Friday, February 27, 2015

Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival - England Bound!

After starting the year with an onslaught of thick, new blogs, I'm sorry for disappearing after Valentine's Day. Fortunately, it was for a good reason: on Monday, March 2, I'm flying to England for the first time to spread the gospel of Pops at the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival!

And what a week it is shaping up to be. I will be in England from March 2 through March 9 and I have something booked for every day except March 5 (where I might escape from Bristol to London for one day just to see it in the flesh). On two of the days, I'll be giving private lectures for Bristol students, but three of the events in Bristol are ticketed-affairs open to the public and I do hope to see some of British Pops nuts in the audience!

On March 4 at 18:30, I'll be hosting An Evening With The King of Jazz at the Watershed movie theater. When asked to present Pops in such a setting, it seemed appropriate to screen clips of Louis in films. I'll be running the gamut from everyone's favorites ("The Five Pennies Saints," "Now You Has Jazz") to some rarer offerings ("Kisses in Der Nacht," "The Beat Generation," "That's What the Man Said" from Glory Alley and an extended sequence from Edward R. Murrow's Satchmo the Great). If you want to see why Pops was a popular presence in over 30 films, don't miss this one.

Then on March 7, I'll have my own showcase at the Lantern at 12:45, as part of the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival. The official topic is The Life and Legacy of Louis Armstrong and I'm really breaking out the big guns for this. I'm going to examine how perceptions of Louis's legacy have changed since he died (He went commercial! He was an Uncle Tom! He clowned too much!) to today, using Louis himself to make my points with excerpts from his private tapes, audio of previously unissued performances and most of all, some of my favorite rare pieces of Pops footage (all different from the Watershed evening).

Finally, no Louis Armstrong fan is going to want to miss The Louis Armstrong Story at Colston Hall at 14:00 on Sunday. I'll be offering a short introduction but then will get out of the way as a band of international all stars (including Evan Christopher, Lillian Boutee, Don Vappie, Denny Ilett, Enrico Tomasso, Ian Bateman and others!) will pay tribute to the various stages of Armstrong's career. The Louis Armstrong House Museum has provided copies of some of Pops's original big band arrangements so I'm particularly excited to hear them live for the first time. And playing the role of Pops will be the acclaimed actor Clarke Peters, who will be reading Louis's own words throughout the performance. If you have your doubts, watch Peters read one of Louis's letters in this fantastic video from the Southbank Centre last year:


So there you have it. It'll be a great big Pops lovefest in England next week and I'm honored to be a part of it. More details and updates to come and I really hope to meet some of my Armstrong loving friends from the UK while I'm there!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

I'm Confessin' (That I Love You) - Valentine's Day 2015

I'm usually a stickler for tradition. For the past six Valentine's Day, I always share the same post on Louis's unspeakably beautiful 1950 recording of "That's For Me." 24 hours ago, I was about to do the same for today; why change perfection?

But then late last night, I was at my daughter's Girl Scouts meeting and realized I hadn't updated the Louis Armstrong House Museum Facebook page. All week, I had been sharing great Louis love songs in honor of Valentine's Day and thought of "I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)," the well-known standard Louis put on the map in 1930. I was about to upload that classic first version when a YouTube search revealed that my man Austin Casey had uploaded one of my all-time favorite pieces of Pops footage: Louis on The Frank Sinatra Show, January 1, 1952, doing one of his finest ever versions of the tune. I shared it to the Armstrong House page, but then shared it on my own page and watched as Armstrong fans around the world delighted in it, much as I have since I first saw it about seven years ago, thanks to another friend, Dave Whitney.

So please, if you have time, click that top link and listen to and read about "That's For Me," as it really will put you in the right frame of mind for this day of romance. But for now, to break with tradition, I'm going to share that video of Pops doing "Confessin'" on the Sinatra show. It's better than candy and roses....


I don't think that requires much analysis, but I'll say a few words. The opening trumpet spot, though short, is just a great example of how to caress a melody to maximum effect. Interestingly, Louis looks downward the whole time, pointing his horn to the floor, uncharacteristicly  looking a bit solemn. But then he starts singing....and watch out! He is on fire. Everyone on the set--the actors and actresses behind him, pianist Bill Miller, even Sinatra himself (heard scatting at one point offscreen)--is just completely enchanted by everything this little giant is so offering. He bobs up and down, tilts his neck, smiles throughout, mugs a bit, even holds his hands in a charming, angelic pose in the bridge. If you watch it with the sound off, you're likely to be just as enchanted.

But keep that sound on because in the middle, he takes the bridge on the trumpet, so relaxed, so poised, the trumpet's posture getting more elevated as he goes, topped off by a pitch-perfect bridge. When he resumes the vocal, the actress directly behind him simply stares with her mouth agape. She ain't acting. I'm sitting at home in 2015 and I'm doing the same thing. Louis takes it out with an extended scat cadenza, looking directly at Sinatra as he goes into his closes. I hope Frank enjoyed that master's class in how to sell a song....looks like he did!

So for Valentine's Day--or any day--this clip should put you in a righteous mood. I'll never forget my first time to Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans in 2008, when I was completely unknown, showing this performance and watching George Avakian holding his head in astonishment. He had never seen it before and after the entire hourlong presentation was over, all he wanted to talk about was that "Confessin'." You don't need to talk about Pops tonight, but confessin' that you love your significant other is never bad advice. Thanks, Pops!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Louis Armstrong on Desert Island Discs

Anyone remotely familiar with my work with Louis Armstrong knows that I'm always on a crusade.

"Hey, no one's paying attention to Louis Armstrong's later years! I know, I'll write a book on it!"

"Hey, Universal, Gosta Hagglof passed away and in his collection is a complete version of Louis's 1947 Symphony Hall concert....release it!"

"Hey, Sony is sitting on all this unreleased live Armstrong from the 1940s and 1950s...this would be perfect for Mosaic Records!"

I'm always looking out for ways to make Pops available to the public. Just last week, I was back in the studio for Universal, helping to oversee the production of a deluxe edition of Louis's Mercury album Mame, complete with a ton of alternate takes. But I couldn't just rest there, and spent most of the time in the studio talking about how they should release Louis at the Crescendo Club in complete form. They'll look into it....

This is what keeps me going. But when I'm not crusading, I happen to have the world's greatest day job as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the world's largest archives for a single jazz musician. Even there, I'm surrounded by Louis's tapes, trumpets, manuscripts, photographs, etc. and I daydream about ways to get those priceless materials more available to the public.

But sometimes I can be so close to the real gold, that I miss an opportunity even when it's right under my nose.

That's what happened this weekend when the BBC released Louis Armstrong's 1968 appearance on Desert Island Discs available to the public for the first time. The media has blown up over this and rightly so, as it's a delightful broadcast. I'm happy to have played a role in this drama and was interviewed by The Guardian and quoted by BBC itself on their story that appeared over the weekend. Social media is buzzing and Louis nuts around the world have been listening and sharing their thoughts with me since it hit. All great!

But in a way, it's funny for me because I have been so familiar with this broadcast for nearly 10 years. As those articles make clear, Louis finished the broadcast and probably requested the BBC send him a copy for his personal collection. They did, putting "Desert Island Discs" on side 2 and an earlier 1965 Humphrey Lyttelton-hosted documentary that originally aired as a BBC Television Show of the Week in 1965 on side 1 (hey BBC: any way you can release the video of that one while we're at it?). They shipped the tape to Louis's Corona, Queens home.


In 1969, Louis emerged from two stints in intensive care in rough shape and was told by his doctors to stay home and rest. Lucille Armstrong had remodeled his den with two new Tandberg tape decks and sometime in late 1969, Louis went back to work, re-catlaloging old tapes and making new ones. He numbered each one, starting with #1. Probably sometime in early 1970, Louis got to the BBC reel and made it Reel 46, affixing a photo of trombonist Tyree Glenn on an exercise bike to the front of the box:

Louis put it back on his shelf and that was that. He passed away in 1971. Lucille Armstrong never threw anything away (bless her) and she passed away in 1983. The tapes--and everything else in the House--eventually made it to nearby Queens College. Michael Cogswell was hired as Archivist in 1991 and immediately started copying Louis's tapes, making them available to the public when the Armstrong Archives eventually opened in 1994. In 2002, Cogswell--now Director--hired an audio engineer to make CD copies of Louis's tapes so now researchers could come in and request reference CDs of just about everything Louis recorded. So the "Desert Island Discs" episode has been available to the public for a minimum of 13 years but most probably, it's been hanging out since the Archives opened in 1994. 

As for me, I made my first trip to the Archives as a researcher in January 2006. I immediately dove into the tapes and didn't emerge for quite some time. On, I believe, my second trip, I requested this tape and loved it. Quotes from both the Lyttelton show and Desert Island Discs made it into my book. Terry Teachout was also visiting the Archives in 2006 and also listening to the Desert Island Discs tape, which made it into his book Pops in 2009. I don't think either of us knew at the time that this was such a rarity. More on Terry in a bit. 

But the main reason I didn't think it was this rare treasure was because of my late friend, Jos Willems. In 2007, I started this here blog and was befriended by Willems, author of the essential Armstrong discography All of Me. Jos used to send me package after package of rare Armstrong recordings and footage. Incredible. And one of those discs included the two July 1968 BBC appearances, Desert Island Discs and Be My Guest. In July 2009--before I had my Armstrong Archives gig--I celebrated the two-year anniversary of this blog by posting the entire audio of Be My Guest. If only I had chosen Desert Island Discs, I could have been in all the British papers six years earlier! 

In 2011, the BBC decided to start a priceless website dedicated to past episodes of Desert Island Discs. On April 4 of that year, Armstrong superfan--and regular reader of this blog--James P. Ralph wrote me personally to tell me that Louis was included and his chosen records were listen....but no audio. What a shame, but again, for all my crusading nature, I never thought, "Hmmm, I should alert the BBC about this immediately!" I just assumed that for whatever reason, rights or permissions or something, they just chose not to share the audio. My mistake.

But cut to November 2014 and the aforementioned Terry Teachout did just that, alerting the BBC that a copy of Armstrong's Desert Island Discs episode did indeed survive at the Armstrong Archives. A short time later, a BBC representative wrote me to see if it was true and I said it was....would they want a copy? Would they! Flash forward to this weekend and the whole world is digging Pops and reading these stories about the finding of the tape. Again, I'm thrilled to have played an important role and getting the audio back to the BBC but I just wanted to take this time to say it was a multi-person effort, starting with Louis Armstrong, who cataloged it; Lucille Armstrong, who saved it; Michael Cogswell, who transferred it and made it available to the public; Terry Teachout, who alerted the BBC that we had it; the BBC, who followed the lead and tracked me down; and yours truly, who was happy to send the audio back across the pond so it could it could be shared again worldwide.

So that's the full story of how the tape made it back to the BBC...but how about the audio? Well, in case you didn't click on it the first time, here it is again. Louis Armstrong on Desert Island Discs - LISTEN NOW! It's about 30 minutes. I'll be waiting...

Done?  Wasn't that great? I think it deserves a few words, but first, let's look at the choices. If Louis Armstrong was stranded on a mythical desert island, these are the eight records he would have brought with him:

"Blueberry Hill" by Louis Armstrong
"Mack the Knife" by Louis Armstrong
"What a Wonderful World" by Louis Armstrong
"Bess, You Is My Woman Now" by Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald
"Stars Fell on Alabama" by Jack Teagarden (with Louis Armstrong)
"New Orleans" by Bobby Hackett
"People" by Barbra Streisand
"Bye Bye Blues" by Guy Lombardo

For me, it's been fascinating to see the reactions to listeners on Facebook. Some, seeing how many of his own records that he chose, have assumed that Armstrong didn't truly understand the rules of Desert Island Discs. My friend Michael Steinman made the perceptive point that Louis chose so many of his own because he didn't want to hurt the feelings of any friends he might have omitted. This is a great point as that's the very reason Louis shied away from questions of who his favorite musicians were. 

But after nearly 20 years of studying Armstrong and out, that list is a perfect representation of exactly what Louis Armstrong would have brought with him to a desert island. Let's break it down.
Louis Armstrong loved his own music. To non-musicians, that might not sound like headline news. But go find a musician, any musician, and ask them if they enjoy listening to their own recordings, morning, noon and night. I bet most would run away screaming at the mere notion.

But not Louis. He tried collecting all of his records and when he got his first reel-to-reel tape deck in 1950, immediately started making tapes full of his own music. Some might argue that he did this for study purposes. Yes, he'd occasionally record his own live concerts and would study them assiduously to see what worked and what didn't do he could put on the best live shows imaginable. And as he says on Desert Island Discs after saying he'd also like to bring his own book, "Like I hear my records, all from the first record, you can learn something, I feel. Now I feel just as fresh if I want to play the old tune or the new ones, I've got them right there. Don't have to worry about the arrangement loss. I've got them right there."

But it's more than that. He legitimately was entertained by his own records. I mean, can you blame him?

Armstrong frequently said, "I'm my own audience" and it wasn't just a stock line, Armstrong was 100% real every time he hit the stage. He loved what he did. When I was writing my recent blog on the Crescendo Club date, I listened to him and Trummy Young do "Rockin' Chair," a routine Armstrong had been doing for 25 years at that point. But more than once, he laughed so heartily at some of Trummy's lines that it hit me just how much he really loved those routines. You can't fake that.

Again. to those who think Louis didn't understand the concept or are worried that he was really an egomaniac, he answers all of that when host Roy Plomley asks him if he was surprised about his recent pop hits. "I ain't surprised. Why? If I please myself, I know somebody in the audience is going to have the same mind and thoughts I have about music."


So yes, there's some ego involved...how could there not be? He had been told for 40 years that he changed the sound of music. He was mobbed every time he walked out into the public. He stopped a war. You know that must seep in. "Sometime you've got to pat yourself on the shoulders," he says at the end of Desert Island Discs. Didn't he deserve to do that? In 1959, he told another British journalist, "Whatever it is, can't nobody do what I do," and freely admitted, "Now I'm egotistical to say that..." The most important thing is he didn't let it affect his humanity. He could listen to one of his records and say, "Can't nobody touch that," as he told Richard Meryman in 1965. But then he'd stop and talk to some kids, and handout money to some broken-down friends, write long letters to fans he didn't know and settle into his working class home in Corona, Queens. He remained humble to the end...even if he knew that his music was second to none.

And what of his choices? I'm sure there are purists grumbling, "Hurumph, he didn't even choose 'West End Blues'," This true but don't devalue the power of a hit recording. Louis was still playing "Blueberry Hill," "Mack the Knife" and "What a Wonderful World" nightly in 1968 and he could see how much his audiences loved them. That meant more to him than some scratchy 78s.

And besides, he identified with those tunes. While venting about "commercial" music to Meryman, Armstrong said, "But all songs display my life somewhere, and you got to be thinking and feeling about something as you watch them notes and phrase that music--got to see the life of the song. 'BlueberryHill that could be some chick I ain't seen for twenty years, who cares. 'Mack the Knife,' I seen many a cat in New Orleans lying around with a knife to slip in your back and take your money. And I think of that, even if the songs is so commercified."

Of "What a Wonderful World," Louis told the BBC that same week on "Be My Guest" that it brought him "back to my neighborhood in Corona, New York. Lucille and I, ever since we're married, we've been right there in that block. And everybody keeps their little homes up like we do and it's just like one big family. I saw three generations come up on that block. And they're all with their children, grandchildren, they come back to see Uncle Satchmo and Aunt Lucille. That's why I can say, 'I hear babies cry / I watch them grow / they'll learn much more / than I'll ever know.' And I can look at all them kid's faces. And I got pictures of them when they was five, six and seven years old. So when they hand me this 'Wonderful World,' I didn't look no further, that was it. And the music with it. So you can see, from the expression, them people dug it. It is a wonderful world."

So a song that made him think of past loves, a song that reminded him of his upbringing in New Orleans and a song that transported him back to his humble, children-filled neighborhood in Queens. Keep your cadenzas, I think those are pretty great things to be reminded of when alone on a desert island.

Armstrong's other choice involving himself is "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," from Porgy and Bess with Ella Fitzgerald. Louis was proud of that work and if you question his choosing it, well, I'll just assume you've never actually heard this track. If that's the case, take five minutes and have your life changed.

So those are the four Armstrong recordings, though technically there's a fifth in there as "Stars Fell on Alabama" is technically from Satchmo at Symphony Hall. But Louis chose it because he'd like to hear Jack Teagarden on his desert island. Who wouldn't? Teagarden was more than just a trombonist to Armstrong; Armstrong admitted, "he's like my brother," and when pressed to name his all-time favorite musician in 1958, Armstrong responded, "Easy. It's Jack Teagarden." Obvious choice. And if you read my latest blog on Louis's special relationship with Bobby Hackett, you shouldn't be surprised by his choosing Hackett's gorgeous 1955 version of "New Orleans" (with Teagarden again).

Moving on, there are still folks out there who are surprised Louis loved Guy Lombardo so much. It shouldn't be a surprise anymore. Louis made records from 1929-1932 that smacked of Lombardo's influence and he spent much of his life talking about how Lombardo's musicians were his "inspirators." He told Murray Kempton, "They ask me my favorite band and I tell them Guy Lombardo. They say you don't really mean that. And I say you asked me, didn't you?" Plomley inserted "Bye Bye Blues" as Louis's next pick but really, as Louis made clear, it could have been any Lombardo record.

And that leaves one more record, Barbra Streisand's "People," though clearly, if Louis had his way, he would have played his duet with Babs on "Hello, Dolly!" which he had just filmed but wouldn't be released for another year-and-a-half. (Don't worry, he dubbed it to at least ten separate reel-to-reel tapes in the last two years of his life.) Again, this was not a fluke. During the same 1968 UK tour, Louis wasn't traveling with his tape player, but rather a portable turntable and about 20 LPs. Showing them to Max Jones, he said, "But I've got Barbra Streisand--she can sing awhile, can't she?" He then put on an acetate of the duet on "Hello, Dolly" and said, "Sings her ass off," adding, "Say what you like, daddy, but she's outswinging every ass this year." He then told a story of filling out his Playboy musicians poll, saying, "Yeah, on the three places on the poll form for singers, first, second and third, I wrote on mine 'Barbra Steisand' and 'Ditto' and 'Ditto.'" Sounds like desert island material to me!

So those are my explanations as to why Pops's "desert island" choices were so appropriate. Having said that, you can only do so much with eight sides; given a few more, I'm sure Louis would have selected a Bing Crosby number. I'd like to think he'd choose a King Oliver but he was always critical of the 1923 Creole Jazz Band recordings, complaining that you could never hear the lead because Oliver's chops were so weak. And let's not forget about opera; next to his own recordings, Armstrong probably owned more opera records than anything else and I'm sure he would have liked to add a Caruso record or two.

As a postscript of sorts, Louis was asked to do something similar, though on a smaller scale, in July 1956, when he took over the Voice of America, playing disc jockey for five hours. It's one of my favorite broadcasts in the history of recorded sound, one that George Avakian found in his basement, copied for David Ostwald, Ostwald copied for me and I've been quoting and sharing bits and pieces ever since. For the full five hours, all you hear is Armstrong's voice, but clearly there's someone there guiding him. It's also well prepared as Armstrong has all the personnel and discographical info at his fingertips.

Nevertheless, Armstrong devoted one full hour to his favorite music by other musicians and this is what he chose:

"When the Saints Go Marchin' In" by Bunk Johnson
"West End Blues" by King Oliver (the 1929 remake)
"From Monday On" by Paul Whiteman (featuring Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby)
"You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby" by Bing Crosby (with Bob Crosby)
"Summertime" by Sidney Bechet
"St. James Infirmary" by Jack Teagarden (HRS version)
"New St. Louis Toodle-oo" by Duke Ellington
"You Won't Be Satisfied" by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
"'Bout to Wail" by Dizzy Gillespie

Interesting choices, right? The VOA obviously wanted Louis to stick in a jazz direction because after he discusses Diz's record, there's an abrupt shift to him talking about Guy Lombardo. He must have chosen a Lombardo record but it got cut out of the final show (it was taped, not aired live) but the producers decided to leave Louis's Lomardo story in.

The other four hours are devoted to Louis's own music so that love of his own sounds holds over to the 1968 Desert Island Discs. He also chooses a duet with Ella and a feature for Jack Teagarden so ditto on those. I mentioned that he must have chosen a Lombardo disc so Guy remained a favorite. And in the final hour, Louis played his own "Rockin' Chair" from Town Hall and made a point to point out Bobby Hackett's work, calling him one of his favorite trumpet players. So except for neat things like Oliver and Bix and Bing and Duke and Bechet (and Dizzy!), Louis's tastes in 1956 really carried over into 1968.

That ends my little delving into the story of Louis Armstrong's recently unearthed Desert Island Discs appearance. What a pleasure to take a role in the unearthing! There's  lot more I could write about what Louis listened to but I'll save that for another day. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Bobby Hackett and Louis Armstrong: The Cream and the Coffee

Bobby Hackett was born 100 years ago today, January 31, 1915. Whether on cornet or trumpet, Hackett possessed one of the most recognizable, gorgeous tones ever produced on any instrument. And being a self-confessed "freak about tonation," Louis Armstrong considered him one of his very favorite musicians.

The feeling was mutual to say the least. Interestingly, Hackett's breakout performance was at Benny Goodman's famous 1938 Carnegie Hall concert when Hackett was called on to perform a tribute to Bix Beiderbecke on "I'm Coming Virginia." Because of that moment, Hackett was immediately cast as an heir to Bix, something still following him to this day (Miles Davis loved Hackett and once said that he didn't listened to Bix but "I heard a lot of Bobby Hackett and he heard a lot of Bix.").

Surely, Beiderbecke had an influence on Hackett; on the surface, Hackett--who wasn't an upper register powerhouse player--might not seem like an Armstrong disciple. But if you look a little deeper, Hackett was a Louis man through and through. Hackett was a master of everything Louis valued--dedication to melody, tone, phrasing--and because of that, Louis never hesitated in speaking of his admiration of the Rhode Island cornetist. As he once said, "I'm the coffee, but Bobby's the cream." It's a great analogy (and not just from a black-white standpoint)--taken alone, Armstrong played beautiful melodies with a gorgeous tone but overall, was just so STRONG. Hackett lightened up Armstrong's attack but kept all those core values in place, producing a prettier, softer but still Louis-centric method of playing. As Michael Steinman has written, "I see it as something deeper [than a racial joke], the way two elements combine in a sweet synergy to create something that neither of them would have been, separate."

Armstrong's other famous quote regarding Hackett came when he was asked if he preferred Hackett or Billy Butterfield. Armstrong hated ranking musicians or listing his favorites but on this occasion, he couldn't help but respond, "Bobby. He got more ingredients." What a deep, informed, wonderful (and true) compliment. I don't get into issues of race much but I do find the connection between Armstrong and white trumpeters fascinating. If you asked him who his favorite trumpeter was, he'd usually say Bunny Berigan, though in later years, long after Bunny's untimely death, he'd answer Bobby. He also admired and seemed to have a bond with other white disciples such as Butterfield, Ruby Braff, Yank Lawson and Max Kaminsky. It's interesting because Louis inspired EVERYONE in the 1920s and 1930s but most of the black trumpeters who followed seemed like they felt that they had to do something different to get noticed. Jabbo Smith added speed. Red Allen went harmonically "out." Roy Eldridge added more speed and higher notes. Hot Lips Page focused on the blues. Jonah Jones was ALL Pops but later, found fame with "muted jazz," a concept alien to Louis, who didn't like using mutes. All these greats were "Louis men" but they all made sure to do something Louis didn't (and this is not a knock! I love them all.) But guys like Berigan and Hackett seemed cut directly from Pops's cloth; you could trace anything they did directly to Louis, which is probably why he seemed to admire them more than anyone else (and vice versa). I don't think it was a black-white thing or a rivalry thing (in some cases; I think Roy got under his skin occasionally), I just think Louis had more in common musically with what his white followers were putting down. Food for thought.

I wish I could do centennial tribute to Hackett's entire career--the Condon association, "Embraceable You," Jackie Gleason, Vic Dickinson, etc.--but for our purposes, I'm just going to stick to his relationship with Louis. For Hackett, it started early, as he told Whitney Balliett, "I heard my first Armstrong record in a Providence department store when I was a kid, and it turned me around. The sound has never left me." I'm sure they knew each other beforehand, but the first photographic evidence comes from the camera of Charles Peterson, taken at a Condon-centric jam session at the Walt Whitman  School in NY with special guest Pops (and dig Zutty Singleton beaming at the drums):


The first recorded meeting came two years later when Pops crashed a V-Disc session featuring Hackett and Jack Teagarden (among others) and stole the show with his earth-rattling playing on "Jack Armstrong Blues" and "Confessin'." Here's "Confessin'," with Hackett leading the harmonizing behind Louis's eloquent performance:



The V-Disc session pointed the way towards Armstrong future career as the leader of a small group, the All Stars. Another evening that pointed Armstrong in that direction was a Carnegie Hall concert on February 8, 1947, with Armstrong fronting a small group for one half and his regular big band for the second half. Armstrong's trumpet was stolen just a few hours before the show. Fortunately, Hackett was in attendance and Louis played the concert on Hackett's horn (though on his own mouthpiece; in a post-concert story, Hackett mentioned that Louis always carried his mouthpiece in his back pocket. "Smart," Bobby said.) This photo by Bill Mark was most likely taken backstage that day (because of Louis's somewhat unkempt hair; he had a slight, Afro-thing going on in this period). Hackett kept this one on his wall, along with another of just Louis inscribed to Hackett, "Best Wishes to 'Bobby.' They Don't Come Any Finer.":

The small group portion of the Carnegie Hall show was such a success, Ernie Anderson came up with the idea to have an entire evening devoted to Louis fronting a small group at New York's Town Hall on May 17, 1947. Anderson tagged Hackett as the musical director of the evening and Hackett responded by putting together a strong, Condon-style band with Jack Teagarden, Peanuts Hucko, Dick Cary, Bob Haggart and two drummers, George Wettling and Sid Catlett. Louis eschewed rehearsing that evening, so Hackett was left with the task of getting the band ready to perform many songs Armstrong himself hadn't performed live in years, and in some cases, decades. But everything came off without a hitch, a perfect marriage of Hackett's preparation and Armstrong's let's-take-some-chances mood. The results were recorded (and can be heard in better sound quality than ever before on last year's Mosaic Records All Stars box) and solidified the notion that the Armstrong and Hackett combination was a match made in heaven.

There is no better example of this than on the sublime ballad treatment of "Pennies from Heaven." Not only does Hackett play a superlative second trumpet role to Armstrong's lead, he contributes an obbligato behind Louis's vocal that simply knocked Pops out (on one of his tapes, he sang Hackett's part in a conversation with Leonard Feather). Here is that moment, one for the time capsules:


Bobby also got the chance to blow a little on another high point, "Ain't Misbehavin'," taking the last eight bars of the opening chorus and a typically lyrical 16 bars in the middle:


And now a bit of a treat. Famed photographer William Gottlieb was at Town Hall and took a famous photo of the band in action, one that has been published many times, usually with a mention that this is the only photo to have survived from the Town Hall concert. Not true! In Louis Armstrong's personal collection (held at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where I am Archivist), there are two snapshots from the Town Hall concert that have never seen the light of day, until now. The quality is pretty terrible and I had to watermark them (and everything else from the Armstrong House) because if I don't, they're on Facebook in five minutes with no attribution as to where they came from. But here they are, two new glimpses at Louis and Bobby leading the way that historic evening:




The Town Hall concert was a tremendous success. The writing was now on the wall for Louis to break up his big band and form a small group. Hackett would be a part of the transitional phase. A few days after Town Hall, Louis was asked to reprise a few songs for RCA Victor with a small group featuring some of the musicians who appeared at the concert. Hackett was again named musical director, turning in a lovely chart for the first recording of Armstrong's composition, "Someday You'll Be Sorry." Almost every time Louis referred to this recording on his tapes, he made sure to give Hackett the credit for making it such a memorable recording:


And in June, Hackett was there again when Louis led another small group during a short concert at the Winter Garden in New York before the premiere of the film New Orleans. You can hear Bobby back there on this lovely, early version of that film's contribution to mankind, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans":


And that was that. By August, Armstrong was ready to debut his All Stars and Hackett was ready to resume his already busy career. Throughout the ensuing years, both men remained close. Hackett appears on a fair number of Louis's private reel-to-reel tapes including one from the early 1950s, where the two men dub Louis's 1920s recordings. There isn't much conversation, but you can hear the enthusiasm and awe in Hackett's voice as he gives the titles, laughing in delight at the end of the Hot Seven "Weary Blues." (At the end of the tape, Louis leaves to warm up and Hackett stops the dubbing session and mentions that "Pops is in his practice room," capturing a few precious seconds of Armstrong's Herculean warm-up routine. Alas, Bobby goes back to playing records and obscures the sound of Louis's practicing....why, Bobby, why!) And I should also mention that Louis owned at least 10 Hackett LPs (many autographed by Bobby), as well as numerous recordings on tape, including some rare live gigs Hackett must have given him as a gift. They both loved listening to each other--can you blame them?

Michael Steinman was also the first to make this Bob Parent photo public, Louis dropping in at Bobby's gig at Childs Paramount on September 16, 1952. That is LOVE, my friends:


In the late 1950s, Hackett and Armstrong had a few reunions that were captured "for posterity." The first was on the very first "Timex All Star Jazz Show." Hackett was leading a band of All Stars alumni that just finished a storming "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" when Louis strode up to join Jack Teagarden on a reprise of their old routine on "Rockin' Chair." Bobby again resumes his role as ace second trumpet man but my favorite part of the entire video is his beaming face in the background and Louis and Jack do their thing:



That moment led to this warm remembrance Hackett offered to Whitney Balliett after Armstrong passed away: "Pops taught me so much. Once, on one of those Timex television shows, I was supposed to play a solo between his vocal and Jack Teagarden's. It was a slow, slow number, and the first time I tried it, I just stumbled. He leaned over to me and said, 'Play whole notes, Bobby, play whole notes.' And of course, he was right. And the reason I've finally switched from cornet to trumpet is that he was after me to do it for years. He kept saying that if the cornet was all that good, everybody would play it. Right again. He also taught me by his example that the key to music, the key to life, is concentration. When I solo, I listen tot he piano and the other instruments, and I try to play against what they're doing. But the ideal way to play would be to concentrate to such an extent that you could hear was yourself, which is something I have been trying to do all my life, to make my music absolutely pure. You either hit home runs or you strike out in this business. Anything in between, you're second-rate."

The following year, the All Stars appeared at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival in a scorching set now commercially available on the aforementioned Mosaic set. As a bonus, Louis held a little Town Hall reunion at the end of his set, inviting Teagarden and Hackett to do four numbers. And when it came time to feature Hackett, Louis had him do "Pennies from Heaven." In the ultimate sign of respect, Louis didn't blow a note, letting Hackett bask in the spotlight for a full-chorus solo up front and another ace obbligato behind Louis's vocal:



In January 1959, Louis and Bobby were reunited again on television for the fourth and final "Timex All Star Jazz Show." Again, illustrating how much respect he had for Bobby, Louis had him join in on the medley of "Old Fashioned Love" (featuring Barbara Dane) and "Ole Miss." Louis plugs Hackett's Miami gig in the introduction, lets him handle the obligato behind Dane and gives him space to blow two dynamite choruses before Gene Krupa solos and Pops shows the way home:


Milt Hinton was present for that occasion and took this photo at rehearsal. From left to right: Billy Kyle, Dane, Bobby, Louis, Jackie Gleason (on drums!) and Louis's friend Slim Thompson. I love this photo so much, a postcard of it resides at my desk at the Armstrong Archives:

In the 1960s, Armstrong and Hackett's paths rarely crossed musically, which is a shame. In 1964, Hackett did record Hello Louis: Bobby Hackett Plays the Music of Louis Armstrong, a top-notch tribute to his hero (and yes, Louis owned this one). Still, they frequently hung out when Louis was in New York. Here's Hackett again to Whitney Balliett:

"Later, I got to know him real well, and he was a saint. He was the softest touch in the world. Whenever I went into his dressing room at Basin Street, or someplace like that, it would be full of broken-down musicians and show-biz types looking for a buck. It finally got so that Joe Glaser, who managed Pops most of his life, but a twenty-dollar lid on each handout. Even so, I think he helped support hundreds of people. It was one of his greatest pleasures. He always made you feel relaxed, made you feel at home. Probably because his philosophy about life was, Man, it's all in fun. In fact, he told me once-that voice way down there in his shoes--'It's a good thing Joe Glaser don't know it, but I'd do all this for nothing.' I'd visit him in Queens whenever we were both in town. Once, he was finished playing at Freedomland, and I met him there when he was finished. We went to his house and he got into his Bermuda shorts. Then we went to some nightclub nearby, and walking in with Pops was like walking in with God. We went to a Mrs. Davenport's house in Astoria after and we ate. She had a Hammond organ, and Pops sat down and played for a good half hour, just ad-libbing and composing little things to himself. I think it was the musical highlight of my life. We went back to his house and we wound up in his bedroom, with him on the bed in his underwear and me sitting in a chair, and we talked about trumpet players. He always said good, nice thing about other horn players, like 'Sweets Edison should take that mute out,' but you had to read him close sometimes, because he'd get names and words all mixed up. Al Hirt always came out 'Milt Hoit,' after the organist Milt Herth, and he always called George Wein 'Ted Weems.'"

The good news of this period is that Louis connected with Jack Bradley of Cape Cod in 1959 and Jack snapped thousands of pictures of Louis in the last 12 years of his life, captured many of Louis and Bobby offstage and on. Every photo from here on out was taken by Jack, who I might add, also served as Hackett's manager when the two moved back to Cape Cod after Louis's passing. Here they are in the 1970s:

Jack was there for an epic evening in Chicago in 1967 when Louis dropped in on Bobby Hackett's gig and found another disciple of his, Jonah Jones, in the audience. Again, look at the love dripping from this photo:


And when Louis, after two years of recovery from illness, made the album Louis Armstrong and His Friends in May 1970, Bobby was there to cheer him on. Here they are at the session, with Louis greeting trumpeter Bobby Branca:



But the real last hurrah of this friendship came at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 10, 1970. Louis believed he had just turned 70, so George Wein dedicated an entire evening in tribute to him. Doctors still didn't allow him to blow his trumpet so just as in the old days, Bobby Hackett was called in to serve as the evening's music director. Again, Jack Bradley was there to capture a few touching photographs from the rehearsal:




During rehearsal, Louis and George Wein got into a little row when Wein suggested Louis walk on unannounced and do "Pennies from Heaven." Louis insisted on his theme song, "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." The whole sequence was filmed and though Louis, with a big assist from Tyree Glenn, eventually convince Wein to open with "Sleepy Time," my favorite moment is Hackett lovingly siding with Louis, telling Wein, "If that's the way he feels!" Click here to watch the segment, starting at the 11:50 mark. Louis won out and Jack Bradley caught this beautiful shot of Pops basking in the applause with Hackett right behind him:



Here's the footage of that moment. Hackett's tone just kills me. And after "Sleepy Time," it's very fitting that once again, they reprise "Pennies from Heaven." Their song.



Earlier that evening, Hackett presided over what was billed as the "Trumpet Player's Tribute," featuring performances and words of praise for Louis from Hackett, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Owens, Wild Bill Davison, Joe Newman and Ray Nance. Hackett's segment is a fitting last clip to share on his centennial as he identifies himself as Louis's "number one admirer" and then plays an appropriate number: "Thanks a Million."



At the end of Hackett's performance, you can hear Louis assess his friend, Bobby. "I've got every one of his records and he's always been my favorite trumpet man as far as tonation and phrasing right now." I should also mention that on a 1968 episode of "Desert Island Discs" (which I'll have more about in my next post), Louis chose Hackett's 1955 recording of "New Orleans" as one of the eight records he would take to a mythical desert island. That's love.

As for Hackett, he took Louis's death pretty hard. When Whitney Balliett visited him shortly after, he found Hackett listening to nothing but Armstrong. Hackett told him, "That's part of a nine-hour tape I put together of Pops' stuff. It has recordings from the twenties to the sixties, and it's all mixed together. I play it all day when I'm here. I can't really feel that bad about his death. I mean, he isn't dead, because we're listening to him right now."

That goes for you, too, Bobby. The cream and the coffee. We'll be listening to them forever.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Joe Sullivan, Short-Lived All Stars Pianist

Today's post is one I've wanted to write for a while, but it took a blizzard and a few friendly Facebook requests to make it happen. Unlike most of Armstrong posts, which seem to explode from joy, this one will be a sad one as it will examine the short-lived All Stars tenure of piano great Joe Sullivan.

I wish I didn't have to provide much backstory for Sullivan, but alas, he seems to have slipped through the cracks when it comes to examining jazz history. Oh, how I wish Sullivan, Eddie Condon, Red Allen, Louis Prima, Stuff Smith, Chu Berry, Pee Wee Russell and my other heroes of 1930s jazz were better known today. Fortunately, the internet makes it easy to discover these unsung greats (as long as you know they exist in the first place). So let's take a 12 minute recess and listen to four Joe Sullivan piano solos, recorded in his prime in 1935: "Honeysuckle Rose," "Gin Mill Blues," "Little Rock Getaway" and "Onyx Bringdown":


Can't argue with that! As you can hear, Sullivan's playing with saturated with Fats Waller's influence, but Sullivan was still his own man, occasionally taking Earl Hines-esque chances with the time. Sullivan was the pianist of choice for many years of the Chicago school (aka Condon school) of playing, first  recording with the seminal McKenzie-Condon Chicagoans in 1927. He first encountered Louis Armstrong on the famed integrated 1929 recording of "Knockin' a Jug" and later had an uncredited reunion with him in the 1936 Bing Crosby film, Pennies from Heaven; that's Sullivan's dazzling piano playing on Pops's showpiece, "The Skeleton in the Closet".

A bout with tuberculosis halted Sullivan's tenure with the Bob Crosby band for a while, but he eventually rejoined in 1939 for some classic recordings, including this big band spin on Sullivan's composition (based on a strain of James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout"), "Little Rock Getaway":


Sullivan eventually left Crosby supposedly due to bad health but it was probably the first example of his having to leave a band because he was drinking too much. Still, Sullivan landed on his feet, making scores of memorable recordings as a leader and sideman and becoming a popular presence at New York's Cafe Society in the 1940s. Also, in 1942, Sullivan backed Armstrong at a typically-Condonfied jam session at the Walt Whitman School, photographed beautifully by Charles Peterson (for the story behind the photo, click here):

Now, let's flash forward to 1951. Louis is leading the All Stars and the personnel has been solid for a few years: Pops, Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole. But in the summer of 1951, things began to crack. First, bassist Shaw left the band to study in Switzerland. He was replaced by a veteran, the relatively unheralded Dale Jones, in July. Next, Teagarden, Armstrong's closest friend in the group, got the itch to lead again and eventually also left. Armstrong remembered trombonist Russ Phillips, who once subbed for an ailing Teagarden in Denver, and offered him the trombone chair in September.

Finally, pianist Hines jumped ship, too. This was not a happy breakup. Hines never really wanted to join the All Stars and be a sideman again. He sulked for most of his three years with the band and finally broke free in October. Louis was angry and went to the jazz press to rant about "Hines and his ego, ego, ego!" My book has more quotes on the subject but I recently discovered some fresh rantings that Louis gave historian Bill Russell in 1953, saying, "Hines! I wouldn't use Hines again if he was the last piano player in the world. I'd get a zither or something."

It's romantic to think of that early 50s band as a happy conglomeration of some of jazz's biggest names, working together to create memorable music onstage and having fun carousing and laughing in their downtime. Naturally, it wasn't quite like that. Louis told Russell, "Soon as Hines joined the band, the got a clique--Hines, and Cozy Cole and Shaw. They decided they wouldn't sign any programs or meet the customers. Hines just hates everybody. You can't run a band like that. You're in show business. If you don't keep people happy, get out of it, Pops."

With half the sextet gone, it was time for a rebuilding phase. Louis took some time off at the end of 1951 to film Glory Alley but debuted his new All Stars with a two-week stint at the Club Oasis in Los Angeles on December 18. Jones had been playing with the group since July and Louis told friends on one of his tapes that he was better than Shaw (to my ears, he wasn't, but Jones was apparently a great showman--no films of him exist--and as the above quote illustrates, Shaw was on Louis's bad side). Phillips had been there since September and was doing his best to fill Teagarden's big shoes. But at the Oasis, Louis would showcase his new pianist: Joe Sullivan.

Louis was excited, saying of Sullivan, "Pops plays fine piano." For the first four years of their existence, the All Stars were truly ALL STARS. But now, with lesser-lights like Jones and Phillips in the band, it was probably good for business to have an established name like Sullivan at the keyboard.

Unfortunately, what was good for business was bad for music. Sullivan, by this point, was a raging alcoholic. Perhaps Joe Glaser hoped Sullivan could get his act together by joining Louis but Sullivan's disease was too far gone and had begun to affect his playing.

The All Stars spent January in 1951 in California, first at the Oasis, then the Hangover in San Francisco and then a week in Sacramento. With a solid month under his belt, one would hope that Sullivan would have gotten the hang of the All Stars book. He hadn't. As will be demonstrated momentarily, not only was Sullivan prone to making sloppy mistakes at the piano, the times had passed him by. Believe me, I LOVE stride piano more than any other piano style and Sullivan was one of the best at it. But Louis Armstrong never sounded sounded comfortable with stride backing. His music always seemed to charge forward, swinging all the way (Baby Dodds said Louis was the one who made him play 4/4 instead of 2/4). Sullivan's accompaniment rarely strayed for a deadening oom-pah oom-pah oom-pah, halting any sense of swing Jones and Cole were trying to generate behind Louis.

After the month in California, the All Stars headed north of the border for Vancouver, Canada. On February 1, they'd play in front of a nearly hysterical crowd at Kitsilano High School, an afternoon gig that was recorded by disc jockey Jack Cullen. The next night, they played the Palomar Supper Club in Vancouver and again, a handful of recordings survive. Then during a string of one-nighters, Louis and the All Stars broadcast from Boise, Idaho on February 22.  The next night, a drunk Sullivan fell off the piano bench and was fired immediately.

That's it. One afternoon at Kitsilano High School, a few numbers from the Palomar Supper Club and a 30 minute broadcast from Boise. That's all the audio that survives from Joe Sullivan's tenure with the All Stars. And I can say without hesitation that taken as a whole, they make up the weakest recordings in the 24-year history of the All Stars.

Of the three, Kitsilano is still the best solely because of the reaction of the audience. These are children of World War II, the same kids who would be screaming their heads off at Elvis and rock and roll a few years later. But on February 1, 1952, they just wanted to scream at Louis Armstrong....and scream they did! I can't think of another All Stars recording made in front of such an enthusiastic crowd. (Quick shoutout to my friend Bud McNeely who has devoted many years to documenting the backstory of the Kitsilano gig in videos such as this one.) On a few numbers, Louis even sits in with some of the Kitsilano jazz band students, making for some sweet, if shaky, sounds. The funny part is the Kitsilano student pianist accompanies everything is a stiff oom-pah--and when Sullivan rejoins, he doesn't sound much better.

For example, here's "Steak Face," the 12-bar-blues drum feature that originated with Sid Catlett. The 1947 Satchmo at Symphony Hall version is the classic; I've heard Loren Schoenberg gush about the powerful swing of the rhythm section. But at Kitsilano? Not so much. For one thing, "Steak Face," like Count Basie's "One O'Clock Jump," starts in F and modulates to Db; Sullivan misses the modulation (he'd been in the band for six weeks already and obviously still didn't have the routine down or at least wasn't paying attention to Louis). Once he catches himself, it's oom-pah time, killing the momentum of the piece both before and after Cole's drum theatrics:




But to give credit where credit is due, Sullivan could still play when the spotlight was on him. Here he is still tearing up "Little Rock Getaway":


Now that's more like it. Sullivan would get that one feature each night to shine but the rest of the night would be pretty rough. On "Blueberry Hill" the following night at the Palomar in Vancouver, listen to the dead rhythm section, Louis tapping and stomping his foot to get them together. Sullivan even seems unsure of the changes under the bridge, which you'd hope he'd have under his fingertips after six weeks with the band:



Finally, a selection of performances from Boise, which was broadcast nationally and even recorded by Louis. Louis enjoyed studying his shows on reel-to-reel tape; I can't imagine he was thrilled with how this one turned out. This isn't a train wreck, but again, I want to include it just to give an idea of how this band sounded and how Sullivan's accompaniment, after the lively introduction and romping solo, gets rather frustrating as the performance goes on:



Now for the real train wreck: "Back O'Town Blues." Sullivan was a master slow blues player (see "Gin Mill Blues" again from 1935) and learning how to navigate the 12-bar-blues is something that beginners can master. But on this "Back O'Town Blues," Sullivan takes a meandering introduction, Louis steamrolls him....and Sullivan gets lost. Utterly, helplessly lost. He can't hear the rest of the band and continues changing the chords at all the wrong times for at least the first two minutes of the performance. I shudder every time I hear this one:



That's pretty rough but hey, it's one song, it can happen to anyone, right? (I know it's happened to me!) But the VERY NEXT SONG is Barney Bigard's romp on "C-Jam Blues" and once again, Sullivan gets stuck in Ellington's riff melody and changes at the wrong time for the first minute. Pay attention, Joe! Poor guy.

But again, Sullivan wakes up when it comes time for his feature, in this case, an exciting two-fisted romp on "I Found a New Baby":



As exciting as his features are, though, Sullivan was also hired to be a band pianist and he just couldn't cut it. After falling off the bench the next night, Marty Napoleon were hired in a hurry, just in time for Louis's first major tour of Hawaii. One of the shortest tenures in All Stars history was over.

There doesn't seem to be any bad blood between Armstrong and Sullivan. I don't think either talked much about this incident. And in one of Louis's scrapbooks housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, there's an ultra rare photo of Louis and Joe together during this period, lovingly inscribed by Sullivan.

But like a sports team, all working bands must go through a rebuilding phase at some point and the beginning of 1952 was the All Stars's most troubling period. Fortunately, it didn't last long. Marty Napoleon proved to be the most exciting pianist Louis ever hired, and someone who was able to stabilize the shaky rhythm section. Jones kept the bass chair swinging--and Louis happy--until Shaw returned, reenergized in the summer of 1952. I admire Russ Phillips's Teagarden-inspired playing but during the aforementioned Hawaiian trip, Louis ran into old friend Trummy Young and started lobbying to get Trummy to join the band, which finally happened in September 1952. Now, compare the All Stars playing "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans" in Stockholm, Sweden in October 1952 (with Bob McCracken replacing Barney Bigard, who also needed a little break) with the version we heard from Boise in February of the same year; it's like listening to different band:


And there was more greatness to come! But in early 1952, the All Stars were struggling and a lot of it was because of the inner struggle of pianist Joe Sullivan. Somehow, Sullivan hung out for almost 20 more years, passing away in October of 1971. He spent those years bouncing from gig to gig, mostly out of the spotlight. It's a sad ending for someone who was a part of so many memorable record dates in the 1920s, 30s and 40s.

Louis never directly addressed Sullivan's stint as an All Star but in the same 1953 conversation with Bill Russell that he slammed Earl Hines, Armstrong did say, "Musician can't drink and work." Asked by Russell, "Do you object to drinking in your band," Armstrong gave the following answer, probably with Sullivan in mind: "I don't tell them anything. If they can play, I don't care what they do. But they can't play if they're drunk." The few surviving recordings of Joe Sullivan with the All Stars offer definitive proof of that.


Saturday, January 24, 2015

85 Years of "Song of the Islands"

Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded January 24, 1930
Track Time 3:31
Written by Charles E. King
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Otis Johnson, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano, vibes; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums; 3 unknown, violin
Originally released on Okeh 41375
Currently available on CD: Volume four of the JSP Hot Five and Hot Seven series has it, as does volume six of Columbia’s old Armstrong series (St. Louis Blues). It’s also available on about a hundred other discs!
Available on Itunes? Yes

After spilling out thousands of new words this month on a variety of Louis Armstrong classics, pardon me as I revisit one of my "greatest hits." I originally wrote about "Song of the Islands" in 2007 and then updated it with new information from my pals Dave Whitney and Michael Steinman, as well as a LOT of audio clips. I haven't added much but this is such a favorite performance of mine, I wanted to at least post my entry again for today, the 85th anniversary of its original recording. And I'm updating this while it's snowing outside....hopefully Pops and his Hawaiian opus can keep me warm. So it's revisiting time once again, friends...grass skirts optional.

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Today’s entry will deal with Charles E. King’s 1915 opus, “Song of the Islands,” which on some releases gets the subtitle, “Na Lei O Hawaii.” Now, I don’t speak Hawaiian, but I do believe that that must be Hawaiian for “Song of the Islands.” Pretty bright am I, eh?

I have no idea how this song wound up at a Louis Armstrong session, but after hearing the end results, I’m not complaining (though I wouldn’t be surprised if The Polynesians recorded “Dippermouth Blues” by accident that day…). Hawaiian music must have been on the upswing when Armstrong recorded the song in 1930, as the sheet music for the then-14-year-old song was reissued in 1929. Here’s a copy of this artifact, courtesy of eBay (please, no bidding):

Now, in writing these little entries, I usually like to do a little research on the song and the songwriter. So who was Charles E. King? A Google search turned up some information on the songwriter from—no joke—Hana Hou, “The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.” I quote: “On occasion, Queen Lili‘uokalani taught music, and one of her students, Charles E. King, wrote Hawaii’s best-known opera, Prince of Hawaii, which debuted in 1925. A tale of love and machinations in ancient Hawaii—replete with prince, princess, hula dancers, a chorus and musicians—Prince contained twenty-four songs, several of which have become Island classics, including ‘Beautiful Kahana’ and ‘Ke Kali Nei Au’ (better known as ‘The Hawaiian Wedding Song’).” Thus, King knew his Hawaiian sounds and it’s no surprise that “Song of the Islands” has lived on in countless film and cartoon appearances as a way of setting a Hawaiian atmosphere.

What is surprising is that King’s simple 16-bar melody would become a jazz standard, performed and recorded by the likes of Count Basie, Gene Ammons, Earl Hines and many more. Of course, it’s not so surprising when one considers that Louis Armstrong introduced it to the jazz world, much as he did the same with so many other future standards with his records of 1929-1933. When Armstrong entered OKeh’s New York studios on January 24, 1930, he was still more or less a freelance musician. His first New York session on March 5, 1929 was done with members of Luis Russell’s band. Armstrong obviously felt at home with the group, which featured a number of musicians from New Orleans, as they again backed Armstrong up on two classic sessions from December 1929, as discussed on this blog just last month. On those 1929 sessions, Armstrong even let young trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen blow a bit. Allen was obviously influenced by Armstrong (who wasn’t?) but he was really his own man, with a thoroughly modern approach to trumpet playing that hinged on devil-may-care rhythmic phrasing and the exciting use of nonchord tones. At the time, some accused him of playing wrong notes but he was just ahead of his time, though once the bop school started being hailed for playing those same “wrong notes,” Allen became a largely neglected figure. In taking a jazz historiography class at Rutgers while obtaining my Master’s degree, I was stunned that the majority of the class had no real clue of what a genius Red Allen was. A crime.

Anyway, on January 17, 1930, the Russell band backed Armstrong for a one-nighter at a midnight dance at Baltimore’s New Albert Auditorium, drawing 1,400 people. One week later, the Russell band shared an OKeh date with Armstrong, recording two of their own arrangements, plus “Song of the Islands” with Pops. The Russell band was up first with “Saratoga Shout.” I absolutely adore Luis Russell’s own recordings and I think his rhythm section deserves credit for being one of the first truly swinging units in jazz history. You can hear them in their glory by listening to “Saratoga Shout” here:


Red Allen’s hot solo on “Saratoga Shout” was taken with Armstrong looking on, as John Chilton writes in his marvelous Allen biography, Ride, Red, Ride. “Louis was visibly impressed by Red’s startling 32-bar-chrous on ‘Saratoga Shout’ and offered genuine congratulations, much to the young man’s delight. One suspects that Louis, even, then, knew that Red would never overtake him, but nevertheless Red, on top form, was a formidable rival.” Chilton goes on to quote Armstrong’s second wife, Lillian Hardin, who once was caught listening to a Red Allen record in Armstrong’s prescence. “He must have stood there for a minute with an angry expression on his face, then, after a bit, he smiled and said, ‘Yeah, he’s blowing.'"

With the Russell band sufficiently warmed up, it was time for Pops to perform “Song of the Islands.” Though it might have been something of a crazy idea from the a-and-r man, the group definitely had “Song of the Islands” down by the time they recorded it. I’m also guessing they must have given it a test spin at that Baltimore dance the previous week. Also, the Russell band was augmented by three violinists whose names have been lost to posterity, though Allen remembered them as white musicians from a local theater orchestra, according to Chilton. Before I go any further, why don’t you have a listen to the relaxing sounds of “Song of the Islands":


From the opening note of the record, we’re already shrouded in controversy. We hear a vibraphone (ten months before Lionel Hampton used it to introduce “Memories of You”) but the question is who is playing it? According to Chilton, Red Allen remembered every detail of his sessions with Armstrong and he made an effort to let discographers know that Armstrong’s valet played drums on “Song of the Islands” while Russell band drummer Paul Barbarin played the vibes. Chilton refers to the valet as “Tout Suite,” which sounds like a mishearing/misspelling to me. There’s a photo of Louis and some friends fooling around on a fake boat at Coney Island in 1929 (the photo can be found on page 143 of Michael Cogswell’s Armstrong book, among other places). Standing tall in the photo is a man clearly wearing a valet’s uniform. Armstrong labeled the photo and next to this man, he wrote, “Too Sweet, our chauffer.” Thus, I tend to believe his name was “Too Sweet” rather than “Tout Suite,” but regardless, he did exist and Red Allen seemed pretty sure that he played drums. This could indeed be true because the entire record features nothing but a simple brush pattern on the snare drum. The tempo never lags but there’s no accents (notwithstanding one cymbal hit) or anything flashy whatsoever. Perhaps “Too Sweet” knew a thing or two about the drums and he maintain one pattern at one tempo for three minutes. However, the revered Jos Willems has listened carefully and he doesn’t buy the “Too Sweet” argument. Willems makes the convincing point that the drumming is identical to Barbarin’s work on “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” See what you think by listening to that seminal recording, recorded just one week later:



Willems makes a good point. So who is playing vibes? Willems notes that no piano is heard until the seventh bar of the theme statement so that makes Luis Russell a good candidate. But though I agree with all of Willems's points, why would Allen vividly remember the valet playing drums? It seems like something he wouldn’t make up but I guess we’ll never know. Chalk it up to another unsolved jazz mystery, I suppose.

Anyway, I’ve only discussed six seconds of the record and I haven’t even gotten to the part that makes most jazz purists throw up their lunch. Immediately after the vibe introduction, the melody of “Song of the Islands” is sweetly played by the three unknown violinists. With the vibraphone still going on in the background and Pops Foster bowing a two-beat pattern, this does not quite sound like a Louis Armstrong or a Luis Russell record, but maybe more like something by Andy Iona. This goes on for 16 bars before a commercial sounding arranged passage that sounds like quintessential 1920s dance band music.

Flash-forward to just last week when suntanned Michael Steinman, doing a bit of investigative reporting from Maui, wrote me about a 1929 short featuring Ben Pollack and His Orchestra. The short ends with Pollack's men--featuring the likes of Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy McPartland and Ray Bauduc--playing a chorus of "Song of the Islands" with violins taking the melody, a bowed bass and vibes in the background! I couldn't believe it when I saw, especially the vibes are being manned by Jack Teagarden. The short is from 1929 and Armstrong recorded his in January 1930 so obviously he was copping Pollack's idea or perhaps it was all written into a stock arrangement the two men shared. Anyway, here's the entire eight-minute short. Fast-forward to 7:00 to catch the "Islands" and see what you think. Thanks Michael!


Back to the task at hand. We’re 36 seconds into the record and Gunther Schuller has already contemplated suicide. Don’t believe me? Here’s Schuller himself: “By January 1930 the creepy tentacles of commercialism had begun to exert an alarming degree of stylistic constraint. On Song of the Islands we can hear the results. A painful mélange of non-jazz elements intrude upon Armstrong, and he himself does not escape entirely unscathed. And how could he?”

Ah, Gunther. Doesn’t the man have any sense of period charm? So the first 40 seconds of “Song of the Islands” isn’t great jazz. So what? I’m sure the guys in the band thought the same thing, but I’m sure they must have had a good time making a Hawaiian-sounding record. Regardless, when Pops enters, it does become a great jazz record, so really, why get so bent out of shape about a couple of violin players and a vibraphone? At least Schuller did come up with the perfect adjective for Pops Foster’s bass playing during this segment of the song: “voompy.”

Anyway, when Pops finally does enter, muted, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Am I the only one who thinks that the sappy violins and faux-Hawaiian atmosphere actually enhance Pops’s playing? He’s light years ahead of the arrangement and I think more can be said about his contribution to the song than the “commercial” aspects. I actually find it somewhat comical when I hear his entrance. He’s from a different planet. It’s like the Harlem Globetrotters ending up on Gilligan’s Island.

As I already said, “Song of the Islands” isn’t exactly a work of Gershwin or Ellington. It’s 16 simple bars and almost the entire written melody consists of whole notes or quarter notes. And out of such shoddy mud, Armstrong sculpts a masterpiece of storytelling. He takes the simple melody and keeps it simple, though his subtle repetitions of the main pitch practically define swing, especially in his second bar. He leaves plenty of space in those first four bars, but in bar five he begins to loosen up with a phrase that is 100% out of the Armstrong vocal book (I’m thinking “Don’t Play Me Cheap” or “Some Sweet Day,” among other examples). Heading into the second eight bars, he leaves two more beats of space before playing a neat little triplet figure in the turnaround. He then runs up and down with an arpeggio made up of a couple of more triplets before settling on the concert F of the original sheet music. He repeats it a few times, relaxed, before another rhythmically slippery phrase that sounds like he’s playing an obbligato to his own reading of the melody. After two more beats of space, Armstrong concludes his statement with more of the melody, though his phrasing couldn’t be more smooth and cloudlike.

Armstrong then hands the ball over to the great J.C. Higginbotham, who gives the melody more respect than it deserves, but he does repeat a few notes much as Armstrong did. A modulation from Ab to F sets up Armstrong’s wordless vocal, sung with glee club backing by a few members of the Russell band. People like Schuller hate this stuff, but Armstrong’s performing career began by singing in a vocal quartet in New Orleans and many of his classic early records feature this device (“Basin Street Blues,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” “Squeeze Me” and more). This is one of the most trumpet-like scat solos Armstrong ever took. It’s almost completely centered around swinging repetitions of a single note or two. Again, do you want to define the feeling of swing? Listen to the vocal a few times until it’s drilled in your head. Then, tap your table or desk at the same time as every one of Armstrong’s individually scatted notes. Then, sing it in your head and just tap. The combination of on-the-beat phrases juxtaposed with the notes placed in between the beats, well, if that’s not swing, I don’t know what is.

The band then takes a 16-bar arranged passage, a good opportunity to grab a quick beverage. Please, don’t judge the Russell band by a performance like this. This is just a dead arrangement but in a matter of seconds, you’ll forget all about it as Armstrong reenters, this time playing back in Ab. Much like his opening outing, Armstrong begins by working over that concert Eb. Again, in bar five, where he originally inserted that vocal-ish phrase, he plays another incredibly smooth arpeggio, beginning on an Ab, heading down to a low D, then right back up to a higher C, repeated three times before Armstrong bends and stretches an Eb like Silly Putty. After the usual amount of space, Armstrong begins the next eight bars with six repeated Eb’s, all on different beats, before a nifty little Eb-F-Eb turn of a phrase. Then, much like he did the first time around, Armstrong plays the F’s from the melody, then improvises a new little obbligato based around the notes of a Bb7 chord. Then it’s back to the melody. It’s a fine chorus with some nimble phrases but nothing earth-shattering. Until…

Armstrong joins the band for two bars of an arranged passage that leads to a modulation to the key of Db. Now Armstrong demonstrates the pure power and brilliance of his chops. He approaches the tune in much the same way as his first two go-arounds, but because of the key change, he’s now pumping out high Ab’s instead of Eb’s…a big difference. He still leaves plenty of space, allowing the listener all the more time to marvel at the beauty of his tone. In the sixth bar, Armstrong plays his calling card phrase, Bb-Db-Bb-Db-F-F-Db before uncorking another series of arpeggios in bar seven. The notes of a Db chord? Db-F-Ab. The notes of Armstrong’s arpeggio? Ab-F-Db-F-Ab-Db-Ab-F-Db-F-Ab. Armstrong rattles it off like it’s simple and again, I’ll use the word “smooth” to describe the flow of his faster phrases. But with the velocity shelved, Armstrong concentrates on power and drama for the ending. Immediately, from the start of the key change, you know what Armstrong has to do if he’s really going to play the melody that high. And of course he does it, letting a high Bb ring out clearly before topping out at a spine-tingling high C. Having reached his climax, Armstrong builds downward and ends on a low-key Db-Eb-Db phrase. Someone, anyone, strikes a somber chord on the vibraphone and the record comes to a close. A gem of Armstrong’s OKeh big band period.

For many, this is where Armstrong’s association with “Song of the Islands” ends, but he did revive it with his big band. A new uptempo arrangement of the song was performed on a couple radio broadcasts from 1940 and 1941, available, as usual, on the peerless Ambassador label, now available from the Louis Armstrong House Museum's online gift shop.. The first one comes from the Cotton Club in April 1940 and though it’s ten years later, Armstrong’s still fronting the Russell band with Red Allen, Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes and Pops Foster still aboard. This arrangement has nothing to do with the relaxed, Hawaiian feel of the original. It’s about twice as fast and opens with the reeds only alluding to the melody in between responses from the brass. It’s a nice example of the Swing Era being “orchestrated Armstrong,” as some have called it. All traces of dance band-sounding violins and vibes are gone. It now swings from note one and the casual rephrasing of the melody stems very much from Armstrong’s language. Here's the audio:


After one chorus, Higginbotham takes one on his “tram-boon.” All it takes is one listen and you can understand why Pops enjoyed Trummy Young’s blustery playing so much in the 1950s. Higgy’s entire solo is proto-Trummy and it’s exciting as hell. And in a nod to Armstrong’s original, J.C. plays that Armstrong vocal-type phrase in the same exact place Armstrong played it in 1930. Like the original, the tune modulates for an Armstrong scat vocal, once again over glee club backing. This time Armstrong takes two choruses, a break joining them and the band indulges in some arranged singing, repeating Armstrong’s last phrase, to allow Armstrong to get his chops together. And when he does, stand back! There’s no more modulating. Armstrong begins right off in Db and wails for four full choruses, sticking exclusively to the upper register throughout. He sticks closely to the melody for much of it, but still finds time to throw in some nimble improvisations such as, you guessed it, that same vocal phrase in bars five and six. With each passing chorus, Armstrong shows off the pure raw power of his 1940 chops. In 1930, the buildup to that high C is very dramatic; you see it coming and when he hits it, you feel exhilarated. By 1940, every chorus featured a high C hit seemingly without any effort. Armstrong’s favorite drummer, Sid Catlett, really knew how to drive Pops and Pops responds with some really exciting work in the last two choruses. It’s tremendously exciting and is all over in two minutes and 30 seconds, a full minute shorter than the original. This particular version is available on the Ambassador disc, At the Cotton Club, which should have been hailed by the jazz community but instead is almost impossible to find. Ah, where would us Armstrong lovers be without the late Gösta Hägglöf!?

Volume eight of Ambassador’s Armstrong series contains an extremely rare broadcast from the Grand Terrace in Chicago on November 27, 1941. The quality is poor, but I’m just thankful the music survives. The fast arrangement of “Song of the Islands” is trotted out again, picking up with Louis’s scat solo. Armstrong’s four-chorus improvisation is very similar to the one he played at the Cotton Club the previous year. Armstrong was from the generation who worked on their solos until they were perfect. This didn’t mean that Armstrong didn’t improvise but sometimes, when he had a good solo “set,” it remained that way. This is not a bad thing. Never mind the critics who might complain about such matters. I picture a dancer at the Cotton Club in April 1940 or someone standing around the bandstand of the Grand Terrace in November 1941. They were the ones Armstrong was playing for, not some critic writing 65 years later, and I’m sure they were gassed by “Song of the Islands” when they heard it. How could you not be? Here's how it came out at the Grand Terrace:


Now let’s flash forward to 1956 and Louis Armstrong’s last run-in with “Song of the Islands” from Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. As I’ve stated a hundred thousand times, I’m a big big big supporter of the Autobiography project where the 55-year-old Armstrong tackled man of the songs he originally made famous in the 1920s and 1930s. Some people are so anal about Armstrong’s greatness as a young man that they don’t give the Autobiography sessions a fair shake. I think this is big mistake. Armstrong was completely relaxed for the Autobiography with no other gigs to occupy his time or chops. He was going through a peak period of blowing between 1953 and 1959 and he had the finest edition of the All Stars backing him up, the one with Trummy Young and Edmond Hall. Armstrong responds with brilliant playing on every track, sometimes topping his original efforts. For a great example, listen to Armstrong crack the final high Eb on the original 1929 “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” just barely getting it out. Then listen to the Autobiography version where he hits it and holds it. After playing this example during one of my Armstrong lectures at the Institute of Jazz Studies, esteemed trumpeter Randy Sandke remarked that he had no doubt that Armstrong was a technically better trumpet player in his 50s than he was in his 20s. And the Autobiography is filled with dozens of these great moments, many courtesy of the remarkable Sy Oliver sessions.

Oliver was hired to recreate the OKeh and Victor big band recordings and these sides, to me, are the Autobiography’s masterpieces. The December 13, 1956 session started right off with “Song of the Islands.” Here's how it came out:


Oliver usually kept his arrangements pretty streamlined, but he brought the original ones at least somewhat into the future. Thus, the vibraphone and violins are out on “Song of the Islands,” replaced by a delicate Billy Kyle piano intro and the melody stated by the rich reed section made up of great players like Hilton Jefferson and Lucky Thompson. The tempo’s a little slower than the original, which lends an even more relaxed feeling to the proceedings. Pops enters in Ab, gently massaging the Eb. The “vocal phrase” in bars five and six is gone, replaced by a neat little downward phrase that sounds like he’s skipping downhill. Armstrong really sticks to the melody here, not offering many frills but his tone is beautiful and he his last two bars are rhythmically tricky.

As in 1930, a trombone solo follows and it’s a mellow one played by Trummy. After the modulation for the vocal, Armstrong begins his scat solo, but this time he’s all alone with no other voices to back him up. This is one of my very favorite scat sessions. As I already mentioned, Armstrong was very relaxed during the Autobiography sessions. Decca producer Milt Gabler made sure the All Stars had no other bookings and he made sure to stuff the sessions full of good food and good friends. One of those good friends was the actor Slim Thompson, who, according to IMDB, had four roles in movies of the 1930s, including The Petrified Forest and Green Pastures, before leaving the film industry. Since “Song of the Islands” was first up, it’s easy to picture Armstrong arriving at the studio, warming up and welcoming his friends, perhaps telling a dirty joke or two.

Thus, when Armstrong began his scat vocal on “Song of the Islands,” he almost immediately slips in the phrase “Slim Thompson-face” into his scat! I can only imagine the smiles in the studio at that one. Three seconds later, Armstrong offers a shout-out to another friend. This was a mystery scat for years; the great Dan Morgenstern thought it was something about "Rinsofax" and though it made little sense, that was good enough for me. But leave it to the sharp ears of the great Dave Whitney who heard it as Armstrong calling out the name of his good friend "Lorenzo Pack." Once you think of it that way, you'll hear "Lorenzo Pack" for the rest of your life. Pack was a boxer in the 1930s with a record of 19 wins, 9 losses and 1 draw. According to his record at www.boxrec.com, he was knocked out by both Jersey Joe Walcott and "Two Ton" Tony Galento. In addition to being a good friend of Armstrong's, Pack wrote the song "This Black Cat Has Nine Lives," which Louis recorded on the 1970 album Louis Armstrong and His Friends. I always thought that was a pretty weak tune and maybe Louis was recording it as a favor...I think I was right!

Two seconds after calling attention to Pack, Armstrong sings, “Whatcha say, Gate?” so clearly, he didn’t care about the record any more. He was giving a performance to those in the studio and I’m sure they were loving it.

As the scat goes on, Armstrong lets the listeners in on why he loves “Song of the Islands” so much. Take away the Hawaiian elements, the violins and vibraphone on the original. Take away the swinging call and response of the 1940 broadcasts. Take away the glee club backings and scat vocals. What attracted Armstrong to “Song of the Islands”? He reveals the secret at the 2:27 mark in yet another aside to the studio crowd: “Them changes gate.” It might have only been 16 simple bars, but Armstrong dug the chord changes. There’s the opening (in Ab) Ab-Adim7-Eb/Bb and the Ab to F7 to Bb7 in the second eight, two somewhat sentimental patterns that Armstrong must have felt to be quite beautiful. And in his horn, they are.

Like 1930, the tune modulates back to Ab for Armstrong’s trumpet re-entrance, which is one of my favorite moments of the performance. Three declamatory notes followed by six beats of space before Armstrong tip-toes back in to create some very lucid ruminations on the melody. It’s all tone and damn, what a tone it is. At the end of these 16 bars, the band prepares for the climactic modulation, rewritten by Oliver to sound much more exciting with Trummy’s trombone on top. Armstrong enters with that beautiful high Ab, the band digging in behind him over backbeats by Deems. On the original, Armstrong stuck mainly to that Ab, but in 1956, Armstrong goes up to a Bb, a welcome addition to this gorgeous solo. The buttery smooth arpeggios and double-timed phrases are gone but like a pitcher who loses a few miles off their fastball with age and has to become a finesse pitcher (unless he’s Roger Clemens—insert steroids joke here), Armstrong made due in his later years with a huge sound, a golden tone and a relaxed phrasing that still defied conventional rhythm while defining the concept of swing. Armstrong floats through this portion of “Song of the Islands” until it’s time to hit the high Bb’s, which he does beautifully. I love the sound of his tone on the repeated Bbs. It’s so pure and he doesn’t even sound like he’s struggling, though God knows what this did to his chops. The high C sings like a bird but instead of replicating the original low-key ending, Armstrong plants his feet firmly, hits a high C and ends with a gigantic high Db, higher than any note he played on the 1930 original.

“Song of the Islands” is one of my favorite highlights of the Autobiography, but that December 13 day was just getting started when you look at the amazing blowing that followed: “That’s My Home,” “ Memories Of You” and “Them There Eyes.” Unbelievable stuff. But I think to write any more about “Song of the Islands,” I would have to actually fly to Hawaii. Or maybe read a Hawaiian in-flight magazine. Either way, listening to it will give you at least a few minutes of warmth to combat what is turning into a ferociously cold winter here in New Jersey.