C-Jam Blues

After a few entries of differing varieties, I decided to give the Itunes shuffle a spin once again and for the first time, it landed on a sideman’s feature, Barney Bigard’s “C-Jam Blues.” It was a natural feature for Bigard because a) it was a Duke Ellington number and Barney played with Duke for over a decade and b) it was originally recorded under Barney’s name as “C Blues” for an Ellington small group session in 1941, leading to some issues giving Bigard co-composer credit. He would leave Ellington shortly after the full Ellington orchestra waxed the first classic version of “C Jam Blues” on January 21, 1942. He made his mark on the California traditional jazz scene for the next few years (remember, Charles Mingus played with Kid Ory in Bigard’s band in 1942; he didn’t play in Ory’s band, as is sometime reported) before being a charter member of Armstrong’s All Stars in August 1947.

Of course, Bigard and Armstrong had a history together. They first recorded together way back on April 22, 1927 when Bigard played tenor saxophone on a Johnny Dodds-led date for Vocalion that resulted in a definitive version of “Wild Man Blues” (Bigard was playing in Chicago with Armstrong’s mentor, King Oliver, during this period). Flash-forward to January 18, 1944 and Bigard shared the stage with Armstrong at the famous Esquire All American Jazz Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House, a night that also featured Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, a frisky Roy Eldridge and other future All Stars Jack Teagarden and Sid Catlett. In September 1946, Bigard and Armstrong again teamed up for the filming of the insipid movie New Orleans. At least some good recording sessions came out of the film and it’s hard to top the charm and easy swing of the September 6, 1946 “Hot Seven” session recorded for Swing records and later released on Victor (61 years ago this Thursday for those keeping score at home). Featuring a front-line of Armstrong, Bigard and trombonist Vic Dickenson, this session really sounds like an early prototype date for the future sound of the All Stars—unlike a Victor session from the following month where the only major change is Ory is in for Dickenson, giving the session an entirely different, more “Dixieland” kind of feel as opposed to the relaxed, more modern swing of the Hot Seven date.

Thus, even though Armstrong played a few famous pre-All Stars concerts in 1947 with great clarinetists such as Edmond Hall and Peanuts Hucko, when it came time to select his first band to debut at Billy Berg’s Hollywood Boulevard nightclub on August 13, 1947 (joining Bigard were the aforementioned Catlett and Teagarden, pianist Dick Cary and bassist Morty Corb). Armstrong gave his sidemen features from the start and it’s not known when Bigard started playing “C-Jam Blues,” but it was there by the time of Armstrong’s November 15 Carnegie Hall concert. The thing about Bigard’s features is that his solos rarely changed on them. Another of his All Stars features was “Tea For Two” and Bigard can be heard playing the exact same patters on a version of “Tea For Two” from the Esquire Metropolitan Opera House concert of 1944. Thus, it’s possible “C-Jam” was pretty well set by the time recording equipment first captured Bigard’s feature at Symphony Hall in Boston, November 30 1947.

Listening to the different versions of “C-Jam Blues” throughout the course of Bigard’s (many) different stays in the All Stars, it’s fascinating to look at, not so much how Bigard’s solo changed, but rather how the other horns came into play over the course of time. At Symphony Hall, Armstrong and Teagarden are still onstage when the rhythm section plays the famous two-note riff. Teagarden plays along in the introduction with some slippery phrases and Armstrong can be heard talking to Bigard, who actually takes his clarinet out of his mouth 15 seconds in and mutters something inaudible back to Armstrong. Armstrong can even be heard offering quiet encouragement and scatting softly but he never picks up his horn. But as great as Bigard is on this feature, this version of “C-Jam” is a tour de force for the epic rhythm section team of Sid Catlett and Arvell Shaw (Morty Corb only stayed on for the first month of California gigs and didn’t want to travel). In fact, it’s sometimes said that “C-Jam” was a feature for Bigard and Shaw and I wouldn’t argue. Shaw’s a monster on this one, spinning out one swinging line after another, walking hard with his absolutely huge sound. Catlett catches some of Bigard’s phrases with perfectly placed rimshots and the whole thing just simmers til it hits a boiling point around Bigard’s patented chorus where he simply repeats a fleet-fingered triplet over and over and over until swooping up to a high note at the start of the next chorus. At that point, Catlett’s hammering home the backbeats, Shaw’s breaking up the steady walk of his lines and the whole thing just takes off. Bigard keeps taking chorus after chorus, many of which never changed over the next 14 years (and probably beyond). Teagarden can be heard throughout the performance noodling in the background, but he’s not in the forefront and just seems to be playing because he’s in the mood. Eventually, Barney simmers down to play the simple melody quiet, though Shaw continues walking like a madman in the higher register of his bass before even he settles down. Overall, not counting the melody statements, Bigard takes ten improvised choruses, building up masterfully a nice climax around chorus six and sustaining it effectively til the end. Some of Bigard’s features became exercises in monotony, as he would trade endless little phrases with the drummer, probably a lot of fun to watch live but they wear thin after listening to them a couple of times (these include “Just You, Just Me,” “S’Wonderful,” and “Rose Room,” though the latter two always featured some choice Armstrong). But “C-Jam” would always remain, I think, his best feature, with the possible exception of “I Surrender Dear,” but that ones gets bonus points for including an Armstrong vocal!

Okay, let’s flash forward to the Click in Philadelphia for a September 11, 1948 radio broadcast. Earl “Fatha” Hines is on piano and the routine for “C-Jam” has changed a little bit. The tempo’s exactly the same and now Armstrong appropriately introduces it by saying, “Here comes Barney Bigard and Arvell Shaw with a little bit of ‘C-Jam’ on the bass and clarinet.” Though Shaw doesn’t solo it, his lines are so propulsive and in the forefront, he definitely deserves co-featured billing. This version follows the Symphony Hall one to a tee as Bigard’s solo doesn’t change, Catlett still compliments Bigard perfectly (busier than at Symphony Hall, but never intrusive) and Shaw rhythmically breaks up his walking lines to good effect. But around two-and-a-half minutes in, something new arises: an interpolation of Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm.” Bigard and Shaw play the melody together before Bigard continues playing it with Hines doubling the line in the background. Teagarden and Armstrong are nowhere to find but Hines makes his presence felt when Bigard returns to the “C-Jam” melody, first playing a little chromatic run up and down for one chorus and then answering Bigard with a series of descending phrases that sound like false endings, repeated it before finally ascending with the phrase and ending the feature. A fine performance, but I prefer the loose feeling and blood-pumping swing of the Symphony Hall version.

Next up is a version from the Hollywood Empire in March 1949, one of Sid Catlett’s last dates with the All Stars. Once again, the announcer introduces it as a feature for Bigard and Shaw. The tempo’s gained a little big of speed in the preceding seven month but now the most interesting aspect is the role of Teagarden. Bigard obviously played this tune often and, as heard at Symphony Hall, when in the mood, Teagarden liked to play around on it, as well. Well, because Bigard never changed his solo, Teagarden devised a pretty neat second part on certain choruses, playing softly in the background at first, then echoing Bigard’s descending line in the third chorus. In the fourth chorus, Bigard works out a riff, which Teagarden answers perfectly each time. After the chorus of rapid triplets, Bigard sails up high while Teagarden backs him with one of his favorite blues licks (it also appears at the start of Teagarden’s second chorus on “Steak Face” from Town Hall). Teagarden eventually moves to the background but really doesn’t stop playing until about 2:15 in, at which his voice can be heard shouting some encouragement. At this point, Earl Hines really starts pushing Bigard as the excitement level builds higher and higher. Eventually, Bigard segues into “Rockin’ in Rhythm” but now he is joined by Teagarden and Armstrong! When Bigard goes back to the melody, Hines performs the little chromatic run from the 1948 broadcast, but now Teagarden plays it with him. Teagarden also plays the descending and ascending false endings. Thus, it had only been 16 months since Town Hall, but “C-Jam Blues” was evolving with each passing month. (This version is available as part of the Live at the Hollywood Empire disc on a Storyville C.D. and on Itunes.)

But wait, there’s more! On August 4, 1949, the All Stars once again found themselves broadcasting live from the Click in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, it’s only available on a disc made by the private, home made Crabapple Sound label and “C-Jam” is pitched slightly off (it’s actually the “C#-Jam Blues”). Nevertheless, it’s an important version because the band tried something different: an interpolation of “The Hucklebuck”! Paul Williams had a huge hit with this number in early 1949 and it remained on the charts for 14 weeks. Armstrong clearly wanted to do something with it but obviously didn’t know what so for this brief period in the summer of ’49, it showed up smack dab in the middle of “C-Jam Blues.” Otherwise, the version closely follows the one from the Hollywood Empire as most of Teagarden’s riffs also became part of the routine now (though some appear in different places). Earl Hines also comps by quoting the old Coleman Hawkins feature with Count Basie, “Feedin’ The Bean.” Cozy Cole was now on drums and he has some nice accents, but he wasn’t a Sid Catlett, as great as he was. As he goes on, Bigard begins improvising more than usual until another first: Bigard and Shaw trade fours for a couple of choruses! I think it works great but that, too, seemed to disappear in future versions of “C-Jam” with Shaw. But immediately after the chorus of trading, Bigard solos for one and then begins playing “The Hucklebuck,” with Shaw and Armstrong and the accented note. In case the audience doesn’t know, someone in the band screams out, “Hucklebuck!” Teagarden plays the “Now’s the Time” part of the melody with Bigard before Bigard sails back into the set chorus he always played to notify the band that “Rockin’ In Rhythm” is coming up. “The Hucklebuck” works to an extent but it does get in the way and pushes the running time to over six minutes. Clearly, it wasn’t going to last and by the time of a fall tour of Europe, Velma Middleton was singing (and dancing) “The Hucklebuck” as a feature of her own, one she would perform until around 1951, by which point “The Hucklebuck” phase had ended and disappeared from the All Stars’s repertoire. (If you like old radio shows and really want to hear this and some other rare Armstrong from the period, check out www.crabapplesound.com.)

Instead of detailing a hundred other versions of “C-Jam,” I would like to point out just a few more that are either different or especially good. In the latter category is a version from a dance date in Vancouver, Canada on January 26, 1951. The tempo is a shade slower, maybe because it was a dance, and Shaw is especially well-recorded but whatever it is, this one swings ferociously and is my favorite Bigard “C-Jam.” Everything I’ve talked about is in place, including the role of Teagarden (though again, some of those patented riffs and licks pop up in different places) but Shaw’s the real star of this one. I mean, he’s just ferocious. If you ever wondered what Mingus would have sounded like playing with Armstrong (and remember, he did for a brief time in the early-40s), check this one out. Shaw even gets a one-chorus solo all to himself and one wishes he had more time to stretch out. Teagarden now joins Bigard on all of “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” while Armstrong still just comes in for the second strain. This is a killer version. (It’s on an old C.D. titled The Great Concert of Louis Armstrong but it’s also on two different Itunes releases….it’s the only Armstrong version of “C-Jam” that clocks in at 5:18.)

Shaw eventually left the All Stars later in 1951, but “C-Jam Blues” went on as a feature for Bigard and Shaw’s replacement, Dale Jones (whose other features consisted of singing Bert Williams songs!). Bigard, too, needed a breather in the summer of 1952, leaving for a while and not returning until early 1953 (by which point Shaw was back, as well). In the summer of 1953, Milt Hinton arrived on bass. This edition of the All Stars lasted only short time, but it’s one of the best. In addition to Hinton and Bigard, the band also featured Trummy Young on trombone, pianist Marty Napoleon and Cozy Cole on drums. While together, this group was recorded at a concert that originally was thought to have originated from Cornell University in 1954, In reality, no one knows the exact locale but it’s definitely from 1953 and it’s one of my favorite All Stars concerts of all time. Not only is Armstrong in sickeningly good shape, but the whole band plays wonderfully. The concert was originally released on two Rarities LPs and is long overdue for a cleaned-up C.D. issue. Anyway, it’s notable for a very loose version of “C-Jam” featuring Bigard and Hinton. The tempo is way up again, the fastest version yet. Following Teagarden’s lead, Young plays around Bigard’s solo, though for the first time, he gets help from Armstrong. The two brassmen lay down some background riffs and even echo some of Bigard’s set licks. Eventually, they improvise separate lines behind him before dropping out to let Bigard sail into his great triplet chorus, which, as always, causes the audience to break into applause. Cozy Cole is now in the pocket with Bigard, backing him beautifully. Hinton then gets a longer solo than Shaw got. In his four choruses, Hinton manages to squeeze in a quote from “The National Emblem March” and just plain swings his ass off. Towards the end, Armstrong starts playing and we’re off for two choruses of plain ensemble jamming between Armstrong, Bigard and Young. It’s a lot of fun and I’m surprised it took Armstrong this many years to become such a part of this feature (though, trust me, if you heard the rest of this concert, he’s in peak form and maybe just felt like blowing all night long). Eventually, “Rockin’ In Rhythm” comes and goes but Armstrong and Young aren’t done yet. They trade call-and-response phrases while Bigard plays the melody and even Armstrong gets involved on the descending and ascending false endings, something he never did in the earlier versions. It’s a loose, very fun version and just listening to it again, makes me want to hear it on actual remastered C.D. (wake up, Europe, the copyright on this thing expired four years ago!).

By 1954, the powerful tandem of Armstrong and Young managed to squeeze Bigard right out of the ensembles. Bigard had grown tired of traveling and his playing took on a tired, bored sound. Just listen to the ensembles on the Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy and Satch Plays Fats records of 1954 and ’55, respectively. In the ensembles, the group sounds like a quintet as Bigard sounds almost absent. And every time he solos on the Fats Waller album, drummer Barrett Deems backs him up with light brushes or quiet cymbals, almost blatantly calling attention to Bigard’s increasing lack of oomph in the band. By September 1955, Bigard was out, replaced by the absolutely ideal Edmond Hall, who fit in with Young and Armstrong like a charm. However, it wasn’t the end of Bigard with the All Stars as he would return one more time in 1960 to replace Peanuts Hucko. At the time, Trummy Young told Metronome that Bigard was playing better than ever and insinuated that perhaps it was because Bigard wasn’t drinking as much as he used to. Young’s assessment of Bigard’s playing proved to be right on the money, especially when listening to Armstrong’s set at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival, one of the great, unsung All Stars concerts. The audience (sitting in the rain) absolutely showers Armstrong with tremendous love and he responds by giving an incredible show, his trumpet in wonderful form. Bigard plays wonderfully the entire time, better than he had on almost anything from 1954 and ’55. He sounds good in the ensemble and his solos are very hot, notably on “St. Louis Blues.” As a feature, Bigard trotted out “C-Jam Blues” that evening and it’s truly his feature as Armstrong’s bassist at the time, Mort Herbert, sticks to just walking in the background. It’s been 13 years since Symphony Hall but Bigard’s solo hasn’t changed. Remembering 1953, Armstrong and Young team up to give Bigard some nice backings, once again echoing his lines and laying some nice riffs under him. The rhythm section, led by Danny Barcelona’s super-swinging drums, really gets under Bigard’s ass, lending the performance an incredibly exciting feel. Barcelona wasn’t a master of accents like Catlett but Christ, he could swing and he really pushes Bigard. Even Armstrong can be heard barking an enthusiastic, “Yeah!” as Bigard turns on the heat. For “Rockin’ in Rhythm,” pianist Billy Kyle plays the first part with him before Young and Armstrong join in for the second part. Bigard drops down low to play the melody, Trummy in there with him, but now there’s a standard ending; the false ending phrases are gone and I think it sounds better without them. (This wonderful C.D., Happy Birthday, Louis!, was originally released on the Omega label and is not available on Ituens, though there is an entirely different C.D. listed there with the same name. Fortunately, it is available through the Amazon marketplace and can be had for as low as $2.74.)

Interestingly, with Armstrong playing two Ellington melodies over the course of “C-Jam,” it was only fitting that less than a year later, Armstrong would record an album of Ellington songs for Roulette with Ellington sitting in with the All Stars on piano. One of the song’s chose was “Duke’s Place,” a version of “C-Jam Blues” with some simply lyrics written by the session’s producer, Bob Thiele. Ellington’s piano sounds very hip on both the master and an alternate take first issued in 2000. On the alternate, Armstrong gets off to a shaky start before settling in for two relaxed blues choruses. On the master, Armstrong follows Bigard and plays a much more sure-footed solo, though his lip sounds a little tired for an instant in his second chorus (it was a long session that April day). After so many years of playing it as a feature, it must have been easy for Bigard to reach into his set bag of tricks and pull out two choruses of the many he had played for years, wisely choosing the triplet chorus as one of them, both on the alternate and the master. Trummy scores on both of his choruses, Ellington really digging in on the master. On the alternate, Ellington digs in on the piano for a while with Bigard playing the melody before Thiele eventually butts in and calls a halt. Fortunately, on the master, Thiele let it go on for a while and Duke got to stretch out for a wonderful minute-and-a-half, sounding downright Monkish at points (which, I guess is another way of saying downright Dukish).

By this point, Bigard had once again gotten weary of traveling and once again, he sounds a bit off at times during the Ellington sessions, especially on the rehearsal takes, where he messes up routines he played over and over for years in the 20s and 30s. But Armstrong wasn’t quite done with “C-Jam.” On a December 17, 1961 episode of the Ed Sullivan Show, Armstrong’s All Stars appeared (with Bigard’s replacement, Joe Darensbourg, on clarinet) and Ellington sat in on piano to recreate two of the songs off the Roulette album. They chose “Duke’s Place,” and though it’s only a 2:20 version of the song, it’s pretty wonderful. Armstrong happily sings the lyrics, though he sounds like he’s trying pretty hard to remember them as he goes. Ellington quotes some of favorite old ideas in a fine two-chorus solo before Armstrong sings another chorus and takes a two-chorus trumpet solo, sounding in very good form (he sometimes struggled with the trumpet on the Sullivan show). By his second chorus, Young and Darensbourg begin jamming and the whole takes on a New Orleans ensemble feel. Only on the last note does Armstrong falter. He pauses and jumps up to a high E, but instead hits an Eb for couple of seconds before settling on the E (Armstrong sounds even better on the following “In a Mellotone,” which includes quotes from “That’s My Home” and “Turkey in the Straw” and is arguably superior to the version from the original album).

So there it is, a little mini-history of “C-Jam Blues.” And besides, what better way to celebrate Labor Day than by examining an All Stars feature since God knows, those guys labored day-in and day-out to serve their boss. Bigard wasn’t the best clarinet player the All Stars ever had, he never sounded as good as he did in the early years of the band and some of his features could grow tiresome but on “C-Jam Blues,” he always managed to cook, especially when backed by one of the All Stars’s fine bass players. A fine feature by a fine musician…til next time!


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