Monday, December 31, 2012

Celebrate New Year's Eve With Pops!

We made it through another year, friends....take that, Mayans! Not only is the world still here, but so is this just can't kill it! Matters slowed to a trickle at times this year but this is still the 47th blog I put out this year, including my series on the Hot Sevens, which was fun.

I might have had more time to blog if it wasn't such a good year Pops! I found myself immersed in all forms of Popsology: preaching about Louis at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Brubeck Festival at the University of the Pacific, the Greenwich Library, the Monterey Jazz Festival and on a series of videos for A&E's page. My book came out as a paperback. I wrote liner notes for three Armstrong sets, Storyville's Armstrong Box, Sony's OKeh, Columbia and Victor Recordings, 1925-1933 and my personal baby, Universal's Satchmo at Symphony Hall 65th Anniversary: The Complete Performances, which I co-produced with Harry Weinger. And it was another great year at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, especially in the spring when your daily votes in the Partners in Preservation contest helped garner the Museum $150,000 to preserve and restore Louis and Lucille's beautiful garden. (And I think I mentioned this before but earlier this year, I more or less took over the Louis Armstrong House Museum's Facebook page, sharing content and photos on almost a daily basis. "Like" it for a nonstop flow of Louis!) What a year!

For the previous four years, I've devoted New Year's Eve to sharing audio to a rare Louis Armstrong New Year's Eve broadcast. However, only four full broadcasts survive, to my knowledge, so without anything new to share, I'll just put up the links to those previous posts. Here they are:

December 31, 1967 - Las Vegas

December 31, 1954 - San Francisco

December 31, 1962 - Hollywood

December 31, 1953 - Yokohama, Japan

Louis also turned up on an all-star New Year's Eve radio broadcast from 1945, turning in a swinging version of "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive" that I blogged about way back when here.

So thanks to all of you for sticking with me through 2012 and for continuing to show such interest and devotion to Louis Armstrong more than 40 years after he passed away. Here's to 2013!

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Night Before Christmas

Well, today is the day before Christmas, so what better way to celebrate than by listening to Louis Armstrong's reading of "The Night Before Christmas." I've shared this in previous years, but I think it's only an appropriate annual tradition. This was Armstrong's final record, made February 26, 1971 in his home in Corona, just a few days before his last extended engagement at the Waldorf-Astoria, an engagement that pretty much sealed the fate of the frail trumpeter. He passed away on July 6, 1971.

But enough sadness! Louis Armstrong was the personification of joy and the man was terrific around children, two attributes that come to the forefront of this reading. And I recently learned some new information about this record that I'd like to share. One of Louis's private tapes housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (aka my employer) featured a tape contents sheet inside of the box on which Louis wrote, "Louis Satchmo Armstrong talking to all the kids from all over the world - at Xmas time." And lo and behold, when I played the CD, it opened with TWO versions of "The Night Before Christmas"! What's crazier is the sound quality was better on the tape then on the final released record. I listened to them both and it struck me: they were two different readings. Louis's first reading is delightful, but he's a tad hesitant at the start and at one point has trouble turning the page (causing him to ad-lib, "Good old Santa!" The second take was mostly used for the master though, they edited out Louis's clearing his throat early on.

Thus, we may never know how this recording came to be. Did Louis do it on a whim and someone--maybe Lucille?--brought it to the attention of Continental Records? Or did Continental ask him to record it (in February, two months after Christmas) but Louis, ailing a bit and probably unable to go to a recording studio, just recorded two versions in his den and sent it over to Continental to edit together the best parts? My assumption is that it was spurred on by the record label because why else would Louis read "The Night Before Christmas" two months after Christmas?

According to the October 9, 1971 issue of "Billboard," though Continental produced it, it was actually distributed by the tobacco firm, Lorillard. If you bought a carton of cigarettes, you'd get a free record! (Where have those promotions gone?) Lorillard printed up one million copies to start selling for Christmas of that year and they even awarded Lucille with a gold record, which we have at the Armstrong Archives.

Both surviving takes are very special and if you were to make an appointment to visit the Armstrong Archives at Queens College, I'd definitely recommend a listen. And by the way, if you search our online catalog, search for tape 1987.3.465 to see a description of the contents of this tape, as well as to see how Louis decorated the box in these final months of his life (a very sweet back cover with a photo of Louis, a photo of Lucille and a photo of a trumpet). Once again, the link to that online catalog:

Louis Armstrong House Museum Online Catalog

Now, let's listen to the original released version (call the children to the computer!):

Later, when Brunswicky issued it, they added some silly sound effects and background music. To hear that version, click here:

Thanks for listening and I wish all of you a wonderful holiday...and that goes for Satchmo, too!

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Very Satchmo Christmas - 2012 Edition

Don't let the "2012" fool you, as this is pretty much the same exact thing I posted for each of the past three years (though I am posting this on December 21 and if the Mayan were correct, this will be my farewell--it's been fun!). But I feel like the six Christmas songs Armstrong recorded for Decca in the 1950s are worth celebrating every year at this time so if you don't mind, let's do it one more once. Crank up the speakers, pour some egg nog and get ready to enjoy them all over again.

As already mentioned, this entry will focus on the six Christmas records Armstrong made for Decca in the 1950s. And when I say records, I don’t mean long-playing discs but rather, six three-minute singles. It might seem odd that someone who brought more joy to the world than Santa Claus would have so few yuletide classics in his discography, but alas that’s the case. In fact, Armstrong didn’t get around to recording his first Christmas song until 1952, unless, of course, you count Armstrong’s two versions of “Santa Claus Blues” from 1924 and 1925.

When Decca finally corralled Armstrong into the studio to record some Christmas cheer, they gave him first-class treatment by backing him with the lush arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins’s sentimental string and voices sound revived Armstrong’s recording career with the 1949 hit “Blueberry Hill.” By the early 1950s, Jenkins was a veritable recording superstar. Anything with his name on it sold tremendously so it made sense for Decca to pair him with label stars like Peggy Lee and Armstrong. On September 22, 1952, Armstrong and Jenkins teamed up for their fourth session together. On one of their sessions, from February 6, 1951 Jenkins jettisoned his strings and turned in some very fine small-big band arrangements but for the 1952 session, the strings were the whole show on the Christmas number, though current All Stars Bob McCracken, Marty Napoleon, Arvell Shaw and Cozy Cole were in the studio band that day (as was guitarist Art Ryerson, who would do many post-“Hello, Dolly” sessions with Pops in the 60s).

Both of the Jenkins Christmas numbers are unusually low-key. They feature no trumpet and no surges of emotion or anything. They’re very sober but the best word to describe them has to be “warm.” Pops is at his most tender, singing as if he’s whispering a loving lullaby to a small child. “White Christmas” is up first and, of course, was property of Armstrong’s friend and disciple, Bing Crosby. From the opening seconds, we know we’re in Gordon Jenkins country. “White Christmas” demonstrates that many of our best-loved Christmas songs feature quite a range of notes and you can hear Pops stretch here and there, but I always loved his tenor voice—as well as that basso profundo he would break out when necessary. Both are needed on “White Christmas,” which finds Pops reaching for a high D on “the ones” to the C an octave lower on “children.” On the final “be white,” Armstrong goes down to a low B on the coincidental word “be.” Where you’d expect a scat break or a “oh babe,” Pops lays out, leaving the gaps to be filled by Jenkins’s beautiful strings. After a brief string interlude, Armstrong reenters with the final eight bars, featuring, I think, some of his most touching singing. You can hear him smiling as he sings “and bright.” Again, he goes way down for that final “white,” holding it for an impressive amount of time. Very pretty stuff. Enough from me, enjoy it for yourself:

“Winter Wonderland” is up next and it’s more of the same. Though most performers do this one at an uptempo, Armstrong and Jenkins give it the same gentle ballad treatment as “White Christmas.” Again, Pops rarely deviates from the melody but he doesn’t have to, he’s singing it so sweetly. Am I weird for actually feeling warmed by the way Pops sings “as we dream by the fire”? Jenkins goes back to the bridge for another one of his trademark sounds. Marty Napoleon plays the melody in single notes an octave lower than you’d expect. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but hey, this was popular music in 1952 and it gave Jenkins an identity. Pops reenters for the final eight with a cute extended coda. Armstrong repeats the word “walking” while the pizzicato strings “walk” gingerly behind him. Finally, Armstrong unleashes a little bit of scat and the record comes to a mellow conclusion. Dig it:

Don’t worry, though. If Jenkins’s Christmas records make you a little sleepy and ready to curl up by the fire, here comes Toots Camarata’s Commanders to violently wake you up, visions of Ed Grady’s cymbals ringing in your head. I devoted an entire entry to this session in October 2008 because I believe it's one of the greatest dates Armstrong ever did in his entire career. The Commanders were a ferocious studio band co-led by arranger Camarata and drummer Grady. They were brass heavy—three trumpets, four trombones and only two reeds—and featured a peerless rhythm section propelled by Carmen Mastren’s rhythm guitar and Grady’s earth-shattering big band drumming. The October session began with two Christmas songs and both are a lot of fun. After trying out a few standards on the Jenkins sessions, Decca gave Armstrong a few novelties to cut up on and he does just that, infusing these two trite, silly songs with such enthusiasm that they’ve in turn had a shelf life of over 50 years of being listened to and enjoyed. First up: "Zat You Santa Claus?"

Right off the bat, you can hear that Decca gave their sound effects man some extra work on the date and the record starts off with howling winds and jingle bells. Grady’s drums “knock” on the door (how often did he have to change his snare head?), Pops asks the title question and we’re off, the reeds falling into a standard descending minor vamp. The lyrics are back in the “Old Man Mose” mold as Pops, frightened by the outside noises (cue the sound effects guy), hopes it’s Santa Claus making that racket and not someone sinister. The song does have a great bridge and the Commanders swing through it easily. The lyrics really are kind of goofy, but man, Pops sounds like he’s having a ball, which in turn, spreads to the listener. After one chorus, the band takes over, trading four bars with Pops and playing with such force, it threatens to become the most badass Christmas song ever recorded. Pops’s vocal on the trades grows more nervous and frantic, adding more fun to the proceedings. But perhaps the highlight of the record comes during the coda when a clearly petrified Armstrong pleads, “Please, a-please, a-pity my knees!” I love the way he sings that word “please.” The song ends with a big ending and after another “knock” from the drums, Pops yells, “That’s him all right,” while more sound effects take us out. It’s not “White Christmas,” but it’s very atmospheric and it’s easy to get swept away by Pops’s vocal.

Next up was “Cool Yule,” lyrics and music by comedian and television talk show pioneer Steve Allen. Due to its use in a few recent movies, “Cool Yule” has probably become Armstrong’s best-known Christmas recording. During my 50 trips to the mall this season, it’s sometimes hard to hear the piped in Christmas music, but man, that Armstrong horn during the bridge always manages to cut through the noise! (2009 update: it even cuts through the noise while running around a crowded Port Authority bus station in New York City in December.) Allen’s trademark sense of humor infuses the lyrics with all sorts of funny psuedo-hip references and Pops again, sounds like he’s having a ball. Here 'tis:

The song begins with more jingle bells before the band enters with a sprightly shuffle beat—wait a minute, is this Louie Prima or Louis Armstrong? The changes are fairly simple: “rhythm changes” for 16 bars, then a modulation for more “rhythm changes” in the bridge, kind of like Count Basie’s “Easy Does It.” Only the second half of the bridge doesn’t have “Rhythm,” as it’s punctuated by giant accents by the band on two and four. Again, Pops sings wonderfully but dig that band. Every drum hit, every brass punch, every note of the instrumental interlude…it’s so precise, so explosive, so swinging. I wish Armstrong made a dozen albums with the Commanders. After eight bars from the band, Armstrong picks up his horn for the first time during the session and it’s a preview of the tremendous blowing that was to be the hallmark of the date. Though the song has nothing to do with the blues, Pops instills his entire solo with more blue notes than you might expect. He gets downright funky with some of his note choices and I can never refrain from giving a “Yeah,” when he gets into that bridge. The highlight of the trumpet solo comes in the bridge when plays the melody phrase like a human being, then skyrockets an octave higher to play it again, ending it on a high concert D. After the vocal, Pops still has time to sing another entire chorus and he does so with even more enthusiasm than the first time, especially on the bridge (and listen to Grady on the final A section). Pops legitimately breaks himself up by yelling “Cool Yule” at the end and if you’re not smiling, you’re surname must be Scrooge. But as much fun as “Cool Yule” is, it’s also responsible for this:


Anyway, Decca wasn’t finished yet and two years later, on September 8, 1955, they brought Armstrong in to record two more Christmas songs, this time backed by a studio band arranged and conducted by the great Benny Carter. This has become one of those forgotten Decca sessions, never reissued on C.D. by the label itself but it is available on the Ambassador label’s Moments to Remember disc, which collects all of Armstrong’s Christmas work for the Decca, the entire Commanders session and other odds and ends that are hard to find on compact disc or Itunes. Carter wrote a great arrangement for Armstrong on The Platters’s “Only You” and Armstrong manages to sound quite tender on the Four Lads hit, “Moments to Remember.”

The first Christmas song that day was Dick Sherman and Joe Van Winkle’s “Christmas In New Orleans.” Here's the audio:

Carter’s arrangement begins with a hardened “Jingle Bells” quote that sounds like it belongs in an episode of Dragnet (remember, Carter was doing a lot of film work at the time). It soon settles into a gentle two-beat that really works for this song. The lyrics are almost a waste of time with their references to stuff like a “Dixieland Santa Claus,” but as always, Pops sounds like the happiest guy in the world. And how could he not? He loved Christmas and he loved New Orleans so any song that combined the two, even with dopey lyrics, was bound to inspire him. What’s truly inspired, though, is the trumpet solo. The tune starts off kind of like “Basin Street Blues” before it goes its own way but the changes obviously had enough meat for Armstrong to sink his chops into. This isn’t one of those grandiose high-note extravaganzas; however it is a good time to appreciate Armstrong’s rhythmic mastery. It’s one of those solos that I always enjoyed but never really devoted 100% attention to until an afternoon I spent in Joe Muranyi’s house. Muranyi recorded “Christmas In New Orleans” for his Jazzology C.D., Joe Muranyi With The New Orleans Real Low-Down. For the disc, he transcribed Armstrong’s solo to be played in unison by his clarinet, Duke Heitger’s trumpet and Tom Baker’s tenor sax. You get so used to hearing horns playing unison lines on bop heads and the like, but not on Armstrong solos and all of a sudden, this solo that I kind of took for granted, became a whole new thing. While listening to it with me, Muranyi said, “It’s tough to notate this part. I worked so hard on it. What you do is, I did it and then I put it away. I mean, I had done it maybe two or three years before this and when I took it out again and refined it, you keep finding little things. It’s not easy. It’s interesting to hear it in this context. It sounds more complex than when he plays it.” It really does. Here's Muranyi's performance:

For the final track on the date, Decca reached back and picked “Christmas Night In Harlem,” written by Mitchell Parish and Raymond Scott for the “Blackbirds of and 1934 and memorably recorded by Paul Whiteman with a vocal by Jack Teagarden and Johnny Mercer. Carter’s arrangement begins with another Christmas quote—Billy Kyle playing the beginning to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”—before the horns punch out a descending line that reminds me of a Ray Charles record (I think I’m thinking of “Greenback Dollar Bill”). Armstrong sings the first chorus harmlessly—it’s a pretty repetitive melody and he does his best with it. Carter’s arrangement swings after the vocal and you can hear Barney Bigard holding a high note. (This was Bigard’s next-to-last session with the All Stars as he would be replaced by Edmond Hall in a matter of weeks.) Armstrong’s trumpet solo is curiously low-key. He more or less sticks to playing the melody in the middle register. Naturally, the Armstrong sound makes it worth listening to, but he doesn’t really blow with any force until the last eight bars. It’s a fine solo but I think that Pops could have maybe used one more take to wail a little more. After the low-key solo, Pops returns to sing the bridge, which features a very funny moment. Armstrong sings, “Everyone will be all lit up,” and laughs to himself, “lit up” clearly having a different meaning to him than most. He swings the lyric on the final A section, boiling it down to one note, but the arrangement is now too polite; where’s Ed Grady’s drums to wake things up? The highlight of the record is Pops’s eloquent scatting and singing as the record fades. A charming record, but not my favorite Louis Christmas song.

And that ends this tour of Louis Armstrong’s Christmas recordings for Decca. Of course, Armstrong wasn’t completely done recording yuletide music as in 1970, he performed “Here Is My Heart For Christmas” for RCA. And Armstrong’s very last recording is a reading of “Twas the Night Before Christmas” that is quite charming and is one I hope to share this Monday. Til then...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

85 Years of "Hotter Than That"

Recorded December 13, 1927
Track Time 3:05
Written by Lil Hardin
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Lonnie Johnson, guitar; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8535
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes

If you pardon me, an oldie but a goodie. I wrote about "Hotter Than That" two years ago but today is the 85th anniversary and I think everything I said holds up so I've dragged it out of mothballs and re-posted it below (though if you're interested, click here for the original post, which featured some excellent comments, especially by John Wurr). Enjoy!


"Hotter Than That" comes from the final session featuring the original Hot Five group of Louis, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin Armstrong and Johnny St. Cry (plus an added special guest, as we'll discuss in a minute). The next time Louis fronted a "Hot Five" group in a studio, the personnel would be completely different, though with the same epic results. The team of Louis and Earl Hines would prove to make some pretty landmark recordings in 1928.

Arguably, Louis had outgrown his colleagues in this first edition of the Hot Five. These were all great musicians but none of them had the solo brilliance of Pops, whose towering solos and virtuosic ensemble playing led him to dominate almost all of the early Hot Fives. When listening to those recordings today, Ory, Dodds, Hardin and St. Cyr have their moments but really, it's the Louis Armstrong Show. But when George Mitchell sat in for a session in 1926 (released under the name The New Orleans Wanderers), the whole group seemed to relax and teamed up to make some truly rocking New Orleans ensemble work. Louis--playing nightly with Erskine Tate's "symphony orchestra"--was growing by leaps and bounds and the old-fashioned New Orleans-styled ensembles were no longer enough to contain him.

But man, did this edition of the Hot Five go out with a bang! After a detour through the recordings of the Hot Seven, the original Hot Five returned in 1927 to record nine more songs between September and December, waxing classics like "Put 'Em Down Blues," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Once In A While." After recording that last number on December 10, the Hot Five welcomed a very special guest into the studio in the form of New Orleans guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Johnson, who was two years older than Louis, had been a tremendously popular OKeh recording artist, cutting 130 tunes for the label between 1925 and 1932 (checking my Itunes, Louis recorded 190 songs for OKeh during that same period, including work as a sideman and alternate takes...not bad!).

Teaming Armstrong and Johnson was a brilliant move. Today, Johnson is primarily known for his blues work and sure enough, he contributes mightily to two blues he recorded with the Hot Five, "I'm Not Rough" and "Savoy Blues" (as Marty Grosz once pointed out, Johnson more or less invented rock and roll guitar playing with his stinging triplets on "I'm Not Rough"). But Johnson was also a tremendous jazz musician. I absolutely adore Eddie Lang but the unabashed claims that Lang was the first jazz guitar virtuoso give me pause. Lang was right there around the same time as Johnson but I'd give the edge to Lonnie, who was really tearing out on his guitar in the mid-20s with some dazzling single-string work. It's a shame that Johnson has been pigeonholed as being just a blues musician. The man could do it all.

And that talent definitely can be appreciated on "Hotter Than That," one of the most joyous recordings in jazz history. The song was credited to Armstrong's wife of the time, Lillian Hardin Armstrong, but there's not too much of melody present. Instead, it's more or less a jam on the chords to "Bill Bailey." As I've pointed out before, it's also the same changes as "Tiger Rag," but Louis played "Tiger Rag" in a different key; it wasn't until I spoke to other musicians on the scene today who told me that in this key, it's "Bill Bailey" changes and that's good enough for me. (Besides, they only jam on the "chorus" strain, leaving out any of "Tiger Rag's" earlier strains.)

I've had the audio posted for a few days but if you haven't heard it, here it is again (and if you have heard it, really, is there a better way to spend three minutes and five seconds?):

From the opening eight-bar introduction, the band sounds completely warmed up, like they had been playing this tune for 20 minutes. It's all hands on deck for the intro, with Johnson's single-string lines contributing another unique voice to the polyphonic ensemble. But once they get into the main strain, Louis takes over, I guess playing Hardin's melody, but who knows how much of this was improvised (apparently, there is a lead sheet at the Library of Congress but I have never seen it). Once Louis takes over, he's blowing over a very pushing rhythm section. Lil's idea of comping was four-chords-to-the-bar, which Louis once wrote was the way they did it in New Orleans and that his wife was very good at it. But on top of Lil's work, there's the duel strings of Johnson's guitar and St. Cyr's banjo, each also going four-beats-to-the-bar. It's not exactly Freddie Green and the Basie band but they do keep things exciting.

Louis is so damn relaxed and flowing during that first chorus as he never stops swinging for a second. His break is perfectly executed and rhythmically, he's both daring and completely logical. What more can be said? Johnny Dodds takes over, opening with a somewhat angry note before launching into a hot solo (notice he's only backed by Lil as the strings take a breather). I love Dodds, even though I can admit that his lines didn't exactly swing. But his sound is great and there's a spiky urgency to his playing that always makes it plenty hot and plenty exciting.

But Dodds's outing is simply the appetizer before the main course. Do you perchance have a friend who doesn't really know what scat singing is about? Or have you ever heard a pop performer and an "American Idol" contestant break out into the weird scat escapade to the roar of the crowd's approval? Well, grab that friend or pay attention to yourself because Louis Armstrong is about to give a scat singing clinic. Never mind that each of his syllables is perfectly chosen; what makes his work particularly genius is the rhythm. It's one of his most hornlike scat solos, up to and including the break. But nothing quite prepares you for the tension of Louis's phrasing after his break; he's almost singing to a different tempo but everything still fits beautifully. Just a remarkable outing.

And I haven't even mentioned Lonnie Johnson yet! Do you see what I mean? The man's a guitar monster. Pops's scatting is the main event but if you were able to silence it and just focus on Johnson's guitar playing, he's contributing a helluva solo, full of single-string ideas that would influence guitarists for generations. And his free-form "conversation" with Louis is alone worth the price of admission (and if you had to pay to listen to this, I hope you're getting your money's worth!). Just listen to how Johnson bends his guitar strings to mimic Louis's moans or how Louis's little "rip" in his last break is expertly answered by Johnson's slashing guitar.

However, this tempo-less interlude comes to an abrupt ending with the sound of Lil's pounding piano setting the tempo for a short outing by Kid Ory that pretty much defines his classic style. But think of Ory's solo as where jazz has been; then listen to Louis's break and hear where it was going. It's a dizzying upward ascent that leads to a series of simple sounding, yet demanding high-note pairings. My goodness, the man is pretty much inventing the Swing Era with those two little beeps; how many trumpet sections would borrow such phrasings? It's every tub from that point on with everyone pitching in equally but I don't know how you can focus on anything but Louis's lead, which really explodes during a stop-time section towards the end of the chorus. Louis and Lonnie then engage in one more exciting conversation, both virtuosos tossing phrases back and forth with ease. Louis was always inspired on the Hot Fives and Sevens but when he really had someone of his stature to prod him, stand back. We heard that with Sidney Bechet, we're hearing it now with Johnson and goodness knows we'd hear it with Hines in the following year. Just a wondrous recording from start to finish.

30 years later, Louis revisited "Hotter Than That" for his triumphant "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography" album for Decca. To me, it's a highlight of that remarkable box but it's never mentioned with numbers like "When You're Smiling" or "King of the Zulus." And I think I know why: on those songs, Louis (I think) surpassed his original versions. I'm going to start right off by saying that the 1957 "Hotter Than That" does not surpass the 1927 version. But it's still a remarkably exciting recording and Louis is in astoundingly good form from start to finish, as are the All Stars. Give a listen and see what you think:

See what I mean? If the 1927 version wasn't so towering, I think more people would be flipping for this one, and that's perfectly understandable. But based on its own merits, I think the later version is wonderful. For most of the "Autobiography," drummer Barrett Deems was restricted to playing a closed hi-hat but on "Hotter Than That," he got to open it a bit more and in effect, was allowed to really drive the band. This is the famed Armstrong-Trummy Young-Edmond Hall edition and no small group in this history of this kind of jazz was hotter, says I (and Dizzy Gillespie, who once told Deems just that, according to my friend Phil Person). The opening of the 1927 record was exciting but this one, in today's parlance, simply kicks ass.

Like the original, Louis takes the first chorus by himself and it's a great example of Louis's playing at this tempo in this period of his life. The 1927 Louis played more notes and quicker runs and contributed a lot of jaw-dropping feats of dexterity that 1957 Louis could no longer do. But later Louis had the chops, he had that power, that unbelievable upper register, not to mention ferocious swing and an ability to improvise like he was telling a story. Every note of the 1957 solo is perfectly placed and can be hummed back without a problem. And the sheer power of that high note More proof that there is more than one kind of virtuosity; fast fingering is nice and all but don't miss the pure sound of his upper register.

Edmond Hall's up next and he scores with a typically agitated solo, building down at the start before turing up the heat after his break. For the scat chorus, Louis comes up with something entirely fresh and again, something that reflects the Louis of 1957. The daredevil repeated motif from 1927 is gone but what's replaced it is still terrifically swinging. Louis grew more melodic over the years and that's readily apparent here, to the point where he almost sounds like he wants to start singing words at one point.

And how about a hand for guitar great George Barnes. Barnes's lemony electric guitar tone might sound like a odd fit in what supposed to be a recreation of music from the 1920s, but there's no denying that Barnes was a great on the instrument and he compliments Louis very well. The conversation works well, too, as Barnes expertly repeats just about all of Louis's phrases to the guitar. Everything sounds so natural coming out of Barnes's axe that it's just further proof that Louis invented the language for ALL instruments!

After a short interlude by Deems, Trummy Young uncorks an exciting half-chorus that defines his style as much as Ory's did his on the original. Then Louis amazingly climbs that spiral staircase again, replicating the form of the original break, if not repeating it note- for-note. He follows the pattern of the original with those two-note concert Bb pairings but takes a different path during the stop-time section. Whereas younger Louis phrased his improvisation as if on a tightrope, Louis just bludgeons the listener with pure power and swing. For one thing, he hits a higher note than he did on the original right before the break but even during the break, he swings a series of quarter notes (not easy to do) before capping it off with another singable phrase ending on a high note.

The only big difference between this version and the original comes at the end where the remake gets rid of any last minute trading between the trumpet and guitar. Instead, it's a full-blown All Stars ending of the period and I think it's a exciting way to end such a blood-pumping performance, Louis ending with a sky-high Eb that he didn't touch back on the original, holding it and shaking it to prove that he had a lot of life left in that old horn of his.

Okay, I think it's time to call it quits for "Hotter Than That." I hope you enjoyed this timeless, truly hot music...preferably listened to in an air conditioned room! Nothing will ever hotter than that, huh?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

80 Years of "That's My Home"

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 8, 1932
Track Time 3:14
Written by Otis Rene, Leon Rene and Ben Ellison 
Recorded in Camden, NJ
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Louis Bacon, Louis Hunt, Billy Hicks, trumpet; Charlie Greene, trombone; Pete Clarke, clarinet, alto saxophone; Edgar Sampson, alto saxophone; Elmer Williams, tenor saxophone; Don Kirkpatrick, piano; John Trueheart, guitar; Elmer James, tuba; Chick Webb, drums 
Originally released on Victor 24200
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Time for an anniversary post that's NOT about a Hot Seven tune! Instead, I'm celebrating one of favorite Armstrong tunes, a song that survives in four versions, each one an absolute grand slam. And it's a song that's filled with important double meanings for me: as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, this song is an anthem of sorts, one we play an excerpt of in a video we show before each and every tour. And as I mentioned before, last month, my wife and I and our little girls moved into a new home in Toms River, NJ--and not just any home, but the one I grew up in. So when I hear Louis sing "That's My Home," I'm usually thinking about his life, his home in Corona or my home in NJ and it's not to get emotional about ONE of those!

"That's My Home" was written by the Rene brothers, Otis and Leon, (along with Ben Ellison, who co-wrote a few other tunes but none worth mentioning). The Rene brothers were already responsible for "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," which Louis recorded the previous year and immediately turned into his theme song. Sensing the popularity of that number, the Rene's wrote this one as a sequel, covering many of the same themes about longing for the great, glorious South (in 1932...yikes). But even if the lyrics cover familiar ground, the melody stands on its own as quite a lovely one. 

As for Louis, "That's My Home" was the start of a new recording chapter for him. Earlier this year, I wrote about Louis's final session for OKeh on March 11, 1932. By the time of that session, Louis's offstage life was in turmoil, mostly due to his manager Johnny Collins, who had Armstrong in hot water with the mob. Tommy Rockwell, who really started the ball rolling for Louis's career as a "pop star" on OKeh, was suing Collins publicly--but also behind some very private threats to the trumpeter's life. When "Time" magazine profiled Louis in the summer of 1932, it made mention that OKeh and Victor were at war over Louis's recording services. 

Armstrong just wanted to play the horn and wanted to get away from this mess so Collins did the best thing for him and booked him for three months in England. When Louis returned, he didn't have a band or any immediate engagements lined up, but he did have something to be happy about. "
Here's some more good news for ya," he wrote to Mezz Mezzrow on September 18. "The Victor Record Co., has just won the case from the Okeh Recor Co. and wired Mr. Collins that all's well and I can start on my new Victor contract which replaces the Rudy Vallee anytime. Gee, Gate, what a victory from our boy Rockwell. Looka heah, Looka heah. Now just watch those good royalties--dividends--shares--'n' everything else. Ha. Ha. And the contract pop's (MR. COLLINS) made with these people for me, why you've never heard of one like it before. And that includes the ole King of Jazz himself Paul Whiteman. Nice, eh?"

It was but after a solid year-plus run with a band of his own (under the direction of Zilner Randolph), Louis was starting from scratch again. He got booked to appear in "Connie's Hot Chocolates of 1932" at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia, where he was fronting the great Chick Webb Orchestra. Armstrong hadn't made a recording since that March date so on December 8, 1932, he toted Webb's band with him down to Camden, New Jersey to record at Victor's legendary church-turned-studio.

Louis brought his pal Mezz Mezzrow to the date. Louis and Mezz were close; Mezz provided him with "arrangements" (hint: you couldn't play them but you COULD smoke them....) but also wasn't afraid to offer his opinions on music (he also wasn't afraid to play the clarinet.....topic for another day....). Mezz paid attention that December day (though he misremembered the date) and wrote about it in his later autobiography, Really the Blues.  The recordings Louis made in Camden have long been one of my favorites but after reading Mezz's words, they're even more astounding. Take it Mezz:

"[Armstrong] had a terrible sore lip, in addition to being dogtired, and that day he had played five shows and made two broadcasts. We started off for the Camden recording studios at 1:30 in the morning. I didn't see how poor old Pops was going to blow note one. In the dead of night we drove up to a large red brick church. I wondered if we were going to have a special prayer service to make sure Louis go through this grind, but when we went through the chapel door I saw it was a recording studio....
They wouldn't let Chick Webb use his bass drum on this date, mainly because Louis' lip was in such bad shape and without the bass he wouldn't be pushed so hard."

Yes, this was the period when Louis had to conjure up every ounce of strength and guile to get through his performances. Mezzrow's book also includes famous stories of Louis picking dead skin out of his lips with a needle and bursting his chops onstage one night until blood streamed down his tuxedo shirt. All of that happened just weeks after Louis recorded with Webb. 
Thus, when you hear these performances and think about what he had to go through to sound like this...well, it's awe-inspiring, that's all. 

"That's My Home" survives in two takes. One was officially designated the master and issued immediately but the other take was also issued by Victor subsidiary Bluebird during the 78 era. As Dan Morgenstern has pointed out, listeners are usually more partial to the take they hear--and fall in love with--first. Thus, Dan, and I'm sure many others, have a soft spot for the alternate. I think both are magnificent so let's jump right in with the master take first:


Magic. The first thing you hear is the absolutely beautiful recording quality of that Camden studio. No loves Louis's OKeh big band recordings more than me, but the sound of that label's Chicago studio wasn't too great. Armstrong's Victor sessions simply sound beautiful.

And so does Pops. As I've said before, these 1932-1933 Victor sessions are special favorites of mine. Even with his lips in increasing duress, he managed to do thing on his horn in this period that didn't (couldn't?) do before or after. It's the perfect melding of the young, hot, fleet-fingered daring cat and the later, operatic master of the high note climax. And again, Victor's engineers captured that sound beautifully.

Sound quality aside, the other first thing (does that make sense?) you hear is a rather elaborate arranged introduction, complete with orchestra bells and a trumpet (Louis Bacon, perhaps), playing a snatch of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," erasing any doubts that this is a sequel to that song. 

Mezzrow also recounted that he made some suggestions to the arrangement, including changing the tuba part. It all sounds good to me, so I guess we'll have to credit Mezzrow for that. But speaking of the tuba, that was an instrument quickly on its way out so it's a little weird hearing it here since Armstrong's Chicago recordings for OKeh featuring the big-toned walking bass of John Lindsey. Maybe it was a New Orleans thing since Pops Foster walked and swung beautifully behind Louis on the trumpeter's 1929-1930 recordings with Luis Russell. But the combination of the tuba and drummer Webb's almost straight quarter note brush strokes leads to an incessant marching, rather than swinging feel. It doesn't impede Louis in the least bit but it's proof that the entire world hadn't succumbed to Louis's relaxed feel just yet (but help was on the way--just five days later in the very same Camden studio, Bennie Moten's band, with Count Basie and Walter Page, waxed ten seminal numbers that officially taught rhythm sections the way to swing from that day forward).

Anyway, back to the recording, Louis puts his heart and soul into the vocal, as he always did when it came to singing about the south. Louis saw a lot of hell down there but he loved New Orleans and the hero's welcome he received upon his return in 1931 sounds like it inspired his vocal passion ("I'm always welcome back, no matter where I roam...."). 

After the vocal, a four bar modulation from Ab to Bb allows Pops to get his chops together before he embarks on his first solo. I wonder if the arrangement originally featured him trading fours with saxophonist Elmer Williams or if the shape of his chops dictated a little breathing room to save some in reserve for the climactic portions. He sounds hesitant at first, one of his low notes barely coming out, before he gets comfortable. By his second set of fours, he's soaring, all the way up to a beautifully full high concert Bb. Pleased with himself, you can hear Armstrong humming and singing immediately after, as Williams wraps up this portion of the record.

Now it's melody time. Armstrong enters squarely with a D on the nose and then relaxes. Oh, what human beings could learn from his sense of time! This is one of those moments where that incessant, marching rhythm section actually comes in handy because it allows the listener to further appreciate Armstrong's ability to float. He keeps the melody front and center but also adds in his variations, especially in the second eight, which starts with a grandiose gliss to a high Bb, before he starts  throwing around those snake-like phrase, the past and future Armstrong converging in the present. 

Louis piles on the drama as he heads to the bridge, thriving on the change from major to minor with another giant gliss to a Bb and then descending chromatically from Ab to Gb, holding it and shaking the hell out of it. He beautifully distills the melody to three descending half notes (remember, this is a wordy section in the vocal), before holding the last F and passionately blowing it up to a G. He floats through the rest of the bridge, playing a bit of the melody before getting ready for the climax: a series of high Bb glisses (the famed high C on the trumpet) while the band plays the melody in and around him. When he gets to the close, he gets even higher (possibly in more ways than one), hitting a higher concert C and at the climax, two sky-high D's before ending back on that big, fat Bb. 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.....THIS is a man with chops troubles?????

Even if Louis heroically pushed through it to create that magnificent performance, did he have it in him to do it again? Listen to the alternate and find out: 

Yep, he did it again! The alternate is very similar to the master so no need for the strict blow-by-blow account. There are some differences, though. The vocal is just as passionate but I like the almost exaggerated "bay-bee" replacing the "babe" early on. In the trading with saxophonist Williams, Armstrong's lines follow a similar line of thinking as on the other take, but there's some differences in phrase and though he doesn't sound as hesitant at the start, his tone gets a teeny bit thinner here and there. But he still works his way up to that gorgeous high Bb (and still sings his approval in the background).

When the trading is over, Armstrong enters with a chromatic run up to an F, different from the D he started squarely on in on the master.   Armstrong takes a few more chances with the melody this time around, really coming up with some different phrases in the second eight, working over an alternating note motif that might be the highlight of the alternate take, especially when he resolves it with three chromatically descending, searing quarter notes. 

Even the bridge is different. That dramatic chromatic phrase that heralded the change from major to minor the first time around. In its place, Louis just glisses up to that Bb, hits it, holds it longer and then does his half-note descent to the F, still wailing up to that G for good measure. One has to wonder if this was part of Louis's repertoire before he entered the studio. Certain patterns are set but his improvised chorus is so different from take to take, he might be coming up with some of these variations for the first time. Either way, I can see when, hearing moments like this, Dan Morgenstern still prefers this take.

Heading home, Armstrong follows the pattern of the high Bb's, but instead of just launching them up as part of gliss grenades, he repeats the Bb a few times at one point, either feeling in the mood for something a little more rhythmically vibrant or maybe knowing the gas tank didn't have enough for another demanding gliss. Whatever the reason, he saved just enough in reserve to nail the slow ending again, complete with those angelic high D's. Bravo, Pops!

I believe "That's My Home" followed Louis to Europe in 1933 but alas, there are no live recordings of it from Louis's big band period. When the All Stars were formed in 1947, "That's My Home" wasn't part of the repertoire, but Louis did respond to a request for it in 1955, as recounted by Jacob A. Stein in this piece. But when it came time for the epic Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography in 1956, "That's My Home" was a natural to be revived.

Sy Oliver handled the arrangement, which was recorded December 13, 1956. As recounted in this space about a thousand times, the Autobiography is, in my opinion, the definitive statement of Louis's abilities as a trumpeter in the 1950s. For exhibit 40, (I'm losing count), here's "That's My Home": 

I like Oliver's arrangements because he didn't slavishly copy the originals, instead creating newer, fresher frameworks that still didn't get in our hero's way. Thus, the original dramatic opening is gone, replaced by a short descending phrase that sets up a small statement by Edmond Hall (apparently quoting "Georgia On My Mind"). Louis still sings beautifully but it's possible he's no longer inspired by New Orleans. Restrictions were placed earlier in 1956 that prohibited integrated bands from performing in public in Louis's hometown so he stayed away from 1955 to 1965. But he didn't need New Orleans anymore; he had a home in Corona since 1943 that was truly his palace ("like one of those old citadels," he was fond of saying) and I'm sure that's all the inspiration he needed (though if you've read some of the recent headines about Louis, I'm not sure "I'm always welcome back, no matter where I roam" applied 100% of the time!). 

After the vocal, the arrangement once again modulates from Ab to Bb and the pattern of trading continues, this time with Louis and Trummy Young's trombone, though Trummy plays along quietly at first, almost like a duet. There's nothing hesitant about Louis's playing and goodness knows, no lip trouble either (I wonder if he really thought he'd be blowing with such force 34 years after the crisis his chops were going through during the first session). Armstrong flexes his muscles in his second eight, overshadowing Trummy with a gliss to a powerful F before making that climb up to that killer Bb. 

Then, when it comes to Pops's "solo" portion, he enters with the chromatic phrase featured on the alternate...I wonder if that's the record Oliver based his arrangement on? (He transcribed all of Louis's solos but notated, "Go for yourself" on Pops's parts.) From there, Louis plays the melody in his finest 1956 fashion, perhaps not as intense as in 1932, but with a wonderfully relaxed sense of phrasing and that never-to-be-duplicated tone. 

Heading into the bridge, Pops goes up to that Bb again and holds it, just as he did on the alternate (I guess that solves it, regarding Oliver's inspiration). There's still that wonderful moment when he holds the F and pushes it up to a G--why mess with perfection? When it comes to the final 8, Louis knows what to do, glissing up to those ridiculous Bb's and nailing the high D's before the last note (he holds them longer, too). There's a reason we play part of this before every tour at the Louis Armstrong House Museum--he kills it!

That would seem to conclude our hero's story with "That's My Home"...but wait, don't go anywhere! In fact, call some friends and strangers to the computer. We'll never know where, but in 1961, Louis started playing "That's My Home" live with the All Stars! It all seems to have started when Louis arrive back in the United States from a grueling tour of Africa and Europe from October 1960 through February 1961. Happy to be back home, Louis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and sang a chorus (alas, no trumpet). He must have enjoyed it and it must have went over well because soon enough, it was in the show. 

Unfortunately, after the Sullivan show, a total of ONE live performance of "That's My Home" survives from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1961. And if I say so, this is one of THE highlights of Louis Armstrong's later years. It might not have some of the pyrotechnics of what we've already heard but there's something about this performance that kills me. Maybe it's because it's live, maybe it's because it's the backing of the All Stars, maybe it's the simple fact that Louis was about to turn 60 and was still killing it, but this one makes me cry just about every time I hear it. 

[NOTE: When I originally posted this, I wrote, "completely unissued, by the way." But thanks to my pal Ron Cannatella for reminding me that no, this was issued on a 2-CD set called The Katanga Concert. It's a mutt of a CD, purporting to be a complete concert from Africa in 1960 but it includes some material billed as being from Nice, France in 1962, plus a version of "What a Wonderful World" from 1967. It's also on a single CD made up of the same stuff called Blueberry Hill, also on the Milan label. Anyway, this version of "That's My Home" is on both but it's credited as being from Nice AND the sound quality is inferior compared to what you're about to here. Once the late Belgium discographer Jos Willems sent me the copy of Louis's set at Newport in 1961 in incredible sound, I totally blocked the Katanga release from my mind. So if you'd like to own a copy of this one, click the above link and download away]

Here 'tis:

First thing you'll notice is where in a new key. The other two versions started in Ab for the vocal and then went up to Bb for the trumpet. This one stays in Ab the entire time. So we're a step down but don't let that fool you into thinking he's taking it easy (the superhuman "When You're Smiling" from 1956 is in Ab, down from the Bb of the 1929 version and I've never heard anyone complain about that). In fact, this version has more trumpet than the previous versions!

Part of the reason is the arrangement, a typical one for the way the All Stars handled ballads early on (see "You Can Depend on Me" from Pasadena, 1951, or "Shoe Shine Boy" from New Orleans, 1949): full chorus of trumpet playing the melody, full chorus vocal, half chorus trumpet lead from the bridge forward. Thus, we get one entire chorus of Louis playing the melody to "That's My Home" at the slowest tempo yet and it's just masterful. Has there been anyone else to get so much out of the melody? The beautiful sound quality allows the listener to appreciate the All Stars, too: Billy Kyle's impeccable accompaniment (bless him for that "Swanee River" quote during the vocal), the lightly swinging but forceful rhythm team of Danny Barcelona and Irv Manning and the gorgeous long-tone harmonies by Trummy Young and clarinetist Barney Bigard.

Louis's opening chorus alone is worth the full price of admission but he still has to sing and to the surprise of no one, he sings wonderfully (lyric change: no mention of "mammy" anymore, Pops changing it to "with a love that's true"). My goodness, how he sings that bridge!

So we've already been entertained by a sublime chorus of melody playing and a rich, warm vocal. He could have taken his bows right there, and I'd stand up, but he's not finished. The horns play Louis's signature vocal and trumpet lick (twice) to allow him to get the trumpet up and then it's on. Back to the bridge we go and this is the part that kills me. The rhythm section swells, the horns hold their harmonies (Barney's swooping high C gives me chills) and Pops preaches, starting on a high concert E and building from there. All I can say about it is PLAY IT LOUD. He builds in intensity (I loved the descending half notes on the original but the ping-ponging two-note phase he uses to navigate the same descent cuts it), eventually holding and shaking a high Ab into the final eight. Instead of the dramatic glisses of the original, Armstrong plays more melodic phrases here, opening by repeating that damn Ab eight times! Eight! His phrasing is so melody, so logical it almost defies logic. He finally gets to the end and repeats his usual ending phrase, except a step down so now he tops out with two high C's before landing on the final Ab and holding it for eight seconds. Eight! My goodness...

Well, now I have to go lie down but that's the end, unfortunately, of our look at "That's My Home." I don't know how much more I can handle but truthfully, more might pop up. Though this is the last surviving performance, Arvell Shaw joined the band in late 1962 and remembered Louis playing this often (making Shaw cry every time). And I've found reviews of Armstrong performances in both 1963 and 1964 that praise Louis's playing on this number. So it didn't disappear, but as of now, none of those other versions were performed in front of a recording device.

But hey, that's a helluva foursome, huh? Hope you enjoyed it and as usual, if you're ever in NY, stop by the Louis Armstrong House Museum to see Pops's home in all its glory.


Quick notes: I toyed with the notion of doing an 80th anniversary post of that entire Chick Webb session since all four songs yielded an alternate take but there just wasn't enough time. However, I did do a blog a while ago on I Hate to Leave You Now so you could check that out by clicking the link.

And as the world knows, jazz legend Dave Brubeck passed away this week at the age of 91. I've always admired Brubeck and have been an advocate for "The Real Ambassadors" for years. I was honored to be asked by A&E's to write a tribute to Brubeck for their website and I chose to focus on his collaboration with Pops. You can read it here. Thanks, Dave and Iola, for writing that for Pops. It gets better and more important with each passing year.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

So You Wanna Buy The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens?

This post has been a long time coming and frankly, I'm a little surprised that it's taken someone this long to do it. I check out a lot of online jazz forums and sadly, Louis Armstrong rarely comes up. When he does, 75% of the time it's a new jazz listener who has heard so much about the vaunted Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and wants to know what is the best way to obtain them. After that, fireworks usually break out as listeners weigh in with their personal pros and cons for each available set.

[Warning: History lesson about to commence. If you're not interested, scroll until you come to the audio samples.]

For years, it's been a battle between two releases: in this corner, the late John R. T. Davies' budget-priced work, Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, and in the other corner, Sony's more lavish package from 2000, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings.

The sets had their differences. The JSP set was transferred from private recordings, featured barebones packaging and none of Louis's other sessions from the period (except for one Butterbeans and Susie date; in fact, disc 4 of the JSP has nothing to do with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens but instead concentrates on Louis's 1929 New York recordings). The Sony set used the original masters for transfers but the results featured more surface noise. However, Sony did include Louis's other small group sessions with Johnny Dodds, Lil's Hot Shots, Hociel Thomas and Lillie Delk Christian, making it more of a complete set, not to mention a beautiful hardback book.

And so it was...until this year. After Sony put out the box in 2000, they took the main Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and released them on three separate discs with new notes by Gary Giddins. As many of you know, I'm the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum and those individual discs are what we've sold for years.  But earlier this year, our gift shop manager informed me that Sony had made all three discs AND the boxed set out-of-print. Hmmm....

Why did they do this? To make room for a brand new box: Louis Armstrong: The OKeh, Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings, 1925-1933.. I was on the inside track for this set because I had the honor of wring the liner notes for it. However, I did so without hearing a note of the new box. I was frequently asked about the sound because promotional material advertised this set as featuring the best sound quality this material has ever received. I wasn't sure what to say. The track listings of each disc were straight copies of earlier Sony single-disc releases from the late 80s and 90s but the liner notes booklet did credit new names with remastering and restoration.

I should back up a bit and talk for a second about these 1980s and 90s CDs. Well, actually let's go way back to George Avakian and the first reissues of this material, first on 78s in the 1940s and then on long-playing albums in the 1950 (anyone remember the four-volume "Louis Armstrong Story"?). George was a pioneer in doing this (he even discovered some lost tracks) and is not only a friend of mine but a hero.

However, George is the first to admit that Columbia wasn't really thinking about pitch correction in those days. Because of that, some of those early LP reissues featured the music in the wrong key, usually a little flat. Flash forward 30 or 40 years and it's a new era: compact discs are in and now there's new technology to remaster and "process" old recordings such as NoNoise and CEDAR. In the late 80s, Columbia started a new jazz reissue program and naturally, the Hot Fives and Sevens were among the first to get reissued.

Unfortunately, for these first attempts, Columbia used a bit too much processing, causing the finished product to sound a little lifeless. On top of that, they used the original LPs as the basis for mastering meaning no pitch correction and dozens of tracks still being issued in the wrong key.

The good news was by the time they got to volume four in the series, Louis's 1928 recordings with Earl Hines, Columbia seemingly righted the ship. They continued issuing single discs of Louis's 1929-1932 big band recordings, all in very good sound (to my ears) and in the right keys. In 1994, they put out a Grammy-award winning boxed set, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, featuring many Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. For this release, they revisited the original recordings, mastered them freshly and pitch corrected them, a big improvement over the first single CD issues.

Still, there was grumbling in the jazz community. The 1990s were almost over and the only way to get the complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens from Sony were the problematic single discs. But the new millenium was on the horizon and with it, Louis's centennial. But before Sony could do anything about it, John R. T. Davies entered the picture with three discs of Hot Fives and Hot Sevens released on the JSP label in 1999. And finally Sony answered with its aforementioned set in 2000, helmed by Phil Schaap.

For the next decade, they fought it out but now the 2000 box has been retired in exchange for the new 10-CD set. It was released in October and I finally got to listen to it and can report that yes, the first 2 1/2 discs of Hot Fives and Hot Sevens (up to "That's When I'll Come Back to You") are exact rips of the single discs Columbia put out in the late 80s and early 90s. Meaning that yes, everything's a bit too processed (to my ears) and in the wrong key. Ugh.

The set has been getting great publicity, including rave reviews on and Pop Matters, neither of which mentioned any sound issues. And I'm still proud of my notes and proud of the overall set. If you haven't noticed, I love everything Louis did and I have a special love of those late 20s, early 30s big band recordings. Sony hadn't done anything with those in over 15 years. In that period, they also acquired BMG, so this new set includes Louis's 1932-1932 Victor recordings, special favorites of mine and other Armstrong nuts. So Hot Fives and Sevens be damned, the new set is a great way to get all of Louis's recordings as a leader from 1928-1933 in fine sound and at a great price. If you don't have this material, grab it.

But what of the Hot Fives and Sevens? Sadly, the new box isn't the best place for those, mainly because of the pitch issues. I am NOT an audiophile in any way, shape or form. I don't say that too proudly--I wish I had a nice sound system and the ability to hear things mere mortals can only dream of--but hey, I listen to music from the 1920s and 1930s so I'm more than all right with hisses, pops, anything in between. What I'm not okay with is when the music is in the wrong key. I don't have perfect pitch so I usually don't notice when it's a little fast or slow but when it's a good half-step slower than it should be--and I know how it should sound--that's when I have a problem. And sadly, that describes the first 2 1/2 discs of the new 10-CD Sony box.

In a follow-up to this post, I will talk more about the 1929-1933 material and why the new Sony set is an ideal way (perhaps THE ideal way) to get all all of that material in one place. But for now, because most people get hot and bothered only about the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, I'm just going to focus on them.

[Note: History lesson over.]

The next 39 (!) sound samples will naturally focus on the three main boxes: the JSP, Sony's 2000 box and the brand new "OKeh" 10-CD set. When applicable, I've also added clips from 1994's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" since you can still download it and it demonstrates how Mark Wilder of Sony corrected the original flawed discs 18 years ago only to see the flawed versions now back in print.

And I've added a fifth release that I have not mentioned yet. Back in 2007, a French label, Fremeaux and Associates, got into the act with an admirable series, "The Integrale (Louis Armstrong)." Aimed at completists, Fremeaux started with Louis's King Oliver recordings and went chronologically, including everything they could find: Oliver, Fletcher Henderson, the blues singers, Clarence Williams, the Hot Fives, Hot Sevens, big bands, etc. The Hot Fives and Sevens were included on Volume 2, Volume 3, Volume 4 (not currently on Amazon) and Volume 5.

Personally, I've avoided the "Integrale" series. For one thing, I already had all of it but when they got to the 30s and 40s, they began including material that only my friend, the late Gosta Hagglof, previously issued and I didn't like how they ripped off Hagglof's Ambassdor discs. However, in the aforementioned online arguments, some have argued in favor of obtaining the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens through the "Integrale" series because the sound was very good and you get all the other goodies. For this blog, I borrowed volume 4, 1926-1928, I've included those samples when possible.

So let's jump in, shall we? I did not include full songs. Instead I made edits, usually ranging 30-40 seconds. In my selections, I've tried getting a little bit of everything: record openings, rideout choruses, Louis vocals, etc. I imported all of these as high-quality WAVs and did the edits in Audacity, doing no processing or mastering whatsoever, exporting the edits also as high-quality WAVs.

The first batch of Hot Fives from 1925-1926 were acoustic recordings. These have always been the most problematic because the original recording techniques were so primitive. Thus, these are usually the noisiest and also the ones that have usually been in issued in wrong keys.

We'll start with the very first Hot Five recording, "My Heart." Here it is on the new 10-CD "OKeh" boxed, featuring the original mastering from the 1980s:

Next, here it is as John R. T. Davies mastered it on JSP in 1999:

Now, here it is as it appeared on the Phil Schaap box of 2000:

I will try to refrain from offering my own opinions since this is for YOU, the consumer, to choose the one that sounds the best to your ears. (If you want to fight it out in the comments section below, be my guest!) I will point out that on the new OKeh box, it's in D while on the JSP and 2000 sets it's in Eb.

Next, from February 1926, one of the noisier records, "Heebie Jeebies." Here's the new OKeh set:

Now here's how Sony did it in 1994 for the "Portrait" box:

The JSP set from 1999:

And the Sony set from 2000:

The pitch correction on "Cornet Chop Suey" has led to it becoming one of the more controversial Hot Five numbers. When Avakian originally issued it, it was in the inglorious key of E. That's clearly not right (Louis didn't play guitar). Anyway, that version in E is the one heard here on the OKeh box:

By 1994, Mark Wilder realized that couldn't be right. With two choices--down to Eb or up to F--Wilder chose to put it in Eb for the "Portrait of the Artist" set:

John R. T. Davies also chose Eb, which is how it's issued on JSP:

However, there was another faction that believed "Cornet Chop Suey" was in F? Well, as I explained in this 2011 blog on the subject, Louis recorded the piece three more times, and each time did it in F. Why would he raise it a full step as he got older? Also, his handwritten lead sheet is in concert F. Schaap's Sony box is still the only to hear it in F, the key I, and many others, believe Louis originally recorded it in (the out-of-print Universal box from last year, "Satchmo: Ambassador of Jazz," also has it in F but they used the 2000 Sony set for their transfers of the Hot Five and Seven material):

We haven't heard Louis's voice yet, so let's compare that on these different issues. Here's the vocal on "You Made Me Love You" from 1926, first on the new OKeh box:

Next, the JSP:

And now the 2000 Sony box:

And to add a new character, here's the "Integrale"version from Fremeaux and Associates:

Hot Seven time! Everything we've heard up to this point was recorded acoustically; the 1925-1926 Hot Fives are where audiophiles really disagree about the sound quality. Beginning with the Hot Sevens in May 1927, Louis recorded electrically full-time, leading to very good sound quality, no matter the reissue. However, as you'll hear, the new OKeh box still has this material in the wrong keys. And other listeners can choose which issues they like from variables such as amount of processing, overall mix, brightness, harshness, etc., instead of just more or less surface noise.

So, let's begin with the hot rideout chorus on the very first Hot Seven, "Willie the Weeper," first heard on the OKeh box:

Next, the JSP:

The 2000 Sony box:

And bringing up the rear, the "Integrale" (and as you'll hear, Fremeaux and Associates didn't do any pitch correcting either):

Now, for a first: FIVE different versions of the same song, "Weary Blues." Up first, the OKeh box:

Next, "Portrait of the Artist":

The JSP:

The 2000 Sony box:

And the Integrale series:

After the Hot Sevens, Louis recorded another series of Hot Five dates in the latter part of 1927. By this point, the new OKeh box finally gets the material in the correct key, putting it on even footing with the others. Like I said earlier, this happens fairly early on disc 3 of the 10-CD set so don't write off the new box, especially if you already have the 1925-1927 Hot Fives and Sevens, but are looking for the big band stuff in one fell swoop. I'm starting with "Put 'Em Down Blues," which opens with an unaccompanied break by Kid Ory's trombone. You can really hear the differences in approach with the level of noise behind the trombone and also the brightness of the mix. Here's the OKeh box:

"Portrait of the Artist":


Sony 2000:

And Intregale:

The last phase of Louis's Hot Fives and Sevens is the glorious series of 1928 recordings with Earl "Fatha" Hines." "Weather Bird" is the pair's remarkable duet number and has been issued a thousand times. Here it is on the OKeh box:

And on the "Portrait" box:

The JSP:

And finally, the 2000 Sony box. I'm sharing this on a tip-off from the great jazz musician/scholar Allen Lowe, who has said he's not a fan of the 2000 Sony material, naming "Weather Bird" as its prime offender because of a big ol' scratch heard near the beginning. I, admittedly not an audiophile, never noticed it until Allen pointed it out. This, too, might be a fatal flaw for you or you might not notice it either:

And finally, though the 1928 material survives in pretty great sound, occasionally, different transfers lead to different levels of noise on the remastering. "No One Else But You" is a prime example. Here's five excerpts and you can hear the surface noise or general quality vary from transfer to transfer. You know the drill: first, the OKeh box:

"Portrait of the Artist":


Sony in 2000:

And Integrale:

And there you have it. Hopefully, this helped a little bit if you don't have this material yet and even you already do. There is no right answer--it's up to YOUR ears. When having this conversation with a musician friend in New York a few weeks ago, he stopped me in the middle of my iPod "A/B" comparison game, walked over to his records, pulled out a 1940 Columbia reissue of some Hot Seven material on 78 and put it on his record player. And even though they weren't in the right key (his player only played 78 rpm on the nose), my goodness did they sound good (I never heard Pete Briggs's tuba so crystal clear). He didn't care about pitch correction, he cared about clarity and to him, you couldn't top that 78 and after hearing it, I kind of agreed. So follow your own ears and whatever you decide, enjoy the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, aka the most important recordings of the 20th century (and please leave comments--I'm sure this is a discussion that could go on for years).

For those who want to go a little further, next time, I'll concentrate on the OKeh box vs. the JSP sets for the 1929-1932 big band recordings. Til then!