Thursday, June 23, 2016

90 Years of the June 1926 Hot Five Sessions: Part 1

On June 16 and June 23, 1926, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five recorded eight performances for OKeh Records. Writing about them in his seminal 1967 volume, Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller said of them, "We can quickly pass over the next Hot Five date, which featured for the most part quasi-novelty numbers by Lil Hardin Armstrong. They added nothing to the group's stature, and are mildly interesting in that they constitute (along with King of the Zulus) the nadir of Hot Five recording activity." And just like that, Armstrong's June 1926 Hot Five recordings were booted out of THE CANON.

Well, maybe Schuller was content to "quickly pass over them," but not me! Starting last November, any free time I've had to update this old blog of mine has gone to the ongoing 90th anniversary of Louis Armstrong's early Hot Five sessions. I wrote a long entry on the first session of November 1925, a short look at "Come Back Sweet Papa" and a master's thesis on the six songs the Hot Five recorded on February 26, 1926, which I dubbed as the Hot Five's greatest session.

Needless to say, more words have been written on Louis Armstrong's Hot Five recordings than anything else he recorded--and with good reason as they truly are the records that changed the course of jazz history, Armstrong writing the rules on how to solo, how to swing, how to scat and how to sing in the realm of jazz music.

Of course, Armstrong and his cohorts never set out to make history. They were just having fun, a group of friends making music together just as they had in the good old days of New Orleans (exempting Lillian Hardin from that description). This becomes fully clear when one examines the June 1926 sessions.

Louis Armstrong was a born entertainer, something that has always been held against him. As a kid in New Orleans, he received his first applause when he stood up and humorously impersonated the preacher at his church, right down to leading the congregation in a song. He once dipped his face in flour and won a talent contest at the Iroquois Theatre doing a "whiteface" routine. He bought every Bert Williams record he could find, memorizing Williams's routines. He formed a vocal quartet with friends, singing popular songs of the day and wordlessly conjuring up the sounds of instruments years before it was called "scat singing." Oh yeah, and he also played the cornet.

For decades, all people have wanted to talk about was that cornet (later trumpet), but that's only one side of Armstrong's multi-faceted stage presence. This is not a new phenomenon; when he shook up Chicago with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and later New York with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, it was strictly as a cornetist as neither Oliver nor Henderson was interested in the young man's singing--something that burned Armstrong up until the day he died.

Thus, when given a chance to make his own records with the Hot Five, the biggest hit of the first November 1925 session was the one featuring Armstrong's naturally engaging personality, "Gut Bucket Blues." E. A. Fearn of OKeh Records liked Armstrong's unique voice and for the February sessions, asked him to sing. Louis and Lil kicked off that session with a fun duet on "Georgia Grind" before Louis unwittingly made history with his scat chorus on "Heebie Jeebies," getting a bona fide hit record to boot. That same day, Armstrong recorded instrumental masterpieces such as "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Muskrat Ramble," contributing solos that are still analyzed and studied today.

The power and glory of those solos couldn't be denied...but neither could Armstrong's personality. Thus, when the February sessions were released in May 1926 and the vocal numbers proved to be big sellers, it only made sense for Fearn to showcase more of that personality on the June recordings.

Armstrong was happy to oblige. He loved to sing and he loved to entertain, both on records and in person. In later years, a false narrative was passed around of young Armstrong "the artist," making serious instrumental masterpieces before giving it all up for clowning just to get more popular with white audiences. But reviews survive of Armstrong's live performances with Erskine Tate in 1926--the same time these recordings were being made--and they almost all refer to Armstrong's singing, scatting, dancing and comic routines (he even dusted off the the old preacher routine from his youth, engaging the black audiences that packed the Vendome Theatre with his "mock sermons").
Advertisement for one of the only live appearances of the Hot Five, which took place on June 12, 1926, four days before the June 16 session.

He was even immersing himself in the world of black entertainment in Chicago. In later years, whenever he wrote of this period, he rarely mentioned his own music or methods; instead, he wrote about other entertainers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ollie Powers, Mae Alix (who did splits years before Velma Middleton and more). These were the people who helped Armstrong hone his stagecraft until he could truly do it all.

Thus, on the June 1926 sessions, Armstrong lets his personality shine. The first session was done on June 16, 1926. Four tracks were recorded that day, three with ridiculously fun Armstrong vocals...and on the one he doesn't sing, he plays a slide whistle! The whole date has such a happy feeling to it but these four tracks rarely get reissued on best-ofs from the period. This entry will examine the June 16 session and will be followed by a look at the June 23 session in the near future.

"Don't Forget to Mess Around" led off the date, a song written by Armstrong and an old friend from New Orleans, Paul Barbarin, who would later play drums in Armstrong's big band. Interestingly, the song was already recorded in February 1926 by Austin's Musical Ambassador's--one month before Armstrong and Barbain sent in the copyright deposit of the song! There's no vocal but the recording does feature a nice, relaxed tempo and an effective muted cornet solo (this band only made one side and the personnel is a mystery!).

With that out of the way, here's the audio of the Hot Five version:

There's not a lot to analyze, there; it's just fun! Armstrong plays two flawless one-bar breaks in the introduction and basically sticks to melody in his lead ensemble playing. "Charleston" was obviously the craze of the period and this Armstrong composition incorporates the "Charleston" beat very well. Like most originals from the period, it isn't a neat 32-bar AABA pop song but rather features a chorus followed by a verse, then back to the chorus with some neat arranged sections for the horns along the way. Towards the end of the verse, one notices Johnny Dodds disappears, only to return a few seconds later...on alto! Yikes, I'm not a big fan of Dodds's stiff alto playing, even though his high notes oddly still sound like his clarinet. Fortunately, Armstrong's right behind him with one of his most exuberant, shouting vocals of the Okeh days. It's not Gershwin, but it's a lot of fun! Armstrong and Barbarin copyrighted lyrics of their own, including words for the verse. This is what they sent in to the Library of Congress:

Way down south in New Orleans;
There's a gal down there called the Charleston Queen.
Oh how she could Charleston,
You ought to see her Charleston.
Uncle Jack, the Jazzbo King,
Taught her a brand new dance;
And after she learned his great dance,
This is what she said:

Don't forget to mess around
While you're doin' the Charleston, Charleston;
First thing you do,
Now when you rear back,
Grab your gal,
And then you Eagle Rock,
But don't you stop at all.

Oh, Uncle Jack, the old dancin' fool,
Wouldn't do that Charleston, Charleston.
When he learned
Of that brand new dance,
Such a prance.
Now he clean forgot his age
When he danced this brand new rage,
Don't forget to do your stuff
When you dance that dance called Messin' Around.

Of course, Armstrong being Armstrong, even when he probably had a hand in writing the lyrics, still makes some changes. This is how he sang it:

Don't forget to mess around/ when you're doing the Charleston...Charleston
First thing you do/ now when you rear...way back!
Say, you grab your gal/ and then you clap your hands
And you do the Eagle Rock/ but don't you stop at all!

Uncle Jack, that dancin' fool/ He would never do the Charleston...Charleston
When he learned of that brand/ new dance...such a prance!
And he clean forget his age/ when he danced this brand new rage
Then he yelled out/ don't forget to do your stuff/ when you dance the mess around!

Not a huge difference but already, a good example of Armstrong making a song his own--even when it was already his own! He adds the line, "and then you clap your hand," there's the urgent phrasing of "way back," he eliminates the descriptive "old" before "dancin' fool" and so on. Most of these vocals get dismissed for being too "shouty," but to my ears, Armstrong's supreme confidence and innate abilities are already in place..And besides, no one else was really singing like this during the period, though there are traces of Al Jolson in some of these early Armstrong vocals (on "Butter and Egg Man," Pops practically imitates Jolson at one point).

After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes a very aggressive clarinet solo, as if he's saying, "Please posterity, don't judge me by my alto playing!" Kid Ory takes a typical break towards the end before Armstrong takes one of his own, notable for staying in middle register before shooting up an octave to end it with a piercing high note. All in all, it's a lot of fun and if I say it again, not as important as a "West End Blues" but I think it's just as important in understanding Armstrong's entire career. Legendary producer George Avakian tells this story about this track:

"By 1926, Louis Armstrong was headlining at Chicago's Sunset Cafe and writing novelties which he performed nightly, in addition to recording them with his Hot Five for Okeh. During one of many happy afternoons of hanging out in Louis's upstairs den in his home in Corona, I asked Pops if the 'mess around' was an actual dance.' 'Yes, yes indeed,' he cried and leaped out of his chair. 'Went like this!' Well, there I was without a movie camera, but be assured of one thing--Louis was a great dancer and still light on his feet. 'Used to do that every show after the vocal, and then blow two choruses. Had to dance two, three encores on Saturday nights.'"

Picture that. The great, serious, artist, Louis Armstrong (before he went commercial), performing "Don't Forget To Mess Around" and then dancing for a few choruses! If I had a time machine, I think I'd dial it up to the Sunset Cafe in 1926...

The next song on the docket was a Lil Hardin Armstrong composition, "I'm Gonna Gitcha," which Gene Anderson has pointed out bears some similarities to "I'm Gonna Get You," as recorded by both Mamie Smith and Trixie Smith in 1922. Here's Mamie:

There's definitely some similar melodic structures (not to mention the title!), but Lil went a different way with the lyrics, as you'll see when you listen to the Hot Five here:

The Hot Five jumps right out with main strain, with no time for any fancy arranged introductions (though the chromatic line at the end of the bridge) must have been worked out in advance. Then, like "Don't Forget to Mess Around," the group heads back to the verse. Johnny Dodds gets the first solo and he gets a little stuck. Not only does he minimally paraphrase the melody, he plays the same break twice in one solo--a lick he had already played once heading into the bridge and one he'd play in the ensemble later on. (In fairness, I like his slightly raspy descending break at the end of the bridge--at least it's different!) Almost humorously, Dodds takes another short solo after the vocal and when he gets to the break--plays something different! But almost seconds after Armstrong emerges to play lead, there's that lick yet again! I guess everyone gets stuck every now and then....

Louis doesn't solo on "I'm Gonna Gitcha" except for one break towards the end where he hurls himself up to a high C and doesn't quite hit it on the nose. Other than that, the record offers some strong lead playing before ending with a favorite phrase of the period. But more than the horn, it's his delightful vocal that saves what John Chilton referred to as a "dog" tune (listen for Johnny St. Cyr's delightful accompaniment, with bass notes followed by chords much like the stride pianists of the era). Here's the vocal as delivered by Louis:

Say mama, I'm gonna bet you that I'm gonna get you,
I'm gonna get you some sweet day,
And don't think you can give me the air.  Heeeyyy,
I'm gonna race you, I'm gonna chase you,
I'm gonna follow you everywhere.
Don't you believe you can give me the air. AHHHHHH
You can take a man out and throw the cat out,
But when you are right
You can't treat sweet papa with the same old jive.
I'm gonna feel 'ya, I'm gonna steal ya,
I must have you mama some sweet day.
Nothin' doin' baby, you just can't get away.

What delivery! This is where you read stuff like "shouting" and "vaudeville" and "novelty" and "hokum" but I don't know, I love it. I've actually played this in lectures before because to my ears, those two guttural moans on the syllable "Hey" foreshadow so much soul singing we'd hear later on from the likes of Ray Charles. There's also the comedic timing in how he perfectly phrases "I must have you," with a mischievous grin, and the earlier righteous I've-heard-it-all intonation of "You can't treat sweet papa with the same old jive."

And speaking of "the same old jive," how about that slang? The tune is credited to Lil but I'm sure her husband helped with some of those lyrics. Earlier this month, the great Ted Gioia wrote a piece for The Atlantic titled The Year American Speech Became Art. And who graces the main photo accompanying the article? None other than Pops. Gioia charts a 15-month period beginning in October 1926 when American forms of speech "went viral" thanks to the recordings, radio broadcasts, talking pictures and works of literature that hit the market. Armstrong rightly plays a central role in the article but I might move Gioia's 15-month window back a month to include September 1926 when these June 16 Hot Five recordings were released.

The same slang-filled, confident, swinging, attention-commanding vocal style of "I'm Gonna Gitcha" continues on the third tune recorded on June 16, "Droppin' Shucks." Credited to Lil Hardin again, these lyrics sound more like Louis, mainly because they reflect what was going on in the Armstrong's home during this period. Lil was the great architect of Louis's career by this point but he had grown weary of her endless pushing and "henpecking." He accused Lil of cheating on him, while at the same time, he began seeing a young dancer named Alpha Smith, who would eventually become the third Mrs. Armstrong. Keep that in mind as you listen to "Droppin' Shucks":

For once, we get the verse first, this one in a minor mode like a number of other Hot Five verses. Armstrong then plays the lead, not one of the catchiest lines Lil ever wrote. Listen to Johnny Dodds in the ensemble again, playing the same lick he couldn't shake in "I'm Gonna Gitcha" twice in the first chorus and twice in the final chorus! After one ensemble go-around, Louis lets the rhythm section have one, Lil up first, Johnny St. Cyr taking the middle section and Lil closing out the chorus.

So far, nothing to write home about but again, Armstrong saves the record with an irresistible vocal:

Sweet mama, you been Droppin' Shucks on me,
Now I'm gonna drop 'em on you.
I saw you with your sweet man the other night,
And I know you was untrue.
I told you sweet mama, way last fall,
That you'd come and find another mule in your stall,
You been Droppin' Shucks on me,
And now I'm gonna drop shucks on you.
Hey, roses are red and violets are blue.
You run and talk but I'm cookin';
What's the matter with you?
You raved 'bout your papa sayin' he was it;
This sweet mama I got just won't quit,
You been droppin' shucks on me,
And now I'm gonna throw 'em on you.

Once again, what an actor. That final emphasis on "I'm gonna THROW 'em on you" makes me laugh every time. The quick-rhyming "roses are red" stop-time section even seems like another "roots of rap" moment. Now, damned if I know how this vocal matches the melody the band plays throughout the rest of the record. I almost get the feeling that Lil wrote the melody and maybe Louis inserted some fast-talking lyrics of his own because even the way they're almost talk-sung at points, they don't fit the melody. But Louis sells the hell out of them!

Dodds gets off a good solo but--surprise, surprise--there's the lick in bars 5 and 14! I think that's 11 times in two songs. Kid Ory follows with a simple solo, one that you know it's Ory but also one that shows that Armstrong was beginning to outpace his old friends (Ory sounds like he has trouble getting out of the break). Armstrong, perhaps knowing he didn't hit that high C squarely on "I'm Gonna Gitcha" comes out like a man on a mission to show his domination of the upper register. He's swinging from the get-go and almost immediately jumps up to a high A and shakes it. When it comes to the bridge, Ory takes the first part of the break but Armstrong takes over and shoots up to another high C and this time, nails it. The C's on "I'm Gonna Gitcha" and "Droppin' Shucks" are the highest notes Armstrong played on record up to this point--he still had a ways to go before he'd start knocking out those high F's!

I love that last ensemble chorus on "Droppin' Shucks," mostly because of Armstrong's dazzling playing, but it doesn't get much attention in the analysis of this music, I guess because it's an ensemble and the point people like to make is it's Armstrong's solos that are really the most striking aspects of these recordings. That's true to an extent but really, it's everything Armstrong does from solos to ensemble work to those endlessly entertaining vocals that stands out.

On the fourth and final song from the June 16 date, "Who'sit," Louis doesn't take a cornet solo (but he does solo on another instrument, as we'll soon see!), which again, has relegated this tune to the back burner; in fact, Armstrong devotee Hughes Panassie called it "the weakest of all Hot Five recordings." I disagree as I love the melody, I love the ensemble work and yes, I love that SLIDE WHISTLE solo by Louis! Listen and judge for yourself:

Like "I'm Gonna Gitcha," the band wastes no time jumping right in with the supremely catchy melody, written by the unknown Beatrice Jones (John Chilton assumed she was related to Richard M. Jones but that was never proven). What an ensemble! On Facebook, a friend recently asked for examples of great trumpet-trombone-clarinet New Orleans-styled front lines and I was shocked that dozens of examples were given before I volunteered the Hot Five. Again, the allure of Armstrong's solos has obscured some truly memorable collective improvisation.

The first chorus is an ensemble delight but then Ory takes the melody for a full chorus and struggles a bit; I love Ory but this wasn't one of his greatest sessions. But what follows is a bizarre moment that I love but some "hokum" that probably drove purists like Panassie and Schuller nuts: Armstrong's slide whistle solo. He had already recorded on slide whistle on "Sobbin' Blues" with King Oliver in 1923 so he was no stranger to the instrument. In fact, he sounds like a damn slide whistle virtuoso on "Who'sit"--just listen to the phrasing and the vibrato! The man could have played anything.

But if for some reason the slide whistle insults your dignity, just listen to the background where Johnny Dodds almost steals the show. I know I beat him up a bit for the repetitive playing on the previous two songs but wow does he come alive on this one! His bubbling low-register chalameau playing is a delight behind the slide whistle and he later he takes a hot solo that Gene Anderson has called "a miniature masterpiece." All hail, Johnny Dodds!

With only 28 seconds left, it's time for Louis to take over. He enters with a perfectly placed G that he holds for the duration of a break, the first time he uses this device that he'd come back to in later years (perhaps most memorably on "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues"). Towards the end of the chorus, Armstrong takes a longer break with stop-time backing that is phrased with such logic, in addition to the feeling of the blues--a wonderful moment! He once again ends with a slight variation on his favorite ending of this period, a dramatic punctuation mark to the day's work.

The June 16 date was done but OKeh wasn't through yet. For what happened on June 23, 1926, stay tuned for my next entry!

1 comment:

I fought the lawn. And the lawn won. said...

Ricky, I'm a traditional jazz guitar/banjo player from Canada. Day before yesterday, while visiting my daughter and grandson in NYC I made my pilgrimage to the Louis Armstrong house in Corona.

They were selling autographed copied of your excellent "Wonderful World" there, and it looked interesting... frankly, a bit challenging to most of my preconceptions because I had always been pretty much in the the Hot Five/Hot Seven camp and haven't really ever listened to any of the All Stars stuff, except "Hello, Dolly" which was a hit way back when I was a teenage Beatles fan who had no idea who the old fogey with the raspy voice was!

I just finished your opus today while riding the train back to Niagara from NYC.

Congratulations on a job well done, and I certainly plan to make it my business to do a lot of listening to the recordings you describe so well.