80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: Song of the Vipers

And we've reached end of one helluva day, a total of seven sides waxed by Louis Armstrong in Paris on November 7, 1934. Let's run them all down one last time:
St. Louis Blues
Super Tiger Rag
Will You, Won't You Be My Baby
On the Sunny Side of the Street
Saint Louis Blues (second version)

Everything up to this point was a tried and true part of Louis's repertoire for the previous few years. But what to make of "Song of the Vipers"? I guess we can assume it was also part of Louis's live shows but whether it was or it wasn't, who cares? It's simply a magical recording.

For me, there's a personal attachment to this one. In the fall of 1995, I had my mind split wide open by the one-two punch of seeing Louis in The Glenn Miller Story followed immediately by wearing out a cassette of George Avakian-produced recordings from the 1950s, 16 Most Requested songs. From September through December, I made weekly trips to the library and to the music stores, borrowing and buying anything I could get my hands on. For whatever reason, it was almost solely 1950s and 1960s recordings. All great. I remember I had about 20 discs and my grandfather commented, "Gee, you must have everything!" Little did he know....

But on Christmas morning, my parents--who, bless them, always knew how to nourish my obsessions--had quite the present waiting for me: the 4-cassette Sony boxed set Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1923-1934. What a set. I soon memorized the Grammy-winning notes by Dan Morgenstern and Loren Schoenberg. And the music....oh, to experience it for the first time all over again! This was the first time I heard "Potato Head Blues" and "West End Blues" and all the classics. With each passing disc, I got more and more into it and by disc 4, I was in nirvana. The final track of the set was "Song of the Vipers" and I remember playing it over and over. There was something so beautiful, so mesmerizing about it. I don't think I put together what "vipers" were but I didn't need to.

Louis, however, wrote the number and by titling it that, made it an ode to his fellow marijuana smokers. Armstrong started smoking in the mid-1920s and had already recorded a previous "tribute" to it in 1928 with "Muggles"; later, he and Budd Johnson did a chorus of "Sweet Sue" in the "viper's language" on Victor. Louis was regularly high during performances and recording sessions in the early 1930s (Johnson specifically recalled the band lighting up before some of those Victor dates) and I feel that he was high as a kite during the Paris session. He's in great spirits, constantly shouting and humming when not playing, and rhythmically, he contributes some really wild stuff (check out that "Super Tiger Rag" again in case you forgot). One year later, he'd be putting his career back together and with Joe Glaser steering him, Armstrong realized it was better to get high AFTER a performance rather than before (a lesson he imparted later to Kenny Clarke).

But on November 7, 1934, I think Louis was floating through life and that sensation comes out especially on the almost ethereal "Song of the Vipers." Let's listen:

Wonderful.I'm not sure I've ever heard another trumpet player tackle this one; I'm not sure how many could get through it unscathed. It's a good "Louis in transition" example as the fleet-fingered soloist of the 1920s is now giving way to the more operatic performer of the 1930s and beyond. It's easy to be blinded by his faster playing of the 1920s (which, don't get me wrong, is dazzling, influential, melodic and all sorts of adjectives). But on "Song of the Vipers" and later numbers like "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Jubilee," Louis goes into the upper register and just stays there, pulling off superhuman feats of endurance just be hitting and holding those demanding high notes. (All this, AFTER his severe bouts with chops trouble.)

The performance ends with the band playing a hypnotic two-note stop-time rhythm, related to a "Charleston" pattern, coming in an eighth-note later. The vamps on an F chord and Louis swoops in, way up there, simply outlining the F-A-C triad, nailing the high C and repeating the F's and the chords change from F to F7 to Bb to Bbminor and back to F. And then everything breaks into a strutting two-beat feel, the horns playing a descending rhythmic riff while Pops plays the simply melody, alternating between playing with two pitches (F and A) and resolving it with a bluish phrase.

He goes through this twice and then the horns pick up the original two-note stop-time rhythm, this time used to modulate from F to Ab, Louis encouraging them with his background shouts. And now we're not only in a new key, but we're almost listening to another song. I'd love to see some form of sheet music for this; could this be a verse? Or just a second strain? It features the band playing ascending stop-time inversions of an Ab chord, each one answered by trombonist Lionel Guimaraes and eventually resolving into four bars of swinging, Louis charmingly moaning the melody nice and loud. They repeat it again, Louis humming almost menacingly at the start.

And then, what's this? An entirely new 16-bar strain? In a minor key? Guimaraes stays out front improvising while the band now plays a three-note stop-time pattern. Louis doesn't shut up (nor should he!), making up a fragment of a lyric ("Don't you know...."), repeating "Oh man" at different intervals and then bizarrely calling out, "Preach it, Brother Al Brown!" For 80 years, I'm sure some listeners believed that Guimaraes was actually a trombonist named Al Brown, but as I argued in my last blog on "Saint Louis Blues" from this session, the popular boxer/entertainer Panama Al Brown was living in Paris at this time and I'm sure he's someone Pops would have befriended. So it's quite possible that Brown was in the studio and Louis was immortalizing him on wax....at the expense of poor Lionel!

The minor strain ends and what follows is the pattern from the introduction of the record, but instead of stop-time, the band goes into their two-beat strut and instead of being in F, they're no in Ab. The horns plays the melody along with Louis, who breaks free with a brief improvisation, ending on a high Ab-Bb-Ab lick.

And once more, the band goes into the opening vamps and again uses it as a way to modulate back to the original key of F. (Are you still with me? Man, one would have to be high to put together an arrangement like this!) And for the last 70 seconds of the records, Pops just floats. My, my, my, it's so lovely. He usually thrived on a 4/4 backing but the two-beat feel just adds to the relaxed atmosphere. If you count 1-2-3-4 over and over, you'll realize that the tempo is actually on the up side. But the rhythm section doesn't push it, the horns repeat airy riffs and Louis is free to take his time. Never mind the demanding trumpet playing, I'm not sure there's any bands who could replicate the rhythmic feel of this performance.

The form, again, is completely unique with the final chorus consisting of an atypical 40-bar pattern, the chords following the pattern of the first section (but not quite) and a bridge that alternates Bb's and F chord. If I had time, I'd try to write out the entire form, but it's really something else (no wonder this one doesn't get called at jam sessions...).

But let's forget about chords and modulations and rhythmic patters and two-beat feels and just concentrate on Louis. His note choices are so simple that a transcription of this solo would probably look like fairly simple. There's not even any daring harmonic choices, some some blue minor-thirds in the bridge. But the endurance, my goodness. The main motif is going from a high concert C, glissing down to an Ab, then back up to the C and then dramatically repeating the tonic F as the chords descend from minor back to major. Then in the bridge, it's reversed as Louis starts on that F and now goes up to the Ab and then back down and then back up. So simple. So effective. I have tears in my eyes as I write this, especially knowing the pain he was probably experiencing.

He comes out of the bridge four repeated high C's and then holds a giant one. When he goes up to a higher D, there's a momentary sense of strain but overall, he is in control. As the 40-bar chorus ends, Louis finds a new motif, urgently repeating an F-to-A pattern but ending on that tonic F again. Symmetry closes the show as the horns now go into the familiar vamp and Louis closes how he starts, outlining that F-triad, but ending on a high C just for good measure.

What a record. What a session. I've always loved this session but boy, sometimes it takes writing a blog to really get inside everything that happens on a record date and I sure know I got a lot out of examining each of these performances so deeply. If you'd like to own these sides for yourself, they're still available on an old Jazz In Paris compilation. They're definitely worth rediscovering. Friends such as Michael Steinman have written in to tell me they're happy to be listening to this music again.

And other friends have turned in much deeper analysis than I could ever dream of. The saxophonist/composer/historian Allen Lowe wrote on Facebook the other day that he was "listening to L. Armstrong this morning - the 1934 Paris recordings....and it strikes me that our usual analysis of Louis is lacking something. Or maybe not; but to me he fits, particularly in these middle years, right into the modernist idea of the disassembling of so-called reality. 'So-called' because, as Joyce points out, what he and others were really doing was much more deeply into reaality, and presenting a view of personal consciousness that had much more verity than the work of, say, James Farrell or other American realists (getting my chronology wrong here, but the point still holds). And here comes Louis Armstrong with the most bizarre yet logical re-construction of pop-song reality, deliriously absurd yet much truer to life than about 25 other singers/crooners. And even more of a miracle, he was popular, accessible, easy to listen to. An amazing convergence of aesthetic and social factors; and I won't even begin to try to break the surface of how he's digging into the minstrel myth in way so completely parallel to Bert Williams." There is a LOT of information in that paragraph and obviously I agree completely. I'd love to hear any other opinions and feelings about the Paris recordings that might have arisen from rediscovering them along with me these past few weeks.

The November 7, 1934 session is an important one as it's the lone studio date we have between April
 1933 and October 1935 and the best glimpse imaginable at what he was doing during his European sabbatical. Turns out, he was just doing what he always did: making beautiful, challenging, fun, accessible, daring, joyous music.


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