Tag Archives: iTunes

THE UNFAILING LIGHT OF LOUIS

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

Thanks to scholar and co-producer Ricky Riccardi, another wonderful set of Louis Armstrong recordings has emerged, complete: the Mercury recordings Louis and the All-Stars made between 1964 and 1966, with the pop hit MAME and the lesser hit SO LONG, DEARIE as the most famous among them.

louis-mame-cover

Ricky has done his usual wonderfully exhaustive job of annotating these digital releases.  Here (from his Louis blog) are the notes as they can be read online. And here is the link to read his notes as a PDF.

The music is available only as a digital download through Apple / iTunes: the complete package is $24.99, each song available at $1.29.  Details here.   And, as I wrote in my post on the the new issue of Louis’ complete Decca singles, if you hate “downloads” for their insubstantiality, I understand.  I too like music in physical packages (my apartment is furnished in Early Music) but we listen to live music and go home without being furious that we can’t take the players with us; in olden days, we listened to the radio, etc.  So if you reject this music because you “hate Apple,” to quote Billie, you’re just foolin’ yourself.

Now, if you are someone who deeply feels Louis, you probably already know about these issues and might already be listening, rapt.  If you are someone new to Louis or one of the people who believes the “beginning of his long decline” happened ninety years ago, I urge you to read on.  First, some facts.

The fifty-three performances are, first, the original contents of the “vinyl” issue: MAME / THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS / SO LONG DEARIE / TIN ROOF BLUES / I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY / WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN / CHEESE CAKE / TYREE’S BLUES / PRETTY LITTLE MISSY / FAITH / SHORT BUT SWEET / BYE ‘N BYE / then followed by alternate takes, rehearsal takes, monaural takes of BYE ‘N BYE / FAITH / DEARIE (7) / MISSY (5) / FAITH (8) / SHORT BUT SWEET (6) / CIRCLE (6) / PARTY (5) / THE THREE OF US (3).  The performances are almost all three minutes long — not harking back to OKeh 78s but to the currency of the times, the 45 rpm single that would be played on AM radio.  The other musicians include Buster Bailey, who had worked with Louis in 1924-5; Eddie Shu; Tyree Glenn; Big Chief Russell Moore; Billy Kyle, Marty Napoleon, Everett Barksdale, and more.

Louis, like other innovators, had a long history of taking “popular” material and creating immortal improvisations, so jazz fans dismayed at seeing unfamiliar titles should not be.  Not all of the songs are deathless — a few are paper-thin — but it almost seems as if the worse the material, the more room Louis has to work magic on it.  For me, the finest performances are of songs I doubt others could have done much with: SHORT BUT SWEET, THE CIRCLE OF YOUR ARMS, FAITH, I LIKE THIS KIND OF PARTY, THE THREE OF US (never before issued), SO LONG DEARIE, and others to lesser effect.

Here is the issued take of SHORT BUT SWEET:

A quietly warm melodic statement (helped by Tyree Glenn’s vibes and, for once, a rhythm guitar) leads into an equally warm vocal — on a song that resembles eight other classics — calling it “derivative” would be excessive praise.  Although the lyrics consistently disappoint, as if the writers had made a bet how many cliches they could jam into thirty-two bars, Louis is even warmer, with freer phrasing, on the vocal bridge to the end of the chorus.  And then that trumpet bridge!  “Tonation and phrasing,” passion, vibrato, and courage.  It might not leap out at a listener the way the beginning of WEST END BLUES does, but I know I couldn’t get those eight bars out of my head after just one hearing.

If you do not warm to that, may I suggest an immersion?  If it doesn’t get to you after three more playings, we may have little to say to one another.  But you might want to read to the end to discover the depths of my apparently foolish devotion.  And you might keep in your head what Bobby Hackett said to Nat Hentoff (I am paraphrasing here): “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come alive like that?”

I have a serious sentimental attachment to this music, because when this record came out, I was nearly fourteen.  This was my Louis Armstrong.  This was the heartfelt, occasionally comic entertainer I saw regularly on television — performing two songs with the All-Stars, conversing briefly and jocularly with the host, and then the show would move on to the acrobats, the writer plugging a new book, the actress doing the same for her new film.  I thrilled to these moments: Louis emerging from behind the curtain to sing and play MAME, DEARIE, later CABARET and WONDERFUL WORLD.  I lived in suburbia, a mile’s walk from several stores with record departments, and I recall going to Times Square Stores [known to some of us by our adolescent translation of its initials into Tough Shit, Sonny] or Mays or Pergaments, thumbing through the Louis records I knew by heart, and buying this new one in an excited flurry.  (My mother would have looked patient but puzzled; my father would have said, “Don’t you have enough records?” but not argued the point.) I would have disappeared into my bedroom and played it over and over.  I no longer have my mid-Sixties copy, but this recent release has brought all that experience back.

And what was there on this Mercury record?  Joy is the simple answer, with a substantial emotional range: the mocking dismissal of DEARIE, the celebration of the imaginary hedonist Auntie Mame on the title song, the blues — familiar and impromptu — the cheerful satire of FAITH, and the love songs that were CIRCLE and SHORT BUT SWEET, the alcohol-free gathering of PARTY, and more.  Each song was its own brief dramatic playlet, with a good deal of Louis’ singing and short but very affecting trumpet interludes.

He was no longer the star of the Vendome Theatre show; he was no longer playing 250 high C’s at the end of CHINATOWN.  But those age-related limitations were, to me, a great good thing.  These trumpet interludes are incredibly subtle and moving because his wisdom. Young, he could dramatically create expansive masterpieces, sometimes on record, sometimes legendary and unrecorded.  And those creations are awe-inspiring displays of virtuosity.

But we hear that this older man, with fifty years’ musical experience behind him, knows so much more about what to play and what not to — so an eight-bar passage on any song is intense, full of emotion.  Every note counts, because it has to.  And if you think this is special pleading on behalf of the elderly, ask any improvising musician to listen deeply to one of these solos.

I am not yet a senior citizen.  But I think a good deal about aging and what the proper responses might be to the calendar, the passage of days measured in the speed I climb stairs or the ease with which I carry groceries.  For decades, I’ve looked to Louis as a spiritual model.  I don’t take Swiss Kriss; I don’t tell prospective life-partners “The horn comes first”; I’m not a Mets fan.  But I think the aging Louis — as icon, as artist — has so much to tell us, no matter how old we are now.

The question we must ask ourselves is large: “Since our time on the planet is finite, what should we do with it, even if we have a long time before the final years approach?”  I think his answer, audible on the Mercury sides, is plain: “Do what you and you alone do well.  Do it will your heart.  And strive to do it better and with greater purity of intent for as long as you can.  That action is you, and it will stop only when you do.”

Whether you subscribe to this philosophical notion or not, this music is seriously uplifting.  Thank you, Louis.

May your happiness increase!

IT’S SAVORY! (THE SWING TREASURE CHEST OPENS FOR US.)

JAZZ LIVES, like its creator, is a little eccentric (I write those words with pride): I don’t always rush to cover what everyone else is covering.  But in the past few days, I’ve met several people, one a brilliant young musician, unaware of the riches made available by the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, the Bill Savory Collection in two volumes with more to come . . . so I write these lines as a Swing Public Service.

A Savory Disc

A Savory Disc

Here’s Loren Schoenberg, the guiding genius of all things Savory, on NPR, just a few days ago on November 6, 2016.

Let me backtrack a bit.  Some years back, the “Savory collection” was mythic and tantalizing.  Jazz fans had heard of Bill Savory, an audio engineer and Benny Goodman devotee, who had recorded hours of live material off the air in the late Thirties.  The evidence existed tangibly in a collection of BG airshots issued by Columbia Records to follow up on the incredible success of the 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert.  Some years back, the indefatigable Loren unearthed the collection.  I knew, step by painstaking step, of the heroic work that the peerless sound engineer and disc restorer Doug Pomeroy was doing in his Brooklyn studio.

Collectors were anxious to hear the Savory treasures: some made the trek uptown to the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to do auditory research. Excerpts were shared in news stories.  But we wondered about the legalities (dealing with the estates of the musicians) and the eventual price to us. Recently, we learned that at least part of the Savory material was to be issued digitally through iTunes.

Like many listeners of a certain age, I grew up with music being available tangibly.  I went to Sam Goody or King Karol and bought discs.  Others I borrowed and taped.  So the notion of, say, a Coleman Hawkins performance that I could hear only through my computer was mildly eerie.  But some of the downloaded music can be burned to homegrown CD — with a reasonably easy learning curve — and once downloaded, they won’t go away even if your computer suddenly starts to emit purple smoke.  If all of this is off-putting, one can buy a $25 iTunes gift card at the local supermarket or chain store; one can enlist someone under 30 to do the dance; one can hear treasures, most in gorgeous sound, never heard before.  And the price is more than reasonable: each of the two volumes costs less than a CD.

On the subject of money: as always, enterprises like this stand or fall on our willingness to join in.  I’m  not saying that anyone should starve the children, but this music is terribly inexpensive.  In speaking to some collectors, I found it wryly hilarious that more than one person said, “Oh, I only bought ____ tracks,” when I, being an elder, stifled my response that this was self-defeating.

In 1976, if you had said to me, “Michael, would you like to hear a jam session with Herschel Evans, Lionel Hampton, Dave Matthews, Charlie Shavers, Milt Hinton, Cozy Cole, and Howard Smith?  Give me six dollars,” I would have been removing bills from my wallet even though I was earning a pittance in academia.

I also note that some jazz fans have commented on Facebook that they are enthusiastic in theory but waiting to purchase the volume that will contain their favorite band.  If you don’t find something to admire here and now, I wonder about you.

Doug Pomeroy’s remastering of these precious discs is marvelous.  The immediacy of the sound is both intense and immense, especially for those of us used to “airshots” recorded by some amateur Angel of Hot with the microphone up to the speaker of the radio console . . . then playing the disc a hundred times. Savory had an actual recording studio and could record the radio signal directly. On a few tracks, there is some gentle static, I believe caused by a lightning storm, but it’s atmospheric rather than distracting.

Here’s a detailed essay on Savory and his collection.

Having learned how to navigate iTunes, I have been listening to the first volume for the last few days.  The second volume, sixty-two minutes of incredible live material in vibrant sound of the Count Basie Orchestra 1938-40 featuring Lester Young (also Herschel Evans, Buck Clayton, Jimmy Rushing) has proven too intense for me: I started to play the whole set and then found myself overcome, as if I’d tried to eat a whole chocolate cake in a sitting.  I can see that I will spread out this disc over a week or more of intermittent listening, and then more weeks to come.

A very literate San Francisco guitarist, Nick Rossi (you should know him!) has written, at my request, a short appreciation of a Herschel Evans solo from the first volume — to be published here shortly.

The first volume starts off with a triumph — a monumental performance, tossed off casually by Coleman Hawkins.  BODY AND SOUL, nearly six minutes (twice the length of the legendary Bluebird 78), followed by BASIN STREET BLUES, not something I’d associate with Hawkins, but it’s spectacular — also a leisurely performance.  Two Ella Fitzgerald performances remind us of how girlish she sounded at the start: irreplaceable and tenderly exuberant.  Next, a series of Fats Waller effusions live from the Yacht Club on Fifty-Second Street (now probably obliterated to make space for a chain pharmacy) where Fats is wonderfully ebullient, although the standouts for me are I HAVEN’T CHANGED A THING and YOU MUST HAVE BEEN A BEAUTIFUL BABY — the latter a new song at the time.  There’s a spirited reading of HEAT WAVE by Carl Kress and Dick McDonough (amazing as a team) and one of CHINA BOY by the Emilio Caceres Trio featuring Emilio on violin and brother Ernie on reeds.  And that jam session.

Jam sessions, when considered coolly decades later, tend to be lopsided affairs: someone rushes or drags, the tempo is too fast.  But this jam session offers us the poignant evidence of one of our great lost heroes, Herschel Evans, not long before his death.  He isn’t at full power, but he sounds entirely like himself — and the choruses here expand his recorded discography by a substantial amount.

The second volume offers what I noted above, but it bears repeating in boldface — sixty-two minutes of Lester Young and the Count Basie band in glorious sound — with more unfettered leisurely improvisation (how happy the band sounds to be playing for dancers and to have escaped the constraints of the recording studio).  I’ve only heard three tracks: a jam session on ROSETTA, a very fast I AIN’T GOT NOBODY with a Jimmy Rushing vocal, and one other.

Words fail me, and that is not my usual reaction.  I don’t think the rhythm section ever sounded so good, Freddie Green’s guitar so luminous.  My friends tell me that Lester is astonishing throughout (this I would not argue) but that there are also clarinet solos.  And in a complete loss of self-control, I found the superb full chorus for Vic Dickenson on I NEVER KNEW. Let joy be unconfined.

Here is the most expansive description of both sets, with sound samples.

I’ll stop now, because readers have already gotten the point or have stopped reading.  But please do visit the Savory Collection sites.  And I suggest that the perfect holiday gift for yourself is acquiring both volumes.  I don’t endorse a major corporation here, and I have been Apple-averse for as long as I can remember, but when the reward is Lester, Jimmy Rushing, Buck, Sweets, Jo Jones, Herschel, Hamp, Ella, Fats, Hawk, Vernon Brown, Milt, etc., I can conquer my innate distrust.  And so can you.

May your happiness increase!

KING JOE / KING LEAR

King OliverMy iPod isn’t always a subject for philosophical contemplation.  More often it’s merely a calming talisman in my battle against airplane claustrophobia and tedium.  But recent experiences have made me think about it as more thought-provoking than a twentieth-century version of the transistor radio and cassette player of my past. 

It began when I unintentionally erased not only the contents of my iPod but also my iTunes library.  How that happened is not a subject for this blog, but I erased eight thousand tracks.  (Or, to use “the male passive,” I could write “eight thousand tracks had been erased,” but no matter.)  Preparing to go off on vacation far from my CD collection, I began to stuff compact discs into my iTunes library.  This, as readers will know, is a nuisance, and at times I wished for a youthful niece or nephew to whom I could say, “Want a hundred dollars?  Put each of the CDs in that bookcase into iTunes for me, will you?”  The computer did its job well, but it required me to check on it every six or seven minutes.  I began with the tail end of my collection — that’s Lester Young, the Yerba Buena Jazz Band, Ben Webster, Lee Wiley, and so on, and worked my way back to the Allens, Harry and Henry Red, in the space of ten days. 

And a King — Joe Oliver, pictured top left.   

This combination of obsessiveness and diligence resulted in an iPod with more than fifteen thousand tracks on it — the Hot Fives and Sevens, the Basie Deccas, the Lester Verves, the Billie Vocalions, the Teddy Wilson School for Pianists, the Blue Note Jazzmen, Fats Waller from 1922 to 1935, Mel Powell on Vanguard, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins . . . all I could desire, more than a hundred full days of music.

But I kept silently asking myself, “What do you need all this music for, knowing that you couldn’t listen to it all in the space of the next twelve months?”

King LearAnother King kept insisting that I pay attention to him.  He didn’t play cornet; he would have been out of place at the Lincoln Gardens.  I had taught a course in Shakepearian tragedy this summer, and ended it with KING LEAR — adding a few scenes from the 1982 Granada television presentation with Sir Laurence Olivier.  

Early in the play, when Lear still thinks he has imperial powers (even though he has renounced the throne), he bargains with his daughters about whose house he shall stay at first, casually letting them know that he will arrive with a hundred knights.  Although Goneril and Regan are cruelly inhuman, I always feel for them at this point, as they ask their father, with some irritable reasonableness, why he, no longer King, needs a retinue.  Lear responds:    

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars

Are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs,

Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s.

In the most commonsensical way, I take these lines to suggest that the difference between a reasonably privileged person and a Maltese terrier is that the person, when the impulse strikes, can go to the kitchen cabinet and have another cookie or pretzel.  Choice is at work here, unlike the dog who has to wait for the owner to fill his bowl.  “Need” is constricting; luxury is the freedom to transcend mere needs.  Or, in other terms, to have merely “enough” — the spiritual equivalent of eight hundred calories a day — is emotionally insufficient.

I knew that I didn’t “have to have” Ella Fitzgerald singing MY MELANCHOLY BABY (Teddy Wilson, Frank Newton, Benny Morton, 1936) in the same way I need food and drink.  I could capably replay most of that performance in my mind.  But not having it accessible provokes feelings of inadequacy, of being separated from my music.  To some, this will seem like an exercise in superfluity: I know there are people in other countries who don’t have clean water, let alone alternate takes of the Albert Ammons Commodores, and I feel for them, but the sensation of having more music than I can possibly listen to is luxuriant bliss.  It means that if, upon awaking, I really NEED to hear Dicky Wells and Bill Coleman play SWEET SUE . . . there it is.

Which leads me to the most brilliant feature of the iPod — not the ability to reproduce album cover artwork (!) but the ability to shuffle songs.  I plugged it in here and started it up . . . so that Dizzy Gillespie followed Mamie Smith who followed the West Jesmond Rhythm Kings who followed Hawkins . . . . a floating Blindfold Test, full of surprises and gratifications.  And no worrying about the hundred knights drinking up all the milk in the refrigerator. 

iPod

Olivier and Oliver, in perfect harmony.

LOUIS, RICKY, AND UWE, SPREADING JOY

louis-1935-anton-bruehl

Louis Armstrong is still giving us joy, and people inspired by his spirit are being generous in his name. 

The prime mover here is Ricky Riccardi, whose Louis-blog, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG (www.dippermouth.blogspot.com.), has been extra-special of late.  If you haven’t visited it, you are depriving yourself of both pleasure and insight.  Typically, Ricky spins the roulette wheel of iTunes to come up with one of Louis’s records, which he lovingly analyzes in print. 

But wait!  There’s more!  Ricky’s writing makes me hear new things in records I know by heart.  And he also provides audio of the recording and of related tracks and video clips.  It’s like a free master class with a master listener who adores Louis.   

But wait!  There’s more!  Ricky’s friend-of-Louis Uwe Zanisch turned up some heroically rare film of Louis and the All-Stars: COLOR home movies of the band in Ghana in 1956, in Sweden in 1965 and 1961.  The band on the bus — reading, sleeping, chatting — and in concert.  Priceless and heart-warming.  And, as Ricky writes, the fact that the films are silent is even more endearing.   

Visit the site: if it’s snowing and cold where you are, you’ll feel warm and enriched all day.  And, with the power vested in me, I award Ricky and Uwe the Golden Order of Louis, First Class, with crossed shuzzit.