Oh, the internet can be an infuriating place (I'm starting to dread signing on to my beloved Facebook as we get deeper into election season here in the U.S.), but every so often, something comes along that makes you go, "Aha! That's why they invented the internet!"
Such a thing is the mind-blowing contents of the Willis Covoner Collection being regularly transferred and uploaded by my pal Maristella Feustle as part of the University of North Texas's Digital Library. If you don't know who Willis Conover was, you should (Doug Ramsey's Wall Street Journal article anad this NPR piece are good places to start). As the Voice of America's resident jazz disc jockey, Conover broadcast the sounds of American freedom around the world, giving many fans their first exposure to jazz. But Conover also interviewed musicians, edited together documentaries and even hosted special programs from festivals such as Newport.
Conover's collection included 22,000 sound recordings--with many of Conover's original broadcasts on reel-to-reel tape---and ended up at the University of North Texas in 1997. There, the tapes could have sat quietly on the shelves, waiting for researchers with intimate knowledge of how to operate reel-to-reel equipment to come in and give them a spin. Instead, Maristella sought out funding and received a grant from the Grammy Foundation to not just digitize the tapes, but to make them available online.
This was cause for celebration in the jazz community, as fans flocked to the UNT Digital Library website in September to hear the first batch of uploads, including interviews with Milt Gabler, Benny Goodman, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, George Avakian, Eddie Condonand others, as well as music by Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie at Birdland and more. (Seriously, those are all working links--take a day off and check them out!)
Of course, Willis Conover and the Voice of America loved Louis Armstrong, so there was some examples of Louis in the first batch Maristella uploaded. I had been meaning to write about them for some time but the combination of my "Music of Louis Armstrong" Queens College course and the arrival of baby daughter Lily put the blog on the back burner. Still, it's not too late to hear a reel Louis made for Joe Glaser in 1959 after recording "Uncle Satchmo's Lullaby" for the film La Paloma, or part one and part two of a rollicking interview with Conover, Woody Herman, Barney Bigard and Bobby Hackett in 1955.
But as they say, better late than never, because I'm writing today to report some of the most exciting Louis Armstrong-related news of the year. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hang out with Louis Armstrong for FIVE HOURS, listening to him tell stories about his life, discuss race frankly, give dietary advice, make observations about living "like an athlete" and most importantly, spinning his favorite records?
Well, if this sounds remotely like your idea of a good time, call out of work and spend the next five hours on the UNT's Digital Library site.
On a personal note, I've been intimately familiar with this material for years. George Avakian found a copy in his basement about ten years ago, had it copied, made a copy for David Ostwald and David Ostwald made me a copy in 2008. It was life changing; I quoted it heavily in my book, including the very first quote before the introduction. I proceeded to share excerpts on my blog in its early days and ended up making copies of it it various Armstrong scholars and musicians who've asked for it over the years. When I started working for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in 2009, I was happy to discover that Louis kept a copy of the program on a set of acetate discs, which were transferred to CD years ago. Anytime a researcher came and didn't know where to start, I'd direct them to the Voice of America series. Hell, I even played chunks of it for my class just last month.
But that was just me and my little world at Queens College. Now, thanks to Maristella and the Grammy Foundation, anyone, any place, any time can listen to this series of interviews and feel like they, too, are hanging out with Pops.
Here's a little backstory on the program before I start dispensing with the links. Anytime I've referenced this in my own writings as an "interview, Ostwald" gently scolds me, reminding me that an interview is a "two-way" occurrence. On the five Voice of America hours, you only hear one voice: Louis Armstrong. Of course, Willis Conover's presence is felt; you can hear Louis occasionally pause, as if someone's telling him he's off track or to save that story for later. Judging by this photo (which I'm assuming is from the July 1956 sessions), Conover was right next to Louis, armed with LPs:
Obviously, Conover put in the time and dedication before hand to select the records with Louis and have the records and personnel at hand for Armstrong's introductions. But for all intents and purposes, this is Louis Armstrong, Disc Jockey and Jazz genius.
The five hours were recorded in early July 1956, while Louis was in Washington D.C. and just before he went to New York to perform the big Lewisohn Stadium concert with Leonard Bernstein and members of the New York Philharmonic on July 16 (he references it in the final hour). 1956 might be my single favorite one of Louis's "later years" so for me, this is prime time. Thus, the first time I heart him brag about playing better horn at that point than any other point in his career, I knew I had found the opening quote of my book.
Okay, okay, enough from me, let's get to the audio! I'll post the links first and then a brief description of each part.
After the opening At the Crescendo version of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," Louis dives into tales of growing up in New Orleans, notably the impact of hearing Joe Oliver at such a young age. "New Orleans Function" is played in conjunction with Armstrong's memories of the New Orleans funerals. He then discusses King Oliver in depth, a fascinating segment where Armstrong laments that Oliver should have let Armstrong take more solos and play more lead on those 1923 recordings. Armstrong says he gladly would have let Oliver get the credit and the extra record sales but alas, it wasn't to be.
Part One also features stories of Armstrong's days with Fletcher Henderson, including the importance of hearing Vic d'Appolito and B.A. Rolfe at the Roseland while with Henderson (there's also the hilarious story of Armstrong vomiting on Henderson during his farewell party). Bessie Smith makes an appearance (Louis calling Fred Longshaw "Bradshaw"), as does Lil Hardin. You'll also hear the true backstory behind the title "Muskrat Ramble" (plus Louis's first claim as the tune's composer). Louis skips ahead to "I Can't Give Anything But Love" and tells a rarely heard story of playing it for King Oliver in New York in 1929. The first part ends with "Royal Garden Blues," taken from Ambassador Satch, released just a few months before this Voice of America interview.
I've already blogged about the 90th anniversary of the first Hot Five session and just this week, I installed a new exhibit at the Louis Armstrong House Museum on the Hot Fives so this second hour is perfect as it features nothing but Louis spinning the music of the Hot Fives and telling stories in between each selection. Heaven! Armstrong tells a lot of his favorite stories--Johnny Dodds getting tongue-tied on the first attempt on "Gut Bucket Blues," the "dropping the paper" story on "Heebie Jeebies" and more. There's also some deeper subjects, such as Louis's still simmering resentment at Earl Hines and how Hines always improvised new solos on "West End Blues" when he was with the All Stars from 1948-1951 and how his new solos always paled next to the 1928 original. There's also stories of Erskine Tate, Don Redman, Fate Marable (where Louis first composed "Weather Bird") and more.
People always ask, "What did Louis Armstrong listen to?" and this hour gives us a glimpse as it features Armstrong playing other people's records. I'm assuming because of Conover's jazz slant, Armstrong was asked to stick to his favorite jazz recordings because any list without Enrico Caruso, Guy Lombardo and others of that stripe is incomplete (see Louis's 1968 appearance on Desert Island Discs for another example of Louis selecting his favorite records, though on that one, he mostly sticks to his own!). Here's what Louis picked and discussed for the Voice of America:
"When the Saints Go Marchin' In" by Bunk Johnson
"West End Blues" by King Oliver (the 1929 remake)
"From Monday On" by Paul Whiteman (featuring Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby)
"You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" by Bing Crosby (with Bob Crosby)
"Summertime" by Sidney Bechet
"St. James Infirmary" by Jack Teagarden (HRS version)
"New St. Louis Toodle-oo" by Duke Ellington
"You Won't Be Satisfied" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
"'Bout to Wail" by Dizzy Gillespie
Armstrong closes with the Gordon Jenkins arrangement of "Bye and Bye" where the choir pays tribute to many the deceased jazz musicians. I always thought it was a bizarre touch but Louis obviously took it seriously and used here at the end of the hour, it's a nice tribute.
This is my favorite of the four hours and again, if you've read my book, my blog or my liner notes, some of this will sound awfully familiar. It's kind of a hodgepodge theme, Conover probably cobbling these various different subjects together because they didn't quite fit any of the other "themed" hours. After "Boff Boff," Louis goes off for about six minutes on how he's playing better than ever, the importance of showmanship and how he detests vacations and prefers to "live like an athlete."
Then, after "Mahogany Hall Stomp," Louis discusses race, something he rarely did in public. He uses his time to mostly scold his race for not sticking by him and other artists like Nat "King" Cole, saying that there were only a few African-Americans on top in the music business and there might be a few more if his people stuck together. It's really a deep topic and Louis does say African-Americans are beginning to "get with it" a little more but I think he was just saying it; he'd continue to lose his African-American audience in years to come, even after he spoke out against injustice in Little Rock in 1957. Armstrong even plays "Shine" and "Black and Blue," naming them as two songs African-Americans criticized him for playing because of the titles but Armstrong proudly plays them and implores the audience to "listen to all that music."
After such a serious discussion, part four ends with Armstrong the Dietician, whipping out a copy of his "Lose Weight the Satchmo Way" diet chart and spending at least five minutes going over his health regime in detail, with special mentions of Swiss Kriss. To me, the beautiful thing is he's not doing it for laugh; he really feels like he's found the secret to a healthy life and can't wait to share it with this worldwide audience.
The final part is something of a "best-of" Armstrong's 1947-1956 peak All Stars years, opening with the 1954 Decca "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and going back to the epic 1947 Town Hall performance of "Rockin' Chair." Before "C'st Si Bon," Louis tells a funny story about a drunk asking Louis who played the solo on it, thinking it couldn't have been Louis because he was "an old man." In the story, Louis mentions "a chick" who ran the drunk out of the room, which is how I reported it in my book, but Louis also told this story a few times on his private tapes and on those tellings, he made it clear that the "chick" was none other than Billie Holiday! Don't know why he omitted her name here.
After the glorious "Blue Turning Grey Over Your," Louis plays a selection of tunes from the film High Society, which was released in theaters on July 17, about a week after this interview. This stuff was brand new at the time, so Louis plays the opening overture, "Now You Has Jazz" with Bing Crosby and "High Society Calypso." (Listen to Louis burp after "Calypso," laugh, and blame it on "that caviar!")
By this point, Louis was coming to the end of the glory years recording for George Avakian on Columbia so it makes sense to follow with his big hit, "Mack the Knife," and the nine-minute "St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy.
After that selection, Louis wraps everything up, mentioning Conover and saying he had been there for a week recording these broadcasts. He then thanks everyone he can think of from around the world, including Hugues Panassie in France, Clara Gunderloch in Germany, Montmarte soul food chef Leroy Haynes and members of the British Royal Family Louis had just entertained during his trip to England in May 1956. It's a touching ending and a definitive punctuation mark on Armstrong's "Ambassadorial" status of the time and why he was so popular with the Voice of America audience.
So there you have it, five hours hanging out with Louis Armstrong, listening to him spin his favorite records and tell stories. It's just about as close as we'll get in 2015 to hanging out with Pops (the closest you'll get is by making an appointment with me at the Armstrong Archives on the Queens College campus to hear Louis's own private tapes, complete with cursing, dirty jokes and more. Louis's tapes aren't available online so come to New York and listen!). I don't think Armstrong fans can thank Maristella Feustle, the Grammy Foundation and the University of North Texas enough for all of their efforts in getting this material preserved and made available online. It's the best Christmas gift we'll get this year and for years to come. Bravo!
A final note: At the Armstrong Archives, we have an organic chemistry book from 1964, Interpretation of the Ultraviolet Spectra of Natural Products, written by A. I. Scott of Yale University and dedicated to Armstrong and Conover "for the hours of pleasure" Conover's broadcasts and Armstrong's music gave him "during the writing of this book." Pops and Willis touched everyone! Now, time to listen to those five hours yet again…...