Sunday, January 24, 2010

80 Years of "Song of the Islands"

Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra
Recorded January 24, 1930
Track Time 3:31
Written by Charles E. King
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Otis Johnson, Henry “Red” Allen, trumpets; J.C. Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano, vibes; Will Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums; 3 unknown, violin
Originally released on Okeh 41375
Currently available on CD: Volume four of the JSP Hot Five and Hot Seven series has it, as does volume six of Columbia’s old Armstrong series (St. Louis Blues). It’s also available on about a hundred other discs!
Available on Itunes? Yes

80 years ago today, Louis Armstrong went Hawaiian with his recording of "Song of the Islands." I originally blogged about this momentous occasion back in December 2007 but back then, I wasn't very savvy regarding how to share audio clips. Also, since then, my pals Dave Whitney and Michael Steinman have taught me some new things about the subject at hand. So it's revisiting time once again, friends...grass skirts optional.

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Today’s entry will deal with Charles E. King’s 1915 opus, “Song of the Islands,” which on some releases gets the subtitle, “Na Lei O Hawaii.” Now, I don’t speak Hawaiian, but I do believe that that must be Hawaiian for “Song of the Islands.” Pretty bright am I, eh?

I have no idea how this song wound up at a Louis Armstrong session, but after hearing the end results, I’m not complaining (though I wouldn’t be surprised if The Polynesians recorded “Dippermouth Blues” by accident that day…). Hawaiian music must have been on the upswing when Armstrong recorded the song in 1930, as the sheet music for the then-14-year-old song was reissued in 1929. Here’s a copy of this artifact, courtesy of eBay (please, no bidding):

Now, in writing these little entries, I usually like to do a little research on the song and the songwriter. So who was Charles E. King? A Google search turned up some information on the songwriter from—no joke—Hana Hou, “The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.” I quote: “On occasion, Queen Lili‘uokalani taught music, and one of her students, Charles E. King, wrote Hawaii’s best-known opera, Prince of Hawaii, which debuted in 1925. A tale of love and machinations in ancient Hawaii—replete with prince, princess, hula dancers, a chorus and musicians—Prince contained twenty-four songs, several of which have become Island classics, including ‘Beautiful Kahana’ and ‘Ke Kali Nei Au’ (better known as ‘The Hawaiian Wedding Song’).” Thus, King knew his Hawaiian sounds and it’s no surprise that “Song of the Islands” has lived on in countless film and cartoon appearances as a way of setting a Hawaiian atmosphere.

What is surprising is that King’s simple 16-bar melody would become a jazz standard, performed and recorded by the likes of Count Basie, Gene Ammons, Earl Hines and many more. Of course, it’s not so surprising when one considers that Louis Armstrong introduced it to the jazz world, much as he did the same with so many other future standards with his records of 1929-1933. When Armstrong entered OKeh’s New York studios on January 24, 1930, he was still more or less a freelance musician. His first New York session on March 5, 1929 was done with members of Luis Russell’s band. Armstrong obviously felt at home with the group, which featured a number of musicians from New Orleans, as they again backed Armstrong up on two classic sessions from December 1929, as discussed on this blog just last month. On those 1929 sessions, Armstrong even let young trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen blow a bit. Allen was obviously influenced by Armstrong (who wasn’t?) but he was really his own man, with a thoroughly modern approach to trumpet playing that hinged on devil-may-care rhythmic phrasing and the exciting use of nonchord tones. At the time, some accused him of playing wrong notes but he was just ahead of his time, though once the bop school started being hailed for playing those same “wrong notes,” Allen became a largely neglected figure. In taking a jazz historiography class at Rutgers while obtaining my Master’s degree, I was stunned that the majority of the class had no real clue of what a genius Red Allen was. A crime.

Anyway, on January 17, 1930, the Russell band backed Armstrong for a one-nighter at a midnight dance at Baltimore’s New Albert Auditorium, drawing 1,400 people. One week later, the Russell band shared an OKeh date with Armstrong, recording two of their own arrangements, plus “Song of the Islands” with Pops. The Russell band was up first with “Saratoga Shout.” I absolutely adore Luis Russell’s own recordings and I think his rhythm section deserves credit for being one of the first truly swinging units in jazz history. You can hear them in their glory by listening to “Saratoga Shout” here:


Red Allen’s hot solo on “Saratoga Shout” was taken with Armstrong looking on, as John Chilton writes in his marvelous Allen biography, Ride, Red, Ride. “Louis was visibly impressed by Red’s startling 32-bar-chrous on ‘Saratoga Shout’ and offered genuine congratulations, much to the young man’s delight. One suspects that Louis, even, then, knew that Red would never overtake him, but nevertheless Red, on top form, was a formidable rival.” Chilton goes on to quote Armstrong’s second wife, Lillian Hardin, who once was caught listening to a Red Allen record in Armstrong’s prescence. “He must have stood there for a minute with an angry expression on his face, then, after a bit, he smiled and said, ‘Yeah, he’s blowing.'"

With the Russell band sufficiently warmed up, it was time for Pops to perform “Song of the Islands.” Though it might have been something of a crazy idea from the a-and-r man, the group definitely had “Song of the Islands” down by the time they recorded it. I’m also guessing they must have given it a test spin at that Baltimore dance the previous week. Also, the Russell band was augmented by three violinists whose names have been lost to posterity, though Allen remembered them as white musicians from a local theater orchestra, according to Chilton. Before I go any further, why don’t you have a listen to the relaxing sounds of “Song of the Islands":


From the opening note of the record, we’re already shrouded in controversy. We hear a vibraphone (ten months before Lionel Hampton used it to introduce “Memories of You”) but the question is who is playing it? According to Chilton, Red Allen remembered every detail of his sessions with Armstrong and he made an effort to let discographers know that Armstrong’s valet played drums on “Song of the Islands” while Russell band drummer Paul Barbarin played the vibes. Chilton refers to the valet as “Tout Suite,” which sounds like a mishearing/misspelling to me. There’s a photo of Louis and some friends fooling around on a fake boat at Coney Island in 1929 (the photo can be found on page 143 of Michael Cogswell’s Armstrong book, among other places). Standing tall in the photo is a man clearly wearing a valet’s uniform. Armstrong labeled the photo and next to this man, he wrote, “Too Sweet, our chauffer.” Thus, I tend to believe his name was “Too Sweet” rather than “Tout Suite,” but regardless, he did exist and Red Allen seemed pretty sure that he played drums. This could indeed be true because the entire record features nothing but a simple brush pattern on the snare drum. The tempo never lags but there’s no accents (notwithstanding one cymbal hit) or anything flashy whatsoever. Perhaps “Too Sweet” knew a thing or two about the drums and he maintain one pattern at one tempo for three minutes. However, the revered Jos Willems has listened carefully and he doesn’t buy the “Too Sweet” argument. Willems makes the convincing point that the drumming is identical to Barbarin’s work on “Blue Turning Grey Over You.” See what you think by listening to that seminal recording, recorded just one week later (uh oh, do I smell another future anniversary post?):



Willems makes a good point. So who is playing vibes? Willems notes that no piano is heard until the seventh bar of the theme statement so that makes Luis Russell a good candidate. But though I agree with all of Willems points, why would Allen vividly remember the valet playing drums? It seems like something he wouldn’t make up but I guess we’ll never know. Chalk it up to another unsolved jazz mystery, I suppose.

Anyway, I’ve only discussed six seconds of the record and I haven’t even gotten to the part that makes most jazz purists throw up their lunch. Immediately after the vibe introduction, the melody of “Song of the Islands” is sweetly played by the three unknown violinists. With the vibraphone still going on in the background and Pops Foster bowing a two-beat pattern, this does not quite sound like a Louis Armstrong or a Luis Russell record, but maybe more like something by Andy Iona. This goes on for 16 bars before a commercial sounding arranged passage that sounds like quintessential 1920s dance band music.

Flash-forward to just last week when suntanned Michael Steinman, doing a bit of investigative reporting from Maui, wrote me about a 1929 short featuring Ben Pollack and His Orchestra. The short ends with Pollack's men--featuring the likes of Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Jimmy McPartland and Ray Bauduc--playing a chorus of "Song of the Islands" with violins taking the melody, a bowed bass and vibes in the background! I couldn't believe it when I saw, especially the vibes are being manned by Jack Teagarden. The short is from 1929 and Armstrong recorded his in January 1930 so obviously he was copping Pollack's idea or perhaps it was all written into a stock arrangement the two men shared. Anyway, here's the entire eight-minute short. Fast-forward to 7:00 to catch the "Islands" and see what you think. Thanks Michael!


Back to the task at hand. We’re 36 seconds into the record and Gunther Schuller has already contemplated suicide. Don’t believe me? Here’s Schuller himself: “By January 1930 the crrpy tentacles of commercialism had begun to exert an alarming degree of stylistic constraint. On Song of the Islands we can hear the results. A painful mélange of non-jazz elements intrude upon Armstrong, and he himself does not escape entirely unscathed. And how could he?”

Ah, Gunther. Doesn’t the man have any sense of period charm? So the first 40 seconds of “Song of the Islands” isn’t great jazz. So what? I’m sure the guys in the band thought the same thing, but I’m sure they must have had a good time making a Hawaiian sounding record. Regardless, when Pops enters, it does become a great jazz record, so really, why get so bent out of shape about a couple of violin players and a vibraphone? At least Schuller did come up with the perfect adjective for Pops Foster’s bass playing during this segment of the song: “voompy.”

Anyway, when Pops finally does enter, muted, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Am I the only one who thinks that the sappy violins and faux-Hawaiian atmosphere actually enhance Pops’s playing? He’s light years ahead of the arrangement and I think more can be said about his contribution to the song than the “commercial” aspects. I actually find it somewhat comical when I hear his entrance. He’s from a different planet. It’s like the Harlem Globetrotters ending up on Gilligan’s Island.

As I already said, “Song of the Islands” isn’t exactly a work of Gershwin or Ellington. It’s 16 simple bars and almost the entire written melody consists of whole notes or quarter notes. And out of such shoddy mud, Armstrong sculpts a masterpiece of storytelling. He takes the simple melody and keeps it simple, though his subtle repetitions of the main pitch practically define swing, especially in his second bar. He leaves plenty of space in those first four bars, but in bar five he begins to loosen up with a phrase that is 100% out of the Armstrong vocal book (I’m thinking “Don’t Play Me Cheap” or “Some Sweet Day,” among other examples). Heading into the second eight bars, he leaves two more beats of space before playing a neat little triplet figure in the turnaround. He then runs up and down with an arpeggio made up of a couple of more triplets before settling on the concert F of the original sheet music. He repeats it a few times, relaxed, before another rhythmically slippery phrase that sounds like he’s playing an obbligato to his own reading of the melody. After two more beats of space, Armstrong concludes his statement with more of the melody, though his phrasing couldn’t be more smooth and cloudlike.

Armstrong then hands the ball over to the great J.C. Higginbotham, who gives the melody more respect than it deserves, but he does repeat a few notes much as Armstrong did. A modulation from Ab to F sets up Armstrong’s wordless vocal, sung with glee club backing by a few members of the Russell band. People like Schuller hate this stuff, but Armstrong’s performing career began by singing in a vocal quartet in New Orleans and many of his classic early records feature this device (“Basin Street Blues,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams,” “Squeeze Me” and more). This is one of the most trumpet-like scat solos Armstrong ever took. It’s almost completely centered around swinging repetitions of a single note or two. Again, do you want to define the feeling of swing? Listen to the vocal a few times until it’s drilled in your head. Then, tap your table or desk at the same time as every one of Armstrong’s individually scatted notes. Then, sing it in your head and just tap. The combination of on-the-beat phrases juxtaposed with the notes placed in between the beats, well, if that’s not swing, I don’t know what is.

The band then takes a 16-bar arranged passage, a good opportunity to grab a quick beverage. Please, don’t judge the Russell band by a performance like this. This is just a dead arrangement but in a matter of seconds, you’ll forget all about it as Armstrong reenters, this time playing back in Ab. Much like his opening outing, Armstrong begins by working over that concert Eb. Again, in bar five, where he originally inserted that vocal-ish phrase, he plays another incredibly smooth arpeggio, beginning on an Ab, heading down to a low D, then right back up to a higher C, repeated three times before Armstrong bends and stretches an Eb like Silly Putty. After the usual amount of space, Armstrong begins the next eight bars with six repeated Eb’s, all on different beats, before a nifty little Eb-F-Eb turn of a phrase. Then, much like he did the first time around, Armstrong plays the F’s from the melody, then improvises a new little obbligato based around the notes of a Bb7 chord. Then it’s back to the melody. It’s a fine chorus with some nimble phrases but nothing earth-shattering. Until…

Armstrong joins the band for two bars of an arranged passage that leads to a modulation to the key of Db. Now Armstrong demonstrates the pure power and brilliance of his chops. He approaches the tune in much the same way as his first two go-arounds, but because of the key change, he’s now pumping out high Ab’s instead of Eb’s…a big difference. He still leaves plenty of space, allowing the listener all the more time to marvel at the beauty of his tone. In the sixth bar, Armstrong plays his calling card phrase, Bb-Db-Bb-Db-F-F-Db before uncorking another series of arpeggios in bar seven. The notes of a Db chord? Db-F-Ab. The notes of Armstrong’s arpeggio? Ab-F-Db-F-Ab-Db-Ab-F-Db-F-Ab. Armstrong rattles it off like it’s simple and again, I’ll use the word “smooth” to describe the flow of his faster phrases. But with the velocity shelved, Armstrong concentrates on power and drama for the ending. Immediately, from the start of the key change, you know what Armstrong has to do if he’s really going to play the melody that high. And of course he does it, letting a high Bb ring out clearly before toping out at a spine-tingling high C. Having reached his climax, Armstrong builds downward and ends on a low-key Db-Eb-Db phrase. Someone, anyone, strikes a somber chord on the vibraphone and the record comes to a close. A gem of Armstrong’s OKeh big band period.

For many, this is where Armstrong’s association with “Song of the Islands” ends, but he did revive it with his big band. A new uptempo arrangement of the song was performed on a couple radio broadcasts from 1940 and 1941, available, as usual, on the peerless Ambassador label. The first one comes from the Cotton Club in April 1940 and though it’s ten years later, Armstrong’s still fronting the Russell band with Red Allen, Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes and Pops Foster still aboard. This arrangement has nothing to do with the relaxed, Hawaiian feel of the original. It’s about twice as fast and opens with the reeds only alluding to the melody in between responses from the brass. It’s a nice example of the Swing Era being “orchestrated Armstrong,” as some have called it. All traces of dance band-sounding violins and vibes are gone. It now swings from note one and the casual rephrasing of the melody stems very much from Armstrong’s language. Here's the audio:


After one chorus, Higginbotham takes one on his “tram-boon.” All it takes is one listen and you can understand why Pops enjoyed Trummy Young’s blustery playing so much in the 1950s. Higgy’s entire solo is proto-Trummy and it’s exciting as hell. And in a nod to Armstrong’s original, J.C. plays that Armstrong vocal-type phrase in the same exact place Armstrong played it in 1930. Like the original, the tune modulates for an Armstrong scat vocal, once again over glee club backing. This time Armstrong takes two choruses, a break joining them and the band indulges in some arranged singing, repeating Armstrong’s last phrase, to allow Armstrong to get his chops together. And when he does, stand back! There’s no more modulating. Armstrong begins right off in Db and wails for four full choruses, sticking exclusively to the upper register throughout. He sticks closely to the melody for much of it, but still finds time to throw in some nimble improvisations such as, you guessed it, that same vocal phrase in bars five and six. With each passing chorus, Armstrong shows off the pure raw power of his 1940 chops. In 1930, the buildup to that high C is very dramatic; you see it coming and when he hits it, you feel exhilarated. By 1940, every chorus featured a high C hit seemingly without any effort. Armstrong’s favorite drummer, Sid Catlett, really knew how to drive Pops and Pops responds with some real exciting work in the last two choruses. It’s tremendously exciting and is all over in two minutes and 30 seconds, a full minute shorter than the original. This particular version is available on the Ambassador disc, At the Cotton Club, which should have been hailed by the jazz community but instead is almost impossible to find. Ah, where would us Armstrong lovers be without the late Gösta Hägglöf!?

Volume eight of Ambassador’s Armstrong series contains an extremely rare broadcast from the Grand Terrace in Chicago on November 27, 1941. The quality is poor, but I’m just thankful the music survives. The fast arrangement of “Song of the Islands” is trotted out again, picking up with Louis’s scat solo. Armstrong’s four-chorus improvisation is very similar to the one he played at the Cotton Club the previous year. Armstrong was from the generation who worked on their solos until they were perfect. This didn’t mean that Armstrong didn’t improvise but sometimes, when he had a good solo “set,” it remained that way. This is not a bad thing. Never mind the critics who might complain about such matters. I picture a dancer at the Cotton Club in April 1940 or someone standing around the bandstand of the Grand Terrace in November 1941. They were the ones Armstrong was playing for, not some critic writing 65 years later, and I’m sure they were gassed by “Song of the Islands” when they heard it. How could you not be? Here's how it came out at the Grand Terrace:


Now let’s flash forward to 1956 and Louis Armstrong’s last run-in with “Song of the Islands” from the Autobiography. As I’ve stated a hundred thousand times, I’m a big big big supporter of the Autobiography project where the 55-year-old Armstrong tackled man of the songs he originally made famous in the 1920s and 1930s. Some people are so anal about Armstrong’s greatness as a young man that they don’t give the Autobiography sessions a fair shake. I think this is big mistake. Armstrong was completely relaxed for the Autobiography with no other gigs to occupy his time or chops. He was going through a peak period of blowing between 1953 and 1959 and he had the finest edition of the All Stars backing him up, the one with Trummy Young and Edmond Hall. Armstrong responds with brilliant playing on every track, sometimes topping his original efforts. For a great example, listen to Armstrong crack the final high Eb on the original 1929 “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” just barely getting it out. Then listen to the Autobiography version where he hits it and holds it. After playing this example during one of my Armstrong lectures at the Institute of Jazz Studies, esteemed trumpeter Randy Sandke remarked that he had no doubt that Armstrong was a technically better trumpet player in his 50s than he was in his 20s. And the Autobiography is filled with dozens of these great moments, many courtesy of the remarkable Sy Oliver sessions.

Oliver was hired to recreate the OKeh and Victor big band recordings and these sides, to me, are the Autobiography’s masterpieces. The December 13, 1956 session started right off with “Song of the Islands.” Here's how it came out:


Oliver usually kept his arrangements pretty streamlined, but he brought the original ones at least somewhat into the future. Thus, the vibraphone and violins are out on “Song of the Islands,” replaced by a delicate Billy Kyle piano intro and the melody stated by the rich reed section made up of great players like Hilton Jefferson and Lucky Thompson. The tempo’s a little slower than the original, which lends an even more relaxed feeling to the proceedings. Pops enters in Ab, gently massaging the Eb. The “vocal phrase” in bars five and six is gone, replaced by a neat little downward phrase that sounds like he’s skipping downhill. Armstrong really sticks to the melody here, not offering many frills but his tone is beautiful and he his last two bars are rhythmically tricky.

As in 1930, a trombone solo follows and it’s a mellow one played by Trummy. After the modulation for the vocal, Armstrong begins his scat solo, but this time he’s all alone with no other voices to back him up. This is one of my very favorite scat sessions. As I already mentioned, Armstrong was very relaxed during the Autobiography sessions. Decca producer Milt Gabler made sure the All Stars had no other bookings and he made sure to stuff the sessions full of good food and good friends. One of those good friends was the actor Slim Thompson, who, according to IMDB, had four roles in movies of the 1930s, including The Petrified Forest and Green Pastures, before leaving the film industry. Since “Song of the Islands” was first up, it’s easy to picture Armstrong arriving at the studio, warming up and welcoming his friends, perhaps telling a dirty joke or two.

Thus, when Armstrong began his scat vocal on “Song of the Islands,” he almost immediately slips in the phrase “Slim Thompson-face” into his scat! I can only imagine the smiles in the studio at that one. Three seconds later, Armstrong offers a shout-out to another friend. This was a mystery scat for years; the great Dan Morgenstern thought it was something about "Rinsofax" and though it made little sense, that was good enough for me. But leave it to the sharp ears of the great Dave Whitney who heard it as Armstrong calling out the name of his good friend "Lorenzo Pack." Once you think of it that way, you'll hear "Lorenzo Pack" for the rest of your life. Pack was a boxer in the 1930s with a record of 19 wins, 9 losses and 1 draw. According to his record at www.boxrec.com, he was knocked out by both Jersey Joe Walcott and "Two Ton" Tony Galento. In addition to being a good friend of Armstrong's, Pack wrote the song "This Black Cat Has Nine Lives," which Louis recorded on the 1970 album Louis Armstrong and His Friends. I always thought that was a pretty weak tune and maybe Louis was recording it as a favor...I think I was right!

Two seconds after calling attention to Pack, Armstrong sings, “What you say, Gate?” so clearly, he didn’t care about the record any more. He was giving a performance to those in the studio and I’m sure they were loving it.

As the scat goes on, Armstrong lets the listeners in on why he loves “Song of the Islands” so much. Take away the Hawaiian elements, the violins and vibraphone on the original. Take away the swinging call and response of the 1940 broadcasts. Take away the glee club backings and scat vocals. What attracted Armstrong to “Song of the Islands”? He reveals the secret at the 2:27 mark in yet another aside to the studio crowd: “Them changes gate.” It might have only been 16 simple bars, but Armstrong dug the chord changes. There’s the opening (in Ab) Ab-Adim7-Eb/Bb and the Ab to F7 to Bb7 in the second eight, two somewhat sentimental patterns that Armstrong must have felt to be quite beautiful. And in his horn, they are.

Like 1930, the tune modulates back to Ab for Armstrong’s trumpet reentrance, which is one of my favorite moments of the performance. Three declamatory notes followed by six beats of space before Armstrong tip-toes back in to create some very lucid ruminations on the melody. It’s all tone and damn, what a tone it is. At the end of these 16 bars, the band prepares for the climactic modulation, rewritten by Oliver to sound much more exciting with Trummy’s trombone on top. Armstrong enters with that beautiful high Ab, the band digging in behind him over backbeats by Deems. On the original, Armstrong stuck mainly to that Ab, but in 1956, Armstrong goes up to a Bb, a welcome addition to this gorgeous solo. The buttery smooth arpeggios and double-timed phrases are gone but like a pitcher who loses a few miles off their fastball with age and has to become a finesse pitcher (unless he’s Roger Clemens—insert steroids joke here), Armstrong made due in his later years with a huge sound, a golden tone and a relaxed phrasing that still defied conventional rhythm while defining the concept of swing. Armstrong floats through this portion of “Song of the Islands” until it’s time to hit the high Bb’s, which he does beautifully. I love the sound of his tone on the repeated Bbs. It’s so pure and he doesn’t even sound like he’s struggling, though God knows what this did to his chops. The high C sings like a bird but instead of replicating the original low-key ending, Armstrong plants his feet firmly, hits a high C and ends with a gigantic high Db, higher than any note he played on the 1930 original.

“Song of the Islands” is one of my favorite highlights of the Autobiography, but that December 13 day was just getting started when you look at the amazing blowing that followed: “That’s My Home,” “ Memories Of You” and “Them There Eyes.” Unbelievable stuff. But I think to write any more about “Song of the Islands,” I would have to actually fly to Hawaii. Or maybe read a Hawaiian in-flight magazine. Either way, listening to it will give you at least a few minutes of warmth to combat this ferociously cold winter here in New Jersey (stay in Maui, Michael!).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Armstrong vs. Bechet: The Final Round - 1945 Esquire Concert

On January 17, 1945--65 years ago last weekend--Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet locked horns for the last time. If you've been following this series, you know the story: the two geniuses took part in two historic slugfests on the tune "Cake Walkin' Babies from Home" in the mid-20s, creating spectacular fireworks with their competitive playing. When they reunited in 1940 for a small group session on Decca, they were different men. Armstrong was the star and was determined to dominate, a role Bechet was often accustomed to, leading to a bit of friction. They still turned in two very exciting takes of "Down in Honky Tonk Town," but Bechet was unhappy with the results, blaming Armstrong for turning it into a "bucking" contest.

Five years later, the two tangled for the last time. Like some boxing trilogies, the third contest was a bit ugly and anticlimactic--think of the foul-filled Pep-Saddler fights or think of Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran boring people to tears in 1989. Still, it's worth listening to as an example of egos in action and as evidence that sometimes the most star-powered "super groups" in the world can provide disappointing music when the members don't play nice.

Esquire magazine was a major friend to the 1940s jazz scene. Their annual awards were usually celebrated by all-star studio recordings while in 1944 and 1945, they slapped their name on two extravaganza concerts. The 1944 Metropolitan Opera House featured a dream band of Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, Barney Bigard, Art Tatum, Al Casey, Oscar Pettiford and Sid Catlett, with vocals by Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey (ho hum). It was a marvelous night though Armstrong was plagued by kidney stones and a pain in the neck--the latter being in the form of Roy Eldridge, who tried his best to lure Armstrong into a cutting contest by consistently taking exhibitionistic solos throughout the evening. Even with that--which led to Armstrong getting some negative reviews--it was still a successful night and the music holds up well today.

The following year Esquire decided to throw another concert, this time going all out by making it a three-city extravaganza: Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, Benny Goodman in New York and Duke Ellington in Los Angeles, along with small groups and celebrities such as Jack Benny and Danny Kaye.

By this point, the moldy fig movement was turning into an uprising (notice, no full-on bop was played at either concert). Armstrong was still toting his big band around, which made the purists ill. Thus, there were big expectations of putting Armstrong back in his hometown fronting a small group with the dream team front line of Pops, Bechet and J.C. Higginbotham and a dynamite rhythm section of James P. Johnson, Richard Alexis and Paul Barbarin. What would go wrong?

Obviously, everything. As discussed last time, Armstrong had no patience with Bechet's dominating ways, leading him to blow with fury as to not allow Bechet a chance to take over, annoying Bechet in the process. Well, it was more of the same in 1945 and this time the ugliness reared its head at the rehearsal. According to John Chilton's essential Bechet biography, "Other musicians (including Alphonse Picou and Henry Allen, Sr.), who were seated in the auditorium during the run-through, observed that Armstrong became very angry and showed this by yelling at Sidney, 'I ain't gonna have no two leads in my band.' thereafter the trumpeter played as though he was determined not to give Bechet any room to manoeuvre."

Chilton wasn't kidding. At the concert, Armstrong and Bechet teamed up for "Back O'Town Blues," "Confessin'," "Dear Old Southland" and "Basin Street Blues." Would you believe that on all four numbers, Bechet takes ZERO solos???

The closest Bechet came to taking a solo was on the opening number, "Back O'Town Blues." On paper, the front line of Armstrong, Bechet and Higgy sounds like something to drool over. But just listen to the first ensemble chorus and prepare to grimace. Bechet starts off low for a second, but immediately jumps into his upper register, determined to make his presence felt. And Higgy, God bless him, sounds like he had too much to drink. Armstrong loved Higgy but his playing is all elbows. Armstrong keeps his lead up front, not allowing anyone to take over, but the result is like listening to three people trying to shout over each other.

After this collision course, Armstrong sings his fun vocal on the tune, with Higgy and Bechet still trying to chew the scenery in the background. But listen closely to the cruelest moment, though it's kind of funny in a sadistic way. Armstrong finishes his vocal and Bechet immediately swoops in with a dramatic high note. "This is my moment," he seems to be saying, ready to take over...until Armstrong--in a record-breaking display of getting his chops in his horn--swarms in and takes over the closing ensemble. Higgy and Bechet put up a brave fight but Armstrong smotes them both with a perfect punch: a searing high Eb that he usually didn't go for on this piece. No one could touch Pops when he played angry...

Listen to the blow-by-blow yourself:



After James P. Johnson restored order with a stroll through the "Arkansas Blues" it was time to feature Armstrong once again, this time on "Confessin'," one of his great ballad showpieces. This time, Higgy and Bechet behave themselves in the first chorus, allowing Armstrong to have the spotlight to play the melody (maybe he beat them into submission during "Back O'Town"). Higgy takes an out-of-this-world break before Pops croons the melody beautifully as usual. Armstrong then instructs Higginbotham to take eight bars but even during this brief solo, Armstrong starts turning up the volume on his backing, making sure Bechet doesn't get a word in. Then it's Armstrong's turn for 16 spectacular bars topped off by an absolutely stunning break. The crowd cheers wildly and Armstrong, carried away a bit, continues playing for a second until he realizes it's time to close the number out on a break. The only person not impressed? Bechet, who, immediately after the break plays perhaps the most demeaning note in jazz history. It's a sarcastic little moan that seems to say, "Oh wow, that's SOOO impressive...big deal!" Makes me laugh every time. Still, he can't steal Armstrong's thunder. What a feature! Here 'tis:



Next up, "Dear Old Southland," a number identified with both Pops and Bechet. So who would come out on top this time around? Alas, the answer is Higgy, who uses it as his feature. Finally, the two main combatants play nice and back J.C. with some light riffs, though Higgy still sounds like he's having an off night. No need to share this one.

Finally, a little treat, as old Bunk Johnson was dusted off to join in with Pops for a few choruses of "Basin Street Blues." Unfortunately, it's too short but it's still a fascinating glimpse at the different sounds of two of New Orleans's best-known hornmen. Here's the audio:



Bechet was completely stifled, shut out in the solo department. However, he managed to fix his sights on Johnson, with whom he'd team up with for an engagement soon thereafter. Bechet treated Johnson as a sparring partner, completely dominating him until Bunk quit the gig.

As for Pops, there was no quit in him. There was some messy music played that night in New Orleans but Armstrong's ego and temper instilled his playing with quite a bit of heat. He definitely won this one by knockout.

Though Bechet lived for 14 more years, his path never again crossed with Louis. Bechet was supposed to perform at Armstrong's famed Town Hall concert but at the last minute, he called out sick (though witnesses said he spent the night playing with Max Kaminsky at Jimmy Ryan's). 10 years later, Bechet was expected to fly to America to take part in Armstrong's 1957 birthday celebration at the Newport Jazz Festvial but that fell through, too.

In the end, for all their combativeness, Armstrong and Bechet did have respect for each other. Bechet, after knocking the 1940 Decca sessions, spent some time praising Armstrong's ability as a "musicianer" in his autobiography. Armstrong played at Bechet's memorial concert at Carnegie Hall and during a 1956 Voice of America interview, named Bechet's Blue Note recording of "Summertime" as one of his personal favorites. So all might have ended well, but it's those dramatic moments they spent together on stage and in the studio that will truly live forever. Not all of the music produced was of A+ quality but the inherent edge in their collaboration always made for fascinating listening.

Boxing had Ali and Frazier. Jazz has Armstrong and Bechet.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Down in Honky Tonk Town - Revisited

Recorded May 27, 1940
Track Time 3:06
Written by Chris Smith and Charles McCarron
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone; Claude Jones, trombone; Luis Russell, piano; Bernard Addison, guitar; Wellman Braud, bass; Zutty Singleton, drums
Originally released on Decca 18090
Currently available on CD: Mosaic's recent "Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Recordings 1935-1946" box has both takes
Available on Itunes? Yes

Yes, dear readers, it's "revisit" time and unfortunately, I don't have piles of new information on "Down in Honky Tonk Town" to share. As crunch-time for my book continues at a frantic pace, I don't envision time to write any lengthy new posts for at least a week. Fortunately, my "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home" post has been warmly received by a number of my readers so I'm following it up with an in-depth look at a song Armstrong and Bechet recorded during their 1940 set of rematches (these sessions were done 70 years ago this year so consider this an anniversary posting, too...nice!). This was one of my earliest blogs so I've actually had to do a bunch of editing and updating to keep it relevant, but otherwise, here's what I had to say about "Down in Honky Tonk Town" in 2007 (I've edited out a lot of repeat info already given in the "Cake Walkin'" blog).

In the 15 years between the 1925 New York sessions and the Decca reunion, one couldn't imagine two musicians's careers taking such different paths: Armstrong changed jazz history with the Hot Five and Seven records, started making standards out of pop tunes, toured the world with big bands and starred in major Hollywood movies. Bechet, on the other hand, spent time in jail, ran a tailor shop in New York, toured with a big band and made a series of modest selling records under his own name.

But by the late 30s, the New Orleans jazz revival was starting to blossom and, championed by French critic Hughes Pansassie, Bechet became a hero to the moldy fig fans of this music, in addition to making a popular record in 1939 with his rendition of "Summertime." The reunion was a wonderful idea in a period when Decca experimented greatly with Armstrong. From March 14, 1940 through April 11, 1941, Armstrong made seven sessions for Decca, but only two featured his regular touring big band; the others featured Bechet, the Mills Brothers and a small group dubbed the "Hot Seven" for nostalgic reasons.

Unfortunately, what once passed for extreme competition had now blossomed into a slight feeling of animosity between the two New Orleans giants. Bechet was jealous of Armstrong's success and besides, never had much use for trumpet players. Armstrong was used to being the dominant ensemble musician because of the pure power of his trumpet and didn't want to have to compete with Bechet's clarinet and louder soprano saxophone. Fireworks were bound to fly.

And on "Down in Honky Tonk Town," they flew all right, but didn't come close to reaching the heights of "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home" (pretty high heights). The intense, one-upmanship didn't exactly produce the same historic results in 1940, perhaps because things to a little too intense. According to Bechet, it was Armstrong's fault because "it was like he was a little hungrier." Bechet claimed that Lil Hardin Armstrong contributed some sketches for the date but Armstrong refused to follow them, instead playing with more of an edge rather than with any sense of teamwork. "The man who was recording the numbers, he told him, 'Louis, take it easy. Just play Louis. Play natural. Don't worrya bout what Sidney's doing."

Bechet continued, "But Louis, it seemed like he was wanting to make it a kind of thing where we were supposed to be bucking each other, competing instead of working together for that real feeling that would let the music come new and strong."

Now anyone with any knowledge of Bechet's attitude towards music might find this a little hard to believe. Teamwork was usually the last thing on Bechet's mind as his horns gleefully dominated any ensemble they were apart of. Some trumpet players stood out of the way and let Bechet his do his thing (Buck Clayton), some tried and succeeded to complement Bechet's work without overshadowing him (Muggsy Spanier), some joined forces with him to melt the studio walls with a blistering combination of hell and heat (Wild Bill Davison) and some just couldn't keep up with him and had to quit (Bunk Johnson).

With Armstrong, Bechet had not only met a true equal, but also someone who wasn't going to take any crap. I'm sure ego had something to do with it. Armstrong was a huge star, used to being predominantly featured with big bands. I don't think he wanted to give Bechet an opening to take over, as Bechet had on the first Red Onion Jazz Babies version of "Cake Walkin' Babies." So Armstrong approached the entire date with unusual aggression, rubbing Bechet the wrong way and leading to some exciting music, if not necessarily prime candidates for a time capsule.

The session began wonderfully with "Perdido Street Blues," Bechet's clarinet especially declamatory in the opening and closing minor-keyed strains. Armstrong's three-chorus solo unfurls beautifully with Bechet and trombonist Claude Jones riffing urgently in the background. It's the kind of performance that causes the listener to sweat with excitement, propelled greatly by master of New Orleans drumming Zutty Singleton. "2:19 Blues" followed with Armstrong's vocal being the centerpiece of a very mellow performance.

Then it was time for "Down in Honky Tonk Town," a piece from 1916 co-written by Chris Smith of "Ballin' The Jack" and you guessed it, "Cake Walkin' Babies From Home" fame. Fortunately, it exists in two takes that seem to have been released almost simultaneously by Decca. Thus, I'm not 100% sure which is the "master" and which is the "alternate." The one I always thought was the master was issued by Mosaic last year as being the alternate. But who cares about all of that, let's just take it one take at a time. Here's the first:


Armstrong comes charging out of the gate, playing the opening strain with simple support from trombonist Jones while Bechet harmonizes with low soprano notes. Bechet asserts himself on the main strain and there's some nasty clashes between Bechet and Jones in the ensemble. Jones was the only one at the session who wasn't raised in New Orleans and the polyphonic style wasn't his strong point. Armstrong sticks to the melody, with Bechet filling the very small gaps with some more simple low notes. Bechet gradually gets a little higher, warming up for his solo, which he sails into before Armstrong's even finished playing the melody. It's a typically exciting Bechet affair with some especially violent phrases around the 1:23 mark. He alludes to the melody before going out high, much like a trumpet. Jones is up next and his solo is a mess, going through the motions without any feeling or swing. Fortunately, Bernard Addison is right behind him and his acoustic, chorded guitar solo is on the money. Zutty's up next with a 24-bar drum solo, exploring all the different sound possibilities of his drum set, before the horns rush in to complete the final eight bars of the 32-bar main strain (that sentence featured more bars than the Jersey Shore...and I know because I live minutes from Seaside Heights!).

[Note: I wrote that parenthetical sentence in 2007, two years before MTV's "Jersey Shore" reality series swept the nation. If you don't know what that is...good.]

With about a minute to go, you know the gloves are going to come off and they do. Armstrong's still on the melody before he finally improvises an exciting rideout, though the melody's never far away. Bechet's with him the entire time (Jones works that tiny-toned gliss to death) and it builds up quite a head of steam. Armstrong's half-time, high note ending is purely the 1940 Louis, something he wouldn't have played in 1925, but it works. Not quite "Cake Walking Babies," mind you but but the piece could have used some more free-for-all blowing or even some breaks.

You can probably picture Louis and Bechet grumbling around the studio after that first go-around. One more take would be necessary to smooth out some of the bumps. Here's how it came out:

"Down in Honky Tonk Town" features a pretty repetitive melody and it's instructive to listen to how Armstrong alters it here and there to keep it from becoming monotonous--doubling a note a few times, allowing certain phrases to breathe a little better, etc. He was a master of taking stiff melodies and making them come alive. Armstrong's subtle changes are always fun to hear, as are the incredible similarities between both takes, such as the way he smears a concert Db into three connected notes about 21 seconds in. Armstrong also enters the main strain on this with a flashier phrase than the held single note on take 1. Bechet's solos contain some similar phrases, but the upper register work on this one isn't quite as violent. Midway through, at 1:20, Bechet plays with two pitches in a way, it almost sounds like an Armstrong trumpet cadenza (think "Skeleton in the Closet")...perhaps a little dig?

Listening to both recordings, what's funny is Claude Jones's trombone playing, almost identical from take to take, except for this solo, which begins with a more effective opening phrase than on the first take but soon gets into more meaningless meandering. In John Chilton's masterful Sidney Becehet biography "The Wizard of Jazz," Jones is quoted as saying, "Louis and Bechet were in peak form that day, but the recording manager just wore me down. He kept coming out of his sound-proof box and shouting, 'Give that horn more tailgate, Jones, more tailgate,' and he got me so mad in the end that I messed up my solo in 'Down in Honky Tonk Town.'" At least he knew it! Otherwise, I think the rideout features more aggressive playing by Armstrong on the second take. On the first, Armstrong sounds like a damned good New Orleans ensemble trumpeter: mostly melody, allowing Bechet some space,he doesn't get up in the high upper register until the end, etc. On this take, however, he sounds more like Louis Armstrong: alludes to the melody but improvises more, plays more quarter notes than half notes and is already hitting some high notes in the second 16 bars of the chorus. Armstrong's use of space is genius; the daring, fast "combinations" of the "Cake Walkin' Babies" days are over. Armstrong's now a strong, aggressive power puncher, managing to take charge--and swing mightily--without running up and down his horn.

Bechet's clearly audible throughout and what he plays sounds exciting enough but it's Armstrong's show, which must have rankled Bechet, especially since he had recently made some wonderful records in a quartet setting with a much more sympathetic brassman, Muggsy Spanier. Some people, such as Bechet disciple Bob Wilber, knocked Armstrong's ensemble style from the 40s on because it was too showy, full of too many high notes and wasn't a true New Orleans lead (whatever that is). While it's true to an extent, I don't think it's a reason to knock Armstrong. This is who he was. Even by 1927, he was dominating his own records and making jazz more of a solo art. I love Armstrong's ensemble playing, especially with the All Stars, and especially when he had a sympathetic front line.

Bechet's a genius but he wasn't sympathetic. In fact, the next time Armstrong and Bechet locked horns was at an Esquire Awards concert in New Orleans in 1945...January 17, 1945, 65 years ago this week. Do you smell a third and final chapter to the continuing saga of Armstrong vs. Bechet? Stay tuned...

Friday, January 15, 2010

Celebrate Big Sid Catlett's Centennial With A Little "Steak Face"

This Sunday, January 17, drum legend "Big" Sid Catlett would have been 100. A real tragedy of Sid's life was the fact that he didn't even make 50, passing away at the age of 41 in 1951. But the beautiful thing about musicians is once they make a record--even if it's only one single tune--they instantly become immortal. And brother, Sid was one of the immortals.

I wish I had the time to wax poetically about Sid's greatness and the special chemistry he has with Louis Armstrong in their multiple stints together. Unfortunately, it is crunch time for my book as I am officially in the trenches these days, editing chapters each and every night (it's only unfortunate for the blog....it's VERY fortunate for me and the book!). However, I know that Michael Steinman, one of Sid's greatest supporters, will have something beautiful to share on his Jazz Lives blog so keep checking for that. And my good friend from England, Phil Ralph, has written in to tell me that Sid's greatness is going to be celebrated on BBC radio this week. Fortunately for those who don't live in England, the Internet was invented to make listening to these things quite easy. Paul Barnes will be doing a tribute to Sid on Saturday that will be able to be accessed by clicking this link starting on Sunday. And the author Alyn Shipton will be able to heard by clicking here.

So if you have some free time to spend on the Internet this weekend, it will be quite easy to get your Big Sid fix. Though the concept of free time is alien to me, I have to do something to mark the occasion. I could chose almost any Armstrong-Catlett recording and believe me, you'll get the message. But which one? "Wolverine Blues"? "I Never Knew"? "Musktrat Ramble" from Symphony Hall?

All great recordings but I think I should share a feature. And to those in the know, there was no greater Catlett feature than his workout on "Steak Face," recorded live at Symphony Hall in Boston on November 30, 1947. It's truly one of the great drum solos of all time not because Catlett smashes things hard and fast. Instead, it's the subtlety of it, the slow burn, the build-up to a ferocious climax, the obvious bits of showmanship we can only hear (Sid was a master at tossing the sticks), the melodic nature of it all. Tour de force is an often overused phrase but I dare you to come up with a better one.

"Duh, Ricky," some of the know-it-alls might be thinking. "Of course, you'd pick 'Steak Face' for a Catlett tribute. Borrrr-ing." Naturally, I have something up my sleeve...how about an unissued version of "Steak Face" from Carnegie Hall recorded just two weeks earlier on November 15, 1947? Ah, now I have your attention, huh?

The All Stars played a magnificent show at Carnegie Hall that night but none of the music has been issued (though I've shared some performances before). A few performances no longer exist and some do survive in cruddy sound. But a bunch are in briliant sound and they're not only brilliant, but very instructive to listen to. The All Stars had only been an official group for about four months but they already had the show down pat. Many of the same songs were repeated at Symphony Hall, including the features. Hell, many of the same solos were repeated at Symphony Hall. The Boston outing has been rightfully hailed as a classic for 60 years but after listening to the Carnegie Hall show, I can tell you that it was just another astonishing night by a band that had many of them.

One of my constant themes on this blog surrounds Armstrong playing "set" solos, something critics beat him up for. Well, he wasn't alone. It was clearly a generational thing and it's nothing to be ashamed of: fellow All Stars Jack Teagarden and Barney Bigard played almost identical solos at both the Carnegie Hall and Symphony Hall shows. But what about Catlett? Yes, him, too. The "Steak Face" at Carnegie Hall is so similar to the Symphony Hall version I've known for so song that the first time I listened to it, I thought it was the Symphony Hall version by accident. Nope, Sid just had that routine together.

That's what surprised me the most...and maybe even the least. Okay, a trumpet player can play a set solo or a saxophone player. But a drummer? I never thought of drummers playing set solos. But "Steak Face" was such a brilliantly conceived outing that it makes perfect sense to imagine Sid perfecting every second of that routine night after night. That doesn't diminsh its power or authority one single bit. Listen for yourself and raise your glass to the heavens in honor of Big Sid, the greatest drummer to ever pick up a pair of sticks (in my humble opinion).

Here's the Carnegie Hall "Steak Face":


And the famous Symphony Hall version:


Happy birthday, Big Sid!

Friday, January 8, 2010

85 Years of Cake Walking Babies From Home

Eva Taylor acc. by Clarence Williams' Blue Five
Recorded January 8, 1925
Track Time 3:04
Written by Clarence Williams, Chris Smith and Harold Troy
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, cornet; Charlie Irvis, trombone; Sidney Bechet, soprano saxophone; Clarence Williams, piano; Buddy Christian, banjo
Originally released on OKeh 40321
Currently available on CD: Available on many, many compilations under both Armstrong's and Bechet's name. For boxed sets, it's on Armstrong's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man set and Bechet's Mosaic Select box
Available on Itunes? Yes

Let's get ready to rumble!

In this corner! From New Orleans, Louisiana! 23 years old! Undefeated in his first 90 recordings! They call him Dippermouth..."Little" Louis Armstrong! Armstrong!

And in this corner! Hailing from New Orleans, Louisiana! 27 years old! The first great jazz soloist! Undefeated in his first 27 recordings! A smash hit in Europe! The New Orleans Feetwarmer himself...."Young" Sidney Bechet! Bechet!

When the bell rings, I ask both of you men to come out swinging. Let's get it on!

Okay, okay, the boxing introduction is probably a bit corny but what else could I open with when dealing with the two of the greatest slugfests in jazz history? Armstrong and Bechet are our Ali and Frazier and I love celebrating their epic wars. And tonight, January 8, 1925, marks the 85th anniversary of one of the greatest recordings ever made in the history of the music, the Clarence Williams version of "Cake Walking Babies From Home."

How great is this recording? Let me indulge you in a quick story; I taught jazz history to undergraduates at Rutgers for a year, one of the greatest experiences of my life. I had never taught before but relished the challenge of standing in front of 55 students--who clearly took the class because they thought it would be easy--and making them care about records that were made before their grandparents were born. Fortunately, I had enough enthusiasm to border on making a fool of myself and I managed to make some deep connections. When I got to Armstrong and Bechet, I didn't talk about it as hi-falutin' art. I treated it as an epic battle of two geniuses with pretty large egos.

I built up Bechet's personality--the older man who liked to dominate the ensembles with his loud soprano saxophone, a true genius who could get downright violent about musical matters, the first great soloist who was used to dominating every musical situation he took part in. Then I built Armstrong--the younger man, a genius in his own right, who was much more respectful, unwilling to play over his fading mentor, King Oliver, yet possessing enough talent to turn the entire New York jazz scene on its head when he joined Fletcher Henderson's popular dance orchestra in 1924. And then I pressed play and played them two scratchy three-minute recordings that were already 80 years old at that point. By the time the second "Cake Walking Babies" ended, the room was electrified and people were cheering for Louis. More on the outcome in a bit but for me, it was a personal triumph to make these kids react so enthusiastically to these records. But once you listen to them, is it possible to react any other way?

Before getting to the records, a little more background. Armstrong and Bechet obviously knew of one another in New Orleans. Bechet was the older man but fondly remembered "Little Louis" blowing the famed "High Society" piccolo/clarinet part on a cornet. Bechet left New Orleans before Armstrong, made a splash in Europe and was taking astounding solos on records like "Wild Cat Blues" and "Kansas City Man Blues" in 1923 while Armstrong was still playing second cornet with Joe Oliver. Armstrong left Oliver to join Henderson in New York City, where he became something of a fixture in OKeh's recording studios, accompanying blues singers and vaudeville performers as often as humanly possible. Bechet was part of the New York scene, too, at this point, also putting in his time by accompanying various OKeh artists. Thus, it was only a matter of time before the two joined forces in a recording studio.

That first time came on October 17, 1924 for a recording of "Texas Moaner Blues," which I feel is one of the great early jazz records. Armstrong's solo is completely poised, made up of phrases that never quite left his blues vocabulary, but Bechet is the real star of the show with his passionate, almost animalistic playing. That same day, Armstrong and Bechet backed up the singer Virginia Liston on two numbers, each man adding some spirited playing to the proceedings. Two months later, on December 17, the same exact lineup--Armstrong, Bechet, trombonist Charlie Irvis, banjoist Buddy Christian and pianist/leader Clarence Williams reconvened to back Williams's wife Eva Taylor on two numbers. On one, "Mandy Make Up Your Mind," Bechet broke out a sarrusophone to use to snort and bark his way through the ensemble. Armstrong's hot playing was magnificent but the ear still finds its way to Bechet's bizarre gargling.

Five days later, the bulk of the same personnel got together for another session under the name the Red Onion Jazz Babies, this time for Gennett records. Armstrong, Bechet, Irvis and Christian made the party but this time, Williams and Taylor were nowhere to be found (perhaps it was their date night). Armstrong's wife Lil Hardin took over the piano duties while the vocals were handled by the great Albert Hunter, billing herself as "Josephine Beatty." After waxing "Nobody Knows the Way I Feel Dis Mornin'" and "Early Every Morn," it was time to record a third and final tune: "Cake Walking Babies From Home."

The song had a lot of talented fingerprints on it as it was co-written by Clarence Williams, Harold Troy (known for writing the gospel tune "Jesus, I Love Calling Your Name" and Bessie Smith's "Red Mountain Blues") and Chris Smith, the man behind early jazz classics such as "Ballin' the Jack" and "Down in Honky Tonk Town." All three men had roots in vaudeville, explaining the almost minstrel-esque tone to the lyrics:

Here they come, look at 'em, demonstratin',
goin' some, ain't they syncopatin'?
Talk of the town, teasin' brown pickin' 'em up and layin' 'em down
Dancin' fools ain't they demonstratin'?
They're a class of their own

Now the only way to win is to cheat 'em,
you may tie 'em but you'll never beat 'em
Strut your stuff, they're the cake walkin' babies from home


Not exactly Gershwin. Fortunately, the changes were good for blowing and more importantly, the vocal would be so short, it would ensure plenty of time for just that. So without further ado, here is the epic first match between Armstrong and Bechet, December 12, 1924:


What a fight! There's no feeling-out process; everything's forecasted in the performances opening seconds when Armstrong and Bechet simultaneously play the first three notes of the song. Who's going to play lead? I guess they didn't discuss that in the dressing room! Throughout the entire first chorus, there's kind of a duel-lead going on; trombonist Irvis sticks to playing tailgate smears but Armstrong and Bechet are already battling for the listener's attention. Bechet cedes the lead over to Armstrong who, following Oliver's advice, pushes out the melody with plenty of swing. Bechet probably preferred it that way as it allows him to unleash a never-ending stream of ideas, exploring every region of his horn with complete command. Just listen to Bechet during the turnaround at the midway point of the first chorus...my goodness, he just keeps building onward and upward into the second half like an unstoppable force.

Like many records of the period, the band goes back to the verse after playing the first chorus. Armstrong continues rhythmically pumping out the melody while Bechet, who toys with playing a harmony part for a few bars, continues on his own way doing his own thing. Then Hunter and and Clarence Todd sing a pretty boring duet on the vocal, reeking of dated vaudeville. I mean, I love everything vaudeville but come on, this is dull...especially with the greatest vocalist in jazz history standing a few feet away (no, not Sidney "It's been a long time since I've heard my backbone crack" Bechet).

Fortunately, by my clock, there's still about a minute-a-half before the record ends so you know you're going to get your money's worth. Now if you're scoring at home, Bechet won the early rounds so it's up to Armstrong to get back in the fight. Ready to start swinging, Armstrong plays a funky lip trill to announce his arrival; the gloves are off.

Armstrong's now front and center, playing his variations on the melody. The aggression almost seems to catch Bechet by surprise for a second as he sounds lost in the mix but soon enough, he's running his arpeggios up and down his soprano. Bechet gets the first break and it's a pretty good one but ends a bit awkwardly. Armstrong sees his opening and turns on the heat during his ensemble playing before turning in an absolutely dazzling break. Score that round for Pops...

With the fight even heading into the final chorus, the momentum's on Armstrong's side. He holds a note to announce the start of the last go-around but Bechet reads his mind and holds the same note. At that point, Armstrong stumbles as one of his notes gets muffed a bit. Smelling blood, Bechet pours it on, his virtuosity overwhelming Armstrong for 14 bars leading to a break by...Charlie Irvis? What the hell is he still doing here? The slight breather allows Armstrong to gather himself for a second and he comes back with some hot playing but again, one or two of those notes don't sound fully baked. Going in for the kill, Bechet pulls out all the stops in his final break, basically snarling with his saxophone. Armstrong, needing a big finish, rallies strongly, entering with another growling trill before using rhythm over virtuosity to swing to the finish line. Both Armstrong and Bechet work over different two-note motives until the final bell sounds. It was an epic fight and though Pops had his moments (that break!), I award it to Bechet by split decision.

Everyone involved must have known they had created something special. Clarence Williams didn't take part in the session but he knew a good opportunity when he saw it. Thus, 17 days later, Williams led another date for OKeh and decided to record "Cake Walking Babies From Home" again, this time with Eva Taylor taking the vocal. As great as the Red Onion Jazz Babies version is, this one, to me, is the real one for the pantheon, which is why I've decided to commemorate its anniversary instead of doing that for the earlier recording.

Bechet must have known he got the better of the younger man in the first scrap. Armstrong would have to go back into training and find his eye of the tiger. Both men took tune-up fights before their next meeting: Armstrong accompanied blues singer Clara Smith on two numbers the day before while Bechet backed up Margaret Johnson (with Bubber Miley serving as a sparring partner) earlier the same day. Finally, it was time for the rematch. Grab a ringside seat. Ding, ding:


Fight of the century! Why, do you know that I've listened to that recording about six jillion times and that final chorus gives me the chills every time? Every time. Makes my heart pound. Real visceral stuff. I'm all for soggy ballads and splendid teamwork. But sometimes a good old-fashioned cutting contest/competition can really get the blood pumping.

For starters, the sound quality is much better on the OKeh, with Armstrong's horn a little more prominent in the mix. (and I'm using a really dynamite-sounding reissue on the Pristine Audio label, which could be purchased by clicking here). This time, Bechet cedes the lead to Armstrong, not sharing the opening three notes with him. Bechet's still a force in the opening ensemble, but he's doesn't quite indulge in the perpetual motion of the first recording. Armstrong still sticks mostly to lead but he changes it up a little more than he did before, generating a little more heat with his playing. A bit cautious, but I score the opening round for Armstrong.

Then Eva Taylor steps up to demonstrate how to really deliver a vaudeville vocal; gotta love it! Once again, Armstrong enters with a little lip trill, but this one is much tamer than the one from 1924. By now, Bechet is unleashing the combinations, growling through another break and more or less swarming Armstrong in the ensembles. This was Armstrong's time to shine previously but now Bechet mops the floor with him, leading to one of my all-time favorite extended Bechet breaks. The man's positively on fire and seemingly cruising his way towards another points victory.

And it's at that point where Pops says, "ENOUGH!" Armstrong respected his elders, as already mentioned, refusing to play over King Oliver and such. But dammit, he's the cornet player and going to lead the damn ensemble! He finishes the rest of the chorus soberly before unleashing another trill, probably the angriest note of his entire career. Armstrong then reaches way back and gives us the opportunity to hear what Joe Olive must have sounded like when he was in his prime. He alternates two notes in the most swinging, rhythmic way, leaning on the first and third beats, creating a bit of phrasing that he would employ elsewhere in his career, both vocally and instrumentally. However, in the 1950s, Armstrong gave two interviews where he told a story about playing in a baseball game in New Orleans when a funeral passed. Oliver was leading a brass band in playing "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and he swung the second chorus so hard, all the kids dropped everything and began second lining with the parade. And in both interviews, Armstrong sang what Oliver played: it's the exact phrasing as his "Cake Walking Babies" lead in the final rideout chorus. Here's a ten-second excerpt of this from a 1956 Voice of America interview:


Armstrong might have gotten the idea from Oliver but the heat, the power, the fire, the swing, that's the Louis Armstrong that changed the world. Armstrong comes on so hot, Bechet completely disappears from the ensemble. I mean completely. The man's out on his feet! When he returns a few seconds later, he just hits a few single harmony notes, one of them an awkward choice; it's as if his equilibrium was completely thrown off by Pops's furious playing.

Smelling blood, Armstrong takes an absolutely ridiculous break...and I mean that in the best way possible. It's a simple motive, alternated between the upper and lower registers of his cornet but it's mind-boggling to fathom how a) his mind came up with it and b) how he managed to execute it so perfectly. Well, that break clearly scored a knockdown but Bechet, a man of great dignity, gets up to finish the fight. In the next eight bars of ensemble playing, Bechet manages to toss out a few jabs from instinct but holy mother of God is Pops tearing it up on his horn. To drive the point home one last time, Armstrong takes a four-bar break that has to rank as one of the most mind-blowing moments of his career. The rhythmic tension of the first part of it is enough to make the listener queasy; I mean, what time zone is this man playing in? (And I don't mean time as in a clock.) He straightens out of it with some swinging syncopation, follows it with a rip up to the upper register and takes it out with some lowdown blue notes. Genius, genius, genius.

Bechet's contribution to final bars is nil, though he wakes up long enough to trade a couple of blows at the final bell, duetting with Armstrong on the last phrase of the performance. It was still an amazing, close, hard-fought battle and Bechet looked like he was taking charge there for a moment after the vocal but man oh man, Pops's final lead almost blew him out of the studio. Winner and new champion...

Fortunately, Bechet didn't pack up his soprano and leave town as the two men created another magical tune that day with "Pickin' On My Baby." But that's the subject for another time, another day. And also, it wasn't the end of the Armstrong-Bechet rivalry, which still had two more acts, both of which I'm planning on discussing this month so stay tuned. But for now, just bask in the heat and fury generated in those two viciously swinging, timeless, priceless, joyous, epic versions of "Cake Walking Babies From Home."

Monday, January 4, 2010

Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded February 13, 1945
Track Time 4:32
Written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer
Recorded live at the New Zanzibar in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Jesse Brown, Thomas Grider, ANdrew "Fatso" Ford, Ludwig JOrdan, trumpet; Russell "Big Chief" Moore, Norman Powe, Adam Martin, Larry Anderson, trombone; John Brown, Joe Evans, alto saxophone; Teddy McRae, tenor saxophone, conductor; Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, tenor saxophone; Ernest Thompson, baritone saxophone; Ed Swanston, piano; Elmer Warner, guitar; Alfred Moore, bass; James "Coatsville" Harris, drums
Originally released on AFRS "One Night Stand" Program #540
Currently available on CD: Available on a homemade disc on the "Crabapple Sound" label
Available on Itunes? Yes, on some cheapie compilations

Last week, during a mention of the never-ending "Rockin' Chair" choking-vs.joking debate (this is making health care woes look like a game of marbles), I mentioned that Louis sang "choking" as an aside during a 1945 radio broadcast of "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive." Tonight, while looking for an appropriate song to start off the new year with, I selected this tune since I'm sure it hasn't been previously heard by many of my readers. Thus, a blog was born...

This sermonette was penned by the formidable team of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Mercer's Capitol recording of it in late 1944 became a bona fide hit in January 1945. Unfortunately for our hero, Pops was going through a bit of a dry spell in the recording studio (zero tunes in 1943 because of the recording ban, three tunes that were all rejected in 1944 and only two for the entire year of 1945). Thus, Armstrong never made a studio recording of "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," but he almost immediately began performing an arrangement of it as soon as the song looked like it had the makings of a hit. (Louis covering pop tunes and hit records in the 1940s shouldn't be a surprise since he did the same thing in the 1930s and late 20s but thick-headed people still like to cry out "he went commercial" when needing an excuse to dismiss his later years.)

Two Armstrong versions survive of this tune, both in listenable, though not exactly ideal sound. The first comes from the New Zanzibar in New York City on February 13, 1945. By this point, Armstrong's big band was filled with youngsters including Joe Evans (who wrote about his experiences with Armstrong in his autobiography Follow Your Heart), pianist Ed Swanston and the legendary Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis on tenor. Jaws took a few short solos during the Zanzibar gig but he only stayed with Armstrong for four or five months and as far as I can tell, never talked publicly about his experiences with the group.

A couple of weeks earlier, George T. Simon blasted Armstrong's band in a review of broadcasts from the Zanzibar engagement, writing, "I’ve heard several of [the broadcasts] and never in my life have I heard anything that does anyone a greater injustice. The choice of tunes, many of the arrangements, the pacing of the shows, and, in many instances, the band behind him are positively abominable. Nothing could possibly do more harm to such a great artist. It’s absolutely murderous. If Louis can’t be presented to the radio public in a better light that that, he shouldn’t be presented at all. I sincerely hope that by the time this gets into print somebody will have give this subject some thought and rectified the ridiculous conditions, or else that Louis will be spared future embarrassment and the rest of his broadcasts be cancelled."

As should be known now, I'm usually the first to defend Armstrong against any kind of criticism, but in this case, I can't disagree too much. By the mid-40s, Armstrong's musical director Ted McRae must have figured he had to follow brassy outfits like Stan Kenton's if he wanted to keep Louis musically hip. Unfortunately, this just led to a bunch of loud, unswinging, sloppily played pieces that makes one yearn for the days of Luis Russell's backing of just a few years earlier. As Joe Muranyi once pointed out to me, the mid-40s arrangements were made as an attempt to keep Louis up-to-date but when you listen to them today, it's the arrangements that are dated and Louis that is just as timeless as ever.

With that out of the way, here's the audio to "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" from the Zanzibar:


You can hear the ponderous playing of the group during the opening melody chorus but Louis steals it with his short trumpet break (what a gliss he ends it with!). But Louis really comes alive during the vocal, which he opens by adopting his "Reverend Satch" persona. As Terry Teachout pointed out in his recent Armstrong biography, this tune's message seems to embody Armstrong's outlook on life more than anything else and Pops really conveys the message (did you catch the "choking" during the bridge?).

Armstrong brings on "Brother McRae" for a slightly bombastic tenor solo (if I wanted bombast, I would have preferred Lockjaw's variety). Pops swoops in for the bridge and the final A section and sounds in peak form, getting downright funky with his use of blue notes. But it's the vocal reprise that really gets me every time. Armstrong really preaches, talk-singing in such a righteous way, it's impossible to not get swept up in the atmosphere. Armstrong then picks up his horn and takes it out with an extended coda backed by James "Coatsville" Harris's drums. He has a quick bit of shakiness towards the end but he makes it. A righteous good time.

By September 1945, Armstrong's former musical director Joe Garland was back to direct the band, whipping the group into better shape than McRae did (Armstrong always praised Garland for having no tolerance for wrong notes). The arrangement is still a little ponderous, trying too much to be like Sy Oliver's "Yes Indeed" without any of the swing. Otherwise, Armstrong's playing is more poised and the mock-sermon preaching stuff still kills:



Last week, a version popped up on YouTube from the Zanzibar on New Year's Eve 1945. According to Jos Willems's "All of Me" discography, it's not certain whether or not this is the same version we just heard from September 1945 with some added applause and cheers added in the beginning. What is certain is that the sound quality of this version is far superior to the above so dig it:

Few broadcasts survive of Armstrong in 1946 so it's not known how long this tune stayed in the Armstrong book but I'm still glad to have this 1945 versions to enjoy. Any time "Reverend Satchmo" showed up, a good time was guaranteed. And besides, I think the song makes a perfect New Year's resolution, right? Happy 2010!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Happy Birthday to Jack Bradley!

Hello fellow Pops lovers and welcome to 2010. I'm sure you've done plenty of celebrating between the December holiday season and New Year's Eve but I ask you today to raise a glass and toast the birth of the world's greatest Louis Armstrong fan, Jack Bradley!

As longtime readers of this blog know, my current day job is serving as the project archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, where my duties pretty much revolve around the arranging, preserving and cataloging of Jack's Armstrong collection. I've gotten to know Jack pretty well over the past couple of years and it's simply and honor and privilege to be in charge of his massive collection. If you don't mind, I'd like to update Dizzy Gillespie's 1970 tribute to Louis Armstrong: I'd like to thank Jack Bradley for my livelihood...literally!

If you don't know much about Jack's Armstrong collection, check out this wonderful New York Times article from 2008 by clicking here. And if you missed my personal account of visiting Jack and his wife Nancy at their Cape Cod home in October (complete with pictures), click here. And finally, if you'd like to relive one of the great moments of Jack's life, the famous, two-hour-plus "Slivovice" interview with Armstrong and Dan Morgenstern from 1965, you can listen to the whole thing by going here.

Thus, it's safe to say that I think Jack's the greatest and like, Pops, he, too, should be celebrated every day. But today, on behalf of Pops fans from around the world, I want to say happy birthday, Jack...you're the top! Here's Pops himself relaying the message in his 1957 recording of a Russell Garcia arrangement. Enjoy!