80 Years of "Tiger Rag" - Part Six - 1956-1959 Versions

And welcome back to this seemingly endless look at Louis Armstrong's history with "Tiger Rag." We haven't even hit the wildest versions yet, so I hope you've fastened your seatbelts and are enjoying the ride. And for my friends who appreciate the more lyrical Pops, please, help yourself to my older posts on "Blue Turning Grey Over You" or "That For Me"! But for those who want to count the high notes, stick around.

When we last left our hero, he had just cut a smoking version of "Tiger Rag" in an empty movie theater in Milan for the Columbia album "Ambassador Satch." When the record was released in early 1956, Louis was very proud of it and signalled "Tiger Rag" out for special praise. It still wasn't a regular part of his band's repertoire but that was slowly changing.

On June 1, 1956, Louis and the All Stars took part in a concert at Medina Temple in Chicago. This date, released by Columbia as "The Great Chicago Concert" is still around and it's a gassuh, still perhaps my favorite 1950s evening with the All Stars. The first half of the show featured Louis appearing in a history of jazz kind of production, narrated by Helen Hayes. To kick off his contributions, Louis and the band marched to the stage playing the New Orleans funeral medley of "Flee as a Bird" and "Oh, Didn't He Ramble."

Once they hit the stage, they played a medley of old songs as a means of starting this jazz history at beginning. After almost throwaway runthroughs of "Memphis Blues" and "Frankie and Johnny," Barrett Deems took a manic drum break and the boys were off and swinging "Tiger Rag." Through the magic of editing, I have removed "Memphis" and "Frankie" so here is the Chicago version of "Tiger":

If you were here for the previous part, you could probably realize that it's pretty closely related to the "Ambassador Satch" version, minus the hokum between Armstrong and trombonist Trummy Young, as well as the frequent drum breaks. But it is still mostly ensemble without a solo for Pops.

The front line tears it apart through the opening strains (the crowd breaks into spontaneous applause at the "Hold That Tiger" section) before handing it over for the only solo of this performance: bassist Dale Jones. Jones had replaced Jack Lesberg, who replaced Arvell Shaw in April. Armstrong loved Jones, who originally replaced Shaw in 1951. Back then, on one of his private tapes, Armstrong bragged to a group of friends that Jones brought the quality of the All Stars "up," praised his showmanship and said that Shaw would never get back in the band. That turned out to not be true but Jones did get the call again for about four months in 1956.

Armstrong might have loved Jones, but Jones had one bad habit: his solos often fell apart, especially at fast tempos. You can hear that on "Tiger Rag" as, after walking well for half a chorus and even incorporating a cute from "Yankee Doodle," he completely breaks down and stops playing for a beat or two before he finishes strong. But I'm going to knock him too badly. The man is only human--just listen to that tempo!--so we'll cut him some slack.

After Jones's outing, it's ensemble time. On the "Ambassador Satch" version, the band would play one chorus before turning it over to the drums. The glory of the Chicago version is Armstrong gets to power his group through TWO ensemble choruses. As I've stated before, this was the most high octane lineup in All Stars history so just sit back and let it wash over you. Pops, foreshadowing the outstanding playing he was about to contribute over the next two hours, sounds fantastic. And for the first time, he digs into his earlier "Tiger" bag and pulls out the quote from Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song," right before squeezing the holy hell out of a high C that leads into the final chorus. One of my favorite moments occurs when Armstrong starts tumbling downward, a graceful, yet surprising little episode. Seconds later, he's back on top, ending on a big fat high Eb.

Armstrong was killing it on "Tiger Rag" but for some reason, it wasn't ready to enter the repertoire. There's at least three live shows and some broadcasts from the summer of 1956, but no "Tiger Rag." Then there's a long dry spell of live recordings that lasts into 1957. Armstrong still didn't play it at Newport in 1957 and he doesn't seem to have played it at an Orpheum Theater concert in Seattle either in September of that year.

But by November, "Tiger Rag" was back...annnnd how! In the intervening months, Louis must have done some studying. He was ready to solo again on this number, borrowing heavily from his 1930s set pieces (feel free to go back to parts 1 or 2 of this series as it will help refresh your memory). And he also found a way to insert a little of the clowning around of the "Ambassador Satch" version: in the final chorus, he would cast his eyes on Trummy Young like a hunter...and chase him around the stage! You can imagine how critics reacted but they also must have stopped listening because Armstrong now used those final choruses to turn back the clock and indulge in some 1930-vintage high note fireworks.

The first time we encounter the new-and-improved "Tiger Rag" is during Armstrong's November 1957 tour of South America. This version survives--admittedly in so-so quality--from a broadcast at the Teatro Opera in Buenos Aires. Armstrong's fans in Argentina were ecstatic in their appreciation of Pops, which made Louis push himself even harder than usual. As on the "Ambassador Satch" version, most of Louis's "Tiger Rags" from the late 1950s featured an encore but in Buenos Aires, Louis played TWO encores. And again, I hope you have your 1930s "Tiger Rags" memorized...here's the audio:

A Spanish-speaking radio announcer steps over a bit of Barrett Deems's drum intro, but soon enough, the All Stars are flying again, clarinetist Edmond Hall particularly firery (when wasn't he?). After Hall's solo, Armstrong steps up for his outing, charging in with some repeated notes before going back to 1930 and inserting "Singin' in the Rain." Then he replicates a head-spinning upward whirl of a phrase he used to play in the 1930s leading into his quote from "Pagliacci," also an old standby.

He then holds a high Ab and spends the last chorus giving that Ab a solid working over, hitting a C at once, but mainly sticking to the Ab until the final high Eb. It's all over in two minutes but it's enough to raise the blood pressure.

But then it's encore time, starting right in with another wild romp by Hall. Then it's Louis with "Gypsy Love Song" and another snatch of "Singin' in the Rain" before a break centered around a piping hot high Bb. He continues floating through the last 16 bars before he starts aiming Ab jabs at Trummy, ready to embark on their chase. Armstrong spends the final chorus alternating Ab's and high C's, just as he did 20 years earlier, while Trummy snarls right back at him. I've seen a photo of Louis on this tour wearing a matador's hat while Trummy played with a cape on. I don't have concrete proof, but it wouldn't surprise me if they put on the garb for "Tiger Rag"!

Whatever they did was obviously causing a sensation with the audience. One encore was the norm, but on special occaions, Louis would take more. You'll hear the music end and the spanish-speaking announcer return before he realizes that they're playing another chorus! He quickly stops just in time to catch half of Edmond Hall's encore. Louis then enters by quoting "I'm Confessin'," which he had only done on the 1938 Martin Block jam session broadcast. He turns this into a beautiful motif before he starts tossing more Ab's in Trummy's direction. I'll admit, the sound quality on the last chorus is a mess as Louis, in the midst of chasing Trummy, clearly went off-mike. But if you listen carefully, it's just more high C's and another high Eb at the end. Stunning endurance.

So that was the new routine for "Tiger Rag," one that Louis would officially play just about evening for the next couple of years. At Newport in 1958, Bert Stern's camera's capatured Louis performing it. Though he cut it off before the encore--and though Sony still refuses to release this set!!!--it's still vaulable because the image is gorgeous, the sound quality is perfect and Louis was having an extraordinary night. Peanuts Hucko is now on clarinet--oh, and let's give a hand to the rhythm section of Billy Kyle, Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona for never letting these "Tigers's" drag! And you can finally see Louis and Trummy battle a bit. This is the the entire ten-minute clip of Louis so if you just want the "Tiger," it can be found from 3:10 to 5:15:

So far, we've heard some spectacular trumpet playing. But what would happen when Louis's chops would have an off-night? The answer can be found during a recording of Louis's October 1958 Monterey set with the All Stars, one which I blogged about in great detail last year. Louis was having a tough struggle from the beginning but he knew how to conserve his energy. He cut his solo on "Indiana" and followed immediately with the vocal only "Blueberry Hill."

Properly rested, Armstrong called “Tiger Rag." Like “Indiana,” Armstrong got through the racehorse opening ensemble choruses without much of a struggle before passing it on to Hucko for a hot outing. But then it's time for Pops. You can hear Armstrong play a few quiet notes behind Hucko to make sure his chops are together and then he’s off! This was another solo that Armstrong had pretty much set but this time, he doesn’t quite pull it off. His phrasing is a little slower than usual as he sounds almost too careful to not blow himself out. He makes it thorugh the "Singin' in the Rain" quote but on his first break, which usually featured a gliss into a high note or a fleet-fingered phrase, he instead flickers a valve quickly, producing a an exciting tremolo effect (reminds me of Red Allen), but it’s not as effective as what he played on a good night. After the break Armstrong goes into the “Pagliacci” quote but he actually mispitches one of the notes (a true rarity). It’s amazing listening to his brain work, though. He was a great editor and, knowing his limitations on that night, his phrasing has more of a legato feel and most of little quick phrases that dotted his solos are gone as he kind of floats through his statement.

But then comes maybe the saddest moment from that evening. Armstrong would usually hold an Ab as the band would reenter to play the rideout chorus but when he tries it here, he again falters and loses it for an instant. But then this is followed by maybe the most triumphant moment of the night: he continues to hold the Ab, slowly getting stronger before he gives his all in the ride out, hitting a series of high C’s. This was all part of the routine and Armstrong probably could have played it safe and improvised something in the middle register but on this night, in front of such a huge, adoring audience, he couldn’t. He keeps playing the two-note phrase, Ab to high C, over and over, glissing some of them, not exactly on top of the beat as he usually is, but he’s pretty damn close (chasing Trummy Young around the stage the entire time!). During the break he even glisses from high C, down to Ab and back up to C. As he continues driving home those high C’s, it’s clear that this is painful, punishing work. After listening to it a couple of times, tears actually welled up in my eyes, in awe of how much he gave his audiences no matter the shape he was in. He ends “Tiger Rag” on an even higher Eb, as the crowd roars its approval. Armstrong sounds pretty happy, too.

For the audio, here are the final two choruses from Monterey, consisting of Armstring's solo and those painful high C's. (I originally made this clip to demonstrate that Louis was back on top just a few months later so after the Monterey solo, you'll hear Armstrong nailing everything on a version from Slovenia in May 1959. But he's been nailing everything to this point and we're going to get to 1959 soon enough, so really, you just have to focus on the Monterey solo.)

Armstrong's chops continued to bother him throughout the fall of 1958 but by the beginning of 1959, he was in top shape. That can all be seen in the following clip of three songs from two different "Timex All Star Jazz Shows." The first is "I Love Jazz" from the November 10, 1958 show, just a month after Monterey and you can hear Louis still sounding weak at points. But by the next "Timex" show on Janaury 7, he was back. After a little "Now You Has Jazz" with Jackie Gleason subbing for Bing Crosby, Louis goes into "Tiger Rag," playing a full version, with solos from Hucko and Trummy before Louis takes charge, going from "I'm Confessin'" to "Dixie," another staple of those 1930s versions. Then Louis and Trummy do their thing which, this time, involves some "talking" instruments as they humorously yell and snort at each other, something they did from time to time. There's an annoying skipping quality to this clip but otherwise, it's pretty great. "Tiger Rag" starts at 4:40:
About a week later, Louis headed to Europe for a six-month tour that ended with him having a heart attack in Spoleto, Italy in June. But oh, those six months! God bless European fans for always having their tape recorders running as there's a lot of audio, and even video, from this tour.

"Tiger Rag" was a staple, played at every single stop directly after "Basin Street Blues" and before "Now You Has Jazz." At this point, I'd like to share one of these early versions from Umea, Sweden, January 20, 1959. This is the quintessential "Tiger Rag" from this period: drum break, opening strains, Hucko solo, Young solo, Louis solo (quotes), high notes, chase, end. Then an encore with clarinet, trombone, Louis and more high notes. Pops is perfect, the quotes are flowing and it's a lot of fun from start to finish:

I'm going to close with that version and end right there. Because when I return, it's going to be to demonstrate what Pops did just one day later, a very special day, January 21, 1959. He played two concerts...and during each show, played FOUR encores of "Tiger Rag." I've shared these before and they were some of my most popular posts (Jon Faddis even sent the links to a bunch of trumpeters he knew, he was so impressed with what Pops was playing). S'all for now...but be prepared for next time!


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