Thursday, January 31, 2013

He's a Son of the South: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 2:41
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Reginald Foresythe, Andy Razaf and Joe Davis
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 24257
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Finally, we come to the end of a LONG day's work with another tune that's become somewhat forgotten but I know is a favorite of Louis freaks, "He's a Son of the South." This song was written by the formidable team of Joe Davis, Andy Razaf and Reginald Foresythe. Davis wasn't much of a songwriter, instead adding his name to many of the songs he published by the likes of Fats Waller. Razaf was the legendary lyricist, best known for his work with Waller; never mind "Satch Plays Fats," I'm sure a "Satch Sings Razaf" would make for a formidable compilation. And finally, Reginald Foresythe--of British West Indian origin--was a composer's whose work--with funny titles like "Serenade for a Wealthy Widow" and "Dodging a Divorce"--is ripe for rediscovery these days. (Someone's had to do a "Music of Reginald Foresythe" CD...right?)

When you throw those three writers together and add a pinch of Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra, this is what came out:
Right from the start we are Swinging with a capital S. We all know that Louis practically invented
the whole concept of swing but it took a long time for rhythm sections and arrangements to catch on. You hear it occasionally in his big band recordings (I once wrote that Pops Foster ushered in The Swing Era with his bass playing behind Louis on "Mahogany Hall Stomp") but Louis's big bands had a lot of New Orleans rhythm to them (not a bad thing at all). In December I wrote that Louis's Victor session with Chick Webb--featuring a tuba and Webb's streamlined, almost march-like playing--sounded like another world compared to what Bennie Moten's band did (with Count Basie) in the same studio that same week.

But here, on "He's a Son of the South," the band is swinging from note one. (Alas, it wouldn't last very long; for Louis's April sessions, bassist Bill Oldham switched to tuba, causing the rhythm section to go backwards on some of those selections.) Louis makes his entrance with some fancy tonguing of a repeated before floating through the melody, a real relaxed, behind-the-beat feel, especially with those triplets early on. He ends with a flourish before the somewhat confused reeds finish of the first chorus (first sounds like a solo alto before the others join in).

Entering with a sliding upward "Oh," Louis sings Razaf's lyrics with relish. Louis was usually inspired by songs about dear old southland, but this one definitely had an autobiographical touch that I'm sure he picked up on:

Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
Oh, if he's dressed up to kill / his feet won't keep still
You know He's a Son of the South.
Oh, if he sings with a swing / and struts like a king
You can bet He's a Son of the South.
Hear woman sigh / when he goes by
He's their delight / he's so polite.
If he's right on the spot / and the music gets hot
You can bet He's a Son of the South!

I'm surprised he didn't change the words to, "I'm a Son of the South." He sounds great but there's a little hesitation here and there, especially towards the beginning, possibly because of unfamiliarity with the lyrics (the combination of this being a new tune AND the sixth one recorded in one session might have led to a little weariness creeping in on this number). Listen to him show off his range again on the bridge, going way down low for "when he goes by" then right back up for "he's their delight." Also, the little extra gravel he conjures up for the word "hot" adds a searing edge.

After the bridge, we get something we haven't heard this entire session: a verse. (At least I'm assuming it's the verse; I don't think Zilner Randolph would arrange an entire long interlude like this.) It's a really neat passage filled with delights: the brass pounding it home on two-and-four, the dainty response of the reeds, Louis's shocking high Bb out of nowhere....good stuff. But then Louis pretty much enters the brass section for the modulation into the main chorus and stays there for much of the next melody chorus. It's a swinging little passage and it's always nice to hear him playing with and instead of on top of the band (that tone!).

But you can only hold him down for so long. He holds a high concert A going into the bridge and takes it for himself, once again starting so relaxed (fast tempos always caused him to slow down interestingly enough) before turning on the heat and ending with a break that concludes with a giant high C.

It's a terribly exciting moment...but then confusion seems to follow. Almost three full bars pass and no Louis, just the band quietly playing the melody. Did his chops hurt after that C (and all the other work he'd done that day)? Did he have to signal to someone about what comes next? We don't know but when he re-enters, his first phrase sounds tentative. However, the confusion comes to an abrupt halt as the band hits the final F chord...and holds it. Louis jumps on it and creates the kind of closing cadenza that would become a trademark of nearly all of his Decca recordings of later in the decade. At this point, however, these kinds of endings weren't commonplace, so this is a great early version of it.

As one would expect, Louis knocks it out of the part. He starts by holding an A on top of the F chord, almost giving it a minor hue. From there, Pops the opera star indulges in the moment, using some space for drama and gradually working up to that final high C. Bravo, Pops!

Alas, that was pretty much the end of "He's a Son of the South" for Louis and for the rest of civilization. But don't worry, hope is on the way! Louis disciple and reader of this blog (and someone who just became a parent for the second time!) Marc Caparone has added it to his repertoire lately. In September, he pulled it out during a performance with the Reynolds Brothers at the Sacramento Music Festival, a tremendously hot band filled with Armstrong worshippers (including for this occasion, the great Clint Baker). My pal Michael Steinman was present with his video camera and captured it for posterity. So here's the "Son of the South" alive and swinging in 2012:
Louis would be proud, no?

Tomorrow: One of Louis's greatest vocals on "Some Sweet Day."

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

High Society: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:25
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Porter Steele
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

Okay, after those slight cracks at the end of "Sittin' in the Dark," now's probably a good time for Louis to rest, maybe scat a bit or throw it over to Teddy Wilson and Budd Johnson for a while....

Nope! Instead, after four, medium-paced, foot tappers, Louis calls a flagwaver for his fifth song of the session. And it's not just any old song...well, actually it is a pretty old one, Porter Steele's march of 1901, "High Society." Unlike the rest of the session's newly minted pop tunes, this is "a good old good one" from Louis's New Orleans days. Later in 1901, Robert Recker did an arrangement of "High Society" with a tricky piccolo part that was adapted to the clarinet by early master of the music, Alphonse Picou. From that moment forward, the "Picou solo" became a test piece for all New Orleans clarinetists, up to this day over 100 years later (I heard Evan Christopher absolutely nail it in concert this past November....still sounds great!).

Louis was no stranger to the tune as he probably had to play it countless times in New Orleans. It was as a youngster that Sidney Bechet was knocked out by hearing Little Louie play the Picou solo on his cornet! In 1923, Armstrong took part in the first recording of "High Society" with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (and don't worry, one day, maybe later this year, I'll do a whole blog on Louis's association with this piece as it lasted until at least 1962).

But after Oliver's recording...nothing. I'm sure "High Society" has been recorded a thousand times by a thousand different traditional bands but no one grabbed it after Oliver until Louis's version ten years later. And after that, I don't see another version until Jelly Roll Morton's in 1939 with Bechet and Albert Nicholas. But after the floodgates, the New Orleans Revival was on!

There was no "New Orleans Revival" in 1933 so it's interesting that Armstrong chooses to look backwards at a time when the music was moving forward into the Swing Era. The little monologue he delivers at the start is also a neat touch, the first time Louis tells his listeners he's going to take them "all the way down to New Orleans," something that became a nightly part of his act in the All Stars era. Between stuff like that, Louis's autobiographies about his hometown and the countless stories he told in interviews about growing up there, it's safe to say that Louis loved reliving and retelling those years, especially with music. He had been recording this music for a decade but this is the first time, he specifically takes the listener on a nostalgia trip.

It's not the first time he revisited "High Society" with this Zilner Randolph arrangement (which Randolph copyrighted). One year earlier, Louis appeared in the Betty Boop cartoon, I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You, which started off with about two minutes of "High Society," including tenor saxophonist Al Washington taking the Picou chorus. I won't discuss the cartoon further here, but you can watch it if you'd like here:
As you can hear, there's nothing nostalgic about this music; this is tremendously exciting swing of a 1933 vintage. Listen along now to the Victor recording:
Louis's spoken introduction promises to give us an "idea of one of them street parades" but I doubt they marched to anything this fast in New Orleans!  (He also mentions this being a "Creole arrangement" but Randolph was born in Arkansas, went to school in Wisconsin and settled in Chicago so I don't believe there was much Creole blood in Zilner....)

Drummer Yank Porter plays the standard parade beat intro (with Louis doing the traditional two-note riff call-to-arms) but immediately, the horns enter with some exciting call and response (and real tricky reedwork) before another Louis gliss sets everybody off and swinging. Keg Johnson's trombone handles the melody over righteous responses from the reeds, Louis joining in on the break and making his presence felt in the second half of the first strain, topping out on a concert G.

After another tricky break, Louis continues playing the lead in the section. Now he's living in the upper register, starting with the high G he just played and working higher, eventually to that same concert Bb he just worked over on "Sittin' in the Dark," holding it for the sake of drama. In the next chorus, the reeds take the lead, but Louis answers them with more Herculean glisses to that same Bb, juxtaposing it with a lower A for the sake of music theory.

One more held high Bb and then Louis rejoins the section again, his sound absolutely penetrating. He's there for the interlude into the next strain, where he finally tops himself with a high concert C! Insanity.

Rare photo of Louis  in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
Fortunately for Louis, he gets a bit of a rest during the famous strain. Randolph takes the melody muted while the three reeds join forces to make Alphonse Picou proud. I've heard some writers and historians absolutely tear this band to shred; one friend of mine is fond of talking about how the band falls apart on this very version of "High Society" with Louis basically dragging them along for the ride. I'll admit, this isn't the most polished band in the world (especially when compared to the Bennie Moten outfit that made history for Victor the previous month). As the Betty Boop cartoon showed, the arrangement had been in the band for at least a year, though admittedly, only two musicians (Randolph and guitarist Mike McKendrick) were with the band for the Boop short. Though this was a fairly new band, I'm sure Louis was playing it live with them before the session. They don't embarrass themselves, at least not to my ears.

However, I will say that Randolph's small tone, even muted, is almost humorous compared to Pops's sound. Louis re-enters on the dramatic minor strain, doubling some notes for emphasis. He then settles down and plays the pure lead, holding those high notes...what a sound! As everyone buckles up for the rideout, Louis outdoes himself, alternating between high concert Bb's and C's with delirious abandon. I believe he might be channeling Joe Oliver here, as I once mentioned in an old blog on "Cake Walking Babies from Home." Louis used to love to talk about a time Oliver played "It's a Long Way to Tipperary"while marching in New Orleans and it caused a baseball game to break up so the players could run over and hear him. Every time he told the story, he sang the same two-note riff to simulate Oliver's playing, a pattern that later came back in Louis's outchoruses on "Cake Walking Babies" and this version of "High Society." Here's Louis telling that story in 1956:
Right? I doubt Oliver played those high Bb's and C's that Louis does here (never mind topping out with that freakish Eb!), but I could see Louis putting his mentor's phrasing in the back of his mind, especially with a number that's specifically being played to emulate the good old New Orleans days. Just a hunch. Whatever was going through his mind, bless him because that last chorus is ridiculous. To quote my friend Loren Schoenberg, it sounds like Louis is trying to break the microphone with those repeated C's. Like "Sittin' in the Dark," he ends on that high concert Eb again, though if you listen carefully, he loses it at the last fraction of a second. Only human, you know....right? Even I'm not sure anymore....

Tomorrow: The music is hot when Louis sings and plays "He's a Son of the South."

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sittin' in the Dark: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:02
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Harold Adamson and Jesse Greer
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 24245
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Halfway through the first marathon session, you'd think Louis would be ready to relax a bit and maybe take on something where he only had to play a half chorus at the end or something. Nope, not our hero! Instead, the next track includes one of the most ridiculous pure feats of exhibitionism in Armstrong's long career (and I mean that in a good way).

The song in question is "Sittin' in the Dark," a brand new pop song by the team of Harold Adamson and Jesse Greer. Adamson was behind some great standards like "Everything I Have is Yours," "Time on My Hands" and a song that is near and dear to me: the theme song to "I Love Lucy" (har har har). Greer's most remembered for "Just You, Just Me," but he had some forgotten tunes recorded by the likes of Jean Goldkette and Paul Whiteman in the 1920s. Unfortunately, "Sittin' in the Dark" isn't mentioned in either of their biographies. In fact, a quick search at shows ZERO other jazz recordings of this tune other than Louis's. Is that really true? Come on, Louis-worshipping musicians....revive, brothers and sisters, revive!

Outside of the jazz millieu, "Sittin' in the Dark" was tackled a couple of other times in 1933, most notably by crooner Al Bowlly. Here's his version:
I like Bowlly's delivery of the lyric, with those insinuating "mmm's." He has a lot of fun with it and Jack Jackson's Orchestra sounds pretty good playing the instrumental portions (in an arrangement very similar to Louis's). One more for good measure, a duet by "Jack and Jill," the pseudonyms for Sam Browne and Anona Winn, recorded right around the time of Louis's:
I like it as a duet; in fact, it makes me wish Louis and Velma dug it out of mothballs a few decades a later. Anyway, good, harmless, early 1930s pop fun.

Now it's time for Pops out!
Yeah, man! The sweet little introduction, carried by Zilner Randolph's trumpet, is fairly quaint, offering no foreshadowing for what's about to occur. The band swings out and once again on this session, really locks into that medium-tempo groove. And once again, if you listen carefully, Louis is shouting and moaning in the background!

Then it's time for an absolutely delicious vocal. Interestingly, Louis eschews the "mmm's" that were an integral part of the other two versions I shared, odd since "mmm" was an essential syllable in Louis's vocal lexicon. No bother; his "oh babe," "yeah man," and various moans set the mood that Louis has much more than just sittin' in the dark in mind (replace it with the verb of your choice). That bridge is a gassuh, too.

After the vocal, Randolph repeats the sweet motif from the introduction, allowing Pops to get set. Once again getting his feet wet with two quarter notes, this is a fantastic solo from the outset, Louis ultra laid back and swinging. In the next eight bars, he turns up the heat a few notches, first getting bluesy and then making the decision to blast out the melody an octave higher, hitting those high C's right on the nose. Louis feels so good, it sounds like he wants to keep going, momentarily forgetting that Budd Johnson is supposed to play the bridge on his tenor saxophone. They overlap for a second before Louis cedes the stage to the 22-year-old future jazz legend, sounding good still growing on these early recordings (I think he needed to hear Lester Young to really see the light).

Louis can't wait to get back to playing so he actually plays over the end of Johnson's solo, springboarding into a final eight bars in which he once again revisits the melody an octave up, not only hitting those high C's again but dramatically working up to a high concert Eb (F on the trumpet), almost the top of his range. If the record ended right there, we'd stand up and cheer and I'd still be celebrating the anniversary of it.

Fortunately, it doesn't end right there....not by a long shot. In some ways, it's just beginning. What follows is pure showing off and I'm sure there were critics then (and now) who would hold their nose at such flexing of the (lip) muscles (James Lincoln Collier called this part of the record "apalling"). Not me! (I've long held on to the belief that I have no taste and am easily entertained by any tactics aimed at the cheap seats.)

He starts by hitting yet another of those concert high Bb's, shaking the life out of it. And then he hits it again. And again. And again. And again. And on and on, nine times in all. (Yes, two of them slightly crack...he IS only human, after all!) When he hits the ninth into, he holds it and then begins a slow, glissing decent into the abyss, getting so low, he disappears for a second, one to bounce back up with a rapid gliss back to that high Bb. A slight pause, he hits it again squarely and then uses it to spring up to a final high Eb, the band joining in the last one. Wow!

The end of "Sittin' in the Dark" is one of our only glimpses at Louis the exhibitionist of the early 1930s. Every night, he concluded with a dazzling fireworks display of high C's, usually hitting about 200 or so, but able to go  higher upon request (he used to tell about a time that Bill Robinson asked for 400 (!) and got 'em, topped by a final high F!). There's a touch of this at the end of "Shine" in the 1932 short, "A Rhapsody in Black and Blue" with the band counting each one. "Sittin' in the Dark" isn't exactly the same but it is a tantalizing glimpse into what powers he possessed in this period. Alas, it wasn't for much longer. Once his lip gave out the following year, he learned a lesson that if he wanted to have a long career, those kinds of tricks had to stop.

And they did (not withstanding the remarkable 1936 "Swing That Music," but even that routine changed in subsequent live and studio remakes). He also said that crowds thought he was nothing but a wild man doing things like that. And he was probably right; it would have been thrilling to have at least one recorded sample of Louis hitting 200 high C's, but I'm sure it wasn't very musical and wouldn't hold up to repeated listenings. But at least we have that little ending on "Sittin' on the Dark" to give us a taste.

Before we leave "Sittin' in the Dark," I must mention it's influence on young Sun Ra. Yep, not a typo, THE Sun Ra. As he told it to "Downbeat" in 1970, "I was traveling on the road with a band some place in Kentucky or thereabouts, I heard a recording by Louis in a tavern. The name of it was 'Sittin' in the Dark.' I haven't heard it since, but I still remember the sound-image impression it gave me. His contribution to jazz is immeasurable and his contribution to music is a world thing not fully evaluated yet."

So if it's good enough for Sun Ra, it's good enough for me....4-for-4, Pops!

Tomorrow: Louis gives us an idea of one of those New Orleans street parades on "High Society."

Monday, January 28, 2013

Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:10
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Harry Woods
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 24233
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Next up, a song that can be considered my theme song, "Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby." This opus was written by Harry Woods, a songwriter and pianist responsible for a score of standards, including “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along,” “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf Clover,” “Try a Little Tenderness,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do” and more. “Hustlin’ and Bustlin’” is primarily remembered for Armstrong’s recording of it and as far as I can tell, the only other musician to feature it in the decades after was the great Ruby Braff. But in early 1933, the song’s publishers tried giving it a push, resulting in a brief flurry of activity for the song. Honestly, Armstrong was up first but because I like comparing his treatments of songs to what else was out there at the time, I’m going to save his for last.

If you like hot, New York-based jazz of the early 30s, you’re going to love this one. It’s the Adrian Rollini Orchestra doing the tune for Decca on February 14, 1933. In addition to Rollini’s bass saxophone, goofus, vibraphone and xylophone (the man was a monster), the song also features the cream of the New York jazz scene of the period: Manny Klein on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey on trombone, Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet and alto saxophone, Arthur Rollini on tenor saxophone, Joe Venuti on violin, Charlie Magnante on accordion, Fulton McGrath on piano, Art Miller on bass and an unknown guitarist and drummer. Dick Robertson, an inoffensive pop singer of the day handles the vocal. For those accustomed to the relaxed pace of Armstrong’s record, the peppy tempo might come as a surprise, but I think it’s a fun, creatively arranged record (an xylophone and accordion passage!):
The song also travelled to London around this time, recorded by British bandleader Billy Cotton on March 11, 1933 with a vocal by Sam Browne. It’s more of a straight, dance band arrangement than Rollini’s hotter version, but that doesn’t make it any less important. This was popular music of 1933, folks, and I think we should take it ALL in. Besides, the violin playing at the end of the record is pretty hot, isn’t it? Here ‘tis:
So that’s how the popular music world pretty much treated “Hustlin’ and Bustlin’ for Baby” when the song was published in 1933. Fine records, but both are little known. But now, let’s give a listen to Pops’s definitive treatment of the tune. Seriously, it only takes a few seconds to understand that though this was recorded at the same exact time as what we’ve just heard, Louis Armstrong was living in a different universe:
The record begins with the band taking an unaccompanied introduction, sounding perhaps a tad bit shaky, but no reason to start complaining. I’ve always found Armstrong’s entrance to be almost comical as he plays just two, hurried notes as part of the pick-up to his opening phrase, announcing to the listeners, “I’m here!” Then he begins playing the melody and, at the more leisurely tempo, it sounds like a completely different song. It’s actually a lovely tune but all of its charm was sacrificed for speed on the other versions I discussed. Here, Armstrong is at his most relaxed though the immense passion he infuses the melody cannot be sufficiently measured. It’s clear he loved the tune, plain and simple.

After eight straight bars, Armstrong begins varying the way he plays the melody, reimagining the tune’s natural ascending arc with a series of two-note descending phrases that gradually, through slight of hand, also manage to rise while falling. Armstrong does crack a high note at around the :30 second mark, a tell-tale sign that he had already beaten his chops to death on the first two flawless performances recorded that day. As is incredible as Armstrong plays on the Victor sessions, it's clear that his chops were also beginning to seriously fail him and at times, the pain and strain of his performing life occasionally crept into his playing, sometimes adding a frail, human quality to some superhuman moments.

After a great bridge (he seems to float to the clouds in his closing phrase), Armstrong hands it over to the reeds to finish the chorus, the rhythm section swinging nicely. Then it’s vocal time, Armstrong announcing his entrance with a long “Ohhhh.” Just as he clearly dug the melody by the way he approached it on his horn, he also clearly had affection for the lyrics. He seemed to relish tunes about working hard for money, something he had done his entire life (“That Lucky Old Sun” and “Hello Brother” also come to mind). (And I made that earlier joke about this being my theme song because I do wake with the rooster every morning, arising at 4 a.m. and making my journey to the Armstrong Archives at 4:40 a.m. four days a week, hustlin' and bustlin' for my babies!) The vocal is typically effervescent for the period, with Pops’s enthusiasm infiltrating every syllable of Woods’s lyric. Mike McKendrick’s guitar is a nice touch, too. Listen to how McKendrick almost plays the melody straight; then simultaneously listen to Pops’s rephrasing of it, which doesn’t exactly fit the way it was originally composed. Finally, at the conclusion of the chorus, Pops bursts forth with a dazzling scat passage that even he seems to approve of. Are you having any fun yet? God knows Pops is!

The band plays eight more bars (you can hear Armstrong faintly yelling in the back...never mind his chops, it's a wonder he didn't lose his voice with so much shouting!) before picking up his horn for the climactic trumpet solo. It’s a doozy, opening with Armstrong rising and falling almost in perfect symmetry. He more or less floats through the bridge with the greatest of ease before he turns on the heat towards the finish, the band surging with him. Armstrong climaxes with a high Bb before finishing up with a patented slow cadenza. A beautiful record.

Tomorrow: Louis shows off (and inspires Sun Ra) on "Sittin' in the Dark."

Sunday, January 27, 2013

I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:02
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
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 24233
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

After tackling future standard "I've Got the World on a String" in his usual explosive way, it was now time to record Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's other hit of 1932, "I've Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," from "Earl Carroll's Vanities." Cab Calloway again beat Louis to the recording punch but for this one, we DO have YouTube to help us out so let's listen to Cab's take:

I can't get through one of these blogs without illustrating how a non-Armstrong, “popular” version of a tune sounded, so here’s another YouTube capture of a 78 record of “I Gotta Right to Sing The Blues.” The YouTube video says it’s the Victor Young Orchestra but I have this one on a Mosaic Records Bunny Berigan box set and they say it’s the Dorsey Brothers band. Regardless, this is no ordinary hotel band with the likes of a Paul Small singing. We’ve got Bunny playing and the great Lee Wiley singing and though it was recorded in March 1933, two months after Armstrong, it’ll give a good illustration of how a popular dance band would have approached the song, complete with Wiley singing the verse. And for visuals, enjoy some photos of Greta Garbo (?) as the music plays:

Okay, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s turn our attention to Pops!
As mentioned, “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” opens with this monologue:

“What’s the matter with you, boy? Don’t you know I gotta right to sing the blues? Listen at this…look out! One…two….”

And with that, we’re off. The horns play a simple intro, eliciting a mellow “Yeah” from their leader before  Wilson plays another Earl Hines-like interlude to allow Pops to get ready for his vocal close-up. I don’t know if there are any specific quotes from Harold Arlen about Louis Armstrong but clearly, he must have loved Pops for many of his songs seem to be peppered with the Armstrong vocabulary. I already mentioned the bridge of "World on a String" sounding like Louis; Armstrong had already recorded Arlen and Koehler’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” a relaxed melody that also reeks of Armstrong. “Right to Sing the Blues” might be the most Pops-ified (not a real word) of them all since it relies so much on repeated notes in its melody. Because of that, Armstrong doesn’t feel the need to take many creative liberties with the written tune. He sings it beautifully, making great use of his high tenor voice of the period, while the band swings lightly behind him, clarinetist Scoville Browne and tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson improvising polyphonically behind him. Armstrong throws in a “babe” early on, but with 16 bars down, it’s all Arlen.

That changes immediately after Arlen’s heroic stop-time bridge. Armstrong works himself up with the lyrics, “Babe, all I see for me is mis’ry,” but where he’s supposed to sing the title phrase, he instead substitutes a passionate “Oh” and the most mellifluous “Mm-mm,” I’ve ever heard, insinuating everything about the mood of the title phrase without actually using the English language. Feeling high and happy, Armstrong reverts back to Koehler’s lyrics but now takes some chances, singing the phrase “Moan and sigh,” before giving himself an obbligato of his own, re-singing “moan and sigh” an octave lower, sounding like a character out of an old horror movie or something. In fact, the tune was a good one to demonstrate Armstrong’s range as he goes way down for the line, “Down around the river.” Approaching the last eight bar “C” section, Armstrong swings out a perfectly placed “Oh babe,” before singing the last eight bars with all those repeated notes Arlen must have written with Pops somewhere in the back of his mind.

Rare photo of Louis in London, 1933. Courtesy of Dave Bennett
After the vocal, the band swings out for awhile, Armstrong clearly enjoying their playing, growling out another “Yeah” when they begin (Armstrong loved and always defended the Zilner Randolph bands; his unrestrained shouts of joy throughout the session are contagious) Teddy Wilson sounds especially good here, as does the entire band, propelled by Bill Oldham’s big-toned bass. It’s a long showcase for the band but fortunately, there’s 90 seconds of record left and Pops makes the most of it, opening with one of his all-time greatest entrances: a single held D (listen for one of the saxes goof up and hit a quick note under it). Perhaps the Armstrong of 1928 would have played something flashy and jaw-dropping in this two-bar break, but the Armstrong of 1933 had already matured greatly and he knew he could convey just as much drama and feeling with a perfectly placed held note. I mean, really, how do you make one held note swing? It’s all in the placement, my friends. Armstrong hits it a shade after the beat and the whole thing swings. Genius.

For his solo, Armstrong improvises quite a bit, alluding to Arlen’s melody here and there, but taking more chances than he did in his vocal. Another favorite part of mine is a quote Armstrong plays in the second eight bars, dropping in a snatch of Jack King and Dorothy Parker’s 1929 song, “How Am I To Know,” a song Armstrong is said to have featured himself on during live performances in the early 1930s. Anyone familiar with the song would be correct to assume that Armstrong was born to play Arlen’s rising stop-time episode in the second eight bars. However, genius that he is, Armstrong doesn’t play it as written but instead blasts out one high Bb after another while the band, in stop-time form, plays the melody as written. Each pulsating Bb glimmers with intensity before a soul-stirring glissando, starting around the southern tip of Florida and ending somewhere in Detroit…or low F to a freakishly high D for those keeping score at home. Armstrong played hundreds of glisses on record but this might be the greatest.

After the gliss, Armstrong stays in the upper register, but he doesn’t feel the need to shoot off anymore fireworks. There’s not much more I can say other than it swings relentlessly. And kudos to the rhythm section of Oldham, Wilson, guitarist Mike McKendrick and drummer Yank Porter who clearly give Armstrong the kind of pulse he thrived off of. And your honor, for example #201 of Armstrong trumpet player mirroring Armstrong the vocalist, listen at the 2:34 mark where Armstrong plays the “moan and sigh” part of the melody followed immediately by a lower, obbligato-ish paraphrase of the same line…JUST as he sang it a couple of minutes earlier.

There’s something so beautiful about the concept of Armstrong’s rhythm that I never get tired of. Listen to his attack at the 2:42 mark and how those he accents those G’s that pop in and out of his improvisation. Armstrong calms down for the final eight bars, sticking to the melody (where he again almost naturally alludes to “How Am I To Know”) before ending on a high Bb. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a perfect record.

Tomorrow: Louis gets up with the roosters to croon "Hustlin' and Bustlin' for Baby."

Saturday, January 26, 2013

I've Got the World on a String: 80 Years of Louis's January 1933 Victor Sessions

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Track Time: 3:16
Recorded January 26, 1933
Written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler
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 24245
Currently available on CD: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings (as well as a number of RCA compilations)
Available on Itunes? Yes

Well, here goes something! 80 years ago today, Louis had another one of those home run sessions that gets me all breathless. As related in recent posts, he landed at Victor in late 1932, finishing off that year with two sessions. The first featured Louis on four new songs, backed by Chick Webb's Orchestra. A few weeks later, he recorded two medleys of his biggest hits backed by a Philadelphia theater orchestra. But by January 1933, Louis was back in the bandleading business, once again fronting an outfit run by Zilner Randolph and featuring some terrific players such as the Johnson brothers, Keg and Budd, Scoville Browne, Yank Porter and of course, Teddy Wilson. On the that January 26, 1933 session, Louis and his guys knocked out six numbers....followed by three the next day....and three more after that. Yep, 12 songs in three sessions, all in three days' work. 

I've worked myself into a lather plenty of times on this here blog about Louis's Victor period. To me, that five-month period represents an incredible transitional period for Pops. He had one foot in his 1920s style, full of flash and pretty much able to run up and down and do whatever he pleased on his horn. At the same time, he was calming down a bit, and loving the big, dramatic high note endings, foreshadowing his later recordings for Decca. He was also singing beautifully with that tenor voice of his. The material ranged from future standards to traditional jazz classics to forgotten pop tunes....but tunes Armstrong fans know and love because of what their hero made of them. Show me a real Louis nut and I'll show you someone who can hum "He's a Son of the South"....

I've always wanted to write about ALL the Victor tracks (and honestly, I'm probably more than halfway there) so for this special anniversary, I'm going for it: one blog every day for the next 12 days about each of the songs Louis recorded in January 1933. Are you with me? Let's go! (Full disclosure: I have blogged about some of these numbers in the past and will be quoting heavily from my original texts when applicable). 

The first two songs to start us off are classics: "I've Got the World on a String" and "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." Both songs were written by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, but for different shows, “String” being utilized in a “Cotton Club Parade” while “Blues” debuted in “Earl Carroll’s Vanities of 1932.” Ethel Merman seems to be first to record the latter, waxing a medley of Carroll’s Vanities songs (“Right to Sing the Blues” and “Anything Goes”) on September 29, 1932 with Nat Shilkret and His Orchestra.

Victor obviously wanted to push these songs and in November 1932, they had Cab Calloway record each of them, “String” on November 2 and “Blues” on November 30. Calloway introduced “World on a String” in the aforementioned “Cotton Club Parade,” but alas, his Victor recording isn't on YouTube. It's very good but Louis's is mind-melting. Listen with me!
“I’ve Got the World on a String” begins informally with Pops counting the band off. On “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," as we'll hear, Armstrong opened up with a little monologue. He does this on a few more later Victor sides, as well. The label clearly wanted to showcase his entire personality and not just his musical side and I think it works. Even counting off, Louis swung!

Armstrong’s young pianist, Teddy Wilson, takes a typically sparkling introduction that could have easily been played by Earl Hines. This was something of a raggedy band and you can hear guitarist Mike McKendrick hit one chord on his guitar before he stops, realizing he wasn’t supposed to come in until after the intro. When the band does enter, they swing with a hearty bounce courtesy of bassist Bill Oldham, a strong player who got stuck playing strictly tuba on some of Armstrong’s later Victor dates. The reeds simply play pads of harmony behind Armstrong, not offering anything fancy, but then again, that wasn’t their job.

Armstrong’s reading of the melody is dazzling. It’s kind of a wide-ranging melody, like “Lazy River” but the only time he plays the opening phrase as written is at the start of his first muted chorus. After a few bars, the variations begin, starting with some quiet little asides played in the cracks of the melody. By the second eight bars, he’s improvising around the melody, keeping it present but refracting through his floating rhythmic feel. The repeated Bb-C riff towards the end of the second A section is very soulful. The bridge to the tune is very wordy, though Armstrong combats that by reducing it to its essential pitches, relaxation personified. He climaxes it with a gliss to an A, which carries over to another, shorter gliss to begin the final eight bars. I always love the juxtaposition of Armstrong free-form rhythmic phrases followed immediately by swinging quarter-notes on the beat, which is what happens at the 58-second mark. Totally in control, he tosses off the final phrases of the melody in the upper register like it’s the easiest thing in the world to do.

Wilson plays an interlude to allow Pops to step up to the microphone and when he does, it’s even more magic. He dispenses with the complicated melody, singing the first four notes all on a single pitch. The melody does test the lowest ranges of Armstrong’s voice, but he passes with flying colors. When playing the melody on the trumpet, Armstrong began his second eight bars with a bluesy feel and he does same exact thing in the same exact place with his vocal. He then sings all of Koehler’s lyrics but their relation to Arlen’s written melody is fourth cousin at best. As already mentioned, the bridge is wordy but Arlen must have written it with Armstrong in mind. It consists of almost nothing but repeated notes and since that’s what Armstrong might have sung anyway, he feels no need to change a thing. Heading back to the final eight bars, Armstrong’s reading of “I’ve got” is, to me, the definition of swing. By the end of the vocal, he’s practically bubbling over with enthusiasm and, with all due apologies to Mr. Koehler, he makes mincemeat out of the final line, “What a world, what a life, I’m in love,” instead turning into a wonderful excursion into scat.

With the vocalizing accomplished, Wilson once again plays a bit to let him get his chops together. The band, probably playing a Zilner Randolph arrangement, rephrases the melody by playing it in two-note phrases almost like a shuffle (dotted eigth note-sixteenth note combinations), which sounds incessant compared to Armstrong’s calm, assured response that ends on a high C. As the band takes over for four more bars, you can hear Armstrong yelling in the background, clearly enjoying himself. For his next response, Armstrong works out the same Bb-C pairing he played in the first chorus, but now he does it an octave higher to thrilling effect. Again, he shouts during the bridge, which is played by the band (watch that intonation, saxophones!). He leads the way into the final chorus with a perfectly hit high C.  He swings out the last few bars of melody, holding an A before glissing to a final high C. One masterpiece down!

Tomorrow: An masterpiece for the ages, "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues."

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Coming Soon....12 Posts in 12 Days

They said it couldn't be done. Okay, I said it couldn't be done. Starting this Saturday, I will be posting 12 new blogs in 12 days. Yes, that's about a quarter of what I did in 2012. It sounds crazy but it will happen.

In late January 1933, Louis recorded a bunch of great songs for Victor. My first thought was to take the lazy way out and make an anniversary post on two of them I had already written about, "I've Got the World on a String" and "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." But then I got inspired and thought about doing the entire first, six-song session. And then I got more inspired and kept going and going and going.

At that point, I turned to that time-honored weapon of democracy, Facebook, and asked how people would prefer this: one of my jumbo blogs about all 12 songs (like the recent one I did on Louis's 1938 Decca session) or should I do them one at a time. Some folks argued for getting it all at once but the majority wanted them in small doses. Since I'm a man of the people, I'm honoring that request.

I've already written all 12 pieces and they're backed up and ready to post automatically at midnight, beginning on Saturday, January 26 and going straight through, one a day, until February 6. And somewhere in there, I'll hit my 500th post....couldn't think of a better way to celebrate the anniversary!

So be back on Saturday and don't go anywhere else for the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, if you need something to get you to Saturday, Louis recorded"Song of the Islands" on this date in 1930. Back in 2010, I wrote an 80th anniversary post on the subject and it still holds up. If you, like I, are living in frigid weather, this will warm you up. Enjoy!

Song of the Islands

(P.S. For some reason, I've been getting spam comments by the dozen, all from "Anonymous" commenters selling various products. Thus, from now on, I've blocked all "Anonymous" comments so you'll need to use a name of some sort if you want to leave a public comment. You could also always send me an e-mail, Thanks!)

Friday, January 18, 2013

Louis Armstrong and Kenny Clarke: A Lesson

People are continuously fascinated by Louis Armstrong's connection to marijuana. Yes, he pretty much smoked it every day of his life from the mid-1920s until about a year or so before he died in 1971. But a lot of people make the mistake of believing Louis performed while high. I see it all the time, especially on YouTube comments; viewers see Louis bouncing around the stage, screaming, mugging, smiling like mad and immediately assume he's higher than a kite. Not true, my friends, not true.

Well, perhaps it was in the early days. Zilner Randolph remembers Louis's catchphrase "code" when he was high was to shout, "I'm ready, I'm ready, so help me, I'm ready," and sure enough that crops up in a few different places. And Budd Johnson remembered Louis making sure the entire band was high before recording "Laughin' Louie" in 1933. But the following year, the bottom fell out of his career and lip trouble forced him to put down the horn for a period of time. When he came back to America in 1935 and hired Joe Glaser to be his manager, he became more serious about what he did on stage than ever before.

I knew that beginning in 1935, Louis stopped getting high before shows, saving instead as a way to relax afterwards or on long bus trips from gig to gig. I have a whole passage in my book where Jack Bradley describes Louis's pre and post-show routine, corroborating this. But I didn't have it coming from Louis. Until now.

While recently reading Mike Hennessey's biography, Klook: The Story of Kenny Clarke, a particular passage jumped out at me. Not only did it make me laugh out loud but it was nice to get a lesson straight from the man's mouth. Not many people know that young Klook was hired to replace Big Sid Catlett in 1941. Louis loved his work--and dubbed him "Little Gizzard"--but Glaser got rid of him because he wanted a higher profile name behind the drums. But while Clarke was in the band, this happend (I quote from page 33):

"Kenny and Satchmo got on together extremely well, it appears. As well as being superlative musicians they also had in common a pronounced partiality to pot smoking. Pops was a prodigious smoker of unbranded cigarettes all his life and Klook was always ready for a joint."

"Al Levitt remembers Klook recalling a gig with Louis when, in a rare loss of concentration, Kenny got behind with the beat. He had enjoyed a particularly potent smoke just before going on stage and it took its toll. After the gig, Satchmo came to Kenny's hotel room looking uncharacteristically solemn. Klook waited for the dressing down -- but it didn't come. Instead, Pops rolled two massive joints, handed one to Kenny and they then sat smoking away and making general conversation."

"Eventually Louis got up, said 'Goodnight' and left the room--but just before closing the door, he put his head round it and said, 'Klook--after the gig; not before.'"

Isn't that wonderful? Not only is it lesson in taking the music seriously--after the gig, not before--but as David Ostwald pointed out to me when I told him this story, it's a great lesson in how to be a good bandleader. Louis didn't browbeat him or make him feel small. In fact, he befriended Clarke first, hung out and then managed to get his point across without embarrassing him. That's how it's done.

So there you have it folks....after the gig, not before. Now sit back and enjoy some "Muggles" (the 1928 record, that is!)....

Saturday, January 12, 2013

75 Years of Louis Armstrong's Unbelievable January 12, 1938 Decca Session

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded January 12, 1938
Recorded in Los Angeles
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Sheldon Hemphill, Henry "Red" Allen, Louis Bacon, trumpets; Wilbur De Paris, George Washington, J. C. Higginbotham, trombone; Pete Clarke, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophones; Albert Nicholas, Bingie Madison, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Currently available on CD: The entire session is on Mosaic's essential box, "The Complete Decca Recordings of Louis Armstrong, 1935-1946."
Available on Itunes? Yes, all are around, you just have to look for them.

It shouldn't surprise anyone that I'm of the belief that Louis Armstrong never had a bad recording session, never mind a bad recording. Sure, some are better than others, but when Pops showed up in the studio, he meant business. Sometimes, though, the stars really aligned and for whatever reason, he showed up like Hercules and just knocked one after another out of the park. I've celebrated a few such sessions here, notably his February 26, 1926 Hot Five session (mutli-part series) and May 18, 1936 Decca session, each of which found Louis churning out six classics.

Today, I'm celebrating another ridiculous outing by Louis, one that only provided four masters, but with two surviving alternates, will push us up to six listening examples. So don't go anywhere for the next half hour or so and prepare to have your mind melted! (A good thing, trust me...)

Today's session comes from Los Angeles, one of a string of California-based Decca sessions. Louis was still fronting Luis Russell's orchestra, getting better all the time (1937 was the occasion of the seminal "Fleischmann's Yeast Broadcasts," showing how great the band sounded outside of the recording studio). Louis was in California filming Every Day's a Holiday and Doctor Rhythm in the fall of 1937 and he stayed out there through January with long engagements at the Vogue in Los Angeles, Sweet's Ballroom in San Francisco and Frank Sebastian's Cotton Club in Culver City. With the end of the California sojourn in site, Decca looked to get the new material in can before Armstrong embarked on another tour of one-nighters. Thus, four tunes were recorded on January 12 and another four the following day, January 13. The four on the 13th are fantastic but the ones on the 12th are positively historic (maybe wait around five years and I'll cover the next day's session on its 80th anniversary!).

Leading off, we have "Satchel Mouth Swing," an updated, swinging take on Louis's own composition (co-credited to Lil Hardin Armstrong and Clarence Williams), "Coal Cart Blues." Louis originally backed Eva  Taylor on the first recording of "Coal Cart Blues" with a Clarence Williams small group in 1925 and he'd revisit it again with Sidney Bechet in 1940. The Bechet version features a more easy-going tempo, which is how most other bands have tackled it but the 1925 one is a hot one if you haven't heard it in a while.

There's nothing easy-going about "Satchel Mouth Swing," which romps from note one. Here's the audio:

From the opening notes, we're off! And we're also introduced to one of the heroes of this session, New Orleans drumming legend Paul Barbarin, who kicks things off with those mighty press rolls and just doesn't quit. We play a CD at the Louis Armstrong House Museum that opens with this selection and every time it comes on, I look at fellow employee, drummer extraordinaire Hyland Harris, and we both shake our heads and mutter, "Paul Barbarin."

A word about Paul Barbarin: we all know that Louis LOVED Big Sid Catlett and rightfully so; I can't listen to more than a few bars of Catlett's playing without exclaiming, "Sid!" Louis called Sid a "born genius" and always went out of his way to praise him...but deep down I think he preferred Barbarin. The only time it came out was during a December 1956 interview in London with Sinclair Traill. Louis had just praised Sid but also took him down a few pegs for being late sometimes. Continuing his discussion on drummers, Louis brought up Cozy Cole.

"He was a good man," he said of Cole, "good for the band, but he wasn't a real New Orleans drummer. I mean he couldn't play like Paul Barbarin who plays real New Orleans drums. It's a different beat altogether--if you don't believe me, just kinda listen. Catlett and Cole were good men, no doubt 'bout that, but they couldn't keep that tempo like Paul Barbarin can. He ain't got a beat, man, he's got the beat." Louis went on to lament that Barbarin was "a good man really wasted" because he was too "homesick" to leave New Orleans. Barbarin later responded in print by saying he was hurt by Louis's comments and was never asked to leave. Regardless, the point remains that almost 20 years after Barbarin left him, Louis was still thinking beautiful thoughts about him (more on that in a bit).

After the strutting intro, the band takes the "Coal Cart" melody, shared between the brass and the reeds (there's a very good chance that this is a Chappie Willet arrangement; more on that in a bit). After a neat interlude, Louis takes the vocal all about this mythical "Satchel Mouth." It was only about 8 years earlier that Louis jokingly referred to his horn by that moniker on record; soon after it was corrupted into "Satchmo" and Louis never looked back. Thus, it makes sense to include it in a song title (and don't forget "Satchel Mouth Baby" by Mary Lou Williams, a friend of Louis's and Joe Glaser's), though the lyric about "rhythm don't mean a thing when Satchel Mouth starts to swing" doesn't sound like our man!

Charlie Holmes steps up with a short, fruity statement before the great J.C. Higginbotham bursts in with one of his shouting outings (Higgy was in great spirits those days; listen to his "I Double Dare You" solo from the next day for further proof).  A repeat of the pre-vocal riff interlude sets up our hero's entrance, pounding through the melody in the upper register over Barbarin's patented cymbal backbeats. He doesn't really improvise at all, but there is a nice extended ending that finds Louis hitting--and holding--a dramatic final high concert D as the band swings to a tight ending.

It's a fun little romp, but admittedly little horn and probably not one for the time capsule. "Really, he built this session up for THAT?" you might be thinking. All right fine....don't say I didn't warn you!

Next up: "Jubilee."

There, that should do it. If you know it, you're rejoicing; if you don't, stand back!

"Jubilee" comes from the pen of Louis's friend and admirer Hoagy Carmichael, who wrote it for the Mae West film, Every Day's a Holiday. Louis performed a condensed version in that film, dressed as a sanitation worker, but leading a parade that let Armstrong show off some of his second line moves--this clip is always a favorite when I show it in New Orleans! (Joe Muranyi wrote an entire tune--"Satchmo's Strut"--after watching Louis in this film).  Alas, it's not on YouTube so you'll have to take my word for it...

But I have something even better: the January 12, 1938 Decca studio recording: hold on to the roof!


I put that word in quotes because that was Louis's reaction upon listening to it in the 1950s. From the start, Louis's big band output for Decca has always gotten the shaft. In the 1940s, Columbia was knocking itself out reissuing Louis's 1920s output, while Victor put out some nice albums of 78s of Louis's late 40s work. Decca only had one album out, "Louis Armstrong Classics," but not much else. Louis kept a lot of his own records but he only had 21 Decca 78s in his collection....and no "Jubilee."

Enter Louis's friend, Bill Green, a singer and Armstrong worshipper. In the early 1950s, Louis visited Green in his Washington D.C. home, brought a long his tape recorder, and dubbed a lot of his Decca records he no longer had, many he hadn't listened to in ages. After "True Confession" ("How about that? It's been a long time since I heard that one, Pops."), Green suggested "Jubilee." Louis immediately reminisced about the parade scene in the Mae West picture.

Green put on the record and after just a few seconds of those opening drum rolls, Louis muttered, "Paul Barbarin." He then got closer to the microphone and repeated, "That's Barbarin on those drums!" He then listened in silence until the record ended. Upon the final high note, Louis yelled, "WOW! How about that!? That's that old Barbarin, you know, with that street parade jive. You notice in 'The Saints Go Marching In,' how he rolled that drum? You have to be from the old country to put that out."

All Louis wanted to talk about was Barbarin--and he IS great--but my, my, my, how about Mr. Strong? After the attention-getting opening, Louis delivers Carmichael's lyric with aplomb. (Speaking of his lyric, the Hoagy Carmichael Collection at Indiana University has a copy of Hoagy's original lyric sheet, with many handwritten changes to show the improvements he made along the way. You can see it here.)

After the vocal, Barbarin rolls some more. A glance at the clock shows 1 minute and 37 seconds remaining....and it's all Pops. This is one of those feats of endurance that's just mind-boggling. Back in July, when I did a panel at the Jazz Museum in Harlem with Jon Faddis, Bria Skonberg and Warren Vache, Faddis named this as the one that really turned him upside down with regards to Louis. How could it not?

He starts with the melody, great backing by the band (again, have to give credit to the unsung hero, Chappie Willet) and already builds up to another sky-high D towards the end of his first chorus. You know, he could have ended the record right there even though it would have been 1:42 long, I don't think anyone would have complained.

But wait, there's more! Barbarin steps out again and then Willet reverses it, having the band play the melody, with Louis blowing variations around them. He's so relaxed, he simply floats in and around them--rhythm DOES mean a thing when this Satchel Mouth starts to swing. On the bridge, he decides to flex his muscles, hitting and holding notes high and low to show he still has plenty left in the gas tank. When he breaks out of it, he starts sending up fireworks, playing the melody and octave high, before building to a ridiculously high concert F, pretty much the top of his range. And never mind how high the note is, just listen to how full that tone is...nothing else like it.

Okay, Pops, why don't you cool it now, sing a jive number or go home for the day? Nope!

The session is already a classic for "Jubilee" alone but the next number is the one that pushes it into pantheon of all-time ridiculous Louis outings: "Struttin' with Some Barbecue."

In December, I teased that I was thinking about doing an 85th anniversary post devoted to "Barbecue." And then I opened my iTunes and saw how many versions of it I had and wilted. Maybe some day, but it wasn't going to happen then! So for now, I'll say that if you haven't heard the Hot Five original version from 1927, whattaya waiting for? And I won't get into the argument over who wrote it. Louis and Lil battled over that for decades; I tend to side with Louis since that major-seventh was a favorite of his and he never, ever stopped introducing it as a song he wrote...he gave Lil credit for other tunes or would mention when they collaborated on something like "Tears." But not with "Barbecue"; he claimed full-credit and who knows, maybe he deserved it.

But that's neither here nor there (I don't know what that means). All you need to know is Louis created a jazz masterpiece with his solo on the 1927 original and then didn't seem to touch it. Flash forward to 1938, and Louis was ready to strut that barbecue into the Swing Era, outfitted with another sparkling arrangement by that Willet man again (my man John Wriggle is the world's leading expert on Chappie and has done wonders in getting people--including myself--to recognize his wonderful contributions to that era's music). We have Willet's original arrangement at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (#51-C for those playing at home) and unlike most, Louis has a pretty detailed part. In fact everything he plays on the first half of the record is written out, including the impossibly tricky descending business after the opening gliss and the chromatic touches in the reading of the melody. Let's listen to how it came out:

Yep, another one for the time-capsule! You hear what I mean about Louis's dazzling dexterity in the opening chorus? He's all over his horn, demonstrating some of that "fast-fingering" that got him in trouble with Joe Oliver back in 1918. But the combination of the bravura high notes, the fleet-fingered runs, the melodic paraphrasing, the sheer can tell why Maynard Ferguson and Bobby Hackett each named this as their favorite Armstrong record.

Louis nails the opening chorus, his melody sounding perfectly adapted to the sounds of 1938 thanks to Willet's little touches (that ultra-hip break in the middle for instance). Willet also outdid himself on the dramatic interlude after the first chorus, with Louis building higher and higher over Barbarin's dancing drums, Armstrong topping out on a high C. Man, what could go wrong!

And then Bingie Madison stepped up to the mike. Oh, poor, poor Bingie. The straw boss of the band, Madison liked to give himself the solos on Armstrong's records. His saxophone playing was okay but when he switched to clarinet here--and on "Once in a While" from a few weeks earlier--ugh! It's not a matter of conception, but pitch--he's always off! And to add insult to injury, sitting next to Madison was Albert Nicholas, one of New Orleans's finest clarinetists. (Interestingly, I've noticed that listeners who assume it's Nicholas tend to like it more. The Penguin Guide to Jazz once praised Nicholas for almost "stealing the show" with the clarinet solo....yikes!)

During a conversation in Nice, France in 1948 (transcribed and published in Downbeat) Barney Bigard needled Louis about this solo. "That was half a tone off, but it sold all right." Bigard pressed him, asking, "Yeah, but were you satisfied with it?" Louis held his ground. "It sold all right," he said. "Them cats know that a guy got to blow the way he feels and sometimes he hits them wrong. That's better than them young guys who won't blow for fear they'll be off." But a few years later, Louis met a young fan, Rev. Harry Finkenstaedt, who told me that the night they met in Hawaii in 1954, they listened to records together and Louis became "visibly disappointed" when listening to Madison's solo, launching him into a complaint about it. Can't blame him (though Louis didn't hold a grudge; they had a reunion in 1970 and photos of the occasion show both men very happy to be in each others presence).

We've wasted enough time on Bingie's 16 bars of infamy; Albert Nicholas is next and though his chorus sounds pretty set, it's a good one. If you've listened to this as much as I have, you can sing every note of it (Madison's, too, but no one wants to hear that). But then it's time for the main event: almost 90 seconds of Pops.

Willet wrote out Louis's held concert F as the band modulates from F to Bb...but after that, he wrote "32 bars ad-lib." Free from the arrangement, Louis still keeps the melody front and center, but now he's again flexing his muscles, playing it higher than before over nice backing from the band (great fill by Barbarin midway through). Like "Jubilee," that one chorus of melody is alone with the price of admission but no, Louis really earns his money with a second chorus. I love Willet's arranged backing, pushing Louis to great heights (literally). This is HARD stuff but Louis makes it sound easy. A few years ago, the aforementioned John Wriggle led a big band of young New York musicians on a series of Swing Era arrangements Wriggle had transcribed. For "Barbecue," Wriggle chose Japanese trumpeter Satoru Ohashi to fill Louis's shoes. Satoru did a wonderful job but watching him exert himself through was the first time it really hit me, "Oh my God, this solo is virtually impossible." Satoru was closing his eyes, rocking back and forth, thrusting his trumpet skyward...not out of showmanship, but out of survival! He passed the test beautifully but it gave me more appreciation of just how easy Louis made this kind of playing seem.

And I haven't even talked about the ending! After over a minute of constant wailing, you'd think Louis would be passed out in the corner. But no, Willet saved the best for last and has Louis repeat a series of huge, high Bb's before Louis does a rhythmically impossible riff that never fails to make me shake my head. Rhythmically, it's based on a lick Louis liked in this period, one he first used on "Ory's Creole Trombone" and trotted out again during a live Fleischmann's Yeast radio show performance of "Bugle Blues," but not to this level. He uses it as a riff first, sounding like a boogie-woogie pianist, before playing it faster and faster, turning it inside out until your brain starts picking up these tiny, almost micro-notes in and the Bb. Now just toying with us mortals, he delivers the knockout blow with a giant gliss up to a high concert D. Bravo, Pops!

Having just conquered civilization, you'd think it would be a good time for Louis to retire. But no, they decided to record "Barbecue" again! This take wasn't known until it was discovered for the Mosaic boxed set a few years ago. I could see why it might have been floated out there without anyone realizing's damn near identical. Listen for yourself:

Remarkable, isn't it? It's not quite as flawless: there's a tinge of sloppiness to the tricky ascending break in the first chorus and Louis's ridiculous rhythmic riff at the end threatens to get away from him, but otherwise, another home run (but amazing that Bingie still couldn't get his act together). So now we've had the big high-note ending on "Satchel Mouth Swing," the jaw-dropping, Jon Faddis-inpiring "Jubilee" and TWO heroic versions of "Struttin' with Some Barbecue." How much could he take?

Thus, is it any wonder that the last tune recorded that day was "The Trumpet Player's Lament"?

This song was written by James Monaco and Johnny Burke for the Bing Crosby film Doctor Rhythm. Louis performed it in the flick and photos exists of him decked out in white suit and derby for what must have been a show-stopping number, especially given Armstrong's acting skills and the song's built-in "dramatic" narrative.

Unfortunately, we may never know: it doesn't exist! Though filmed, Paramount cut it for reason's they wouldn't go into (most likely due to pressure from Southern exhibitors). However, a sign of hope: Bing Crosby lobbied for it to remain in there so Paramount said any theater that wanted a complete print with Louis, could request it. Only black theaters did so, but apparently, it was shown in places like Brooklyn and Chicago....and then was lost. So unless one of those copies surfaces, we'll probably never get to see this lost moment of Armstrong cinema.

But we do have the Decca record, though admittedly that's not exactly favorable to some. This is one of Louis's most-knocked recordings of the period; Gary Giddins, for one, calls it "unworthy" of Louis because it "trashed jazz and everything he stood for." I don't know, I don't feel that way. I think it's a great example of Louis acting. I never listen to it and hear an autobiographical lament; I hear Louis inhabiting a role of a trumpet player who doesn't want to play jazz anymore. It's most definitely NOT Louis but he conveys the emotions of the "character" beautifully. And as you'll  here, there's still some more scintillating trumpet. Take it, Pops!

Now, nobody got hurt, right? I really do like it. Louis sings the hell out of it, demonstrating his full range (down low for "Yuba") and really proving that he could make a beautiful vocal out of pretty much any combination of words. Who else could lead such emotion to lines like, "I wish I could play Jose Iturbi / instead of blowing notes into a derby"? That line always makes me laugh but again, listen to his phrasing, vibrato, everything. It's really a masterful vocal performance of a silly song.

The band starts swinging and then Louis picks up his horn to show that he still had a lot of life left. He starts off with the melody, which admittedly, isn't as appealing instrumentally as when sung. But the band really gets a nice groove (more props to Mr. Barbarin) and Louis sounds great, especially when he goes up high and shakes a blue note at 2:02. From there, he starts to paraphrase the melody but then his dramatic side takes of for a serious, exploring moment...until the trombones kind of razz him and everyone struts and swings to the finish line. How Louis had that ending him--all those repeated high C's, topped by another range-topping F--is beyond me.

Even more stunning? He did it again.

Yes, sometime in the 90s, Decca found an alternate in vaults. If you thought "Barbecue's" alternate was close to the original, this borders on ridiculous. In a letter to discographer Jos Willems, Steven Lasker wrote, "It's amazing how similar both 'The Trumpet Player's Lament' takes are, the only difference I hear being an extra grace note in the tenth bar of Louis' solo." So here's the alternate...admire that grace note!
So there you have it, all in a day's work...for Superman. I'm going to quit while I'm ahead but if you're as inspired as Pops was, head to your record shelf/iTunes/YouTube/Mosaic website and listen to "I Double Dare You," "True Confession," "Let That Be a Lesson to You" and "Sweet as a Song," four more great ones recorded the very next day. Seriously, if you don't have the Mosaic set, your life is incomplete. I'll even create a link for you to make it easier. Great stuff all around, but especially that January 12, 1938 session. Once again, to quote Pops...."WOW!"