Friday, February 29, 2008

All of Me: The Complete Discography of Louis Armstrong

As time has completely elapsed on me this week (and I'm staring two gigs in the next two days right in the face), I didn't have time to do a planned third blog on an Armstrong record this week. But while I have a few minutes before I have to get ready for tonight's performance, I wanted to do something that's long overdue: I want to devote a little time to the most important book on Louis Armstrong that has ever been written, All of Me: The Complete Discography of Louis Armstrong. This masterful work was published in 2006 by Jos Willems of Belgium. Discograhpies are usually somewhat dry affairs, but Willems's work does not fall into that category. It's clearly a work done with love and that love can be easily felt in its pages, especially Willems's final note, where he writes, "Words and recordings, intimacies and performances, all of these captured moments add up to the hours, days, and years that Louis gave to us--and we so energentically and lovingly gave back."

Before Willems, I, and many other Armstrong nuts, relied on Hans Westerberg's wonderful Boy From New Orleans discography. But Willems masterfully updated it to encompass the C.D. era and without it, I would have been deprived on many, many Armstrong discs that I had no idea existed until I traced them back to All of Me. And Willems's tireless research of books, periodicals and newspapers is something to be applauded. It's a long way from being a biography, but All of Me has more substantial information about Armstrong's music and his bands than all previous Armstrong biographies combined.

A lot of this has to do with Willems's wonderful "Notes" for most of the entries. To me, these are the highlights of the book. He's taken the time to detail what makes alternate takes of recordings differ from the masters, he calls for Victor and Columbia to comb their archives for more takes and unissued concert material, he sets the date straight on many different Armstrong sessions and live performances...there's so much there that I probably pick up All of Me at least once a day and still find new and fresh information that helps my understanding of Armstrong's music. Suffice to say, my blog and my manuscript on Armstrong's later years would look a lot different without Willems's work.

Again, most discographies are for the hardcore enthusiast but anyone with a sizeable Armstrong collection who might want to dig a little deeper or find out a little more information on their favorite Armstrong records, would be encouraged to seek out All of Me. Fortunately, All of Me is readily available online in paperback for $43.50 new on and as low as $24 used, very reasonable prices for a discography (I recently went to purchase Frank Buchman-Moller's landmark Lester Young work, but it's still $70, a little rich for my blood, as much as love the Pres). Here's a picture of the book, part of Scarecrow Press's indispensible "Sudies in Jazz" series, edited by Dan Morgensterna dn Ed Berger of the Institute of Jazz Studies:

Now, after two years of nonstop using (my wife refers to it as my "Bible"), here's a few pictures of my home edition:

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Trust me, it looks worse in person! And the last picture features my famous blue highlighter, which has now highlighted each of the 2,921 Armstrong songs currently occupying my Itunes (and slowing down my computer with each passing download!). And, to be frank, a good chunk have been provided by Jos himself, who has written to me that he enjoys this blog and wants to help my cause of spreading the joys of all Pops, but especially the wonderful music of his later years. I've also received priceless treasures from Håkan Forsberg and Gösta Hägglöf, both of Sweden, and both important contributors of All of Me. I don't know how long I'll keep this blog up but whatever happens, I tresaure the artifacts and great commmunication that have occured since these wonderful Europeans began writing to me last summer. Thanks to all of you (and to all my other readers, too, while I'm at it!).

But today belongs to Jos and I just want to finish this entry by thanking him one more time for the wonderful gift he presented all Armstrong fans with All of Me, a work whose importance will last forever. I'll be back again next week with more Armstrong breakdowns (including "Swing That Music") but for now, here's to Jos Willems!

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I Got Rhythm

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 6, 1931
Track Time 3:39
Written by George and Ira Gershwin
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Preston Jackson, trombone; Lester Boone, alto saxophone; George James, alto saxophone, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Albert Washington, tenor saxophone; Charlie Alexander, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; John Lindsay, bass; Tubby Hall, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41534
Currently available on CD: The Big Band Recordings, a two-volume set on the JSP label that collects Armstrong’s OKeh big band material from1930 to 1932
Available on Itunes? Yes

When Girl Crazy opened up on Broadway on October 14, 1930, you have to wonder if composer George Gershwin knew he had come up with a chord sequence that would serve as the basis for countless jazz improvisations over the next 78 years (and counting). The song introduced that evening by Ethel Merman was, of course, “I Got Rhythm,” one of America’s best-known standards. Going into the history of the song would take a couple of months, but I should say a few things about the song’s pre-Armstrong history. “I Got Rhythm” is one of those songs that people from all walks of life, from jazz nuts to jazz haters, seem to know. And by know, I’m not just talking about having just heard of the song. No, it’s become one of those songs that people can sing the entire melody and might even know all of Ira Gershwin’s lyrics, if they were born 50 years after the song premiered in Girl Crazy.

This, to me, can all be traced back to those early performances on the Broadway stage. Think about it: there’s Ethel Merman belting out the tune, becoming a star and paving the way for future performances of the song in Hollywood musicals, on cruise ships and even on American Idol. The song became a staple for Merman, as this much later YouTube clip shows (“Rhythm” starts two minutes in):

But backing her up in Girl Crazy was a small jazz combo led by trumpeter Red Nichols, featuring the likes of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers and Gene Krupa, a combo that would often put on jam sessions during intermissions. Thus, immediately, the “normal” pop music world and the swinging jazz world found common ground and “I Got Rhythm” became a song that would not die, a good thing, given the number of legendary solos that have been taken over its chord changes (and a band thing if you’ve ever heard it on a cruise ship, such as the moment that almost ruined my honeymoon).

Girl Crazy opened on October 14 and just nine days later, Nichols was in the recording studio, waxing the very first “I Got Rhythm,” with a vocal by Dick Robertson. Here’s where the Red Hot Jazz Archive becomes a beautiful thing. To hear that Nichols recording of October 23, click here. It’s a hot one with a tricky, swinging arrangement and everyone sounds happy.

The very next day, Luis Russell’s orchestra tackled “I Got Rhythm” for a Melotone record, which can be heard by clicking here. That’s J.C. Higginbotham (“Hicken-bottom,” as Armstrong would say) tearing it up on the trombone, while Red Allen takes the bridge in the next-to-last chorus. Man, the Russell rhythm section, anchored by the team of Pops Foster on bass and Paul Barbarin on drums, could swing. And no, your ears didn’t deceive you; that was Dick Robertson again singing the lyrics…wasn’t Smith Ballew in town? Robertson sounded more comfortable on the Nichols version, especially on the bridge, but when I decide to start a blog on Dick Robertson, I’ll tackle that issue in more detail!

Next up, Ethel Waters recorded a classic version on November 18. She shows an Armstrong influence in her second chorus, half-talking the lyrics and later scatting with Mannie Klein’s trumpet (the Dorsey brothers are also present). Listen to it by clicking here.

So, just in the first month of recording, “I Got Rhythm” was the basis for straight vocals by the likes of Merman and Robertson, scat singing by Waters and swinging solos by Red Nichols and J.C. Higginbotham. The song’s appeal to just about anyone who played an instrument was already cemented but really, how could it not be with George Gershwin as a composer? To end this little history section, here’s Gershwin himself, striding away on “I Got Rhythm” in 1931:

With the history lesson over, let’s look at where Louis Armstrong was when he recorded the song. His version of “I Got Rhythm” was done during a busy series of recording sessions from November 1931, a span that included “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” the subject of an October blog that you can look up in the archive because in it, I go into more detail about Armstrong’s band at the time. They’ve always been knocked by critics for being too ragged, but Armstrong called it the happiest band he played in, probably because so many members were from New Orleans. And regardless of any raggedness, these November 1931 Chicago OKeh sessions were responsible for Armstrong’s absolutely timeless versions of standards such as “Lazy River,” “Chinatown” and “Star Dust.” November 6 was the fourth and final session and, well, I don’t want to cast any aspersions, but it’s possible that some, uh, illegal substances were being passed around the studio that day. Only two songs were recorded, the first being a hilarious “Lonesome Road” that served as precursor to 1933’s “Laughing Louie” in that it featured Armstrong and the band in a comedic role, cutting up and having fun, but also making time for a gorgeous trumpet statement by the leader. Armstrong had been lampooning church services during live performances for over a decade and “Lonesome Road” captures Armstrong’s satiric mind beautifully.

With everyone in good spirits, it was time to tackle “I Got Rhythm.” Armstrong, after speaking for most of “Lonesome Road,” would continue his role as master of ceremonies on “I Got Rhythm,” not even needing to pick up his horn until the final two choruses. This is the band’s time to shine and almost every one of them gets their name called or a short solo. Sure, they’re rough and ready but the spirit is there, they swing hard and they know how to stay out of the leader’s way, even when playing in polyphonic ensemble form. Having said that, I don’t view Armstrong’s “I Got Rhythm as one of the full-on classics of those OKeh days but it’s a fun record nonetheless and Armstrong still sounds great. Listen along by clicking here.

As record executives continued to take be wowed by Armstrong’s natural effervescent personality, they began making more and more use of it on records with such things as spoken introductions and little comedy routines, something that was done now and then on the Hot Fives (“Gut Bucket Blues” and the banter with Earl Hines on “Monday Date” spring to mind), but really continued on the OKeh and Victor big band sessions. “I Got Rhythm” opens with a jokingly grumpy Armstrong. “All right, you cats been talking about you got rhythm, you got this and you got that and the other. I got rhythm! I’m going to see what you all got, joking.”

(Okay, sidebar. Does Armstrong say “joking,” “choking” or something else? Whatever it is, it’s the same thing he sang on “Rockin’ Chair” for 40 years: “What cabin, joking, father.” I’m only writing “joking” because that’s what it kind of sounds like, but that really makes no sense. Will Friedwald once asked the same exact question on a Jazz Research list that included the likes of Dan Morgenstern and George Avakian…and nobody came up with a reasonable answer. If you know what Pops is referring to, leave a comment or drop me an e-mail at! Back to your regularly scheduled blogging…)

Armstrong then instructs his band to “swing out,” counts off the tempo and we’re off! I like drummer Tubby Hall’s quick two tom hits, setting up the reeds playing the melody fairly straight. Pops immediately starts encouraging the band and saying stuff like, “I Got Rhythm is right” as if this is a prototype Fats Waller and His Rhythm record. The arrangement isn’t too creative, just inserting a bent blue note in the seventh and eighth bars of the A sections (watch that intonation, Gates). Armstrong lets out a quiet, “Oh, you dog,” at the end of the bridge…how many jazz musicians had national catchphrases in 1931? He then announces that he’s going to begin to introduce some of the members of the band for a series of eight bars solos. Preston Jackson scores with his trombone, followed by alto saxophonist Lester Boone in a pretty good spot. Armstrong’s second trumpet man, and the band’s straw boss and arranger, Zilner Randolph, takes the bridge muted, running into a bit of trouble, before saxophonist George James picks up his soprano, opening with a long gliss before some corny stovepipe blowing.

Armstrong, perhaps knowing the band’s erratic tendencies, alerts them to “Watch that break chorus there.” True enough, the band goes into stop-time, allowing Mike McKendrick to run away with a guitar solo. As the band nails their stop-time accents, Armstrong says matter-of-factly, “That’s better.” Obviously this passage presented trouble earlier in the session. Armstrong then throws it to John Lindsay’s, swinging, popping, New Orleans-infused bass thumping. While Lindsay swings, Armstrong calls attention to “Charlie Alexander backing him up.” Armstrong always had a thing for bassists and pianists "backing" each other up. On the countless versions of “Now You Has Jazz” from the 1950s and 1960s, Armstrong always introduced pianist Billy Kyle, followed by the mention of “[Insert bass player here] backing him up on the bass.” He does the same thing on the 1966 Mercury record of “When the Saints Go Marching In” with pianist Marty Napoleon and bassist Buddy Catlett. It’s interesting how so many little turns of phrases like that one and “Good old good ones,” started when Armstrong was a young man and continued for decades to come.

Back to 1931…the next solo is from Al Washington’s tenor and clearly he must have been one of the most gifted improvisers because he gets an entire half of one chorus, including a swinging opening and a real tricky break, eliciting an excited, “Yeah! Get a load of that break,” from Armstrong (drummer Tubby Hall also gets a shout out during Washington’s turn). As Washington winds down and Armstrong prepares for his entrance, he says, “Every tub,” alerting the full band to begin playing with abandon, a phrase that would be immortalized in jazz circles by Count Basie’s record of the same name. You have to wonder how many little phrases like “Every tub” and “swing out” were picked up by jazz musicians from around the country after listening to records like this one.

When Armstrong enters, it truly is “every tub.” These cats might have had trouble with arrangements every now and then, but they give Pops a purely improvised backdrop for one chorus and no one gets in each other’s way, which is arguably more impressive than ripping off an arranged chart flawlessly. Only the reed riffs sound arranged but they’re so loose, it sounds more like a jam session. Speaking of loose, dig Pops. He enters with one single Bb, right on the beat. He then proceeds to play nothing but Bbs for an entire half chorus, dropping them like bombs out of a B-19. Some land on the beat, others in between, some are dropped together, others have long gaps in between them. He then swings into the bridge with a string of D’s, each one on the beat. So we’re about 18 bars into a 34-bar song (remember, jazz musicians still improvised on the tag back then), and with the exception of I believe two other quiet notes in the second A section, Armstrong has basically played nothing but two pitches. It’s the definition of relaxation, but you just know something big is brewing. The relaxation continues throughout the rest of the first chorus, until a loud F heralds a more exciting second go-around. I listen to this solo and I don’t hear the Louis Armstrong of 1931; I hear the Armstrong of 1951 This is a very mature solo, very floating, but without a lot of the double-timed fireworks that are the trademarks of the 30-year-old Armstrong. I especially love the phrase he begins the second eight bars of his second chorus with, which would become a standard part of his solo on “Basin Street Blues.” He emphasizes high A’s during the bridge and a three-note motif in during the final A section consisting of G-A-and a low D, a sixth, major seventh and third of Bb. The band slows it down and the reeds take a funny, purposely corny coda, something that might have been thought up during the (possibly) high times of “Lonesome Road.”

Like I said, Armstrong’s “I Got Rhythm” is one of the lesser discs from the OKeh period but it does give Armstrong a chance to showcase his personality as well as his free-floating sense of rhythm. According to Joel Whitburn’s somewhat unreliable “Pop Memories” book, Armstrong’s record reached number 17 (if there were actually charts back then), so it did its job in maintaining the popularity of the song. In 1932, Don Redman recorded a swinging instrumental big band performance of it and Sidney Bechet became the first jazz musician to simply jam on the changes and not allude to the melody with his record of “Shag.”

But Louis Armstrong was not quite done with “I Got Rhythm.” After his Paris exile, he returned to the United States, hired Joe Glaser as his manager and began fronting Luis Russell’s big band and recording for Decca. In 1937, Armstrong replaced Rudy Vallee for 12 weeks as the host of the “Fleischmann Yeast Show,” the first time a black person had the opportunity to host such a major show. As I’ve alluded to before, this material is currently being prepped to be released on a two-disc set later this year, a set that should be a major release, if given the proper respect by the jazz community. Thanks to the kindness of strangers (you know who you are!), I have recently received 26 of these Fleischmann performances and they have knocked me out in ways that I cannot describe. But please understand, that I do not want to share them here because I don’t want to take anything away from the official release, which is going to have notes by Dan Morgenstern and other treasures from the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College as selected by Michael Cogswell. I will say that there scintillating performances of Chappie Willet’s “Rhythm Jam” and “I Got Rhythm,” the latter borrowing many riffs from “Rhythm Jam.” The band swings their asses off on both tracks and as Willet authority John Wriggle wrote me after I shared the tracks with him, “These recordings completely revise the reputation of the Russell-led band as an ensemble. So much of the studio-recorded stuff was obviously being played for the first time – but here the band is loose and driving. They never become exactly ‘tight,’ but at least they prove beyond a doubt that the hesitancy of the studio work was just that.”

I can report that Armstrong plays two completely different two-chorus solos. The only similarities are in the bridges and the held F that leads into the second chorus. I will say that both solos are better than what he played on the original 1931 record and that says a lot. But both still come in second, in my opinion, to the famous Martin Block jam session version from December 14, 1938. This version has been bootlegged a thousand times but who cares? It has to be one of the greatest versions of “Rhythm” ever to be played in front of a microphone and if you’ve never heard it, please listen along:

Armstrong shares front line duties with Jack Teagarden on trombone and Bud Freeman’s tenor saxophone. Fats Waller anchors a rhythm section that also includes Bob Spergal’s guitar, Pete Peterson’s bass and George Wettling’s drums. In all it’s a four-minute jam and Pops is at the peak of his powers. He never really seemed to thrive off of stride piano backings but something spurred him to great heights on this version. After an ensemble chorus in the front, Pops steps up with the first solo, very flowing and melodic, with phrases that stick in your mind long after he puts down his horn. Freeman, Teagarden and Waller all authority (Waller adding a happy “Hello” just for the hell of it) but the main event comes with the final minute and 13 seconds as Pops leads the ensemble through two rideout choruses. Every phrase Armstrong plays is sculpted perfectly and his upper register rarely sounded better. As Armstrong steams to the end of first ensemble chorus, it sounds like he’s building up to an ending, but Fats isn’t ready to let him go, shouting “Come on” and spurring Armstrong into one chorus. Pausing for a beat to collect himself, Armstrong calmly continues his charge, bouncing off a few glisses to Bb’s, playing a nimble little phrase then hitting the climax of the entire performance, a gliss that starts somewhere below the equator and rises up higher and higher to a freakish high F! I know an exclamation point might seem gratuitous but it’s the only way to properly convey the excitement of this F. Ever so slowly, Armstrong climbs back down for more fleet-fingered phrases throughout the bridge, throwing in some more quick glisses toward the end and finishing with a three note high C-D-Bb phrase. This is Pops at the peak of his powers and those final two choruses scare the hell out of me.

The next time Armstrong encountered “I Got Rhythm” was also in another all-star setting, the January 1944 Esquire Metropolitan Opera House concert. This concert has kind of been written off as a low point for Armstrong, but I’ve never heard it that way. True, it’s not like he does the greatest blowing of his life, but he sounds good on his features, such as “Back O’Town Blues” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and he plays telling solos during jam session numbers as “I Got Rhythm” and “Flying Home.” However, Armstrong apparently wasn’t feeling well AND he had to share the stage with a particularly combative Roy Eldridge, who desperately wanted to cut the king. While Eldridge and Armstrong didn’t get to do any trading or anything, it’s safe to say that whenever Eldridge and Armstrong solo on the same number, it’s Roy who usually goes over the top and into the stratosphere of his horn, trying to leave the deepest impression on the fans in attendance as well as his fellow musicians onstage. I love Roy and he was in his prime in 1944 so I love hearing his exciting work during this concert, but that doesn’t mean I have to disparage Pops. Here's the audio:

On “I Got Rhythm,” Armstrong is up third, after solos by Red Norvo and Art Tatum (Jesus, what a band this was). In the early 1930s, Armstrong pioneered the kind of relaxed, free-floating rhythm I write so much about but by 1944, many jazz musicians had adapted a faster way of coping with up tempos, with lots of arpeggios and eighth-note runs. Armstrong, however, didn’t change, playing lots of nimble phrases on this “Rhythm” but floating over the beat unlike the other members of the all-star group. This led to some of the reviewers to write him off as old-fashioned, but I still think he was ahead of the world. Like I said, it isn’t Armstrong’s greatest night; he has a bit of trouble for a split second at the start of his first bridge and his tone gets a little small briefly as he heads into his second chorus. But otherwise, it’s a wonderful solo, with some tremendous blue notes, many quicker phrases than customary and the aforementioned rhythmic mastery. I love this solo but can’t deny that it’s overshadowed a few minutes later by Eldridge. Again, I adore Eldridge and proudly possess a “tasteless” a streak that leads me to embrace all things Jazz at the Philharmonic. And as exciting as Roy’s solo is here, there is something a little disrespectful about it. For one thing, Eldridge takes three choruses, where everyone else took two. He’s at the peak of his powers and Sid Catlett gives him expert backing but there’s something malicious when only one guy is trying to start a fight. Both Armstrong and Eldridge spoke glowingly about the other in public over the years, but the Esquire show might have deteriorated their personal relationship. Clarinetist Joe Muranyi played with both Armstrong and Eldridge and he told me how Eldridge would kind of mock Muranyi for his love of Armstrong. And Dick Cary later remembered, “You shouldn’t mention Roy Eldridge around Louis, either, because he didn’t like that much.”

When Armstrong next encountered “Rhythm,” it was a more somber occasion, with none of the bad blood that infused the Esquire evening. On February 11, 1945, Armstrong took part in the Second Annual American Swing Festival, a tribute to Fats Waller, who passed away in 1943. The tribute to Armstrong’s close friend was broadcast on WNEW and featured Armstrong playing “Sleepy Time Down South,” reminiscing with Waller’s manager, Ed Kirkeby, and performing “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” At the end of the show, Armstrong came back for a quick two-minute jam session on “I Got Rhythm,” featuring the members of Fats’s Rhythm—Herman Autrey, Gene Sedrick, Al Casey, Cedric Wallace and Art Trappier—with Pat Flowers taking over on piano and Red Norvo once again sitting in on the xylophone. The opening is sloppy as no one seems to want to take the lead, while Armstrong is lost in the mix. Finally, Armstrong solos, sounding quite agile once again and ready to take a second chorus, instead passing the ball to Norvo as time was winding down. Matters grow slightly frantic but Armstrong is a pillar of strength in the closing ensemble…dig that bridge! You can listen along here:

The All Stars were born in 1947 and this is when most Armstrong writers stop paying attention. For example, the legendary bad James Linoln Collier wrote that Armstrong continued to play “horse-race versions of ‘Tiger Rag’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’” for the rest of his life. “Tiger Rag” was indeed an early chart for the All Stars, but then disappeared for years, returning in 1955, then staying for about a decade. As for “I Got Rhythm,” a riff based on “Rhythm” changes, “Mop Mop” (or “Boff Boff”) was often used as a drum feature, but to say that Armstrong continued to play “I Got Rhythm” for the rest of his life shows Collier wasn’t paying attention to the numerous documents of Armstrong stage shows that still exist, whether recorded or in print. Earl Hines played “I Got Rhythm” at a breakneck tempo as one of his features, but Pops would only play some quiet melody on it and besides, it wasn’t one of Hines’s most frequently played features. Damn you Collier!

But besides the various “Mop Mops,” Armstrong did have one last encounter with “I Got Rhythm,” performing it in the 1965 movie, “When The Boys Meet The Girls.” 1965 was the last glorious year for Pops’s chops and he sounds quite good on the two takes that survive, especially this one with a huge-toned trumpet opening:

Ah, an evening spent listening to Louis Armstrong play “I Got Rhythm.” Who could ask for anything more indeed.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Rock My Soul

Louis Armstrong With Sy Oliver’s Orchestra
Recorded February 6, 1958
Track Time 2:58
Written by Richard Huey
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Trummy Young, trombone; Edmond Hall, clarinet; Nicky Tagg, organ; Billy Kyle, piano; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Mort Herbert, bass; Barett Deems, drums; Miriam Workman, Peggy Powers, Jerry Duane, Alan Sokoloff, Eugene Lowell, Edwin Lindstrom, Robert Spiro, Marilyn Palmer, Eugene Stock, Lillian Clark, vocals; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: Louis and the Good Book
Available on Itunes? Yes

After the glorious Autobiography sessions of late 1956 and early 1957, Decca followed up with two of Armstrong’s most “commercial” albums of his career, Louis and the Angels from 1957 and Louis and the Good Book from 1958. Both albums were arranged by Sy Oliver, who had been arranging Decca records for Pops since 1949 (including the recently blogged about “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” Oliver’s contribution to the Autobiography resulted in many of that set’s highlights, as a good number of his big band arrangements surpassed Armstrong’s original recordings of the same songs from the late 1920s and early 1930s. But the whole situation almost seemed like a trade: Decca knew the Autobiography would be a lavish set that would cater to hardened jazz fans, so to follow up, they would have Armstrong record two albums that would cater to white bread America (the word “bread” is not necessary), people who might hate jazz but liked the way this Armstrong fella smiled on the Ed Sullivan Show.

But as I’ve written time and again, I don’t equate “commercial” with “bad.” Armstrong was killed for recording numbers such as “I Get Ideas,” but after playing a video of it during my lecture at the Institute of Jazz Studies last week, I shook my head and said that the building should be renamed the “Institute of Commercial Music Studies” if THAT was commercial music. Gordon Jenkins had left the Decca stable and was now recording for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole over at Capitol, otherwise, Louis and the Angels might have been a perfect project for him: Armstrong + strings + choir + pop songs. That was the Jenkins formula to a tee, but Oliver did a very nice job on that album (I won’t go into any more details because I’m sure I’ll end up blogging about something from those sessions in the future and I don’t want to repeat myself).

The Angels collaboration must have done quite well, because Armstrong’s next Decca offering would take the Angels concept one step closer to heaven. Instead of an album of tunes that centered on the word “angel,” Armstrong would now record an entire quasi-gospel album. The record was billed as being with Sy Oliver’s orchestra but in reality, it was just the All Stars augmented by an organ, a guitar and 10 voices. This was not new territory for Armstrong, who pioneered the jazz and gospel connection with his June 14, 1938 session backed by a rhythm section and “The Decca Mixed Chorus,” arranged and conducted by Lyn Murray (not Jan as I originally wrote...thanks Dave!). Sure, Armstrong had swung “When The Saints Go Marching In” just one month prior, but these records were different, with very little jazz content and a somewhat atypical straight-faced Armstrong at the helm. They must have proved popular because Armstrong found himself recreating two of the songs at a Carnegie Hall tribute to Paul Whiteman in December of 1938. Those two songs, “Shadack” and “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” would continue to crop up in the years to come in Armstrong’s career, including remakes of both on Louis and the Good Book.

But today’s entry focuses on “Rock My Soul” and if I’ve been a little long-winded in getting to this point, it’s only because there’s not much to write about on this track, though I do love it. The song was written by Richard Huey, who also wrote the gospel standard “Hurry Sundown” and led vocal groups such as Richard Huey’s Jubileers and Richard Huey and His Sundown Singers. It was recorded at the second of three sessions for the Good Book. Oddly enough, for three sessions in four days, Oliver sure had a hard time with clarinet players, using three different ones: Dave McRae, Hank D’Amico and All Stars regular Edmond Hall. However, the horns didn’t matter on “Rock My Soul” which is a showcase for Armstrong and the choir. But unlike the lily white vocalizing of the backing singers on the squeaky clean “Angels” album, the singing on “Rock My Soul” is a little more soulful (though at times, they do remind me of Dean Martin’s record of “Memories Are Made Of This”).

The tempo is the key and on “Rock My Soul,” Oliver picked a beauty, putting the naturally bluesy song right down in the alley. Armstrong responds with one of the most passionate vocals of his career. My, my, my, he would have been something to see at a church! The pattern of the same doesn’t vary: Armstrong preaches a bit, then joins the choir for the “Rock My Soul” chorus. But those preaching bits are wonderful. In fact, they arguably contain the greatest blues singing Armstrong ever did on record and it’s not even a blues. I can’t hear any mugging or scatting or general horseplay. He’s singing like his soul depends on it and it’s hard to not get swept up by the atmosphere. You can listen along and swept up yourself by listening right here:


Pretty powerful stuff. And listening closer than ever, I realize that there’s absolutely no presence by the other horns, while the rhythm section couldn’t be placed any further in the background. No matter. Armstrong’s preaching makes the record….oh, how he sings, “I would not be a backbiter.” And listen to the inflection in his voice on the word “afraid.” If you like this track, please check out the rest of the album, which Sy Oliver called “the most satisfactory thing that I ever did with Louis.” However, look out for Verve’s trickeration. For years, there was a C.D. that combined both Louis and the Angels and Louis and the Good Book, but when Armstrong’s centennial rolled around, they reissued both on separate discs, with silly bonus tracks added to each. You can still find the single disc with both albums on Amazon, most copies going from between $10 and $12, a good price for two albums that would cost $20 to download both separately on Itunes. Don’t say ol’ Ricko doesn’t look out for ya….til next time!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Ricky Riccardi At The Institute of Jazz Studies!

Hello good readers. I know I've been missing in action since Valentine's Day and I'm writing to today to ask for forgiveness because I'm going to be missing for a few more. Don't worry, the reason's a good one: I'll be spreading my love of Pops at the Institute of Jazz Studies this Wednesday night, February 20. It's my third "Research Roundtable" in three years and like the other two, the subject will by Armstrong's later years. But where my first two lectures focused on music samples, Wednesday night's will focus almost solely on rare footage that I have collected over the years. Right now, it looks like I'm showing 18 clips, a few of which are on YouTube, but otherwise, most of it is pretty hard to find. The clips will range from 1952 to 1970 and I'll throw a few audio nuggets in as I go along.

Thus, as I continue to tighten it up and make sure it'll all fit in the allotted two hours, I've had absolutely no time to pump out a blog. Thus, once Wednesday night passes and I exhale for a day or so, I hope to have something fresh for the weekend (though in the meantime, maybe I'll post a YouTube video or two).

But for those who live in the New York or New Jersey area, you're more than invited to come out to this Wednesda's lecture, which is free and open to the public. It's taking place at the Institute of Jazz Studies, which is located on the fourth floor of the Dana Library at Rutgers Newark. Click here to go to the IJS website, which has a link for directions (and don't be fooled by the schedule of research roundtables, which still has me listed for April 16, my original date). So if you're in the neigborhood, I hope to see you at 7 on Wednesday night and if you're not, sit tight and I'll be back to spreading the gospel of Pops (in blog form) in just a few days! Red beans and ricely yours.....Ricky

Thursday, February 14, 2008

That's For Me

Recorded April 26 or 27, 1950
Track Time 5:08
Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstien
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Teagarden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca
Currently available on CD: On the Hip-O box set, An American Icon
Available on Itunes? Yes

Valentine’s Day is here and I wanted to celebrate it by discussing one of Louis Armstrong’s most romantic records, “That’s For Me.” There were plenty of songs to choose from—“Let’s Fall In Love,” “I Was Doing All Right,” “I Married An Angel,” “If I Could Be With You,” “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby,” “Fantastic, That’s You,” “Tiger Rag”—okay, well, not that last one. But for me, “That’s For Me” is one of Pops’s all-time greatest records, treasured by those who know it, but unknown to most of the world. I couldn’t believe when I just searched for it on Itunes and it only came up one time, on a wonderful box set on the Hip-O label that is now out-of-print on C.D. (though it’s available on Amazon). It was on the Mosaic collection of Armstrong’s Decca recordings with the All Stars, but that’s out-of-print, as well. But hopefully, by the end of this blog, you’ll have a new appreciation for this neglected gem.

The song “That’s For Me” was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein for the 1945 musical, State Fair. Dick Haymes sang it in the film and had a hit record of it, as did Jo Stafford. After listening to various versions of it on Itunes, it appears that it was originally conceived as a sort of snappy number, not fast and uptempo, but with a lilting beat that makes the singer sound pretty confidant that he knows what he likes and likes what he sees (substitute “she” if necessary).

I never understood how it got into Armstrong’s hands, but I’m glad it did. Armstrong was performing it live for at least a year before he recorded it. Now, this is some pretty sad audio quality, but please, have a listen to this early version from a broadcast from Philadelphia’s Click, August 7, 1949:

Again, the quality is atrocious (why does it sound like someone’s beating time with a coke bottle?). One thing’s for sure is that the band sounds like they have the routine down, meaning they had probably been performing it for some time. The tempo is swings in a relaxed medium groove, different from the versions from State Fair. Earl Hines sounds particularly good but the record obviously centers around Pops’s heartfelt vocal, which showcases his range, especially his beautiful tenor register. The tempo’s a shade too fast to allow him to feel completely at ease with the lyrics, but he does a beautiful job. Much like the later “Gypsy,” the song has a built in space for applause after the vocal, as Earl Hines repeats the last few bars to allow Pops to get his chops in his horn. And it’s a wonderfully poised trumpet solo, no high notes or real drama, just a lot of melodic flurries that stick with the listener long after the song has ended. Pops reprises his vocal at the bridge and continues on until the nice, slowed down ending. Even through the abysmal sound quality, Pops’s warmth shines through.

I didn’t want to spend too much time on the blow-by-blow of that version because the real main event comes with the Decca studio recording of 1950. Over two days in April of that year, the All Stars recorded ten of their finest concert numbers in a studio setting. Pops had already embarked on his string of pop records for Decca but for this occasion, producer Milt Gabler allowed Armstrong to record whatever they wanted from their live repertoire. Armstrong’s picks are interesting because instead of just featuring himself all day, he gave each of his sidemen one feature of their own choice. Like most sidemen features, Armstrong doesn’t exactly stay in the background, taking a series of stirring breaks on “Bugle Call Rag/Ole Miss,” singing a chorus on “I Surrender Dear” and stealing the show from Jack Teagarden with his trumpet solo on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home.” For the other five numbers, Armstrong chose one romp the band had been playing since their inception, “Panama,” one stage set-piece, “New Orleans Function,” one comedy number, “Twelfth Street Rag,” and a lowdown blues song that was about to become a staple of almost every All Stars show, “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.”

For a tenth song, Armstrong could have chosen any of the All Stars’s great numbers from the period: “I’m Confessin’,” “Back O’Town Blues,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” “Basin Street Blues,” “King Porter Stomp,” “That’s A Plenty,” anything. But instead he chose “That’s For Me,” which he really must have loved to perform. So without any further ado, let’s listen to this classic, classic recording from April 1950.

Now, I’m sorry, but that’s the most beautiful piece of music you’re going to hear all day. As you don’t need me to tell you, the tempo is markedly slower than the 1949 broadcast version and it’s a great improvement, stripping Armstrong’s vocal from any confidant leanings and instead making it a charming, fragile ode from a man who truly cannot believe how lucky he is to be in love with the woman “that’s for him.” If you’re reading this on Valentine’s Day morning and still need an inscription for your card, you can’t go wrong with this offering from Oscar Hammerstein:

I saw you standing in the sun
And you were something to see.
I know what I like, and I liked what I saw
And I said to myself "That's for me."
"A lovely morning," I remarked,
And you were quick to agree.
You wanted to walk,
And I nodded my head
As I breathlessly said "That's for me."
I left you standing under stars,
The days adventures are through.
There's nothing for me but the dream in my heart,
And the dream in my heart, that's for you.
Oh, my darling, that's for you.

Doesn’t get much better than that. But listening to the record is a marvelous experience. The opening ensemble is perhaps the most tender one in All Stars history, clearly one that had been perfected on the bandstand. Bigard sticks to his low, chalameau register, playing the melody straight in the second half while Armstrong plays lead, opening with those gorgeous quarternotes, phrasing the melody where it feels best for him and sounds best for us. Teagarden plays quietly, but he later makes his presence felt with a lovely obbligato. Hines, maintaining the proper mood for a change, sets Armstrong’s vocal up with a perfect interlude and then we’re off to heaven.

Just listen to quality of Armstrong’s voice, brilliantly captured by Decca’s engineers. There’s barely a trace of gravel and though you can hear him struggle to sing those high notes, that all adds up to the charm of the record. He clearly loves the melody, not even infusing it with a single scat syllable or a even a “mama.” Tegarden’s obbligato is a highlight of the record, as he quotes liberally from the Armstrong vocabulary, especially the phrase he plays at 2:17 in. Hines again sets the stage for Armstrong’s lightly muted trumpet offering, which, repeats some of the phrases from the 1949 broadcast, but is much more effective at this gentle tempo. The double-timed opening phrase never fails to give me the chills as Bigard noodles around in the low register and the rhythm section begins swinging ever so lightly. The rhythms in this Armstrong solo are mind-boggling. Really, how many more times am I going to write this? I guess one more can’t hurt…I would hate to transcribe a solo like this one! It’s so flowing, so melodic, yet it’s also so unpredictable and quite daring. Armstrong goes into the upper register to bridge the two halves of his solo, but otherwise, he’s content to play circles around the melody, offering snippets of Rodgers’s original notes here and there as points of reference. Please, listen to this one 10 or 11 more times. It never ceases to surprise and it never ceases to move.

After the solo, you can hear Armstrong quietly clear the rubble out as Hines and Teagarden play a Satchmo-fied phrase (shades of Django’s “Nuages”?) Pops reenters with the “I left you standing under stars phrase,” which sounds like a bridge, but the melody reverts right back to that of the first two A sections (this is an oddly structured song, but it works). Teagarden plays that Pops phrase in obbligato once again at the 4:10 mark. Finally, though he’s made it this far, Armstrong sings a perfectly placed “Babe” before his final climb into the highest registers of his voices. I don’t think there’s a lovelier phrase in the history of Armstrong’s recorded vocals than that “Oh my darling,” leading to the sublime coda, with a little subdued scatting. You can hear Armstrong smiling as he hits the final “You,” Hines’s playing pretty descending runs behind him while Bigard and Teagarden harmonize. I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful ending to a more beautiful record.

In my research, I’ve come across a concert review from, I believe, 1951 that mentions a live performance of “That’s For Me,” but it soon after disappeared from the All Stars’s band book. That’s not to say he forgot about it completely. In a 1968 interview for the BBC radio program “Be My Guest,” Pops spoke about the inspiration for his recording that song: his fourth wife, Lucille.

“And I still got Madame Lucille. Can’t call her mademoiselle now cause it’s been 30 years since she was mademoiselle. I changed that when we was playing at the Cotton Club in New York. When she was mademoiselle dancing in that chorus and I’m blowing that trumpet right at them buns! I mean, you know, she was in the front line there. That was it. Every time I look at Lucille dancing, she had that little step where they’d raise their hand and hit about three steps in front and everything, that tune that I loved so well dawned on me. It’s on one of my records.”

And at the point, the 67-year-old Armstrong began singing “That’s For Me” completely a capella. He only sings a couple of lines, singing it lower than he did in 1950, but it’s still beautiful. When he finishes he says, “That was for Lucille.”

Ah, love. Pops had it for Lucille and it's safe to say, the world still has it for Pops. I hope you enjoyed "That's For Me" half as much as I did and I wish all of you a very Happy Valentine's Day!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Snake Rag

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
Gennett Recorded April 6, 1923
OKeh Recorded circa June 22, 1923
Track Time of Gennett 3:03
Track Time of OKeh 3:17
Written by Joe Oliver and Armand A.J. Piron
Gennett Recorded in Richmond, Indiana
OKeh Recorded in Chicago
King Oliver, cornet, leader; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Hardin, piano; Bill Johnson, banjo (on Gennett) Bud Scott, banjo (on OKeh); Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Gennett 5184-B and OKeh 4933-B Okeh 4975
Currently available on CD: The best version be heard on the recent Archeophone release, Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings
Available on Itunes? Yes, if in inferior sound to the above C.D. release

After spending so much time in the 1950s, it’s nice to go all the way back to 1923 for a change to discuss a classic King Oliver tune, “Snake Rag.” If you’ve found your way to this site, then I really shouldn’t have to go into great detail about the Armstrong-Oliver relationship. Oliver served as a mentor of sorts to Little Louis in New Orleans, with Armstrong eventually replacing his inspiration in Kid Ory’s band when Oliver decided to travel to California. By 1922, Oliver was leading a band at Chicago’s Lincoln Gardens and he soon sent for the young Armstrong to make his way up to the Windy City to play second cornet with him. It was the biggest break of Armstrong’s life to that point and he never got tired of talking or writing about it (please check out Armstrong’s autobiography, My Life In New Orleans, if you’ve never read it or even if you haven’t read it in a long time).

The Oliver-Armstrong cornet tandem soon became the talk of Chicago, namely due to the marvelous two-cornet breaks that seemed to effortlessly flow from their horns. The breaks sounded completely spontaneous and no one could quite figure out how Armstrong would know what Oliver was going to play and how he would come up with a second part that would mesh with it perfectly. Of course, it wasn’t completely spontaneous as Oliver and Armstrong had a system where Oliver would either signal what he was about to play during his ensemble lead playing or he would look over and secretively finger the valves of the break he was about to make. Whatever the method, there’s no denying the thrill of hearing those breaks live at the Lincoln Gardens.

The Oliver band, with Armstrong, made 27 records in 1923, some of the most famous examples of New Orleans jazz ever captured on wax (and if you don’t have the new Archeophone/Off the Record two-disc set, then you’ve never truly heard them. People who heard the band live claim that these records didn’t do them justice, especially with Baby Dodds having to play woodblocks and the occasional tom or cymbal instead of his usual full, driving drum set. Regardless, there are many, many wonderful moments on these 1923 recordings, especially when Oliver and Armstrong dish out the breaks that drove the crowds wild 85 years ago. Fortunately, this blog will deal with one of the song’s that best showed off these two-cornet breaks, “Snake Rag.”

“Snake Rag” was composed by Oliver and, living up to its title (the rag, not the snake), featured three different strains, like most ragtime of the day. King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band first tackled it at the end of their second session for Gennett records on April 6, 1923. This was a banner session, one of the high points of the entire Oliver series as it featured joyous versions of “Weather Bird Rag” and Jelly Roll Morton’s “Froggie Moore,” as well as the landmark “Dipper Mouth Blues.” “Snake Rag” closed the proceedings that day. A few months later, around June 22, Oliver, now billed as “King Oliver’s Jazz band,” recorded four sides for OKeh in Chicago. Now, leading off the session was another version of “Snake Rag,” this one credited to Oliver and the New Orleans Creole bandleader and violist, A.J. Piron. Both records have remarkable similarities so instead of going through one and then the other, it’s probably best to tackle them at the same time. Trust me, I’ve already done the listening with the Gennett coming out of the computer and the OKeh coming out of the Ipod headphones, and these are two very, very similar recordings except for the breaks…ah, those wonderful breaks. For now, though, here are the Red Hot Jazz Archive’s links to both recordings:

Both records are wonderful, but the OKeh exists in better sound and sounds a little tighter, though the ensemble interplay on the Gennett is perhaps a shade more exciting. The band starts off both records with a bang, jumping right into the first strain ensemble (imagine hearing that live? Two taps to count off and THAT comes out?). The record introduces the two-cornet breaks almost immediately (four bars in), but it’s the same break, played three times on each record, so it must have been written or just viewed as a definitive part of the routine. The break is an exciting chromatic run from a high Eb to a low one, hitting every note on the way except the E natural, followed by a Honore Dutrey moan and a cute two-note wrap-up by the horns. This first strain has almost a march-like feel to it, not a swinging one…you almost can’t help but pat your foot on the first and third beats of each measure.

Both records feature an almost identical tempo so the Gennett arrives at the second strain at 28 seconds, while the OKeh hits it at 27. The second strain differs on both records with regards to the trumpet playing. Armstrong and Oliver usually weaved their lines together seamlessly and to my ears, it sounds like Oliver takes the lead in the first part of the second strain while Armstrong, after the short Dutrey break, takes over for the second half. However, the big difference is that by the time of the OKeh recording, the Oliver band realized they could squeeze a little more time out of the record, so they play this second strain twice (meaning one more extra go around on that chromatic break). This accounts for the 15 extra seconds of playing time on the later version.

Both versions return to the first strain for last run-through (and yes, one more chromatic break), with Armstrong all over the cracks of Oliver’s lead on the Gennett, before settling into the final blowing strain, which takes things to the end of the record. If you’re listening along, the Gennett reaches this point at the 46 second mark while the OKeh hits it at 1:04. This strain is a simple one, 32 bars in Ab with a break positioned directly in the middle. Clarinetist Johnny Dodds takes the first break, different ones on each record, starting off with a suspended first note on the Gennett while the OKeh features a hotter, more rhythmic descending motif. The ensembles differ on both records but there’s no sense in analyzing each difference. The Gennett is scrappier but I think I like it better, especially Oliver’s exciting charge into the next chorus. Listen for Dutrey’s double-time blasts and Dodds’s especially thrilling high blue note around the 2:04 to 2:08 mark on the Gennett. Armstrong is also much “friskier” on the Gennett as David Sager points out in his wonderful notes to the Archeophone release. Making four-horn ensembles sound so good and so joyous is an art form and all the jazz aficionados who are so impressed by a trumpet and a sax playing a bop head in unison should really give a listen to just how many things are happening during these “Snake Rag” ensembles, yet nobody steps on anybody’s part. It’s like one giant instrument, the Ensemble-phone or something to that effect. (Usual disclaimer: I’m not a die-hard moldy fig as I’ll listen to bop heads all day. But New Orleans ensembles are usually thought to be old-fashioned and kind of corny and I don’t think there’s a harder form of jazz to play and make it sound good.)

As much fun as these ensembles are, the main event of both records are the two-cornet breaks which differ greatly from record to record. The first break comes at 1:58 on the Gennett and 2:15 on the OKeh. The Gennett is trickier for the two cornets to execute rhythmically, but they nail it, while the OKeh is bluesier, a funky riff repeated three times. After the breaks, on the Gennett, they keep playing right into the next chorus, but on the OKeh, Bud Scott takes a vocal break, “Lawdy, sweet mama!” Perhaps Bill Johnson’s “Oh, play that thing” on “Dipper Mouth Blues” caught on and the Oliver band, like any band trying to please the public, wanted to include more vocal breaks on their records. Oliver plays similar ideas in his lead on the next chorus, mainly the happily skipping phrase in the ninth bar. But at 2:25 mark on the Gennett, Oliver seems to be signaling Armstrong about the next break, definitely in measure six and a little more in measure 11 (again, thanks to Sager for pointing this out). The second breaks are different, but they follow similar patterns. On the Gennett, the cornets play B and C over and over again before resolving it with an F to an Eb. The OKeh chooses two different notes, F and Ab, and a different rhythm, resolving this one on a preciously pounded blue third, B. Both breaks are great, but that B on the OKeh, gets me every time. Then again, even though I’ve heard these records a hundred times, I still smile and clap my hands when a break catches me off guard.

Both records then feature straight forward jamming for the last 30 seconds, repeating the last couple of bars a few times to exciting effect before stopping on a time at the finish. Dodds really blows on the Gennett. In fact, after listening so carefully, I think I prefer the Gennett because of its ragged, exciting quality. The sound quality is better on the OKeh, Armstrong is more behaved and the early breaks are executed better…but there’s just no substitution for pure excitement. But the OKeh does have that fun Bud Scott interlude and that killer final break. Oh really, how can you choose one great record over another? I’m just glad to have two versions to compare.

Well, actually there are three versions to compare. Let us flash forward to the fall of 1959 when Pops recorded “Satchmo Plays King Oliver” for the Audio Fidelity label. After his heart attack/pneumonia/cold spaghetti episode in Spoleto, Italy, Armstrong took a few weeks off but came back blowing like mad on his first Audio Fidelity dates with the Dukes of Dixieland at the beginning of August. Audio Fidelity’s next project was the have the All Stars in the studio to record a tribute to Armstrong’s mentor. George Avakian had wanted Armstrong to record King Oliver tunes for Columbia but that was before Joe Glaser hiked the price for recording Armstrong through the moon. Surely, Avakian would have made another classic album and with that regret in mind, it’s easy to see how “Satchmo Plays King Oliver” comes off as a bit of a disappointment.

But please, let me emphasize the word “bit.” There are some silly choices like “Old Kentucky Home” and the honky-tonk piano on “Frankie and Johnny” is pretty corny, but Armstrong overcomes it all and plays some of his finest horn of the period on numbers like “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “St. James Infirmary.” And if you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that the four songs I just mentioned have nothing to do with King Oliver! As Pops explained, “Well, he might have played them.”

But the All Stars did tackle some Oliver songs, though Armstrong really had to lead his men because most of the All Stars had no idea about the original routines. On “Snake Rag,” they tried pretty hard, but unfortunately, Armstrong’s memory failed them (more in a moment). Thanks to the HipCast people, feel free to listen along!

The first half of the record isn’t one of my favorite moments in All Stars history. Louis Armstrong might have epitomized all that was New Orleans but the All Stars were not a New Orleans/Dixieland band and on “Snake Rag” it shows. First off, the tempo is slower than on the originals and it’s not really an improvement. Bassist Mort Herbert plunks away with roots and fifths in two-beat style while drummer Danny Barcelona maintains his steady swing pattern on the ride cymbal. Trummy Young was the ideal trombonist for the All Stars but he was not a tailgate man and he sounds like he just listened to his first Kid Ory record and was trying to his best to imitate it, playing the same simple patterns over and over. Peanuts Hucko proved to be a quick learner, executing the chromatic break cleanly with Pops, but in the ensemble, he offers none of Johnny Dodds’s weaving countermelodies, instead simply harmonizing the melody of the first strain with Armstrong.

After one time through the first strain, they head to the second strain, where Hucko practically starts playing ragtime clarinet. Trummy takes a short solo, sounding nothing like himself. The rhythm section doesn’t sound at ease either, with Kyle playing uncharacteristic oom-pah accompaniment to go along with Mort’s stiff walking and Barcelona’s ill-fitting ride cymbal. Then, for the third time, Pops and Hucko play the descending the break and we’re already at the 1:08 mark. Now, I know it sounds like I’m being pretty harsh on this track but to me, that first minute is pretty painful as it sounds like the All Stars are trying to sound like something they’re not. Fortunately, there’s good news around the corner: the final 1:50 of the record is fantastic, so good that this is actually one of my favorite performances on “Satchmo Plays King Oliver.”

There’s only one problem: Pops forgot the chords to the blowing strain! Here’s the original set-up:

Ab / / /

Ab / /Ab7 /Ab7

Eb7 / / Ab F7

Bb7 / /Eb (break) /

That’s the first 16 bars. The second 16 are the same, only it ends on Ab. But here’s what the All Stars play in 1959:

Ab / / /

Ab / / Eb /

Eb / / /

Eb / / Ab (break) /

Ab / / /

Ab7 / / Db /

Db / Ddim / Ab / F7

Bb / Eb / Ab /

It might not look familiar but it should sound familiar: it’s “Tiger Rag”! It’s funny that Pops remembered the routines and chords for the first two strains but when it came to the main one, he fell back on “Tiger Rag” changes, which are also in Ab. But if you can look past the small error, there’s some great moments, beginning with a very relaxed Hucko, even though the rhythm section still sounds ill ease. After Hucko’s solo, Danny Barcelona takes a break, leaving one minute left in the record with not much having happened.

But what a minute it is! The reason is simple: Pops, Pops, Pops. He enters with a great quote from Ravel’s “Bolero” and takes off from there, sounding incredibly strong. The rhythm section finally loosens up and becomes the All Stars. Pops’s lead playing is simply brilliant and that break, building up to that high C is the stuff that dreams are made of. And listen to some of the phrases he blows after the break. Sound familiar? If you know the “Autobiography’s” remake of “Hotter Than That,” based on “Tiger Rag,” you’ll hear some of the exact phrases Pops scatted on that, evidence number 702 of Pops’s vocals influencing his trumpet playing (and vice versa).

Another Barcelona break leads to a standard All Stars ending, Pops going way up for the ending. I can never listen to this version of “Snake Rag” without rewinding it and listening to the last minute again and again. This is a man who just had a heart attack? Pretty impressive!

And that ends this weekend extra, written in the time it took my wife to get her hair done! (Over two hours…it takes me 25 minutes to get a haircut!) She’s back and we’re going out for the night so I hope you got to enjoy this little weekend extra. I’ll be back in the early part of the week with more glories of Pops.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Congratulations to Someone

Recorded February 23, 1953
Track Time 2:47
Written by Roy Alfred and Al Frisch
Recorded in Detroit
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummmy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Louis Alois, Everett Van Deven, alto saxophone; Fred Netting, tenor saxophone; Abraham Rozanoff, baritone saxophone; Marty Napoleon, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 28628
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Serenades, among others
Available on Itunes? Yes

Your Cheatin' Heart

Recorded February 23, 1953
Track Time 2:46
Written by Hank Williams and Fred Rose
Recorded in Detroit
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummmy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Louis Alois, Everett Van Deven, alto saxophone; Fred Netting, tenor saxophone; Abraham Rozanoff, baritone saxophone; Marty Napoleon, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 28628
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Serenades, among others
Available on Itunes? Yes

Okay, we’re going to try something new with this entry. I’ve never been able to figure out how to post music to this here blog of mine, resorting to the Red Hot Jazz archive and YouTube whenever necessary. However, after stumbling across, I’ve decided to give it a whirl with today’s entry, which happens to be on two songs, “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Congratulations to Someone.” Since I can only post the link to one song per blog, I’m also going to post a bare bones entry on “Congratulations to Someone” where you can click the link and listen along while reading the below post. Got it? I’ve checked and there should be no links to save the music so hopefully I’m adhering to the copyright rules (if someone thinks I’m not and I’m going to get thrown off this thing, let me know and I’ll never do it again!). Please, if you like what you hear, drop the 99 cents and pick it up on Itunes. So let’s give this thing a shot by starting out with a discussion on two of the many kinds of pop songs Armstrong recorded for Decca in the 1950s, the kind I discussed in my entry for “Sincerely.”

1952 was a transitional year for the All Stars. The departures of Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines and Arvell Shaw in late 1951 led the band to do some major rebuilding. Fortunately, the All Stars’s rebuilding period didn’t take as long as the one the Knicks are immersed in right now (rim shot, please). Russ Phillips took over the trombone role, Joe Sullivan replaced Hines and Dale Jones filled in for Shaw. Sullivan didn’t last long as his stride piano style didn’t fit…and I’m sure his heavy drinking didn’t either. He was soon replaced by Marty Napoleon, who was playing with his uncle Phil’s band, booked by, you guessed it, Joe Glaser. Phillips was apparently well-liked by Louis and on the few recordings of him with the band, he sounds fine, but during a visit to Hawaii in February 1952, Armstrong ran into an old friend, Trummy Young and asked him to join the band. Young couldn’t come immediately but found his way back to the mainland to join the All Stars in September. By that point, Shaw was back in the band, though Dale Jones would return (his Bert Williams specialty, “Nobody,” slayed a high school audience in Vancouver in February 1952). But though Shaw was back, clarinetist and original member Barney Bigard left in the summer of ’52, replaced by Bob McCracken. Still with me? I should be shouting, “Scorecards! Get your scorecards here! Can’t tell your All Stars apart without a scorecard!” It was the Young-McCracken-Napoleon-Shaw-Cozy Cole band that had a very successful tour of Europe in the fall of 1952, with some great music from this tour being captured on the first two volumes of Storyvilles’s “Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia” series.

(Quick sidebar: A reader, identified as “Satch,” wrote, “I wonder if you could help me with two questions: 1.) In 1952 Louie toured Scandinavia I understand. Can you tell me where his live version of ‘All of Me’ was recorded? 2.) Can you tell me when he played Oslo, or anything about his performances in Norway? Thank you and Best wishes.” First, Satch, “All of Me” from the “Ambassador Satch” album was recorded in 1956, passed off as being from a 1955 concert in Milan, but it was actually recorded in a Hollywood studio in January 1956, with applause dubbed in later. And regarding Oslo, the All Stars did indeed tour there during the 1952 trip, performing two shows a day at the Colosseum Kino on October 5, 6 and 7. They returned in 1955 to play six concerts in two days the Colosseum Kino on October 8 and 9 of that year. The All Stars played the Nordstrandshallen in Oslo on February 2 and 3, 1959 and the Njadrhallenin Oslo on February 17, 1961. All this info is from the wonderful “In Scandinavia” liner notes. Hope this helped! Back to your originally scheduled blogging…)

Perhaps because 1952 was such a hectic year, with so much touring and so many personnel changes, Armstrong barely had time to make any records. He only made three trips into the studio that entire year, waxing “I’ll Walk Alone” and “Kiss of Fire” on April 19 (a helluva record, if I say so myself) a “I Laughed at Love” and “Takes Two to Tango” on August 25, and four songs with Gordon Jenkins on September 22. By comparison, Decca recorded 18 Armstrong sides in 1951, as well as the entire Pasadena concert with the All Stars in January.

By the time of Armstrong’s first session of 1953, the All Stars had seen yet another personnel change as Barney Bigard returned to the fold just days before the session, which was recorded in Detroit, a somewhat odd choice as Armstrong spent most the 50s recording in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Decca (and when I say Decca, I’m usually referring to producer Milt Gabler) liked to augment the All Stars for Pops’s pop dates and this session was no different as the sextet was bolstered by three reeds and a rhythm guitarist. The great Sy Oliver did the arrangements. Oliver, a trumpet man himself and a veteran of Jimmie Lunceford’s famous big band, loved Pops from way back, having backed him up during an Armstrong appearance fronting Zack White’s band in Toledo, Ohio in the late 20s. Gabler first paired Armstrong and Oliver for Armstrong’s first return session for Decca in September 1949. The teaming worked and Oliver would continue to arrange sessions for Armstrong until 1958.

Again, as discussed in my “Sincerely” entry, Decca would look high and low for popular songs and once it looked like something was going to be a hit, they usually rushed Armstrong in to put his imprint on it. Thus, the completely varied material on that February 23 date: a country song by Hank Williams and a pop ballad made popular by Tony Bennett, Armstrong’s favorite “boy from my neighborhood” (Queens).

Having Armstrong record country music might have seemed odd, but this wasn’t a first. Of course, he played on Jimmie Rodgers’s famous “Blue Yodel Number Nine” session in 1930. And in September 1951, Armstrong and Sy Oliver collaborated on a cover of Williams’s “Cold, Cold Heart,” which had been already popularized by Tony Bennett (the Bennett-Williams-Armstrong triangle, where does it stop!?). I love Ray Charles tremendously and cherish all the recordings I own of “The Genius,” but he sure got a lot of attention for making that country album in 1962, though Armstrong’s earlier forays into the country field are generally neglected (and Armstrong did “Georgia” first, dammit!).

Hank Williams wrote “Your Cheatin’ Heart” with his first wife in mind (apparently, his second wife took down the lyrics as Williams thought them up while driving). Williams recorded the song on September 23, 1952, but it wasn’t released until after Williams’s death on January 1, 1953 at the age of 29. Williams’s version spent six weeks on the country charts and became known as one of his greatest songs, but at the time, bigger versions were made by others. Joni James scored a number two hit with it, recording it on January 7, while Frankie Laine’s version, recorded January 8, reached number 18 (did the record executives even wait for Williams’s body to be buried?).

With a hit in the air, it was time for Armstrong to put his stamp on it. As I’ve expressed time and again, I love these early 50s “commercial” recordings. Obviously, some are better than others, but “ Your Cheatin’ Heart” is one of my favorites, with a lot of credit for that going to Oliver’s arrangement, which, instead of instilling a stiff countrified two-beat, instead struts and nods its head with a decidedly Lunceford-ian two feel, with shades of “Yes Indeed” thrown in to give a chuch-like feel. As pianist Marty Napoleon told me, “The manager of the band gave me a lead sheet on ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart.’ And we were in Detroit, Michigan and Joe Glaser said, ‘Run this over with Louie cause we’re going to record it with Sy Oliver.’ So I played it over myself and I said, ‘My God, what kind of song is this?’ It was like a flat, hillbilly song, you know what I mean? And then Sy came in with this arrangement and that thing was swinging like crazy. It was magnificent, man! It was wonderful.”

Unfortunately, I don’t have any YouTube videos or links to listen along with the track as I write about it, but if you do own it and haven’t listened to it for a while, dig it out and you be surprised at how infectious the record is. Armstrong opens the proceedings with two bars of trumpet (it almost sounds like he’s about to start playing the “Isle of Capri”) before the band carries out the final two bars of the introduction. Immediately, just off that intro, you have to be feeling good. Trummy’s trombone is prominent in the mix, adding a bluesy quality to the proceedings (remember, Trummy was a Lunceford man, too). As Pops starts singing, look out for a reenergized Barney Bigard. Bigard often got tired of touring and would take periodic breaks. He wanted extra money to go to Europe in 1952 and when Glaser turned him down, McCracken was hired. However, Bigard usually returned full of energy and he plays like a madman behind Pops’s vocal. In fact, it might be a little too busy, clashing with the rest of the relaxed arrangement, but I’ll take it over the bored, going-through-the-motions Bigard of “Satch Plays Fats.”

A muted Trummy takes over the obbligato for the second A section, more relaxed than Barney, but effectively keeping that blues-inflected atmosphere going. The only clam on the entire record, though, comes from the great Armstrong himself as he has trouble hitting the right pitch on the word “You.” It’s not a completely wrong note, but it’s definitely “pitchy,” in the parlance on an “American Idol” judge. Armstrong recovers quickly for the bridge, which he introduces by singing “When tears come down” all on one pitch in a break (dig Cozy Cole’s perfectly timed rimshot behind it). The reeds riff gently during the bridge, with Cole’s bass drum really keeping the two-feel in a funky bag. Bigard takes a page from Young when he returns for an obbligato in the final eight bars, keeping it simple and lowdown and instead of running all over his horn.

As Armstrong sings the final note, Trummy introduces Pops with a simple Ab scale (I almost expect him to start playing his “Honeysuckle Rose” contrafact, “Through For the Night”). Armstrong delays his entrance for one second before opening with the first few notes of the melody. Soon, though, he discards the melody completely and turns in a real down home 16-bar solo. Dig Oliver’s writing for the band, chanting and riffing like a congregation. Shaw and Cole stay with the two-beat for two bars but when Shaw kicks it into four in the third bar, the effect is exhilarating. Armstrong’s phrases come in three shapes and sizes: there are the snatches of melody here and there; there are the tumbling faster phrases, not boppish eighth-note runs, but tricky rhythmic grumbles that are strictly Armstrong; and finally, downright bluesy phrases, such as the emphatic three minor thirds he plays right on the beat heading into the second half of his solo, squeezing the juice out of the last one for good measure. As always, the high notes are impressive but that final low minor third is a “gassuh,” as Pops would say.

When he returns to sing the bridge, the record sounds like a party broke out in the studio. Shaw reverts back to the two-beat, slapping his strings so hard you can hear one pop and the band moans righteously behind the vocal (good tremolos by Napoleon). Matters become a little more subdued in the final A section—were those saxes left over from a Dick Stabile-led Dean Martin session??? Armstrong finishes the chorus, lets out a resounding “Yes,” like a preacher about to repeat the point of his sermon one last time, and does just that, repeating the last four bars joyously, going up for the final “will tell on you” as the band swings to its conclusion. A great, great record.

As I stated earlier, I love these Decca pop tunes and some are better than others. Well, “Congratulations to Someone” isn’t one of my favorites, though Pops still sounds good. The tune was written by Al Frisch and Roy Alfred, the latter being the man behind the lyrics of “The Hucklebuck.” Tony Bennett recorded it for Columbia on August 26, 1952, backed by Percy Faith’s Orchestra with the Ray Charles Singers (no, not THAT Ray Charles). Bennett’s version peaked at #20 on March 7, 1953, not one of his biggest hits, but at least it got his picture on the sheet music cover.

With Bennett’s version rising in the charts, Decca took a chance and had Armstrong record it, though without the choir and strings Bennett used, which would have been a natural for Gordon Jenkins. Oliver’s arrangement isn’t quite as jaunty as what he came up with for “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” though it’s nice, if a little bland. Perhaps the highlight of the record is the very beginning as Armstrong plays a dramatic introduction, starting with the main melody phrase, followed by a descending motive that equal parts simple, logical and beautiful. The range of the song keeps Armstrong in the nether regions of his voice and he doesn’t sound too comfortable there, though he rallies for the higher parts of every A section, including the bridge. Napoleon once again plays some Hines-like tremolos behind him, but otherwise not much happens during the vocal, though if you like listening to Louis Armstrong sing (and who doesn’t?), you’ll be happy.

A frustrating moment occurs before the trumpet solo as you can clearly hear an edit right before Armstrong’s entrance. Thus, we get the final two bars of the second A section, followed by a solo on the bridge, making for a somewhat odd 10-bar excursion. What was edited out? Shaky playing or was the solo just too long? We’ll never know, but what’s there is quite lovely, if not earth-shattering. Armstrong really sings with feeling during the reprise and I especially like the coda where the band lets there hair down and starts swinging. Pops emotes, Barney wails and the record ends on a happy note. Not my favorite record, but a good one nonetheless.

So there’s a typical day in the life of Louis Armstrong, Decca recording artist, circa 1953. A Hank Williams lament, a Tony Bennett pop song, some Sy Oliver arrangements, mix it all together and you have the recipe for the some very fine records. This blog entry might be over, but I think I’m going to listen to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” one more time because it’s such a groovin’ record…has anyone else ever sounded so happy singing about a cheating heart?

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Best Three Minutes You Can Spend Today

As usual, real life keeps getting in the way of writing regular entries, so allow me to pop in for a second today and offer a YouTube treat, Louis Armstrong and the peak edition of the All Stars with Trummy Young, Edmond Hall, Billy Kyle, Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona, performing "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" on the secdond "Timex All Star Show," April 30, 1958. No words from me are necessary. Just sit back and enjoy the wonder of it all (and leave a comment if you enjoy it!).