Friday, March 28, 2014

Here and Now (And Looking Ahead to the Mosaic Set!)

Hello folks. It's been another two weeks between posts but I have plenty of news to share so let's get rolling.

First off, on March 16, I had my nine-minutes-of-fame with an interview on ABC's "Here and Now" broadcast in the tri-state area but now available online. I had a ball! It came about after the "Here and Now" people contacted the Louis Armstrong House Museum to do a story about Louis and the Armstrong House. My co-workers thought I'd be the man for the job and the next thing I knew, there I was in the ABC green room (eating cookies) with our Marketing Director, Jennifer Walden, waiting to go on. The show is hosted by the lovely Sandra Bookman, who became responsible for the highlight of the interview: her calling me "Ricky Ricardo" at the very end!

As soon as she was introduced to me, she said, "You know, I'm going to say 'Ricky Ricardo,'" and we had a big laugh.  The cameras rolled and we were off and running, cramming everything you need to know about Louis into the short interview. Once we began winding down, Sandra thanked me and called me the name of Desi Arnaz's most famous creation. I laughed loudly and thought there'd be a retake....but no, there it is, preserved "for posterity," as Pops would say. Check it out here!

And in other Armstrong House news, finally, for the first time in ten years, we've started an Online Store! If you've been with me from the beginning, you know about my friend and mentor, Gösta Hägglöf. For years, Gösta ran Ambassador Records, devoted to issuing some of Louis's rarest recordings, always using his own sources. When Gösta died in 2009, he donated his entire Armstrong Collection to the Armstrong House and I was lucky to spend a full year arranging, processing and cataloging it....what a treasure! But Gösta also left us his entire inventory of Ambassador CDs and insisted in his will that we sell them. We've been peddling them in our gift shop at the House for some time, but now, thanks to the Online Store, anyone from anywhere can order them. This includes some really rare favorites that I've written about here, such as "At the Cotton Club" and "In Philadelphia Volume 1," my first liner notes gig and Gösta's finally production; he died just as they were printed up and they were never sold commercially. So if you want to stock up on some rare Pops, head over to the Louis Armstrong House Museum Shop and order away! Thanks, Gus....

And now for the big Mosaic update....we're almost there! Phew. One year ago, on April 30, I broke the news and said it could be a summer release. But then the Mosaic box of Chick Webb and Ella Fitzgerald got bumped up and Louis got pushed to January (if you wanted the Satchmo Summerfest interview I did with George Avakian, I keep repeating January throughout....oops). But the whole process of getting everything together took up so much time, it got delayed again. And then we got to the final steps of the project, transferring Louis's 1956 and 1958 Newport sets....and all hell broke loose (more on that in a bit). And then our engineer Andreas Meyer had to put Pops on ice for a bit as he had to turn his attention to an urgent project by one Spike Lee.

February turned to March, March turned to maybe an April 30 "International Jazz Day" launch, that turned to "mid-May," etc. I've posted incessantly about it on Facebook and I've been getting the feeling that people have stopped believing the damn thing is even going to happen....but not only is it going to happen, Scott told me the street date this week: June 1. June, January....close enough, right? I got my J months confused....

But what a process. Holy cow. The biggest lesson I learned is one that Scott told me is Michael Cuscuna's mantra: "Sometimes things are unissued for a reason." Truer words have never been spoken. I wish I could go back and delete some of my ancient blogs from 2007 and 2008 when I would rant about Sony not issuing this 1950s live Pops material. Having lived through it, I can't blame them....but at the end of the day, the hard work and delays have been worth it and I'm very happy that this stuff is finally getting the first class treatment.

I could probably write ten blogs on the bumps along the way, some small (not being able to find the unedited master to "Twelfth Street Rag" until Andreas found it buried on a Liberace reel!), some big (not being able to find a LOT of stuff at Sony until we realized most of it was in George Avakian's basement, about to go to the New York Public Library!). But Pops has watched over us and we've managed to overcome every possible setback, right to the very end.

The Newport concerts.....whoa. I knew Columbia recorded the complete 1956 and 1958 sets and couldn't understand why they wouldn't issue them. Now I know. In 1956, there were two microphones on stage: the main Columbia one and another broadcasting the sets for the Voice of America. Famously, Paul Gonsalves played his "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" solo into the VOA mike. Well, Louis sang four numbers at Newport...and sang them all into the VOA mike. When we ran the tape for the first time, our jaws dropped when we heard him sounding like he was singing in the parking lot. OK, so that's why George didn't issue it....

But then Sony said they had the VOA reels, too. Great! However, when we got the reels, the boxes stated, "Distortion throughout." I don't know who was manning the VOA controls, but everything was recorded so hot that whenever the horns played, it was a distorted mess. But what of the vocals? The vocals--and introductions--had tiny traces of distortion but nothing terrible. You know where this is going: we decided that Andreas should edit the vocals out of the VOA reels and insert them into the Columbia performances. Yes, there'd be traces of distortion but at least Louis could heard! And that's how delays are born...

Newport 1958 wasn't a picnic either as for much of the concert, Louis again sang into either the wrong mike or into a defective one, causing more distortion that probably led Sony not to issue the set for so many years. We couldn't do much with it but the set is so smoking (and Louis is in such good humor), we just had to release it. But before going on with the All Stars, Louis did "On the Sunny Side of the Street" with the Newport International Youth Band....and that wasn't on the reel. We had it from a later LP compilation of Newport rarities, but we couldn't find the tapes. Again, at the eleventh hour, Andreas called Sony and ordered the reels with the set of numbers directly before Armstrong's. The reels arrived stating "Chico Hamilton"....but at the very end of the reel, there was "Sunny Side of the Street"! Phew....

Once Andreas had everything straight, he had to start making reference copies. The reference discs began arriving at my door throughout February and early March, always cause for celebration. But there were still minor tweaks to be made....I think Andreas had to address 15 changes in all (sorry, Andreas!). And one more eleventh hour story on this front. Louis sat down with Edward R. Murrow and recorded the "Paris Interview" in 1955. On the "Satchmo the Great" LP, it clocked in at 7:00. But I had audio of the original interview as it aired on "See It Now" and it was 8:24. The sound quality was inferior but we said, let's go with the longer interview. Great.

But I got my reference copy last week, and while listening to it, I thought, "Wait a minute....where's Murrow asking about the difference between 'gutbucket and boogie-woogie'!?" And then I realized it: the "See It Now" and "Satchmo the Great" versions were edited differently and each had material that the other one didn't. So about two weeks ago, I spent my Saturday morning at home making a master edit of the two different interviews--in the original order (the topics were scrambled for "Satchmo the Great") and I'm happy to report that my 10:07 edit will be on the final box.

And that was just two weeks ago, in mid-March....which is when I wrote that the box could be released when I blogged about it in January. Oops.

But stop the presses! Andres made his 15 changes and this past Wednesday, the "Edit-2" reference CDs arrived. Scott and I made it through and only found two small changes to be made. Once made, we will have audio!  But if you know anything about a Mosaic set, it's not just about the audio, there's also the gigantic booklet. Well, the first galley of that also arrived on Wednesday (talk about a banner day!). As I've mentioned in the past, my notes are a hefty 27,000+ words and Scott and I selected about 25 ultra-rare photos so the booklet is really something else. In fact, it's the first galley I've received since the one for my own book....and I'm just as excited about this one. Remember, I first wrote to Mosaic with this idea in 2006 so for me, the end of an eight-year journey is upon us.

Thus, I might disappear for a quick minute again as not only to I have to read an edit my 27,000 word liner notes, but I'm also writing a 3,000 word review on a new Armstrong biography and working harder than ever at work, mounting a new exhibit on The Real Ambassadors that goes live on Tuesday, just in time for Jazz at Lincoln Center's first NY live performances of Dave and Iola Brubeck's landmark work on April 11 and 12 (each concert will feature pre-concert talks by myself and Keith Hatschek of the University of the Pacific).

So Pops is Tops, but Ricko is pooped. Thanks for all your support and interest in the process but all I can say is, it won't be long now....(for real this time!).
           

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Happy 95th Birthday to George Avakian!!

I'm happy today's a Saturday and most people are off of work and the kids are out of school because today should be a national holiday: it's George Avakian's birthday!

If you're reading this here blog then there's a good chance you already know who George Avakian is and why he's so important to the music we love. If you don't know....for shame! While still a student at Yale, George practically invented the concept of a concept album with "Chicago Jazz" on Decca, then pioneered in Columbia's influential series of reissue albums shortly after, digging up some previously unissued Hot Five and Hot Seven masterpieces from the Columbia vaults. After the war, George continued to move up the ladder at Columbia, eventually heading the pop music album department after long-playing 33 1/3 albums exploded in the 1950s. Into the late 50s, he produced essential recordings by Louis, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Eddie Condon, Dave Brubeck, Buck Clayton, Duke Ellington....what more do you need? Even after leaving Columbia, he continued to have the master touch, helping to discover Bob Newhart and later overseeing Sonny Rollins's fantastic RCA Victor recordings. So yeah, George is a legend of legends and a NEA Jazz Master, too.

And today he is 95....wow!

I might not be writing this blog if it wasn't for George Avakian. Around September of 1995, I had my first run-in with Louis Armstrong when he unexpectedly showed up in the middle of The Glenn Miller Story to steal the film with a hot version of "Basin Street Blues." My curiosity was piqued. Shortly after, I told my mother to take me to the local library in Toms River because I needed to check out some more of this Satchmo fellow. I don't remember how many choices there were but there were many. Perhaps my life would have changed if I grabbed some inferior-quality bootleg. But no, there was one cassette that looked appealing and I liked the concept: 16 Most Requested Songs.

Well, my friends, that was the one that did it. "Mack the Knife" was the opening track and I was hooked immediately. With each passing song, I found myself getting in deeper and deeper....until track 14, "St. Louis Blues," from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy. When Trummy Young's solo ended and Louis began leading the final two-chorus charge home, something shifted in my brain. I knew right then and there I'd never be the same.

OK, so why did this tribute to George turn into a memoir about me? Because not only did George oversee that compilation, but he also wrote the liner notes and produced 15 of the 16 "most requested" songs on the tape. So I can specifically say that George Avakian's Louis Armstrong recordings changed my life. I owe George everything. To remind myself of that, I recently put up a "Wall of Avakian" in my home office:


Flash forward about eight years. In 2003, I went to see David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland with my best friend, Mike. It was my first time there and I almost had a heart attack when I saw George Avakian sitting at the bar! I barely remember the music as I spent most of the time working up the nerve to introduce myself. Mike finally convinced me to do it and I did, but not without some stuttering and knee-knocking. George couldn't have been nicer and gave me his e-mail address, telling me he wanted to send me some liner notes for the reissue of Satch Plays Fats that Sony chose not to use (their mistake!). The notes were terrific but I was too nervous to keep the communication going, afraid I might be pestering him or something (not that he ever gave me that feeling).

By 2007, I had an agent trying to sell my book about Armstrong and I was booked to give a lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies. I found George's e-mail address and wrote him again, re-introducing myself, inviting him to my lecture and asking if I could interview him for the book. We immediately set up an interview time....and then he surprised me by showing up to my lecture! Not only that, we ordered a pizza beforehand and split the bill. "I just split the bill for a pizza with George Avakian," I kept telling myself over and over. It was a real "pinch me, I'm dreaming moment."
Breakfast with George Avakian and Dan Morgenstern at my first Satchmo Summerfest in 2008.
Fortunately for me, it was just the start of a beautiful friendship. We've had quality time at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans every year, I played the piano for him at a party at David Ostwald's house once, he greets my wife warmly each time he sees her and always asks about our kids and I consider myself friends with his children, one of whom recently referred to me as an "Honorary Avakian." I don't think I'll ever get an award or honor that'll top that one. Even this past January, I had a vodka tonic with George, which might not sound like much....but I don't drink alcohol! (No major reason, I just don't like it.) But when George Avakian is drinking one and asks you to join, you don't say no.
George and his vodka tonic, January 14, 2014.

But of all the moments I've spent with George, the topper came last summer at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans. By that point, I had been deep in the preparation for the Mosaic Records boxed set I'm co-producing with Scott Wenzel (once that's looking like a late-April/early-May release). I told the Satchmo Summerfest people that I'd love to give a preview of the set. They thought it was a fine idea but at the age of 94, no one was certain if George would be attending the festival. I asked David Ostwald (another "Honorary Avakian") to join me just in case George couldn't make it and I prepared a "solo" version of the presentation and another version if George made it.

Well, George not only made it, he stole the show! Seven months later, people are still e-mailing me and writing me about what happened that afternoon. David and I asked George questions about working with Louis and all was fine....but then I started playing him things from the upcoming Mosaic set--culminating in a 16-minute conversation he had with Louis in 1956--and watching him react and spring to life was positively inspiring.

I'm happy to report that the Summerfest people gave me a DVD with all the seminars from the 2014 festival. I've been so busy, I haven't had much time to do anything with it but I finally got started last week and uploaded the entire presentation with George and David. This was online for a few weeks after the festival and I shared the original link back then, so some of my readers might have seen this already. That's okay; watch it again. Share it with someone who loves this music. It was such an honor to be a part of this moment. I'll never forget the standing ovation at the end as long as I live. Ladies and gentlemen, George Avakian!

So there you have it. I'm happy to report that I now have final reference copies of all 9-CDs of the set. There's a few more tweaks that need to be made but the end is near. (Sorry for all the "January" talk in the video....better late than never!) George's reputation doesn't need any further boosting but I hope this Mosaic box serves as a definitive testament of sorts to the timeless work George did with Louis in the 1950s. And George will be celebrating his 95th at Birdland in the coming weeks, once again with David Ostwald's Eternity Band (another thing to thank George for as he got David that gig in 2000 and it's still going strong--into eternity--14 years later).

Thanks again, Uncle George. Thanks for everything. And Happy Birthday!



Wednesday, March 5, 2014

85 Years of Knockin' a Jug

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded March 5, 1929
Track Time 3:15
Written by Louis Armstrong and Eddie Condon
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Happy Caldwell, tenor saxophone; Joe Sullivan, piano; Eddie Lang, guitar; Kaisar Marshall, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8703
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it but it’s also on a bunch of compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes

A few years ago, I spent about a month on the blog covering the three classics Louis recorded 85 years ago today. Since it's the anniversary, I hope you don't mind if I revisit some of them, starting off with "Knockin' a Jug." Enjoy!

*****************************
It’s classic of classics time today, folks, with the beginning of a three-part series that will chronicle the glorious music Louis Armstrong made in one single day of his life, March 5, 1929. “Knockin’ A Jug” was requested by loyal reader Mario Filipini about a month ago and that’s where I plan to start.

One thing I love about this blog is it allows me to go crazy and give in-depth analysis of Armstrong items that have fallen off the radar or have been just plain ignored. But then I run into these classic performances and really, it’s tough to write anything new since so much has already been written on them. But sometimes, the old words still hold up beautifully, and while I’ll give my opinions as I go along, I’m also going to use the words of others, of those who were there, to recreate one of the most memorable dates in jazz history, one that resulted in exactly 195 seconds of issued music that is still being heralded today.

So where was Louis Armstrong in March 1929? He was still performing in Chicago and making records for OKeh. His latest batch, recorded in December with Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano, continued to turn the jazz world on its ear. Armstrong’s recording director at the time was Tommy Rockwell. Rockwell knew that Armstrong had the talent to shake up the world but he felt he needed a little push out of Chicago. Based in New York, Rockwell arranged for Armstrong to travel east to play a short engagement with Luis Russell’s Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom.

Born in Panama, pianist Russell was practically a New Orleanian since he spent so much of his formative years in that city. He eventually joined King Oliver’s band in New York city and when that band floundered, cobbled together his own orchestra made up of many of the musicians in Oliver’s group. More than half the group hailed from New Orleans, though it wasn’t a BIG big band, originally featuring one trumpet (Louis Metcalf), one trombone (J.C. Higginbotham) and three reeds (Albert Nicholas, Teddy Hill and Charlie Holmes). However, the group had a rhythm section that positively propelled jazz into a very swinging future, as will be ably demonstrated by the end of this series.

After the Savoy engagement with Russell, Armstrong attended a banquet in his honor. He was the toast of New York during his stay with Fletcher Henderson from late 1924 through 1925 but he hadn’t been back since and the cream of the city’s jazz crop wanted to be there to greet him. One musician present was banjoist Eddie Condon, a man with many ideas and the nerve and gumption to get them done. As Condon later told it, “I looked around the table and shook my head; I had never seen so many good musicians, white and colored, in one place at the same time.”

The previous year, in February 1928, Condon organized a recording date for Victor that was positively revolutionary for the way it combined black and white jazz musicians in a loose, jam session setting (Jelly Roll Morton recorded with the all-white New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1924 but as far as interracial recordings went, that was it). Looking around the room, Condon had an idea. “You ought to make a record while Louis is here," he told Rockwell. Unsure, Rockwell responded, "I don't know about using a mixed group." But Condon stuck to it and argued, “If Victor can do it Okeh can do it.” Rockwell agreed.

Now, according to Condon, Rockwell already had a date with Russell’s orchestra lined up for nine o’clock in the morning with special guest Eddie Lang on guitar. If that’s true, that shows that Rockwell couldn’t have been that uneasy with the idea of an integrated recording since Lang was white. However, Lang had done many duets with black guitarist Lonnie Johnson and changed his name on those records to Blind Willie Dunn to cover up the scent of any mingling between the races. What’s not clear is if Rockwell was planning on recording Russell’s group with Lang AND Armstrong. I’d assume this to be the case since Rockwell recorded Armstrong regularly, wanted to see him thrive and arranged the New York trip in the first place.

Regardless, Rockwell bought Condon’s idea. “I've got a date at nine this morning with the Luis Russell band,” Rockwell told Condon.  “I'll put it back in the afternoon.  Get your boys together and I'll speak to Louis.” This conversation took place at four o’clock in the morning. Again, the stories get a little tangled up at this point. Condon claims that he came back to the OKeh studio at nine with white musicians Jack Teagarden and Joe Sullivan. They were joined by black musicians Armstrong, drummer Kaiser Marshall and tenor saxophonist Happy Caldwell. Condon says that nobody told Lang that the Russell date was rescheduled and he was already at the studio when everyone else showed up so he joined in.

However, drummer Marshall didn’t remember any off time. He later said, "We had been working the night before and the record dare was for eight in the morning, so we didn't bother about going to bed; I rode the boys around in my car in the early morning hours and we had breakfast about six so we could get to the studio at eight.” It’s definitely more romantic picturing the musicians discussing it at the banquet, having breakfast, getting drunk, maybe jamming a bit and then showing up.

Either way, all of the aforementioned musicians were assembled at nine...with one extra addition, the unbilled star of the date: the jug. According to Marshall, the gang had a gallon jug of whisky on hand and nobody was particularly shy about imbibing. In fact, according to Marty Grosz, Condon himself got so drunk he passed out and didn’t even end up playing on the date (though he is listed as co-composer; maybe ASCAP didn’t have a listing for Chivas Regal).

Once assembled, Armstrong immediately became taken with trombonist Teagarden. The two had met once before, years earlier, while Armstrong was still playing on a riverboat. They knocked each out then and Teagarden definitely listened to Armstrong’s 1920s recordings as they were released. According to the old biography, Jack Teagarden: The Story of a Jazz Maverick, “While the Okeh engineer limbered up and the unsegregated group booted a few practice choruses he got his first taste of Teagarden’s trombone. ‘It moves me,’ he said later, placing a hand over his heart. ‘It moves me right through here.”

Armstrong was so moved that, according to that book, “He walked slowly around the studio, seeking a spot from which best to hear the trombone sound. He found one at the top of a stepladder near the skylight. The engineer persuaded him to descend for the recording and after a final bout with the jug they bit into a blues as raw as the morning.” There’s something beautiful about picturing Pops on top of a ladder, beaming as he listened to Teagarden’s gorgeous sound. After Kid Ory’s battering ram approach and Fred Robinson’s forgettable sound, Teagarden’s genius must have indeed hit Armstrong right in the aorta.

A quick word about the other participants. Joe Sullivan was a dynamite pianist who hung around with the Condon crew. Armstrong must have remembered his playing fondly as he was Earl Hines’s replacement in the All Stars when Hines left the band at the end of 1951. (However, any fond memories disappeared when he heard Sullivan’s out-of-date style and tendency to get lost on things as simple as a 12-bar blues. He was also a champion drinker and, though that’s part of the romance of “Knockin’ A Jug,” Armstrong didn’t really tolerate it in his later years if it messed with a player’s performance. Sullivan barely lasted two months before he was replaced.)

Tenor saxophonist Happy Caldwell was a veteran of groups led by the likes of Mamie Smith, Elmer Snowden, Thomas Morris and Cliff Jackson. Kaiser Marshall was Fletcher Henderson’s drummer dating back to Armstrong’s time with that band so this was a reunion of sorts for them. And Lang was the first jazz giant of the guitar; everything he did, whether solo, in duets, backing greats like Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby, or in tandem with his frequent partner violinist Joe Venuti, still holds up beautifully today.

So that’s the cast, crew and backstory. A little after nine o’clock in the morning, Rockwell signaled everyone to be quiet. The recording light went on and this is what followed:


It never does get old, now, does it? I love polyphonic jazz but am almost grateful that this recording doesn’t feature any ensemble playing until the simple organ chords under Armstrong’s climactic solo. “Knockin’ A Jug” practically defines the jazz jam session and everything we dream about that notion. It’s a string of solos, everyone feeding off each other, working together and creating magic.

After Lang’s simple introduction, Jack Teagarden tacks the solo, backed by Marshall’s press rolls on the rims of his snare drum. In Teagarden’s second chorus, Marshall switches to brushes, replicating the pattern used by Zutty Singleton on Armstrong’s December recordings. Marshall sounds great but there’s a problem; he’s all you can hear. At this point, I want to stop writing and have you, dear reader, do me a favor. I want to click this link and head over to Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives column. Just a few weeks ago he wrote a beautiful, poetic essay on “Knockin’ A Jug” focusing on Marshall’s contributions. I cannot add a single word to what Michael wrote on the subject, only to say I agree with every word of it. Click that link NOW!

Back yet? Okay, back to the music. How about that Teagarden solo? Equal parts bluesy and boozy, it’s practically a composition onto itself. In my quick research for this blog, I found two different writers describing it as “rough-hewn” and that works for me. Teagarden was a marvelous blues player, but this one has a rougher quality to it than some of his other smoother outings. The one note he repeats into oblivion at the start of his second chorus, followed by that killer blue note, does remind me of a whisky-soaked Teagarden vocal. The booze seems to interfere with his technique for a nanosecond in the middle of his second chorus but hey, it’s a jam session and if it’s too perfect, they ain’t trying.

Besides Marshall’s stickwork and brushes, dig Lang’s constantly creative counterpoint. As Marty Grosz points out, “Lang opts to accompany with single-note lines, as he was wont to do on blues dates when a piano was present.” Grosz is baffled by the mystery of why Lang plucked the strings with his fingers, instead of using a plectrum, causing him to fade into the background a bit. But he follows Teagarden with a very good solo, one Marty expertly describes as “a model of relaxed economy.”

Caldwell then takes one and I like it. It kind of wanders aimlessly towards the end but I like his tone and the motives he works over in the first half. To my ears, he doesn’t sound too much like Coleman Hawkins, a rarity for 1929 saxophonists. Caldwell is followed by Joe Sullivan but you really have to strain to hear him. Sullivan beats the hell out of the piano, banging out the blues with heavy triplets, echoed nicely by Marshall’s drums.

But the whole thing is building up to the main event, Pops. Has there ever been a better entrance? Finally, after all the individual playing, the band gets together to collectively announce Armstrong’s presence with simple, dramatic held notes. Armstrong enters mysteriously, like he’s peeking around a corner at the other musicians. There’s a vocal quality to his murmurs. “Hey guys, I’m over here,” he seems to be saying, “And you know I’m READY!” He uses as few pitches as possible but once comfortable, he plants his feet firmly and a few runs just seem to cascade from his horn. Not ready to climax too early (insert dirty joke here), Armstrong goes back into the shadows for the next two bars, playing some seriously mellow phrases before some short bursts of fleet-fingered phrases. Finally, in the last four bars, he turns up the volume but for a brief, swashbuckling line of confidence. He pauses for a second, proud of who he is, and ends the chorus with another quiet, singable phrase.

After messing around with relaxation and velocity, Armstrong gets down to business in his second helping. He immediately goes into the upper register, playing what sounds, to me, like a distant relative of “Aunt Hagar’s Blues” (not a quote mind you, more like a fifth cousin in Aunt Hagar’s family tree). He has exclusive rights to exactly three pitches at the start of this chorus--Bb, Ab and F--and uses them to mold a spectacular opening. He breaks out of it for a surprising, piercing high concert C but muffs a lower note coming out of it (perhaps it was the jug talking).

Pops begins the next four bars with a searing gliss to a high Bb before he starts winding down with some more sober playing. He ends his solo back in the upper register, but not in the highest peaks of his horn. He maintains an air of dignity and winds up with another declarative phrase before one of my favorite parts of the record, a bubbling unaccompanied closing cadenza. What I love about is how Pops keeps perfect tempo throughout it. He’d go on to master the art of the closing cadenza in later years, but usually in dramatic, out-of-tempo fashion. Here though, you can hear the pulse racing through his head and for the first time, he gets himself heated up. He maintained his cool beautifully throughout those two choruses but he’s riled up and he takes off in a dazzling display of horn virtuosity. The band joins in him for the solemn finale, Armstrong hitting two notes that seem to say, “Oh yeah.” History.

What happened next led to the legend of how the song got its name. “After we recorded the number the studio man came around with his list to write down the usual information, composer, name of tune, and so on,” Marshall remembered.  “He asked Louis what the tune was called, and Louis said, ‘I don't know!'  Then he looked around and saw the empty jug sitting in the middle of the floor and said, 'Man, we sure knocked that jug---you can cal it 'Knockin' a Jug.' And that's the name that went on the record.”

But they assembly wasn’t quite finished yet. They next decided to tackle a song Condon’s previous integrated group (with Teagarden and Sullivan) waxed on that 1928 Victor session, “I’m Gonna Stomp Mister Henry Lee.” Unfortunately, whatever went down in the studio that day was deemed unfit to release by the OKeh powers that be. Was the music too wild and raucous? Was Marshall still too overrecorded? Did members have trouble with the tune? Was everybody too drunk to play coherently? We’ll never know as this recording has never showed up, a true lost treasure. But, trivia time! What became “Knockin’ A Jug’s” flip side when it was eventually released on OKeh 8703? “Muggles,” another immortal blues done with Hines during that December series of sessions. That’s one seriously bluesy coupling...

But now let’s flash forward to 1957 and the famed Autobiography sessions for Decca. On the very last session from January 28 of that year, Armstrong had a productive day, fronting Sy Oliver’s studio orchestra for spirited remakes of “You Rascal You” and “Hobo, You Can’t Ride This Train,” backing Velma Middleton on a series of blues recreations, playing a stunning “Dear Old Southland” as a duet with Billy Kyle and recreating “Knockin’ A Jug” with members of the studio band. This time, Pops was joined by his regular All Stars Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Squire Gersh and Barrett Deems--always an integrated cast--as well as the guitar of Everett Barksdale and the tenor saxophone of Seldon Powell. Obviously, this version has none of the historic stigma attached to it as the original but it’s still an awesome recording and, as we’ll see, some very impressive listeners have deemed it an improvement over the original. Here ‘tis:


The remake follows the original to a tee so once again, we get an acoustic guitar introduction followed by a trombone solo with Deems replicating Marshall’s stickwork...at a much more appropriate volume! Trummy’s dynamite, opening with a Pops quote from his old “Savoy Blues” solo. In fact, there’s a very Armstrong-ian feel to Young’s entire outing. Like the original, Deems switches to brushes for Barksale’s mostly single-string effort. Powell’s tenor solo is also in there, maintaining the mood with an after-hours feel without raising the volume level. Kyle, for all his elegance, with a good blues player who often relied on tremolos and some Otis Spann-like pounding in the upper portion of the keyboard.

But as Kyle pounds away, you’ll hear a small click in the background as Deems switches from brushes to sticks. That only means one thing: Pops is up next and you can feel the tension mounting.

Armstrong opens with perhaps his very favorite blues phrase, here delivered in quite a lowdown manner. He then uses it as a jumping off point in his next four bars, turning it inside out and playing through the bar-lines with his own, internal tempo. His use of space is key to the great success of this solo. His last four bars keep up the mood, featuring a ridiculously lazy blue note, played after another rest...and I mean “lazy” in a good way. He’s so relaxed, yet is conveying the essence of the blues without hitting the listener over the head.

In the second chorus of the 1929 version, Armstrong jumped right up into the upper register and began pouring on the heat. Here, the climb is a bit more gradual. He opens the 1957 second chorus by massaging two notes, a Bb and and a Db. You teach a kid to play the blues by just showing them those two notes but Pops plays them in such a manner that all the simplicity is masked underneath a thousand pounds of soul.

Finally, after another pause, Armstrong plays an arpeggiated run up to a huge high G, still not as high as the notes played in 1929, but the ring and shake of that G is almost more dramatic. With the intensity of the organ chords slightly growing, Pops starts preaching. The weary mood of the first chorus is gone as Pops, still in the middle register, begins hammering home his point with a louder, more aggressive tone. Now beginning to sweat, Armstrong matches his 1929 original with a quick high Bb, shouting in the upper register. And after a pause, he finally hits another Bb and HOLDS it for a second or two. The effect is chilling and shows that almost 30 years later, Armstrong had arguably become a different, better storyteller. Don’t get me wrong, that 1929 solo is marvelous. But the slow build of the 1957 version up to that Bb is the work of a genius with a helluva lot of experience.

But we’re not through yet because there’s still the matter of the closing cadenza. In 1929, Armstrong was still full of piss and vinegar (well, perhaps piss and gin on the “Knockin’ a Jug” date) so, as I wrote, he steamed his way into the cadenza, chops flying everywhere, double-timing notes and showing off the complete mastery of his horn. 28 years of beat-up chops later, Pops could no longer get away with that kind velocity. But, my children, he had that experience and except for velocity, he was probably overall a better technical trumpet player at this late date (more on that in the “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” entry).

Thus, Pops starts out way up high with a short phrase and proceeds to unravel it, spinning it further and further down before building it right back up. And after a slight pause (no time for pauses in 1929), Armstrong inhales, blows an F and resolves it on another soul-shaking high Bb. The pure sound of that note can swallow a listener whole. From there, Armstrong tones it back down for the same, understated, almost pretty ending. But what a note.

So that’s the 1957 remake. Here are the words of Dan Morgenstern on that solo: “Louis, with organ background, starts down low (where Bunny Berigan dug him), rising through is second chorus with that matchless tone, and replicating his descending-ascending ’29 cadenza. Replicating? Improving! This Jug’ cuts the first one if you can remove the historic patina.”

Then there’s Whitney Balliett, who was no great fan of the All Stars in the 1950s, often knocking them in reviews of the period. But in a later review of the Autobiography, he wrote, “The remake of ‘Knockin’ a Jug’ is stunning....After Kyle’s solo, the reed section, anchored by a baritone saxophone, comes in, and Armstrong takes his two choruses, starting lower than on the original and gradually working his way up through his middle register, using several rests along the way. Halfway into the first chorus, he suddenly dislocates the time, charging quickly and briefly ahead, then falling back (all in the space of a measure) to the four-four flow of the chorus. It is one of the handful of classic recorded slow-blues solos, and its melancholy is almost palpable--everything down and out in Armstrong’s life compressed into twenty-four bars.”

Naturally, I agree with everything those heavy hitters wrote (and it took me about a thousand more words to convey it!). Me, I’ll take both versions of “Knockin’ a Jug.” You can’t replicate the history of that first one. But man, the feel, tension, mood and cadenza of the remake really knock me out. Both versions deserve to be celebrated.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Barrett Deems Centennial Celebration (2014 Edition)

One year ago today, I posted a two-part blowout for the centennial birthday of "The World's Fastest Drummer," Barrett Deems! However, I warned up front that, "At least, we think it is. Barrett seemed to believe it; throughout his entire life, he gave his birthday as March 1, 1913. But when he died, the mass card given out at his funeral said 1915! And if you do a quick Google search, you'll find the majority of websites go with 1914." Though the majority of websites went with 1914, I went with Barrett himself and posted the tribute because as I wrote, "Really, I've been looking for an excuse to celebrate one of my favorite drummers for a while now so selfishly, the sooner the better!" Well, now it is March 1, 1914 and if TODAY is the Deems centennial....well, let's celebrate him again! Thus, I've taken my two-part series from last year and have combined them in this re-post; if you know them well, you can skip them. But hey, we should celebrate Deems (and Louis) every day, so please, enjoy them--and especially Bernard Flegar's terrific contributions--all over again. Happy Birthday, Barrett!

**********

Deems has long been a hero of mine because when I first got into Armstrong back as 15-year-old teenager, it was through the Columbia Recordings of the mid-50s: the Deems Era. To some, it might seem like Deems was with the band forever, but in actually, he joined in May 1954 and was gone by February 1958, lasting less than four years. Later in life, Barrett would talk about his EIGHT years with Louis! It might have felt that way because he really  came during an incredible period: Louis Plays W. C. Handy, Satch Plays Fats, Mack the Knife, Satchmo the Great, Ambassador Satch, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, High Society, the band with Edmond Hall....on and on I could go.

Of course, though Louis's popularity went through the roof in this period, these years are really when the jazz critics sharpened their knives and went after Louis and the All Stars, often holding a special contempt for Barrett Deems, the only white musician in the band during his first two years with them. He was too loud, too powerful, "heavily unswinging," you name it. I've never heard that and I've never met another musician who felt the same was. Was he light as a feather like Jo Jones or a creative giant like Big Sid Catlett? No, but he swung and had power and I think by the mid-50s, that's all Louis wanted. Music was changing and Louis had a heavy dose of early rhythm-and-blues in his private collection with those giant backbeats. Louis always thrived from a heavy two-and-four, dating back to the Hot Sevens, and I think Barrett (and later, Danny Barcelona) provided Louis with the kind of no frills support he wanted.

I can go on and on about Barrett--and I will, as I've put together some great quotes, videos and audio that I'll be sharing below. But before I took a turn, I wanted to let someone else speak for a change. Bernard Flegar is not only a fantastic drummer himself, but he befriended Barrett and got to know him fairly in the last years of Deems's life. When I was getting into the All Stars, I was to starstruck to even think about approaching a Deems or Arvell Shaw, even though I knew they were alive (much to my regret). Thankfully, Bernard--only three years older than me and living in Germany--seized the opportunity to get closer to his hero and we must thank him for that. I asked Bernard to remember his friend Barrett and this is the beautiful piece he wrote:

"First of all my greatest gratitude to Ricky for asking me to contribute a few words to celebrate Barrett’s special birthday. I met Barrett through a mutual friend, Chuck Hedges, one of the greatest swing clarinetists of all time – some say he could have blown Benny Goodman of the stage and that means something. Barrett, like Chuck, was a Chicago fixture. So, in 1995 I scratched some money together and flew to the Windy City to meet Barrett. After my arrival I called Chuck. He said he would get in touch with Barrett to let him know about this eighteen year old German visitor.

Chuck Hedges and Barrett Deems
"Later that day the phone in my motel room rang and it was Jane, Barrett’s wife. She told me that they would pick me up on their way to a jazz concert. So this old Chevy pulled up, Jane was driving, and in the passenger seat was this old, hyperactive hero of mine, Barrett Deems. We understood each other well from the first moment on and were friends until the day he died three years later. Despite his age, he still played magnificently and had only lost a little bit of steam since his days with Louis, Jack Teagarden or the Dukes Of Dixieland. He was leading a big band when I met him which appeared weekly. Barrett was small in stature,over eighty years old, had a bad back but the transition that took place whenever he sat down behind the drums and started belting the daylights out, swinging like mad, gives me goose pimples until this day. 

"Barrett wasn’t always an angel – who is?? – he drove many people nuts, me included, but he was a good guy who lived to swing a band. I also liked the fact that he loved animals. When I met him he had several dogs and cats. When he was much younger, Barrett watched a guy beat up a horse – Barrett broke the guy’s jaw. I guess the message came across.

"Outspokenness in addition to his drumming was something that Barrett was very good at. He would say anything anywhere anytime. I very vividly remember sitting with him and Jane in a Chicago restaurant when he commented loudly on the figure of a nearby sitting woman….that moment I simply wanted to vanish….Barrett loved fast food and took me to all of his favourite grease joints around town.

Bernard Flegar and Barrett Deems
I visited him again in 1996 and 1997 and also met many other great musicians in Chicago. When I was at home I’d call him about once a month. I can still hear his distinctive voice yelling on the other end of the line and his standby advice….”….hang up, kid, save your money!!” One time he was especially excited because George Avakian had come to visit. Mr Avakian was in town and remembered Barrett staying at the Croydon Hotel in the 1970s. Well, the Croydon was long gone, no sight of Barrett and so Mr Avakian looked him up in the phone book. Barrett was home and the two reminisced about old times. So, when I called, Barrett shouted…”guess who’s here, guess who’s here…” and after he told me, he handed the phone over to George Avakian. I will never forget this special moment."

****************

And now it's time for some music! Like my other such tributes, I immediately thought about sharing audio of Deems's two big features, "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Mop Mop" and I will do that...on Tuesday. For now, though, something different.  On October 2, 1955, the All Stars--now featuring the new addition of Edmond Hall, plus  Trummy Young, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett--played at Konserthuset in Stockholm, Sweden. Years later, ten tracks were released on an obscure Queen LP; finally, those ten plus one more were issued on the essential Storyville boxed set, Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia

I've always loved these performances because not only does it capture my favorite edition of the All Stars in peak form, but the sound quality is magnificent. On top of that, the drums are little loud in the mix; this might be seen as a detriment to some listeners but to me, it's always given me a deeper appreciation of just what Barrett was doing back there to drive the band along. If you've read my write-ups of various Musical Autobiography tracks, I've always complained about the "Barrett Deems Drum Machine 2000" because he just sticks to closed hi-hat all the time. But I'm quick to point out that's what the arrangements asked him to do--and he obeyed--but that's NOT what he did on a nightly basis. The Stockholm tracks should prove that if anyone out there doubts it.

Once again, I asked Bernard to give me his take on these tracks. He admitted that he didn't want to keep repeating himself so he refrained from commenting on a few selections; I've still included them because Deems's work speaks for itself. Let's listen, opening with "When It's Sleepy Time Down South":


Bernard says: "Barrett plays time on the hi hat, during Louis’ vocal he is on brushes, a master of the brushes he was and equally masterful were his rolls, as can be heard at the end of the tune."

Next up, a little "Back Home Again in Indiana":

Bernard says: "Obviously an effect of his overactiveness, Barrett often made some sort of noise between numbers. Listen right at the end of Louis’s anouncement. Like many swing drummers he played four to the bar on the bass drum as it is audible here. Barrett and Arvell Shaw locked in so well together. During his drum breaks towards the end it becomes clear why Barrett was called 'the world’s fastest drummer.'"

A favorite of Louis's from this period, here's "The Gypsy":

Bernard says: "Another prime example of good, clean, swinging, time keeping, another lesson in smooth brush playing and a nice, long roll during the cadenza. Barrett’s playing always contained a good measure of witt and irony, check Barrett hitting the splash cymbal at 01:33."

Up next, Louis and Billy Kyle's contrafact on "Perdido," "Pretty Little Missy":


Bernard says: "Things start nice and easy before gears are changed after Louis’ vocal when Trummy comes in. Barrett beautifully prepares the front line’s riffs in the last chorus."
Ricky says: Indeed, I love Deems's work on this one, especially with the riffs behind the vocal and during those "Hot Toddy" riffs at the end...a tight arrangement, really driving by Barrett!

Bernard chose not to comment on the next two, but I'm still going to share the audio. Personally, I love how Deems changes it up behind the soloists. He gets pegged a lot as just a backbeat player but he saves it mainly for Trummy and Louis, going lighter for Hall and using the closed hi-hat for the rhythm section solos. And on "The Saints," his opening is Deems 101, before swinging the band at the ideal tempo (Louis tried out many different tempos on that number of the years but this one is my favorite). Here's "Struttin' with Some Barbecue": 


And "When the Saints Go Marchin' In": 


After the saints, a little "Basin Street Blues":

Bernard says, "Barrett starts playing time on the half-open hi hat, a way of playing which seems to be mostly forgotten today, then switches to the cymbal. During Louis’ vocal he plays with brushes. He had a great sound with brushes (check out the original recording of Mack The Knife!). Then after Billy Kyle’s solo, Barrett intruduces the new tempo with an interlude featuring his trade mark triplet figures distributed around the set. After that he swings the band and kicks it in the behind, especially during the out chorus, yet always playing at the right volume and paying attention to what his cohorts are doing. After the drum tag comes something which always makes my day and something that Barretts’ fellow drummers in the band (whom I all admire) who played together with Trummy Young in the All Stars did not do, and that is locking in with Trummy during the very last four bars (not only on this number), emphasizing Trummy’s phrases, creating enormous excitement."

Once again, the next two tracks don't require further comments. On the slower-than-slow "Tin Roof Blues," I love how Deems approaches it with so much power. It's a dangerously slow tempo but he swings and is emphatic enough to add a layer of raunch to the proceedings. "Sweet Georgia Brown" is an Edmond Hall romp and Deems is with him all the way. Here's "Tin Roof Blues":

And "Sweet Georgia Brown":
 

And finally, an absolutely ass-kicking "St. Louis Blues":


Bernard says: "Barrett was a master in turning up the heat after subtle passages and on this track you will hear this very clearly. On the last chorus he uses the bass drum in addition to the snare drum and the cymbal to play the back beat and kick it out the park."

Amen, Brother Flegar! I mean, those last two choruses of "St. Louis Blues"....that's rock and roll, my friends! And nothing wrong with it. No wonder Dizzy Gillespie told Barrett that this edition of the band was the most exciting one he ever heard playing this style of music.

I want to thank Bernard again for these fabulous insights! As he told me, "To sum up Barrett’s playing in my humble opinion, Barrett did what the band needed and what Louis wanted; well chosen cymbals and drums, the drums tuned by a master who offered hefty, swinging drumming, with no prisoners taken." Thanks, Bernard!

(This was originally part two)

For this entry, I want to write a little more about Barrett's time with the All Stars and his pre and post-Louis career, as well as sharing some stories and one-liners of a man who was a true character. It's not hard to find tales of Deems; a simple Google search brings up a bunch and the Jazz Institute of Chicago's Website proved to be especially valuable in being a resource for memories of Deems.

We've established that Barrett was born in Springfield, Illinois on March 1, 1913 (or possibly 1914, which is why I'm going down this road again today!). His father was a projectionist who also played piano, accompanying silent movies. Deems was about 12 the first time his father let him play along. When he 14, he won a drumming contest at the Orpheum Theater (he didn't imbibe the prize-winning bottle of champagne and in fact, steered clear of alcohol and drugs as an adult, too).

His first big break was with the legendary jazz violinist, Joe Venuti, spending seven years with him, including time with his underappreciated big band. It was with this group that Deems made his first records, cleverly titled, "Flip," "Flop," "Something" and "Nothing." Deems makes his presence felt throughout, swinging the band and taking breaks and short solos. Here's "Flip":

And "Flop":


It was with Venuti, stationed in New York, that Deems got close to Gene Krupa, whom he'd call "my best show business friend." When Venuti disbanded in 1944, Deems formed his own combo. The 1944 Billboard Music Year Book, gave the "Barrett Deems Quintet" an entry and already mentioned that he was being billed as "the world's fastest drummer." He spent the ensuing years bouncing around in various big bands: the Dorseys (separately), Woody Herman, Red Norvo and Charlie Barnet (with whom he made his first trip to Europe).

But the days of a thriving big band scene were over, causing Deems to try his hand in the world of small group traditional jazz, doing stints with the likes of Muggsy Spanier and Wingy Manone. It was with Manone that Deems participated in the 1951 film, Rhythm Inn, a forgettable flick that gives us our greatest glimpse of Deems the showstopping drummer. He was given a featured solo and he made the most of his two minutes, standing up, playing around the drums, playing on the floor and eventually working over a chair. This is what he did nightly with Louis, but it was never filmed then so this is the best glimpse of what he did during his features in this period. There is a YouTube video of just the solo but I'm going to share the full clip from Daily Motion because it shows Deems in the full "Dixieland" setting:

Wingy Manone-Barrett Deems by boberwig

Deems was doing well in the early 50s and even started leading his own band. He might never have joined Louis if not for the destructive personality of Kenny John. Louis hired the young John to replace Cozy Cole in late 1953 but John's boozing and erratic behavior (once almost getting in a fight with Armstrong) was too much to handle. He was fired in May 1954 and immediately replaced with Deems. Glaser usually did the hiring in house from the Associated Booking roster but it's possible Louis knew his work from the many name bands he had been played with. Louis--and Glaser--always placed a value on showmanship, which Deems clearly had. More importantly, he didn't drink or do any drugs.

Deems told Dempsey Travis that when Glaser offered him the job, Deems told him he already had a band of his own.

"Well," Glaser said, "fire the whole band. Louis wants you to join his orchestra next week." Deems said he couldn't do that because he had a contract for two more weeks at a gig in Steiger, Illinois. "That doesn't make any difference," Glaser said. "How much are the musicians making?" "Three hundred a week," Deems replied. "Okay," Glaser snapped. "I'll send you a check. Pay them all off."

"He sent me a check for $1200 for four guys, and I paid them off and left Steiger," Deems told Travis. "The man who owned the joint was mad enough to kill me, but how often do you get an opportunity to work with the world's greatest trumpeter?"

Deems was nervous, but it all dissipated on the first night with the All Stars. He was given Cole's features of "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Mop Mop"...and they'd remain his until he left the band in 1958. On his second night, he couldn't contain his enthusiasm, telling Armstrong, "Jesus, playing with you is like being in another world. It's a natural ball!" Armstrong replied, "I'm glad you're aboard. I enjoy your playing. You do a nice job with those skins."

Soon after, Armstrong did a radio interview where he praised Deems and said of the All Stars, "My current aggregation...is about the greatest. Without them, I don't know what I'd do." Two months later, they were in Chicago recording the seminal Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy for George Avakian at Columbia. During the sessions, Armstrong told Avakian that Deems was "the best drummer I've ever worked with." Armstrong loved his rock solid beat, crowd-pleasing showmanship and clean-living ways.

Of course, that was still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, when everything always seems too good to be true. And of course, it was. Before Deems joined, Louis complained on one of his private tapes about Kenny John and Zutty Singleton, saying of drummers in general, "They're all nuts
Barrett Deems and Trummy Young in 1954. Courtesy of Bernard Flegar.
motherfuckers. All of them." Well, it would turn out that Deems was a little nuts, too. Avakian remembers Deems constantly muttering to himself. Writer Steve Voce described him as "an abrasive man driven by a restless energy." Barney Bigard wrote, "[Deems] was a little crazy. Crazy in a nice way. He was really a nervous guy." Trummy Young agreed with Bigard and summed Deems up perfectly by saying, "Barrett was the swingingest drummer that I ever played with. . .a little bit crazy but in a nice way." Armstrong famously told him, "Barrett, you're the only guy in the world that makes coffee nervous."

Eventually, Deems's restless streak could turn up in his playing. Armstrong himself admitted to Sinclair Traill in December 1956 that Deems had a tendency to rush. "With all respect to Deems, that's our biggest battle, watchin' that strict tempo," Louis said. "He's got that nervous streak so many drummers have." When bassist Jack Lesberg joined earlier in 1956, Joe Glaser warned him that Deems "rushes like hell." Apparently, it used to drive pianist Billy Kyle crazy sometimes. (In Deems's defense, I never really heard it; there is a session tape for Satch Plays Fats where on one take of "I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby," the tempo speeds up noticably going into the rideout, but that's about it.)

And his abrasive nature could wear some down. A typical Deems-ism came when British writer Voce asked Deems what he thought about Europe during a 1956 tour of England. "They should clean it up, paint it and sell it," he replied. It's a great line, but that kind of restlessness and complaining could get wearying when traveling with the same group of guys 300 nights a year. Voce was told that more than once, musicians got together with Armstrong or Glaser and held meetings about his behavior.

"What's wrong with you?" Glaser would berate Deems. "Nothing," answered Deems. "I feel fine."

But in the end, Armstrong didn't pay attention to what happened offstage. "I don't care," he said, "as long as he goes ding-a-ding-a-ding-a-ding." If Armstrong wanted him fired, he would have been gone (see Kenny John). He clearly thrived off his playing and especially appreciated Deems's ability to work crowds into a frenzy. When the All Stars hit the Gold Coast of Africa (soon to be Ghana) in 1956, Louis realized that they were in "drumming country," as Deems put it, and set Barrett loose, almost causing a riot in the process. Deems was carried on the shoulders of the natives for the entire three-day tour.

Another example comes on the tremendous 1956 concert, Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, which put the All Stars on the end of a Jazz at the Philharmonic bill. The opening jam session featured a Buddy Rich explosion, while Ella Fitzgerald's set was swung by Louis Bellson on the skins. The All Stars only had about 50 minutes to make their mark. In that time, Louis pushed himself hard, then featured the All Stars on their individual specialties: Deems was the only man to get TWO features in such a short set, Louis confident that Deems could win the crowd over after they heard Rich and Bellson (and indeed, you can hear the audience hooting, hollering and laughing as Deems plays up and down the stage floor on "Mop Mop"). I know I've plugged it before, but I feel it's an essential purchase because the All Stars are at their peak...and sets by Ella, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and JATP don't hurt! Grab it here.

Of course, I wanted to share Deems's two features but I have so many different versions to choose from. In the end, I've opted for two unissued tracks from my favorite All Stars concert, live at Hinsdale High School in Hinsdale, Illinois, March 25, 1957. This was one in a string of a LONG string of one-nighters. David Halberstam spent some time traveling with the group only about two or three weeks before the Hinsdale show and captured a tired, muttering Deems, exhausted from the grind. "No damn sleep,"Deems complained. "No sleep the night before, none last night, and none tomorrow. At least we spent the night in Atlanta." Goodness knows the stuff Deems saw during these travels. "I remember once we were in Biloxi, Mississippi, and we couldn't find a hotel that would let us in," he told Steve Voce. "So here's Louis, who always had about $10,000 cash in his pocket, and the guy can't get a hotel room. The  whole band had to sleep in a gymnasium that night. Go figure it out."

So here's Deems, Louis and the rest of the All Stars on this same grueling tour, pulling into a high school gymnasium full of enthusiastic students. If you have my book, I included three wonderful photos from this night by Swiss photographer Milan Schijatschky, one of Louis warming up in the gym locker room. No one would have blamed them for going through the motions that night but instead, they put on a two-and-a-half hour show that is just one climax after another. Louis knew that the kids were responding to Deems so he let his drummer loose. Of all the versions in my iTunes, the ones of "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Mop Mop" from Hinsdale are the longest, "Savoy" pushing nine minutes with encore after encore. And at the Armstrong Archives, we have another Schijatschky photo of Deems in full flight, with students flocking the stage, standing in front, watching in awe.

Without further ado, here's "Stompin' at the Savoy":


And "Mop Mop"


Yeah! Hopefully, you can see what made Barrett so irresistible to fans around the world. Of course, as already alluded to, critics were merciless when it came to Deems, complaining about his features, complaining that he was too heavy, that he didn't swing.

Deems took those barbs for all four years with Louis but it's worth pointing out how much musicians loved him--and especially drummers. I already mentioned how Gene Krupa became Deems's closest "show business" friend. Buddy Rich also loved him him. According to Jim Beebe, "I drove Barrett and Polly Podewell out to see Buddy Rich once. Buddy was doing an outdoor concert in Oakbrook. It was very touching to see the genuine affection and respect that Buddy held for Barrett. Barrett worshipped Buddy and this meant a lot to him. Buddy introduced him from the bandstand and fawned all over him. Backstage the two of them jived each other and carried on in a wonderful fashion." John Miles remembered, "Buddy Rich's 'What It Is' bus had a seat with a sign on it that read, 'This seat is reserved for Barrett Deems' and God help the hapless musician that mistakenly sat in it."

Barrett with Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. From drummerworld.com.

Miles also remembered, "In hanging out with Barret and because of him, I met some of the biggest names in the jazz business. I found out that not only that I respected him for his talent, but a hell of lot of others did too for his incredible playing ability. I can remember the time we caught Max Roach one night and after a great solo performance by Max, the audience was just loving it and gave him a standup ovation. He announced that, '... if you thought this solo was great, it was nothing compared to what Barrett could do.'"

Something like that probably would make the hardened jazz fan/critic put their nose in the air, but I don't think someone would make it up. Just this weekend on the Louis Armstrong House Museum Facebook page, Keith Gubitz put up a this wonderful photo of Barrett and a beaming Max Roach at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago.
And I've noticed on YouTube, some Rich acolytes get upset that Barrett was billed as the "World's Fastest Drummer," though again, courtesy of Facebook, John Nasshan wrote in to say, "I remember Barrett challenging Buddy to see who was faster. Barrett once looked at Buddy and said, 'C'mon Buddy, we'll see who's faster...you use a pad, I'll play on a pillow and I'll win!"

Anyway, I digress; back to Deems's time with Louis, I wanted to share a video of the two of them together.  Unfortunately, though there's dozens of hours of live audio from Deems's tenure with the All Stars, there's no videos of him doing one of his features. But again, Louis knew to unleash him when the world was watching, such as this televised version of "Blow Gabriel Blow" from a Cole Porter tribute in 1956. It's only two minutes and 17 seconds--and Deems only has a couple of short breaks--but my goodness is he fun to watch!


Fantastic, isn't it? He can also be seen going to town--and twirling his sticks slickly--in Satchmo the Great, but God knows if that will ever get released publicly.

On and on Deems went with the All Stars....and then he was out. It was not an abrupt termination and honestly, no one has ever pinpointed exactly what happened. There's speculation that Deems's temperament got the best of him. Trombonist Jim Beebe recalled, "Deems had become a pariah with his prickly personality and had caused scenes throughout Europe. Deems told me that Glaser made it very difficult for him if he wanted to stay with the band. He was never honest about getting fired--for years he maintained that he quit."

Earlier, you read Bernard Flegar's beautiful tribute to his friend Barrett. When I first "met" Bernard via e-mail in 2009, I asked him what he knew. Indeed, Barrett had told him something about quitting because of money, but Bernard added, "As you may or may not know, Barrett had a big, uncontrollable mouth and a terrible temper at times. He said what he wanted no matter if it was the right time and place or not. As much as I loved the old man, he could really drive you nuts if he wanted to. [Barrett's daughter] Mary Jane said that her mother had to go to Glaser's office and beg for his job numerous times after Barrett had managed to raise hell one way or the other...But I always had the feeling that Barrett would have loved to stay longer with the band and that he didn't want to come up with the real reason why he left the band...so maybe he did screw something up. We'll never know for sure."

Like I said, it wasn't abrupt. On December 30, 1957, the All Stars played the first Timex All Star Jazz Show. That night, back home in Corona, Queens, Louis turned on his tape recorder and talked a bit about the show. When he gave the personnel of the All Stars, he got to Deems and said, "Deems, Barrett Deems, who also seems like the ax done hit him, but he's still with us. I don't know, I don't run Mr. Glaser's business. I just blow the horn."

So the ax had hit Deems by the end of December but he was allowed to stay a little longer until a replacement was lined up. That replacement was Danny Barcelona, who told me that when he got to New York, he was allowed to watch Louis record Louis and the Good Book in early February 1958...with Deems still on drums. When the last session ended on February 7, Deems was out and Barcelona was in.

Whatever the circumstances were, Deems showed no bitterness and always spoke glowingly of Armstrong. "He was the most beautiful man I ever worked for and the best entertainer in the world," he told Steve Voce. "He was constantly giving money away. Sometimes, if someone on the street asked him for 25 cents, he'd give them a $100 bill and tell them to buy some food and clothes and find a place to stay. A lot of people would ask him about me. 'Why do you have a white drummer?' "He'd just say, 'Because I like his playing.' Period."

Deems continued to stay busy after his All Stars tenure, first joining another fellow Pops sideman, Jack Teagarden. In the early 60s, he did a stint with the Dukes of Dixieland (missing Louis's sessions with the band by two years). And then it was back to Chicago, where he became a permanent fixture for the rest of his days.

Of course, he was happy to leave when a worthwhile project came along, such as Benny Goodman's tour of Eastern Europe. Deems got the call to play drums; a number of videos exist on YouTube of these performances, all of them swinging like crazy. Here's a medley of "Don't Be That Way" and "Stompin' at the Savoy":



Of course, All Stars reunions were prevalent in the 70s and 80s, especially groups organized by the trumpeter Keith Smith. Here's a pic of Smith with Dick Cary, Peanuts Hucko, Russell "Big Chief" Moore, Arvell Shaw and Barrett:
 
 And fortunately, this band was filmed a few times. Here he is with Smith, Johnny Mince, Bob Havens, Nat Pierce and Arvell Shaw, trading fours:
 


And to really see Deems in action, from the same concert, fast forward to 6:07 and see him as his speedy best, including standing up, playing around the set and indulging in a little "Big Noise from Winnetka"-esque action with Shaw:



 More great videos: Barrett backing Doc Cheatham on "Someday You'll Be Sorry" at the Chicago Jazz Fest in 1985:



And backing Bud Freeman from that same festival:



And here he is in Australia (with Chuck Hedges on clarinet) in 1989, 76-years-old (with a "12-year-old body"), playing and talking:

On and on he went, like an iron man, forming a big band and leading it for weekly gigs up until his death in 1998. I've had a ball with these two tributes to "Deemus" but as can be seen, my focus has been on his years with Louis. But already, people have been e-mailing and writing me on Facebook with Barrett stories and lines. Another great drummer, Brooks Teglar, sent along this wonderful Duncan Schiedt photo of himself flanked by Barrett and Butch Miles: 

Of the photo, he said, "That very evening was when Barrett and I had a conversation in the restaurant of the hotel (they stayed open ALL NIGHT during the Central Illinois Jazz Festival weekend...another thing of the past, sadly) about Louie, Gene, drummers in general, his career and so many other things that wound up going on until 3 or 4am. It was a deep, thoughtfully sensitive Barrett I spent that time with and I was so glad to have seen a side of him that few did. That night he drew for me a map to the Calumet City grave site of Gene's and that little piece of Original 'Deems' artwork sits in a place of high prominence in my mementos collection. I also cherish the 'Honorary Barrett Deems Duck Call' that he gave me in Manassass and can still hear him telling me when it should be put to use.....ha!"

Trumpet Phil Person wrote in to add, "I met Barrett in 1988 in Chicago when I was on the road with Dick Johnson and the Artie Shaw Orch. We did a gig at a new club and Barrett came to hear us. I spent quite a bit of time hanging out with him during the breaks. He also came out to our bus after the gig. He said, 'We traveled in one just like this with Louis.' About Louis he said, 'He could fart on the bus and it would swing,' and 'He had a heart as big as this earth and he played like it. God I miss him.'" Phil added, "So I was sitting at a table in the club with Barrett, his wife and several others. Every few minutes he'd tap me on the leg and say things. A few examples: 'F**kin' Louis, what a great player. God I miss him.' A Bird and Diz recording came on, the one with Monk and Buddy Rich: 'F**kin' Bird, he changed the whole thing around. Dizzy told me that the edition of Louis' All Stars I was in was the hardest swinging band of that style he ever heard."

That led Bernard to add this hysterical one-liner: "What Barrett said about this woman sitting next to us in a Chicago restaurant was....'...she was put together when meat was cheap...'"

A search of the internet found this anecdote from John Miles: "A few days before the Chicago Historical Society gig, Barrett, myself and another drum acquaintance of ours went up to Milwaukee to check out some music store that was closing up. On the trip up there, I mentioned I had recently heard Louis Armstrong's recording of 'King Of The Zulus,' which Barrett was on and he mentioned how he kept a beat to that tune. He said he would say, 'Eat Some Shit' in a slow tempo. So then throughout the CHS gig Barrett up on the stand was mouthing that same phrase while the band was playing. Bud was never the wiser. Barrett by the way did not mean any disrespect for Bud, he was just having his fun playing drums."

On and and on it goes...and I hope it keeps going. If you or someone you love has a Barrett Deems anecdote, do not hesitate to share them and maybe I'll have enough to write another tribute for his possible 2015 centennial! But for now, thanks to all who have contributed in making this what I hope was a very special tribute to a very special drummer. 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Encounters with Louis: Frederick C. Wemyss

Today's "Encounter with Louis" comes from Facebook friend, Frederick C. Wemyss, who originally wrote this piece in 2010 and is gracious enough to allow me to share it here. Did you encounter Louis? Please let me know all about it by e-mailing me at dippermouth@msn.com. Take it, Fred (and stay for the updated ending)!

I MEET LOUIS ARMSTRONG

The year before he died, Louis Armstrong made a surprise appearance at a jazz concert at Walt Whitman High School here in Huntington, New York. I was ten and got to see him. This was 1970.
My mother was a speech teacher at BOCES. A friend of hers who taught at Walt Whitman High told her about a charity event for autistic children. It was going to be a concert featuring Arvell Shaw, a bass player. She gave my mother secret information. Louis Armstrong was going to appear at the end. This was very much on the Q. T.

I was just old enough to remember "Hello, Dolly" as a hit single. My brother Bob and I used to imitate Louis Armstrong's raspy voice whenever the song came on. We loved the song. When my mother told us we might have a chance to see Louis Armstrong we were very happy. We kept imitating "Hello, Dolly" for two days. I was in my school band and played the cornet. I was always listening to the Tijuana Brass, so I related to the trumpet (and, hence, the cornet.)

Twenty-five years later, when I had become a collector of Louis Armstrong music, I learned that Arvell Shaw was the bassist in Louis Armstrong's All-Stars, the small combo which began in the mid-1940s.

I liked the concert, but, child that I was, I was distracted, waiting for a surprise appearance by Louis
Armstrong. If there was an intermission, I'm sure I began thinking he wasn't really going to show. Word was he was ill. Putting it together, I imagine he came in from Corona, Queens, where he lived. This was an hour away and is now the Louis Armstrong House Museum. I imagine most of the audience did expect him. It was not a capacity crowd. It was, if I remember, an afternoon concert. There was a teenager in the audience with a huge scrapbook.

Finally, an announcement was made and suddenly Louis Armstrong came out between two curtains. I can't remember if he had his trumpet with him, but, whether he did or not, I am quite certain he didn't play it. He sang "Hello, Dolly." The audience clapped along. I can't remember if he sang anything else. I feel he only sang that. Then he walked into the audience and sat down next to the kid with the scrapbook. The kid showed him every page in it. It had pictures of Louis Armstrong, newspaper clippings about him, placards and index cards, 8 by 10 glossies and Louis Armstrong signed every picture on every page, talking to his fan in a quiet voice. My brother and I saw this from a few seats away.

"I want to get his autograph," I said.

"I told you not to bother him," my mother said.

"I want his autograph, too," said my brother.

We took our flyers and ran to him.

We watched him sign a few pages of the fan's scrapbook. "Can I have your autograph?" said my brother. Louis Armstrong looked up, quietly took the flyer, wrote a giant signature and handed back the flyer.

My brother walked a little away and I walked up to Louis Armstrong. "Can I have your autograph, too?" I said. Louis Armstrong signed the book a little more and looked up at me the way he'd looked up at my brother. He signed the flyer.  I think I said "Thank you."

I had that flyer, with the giant "L" at the start and the giant "A" for "Armstrong," for twenty years. I moved from one room in my house to another and, somehow, couldn't find the flyer when I'd finished moving. I used to open it up and look at it. It was next to the mute for my cornet, an instrument I abandoned at the age of thirteen.

The Christmas after he died, a 45 of his reading of THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS appeared at our supermarket. My mother bought it. Each Christmas Eve since then, we play that record. It was one of the last things he ever recorded, There's no music on it, just the voice of Louis Armstrong, giving the poem a charm and drama no one else had ever given it. I wonder if there had been a plan to put music behind it. It's great the way it is.

About ten years ago I dreamed there was a knock at my old bedroom door. It was the room I'd lived in when I still had the autograph. I opened the door and Louis Armstrong was there. He held out his hand and whispered something. I took the flyer from its place next to my mute and handed it to him. He looked at it, folded it up and put it in his shirt pocket. He turned and walked downstairs.

I can hear his autograph, however, on those signature licks waxed during the lifetime of the great jazz pioneer.

************
Now, for the 2014 update, Fred writes, "At the end of the essay, I mention that I lost the autograph. Shortly after I wrote it, I found it, and I'm including a picture of it. (It is now somewhere in my stacks of books, CDs and what have you. I wish I'd taken a picture of the reverse side of the flyer Louis Armstrong signed, which shows that this was at a concert led by Arvell Shaw at Walt Whitman High School in Huntington Station, NY in 1970.)" Here's the pic!

Thanks, Frederick! I hope to have another encounter to share soon, as well as an update on the Mosaic box and some of my usual blatherings about Pops.But one final question....who was the kid with the scrapbook and where is he--and the scrapbook--now!?!?