Six Minutes With Satch: Dusky Stevedore / St. Louis Blues

This entire week has been devoted to Louis Armstrong's January 1933 RCA Victor recordings but we're actually closing out the week with two sides recorded in April. I'm really enjoying tackling the music in this fashion, covering it as it was issued instead of as it was recorded. Because the January sessions yielded 12 sides in three days, enough for six 78s, I always assumed those were issued first. But no, the label was most likely issuing an average of one single a month and after Louis waxed 11 more sides in April, RCA began dipping into its spring supply early, leaving a bunch of January sides on the back burner for a while.

"Dusky Stevedore" the fifth and final song recorded on April 24, was kind of an odd choice. Louis had recorded plenty of numbers written by Andy Razaf an J. C. Johnson, including "Honey, Do!" in January 1933, but "Dusky Stevedore" was from 1928. Why revive it five years later? I don't know. Maybe he was just a fan of Frankie Trumbauer's 1928 record with Bix? Maybe Andy Razaf pitched it to him after Louis recorded Razaf's "Honey, Do!" Louis's Uncle Ike Myles was a stevedore, so maybe Louis took a liking to the song's thematic content (that's the only time the words "thematic content" and "Dusky Stevedore" have been used in the same paragraph). The tune has a catchy melody but oh, those lyrics, all about the happy dusky stevedore, who just loves his job so much, he can't stop singing and dancing. Sure he is.

Fortunately, Louis was ready, ready, so help him, he was ready for this one, turning in quite an exciting performance, one that Dan Morgenstern named as of his top 10 Armstrong recordings in an early 1960s retrospective piece. With that in mind, if you don't know this record, pay attention!

Louis's introductory cadenza is worth the price of admission alone; it's kind of the history of jazz (music?) in 13 seconds, setting the tempo with those repeated F's, gradually alternating it with C's, every phrase swinging, before uncorking that remarkable double-timed run. He pauses, glisses to a high C, marches his way down, explores the lower register briefly and sets everybody in motion at a high intensity level. The rest of the record could have been three minutes of a tuned tympani playing "The Man on the Flying Trapeze," and I'd be satisfied.

As I've written so much about these Victor recordings, I keep coming back to the idea that this was a transitional period for Armstrong, moving away from the faster, more frantic playing of the 1920s and into the grander, more operatic style of the 1930s. You can hear it all in that 13-second cadenza; in facts, that double-timed run might be Armstrong's swan song to that kind of uptempo playing. Of course, later critics would point to such flashy things as examples of the brilliance of the young Armstrong, drawing the conclusion that since such playing ceased to exist after 1933, Armstrong became a lesser trumpeter. Balderdash, I say....but you know that. Anyway, Miles said, "You can't play anything on the horn that Louis didn't play, even modern," and that into to "Dusky Stevedore" is a good example of Louis playing anything and everything.
Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett

But from there, the band is off and running with the verse. I've mentioned this before but it's worth repeating: Bennie Moten (with Count Basie) had just recorded those seminal December 1932 tracks for Victor, paving the way for all future jazz rhythm sections. Though Armstrong's section on this particular session is a little outdated with the tuba and banjo-like guitar from McKendrick, the feel is still light and swinging at a very up tempo.

After tossing off the bridge, listen to how Armstrong transforms the melody. If you know the Bix and Tram version (or any of the many other versions from 1928, the melody is actually quite catchy, with the words "he's just a" pitched up high before going down low for "stevedore." Louis, knowing that at this tempo, the tricky melody might sound jumbled, instead chooses a more abstract representation, sticking with just the higher first part of the phrase and turning it almost into a riff tune. He turns on the heat a little more during the bridge and finally starts working out in the upper register in the final 8, holding that A over the F chords for a long while, almost giving it a bit of unfinished tension; you expect him to resolve it to the F, but nope, he holds that A for all it's worth (and then some).

Next, anytime you want to kill a chorus with some first class improvisation, just call on the Johnson brothers! Tenor man Budd kicks it off with half a chorus, with his driving, Hawkins-inspired horn; he wouldn't smooth it out a little more until he heard Lester Young. Keg Johnson swoops in for the bridge, always his own man, and of the shouting variety Louis loved (see Trummy Young and J.C. Higginbotham) before brother Budd closes the chorus.

Pianist Charlie Beal takes the transition and then Pops sings a chorus, probably still high as a kite after recording "Laughin' Louie" earlier in the day. Like his trumpet playing, he doesn't touch the high-and-low aspects of the melody, instead choosing to shout it out over a pitch or two, taking a more rhythmically creative approach in his behind-the-beat phrasing and the words he chooses to hold and emphasize.

So far, we're off and swinging, everyone sounding great ...until the 1:55 mark when everything nearly falls apart. Louis finishes his vocal, trombonist Keg Johnson steps in to take a wild break to allow Pops to get his chops together and returns with one dramatic note. More than half the band realizes this is stop-time so they hit a chord and wait....but Beal forgets and keeps laying down an oom-pah stride backing. Budd Johnson, oblivious, starts riffing. The rhythm section, panicking, joins Beal for a couple of beats, but then they realize it's stop-time so they, in effect, stop time...leaving poor Budd Johnson out there, still playing his riff! He finally wakes up and they all fall in line with the stop-time. The whole thing lasts only five seconds but it's pretty embarrassing, and I say that as someone who usually defehim nds Armstrong's much-maligned early-1930s bands.

Fortunately, it's all in the background and it's not enough to stop Pops. He jumps out with three F's, each one turning into a falling gliss, before some operatic high stuff. But then it's almost as if he realizes he has two choruses to tell his story, so he puts on the breaks, turns down the volume and finishes the stop-time interlude by playing low and soft. It's only momentary, as he kicks it second gear in the bridge, playing some repeated notes, pausing, then diving into a break that finds up around high C. The band catches him with more stop-time for the final eight and Louis responds with more of that double-timed phrasing we heard in the introduction. Like I said, it wouldn't be around for much longer so it's nice that "Dusky Stevedore" has a few helpings of it.

He then holds an F for drama's sake, building into the final shout chorus (play your riff now, Budd Johnson!). He has the motif set that he wants to deliver, a two-note phrase from F to a high A, but that first A is a little cracked and a little on the sharp side. He follows it up with more A's, hit right on the nose, then starts floating over the beat--or should I say the cymbal backbeat of one Big Sid Catlett, certainly not the last time Catlett's heavy two-and-four inspired Louis. Catlett varies his rhythms during the bridge, which also seems to drive Louis to some wonderful playing. The band swings like mad throughout (never mind the lyrical content, the song's rather basic changes are great for improvising--and swinging) and Louis takes his F-to-A motif a few steps higher, closing out the last eight by going from A to high C, once again almost losing the first C, but regaining his footing to close it out in style.

"Dusky Stevedore" has some great Pops but at times, it sounds like his chops are just hanging on, especially with those two sharpish notes in the last chorus. Remember, Pops's chops were in dire shape throughout this period and this was the fifth song he recorded that day, recording at least two takes of almost everything! Thus, even with the stop-time botch, I think everyone agreed day was done. Another great, productive Victor session was over but there wouldn't be time to rest; two days later, they were back at it again to record SIX more numbers.

"St. Louis Blues," the flip side, was again the fifth song of the April 26 session. This time, Louis was on familiar ground, as we've already covered his epic 1929 recording with Luis Russell's band on this series back in February. It hadn't left his repertoire since then, judging by contemporary reviews, so he had four full years to tinker with it and really perfect his approach and his routine. I still prefer the 1929 version, which is one for the time capsule, but my goodness, this is a pretty exciting recording, too.

Louis wastes no time, jumping right out front with the habanera section at a fast clip before settling into the melody--or once again, an approximation of it. Louis plays with it, taking the "I hate to see" phrase and just riffing on it without every seeing the evening sun go down. In the next 12 bars, he stretches out effortlessly over the blues before floating through the habanera section again (Mike McKendrick's metallic guitar is prominent in the mix).

After the minor interlude, we're hit with another boisterous Keg Johnson trombone outing (nice cymbal work from Harry Dial) before we finally get a snatch of Satch's voice, commanding Scoville Brown's alto to "Look out!" Unlike the 1929 version, we don't get a formal vocal here, but Louis does run his mouth quite a bit, moaning during Brown's solo and the next effort by pianist Beal. After a chordal demonstration by McKendrick, Budd Johnson takes off for one, aided and abetted by the riffing horns behind him.

With everything positively cooking, Louis finally reenters on trumpet for the final 50 seconds of the record. As in 1929, there's a pattern of riffs here, Armstrong responding to and engaging with the other horns, but it's entirely different than the prior attempt. Here, he opens with one of his favorite descending blues phrase (still a favorite of New Orleans brass bands) before leaving gaps for the band to respond. With another riff urging him on, he begins tossing around a phrase built of the simple tonic G and the minor third Bb, though his execution and pure sound is anything but simple.

Going into his third chorus he finally launches a high D and nails it, spending much of the next two bars using G's as a launchpad for more D's. With time for one last chorus, he hits the D again going into it, holding it for five seconds and spends that last go-around smashing that high D into smithereens, but now arriving to and departing from it with some mind-bending glisses.

Five chroruses of euphoria and an absolutely righteous way to close another week of "Six Minutes With Satch." We'll stay in RCA territory next week so come back on Monday for more--have a great weekend!

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc, cond), Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Scoville Brown, George Oldham (as), Budd Johnson (ts), Charlie Beal (p), Mike McKendrick (g), Bill
Oldham (tu), Sid Catlett (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL April 24, 1933

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc, cond), Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph (tp), Keg Johnson (tb), Scoville Brown, George Oldham (as), Budd Johnson (ts, voc), Charlie Beal (p), Mike McKendrick (g),
Bill Oldham (tu), Harry Dial (d).
Victor recording session - Chicago, IL April 26, 1933

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