80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: St. Louis Blues (First Version)

I've been looking forward to writing about this session for a long time now; the 80th anniversary seems like a good excuse to finally do it! 80 years ago today, Louis Armstrong and his band recorded six numbers for the Brunswick label, his first time in a studio since April of 1933. He was emerging from a long layoff and probably felt he had something prove; the six songs recorded that day proved he was still a spectacular performer. Starting today, I'll be covering one song at a time for the next week or so, allowing readers to really sink into each one instead of six in one shot. But before we get to the music, let's get to the backstory.

Armstrong came to Europe in the fall of 1933, immediately making a big splash in Scandinavia with his Hot Harlem Band, which I wrote about last year. Anyone who has seen that footage from Denmark knows that Armstrong was seemingly at the peak of his powers in this period.

I write "seemingly" because underneath it all was a lot of pain. Night after night of popping out 250-300 high Cs were taking its toll on him. Mezz Mezzrow wrote graphically about Armstrong's lip splitting at the end of 1932, around the time of the That's My Home Victor session. Things did not improve, as Armstrong continued blasting through the pain. It finally caught up with him at the Holborn Empire in London. "In England on the stage, my lip split, blood all down in my tuxedo shirt, nobody knew it."Armstrong had had a major altercation with manager Johnny Collins earlier on the tour so without any gigs on the docket, he canceled a week's worth of performances and took a break. "When I left London that summer and went to Paris, I needed a rest," he later said. "My bookings were finished in England so I just lazied around Paris for three or four months, had a lot of fun with the musicians from the States--French cats, too. And I'd do a concert now and then."

Other trumpet players couldn't notice the duress Armstrong's chops were in. "When Louis came to Paris, he didn't play at all because he was having lip problems," Arthur Briggs remembered. "...[H]is lips were as hard as a piece of wood and he was bleeding and everything else. We thought he had--well, we didn't say cancer because in those days we wouldn't have thought of it--but we thought he had some very sad disease."

Armstrong was the toast of Paris, especially with the musicians the early jazz critics and historians, headed by Hugues Panassie. By November, Armstrong had assembled a band and was prepared for a series of concerts at the famed Salle Playel. Like his "Hot Harlem Band," Armstrong selected black musicians, mostly from America, that had settled in either England or France. In fact, his Paris band included some musicians heldover from the earlier band: trombonist Lionel Guimaraes, reedmen Peter duConge and Henry Tyree, bassist German Arago and drummer Oliver Tines. New faces were trumpeters Jack Hamilton and Leslie Thompson, saxophonist Alfred Pratt, guitarist Maceo Jefferson and last, but certainly not least, pianist Herman Chittison.

Chittison was a genius of the piano, with Tatum-esque technique and an unending supply of ideas. He should be better known today but he went to Europe with Willie Lewis in 1933 and ended up staying overseas for decades, including stints in Cairo, India and other faraway lands. He came back to America in 1959 and settled in Boston, where he had a reunion with Armstrong on John McClellan's WHDH TV show "Dateline Boston - The Jazz Scene" on May 4, 1960 (more about that in a minute). Seriously, stop what you're doing and have a Herman Chittison YouTube marathon. You won't be disappointed.

With the band assembled, Armstrong was offered an opportunity to record. This was in direct conflict with Armstrong's exclusive contract with Victor back home but without a manger overseeing the deals--and being overseas for over a year--Armstrong agreed to record for Brunswick's European wing. For years, people thought the session was done in October but in a 1984 issue of Storyville, Jacques Lubin set the record straight, writing, "I unearthed the original recording sheet for the session in August 1984 in the course of some research I was doing in the Polydor/Polygram archives prior to their third move. These reveal that the session took place on 7 November 1934 from 3.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m. in Polydor's No.2 Studio at 72-74 boulevard de la Gare, Paris XIII."

The session would be supervised by Jacques Canetti, a man who would promote Armstrong's concert appearances after the record date. Canetti was the closest thing to a manager that Armstrong had since splitting with Johnny Collins but matters ended bleakly when Armstrong had to cancel a tour due to lip troubles. Canetti went to the press and blasted the trumpeter, saying he canceled because he was losing out to Chittison when it came to applause (oh, did the conspiracy theorists like James Lincoln Collier love that one). It would be Armstrong's last gasp in Europe before returning to America, taking nearly six months off from the horn and then regrouping for the next major phase of his career, guided by Joe Glaser.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. On November 7, 1934, Louis's chops were in top form; they might have been hurting but the sounds they produced on the session's SIX numbers still sound pretty superhuman to me. Armstrong sure remained proud of these performances. When they were eventually issued in the United States in 1947 on the Vox label, Armstrong immediately purchased it and transferred it to reel-to-reel tape numerous times over the years. "We used to make some beautiful tunes all over Europe, just as we do one-nighters in the states," Armstrong told McClellan in 1960. McClellan responded, "I still have that album at home, called 'Louis Armstrong Paris 1934." Armstrong immediately remembered the label: "Vox. Vox. Everybody should have that in their files." Armstrong went on to say that when he made The Five Pennies with Danny Kaye in 1958, he chose the Paris session as a gift for Kaye, who played the original two-part "On the Sunny Side of the Street" for the entire cast and crew while waiting for the cameras to reload. Armstrong was getting his makeup applied in the dressing room when he heard the recordings, saying, "And everybody on the set--quiet. It was beautiful."

One great thing about the session is it gives a glimpse of what Louis was doing onstage in this period. No pop tunes or current hits, just six tried and true specialties, each of which he had been playing for some time. First up was the definition of a "good old good one," W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Armstrong already accompanied Bessie Smith on her landmark version in 1925 and he tore it up on his own recording of it with Luis Russell in 1929. At that point, it became a showpiece, something he performed and worked on nightly. By April 1933, he was happy enough with it to record his new arrangement for Victor. On that exciting performance, Armstrong kicked it off an uptempo, took the opening choruses, as well as Handy's minor strain, then handed it over to trombone, alto, piano, guitar and tenor saxophone solos. Then Armstrong swooped in for four choruses, working over a little call-and-response action in the arrangement and eventually building up to a steady stream of demanding high D's.

The Victor version is wonderful but it almost sounds like a soggy ballad compared to what Louis did in Paris. Let's kick off the celebration by listening to that first (of two!) versions of "St. Louis Blues," recorded 80 years ago today:

See what I mean? Like the Victor version, the arrangement starts with the minor strain but the tempo is a bit fast...and that's not Louis playing. I don't know which trumpet player it is, but someone else grabs the spotlight for those first eight bars before Louis swoops in with one, instead of two choruses of blues, before handing it over to trombonist Guimaraes for the minor strain reprise. So unlike the Victor, which opened with Armstrong firmly in control for the first few choruses, he only takes one here, featuring some lovely rubato phrasing, but also sounding a little tentative.

The reeds do some hair-raising climbs and falls behind Guimaraes's minor episode and then Pops comes in for the vocal, something the 1933 record did not include. He sings two choruses, mostly on one pitch, while the band answers him with an ascending riff first heard on Louis's 1929 recording. He moans and growls a bit in his second outing; and dig his final "me," sung on a D, the fifth of the key of G they're playing in, kind of a bizarre note to end on, but it works.

Then it's time for the parade of solos, with Louis getting REALLY animated in his cheerleading. I don't think I'm reaching when I say that Louis inhaled a tremendous amount of gage before this session! More on that as we go. Lionel Guimaraes is up first, sounding strong, if a little stiff. In 1957, Louis visited Rio de Janeiro and Guimaraes attended an All Stars concert on November 28. Louis let him sit in and Guimaraes joined in for "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Tiger Rag" and "St. Louis Blues"....three of the six songs recorded in Paris in 1934! We have a recording of the complete concert at the Armstrong Archives at Queens College so if you're ever in the neighborhood and want to hear it, drop me a line...

Next up, the great Peter duConge, who was born in New Orleans in 1898 and eventually settled in Paris, marrying the famed Ada "Bricktop" Smith. duConge's a fine player who starts off his solo here almost as if he has "High Society" on the brain. Next up is Brother Chittison, who opens with one of Louis's favorite descending blues licks before going for himself; dig those descending harmonies at the close of his too-quick chorus! Alfred Pratt turns on the heat with his tenor and Armstrong seems to particularly like his "mugging."

During the aforementioned 1960 interview with Chittison on John McClellan's show, Armstrong reminisced about the making of "St. Louis Blues," specifically remembering an incident regarding Pratt on what have been an unissued take of the tune (interestingly, Armstrong couldn't remember his name and calls him "Vernel" throughout!). "I remember we was making this album and when we got to 'St. Louis Blues,' we had a tenor sax man called Vernel Pratt. You remember? And we didn't just say each man stand up and know when he'd come in, they'd wait for me to point to them, you know? And Chittison took his solo, Pete duConge. And when I got to Vernel Pratt, he's waiting with his tenor and I say, 'You take it!' [Armstrong goes silent as McClellan and Chittison laugh] Eight bars go by before he hit a note but when he came down, boy! That cat blew a lot of horn, didn't he, Chittison?"

As Pratt's solo winds down, Armstrong says, "I've gotta get some of this myself!" And then, as if by magic, the entire rhythm section  increases the tempo simultaneously. This is not easy to do but I'm assuming they had done it with him before live, drummer Ollie Tines and bassist German Arago having been with him for the past year. The Victor record didn't speed up so one must wonder when Armstrong started doing and why. I have a few theories. For one, the faster the tempo, the more Armstrong could relax and float over it. Also, there's the excitement factor, which is undeniable. But also, by shaving a few seconds off the clock, he might have been keeping some chops in reserve.

Regardless of the reason, Armstrong's ready now. He opens with one of his favorite quotes, Dvorak's "Going Home" as the band holds sustained chords behind him. Like in later years, the more Armstrong played a song live, the more quotes he'd find to squeeze into his solos. This is a particularly quote-heavy version as, right after "Going Home," Armstrong splits his second chorus by quoting "The Song is Ended" and "Swanee River" back to back.

But then it's time to get down to business. Like the Victor version, the target is that high concert D, but with that extra tempo, Armstrong can now take his time getting there. In chorus three, he rhythmically starts working over G on the first beat of every bar, the band riffing furiously behind him. He holds the G and then spends the next chorus, alternating the same G with a higher Bb blue note, the band now responding to his every move. And finally, in chorus five, there's that D....and there it is again....and again...and again....and again. Over and over, first gliss after gliss, then holding it, squeezing it, hitting it on the nose, repeating it, glissing down from it and ending by glissing back up to it.

My goodness! To think of the state of his chops in this period and to still be able to take six climactic choruses like that...like I said, super human. But someone--Canetti, Armstrong, who knows--thought they could top it and "St. Louis Blues" would be recorded again later that session. But for now, let's cool our heels a bit and I'll return in a day or so with another new entry on the next song recorded in Paris that day, "Tiger Rag!"


Peanuts Hucko said…
Nice piece. It is a shame this combo didn't put out more songs than they did. I can't get enough of that swinging sound of Louis' 1930's recordings. One of my favorites of the bunch has to be " Will You, Won't You Be My Baby" I look forward to your write up of this song.

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