Saturday, August 23, 2014

Detroit Jazz Festival, Mosaic Roundup and a House Call from Dr. John

And we're back! It took me some time to decompress and get back to the swing of things after the Satchmo Summerfest, but there's no rest for the weary. Next weekend, I'll be flying to Detroit to attend the very popular Detroit Jazz Festival. I'm really looking forward to it as it'll be my first time in Detroit and I've heard nothing but good things about the Festival. I'll be taking part in two different talks. On Sunday, August 31, I'll be part of a panel on "Louis Armstrong and American Music," featuring two top trumpet men, Wendell Brunious and Marcus Belgrave, and moderated by Bob Porter. (Brunious and Belgrave will also be joining Nicholas Payton for a musical salute to Pops that same afternoon.) Then on Monday the 1st, I'll be talking about my book, What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, and showing lots of footage to support some of my themes. Signed copies of the book will also be available on the grounds of the fest all weekend long. If you're attending, please say hello! (See JazzTimes for a preview of the other fabulous lectures and presentations lined up in the Jazz Talk Tent next weekend.)


The Mosaic Records box of Pops I co-produced with Scott Wenzel keeps rolling along. For one thing, the 4-LP set containing just the complete 1956 and 1958 Newport Jazz Festival concerts is now available. If you already have the 9-CD set, there's nothing different from a content perspective but my notes have a different opening section and according to our engineer, Andreas Meyer, "This was a pure analog chain: original master three track reels, mixed in analog, mastered in analog and delivered on 30ips half inch analog tape to the vinyl cutters for 180 gram pressings. Audiophiles, drop the needle and eat your heart out!"

Me and the LP set. 

The reviews keep coming in for the 9-CD set and so far, we're still batting a thousand. One of my very favorite reviews came from John Swenson in the New Orleans periodical Offbeat. Other good ones have arrived from Scott Yanow and Sally Young of WWOZ. Thanks all! And I'm happy to report that both the set itself and my liner notes have been submitted to the Grammys for consideration as of last week. Note: this is NOT a nomination. Far from it. But it's in the running and by December, we should know how it stands. I'm a bit superstitious about the whole thing and don't even want to talk about it or get my hopes up....but one helluva endorsement came from Terry Teachout earlier this month, who wrote, "It was assembled, and the superlative liner notes written, by Ricky Riccardi, the well-known Armstrong blogger and biographer, and if it doesn't win him a Grammy Award, there is no justice in this world." For your consideration, Grammy voters out there....
Scott Wenzel and I in front of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, holding the Mosaic set, August 16, 2014.
Also last week (it's been a busy month), the one and only Dr. John stopped by the Louis Armstrong House Museum. His new album, Ske-Dat-De-Dat: The Spirit of Satch, was released this past week, leading Mr. Rebennack to do a whirlwind of publicity in New York City. While there, he made his first trip out to Corona to sit for a photo shoot and interview for Esquire. I had some free time that afternoon and made my way from the Armstrong Archives at Queens College over to the House for a most memorable experience. Dr. John was just so relaxed, so real, so down-to-earth. He spoke of meeting Louis at Joe Glaser's office in 1968, the same year Dr. John and B.B. King were signed by Glaser's Associated Booking outfit. I gave him a copy of my book and he promised to "read the shit out of it."
Ricky Riccardi, Dr. John and Hyland Harris at the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Before the photo shoot officially began, Dr. John asked if he could play Louis and Lucille's piano in the living room. We treat the piano as a museum artifact and don't let anyone play it....but there's obviously exceptions to be made! I gave it my blessing, he sat down and started playing some soulful slow blues. Immediately, my brain exploded with a tough decision: I wanted to get photos....but I also wanted to shoot a video! So I split the different and shot 95 seconds of him playing. When my ears heard him go into a bridge, I took it as a sign to switch to taking still photos. While still on the subway home that day, I began posting some images to the Louis Armstrong House Museum's Facebook and Twitter pages....and the damned things blew up. Finally I got around to uploading the video I shot, which has gotten almost 7,000 views in one week!

Something else, huh? Don't miss the finished Esquire piece by Jacob Blickenstaff, filled with some striking black-and-white images.

That's all for now; believe me, there's more (a lot more) but as I once joked on this blog, this is "The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong," not "The Wonderful World of Ricky Riccardi" (which is also known as my Facebook page) so I'm going to quit with these few odds and ends, get ready for Detroit and hopefully resume writing just about Louis--the man, and his music--come September. Requests are already coming in for some subjects, plus I'd like to revive the "Encounters with Louis Armstrong" series I started earlier this year (did you encounter Louis? Tell me all about it!). And as always, there'll be news; I can't say anything yet but let's just say it looks like I'll be co-producing yet another Armstrong release before the year is out so stay tuned for that announcement, as well.

All Pops, all the time!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Satchmo Summerfest Recap

The 14th annual Satchmo Summerfest has been here and gone...but it definitely won't be forgotten. A record-breaking crowd of over 57,000 people spent three days basking in Pops and believe me, it was heaven right here on earth. I haven't missed one since 2008 and though I might say this every year, this time it's really true: this was the best Summerfest yet!

I've been posting incessantly about this year's Summerfest on my Facebook page so I don't want to repeat myself here. If you'd like to see over 90 photos of me, my wife, friends, musicians and food, click here. No, for me and my circle of Armstrong nuts, it was all about the seminars, which fortunately were filmed, streamed live and currently housed on the web. There's LOTS of great stuff from historians and scholars such as Bruce Raeburn, Thomas Brothers, Michael Cogswell, Randy Fertel, Wycliffe Gordon and more. You can spend hours and hours and hours reliving it all simply by clicking here.

I've always done multiple presentations but this year, I broke a record: a keynote conversation with Scott Wenzel on the Mosaic set, three video presentations, two joint presentations with Dan Morgenstern and Daryl Sherman, one piano performance with a band of "All Stars" and three presentations where I supplied nearly all the content beforehand or from the sidelines. Phew, I'm tired just writing it out, but I can't really complain because it's all Pops.

The Mosaic set was really the star of the Summerfest. Scott and I had a ball delivering the Keynote as we took turns reading the e-mails we sent to each other during the original planning phase between 2006 and 2011, when I had the idea and basically wore down Scott's resistance until he caved. Mosaic sent 20 sets to the Summerfest....and they sold out within one day!

The Producers: Ricky Riccardi and Scott Wenzel at the Satchmo Summerfest Opening Reception. Photo by Rachel June.
The next day, Scott and I, along with Summerfest Director Marci Schramm, did an interview about the set with Keith Hill on WWOZ. We had a great time and even got to play a few tracks. If you'd like to hear it, here it is in its 45-minute entirety:

But after that, it was seminar time. I already shared the link to the complete set, but here's some of the ones I was involved in if you're interested. First, a screening of the ultra-rare "Satchmo the Great." The quality isn't great as it's basically a camera shooting a TV screen (a modern day kinescope!) but I like it as you'll hear the live audience react to the film:
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The next day, I teamed up with Dan Morgenstern to do something on Louis's rich history in Denmark:
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I closed day two with some of my favorite examples of Louis Armstrong on television, including some things that have only recently surfaced (some thanks to my pal, Robert S. Bader):
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If you need a break from me, the one real can't-miss seminar came from clarinetist Evan Christopher, who discussed and demonstrated the different ways New Orleans clarinetists (Johnny Dodds, Barney Bigard, Edmond Hall and Sidney Bechet) played with Louis. Brilliant, brilliant stuff (and I'm always a fan of anything that references the Three Stooges, as Evan does here!):

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Then it was music time, as I was made leader (in name only) of the second annual edition of the Satchmo Summerfest All Stars. Besides myself on piano, you'll see and hear Yoshio Toyama and Brice Miller on trumpet, Louis Ford and later, Evan Christopher, on clarinets, David Ostwald on tuba, Keiko Toyama on banjo and Bruce Raeburn on drums. Every band needs a vocalist and this one had two: the great Daryl Sherman and my hero, Dan Morgenstern! In fact, it's been five days and people are still telling me that Dan's vocal on "You Rascal You" was a highlight of the Summerfest! What a joy to play with such fine musicians (though I'm only sorry the director didn't move the camera over when Daryl and I did a four-hands piano duet on "Swing That Music"; it sounds like chaos without seeing us constantly running around each other!):

Watch live streaming video from directionofsky at

And finally, I closed with a look at the last two years of Louis's life, once again including rare footage of Louis on "The Dick Cavett Show" given to me by Robert S. Bader. Lots of tears flowed at the end of this one, which resulted in Louis getting a standing ovation (I just push buttons and talk; he did all the hard work):

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That's just a small taste of what happened last weekend. I encourage you to watch some more of the seminars while they're still up on the web for next month or so....and even more, I really encourage you to make your reservations NOW for next year's Satchmo Summerfest!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Billy Kyle Centennial Celebration!

July 14 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of the great pianist Billy Kyle. I had just published my little tribute to Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, plus I've been drowning in trying to prepare everything needed for next week's Satchmo Summerfest, so this is almost two weeks late but I just had to post something on one of my favorite members of Louis's All Stars, so here goes.

Originally, I just was going to focus on Kyle's work with Louis between 1953 and 1966, but then I realized that to most jazz fans, all they know about Kyle is his association with Pops, an association that didn't begin until after he had been recording for about 18 years.

Kyle was born in Philadelphia but his hero was from Pittsburgh: Earl "Fatha" Hines. Kyle is always mentioned as a disciple of Hines and that cannot be denied. But to my ears, Kyle smoothed out some of Hines's rough edges and also eschewed Fatha's volatile left hand, and in the process, became a key transitional figure in those swing-to-bop days. Kyle's approach to the keyboard was more refined and much like another Hines disciple, Teddy Wilson, quite debonair. Of course, Hines's unpredictability and ability to take risks are what has led him to immortality. Kyle didn't cause a piano revolution but he did have an impact, most notably on young Bud Powell, who consistently named Kyle as one of his biggest influences.

So with the preamble out of the way, I don't want to do much writing, so let's spend the rest of our time celebrating the Billy Kyle centennial by listening, listening and listening some more. Kyle's style was pretty much intact from his earliest recordings onward. Just listen to the 22-year-old supporting Henry Red Allen on "Let's Put Our Heads Together" from December 29, 1936:

The following year, bassist John Kirby started a sextet full of top musicians: trumpeter Charlie Shavers, clarinetist Buster Bailey, saxophonist Russell Procope, drummer O'Neil Spencer and Kyle on piano. If it had just been a regular small-group-swing jam band, the results would have been memorable. Instead, Kirby strove for intricate arrangements, tightly played and "The Biggest Little Band in the Land" was born. I forgot who it was, but one jazz writer described the Kirby band as "tight-assed" and for a long time, I agreed, preferring my jazz a little more open and loose. But revisiting this material, I do marvel at the band's ability to nail the complex charts, while the solos are also always of a high caliber. The Kirby sextet was one of the most original sounding groups of the period and it's a shame they're so little known today.

Maxine Sullivan's vocals with the Kirby group landed them a few hits, most notably "Loch Lamond," allowing Kirby the chance to record many of the band's top arrangements. One of them, contributed by Kyle, definitely points the way forward: "From A Flat to C."

Some other Kirby favorites: "Rehearsing for a Nervous Breakdown."

"Blue Skies":

A burning "Royal Garden Blues":

And the band's big instrumental hit, composed by Charlie Shavers, "Undecided." Kyle's solo is one of his finest; he would retain parts of it in the 1950s when this became one of Trummy Young's big features with the All Stars, in addition to a dynamite Buck Clayton jam session version of it from 1954. Here's the original:

The exposure Kyle received with Kirby allowed him to make occasional records under his own name. Here's one from Billy Kyle and His Swing Club Band with Charlie Shavers on trumpet, Tab Smith on alto, Ronald Haynes on tenor and a rhythm section of Kyle, Danny Barker, John Williams and Fran Marx. This is one of Kyle's later All Stars features, "Girl of My Dreams," from July 23, 1937:

Alas, Kyle didn't get as many dates as a leader as he should have, but on May 23, 1939, Decca threw him a bone and allowed him to record two tracks backed only by Dave Barbour on guitar, Marty Kaplan on bass and O'Neil Spencer on drums. They're two of my favorites and a great place to start if you're looking to explore the Kyle style. Here's the swinging "Finishing Up a Date":

And I haven't mentioned it yet, but Kyle had an affinity for the blues, which comes out on the lovely "Between Sets":

Other than that, Kyle was content to stay in the background, recording with Nat Gonella, the Ramblers, organist Milt Herth and Jack Sneed and His Sneezers, the latter group waxing a version of the African song, "Sly Mongoose," one Kyle would get to know again in 1956 when it was renamed "All for You, Louis" during Armstrong's first trip to the Gold Coast of Africa:

Kyle also got the call for some truly all star sessions. Here's Lionel Hampton's famous 1938 recording of Benny Carter's "I'm in the Mood for Swing," with Kyle taking a typically elegant bridge towards the end:

That same year, Kyle was featured on a Victor date by Timme Rosenkrantz and His Barrelhouse Barons. The great Danish jazz fan and supporter was in New York and though he didn't play an instruement, he was still able to organize this fine session. And dig the band: Rex Stewart on cornet, Billy Hicks on trumpet, Tyree Glenn on trombone and vibes, the wild Rudy Williams on alto, along with Kyle's Kirby-mate, Russell Procope, Don Byas on tenor saxophone (making his recording debut) and a rhythm section of Kyle, guitarist Brick Fleagle and from the Basie band, Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones on drums! Leo Mathiesen contributed the arrangements, including this too-short breeze through "The Song is Ended" featuring Kyle at his most Hines-inspired:
Kyle must have made an impression on Rex Stewart as he the pianist of choice on Stewart's 1940 recording of "Bugle Call Rag" featuring Ellingtonians Barney Bigard, Lawrence Brown and Wellman Braud, plus the great drummer Dave Tough and the omnipresent Fleagle on guitar. This 12-inch 78 stretches to over four minutes and segues into another song Kyle would become very familiar with in his Armstrong days, "Ole Miss":

Like so many of his generation, Kyle was drafted into the army during World War II. In fact, his induction made headlines in the December 8, 1942 edition of "The Afro American" (Kyle was replaced int he Kirby Sextet by another swing-to-bop transitional figure, Clyde Hart). Kyle joined the legendary 93rd Infantry Division of the army, but also got to keep his piano chops up, performing with the 368th Infantry Battalion Band. One Special Services newsletter, quoted in Maggi M. Morehouses's "Fighting in the Jim Crow Army," announced, "The whole Division has taken the 'Deep River Boys' to its heart. The 368th orchestra gives out with some 'pick up' acts. Pvt. Lawrence Neely emcees, and Billy Kyle at the piano steals the show for a thunderous moment of applause. They're warmed up now. The jam session is on. 1,200 hearty voices cheer as Billy Kyle's piano thunders the 'Bivouac Bounce.'"

Upon discharge, Kyle rejoined Kirby for a short bit but also started making records under his own name, including four for the Hot Record Society label with future All Stars Trummy Young and Buster Bailey. On April 11, 1946, Kyle, backed by Kirby and guitarist Jimmy Shirley, recorded a showpiece version of the then in-vogue "All the Things You Are," a favorite of the up and coming boppers. But instead of going the more modern route, Kyle instead finds some connections between Jerome Kern's tune and the classical music Kyle grew up playing in Philadelphia. Here is the result:

Kyle also left Kirby in 1946, joining Sy Oliver's Orchestra for a few years. Kyle never was at a loss for work but after that September 1946 H.R.S. date, he never led another session under his own name, a true shame. However, his name was still big enough to be featured on the labels of some records made by some of the best singers of the day. Here's Kyle's trio backing Ella Fitzgerald on "I'm Just a Lucky So and So":

And another Decca recording from the same period, Kyle's trio backing Billie Holiday on "Baby  I Don't Cry Over You":

Kyle obviously impressed both Milt Gabler at Decca and his then-boss, Sy Oliver, as he became a regular pianist on many Decca dates of the late 1940s and 1950s...including those featuring Louis Armstrong. Kyle's first meeting with Armstrong came on a September 30, 1949 date arranged by Sy Oliver and featuring the only recorded meeting between Armstrong and Billie Holiday on "You Can't Lose a Broken Heart" and "My Sweet Hunk O'Trash." Kyle was there again on August 31, 1950 for another Oliver-arranged Decca date, producing "Sit Down, You're Rocking the Boat" and "That's What the Man Said."

On July 24, 1951, Kyle made his presence felt during another Armstrong Decca date that ended up with two sizeable hit records: "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" and "I Get Ideas." Kyle was a master of introductions and his lead-in to "A Kiss to Build a Dream On" beautifully sets up what follows. And his dramatic, cocktail-esque interlude on "I Get Ideas" also fits the romantic pop nature of that recording. The following year, on August 25, 1952, Kyle again made a positive contribute to Armstrong's recording of "I Laughed at Love" and another hit, "Takes Two to Tango." Armstrong must have been impressed and kept Kyle in the back of his mind.

Kyle wasn't going anywhere, just yet. In 1950, the smash hit Guys and Dolls opened on Broadway with none other than Billy Kyle on piano. It was the very beginning of black musicians being allowed to play in Broadway pit bands, Kyle being joined for this show by trumpeter Joe Wilder and trombonist Benny Morton. Kyle was content, working six days a week in New York and picking up session work whenever available.

Playing for a Broadway show turned out to be great training for Kyle's eventual joining of the All Stars. I've discussed this a million times but it's worth bringing up again. To some, jazz is only associated with improvisation. Every night, different songs, different solos, always reaching, always trying to create something new, even if what you played the night before was spectacular. This kind of thinking has always been around, to an extent. But for many decades, the key ingredient to good jazz wasn't just improvising something new everything but providing the best possible show for your audience night in and night out. So if you stumbled across a solo that flowed beautifully and knocked the crowd out, that was it, that was your solo. This was Louis Armstrong's philosophy; he knew that you couldn't improve upon his "Indiana" solo or his "Sunny Side of the Street Solo" or his "Mahogany Hall Stomp" solo, etc. Sure, some nights he was an improvising mood so he'd change them up. But he knew how good those solos were and he knew that they were virtually impossible for others to play (and he also knew that he was in a different city every night and that the majority of concertgoers were always hearing him for the first time), so he kept them set. He took criticism for years for this (and still gets it; I recently had a conversation with someone who used the dreaded word "coasting," much to my chagrin) but he was far from alone.

In the All Stars's case, Louis's piano players had different philosophies when it came to this. Earl Hines bugged Louis because he refused to play his solo on "West End Blues" as he did on the 1928 recording; Louis said that whatever Hines improvised paled in comparison. But Hines also had his set pieces and rarely changed a note on his approaches to numbers like "Honeysuckle Rose," "Pale Moon" and "Boogie Woogie on St. Louis Blues." After a disastrous stint by Joe Sullivan, Marty Napoleon joined in 1952. He was thrilled to be part of the band, but told me that he was spooked one night at the Apollo Theater when he launched into his solo on "Muskrat Ramble" and could hear the other members of the band humming along. Was he going stagnant? He used to always play the same interlude in the middle of one of Louis and Velma Middleton's numbers, when Velma would turn it over to Louis. On this one particular night, he felt the need to change, so he just started playing whatever came to mind....but Louis didn't enter. Finally, Marty played his standard lick on the tune and Louis entered on cue. It was at that moment that Marty, a true improvising musician, needed to get out.

When Marty left in late 1953, that allowed Billy Kyle to make his entrance. Joe Glaser usually did the hiring and firing of Armstrong's musicians but one can imagine that Armstrong had a say in hiring Kyle.  With Kyle, Louis finally had the ideal pianist for the group. His features always impressed audiences (as we'll see), he was much more of a team player than Hines (whose askew fills sometimes threw the soloists off) and was a rock solid accompanist. And with three years playing the exact same things night after night on Broadway, eight shows a week, he had no troubles playing many of the same songs--and solos--night after night with the All Stars. In fact, once Kyle hit upon a set solo or introduction, he never wavered, remaining more tied to his "set" excursions than even Armstrong.

Kyle joined the band just in time for a December 1953 tour of Japan, from which a broadcast survives. He already sounds at home but as one could imagine, he didn't just arrive with a bag of set solos on Armstrong's regular repertoire like "Indiana," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street." Surviving broadcasts from late 1953 and early 1954 find Kyle improvising all the time. In fact, some discographies doubt Kyle is on a January 1954 broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco, primarily because his solos don't sound like they would in just a few short months. There's enough mannerisms on these broadcasts to tell my ears that it's Kyle, but one can also hear him singing along with a lot of his solos, working hard to make them work. He can be heard doing it faintly on his first official recording session with the All Stars from March 16, 1954, a date that also found him doing some almost Erroll Garner-esque left handed "strumming" on "Basin Street Blues" and "Otchi-Tchnor-Ni-Ya." Sure enough, if I had all the time in the world, I could share a million great solos Kyle took with the band in his years.

But Kyle also had a million great features and that's really where I want to focus on today. On those aforementioned late-1953, early-1954 broadcasts, Kyle gets no features so we'll dive in with the first of features that survives, taken from a May 8, 1954 date at the University of North Carolina. It's a reworking of his 1946 recording of "All the Things  You Are," expanded and further tightened after eight years of playing it. This is a great concert, but Louis takes a rare break during the first set, sitting out for almost 15 minutes during some of the features (perhaps he took a little too much Swiss Kriss?). Kyle kept returning to this one for years, with no changes. Louis never played on it, either, which is a shame as he would have sounded incredible playing this melody. Anyway, here's Kyle's "All the Things You Are" backed by Arvell Shaw on bass and Kenny John on drums in 1954:

Of course, if you're an All Stars nut and you read just the title of this post, you might have immediately thought, "Perdido." The Duke Ellington-Juan Tizol jam session favorite was first performed by Kyle in front of a recording device during a WNEW broadcast from American Legion Park in Ephrata, Pennsylvania on August 19, 1954. It's no exaggeration to say that Kyle probably played this thousands of times in the next 12 years. Here's the first one we know of:

It's close but still a work in progress. Some of Kyle's lines aren't as clean as they'd be a short time later and around the 2:10 mark, he seems to anticipate the next chorus four bars early, repeating his riff longer than normal. But it wouldn't take Kyle long to work it all out. By January 1955, he was ready to record it live at the Crescendo Club while Decca recorded the results. Here it is, at an irresistible foot-pattin' tempo, backed by Shaw and Barrett Deems:

It's a classic but it wouldn't take too long before Kyle started slowly raising the tempo. We'll check in with a faster version in a little bit. But first, a quick visit to an offshoot of "Perdido," "Pretty Little Missy." Louis liked the riff-based chorus Kyle played before the horns entered and thought it had the makings of a song. Kyle and Armstrong threw together some lyrics and recorded the results for Decca in April 1955. It never became a hit but Louis never tired of playing it, even recording it again for Mercury in 1965 and United Artists in 1969 (it's also on Armstrong's Newport 1958 set on the new Mosaic box, though keep the kids away when Louis changes the line "Pucker up" to something a little more x-rated!). Also note that Armstrong keeps in Kyle's flatted fifths during the bridge; he gradually smoothed them out into something a little less boppish by the 1960s, but here, he plays and sings them on the (flatted) nose:

Back to the Crescendo Club for a minute, now. Decca recorded three full sets, allowing the All Stars to perform multiple features. Kyle's second feature that night was "St. Louis Blues." One must wonder how much of it was his choice or how much of it was Armstrong's, who liked to recycle features. Cozy Cole brought in "Stompin' at the Savoy," but it became the drum feature for Kenny John, Barrett Deems and Danny Barcelona. Arvell Shaw's most known for "How High the Moon," but when he left, Armstrong gave it to bassists Jack Lesberg and Squire Gersh. Earl Hines wrestled "St. Louis Blues" away from Armstrong with his "Boogie Woogie" treatment. When Marty Napoleon entered the band, Armstrong played Hines's version for him to learn from. Napoleon got the gist but shot the tempo through the roof for one of his most exciting features (and one he continued to play for decades). Thus, with Kyle barely in the band for a year, one can easily imagine Armstrong saying, "Hey, do you play 'St. Louis Blues'?" Kyle's version is completely his own, with none of Hines's boogie-woogie, nor Napoleon's fierce riffing. It still swings mightily, Kyle showing off his bluesy side, inspiring the other band members to shout encouragement in the background (that's Trummy Young yelling, "Let 'em roll!") and building to the climactic riff introduced in the 1940s by Lionel Hampton but at the time, about to blow up the charts on Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." Here 'tis:

Louis doesn't play on "St. Louis Blues," but just a couple of months earlier, the album Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy was released with W. C. Handy's blues classic serving as the opening number. Once the overwhelmingly positives reviews trickled in, Armstrong regained control of "St. Louis Blues," performing it almost nightly with Velma Middleton by his side. This left Kyle down a feature, but not for long. "Blue Moon" was one of his go-to choices in the late 1950s, again at a strutting medium tempo and always featuring some scintillating horn from Pops:

That version was from a concert at Seattle's Orpheum Theater on September 7, 1957. That same night, Louis played his touched medley of "Tenderly" and "You'll Never Walk Alone." Though Armstrong's lead playing on the latter tune could give one the chills, "Tenderly" was often ceded to Kyle, who always turned it into something of a rhapsody. Some might complain that it's a little too "lacy," but as a pianist, I admire Kyle's touch tremendously. As Trummy can be heard yelling, "Oh, you play so sexy!"

Kyle came to the band with another stomping feature, "Pennies from Heaven," which he originally played at the aforementioned 1954 North Carolina concert. This one also stayed in the act until Kyle's death and was always a crowd-pleaser. My favorite version is this one from North Bay, Ontario in 1958. Mort Herbert on bass and Danny Barcelona on drums really kick this one along, Kyle turning some powerful two-handed work by the end. Exciting stuff!

When clarinetist Edmond Hall joined the band in 1955, "Sweet Georgia Brown" became one of his best-known features. After he left in 1958, it seems like the All Stars weren't ready to bid adieu to Miss Brown. During a 1959 tour of Europe, Kyle, perhaps looking for something other than "Perdido" to turn into a barn-burner, took over "Sweet Georgia Brown," replicating Hall's arrangement, right down to the breaks. It doesn't seem to have lasted past this performance, but Kyle convincingly makes it his own, with support by the Armstrong-Young-Peanuts Hucko front line:

Also at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, Kyle dipped back into his bag and called a tune we originally heard him wax in 1937, "Girl of My Dreams." The Newport 1958 version (on the Mosaic box) is great, but I've always been partial to this later version from Newport in 1960, again with Mort and Danny:

"Blue Moon" seems to have been phased out by the early 1960s, with another good-old-good-one taking its place in the medium-tempo stomp category: "When I Grow Too Old to Dream." In fact, this might be Kyle's most oft-played feature of the 1960s (next to "Perdido," of course). The pattern is the same as some of the others we've heard, but it always gets me, especially when Barcelona switches from brushes to sticks and when Pops swoops in heroically towards the end. This version is from Chicago in 1962 with Billy Cronk on bass and Danny on drums.

By 1965, Kyle was mostly choosing between "Perdido," "Pennies from Heaven" and "When I Grow Too Old to Dream" as his features, but in June of that year, after six weeks off while Louis recovered from dental surgery, he emerged with a swinging take on "It's Easy to Remember," recorded in Paris with Buddy Catlett on bass and Danny again on drums.

I mentioned that by this point, "Perdido" was fast approaching warp speed. A fast version of Kyle's showcase was filmed in Australia during a 1963 tour, with Arvell Shaw on bass and Danny still on drums. I remember that when I first saw this, I was impressed with how hard Kyle was working. He hadn't changed a note in almost a decade, but like Armstrong's solos, pulling this thing off is HARD! Watching him tear it up only adds to my personal appreciation of his command of the instrument:

Kyle was truly the ideal pianist for the All Stars but his only problem was he was quite the drinker and loved to party (especially with women). It never seemingly affected his playing but it did affect his health. He broke down multiple times during his 13 years with the All Stars, his health problems always due to his drinking. Marty Napoleon had to spell him for a while in late 1959 and the little known Nick Rodriguez did the same in the spring of 1960. Kyle got the message and apparently cut his drinking way down (possibly entirely out) in the early 1960s. He supplanted the drinking with eating and gradually began to gain weight as the decade progressed. By the winter of early 1966, he was at his heaviest, with the band still grinding out one-nighters, often in a bus with heat that didn't often work.

As chronicled in my own book, Kyle was ailing by this point. At a performance in Ohio, Buddy Catlett told me, "Number one, they had to help him up the stairs--there were some stairs to get up to the stage. And he was out of breath and couldn't hardly make it. But he played everything he knew. It was just magnificent playing. That's the way I heard it." The band knew something was wrong when Kyle didn't come out of his room the following morning. Sure enough, his liver had erupted. He was kept alive for a week, but died on February 23, 1966. He was 52 years old.

It's still surprising to me that Kyle isn't as well known as he should be, seeing that he spent the majority of his career in two supremely popular organizations--John Kirby's and Louis Armstrong's. But Kyle was content with being a sideman and I suppose that's the sideman's curse. Without an album of his own music from 1946-1966, all we can point to are these features he took night in and night out with Louis Armstrong. As this post hopefully showed, Kyle was a fantastic musician, a classy presence on stage, a bluesy two-fisted swinger, a superb accompanist and a perfect fit with any band he played in. Don't forget about him.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

60 Years of Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy (And 7 Years of This Blog!)

60 years ago today, Louis Armstrong walked into a Chicago recording studio and recorded this:

There are no words....but I'll try to find some.

That was Armstrong's second trip to Columbia's Chicago studio in as many days. The previous night, he and his All Stars had knocked off SIX master takes for a brand new album of W. C. Handy compositions, produced by then 35-year-old George Avakian. After knocking out "Memphis Blues" with relative ease, it was time to confront Handy's magnum opus: "St. Louis Blues."

Armstrong was far from a stranger with the jazz classic of them all. In fact, almost any time he played it in front of a recording device, the result was one for the time capsule. Take your pick: the emotional 1925 version sung by Bessie Smith; the rollicking 1929 version with Luis Russell's Orchestra (a favorite of many true Armstrong nuts, including Clint Baker); uptempo romps for Victor in 1933 and Vox in 1934; and so on.

But after featuring it in the early days of the All Stars, "St. Louis Blues" became a favorite feature of Armstrong's pianists, first Earl "Fatha" Hines and his "Boogie Woogie" treatment, and later Marty Napoleon with his thrilling turbocharged approach. But with an entire album of Handy tunes to record, is was inevitable that Armstrong would have to face "St. Louis Blues" once again. He was ready.

After a number of false starts with everyone trying to get the rhythms straight on the introductory habanera strain, the All Stars locked in and did not stop swinging for nearly nine minutes. "I did not expect what Pops gave me on that tune," Avakian told me in 2008. Apparently, neither did the other All Stars. Vocalist Velma Middleton wasn't sure when to enter and almost prematurely stepped on Armstrong's opening two-minute-20-second ensemble rendering of Handy's multi-strained piece. In the middle, Armstrong seemed to surprise sidemen Barney Bigard and Trummy Young when he led a spur-of-the-moment instrumental chorus, reaching far back into his memory to pluck out a blues lead he originally waxed on 1925's "Terrible Blues." Avakian sure didn't expect Armstrong and Middleton to start making up bawdy choruses--Middleton's about how all the boys like her because she "takes her time," Armstrong's about whipping her all over her head with a picket conveniently grabbed from a nearby fence.

Throughout this, the first complete take, one can feel that everyone knew something special was happening. Trombonist Trummy Young then produced perhaps the filthiest trombone solo of his lifetime, an epic moment only eclipsed by the titanic rideout playing of Armstrong and the entire band. When it came to an end, George Avakian uttered a spontaneous critique: "Louie, that was really a bitch!" And then various members of band shouted their battle cry, "Wail!" Listen for yourself:

If was after listening to that take that Avakian and the All Stars seized up what could be tightened. On the next go-around, it was perfected and Avakian had an opening track to his album, the roof-shaking performance that opened this blog. When the album, Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, was released in late 1954, the jazz community--including many lunkheads who had written so much utter garbage about Armstrong supposed decline (is my bias showing?)--applauded wholeheartedly. Armstrong told Leonard Feather the recordings were "the tops" of his career. Nat Hentoff gave it five stars in Downbeat and wrote, "This LP is one of the greatest recordings not only of the year, but of jazz history. After years of wandering in a Decca desert (with very few oases) Louis finally had a full-ranged shot at the kind of material he loves, along with the kind of freedom that George Avakian provides at a jazz date....This album is an accomplishment Avakian can well be self-congratulatory about. By arranging this session and supervising it with this much unobtrusive skill and taste, Avakian, too--as well as W. C. Handy and Louis--has made a lasting contribution to recorded jazz."


Flash forward to October 1995. 15-year-old Ricky Riccardi (me) sees The Glenn Miller Story and has his mind blown by Louis Armstrong's performance of "Basin Street Blues." (Enough third person.) In a story I've told many times, my mother took me to the Ocean County Library in Toms River, NJ and a wall of Armstrong cassette tapes stared at me. I didn't know where to begin so I chose something that sounded promising: 16 Most Requested Songs. It was a compilation of Armstrong's 1950s Columbia recordings selected by--and with annotation by--someone named George Avakian.

The tape grabbed me from the opening notes of "Mack the Knife" and just did not let go. I knew I was getting in deeper and deeper with each passing track but it was number 14--"St. Louis Blues" from Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy--that did it. When Trummy went in the gutter and Louis called everyone home, I felt my life begin.


July 13, 2007. Since that fateful 1995 day, I had only gotten deeper and deeper, getting a Master's in Jazz History and Research, writing a 350-page thesis on Louis's later years, befriending George Avakian. But I wasn't doing much of anything else. I had been painting houses full-time for my father's company since graduating Rutgers in May 2005. I had an agent because I was confident that a book on the last 25 years of Louis Armstrong's life had commercial potential....but I seemed to be the only one to think that as my proposal had been rejected by everyone who had received it. Things were looking bleak.

And then it hit me: a blog! Everybody's doing it! Sure, I don't get paid or anything but what the hell, it's a way to make a name for myself and maybe get to meet some other Armstrong nuts from around the world. I made absolutely zero connection that July 13 was the same date as the recording of "St. Louis Blues." I just dove in and wrote the following for a first entry:

"Hello! My name is Ricky Riccardi and you can learn more about me in the (you guessed it) 'About Me' section of this blog. I just wanted to take a second and discuss what this blog is all about. There are tons of Armstrong videos on YouTube and in my Itunes, I have 2,408 Armstrong songs arranged in chronological order. I plan on hitting "shuffle" on my Itunes and whatever Armstrong track comes up first, I will discuss it. I'll provide the musicians, the writers, the soloists, I'll give some analysis of the recording and I'll even tell you where you can buy it or listen to it. On some days, I'll post a YouTube video and do the same. You're more than welcome to comment and offer your own opinions or disagreements to whatever I write. There's really no order to anything, just a (hopefully) daily celebration of Armstrong's music! Enjoy!"

The "daily celebration" aspect lasted a week; later it became weekly; these days, I'm happy if it's bi-monthly. But the celebration continues and as anyone who knows me can attest, I'm happy to almost be celebrating something different almost every day: the publication of my book, the new Mosaic box, my gig at the Armstrong House, etc.

But I didn't want this to turn into a full-blown look-at-all-the-lucky-Armstrong-stuff-I've-been-involved-with celebration (for that, there's always Mick Carlon's profile of me for Jazz Times....thanks, Mick!). When I saw that the anniversary date coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Handy album, well, something had to be done...because frankly, nothing was being done.

Jazz world! Hello! Where the hell are you? Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy is one of the great albums of all time. We're in agreement, right? Well, where's the magazine piece on the making of it? Where's the souped up, limited edition 60th anniversary boxed set? A podcast? A post to a message board?

Man, I can name some other albums from the 1950s and 1960s that have gotten MUCH more attention for their anniversaries (cough, cough, Miles, cough, cough) but the anniversary of ol' Pops's classic will pass without much fuss. I think that's a shame. Does anyone else agree?

One reason why I'm a little ticked is I KNOW what's out there and what could be done in terms of a bonus reissue of this material. There's a supposed "Complete" edition out there from one of the European bootleg labels. It's not complete. How do I know? Let me explain.

A lot of this--as well as the backstory on the making of the album and a track-by-track analysis--is in my book so I don't want to repeat too much of it but long story short, Sony hired George Avakian to put together a proper reissue of the Handy album in the mid-1990s, after they were crucified for a reissue heavy with unexplained alternate takes from the 1980s. Avakian brought along David Ostwald as his right hand man for putting together the reissue. When I became friends with Avakian and Ostwald after the 2008 Satchmo Summerfest, I told them about my book plans for Louis's later years. That's when they told me about the session tapes for the Handy album. I was allowed to copy them from somewhat shaky sounding cassette tapes and I told George and David I wouldn't post complete tracks or share them, which wasn't easy since my nature is to share, share, share.

But at least I had the tapes and I got to utilize them for my book. It's been six years and I'm almost at the point where I know some of the alternates as well as the masters. Well, that's great for me but I hate when I'm the only one with access to some spectacular Pops.

In the wake of posting on Facebook about the new Mosaic box of live Louis, I began getting questions about a similar box of alternates and masters from the studio Columbia sessions of the same period: the Handy date, Satch Plays Fats and the "Mack the Knife" single session, which included some stuff with Lotte Lenya. A 4 or 5-CD set could easily be done of the existing masters and the best of the alternates and unedited takes. I have absolutely no predictions about whether or not something like that will ever be released but do know that with the current Mosaic set out of the way, I'm ready, I'm ready, so help me, I'm ready!

How to prove it? By opening up the sacred Avakian-Ostwald Handy session tapes for the first time ever on this blog. In keeping with their wishes, I'm not going to share anything remotely complete. But after so many years, I just HAVE to share some of the unissued riches that do exist and hopefully can be made available to the public.

Already, above, I shared the unissued rideout to the first complete take of "St. Louis Blues." Perhaps you weren't aware of what you were listening to....go back and listening again! It's terrific and Louis's phrasing is different than it was on the famed master take. I'm not going to say any of the alternates were better than the masters--Avakian was the best at putting together the most effective parts of each take--but they're all very interesting and capture the band at the peak of its powers (oh, but only if Edmond Hall had been around one year earlier....).

A few examples then. The first song attempted at the first session on July 12, 1954 was "Aunt Hagar's Blues." After a few breakdowns, the All Stars finished a complete take on the fourth attempt. Louis was ready to blow. Here's the rideout:

Next up was "Hesitating Blues." On the 1997 re-issue, there's a fantastic "Rehearsal Take" that could have easily been issued except Velma used it to practice her lyrics quietly in the background. If you haven't listened to it in a while, do so now! "Ole Miss Blues" followed as a change of pace. Again, the band recorded a complete "Rehearsal Take" just to get used to the routine. Here it is from Pops's solo onward, including an extended bit of drumming by the newest member of the band, Barrett Deems:

"Beale Street Blues" followed, one of my favorite tracks on the album. There was only one complete take prior to the master and though very good, there's a few fluffs and it's not really worth sharing here (hopefully one day!). But that's when Avakian had a brilliant idea (though he also admits that he's not sure why he did it): he let the tapes roll for the ENTIRE sequences of putting together and recording "Loveless Love" and "Long Gone." On the 1997 reissue, there's about 6 or 7 minutes of each, edited beautifully by David Ostwald. But on the unedited tapes, each one goes on for 30-35 minutes! It's not ALL worthy of release but it is an absolutely fascinating look at how this band worked in the studio, especially on a night when they could do no wrong. Again, check that 1997 CD for David's edit of "Long Gone," but right now, here's the rideout to yet another one of those "Rehearsal Takes" on "Loveless Love." Remember: the band did not know this was being recorded and Avakian had no plans to issue it. Listen to how they all simply play like its their last night on earth. No coasting, no taking it easy. It's just full-on, 100% pure swing:

After that, the band called it a night, but six of the 11 tracks were in the can. The next day began with "Memphis Blues." After a botched first take, they completed a second try. There were a few mistakes and Avakian ended up using take three, but listen to the powerful, previously unheard rideout to take 2:

Then came "St. Louis Blues," where this blog began. The July 13 session ended with a romp on "Atlanta Blues." Here's a funny moment from the first complete take. They had the sheet music but I guess they hadn't really played it through. The band burns through the last few choruses and then Louis gets to the written ending, a completely old-timey "Good evening friends" lick ending on a dominant seventh. It catches him by surprise and the whole band breaks into hysterics. They got it right a few takes later:

The final session opened with one of the highlights of the entire album, "Chantez-Les Bas (Sing 'Em Low)." The band easily took to the blowing strain of this number as it was identical to the eight-bar blues of "My Bucket's Got a Hole in It." One of the legends of this album is that on the master take, Trummy got so enthused, he didn't want it to end and kept on blowing, making Pops reach high for one more lowdown take. Well, the legend is true! The first complete take is one chorus shorter and though it sounds like Trummy wants to keep going, it halts. No one was going to stop him on the next try! Here's an edit I made with the rideout from take 1 first (previously unheard), followed by the more famous ending, Louis and Trummy's favorite moment on the entire album (as related on an interview on one of Louis's private tapes):

"Yellow Dog Blues" wrapped up the tunes for the album but the unissued alternates are pretty close to the master so I've chosen not to include it here (again, maybe someday!). And that was that. George went to work editing and splicing like crazy and a few months, a masterpiece hit the market. The 1997 reissue is still in print and still a big seller to this day.

That's it for my little look at Louis Armstrong's greatest album, though I could keep on going for thousands of more words. Maybe someday I'll get the opportunity on a deluxe edition of this set. Keep your fingers crossed but until then, the least you can do it give the original album a spin and give thanks to George Avakian, W. C. Handy and Louis Armstrong!

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mosaic Round-Up

It's been almost three weeks since my last entry and in that time, the news about the new Mosaic Records Louis Armstrong Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars continues rolling along so how about a little round-up? If you roll your eyes, don't worry, next week is the SEVENTH anniversary of this blog plus the 60th anniversary of Louis's greatest album so I hope to have an entirely non-Mosaic-related post about that in the coming days.

But for now let's stick with the Mosaic. For a real in-depth exploration of the box, Thomas Cunniffe produced a 3,500 word piece for his Jazz History Online website, with some nice disc-by-disc analysis. Shorter reviews have also appeared from Bret Saunders in the Denver Post, Jeff Simon in the Buffalo News and most recently, Colin Fleming in the Boston Globe.

Over at Downbeat, the eminent critic John McDonough was kind enough to lay 4 1/2 stars on the set. Unfortunately, the review is not on the Downbeat website, but here is a shot I captured from the online PDF. Click on it to read it a little clearer:

And finally, it was a pleasure to receive a rave review from Marc Myers of the great blog, Jazzwax. However, Marc also wrote me personally with a valid complaint and I wanted to respond with a public apology here on the blog. There was originally a great rush to attempt to put the Mosaic set out last fall. Feeling the pressure, I wrote 32,000 words of liner notes in a week. I knew I wanted to include one of George Avakian's favorite stories, about the time a magazine editor decried George's use of splicing on a Dave Brubeck album, George told the editor to contact Dave and Brubeck simply responded, "George saved my ass."

George has told me that story at least three times, including during our first interview for my book in 2007, as well as in public at the Satchmo Summerfest. However, needing to finish the liner notes in a hurry, I Googled the punchline "George saved my ass" to see if I could find the story online instead of taking the time to transcribe it from my cassette. When I did that, there was the story in a Google Books search result from Myers's critically-acclaimed book, Why Jazz Happened. I grabbed one line since it seemed to echo what George had told me repeatedly: "He asked, 'How can you do that--you're altering the artistry of the musician, and you're putting out a recording of something he didn't actually play?'" That line made the final draft of the Mosaic notes....but without attribution to Marc's work. As someone whose Armstrong research has gotten "borrowed" without proper attribution many times in the past, I can attest to how frustrating that can feel, so let me apologize to Marc again for not giving him the proper credit for that Avakian line. Now stop reading this and grab his book!

Moving on from reviews to the realm of live events, if you live in New York or New Orleans, you have two opportunities in the next month to see me and Scott Wenzel gab about the Mosaic set in person! On Tuesday, July 15, Scott and I will be hosting a Listening Party for the box at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. That event will be from 7-8:30 and is free to the public. (And speaking of New York, a reminder that the Mosaic set is currently available in the gift shop of the Louis Armstrong House Museum....with the liner notes booklet signed by yours truly!) Then on July 31, Scott and I will be delivering the Keynote Conversation at the 14th annual Satchmo Summerfest. We'll be recapping the entire saga of putting this set together, in grisly detail.

I'll be back in a few weeks with a personal preview of the Satchmo Summerfest as I'm currently involved in SEVEN different seminars! But it has been a joy reading all the positive feedback for this Mosaic set. Please, if you have stories, opinions, photos or anything else to share about your experience with it, let me know! And I'll be back next weekend with a personal tribute to Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Latest on the Mosaic Set (and a visit with George Avakian)

It's been just about two-and-a-half weeks since I finally held the new Mosaic Records Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars 9-CD box and as I wrote in my last entry, I expected to take a brief hiatus from the blogging life because I was simply exhausted from all that went into putting that set together.

But what I didn't fully expect was an absolute outpouring of beautiful comments from friends around the world, each of whom has received the set and is seemingly enjoying the hell out of it. That has made the whole experience so, so worthwhile. Thanks to all who have written in and especially those who have shared pictures of their sets. Here's a few of my favorites!

German drummer Bernard Flegar befriended Barrett Deems and is right up there with yours truly when it comes to loving the All Stars. I was thrilled when Bernard sent me this one:
 Randy Bright is a friend and graphic artist who has donated some of his great works on Pops to the Louis Armstrong House Museum. Randy almost cleared out our gift shop last time he visited the House and had been looking forward to this one for quite some time. Yeah, Randy!
 I have over 40 Mosaic sets, as I've been collecting them since high school. Some of the best ones have featured essential liner notes by Loren Schoenberg. This might just look like a simple pic of a Mosaic set....but it's Loren's copy, and I'm thrilled he shared it (and called it "a classic"!).
 Berklee professor, violinist and professional Pops nut Matt Glaser and I have teamed up for two NPR interviews in the past two years, but we still haven't met! Matt was so eloquent in describing Louis's epic contributions to the world back in Ken Burns's jazz documentary, so again, it was a joy to see Matt lurking behind his copy of the set.
But by the topper was by my close friend, David Ostwald. Anytime I need to crash in New York, I stay in David's apartment, in a room christened "The Riccardi Room" and decorated with photos of myself (it's a long, but funny story). So here's David with the set in said room:

Others have not only sent their congratulations, but they've also sent in their set numbers, which I've seen as low as #48 and as high as #967! Remember, this is a limited edition of only 5,000 and to see Mosaic pushing the 1,000 mark not only three weeks in must be a good sign. Reviews have also been trickling in, all of a positive nature. Last time, I shared Tom Nolan's rave in the Wall Street Journal; he's since been joined by Eric Alterman in The Nation and George W. Harris of Jazzweekly, while John McDonough told me he has a review slated to be published in the next issue of Downbeat.

And in other exciting news, as of yesterday, the Mosaic set is now for sale at the Louis Armstrong House Museum gift shop in Corona, Queens! Mosaic is famous for being mail-order-only but they're allowing the Armstrong House to sell it in-house only, which we're grateful for. Thus, if you're in the NY area, want to see Pops's House and pick up the set, come on out to 34-56 107th Street. Here's a picture of it standing proudly in the shop:

But by far--there'll never be a second place--the highlight of this whole experience came on June 4 when David Ostwald and I visited the legendary George Avakian. I've written time and again on this blog about the importance of George in my life and Scott Wenzel and I specifically dedicated this set to him. When David and I got there, the box had just arrived earlier that day and George hadn't really looked at it. We spent two hours with the 95-year-old legend and he was so impressed with the set and touched by the whole thing. Here's a few pictures we snapped of an evening I'll never forget:

We looked at the booklet, played examples from the set and just plain talked Pops. When it was time to leave, I asked George to inscribe my booklet:

 Here's what he wrote:
"This is for Ricky--if he weren't around, we'd have had to invent him! George Avakian. Bless you Ricky."

I'll never fully be able to convey what that means to me, especially since it's been almost 19 years since an Avakian-produced compilation changed my life in 1995. If that's the only feedback I ever receive on this set, I'll die happy....but I'm so happy that so many others feel similar about this set, so what can I say: keep those cards and letters (and pictures) coming and I'll continue to update everyone on the reception of the set in the coming months. Thanks, everybody!

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Mosaic Has Landed

On June 23, 2006, I took a few minutes to write an e-mail to Mosaic Records, pitching them a crazy idea I had to do what I estimated as an 8-10 disc boxed set of live recordings Louis Armstrong recorded for George Avakian at Columbia throughout the 1950s. Scott Wenzel wrote back and said he'd look into it.

On May 27, 2014, a 9-CD Mosaic Records boxed set arrived at my front door: Columbia and RCA Victor Live Recordings of Louis Armstrong and the All Stars. Co-produced by Scott Wenzel and Ricky Riccardi. Liner notes by yours truly.
Ta da! Seconds after opening it.
It's been nearly eight years since I first had the idea and anyone who has followed this blog for the past year knows that it's been full of all sorts of craziness. But now it's over. The set is here, it is real and if I say so myself, it is fantastic.

This is slightly old news if you follow me on Facebook as I've pretty much devoted every post this week to basking in the glow of this set. It's been absolutely beautiful hearing from Armstrong fans from all over the world who are just as excited by it, telling me when they're getting shipping notices and when their credit cards have been charged! Right now, I feel like I'm one of only a handful of people to have experienced this set (almost literally a handful; my set number is 8 out of 5,000!). I'm really excited for that number to grow in the coming weeks and years. Please, please, please let me know what you think of the set. Leave a comment, find me on Facebook, shoot me an e-mail, I'd love to hear from you.

I've already heard from one person who has enjoyed the set....a person with a huge audience, to boot! Imagine my surprise when I'm getting ready to go to sleep on Memorial Day (still without a set) and I get a Google alert with a link to a rave review in the Wall Street Journal by Tom Nolan! I'm still in shock but completely thrilled by Mr. Nolan's comments. He really got the point of this set and I'm hoping others do, too.

And though it's lovely that people keep congratulating me, please, please, please also give thanks to my co-producer, Scott Wenzel, and our engineer, Andreas Meyer. I just had the idea and wrote a lot of long e-mails, playing detective and trying to avoid catastrophes. Scott brought the usual class and thoroughness that we've come to expect from Mosaic Records. Seriously, no one else would do a set like this and if they did, it wouldn't be without the care and commitment that Scott brought to this project. And as I've chronicled before, Andreas Meyer was an absolute wizard in the studio, saving Louis's Newport 1956 vocals and making like a modern day George Avakian, with all sorts of crazy splices and edits to make. He nailed every one.

And obviously, this has been a very personal project for me, as well. Three years ago tomorrow (also my daughter's birthday), I saw my book for the first time. And here we go again with the Mosaic set, which is truly a sequel, or at least a companion, to the book, right down to the cover photos, which come from the same Paris concert in late 1955:

This here blog has been pretty much dedicated to Mosaic updates and news for the past year. I know some readers out there are anxious for me to get back to my excitable commentary on Armstrong recordings...and I'm anxious to get back to that myself. I'm sure I'll continue to have Mosaic news to report throughout the summer--reviews, public appearances, etc.--but once the excitement dies down, I, too, am planning to get back to tackling so many of the Armstrong recordings I've yet to write about.

But not yet. If you need me, I'll be listening to this set!

Thanks for all the support and for those who have purchased it and are planning to purchase it, please enjoy!

And as always, Pops, it's all for you, Louis, all for you.

Standing in the den of the Louis Armstrong House Museum with Pops smiling over my shoulder.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Surprise! Louis Armstrong Meets Horace Heidt

It shouldn't be a surprise that I live for new Louis Armstrong discoveries, especially if it's footage. Since 2008, I've gone to the Satchmo Summerfest in New Orleans every year to show at least three hours of Pops videos and after doing this for six years, I'm starting to repeat myself. And though it doesn't happen often, anytime anything new pops up, I'm all over it.

Earlier this week, I was in a zombiefied state riding the bus to work one day after I spent 16 hours soaking in the music at the incredible New York Hot Jazz Festival. I wasn't sure if I could fully function but then I checked Facebook and my friend Simone Dabusti had something stronger than coffee: a brand new 8:26 long video of Louis on Horace Heidt's TV show, "The Swift Show Wagon," broadcast live from New Orleans on February 26, 1955! Eureka!

For years, I saw this entry in Jos Willems's Armstrong discography and wondered what it was all about (Willems might not have known either as he only listed an "unknown studio orchestra" and not the All Stars, who are clearly visible onstage). Then, when I started working at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I found that Louis had the audio of this entire segment on one of his private reel-to-reel tapes. I listened to it and loved it but mistakenly described it as a "radio" broadcast (something I'll fix next week!). But would the visuals ever service?

When it comes to early TV broadcast, the answer is usually "no," but things keep popping up all the time. A few weeks ago, as part of the wonderful month-long "Marxfest" celebration that is currently gripping New York, I attended a presentation by the great Robert S. Bader on an upcoming boxed set he's producing for Shout Factory of rare Marx Brothers TV appearances. He told the stories of how he found most of them and sure enough, a good deal of kinescopes were found in the closets and attics of the Marx's descendents. Thus, it was no surprise to see the Horace Heidt video uploaded by an account called "Horace Heidt Productions" as Heidt's family must be the only ones to have the original film. And to upload it on YouTube? Bless them!

I'm going to shut up for a minute and share the video and then we'll give it the blow-by-blow analysis:

Heidt, of course, was one of the most popular bandleaders in the country at the time and a fixture on the radio since the early 1930s. Louis never talked much about him, only having one record in his collection ("Rain"), but one can imagine he was a fan since he had a sweet tooth when it came to some of his tastes in music (paging Guy Lombardo!). For this summit meeting, Louis back in his hometown of New Orleans, where he had been filmed on the "Colgate Comedy Hour" one week earlier. This would be his last trip home until 1965; in 1956, the city passed a law prohibiting integrated bands from performing in public and Louis, who was proud of his integrated All Stars, stayed away for ten years.

The All Stars can be seen in this clip, but they're mostly in the background. Still, this is the great "W.C. Handy/Satch Plays Fats" edition with Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems and it's always great to see them. They open with an appropriate choice, "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," which had been in the band's book for years. However, this is a different version, complete with a key change and a three-chorus solo by Armstrong that builds higher and higher until he's wailing the melody an octave higher by the end, with plenty of improvised--inspired--phrasing. It's a swinging start....though the dancers could have used a little more rehearsal!

Then it's time for Louis to indulge in the usual white-guy-tries-hip-talk routine that he had to endure almost anytime he showed up on TV, too (he wasn't alone). But Louis, as always, is a natural, even with corny scripted comedy, delivering lines like "Horace Heidt, the corn cobbler" and later, "Dig you? I'll bury you!" with that impeccable comedic timing. I laughed.

And then a real neat thing, Louis introducing Faye Emerson by playing snippets of "'A' She's Adorable," "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" and "Sophisticated Lady." The latter is only two bars long but hearing Louis play Ellington's melody even so briefly is simply breathtaking. If only he had recorded a full version!

The finale is a "hot vs. sweet" battle between the "hot" Armstrong and Heidt's "sweet" saxophonist, Tony Johnson. It's a fun novelty with Pops blowing like made on "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise," a tune that was not in the repertoire, but he was in an improvising mood that day and sounds great (though I'm sure some in certain parts of white America at the time, the sweet sound of Johnson's alto was preferred!). Both bands then join forces on an exciting "Muskrat Ramble," with the Charleston dancers returning, still not quite together. A lovely moment is when the house lights are turned on the audience; everyone's clapping on a different beat (some in between!) but they're having a great time. Oddly, the microphone doesn't seem to be catching Pops, as his tone could normally cut through anything. Fortunately, after a short Trummy Young break, Louis takes it up and out and everyone goes home happy.

This is the second time in the last six months that a terrific piece of rare Pops television footage has shown up on YouTube (the other being the jaw-dropping "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" from 1957's "Crescendo" that I blogged about here). I know there's more out there...may they keep turning up! (And how nice would a "Louis Armstrong on Television" DVD set be? We can dream, can't we?)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

New York Hot Jazz Festival 2014 - This Sunday!

I must take a break from Louis and Mosaic Madness to quickly mention that this Sunday is the event to end all events for lovers of traditional jazz and swing: the Second Annual New York Hot Jazz Festival. Seriously, if you within a 50 mile radius of The Players Club in New York City on Sunday and you choose NOT to go to the NY Hot Jazz Festival....all I can say is, for shame....

I don't think I have seen a lineup quite like this one, with a unbeatable mix of established veterans in this field like Vince Giordano (who will be featuring the great Catherine Russell), David Ostwald and Ken Peplowski, coming together with some of the emerging young stars like Bria Skonberg, Adrian Cunningham and the Hot Sardines. Take a minute and just look at the schedule....I still don't think I've wrapped my mind around it.

And I'm honored to be taking part and representing Pops throughout the first half, as I'll be showing five hours of Armstrong footage in the first floor grill room. Now, with so many living, breathing musicians in the building, I wouldn't suggest spending the first five hours watching old videos. But it IS Louis and as I wrote last year, these are Louis's grandchildren so even if you just need a breather to get "Dipp-ed" for a minute, please say hello! (I still haven't finalized my clips but do expect rare appearances of Louis on TV, in films and concert, as well the complete rarity of rarities, Satchmo the Great.)

The festivities start at 1 p.m. and will be running at the Players Club until 1 a.m., with an after-after party at Mona's from 1 a.m. until, I don't know, maybe Memorial Day. Last year, I was one of the few and proud who was there from the first note through the last and I expect to do the same this year. (Special thanks to coffee...a great invention I didn't discover until I turned 33 last September!)

Now, if you haven't noticed, the hot jazz movement has been building steadily for the past few years. Last year, it erupted in the first annual Hot Jazz Festival on August 25, 2013. If you don't mind, I'd like to quote some of what I wrote back then because I think it holds true (if you'd like to read the entire original post, click here):

"Hot jazz hasn't exactly been in the mainstream of modern pop music, but it's never gone away. Anyone who has spent just a few minutes at my brother Michael Steinman's Jazz Lives blog, already knows that this swinging style of music is alive and well both in New York and California, while friends of mine have told me about scenes in Boston, Portland, Austin and elsewhere (not to mention New Orleans, where I don't think it has ever slowed down)."
"Of course, don't tell this to the jazz mainstream press. Anytime a writer from the New York Times or Down Beat or whatever decides to go slumming into a city's traditional jazz scene, it's always to write a "nostalgia" based piece. None of the musicians who play this music get the cover of Jazz Times (hell, can anyone name the last time Louis was on the cover of a jazz magazine? 2001?). Bop came in in the 1940s, everything before it got relegated to the museum and that's pretty much been the story for the last 65 years, with every magazine and column covering the modern-bop-free stars of today and yesteryear, but turning a blind eye to anyone who just wants to swing and play hot music, preferably for dancers."

"Well, even though the above cities I listed all have popular, if underground, traditional scenes, the reality is for any kind movement to really gain traction, it has to blow up in New York City at some point. And that's what is happening now....I've noticed it for years now: more and more young musicians popping up all over NY interested in Louis Armstrong and the pre-bop style, musicians who find more of a challenge in ensemble interplay than running Coltrane substitutions. (Disclaimer: no disrespect to Coltrane or any of the other modern jazz stylists. I love all kinds of jazz, though my heart is with the traditional/swing stuff. The point is, it's a big world and there's plenty of room for anyone to play any style they like. There might not be plenty of gigs for that, but I see no need in reviving the jazz wars of the 1940s and to start calling out moderninsts and for them to start mocking the traditional players. No one's getting rich, so can't we all just play the music we want? End of rant.)"

"I've said it for years (to no one in particular) but the whole pre-bop aesthetic, to me, has always seemed like the only type of jazz that really gets people going, makes them want them to dance, makes them want to scream. I've been in those types of audiences, where the surge of emotion and noise is coming from both directions, on and off the bandstand. I've been in plenty of concert halls and respected plenty of quiet policies, but at some point, it's fun to let loose. I listen to broadcasts and concerts from the 1950s all the time--Louis, the George Lewis band, "Dr. Jazz" broadcasts from Central Plaza, etc.--and it's always blown me away, hearing the sounds of obviously younger people screaming and clapping for this style of music. That generation wanted to have fun and this music encouraged it. When the other styles of jazz said, "Shh, pipe down and listen," those fans got up, went to rock and roll, went to Ray Charles, went to Motown, and went right on down the line of American pop music, leaving jazz in the dust. But I've seen it for myself too many times now that when this style gets cooking, it elicits the same reaction in young people in 2013 as it did in 1953, 1943, 1933 and 1923. And it's not about nostalgia, it's about music that makes you feel good and want to move."

That was written BEFORE the first Hot Jazz Festival. The actual day's events ended up going down as one of the most memorable days I've ever spent as a jazz fan. The music was great, needless to say, but there was something about the audience that was especially heartening: about 80% seemed to be younger than 35 and they were not there from an ironic perspective. As I wrote in the previous paragraph, they were there to have a good time....and brother, they did. I'll never forget standing wall-to-wall in a crowd of people, standing, drinking and dancing to the music of trumpeter Bria Skonberg. At one point, she threw it to soprano saxophonist Aurora Nealand for a thoroughly New Orleans-ized (?) version of "Margie." People were going nuts. I was happy to be standing next to David Ostwald, who has been immersed in this music since the early 1970s. Even he had never seen anything like it. When everyone was screaming to "Margie," I turned to David and screamed, "Listen to this! They're screaming their heads off and dancing to a song written in 1920 by Con Conrad and J. Russell Robinson!" We just shook our heads in disbelief and went back to enjoying the music.

Fortunately, some videos popped up so if you think I'm just running my mouth for the helluva it, check these out.

Mona's Hot Four doing Bechet's "Chant in the Night":

The Hot Sardines tackling "Them There Eyes" (the opening "woo" is by the aforementioned David Ostwald):

And a few videos of the jam session shot by yours truly. First, everyone singing along (at about 1 a.m.) to "I'll Fly Away":

And finally, another jam session number, "Shine":

There's even more videos on Facebook but I'm going to quit while I'm ahead. So if you need me on Sunday, you'll know where to find me (and you might know where to find me on Monday, too: bed). But like last year, I'll leave Louis with the last words, taken from a letter he wrote to young trumpeter Chris Clifton on February 6, 1954 (you can read the whole thing here), after Clifton wrote him and told him he was a young trumpeter playing "Dixieland." Take it, Satch:

"‘Man, – you haven’t the least idea – how thrilled, I am, to be able to sit down and write to a ‘Cat, who feels the same way that ‘I do about the greatest music on this man’s earth,—DIXIELAND… ‘Lawd-today…’Gate—you’re a man after my own heart… I’ve always said—Dixieland is Universal… From one end of the earth to the other–the music’s the same, so help me….."

"Which again, makes my word come true, especially when I said – music is, er, wa, – Universal….. You yourself – could have done the same…Because, from the way that I dugged your very fine letter, – you take your horn serious the same as ‘I do…. God Bless Ya Son [...] And every country that we travel into, our music was the same… So you see in case you’d decide to make a tour to anywhere in the world, have no fear because our music (I’d say) is more of a Secret Order [...] real honest to goodness dixieland music will live for ever – without a doubt…"

"There was a certain big time musician, who made a nasty crack, as to, Dixieland Music, is ‘first grade music… Now – maybe you dont pick up on this Cat…But, I, being in the game for over forty years, etc, can easily see, that this young man who said it, the reason why he said it because he hasn’t the soul enough to express himself in dixie land music like he really would like to… So, he’ll say those slurring words knowing that the country’s full of idiots (also) who will believe him for a while, thinking that there really is such things as to different grades of music for the world to abide by [...] Where I came from, there weren’t but two kinds of music, – good or bad [...] Anyway my friend…Don’t let no one change your mind…Play the music that your heart tells you to play…There will always be somebody to gladly live it with you…"