Six....Actually Nine Minutes With Satch: St. Louis Blues / Tiger Rag / Saint Louis Blues

On November 7, 1934, Louis Armstrong recorded six numbers for French Brunswick, all of which pulled almost immediately because he was still under contract to RCA Victor. They eventually saw the light of day on a Vox album in 1947 but still aren't very well known; in fact, the three selections I'm covering today are on none of the streaming sites! I did a series on all these sides back in 2014 (and to be honest will be borrowing heavily from them this week), but it's always good to revisit them.

Armstrong came to Europe in the summer of 1933 and almost immediately began suffering from the chops troubles that sometimes infected his RCA recordings of 1932-33. By the summer of 1934, he was in dire shape, moving to Paris and putting the horn down for several months. While there, he was approached by N. J. Canetti to be his new manager. Armstrong agreed but knew he wouldn't be ready until the fall. In September, Canetti wrote to RCA Victor to tell them that he was Armstrong's new manager and that he would not be renewing his contract. RCA ignored this.

When Armstrong was feeling better, Canetti set up a session for French Brunswick on November 7, 1934. Like his earlier "Hot Harlem Band," Armstrong selected black musicians, mostly from America, that had settled in either England or France. In fact, his Paris band included some musicians heldover from the earlier band: trombonist Lionel Guimaraes, reedmen Peter duConge and Henry Tyree, bassist German Arago and drummer Oliver Tines. New faces were trumpeters Jack Hamilton and Leslie Thompson, saxophonist Alfred Pratt, guitarist Maceo Jefferson and last, but certainly not least, pianist Herman Chittison.

The session was booked from 3.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m. in Polydor's No.2 Studio at 72-74 boulevard de la Gare, Paris XIII. One great thing about the session is it gives a glimpse of what Louis was doing onstage in this period. No pop tunes or current hits, just six tried and true specialties, each of which he had been playing for some time.

First up was the definition of a "good old good one," W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Armstrong already accompanied Bessie Smith on her landmark version in 1925 and he tore it up on his own recording of it with Luis Russell in 1929. At that point, it became a showpiece, something he performed and worked on nightly. By April 1933, he was happy enough with it to record his new arrangement for Victor. On that exciting performance, Armstrong kicked it off an uptempo, took the opening choruses, as well as Handy's minor strain, then handed it over to trombone, alto, piano, guitar and tenor saxophone solos. Then Armstrong swooped in for four choruses, working over a little call-and-response action in the arrangement and eventually building up to a steady stream of demanding high D's.

The Victor version is wonderful but it almost sounds like a soggy ballad compared to what Louis did in Paris. Now a quick note, NONE of today's songs are on Spotify and this first take is literally nowhere! I'm going to share the audio here, write about it and then I'll share the YouTube links below for the other two selections. Cool?

Like the Victor version, the arrangement starts with the minor strain but the tempo is a bit fast...and that's not Louis playing. I don't know which trumpet player it is, but someone else grabs the spotlight for those first eight bars before Louis swoops in with one, instead of two choruses of blues, before handing it over to trombonist Guimaraes for the minor strain reprise. So unlike the Victor, which opened with Armstrong firmly in control for the first few choruses, he only takes one here, featuring some lovely rubato phrasing, but also sounding a little tentative.

The reeds do some hair-raising climbs and falls behind Guimaraes's minor episode and then Pops comes in for the vocal, something the 1933 record did not include. He sings two choruses, mostly on one pitch, while the band answers him with an ascending riff first heard on Louis's 1929 recording. He moans and growls a bit in his second outing; and dig his final "me," sung on a D, the fifth of the key of G they're playing in, kind of a bizarre note to end on, but it works.

Then it's time for the parade of solos, with Louis getting REALLY animated in his cheerleading. I don't think I'm reaching when I say that Louis inhaled a tremendous amount of gage before this session! More on that as we go. Guimaraes is up first, sounding strong, if a little stiff. In 1957, Louis visited Rio de Janeiro and Guimaraes attended an All Stars concert on November 28. Louis let him sit in and Guimaraes joined in for "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Tiger Rag" and "St. Louis Blues"....three of the six songs recorded in Paris in 1934!

Next up, the great Peter duConge, who was born in New Orleans in 1898 and eventually settled in Paris, marrying the famed Ada "Bricktop" Smith. duConge's a fine player who starts off his solo here almost as if he has "High Society" on the brain. Next up is Brother Chittison, who opens with one of Louis's favorite descending blues licks before going for himself; dig those descending harmonies at the close of his too-quick chorus! Alfred Pratt turns on the heat with his tenor and Armstrong seems to particularly like his "mugging."

During a 1960 interview with Chittison on John McClellan's show, Armstrong reminisced about the making of "St. Louis Blues," specifically remembering an incident regarding Pratt on what have been an unissued take of the tune (interestingly, Armstrong couldn't remember his name and calls him "Vernel" throughout!). "I remember we was making this album and when we got to 'St. Louis Blues,' we had a tenor sax man called Vernel Pratt. You remember? And we didn't just say each man stand up and know when he'd come in, they'd wait for me to point to them, you know? And Chittison took his solo, Pete duConge. And when I got to Vernel Pratt, he's waiting with his tenor and I say, 'You take it!' [Armstrong goes silent as McClellan and Chittison laugh] Eight bars go by before he hit a note but when he came down, boy! That cat blew a lot of horn, didn't he, Chittison?"

As Pratt's solo winds down, Armstrong says, "I've gotta get some of this myself!" And then, as if by magic, the entire rhythm section increases the tempo simultaneously. This is not easy to do but I'm assuming they had done it with him before, drummer Ollie Tines and bassist German Arago having been with him for the past year. The Victor record didn't speed up so one must wonder when Armstrong started doing and why. I have a few theories. For one, the faster the tempo, the more Armstrong could relax and float over it. Also, there's the excitement factor, which is undeniable. But also, by shaving a few seconds off the clock, he might have been keeping some chops in reserve.

Regardless of the reason, Armstrong's ready now. He opens with one of his favorite quotes, Dvorak's "Going Home" as the band holds sustained chords behind him. Like in later years, the more Armstrong played a song live, the more quotes he'd find to squeeze into his solos. This is a particularly quote-heavy version as, right after "Going Home," Armstrong splits his second chorus by quoting "The Song is Ended" and "Swanee River" back to back.

But then it's time to get down to business. Like the Victor version, the target is that high concert D, but with that extra tempo, Armstrong can now take his time getting there. In chorus three, he rhythmically starts working over G on the first beat of every bar, the band riffing furiously behind him. He holds the G and then spends the next chorus, alternating the same G with a higher Bb blue note, the band now responding to his every move. And finally, in chorus five, there's that D....and there it is again....and again...and again....and again. Over and over, first gliss after gliss, then holding it, squeezing it, hitting it on the nose, repeating it, glissing down from it and ending by glissing back up to it.

My goodness! To think of the state of his chops in this period and to still be able to take six climactic choruses like I said, super human. But in actuality, Louis was just warming up and would return to Handy's opus later in the same session.

Next up was another song Armstrong had been performing for years and once he had already recorded for OKeh twice in the 1930s, "Tiger Rag." I've covered both in this series, with the 1932 "New Tiger Rag" serving as the template  for most of Louis's following romps with the tiger, but in Paris, he was feeling frisky and contributed something totally different, so different, Brunswick issued it as "Super Tiger Rag" on the label. This is Dan Morgenstern's favorite Louis version of "Tiger Rag" and it rates very, very high for me, too. Here's the YouTube link:

The first thing you'll notice is that Louis dropped the tempo a bit to a more manageable, though still demanding, gait as compared to his 1930-1933 versions. Louis leads off with the first strain, playing it fairly straight with his own, customary changes in phrasing. Clarinetist  duConge takes some hot breaks in the opening ensemble, including one from "Rigoletto" that was always a favorite of Pops's. The gruff tenor of  Pratt takes a fine solo on the main strain, steeped a bit in Coleman Hawkins (with a hint of Bud Freeman?), before another daring outing by the great Chittison, offering up some of Earl Hines's ambidextrous movements, along with some Tatum-esque virtuosity.

After Chittison's offering, Louis jumps in with what seems like a snatch of "When You and I Were Young Maggie." He's super relaxed and his playing is very daring; listen to how he approaches his first break and how he keeps that rhythmic motif going for a few extra bars, breaking the tension by turning it into an exciting upwards run. Armstrong's second chorus is a stunner; no quotes, no riffs, it's just pure improvisation, with more tension-filled rhythms. I mean, this cat is really on the high wire a couple of times but he never falls. Perhaps the slower (slower!?) than usual tempo allowed Pops to relax and improvise more? Perhaps there was a LOT of marijuana in the studio that day (remember, the final tune recorded would be "Song of the Vipers")? Whatever the reason, I'm not complaining!

But finally, with one more chorus in him, Louis pulls out all the stops....and how! He holds a supercharged high Ab before playing a final chorus chock full of high C's. This is as close to the 100-high-notes-Louis of the early 30s ever captured on records and I think it's pretty exciting. All in all, he hits 30 high C's in the final chorus, holding the last one to great effect, before building up to that final high Eb (again, F on the trumpet). And as he comes down the home stretch, he raises the tempo a few notches, the band speeding up with him. Like "St. Louis Blues," the rhythm section flawlessly follows him into the stratosphere, again, probably from doing this one so often. But of all the versions of "Tiger Rag" in the Armstrong discography (see my ten-part series from 2010), this one really stands out for its free-floating rhythmic and effortless improvisation. Chops trouble? What chops trouble? Super!

As the session wore on, Louis breezed through "Will You Won't You Be My Baby" and contributed one for the ages with the two-part "On the Sunny Side of the Street," which I'll cover tomorrow.  After "Sunny Side," Louis must have been feeling really good so either he or Canetti requested another stab at "St. Louis Blues." Here's how it turned out:

Wee! The difference between the first and second attempts are almost immediately noticeable. Once again, another trumpet player takes the opening minor strain and then Louis swoops in for TWO choruses instead of the one he took earlier in the day. He's still very relaxed, only hinting at W.C. Handy's original melody, and staying firmly in the middle register of the horn, except for a brief blue note blast in the second go-around. Clearly, he's in the mood to play.

From there, it follows the pattern of the first version for a while: trombonist Lionel Guimaraes takes the minor strain and then Louis sings almost identically as he did on take 1, right down to ending on the fifth. The parade of soloists follows, with Guimaraes and clarinetist Peter duConge pretty much playing their earlier solos, proof that they had probably set their choruses after playing it so often with Louis in live performances (and yet, Louis was the only one to get steady criticism for setting his offerings). I don't think I've mentioned that duConge was a student of the great New Orleans master Lorenzo Tio; it shows in his playing throughout this session.

Chittison, though, offers up a new chorus, as does tenor saxophonist Pratt, who gets the same emphatic backing from drummer Ollie Tines that he did the first time around. Louis has been shouting encouragement the entire time, but during Pratt's solo, he yells, "Old Al Brown!" He mentions "Al Brown" on the next tune, "Song of the Vipers," too, and for years that mystified me as no discography ever mentioned a musician named Al Brown present.

But then it hit me. I'm a bit of a boxing historian and I remembered an old bantamweight champion named Panama Al Brown. A quick look at his bio states, "He enjoyed Paris so much that he decided to stay there for the rest of his life. He became a hugely popular boxer in France, and fought on the European continent 40 times between 1929 and 1934....During his time in France, he joined Josephine Baker's La Revue Negre as a tap-dancer. His lover Jean Cocteau helped him." I don't know if this has been reported elsewhere, but I have a pretty strong hunch that Louis probably palled around with Panama Al Brown in Paris and invited him to this session, giving him a few shoutouts along the way (something he did years later on the 1956 "Song of the Islands," with scatted hellos to pals Slim Thompson and Lorenzo Pack).

Immediately after, the rhythm section goes into hyperdrive and Louis is ready to go into his routine. Or is he!? On the first attempt, he opened with a string of quotes: Dvorak's "Going Home" into "The Song is Ended" into "Swanee River." Now? Totally different. He spends an entire chorus pecking and poking (like Panama Al Brown), getting his feet wet. Then he takes Dvorak for a relaxed spin in the second chorus before starting his third helping with a brand new one: "Dixie"! Three brand new choruses. So much for set playing! But after that, he builds up to those high D's in the same manner and just blows the roof off the studio. In all, this "St. Louis Blues" is 23 seconds longer than the first one and all of that new time is devoted to Louis. I'll take it!

Interestingly, Brunswick couldn't straighten it out and released both versions simultaneously with some pressings of "Super Tiger Rag" containing the first version on the flip side and other ones containing the second. When Vox put out the big 78-album reissue in 1947, they opted for the second version (and a spelling of "Saint" rather than "St.") so that's been the more common take, but both are pretty fantastic.

Phew, that was a long post for three selections currently not streaming anywhere, but hopefully it was worth it. No links below but I'll leave the personnel. Come back tomorrow for "Sunny Side"!

Louis Armstrong (tp, voc), Jack Hamilton, Leslie Thompson (tp), Lionel Guimaraes (tb), Peter DuCongé, Henry Tyree, Alfred Pratt (reeds), Herman Chittison (p), Maceo Jefferson (g), German Arago (b), Oliver Tines (d).
Studio Polydor recording session - Paris, France November 7, 1934
No Spotify links for either but here are YouTube links for the master takes of "Super Tiger Rag" and the second "Saint Louis Blues":


Popular Posts