Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Tiger Rag To End All Tiger Rags - January 1959

Stand back.

That’s the only appropriate way to begin today’s entry on a single live performance of “Tiger Rag” from January 1959. Why just this one performance instead of doing an entire post on Armstrong’s history with the tune? That’s a good question. I have about 50 Armstrong “Tiger Rags” in my collection and I’ve even gotten a few e-mail queries about Armstrong renditions of the old warhorse. But last week, January 21 to be exact, was the 50th anniversary of my favorite Armstrong rendition of “Tiger Rag,” a version to end all other versions and one that has to be heard to be believed.

But first some real quick background on Armstrong’s history with the tune, which began way back in the 1920s when he used that song’s chords as the basis for “Hotter Than That,” a classic Hot Five performance. In 1930, Armstrong finally got around to recording the song in a terrific, quote-filled version done with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band. After tinkering with it for two years, Armstrong had a better grip on the tune, in terms of quotes and such and ending filled with high notes, so he rerecorded it with own orchestra for OKeh, titling it “New Tiger Rag.” On that record, the tempo was through the roof and Armstrong announced it would take him about seven choruses to catch the tiger. By the time of the famous Scandinavian film performance of the song, Armstrong was taking five choruses to trap the animal. One year later, Armstrong remade it again as the “Super Tiger Rag” while over in Europe, coming up with all sorts of new ideas in a scintillating three chorus solo.

Armstrong kept the tune in his book throughout the 1930s, performing it on one of the Fleischmann’s Yeast broadcasts in 1937 (five choruses) and as discussed in December, Armstrong jammed the tune brilliantly on the Martin Block radio show in 1938 with Fats Waller and Jack Teagarden. But after that performance, the tune seems to have disappeared from Armstrong’s big band book--perhaps it grew to be too old fashioned? Well, by 1946, old-fashionedness was all the rage so Armstrong performed a short version of it on the soundtrack to the 1946 film New Orleans. Before officially forming the All Stars, Armstrong performed with small groups at three concerts in 1946--Carnegie Hall, Town Hall and the Winter Garden Theater--and he played “Tiger Rag” at all three. However, on these versions, Armstrong used the tune as a drum feature and though he sounded great in his ensemble playing, none of the versions featured any of Armstrong’s earlier pyrotechnics.

When the All Stars were formed in August 1947, “Tiger Rag” didn’t make it into the book, as hard as that might be to believe. There are no surviving Armstrong versions of the tune between June 1947 and December 1955. The 1955 version was done in a movie theater in Milan for the Columbia album Ambassador Satch. The album was meant to sound live but most of it was recorded at this theater in front of a small crowd of friends and fans. I have heard the session tapes and can attest that Armstrong was a bit rusty with the piece at first but in the end contributed a version of the tune he was quite proud of, telling one interviewer, “And ‘Tiger Rag,’ you ain’t never heard ‘Tiger Rag’ in your life like them cats, the longer they played it.”

Armstrong pulled out “Tiger Rag” again at the famous Chicago Concert of June 1, 1956 but gave a similar treatment as the Ambassador Satch version with Armstrong mainly sticking to a powerful lead in the exciting ensemble choruses, but not taking any solos. But by November 1957, the All Stars had finally worked out a routine for the song. The routine would be modeled after Armstrong’s early recordings with the ensemble playing the opening strains followed by a clarinet solo, a trombone solo and a concluding trumpet solo with simple support from the other horns. Armstrong’s solo would now be two choruses but in the second, he would square off with trombonist Trummy Young and the two would blow “angrily” at each other, sometimes “talking” with their playing and, when they felt like it, even chasing each other around the stage. It was great showmanship but it also always allowed Armstrong to turn back the clock in his closing solo, which be a condensed version of his younger solos, complete with quotes and ridiculous high notes. Often, when Armstrong felt up to it, he would call an encore.

This was the standard routine when the All Stars set foot in Sweden in January 1959. I already posted one version of it from a concert in Sweden on January 16, 1959, complete with encore. As I wrote in that entry, because the All Stars didn’t make it to Europe every year and because he was pushing himself to do two shows almost every day, the All Stars played a pretty set show performance after performance. Armstrong would always come out and do “Sleepy Time,” “Indiana,” “Basin Street Blues,” “Tiger Rag” and “Now You Has Jazz” before handing it over to his sidemen. But just because he opened almost every show with the same five songs, that doesn’t mean he didn’t change things up every now and then.

With that last sentence at a set-up, let us travel to the Falkoner Centret in Copenhagen, Denmark where Armstrong played about ten concerts in less than a week. At his first concert, Armstrong opened up in great form on “Indiana” and even took an encore chorus on “Basin Street Blues.” Clearly feeling good, it was time for “Tiger Rag.” Now, this entire performance is available on the fourth volume of Storyville’s Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia series and all nine minutes and 35 seconds (yes, you read that right) can be downloaded for just 99 cents on Itunes if you’d like to keep it in your collection and play it for your friends. I will post the entire performance uninterrupted towards the end of this post. But before writing this, I opened up my Mac’s Garage Band program and did some editing, separating the tune’s many parts so you can enjoy it with play-by-play commentary as the performance progresses. Again, if you don’t know what’s about to happen, stand back.

So here goes. The standard All Stars version of “Tiger Rag”:



Danny Barcelona’s drums set the ridiculous pace before the front line of Armstrong, Young and clarinetist Peanuts Hucko tackle the opening strains of the tune, Hucko taking the breaks. Armstrong loved taking “Tiger Rag” at inhuman speeds because he actually became more relaxed the faster the tempo. Armstrong tears through the famous “Hold That Tiger” strain with Young answering with some appropriate roars. Hucko doesn’t sound too comfortable with the tempo but he’s not bad by any means. For his solo, Hucko maintains a consistent relaxed flow, playing in half-time, which he didn’t always do. Young then follows with his boisterous set solo, complete with a quote from “Feniculi Fenicula.”

Then it’s Pops, charging out of the gate with some repeated notes before he begins dispensing with the 1930 vintage quotes of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Pagliacci.” (Just listen to that dazzling, lightening quick, almost smeared lead-in to the “Pagliacci” quote during the break.) Armstrong then hits and holds a high concert Ab (he played “Tiger Rag” in the same key), showing off his endurance and calling the troops home for the final chorus chase...and I mean chase in the literal sense as he would sometimes chase Young around the piano (as we’ll hear in it a bit). Armstrong liked to use this last chorus to revisit the exhibitionistic side of his youth and here he works over a two-note pattern, leading off with the same high Ab and resolving it to either a lower F or G. For the end, he jumps up to high C and he manages to end with a stunning high Eb. Great playing but that was just par for the course, as was the encore that followed. Give it a listen:



The crowd can still be heard cheering and Armstrong can be heard laughing as Barcelona sets the pace for round two. Hucko leads off, still in relaxed half-time but after an instruction to “Blow” from Pops, Hucko turns on the heat for a wild finish. Trummy, still thinking of Italy, opens with a tiny hint of “O Sole Mio” before going for himself.

Pops opens with another quote, this time “I’m Confessin’” before taking a trip to “Dixie” in the break. Even the way he comes out of the break is straight out of his 1930s playbook,showing he still had the chops to pull off his younger solos. Slowly moving up the ladder, instead of holding a high Ab, Armstrong climbs up to a high Bb to bridge the gap to the start of the final chorus. This time, he really hams it up with Trummy, indulging in some humorous “shouting” at each other. He also goes off-mike, which means the chase has clearly spread to the rest of the stage. But clowning aside, just listen to those notes. The first time around, Armstrong used the Ab as a point of departure and went down, to either F’s or G’s. Now, he uses the Ab as a spring board to go up, hitting one high C after another. He finally holds a gigantic high C and makes his way up to another high Eb and another triumphant ending.

And that, my friends, was usually that. Incredibly powerful, exciting playing, some fun clowning and overall, a showstopper. It was then time for “Now You Has Jazz” and if you listen to the end of that last track, you’ll hear the pianist start playing his introductory arpeggio.

But not so fast. This crowd was clearly in bedlam and though Kyle’s setting up the next tune, Armstrong can’t help signaling for one more (though he does it in his signature stage yelling, which I can never translate!). So get ready....for round three, second encore:


Armstrong can now be heard laughing behind Hucko’s solo. He’s having the time of his life! Never mind Hucko and Young, who both sound good (Trummy’s excellent). Armstrong enters with another quote from his 1930s “Tiger Rag” solos, one that’s become part of the lexicon and that I didn't know the name of until reader and trumpeter Chris Tyle wrote in this morning to identify it as Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song" from the 1898 Broadway musical The Fortune Teller. Thanks Chris!

After Armstrong plays the quote, he begins improvising in a very operatic manner. In fact, almost everything he plays from here on out has an air of opera to it. But dig that break: he plays two high C’s, hits one high Db...then scampers away like a child who just found the ocean to be too cold. It’s so playful but the the high Bb he holds again at the end of the chorus is as serious as your life. For the last chorus, he uses high C again as his main note until the break. This time, he heads right up to the high Eb he usually ends the piece with and nails it. And nails it again. And again. And again. Seven times in all. Before ending the tune...on a high F!

I mean are you kidding? This is almost a 60-year-old man! Naturally, the crowd goes berserk and just as naturally, Billy Kyle starts playing the “Now You Has Jazz” arpeggio again. Enough is enough, right?

Ding, ding, Round four!



Now Hucko’s on fire. Something special’s happening. During Young’s solo, listen closely and you’ll hear Armstrong blow three quiet harmony notes, giving the chops a quick test before heading into uncharted territory, a third encore. I’ve heard this a thousand times, but I still get nervous! For this outing, Pops dispenses with the quotes but keeps the same operatic style of playing in mind. Really, sing back his phrases but put on a serious face and wave your hand dramatically; it’s opera! He nails another high C in his break and this time, instead of holding an Ab or a Bb, he holds a high C into the final chorus.

But wait, high C? That’s pretty high, right? Where else can he go but up? You got it...like he’s 30 years old again, Armstrong sets his aim for that high Eb again. And what am I saying, like he’s 30 years old again? These Eb’s I’m writing about are actually F’s on the trumpet. When he was 30, Armstrong would play a hundred C’s and top out at the F but even on records like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” from 1929 and “You’re Lucky to Me” from 1930, he just about gets that last high F (concert Eb) out. But now here he is in 1959, getting killed by critics for being out-of-date and for not playing like he did when he was younger, but demonstrating a greater range and a better command of his instrument.

So let’s count along, shall we? 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 Eb’s ending on a high F. Insane. Great job, Pops, let’s do “Now You Has Jazz,” okay? But the audience is still losing its mind, doing that unison clapping-on-the-beat that’s always been popular when European audiences want to signal their approval. So even though he did more than anyone expected him to, Armstrong signals for a fourth encore:


Hucko and Young sound good but both sound like they’re running out of gas a little bit (though, a moment of credit for the rhythm section of Barcelona, Kyle and bassist Mort Herbert for keeping this thing afloat for so long at such a ludicrous tempo!). Pops, ready for battle, starts off with more operatic playing, a little descending scampering and, my highlight, a quote from “Exactly Like You” in his break, perfectly placed. He then holds the high C again and gets ready for yet another chorus of high Eb’s. However, like an arm-weary boxer in the 12th and final round of a bruising slugfest, Armstrong barely misses the mark on his first two attempts, the first one sounding more like a squeak, while the second one is about a half-step too low.

But don’t cry for old Pops, just yet. He rallies back and soon begins hitting the Eb’s again, one after another. He carries on through the break and a little more space creeps in towards the finish line. Clearly tired and probably in pain, Armstrong gathers every last bit of endurance left in his body and in his lips and makes the climb to that final high F one last time. Bravo!

Nine minutes and 35 seconds of playing. One performance and four encores. Probably about a hundred notes, high C or above. So why do it? Armstrong explained in a little speech he gave right before he finally launched into “Now You Has Jazz”:



So there you have it. The audience was going wild and Pops couldn’t stop. In fact, he learned that Copenhagen in general was crazy about “Tiger Rag” and according to the discography, other surviving Copenhagen performances of the tune during that same January week featured either three or four encores. I have never heard these other performances but I’m sure they’re special. But I’m more than happy with this one, an incredible artifact.

One might be asking, “Why all the encores? Why didn’t Pops just play seven or eight straight choruses as he did in the 1930s?” It’s a great question and to me, I can only assume that it was a concession to age. Think about what Armstrong did to his chops in the 1920s and 1930s. That he even had such a long career is something of a miracle. And in the mid-to-late-50s, he was blowing at an incredibly high level. The only thing he required was more time to rest. Thus, he became a master at pacing the All Stars’s live shows. He knew when to sing more, when to throw it to a sideman, when to play an encore. I think if Armstrong played seven choruses in a row on that 1959 version, he would have been out of gas before the ending. But the encores allowed him that little resting period every time Hucko and Young took their solos. Thus, every time they finished, he was properly refreshed and ready to shoot out the lights. Only on that last attempt did any tiredness creep in and he still finished on top. Incredible playing. In fact, using my Mac again, I edited together all the trumpet playing into a single 3:43 long track, ten choruses in all. Enjoy:



When you listen to that, it’s no wonder that Pops had a heart attack in Spoleto, Italy just a few months later. He was pushing himself harder than ever, both on his body with the frequent concerts and on his chops. Sadly, one of the casualties of the heart episode was the shortening of “Tiger Rag.” From 1960 on, “Tiger Rag” became a 90-second scorcher to get the audience’s blood pumping. Armstrong usually only took a half chorus on it and still made the high notes at the end, but it wasn’t the same (and by 1967 and 1968, it became more of a clarinet feature, with Armstrong playing not quite as high and mainly sticking to the background).

But never mind anything that happened afterwards. At least the “Tiger Rag” from Copenhagen in January 1959 survives and 50 years later, it’s still just as thrilling to listen to as it must have been to experience at the Falconer Centtret that day. And now, I will shut up and allow you to listen to the full experience, unedited, in all it’s glory. Again, I warn you...stand back:

Monday, January 26, 2009

Kaerlighedens Melody

Back to the 1959 European tour for a brief posting as I just realized today was a 50th anniversary at 7:40 in the evening! It's still the 26th so I'm safe...

About ten days ago, I did a massive posting on the 50th anniversary of Armstrong's mammoth 1959 European tour which began in Sweden on January 16th. While there, Armstrong was approached to appear in a film with the popular act Nina and Fredrick (last name van Pallandt).

The film would be Kaerlighedens Melodi and would feature Pops doing "The Formula For Love" with Nina Fredrick, as well as singing "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" with regular All Stars vocalist Velma Middleton. Armstrong recorded a dopey vocal version of the tune with Gary Crosby for Decca in 1955 but he had never sung the tune live. Knowing the film was approaching, Armstrong began featuring it in the All Stars's many concerts in Sweden and Denmark (usually two a day). The day before the filming, Armstrong and Velma did it live during a concert in Copenhagen. Here's how it came out:



It's a fun vocal and the band sounds great at the end, playing it in the standard All Stars way. In the film, which was shot in color, it's just as much fun to watch but alas, it's not on YouTube so I cannot share it. However, Armstrong's big number with Nina and Fredrick, "The Formula For Love" is on the web and I'd like to share it right now:


Isn't that a charming clip? Pops sounds in peak form (though he's clearly playing to a pre-recorded track) and it's a pretty catchy tune. There will be more footage from the 1959 tour in the coming months but tomorrow, I'm going to focus on one single performance: a live "Tiger Rag" from Copenhagen on January 21, 1959 that is one of the highlights of Armstrong's later years and truly must be heard to be believed. Til then!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

King Oliver Personnel and 1939 Carnegie Hall Review

Probably my favorite aspect about keeping this blog is the feedback I get from readers, both my old and loyal ones and the new readers who seem to be discovering this site at a rapid rate these days. Two of my entries last week resulted in e-mails that I would like to share. First off, the great Armstrong discographer, Jos Willems. When I did the "Canal Street Blues" blog on Friday, I used David Sager and Doug Benson's Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings as my primary source. In his notes, Sager writes about bassist Bill Johnson playing banjo on those earliest King Oliver sessions and that was good enough for me.

Of course, I should have consulted Willems's All of Me Armstrong discography to see if he had differing information. Willems lists Bud Scott as the banjo player on the date and added this note, which relies heavily on Irakli de Davrichewy's notes to the Masters of Jazz CD Louis Armstrong, Volume 1 1923::

Note: The dates of the first sessions are clearly confirmed by Gennett studio files, but, other than the name of the band, no further information is given. The personnel have thus had to be established from aural evidence, with the only real doubt revolving around the identity of the banjo player, generally listed as Bill Johnson. True, on certain band photographs Johnson can be seen holding a four-string banjo rather than a string-bass.

Yet interestingly, careful listening to the various recordings involved, especially Canal Street Blues, reveals the presence of a six-string banjo tuned like a guitar.

Certainly, the boomingly low notes of a double-bass or bass drum could not technically be absorbed by the recording equipment of the time. Johnson was supposedly on this tour, but he was unable to record.

Based on the evidence of photos and the audible absence of a double-bass, it seemed logical to attribute the banjo part to Bill Johnson. But despite scrupulously detailed examination of discographies, I have been unable to unearth no single recording on which Johnson plays either four or six-string banjo.

Moreover, Johnny St. Cyr, who was with Oliver and who later played with Johnson, has stated (Jazz Finder, December 1948) that he never saw Johnson play any other instrument than double-bass. Bud Scott is known to have arrived in the band early spring of 1923 (Record Changer interview, September 1947) and since there is a distinct similarity between the playing here and that of Scott on later recordings, I opt (always with very little hesitation) for Scott as banjo on the King's first recordings.


Also, today (January 27), trumpeter and New Orleans jazz expert Chis Tyle wrote in to say, "I was just reading down the page on your blog re: Bill Johnson on banjo w/Oliver. IMO, it's either St. Cyr or Scott, and it's a six-string banjo, definitely. I've always thought that Johnson holding a banjo in a photo is rather flimsy evidence to suggest he was playing it on the recording - that and the fact there's no evidence he actually played it! (Although it's possible, since his family had a string band in Mississippi...) But my vote is for Bud Scott, since he worked with Oliver later."

David Sager has been known to check out this site from time to time and if he's out there, I'd love to hear his information on Johnson as the banjo player. Jazz discographical discussions! Gotta love it!

Also last week, I posted an entry on "What Is This Thing Called Swing," one of my favorite Armstrong Decca big band tracks. In the posting, I included audio of Armstrong performing the tune live at Carnegie Hall in 1939. My good friend from Sweden Håkan Forsberg wrote in to share a review of the concert written by Dan Burley and collected in one of Franz Hoffman's collections of black newspaper articles on jazz and namely, Henry "Red" Allen. Before getting to the review, here are the Carnegie Hall tracks. Here's the "Sleepy Time" theme song followed by "Old Man Mose":



And once again "What Is This Thing Called Swing":



Now that you've got it in your heard, here's Burley's review. It's tedious at times--just one list after another--but it's fascinating to see how Armstrong killed, especially after he followed a tribute to minstrel songs (15 years later and reporters would have said Armstrong belonged in the minstrel part of the evening). And the ending is good, too, because it focuses on how the lack of then-present-day composers in the jazz field were pretty much given the shaft. Here's the review:

WRITERS LEFT OFF PROGRAM - Most of ASCAP Night Devoted to Serious Minstrel Music - by Dan Burley

The younger generations among the monster turnout at Carnegie Hall Monday night at the second concert in the festival of American music given under the aegis of American Society of Composers and Publishers (ASCAP) were provided with a liberal education in the contributions the Negro has made to American music. But because of the length of the program and attention given to oldtime writers, many of the present-day group of composer were plenty sore.

Not only the youngsters, but an appreciable lot of the oldsters of both races learned for the first time that many of the songs they have whistled, sung or heard since childhood were from the pens of colored writers whose genius has been neglected and all but forgotten over the course of the years.

From mighty symphonic works, spirituals, minstrel songs, blues, jazz and down to swing ran the program by W.C. Handy, and his staff of Joe Jordan, Charles L. Cooke and others, and while the presentation might well have been spread over three or four of the nights set aside by ASCAP to honor its members, it did serve the purpose of giving the public for the first time a mass introduction to the Negro composer.

A 70-piece symphony orchestra, three choirs, Louis Armstrong and Claude Hopkins and their swing bands, specialty singers, topped by Cab Calloway, dancers, guest composers and the composers themselves constituted the biggest massing of Negro musical production talent ever assembled. It was nearly 1 o’clock in the morning before the affair reached its climax.

CONDUCT SYMPHONIES

The symphonic compositions were conducted by the writers James P. Johson, who flails a lot of boogie-woogie piano when in the mood, conducted the orchestra in his “From Harlem.” Dr. Cooke led the orchestra in his “Sketches of the Deep South” and world-famed William Grant Still conducted two movements from his “Afro-American Symphony” and “Summerland.” The Southernaires sang a medley of Will Marion Cook’s melodies, while Harry T. Burleigh was on hand to hear Jessie Zackery sing some of his spirituals, while the Abysinian Choir sang R. Nathaniel Dutt’s “Listen to the Lambs.” Juanita Hall Choir did an interesting interpretation of “Go Down Death” from “God’s Trombones” by the late James Weldon Johnson and a fine presentation of “De Little Black Train” arranged by Miss Hall with Robert Hall as soloist. Minto Cato effectively sang Alex Hill’s “How the First Song Was Born.’ These numbers composed part one of the program and dealt with the serious side of Negro musical composition.

Part two of the program, coming after the intermission, was an impromptu minstrel show with members of the Crescendo Club, all of whom are ASCAP composers, grouped in minstrel style. Laurenza Deas, Pinkney Hill, Chris Smith and Chappie Chappelle interpreted dance routines of the ’90’s and early 1900 period while James P. JOhnson, Clarence Williams, WIlliam Edmondson of the Southenaires, Tim Brym, Joe Jordan, Luckey Roberts, Donald Heywood, and Henry Troy did the conducting of the singing and of the orchestra. The Southernaires came back to feature on the numbers.

SQUAWKS ON THIS

In the minstrel group, which drew much criticism, were such numbers as “In the Evening by the Moonlight,” “Carry Me Back to Ole Virginny,” and “Carve Dat Possum” by James Bland; “Listen to the Mocking Bird” (Sam Lucas); “Pas Mala,” (Ernest Hogan); “Baggage Coach Ahead,” (Gussie I. Davis); “All I Want Is My Chicken” (Laurence Deas); “Darktown Is Out Tonight” (Will Marion Cook); “Shine” (Mack, Brown & Dabney); “Maple Leaf Rag” (Scott Joplin); “Wish I Could Shimmy Like My SIster Kate” (Piron & Cl. WIliams); “Nobody” (Alex Rogers & Bert Williams); “Some Of These Days” (Shelton Brooks); “Under the Bamboo Tree” (Cole & Johnson); “Ballin’ the Jack” (Chris Smith & Jim Burris); “Please Go Away and Let Me SLeep” (Tim Brym & Cecil Mack); “Just One Word of Consolation” (Tom Lemonier & Frank Williams); “I’m Just Wild Abot Harry” (Sissle & Blake); “Lovey Joe” (Joe Jordan); “Baby Won’t Yo uPlease Come Home” (Cl. Williams & Cl. Warfield); “Oh Say Wouldn’t It Be a Dream” (Joe Jordan); “Junk Man Rag” (Luckey Roberts); “Dearest Memories” (Will Vodery); “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” (Evertt, Robbins & Porter Grainger); “Mammy O’Mine” (Maceo Pinkard) played by Mr. Pinkard and sung by Mrs. Edna Pinkard; “Maori” (Will Tyler); “Way Down Yonder In New Orleans” (Creamer & Layton); “I’m Coming Virginia” (WIll Marion Cook & Donald Heywood); and “Smile” (Heywood). The 40-voiced choir Mr. Heywood is rehearsing for his “Caribbean Cruise” sang the last two numbers.

ARMSTRONG SAVES NIGHT

The length of the program was apparent and sighs were beginning to come with alarming frequency when out popped His Majesty of Jazz and Swing, “Satchmo” of the trumpet, Louis Armstrong. Louie came to Carnegie Hall red-hot and lowdown and when he got through leading his orchestra in “Ol’ Man Mose,” and “What Is This Thing Called Swing,” little was left but to go home. Armstrong provided the comic relief after the long and tiresome minstrel episode.

Cab Calloway came minus his orchestra, but sang “Jumpin’ Jive” accompanied by his pianist, Benny Payne.

The program closed with W.C Handy’s “St. Louis Blues.”

FLOCK OF TUNGS NIXED

Immediately after the houses emptied, squawks were heard from many of the modern composers listed on the program who didn’t get a play because of the time devoted to the symphonic, spiritual and minstrel days part of the show. Such writers as Perry Bradford, Jelly Roll Morton, J.C. Johnson, president and founder of the Crescendo Club, Andy Razaf, Edgar Sampson, Walter Bishop, Frede Norman, Joe Grey and Wilbur Sweatman, Reddie Blake and McPherson, Kaye Parker, Bennie Carter, Claude Hopkins, and Slim and Slam were left holding the bag when it was decided the program had run long enough and the curtain came down.

Said Andy Razaf: “More music of present-day colored songwriters would have climaxed a grand show. Someday we will realize that the present and future are just as important as the past. Only then will such efforts have balance and accuracy.”

If the program had not been designed to perpetuate the works of the older writers, it could not have done a better job in giving the breaks to men, many of whom are dead. Many in the audience came to hear songs they knew about and to applaud the men who wrote them. They didn’t hear them. They squawked.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Canal Street Blues

King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band
Gennett Recorded April 5, 1923
Track Time of Gennett 2:33
Written by Joe Oliver and Louis Armstrong
Recorded in Richmond, Indiana
OKeh Recorded in Chicago
King Oliver, cornet, leader; Louis Armstrong, cornet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Hardin, piano; Unknown, banjo (Probably Bud Scott, possibly Bill Johnson or Johnny St. Cyr (see posting of January 25); Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Gennett 5133
Currently available on CD: The best version be heard on Off The Record: The Complete 1923 Jazz Band Recordings
Available on Itunes? Yes, if in inferior sound to the above C.D. release

The King Oliver recordings of 1923 are justifiably famous for a number of reasons, but really only a fraction of the tunes have become standards in the traditional jazz repertoire: there’s “Dipper Mouth Blues,” “Froggie Moore,” “High Society Rag,” “Riverside Blues,” “Weather Bird Rag,” “Chimes Blues” “Sobbin’ Blues” and the subject of today’s blog, “Canal Street Blues.” Of course, Louis Armstrong was present on all of these sessions but very little in the Oliver repertoire stuck with Armstrong after he left his mentor in 1924. He did numerous versions of “Dipper Mouth” (aka “Sugar Foot Stomp”), “High Society” was a staple of his live performances with the All Stars and he made later recordings of “Chimes Blues,” “Riverside Blues” and “Snake Rag.” Thus, when I cover an Oliver tune here, it’s usually just the one version and done.

But not so, with “Canal Street Blues.” It was never a standard part of Armstrong’s concert material, but he did cut two, count ‘em, two studio versions later in his career, played it live once at a high profile jazz festival and even performed it for a German television broadcast. Add it all up and we’ve got a pretty packed blog.

The original “Canal Street Blues” is a classic performance, with features that have been maintained in almost every succeeding version. The song was credited to both Oliver and Armstrong and was the second title cut at Oliver’s landmark first Gennett session of April 5, 1923. I could use the link from the invaluable Red Hot Jazz Archive site but really, once David Sager and Doug Benson remastered the Oliver tracks for their complete, two-disc release on the “Off the Record” label, there’s really no other way to hear it. So here is their remastering of the original recording, sounding better than ever:


The tune begins with a neat four-bar introduction before the band tears into the first strain. As Sager points out in his notes, pay close attention and you’ll hear that the simple but catchy melody might sound like it’s coming from one cornet but is actually done by Armstrong and Oliver passing it back and forth in a seamless example of call and response, two minds thinking as one. Even in the second chorus, when there’s a few neat pickup phrases and some rephrasing of the melody, it’s almost impossible to hear who is taking the chances (I think it’s Pops but I wouldn’t put money on it).

After those first two blues choruses, the band enters the careening, dizzying second strain, not dizzying because of anything technical but because of the tension inherent in the first part of written melody (I somehow always picture Harold Lloyd dangling from a building when I listen to this strain). Trombonist Honore Dutrey joins the the cornets to harmonize the melody while clarinetist Johnny Dodds does what Johnny Dodds does best, making prickly variations on the melody. According to Sager, this strain is based on a sacred song of 1892, “The Holy City,” also utilized in another Oliver composition, “Chimes Blues,” recorded later that day.

Then it’s time for the stomping third strain, the cornets gathering steam as they answer Dutrey’s simple moans. Drummer Baby Dodds gets to play a few perfect accents and the whole thing really swings, if not like Basie, but with a definite, thrilling sense of forward motion. Dodds takes a clarinet solo that may or may not have written; I only throw that out there because a) it’s a note perfect solo and b) it would become a standard part of almost all succeeding versions (as we’ll see in a bit). As Sager points out in his notes, pay close attention to Bill Johnson’s banjo and remember that he usually played bass with the group. Surely, those single-note lines would have sounded more natural on the bass but the Oliver sessions didn’t feature bass because it would have been inaudible in the final mix. Thus, with Johnson walking lines on the banjo and Baby Dodds dispensing those beautiful accents on woodblocks, it makes the mind spin to think about what the band sounded like in person and without any limitations.

That thought really springs to my mind after the Dodds solo when the band takes it out with over 40 seconds of glorious ensemble improvising on the third strain. They play two hot choruses (goodness knows how many they’d play at the Lincoln Gardens!), four voices demonstrating a complete mastery of ensemble playing, before the cute ending (a Lil Hardin addition? She seemed to specialize in cute endings).

After leaving Oliver, Armstrong probably never tackled “Canal Street Blues” again until January 25, 1957 when he recreated it for the famed Autobiography project. This has always been one of my favorite Armstrong works as I think it contains some of the best playing and singing of his entire career, not just his later years. However, it’s not a flawless effort. There are no bad tracks, per se, but some of Bob Haggart’s arrangements for the small group tunes are a little stilted. Also, there’s problems in the rhythm section, which I attribute to Milt Gabler. Barrett Deems was a great drummer with a powerful beat, just as Pops liked it. On any other recording he made with the All Stars, live or in the studio, Deems demonstrated he was more than a one-trick pony, playing open hi-hat, closed hi-hat, with brushes, on the ride cymbal, you name it. But for almost the entire Autobiography Deems stuck to a simple closed hi-hat beat, never changing, no matter how hot the music got, rarely even playing an accent. He was torn apart by the critics in reviews of this project but I don’t think it’s his fault because his playing on these sessions was so uncharacteristic. I really believe producer Milt Gabler wanted these sessions to sound as “authentic” as they could, at least keeping true to the original recording, which either did not feature drummers or had drummers playing on limited sets. Well, Louis wasn’t going to leave his drummer at home so I think someone (who knows, maybe Bob Haggart?) thought Deems should play simply throughout instead of how he would have played naturally. I have no proof of this but it’s the only I can think of. Oddly enough, the rhythm section also featured the modern sounds of electric guitarist George Barnes, a wonderful player who takes some great solos on the sessions but is a little out of place at times in the rhythm section, especially with Deems’s monotonous drumming. Odd stuff, all around...

Anyway, “Canal Street Blues” was recorded at the end of the next-to-last Autobiography session, a fine one that led off with the remarkable “King of the Zulus.” The date ended with three Oliver recreations so Gabler brought in Haggart’s frequent partner Yank Lawson to play the role of the King. Before listening to the track, all I can tell you is that it’s Yank’s show for the first 50 seconds of the record, playing the introduction, the first two choruses (where he only touches on the original melody here and there, but sounds great going for himself), and the second strain, which only gets played for one chorus. Pops then takes the lead for the riffing third strain, which you’ll hear for yourself by listening here:


I should go backwards for a minute and mention that the rest of the band consisted of Armstrong’s peak edition of the All Stars with Trummy Young on trombone, Edmond Hall on clarinet, Billy Kyle on piano and Squire Gersh on bass. I think the ensemble sounds good but there’s something unsettling about Deems’s drum machine (seriously, pick any spot in the track; it never changes) and the oom-chuck of Barnes’s twangy electric guitar accenting the afterbeats. Fortunately, Gersh swings nicely and though it’s annoying, at least Deems is playing a swinging pattern. However, I do like how they try to make it sound like a 1957 record instead of a recreation of 1923, swinging smoothly throughout. As Dan Morgenstern wrote about the Oliver sides on the Autobiography, “These Creole Jazz Band pieces are not really recreations of the Oliver band’s style, and maybe that’s just as well. But they are fine Louis Armstrong music!”

Back to the tune. So Armstrong, sounding a little subdued (or at least a little too far back in the mix) leads the group for a chorus before a wonderful Edmond Hall solo. He uses Dodds as an inspiration, playing Johnny’s original chorus verbatim before he goes off on his own in his second helping. And what a helping it is! There have been plenty of dirty-toned clarinetists, but no one with Hall’s level of dirt and grit. Just listen to the few high notes he holds in his second chorus. Listen to that ridiculous wail that takes over the third and fourth bars of that chorus, then pause the track and let it play around in your mind a little bit. I mean, what planet did that sound come from? It sounds like he’s figuratively playing a high note and choking the holy hell out of it until it becomes a petrifying, shrill scream. It’s not very pretty, but hot damn, I love it.

And I also love Trummy Young’s boisterous, muted solo. He really knew how to get lowdown with a mute (listen to “St. Louis Blues” on the W.C. Handy album or any live version of “The Bucket’s Got a Hole In It”) and he sounds great here. Is it ironic that the Oliver sessions were masterpieces of ensemble interplay but on these tracks, though the ensembles are good, it’s the solos that make the performance memorable?

Speaking of which, enter Pops, stage right. There were no trumpet solos on the 1923 recording but hey, you’re standing across from Louis Armstrong in prime mid-1950s form, he’s well rested and he’s feeling good. Let’s give the man a solo, okay? Pops gets to take two going right into the final arranged ensemble so it’s like a three-chorus explosion, one of the many high points of the Autobiography for me. The first chorus starts off very vocal-like with Pops playing some nifty melodic ideas and almost answering them himself with lower asides. By the end of the chorus, he’s raising the volume a bit, set to wail in the second chorus, backed by organ chords from the other horns--it’s note a 1923 device but it works!

Armstrong starts pumping out the high C’s in the second go-around before more perfectly placed melody ideas. After a slight pause he goes up for a high A, hitting it and holding it and shaking it with that huge vibrato, bridging the gap to the final chorus, which features the horns playing an arranged riff while Pops continues wailing on top, almost snorting out his phrases in declamatory fashion, before an arranged ending recalls the original Oliver recording. Like Morgenstern said, it’s not a great recreation of the Oliver band but it’s a wonderful example of Armstrong and the All Stars stomping the blues in 1957.

Armstrong didn’t confront “Canal Street Blues” again until 1962 (his recording of “Riverside Blues” with the Dukes of Dixieland in 1959 was labeled “Canal Street Blues” on the original Audio Fidelity release, but that was a mistake). In the spring of 1962, the All Stars went on another tour of Europe, from which an extraordinary amount of music survives. As I wrote in my blog last week about Pops’s 1959 trip to Sweden, when Armstrong went on these European tours, he usually played a more set show than normal, giving the fans all the hits and not really deviating much from playing many of the same songs every night (though, the usual caveat...he did play surprises from time to time and I can prove it!).

While in Germany, Armstrong was asked by a German disc jockey Werner Gotze to do basically a televised version of the Autobiography titled “The Satchmo Story.” Gotze would discuss (in German) various moments in Armstrong’s career while Pops and the All Stars would respond with appropriate tunes, many of which he hadn’t played in years. Armstrong usually didn’t like to go off his set routines and also, the German show was filmed in a cold studio without an audience. Because of this, Armstrong looks unusually subdued at the start, not smiling at the conclusion of some songs, almost looking unhappy. However, his playing is sensational throughout, very relaxed and completely full of fresh ideas. I have only seen 45 minutes of the show (it was originally broadcast in two parts) but someone out there (hello Jazz Icons!) must issue the complete material on DVD because it was Armstrong’s farewell to tunes like “You Rascal You,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” “Mahogany Hall Stomp” and “High Society.

Naturally, the show opened up with a segment on the Oliver years. After a swinging “Dippermouth Blues,” the band played “Canal Street Blues.” Fortunately, my good friend from Germany, Ingo Ruppert, uploaded this performance onto YouTube. Unfortunately, he disabled embedding so I cannot include it here. But the URL is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncXtUml7M6M and you can also get there by clicking here. Go there right now and watch the video, which will only take two minutes and four seconds. Then return for the discussion...

Back yet? Good. As some people pointed out in the comments, this performance bears only a passing resemblance to “Canal Street Blues.” It’s definitely a blues, but is it “Canal Street”? I can attest that before the clip begins, the All Stars play something that resembles the original Oliver introduction so they clearly had the “Canal Street” in mind but, with little rehearsal, they decided to just wing a blues once they got past the intro. Sure, they played it on the Autobiography, but Trummy Young probably didn’t remember it. New clarinetist Joe Darensbourg probably knew it but it was just easier to jam on the blues.

Regardless, Pops leads the ensemble for two choruses in the beginning, sounding in command. And ahhhhh, a sigh of relief as I listen to the rhythm section, swinging beautifully, anchored by Danny Barcelona’s drums and Billy Kronk’s bass. There’s momentary confusion as Darensbourg begins his clarinet solo as everyone seems confused about whether or not to do a stop-time chorus or not (they had just done one during the clarinet solo on “Dippermouth Blues”). Kronk starts playing one, abandons it and starts swinging, then hears Pops playing softly, so he returns to stop-time for the rest of Darensbourg’s good, but not Edmond Hall-great, solo.

During the stop-time business, Trummy reached over to the piano and grabbed his mute. Much like the Decca recording, he roars and growls through a smoking hot chorus, the rhythm section really locking in (Barcelona and Young had years of experience working together in Hawaii and he knew how to push the trombonist, here using stick accents on the snare drum rim). Like the Autobiography version, Pops takes two, the second one with organ backing, before leading the rideout. He doesn’t generate the same level of heat as on the previous performance but it’s still a terrific solo, very poised, and the closing ensemble positively smokes. They forgo the original “Canal Street” ending in favor of a typical All-Stars-with-drum-break finish but it works. A great performance and a terrific video (let’s get it out on DVD...NOW!).

Just two months later, on July 7, 1962, Armstrong was once again confronted with Oliver tunes but this time at the Newport Jazz Festival. As already stated, Armstrong didn’t like to mess with his set but if he had to, he could lead the way as demonstrated on that last video. But throw in a special guest star and no rehearsal and well, things can get messy. For the Newport festival, Yank Lawson was asked to reprise the role of King Oliver for live recreations of “Dippermouth Blues” and “Canal Street Blues.” The All Stars had just played about a half-hour set and Pops sounded great. But the mass confusion at the start of “Canal Street Blues” almost sinks the piece and one can only imagine what was going on in Pops’s head onstage.

As the German performance showed, Pops and the rest of the All Stars probably didn’t remember much of the “Canal Street” melody or structure. But Yank Lawson was intimately familiar with this kind of stuff so it was decided that he’d play lead, as he did on the album. Lawson announces that they’re going to “try to play ‘Canal Street Blues’” and he ain’t kidding. Here’s the audio. You’re going to want to squirm in the beginning but trust me, it gets better as it goes:


So Armstrong tells Lawson, “Start it off,” and Lawson does just that, big and strong with Pops finding a quiet harmony note behind him. However, the rest of the group obviously didn’t know the routine as only Billy Kyle and Trummy Young were on the Autobiography and the German version was just jammed. Thus, no one probably knew just how long the two-trumpet intro was going to take. As it turns out, it was only a typical four-bar intro but the band didn’t know that which is why the first bar of the melody is still played by the two trumpets...and nobody else! After a few beats, a nervous-sounding Danny Barcelona realizes that he should be playing so he starts...on the wrong beat! I’ve been there before as a musician and there’s nothing rougher than a drummer accidentally turning the beat around and unable to get out of it.

You can hear Pops growl loudly in the background, probably signaling the band to join in...NOW! With Barcelona on the wrong beat, the other horns sound nervous and scared, barely contributing anything (so much for great ensemble music!). Kronk’s bass doesn’t enter until midway through while Kyle’s piano finally shows up at the end of the chorus.

But after all the chaos, Barcelona finally senses something’s off during the turnaround and he manages to realign the rhythm in the second chorus, which is a thousand times better than the first one. Lawson’s lead is still bold and powerful and he even goes into the second strain in the next chorus, Pops seeming to remember it on the fly, but not hitting it on the nose as Yank does. Still, the last two ensemble choruses were better, propelling Armstrong into a solo that begins on a delightfully mellow kick, complete with a “My Sweetie Went Away” quote. He gets tripped up for a bit in his second four bars, but he recovers and really wails in the second chorus, channeling any frustration he had with the performance through the power of his horn.

Trummy, sadly unmuted, blows through one (backed again by Barcelona’s rim accents) but doesn’t muster the same steam as those earlier solos. Perhaps he would have if he kept going but you can hear Pops clearly say, “Only one, Trummy.” Clearly, he wanted this “special attraction” to end quickly! Darensbourg takes one before Armstrong tells Lawson to “Take it, Pops.” Lawson does for a brash chorus, sounding great. Then it’s time for the very good rideout highlighted for me by one great moment as Lawson sounds off two blue notes, echoed quickly by Pops playing three of the same variety. The typical All Stars ending rounds out the performance and Pops sounds happy when it’s over. For all the horrors of that beginning, it’s a very good impromptu performance and I dig Pops’s solos. The band sounds even better on “Dippermouth” but I’ll save that for another blog.

Armstrong still had one more performance of “Canal Street Blues” up his sleeve, though. He actually recorded it one more time in a studio for Columbia on August 25, 1966. I truly have no idea how this came about. Armstrong hadn’t recorded for Columbia in a decade and George Avakian was no longer part of the label. Still, he managed to make one single session, primarily to recorded the latest showtune, “Cabaret,” complete with strings. Thus, it’s easy to imagine this as a pop-oriented date. But for the other side, why choose “Canal Street Blues”? The song has Robert Dominick added on banjo so there must have been a small hope to mimic some of the success of “Hello, Dolly’s” nostalgia. But there’s no vocal, it’s a tune only jazz aficionados know and it wasn’t part of Armstrong’s regular repertoire. Still, I’m not complaining because many of Armstrong’s records in this period featured poor song choices so a complete three-minute record of Pops in 1966 blowing a King Oliver tune is something to be treasured.

Quick backstory: Barcelona was still on drums, but otherwise, this was a completely different group of All Stars. Buster Bailey was on clarinet and he played with Armstrong and Oliver in 1923 so maybe he requested it? Tyree Glenn was now on trombone, Marty Napoleon was on piano and Buddy Catlett played bass, a very underrated edition of the group as they didn’t record much. Alas, Pops’s blowing in 1966 if pretty erratic. Very little exists from this year and what is issued doesn’t feature Armstrong at 100% (a concert from Chicago in December of that you is much better but still features him scaling down a bit, not playing with quite the force and abandon of 1965). So if you’re expecting to hear the Armstrong of 1957 (or even 1962) wailing on this version, I’m sorry but it doesn’t happen.

However, in the ultimate example of things coming full circle, we get Armstrong playing a strong, stately lead much in the tradition of his idol, King Oliver. In those days, Armstrong was the brash youngster while Oliver’s best days were behind him. Armstrong probably thought long and hard about Papa Joe as he remade “Canal Street Blues” in 1966, his best days behind him. Here’s the record:


And speaking of full circle, we’re back to the 1923 arrangement, right down to the introduction. Armstrong doesn’t solo on the track but leads the ensemble through five choruses in beginning, a wonderful, rare, late example of him playing for 95 straight seconds (no Yank Lawson here!). He’s slightly weakened when compared to the scorching playing of 1957 but his natural instincts are there to put forth a very melody, strong lead part. I love that he plays all three of the original strains for five choruses, just like it’s 1923 again and he’s now in the role of Oliver. Touching stuff...

Buster Bailey’s up next and pays tribute to the Johnny Dodds solo before a wailing second chorus that’s possibly his finest surviving moment with the All Stars. Then it’s back to the ensemble, the rhythm section digging in and Pops playing the original riff. In the last chorus, he continues with the same riff but in classic New Orleans tradition, comes up with some variations on it, namely a little chromatic run. They even remake the original ending and Pops goes up--not way up, but up--for a high F to finish the piece. Full circle. Armstrong as King Oliver, still getting it done though the chops had diminished, relying on every lesson his mentor taught him. Swinging, dignified playing right to the end. Real soul music.

(Again, my thanks to reader James Proctor for requesting the tune. Have a great weekend, everybody!)

Monday, January 19, 2009

What Is This Thing Called Swing

Recorded January 18, 1939
Track Time 2:42
Written by Louis Armstrong and Horace Gerlach
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Otis Johnson, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Albert Nicholas Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2267
Currently available on CD: The studio version is on volume five (1938-1939) of the wonderful Ambassador series, while the live version is on volume six
Available on Itunes? Yes (the live one, too)

Having Louis Armstrong do a song titled “What is This Thing Called Swing” is like having Frank Sinatra sing “What is This Thing Called Love.” And as Dean Martin said when he heard Frank sing that tune at a Rat Pack show in Vegas, “Man, if you don’t know, then we’re all dead.” I think the same comment applies to Pops and the song that’s the subject for today’s entry.

However, “What is This Thing Called Swing” wasn’t some dopey pop tune forced upon our hero. No, it was co-composed by Armstrong himself with his frequent collaborator of the period, Horace “Dutch” Gerlach. It seems that Armstrong couldn’t do much offstage with Gerlach, who co-composed “Swing That Music,” “If We Never Meet Again” and “I’ve Got a Heart Full of Rhythm”with the trumpeter and served as primary ghostwriter on Armstrong’s first autobiography, also titled Swing That Music. Not much is known about Gerlach and in the introduction to a reprint of Swing That Music, Dan Morgenstern kind of fluffed Gerlach off, but someone who knew Gerlach wrote to David Ostwald that “Dutch was a white pioneer in using five brass in the bands he conducted and arranged for. Black bands initiated this trend and Dutch was scoring in this fashion even before Casa Loma.” (Sorry I don’t know the full name of the friend, Ostwald just let me copy the letter.)

So Gerlach clearly knew a thing or two about music and I have to admit that the four Armstrong-Gerlach collaborations are great tunes and tremendous records. Who knows how much Armstrong contributed to the writing of these songs, but each one inspired him to make a fantastic record.

“What is This Thing Called Swing” was recorded the same day as “Jeepers Creepers” so this is a 70th anniversary post, as well. It’s not a very celebrated tunes but I find it positively thrilling. Give it a listen and then we’ll discuss:


Ah, the first thing that hits your ears is the tonality: we’re in a minor mode, something Pops always dug, so you know it’s going to be good. Based on the above quoted letter, Gerlach probably wrote the arrangement and it’s a good one. The band hits it very powerfully, with an extra boost from their new drummer, the one and only Sid Catlett.

Armstrong starts by singing the very, which is actually more spoken than sung. In fact, when David Hadju was doing a piece about proto-rap/spoken lyrics songs, I suggested this one for it’s use of rhymes and for Pops’s delivery (Pops was definitely a grandfather of rap!). The verse makes it clear that the song is about a bandleader who is clueless about swing. Armstrong lost his patience very early when it came to categorizing music and I think these lyrics express that frustration well:

What is this thing called swing?
What is this thing called swing?
Is it jazz or drag time, futuristic ragtime?
What is this thing called swing?

Jazz, ragtime, drag time, swing...as Pops liked to say, there were only two kinds of music, good and bad. Anyway, with the singing out of the way, the band vamps, as Pops reverts back to his spoken style, introducing the various sections of the band. The saxophones are up first, executing the difficult passage very well (not A+ but still pretty good. Catlett drives them with those ferocious press rolls, a hallmark of Armstrong’s previous drummer, Paul Barbarin, but Catlett was more of a master of accents, as can be heard throughout the record.

In fact, Catlett’s up next, as the lone representative of the “rhythm section” Armstrong sings about. Catlett takes off for a great solo while Messrs. Russell, Blair and Foster probably went out for a smoke. Pops then asks the brass section to get their chops together and after a few hot bars, tightly played, they put down their horns and begin shouting at Armstrong: “Take your horn, Pops, beat it out/ show the world what swing’s about!” (Punctuated by another great thud on Catlett’s bass drum.)

Armstrong humorously acts surprised and requests a second to get his horn up to his mouth. There’s still almost a minute left and all I can say is stand back! He enters by repeating one note, calling attention to the song’s relation to “St. James Infirmary.” Just listen to Catlett (again) cranking up the four-on-the-floor action to give Armstrong a little extra oomph. Armstrong’s in complete command in the first chorus, allowing the reeds to respond to his every move.

After this first chorus, Armstrong trades places, letting the brass take the lead as he now responds to them. Armstrong’s playing grows hotter by the second as the brass backs off for a bit to leave Pops in the spotlight. They come back to wrap up the chorus, setting up my favorite moment of the record: a break, taken by Pops, that consists of one perfectly placed note. It’s reminiscent of the break he took on “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” in 1933, as well as on a few other songs. As I said about that performance, it’s tough to make one note swing but Armstrong does just that by placing it perfectly on the second beat of the break. The pure throbbing sound of that single, reverberating Ab is like listening to a jolt of electricity in action.

Now there’s nothing stopping the man. Catlett starts whipping the cymbals, the rhythm section digs in and the flaming reeds and screaming brass pour it on in tandem. Armstrong’s now in the upper register and hits upon a tension-filled three-note motif, B natural-C-Db, back and forth, back and forth, playing it at his own pace as the hectic tempo of the pieces passes underneath him. He works over this motif like someone trying to maintain their balance, finally landing strongly on a high C. He hits again, the band answers with him, almost pleading with intensity for him to do it and sure enough he does it: he ends of the record on an insane high F. Wow! Interestingly, the band ends on an F major chord instead of an F minor but who cares about them; it’s Armstrong’s show and that, my friends, is some dazzling trumpet playing.

Though “What is This Thing Called Swing” isn’t one of Armstrong’s best-known records (especially compared with its A-side, “Jeepers Creepers”) it did maintain a place in Armstrong’s live shows, where it got a slight increase in tempo. Slight? You thought the Decca record was fast? Armstrong’s live performances of the tune make the studio version sound like a soggy ballad. Well, actually, I should say live “performance” as only one is known to survive...but what a performance it is. Here goes, from October 2, 1939 at Canegie Hall’s “ASACAP 25 Year Festival” (and yes, Armstrong collected some ASCAP change that evening by doing this tune and “Old Man Mose,” both compositions of his own):


Yeah, man! I love how Armstrong’s personality comes through beautifully, cracking up the audience multiple times. (I’m pretty sure that’s trombonist George Washington, Armstrong’s frequent comic foil, answering Pops’s question during the introduction.) Armstrong calls for three beats and the band responds like a hurricane. The tempo might be too hot to handle but it works. Armstrong sounds like he barely has time to take a breath during the vocal but he gets through it unscathed, the band’s answers sounding more urgent than before.

For the introductions of the various sections, Armstrong reverts back to his spoken style, though he does it at his own tempo as the band vamps furiously, sounding even more like some sort of proto-rap. By this point, tenor saxophonist Joe Garland was in the band, poised to take over as music director. He must have worked the section pretty hard because, even at ludicrous speed, the reeds handle their section solo better here than on the record.

Next up is the rhythm section, aka Catlett. This is a pretty neat moment as Armstrong just lets Catlett tear it up for a while. I don’t know how common extended drum solos were at this time, but Armstrong always loved making sure everyone in his bands got featured. Catlett takes off for about a minute-and-a-half, ending with the typical triplet phrase every succeeding Armstrong drummer would ever end every succeeding Armstrong drum solo with.

Pops breaks me up with his next introduction, announcing the brass then telling the audience, “Give them boys a chance to get them lips in their horns. I’ll be right with you” before some muttering breaks up the crowd again. The brass nails their part again, winning Armstrong’s approval. He makes them repeat their “Beat it out” chant again for good measure, before Armstrong prepares to take it out (I wonder if the reeds went nuts repeating that vamp?).

From here, Armstrong takes three choruses, repeating everything he played on the record almost verbatim, including the one-note break, the three-note motif and the high F at the end. He hits a small snag or two in his first chorus, but is on top for the second and third go-arounds, prodded hard by Catlett’s drumming, now more intense than ever (I love when he switches to the toms briefly in the second chorus). In all, an incredibly exciting performance.

That’s all for now. I can’t believe it but I somehow tied my record for the most posts in one month (13) and it’s only January 19. I’ve been achieving my goal of one post per day on the week days (though I had to pay “Jeepers Creepers” its proper respect yesterday) but as I thought about it today, sometimes these entries have so much meat, publishing them daily might not be such a good idea. Not everyone has an hour to kill every day by listening to 30 versions of “Royal Garden Blues” so I think I’m going to purposefully put on the breaks and go back to my average of three posts a week to allow a little breathing room (and to allow more time to be spent on the book). But I’ll be back in a couple of days with my next entry, “Canal Street Blues,” as requested by reader James Proctor (yessir, you can write in and request a tune if you’d like as sometimes it gets tired spinning the Itunes shuffle or celebrating yet another anniversary). Til then!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

70 Years of Jeepers Creepers

Recorded January 18, 1939
Track Time 2:42
Written by Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Otis Johnson, trumpet; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Albert Nicholas Bingie Madison, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Sid Catlett, drums
Originally released on Decca 2267
Currently available on CD: It’s on volume five (1938-1939) of the wonderful Ambassador series, as well as a bunch of other compilations
Available on Itunes? Yes

The title of this blog post is a slight misnomer. 50 years ago today, Louis Armstrong recorded the Decca record of “Jeepers Creepers” but truthfully, it had already been around since late 1938. If you forgive the slight bending of the rules, stick around because it’s always a good time to listen to one of Armstrong’s best known songs...and one that won’t die.

“Jeepers Creepers” is one of those songs that seemingly anyone with a voice has tackled it. Bing Crosby, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Jack Teagarden...you name ‘em, they’ve sung about those peepers (Hell, even Porky Pig did it!) But I think many associate the song with Armstrong and really, how could you not? Pops introduced the tune, written by the formidable team of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, in the Warner Brothers film Going Places.
Armstrong became a ubiquitous presence in Hollywood films of 1936 and 1937, sharing the screen with the likes of Bing Crosby, Mae West and Martha Raye. But for Going Places, he got to share it with a horse. Yeah, you read that right. In one of Armstrong’s most demeaning film scenes as he sings “Jeepers Creepers” to a horse of the same name. Armstrong’s character, “Gabe, the Black Hostler” is a nightmare of stereotypes...he even gets called “Uncle Tom” by a white character in one scene, the first association of Armstrong and this insulting term but far from the last.

Fortunately, Pops, being Pops, transcended it all. He gave the song 100%, performing it as if he was onstage, wearing a tuxedo. And in the end, the scene becomes pretty charming and downright irresistible. See for yourself by watching it here:

Except for the solo trumpeting at the start of the clip, Armstrong doesn’t play on the tune in the film. However, at the time of the film, Armstrong made a pre-recording of the tune where he blew wonderfully in prime 1938 form, backed by an unknown, dynamite rhythm section. The tempo is up and Pops can do no wrong...just listen to that gliss up to a concert Eb! Here’s the pre-recording:


Going Places opened up on December 31, 1938 and eventually, “Jeepers Creepers” received an Oscar nomination for “Best Music, Original Song,” though it lost out to “Thanks for the Memory.” But even before Going Places opened, Armstrong was plugging the film and the tune on a Martin Block radio appearance on December 14. I blogged about this session in great detail just last month and I’ll repeat the gist of what I said then: for a song that none of the musicians knew before the broadcast, they pull off a very tight, swinging performance. Of course, when the musicians are Fats Waller, Jack Teagarden and Bud Freeman, perhaps it’s not too much of a surprise! Here’s the Block version again:


Finally, one month later, Armstrong immortalized the tune for Decca. Armstrong hadn’t recorded with his regular big band (that of Luis Russell’s) since May 1938, spending the rest of that year waxing tunes with the Mills Brothers, the Decca Mixed Choir and a studio orchestra. After the above versions, Pops clearly had a grasp on the tune so it was no surprise that the studio recording is so good. The arrangement is simple: introduction (dig Sid Catlett’s press rolls), vocal (verse and chorus) and trumpet solo. Nobody else is heard from and in the end, the record is an Armstrong tour de force. Give it a listen:


The vocal is so sunny, I have to squint my eyes when I listen to it. But sweet Jesus, what a trumpet solo. There’s really one main motif in the arrangement, sung by Pops at the end of his vocal, repeated by the band, then repeated one more time modulated in the proper key for Armstrong’s trumpet solo. His entrance, all on one note is very vocal-like, before he embarks on a solo that sticks pretty closely to the melody with spots reserved for some powerhouse breaks, each featuring small glisses that sound almost deceptively easy. He sticks to the melody for the bridge but throws in some variations in the last section, ending with a flourish. After one more reading of the main motif, Armstrong takes the record out with three soaring high notes, topping out at another high Eb. There’s nothing too daring in the solo, but it’s a great example of keeping a memorable melody in the forefront while still swinging like mad. A triumphant record.

Surely, Armstrong must have continued featuring “Jeepers Creepers” with the big band but alas, there are absolutely zero surviving versions from the war years. The next time we encounter the tune is with the All Stars. Hundreds of surviving nights with the All Stars exist, thanks to broadcasts, concert recordings and such and “Jeepers Creepers” does not seem to have been one of the most frequently played numbers in the Armstrong book. However, it did come out now and then and when one thinks about the countless All Stars shows that were not recorded, maybe it was more prevalent than I’m thinking. Regardless, here it is from August 9, 1949 from The Click in Philadelphia, with Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole. The sound isn’t great but the playing sure is...


I like the instrumental chorus up front, allowing Pops to play a strong, relaxed lead (very good ensemble work from Teagarden and Bigard). Armstrong then sings two, omitting the verse. He swings the first go-through nicely before taking a dazzling scat chorus. Though, just as sometimes the great Pops would hit an air note while playing the trumpet, listen to the ascending scat line in the sixth bar; I love how his voice kind of gives out on the high note! Nevertheless, he keeps singing, his phrases especially trumpet-like, before he throws in some words again at the bridge, phrasing them as he sees fit. A terrific vocal. Teagarden takes a loose half-chorus before Pops comes in at the bridge to lead the final charge home, sounding fantastic in the upper register. Instead of the patented “Jeepers” ending, they give it the standard All Stars finish, with drum break and final climb by the trumpet. Quick note: Armstrong now played the entire song in the key of G, instead of modulating to Eb for the trumpet solo as he did on the Decca. A great performance...and I’m glad I got to revisit it today because I forgot how good it was!

“Jeepers Creepers” became a popular feature for Pops on television in the early 50s. I have video of him doing it on Milton Berle’s show in 1951, singing a chorus and improvising a completely new, relaxed solo, but alas, it hasn’t made its way to the Internet so I can’t share. I can share the audio of another TV appearance from May 13, 1950 on the Ken Murray Show. It’s the same edition of the band but the track leads off with Betty Lou Walters singing a couple of lines of “Basin Street” to introduce the band. Then Pops comes in and we’re off. Enjoy:


The arrangement neatly features all the All Stars after Pops sings one with Hines, Shaw, Bigard and Teagarden taking eight bars each (well, Tea gets a couple of extra because he gets the built-in tag). Then it’s time for Pops, Cozy Cole switching cymbals to back him up. He has a few rocky moments early in this solo as his chops sound like they don’t like the middle register too much, hitting a slight clam or two. But he goes up for the bridge and sounds terrific, blowing right into the final eight, staying cool until the end where, instead of a standard All Stars ending, he plays the original tag, building up to a high G at the end...not quite the higher Eb of the Decca record but still pretty impressive.

Five years later, on January 21, 1955, Decca recorded three long sets by the All Stars at the Crescendo Club in Hollywood. This is one of my favorite live documents of the band, a wonderful edition with Trummy Young on trombone, Bigard, Billy Kyle on piano, Shaw and Barrett Deems behind the drums. “Jeepers Creepers” is an incredibly exciting performance, featuring the drive that this edition of the band was best known for. A treat is Pops takes leads the ensemble through two, count ‘em, two ensemble choruses in the beginning. The second one is particularly fierce, the rhythm section driving him to try out all sorts of new variations. Dig it:


Like the other All Stars version, Pops sings two and again the second one is a masterpiece of scatting. However, instead of going back to the trumpet, Armstrong scats the regular coda and takes it out with a pretty lowdown, groovy ending. A swinging rendition all around, but especially thanks to those two trumpet-led choruses at the start.

But if you really dig trumpet playing, then look no further than the next known Armstrong performance of tune from an April 30, 1958 episode of the Timex All Star Jazz Show, a show that featured Pops’s chops in positively Herculean form. On “Jeepers Creepers” he sat in with a Jack Teagarden All Star group with Tony Parenti on clarinet and a rhythm section made up of former All Stars, Marty Napoleon on piano, Chubby Jackson on bass and Cozy Cole on drums. Teagarden’s trumpeter is Ruby Braff, a lifelong Armstrong follower and a good friend of Pops. Braff starts with some Armstrong-inspired blowing before he’s joined by an unseen, but definitely felt Armstrong. Pops strides in to lead the ensemble before singing two choruses with Teagarden, one of his best friends. There’s some confusion in the second chorus as Pops looks like he wants to scat and Teagarden forgets a world or two, but Armstrong doesn’t let it show and in the end it’s yet another great Satchmo-Big T duet, Pops cracking Teagarden by asking, “How’d you get so lit up?” But vocals aside, the true highlights involve the horns. Braff is wonderful and so is Teagarden but Armstrong is a force of nature, going for broke, taking chances and hitting all the high ones. Enough from me, enjoy it for yourself!


What a coda! Absolutely sick playing and as Gary Moore asks, “How do you follow something like that?” The answer, of course, is with more Pops. “Jeepers Creepers” seems to have slipped out of the Armstrong repertoire yet again after that performance but it still made for one more classic Armstrong recording when he tackled the tune for the 1964 Hello, Dolly album. With that song on top of the world, Armstrong was asked to record a full-length album made up of either other showtunes or Armstrong classics that he had seasoned to perfection after performing them for years, tunes like “Blueberry Hill,” “Some Day You’ll Be Sorry” and “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” “Jeepers Creepers” was also chosen for a version that features some of Pops’s finest blowing of the 1960s. Like the Crescendo Club version, Pops leads the ensemble for two choruses up front, sounding quite strong in his second chorus of variations, full of surprises. The All Stars now consisted of Russell “Big Chief” Moore on trombone, Joe Darnesbourg on clarinet, Kyle, Shaw and Danny Barcelona with a ringer, Glen Thompson, sitting in on banjo. Here ‘tis:


After Pops’s two outings up front, a shaky Darensbourg and a robust Moore split a chorus before Pops’s vocal. Armstrong always owned the song so there’s no surprise as to what a good vocal is but dig the backing by Darensbourg and Moore, a neat little arranged part probably from the mind of Billy Kyle. In his second chorus, Pops swings out and the horns loosen up behind him. I don’t really like the way Armstrong’s voice is miked, at least on the mix I have, but he sounds great, especially in the second go-around. Featuring everybody, Kyle and Shaw even get eight-bars each (listen to the dopey strings in the background during the bass solo!). Pops swarms in during the bridge, sounding very strong throughout, and swings mightily into the end, playing the coda and even going up to a surprising high B before landing on the final G. Dan Morgenstern calls this one of Armstrong’s last great extended trumpet outings and it’s hard to disagree.

Apparently, Armstrong began featuring the tune in live performances again, doing it at a concert in Miami on February 13, 1965, but alas, I have never heard this concert and don’t even know if it exists so I cannot share it. “Jeepers Creepers” soon faded away again, but it still cropped up on a TV appearance in 1966 on the Danny Kaye Show. Though Armstrong never really performed it again, he made his mark on the song and even today, it’s still one of his best-known. And after hearing so many different versions from throughout the decades, it’s wonderful hearing how many ideas he had on the tune, vocally, instrumentally...and even sung to a horse!

Friday, January 16, 2009

50 Years Ago Today - The All Stars in Sweden

To many, 1959 is pretty much the quintessential year in jazz history. It seemed like EVERYBODY was still alive (though Billie and Pres didn’t quite make the end of the year) and in peak form: Pops, Duke, Basie, Miles, Trane, Brubeck, Monk, Ornette Coleman, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson, George Lewis, Eddie Condon, Ben Webster, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz...the mind boggles, especially when one adds in all the historic albums recorded that year like Giant Steps, Kind of Blue, Time Out, Mingus Ah Um, The Shape of Jazz to Come and so much more.

So what was Louis Armstrong doing during 1959? Alas, Pops sometimes gets left out of the great 1959 discussions because he spent about half the year abroad, fell ill in Spoleto, Italy and returned to playing and touring the United States in the summer, recording two albums for Audio Fidelity before the year was up, one not released at the time and the other (Satchmo Plays King Oliver) a very good, though not classic, date. Thus, while he didn’t do any groundbreaking, essential work, I have a deep appreciation for the 1959 European tour. For starters, Pops was in phenomenal shape throughout the entire stretch, fronting a very, very good edition of the All Stars. But more importantly, Europeans loved (and loves) Satchmo and did everything they could to document almost every step Pops took and every note Pops played throughout. Thus, there’s multiple videos from the tour on YouTube and even Pops’s one Jazz Icons DVD is from a 1959 show in Antwerp. He also managed to make some film appearances, three of which are on YouTube. And when it comes back to live recordings....stand back. I personally have 104 songs from the tour on my Itunes and that’s nowhere near complete (though some more is on the way...thank you, Peter!).

So that leaves me in a helluva spot. It’s not worth sharing all 104 songs since that would be way too time consuming for all involved. The same goes for the surviving videos, which I originally wanted to share in a single post. However, to get the most mileage out of the tour, I’m thinking of doing multiple entries as the year goes on, celebrating Armstrong’s different stops on the days they originally took place. Thus, here’s how it would breakdown.

*Today, January 16, I’ll talk about Pops in Stockholm and share some music.
*Next week, between the 21st and the 26th, I’ll share of his Copenhagen concert material (stand back for “Tiger Rag”!), as well as a film appearance
*On February 7, I’ll share some highlights from a phenomenal concert Armstrong did in Amsterdam
*February 15 will be video day as six songs survive from an appearance in Stuttgart, all available on YouTube
*We’ll watch Armstrong’s appearance in Kisses In Der Nacht on February 23
*The Antwerp appearance occurred sometime in March 1959 and though the Jazz Icons footage is not available online, I have the audio and would still like to talk about it
*A fabulous Armstrong TV appearance is also on YouTube from Italy on May 7, well worth celebrating
*I have Armstrong’s entire Slovenia show from May 17, 1959 and will gladly share some highlights on that date
*And finally, Armstrong’s appearance in La Paloma, shot on May 20

Now, by the time this endeavor reaches its conclusion, I’ll be the father of a bouncing baby girl so who knows the shape of this blog in April and May. Thus, I’m also thinking of doing a massive, massive posting at some point that would just be comprised of what I consider to be the highlights of the tour, one version of each song, a bunch of videos, everything in one package. That, I’d like to get to but who knows where or when. But enough of my potential plans, let’s get to the musical meat!

Okay, so where was Louis Armstrong at the start of 1959. Let’s go backwards a slight bit. Armstrong hit new levels of popularity in 1955 and 1956 thanks to records like “Mack the Knife” and appearances on television and in films such as High Society. At the end of 1957, Armstrong made headlines with his comments on the Little Rock school integration flap, but when the uproar died down, he was still packing them into his shows. Armstrong made one album in early 1958 (Louis and the Good Book) and a quick Decca session that October, but really, the endless strings of one-nighters was where it was at. He didn’t leave the U.S. in 1958, a rarity, touring nonstop and even appearing in two more films, The Five Pennies and The Beat Generation. In fact, he hadn’t made a major tour of since late 1955 (he also made two trips to England in 1959). If the Europeans were craving Armstrong, they were going to get their chance to satisfy that craving during a tour that would begin in January 1959 and wouldn’t end until the beginning of June.

Armstrong brought along his All Stars, a very good edition of the band. I should probably use the word “great” but it’s hard because Edmond Hall left the band in July 1958 and THAT edition is truly great, the best organization Armstrong ever led. Hall was replaced by Peanuts Hucko, a fine, Goodman-inspired player and a better one than the likes of Barney Bigard and Joe Darensbourg. However, Hucko occasionally grew a little bored and you can hear it in his playing, which sometimes sounds as if he’s going through the motions. The rest of the band was first-class with long-time supporters Trummy Young and Billy Kyle still anchoring the trombone and piano chairs respectively. Mort Herbert and Danny Barcelona formed the rhythm section, each one joining in early 1958 and soon becoming best friends. Neither was a household name but they gave their all for Pops, giving the band a swinging, driving foundation. And Velma Middleton still did the job as Armstrong’s female vocalist/comic foil better than anyone.

Armstrong and the All Stars arrived in Stockholm at 12:15 p.m. on January 15. Before going any further, I want to say that a lot of my information (and some of the music) comes from the one and only Gösta Hägglöf, one of the greatest Armstrong fans in the world. What Gösta has done for Armstrong’s music cannot be fully appreciated with words. In addition to his essential work on his own Ambassador label, Gösta produced four discs for Storyville under the title Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia. I’ve written about this set before as I find them truly essential documents of Armstrong’s later years and at a $39.98 asking price for the entire box, it’s quite a bargin. Gösta selected all the music and wrote the wonderful notes, complete with an itinerary of the tour and some wonderful photos. Please check out the box and be sure to thank Gösta for all his hard work and dedication to preserving Armstrong’s musical legacy.

Back to the tour. Armstrong arrived in Stockholm on January 15, about to give six shows there in the course of three days before heading to other parts of Sweden and Copenhagen. According to Gösta, “Tickets had been sold as Christmas gifts in Sweden in a specially designed envelope with Louis wearing a Santa’s cap. All the concerts were sold out before Christmas--14 in Sweden and 15 in Denmark!”

Clearly, Armstrong a busy schedule, usually doing two shows a day. Thus, this is a good time to look at the group’s repertory and stage show during the period. I’ve made the argument here--and I really make it in my book--that the notion of Armstrong playing the same songs every night in his later years is a myth. The All Stars had a huge band book and could draw from it at any time. If you look at any of the various live Armstrong discs from the late 1940s and 1950s, it’s easy to see a lot of the same songs included...until you look at what songs AREN’T included. The Crescendo Club concert of 1955 doesn’t have “Black and Blue” or “La Vie En Rose” or “Blueberry Hill” or “On the Sunny Side of the Street” to name a few. The Chicago Concert of 1956 doesn’t have “Blueberry Hill” or “Muskrat Ramble” or “Ole Miss” or “Someday You’ll Be Sorry.” The Monterey Jazz Festival Concert issued in 2007 doesn’t have “Basin Street Blues” or “Sunny Side” or “C’est Si Bon” or “Black and Blue,” etc.

So do you see how many songs the All Stars had in their repertoire? It’s more than many think. And you can examine many set lists and you’ll be hardpressed to find two that are identical. However, when Armstrong embarked on something like this, a painstaking, seemingly endless tour comprised of multiple shows a day, he didn’t mess with it. Thus, the 1959 tour features many similarly designed shows. Yeah, shows. That describes it best. Armstrong wasn’t putting on staged jam sessions but rather a “show,” something the All Stars could tear up and make sound fresh even if they were doing it 20 times in 10 days.

The 1959 tour, thus, usually followed a pattern and I’d like to take you through the pattern with some sound samples from Armstrong’s Stokholm concerts on January 16, 50 years ago today. Armstrong gave two concerts that day and both were recorded but no one quite knows which tunes come from which concert. Regardless, the surviving music is all great so get ready to enjoy Pops in Sweden.

Okay, so a typical 1959 European concert would open up with a lot of Pops. Naturally, “Sleepy Time” opened the proceedings:



And of course “Indiana” followed. This is a great one, with a strong Pops solo, meaning the chops were up and he was ready. Interestingly, Armstrong and Young always liked to play background riffs behind the clarinet solo but Peanuts Hucko did not like riffs. Thus, throughout the tour, you’ll hear Armstrong and Young play their first two notes in unison, then kind of trail off, a kind of inside joke that their riffs were no longer needed.



“Basin Street Blues” would follow. Just two months earlier, Armstrong recorded it for Decca, slowing down the first section dramatically. This is how he presents it here and in a very good version, complete with an encore, that weighs in at around eight minutes!


After “Basin Street,” his exhibitionistic side would come out on “Tiger Rag,” sometimes with multiple encores. This hot version has one encore with Pops shooting out the lights with some humorous “talking” playing, yelling at Young’s trombone as the two would chase each other around the stage, before some freakish high notes.


, before he’d do “Now You Has Jazz” from High Society. Armstrong always placed a high premium on songs that came from his films. A Song Is Born was a dud of a movie but Armstrong continued to play the title tune for at least four years while he also always introduced “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” as being from the little-seen The Strip (with “Mackie” Rooney). Thus, with High Society such a hit, no Armstrong show could go on without finding Armstrong doing “Now You Has Jazz” with Trummy Young in the role of Bing Crosby. Here ‘tis:



Those first five numbers usually ate up about 30 minutes, all of it featuring Armstrong. Needing a break, he’d throw it to pianist Billy Kyle for a feature. If Armstrong was feeling particularly hot, it would be a feature with some trumpet playing, like “Perdido” or “Sweet Georgia Brown.” If he really needed a few minutes (possible Swiss Kriss break!), the ball would be passed to Peanuts Hucko, who always opened with a pretty, three-minute reading of “Autumn Leaves” sans Armstrong. But after the two features, Armstrong was usually primed and would blow like mad on the next song, which would be another Hucko feature, one of many like “After You’ve Gone,” “Stealin’ Apples” or “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise.” Here’s “After You’ve Gone”:


After the Kyle feature and two Hucko features, Armstrong usually liked to come back and feature himself on a number such as “I Get Ideas,” a beautiful performance that became a staple of the 1959 tour:


Then it was time to feature bassist Mort Herbert, who had many features such as “I Cover the Waterfront,” “These Foolish Things” and “Love is Just Around the Corner.” Armstrong would always play on Herbert’s features but a true highlight would occur when Armstrong would allow Herbert to do a second feature in a row: “Old Man River,” complete with an Armstrong vocal! Dig it:


Thus, you can hear that Pops almost always got involved with his sidemen’s features, singing, playing, doing it all. After Herbert’s turn in the spotlight, Armstrong would come back with the ever popular “Mack the Knife.”


Armstrong, a master of pacing, would then play something pretty, such as his medley of “Tenderly” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” gorgeously presented here:


After calming down the audience with that medley, Armstrong would drive them back to bedlam with an extended Danny Barcelona drum feature on “Stompin’ At The Savoy.” “Sleepy Time” would be played and an action packed set, weighing in between 60 and 70 minutes, would be concluded.

Because he usually played two shows a day, Armstrong’s second sets during the trip would usually be much shorter. After “Sleepy Time,” Armstrong would usually begin with an instrumental such as “Royal Garden Blues,” which he played in Stockholm, but I don’t have. However, I do have a hot version of “Ole Miss” and I’m not exactly sure where it fits, so I think it’ll work here. Trummy Young was a relentless master of energetic playing but a little tiredness seems to have crept into his playing as he has trouble mustering some steam to propel into his second chorus. Regardless, Pops is out of control in the ensembles, especially with a crazy gliss in the rideout. Incredible playing:


Armstrong also saved his requests for the second set, possibly getting one in this show for “The Faithful Hussar.” This is a favorite of mine and one day will get a blog entry of its own. By this point, Armstrong was singing the silly lyrics he originally began doing a couple of years of earlier. Armstrong and Trummy sound great but I think Peanuts sounds a little bland in the ensemble, often just harmonizing Armstrong’s lines and not really generating any heat of his own. But Armstrong does take it back for an encore where he plays the melody an octave higher, always a great device:


If there was time, Trummy would get a feature, such as the “Undecided” he played in Stockholm but on a lot of these European dates, Trummy didn’t get one of his own, probably because he already shared the spotlight on “Now You Has Jazz.” Regardless, after only three or four tunes, Velma Middleton would be brought out. She always liked to open with a blues and by this time, she usually used the extended treatment of “St. Louis Blues” from the Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy album. The Stockholm rendition is an odd one because the tempo is a little slower than usual, resulting in a nearly eight-minute version. But the craziest moment occurs at the beginning where perhaps a little tiredness crept into Armstrong’s playing. He opens by playing “Twelfth Street Rag” but the band comes in with the minor intro to “St. Louis Blues.” Perhaps Pops was about to play a request but the band saw Velma coming? Pops tries to straighten himself out of the mess, putting down his horn to introduce Velma but when he picks it back up, he starts blowing the proper minor introduction...while the band is already on to the major blues section! It’s a rare moment of discord in an All Stars show and as my friend, Boston trumpeter Phil Person once put it to me, it sounds like Pops had a simple “brain fart.” It guess it happens to everyone, even Pops! Regardless, though the slower tempo is a little disconcerting a first, this version builds up quite a head of steam as it goes on, with the audience clapping along during Trummy’s solo. Armstrong’s rideout choruses are always something to marvel at:


Velma would hang around for “Ko Ko Mo,” which was played in Stockholm, but alas I don’t have it. And just like that, the quick second set would be over with a final, fast version of “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” Trummy and Peanuts had only been together for about six months but listen to the background riffs they worked out while Pops did the closing announcements (there would be more as the trip progressed). Armstrong takes it with his classic three-chorus rideout solo and the show is over:


That’s a helluva lot of entertainment in one evening. The crowd loved it and even the reviews were positive, something Armstrong wasn’t accustomed to anymore in the U.S. One said that “a gesture or a trumpet or vocal phrase is enough to spellbind the audience. His performances are entertainment as well as jazz music--a kind of one man show. He looks healthier and happier than during his last visit in 1955.”

The above rundown relates the typical framework of Armstrong’s 1959 European show but don’t think he stuck to it rigidly. He honored a lot of requests and there are many more songs to share in the coming months: “C’est Si Bon,” “La Vie En Rose,” “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Muskrat Rambles,” “Black and Blue,” “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans,” “Struttin’ WIth Some Barbecue” and more. Stay tuned in the coming months as we’ll relive the tour together so until the next stop, have a great weekend!