Thursday, August 27, 2009

I Love You, Samantha

High Society
Recorded January 6, 1956
Track Time 3:09
Written by Cole Porter
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Big Crosby, vocal; The MGM Studio Orchestra, johnny Green, conductor
Originally released on Capitol 3509
Currently available on CD: It's on the Rhino compilation of Armstrong's film work, Now You Has Jazz
Available on Itunes? Yes

Sometimes even I have to shut up and let beauty speak for itself. So, as promised, here's Bing Crosby singing "I Love You, Samantha" from High Society, which will be on Turner Classic Movies tonight at 10:30 (EST). Thanks to YouTube, here's the video of the scene:

And for those who would just like to listen to it in beautiful sound quality, the audio:


Enjoy it and have a great weekend!

45 Seconds Of Power And Swing....

On Friday night, Turner Classic Movies is showing the 1956 film High Society, which features one of Louis Armstrong's finest screen roles. I like the movie (though come on, it's really no Philadelphia Story) but I LOVE the music. My favorite Cole Porter tune from the score is "I Love You, Samantha," a beautiful tune that is still kept alive by some very tasteful jazz musicians (Evan Christopher performed a lovely version of it while I was in New Orleans earlier this month).

I hope to do a blog on "I Love You, Samantha" tomorrow morning. But today, I wanted to post something short and simple: a 45-second, burning chorus of "Samantha" also taken from the High Society soundtrack. For such a short performance, it sure packs a helluva wallop. This is the Armstrong-Trummy Young-Edmond Hall band in all their power and glory, generating an almost inhuman amount of heat in just a single chorus of music.

Of course, I don't want to short the Billy Kyle-Arvell Shaw-Barrett Deems rhythm section either. In the first part of the tune, where the horns play a unison, obviously arranged version of the melody, it's the rhythm that's swinging like mad, Kyle sprinkling arpeggios liberally, Shaw pounding away with that huge sound of his and Deems thrashing his cymbals and creating all kinds of subtle accents on his snare. When Trummy steps in the lead for a pretty spot (supported by a riff from the trumpet and clarinet), Deems closes up his hi-hat and the whole thing takes on a contained feeling. But how long can you contain a band like this? The answer: about eight bars. As they approach the bridge (my favorite part of the tune), Deems turns up the volume again and the fiery Edmond Hall takes center stage for bit, with Pops playing the melody behind him. It all bubbles over into the final eight bars, Deems whacking the backbeat, Armstrong riding high towards a typical All Stars ending, tighter than Deems's snare (Trummy making his presence felt on the way out).

It's only 45 seconds but I think it perfect captures the heat and excitement that could be generated at any time by this group, Armstrong's finest edition of the All Stars. What do you think? Give it a listen...then come back tomorrow for the pretty version!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

80 Years of Ain't Misbehavin': The 1950s Versions

And we’re back to the land of “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” folks, over a month after I began this endeavor by examinging Armstrong’s various takes on the Fats Waller classic in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Today, I’ll finally conclude this exhaustive (exhausting?) look at the tune by focusing on Armstrong’s 1950s versions.

We’ll start with a recording for the film The Strip, a Mickey Rooney B-level piece of noir that’s best known for Armstrong introducing “A Kiss to Build a Dream On.” Armstrong and the All Stars (the Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw, Cozy Cole edition) recorded a bunch of tracks for the film in December 1950 but not all of the material was used. However, the good people at Rhino swooped in and saved this version of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” from the cutting room floor:


I like this lightly swinging version, with Cole playing almost inaudible brushes. The tempo is up and Pops takes a nice break in the shortened first chorus. By this point, as discussed in the 1940s entry, Armstrong’s approach to the vocal was pretty much set in stone but it works, so why complain? Teagarden follows with a mellow outing with Barney’s clarinet taking the bridge, a standard part of the All Stars’s arrangement. But please listen to that final chorus for some outstanding improvising by Armstrong. He opens with his patented break but then goes for himself (no “Rhapsody in Blue”), which seems to throw the band off during his first break. He’s very relaxed and the ideas just seem to flow effortlessly from his horn. The closing coda is a bit shortened but Armstrong’s final high note is thrilling. We’re off and running!

You might think that that version represents how the All Stars usually approached “Ain’t Misbehavin.’” But there was always more than meets the eye when it came to this group. Critics complained that they played the same songs every night and sure, there were a lot of repeats. But listen sometimes to how they approached them differently each time out (“Sunny Side of the Street” had three distinct tempos, depending on Armstrong’s mood and his reading of the audience). So with that in mind, here’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” again literally one month to day after the version we’ve just heard. It’s an All Stars show in Vancouver (I think it might have been a dance, too) and this is how Pops called it:


Why, it’s practically a ballad! Okay, not quite; but this walking-and-swinging tempo is pretty far removed from the 1950 version. Armstrong only plays eight bars up front before going to into the vocal (which features a different scat break…I guess I spoke too soon about it being set in stone!). After Armstrong alerts his trombonist to “Take it, Mr. Jackson,” listen carefully to Armstrong say something about “We’re going out.” There’s a bad edit in the version I have but sure enough, Pops reenters at the bridge of Teagarden’s solo and takes the piece to its conclusion, complete with a great cadenza. Perhaps he gave it that treatment to suit the dancers? Or maybe, he just felt like cooling it a bit. Regardless, it’s still a good version to have and more proof to never take the All Stars for granted.

If there’s one thing that I’ve preached in the previous entries in this series, it’s that “Ain’t Misbehavin’” represents a crucially important song in the Armstrong canon as, to me, it signaled the beginning of his crossing over from being viewed as just a hot jazzman to being viewed as a great, popular entertainer. And as we’ve seen, he sure played the hell out of the tune in the 30s and 40s, using it often on the radio and even in a film. But interestingly, after the original nucleus of the All Stars broke up in 1951, Armstrong rarely performed the song and if he did, he usually announced it as a request. I really don’t have a reason for this, but it also happened to another one of his early hits, “Confessin’,” which he recorded and broadcast numerous times in the 1930s and 1940s, but only trotted out sporadically with the All Stars.

Thus, the next surviving version, from an Oslo on October 5, 1952, has the feel of a jam session, rather than being as tight as some of the other ones we’ve heard. Here’s the audio:


By this point, Armstrong was fielding almost an entirely different band. Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole remained but otherwise, Marty Napoleon now played piano and Bob McCracken and Trummy Young handled the clarinet and trombone responsibilities respectively. You’ll hear, Napoleon sounding like he’s about to take a 16-bar intro, but Pops steamrolls him after eight, causing a slight clash. But these were professional musicians and the first chorus jam sounds fine as wine. Before the vocal, Armstrong announces that this is a request, which becomes clear during Armstrong’s scat breaks: old hands Cole and Shaw properly stop playing; new guys McCracken and Napoleon keep playing a bit! On his second break, Armstrong’s voice disappears for a second as I think he must have admonished them and emphatically signaled to stop for a break.

After the vocal, the old routine is switched up as McCracken takes the lead with Trummy jumping in for a slightly unsure bridge and a swinging final eight. But by the time of Pops’s triumphant arrival, all is right in the world: the band catches all the breaks and Armstrong blasts out his old solo like he’s a young man again, Cozy Cole really digging in at the end (no polite brushwork here!). However, the ending is the key to realizing this was a spontaneous affair: realizing that the new guys in the band probably don’t know about the whole extended coda ending, Armstrong plays it safe and leads the charge towards a typical All Stars conclusion. I like this version because it’s a great example of the professionalism of the group, taking a tune they rarely, if ever, played anymore at this point and turning in a pretty jumping little performance.

The saga of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” yields zero surviving versions from the years 1953 and 1954, but when we get to 1955, we hit the motherlode: Armstrong’s Columbia album Satch Plays Fats. This album, the brainchild of producer George Avakian, was a natural for Armstrong and the All Stars and the result was one of Pops’s finest albums of the 1950s. By this point, Barrett Deems was on drums, Billy Kyle had taken over the piano chair and Barney Bigard returned to the clarinet post. Unfortunately, Barney was on fumes and his playing on Satch Plays Fats is pretty woeful. I’ve heard the existing session tapes and trust me, George Avakian deserves a medal of honor for editing it in such a way that Barney even sounds coherent.

Naturally, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” would be performed on the album, positioned as the final track, a fitting climax to a marvelous piece of work. In his original liner notes, Avakian wrote, “Loouis recorded it in exactly the length of time it takes to say ‘Pops, wanna do ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ next?,’ followed by a quick nod to the band and a warning to the engineers to keep the tape machines rolling. We didn’t even have to play this take back.” It’s a good story and perhaps on the issued take, they didn’t have to play it back. But truthfully, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was tackled three times, perhaps once at each of the album’s three sessions before the All Stars hit it out of the park on the third and final try. One of the alternates was released by Columbia in 1986 when they first issued Satch Plays Fats with almost exclusively alternate takes. However, the other alternate has been stuck in Columbia’s vaults for decades…until now. (Cue dramatic music)

Thanks to the generosity of George Avakian, I have the unedited takes of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and would like to share them right now. No one knows the exact date of this first attempt. This track opens with the voice of Avakian reading off the matrix number 53253, before he catches himself and reads off the correct one, 53254 (“Too many God-damned numbers,” he says!). CO 53253 was the number for “Honeysuckle Rose,” the third tune recorded at the album’s first April 26, session. Thus, this take could be the final tune from that session or the first one done at the following day’s second session. Regardless, here’s how it came out:


That’s the take Columbia used on their 1986 reissue. You’ll notice the relaxed tempo and the almost unsure way Deems enters during Kyle’s intro, making me wonder if this was meant to be a run-through and Avakian just recorded it in case he heard a good solo he needed to use later on in editing. Armstrong’s vocal is a good one, ending with a resounding, “Take it, Trummy Young” before Trummy swings out for a half chorus. Barney then takes the bridge, offering almost no power; Deems has to switch to playing quietly as not to overpower him and Armstrong’s supposed background fills immediately become a foreground lead. Armstrong sounds dynamite in the closing ensemble, getting off all the old ideas as well as uncorking some brand new ideas, the band really picking up steam as it heads down the home stretch. The track ends with the long coda, Armstrong supported by Deems’s cooking drums. Remember way back when when I shared a live broadcast of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” from 1935 and said it most resembled the Satch Plays Fats version? Now you can hear it for yourself; this is a long ending, Armstrong taking his time, building higher and higher, probably just as he did two decades earlier. A good take, but not quite ready for release.

Now, onto the unissued material. Again, this could either be from the April 27 second session or—the most likely scenario—the final session of May 3. Here ‘tis:


To me, THAT sounds like a run-through take. Well, first there’s the breakdown as Kyle hit a jarring chord and Pops got off on the wrong foot. Once situated, the band turned in a fine opening ensemble, though Trummy’s phrase leading into the vocal is a bit awkward. After the vocal, Trummy’s awkwardness continues in a solo that was probably best left in the vaults. Barney at least stays in tune this time, but he’s still a shadow of his former self. Almost to make amends for his sloppy playing, Trummy charges back in and swings violently for his final eight. Armstrong’s the iron man again, and completely nails his final chorus and the extended ending. Armstrong could do no wrong on these sessions.

Finally, on the May 3 session, the band tackled “Ain’t Misbehavin’” one last time and knocked it out of the park. Someone suggested that the tempo be raised a bit and those few extra beats of tempo made all the difference in the world. This is a seriously smoking version, my favorite one behind the original and the Town Hall outing. Dig it:


Yeah, man! By this point, I don’t think I need to analyze it too fully other than to say that the rhythm section is completely locked in and Trummy plays like a man possessed; nothing awkward here! His shouting solo is the epitome of everything he represented during his 11+ year tenure with the band. (Barney’s still going through the motions but it’s only eight bars, so who cares?) Armstrong’s in command yet again but just listen to the raw power and swing of the group as a whole as it comes out of the bridge and heads for the final eight. It’s only about five seconds long, but those five seconds contain some of the most joyous, heart-pounding, swinging moments of the history of the All Stars. I love it, especially when listening to the album as originally programmed; as the final track, it’s an unmatchable ending. Of course, there’s still the Armstrong-and-Deems ending, which is great, though honestly, I think I prefer Pops’s repeating of the final high notes on the slower first take. Whatever, it’s all great…

Even thought Satch Plays Fats was well-received by critics and a big seller for Columbia, it still wasn’t enough for Pops to make “Ain’t Misbehavin’” a regular part of the All Stars’s repertoire. Only two Armstrong versions of the tune survive after the 1955 studio outing and I’m not going to share the 1958 one because it’s sadly incomplete, the original tape having run out after Armstrong’s vocal (a pity because Armstrong was in superhuman form that night in North Bay, Ontario). And the final version I’m going to share is unfortunately in subpar sound quality.

But we must remain optimistic, right? It’s from November 1957 and features the All Stars during their triumphant tour of Buenos Aires. Most importantly, Barney Bigard’s long gone, replaced by the incredible Edmond Hall. (THIS is the band that should have recorded the Fats Waller and W.C. Handy albums for Columbia.) Here’s where our tour ends:


For more proof that the All Stars didn’t play this tune very often, listen to Billy Kyle’s piano introduction which a) goes through about three tempo changes, Armstrong probably setting him straight and b) goes on for a few bars longer than anticipated. No matter, as soon as he picks up his horn, it’s clear Armstrong’s chops are in phenomenal shape and though the sound quality is less than ideal, it’s great to hear the powerful front line of Pops, Trummy and Edmond Hall. The vocal is great, as usual, my favorite part being Armstrong’s singing of “Hay-vin’,” a perfectly swinging truncation of the title, eliminating both the “Ain’t” and the “Mis”! Trummy sounds good and Hall makes his presence felt before Armstrong takes us on one final tour of his old solo, still killing it almost 30 years after he first began performing it on the Broadway stage. And the pacing of the extended ending is exquisite. A fitting farewell to our look at Armstrong’s history with “Ain’t Misbehavin.’”

But why say farewell in 1957 when Armstrong died in 1971? Truthfully, I think the trumpet work in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was pretty damn demanding and after his heart attack in Spoleto, Italy in 1959, Armstrong probably retired the song for good. He sang it on The Mike Douglas Show in 1964 but didn’t play on it. Of course, he toured so much and so many shows don’t survive that I could very well be wrong. Maybe he got requests for it every month and still played the hell out of it. Maybe he didn’t. We might never know but at least we have over 20 surviving versions to savor from throughout the course of his great career.

But don’t go anywhere yet! If you’re still with me at this point, you’re either a trooper or your nuts, but I must reward your patience with a little of what folks in New Orleans like to call lagniappe. In 1959, Look magazine featured a promotional record of Armstrong, Bing Crosby, The Hi-Los and Rosemary Clooney talking and singing about Remington electric shavers. I’m proud to own a copy of the record—“Music to Shave By,” as it was called—but happier to share this YouTube video of it, guaranteed to make you smile. Not only does Pops play some powerhouse horn but dig those words and try not to laugh…”Ain’t misbehavin’, I’m shaving myself for you!” Enjoy!

Monday, August 24, 2009

We're A Home

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded December 18, 1967
Track Time 2:10
Written by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Clark Terry, trumpte; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Wally Richardson, Everett Barksdale, guitar; Buddy Catlett, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums; Mitch Miller, conductor; Norman Leyden, arranger
Originally released on United Artists 50251
Currently available on CD: No
Available on Itunes? No

Last week, I shared an ultra-rare recording of Armstrong's, "No Time Is A Good Good-Bye Time," copied for me by the great trumpeter Dave Whitney (who, it turns out, received his copy from the great Armstrong collector Jack Bradley). I went into the whole backstory in that entry, so scroll down for the details. But I thought about it and figured, why only share one side of a rare 45? So here's the flip side, "We're A Home," which closed the second act of Here's Where I Belong, a Broadway show that lasted for exactly one performance. It's more of the same, if you listened to "No Time": kind of a lightweight tune, but a pretty peppy arrangement, an infectiously enthusiastic Pops and a surprisingly agile trumpet solo for late 1967 (though Pops does seem to lose a bit of steam at the very end). Dig it:



S'all for today...tomorrow, finally, the conclusion of my four-part look at Armstrong's history with "Ain't Misbehavin'." Til then!

Friday, August 21, 2009

No Time Is A Good Good-Bye Time

Louis Armstrong and The All Stars
Recorded December 18, 1967
Track Time 2:05
Written by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Clark Terry, trumpte; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Wally Richardson, Everett Barksdale, guitar; Buddy Catlett, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums; Mitch Miller, conductor; Norman Leyden, arranger
Originally released on United Artists 50251
Currently available on CD: No
Available on Itunes? No

After giving the ol' Itunes shuffle a spin a couple of times, I decided to honor an old request by one of my readers, Len Pogost, who wanted me to do something on a true rarity in the Armstrong discography, "No Time Is A Good Good-Bye Time." How rare is this song? Never mind MP3s; it has never been issued on CD and in the United States, only survives in its original 45 pressing. Fortunately, fellow Pops-nut Dave Whitney has a copy of that record and he was gracious enough to copy it for me, which is how I will be sharing it today. So big thanks to Dave...you'll want to thank him to, because the record is surprisingly a good one.

The song "No Time Is A Good Good-Bye Time" comes from a Here's Where I Belong, a Broadway musical version of John Steinbeck's East of Eden written by Alex Gordon and Terrence McNally with music by Alfred Uhry and Robert Waldman. If you do some quick online research on those names, you'll see that they're all talented men who went on to do some good things in the theater world...but Here's Where I Belong wasn't one of them. It literally closed after one single performance. A total bomb. McNally asked for his name to be removed from the credits before it even opened! To quote Uhry, "None of us mention it in our bios." Yikes.

So how did Louis Armstrong get involved? Well, it was "Hello, Dolly" all over again, at least on paper. Someone with ties to the show must have grabbed Joe Glaser's ear and convinced him that the show was going to be a smash and that it featured a couple of songs that would be ideal for Pops. Glaser probably threw a number out there and United Artists bit, even giving him the show's producer, Mitch Miller, as the A&R man. Mind you, this was literally weeks after the Brunswick session that produced "The Gypsy In My Soul," as discussed here the other day. And it was days after Armstrong sang four songs IN ITALIAN for the Company Discografica Italiana label.

Pardon me while I have a strange interlude; it's almost mind-boggling how many labels Armstrong recorded for in his last years. Think about it: from 1932 through 1954, Armstrong had exclusive contracts with TWO labels, Victor (1932-1933, 1946-1947) and Decca (1935-1946, 1949-1954). In 1954 he became a free agent and started recording for Columbia and Decca. In 1956, Norman Granz's Verve threw itself into the mix. From 1959 through 1961, there were various dates for Audio Fidelity, Roulette, Capitol and Columbia...growing, but still nothing crazy. But once "Dolly" exploded and Kapp decided to do an album around in, all hell broke loose. From 1964 through 1970, Armstrong recorded for Kapp, Mercury, Reprise, Capitol, Columbia, Brunswick, ABC-Paramount, Company Discografica Italiana, United Artists, Buena Vista, Flying Dutchman and Atco (thanks to Jos Willems's All of Me discography for the information!). 12 labels in six years...it's ridiculous! But it was Glaser's way. The days of long-term contracts ended for him in the mid-50s when Armstrong's popularity grew to new heights. From then on anyone and their mother could record Armstrong...for the right price. And unfortunately, because Glaser and the record producers all wanted hits, Armstrong's late-60s studio recordings are as erratic as they come.

End of the interlude. So Armstrong was chosen to record these two numbers in December 1967, to be ready for the show's March 3, 1968 opening (and as it turned out, closing). As already mentioned, Mitch Miller was the producer of the show so he ran the recording session. As my faithful readers know, for ages I've written stuff like, "I'd like to share that story, but I have to save something for the book!" Well, as I announced last week, I turned in my manuscript to Pantheon last week. Needless to say, it's almost half the size of what it once was. The title of my original draft could have been titled "This Is What Louis Armstrong Did Every Day Of The Last 25 Years Of His Life...ZZZZZZ."

And you guessed it, I actually had a draft with a section on this session! Needless to say, that paragraph wasn't about to win me any awards so I axed it. But it did contain a quote from Joe Muranyi that I'd like to share now. Joe was Pops's last clarinetist and he's still going strong today. Here's Joe: "We did a thing, two sides for Mitch Miller. He was the best A&R man I ever saw. He was so sensitive to Pops. He was won-fucking-wonderful. He actually had charts written for our band. I mean, the songs are the songs. They’re kind of rare, nobody pays much attention. The show bombed. He actually wrote charts. And the show bombs."

I thought it was beautiful hearing how respectful Miller was towards Armstrong. Miller's "sensitive" way paid off dividends as Armstrong sings with almost crazy enthusiasm and takes a very nice trumpet spot. However, Miller did not write the arrangement, which was done by Norman Leyden, a busy arranger and conductor in the film and television world of the 1960s (he would go one to become conductor of the Oregon Symphony Pops Orchestra in 1968). And you'll notice in the personnel listing that Clark Terry played trumpet, too, which must have made for a fun recording session. Clark and Louis were good friends and admirers of each other's playing; Armstrong named Clark as one of his personal favorites in a Leonard Feather "Blindfold Test" from 1954 (Clark had also done studio work with Armstrong the previous week during the Italian sessions...isn't Clark writing a book? I wonder if he mentions these sessions).

With the scene set, here is the very rare studio recording of "No Time Is A Good Good-Bye Time":


Isn't that a lot of fun? As Muranyi said, "I mean, the songs are the songs"; it's not exactly Cole Porter. But the bouncy arrangement is catchy and Pops's is ridiculously infectious...dig those scat breaks! The band swings for Pops's trumpet interlude; where he sounds very strong except for one or two slightly missed notes (par for the course by this point in his life). His scatting after the trumpet solo almost made me fall out of my chair the first time I heard it, while the ending is as joyous as it gets. It's all over in 125 seconds but I enjoyed every one of them.

You would think that the "No Time" story is over but wait, there's more! Pops must have been told to really push this song because he performed it live on The Hollywood Palace in an episode that was filmed on January 11 but aired on February 24, just days before the ill-fated opening. This version was released on C.D. by the Moon label out of Italy and it's worth a listen. This time it's just Armstrong and the All Stars and it's interesting to hear them still performing touches of the arrangement without the other trumpet or the guitars. (Could they have performed this live? It's pretty tight.) Armstrong's trumpet still sounds very good but I think his last smear would have sounded cleaner just a few years earlier...damn old-age. Here's the live version:


Interestingly, the live one also clocks in at 125 seconds on the nose. Armstrong still sounds like joy personified, if a little more subdued than on the studio version. And though I have some of Armstrong's Hollywood Palace appearances on DVDs in my collection, I've never been able to find a video copy of this episode. If anyone out there has a lead, drop me a line. S'all for now...thanks to Len for the suggestion, to Dave for the copy of the song and to the rest of you for still putting up with my nonsense...interludes and all. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Gypsy In My Soul

Louis Armstrong With Dick Jacobs's Orchestra
Recorded November 1, 1967
Track Time 2:52
Written by Clay Boland and Moe Jaffe
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Tyree Glenn, trombone; Joe Muranyi, clarinet; Marty Napoleon, piano; Art Ryerson, banjo; Wally Richardson, guitar; Everett Barksdale, electric bass; Buddy Catlett, bass; Grady Tate, drums; with unknown vocal group with three male and three female voices, Dick Jacobs, conductor
Originally released on Brunswick BL 754136
Currently available on CD: Tough to find, but it's on a couple of compilations, including one blandly titled "The Best of Louis Armstrong"
Available on Itunes? Yes

It must be Dick Jacobs week on my Ipod. Yesterday, I shuffled it and came up with "Ramona," with Jacobs as a member of the saxophone section. And today it's "The Gypsy in My Soul," one of Jacobs's arrangements for a 1968 Armstrong album on Brunswick, I Will Wait For You. Trust me, yesterday was a much better choice...

That's not to say that "The Gypsy in My Soul" is worthless. No, that distinction would go to a couple of other Jacobs-arranged choices for that Brunswick LP such as "I Believe" or "The Happy Time." In the words of All Stars clarinetist Joe Muranyi, who played on these sessions, Jacobs was a "schmuck." Muranyi made sure to let me know that he wasn't a bad guy or anything but he was just a square, commercial arranger. And even with the great Louis Armstrong at the microphone, he produced an album of square, commercial music.

I know my reputation is the guy who worships every note that Armstrong ever played or sang. Hell, to some, I probably treated "Ramona" like "West End Blues." But even I have to admit when things went wrong and that Brunswick stuff is pretty lame. Armstrong gives it his all but the material is too weak and he only gets to play 40 bars of trumpet on the entire album. I've blogged about "I Will Wait For You," the title song, which is outstanding, and the vocal version of "You'll Never Walk Alone" is very affecting. But the rest? It's touch and go throughout...

"The Gypsy in My Soul" was written in 1937 by two graduates of the University of Pennsylvania, Moe Jaffe and Clay Boland. It was written for the 50th anniversary of UPenn's Mask and Wig show and according to sources, wasn't much of a hit at the time of its composition but over the years, it grew into something of a minor standard. Some jazzmen tackled it, such as Lester Young, Oscar Peterson and Barney Kessell, but really, it was a tune tailor made for the pop ilk such as Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Patti Page and Doris Day.

I don't know how the tune ended up on Armstrong's Brunswick LP since it had been written 30 years earlier. Every other song on that album was either the theme song of a film or in the case of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "That's My Desire," a song Armstrong was currently featuring live with the All Stars. Perhaps Pops himself suggested it since he had a thing for gypsies (see my previous blog on "The Gypsy," which included a radio interview Armstrong did from 1968 where he goes into some detail on the subject).

Anyway, at least "The Gypsy In My Soul" is of a better pedigree than some of the other slop on the album. Pops sounds happy throughout and even takes a short, but potent trumpet spot. Unfortunately, you'll also hear the trademarks's of Jacobs's arrangements: the cloying voices, the organ and the rubbery bounce of Everett Barksdale's electric bass (Barksdale was also on "Ramona"...get that man his guitar back!). Here's how it came out:


There it is. When I concentrate on Pops, it's hard not to smile. He's clearly enjoying the songs, belting out the "No cares, no strings" strain with gusto. You can hear the All Stars trying to be the All Stars behind him, but they're frequently clashing with organ and the electric bass. But after the vocal chorus, the band decides to swing instead of bounce and everything picks up. Tyree Glenn swings out in a short spot before Pops comes out in a declarative mood for eight totally too-short bars of trumpet playing. By this point, Armstrong's chops were officially erratic, struggling one night and nailing all the high notes the next. He sounds like he's having a good day here but at eight bars, there's not really enough to sink one's teeth into.

Pops's reprisal of the vocal is good one but he really unleashes his personality with his spoken asides during the closing vamp: "Hey, Gypsy! Come on over here, babes!" Fun stuff. Overall, not a record for the time capsule but hey, it made me smile and in the end, Louis Armstrong's music can always be counted on for that.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ramona

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded April 21, 1953
Track Time 2:45
Written by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Mabel Wayne
Recorded in New York, NY
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Milt Yaner, Dick Jacobs, alto saxophone; Sam Taylor, tenor saxophone; Everett Barksdale, guitar; Joe Bushkin, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums
Originally released on Decca 28704
Currently available on CD: Satchmo Serenades
Available on Itunes? Yes

Regular blogging resumes today, though not with the promised look at Armstrong's 1950s versions of "Ain't Misbehavin'." I had forgotten just how many renditions of that song survive from that decade so I'm going to hold off a bit until I have a little extra time. So for now, I'll take my wife's pleading advice to write shorter blogs and pepper in the encyclopedia entries for when the baby's sleeping.

Thus, I gave the ol' Itunes shuffle a spin and it landed on a good old good one, "Ramona." The song was written in 1928 by two Americans familiar with writing tunes that dealt with other nationalities and countries, lyricist L. Wolfe Gilbert ("The Peanut Vendor," "I Miss my Swiss") and Mabel Wayne ("In a Little Spanish Town," "It Happened in Monterey"). The tune was introduced in a 1927 film of the same name and first became a smash hit in 1928 thanks to a version by Dolores del Rito. YouTube loves "Ramona" so if you're interested in some of these early versions, stay put. Here's del Rito's original waltzing treatment:, complete with broken English (it took me a few seconds to hear if she was singing in English or Spanish):


Del Rio had such a hit, it was only a matter of time before the cover versions started rolling out. Here's Mr. 1920s himself, Gene Austin's take:

And here's the always original "Whispering" Jack Smith's cover. I don't own any Smith, but thanks to YouTube and such, I've developed an admiration for his talking style. Dig it:


Interestingly, "Ramona" didn't seem to break into the jazz world. Paul Whiteman did a straight cover of it in 1928 and Benny Goodman swung an Eddie Sauter arrangement over it over a decade later, but otherwise, it does not seem to have made much of an impact of the jazz fraternity.

So how did Louis Armstrong end up recording it for Decca in 1953? Well, if you know anything about Armstrong's recording relationship with Decca during this period, there could only be one answer: he was covering a recent popular hit. So who dug up "Ramona" 25 years after its inception? That would be The Gaylords, a popular male vocal group of the era (with a name that's unlikely to be revived in today's pop music world). Here's their original Mercury recording (stay for the shuffling, swing treatment midway through...where's Louis Prima when we need him?).


According to old Billboard magazines (now available on Google), The Gaylords's take on "Ramona" was pretty popular on jukeboxes during the first months of 1953, and figured in multiple ads, such as those for Mercury Records's best-selling discs. Covers were quickly made by Les Brown, Gordon McRae, Tony Martin, Vic Damone and--you guessed it--Pops. Armstrong recorded his version on April 21, 1953, while in the midst of his infamous tour with Benny Goodman. Armstrong played so much horn on that tour, he almost killed Goodman, as Bobby Hackett put it, and that good form shows on the two tracks he made for Decca that day (the other being "April in Portugal," a subject for another day). Armstrong had his All Stars with him, including pianist Joe Bushkin, who just joined for the Goodman tour. Also, three saxophone vets of the studio scene filled in the harmonies, including raucous R&B tenor man Sam "The Man" Taylor and Dick Jacobs, the man behind some of Armstrong's weakest recordings of the 1960s. No one seems to know who did the arrangements for the date but Sy Oliver wouldn't be out of the question.

With the preliminaries out of the way, let's hear how Armstrong performed "Ramona":


The record opens with the always-welcome sound of Pops's voice, intoning the song's namesake. Barney Bigard gets off one of his patented runs--a pretty hot one--and Trummy Young answers with some sober playing. Armstrong then sings the vocal passionately, barely deviating from the written melody. The rhythm section is decidedly two-beat, but in a Lunceford-ian way, which makes me think this is the work of Sy Oliver (compare the feel to "Your Cheatin' Heart," recorded earlier that year). Armstrong shows off his vocal range throughout the first chorus, exuding warmth with each gravel-coated syllable.

But stand back for the main event. After a neat setup by Barney and Trummy (Trummy still sounding very smooth in his quick muted run), Pops steps up to the mike for a powerful half-chorus of trumpet playing. Again, he sticks close to the melody but it's where he plays it that kills me every time. He could have easily asked for a modulation...but then, he wouldn't be Armstrong. So he just jumps in and plays it in the upper stratosphere of his range. It's one of those, "He's not going to be able to do it" solos but sure enough, he nails it and even tops it off with a superb break. Gorgeous stuff.

Armstrong reprises his vocal, just as warm as the first time around, and even extends the ending with a little scatting and a devilishly insinuating "Mm-hmm" before picking up the horn for one last run up to the heavens. A beautiful little record.

Armstrong's version wasn't a hit by any means but it did get a positive review in the May 30, 1953 issue of Billboard: "Gravel-voiced Louis awards the recently revived evergreen a reading full of the individual appeal that has build him his large following. Armstrong fans will grab; others may sample."

Armstrong never played "Ramona" again, as far as I can tell, but the song still had a couple of surprises in it. It became a number one hit in Germany thanks to a version by the Blue Diamonds (also available on YouTube). And in 1968, Billy Walker's country-fied (country-fried?) take on the tune cracked the top 10 charts in America. It's an endearing tune and I think we should be thankful that Decca passed it along to Pops to create something so warm and so memorable.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Weekend video: St. Louis Blues (And Around the Jazz Blogosphere)

After turning in my manuscript on Monday, I had a fairly relaxing week away from the computer, spending lots of time with the wife and baby and making a trip up to NY to catch two wonderful sets by David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. But now I realize that I've left this blog high and dry for too long so come Monday, I hope to resume regular blogging activity once again, hopefully churning out two to three entries per week. We'll see how long it lasts, but I have missed doing it regularly and besides, I never concluded the thrilling saga of "Ain't Misbehavin'!" Hopefully next week...

In the meantime, I want to point your attention to some other dynamite blogs out there. My pal Michael Steinman over at Jazz Lives has been posting some excellent videos of the great Swedish trumpeter Bent Persson playing Armstrong tunes at the Whitley Bay jazz festival last month. And over at Pete Kelly's Blog, Boston-based trumpeter Dave Whitney has been doing fine work on Bobby Hackett, The Five Pennies and more. And perhaps most excitingly, the authoritative jazz historian Chris Albertson has thrown his hat into the jazz blogging world with the endlessly fascinating Stomp Off in C..., a treasure trove of photos, anecdotes, autobiographical stories and more (Lil Hardin on Joe Oliver!), all amassed from his epic collection and epic mind. (Chris also let me use some of his treasures in my Armstrong manuscript, which wouldn't have been the same without them. Countless thanks for that...) Dig it all, my friends, dig it all...

And finally, a video to start the weekend in style: Pops and the All Stars, 1959, rocking on "St. Louis Blues." The first time I saw this video from Antwerp (available on one of those Jazz Icons DVDs), I was disappointed by the static camera work but it's grown on my over time; when it comes down to it, this is how the group looked from a good seat the audience, so fancy camera work be damned, I just try to enjoy the music. The band swings pretty violently and Pops sounds amazing. Enjoy it and I hope to be back on Monday with some all-new material. Have a great weekend!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Jubilee

I know the blogging life has been spotty over the past weeks and right now I don't have the gas in my tank to unleash one of my usual diatribes. But today was a big day in my world as, after years of work, I turned in my Louis Armstrong manuscript to my editor at Pantheon. I had been rewriting it and editing it right up until the minute before I hit "send" but once it went out, I was hit with a wave of jubilation. Looking back at the last month-and-a-half of my life, I gave three Armstrong lectures at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, four Armstrong presentations at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans, had weekly gigs, took care of my four-month-old daughter, kept my wife happy and finished a book. Thus, I might need a day or two to come down from what has been a hectic, if incredibly rewarding time in my life.

But naturally, the music of Pops kept me going through it all. And now that it's behind me (for now), the one Armstrong song that probably best reflects my mood is the 1938 recording of "Jubilee." So without my long-winded spiels, here's the basic info: it's Pops and Luis Russell's orchestra (Paul Barbarin on drums) doing a Hoagy Carmichael tune, swinging like mad on an arrangement by the great, unsung Chappie Willet. Armstrong's trumpet positively soars on this number, guaranteed to put an end to any trace of negativity in your day. As the lyrics state, "Mr. Gloom won't be about, music always knocks him out, sing a song, you can shout, and join the Jubilee!"

Join in!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Pops! - Boy From New Orleans

I'm starting this entry at 9:16 p.m. on August 4, which means that in less than three hours, Louis Armstrong's 108th birthday will be over...but hey, it's technically still the 4th, so I'm going to celebrate it anyway right here, right now. First off, I'm back in New Jersey after my dream trip to New Orleans. I still have more pictures to share but they're on the laptop which is not with me right now, so I'll have to save those for another day. But it was just a Pops lovefest from the start to finish and it warmed my heart to see my presentations go over so well with the crowds down there. I also ate to point of nearly dying but that's a story for another day...needless to say, I love New Orleans!

But I also love Louis Armstrong (does it show?) and I wanted to do something quick for his birthday. At my final presentation, I closed with a poignant clip from the David Frost Show of Armstrong singing "Boy From New Orleans." The song was an autobiographical take on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," recorded with a big band arranged by Oliver Nelson for the Bob Theile-produced album Louis Armstrong and Friendson May 29, 1970. It's one of the highlights of that erratic outing and oddly enough, the only song on the entire album that swings. Oliver wrote a great chart and the studio band swung like mad, driven by Frank Owens and Bernard "Pretty" Purdie's work in the rhythm section. It's a perfectly appropriate song to listen to on Pops's birthday because of the lyrics really are a fun way of picking up on the saga of Satchmo. Dig it:



Isn't that a lot of fun? Well, if you know Pops's story, you might know that Armstrong's health was still in recovery during the making of that album and except for a bunch of television talk show appearances, he hadn't performed live with the All Stars since September 1968. But Armstrong rallied that summer and ended up doing two weeks in Las Vegas with his small group, splitting the bill with Pearl Bailey. He made more television appearances (now playing trumpet), flew to London for a benefit one nighter and did another run in Vegas in December. Feeling cocky, Armstrong took a two-week engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria's Empire Room in March 1971. According to reviews of Armstrong's opening, he was still in good form, playing the trumpet and putting on his usual, entertaining show. But midway through, it all proved too much for him and Armstrong began ailing. Somehow, he fought his way through the pain to finish the engagement, but had a heart attack two days later. He recovered and went home briefly but the end came on July 6 of that year.

So why the sad story on such a celebratory day? And what does it have to do with "Boy From New Orleans"? Good questions (glad I asked them). From my research, Armstrong was closing out his Waldorf shows with "Boy From New Orleans." Thus, the last words ever spoken by Armstrong on stage of the slow final chorus of this tune:

Now all through the years,
Folks, I've had a ball
Oh thank you Lord
And I want to thank you all.
You were very kind to old Satchmo, yes.
Just a Boy From New Orleans.


It's pretty chilling stuff to just read them but it gets even more poignant. When Armstrong began performing "Boy From New Orleans" live, he slowed the tempo in half, keeping it at a medium-to-slow bounce, thus, making that last chorus much more drawn out. Something that almost sounds upbeat and cute on the studio record became tremendously emotional on the stage. Also, as I started by saying, I have video of Armstrong singing the song on the David Frost Show, filmed in January of 1971, just months before the end. The first time I saw him sing that last chorus, I cried like a baby. He delivered it with the most serious expression imaginable, only smiling a little during his "thank yous." When I showed it in New Orleans, I could barely talk before and after it and people came up to me afterwards to tell me what an emotional impact it had on them.

Unfortunately, I cannot share the Frost footage online. But Armstrong did perform it live at a National Press Club concert from the same week of the Frost show. Give it a listen and let those words sink in. It was a perfect song to conclude his career; to the very end, he always remained quite simply a boy from New Orleans. Happy Birthday, Pops...


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Greetings From New Orleans!

Hello friends. I'm sitting here in my hotel room on Canal Street, still basking in the glow of Pops after the fantastic first two days of the Satchmo Summerfest down here in New Orleans. Really, for Pops lovers, this is heaven on earth (minus the weather). At one point, David Ostwald, Dan Morgenstern and myself were going back and forth discussing the different keys Louis Armstrong played "When It's Sleepy Time Down South In." At that point, the 1951 Gordon Jenkins Decca recording began playing and we were pointing out all sorts of stuff. George Avakian's song Greg was just looking at us with an amused smile before he couldn't resist: "You guys are jazz nerds!" We proudly agreed with him and reasoned that this was the only time a year that such a gathering of Armstrong nuts like us could get together and discuss such trivial matters and we were definitely going to take advantage of it!

Anyway, I promised I would do some live updates for the festival but it looks like I'll only get this one out today and then probably a wrap-up when I get home on Monday. The truth is, my updates from last year were a lot more fun because I had my all-in-one photographer/videographer/wife Margaret along for the ride...and also, a two-week old fetus...which we definitely did not know about at the time! But because that fetus grew up to be Ella and this humidity is no scene for a four-month-old baby, I had to leave the wife and child behind, making this a somewhat bittersweet trip. But Margaret keeps a steady stream of pictures and updates coming so that definitely helps.

I arrived in New Orleans on Thursday afternoon, having flown from Newark with Dan Morgenstern. The evening brought us to an opening reception and my first encounter this trip with red beans and rice..."my birthmark," as Armstrong put it. The main event that night centered on a keynote address Robert O'Meally which corresponded the breathtaking photo exhibit "Jam Session: America's Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World." Here I am, backed by a beautiful color portrait of Pops on his throne durnig his 1960 trip to the Congo:


The exhibit is pretty breathtaking, featuring not just Armstrong but photos of Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Benny Goodman, Dizzy GIllespie and others during their overseas tours of the late-50s and 1960s. But naturally, the photos of Pops were, to me, the most captivating, including this one from Cairo that was too much for David Ostwald's emotions to handle. You can see why:

And since I'm introducing the cast of characters, here's Ostwald and O'Meally talking shop (and probably Pops) before O'Meally's address:

O'Meally was as smooth as they come, captivating the overflowing audience with his talk about jazz's global ambassadors and peppering it with terrific footage from Satchmo the Great. We were off and running...

Friday began with a breakfast at the French Market Cafe, where we were serenaded by Dr. Michael White's Original Liberty Jazz Band with the impressive young trumpeter Mark Chatters (his proud father Maynard was by his side, playing trombone...keep that tradition alive!). Yoshio Toyarma, the incredible Armstrong-influenced trumpeter from Japan, who I couldn't stop raving about last year, brought his horn and sat in for a rousing "Hello, Dolly":

From there it was off to Armstrong Park for a birthday celebration for Pops (a few days early, but hey, it's still in the "birthday month" of July 4 to August 4, right?). If you squint, you'll see myself and Dan standing together at the front gate (Dan pointed to his mouth and said, "What am I? Gatemouth!"):

A good crowd attended the celebration, featuring this festive-birthday cake:

Finally, I was called up to stand with Dan, George Avakian and Michael Cogswell to lead the crowd in singing "Happy Birthday" to Pops under the giant statue that serves as the centerpiece of the park:


I have to admit, when I came down to New Orleans for the first time last year, I was sadly unimpressed by Armstrong Park. People told me that it had been deteriorating for years and obviously, Katrina didn't help matters. But over the last year, a massive restoration process took part and I have to admit, it pretty gorgeous this time around. A great job by all involved!

Yoshio Toyama and The Dixie Saints then played a short, but powerful set of Armstrong classics. Here's Yoshio, his banjo-playing wife Keiko and the great American drummer Jimmie Smith, who moved to Japan decades ago and has been playing with Yoshio for years:

I've heard many trumpet players in my day but I can't think of another who better captures Armstrong's pure golden sound like Yoshio. I took a few low quality videos and will share them probably when I get back.

After the birthday celebration, it was off to the Presbytere for the first full day of seminars. This is a big year because not only is it the 60th anniversary of Armstrong being named "King of the Zulus" but it's the 100th anniversary of the Zulu organization. To mark the occasion, a tremendous, two-floor exhibit is currently being housed at the Presbytere that chronicles the entire history of the Zulus. They did a spectacular job with the exhibit, which I believe will be up for a few more months. Michael Cogswell then talked about Armstrong's reign as Zulu King before I closed out the day by celebrating the 50th year of Armstrong's massive 1959 tour of Europe, showing video clips of the many concerts and film appearances that survive.

The evening brought on the Satchmo Club Strut down Frenchman Street, with more music than any one human being could possibly enjoy in a single night. The highlight, for me, was watching 98-year-old (!) trumpeter Lionel Ferbos still playing and singing with all his heart. The man's an inspiration. And with Lionel leading the band, he made 90-year-old George Avakian seem like a young man! Jon Pult was there to make sure George took a well-received bow:


So overall, it's just been a dream so far and it's only going to get better today with even more seminars at the Old U.S. Mint. ( If you're in town, stop by and say hello!) And if you're in front of a computer today at 4:15 New Orleans time (that's 5:15 for my east coast readers), go to www.wwoz.org and listen as I'll be interviewed live from the festival right before I present at 4:45. S'all for now, it's breakfast and down here, breakfast equals beignets (I might need two airline seats to get home on Monday!). Time for scarfing...have a great weekend!