Today’s my 50th post for this blog and to commemorate this momentous occasion, I’m going to do two entries for the price of one (if you’re paying for these, you’re doing something wrong). December was a very fertile month in Louis Armstrong’s career and arguably, December 11 was the date of some of his finest work. On December 11, 1928, Armstrong’s “Hot Four” accompanied the unfortunate singer Lillie Delk Christian on a session that turned in some beautiful Armstrong work on “I Must Have That Man,” in addition to Armstrong’s first run-ins with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “Sweethearts On Parade.” On December 11, 1948, the All Stars turned in a short, smoking set for the Damon Runyon Fund, broadcast from the Blue Note in Chicago and issued on a Storyville C.D. The wondrous Autobiography sessions kicked off on December 11, 1956, with one of the very best of the various dates that made up the final album. And 11 years later, on that date in 1967, Armstrong recorded two songs with Dick Jacobs’s orchestra…singing completely in Italian!
I could spend hours writing about each of the songs Armstrong recorded at that incredible first Autobiography session. The same goes for the Italian session, which I love so much. So I’ll save those for future blogs where I can go into more graphic detail. For now, though, I’ll cover the Christian session and that December broadcast from the Blue Note. Let’s begin!
December 11, 1928
We’ll start off with Lillie Delk Christian and the less said about her, the better. Lee Wiley once described Billie Holiday as sounding like her shoes were too tight. I think that applies well to Christian. Her hat might have been too tight, too. She is the definition of a bad period female singer of the 1920s: no sense of swing, too much enthusiasm, a whiny voice, wobbly vibrato and irritating phrasing. But of course, I’m judging her on Pops and everyone that came after him, so I don’t want to attack Christian maliciously. She was a product of her time, she must have been popular enough for OKeh to keep feeding her popular songs of the day and she adds some period charm to these recordings (though she also causes headaches).
This December session was the second pairing of Armstrong and Christian. They recorded together in June, a date that featured, “Was It A Dream?,” a lovely waltz and the sensational “Too Busy,” where Armstrong scats behind Christian’s vocal reprise, offering a demonstration of how to swing (while Christian argues for the other side). The records must have sold well and/or impressed the bigwigs at OKeh because the exact same band was reassembled for the December session. Pianist Earl Hines and guitarist Mancy Carr were regular associates of Armstrong during this period and without drums or a bass/tuba, they give the date a breezy rhythmic feel. Clarinet legend Jimmie Noone only recorded with Pops on the two Christian dates, though Hines would soon join Noone for some fantastic records.
This session began with “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” with Christian singing the rarely heard verse as well as singing the melody exactly as written on the printed page. Her voice goes through my head like a fire alarm. Armstrong’s playing is very subdued while Noone flutters around his lead, sounding at times a little like how Barney Bigard would later play with Pops. Christian returns to take the song out and overall, not much happens. But if you’d like to have fun, compare Christian’s vocal with Armstrong’s, recorded March 5, 1929.
“Baby” is the next song and it’s not much better. The band doesn’t have a firm grip on the song during the introduction but they soon fall into a nice bounce, Carr playing some deep single-notes a la Johnny St. Cyr. Of course, the highlight is the instrumental chorus in between the vocal. Pops stays subdued until the bridge, where he lets loose a bit. Hines plays chords on every beat like Lil Hardin until he switches to a stride backing. Christian reenters and starts emoting…time for more Advil. Take a listen.
Armstrong would spin “Sweethearts On Parade” into gold in 1930 but listening to Christian sing it makes you realize just how lousy Carmen Lombardo’s song really is (the same goes for Billie Holiday’s version of Lombardo’s “A Sailboat in the Moonlight,” which, too, makes delicious wine out of some sour grapes). This song was not the ideal vehicle for Christian. Every time she holds a word like “two” or “through,” her vibrato flies out of control. Fortunately, there’s Pops, and his muted obbligato is full of gem-like phrases, such as the double-time moment at the end of her first eight bars. When the band finally takes over, Armstrong tears it up, playing the melody an octave higher, double-timing a bit, swinging on quarter-notes, throwing in a perfect blue note and ending on a dizzying run. It’s the perfect blueprint for the classic 1930 record. But for now, Christian’s will have to do so click here to listen.
They saved the best for last with “I Must Have That Man,” another song destined to become a standard. Christian’s tone-deaf reading of the lyrics take up a lot of time (does she even know what this song’s about?), but fortunately there’s a good deal of choice Armstrong to get us through, starting with the scintillating introduction. Carr’s guitar plays a striking chord and boom, Armstrong’s off and running for a dramatic beginning that leads perfectly into the verse. However, Armstrong’s later solo is the high point. He plays the melody with such passion, but remember this is Armstrong of a 1928 vintage and it’s only a matter of time before he uncorks a dazzling flurry of notes. His double-time runs are something to marvel at but I’m sure that if he recorded the song even just ten years later, he would have stayed on the passionate path with which he begins his solo. Regardless, it’s beautiful playing and if you’d like to listen along, click here.
December 11, 1948
Flash-forward 20 years and Armstrong’s back in Chicago and Earl Hines is still playing piano but goodness knows about a million things happened in between. The All Stars were now a hot commodity and on this night, they performed at a memorial concert for Damon Runyon, who died on December 10, 1946. The proceeds to the concert went to the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. The complete broadcast is available on a Storyville disc that pairs this evening with Armstrong’s Winter Garden show of June 1947 (also available on Itunes). “Sleepy Time” naturally opens the proceedings but remember, Armstrong rarely sang it in public until after he recorded it with Gordon Jenkins in 1951. Chicago disc jockey and future Today show host Dave Garroway was the emcee that night, a good choice since he frequently wrote about and championed Armstrong during the period.
“Muskrat Ramble” kicks off the proceedings, always a welcome tune. Just a little over one year earlier, on November 30, 1947, the All Stars more or less improvised their way through a classic jam session on the tune. By the time of this Chicago performance, the song had turned into a smooth routine, but that didn’t make it any less exciting. In fact, for me personally, “Muskrat Ramble” in any form might be my favorite overall All Stars performance and this 1948 one is a good one. In the band this evening, besides Hines, were Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Arvell Shaw and Sid Catlett, the classic, truly “All Star” version of the band that most people name as their favorite edition. It’s not mine because I don’t really care for Hines’s playing with the All Stars (listen to his clumsy, intrusive glissando at the 1:31 mark of “Muskrat”). However, this group did have Sid Catlett and to me, Pops never had a better drummer. His accents were always a thrilling aspect of any version of “Muskrat Ramble” he played on and this version is no different. Hines takes a very fine solo, full of all sorts of intricate Hines-isms, though he even seems to trip himself up by the end of it. The background riffs behind Bigard were initiated by Pops at the Symphony Hall concert. By this time, he and Teagarden had them locked in tight. For more proof that Pops still improvised, his two-chorus solo on this version is different from almost any other “Ramble” of the period. Teagarden’s solo is typically swinging and gets more great support from Catlett. Pops’s charge into the rideout, echoed first by Bigard then Teagarden became part of the set routine. Pops sounds pretty fierce in the closing ensemble, obviously loving what Catlett’s putting down, but the rest of the band isn’t on their level. I love Teagarden and Bigard but they weren’t the greatest ensemble players and Hines wasn’t the greatest accompanist (you can practically hear his resentment with each passing chord). Thus, though this is fine version, for me the classic “Muskrat Rambles” really occurred between 1953 and 1959, Pops’s peak with the All Stars, namely thanks to Trummy Young and Billy Kyle.
But on that night in 1948, Armstrong wasn’t the only star on stage. One has to remember that Teagarden and Hines were leading big bands of their own before joining Pops and they were quite well known at the time. Couple that with the fact that Armstrong always managed to feature his sidemen, even on a 15-minute broadcast, and it’s easy to see why Armstrong would devote three of his six full songs at the Blue Note to Big T or Fatha Hines. Teagarden’s up first, duetting with Pops on “A Song Is Born,” the song from the film of the same name. Armstrong always went out of his way to feature the songs he made popular in movies and true enough, “A Song Is Born” would stay in the book for at least four years after the forgettable movie premiered. Interestingly, Garroway mentions that Victor was donating the proceeds from the sales of Armstrong’s record of the tune to the Runyon Cancer fund, a nice gesture. Teagarden’s vocal is up first with Pops providing the obbligato. I don’t know why I have the urge to mention this, but I’ve always liked the way Pops sings the phrase “reet jungle beat.” After the vocal, Pops solos with some very fleet-fingered ideas before handing the ball over to Teagarden. When Armstrong reenters, he’s in superb control of his upper register but after a short, relaxed spot by Bigard, he does crack the last high note he reaches for near the end, but he regains his footing and does hit. Man, it was not easy being Louis Armstrong.
Teagarden’s next with “Basin Street Blues,” always the perfect feature for his Texas vocalizing and slippery trombone playing. Naturally, Pops can’t stay completely out of the limelight, especially on a song he made his own in 1928 and his short solo is a gem. A lot of it was set, but does throw in some new phrases—and is it me or does his break reference “The Gypsy”? Teagarden ends it with a “tram-bone coda” this time for those keeping score at home on the whole “coda vs. cadenza” showdown.
Fatha’s follows Teagarden with “Boogie Woogie On the St. Louis Blues.” When he joined the band, Pops was still romping on this number himself. He decided to let Hines have it but on some early versions, you can hear Armstrong and the other horns noodling in the background. By the time of this version, the horns play background riffs for a couple of choruses leading to that Hines tremolo. I always liked this feature and this is an especially good version because the tempo is a little slower than it would become. Hines does more with his left hand than most pianists do with both.
With the features out of the way, Pops romps on the final two numbers, “High Society” and “Royal Garden Blues.” “High Society” subconsciously highlights one of the great strengths of any edition of the All Stars: their ability to always play in tune. I listen to a lot of New Orleans jazz and my collection includes it all: Bunk, George Lewis, Jim Robinson, Paul Barbarin, Kid Thomas, Punch Miller, Johnny Wiggs, Albert Burbank, Kid Ory and so on. I can’t tell you how many versions of “High Society” I own where the band sounds awful playing the introduction. Out-of-tune clarinets, creaky trumpets, shaky rhythm. And these are bands that I love and versions that usually swing nicely after the intro. But I don’t think Armstrong ever led an edition of the All Stars that ever played remotely out-of-tune. Kid Ory, either, for that matter, something that Barney Bigard once brought up in a Down Beat article, I believe.
Anyway, Pops was no stranger to “High Society,” having dazzled Sidney Bechet with his playing on it when he was only a teenager. He recorded it with King Oliver in 1923 but he really turned in an explosive performance on his Victor big band record of it. It was an exciting staple of many All Stars shows and though Barney Bigard usually stepped into the limelight with rendition of the Picou clarinet choruses, the song was a better feature for Pops’s stirring lead work and the peerless drumming of Big Sid. I know I’m repeating myself, but like almost everything else from that night, the 1948 Blue Note version of “High Society” is mighty good and just as exciting as ever but it’s lacking a certain spark that was present at the 1947 Symphony Hall version, my candidate for greatest version of “High Society” ever. Nevertheless, Pops and Big Sid really shine here, much as they always did, before Big Sid had to quit touring in mid-1949.
Big Sid also plays a part in the success of “Royal Garden Blues.” Armstrong never recorded this song before the formation of the All Stars but starting with the Town Hall concert, it was a staple for the next 20 years. It was always an exciting performance and it was also the rare one where Pops never developed a truly set solo. He usually improvised on this one on a night-to-night basis, which made it a good opener for nights when he didn’t call “Indiana” for whatever reason (rare, but it did happen). Pops is all over on this one, leading a few opening ensemble choruses, playing background riffs behind Barney, taking two strong choruses of his own and sending everyone home at the end. It’s piece of evidence #594 about how hard Armstrong worked with the All Stars. During the big band period, he could smile for two minutes, pick up his horn, blow a tremendous chorus or two, hit a high note at the end, then take a break for the next song or bring on a lame vocalist. But with the All Stars, he was the whole show…and what a show at that! For me, this “Royal Garden” is the highlight of this Blue Note show.
The band gels a bit betters and Pops’s solo is a gasser. He shows off some quick playing during his first chorus—it’s not bop, by any means, but it has good velocity and shows that the Louis of 1928 wasn’t exactly dead and buried. You can even hear Teagarden moan an enthusiastic “Yeah” as Pops enters his second chorus. Here, you can really hear the genius of Big Sid. I’ve written time and again about how Pops loved his backbeats and later drummers like Kenny John, Barrett Deems and Danny Barcelona gave him a steady diet of them to always keep things jumping. But nobody played a backbeat like Big Sid for a very important reason: he knew when to hold back and when to spring them on Pops. During Armstrong’s first chorus, he’s all cymbals and accents but when Pops drives into that second helping, Catlett immediately starts thwacking away on two and four and the effect is absolutely exhilarating. Pops is obviously inspired and he responds with some fierce playing, that high minor third sounding as bluesy as can be. And here’s the thing: this version is pitched in A, which is obviously wrong. Armstrong played “Royal Garden” in Bb so this performance should be a little brisker and that one bent blue note is a high concert Db. Pops sounds like he could go all day, even dipping into the start of Teagarden’s solo before bowing out with a graceful, small gliss. Pops’s closing ensemble lead was fairly set but when it’s so good, how can you complain?
With the applause still ringing, Teagarden launches into “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues,” the All Stars’s closing theme during its early years. Sure, Pops recorded the piece in 1932 but it was really Teagarden’s theme and he plays lead throughout. I always found it interesting that this was Armstrong’s closer for some time, but like I said, Teagarden was a big star, too, and maybe Pops wanted to use it because both he and Teagarden were associated with it. But once Teagarden left the group, so did “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” as a closing theme, replaced once and for all with a reprise of “Sleepy Time.”
So that’ll conclude my wrap-up of some of the great music that Armstrong record on two different December 11’s in his lifetime. Though tomorrow’s December 14 and a glance at the discography shows that on December 14, 1938, Armstrong made his famous appearance on the Martin Block show where he jammed with the likes of Fats Waller and Bud Freeman. Now there’s some hot music to dig out…and maybe I’ll blog about that one too, if I have time (but I doubt it!).
And I’d like to close this 50th entry with a little bit of self-promotion. Last month, I was interviewed by Doug Doyle on WBGO, the world’s premier jazz radio station. The subject, of course, was Armstrong and the best of the interview will air tomorrow night, December 14 at 7:30 p.m. eastern standard time. You can listen to it live on wbgo.org but once it airs, I’ll be able to link the entire interview to the blog so keep your eyes open for that. In the meantime, thanks to those have been with me since post number one and here’s to those who’ll be with me for the next 50. And more than anything, here’s to Pops!