Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Mahogany Hall Stomp: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 2:37
Recorded January 28, 1933
Written by Spencer Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellis Whitlock, Zilner Randolph, trumpet; Keg Johnson, trombone; Scoville Browne, George Oldham, alto saxophone, clarinet; Budd Johnson, tenor saxophone; Teddy Wilson, piano; Mike McKendrick, guitar; Bill Oldham, tuba; Yank Porter, drums
Originally released on Victor 24232
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

After the charming "Snow Ball," it was time for a swinger. Once again, Louis looked to the not to distant pass to a song he already immortalized in 1929, Spencer Williams's "Mahogany Hall Stomp."  I’ve seen it written before that this was an older composition, something the bands in New Orleans used to play, but I have not been able to pinpoint that as a fact. What is indisputable, however, is what the song was named after, Mahogany Hall in New Orleans, run by Spencer Williams's aunt, Lulu White. I’m going to let Floyd Levin take over:

“Mahogany Hall was an imposing three-story structure built from rough-hewn granite blocks. It stood at 335 Basin Street near Iberville, just a block away from Tom Anderson’s landmark saloon, the first barroom illuminated by electricity in the country....According to [Anderson’s] Blue Book, ‘Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, aside from the handsome women, possesses some of the most costly paintings in the South.’ The city’s most famous bordello was housed beneath castle-like turrets. It faced the Mississippi River, approximately a half-mile from the Canal Street ferry landing. ‘Lulu White’s parlor had mirrors that cast $30,000,’ Jelly Roll Morton recalled during his Library of Congress interview with curator Alan Lomax. Historian Danny Barker told me, ‘The place was all colored lights and mirrors--lots of mirrors--some even on the floor where the girls danced. You talk about miniskirts--their dresses were up to here. They wore lace stockings and big garters and not much else. Each girl kept a bill inside her stocking way up by her thigh. The denomination of the bill was the girl’s price. Some had $2 bills, some $5. Occasionally you’d spot a ten--not often.’”

So that was Mahogany Hall. Louis's original recording was done with Luis Russell's Orchestra during a quick stop in New York City, the same day he did "Knockin' a Jug" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love." When I originally looked at "Mahogany Hall Stomp" in a multi-part series back in 2009, I wrote that during his solo, Louis (with Pops Foster behind him) practically cried out to the world, "Okay, The Swing Era begins NOW!" Here's that first 1929 solo, still a masterpiece:

In fact, that solo is such a masterpiece, to this day, when Armstrong-inspired trumpeters call this tune it's almost always assumed that the original three-chorus solo will make an appearance at some point. Louis, too, revisited the tune for decades and always knocked it out of the park.

Except for his Victor remake! For some reason, Louis was feeling extra good on that January 28, 1933 date and though he used his original playing as a template, he created something new and so exciting that to many, this is his greatest "Mahogany Hall" (in fact, when Louis played DJ for the Voice of America in 1956 and had to select batches of his original records to play and introduce, this is the one that he picked.

Note that this is only four years later but listen to how different the band sounds. Armstrong taught the world how to swing in the 1920s and by 1933, the big band scene was beginning to catch up. Here’s the Victor:

The tempo’s up, but Armstrong’s more than ready, gently caressing the opening strain, mixing equal doses of fleet phrases and some huge, burning high notes, the band accenting the first beat behind him, something he thrived from. Scoville Brown takes the first solo and it’s a swinging one. The band is smoking behind him, riffing like mad. The great Budd Johnson follows with a big, Hawkins-like solo (someone shouts “In there!”) but again, the main event is Pops. Once again muted, someone obviously forgot to tell Armstrong that his original solo was so classic, he wasn’t supposed to play anything else. Instead, Armstrong comes up with something even more dazzling:


Armstrong opens with a similar idea but proceeds to improvise some completely new ones before beginning the world’s slowest gliss. He begins it at the turn-around at the end of his first chorus and builds ever-so-slightly, higher and higher, before finally reaching the destination of high concert Bb midway through his second chorus, holding all the way (guitarist Mike McKendrick does his Lonnie Johnson impression, setting Pops up with some nice fill-in-the-crack riffs). In his third chorus, instead of playing the ascending, five-note riffs, Armstrong eliminates the middle man and just starts hurling glisses, one after another. Like I've been saying, the man was at his peak in this era.

Armstrong’s quickly followed by an incredibly exciting effort by trombonist Keg Johnson, who comes out scattering notes all over the place, reminding me a little of Dicky Wells and foreshadowing Armstrong's future work with explosive trombone blasters J.C. Higginbotham and Trummy Young. Armstrong’s rideout, backed by riffs, is stunning. The way he alternates between the two high notes in the start of the last chorus is something he often did (I’m also thinking “Cake Walking Babies From Home” right now) and apparently, it came from King Oliver, as I pointed out in my entry on "High Society" a few days ago. If you go back to that one, you can hear audio from a 1956 Voice of America interview, where Armstrong talked about hearing Oliver play “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” during parades in New Orleans and he specifically sung that exact two-note rhythm. 

Not only is this version of "Mahogany Hall Stomp" one of Armstrong's greatest moments but I think the band really shines, too, swinging their asses off both in solos and behind the star. Hopefully, this series has been giving you a better appreciation of this band; they're not flawless but they swing and gave Louis everything he needed to create one masterpiece after another.

Tomorrow: this 12-part series concludes with Louis's advice to musicians around the world, "Swing You Cats."

1 comment:

RICHIE said...

Dig those subtle bass drum hits tagging Louis' glis at 1:42 on.
I'm glad tomorrow is the last one so I can catch my breath and start again. Thanks Ricky for your great work on this.
Regards,
Rich N