Six Minutes With Satch: High Society / Mahogany Hall Stomp

Here we go. In January 1933, trumpeter Zilner Randolph and guitarist Mike McKendrick were brought back into the fold and helped Louis organize a brand new band, loaded with youngsters such as the Johnson brothers, Budd and Keg, the Oldham brothers, George and Bill, drummer Yank Porter, trumpeter Ellis "Stumpy" Whitlock and making his recording debut, young pianist Teddy Wilson.

Louis had a few weeks to recover and get his lip back in shape. RCA Victor's fist single of "That's My Home" and "Hobo, You Can't Ride This Train" was getting good buzz so the label wanted get as much out of Louis as they could. Thus, three sessions were set up in late January with Armstrong and his men cutting six songs on January 26, three on January 26 and three more on January 27. With 12 songs in the can, RCA would bring Louis back in April for 11 more sides recorded across two sessions on April 24 and 26. These 23 sides will keep us occupied on the blog for the next month or so--you won't be disappointed!

Well, the band might disappoint you at times. This was not Armstrong's greatest outfit and occasionally they sound like they're hanging on for dear life, which happens with the first January side to be issued, Porter Steele's march of 1901, "High Society." Armstrong recorded a lot of newly minted pop tunes for RCA in this period but for this single, the label looked back, coupling "High Society" with another New Orleans-flavored theme, Spencer Williams's "Mahogany Hall Stomp," originally recorded by Louis in 1929.

Louis was no stranger to "High Society" as he probably had to play it countless times in New Orleans. It was as a youngster that Sidney Bechet was knocked out by hearing Little Louie play the famous Alphonse Picou clarinet (originally piccolo) solo on his cornet! In 1923, Armstrong took part in the first recording of "High Society" with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band with Dodd's playing the famous clarinet part, but that didn't stop Armstrong from quoting it on "Squeeze Me" in 1928 and "Sweethearts on Parade" in 1931.

This was a Zilner Randolph and one that had been in the book for a couple of years, winning plaudits in the press during Louis's return to New Orleans in 1931 and being featured at the start of the Betty Boop short You Rascal You in 1932. Armstrong opens the record with a little monologue, the first time Louis told his listeners he's going to take them "all the way down to New Orleans," something that became a nightly part of his act in the All Stars era. 
Louis's spoken introduction promises to give us an "idea of one of them street parades" but I doubt they marched to anything this fast in New Orleans!  (He also mentions this being a "Creole arrangement" but Randolph was born in Arkansas, went to school in Wisconsin and settled in Chicago so I don't believe there was much Creole blood in Zilner....)

Drummer Yank Porter plays the standard parade beat intro (with Louis doing the traditional two-note riff call-to-arms) but immediately, the horns enter with some exciting call and response (and real tricky reedwork) before another Louis gliss sets everybody off and swinging. Keg Johnson's trombone handles the melody over righteous responses from the reeds, Louis joining in on the break and making his presence felt in the second half of the first strain, topping out on a concert G.

After another tricky break, Louis continues playing the lead in the section. Now he's living in the upper register, starting with the high G he just played and working higher, eventually to a concert Bb, holding it for the sake of drama. In the next chorus, the reeds take the lead, but Louis answers them with more Herculean glisses to that same Bb, juxtaposing it with a lower A for the sake of music theory.

One more held high Bb and then Louis rejoins the section again, his sound absolutely penetrating. He's there for the interlude into the next strain, where he finally tops himself with a high concert C! Insanity.

Fortunately for Louis, he gets a bit of a rest during the famous clarinet/piccolo strain. Randolph takes the melody muted while the three reeds join forces to make Alphonse Picou proud. I've heard some writers and historians absolutely tear this band to shred, but I don't think they embarrass themselves, at least not to my ears, hanging in there with a very difficult arrangement at a very demanding tempo.

However, I will say that Randolph's small tone, even muted, is almost humorous compared to Pops's sound. Louis re-enters on the dramatic minor strain, doubling some notes for emphasis. He then settles down and plays the pure lead, holding those high notes...what a sound! As everyone buckles up for the rideout, Louis outdoes himself, alternating between high concert Bb's and C's with delirious abandon, as he had done on "Cake Walking Babies from Home" in 1924 and "Stomp Off Let's Go" in 1926 (he once gave an interview talking about what King Oliver used to play in New Orleans and sang this exact same two-note phrase, meaning it was most likely a nod to his mentor).
To quote my friend Loren Schoenberg, it sounds like Louis is trying to break the microphone with those repeated C's. He ends on a sky-high concert Eb, though if you listen carefully, he loses it at the last fraction of a second. Only human, you know....right? Even I'm not sure anymore....

For the flip side, RCA decided to again have Louis remake a choice piece of OKeh material in "Mahogany Hall Stomp." That 1929 original (which I've already covered) is an unimpeachable classic, with its infectious foot-patting tempo, the counterpoint of Lonnie Johnson, the slapping of Pops Foster, Pops's perfect three chorus solo, etc.

But I can't deny it, I might love the Victor remake more (maybe--I change by the day). For some reason, Louis was feeling extra good on that January 28, 1933 date and though he used his original playing as a template, he created something new and so exciting that to many, this is his greatest "Mahogany Hall" (in fact, when Louis played DJ for the Voice of America in 1956 and had to select batches of his original records to play and introduce, this is the one that he picked).

Note that this is only four years later but listen to how different the band sounds. Armstrong taught the world how to swing in the 1920s and by 1933, the big band scene was beginning to catch up.
The tempo’s up, but Armstrong’s more than ready, gently caressing the opening strain, mixing equal doses of fleet phrases and some huge, burning high notes, the band accenting the first beat behind him, something he thrived from. Scoville Brown takes the first solo and it’s a swinging one. The band is smoking behind him, riffing like mad. The great Budd Johnson follows with a big, Hawkins-like solo (someone shouts “In there!”) but again, the main event is Pops. Once again muted, someone obviously forgot to tell Armstrong that his original solo was so classic, he wasn’t supposed to play anything else. Instead, Armstrong comes up with something even more dazzling, unraveling the world’s slowest gliss at the turn-around at the end of his first chorus building ever-so-slightly, higher and higher, before finally reaching the destination of high concert Bb midway through his second chorus, holding it all the way (guitarist Mike McKendrick does his Lonnie Johnson impression, setting Pops up with some nice fill-in-the-crack riffs). In his third chorus, instead of playing the ascending, five-note riffs of the original, Armstrong eliminates the middle man and just starts hurling glisses, one after another. Like I've been saying, when his chops were up, the man was at his peak in this era.

Armstrong’s quickly followed by an incredibly exciting effort by trombonist Keg Johnson, who comes out scattering notes all over the place, reminding me a little of Dicky Wells and foreshadowing Armstrong's future work with explosive trombone blasters J.C. Higginbotham and Trummy Young. Armstrong’s rideout, backed by riffs, is stunning. He again alternates the two high notes as we heard him do on "High Society" and the band swings their asses off behind the star. In there, indeed!

With that hot pairing out of the way, we'll start tackling some of the glorious pop tunes Pops put his stamp on in this period--til then!

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc, cond), Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Scoville Brown, George Oldham (cl, as), Budd Johnson (ts), Teddy Wilson (p), Mike McKendrick (g), Bill
Oldham (b), Yank Porter (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL January 26, 1933

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc, cond), Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Scoville Brown, George Oldham (as), Budd Johnson (ts), Teddy Wilson (p), Mike McKendrick (g), Bill Oldham (b, prob. tb), Yank Porter (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL January 28, 1933

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