Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Very Satchmo Christmas - 2017 Edition

For many years, I used to post the same version of "A Very Satchmo Christmas," my celebration of Louis Armstrong's six Decca Christmas songs from the 1950s. This year, I've expanded it a bit, adding in some new info I cobbled together while putting together The Decca Singles 1949-1958 digital release from late 2016, but I'm still including the old audio links here. So crank up the speakers, pour some egg nog (or Slivovice) and get ready to enjoy them all over again.

As already mentioned, this entry will focus on the six Christmas records Armstrong made for Decca in the 1950s. And when I say records, I don’t mean long-playing discs but rather, six three-minute singles. It might seem odd that someone who brought more joy to the world than Santa Claus would have so few yuletide classics in his discography, but alas that’s the case. In fact, Armstrong didn’t get around to recording his first Christmas song until 1952, unless, of course, you count Armstrong’s two versions of “Santa Claus Blues” from 1924 and 1925 (still a subject for a future blog!).

When Decca finally corralled Armstrong into the studio to record some Christmas cheer, they gave him first-class treatment by backing him with the lush arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins’s sentimental string and voices sound revived Armstrong’s recording career with the 1949 hit “Blueberry Hill.” By the early 1950s, Jenkins was a veritable recording superstar. Anything with his name on it sold tremendously so it made sense for Decca to pair him with label stars like Peggy Lee and Armstrong. On September 22, 1952, Armstrong and Jenkins teamed up for their fourth session together. On one of their sessions, from February 6, 1951 Jenkins jettisoned his strings and turned in some very fine small-big band arrangements but for the 1952 session, the strings were the whole show on the Christmas number, though current All Stars Bob McCracken, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole were in the studio band that day (as was guitarist Art Ryerson, who would do many post-“Hello, Dolly” sessions with Pops in the 60s).

Both of the Jenkins Christmas numbers are unusually low-key. They feature no trumpet and no surges of emotion or anything. They’re very sober but the best word to describe them has to be “warm.” Pops is at his most tender, singing as if he’s whispering a loving lullaby to a small child. “White Christmas” is up first and, of course, was property of Armstrong’s friend and disciple, Bing Crosby. From the opening seconds, we know we’re in Gordon Jenkins country. “White Christmas” demonstrates that many of our best-loved Christmas songs feature quite a range of notes and you can hear Pops stretch here and there, but I always loved his tenor voice—as well as that basso profundo he would break out when necessary. Both are needed on “White Christmas,” which finds Pops reaching for a high D on “the ones” to the C an octave lower on “children.” On the final “be white,” Armstrong goes down to a low B on the coincidental word “be.” Where you’d expect a scat break or a “oh babe,” Pops lays out, leaving the gaps to be filled by Jenkins’s beautiful strings. After a brief string interlude, Armstrong reenters with the final eight bars, featuring, I think, some of his most touching singing. You can hear him smiling as he sings “and bright.” Again, he goes way down for that final “white,” holding it for an impressive amount of time. Very pretty stuff. Enough from me, enjoy it for yourself:

“Winter Wonderland” is up next and it’s more of the same. Though most performers do this one at an uptempo, Armstrong and Jenkins give it the same gentle ballad treatment as “White Christmas.” Again, Pops rarely deviates from the melody but he doesn’t have to, he’s singing it so sweetly. Am I weird for actually feeling warmed by the way Pops sings “as we dream by the fire”? Jenkins goes back to the bridge for another one of his trademark sounds. Marty Napoleon plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than you’d expect. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but hey, this was popular music in 1952 and it gave Jenkins an identity. Pops reenters for the final eight with a cute extended coda. Armstrong repeats the word “walking” while the pizzicato strings “walk” gingerly behind him. Finally, Armstrong unleashes a little bit of scat and the record comes to a mellow conclusion. Dig it:

Decca released the results of the September session on November 15, once again garnering positive notices in Billboard. “There have been scores of waxings of the Berlin favorite but this one could move up with the top sellers this Christmas,” the magazine said of “White Christmas.” “Satchmo sings it as only he can, and the Jenkins ork provides a beautiful accompaniment. This one should grab loot and keep the deejays busy in December.” It was the same story for “Winter Wonderland”: “The lovely Jenkins ork arrangement provides a fine showcase for Louis to agreeably tell, in his own wonderful style, about a snowy winter on this delightful waxing of the oldie. Side will grab bundles of spins starting the end of November.”

And just one column over, the magazine named the single one of the Top Picks of the Week, writing, “Dealers, operators and deejays should get a lot of action out of both sides of this new platter come the start of the Christmas season. Fine tunes, and Louis’ vocals could make it a big holiday disking.”

Needless to say, this wouldn’t be the last time Armstrong encountered some Christmas music for the label. And the next time out, he’d romp instead of croon.

If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes Toots Camarata’s Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. I devoted an entire entry to this session in October 2013 because I believe it's one of the greatest dates Armstrong ever did in his entire career. The Commanders were a ferocious studio band co-led by arranger Camarata and drummer Grady. Camarata was a trumpet player himself and a huge devotee of Armstrong. In fact, on his 1957 album Tutti’s Trumpets, he contributed an original titled simply “Louis,” that is a beautifully written and played (by Mannie Klein) tribute to Pops (Camarata later oversaw Armstrong’s album of Disney songs). Grady apparently was a child star on drums and eventually played with the likes of New Orleans trumpeter George Girard’s small group with Pete Fountain and Tommy Dorsey’s Orchestra in the early 50s. As he grew older, he settled into steady work as a session drummer (a quick search shows a Benny Goodman Capitol date in 1954, a famous rockabilly date with “The Rock and Roll Trio,” as well as a Jackie Paris session with arrangements by Neal Hefti).

If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes The Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. They were brass heavy—three trumpets, four trombones and only two reeds—and featured a peerless rhythm section propelled by Carmen Mastren’s rhythm guitar and Grady’s earth-shattering big band drumming. The October 1953 session began with two Christmas songs and both are a lot of fun. After trying out a few standards on the Jenkins sessions, Decca gave Armstrong a few novelties to cut up on and he does just that, infusing these two trite, silly songs with such enthusiasm that they’ve in turn had a shelf life of over 50 years of being listened to and enjoyed. First up: "Zat You Santa Claus?"

Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Pops asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Pops, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Pops sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener. After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Pops and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song ever recorded. Pops’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” I love the way he sings that word “please.” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Pops yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.

Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. In fact, the demo recording given to Armstrong for him to learn the tune from featured a live performance of "Cool Yule" by Allen as broadcast on his TV show. Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording. During my 50 trips to the mall this season, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! (2017 update: this still applies, now that I have kids. My daughter Ella hears it at the mall and shouts to me, "Louie!") Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball. Here 'tis:

The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louie Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Only the second half of the bridge doesn’t have “Rhythm,” as it’s punctuated by giant accents by the band on two and four. Again, Pops sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders. After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Pops instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge.

Decca had everything ready to go in less than a market, leadingBillboard to review it on November 21, writing of “Cool Yule, “Jazz Christmas greetings from the voice and trumpet of the fabulous Louis is quite a production. His fans will want.” If they did want it, they didn’t buy many copies as it was never mentioned in Billboard again that year. But as any artist with a solid Christmas song knows, the sales never really stopped and if anything, both side have become more ubiquitous in the 21st century than ever before, staples of holiday film (and shopping mall) soundtracks. Like everything else Armstrong recorded, these records will never disappear.

Anyway, Decca wasn’t finished yet and two years later, on September 8, 1955, they brought Armstrong in to record two more Christmas songs, this time backed by a studio band arranged and conducted by the great Benny Carter. This has become one of those forgotten Decca sessions, never reissued on C.D. by the label itself but it is available on the Ambassador label’s Moments to Remember disc, which collects all of Armstrong’s Christmas work for the Decca, the entire Commanders session and other odds and ends that are hard to find on compact disc or Itunes. Carter wrote a great arrangement for Armstrong on The Platters’s “Only You” and Armstrong manages to sound quite tender on the Four Lads hit, “Moments to Remember.”

The first Christmas song that day was Dick Sherman and Joe Van Winkle’s “Christmas In New Orleans.” In 2016, New Orleans Gambit writer “Blake Pontchartrain” discovered that “Dick Sherman” was really Richard M. Sherman of the famed Sherman Brothers who began writing so much classic music for Walt Disney films in 1958. Sherman was 27 at the time and was already writing songs before teaming with his brother.

“I had just gotten out of the service but hadn't teamed up with my brother yet,” Sherman told Gambit. “I met this young songwriter Joe Van Winkle and we sat down on a hot California summer day and decided to write something cool. We decided on a Christmas song and since I loved Dixieland music, it became 'Christmas in New Orleans.’” They didn’t think much would come of it but it ended up in the hands of Harry Goodman, Benny Goodman’s brother and one-time bassist, who was in the music publishing business. The next time Goodman saw Sherman, he told him he had just recorded his song with a “well-known” artist, but wouldn’t tell him who. “Unbeknownst to me, when we went in to hear it, it was being sung by my idol, Louis Armstrong,” Sherman said. “I adored him all my life and was nuts about his work, so this was a dream come true.” Here's the audio:

Carter’s arrangement begins with a hardened “Jingle Bells” quote that sounds like it belongs in an episode of Dragnet (remember, Carter was doing a lot of film work at the time). It soon settles into a gentle two-beat that really works for this song. The lyrics are almost a waste of time with their references to stuff like a “Dixieland Santa Claus,” but as always, Pops sounds like the happiest guy in the world. And how could he not? He loved Christmas and he loved New Orleans so any song that combined the two, even with dopey lyrics, was bound to inspire him. What’s truly inspired, though, is the trumpet solo. The tune starts off kind of like “Basin Street Blues” before it goes its own way but the changes obviously had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his chops into. This isn’t one of those grandiose high-note extravaganzas; however it is a good time to appreciate Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery.

 It’s one of those solos that I always enjoyed but never really devoted 100% attention to until an afternoon I spent in Joe Muranyi’s house. Muranyi recorded “Christmas In New Orleans” for his Jazzology C.D., Joe Muranyi With The New Orleans Real Low-Down. For the disc, he transcribed Armstrong’s solo to be played in unison by his clarinet, Duke Heitger’s trumpet and Tom Baker’s tenor sax. You get so used to hearing horns playing unison lines on bop heads and the like, but not on Armstrong solos and all of a sudden, this solo that I kind of took for granted, became a whole new thing. While listening to it with me, Muranyi said, “It’s tough to notate this part. I worked so hard on it. What you do is, I did it and then I put it away. I mean, I had done it maybe two or three years before this and when I took it out again and refined it, you keep finding little things. It’s not easy. It’s interesting to hear it in this context. It sounds more complex than when he plays it.” It really does. Here's Muranyi's performance:

For the final track on the date, Decca reached back and picked “Christmas Night In Harlem,” written by Mitchell Parish and Raymond Scott for the “Blackbirds of and 1934 and memorably recorded by Paul Whiteman with a vocal by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer. Carter’s arrangement begins with another Christmas quote—Billy Kyle playing the beginning to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—before the horns punch out a descending line that reminds me of a Ray Charles record (I think I’m thinking of “Greenback Dollar Bill”). Armstrong sings the first chorus harmlessly—it’s a pretty repetitive melody and he does his best with it. Carter’s arrangement swings after the vocal and you can hear Barney Bigard holding a high note. (This was Bigard’s next-to-last session with the All Stars as he would be replaced by Edmond Hall in a matter of weeks.) Armstrong’s trumpet solo is curiously low-key. He more or less sticks to playing the melody in the middle register. Naturally, the Armstrong sound makes it worth listening to, but he doesn’t really blow with any force until the last eight bars. It’s a fine solo but I think that Pops could have maybe used one more take to wail a little more. After the low-key solo, Pops returns to sing the bridge, which features a very funny moment. Armstrong sings, “Everyone will be all lit up,” and laughs to himself, “lit up” clearly having a different meaning to him than most. He swings the lyric on the final A section, boiling it down to one note, but the arrangement is now too polite; where’s Ed Grady’s drums to wake things up? The highlight of the record is Pops’s eloquent scatting and singing as the record fades. A charming record, but not my favorite Louis Christmas song.

Armstrong was happy after the session, writing to Joe Glaser, “The next day, which was Thursday, we did the recording date at Decca, with the Benny Carter Arrangements...Oh boy, but good...He made some very fine arrangements and all the Decca Lads, were very much elated….’Yass They were...”

This Christmas single at least got a review in Billboard and it’s a positive one. “Satchmo makes like a Dixieland Santa Claus here, handling a tasty vocal and then riffing a chorus on trumpet in Creole style,” Billboard wrote in its November 19, 1955 issue. “Armstrong collectors will flip over this.” Of “Christmas Night in Harlem,” “This material evokes the sights and sounds of uptown New York, and with Armstrong at the mike, it seems a mighty happy place to be on Christmas.”

And that ends this tour of Louis Armstrong’s Christmas recordings for Decca. Of course, Armstrong wasn’t completely done recording yuletide music as in 1970, he performed “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” for RCA. And Armstrong’s very last recording is a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that is quite charming and is one I also wrote about in great detail in this blog from 2015. Long story short, include some Louis Armstrong in your holiday music mix and you can't go wrong!

Merry Swiss Kriss, everyone!

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Pops is Tops: The Complete Verve Studio Albums

One year ago, I warned my Facebook followers that if they loved Louis Armstrong, they should start saving their money. I'd like to think I made good on that promise:

*The end of December 2016 saw the digital release of The Decca Singles 1949-1958, the first time Louis's "pop" sides for Decca were ever issued in complete form.

*Soon after came another Universal-produced digital release, Louis: Expanded Edition, a reissue of Armstrong's Mercury recordings, including all the surviving session takes, alternates, rehearsals and breakdowns.

*April saw the launch of "The Louis Armstrong Legacy Series" on Dot Time Records, kicking off with The Standard Oil Sessions, a choice 1950 recording with Armstrong, Hines and Teagarden. November 2 saw the release of volume 2, The Nightclubs, a compilation from five different 1950-1958 broadcasts featuring five different editions of the All Stars. I'm happy to report the Collector's Edition, with my expanded liner notes, will be mailed out on December 9 to those who have subscribed to the series. (Two more volumes to come in 2018 so subscribe to the whole series now!)

*In August, Universal was back at it with The Decca Singles 1935-1946, the first-ever digital release of these glorious 1930s and 1940s Decca recordings, pitched corrected and released in the correct key for the first time (thanks to Armstrong nut Phil Person!)

That's a lot of Pops for a single year--and there's more to come in 2018! I'm happy to report that Louis Armstrong's Verve recordings, both by himself and with Ella Fitzgerald, will be reissued on a pair of 4-CD boxed sets from Universal in January and February of next year! I'll have more on the Ella and Louis set soon, but right now, I want to talk about, Pops is Tops: The Verve Studio Albums. 

Like everything above, except the Dot Time releases, it is co-produced by myself and Harry Weinger--all Armstrong fans should tip their cap in Harry's direction for loving Louis so much and wanting to issue so much material this year alone. (And my personal gratitude is obvious as I'm just thrilled to be along for the ride!)

As usual, for my remaining blog readers, I'd like to share the backstory and details of this set. Having already tackled the Ella and Louis recordings (now due out in February), Harry and I decided to set our sights on Louis's other three solo Verve albums, I've Got the World on a String, Louis Under the Stars and Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson. Like the Ella and Louis material, Harry and I realized that many Armstrong fans had this material, especially the late 1990s Verve reissues. World on a String and Louis Under the Stars were issued jam-packed with alternates, rehearsals and breakdowns on a 2-CD in 1999.

What to do? Well, you're paying attention to the state of jazz reissues in 2017, there's one trend that is proving to be quite hip and popular: the resurgence of MONO! Stereo was just getting itself together in 1957 when Norman Granz recorded these albums so he recorded each of them in mono and in stereo. All subsequent reissues have been in stereo so we decided that the way to make this set different would be to issue the original mono masters.

In a few cases, Granz even snuck completely different takes onto the mono releases. In those cases, we've retained the stereo masters as "bonus tracks." We've also retained all the bonus tracks from the 1999 reissue but we've re-sequenced them because it was a pain in the neck to listen to it on the 1999 release, with the beginnings of certain sequences being hidden in the middle of the previous track. All of that has been ironed out. For Meets Oscar Peterson, we also included two complete alternates of "Let's Fall In Love" that were put out on a Verve Elite Edition collector's disc in 1999, in addition to a rehearsal/breakdown of "Blues in the Night."

That took care of the first three discs but Harry and I wanted to tack on another fourth CD bonus disc. I first entered the realm of Universal back in 2011 when I helped put together a limited edition 10-CD box, Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz. While putting that set together, the tapes turned up for the August 1, 1957 session with Louis and the Oscar Peterson Quartet from the album Ella and Louis Again. This was Louis's one solo session without Ella, containing performances of "Makin' Whoopee," "I Get a Kick Out of You," "Let's Do It (Let's Fall in Love)" and "Willow Weep for Me." On the tapes were all the alternates, breakdowns and discussions for this material, a treasure trove.

Universal realized this and issued it all digitally in 2012 as A Day With Satchmo. But this was in the pre-streaming era when people were really not paying attention to download-only releases. I blogged about it back then but don't know many Armstrong fans who've heard the entire session. Thus, it made complete and total sense to make A Day With Satchmo the bonus disc, the first time the existing August 1, 1957 session tapes have been issued in physical form.

Once again, I have written the liner notes and once again, I can attest that the mono sound of the set is truly warm and quite a revelation (I've always thought the mid-1950s "hi-fi" sound was as good as it gets). Seriously, I've done some A/B comparisons with people at work, and they've been stunned at the results. I first purchased Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson on a 1997 Verve Masters Edition reissue and loved it immediately. However, I was always aware that there was quite a bit of tape hiss, plus the overall sound was a bit on the treble-y side, which I just chalked up to Norman Granz having an off day in the booth. Turns out he was most likely channeling his energies into the mono mix, which is more balanced and so much warmer. I've heard things on his vocals, such as a moan toward the end of "That Old Feeling" that I never heard in stereo and there's a nice bit of reverb on the vocals and trumpet playing that adds an almost ethereal quality to some of Pops's efforts. Oh, and no tape hiss! I've had the mono mix now for a couple of months and it's the only way I listen to the album. I hope my readers out there agree with my ears! Please permit a photo of me in the studio holding the mono masters of Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson:

That's the story behind Pops Is Tops: The Complete Verve Studio Albums, which, I should mention, will also be available digitally and for streaming across all the major platforms. If you've supported any or all of these Armstrong-related endeavors in the past 12 months, all I can say is THANK YOU because without people buying this material or downloading this material or posting online about this material, I don't think the companies such as Universal and Dot Time would as enthusiastic and willing as they are to keep doing Pops releases. And again, the complete Ella and Louis comes in February and the next Dot Time release probably in April (and I mentioned in my tribute to George Avakian that I'll be working with Mosaic again next year) so all I can say is....more to come! (And keep saving your money!)

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

In Loving Memory of George Avakian

The way I feel about this record can be summed up in this way. When I die, I want people to say, ‘That’s the guy that it if it hadn’t been for him and Louis Armstrong and W. C. Handy, there wouldn’t have been that great record, Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy.” -- George Avakian, 1954

George Avakian passed away this morning at the age of 98. I can’t believe I just typed that sentence. It really felt like he would live forever. It goes without saying that the music he created will most assuredly last forever. And for those fortunate enough to know him, our memories of being in his company will linger as long as we have memories.

When a loved one passes, it’s tempting to eulogize the departed by talking solely about one’s self. I’m not going to lie, I’m probably going to do that right now. You have to forgive me: George Avakian’s albums changed my life. The fact that I got to know him and call him a friend is something I never, ever took for granted and as I process the fact that there’ll be no more visits to see “Uncle George,” I feel like I need to write my memories down.

If you don’t know who George Avakian was (is), Google him and prepare to spend the next several hours reading about his rich history. While still a student at Yale, George practically invented the concept of a concept album with Chicago Jazz on Decca, then pioneered in Columbia's influential series of reissue albums shortly after, digging up some previously unissued Hot Five and Hot Seven masterpieces from the Columbia vaults. After the war, George continued to move up the ladder at Columbia, eventually heading the pop music album department after long-playing 33 1/3 albums exploded in the 1950s. Into the late 50s, he produced essential recordings by Louis, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Eddie Condon, Dave Brubeck, Buck Clayton, Duke Ellington....what more do you need? Even after leaving Columbia, he continued to have the master touch, helping to discover Bob Newhart and later overseeing Sonny Rollins's fantastic RCA Victor recordings, plus managing young talent like Charles Lloyd and Keith Jarrett.

My life would not be the same without the music described in the previous paragraph. Around September of 1995, I had my first run-in with Louis Armstrong when he unexpectedly showed up in the middle of The Glenn Miller Story to steal the film with a hot version of "Basin Street Blues." My curiosity was piqued. Shortly after, I told my mother to take me to the local library in Toms River because I needed to check out some more of this Satchmo fellow. I don't remember how many choices there were but there were many. Perhaps my life would have changed if I grabbed some inferior-quality bootleg. But no, there was one cassette that looked appealing and I liked the concept: 16 Most Requested Songs.

That was the one that did it. "Mack the Knife" was the opening track and I was hooked immediately. With each passing song, I found myself getting in deeper and deeper....until track 14, "St. Louis Blues," from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. When Trummy Young's solo ended and Louis began leading the final two-chorus charge home, something shifted in my brain. I knew right then and there I'd never be the same.

While listening, I read and re-read the liner notes by someone named George Avakian. Turns out he not only wrote the notes, but he oversaw the entire reissue and originally produced 15 of the 16 "most requested" songs on the tape. So I can specifically say that George Avakian's Louis Armstrong recordings changed my life. I owe George everything. To remind myself of that, I put up a "Wall of Avakian" in my home office in 2014:

That was the moment that changed my life but it was far from my last run-in with George's work. Eventually, as I dug deeper into Louis, I acquired the four LPs in the photo above and wore them out. Branching out to different artists, my first Mosaic Records box was Eddie Condon’s 1950s recordings produced by George. My second Mosaic set was Buck Clayton’s 1950s recordings produced by George. The first Duke Ellington album that really flipped me was Ellington At Newport, produced by George Avakian. He seemed to be everywhere I turned: Erroll Garner, Miles Davis, Kid Ory (I found the Columbia LP), Goodman at Carnegie Hall, etc. Whenever I saw his name involved, I knew it would be something worth listening to. That even went for living musicians. In the late 90s, I began seeking out CDs on the German Nagel-Heyer label and was knocked out by a disc actually produced by George, David Ostwald’s Blues in Our Heart. That was the first I ever heard of Ostwald but I knew if Avakian liked him enough to produce a record, he must be worth seeking out. I was right.  

In 2003, I went to see Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland with my best friend, Mike. It was my first time there and I almost had a heart attack when I saw George Avakian sitting at the bar! I barely remember the music as I spent most of the time working up the nerve to introduce myself. Mike finally convinced me to do it and I did, but not without some stuttering and knee-knocking. George couldn't have been nicer and gave me his e-mail address, telling me he wanted to send me some liner notes for the reissue of Satch Plays Fats that Sony chose not to use (their mistake!). The notes were terrific but I was too nervous to keep the communication going, afraid I might be pestering him or something (not that he ever gave me that feeling).

By 2007, I had an agent trying to sell my book about Armstrong and I was booked to give a lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies. I found George's e-mail address and wrote him again, re-introducing myself, inviting him to my lecture and asking if I could interview him for the book. We immediately set up an interview time....and then he surprised me by showing up to my lecture! Not only that, we ordered a pizza beforehand and split the bill. "I just split the bill for a pizza with George Avakian," I kept telling myself over and over. It was a real "pinch me, I'm dreaming" moment.

If I never did anything but split that pizza bill with George, I would have been happy, but fortunately for me, it was just the start of a beautiful friendship. He invited me to his beautiful home in Riverdale soon after, where I interviewed him for my book in 2007. The following year, I was invited to the Satchmo Summerfest for the first time and George was happy to see me, even inviting me to sit with him and Dan Morgenstern (!) at breakfast. He was in the audience for all of my presentations and couldn’t have been any more enthusiastic.

Breakfast with George Avakian and Dan Morgenstern at my first Satchmo Summerfest in 2008.
He took an interest in my research and soon after, gave David Ostwald permission to copy some treasure’s from his private collection: session tapes for Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats, a five-hour Voice of America broadcast from 1956 and three hours of George and Louis at Louis’s home in 1953, all of it invaluable for my book.

Again, if it had stopped there, I would have been the most thankful cat in the world, but around this point, I felt the shift from colleagues to true friends. When I began working for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, George visited a few times. Once, he brought a stack of reel-to-reel tapes and wanted to hear what was on them (all great stuff, Benny Goodman, Sonny Rollins, etc.)--and then he offered to drive me to Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan! I couldn’t say no so the 90-year-old George got in the car, pulled out of Queens College, got comfortable in the high-speed left lane (in the rain!), turned on his left blinker, didn’t turn left,and sailed down the Long Island Expressway like a kid. I survived the ride, which was more exciting than splitting a pizza.

I also got to know George’s loving wife, Anahid and and all of his children and grandchildren; one of his kids referred to me as an "Honorary Avakian" and I don’t think there’s a higher compliment than that. Even during a visit in January 2014, I had a vodka tonic with George, which might not sound like much....but I don't drink alcohol! (No major reason, I just don't like it.) But when George Avakian is drinking one and asks you to join, you don't say no.
George and his vodka tonic, January 14, 2014.
By that point, it was time for me to do something in return for all George had done for me. Those mid-1950s Columbia Armstrong recordings were some of my favorites but Sony had never really reissued them properly. I hounded Scott Wenzel of Mosaic Records and he agreed, so we set out to work on Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, which was released in 2014 (and just went out of print in 2017). We envisioned it specifically as a tribute to George and dedicated the entire set to him in the notes.

One reason is it literally could not have been finished without him. After starting this blog in 2007, numerous European Armstrong fans had graciously shared treasure after treasure with me of unissued Armstrong recordings. When I pitched the set to Scott, I knew what to include because I had these bootleg copies of this unissued material. But when we went to Sony and Sony didn’t have half of what I promised, we panicked. So I went back to my European sources--where did they get the bootlegs? They asked around and the answer finally came back: from George Avakian! At the time, George’s personal archivist, Matt Leskovic, was in the process of cataloging George’s incredible basement collection. I wrote to Matt and sure enough, the vaunted Avakian basement held the missing puzzle pieces. George let us come by to pick up the tapes and just like that, the set was in motion! (Happy to report that George and Anahid’s personal collection is now housed at and administered by the New York Public Library, where it is overseen by George’s first personal archivist, and another close friend of the family, Matt Snyder. More on that in a bit.)

Out of all the moments I've spent with George, the topper might have come at the 2013 Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans. I told the Satchmo Summerfest people that I'd love to give a preview of the Mosaic set. They thought it was a fine idea but at the age of 94, no one was certain if George would be attending the festival. I asked David Ostwald (another "Honorary Avakian") to join me just in case George couldn't make it and I prepared a "solo" version of the presentation and another version if George made it.

Well, George not only made it, he stole the show! People still mention it to me four years later. David and I asked George questions about working with Louis and all was fine....but then I started playing him things from the Mosaic set--culminating in a 16-minute conversation he had with Louis in 1956--and watching him react and spring to life was positively inspiring. Fortunately, it was filmed and I uploaded it to YouTube back then. This will be extra tough to watch after today’s news, but it was such an honor to be a part of this moment. I'll never forget the standing ovation at the end as long as I live. Ladies and gentlemen, George Avakian:

The camera cuts a few times during the interview segment but watching George listening to his interview with Louis was one of the most emotional things I've ever been a part of. At 1:05, you won't see it in the video, but Louis saying, "There's no such thing as old age in music" really affected George. His reaction isn't in the video but I did document it myself "for posterity," as Louis would say:

While writing the liner notes for the Mosaic, I visited George with David Ostwald a few times to ask about some of the background of the material on the set. His memory was still sharp as a tack and he loved telling the old stories, such as Louis wearing the oversized ambassador’s suit for the cover of Ambassador Satch.

The minute the set came out, David Ostwald and I went by again to show it to him. He loved looking at the photos and we shared some laughs as David snapped some of my favorite photos of all-time:

I had to ask George to sign my copy of the liner notes booklet and he was happy to do so:

And the inscription, which alone, made my life worth living: "This is for Ricky--if he wasn't around, we'd have had to invent him! George Avakian. Bless you, Ricky."

We even listened to some of the previously unissued material and it was my turn to take George through something I had produced (talk about an outer body experience). Again, bless David for filming it. At the 2017 Satchmo Summerfest, David put together a beautiful tribute to George, edited by Evan Engel and using interview footage of George shot by Michele Cinque in 2012 and the footage David shot from the Mosaic listening night in George’s apartment in 2014. You can watch it on YouTube here:

When the Mosaic set was issued, Scott and I were honored to have George attend a “Listening Party” for the box in the summer of 2014 at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Here’s a photo I titled "The Producers":

And I was extra proud to see the Mosaic set up on George's "trophy shelf" of awards (check out the Grammys) and prized possessions:

After that, though, George slowed down. He loved having visitors but sometimes he seemed tired when David and I would get there. (Understandable, of course.) Still, he’d always rise to the occasion and there wasn’t a single time where David and I didn’t leave his apartment, take a few steps down the hall and immediately start pinching each other, always amazed that we just spent time with George Avakian.

On one visit, I hooked up my iPad and showed him nothing but rare footage of Louis on the Ed Sullivan Show, stuff he hadn’t seen since it first aired, if ever. At one point, with David filming, George said, “I’ll be damned,” looked at me, tapped me on the cheek and said, “Ricky, if my mother were here, she would say, ‘You good boy!’” If you have Facebook, you can see the video by clicking here.

There were more visits to the hospital now and he wasn’t as mobile as he used to be, but he still managed to make some memorable appearances, including his yearly birthday party at Birdland and a memorable night at the New York Public Library in February 2016 where George told stories, aided and abetted by David and myself, while enjoying the music of Sammy Miller and the Congregation.

Photo by Tara O'Grady

That evening was one of the events launching the NYPL’s taking over of the Avakian Collection. Matt Snyder was working hard on an exhibit for the summer of 2016 when we all received the heartbreaking news that George’s beloved wife Anahid passed away suddenly in June 2016. Privately some of us wondered if this would be the end for George. But, always managing to surprise us, he took a positive slant, telling people that Anahid was diagnosed with a serious heart condition in the 1980s and he was just grateful that he had 30 more terrific years with her. And when I went to the viewing and expected to console a broken up George, there he was in the corner, talking to everyone who came up to him with his usual indomitable spirit, telling stories and making everyone feel how much he appreciated their friendship. Again, you have to bear with me as I weave myself in and out of this narrative but a moment I’ll never forget is when I approached him to offer my condolences, MY eyes already misty, and George greeted me with a joyous, “Ricky! It was a lucky night when you walked into my life.” He wanted to talk about Louis and said, “I’m just sorry you didn’t get to meet him. You would have loved him. He was so kind, so warm, you and David would have had so much fun with him. And he would have loved you, too.” I broke down. (I’m breaking down now, too, as I type it.)

Still, the show went on and the NYPL exhibit went on, even without Anahid (who was a major component of it, since she was a renowned classical violinist--again, Google Anahid Ajemian!). It was a truly sensational exhibit.

At the exhibit opening, I found myself in the middle of a conversation between George and Dan Morgenstern. Both Scott Wenzel and Matt Snyder saw what was going on and snapped a pic. I forget who took this one but it sums up how I felt every time I was around George (Dan, too):

A few weeks later, George wanted to go back to see it again so I was invited to attend a semi-private look at the exhibit with George’s son Greg, David, Armstrong House Archives Assistant Sarah Rose, among others.

There aren’t too many exhibits you can visit where the subject tells you about the artifacts personally! (And I say “semi-private” because the exhibit was open to the public and there were regular folks there to see it. When Matt told one, “Hey, that’s George Avakian over there,” she was in disbelief.)

In some ways, that was George’s last hurrah. David and I visited a few more times and David even had him over to his home for a memorable dinner with Matt, Dan Morgenstern and others. I continued getting reports that he was in the hospital but he always seemed to bounce back, including another Birdland birthday party. The last time I saw him was actually in a hospital in June 2017, a somewhat sad visit (he was depressed he couldn’t make it to a Lincoln Center Hall of Fame induction for Louis Armstrong) but not without his laughs as he and David reminisced about some humorous times during their friendship.

Dinner at David's, 2017.

George had been on my mind heavily the weeks leading up to his passing. I’m currently teaching “Music of Louis Armstrong” at Queens College and we’ve been covering “The Avakian Years” the past two weeks. It’s been extremely gratifying getting my students’ reaction to the Columbia work of the mid-50s; one of them even went out and bought Louis Plays Handy and Satch Plays Fats on his own and has been loving them. Last Friday, Facebook reminded me that I first posted the photo of George and I laughing over my Mosaic liner notes on that date in 2014 so I posted it again. So many great memories, so much great music. George might be gone after 98 wondrous years but the memories and music will never leave us.

This has been my personal remembrance of George but I know I’m not special. I’ve compared notes with David Ostwald, with Matt Snyder, with Matt Leskovic, with so many others, and their stories are similar. You began as a fan, worshipping George and his work and the next thing you know, you were his friend, a real, true friend, sharing stories of life, politics, sports, everything. This man revolutionized the recording industry and was friends with Louis Armstrong but he always asked how my wife and kids were doing.

I can’t thank David enough for having me along so often, and for documenting so many of the above adventures. He really was like a son to George. And the two Matt’s, too, were dedicated to George’s work and will always be. The four of us had dinner a few months ago to plot further ways to pay homage to George, calling it a meeting of GASS: The George Avakian Secret Society!

And there WILL be more tributes. Maybe this isn’t the right time to formally announce this but Scott Wenzel and I have already gotten the ball rolling to do another Mosaic Records box on Louis’s Columbia STUDIO albums of the 1950s and 1960s. Yes, if you’re curious, it will contain tons of bonus tracks and previously unreleased material from Handy, Fats, the “Mack the Knife” session and more. We want to really start working on it in 2018 and the plan has always been to release it in 2019, The Avakian Centennial. We hoped that George could see the finished product but hell, the man lived it, and now we hope to make it the ultimate tribute to the work he did with his hero and his friend, Louis Armstrong.

George said that when he died, he wanted people to say, “That’s the guy that it if it hadn’t been for him and Louis Armstrong and W. C. Handy, there wouldn’t have been that great record, Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy.” They’re going to remember him for a lot more than that. I know I will. I also know I need to listen to Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy. Now.

Love to the Avakian children, Anahid, Maro and Greg. Eternal love to “Uncle George.” And thank you.

Birdland, 2016. Photo by Seth Cashman