60 Years of "New Orleans Function"

Louis Armstrong and His All Stars
Recorded April 26 or 27, 1950
Track Time 6:42
"Oh Didn't He Ramble" Written by Will Handy ("Flee As a Bird" is Public Domain)
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: On "New Orleans Nights"
Available on Itunes? Yes

Well, folks, the novelty is over; on September 8, your intrepid blogger turned 30 years old. A 29-year-old Louis Armstrong nut who can identify any Armstrong solo on "Indiana" in eight bars? Now that's a circus act. But a 30-year-old who can do the same thing? Old hat, man, move on, take a number...

But I'm not planning to quit anytime soon, my friends (though 10 days in between posts is pushing it, I know). Interestingly, this month marks the 15-year anniversary of the first time I saw the "Glenn Miller Story" and had my life turned upside down by the presence--visual and aural--of Louis Armstrong. In October 1995, I checked out my first Armstrong disc from my local library and well, the rest is history. I only could have dreamed at age 15 that on my 30th birthday I'd be putting the finishing touches on an Armstrong book manuscript, serving as Project Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum and visiting Louis Armstrong's grave in Flushing Cemetery.

Wait....what? Oh, yes, about that last point: I've been working in Queens for nearly a year but never took the pilgrimage to Louis's final resting place. When my boss Michael Cogswell found out it was my birthday, he demanded we celebrate by taking a trip to the cemetery. I know, I know, what'd you do for your 30th birthday? I spent it in a cemetery! It might not sound like everyone's idea of a good time but it was an overwhelming, emotional, deep experience for me.

For those, who have never been to the grave, here's a photo of the headstone, with a white granite sculpture of a trumpet and handkerchief resting atop (it was originally bronze but vandals pulled it off years ago and it was replaced soon afterward):

Here's Louis's marker, still sticking with the July 4, 1900 birthdate (with Lucille's a few feet over):

And finally, this photo of yours truly at the site. Some friends on Facebook have remarked that the American flag behind me looks like a party hat; it was my birthday and if this is how you imagine I party, well, you're not far off:

So, after writing about a classic version of "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You" and spending a milestone birthday in a cemetery, I guess you could say death was in the air. This cryptic thought, though, led to today's blog topic, one this is five months overdue--60 years ago this year, on April 26, 1950, Louis Armstrong waxed his conception of a New Orleans funeral procession, titled "New Orleans Function." With my recent posts about New Orleans and my current series on death I figured, geez, what better way to tie it all in? So here goes...

If you don't know much about a New Orleans funeral, just do a quick Google search as I don't have the time to go into all the details of its history. The quickest way to describe is it's a two-part affair: on the way to the cemetery, the band plays a slow mournful hymn. Once the service is over, the band marches back--with joyous "second line" dancers in two--by playing something more joyous as a way of celebrating the life that just passed. It's really a beautiful thing and, as far as I know, unique for New Orleans.

Young Louis Armstrong knew these funerals very well, first as a second line spectator and later as a musician; his final gig in New Orleans before leaving to join King Oliver in Chicago was a funeral. On his 1933 Victor recording of "High Society," Louis announced he was going to give an idea of an old New Orleans street parade, but that record focuses on the hot aspect. It was until the long-playing record era when Armstrong could really take the time to recreate both moods--the sorrow and the party--of the funerals he played.

Louis wasn't the first to do this; Jelly Roll Morton's 1939 "Oh, Didn't He Ramble" is more or less the direct ancestor to "New Orleans Function," beginning with a glimpse of the hymn "Flee as a Bird," followed by a brief "Ashes to ashes" speech, some crying and finally the exuberant strains of "Didn't He Ramble." But as far as I know--and please correct me if I'm wrong--this whole funeral recreation didn't really take off in revival bands until after Louis made his recording of "New Orleans Function." Many bands recorded "Oh, Didn't He Ramble" in the 1940s--I have versions by Bunk Johnson, Kid Ory and Zutty Singleton--but no one else put the slow hymn first. But after Louis made "New Orleans Function," many New Orleans jazz bands, such as George Lewis's, began incorporating a "Funeral Sequence" into live shows, something that still goes on today, mostly when bands tackle "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and play it in two tempos.

But enough backstory; let's listen to the man himself talk about some of the funerals he witnessed in New Orleans in his youth, leading to Louis's discussion of how he recreated it all for the "New Orleans Function" record. This is from a 1956 Voice of America interview with Louis, spoken as a lead-in to his playing the original Decca recording:

And without further ado, here's that first record with the All Stars--Jack Teagarden on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Earl Hines on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass and Cozy Cole on drums:

Fantastic stuff. I love Louis's spoken introduction, which has a lighthearted feel. But then Louis picks up the horn to play "Flee as a Bird" and well, get out the handkerchiefs. This is serious, emotional playing and it gets me every time. But just when you're ready to walk away sobbing, Louis and the All Stars conduct an impromptu service, complete with crying musicians. Then it's time for "Didn't He Ramble" with a march feel--according to Barney Bigard, drummer Cozy Cole had never played such drums and had to be taught how to do it properly. However, it's only a short march and before you know it, another Cole break leads the band into swing time. Louis plays melody for the first chorus, then starts in with his variations before handing it over to Bigard and Jack Teagarden for solos. Then Louis takes the lead for the final two choruses, riding high in the outchorus prodded by Cozy Cole's backbeats.

It's a wonderfully swinging record but for me, this version of the All Stars could be a little too polite. There's something about the way they're swinging during the solos that's just kind of, I don't know, safe. Cole's content to swing dryly on his cymbals, pianist Earl Hines comps mechanically, possibly miffed to not get a solo and Teagarden and Bigard, though wonderful players, don't generate much heat. This is a very small complaint, but keep it in mind for future versions.

Speaking of which, let's jump right in with the first surviving live version of "New Orleans Function," broadcast from Bop City in New York in June 1950, just weeks after the Decca recording session. I should note that Armstrong's April 1950 Decca recordings with the All Stars were made to document material the band had been having success with during live engagements, so it's possible that the band was already playing "New Orleans Function" live but I've found no evidence of this. Either way, here it is live by the same group:

Everything is pretty much the same as the studio record but there are some differences. First, Louis's sermon is a little looser and his reference to a "Madame Pompei" is obviously an inside joke that breaks up the band. Louis comes up with some new variations in his lead playing and seems hellbent in generating more heat, playing searing high notes at the end of every chorus, including breaking up the solos of Bigard and Teagarden. Louis romps....period.

"New Orleans Function" been an integral part of Louis's live shows, often leading off his second sets. Many versions survive from a European tour in 1952 but because they're all fairly similar, I'm going to jump ahead instead to the fall of 1953 for an All Stars gig at Cornell University. This concert was originally released on two LPs on the Rarities label but has somehow never been issued on CD, which is an out-and-out crime (whattaya waiting for, Spain?). This concert is one of my favorites because not only is Armstrong in scary form and not only is the audience on fire but it also documents one of the most exciting, though short-lived versions of the All Stars: Trummy Young on trombone, Barney Bigard on clarinet, Marty Napoleon on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Cozy Cole. This band JUMPED and I think the addition of Young, Napoleon and Hinton made the band much more exciting. But don't take my word for it; listen to them do "New Orleans Function":

Romping! First off, Louis really takes his time with "Flee as a Bird," playing it slower than usual, but just as majestic as always, prodded by Cole's tom-toms (Louis is a bit off-mike at first but stick with him). The band REALLY hams it up during the crying sequence, always getting a laugh out of me. Interestingly, Cozy takes a blazing drum solo but the marching portion is slower than usual. ( The horns can be heard again going slightly off-mike as I think they did a bit of marching to really recreate the scene.)

But once the group starts swinging, stand back! You can hear that Louis is in ridiculously strong form but the whole band is just swinging like mad. Cole really lays down that backbeat, prodding Bigard along in his second chorus before Trummy storms through two exciting helpings. Then Louis takes over and hold on to the roof! Man, Trummy is a monster in that ensemble! And you can imagine Milt smiling and swinging and Marty bouncing up and down on his keyboard bench...I'm sure this was just as much fun to watch as it is to listen to.

But by 1954, this edition had an entirely new rhythm section with Billy Kyle on piano, Arvell Shaw back on bass and Kenny John on drums, replaced in May by Barrett Deems. In the fall of 1955, clarinetist Edmond Hall replaced Bigard on clarinet--definitely a trade up. Alas, it was at this moment when Louis began phasing out "New Orleans Function"; in fact there are no surviving versions of it from 1955 through 1962! At the famous "Chicago Concert" of June 1, 1956, Armstrong and group made their way to the stage on a wagon, playing "Flee as a Bird" and a short version of "Didn't He Ramble," but it wasn't the true "New Orleans Function."

However, earlier that year, the All Stars played a special version of "Didn't He Ramble" that I think is worth sharing. On January 20, 1956, Louis and the All Stars performed a concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium on their only day off during the filming of "High Society." They shared the stage that night with trumpeter Teddy Buckner's band. Both Armstrong's set and Buckner's set were recorded and issued on LP (Armstrong's set--a dynamite one--is still in print as a download). To climax the night, both bands joined forces on a tremendously exciting version of "Didn't He Ramble." The track breakdown on the CD version of the concert is a little mixed up so I've edited a new version starting with Louis introducing Buckner during his closing version of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." After that, they do the march-version of the tune before swinging the hell out of it...in two tempos! Listen to see what I mean:

Yeah, man. There's a little confusion during the march-section as it sounds like the Buckner musicians are getting in place (I definitely hear four hands on piano). But after the drum break, everything gels nicely. Buckner was an Armstrong man through-and-through so it's nice to hear him and Pops together. 14 years later, at a 70th birthday tribute for Louis, Buckner got so nervous he made a mess out of the cadenza to "West End Blues," scarring him emotionally for years to come. But at Pasadena, Buckner doesn't sound too nervous and instead plays quite well. Louis's solo after Bucker starts off with such a swinging passage, I usually can't listen to it without clapping along. Buckner allows Louis to lead it out and Louis does so without a problem, going up high.

But wait, there's more! Another drum break leads to another round of "Didn't He Ramble" at a ludicrously fast tempo. Buckner is a little sloppy but very exciting, while Louis is more declamatory in his short solo before both trumpeters go way up high for the finish. Definitely an exciting moment and a nice way of breaking up all of these "Functions."

After years of seemingly not playing it, Louis had a reunion with "New Orleans Function" in 1962, first digging it out for an Italian television show, "Il Siggnore Delle 21," on April 18 of that year (this footage has been high on my priority list for years, though I've never heard any leads that it even exists; if anyone has any leads, drop me a line!). Later that year, on August 1, the All Stars played a gig in Chicago that was recorded in stereo sound. This time the All Stars featured Trummy, Joe Darensbourg on clarinet (who was also in Buckner's band in Pasadena six years earlier), Billy Kyle on piano, Bill Cronk on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums. I always thought Louis sounded a little under-the-weather during this concert, or at least tired, as his announcements are a little low-key. But otherwise, he played marvelously that night and I think you'll agree after hearing this, the final "New Orleans Function" of the night:

It's been 12 years and the routine is still the same, but I always value hearing 60-year-old Louis still blowing like mad at such a late date. Once again, "Flee as a Bird" gives me goose bumps. The comedic interlude in the middle doesn't last very long before Louis is off and running and "Didn't He Ramble" is off and swinging (by the way, thanks to Phil Person for sending in this pitch-corrected version!). Darensbourg and Young only take one chorus apiece--with Louis still bridging them with those high notes but Louis still leads the ensemble for two up front and two at the end. He's really on fire during those last two choruses, arguably playing better than he did on the original versions from 1950. The string of high quarter-notes he plays after Trummy's solo gasses me, while his ideas in the last chorus are simply spot on. That last high note does sound like it's hanging on by a thread but Pops keeps it afloat til the last crash of Danny Barcelona's cymbals. Bravo, Pops.

And that's that for "New Orleans Function." I'm sorry it took 11 days to get a new blog out but I hope it worth it...and I hope there was enough meat to enjoy until I find time to crank out another one later this week. Til then!


Mark Mayerson said…
A belated happy birthday to you.

Johnny Hodges, who played with Duke Ellington, is buried in the same cemetery as Louis.
Rusty said…
Hi Ricky
Your audio links are down, unless it's my computer which I don't think it is.
I have found such jewels on your blog, the most recent delight: Life is so Peculiar - wow, that's amazing!

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