Sunday, September 30, 2007

I Used To Love You

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 16, 1941
Track Time 3:02
Written by Albert Von Tilzer and Lew Brown
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Gene Prince, trumpets; George Washington, Norman Greene, Henderson Chambers, trombone; Rupert Cole, Carle Frye, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone; Joe Garland, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; Hayes Alvis, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 4106
Currently available on CD: Volume 8 of the Ambassador series
Available on Itunes? No

For today’s entry, I’m going to focus on one of my favorite examples of Louis Armstrong singing a pop tune…and it’s a record where he doesn’t even open his mouth. Confused? You won’t be after listening to Armstrong’s 1941 big band Decca record of “I Used to Love You.” It’s an oddity of sorts in the Armstrong discography: there’s no trumpet grandstanding, no dramatic cadenzas, no singing, no scatting, no comedy, no nothing except for the gorgeous sound of Louis Armstrong’s trumpet “singing” a melody almost straight at a relaxed ballad tempo suitable for dancing. In fact, my guess is that this one must have been pretty popular at dances so Armstrong decided to capture it on wax as part of a unique session where of the four songs recorded, three were instrumentals (the fourth was a remake of “You Rascal You”).

First up that day was a beautiful version of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” By this point, “Sleepy Time” was utilized solely as Armstrong’s opening and closing theme and except for a version done at the Nice jazz festival in 1948, Armstrong usually didn’t sing it—which is why he caused a stir when he sang the original word “darkies” on his 1951 Decca recording of the tune. Now that’s a story for another day (or at least for the book!) but in the 19 years between singing it for Victor in 1932 and Decca in 1951, there are some lovely instrumental versions of varying lengths. The Decca version is quite gorgeous and Armstrong’s closing bridge and final eight bars practically define the concepts of beauty and passion in music. After “Sleepy Time,” the band tackled another instrumental, “Leap Frog,” written by saxophonist Joe Garland, who joined Armstrong’s big band in 1939 and quickly supplanted Luis Russell as music director (though Russell stayed on as pianist for a number of years). It’s a harmless slice of the Swing Era, with a catchy riff head and a mostly uninteresting arrangement, with short solo spots for Prince Robinson’s clarinet and Garland’s tenor saxophone. There’s even a little false “fade out” action (remember Garland was credited as the composer of “In the Mood,” though the story of that tune’s genesis is too complicated to discuss here!). Finally, after a break by Garland’s bass saxophone (can’t believe anyone not named Rollini still owned one in 1941!), Armstrong’s trumpet enters with a few clarion calls that bring the record to its close. As I said, it’s a harmless riff tune and the band swings well but because Armstrong’s entire contribution to the record occurs in the final 18 seconds, it’s pretty forgettable. However, the tune must have been a favorite with dancers, as numerous radio broadcasts exist of the band performing it during this period. And also, it gave Pops a chance to rest his chops, which I’m sure he always welcomed.

“I Used To Love You (But It’s All Over Now” was the third tune recorded that day. It was originally written in 1920 by Albert Von Tilzer (the man behind the music to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”) and Lew Brown (part of a popular songwriting team with Buddy De Sylva and Ray Henderson). Over the years, many great artists would tackle the tune, including Bing Crosby, Jimmie Lunceford, Nat King Cole, Pee Wee Russell, Benny Carter, Dinah Washington and Fats Waller, who did the song as a romp. I was actually aware of Fats’s version before I heard Armstrong’s and for some time, I preferred Waller’s uproarious version to Armstrong’s rather somber reading of the tune. But as I’ve matured…I still prefer Waller’s version! BUT, there is something very beautiful about Armstrong’s recording of “I Used to Love You,” and I’m glad the ol’ Itunes shuffle landed on it.

“I Used to Love You” exists in two takes, both available on volume eight of the Ambassador series. Neither is available on Itunes but fortunately, the Red Hot Jazz archive has the originally issued “B” take and if you’d like, you can listen to it

There’s almost no difference between the two takes, except the slightly slower second take clocks in eight seconds longer. A slow chromatic run by Armstrong’s trumpet leads into the first note of the melody as the band enters simultaneously. I began this article by mentioning Armstrong’s “singing” on this track and if you don’t believe me, here are the original lyrics for the first 16 bars Armstrong plays at the start of the record:

I used to love you but it’s all over - all over now.
Now the word’s got around, that you threw me down
But you shouldn't let that kind of a story go around.

He sticks to the words almost freakishly close, but his subtle changes in certain pitches and rhythmic phrasing let the listener know that this is Louis Armstrong’s conception of this melody. Even the relatively simple ascending phrase that leads to the second eight bars bares the Armstrong stamp. It all sounds simple, especially the little repeated notes he plays for rhythmic emphasis but it works wonderfully. He creates a very somber mood—he used to love her and now it’s over and it hurts, so much that maybe he even stutters a bit when he accuses her of all the wrongs she’s done to him. At the halfway point of the first chorus, the band comes in with an arranged section for the next eight bars, the reeds answering the brass with some very pretty phrases. But then comes one of my favorite parts of the record: Armstrong’s given a one-bar break and he fills it with a fat concert Eb, adding a healthy dose of vibrato for dramatic effect (and make no mistake, it is dramatic and the effect is profound!). Here’s the next set of lyrics for the final eight bars Armstrong plays:

For there were things that you did, I used to forgive,
but you'll never change just as long as you live.
I used to love you but it's all over - all over now.

Lester Young once did a song in the fifties called “Slow Motion Blues,” a phrase that could apply to Armstrong’s playing at this point of the track. He plays the phrase “things that you did” with a slow motion feel that leaves me speechless. All he’s really doing is playing the melody but to add so many little creative touches and to still swing at such a slow tempo is quite a feat. As he plays the final line of the first chorus, he takes another one-bar break and fills it with maybe the most famous Armstrong trumpet lick of all time, the one that people hear and immediately say, “That’s Pops!” (It also ended every Louis Prima record after 1956!) All that’s missing is a nice “Oh yeah!” I wonder when he first played this phrase on a record? I have to look into that…

Anyway, at this point, we’re two minutes and five seconds into the record and the band’s only played one chorus! Thus, they cut to the bridge as a gloomy Garland plays the melody with some very nice, almost commercial-sounding fills from Luis Russell behind him (did somebody let Eddie Duchin into the studio?). Armstrong reenters to play the final eight bars, the band shouting with him simultaneously on the word “I” of the title phrase. As the band surges behind him, you can just feel Armstrong building up to the final high Ab and when he hits it, it really rings out.

Still, the Ab is under Armstrong’s usual above high-C climaxes, which makes “I Used to Love You” all the more of an anomaly, especially during the Decca period, where just about every record seemed to end with a slow coda where Armstrong would dramatically build to a final, piercing high note. But Armstrong didn’t need that on “I Used to Love You.” This performance is about a mood and any trumpet grandstanding would have ruined the ambiance of the record.

So why such a downer of a record? As I’ve already mentioned, the song had been popular for over 20 years and I’m sure Armstrong’s big band played it at dances when the dancers needed something slow to cling to. However, one must also be aware of the events in Armstrong’s life at this period. By the time of the November 16, 1942 recording date, Armstrong’s marriage to Alpha Smith was on the rocks. Armstrong knew Alpha was cheating on him with Charlie Barnet’s drummer, Cliff Leeman, and he even wrote Walter Winchell on January 19, 1942 to make the details public. Armstrong wrote to Winchell that Alpha proudly admitted her affair with Leeman, to which Armstrong could only say, “Thank God. If I could only see him and tell him how much I appreciate what he’s done for me by taking that chick away from me.” Clearly, Armstrong used to love her, but it was, indeed, all over now! Thus, staring at the sheet music, with those lines like “There were things that you did, I used to forgive,” I think that put him in a very melancholy, hurt state and it shows in his reflective, somber playing. Definitely an unsung record.

Flash forward now to 1951 and a January 26 concert at the Exhibition Gardens in Vancouver, Canada. Listening to this concert, whose many tracks have been issued on various releases over the years, it’s clear that there was a dancing portion of the evening. On many of the early tracks, the crowd is in a frenzy, paying attention to every joke every note and cheering, laughing and clapping with wild enthusiasm. But then there’s a number of tracks from the same show where the audience can barely be heard and on some of these songs (“Royal Garden Blues,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’”), you can hear Armstrong alerting the other musicians to shorten the performance length of these numbers. Also, he takes “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at a slower than usual tempo, more suitable for dancing. Thus, I think the crowd might have listened for the first set, then spent the rest of the evening on the dance floor. Armstrong always fielded his requests and on this occasion, he fulfilled one for “I Used to Love You,” taking it at the same crawling tempo as the 1941 record. Armstrong still remembered the melody as he plays it much the same as he did ten years earlier. Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard compliment him perfectly throughout the opening chorus, though bassist Arvell Shaw sounds like he’s playing by ear, hitting some clams along the way (Cozy Cole covers him up at times, with heavy bass drum accents on one and three). Armstrong plays the entire first chorus this time, instilling it with a lot of feeling. Earl Hines solos and you can hear Armstrong tell the other musicians to be ready to come back after Hines plays 16 bars. Also, maybe to familiarize Shaw, Armstrong quietly sings a line, causing Bigard to chuckle a bit. Hines’s solo is actually quite creative. Of course, Hines was one of the most creative pianists in jazz history but his work with the All Stars was often uninspired. That’s not the case on “I Used to Love You,” though it’s more fun to crank up the volume and listen to Pops’s almost inaudible scatting, not too obtrusive, but softly conveying the tune’s harmonies in the background. However, the highlight of the performance lies in Armstrong’s final trumpet offering. Perhaps because his personal life was happier in 1951 than it was in 1941, Armstrong plays with more of his customary flash, digging into a four-note phrase (concert F-G-Ab-C), repeating it five times before sticking with the high C (higher than any note from the Decca record), before repeating the phrase once more for good measure and uncorking a masterful line that leads perfectly in the final eight bars. Armstrong goes out with more melody and finishes with a neat little chromatic run that ends with the very same Ab that ended the original. And that might have been the last time Louis Armstrong played “I Used to Love You (But It’s All Over Now).” Fortunately, this version is available on Itunes, one three different releases (it clocks in at four minutes and 40 seconds).

Thus, if you think Louis Armstrong was nothing but a high-note freak trumpeter (and if you think that, I feel sad for you), try out “I Used to Love You” for some beautifully subdued, passionate playing…and some great “singing,” too, trumpet-ly speaking!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Live at the University of North Carolina, May 8, 1954

A lot of people have written to tell me that they enjoyed my review of the C.D. Armstrong’s set at the 1958 Monterey Jazz Festival so I think I’ll add a new feature to this blog and once in awhile offer a “Classic Concert” review. Many people believe all All Stars shows were the same but that couldn’t be farther from the truth and hopefully, through the usual blow-by-blow descriptions and intensive listening, I can give each of these concert recordings the individual respect they deserve. Today, I’m going to start out with a release that’s not very well-known but since I’m endless crusade to hip the world towards all things Armstrong, I might as well talk a little bit about it. On May 8, 1954, Louis Armstrong and the All Stars performed two shows in one day at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The first was an afternoon concert for the students at Memorial Hall while, in the evening, they played the “Spring Germans” fraternity formal dance at a UNC gymnasium.

Somehow, the afternoon concert was recorded but went undocumented for years, never even appearing in any earlier Armstrong discographies. Only a few years ago, while doing an internet search for rare All Stars shows, did I notice that almost anybody who was selling bootleg concerts over the web also offered this show! It was strange seeing “for trade” lists with scores of rock concerts, no jazz at all, and then one entry: “Louis Armstrong, University of North Carolina.” Eventually, it appeared on eBay as “The Lost Concert” and I bought it. Well, I’ll give whoever sold it credit because they outdid themselves on the packaging, choosing nice photos, putting a fake copyright on the back, issuing it on “Verve” (even using their logo), including an original review of the concert in the liner notes and incorporating some Japanese characters to make it look foreign. Of course, whoever was in charge knew nothing about jazz, hence, a few comical song listings. “Didn’t He Ramble” became “The Life of Didley Rambo,” Billy Kyle’s feature on “Pennies From Heaven” became “Billy Kyle Piano Jam,” and inexplicably, “Margie” became “My Sweet Baby”! Nevertheless, I treasured it because the sound quality was surprisingly good except the drums were a little loud (more on that in a bit) but Pops was in outstanding form and the crowd sounded like they were in a frenzy the entire time.

I thought I had a little rare gem on my hands until the Avid label, straight from the United Kingdom, officially released the concert on a double-C.D. last year. I like the Avid label and was happy to see it get the deluxe treatment with some nice photos, good liner notes by trumpeter Digby Fairweather, some very rare bonus tracks and improved sound courtesy of producer Dave Bennett. It’s a great package but like most All Stars reissues, it landed with a thud in today’s jazz world. None of the major magazines reviewed it, Itunes and Emusic, both of whom offer many Avid releases, didn’t even bother to carry it and, except for the two Virgin Megastores in New York City, I never saw in any other store where music is sold. Fortunately, there’s the good old Internet, and if this review stirs something inside of you, it can be from Amazon sellers in the $12-$16 price range, a bargain for a set that retails at $30. But enough about that, let’s get onto the music!


The University of North Carolina concert caught the band nearing the end of a transitional period. Trummy Young joined in 1952 and he wouldn’t leave until the end of 1963 so he was settled. Barney Bigard rejoined the band in early 1953 and he more than a year left in him after this May 1954 concert. But interestingly, just the previous summer, the band had an entirely different rhythm section consisting of Marty Napoleon on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Cozy Cole on drums. That group is responsible for one of the hottest All Stars concerts ever recorded, from an unknown date in 1953, one that the good people at Avid should really look into reissuing (it used to be given as Cornell and was issued on two old Rarities LPs). According to Jos Willems’s Armstrong discography All of Me, it’s not clear whether Billy Kyle or Kenny John entered the band first but I spoke to Marty Napoleon and he said that he never played with John so Kyle obviously entered the band first, in the fall of 1953, with John appearing soon afterwards. Napoleon and Cole left for the same reasons everyone did: they got sick of traveling. Napoleon never wanted to leave his family in the first place but Joe Glaser managed to convince him to stay after filming The Glenn Miller Story. Napoleon only stayed this time (his second stint with the band) for six months. Cole had been with the band since 1949 and now wanted to settle in New York, where he would run a drum school for a while with Gene Krupa.

Their replacements couldn’t have been any more different. In Billy Kyle, the All Stars got a very respected jazzman, with years of experience, most notably in John Kirby’s sextet. Kyle was the definition of a team player, influenced by Earl Hines’s playing but with none of Hines’s ego and he would stay with Armstrong until the day he died in February 1966. Drummer Kenny John wasn’t exactly built to last, however. He was performing with Marty Napoleon’s trumpeter uncle Phil Napoleon (also managed by Joe Glaser) when he joined the All Stars. John first performed at the age of three and by ten was touring. He worked for MGM Studios in Hollywood and in the bands of Alvino Rey and Raymond Scott before joining the All Stars. “Well, Kenny’s been around,” Armstrong told an interviewer. “He’s just a kid. About 25, he looks like he’s 16. He’s played with Raymond Scott. You know, he plays some hard music.” Milt Hinton described him as “a short, thin, pale, blond kid who’d been fairly successful as an actor in Hollywood and was also a good drummer. But he had some serious problems. He’d gotten his way most of his life and that’s probably why he’d fallen into some bad habits which were destroying him.” Barney Bigard summed him up as “a real young guy who drank plenty, but could play good drums.” The University of North Carolina concert is notable because it was one of John’s last nights in the band. And after listening to the show, it’s easy to see why!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Avid release begins with an unknown announcer introducing the musicians one by one and you can hear immediately that this is a rowdy crowd. You can also hear Kenny John beating on his drums like a toddler, hitting them just for the sake of hitting them, a bad habit he continues throughout the concert. Armstrong’s greeted like a king and after quickly tuning up (he can make a low A sound beautiful), he lets out a happy laugh, excited to start playing. Well, that little giggle causes the audience to break into cheers. There are few concert recordings that capture an audience so entirely spellbound by every aspect of Armstrong’s persona. Soon, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” begins and the crowd continues hooting and cheering behind Armstrong’s gentle vocal, eventually exploding when Armstrong sells the word “Yeah” when coming out of the bridge. The roar is huge and even Armstrong says, “Yes indeed, folks, we’re going to have a lot of fun here, this evening,” eliciting more cheers—it sounds like a college concert from 2007, never mind 1954!

Naturally, “Indiana” opens up the proceedings and Billy Kyle’s introduction is already set in stone (it was just about there on a New Year’s Eve 1953 concert from Yokohama, Japan, though he was still finding his way in his solo that night). The ensemble is powerful as all hell but, though John swings beautifully, his one fatal flaw exposes himself early: a tendency to pound two-and-four on the snare and the bass drum. Now, I’ve defended backbeats time and again in this blog and goodness knows Armstrong lived for them, but the bass drum is a little too heavy and especially since this isn’t a professional recording, sometimes gets a little irritating. But otherwise, John swung harder, I think, than Cozy Cole (check him out on the Decca session from March 19, 1954) and he definitely paved the road for the man who would replace him, Barrett Deems. Anyway, “Indiana” is one of those songs that again, many feel Pops played the same night but between 1951, when he started playing it, and 1956, he changed his solos almost night. He eventually settled on a closing four-bar phrase that fit perfectly but it was anything goes for the first 28 bars. Armstrong taped all of shows and would listen to them all night and morning in his hotel room so you know he studied his solos to see what fit and what didn’t. In 1953 and 1954, Armstrong tried fitting a phrase in his second eight bars that sounds like a quote, maybe something operatic. Sometimes it fit but it was kind of awkward and in Carolina, he plays the phrase, gets a little tongue-tied for a second and recovers with three notes placed directly on the beat. But the second half of his chorus shows that he was nearing the finish line in sculpting what would be come the perfect “Indiana” solo (but if you really want to hear him take some chances, dig up that Yokohama LP I mentioned). Bigard’s solo was pretty well set, as was Young’s, which is very relaxed on this particular occasion. The crowd responds to John’s drum breaks and Pops takes it out on top.

“A Kiss to Build a Dream On” is up next, Armstrong introducing it with the same “Macarooney” (instead of Mickey Rooney) joke he would use until 1968. The tempo grew slower in the 1960s so it’s nice to hear it a gentle, medium sway, though John’s still a little heavy in the opening ensemble. Armstrong mixes up the lyrics at one point but no one notices and when he picks up his trumpet, anyone who did notice probably forgot about it. Naturally, when Armstrong inserts the word “chops” for “lips” during the vocal reprise, the crowd eats it up.

Next, Armstrong announces a trip to his hometown of New Orleans, which, again, inspires a roar of approval from a crowd that sounds like they were ready to cheer just about anything. The tune is “The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” and Armstrong announces it as being written “during the days of rushing the cans.” That’s a reference to the kids whose job it was to bring beer to the bordellos. Jelly Roll Morton, on his seminal 1939 recording of “Mamie’s Blues,” opens with a spoken introduction where he says, “This is the first blues I no doubt heard in my life. Mamie Desdunes, this is her favorite blues. She hardly could play anything else more, but she really could play this number. Of course, to get in on it, to try to learn it, I made myself the, the can rusher.” Armstrong usually announced “The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” as being played by Joe Oliver in New Orleans and it was recorded in the 1920s by the likes of Lil Johnson and Washboard Sam, with composer credit going to Clarence Williams. However, the song didn’t really become well-known until country musician Hank Williams had a hit with it in 1949. A year later, Armstrong recorded a slow, bluesy version for Decca, obviously giving it the slow drag kind of feeling Joe Oliver must have given it. However, by the time of Armstrong’s ill-fated tour with Benny Goodman (and later Gene Krupa) in 1953, the tune was being jumped and that’s the way it would remain for the next decade. Armstrong always really got into the tune, as can be seen by watching the All Stars perform it in Edward R. Murrow’s Satchmo the Great, bending over, snapping his fingers, closing his eyes, sometimes getting the audience to clap along. Armstrong sounds like he’s trying to get the audience to clap on the beat during Billy Kyle’s opening boogie-woogie introduction as he can be heard off-mike yelling, “Slow down” at one point and then happily exclaiming, “Ahhh, right there, right there” a few seconds later as the audience starts clapping along properly. John’s drumming gets a little irritating on this one as his accents are inserted randomly (none of Sid Catlett’s finesse) and those bass drum hits on two and four get exasperating. Otherwise, the number jumps and Trummy’s roaring solo stirs up the crowd, much as it did everywhere else he played it. Armstrong yells encouragement towards Young and even though Trummy overblows his final note, the spirit of the solo is more than enough to get excited about. Armstrong’s trumpet is extremely powerful in the closing choruses—later, starting around 1956, whenever he really felt in the mood, he’d add encore choruses, resulting in perhaps the greatest version from the “Chicago Concert” of June 1, 1956.

“Blueberry Hill” follows, dedicated to a “party” in attendance. Listening to the audience yell with excitement at the mere mention of the tune reminds me of one of the meanest things ever written about Armstrong. On page 197 of The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller writes about Armstrong’s later career: “But the end was not what it should have been. Nat Hentoff once suggested that Louis should at least have been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, or been accorded a Pulitzer Prize in music. Or better yet—my suggestion—as America's unofficial ambassador to the world, this country should have provided him an honorary pension to live out his life in dignity, performing as and when he might, but without the need to scratch out a living as a good-natured buffoon, singing ‘Blueberry Hill’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’ night after night.” Armstrong truly loved “Blueberry Hill” as it revitalized his recording career and throughout the 50s and 60s, he usually named it as his most popular song with audiences. Fittingly, it was the last song he ever performed on television, singing it on The Tonight Show on March 1, 1971, just four months before the end. Because Schuller couldn’t see the beauty of how many people were entertained by “Blueberry Hill,” I think it makes him come off as cold and bitter. Millions of people loved “Blueberry Hill” and Armstrong absolutely loved singing it so to write him off in his later years as a “buffoon” for performing it is completely unfair. Even as late as 1968, when pressed by a BBC show to name one record that he would take to a desert island, Armstrong said, “I’d like to take ‘Blueberry Hill,’ cause right now, it’s like the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ in America when I sing it.”

“Tin Roof Blues” followed, dedicated to New Orleans Rhythm King clarinetist Leon Roppolo. Roppolo died in 1943 at the age of 41 so the dedication is a nice touch, but it also allows Armstrong to get a gag in as he first mentions a “young clarinetist,’ causing Barney Bigard to chuckle and take a bow. Armstrong, of course, tells Barney it’s not him and even hilariously refers to him as an “old reprobate.” As for “Tin Roof Blues,” it was a song where the routine never changed over the years, as Armstrong never soloed on it. Instead, he stuck to playing soulful lead, leaving the solos to Bigard and Young (though he can be heard talking behind the solos, obviously having a good time with the other members of the band). It was one song where the tempo never grew faster over the years; Armstrong obviously liked it slow and the tempo never raised above the daring crawl he took it. Interestingly, when the band plays the famous second strain melody for the first time (the part already discussed in my entry for “Jazzin’ Babies’ Blues”), the audience starting reacting with surprised approval. Why? Because Jo Stafford had a hit with a song called “Make Love to Me,” which was basically just “Tin Roof Blues” with lyrics. Stafford’s record hit in March 1954 and stayed at number one for seven weeks so it was still fresh in the public’s mind at the time of the May University of North Carolina concert—especially in the minds of young college kids, with a title like “Make Love to Me”! Even Decca got involved and brought the All Stars into the studio in April of 1955 to record their version of “Tin Roof Blues,” but without that “Make Love to Me” title or lyrics, it didn’t exactly become a hit.

Next comes the “vittle” song, “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” which this exact group recorded for Decca in March of 1954. The live version follows that routine very closely, though Armstrong trots out some new ideas in the second opening ensemble chorus. Billy Kyle’s solo would become set in cement in a short time but he plays a lot of fresh ideas here, except for the final eight bars, which would never change. Arvell Shaw takes a very fine bass solo but there’s nothing like Pop’s entrance. He often liked to follow bass solos (think “Indiana”) and the juxtaposition between the quiet bass and the wailing trumpet worked very well. Unfortunately, the original tape faded out right before the final rideout so those notes are lost to posterity (though I’m sure it didn’t differ much from the studio version).

At this point, Armstrong had been on stage for a little over 30 minutes, blowing on every song except “Blueberry Hill” but being involved constantly. It was time for a breather, but I don’t remember another breather quite like this one. Bigard’s up first with “S’wonderful” followed by a feature for Kyle on “All the Things You Are” and then finally, an Arvell Shaw feature on “The Man I Love.” Until Pops comes in with his trumpet midway through Shaw’s feature, he is off the stage for 18 minutes and 46 seconds! This was highly unusual and I have a theory about the Carolina that I’ll discuss in detail a little further down but I think it might have had to do with Swiss Kriss! I have many, many All Stars concerts and nowhere else does Armstrong take a break like this. s Even in 1965, when he began to let his sidemen take longer features so he could rest more, Armstrong never sat our for more than eight or nine minutes. On top of that, he usually played a melody chorus on “S’wonderful,” which is absent from the Carolina concert. Also, the tempo of “S’wonderful” is way down from what it would be just eight months later when it would be recorded at the Crescendo Club for Decca. I think Pops had to go to the bathroom so Bigard was forced to stretch out at a slower tempo and without Pops’s help. I actually like this tempo for “S’wonderful” and Bigard does a great job…until about the five-minute mark when the endless little trades with John’s drums grow tiring. A review of the concert from the University newspaper mentioned this as a highlight of the show. “Then, breaking all concert tradition, Louiis and three of his boys left the stage, leaving only the clarinet man, Barney Bigard [and] drummer Kenny John,” Jerry Reece wrote in The Daily Tar Heel. “The crowd seemed a little awed at this and Barney soon gave it reason to be. He blew some of the hottest and sweetest licks to be heard in the old hall for a long time.” Thus, it’s the definition of a “you had to be there moment” as it really gets on my nerves after awhile—the whole feature goes on for nine minutes!

With Pops not back yet, Bigard becomes emcee. When someone yells, “Louie!” Bigard calms him down, saying, “He’ll be on, don’t worry about it, everything is straight.” He then introduces Kyle, mentioning that Kyle had just finished a three-year run as the pianist for Guys and Dolls on Broadway. Kyle then performs “All the Things You Are,” which isn’t one of my favorite Kyle showpieces. The opening reading of the melody is very beautiful and when he improvises in the middle, it swings, but overall, the thing reeks of novelty piano, beginning with the silly, ornate introduction and the endlessly modulating worked-out middle section. Kyle had many better features and on almost all of them (“Perdido,” “When I Grow To Old To Dream,” “Girl of My Dreams,” etc.), Armstrong played some trumpet. I think he only called the other ones (“All the Things You Are,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “St. Louis Blues”) when he needed a break or when he had to go to the bathroom. Again, just a hunch…

Bigard then introduces Shaw, who had just rejoined the band in March. As Bigard points out, Shaw made some records with Julius LaRosa in the time he spent away from the band. Shaw gets an easy laugh from the college crowd, mentioning that, “Whenever I announce the title of this tune, I feel sort of silly: ‘The Man I Love.’” Shaw’s features were always exciting (he quotes “Rhapsody in Blues,” something Kyle did on the previous track, as well) and it sounds like it might have been the first time he played it with John on drums since he yells, “Fast!” to alert the drummer to the upcoming tempo change. But the audience doesn’t start buzzing until Armstrong makes his way onstage three minutes in, initially providing harmony as Shaw plays the melody. But then Pops takes the bridge and the final A section and all of a sudden, one forgets it’s a bass feature! Whether Pops was just resting because he knew he had another show that evening or ingested too much Swiss Kriss, it’s clear very quickly that it was not a chops problem as he’s in terrifyingly good shape as soon as he comes back.

The same can be said of the next performance, a feature for Trummy Young on “Margie,” which was also recorded at that March Decca session (In Carolina, Pops lets Trummy introduce it, jokingly saying, “Here’s Trummy Young and his toilet, er, trombone!”). Trummy always did a beautiful job on this number, with a Pops-influenced vocal and trombone solo (dig the Rigoletto quote during the break), but Armstrong always had his say, too, providing a nice obbligato behind the vocal and usually taking over during the final rideout. Well, you could always tell how good Pops was feeling by counting the number of encores he would call on “Margie.” I always thought the best version was from the Crescendo Club where Pops calls for two supercharged encores but at Chapel Hill, he really outdid himself, offering up three encores and blowing with more and more fury with each passing one. During the actual first performance, Pops can barely be heard but beginning with the first encore, he gradually begins taking over. By the second encore, the ridiculous glisses start pouring out of the trumpet and the crowd is in bedlam. But on the third and final encore, Trummy steals the show back and there might be a few reasons why, though I can’t be certain. There are pictures of Young in his early tenure with the All Stars playing the trombone with his foot and it’s possible he did that hear since he goes way off mike in the final encore. However, in one of Armstrong’s private scrapbooks of a May 1956 tour of London, there’s a very funny picture of Young laying down on stage with a caption mentions Young acting passed out after blowing three encores on “Margie.” Thus, because he’s basically inaudible at the end, I think this scenario is the most plausible. Either way, the ovation is riotous (though John can’t stop dropping bombs for no reason) and even Pops says, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, Trummy—we got his crown waiting for him, boy,” and then, before introducing Velma Middleton, says, “Right now we’re going to let Trummy thaw out a little bit.” So obviously, there were some funny visuals that night but as for me, I’m more than happy to have he audio of Pops wailing on this version of “Margie.”

But yes, it was blues time, folks, and the students at Chapel Hill greeted Velma Middleton as if she was Marilyn Monroe. She does “Big Mama’s Back In Town” and has the crowd in the palm of her hands with her very first line, “Here’s news for you, baby, Big Mama’s Back In Town.” After singing a few choruses, Velma goes into her dance and it’s pure bedlam. From that point on, the crowd doesn’t stop yelling as if they’re at a rock concert (remember, 1954 also saw the release of “Rock Around the Clock” and the youth was getting a little rowdy!). Pops’s horn is scorching, with its set quotes of “Moon Over Miami” and “My Sweetie Went Away,” and he even glisses up to a high concert E, something I don’t think he does on any other version of “Big Mama.” I can only imagine what that crowd must have looked like when Velma did the split!

After nearly a 25-second ovation, Velma introduces the next number, their version of one of their “recordings” of “Baby”—that’s all she has to say before the crowd goes wild yet again—“It’s Cold Outside.” It’s interesting to point out, that Armstrong and Middleton’s routines on numbers like this one and “That’s My Desire” were actually never done in a studio and were only known from their appearance on live Decca records. Still, those records must have reached the University of North Carolina as the crowd gives “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” perhaps the greatest ovation it ever received, only challenged by a January 1951 date in Vancouver, just four days before recording it live for Decca in Pasadena. As Billy Kyle vamps and Velma lets out innocent, “Hoo-dee-dee’s,” Armstrong mutters a reference to Swiss Kriss. Again, if you’ve made it this far, stay tuned for more about Swiss Kriss in just a short while! But as for “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” everyone seems to be having a good time as even the band members, especially Barney, can be heard laughing as if this was the first time they heard the routine. Also, every time Louis and Velma performed it, they had a set part of the routine where Velma would mention which part of town she lived on. Someone at the theater would obviously slip Velma the name of a town beforehand so when she would drop the name of a street or section of town, the audience would always laugh in a happily surprised fashion. At the University of North Carolina, Pops asks where she’s staying and she replies, “In Frat Court,” getting great applause and cracking herself up in the process. It’s the kind of performance that simply radiates the great warmth generated by these two great artists.

Kenny John closes the first set with a feature on “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” which clocks in around only two minutes, though it does sound like it might be edited in the middle (later versions featuring Barrett Deems and Danny Barcelona would go much longer). The second set begins with “Professor Bigard” reading an advertisement for the “Barefoot Ball” on May 15 (“75, stag or drag”), a cute little moment that really captures the nature of this gig (huge festivals were right around the corner for the All Stars). Anyway, “New Orleans Function” opens the second half, the great pairing of “Flee As A Bird” and “Didn’t He Ramble” as originally recorded by Pops for Decca in 1950. As Digby Fairweather points out in his notes to the Avid set, you can hear Pops admonish Kenny John at the start of “Flee As A Bird.” John leads off with some drum theatrics before Pops comes in with “Flee As A Bird.” However, as soon as the band hits their first note, John unleashes a tremendous bomb, whacking his snare, bass and cymbal at the same time. Pops stops the band and says, “Hold that there, son. You don’t hit no cymbal in a funeral. You’ll wake up the man up!” It’s a funny line but Armstrong obviously didn’t deliver to the audience to get a laugh as all you hear is some nervous tittering in the crowd, though Bigard sounds like he’s finding it all very humorous. Anyway, I think Armstrong was legitimately miffed at John but, professional that he was, tried making light of it. Anyway, I’ll have more on John in a bit (I’m becoming king of the blog cliffhanger!). “New Orleans Function” is a performance that contains the essence of Louis Armstrong in one single performance. The reading of “Flee As A Bird” is so passionate and somber, it can make one cry. It’s then followed by a funeral scene with the band “crying” so loud, it’s difficult not to laugh. Then the band marches around the stage, playing “Oh, Didn’t He Ramble,” a sight that I’m sure made those in the audience smile. And finally, John goes into swing time and the band tears into “Ramble,” Trummy raising hell and Pops causing the listener to sweat and marvel with each passing high note. It’s all there in one performance and I love it.

“C’est Si Bon” is up next and a loose spirit seems to have invaded the band. The tempo is faster than it was ever played and Pops changes up the way he plays the melody at the start. It’s as if everyone was feeling high and happy and it shows.

The next performance really demonstrates the kind of night Pops was having. He mentions that he heard that “Lazy River” was a popular record in “the frat house” so he decides to play it for the students (ah, a frat house that worships a record from 1931—now there’s a fraternity I would join!). Billy Kyle had been in the band for about six or seven months but he obviously had never played “Lazy River” before. Fortunately, Barney Bigard’s there to guide him through it. After Pops plays the melody, Trummy takes over and you can hear Bigard tell Kyle that Pops is going to take sing choruses and that the second one is going to played in double-time. You can even hear Kyle respond, “The second one’s doubled,” and Bigard responds in the affirmative. As Pops finishes his first chorus, Bigard can be heard reminding Kyle, “Now double it.” I think it’s a nice portrait of teamwork and by the time of the Crescendo Club, Kyle had “Lazy River” down pat.

But Pops is the main event on “Lazy River,” as his scat break completely breaks up the audience. And his trumpet playing is downright scary. The famous glissed break that had turned the trumpet world upside down in 1931 is pulled off with aplomb, his tone remarkably huge, eliciting another burst of applause from the audience. But he saves the best for last: he ends “Lazy River” with a jaw-dropping high concert D, something he only did when he felt special. He didn’t do it in 1931 and he wouldn’t do it at the Crescendo Club in 1955, on the Autobiography session of 1956 or at Newport in 1957. And hell, during the 1940s big band days, he usually ended not with the trumpet but with a scat break after a vocal reprise. No, Pops was feeling good that night in North Carolina and though you can hear him hesitate for a fraction of a second, thinking about whether he really wanted to do this, he hits that D with bell-like clarity.

But wait, there’s more! If you think I’ve been enthusiastic up to this point, I don’t know how I’m going to convey the wild roller coaster ride that is a ten-minute medley of “Shadrack” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” After another long piano introduction (you can hear Armstrong make a reference to the Ink Spots), “Shadrack” begins with an absolutely infectious minor vamp (think “Hit the Road, Jack”) and it’s impossible to not get carried away by it. Unfortunately, by this point in the show, something went awry with the tape machine. All of a sudden, John’s drums sound louder and Pop’s voice sounds distant. After “Shadrack,” the band swings into the “Saints” and though it takes some effort to listen for it, what follows might be the most scorching, free-spirited playing of the entire All Stars period. It begins like every other version of the “Saints” and after solos by Bigard and Young, Armstrong leads the way with his set three-chorus rideout pattern, Bigard and Young with him all the way. Armstrong had worked on this routine for years and it works. The song ends on another huge high D and it’s over. The audience goes wild and Pops counts off the tempo for an encore, done at the same tempo. This encore was also pretty set and it, too, works as Pops blows another set of variations before ending on another high D. So far, so good but it’s not over yet. John takes a drum break and we’re off for a second encore, now at warp speed. Now’s where the improvisation begins as Armstrong first plays around with the melody then launches into a positively demonized second chorus, where he blows like it’s his last night on earth, hitting high G’s, smearing phrases, playing some very fleet-fingered ideas and showing complete command of the horn before pushing himself to play the melody a full octave higher than usual in the third chorus, nailing every note before ending on a sickening high E!

And he’s still not done.

He counts off one more time, and this time the band sounds like they didn’t even expect it. Shaw starts walking, John joins in but Pops is the only horn playing for a few seconds. Who needs anyone else when Armstrong is blowing with such fury? Armstrong now turns back the clock and it’s now 1932 again. He starts showing his endurance, hitting high G’s and holding them, the first one for five seconds before glissing to a higher B, the second one for four seconds, before another B and finally a third for three seconds before yet another gliss to yet another B. I’m glad I don’t play the trumpet because I would probably start crying and put my instrument up for sale after listening to this. Then once more, he plays the melody an octave higher, sounding a little shaky at first but almost immediately finding his footing, blasting it out with authority. Bedlam erupts and even Armstrong can’t help laughing his funny high-pitched laugh he only trotted out when he was especially titillated. I wish this was on Itunes and I wish more people had heard it so I wasn’t the only one raving like a lunatic about it, but it truly is one of my favorite Armstrong moments and it’s more than worth the price of the set.

Any other human would have probably ended the show right there, but no, Pops then called “High Society,” yet another number that required another test of endurance. Once again, a problem with the tape machine leads to a large middle chunk being edited out, but the rideout exists and it’s a burner, Armstrong still tearing up in the upper register of his horn…in a Hall at the University of North Carolina…in the afternoon….of an evening where he would play a dance in a gymnasium. If doesn’t show just how hard he pushed himself in his later years and how much he gave at every single show, then I don’t know what else to say.

As Armstrong told an interviewer after the show (a segment unfortunately not included on the Avid disc, but is on my bootleg copy), “High Society” was supposed to be the finale. Barney Bigard especially hated playing overtime…unless he was getting paid for it (for more on that, read George Avakian’s liner notes to the 1997 Sony reissue of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy). Bigard wanted to pack it up but Armstrong, sensing the crowd’s enthusiasm, wanted to give them more. “They were just wonderful,” he told the interviewer. “They just stood up and cheered and applauded….It just makes you feel great. In fact, we went overtime. Barney said, ‘That should have been the last,’ and I say, ‘How can we pay any attention to a clock working like we do and the people are so enthusiastic?’ So it just didn’t bother, we just went on down the line.” Isn’t that beautiful? Thus, when “High Society” ended, Armstrong called on Billy Kyle to do another feature that didn’t require any trumpet playing, “Pennies From Heaven.” Where’d Armstrong go during the number? No, no, not the bathroom…instead, he went and brought back Velma Middleton, remembering how wonderfully she was received in the concert’s first half (because it was a shorter than usual show, Velma wasn’t needed for the second half).

They decided to close with “The Dummy Song,” a silly trifle Armstrong recorded for Decca on July 16, 1953. On that occasion, Armstrong was backed by a studio band (including all of the All Stars) arranged and conducted by Jack Pleiss. However, on live recordings, Velma joined with a new chorus of special lyrics filled with all sorts of topical references. The song was originally in 1925 written by Lew Brown, Billy Rose and Ray Henderson and featured two verses about a soldier on furlough who catches his “hon” cheating on him with both his sergeant and Colonel so he declares that he’s going to make a “dummy” because he’ll get more lovin’ from that dum-dum-dummy that he ever got from her. The melody basically ripped off from the “Washington and Lee Swing” and how it ended up in Armstrong’s hands 28 years after it was written is anybody’s guess. On the live version, Armstrong delivers his chorus in an appropriately fun manner before Velma takes over at a slower tempo. She drops references to Marilyn Monroe and Dr. Kinsey but the topper has to be the line, “I’ll take a diet from Gayelord Hauser.” This is the key to putting a time-frame on one of the most mystical aspects of the Armstrong persona: his use of the herbal laxative Swiss Kriss!

Yes, everyone associates Armstrong with Swiss Kriss. He mentioned it on talk shows, inserted it into songs (“South,” with the Dukes of Dixieland), inserted it into scat solos (“Umbrella Man” with Dizzy) and even gave a lecture on Swiss Kriss at the Stanford Research Institute at Palo Alto in 1956. But when did he first start using it?

Armstrong always had a fixation with laxatives, a love affair instilled by his mother, who taught her kids to stay “physic-minded.” Armstrong was a big fan of Pluto Water, which came in big glass bottles that were difficult to travel with. Eventually, Armstrong remembered, “Then here come this book—a health book written by Gayelord Hauser. When I read down to the part where he recommended some 'herbs’—herbal laxatives—I said to myself, 'Herbs—Hmmm, these herbs reminds me of the same as what my mother picked down by the tracks in New Orleans.' Right away I went to the Health Store and bought myself a box of Swiss Kriss and took a big tablespoonful--make sure it worked me the same as other laxatives. Yes it did. Wow! I said to myself, yes indeed, this is what I need from now on—and forsake all others.” The small packets of Swiss Kriss were easier to carry around than Pluto Water and just like that, Armstrong was off, pedaling his newfound wonder product for the rest of his life. So when can we speculate this big change occurring? I’m going to guess around 1953. Ever see a picture of Louis Armstrong in 1952 or 1953? Ever seen The Glenn Miller Story?


That is one fat trumpet player. And it might have affected his trumpet playing a bit, especially when you listen to something like the All Stars live in Prato, Italy in October of 1952, where Armstrong sounds like he’s having issues with his upper register. Now flash to the end of 1953, when Armstrong is blowing incredibly for Decca in October of that year. Before an engagement at the Chicago Theater, Armstrong did an interview with the radio station WGN. The announcer made a reference to how good Armstrong was looking because he was a little “chunky” the previous year. Naturally, Armstrong make a joke—“It was just gas”—but something had to happen in that year in between to cause Armstrong to lose so much weight. And I think that something was the publication of Hauser’s 1952 book, Be Happier, Be Healthier. All of a sudden, Armstrong shed a graphic amount of weight and for all the concert recordings I have of the All Stars, the one from the University of North Carolina is the first one with a mention of Swiss Kriss (on the already mentioned “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”), as well as the little name-drop of Gayelord Hauser in “The Dummy Song.” So why else would Armstrong take 18 minutes off, not even appearing to announce the next number or play a background riff? Call me crazy, but I think he might have taken a little more Swiss Kriss than he could have handled!

Anyway, “The Dummy Song” is a fun way to go out. It begins with Kyle taking another ornate introduction before Pops hits him with the line, “Liberace in Technicolor,” which causes the audience (and Velma) to lose it. Some critics frowned at the line, mentioning it with scorn in contemporary reviews, but Armstrong loved it and eventually adapted it to “Now You Has Jazz,” where he would refer to Trummy Young as “Bing Crosby in Technicolor.” Political correctness be damned, Pops was a down home kind of guy and the line always killed.

And that was that, another triumph for the All Stars. In 2004, Gavin O’Hara of North Carolina’s Independent Weekly did a story about that night in Chapel Hill. He wrote about how UNC did not allow black students at the time of the concert, which took place while Brown v. Board of Education was taking place in the United States Supreme Court. In a matter of months, the University would slowly start the process of integration, which was in effect by the time Armstrong returned in February 1955. O’Hara also refers to the post-show interview contained on the bootlegs but not on the Avid release. The interviewer says, “If they [the students] had their way, you’d be down here going to school with us.” “Yes, sir,” Armstrong responds, “That’d be wonderful at that.” It’s a very sweet moment and as O’Hara writes, “It speaks volumes about Armstrong's character that he was able to laugh at the irony of the moment. Here was a man at the pinnacle of popular music—a hero to millions with every skin tone imaginable—who had traveled the world as jazz's greatest ambassador. But if he had wished to enroll in the fine UNC music department in 1954, he couldn't have.” Just one year later, Armstrong refused to play in front of segregated audiences, resulting in his staying away from his hometown of New Orleans for a decade. (And while on the subject of Pops the racial pioneer, let me point out that it was 50 years ago this week that Louis’s reactions over the Little Rock school desegregation crisis made headlines around the world.)

As for the All Stars, they were just entering their golden period, which would officially begin on July 12, 1954 with the recording of Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy for Columbia. However, on that recording, Barrett Deems was the new drummer. And according to Willems’s discography Deems joined in May of 1954. Since the Carolina concert occurred on May 8, it’s even more historically important because it captures one of John’s final days in the bands. As already discussed, Armstrong didn’t sound pleased with John’s playing on the “New Orleans Function” and he couldn’t have liked his incessant crashes, bangs and booms that occurred between every song. But…okay, I promised myself I wouldn’t do this. As many readers know, I’m deep into the process of writing a book on Louis Armstrong’s later years and the research process has led to me to listen to well over a hundred of Armstrong’s private tapes at the Armstrong Archives at Queens College. Well, these tapes provide a pretty large cornerstone of my work and I really didn’t want to use any of it in my blogs as I have to save something for the book! But if you’ve made it this far in this dissertation of an entry, I guess I’ll share a little something. One tape is undated but I researched some of the comments made on the tape to date around the early part of 1954. Armstrong is somewhere with his secretary/mistress “Sweets” and he’s venting about a fight he just had with his drummer, Kenny John (Armstrong doesn’t use his name, but like I said, I boiled the choices down and it couldn’t be anybody else). “I told him, ‘You’re playing too fast, man,” Armstrong says. Later, he adds, “I caught up with him, still salty about what I said. I said, ‘Well, fuck you. I’m the leader, man.’ Shit, and all backstage, we was getting ready to tie asses. I said, ‘I’m the leader and I’ll go down with this fucking ship cause I’m playing right and you got to play it right.’ And everybody told him he was too fast. He’s got a nervous foot. He can’t play a slow tempo to save his life. I haven’t seen one tempo yet that he didn’t finish up faster. I dig all them drummers. They’re all nuts, motherfuckers. All of them, nuts.”

So in the case of Kenny John, that’s one example of an All Star who definitely didn’t leave because he was tired of the road! Pops was fed up with his playing, his attitude, his drinking, everything and took matters into his own hands to get rid of him (nothing else is known about John’s post-Armstrong career, not even when he died). Deems, who was playing with Muggsy Spanier at the time, joined the band and proved to be a perfect fit. “My current aggregation,” Armstrong said of the 1954 Deems edition of the band, “is about the greatest. Without them, I don’t know what I’d do.” And according to trombonist Jim Beebe, Trummy Young told him that Deems was the “swingingest drummer I’ve ever played with.” Deems stayed with the band for many wonderful record dates and tours, but the traveling was difficult to deal with, even early on. “Traveling with Louie is a lot of fun,” Deems said in 1954. “I get my kicks. It’s better to play with Louie than anyone else but I’m afraid I’m going to be the richest corpse in the cemetery!”

Well, now I’m getting ahead of myself. I just wanted to get the word out the Avid’s two-disc release of Armstrong’s 1954 University of North Carolina concert is pretty special. And I haven’t even discussed the bonus tracks: six unreleased songs from Armstrong’s 1956 Newport Jazz Festival appearance, Armstrong and Sidney Bechet’s set from the second Esquire jazz concert and the soundtrack to Armstrong and Martha Raye’s production number on “Public Melody Number One” from Artists and Models. Avid did a great job and hopefully they’ll see it fit to issue more rare dates from the All Stars (their most recent release contains Armstrong’s mid-50s Columbia recordings on a two-disc set). In the meantime, I think this blog had enough information for one week so I’m going to shut it down for a few days and concentrate on the book. I’ll be back next week with more blogs on individual Armstrong songs. Until then, feel free to leave comments or e-mail me at

Friday, September 21, 2007

Wolverine Blues

Louis Armstrong and The Dukes of Dixieland
Recorded May 24, 1960
Track Time 4:20
Written by Jelly Roll Morton
Recorded at Webster Hall, New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Frank Assunto, trumpet; Fred Assunto, trombone; Jerry Fuller, clarinet; Stanley Mendelsohn, piano; Jac Assunto, banjo; Rich Matteson, bass, Helicon; Owen Mahoney, drums
Originally released on Audio Fidelity
Currently available on CD: “Limehouse Blues” on the Blue Moon label (though it’s slightly sped-up and is missing a few seconds, it’s all we’ve got)
Available on Itunes? No

Sorry, Decca lovers, but a glance at the personnel listed above will show that Itunes did not choose Armstrong’s wonderfully swinging 1940 big band recording of “Wolverine Blues” for this blog entry, but rather his 1960 version with the Dukes of Dixieland. That recording, with another great arrangement by Chappie Willet and powerhouse drumming by Sid Catlett would make for an entry by itself, but Armstrong blows some really incredible trumpet on his version with the Dukes so I’ll devote today’s blog to the lesser known, later record.

To begin, Armstrong’s sessions with the Dukes were made for the Audio Fidelity label and that’s a story in itself. After making some sessions for Decca in 1958, Armstrong’s contract with that label ended and Joe Glaser decided to make Armstrong a full-time free agent. Armstrong had a short stint on Victor in 1946 and 1947 and Glaser allowed Columbia and Verve to record Armstrong in the mid-50s, but Decca was truly Armstrong’s studio home from 1935 to 1958. But by 1958, Armstrong was more famous than ever and Glaser didn’t want to bother with contracts, instead opting to record for whomever would offer the most money. Because of that, Armstrong’s studio work slowed down greatly between 1958 and 1964. The days of recording pop songs in front of studio bands were over for now and full-blown All Stars dates also shriveled. Armstrong became co-featured on a number of records including a 1960 date with Bing Crosby (for Capitol) and 1961 sessions with Duke Ellington (for Roulette) and Dave Brubeck (for Columbia). Otherwise, Armstrong didn’t even enter a recording studio in 1962 and his only session of 1963 came in December, a date that resulted in “Hello, Dolly,” catapulting Armstrong into the last phase of his career at a new peak of popularity. While the All Stars continued making great music in live settings, Glaser’s greed deprived listeners of what surely would have been some classic albums, especially when one reads about Columbia producer George Avakian’s ideas to team Armstrong with the likes of Duke Ellington’s big band and Gil Evans, as well as continuing the songwriter series that had already resulted in two albums for the time capsule with tributes to W.C. Handy and Fats Waller.

But through it all, there was Audio Fidelity and though these albums have never received their due, they are responsible for some of the freshest playing Armstrong did during the All Stars years. Audio Fidelity was a smaller label run by Sidney Frey and its place in history revolves around the fact that they released the first commercial stereophonic record in 1957. A year later, Audio Fidelity became the first label in the United States to release stereo two-channel records. The Dukes of Dixieland began recording for Audio Fidelity and according to their website, their nine Audio Fidelity albums sold over a million copies combined. The band featured brothers Frank and Fred Assunto on trumpet and trombone, respectively, as well as their father, Papa Jac, on banjo and second trombone. In the summer of 1958, the Dukes shared a bill at the Illinois State Fair with Armstrong’s All Stars. “They’re home boys,” Armstrong said of the Dukes. “Whenever we’re playing in the same town, I go and sit in.”

In June of 1959, Armstrong suffered a heart attack (or pneumonia, as he persisted) in Spoleto, Italy. After taking a little bit of time off, he was back on the road by July and in August he made his first album for Audio Fidelity (Armstrong was paid $40,000 for each of his three Audio Fidelity sessions…maybe Glaser was on to something!). It made perfect sense to combine Armstrong with Frey’s sensationally popular group and the results were inspired. The material consisted of many songs the All Stars still played (“Back O’Town Blues,” “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” and others) but being placed in a new setting seemed to rejuvenate the trumpeter. Not that the All Stars didn’t do the same. In October of that year, Armstrong made another album for Audio Fidelity, this time backed by his regular sextet. The premise was stolen from one of George Avakian’s ideas and goodness knows Avakian would have done a better job: Satchmo Plays King Oliver. On paper, it’s a golden idea but of the album’s 14 songs, only four really had any connection to Oliver! “Frankie and Johnny”? “My Old Kentucky Home”? “Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight”? I don’t know who picked the songs but it’s a stretch to call the album a tribute to Oliver (though Armstrong himself slyly referred to this when he said Oliver “might have played them.”). On top of that, most of the musicians in the band didn’t know the songs and Armstrong had to spend a lot of time in the studio showing them the routines. It’s a testament to the professionalism of the band that the album comes off as good as it does. The whole band plays well but Armstrong’s at the top of his game, blowing with full power (what heart attack?) on “St. James Infirmary,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Snake Rag,” to name just a few. Fortunately, this is the only one of Armstrong’s Audio Fidelity recordings to receive decent treatment on compact disc (more on that in a bit) as Fuel 2000 reissued it a few years ago in a release that featured eight alternate takes in addition to the album’s original 14 cuts. It’s still available on Itunes but is unavailable on Amazon unless you want to pay a lot of money for a used copy (though—hint, hint—search for “Birth of Jazz” by Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, a two-disc set from Fuel 2000 that features the entire Oliver album as well as a disc by Jelly Roll and can be had for as low as $8.99 used!).

In May of 1960, Armstrong made his best album for Audio Fidelity, a second collaboration with the Dukes of Dixieland. The first day’s session of May 24 should go down as one of Pops’s best sessions as his horn work no “Avalon,” “Wolverine Blues” and “Limehouse Blues” is mind-blowing. Jeff Atterton, who was there, wrote, “The playbacks were perfect and after each, Pops shouted ‘Wrap it up, wrap it up.’” Armstrong’s publicist Ernie Anderson dropped by the date, done at New York’s Webster Hall, as did two very different trumpeters, Max Kaminsky and Dizzy Gillespie, along with Gene Krupa. With so much talent in the studio, Armstrong put on a helluva display. His efforts even caused Dukes trumpeter Frank Assunto to exclaim after the session, “The old man is too much.”

For today’s purposes, I’ll focus on “Wolverine Blues,” which fortunately exists in two takes. Immediately upon hearing Morton’s original introduction at the beginning of the record, we know we’re no longer in the swinging big band world of the 1940. Armstrong plays the line in unison with Frank Assunto over a very stiff two-beat Helicon backing by Rich Matteson. After listening to the way the All Stars swung, it’s night and day and still, every time I hear the introduction, I grimace a little bit. Fortunately, the rest of the record is a gem. Assunto plays the lead melody while Armstrong comes up with a nifty second trumpet part—shades of the King Oliver days! After one go-around, Armstrong plays the main strain’s melody, not really improvising a whole lot, though the rather subdued break comes off nicely. After the break, he tinkers with the phrasing a bit before Assunto comes back in to repeat the introductory line, this time without Armstrong’s help, though Armstrong gets the last word in, blowing a fat high concert F to set up Jerry Fuller’s clarinet solo. Fuller plays well but it’s hard to pay attention because Armstrong decides to back him with some simple riffs and phrases, opening with a “Shiek of Araby” motif. Armstrong’s backing is just as loud as Fuller’s clarinet (it’s almost a duet) and he gets more ornate as he goes on, though he’s thrown a curve in the last eight bars. Expecting to play the same eight-bar opening phrase Assunto played, Armstrong steamrolls over Fuller with the first two notes of the melody before awkwardly backing away to let Fuller finish his say.

Unfortunately, the Blue Moon C.D. with this song contains an awful edit at the start of Armstrong’s ensuing turn, resulting in 17-and-a-half bars of Armstrong’s original 32-bar solo! No worries though as what he survives on the disc is pretty fantastic. His chops were in great shape that day and he plays a quick gliss up to a high C with ease. In the final eight-bars, the Dukes give him a stop-time backing and Armstrong eats it up, floating over the beat with some very relaxed phrasing. Assunto and the rest of the band then return to the written eight-bar melody for the third time on the record. At this point, the song is over three minutes old and though it’s a very good performance, so far there’s nothing really to write home about (but obviously enough to write a blog about!). Fortunately, the highlight is just around the corner as Armstrong trades twos with Assunto’s trumpet, throwing down the challenge by quoting “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with his first phrase. Undeterred, Assunto picks it up and responds with the obvious “Baby” line from that tune’s melody. Armstrong then gets funky, repeating an Ab, the dominant 7th and sounding pretty modern in doing so (remember, Dizzy was watching!). Assunto answers with some simple playing, not offering much of substance, but clearly content to be trading with his idol. However, Pops ends the friendly conversing and commences shouting, peeling off a string of high Bb’s that must have made Assunto need a change of clothing. Assunto bravely enters his upper register but doesn’t blow with the same force (it sounds like a different instrument), though he adds a very nice two-bar break. As nice as it is, Pops swallows him whole again with some more upper register blasts. Assunto answers back with more force but again Pops washes him away with a giant gliss to a high Db, the highest note he plays on the recording. They effectively continue trading before joining forces for one more rendering of Morton’s eight-bar phrase. A drum break leads to a powerful two-trumpet harmonized ending, Assunto sticking to a low D with Armstrong going way up to a high Bb.

The trading between Armstrong and Assunto is by far the highlight of this version of “Wolverine Blues” but fortunately, another take survives. In fact, many other takes survive (more on that later), found by Gösta Hägglöf in 1965 and later released on Hank O’Neal’s Chiaroscuro label. The alternate take very much follows the routine of the issued one except everything that comes out of Pops’s horn is different. He even comes up with new phrases to back Fuller’s clarinet solo (and he doesn’t wrongly come in the last eight bars of that solo as he did on the master, meaning this must be a later attempt). Also, because Blue Moon butchered Armstrong’s solo, it’s nice to hear him take a full chorus by himself, with stop-time sections at the start and in the middle of the solo. It’s very a relaxed, almost lyrical effort, though he still hits a magical high C to make sure the listener’s paying attention. Again, the highlight is the chorus of trading and this time around, it’s much more conversational. Armstrong begins again with the first three notes of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” but discards it in favor of pure improvising, with Assunto picking up the ball beautifully, continuing Armstrong’s line as if the two were sharing a single brain. The repeated low Abs are gone, replaced by what could be dubbed, “Fun with a D,” as Armstrong spends his four bars making interesting rhythmic statements out of a single note. Armstrong ends his third round of trading with one of patented licks, Bb-G-Bb-G-D, which a now aggressive Assunto picks up and hurriedly hurls back at Pops three times, reminding me of later Louis Prima. After Assunto’s break, Armstrong’s final two offerings feature some upper register work, but nothing like what’s heard on the master take. The alternate is valuable for featuring some brand new Armstrong improvisations, but I’ll take the passionate wailing on the master.

Now, if you’ve listened along as I’ve written about the alternate take, it must mean that you have a record player near your computer as it has never been released anywhere else except the old, aforementioned Chiaruscuro album. And if you don’t have the butchered, partially sped-up Blue Moon C.D. version of the master take, the odds are you probably didn’t follow along with me on that description either because that’s the only disc that contains it…and no, Itunes doesn’t offer it. All of this, then, can be summed up with one phrase: a crime!

Armstrong’s Audio Fidelity recordings are long overdue for reissue. The glory of these sessions is in how many alternate takes survive. Chiaroscuro released full LPs of alternates from both Dukes sessions as well as the Satchmo Plays King Oliver session with the All Stars. I have transferred these LPs to CD and thrown them into my ever-growing Armstrong Itunes playlist. I added up all the running times and it came out to 257 minutes and 20 seconds, or four hours, 17 minutes and 20 seconds. Thus, you could have a nice four-disc box set, each disc running about 65 minutes. Or you can have three 80 minute discs and add other treasures from the original tapes to fill out a fourth disc (Hagglof also remembers that Audio Fidelity basically let the tapes roll, catching much chatter including Armstrong telling stories, always priceless). Or 20 minutes could be cut and it could all fit on three full discs (though watch what’s cut or I’ll raise hell!).

The project screams out for the Mosaic Records treatment, either as a three-disc set or a four-disc regular box. In their storied history, Mosaic has only done one Armstrong box, and a great one at that, a collection of his 1950s Decca studio recordings. But in the same time, Duke, Miles, Monk, Eddie Condon, Jack Teagarden, Johnny Hodges, Count Basie, Sidney Bechet, J.J. Johnson and I’m sure a few others have all received multiple projects devoted to their work but the daddy of ‘em all only had one set, one that’s been out-of-print for quite some time. I’ve written to Scott Wenzel of Mosaic two times in the last two years and he’s admitted it sounds like a great idea and that he would run it by Michael Cuscuna but I’ve never heard any more about it. So let’s create a stir! Send an e-mail to and suggest a box on Armstrong’s Audio Fidelity recordings. It would fill an important gap in Armstrong’s studio work and besides, it’ll allow you to hear these versions of “Wolverine Blues” that have become so difficult to find. One might not care for the Dukes’s backing or Assunto’s lounge-ish singing or the tune selection on the King Oliver album but Armstrong’s trumpet work cannot be denied and as long as this material languishes in a studio, some of his best trumpet playing of his later years will go unnoticed. And that’s a shame.

Next up: a classic All Stars concert review. Until then, have a great weekend!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Twelfth Street Rag

YouTube time again, ladies and gentlemen, and today I’d like to select one offered by one of my favorite YouTube people, kpjazz! Jim, the man behind kpjazz, uploaded this clip back in April and somehow, it only has 787 views (another Armstrong clip uploaded by Jim that same day has almost 3,000!). You’ll heard Edward R. Murrow’s voice in the beginning but this is not from Satchmo The Great. It’s from Murrow’s first profile of Armstrong for his See It Now television program. This profile followed Armstrong around Europe in the fall of 1955, while Satchmo the Great reused some of this footage but mainly consisted of clips of Armstrong’s tour of London and Africa in May 1956. The video is of the All Stars doing “Twelfth Street Rag” and I think it’s a hoot. Those who might not be too familiar with the All Stars might view it and write the band off as a bunch of vaudeville clowns (which many in the jazz press of the time in fact did) but Armstrong conceived of “Twelfth Street Rag” as a parody of sorts. The version is a lot of fun and the trumpet soars as usual. Here’s the clip, followed by my blow-by-blow depiction of the events:

Now, if you’re not at least smiling, please step away from your computer and consult a physician because that is four minutes of joy personified. Like I said, one of the most common jabs at the All Stars in the 1950s was that they had become a “vaudeville” act and not a jazz band. Watching “Twelfth Street,” one cannot deny some vaudeville mannerisms but the audience loves it and musical content is incredibly high. The hardest thing in the world is to make people laugh and Armstrong did it night after night, only to get slammed by the serious critics who wanted him to go make serious masterpieces like the Hot Seven recordings…even though Armstrong first tackled “Twelfth Street Rag” in a humorous manner for one of the Hot Seven sessions on May 11, 1927.!

The actual song, composed by Euday L. Bowman and named after a street in Kansas City, was already 14 years old by the time Armstrong got to it and clearly, Armstrong felt it was out-of-date. The Hot Seven plays it in a tongue-in-cheek style throughout, except for Armstrong, whose rhythmic deconstruction of the hokey melody is something to marvel at. As written, it’s basically just three notes repeated ad infinitum and clearly Armstrong knew he could have fun with those three notes. If you don’t know the original melody, here’s a version by Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra from June 11, 1927, one month after Armstrong’s version (thanks to Todd Weeks for hipping me to this one).

I love Moten, but that’s a pretty corny way of playing a pretty corny melody. Armstrong combated this by slowing the song down and playing that main, three-note phrase in every conceivable rhythmic combination except how it was written. He takes some chances, especially on the breaks and when he’s done, one can never listen to the “Twelfth Street Rag” the same way (unless it’s accompanying sports bloopers packages on the 11 o’clock news). Following Armstrong, trombonist Bob Thomas steps up and blows, I think, a purposely corny trombone solo. Thomas wasn’t the greatest trombonist but he wasn’t this bad. Johnny Dodds plays for real but in the background, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong beats out the original melody as stiffly as possible. Eventually, Armstrong leads the final ensemble, still taking chances right up until the cute little ending phrase. It’s fascinating that Armstrong recognized how out-of-date this tune was when other bands were still playing it as written, but unfortunately, OKeh didn’t know what to make of it and didn’t release it until George Avakian discovered it in the vaults in 1940. It’s not a classic record but definitely features some classic Armstrong in the opening chorus.

Except for a high-flying version from a “Saturday Night Swing Club” broadcast in 1938 (heard on volume five of the Ambassador series), Armstrong didn’t revisit the “Twelfth Street Rag” until early 1949. In the 22 years since Armstrong had first recorded it, “Twelfth Street Rag” had become a favorite number of various Dixieland groups, even being the subject of a number-one hit in 1948 for trombonist Pee Wee Hunt. These uptempo Dixieland versions were cornier than the ones from the teens and 20s and Armstrong once again saw the song as ripe for parody. It appears one two recordings from the band’s 1949 tour of Europe, one from Stockholm (heard on the first volume of Storyville’s In Scandinavia) series and the other from Trieste, Italy (heard in an incomplete version on Milan’s Mr. President C.D.). The version from Sweden is fairly straight for awhile, or at least straighter than it would become in the ensuing years! The performance opens with a scorching Armstrong break and he plays the melody in a more-up-to-date, swinging style in tadem with Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard, the trumpet taking a great break (with nice Cozy Cole drum accents behind him) early on. Earl “Fatha” Hines plays a pretty “normal” solo, as does bassist Arvell Shaw, though Cole’s heavy drum break in the middle of the solo gets a little snicker. However, with Barney Bigard’s solo, we’re firmly in the land of parody as Bigard mews and moans with glee, throwing in some Larry Shield-ian barnyard sounds for good measure. Cole changes his drum patterns to almost circus drumming, with heavy bass drum accents on one and three. Bigard even takes one of George Lewis’s breaks from “St. Phillips Street Breakdown” and plays it as stiffly and awkwardly as possible, getting a big laugh from the audience. Teagarden’s trombone opens up in the same corny manner and even includes a way low “Salt Peanuts”-type phrase and some whole-tone phrases (perhaps subtle digs at the modernists?). Cole’s drumming continues in its over-the-top fashion until the closing ensemble when the group brings the song back up-to-date with a new, harmonized riff and an exciting drum break. Armstrong’s trumpet leads the way out and the audience begins applauding before the song is even over. Clearly the combination of parody and swinging jazz worked as the song remained in the repertoire for years.

Just a few short months later, in April 1950, the All Stars entered Decca’s recording studio to record ten songs that had been polished to perfection during all the one-nighters. One of the songs chosen was “Twelfth Street Rag” and though it follows the same pattern as the live version discussed above, there are some changes, most notably a more relaxed medium tempo. Armstrong, Teagarden and Bigard still play the melody together but 20 seconds in, Armstrong can’t resist tampering with it, eliminating two of the melody’s three main notes and emphasizing the one left over to great effect. Teagarden also plays more tailgate trombone in the opening ensemble and considering that wasn’t his forte, it’s like a prelude to the shenanigans that are about the follow. You can hear what playing a song regularly does to a band as Hines and Cole have some set-up interplay in the middle of the piano. Shaw’s bass solo, complete with double-stops, is terrific but again, the comedy doesn’t begin until the Barney Bigard show rolls into town as Bigard plays the same exact solo he had played on the 1949 live versions (though now someone in the band yells, “Get hot, Boin!). Teagarden also reprises his solo though he now throws a little “Rhapsody in Blue” in for good measure. Again, the band swings the final chorus but now Shaw takes a vocal break: “Hot sausage and a cup of hot coffee!” It’s silly but Armstrong’s following trumpet is searing. Cole takes a trite break using only a cymbal but if you still didn’t know it was a parody, you’ll get the point at the very end when Pops says, “Them cats was really boppin’ that time, wasn’t they, folks?”

“Twelfth Street Rag” wasn’t performed every night but it did continue to crop up throughout the fifties. A January 1954 broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco shows that the routine hadn’t changed much though the entire band, except for Bigard, was different from the earlier versions. Pops sounds wonderful in the opening ensemble (getting a shout of approval from Milt Hinton during his first break) and the first chorus now ends with a new phrase played by Armstrong, Bigard and trombonist Trummy Young. This broadcast, available on the Storyville disc Louis Armstrong & His All Stars, was one of Billy Kyle’s first and you can hear him singing along with his solo, truly improvising until his solo would eventually become somewhat set (in his Armstrong discography, Jos Willems doesn’t believe Billy Kyle to be at the piano for this session but I do because he was at other Club Hangover broadcasts from that week. I just think Kyle was so new to the band that he was feeling his way and his solos didn’t sound like they would just a few months later). Besides Armstrong’s trumpet work, the highlight of the performance has to be Hinton’s slap-bass solo…it’s a shame he didn’t last longer in the All Stars. Bigard’s solo is still a comedic exercise, now complete with a quote from “Melancholy Baby.” At the end of his solo, Bigard doesn’t play his usual breaks but instead must break into a dance, judging by the absence of his playing and the shouts from the band and crowd as drummer Kenny John takes over. John whacks the cymbals for Trummy’s extroverted turn, which includes a quote from “Somebody Stole My Gal.” Take away John’s goofy drumming and this sounds like a typically shouting Young effort! In the final chorus, Bigard takes over for Shaw when it comes to the vocal break but instead of singing about sausage and coffee, Bigard shouts, “Ooh-shoo-be-doobie, ooh, ooh,” a little swipe at one of the big bop vocal numbers.

The longest and loosest version of “Twelfth Street” comes from the Crescendo Club performance of January 21, 1955 (on the C.D. The California Concerts). Armstrong introduces it as being from before his time, joking that Bigard played it with Buddy Bolden. The tempo had gone way down since 1949 and this struts in a nice medium groove. Arvell Shaw rejoined the band in 1954 and his bass propels the opening ensemble with great force. It’s been a year since the Club Hangover and Billy Kyle now has a set solo, complete with an opening phrase that inspires a glee club response from Armstrong, Bigard and Young. Drummer Barrett Deems sticks to the rims behind Kyle and you can hear a lot of happy conversation between Armstrong and the other members of the band, everyone obviously having a good time (Armstrong yells at Kyle, “Play it, Meade Lux Lewis!”). There are more laughs during Shaw’s solo—only those in attendance at the Crescendo Club that evening can know what was going down on stage. Bigard now debuts a new solo, though it’s still in the cornier-than-thou bag as his past ones. One of his phrases inspires Shaw to cry out, “Oh, he plays so sweet!” Bigard and Shaw even have a routine worked out on one of the breaks and Shaw plays the second break with a bowed bass—is Bigard dancing, is he miming playing to the bass? We’ll never know but the audience eats it up. Young’s next with his funky solo, Deems backing him up appropriately. The audience breaks up again during Young’s solo and for once, the YouTube video helps out as we can see Young bent all the way over, snapping his fingers and dancing to his own solo. The more relaxed tempo makes the closing ensemble swing more than ever and Shaw now takes the bop vocal break (clearing his throat before stepping up to the mic). After the break, Pops plays some of the finest horn he ever played on any version of “Twelfth Street.” Again, thanks to YouTube, we can now picture Deems taking his closing solo by banging to cymbals together by hand!

By the end of 1955, the All Stars had a new clarinetist, Edmond Hall. The band embarked on a three-month tour of Europe, beginning in October. As mentioned, it was during this tour that we get the composite version of “Twelfth Street Rag” from Murrow’s See It Now program. The quality of the YouTube video is poor, but the spirit shines through. The video starts at the second half of the opening ensemble, just in time to catch Armstrong’s heroic break. It’s fun seeing other musicians sing along with Kyle’s solo. Though Shaw’s bass solo is edited, it’s a gas seeing his dance steps and heel-kicks at the end. Hall’s solo is also graphically edited but he never went the same corny route as Bigard. However, Hall, usually thought to be fairly straight-laced and serious about his music, gets into the spirit by demonstrating “the cut out”—I could swear I saw Justin Timberlake use those moves at MTV’s Video Music Awards last week! Young’s solo (we’re now in France) might be the highlight. It’s still as funky as ever and Pops loves it, getting the audience to clap along but the image of Young, bent over and snapping, is pretty damn funny. Pops leads the way in the closing ensemble, with Shaw trotting out another boppish vocal lick, then humorously shrugging. Armstrong sticks to riffing with the other horns instead of going for himself as he did at the Crescendo Club, but it all works.

Upon returning to the states, George Avakian of Columbia Records called the All Stars into Columbia’s Los Angeles studio to record some more tracks to be released on the Ambassador Satch album. Some of the tracks on the original album dated from live European concerts, but “All of Me” and “Twelfth Street Rag” had fake applause dubbed in and were passed off as live. It’s a fairly tight version and without an audience to entertain, there’s more playing and less dancing. Kyle’s solo still gets the vocal response from the front line and Shaw still does his vocal break but otherwise, there’s a lot of serious playing (though Hall and Young split a chorus instead of taking the usual full chorus each). A very fine version from one of my all-time favorite Pops LPs.

Hopefully, all these mind-numbing details enhanced your enjoyment of the YouTube video of “Twelfth Street Rag.” The song stayed in the band’s repertoire until around 1959 but for the ten years it was in there, it provided a lot of laughs and a lot of great music. As always, comments are welcome and if you’d like to e-mail me, drop me a line at

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Gypsy

Louis Armstrong and The Commanders
Recorded October 22, 1953
Track Time 3:17
Written by Billy Reid
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Billy Butterfield, Andy Ferretti, Carl Poole, trumpets; Lou McGarity, Cutty Cutshall, Phil Giardina, Jack Satterfield, trombone; Hymie Schertzer, alto and baritone saxophones; Al Klink, tenor saxophone; Bernie Leighton, piano; Carmen Mastren, guitar; Sandy Block, bass; Ed Grady, drums; Toots Camarata, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: Moments to Remember in the Ambassador series has it, as well as a few older Armstrong Decca compilations: Highlights From His Decca Years and Sings Back Through The Years. (Live versions will be discussed below)
Available on Itunes? Yes (studio and multiple live version)

Today’s entry will focus on a pop song that Louis Armstrong clearly loved. He recorded it in 1953 and played it almost every night for the next two years but eventually it disappeared, never to return again. But for the period it was in the band’s repertoire, it was a highlight of every live show that featured it. The song was Billy Reid’s “The Gypsy,” a sizeable hit in 1946 that Armstrong didn’t get around to recording until seven years later.

Originally, “The Gypsy” was introduced by its composer, Billy Reid, who led an orchestra in the United Kingdom. Reid’s version was sung by Dorothy Squires in 1945, but the song didn’t become a big hit in the United States until another female singer, Dinah Shore, recorded it in 1946. Amazingly, the same day Shore’s record hit number one in Billboard, another version by the Ink Spots did the same exact thing. The Ink Spots became synonymous with the song, though other popular versions were recorded that year by the likes of Sammy Kaye, Hal McIntyre and Hildegarde with Guy Lombardo (now there’s a pairing!). In the jazz world, the legendary alto saxophonist Charlie Parker recorded a version of “The Gypsy” on July 29, 1946, while the Ink Spots version was still hot on the charts. Unfortunately, Bird’s recording came during the infamous “breakdown” session on Dial, where Parker’s drug-fused lifestyle finally caught up with him, resulting in sometimes incoherent playing that’s difficult to listen to. However, though he sounds like he’s dying, Bird’s version of “The Gypsy” is very emotional and if you can get past a few stutter steps, there’s an awful lot of soul in that recording.

Now, Louis Armstrong had a very sizeable record collection so it’s not certain which version he liked best, but he was definitely aware of “The Gypsy.” How do we know? Because at the famous Town Hall concert of May 17, 1947, Armstrong quotes “The Gypsy” during his solo on “Save It Pretty Mama” at the 3:30 mark (this version was issued by Victor and is on numerous RCA compilations). So Armstrong was aware of it but didn’t have a chance to record it until an October 22, 1953 session. When he did get around to recording it, it was his pick, according to Milt Gabler. “Louis loved the song,” Gabler said. “He loved the lyric content, and he loved the tune of it, and he just loved to play it. And he came in; he said he wanted to record it. So we recorded it. That’s all.” This might sound a little odd as jazz critics at the time blasted Decca for “forcing” Armstrong to record pop tunes but Armstrong definitely had a say in what was recorded that October day in 1953. Besides two Christmas songs, Armstrong also rerecorded his own composition “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” as well as “I Can’t Afford To Miss This Dream,” a song written by Armstrong’s friend Gloria Friedlander. On New Year’s Eve 1952, the Armstrongs had a party at the house where Pops, as usual, had his tape recorder rolling. On the tape, which can be heard at the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College, Armstrong asks Friedlander numerous times to sing the song so he could memorize it. He even promises her to record it for Decca, which causes her to exclaim, “You really like it that much? I love you!” Thus, Armstrong obviously had enough clout to take this song (never recorded by anyone else to my knowledge) and have Toots Camarata make a fine arrangement of it for Decca. It should be no surprise, then, that he would also want to record a seven-year-old pop song in “The Gypsy.”

I’ve already discussed this session a bit in my entry on “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” but it bears repeating: this is one of the great sessions of Armstrong’s later years. Camarata’s arrangements swing like mad and the studio band is positively explosive (and vice versa). “The Gypsy” begins with the wonderful trombone section, including two of Eddie Condon’s favorites, Lou McGarity and Cutty Cutshall. Armstrong sings it like he had been singing it for a decade, throwing in “yeahs” wherever he pleases. Armstrong clearly had a thing for gypsys; a few months later, on “St. Louis Blues” from the W.C. Handy session, Armstrong sang the following blues lyrics:

I went to the gypsy, to get my fortune told
Yes, been to the gypsy, to get my fortune told
Because the gypsy knows, crazy about my jelly roll!

And when I went to the gypsy, she had fortunes all over the place
Yes, the gypsy had, fortunes all over the place
But when she looked in my hand, she slapped me right in the face!

Now what those lyrics had to do with St. Louis is anyone’s guess but Armstrong also had fun on “The Gypsy.” After singing the lyric, “But I’ll go there again cause I want to believe The Gypsy,” Armstrong adds as an aside, “Although I know she’s lying,” and giggles a bit. But the highlight of “The Gypsy” is undoubtedly one minute and 45 seconds of gorgeous Armstrong trumpet. It’s one of my favorite Armstrong solos because it might contain the most relaxed playing he ever did. For those who just think of Armstrong as a high note player, he doesn’t get way into his upper register until the end of the bridge. Until then, it’s a textbook example of how to improvise around a melody while still keeping the melody somewhat in the forefront. There’s a pattern to this solo: Armstrong plays a snatch of melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, then begins the next eight-bar section with the written melody, improvises for a few bars, rests, and so on. His playing is also remarkably slippery on “The Gypsy.” There are few better places to study Armstrong’s unique concept of rhythm. His phrases come in quick bursts and slower, legato segments. He plays obbligatos to his own lines, infuses it with the blues and comes up with a masterpiece. And transcribing this thing would be a bitch!

Triumphantly, Armstrong builds to a climax at the end of the bridge when he plays the melody in his upper register. But he still follows that with some incredibly nimble phrases before a beautiful, typical ending where Armstrong slows it down and plays the last four bars dramatically, his tone never sounding bigger. I love, love, love, love this record. It’s not one of his best known records but even Armstrong himself later said of “The Gypsy,” “Well, you know, that record I think is one of my finest.”

Though the song wasn’t a hit by any means, that didn’t stop Armstrong from performing it with the All Stars, which he began doing late in 1954. The earliest live version in the Armstrong discography is from an August 13, 1954 radio broadcast from the Basin Street nightclub in New York City. This must have not been the first time they played it, though, as everything sounds firmly in place, beginning with Billy Kyle’s piano introduction, which never changed. Pops plays a chorus of trumpet in the front, with sensitive support from Barney Bigard and Trummy Young. Though he sticks to the melody pretty closely, Armstrong takes some nice chances in the second eight bars. While improvising in the last A section, he quotes “I Cover the Waterfront,” one of his favorite quotes. Armstrong sings it much as he did on the record, with the same placement of “yeahs” and the same “Although I know she’s lying” line. The song also gave Armstrong some easy applause. He would usually end his vocal with a big emphasis on the final word “day” while Trummy Young would play a little phrase that made it sound like the song was ending. Armstrong would then usually mumble or shout with amusement while Billy Kyle would play a transitional piano solo to let Pops have time to get his horn up to his lips. Armstrong always got applause during the transition because most in the audience probably thought the song was going to end, but he would then play another half chorus of trumpet to take the song out. At Basin Street, the closing solo was very much in the spirit of the Decca record, with quick, short phrases peppered throughout, displaying that same wonderful sense of rhythm. The solo also has two more quotes that stand out: another placement of “I Cover the Waterfront” and the “Johnny Get Your Gun” line from the verse to “Over There.” Barrett Deems gives Pops a nice backbeat and he rides it right on through to the final cadenza.

I could probably go on for pages about the different versions of “The Gypsy” that followed but honestly, not much changed in the ensuing performances except for Armstrong’s trumpet playing. An especially great version was captured at the Crescendo Club for another Decca record, recorded live on January 21, 1955 (and available on Itunes and on C.D. on The California Concerts). By this point, Armstrong’s opening trumpet stuck to the melody a little closer and the “I Cover the Waterfront” quote was gone from the opening, saved for the concluding solo (he was obviously trying it out to see where it fit better at Basin Street). However, except for the two aforementioned quotes, Armstrong always managed a fresh approach to his final trumpet solo on “The Gypsy.” One of my favorite examples of this comes from a version from Stockholm in October 1955 (heard on volume 2 of Storyville’s Scandinavia series). Armstrong had a little descending phrase he liked to play in the beginning of the final chorus, but this night, he just works the motif over and over until it reaches its logical conclusion, ending it with a perfectly placed Armstrong lick. The phrase unfurls in slow motion and never ceases to catch me by surprise.

At a Gene Norman “Just Jazz” concert in Pasadena in January 1956, Armstrong is a little friskier in his opening chorus and works over the same descending phrase in the final solo, albeit in a different manner. By the time of a March 1956 one-nighter in Grand Rapids, Michigan, most of Armstrong’s playing on “The Gypsy” was settling into a “set” nature, though that final chorus always came out slightly different. At the famous “Chicago Concert” of June 1 of that year, “The Gypsy” is slower than ever, almost back at the original Decca tempo and Armstrong again throws some rhythmic curveballs in the last chorus. “The Gypsy” always drew big applause upon its conclusion but that evening, another song got a bigger hand at the mere mention of its name: “Mack the Knife.” Originally recorded in September 1955, “Mack” was a hit by the beginning of 1956 and Armstrong began featuring it around March of that year. With another popular number that now had to be performed at every show, something had to be cut out and that something turned out to be “The Gypsy.” Usually, Armstrong took “The Gypsy” at a slightly faster clip live than in the studio but with a generous chorus-and-a-half of trumpet, the performance usually ate up over four minutes of concert time (almost five minutes in Chicago). It makes its final appearance in Jos Willems’s definitive Armstrong discography, All of Me, at Norman Granz’s “Jazz At The Hollywood Bowl” concert in August of 1956 and that was it.

But though it only lasted for a few years, 1954 through 1956 is arguable the peak of the All Stars and it’s a welcome listen on the numerous live recordings of the band from this period. As Milt Gabler said, “It…was good for him wherever he worked, but it wasn’t a hit single record for him. And Louis liked to make hits because it makes anybody feel good when you get on stage and people yell for a song, you know. You know…you’ve done something. But he knew—he loved to sing and he loved to do ballads, and the sadder the song the better.” I already quoted what Armstrong had to say of “The Gypsy” and it should be mentioned that during a July 1968 trip to England, Armstrong appeared on the BBC-TV show “Be My Guest,” where he was allowed to bring some of his favorite records. He reached back to the King Oliver days for “Dippermouth Blues” and brought two of his more recent hits, “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly,” as well as another song from the What a Wonderful World album, “The Sunshine Of Love.” But he also brought two pop songs he recorded for Decca in the early 50s and though the jazz historians don’t talk much about them, Armstrong clearly loved them: “That’s For Me” and “The Gypsy.” I love them, too. Have a great weekend and I’ll be back real soon with another YouTube video discussion.