Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Story Of a Photo: Copenhagen 1967

I know a lot of people decry Facebook as the end of humanity but I personally love it. For one thing, there's a weird thrill about throwing something up there and getting a mix of comments from jazz musicians, high schools friends, personal heroes, people I don't know and people I've never met (and probably never will meet). But thanks to the magical "Share" button, I'm always learning new things.

A few weeks ago, someone on Facebook shared a bunch of photos of Louis Armstrong grabbed from all different Internet sources. My friend, Phil Person--a terrific trumpet man and longtime friend of the blog--spotted this one and immediately shared it on my wall. He knew the significance of it but I don't know how many others out there did.
I immediately shared the photo on my page and added "a story." This is what I wrote:

"A story: In the spring of 1967, Louis Armstrong came down with pneumonia and had to cancel six weeks of gigs. Dental surgery in 1965 had already caused his chops to turn erratic and two of his All Stars had died in the road in little over a year. He lived for the stage, however, and when he returned to performing in late June, he sounded GREAT. However, the schedule of constant one-nighters was too much, too soon and by late July, he was struggling. On July 25, he ended up in Copenhagen, exhausted from the traveling and with almost no chops at all. He went onstage and came to life, putting on a supremely entertaining show, but one with some rough moments on the trumpet.

"Earlier this year, Storyville put out an 8-disc set, "The Armstrong Box," and I had the honor of writing the notes. But the Copenhagen show made up an entire disc and I couldn't sugarcoat it. But instead of blasting it, I turned it into a tribute of how Armstrong--even when weary, sick and in pain--could still fight through it to put on a great show for his fans.

"Earlier tonight, my friend and fellow Louis nut Phil Person posted this photo on my timeline and it gave me the chills. Here's Louis in the wings during the Copenhagen show, taking a breather while another member of the band was featured. His face says it all; this was no longer a party. But moments later, he'd hide it, go back onstage and have the time of his life. Deep, deep stuff. Thank you Phil for sharing it (and for Alejandro Levit Maskin for originally uploading it--I had never seen it!) and thank you Louis for overcoming so much for your fans, night in and night out."


That was all I could put up on Facebook, but there's more to this photo that keeps sticking with me. I mentioned Storyville's The Armstrong Box above, which I blogged about in the past here. I wrote a ridiculously long book of notes for it but had nothing to do with the track selection. When they first presented it to me, I kind of cringed about devoting an entire disc to the July 25, 1967 Copenhagen concert. My Swedish Armstrong friends had already generously given me a copy and though I admired it because I'm a completist, I never thought it would be issued. When the late Gosta Hagglof prepared the essential 4-CD Louis Armstrong In Scandinavia box (only 2 left in stock on Amazon....ridiculous bargain at $29.66!), he cherry-picked six of the better moments from Copenhagen, which seemed smart, even choosing to edit out one of the more painful moments (more on that in a minute). 

But here I was, confronted with the whole thing and having to write about it for the booklet. I knew I couldn't spin the music positively so I chose to write about how noble Armstrong was, definitely not feeling well nor playing well, but pushing like hell for his fans out there. And he knew how important he was to those Danish fans out there. In 1959, he did a series of concerts, two shows a day, at the Falkoner Centret. It was there where Louis, feeling like an iron man, realized that "Tiger Rag" was driving the audience crazy. He called encore after encore--much to the surprise of his own band--topping himself every time. I breathlessly wrote about these performances back in 2010. Here's my blog on the first show from January 21, 1959 and one on the second one performed later that same evening. Ridiculous, remarkable playing.

But now here's Louis, back in Copenhagen, probably in front of many of the same fans who saw him in 1959, and the tank is empty. Perhaps that's what was going through his mind in that above photo. I wrote about this version also in 2010:

"I have to go back to that July 25 Copenhagen show. Why? Because it was in Copenhagen in January 1959 where Louis was pushing himself to the brink, contributing all those versions with either four encores or three encores, the ones I've been celebrating for two weeks. Back then, Louis was feeling great, killing himself for two shows a day, breaking up his crazy audience who demanded encore after encore on "Tiger Rag." Well, Louis, on pure talent and guile, broke 'em up in Copenhagen in 1967, but it was not the same trumpet player. Here's the audio:

Now Louis is REALLY off-mike. He gets off a few good runs but can't pull off the high note right before Muranyi takes over for the "Hold That Tiger" refrain (which he always began by quoting "Three cheers for the red, white and blue," a favorite quote of Captain John Handy's on this same number). He sounds better after the trombone and manages to work his way up to that final high Ab, even sliding up to a high C for good measure.

Then something bittersweet happens: the crowd goes wild and stars applauding together in march-like fashion. Perhaps Louis was transported back to 1959 where the very same fans in the very same city also went wild for "Tiger Rag." Seeing their appreciation, he calls for an encore, the only post-1959 surviving version of "Tiger Rag" in which he does this. As Muranyi takes over for another chorus, Louis quietly starts repeating the two-note phrase C to Eb in the background. That's how he began so many of those wonderful "Tiger Rag's" in the 1930s so it's hard not to get emotional hearing him doing it lower and so quietly in the background. After a jammed chorus, Muranyi takes over for a half-chorus. Pops then comes in, still not very audible, except for a triumphant ending where for the only time after 1966, he actually ends "Tiger Rag" on a high C. It's one of those do-you-cry-or-cheer moments, as it's sad as hell that he could no longer play as he did in 1959 but it's still admirable to hear him pushing right to the end, giving everything he had left in the tank. Here's the encore:


Back to 2013, now:  later in the concert, Louis called his medley of "Tenderly" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." For about a decade, it was a chilling waltz-time feature for his trumpet playing. By 1967, Louis knew he could no longer do that but he loved the songs so much, he couldn't bear to part with them. So he decided he wanted to start singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" in the summer of 1967, turning the song into his closer (and dedicating it to all the mothers of soldiers in Vietnam) through the rest of the year and into 1968.

However, Louis hadn't played the medley in at least two years. And though he had a ridiculously memory when it came to recalling his old songs and solos (and arguably perfect pitch), when he beat off the tune in Copenhagen, he quickly realized that he did not remember how to play "Tenderly" correctly. He faltered he was through it before passing the baton to the other musicians. When Gosta Hagglof prepared the aforementioned Scandinavia set, this is the moment he cut, including just the vocal on "You'll Never Walk Alone," writing to me privately that Armstrong "not only missed notes, he played like he had lost what he was doing. Every note was wrong, he was completely lost! It was really very touching and disturbing to hear this. I wish I hadn't."

If Hagglof had final say, no one probably would have heard it but Storyville issued it on "The Armstrong Box" anyway. So here's this very sad moment but do stay for chilling vocal (and take a glance at a different photo from that same backstage moment to again to hammer home what Armstrong was going through that night):

I won't go track-by-track, analyzing the Copenhagen performance, but that photo did touch me deeply. I'll admit, the first two things I thought of were the diminished "Tiger Rag" and the sad "Tenderly," which is why I shared them. But there IS one real triumphant moment from Copenhagen. Towards the end of the show, the next-to-last number in fact, Louis called "Cabaret." And miraculously, his chops responded. He seemed to know it, too, playing an entire chorus of melody up front, a solo in the middle and then calling for an encore that included even more variations on the melody. He's playing wonderfully, singing wonderfully and listening to him respond to the audience, sounds like he's having the time of his life. And he is.

But glance at that first photo one more time, won't you?
And here's another one I just found of Louis tinkering with his horn seconds before or after:

I don't know when these were taken but it's possible that it was during Jewel Brown's features, when Louis would often sit down and rest for a few minutes backstage. Well, Brown had just done three songs right before "Cabaret" so it's very possible that that's when this picture was snapped. How does one go from that state to walking on stage and radiating nothing by joy and warmth? It's the definition of being a professional and the definition of Louis Armstrong.

Gary Giddins famously wrote about booking Louis to appear at Grinnell College around this time and his impression of Louis upon seeing him backstage before the show: "There he was, an old man in a loose tuxedo, his brown coloring tinctured with gray, his eyes slightly rheumy, the scar on his upper lip alarmingly raw." But once Louis passed through the curtain and hit the stage, "he appeared tranfigured. The ashen color was gone, the eyes blazed, the smile blinded."

So let me close with the "transfigured" Armstrong, fighting through everything to give his very best to his fans on this version of "Cabaret." I'll say it again: thank you, Louis, for doing what you did for US.

2 comments:

David Williamson said...

Hi Rick,
A few years back, I was playing a large outdoor festival in Connecticut. My bandleader, Mike Babick, was all over the stage, grinning, talking to the audience, and rocking the house. Afterwards, I said he looked like he was having a great time out there. He replied "No, but I'm a good actor. If you don't believe in your song, there is no reason for anyone else to believe in it."

Mitzi DeMarco said...

It is sad to hear him not at his best. I noticed some changes in his horn playing in his later years. You compare "Dippermouth Blues" to "When You Wish Upon A Star" and there's a big differnce. His horn sounds so difference. I would like to get this box set as I have loads of Louis stuff on CD, LP, and tape but it's out of my price range. Thank you for uploading sound clips from it so I could hear what was going on with Louis. I wouldn't have done the concert if I was exhausted but I know Louis loved his fans.