The Return of the Blog!

Hello! Is anyone out there? I have to admit, this feels a little strange. As I've mentioned many times in the past, this blog almost single-handedly helped to establish my reputation in the world of Louis Armstrong and I owe so much of what I've been able to accomplish to the decision I made as a struggling house painter in July 2007 to start it.

I kept it going regularly for several years--and then life got in the way (life meaning a wife, three kids, work, 6 hours of daily commuting time, a book, etc.). The number of entries dropped dramatically, but they still trickled out, perhaps meatier than ever before. But by 2018, I could not keep it going. I signed a contract to write another Armstrong book for Oxford University Press, I was swamped at work, the kids were getting older......something had to go and that something was the blog. I posted my liner notes to the 2014 Mosaic Records boxed set Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars and quietly retired the blog.

In some ways, I felt the whole concept of the blog was outdated anyway because I was now hooked, like everyone else, on social media, running my own pages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as posting all content on the respective pages for the Louis Armstrong House Museum (follow us!). I felt like I was posting more Armstrong content than ever before, in addition to my full-time job at the Armstrong Archives and working on the forthcoming book and another Mosaic Records set--how could I find time to blog?

And yet, I'd still hear from loyal folks who missed it, which made me feel good--and guilty. Could I ever find the time to revive the old blog of mine?

Pardon the drama, but folks, the time has come.

First, let me catch you up on the two main projects that have consumed me, before I provide a fuller recap of all that's been going on. The main driving force behind all of this madness is my next book, Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong, due out in 2020 from the good folks at Oxford University Press.

I have to admit, I never thought much about writing another book. I broke into this world wanting to set the record straight about the All Stars era and after that book came out in 2011, I've been fortunate enough to work on numerous reissues for Mosaic and Universal and Dot Time, which I think--hope--have eradicated some of the outdated ideas about Armstrong's later years.

Yet, during this time, I'd occasionally meet musicians or other Armstrong fans who never checked out the man's big band period. I'd mention my love of "Alexander's Ragtime Band" or reference the trumpet break towards the end of "Lawd You Made the Night Too Long" or the vocal on "Some Sweet Day" and get met with blank stares. "Okay," I realized, "Everyone still knows the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and there's been renewed interest and appreciation for the All Stars years.....but nobody knows about the big band."

The idea hit me to write a prequel, opening when Louis got to New York in 1929 and closing after his Town Hall concert in 1947, the place where my previous book started. My agent thought it was a good idea, Oxford thought it was a good idea, and in November 2017, the contract was signed.

That's really right around the time the blog became dormant as I spent the next year immersed in research, which was easier than ever thanks to this era of digitization (more on that later). In November 2018 I finally began writing and in late March, I completed a draft......296,000 words long. You see, my contract was for about 110,000 words. Between March and July, I got it down to 145,000 and in November, after feedback from my editor, sweated out another 11,000 words, which satisfied Oxford, who it now appears will publish it at the slightly overweight 134,000 mark.

A very tired author with a hard copy of the manuscript in July. 

But what of the 162,000 words on the cutting room floor? A lot of the cuts were easy to make, but others were brutal. I conveyed my dismay to my editor, who helpfully suggested a "supplemental website" to host stories and research that didn't make it into the finished product.

Then, just like Joliet Jake Blues listening to Reverend Cleophus James at the Triple Rock Church in The Blues Brothers, I saw the light and began muttering, "The blog? The blog! THE BLOG!" and commenced a series of backflips through my living room.

This week, at 1:49 p.m. on December 20 to be exact, I submitted the final final manuscript with all changes made, with acknowledgements written, with the photos selected, with captions, etc., approved marketing copy and approved a photo we'll probably use for the cover. It is now in Oxford's hands for a while but this space (along with socia media platforms, of course), is where I'll keep the world updated about all the news leading up to publication--hopefully in September 2020--but more excitingly, it's where the cutting room stories will live once the book is out. And if you remember my "Listening to the Book" series from 2011, I'll also post entries for each chapter with Spotify links and maybe some other treats so you can have a soundtrack for your reading experience.

That alone I think justified the resurrection of the blog, but there was something else brewing that made it a no-brainer: the production of another Mosaic Records Armstrong set!

If you were with me in my salad days of 2013-2014 (who am I fooling, I've never had salad days), I turned over the blog to the production of that aforementioned Mosaic set, sharing inside stories, photos and videos from the process. Soon after that set came out in 2014, I began pestering Mosaic producer Scott Wenzel to do another. We needed that one to run its course--plus, Mosaic had to make sure things were stable in the rapidly changing culture of physical vs. digital product.

In 2017, our original set went out-of-print (though it lives on on Spotify and other streaming services), so Scott and I joined forces with our friends David Ostwald and Richard Noorigian to work on a companion set. The original was devoted to Armstrong's live recordings for Columbia and RCA between 1947 and 1958. The new idea was to make a set for Armstrong's STUDIO recordings for those same labels, made between 1946 and 1966.

What would this entail? A quick list:

  • All the 1946-47 big band and small group RCA Victor and Swing sessions, as well as a one-off single from 1956 (no new alternate takes of the RCA material, alas)
  • "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy" with George Avakian's original edited master takes and about 100 minutes of alternates, rehearsals, discussions, etc. 
  • "Satch Plays Fats" with Avakian's original edited master takes and about 80 minutes of alternates, rehearsals, discussions, etc. 
  • The "Mack the Knife" session with more alternate takes and rehearsals than we even knew existed.
  • "Music to Shave By," Louis's 1959 Remington commercial that was issued as a cardboard disc in Look magazine--with alternate takes!
  • "The Real Ambassadors" with Teo Macero's original edited master takes and about 80 minutes of alternates, rehearsals, discussions, etc. 
  • Louis's final Columbia single from 1966 with "Canal Street Blues" and "Cabaret."

We came up with a rough discography and submitted it to Sony and after a few heart-stopping delays, received full approval in February!

In September and October, I joined Mssrs. Wenzel, Ostwald and Noorigian at Battery Studios in Manhattan where the great Matt Cavaluzzo was tasked with the duties of transferring what we were going to use from the original master tapes.  Those sessions constituted maybe the highlight of my year. We had great food, huge laughs and sat there listening to the original session tapes in the best possible sound quality.

Just being in the same room as the tapes was overwhelming. Here I am caressing all the surviving master tapes for The Real Ambassadors. 

We finished the transfers in early October but the hard part was just about to start: selecting the tracks that were going to make it onto the set. I know a lot of Armstrong nuts out there are thinking, "Uh, just put it ALL out!" Alas, that would make for a 15-CD set and trust me, you don't need to hear 33 takes of "Music to Shave By" (not a joke). The four of us had many listening sessions and numerous good-natured arguments about which takes should stay and which should go but by mid-October, we agreed on the final tracklist for what will be a 7-CD set.

I knew that I was going to get dragged back into book-land in late November, so I dove in and wrote about 30,000 words of liner notes. Scott and I also selected the photos for the booklet, as well as the photo for the cover. We lost Scott to the December rush of Mosaic orders for their new Woody Herman and Hank Mobley sets (this is a good thing!) but the plan is to meet with mastering guru Andreas Meyer in January to get everything sounding great and to make some edits (we have to de-Avakian-ize some of George's original edited takes). I don't want to predict anything but we're fully planning on being at Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans in August to show off the set and to share war stories so I think there's a very good possibility this can be delivered in the first part of 2020. Stay tuned.

So those are the two main reasons for dusting the blog out of mothballs: continued updates on my book and the Mosaic set. But what have I missed in my hiatus? Let's recap!

The fourth volume in Dot Time's "Louis Armstrong Legacy Series" was released in July: Live in Europe. I've been very proud to work with Jerry Roche on this series, selecting all the tracks from the Research Collections of the Louis Armstrong House Museum and with the blessing of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation (unlike a certain new Armstrong release which I will not be mentioning). I've complained in the past that the Dot Time series has flown completely under the radar but thanks to the efforts of publicist extraordinaire Lydia Liebman, the new "Live in Europe" disc is getting a ton of good notices and great reviews and is currently the number one best-seller on Amazon's Traditional Jazz chart! Here's Jerry and I discussing it at Satchmo Summerfest in August:

Speaking of Satchmo Summerfest, this year was my 12th straight trip to New Orleans for the annual Pops lovefest. I was honored to receive the event's "Spirit of Satchmo Award" for my work as an Educator and found time to deliver a bunch of presentations, all of which are now on YouTube. This one might be my favorite, a "By Request" special where I showcased some of the most popular clips I've shown over the years, including stuff you won't find anywhere else on YouTube:

And speaking of New Orleans, I'll be back for the Jazz Educator's Conference, January 7-11. On the 8th at 11 a.m., I'll be teaming up with Archivist for the Armstrong House Museum, Sarah Rose, to present on Louis and Dave Brubeck's The Real Ambassadors, maybe even playing a couple of selections from the upcoming Mosaic set. Looking forward to seeing so many great people in my favorite city!

Just one week later, I'll be closer to home, taking part in two panels at Jazz Congress, presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center and Jazz Times magazine. Both of my sessions will be back-to-back on Tuesday the 14th. First up, I'll part of a panel moderated by Ashley Kahn at 4:15 titled "Jazz Shrines: Homes, Studios, and Preserving the Heritage," discussing the history of the Louis Armstrong House Museum alongside representatives of the Rudy Van Gelder Studio and the House of Miles in East St. Louis.

But then the main event at 5:45: a panel titled "Talking Trumpets: Conversation & Music About Louis Satchmo Armstrong" that will be co-moderated by myself and Jon Faddis and will feature heavy hitters Bria Skonberg, Sean Jones, Summer Camargo and yes, Wynton Marsalis. The plan is I'll be playing songs for them from the upcoming Mosaic set, from Louis's private tapes and other rare sources and getting their real-time reactions to previously unheard Pops. This one will be live streaming, too, so be sure to be at a computer or on Facebook when it starts!

In some ways, this is the oldest news I'm sharing here as I wasn't updating the blog when it broke in 2018, but the Louis Armstrong House Museum's Digital Archives are online HERE! This was done thanks to a $2.7 million grant from Robert F. Smith's Fund II Foundation and it would not have been completed without the dedication of our staff (namely Sarah Rose) and the terrific folks at Deluxe, the Northeast Document Conversation Center, Three III Digital and Meyer Media who did the actual digitizing.

I still don't think folks know what this means but to put it simply, we have made it possible to access everything you'd see in a visit to the Armstrong Archives at Queens College from the comfort of your own home. This does not mean we send you copies of everything for your private stash; everything is for reference purposes only. This means that all images and video have a watermark and all audio has beeps to prevent anyone from commercializing the material. BUT if you can live with that, you can listen to Louis's tapes, read newspaper articles, look at videos, watch the rarest videos imaginable, all for free. All you have to do is create an account by clicking here and clicking "Register."

There's over 60,000 items on the site so it's a lot to search through. We strongly advise you to use the Advanced Search features and filters, as they will help narrow down your results. And don't worry about the "Add to Basket" feature, that's for people who are requesting access to materials for books, articles, films, etc. As I said, just make sure you are logged in to get the full experience. Create your account and start browsing NOW!

In August, the good folks at KEF Audio debuted their new #ListenCarefully series with a video by yours truly directed by my longtime friend Brendan Castner. It's got some Armstrong 101 but you'll also get to see a bit of my daily existence and why I do what I do. View it here:

That's a good setup to mention that in October, I celebrated 10 YEARS of working for the Louis Armstrong House Museum! It's been a helluva run and I'm thankful every day I show up to work. (Also, we're in need of a new Executive Director--if you or someone you know feels qualified, apply here through January 15, 2020!)

In September, I spent my first day as a 39-year-old by appearing on WKCR's Hot Club on the Air with the absurdly aged 23-year-old Matthew "Fat Cat" Rivera. We had a ball playing material from Louis's personal tapes, focusing on recordings where Louis himself played the role of D.J.

Matt is the gatekeeper over at the official Hot Club New York website and it is there where the audio of our 3-hour program lives on, free to be downloaded and enjoyed anytime. The future is in good hands with folks like the Fat Cat on the scene!

The Pops rarities show no signs of slowing down, thank goodness. Earlier this year, the good folks over at the Lost Song blog posted audio of Louis and his big band doing "Hep Cat’s Ball" live at the Cotton Club in New York on March 17, 1940, just three days after recording their studio version for Decca. Check it out at the link as it's a hot one!

All hail Dan Morgenstern, who turned 90 this year and is still going strong! He was in wonderful form at the Jazz Museum in Harlem this week, selecting his "Desert Island Discs" (two Armstrong choices in the mix: "My Sweet" and "You Rascal You" with Louis Jordan). He was also terrific on the air with the aforementioned "Fat Cat" in November. In October, he stole his own birthday show at Birdland by scatting Lester Young's solo on "When You're Smiling" with David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Eternity Band!
All the cats! From left to right: Josh Morgenstern, Phil Schaap, Michael Steinman, Scout Opatut, Dan Morgenstern, Scott Wenzel, Will Friedwald, David Ostwald, Ricky Riccardi. 
In May, Dan sat down with my good friend Michael Steinman specifically for a filmed series of reminisces about Louis. Watch them all here!

[And if you're not regularly checking Michael's JAZZ LIVES blog, for shame as Louis pops up all the time over there. Here's Michael's look at another new discovery, Armstrong as substitute disc jockey for Willis Conover in 1950, singing beautifully and delivering advertisements with charm and humor on a broadcast discovered by another hero, Maristella Feustle!]

Phew, that's it for now--the blog is back! Will it go back to being 10,000-word examinations on single songs in the Armstrong discography, posted three times a week? Nope! Is social media still the way I'll continue to post regularly about Armstrong and my exploits? Yep!

But it's nice to be back in this space, writing way too many words and never proofreading (old habits die hard), and I promise to be back sooner rather than later with more news on the book, on the Mosaic and on all things related to the one and only Louis Armstrong.


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