85 Years of the Hot Seven: Twelfth Street Rag

Recorded May 11, 1927 
Track Time 3:09
Written by Euday L. Bowman
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Columbia 35663
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes 

Ah, time for a real personal favorite of the Hot Sevens and one that I've used a bunch of times in public presentations....but also one that might never have been discovered without an intrepid young researcher named George Avakian. Yes, "Twelfth Street Rag" was one of the rare 1920s Louis Armstrong recordings that caused OKeh executives to listen, scratch their heads and say, "Nah."

Why? To me, "Twelfth Street Rag" is both too far ahead of its time from a creative perspective AND also a little too comedic and jokey for the serious-minded listeners out there. But if you like good comedy with your daring jazz, it's tough to beat. 

The actual song, composed by Euday L. Bowman and named after a street in Kansas City, was already 13 years old by the time Armstrong got to it. Thanks to YouTube, here's a 1914 piano roll to illustrate how "Twelfth Street Rag" originally sounded when it caught on with the public (you'll hear the rarely played introduction, too): 

So there it is, that repeated, jackhammer-like riff that still gets played when Marv Albert trots out his round-up of sports bloopers on Letterman. The song took off and became on the big ragtime numbers of the teens. In 1920, a trio of Wheeler Wedswort (c melody saxophone), George H. Green (xylophone) and Victor Arden (piano), recorded their own version for Victor, billed as an "All Star Trio":

I like that, one of those records that's not quite jazz, but the musicians are picking things up that were in the air at the time, each offering their own variations on the melody. Still, just a catchy piece of ragtime...until this 1923 recording by Ted Lewis. Lewis actually plays it slower than expected but his gaspipe clarinet (really, is there any other way to describe it?)--along with song's built-in cornball transitional phrases--leads a jokey atmosphere to the proceedings. Now, the song, nearly a decade old, sounds like a relic from another era and these musicians tease it a bit with a tongue-in-cheek arrangement. Listen for yourself:

But how were actual jazz bands performing the song in the 1920s? The best example is a hot recording by Bennie Moten from June 11, 1927...one month to the day after Armstrong recorded his take on it. I want to play Moten's first because obviously, he hadn't heard Louis's (no one would until 1940) so this is a good example of how the piece was treated in this period. It's actually a very creative arrangement with modulations and nice reed writing but there's something about that melody at this tempo that just can't get away from being a little corny (thanks to Todd Weeks for hipping me towards this recording many moons ago):

Ragtime! I like the heavy bouncy bottom of the Moten rhythm section but the combination of that and the syncopated melody sounds like it's from another planet when compared to what Louis was doing that same year (hell, listen to Moten just a few years later to hear the effect Armstrong had on his band, Kansas City and civilization).

So now, with all those different versions floating around inside your head, let's hear what happened when Louis and the Hot Seven took a crack at "Twelfth Street Rag" on May 11, 1927:

Wow....I say it again, what planet was Louis from? That first chorus is simply stunning. To take the hokiest, repetitive melody ever created and just rhythmically deconstruct it to turn it into something so daring, so tension-filled, so humorous, well, that's jazz (and that's Pops). But there's something else going on here: everyone's having a good time and playing in a pretty tongue-in-cheek style throughout. I really think that Louis and the other musicians felt this tune to be a little out-of-date so they decided to have some fun with it. I don't think it's quite an outright parody--Louis must have liked the main riff because he quoted it minutes earlier on "Weary Blues"--but it's close.

First, there's the tempo, slower than pretty much any other treatment of "Twelfth Street Rag," before or since. Next, they take the corny phrase used to launch into the closing riff in the sheet music and use it as an introduction, something many later versions have done. By playing it so dramatically--and passing the last part to the tuba--they create a kind of comic fanfare that lets listeners in on the joke early.

But then Louis starts playing and it's time to stop laughing (unless, you express awe through laughter, which I sometimes do). If you don't mind, I'm going to take a pass from trying to analyze this solo bar-by-bar; just listen and enjoy. He does everything with the beat that is humanly possible: playing in front of it, behind it, alongside of it, in between it, you name it. Strangely, he keeps the three notes that make up the melody front and center so you can always pick it up, even when he's flying around his horn. 

Remember, this was a period when Louis was already working on the art of perfecting his solos; the stop-time solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" was written down and copyrighted two years before he recorded it. But he's clearly going for himself on "Twelfth Street Rag" and its not without some sloppy moments: the double-timed break peters out and kind of goes nowhere and when he turns on the gas and jumps up an octave higher, some of the notes are a little thin. Whattaya gonna do, he's only human and besides, those moments last fractions of a second. In fact, Louis gets stronger as he goes on; the final series of bravura breaks are structured so beautifully and logically, you can't help but applaud when he's done (always awkward when I listen to this on the subway).

But then John Thomas elbows Armstrong out of the way with a gruff break and the joke starts to show again. Thomas's woozy solo, to me, definitely sounds like it's being played for laughs. I've read Thomas get knocked for this outing but I think he knew what he was doing by taking it down this road. Another playing of the transitional fanfare follows (Louis going way up), leading into Johnny Dodds's solo. Now pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong does her part by playing the melody riff under Dodds's playing. Dodds doesn't do anything overtly funny like Thomas but there's a certain stiffness at points that makes me wonder if he had a Ted Lewis/Boyd Senter in the back of his mind (Dodds detractors will say, "No, that's just Dodds being Dodds"). 

Anyway, Dodds wails on until he's finally joined by the other two horns for some ensemble playing, Louis still having rhythmic fun with the melody while Thomas shouts out single notes, sounding a bit like Kid Ory. Dodds gets the final breaks, which he turns into the blues, before everyone heads for the exit. But before they go, they play a short three-note arranged ending that lets you know that this wasn't ALL spontaneous, something had to be worked out in the studio before the red light went on. 

But what happened after the light went on wasn't enough to convince OKeh to release it. Even I'll admit, it's a strange little record, with sloppy moments, parody and a trumpet solo that would scared the hell out of most executives (and musicians) of the period. "Twelfth Street Rag" was rejected....but not destroyed! In 1940, 21-year-old George Avakian was given the job of a lifetime, asked by Columbia Records to comb through their vaults and find material for their first series of jazz reissue albums. Avakian came across a number of unreleased Hot Five's and Seven's, including "Twelfth Street Rag," and Columbia was smart enough to know what these meant, and had them released almost immediately on 78.

By the early 40s, "Twelfth Street Rag" was still being recorded by jazz artists, but almost always as a ridiculously fast-paced flagwaver, as can heard in versions by Lionel Hampton and Sidney Bechet, among others. In fact, Louis himself performed a similar version, live on the "Saturday Night Swing Club" on June 25, 1938, backed by Leith Stevens's studio orchestra. This is only 2:01 long but hold onto your chair, it's a hot one!

Good stuff. The tempo's up with the band taking two choruses up front, with spots for Walter Gross's piano and some nice drumming by Billy Gussak. Then Pops comes in for one chorus and kills it in his best late 1930s manner, floating across the beat, in full command of his horn and never rushing (though the band does grow a little more frantic as it goes on). You can hear a pleased Louis yell, "Yeah, man" at the end of his chorus before he turns it over to Stevens's group, which works up quite a head of steam in their three choruses; when they finally trot out the melody, it's actually pretty damn exciting instead of being corny. Louis gets off a few exciting phrases but he's buried in the mix, though you can hear his high note ending.

A fine little anomaly but I doubt Louis thought much about "Twelfth Street Rag" for the next decade. In fact, when "Esquire" asked him to comment on his 1920s records in 1951, when he got to "Twelfth Street Rag," Louis eluded the subject by telling a story about how he used to have all his records but friends would borrow them and never give them back so he hadn't heard that one in years (though he assumed--rightly--that it was "a living aspirin"). 

But in September 1948, Louis had to start thinking of "Twelfth Street Rag" again; the whole country was thinking about it. Trombonist Pee Wee Hunt, who played the Casa Loma Orchestra and shared vocals with Louis on his 1939 Decca records of "Rockin' Chair" and "Lazybones," scored a NUMBER ONE hit record with his treatment of "Twelfth Street Rag" in the fall of 1948. Number one. On a purposely corny version of a 34-year-old ragtime hit. The story has it that Hunt and his band, recording for Capitol, were feeling goofy and decided to record a completely satirical version of the song, playing in the best "old-timey" manner. This is what resulted:

A number one hit! You never know what's going to do it with the public, right? There was definitely a segment of the population who liked these throwback tongue-in-cheek numbers (ask Joe Darensbourg, who'd have a later unexpected hit with his gimmicky slap-tongue-in-cheek version of "Yellow Dog Blues"). It's all here on the Hunt recording: the introduction, silly trombone breaks, gaspipe clarinet, honky-tonk piano and even a doo-wacka-doo chorus seemingly left off a 1924 Fletcher Henderson recording. 

Add it all up and it was a hit record. It only took Pops a few months before he--or perhaps another of the All Stars--looked around and said, "Hey, we could do that!" A lot of the additions to the All Stars book came from Louis's recordings or movies but occasionally, they came from the hit parade: "Since I Fell for You," "The Hucklebuck," "Maybe You'll Be There," etc.  The first known Armstrong performance of "Twelfth Street Rag" comes from Cincinnati, OH on April 26, 1949....and I don't have it. (Don't worry, even if I did, what I have of these Cincinnati concerts from April 1949 borders on unlistenable so you wouldn't have been able to make out much.) A few months later, they played it during a broadcast from The Click in Philadelphia on August 4, 1949. Here's how it came out:

Great stuff. After Earl Hines's truncated intro, the All Stars front line of Armstrong, Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard refashion the melody in a very non-corny, 1949 way, swinging it and changing just enough of the phrasing to make it actually sound a little hip (the rhythm section of Hines, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole swing hard from the getgo, Cole getting in some nice fills). The highlights of the first chorus, though, undoubtably are Louis's scorching breaks; this tune was still built for him!  Hines plays a pretty “normal” solo (referencing "Lullaby in Rhythm" at the beginning), as does bassist Arvell Shaw, though Cole’s heavy drum accents towards 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, with Louis urging him on to "get hot" and to "swing it, Barney." Hilarity ensues (you can hear it). Cole changes his drum patterns to almost circus drumming, with heavy bass drum accents on one and three.  Teagarden’s trombone opens up in the same corny manner and even includes a way low “Salt Peanuts”-type phrase and a snatch of "Rhapsody in Blue." 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 would remain in the repertoire for years.

Needless to say, I have over 25 versions from 1949-1959 but most follow the same pattern so I'm just going to hit on some of the highpoints. In April 1950, just a few short months after the Click version, 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. Let's listen:

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 solo. 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 almost the same exact solo he had played on the 1949 live versions (though now someone in the band yells, “Get hot, Boin!"). He also throws in a break made up of George Lewis's "St. Phillip Street Breakdown," though played as stiffly and awkwardly as possible. Teagarden also reprises his solo though he now throws a different part of “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. Let's listen to this one:

This one begins with brand new All Star Billy Kyle's piano introduction, as he seems to be searching for the right tempo until drummer Kenny John sets one up for him. Pops sounds wonderful in the opening ensemble (getting a shout of approval from bassist 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 and His All Stars," (and part of Storyville's "The Armstrong Box" that I wrote notes for last year) was one of 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. boxed set "The California Concerts," now only available as a download). This was performed in the second set, two songs after Louis's bop parody on "The Whiffenpoof Song"; parodying bop, parodying Dixieland, Louis taking shots at all categories within minutes. Weighing in at 7:34, it's two full minutes longer than the versions we've already heard. Let's listen:

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. Edward R. Murrow filmed the All Stars doing this number in Europe later in 1955 for "See It Now" and though it's no longer on YouTube, I can tell you that when Young would play this solo, he would be bent all the way over, snapping his fingers and dancing to his own solo, a hilarious visual to compliment to already fun music. 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.” The Murrow film also captured for posterity what Deems did during his final break, standing up and grabbing his hi-hat cymbals, banging them together, one in each hand, like a kid in a high school orchestra. Great to listen to but even greater to see.
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. "Twelfth Street Rag" was a mainstay of this trip, always killing whenever it was played. In fact, three versions survive with encores that bring the total running time to nearly 9 minutes! Unfortunately, the sound quality isn't great on those and every one else plays exactly as you just heard except for Hall, who, unlike Bigard, plays a straight, typically funky Hall solo but stops at the end to break into a dance (something else captured in "See It Now"; there, he announces he's doing "the cut out" and demonstrates some excellent moves).

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, much of which was recorded in Amsterdam and Milan. Back in Los Angeles, Avakian had the All Stars record “All of Me” and “Twelfth Street Rag” and had fake applause dubbed in to pass them off as live (hope I'm not ruining anyone's fantasies here!). Avakian tried recorded the full in-concert arrangement in the studio but weighing in at nearly eight minutes, something had to be trimmed. Thus, Kyle and Shaw split a chorus and Hall and Young split a chorus, bringing the running time to a lean 4:59. I still meet Armstrong nuts who LOVE this performance. And with good reason....listen for yourself:

Yeah, that's the one I first fell in love with, I'll admit. 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. Avakian's captured Armstrong's brilliant mid-50s sound like no one else; wow, what a tone! And how about Kyle's solo? Definitely have to give him some props for those Hines-inspired double-timed runs that made him a favorite of many young modernists (both Bud Powell and Dave Brubeck remarked about listening to Kyle when they were still learning the instrument). A very fine version from one of my all-time favorite Pops LPs.

"Ambassador Satch" was released in early 1956 and became a hit. "Twelfth Street Rag" obviously had a big following; at Newport that year, you can hear someone in the audience breathlessly shouting out for Pops to play it (alas, Louis had a short, single set and couldn't oblige). Interestingly, we know the All Stars continued to play it, judging by some reviews of the time, but no other live versions were captured, except portions from a South American tour in 1957.

But good news: the final surviving version of "Twelfth Street Rag" is a video! This comes from Italy, May 17, 1959 (not 1961 as the video says) and is terrific. Some of the cast has changed as Mort Herbert is now on bass, Peanuts Hucko is on clarinet and Danny Barcelona is on drums, but the routine is identical, proof that Louis had continued playing it for years, even though so few versions were captured. Grab some popcorn and dig this, always a favorite when I've shown it at Pops presentations, from Harlem to New Orleans:

We're a long way from the Hot Seven, but it's great to see, isn't it. As guessed, Louis is all business when he picks the trumpet up--no mugging or eye rolling--but he's having a ball the rest of the time, singing along with Kyle's solo opening, cracking up at Mort Herbert's solo (love Herbert playing the bass on his knee), encouraging the usually straight-faced Hucko during his partially one-handed outing, and just setting the mood with his smile, hand claps and little dances. And when the band swings out at the end, Danny Barcelona digging in on drums, how could you not stop your feet from patting? Louis sounds wonderful, going way up high in this, the last surviving performance before his heart attack in Spoleto, Italy one month later.

After the heart attack, Louis may or may not have continued performing "Twelfth Street Rag," but there are no surviving versions from the 1960s. Spoleto seemed to kill this number from the book, but I'm thankful to have so many wonderful live recordings, that hotter than hot 1938 radio broadcast and of course, our reason for gathering today, that 1927 "lost" masterpiece with a first chorus that is simply a knockout. Anytime you get Louis and "Twelfth Street Rag," you know you're going to get an unbeatable mixture of topnotch jazz AND comedy--Louis's live persona encapsulated in one song. 


Phil said…
Hi, Ricky, another great blog full of very interesting detail and musical examples. Thankyou.

That story about young George Avakian finding the OKeh original is amazing!

Phil Lynch said…
I express joy and awe through laughter sometimes during music too. I don't think there's a word for that feeling in English. Happiness/surprise/awe/due-to-music. Sometimes in response to a composer (Bach last-4 bars come to mind), or to a performer (Bill Evans often gets a laugh/ARrgh! out of me, never wanting to touch a piano again, but still loving what he thought/did. Be well!

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