Friday, March 20, 2015

Ambassador To Ambassador Satch - Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival Recap

I woke up at 3:45 a.m. on the morning of March 2. This might sound ridiculous to some, but I normally wake up at 4 a.m. to go to work on Mondays so it wasn't that big of a deal. But I wasn't going to my usual job as Archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. No, about 16 hours later, I'd be having a drink with Denny Ilett in an underground pub in Bristol, England, about to preach about Louis Armstrong every day for the next week of my life. The Ambassador to Ambassador Satch was ready to go to work.

(Thanks to my old friend Chris Barnes for the Photoshop magic; I had always wanted to do that!)

I got back from Bristol on March 10, exhausted from the jet lag. It was the longest I had gone without my wife and kids so I took the rest of the week off and hugged them incessantly. When I went back to work on Monday, the 16th, I was way behind in needing to plan a new exhibit that would be installed at the Armstrong House in just two weeks. So I've been busier than a one-armed paper hanger with crabs (borrowed that one from Louis) and it won't be letting up until probably sometime in mid-May (probably; probably not).

But I didn't want to leave my old blog a wasteland while I was off doing Armstrong-related stuff around the world. I'd imagine many of my readers were following my exploits on Facebook; if not, here's a link to an album of over 100 photos from my British invasion. But for posterity, let me offer a (somewhat) quick wrap-up for the blog.

I was invited over to Bristol for the 3rd Annual Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival by the Festival's Executive Director, Colin Gorie, and the Artistic Director, Denny Ilett. Denny visited me in New York last year and pitched the idea of a "New Orleans Takeover" of the Festival, with a special focus on Louis. I was more than happy to represent the Armstrong House for what would be my very first trip to England in my 34-year-old life. I knew I was in the right place shortly after I landed. While going through customs, I had to explain just what I was doing in England. I had a letter prepared from the Festival but they still had lots of questions. Finally, they told me to wait a few minutes. They eventually called me back and said, "We checked your blog--everything checked out." I knew this blog would be good for something! They apologized for taking my time and I said I wasn't in a rush, causing the officer to respond, "Of 'Have All the Time in the World,' right?" Not even through the border and my first Louis Armstrong song reference! I was going to like it here....

Though the Festival was only Friday-Sunday, they flew me out on Monday so I could give some Louis lectures around Bristol in preparation for the main gigs on Saturday and Sunday. I arrived late Monday night and was already put to work on Tuesday afternoon, speaking to a handful of music students at the Cotham School. Coincidentally, "West End Blues" had been on the syllabus so the students had already studied it but they asked me to come in and two hours on just that song alone. That was no problem, as I had already written a 10,000 word blog on the subject a few years ago. But I decided to take them way back and played them records Louis had in his private collection--Caruso, Galli-Curci, Herbert L. Clarke--as well as other earlier Armstrong records where you can hear traces of the birth of the cadenza, including "Changeable Daddy of Mine" and "Once in a While." After about 45 minutes of pre-history, when they finally heard the famed 1928 recording again, it all made sense. The kids were great and thanked me for the graphic level of detail. Glad they weren't scared away!

The next day was a big promotional day, starting with a Festival preview in the Bristol Post with a big photo Yoni Brook took of me holding one of Louis's trumpets.  I also had a fun radio interview in the afternoon with Claire Cavanaugh of BBC Bristol. As I'm writing this, the audio is still up on the BBC website for 13 more days so if you'd like to listen to it, click here! (I start one hour and 45 minutes in.)

The bulk of that day was spent sightseeing around Bristol with the help of my friend, Jonathan David Holmes, a young hot jazz enthusiast who runs a popular YouTube channel devoted to vintage music, transferred from his ever-growing 78 collection. Jonathan met me at my hotel wearing a "Louis Sends His Love" button created by our mutual friend, Michael Steinman; needless to say, we got along famously! And before the BBC interview started, Jonathan--a BBC Bristol employee--sat down with me and recorded a 14-minute interview with yours truly about my background and love of Louis. Thanks, Jonathan!

That same day (it wouldn't quit!), I raced from the BBC to the Watershed Theatre to give a two-hour presentation on Louis Armstrong's movie appearances. We had a great crowd and I took them from Rhapsody in Black and Blue in 1932 to Paris Blues in 1960, closing with the famous "St. Louis Blues (Concerto Grosso)" with Leonard Bernstein from Satchmo the Great. I was honored to have the great New Orleans-born vocalist Lillian Boutte in the audience. It was the first time we had ever met, but we felt like old friends from the start. That "St. Louis Blues" emotionally affected Lillian....and she wasn't alone. Here we are right before the show started:

And I love this photo Denny Ilett snapped of me in mid-preach, probably threatening to fight members of the audience afterwards if they disagreed with my sentiments on Armstrong! (The biggest laugh of the night came when I stole Wild Bill Davison's line from Newport 1970: "If I told you how I really feel about Louis Armstrong, I'd be arrested for indecent exposure!")

I had been going nonstop since breakfast but I wasn't done yet. My originally scheduled event for Thursday was scrapped so I saw a small window to take a train to London and experience the big city for a day. My friend--and fellow Pops lover--Julio Schwarz Andrade welcomed me with open arms and I was thrilled to at least get in one day in London. Julio showed me the sights, such as Big Ben:

That was followed by a most memorable lunch with two long-time Facebook friends I had been looking forward to meeting for years: jazz historian Fernando Ortiz de Urbina and noted saxophonist/composer John Altman (that link takes you to John's Wikipedia page; if you don't know him, you do now....what a career!). The stories didn't stop for over two hours....wish we had recorded it!

It was back to Bristol on Thursday night as I had another lecture at the Bristol Institute of Modern Music first thing on Friday morning. This was FUN! In front of about 15-20 young music majors--most from a rock and pop background, but also some jazz singers and musicians--I once again preached about the importance of Pops to the history of pop music. Instead of just playing his greatest records, I played them a TON of stuff. By the end of the 90 minutes, they heard Louis, King Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, Caruso, Count Basie, Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman, Louis Jordan, Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Ke$ha and more. Some of the students and faculty members have kept in touch and they even wrote a nice little recap of my visit on their website. I even got to sign their wall!

I had a wonderful Indian dinner that night with the noted sound engineer Dave Bennett, who does so much for Avid Records these days. In fact, he was behind the reissue of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography I wrote the liner notes for a couple of years ago (and he's planning more Pops as I write this; details to come!). Thanks for a great meal, Dave and Anne!

After that Friday night dinner, it was time for the actual Bristol International Jazz and Blues Festival to begin. I only had time for one act that night....but what an act it was! I already mentioned my man Denny Ilett, the Artistic Director of the Festival. Denny is also an accomplished guitarist, arranger and vocalist and co-leads an 18-piece big band with trumpeter Jonny Bruce, The Bruce Ilett Big Band. They took out about half the chairs in old Colston Hall to open up the room for the dancing--and my goodness, the people danced. I'm terrible at estimating but I'd say there were probably 1,000-1,500 people at the concert and at least half of them were dancing all night. On top of that, at least 80% of the dancers appeared to be under the age of 40. The big band played all the hits: "April in Paris," "Cherokee" (Charlie Barnet's), "Tuxedo Junction," "Sing, Sing, Sing," lots of Harry James, etc. But I don't think I've ever heard a full evening of that music played by such a powerhouse band in front of a jam-packed room of dancers and listeners. It was more thrilling than any rock concert you can imagine. Anyone who dismisses big band or music or swing dancing should have been there for this. Hell, every human being should experience something like this at least once! No wonder this was America's popular music during The Swing Era...

Here I am with Jonny Bruce and Denny Ilett....keep doing what you're doing, fellas!

Somehow I went to sleep that night and had to be ready for my big showcase on Saturday, 75 minutes on "The Life and Legacy of Louis Armstrong." Dressed in a new jacket my wife picked out for me, I was ready, I was ready, so help me, I was ready:

With such an open topic of Louis's "life and legacy," I decided to skip most of the life and focus on how Louis's legacy has changed since he died. When he passed away in 1971, there was a large number of folks who believed Louis went commercial, stopped being a good trumpet player in the 1930s, was nothing but a clown and was an Uncle Tom when it came to issues of race. As I do in my book, I fought each one of those accusations, but I used materials from the Armstrong House's Archives: Louis's private tapes, Louis fighting against accusations of clowning, Louis on TV talking about racism in New Orleans, Louis playing "West End Blues" in 1961 and much more. I kind of piled up the emotional climaxes at the end, detailing Armstrong's final few months and the story of Louis Armstrong's last tape, which I've blogged about it in the past. Many folks later told me they cried and there were times at the end when I had to breathe and avoid breaking into tears myself.

It might have been one of the best-received lectures I've ever given, but I was helped by having many Facebook friends planted in the audience, including Denny Ilett, Jonathan David Holmes, Jim Denham and Hugh Flint, drummer for John Mayall's Blues Breakers (with Eric Clapton) and quite an Armstrong fan himself. Here's me and Hugh:

Fernando Ortiz de Urbina made the trip from London, as did Jon Hancock, author of the definitive book on Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert. Afterwards, the weather was so lovely, we ate outdoors at a pub. We started talking about Pops and I got so carried away, I reached into my bag, pulled out my iPod and a small Bose speaker and started playing unissued Armstrong recordings in the afternoon air. Quite a memorable lunch....thanks Fernando and Jon!
My big showcase was through but Pops wasn't done yet. On Sunday, the final day of the Festival, Colston Hall hosted "The Louis Armstrong Story." This was an extra special occurrence. First, Denny assembled another world-class big band and I provided copies of Louis's original big band arrangements on "Sweethearts on Parade," "Lazy River" and "Swing That Music." Then Denny asked me to write up some of Armstrong's deepest comments regarding music, race and life itself, to be read by the wonderful actor Clarke Peters ("The Wire," "Treme"). Lillian Boutee would sing a handful of Louis's best-loved songs. James Brown's former bandleader Pee Wee Ellis would anchor the saxophone section. And a small group would be formed featuring trumpeter Enrico Tomasso, clarinetist Evan Christopher, trombonist Ian Bateman, banjoist Don Vappie, bassist Sebastian Giordot and drummer Julie Saury (Maxim's daughter). On top of it all, they asked me to introduce the show and say a few words about the Louis Armstrong House Museum....on stage at Colston Hall where Louis had played multiple times in the 1950s and 1960s. It was quite a moment.

The concert, needless to say, was unforgettable and one of the unquestioned hits of the festival. But for me, it was just a thrill to be among the cats. I finally got to meet the great Ian Batemen, who had to inhibit the roles of Trummy Young, Kid Ory, Jack Teagrden and Fred Robinson in the show, and who leads a sensational Armstrong tribute band with his trumpet playing brother, Alan:

Clarke Peters was an absolute gentlemen and it was an honor to give him a copy of my book:

I've loved Don Vappie for years but hadn't met him before Bristol. Not only a sensational musician, he was a lot of fun to talk to. Once again, I pulled out the iPod and Bose speaker to play him some private tapes of Louis badmouthing Jelly Roll Morton!

Don was over with Evan Christopher's Django a la Creole. I've known Evan for years and he's one of my favorite people on the planet (you might remember he ordered 30 copies of my book to give to every trumpet player in New Orleans....what a guy!). Django a la Creole absolutely tore it up the night before; since I've been back, I've been listening to their three CDs almost nonstop. Yeah, Evan!

Evan's bassist, Sebastian Giordot, was another Facebook friend I hadn't met in the flesh before. He was a monster during the Armstrong tribute, playing with that fat, popping New Orleans sound Louis loved (he did Pops Foster proud on "Swing That Music"!).

Every musician, top to bottom, were delightful to meet but for me, the biggest thrill was Enrico Tomasso. Perhaps you have seen a number of famous photos of Louis with a young man holding a trumpet, greeting Louis at an airport in England in 1968? That's Rico! He started playing when he was 5 (his father was a clarinetist) and was immediately engulfed in Pops after hearing the 1954 Decca "Basin Street Blues." When Louis heard him play as an 8-year-old boy in 1968, he fell in love with his playing, making him come backstage every night at the Batley Music Hall in order to impart wisdom such as "Marry a woman who knows the horn comes first" and "Don't play that jiu jitzu music." They traded letters until Louis died in 1971.

One of the most famous photos of Louis and Rico showed Louis kissing the younger trumpeter's hand in 1968. Naturally, when I met Rico, I had to do the same thing:
During the rehearsal for the concert, I pulled out my phone and shot a short video of Rico invoking the spirit--and sound--of Pops at the end of "On the Sunny Side of the Street." I had goose bumps watching this from the stage.

After the show was over, it was a fun hanging with Rico, Ian, trumpeter Ben Cummings, Ian's son and my London pal Julio for a few hours. We went to the Old Duke for drinks. I knew I was in the right place, when I spotted this Bob Parent photo of Louis and Bobby Hackett on the wall. I included this in my Hackett tribute in January but this was the first time I've ever seen the complete photo--that's Louis's friend, actor Slim Thompson, on the right!

And when we ended up at another Indian restaurant for dinner and realized we were the only ones sitting there, it was only a matter of time before the iPod and Bose came out for another listening session, including an unissued take of "St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, "West End Blues" from Freedomland in 1961 and most emotionally, an audio letter Rico and his family made for Louis when Louis was in intensive care in 1969. Rico hadn't heard it since he sent it 46 years ago. On the tape, he played trumpet on "Cake Walking Babies from Home," "Basin Street Blues" and what he introduced as his favorite song, "I Used to Love You," joined by his father, sister and brother. Rico had tears in his eyes by the end of the tape. I was honored to be able to make him hear it again after all these years.

With the end of "The Louis Armstrong Story," my job was over, so I got to hang out, meet new Armstrong fans and sign lots of books, including one for Lillian Boutte, who said, "This shit is mine!" as this photo was being snapped:

As a little laginappe, I went to hear Dr. John playing the Festival's closing show. He visited the Louis Armstrong House Museum in August, where I acted as a liaison. He was marvelous at the Armstrong House, relaxed and telling stories the entire time. Before he left, I gave him a copy of my book, too. Now, in Bristol, I was lucky enough to attend his soundcheck with maybe a dozen other people in the giant Colston Hall. He looked a little weary after the constant traveling and it was almost showtime, but I still wanted to shake his hand and maybe remind him about the Armstrong House and who I was. I didn't need to; as he was walked offstage, he took one look at me, smiled, and croaked out, "Man, I LOVED your book!" It might be the best endorsement I've ever received.....

So thank you, Bristol for a truly unforgettable visit! Talks have already begun to do it all over again next year. Count me in. And thanks to the Louis Armstrong House Museum for allowing me to go around the world to preach about Pops and the treasures found at the Armstrong House.

And thank you, Louis Armstrong. Thank you for EVERYTHING. It's my pleasure to be your Ambassador, Mr. Ambassador. 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Irish Black Bottom - 2015 Update

Recorded November 27, 1926
Track Time 2:37
Written by Percy Venable
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Henry "Hy" Clark, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet, alto saxophone; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8447
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Hi everybody! I still need to recap my unforgettable trip to England last week but right now, it's St. Patrick's Day so it's time for a yearly tradition and listen to "Irish Black Bottom."  I originally wrote this in 2010 but keep reading for some new information I recently gleaned from one of Louis's private tapes. But first, raise a beer, slice some corned beef and the original 1926 recording of "Irish Black Bottom"!

Isn't that a lot of fun? No, it's not earth-shaking art as "Potato Head Blues" or "West End Blues" but who cares? "Irish Black Bottom" comes from a series of Hot Fives Louis made in 1926 that most stoic historians tend to frown on or, in the case of some like Gunther Schuller, attempt to ignore completely. Why? Because they get in the way of the myth of the young Louis being a serious artist, not some commercial clown.

But all it takes is one listen to the complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens to see that Louis was doing plenty of clowning during his "artist" days. On February 26, 1926, Armstrong's horn changed the world with his solo on "Cornet Chop Suey" and his stirring lead playing on songs like "Oriental Strut" and "Muskrat Ramble." But his voice also had equal impact that day as he rasped out the blues on "Georgia Grind" and popularized scat singing with "Heebie Jeebies." Naturally, the records all sold well with "Heebie Jeebies" causing a sensation.

OKeh was thrilled and corralled Armstrong into their studios for a string of sessions in June and another in late November. And these are the sessions that make the "serioius" Armstrong fans sweat: there's Louis shouting about doing the "mess around" or getting off eye-rolling lyrics on "Dropping Shucks." There's Louis playing a slide whistle on "Who'sit." There's Louis inviting vaudeville entertainers--friends of his--to the studio, people like Butterbeans and Susie, Clarence Babcock and Mae Alix. Here's Louis performing material he did nightly at the Sunset Cafe, songs written by that club's choreography Percy Venable. THIS is the Louis Armstrong of the 20s, not some frowning artist who forced to "go commercial" in later years.

And oh yeah, he still sounds like a genius on all of these cuts, taking a dramatic solo on "Skid-Dat-De-Dat" and one for the pantheon on "Big Butter and Egg Man." The critics particuarly adore that latter solo, with good reason, but they don't seem to want to discuss Mae Alix's booming vocal--she was a favorite of Louis's--or Louis's own Al Jolson-tinged offering. Nope, to them it's just about the trumpet, trumpet, trumpet. The trumpet IS brilliant...but they're missing a helluva lot of fun!

Which brings us to "Irish Black Bottom." Admittedly, this is not songwriting as its finest but as a novelty, it's good fun. The "black bottom" was a popular dance of the 1920s so this tune humorously pretends that it's also taken Ireland by storm. If Louis had to record something so silly in the 1950s, critics would scream at the producers for forcing it on him. But "Irish Black Bottom" was written by the aforementioned Percy Venable so more than likely, it was a staple of Louis's act at the Sunset. And can't you imagine Louis bringing down the house with that vocal? That "ha, ha" he gives after singing "And I was born in Ireland," breaks me up every time. I can only imagine what it did to the audiences who heard him do it live.

The song begins with the funny sound of Louis and his Hot Five swinging through a sample of the Irish classic "Where the River Shannon Flows" before Louis swings out with the main melody, which is predominantly in a minor mode until the end. Louis's lead sounds great and Dodds is bouncing around as usual but trombonist Hy Clark, a substitute for Kid Ory, sounds hesitant and doesn't add much. After a chorus and an interlude by pianist Lil Armstrong, Louis takes the vocal. If you can't make it out, here's what he says:

All you heard for years in Ireland,
was the "Wearin' Of The Green",
but the biggest change that's come in Ireland
I have ever seen.
All the laddies and the cooies
laid aside their Irish reels,
and I was born in Ireland
(Ha, Ha), so imagine how I feels.

Now Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy,
see them dance,
you ought to see them dance.
Folks supposed to be related, even dance,
I mean they dance.
They play that strain,
works right on their brain.
Now it goes Black Bottom,
a new rhythm's drivin' the folks insane.
I hand you no Blarney, when I say
that song really goes,
and they put it over with a wow,
I mean now.
All over Ireland
you can see the people dancin' it,
'cause Ireland's gone Black Bottom crazy

I don't know how you can't get swept up in that offering. Armstrong doesn't so much sing it as shout it, or talk it, but his spirit sure gets the message across (though sometimes, he's so far from the written melody, it sounds like he's singing a different song on top of Lil's chording on the piano).

2015 update: I wrote those words about Louis's vocal in 2010. Just yesterday, I was paid a visit at the Armstrong Archives by the terrific singer Tara O'Grady, who has recorded "Irish Black Bottom" on her latest CD. I dug out one of Louis's private tapes, one I hadn't heard for a while, and though I can't share the audio, I do want to share Louis's very interesting thoughts. The tape was made in Chicago in 1951 and features Louis and a bunch of friends listening to the old Hot Five recordings. Armstrong puts on "Irish Black Bottom" and makes comments about how Percy Venable wrote it and how it was Lil on the piano (Armstrong says OKeh supervisor E.A. Fearn was responsible for the "ax hitting" Lil and Earl Hines being brought in in 1928; a subject for another day).

But when it comes to the vocal, Louis quietly starts humming along with the verse. But when it comes to the chorus, 1951 Louis shouts, "Here's the lead!" and starts emphatically scatting the written melody over 1926 Louis's shouted vocal on the record. He continues for the entire chorus, sounding quite wonderful (come to Queens one day and I'll play it for you!). He probably hadn't performed it in 25 years but every note of the original melody was firmly entrenched in his brain.

After scatting, Armstrong again moans, "That's the lead!" before imparting some self-critical analysis: "In those days, we sang just what you call 'obligato,' you know? And we commenced to hollering, 'Where's the melody?' See? First thing you see when you walk in the Decca studio, chick with her hair down to her asshole, hollering 'Where's the melody?' holding both of her hands out. Just like I say, we'll take this number…." At this point, 1951 Armstrong catches 1926 Armstrong playing the melody on the record and shouts, "There's the lead" before listening to it in silence to the end.

I find this a fascinating little insight because many writers and listeners--including myself--love listening to Armstrong's wild 1920s vocals and marveling at the chances he took with the written melodies. But here's Armstrong in the 1950s, almost disgusted by his younger self, calling that vocal style nothing but an "obligato" and recalling the advice from the famed Pocahontas photo Jack Kapp plastered around the Decca studios: Pocahontas with her arms outstretched in prayer and Kapp's mantra, "Where's the melody" written underneath. Anyway, that's the update, let's continue with the original analysis of the recording.

After the vocal, Clark and Dodds take forgettable short solos and breaks before Louis carries the troops home with brio. Louis's lip trill towards the end is particularly violent and right before his closing breaks, he dips into his bag for a favorite phrases, one that ended both "You're Next" and "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa." The concluding break is so perfect in its phrasing and choice of notes that I believe it might have already been set in stone by Pops during his live performances of the tune at the Sunset. Either way, that's no reason to criticize him; it's a perfect ending and puts an emphatic stamp on a very entertaining record.

That's all for now. Have a happy St. Patrick's day and don't forget to mix in a little Louis with your Guiness. I hand you no blarney, it's a great combination...

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 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.