Louis Armstrong at Carnegie Hall - October 2, 1939

75 years ago this week, Louis Armstrong took part in a major concert at Carnegie Hall, an all-too-short appearance that's so explosive and exciting, it's still worth celebrating.

The occasion was part of ASCAP's "Twenty Five Year Festival," a celebration of music's top licensing organization. The October 2 concert was dedicated to African-African American composers and Pops was included to do two of his own compositions, "Old Man Mose" and "What Is This Thing Called Swing."  I've covered both of those pieces in full before (just click the links in the previous sentence) but wanted to revisit the Carnegie Hall performance as a whole.

Even though he didn't compose it, Louis wouldn't be caught dead without opening with his theme song, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." After a few bars of it--and a terse "Cease!"--he tears into his hit of 1935 (co-written by Zilner Randolph), "Old Man Mose." Watch out!

This is one of my favorite versions. The tempo is a little brighter than the original, more like later versions by George Lewis (and current versions by the fabulous Shotgun Jazz Band of New Orleans). The routine is in stone but lots of little comments throughout, mostly from the band's other comedian, trombonist George Washington, who was adding some of his own shouted responses to Armstrong's lyrics. For my money, though, the guy who steals the show is Sid Catlett, whose slashing hi-hat cymbals, bass drum accents and humorous “knocks” demonstrate why he was Armstrong’s favorite drummer. 

Next up was "What is This Thing Called Swing," written by Armstrong's frequent collaborator of the era, Horace Gerlach. This is a HOT performance:

As I wrote in my original entry, 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. The original Decca recording is very exciting but this Carnegie Hall version makes the studio version sound like a soggy ballad.

I love how Armstrong’s personality comes through beautifully, cracking up the audience multiple times. (Again, I’m pretty sure that’s Washington 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 practically talk-sings his entire vocal, a good example of his being 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 the lyrics, with their references to "jazz," "ragtime," "drag time" and "swing," effectively summarize the confusion. No wonder Louis liked to say there were only two kinds of music, good and bad....

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 on the Decca recording. After the vocal, the band vamps and Armstrong introduces the reed section, the rhythm section and the brass section.
For the introductions of the various sections, he 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 ever end every succeeding Armstrong 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 a remarkably effective one-note break between choruses. 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, an incredibly exciting performance, topped off with a ridiculously full high F. Bravo!

Alas, that was it for Pops, but he was happy. The very next day, October 3, 1939, he wrote a letter to his friend Bill Russell, a letter that's famous for Armstrong's raving about Russell's "Jazzmen" and promising to send a horn to Bunk Johnson. But earlier in the letter, Armstrong wrote (odd punctuation is his), "Well I've just returned from the Carnegie Hall where 'Handy and all of us Song Writers (ha ha) gave a Concert...I took my Band over there and Swung Out Two Numbers for the Folks and they appreciated our efforts 'Velly Velly Much....We 'Played 'Ol Man Mose and 'WHat Is This Thing Called Swing....And Boy--when we got through, you'd a thought the damn house was falling in...Tee Hee....It was really swell..."

Armstrong wasn't the only one who knew he brought down the house. A few years ago, my good friend from Sweden, HÃ¥kan Forsberg, wrote in to share a review of the concert written by Dan Burley. It's tedious at times--just one list after another--but it's fascinating to see how Armstrong killed, especially after he followed a tribute to minstrel songs (15 years later and reporters would have said Armstrong belonged in the minstrel part of the evening). And the ending is good, too, because it focuses on how the lack of then-present-day composers in the jazz field were pretty much given the shaft. 75 years later, "Enough-of-the-old-timers-what-about-today's-generation" is still a common gripe in the jazz world. Here's the complete review:

WRITERS LEFT OFF PROGRAM - Most of ASCAP Night Devoted to Serious Minstrel Music - by Dan Burley

The younger generations among the monster turnout at Carnegie Hall Monday night at the second concert in the festival of American music given under the aegis of American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) were provided with a liberal education in the contributions the Negro has made to American music. But because of the length of the program and attention given to oldtime writers, many of the present-day group of composer were plenty sore.

Not only the youngsters, but an appreciable lot of the oldsters of both races learned for the first time that many of the songs they have whistled, sung or heard since childhood were from the pens of colored writers whose genius has been neglected and all but forgotten over the course of the years.

From mighty symphonic works, spirituals, minstrel songs, blues, jazz and down to swing ran the program by W.C. Handy, and his staff of Joe Jordan, Charles L. Cooke and others, and while the presentation might well have been spread over three or four of the nights set aside by ASCAP to honor its members, it did serve the purpose of giving the public for the first time a mass introduction to the Negro composer.

A 70-piece symphony orchestra, three choirs, Louis Armstrong and Claude Hopkins and their swing bands, specialty singers, topped by Cab Calloway, dancers, guest composers and the composers themselves constituted the biggest massing of Negro musical production talent ever assembled. It was nearly 1 o’clock in the morning before the affair reached its climax.


The symphonic compositions were conducted by the writers James P. Johson, who flails a lot of boogie-woogie piano when in the mood, conducted the orchestra in his “From Harlem.” Dr. Cooke led the orchestra in his “Sketches of the Deep South” and world-famed William Grant Still conducted two movements from his “Afro-American Symphony” and “Summerland.” The Southernaires sang a medley of Will Marion Cook’s melodies, while Harry T. Burleigh was on hand to hear Jessie Zackery sing some of his spirituals, while the Abysinian Choir sang R. Nathaniel Dutt’s “Listen to the Lambs.” Juanita Hall Choir did an interesting interpretation of “Go Down Death” from “God’s Trombones” by the late James Weldon Johnson and a fine presentation of “De Little Black Train” arranged by Miss Hall with Robert Hall as soloist. Minto Cato effectively sang Alex Hill’s “How the First Song Was Born.’ These numbers composed part one of the program and dealt with the serious side of Negro musical composition.

Part two of the program, coming after the intermission, was an impromptu minstrel show with members of the Crescendo Club, all of whom are ASCAP composers, grouped in minstrel style. Laurenza Deas, Pinkney Hill, Chris Smith and Chappie Chappelle interpreted dance routines of the ’90’s and early 1900 period while James P. Johnson, Clarence Williams, William Edmondson of the Southenaires, Tim Brym, Joe Jordan, Luckey Roberts, Donald Heywood, and Henry Troy did the conducting of the singing and of the orchestra. The Southernaires came back to feature on the numbers.


In the minstrel group, which drew much criticism, were such numbers as “In the Evening by the Moonlight,” “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny,” and “Carve Dat Possum” by James Bland; “Listen to the Mocking Bird” (Sam Lucas); “Pas Mala,” (Ernest Hogan); “Baggage Coach Ahead,” (Gussie I. Davis); “All I Want Is My Chicken” (Laurence Deas); “Darktown Is Out Tonight” (Will Marion Cook); “Shine” (Mack, Brown & Dabney); “Maple Leaf Rag” (Scott Joplin); “Wish I Could Shimmy Like My SIster Kate” (Piron & Cl. WIliams); “Nobody” (Alex Rogers & Bert Williams); “Some Of These Days” (Shelton Brooks); “Under the Bamboo Tree” (Cole & Johnson); “Ballin’ the Jack” (Chris Smith & Jim Burris); “Please Go Away and Let Me Sleep” (Tim Brym & Cecil Mack); “Just One Word of Consolation” (Tom Lemonier & Frank Williams); “I’m Just Wild Abot Harry” (Sissle & Blake); “Lovey Joe” (Joe Jordan); “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” (Cl. Williams & Cl. Warfield); “Oh Say Wouldn’t It Be a Dream” (Joe Jordan); “Junk Man Rag” (Luckey Roberts); “Dearest Memories” (Will Vodery); “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” (Evertt, Robbins & Porter Grainger); “Mammy O’Mine” (Maceo Pinkard) played by Mr. Pinkard and sung by Mrs. Edna Pinkard; “Maori” (Will Tyler); “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” (Creamer & Layton); “I’m Coming Virginia” (WIll Marion Cook & Donald Heywood); and “Smile” (Heywood). The 40-voiced choir Mr. Heywood is rehearsing for his “Caribbean Cruise” sang the last two numbers.


The length of the program was apparent and sighs were beginning to come with alarming frequency when out popped His Majesty of Jazz and Swing, “Satchmo” of the trumpet, Louis Armstrong. Louie came to Carnegie Hall red-hot and lowdown and when he got through leading his orchestra in “Ol’ Man Mose,” and “What Is This Thing Called Swing,” little was left but to go home. Armstrong provided the comic relief after the long and tiresome minstrel episode.

Cab Calloway came minus his orchestra, but sang “Jumpin’ Jive” accompanied by his pianist, Benny Payne.

The program closed with W.C Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”


Immediately after the houses emptied, squawks were heard from many of the modern composers listed on the program who didn’t get a play because of the time devoted to the symphonic, spiritual and minstrel days part of the show. Such writers as Perry Bradford, Jelly Roll Morton, J.C. Johnson, president and founder of the Crescendo Club, Andy Razaf, Edgar Sampson, Walter Bishop, Frede Norman, Joe Grey and Wilbur Sweatman, Reddie Blake and McPherson, Kaye Parker, Bennie Carter, Claude Hopkins, and Slim and Slam were left holding the bag when it was decided the program had run long enough and the curtain came down.

Said Andy Razaf: “More music of present-day colored songwriters would have climaxed a grand show.  Someday we will realize that the present and future are just as important as the past. Only then will such efforts have balance and accuracy.”

If the program had not been designed to perpetuate the works of the older writers, it could not have done a better job in giving the breaks to men, many of whom are dead. Many in the audience came to hear songs they knew about and to applaud the men who wrote them. They didn’t hear them. They squawked. 


And that's how it went down at Carnegie Hall on October 2, 1939 when Armstrong "saved" the big night. Thank Goodness those two performances were recorded and Thank Gosta (Hagglof) for making it commercially on his Ambassador label. By the way, if you'd like a copy for your personal collection, you can order this Ambassador volume here from the Louis Armstrong House Museum website (the last remaining place to buy the Ambassadors). Coming up next: a big blow-out tribute to the six songs Louis recorded in Paris 80 years ago in 1934.


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