Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Nine Year Anniversary!

Nine years ago today, I finished a grueling day of painting houses, went home and wrote the first entry of this blog. It was one of the best decisions I ever made as the blog opened the door to the Satchmo Summerfest, my book deal, my job at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, the Mosaic Records box, lectures, friends and above all the ability to make a living through Louis Armstrong.

Alas, the cost of living the dream (and having a terrific wife and three kids at home) is I barely eek out one new blog a month these days. In some regards, that makes me sad as I love writing those crazy entries. But all I have to do is look around and I realize that I'm still spreading my love of Louis everywhere, just not always through the vessel of Blogger.

For instance, take Facebook. I feel that the whole planet is on Facebook, but if you're not, you can still view my very public page at Earlier this year, I had the idea that after so many years of including rare Armstrong footage in my public presentations, I should put some of that stuff online. Thus began weekly Facebook uploads of videos from my personal collection. I've now began to upload audio interviews and lots of rare photos I find all over the internet. So if you're not following me on Facebook, that's really become my preferred venue for all things Louis.

In person, I've never been busier in my job as Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum but that's only one thing that I do. Here's some upcoming appearances I'm excited about.

*On Saturday, July 16, I'll be at Louis Armstrong's Wonderful World Festival in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, giving two short presentations on Louis and New Orleans inside Queens Theatre at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. (right before Kermit Ruffins hits at 4 p.m.!).

*On August 4, I'll be making my ninth annual appearance at Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans! I'll be presenting ultra rare footage of Louis on the Ed Sullivan Show and the Dick Cavett Show, in addition to taking part in a panel on Louis's relationship with drummer Big Sid Catlett with Scott Wenzel of Mosaic Records and my good friend, drummer Rich Noorigian. If you're way down yonder, say hi!

*And most excitingly, beginning on September 22, I'll be teaching a six-week course on Louis for Jazz at Lincoln Center's Swing University, preaching every Thursday night at 6 p.m. Details on signing up can be found here.

And that's not all! I'm currently involved in co-producing two separate Armstrong boxed sets for Universal, I might helping other labels issue some previously unheard Louis, I might just have another book in me and more, more, more.

And none of it would have happened without the blog.

Last year, for my Eight Year Anniversary, I wrote a more reflective piece with a long list of my favorite blog entries. I still recommend the list as I haven't added much to it since then (more on the Hot Fives and Louis's 1930-31 California recordings to come!). But even as I write this, I must cut it short and head to the opening reception for the wonderful new George and Anahid Avakian exhibit at the New York Public Library, Music for Moderns: The Partnership of George Avakian and Anahid Ajemian.

I was lucky to get a sneak peak of the exhibit last week and it was a knockout. Even better, George was there! (Sadly, Anahid, a truly wonderful woman, passed away just last month.)

If you can't make it to the exhibit (which is up through September), you can go here to see a sampling of images, including this stunning one of Louis and George from the Satch Plays Fats session in 1955.

And finally, it's appropriate to celebrate George this evening because it was on this date that Louis and the All Stars recorded a solid chunk of this, the greatest album of all time:

So before I go, let me sum up the craziness that is my life:

July 13, 1954 - Louis Armstrong records "St. Louis Blues" for George Avakian. This record changed my life in 1995 when I heard it on a compilation produced by George Avakian (a story I detailed here).
July 13, 2007 - I start this blog that changes the course of my life.
July 13, 2016 - I'm ending this blog and attending a reception for George Avakian, with George present.

If you need me, I'll be pinching myself because I don't want this dream to end anytime soon......

Thursday, June 23, 2016

90 Years of the June 1926 Hot Five Sessions: Part 1

On June 16 and June 23, 1926, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five recorded eight performances for OKeh Records. Writing about them in his seminal 1967 volume, Early Jazz, Gunther Schuller said of them, "We can quickly pass over the next Hot Five date, which featured for the most part quasi-novelty numbers by Lil Hardin Armstrong. They added nothing to the group's stature, and are mildly interesting in that they constitute (along with King of the Zulus) the nadir of Hot Five recording activity." And just like that, Armstrong's June 1926 Hot Five recordings were booted out of THE CANON.

Well, maybe Schuller was content to "quickly pass over them," but not me! Starting last November, any free time I've had to update this old blog of mine has gone to the ongoing 90th anniversary of Louis Armstrong's early Hot Five sessions. I wrote a long entry on the first session of November 1925, a short look at "Come Back Sweet Papa" and a master's thesis on the six songs the Hot Five recorded on February 26, 1926, which I dubbed as the Hot Five's greatest session.

Needless to say, more words have been written on Louis Armstrong's Hot Five recordings than anything else he recorded--and with good reason as they truly are the records that changed the course of jazz history, Armstrong writing the rules on how to solo, how to swing, how to scat and how to sing in the realm of jazz music.

Of course, Armstrong and his cohorts never set out to make history. They were just having fun, a group of friends making music together just as they had in the good old days of New Orleans (exempting Lillian Hardin from that description). This becomes fully clear when one examines the June 1926 sessions.

Louis Armstrong was a born entertainer, something that has always been held against him. As a kid in New Orleans, he received his first applause when he stood up and humorously impersonated the preacher at his church, right down to leading the congregation in a song. He once dipped his face in flour and won a talent contest at the Iroquois Theatre doing a "whiteface" routine. He bought every Bert Williams record he could find, memorizing Williams's routines. He formed a vocal quartet with friends, singing popular songs of the day and wordlessly conjuring up the sounds of instruments years before it was called "scat singing." Oh yeah, and he also played the cornet.

For decades, all people have wanted to talk about was that cornet (later trumpet), but that's only one side of Armstrong's multi-faceted stage presence. This is not a new phenomenon; when he shook up Chicago with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band and later New York with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, it was strictly as a cornetist as neither Oliver nor Henderson was interested in the young man's singing--something that burned Armstrong up until the day he died.

Thus, when given a chance to make his own records with the Hot Five, the biggest hit of the first November 1925 session was the one featuring Armstrong's naturally engaging personality, "Gut Bucket Blues." E. A. Fearn of OKeh Records liked Armstrong's unique voice and for the February sessions, asked him to sing. Louis and Lil kicked off that session with a fun duet on "Georgia Grind" before Louis unwittingly made history with his scat chorus on "Heebie Jeebies," getting a bona fide hit record to boot. That same day, Armstrong recorded instrumental masterpieces such as "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Muskrat Ramble," contributing solos that are still analyzed and studied today.

The power and glory of those solos couldn't be denied...but neither could Armstrong's personality. Thus, when the February sessions were released in May 1926 and the vocal numbers proved to be big sellers, it only made sense for Fearn to showcase more of that personality on the June recordings.

Armstrong was happy to oblige. He loved to sing and he loved to entertain, both on records and in person. In later years, a false narrative was passed around of young Armstrong "the artist," making serious instrumental masterpieces before giving it all up for clowning just to get more popular with white audiences. But reviews survive of Armstrong's live performances with Erskine Tate in 1926--the same time these recordings were being made--and they almost all refer to Armstrong's singing, scatting, dancing and comic routines (he even dusted off the the old preacher routine from his youth, engaging the black audiences that packed the Vendome Theatre with his "mock sermons").
Advertisement for one of the only live appearances of the Hot Five, which took place on June 12, 1926, four days before the June 16 session.

He was even immersing himself in the world of black entertainment in Chicago. In later years, whenever he wrote of this period, he rarely mentioned his own music or methods; instead, he wrote about other entertainers, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Ollie Powers, Mae Alix (who did splits years before Velma Middleton and more). These were the people who helped Armstrong hone his stagecraft until he could truly do it all.

Thus, on the June 1926 sessions, Armstrong lets his personality shine. The first session was done on June 16, 1926. Four tracks were recorded that day, three with ridiculously fun Armstrong vocals...and on the one he doesn't sing, he plays a slide whistle! The whole date has such a happy feeling to it but these four tracks rarely get reissued on best-ofs from the period. This entry will examine the June 16 session and will be followed by a look at the June 23 session in the near future.

"Don't Forget to Mess Around" led off the date, a song written by Armstrong and an old friend from New Orleans, Paul Barbarin, who would later play drums in Armstrong's big band. Interestingly, the song was already recorded in February 1926 by Austin's Musical Ambassador's--one month before Armstrong and Barbain sent in the copyright deposit of the song! There's no vocal but the recording does feature a nice, relaxed tempo and an effective muted cornet solo (this band only made one side and the personnel is a mystery!).

With that out of the way, here's the audio of the Hot Five version:

There's not a lot to analyze, there; it's just fun! Armstrong plays two flawless one-bar breaks in the introduction and basically sticks to melody in his lead ensemble playing. "Charleston" was obviously the craze of the period and this Armstrong composition incorporates the "Charleston" beat very well. Like most originals from the period, it isn't a neat 32-bar AABA pop song but rather features a chorus followed by a verse, then back to the chorus with some neat arranged sections for the horns along the way. Towards the end of the verse, one notices Johnny Dodds disappears, only to return a few seconds later...on alto! Yikes, I'm not a big fan of Dodds's stiff alto playing, even though his high notes oddly still sound like his clarinet. Fortunately, Armstrong's right behind him with one of his most exuberant, shouting vocals of the Okeh days. It's not Gershwin, but it's a lot of fun! Armstrong and Barbarin copyrighted lyrics of their own, including words for the verse. This is what they sent in to the Library of Congress:

Way down south in New Orleans;
There's a gal down there called the Charleston Queen.
Oh how she could Charleston,
You ought to see her Charleston.
Uncle Jack, the Jazzbo King,
Taught her a brand new dance;
And after she learned his great dance,
This is what she said:

Don't forget to mess around
While you're doin' the Charleston, Charleston;
First thing you do,
Now when you rear back,
Grab your gal,
And then you Eagle Rock,
But don't you stop at all.

Oh, Uncle Jack, the old dancin' fool,
Wouldn't do that Charleston, Charleston.
When he learned
Of that brand new dance,
Such a prance.
Now he clean forgot his age
When he danced this brand new rage,
Don't forget to do your stuff
When you dance that dance called Messin' Around.

Of course, Armstrong being Armstrong, even when he probably had a hand in writing the lyrics, still makes some changes. This is how he sang it:

Don't forget to mess around/ when you're doing the Charleston...Charleston
First thing you do/ now when you rear...way back!
Say, you grab your gal/ and then you clap your hands
And you do the Eagle Rock/ but don't you stop at all!

Uncle Jack, that dancin' fool/ He would never do the Charleston...Charleston
When he learned of that brand/ new dance...such a prance!
And he clean forget his age/ when he danced this brand new rage
Then he yelled out/ don't forget to do your stuff/ when you dance the mess around!

Not a huge difference but already, a good example of Armstrong making a song his own--even when it was already his own! He adds the line, "and then you clap your hand," there's the urgent phrasing of "way back," he eliminates the descriptive "old" before "dancin' fool" and so on. Most of these vocals get dismissed for being too "shouty," but to my ears, Armstrong's supreme confidence and innate abilities are already in place..And besides, no one else was really singing like this during the period, though there are traces of Al Jolson in some of these early Armstrong vocals (on "Butter and Egg Man," Pops practically imitates Jolson at one point).

After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes a very aggressive clarinet solo, as if he's saying, "Please posterity, don't judge me by my alto playing!" Kid Ory takes a typical break towards the end before Armstrong takes one of his own, notable for staying in middle register before shooting up an octave to end it with a piercing high note. All in all, it's a lot of fun and if I say it again, not as important as a "West End Blues" but I think it's just as important in understanding Armstrong's entire career. Legendary producer George Avakian tells this story about this track:

"By 1926, Louis Armstrong was headlining at Chicago's Sunset Cafe and writing novelties which he performed nightly, in addition to recording them with his Hot Five for Okeh. During one of many happy afternoons of hanging out in Louis's upstairs den in his home in Corona, I asked Pops if the 'mess around' was an actual dance.' 'Yes, yes indeed,' he cried and leaped out of his chair. 'Went like this!' Well, there I was without a movie camera, but be assured of one thing--Louis was a great dancer and still light on his feet. 'Used to do that every show after the vocal, and then blow two choruses. Had to dance two, three encores on Saturday nights.'"

Picture that. The great, serious, artist, Louis Armstrong (before he went commercial), performing "Don't Forget To Mess Around" and then dancing for a few choruses! If I had a time machine, I think I'd dial it up to the Sunset Cafe in 1926...

The next song on the docket was a Lil Hardin Armstrong composition, "I'm Gonna Gitcha," which Gene Anderson has pointed out bears some similarities to "I'm Gonna Get You," as recorded by both Mamie Smith and Trixie Smith in 1922. Here's Mamie:

There's definitely some similar melodic structures (not to mention the title!), but Lil went a different way with the lyrics, as you'll see when you listen to the Hot Five here:

The Hot Five jumps right out with main strain, with no time for any fancy arranged introductions (though the chromatic line at the end of the bridge) must have been worked out in advance. Then, like "Don't Forget to Mess Around," the group heads back to the verse. Johnny Dodds gets the first solo and he gets a little stuck. Not only does he minimally paraphrase the melody, he plays the same break twice in one solo--a lick he had already played once heading into the bridge and one he'd play in the ensemble later on. (In fairness, I like his slightly raspy descending break at the end of the bridge--at least it's different!) Almost humorously, Dodds takes another short solo after the vocal and when he gets to the break--plays something different! But almost seconds after Armstrong emerges to play lead, there's that lick yet again! I guess everyone gets stuck every now and then....

Louis doesn't solo on "I'm Gonna Gitcha" except for one break towards the end where he hurls himself up to a high C and doesn't quite hit it on the nose. Other than that, the record offers some strong lead playing before ending with a favorite phrase of the period. But more than the horn, it's his delightful vocal that saves what John Chilton referred to as a "dog" tune (listen for Johnny St. Cyr's delightful accompaniment, with bass notes followed by chords much like the stride pianists of the era). Here's the vocal as delivered by Louis:

Say mama, I'm gonna bet you that I'm gonna get you,
I'm gonna get you some sweet day,
And don't think you can give me the air.  Heeeyyy,
I'm gonna race you, I'm gonna chase you,
I'm gonna follow you everywhere.
Don't you believe you can give me the air. AHHHHHH
You can take a man out and throw the cat out,
But when you are right
You can't treat sweet papa with the same old jive.
I'm gonna feel 'ya, I'm gonna steal ya,
I must have you mama some sweet day.
Nothin' doin' baby, you just can't get away.

What delivery! This is where you read stuff like "shouting" and "vaudeville" and "novelty" and "hokum" but I don't know, I love it. I've actually played this in lectures before because to my ears, those two guttural moans on the syllable "Hey" foreshadow so much soul singing we'd hear later on from the likes of Ray Charles. There's also the comedic timing in how he perfectly phrases "I must have you," with a mischievous grin, and the earlier righteous I've-heard-it-all intonation of "You can't treat sweet papa with the same old jive."

And speaking of "the same old jive," how about that slang? The tune is credited to Lil but I'm sure her husband helped with some of those lyrics. Earlier this month, the great Ted Gioia wrote a piece for The Atlantic titled The Year American Speech Became Art. And who graces the main photo accompanying the article? None other than Pops. Gioia charts a 15-month period beginning in October 1926 when American forms of speech "went viral" thanks to the recordings, radio broadcasts, talking pictures and works of literature that hit the market. Armstrong rightly plays a central role in the article but I might move Gioia's 15-month window back a month to include September 1926 when these June 16 Hot Five recordings were released.

The same slang-filled, confident, swinging, attention-commanding vocal style of "I'm Gonna Gitcha" continues on the third tune recorded on June 16, "Droppin' Shucks." Credited to Lil Hardin again, these lyrics sound more like Louis, mainly because they reflect what was going on in the Armstrong's home during this period. Lil was the great architect of Louis's career by this point but he had grown weary of her endless pushing and "henpecking." He accused Lil of cheating on him, while at the same time, he began seeing a young dancer named Alpha Smith, who would eventually become the third Mrs. Armstrong. Keep that in mind as you listen to "Droppin' Shucks":

For once, we get the verse first, this one in a minor mode like a number of other Hot Five verses. Armstrong then plays the lead, not one of the catchiest lines Lil ever wrote. Listen to Johnny Dodds in the ensemble again, playing the same lick he couldn't shake in "I'm Gonna Gitcha" twice in the first chorus and twice in the final chorus! After one ensemble go-around, Louis lets the rhythm section have one, Lil up first, Johnny St. Cyr taking the middle section and Lil closing out the chorus.

So far, nothing to write home about but again, Armstrong saves the record with an irresistible vocal:

Sweet mama, you been Droppin' Shucks on me,
Now I'm gonna drop 'em on you.
I saw you with your sweet man the other night,
And I know you was untrue.
I told you sweet mama, way last fall,
That you'd come and find another mule in your stall,
You been Droppin' Shucks on me,
And now I'm gonna drop shucks on you.
Hey, roses are red and violets are blue.
You run and talk but I'm cookin';
What's the matter with you?
You raved 'bout your papa sayin' he was it;
This sweet mama I got just won't quit,
You been droppin' shucks on me,
And now I'm gonna throw 'em on you.

Once again, what an actor. That final emphasis on "I'm gonna THROW 'em on you" makes me laugh every time. The quick-rhyming "roses are red" stop-time section even seems like another "roots of rap" moment. Now, damned if I know how this vocal matches the melody the band plays throughout the rest of the record. I almost get the feeling that Lil wrote the melody and maybe Louis inserted some fast-talking lyrics of his own because even the way they're almost talk-sung at points, they don't fit the melody. But Louis sells the hell out of them!

Dodds gets off a good solo but--surprise, surprise--there's the lick in bars 5 and 14! I think that's 11 times in two songs. Kid Ory follows with a simple solo, one that you know it's Ory but also one that shows that Armstrong was beginning to outpace his old friends (Ory sounds like he has trouble getting out of the break). Armstrong, perhaps knowing he didn't hit that high C squarely on "I'm Gonna Gitcha" comes out like a man on a mission to show his domination of the upper register. He's swinging from the get-go and almost immediately jumps up to a high A and shakes it. When it comes to the bridge, Ory takes the first part of the break but Armstrong takes over and shoots up to another high C and this time, nails it. The C's on "I'm Gonna Gitcha" and "Droppin' Shucks" are the highest notes Armstrong played on record up to this point--he still had a ways to go before he'd start knocking out those high F's!

I love that last ensemble chorus on "Droppin' Shucks," mostly because of Armstrong's dazzling playing, but it doesn't get much attention in the analysis of this music, I guess because it's an ensemble and the point people like to make is it's Armstrong's solos that are really the most striking aspects of these recordings. That's true to an extent but really, it's everything Armstrong does from solos to ensemble work to those endlessly entertaining vocals that stands out.

On the fourth and final song from the June 16 date, "Who'sit," Louis doesn't take a cornet solo (but he does solo on another instrument, as we'll soon see!), which again, has relegated this tune to the back burner; in fact, Armstrong devotee Hughes Panassie called it "the weakest of all Hot Five recordings." I disagree as I love the melody, I love the ensemble work and yes, I love that SLIDE WHISTLE solo by Louis! Listen and judge for yourself:

Like "I'm Gonna Gitcha," the band wastes no time jumping right in with the supremely catchy melody, written by the unknown Beatrice Jones (John Chilton assumed she was related to Richard M. Jones but that was never proven). What an ensemble! On Facebook, a friend recently asked for examples of great trumpet-trombone-clarinet New Orleans-styled front lines and I was shocked that dozens of examples were given before I volunteered the Hot Five. Again, the allure of Armstrong's solos has obscured some truly memorable collective improvisation.

The first chorus is an ensemble delight but then Ory takes the melody for a full chorus and struggles a bit; I love Ory but this wasn't one of his greatest sessions. But what follows is a bizarre moment that I love but some "hokum" that probably drove purists like Panassie and Schuller nuts: Armstrong's slide whistle solo. He had already recorded on slide whistle on "Sobbin' Blues" with King Oliver in 1923 so he was no stranger to the instrument. In fact, he sounds like a damn slide whistle virtuoso on "Who'sit"--just listen to the phrasing and the vibrato! The man could have played anything.

But if for some reason the slide whistle insults your dignity, just listen to the background where Johnny Dodds almost steals the show. I know I beat him up a bit for the repetitive playing on the previous two songs but wow does he come alive on this one! His bubbling low-register chalameau playing is a delight behind the slide whistle and he later he takes a hot solo that Gene Anderson has called "a miniature masterpiece." All hail, Johnny Dodds!

With only 28 seconds left, it's time for Louis to take over. He enters with a perfectly placed G that he holds for the duration of a break, the first time he uses this device that he'd come back to in later years (perhaps most memorably on "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues"). Towards the end of the chorus, Armstrong takes a longer break with stop-time backing that is phrased with such logic, in addition to the feeling of the blues--a wonderful moment! He once again ends with a slight variation on his favorite ending of this period, a dramatic punctuation mark to the day's work.

The June 16 date was done but OKeh wasn't through yet. For what happened on June 23, 1926, stay tuned for my next entry!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

60 Years of "Ambassador Satch"!

Having devoted my life to Louis Armstrong (and somehow made a living from Pops), I hear from Armstrong fans around the world on a regular basis. E-mails, Facebook comments, messages, texts, phone calls, I'm all Pops, all the time. I love hearing from everybody but I especially love hearing from musicians who dig Louis. In talking with such musicians, I always ask about their entry into Pops. For the longest time, it seemed like the answer was the Hot Fives and Sevens or maybe hearing Wynton Marsalis talk about Louis.

But in the last few years, hot jazz/traditional jazz/swing/call it what you want has experienced a renaissance with musicians in their 20s and 30s. And I swear, every time I ask that question to one of those musicians, the answer is almost invariably Ambassador Satch.

At first I was surprised. Not the Hot Fives and Sevens? Not the other Columbia masterpieces like Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy or Satch Plays Fats? Not the popular albums with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald or Oscar Peterson? Nope, Ambassador Satch. And it's a funny thing because in overall jazz world (whatever that means), Ambassador Satch isn't exactly hailed as a groundbreaking work. The contemporary reviews of the 1950s were careful to put it in third place after Handy and Fats. It didn't get a proper CD reissue until 2001 and even then, Sony didn't include any new liner notes or make it a "Legacy Edition" with lots of bonuses.

Yet with the odds seemingly stacked against it, the album has continuously inspired countless musicians since it was released 60 years ago in early May 1956. Every time, I post the iconic album cover on my Facebook page, musicians young and old come out of the woodwork to discuss the impact Ambassador Satch had on them. The late Lester Bowie said, "I first heard Ambassador Satch, I guess I was about 13. I read the story of how Louis Armstrong got with King Oliver, so I used to practice with my horn aiming out the window, hoping that Louis Armstrong would ride by and hear me and hire me to play with him."  Young trumpeter Bjorn Ingelstam calls it "One of the greatest albums ever." When I asked him what it means to him personally, he said, "There [are] not many words for me to use more than that this recording made all other music by other people sound like shit to me for about five years of my life. The level of music making here as a unit AND individuals on all positions is untouched by anyone including fantastic bands like Miles's, Blakey's and Oscar Peterson's trio, which is all constellations I consider to be up for discussion and I dearly love--but in my book, this is as good as it gets." Australian reed virtuoso Adrian Cunningham credits the album with making him want to be a jazz musician, saying, "I used to come home from school and put on the Louis Armstrong Ambassador Satch album, and play along with the clarinet, imagining I was in the band. What a thrill!" Trumpeter Rafael Castillo-Halvorssen recently visited and told the same story about the record, adding that he used to listen to it in awe with his mentor, the late great trumpeter Lew Soloff.

I almost thought of making this entire post a "What does Ambassador Satch mean to you?" discussion--and that can definitely be a sequel if enough people leave comments answering that question below!--but for the 60th anniversary, I thought it would be fun to just listen to the music. And to be specific, the music as issued by George Avakian in 1956.

How did I make it this far without mentioning George Avakian??? All hail, George Avakian! Ambassador Satch is a total George Avakian Production from inception to execution and he deserves nearly as much credit as Armstrong and His All Stars for the success of the album. If you're a longtime devotee of this blog, a Facebook friend, a relative or just someone who knows a little something about me, you know that I spent three years of my life working with Scott Wenzel on a 9-CD boxed set for Mosaic Records, Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and His All Stars, 1947-1958, which was released in 2014. For Ambassador Satch fans, the box is the Holy Grail as it unravels some of George's postproduction magic to present unedited takes, unissued tracks and in my 32,000 word liner notes, the entire back story of how the album came together.

Thus, if you're looking for the full story behind the album, see my notes to that set (basically the sequel to my book). But here's the short version for those looking for some quick answers as to how the album came about....and the sources George used to expertly cobble together the final product.

After recording "Mack the Knife" on September 28, 1955, the All Stars embarked on a three-month tour of Europe. Clarinetist Edmond Hall had just joined the band, raising the excitement quotient to off-the-charts levels. The rest of the band was made up of the stalwarts featured on Avakian's Handy and Fats works with Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano, Arvell Shaw on bass and Barrett Deems on drums.

Armstrong had always been a tremendous draw overseas but something was different on this 1955 tour: there were riots in Germany and France, major press coverage in the New York Times and U.S. News and World Report plus, on a tip from Avakian himself, the film cameras of Edward R. Murrow capturing priceless footage for an episode of See It Now that eventually morphed into the theatrical film, Satchmo the Great. Avakian knew the next album he had to record would feature excerpts from Armstrong's exceptional European tour.

He took the first steps on October 30, 1955 by recording an entire concert at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. Neither Sony or George himself had the original master recording of the entire concert, which is a shame but a so-so quality bootleg has circulated for years and documents a very strong night by the band. However, George's notes on the concert do survive and have been uploaded to the blog of Chris Albertson. They're fascinating because they illustrate George's high standards (and his hatred of bass solos).

With Armstrong's regular show in the can, Avakian wanted to record some repertoire. But the All Stars were averaging two shows a day and had no time to put together anything new. Avakian had an idea: after the All Stars did two shows in Milan on December 20, Avakian rented out an abandoned theater and held and after-hours recording session. A few dozen wild Italian fans followed Armstrong and the All Stars to the theater and George let the tapes roll until after 5 a.m., getting different material like "West End Blues," "The Faithful Hussar," "That's a Plenty," "You Can Depend on Me," and "Tiger Rag." The Italian fans screamed their heads off but George still had to add a layer of fake applause to make the recordings seem like they were made during actual "live" shows.

Back in the States, Armstrong's previous label Decca reared its head and didn't allow Avakian to release anything Decca had released while they had Armstrong under an exclusive contract from 1951 to 1954. That eliminated a lot of what George had already recorded. Thus, he put together a full-blown studio session in Los Angeles on July 24, 1956 and waxed two more tracks for the album, "Twelfth Street Rag" and "All of Me."

After selecting ten songs (and fudging the recording dates for "Muskrat Ramble" and "Royal Garden Blues" so they could slip through the Decca restriction), Avakian went to work to give the album the true feel of what it felt like to see the All Stars live in Europe on this tour. Yes, that meant the usual practices of editing and splicing, as well as adding crowd noise, but Avakian really covered all bases: in Los Angeles, he recorded what the tape box described as "Theatre Voice Tks," a sequence of Armstrong shouting encouragement and the names of the band members to be separated and sprinkled throughout the final album like parmesan cheese on an Italian feast.

Normally on this blog, I upload audio to another site and post links to listen to it here. In this streaming era, the original album is sadly not on Spotify but it is still available as an MP3 download on Amazon. Find it there or dig it out on YouTube (it's all there) but here's some quick track-by-track notes!


Royal Garden Blues (Milan) - After a dramatic introduction from the emcee at the October 30, 1955 Amsterdam show and a shout of "Yeah!" from Armstrong that was recorded in Los Angeles (!), we move to the after-hours session in Milan for this barn-burning opening track. I've argued it for years--and it looks like I'm no longer alone!--but the Armstrong-Trummy-Hall front line was the most exciting one in All Stars history and this is a perfect illustration of it. Also, after the agile splicing work in the beginning, Avakian relaxed as the number was recorded in one complete take, plus an encore (well, there's lots of fake applause bursts but still, Avakian didn't need to break out the splicing block once the music started). For more on Pops and "Royal Garden Blues," see my 2008 blog.

Tin Roof Blues (Amsterdam) - This slow New Orleans Rhythm Kings favorite was recorded live in Amsterdam but Avakian couldn't help himself, repeating a few bars in two separate places (listen to the cymbals change early on) to cover up something he didn't like. Great lead playing by Louis and wonderful little solos by Young and Hall.

The Faithful Hussar (Milan) - Louis picked this one up in Dusseldorf as it was originally a German folk song known as "Der Treue Husar." In English, it was "The Faithful Hussar" but you can hear Louis butcher it as "Huzzah Cuzzah" in the intro. According to Avakian's handwritten notes he had two "exceptional" takes to choose from, eventually going with the bulk of take four, though the Philips single has another solo by Billy Kyle. The one really romps, powered along by the bass playing of Arvell Shaw and the rocking drums of Barrett Deems. Yes, there's some fake applause but listen through it for the real sound of the Milan fans screaming their heads off! The "yeah, yeah, yeah" as Swatson, I mean, Trummy starts to roar is also from Los Angeles.

Muskrat Ramble (Amsterdam) - Another legitimate live track with no postproduction work by Avakian. This, to me, is the great example of the Armstrong-Hall-Young band in full force. The opening ensemble choruses alone set the stage; the performance could have ended before the piano solo and no one would have complained. But the solos are wonderful, too, especially Louis with all of those quotes he unleashes throughout ("Louise," "Serenade," "Bye Bye Blackbird," the "Habanera" from "Carmen" and more. In my very first public lecture on Armstrong, done at the Institute of Jazz Studies in February 2006, I played this track from start to finish to illustrate the power and swing of this band. I can still see people's faces as they shook their head in wonderment of the interplay of this band. For more on this performance, see my old blog here.


All of Me (Los Angeles) - While in Milan, singer Ray Martino was asked to come up on stage and introduce Armstrong in Italian, which Avakian recycled for the start of side two. "All of Me" was always a feature for Velma Middleton but Avakian had the idea that Armstrong should record it since he helped put it on the map in 1932. It wasn't easy; it took the group nine takes (some very short breakdowns) to iron it out but an opening ensemble from take six and the rest coming from take nine, Avakian put together quite a winner (and the first Ambassador Satch track I ever heard as it was part of the 16 Most Requested Songs compilation that changed my life in 1995.

Twelfth Street Rag (Los Angeles) - This is a total Los Angeles special. Avakian originally recorded three takes of the introduction with Armstrong calling it "before his time" and Young and Hall inhabiting their stage personas to shout that there's nothing before his time (Hall, at one point ad libs, "He's older than Vaseline," breaking up the studio). Avakian cut it all except Armstrong's opening part, placing it over Kyle's piano introduction. The "Yeah, Edmond Hall" is another Los Angeles "theater voice track" Avakian peppered into the clarinetist's solo. This one, too, took six takes to perfect, Armstrong sounding like superman in the first few while Hall and Young didn't get sufficiently warmed up until take six. Armstrong had included this good-natured send-up of the cornier strands of Dixieland since the early days of the All Stars but this shorter version works especially well as a (somewhat) straightforward instrumental.

Undecided (Amsterdam) - Props to Avakian for allowing the other All Stars to shine on this record, too. Charlie Shavers's tune always made great fodder for Trummy to tear apart like a mad donkey (as he sometimes said), but Louis and Billy Kyle shine, too. The only editing Avakian needed to do was to fix the encore as the band had a quick collision coming in from the drum solo, all smoothed over on the final release.

Dardanella (Amsterdam) - Another All Stars feature taken from Amsterdam, this one spotlights Hall, who worked out this fun take on this 1919 song. It serves as a great intro to Hall's playing, capturing his unique tone, swinging feel and spiky exhalations.

West End Blues (Milan) - Again, it took nerve to tackle Armstrong's greatest moment from those glorious 1928 days but damn if they don't create another masterpiece. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is as important or better than the original. BUT on its own, I just love the hell out of it. For years, I, too, was biased and thought it was okay but no match for the original. And then trumpeter Ray Vega visited the Armstrong House years ago and told me he preferred the more dramatic, slower reading of the cadenza to the original. And then another trumpeter, Greg Hammontree, was working with me at the Archives and he kept having me play the last chorus over and over and he couldn't get over the high C Armstrong plays at the end after the descending arpeggios. After consulting with those two, I had a whole new appreciation, which has lasted until the current day when admittedly, I probably listen to this one more than the original! For my take on the entire "West End Blues" saga, here's the last blog I wrote about it in 2013.

Tiger Rag (Milan) - We conclude with a song that was somehow not in the All Stars's repertoire, one suggested by Edmond Hall at the after hours session in Milan. It knocked Louis out, who told a disc jockey after the album was released, "You ain't never heard 'Tiger Rag' in your life like them cats, the longer they played it." And all hail Barrett Deems! Critics loved to beat up his "heavy" style but like the Ambassador Satch album as a whole, more and more musicians I meet today just love his playing. Years ago, before the Mosaic set came out, I did an entire blog on this version, with a rehearsal and breakdown that didn't make the final set. You can read about it here.

And that's it for the finished album. Once the recordings were finished, Avakian wrote some typically evocative (if partially fictitious) liner notes and approved the album cover design, my favorite in the entire Armstrong discography. Check it out:

It's irresistible! In fact, in the August 11, 1956 issue of Billboard, a panel of "experts in the field of industrial design and graphic arts" named it the "winner of first place in the Pop category." I wonderful how many copies were sold on that cover design alone?

On April 25, Avakian wrote to Joe Moore about the album. I quoted from this in my book and the Mosaic set but here it is in full:

"Dear, Joe,

Following up our conversation with Joe Glaser at the Hickory House today, this is the information on the new Louis Armstrong album: 

It was recorded in Europe last winter, in Amsterdam and Milan, in the course of his great tour. We are calling it Ambassador Satch, because I feel he is the best ambassador we have, and he is the one artist who is most universally appreciated throughout the world. I flew over just before the Ed Murrow See It Now sequences were shot in Paris, and then followed Louis to the completion of the album.

Included in the notes of the album is the story of the tour, and quotes from the New York Times article that hit the front page when Louis was in Geneva at the same time that the Big Four conferences were going on.

We announced the album yesterday to our distributors in a coast-to-coast CBS closed-circuit radio broadcast, in which we told them the background of the album and played extracts for it. ANd, I might add, solicited orders then and there. I don't think any album in record history has ever had such a send-off by any organization.

It will be out in a few days, and I will be pleased to send you a couple of copies.

Sincerely yours,


The album made its first appearance in Billboard on May 12 in an advertisement for Columbia naming it the number two Best Selling Pop Album, right behind My Fair Lady and ahead of the likes of Songs of the West (Norman Luboff and Choir), The Eddy Duchin Story, Reflections of an Indian Boy (Paul Weston and Orchestra) and It's So Peaceful in the Country (Percy Faith and Mitch Miller). And as George always points out to me, Billboard didn't tabulate the sales in the Columbia Record Club, which was a phenomenon then. Who knows how many copies it sold through the subscription-based club?

The following week, the May 19 issue of Billboard gave it a short review, saying, "A souvenir-recorded on the spot of Armstrong's concert tour of Western Europe in the fall of 1955. This LP demonstrates how Armstrong wins friends for himself--and our country--everywhere he goes. The material itself is classic: 'Royal Garden Blues,' 'Tin Roof Blues,' 'West End Blues,' 'Muskrat Ramble,' 'Tiger Rag' and so on. Every time Armstrong plays them they have a new appeal it seems. The spontaneity of his re-creation of the New Orleans vintage is particularly marked here. 'Satch' handles all vocals himself. A big volume seller on the order of other recent 'Satch' LPs."

The last line proved prophetic. In addition to remaining on Columbia's Pop Albums chart, the album soon hit Billboard's jazz charts, which debuted in the fall of 1956. On November 3, 1956, it hit the number two Jazz spot. It was number three on November 24, bumped down one slot by the new number one champion: Ella and Louis. Browsing through Google's scans of Billboard, the album didn't go anywhere, still number three on the jazz charts on March 30, 1957, almost a year after its initial release.

It was a great time to be a Louis Armstrong fan but it was also a frustrating time as it was in 1956 that negative criticism of Armstrong hit a fever pitch in the jazz world. Ambassador Satch thus, only got three stars in DownBeat, the review stating, "Of Louis' three albums for Columbia in the last two years, this is the least satisfying. A large part of the reason is his band, whose weaknesses are more open-ended on stage than in a more controlled studio context. Trombonist Trummy Young's playing has become increasingly coarsened. The rhythm section is stiff, largely because of the unremitting heaviness of drummer Barrett Deems, who has not loosened up since joining Louis....The unit never sustains one whole number in irresistible collective flight."

That was around the same time Downbeat's Jack Tracy obliterated the All Stars's appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival....and Metronome accused him of being an Uncle Tom....and the New York Times's John S. Wilson slammed THREE All Stars shows within one year. Armstrong's popularity put a target on his back in the jazz press in 1956, which is a shame, because 1956 might be my single favorite year in the Armstrong discography (add in the Chicago Concert, the footage in Satchmo the Great, all the material on the Mosaic set, High Society, Ella and Louis, the beginning of Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography....see what I mean?).

But history has been very, very kind to Ambassador Satch as it continues to inspire generations of musicians not even born when Louis Armstrong left this planet 45 years ago today. Word of mouth lasts forever and as long as jazz musicians have ears, I'm sure there'll be someone somewhere saying, "Man, you've gotta hear Ambassador Satch!"

And a closing shoutout to George Avakian one more time. Speaking of lasting forever, George continues going strong at the age of 97. On April 30, International Jazz Day, he showed up to my screening of Satchmo the Great at the Museum of the City of New York. Check out this photo my friend James Demaria shot of George at the event:

God bless George Avakian. God bless Louis Armstrong. God bless the All Stars! God bless Ambassador Satch!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

You're Lucky to Me

Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra
Recorded October 16, 1930
Track Time 3:31
Written by Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf
Recorded in Los Angeles, CA
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; George Orendorff, Harold Scott, trumpet; Luther Craven, trombone; Les Hite, alto saxophone, baritone saxophone conductor; Marvin Johnson, alto saxophone; Charlie Jones, clarinet, tenor saxophone; Henry Prince, piano; Bill Perkins, banjo; Joe Bailey, bass; Lionel Hampton, drums
Originally released on OKeh 41478
Currently available on CD: It’s on the JSP two-disc set The Big Band Sides, 1930-1932. The alternate take in on an old Columbia disc Volume 7: You’re Driving Me Crazy.

In 2015, I began what I hoped would be an extended series celebrating the 85th anniversary of all the great songs Louis Armstrong recorded while in California from July 1930 to March 1931. Alas, my wife's pregnancy and the ultimate arrival of Baby Lily put an end to that but anniversaries be damned, I still want to celebrate these sides so I'm soldiering on.

On October 16, 1930, Armstrong and Les Hite's Orchestra recorded two numbers composed by the great team of Eubie Blake and Andy Razaf for "Lew Leslie's Blackbirds." The first one was "Memories of You," which I've covered in the past, but the second one is new to this blog: "You're Lucky to Me."

Ethel Waters introduced it in "Blackbirds" and according to Elmer Snowden, she "hit the ceiling" when "Memories of You," sung by Minto Cato, became the show's big hit. Waters got to it first on recording waxing it on September 1, 1930. Here's her version, opening with sweet strings and the verse:

Waters treats it as a passionate love song for the first half of the performance before she swings out gently in the second half, backed by some pretty athletic piano playing (is that Eubie? He backed her on it during the show so it would make sense).

Though "Memories of You" became a bigger hit (and better-known standard), that didn't stop "You're Lucky to Me" from being recorded by a variety of musicians in late 1930. The first jazz recording I can find is this stomping version by the Charleston Chasers done on September 30, 1930 and featuring Phil Napoleon, trumpet, Tommy Dorsey, trombone, Jimmy Dorsey, clarinet and alto, Frank Signorelli, piano and Stan King on drums--dig King's press rolls!

The Charleston Chasers version demonstrates that jazz musicians already found it an appealing song to rough up a bit but remember, jazz was still not "America's popular music" quite yet. To get a taste of what was still selling the most records in 1930, here's a dance band treatment byJustin Ring and His Dance Orchestra with a typical vocal for the period by Irving Kaufman. Really let this sink in--the muted straight reading of the melody by the trumpet, Kaufman's don't-change-a-note vocal, everything:

Okay, got that in your head? Now let's listen to Louis Armstrong and His Sebastian Cotton Club Orchestra romp on October 16, 1930:

I say it all the time, but it's like he's from another planet (my real favorite example of this comes on "You're Driving Me Crazy," which I'll update and post something about it the hopefully not too distant future). After the neat little arranged opening, Louis is on his own to deliver the melody as only he could; in fact, it almost sounds like he's playing the melody and an obligato at the same time, as he answers the melody statements with perfect little responding phrases (the descending arpeggio leading into the bridge is classic Armstrong vocabulary). The rhythm section swings behind him, Lionel Hampton keeping it swinging on drums while guitarist Bill Perkins plays such an attractive countermelody, it could almost be considered a trumpet-and-guitar duet.

The band takes a short interlude to allow Louis to step up to the microphone to deliver another one of those classic early 1930s vocals that drove the likes of Irving Kaufman into a new line of work.  Perkins's guitar still doesn't quit but the main attraction is Louis who immediately enters by singing a new melody rather than the one Blake had written. Except the the moan before the second eight bars, the "oh baby" before the bridge and the "Nowwww" before the last eight bars, Louis is very respectful from a linguistic standpoint, actually singing Razaf's lyrics and not breaking into any scat detours. Still, someone should transcribe the melody Louis sings and compare it with Blake did because its really its own marvelous creation.

After the passionate, soulful end to the vocal, it's time for another instrumental soloist to step up, this time bandleader Hite and his baritone saxophone. The solos on these California recordings never bother me, mostly because the soloists are good (though Lawrence Brown had left by this point) and the rhythm section swings like mad (take a bow, Hamp). Hite burps and croaks effectively while the other horns riff simply, but swingingly. I wonder if they even had an arrangement on this one; beside the introduction and the setup to the vocal, everything is very sparse and sounds like a "head" creation. Piano takes the bridge, or should I say "pianos"; discographies list Henry Prince and Harvey Brooks as pianists on this session. Does anyone hear two pianos? It's possible but I'm not quite sold.

Hite finishes the chorus before Louis enters with a perfectly placed single note, foreshadowing late such entrances on records like "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues." Louis is so ultra relaxed here, swinging easy, but he wakes up for a surprising, twisty break before resorting back to the lower register for more floating, including a mini-gliss. His second break contains more prime Armstrong language but he fluffs one note and it doesn't quite come off as he intended.

We're halfway through the final chorus and though Louis's playing is wonderfully loose, he hasn't quite flexed the muscles yet. In fact, he sounds like he's conserving his strength for the end of the record. He hits a few high ones in the bridge but leaves an awful lot of space; it's a nice dramatic effect, building up the tension. For a minute, one might wonder, "Hm, are his chops hurting?" Just keep listening: he comes out of the bridge with a dazzling break, ends up in the upper register and powers through the melody an octave higher building up the the big ending where he glisses up to a high concert F for the first time on record. It's a bit of a squeak but he hits it. It's a good example of Louis gradually starting to expand his register; that high F would be super fat and crystal clear in just a short time.

As if to emphasize their leader's super ending, the band shouts, "Gate!" in unison, something, again, sorely lacking from many dance band records of the time. "You're Lucky to Me" went on to be a moderate standard in the jazz world, once again, thanks to Louis, but I don't think he ever returned to it (the flip side, "Memories of You," had a longer association in his career). Still, there's no duds in Armstrong's California bunch, something proved next time out when I finally tackle "Sweethearts on Parade" for the first time in the nearly nine-year history of this blog. Stay tuned!

Friday, February 26, 2016

90 Years of the Hot Five's Greatest Session

Louis Armstrong and His Hot FiveRecorded February 26, 1926
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo

On July 12, 1954, Louis Armstrong recorded six songs in one evening for the epic album "Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy." While working on the sixth and final tune, "Long Gone," producer George Avakian came up to Louis and asked, "What's the last time you made six in one evening?" "Man," Armstrong responded, "it's been years since that shit. It's wonderful."

Armstrong wasn't kidding. Six tunes in one session is a lot for any artist and Armstrong hadn't it done it many times before. One occasion that jumps to mind is an immortal Decca session on May 18, 1936 that included gems like "Lyin' to Myself," "Swing That Music" and "Mahogany Hall Stomp." (I covered that session for its 75th anniversary and might revisit it for its upcoming 80th.) And the Victor session of January 26, 1933 was another six-tune classic, including "I've Got the World on a String," "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and four other performances for the time capsule.

But I don't think that anyone can argue that pretty much the most ridiculous six-song session Louis Armstrong ever recorded was done 90 years ago this week, a Hot Five session on February 26, 1926. The rundown? "Georgia Grind," "Heebie Jeebies," "Cornet Chop Suey," "Oriental Strut," "You're Next" and "Muskrat Ramble." My goodness, that's a lot of history in session.

In 2011, for the 85th anniversary, I posted separate entries on all six pieces, but for the 90th, I'm combining those original entries (with updated info when possible) into this massive manifesto.

First, a little back story. As chronicled here recently, November 12, 1925 marked the very first Hot Five recording session. Three tunes were waxed, with "Gut Bucket Blues" being pegged as the first "A-side" with "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" being the flip. It was released in late December 1925 and from what I can tell, it seems to have taken off pretty quickly. OKeh obviously wanted more…..a lot more.

On February 22, the Hot Five knocked off "Come Back Sweet Papa," another fine instrumental, while Louis spent February 23 and 24 lending his accompaniment on nine separate sides by blues singers Bertha "Chippie" Hill, Baby Mack and Hociel Thomas. After a day off on the 25th (presumably some rehearsal time was scheduled), the Hot Five returned on 26th to knock off six sides, including what would become, by far, their most popular recording: "Heebie Jeebies."

E. A. Fearn, the man overseeing the Hot Five recordings for OKeh, liked Armstrong's spoken contributions to "Gut Bucket Blues" and requested more such vocal numbers. The February 26 session, thus, began with "Georgia Grind," a close relative (twin, perhaps?) of "Shake That Thing."

So what came first, “Georgia Grind” or “Shake That Thing”? All signs seem to point to “Shake That Thing,” though do not be confused: Ford Dabney wrote a ragtime piece titled “Georgia Grind” in 1915 but it has nothing to do with the Spencer Williams tune Armstrong recorded in 1926 (certain websites claim Williams wrote it in 1915…wrong!). Some versions of “Shake That Thing” credit the tune to “Traditional” but from what I can tell, it really belongs to New Orleans banjoist Papa Charlie Jackson, who recorded the first version of the song in May 1925. It’s pretty uptempo compared to some later versions, but a lot of the hallmarks are there, including the line about the “Jellyroll king.” Jackson’s record must have been something of a hit because by the end of 1925, it was already being covered by the likes of Clarence Williams’s Blue Five (December 15, 1925) and Ethel Waters (December 23, 1925). Waters slowed it down to give it more of a blues feeling.

The “Shake That Thing” craze continued into 1926 with Jimmy O’Bryant’s Washboard Band waxing it in January and Abe Lyman’s California Ambassador Orchestra recorded a hot version on February 1. With one “Shake That Thing” cover after another being recorded, it was only a natural to have a copycat version soon appear. Enter our friend Spencer Williams. Williams perhaps remembered the title of the Dabney piece but more to point, Jackson’s first line referenced the peach state: “Now down in Georgia, they got a dance that’s new/ There ain’t nothin’ to it, it is easy to do/ Called ‘Shake That Thing.” Williams then borrowed a line that had been around for years:

Papa, Papa, just look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this

On his Library of Congress recordings, Jelly Roll Morton sings this line on more than one occasion, including on “Michigan Water Blues” and “Hesitating Blues.” He sings it as:

Mama, mama, look at sis, she’s out on the levee, doin’ the double twist

Obviously, Williams substituting “shaking like this” for “double twist” is a sly wink to “Shake That Thing.” Otherwise, both tunes are identical, though even I’ll admit, there are traces of this melody in many other blues tunes, including the verse to “Hesitating Blues.” And Joe Oliver’s solo on “Jazzin’ Babies Blues,” the one that Armstrong would borrow many times throughout the years, also has a “Shake That Thing”-type feel to it. But it does appear that Armstrong’s Hot Five was the first group to take a crack at the “Georgia Grind” so if you’d like to hear how they did, here 'tis:

Now I like “Georgia Grind” because it’s one of those Hot Five records that didn’t set out to change the world, instead only aiming to entertain its listeners. It was recorded on the same day as “Heebie Jeebies,” “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Muskrat Ramble,” three tunes that indeed change the world and more power to ‘em, but “Georgia Grind” is one those reminders that young Louis “the artist” also had quite a bit of “the entertainer” in him as well. And by sharing the vocal with his wife Lil, why, it’s a practical blueprint for the duets with Velma Middleton of later years (more in a bit).

Armstrong starts the record at the V chord of the blues as the simples means for an introduction. He plays the melody in a very straight-forward fashion with Dodds and Ory sounding very comfortable (this didn’t always happen). We’re not even 30 seconds in and here comes Lil with the vocal:

Papa, Papa, look at sis, out in the backyard shaking like this,
Doing that Georgia Grind, that old Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s talking about that old Georgia Grind.

I can shake it east, I can shake it west, but way down south I can shake it best,
Doing that Georgia Grind, I said dirty Georgia Grind,
Now everybody’s raving about that old Georgia Grind.

Ory then plays the melody for a few bars before improvising a simple solo that practically screams his name. Then Pops steps up to the mike for a good-time vocal. He was still in his enthusiastic, half-speaking, half-shouting days and I love it:

Come in here gal, come in here right now, out there trying to be bad and you don’t know how,
Doing the Georgia Grind, ohhhh, the Georgia Grind,
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.

Say Old Miss Jones was bent and gray, saw the Georgia Grind, threw her stick away,
She did the Georgia Grind, yessir she went crazy about the Georgia Grind—you know one thing?
Everybody’s trying to do the Georgia Grind.

I love those two choruses. Armstrong sings with more soul and feeling than those in the soul and R&B music world of today. Just listen to how he sings "Ole Miss Jones," for one example, while I can’t imagine another pure blues singer doing better than Armstrong on words like “Everybody,” where he bends the first syllable beyond the blue horizon. And that quick, “You know one thing” would become something of a trademark. After the vocal, Johnny Dodds takes an eight-bar solo before Pops leads the rideout for the final four bars. No high notes, no stop-time solos, no dazzling feats of rhythmic risk-taking. Just some straightforward lead horn and a fun vocal and that’s all I need. After listening to it, I feel entertained and for Pops, that was mission accomplished.

With a big name like Spencer Williams behind it, it only made sense that the “Georgia Grind” would spread much like “Shake That Thing” had only months earlier. On March 18, Duke Ellington recorded it under the banner of The Washingtonians. Ellington creatively took it at an up tempo but using long meter to keep the same feel of the melody over the double-timing rhythm section. You can hear that version by clicking here. Thomas Morris and His Seven Hot Babies recorded it on July 13 and just eight days later, Jelly Roll Morton accompanied Edmonia Henderson on her version of the tune. After that, “Georgia Grind” kind of disappeared but the lyrics would be used again and again in a hundred incarnations. In April 1928, Henry Williams recorded something called “Georgia Crawl” which “borrowed” more than a little from “Georgia Grind.” It begins with the “Papa, Papa, look at sis” chorus, continues with the “I can shake it east” chorus and even has Pops’s “Come here right now” segment. Blind Willie McTell would also sing about a “Georgia Crawl” in some of his early 30s blues tunes while Coot Grant and Kid Wilson sung about “shaking it east.”

As the years went on, “Georgia Grind” more or less vanished, only being performed by some European trad bands that remembered the Hot Five record. “Shake That Thing” lived on, though, in both blues and New Orleans jazz circles, though the lyrics often changed. When Kid Ory recorded it for Good Time Jazz in 1954, he opened his vocal by singing, “Mama, mama, look at sis” from “Georgia Grind.” The Preservation Hall Jazz Band continues to perform it.

But back to our hero, Mr. Armstrong, he wasn’t quite done with “Georgia Grind,” either. When he tackled the massive Autobiography project of 1956 and 1957, “Georgia Grind” was one of the tunes selected for the Hot Five recreations, overseen by Bob Haggart. The performance follows the 1926 original to a tee, though the tempo is a little slower, which I think is an improvement. And I always like to point out that in recreating the Hot Fives and Sevens for the Autobiography, Pops didn’t feel the need to recreate the chunky feel of the original rhythm section. Times had changed and Pops was clearly more comfortable with the All Stars’s swinging feel, augmented by George Barnes’s smooth electric guitar comping. Here's how it came out in 1957:

Pops again plays the intro and one chorus up front, playing a dazzling phrase at the 16 second mark as the I chord turns to the IV. It’s a short burst of velocity that shows that even in his mature style, he was more than capable of the quick flurries that marked his younger playing days.

Velma plays the role of Lil here and it’s a perfect fit. Elsewhere on the Autobiography, Velma had to play the role of the blues queens of the 1920s and though she did a professional job, it wasn’t exactly her forte and as a result, those sides are pretty forgettable (besides some stirring obbligatos from Pops). But “Georgia Grind” was right in her bag and as she sings, Pops can be heard interacting with her, which he didn’t do with Lil in 1926. He answers her lines and even repeats the title phrase after she sings it. It’s really a duet in the true sense of the word. Trummy takes a smooth trombone spot before Pops takes over. His shouting days were pretty much behind him but he still speaks part of his lines and his reading of the phrase “Georgia Grind” is priceless. Pops continues on with his vocal—the “you know one thing” line is still there—while Edmond Hall offers fine support behind him. Hall then takes a hot solo before Pops leads the final rideout chorus. On the original record, he only entered for the last four bars but here he takes a full one. Trummy’s ready to play, entering before Hall’s solo is even finished and Pops sounds very bluesy in his lead playing. The song has such a great feel that I wish they could have jammed a couple of more choruses, but I’ll take what I can get (though Pops does get to stretch out a bit at a similar tempo on the very exciting “Snag It” from the Autobiography).

With one song out of the way, it was now time to make history. "Georgia Grind" was all well and good, but not exactly earth shattering. Well, that all changed with the next tune on the docket, "Heebie Jeebies."

This is a performance that has been written to death about since it was waxed 90 years ago today and it's still shrouded in mystery. I don't think I can shed any definitive light on it, but it's always a fun track to listen to and debate what conspiracy theories we have as to what really happened that day.

What we do know is the song was written by Chicago violinist Boyd Atkins, a member of Louis's band at the Sunset Cafe. But the first mystery arises around the lyrics: were there any when Louis got around to recording it? Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr remembered that OKeh head E. A. Fearn asked Louis to whip up some lyrics for this "Heebie Jeebies" song. St. Cyr remembered Louis sitting in the corner, writing them out and trying to familiarize himself with them before the recording light went on.

Hmmm, maybe this happened, maybe it didn't (I don't know why St. Cyr would make it up). But of course, it's what happened once the recording began that has become the stuff of legend. Richard M. Jones, who oversaw a lot of black music recorded for OKeh, was the first to tell the tale that while Louis singing the vocal, he dropped the words and started to scat. According to Jones, Louis carried the microphone with him to the floor at the same time that Jones dove for the lyrics, causing both men to hit their heads! Armstrong kept going, the record was released and viola, scat singing was on the map.

A fine story, but one aspect of it completely wrongheaded: there were no microphones in the studio as the song was recorded acoustically. So right there, the whole idea of Louis at a microphone, hitting his head and all that stuff, becomes rather silly.

But what if we remove the microphone part? What if we just stick to the basics: Louis was singing the song, dropped the sheet with the lyrics, scatted for a while and the record was released. A lot of people have trouble with this story as well, but you know what? After hearing it for so many years, I think I've started to maybe believe it.

Never mind Jones; Louis never wavered in his telling the story that way for over 30 years. He was asked it countless times and he always gave the same answer, as can be heard on a number of his private recordings housed at the Louis Armstrong House Museum. In my private collection, I have a number of interviews and conversations Louis did, including one with producer George Avakian at the Armstrong home in 1953. Avakian produced the first major reissue of this material in the early 40s and quoted the famous "dropped lyrics" story in his notes, which really turned it into legend. But there he was, grilling Armstrong at his home in private and Pops still didn't change his story.

On top of that, Johnny St. Cyr and Kid Ory said the same thing! Really, what did it matter to them? Armstrong and Ory had a somewhat awkward relationship and Ory could have easily said it was bunk. I'm sure there wasn't a private, Hot Five reunion phone call in the 1940s with each man making a solemn promise to stick by this story.

And then there's the matter of the record itself, which isn't very polished and contains a giant gaffe in the routine at its conclusion. Shall we listen to it now? Let's...

There it is. Did you catch the gaffe at the end? Of course, it's Kid Ory jumping the gun with his response, "Whatcha doin' with the Heebies?" In Armstrong's first Hot Five session, Johnny Dodds suffered mike fright during "Gut Bucket Blues" and Ory was the one who had to rescue the day. But here, the Kid blows the routine, allowing for the incredibly awkward moment of silence as Lil and St. Cyr play that weak Charleston beat. The whole thing reeks of a first take but according to Armstrong, Fearn was so tickled by the scat interlude that he stopped the proceedings right there, knowing they had just created something special. Louis, as we'll hear, did exaggerate it a bit, I feel, as he usually said that Fearn walked into the studio and said, "Louie Armstrong, this is where scat was born." That sounds a little convoluted, but again, early newspaper articles from the period did soon refer to the "skat" craze, so maybe Fearn predicted it all in a matter of minutes.

So let's listen to Louis. In 1956, he gave a series of interviews for the Voice of America where he introduced his favorite recordings. Here's the intro to "Heebie Jeebies" with Louis telling a definitive version of the "dropped lyric" story:

There it is, straight from the source. One thing Louis mentions there is Jelly Roll Morton's "Library of Congress" recordings. It should be mentioned that when "Heebie Jeebies" was released, it created a nationwide scat-singing sensation. But as has been proved countless times, this was not the first scat vocal to be recorded; Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards and Don Redman both beat Louis to the punch. But "Heebie Jeebies" was a hit and helped make Louis a star and to many, Louis innovated the whole concept.

Well, Louis never claimed this to be true, as he often said he was doing this kind of singing was still in vocal quartets in New Orleans. But when Jelly Roll Morton did his Library of Congress interview with Alan Lomax, he took offense to Louis getting the credit for inventing scat. Naturally, Jelly Roll claimed he invented it, doing it with Tony Jackson while Armstrong was still a baby. Louis got a kick of out this section and I think was more than a little annoyed, as he brought it up in many, many interviews. He usually told Jelly's side with a laugh but there is one private tape at the Louis Armstrong House Museum that must be heard to be believed. Louis owned Jelly's Library of Congress records and transferred them to tape many times. But one time, he got to the scat story, stopped the tape, picked up his microphone and addressed Jelly directly…even though he was dead for over 10 years by this point! That didn't stop Louis from pretty much telling him off and bragging that he (Louis) was still performing and Jelly, for all his big opinions, was six feet in the ground!

Anyway, to get back on point, "Heebie Jeebies" isn't the first record to feature scat singing and Louis Armstrong didn't invent the concept, but it did a helluva lot to make it something that people began incorporating into their vocals almost immediately (so when you see a poor amateur singer incorporate a snatch of awkward scat on "American Idol," sending the crowd into a tizzy, thank "Heebie Jeebies"). Just think: this was Louis's third full vocal on record and he already upset the world. Amazing.

Louis kept scrapbooks with many of his 1920s reviews and the great majority mentioned "Heebies" (one naming him as "one of 'Heebies' pet writers"). Louis began featuring it with Erskine Tate's orchestra at the Vendome Orchestra and even did a dance to go along with it. A magazine titled Heebie Jeebies was formed, putting Louis on the cover, as well as Ethel Waters and composer Boyd Atkins, in September 1926:

But once he went out as a single in the late 20s, "Heebie Jeebies" seemed to have left the Armstrong repertoire...for good.

Seriously, there's not a single live performance of the tune in entire Armstrong discography except for one, and thankfully, it is a gassuh. It comes from the "Eddie Condon Floor Show" from September 3, 1949 and features Louis in pretty good company, surrounded by Wild Bill Daviso, Cutty Cutshall, Peanuts Hucko, rnie Caceres, Joe Bushkin, Condon, Jack Lesberg, George Wettling and Jack Teagarden. Armstrong tells the famous dropping-the-sheet-music story before recreating the performance. I love the vocal chorus because it features Condon's guitar playing, which I've always enjoyed. In most mixes, Condon's lost the in the shuffle, but occasionally he stood a little too close to the microphone, resulting in a chance to appreciate his driving pulse and seamless chord-work. Armstrong's on fire during the vocal, setting up some good solos (Hucko begins by quoting Armstrong's original scat solo!) before Pops up his horn for some absolutely dazzling playing. Overall, he takes three choruses , building to a ferocious climax driven by George Wettling's tidal wave of a roll. The original "Heebie Jeebies" is pretty historic but from a purely musical standpoint, this remake cuts the original to ribbons. Dig it:

And like "Georgia Grind," Pops payed one last tribute to this Hot Five classic in his 1957 project, Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography. The one thing I haven't mentioned about the original "Heebie Jeebies" is the quality of the instrumental music played, which is okay, but nothing spectacular. For the Autobiography, Louis had his greatest All Stars with him, including Edmond Hall on clarinet and Trummy Young on trombone, and the difference in quality of the solos is marked. The tempo is faster, like the Condon version, and the whole thing romps from start to finish. Unfortunately, it's over a little too quick--there was definitely time for one more chorus, a la the Condon version--but there's good news: the "whatcha doin' with the Heebies" hokum is straightened out! And for that, we should be thankful. In fact, Armstrong's friend Jeann Failows was in attendance at this session and a few of her write-ups survive at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, each of them making special emphasis on this performance and how much fun everyone had doing it. Enjoy!

So that's "Heebie Jeebies," an absolute iconic moment in the history of jazz singing. But an equally iconic moment would follow it, this one for the history of jazz solos. At this point in the session, the Armstrong horn still hadn't had much to do.

Well, that all changed with the third song written that day "Cornet Chop Suey." This is a piece that has gotten writers breathless for decades and I don't know how much I can add. You want to know what made Louis Armstrong such a revolutionary musician in the 1920s? Well, it's all right here for you. He's in complete command of his horn, playing almost clarinet figures his trumpet (or cornet). The melody of "Cornet Chop Suey," which he wrote, is very forward-thinking, a harbinger of snake-like melodies that would come later on in the bop era (Scott Robinson recorded a wonderful updated take on this tune in recent years, but I'd love to hear a bebop front line of trumpet and alto tear through this melody in unison...wouldn't sound out-of-date for a second).

And then there's that stop-time solo, every note so perfectly placed and swinging, it's almost as if he wrote it out beforehand. But that could never happen, not in these righteous days of pure jazz, when, if you weren't improvising, well, you might as well be playing dance band music with Vincent Lopez. Right? Hello? Bueller?

Of course, some of you might not know where I'm heading, but here's the straight dope: every note of "Cornet Chop Suey" was written down by Louis Armstrong and registered at the Library of Congress on JANUARY 24, 1924! Two years before he recorded it!

Don't believe me? Well, I don't know how good this is going to work, but Lawrence Gushee wrote a defintive piece on Louis and improvisation that now appears in the book "In the Course of Performance." That book is available on Google Books and you can scroll to page 300 to see a copy of it, right in Louis's hand. Here's a link.

This is not new news. The Library of Congress deposits were discovered in the 80s and have been writen about often since. In fact, when I was a member of the Master's program in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers, when we got to the subject of Armstrong in our Jazz Historiography class, our professor, Lewis Porter, passed this around to make the point that improvisation in the early days wasn't exactly a given. Soloists such as Louis and Kid Ory and King Oliver worked on their solos and once they had it down perfect, well, why in the hell mess with it? They were playing for dancers and making records for a quick buck, never thinking that students at universities would be analyzing their every eighth-note rest.

Louis himself admitted as much. I don't have the quotes at hand (but--plug alert--they're in my book), but he talked about it with Richard Meryman in the 1960s, basically saying that everything he played was improvised at one point. But once he got it down, that's it, only change a few notes here and there, as long as they fit. He made sure to stress that's how it was in the old days, when everybody was supposedly improvising.

So here's "Cornet Chop Suey" two years before it got waxed, and it's all there: that incredible introduction, the melody and even every note of the stop-time chorus, marked by Louis as the "Patter" section. Now should this change anyone's opinion of "Cornet Chop Suey"? I should hope not. If so, if you really need every note of your jazz to be freshly minted from the tortured artist's brain, I feel sorry for you. Because me, I can admire what Louis put into composing this work and how he must have worked on it until it sounded like perfection. He probably didn't play it with King Oliver or Fletcher Henderson, but he probably did play it with Lil on piano at their Chicago home (her solo, while not an all-time classic, is one of her best ones, in my opinion).

Above, I shared a Voice of America interview with Louis where he introduced and discussed "Heebie Jeebies." From that same session, he did the same thing with "Cornet Chop Suey." Here he is talking about it in 1956, downplaying it as just an unpublished compisition, recorded to make some quick money to go to the cabarets, with no thoughts about royalties or anything like that.

So with Louis serving as our disc-jockey, let's dig into the original "Cornet Chop Suey":

Right off the bat, for some of you who may have enjoyed this song for 90 years, it might sound a little different. That's because I went with the version of the song in the key of F, as included in Phil Schaap's "Complete Hot Fives and Sevens" box set of about a decade ago. In his own notes, Schaap mentioned that authorities like Randy Sandke and James Charillo believed it to be in Eb. That's how Bobby Hackett played it and that's how John R. T. Davies mastered it in his JSP set.

But Louis wrote it down in F and the three subsequent versions he made of the song (which we'll get to in a bit), were each in F. That's good enough for me, but Norman Field really did the fieldwork in 2005 and published his results here. Check that out and you'll be listening to this version for good.

And then there's the matter of "cornet vs. trumpet." Everyone asks when did Louis switch and why? I can't give an exact date for the switch but it was around this time when Louis joined Erskine Tate's orchestra at the Vendome Theater. Thus, it's possible that "Cornet Chop Suey" was played on a trumpet! Here's Louis on the Voice of America again, right after playing "Cornet Chop Suey," discussing the difference between the two instruments and why he made the switch:

So there you have it, again, straight from the man himself. Of course, later that year, on "Big Butter and Egg Man," Louis sings, "As long as I can keep this cornet up to my mouth." Was he switching between the two horns, maybe still using cornet on record dates. Hmmmm….

One final note: many writers have said Louis titled it this way because exotic material was usually associated with Asia back then (see "Oriental Strut" from this same session). But I don't hear anyting exotic about "Cornet Chop Suey"; I think the title is a play on "Clarinet Marmalade" that works in Louis's love of Chinese food, something that started as a kid and continued until the end of his life.

I've said very little about the playing on "Cornet Chop Suey" but I think the record speaks for itself. It's a masterpiece of the 20th century and was one of those recordings that pretty much said, "Jazz...follow me!" Interestingly, when "Cornet Chop Suey," hit the markets, it was marketed as just another fun fox trot, as seen in this advertisement, clipped from one of Louis's scrapbooks:

Hmm, no mention of "This record will change the world"? Well, it did, but Louis seems to have left "Cornet Chop Suey" behind. I have never seen any mentions of him playing it for the next 20 years of life but the next time he dug it out, stand back!

The occasion was the historic Town Hall concert in May 1947. This concert plays a crucial role in the beginning of the book and I center on "Cornet Chop Suey" as the start of things to come. Thus, I'm not going to run my mouth about the subject for long, other than to say, dig it:

That, to me, is just an amazing performance. It's Louis with just a rhythm section with Dick Cary on piano, Bob Haggart on bass and George Wettling on drums. This concert was supposed to throw Louis back into his "old" styles, all at a time when the dixieland revival had trad bands trying to recreate 1920s recordings with painstaking details.

And here comes Louis and not for one second does he treat it like 1926. That rhythm section SWINGS, Wettling dropping subtle bombs and all sorts of accents. And perhaps because he hadn't played it in so long, Louis is completely free. He makes plenty of allusions to the original, but makes enough changes to keep it fresh, right up to that giant high note at the end, all 1947. Definitely a magical performance that helped usher in the later years of Louis's career.

Concert programs from the early days of the All Stars listed "Cornet Chop Suey" as part of the repertoire but I have never come across a live performance of broadcast of it. Instead, it would be ten more years before Louis would take another crack at it and once again, he came through with flying colors. Like "Heebie Jeebies" and "Georgia Grind," Louis revisited it on Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography"

The Hot Five and Hot Seven recreations were arranged by Bob Haggart, who transcribed every note of the original recordings. Louis was well rested and had plenty of time to rehearse during these sessions, so his playing is note-perfect, but perhaps not quite as free as the Town Hall version.

Regardless, Haggart has some neat ideas, such as having George Barnes's guitar double Louis's acrobatic introduction. Louis sounds in command and the rest of the band is equally enthusiastic (though the Barrett Deems Drum Machine 2000 is too rigid; not his fault, Haggart wrote in the arrangements "closed hi-hat" on Deems's parts, keeping him locked down for some reason). Everyone gets a solo but of course, the spotlight is on Louis for the stop-time bit and he nails it, though he passes the ball to Trummy for a half-chorus, probably to give his 56-year-old chops a bit of a breather before the rideout, which has a new ending. Louis's crazy spiraling bit from the original is gone, replaced with the raw power of the 1950s Armstrong. Enough from me, give it a listen:

Alas, my final version of "Cornet Chop Suey" is a bit of a letdown. It's from only two years later, but different circumstances lead to different recordings. This time around, Louis did "Cornet Chop Suey" with the Dukes of Dixieland. First off, the session was only weeks after Louis's heart attack in Spoleto, Italy, which didn't have any major effects on his trumpet playing, but did seem to affect his ability to execute fast runs on the horn, something that especially became noticable in the mid-1960s.

Also, this session was the Dukes seems like it was just thrown together, without any prepartion or rehearsal. In fact, they just did a lot of songs Louis was already performing live and/or had just recorded for Decca. Because of that, Decca stepped in and didn't allow the recordins to be released until theirs had been on the market for a certain period of time. Armstrong and the Dukes got their act together and recorded fresh material for a fantastic album in 1960 but this 1959 meeting flew under the radar for years.

After recording so many familiar songs--"Back O'Town Blues," "Someday," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue"--and some different material with basic routines--"Dippermouth Blues" "Riverside Blues," "Bill Bailey"--someone in the Dukes probably suggested "Cornet Chop Suey." This was the kind of material the Dukes ate up (Dukes trumpeter Frank Assunto takes the melody in the first chorus) but Louis hadn't played it regularly for years and when he recorded it for the Autobiography, he had an arrangement in front of him.

Thus, judged solely on itself, this recording features some fine, powerhouse playing by the 1959 Armstrong. But you can hear his memory trying to conjure up those phrases and then you can feel the execution slowing down tremendously since the 1957 project. Like an aging fastball pitcher, Louis still has the knowhow to throw enough offspeed stuff to strike the batter out. In fact, for a longtime, I winced when I heard this stop-time solo until I learned to just listen to it on its own. And you know what? It's grown on me until I think it's pretty terrific, with lots of new ideas to make up for what old ideas he couldn't execute anymore. Still, it's a different ballgame from those 1947 and 1957 versions. And the whole thing is over in 2 minutes and 15 seconds so it's like everyone just wanted to get it over with. Anyway, here it is:

I doubt Louis ever performed "Cornet Chop Suey" again after this recording (there's an alternate from this session but it's very similar and I don't think worth sharing). I enjoy each of these versions but really, that first one, recorded 85 years ago this week, is the one that changed history.


The next song recorded that day, didn't exactly do that, but it's still worth remembering. History has kept the wonders of "Heebie Jeebies" and "Cornet Chop Suey" flowing for 85 years but what about the next two songs recorded that day, "Oriental Strut" and "You're Next"? These have kind of flown under the radar for too long so I think it's time they got a little attention. So let's jump in and give a listen to Johnny St. Cyr’s composition, “Oriental Strut.”

Joy personified. The title makes it sound like it’s going to be some kind of pentatonic-fest, complete with Asian-inspired hokum. Alas, there’s none of that and, except for the interesting chord changes, the only vaguely “foreign” sound to the piece comes during the exotic, minor banjo-and-piano vamp at the end. Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr got credit for writing the tune but like many Hot Five classics, it might have been a collaborative effort on the spot. Perhaps, St. Cyr thought of some of the chord changes or the vamp. Or who knows, he might have written the entire thing out as it does encompass three strains and, like I said, the changes are anything but ordinary in the blowing strain.

Regarding the title, these sort of ethnic things were common in the 20s (Johnny Dodds did a small group number, complete with vocal, called “Oriental Man” around this time). The Hot Five also did “Irish Black Bottom,” while there was also the Jamaican routine on “King of the Zulus.” Later Armstrong went Hawaiian with “Song of the Islands,” Native American with “Indian Cradle Song” and really, really caucasian with the vocals of Seger Ellis on “To Be In Love.”

Regardless, let’s get on with the music. The introduction is pretty tight so obviously the musicians had rehearsed this one pretty good. After the exotic vamp, Armstrong leads the group through two go-arounds of the eight bar A strain, based on a descending chord pattern in Dm (the chords don’t quite descend--Dm, Dm7, Gm6, A7--but Ory uses a D-C-Bb-G pattern from the changes to make it work). Also, am I on the only one who thinks of Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” when I hear Armstrong play for the first few bars of this strain?

Then it’s off to the B strain, which slickly moves from Dm to a major, D7 tonality. I don’t know what’s written and what’s not but I like how Armstrong leans on the Bb in the second bar of this strain, which is the flatted sixth of the D7 chord in question. The second half of the B strain heads to Bb before a short circle of fifths (A7-D7-G7-C7) leads to the final blowing strain.

I’m usually not so technical, but I’ve always found the chords of this section to be rather interesting. Two bars of an F immediately go to two bars of Db, which is a neat little surprise. The next two bars of F resolve to a D7, which also works nicely. After two bars on Gm, the piece turns minor again for the next two, A7 and Dm. But then it gets sunny again with two more odd choices for the key of F, E7 and A, before the A leads to a C which leads to a turnaround and we’re off again from the beginning. If you’re not a musician, sorry if that bored you, but I think it’s interesting because a lot of these Hot Five tunes are pretty complex, with multiple strains and some challenging changes, with a little more meat than “old-timey” jazz is sometimes given credit for.

Ory plays the incredible sparse melody, made up of almost nothing but whole notes and half notes, with less than a handful of quarter notes. At the same time, it’s the kind of melody that sticks with you long after listening. After Ory’s somber statement, Dodds comes in with some variations but he seems a little weary of the changes. For instance, when he gets to the second change to Db, he responds by rhythmically repeating a string of Db’s! However, he makes it through the rest of his solo without a problem as the E7 and A7 are replaced by a simple 2-5-1 at the end of his chorus, Gm to C7 to F.

A short interlude by composer St. Cyr’s banjo sets up the main event, a dazzling stop-time solo by Armstrong. I’ll admit, this isn’t a flawlessly executed outing, like a “Potato Head Blues” or “Cornet Chop Suey” (whose solo was pre-written) but it’s quite exciting hearing Armstrong think, inventing ideas with abandon and taking chances as the bars pass him by. His opening phrase, of course, smacks of “Potato Head Blues,” which would be recorded the following year, but after that, it’s a whirlwind of invention. Unlike Dodds, he isn’t daunted by the Db, playing a descending phrase made up of all chord tones before turning an F chord completely inside out. He’s very melodic, but some of the notes are slightly cracked around the eight bar mark, not terribly, but not hit on the nose as he might have liked. The band swings for three bars setting up a simple break which leads to Armstrong’s second stop-time helping.

Pops begins the second half with a slicing rip up to an A an octave higher than written before he makes mincemeat out of the Db with a lightening fast triplet phrase he liked to employ during this period (it crops up near the end of “Ory’s Creole Trombone” to name one example). His rhythm then gets even more daring as he goes on; I love the way he hits the low A and kind of lets it linger in the third bar of this half. Soon, the band starts swinging behind him, but Armstrong continues powering through, playing a sweetly singing high E with an attractive vibrato. But then it’s time to get nasty as he trills a snarling C to signal one more joyous chorus.

And it’s a good one, with Armstrong at his most New Orleans-centric. Not too much longer after this, Armstrong would begin pulling away in his ensemble playing, exploring the higher register of his horn and generally dominating the records. Here he’s on good behavior, hitting a few higher notes here and there but mainly keeping it peppy, playing around St. Cyr’s melody but always keeping it somewhat in the forefront. A short four bar coda ends the song with a cute Charleston beat.

That’s all I have on this fun record, one unjustly dismissed by many of the elite jazz writers, though good musicians always know a good record when they here it; this is the record that so knocked Jack Teagarden out, Wingy Manone remembered Big T actually burying a copy of the OKeh 78 underground to keep it preserved forever!


The next tune recorded 90 years ago today is the appropriately titled, "You're Next." This was a Lil Hardin Armstrong composition and proof that everybody was getting a chance to bring something to the table that day. After Spencer Williams's "Georgia Grind," they recorded "Heebie Jeebies" by friend Boyd Atkins (with possible uncredited lyrics by Louis), "Cornet Chop Suey" by Louis, "Oriental Strut" by Johnny St. Cyr, "You're Next" by Lil and finally "Muskrat Ramble" by Kid Ory (though as we'll see, maybe not by Kid Ory). Only Johnny Dodds didn't get to bring a song to the party.

The Hot Five was not a working band so it's all speculation whether each one of these musicians brought in a song, worked it out in the studio and recorded it or if some of these numbers were made up on the fly. There is a copyright deposit for "You're Next" by Lil, but it wasn't filed until May 1926, so who knows if she wrote a simple lead sheet based off of the recording?

Regardless, "You're Next" is a simple little record without any fireworks to speak of. Backed by "Oriental Strut" on the original 78, it has never been greeted with much fuss. And that's fine since you're not going to hit a home run every time. Not that "You're Next" is a strike out; it's a hard hit, line-drive double in the gap. (No strikeouts in the Hot Five canon, in my opinion).

I think Louis needed a breather after blowing his chops apart, as young and strong as they were, on "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Oriental Strut."  Before we get into that, let's listen to "You're Next":

Lil claims the spotlight instantly with a classical introduction that shows she was a well-rounded pianist. Some knock her and I'll admit she fails in comparison to an Earl Hines, but she had a beat that Louis obviously liked; you can hear it in her minor vamping directly after her classical introduction, very groovy stuff.

Then Louis enters with the vamp, backed by the four-beats-to-the-bar comping by Lil and Johnny St. Cyr. Louis is very relaxed and clearly enjoys the minor changes. In fact, I wish the entire thing stayed in that minor key. But eventually they get to the main strain, based on some fairly basic changes, Ory and Dodds joining in for a conversational ensemble, with St. Cyr handling the break and stop-time interlude.

Lil and Johnny Dodds then split a chorus, each playing well, if not over their heads. Louis comes back in for the final bit of ensemble playing, his first little descending phrase hitting me in the gut; so simple, so effective. Ory finally gets to peak his head out of the ensemble for a short stop-time segment before Louis takes it out with a pet phrase that crops up in later Hot Five performances of "Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa" and "Irish Black Bottom." A fine performance to cool down with, especially considering "Muskrat Ramble" was due up next.

Finally, we arrive at "Muskrat Ramble," the sixth and final song recorded by the Hot Five on February 26, 1926. "Heebie Jeebies" and "Cornet Chop Suey" are rightly known as major Armstrong landmarks but of all the songs recorded that day--and possibly in the history of the Hot Fives and Sevens--I don't think there's any other song that's had the life of "Muskrat Ramble," which continued popping up as a hit record in the 50s and 60s and is still one of the good old good ones in today's traditional jazz scene.

But where did "Muskrat Ramble" come from? Well, that's going to take some detective work and I don't know if we'll ever know for sure. The song has always been attributed to Kid Ory since the very first version was released by the Hot Five in 1926. Ory made it his big feature and never stopped playing it. Ory claimed he wrote it in 1921 while still in Los Angeles, taking the gist of the tune from a book of saxophone exercises. That's fine, but then there's Sidney Bechet, who said it was an old tune already popular in New Orleans, performed as early as the Buddy Bolden era, and known then as "The Old Cow Died and the Old Man Cried." Hmmm...

And there's Louis. Louis performed the song with the Hot Five, seemed to forget about it for a couple of decades, then featured it regularly with his All Stars from inception in 1947 until at least 1967, when his chops began to give out. Louis played it hundreds, if not thousands of times and each time he called it, in the back of his mind, he must have thought, "Damn Ory, I wrote this song."

Finally, in 1965, Louis publicly broke his silence. Louis was hosting his friends Dan Morgenstern and Jack Bradley in his den one afternoon in May of that year. Dan had brought along his tape recorder and turned the results into a wonderful profile of Louis published in "DownBeat" that summer (and currently found in Dan's essential anthology, Living with Jazz). Fortunately, years after the interview was published, the complete, unedited tapes were found and aired by Phil Schaap on WKCR. Since then, the interview has become known as the "Slivovice interview," named after the bottle of plum brandy the three polished off over the course of the afternoon (I posted the full audio right here on this blog back in May 2015).

Louis was in the middle of a discussion about original compositions. Morgenstern and Bradley asked if he had written much after his 1947 song "Someday (You'll Be Sorry)." Louis admitted that he really hadn't and the few ideas he did have in mind, he didn't even know where to bring them anymore. He then discussed how it was different with the music publishers in the 1920s and how he was willing to write songs and sell them outright, just to get some quick money. It's at this point that Jack Bradley asked him point blank, "Pops, did you write 'Muskrat Ramble'?" Here's Louis's answer:

So there it is. Morgenstern published Louis's answer but it didn't really make any waves. Louis clearly didn't want to make a fuss about it and it had already been known as Ory's tune for almost 40 years, so nothing really changed. But Louis must have felt strongly about it, because he made similar accusations during his series of Voice of America interviews in July 1956, interviews that were far less conspicuous in that period, especially compared to a "DownBeat" cover story.

I've shared Louis's Voice of America introductions and stories revolving around "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Heebie Jeebies" and now I'll do the same with "Muskrat Ramble." (To read more about--and get a link to listen--these magical Voice of America interviews, see this blog I wrote last year.) It's fascinating because not only does Louis insinuate that the song was made up in the studio and Ory was the only one with the nerve to claim it--9 years before the Slivovice interview, remember--but it's the only time I've ever heard the full story of the title of the tune and what muskrats were used for in Southern homes: a means to stop bed wetting! Don't believe me? Listen to Louis for yourself:

Isn't that a riot? Louis almost sounds embarrassed telling the story. Interestingly, he said Ory named it and got to claim it, but Ory said Lil Hardin Armstrong was the one who named it. So it's safe to say, we'll never know who named it and who wrote it but that shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying it.

I will say that "Muskrat Ramble" isn't exactly something simple to just jam on, like a 12-bar blues, whipped up in the studio in no time. The song, like "Cornet Chop Suey," had multiple 16-bar strains, echoes of the ragtime era. Each strain features different changes and a different melody, there's an ensemble that features big fat punches from Ory and responses from the band, Ory's solo is set up with accents by the other horns, there's a perfectly executed tag by the trombonist...I don't know, if this was indeed whipped up in the studio, bravo gentlemen and lady.

Okay, I think I've said all that can be said about the backstory and we're still where we started. So forget about all of that and enjoy the first version of "Muskrat Ramble":

Yeah, man, that's still a fun wonder the tune keeps going strong. The very opening of the ensemble is arguably more evidence that this piece was more arranged than given credit for: Louis plays the melody with an earthy lead, Ory plays nothing but quarter notes and Dodds kind of has a harmonized countermelody he works over for a while before he starts to go off on some of his more typical flights the second time through. After that second time, the band heads into the second strain, everybody hitting those accents nice and tight while Ory really gets around on his horn; he's definitely very comfortable with the routine.

Ory's solo, with those giant smears, is a great summation of the Kid's style, but I don't think it's his best work (he sounds better in the ensembles). Louis, however, uncorks a gem. Right from those opening three quarter-notes, you know you're about to hear some good stuff. There aren't many pyrotechnics, but Louis's sense of swing and choice of harmonies (dig that held high G, representing Louis's favorite major-seventh off the Ab chord) is in another world from Ory and Dodds, who follows with a typically insistent solo.

After the round of solos, Ory's smears again take center stage while Louis answers them with the melody and Dodds continues to play harmonized countermelodies instead of going too far off the reservation. Louis then uncorks one of his angry lip trills to lead into the exciting rideout chorus. Louis didn't break out the trill often in his later years, but he loved it in the mid-20s (see "Oriental Strut" from the same session and "Sweet Little Papa" from a few months later for just a couple of examples). After Louis's trill, the whole thing takes off in 16 bars of pure euphoria. Louis's lead is so swinging and strong, but without any crazy high notes (moldy fig critics of Louis's later style often point to this as an example of Louis's pure New Orleans lead, without the need for any upper register know, the stuff that made Louis sound like Louis). Meanwhile, Ory's aggression effectively pushes everyone along, with Dodds really breaking out of his shell, too. And how about that rhythm section? St. Cyr's banjo is supremely driving and creates a unique kind of swing that would disappear soon after in mainstream jazz. And then there's Ory's tag, which would become part of just about every succeeding performance of the tune.

Back in 2011, I used this as a springboard for a multi-part investigation into Louis's succeeding history with "Muskrat Ramble." If that's something that interests you, click away to Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5 and Part 6.

But I think I'm approaching the legal limit for the length of one blog so I'll quit now, secure in the knowledge that the impact the music the Hot Five created on February 26, 1926 can't be fully measured in any word count. They walked into OKeh's studios 90 years ago today, knocked out six songs, and jazz--and American popular music--was never quite the same.