Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Flat Foot Floogie

Louis Armstrong & The Mills Brothers
Recorded June 10, 1938
Track Time 2:59
Written by Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart and Bud Green
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Harry, Herbert, Donald and John Mills, vocal; Norman Brown, guitar
Originally released on Decca 1876
Currently available on CD: On volume four of the Ambassador series, 1938. Check out www.classicjazz.se for more information (a live version is on volume five)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various compilations

What happens when two of my musical idols collide in one single entry? Time will tell, but I think my head will probably explode. As I’ve alluded to in the past, Slim Gaillard is a hero of mine and “The Flat Foot Floogie” was the song that put him on the map. For those who don’t know much about Slim, he was a character from another planet, playing multiple instruments in eccentric ways, speaking his own “Vout” language and writing catchy, nonsensical tunes like “Cement Mixer” and “Yep Roc Heresy.” He spoke about a million languages, but was also fluent in gibberish and double-talk. Jazz historians tend to dismiss him, but he sure knew how to invite the big guns to his parties: Ben Webster, Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Rowles, Charlie Parker, Zutty Singleton, Dizzy Gillespie, Howard McGhee, Vic Dickinson, Marshall Royal, Buddy Tate, Jay McShann, Art Blakey, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Dodo Marmarosa, and so many others turned up at Slim’s record sessions and live dates, always ensuring a high level of musicianship to go along with Slim’s shenanigans.

I know, I know…for someone who worships at the feet at a true musical genius like Louis Armstrong, what am I doing slumming around with Slim Gaillard? Well, perhaps I’m not all I’m cracked to be. Before I officially decided to start writing my book on Armstrong’s later years, I began doing heavy research for a book I wanted to write about Slim. Pops has passed him up, but don’t worry, that day will come. And before I settled on this here all-Armstrong blog, I wanted to write one called “Jazz From The Cheap Seats.”

You see, I’m a big proponent of a lot of things that the jazz snobs frown on. I think many critics go to see a jazz concert for free, they sit in the front row and they usually think they know what’s best. Me, I pay for my seats and usually have to sit in the back, making me part of the dreaded “audience.” I don’t think I know what’s best, but I know what I like. I like cutting contests. I like honking and screaming saxophones. I like Louis Jordan. I love Fats Waller. I worship Louis Prima, especially the combo he led in Vegas with Sam Butera. I couldn’t live without Jazz at the Philharmonic records. I love New Orleans jazz bands who encourage the audience to clap along on the right beat. I like it when Lionel Hampton grunts. I go to Django Reinhardt festivals to worship the virtuosity of the guitarists and to be dazzled into laughter by accordion player Ludovic Beier. I’ll never get tired of listening to Texas Tenors like Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb and Buddy Tate. Leo Watson is my favorite scat singer. I smile at Duke Ellington’s “finger snapping bit.” I appreciate shuffle rhythms and backbeats. I dig plunger-muted trumpets. I laugh when Dizzy Gillespie scats with Joe Carroll on “Ool Ya Koo.” I don’t smoke, but I love a good song about marijuana. Red McKenzie’s “comb” playing really sends me and I listen to Cab Calloway records because I love Cab Calloway, not because I want to hear the solos (though God knows I love me some Jonah Jones and Chu Berry!).

Thus, maybe this explains why I so passionately defend Armstrong recordings like “Don’t Forget to Mess Around” and “Lonesome Road,” when the rest of the jazz world just wants to deal with “West End Blues.” And it’s why Slim Gaillard is a hero of mine. And trust me, when I’m feeling “cool,” I own enough Miles, Monk, Mingus, Coltrane, Ornette and so on to sink a ship. I have a ton of Blue Note stuff and I can never have enough Sonny Rollins. But you know what? I’ll never get tired of hearing Slim Gaillard sing about a “Dunkin’ Bagel.”



That clip was from 1946 and featured bassist Tiny “Bam” Brown and Scatman Crothers on drums (yes, THE Scatman Crothers of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Shining and Chico and the Man). Eight years earlier, Gaillard was a struggling musician on 52nd St. in New York who had recorded two sides as a vocalist with Frankie Newton, but hadn’t done much else. He soon formed a duo with bassist Leroy Stewart, renamed “Slam,” to fit better with “Slim.” Disc jockey Martin Block became a fan of the duo, recommending them to Vocalion records. In January, Vocalion cut a record of Slim & Slam (plus pianist Sam Allen and drummer Pompey “Guts” Dobson) doing their original song, “Flat Foot Floozy.” As the legend goes, no record company executive was dumb enough to let a record with that title hit the public, so it was changed to “Flat Foot Floogie” and was rerecorded on February 17, 1938 (“floozy” might not have made the cut but I’ve read that “floy floy,” the next lyric in the song, was slang for venereal disease!).

Martin Block soon helped push the record, but the “Floogie” craze really hit the big-time when Benny Goodman featured an arrangement of it on his radio show. The next thing you know, EVERYONE was singing about the “Flat Foot Floogie (With a Floy Floy).” In a matter of months, the likes of Django Reinhardt and Wingy Manone began recording covers while musicians like Fats Waller and Count Basie began performing it live (dig ‘em all; Fats has a ball with it and the Basie one, recorded at the Famous Door and available on Itunes, really swings with some prime Lester Young). Fats’s version, recorded with his “Continental Rhythm” in London in August 1939, is really hot. Click
here to listen for yourself.

The jazz historians tend to dismiss it as a silly novelty, but a lot of good music was made on its strains and the song itself has had a longer life than some of the jazz music recorded in that era (type it in on YouTube and you’ll hear a school choir singing it and an Indiana University dance team jitterbug to Slim and Slam’s original). Speaking of the original, I wasn’t able to find an easy link to it, but if you’ve never heard Slim and Slam’s first record of it, go
here to hear it.

How big did “Floogie” get? At the 1939 World’s Fair, the sheet music for the song was placed in a time capsule as a representation of American civilization, not to be opened for 5,000 years. Here’s an original newsreel about the time capsule that I dug up on YouTube. It doesn’t mention “The Flat Foot Floogie,” but trust me, it’s in there…along with Jean Sibelius’s “Finlandia” and Souza’s “Stars and Stripes Forever.” So while you watch this and listen to the importance of this capsule, keep telling yourself after every sentence, “Slim & Slam’s ‘Flat Foot Floogie’ is in that capsule!”



So with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s move on to Armstrong’s run-in with “Flat Foot Floogie,” which occurred on a session shared with the Mills Brothers in 1938. Decca first teamed Armstrong with the Brothers Mills in 1937 for two sessions that resulted in four master takes (three alternates can be heard on the indispensable Ambassador series). The pairing worked so well that Decca made more records featuring Armstrong and the Mills’s in 1938 and 1940. “Floogie” was up first and here's how it turned out:




Armstrong and the Mills open with some good-natured interaction before the brothers take over. Honestly, I love all things-Floogie and all things-Mills Brothers, but I’ve never really cared for their rendering of the melody. It’s a little too static and with the bass voice singing harmony, it doesn’t really take off, even with the strumming rhythm guitar of Norman Brown. Finally Pops enters with the “Bang bang” chorus, getting tight responses from the Mills Brothers. Pops sounds like he’s having a great time, throwing in a “Lose that floozy,” which I guess wasn’t caught by the producer of the session. Instead of going to the bridge, the Mills’s take over for eight bars, echoing Pops but changing the “Bang” to a “Bom.” But as much fun as the vocalizing is, the heart of the record is Pops’s trumpet solo, played over swinging rhythm guitar with interjections from the Mills family (got tired of typing “brothers” and besides, the father of the family, John, had already taken over this point for the recently deceased John Jr.).

Something about appearing in such a stripped-down setting with the Mills Brothers always brought out Pops’s most relaxed side. Don’t look for high notes or daring feats of endurance in this solo. Pops is relaxed, playing his own version of the melody, making comments on it as he goes, and swinging the whole way. He really plays beautifully on the bridge, throwing in a quick allusion to “Honeysuckle Rose” and taking a wonderfully poised double-time break that always causes me to shake my head in admiration.

After the solo, Pops takes over the lead vocal, getting “instrumental” backing by the Mills’s, doing their always-fun instrument imitations. Lead tenor Donald Mills takes over the bridge, ending with an impressive scat break of his own. After Pops sings the final eight bars, Pops begins an extended ending that sounds like the introduction of a meeting for “Foot Fetishes Anonymous.” As the Mills give him dramatic backing with their singing of the words “Floogie” and “Flat Foot,” Pops goes on to list a bunch of other “Foots”: “Flat Foot, Slew Foot, Sugar Foot, Cush Foot, Wing Foot, Big Foot and Satchel Foot!” It’s a lot of fun and when “Floogie” was reprised on an episode of the “Saturday Night Swing Club” the following month, Pops’s closing “foot” spiel drew big laughs from the studio audience (this version can be heard on volume 5 of the Ambassador series). Anyway, I, of course, enjoy this track, but it’s not my favorite Floogie nor is it my favorite Armstrong and Mills Brothers recording (that distinction goes to “The Song Is Ended,” recorded three days later).

And that concludes our look at Armstrong rendezvous with “Flat Foot Floogie,” though according to Jos Willems’s All of Me, when Armstrong did an interview for Radio France in 1948 and was asked to sing a few bars of a song for the listeners, he launched into an a cappella rendition of “Flat Foot Floogie”! And as far as I know, I’ve never come across any mentions of Slim Gaillard and Armstrong on the same bill or even being seen together, though I’m sure they must have run-in to each other somewhere along the way. But “Floogie” lives on 70 years later, though I have to end with this bizarre clip courtesy of YouTube. This will answer the trivia question, what’s the only song to be performed by Louis Armstrong, Slim Gaillard, Benny Goodman, Django Reinhardt, Fats Waller AND Michael Jackson? Why, the “Flat Foot Floogie” of course! Here ‘tis, on the Jackson 5’s variety show from 1976…

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Creator Has a Master Plan

Recorded May 27, 1970

Track Time 4:08

Written by Pharaoh Sanders and Leon Thomas

Recorded in New York City

Louis Armstrong, vocal; Arnold Black, Selwart Richard Clarke, Winston Collymore, Paul Gershman, Manny Green, Harry Lookofsky, Matthew Raimondi, Joe Malin, Max Pollikoff, violin; Julien Barber, Alfred Brown, David Schwartz, Emmanuel Vardi, viola; Charles McCracken, Kermit Moore, George Ricci, Allan Schulman, cello; Richard Davis, George Duvivier, bass; John Williams Jr., electric bass; Sam Brown, Kenny Burrell, guitars; James Spaulding, flute; Frank Owens, piano; Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, drums; Gene Golden, congas; Leon Thomas, vocal; Oliver Nelson, arranger, conductor

Originally released on Flying Dutchman AMS 12009

Currently available on CD: Available on Louis Armstrong and His Friends or the old 1990 Bluebird C.D., What a Wonderful World

Available on Itunes? Yes, in all three takes

The Itunes shuffle rarely lets me down…this time it led me to a song that I’ve always kind of shunned. However, after some intensive listening done for this entry, I’ve found some new delights in it, as well as in the album from which it came from, Louis Armstrong and His Friends. Though Pops would record one more album after this one, for all intents and purposes, Louis Armstrong and His Friends was his swan song. After ill health kept him off the stage from the end of 1968 to the beginning of 1970, it became clear that the years of blowing his trumpet at full power, traveling nonstop, ingesting Swiss Kriss and smoking marijuana were catching up with him. He had watched as close musical cohorts such Sidney Bechet, Jack Teagarden, Billy Kyle, Buster Bailey, Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins and others all had passed away within the previous decade. Even his longtime manager, Joe Glaser, passed away in 1969.

Surely feeling moral on the inside, Armstrong didn’t show it outwardly as 1970 began, making frequent television appearances in the first half of the year. Doctors forbid Armstrong from playing trumpet at this point (though he practiced at home and brought it out to play a bit on the Dick Cavett Show in January), but Armstrong could still sing and tell stories and he made an ideal talk show guest. At the time, Armstrong, along with the
rest of the world, still believed he was born on July 4, 1900, which meant that July 4, 1970 would mark his 70th birthday.

That summer, Armstrong was the recipient of tributes at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, at the New Orleans Jazz Festival and at the Newport Jazz Festival. Magazines devoted full issues to singing his praises and television networks filmed documentaries on him. Naturally, an album had to be made to commemorate the occasion and that album would be Louis Armstrong and His Friends.

The album was cut in New York City in May 1970 for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label. Armstrong and Thiele were no strangers as Thiele was the man responsible for both Armstrong’s 1961 collaboration with Duke Ellington as well as the original recording of “What a Wonderful World,” and the resulting album, which bore the same name. After “What a Wonderful World,” Armstrong made some very erratic recordings for the Brunswick label. Though Joe Glaser had died, his successor, Oscar Cohen, had very much the same mentality as his former boss, meaning one thing and one thing only: get Louis Armstrong a hit record.

Thus, when planning Satchmo’s 70th birthday album, Cohen turned to Thiele, who was now running the Flying Dutchman label, which featured records from an eclectic mix of musicians ranging from Johnny Hodges to Oliver Nelson to Gato Barbieri to Gil Scott-Heron. Thiele enlisted Oliver Nelson to be the arranger and conductor for the Armstrong sessions. Nelson was originally best known as a saxophonist, but he soon became better known as a composer and arranger. His album Blues and The Abstract Truth has become a classic, while on a personal note, I listened to his Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis big band album, Trane Whistle, three times last week while driving from gig to gig. By the late 60s, though, Nelson was doing a lot of film and television work and that “commercial” sound began to creep into his jazz writing, something that can especially be heard on the dated arrangements he turned in on Thelonious Monk’s 1968 Monk’s Blues album for Columbia. Sill, he loved Armstrong and was quoted in the July 1970 issue of Down Beat as saying, “We couldn’t have had what he now know as American music without him. He created a style and he opened up this whole thing.”

Nelson definitely had that commercial sound down and the combination of his orchestrations and Thiele’s talents as a producer looked as if they could give Armstrong one last hit. And that’s where Louis Armstrong and His Friends fails. The original album had ten tracks, though 11 were recorded (“Here Is My Heart For Christmas” was released as a single and is on the current Bluebird C.D. reissue of the album). Of the original ten, I’d say five are home runs. Thiele gave Armstrong a pair of standards to sing, “Mood Indigo” and “My One and Only Love,” and Armstrong in return gave absolutely beautiful interpretations of both chestnuts. Thiele also decided to update “What a Wonderful World,” giving Pops a charming opening monologue, while Nelson turned in a soulful arrangement enhanced by Frank Owens’s church-like piano. Those three songs were recorded along with “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” during the first session, which, by all accounts, sounds like a joyous occasion. A birthday cake was served before the recording went down and in the studio, guests from all walks of life came in to pay their respects to Pops.
“The Blacklisted Journalist” Al Aronwitz was at this session with Miles Davis and he wrote about his experience there in a 1996 piece that can be found at this address: http://www.bigmagic.com/pages/blackj/column11.htm. Aronwitz makes a number of mistakes throughout and he clearly didn’t truly understand Armstrong (“Dixieland”!) but he paints a good picture of that first session:

“…[W]hen he walked into RCA's brand, new Studio A for his first recording session since September of 1968, he found some two hundred and fifty of the greatest surviving giants of jazz waiting for him. Also waiting for him was an immense chocolate layer cake. I remember thinking at first that there was something sad about this party, thrown by old men for another older man who obviously wasn't going to be around much longer. But these old men were all heroes to me. They had created a new and beautiful music, America's very own, which to me equalled the world's greatest classics by the world's greatest masters. These men, too, had achieved artistic immortality. Against crushing hardships, they had persevered. Somehow, they made me think of courageous sea captains ready to go down with their ships but their ships had stayed afloat. Their ships were their music. Here they were, as if with hats in hand, come to pay homage to Louis. Satchmo. Pops.”

Aronwitz goes on to relay some of the dialogue he overheard during that first session:

“What are all these people doing here?” Miles asked Louis' wife, Lucille. “They come to see him fall on his face,” Lucille joked. “Well, if he does, it's about time,” Miles said. Satchmo himself was buoyant. When I asked him how he felt, he said: “Satchmo never felt better and had less. . .” His words danced out like happy bubbles in a toothpaste commercial. “I'm back on the mound again,” Satchmo said. “I'm waitin' for some word from the doctor about when I can play my horn again. But I play it anyway. Every night before supper.” 

Aronwitz continues: “RCA's brand, new Studio A was immense, big enough to hold a couple of basketball courts. It had a stage, too. As the party dwindled, many remained as an audience for the session, and there were rows of folding chairs. Tony Bennett was sitting in one. Leon Thomas and Bobby Hackett and Eddie Condon also stayed. Ornette Coleman sat dangling his feet over the edge of the stage, sucking up a whistle every time he thought sick, old Pops hit a home run or made a shoestring catch. Miles told me that it was as if the songs, the arrangements and the register of the orchestra had been designed to make it easy for Satchmo. So easy that there was practically nothing left for him to do. He didn't have to expend any effort. He just had to crawl around the bases. He could sleep-walk his way across the finish line. But Satchmo fooled everybody by doing some unexpected fancy footwork."

Aronwitz remembers Miles remarking, “He don' sound like a dyin' man,” after hearing Pops sing. True, Armstrong’s voice is raspier than ever before on this recording, but his soul shines through, though apparently Miles was so concerned, he went up to Pops between takes and whispered, “Isn’t the orchestra too low for you?” Armstrong responded that he didn’t care about that and after conversing for a while, shouted, “Always glad to see you, Miles,” as Davis walked back. When Davis was ready to leave, he told Aronwitz, “They take advantage of his age. When you're that old, they really drain you to make you sound as if you're in heaven. It don't matter. He's got so much soul, he makes it sound good anyway.”

And that’s the key to the success of Louis Armstrong and His Friends. Thiele and Nelson sound like they’re trying too hard for a hit and some of the material is just plain lame. “His Father Wore Long Hair” might be the nadir of the Armstrong discography to my ears, though Pops sounds as earnest as if he’s singing “Star Dust.” “This Black Cat Has Nine Lives” is pretty silly, but Pops liked it enough to sing it on the Dick Cavett Show the following year. “Give Peace A Chance” goes on too long and the choir is a bit sloppy, but Armstrong carries the ball beautifully. His cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” also doesn’t exactly fit like a glove, though he sounds quite happy on it, getting in a "beau koo love" towards the end. As Miles said, “He’s got so much soul, he makes it sound good anyway.”

I bought a French C.D. reissue of the album from 2000 that included a number of photos from the original sessions. Since these are probably the only photos of Armstrong with the likes of Ornette, Leon Thomas and Tony Bennett, I decided to scan the photos and post them here:
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Earlier, I mentioned there being five home runs on this album, three of which were the standards recorded on the first session. A fourth would be “Boy From New Orleans,” an autobiographical tour of Armstrong’s life, sung over the changes to “When the Saints Go Marching In.” The band really cooks on this one and Nelson’s arrangement gives a hit of what could have been if they didn’t try so hard to make the rest of the album sound so current (damn you, 1970!). An album of Pops singing standards and jazz songs over a swinging big band or string section…well, it would have been like a 1950s Decca session all over again. But I would not have changed what I feel to be the fifth home run of the album, “We Shall Overcome.” As Doug Ramsey wrote in his 1970 Down Beat review, “…the anthem gets its most moving performance since the civil rights days of the early ‘60s.” It’s a beautiful, uplifting gospel hymn to begin with, but Pops really sings the shit out of it. On top of that, Thiele allowed the guests in the studio to sing along in the choir. The image of Louis Armstrong leading a choir made up of the likes of Tony Bennett, Miles Davis, Ruby Braff, Ornette Coleman, Eddie Condon, Bobby Hackett, Chico Hamilton and George Wein, well, it’s simply mind-blowing. And just think Armstrong singing those lyrics and all the obstacles he overcame to became what he became: poor childhood, racism, becoming the scorn of younger black musicians and writers…he overcame it all to become the greatest, most important jazz musician of them all. And to have him singing that song while Eddie Condon, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Tony Bennett all stood side-by-side? It boggles the mind, but it also demonstrate how far-reaching Armstrong’s influence was.

Condon and Bennett always spoke glowingly of Armstrong at the drop of a hat but in Down Beat's 70th birthday tribute issue to Armstrong, Coleman and Davis got in their props for Pops, though in their own race-conscious ways. “Louis Armstrong is the best loved performer in the white society and his contribution to Western culture has certainly enhanced the black man’s social position in the struggle for human achievement,” Coleman said, while Davis remarked, “To me, the great style and interpretation that Louis gave to us musically came from the heart, but his personality was developed by white people wanting black people to entertain by smiling and jumping around. After they do it they call you a Tom, but Louis fooled all of them and became an ambassador of good will.”

Well, I think I’ve spent enough time on the background of these sessions (over 2,000 words for those counting at home), so let’s get on to the object of today’s entry, “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” This track was co-composed by avant-garde sax giant Pharaoh Sanders and the vocalist Leon Thomas. Ian Scott Horst runs a very fine website at www.jazzsupreme.com and he has written the following of the song:

“A kind of sequel to Coltrane's ‘A Love Supreme,’ ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan’ is, in its original form, an extended 32-minute distillation of its authors' musical and cultural ideas. It first appeared on Sanders' 1969 album KARMA, with co-author Thomas on vocals, keyboard player Lonnie Liston Smith, flautist James Spaulding, french-horn player Julius Watkins, Coltrane veteran Reggie Workman on bass; second bassist Richard Davis, drummer Billy Hart, and percussionist Nathaniel Bettis. While later versions were shorter and more lyrical, this original version is full of avant-garde fire with extended free instrumental sections. Full of the optimism and spirituality of the era, it became a kind of anthem for those exploring the peace, love and happiness vibe through music. Critics have called it the only ‘hit’ generated by the avant-garde jazz movement, and indeed its perennial popularity has resulted in a number of new interpretations by acid jazz and hip-hop artists.”
The original 32-minute version was edited down to a nine-minute version that can be heard in this YouTube clip:

I had never heard that version before doing this entry but I have to admit that there’s something very beautiful to it. And judging by the comments on YouTube and elsewhere on the web, this song had a pretty profound effect on many of its listeners at the time. Of Leon Thomas, I always thought that he had a hint of Joe Williams to him so you can imagine my surprise when I stumbled across this clip on YouTube of Thomas singing “Shake, Rattle and Roll” with Count Basie in 1965:

It turns out that Thomas sang straight-ahead jazz and blues with the likes of Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Randy Weston and even Oliver Nelson before he began collaborating with Sanders. Thomas’s signature “yodeling” sound was discussed in his New York Times obituary, which stated: “Onstage with Mr. Sanders in the late 60's Mr. Thomas developed his ululating singing style, which has been compared to African pygmy and American Indian singing techniques, and which he later called ‘'soularphone.’' He believed that his ancestors had given him his elastic throat articulation, he said, and henceforth always used it.”

So let’s play “connect the dots” for a minute. Thomas worked with Oliver Nelson in the early 60s. He teamed up with Pharaoh Sanders, co-writing and recording “The Creator Has a Master Plan” for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label in 1969. Bob Thiele recorded a Louis Armstrong album featuring some current songs with orchestrations by Oliver Nelson. Thus, though it might sound like an odd combination, the connections between all the men involved made it plausible to have Armstrong and Thomas duet on a cover of “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” complete with an arrangement by Nelson. Thomas even came to the album’s first day of recording to meet Armstrong and celebrate his birthday will all the other guests in attendance. However, though Armstrong was slated to record “The Creator Has a Master Plan” the following day, Thomas wasn’t present in the studio. Instead, he would overdub his part later on from a studio in London. When the track was edited together, the final master sounded like this, courtesy of YouTube:

As can be heard, Nelson followed the Sanders arrangement very closely. Once the strings enter, there’s some “out” wood flute playing, possibly done by Thomas, who was known to also play the flute. Then comes Pops’s sandpaper rasp, audibly smiling as he delivers the “Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah’s,” soon answered by Thomas’s more suave, soul singing. Thomas’s singing is really smooth and I like what he does with the word “divine.” His “come with me” reeks of Joe Williams to my ears. Then Pops comes back to really just chant “The Creator Has a Master Plan/Peace and happiness for every man,” for a while. You can even hear Pops chuckle a bit, but I’ll have more on that in a little while. At about two minutes in, Thomas breaks out his “soularphone.” Too bad he recorded his part later because Pops probably would have had a ball reacting to that sound live. With the hypnotic two-chord vamp in the background and the truly bizarre vocalizing of Thomas in the foreground, the record sounds like a simple remake of the Sanders recording as Pops disappears for quite a while.

Finally, with about a minute to go, Pops starts having a little fun, turning in an “Oy yoy yoy yoy” scat and singing, “Mmmm, Master Plan/yeah, swing it man!” He starts scatting a little louder, gleefully intoning his “La la’s” with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy. He throws in a “gizzard,” starts improvising with his scatting and even gets in a “Cats swinging, ain’t they folks?” as the record fades out. The whole time, Thomas continues his yodeling, making for a very interesting comparison of jazz vocal styles. But I usually find myself laughing at Pops, having such a good time and trampling all over the meditative mood with those funny “La la la la la la la’s.” When the record came out, Doug Ramsey gave it four stars in Down Beat and wrote, “Leon Thomas is a strong and very classy singer, but Pops outsouls him on ‘Master Plan.’”

I’ve always felt that this performance doesn’t really work, but it certainly has its fans, judging by the positive comments on YouTube. On his website, Horst writes, “When Larry Nai told me about this album I thought one of us was hallucinating. But there he is, Satchmo, singing in duet Leon Thomas' transcendental lyrics to ‘The Creator Has A Master Plan.’ And then as he starts growling those throaty mucousy noises he makes, Leon Thomas starts to yodel. Sheer, divine madness. It's actually very very beautiful, from one of Louis Armstrong's last albums. Bob Thiele and Oliver Nelson must have had an amazing laugh when they figured out they could do this.” And an uncredited writer on the Soul Brother Records website (http://www.soulbrother.co.uk/flyingdutchmananthology2.htm) has written, “The beauty of the song and the music is a lasting tribute to both artists, and epitomises the positive attitude of both men. Leon mentioned when he was in London that recording this song with Louis was one of the greatest highlights of his career, and the respect that each had for the other, and their enjoyment of the song and the experience comes clearly across.”

Opinions on the merits of the issued version of “Master Plan” might vary, but in 2002, Bluebird hit the jackpot with one of the unissued tracks on their reissue of Louis Armstrong and His Friends. I never bought the C.D. of this reissue, only downloading the extra tracks on Itunes, so I’m not sure if there’s any new liner notes that make reference to the bonus tracks, but my goodness, what a bonus it is: the original 5:52 long Armstrong track done before Thomas overdubbed his part. It’s six minutes of pure Pops and it’s a “gassuh.” I’ve decided to upload it so if you’d like to listen along, here ‘tis:


As already pointed out, the wood flute and a lot of extra percussion was dubbed in later so what you hear is Pops singing, scatting and riffing on the atmosphere at hand, all while the band cooks. It’s nice to know that Pops recorded his vocals live with the band, as he ad-libs about the musicians while they’re playing. The nicest part is hearing Armstrong actual sing the lyrics of the song, instead of just chanting the title or doing the “la-la’s.” I don’t know what was going through Thiele’s mind; perhaps he thought Armstrong’s voice was too raw or he didn’t want to disrespect Thomas’s reading of the tune, but he didn’t use one word of Armstrong’s vocal on this part of the song on the master. Armstrong puts a lot of feeling into it and that New Orleans accent is extremely prevalent:

There was a time, when peace was on the “Oy-th,”
And joy and happiness did reign and each man knew his “Woi-th”
In my heart I “yoin,” for that spirt’s “retoin”….


Armstrong’s voice does occasionally sound strained as he reaches for higher notes, but that just adds emotion of his reading. Hey, it was Pops’s album so why not feature him more than Thomas?

After about three minutes of this, Thiele obviously signaled to Armstrong to just let his imagination run wild. Here’s where the “gizzard” comment and some of the other fun scats on the master take were culled. However, there’s more joys on the unedited take, including Armstrong’s comments on the other musicians, namely the famed drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie. Purdie was a session mainstay to the point where he’s billed today as “The World’s Most Recorded Drummer.” He was present on sessions by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to B.B. King to Hall and Oates to Miles Davis to Joe Cocker and beyond. At the 3:20 mark, Pops sings, “Cats swinging all over the land/ old gizzard whipping them drums.” As Purdie continue laying down his irresistible groove, you can hear Pops chuckling as he goes on, finally breaking himself up with, “Chops is flying all over the studio!” On “Cotton Tail” from the 1961 Ellington collaboration, Pops sang, “Chops is flying everywhere,” so this is a nice throwback to that moment. He sounds so HAPPY, adding, “Yeah, blow Gate, yes. Look at that cat over there wailing…that drummer looks like old Count Basie sitting over there!” Here’s a picture of Purdie from around that time:

Does he look like Basie? Not really, but Pops saw something that caused him to laugh so hard, you can hear him clapping his hands. He then draws our attention to another musician in the studio, possibly conductor Nelson: “Ah, we have a reverend swinging over there. Ah, do that dance there, cat’s swinging there.” Pops then begins singing the title phrase more emphatically while a guitarist (perhaps Kenny Burrell) really starts pumping out some fierce rhythm. But just as things are boiling, James Spaulding’s flute hits a piping note, signaling the band to end it. The song concludes soon after but it’s a fun six-minute ride.

The 2002 Bluebird reissue that unearthed this delightful bonus also featured a new, unedited mix that’s 100% better than the issued master take. Again, I never bought the C.D. so I don’t exactly know who made this new mix but it’s longer than the original, juxtaposes Thomas’s reading of the lyric with more of Armstrong’s and includes a lot of Pops’s fun asides, such as the “Chops is flying” line. Overall, it’s a lot more fun than what originally appeared in 1970.

So chalk it up to misguided tastes. Thiele and Nelson tried so hard to make Pops sound contemporary that they left the most natural, unadulterated Armstrong moments on “Master Plan” on the cutting room floor. The original master, the overlong “Give Peace A Chance,” the dated “Everybody’s Talkin’,” the embarrassing “His Father Wore Long Hair,” the silly “This Black Cat Has Nine Lives,”…these are some pretty difficult tracks to get through. But the other five tracks work beautifully, the stories about the guests at the sessions are wonderful and Pops sounds like he’s having a ball on every single track. Thus, check out Louis Armstrong and His Friends if you’re curious, but don’t judge Louis Armstrong’s entire career by it. But if you’re going to listen to “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” please drop the 99 cents at Itunes and bask in the warmth of a fun-lovin’ Satchmo having a ball on such a serious, peaceful song.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Louis Armstrong, Danny Kaye and Caterina Valente

It's over! My stretch of nonstop activities in the month of April came to a conclusion last night. Last week, I had five gigs in five consecutive days, followed by five three-hour rehearsals for a charity show that I was the "music director" for (I put it in quotes, because I was the only accompanying musician). Last Tuesday, I had rehearsal AND a six-hour gig and last night the actual show took place and it was simply wonderful. Somehow in between all of it, I kept my day job going, maintained my marraige and pumped out two blogs but for the time being, my schedule is a little light for the next two weeks so I'll try to blog whenever I can.

Thus, to prepare, I gave the ol' Itunes a shuffle and came up with 1970's "The Creator Has A Master Plan," but upon waking up this morning, I was hit with a tremendous cold that knocked me out and had me blowing my nose in bed all day today. I just rolled out and wanting to publish SOMETHING, I combed through YouTube and found this charming performance from Pops, Danny Kaye and the Italian singer Caterinia Valente from Kaye's CBS variety show, broadcast 1966. It's a medley of songs associated with Armstrong, some with cute, Armstrong-inspired lyrics and Pops even pulls out the trumpet for a brief spot on "Basin Street Blues," one of the last time he would play his horn on that signiature number. Enjoy it for now and I'll be back real soon with a meaty entry on "The Creator Has A Master Plan" (ah, Pops...makes me feel better than chicken soup!).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

75 Years of Laughin' Louie

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 24, 1933
Track Time 3:30
Written by Clarence Gaskill
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Brown, George Oldham, alto saxophone; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Charlie Beal, piano; Mike MicKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Bluebird B-5362
Currently available on CD: Available on The Complete RCA Victor Recordings of Louis Armstrong.
Available on Itunes? Yes,

Today marks the 75th anniversary of what I’ve always considered to be one of the quintessential Louis Armstrong records, “Laughin’ Louie.” Some in the crowd might think that’s blasphemy because to many ears, the vaudeville routines are difficult to stomach. “Surely,” some would say, “‘West End Blues,’ or ‘Potato Head Blues’ or ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ are more indicative of our hero.”

Not quite, says I. If you want to boil down the “Louis Armstrong Experience” to 210 seconds, then “Laughin’ Louie” gives you everything. It was recorded during Armstrong wondrous Victor big band days, when he was absolute control of his horn, yet was killing his chops with each passing session. “Laughin’ Louie,” might sound like a nothing tune but it was actually written by Clarence Gaskill, who had a hand in writing standards like “Minnie the Moocher,” “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me” and “Prisoner of Love. “Laughin’ Louie” is no great piece of writing, but I think the band knows that, which leads to a lot of the fun. Of course, marijuana also led to a lot of the fun. Tenor saxohponoist Budd Johnson later remembered, “We were floating when we made that ‘Laughin’ Louie’ and Louis played that trumpet like a bird.” Besides knowing that the band was high as a kite, the only other background information you might need to know is that after the vocal, “Laughin’ Louie” becomes a parody of the famous 1923 “Okeh Laughing Record,” one of the biggest-selling novelty records of all On it, a somber trumpet is heard at the start before you start hearing some giggling. As the record goes on, the trumpet playing grows worse and the laughing becomes uproarious. You can listen to the original online by clicking
here.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let us listen to “Laughin’ Louie” in all its glory. I should say that an earlier take exists and even that can be heard on Itunes, but it’s very close to the issued one and I don’t have the time this morning to do the side-by-side comparison. Thus, you can listen to the original by clicking
here.

The band attacks the corny introduction as if they’re sitting in a vaudeville pit before Pops steps up to the mike and introduces his vocal, announcing he’s going to play his Selmer trumpet (“bless its little heart) after he “chirps” the song. Everyone’s laughing and obviously feeling high and happy. Armstrong sets off his vocal with a neat little scat introduction before he delivers the inane lyrics:

Laughin’ Louie, I’m Laughin’ Louie
Yeah man, I’m Laughin’ Louie, yes sir,
Ain’t no phooey, Laughin’ Louie
Boy...ha ha ha
Look here! I wake up every morning and I have to laugh
Cause I look on the wall and see my photograph!
Yeah man, they call me Laughin’ Louie but you cats must play yourself because you won’t let me swing there.


Not exactly “Prisoner of Love” but Louie has a ball with it, laughing hysterically after almost every line. The Johnson brothers, the best improvisers in the group, split a swinging chorus before Pops comes up for another monologue, using the phrase “one of those old-time good ones,” a close relative to the “good old good ones” that would be in his vocabulary before the year was out. Armstrong then sounds like he moves 20 feet away and starts noodling on the trumpet, one sad note at a time. This is where Armstrong turns it into the “OKeh Laughing Record Parody,” and besides the laughter, some musicians in the band get to run up to the microphone and shout stuff like, “Mellow” and “Look out there, Pops!”

But at the 2:18 mark, Pops starts blowing and it’s more serious than your life. At 2:30, he plays a double-time break that sounds like pure proto-beboop to these ears. Not wanting to get too serious, everyone laughs at Pops’s ending and someone yells, “Change ‘em P-wops!” Pops breaks up but then announces, “Here comes the beautiful part.” He’s not kidding...

What follows is one of the most astounding Louis Armstrong trumpet solos ever recorded. I can’t do it justice in words but I’ll just say that the slow climb to that high concert F almost always brings a tear to my eye. Some notes hurt more than others but damn it he gets there. And throughout, he’s in complete control, throwing in small glisses and all his other tricks. Vince Giordano later discovered the song to be Minnie T. Wright’s “Love Scene,” something Pops probably played in his days accompanying silent movies. Whatever the backstory, it’s beautiful and though no one else is playing, you can hear the chord changes through Pops’s playing. And when he’s finished, the band hits a corny “ta-da” kind of static chord and the record’s over.

I played this record for my bass player a few months ago, describing it as the “quintessential Louis Armstrong” record and I stand by that. It’s the artist and the entertainer as one. He’s laughing, he’s mugging, he’s scatting and dropping all sorts of slang into his speaking. And then he picks up the horn and makes you cry. If one recording sums up everything that made Louis Armstrong such a great figure, then it has to be “Laughin’ Louie.” I hope you enjoyed the chance to celebrate it on its 75th anniversary (and if you chose to get high while listening, then I KNOW you really enjoyed it!).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Symphonic Raps/Savoyager's Stomp

Carroll Dickerson and His Orchestra
Recorded July 5, 1928
Symphonic Raps Track Time 3:15
Savoyager’s Stomp Track Time 3:13
Symphonic Raps Written By Bert Stevens and Irwin Abrahams
Savoyager’s Stomp Written by Carroll Dickerson
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, Homer Hobson, trumpet; Fred Robinson, trombone; Bert Curry, Crawford Wethington, alto saxophone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Earl Hines, piano; Mancy Carr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Zutty Singleton, hand-cymbals; Carroll Dickerson, leader
Originally released on Odeon 193329
Currently available on CD: It’s on volume three of JSP’s “Hot Fives and Sevens” collection
Available on Itunes? Yes

I’ve been keeping this blog afloat since last July and it’s taken this long to finally tackle one of the great Armstrong/Earl Hines records of 1928, but as the old cliché goes, better late than never. And no, the ol’ Itunes shuffle didn’t land on a famous masterpiece like “Basin Street Blues” or “West End Blues” (though I’d like to something on the 80th anniversary of “West End” this June), but rather one of two tracks Armstrong recorded with his regular working band, Carroll Dickerson’s Savoyagers. I’ve decided to tackle both of the Dickerson songs recorded that day but as always, a little context, if you will…

Armstrong first played with Dickerson’s group at the Sunset Café in Chicago in 1926. “Carroll Dickerson was a violin player, a very good one,” Armstrong later wrote. “And was well known to the public and very very popular among the Chicago musicians. At the time, he was playing at the Sunset Café for Joe Glaser whom I later worked for, and now my present manager. Dickerson’s band was the best Cabaret Band, on the South Side of Chicago at that time.” Armstrong split duties with Dickerson’s Orchestra and Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra (and later Clarence Jones’s Orchestra) before he took over Dickerson’s band in 1927 after Dickerson was fired for showing up drunk. Glaser renamed the band Louis Armstrong and His Stompers and Pops was now officially a leader…though pianist Earl Hines thought it should have been HIS band since he was music director and had been with Dicerkson longer than Armstrong. Armstrong and Hines made a lot of timeless music together, but their egos would continue getting in the way of their relationship for decades to come.

By November 1927, Armstrong found himself out of work after his regular gigs at the Sunset and with Clarence Jones dried up. Armstrong met the drummer Zutty Singleton and together with Hines, the threesome set out to start their own band, even opening up their own venue at Warwick Hall. However, the club was a failure and the trio soon found themselves scuffling. Meanwhile, Carroll Dickerson soon became the leader of the house band at the new Savoy Ballroom and by March 1928, Armstrong was once again working for his old leader, with Zutty joining in on drums. “If I have to say it myself—We made up one of the Damndest Bands, there were and taken it into the Savoy Ballroom and Battled ol’ Clarence Black’s Band down to a Low Gravy,” Armstrong later wrote.

Earl Hines had joined clarinetist Jimmie Noone by this point, so he was replaced by Gene Anderson. But when OKeh began using Armstrong once again in June 1928, Hines became his pianist of choice, though the rest of the personnel on these sessions came from the Dickerson band. Together, Armstrong and Hines revolutionized jazz and their riveting work on records like “Skip The Gutter,” “Beau Koo Jack” and the seminal duet, “Weather Bird,” has rarely been surpassed in terms of importance or even excitement.

But as was the case in those days, these 1928 sessions, credited to either the “Hot Five” or “Savoy Ballroom Five,” were clearly studio affairs as Armstrong spent his evenings in the confines of the Dickerson band. Perhaps Dickerson featured numbers like “Sugar Foot Strut” or “Knee Drops,” but we can’t be certain. Fortunately, Dickerson did make two sides with his working band, with Hines sitting in, and they offer wonderful glimpses into the kinds of music Armstrong was making on a nightly basis.

But before getting carried away this July 5, 1928 session, it’s interesting to take a listen to Dickerson’s only prior session, recorded May 25, 1928 for the Brunswick label. Here’s the catch: Louis Armstrong rejoined the Dickerson band at the Savoy in March 1928 and this recording features the exact personnel of that band, right down to Zutty Singteton on drums and Gene Anderson on piano. However, Armstrong is not present, instead replaced by Willie Hightower (not to be confused with the soul singer of the same name). Why wasn’t Pops there? I wish I knew. Perhaps it was a contractual thing as maybe OKeh didn’t want him recording for Brunswick…though he had done it before by slipping away and recording for friends on the Vocalion label. Also, he hadn’t made a new record for OKeh since December 1927, which was somewhat odd. Regardless, something kept him out of this session and it’s a shame because Hightower, though a respected leader in Chicago, seems like he’s in over his head. If you’d like to listen along, here’s the links for “Black Maria” and “Missouri Squabble.”

Black Maria
Missouri Squabble

Interestingly, both songs were pop tunes, with “Black Maria” being recorded by the likes of Flecther Henderson and the Wisconsin Roof Orchestra (the latter can be heard on YouTube). The band sounds very relaxed on “Black Maria,” executing the arrangement well and sounding quite tight. Jimmy Strong takes a decent (for him) low-register clarinet solo, getting great backing from Singleton’s cymbals, while Fred Robinson also sounds better than he would on his later sessions with Armstrong. But the record leads up to the stop-time trumpet solo, which Armstrong must have nailed in live settings. Unfortunately, either Hightower was unfamiliar with the arrangement or he just wasn’t a very good trumpet player, but he sounds stiff, with none of Armstrong’s daring sense of rhythm and swing. Hightower sounds better at the start of “Missouri Squabblin,’ but this one really showcases the prowess of the band. Gene Anderson gets a solo spot and as Pops said, he was a “First Class man,” but he’s no Hines (who was?). Hightower doesn’t try to sound too much like Armstrong and instead comes off better and more relaxed. But for those who know the Dickerson recording of “Symphonic Raps,” keep your ears open because the trumpet solo at 2:13 and the way the band handles the changes at 2:28 foreshadow that later recording. Of course, the changes on this section are the same on both records (“Tiger Rag”) and “Symphonic Raps” was written by entirely different writers (Bert Stevens and Irwin Abrahams), but whoever did the arranging in the Dickerson band (possibly Dickerson himself) obviously had some similar ideas.

But those recordings are important because they definitely showcase the sound and style of the band Louis Armstrong spent most of 1928 playing in. Now let’s move on to that July 5 session. Armstrong returned to OKeh on June 26, 1928 and made four sessions in four days. After a week off, he returned to record one more song with the “Hot Five” personnel, as well as two with the Dickerson band. The session opened up with the ultra-hot “Knee Drops,” which has a ridiculously swinging Armstrong solo over Zutty Singleton cymbals. I won’t say any more about that one because it deserves an entry of its own.

With the one small group session out of the way, it was time for the Dickerson Orchestra to take center stage. Hines remained at the keyboard and Jimmy Strong, Fred Robonsin, Mancy Carr and Singleton of the “Hot Five” were now augmented by Homer Hobson’s second trumpet, Pete Briggs (of “Hot Seven” fame) on tuba and two alto saxophonists, Bert Curry and Crawford Wethington. Up first was the aforementioned “Symphonic Raps” and if you’d like to listen along, please click here,.

This must have been some pretty hip stuff in 1928 as the song is filled with whole-tone passages and harmonies that must have sounded pretty “out” to those accustomed to the mostly staid popular dance band arrangements of the time. But even with the “modernistic” harmonies, the record still reeks of the 1920s, which is a good thing. This makes me think of silent movies, of black-and-white cartoons with bouncing characters, it makes me think of Babe Ruth rounding the bases faster than humanly possible and it makes me think of every generic piece of flapper/speakeasy stock footage I’ve ever seen on a documentary of that roaring decade. But except for a saxophone break and some typically creative work from Hines in the background, there are no solos for almost the first 90 seconds of the record. But then…stand back! Hines is up first and it’s peak Hines. Compared to Gene Anderson, the band doesn’t sound prepared to cope with Hines’s continuously shifting rhythms and on both of their entrances, Briggs’s tuba comes in late as it sounds like he wants to be sure he’s on the right beat! But Hines is so damn tricky, striding away like a Harlem master, then offering up those little stutters that always come as a surprise.

But then it’s time for Pops and he’s on fire (let’s hope Willie Hightower wasn’t hanging around the studio because he probably would have pawned his horn after hearing this solo). Jazz’s most important tastemaker, Gunther Schuller, had no patience for what the Dickerson band represented, writing, “Dickerson’s ‘large’ ten-piece band espoused the new ‘arranged’ style, with its overtones of show business, its Tin Pan Alley popular tunes (as opposed to real jazz or New Orleans material), and its general aura of commercial sophistication.” Ah, Gunther—“show business,” “Tin Pan Alley,” “real jazz” “commercial”—it’s been 40 years of trying to undo the damage he did to Armstrong’s legacy with his sloppy generalizations. But even Schuller took the time to transcribe the ten bars of Armstrong’s “Symphonic Raps” solo, writing about the “absolute authority” of Armstrong’s entrance.

(Note: I beat up Gunther Schuller from time to time here and I don’t want that sentence about “damage” to Armstrong’s legacy to be taken the wrong way. If anything, Schuller did more to enhance Armstrong’s reputation as a jazz maverick in the 1920s. Hell, he even titles his chapter on Armstrong, “The First Great Soloist.” Early Jazz is a supremely important book and Schuller deserves his place in the jazz writing Hall of Fame. However, his taste was such that he only liked what he referred to as “real jazz” and when confronted with pop songs or humorous material, he rolled his eyes. And when he skipped over some of those early Hot Five sessions, it’s almost like they never existed! The tracks he lauded have gone on to become central parts of the canon. But unfortunately, his writing led many to believe that, “Wow, Louis of ‘West End Blues’ was sure a genius but too bad he went on to make so many commercial records and partook in all that clowning and smiling.” That stuff is damaging as I feel to truly appreciate Armstrong’s genius you have to accept ALL of him. End of rant.)

Anyway, Armstrong’s a man possessed on “Symphonic Raps,” really leaning on that G# at the start, the “+” of the C+ chord he’s improvising on. The “broken record” motif is also genius, especially how the tension is resolved in that dizzying break. He just repeats and repeats that phrase until the listener can’t take it before he shakes it off with an incredibly flurry of notes. My goodness, he had such command of his horn…

He begins the second half of his solo by referencing the beginning of the first half, though he’s slightly more melodic this time with his use of a perfectly place three-quarter-note phrase that’s pure Armstrong 101. He continues onward, displaying great symmetry in his lines; everything just makes so much SENSE. The band comes in to help him finish off his chorus, but he’s not done yet, taking an exciting break that reminiscent of something he would scat (I’m thinking “Monday Date”). The band then takes it out by basically replaying the arrangement from the beginning again though this time, instead of a stiff saxophone, Armstrong takes yet another break that sounds like early bop, though he leaves a perfect millisecond of space before landing right on the beat. Zutty ends the record with some of those patented cymbal “clops,” perhaps not a symphonic “rap,” but it works.

In fact, in preparing this entry, I wanted to do a little further research into Zutty’s “hand-cymbals.” Though recording engineers were slowly starting to let drummers use their full kits, Zutty was stuck with somewhat odd-sounding cymbals during these summer of 1928 sessions. I Googled “Zutty Singleton hand-cymbals” and found an explanation on a Bix Beiderbecke forum from the fantastic drummer, Hal Smith: “The instrument that Zutty was using on those recordings was a pair of small cymbals mounted on a setup with two grips and a spring--not unlike garden shears. The cymbals were invented by Billy Gladstone, the percussionist who was famous for his orchestra work at Radio City Music Hall. Gladstone was quite an inventor and also designed and built custom drum sets. The cymbals themselves were small and thick, with raised domes. They could be played with a stick in the right hand, as the left hand operated the grips. There were several variations on the original Gladstone design and major drum companies came up with several different names for the contraption in their catalogs. My favorite is ‘bock-a-da-bock cymbals,’ though I forget whether that was in a Ludwig, Leedy or Slingerland catalog.

Smith goes on to write, “SABIAN makes a modern-day version of the Gladstone cymbals called ‘Hand Hats.’ The cymbals are mounted vertically, in the manner of hi-hats, rather than horizontally as the Gladstones were constructed. There is a single handle and a trigger for operating the cymbals. The Sabian ‘Hand Hats’ are harder to use than the Gladstones, but since those are scarce, the Sabians are a good alternative.

Here’s a picture of the Sabian “Hand Hats” Smith refers to:

Zutty’s prescence is also felt on the other Dickerson item recorded that day, “Savoyager’s Stomp,” but more on that in a bit. This record’s meat can be found in the opening 38 seconds but before getting into that, please listen along by clicking
here.

The Red Hot Jazz Archive lists Armstrong and Hines as the composers of “Savoyager’s Stomp,” but Jos Willems lists Dickerson and I tend to go with Dickerson. Besides, why would Hines and Armstrong write and arrange a piece for a band Hines wasn’t even a part of anymore? Then again, the song is nothing but a slowed down “Muskrat Ramble” and goodness knows, that was a tune Armstrong was very familiar with (he claimed to have written it) so perhaps it was Pops’s idea to slow it down and see what would happen.

Well, what happens is pure magic. A simple introduction sets up Armstrong’s opening solo, arguably the highlight of the record. The rhythm section simply stuts as Briggs’s tuba keeps a funky two-beat going while Zutty fills in the cracks with Pops’s favorite backbeat. Zutty obviously doesn’t have a full kit so he just uses his cymbals, but it’s still a pretty forceful emphasis on beats 2 and 4, something Armstrong always loved. Thus, it’s not a streamlined, Basie-like swinging 4/4 but it definitely has a New Orleans flavor to it and Armstrong responds by floating through his 16 bars. His pick-up phrase once again leads to three quarter-notes placed squarely on the beat, the ultimate Armstrong-ian declaration of, “Look out, Jack.” It’s one of those solos that I would hate to transcribe. There’s a descending arc to many of Armstrong’s phrases, and none of these descents utilize simple rhythms. And then there’s those unexpect rips, such as the one just 11 seconds in.. Then there’s the mirroring triplets, one Ab-high-C-Ab, followed immediately by Eb-F-Eb in the fifth bar, so well thought-out with that quick leap up to the high C something to marvel at. The highlight for me comes during the minor chord change, about 18 seconds in: three lightening fast descending runs. The velocity of these phrases is almost incomprehensible; how does a human being have time to think that fast? He then tops it with a freakish flurry that I almost want to call a break, though the band keeps playing. In it, I hear traces of “West End Blues,” which was just recorded the previous week. Still in a flashy mood, Armstrong pauses for a second, then begins his second half with a wailing high C before playing with the rhythm so much that words cannot sufficiently explain what he’s doing. Then, heading to the finish, he reprises the three-quarter notes again, a nice throwback to the opening of his solo before some relaxed strutting that includes all sorts of horn trickery, including a bent note or two. He’s still hammering away at a two-note phrase when Jimmy Strong’s tenor saxophone butts in and ruins our fun.

Pops really sounds like he could keep blowing for another ten minutes but I’m telling you, there’s more meat, more ideas, more creativity in those 16 bars than many jazz musicians are reponsible for in an entire evening. Unfortunately, the other soloists (save Hines) aren’t in Armstrong’s league, but even that makes for illuminaiting listening because it illustrates just how advanced Armstrong’s conception was in 1928. Jimmy Strong’s tenor is somewhat stiff, but even he tries out Armstrong’s three quarter-note phrases at the 45 second mark. He sounds releaxed and smooth early in his solo but when he heads to his upper register, Strong is pretty week (ouch; pun intended but that doesn’t make it any better).

Fortunately, Fatha Hines is right around the corner for what must rank as the second highlight of track. Hines plays a duet with Singleton that is simply mysitifying. First off, pay attention to Singleton’s cymbal playing. I think this has to be one of the first recorded example of the standard jazz/swing “ding-ding-a-ding” cymbal pattern. On later recordings in 1928, Singleton also pioneered the use of the standard brushes-on-snare-drum pattern, as well. Here, though he simply keeps the beat and it’s a good thing because the last thing on Hines’s mind is strict tempo. This must rank as one of Hines’s finest solo efforts. Remember, these are “Muskrat Ramble” changes and I dare you to pick them out. Trust me, they’re there, but Hines is simply in another universe. This solo knocked Gunther Schuller out and since I already beat him up a bit today, let me quote some right-on-the-money things he has to say about it: “Not its quarter triplets and bars one and two, the very sparse third and fourth bars, his elimnation of the stride left-hand until the middle of the sixth bar, the amazing ascending left-hand chromatic run against the laping, syncopated right hand—compare all this withi any other pianist of the day, and Hines’s superiorrity becomes obvious.” Amen, brother Gunther…

I did a Google search on “Savoyager’s Stomp” before starting this entry today and found out that for a track that’s 80 years old, it still mightily impresses the members of one of the most popular acts in jazz today, The Bad Plus. On their blog, “Do The Math,”they wrote in 2006, “One of our favorite tracks in [Armstrong’s] vast discography is ‘Savoyager's Stomp.’ Armstrong plays great on it, but the short Earl Hines/Zutty Singleton duet midway through is some of the weirdest music ever recorded. Ethan and Dave once listened to this together--they were reassured to know that no matter how hard they tried, they could never play anything this weird.” Ah, music from 1928, still kicking ass and causing heads to scratch 80 years later…

After Hines’s gymnastics, the band more or less quotes “Muskrat” verbatim behind trombonist Fred Robinson’s solo effort, which isn’t quite terrible, but how could it possibly compare to what Armstrong and Hines accomplished? The reeds than take it for an arranged passage that again seems to hide the “Muskrat” changes, though they’re there. There’s a “sweet” element to some of these phrases that show a trace of the Guy Lombardo influence that was really about to start taking hold of some of Armstrong’s records (much to Schuller’s dismay). The tuba lays out while Hines and banjoist Carr comp on all four beats, giving the impression of a smooth 4/4 swing before the final chorus, when the tuba reenters and Pops leads the ensemble through one more glorious ensemble strut. Again, the band basically plays “Muskrat Ramble” while a supremely relaxed Armstrong floats above it all. He gets frisky with one double-timed phrase but really, he’s content to just float and the effect is mellow as a cello, to quote Slim Gaillard. There’s a neat little unresolved ending made up of some more modern harmonies, but really, this record could have ended with a gong and a gunshot and it wouldn’t have changed the great stuff that preceded it.

Armstrong remained with Dickerson for a while, taking the whole band with him when he made it to New York in 1929. But eventually, Armstrong’s fame began skyrocketing and Dickerson found himself back in Chicago. He died in 1957 at the age of 62 and I’m not really sure if anyone ever got the chance to really interview him or get his memories on those swinging Chicago days. But at least we have those 1928 sessions, though interestingly, OKeh chose not to issue them when they were originally recorded. Instead, they managed to somehow turn up on the Argentine Odeon label where “Symphonic Raps” was titled “Stomp Con Variaciones” and “Savoyager’s Stomp” was renamed “Blues Con Variaciones.” Regardless of the titles, this music holds up beautifully 80 years later as an example of interesting big band writing of 1928, pioneering drumming by Zutty Singleton and the always inspiring team of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines, playing in their primes and changing the scope of jazz 16 bars at a time.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Luck's In My Corner: The Life And Music Of Hot Lips Page

I know, I know…it’s been over a week since I last checked in and once again, I have nothing to offer but apologies. Working, gigging, writing and making preparations for the new house have completely sapped away my time…and in the next 12 days, I’m working by day and playing at least three hours of piano EVERY DAY. Somehow, I’ll try to keep things afloat, either with little YouTube videos or something, so please don’t give up on this site for all your Louis Armstrong needs!

But today, Pops is going to sit one out as I focus a little bit on Oran “Hot Lips” Page, one of my all-time favorite trumpet players. Page is the focus of a new biography by one of my good friends, Todd Bryant Weeks. This book, Luck’s In My Corner, is worth checking out because it’s the total package.


Todd’s research is monumental and he’s a fine writer, never letting the details bog down the narrative…though there’s plenty of details in the endnotes (this is one of those books you have to read with a split-fingered grip: one finger on the page you’re reading and one finger for the corresponding notes because there’s some real gems in there). Todd’s also fine trumpet man and he brings that know-how to the table during his musical discussions, which are very rich. The book made me dig out my Lips collection to listen along as I read and Todd’s remarks were always on the mark, while his transcriptions are invaluable. Trust me, this book will truly make you try to dig out as much Lips as possible and that’s a beautiful thing.

Of course, that’s more difficult than it sounds as Lips’s mostly forgotten status has made the bulk of his records extremely difficult to find. Why is this so? Well, as the story goes, Lips was a wonderful entertainer, a monster trumpeter and a terrific vocalist, but total stardom always eluded him (the title of Todd’s book, Luck’s In My Corner, is the definition of irony but it also reflects Lips’s endless optimism). He was inspired by Armstrong but was also a master of mutes, a matchless creator of riffs and perhaps the greatest blues trumpet player of them all (as Dizzy Gillespie put it, “When Lips gets on the blues, don’t mess with him; not me, not Roy, not Louis—nobody!”). He played with Bennie Moten and Count Basie in Kansas City, but signed with Joe Glaser, Louis Armstrong’s manager, instead of staying with Basie. Armstrong was receiving a throat operation at the time and Glaser saw a star quality in Lips that would translate well if Armstrong was unable to perform again. Naturally, Armstrong came roaring back and Glaser managed to sit on Lips for awhile. Some put all the blame on Glaser for Lips not becoming the star he deserved to be and Weeks tackles this issue fairly throughout the book.

As life went on, Lips became a musical chameleon, sitting in with the young boppers at Minton’s, jamming with the Eddie Condon crew in the village, making records with big bands and small groups, paving the way for rhythm-and-blues and rock music, recording novelties, joining Artie Shaw’s orchestra as a featured trumpet player and co-starring on Pearl Bailey’s smash record of “Baby It’s Cold Outside/The Hucklebuck.” Listening to Lips’s music today is tremendously rewarding and one can’t help but also feel frustrated that he didn’t achieve the success of musicians such as Armstrong, Louis Jordan and even Wynonie Harris, whom Lips backed on some seminal R&B dates.

Well, now I’m getting too deep into the saga of Lips. I’ll just say that he was responsible for a ton of great music and it’s a tragedy that he passed away at the age of 46 in 1954 (Page was born in 1908, making this year his centennial). Luck’s In My Corner tells the rest of the story beautifully. And on a personal level, I couldn’t be more proud of Todd. We met while obtaining our Master’s degrees in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers. When I found out that he was writing his thesis on Lips Page, I was thrilled because Lips was always a hero of mine and someone that I would have loved to write a book on as well. But Todd’s done such a heroic job that I don’t think anyone else can write another word on Lips without it being compared to this magnificent work.

And Bravo for Routledge press for taking a chance on a book about a lesser-known figure in the jazz world. Todd even tackles the issue of whether Lips “matters” in his superb coda, which is excerpted in the following All About Jazz profile on the book. Click the following link to read this piece.

For the Armstrong devotees, it’s needless to say that Lips’s biggest inspiration was Armstrong and Pops crops up from time to time in the narrative (he even gave Lips some pointers early in his career). Lips claimed to have seen King Oliver and Armstrong together and leave it to Weeks’s diligent research to come up with an approximate date for the event! Todd also worked at the Louis Armstrong House and Archives for a while and believe me, he knows and loves his Pops.

But this book is Lips’s story and Todd really makes every aspect come alive, painting vivid portraits of the Texas towns Lips grew up in, as well as the worlds of Kansas City and Harlem of the 1930s and 1940s, two towns Lips probably could have run for the title of “Musical Mayor.”

But the most important part of the book, to me, is that it makes the listener want to listen to as much Hot Lips Page as is humanly possible (a discography at the end of the book makes it even more helpful). Unfortunately, the status of Lips on CD and even MP3 is pretty sad. His early leader recordings are out-of-print on the Classics label and are selling for astronomical prices on Amazon. My favorite sampler is ASV’s Pagin’ Mr. Page, which features Lips is many settings, including dates with Bennie Moten, Basie, Condon, Shaw, Albert Ammons and other. Check it out by clicking here.

On the internet, the only free Lips I could find comes from the Red Hot Jazz archive. On December 13, 1932, the Bennie Moten Orchestra of Kansas City made a session for Victor that’s become known as one of the greatest pre-Swing Era sessions of all time. Forget that, I say…this might be the greatest Swing Era session of all-time and I can almost say that Swing Era hit its peak that day in Camden, NJ. The marathon session produced ten classic tracks from a band that swung like no other in that period, one that consisted of greats like Count Basie, Ben Webster, Eddie Durham, Eddie Barefield and Walter Page. There’s a looseness and a drive to this music that still gives me the chills 76 years after it was created. Every track is a classic, but please listen along to “Toby,” “Moten Swing,” “Blue Room” and “Lafayette,” the latter being one of the most swinging pieces of music ever recorded. Lips is a monster on every track, channeling his inner Armstrong on “Moten Swing,” while violently working that plunger over on “Lafayette.” Take your blood pressure now, listen to these four tracks, then take it again…guaranteed to send it shooting at least 10 points higher without fail!

Toby
Moten Swing
Blue Room
Lafayette

It just doesn’t swing any harder than those recordings. But finding more Lips on the MP3 front isn’t much easier. A compilation titled All of Me is a reissue of the old album Hot Lips Page Plays the Blues in B and it has some fine tracks, though the sound quality is erratic at best and it even includes some record skips! But available just about everywhere is After Hours In Harlem, a set of recordings that should have made Lips Page a book-worthy figure even if he never recorded another note.



Columbia student Jerry Newman was a ubiquitous presence at many of the famed swing-to-bop jam sessions in Harlem in the early 1940s. He recorded whatever he could and those live records, featuring the likes of Charlie Christian, Joe Guy, Thelonious Monk and others are immortal. Newman also captured the after hours side of Lips, the jam session king, setting riffs, challenging other trumpet players, singing the blues, scatting up a storm and unfurling a seemingly endless amount of creative ideas from his horn. I’ve decided to upload Lips’s version of “I Got Rhythm” from this series of recordings because once you’ve heard it, you’ll never forget the name of Hot Lips Page again. It was made at a party and the atmosphere is clearly as loose as can be as Lips and the wonderfully exciting/eccentric saxophonist carry on a hysterical musical conversation over the unwavering stride piano of Donald Lambert. Weeks managed to transcribe Lips’s three choruses and he spends about three pages analyzing in tremendous details. It makes for a great read, but the music is an even greater listen:


So is your appetite whet NOW? Good, just click here and pick up a copy of this wonderful book. Yes, yes, Todd’s a good friend of mine but this isn’t about friendship. I’ve been a Lips worshipper for years and to see his live and music finally get the credit it’s always deserved in such a thorough, entertaining book is of supreme importance to me. I don’t care if David Ortiz wrote this book, I’d still recommend it (I’m a Yankees fan, by the way). But again, thanks to Todd for doing Lips’s legacy such justice. Check out this book and then check out some Lips and you seriously will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Cain and Abel

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded May 1, 1940
Track Time 3:03
Written by T. Fenstock and A. Loman
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophones; Joe Garland, Bingie Madison tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 3204
Currently available on CD: It’s available on volume 7 of the Ambassador series. Check out www.classicjazz.se for more information.
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a few different compilations including Louis Armstrong’s Gospel Book

Instead of hitting the shuffle button on my Itunes, I decided to write today’s entry based on a small section in an e-mail that Gösta Hägglöf, the noted Armstrong oracle from Sweden, wrote to me a few weeks ago: “Just listened to Cain And Abel. Doesn't he play like he is preaching? That solo has always interested me.” I’ll admit that “Cain and Abel” was one of those Armstrong records that, of course, I had listened to plenty of times, but not much stuck in my memory. But when the esteemed “Reverend Gus” brought it up, I figured it was a good time to dig in a little deeper.

Armstrong recorded it in May 1940, an odd period in his Decca recording contract. From March 1940 to April 1941, Armstrong recorded seven different sessions for the label, but only two featured his working big band. Two sessions paired him with the Mills Brothers, another reunited him with Sidney Bechet and the first two dates in 1941 featured Armstrong playing with a small group, dubbed the “Hot Seven.” On top of that, Decca was really pushing the novelties on Armstrong. When he first began recording for the label in 1935, he was given some pretty good pop songs such as “I’m In The Mood For Love,” “Shoe Shine Boy,” “Solitude,” “Red Sails In The Sunset” and “Once In A While.” But novelty songs ranging from “The Music Goes Round and Round” to “The Flat Foot Floogie” began topping the pop charts in the late 1930s and every jazz/swing musician had to make their peace with them at some point or another—in fact, Decca had Armstrong record both of the tunes I just mentioned. Now, I have no problem with novelty songs—in fact, if I had to start another in-depth blog, it would probably be on Slim Gaillard, who I really want to write a book on some day. But some of those novelty tunes were just dogs and it would take a Herculean effort to wring out any musical merit from within their 32-bar structures. Fortunately, ol’ Pops could make Hercules look like a runt sometimes…

In addition to pop songs and novelties, Armstrong also remade many of his OKeh classics for Decca and the May 1 session began with a very nifty new version of “Sweethearts On Parade,” one that doesn’t quite reach the heights of the 1930 original, but offers a slew of new, invigorating ideas in his trumpet playing. But after that, the novelty parade began with “You Run Your Mouth, I’ll Run My Business,” “Cut Off My Legs and Call Me Shorty” and “Cain and Abel.” Armstrong was the only musician of the era to tackle the latter two, but “You Run Your Mouth, I’ll Run My Business” was also covered by Fats Waller and Louis Jordan, perhaps the only other artists who could make such dross listenable and actually a lot of fun (Armstrong’s trumpet playing over rocking Sid Catleet backbeats on “You Run Your Mouth” makes it a very exciting record). Of course, the record companies knew what men like Armstrong, Jordan and Waller could do with these songs, so they kept passing them their way and I guess they’re right. Tommy Dorsey wasn’t about to record “Cut Off My Legs and Call Me Shorty” with a vocal by Frank Sinatra and the Pied Pipers now, was he? But Armstrong treated every song the same, as he had always done and would continue to do until his final record dates in 1970, and his genius always managed to shine through.

Also, a lot of the fun of Armstrong’s novelty excursions can be found in his vocal delivery. He approached all these songs with more of a spoken, rather than sung, style that sounds like an ancestor of rapping (check out “You’ve Got Me Voodoo’d” from March 1940 for more of this, as well as a fantastic Chappie Willet arrangement). “Cain and Abel” casts Armstrong in the role of preacher of sorts, singing about the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, the sons of Adam and Eve who met a pretty messy conclusion when Cain killed Abel. Armstrong had always done a mock sermon during his live performances dating back to his New Orleans days and on records, he had reprised the church parody (“Lonesome Road”), jazzed up some spirituals (“When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Bye and Bye”), delivered nonmusical, humorous sermons (“Elder Eatmore”) and soberly tackled religious standards with a choir (“Going To Shout All Over God’s Heaven”). “Cain and Abel” sounds like something from the “Shadrack”/”Jonah and the Whale” template as it features Armstrong basically singing/preaching a Bible tale in swing time. Before I get too deep, why don’t you listen along by clicking here.

As you can hear, “Cain and Abel” is in a minor key, which Armstrong always thrived on. The band sets the mood well with their aggressive playing, spurred on by the absolutely driving sound of Pops Foster’s thumping bass and Sid Catlett’s relentlessly swinging cymbals and perfectly placed accents. Armstrong sings the first part of the song, which is 16 bars long and is more or less based on “St. James Infirmary.” Armstrong sounds appropriately bluesy before he adopts the half-spoken, preaching style during the second section, which is also 16 bars. The form of the song then reverts back to the “Infirmary” changes, with a slightly extended ending, making the third and final section of the vocal 20 bars. Thus, overall, it’s an odd 52-bar vocal, but Armstrong really emotes well. He sounds fiery and he delivers his message with a passionate, serious, yet winking, tone. There’s no scatting or typical Armstrong clowning, but it’s hard not to get swept up in Armstrong’s fervor, especially in the final four bars, as his voice builds up higher and higher much like one of his trumpet solos.

The band then swings out for 16 bars, Catlett shining throughout, before a modulation sets up Armstrong’s entrance. Now, the whole idea for this entry came from Gösta’s comment to me, “Doesn't he play like he is preaching? That solo has always interested me.” And upon listening to about a dozen times, I agree 100%. I really like this Armstrong solo because there’s a general absence of high-note fireworks. Naturally, I live for such fireworks, but sometimes it’s refreshing to hear Armstrong purely improvising in the middle and upper register of his horn (and I mean the upper register for humans, not area he dabbled in, which was strictly reserved for Gods). Armstrong took a number of solos like this one in the early 1940s and they should really be more well-known (the one on the 1941 Hot Seven “Long Long Ago” really knocks me out).

The rhythm section really bounces along on this one, generating a tremendous amount of heat, and Armstrong really seems to respond (Catlett sure responds to Armstrong, too). Things that I like during this solo: the repeated quarter notes that serve as springboard to Armstrong’s entrance; the quick little run at 1:51 that shows rhythmic mastery and always catches me by surprise; the wonderfully bent blue note at 2:02 which is downright funky; the placement of the first two notes of the second section at 2:07, which defines swing; Armstrong’s interesting note choices at the 2:20-2:24 mark; the held note that heralds the last section with an enormous amount of excitement and tension; Armstrong finally getting into the upper register at 2:28, only to skip back down a bit to continue his masterful improvising in the middle of his horn; and much like his vocal, the final climb to the final high concert E, which sounds high compared to what’s preceded it but is in actuality about an octave lower than some of the high notes that end other Armstrong records.

That’s the kind of thing that defines Armstrong’s ability to tell a story. Take something like “Chinatown,” where he starts pretty high and gradually, almost in slow motion, edges his way slightly higher with each passing chorus. On “Cain and Abel,” he never approaches the (literal) heights of “Chinatown,” but he doesn’t have to because the buildup to that final E is so completely logical and is still nevertheless exciting. And seriously, if someone wanted to scat Armstrong’s solo or write “vocalese” words to it, it would make complete sense because the solo does sound like a sermon. Wow…first he preaches with his voice and then with his horn…I’ll convert to the church of Satchmo-ology anytime!

So please, if you’re not familiar with these Decca recordings, seek out the Ambassador series, especially volume 7, which really illustrates the many different settings Armstrong found himself in during the years 1940 and 1941: novelty songs, the Bechet stuff, the Mills Brothers dates, the Hot Seven revival, OKeh remakes, the great Chappie Willet arrangement on “Wolverine Blues” and even some rare broadcasts of Armstrong sounding in peak form on “Lazy River” and “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” Definitely check it out…

As for me, I’m currently in the final chapter of a book my good friend Todd Weeks has written about the trumpeter Hot Lips Page. It’s titled Luck’s In My Corner and is currently available on the web. I hope to finish it tonight and will write a more in-depth review in a day or two but please, if you have any interest in jazz, blues, rhythm-and-blues, trumpet players, swing bands, momentous research and great writing, check it out. More to come….

Sunday, April 6, 2008

85 Years Ago....

Hello all. Don't let the recent one-week layoff fool you, friends. I already have a full blog on the Armstrong tune "Cain and Abel" in the books and I was about to publish it tonight when something hit me. My wife asked me the date, I replied "April 6" and then my mind began saying, "My, my, my that sounds awfully familiar." I lunged for my copy of Jos Willems's All of Me and there it was: Louis Armstrong made his very first records on April 5 and April 6 of the year 1923, 85 years ago this weekend. Thus, "Cain and Abel" was put on the backburner, but now I don't have time to provide a full portrait of those two King Oliver Gennett sessions and all the wonderful music that came out of that recording horn during those days (with "Little Louis" standing 15 feet away in the corner as not to overpower the rest of the band!). Nevertheless, we have the Red Hot Jazz Archive, so if you'd like to commemorate this important historical event, I'll provide the links (and if you have your own copies of this music on C.D., you can commence spinning now!).

Armstrong joined the Oliver band in 1922 and soon caused quite a commotion during the band's performances at Chicago's Lincoln Gardens. These April dates were the band's recording debut, made for the Gennett label in Richmond, Indiana. The band consisted of Oliver and Armstrong on cornets, Honore Dutrey on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Lil Hardin on piano, Bud Scott on banjo and Baby Dodds on drums. This is one of the great New Orleans jazz bands of all time and though the recording techniques were primitave, the excitement of these practically all ensemble-performances still startles the listener 85 years later, especially on the first two tracks recorded at the April 5 session, "Just Gone" and "Canal Street Blues."

Just Gone
Canal Street Blues

Those first two numbers were Oliver compositions, the first done with Bill Johnson, the second with Armstrong, but the Oliver band also handled popular tunes in their own fashion, as can be heard on the too short "Mandy Lee Blues" and "I'm Going To Wear You Off My Mind." Baby Dodds gets to take a break from playing the woodblocks, beating a tom for a bit on the former, which also features some patented Oliver "wah-wah" playing, whilt the latter featuring Lil Hardin's piano and the first break, a simple one not quite indicative of what was to come...
Mandy Lee Blues
I'm Going Away To Wear You Off My Mind

Finally, the reason we really celebrate: Louis Armstrong's first recorded solo on "Chimes Blues." It was a written solo, but Armstrong's tone and easy swinging feeling are already in place:
Chimes Blues

The next day opened with one of Louis's finest compositions, "Weather Bird Rag," later to be immortalized in Armstrong's 1928 duet recording with the pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines. The original recording features more great ensembles, as well as some neatly executed breaks:

Weather Bird Rag

King Oliver's shining moment was provided during his three-chorus muted solo on that all-time classic, "Dipper Mouth Blues," co-written with Armstrong, the "Dipper Mouth" in the title, as well as the lead player in the ensemble right before Oliver's solo. Doesn't get much more classic than this one...

Dipper Mouth Blues

"Froggie Moore" features more spirited ensemble playing, as well as some lovely Armstrong, who leads the main strain (which always reminds me of the changes to "Potato Head Blues" in places):

Froggie Moore

Finally, the second session ended with "Snake Rag," which I've already blogged about in graphic detail in the past.

Snake Rag

So there it is, the best I can do in a half hour. I'll let everyone enjoy this wonderful, timeless music for the next day or so and then I'll publish my "Cain and Abel" work on Tuesday. But here's to Pops, who 85 years ago this weekend began changing the course of popular music one record at a time...made while standing in a corner 15 feet away from the microphone!