Sunday, September 13, 2015

You Don't Learn That In School


Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra

Recorded March 12, 1947

Track Time 3:21

Written by Marvin Fisher and Roy Alfred

Recorded in New York City

Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ed Mullens, William “Chiefie” Scott, Thomas Grider, Robert Butler, trumpet; Russell “Big Chief Moore, James Whitney, Wadder Williams, Alton Moore, trombone; Arthur Dennis, Amos Gordon, alto saxophone; John Sparrow, Joe Garland, tenor saxophone; Ernest Thompson, baritone saxophone; Earl Mason, piano; Elmer Warner, guitar; Arvell Shaw, bass; James Harris, drums

Originally released on RCA Victor 20-2240

Currently available on CD: Available on The Complete RCA Victor Recordings of Louis Armstrong.

Available on Itunes? Yes, on the same set.

For the eight years I've been churning out this blog, I've always balanced periods of great activity with drier spells of inactivity. The inactivity has always been caused by something Armstrong-related--my job, lectures, my book, the Mosaic set, etc. Well, it's been 25 days since my last post and indeed, something Armstrong-related has taken me away from the blog, but it's so damn exciting, I wanted to share a little bit about it here.

On August 31, I began teaching "Music of Louis Armstrong," a graduate level course at Queens College. This was legitimately a dream come true for me. I taught two semesters of Jazz History to undergrads at Rutgers ten years ago and I took over for the late Howard Brofsky's Jazz History course when he passed away in 2013, but other than that, I've been relegated to the Pops guy. Have a college course and need to incorporate Louis into it? Call Ricky!

One of the folks who routinely did that was the great writer David Adler, who teaches various classes, including Jazz History, at Queens College. When the College offered David a "topics" class, he graciously stepped aside and said the topic should be Louis Armstrong and I (Ricky) should teach it. Blessings on him. The powers that be agreed and I got the gig. 

I looked into it and can't find very many (if any) examples of a full-blows graduate level course ever being devoted solely to Louis Armstrong. Even more exciting, since it's happening at Queens College, I have the resources of the Armstrong House and Archives for my students to take advantage of. I took my class to the Archives for week one and waved around Louis's trumpets and played some of his private tapes. I think the students realized this could be special.

Naturally, since I'm always on a mission of some sort, I'm taking this very seriously. Not only do I have 18 jazz and music majors in a classroom but they admitted to me that they've never really checked out Louis Armstrong. Folks, the jazz education world is broken if you have students getting to the tail end of receiving a master's degree in jazz performance, without having them ever seriously checked out Pops.  Well, that's at least changing for my students! And with 15 weeks, we're taking our time. This past week, I wanted to get them into Louis's head as he grew up in New Orleans so they heard ragtime, Souza's band, Bert Williams, Enrico Caruso, Al Jolson, the ODJB, King Oliver, religious music, whorehouse music and much more. I think the students are getting it but for me, I'm having a ball!

This is all a long way of saying that the blog will continue to be published on sporadic basis the next few months but there's a few things I definitely want to tackle: the 60th anniversary of "Mack the Knife" on September 28, more on Louis's 1930 California sessions, the anniversary of his Decca contract in 1935 and I'm sure some more. But since I'll be spending most of my free time with the educating of the future jazz performers/scholars of Queens College, I thought it would be fun to take a short look at a track that has eluded me to this point: "You Don't Learn That in School."

This performance comes from March 12, 1947 and was the final track Louis ever recorded with his big band for RCA Victory. Two months later, he had his career-changing Town Hall concert and the next time he stepped in a recorded studio, he had a small group behind him. Purists welcomed his return "home" to a small group setting and more "traditional" material like "Rockin' Chair" and "Ain't Misbehavin'" (from the Town Hall Show). They were tired of Louis with a brassy big band doing jivey material like "You Don't Learn That in School." I get it....but I also think this is a great little record!

The song was first recorded by the Nat King Cole Trio on December 30, 1946 and became a big seller for him. You can listen to it here. King Cole was at home with such material (wasn't he home with all material?) and though he had a string of hits in the 1940s, Louis Armstrong stayed away from them; in fact, I think the only one he covered was "You Don't Learn That in School." I'm glad he did because it's a lot of fun. Here 'tis:


The first thing you hear is Louis's brassy big band, which certainly doesn't sound like the Luis Russell orchestra of a decade earlier. After the opening, Louis good-naturedly sings the humorous lyrics:

Venus was a woman, who had a lot of charms
But she got so much huggin', she wore out both her arms
But she don't learn that in school
You don't learn that in school,
There ain't no doubt about it
You don't learn that in school

King Arthur was a hero, he's famous everywhere
He had a big round table, 'cause he couldn't stand the square
But you don't learn that in school
[I said!] You don't learn that in school
There ain't no doubt about it
You don't learn that in school

Fun stuff but then Pops picks up that horn and it's business time. He blows a searing chorus of the blues, the band really locking in behind him. They push him a bit but he stays relaxed, though adding some slightly "modern" touches in the back half of his solo. As Dan Morgenstern always points out, Louis was listening to the kiddies and though he never played anything remotely "boppish," some interesting harmonic choices can be heard in his mid-to-late-40s works.

Then it's back for another history lesson:

Columbus was the great explorer of his day
But when he got to Brooklyn, the poor guy lost his way
Now you don't learn that in school
[I said!] You don't learn that in school
There ain't no doubt about it
You don't learn that in school

Trumpet time! But this time, buckle your seatbelt: Louis runs up to a high C and hits a string up them with great power, still keeping his gigantic, warm tone (something other trumpet players lost once they got into the stratosphere). This second go-around kills me as he sounds so powerful but this time, after coming out of the gate with guns blazing, he relaxes as he goes on, wrapping a bow on it with a string of repeated A's leading into the final, logical F. Great solo! Then it's time for the last vocal chorus:


Ol' Robin Hood was famous, but one thing you should know
He only robbed the rich folks, 'cause the poor folks had no dough
Now you don't learn that in school
[I said!] You don't learn that in school
Ohhhhh, there ain't no doubt about it
You don't learn that in school

And there you have it, the end of Louis Armstrong's own big band recordings (though of course, he'd record with studio-assembled large ensembles until the end of his life). Sometimes I daydream (yes, this is what I daydream about) if the All Stars never were born. Don't get me wrong; the All Stars period is my favorite Armstrong period (and I'd be out of business without them!) so I wouldn't change a thing. But picturing Louis leading a big band in the 50s with better arrangements, varied material, more time for trumpet specialties, etc. does make for a fascinating "what-if" conversation. (Because he sure sounds wonderful on all those aforementioned studio big band recordings to come.)

Well, that's all for "You Don't Learn That in School" but for my students, there will be no more excuses to not learn Louis Armstrong in school! They'll be Satch-urated at the end of these 15 weeks.....



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