Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve 1953 - Louis Armstrong and His All Stars Live in Yokohama, Japan

Well, it's that time again: faced with another New Year's Eve upon us, I must share a complete broadcast of Louis Armstrong from a New Year's Eve of long ago. This is fourth time I've done this in case you're new here. If you want to read my 2008 post about Louis's 1967 Las Vegas New Year's Eve gig (featuring "What a Wonderful World" and a fantastic closing "Sleepy Time"), click here. In 2009, I shared a 15-minute broadcast from 1954 that ended with Louis playing a very straight, touching "Auld Lang Syne." Click here. And I closed 2010 with a broadcast from December 31, 1962 featuring Louis and the All Stars in fine form on a short set filled with the hits, a set that can be heard here.

The previous broadcasts I shared ranged between 15 and 30 minutes but today I'm going all out. 2011 was a helluva year for me, I think hands down the greatest of my life, and as it comes to a close, I'm just feeling thankful for all of you out there who have come to the blog, bought a book, e-mailed me, whatever, just to connect over Louis. So let's close the year out with a bang with a 47-minute broadcast of Louis and the All Stars from Yokohama Japan, December 31, 1953.

And these aren't any ordinary All Stars. The front line is Louis, Trummy Young and Barney Bigard, always a potent team (Barney hadn't quite given up yet but he was already starting to be overshadowed by Louis and Trummy). And the rhythm section features the recently joined Billy Kyle on piano and Kenny John on drums, as well as the legendary Milt Hinton on bass. Throw in Velma Middleton with two vocals and you can't go wrong.

This material (except for "That's My Desire") was actually commercially released not too long ago but after a quick internet search, it looks like it's only available in Europe these days. (Here's the link to find it on Amazon.co.uk.) If you want the individual tracks for your personal collection, seek that release out. For our purposes, I've thrown everything together as one long, long track; it's all here from start to finish. Here's the audio:




So, what's on the broadcast? Well, after the announcer's introduction (this was broadcast around the world on NBC), Louis naturally opens up with "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." At 5:05, Louis kicks into "Indiana," and even if you think you're sick of "Indiana," check this one out because this is one of my favorites. Louis was still in the process of setting his solo and he really uncorks some different ideas here. At 9:35, Louis changes the atmosphere with a slow, yet swinging version of "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" (the tempo would really slow on this one in later years).

Normally Louis would do a few more numbers but because this was a shortened broadcast, Louis probably wanted to let some of the other All Stars shine. So Barney is up first with "Tea for Two." This is usually one of my favorite Bigard features as the turbo-charged tempo usually let Barney generate some heat. But interestingly, when Kenny John joined the band, for some reason, Bigard's features on "Tea for Two" and "S'wonderful" decreased almost in half in terms of tempo. The groovier tempo swings (there's some great Hinton walking back there) but it also meant that Bigard's interplay with the drummer lasted twice as long. Thus, this feature goes on for almost nine minutes! It's still worth a listen and begins at 14:20.

At 22:40, Louis takes everyone to New Orleans for a stomping version of "The Bucket's Got a Hole In It." This song was still coming into its own in Louis's repertoire; surviving versions from the previous year are still on the slower side. But the 1953 versions elevated the tempo and the with the addition of Trummy's roaring trombone, this piece became one of the group's most exciting numbers.

At 26:00, Trummy steps into the spotlight for his feature from the Jimmie Lunceford days, "Margie." This number always broke it up, so much so that Louis gives Trummy two more encores to work the crowd into a frenzy. Listening, Louis just about steals the show but visually, I can attest that on those last encores, Trummy would play with his foot and eventually collapse on his back at the song's conclusion, always breaking up the crowd! We can't see that, but it's a lot of fun to listen to.

Velma Middleton comes on at 30:00 to do her blues (listen to the crowd go berserk at 31:30 as she does her split!). Then a real rarity at 33:15, "That's My Desire," which has never been commercially issued. It's a fine version and even if most of the people in the audience probably didn't understand every word, Louis and Velma's mannerisms clearly conveyed what the song was about.

Velma turns it back over to Louis at 38 for a quick run-through of Louis's Decca hit, "C'est Si Bon." This is probably the fastest surviving version of this tune and while it's a good one, it almost goes back too fast. At 40:15, Louis hands it over to Kenny John for the usual All Stars drummer feature, "Stompin' at the Savoy." John proved to be a problematic personality (as detailed in my book) and was ultimately let go in May 1954. But at this point, everything was still going well. In fact, on one of Louis's private tapes, he and Velma discuss this Yokohama broadcast. One of their friends recorded it (I think Velma says "Jack," so it could have been Jack Teagarden) and they discuss it backstage at the Chicago Theater in early 1954. Velma mentions how great Kenny's feature on "Savoy" was and Louis brags about how it broke it up. The good times wouldn't last long so this is a valuable, rare surviving feature for John.

And finally, at 45:50, the closing "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," with Louis wishing everyone around the world a Happy New Year (a moment that really touched Velma Middleton when they talked about it later). And that's the end of this terrific New Year's Eve broadcast. For Louis, though, it was the beginning of a pretty stressful couple of weeks: he, Lucille and the band left Japan that night and flew to Hawaii. On New Year's Day, they landed in Hawaii, where Lucille was arrested for marijuana possession. But for that story, well, it's in the book (sorry, I'm shameless!).

I hope you enjoyed this and again, thanks for making 2011 so memorable for me. Here's wishing a happy, healthy, safe, swingin' 2012 to all you Pops nuts out there!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Listening to the Book: Chapter 16

With the holidays behind us (and I hope each of you dear readers out there had the best one of your life), it's time to press ahead with the next in my series of posts featuring the audio and video described in each chapter of my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years. When we last left our hero, he was on top of the world as "Hello, Dolly!" was on top of the charts. He ended 1964 with another minor hit in "So Long Dearie" and was still blowing in peak form on tours of Australia and Japan.

The beginning of 1965 brought a new All Star into the fold as Tyree Glenn replaced "Big Chief" Russell Moore on trombone. Eddie Shu was on clarinet, Billy Kyle was on piano, Arvell Shaw was on bass, Danny Barcelona was the drummer and Jewel Brown was still the female vocalist. It was this group that backed Armstrong his epic tour of Iron Curtain countries in March and April of that year. First up was Prague and in the book, I argue that Louis was still knocking it out of the park. I've diagnosed this stage of Louis's career with the malady "Cootie Williams Syndrome," meaning Louis lost a little of his velocity in the mid-60s but his sound was almost bigger than ever and he made sure to pace himself and edit his set solos a bit so he could still hit the high ones right on the nose. Need proof? I knew you'd ask. How about "Royal Garden Blues":



The next stop on the tour was East Berlin. In the book, I write about Louis's testiness during his opening press conference. Here's a YouTube video with a report on this tour; the video is in German but they don't overdub Louis's voice. Go to 6:23 to see a very, very serious Louis:


That seriousness carried into the concert hall where Louis's version of "Black and Blue" became a transcendental experience. It's also been called the climax of my book. I did my damndest to describe every second of the performance as I knew that the great majority of my readers had never seen or heard it. Well, there's no more excuse for that! Here's the audio:



And this past February, I used it as my closer during a series of "Louis and Race" lectures at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The great Michael Steinman was there with his trusty video camera and captured it. So yes, it's a video of a video, but I think you'll see what moved me so much when I first saw and later, chose to write about this performance:


And speaking of videos, "Royal Garden Blues" from the same concert is on YouTube and DailyMotion. I'm not allowed to embed the YouTube version but please enjoy Pops and the All Stars tearing it up here from DailyMotion (after a little commercial):



After cracking the Iron Curtain, Louis and the All Stars flew back to the States, stopping off in California to film an episode of "The Hollywood Palace" with Louis as host. I didn't have time to mention it in the book look for it on YouTube if you have the time (it's broken into four parts). It's wonderful evidence of how great a "Louis Armstrong Show" would have been. Back in NY, Louis had major dental work done, having a new bridge put in, and took took six weeks off to recover. Towards the end of the hiatus, Louis welcomed his friends Dan Morgenstern and Jack Bradley over to his Corona pad. With a tape recorder running, they polished off a bottle of Slivovice plum brandy and had an incredibly insightful discussion. I posted the entire 2 1/2 hours
here so I'll kindly wait while you check that out (and don't forget the Slivovice).

When Louis went back to work, he started right in with a tour of England and Paris. Surviving audio shows that he was still playing great. Here's "Back O'Town Blues" in England, his first gig back on the mound (and no it's not 1970 as the video states):

But it didn't take long before Pops realized that something wasn't quite right. The dental work had changed something and Louis had to work extra hard to push his set solos out. He soon realized that he had to cut back on some of his horn work. For example (and I'll have more about this in a future edition of "Anatomy of an All Stars Concert"), during the Iron Curtain tour, Louis was playing a lot of the old favorites: "Royal Garden Blues," "Basin Street Blues," "The Faithful Hussar," "Muskrat Ramble," etc. These songs still popped up after the dental hiatus but with far less frequency. A show in Vallejo, California on July 25, 1965 found Louis in very good form, but he only really played on "Indiana," "Black and Blue," "The Bucket's Got a Hole In It," "Hello, Dolly!," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Tin Roof Blues. " But when he did play, wow! Here's something I've never shared before, "Barbecue" from this Vallejo concert. The sound is a bit distant and there's a hiss but Pops's comes through. There's slight hesitation here and there but he pushes through it and comes up with some nice, new stuff (like a quote from "Chicago" in the closing ensemble). Buster Bailey's on clarinet now, by the way....enjoy:



But it was around this time (literally about 10 days later) that Toronto journalist Patrick Scott spent a day with Louis. Scott painted a portrait of Louis looking exhausted onstage and being depressed and wanting to retire offstage. My book has all the quotes and details but suffice to say, Louis couldn't retire as Joe Glaser had bookings going well into the next year. Louis kept up the grind, though his decline continued. While recording the soundtrack to "A Man Called Adam" in late 1965, Louis and the All Stars recorded a version of "Muskrat Ramble" on which Louis simply sounds tired. It also contains the last surviving solo Louis ever took on this warhorse:



Louis did have a bit of a triumph at the end of 1965 when he returned to New Orleans after staying away for ten years. It was there where he reconnected with Peter Davis, who taught Louis how to play the cornet at the Colored Waif's Home. They soon appeared together on "I've Got a Secret," where host Steve Allen made the bizarre decision to ask Davis to play the cornet on live TV....even though Davis hadn't played in decades! The results are sad but poignant as Louis lovingly guides him around the melody (when they jam on it, Louis's chops do sound great). Here's the video:


As 1965 turned in 1966, Louis was still on the road, traveling during a tough winter in an unheated bus, which was enough to claim the life of his longtime pianist Billy Kyle. But by the summer of 1966, Joe Glaser decided to give Louis a break, a three-month engagement in "Mardi Gras" with Guy Lombardo and his Orchestra that took place in Jones Beach, a short drive from Louis's Corona home. Though Louis got to sleep in his own bed for a long stretch, it didn't magically repair his chops. He wasn't even asked to play during a Capitol recording session of the two new tunes from "Mardi Gras," which I shared and blogged about here.

And at the end of the run, Louis actually recorded a single for Columbia, with "Cabaret" being the "A" side and a rare instrumental version of "Canal Street Blues" on the flip. Here's "Canal Street":


And here's the full blog I did on Louis's history with "Canal Street Blues," which puts this performance into more perspective:
Canal Street Blues Blog

"Cabaret" came off better and was immediately added to the band's live repertoire. I write of Louis's hesitating, almost meek solo on his performance of it on the "Ed Sullivan Show" but I realize that performance has been pulled off of YouTube (and can now be purchased for $1.99 on iTunes). Soon after, it was back to the road for Pops. A performance survives from the Arie Crown Theater in Chicago in December 1966 and judged on its own merits, it's very good. But compared to what started off this blog from early 1965, the decline is inevitable: Louis has officially now stopped playing his set solos on "Indiana" and "Muskrat Ramble," to name two, and he had to alter his playing on the rideouts on "Ole Miss" and "The Faithful Hussar" because he couldn't quite shoot for the lights as he did just a few years earlier. For an example, here's "Muskrat" again, arguably more lively than the "Man Called Adam" one but nothing like the 1950s versions:


I think I'll share the link to the final post I wrote about "Muskrat Ramble" because it has more details about these performances and this stage of Louis's career: Muskrat Ramble Part 6 Because, to quote myself in that blog, "When I say 'Louis's decline was in full force,' it's not like he was making bad music or not able to play the horn. He just could no longer do what he used to make sound so easy on this song between 1947 and 1959."

This was a very thick blog because it was a very thick chapter. But the chapter ends with Ed Berger talking about going to see Louis in late 1966 and how he still had a sound unlike anyone else at the time--and Berger saw Miles, Dizzy and the Duke Ellington trumpet section during the same time period just for good measure. Thus, to close, let me go back to Arie Crown again in December 1966 and share something I've never shared before, "A Kiss to Build a Dream On." The sound quality is, again, far from perfect, but I love Louis's solo on this. He only plays eight bars up front instead of his usual 16 and there's a couple of quasi-cracked notes in the solo to hammer home the point that this is a 65-year-old man on the decline. But the majority of it is simply beautiful, with Louis coming up with some lovely new lyrical ideas. I think it's a perfect closer for this blog and for this chapter, demonstrating that through it all, Louis still had a lot of magic left in his playing at this late stage:


Saturday, December 24, 2011

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!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Very Satchmo Christmas - 2011 Edition!

Don't let the "2011" fool you, as this is pretty much the same exact thing I posted for each of the past three years. 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:


Yikes.

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 Saturday. Til then...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Listening to the Book: Chapters 14 and 15

It's time to continue plowing ahead with audio from chapters 14 and 15 of my book,What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years. I haven't doubled up chapters yet but I think that's going to be the game plan from here on out as my later chapters are heavy on narrative without as much music discussed as the earlier ones.

Having said that, chapter 14 is a thick one, chronicling Louis's life and career from 1960 to 1963. It opens with a discussion of one of Louis's monumental sessions, his return engagement with the Dukes of Dixieland. I almost forgot how many times these sessions have been a part of my blog. You know the drill by now: I'll share the audio and a link to the relevant blog....and if you want more info, check out the book, haha. First, my favorite, "Avalon":


Avalon Blog

A close rival, "Limehouse Blues":
Limehouse

Limehouse Blues Blog

"Wolverine Blues" is notable for a great chase chorus between Louis and Frankie Assunto:


Wolverine Blues Blog

"Just a Closer Walk With Thee" packed an incredible emotional wallop as the session needed to be halted after Louis got through with it, everyone was so moved:


Just a Closer Walk With Thee Blog

Next up for Louis was his one and only full-length album pairing with Bing Crosby. I've written in the past with some regrets about the way it turned out but I cannot deny that it has some high spots, notably "Rocky Mountain Moon":
Rocky Mountain Moon:


Rocky Mountain Moon Blog

And "Sugar" is a lot of fun:


Sugar Blog

At the end of 1960, Louis and the All Stars embarked on a five month tour of Africa and Europe. The high point was when Louis stopped a civil war in Leopoldville with both sides calling a truce to hear Pops play. Here's newsreel footage of Louis in the Congo:

Unfortunately, the trip ended tragically when Louis's beloved female vocalist Velma Middleton suffered a stroke and passed away in Sierra Leonne. Her last surviving performance is a swinging, but in retrospect, poignant version of "Velma's Blues":


My blog on "Velma's Blues" gives more details on the background of this performance: Velma's Blues Blog

Louis was back in the States for only a few weeks before he embarked on another legendary recording session, this one with Duke Ellington. Like the Dukes of Dixieland date, I've revisited this one many times on the blog. Here's "I'm Beginning to See the Light":


I'm Beginning to See the Light Blog

And "Cotton Tail":


Cotton Tail Blog

"Don't Get Around Much Anymore":


http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2009/04/dont-get-around-much-anymore-revisited.html
Don't Get Around Much Anymore Blog

"It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)":


It Don't Mean a Thing Blog

And though I've never blogged about it, I had to share the audio for the spine-tingling "Azalea":




Later in 1961, Louis met up with another jazz heavyweight, Dave Brubeck, for "The Real Ambassadors," I project I love and feel has always been somewhat neglected. I devote a lot of space in the book to this project, mentioning two songs I have never written about here. But because they're prominently mentioned in the book, I feel like I need to share the audio. So here's "Summer Song":



And the chilling "They Say I Look Like God":



The one "Real Ambassadors" track I have written about is "Lonesome" and it's definitely worth a listen:


Lonesome Blog

The Dukes of Dixieland, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck....Louis played with everyone and anyone during this period, including a Hot Five reunion with Kid Ory and Johnny St. Cyr at Disneyland that was filmed for "Disneyland after Dark." The video is still up on YouTube. Here's what I wrote about it four years ago: Disneyland After Dark Blog

By 1962, Louis was still touring the world but the All Stars's repertoire grew smaller (to be discussed in a future "Anatomy of an All Stars Concert" blog) and Louis occasionally began sounding a bit tired onstage. I quickly mention in the book an "Indiana" from Paris from that year where Louis sounds like he's pushing like hell to make that solo work. Here's the audio:


He made it! Phew... But Louis still had plenty of great nights left. Here's the "Indiana" solo from the Newport Jazz Festival in 1962, just a couple of months after Paris:



No problems there. And besides staples like "Indiana," Louis proved that he could still be full of surprises, such as on this terrific by-request version of "Jazz Me Blues" from Nice, France:


Jazz Me Blues Blog

And a slower-than-slow version of "La Vie en Rose" from Chicago in August 1962:


La Vie En Rose Blog

On December 31, 1962, the All Stars performed a New Year's Eve set that captures them in good form for the period. Here's a blog I did on it that contains the entire broadcast: New Year's Eve 1962 Blog

1963 is kind of the lost year for Pops, but a DVD of an Australian performance was released a couple of years ago and I blogged about it in detail here: Live in Australia DVD Blog

Of course, 1963 ended with a bang with the recording of "Hello, Dolly!" that send Louis to the top of the charts. Here's the original recording and my blog that chronicles all the succeeding live versions:


Hello, Dolly Blog

Once the song became a hit, Kapp rushed out an album to tie-in with the song's success, an album that is filled with great moments, such as Louis's extended trumpet solo on "Jeepers Creepers":



By the end of 1964, Louis was on top of the world. He began recording for Mercury, a series of erratic performances that too often were content to rip-off "Hello, Dolly." "So Long Dearie" was one of the better ones and was even a minor hit for Louis. Here's the original:


So Long Dearie Blog

And that'll do it for a very busy period in Louis's life. Next time out, I'll share audio from Louis's Iron Curtain tour of 1965 (including "Black and Blue") and then will chronicle the slow decline of his chops throughout the rest of 1965 and 1966. Til then, thanks for listening and reading!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Goodbye Selma, Hello CBC and Other Odds and Ends

It's been a wonderful year for Louis Armstrong: new books, new boxed sets, radio documentaries and a lot of beautiful attention paid to our hero 40 years after his death. But it's also been a sad year as two champions of Pops have passed. First was the discographer Jos Willems, who passed away in November. And now it pains me to announce the death of Louis and Lucille Armstrong's neighbor Selma Heraldo, who passed away on December 2. Anyone who ever met Selma will never forget her....and because she was such a frequent presence at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, that meant she met thousands of people from around the world. I've been too broken up about it to properly eulogize her on this blog but fortunately, my pal Michael Steinman did an excellent job of conveying Selma's feisty spirit on his Jazz Lives blog. Michael only met her a few times but he captures her essence perfectly. And Selma even got a grand send-off in the December 14 "New York Times," which you can read here.

As for me, I had gotten to know Selma quite well at my 2+ years at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. She was always present at my lectures and other events at the House, including my book party (in which she took a picture with my family and friends, a photo I'll always cherish). But her real last hurrah was at the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans this past August where, at 88-years-old, Selma was the Queen of the city. I had my video camera present and sat next to Selma during a performance by Yoshio Toyama, who was close with Selma. Here's "When It's Sleepy Time Down South," in which Yoshio introduces Selma and gives her the microphone for the closing "Good Evening Everybody":

And on the next tune, while Lucien Barbarin sang "Bourbon Street Parade," Selma got up from her wheelchair and started dancing! I couldn't grab my camera fast enough and ended catching an endearing moment that actually became the centerpiece of Selma's breathtaking eulogy delivered at Corona Congregational Church last Friday:

Thanks for all the great stories and memories, Selma. 107th St. will never be the same.

***********

On to happier news: in my last blog, I mentioned that the CBC was going to broadcast a radio documentary on Louis's private tapes. Well, the special aired on Sunday and it was fantastic. Huge props go to Sean Prpick, who was engaged in the project from day one, really wanted to get it right and in the end, gave the public the best glimpse yet into the private Louis Armstrong. And you'll also hear Deslyn Dyer, Terry Teachout and yours truly gab about Pops. But best of all, you'll hear Louis uncensored....unless rough language makes you uncomfortable, in which case you might want to skip this and listen to "Disney Songs the Satchmo Way" instead. But if you want to jump in for yourself, here's the link. Thanks, Sean!

***********

It's the holiday season and every family must have one person (or more) who enjoys Louis Armstrong. It's not too late to order some stuff for your fellow Pops nuts, so here's a quick gift guide featuring some of this year's Louis-related items.

First, because I'm completely shameless, perhaps you've heard that I wrote a book? Indeed, TEXTWhat a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years is still going strong (and available for 34% off on Amazon). Makes a great stocking stuffer (if I say so myself....).

If you're sick of reading about Louis's later years and want to go back to his 1920s work, Brian Harker did an excellent job with his Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Seven Recordings. Even if you know the Hot Fives and Sevens by heart, Harker will make you hear things you've never heard before.

And though the Universal boxed set got all the publicity (thank you, Elvis Costello!), there was another fine box that came out this year from the Storyville label. The Armstrong Box features 7 discs of mostly live performances from 1947 to 1967, a DVD of Armstrong's 1950s's "Timex All Star Jazz Show" television appearances and a hefty liner note booklet once again penned by yours truly. The price is a bargain, too, so this is one you don't want to miss (and Amazon is saying there's only 9 left in stock...get on it!).

For those who don't want to go for boxes, the wonderful people at Hip-O Select released a two-disc set
Jazz at the Hollywood Bowl, featuring one of the greatest assemblage's talent in the history of jazz: one evening, one concert with Roy Eldridge, Sweets Edison, Illinois Jacquet, Oscar Peterson, Buddy Rich, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald and an entire set by Louis Armstrong and His All Stars that might be my single favorite All Stars set.

And to give my bosses a plug, the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens is the only place left selling Gosta Hagglof's Ambassador CDs. We have all the rare ones, ones you will not find online so come out to Corona to pick up some gifts for the Armstrong completist you know...and take a holiday tour while there!

Well, I think that's enough for one year. Happy Pops Shopping!

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Louis Armstrong's Private Tapes Come to the CBC (and a word about the Universal boxed set)

Hello all. As most of you probably know, Louis Armstrong was an avid user of reel-to-reel tape. He made his first tape in December 1950 and continued making them until the last week of his life. Those tapes are the hallmark of the Louis Armstrong House Museum's Archives (where, of course, I'm the Archivist) and they also played a huge role in my book. People ask about them all the time and there's always the dream that one day they'll be issued commercially so the public can hear what Louis clearly wanted to be heard.

That day is not here yet but Sunday, December 11 is going to be a good day for those interested in these tapes. This past summer, Sean Prpick of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation came to NY and visited me at the Armstrong Archives to find out more about the tapes. I sat down for a long interview and played him some of my favorite tapes. While in NY, Sean made time to visit Joe Muranyi, George Avakian and Terry Teachout. He spent some time editing everything together and on December 11 at 3 p.m. EST, the CBC will broadcast a one-hour documentary on Louis's tapes, featuring almost a half-hour of original private recordings.

I have not heard the finished product but I did have heavy input in the final selection and can attest that it will have some great stuff (especially if you've read my book) such as Louis's letter to Joe Glaser regarding marijuana, Louis describing incidents with racism and a terribly poignant unaccompanied version of "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man," played by Louis in his den in late 1970. If you're an Armstrong fan, you really don't want to miss this. It will air live at 3 p.m. EST and can be heard on the CBC's website. Within 24 hours, it will be posted on the CBC's Inside the Music page, where it can be listened to at anytime. I sincerely hope that programs like this will drum up more interest in Armstrong's private tapes and perhaps lead them to be issued publicly one day. We can dream, can't we?

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

I've been terrible at keeping this blog updated lately, so I never reported on the entire Elvis Costello controversy when the British singer-songwriter told his fans not to buy his new, overpriced boxed set and instead pick up Universal's 10-disc "Satchmo: America's Jazz Ambassador Box" instead. I might not have had anything on the blog about it but I was write in the thick of it as my employer, the Louis Armstrong House Museum, had already bought up every remaining copy sold by the set's North American distributor. Excited, we put out a press release of our own (that I helped write) through Queens College, telling people that the only place left to buy the set Costello recommended was at the Armstrong House (the New York Daily News even picked it up).

Well, just like that, what started as 40-odd boxed sets soon started dwindling. Our phone was ringing off the hook and I can now report that on Friday, December 9, the last and final boxed set was sold. Incredible, huh? Sure, some people are selling them privately on Amazon and all (with prices skyrocketing) but you can no longer walk into a store and buy it or buy it new from major online retailers such as Amazon. 3,000 sets were printed up, going on sale in August and gone by December. I think that's incredible, especially during this day and age of the digital download (I told multiple people about this set in the summertime and got occasional snarky comments like, "Uh, who buys CDs anymore? Why would they make such a set?"). I'm sorry they're gone but thrilled that 3,000 people are going to be having a very swinging holiday season with Pops.

S'all for now, much more to come later. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Listening to the Book: Chapter 13

It's been over a month since I shared audio related to a chapter of my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, but don't worry, I haven't forgotten about it and vow to complete the job sooner rather than later (except for my usual Christmas posts, I'll probably stick to these "Listening to the Book" posts for the rest of the year).

At first, I didn't think there'd be much to share from chapter 13, which covers a short stretch from Louis's heart attack in June 1959 through the end of that year. Then I started going back and looking at my blogs and I realized that I've covered a LOT of music made in this short period. So let's get to it, shall we?

First up, not long after Louis's heart attack, he was back in action, touring with the All Stars and making a recording with the Dukes of Dixieland for the Audio Fidelity label. This material wasn't released until years later as Louis had recorded the majority of tunes for Decca and Columbia and was forbidden from recording them for another label (not much planning went into the Audio Fidelity sessions). But Louis played great at this first date with the Dukes, as evidenced by this warm-up version of "Muskrat Ramble":


For a full blog on "Muskrat Ramble" from that period, go here:
Muskrat Ramble Part 6

Louis sounds great here, but he did lose a few miles off of his fastball in this period. In 1957, Louis tore through "Cornet Chop Suey" like a kid again but in 1959, he sounds a little sludgy at times, though strong as hell when not trying to replicate his original solo. Listen along:


And here's my full blog on "Cornet Chop Suey":
Cornet Chop Suey Blog

Louis also tackled "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll" with the Dukes. Here's how it came out:




That was a new one for Pops but since most of the other songs had already been recorded by Louis for other labels, Audio Fidelity couldn't release this meeting with the Dukes of Dixieland. Now knowing what they had to do, Audio Fidelity brought Louis back a couple of month later, this time with the All Stars. They "borrowed" a concept that George Avakian originally wanted to do with Louis when he was recording for Columbia in the mid-50s: "Satchmo Plays King Oliver." Unfortunately, Audio Fidelity's head, Sid Frey, didn't put any thought into the preparation for the album and instead just had Louis and his group jam a bunch of ancient songs, only some with a connection to Oliver. Frey must have liked how "I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll" came out with the Dukes so he had Louis make it again with the All Stars:



Both versions of "Jelly Roll" are pretty different, featuring Louis improvising different sets of lyrics. Here's a blog I wrote way back when (without any audio!) in which I dissect the differences:I Ain't Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll Blog

"Satchmo Plays King Oliver" isn't the greatest Louis Armstrong of all time--in fact, I know some Louis lovers who downright don't like it--but it has grown on me over the years. And there are some undeniably great moments. One is a slower-than-molasses version of "St. James Infirmary" with some positively scary trumpet at the conclusion:


Here's my full blog on "St. James Infirmary": St. James Infirmary blog

And on "I Ain't Got Nobody," Pops, I think, topped his 1929 effort. What heart attack?


Here's my blog comparing both of Louis's attempts at "I Ain't Got Nobody": I Ain't Got Nobody Blog

Apparently Audio Fidelity recorded a lot of material, enough that Hank O'Neal got to comb through it and create some albums of alternate takes in the 1970s on his Chiaroscuro label (I don't know who has this material, but it would make a great Mosaic Records set!). Here's an extended "Butter and Egg Man":



Interestingly, some of the tunes they attempted that had real strong connections to Oliver ended up on the cutting room floor. One was "Snake Rag," which is too stiff and Dixie-fied at first (most of the All Stars didn't even know these tunes and had to be taught by Louis in the studio!), but Louis saves the day with some strong-ass trumpet playing towards the finish:
Snake Rag:


Again, here's an old blog where I compared the 1923 Oliver versions of "Snake Rag" to the 1959 version (with details on how Louis's memory got the chord changes wrong in 1959!): Snake Rag Blog

Another tune recorded with Oliver was "New Orleans Stomp." For this remake, Louis tried an entirely new approach, giving it a relaxed feel and improvising another hilarious vocal. I think this is pretty great:


And another blog, comparing Louis's three attempts at this song over the years: New Orleans Stomp Blog

A few weeks later, Louis and the All Stars performed a one-nighter at Keesler Air Force in Biloxi, Mississippi. Someone recorded it in gorgeous sound and passed it around (Bobby Hackett had a copy and made one for Louis, which is in his private tape collection). Unfortunately, it's never been commercially issued but I do have a copy of it and love because the band sounds great, the audience is nuts and it's a full two-plus hours show with some different material performed (look for it in my next installment of "Anatomy of an All Stars Show"). There's one drawback: Louis is not in 100% form. He's not in bad form and he doesn't struggle like he did at Monterey in 1958 but it's clear that he's not in complete command of his horn. I don't think it's heart attack related; rather, it might have been the weather, being an outdoor venue in late October...and I could swear I hear Louis mutter something about it being "cold" during this version of "Tiger Rag." If you were with me for my post on Chapter 12, you heard some of the wildest "Tiger Rags" of Louis's career. But after the heart attack, he cut the routine way down. He often still played explosively, but at Keesler, he's working hard to get those high notes to pop:


The tenth (!) and final part of my series on "Tiger Rag" gives more perspective to this and other versions that followed: Tiger Rag Part 10

But not being able to do whatever he wanted on the horn did result in some nice, fresh moments such as on "Muskrat Ramble" where Louis totally forgoes his "set" solo and instead improvises something that's not quite as fluid but more than makes up for it with brute strength:


The earlier link to part six of my "Muskrat Ramble" series has more on that version.

And on the last surviving version of "Butter and Egg Man," now a duet with Velma Middleton, Louis turns back the clock and opens his solo with a nod back to his original Hot Five solo from 1926 (recorded 85 years ago last month):


For a full blog on "Butter and Egg Man," with more info on the earlier versions from "Satchmo Plays King Oliver," here's where to find it:
Butter and Egg Man Blog

As you'll hear next time, on most nights, Louis was still blowing like mad. But the heart attack did have some subtle effects on Louis. One big casualty was Louis's explosive, perfectly building, three-chorus climactic rideout lead on "When the Saints Go Marchin' In." In 1958, he began ending it by playing the melody an octave higher, really flexing his muscles, and he played the hell out of it throughout his 1959 tour of Europe. But in September 1959, he played it on the "Ed Sullivan Show" and it was clear that it was taking more effort than ever before. He made it...but it wasn't easy. It must have killed him, but he knew he had to shelve it. Thus, "Saints," is performed twice at Keesler and both times, right when Louis would begin his three-chorus rideout, he stops the song abruptly, the first time to go into "Mop Mop," the second time to go into his closing "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." It was a first concession to age and health and it wouldn't be the last. For the whole story of Louis and "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," along with a link to watch the video of Louis on the "Ed Sullivan Show," go here:
When the Saints Go Marchin' In Revisited

And that does it for Chapter 13 and for Louis Armstrong's career in the 1950s. It was an incredible decade. The 1960s would have its shares of ups and downs but the ups made up some of the finest work of Armstrong's career. Stay tuned....

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanks a Million - 2011 Edition

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Recorded December 19, 1935
Track Time 2:37
Written by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, Louis Bacon, trumpet; Harry White, Jimmy Archey, trombone; Henry Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophone; Bingie Madison, Greely Walton, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums
Originally released on Decca 666
Currently available on CD: It's on the Mosaic box set of Armstrong's Decca recordings from 1935-1946 (perfect for the holiday season!)
Available on Itunes? Yes, on various issues (both takes are on something called “Knowing Louis”)

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! That means it's time once again to look at one of my favorite Louis Armstrong records, "That's a Million," one of those tunes that all the real Pops lovers seem to have a soft spot for, especially trumpet players. Just off the top of my head, I know the song has been a favorite of hornmen from Bobby Hackett and Ruby Braff to Randy Sandke, Jon-Erik Kellso and Dave Whitney. Though there’s no wild pyrotechnics, the song still exists as a standout example of Armstrong playing and singing a beautiful melody with a tremendous amount of warmth.

The song comes from the formidable talents of two great songwriters of the 1930s, Arthur Johnston and Gus Kahn. Throughout his career, Armstrong found Johnston’s songs especially suitable for blowing, Johnston having written “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Moon Song” and “Just One of Those Things,” to name a few, all subject to terrific Armstrong treatments. “Thanks a Million” was written for a 20th Century musical comedy of the same name starring Dick Powell and Ann Dvorak, as well as two great comedians of the era, Fred Allen and Patsy Kelly. In the film, Powell got to sing the title song, backed by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra (with David Rubinoff on violin).

Powell is harmless and has a very good voice but rhythmically, he’s the anti-Armstrong, very stiff and almost comically emotional (his hand gestures bordered on hilarious in the clip). Nevertheless, the song must have become pretty well associated with Powell as it became the title of a 1998 biopic and like I said, it’s harmless, with the very pretty melody coming through clearly. Sure enough, it would be a winner for Pops and indeed, he hit it out of the park. Here ‘tis:


Doesn’t get much better, eh? People sometimes refer to this a ballad but pay close attention to the tempo, which swings in a more medium groove thanks to Pops Foster’s bass. I think just because the tune is gentle and pretty, it could be confused into being called a ballad, but this version really isn’t (though almost any succeeding version I’ve heard is on the slow side).

Regardless, the main event is arguably Pops’s first chorus. He barely deviates from the melody, though when he does, such as the lightening quick descending run, it always works. He plays it fairly straight for half the chorus before hitting the magic elevation button and taking it up an octave, climaxing on a penetrating high C, followed immediately by an even higher concert Eb. He almost sounds like he’s sobbing in the way he descends from the high note. I know I’m almost sobbing over here listening to such beauty.

The Luis Russell band takes over, setting up Pops’s vocal, one of his finest of the period. He still hadn’t had his throat operation, which occurred in 1937 and seemed to add a quarter-pound of gravel to his already unique voice. Thus, we get that crystal clear tenor, something to marvel at. There’s no scatting, but the “Now mama” in the second half is priceless. An incredibly heartfelt vocal.

Russell’s piano leads to a modulation that finds Armstrong playing the melody one more time in a more human key, with no need to reach for those sickeningly beautiful high notes. Yet, because it’s a Decca record, you can bet your life that there’s going to be a slowed down coda. Sure enough there is, and once again Armstrong makes the angels weep with his final two notes, a gorgeous, throbbing Ab topped off with a ridiculously pure concert Db. Bravo, Mr. Armstrong.

“Thanks a Million” survives in another, almost identical take, as heard on volume one of the priceless Ambassador series. On this one, which was actually recorded first, Armstrong stays closer to the melody the first time around but otherwise all the hallmarks of take one are in place: taking the melody up an octave, the “Now, Mama” in the heartfelt vocal, the modulation and the gorgeous coda. For the nuts out there, give it a listen:


And that's all for "Thanks a Million," though the song continues to prosper. For two fantastic modern-day versions, check out Michael Steinman's blog. Michael also gets right to the heart of it about what it means to be a crazed blogger doing this kind of stuff out of pure love for the music and the lovers of the music who are still out there. So on a personal note, let me just say “Thanks a Million” once again to the readers out there who keep me going. As you can imagine, it has been a helluva year and I'd say I'm the most thankful cat out there: after a very difficult pregnancy, my wife and I welcomed little Melody Patricia Riccardi to the world on May 31. A few weeks later, my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, was published, a dream come true. And I'm still working my dream job as archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. How thankful can a fella be? Just ask me...

But special thanks to all of you out there, whether this is the first time you've visited or whether you've been with me for all for years. I love hearing from fellow Armstrong nuts from around the world and I hope to continue to do so until the end of time. But for now, it’s time for scarfing. Happy Thanksgiving to all and thanks a million!

Friday, November 18, 2011

In Loving Memory of Jos Willems

The last time I wrote a blog with the phrase "In Loving Memory of" in the title, it was after the 2009 death of my friend Gösta Hägglöf. I wish I never had to do it again, but alas, I must, this time to report the passing of another person who was extremely important to me, to this blog and to Louis Armstrong's legacy: the Belgian discographer, Jos Willems.

If you have been with me for any length of time, you'll know my fondness--and reliance--for Willems's opus, All of Me: The Complete Discography of Louis Armstrong. I still don't quite remember what I did before it was published in 2006. I relied on Hans Westerberg's groundbreaking discography, "Boy From New Orleans," during my years researching at the Institute of Jazz Studies, but that work was published before the compact disc era so it was a little out-of-date by the time I got immersed in all things Louis.

When "All of Me" was published in 2006, I immediately began referring to it as my bible. It was so tremendously thorough and pointed me in the direction of numerous CDs I never would have known existed otherwise. When I started this blog in 2007, I began plugging the book from day one. Of course, a book of such magnitude could not have been compiled by one man alone. Two of the great contributors to the book, Håkan Forsberg and Gösta Hägglöf, contacted me in the early days of the blog to pick my brain, trade information and eventually trade CDs and DVDs.

But nothing prepared me for how Jos Willems introduced himself to me. It was January 2008 and I went out to my mailbox and saw a giant, partially folded, bumpy envelope (always a welcome site). Inside were about a dozen CDs--discs I had never asked for but had only dreamed about: Louis live at Carnegie Hall in November 1947, at Keesler Air Force Base in 1959, in Amsterdam in 1955 and so many more. I just shuffled through the CDs over and over and until I finally got to the letter in which Jos introduced himself. What an introduction!

In his letter, Jos complimented me on the blog, was excited about my research into Louis's later years and offered to help if there were any recordings I wanted to hear, basically turning "All of Me" into a personal catalogue. I immediately wrote him back on January 23, 2008 to thank him. Alas, the e-mail went right into his spam filter. Thinking I was ungrateful, Jos composed a somewhat bitter letter (which would have been appropriate if I hadn't thanked him) and sent it to me....along with 17 (!) more CDs of unissued Armstrong! After he sent the letter, he found my e-mail in his spam folder, wrote me an apology and just like that, a friendship was born and a series of correspondence commenced that ended only with Jos's passing on November 1.

There plenty of pauses, however. In his first letter to me in January 2008, Jos told me he was recovering from a stroke and on February 27, 2008, his wife Josée wrote to tell me that he had broken his hip and would be out of communication for a while. To lift his spirits, I wrote a blog in tribute to "All of Me" (which can still read here). Fortunately, my little gappings had the desired effect on Jos, who finally wrote me back on April 16. His e-mail was pure Jos: appreciative, warm, funny, generous (another offer of more unissued Armstrong) and informative, keeping me abreast of the latest discographical news. Check it out:

Dear friend Ricky

I think you have started to feel completely abandoned -- a motherless child.
We approach four weeks till you wrote me the kind words below.
As the French proverb says -- in French of course -- excuses are made to be
used...
All I have to do is thank you for that flattering Blog about All of Me from which my
wife brought me a copy while I was still in hospital.
It really moved me, man...

Now concerning "unissued" Louis: I have still many (and many is a huge heap)
CD's to be copied. Just look in AOM what you're missing and what you'd like
to have.
And yes please, fire of your comments and questions.

According to the latest X-rays, and my surgeon, the new hip is fitted very
well and will last for at least 25 years. I will be 97 then, age which I
hope to reach to beat my father's record, who died at 96.

In AOM, please delete the June 3, 1948 Ciro's. It doesn't exist. Also
Confessin' is from Empire and the Milenberg is a mystery. Gus, Håkan and me
are trying to pinpoint it, but it isn't easy as apart from Pops, only Bigard
is clearly recognizable. This may mean whatever...

Best from old Belgium

Jos


In future correspondence, Jos proved to have a better grasp of the English language then myself! (It was his third language.) He'd point out typos and other little slips, such as as when I said that I couldn't believe how much Louis's early November 1947 Carnegie Hall concert sounded like the later Symphony Hall show. "Nuance," he wrote. "I'm not similar to my son... It's Symphony that is similar to Carnegie." And he also let me glimpse his philosophy that allowed him to be so generous. When I asked if he knew if any other footage survived from a concert in Amsterdam in 1959, he wrote, ""No I haven't. I know a Dutchman who has everything -- for sale at high price. Therefor he is no contributor to All Of Me." Wow, I thought to myself, this guy is the real deal. We all know those collectors out there who hold on to their gems, never parting with them and if they do, only for a buck. Not Jos....and not Håkan and not Gösta either, for that matter. I soon discovered that this was the way of the world with Louis nuts. The spirit of the man led these beautiful cats to just copy and trade everything at will, just to be able to spread the joy of Pops. I followed their lead and they were pleased when I began slipping these rare treasures into my blogs for the whole world to enjoy.

14 more arrived in May 2008, followed by some cassettes and a batch of DVDs of Armstrong's European film appearances. As my reputation began to grow, I landed some incredibly rare Armstrong treasures of my own here in the states and I was only too happy to be able to share them with Jos and the Swedish contingent (whom I dubbed "The Swedish Hot Four"). It was an honor to be dubbed by Jos, "In such a short time you have become the 'Master Supplier' of unissued Armstrong treasures." By the end of '08 things had slowed down a bit--after sending me about 40 CDs, how could it not? But he still tracked my every move. When I wrote about Louis's famous appearance on a Martin Block radio show with Fats Waller and Jack Teagarden, I speculated about the order of performances but wasn't quite certain. About a week later, there was a package from Jos in the mail....with a scratchy acetate transfer of the complete broadcast, complete with chatter and introductions and all the tunes in the original order. Incredible....

By early 2009, Jos's e-mails began slowing down, in part due to fluctuating health. But he could still make me laugh--and read my mind--such as when he received an e-mail about Sony once again opening the vault for Miles and releasing a souped up, expanded "Kind of Blue." Here's what Jos wrote:

Look what Columbia has done for Miles!
False starts, breakdowns, alternative takes, and all...

I agree that "Kind of Blue" is a masterpiece and it's amongst my favorites.
But what about our Louis?
And about Louis plays W.C. Handy ... and Satch plays Fats?

Angry Jos


When my first daughter, Ella, was born in April 2009, Jos had one of the sweetest replies to that news:

Ella, est là; that's a French play on words. When you pronounce it it says: Ella, Ella...meaning Ella has arrived. There's even a cute song about Ella, est là.

Hello Margaret, Ella and Papa Dip, Ricky.

Congratulations to you all.
Fine to hear that mother and daughter are doing well. The father is in such cases but the "third man".
But remember, Ricky, Ella's birth is the most beautiful moment of your life. It can only happen once.

See how life goes? Gösta leaves, Ella arrives.

Best regards to the three of you.

Jos


Unfortunately, after that April e-mail, correspondence with Jos became sporadic. I didn't hear from him again until September of that year and then it was another long wait until January 3, 2010. Then on March 12, he wrote to announce that he had been contacted by Storyville about an Armstrong boxed set. He opened his e-mail with, "I've been released from hospital yesterday, and I hope that the operation will bring some relief. The witchdoctors have taken away some precious parts from my old but beloved body. But most of all they made a big hole in my bank account." After giving the details of the Storyville box--which is now released (see my previous blog)--Jos ended by writing, "Time now to have my wounds cleaned....Pops for ever." And that was the last time I heard from him for over a year-and-a-half.

I wasn't alone. Other friends, such as Håkan Forsberg, also reported that Jos had stopped responding to his e-mails and must have been in dire health. But on June 1 of this year, as I sat in Pantheon's offices signing autographed copies of my book to send to my VIP friends, I took a chance and inscribed one to Jos, hoping he was well enough to receive it. Imagine my delight when I received this response on June 20:

Hi Ricky,

When I opened your parcel, I was so deeply touched – shivering to the bones.
In spite of this handicapped body and mind of mine I came out of bed to admire this wonderful present..
Thanks a million, thanks and congratulation for your magnificent piece of art.

Sorry but I have to return to bed.

All the beans to you...

Jos


I was dismayed to hear how badly he was ailing, but touched deeply for his kind words. And on September 18, I received one last surprise, a final generous gesture that so typified my Belgian friend: a package in the mail, containing a short letter praising my book and a new CD I somehow did not have of Louis live in Amsterdam and Germany in 1959, which he wanted me to know was a "gift." The mammoth Universal box had come out by this point, so I immediately returned the favor and promised to send him a few CDs of the rarities contained in that set. He actually responded fairly quickly, like the Jos of old, but added, "But don’t be worried if I disappear for a little while. 5 October I will have to go to hospital – yes again – . And I don’t know for how long.This time a few days if all goes well. But let this not prevent you from sending the CDs when ready." I did and on October 8, there was an e-mail from Jos with the subject line "Golden CDs." "What a delight," he wrote, "Being released from hospital and coming home; on my desk I found 3 golden CDs...originator Ricky. May I think you a million times, and I hope to be once in the occasion to do something in return."

That was the last time I heard from Jos Willems. Back home, he spent his final weeks continuing to tinker with "All of Me," which he never stopped updating after the minute it was published, referring to his updated version as "Hotter Than That." As he had been returning my e-mails with surprising speed, I hoped he was in the process of making a full recover. So did Håkan, with whom he traded e-mails with Jos concerning more new information for "All of Me." Apparently, they discussed the new Universal material I had sent to Jos and Jos was busy entering all the alternate take information into his online database. What will happen to that now is a mystery but I hope someone out there can continue Jos's work.

After Håkan broke the news to me, I wrote to Jos's son Jan on behalf of the staff of the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Jan confirmed to me that Jos was still working on his discography up to the very end, writing, "I know he was working on the new acquisitions he got from you ... a few days before his untimely death we talked about how it would take a couple of weeks of work before All of me was again updated. I hope his work will continue just like he started off from the old copy of Westerberg's book we took to each festival or record store ... with plenty of personal notes, additions and corrections All of Me can become a stepping stone for future discographers and historians." Amen, Jan.

So if you're a fan of Louis Armstrong, take a moment and silently thank Jos Willems for dedicating so much of his life to Louis Armstrong's legacy. It saddens me tremendously that Gösta Hägglöf and Jos are no longer with us; without them, my book, my blog and my understanding of Louis would be a shadow of what it is today. But I do hope they're with Pops now, cracking open a bottle of Slivovice....and questioning him about the possibility of a third take of "Star Dust." Thanks, Jos.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Armstrong Box

Back in the summertime, I wrote a long blog about Universal's beautiful 10-CD boxed set, "Satchmo: America's Musical Ambassador" (by the way, that box is officially SOLD OUT, but we have many copies left at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Have you purchased your tickets to Corona, Queens yet???). I mentioned that the back half of the box served as a pretty nice soundtrack to my book, but I also threw out a hint that I had just finished working on a box for Storyville that would also serve as a perfect companion piece to the book, this time in terms of live recording. I promised to say more about it at a later date....and that later date is here at "The Armstrong Box" will be available and ready to ship this Tuesday! Here's the Amazon link:
The Armstrong Box

Titled simply "The Armstrong Box," it's the latest in Storyville's boxed set series where they've been packaging (and in some cases repackaging) many gems from their late founder Karl Emil Knudsen's massive collection into eight-disc, budget priced boxes (previous boxes have been devoted to Ellington, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and others). Storyville has been putting out Armstrong releases since the LP days and a lot of that old material is released in this set. But there's enough never-before-issued material to make it an essential purchase for the Armstrong nuts out there. And on a personal note, it features a 32-page-booklet with notes by yours truly, something I'm quite proud of as I practically learned the history of jazz through liner notes and boxed set booklets and it's always been a dream to get the chance to do one.

So what's in the box? Pretty much a representation of most (but not all....more in a minute) of the different incarnations of Louis Armstrong and His All Stars between 1947 and 1967. Yes, there's a lot of versions of "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" but--as I've been trying to prove in my "Anatomy" series--plenty of different material from disc to disc. Here's brief snippets of what to expect:
*Louis leading an all star aggregation (not yet The All Stars) at the Winter Garden in June 1947, right after his triumph at Town Hall.
*A dynamite little broadcast featuring the All Stars at the BLue Note in Chicago in December 1948
*An entire disc--in gorgeous sound--of the Armstrong-Teagarden-Hines-Catlett All Stars at the Hollywood Empire in 1949
*A broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco in 1954 featuring the edition of the group with Kenny John and Milt Hinton
*An ultra rare broadcast from American Legion Park in Ephrata, PA--the middle of nowhere--in August 1954.
*The Trummy Young-Barney Bigard-Billy Kyle-Arvell Shaw--Barrett Deems All Stars playing New Year's Eve 1955 in San Francisco.
*The Young-Edmond Hall-Kyle-Deems band doing an impromptu performance after being honored at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark in 1955.
*The same group of Al Stars--my favorite edition--at Basin Street in New York in 1956
*The soundtrack of Louis's 1962 Goodyear Jazz Concert film
*A nearly complete performance from Nice, France on May 17, 1962, the great majority of it unissued and featuring Louis playing "Jazz Me Blues," a highlight of this period
*An All Stars concert in beautiful sound from Chicago in 1962
*An unissued concert featuring the final edition of the All Stars in Copenhagen on July 25, 1967 (Louis isn't in the greatest form on this one but it's heroic how he continues to push through it).

And on top of all of that, there's a 36-minute bonus DVD featuring some of Louis's finest moments from the 1950s "Timex All Star Jazz Shows" including some favorites I've shared here like "Muskrat Ramble," "Umbrella Man" (with Dizzy Gillespie) and star-studded versions of "St. Louis Blues" (a huge success) and "Perdido" (a fiasco that you can't quite stop watching).

And all of this material--plus my notes--can be yours for $64 if you order now! Wow, that sounds like a sales pitch but don't worry, I don't get a dime from the sales, I'm just excited for a new Louis Armstrong release (and it's lovely to look at, too).

But since I am me and hold everything, even projects I help with, to the highest standards (remember I criticized my own track selections on the Universal box?), I have a few niggling criticisms. There's a few discographical errors; Storyville has been saying for decades that the--live, mind you--versions of "Yellow Dog Blues" and "New Orleans Function" heard on disc four are from the same studio session as the Goodyear film, but they're not, they're clearly from the 1962 Chicago concert. The pianist from the 1954 San Francisco stuff is listed as "Unknown" but it's Billy Kyle, having just joined the band and not playing any of his set stuff yet. And don't let your eyes fool you when you see 26 selections listed for disc 7, then pop in the disc to only find 25; a numbering error on the back of the box skips the number 12 (it's correct in the booklet).

And though I'm proud of my notes, I will issue a little warn that that there are some typos and missed words throughout--not a surprise if you're used to my Norman Granz-style of blogging (one take and that's all, boys). I wasn't sure of how much to write so, typically, I wrote a mountain-load and didn't really proof it, sending it in to Storyville just to see if I was on the right track, fully expecting to edit it some more. But they thought it was fine and ran it as is without checking it over so I've seen some little mistakes and missed words that have made me cringe. A lesson learned for the future but I hope it doesn't spoil anyone's enjoyment of the notes.

Also, I did NOT do the track selection for this one; the box was formed and presented to me to write the notes on. Thus, there's a gap from 1956 to 1962 that I didn't quite agree with because Storyville owns so much material by the 1959 Peanuts Hucko-Trummy-Kyle-Mort Herbert-Danny Barcelona band and they could have easily cut out some of the 1962 stuff (which is a bit repetitive) to showcase that missing edition.

But then again, Storyville already put out one Louis-related box a few years ago, "Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia," which I have promoted on this blog almost from day one. That one was lovingly compiled by the late Gösta Hägglöf and features more great All Stars material from 1952 (the Bob McCracken edition, also not in "The Armstrong Box), 1955 and 1959. That box is also essential to understanding and appreciating the All Stars and can also be purchased very inexpensively from Amazon:
Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia

So "The Armstrong Box" is a wonderful set and you'll get to hear Pops through the years blowing like hell with a variety of musicians on a variety of songs (and the DVD is essential because sometimes you need to SEE Louis to really get the complete picture). This box, coupled with "Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia," is the ultimate way to experience the history of the All Stars and both can be picked up for a total of less than $100. What are you waiting for? Grab these wonderful sets and thank Storyville for doing so much to keep the music of Louis Armstrong's later years alive and well!

**************
While prepping this blog, I got the notice that my friend, Armstrong discographer Jos Willems, passed away on November 1. I mentioned Jos numerous times over the years and his "All of Me" discography will remain the gold standard for such works on Louis (and he also was the one who alerted me about this Storyville box). I'll have more on Jos's passing next week but suffice to say, he will be missed and this blog and my book would not have been the same without the generous offerings he sent to me over the years. Thanks, Jos.