I Got Rhythm

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 6, 1931
Track Time 3:39
Written by George and Ira Gershwin
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41534
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

When Girl Crazy opened up on Broadway on October 14, 1930, you have to wonder if composer George Gershwin knew he had come up with a chord sequence that would serve as the basis for countless jazz improvisations over the next 78 years (and counting). The song introduced that evening by Ethel Merman was, of course, “I Got Rhythm,” one of America’s best-known standards. Going into the history of the song would take a couple of months, but I should say a few things about the song’s pre-Armstrong history. “I Got Rhythm” is one of those songs that people from all walks of life, from jazz nuts to jazz haters, seem to know. And by know, I’m not just talking about having just heard of the song. No, it’s become one of those songs that people can sing the entire melody and might even know all of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, if they were born 50 years after the song premiered in Girl Crazy.

This, to me, can all be traced back to those early performances on the Broadway stage. Think about it: there’s Ethel Merman belting out the tune, becoming a star and paving the way for future performances of the song in Hollywood musicals, on cruise ships and even on American Idol. The song became a staple for Merman, as this much later YouTube clip shows (“Rhythm” starts two minutes in):

But backing her up in Girl Crazy was a small jazz combo led by trumpeter Red Nichols, featuring the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers and Gene Krupa, a combo that would often put on jam sessions during intermissions. Thus, immediately, the “normal” pop music world and the swinging jazz world found common ground and “I Got Rhythm” became a song that would not die, a good thing, given the number of legendary solos that have been taken over its chord changes (and a band thing if you’ve ever heard it on a cruise ship, such as the moment that almost ruined my honeymoon).

Girl Crazy opened on October 14 and just nine days later, Nichols was in the recording studio, waxing the very first “I Got Rhythm,” with a vocal by Dick Robertson. Here’s where the Red Hot Jazz Archive becomes a beautiful thing. To hear that Nichols recording of October 23, click here. It’s a hot one with a tricky, swinging arrangement and everyone sounds happy.

The very next day, Luis Russell’s orchestra tackled “I Got Rhythm” for a Melotone record, which can be heard by clicking here. That’s J.C. Higginbotham (“Hicken-bottom,” as Armstrong would say) tearing it up on the trombone, while Red Allen takes the bridge in the next-to-last chorus. Man, the Russell rhythm section, anchored by the team of Pops Foster on bass and Paul Barbarin on drums, could swing. And no, your ears didn’t deceive you; that was Dick Robertson again singing the lyrics…wasn’t Smith Ballew in town? Robertson sounded more comfortable on the Nichols version, especially on the bridge, but when I decide to start a blog on Dick Robertson, I’ll tackle that issue in more detail!

Next up, Ethel Waters recorded a classic version on November 18. She shows an Armstrong influence in her second chorus, half-talking the lyrics and later scatting with Mannie Klein’s trumpet (the Dorsey brothers are also present). Listen to it by clicking here.

So, just in the first month of recording, “I Got Rhythm” was the basis for straight vocals by the likes of Merman and Robertson, scat singing by Waters and swinging solos by Red Nichols and J.C. Higginbotham. The song’s appeal to just about anyone who played an instrument was already cemented but really, how could it not be with George Gershwin as a composer? To end this little history section, here’s Gershwin himself, striding away on “I Got Rhythm” in 1931:

With the history lesson over, let’s look at where Louis Armstrong was when he recorded the song. His version of “I Got Rhythm” was done during a busy series of recording sessions from November 1931, a span that included “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” the subject of an October blog that you can look up in the archive because in it, I go into more detail about Armstrong’s band at the time. They’ve always been knocked by critics for being too ragged, but Armstrong called it the happiest band he played in, probably because so many members were from New Orleans. And regardless of any raggedness, these November 1931 Chicago OKeh sessions were responsible for Armstrong’s absolutely timeless versions of standards such as “Lazy River,” “Chinatown” and “Star Dust.” November 6 was the fourth and final session and, well, I don’t want to cast any aspersions, but it’s possible that some, uh, illegal substances were being passed around the studio that day. Only two songs were recorded, the first being a hilarious “Lonesome Road” that served as precursor to 1933’s “Laughing Louie” in that it featured Armstrong and the band in a comedic role, cutting up and having fun, but also making time for a gorgeous trumpet statement by the leader. Armstrong had been lampooning church services during live performances for over a decade and “Lonesome Road” captures Armstrong’s satiric mind beautifully.

With everyone in good spirits, it was time to tackle “I Got Rhythm.” Armstrong, after speaking for most of “Lonesome Road,” would continue his role as master of ceremonies on “I Got Rhythm,” not even needing to pick up his horn until the final two choruses. This is the band’s time to shine and almost every one of them gets their name called or a short solo. Sure, they’re rough and ready but the spirit is there, they swing hard and they know how to stay out of the leader’s way, even when playing in polyphonic ensemble form. Having said that, I don’t view Armstrong’s “I Got Rhythm as one of the full-on classics of those OKeh days but it’s a fun record nonetheless and Armstrong still sounds great. Listen along by clicking here.

As record executives continued to take be wowed by Armstrong’s natural effervescent personality, they began making more and more use of it on records with such things as spoken introductions and little comedy routines, something that was done now and then on the Hot Fives (“Gut Bucket Blues” and the banter with Earl Hines on “Monday Date” spring to mind), but really continued on the OKeh and Victor big band sessions. “I Got Rhythm” opens with a jokingly grumpy Armstrong. “All right, you cats been talking about you got rhythm, you got this and you got that and the other. I got rhythm! I’m going to see what you all got, joking.”

(Okay, sidebar. Does Armstrong say “joking,” “choking” or something else? Whatever it is, it’s the same thing he sang on “Rockin’ Chair” for 40 years: “What cabin, joking, father.” I’m only writing “joking” because that’s what it kind of sounds like, but that really makes no sense. Will Friedwald once asked the same exact question on a Jazz Research list that included the likes of Dan Morgenstern and George Avakian…and nobody came up with a reasonable answer. If you know what Pops is referring to, leave a comment or drop me an e-mail at dippermouth@msn.com! Back to your regularly scheduled blogging…)

Armstrong then instructs his band to “swing out,” counts off the tempo and we’re off! I like drummer Tubby Hall’s quick two tom hits, setting up the reeds playing the melody fairly straight. Pops immediately starts encouraging the band and saying stuff like, “I Got Rhythm is right” as if this is a prototype Fats Waller and His Rhythm record. The arrangement isn’t too creative, just inserting a bent blue note in the seventh and eighth bars of the A sections (watch that intonation, Gates). Armstrong lets out a quiet, “Oh, you dog,” at the end of the bridge…how many jazz musicians had national catchphrases in 1931? He then announces that he’s going to begin to introduce some of the members of the band for a series of eight bars solos. Preston Jackson scores with his trombone, followed by alto saxophonist Lester Boone in a pretty good spot. Armstrong’s second trumpet man, and the band’s straw boss and arranger, Zilner Randolph, takes the bridge muted, running into a bit of trouble, before saxophonist George James picks up his soprano, opening with a long gliss before some corny stovepipe blowing.

Armstrong, perhaps knowing the band’s erratic tendencies, alerts them to “Watch that break chorus there.” True enough, the band goes into stop-time, allowing Mike McKendrick to run away with a guitar solo. As the band nails their stop-time accents, Armstrong says matter-of-factly, “That’s better.” Obviously this passage presented trouble earlier in the session. Armstrong then throws it to John Lindsay’s, swinging, popping, New Orleans-infused bass thumping. While Lindsay swings, Armstrong calls attention to “Charlie Alexander backing him up.” Armstrong always had a thing for bassists and pianists "backing" each other up. On the countless versions of “Now You Has Jazz” from the 1950s and 1960s, Armstrong always introduced pianist Billy Kyle, followed by the mention of “[Insert bass player here] backing him up on the bass.” He does the same thing on the 1966 Mercury record of “When the Saints Go Marching In” with pianist Marty Napoleon and bassist Buddy Catlett. It’s interesting how so many little turns of phrases like that one and “Good old good ones,” started when Armstrong was a young man and continued for decades to come.

Back to 1931…the next solo is from Al Washington’s tenor and clearly he must have been one of the most gifted improvisers because he gets an entire half of one chorus, including a swinging opening and a real tricky break, eliciting an excited, “Yeah! Get a load of that break,” from Armstrong (drummer Tubby Hall also gets a shout out during Washington’s turn). As Washington winds down and Armstrong prepares for his entrance, he says, “Every tub,” alerting the full band to begin playing with abandon, a phrase that would be immortalized in jazz circles by Count Basie’s record of the same name. You have to wonder how many little phrases like “Every tub” and “swing out” were picked up by jazz musicians from around the country after listening to records like this one.

When Armstrong enters, it truly is “every tub.” These cats might have had trouble with arrangements every now and then, but they give Pops a purely improvised backdrop for one chorus and no one gets in each other’s way, which is arguably more impressive than ripping off an arranged chart flawlessly. Only the reed riffs sound arranged but they’re so loose, it sounds more like a jam session. Speaking of loose, dig Pops. He enters with one single Bb, right on the beat. He then proceeds to play nothing but Bbs for an entire half chorus, dropping them like bombs out of a B-19. Some land on the beat, others in between, some are dropped together, others have long gaps in between them. He then swings into the bridge with a string of D’s, each one on the beat. So we’re about 18 bars into a 34-bar song (remember, jazz musicians still improvised on the tag back then), and with the exception of I believe two other quiet notes in the second A section, Armstrong has basically played nothing but two pitches. It’s the definition of relaxation, but you just know something big is brewing. The relaxation continues throughout the rest of the first chorus, until a loud F heralds a more exciting second go-around. I listen to this solo and I don’t hear the Louis Armstrong of 1931; I hear the Armstrong of 1951 This is a very mature solo, very floating, but without a lot of the double-timed fireworks that are the trademarks of the 30-year-old Armstrong. I especially love the phrase he begins the second eight bars of his second chorus with, which would become a standard part of his solo on “Basin Street Blues.” He emphasizes high A’s during the bridge and a three-note motif in during the final A section consisting of G-A-and a low D, a sixth, major seventh and third of Bb. The band slows it down and the reeds take a funny, purposely corny coda, something that might have been thought up during the (possibly) high times of “Lonesome Road.”

Like I said, Armstrong’s “I Got Rhythm” is one of the lesser discs from the OKeh period but it does give Armstrong a chance to showcase his personality as well as his free-floating sense of rhythm. According to Joel Whitburn’s somewhat unreliable “Pop Memories” book, Armstrong’s record reached number 17 (if there were actually charts back then), so it did its job in maintaining the popularity of the song. In 1932, Don Redman recorded a swinging instrumental big band performance of it and Sidney Bechet became the first jazz musician to simply jam on the changes and not allude to the melody with his record of “Shag.”

But Louis Armstrong was not quite done with “I Got Rhythm.” After his Paris exile, he returned to the United States, hired Joe Glaser as his manager and began fronting Luis Russell’s big band and recording for Decca. In 1937, Armstrong replaced Rudy Vallee for 12 weeks as the host of the “Fleischmann Yeast Show,” the first time a black person had the opportunity to host such a major show. As I’ve alluded to before, this material is currently being prepped to be released on a two-disc set later this year, a set that should be a major release, if given the proper respect by the jazz community. Thanks to the kindness of strangers (you know who you are!), I have recently received 26 of these Fleischmann performances and they have knocked me out in ways that I cannot describe. But please understand, that I do not want to share them here because I don’t want to take anything away from the official release, which is going to have notes by Dan Morgenstern and other treasures from the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College as selected by Michael Cogswell. I will say that there scintillating performances of Chappie Willet’s “Rhythm Jam” and “I Got Rhythm,” the latter borrowing many riffs from “Rhythm Jam.” The band swings their asses off on both tracks and as Willet authority John Wriggle wrote me after I shared the tracks with him, “These recordings completely revise the reputation of the Russell-led band as an ensemble. So much of the studio-recorded stuff was obviously being played for the first time – but here the band is loose and driving. They never become exactly ‘tight,’ but at least they prove beyond a doubt that the hesitancy of the studio work was just that.”

I can report that Armstrong plays two completely different two-chorus solos. The only similarities are in the bridges and the held F that leads into the second chorus. I will say that both solos are better than what he played on the original 1931 record and that says a lot. But both still come in second, in my opinion, to the famous Martin Block jam session version from December 14, 1938. This version has been bootlegged a thousand times but who cares? It has to be one of the greatest versions of “Rhythm” ever to be played in front of a microphone and if you’ve never heard it, please listen along:

Armstrong shares front line duties with Jack Teagarden on trombone and Bud Freeman’s tenor saxophone. Fats Waller anchors a rhythm section that also includes Bob Spergal’s guitar, Pete Peterson’s bass and George Wettling’s drums. In all it’s a four-minute jam and Pops is at the peak of his powers. He never really seemed to thrive off of stride piano backings but something spurred him to great heights on this version. After an ensemble chorus in the front, Pops steps up with the first solo, very flowing and melodic, with phrases that stick in your mind long after he puts down his horn. Freeman, Teagarden and Waller all authority (Waller adding a happy “Hello” just for the hell of it) but the main event comes with the final minute and 13 seconds as Pops leads the ensemble through two rideout choruses. Every phrase Armstrong plays is sculpted perfectly and his upper register rarely sounded better. As Armstrong steams to the end of first ensemble chorus, it sounds like he’s building up to an ending, but Fats isn’t ready to let him go, shouting “Come on” and spurring Armstrong into one chorus. Pausing for a beat to collect himself, Armstrong calmly continues his charge, bouncing off a few glisses to Bb’s, playing a nimble little phrase then hitting the climax of the entire performance, a gliss that starts somewhere below the equator and rises up higher and higher to a freakish high F! I know an exclamation point might seem gratuitous but it’s the only way to properly convey the excitement of this F. Ever so slowly, Armstrong climbs back down for more fleet-fingered phrases throughout the bridge, throwing in some more quick glisses toward the end and finishing with a three note high C-D-Bb phrase. This is Pops at the peak of his powers and those final two choruses scare the hell out of me.

The next time Armstrong encountered “I Got Rhythm” was also in another all-star setting, the January 1944 Esquire Metropolitan Opera House concert. This concert has kind of been written off as a low point for Armstrong, but I’ve never heard it that way. True, it’s not like he does the greatest blowing of his life, but he sounds good on his features, such as “Back O’Town Blues” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and he plays telling solos during jam session numbers as “I Got Rhythm” and “Flying Home.” However, Armstrong apparently wasn’t feeling well AND he had to share the stage with a particularly combative Roy Eldridge, who desperately wanted to cut the king. While Eldridge and Armstrong didn’t get to do any trading or anything, it’s safe to say that whenever Eldridge and Armstrong solo on the same number, it’s Roy who usually goes over the top and into the stratosphere of his horn, trying to leave the deepest impression on the fans in attendance as well as his fellow musicians onstage. I love Roy and he was in his prime in 1944 so I love hearing his exciting work during this concert, but that doesn’t mean I have to disparage Pops. Here's the audio:

On “I Got Rhythm,” Armstrong is up third, after solos by Red Norvo and Art Tatum (Jesus, what a band this was). In the early 1930s, Armstrong pioneered the kind of relaxed, free-floating rhythm I write so much about but by 1944, many jazz musicians had adapted a faster way of coping with up tempos, with lots of arpeggios and eighth-note runs. Armstrong, however, didn’t change, playing lots of nimble phrases on this “Rhythm” but floating over the beat unlike the other members of the all-star group. This led to some of the reviewers to write him off as old-fashioned, but I still think he was ahead of the world. Like I said, it isn’t Armstrong’s greatest night; he has a bit of trouble for a split second at the start of his first bridge and his tone gets a little small briefly as he heads into his second chorus. But otherwise, it’s a wonderful solo, with some tremendous blue notes, many quicker phrases than customary and the aforementioned rhythmic mastery. I love this solo but can’t deny that it’s overshadowed a few minutes later by Eldridge. Again, I adore Eldridge and proudly possess a “tasteless” a streak that leads me to embrace all things Jazz at the Philharmonic. And as exciting as Roy’s solo is here, there is something a little disrespectful about it. For one thing, Eldridge takes three choruses, where everyone else took two. He’s at the peak of his powers and Sid Catlett gives him expert backing but there’s something malicious when only one guy is trying to start a fight. Both Armstrong and Eldridge spoke glowingly about the other in public over the years, but the Esquire show might have deteriorated their personal relationship. Clarinetist Joe Muranyi played with both Armstrong and Eldridge and he told me how Eldridge would kind of mock Muranyi for his love of Armstrong. And Dick Cary later remembered, “You shouldn’t mention Roy Eldridge around Louis, either, because he didn’t like that much.”

When Armstrong next encountered “Rhythm,” it was a more somber occasion, with none of the bad blood that infused the Esquire evening. On February 11, 1945, Armstrong took part in the Second Annual American Swing Festival, a tribute to Fats Waller, who passed away in 1943. The tribute to Armstrong’s close friend was broadcast on WNEW and featured Armstrong playing “Sleepy Time Down South,” reminiscing with Waller’s manager, Ed Kirkeby, and performing “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” At the end of the show, Armstrong came back for a quick two-minute jam session on “I Got Rhythm,” featuring the members of Fats’s Rhythm—Herman Autrey, Gene Sedrick, Al Casey, Cedric Wallace and Art Trappier—with Pat Flowers taking over on piano and Red Norvo once again sitting in on the xylophone. The opening is sloppy as no one seems to want to take the lead, while Armstrong is lost in the mix. Finally, Armstrong solos, sounding quite agile once again and ready to take a second chorus, instead passing the ball to Norvo as time was winding down. Matters grow slightly frantic but Armstrong is a pillar of strength in the closing ensemble…dig that bridge! You can listen along here:

The All Stars were born in 1947 and this is when most Armstrong writers stop paying attention. For example, the legendary bad James Linoln Collier wrote that Armstrong continued to play “horse-race versions of ‘Tiger Rag’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’” for the rest of his life. “Tiger Rag” was indeed an early chart for the All Stars, but then disappeared for years, returning in 1955, then staying for about a decade. As for “I Got Rhythm,” a riff based on “Rhythm” changes, “Mop Mop” (or “Boff Boff”) was often used as a drum feature, but to say that Armstrong continued to play “I Got Rhythm” for the rest of his life shows Collier wasn’t paying attention to the numerous documents of Armstrong stage shows that still exist, whether recorded or in print. Earl Hines played “I Got Rhythm” at a breakneck tempo as one of his features, but Pops would only play some quiet melody on it and besides, it wasn’t one of Hines’s most frequently played features. Damn you Collier!

But besides the various “Mop Mops,” Armstrong did have one last encounter with “I Got Rhythm,” performing it in the 1965 movie, “When The Boys Meet The Girls.” 1965 was the last glorious year for Pops’s chops and he sounds quite good on the two takes that survive, especially this one with a huge-toned trumpet opening:

Ah, an evening spent listening to Louis Armstrong play “I Got Rhythm.” Who could ask for anything more indeed.


Anonymous said…
Great post man! I dig Satchmo and his music.

Keep up the great work.

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