Down in Honky Tonk Town - Revisited

Recorded May 27, 1940
Track Time 3:06
Written by Chris Smith and Charles McCarron
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone; Claude Jones, trombone; Luis Russell, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Wellman Braud, bass; Zutty Singleton, drums
Originally released on Decca 18090
Currently available on CD: Mosaic's recent "Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Recordings 1935-1946" box has both takes
Available on Itunes? Yes

Yes, dear readers, it's "revisit" time and unfortunately, I don't have piles of new information on "Down in Honky Tonk Town" to share. As crunch-time for my book continues at a frantic pace, I don't envision time to write any lengthy new posts for at least a week. Fortunately, my "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home" post has been warmly received by a number of my readers so I'm following it up with an in-depth look at a song Armstrong and Bechet recorded during their 1940 set of rematches (these sessions were done 70 years ago this year so consider this an anniversary posting, too...nice!). This was one of my earliest blogs so I've actually had to do a bunch of editing and updating to keep it relevant, but otherwise, here's what I had to say about "Down in Honky Tonk Town" in 2007 (I've edited out a lot of repeat info already given in the "Cake Walkin'" blog).

In the 15 years between the 1925 New York sessions and the Decca reunion, one couldn't imagine two musicians's careers taking such different paths: Armstrong changed jazz history with the Hot Five and Seven records, started making standards out of pop tunes, toured the world with big bands and starred in major Hollywood movies. Bechet, on the other hand, spent time in jail, ran a tailor shop in New York, toured with a big band and made a series of modest selling records under his own name.

But by the late 30s, the New Orleans jazz revival was starting to blossom and, championed by French critic Hughes Pansassie, Bechet became a hero to the moldy fig fans of this music, in addition to making a popular record in 1939 with his rendition of "Summertime." The reunion was a wonderful idea in a period when Decca experimented greatly with Armstrong. From March 14, 1940 through April 11, 1941, Armstrong made seven sessions for Decca, but only two featured his regular touring big band; the others featured Bechet, the Mills Brothers and a small group dubbed the "Hot Seven" for nostalgic reasons.

Unfortunately, what once passed for extreme competition had now blossomed into a slight feeling of animosity between the two New Orleans giants. Bechet was jealous of Armstrong's success and besides, never had much use for trumpet players. Armstrong was used to being the dominant ensemble musician because of the pure power of his trumpet and didn't want to have to compete with Bechet's clarinet and louder soprano saxophone. Fireworks were bound to fly.

And on "Down in Honky Tonk Town," they flew all right, but didn't come close to reaching the heights of "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home" (pretty high heights). The intense, one-upmanship didn't exactly produce the same historic results in 1940, perhaps because things to a little too intense. According to Bechet, it was Armstrong's fault because "it was like he was a little hungrier." Bechet claimed that Lil Hardin Armstrong contributed some sketches for the date but Armstrong refused to follow them, instead playing with more of an edge rather than with any sense of teamwork. "The man who was recording the numbers, he told him, 'Louis, take it easy. Just play Louis. Play natural. Don't worrya bout what Sidney's doing."

Bechet continued, "But Louis, it seemed like he was wanting to make it a kind of thing where we were supposed to be bucking each other, competing instead of working together for that real feeling that would let the music come new and strong."

Now anyone with any knowledge of Bechet's attitude towards music might find this a little hard to believe. Teamwork was usually the last thing on Bechet's mind as his horns gleefully dominated any ensemble they were apart of. Some trumpet players stood out of the way and let Bechet his do his thing (Buck Clayton), some tried and succeeded to complement Bechet's work without overshadowing him (Muggsy Spanier), some joined forces with him to melt the studio walls with a blistering combination of hell and heat (Wild Bill Davison) and some just couldn't keep up with him and had to quit (Bunk Johnson).

With Armstrong, Bechet had not only met a true equal, but also someone who wasn't going to take any crap. I'm sure ego had something to do with it. Armstrong was a huge star, used to being predominantly featured with big bands. I don't think he wanted to give Bechet an opening to take over, as Bechet had on the first Red Onion Jazz Babies version of "Cake Walkin' Babies." So Armstrong approached the entire date with unusual aggression, rubbing Bechet the wrong way and leading to some exciting music, if not necessarily prime candidates for a time capsule.

The session began wonderfully with "Perdido Street Blues," Bechet's clarinet especially declamatory in the opening and closing minor-keyed strains. Armstrong's three-chorus solo unfurls beautifully with Bechet and trombonist Claude Jones riffing urgently in the background. It's the kind of performance that causes the listener to sweat with excitement, propelled greatly by master of New Orleans drumming Zutty Singleton. "2:19 Blues" followed with Armstrong's vocal being the centerpiece of a very mellow performance.

Then it was time for "Down in Honky Tonk Town," a piece from 1916 co-written by Chris Smith of "Ballin' The Jack" and you guessed it, "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home" fame. Fortunately, it exists in two takes that seem to have been released almost simultaneously by Decca. Thus, I'm not 100% sure which is the "master" and which is the "alternate." The one I always thought was the master was issued by Mosaic last year as being the alternate. But who cares about all of that, let's just take it one take at a time. Here's the first:

Armstrong comes charging out of the gate, playing the opening strain with simple support from trombonist Jones while Bechet harmonizes with low soprano notes. Bechet asserts himself on the main strain and there's some nasty clashes between Bechet and Jones in the ensemble. Jones was the only one at the session who wasn't raised in New Orleans and the polyphonic style wasn't his strong point. Armstrong sticks to the melody, with Bechet filling the very small gaps with some more simple low notes. Bechet gradually gets a little higher, warming up for his solo, which he sails into before Armstrong's even finished playing the melody. It's a typically exciting Bechet affair with some especially violent phrases around the 1:23 mark. He alludes to the melody before going out high, much like a trumpet. Jones is up next and his solo is a mess, going through the motions without any feeling or swing. Fortunately, Bernard Addison is right behind him and his acoustic, chorded guitar solo is on the money. Zutty's up next with a 24-bar drum solo, exploring all the different sound possibilities of his drum set, before the horns rush in to complete the final eight bars of the 32-bar main strain (that sentence featured more bars than the Jersey Shore...and I know because I live minutes from Seaside Heights!).

[Note: I wrote that parenthetical sentence in 2007, two years before MTV's "Jersey Shore" reality series swept the nation. If you don't know what that is...good.]

With about a minute to go, you know the gloves are going to come off and they do. Armstrong's still on the melody before he finally improvises an exciting rideout, though the melody's never far away. Bechet's with him the entire time (Jones works that tiny-toned gliss to death) and it builds up quite a head of steam. Armstrong's half-time, high note ending is purely the 1940 Louis, something he wouldn't have played in 1925, but it works. Not quite "Cake Walking Babies," mind you but but the piece could have used some more free-for-all blowing or even some breaks.

You can probably picture Louis and Bechet grumbling around the studio after that first go-around. One more take would be necessary to smooth out some of the bumps. Here's how it came out:

"Down in Honky Tonk Town" features a pretty repetitive melody and it's instructive to listen to how Armstrong alters it here and there to keep it from becoming monotonous--doubling a note a few times, allowing certain phrases to breathe a little better, etc. He was a master of taking stiff melodies and making them come alive. Armstrong's subtle changes are always fun to hear, as are the incredible similarities between both takes, such as the way he smears a concert Db into three connected notes about 21 seconds in. Armstrong also enters the main strain on this with a flashier phrase than the held single note on take 1. Bechet's solos contain some similar phrases, but the upper register work on this one isn't quite as violent. Midway through, at 1:20, Bechet plays with two pitches in a way, it almost sounds like an Armstrong trumpet cadenza (think "Skeleton in the Closet")...perhaps a little dig?

Listening to both recordings, what's funny is Claude Jones's trombone playing, almost identical from take to take, except for this solo, which begins with a more effective opening phrase than on the first take but soon gets into more meaningless meandering. In John Chilton's masterful Sidney Becehet biography "The Wizard of Jazz," Jones is quoted as saying, "Louis and Bechet were in peak form that day, but the recording manager just wore me down. He kept coming out of his sound-proof box and shouting, 'Give that horn more tailgate, Jones, more tailgate,' and he got me so mad in the end that I messed up my solo in 'Down in Honky Tonk Town.'" At least he knew it! Otherwise, I think the rideout features more aggressive playing by Armstrong on the second take. On the first, Armstrong sounds like a damned good New Orleans ensemble trumpeter: mostly melody, allowing Bechet some space,he doesn't get up in the high upper register until the end, etc. On this take, however, he sounds more like Louis Armstrong: alludes to the melody but improvises more, plays more quarter notes than half notes and is already hitting some high notes in the second 16 bars of the chorus. Armstrong's use of space is genius; the daring, fast "combinations" of the "Cake Walkin' Babies" days are over. Armstrong's now a strong, aggressive power puncher, managing to take charge--and swing mightily--without running up and down his horn.

Bechet's clearly audible throughout and what he plays sounds exciting enough but it's Armstrong's show, which must have rankled Bechet, especially since he had recently made some wonderful records in a quartet setting with a much more sympathetic brassman, Muggsy Spanier. Some people, such as Bechet disciple Bob Wilber, knocked Armstrong's ensemble style from the 40s on because it was too showy, full of too many high notes and wasn't a true New Orleans lead (whatever that is). While it's true to an extent, I don't think it's a reason to knock Armstrong. This is who he was. Even by 1927, he was dominating his own records and making jazz more of a solo art. I love Armstrong's ensemble playing, especially with the All Stars, and especially when he had a sympathetic front line.

Bechet's a genius but he wasn't sympathetic. In fact, the next time Armstrong and Bechet locked horns was at an Esquire Awards concert in New Orleans in 1945...January 17, 1945, 65 years ago this week. Do you smell a third and final chapter to the continuing saga of Armstrong vs. Bechet? Stay tuned...


Anonymous said…
Ricky- Thank you for Honky Tonk-- Not heard it for 40 plus years. Used to work alot with Red Richards who worked with Sidney Bechet. Red said Sidney called/nicknamed him "buddy Red"... and would say (according to Red)..."Follow me, buddy Red!"
I guess that says everything, dosen't it?- "Follow me!"
Wonderful presentation you made here. Thanks again- Mike
Anonymous said…
... [Bechet] "never had much use for trumpet players" ...

- uhm, maybe.
But the same Bechet made a few weeks later some of the most brilliant soprano sax - trumpet and especially clarinet - trumept collaborations: his legendary 1940 Hot Four sessions with Muggsy Spanier, wich in my opinion belong to the all-time best sessions of traditional jazz. (And Muggsy Spanier didn't play second fiddle on these recordings!)

And also the team playing of Bechet could be wonderful: One year before, he played a beautiful part in those recordings wich became something like the starting point of the New Orleans Revival - the New Orleans Jazzmen recordings lead by Jelly Roll Morton - who surely wasn't less "ego" than Armstrong or Bechet.

So, I think there must have been the simple fact, that the - musical and personal - "chemistry" between the two jazz giants (Armstrong and Bechet) didn't work.

Interesting: Only on the up-tempo tunes when Bechet played soprano sax, there is audible something like competition and rivalry. On the slower tunes and/or whenever Bechet played clarinet (which to me is one of the great losses for the traditional jazz recordings that Bechet played less clarinet after 1940, at least on records), there is a good musical balance between the two masters.
Listen to the "2:19 Blues" or especially to the "Coal Cart Blues" (not mentioned in the post) - maybe no all-time masterpiece, but a nice traditional jazz recording with good harmony and perfect musical balance between Satchmo and the older Bechet, who is playing here a nearly perfect fitting second voice and some really brilliant - but never disturbing or "overruling" - fill-ins and breaks.

Best regards (from Germany)

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