75 Years of "What Is This Thing Called Swing"

Recorded January 18, 1939
Track Time 2:42
Written by Louis Armstrong and Horace Gerlach
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Otis Johnson, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Albert Nicholas Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2267
Currently available on CD: The studio version is on volume five (1938-1939) of the wonderful Ambassador series, while the live version is on volume six; both are available only at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The studio version is also on Mosaic Records' indispensable box of Armstrong's 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes (the live one, too)

Like "Jeepers Creepers," "What is This Thing Called Swing" was originally recorded on January 19, 1939. I'm a couple of weeks late, but it's still a track worth celebrating. I wrote the following blog a few years ago but I think the sentiments more than hold up. Enjoy!

Having Louis Armstrong do a song titled “What is This Thing Called Swing” is like having Frank Sinatra sing “What is This Thing Called Love.” And as Dean Martin said when he heard Frank sing that tune at a Rat Pack show in Vegas, “Man, if you don’t know, then we’re all dead.” I think the same comment applies to Pops and the song that’s the subject for today’s entry.

However, “What is This Thing Called Swing” wasn’t some dopey pop tune forced upon our hero. No, it was co-composed by Armstrong himself with his frequent collaborator of the period, Horace “Dutch” Gerlach. It seems that Armstrong couldn’t do much offstage with Gerlach, who co-composed “Swing That Music,” “If We Never Meet Again” and “I’ve Got a Heart Full of Rhythm”with the trumpeter and served as primary ghostwriter on Armstrong’s first autobiography, also titled Swing That Music. Not much is known about Gerlach and in the introduction to a reprint of Swing That Music, Dan Morgenstern kind of fluffed Gerlach off, but someone who knew Gerlach wrote to David Ostwald that “Dutch was a white pioneer in using five brass in the bands he conducted and arranged for. Black bands initiated this trend and Dutch was scoring in this fashion even before Casa Loma.” (Sorry I don’t know the full name of the friend, Ostwald just let me copy the letter.)

So Gerlach clearly knew a thing or two about music and I have to admit that the four Armstrong-Gerlach collaborations are all great tunes and tremendous records. Who knows how much Armstrong contributed to the writing of these songs, but each one inspired him to make a fantastic record.

“What is This Thing Called Swing” was recorded the same day as “Jeepers Creepers” so this is a 75th anniversary post, as well. It’s not a very celebrated tune but I find it positively thrilling. Give it a listen and then we’ll discuss:

Ah, the first thing that hits your ears is the tonality: we’re in a minor mode, something Pops always dug, so you know it’s going to be good. Based on the above quoted letter, Gerlach probably wrote the arrangement and it’s a good one. The band hits it very powerfully, with an extra boost from their new drummer, the one and only Sid Catlett.

Armstrong starts by singing the very, which is actually more spoken than sung. In fact, when David Hadju was doing a piece about proto-rap/spoken lyrics songs, I suggested this one for it’s use of rhymes and for Pops’s delivery (Pops was definitely a grandfather of rap!). The verse makes it clear that the song is about a bandleader who is clueless about swing. Armstrong lost his patience very early when it came to categorizing music and I think these lyrics express that frustration well:

What is this thing called swing?
What is this thing called swing?
Is it jazz or drag time, futuristic ragtime?
What is this thing called swing?

Jazz, ragtime, drag time, swing...as Pops liked to say, there were only two kinds of music, good and bad. Anyway, with the singing out of the way, the band vamps, as Pops reverts back to his spoken style, introducing the various sections of the band. The saxophones are up first, executing the difficult passage very well (not A+ but still pretty good). Catlett drives them with those ferocious press rolls, a hallmark of Armstrong’s previous drummer, Paul Barbarin, but Catlett was more of a master of accents, as can be heard throughout the record.

In fact, Catlett’s up next, as the lone representative of the “rhythm section” Armstrong sings about. Catlett takes off for a great solo while Messrs. Russell, Blair and Foster probably went out for a smoke. Pops then asks the brass section to get their chops together and after a few hot bars, tightly played, they put down their horns and begin shouting at Armstrong: “Take your horn, Pops, beat it out/ show the world what swing’s about!” (Punctuated by another great thud on Catlett’s bass drum.)

Armstrong humorously acts surprised and requests a second to get his horn up to his mouth. There’s still almost a minute left and all I can say is stand back! He enters by repeating one note, calling attention to the song’s relation to “St. James Infirmary.” Just listen to Catlett (again) cranking up the four-on-the-floor action to give Armstrong a little extra oomph. Armstrong’s in complete command in the first chorus, allowing the reeds to respond to his every move.

After this first chorus, Armstrong trades places, letting the brass take the lead as he now responds to them. Armstrong’s playing grows hotter by the second as the brass backs off for a bit to leave Pops in the spotlight. They come back to wrap up the chorus, setting up my favorite moment of the record: a break, taken by Pops, that consists of one perfectly placed note. It’s reminiscent of the break he took on “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” in 1933, as well as on a few other songs. As I said about that performance, it’s tough to make one note swing but Armstrong does just that by placing it perfectly on the second beat of the break. The pure throbbing sound of that single, reverberating Ab is like listening to a jolt of electricity in action.

Now there’s nothing stopping the man. Catlett starts whipping the cymbals, the rhythm section digs in and the flaming reeds and screaming brass pour it on in tandem. Armstrong’s now in the upper register and hits upon a tension-filled three-note motif, B natural-C-Db, back and forth, back and forth, playing it at his own pace as the hectic tempo of the pieces passes underneath him. He works over this motif like someone trying to maintain their balance, finally landing strongly on a high C. He hits again, the band answers with him, almost pleading with intensity for him to do it and sure enough he does it: he ends of the record on an insane high F. Wow! Interestingly, the band ends on an F major chord instead of an F minor but who cares about them; it’s Armstrong’s show and that, my friends, is some dazzling trumpet playing.

Though “What is This Thing Called Swing” isn’t one of Armstrong’s best-known records (especially compared with its A-side, “Jeepers Creepers”) it did maintain a place in Armstrong’s live shows, where it got a slight increase in tempo. Slight? You thought the Decca record was fast? Armstrong’s live performances of the tune make the studio version sound like a soggy ballad. Well, actually, I should say live “performance” as only one is known to survive...but what a performance it is. Here goes, from October 2, 1939 at Canegie Hall’s “ASACAP 25 Year Festival” (and yes, Armstrong collected some ASCAP change that evening by doing this tune and “Old Man Mose,” both compositions of his own):

Yeah, man! I love how Armstrong’s personality comes through beautifully, cracking up the audience multiple times. (I’m pretty sure that’s trombonist George Washington, Armstrong’s frequent comic foil, answering Pops’s question during the introduction.) Armstrong calls for three beats and the band responds like a hurricane. The tempo might be too hot to handle but it works. Armstrong sounds like he barely has time to take a breath during the vocal but he gets through it unscathed, the band’s answers sounding more urgent than before.

For the introductions of the various sections, Armstrong reverts back to his spoken style, though he does it at his own tempo as the band vamps furiously, sounding even more like some sort of proto-rap. By this point, tenor saxophonist Joe Garland was in the band, poised to take over as music director. He must have worked the section pretty hard because, even at ludicrous speed, the reeds handle their section solo better here than on the record.

Next up is the rhythm section, aka Catlett. This is a pretty neat moment as Armstrong just lets Catlett tear it up for a while. I don’t know how common extended drum solos were at this time, but Armstrong always loved making sure everyone in his bands got featured. Catlett takes off for about a minute-and-a-half, ending with the typical triplet phrase every succeeding Armstrong drummer would end just about every succeeding drum solo with.

Pops breaks me up with his next introduction, announcing the brass then telling the audience, “Give them boys a chance to get them lips in their horns. I’ll be right with you” before some muttering breaks up the crowd again. The brass nails their part again, winning Armstrong’s approval. He makes them repeat their “Beat it out” chant again for good measure, before Armstrong prepares to take it out (I wonder if the reeds went nuts repeating that vamp?).

From here, Armstrong takes three choruses, repeating everything he played on the record almost verbatim, including the one-note break, the three-note motif and the high F at the end. He hits a small snag or two in his first chorus, but is on top for the second and third go-arounds, prodded hard by Catlett’s drumming, now more intense than ever (I love when he switches to the toms briefly in the second chorus). In all, I don't know if anyone could dance to it but both the studio and live versions of "What is This Thing Called Swing" inspired some of the most exciting performances from Louis and his big band during the entire Swing Era....and beyond!

That’s all for now, but I'll close with a quick update on the Mosaic box. Last week, we finished the final transfers and submitted my notes and the photos to the printer! Next step will be the remastering, which will take some time for a 9-CD set. The last e-mail I received spoke of a possible late March release date. More details to come as I get them....thanks, all, for your interest!


Lord Jim said…
Puts me in mind of Dizzy Gillespie's 'Things to Come'. Nobody can say Pops couldn't tear it up.
Peter said…
Thought this might be of interest - I've been working with BBC Radio 4 on getting some mucis related documentaries out of the archive and putting them online, and this one on Pops's personal tape collection from 1998 is a bit of a highlight IMHO... http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0075fpx
Lord Jim said…
What's with the offensive language warning? You Brits are so buttoned up.

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