55 Years of "Louie and the Dukes of Dixieland"
55 years ago today, Louis Armstrong recorded one of his greatest albums, but depending on your Pops fandom, you might not know it too well.
Why? I have my theories. First, there's his backing band, the Dukes of Dixieland, still a something of a polarizing group in the traditional jazz world. They were from New Orleans and they played the good old good ones but they were also white and insanely popular and that's never a good recipe for endearment. And though they weren't a "funny hats" band, look at those striped jackets on the cover of their album with Louis (or "Louie," as he's interestingly billed). When you hear folks say, "I hate the word Dixieland," I sometimes think they're subliminally saying, "I hate the Dukes of Dixieland, striped jackets and jolly white folks playing New Orleans music."
There are actual Armstrong nuts I know who have proudly told me that they've never really listened to Louis's albums with the Dukes. One of Louis's friends told me they're "horrible." I once did a public presentation and a top jazz trumpeter player asked me to play one of the selections from this album as a way of illustrating how Louis paid no attention to some of the "terrible" bands he played with, and always played at 110% no matter the situation.
Just don't tell that to Louis, who legitimately loved playing with the group. Two years before he died, Louis wrote, "The Dukes of Dixieland whom I think was the youngest Group to leave New Orleans was the first White Band whom me and my band played on the same stage with, which was aa great thrill to me. It was the N.O. Auditorium. We played for a big concert there. I did not see the Dukes again until they came up North. I set in with them when they played at a night club in Chicago--in New York I made quite a few fine albums with them. They also were sensational from the first day that they left New Orleans." "Fine" and "sensational" are quite different than "terrible" and "horrible," no?
As for the "D" word, Louis wasn't bothered by it, though he didn't like it and other words used to pigeonhole types of jazz into styles. When he had to describe his Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy album to Leonard Feather, Armstrong said, "I wouldn't call them Dixieland--to me that's only just a little better than bop. Jazz music--that's the way we express ourselves."
However, he sure didn't recoil from the word like some "traditional jazz" fans (more categories!). Here's Louis in a letter to young trumpeter Chris Clifton on February 6, 1954 (you can read the whole thing here), after Clifton wrote him and told him he was a young trumpeter playing "Dixieland":
"‘Man, – you haven’t the least idea – how thrilled, I am, to be able to sit down and write to a ‘Cat, who feels the same way that ‘I do about the greatest music on this man’s earth,—DIXIELAND… ‘Lawd-today…’Gate—you’re a man after my own heart… I’ve always said—Dixieland is Universal… From one end of the earth to the other–the music’s the same, so help me….."
"Which again, makes my word come true, especially when I said – music is, er, wa, – Universal….. You yourself – could have done the same…Because, from the way that I dugged your very fine letter, – you take your horn serious the same as ‘I do…. God Bless Ya Son [...] And every country that we travel into, our music was the same… So you see in case you’d decide to make a tour to anywhere in the world, have no fear because our music (I’d say) is more of a Secret Order [...] real honest to goodness dixieland music will live for ever – without a doubt…"
So perhaps it's the "Dixieland" word or it's the Dukes or it's the stereotype of white people in striped shirts but when you think of Louis's great team-ups of the period, you think of Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, even Dave Brubeck, but you might not think of the Dukes of Dixieland.
Then there's the label, Audio Fidelity, which has changed ownership so many times, the original session tapes are now missing entirely (Sid Frey's edited master tapes are in an apartment in Brooklyn but that's another story). Thus, when Universal can re-issue Ella and Louis a thousand times and all of Louis's 1950s and 1960s albums are pretty easy to find in "official" Sony and Universal releases, Louie and the Dukes of Dixieland has never received a proper reissue. It continues to appear in bootleg form on various European labels, often with edits. When it was issued with some fanfare a few years ago on a private label, more than half the songs were pitched entirely in the wrong keys. (I remember purchasing the two volumes because the online samples seemed like alternate takes because they sounded so different...oops.)
Armstrong met Jack Bradley in December 1959 and invited the budding photographer to the sessions with the Dukes. Bradley took dozens of photographs of both the May 24 and May 25 sessions. We have the photos, the contact sheets and the negatives at the Louis Armstrong House Museum but how many people (besides me) have seen them?
Original Jack Bradley contact sheet from the May 24 session.
Just about all the photos that follow are Jack's, scanned directly from the original negatives by my trusty assistant, Brynn White. Don't worry, hot shot, they're all watermarked, so no funny business (if anyone out there DOES want to use one in a project, shoot me an e-mail as that's my job). I'll be peppering Jack's photos throughout when they seem appropriate. Also, Jack wrote handwritten notes on the sessions and though most of the notes are about the songs and routines, there are some of his insights that I'd like to share, too.
On top of it all, the legendary Nat Hentoff was present at the sessions and wrote not only the original liner notes, but a Stereo Review piece that was included in Hentoff's volume The Jazz Life. But that book has been out-of-print since 1975 and I don't know how many folks out there are aware of it. Here's another Bradley photo where Hentoff can be spotted in the background, paying close attention to the conversations at hand:
So on this, the 55th anniversary of the original sessions, I want to combine all of this to offer a new way of appreciating this music. I have typed up Hentoff's entire session recap; I have gathered watermarked copies of Jack Bradley's photos of the sessions; and I've dug up a handful of original blogs I've written on some of the album's individual performances so I can include some of my own opinions, and of course, the audio. Sound good?
First, a little backstory. The Dukes's history will be told in Hentoff's piece below but how did they come together with Louis? Being from New Orleans, Louis not only knew of them, but he owned some of their earliest recordings, which he included on his private reel-to-reel tapes. During a visit in 1955, Louis promised to play with them some day but because of laws prohibiting integrated bands from performing in public in New Orleans, he could never play with them during his visits home. They apparently did jam together in Chicago in 1957 and they appeared together on some of those Timex All Star Jazz Shows on television during the same period (Louis even gave them advice for a Timex show on their arrangement of "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" according to their manager, Joe Delney). But they didn't get to record together until the summer of 1959 when Sid Frey put them together on his Audio Fidelity label.
At the time, Louis's manager, Joe Glaser was experimenting with having Louis become a recording free agent. For years, he had an exclusive Decca contract but Glaser allowed Columbia to make some masterpieces between 1954-1956 and Norman Granz to record Louis for Verve in 1956-1957. By 1958, Louis was back with Decca but it would be the last go around. After that year, Glaser offered Louis to the highest bidder and in 1959, that was Frey, who already has astounding success in recording the Dukes and with his early high-quality stereophonic records.
After Louis's June 1959 heart attack, he came back home, rested for a couple of weeks and went back on the road. The August 1959 sessions with the Dukes were his first ones since the heart episode and it's a good one but Frey put no preparation into it and just allowed the musicians to play whatever they wanted. That might sound good in theory but Decca had an iron-clad "five-year clause" that didn't allow any other labels to record any song Louis had recorded for Decca within the previous five years. Frey didn't know this and recorded "Cornet Chop Suey," "Dippermouth Blues," "Bye and Bye," "Muskrat Ramble," " Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen," "Back O'Town Blues," "Someday You'll Be Sorry," "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It"....and well, let's just say, almost everything recorded that day was already recorded by Decca. The album was put on the shelves and eventually released in 1970 as The Definitive Album.
Discouraged, Frey went back to the drawing board and recorded Louis with his regular All Stars in October 1959 on the album Satchmo Plays King Oliver, which has some wonderful moments, but isn't one for the time capsule. Frey still wanted Louis and the Dukes and finally got his wish on May 19 and 20, 1960. (Hentoff writes that all of Frey's attempts cost him $40,000--$320,000 in 2015 money.) Recording in New York made the Webster Hall sessions something of a scene: Jack Bradley, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Max Kaminsky, Ernie Anderson, Marty Grosz and others stopped by to see Louis in action.
At this point, I'm going to turn it over to Nat Hentoff.....but not fully. Hentoff's words will be in italics and whenever I can break in with my own opinions, Jack Bradley's opinions, audio and more, I'll do so in the regular font. Actually, Jack's notes are a good place to start as they mention the May 24 session (which is the only one Hentoff deals with), took place on a Tuesday from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m. "Before Pops arrived, Dukes rehearsed 'Avalon,'" according to Jack. "When Louis walked in the atmosphere was ignited by his natural, magnetic personality."
On that note, here's Nat:
Louis Armstrong was forty-five minutes late for the first session of an album he was to make with the Dukes of Dixieland for Audio Fidelity. Sid Frey, the label's voluble, intense owner, was not disturbed at Louis' tardiness. 'It takes him half a day to get up,' Frey explained to a bystander while waving at Armstrong. 'Then it takes him a couple of hours for the lip salve and checking the horn. He lives his life for that horn."
Louis applying lip salve and getting the chops together after arriving. Notice Gene Krupa already in spectator position, sitting backwards in a chair in the background.
When he arrived, Louis, who had gained some weight in recent months, was in buoyant spirits. He greeted the Dukes, a white Dixieland combo, warmly, and they treated him with marked deference. Louis was in sport shirt and slacks, as were the other players and Mr. Frey. The latter prowled the studio, checking microphones.
Frey moved in on Louis, who was gently unpacking his horn. "Louis, have you decided whether you'll do that Bert Williams tune, 'Nobody'?" Louis looked up, grinned, and shook his head negatively. "Well, Mr. Glaser thinks the NAACP wouldn't like that."
Mr. Glaser is the shrewd, apopleptic Joe Glaser, Louis' personal manager and head of the Associated Booking Corporation, the most powerful agency in the jazz field. Glaser has the final veto over Armstrong's personnel, repertory, and nearly everything else concerning the band.
Frey shook his head disgruntledly and walked away. "I don't believe it," he muttered. "I think Glaser is saving that song for an all-Bert Williams album for another label."
The huge Webster Hall studio meanwhile was clangingly alive in a jangle of trombone blasts, shouts from Frey in the control room to "turn that mike a little," a spiraling trumpet, and general disjointed noise. Webster Hall, on New York's lower East Side, occasionally doubles as a site for local neighborhood functions but is most often in use for RCA-Victor's pop recordings. When time is available, a number of independent entrepreneurs such as Frey use the hall and generally also employ RCA staff engineers.
By three o'clock, an hour and a half after the session had been scheduled to start, Frey was moderately satisfied with the way he had set up his forces. The Dukes and Louis were arranged as a large triangle. To the right of the control room, young trumpeter Frank Assunto and tuba player Rich Mateson were stationed. To the left of the booth were Frank's brother, Fred, on trombone, and clarinetist Jerry Fuller who had joined the Dukes after five years with Jack Teagarden. In the center of the triangle's base was Louis Armstrong.
At the apex of the triangle sat drummer Mo Mahoney. Between Mahoney and the trumpet-tuba corner was pianist Stan Mendelson. Between Mahoney and the trombone-clrinet position was Jac Assunto, father of Frank and Fred. Jac doubles on banjo and trombone.
A bird's eye view of the studio set up. Frey, Hentoff and Ray Hall can be spotted in the control room.
Armstrong's wife, Lucille, a woman of great charm and total devotion to her husband, brought Louis a cup of coffee. In the control room, RCA staff engineer Ray Hall, a young man for whom New York jazz musicians have particular respect, was saying softly to Frey, "We should spend some time with the clarinet. It's the only instrument that's peaking."
Frey agreed. The stocky, bustling Frey is the man who stampeded the record business into stereo by first released a 'Stereodisc' to the industry in November, 1957, and then making stereo recordings available to the public the following February. A compulsive lecturer, Frey was vehemently indoctrinating a visitor as Armstrong continued warming up. "We record with very little reverberation," Frey declared. "There's already enough in the room. Maybe a little bit too much. And we get all the presence, intimacy and warmth of sound we can so that the listener can identify with what's going on. Louis, for example, leaves me emotionally exhausted; but until we cut him, he hadn't been recorded right so that record buyers could get his full impact."
Audio Fidelity had already released Satchmo Plays King Oliver and had recorded but not released a June, 1959, meeting between Armstrong and the Dukes of Dixieland. The latter was being held up because Louis used some tunes in it that he had recorded for Decca a few years ago and was not supposed to record again for five years. For both last year's session and the new album with the Dukes, Frey had paid Armstrong $40,000.
Louis meanwhile was producing vibrantly full, found tones in his warmup. Now sixty, Armstrong continues to play with the most richly plangent tone in jazz; and at his best, his solos are still models of economy and passionate order.
"Pops," Frey spoke into the control room microphone in his customary roar, "could you stand more in front of the mike?"
Louis did, and decided to warm up the band as well as himself in "Indiana," a tune he usually plays at the beginning of a night club or concert date.
Added to the high command in the control room was Joe Delaney, manager of the Dukes of Dixieland. A Louisiana lawyer with extensive experience in the record business, Delaney is tall, relaxed, and alert. Although his crew-cut hair is greying, Delaney has a perennial innocence of mien.
As 'Indiana' ended, the restless Frey said to no one in particular, "This is a typical Audio Fidelity session. They're doing a number we're not going to record."
"Pops," Frey shouted, "will you want to face in any particular direction?"
Louis turned toward the control room. "No, you place it where you want, dolling," and broke into laughter.
"Pops, I want you to be comfortable," Frey persisted.
"No," Louis said seriously, "you fix it. I don't know anything about microphones. You put it where you want, and I'll play there."
Louis and the Dukes began to discuss the routining of "Avalon," the first number to be actually recorded for the album.
Louis looked at the control room and grinned, "Anyone in there know the lyrics to 'Avalon'?"
No one did. Louis began to sing what he remembered:
"I found my love in Avalon
Beside the bay . . . "
He stopped, "Well, there's no sense telling them all we did there," and chuckled.
"Want to let them run it down once?" asked Ray Hall, "Before we make it?"
"No," said Delaney, "let's try our luck."
"We're rolling," Frey's voice shot out into the hall. "Take one!"
The take broke down when Louis slipped: "I left . . . I mean I found my girl . . ."
"Louis," said Frey, "sing into the same mike you play into. And take it easy on the drums behind the vocal."
"All right," Frey turned to Hall. "Rewind the tape."
"We can't erase today," said Hall.
"That's nice," Frey grimaced. "I'd like to have the tape concession here."
The next try worked out well. Louis improvised on the lyrics:
"I found my girl in Avalon,
Beside the bay.
Oh, she was so nice in Avalon,
Hmmmmmmmmm, I'll say.
But now we up in Harlem,
And oh boy, hey, hey
She's not down in Avalon, folks,
She's right here in the studio--
Frey decided to ask for another take, and went out into the hall to adjust Armstrong's microphone. "You see what I mean by the 'Frey Curtain of Sound'?"Frey rhetorically asked a visitor in the control room as he came back in. 'It's not at all ping-pong. I like broad panorama of sound so that each one of the elements is placed--and heard--according to where he'd actually be standing in a performance."
The next "Avalon" was superb with a thrilling high-note ending by Louis. The musicians relaxed, and listened to the playback.
"Louis sure is making the Dukes sound good," said a visitor. "Almost like jazzmen."
"There's more to them than you think," said manager Delaney defensively.
"Well," said the visitor, "you know what jazzmen and the critics think of them. Circus-playing, mechanical routines, a thumping rhythm section, and very predictable solos."
"I don't think you've heard them enough," Delaney countered. "For one thing, the boys spend a lot of time digging modern jazz. And they've never gone in for hokum like funny hats. They walked off a FIrestone TV show on ABC because they wouldn't wear straw hats and they absolutely refused to put on corny uniforms on another show."
Delaney had become manager of the Dukes a few years ago when he was at Tulane getting his law degree. Previously he had been an executive at Decca, Coral, and London. The Dukes had started some eleven years ago as a neighborhood band in New Orleans, formed by Frank and Fred Assunto. First called the Basin Street Four (or Five or Six, depending on their manpower), they later toured with a Horace Heidt troupe as the Junior Dixieland Band and finally named themselves the Dukes of Dixieland. The band first realized its drawing power during a forty-four month run at the Famous Door in New Orleans.
Joe Delaney, right, in discussion with Louis and the Assunto brothers. Photo by Jack Bradley.
When Delaney became head of the now defunct Victor subsidiary, Label "X," he recorded the Dukes for that label. During one of their Las Vegas engagements, however, Sid Frey heard them, thought they could become big record sellers, and finally convinced Delaney of his point. Since October, 1956, the Dukes had made eleven albums for Frey with a total sale of over 1,300,000.
Louis Armstrong walked into the room. "You really like playing with them?" asked a newcomer who was an old friend of Louis'.
"Sure," said Louis. "They're home boys. Whenever we're playing in the same town, I go and sit in. We have a ball."
"Well, Louis likes Lombardo too," said another hanger-on.
"What you forget," Delaney bristled, "is that the Dukes draw a wide range of ages. They appeal to more than the usual jazz audience. Their fans include many adults and many people well above the average in income. Before the Blue Note in Chicago folded, for example, we would draw less people than Count Basie but they'd spend more."
"This is good-time music" Frey moved into the discussion. "It's not complicated and it's happy. If an appliance dealer is hip, and many of them are, he'll drop a record by the Dukes on a turntable when he's selling equipment. The adults who buy tables and amplifiers like their kinds of music and will take a record home for the kids too."
"The break was over. Frey asked for Avalon once more. Armstrong, sitting down and warming up, asked Frankie Assunto, "What key, baby, is that again?"
"F," said Assunto.
Armstrong, sitting down and warming up at the May 24 session. Photo by Jack Bradley.
"What's here Thursday?" Frey was asking Ray Hall. "We may need more sessions than I'd counted on."
"A beefsteak party at four o'clock," said Hall, deadpan.
"Hmph," Frey commented.
By the time he reached the vocal in the new version, Louis had changed the words again:
"Yes, I found my love in Avalon,
Beside the sea
Oh, she was awful nice in Avalon,
She was cute as can be.
But now we in Harlem, Lord,
And boy, you know,
She knocks me out in Avalon,
And she's here with me today."
Louis singing during the May 25 session. Photo by Jack Bradley.
Louis followed the vocal with a climbing, explosive solo. Frankie Assunto, sitting on a stool with trumpet in his lap, gazed trance-like at Louis, and smiled seraphically. Louis tore the trumpet from his lips at the end of the solo, laughed in satisfaction, and walked away from the mike.
The tune ended, but Frey held up his arm dramatically for silence. At the end of ten seconds, he put it down.
"We must get those ten seconds of cymbal ring," he explained. "It's a natural sound."
Ricky here: At this point, I think we should take a second and also listen to "Avalon," as it is definitely one of the high-water marks of Louis's later years. In four minutes and 53 seconds, Louis demonstrated every single aspect of his greatness: his ability to make a melody swing, his sense of humor, his dynamic vocalizing, his swinging improvisations, his unimpeachable sense of time and rhythm, his effortless high notes and operatic tendencies. As everyone knows by now, I'm the world's biggest defender of Louis's later years and to me, this is one of the greatest moments of that period.
So enough blabbing from me. Just buckle your seatbelt and take a trip to "Avalon":
An exciting break by drummer Owen "Mo" Mahoney sets up a rollicking first chorus. The presence of tuba (actually helicon) makes it immediately apparent that these aren't the swinging, straightahead All Stars. Nevertheless, the Dukes had enthusiasm and they definitely seemed to inspire Pops (actually, it was probably the other way around!). Louis showed a great deal of respect to the Dukes's lead trumpeter Frank Assunto, giving him plenty of solos and occasionally a vocal. On the first chorus of "Avalon," Armstrong lets Assunto play lead. What's pretty neat about it is it allows Louis to go back to his King Oliver days and play second trumpet, devising a countermelody to Assunto's lead and generally staying out of the way. For the second chorus, the two trade roles, with Louis playing a stately lead with slight embellishments and Assunto harmonizing behind him. Louis opens up a bit towards the end of the bridge but hands the ball over to Assunto for the last four bars as he had to make his way up to the microphone for the vocal.
And what a vocal! As Hentoff makes clear, Louis didn't have the lyrics as Frey rarely supplied sheet music for the public domain numbers he liked to record. On "Avalon," Louis gets through the first line with no problem but then he just starts making 'em up with hilarious results ("She was killing me!"). My favorite part is when he sings "But now we up in Harlem.....lon," that extra "lon" thrown in for good measure. The whole thing leads to a happy shout-out to Lucille, who, indeed was there that day. Here she is with Louis and Jack's then-girlfriend, Jeann "Roni" Failows:
Thanks to the magic of tape splicing, Louis's trumpet solo immediately follows the last word of his vocal. And my goodness, what a solo it is. Louis, as was his custom, starts out by making sure we're familiar with the melody. The embellishments are small, but telling, such as his insertion of his favorite quote from Vasa Prihoda's "Drdla Souvenir." He keeps that melody front and center but manages to play his own obbligato during every one of the tune's spaces. But after that first chorus...stand back! Louis begins his second outing with some dazzling fingerwork. Perhaps he was looking at studio guest Dizzy Gillespie standing there, but out of nowhere, Louis unleases a dizzying, dancing, descending motif with some rapid clusters of notes. He soon settles down into his own rhythm and begins simply floating through the bar lines. His bridge is a lesson in deceptive simplicity as he chooses only a few notes but they're pretty demanding choices. He then ends with a bang, taking the melody up an octave, topping out at a huge high E. Man, there's a lot of information in those two choruses. Feel free to listen to it a couple of hundred more times.
After a helicon solo by Matteson, Armstrong lets Assunto play the lead again. The other horns lay out so it actually becomes a nice little conversation between the two.
Louis and Frank Assunto during the May 25 session. Photo by Jack Bradley.
Assunto puts together an exciting ending, holding an F for good measure. It's pretty impressive, until Hurricane Pops enters and blows everyone else out the door. Louis enters with an alternating Ab-A phrase higher than Assunto's F and builds from there. It literally sounds like he's playing a different instrument as he performs his old trick of playing the melody an octave higher than expected and as usual, it works like a charm. In fact, Louis completely sticks to the melody, building higher and higher, possibly with Caruso in mind (or at least B.A. Rolfe). He nails those high E's in the bridge and just keeps pushing up in the stratosphere.
After a drum break, Pops takes a second to get his chops together and whips himself up to a ridiculous closing high concert F (G on the trumpet). If you were hear for my high note discussion a few years ago, trumpeter Dave Whitney wrote, "Louis seemed to use high G as his cut-off. As you have stated, he probably went higher in practice. The thing about his high note work was how much control and sound he had up there-never straining or squeaking and such a huge sound. His shakes on the end of Avalon with the Dukes and Black and Blue from E. Berlin '65 are so huge and powerful. They just electrify the listener." Amen, brother Dave. If you're not electrified after the end of that "Avalon," check your circuit breaker...
As great as that "Avalon" is, I should mention that it's a composite take, which was nothing new to Louis's 1950s work, especially if you're familiar with Louis's seminal George Avakian-produced albums for Columbia in the 1950s, which sometimes edited together three or four different takes to make a master. That stuff doesn't bother me in the least bit; Pops played it all, right? Anyway, the late Gosta Hagglof told me that when he visited America in the 1960s, he was fortunate enough to hear the session tapes for Louis's sessions with the Dukes and they were fascinating, with rehearsals, studio chatter and more complete takes. Those tapes ended up in the hands of Hank O'Neal, the wonderful record producer and photographer. O'Neal went through the tapes and edited together different alternate masters, which he released on a series of Chiaroscuro LPs in the 1970s. O'Neal's takes were eventually released on the Essential Jazz Classic's boxed set "The Complete Louis Armstrong With The Dukes of Dixieland."
Unfortunately, O'Neal told me last year that those complete session tapes are most likely gone because ownership of Audio Fidelity has changed hands (sometimes including slightly shady hands) so many times over the years (Fuel 2000 is the current owner and though they did a nice job on Satchmo Plays King Oliver many years ago, they haven't touched the Dukes material). For now, we still have O'Neal's alternates, which are definitely worth listening to. Here 'tis:
As you may have noticed, O'Neal's "Avalon" is 6:28. Where'd the extra time come from? Well, remember the "magic of editing" that produced the seamless transition from Louis's vocal to his trumpet solo? In the studio, Louis's vocal was followed by clarinet and trombone solos, which are restored to this take. I think Fuller and Fred Assunto sound great and if you listen carefully, you can hear Louis sounding his approval, especially as the rhythm section locks in prodded by Papa Jac's banjo. The opening choruses AND the vocal are identical to the master, but after the new clarinet and trombone outings, we get a new solo by Pops and it's another "gassuh," though not quite as swashbuckling, for lack of a better word, as the issued take. It follows the same pattern with a melody-centric first chorus and a more daring second outing, full of more great high note work and completely new ideas....dig that ending! Louis sounds pleased, offering a shout of approval before the helicon solo. The final chorus is also new and it features Louis the tower of strength once again playing the melody an octave up. To do that once must have been hard enough...but twice? That's the iron man for you! However, the eight-bar tag after the drum break is identical to the one on the master.
So if you're scoring at home--and I know this is getting confusing--THAT was a complete take from start to finish. For the original master, Sid Frey used the opening two choruses, the vocal and the eight-bar tag but inserted Louis's solo, the helicon solo and the rideout from another take. Who cares how you break it down...it's all pretty amazing, right?
Enough of me, let's return to Nat Hentoff:
During the playback, Louis was talking with grey-haired "Papa" Jac Assunto. Assunto had brought up the subject of famous New Orleans restaurants. Louis was guarded. He is bitter about discrimination in his home town, and no longer enjoys playing there.
"They still have Antoine's and all them places? Louis finally warmed a little to the discussion.
"Yes," Assunto assured him.
Louis listening to a playback--and drinking a coffee--in the control room.
The musicians had been confident that the previous take was the final one, but Frey strode out into the hall. "I heard an engineer," he announced, "who said he could do better on another shot."
"Were you the engineer?" a suspicious onlooker whispered to Frey.
"No, no," said Frey, "Ray really wants to do another. He says he knows what he wants to do now."
The Dukes were clustered around Louis.
"That's a very religious family," Frey pointed to the Assunto brothers, "but with them, Louis ranks second to nobody, not even Jesus Christ."
After another take of "Avalon," Frey resumed lecturing. "The point is that if you can get the cleanest possible sound with the least possible distortion, you can put more volume on the tape, and you get a better signal-to-noise ratio."
Ray Hall raised his eyebrows, but said nothing.
"Dixie" was proposed as the next tune. Louis began to read the lyrics, but stopped, chuckling. "No, I can't sing that. The colored cats would put me down."
"You know," said Ray Hall, a Negro. "I always thought he was an Uncle Tom. But he's not. And such a cooperative guy."
Several friends of Louis had come into the hall--greying Gene Krupa and trumpeter Max Kaminsky among them. Armstrong and Krupa embraced, and then Louis caught sight of a Long Island neighbor, Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy, though a key representative of the modern jazz that Louis once contemptuously called "Chinese music," is an admirer of Armstrong; and the two have become friends.
Louis greets Krupa and Gillespie.
"I was in his house just yesterday," Dizzy was saying to a jazz writer. Dizzy listened for a few minutes to the playback of "Avalon." "He sure can play, can't he?"
"Dixie" was shelved, and "Wolverine Blues" took its place. Wordlessly, Louis sang the way he wanted the ending to go. "You see what I mean," he said to Frankie Assunto, "you got to watch it close."
"I think we're ready for a take," Frey boomed from the control room; but photographers from the Daily News, oblivious of Frey, were shooting Louis, Krupa and Gillespie for promotion pictures in connection with a jazz concert the paper was sponsoring.
"I'll be glad when those photographers get out of here," Frey said to Delaney.
Ricky here again. Here's the Daily News photo of Armstrong, Krupa and Gillespie:
Not to be outdone, Jack Bradley snapped this photo, probably a second before or after the above one:
Back to Hentoff:
Max Kaminsky, whose jazz renown has faded in recent years, stood against the wall, watching the picture-taking.
"Hey," a sensitive friend of Louis shouted to the photographers. "There's Maxie. Get him in there, too." Kaminsky was duly included in the next set of pictures.
Back to Ricky: the Daily News didn't care about Kaminsky but that "sensitive friend" must have been Jack Bradley, who snapped this shot of the Big Four:
"Gentlemen," said Frey icily, "May we proceed--please?"
The picture-taking stopped.
Ricky: no it didn't! Maybe Hentoff stepped out but according to Jack Bradley, "The Dukes, Louis and Gene Krupa posed for some photographs for the forthcoming 'Daily News Jazz Concert' at Madison Square Garden. They were told to play and took off on 'Chinatown, My Chinatown' and wailed for about ten minutes--just jammin'." "Chinatown!" Ten minutes! If only Frey had recorded this! At least there is another Daily News photo of this moment:
Back to Hentoff:
"I want all the spectators," Frey's voice cannonaded from the control room, "to be as quiet as possible. The mikes are wide open."
"It's getting to look like a Sinatra recording session," Joe Delaney pointed to the crowd outside the booth.
"Yes," said Frey, "and I don't like it."
After the first take, Frey expressed dissatisfaction with the opening. "The beginning is always the most important part of a record. Let's do it again."
By 4:15 a take on "Wolverine Blues" had been tentatively approved. Armstrong had played excellently, but he wasn't satisfied. He and the Dukes began discussing changes.
"This is the way we play it," Frankie was saying.
"Yeah," answered Louis, "I'll listen and find a little part for myself.
The Dukes, standing around the seated Louis, started to play. Louis fingered his horn, and finally joined in.
Frank Assunto and seated Louis, possibly working over "Wolverine Blues." Photo by Jack Bradley.
"Now," Louis said to Frankie, "when you finish that chorus, I'll take over and play the obbligation to your solo."
The Dukes laughed at Louis' play on the word.
"I," Frey announced to Delaney in the control room, "would rather have excitement and mistakes than no excitement and no mistakes. That's why I try to get complete takes whenever I can, and I try not to have them do too many. By the fifth or sixth time around, the arrangement may get more polished, but the playing begins to lose excitement."
"Can the drummer tighten the snares," Ray Hall asked Frey, "so they won't echo so much?"
Frey instructed the drummer.
After the next take, Frey asked if the musicians wanted to try another right away.
"Pops," Frey added, "you've got to stay on mike more."
"I'm trying," said Louis.
"Sid," Delaney spoke softly, "have Ray lower the volume when you're talking from the control room. You come on like Ethel Merman."
"Yes," said Hall, "and step back a little."
"O.K.," said Frey, looking somewhat surprised and chastened, "I'll talk softly."
"Now," Frey announced with self-conscious gentleness, "at the end of this next take, everyone please be quiet. We're trying to catch the cymbal to the very last ring."
During the take Louis stood, arms wide apart, stomach out, enjoying the music. He then unleashed a brilliant, stop-time solo (a solo in which the rhythm section does not play continuously).
The take was approved, an Louis and the Dukes began to work out an instrumental version of "Dixie."
Not so fast, Nat! Let's stick with "Wolverine" and listen to the master take:
Immediately upon hearing Jelly Roll Morton’s original introduction at the beginning of the record, we know we’re not about to hear a really swinging take like Louis did with his big band in 1940. Armstrong plays the line in unison with Frank Assunto over a very stiff two-beat Helicon backing by Rich Matteson. After listening to the way the All Stars swung, it’s night and day and still, every time I hear the introduction, I grimace a little bit (remember what Frey said about introductions!). Fortunately, the rest of the record is a gem. Assunto plays the lead melody while Armstrong comes up with a nifty second trumpet part—again, shades of the King Oliver days! After one go-around, Armstrong plays the main strain’s melody, not really improvising a whole lot, though the rather subdued break comes off nicely. After the break, he tinkers with the phrasing a bit before Assunto comes back in to repeat the introductory line, this time without Armstrong’s help, though Armstrong gets the last word in, blowing a fat high concert F to set up Jerry Fuller’s clarinet solo.
Fuller plays well but it’s hard to pay attention because Armstrong decides to back him with some simple riffs and phrases, opening with a “Shiek of Araby” motif. Armstrong’s backing is just as loud as Fuller’s clarinet (it’s almost a duet) and he gets more ornate as he goes on, though he’s thrown a curve in the last eight bars. Expecting to play the same eight-bar opening phrase Assunto played, Armstrong steamrolls over Fuller with the first two notes of the melody before awkwardly backing away to let Fuller finish his say.
Unfortunately, if you own the current Blue Moon or Essential Jazz Classics reissues of this material, you've probably gotten used to the disturbing skip that results in only 17-and-a-half bars of Armstrong’s original 32-bar solo being included; just another reason this material is begging for a proper reissue. Fortunately, after I complained about this years ago, dedicated reader Hakan Forsberg came to my rescue and e-mailed me an MP3 he dubbed right off the original record with the complete solo and that's what I've shared above. It's pretty fantastic; Pops's chops were in great shape that day and he plays a quick gliss up to a high C with ease. In the final eight-bars, the Dukes give him a stop-time backing and Armstrong eats it up, floating over the beat with some very relaxed phrasing. Assunto and the rest of the band then return to the written eight-bar melody for the third time on the record. At this point, the song is over three minutes old and though it’s a very good performance, so far there’s been nothing really to write home about (but obviously enough to write a blog about!).
Fortunately, the highlight is just around the corner as Armstrong trades twos with Assunto’s trumpet, throwing down the challenge by quoting “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with his first phrase. Undeterred, Assunto picks it up and responds with the obvious “Baby” line from that tune’s melody. Armstrong then gets funky, repeating an Ab, the dominant 7th and sounding pretty modern in doing so (remember, Dizzy was watching!). Jack Bradley found this part memorable, writing immediately after, "Then Frank and Louis traded fours--on the second take, Pops got so broke up he laughed--through his horn (I hope they use this one)."
Assunto answers Armstrong's "laughing" with some simple playing, clearly content to be trading with his idol. However, Pops ends the friendly conversing and commences shouting, peeling off a string of high Bb’s that must have made Assunto need a change of clothing. Assunto bravely enters his upper register but doesn’t blow with the same force (it still sounds like a different instrument), though he adds a very nice two-bar break. As nice as it is, Pops swallows him whole again with some more upper register blasts. Assunto answers back with more force but again Pops washes him away with a giant gliss to a high Db, the highest note he plays on the recording. They effectively continue trading before joining forces for one more rendering of Morton’s eight-bar phrase. A drum break leads to a powerful two-trumpet harmonized ending, Assunto sticking to a low D with Armstrong going way up to a high Bb, just as they worked out.
Let it be known that Frank Assunto was a marvelous musicians played wonderfully on all the session with Louis. When I write about Louis swallowing him whole and stuff, don't take it as an insult. Louis was just superhuman and I think Assunto would have been the first to admit that. The trading between Armstrong and Assunto is by far the highlight of this version of “Wolverine Blues” but fortunately, another take survives. If Jack Bradley's note is any indication, the master was take two so this is most likely the first run-through:
The alternate take very much follows the routine of the issued one except everything that comes out of Pops’s horn is different. He even comes up with new phrases to back Fuller’s clarinet solo (and he doesn’t wrongly come in the last eight bars of that solo as he did on the master, meaning this could actually be a later attempt). Armstrong's solo is a relaxed, almost lyrical effort, though he still hits a magical high C to make sure the listener’s paying attention.
Again, the highlight is the chorus of trading and this time around, it’s much more conversational. Armstrong begins again with the first three notes of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” but discards it in favor of pure improvising, with Assunto picking up the ball beautifully, continuing Armstrong’s line as if the two were sharing a single brain. The repeated low Abs are gone, replaced by what could be dubbed, “Fun with a D,” as Armstrong spends his four bars making interesting rhythmic statements out of a single note. Armstrong ends his third round of trading with one of patented licks, Bb-G-Bb-G-D, which a now aggressive Assunto picks up and hurriedly hurls back at Pops three times, reminding me of later Louis Prima. After Assunto’s break comes something I wish Frey had used in the master: Armstrong somehow shoehorning a quote of what sounds awfully close to "Everything I Have is Yours"! (A comment on his influence on the Assunto and the Dukes, perhaps?) It's a great little moment but overall, I’ll take the passionate wailing on the master.
Louis, wailing passionately, at the May 25 session. Photo by Jack Bradley.
But at this point, Nat Hentoff must have really taken a coffee (or Swiss Kriss) break because he doesn't even mention the next tune performed--and another highlight of the date--"Limehouse Blues," in my opinion, tied for the distinction of being the very best performance to come out of Louis's two albums with the Dukes (and trust me, there's plenty to choose from). Hentoff ended up writing the liner notes to the finished album and did include a short description: "The final Limehouse Blues is fired by one of Louis' most penetratingly masterful solos of the album, one that is also a lesson in how to build to climaxes. 'The old man is too much,' Frankie Assunto shook his head after the session." All true, but I think more can be said.
"Limehouse" is purely instrumental, a burning take on a number that had been part of the jazz repertoire since the 1930s. Louis had performed it with his big band (a fantastic live performance from the 1940s remain unissued) but aside from a 101-second run-through for a Standard Oil transcription session in 1950, he never played it with the All Stars (it was a piano feature for Marty Napoleon but Louis always laid out). Here's the master take:
Jack Bradley's notes show that this one really broke up the guests in the studio. "After this number was over, Max Kaminsky exclaimed to me, 'Didja hear Pops on Limehouse?'" Bradley wrote. "I assured him I had." Having listened to it again, I guess I'll be the first to say it...didja hear Pops on "Limehouse"!? The old man IS too much! The Dukes enthusiastically handle the introduction with Frank Assunto in the lead before Pops steps in to show them the way through the first chorus. In no rush at age 58, Louis gives a fairly straight-forward reading of the melody, rephrasing it here and there just caressing it with his extra special tone, ending on a high note to foreshadow what's to come. Clarinetist Jerry Fuller then takes two, sounding a bit tentative a first before gradually heating up a bit.
But then Pops enters and well, good night nurse. He takes "Limehouse's" main melodic motive and spins circles with it, before he starts unleashing some beautifully flowing improvisations. Midway through his first chorus, he turns the melody into a quote of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" before floating through the bar lines in his lower register. He then revisits the melody, as was his wont, for the last eight bars, playing it with a bright tone.
So far, so great, but he really lets loose in his second go-around, opening with a quote from "The Hoochie Coochie Dance," one of his favorites from the 1920s and early 30s. The leads into a devastating concert B natural, a blue note that Pops really makes moan, whipping it into a slippery gliss. He keeps pounding away, perhaps surprising some by going way down, instead of up, at the halfway mark of his second chorus. But it's a storytelling device as he's back on top mere seconds later, punishing the living hell out of those blue B naturals until the listener wants to scream, "Mercy!" After a series of more piercing B naturals, Armstrong turns his final one into a dazzling gliss that dives low before rising up to end on a triumphant high C. A terrific solo.
Louis and the Assunto brothers at the May 25 session. Photo by Jack Bradley.
Matteson then gets his innings on helicon before the performance's final two ensemble choruses. The first one is a true gassuh as Louis and Assunto peck and poke around each other, swapping phrases, having fun with melody and really just have a sweet little conversation. Midway through, Louis takes over with a brief, ingenious quote from Massenet's "Elegy."
But much like "Avalon," Louis is kind of just toying with Assunto before he unleashes full blast in the last chorus. Armstrong works over a three-note motive like it's 1927 again before shooting out those high, hard ones. Assunto's in there, offering a great counterpoint but overall he, and the rest of the Dukes are swallowed up by Pops's gigantic lead, working over more of those searing B naturals. After the drum tag, Louis lets Assunto take charge for a few bars but he still has the final say with a roof-shaking closing high C. Incredible stuff.
Like everything else, Hank O'Neal released an alternate edit of "Limehouse Blues" on the Chiaroscuro label in the 1970s. Here 'tis:
As you can hear, only the drum tag and final eight bars were used on the issued take; the rest is entirely new. It must have been an earlier attempt because, though Pops is still in remarkable form, he performs a couple of miniscule fluffs in his second solo chorus and enters with a bit of a miscue going into the final ensemble choruses. Also, the rhythm section seems to be on shaky ground throughout, unable to lock in at a consistent tempo. But otherwise, Louis is a force of nature, dispelling any myths that he could no longer improvise at this stage of the game. As I've exhausted myself saying on this blog, he knew exactly what he was doing when he played those "set" solos on numbers like "Indiana" and "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" with the All Stars, as those were more or less improvised compositions honed to perfection night after night on the bandstand. But give the man a fresh piece of material...and stand back! "Limehouse Blues" is a great example of this as his playing is completely different from take to take. Even when some of his ideas are similar--playing with the three-note motif, quoting the "Hoochie Coochie Dance," etc.--he approaches them in different way and places them in completely different spots.
With "Wolverine" and "Limehouse" in the can, let's rejoin Nat Hentoff for the finale to his piece on "Dixie":
The take was approved, an Louis and the Dukes began to work out an instrumental version of "Dixie."
Louis started to walk round the hall, playing without accompaniment, until he found the tempo he wanted. The Dukes soon fell into the same groove.
Joe Delaney later said that as Louis walked around the studio playing, he told the Dukes to watch his behind for the tempo! Photo by Jack Bradley.
During a break in the recording, Sid Frey and Louis began to swap jokes. Frankie Assunto was shaking his head. "The old man is too much," he said. "I always thought I'd be afraid to play with him, but he's the easiest person in the world to work with. That first time we recorded in Chicago, however, was an experience. I had such an emotional let-down after the first recording session last year that while I was driving down to the Loop, it took me several minutes to realize I was only going fifteen miles an hour. It was like I was in a trance. I was so depressed and tired but later that night, Louis walked into the night club where we were playing. As soon as he said, 'Hello,' I was all right again."
The playback was ending.
"It sounds like an old marching band," Frankie called over to Louis.
Louis broke into an exaggerated strut. "Yes, indeed," he laughed. "And they've got their caps on!"
Louis, listening to a playback, during the May 25 session. Photo by Jack Bradley.
With that line, Hentoff's piece comes to a conclusion. He must have really been tickled by it because he ended the liner notes the same way, but added this bit about "Dixie": "Hearing 'Dixie' with Louis leading the way, I was reminded of Louis' uncompromising statement about Little Rock and also of the student sit-in leader I had met a few weeks before this session. I also remembered a white Southern historian who was proud of the sit-ins and said, 'These students are also Southerners, and they are being true to the best Southern traditions of self-assertion and courage.' 'Dixie' will never be the same again."
It's a beautiful statement--and true--but Louis wasn't necessarily thinking about such things. According to Jack Bradley's notes, "After the session, Louis remarked that this number alone should sell the album. He said that it is one of the most requested tunes, especially in the South." We might as well keep going, so here's the master take of "Dixie":
Yeah, I can see Pops strutting around the studio, shaking his bottom in perfect tempo. Interestingly, for all the improvising he does on the 1960 sessions, he's somewhat reverent to the melody here, playing the lead as instructed by his mentor, King Oliver. Armstrong carries the first chorus before turning it over to Fred Assunto and Jerry Fuller who split the second go-around on trombone and clarinet, respectively, each man also paying similar respect to the melody.
Chorus three belongs to Frank Assunto, in great form. He's very relaxed, leaning on those quarter-notes like Pops before inserting some lovely variations, the rhythm section swinging 4/4 behind him. Louis takes over for the "I Wish I Was in Dixie" stretch, still keeping the melody in front but now phrasing it in his own fashion, doubling up a few nights for a bouncy, playful treatment. When he gets to the "Hooray! Hooray!" part, he throws in some slippery phrase, echoed by Frank in the Dukes's response. Finally, the two trumpets join forces for a joyous march to the finishing line, Frank still a little more adventurous before Pops takes it up and out.
And once again, the alternate:
For this take, Louis opens with a cute bit of "Reveille," harkening back to his days as bugler in the Colored Waif's Home. After that, it's very similar to the master, though Louis's phrasing is a little stiffer in places as he still seems to be getting the tune under his fingers. When he throws in those little figurations on the "Hooray" part, it seems to catch the Dukes by surprise, making me think this was an earlier attempt.
Also, a telling moment occurs during Louis's short solo, before the ensemble rideout. It's relaxed as usual but I guess in an attempt to put an Armstrongian punctuation mark on it, he squeezes in a final high note. It's exiting but then it's melody time and he has to awkwardly get back in position to take it out. Even though high notes were Louis's calling card, he knew not to play them superfluously. On the master, the high note is gone and Armstrong makes a more seamless transition from soloist to leader of the ensemble.
And even after those versions of "Dixie," the May 24 session still wasn't over: the last song to be recorded was Louis's one and only version of "South," which not only has some startling trumpet but a wonderful scat vocal complete with the hilarious ad-lib, "Speaking of New Orleans and those red beans, you eat a big plate and Swiss Kriss in the mornin'!" (And an entirely different alternate take with an entirely different plug for Swiss Kriss.)
And then there was an entire other session the very next day, May 25, where Louis and the Dukes waxed another SIX songs (Frey would not need that Thursday session on May 26 after all). Great stuff all around--Louis's fun vocal on "The Sheik of Araby," more uptempo improvising on "Washington and Lee Swing" and "Sweet Georgia Brown" and probably the all-time greatest version of "Bourbon Street Parade--but I think I should pull the plug on this blog before I break some kind of word count law.
But there is one more moment I must end with: "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."
In Hentoff's liner notes, he writes, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee, a spiritual that was often played by New Orleans bands, while accompanying a departed lodge member on the way to the graveyard, is handled by Louis with moving simplicity. Louis learned long ago that a mastery of understatement can be extraordinarily powerful. Although it contains no Roman candles, I feel this track is one of Louis' major performances."
It is. I've always been moved by this performance but it really took on a religious feeling after I found this YouTube video of Dukes helicon player Rich Matteson addressing other musicians during a clinic. Matteson spent 13 years as an educator teaching jazz improvisation at North Texas State University and was an in-demand clinician from 1968 until his death in 1993. This video features an undated clip of Matteson discussing the 1960 session with Louis. He embellishes a bit--as we've seen, splicing was used--but it's mostly on target. But the main event when he gets to discussing Louis's "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and the effect it had on everyone in the studio, making the musicians, Lucille, even Ray Hall in the control room tear up at its conclusion. During a break in the action, Matteson asked Louis how he was able to convey such feeling in his music.
"Play for someone you live," came the response.
I think I should let Matteson tell the rest of the story (which is included in my book, by the way):
And I think you should listen to Louis Armstrong and the Dukes of Dixieland perform "Just a Closer Walk with Thee":
Louis, singing for someone he loves, at the May 25 session. Photo by Jack Bradley.
There are no words to really describe that. I can no longer listen to the ending without breaking into tears. Frank Assunto, too, deserves kudos for his spot after the vocal, bubbling over with so much emotion, he almost sounds like young Louis. But then older, wiser Louis re-enters and lets him--and the world--know that all you need is that melody. If that was the only successful track on the album, Louie and the Dukes would be one for the ages. But as already demonstrated, it was just one highlight on an album overflowing with them.
I wish I could now share a simple link to the ultimate way of obtaining this music but alas, such a thing doesn't exist. A release simply called "Webster Hall - 1960" is missing the joyous opening track, "Bourbon Street Parade." And the aforementioned "Complete" 3-CD set is plagued by a bad edit on "Wolverine Blues," inferior sound quality and "needle drop" transfers of Hank O'Neal's alternate takes. Hey, with vinyl making a comeback, maybe you're better off searching for an LP copy of Audio Fidelity AFLP 1924.
No matter how you find the music, just go out and find it. No matter what you think of the Dukes of Dixieland, forget it and listen to them support Louis so wonderfully throughout. And after thousands and thousands of words from Nat Hentoff, Jack Bradley and myself, I want to close with a link to Sarah O'Holla's Tumblr, My Husband's Stupid Record Collection. I love this blog, which finds the decidedly non-musicologist O'Holla randomly searching through her husband's varied record collection and writing reviews of everything she listens to. It's very funny and a great insight into how probably the majority of human beings listen to music; she's not listening for chord changes or substitutions and she doesn't always read the liner notes. It's just, does the music speak to you or not? O'Holla is not afraid to bash an album that she doesn't get and she's quick with praise when an album speaks to her. Last year, she randomly picked Louie and the Dukes and it knocked her out.
You should really read her entire review (again, link above) but I'll close with her closing: "Bottom line: This album is great, and anyone who enjoys listening to music with their ears and also their heart, will love every second of it." Amen.
Photo by Jack Bradley. Thanks, Jack.