Daily Archives: September 14, 2012

“PLAY THE MUSIC THAT YOUR HEART TELLS YOU TO PLAY”

Letters from Louis to the youthful trumpeter Chris Clifton.

Paramount Theatre, Portland, Oregon, 6 February 1954:

“‘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…..

“I’ll never forget the time when my All Stars and I landed in Italy and there was a little Jazz-Dixieland band standing there ‘justa ‘whaling Muskrat Ramble…And the sign over their talented little heads read like this——WELCOME TO ROME–Louis Armstrong and his All Stars…From the Romon New Orleans Jazz Band…. Which ‘Gassed Ol, Satch and his boys, no end… They were swinging the tune so well and relaxed, until, it made anyone of us, want to get some of it in the worst way…Tee Hee…

“Four days later, after we finished our concert one night, we went out to the little trumpet players home…And after ‘lorating a whole lots of that very very good Italian Spaghetti (wee) – myself and two – three of my boys – sat in with the little fine band and blew up a storm […] 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… I am very happy to have met you […] So I’ll close now… I have a pretty schedule before me for tomorrow… I’m to make an appearance on a TV tomorrow morning real–early, with my clarinet man-Barney Bigard…Cooking some of our real fine Creole dishes for these Oregan Fans, sorta, have ’em, lickin their fingers, Tee Hee…There’ll be some red beans and rice on the program..And that’s for sure… So give a hello to your musicians, and our fans…And until we meet (which) I’ll be looking forward to, – take em slow…And as I said ‘be,fo don’t let no one change your mind into playing that awfull juzitsu music.. Am red beans and ricely yours…” 

Corona, New York., 24 January 1969.

“Thanks for keeping tab on me through Lucille. She tells me every time you called. And I want you to know that I am very happy over your being concerned about me. I am straight now. Lucille straightened me, with her touch & patiences, & stuff. So, I’ll soon be back on the mound, wailing just like nothing happened. Am glad to realize how well you like my home town. The people & musicians are lovely, aren’t they. I was sad to hear about George Lewis and his base player. Oh well we all have our number and there isn’t anything that we can do about it. That’s why I keep shitting – that helps to prolong life. My mother instilled it in me, when I was Five years old. She said Son, keep shitting. You may not have Wealth, but you’ll always have Health. How true it is. Regards to everybody. Your boy Satch — Louis Armstrong.”

Corona, New York, June 16, 1971 (less than a month before his death).

“Man I received your letter and as usual very happy to get it. The presents were beautiful. The photo of you Blowing with the Tuxedo Brass Band is very good of you. I see that you really enjoyed playing with them. That’s the Brass Band that I was playing with [when] I left New Orleans in 1922 to join King Oliver in Chicago [as second trumpetist with Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band] and met Lil [Lil Hardin, Armstrong’s second wife, from 1924 to 1932]. She was Blowing [“Playing” written in margin] with the King — Johnnny [Dodds] — Baby Dodds [Honore] Dutrey — and Bill Johnson. Man what a Band. They’ll live in my memories.

“… I am coming on better each day. Soon as my legs strengthen up a little more, I’ll be straight and I can put the cane aside. I am glad to hear about you doing so well with your horn. That’s right, Blow with everybody. And see for yourself you’ll be glad you did. Nowadays you just can’t depend on one certain bunch of musicians to back you up. And good musician[s] will be very glad to Blow behind a good Trumpet Man that plays like you. Because there aren’t too many, if any at all playing the way that you play. Understand? So keep it up Gate. Playing with Lil will do you some good. She’s from the old school and can do wonders for you, don’t you think so? I am looking to hearing you playing with your own Band some day. You have everything to work with, You are young & strong and knows your Horn, so there you are. Take advantage of it Gate. And you know that I am with you all the way. Lucille sent regards. Thanks again for everything. From your Boy, Satch Louis Armstrong.”

Chris learned well, as you can hear from this 2008 excerpt from a performance of MAHOGANY HALL STOMP:

But even those of us who don’t play the horn can learn something from those letters.

May your happiness increase.

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CAJUN SEASONING: REUNION at THE EAR INN (June 3, 2012) with EDDY DAVIS, CONAL FOWKES, ORANGE KELLIN, SCOTT ROBINSON, JON-ERIK KELLSO, DAN BLOCK

Eight years ago, I first visited the Cajun Restaurant in the West Village (that’s Greenwich Village, New York) on Eighth Avenue.  It had been around for a long time, but it was known as the only place that still featured “traditional jazz,” however one defined the term, seven nights and two afternoons a week.*

A regular attraction was the Wednesday night band — a compact unit led by banjoist / singer / composer Eddy Davis, and dubbed by him late in its run WILD REEDS AND WICKED RHYTHM.  Most often, the instrumentation was Conal Fowkes, string bass; Scott Robinson, C-melody saxophone; Orange Kellin, clarinet, and Eddy — four players with a strong lyrical streak who could also make a bandstand seem wildly hot in the tradition of the Bechet-Spanier Big Four or Soprano Summit on an uptempo outchorus.

Since the regular Wednesday night gig ended, this band has gotten together for musical reunions — although not as often as its fans and partisans would like.  Thus, I was thrilled to learn that Eddy, Conal, Orange, and Scott would be “the EarRegulars” on Sunday, June 3, 2012, at The Ear Inn.  And I present some of the frankly magical results herein.

Eddy would not be insulted, I think, if I called his approach “quirky,” and his whimsical view of the musical spectrum colors and uplifts the band.  Another leader might have stuck to the predictable dozen “New Orleans” or “trad” standards, but not Eddy.  His musical range, affections, and knowledge are broad — he approaches old songs in new ways and digs up “new” ones that get in the groove deeply.  He knows how to set rocking tempos and his colleagues look both happy and inspired.  In addition, Eddy writes lyrics — homespun rather than sleek — for some classic jazz tunes, and he sings them from the heart.  All of these virtues were on display at The Ear Inn — friendly, jostling, witty solos and ensembles, and performances that took their time to scrape the clouds.

The melody for BABY, YOU’RE THE BEST might be elusive for some, but it has deep roots — Lil Hardin Armstrong’s TWO DEUCES, which Eddy has turned into a love song and the band has turned into a down-home West Village classic:

TWO-A-DAY is one of Eddy’s favorite obscure songs — a Jerry Herman number praising a kind of vaudeville bill (and time and place) from the ill-starred musical MACK AND MABEL, charting the lives and times of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand.  When Eddy sings lyrics about the “atomic age,” Scott emphasizes the point through his distinctive space-age attire:

POTATO HEAD BLUES, with jaunty lyrics and wondrous playing.  All for you, Louis:

I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE needs no introduction — recalling the Ink Spots and their sweet lovemaking on Decca Records:

Jon-Erik Kellso, Hot Man Supreme, came into The Ear Inn after another gig — hence the formal wear — sat down, and joined the band for a calypso-infused THE BUCKET’S GOT A HOLE IN IT.  Maybe this bucket was full of Red Stripe beer?:

At the start of THANKS A MILLION, you’ll notice an empty chair next to Orange — soon to be filled by the illustrious Dan Block on bass clarinet, with Scott switching over to one of his taragotas, or taragoti — which he’d first taken out for POTATO HEAD BLUES:

STRUTTIN’ WIH SOME BARBECUE, complete with verse:

And the session closed with Eubie Blake’s lovely affirmation, LOVE WILL FIND A WAY, taken at a strolling medium tempo:

P.S.  This session happened in the beginning of June and has only emerged three months later — no reflection on the splendid heartfelt music, but because of some small technical difficulties . . . now happily repaired.

*At the end of July 2006, The Cajun closed after a twenty-eight year run — to make way for a faceless high-rise apartment building.  When I find myself on Eighth Avenue and Sixteenth Street, I try not to search the spot where it once was.  It was a flawed paradise, but we miss it.

May your happiness increase.