Friday, April 27, 2012

Louis Armstrong Needs You!

Okay, dear friends, I promised big news at the end of the week and here it is: the Louis Armstrong House Museum is up for a major grant through Partners in Preservation (PiP for short). But it's not your typical fill-out-a-grant-application-and-wait kind of deal. PiP has partnered with American Express for a little competition, pitting 40 New York City cultural organization against each other to see who could get the most votes through Facebook and Twitter.

The Louis Armstrong House Museum is lucky enough to be one of the 40! If we win, we would get $250,000 to restore to Louis Armstrong's garden. This is a beautiful space where we have all of our outdoor events, including concerts for kids. But it needs work and this grant would be ideal to get it done.

So how can you help? By voting for us at http://partnersinpreservation.com/. Once there, scroll down the list and find the Louis Armstrong House Museum. If you're already on Facebook, you can just click "Vote with Facebook" and it's done--one click! If not, there's a spot for an e-mail address and password. Fill it in, they'll send you a confirmation letter with an activation link and you'll be good to go.

But here's the next catch: you can vote once a day, every day until the competition ends on May 21! So if you read this, cast a vote and disappear....well, thanks, but we need more! Once a day, a simple click for a vote could go a long way for us to reach our goal. We're up against some big institutions but we have one thing they don't have: Louis Armstrong. Pops has international appeal--hello readers in Sweden, Germany, England, Italy, etc.!--so tell your friends, please, to help us out.

And in the meantime, if you are on Facebook, please "Like" our page here: Louis Armstrong House Museum Facebook Page. I'm helping with it these days and it's going to be filled in the next few weeks with Pops trivia, YouTube videos and special photographs from our collections. Also all sorts of fun stuff like this video I shot yesterday. The PiP campaign was announced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Afterwards, some of our friends--who just happen to be some of the finest traditional jazz musicians in town--organized on the steps of the Met for an impromptu jam session for Louis. I whipped out my iPhone and though the video is a little skinny, the sound comes through. You'll see Bria Skonberg, Gordon Au, Emily Asher and more, coming out for Pops's cause:



So thank you for reading this and remember, please vote daily. Louis Armstrong needs you! Thanks a million....

Saturday, April 21, 2012

In Loving Memory of Joe Muranyi

It's with a very heavy heart that I have to report the news that one of my favorite human beings, Joe Muranyi, passed away yesterday, April 20, 2012, at the age of 84. Joe was Louis Armstrong's final clarinetist and an overall champion of all things Pops. I also considered him a friend and if you don't mind, I'd like to share some of my memories with "Papa Joe."


First, the man himself, who was born on January 14, 1928 of Hungarian descent, which he really embraced in his later life. He moved to New York in the 1950s and though he studied with Lennie Tristano, he immediately jumped into the city's dixieland and mainstream swing scene. So many people just think of his associations with Louis and Roy Eldridge but after spending time with him on a road trip in 2010, it was stunning to hear how many people he played with during this period: Max Kaminsky, Ed Allen, Red Allen, Eddie Condon...the names just kept on coming.


In the early 1960s, he was part of a dixieland band, the Village Stompers, that scored an unlikely hit with their instrumental recording, "Washington Square," which actually hit number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963:



Here's another one from the Village Stompers, "Midnight to Moscow," with a YouTube video featuring the original album cover in which you can spot Joe, dead center with his trademark glasses and moustache:



In 1967, Louis wasn't in the best of health. All Stars clarinetist Buster Bailey died in April and was replaced by Johnny Mince, but after only a couple of gigs, Louis came down with pneumonia and had to take some time off. When he was ready to go again in June, he needed a new clarinetist and Joe Muranyi was selected. Why Joe? Well, the Village Stompers were booked by Joe Glaser and Glaser always seemed to choose All Stars musicians from his roster. But Louis and Joe were also somewhat familiar with each other; when Louis visited Jack Bradley's short-lived nightclub "Bourbon Street" back in 1967, he snapped a picture of Joe sitting at a table with both Louis and Red Allen. Fast company!


Joe was a lifelong worshipper of Louis and a real student of jazz history so joining the All Stars was a dream come true. He told me about his first rehearsal with the group in 2006: 


"I was quite nervous.  The night before I played that Avakian Columbia record, ‘Ambassador Satch,’ a collection of all types of things, George told me.  So I played that, that wonderful ‘Royal Garden Blues’ solo, you know, just a gem.  I said, ‘Geez, how the hell can I play with a guy like that?’  So we ran down the thing and it went pretty good.  I mean, there was no doubt that I fit in.  I just did the best I could and by the end of the evening, Pops was smiling.  And I remember ‘So Long Dearie.’  I said, ‘Well, I can get through the chorus but I don’t know the verse too well.’  So he blows his horn into my fucking face and plays it for me!  It was wonderful!  I was such a fan, I didn’t know what to do.  I mean, I got to listen and try to learn and as it turns out, we never did ever play it, but he played it for me as to how it went which is marvelous."


Jack Bradley took the following photo of Louis and Joe from that first rehearsal:


"I got along very well with Pops," Joe told me.  "I was the only one in the band that knew all the records and the history and stuff.  There’s the one, on that 67, that first broadcast, we’re sitting back—I think it might, if you listen carefully it might be on the tape—he said, ‘How the fuck do you pronounce your name?’  I said, ‘Muranyi, like Ma Rainey.’  Oh, he loved that!  He broke up laughing, he never forgot it.  A lot of cats in the business call me, ‘Hey, Ma Rainey!'"
Joe made many recordings with Louis in his years with the All Stars. He told me his favorite was this version of "Cabaret" from the "What a Wonderful World" album:

Joe stayed until Louis's last engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria in 1971. When Louis was sick and had to stop performing from late 1968 to late 1970, Joe found another gig with a legendary trumpeter, Roy Eldridge, with whom he shared the bandstand with at Jimmy Ryan's for the next decade, even recording an album together for Pablo.


After Roy retired, Joe kept going, playing with everyone you could think of, including one of my all-time favorite groups, the Classic Jazz Quartet, with Marty Grosz, Richard Sudhalter and Dick Wellstood. He continued working steadily through the 80s and 90s, when he began making trips to Hungary, where he was treated as a hero of sorts. He remained an ambassador of Louis Armstrong, playing with other alumni from the All Stars, recording tribute CDs of Louis's music, performing at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and with David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band at Birdland and at the Louis Armstrong Jazz Festival in Bank, Hungary, where he became the star of the show. A flurry of videos from the 2009 festival show Joe in fine form, playing and singing with a variety of acts. Here here is with a great trumpeter, Herbert Christ, on Fats Waller's "Blue Turning Grey Over You":



But though Joe was so intertwined with Louis and though he took part in so many projects that revolved around Louis, when it came to talking about Louis, that's where he clammed up. Oh, he could talk about Pops; he had stories like nobody else. But early on, a few of his stories made it into James Lincoln Collier's "Louis Armstrong: An American Genius"....but they weren't attributed to Joe. They were stories he had told for years but when he saw them being told by others, he decided to save them for himself. If you were tight with Joe, he'd open up but always with the caveat that the stories were for HIS book that he was working on. He turned down many high profile authors who wanted to use his stories. Sure, he gave interviews about Louis all the time, but he had certain stories that he trotted out; the "good shit" as he called it was for his book and his close friends and that's all.


So you could imagine how I felt when in 2006, I--a complete nobody, just out of college--decided to write Joe to ask him for an interview for my book. I was petrified. I found his son Paul online and Paul gave me his e-mail address. I wrote a long "Dear Mr. Muranyi" fan letter, explaining my goals and the importance of the All Stars and how I wanted to change a lot of perceptions. 


It only took one day for a return e-mail with the simple subject line, "Hi." Joe wrote, "Hey Ricky, Good to hear from you. Yeah I think that Pops later bands got short shrift from the Pops gurus. We had our moments with our band. I think Pops was the great Louis Armstrong until the day he died. So he didn't do new Cornet Chop Sueys ; he was the same guy who once did, though. Sure, call me..." The next day, I nervously called Joe, who told me that he had checked up on me and heard good things. To this day, I don't know who he talked to--I really only knew Dan Morgenstern and Michael Cogswell at the time--but that was fine by me and we set up an interview for October 25, 2006.


We had a ball that day. I stayed for hours and taped it all, transcribing the best of it (all in a 11,000+ words document). A lot of it made it into my book but most landed on the cutting room floor. Here's some beautiful words from Papa Joe that I never had the chance to publish: "Let’s put it this way:  I really loved him.  He always talked about Joe Oliver, playing with Joe Oliver in Chicago and he never thought and how honored and how wonderful.  And I don’t equate myself with Louie but I felt that way about Louis Armstrong.  I felt so thrilled and honored. Our first trip, we were in France or something and somebody was playing this song.  He was backstage and I was backstage so we got to talking and I told him how much I appreciated me being with the band and I felt honored and I was such a fan of his and I went on a bit.  I knew him well enough then but I just really wanted him to know, to tell him.  And he flattered me and, I don’t want to get into details, but he put down some of his clarinet players, he said, ‘You know, I prefer you.’  And then I later found out that, Ira [Mangel] told me or somebody told me—you know, Barney Bigard was like a comet.  He’d come and go, you know, he’d play for awhile and then something else and he’d always come back.  But I think whenever he asked to come back, he would come back.  And when I joined the band, he asked to come back and Louie said no, he preferred me.  Isn’t that wild!?  And the thing was, I wasn’t a fall-down drunk or anything and I had a couple of young kids and I’m a college graduate.  I think it meant something to him that I had the wife and the two kids and I wasn’t coming from the, I don’t know what kind of milieu, a drug addict milieu or whatever, however, you know….He did not like cats being drunk or carrying on in the band.  ‘Oh, he smokes pot.’  But it was very serious to him.  Take care of business.  And the line I heard him yelling at I think Buddy or somebody that was drunk and he says, ‘Don’t fuck with my hustle.’  Which is great.  But in a way, the thing is he thought what he did was a hustle.  It was just an expression, but it was like street smart.  He certainly was street smart.  I don’t know, I wish I could play with him now."


And here's some more insights from Joe that paint a beautiful picture of the offstage Louis Armstrong:

"I remember once, we were going to go to Europe.  I don’t know where we were, I mean, New York or—it seems to me that maybe we were going to take an airplane that was going to take to New York to go to Europe.  And we’re in the VIP lounge, sort of sprawled out and stuff.  All over, newspaper, ‘Mr. Armstrong’…He says, ‘Excuse me, Josephus.’  He called me Josephus.  I loved that.  ‘Come here.’  And he walks to a corner.  And you ever hear of Johnny Windhurst and Ruby Braff?  I was always talking about Johnny Windhurst and Ruby Braff, you know.  And he starts talking to me about me.  And these guys are all wanting to interview him.  It was really like great.  He says, ‘Never mind about Ruby Braff, let me tell you something, never mind about Ruby Braff and Johnny Windhurst.  You just play your own beautiful shit.’  And it went on like that in that vein.  And I was like…the great man, you know?  He’s actually thinking about me!  It was wonderful, man, wonderful.  I guess we hit it off sort of but the thing was, we’re all sitting around, going to go to sleep waiting for the airplane, and Louie nudges me and says, ‘Here.  That’s a shoehorn.  You know, when you go to sleep, your feet swell.  You take your shoes off when your feet swell and you want to put them on, they won’t go on.  You’ll wake up before me anyhow.  When you’ve got your shoes on, let me have the shoehorn.’  You know?  Oh man!  The great Louis Armstrong.  He loved my kids.  He met them a couple of times.  My son Paul and my Adrianna.  I was so pleased that they met him….Pops loved kids.  He really loved kids.  So Pops changed my life in a lot of ways.  He changed my life."



One of the most touching stories Joe told me that day was about "You'll Never Walk Alone.":

"When I was with him, he did that and he did some other slow one like that, the point was—this is one of my insights—he had that side of him that liked that bag, the pathos, the—that was just his special bag.  And so he did that and I didn’t particularly care for it.  Nothing much for me to do.  But it was fine, it went over and he loved to do it.  I tell you something.  In 2003, I thought I was going to lose this place. I got into a very bad psychological state, very depressed and down.  Just really bad, the end of my life...Really, I got very down and I can’t tell you.  I think the only way was that my wife [Jorun] was in Europe and my little grandson, I’d grab him around and we’d roll around and that’d make me feel better.  Anyhow, I’m in that shape.  And there’s a thing on TV on Richard Rodgers, all about all kinds of stuff and everything.  And I’m watching it and it was very interesting, it got my mind off my misery.  I can’t tell you what I been through.  It gave me great insight into people with emotional problems, people with suicides and all that kind of stuff….You’re never afraid of dying and suffering til the first time you feel the brush of the wings when you’re sick.  Anyhow, there it is and I’m really down and stuff.  And the last one, I think it’s from England, Pops doing [You'll Never Walk Alone].  And I’m sitting there and I start to cry cause he’s singing it to me because I’m feeling so horrible. And I’m playing the clarinet!  That was so special to me, it was like literally Pops came to me.  I believe, it was more than a coincidence, he was there.  And it helped me a lot.  I cried and I thought about it and it helped me a lot….When he, some of those things, the high notes, it’s like there’s such emotion, such feeling there, and it touches me so and I feel that there’s some sort of great truth there.  It’s not words, it’s not eating, it’s screwing, flying high, it’s something very tangible yet intangible, so it gets to me.  When he died, I was crushed, very down and stuff.  For six months, he came to me in my dreams.  And he wasn’t dead and it was wonderful.  And it felt so good.  I’d wake up in the morning and I’d feel good.  And there again, I never had anything like that back then in my life, I was really set back.  And I believed it.  I said, ‘Well, he comes to me in dreams.’"

On and on we went that day. When it was over, he told me a helluva thing: "You know," he said, "you're the first person writing about Armstrong that I've ever given a real interview to." Wow, I didn't know what to say. He really opened up--but still, he alluded to some things and some stories that were going to be for his book and he couldn't tell them to me. But still, he told me more than any previous Armstrong biographer and that was good enough for me (though he did give an interview to Terry Teachout for his book, "Pops," shortly thereafter). 

I had my quotes but now a friendship was born. We'd trade e-mails, I'd visit him every now and then, etc. When I started my blog in 2007, he'd catch up with it and e-mail me praise and comments. In February 2008, I was booked to give an Armstrong presentation at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. I invited Joe and was thrilled when accepted--except I'd have to pick up him up in the city and drive him out to Newark. So I did and had a wonderful car ride with him as I played all sorts of rare Pops and talked it over with him. Though I had a pretty set presentation ready for that night, I involved Joe as much as possible; towards the end, he got so passionate talking about his love for Pops, he welled up with emotion. It was beautiful to witness. Here's a picture I cherish of the two of us taken that evening:


At the end of 2008, I got my book deal with Pantheon. I signed the contract for it at Birdland with my agent and editor, attending a performance by David Ostwald's Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. David was a friend and he usually introduced me to the crowd, which we figured would impress my editor--but that night, David wasn't there! Joe was on clarinet but nobody else knew who I was. Vince Giordano was acting as leader and emcee, introducing some of the notable people in the crowd when Joe interrupted him and said, "Ricky Riccardi's here!" Vince, bless him, had no idea what Joe was talking about it but said, "Oh....he is?" Joe then grabbed the mike and proceeded to give me the greatest introduction I could have asked for, impressing the heck out of my editor. It was a charming moment my agent and I still talk about. 


We continued keeping in touch and seeing each other occasionally, but in 2010 I got some bad news: Joe was battling cancer and it didn't look good. I grew very saddened and planned to make a visit to say goodbye--but then I heard that Joe fought it and was somehow doing okay. And then I got an e-mail from Joe himself saying he was back home! I couldn't believe, though I knew he wasn't 100%.


By this point, I was working for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, in charge of cataloging the Jack Bradley Collection. In October 2010, Michael Cogswell and I planned a trip up to Cape Cod to pay Jack a visit. Joe got wind of the visit and said he'd like to go because he had a place in Cape Cod that he wanted to check on because he hadn't been there in a while. We weren't sure his health would hold up, but he assured us he'd be okay. He was much thinner, didn't eat much, coughed a lot and had a hard time getting around but otherwise, it was a weekend I'll never forget. Even the drive up to and back from Cape Cod was an experience, listening to Louis and Joe point out things I had never heard, such as how Trummy Young perfectly complimented Louis's lead and stuff like that. 


We eventually got to Joe's historic little Cape Cod home. I wasn't surprised to see this in one of the small rooms: 


As we were leaving, we asked to take one more photo of Joe in front of his Cape Cod home:




And then it was off to Jack Bradley's house. I felt honored to be in the same room as Jack and Joe, two old friends for over 50 years. Michael Cogswell snapped these photos of me showing them all I had been up do at the Armstrong Archives:




This photograph has already become one of my personal favorites:


After the Cape Cod trip, Joe wrote to thank me for a wonderful time but with his health going up and down, I didn't hear from him often in the next year. But after my book came out and finally gave credit to the All Stars and Joe himself, he couldn't hide his pleasure with it. Before it came out, he wrote to me: "In the Collier book I get one mention in the index and when you look for it it's not in the book. And I'm sort of written out of Louis' story. A while back there was a traveling Pops exhibit- was it in connection with Giddens' book? It was quite nice and there wasn't one image or mention of me or the Pops band I played with. It really hurt because I had been there and was tight with the old man. I don't think I'm an important part of his story and career or another Ed Hall or Barney Bigard. But when I think of his introducing me to someone as 'My clarinet man.' Well, that means something to me; in a strange way I'm part of 'that number.' Nobody can take that away from me." It was my honor to help restore Joe back to his rightful place in Louis's story.


As 2011 turned to 2012, Joe's health continued to fail. But he seemed to rally again in March, when he was moved from a V. A. hospital into an assisted living facility. Word got around that somehow, he was fighting again and doing better than he had been. I called him up and indeed, he sounded better than I expected. I made plans to see him and visited him the following week. But when I got there, he said, "You came just in time; they're taking me to the hospital." He was having trouble breathing. Seconds later, two ambulance drivers came in and asked if I was family. No, I told them, just a friend. "But he's coming with me," Joe insisted.

And there we were in the ambulance back to the V.A. hospital. I held Joe's hand and though he spoke softly, we talked about Louis. He told me about his last dinner at Louis's house--July 2, 1971. Louis died on July 6. When we got to the hospital, I waited with him until a doctor came, said so long and said I'd see him soon. He smiled and held my hand. It was the last time I saw him.

Others visited in the following weeks, including David Ostwald, who played Louis Armstrong's music for Joe. But he was suffering and I almost felt relief when I got the call today that Joe had passed. At the same time, we're now in a world without Joe Muranyi. Another All Star is gone. There's only three left: Marty Napoleon, Jewel Brown and Buddy Catlett.

I cherished every moment I spent with Joe Muranyi; there'll never be another quite like him. He never did get that book out but I know drafts of it survive, with all those unknown stories about Pops. Maybe one day they'll see the light of day. But we do have Joe's music, which will live forever. 

Once, he made a copy of an incredibly rare All Stars performance from the New Orleans Jazz Festival in May 1968. It wasn't even in the discographies. Because of that, Joe told me not to put any of it on my blog and I respected that. But now that he is gone, I think it's only fitting to end my personal tribute to Joe with his feature from that concert, something he was very proud of: "Just a Closer Walk With Thee." Goodbye, Papa Joe; you'll be missed.



85 Years of Louis Armstrong with Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards

Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards
Recorded April 21, 1927
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Jimmy Blythe, piano; Jimmy Bertrand, washboard, cymbals
Originally released on Vocalion 1099/1100 Currently available on CD: On the excellent Frog CD, "Johnny Dodds and Jimmy Blythe 1926-1928."
Available on Itunes? Yes, on a JSP disc, "All Star Jazz Quartets"

This weekend, I had two Louis Armstrong anniversaries to choose from to commemorate: on April 22, 1927, Louis recorded with Johnny Dodds's Black Bottom Stompers (Johnny and Baby Dodds, Earl Hines, Barney Bigard, etc.) and waxed some classic material: "Weary Blues," "New Orleans Stomp," "Wild Man Blues" and "Melancholy." But that's a fairly well known date that has been written about many times before. And three of the songs would be recorded by Louis's Hot Seven the following month and I plan on celebrating that series in just a few weeks (the fourth, "New Orleans Stomp," was already the subject of an old blog of mine).

So with that in mind, I've chosen another Vocalion date from the previous day that is much less known: Louis and Johnny Dodds recording as part of Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards. Louis finished 1926 with a flurry of recordings for OKeh in November in that month. But he didn't return to record for that label until May of the following year. Though we focus so much on Armstrong, it should be noted that clarinetist Johnny Dodds was quite a popular musician himself, often recording under his own name in 1926 and 1927. On April 21 and 22, the Vocalion label wanted to stock up on some Dodds recordings and Dodds graciously brought along Armstrong to spice things up a bit.

This wasn't the first time Louis snuck away to Vocalion. On May 28, 1926, he recorded two sessions for the label, one with Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra and one with the Hot Five, renamed "Lil's Hot Shots." On those recordings, he didn't hide who he was in the least; he even took a vocal on "Georgia Bo-Bo"! But as the famous story goes, Louis was called into OKeh's offices and played those recordings. When asked who was on the trumpet, Armstrong supposedly replied, "I don't know....but I won't do it again!" But a gig was a gig and Louis wasn't one to turn down any bread for a recording date. So he did the two Vocalion sessions in April but this time he didn't sing and more importantly, he kept some of his more identifiable, dramatic tendencies to a minimum.

Of course, he couldn't quite keep it all in on the Dodds Black Bottom Stompers date; the combination of Louis's playing, the repertoire and the caliber of sidemen has made that a classic date. But with Jimmy Bertrand's Washboard Wizards, Louis indeed scaled down the high notes and played in a consistently peppy, hot style that, while undoubtably him, might have fooled those not paying attention. So we all know Louis and we all know Johnny Dodds. Who was Jimmy Bertrand, the leader of the session? Bertrand was a Chicago percussion legend and a member of Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra, making his mark on the aforementioned Vocalion session of 1926. Bertrand was a master showman and stick juggler and is mostly known today for his mentoring of two other master showmen and stick jugglers, Lionel Hampton and Big Sid Catlett. Full drum kits were still mostly taboo at the time of this session (that would change by the end of the year) but washboard groups were in. Bertrand's washboard playing is incredibly rhythmic and swinging; he really boots these sessions along in fine fashion.

And the fourth man was pianist Jimmy Blythe, known mainly for his accompaniment to many blues singers of the period, but also as a fine blues-based man whose "Jimmy's Blues" provided the inspiration for "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie." The sound of the washboard sometimes obscures his efforts but if you listen, you'll hear some energetic two-fisted work (though we could dream about what the session what have sounded like with Earl Hines or Teddy Weatherford).

As for the individual songs, I don't feel the need to get all note-by-note crazy. This is hot jazz evocative of the Chicago 1920s nightlife; it didn't change history but who cares? Louis is in a real King Oliver bag at times (especially all those three-quarter-notes-in-a-row phrases) but when he gets a break, it's the dazzling Louis we all know and Love from this period. Up first is Roy Bergere's "Easy Come Easy Go Blues," which isn't a blues but does have a catchy melody that always gets stuck in my head:






That's followed by "The Blues Stampede," credited to Irving Mills and again, not a blues. I particularly love Louis's outing here, as it leads into the final joyous ensemble:




Next up, a tune by the young Fats Waller, "I'm Goin' Huntin'." This is the one track from this session that sometimes gets excerpted on compilations and with good reason, as it's the first "Satch Plays Fats," beating "Alligator Crawl" by a few weeks. (I have audio of a 1957 concert in Hinsdale, IL in which Louis was interviewed during the intermission. After the interview, a member of the audience comes up and requests "I'm Goin' Huntin'"! Louis graciously doesn't turn him down but says he'll see what he could do. Naturally, I'm sure none of the All Stars--or even Louis--knew the tune.)




And finally the very exciting, "If You Want to Be My Sugar Papa (You Gotta Be Sweet to Me)," with some great ensembles at the end (though you could hear Louis holding back a bit in that last chorus....he wanted to blow!):




So I hope you've enjoyed listening to these fun, unheralded numbers from one of the most heralded times of Louis Armstrong's life. That's all for now but make sure to come back at the end of the week for some exciting announcements!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Latest Odds and Ends

I've been so wrapped up in various anniversary posts lately that I haven't had a general update of Armstrong news in quite some time. There's plenty to report on so let's dive right in.

First off, some sad news. On Monday, April 9, Phoebe Jacobs passed away at the age of 93. Few people have done more for Louis Armstrong's legacy than Jacobs, who for years served as the widowed Lucille Armstrong's traveling companion and became Vice President of the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation after Lucille's death in 1983. Phoebe made it her business that Louis's life and music would be celebrated for years to come; without her efforts and the efforts of the Foundation, there would not have been a Louis Armstrong House Museum, for one. In my 2 1/2 years with the Armstrong House, I'd talk to Phoebe multiple times a week. Sometimes she'd give me hell and light a fire under me to get something done, but everything she did was with Louis in mind. She eventually became one of my biggest supporters, coming up with ideas to publicize my book and attending many of my presentations at the Armstrong House and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. In fact, the last time I saw her was in Harlem in January, when she attended two my sessions there, including a panel I did with George Avakian, Dan Morgenstern and David Ostwald. Phoebe stole the show with her stories from the audience; audio is still up and can be heard here: Louis Armstrong Panel Audio. I still can't quite envision not hearing from Phoebe every week at work; she'll be greatly missed but I know the Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation will continue to do great things inspired by both her and Louis's lead, such as the recent launch of their website: Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation


***************

On a personal note, I disappeared from the blog for a bit in late March but it was all for a good reason: I attended the Dave Brubeck Festival, given by the Brubeck Institute at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California. It was a beautiful event and I had a ball during every minute (it was also my first trip to California; if you're "friends" with me on Facebook, you've seen the results of my trip to In-N-Out Burger!).

I was invited out there by Keith Hatschek, who has been doing heroic work in researching "The Real Ambassadors." This is the 50th anniversary of the one and only performance of Dave and Iola Brubeck's landmark work at the Monterey Jazz Festival. To commemorate, Keith invited me to speak about Pops's participation in the project, as well as the great Yolande Bavan, who replaced Annie Ross in Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and took part in that historic Monterey performance. Not only was our panel a success, but I was blown away by the Brubeck Collection in the University of the Pacific's library. I'm so used to working with Louis's stuff every day, that it was great to see similar dedication for another jazz great. For "The Real Ambassadors," they had letters from Joe Glaser about it, original sheet music and scripts, session tapes from the 1961 Columbia album (I was in tears listening to Louis work on "Summer Song" and "Lonesome") and so much more.

And here's the great news: thanks to the dedication of Shan Sutton and Michael Wurtz in Special Collections, they launched an online exhibit dedicated to "The Real Ambassadors." And as Pops would say, it's a gassuh! Photos, a PDF of the original script (titled "World Take a Holiday") and the script Iola Brubeck prepared for Monterey (complete with music), audio letters from the Brubeck's to Louis, showing him how the songs went, and so much more. The highlight is a very special recreation of the Monterey performance. As some of you might know, Joe Glaser wouldn't allow the Monterey performance to be filmed or recorded; there isn't a trace of it, just the 1961 studio album. But a couple of years ago, Hatschek visited Iola Brubeck and recorded her reading the narration, just as she did in Monterey. Using that and the original album (and a few short pinch-hit performances by University of the Pacific students), Hatschek edited it all together to create a facsimile of what happened in Monterey that evening. I've always LOVED "The Real Ambassadors" but listening to it with the narration made it come more alive than ever before. Stop what you're doing, head to the online exhibit and listen NOW! Here's the link to all of it:

The Real Ambassadors Digital Exhibit

And if you're in the California region and are sad that you missed this, don't worry, Hatscheck, Ms. Bavan and myself will be reprising our discussion at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September! I'll post more details as we get closer, but it's going to be a major event. Here's a photo of the three of us, the ambassadors for "The Real Ambassadors"!



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It's also an exciting time for Armstrong CD releases! April 17 will find the first official release of some of my favorite Armstrong broadcasts, taken from the New York nightclub Basin Street in May 1955. Live at Basin Street will be on the Mr. Music label and it should be a great find for All Stars fanatics. Thanks to the generosity of my European friends, I've had this material for years and have shared some of it on the blog in the past. I'm thrilled that it's finally getting an official issue. It's the Armstrong-Trummy Young-Barney Bigard-Billy Kyle-Arvell Shaw-Barrett Deems-Velma Middleton edition of the band, fresh of recording "Satch Plays Fats." Since Basin Street was an extended engagement, it allowed Armstrong to dip into his large repertoire bag for some things he didn't play too often in this period, such as "You're Just in Love" and "S'posin" with Velma. And even on the evergreens, there's some different and inspired playing on tunes like "Muskrat Ramble" and "Royal Garden Blues." Barney Bigard is so-so, continuing his bored playing from "Satch Plays Fats" (he'd be out of the band by September) but everyone else is on fire. Don't miss this release! (Again, I don't have it so possibly they screwed up the sound or something, but on paper, it's a can't miss!)

Then one week later, a release that's been getting a ton of publicity: the first official release of Red Beans and Ricely Yours: Satchmo at the National Press Club, containing a very late in the game (January 1971) performance by Pops. This was out briefly on LP but again, thanks to the generosity of my fellow Armstrong nuts, I've had a copy for years and again, I've shared some of it on the blog. But this is going to be an official release on Smithsonian Folkways so it will be in remastered sound and will contain bonuses such as a booklet of Louis's favorite recipes and recordings from a posthumous Armstrong tribute at the Press Club led by Tyree Glenn. Louis's set is about a half hour long, but it's great. He does some of his greatest hits, tells a bawdy joke and plays strong trumpet on "Sleepy Time" and "Hello, Dolly," the latter containing one of his finest solos from his last years. This issue is getting tremendous publicity (just google "Louis armstrong press club" and stand back), which also pleases me.

And I'll close by offering a couple of tantalizing morsels: I'm working closely with two major labels to get some rare Pops out of their vaults. One set is green-lighted and could be out this summer, the other is still in the planning stages. I don't think I can officially announce either right now but when I do, trust me, Armstrong fans around the world will celebrate. Stay tuned!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Cotton Tail

Recorded April 4, 1961
Track Time 3:42
Written by Duke Ellington
Recorded in New York City
Accompanied by Duke Ellington, piano, Trummy Young, trombone, Barney Bigard, clarinet, Mort Herbert, bass, Danny Barcelona, drums
Released on the Roulette LP "Recording Together for the First Time"
Currently on CD: "Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington: The Complete Sessions"
Available on Itunes? Yes (The rehearsal is available only by purchasing the full album)

Today is Easter Sunday and after a few years of sharing "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" on this day, I have decided to go another route laster year and celebrate the day with Louis and Duke Ellington jamming away on "Cotton Tail." It was very well received so let's do it again! The tune was the last song recorded on the second day of two long sessions that are now generally referred to as "The Great Summit."

After recording so much marvelous music over the two days, it was decided to close out the session with this jam session favorite. A snatch of rehearsal was saved and issued when Roulette put out a two-disc version of the Armstrong-Ellington collaboration about a decade ago. Here it is, everyone sounding relaxed and Louis having a lot of fun scatting Ben Webster's famed saxophone lines.


Louis sounds like he wants someone to play it but after Barney and Duke fumble with it, the idea is aborted. Still, a pretty hip look at how Louis listened to everything and absorbed it all. When the light when on, Duke carried the melody, leading to a string of one-chorus solos. Pops sounds great, very fluent and relaxed; he didn't do much with "Rhythm" changes but what he did do was always interesting. But nothing tops Louis's unbeatable scat chorus with the immortal line, "Chops are flying everywhere, look at ol' Duke laughing there!" It's a beautiful moment, taking us into the studio and giving us a priceless image of Louis scatting and Duke digging him immensely. How could he not? (2012 note: we just installed a new exhibit at the Louis Armstrong about Louis in the recording studio. In it, we have some precious artifacts, including Louis's handwritten lyric sheets for all the songs on the Ellington session. For "Cotton Tail," he simply wrote "SCAT VOCAL"!)

So put down the chocolate bunnies, put the hard-boiled eggs back in the fridge and put off church til a little later and listen to "Cotton Tail."

Saturday, April 7, 2012

75 Years of Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers's First Session

Recorded April 7, 1937
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Harry, Herbert, Donald and John Mills, vocal; Bernard Addison, guitar
Originally released on Decca 1245
Currently available on CD: On the essential Mosaic Records box of Louis's 1935-1946 Decca recordings.
Available on Itunes? Yes.

Louis Armstrong signed with Jack Kapp's Decca label in 1935 and immediately commenced a series of recordings of pop songs and jazz favorites backed by Luis Russell's big band. Towards the end of 1936, Kapp began mixing and matching Armstrong with other Decca labelmates including a session with Jimmy Dorsey's orchestra, a recording of tunes from the Pennies From Heaven soundtrack with Bing Crosby and Frances Langford and two, count 'em two, Hawaiian-themed sessions, one with The Polynesians and one with Andy Iona and His Islanders (there should have been 20 more; see my entry from March 24 celebrating the Iona session). In April of 1937, Armstrong was teamed with the very popular Mills Brothers. Originally billed as "Four Boys and a Guitar," the brothers Mills suffered a serious setback the previous year when guitarist John Jr. passed away. Their father, John Sr., joined the band and for a short time, jazz guitar great Bernard Addison filled in on guitar.

The combination of the Mills's hornlike voices and the mellowness of Armstrong's tenor during this period proved quite natural and the combination would be repeated three more times in the Decca studios, as well as on numerous radio broadcasts. What's odd about their first pairing was the choice of material: "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" and "Darling Nelly Gray," two songs that harkened back to the days of slavery. "Virginny" was written in 1878 by James A. Bland, a black man, and contained lines such as "There's where this old darkie's heart does long to go" and "There's where I labored so hard for dear ol' massa." I know...yikes. The folk music period was just getting off the ground and this were clearly thought of as a folk song but having two of the most popular black acts in America cover it was pretty risky. Let's listen and see how it turned out:



i guess the outcome was never in doubt, huh? The Mills Brothers open with some touching, old-fashioned harmonizing; is this going to be a nostalgia trip back to the ol' plantation? And then Pops enters with a spot-on scat break...hello, 20th century! Armstrong sings sweetly, but with a sense of urgency, spurred on by the rhythm guitar and the lovely carpet of sound provided by the Mills's. Armstrong sings the word "darkies" as is, but when he gets to "ol' massa," he smooths it out and pronounces it "old master" without a trace of dialect. 14 years later, Armstrong sang the word "darkies" on the original issued take of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" and suffered such a serious backlash, it was the beginning of the abandonment of him by the black audience. But in 1937, Armstrong and the Mills sang it and there was no uproar. I'm not saying it's right, heaven forbid, but this was a period when both acts were seen as heroes in the black community, especially with Armstrong poised to make radio history by becoming the first African-American to host a nationally sponsored radio show when he would take over the "Fleischmann's Yeast Show" from Rudy Vallee just two nights later. Progress was being made and no 1878 lyrics were going to slow it down.

Armstrong's first run-through sticks rather close to the melody. When the Mills step up to the plate, they add a little more rhythmic life to it (not that Pops wasn't swinging), taking some liberties with the phrasing (though they do sing "massa"). The session's other voice then speaks up, Louis's trumpet, with mute in for a very fluent outing; no opera, no high notes, just pure lyrical swinging.

After the trumpet solo, the Mills's voices form their own riffing trumpet section, vamping until Pops gets ready for the final vocal chorus. Now he's in preaching mood; the earnest mood of the first chorus is gone; Virginny 1878 has been transformed into Harlem 1937 and Pops more or less creates an entire new melody on the spot. The proceedings swing like mad until the Mills's put on the brakes and revert back to the quaint harmonies that opened the record....abetted by some delicious scatting by Armstrong, his last lick being one of his favorites. Wow, what a record, huh?

As for "Darling Nelly Gray," the other tune recorded that day, it was written in 1856 by Benjamin R. Hanby, a white man, and tells the emotional tale of two slaves whose love affair is ended one one is sold. According to the website "Owen Sound's Black History," "It is believed this little song was a major force in shaping public opinion on the issue of slavery, leading to the great Democratic victory of 1860 and the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States." (http://www.osblackhistory.com/nellygray.php) The song is only 16-bars long but that never stopped Armstrong (look at what he did with 16 bars of "Mack the Knife"). Two charming takes survive and it's amazing how similar they are (I write this with my wife staring at me in disbelief as I have one headphone from my Ipod in my left ear playing take 1 and one headphone in my left ear, playing take 2!). Let's start with the first take:



"Darling Nelly Gray" starts out with one of my favorite lost sounds in jazz: the acoustic guitar, here played by Bernard Addison. The Mills then sing the melody fairly straight, sounding as lovely as ever. Then Armstrong comes in, also sticking fairly close to the melody, with an added emphasis on the word "they" and a perfectly placed "oh babe." Behind him, the Mills hum on the first and third beats of every measure, a technique often employed by the horns on some of Armstrong's earlier big band recordings (think "Stardust" behind his trumpet). The trumpet solo is a model of relaxed swing, with the brothers effectively backing him with more hornlike rhythmic punctuations. The Mills's start singing again while Armstrong keeps blowing, starting with five repeated concert C's. Not technically an obbligato, it sounds more like Armstrong continues soloing over the vocal. Finally, he puts down the horn and says, "Now boys, what you think of this?" He then infuses the final chorus with infectious spirit, finally ditching the written melody and creating something much more swinging. The scat break is Armstrong 101 and he even has fun with the lyrics, changing it from "I'm sitting by the river and I'm weepin' all the day" to "I'm sitting by the river and I'm all in a shiver." The cherry on top is a scat cadenza where Armstrong's first phrase is exactly the same as the one he sang during his break just a few seconds before (if it works, it works!). The break grows increasingly more complex as it continues; one can imagine the Armstrong horn pushing the same phrases out. The Mills Brothers might have sounded more like an actual horn section, but no one could swing out trumpet licks with his voice as Armstrong! The closing scat takes up 29 seconds and I would gladly pay to hear it go on for a few hours.

Another take was made and as I already wrote, the similarities are striking even if the tempo is a shade slower. Here it is:



There's a slight difference in Armstrong's vocal phrasing with a pause after the phrase "And I'll never" and an added emphasis on the first syllable of the word "darling." Remembering his repeated C's on his second trumpet chorus on take one, he begins his solo on the alternate with six C's. Otherwise, the rest of his first chorus is almost identical to take one, right down to the little blown asides and even the closing phrase before the Mills reenter (featuring an Ab over a C chord, a nice use of a flatted 13th). When the Mills come back in, he added a little pause after the first two C's, setting up a little tension and then plays more of an obbligato this time. Otherwise, when he reenters vocally, Armstrong repeats what he did on the first take, even singing the scat cadenza exactly the same note-for-note! It's a toss-up, but I actually like take 2 a little better, though there's nothing wrong with the originally issued first take.

And now a bonus! On May 21, 1937, Louis hosted his fifth episode of the "Fleischmann's Yeast Show" with special guests, The Mills Brothers. They reprised "Darling Nelly Gray" which must have just been released. Here's how it came out:



It shouldn't come as a surprise that the live version is very similar to both studio versions. These were professional entertainers my friends; they worked on it until it clicked and then were able to deliver the polished goods each time out. No use analyzing every note, just be thankful it survived!

There's one more rendezvous with "Nelly Gray" out there but it's a live version with Louis's big band from a few years later. I thought of sharing it here but I didn't want to disrupt the beautiful partnership of Louis and the Mills Brothers. I'll quit this 75th anniversary look at their first meeting while I'm ahead but don't worry, there's a few more sessions out there to cover from this tandem and I'll gladly continue to do so in the future. Because remember: Louis Armstrong + The Mills Brothers = Great Music. Simple as that...

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

70 Years of (Possibly) Louis Armstrong's Greatest Broadcast

Hi all. I've spent the last week in California, celebrating Louis Armstrong's collaboration with Dave Brubeck, "The Real Ambassadors," hence the lack of new blogs. I hope to have a new one up about that trip--and some other Armstrong news--shortly. But I noticed that while I was gone, April 1 marked the 70th anniversary of one of Louis Armstrong's greatest broadcasts. I wrote about it in detail back in 2009 after the death of Gösta Hägglöf since Hägglöf was the one who made this broadcast commercially available on his Ambassador label. As some of you might know, Hagglof's will dictated that his entire Armstrong collection be left to the Louis Armstrong House Museum (my employer), including all the Ambassador discs he created for public consumption. So if you like what you hear here, run down to the Armstrong House to pick up the complete disc, "Live at the Cotton Club" (liner notes by Michael Steinman!). But if you can't, sit back and enjoy what I wrote three years ago and listen to an incredible night of blowing from Pops:

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The title of this post is obviously slightly hyperbolic...or is it? I have so many great Louis Armstrong broadcasts in my collection, calling one single one the “greatest” takes a bit of nerve. I mean, there’s the Fleischmann’s shows from 1937, the many wartime broadcasts from the 1940s, many broadcasts from Philadelphia 1948 and 1949, a bunch of great ones from the Blue Note and Basin Street in the 1950s, etc. But the one that’s the subject of today’s blog is particularly stunning. I am going to share a total of 25 minutes and 19 seconds of music today...and the first 3:11 doesn’t even feature Pops. But those last 21 minutes? They simply contain one of the greatest solid chunks of blowing from Armstrong’s entire career.

Why am I sharing it today? Because this is the fourth and for now, final tribute to my dear departed friend Gösta Hägglöf. I’ve been discussing Gus’s legacy for over a week now and I’m sure he’ll remain a part of this blog in the years to come. Gus’s greatest legacy is arguably the series of Armstrong releases he issued with extreme love and affection on his Ambassador label. In recent years, the costs to distribute the Ambassadors became more and more and you could only order them through Gus himself on his Classic Jazz Productions website (in the 90s, they used to be in a lot of major music stores). Gus kept making them right to the end and he was full of great ideas for projects even as he was dying. Fans of Pops will be glad to know that Gösta’s brother Jan has written me the following message: “Also, I promised him to keep CJP alive, so the albums will be available for some time into the future. As soon as things have settled a little orders will be effectuated again.” Definitely good news!

(Again, 2012 update: all the Ambassadors are indeed available at the Louis Armstrong House Museum! Come to Corona!)

But one of Gus’s greatest releases that sadly flew under the radar was Louis Armstrong At The Cotton Club, the tenth volume of the Ambassador series. The disc featured all sorts of rare broadcasts from 1939 through 1943, capturing Pops as he sounded night after night, playing his one-nighters. For the first time, Gus hired someone to write thorough liner notes, in this case the great Michael Steinman, years before his “Jazz Lives” blog took off. Gus himself offered up some chronological details of Armstrong’s career in this period and even included a number of rare advertisements.

The highlights of the disc are numerous: a rare live reading of Chappie Willet’s arrangement of “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue,” versions of “Cash For Your Trash” and “I Never Knew” that prefaced their later Decca recordings and even some songs Armstrong never got to record such as “As Time Goes By.” But for me, the disc could have just included the contents of today’s broadcast and that would have been good enough for me.

Quick backstory: the broadcast comes from the Casa Manana in Culver City, California, a town Armstrong took by storm during his 1930 sojourn to the west coast. It was a busy period for Pops. In addition to the nightly gigs at the Casa Manana, Armstrong recorded his final Decca session before the recording ban and filmed four “Soundies” shorts. The Casa Manana material was only discovered in recent years and the “Cotton Club” disc contains a bunch of different material from the April stay. But for our intents and purposes, the only date that mattered was April 1.

Here was the personnel of the Armstrong band at the time: Frank Galbreath, Shelton Hemphill, Bernard Flood, trumpets; George Washington, James Whitney, Henderson Chambers, trombone; Rupert Cole, Carle Frye, alto saxophone; Prince Robinson, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Joe Garland, clarinet, tenor saxophone, bass saxophone, arranger; Luis Russell, piano; Lawrence Lucie, guitar; John Simmons, bass; Sidney Catlett, drums. It was a particularly fine edition of the group, really driven by that ace rhythm section (Catlett, Catlett, Catlett) and immortalized in the “Soundies.”

Louis Armstrong the big band leader was slightly different from Louis Armstrong the small group leader. With the All Stars, Pops was the show. He played lead, sang, told jokes, acted as emcee, played backing riffs, called the numbers, took solos on others features, etc. Even when he took a break to let another musician have a feature, he was usually back in two or three minutes to play a solo or a rideout chorus.

But with the big band, Armstrong was free to take more time off. He could feature the entire band on a number of instruments (he always managed to feature trumpet great Henry “Red” Allen while he was in the band). He had a male vocalist AND a female vocalist and almost never played on their stuff. And even on his own features, he had arrangements that usually followed a pattern of a melody chorus, a vocal and a dazzling trumpet flight to end the piece. Armstrong still worked his ass off but he had more downtime with the big band to build up to those tremendous finishes.

Thus, the surviving Casa Manana show from April 1 opens with an instrumental number done right before the broadcast went on the air. And the song? “In the Mood.” Now, don’t get too excited, hepcats, because Pops doesn’t play on this Swing Era anthem. But the song was tremendously popular and was co-written by Armstrong’s musical director of the period, Joe Garland. So here’s the Armstrong band--sans Armstrong--warming up on “In The Mood.” I don’t know who takes the trumpet solo, but in the words of Steinman, “The unidentified trumpet soloist had absorbed some of what his contemporaries were doing--listeners can hear some embryonic harmonic explorations appropriate to 1940 Dizzy Gillespie, as well as the requisite Swing Era cliches.” Here’s “In The Mood”:


As you can hear, the song faded out before its completion. Unfortunately, the only downside of the broadcast is that, because this was before the age of tape, these recordings were made on individual records which sometimes ran out before the song ended. But there was no Pops on that one so no big loss, right? Here’s the official beginning of the broadcast, 49 instrumental seconds of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” (Remember, Pops rarely sang it until he recorded it for Decca in 1951; he sang it on the Soundie film, but recorded an instrumental version the same week.)


Then it’s time for “Shine,” also made into a Soundie that month. Armstrong originally turned it into a signature piece--even with its offensive lyrics--way back in 1931 during his first California visit.


The lyrics probably made some people squirm but Pops always managed to transcend them (though by 1943, he was singing new lyrics about shining away your “bluesies,” a whole different kind of offensiveness because of the stupidity of the lyrics). By the early 40s, Armstrong had a sleek arrangement of the tune (probably by Garland) featuring some nice reed work in the opening chorus. Armstrong doesn’t sing until about a minute in either but by the time he picks up his horn, it’s obvious that the chops are well rested and ready to go.

Armstrong’s entrance is a wonderful moment as he gingerly plays with one note while Sid Catlett playfully follows his lead. But by the midway point of the first chorus, Armstrong’s already in the upper reaches of his horn. He doesn’t miss a single note in this solo, gaining momentum as he goes into a second chorus. His high notes are crystal clear and when Catlett starts piling on the backbeats...well, let’s just say that Culver City residents might have thought an earthquake was occurring. Number of bars of trumpet played: 76.

Next, a real treat, “Shoe Shine Boy,” one of Armstrong’s greatest Decca’s:


Armstrong clearly loved this song and he always sung the hell out of it. The band takes an interlude after the vocal but then it’s all trumpet from there. He opens in an introspective mood before uncorking a gem of a phrase after the first eight bars. The variations start in the second eight bars but stand back for the brute strength of the bridge, bluesy and completely in command. Catlett starts laying down the press rolls as Pops takes it out. Unfortunately, the record ran out so we miss out on Pops’s complete closing cadenza but what does survive is stunning. Number of bars of trumpet played: 32.

Then it time for a popular novelty Armstrong never got to commercially record, “Zoot Suit,” written by Wofe Gilbert and Bob O’Brien and recorded by Kay Kyser, The Andrews Sisters, Paul Whiteman, Bob Crosby and others. Here ‘tis:


George Washington usually played Armstrong’s foil but Pops clearly says “Prince” so I’m guessing that’s Prince Robinson indulging in a little dialogue with Pops in the beginning (and as Steinman wrote, his later tenor saxophone bridge “is straight out of early Hawkins”). Armstrong delivers the fun vocal and though it isn’t exactly Gershwin, that doesn’t stop him from blowing an incredible solo. As usual, the master storyteller starts in an easygoing manner, repeating a single note and playing what sounds almost like a quote from “Judy.” He starts climbing the ladder in the second eight bars but pulls back and heads for lower ground, not wanting to blow his top too early. He clearly digs the first minor change in the bridge and comes out of it by blowing the melody an octave higher. But stand back! Armstrong punishes his chops in the upper registers, hitting concert E’s and F’s and making the listener’s jaw drop. After Robinson’s interlude, Pops takes it out with a vocal, making a reference to “Soldier Boy Stuff,” probably his good friend “Stuff Crouch.” Number of bars of trumpet played: 48.

Now it’s time to revisit one of my favorites, “Basin Street Blues,” which I originally wrote about in my December entry on the history of that tune. Here it is again:


Doesn’t get much better than that. The tempo is faster than one would expect, foreshadowing Armstrong’s 1950s and 60s versions which always featured an uptempo second half. The band has another longish intro, allowing Pops’s chops to reboot before he takes a fun vocal (“beating up your chops on Basin Street”). But again the highlight is the long trumpet solo, which just keeps going and going. Armstrong tops himself with each successive chorus--four in all--Catlett driving him to great heights. In my “Basin Street” entry I shared another broadcast version of the tune from 1941 that’s great but not even in the same ballpark as this version, proof that Pops was having an outstanding night at the Casa Manana. My favorite moment occurs at the very end where it sounds like Armstrong’s going to end on a high F but doesn’t, hitting a lower Bb. But it’s just a con because after short duet with Catlett, Armstrong does indeed end on a freakish F, hitting it and HOLDING that mother. Numbers of bars of trumpet played: 72

Next, to slow it down for the dancers, Armstrong revisited an OKeh classic, “I Surrender Dear”:


Armstrong’s muted trumpet rendering of the melody is quite lovely and he always summoned up an incredible amount of passion on this vocal (he sang the hell out of on “The Mike Douglas Show” as late as 1970). The band takes over after the vocal, splitting duties with Pops, who is in positively soaring form. The whole track is incredible...but that bridge! The gliss up to the high D and the chromatic descent from it kills me every time. Once again, like “Shoe Shine Boy,” Catlett lays down the press rolls as Pops heads to the finish line. And once again, like “Shoe Shine Boy,” the original record ran out, even though it lasted 4:13. Oh well...what’s there is priceless. Number of bars of trumpet played: 48.

But priceless can’t even begin to describe the next and final performance, “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Years ago, I became deeply enraptured with Eddie Condon’s Town Hall broadcasts of 1944. On one of the first ones, vocalist Liza Morrow said she was going to perform “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” causing Condon to say, “That’s the favorite song of Louie Armstrong’s, isn’t it?” Morrow replied, “Well, it was one of his favorites; he recorded it.” I was always baffled by that exchange because Armstrong never recorded of it so how could it be one of his favorites?

But, as usual, the records don’t tell the complete story. That broadcast was done two full years after the Casa Manana version so it must have been a staple of Armstrong’s live repertoire. And the message of the song even fit Armstrong’s mood at the time as he was in the process of divorcing his third wife Alpha and would marry his fourth and final wife Lucille in October 1942. Armstrong already recorded a serious version of “I Used To Love You (But It’s All Over Now)” for Decca in 1941 and Ernie Anderson always thought Armstrong wrote “Someday You’ll Be Sorry” with Alpha in mind. Clearly, Armstrong learned the meaning of the blues through Alpha.

Enough from me. Stay put for the next 4:47 and prepared to be dazzled by the Louis Armstrong that time has forgotten:


The oddest part of the record is the arrangement which doesn’t feature Armstrong at all for one minute and 53 seconds. Still, it’s a creative arrangement and sets up Pops’s vocal with a neat modulation. This is one of my favorite Armstrong vocals because he sounds so serious and in real dire straights. The bridge is tailor-made for him, even when he has to push his voice a little high in the second half. (And it’s always great hearing the New Orleans accent come out on “heart-boins”.) Armstrong’s vocal ends to great applause but you ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Catlett’s tom-toms build up the tension for Pops’s entrance--look out, he cracks the third note!

No need to fret. The man was human after all and perhaps the three minutes between the end of “I Surrender Dear” and the start of his solo cooled down the chops a bit. But seriously, never mind that tiny crack and just pay attention to what he’s doing: his favorite bit of playing the melody an octave higher. Catlett’s backbeat could not be any more emphatic and Armstrong’s tone never sounded cleaner. The power and emotion of it all is enough to break me down but we haven’t even hit the main event yet: a Herculean bridge that makes me want to shout, “No, Pops, don’t do it! You’re not going to make it!” He plays a number of sickening high concert Eb’s and you know he’s going to do try to go one higher. And sure enough, he does, squeezing out a high E that must have taken every ounce of his soul. Instead of even finishing the bridge, he pulls the horn away from his mouth and gleefully yells, “That’s the one!” The audience hoots and hollers. I applaud in my basement (my wife thinks I’m nuts). Number of bars of trumpet played: 22.

Total number of bars of trumpet played (including the short “Sleepy Time”): 306. 306 of the most perfect bars of trumpet Armstrong ever played in his career in just over 20 minutes. For Pops it was just another one-nighter. Did he really expect some nut to be obsessing about it 67 years later? Never. But I really think it might be his greatest broadcast (and I mean that in the strict sense of the word; I’m not including concerts or other live recordings). And it’s only 20 minutes of one night. This is what he was doing night in and night out during this period, probably the most neglected one of his career.

Mosaic Records’s box set will hopefully go a long way to righting this wrong. Gösta Hägglöf knew the importance of this period and devoted his life to issuing this material in complete fashion. But Gus knew that the studio recordings only told part of the story and always made sure to include live broadcasts to demonstrate the kinds of acrobatic flights Pops took every night. Unbelievable stuff. So once again, here’s to Gus...and here’s to Pops!