Tag Archives: Gosta Hagglof

LOUIS’ VICTORIAN ERA

No, not the steely Queen or Julia Cameron’s photographs.  This man.

LOUIS and ALPHA and dog

Some people celebrated yesterday (August 4) as Louis Armstrong’s “real” birthday.  I disagree, but choose to stay away from such disputes.  To me, every day we can think about or hear or see Louis is a collective cosmic birthday.

People who are drawn to Louis — magnetically, but his spiritual warmth — often gravitate to particular periods: the Hot Fives and Sevens, the later period — whether you define that as JACK-ARMSTRONG BLUES, WHEN YOU WISH UPON A STAR, or WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD.  Thanks to Gosta Hagglof, Ricky Riccardi, Dan Morgenstern, and Mosaic Records, we’ve had the opportunity to rediscover the Decca classics of the Thirties and the All-Star gems.

But there’s a particularly rewarding period of Louis’ recordings that has been almost overlooked — the Victors of 1932-33.  Those who live to find fault have found plenty with the backing band — although they are at worst uneven, with beautiful solo episodes from Keg Johnson, Teddy Wilson, Budd Johnson, and the earliest recorded evidence of Louis and Sidney Catlett working together in deep harmony.  If one drops one’s prejudices, the material is also excellent — songs by Fats Waller, Tony Jackson, and the immortal Harry Woods.

And Louis is in spectacular form, playing the melody with all his heart, singing earnestly (and often with delightful floating levity), and improvising so very memorably.  Listen to what he does on the middle-eight / bridges / channels, as if he had decided earthly boundaries didn’t matter, and he could just lie back in the upper atmosphere no matter how fast the band was playing.  Some contemporary brass players — I think of Rex Stewart — took it as a stylistic point of honor to play more notes per bar as the tempo increased; Louis lazed over the pounding rhythms, as if he were a giant cat awaking from a splendid nap.

Spousal commitment of the highest order:

Friends don’t pass you by:

Revenge, served hot yet sweet:

May your happiness increase!

PREACHERS OF BEAUTY: “SATCHMO AT SYMPHONY HALL,” COMPLETE and HEARD ANEW

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, men would believe & adore & for a few generations preserve the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown. But every night come out these preachers of beauty, & light the Universe with their admonishing smile.”  — Emerson

It is a substantial irony that some may regard a new recording — or a new complete issue of an already beloved Louis Armstrong recording — as we do the stars: beautiful but to be taken for granted, because they are and will always be there.

I am listening to the new complete issue of SATCHMO AT SYMPHONY HALL (the sixty-fifth anniversary issue) with my own kind of Emersonian delight.  And my pleasure isn’t primarily because of the extra half-hour of music and speech I had never heard before, although thirty minutes of this band, this evening, is more than any ordinary half-hour on the clock.  Permit me to call the roll — not only Louis in magnificent form, playing and singing, but also Jack Teagarden, Sidney Catlett, Arvell Shaw, Dick Cary, Barney Bigard, and Velma Middleton.  Some of my joy comes from hearing music once again that has been dear to me for thirty years — the sweet ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, the charging MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, Teagarden’s tender, delicate STARS FELL ON ALABAMA, the serious BLACK AND BLUE, the electrifying STEAK FACE and MOP MOP (formerly titled BOFF BOFF).

What strikes me once again is the beautiful cohesion of this band.  I know that others see this period of Louis’ artistic life as a gentle downhill slide into “popularity” and “showmanship”; these views, I think, could be blown away with an intent hearing of HIGH SOCIETY.  This edition of the All-Stars (with or without hyphen) is uniformly superb, happy, and focused.

Teagarden’s playing is simply awe-inspiring (ask any trombonist about it) and his singing delicious, with none of the near-fatigue that occasionally colored his later work.  Arvell Shaw never got the credit he deserved as a string bassist, but his time and tone couldn’t be better, providing a deep, rocking rhythmic foundation for the band.  Dick Cary, nearly forgotten, is once again an ideal pianist — never setting a foot wrong in ensembles and offering shining, individualistic solos that sound like no one else.  Barney Bigard is sometimes off-mike but his work is splendidly energized, his tone full and luscious.  Velma Middleton fit this band beautifully — emotional and exuberant, clearly inspiring both audiences and the All-Stars.  And readers of JAZZ LIVES should know how I revere Sidney Catlett, at one of his many peaks that night in Symphony Hall.  Much has been made of the ideal partnerships in jazz — Bird and Dizzy, Duke and Blanton, Pres and Basie . . . but Louis and Sidney deserve to be in that number, with Sid not only supporting but lifting every member of the band throughout the evening.  The little percussive flourishes with which Sid accents the end of a performance are worthy of deep study.  But this band is more than a group of soloists — they work together with affection and enthusiasm.

Louis himself is sublimely in charge.  Consider the variety of tempos — almost a lost art today — and the pacing of a two-hour show, not only so that he wouldn’t tire himself out (there is much more playing here, even on the “features” for other musicians, than one would expect) but so that the audience would be charged with the same emotional energy for two hours.  And his playing!  There are a few happy imperfections, reminding us that he was human and that trumpet playing at this level is not for amateurs.  But overall I feel his mastery, subtly expressed.  I hear a leisurely power.  Yes, there were piles of handkerchiefs inside the piano (playing the trumpet is physically arduous) but one senses in Louis the dramatized image of a jungle cat who knows he has only to stretch out a huge paw to accomplish what he wants.

Inside this package are the original notes (Armstrongians of a certain vintage can quote sections of Ernie Anderson’s text at will) and a new appreciation by our man Ricky Riccardi.  Beautiful photographs, too — several of them including the only shot known of the band at Symphony Hall for this concert — new to me.

Some discussions of this set, weighing the merits of its purchase, have focused on the question of “How much more is there that we haven’t heard?” surely a valid question — although it came to sound as if music could be weighed like apples or peanuts.  Briefly, there are a good number of “new” spoken introductions by Louis and others, short versions of SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH and I’VE GOT A RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, complete versions of previously edited performances — BLACK AND BLUE, ROYAL GARDEN BLUES, TEA FOR TWO, and performances wholly “new”: a seven-minute VELMA’S BLUES with plenty of Louis and Sidney, a somber ST. JAMES INFIRMARY, a mock-serious BACK O’TOWN BLUES, and a vigorous JACK-ARMSTRONG BLUES.  For some readers, that will not be enough to warrant a purchase, which I couldn’t argue with.  However, this is a limited edition of 3000 copies . . . so those who wait might find themselves regretting their delay.

For me, it’s a “Good deal,” to quote both Louis and Sidney — we can’t go back to November 30, 1947, but this set is the closest thing possible to spending an evening in the company of the immortals.  Thanks and blessings are due to Ricky Riccardi, the late Gosta Hagglof, and Harry Weingar . . . each making this wonderful set possible.)

And if you can’t afford the purchase, make sure to look up at the stars whenever you can.

May your happiness increase.

NEWS FLASH! LOUIS ARMSTRONG and THE FINITE NATURE OF THINGS . . .

The new, complete two-disc edition of SATCHMO AT SYMPHONY HALL: 65th ANNIVERSARY — THE COMPLETE PERFORMANCE is a limited edition of 3000 copies.  

I didn’t know about the “limited edition” part of that sentence until a day ago, so I am encouraging JAZZ LIVES readers to act promptly rather than to lament that the edition is all sold out.  You can purchase it here — if you live in the New York area, you can visit the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens, which has its very own stash.

What does “the complete performance” mean?  THIRTY MINUTES OF NEW MATERIAL . . . .

I’ll let Ricky Riccardi, Louis scholar and the Archivist for the LAHM, explain:

The original 1951 2-LP Decca set had the majority of the music, but there were some edits, including four complete performances, all the themes, Louis’s announcements and some solos (Dick Cary’s on “Royal Garden Blues” and some extra noodling by Barney Bigard at the end of “Tea for Two”). When Orrin Keepnews finally put it on on CD in the 90s, he made the choice to strike three tunes (“I Cried for You,” “That’s My Desire” and “How High the Moon”) AND he completely shuffled the original order of performances.   I’m the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum and last year, we learned that the Swedish Armstrong collector Gosta Hagglof donated every scrap of his Armstrong collection to the Museum. It arrived last summer.  

The first thing I looked for was “Symphony Hall” because Gosta told me in 2007 he was working on a complete edition. And sure enough, I found a disc…and another…and another…and another.  All in all, I found about 30 individual CDs with Gosta’s Symphony Hall work.  He somehow had access to the original acetates and made multiple CD copies of those and then he made extra copies with pitch correction, skips edited out, noise reduction, etc.  

Last October I contacted Harry Weinger at Universal and he came out to our Archives to listen to it. He flipped and we’ve been off and running since.  It’s a 2-CD set on the Hip-O Select label, with the original liner notes by Ernie Anderson and new liner notes by yours truly.  The concert will be sequenced in the original order, starting with the band tuning up. All of the announcements will be heard for the first time, in addition to the themes.  And there will be complete versions of “Back O’Town Blues,” “St. James Infirmary,” “Velma’s Blues” and “Jack Armstrong Blues.”  

They’re all fantastic.  I can only assume “Back O’Town,” “St. James” and “Jack Armstrong” were not on the original LP because Victor had just released versions.  And even “Velma’s Blues” is a knockout, as it’s almost 7 minutes long with a long interlude where Velma danced and the All Stars just played the blues (Sid Catlett catches her every move).  

I’m a biased Armstrong nut who has always loved this concert, of course, but trust me, hearing it complete, in the original order, with the announcements, the new tunes, everything, is a really, really special experience.

For some listeners, this won’t in itself be enough.  I understand that in the linguistic battle between “fixed income” and “limited edition,” the first phrase wins.

But I urge you to consider purchasing this set if you can for a few reasons.  One is the precious experience of going back in time . . . settling into a chair in your living room and being able to sink into a plush velvet seat at Symphony Hall in 1947 while Louis Armstrong and what I think of as the best small band he ever had play for you.  That, in its own way, is far more important than simply being able to hear a new Dick Cary solo.

I first heard this concert (in its edited form) more than forty years ago and I can attest that it is life-changing music.

Secondly, there is the matter of the responsive audience as a motivating force. In blunt words, why do companies like Universal issue Louis Armstrong discs and packages?  Some of it is the spiritual love that people like Harry Weinger have for the music: something I do not doubt.  But if record companies see that their products sell, they create more . . . so that buying SASH is your way — the only effective way — of saying, “Please, sir, we want some more!”

Don’t wait until they’re gone and you’re reduced to desperate means . . .

But make sure you leave enough in the Jazz Piggy Bank for a copy of the Grand Street Stompers’ CHRISTMAS STOMP.  I’ve heard that and it is wonderful.  More to say about that one soon . . .

May your happiness increase.

CONSIDER THIS, DEAR FRIENDS!

It is now December 21, 2011, so I wish all of you a happy Solstice! 

But if the evidence around me is to be taken seriously, many people are rushing around in search of the perfect last-minute holiday gifts.  I have a great deal of ambivalence about this, although I haven’t renounced materialism entirely.  The holiday season intensifies the loud drumbeat of the online entreaty BUY THIS NOW AND BE HAPPY!  Once you are past childhood, you sense that some purchases lead to nothing more than January remorse.  How many sweaters does anyone need, especially when we know that some people don’t have sufficient clothing to keep them warm?

But — even with all that in mind, I wish to quietly offer a few last-minute JAZZ LIVES  suggestions for gifts that won’t be tossed aside on December 27.

Tops on my list is a membership in support of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.  Here’s the link: LOUIS!  There are benefits and perks to becoming e member, supporting the best museum I know.  But even if you don’t have the minimum amount for membership, generosity is possible on a smaller scale.  If everyone who ever was moved by a Louis Armstrong recording or video sent the museum a dollar, it would make it possible for the LAHM to keep the legacy of Louis vivid and tangible in this century. 

Perhaps you would like something for your contribution?  If you live close enough to Corona, Queens, New York, to pay the LAHM a visit, paradise awaits those who walk through the front door, in the gift shop.  Alas, the SATCHMO box sets have all been bought up, but there are racks and shelves of Louis-related gifts, from bags of rice with his picture on them, boxes of Swiss Kriss (something for Secret Santa at work, perhaps?), wonderful books by Ricky Riccardi, Michael Cogswell, and Jos Willems, DVDs and compact discs. 

Did someone say “compact discs”? 

The LAHM is the only place on the planet that has Gosta Hagglof’s lovely Ambassador series of discs — a wonderful labor of love, documenting Louis’ great work in the Thirties and Forties (and beyond) — with the Decca recordings, broadcasts, and more.  In fact, several of the Ambassador CDs contain music you can’t find anywhere else: the “Dancing Parties” one, devoted to Louis’ live recordings with Sidney Catlett, many of them from the Cotton Club, is extraordinary, as is the first volume of Louis and the All-Stars in Philadelphia 1948.  Unfortunately, the LAHM can’t ship you a boxful . . . you’ll just have to come to Corona in person, which is a life-changing experience. 

Other jazz gifts? 

Michael Zirpolo’s new Bunny Berigan book is a wow.  Find out more here

So is Dr. Judith Schlesinger’s feisty and compelling THE INSANITY HOAX.  Check it out here

Dawn Lambeth is coming out with a new DVD (hooray for Dawn and Chris Dawson) and there is a DVD documentary devoted to Marty Grosz, RHYTHM IS HIS BUSINESS.  Details to follow! 

Another possibility — giving thanks directly — is to go to a local jazz club.  Listen closely to the men and women swinging so deliciously.  Put something more than a dollar in the tip jar.  Buy a CD or DVD directly from the players.

And if all of this is beyond your capabilities, make sure you have jazz playing in your house . . . to lift your spirits, to make the rafters ring ‘way up to Heaven, and to enlighten your visitors.  If one more person gets to hear the 1938 Basie band, or George Wettling, or any jazz that makes you tingle, we are that much closer to creating and maintaining the wonderful world Louis sang about.

Happy holidays, dear friends!

BILL WOOD, SELMA HERALDO, PAUL BLAIR: “NO-ONE CAN TAKE YOUR PLACE”

There are people, memorably important in the Land of Jazz, who never pick up instruments or sing a hot chorus.  Three of them, dear to me in their own ways, have died in the past weeks.  This posting is by no means the full-scale memorial or obituary each one deserves.  It’s just something I have to write so that JAZZ LIVES readers will know.

Between 2004 and 2010, whenever I went to Jazz at Chautauqua, I inevitably ended up spending time and money at a table where a large quantity of sheet music was laid out enticingly — to admire and to purchase.  Bill Wood and his younger partner Greg Laird came to greet me, to be amused by my comments on the sheets I bought and refused to buy, and I expected to see them there year after year.

Bill looked as if he would have fit in perfectly as a small-town druggist or the wise fellow behind the hardware counter in a small-town store that had refused to be bought up by a chain.

He wasn’t there in 2011, and I missed his quiet, amiable presence, overseeing the coming and going of people and pages of Thirties pop songs.  In mid-November, Greg told me Bill had died: “Bill loved going to Chautauqua and providing his great collection of sheet music.  He loved the music and the people.  He was truly one of the nicest men I have ever known.  Even when he couldn’t use the computer any more, I still read to him what everyone was doing through your blog.”

Now, whenever I go through the stack of sheet music on the piano, I will think of Bill Wood with even more gratitude: someone who made it possible for me to bring home new music to learn, to admire, to enjoy.

Selma Heraldo, who died a few days ago at 88, received less attention than she deserved.  She was a fixture at the Louis Armstrong House Museum, because she had been Louis and Lucille’s next-door neighbor for decades.  Although she was the size and shape of an old-fashioned elementary school pointer, it would have been a mistake to underestimate her.

Had Selma lived in Hollywood, she would have been a renowned character actress, and that’s no stage joke.

She had a lovely wry grin, a nearly theatrical forwardness, and no tolerance for inaccuracy or self-promotion in anyone.  If someone else in the room claimed an unmerited glory, Selma would set the person — and everyone else within hearing — straight.  She was a delightful storyteller, and I will cherish forever the tales she told of her mother making Louis a fried-egg sandwich in the Heraldo kitchen when he came home from the road, wanting something plain to eat.

Selma was a shameless vaudevillian, incomparable in the art of mock-serious flirtation.  On September 22, 2011, she was seated at our table in the pleasant garden of the LAHM, eating dinner al fresco before Ricky Riccardi did his presentation on the Gosta Hagglof collection.

In an instant Selma decided I was both her comic foil and male door prize, leaning forward to ask if I would go home with her. “Not later, today.  I live next door,” she winked at me.  When I demurred, saying (as is my habit) that I was so sorry to turn her down, that I was already in a relationship, that perhaps I would disappoint her, she kept the game at a high level.  “Your wife better keep a close eye on you, handsome,” she said.

I did my best to keep the level of things high by asking Selma where she had been seven years ago when I had been at liberty and would have taken her up on her offer, and she giggled happily.

Being the object of Selma’s attention, even for a minute, was like hearing Louis launch into a second chorus of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING: she was a master improviser, able to negotiate any turn with comic timing that would have pleased Jack Benny.

Paul Blair, the dear editor at HOT HOUSE — the great New York jazz magazine, died of a sudden heart attack.  He would have been 70 in January 2012.  I met him through the Beloved, who had gone on several of his jazz walking tours, and he welcomed me to the magazine.

Although I sometimes chafe against editing, cherishing my own peculiarities, working with Paul was a writer’s dream.  He was careful, witty, tactful — but his suggested changes were so good that I took them without a word of fuss.  Reading my prose, he quickly saw what it might be and moved speedily yet gently to make that ideal possible.  I also enjoyed the witty emails he sent me — often with information I hadn’t known.

I only met him once in person: I had been urging him to come to The Ear Inn to hear The EarRegulars, and one night he did.  I didn’t recognize him in person, but he found me and we had a conversation that began in laughter and ended in an deep friendly empathy.  A casually-dressed man who easily made himself comfortable, he sat near the band and I could see him enjoying the sounds of the music: his face clearly reflected what was being played.  I could see that he was a perfectly intuitive listener, which is why  he was such a fine editor.

Paul was also master of the unexpected sweet generosity.  Once, with no prelude (after he had come to know my taste) he told me of some cassettes he had, recorded at a jazz party in the Seventies, featuring jazz pianists, some of whom are now dead.  Would I like these cassettes?  I was enthusiastic; they arrived a week later; he wanted nothing in return.

With the deaths of Bill, Selma, and Paul, my circle of people I love and admire has constricted, and my world is a little smaller.  I will do them the only honor I can — remembering them with love and hoping that others do so also.

And although I hope to make new friendships with other people memorable for their generosity, their style, these three will not be replaced or forgotten.

“KEEP UP THE GOOD WORKS”: GOSTA HAGGLOF’S LOUIS ARMSTRONG COLLECTION IS HERE!

Earlier this year, the Louis Armstrong House Museum held the world’s largest archives dedicated to a single jazz musician.  But those holdings have just been enlarged substantially with an astonishing collection of rare recordings, videos, photographs, and unique memorabilia — the collection of a man who devoted sixty years to celebrating Louis.

Gosta Hagglof might not be familiar to those who don’t collect Louis Armstrong’s music or know something about superb international hot jazz.  But Gosta, who died in 2009,  proved again that you don’t have to be a performing artist to advance the cause of the art you love.  And he kept learning how to be generous from the example of Louis — so that he left his entire collection to the LAHM.

From 1949 until his death, Gosta (born in Sweden) devoted himself to Louis Armstrong because of “the heartfelt beauty of his music.”  A few days ago, on Sept. 22, 2011, the fine jazz scholar Ricky Riccardi gave a presentation on the riches of Gosta’s collection which now reside in the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College.  Typically, Ricky’s presentation was witty, pointed, full of new stories and music even I had never heard before.  (Don’t let the oddity of watching a video of a man playing music through a computer scare you off: I can promise you a short segment of Louis, Jack Teagarden, and Sidney Catlett that few have ever heard.)

The mention of Jack Teagarden leads me to point out that there, in the front row, was a fellow intimately acquainted with Big T — his son Joe, a charming and gracious man visiting New York for a few days from his native Atlanta.  I felt honored to meet him — a man as friendly and unassuming as his famous father.

The presentation was for the jazz press only, but (if you don’t tell anyone) I can sneak you in through the medium of my video camera.

And where did all this take place?  In Corona, Queens, in the house (now a museum) where Louis and Lucille lived from 1943 to 1971 — and where Lucille continued to live until her death.  It’s a National Historic Landmark administered by Queens College — the only historic site devoted to a jazz musician that is warm, welcoming place, and the news is that people can get married there . . . what a wonderful idea!  To be married in the garden of Louis Armstrong’s house . . . what a way to begin wedded bliss!  For details, contact Deslyn Dyer (deslyn.dyer@qc.cuny.edu) or Baltsar Beckeld at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (they will make sure everything is festive — and I am sure they would make great witnesses).  Don’t forget to book a swinging band — I can suggest some likely suspects.

I’ll have more to say about the LAHM in a future post — for now, make sure that you’re free December 6, 2011.  You won’t be sorry, now or someday.

And now — here’s a wonderful chain of devotion, music, scholarship — from Louis to Gosta to Ricky to us:

And the conclusion:

And for those of us who want to hear every scrap of the music Louis made, one of Gosta’s generosities was his own Ambassador CD label: he issued more than a dozen CDs that document Louis’s work from 1935 into the early Fifties — primarily the Decca recordings (which no less an authority than Ruby Braff thought Louis’s finest work).  The Decca period has been well-documented on the Mosaic label, but Gosta’s CDs can be bought one at a time, and they include broadcasts and other rarities — including an entire CD of material, rarer than rare, featuring the best of Louis’s big bands from 1939-1943, spurred on by Big Sid Catlett, and a more recent release of the All-Stars in Philadelphia (Jack Teagarden, Barney Bigard, Earl Hines, Arvell Shaw, Catlett, and Velma Middleton) with the best sound I’ve ever heard and accurate speed-correction.

The Louis Armstrong House Museum is at 34-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens, New York, and it’s open every day except Monday.  The staff conducts forty-minute tours through the house Louis and Lucille lived in — worth the trip from far away.  And the Museum is creating a Vistors’ Center across the street from the house — $15 million has already been raised for design and construction: it will begin to take shape in early 2012.  If you think that Louis — man and musician — helps make this a wonderful world, please consider joining the LAHM: visit www.louisarmstronghouse.org. 

TRAM / LOUIS / EARL

Holy relics.

Beautiful calligraphy, a widow’s peak, a sharp suit . . .

A letter from Louis to the late Gosta Hagglof — “me and my little Satchmo trumpet.”

Earl Hines, 1965:

LISTENING TO LOUIS?

I’ve just read David Rickert’s assessment of “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946)” issued by Mosaic Records in 2009, an essay published in ALL ABOUT JAZZ.  Rickert’s on the right path, but I found many of his statements confusing, even contradictory.  But before some eager commenters leap to his defense, I am not in the ad hominem trade, merely puzzled.

Here it is, unedited:

As far as recordings by trumpeter Louis Armstrong go, the Decca recordings don’t generate much interest. Prior to them came the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, the most influential jazz recordings ever made and the template for everything that was to come. Afterward came the superb pop recordings for RCA, which showed a masterful entertainer more respected for his vocal prowess than his trumpet playing. The Decca years represent Armstrong’s adolescence: a bit gangly, sometimes awkward, and filled with questionable choices amidst the bold assertions of identity. Part of the problem may be that the Decca recordings have been available somewhat helter skelter over the years. Who better to provide some coherence than Mosaic? The label has compiled everything that Armstrong recorded for Decca, brilliantly remastered from the original metal parts or discs, and with thorough liner notes from jazz veteran Dan Morgenstern to boot. With this seven CD set, it is finally possible to assess this set completely and perhaps more firmly establish them as the great records they are. Critics of these recordings gripe about the subpar quality of the song choice, which is surprisingly inferior given the astounding amount of good songs that were written at the time. A quick glance at the tracks will confirm this suspicion; there are quite a lot of second tier songs (you can often spot them just from the title.) At the time, Joe Glaser had recently become Armstrong’s manager and quickly obtained the services of Jack Kapp at the newly launched Decca label to record him. And record they did—166 tracks over 11 years that also span the infamous recording ban. Kapp saw Armstrong as a novelty act, someone whose numbers might be a little corny and superficial and easy on the ear. In this regard he had much in common with pianist Fats Waller, another mugger who recorded piffle. But also like Waller, Armstrong was always able to turn even the most insignificant material into something special, even if it wasn’t perhaps high art. He also correctly assumed that his performance would carry the material, and more often than not it did. There are some undeniable misfires here, such as a few numbers with a Hawaiian theme, and some gospel numbers, along with a few numbers like “When Ruben Swings the Cuban” that even Armstrong can’t redeem. But there are also quite a few numbers that Armstrong absolutely nails and turns into masterpieces, such as “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque,” “Tiger Rag,” “Wolverine Blues,” “Satchel Mouth Swing” and “Jubilee” proving that a terrific song and superb musicianship can always combine to make musical gold. Anther problem for some critics is the quality of the sidemen. There are really no stellar musicians on the stand, but rather serviceable sidemen capable of playing the charts and managing a decent solo when prompted. Clearly the focus here was on Armstrong and the rest of the band was only called upon to provide sturdy accompaniment and little else. Thus, unlike the Hot Five and Seven Recordings, there’s no pianist Earl Hines or trombonist Kid Ory to keep Armstrong on his toes and match his chops (although truth be told, few could keep up with him). The novelty here is hearing Armstrong navigate the world of big band coming from the smaller groups he had employed earlier. The recordings start out startlingly sweet and progressively get hotter, matched by terrific charts from Sy Oliver and Joe Garland. Armstrong was also paired with other artists from the Decca label such as saxophonist Glen Gray, reed player Jimmy Dorsey and bassist Bob Haggart, all white musicians, and pairings that helped erase the color lines that existed. There are also a few visits with vibraphonist Lionel Hampton and a reunion with soprano saxophonist and clarinetist Sidney Bechet, as well as early appearances with guys like guitarist Dave Barbour who would go on to greater things. Oh yes, and the first pairing of Armstrong and singer Ella Fitzgerald. Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great. A sampling of the best of these records would show how truly great this period was. Mosaic’s warts and all approach necessarily includes some questionable material. But with the Mosaic touch, don’t be surprised if these recordings reemerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.

Rickert ends his piece generously: he won’t “be surprised if these recordings emerge as a classic period in Armstrong’s career.”  But he begins with the rather curious statement that these same recordings “don’t generate much interest.” 

I wonder if the second statement is a matter of commerce rather than artistic merit.  The Deccas were never reissued intelligently at home.  Rather, they came out in blurts, “Jazz Classics,” “Collector’s Items,” “Golden Favorites,” and several well-meanin but incomplete attempts.  It was left to Gosta Hagglof  to issue the Deccas logically and completely on CD.   

It’s always tempting to see a jazz artist’s career in terms of the progression of record labels, but in doing this, Rickert presents some debatable generalities.  The Hot Five and Seven recordings are “the most influential jazz recordings ever made”; the later Victor sessions produced “superb pop,” where Armstrong’s singing overshadowed his trumpet playing. 

How about the “influential jazz recording, BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and the “superb pop” of JACK-ARMSTRONG BLUES or PENNIES FROM HEAVEN? 

Rickert’s underlying assessment of Armstrong’s career might be something like this: “Louis played pure New Orleans jazz up until 1929, and then was corrupted into “pop” commercialism, with short detours back to Eden when he recorded with homeboys like Bechet and when he played W.C. Handy.  But had he stuck to POTATO HEAD BLUES, what a body of work he might have created!  Alas, poor Satchmo!  I knew him well, before he became popular, that is.” 

This harks back to the ideological wars of the Forties, Moldy Figs arguing with Be-Boppers over whose music was “authentic,” over how one defined “the real jazz.”  I thought we were past those quarrels.

Louis didn’t elevate jazz to the pantheon while lamenting that he was forced to play “pop.”  I doubt that he ever complained in the studio, “Hey, Mr. Kapp, this is piffle you’re asking me to mug.”   

In fact, if you admire what creative improvisers do with their material, what could be better than Louis did with ON A COCOANUT ISLAND?  Did it take more inventiveness for Fats Waller to swing THE CURSE OF AN ACHING HEART than the MINOR DRAG?  I would think so, but for these musicians, it was all music.  Perhaps even trying to play WHEN RUBEN SWINGS THE CUBAN is a heroic act in itself, and the discographies of many revered jazz musicians show equally unpromising titles. 

To his credit, Rickert recognizes that Armstrong was able to “redeem” many of the song choices and make them “something special.”  But he may confuse the musician, the record company, and the song. 

It is easy to view Armstrong as a good-natured pawn in the hands of White manipulators Jack Kapp and Joe Glaser, Kapp coming in for special excoriation for trying to make Louis a “novelty act.”  But record companies then and now wished to sell records — and, after years when companies went bankrupt, one can hardly blame Kapp for trying to ensure broad popular success. 

If Kapp viewed Armstrong as a “novelty act,” he also did so with his best-selling and most popular artist Bing Crosby, who recorded an even wider range of material with great success.  And the idea of “questionable material” might be one that the artists rarely asked.  And the idea of good songs and bad might be undercut by the results.  Does Billie Holiday sound less like herself on WHAT A LITTLE MOONLIGHT CAN DO than on YESTERDAYS?  The genius of jazz musicians lies in their ability to transform and transcend the most banal material — it is only in retrospect that jazz critics, praising “forward-looking” and “harmonically adventurous” music, make such distinctions.  I GOT RHYTHM and the blues were perfectly satisfying for Charllie Parker and Sonny Rollins to improvise on.  So, rather than assume that nefarious forces compelled Louis to record SWEETHEARTS ON PARADE, we should marvel at what he did with it.  (As an aside, some of his recordings I find most gratifying are the least “jazz-inflected”: consider his Fifties recording of TREES, for one.)    

Rickert, as I do, teaches English, and I admire his equating Louis with Shakespeare.  But I find what follows condusing: “Armstrong has always been the Shakespeare of jazz, someone regarded as a widely influential genius, yet not one who escapes the ranks of academia except for the occasional Pottery Barn compilation. Many jazz fans probably find themselves throwing on something other than Armstrong most of the time. If so, the Decca recordings are his King Lear: somewhat problematic for many, a little cumbersome, yet showing him moving in a new direction all while displaying all the qualities that made him great.” 

Should we care how many people admire a particular piece of art?  What has popularity to do with merit? 

And if Rickert could point out to me where “academia” and “Pottery Barn,” meet, I’d be grateful.  I’d even meet him at the clearance sale table.  I applaud the idea of Louis as King Lear — majestic, commanding the winds.  But I don’t think that Louis had to pass through suffering to arrive at true awareness: his music shows that he had reached a deep awareness early.

Ultimately, I wonder if Mr. Rickert was victimized by circumstances in writing his review.  Mosaic box sets — in this case, seven compact discs — are initially overwhelming, not well-absorbed in one or two hurried gulps.  I wonder if he was sent this box with perhaps two weeks to listen to it and write about it.  He would either have had to work his way through the set — rather like doing homework — or to listen to it in pieces, hoping to find the figure in the carpet. 

In either case, I admire his fairness: praising Mosaic, attempting to situate Louis in a cultural context.  But he’s missed some of the beauties of these recordings. 

It’s perfectly understandable to look back to Louis’s partnership with Earl Hines as a high point.  But the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings are in some sense artificial, because Louis never worked with those groups.  The Deccas, for better or worse, represent some of the material Louis was performing every day with working bands.  But to become nostalgic for Kid Ory is to neglect J. C. Higginbotham.  And if you’re looking for a musician perfectly paired with Louis, able to keep up with him and to spur him to new heights, I would submit that Sidney Catlett is the man. 

I would ask Mr. Rickert to listen to WOLVERINE BLUES for Catlett alone, to THANKS A MILLION and SOLITUDE for the beauty of Louis’s expressive singing and playing.  Follow that up with the sides recorded with the Mills Brothers, those dreaded Hawaiian sides, and more.  Only then can he or anyone get a true picture of Louis’s achievement . . . and that might take a good deal of time.

BENT PERSSON PLAYS LOUIS: Conclusion

I hated to see this wonderfully expansive concert — Bent Persson’s marvelous evocations of big-band Louis Armstrong — come to an end.  These final seven selections explore Louis’s Decca period, here defined as 1935-41. 

A word about the Deccas — appropriate not only because of this concert, but because of the recent Mosaic box set.  As a body of work, they have provoked both defensive overpraise and criticism built on misunderstanding.  At this distance, readers who wish to see the Swing Era as a high point in creative improvised music have found it necessary to forget that the material the bands and musicians were given to record was of variable quality — popular music from films and Broadway shows, music meant for dancers.  Yes, a Porter, Berlin, Coslow, or Gershwin song could find its way in to the record session, but Ellington was playing CALL OF THE CANYON at Fargo. 

But this constant influx of new songs was not a bad thing.  Left to their own devices, many of the jazz artists we revere operate within a narrow repertoire, whether it is bounded by the blues and I GOT RHYTHM or a half-dozen other favorite songs.  We all admire what the 1936-40 Basie band did within such constraints, but this makes TAXI WAR DANCE and TICKLE-TOE all the more delightful.  So I don’t perceive Louis as shackled and victimized by Jack Kapp and Joe Glaser.  His band was ragged at times, and I can hear the terrifying sound of Bingie Madison’s clarinet even now, but Kapp made the right choices more often than not: repeating a take so that the clarinet passage would be in tune would have required Louis to play more and more, not a wise or generous use of his energies.  

Bent and the band do these majestic recordings justice and more: watching this concert is as close as I or anyone else will come to seeing Louis circa 1938, a magical experience.  And both he and the band are using the recordings as frameworks for improvisation: the band plays Bent’s versions of the arrangements, and his solos are certainly shaped by what Louis played, but they are variations on variations — alternate takes, if you will — rather than exact attempts at reproducing what Louis played in the studios.   

They began with that truly pretty tune (Louis didn’t play the verse, which is a pity — ask Jon-Erik Kellso to do it if the band knows the changes) from the film of the same name, THANKS A MILLION.  And the sweetly ethereal Elena P. Paynes of the Chicago Stompers shows us that expressing our gratitudes is always a good thing, as is Martin Litton’s pretty, ruminative solo chorus:

Bent took over the dramatic leadership of the next song — really a playlet, as acted by Louis in his first leap into film stardom, in PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — a clip I’ve posted elsewhere on this blog.  “The fun was loud and hearty, when a notorious wallflower became the life of the party!”  Here’s THE SKELETON IN THE CLOSET:

I assume that Louis was asked to perform ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, already a hoary standard, because of the musical film of the same name.  It’s a difficult arrangement, with Technicolor trappings (the march-band opening) and on the original Decca, even Louis has a moment’s trouble finding where he is . . . but Elena is in fine form, even given the wordy lyrics and the fast tempo:

I DOUBLE DARE YOU is a pretty swing tune, one that should have gotten more attention in its time — now, it seems the only people who play and sing it are trumpeters.  Would that there were other singers inviting us all to “get friendly” in Ludvig Carlson’s amiable way!  And there are some fine instrumental solos — Clerc, McQuaid, Munnery, and Bonnel — all backed by Nick Ward’s rocking drums:

SO LITTLE TIME isn’t musically complex, but Louis made something splendid out of it (as he did with TRUE CONFESSION and RED CAP); Elena makes this Swing version of tempus fugit truly winsome, and Bent adds his own majesty:

In the idealized Chicago period (the years some listeners think of as Louis’s only peak), Tommy Rockwell of OKeh Records wouldn’t let him record WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN on the grounds of impiety.  Lucky for us that Jack Kapp’s musical world-view was broader, thus making it possible for Louis to explore this hymn as well as IN THE GLOAMING and ON A COCOANUT ISLAND.  Reverends Persson and Paynes offer a “mellow sermon” for us all:

Finally, Bent pays homage to Louis’s moving instrumental examination of the song he played in fragments every night for forty years — WHEN IT’S SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH.  Luxuriant, I say:

Video recordings may give you a sense of what it was like to be there — not only the sound, but the musicians smiling at something perfectly apt that someone else has played or sung.  But videos are still not designed to be played in the car (unless you’re a lucky bored passenger) so I happily recommend an earlier compact disc recording of some of this material — a different band, solos, and vocals, but our Bent and Claes Brodda are there . . . so you know the heights will be scaled!  The project was issued on the late Gosta Hagglof’s Kenneth label as FOR THE LOVE OF SATCHMO, and the backing band is the very empathic and hot Royal Blue Melodians.  Ordering details can be found on the blogroll: click on “Classic Jazz Productions.”  (You’ll also find the CDs of Bent and friends playing Louis’s Hot Choruses and breaks, astonishing music.) 

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 A million thanks to everyone involved in this concert.

HOT JAZZ TRIO, July 11, 2009

The name is simple, accurate, not the slightest bit hyperbolic.  They’re a compact, thrifty jazz orchestra, getting the maximum of variety and orchestral scope — not to mention a plunging swing on hot tunes, a delicate depth on slow ones — out of this apparently-improbable combination of instruments.  Bent Persson plays trumpet, cornet, occasionally Eb alto horn (at Whitley Bay, he borrowed a valve trombone from Mike Durham); Frans Sjostrom is majestic yet mobile on the bass sax; Jacob Ullberger holds it all together on banjo and guitar.  Sadly, their schedules keep them from playing together: Frans said that they have sessions like this only once a year, so I was delighted to be able to capture this one on video.  But they did record an extraordinarily fine CD on Gosta Hagglof’s Kenneth label under this title: look for it wherever better books and records are sold!

The critical viewer might catch a fluffed note or a missed cue — but I have chosen to post their entire hour-long set because this group gets together to play so infrequently.  And I think that the without-a-net quality of these performances makes them irreplaceable. 

Their Whitley Bay program alternated between Jelly Roll Morton, early Ellington, and Bix — to great effect.  Here they are on KANSAS CITY STOMPS, summoning up a seven or eight piece band.  I didn’t miss any of the Red Hot Peppers in this version:

Early Ellington followed, the pretty but moving BLACK BEAUTY:

Bix was all around us, so the Hot Jazz Trio took off on SOMEBODY STOLE MY GAL:

Sidney Bechet’s pretty SOUTHERN SUNSET (WHEN THE SUN SETS DOWN SOUTH):

Bix and Company again (as well as Eddie Condon) on Hoagy Carmichael’s RIVERBOAT SHUFFLE:

Their adaptation of Frank Trumbauer’s take on JAPANESE SANDMAN:

PEE WEE’S BLUES featured Frans and Jacob, while Bent rested his lip for a few minutes:

STEAMBOAT STOMP, complete with whistle, returned to the world of Jelly Roll Morton, with the Hot Jazz Trio becoming a whole roomful of Red Hot Peppers:

On DUSK, they magically evoked the 1940-1 Ellington band, with Bent picking up a valve trombone he had borrowed from Mike Durham for the occasion:

MOVE OVER returned to an earlier Ellington Era:

CLARINET MARMALADE for Bix, Tram, and Lang:

Finally, a jubilant BLACK BOTTOM STOMP to conclude the hour:

Is it hot in here ot is it just the Trio?

JAZZ IN “THE NEW YORKER,” CONTINUED

I’m always happy to see any coverage of jazz in The New Yorker, which has been my essential reading for forty years, ever since I discovered their fine short fiction, the drawings of William Steig and Saul Steinberg, and the irreplaceable writing of Whitney Balliett.  But their latest coverage is profoundly disappointing, both in itself and its implications.

Here’s Colin Fleming’s piece in “Talk of the Town,” March 30, 2009, called MORE SATCHMO:

After virtually inventing the lexicon for jazz soloists with his epochal Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, Louis Armstrong set up shop at Decca Records in the mid-thirties. The Armstrong Deccas have not fared as well as their forebears, having been knocked about on compilations of dubious legality and dogged by various aspersions-mainly, that Armstrong had become a puppet for his manager Joe Glaser, who had turned Armstrong into a happy-go-lucky song-and-dance man ready to ham it up on cue.

But as “The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions, 1935-1946” (Mosaic Records) attests, Armstrong wasn’t one to be intimidated by his past. The corking take on “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” makes the Okeh version seem positively weak-kneed, with Armstrong’s big band ripping through the breaks. Armstrong the vocalist is arguably at his apex here, and it was through his vocalizations that Armstrong’s chamber jazz took on a second life as pure pop manna. “On the Sunny Side of the Street” is a glorious hybrid: a mix of Stephen Foster-esque Americana and unprecedented vocal inflections that must have pricked up the ears of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. The Decca sessions even venture into hardcore R. & B. terrain, once the drummer “Big” Sid Catlett turns up. A fleeting discographical presence over his career, Catlett was at his best with Armstrong, his offbeat accents on “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” presaging soul’s infatuation with syncopation.

As a trumpet player, there was no one to touch Armstrong, but Bing Crosby was an apt vocal foil. The two had their summit meeting in 1960, resulting in “Bing and Satchmo” (DRG Records), previously unavailable on compact disk. “Dardanella” suggests how keenly these men must have listened to each other: Crosby’s sly syllabic upticks at the end of each line show how readily he had absorbed Armstrong’s methodology, while Armstrong’s vocal is a blend of full-on melody and smart, conversational tones, a Crosby staple. Throughout, Billy May’s arrangements have plenty of starch to them, but “Lazy River” borders on a kind of laconic grace, two voices whiling the day away before drifting home. ♦

First, there’s Fleming’s remarkable prose style: exuberantly glib, cliched, and apparently unedited: he comes across as a writer in love with his own special effects.  Then come the errors of fact (how casually Fleming, like Mosaic Records, dismisses the work of Gosta Hagglof).   In addition, there’s his adolescent critical point of view, granting Armstrong’s singing special validity (“pop manna,” no less) because it must have caught the attention of Presley and Dylan, how Catlett’s playing prefigures rhythm and blues and soul’s “infatuation with syncopation.”  The “old,” it seems, is meaningful only when it acts as a springboard for the “new.”

Perhaps I should be grateful that Louis Armstrong receives notice of any sort in The New Yorker, even if the praise is appallingly written and full of misinterpretations.

But in the same issue, Anthony Lane writes thoughtfully about a new book of Samuel Beckett’s early letters; Paul Goldberger has a beautifully provocative essay on the architect Palladio.  So The New Yorker can and indeed does think some art that occured before the twenty-first century is worth serious consideration in serious prose.  It’s a pity the magazine’s editors haven’t recognized that jazz might be owed equal respect.

REMEMBERING GOSTA HAGGLOF

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You know the man on the right in this 1965 picture, taken in Sweden.

The man shaking Louis’ hand is less well-known, but he was one of the most generous advocates of jazz that it has ever been my privilege to know.  His name was Gosta Hagglof, and he died on March 8, 2009.  Gosta had been ill for some time, but he never gave any indication of it.  He was as enthusiastic as ever about the music in what were the last emails I was to receive from him.

For a much fuller appreciation of his life, I would have you “turn over the leaf and choose another page,” to quote Chaucer.  The other page is Ricky Riccardi’s extraordinarily touching essay on the man:

http://dippermouth.blogspot.com/2009/03/in-loving-memory-of-gosta-hagglof.html

But a few words of my own might be apt here.  I first encountered Gosta in an extremely indirect but effective way.

In 1927, the Melrose brothers of Chicago, music publishers, had wanted to capitalize on Louis’ clearly increasing fame — not by making records, but by publishing a folio of music for aspiring trumpeters to copy.  Or to attempt to copy!  The story goes that they gave Louis a cylinder phonograph and a goodly number of blank cylinders, asked him to play solos on familiar jazz tunes (many of them published by Melrose) as well as recording many of his famous jazz breaks.  The pianist Elmer Schoebel transcribed the music, and the folio was published (the solos and breaks only, no harmony supplied).  That was 1927.  By the way — and it’s an important comment — the cylinders have never surfaced.  louis-hot-choruses

Gosta thought it would be a brilliant idea if the phenomenal cornetist / trumpeter Bent Persson recorded the solos and breaks.  But the idea didn’t stop there.  It would have been easy to hand the folio to Bent, somene who is himself a rich treasury of Armstrong-lore and music, and ask him to play them with rhythm accompaniment.  Gosta and Bent went far deeper — and the records that resulted are extraordinary, not only in the instrumental playing, but in their conception.  Each performance is clearly the result of creative investigation and experimentation, and the formats are varied and rewarding.

I didn’t know anything of this, one day perhaps thirty years ago, when I found myself at J&R Music in downtown Manhattan.  It is even possible that in those pre-internet days I had not heard of either Bent or of Gosta.  But I bought one of those “imported” records as an experiment, a leap of faith.  If it hadn’t worked out, I would have squandered perhaps seven dollars.

When I played the record at home, the jazz leapt out of the speakers at me in the very best way.  I couldn’t believe it.  Some day I will write more about Bentlouis-hot-choruses-lp1 Persson, but for now I would simply send you to his site (listed on my blogroll, as is Gosta’s “Classic Jazz Productions”).   When I could, I returned to J&R and bought the remaining volumes in the series.  Happily, this music has been issued on CD.  Incidentally, this for was Gosta’s “Kenneth” label, its actual paper label an ornately witty takeoff on the Gennett logo.  I looked for all the Kenneths I could find — some featuring Maxine Sullivan in her finest recordings, others spotlighting Doc Cheatham.  Each one was better than its predecessor.

And then I learned about the “Ambassador” label.  Gosta loved swinging jazz, but his heart belonged to Louis.  At that time, Louis’ most under-reissued and misunderstood recordings were the series (usually done with a big band) for Decca between 1935 and 1942, with later sessions here and there.  Gosta took it upon himself to create a series of the Deccas, in chronological order, in the best sound possible, speed-corrected without annoying “improvements” to the sound.  In addition, to compile as complete an aural portrait of Louis’ life in those years, the Ambassador compact discs offered radio broadcasts, concert performances — whatever evidence there was.  They were and are beautiful recordings, beautifully researched, full of new discoveries.  However, in the United States, they were not well-known.  Decca had very intermittently issued a number of records and eventually compact discs, but the Ambassadors were unequalled.

In 1999 or 2000, I wrote to Gosta and asked him a favor.  I was then writing reviews for the IAJRC Journal, a publication that let me review whatever I wanted as long as I bought the recordings myself and paid for my subscription.  (That’s another story.)  Gosta generously sent me a set of the Ambassadors, and I wrote a leisurely appreciation — perhaps twenty thousand words.  I don’t know how many people ever read it, but it made us friends.  And the Ambassadors are among my most treasured discs.

This led to what I consider a stroke of luck for me.  One day a letter came from Gosta: he had noticed the number of times I had reverentially mentioned Big Sid Catlett in my writing.  Would I like to write the notes for a CD that would make available new material by Louis and Sid from 1939 to 1942.   I can’t remember how quickly I wrote back to say “Yes,” but I think it was the same day.  And that CD is something I am very proud of — it also has rare performances by Louis  of “As Time Goes By” and “Don’t Take Your Love From Me,” unbelievably tender and knowing.

When I began this blog, I looked for opportunities to tell everyone about Gosta’s handiwork — most recently CDs featuring Doc Cheatham and Dick Cary (the latter a tribute to Hoagy Carmichael).  Those CDs are rewarding in every way but also clearly labors of love because Gosta never made much profit, if any, on them.

I was heartbroken to read of his death, and not just because he and I loved the same music.  Gosta was devoted to something larger than himself.  And he was one of those lucky individuals who gave his energies to something he loved passionately.  What Gosta loved so deeply and so well he also shared with us.

I have read no obituaries of Gosta except Ricky’s, but I tell you that we have lost someone rare.

FOR THE LOVE OF LOUIS AND DOC

Louis Armstrong understandably provoked awe, admiration, protectiveness, gratitude, reverence.  And those who know his life will think without hesitation of the people who cherished him: his beloved wife Lucille, his manager Joe Glaser, his friend Jack Bradley, recently celebrated in The New York Times for his astonishing collection of sacred artifacts. 

You can read the story about Jack here: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/29/nyregion/29satchmo.html?_r=2&ref=nyregion&oref=slogin&oref=slogin

But Gosta Hagglof, perhaps less famous, has done heroic things to keep Louis’s music alive.  Gosta is an Armstrong scholar and aficionado as well as an enterprising record producer.  On his own Ambassador label, he has created a wonderful multi-disc edition of Louis’s 1935-49 recordings, primarily for Decca, including alternate takes, airshots, and film soundtracks.  Much of this material is not only new to CD but new to everyone.  And it’s beautifully annotated and carefully speed-corrected: the ideal!  On his Kenneth label, its label imitating the Gennett company’s baroque whorls, he also made it possible for us to hear Bent Persson’s awe-inspiring recreations and imaginings of Louis’s 1927 Hot Choruses and Breaks.

With typical generosity, Gosta has just issued / re–issued a Doc Cheatham CD tribute to Louis, a gem.  It’s called THE EMINENCE, VOLUME 2: DOC CHEATHAM: “A TRIBUTE TO LOUIS ARMSTRONG,” and nothing in that title is hyperbolic.  (Kenneth Records CKS 3408)

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Cheatham is someone I think of as jazz’s Yeats, getting wiser and deeper and subtler as he grew older.  Brassmen have a hard time because trumpets and trombones require such focused physical energy and skill just to get from one note to another with a pleasing tone.  Doc truly did seem ageless, pulling airy solos out of nowhere, then embarking on weirdly charming vocals that mixed crooning, speech, and bits of Wallerish comedy.  He hasn’t been well represented on compact discs, and this one is a particular pleasure because his Scandinavian friends, both reverent and playful, inspire him to majestic yet casual playing and singing.  Those players, as an aside, are Gosta’s stock company — many of them playing nobly behind Maxine Sullivan in her finest late recordings (five compact discs worth!), the ambiance being somewhere between the Teddy Wilson Brunswicks and the Fifties John Hammond Vanguard sessions.

The original sessions from 1988 and 1989 also feature wonderful playing — piano and Eb alto horn — and arrangements by Dick Cary, someone who knew Louis well, having been the first pianist in the All-Stars at the irreplaceable Town Hall Concert.  (Gosta asked Cary to replicate his original piano introduction to “Save It Pretty Mama,” which Cary does here.  It is immensely touching.)  The gifted but less-known pianist Rolf Larsson shines on two songs not originally issued.  The gutty, loose trombone work of Staffan Arnberg is delightful, and the reed section — Claes Brodda, Goran Eriksson, Erik Persson, and Jan Akerman are all original, fervent players.  I heard hints and echoes of Pete Brown and Charlie Holmes, of Herschel Evans, early Hawkins and Hodges, but they have their own styles, a swinging earnestness.  The rhythm section, collectively featuring Mikael Selander, guitar; Olle Brostedt, bass, guitar; Goran Lind, bass, and Sigge Dellert, drums, rocks in a gentle, homemade, Thirties fashion.  I imagine everyone in shirtsleeves.  I especially enjoyed the hardworking lyricism of Selander, combining the great acoustic guitar styles of the period without imitating anyone: he has a Reinhardt eloquence without entrapping himself in QHCF cliches.

The sessions embraced the expected hot tunes: “Swing That Music,” “Our Monday Date,” a version of “Sweethearts on Parade” with Cary’s alto horn and Cheatham’s trumpet in jousting tandem, “I Double Dare You,” and “Jeepers Creepers,” all essayed with the looseness you would expect from expert players who love to take chances.  The Swedish All-Stars play with daredevil ease — I don’t mean high notes or technical displays — but we hear them experimenting with the possibilities of the songs and the ensembles.  The result is impromptu rather than overly polished, and I can imagine the musicians grinning triumphantly at the end of each take, as if to say, “Hey! We did it!” or the equivalent.

But the best performances here are painted in deep romantic, yearning hues.  “Confessin,” a trio performance for Doc, Selander, and Lind, is the very epitome of tenderness, as is “I’m in the Mood for Love,” complete with the rarely-heard verse.  “Save It Pretty Mama” has Cheatham at his most convincing as a singer; he pours his heart into “A Kiss To Build A Dream On,” a rueful “I Guess I’ll Get the Papers and Go Home” (the song with which he concluded his Sunday brunch performances at Sweet Basil for years), a slow “Dinah” and “Drop Me Off At Harlem,” “Sugar,” and “That’s My Home.”  We often associate Louis with bouncy numbers, with “Tiger Rag” and “Indiana,” but Cheatham draws on his awareness of Louis the romantic, early and late.

Especially in these performances, Cheatham and his young colleagues get at Louis’s huge heart — his wistfulness, hopefulness, and deep feeling, without ever overacting.  Many of these slow performances left me with a lump in my throat.  The results are music to treasure.  Visit Classic Jazz Productions (http://www.classicjazz.eu) for more details.

PRIME LOUIS!

In the past decade, issues of new Louis Armstrong material have most often drawn on the All-Stars period, and are thus energetic, impassioned, but potentially narrow in their repertoire and performance. 

The one exception came out on Gosta Hagglof’s Ambassador label (see “Classic Jazz Productions” on my blogroll).  It is a collection of previously unknown 1939-1942 radio broadcast performances featuring the wondrous synergy of Louis and Sidney Catlett.   

The 2008 discovery that I have been enjoying is a two-disc set on the Jazz Heritage label.  One disc comes from Louis’s famous-but-unheard 1937 stint on the Fleischmann’s Yeast radio show, where he was the first African-American to host a program.  The performances, “fast and furious,” as the announcer says, are in excellent sound (remastered by our own Doug Pomeroy) and are wildly swinging.  The second disc is even more moving, even when the fidelity is lower: excerpts from Louis’s home tapes, including unaccompanied renditions of “Over The Rainbow” and”Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries,” jokes and ruminations, conversations with his wife and friends — priceless private glimpses into the life of a great man.

I won’t rhapsodize about the emotional and musical significance of this set — Louis-scholar Ricky Riccardi has done that with great eloquence on his blog, “The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong,” in a posting of July 14.  (It’s also on my blogroll.)  This posting is just to say that the CDs are now more widely available for sale.  When they first appeared, you could find them only at the Louis Armstrong House in Corona, Queens.  Now, they can be purchased through www.jazzstore.com at a very congenial price.  You could also become a member of the Jazz Heritage Society: information about that is available at www.jazzheritage.org.  And how, you might ask, did I learn all this?  Nowhere else but at http://www.satchmo.net

Although he thought July 4, 1900 was his birthday, Louis was born on August 4, 1901.  Even if you order this CD set soon, it won’t come in time for his birthday — but a belated party is better than none.  And if you can tell yourself that it’s not important to hear Louis at home and in splendid 1937 form, keep such utterances private.  I’ll be listening to “The Love Bug Will Bite You,” and I won’t want to be distracted from it.  His story is our story, if we know how to listen to it.      

BILLIE HOLIDAY Thanks DOC CHEATHAM and HOAGY CARMICHAEL Thanks DICK CARY

Two particularly endearing compact discs have arrived, and I haven’t stopped playing them. They’re on the Swedish Kenneth label, the jazz-child of the jazz scholar and producer Gosta Hagglof, who also happens to be one of the world’s most fervent Louis Armstrong fans and specialists. (His site, “Classic Jazz Productions,” is on the blogroll to the right.)

For forty years now, Gosta has been producing records and CDs of heartwarming jazz, featuring Maxine Sullivan, Benny Waters, Kenny Davern, Doc Cheatham, and others, alongside Swedish jazz stars, including the quite spectacular cornetist-trumpeter Bent Persson, reedman Claes Brodda, and others. These sessions have an inimitable looseness, somewhere between live performances (think of the St. Regis jam sessions without Alistair Cooke) or the slightly more formal Teddy Wilson Brunswicks, lyrical and propulsive. Here’s a much younger Gosta greeting Louis at the airport in 1965: the warm feeling passing back and forth is immediately evident.

Now, Gosta has issued Dick Cary: The Wonderful World of Hoagy Carmichael (Kenneth CKS 3410), and A Tribute to Billie Holiday: Doc Cheatham and his Swedish Jazz All Stars featuring Henri Chaix (CKS 3407). You might initially think that there have already been more than enough tributes to Hoagy and Billie, but these discs are stirringly good.

Dick Cary was one of those musicians who didn’t get recognized for his talents, perhaps because he had so many of them. He was the pianist at Louis’s Town Hall Concert: his replacement was Earl Hines, which is an honor in itself. He also was a beautifully-focused trumpeter, the only soloist I know on the Eb alto horn (the “peckhorn”), a fine composer and arranger. Cary valued variety and tone color: his piano playing encompassed Teddy Wilson and Willie “the Lion” Smith to create a seamless mainstream idiom. His trumpet playing reminds me of a cross between Harry Edison and Bobby Hackett, with touches of Joe Thomas, and no one sounded like him on the alto horn.

So the listener gets good value, to say the least, with any Cary performance — and the Hoagy performances show him off wonderfully. The arrangements are subtly varied, sometimes transforming the material: “What Kind O’Man Is You,” memorable only because Mildred Bailey sang it on a 1929 record, becomes a slow, swaying drag here, as does “Snowball.” (Most Carmichael tributes stick to his half-dozen most famous songs: this one doesn’t, without becoming esoteric.) And Cary loved the momentum that a rocking jazz band could create: his “Harvey” (a loose sketch on “Dinah,” for the most part) and “Riverboat Shuffle” build up a fine head of steam. The ballads are winsome, especially the never-perfromed “Kinda Lonesome.” It’s also a tribute to the man who did so much to bring Hoagy into the jazz consciousness, in “Ev’ntide,” “Lyin’ to Myself,” “Rockin’ Chair,” heart-on-sleeve evocations of the great Armstrong recordings, with Bent Persson in full flower. It’s one of those CDs that I have been playing from start to finish without getting bored, and there’s a percussion break in the middle of “Riverboat Shuffle” that makes me laugh out loud. What more could anyone want? How about three bonus tracks: two evoking the Ellington Brunswicks, “Kissing My Baby Goodnight” and “Love Is Like A Cigarette,” which summon up the moody sound of that band. And the CD ends with a bit of brilliant French Quarter jive in Cary’s “Swing Down in New Orleans,” which features the imperishable Doc Cheatham on trumpet and vocal, rolling his R’s extravagantly when he sings “Clar-r-r-r-inet Mar-r-r-r-malade.” Delicious!

Cheatham is in rare form on the Billie tribute, which summons up the atmosphere surrounding her more than being a direct copy of her vocals, which is all to the good. (Billie herself would have been displeased by the many feline types yowling their way through “Fine and Mellow”: better they should have stayed in the litter box.)

On this CD, the band is led by the brilliant swing / stride master Henri Chaix, whose accompaniments are a joy on their own. There is a wonderful two-tempoed rendition of “I Wish I Had You,” which Billie fanatics will remember as a title where she sings “I whoosh I had you,” always a sweetly weird moment. Doc’s climbing trumpet style is beautifully captured — no drum solos, no racetrack solos — and we get to hear him sing “The Gal I Love”:

Someday she’ll come along, the gal I love. And she’ll be big and strong, the gal I love.

Wouldn’t miss that for the world! And Doc seems to be having the time of his life, vocally. He sings at the top of his range, as he always did, lending his vocalizing a definitely feminine sound without going into falsetto; he speaks lyrics when the mood was right, and here he even indulges in touches of Fats Waller’s raillery. Even for Doc, these vocals are remarkable. And the instrumental playing on both these discs is wonderful — great rhythm section work and solos. Hagglof’s Swedish marvels come out of the great tradition, fully realized and comfortable within it, but they don’t copy the obvious models or the most recognizable sounds. You’ll hear echoes of Louis and Teddy on these discs, but also small heartfelt homages to Herschel Evans and Sandy Williams.

These are irreplaceable sessions. Gosta has two more CDs with Doc in store for us, which is splendid news. For now, I’m going to keep playing these discs, moving them from the car to the computer to the CD player, so as not to miss any notes.