Twelfth Street Rag

YouTube time again, ladies and gentlemen, and today I’d like to select one offered by one of my favorite YouTube people, kpjazz! Jim, the man behind kpjazz, uploaded this clip back in April and somehow, it only has 787 views (another Armstrong clip uploaded by Jim that same day has almost 3,000!). You’ll heard Edward R. Murrow’s voice in the beginning but this is not from Satchmo The Great. It’s from Murrow’s first profile of Armstrong for his See It Now television program. This profile followed Armstrong around Europe in the fall of 1955, while Satchmo the Great reused some of this footage but mainly consisted of clips of Armstrong’s tour of London and Africa in May 1956. The video is of the All Stars doing “Twelfth Street Rag” and I think it’s a hoot. Those who might not be too familiar with the All Stars might view it and write the band off as a bunch of vaudeville clowns (which many in the jazz press of the time in fact did) but Armstrong conceived of “Twelfth Street Rag” as a parody of sorts. The version is a lot of fun and the trumpet soars as usual. Here’s the clip, followed by my blow-by-blow depiction of the events:

Now, if you’re not at least smiling, please step away from your computer and consult a physician because that is four minutes of joy personified. Like I said, one of the most common jabs at the All Stars in the 1950s was that they had become a “vaudeville” act and not a jazz band. Watching “Twelfth Street,” one cannot deny some vaudeville mannerisms but the audience loves it and musical content is incredibly high. The hardest thing in the world is to make people laugh and Armstrong did it night after night, only to get slammed by the serious critics who wanted him to go make serious masterpieces like the Hot Seven recordings…even though Armstrong first tackled “Twelfth Street Rag” in a humorous manner for one of the Hot Seven sessions on May 11, 1927.!

The actual song, composed by Euday L. Bowman and named after a street in Kansas City, was already 14 years old by the time Armstrong got to it and clearly, Armstrong felt it was out-of-date. The Hot Seven plays it in a tongue-in-cheek style throughout, except for Armstrong, whose rhythmic deconstruction of the hokey melody is something to marvel at. As written, it’s basically just three notes repeated ad infinitum and clearly Armstrong knew he could have fun with those three notes. If you don’t know the original melody, here’s a version by Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra from June 11, 1927, one month after Armstrong’s version (thanks to Todd Weeks for hipping me to this one).

I love Moten, but that’s a pretty corny way of playing a pretty corny melody. Armstrong combated this by slowing the song down and playing that main, three-note phrase in every conceivable rhythmic combination except how it was written. He takes some chances, especially on the breaks and when he’s done, one can never listen to the “Twelfth Street Rag” the same way (unless it’s accompanying sports bloopers packages on the 11 o’clock news). Following Armstrong, trombonist Bob Thomas steps up and blows, I think, a purposely corny trombone solo. Thomas wasn’t the greatest trombonist but he wasn’t this bad. Johnny Dodds plays for real but in the background, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong beats out the original melody as stiffly as possible. Eventually, Armstrong leads the final ensemble, still taking chances right up until the cute little ending phrase. It’s fascinating that Armstrong recognized how out-of-date this tune was when other bands were still playing it as written, but unfortunately, OKeh didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t release it until George Avakian discovered it in the vaults in 1940. It’s not a classic record but definitely features some classic Armstrong in the opening chorus.

Except for a high-flying version from a “Saturday Night Swing Club” broadcast in 1938 (heard on volume five of the Ambassador series), Armstrong didn’t revisit the “Twelfth Street Rag” until early 1949. In the 22 years since Armstrong had first recorded it, “Twelfth Street Rag” had become a favorite number of various Dixieland groups, even being the subject of a number-one hit in 1948 for trombonist Pee Wee Hunt. These uptempo Dixieland versions were cornier than the ones from the teens and 20s and Armstrong once again saw the song as ripe for parody. It appears one two recordings from the band’s 1949 tour of Europe, one from Stockholm (heard on the first volume of Storyville’s In Scandinavia) series and the other from Trieste, Italy (heard in an incomplete version on Milan’s Mr. President C.D.). The version from Sweden is fairly straight for awhile, or at least straighter than it would become in the ensuing years! The performance opens with a scorching Armstrong break and he plays the melody in a more-up-to-date, swinging style in tadem with Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard, the trumpet taking a great break (with nice Cozy Cole drum accents behind him) early on. Earl “Fatha” Hines plays a pretty “normal” solo, as does bassist Arvell Shaw, though Cole’s heavy drum break in the middle of the solo gets a little snicker. However, with Barney Bigard’s solo, we’re firmly in the land of parody as Bigard mews and moans with glee, throwing in some Larry Shield-ian barnyard sounds for good measure. Cole changes his drum patterns to almost circus drumming, with heavy bass drum accents on one and three. Bigard even takes one of George Lewis’s breaks from “St. Phillips Street Breakdown” and plays it as stiffly and awkwardly as possible, getting a big laugh from the audience. Teagarden’s trombone opens up in the same corny manner and even includes a way low “Salt Peanuts”-type phrase and some whole-tone phrases (perhaps subtle digs at the modernists?). Cole’s drumming continues in its over-the-top fashion until the closing ensemble when the group brings the song back up-to-date with a new, harmonized riff and an exciting drum break. Armstrong’s trumpet leads the way out and the audience begins applauding before the song is even over. Clearly the combination of parody and swinging jazz worked as the song remained in the repertoire for years.

Just a few short months later, in April 1950, the All Stars entered Decca’s recording studio to record ten songs that had been polished to perfection during all the one-nighters. One of the songs chosen was “Twelfth Street Rag” and though it follows the same pattern as the live version discussed above, there are some changes, most notably a more relaxed medium tempo. Armstrong, Teagarden and Bigard still play the melody together but 20 seconds in, Armstrong can’t resist tampering with it, eliminating two of the melody’s three main notes and emphasizing the one left over to great effect. Teagarden also plays more tailgate trombone in the opening ensemble and considering that wasn’t his forte, it’s like a prelude to the shenanigans that are about the follow. You can hear what playing a song regularly does to a band as Hines and Cole have some set-up interplay in the middle of the piano. Shaw’s bass solo, complete with double-stops, is terrific but again, the comedy doesn’t begin until the Barney Bigard show rolls into town as Bigard plays the same exact solo he had played on the 1949 live versions (though now someone in the band yells, “Get hot, Boin!). Teagarden also reprises his solo though he now throws a little “Rhapsody in Blue” in for good measure. Again, the band swings the final chorus but now Shaw takes a vocal break: “Hot sausage and a cup of hot coffee!” It’s silly but Armstrong’s following trumpet is searing. Cole takes a trite break using only a cymbal but if you still didn’t know it was a parody, you’ll get the point at the very end when Pops says, “Them cats was really boppin’ that time, wasn’t they, folks?”

“Twelfth Street Rag” wasn’t performed every night but it did continue to crop up throughout the fifties. A January 1954 broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco shows that the routine hadn’t changed much though the entire band, except for Bigard, was different from the earlier versions. Pops sounds wonderful in the opening ensemble (getting a shout of approval from Milt Hinton during his first break) and the first chorus now ends with a new phrase played by Armstrong, Bigard and trombonist Trummy Young. This broadcast, available on the Storyville disc Louis Armstrong & His All Stars, was one of Billy Kyle’s first and you can hear him singing along with his solo, truly improvising until his solo would eventually become somewhat set (in his Armstrong discography, Jos Willems doesn’t believe Billy Kyle to be at the piano for this session but I do because he was at other Club Hangover broadcasts from that week. I just think Kyle was so new to the band that he was feeling his way and his solos didn’t sound like they would just a few months later). Besides Armstrong’s trumpet work, the highlight of the performance has to be Hinton’s slap-bass solo…it’s a shame he didn’t last longer in the All Stars. Bigard’s solo is still a comedic exercise, now complete with a quote from “Melancholy Baby.” At the end of his solo, Bigard doesn’t play his usual breaks but instead must break into a dance, judging by the absence of his playing and the shouts from the band and crowd as drummer Kenny John takes over. John whacks the cymbals for Trummy’s extroverted turn, which includes a quote from “Somebody Stole My Gal.” Take away John’s goofy drumming and this sounds like a typically shouting Young effort! In the final chorus, Bigard takes over for Shaw when it comes to the vocal break but instead of singing about sausage and coffee, Bigard shouts, “Ooh-shoo-be-doobie, ooh, ooh,” a little swipe at one of the big bop vocal numbers.

The longest and loosest version of “Twelfth Street” comes from the Crescendo Club performance of January 21, 1955 (on the C.D. The California Concerts). Armstrong introduces it as being from before his time, joking that Bigard played it with Buddy Bolden. The tempo had gone way down since 1949 and this struts in a nice medium groove. Arvell Shaw rejoined the band in 1954 and his bass propels the opening ensemble with great force. It’s been a year since the Club Hangover and Billy Kyle now has a set solo, complete with an opening phrase that inspires a glee club response from Armstrong, Bigard and Young. Drummer Barrett Deems sticks to the rims behind Kyle and you can hear a lot of happy conversation between Armstrong and the other members of the band, everyone obviously having a good time (Armstrong yells at Kyle, “Play it, Meade Lux Lewis!”). There are more laughs during Shaw’s solo—only those in attendance at the Crescendo Club that evening can know what was going down on stage. Bigard now debuts a new solo, though it’s still in the cornier-than-thou bag as his past ones. One of his phrases inspires Shaw to cry out, “Oh, he plays so sweet!” Bigard and Shaw even have a routine worked out on one of the breaks and Shaw plays the second break with a bowed bass—is Bigard dancing, is he miming playing to the bass? We’ll never know but the audience eats it up. Young’s next with his funky solo, Deems backing him up appropriately. The audience breaks up again during Young’s solo and for once, the YouTube video helps out as we can see Young bent all the way over, snapping his fingers and dancing to his own solo. The more relaxed tempo makes the closing ensemble swing more than ever and Shaw now takes the bop vocal break (clearing his throat before stepping up to the mic). After the break, Pops plays some of the finest horn he ever played on any version of “Twelfth Street.” Again, thanks to YouTube, we can now picture Deems taking his closing solo by banging to cymbals together by hand!

By the end of 1955, the All Stars had a new clarinetist, Edmond Hall. The band embarked on a three-month tour of Europe, beginning in October. As mentioned, it was during this tour that we get the composite version of “Twelfth Street Rag” from Murrow’s See It Now program. The quality of the YouTube video is poor, but the spirit shines through. The video starts at the second half of the opening ensemble, just in time to catch Armstrong’s heroic break. It’s fun seeing other musicians sing along with Kyle’s solo. Though Shaw’s bass solo is edited, it’s a gas seeing his dance steps and heel-kicks at the end. Hall’s solo is also graphically edited but he never went the same corny route as Bigard. However, Hall, usually thought to be fairly straight-laced and serious about his music, gets into the spirit by demonstrating “the cut out”—I could swear I saw Justin Timberlake use those moves at MTV’s Video Music Awards last week! Young’s solo (we’re now in France) might be the highlight. It’s still as funky as ever and Pops loves it, getting the audience to clap along but the image of Young, bent over and snapping, is pretty damn funny. Pops leads the way in the closing ensemble, with Shaw trotting out another boppish vocal lick, then humorously shrugging. Armstrong sticks to riffing with the other horns instead of going for himself as he did at the Crescendo Club, but it all works.

Upon returning to the states, George Avakian of Columbia Records called the All Stars into Columbia’s Los Angeles studio to record some more tracks to be released on the Ambassador Satch album. Some of the tracks on the original album dated from live European concerts, but “All of Me” and “Twelfth Street Rag” had fake applause dubbed in and were passed off as live. It’s a fairly tight version and without an audience to entertain, there’s more playing and less dancing. Kyle’s solo still gets the vocal response from the front line and Shaw still does his vocal break but otherwise, there’s a lot of serious playing (though Hall and Young split a chorus instead of taking the usual full chorus each). A very fine version from one of my all-time favorite Pops LPs.

Hopefully, all these mind-numbing details enhanced your enjoyment of the YouTube video of “Twelfth Street Rag.” The song stayed in the band’s repertoire until around 1959 but for the ten years it was in there, it provided a lot of laughs and a lot of great music. As always, comments are welcome and if you’d like to e-mail me, drop me a line at


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