Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Day With Satchmo - August 1, 1957

This might be the most overdue blog I've ever written. It started when Loren Schoenberg wrote me an e-mail last month ago with the subject line, "Please forgive me," and a simple one sentence message: "You have undoubtedly written all of this up somewhere, but is the iTunes download of A Day With Satchmo unique?"

Surely, I had written about it somewhere (and I didn't call him Shirley), but I was too lazy to search for it, so I wrote a fresh recommendation for it to Loren and left it at that. Then a few weeks later, while having lunch with Michael Steinman, I casually tossed off something about hearing Louis at work in the recording studio on the release of the August 1, 1957 session, assuming he would agree with my point. But no, Michael didn't have A Day With Satchmo. Nor had he even heard of it.

And that's when it really hit me: oh my goodness, I never blogged about it! I searched the contents of my blog and except for a quick allusion to it, no, I never mentioned it.

I really don't know how I forgot to do this because the discovery of the existence of this material was an unforgettable moment. Have time for a little backstory? No? Well, skip ahead. For those with some more time, here's how it came about.

When I got my first copy of Jos Willems's discographical masterpiece, All of Me, in 2006, I drooled over all the items marked "Unissued," especially the takes and takes and takes listed from some studio session tapes. I was fortunate to start corresponding with Willems in 2008 and he so graciously told me to use his Armstrong discography as a "catalog" and to simply request whatever I wanted to hear. Boy, did I take him up on that request....

I  was especially curious about his entry for August 1, 1957. That was in the middle of the recording of Ella and Louis Again, a 2-LP set that featured a handful of solo selections from both Armstrong and Fitzgerald. Louis recorded his four tunes on the aforementioned date, backed by Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis, Ray Brown and Louie Bellson, a first class rhythm section to my ears. I knew the material backwards but Willems had every single take, breakdown, rehearsal, master, etc. listed in All of Me. Naturally, that was one of my first requests.

You could imagine my disappointment when Willems told me that he only had that information "in written form," taken from the ledgers of recording sessions done at Capitol Studios. I took him at his word but part of me wondered why the detailed, take-by-take information only existed for the August 1 session and nothing else. Hmmmm.....

Flash forward to late 2010. Richard Havers and Bill Levenson of Universal Music visited the Louis Armstrong Archives as they were planning on doing a 10-CD boxed set, spanning Pops's entire career across all the different labels he recorded for. The plan was to do seven discs of retrospective and then three discs of bonuses. They asked me what kind of bonus material might be lurking in the Universal vaults. I told them about Louis's 1956 set at the Hollywood Bowl, which made the cut, but also the various session tapes described in Willems's book. Especially August 1, 1957. I told them that if they found that one, they'd have the motherlode.

Well, it wasn't easy--Universal owns almost every label you can think of and if you think it's easy to find anything in the vaults, you're wrong--but eventually Richard wrote back that the legendary producer Russ Titelman turned up the tapes! Hallelujah! They were digitally transferred and the next thing I knew, I had a high-resolution files of the entire session on my computer. Plus scans of the tape boxes, such as this one:

I had my work cut out for me as I now had hours and hours of material at my fingertips and it was up to me to whittle it down to about 80 minutes of the best "Rare and Unreleased" Louis. I did my damndest and later blogged about my participation in the set here. The set was released in August 2011 to critical acclaim and, of course, sold out within five months after it received a helluva endorsement from Elvis Costello. Hooray for Pops!

By this point, Universal was flying high. "More Louis!" came the call from above. Richard Havers had the brilliant idea to do a download-only version of the complete August 1, 1957 session. I was thrilled about it because I was now one of a handful of people who had heard the entire session and it was, to my ears, something that hardcore Louis nuts from around the world would love listening to.

Of course, 85+ minutes of multiple versions of only five different songs isn't going to be for the layman, thus, it was given the download-only treatment. I know some fuddy-duddys frown at the prevalence of downloads (I do, too, sometimes since I learned more about jazz from liner notes than any textbook), but hey, it's the reality of today's music-buying world and if that's way the major labels are willing to release rare treasures from their vaults, I'm all for it.

The whole thing was put together in the summer of 2012 and released as A Day With Satchmo, just in time for the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans. I went down there with Richard and we gave a presentation on it, played examples, did interviews and pushed the hell out of it.

Except on this blog! When I got back from New Orleans, I got swept into my usual world of sporadic blogs and crazy day-to-day activities (I was deep in co-producing Satchmo at Symphony Hall at that point) and somehow never did a separate blog on a release that was cause for celebration in the Pops community. So here it is, a little late but better late than never. 

Well, that explains the backstory on how this material even got to see the light of the day, but to return to Loren's original it any good?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I mean, this is Louis Armstrong we're talking about....and Peterson, Ellis, Brown and Bellson. And the cream of the Great American Song Book. An opportunity to hear these masters at work, messing up, joking around, locking in, I don't know, to me at least, it's priceless.

I just mentioned joking around but I should warn that these aren't unedited session tapes.  No, every time Norman Granz was ready to record a master, he'd hit record. Thus, a lot of the actual rehearsals, discussions on key and stuff, that never existed in the first place. But what does survive is still fantastic and does contain lots of real fly-on-the-wall stuff.

More backstory: Louis was booked in Vegas for the summer of 1957, a luxury to spend so much time in one place. But Granz wanted to make a lot of recordings and though Glaser charged an arm and a leg, Granz was willing to pay to get the sessions he wanted. So much for rest; for much of the summer, Louis would have to fly from Vegas to Los Angeles to record for Granz, often tired and with abused chops. He started off without a problem as his playing on the first Ella and Louis Again date on July 23 is something to marvel at, especially on "Our Love is Here to Stay" and "Gee, Baby, Ain't I Good to You."

But on the August 1, they're starting to show some wear and tear, which finally turned into a problem during the Russell Garcia-arranged dates on August 14 and 15. The August 1 session opens with "Indiana," Louis's favorite number to warm up on, and something that was also cozy for the Peterson's. This had been issued in 1995 (another reason I knew the complete session tapes had to exist) and I've shared it on the blog before so here it is one more time: 

You can hear a little wear on Louis's chops but nothing alarming, as he improvises some very nice new ideas, in addition to trotting out his set solo. And if you noticed on the picture of the tape box I shared above, someone at the session wrote in disbelief that "Louis was at end of studio!"

I guess it was decided to give Louis some extra time to get his chops together. He would only play on one of the four masters recorded that day, "Willow Weep for Me," so that was saved for the ending. I don't think anyone would ever complain about Louis's singing and if you've heard the famous released takes of "Makin' Whoopee," "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "Let's Do It," you know how great they are.

It's hearing them take shape that makes A Day With Satchmo  so special. There's slight hesitation on the first take of "Makin' Whoopee," but other moments are better than the master (Granz didn't believe in splicing from take-to-take). Louis gets off a hilarious joke when someone tell him to sing the first line, "Another bride," with feeling. "I've felt up many-a-brides," he quips. Later Ray Brown (I think) makes reference to Louis swigging Swiss Kriss between takes. And when the normally infallible Oscar Peterson botches an introductory arpeggio on "I Get a Kick Out of You," he handles it with humor and modesty.

"I Get a Kick Out of You" has always been one of my desert island discs (blogged about here before I had the alternate takes) and hearing that piece take shape was a particular delight. Of the 13 takes, many are false starts and breakdowns but there are two other complete masters that seriously give the master a run for its money. I don't know how Granz chose the one he ultimately did, but with so many great choices, he couldn't lose.

And the complete alternate of "Let's Do It" is a lot of fun, not only hearing Louis go through every one of Cole Porter's clever choruses, but also hearing him mess up. He gets tongue-tied at least three times but never stops, knowing Granz wouldn't release it, but also wanted to get all the mistakes out of his system. He did and again, the master is a gem.

Finally, we get to "Willow Weep for Me" and four takes with trumpet solos. The first two are admittedly rough going, but again, fascinating in their own way. Here's Louis Armstrong, jazz's greatest genius, approaching a song he had never played before with less-than-100% chops. Like the alternate of "Let's Do It," he seems to want to play with a few motifs and get the mistakes out of his system. Finally, he just about nails it on the third attempt, which Granz could have issued, but instead he called for one more, which turned out to be the ultra bluesy, lowdown exploration that made it to the album.

And with that, Pops was finished. 85 minutes while the tapes rolled, but probably a difficult four-hour session overall....and then a gig in Vegas that night. Bless him.

Thus, if this sounds like your idea of a good time, drop a little change to iTunes and check out what an entire session sounded like with Louis Armstrong and these other marvelous musicians. Again, this is the link (or just search "A Day with Satchmo"). Needless to say, a day with Satchmo is always my idea of a good time and if you feel the same way, don't pass this one up. And if you've been listening to it since it came out last year, leave a comment or drop me a line because I am curious to know how others perceive such a complete, warts-and-all artifact.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

10 Live Gems By Louis Armstrong - 1940-1947

Ready for some more live Louis? Last week, I shared ten of my favorite performances featuring Armstrong in a big band setting between the years 1935 and 1939. Today, here's ten more to finish off Pops's big band period, covering the years 1940 through 1947. Let's not waste time and jump right in.

Louis's January 1938 recording of Chappie Willet's arrangement of "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" has always been one for the time capsule. For years, it almost seemed like it came out of nowhere, performed just that one single time and then retired because it would never be surpassed. But wrong! Again, my late friend Gosta Hagglof issued a live performance of the chart from the Cotton Club in New York from an April 15, 1940 radio broadcast. It might not top the original but it comes damn close (especially since it has better clarinet and the drumming of Big Sid Catlett). Listen for yourself:

From that same April 1940 stand at the Cotton Club, here's a jumping "Song of the Islands," which I originally blogged about here. Again, all Pops nuts know the classic 1930 original and the epic 1956 remake for the "Autobiography" but multiple versions of this great, unrecorded arrangement survive, meaning it was a favorite of Louis's during the Swing Era, too. Watch out for some great J.C. Higginbotham, too:

Next up, something from out of left field, the New Orleans classic, "Panama." Remember, Armstrong was fronting Luis Russell's big band and it was Russell who waxed one of the greatest versions of this tune back in 1929. Thus, even in the poor quality, it's interesting to hear the updated arrangement and to hear Pops blowing on it years before giving it the usual traditional treatment with the All Stars. This is from a broadcast from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, November 27, 1941:

Now, possibly the main event, a sensational "You Don't Know What Love Is" from the Casa Manana in Culver City on April 1, 1942. Hagglof issued the entire surviving contents and believe me, it's so good, I blogged about it by arguing that it might be the trumpeter's greatest surviving broadcast. Check out that link for the entire half-hour set, but if you only have five minutes, click the little triangle below and don't move for five minutes.

When I wrote my original blog on As Time Goes By, I lamented on how so many people on the internet have searched for an Armstrong version of the tune because so many people on the internet can't tell Louis from Dooley Wilson or Jimmy Durante. Ugh. Well, one broadcast version does survive from sometime in 1943 and it's wonderful. The recording ban was in full swing but if Louis had been able to record his arrangement of it, chances are people would be searching for it for all the right reasons.

I wrote a long blog series on Armstrong's many different versions of Dear Old Southland. Actually, almost all the versions aren't very different as Pops usually did it as a duet with various different pianists. But like "Song of the Islands," Armstrong had a jumping big band arrangement he performed of it during the war years. Here it is from an early 1943 "Jubilee" broadcast, featuring a vocal and three choruses of ever-swinging trumpet at the end:

Last time out, I shared an uptempo arrangement of "Ain't Misbehavin'" that Armstrong was performing in 1935. By 1944, he had slowed it down a little closer to the tempo of the 1929 original, but the thing still swung like crazy. Armstrong sounds great, as usual, with his always interesting vocal and dynamic set solo but watch out for the tenor spot by "Brother Dexter".....Gordon, that is. I originally blogged about this one a few years ago if you wanted to check it out.

Also from the 1944 Dexter Gordon era comes this fantastic version of "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody," again never recorded in the studio. (This band had a large book and if you come to visit me at the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College, I can prove it as we have about 300 arrangements from the time Louis broke it up in 1947.) This one is all Louis from start to finish it's a favorite of mine (as well as the late Joe Muranyi, who hipped me to it when I first interviewed him at his apartment in 2006). It was also the subject of one of my first blogs back in 2007--they were a lot shorter then!

Moving on to 1945, a big favorite of Louis's that year was "Accentuate the Positive," which survives in three versions from a single year span. I blogged about all three here and have chosen my favorite one from a September 1945 "Jubilee" broadcast to share now. Righteous stuff!

And finally, a true rarity, something that's never been issued and something that I've never shared before. No broadcasts have turned up from 1946 and by the time we get to 1947, the writing was on the wall as Armstrong kept getting roped in to doing special small group performances: Carnegie Hall in February, broadcasts on WNEW and WOR in April and the famous Town Hall concert in May. The latter was such a smash, it officially cased Louis and Joe Glaser to pull the plug on the big band. But before doing so, they still had a final engagement to fulfill at New York's Apollo Theater. And on July 9, the final Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra big band performance was privately recorded, a version of "I Believe," recorded for Victor a few months earlier. The All Stars might have been around the corner but the big band knew how go down swinging:

So there you have it, 20 live performances from 1935-1947 that hopefully will make a case that Armstrong's big band has been undervalued for entirely too long. And if it hasn't, well, I'll share 20 more! Hope you enjoyed this little excursion and thanks for reading--and hopefully listening--along.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

10 Live Gems By Louis Armstrong - 1935-1939

Time and time again on this blog, I find myself revisiting Louis Armstrong 1935-1947 big band period and making the argument that as great as the Decca recordings are from this period, there's many, many live performances from this era that make a compelling case for just how great this band was.  Lately, at work, I've been spending more and more time with the collection of the late Gosta Hagglof, a big presence in the early days of this blog, and a man who opened my ears by including so many rarities on his chronological Ambassador CDs of the 1990s and 2000s.

While revisiting the Ambassadors and a lot of other gems from this period, I decided to open up my blog and post some of my favorite live Louis big band tracks. Many of these I've blogged about in the past, so some of my most ardent readers will be familiar with a lot of these choices. But whether you are or you aren't, you can't deny how great this band was (unless you're one of many jazz critics between the years 1935 and 2005 who spent an awful lot of time denying just how great this  band was).

My original plan was one live track per year for 12 years but that would have required discipline, a concept I'm unfamiliar with. Thus, instead I've chosen my top 20, 10 from the 1930s and 10 from the 1940s. I thought about dumping them all here at once but with attention spans the way they are these days, some readers might begin to fade around 1941. Thus, let's start off with ten live gems today and finish it off in about a week. Sound good?

Louis returned the United States on January 24, 1935, his career at rock bottom. However, he sought out Joe Glaser and by the end of the year, he was fronting Luis Russell's orchestra and recording for Decca, an association that began on October 3 of that year. Two days later, Louis appeared on the "Shell Chateau Radio" on WEAF and performed two good old good ones to show he hadn't lost anything while he was in Europe for a year-and-a-half. Discographies list the backing band as a studio organization belonging to Victor Young, which is probably true. I wanted to keep the focus on Armstrong's actual big band but they probably didn't do much more than the Young band does here on this broadcast, so I'm going to share them anyway (they're also the only surviving live recordings from 1935.

1. "On the Sunny Side of the Street" was up first, which I originally blogged about here. Armstrong had been performing it live since the early 1930s but didn't get around to recording it until November 7, 1934 in Paris. This version is very similar, and though there's one or two fluffs, it's still as dramatic as ever.

2. "Ain't Misbehavin'" followed, again the subject of an earlier blog of mine. This is the first new version that survives after the original 1929 classic and you'll hear Armstrong's new, jumping approach to it. The ending knocked up out the first time I heard it because it features Armstrong showing off and gradually working his way higher and higher, backed only by drums, a trick he'd trot out for the fantastic version from the 1955 LP Satch Plays Fats. Here 'tis:

3. Now we get to hear Louis and Luis together, swinging out on "Dinah" from a "Norge Kitchen Committee Show," that Hagglof believed was from 1936 and Jos Willems believed was from early January 1937. Regardless of the date, it's a hot one! Louis originally waxed his classic interpretation of "Dinah" in 1930 and then perfected it in the immortal Danish film clip shot in October 1933. He never made another studio recording of the piece, but it stayed in the book for awhile in the 1930s. Part of the glory of the earlier versions was Louis's vocal transformation of the original lyric, but that's gone, instead replaced by four swinging instrumental choruses. Watch out for flying quotes!

4. From another "Norge Kitchen Committee" show, here's a similar short burst of "St. Louis Blues," only 90 seconds (after the brief theme). This time Louis steps aside for a wild trombone solo by Snub Mosely before the tempo gets even faster and Louis takes off for the stratosphere, the band in there, riffing away with him for some delicious call and response.

5. A little later in 1937, Louis took over hosting duties for Rudy Vallee's Fleischmann's Yeast Show,
a banner moment in his career at that point. When a new CD came out in 2008 featuring Armstrong's features from this show, I first went to down with the "Armstrong's-big-band-is-better-than-you-think" in this blog. I could have just shared this entire CD but instead I'll share two favorite arrangements by the great, unsung Chappie Willet. Here's his take on "I Got Rhythm," titled "Rhythm Jam" (while listening to this at the Armstrong Archives once with two young jazz musicians getting a Master's in jazz performance, they went crazy over Louis's bridge, saying everyone plays Rhythm Changes, but no one like that!).

6. And one more Willet arrangement from the Fleischmann's show, the fabulous "Prelude to a Stomp." This is another short one, but it cooks, propelled like all the Fleischmann's shows by the wonderful drumming of Paul Barbarin.
Armstrong’s favorite drummer, but this release makes a pretty strong case for Barbarin’s excellence in backing up Pops. Here’s “Prelude to a Stomp”:

7. "Swing That Music" was the title of Armstrong's 1936 autobiography and became one of his best-known songs of the period, as multiple versions survive between 1936 and 1941. Though I wanted to keep the focus on the Russell band, I also wanted to include something from the year 1938 and there's a frantic, exciting performance of the tune from a June 25, 1938 episode of "Saturday Night Swing Club" that's too much fun not to share. Pops sounds like Superman and the studio orchestra, conducted by Leith Stevens, sounds like they're hanging on for dear life!

8. By 1939, the Armstrong band was really percolating, especially with the addition of drummer Big Sid Catlett. On Catlett's first session, the group recorded "What Is This Thing Called Swing," a tremendously exciting record I blogged about here. But by the time the band got to perform it at Carnegie Hall on October 2, 1939, the tempo had gone through the roof! I don't know how they kept it together but it's exciting as hell and the extended solo by Catlett is a nice touch.

9. And finally, the most recent additions to the canon, courtesy of the Dutch magazine, "Doctor Jazz," come from a previously unknown Cotton Club broadcast from December 1939. You can read all about it here, but I must share two of the classics again now because not only is the band in great form, the fidelity is tremendous. Here, after a bit of "Sleepy Time," is "Sugar Foot Stomp," with solos by Louis, Bingie Madison J.C. Higginbotham and Rupert Cole, with Catlett sounding so beautiful in the rhythm section:

10. And finally, from the same Cotton Club broadcast, a dramatic version of "You're Just a No Account," featuring a completely different arrangement than the one Louis recorded for Decca just one week later. Drummer Hal Smith has already called this one of Louis's greatest solos and I won't argue!

So there's ten top choices featuring Louis and Luis Russell's Orchestra (most of the time), sounding like true Kings of the Swing Era. Any comments out there? Agreement? Disagreement? I welcome it all. I'm going to let these marinate for a bit and then will return with ten more live performances from 1940-1947....til then!