75 Years of Louis Armstrong's Unbelievable January 12, 1938 Decca Session

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded January 12, 1938
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Sheldon Hemphill, Henry "Red" Allen, Louis Bacon, trumpets; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J. C. Higginbotham, trombone; Pete Clarke, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophones; Albert Nicholas, Bingie Madison, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Currently available on CD: The entire session is on Mosaic's essential box, "The Complete Decca Recordings of Louis Armstrong, 1935-1946."
Available on Itunes? Yes, all are around, you just have to look for them.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that I'm of the belief that Louis Armstrong never had a bad recording session, never mind a bad recording. Sure, some are better than others, but when Pops showed up in the studio, he meant business. Sometimes, though, the stars really aligned and for whatever reason, he showed up like Hercules and just knocked one after another out of the park. I've celebrated a few such sessions here, notably his February 26, 1926 Hot Five session (mutli-part series) and May 18, 1936 Decca session, each of which found Louis churning out six classics.

Today, I'm celebrating another ridiculous outing by Louis, one that only provided four masters, but with two surviving alternates, will push us up to six listening examples. So don't go anywhere for the next half hour or so and prepare to have your mind melted! (A good thing, trust me...)

Today's session comes from Los Angeles, one of a string of California-based Decca sessions. Louis was still fronting Luis Russell's orchestra, getting better all the time (1937 was the occasion of the seminal "Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts," showing how great the band sounded outside of the recording studio). Louis was in California filming Every Day's a Holiday and Doctor Rhythm in the fall of 1937 and he stayed out there through January with long engagements at the Vogue in Los Angeles, Sweet's Ballroom in San Francisco and Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City. With the end of the California sojourn in site, Decca looked to get the new material in can before Armstrong embarked on another tour of one-nighters. Thus, four tunes were recorded on January 12 and another four the following day, January 13. The four on the 13th are fantastic but the ones on the 12th are positively historic (maybe wait around five years and I'll cover the next day's session on its 80th anniversary!).

Leading off, we have "Satchel Mouth Swing," an updated, swinging take on Louis's own composition (co-credited to Lil Hardin Armstrong and Clarence Williams), "Coal Cart Blues." Louis originally backed Eva  Taylor on the first recording of "Coal Cart Blues" with a Clarence Williams small group in 1925 and he'd revisit it again with Sidney Bechet in 1940. The Bechet version features a more easy-going tempo, which is how most other bands have tackled it but the 1925 one is a hot one if you haven't heard it in a while.

There's nothing easy-going about "Satchel Mouth Swing," which romps from note one. Here's the audio:

From the opening notes, we're off! And we're also introduced to one of the heroes of this session, New Orleans drumming legend Paul Barbarin, who kicks things off with those mighty press rolls and just doesn't quit. We play a CD at the Louis Armstrong House Museum that opens with this selection and every time it comes on, I look at fellow employee, drummer extraordinaire Hyland Harris, and we both shake our heads and mutter, "Paul Barbarin."

A word about Paul Barbarin: we all know that Louis LOVED Big Sid Catlett and rightfully so; I can't listen to more than a few bars of Catlett's playing without exclaiming, "Sid!" Louis called Sid a "born genius" and always went out of his way to praise him...but deep down I think he preferred Barbarin. The only time it came out was during a December 1956 interview in London with Sinclair Traill. Louis had just praised Sid but also took him down a few pegs for being late sometimes. Continuing his discussion on drummers, Louis brought up Cozy Cole.

"He was a good man," he said of Cole, "good for the band, but he wasn't a real New Orleans drummer. I mean he couldn't play like Paul Barbarin who plays real New Orleans drums. It's a different beat altogether--if you don't believe me, just kinda listen. Catlett and Cole were good men, no doubt 'bout that, but they couldn't keep that tempo like Paul Barbarin can. He ain't got a beat, man, he's got the beat." Louis went on to lament that Barbarin was "a good man really wasted" because he was too "homesick" to leave New Orleans. Barbarin later responded in print by saying he was hurt by Louis's comments and was never asked to leave. Regardless, the point remains that almost 20 years after Barbarin left him, Louis was still thinking beautiful thoughts about him (more on that in a bit).

After the strutting intro, the band takes the "Coal Cart" melody, shared between the brass and the reeds (there's a very good chance that this is a Chappie Willet arrangement; more on that in a bit). After a neat interlude, Louis takes the vocal all about this mythical "Satchel Mouth." It was only about 8 years earlier that Louis jokingly referred to his horn by that moniker on record; soon after it was corrupted into "Satchmo" and Louis never looked back. Thus, it makes sense to include it in a song title (and don't forget "Satchel Mouth Baby" by Mary Lou Williams, a friend of Louis's and Joe Glaser's), though the lyric about "rhythm don't mean a thing when Satchel Mouth starts to swing" doesn't sound like our man!

Charlie Holmes steps up with a short, fruity statement before the great J.C. Higginbotham bursts in with one of his shouting outings (Higgy was in great spirits those days; listen to his "I Double Dare You" solo from the next day for further proof).  A repeat of the pre-vocal riff interlude sets up our hero's entrance, pounding through the melody in the upper register over Barbarin's patented cymbal backbeats. He doesn't really improvise at all, but there is a nice extended ending that finds Louis hitting--and holding--a dramatic final high concert D as the band swings to a tight ending.

It's a fun little romp, but admittedly little horn and probably not one for the time capsule. "Really, he built this session up for THAT?" you might be thinking. All right fine....don't say I didn't warn you!

Next up: "Jubilee."

There, that should do it. If you know it, you're rejoicing; if you don't, stand back!

"Jubilee" comes from the pen of Louis's friend and admirer Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote it for the Mae West film, Every Day's a Holiday. Louis performed a condensed version in that film, dressed as a sanitation worker, but leading a parade that let Armstrong show off some of his second line moves--this clip is always a favorite when I show it in New Orleans! (Joe Muranyi wrote an entire tune--"Satchmo's Strut"--after watching Louis in this film).  Alas, it's not on YouTube so you'll have to take my word for it...

But I have something even better: the January 12, 1938 Decca studio recording: hold on to the roof!


I put that word in quotes because that was Louis's reaction upon listening to it in the 1950s. From the start, Louis's big band output for Decca has always gotten the shaft. In the 1940s, Columbia was knocking itself out reissuing Louis's 1920s output, while Victor put out some nice albums of 78s of Louis's late 40s work. Decca only had one album out, "Louis Armstrong Classics," but not much else. Louis kept a lot of his own records but he only had 21 Decca 78s in his collection....and no "Jubilee."

Enter Louis's friend, Bill Green, a singer and Armstrong worshipper. In the early 1950s, Louis visited Green in his Washington D.C. home, brought a long his tape recorder, and dubbed a lot of his Decca records he no longer had, many he hadn't listened to in ages. After "True Confession" ("How about that? It's been a long time since I heard that one, Pops."), Green suggested "Jubilee." Louis immediately reminisced about the parade scene in the Mae West picture.

Green put on the record and after just a few seconds of those opening drum rolls, Louis muttered, "Paul Barbarin." He then got closer to the microphone and repeated, "That's Barbarin on those drums!" He then listened in silence until the record ended. Upon the final high note, Louis yelled, "WOW! How about that!? That's that old Barbarin, you know, with that street parade jive. You notice in 'The Saints Go Marching In,' how he rolled that drum? You have to be from the old country to put that out."

All Louis wanted to talk about was Barbarin--and he IS great--but my, my, my, how about Mr. Strong? After the attention-getting opening, Louis delivers Carmichael's lyric with aplomb. (Speaking of his lyric, the Hoagy Carmichael Collection at Indiana University has a copy of Hoagy's original lyric sheet, with many handwritten changes to show the improvements he made along the way. You can see it here.)

After the vocal, Barbarin rolls some more. A glance at the clock shows 1 minute and 37 seconds remaining....and it's all Pops. This is one of those feats of endurance that's just mind-boggling. Back in July, when I did a panel at the Jazz Museum in Harlem with Jon Faddis, Bria Skonberg and Warren Vache, Faddis named this as the one that really turned him upside down with regards to Louis. How could it not?

He starts with the melody, great backing by the band (again, have to give credit to the unsung hero, Chappie Willet) and already builds up to another sky-high D towards the end of his first chorus. You know, he could have ended the record right there even though it would have been 1:42 long, I don't think anyone would have complained.

But wait, there's more! Barbarin steps out again and then Willet reverses it, having the band play the melody, with Louis blowing variations around them. He's so relaxed, he simply floats in and around them--rhythm DOES mean a thing when this Satchel Mouth starts to swing. On the bridge, he decides to flex his muscles, hitting and holding notes high and low to show he still has plenty left in the gas tank. When he breaks out of it, he starts sending up fireworks, playing the melody and octave high, before building to a ridiculously high concert F, pretty much the top of his range. And never mind how high the note is, just listen to how full that tone is...nothing else like it.

Okay, Pops, why don't you cool it now, sing a jive number or go home for the day? Nope!

The session is already a classic for "Jubilee" alone but the next number is the one that pushes it into pantheon of all-time ridiculous Louis outings: "Struttin' with Some Barbecue."

In December, I teased that I was thinking about doing an 85th anniversary post devoted to "Barbecue." And then I opened my iTunes and saw how many versions of it I had and wilted. Maybe some day, but it wasn't going to happen then! So for now, I'll say that if you haven't heard the Hot Five original version from 1927, whattaya waiting for? And I won't get into the argument over who wrote it. Louis and Lil battled over that for decades; I tend to side with Louis since that major-seventh was a favorite of his and he never, ever stopped introducing it as a song he wrote...he gave Lil credit for other tunes or would mention when they collaborated on something like "Tears." But not with "Barbecue"; he claimed full-credit and who knows, maybe he deserved it.

But that's neither here nor there (I don't know what that means). All you need to know is Louis created a jazz masterpiece with his solo on the 1927 original and then didn't seem to touch it. Flash forward to 1938, and Louis was ready to strut that barbecue into the Swing Era, outfitted with another sparkling arrangement by that Willet man again (my man John Wriggle is the world's leading expert on Chappie and has done wonders in getting people--including myself--to recognize his wonderful contributions to that era's music). We have Willet's original arrangement at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (#51-C for those playing at home) and unlike most, Louis has a pretty detailed part. In fact everything he plays on the first half of the record is written out, including the impossibly tricky descending business after the opening gliss and the chromatic touches in the reading of the melody. Let's listen to how it came out:

Yep, another one for the time-capsule! You hear what I mean about Louis's dazzling dexterity in the opening chorus? He's all over his horn, demonstrating some of that "fast-fingering" that got him in trouble with Joe Oliver back in 1918. But the combination of the bravura high notes, the fleet-fingered runs, the melodic paraphrasing, the sheer endurance...you can tell why Maynard Ferguson and Bobby Hackett each named this as their favorite Armstrong record.

Louis nails the opening chorus, his melody sounding perfectly adapted to the sounds of 1938 thanks to Willet's little touches (that ultra-hip break in the middle for instance). Willet also outdid himself on the dramatic interlude after the first chorus, with Louis building higher and higher over Barbarin's dancing drums, Armstrong topping out on a high C. Man, what could go wrong!

And then Bingie Madison stepped up to the mike. Oh, poor, poor Bingie. The straw boss of the band, Madison liked to give himself the solos on Armstrong's records. His saxophone playing was okay but when he switched to clarinet here--and on "Once in a While" from a few weeks earlier--ugh! It's not a matter of conception, but pitch--he's always off! And to add insult to injury, sitting next to Madison was Albert Nicholas, one of New Orleans's finest clarinetists. (Interestingly, I've noticed that listeners who assume it's Nicholas tend to like it more. The Penguin Guide to Jazz once praised Nicholas for almost "stealing the show" with the clarinet solo....yikes!)

During a conversation in Nice, France in 1948 (transcribed and published in Downbeat) Barney Bigard needled Louis about this solo. "That was half a tone off, but it sold all right." Bigard pressed him, asking, "Yeah, but were you satisfied with it?" Louis held his ground. "It sold all right," he said. "Them cats know that a guy got to blow the way he feels and sometimes he hits them wrong. That's better than them young guys who won't blow for fear they'll be off." But a few years later, Louis met a young fan, Rev. Harry Finkenstaedt, who told me that the night they met in Hawaii in 1954, they listened to records together and Louis became "visibly disappointed" when listening to Madison's solo, launching him into a complaint about it. Can't blame him (though Louis didn't hold a grudge; they had a reunion in 1970 and photos of the occasion show both men very happy to be in each others presence).

We've wasted enough time on Bingie's 16 bars of infamy; Albert Nicholas is next and though his chorus sounds pretty set, it's a good one. If you've listened to this as much as I have, you can sing every note of it (Madison's, too, but no one wants to hear that). But then it's time for the main event: almost 90 seconds of Pops.

Willet wrote out Louis's held concert F as the band modulates from F to Bb...but after that, he wrote "32 bars ad-lib." Free from the arrangement, Louis still keeps the melody front and center, but now he's again flexing his muscles, playing it higher than before over nice backing from the band (great fill by Barbarin midway through). Like "Jubilee," that one chorus of melody is alone with the price of admission but no, Louis really earns his money with a second chorus. I love Willet's arranged backing, pushing Louis to great heights (literally). This is HARD stuff but Louis makes it sound easy. A few years ago, the aforementioned John Wriggle led a big band of young New York musicians on a series of Swing Era arrangements Wriggle had transcribed. For "Barbecue," Wriggle chose Japanese trumpeter Satoru Ohashi to fill Louis's shoes. Satoru did a wonderful job but watching him exert himself through was the first time it really hit me, "Oh my God, this solo is virtually impossible." Satoru was closing his eyes, rocking back and forth, thrusting his trumpet skyward...not out of showmanship, but out of survival! He passed the test beautifully but it gave me more appreciation of just how easy Louis made this kind of playing seem.

And I haven't even talked about the ending! After over a minute of constant wailing, you'd think Louis would be passed out in the corner. But no, Willet saved the best for last and has Louis repeat a series of huge, high Bb's before Louis does a rhythmically impossible riff that never fails to make me shake my head. Rhythmically, it's based on a lick Louis liked in this period, one he first used on "Ory's Creole Trombone" and trotted out again during a live Fleischmann's Yeast radio show performance of "Bugle Blues," but not to this level. He uses it as a riff first, sounding like a boogie-woogie pianist, before playing it faster and faster, turning it inside out until your brain starts picking up these tiny, almost micro-notes in and the Bb. Now just toying with us mortals, he delivers the knockout blow with a giant gliss up to a high concert D. Bravo, Pops!

Having just conquered civilization, you'd think it would be a good time for Louis to retire. But no, they decided to record "Barbecue" again! This take wasn't known until it was discovered for the Mosaic boxed set a few years ago. I could see why it might have been floated out there without anyone realizing it...it's damn near identical. Listen for yourself:

Remarkable, isn't it? It's not quite as flawless: there's a tinge of sloppiness to the tricky ascending break in the first chorus and Louis's ridiculous rhythmic riff at the end threatens to get away from him, but otherwise, another home run (but amazing that Bingie still couldn't get his act together). So now we've had the big high-note ending on "Satchel Mouth Swing," the jaw-dropping, Jon Faddis-inpiring "Jubilee" and TWO heroic versions of "Struttin' with Some Barbecue." How much could he take?

Thus, is it any wonder that the last tune recorded that day was "The Trumpet Player's Lament"?

This song was written by James Monaco and Johnny Burke for the Bing Crosby film Doctor Rhythm. Louis performed it in the flick and photos exists of him decked out in white suit and derby for what must have been a show-stopping number, especially given Armstrong's acting skills and the song's built-in "dramatic" narrative.

Unfortunately, we may never know: it doesn't exist! Though filmed, Paramount cut it for reason's they wouldn't go into (most likely due to pressure from Southern exhibitors). However, a sign of hope: Bing Crosby lobbied for it to remain in there so Paramount said any theater that wanted a complete print with Louis, could request it. Only black theaters did so, but apparently, it was shown in places like Brooklyn and Chicago....and then was lost. So unless one of those copies surfaces, we'll probably never get to see this lost moment of Armstrong cinema.

But we do have the Decca record, though admittedly that's not exactly favorable to some. This is one of Louis's most-knocked recordings of the period; Gary Giddins, for one, calls it "unworthy" of Louis because it "trashed jazz and everything he stood for." I don't know, I don't feel that way. I think it's a great example of Louis acting. I never listen to it and hear an autobiographical lament; I hear Louis inhabiting a role of a trumpet player who doesn't want to play jazz anymore. It's most definitely NOT Louis but he conveys the emotions of the "character" beautifully. And as you'll  here, there's still some more scintillating trumpet. Take it, Pops!

Now, nobody got hurt, right? I really do like it. Louis sings the hell out of it, demonstrating his full range (down low for "Yuba") and really proving that he could make a beautiful vocal out of pretty much any combination of words. Who else could lead such emotion to lines like, "I wish I could play Jose Iturbi / instead of blowing notes into a derby"? That line always makes me laugh but again, listen to his phrasing, vibrato, everything. It's really a masterful vocal performance of a silly song.

The band starts swinging and then Louis picks up his horn to show that he still had a lot of life left. He starts off with the melody, which admittedly, isn't as appealing instrumentally as when sung. But the band really gets a nice groove (more props to Mr. Barbarin) and Louis sounds great, especially when he goes up high and shakes a blue note at 2:02. From there, he starts to paraphrase the melody but then his dramatic side takes of for a serious, exploring moment...until the trombones kind of razz him and everyone struts and swings to the finish line. How Louis had that ending him--all those repeated high C's, topped by another range-topping F--is beyond me.

Even more stunning? He did it again.

Yes, sometime in the 90s, Decca found an alternate in vaults. If you thought "Barbecue's" alternate was close to the original, this borders on ridiculous. In a letter to discographer Jos Willems, Steven Lasker wrote, "It's amazing how similar both 'The Trumpet Player's Lament' takes are, the only difference I hear being an extra grace note in the tenth bar of Louis' solo." So here's the alternate...admire that grace note!
So there you have it, all in a day's work...for Superman. I'm going to quit while I'm ahead but if you're as inspired as Pops was, head to your record shelf/iTunes/YouTube/Mosaic website and listen to "I Double Dare You," "True Confession," "Let That Be a Lesson to You" and "Sweet as a Song," four more great ones recorded the very next day. Seriously, if you don't have the Mosaic set, your life is incomplete. I'll even create a link for you to make it easier. Great stuff all around, but especially that January 12, 1938 session. Once again, to quote Pops...."WOW!"


Lemonlymelon said…
I never knew that Louis and Paul Barbarin played together! And I think that's so cool. It's so interesting, how listening to music from one guy and then listening to music from another guy makes it easy for you to think that it's completely separate, and that they didn't know each other. But in fact, once you start looking into it, you realize they all knew each other and there are so many connections all over the place. I don't know if it sounds silly, but to someone who just got into jazz a couple of years ago, it's so fascinating.

In any case, a really great post and an otherworldly recording session. Thank you, going through it was like reading a story :)
RICHIE said…
I always thought Trumpet Lament was a bit of satire. Only he could play it with conviction and make it work. Louis Armstrong telling that story was obviously done tongue in cheek and the fans at that time had to know it when they heard those final high C's and the solid F to end it.
The quality of these recordings all from one session without overdubs or tricks is just unbelievable. Thanks Ricky, you always excavate the most interesting events and accomplishments of Louis.

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