revisited one more time in 1956 for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography and the result is a gem:

No surprise that he's still getting it done in 1956, right?  The tempo is slower but overall this one sticks very close to the original, from the opening "Baby" moaning and the passionate trumpet melody (no chromatic burst but almost a more relaxed, lyrical approach throughout, showing his maturity) to the delicious vocal (the declamatory title phrase and the sexy "mmmm, baby" are still there) and the operatic ending, complete the with the powerful high Bb and arranged ending (Billy Kyle getting little snatches of "Louise" in the cracks).

So there you have it, Louis the crooner, showing the world how to infuse a love song with passion, swing, heart and eroticism, all the way back to 85 years ago today on two numbers that sound just as exciting and heartfelt today as they did when they first released. That's the magic of Louis Armstrong.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Satchmo Summerfest Recap and Videos

I know, I know, I repeat myself every year but after my eighth straight one, I think I can say that last week's Satchmo Summerfest was the best one I've ever attended.

I don't think I need I to give a minute-by-minute account of all that happened (that's why they invented Facebook; you can even see all my favorite New Orleans photos by checking out this Facebook Album). But as in previous years, all of the seminars can currently be found at the Direction of Sky LiveStream page. That's the good news. The bad news? They all get taken off the web in 30 days....and it has taken me a week to find the time to write this post so the clock is ticking.

However, there was one moment that requires some backstory. If you've ever read my blog, my book or had a single conversation with me in person, you probably already know that Dan Morgenstern is my hero and has been since I read my first sets of Morgenstern liner notes in 1995 (The California Concerts and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).

Dan has never missed a Satchmo Summerfest in the 15 year history of the event. This year, he wanted to give his personal account of Louis's famous blow-up backstage at Newport in 1957. He asked if I could be his tech guy, in charge of finding photos of Louis at Newport that year, scanning negative columns about the event (namely one by Murray Kempton) and having a few tracks lined up on my iPod in case he wanted to play some music.

Dan's presentation is a knockout and I urge you to watch it in full. About 32 minutes in, Dan finishes his Newport section and continues with an account of the rest of Louis's exploits in the summer of 1957. The first thing he mentions is seeing Louis do "Beautiful Dreamer" on The Ed Sullivan Show on July 7, 1957 and how he wished it survived, though "not even Ricky" (me) has been able to locate it. What Dan didn't know when he said that was I had found it....and I had it with me.

Now, a little backstory to the backstory. About 10 years go, I interviewed Dan for the first time and he told me about "Beautiful Dreamer." A few years after that, after my reputation as the "rare Armstrong" guy grew, he asked about it and demanded I find it. But I couldn't find anything.

About two years ago, while serving my day job as Archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I spent probably over a year  going through all of Louis's private reel-to-reel tapes and beefing up the descriptions. And there it was, buried on accession number 1987.3.291: "Beautiful Dreamer"! Louis had taped it off TV so the sound quality was subpar--and the tape ran out just before the final note--but Dan was right: it was SPECTACULAR.

What I should have done was say, "Dan, I found it!" But I didn't. I did transfer the track to my work computer but believe it or not, soon forgot about it. Flash forward to this past March. I was representing the Armstrong House at the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival in England and knew I wanted to play a lot of private tapes. I didn't want to take the chance of leaving something crucial behind in New York so I loaded up my iPod with just about everything on my work computer. And after I got back from England, I kept it on the iPod, doing further work on the tapes during my daily commute.

So when Dan mentioned "Beautiful Dreamer" and mentioned that I couldn't find it, the lightbulb went off.  While he was talking, I grabbed my phone, went to the Armstrong House Online Catalog, searched for it, found the accession number, grabbed my iPod, went through all the accession numbers....and thank God, there it was! I immediately texted emcee Jon Pult about what was going to happen. Here's our exchange, courtesy of Jon:

And as you watch the following video, that's just what happens. After Dan's finish, I interrupt the applause, mention the surprise and announce "Beautiful Dreamer"; you'll hear a full blown gasp in the audience. And God bless the camera operator at the Old U.S. Mint as the camera stays right on Dan's face as the track progresses and catches all the emotions present in him listening to something he heard one time in 1957 and never thought he was going to hear again. When it was over, Dan leapt up and hugged me with all of his might, one of the most significant hugs of my life. Watch it all unfurl here:

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Phew. Pardon me for still being a bit emotional over that moment. And since it occurred, I'm happy to report that inside sources have told me that a sharp print of the full "Beautiful Dreamer" performance exists in the Library of Congress. May we all see it some day! Here's me and Dan the very next day, still talking about it.

What a man. The last time Dan saw Louis was in January 1971 when Dan accompanied him to a taping of The David Frost Show. Dan remembers Louis warming up with "Pennies from Heaven" backstage beforehand and afterwards, Louis treated Dan to a memorable dinner at Sardi's. Wow. That story came up in my first presentation on Friday featuring ultra rare videos of Louis on Frost's show in 1970 and 1971. You can take or leave my little offerings but any Pops fan should really pay attention to the footage: priceless stories in the interviews, witty back and forth with Orson Welles and Louis's ultra emotional 1971 appearance. If "Sleepy Time" doesn't make you cry, "Boy from New Orleans" surely will.

Last year, footage surfaced of Louis's complete East Berlin concert of March 22, 1965. I celebrated the footage with a very long blog and posted the concert to my YouTube channel. But this year, I took it down because of two very public showings, the first one at the Museum of the Moving Image on International Jazz Day and the second here at Satchmo Summerfest. Once these videos disappear in a few weeks, I'll probably put the complete concert on YouTube but for now, here it is in two parts, with lots of commentary from me, putting the performance in context. (I also love the sound of the live audience applauding throughout!)
Here's part 1:

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And part 2, featuring the second set. (I post these for the Pops not for me but I will admit, I was very touched by the standing ovation that greeted me before I even went on. Thanks to Jon Pult for the beautiful words!)

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Those were my three solo presentations but I was honored to be on a panel with Scott Wenzel and Dan Morgenstern discussing the Mosaic Records set of Louis's complete Decca recordings from 1935-1946.  I had nothing to do with that set (except for one mention in the liner notes) but was happy to join Dan and Scott to discuss one of my favorite, still underappreciated Armstrong periods. Scott does the heavy lifting with the making of the set and Dan provides some great historical context before I jump in with a fun little montage of Decca recordings at the end.

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Evan Christopher is one of my favorite musicians on the planet so I was quite flattered that he did an entire presentation inspired by a series of blogs I wrote in 2010 on Louis Armstrong's musical "battles" with Sidney Bechet. (If you're looking for the originals, here's Part 1Part 2 and Part 3.) Evan didn't necessarily agree with all of my points but it's still entertaining watching him demonstrate his own ideas with musical help from Jon-Erik Kellso and Matt Munisteri, both in town to promote their fantastic new  Earregulars CD on the Jazzology label:

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Finally, with Marty Napoleon's passing in April, the last surviving All Star is Jewel Brown. Jewel was present at the Summerfest, being interviewed onstage by Fred Kasten before going outside to the big stage to sing with Mitchell Player's Ella and Louie band. Here's Jewel's interview with Fred:

I was lucky enough to spend some time with Jewel backstage (she told some GREAT stories that I wish I had in my book!). But for me, the second highlight of the weekend came shortly after the above interview. I went on with my Berlin footage from 4:30-5:50 but Jewel was due to sing outside at 5:15. I told my crowd how much I regretted not being able to see her but still screened the fantastic footage of her singing in 1965. At around 5:45, while I was starting to wrap up, I got a text that Jewel hadn't sung yet! I announced it to the crowd, wrapped up and made a beeline for the outdoor stage. I got out just in time to hear her launch into "St. Louis Blues"....followed by "All of Me".....followed by "Bill Bailey"....followed by "Every Day I Have the Blues." It was all of her All Stars features! And at 78, she was singing with the power of a woman half her age. The band (with trumpeter Wendell Brunious and trombonist Freddie Lonzo) locked in and the set positively took off. Jewel just destroyed everyone present, many of whom are still talking about it a week later.

When Jewel was done, I went backstage to congratulate her. While talking, she was notified that her car had arrived to pick her up at the main gate. A little shaky on her feet, Jewel asked if she could put her arm around me for support; I wasn't going to say no! And there I walked, out of the festival with the last surviving All Star holding on. Minutes earlier, I was watching her and Pops in 1965 and there she way, still getting it done in 2015. Chills.

And finally, in my last entry, I teased the opening of the big Satchmo: His Life in New Orleans exhibit that will be up at the Old U.S. Mint until 2017. Well, it officially opened last week and I couldn't be any more proud! As I mentioned, it was a joy working with the Louisiana State Museum, who did such a wonderful job in helping execute the ideas of myself and my co-curator (and Archives Assistant), Brynn White. Big thanks to Jennifer Walden of the Armstrong House who was the driving force behind the collaboration, which has already received great coverage, such as a major Associated Press article that is still popping up around the world.

While in New Orleans, Brynn and I stopped by WWOZ to do an interview with Keith Hill in which we talked all about the exhibit and working at the Armstrong House. Here's the complete audio:

And here's me and Brynn, minutes after she made her Summerfest debut with a dynamite presentation on the exhibit (alas, it's not up in full on the Livestream site but I hope it's possible to rectify it!). That's me in "proud papa" mode, happy to see my colleague knock it out of the park:

And the best news is the exhibit was PACKED all weekend long. Imagine my thrill when I popped my head in and there was the great Yoshio Toyama! Here we are, posing in between Louis's first cornet and his last Selmer trumpet.

There was more--lots more (including the heroic tale of my ultra-pregnant, ultra-supportive wife breaking down but still doing her best to be there for me)--but I'll quit while I'm ahead (for a great review, see Mick Carlon's column in JazzTimes...and watch Mick's terrific lecture online!). Watch as many of the lectures as you can before they disappear! And if you're in New Orleans, check out the exhibit and let me know what you think. Thanks again, Satchmo Summerfest.....can't wait until 2016!