Louis Armstrong and His Hot FiveRecorded February 26, 1926
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
On July 12, 1954, Louis Armstrong recorded six songs in one evening for the epic album "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy." While working on the sixth and final tune, "Long Gone," producer George Avakian came up to Louis and asked, "What's the last time you made six in one evening?" "Man," Armstrong responded, "it's been years since that shit. It's wonderful."
Armstrong wasn't kidding. Six tunes in one session is a lot for any artist and Armstrong hadn't it done it many times before. One occasion that jumps to mind is an immortal Decca session on May 18, 1936 that included gems like "Lyin' to Myself," "Swing That Music" and "Mahogany Hall Stomp." (I covered that session for its 75th anniversary and might revisit it for its upcoming 80th.) And the Victor session of January 26, 1933 was another six-tune classic, including "I've Got the World on a String," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and four other performances for the time capsule.
But I don't think that anyone can argue that pretty much the most ridiculous six-song session Louis Armstrong ever recorded was done 90 years ago this week, a Hot Five session on February 26, 1926. The rundown? "Georgia Grind," "Heebie Jeebies," "Cornet Chop Suey," "Oriental Strut," "You're Next" and "Muskrat Ramble." My goodness, that's a lot of history in session.
In 2011, for the 85th anniversary, I posted separate entries on all six pieces, but for the 90th, I'm combining those original entries (with updated info when possible) into this massive manifesto.
First, a little back story. As chronicled here recently, November 12, 1925 marked the very first Hot Five recording session. Three tunes were waxed, with "Gut Bucket Blues" being pegged as the first "A-side" with "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" being the flip. It was released in late December 1925 and from what I can tell, it seems to have taken off pretty quickly. OKeh obviously wanted more…..a lot more.
On February 22, the Hot Five knocked off "Come Back Sweet Papa," another fine instrumental, while Louis spent February 23 and 24 lending his accompaniment on nine separate sides by blues singers Bertha "Chippie" Hill, Baby Mack and Hociel Thomas. After a day off on the 25th (presumably some rehearsal time was scheduled), the Hot Five returned on 26th to knock off six sides, including what would become, by far, their most popular recording: "Heebie Jeebies."
E. A. Fearn, the man overseeing the Hot Five recordings for OKeh, liked Armstrong's spoken contributions to "Gut Bucket Blues" and requested more such vocal numbers. The February 26 session, thus, began with "Georgia Grind," a close relative (twin, perhaps?) of "Shake That Thing."
So what came first, “Georgia Grind” or “Shake That Thing”? All signs seem to point to “Shake That Thing,” though do not be confused: Ford Dabney wrote a ragtime piece titled “Georgia Grind” in 1915 but it has nothing to do with the Spencer Williams tune Armstrong recorded in 1926 (certain websites claim Williams wrote it in 1915…wrong!). Some versions of “Shake That Thing” credit the tune to “Traditional” but from what I can tell, it really belongs to New Orleans banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson, who recorded the first version of the song in May 1925. It’s pretty uptempo compared to some later versions, but a lot of the hallmarks are there, including the line about the “Jellyroll king.” Jackson’s record must have been something of a hit because by the end of 1925, it was already being covered by the likes of Clarence Williams’s Blue Five (December 15, 1925) and Ethel Waters (December 23, 1925). Waters slowed it down to give it more of a blues feeling.
The “Shake That Thing” craze continued into 1926 with Jimmy O’Bryant’s Washboard Band waxing it in January and Abe Lyman’s California Ambassador Orchestra recorded a hot version on February 1. With one “Shake That Thing” cover after another being recorded, it was only a natural to have a copycat version soon appear. Enter our friend Spencer Williams. Williams perhaps remembered the title of the Dabney piece but more to point, Jackson’s first line referenced the peach state: “Now down in Georgia, they got a dance that’s new/ There ain’t nothin’ to it, it is easy to do/ Called ‘Shake That Thing.” Williams then borrowed a line that had been around for years:
Papa, Papa, just look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this
On his Library of Congress recordings, Jelly Roll Morton sings this line on more than one occasion, including on “Michigan Water Blues” and “Hesitating Blues.” He sings it as:
Mama, mama, look at sis, she’s out on the levee, doin’ the double twist
Obviously, Williams substituting “shaking like this” for “double twist” is a sly wink to “Shake That Thing.” Otherwise, both tunes are identical, though even I’ll admit, there are traces of this melody in many other blues tunes, including the verse to “Hesitating Blues.” And Joe Oliver’s solo on “Jazzin’ Babies Blues,” the one that Armstrong would borrow many times throughout the years, also has a “Shake That Thing”-type feel to it. But it does appear that Armstrong’s Hot Five was the first group to take a crack at the “Georgia Grind” so if you’d like to hear how they did, here 'tis:
Now I like “Georgia Grind” because it’s one of those Hot Five records that didn’t set out to change the world, instead only aiming to entertain its listeners. It was recorded on the same day as “Heebie Jeebies,” “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Muskrat Ramble,” three tunes that indeed change the world and more power to ‘em, but “Georgia Grind” is one those reminders that young Louis “the artist” also had quite a bit of “the entertainer” in him as well. And by sharing the vocal with his wife Lil, why, it’s a practical blueprint for the duets with Velma Middleton of later years (more in a bit).
Armstrong starts the record at the V chord of the blues as the simples means for an introduction. He plays the melody in a very straight-forward fashion with Dodds and Ory sounding very comfortable (this didn’t always happen). We’re not even 30 seconds in and here comes Lil with the vocal:
Papa, Papa, look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this,
Doing that Georgia Grind, that old Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s talking about that old Georgia Grind.
I can shake it east, I can shake it west, but way down south I can shake it best,
Doing that Georgia Grind, I said dirty Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s raving about that old Georgia Grind.
Ory then plays the melody for a few bars before improvising a simple solo that practically screams his name. Then Pops steps up to the mike for a good-time vocal. He was still in his enthusiastic, half-speaking, half-shouting days and I love it:
Come in here gal, come in here right now, out there trying to be bad and you don’t know how,
Doing the Georgia Grind, ohhhh, the Georgia Grind,
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.
Say Old Miss Jones was bent and gray, saw the Georgia Grind, threw her stick away,
She did the Georgia Grind, yessir she went crazy about the Georgia Grind—you know one thing?
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.
I love those two choruses. Armstrong sings with more soul and feeling than those in the soul and R&B music world of today. Just listen to how he sings "Ole Miss Jones," for one example, while I can’t imagine another pure blues singer doing better than Armstrong on words like “Everybody,” where he bends the first syllable beyond the blue horizon. And that quick, “You know one thing” would become something of a trademark. After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes an eight-bar solo before Pops leads the rideout for the final four bars. No high notes, no stop-time solos, no dazzling feats of rhythmic risk-taking. Just some straightforward lead horn and a fun vocal and that’s all I need. After listening to it, I feel entertained and for Pops, that was mission accomplished.
With a big name like Spencer Williams behind it, it only made sense that the “Georgia Grind” would spread much like “Shake That Thing” had only months earlier. On March 18, Duke Ellington recorded it under the banner of The Washingtonians. Ellington creatively took it at an up tempo but using long meter to keep the same feel of the melody over the double-timing rhythm section. You can hear that version by clicking here. Thomas Morris and His Seven Hot Babies recorded it on July 13 and just eight days later, Jelly Roll Morton accompanied Edmonia Henderson on her version of the tune. After that, “Georgia Grind” kind of disappeared but the lyrics would be used again and again in a hundred incarnations. In April 1928, Henry Williams recorded something called “Georgia Crawl” which “borrowed” more than a little from “Georgia Grind.” It begins with the “Papa, Papa, look at sis” chorus, continues with the “I can shake it east” chorus and even has Pops’s “Come here right now” segment. Blind Willie McTell would also sing about a “Georgia Crawl” in some of his early 30s blues tunes while Coot Grant and Kid Wilson sung about “shaking it east.”
As the years went on, “Georgia Grind” more or less vanished, only being performed by some European trad bands that remembered the Hot Five record. “Shake That Thing” lived on, though, in both blues and New Orleans jazz circles, though the lyrics often changed. When Kid Ory recorded it for Good Time Jazz in 1954, he opened his vocal by singing, “Mama, mama, look at sis” from “Georgia Grind.” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to perform it.
But back to our hero, Mr. Armstrong, he wasn’t quite done with “Georgia Grind,” either. When he tackled the massive Autobiography project of 1956 and 1957, “Georgia Grind” was one of the tunes selected for the Hot Five recreations, overseen by Bob Haggart. The performance follows the 1926 original to a tee, though the tempo is a little slower, which I think is an improvement. And I always like to point out that in recreating the Hot Fives and Sevens for the Autobiography, Pops didn’t feel the need to recreate the chunky feel of the original rhythm section. Times had changed and Pops was clearly more comfortable with the All Stars’s swinging feel, augmented by George Barnes’s smooth electric guitar comping. Here's how it came out in 1957:
Pops again plays the intro and one chorus up front, playing a dazzling phrase at the 16 second mark as the I chord turns to the IV. It’s a short burst of velocity that shows that even in his mature style, he was more than capable of the quick flurries that marked his younger playing days.
Velma plays the role of Lil here and it’s a perfect fit. Elsewhere on the Autobiography, Velma had to play the role of the blues queens of the 1920s and though she did a professional job, it wasn’t exactly her forte and as a result, those sides are pretty forgettable (besides some stirring obbligatos from Pops). But “Georgia Grind” was right in her bag and as she sings, Pops can be heard interacting with her, which he didn’t do with Lil in 1926. He answers her lines and even repeats the title phrase after she sings it. It’s really a duet in the true sense of the word. Trummy takes a smooth trombone spot before Pops takes over. His shouting days were pretty much behind him but he still speaks part of his lines and his reading of the phrase “Georgia Grind” is priceless. Pops continues on with his vocal—the “you know one thing” line is still there—while Edmond Hall offers fine support behind him. Hall then takes a hot solo before Pops leads the final rideout chorus. On the original record, he only entered for the last four bars but here he takes a full one. Trummy’s ready to play, entering before Hall’s solo is even finished and Pops sounds very bluesy in his lead playing. The song has such a great feel that I wish they could have jammed a couple of more choruses, but I’ll take what I can get (though Pops does get to stretch out a bit at a similar tempo on the very exciting “Snag It” from the Autobiography).
With one song out of the way, it was now time to make history. "Georgia Grind" was all well and good, but not exactly earth shattering. Well, that all changed with the next tune on the docket, "Heebie Jeebies."
This is a performance that has been written to death about since it was waxed 90 years ago today and it's still shrouded in mystery. I don't think I can shed any definitive light on it, but it's always a fun track to listen to and debate what conspiracy theories we have as to what really happened that day.
What we do know is the song was written by Chicago violinist Boyd Atkins, a member of Louis's band at the Sunset Cafe. But the first mystery arises around the lyrics: were there any when Louis got around to recording it? Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr remembered that OKeh head E. A. Fearn asked Louis to whip up some lyrics for this "Heebie Jeebies" song. St. Cyr remembered Louis sitting in the corner, writing them out and trying to familiarize himself with them before the recording light went on.
Hmmm, maybe this happened, maybe it didn't (I don't know why St. Cyr would make it up). But of course, it's what happened once the recording began that has become the stuff of legend. Richard M. Jones, who oversaw a lot of black music recorded for OKeh, was the first to tell the tale that while Louis singing the vocal, he dropped the words and started to scat. According to Jones, Louis carried the microphone with him to the floor at the same time that Jones dove for the lyrics, causing both men to hit their heads! Armstrong kept going, the record was released and viola, scat singing was on the map.
A fine story, but one aspect of it completely wrongheaded: there were no microphones in the studio as the song was recorded acoustically. So right there, the whole idea of Louis at a microphone, hitting his head and all that stuff, becomes rather silly.
But what if we remove the microphone part? What if we just stick to the basics: Louis was singing the song, dropped the sheet with the lyrics, scatted for a while and the record was released. A lot of people have trouble with this story as well, but you know what? After hearing it for so many years, I think I've started to maybe believe it.
Never mind Jones; Louis never wavered in his telling the story that way for over 30 years. He was asked it countless times and he always gave the same answer, as can be heard on a number of his private recordings housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. In my private collection, I have a number of interviews and conversations Louis did, including one with producer George Avakian at the Armstrong home in 1953. Avakian produced the first major reissue of this material in the early 40s and quoted the famous "dropped lyrics" story in his notes, which really turned it into legend. But there he was, grilling Armstrong at his home in private and Pops still didn't change his story.
On top of that, Johnny St. Cyr and Kid Ory said the same thing! Really, what did it matter to them? Armstrong and Ory had a somewhat awkward relationship and Ory could have easily said it was bunk. I'm sure there wasn't a private, Hot Five reunion phone call in the 1940s with each man making a solemn promise to stick by this story.
And then there's the matter of the record itself, which isn't very polished and contains a giant gaffe in the routine at its conclusion. Shall we listen to it now? Let's...
There it is. Did you catch the gaffe at the end? Of course, it's Kid Ory jumping the gun with his response, "Whatcha doin' with the Heebies?" In Armstrong's first Hot Five session, Johnny Dodds suffered mike fright during "Gut Bucket Blues" and Ory was the one who had to rescue the day. But here, the Kid blows the routine, allowing for the incredibly awkward moment of silence as Lil and St. Cyr play that weak Charleston beat. The whole thing reeks of a first take but according to Armstrong, Fearn was so tickled by the scat interlude that he stopped the proceedings right there, knowing they had just created something special. Louis, as we'll hear, did exaggerate it a bit, I feel, as he usually said that Fearn walked into the studio and said, "Louie Armstrong, this is where scat was born." That sounds a little convoluted, but again, early newspaper articles from the period did soon refer to the "skat" craze, so maybe Fearn predicted it all in a matter of minutes.
So let's listen to Louis. In 1956, he gave a series of interviews for the Voice of America where he introduced his favorite recordings. Here's the intro to "Heebie Jeebies" with Louis telling a definitive version of the "dropped lyric" story:
There it is, straight from the source. One thing Louis mentions there is Jelly Roll Morton's "Library of Congress" recordings. It should be mentioned that when "Heebie Jeebies" was released, it created a nationwide scat-singing sensation. But as has been proved countless times, this was not the first scat vocal to be recorded; Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards and Don Redman both beat Louis to the punch. But "Heebie Jeebies" was a hit and helped make Louis a star and to many, Louis innovated the whole concept.
Well, Louis never claimed this to be true, as he often said he was doing this kind of singing was still in vocal quartets in New Orleans. But when Jelly Roll Morton did his Library of Congress interview with Alan Lomax, he took offense to Louis getting the credit for inventing scat. Naturally, Jelly Roll claimed he invented it, doing it with Tony Jackson while Armstrong was still a baby. Louis got a kick of out this section and I think was more than a little annoyed, as he brought it up in many, many interviews. He usually told Jelly's side with a laugh but there is one private tape at the Louis Armstrong House Museum that must be heard to be believed. Louis owned Jelly's Library of Congress records and transferred them to tape many times. But one time, he got to the scat story, stopped the tape, picked up his microphone and addressed Jelly directly…even though he was dead for over 10 years by this point! That didn't stop Louis from pretty much telling him off and bragging that he (Louis) was still performing and Jelly, for all his big opinions, was six feet in the ground!
Anyway, to get back on point, "Heebie Jeebies" isn't the first record to feature scat singing and Louis Armstrong didn't invent the concept, but it did a helluva lot to make it something that people began incorporating into their vocals almost immediately (so when you see a poor amateur singer incorporate a snatch of awkward scat on "American Idol," sending the crowd into a tizzy, thank "Heebie Jeebies"). Just think: this was Louis's third full vocal on record and he already upset the world. Amazing.
Louis kept scrapbooks with many of his 1920s reviews and the great majority mentioned "Heebies" (one naming him as "one of 'Heebies' pet writers"). Louis began featuring it with Erskine Tate's orchestra at the Vendome Orchestra and even did a dance to go along with it. A magazine titled Heebie Jeebies was formed, putting Louis on the cover, as well as Ethel Waters and composer Boyd Atkins, in September 1926:
But once he went out as a single in the late 20s, "Heebie Jeebies" seemed to have left the Armstrong repertoire...for good.
Seriously, there's not a single live performance of the tune in entire Armstrong discography except for one, and thankfully, it is a gassuh. It comes from the "Eddie Condon Floor Show" from September 3, 1949 and features Louis in pretty good company, surrounded by Wild Bill Daviso, Cutty Cutshall, Peanuts Hucko, rnie Caceres, Joe Bushkin, Condon, Jack Lesberg, George Wettling and Jack Teagarden. Armstrong tells the famous dropping-the-sheet-music story before recreating the performance. I love the vocal chorus because it features Condon's guitar playing, which I've always enjoyed. In most mixes, Condon's lost the in the shuffle, but occasionally he stood a little too close to the microphone, resulting in a chance to appreciate his driving pulse and seamless chord-work. Armstrong's on fire during the vocal, setting up some good solos (Hucko begins by quoting Armstrong's original scat solo!) before Pops up his horn for some absolutely dazzling playing. Overall, he takes three choruses , building to a ferocious climax driven by George Wettling's tidal wave of a roll. The original "Heebie Jeebies" is pretty historic but from a purely musical standpoint, this remake cuts the original to ribbons. Dig it:
And like "Georgia Grind," Pops payed one last tribute to this Hot Five classic in his 1957 project, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. The one thing I haven't mentioned about the original "Heebie Jeebies" is the quality of the instrumental music played, which is okay, but nothing spectacular. For the Autobiography, Louis had his greatest All Stars with him, including Edmond Hall on clarinet and Trummy Young on trombone, and the difference in quality of the solos is marked. The tempo is faster, like the Condon version, and the whole thing romps from start to finish. Unfortunately, it's over a little too quick--there was definitely time for one more chorus, a la the Condon version--but there's good news: the "whatcha doin' with the Heebies" hokum is straightened out! And for that, we should be thankful. In fact, Armstrong's friend Jeann Failows was in attendance at this session and a few of her write-ups survive at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, each of them making special emphasis on this performance and how much fun everyone had doing it. Enjoy!
So that's "Heebie Jeebies," an absolute iconic moment in the history of jazz singing. But an equally iconic moment would follow it, this one for the history of jazz solos. At this point in the session, the Armstrong horn still hadn't had much to do.
Well, that all changed with the third song written that day "Cornet Chop Suey." This is a piece that has gotten writers breathless for decades and I don't know how much I can add. You want to know what made Louis Armstrong such a revolutionary musician in the 1920s? Well, it's all right here for you. He's in complete command of his horn, playing almost clarinet figures his trumpet (or cornet). The melody of "Cornet Chop Suey," which he wrote, is very forward-thinking, a harbinger of snake-like melodies that would come later on in the bop era (Scott Robinson recorded a wonderful updated take on this tune in recent years, but I'd love to hear a bebop front line of trumpet and alto tear through this melody in unison...wouldn't sound out-of-date for a second).
And then there's that stop-time solo, every note so perfectly placed and swinging, it's almost as if he wrote it out beforehand. But that could never happen, not in these righteous days of pure jazz, when, if you weren't improvising, well, you might as well be playing dance band music with Vincent Lopez. Right? Hello? Bueller?
Of course, some of you might not know where I'm heading, but here's the straight dope: every note of "Cornet Chop Suey" was written down by Louis Armstrong and registered at the Library of Congress on JANUARY 24, 1924! Two years before he recorded it!
Don't believe me? Well, I don't know how good this is going to work, but Lawrence Gushee wrote a defintive piece on Louis and improvisation that now appears in the book "In the Course of Performance." That book is available on Google Books and you can scroll to page 300 to see a copy of it, right in Louis's hand. Here's a link.
This is not new news. The Library of Congress deposits were discovered in the 80s and have been writen about often since. In fact, when I was a member of the Master's program in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers, when we got to the subject of Armstrong in our Jazz Historiography class, our professor, Lewis Porter, passed this around to make the point that improvisation in the early days wasn't exactly a given. Soloists such as Louis and Kid Ory and King Oliver worked on their solos and once they had it down perfect, well, why in the hell mess with it? They were playing for dancers and making records for a quick buck, never thinking that students at universities would be analyzing their every eighth-note rest.
Louis himself admitted as much. I don't have the quotes at hand (but--plug alert--they're in my book), but he talked about it with Richard Meryman in the 1960s, basically saying that everything he played was improvised at one point. But once he got it down, that's it, only change a few notes here and there, as long as they fit. He made sure to stress that's how it was in the old days, when everybody was supposedly improvising.
So here's "Cornet Chop Suey" two years before it got waxed, and it's all there: that incredible introduction, the melody and even every note of the stop-time chorus, marked by Louis as the "Patter" section. Now should this change anyone's opinion of "Cornet Chop Suey"? I should hope not. If so, if you really need every note of your jazz to be freshly minted from the tortured artist's brain, I feel sorry for you. Because me, I can admire what Louis put into composing this work and how he must have worked on it until it sounded like perfection. He probably didn't play it with King Oliver or Fletcher Henderson, but he probably did play it with Lil on piano at their Chicago home (her solo, while not an all-time classic, is one of her best ones, in my opinion).
Above, I shared a Voice of America interview with Louis where he introduced and discussed "Heebie Jeebies." From that same session, he did the same thing with "Cornet Chop Suey." Here he is talking about it in 1956, downplaying it as just an unpublished compisition, recorded to make some quick money to go to the cabarets, with no thoughts about royalties or anything like that.
So with Louis serving as our disc-jockey, let's dig into the original "Cornet Chop Suey":
Right off the bat, for some of you who may have enjoyed this song for 90 years, it might sound a little different. That's because I went with the version of the song in the key of F, as included in Phil Schaap's "Complete Hot Fives and Sevens" box set of about a decade ago. In his own notes, Schaap mentioned that authorities like Randy Sandke and James Charillo believed it to be in Eb. That's how Bobby Hackett played it and that's how John R. T. Davies mastered it in his JSP set.
But Louis wrote it down in F and the three subsequent versions he made of the song (which we'll get to in a bit), were each in F. That's good enough for me, but Norman Field really did the fieldwork in 2005 and published his results here. Check that out and you'll be listening to this version for good.
And then there's the matter of "cornet vs. trumpet." Everyone asks when did Louis switch and why? I can't give an exact date for the switch but it was around this time when Louis joined Erskine Tate's orchestra at the Vendome Theater. Thus, it's possible that "Cornet Chop Suey" was played on a trumpet! Here's Louis on the Voice of America again, right after playing "Cornet Chop Suey," discussing the difference between the two instruments and why he made the switch:
So there you have it, again, straight from the man himself. Of course, later that year, on "Big Butter and Egg Man," Louis sings, "As long as I can keep this cornet up to my mouth." Was he switching between the two horns, maybe still using cornet on record dates. Hmmmm….
One final note: many writers have said Louis titled it this way because exotic material was usually associated with Asia back then (see "Oriental Strut" from this same session). But I don't hear anyting exotic about "Cornet Chop Suey"; I think the title is a play on "Clarinet Marmalade" that works in Louis's love of Chinese food, something that started as a kid and continued until the end of his life.
I've said very little about the playing on "Cornet Chop Suey" but I think the record speaks for itself. It's a masterpiece of the 20th century and was one of those recordings that pretty much said, "Jazz...follow me!" Interestingly, when "Cornet Chop Suey," hit the markets, it was marketed as just another fun fox trot, as seen in this advertisement, clipped from one of Louis's scrapbooks:
Hmm, no mention of "This record will change the world"? Well, it did, but Louis seems to have left "Cornet Chop Suey" behind. I have never seen any mentions of him playing it for the next 20 years of life but the next time he dug it out, stand back!
The occasion was the historic Town Hall concert in May 1947. This concert plays a crucial role in the beginning of the book and I center on "Cornet Chop Suey" as the start of things to come. Thus, I'm not going to run my mouth about the subject for long, other than to say, dig it:
That, to me, is just an amazing performance. It's Louis with just a rhythm section with Dick Cary on piano, Bob Haggart on bass and George Wettling on drums. This concert was supposed to throw Louis back into his "old" styles, all at a time when the dixieland revival had trad bands trying to recreate 1920s recordings with painstaking details.
And here comes Louis and not for one second does he treat it like 1926. That rhythm section SWINGS, Wettling dropping subtle bombs and all sorts of accents. And perhaps because he hadn't played it in so long, Louis is completely free. He makes plenty of allusions to the original, but makes enough changes to keep it fresh, right up to that giant high note at the end, all 1947. Definitely a magical performance that helped usher in the later years of Louis's career.
Concert programs from the early days of the All Stars listed "Cornet Chop Suey" as part of the repertoire but I have never come across a live performance of broadcast of it. Instead, it would be ten more years before Louis would take another crack at it and once again, he came through with flying colors. Like "Heebie Jeebies" and "Georgia Grind," Louis revisited it on Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography"
The Hot Five and Hot Seven recreations were arranged by Bob Haggart, who transcribed every note of the original recordings. Louis was well rested and had plenty of time to rehearse during these sessions, so his playing is note-perfect, but perhaps not quite as free as the Town Hall version.
Regardless, Haggart has some neat ideas, such as having George Barnes's guitar double Louis's acrobatic introduction. Louis sounds in command and the rest of the band is equally enthusiastic (though the Barrett Deems Drum Machine 2000 is too rigid; not his fault, Haggart wrote in the arrangements "closed hi-hat" on Deems's parts, keeping him locked down for some reason). Everyone gets a solo but of course, the spotlight is on Louis for the stop-time bit and he nails it, though he passes the ball to Trummy for a half-chorus, probably to give his 56-year-old chops a bit of a breather before the rideout, which has a new ending. Louis's crazy spiraling bit from the original is gone, replaced with the raw power of the 1950s Armstrong. Enough from me, give it a listen:
Alas, my final version of "Cornet Chop Suey" is a bit of a letdown. It's from only two years later, but different circumstances lead to different recordings. This time around, Louis did "Cornet Chop Suey" with the Dukes of Dixieland. First off, the session was only weeks after Louis's heart attack in Spoleto, Italy, which didn't have any major effects on his trumpet playing, but did seem to affect his ability to execute fast runs on the horn, something that especially became noticable in the mid-1960s.
Also, this session was the Dukes seems like it was just thrown together, without any prepartion or rehearsal. In fact, they just did a lot of songs Louis was already performing live and/or had just recorded for Decca. Because of that, Decca stepped in and didn't allow the recordins to be released until theirs had been on the market for a certain period of time. Armstrong and the Dukes got their act together and recorded fresh material for a fantastic album in 1960 but this 1959 meeting flew under the radar for years.
After recording so many familiar songs--"Back O'Town Blues," "Someday," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue"--and some different material with basic routines--"Dippermouth Blues" "Riverside Blues," "Bill Bailey"--someone in the Dukes probably suggested "Cornet Chop Suey." This was the kind of material the Dukes ate up (Dukes trumpeter Frank Assunto takes the melody in the first chorus) but Louis hadn't played it regularly for years and when he recorded it for the Autobiography, he had an arrangement in front of him.
Thus, judged solely on itself, this recording features some fine, powerhouse playing by the 1959 Armstrong. But you can hear his memory trying to conjure up those phrases and then you can feel the execution slowing down tremendously since the 1957 project. Like an aging fastball pitcher, Louis still has the knowhow to throw enough offspeed stuff to strike the batter out. In fact, for a longtime, I winced when I heard this stop-time solo until I learned to just listen to it on its own. And you know what? It's grown on me until I think it's pretty terrific, with lots of new ideas to make up for what old ideas he couldn't execute anymore. Still, it's a different ballgame from those 1947 and 1957 versions. And the whole thing is over in 2 minutes and 15 seconds so it's like everyone just wanted to get it over with. Anyway, here it is:
I doubt Louis ever performed "Cornet Chop Suey" again after this recording (there's an alternate from this session but it's very similar and I don't think worth sharing). I enjoy each of these versions but really, that first one, recorded 85 years ago this week, is the one that changed history.
The next song recorded that day, didn't exactly do that, but it's still worth remembering. History has kept the wonders of "Heebie Jeebies" and "Cornet Chop Suey" flowing for 85 years but what about the next two songs recorded that day, "Oriental Strut" and "You're Next"? These have kind of flown under the radar for too long so I think it's time they got a little attention. So let's jump in and give a listen to Johnny St. Cyr’s composition, “Oriental Strut.”
Joy personified. The title makes it sound like it’s going to be some kind of pentatonic-fest, complete with Asian-inspired hokum. Alas, there’s none of that and, except for the interesting chord changes, the only vaguely “foreign” sound to the piece comes during the exotic, minor banjo-and-piano vamp at the end. Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr got credit for writing the tune but like many Hot Five classics, it might have been a collaborative effort on the spot. Perhaps, St. Cyr thought of some of the chord changes or the vamp. Or who knows, he might have written the entire thing out as it does encompass three strains and, like I said, the changes are anything but ordinary in the blowing strain.
Regarding the title, these sort of ethnic things were common in the 20s (Johnny Dodds did a small group number, complete with vocal, called “Oriental Man” around this time). The Hot Five also did “Irish Black Bottom,” while there was also the Jamaican routine on “King of the Zulus.” Later Armstrong went Hawaiian with “Song of the Islands,” Native American with “Indian Cradle Song” and really, really caucasian with the vocals of Seger Ellis on “To Be In Love.”
Regardless, let’s get on with the music. The introduction is pretty tight so obviously the musicians had rehearsed this one pretty good. After the exotic vamp, Armstrong leads the group through two go-arounds of the eight bar A strain, based on a descending chord pattern in Dm (the chords don’t quite descend--Dm, Dm7, Gm6, A7--but Ory uses a D-C-Bb-G pattern from the changes to make it work). Also, am I on the only one who thinks of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” when I hear Armstrong play for the first few bars of this strain?
Then it’s off to the B strain, which slickly moves from Dm to a major, D7 tonality. I don’t know what’s written and what’s not but I like how Armstrong leans on the Bb in the second bar of this strain, which is the flatted sixth of the D7 chord in question. The second half of the B strain heads to Bb before a short circle of fifths (A7-D7-G7-C7) leads to the final blowing strain.
I’m usually not so technical, but I’ve always found the chords of this section to be rather interesting. Two bars of an F immediately go to two bars of Db, which is a neat little surprise. The next two bars of F resolve to a D7, which also works nicely. After two bars on Gm, the piece turns minor again for the next two, A7 and Dm. But then it gets sunny again with two more odd choices for the key of F, E7 and A, before the A leads to a C which leads to a turnaround and we’re off again from the beginning. If you’re not a musician, sorry if that bored you, but I think it’s interesting because a lot of these Hot Five tunes are pretty complex, with multiple strains and some challenging changes, with a little more meat than “old-timey” jazz is sometimes given credit for.
Ory plays the incredible sparse melody, made up of almost nothing but whole notes and half notes, with less than a handful of quarter notes. At the same time, it’s the kind of melody that sticks with you long after listening. After Ory’s somber statement, Dodds comes in with some variations but he seems a little weary of the changes. For instance, when he gets to the second change to Db, he responds by rhythmically repeating a string of Db’s! However, he makes it through the rest of his solo without a problem as the E7 and A7 are replaced by a simple 2-5-1 at the end of his chorus, Gm to C7 to F.
A short interlude by composer St. Cyr’s banjo sets up the main event, a dazzling stop-time solo by Armstrong. I’ll admit, this isn’t a flawlessly executed outing, like a “Potato Head Blues” or “Cornet Chop Suey” (whose solo was pre-written) but it’s quite exciting hearing Armstrong think, inventing ideas with abandon and taking chances as the bars pass him by. His opening phrase, of course, smacks of “Potato Head Blues,” which would be recorded the following year, but after that, it’s a whirlwind of invention. Unlike Dodds, he isn’t daunted by the Db, playing a descending phrase made up of all chord tones before turning an F chord completely inside out. He’s very melodic, but some of the notes are slightly cracked around the eight bar mark, not terribly, but not hit on the nose as he might have liked. The band swings for three bars setting up a simple break which leads to Armstrong’s second stop-time helping.
Pops begins the second half with a slicing rip up to an A an octave higher than written before he makes mincemeat out of the Db with a lightening fast triplet phrase he liked to employ during this period (it crops up near the end of “Ory’s Creole Trombone” to name one example). His rhythm then gets even more daring as he goes on; I love the way he hits the low A and kind of lets it linger in the third bar of this half. Soon, the band starts swinging behind him, but Armstrong continues powering through, playing a sweetly singing high E with an attractive vibrato. But then it’s time to get nasty as he trills a snarling C to signal one more joyous chorus.
And it’s a good one, with Armstrong at his most New Orleans-centric. Not too much longer after this, Armstrong would begin pulling away in his ensemble playing, exploring the higher register of his horn and generally dominating the records. Here he’s on good behavior, hitting a few higher notes here and there but mainly keeping it peppy, playing around St. Cyr’s melody but always keeping it somewhat in the forefront. A short four bar coda ends the song with a cute Charleston beat.
That’s all I have on this fun record, one unjustly dismissed by many of the elite jazz writers, though good musicians always know a good record when they here it; this is the record that so knocked Jack Teagarden out, Wingy Manone remembered Big T actually burying a copy of the OKeh 78 underground to keep it preserved forever!
The next tune recorded 90 years ago today is the appropriately titled, "You're Next." This was a Lil Hardin Armstrong composition and proof that everybody was getting a chance to bring something to the table that day. After Spencer Williams's "Georgia Grind," they recorded "Heebie Jeebies" by friend Boyd Atkins (with possible uncredited lyrics by Louis), "Cornet Chop Suey" by Louis, "Oriental Strut" by Johnny St. Cyr, "You're Next" by Lil and finally "Muskrat Ramble" by Kid Ory (though as we'll see, maybe not by Kid Ory). Only Johnny Dodds didn't get to bring a song to the party.
The Hot Five was not a working band so it's all speculation whether each one of these musicians brought in a song, worked it out in the studio and recorded it or if some of these numbers were made up on the fly. There is a copyright deposit for "You're Next" by Lil, but it wasn't filed until May 1926, so who knows if she wrote a simple lead sheet based off of the recording?
Regardless, "You're Next" is a simple little record without any fireworks to speak of. Backed by "Oriental Strut" on the original 78, it has never been greeted with much fuss. And that's fine since you're not going to hit a home run every time. Not that "You're Next" is a strike out; it's a hard hit, line-drive double in the gap. (No strikeouts in the Hot Five canon, in my opinion).
I think Louis needed a breather after blowing his chops apart, as young and strong as they were, on "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Oriental Strut." Before we get into that, let's listen to "You're Next":
Lil claims the spotlight instantly with a classical introduction that shows she was a well-rounded pianist. Some knock her and I'll admit she fails in comparison to an Earl Hines, but she had a beat that Louis obviously liked; you can hear it in her minor vamping directly after her classical introduction, very groovy stuff.
Then Louis enters with the vamp, backed by the four-beats-to-the-bar comping by Lil and Johnny St. Cyr. Louis is very relaxed and clearly enjoys the minor changes. In fact, I wish the entire thing stayed in that minor key. But eventually they get to the main strain, based on some fairly basic changes, Ory and Dodds joining in for a conversational ensemble, with St. Cyr handling the break and stop-time interlude.
Lil and Johnny Dodds then split a chorus, each playing well, if not over their heads. Louis comes back in for the final bit of ensemble playing, his first little descending phrase hitting me in the gut; so simple, so effective. Ory finally gets to peak his head out of the ensemble for a short stop-time segment before Louis takes it out with a pet phrase that crops up in later Hot Five performances of "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa" and "Irish Black Bottom." A fine performance to cool down with, especially considering "Muskrat Ramble" was due up next.
Finally, we arrive at "Muskrat Ramble," the sixth and final song recorded by the Hot Five on February 26, 1926. "Heebie Jeebies" and "Cornet Chop Suey" are rightly known as major Armstrong landmarks but of all the songs recorded that day--and possibly in the history of the Hot Fives and Sevens--I don't think there's any other song that's had the life of "Muskrat Ramble," which continued popping up as a hit record in the 50s and 60s and is still one of the good old good ones in today's traditional jazz scene.
But where did "Muskrat Ramble" come from? Well, that's going to take some detective work and I don't know if we'll ever know for sure. The song has always been attributed to Kid Ory since the very first version was released by the Hot Five in 1926. Ory made it his big feature and never stopped playing it. Ory claimed he wrote it in 1921 while still in Los Angeles, taking the gist of the tune from a book of saxophone exercises. That's fine, but then there's Sidney Bechet, who said it was an old tune already popular in New Orleans, performed as early as the Buddy Bolden era, and known then as "The Old Cow Died and the Old Man Cried." Hmmm...
And there's Louis. Louis performed the song with the Hot Five, seemed to forget about it for a couple of decades, then featured it regularly with his All Stars from inception in 1947 until at least 1967, when his chops began to give out. Louis played it hundreds, if not thousands of times and each time he called it, in the back of his mind, he must have thought, "Damn Ory, I wrote this song."
Finally, in 1965, Louis publicly broke his silence. Louis was hosting his friends Dan Morgenstern and Jack Bradley in his den one afternoon in May of that year. Dan had brought along his tape recorder and turned the results into a wonderful profile of Louis published in "DownBeat" that summer (and currently found in Dan's essential anthology, Living with Jazz). Fortunately, years after the interview was published, the complete, unedited tapes were found and aired by Phil Schaap on WKCR. Since then, the interview has become known as the "Slivovice interview," named after the bottle of plum brandy the three polished off over the course of the afternoon (I posted the full audio right here on this blog back in May 2015).
Louis was in the middle of a discussion about original compositions. Morgenstern and Bradley asked if he had written much after his 1947 song "Someday (You'll Be Sorry)." Louis admitted that he really hadn't and the few ideas he did have in mind, he didn't even know where to bring them anymore. He then discussed how it was different with the music publishers in the 1920s and how he was willing to write songs and sell them outright, just to get some quick money. It's at this point that Jack Bradley asked him point blank, "Pops, did you write 'Muskrat Ramble'?" Here's Louis's answer:
So there it is. Morgenstern published Louis's answer but it didn't really make any waves. Louis clearly didn't want to make a fuss about it and it had already been known as Ory's tune for almost 40 years, so nothing really changed. But Louis must have felt strongly about it, because he made similar accusations during his series of Voice of America interviews in July 1956, interviews that were far less conspicuous in that period, especially compared to a "DownBeat" cover story.
I've shared Louis's Voice of America introductions and stories revolving around "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Heebie Jeebies" and now I'll do the same with "Muskrat Ramble." (To read more about--and get a link to listen--these magical Voice of America interviews, see this blog I wrote last year.) It's fascinating because not only does Louis insinuate that the song was made up in the studio and Ory was the only one with the nerve to claim it--9 years before the Slivovice interview, remember--but it's the only time I've ever heard the full story of the title of the tune and what muskrats were used for in Southern homes: a means to stop bed wetting! Don't believe me? Listen to Louis for yourself:
Isn't that a riot? Louis almost sounds embarrassed telling the story. Interestingly, he said Ory named it and got to claim it, but Ory said Lil Hardin Armstrong was the one who named it. So it's safe to say, we'll never know who named it and who wrote it but that shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying it.
I will say that "Muskrat Ramble" isn't exactly something simple to just jam on, like a 12-bar blues, whipped up in the studio in no time. The song, like "Cornet Chop Suey," had multiple 16-bar strains, echoes of the ragtime era. Each strain features different changes and a different melody, there's an ensemble that features big fat punches from Ory and responses from the band, Ory's solo is set up with accents by the other horns, there's a perfectly executed tag by the trombonist...I don't know, if this was indeed whipped up in the studio, bravo gentlemen and lady.
Okay, I think I've said all that can be said about the backstory and we're still where we started. So forget about all of that and enjoy the first version of "Muskrat Ramble":
Yeah, man, that's still a fun record...no wonder the tune keeps going strong. The very opening of the ensemble is arguably more evidence that this piece was more arranged than given credit for: Louis plays the melody with an earthy lead, Ory plays nothing but quarter notes and Dodds kind of has a harmonized countermelody he works over for a while before he starts to go off on some of his more typical flights the second time through. After that second time, the band heads into the second strain, everybody hitting those accents nice and tight while Ory really gets around on his horn; he's definitely very comfortable with the routine.
Ory's solo, with those giant smears, is a great summation of the Kid's style, but I don't think it's his best work (he sounds better in the ensembles). Louis, however, uncorks a gem. Right from those opening three quarter-notes, you know you're about to hear some good stuff. There aren't many pyrotechnics, but Louis's sense of swing and choice of harmonies (dig that held high G, representing Louis's favorite major-seventh off the Ab chord) is in another world from Ory and Dodds, who follows with a typically insistent solo.
After the round of solos, Ory's smears again take center stage while Louis answers them with the melody and Dodds continues to play harmonized countermelodies instead of going too far off the reservation. Louis then uncorks one of his angry lip trills to lead into the exciting rideout chorus. Louis didn't break out the trill often in his later years, but he loved it in the mid-20s (see "Oriental Strut" from the same session and "Sweet Little Papa" from a few months later for just a couple of examples). After Louis's trill, the whole thing takes off in 16 bars of pure euphoria. Louis's lead is so swinging and strong, but without any crazy high notes (moldy fig critics of Louis's later style often point to this as an example of Louis's pure New Orleans lead, without the need for any upper register fireworks....you know, the stuff that made Louis sound like Louis). Meanwhile, Ory's aggression effectively pushes everyone along, with Dodds really breaking out of his shell, too. And how about that rhythm section? St. Cyr's banjo is supremely driving and creates a unique kind of swing that would disappear soon after in mainstream jazz. And then there's Ory's tag, which would become part of just about every succeeding performance of the tune.
Back in 2011, I used this as a springboard for a multi-part investigation into Louis's succeeding history with "Muskrat Ramble." If that's something that interests you, click away to Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 and Part 6.
But I think I'm approaching the legal limit for the length of one blog so I'll quit now, secure in the knowledge that the impact the music the Hot Five created on February 26, 1926 can't be fully measured in any word count. They walked into OKeh's studios 90 years ago today, knocked out six songs, and jazz--and American popular music--was never quite the same.