Tag Archives: Decca Records

MISS LIL, FOREMOTHER

I like the universe I was born into, but I imagine alternate ones all the time — the debt I owe to my Big Sister, who introduced me to Golden Age science fiction in my late childhood.  So I imagine one where this woman — pianist, singer, composer, bandleader, natural leader, innovator — was a star of the magnitude she deserved.

Lillian Hardin

Lillian Hardin is ill-served as being perceived primarily as just “the second wife of Louis Armstrong.”  My admiration and love for Louis is beyond the normal measuring tools, but Lil is someone and would have been someone if she’d never devoted her energies to that chubby young man from the South for a decade or so.  She herself didn’t have a substantial ego, which may have accounted for her somewhat shadowy presence in jazz history.  How she would have been celebrated had she not been female is something to consider.

You could ask one of the heroes of this music, Chris Albertson, about Lil, for sure. Here — on Chris’ STOMP OFF blog — is a trove of information, all enlivened by his love for Miss Lil.  (His memories of Lil — including a three-part audio interview — are treasures.)

Rather than write about her in ways admiring or polemical or both, I offer a banquet of her Swing Era Decca recordings, which — I know it’s heresy — stand up next to the Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, and Henry “Red” Allen small groups of the period for swing, charm, melodic inventiveness, and fun.  On these discs, I know our ears go automatically to the horn soloists — but imagine them with a flat rhythm section and inferior tunes.  Lil’s exuberance makes these recordings much more memorable.  Although none of her original compositions had much longevity except for JUST FOR A THRILL, sixteen of the twenty-six are hers, and I’d guess the effective arrangements are hers as well.

Underneath the picture on the YouTube posting are all the titles: further details here: Lillian Armstrong And Her Swing Band : Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Chu Berry (ts) Teddy Cole (p) Huey Long (g) John Frazier (b) Lil Armstrong (vcl).  Chicago, Oct. 27, 1936.  OR LEAVE ME ALONE / MY HI-DE-HO MAN / BROWN GAL / DOIN’ THE SUZIE-Q / JUST FOR A THRILL / IT’S MURDER /

Joe Thomas (tp) Buster Bailey (cl) Robert Carroll (ts) James Sherman (p) Arnold Adams (g) Wellman Braud (b) George Foster (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl).  New York, April 15, 1937: BORN TO SWING / I’M ON A SIT-DOWN STRIKE FOR RHYTHM / BLUER THAN BLUE / I’M KNOCKIN’ AT THE CABIN DOOR /

Shirley Clay (tp) replaces Joe Thomas, Prince Robinson (ts) replaces Robert Carroll, Manzie Johnson (d) replaces George Foster.  New York, July 23, 1937:
LINDY HOP / WHEN I WENT BACK HOME / LET’S CALL IT LOVE / YOU MEAN SO MUCH TO ME /

Ralph Muzzillo, Johnny McGhee (tp) Al Philburn (tb) Tony Zimmers (cl) Frank Froeba (p) Dave Barbour (g) Haig Stephens (b) Sam Weiss (d) Lil Armstrong (vcl).  New York, Feb. 2, 1938: LET’S GET HAPPY TOGETHER / HAPPY TODAY, SAD TOMORROW / YOU SHALL REAP WHAT YOU SOW / ORIENTAL SWING /

Reunald Jones (tp) J.C. Higginbotham (tb) Buster Bailey (cl) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) O’Neil Spencer (d).  September 9, 1938: SAFELY LOCKED UP IN MY HEART / EVERYTHING’S WRONG, AIN’T NOTHING RIGHT / HARLEM ON SATURDAY NIGHT / KNOCK-KNEED SAL (is the unidentified male voice on the last track Clarence Williams?) /

Jonah Jones (tp) Don Stovall (as) Russell Johns (ts) Lil Armstrong (p,vcl) Wellman Braud (b) Manzie Johnson (d) Midge Williams, Hilda Rogers (vcl).
New York, March 18, 1940: SIXTH STREET / RIFFIN’ THE BLUES / WHY IS A GOOD MAN SO HARD TO FIND? / MY SECRET FLAME /

I salute Lillian Hardin as a joyous Foremother.  Her virtues should be celebrated on many other days of the year.

May your happiness increase!

SETTING THE WORLD ON FIRE IN WHISPERS: “BON BON,” JOE THOMAS, EDDIE DURHAM, and BUSTER SMITH, 1941

Sometimes great art flourishes in corners where it is not at all expected even to survive.

George “Bon Bon” Tunnell (1912-1975) was an engaging singer — yet not well-remembered.  He was first a member of The Three Keys, and from 1937-42, he was the first African-American male singer to appear with a Caucasian band: Jan Savitt and his Top Hatters.  Incidentally, he was heavily featured with the band — and — one of the trombonists there was Cutty Cutshall (1939-40) something that would interest Condon scholars like myself.

The two sides below come from Bon Bon’s early solo career — four sides from this date, two the next year (where Decca seems to have wanted him to be an African-American Bing, or at least a Chick Bullock or Dick Robertson) and then some solo features with Steve Gibson’s Red Caps.  But with no disrespect to Bon Bon’s very nice singing, the two sides offer a rare combination — two musicians who, at this point in the Swing Era, did not receive all the opportunities to record their talents warranted.

They are guitarist / trombonist / arranger Eddie Durham, whose guitar sound is instantly recognizable — swinging but with sharp corners — and trumpeter Joe Thomas, also instantly recognizable and inimitable.  The second song, I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE, is also Durham’s — although there are three other names on the label.  And, on clarinet, the”Prof” of deep Kansas City jazz, Buster Smith.   New York City, July 23, 1941: Tunnell, Joe Thomas, Eddie Durham, Buster Smith, Jackie Fields, alto saxophone; Jimmy Phipps, piano; Al Hall, string bass; Jack Parker, drums.  The other two sides — which you’d have to track down on your own (they are on the THREE KEYS CD on the Chronological Classics label) are BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, and Fats Waller’s ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES.

SWEET MAMA  (from 1920, I believe, and recorded by the ODJB) has lyrics that suggest domestic abuse and a real need for anger management, but the band is splendid.  But first we hear Durham’s spiky arpeggios, a very dark and threatening orchestral passage featuring growl from Thomas (not his usual approach) and leafy clarinet from Smith — a passage reminiscent of Durham’s approach to GOOD MORNING BLUES for Basie.  I find Bon Bon hilariously sweetly unconvincing in his gentle singing: this man couldn’t do damage to a sandwich, but we will let that pass.  (When he returns for his second vocal, he wants to convince us: “Papa’s really gone mad,” but his heart isn’t in it.  Too kind to make anyone cower.)

The half-chorus Thomas solo that follows is quietly magnificent: even through his mute, the steady glow of his tone comes through, as does his fondness for repeated notes, his love of 1927 Louis; his stately glide.  Where other trumpeters shout, Thomas caresses, and his solo winds down rather than moving out of the middle register.  It is equally affecting for what he doesn’t care to do — remember, 1941 was the age of great brass virtuosity — as for what he does. Thomas whispers sweet epigrams to us, and their impact is only felt on the third or fourth hearing.  I’d also call your attention to the strong but not overdone rhythm that Hall and Durham offer, as well as Smith’s sweet commentaries.  Bon Bon returns to assure us of his menace, but no one would be all that scared of “the fine undertaker,” which seems like a Waller touch.

The more famous song, justly, begins with an orchestral introduction that borrows quietly from THE MOOCHE, and we then move to a love song — where Bon Bon sounds more comfortable.  Durham’s arpeggios threaten to take our attention away: he’s not aiming to copy Charlie Christian’s smoothness, but he makes a deep impression.  Eddie is much more prominent here — it was his song and I wonder if he’d brought a small-band chart to the session. Then, less than half a minute of Thomas, but his sound, even muted, is like sunshine coming through the windows in late afternoon.  His gentle intensity; his love of the melody — and that upwards arpeggio in the middle is purest Joe (and purest Louis, if you need to find an ancestor) — quite touching.  When the band and Bon Bon return, the blending is completely polished and fetching.

(Joe gets three more extroverted outings on BLOW, GABRIEL, BLOW, which he executes nicely, and Bon Bon scats in the best almost-Leo-Watson manner.  ALL THAT MEAT AND NO POTATOES bounces along pleasantly, but once again Bon Bon must pretend to menace — “I’m fit to fight” — which is sweetly unconvincing.  Durham is delightfully in evidence and the other horns show their individual voices — but the two sides here are, to me, the standouts. Tunnell’s final side for Decca, before the recording ban, SLEEPY OLD TOWN, could pass for Bing, and it is delightful — with Russ Solomon doing a commendable Bobby Hackett.  But it’s no longer on YouTube.)

And just because it exists on eBay, a little more Bon Bon memorabilia — a signed contract, with amendments.

and the reverse:

I haven’t analyzed the contract.  Perhaps Laura Windley, our swing star and lawyer, might have something to say about it.  Until then, I will cherish those two Decca sides, full of instrumental surprises and engaging singing.

May your happiness increase!

“SINCERELY”: LOUIS ARMSTRONG: THE DECCA SINGLES 1949-1958

its-all-in-the-game-louis

Slowly, slowly, our awareness of Louis Armstrong spreads and deepens.  Of course, someone out there is still saying that everything after POTATO HEAD BLUES was a colossal misstep.  And somewhere, another gently misguided soul is suggesting that “Louis Armstrong was the worst thing that ever happened to traditional jazz,” which is a direct quotation and one that tried my peaceful nature to the breaking point.

But many people understand or have come to understand — to feel — that whatever Louis touched, he made beautiful.  So I write what I believe: that the recordings newly issued by Universal, annotated by our own local hero, Ricky Riccardi, are some of Louis’ greatest.  They are masterpieces of technique, drama, and above all, emotion.  And if I hear whimpers, “But they’re commercial!  The songs are so beneath him,” I will call Security to clear the room.

Here is the official link to the Universal Records issue — 95 songs, available through Apple here for download.  No, they aren’t going to be issued on CD. Downloads, like love, are here to stay — so ask a niece or nephew to assist you. And if the idea of intangible music — sounds without a tangible disc, shellac, vinyl, or plastic, is odd and threatening, think of downloading as new-fangled radio.

However, there are characteristically wise and rewarding liner notes by Mister Riccardi, about fifty thousand words, so knock yourself out here.  I believe that the cost for the whole package is $44.95 and individual tracks are priced at $1.29, which is not prohibitive.  As we have gotten used to cheap food in the last forty or fifty years, we also expect music to be free.  Silliness and selfishness, but that’s another blogpost.  This one is to celebrate Louis.

louis-armstrong-decca-singles

I listened to all ninety-five sides recently, and I am floating.

45-record-case-better

I grew up with some of these recordings —  Louis and Gordon Jenkins, especially — so they are very tender artifacts to me.  I came to Louis slightly later than the time period of this set: I think I bought my first record in 1963, although the experience of buying individual 45 rpm discs in paper sleeves is a part of my childhood.  Department stores had record departments, as did the “five and dime” stores, Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, W.T. Grant, so hanging out there was a real part of my childhood and adolescence.  Of course, I separated myself from my peers early, but that is not something I lament.  In the Sixties and Seventies, Decca collected many of these sides on 12″ lps — SATCHMO IN STYLE, SATCHMO SERENADES, and the like.  This is to say that perhaps ten of the ninety-five sides were new to me, but the music is astonishing throughout.

Several aspects of this set are powerful to me and will be to you.  One is the trumpet playing. Louis’ unrivaled ability to make a “straight” melody come alive — “tonation and phrasing,” he called it — shines through every track.  Listeners who only see brass instruments in the hands of people who have spent the requisite ten thousand hours may not know how difficult what he does, casually, from track to track.  Ask a trumpet player how easy it would be to reproduce four bars of Louis.  I think you will be startled by the answer.  I know people rightly hold up his recordings of the Twenties and Thirties as examples of astonishing grace and power — and they are — but his trumpet playing in 1949-1958 is awe-inspiring, his huge sound captured beautifully by Decca’s engineers.

(And for those who worry about the “jazz quotient,” Louis is so strongly evident throughout that this should be enough — but one also hears from Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, Billy Kyle, Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Butterfield, Allan Reuss, Charles LaVere . . . )

Another pleasure is the alchemy Louis works on the material.  For those who are appalled by, let us say, YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART or SKOKIAAN, I ask them to take a deep breath and evaluate the lyric and melodic quality of, perhaps, THAT’S WHEN I’LL COME BACK TO YOU before criticizing the “pop” material. And if a record of WINTER WONDERLAND brought people to hear and warm to Louis, then the large reach into popular songs — nothing new — that Jack Kapp and Milt Gabler did is a very good thing.

The final thing that kept revealing itself, over and over, was Louis’ deep innate romanticism, his delight in singing and playing about love — hopeless love, disappointed love, fulfilled love — all the shadings from bleak to ecstatic.  Even those people who admire Louis as I do have not always given him credit as a great poet of love, vocally and instrumentally.  His dramatic sense is peerless on these records.

If you feel as I do, perhaps I am overstating the obvious.  But if you don’t, I ask you to listen to this:

and this, which to me has some of the emotional power of Billie’s Commodore ballads:

and this tender hymn, which I’ve loved for decades:

I know that 2016 has been a dazzling year for reissues and issues of material never heard before — consider several new Mosaic sets and the two volumes of material from the Savory collection — but this music is extraordinary: you can’t afford to miss these dreams.

May your happiness increase!

NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY (1936)

I was originally going to title this post HIDE THE CHILDREN but then it occurred to me that my caution was excessive.  No actual obscenities are uttered on these sides and the children of 2015 often know and use casually what 1936 listeners would have called “bad words.”

But these records were startling discoveries to me, and they swung — with a cast of characters not renowned in jazz lore.  The records also weren’t under-the-counter “party records,” but issued in 1936 on a major label (Decca’s race series, but note the absence of “Sepia Series” on the label).

DON’T COME OVER:

and the reverse, more familiar, praise of the humble tuber on the commodities market:

HOT NUTS SWING:

Happily, I found the personnel as reported in Storyville 144, courtesy of the National Jazz Archive (UK) here —

STELLA JOHNSON Vocal, acc, by Dorothy Scott’s Rhythm Boys: Randolph Scott or Jimmy Strange, t; Bob Fagin, as; Dorothy Scott or Henry Gordon, p; Bob Tinsley, g, *Bassie* sb; Pete Peterson, d.  Chicago, Thursday, 10 Sept.1936:

90868-A Don’€™t Come Over De 7217

90869-A Hot Nuts Swing De 7217.

I offer no moral here, except to point out how good the band sounds, how adept the unheralded Bob Fagin is in the pre-Bird style, how effective the overall swing sounds.

On DON’T COME OVER, the device of creating a rhyme where the second rhyming word, unspoken, is clearly vulgar, must go back several centuries in vernacular folk music.  It is particularly intriguing because it requires listeners to reach into their personal word-hoards and come up, perhaps involuntarily, with the naughty word, the obscene punchline to the joke.  We become participants in the naughty playlet.  Consider that.

May your happiness increase!

MARTY GROSZ AND HIS CELESTIAL BEINGS (ANDY SCHUMM, SCOTT ROBINSON, JOHN SHERIDAN, PETE SIERS): SEPTEMBER 21, 2013

Here are three informal pleasures from the 2013 Jazz at Chautauqua (now reborn in a westerly direction as the Allegheny Jazz Party), created by Marty Grosz, guitar, vocal, asides; Andy Schumm, cornet, “secret weapon”; Scott Robinson, alto clarinet, tenor saxophone; John Sheridan, piano; Pete Siers, snare drum, wire brushes.  These performances come from September 21, 2013, but they evoke any number of small groups that flourished in the preceding century. And still flourish.

It’s delightful how much music can come from a small group with apparently “unorthordox” instrumentation: no third or fourth horn, no amplified guitar or string bass — no string bass at all — and a seriously minimalist drum kit. I think of other Grosz assemblages that have the same lilt, or the EarRegulars, or the Braff-Barnes quartet, some Basie small groups, skiffle extravaganzas, Josh Billings, blue-label Deccas, or any number of groups that one could find on Fifty-Second Street or in the decades that followed.

Here are three delights.

James P. Johnson’s perennial bit of yearning, ONE HOUR — recast as a living tribute to the Mound City Blue Blowers, eminently lyrical:

LOVE IS JUST AROUND THE CORNER, that jaunty 1936 love song, which always makes me think of Bing and Pee Wee:

And another expression of Swing Amour, ALL MY LIFE, also a new tune in 1936:

Marty calls this “music from a vanished era.” Or did he say “banished”?  Hard to tell, and either works in this context.  But as long as these players — and their descendants — walk the earth, such music has a good chance of surviving and enriching our lives and those of future generations. and Mister Grosz walks among us, still making those quarter notes swing: he is on the West Coast, among friends, as I write this.

May your happiness increase!

JACK KAPP INSISTS

Two stories from the past.

One comes from someone’s reminiscence of being on the bus with the Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe — this could have been in 1957 — where Sonny Stitt, a brilliantly virtuosic player, was walking up and down the aisle of the bus, horn in full flight, playing everything he knew, pulling out every impressive piece of acrobatic improvising to wow his august audience.  Lester Young, probably seated in the back of the bus, is supposed to have said, “That’s very nice, Lady Stitt.  But can you sing me a song?”

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Bing Crosby and Jack Kapp (1901-1949) in the studio

Jack Kapp, the head of Decca Records, was famous for wanting his artists — Bing Crosby, the Mills Brothers, the Boswell Sisters, Louis Armstrong, the Andrews Sisters — to play and sing the melody so that the ordinary listener knew it was there.  Some sources say there was a wooden Indian at one end of the studio with a sign around its neck, WHERE’S THE MELODY? — others remember it as a picture of a Native American maiden with a cartoon balloon in which the same question was written in bold letters.

Famously, Kapp has been depicted in recent years as a fierce oppressor, someone who chained his free-spirited artists to the black dots on the manuscript paper.  It was all about the money, scholars propose, aiming music at the lowest common denominator who couldn’t understand anything they couldn’t hum along to.

Jazz writers like to imagine “what would have happened if (fill in hero / heroine’s name) had been able to record for a more hip company.  What magical music would we have now?”  They shed tears for Louis Armstrong, “forced” to record Hawaiian songs with Andy Iona.

Third story.  Time: 2014.

I received a CD not long ago by a jazz group I hadn’t heard of, although their credentials and associations were impressive.  And the CD had many beautiful songs on it — lovely melodies that I looked forward to hearing.  When I put the CD on, I was immediately taken with the beautiful recorded sound, the expansive improvisations, the sophisticated technique of the players — no one seemed to take a breath; no one faltered; the improvisations — at the highest level — went on without a letup. But in each case, the improvisations were so technically dazzling, so dense with musical information that the song, hinted at in the first chorus, sank deeper and deeper under the water.  Intricate rhythmic patterns, hammered out unceasingly; layers of substitute harmonies; unusual tempos (ballads taken at triple speed) dominated every performance.

The disc lasted about an hour.  It was brilliant and awe-inspiring but I found it truly exhausting and, to me, antithetical to the spirit of the original songs.  I know, I know.  Jazz is “about” improvisation, right? Only dullards play exactly what’s on the page, correct?

I listened to the whole CD, and as much as I marveled at the technique, the assurance, the bold dash of the whole thing, all I wanted to do was to hear something beautiful, something songful and soulful.  Ben Webster playing HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON?  Louis playing and singing WHEN YOU’RE SMILING. Bird with Strings.  A Johnny Hodges slow blues.  Benny Goodman playing LADY BE GOOD.  Miles Davis exploring the PORGY AND BESS score.

I always agreed with the commonly held notion of Jack Kapp as a materialistic soul-destroying enemy of creativity.

Now I might rethink my position, because beautifully playing the melody seems like balm to my ears.

And I think that many musicians would say it is much more difficult to play that ballad “straight” and convey the song’s emotions than to leave the original behind in thirty-two bars in the name of improvisation.

I hope you find beautiful melodies wherever you go.  They are all around us.

May your happiness increase! 

THE BAD OLD DAYS

We still recoil in horror and shame when confronted with photographs of COLORED and WHITE drinking fountains and entrances . . . or at least I hope we do.  And I know that Alistair Cooke’s announcements on the jam sessions broadcast for the BBC in the late Thirties — announcing players by race, as if radio listeners needed to be protected from Negritude entering their living rooms — still startle unpleasantly.  But what should we make of this article, possibly sold around 1939?

AN ANTHOLOGY OF COLORED JAZZ

Was Decca suggesting that this was “authentic,” as in “We have the real stuff on our records,” an attempt to woo the JAZZMEN audience, or was it a way of warning off a racially-charged audience, “This is that degenerate stuff.  Keep the women and children a safe distance away”?

I can’t tell.  But since I think few listeners have their music categorized by racial / ethnic characteristics, this record album has not lost its potential to shock.

The music inside, of course, is colorful yet without pigmentation.

May your happiness increase!