Daily Archives: October 3, 2009

LOUIS and FATS, by SAMMY CAHN

Sammy Cahn

When I was a young boy Louis Armstrong was already a legend.  All these rumors that he was not allowed in the country, that he was a junkie, that he’d married a white (gulp) woman.  Louis Armstrong?  There was no Louis Armstrong.  He was a trumpet and a voice you heard on a record in the middle of the night.  I would listen and listen to those records.

One day Connie Immerman of the Cotton Club — also famous for Immerman’s Hot Chocolates — said he wanted to introduce me to Louis Armstrong.  Connie took me to the Cotton Club, and when I walked in and saw Louis I just gasped.

The first thing Armstrong said to me was, “When were you born?”  I said June 18.  He whipped out this book he had and flipped through the pages to that date.  He turned the book around and showed me the named of other people — famous people — who had been born on June 18.  I hoped some of it would rub off on me.

I found out that Louis was terribly weak at memorizing lyrics.  His wife would place lyrics all over the house — in his socks, in his shoes, any place he couldn’t miss and so at least would have to look at them a lot.

At the Cotton Club most of the songs were written to help work out a piece of business in the show.  They had a little boy for an act and needed a way of getting him into the show.  I had the idea of a shoeshine boy coming forward through the tables — which is how “Shoe Shine Boy” got written.  I wrote a number for Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “I Bring You Religion On A Mule.”  They hired a little white mule.  She came riding in on it.  Two days later Connie Immerman said to me, “You and your ideas!”  I said, “Isn’t the song stopping the show?”  Connie said, “Sure it’s stopping the show.  Everybody’s quitting.  Somebody found out the mule is getting more than the chorus girls.”  I’ve never suggested an animal act since.

I became close to Louis Armstrong.  One night we covered ten joints in Harlem, and each place somebody was doing Louis Armstrong.  In the tenth and last one it was a really terrible imitation.  I said, “Louis, why are we here?  This man just tries to do everything you do.”  Louis said, “He may do somep’n I don’t do.”

I learned that Armstrong’s solos never varied, and I asked him why.  He said, “Is it good?”  I said yes.  “So?”  No argument.

Once I saw Fats Waller at a rehearsal with a quart of gin on the piano.  “That’s a funny way to run a rehearsal,” I primly said.  He answered just fine: “Hey, I get four arrangements to a quart.”

Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller.  Can you top them?

[From I SHOULD CARE: THE SAMMY CAHN STORY, by Sammy Cahn, pp. 223-24.]

Advertisements

IN FRONT OF OUR EYES (Chautauqua 2009)

Here are songs from the very first informal set of music at the 2009 Jazz at Chautauqua, where we watched and heard our heroes create. 

People for whom jazz is a foreign language ask, “How do they do that, I mean, without music in front of them?  How do they know what they’re doing?”  The answer, of course, is a mix of skill, experience, and daring, beyond mastery of one’s instrument: knowing the chord changes to YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY is one preliminary step; knowing how to play whatever comes to mind another; knowing what not to play a third; having the courage to follow one’s impulses perhaps the final and greatest step.  No amount of immersion in the jazz tradition, no amount of studying recordings, can make up for an absence of courage and playfulness.

Inspired playfulness was evident all through the first set — with musicians who don’t always have the opportunity to get together and exchange ideas: Andy Schumm, cornet; Andy Stein, forsaking his violin for the baritone sax; Dan Barrett, trombone; Bob Reitmeier, clarinet; James Dapogny, piano; Vince Giordano, bass; Marty Grosz, guitar; John Von Ohlen, drums.  A close observer will notice a good deal of making-it-up-as-we-go-along here . . . which is not the same thing as uncertainty or tentativeness.  Rather, it is a willingness to invent while the car is in fourth gear, to say, “Let’s try this and not worry too much whether it’s perfect or not.”  That attitude can add up to train wrecks when less inspired players gather; here, it made some great loose playing possible.  You will notice, as a wonderful added benefit, the smiles on the musicians’ faces, their attentive listening to each others’ solos.  Viewers who like their videos uncluttered will have to get used to the backs of people’s heads in front of me — I could identify most of them as friends! — but their rhythmic bobbing and weaving doesn’t distract from the experience: it’s a pleasure to see the audience, attentive and quiet, but having a fine time.   

The first song is an exploration of a Twenties composition, attractive because its twists and turns aren’t overfamiliar: WABASH BLUES.  I admire the rocking motion of that rhythm section, at once intense and cool; Dapogny’s solo (it would have been perfectly in place in a Chicago joint circa 1933), Reitmeier and Barrett, building splendid solos out of logically-connected short phrases; Andy Schumm, rough-housing and tumbling around in his surprising Wild Bill Davison manner, and an especially impassioned Andy Stein — before the ensemble rocks it all out:

A trotting version of THE SHEIK OF ARABY ewcalled a Red Nichols-Jack Teagarden record of 1929, where Teagarden improvised a stirring solo over the band’s humming the straight melody behind him.  SHEIK is sometimes taken much faster; I admire this band’s steady lope:

Dan Barrett, like Duke Heitger, likes to begin performances of YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY with the rather-rare verse, and this performance took off from his outlining the brief melody.  This version tipped its collective cap to Louis and to the Bennie Moten band and its later Kansas City incarnations.  Barrett, suggesting that being driven crazy could be pleasurably romantic, quotes both SAY IT and the verse to LOVE IN BLOOM, with whatever associations imaginable:

I could write more about these performances, but I’m going to watch them again.  You come, too.