Saturday, May 8, 2010

80 Years of "Tiger Rag" - Part Three: Super Tiger Rag (and 1930s broadcasts)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded November 7, 1934
Track Time 3:07
Written by Nick La Rocca
Recorded in Paris, France
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Jack Hamilton, Leslie Thompson, trumpet; Lionel Guimaraes, trombone; Peter duConge, Henry Tyree, Alfred Pratt, reeds; Herman Chittison, piano; Maceo Jefferson, guitar; German Arago, bass; Oliver Tines, drums.
Originally released on Brunswick A 500490
Currently available on CD: It’s on the CD Jazz in Paris: Louis Armstrong and Friends
Available on Itunes? Yes

Welcome to part three of our examination of Louis Armstrong's history with "Tiger Rag"...and we're still in the 1930s! As we left off last time, Louis was relaxing in Europe for much of 1934, resting his lip and trying to formulate a comeback after being plagued with mob troubles and manager-related headaches back in the United States. On November 7, 1934, Louis made his first official studio recording in a year-and-a-half (and he wouldn't record for 11 months after this session). Almost as if to prove that his lip was still made of iron, he opened with two showpieces, a blazing "St. Louis Blues" and a version "Tiger Rag" so exciting it was named "Super Tiger Rag" on the label. As I mentioned, this is Dan Morgenstern's favorite Louis version of "Tiger Rag" and it rates very, very high for me, too. Here's the audio:


The first thing you'll notice, if you've been with me this week, is that Louis has now dropped the tempo a bit to a more manageable, though still demanding, gait. Louis leads off with the first strain, playing it fairly straight with his own, customary changes in phrasing. I wish I knew who was playing what, but the clarinet player gets off some good breaks, including one from "Rigoletto" that was always a favorite of Pops's. A gruff tenor (leader Peter DuConge?) takes a final solo, steeped a bit in Coleman Hawkins, before a daring outing by the great American pianist Herman Chittison. Chittison really tears it up, offering
up some of Earl Hines's ambidextrous movements, along with some Tatum-esque virtuosity. Chittison should be better known but he never really broke through, dying in 1967 (though apparently, he appeared on a Boston television program playing three duets with Louis in 1960...I wish that footage would turn up!).

After Chittison's offering, Louis jumps in with what seems like a snatch of "When You and I Were Young Maggie." He's super relaxed and his playing is very daring; listen to how he approaches his first break and how he keeps that rhythmic motive going for a few extra bars, breaking the tension by turning it into an exciting upwards run. Armstrong's second chorus is a stunner; no quotes, no riffs, it's just pure improvisation, with more tension-filled rhythms. I mean, this cat is really on the high wire a couple of times but he never falls. Perhaps the slower (slower!?) tempo allowed Pops to relax and improvise more; whatever the reason, I'm not complaining!

But finally, with one more chorus in him, Louis pulls out all the stops....and how! He holds a supercharged high Ab before playing a final chorus chock full of high C's. This is as close to the 100-high-notes-Louis of the early 30s ever captured on records and I think it's pretty exciting. All in all, he hits 30 high C's in the final chorus, holding the last one to great effect, before building up to that final high Eb (again, F on the trumpet). And as he comes down the home stretch, he raises the tempo a few notches, the band speeding up with him.Chops trouble? What chops trouble? Super!

Back in America in 1935, Louis hired Joe Glaser as his new manager and began climbing off the deck, recording popular songs for Decca and appearing in major motion pictures and on radio. Glaser used to like to pat himself on the back and try to take credit for having Louis "sing and make faces" and not do too many wild things on the trumpet. I don't know about that, Joe; throughout the 1930s, Louis had plenty of trumpet showcases in his live shows. Broadcasts survive of special arrangements of "Dinah," "St. Louis Blues" and "Swing That Music" from throughout the decade, all of which don't exactly feature Louis's low register.

And for our purposes, "Tiger Rag" stayed in the book, too. And thanks to the essential C.D. release "The Historic Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts" (have you ordered your copy for Mother's Day, yet?), it finally saw the light of day in 2008. It was worth the weight. The tempo's back in the stratosphere and with an "audience" (presumably band members) cheering him on, it's a thrilling spectacle from start to finish. Here's this 1937 broadcast:


Wow, you know what? THAT might be my new favorite version! (That's the fun part of writing blogs like this one, analyzing multiple versions of the same song; always find new things to appreciate.) As I mentioned in previous posts, Louis was a master of tinkering and refining his solos in live performances. So far we've heard three marvelous improvised choruses on the 1930 recording, eight exhibitionistic offerings from 1932 and a combination, two-improvised/one-exhibitionistic "Super Tiger Rag" solo. By 1937, Louis had really worked it out to a tee, keeping everything that worked best and eliminating some of the, what some might call, "time killing" choruses. It's just five choruses of dynamite.

Albert Nicholas's clarinet is all over the front of this version of "Tiger Rag," always cause for celebration. Nicholas is momentarily interrupted by Pops for one of his introductory monologues--complete with a plug for an engagement at the Paramount! After Nicholas swings out for another one, trombonist J.C. Higginbotham grabs the "Tiger" by the throat and gives it a good working over. But then--Jesus, the tempo gets even faster! This rhythm section, with Pops Foster on bass and Paul Barbarin on drums, could handle this tempo but I'm sure it wasn't too much fun. Immediately, people start cheering, someone chanting for "Louie" as Pops steps back up to the mike to announce that it will take five choruses to catch this tiger.

To me, the reduction down to five choruses might have something to do with chops. I jokingly downplayed his lip troubles earlier when discussing the Paris version but he did indeed have a serious ailment. He always continued with his trumpet showpieces but no longer revisited his 100-high-C's days (and that, indeed, might have come from Glaser). Louis was in, I think, absolute peak form in the late 1930s but I just think he learned to pace himself a little better. Musicians in the early 30s remembered him taking over 10 choruses on "Tiger Rag" in public and that 1932 recording featured eight. With passing time, he cut it to five...but a more perfect five he could not have picked.

Armstrong opens up completely in his 1933 Danish film bag, repeating his two-note C-to-Eb call to arms in his first chorus before opening the second chorus with "Gypsy Love Song." The ascending little flourish he plays in the middle of his second chorus (leading into the "Pagliacci" quote) is a knockout, and something he would continue to nail in his 1950s versions.

Bathed in rhythmic hand-claps and shouts, Louis unleashes the "National Emblem March" quote twice, which was originally saved for the final chorus of the 1932 remake version. The gliss that follows is simply stunning, swan diving before gradually rising, held for about five seconds, before he holds a red-hot, searing high Ab into his fourth chorus. Now it's "Super Tiger Rag" time with those two-note jumps from Ab to high C. He hits 13 high C's before holding the 14th into the final chorus.

Final chorus? Yep, "Super Tiger Rag" ended with those high C's but Louis isn't quite finished yet! For his fifth and final chorus, Louis--come on, man, is he even human?--repeats the same trick but instead of going from Ab to C, he leaps from high C to Eb! In each preceding "Tiger Rag" that we've heard, Louis built his entire solo up to that final high note, always ending on a high concert Eb. But now, in 1937--and at the helm of a shorter solo--Louis starts swinging for those Eb's, knocking them out of the park like it's home run derby. All in all, he hits 17 high Eb's in that final chorus, holding a few for extra drama. So where to end? Well, on a high F, my friends, pretty much Armstrong's top note while performing (I think he sometimes went higher while practicing). If those five choruses don't get your blood pumping, I'll call an ambulance for you. (And please keep what you've heard in the back of your mind, especially when we get to Louis's remarkable live 1959 versions of the tune!)

Our final "Tiger Rag" for today is a special one, taken from a Martin Block jam session on December 14, 1938 and featuring this all-star group: Louis, Jack Teagarden on trombone, Bud Freeman on tenor saxophone, Fats Waller on piano, Bob Spergel on guitar, Peter Peterson on bass and George Wettling on drums. I wrote a long blog on this historic session back in December 2008, so if you don't mind, I'm going to borrow and tweak what I wrote back then. But here's the audio, as stunning as ever:


Scorching stuff. The tune starts out fast enough, at almost the tempo Armstrong took it on his 1930 original recording and everyone plays beautifully (the rhythm guitar can finally be heard and appreciated), with Armstrong taking some great breaks early on. It's interesting hearing this because with his own bands, Armstrong usually let the clarinet lead off. He played lead on "Super Tiger Rag" in Paris but still didn't take any breaks, like he does on this one. After great solos by Freeman, Teagarden and Waller, Armstrong stomps off a tempo that remarkably is even faster, which shouldn't surprise us by this point! After a few seconds of confusion, Louis hands it off to Geroge Wettling to take an exciting, snare-fueled solo.

Once Louis picks up his horn, he goes into, what, by now, was his set opening, the two-note, repeated stuff. But immediately into his second chorus, he uncorks a quote from "I'm Confessin'" that works like a charm (and again, remember that for his 1950s versions). He works "Confessin'" into a motive and improvises it for a while before holding a note. By third chorus, Louis is back in set territory: "National Emblem," follow by the gliss followed by the held Ab. The fourth chorus is made up of those high C's before Louis starts knocking out those Eb's again in his fifth and final chorus. Except for the "Confessin'" bit, it's almost identical to the Fleischmann's Yeast version, though it's easier to hear Louis without all of the shouting and because of the natural better fidelity (and it's also great hearing Fats Waller's two-fished, driving accompaniment, as well as Wettling's exciting drumming). Hmm, maybe this is my new favorite version? It just doesn't end....

Though "Tiger Rag" was an essential feature for Louis throughout the 1930s, it kind of became a passe, out-of-date song during the sophisticated "Swing Era." Perhaps for that reason, it disappeared from Armstrong's book. As usual, I can't be 100% certain that it disappeared but there are no surviving broadcasts of Armstrong performing it between 1938 and 1947. So let's take a break for the weekend and we'll resume in the early part of the week to listen to Louis's interesting, four surviving versions from between 1946 and 1947, with some great drumming by Zutty Singleton, Jimmy Crawford and Sid Catlett. Til then!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a trip! Thanks Ricky! Louie'so great!
George was terrific. Each and every drummer was monstrous. Oliver Tines! Thank you for highlighting the various drummers. I’ll be waiting to hear the remaining versions.
Any version with Barrett?