Tuesday, November 25, 2014

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: Song of the Vipers

And we've reached end of one helluva day, a total of seven sides waxed by Louis Armstrong in Paris on November 7, 1934. Let's run them all down one last time:
St. Louis Blues
Super Tiger Rag
Will You, Won't You Be My Baby
On the Sunny Side of the Street
Saint Louis Blues (second version)

Everything up to this point was a tried and true part of Louis's repertoire for the previous few years. But what to make of "Song of the Vipers"? I guess we can assume it was also part of Louis's live shows but whether it was or it wasn't, who cares? It's simply a magical recording.

For me, there's a personal attachment to this one. In the fall of 1995, I had my mind split wide open by the one-two punch of seeing Louis in The Glenn Miller Story followed immediately by wearing out a cassette of George Avakian-produced recordings from the 1950s, 16 Most Requested songs. From September through December, I made weekly trips to the library and to the music stores, borrowing and buying anything I could get my hands on. For whatever reason, it was almost solely 1950s and 1960s recordings. All great. I remember I had about 20 discs and my grandfather commented, "Gee, you must have everything!" Little did he know....

But on Christmas morning, my parents--who, bless them, always knew how to nourish my obsessions--had quite the present waiting for me: the 4-cassette Sony boxed set Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man 1923-1934. What a set. I soon memorized the Grammy-winning notes by Dan Morgenstern and Loren Schoenberg. And the music....oh, to experience it for the first time all over again! This was the first time I heard "Potato Head Blues" and "West End Blues" and all the classics. With each passing disc, I got more and more into it and by disc 4, I was in nirvana. The final track of the set was "Song of the Vipers" and I remember playing it over and over. There was something so beautiful, so mesmerizing about it. I don't think I put together what "vipers" were but I didn't need to.

Louis, however, wrote the number and by titling it that, made it an ode to his fellow marijuana smokers. Armstrong started smoking in the mid-1920s and had already recorded a previous "tribute" to it in 1928 with "Muggles"; later, he and Budd Johnson did a chorus of "Sweet Sue" in the "viper's language" on Victor. Louis was regularly high during performances and recording sessions in the early 1930s (Johnson specifically recalled the band lighting up before some of those Victor dates) and I feel that he was high as a kite during the Paris session. He's in great spirits, constantly shouting and humming when not playing, and rhythmically, he contributes some really wild stuff (check out that "Super Tiger Rag" again in case you forgot). One year later, he'd be putting his career back together and with Joe Glaser steering him, Armstrong realized it was better to get high AFTER a performance rather than before (a lesson he imparted later to Kenny Clarke).

But on November 7, 1934, I think Louis was floating through life and that sensation comes out especially on the almost ethereal "Song of the Vipers." Let's listen:



Wonderful.I'm not sure I've ever heard another trumpet player tackle this one; I'm not sure how many could get through it unscathed. It's a good "Louis in transition" example as the fleet-fingered soloist of the 1920s is now giving way to the more operatic performer of the 1930s and beyond. It's easy to be blinded by his faster playing of the 1920s (which, don't get me wrong, is dazzling, influential, melodic and all sorts of adjectives). But on "Song of the Vipers" and later numbers like "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Jubilee," Louis goes into the upper register and just stays there, pulling off superhuman feats of endurance just be hitting and holding those demanding high notes. (All this, AFTER his severe bouts with chops trouble.)

The performance ends with the band playing a hypnotic two-note stop-time rhythm, related to a "Charleston" pattern, coming in an eighth-note later. The vamps on an F chord and Louis swoops in, way up there, simply outlining the F-A-C triad, nailing the high C and repeating the F's and the chords change from F to F7 to Bb to Bbminor and back to F. And then everything breaks into a strutting two-beat feel, the horns playing a descending rhythmic riff while Pops plays the simply melody, alternating between playing with two pitches (F and A) and resolving it with a bluish phrase.

He goes through this twice and then the horns pick up the original two-note stop-time rhythm, this time used to modulate from F to Ab, Louis encouraging them with his background shouts. And now we're not only in a new key, but we're almost listening to another song. I'd love to see some form of sheet music for this; could this be a verse? Or just a second strain? It features the band playing ascending stop-time inversions of an Ab chord, each one answered by trombonist Lionel Guimaraes and eventually resolving into four bars of swinging, Louis charmingly moaning the melody nice and loud. They repeat it again, Louis humming almost menacingly at the start.

And then, what's this? An entirely new 16-bar strain? In a minor key? Guimaraes stays out front improvising while the band now plays a three-note stop-time pattern. Louis doesn't shut up (nor should he!), making up a fragment of a lyric ("Don't you know...."), repeating "Oh man" at different intervals and then bizarrely calling out, "Preach it, Brother Al Brown!" For 80 years, I'm sure some listeners believed that Guimaraes was actually a trombonist named Al Brown, but as I argued in my last blog on "Saint Louis Blues" from this session, the popular boxer/entertainer Panama Al Brown was living in Paris at this time and I'm sure he's someone Pops would have befriended. So it's quite possible that Brown was in the studio and Louis was immortalizing him on wax....at the expense of poor Lionel!

The minor strain ends and what follows is the pattern from the introduction of the record, but instead of stop-time, the band goes into their two-beat strut and instead of being in F, they're no in Ab. The horns plays the melody along with Louis, who breaks free with a brief improvisation, ending on a high Ab-Bb-Ab lick.

And once more, the band goes into the opening vamps and again uses it as a way to modulate back to the original key of F. (Are you still with me? Man, one would have to be high to put together an arrangement like this!) And for the last 70 seconds of the records, Pops just floats. My, my, my, it's so lovely. He usually thrived on a 4/4 backing but the two-beat feel just adds to the relaxed atmosphere. If you count 1-2-3-4 over and over, you'll realize that the tempo is actually on the up side. But the rhythm section doesn't push it, the horns repeat airy riffs and Louis is free to take his time. Never mind the demanding trumpet playing, I'm not sure there's any bands who could replicate the rhythmic feel of this performance.

The form, again, is completely unique with the final chorus consisting of an atypical 40-bar pattern, the chords following the pattern of the first section (but not quite) and a bridge that alternates Bb's and F chord. If I had time, I'd try to write out the entire form, but it's really something else (no wonder this one doesn't get called at jam sessions...).

But let's forget about chords and modulations and rhythmic patters and two-beat feels and just concentrate on Louis. His note choices are so simple that a transcription of this solo would probably look like fairly simple. There's not even any daring harmonic choices, some some blue minor-thirds in the bridge. But the endurance, my goodness. The main motif is going from a high concert C, glissing down to an Ab, then back up to the C and then dramatically repeating the tonic F as the chords descend from minor back to major. Then in the bridge, it's reversed as Louis starts on that F and now goes up to the Ab and then back down and then back up. So simple. So effective. I have tears in my eyes as I write this, especially knowing the pain he was probably experiencing.

He comes out of the bridge four repeated high C's and then holds a giant one. When he goes up to a higher D, there's a momentary sense of strain but overall, he is in control. As the 40-bar chorus ends, Louis finds a new motif, urgently repeating an F-to-A pattern but ending on that tonic F again. Symmetry closes the show as the horns now go into the familiar vamp and Louis closes how he starts, outlining that F-triad, but ending on a high C just for good measure.

What a record. What a session. I've always loved this session but boy, sometimes it takes writing a blog to really get inside everything that happens on a record date and I sure know I got a lot out of examining each of these performances so deeply. If you'd like to own these sides for yourself, they're still available on an old Jazz In Paris compilation. They're definitely worth rediscovering. Friends such as Michael Steinman have written in to tell me they're happy to be listening to this music again.

And other friends have turned in much deeper analysis than I could ever dream of. The saxophonist/composer/historian Allen Lowe wrote on Facebook the other day that he was "listening to L. Armstrong this morning - the 1934 Paris recordings....and it strikes me that our usual analysis of Louis is lacking something. Or maybe not; but to me he fits, particularly in these middle years, right into the modernist idea of the disassembling of so-called reality. 'So-called' because, as Joyce points out, what he and others were really doing was much more deeply into reaality, and presenting a view of personal consciousness that had much more verity than the work of, say, James Farrell or other American realists (getting my chronology wrong here, but the point still holds). And here comes Louis Armstrong with the most bizarre yet logical re-construction of pop-song reality, deliriously absurd yet much truer to life than about 25 other singers/crooners. And even more of a miracle, he was popular, accessible, easy to listen to. An amazing convergence of aesthetic and social factors; and I won't even begin to try to break the surface of how he's digging into the minstrel myth in way so completely parallel to Bert Williams." There is a LOT of information in that paragraph and obviously I agree completely. I'd love to hear any other opinions and feelings about the Paris recordings that might have arisen from rediscovering them along with me these past few weeks.

The November 7, 1934 session is an important one as it's the lone studio date we have between April
 1933 and October 1935 and the best glimpse imaginable at what he was doing during his European sabbatical. Turns out, he was just doing what he always did: making beautiful, challenging, fun, accessible, daring, joyous music.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: St. Louis Blues (Second Version)

When we last left our hero, Louis Armstrong was having a VERY productive evening in Paris on November 7, 1934, having already recorded five sides: St. Louis BluesSuper Tiger RagWill You, Won't You Be My Baby and the two-part On the Sunny Side of the Street. As already chronicled throughout my series, Louis had been battling chops trouble for about two years by the time of this session. He opened with "St. Louis Blues" and though he started very tentatively, Louis rallied for the final ascent during the exciting rideout choruses.

But now, after "Sunny Side," Louis must have been feeling really good so either he or session A&R man Jacques Canetti requested another stab at "St. Louis Blues." Here's how it turned out:



Wee! The difference between the first and second attempts are almost immediately noticeable. Once again, another trumpet player takes the opening minor strain and then Louis swoops in for TWO choruses instead of the one he took earlier in the day. He's still very relaxed, only hinting at W.C. Handy's original melody, and staying firmly in the middle register of the horn, except for a brief blue note blast in the second go-around. Clearly, he's in the mood to play.

From there, it follows the pattern of the first version for a while: trombonist Lionel Guimaraes takes the minor strain and then Louis sings almost identically as he did on take 1, right down to ending on the fifth. The parade of follows, with Guimaraes and clarinetist Peter duConge pretty much playing their earlier solos, proof that they had probably set their choruses after playing it so often with Louis in live performances (and yet, Louis was the only one to get steady criticism for setting his offerings). I don't think I've mentioned that duConge was a student of the great New Orleans master Lorenzo Tio; it shows in his playing throughout this session.

Pianist Herman Chittison, though, offers up a new chorus, as does tenor saxophonist Alfred Pratt, who gets the same emphatic backing from drummer Ollie Tines that he did the first time around. Louis has been shouting encouragement the entire time, but during Pratt's solo, he yells, "Old Al Brown!" He mentions "Al Brown" on the next tune, "Song of the Vipers," too, and for years that mystified me as no discography ever mentioned a musician named Al Brown present.

But then it hit me. I'm a bit of a boxing historian and I remembered an old bantamweight champion named Panama Al Brown. A quick look at his bio states, "He enjoyed Paris so much that he decided to stay there for the rest of his life. He became a hugely popular boxer in France, and fought on the European continent 40 times between 1929 and 1934....During his time in France, he joined Josephine Baker's La Revue Negre as a tap-dancer. His lover Jean Cocteau helped him." I don't know if this has been reported elsewhere, but I have a pretty strong hunch that Louis probably palled around with Panama Al Brown in Paris and invited him to this session, giving him a few shoutouts along the way (something he did years later on the 1956 "Song of the Islands," with scatted hellos to pals Slim Thompson and Lorenzo Pack).

Immediately after, the rhythm section goes into hyperdrive and Louis is ready to go into his routine. Or is he!? On the first attempt, he opened with a string of quotes: Dvorak's "Going Home" into "The Song is Ended" into "Swanee River." Now? Totally different. He spends an entire chorus pecking and poking (like Panama Al Brown), getting his feet wet. Then he takes Dvorak for a relaxed spin in the second chorus before starting his third helping with a brand new one: "Dixie"! Three brand new choruses. So much for set playing! But after that, he builds up to those high D's in the same manner and just blows the roof off the studio. In all, this "St. Louis Blues" is 23 seconds longer than the first one and all of that new time is devoted to Louis. I'll take it!

Interestingly, Brunswick couldn't straighten it out and released both versions simultaneously with some pressings of "Super Tiger Rag" containing the first version on the flip side and other ones containing the second. When Vox put out the big 78-album reissue in 1947, they opted for the second version (and a spelling of "Saint" rather than "St.") so that's been the more common take, but both are pretty fantastic.

With all of that down, there was only one more to go: "Song of the Vipers."

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: On the Sunny of the Street

With three songs in the can (once again, for those catching up, first was St. Louis Blues, followed by Super Tiger Rag and then Will You, Won't You Be My Baby), it was time to record a two-part extravaganza, Pops's first official studio recording of "On the Sunny Side of the Street."If you permit me a little recycling, I covered Louis's entire history with "On the Sunny Side of the Street" five years ago and opened with a long entry detailing the history of the song and Louis's pre-Paris versions. If you're in the mood for all of that fun stuff, click here.

If you don't have time to go through my past musings, the important takeaway is that Louis had been performing Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fiedls's 1930 composition for quite some time. In fact, that earlier posting has audio of a live recording from Stockholm from October 1933 that is interesting because it features more trumpet playing on it than any other succeeding version. It might be another sign of chops fatigue that Louis blows less on the 1934 Paris studio recording, but what he blows is marvelous and this would be the routine he'd follow for years to come.

While Armstrong was in Europe, on September 10, 1934, Chick Webb recorded a version of the song featuring trumpet ace Taft Jordan. Jordan worshiped Armstrong and frequently played his solos in live settings, trotting out favorites such as "Shine," "When You're Smiling" and"Sunny Side of the Street"....before Louis's own recording! At a brighter tempo than Armstrong, Jordan takes the melody muted up front, impersonates Armstrong for the vocal, then takes an open horn solo, complete with a dramatic, slowed-down ending. It's not note-for-note the same as Armstrong's, but it's clearly a tribute, proof that Jordan must have been quite familiar with Armstrong's playing of this song in the early 30s.

Perhaps Armstrong got wind of Webb's recording while over in Paris and decided it was time to finally record his own version on "Sunny Side." By this point, it clearly was a routine, as every note of it had been worked out on the stage. Because it was a long routine in live performances, Armstrong recorded it in two parts, totaling six minutes and two seconds of playing time. Thanks to the magic of CDs and editing and such innovations, most issues magically splice the two parts together into one seamless track. And that, my friends, is what I'm going to share at this time. Preliminaries aside, here's Louis Armstrong's first official studio recording of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," recorded 80 years ago this month:


The tempo's a shade slower here than it was in Sweden in 1933, though it follows a similar pattern. After the band sets the scene with eight bars of melody, Armstrong enters for the first of two sublime vocal choruses. This is pre- Joe Glaser and pre-Decca, but his vocal quality is already similar to the recordings that were about to take place just a short time later. Armstrong's voice is crystal clear, conveying all the warmth of the tune's message in the first chorus ("I'll be rich as Rocky-fellow"), before he begins his dramatic variations on his second go-around. Armstrong's declamatory "Grab your coat" at the start of his second chorus always elicits a "Yeah, man" from me. He completely rephrases the melody, utilizing only a few basic pitches, but infusing everything with a gripping urgency (listen to the way he sings the word "leave"). The scatting asides are terrific, but it's the show-stopping bridge (literally) that gets me every time, with the most passionate uttering of the word "rover" to ever be found on a record.

The vocal ends at almost exactly the three-minute mark, at which point--in 1934--you'd flip your 78 record over onto the second side to hear the band playing the melody once again. Pianist Herman Chittison, who really shines on these sessions, takes a Hines-esque eight-bar bridge, ending with some whole-tone chords in a very hip way. He also supported Louis beautifully during the vocal. In my first part on this series, I mentioned Armstrong and Chittison having a reunion on John McClellan's Boston TV show in 1960. Audio survives at the Louis Armstrong House Museum and it's a wonderful show, highlighted by Armstrong and Chittison duetting on "Sunny Side." Louis didn't bring his horn that day but it's worth the price of admission to hear him take those two sublime vocal choruses with that special backing by Brother Chittison.

After eight more bars of melody (I think the arrangement was only eight bars long, repeated ad infinitum), Armstrong finally enters for the main event. Unfortunately, in the year since the live Swedish version, Armstrong cut his playing down from two choruses to just a lone chorus. Instead of building up to the declamatory statements that ended the Stockholm performance, Armstrong comes right in with them, alternating the C's and E's in a solo that's clearly already been set in stone.

There is one new addition to the routine that needs to be pointed out since it's heard on quite possibly every single succeeding version in the Armstrong canon: the bridge now has a new opening. It's a completely logical little motive that has always seemed like a natural part of the tune for Armstrong nuts who've heard it dozens of times. But it wasn't until I started working as Archivist for the Armstrong House in 2009, on a road trip to Jack Bradley's house, that my boss Michael Cogswell hipped me to the fact that Armstrong's quoting an old country standard, "Faded Love." I had never heard this before until Cogswell whipped out his Ipod and played me Patsy Cline's recording of this tune. I was blown away and promised to look into it. I've since discovered that the tune was written by Western Swing king Bob Wills, who had a hit with it in 1950. Wait...1950? How was Pops quoting it in 1934? Wills claimed it was an old fiddle tune that he learned from his father John Wills. Okay, but still, how did Pops come across it? Jamming with Jimmie Rodgers one night in California? Who knows? Anyway, listen to "Faded Love" by Wills now and you'll never hear Armstrong's "Sunny Side" the same way again:


After the "Faded Love" quote, Armstrong completely nails his break, a series of searing repeated triplet phrases before a slippery, sliding descent back to solid ground. From there, it's more passionate C's and E's (so much drama, so few pitches) before another extended, dramatic ending. A six-minute masterpiece. No wonder the song became one of Armstrong's most famous!

Feeling good with his chops percolating in peak form, Armstrong decided to tackle "St. Louis Blues," the session's opener, again. To hear the results, check back in a few days!


Saturday, November 15, 2014

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: Will You, Won't You Be My Baby

After knocking out turbocharged versions of two longtime showpieces, St. Louis Blues and Super Tiger Rag, it was time for Armstrong to finally record two numbers he had been live for some time: "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Most Armstrong fans know that "Sunny Side" had been in the book for a while because a live version that survives from Sweden in 1933 (more on "Sunny Side" in my next entry).

However, the connection between Louis and "Will You, Won't You" has never really been discussed and personally, I wasn't aware of one until I really started digging into Louis's private tapes, now housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Armstrong's Paris recordings were issued as a 78-album on the Vox label in 1947 and Louis was quick to purchase it and dub it to tape numerous times. And every time he did so, he'd get very excited and talk about how he used to swing this number with Les Hite's band in California. In fact, on a tape Louis made on Christmas Day in 1950, he spun the recording while staying at his friend Stuff Crouch's home in Los Angeles, reminisced about playing it with Hite and then said he couldn't wait to play it when Hite came over for dinner later that day! Nice to know Louis and Les remained close.

But the point is that Armstrong only played with Hite in Los Angeles between 1930 and 1931. So like everything else recorded in Paris, Armstrong was dipping into his bag of tricks, pulling out some of his favorite arrangements from the early part of the decade. We'll never know how it sounded with Hite's band, but it's possible that it wasn't much different from the Paris recording as once Louis settled into a routine, he was usually content to stick with it.

Then again, Armstrong's chops were in Herculean form on all of his 1930-31 California recordings and he was fighting for his life in Paris, in the midst of some severe bouts of pain. This might account for the fact that there isn't much trumpet on the Paris version but it's still a fine record.

The song "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby" was written by John Nesbitt and recorded by him with the fantastic group McKinney's Cotton Pickers back in 1929. Let's listen to the original version, as the arrangement is nearly identical to the one Armstrong recorded five years later:


Fine, fine recording, right at that perfect, 1920s two-beat feel, just before everything smoothed out and started swinging. Actually, some of that was already happening; hear Louis with Pops Foster backing him up on "Mahogany Hall Stomp" from March 1929. Louis lived for that 4/4 feeling and it wouldn't be long before the rest of the world joined him. But there's a nice groove here and Nesbitt himself also takes a nice solo.

So let's flash forward five years to hear what Pops did with "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby":


The first thing we hear is the tempo is UP, much faster than the McKinney's easy rocking, danceable feel. After a new introduction, the band has the plenty of time to itself, taking a full chorus, then an alto break (like the McKinney recording) leads us into the verse. We're 59 seconds into a 2:51 track and so far, Louis has sat it out.

But here he comes to save the day! Mighty Mouth immediately immediate goes up to the same high Ab Nesbitt began his solo with, but the faster tempo lends a more urgent quality to Armstrong's entrance, especially with drummer Ollie Tines whacking that cymbal on the offbeat behind him. He soon relaxes in the lower register and floats his way back up to that Ab, almost silently glissing away from it. Then he plays a little lick that's been quoted in the jazz pantheon forever; I know it first from the ending of Louis's 1929 recording of "That Rhythm Man" but is it a quote? He then comes off the Ab motive and floats across the bar lines, mostly in the lower register, sounding like he has all the time in the world. Alfred Pratt takes the bridge before Louis swoops in and up to a high concert C, holding it for good measure and closing his outing a little lower.

Peter duConge is up next and watch out for that alto playing! Sounds great, as does pianist Herman Chittison, who takes the bridge. But now, Armstrong is reduced to humming, shouting encouragement and singing the titular phrase, all as if he was at home, listening along to one of his favorite records. He continues as the band reprises the melody in the final chorus. It's fun, but it's not exactly a vocal and another 59 seconds pass before Louis picks up the trumpet again. I have to wonder if this was the standard arrangement or if it was modified to accommodate the chops. Spoiler alert: they came back in full force on the final three tunes recorded that evening, "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "St. Louis Blues" and "Song of the Vipers."

But he's not through yet! When the band gets to the bridge, they drop out and Armstrong enters with a dramatic, mysterious break, works his way upward (oh, that sense of rhythm) and then answers the ensemble, building up to a "broken record" ending, with Armstrong pushing out a string of Ab's before a final high C.

On its own, "Will You, Won't You Be My Baby" is a fun record but definitely not one for the pantheon. In boxing terms, I think Louis needed to "take a round off." Of course, what he does play is demanding, rhythmically free and tremendously effective (some trumpet players might be thinking, "THAT is taking a round off?") but he's really only front and center for about 50 seconds of the record and I'm sure that was a strategy to conserve the chops. It worked. Next up: "On the Sunny Side of the Street"!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: Super Tiger Rag

In my last blog, I set the scene with lots of backstory on Louis Armstrong's epic Paris session of November 7, 1934 and then tackled the first tune recorded that day, "St. Louis Blues." Louis was having severe lip troubles during this period but overcame whatever pain he was in by the end of the track, shooting out the lights with a string of high concert D's.

Next up was another song Armstrong had been performing for years and once he had already recorded for OKeh twice in the 1930s, "Tiger Rag." Four years ago, I wrote a TEN part series on Louis's history with "Tiger Rag" (I was out of my mind) so look those up to see how Louis arrived here, but suffice to say, each early version was different as he continued to work out and sculpt his routine. The 1932 "New Tiger Rag" would serve as the basis for most of Louis's following romps with the tiger, but in Paris, he was feeling frisky and contributed something totally different, so different, Brunswick issued it as "Super Tiger Rag" on the label. This is Dan Morgenstern's favorite Louis version of "Tiger Rag" and it rates very, very high for me, too. Here's the audio:


The first thing you'll notice is that Louis dropped the tempo a bit to a more manageable, though still demanding, gait as compared to his 1930-1933 versions.. Louis leads off with the first strain, playing it fairly straight with his own, customary changes in phrasing. Clarinetist Peter duConge takes some hot breaks in the opening ensemble, including one from "Rigoletto" that was always a favorite of Pops's. The gruff tenor of Alfred Pratt takes a fine solo on the main strain, steeped a bit in Coleman Hawkins (with a hint of Bud Freeman?), before another daring outing by the great American pianist Herman Chittison. Chittison really tears it up, offering up some of Earl Hines's ambidextrous movements, along with some Tatum-esque virtuosity. Like I said in the last entry--and will probably continue to say throughout this series--Chittison should be better known.

After Chittison's offering, Louis jumps in with what seems like a snatch of "When You and I Were Young Maggie." He's super relaxed and his playing is very daring; listen to how he approaches his first break and how he keeps that rhythmic motif going for a few extra bars, breaking the tension by turning it into an exciting upwards run. Armstrong's second chorus is a stunner; no quotes, no riffs, it's just pure improvisation, with more tension-filled rhythms. I mean, this cat is really on the high wire a couple of times but he never falls. Perhaps the slower (slower!?) than usual tempo allowed Pops to relax and improvise more? Perhaps there was a LOT of marijuana in the studio that day (remember, the final tune recorded would be "Song of the Vipers")? Whatever the reason, I'm not complaining!

But finally, with one more chorus in him, Louis pulls out all the stops....and how! He holds a supercharged high Ab before playing a final chorus chock full of high C's. This is as close to the 100-high-notes-Louis of the early 30s ever captured on records and I think it's pretty exciting. All in all, he hits 30 high C's in the final chorus, holding the last one to great effect, before building up to that final high Eb (again, F on the trumpet). And as he comes down the home stretch, he raises the tempo a few notches, the band speeding up with him. Like "St. Louis Blues," the rhythm section flawlessly follows him into the stratosphere, again, probably from doing this one so often. But of all the versions of "Tiger Rag" in the Armstrong discography (again, see my ten-part series from 2010), this one really stands out for its free-floating rhythmic and effortless improvisation. Chops trouble? What chops trouble? Super!

Friday, November 7, 2014

80 Years of Louis Armstrong's Paris Recordings: St. Louis Blues (First Version)

I've been looking forward to writing about this session for a long time now; the 80th anniversary seems like a good excuse to finally do it! 80 years ago today, Louis Armstrong and his band recorded six numbers for the Brunswick label, his first time in a studio since April of 1933. He was emerging from a long layoff and probably felt he had something prove; the six songs recorded that day proved he was still a spectacular performer. Starting today, I'll be covering one song at a time for the next week or so, allowing readers to really sink into each one instead of six in one shot. But before we get to the music, let's get to the backstory.

Armstrong came to Europe in the fall of 1933, immediately making a big splash in Scandinavia with his Hot Harlem Band, which I wrote about last year. Anyone who has seen that footage from Denmark knows that Armstrong was seemingly at the peak of his powers in this period.

I write "seemingly" because underneath it all was a lot of pain. Night after night of popping out 250-300 high Cs were taking its toll on him. Mezz Mezzrow wrote graphically about Armstrong's lip splitting at the end of 1932, around the time of the That's My Home Victor session. Things did not improve, as Armstrong continued blasting through the pain. It finally caught up with him at the Holborn Empire in London. "In England on the stage, my lip split, blood all down in my tuxedo shirt, nobody knew it."Armstrong had had a major altercation with manager Johnny Collins earlier on the tour so without any gigs on the docket, he canceled a week's worth of performances and took a break. "When I left London that summer and went to Paris, I needed a rest," he later said. "My bookings were finished in England so I just lazied around Paris for three or four months, had a lot of fun with the musicians from the States--French cats, too. And I'd do a concert now and then."

Other trumpet players couldn't notice the duress Armstrong's chops were in. "When Louis came to Paris, he didn't play at all because he was having lip problems," Arthur Briggs remembered. "...[H]is lips were as hard as a piece of wood and he was bleeding and everything else. We thought he had--well, we didn't say cancer because in those days we wouldn't have thought of it--but we thought he had some very sad disease."

Armstrong was the toast of Paris, especially with the musicians the early jazz critics and historians, headed by Hugues Panassie. By November, Armstrong had assembled a band and was prepared for a series of concerts at the famed Salle Playel. Like his "Hot Harlem Band," Armstrong selected black musicians, mostly from America, that had settled in either England or France. In fact, his Paris band included some musicians heldover from the earlier band: trombonist Lionel Guimaraes, reedmen Peter duConge and Henry Tyree, bassist German Arago and drummer Oliver Tines. New faces were trumpeters Jack Hamilton and Leslie Thompson, saxophonist Alfred Pratt, guitarist Maceo Jefferson and last, but certainly not least, pianist Herman Chittison.

Chittison was a genius of the piano, with Tatum-esque technique and an unending supply of ideas. He should be better known today but he went to Europe with Willie Lewis in 1933 and ended up staying overseas for decades, including stints in Cairo, India and other faraway lands. He came back to America in 1959 and settled in Boston, where he had a reunion with Armstrong on John McClellan's WHDH TV show "Dateline Boston - The Jazz Scene" on May 4, 1960 (more about that in a minute). Seriously, stop what you're doing and have a Herman Chittison YouTube marathon. You won't be disappointed.

With the band assembled, Armstrong was offered an opportunity to record. This was in direct conflict with Armstrong's exclusive contract with Victor back home but without a manger overseeing the deals--and being overseas for over a year--Armstrong agreed to record for Brunswick's European wing. For years, people thought the session was done in October but in a 1984 issue of Storyville, Jacques Lubin set the record straight, writing, "I unearthed the original recording sheet for the session in August 1984 in the course of some research I was doing in the Polydor/Polygram archives prior to their third move. These reveal that the session took place on 7 November 1934 from 3.00 p.m. to 7.00 p.m. in Polydor's No.2 Studio at 72-74 boulevard de la Gare, Paris XIII."

The session would be supervised by Jacques Canetti, a man who would promote Armstrong's concert appearances after the record date. Canetti was the closest thing to a manager that Armstrong had since splitting with Johnny Collins but matters ended bleakly when Armstrong had to cancel a tour due to lip troubles. Canetti went to the press and blasted the trumpeter, saying he canceled because he was losing out to Chittison when it came to applause (oh, did the conspiracy theorists like James Lincoln Collier love that one). It would be Armstrong's last gasp in Europe before returning to America, taking nearly six months off from the horn and then regrouping for the next major phase of his career, guided by Joe Glaser.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. On November 7, 1934, Louis's chops were in top form; they might have been hurting but the sounds they produced on the session's SIX numbers still sound pretty superhuman to me. Armstrong sure remained proud of these performances. When they were eventually issued in the United States in 1947 on the Vox label, Armstrong immediately purchased it and transferred it to reel-to-reel tape numerous times over the years. "We used to make some beautiful tunes all over Europe, just as we do one-nighters in the states," Armstrong told McClellan in 1960. McClellan responded, "I still have that album at home, called 'Louis Armstrong Paris 1934." Armstrong immediately remembered the label: "Vox. Vox. Everybody should have that in their files." Armstrong went on to say that when he made The Five Pennies with Danny Kaye in 1958, he chose the Paris session as a gift for Kaye, who played the original two-part "On the Sunny Side of the Street" for the entire cast and crew while waiting for the cameras to reload. Armstrong was getting his makeup applied in the dressing room when he heard the recordings, saying, "And everybody on the set--quiet. It was beautiful."

One great thing about the session is it gives a glimpse of what Louis was doing onstage in this period. No pop tunes or current hits, just six tried and true specialties, each of which he had been playing for some time. First up was the definition of a "good old good one," W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." Armstrong already accompanied Bessie Smith on her landmark version in 1925 and he tore it up on his own recording of it with Luis Russell in 1929. At that point, it became a showpiece, something he performed and worked on nightly. By April 1933, he was happy enough with it to record his new arrangement for Victor. On that exciting performance, Armstrong kicked it off an uptempo, took the opening choruses, as well as Handy's minor strain, then handed it over to trombone, alto, piano, guitar and tenor saxophone solos. Then Armstrong swooped in for four choruses, working over a little call-and-response action in the arrangement and eventually building up to a steady stream of demanding high D's.

The Victor version is wonderful but it almost sounds like a soggy ballad compared to what Louis did in Paris. Let's kick off the celebration by listening to that first (of two!) versions of "St. Louis Blues," recorded 80 years ago today:



See what I mean? Like the Victor version, the arrangement starts with the minor strain but the tempo is a bit fast...and that's not Louis playing. I don't know which trumpet player it is, but someone else grabs the spotlight for those first eight bars before Louis swoops in with one, instead of two choruses of blues, before handing it over to trombonist Guimaraes for the minor strain reprise. So unlike the Victor, which opened with Armstrong firmly in control for the first few choruses, he only takes one here, featuring some lovely rubato phrasing, but also sounding a little tentative.

The reeds do some hair-raising climbs and falls behind Guimaraes's minor episode and then Pops comes in for the vocal, something the 1933 record did not include. He sings two choruses, mostly on one pitch, while the band answers him with an ascending riff first heard on Louis's 1929 recording. He moans and growls a bit in his second outing; and dig his final "me," sung on a D, the fifth of the key of G they're playing in, kind of a bizarre note to end on, but it works.

Then it's time for the parade of solos, with Louis getting REALLY animated in his cheerleading. I don't think I'm reaching when I say that Louis inhaled a tremendous amount of gage before this session! More on that as we go. Lionel Guimaraes is up first, sounding strong, if a little stiff. In 1957, Louis visited Rio de Janeiro and Guimaraes attended an All Stars concert on November 28. Louis let him sit in and Guimaraes joined in for "On the Sunny Side of the Street," "Tiger Rag" and "St. Louis Blues"....three of the six songs recorded in Paris in 1934! We have a recording of the complete concert at the Armstrong Archives at Queens College so if you're ever in the neighborhood and want to hear it, drop me a line...

Next up, the great Peter duConge, who was born in New Orleans in 1898 and eventually settled in Paris, marrying the famed Ada "Bricktop" Smith. duConge's a fine player who starts off his solo here almost as if he has "High Society" on the brain. Next up is Brother Chittison, who opens with one of Louis's favorite descending blues licks before going for himself; dig those descending harmonies at the close of his too-quick chorus! Alfred Pratt turns on the heat with his tenor and Armstrong seems to particularly like his "mugging."

During the aforementioned 1960 interview with Chittison on John McClellan's show, Armstrong reminisced about the making of "St. Louis Blues," specifically remembering an incident regarding Pratt on what have been an unissued take of the tune (interestingly, Armstrong couldn't remember his name and calls him "Vernel" throughout!). "I remember we was making this album and when we got to 'St. Louis Blues,' we had a tenor sax man called Vernel Pratt. You remember? And we didn't just say each man stand up and know when he'd come in, they'd wait for me to point to them, you know? And Chittison took his solo, Pete duConge. And when I got to Vernel Pratt, he's waiting with his tenor and I say, 'You take it!' [Armstrong goes silent as McClellan and Chittison laugh] Eight bars go by before he hit a note but when he came down, boy! That cat blew a lot of horn, didn't he, Chittison?"

As Pratt's solo winds down, Armstrong says, "I've gotta get some of this myself!" And then, as if by magic, the entire rhythm section  increases the tempo simultaneously. This is not easy to do but I'm assuming they had done it with him before live, drummer Ollie Tines and bassist German Arago having been with him for the past year. The Victor record didn't speed up so one must wonder when Armstrong started doing and why. I have a few theories. For one, the faster the tempo, the more Armstrong could relax and float over it. Also, there's the excitement factor, which is undeniable. But also, by shaving a few seconds off the clock, he might have been keeping some chops in reserve.

Regardless of the reason, Armstrong's ready now. He opens with one of his favorite quotes, Dvorak's "Going Home" as the band holds sustained chords behind him. Like in later years, the more Armstrong played a song live, the more quotes he'd find to squeeze into his solos. This is a particularly quote-heavy version as, right after "Going Home," Armstrong splits his second chorus by quoting "The Song is Ended" and "Swanee River" back to back.

But then it's time to get down to business. Like the Victor version, the target is that high concert D, but with that extra tempo, Armstrong can now take his time getting there. In chorus three, he rhythmically starts working over G on the first beat of every bar, the band riffing furiously behind him. He holds the G and then spends the next chorus, alternating the same G with a higher Bb blue note, the band now responding to his every move. And finally, in chorus five, there's that D....and there it is again....and again...and again....and again. Over and over, first gliss after gliss, then holding it, squeezing it, hitting it on the nose, repeating it, glissing down from it and ending by glissing back up to it.

My goodness! To think of the state of his chops in this period and to still be able to take six climactic choruses like that...like I said, super human. But someone--Canetti, Armstrong, who knows--thought they could top it and "St. Louis Blues" would be recorded again later that session. But for now, let's cool our heels a bit and I'll return in a day or so with another new entry on the next song recorded in Paris that day, "Tiger Rag!"