Tag Archives: Ricky Riccardi

“HOW’S YOUR LOUISNESS?” (January 1, 1947)

To celebrate the publication of his book REALLY THE BLUES, Mezz Mezzrow was the star of a concert at New York’s Town Hall on January 1, 1947 as a benefit for the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief.

The basic band was Muggsy Spanier, Sandy Williams, Sidney Bechet, Mezz Mezzrow, Sammy Price or Art Hodes, Wellman Braud, Baby Dodds.  Later in the evening Bob Wilber’s Wildcats were added: Johnny Glasel, Ed Hubble, Bob Wilber, Dick Wellstood, Charlie Traeger, Eddie Phyfe.  Coot Grant and Kid Sox Wilson also performed.  The concert was recorded on twelve-inch acetates on two machines (hooray!) and ten performances were issued on lp — Jazz Archives JA-39 — but what follows was not.

Quite simply, it is an exultant hymn of praise to Louis.

It’s a life-changing performance of WHEN YOU’RE SMILING by Johnny Windhurst, unlisted in Tom Lord’s discography, with Bechet, prominent, and Dick Wellstood on piano.  My guess is that the veterans gave place to the Youngbloods, but it’s Windhurst who catches our ears and our hearts.  Rather like Hot Lips Page in his prime, Windhurst seems energetically lit from within, and just when you think he might have had enough or done enough, he takes another chorus.  Radiantly.

After Mezz’s announcement, the roadmap (to my ears) is one ensemble statement of the theme, one chorus by Bechet; one chorus by Wellstood; one by Eddie Hubble, trombone; two choruses by Windhurst with Bechet and the ensemble joining in. The tape I was working with was a copy of a reel-to-reel tape where the plastic had started to decay, alas, so there is some distortion and tape squeal.  But if you can turn away from Windhurst’s shining Louisness because of these flaws, we don’t have much to say to each other.

Incidentally, the question, “How’s your Louisness?” is, I believe, a co-invention of two of my favorite people, Riley and Clint Baker. . . . it is another way of saying, “How’s your internal spiritual compass?” and “Have you spread some joy today?”  They do, and certainly young Mister Windhurst does.

Play it again, and feel the warmth of that smile.

May your happiness increase!

 

SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE GIRLS’ SCHOOL (December 1, 1951)

Concord Academy, Concord, Mass., established 1922 for grades 9-12, enrollment less than 500 students.  Surely I don’t understand upper-class girls’ boarding schools, but it seems the last place one would find a hot jazz concert — or was it a dance? — in late 1951.  Then again, jazz was still the popular music.  Doing research on the Boston hot jazz scene of this period, I came upon this passage from a 1950 story in the Harvard Crimson about the genesis of the school’s hot band, the Crimson Stompers.  Savor this as a relic of a vanished time, please:

They went twice to Smith College (Gifford is carried away by the memory where 200 girls in sweat shirts and dungarees sat in a semicircle and shrieked for the real oldtimers like “Coal Cart Blues” (an Armstrong standby).

That, I think, is the emotional connection between Concord Academy and jazz.

One of the musicians, cornetist Johnny Windhurst, then 25, had substantial fame.  Windhurst had been the second horn in Sidney Bechet’s quintet that broadcast from the Savoy Cafe in 1945; he had returned to the Savoy in 1949 with Edmond Hall’s band that had Vic Dickenson in the front line.  In New York, he had performed with Eddie Condon, Jack Teagarden, James P. Johnson, and other notables, at Town Hall and the Stuyvesant Casino; in 1952, he would be playing regularly at Eddie Condon’s on West Third Street.  Windhurst turned down opportunities to travel, would not learn to read music, and stayed close to home until his death in 1981.  He is a glorious player, his solos arching towards the skies.

Trombonist Eddie Hubble was an early associate of Bob Wilber, a superb extension of Jack Teagarden, and by this time he had performed with Red McKenzie, Wild Bill Davison, Frank Chace, George Wein, Doc Evans, Joe Sullivan.  He, too, was heard on Boston radio broadcasts.

“Ollie” Taylor [Oliver S. Taylor, Harvard, ’53] may not have continued on with music, and his recorded career is limited to two performances linked to drummer Walt Gifford.  But he was playing alongside professionals as early as 1948.  His father was a Harvard history professor, and the Harvard hot band, the Crimson Stompers, formed and rehearsed at the Taylor house.

I know even less about the fine supportive pianist Pete Hewitt: he recorded three sides with a band led by Gifford that also had Hubble.  Where did he go after Harvard?  Walt Gifford, Harvard ’52, managed the Crimson Stompers, and he had a professional career which I can follow into the Sixties, he did not get the notice his work deserved.  (Then again, I say to myself, “Who does?”)

That Boston-and-beyond scene was flourishing: Ed Hall, Frank Chace, and Frank Newton played and recorded with iterations of the Crimson Stompers; the young woman who would become Barbara Lea — born Leacock — was both their star singer and Windhurst’s girlfriend.

I also am reasonably sure that the music was recorded by Joe Boughton, who was an early and pious Windhurst devotee [archivist? stalker?], a wonderful thing, seventy years later — although I have a half-memory of some musician writing something like, “Wherever we’d be playing, he’d show up with the damned tape recorder and it would be running.”  To my right, as I write this, I have a photograph of Windhurst on my wall, inscribed to Boughton, with surprise at a “sober Saturday”! Thank goodness we have slightly more than a half hour of the music: all “Dixieland” classics, and beautifully played: strong soaring solos, wonderful rhythm (you don’t miss a string bass), nice riffs and backgrounds.  As young as they were, they were splendidly professional.  And not to slight Ollie Taylor, it is Windhurst and Hubble who continue to astonish (they were both continuing to do so when I saw them, separately, in 1971 and 1972.)

I also don’t know anything about a school like Concord Academy and its cultural anthropology.  Was this a dance?  Did the girls get to invite their beaux?  Or was it a social event where the band played for listening?  I don’t sense a large room crowded with eager teens; in fact, it’s hard to sense an audience at all.  I wish I knew, but here’s the music.  And what music!

In Windhurst I often hear Hackett, but Bobby with almost insolent ease, fluidity and power — although it’s clear that he’s absorbed Louis and the Condon trumpet crew.  When he moves around on the cornet, there’s never any strain, as he accomplishes versions of super-Bix.  And that sound! — full and shining.  Next to him, Hubble echoes Teagarden but also the slippery power and audacity of Lou McGarity and Brad Gowans.  Taylor’s approach is slightly less assured — more Parenti than Hucko — but his earnest lyricism is sweetly appealing, and occasionally (hear the end of his chorus on ONE HOUR, where he asks himself, “What would Pee Wee do?”) he comes up with memorable phrases, although occasionally he’s not completely familiar with the song.  Hewitt is wonderfully orchestral and spare at once, summoning Stacy and streamlined stride (SAINTS is the best example); he isn’t fancy in the ensembles, but you feel him providing solidly moving chordal support.  And Gifford plays splendidly for the band, sometimes pushing the hi-hat in the best Jo Jones fashion, otherwise relying on snare and bass drum, always thinking of what the band needs at the moment in the nicest Wettling manner.  It’s a very cooperative band — players who had worked together and readily created supporting figures.  And although the repertoire is familiar as “Dixieland,” the rhythmic emphasis here is on swing: they’re playing the tunes rather than copying the hallowed recordings.  Hear how Hubble and Windhurst leap into their solos on SAINTS.

Can you tell I admire this band?

The songs are WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / IF I COULD BE WITH YOU / JADA / JAZZ ME BLUES / SOMEDAY SWEETHEART / SAINTS / SUGAR (faded out):

The recording — I feel certain it’s tape or a 33 rpm acetate — has been edited to eliminate both applause and pauses between songs, and the microphone is inside the band so that we hear the musicians’ comments to each other.  Was it broadcast on the local radio station?  And the recordist turns up the right knob while Hewitt solos so that his sound isn’t lost: this isn’t an accidental “capture.”

On Facebook, I hear many young bands showing their skills — sometimes simply their enthusiasm.  I wish many of them would study this tape: it’s a model of how to play this repertoire with great expertise and passion while making it look easy, aiming for polished small-band swing rather than trying to replicate some more ancient evidence.

Enjoy the glowing sounds as well as the little mysteries that accompany them: the people who could have explained it all are gone. Think of a time when such a band could exist and play a date at a local school.  Days gone by for sure.  (I wonder whether Concord Academy has its own archives: one can dream.  I will send this post to them.)

P.S.  I invite the word-averse to skip what follows.  Between 2006 and 2020, I carried video recording equipment to gigs; with large interruptions, I had brought audio equipment from 1971 to 2006 and sometimes beyond.  Through the immense kindness of jazz benefactors John L. Fell, Bill Coverdale, Bill Gallagher, Bob Hilbert, Roy Bower, Bert Whyatt, Tom Hustad, Hal Smith, Ricky Riccardi, Sonny McGown, and others, I’ve amassed hours — years, it seems — of rare recordings, primarily on audiocassette.  Thanks to a grant from the Charles Sammut Foundation and Laura Wyman’s encouragement, I figured out how to convert those cassettes into moderately-competent YouTube videos, and I’ve been doing this for the last month.  Why?  Some of this activity is an antidote to pandemic boredom-and-loneliness, but there is also my thought that when my executors come to clean out my apartment, and they are a very hip bunch, no one has room for three or four hundred cassettes.  It pained me that if I didn’t do something about it, my tapes (for example) of Bobby Hackett, Vic Dickenson, Joe Thomas, Teddy Wilson, Jo Jones, Bennie Morton . . . would never be heard.  That was intolerable to me.  So I hope you greet these audio rarities with the pleasure that I take in sharing them.

May your happiness increase!

HEART FULL OF RHYTHM: THE BIG BAND YEARS OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG, by RICKY RICCARDI (September 1, 2020)

For impatient readers, the compressed review, in the language of vintage advertising, “No home should be without it.”

Because perception is its own kind of reality, if you squint your eyes just right, you can make Louis Armstrong seem an ordinary mortal, a genial fellow who lived in Corona, Queens, ate Chinese food, smoked marijuana, told jokes, typed letters and made phone calls.  Oh, yes, he made music.  And that wrong-end-of-the-telescope view has a certain validity.

Or, if you simply followed his itinerary, you could see him as a mechanical figure, a jazz-machine who got on the bus, slept, got off, made music, and got back on again.  I’ve read  biographies where the writer relied heavily on the subject’s gig notebooks, and the artist becomes a journeyman doing a job, night after night in different places.  Or amplified discographies: “On February 29, _______ went into the studio to wax the classic _______________,” some of which is of course necessary when the artist’s work is primarily a series of recordings, but it’s a shallow lens through which to view an artist’s life and development.

The totality of Louis Armstrong is so much larger.

If you know him, his art, and his life a little better, he seems an astonishing continent, with mountains and orchards, valleys and forests.  And people do like to claim continents for themselves and plant their flag.  Since the early Thirties, Louis has been depicted often in print, and the writers have come to him with their own ideologies and judgments.  So in the books written about him (and with him) since 1936, we have seen Louis the naive country boy who needed Joe Oliver, Lillian Hardin, and Joe Glaser to tell him how to live; the sellout; the Uncle Tom; the aesthetic failure; the tragic victim; the clown; a man unaware of himself.

Louis doesn’t need a defender, but if he did, the man to the rescue, gloriously, is Ricky Riccardi, the scholar who finds marvels and, better, who understands their impact.  Full disclosure: Ricky and I are friends, and I read the galleys of this new book (occasionally saying “No . . . ” as one would to an exuberant puppy.  Louis is my hero on earth and otherwise.  I thought Ricky’s first part of his Louis-saga, WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS, a superb book and a model of biography, as I wrote here.

To please me, a book should have new information — facts and first-hand narratives that correct misperceptions, fill in the blanks, and add to the larger tapestry.  Its writer should be as free from ideological bias as possible (many biographers palpably come to loathe their subjects) but, in the nineteenth-century mode, sustain a gentle admiration, unless the subject is monstrous.

The question might be, for some, with all the writing on Louis, why would we need another book?  The book will speak for itself — its thrilling research and the beautiful synthesis of hundreds of sources all work together to portray this man, joyously goofing around with his friends, but all seriousness when it came to creating music.  Since there has been a school of critical opinion (I cannot call it “analysis” or “thought”) that Louis’ records after 1928 are evidence of commercialism, of his losing his way, and the Decca recordings that form much of this period, 1935-44, have been particularly maligned, this book is a needed re-evaluation.  And we cannot ignore Louis as a man steadfast in the pursuit of fair treatment for himself and his race, an artist giving wholly of himself night after night in the quest to bring joy to his hearers.

Ricky’s first biography dealt with Louis’ last twenty-five years, his international fame, his small group, the All-Stars, and his popular successes — being “the cause of happiness” for millions.  HEART FULL OF RHYTHM steps back in time, documenting not only the day-t0-day life of “Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra,” but the subtle shifts in popular awareness.  When this volume begins, in 1929, Louis was no longer making “race records,” but I doubt that record dealers in strictly Caucasian neighborhoods carried his latest hit.  When this book ends, Louis is so known and so loved — starring not only in theatres and dances, not only selling records, but starring in films, having his own radio series, breaking down barriers — that he is no longer relegated to that cruelly narrow perception.

An interlude (1937, with Albert Nicholas, Charlie Holmes, and Paul Barbarin):

Because this biography delineates the middle period of an artist who had already reached artistic pinnacles (think of WEST END BLUES, NEW ORLEANS STOMP, and BEAU KOO JACK) it does not follow the predictable arc of early struggles, recognition, and blossoming fame.  When we meet Louis in 1929, he has come to New York, has recorded KNOCKIN’ A JUG and MAHOGANY HALL STOMP with what were then called “mixed bands,” and records I CAN’T GIVE YOU ANYTHING BUT LOVE, expanding both his repertoire and his identity.  Indeed, if we consider the songs in the canon of pop songs that Louis recorded first or early — BODY AND SOUL, WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS, I SURRENDER DEAR, WHEN YOUR LOVER HAS GONE, I’M CONFESSIN’, BLUE AGAIN, I GOTTA RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES, STARDUST and two dozen others, it’s clear that he was moving towards a larger audience and a larger conception of himself — what I sometimes call “Louis the romantic.”

As an aside, the book raises and answers the question, “How does a sincere artist take on popular material and retain his artistic integrity?”  We watch Louis do it again and again by remaining both himself and completely heartfelt.

But the arc, as I suggested above, is different — Louis begins this period appearing in a revue on Broadway (in 1939, in the middle of this book, there is an actual Broadway show, SWINGIN’ THE DREAM, but it closes quickly), in 1936 he co-stars with Bing Crosby in the film PENNIES FROM HEAVEN; when the book concludes he has played at the Metropolitan Opera House, Town Hall, and Carnegie Hall.

Incidentally, those Decca recordings are so labored, the band so under-rehearsed and unswinging.  Here’s a relevant example:

Readers will note that I have not followed this incredibly detailed book chapter by chapter, and when you pick up a copy you will understand why.  I have been listening to and reading about Louis Armstrong for more than fifty years, and if I were to pick three pages in this book at random, I would be greeted by facts I’d never known, and better, threads connecting those facts — Riccardi isn’t a simple hoarder of detail; he finds and creates patterns — and new photographs.  Too, he has diligently used Louis’ scrapbooks and private tape recordings to get the stories first-hand.  Thus, I confess that I can’t create even the most cursory summary of the book in fewer than ten thousand words because what it contains is both fascinating and overwhelming.  But it is written with a light touch and consistent love for the man and his music.

And should you worry that you might get bored in all the information, take heart: there’s blood, violence, opium, laxatives, sex, run-ins with the police, homemade cookies, racial harassment, people who present themselves as allies but turn out to be horrors (Johnny Collins and Leonard Feather) and quiet heroes (Zilner Randolph for one: if anyone wants to start the Zilner Randolph Appreciation Page on Facebook, that’s one group I will gladly join).

For myself, I’m waiting for the third volume of this trilogy in reverse, which will begin nine months before July 4, 1901, in what I hope was an interlude of bliss, include Black Benny, the recipe for a trout sandwich, the lovely and charming Daisy Parker, a long train ride to Chicago, a pair of old-fashioned shoes, and more.

I’ve said enough.  This book is a dense yet entertaining portrait of a man and artist, often minimized and misunderstood, a beautiful work of art that honors him on every page.  Amazon says that the book will be released on September 1, and you can pre-order it here.  September 1 isn’t really that far away (given the way Monday becomes Friday these days) but you certainly could pass the time and entertain yourself with Ricky’s first Louis book, here.

If you look up “Louis Armstrong” and “July 6, 1971,” you will find newspaper stories and television reports that say he died.  Thanks to this splendid book by Ricky Riccardi, you will find it even more impossible to believe those rumors.

May your happiness increase!

GORDON AU PAYS TRIBUTE TO LOUIS ARMSTRONG and his ALL-STARS at LINDY FOCUS

It’s distressingly easy to make a paper-thin tribute to Louis Armstrong and his All-Stars: start with the “Greatest Hits,” add a Louis-caricature, stir in high notes, fast tempos and a dash of audience-clapping, and stand back.  Or one could decide to be “innovative” and “harmonically adventurous,” but I will not even consider those possibilities, because the room is starting to spin.

But Gordon Au is a studious and deep musician and individual, so that when I heard he was planning a tribute to the music that Louis and his world-famous band created over nearly twenty-five years, I was eager to hear it.  And the results are subtle and gratifying.  You can find out more here while you listen.  I’ve picked two songs from this recording that are — sadly or wryly — currently appropriate:

and a song I wish were not so relevant, the somber BLACK AND BLUE:

That should send listeners who get it right to the link to download and purchase.  But perhaps some of you need more information.

Gordon writes, “I grew up listening to Louis Armstrong. Last year I had the chance to do something I’ve wanted to do for a long time: bring the music of Louis & the All-Stars to swing dancers. I heard a few hip DJs play Louis for lindy hoppers over the years, but I always wished there were more, and I knew that I myself would love dancing to the All-Stars. I wanted to give dancers the chance to hear the music of the All-Stars with a live band, and to dance to it and fall in love with it.

Last December, that wish came true. At Lindy Focus XVIII, I presented a tribute to Louis Armstrong & His All-Stars with a dream team of 10 musicians, and finally got to share that music I love with hundreds of people dancing their hearts out, late at night in a packed ballroom, surrounded by smiling faces, at the largest lindy hop event in the nation. And now I’m happy to share it with all of you.”
1. Squeeze Me (79 BPM)
2. All That Meat and No Potatoes (110 BPM)
3. Twelfth St. Rag (128 BPM)
4. I’ll Walk Alone (88 BPM)
5. Back o’Town Blues (74 BPM)
6. Blueberry Hill (96 BPM)
7. Faithful Hussar (133 BPM)
8. Someday You’ll be Sorry (105 BPM)
9. Unless (87 BPM)
10. My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It (141 BPM)
11. Beale St. Blues (105 BPM)
12. Lovely Weather We’re Having (88 BPM)
13. C’est Si Bon (143 BPM)
14. Yellow Dog Blues (88 BPM)
15. Black and Blue (99 BPM)
16. Don’t Fence Me In (106 BPM)
17. Saint Louis Blues (118 BPM)
18. Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now (130 BPM)

All tracks adapted/arranged by Gordon Au (Gordonburi Music – ASCAP)

Laura Windley—vocals (1,2,4,6,9,10,16-8)
Jim Ziegler—vocals (1,2,5,8,10,12,14), trumpet (8,14)
Gordon Au—trumpet/leader
Keenan McKenzie—soprano sax (2,3,6,8,10,12-15,17), clarinet (4,5,8,9,16,18)
Jacob Zimmerman—clarinet (1-4,6-15,17)
Lucian Cobb—trombone
Jonathan Stout—guitar
Chris Dawson—piano
Jen Hodge—bass
Josh Collazo—drums

And if the combination of music and words were not enough, I would add my own of the latter.  I don’t remember if I asked Gordon if he needed some prose or I insisted on writing something (I did see Louis live on April 23, 1967 — that would be my opening credential) and he graciously agreed.  So here’s mine:

I tried to walk like him, talk like him, eat like him, sleep like him. I even bought a pair of big policeman’s shoes like he used to wear and stood outside his apartment waiting for him to come out so I could look at him.

The magnificent cornetist Rex Stewart remembered the monumental effect Louis Armstrong had when Louis came to New York in 1924. More to the point, he recalled without embarrassment his awestruck attempts to gain some of Louis’ splendor by magic. (How lucky for him and for us that Rex had his own splendor for four decades.)

I write this to remind readers of Louis’ life-changing power, and to point out that musicians began trying to emulate him nearly one hundred years ago – when Louis himself was not yet 25. Somewhere I read of a group of players, stripped-down to their underwear, shivering in an unheated basement, hoping to catch cold so that their singing voices would be closer to his. Everyone wanted some of his celestial power: Earl Hines and Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, Connee Boswell, Bing Crosby, Bobby Darin, and many others. As I write, musicians are posting their versions of Louis’ WEST END BLUES’ cadenza on Facebook.

Trying to capture his essence, his admirers have taken many diverse paths. The most shallow efforts have been grotesque: a distended grin, waving a handkerchief as if drowning, and growling a few chosen phrases, ending inevitably with an extended “Oh yeah!” (If you knew nothing of Louis, you might think, “Someone get that man to a hospital now!”) Such approaches resemble a jazz version of demonic possession, and we have it on good authority (clarinetist Joe Muranyi) that Louis hated such imitations.  Some trumpet players misunderstood Louis’ mastery simply as his ability to play an octave higher than anyone else had, but they mistook range for music.  Only those who understood Louis’ art perceived that it was essentially a singer’s craft, melodic to its core, offering songs that any listener, skilled in jazz or not, could appreciate immediately. It was emotive more than exhibitionistic.

This is especially true in the period of Louis’ greatest popular appeal – his triumphant quarter-century of worldwide fame, recognition, and affection. Those who don’t understand his final sustained triumph suggest that his All-Stars period was marked by a desire for larger audiences, “popularity” at the expense of innovative art, and the limitations of an aging man’s playing and singing. To this I and others would say “Nonsense,” a polite euphemism selected for these notes, and point out that the splendidly virtuosic playing of Louis’ earlier years was – although dazzling – not as astonishing as, say, his 1956 WHEN YOU’RE SMILING or THAT’S FOR ME. Ask any trumpeter whether it is easier to copy Louis’ solo on NEW ORLEANS STOMP – the most brilliant amusement-park ride – or to play LA VIE EN ROSE as Louis did. (Those who are struck by this CD might investigate the original recordings and be amazed, and they might follow their amazement to the best book on the subject, Ricky Riccardi’s WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD: THE MAGIC OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S LATER YEARS.)

Gordon Au understands the sweet ardor at the heart of Louis’ last quarter-century, and he also understands that sincere admiration of an innovator’s art requires loving innovation as well as expert imitation. I’ve been admiring Gordon’s playing for over a decade now, and it has always had subtle Armstrongian qualities while remaining perfectly personal: a clarion sound, hitting those notes squarely, a love of melody, but also an essential whimsy: Gordon’s phrasing is not predictable, nor are his particular choices. His solos have their own arching structure and they always deliver pleasant shocks. He moves with quiet daring and great wit between declarations and subversions.

Elsewhere in these notes, Gordon has eloquently written of his own journey to the music of Louis’ All-Stars, so I will leave that to him, and I will not debate those who felt Louis had abandoned his “pure jazz” for “showmanship” by choosing CABARET over POTATO HEAD BLUES. The All-Stars repertoire, in performance and on record, was delightfully varied, from funky New Orleans blues to pop songs new and venerable, as well as Louis’ own compositions and attempts at pop hits — perhaps a broader palette than at any other time in his career (even though we have heard tales of the Creole Jazz Band and Fletcher Henderson playing waltzes and tangos). I have always loved Gordon’s spacious imagination, and it is evident here not only in his playing and arranging, the musicians he has working with him – wonders every one! – but the songs chosen. A dull tribute could have been Greatest Hits (I might not be writing for this project had it included WHAT A WONDERFUL . . . . and DOLLY!) or it might reproduce an All-Stars concert, inexplicable to those who aren’t Louis-scholars. But Gordon understands that UNLESS and BLACK AND BLUE are both music and must be cherished – and performed – with amiable reverence.

The result of Gordon and the band’s deep understanding makes for truly gratifying music, even for those who had never heard the originals. I know the originals, and my experience of listening has been a constant happiness, the warm thought, “Listen to what they are doing there!” And since this band was conceived for swing dancers, the music is always groovy, rocking, and stimulating, no matter what the tempo. The slightly enlarged instrumentation and Gordon’s imaginative arrangements make for a more varied experience than the All-Stars I heard in person in 1967 (I know that is a heretical statement). At their finest, Louis’ group was a collection of inspired soloists, but they could also sound skeletal: three horns, three rhythm, and a “girl singer” – but we were so dazzled by Louis that we did not care how much open space there was in the performances. Gordon’s vision is far more orchestral, and the band pleases on its own terms from first to last, with delightfully jaunty singing by Laura Windley and Jim Ziegler, who do us the compliment of sounding just like themselves, sailing along.

I also know that Louis would be delighted not only with the music here but would have been thrilled to be invited to perform with this band. He left for another gig far too early, and I regret that this collaboration never happened, but I can hear it in my mind’s ear.

“I’m so excited, y’all!” Laura bursts out at the end of DON’T FENCE ME IN. I am also. You can hear the effect the band had on the dancers. And it will offer the same magic to you as well.

Ultimately, here’s my verdict on this lovely musical effort:

So good!  Find it here.

May your happiness increase!

“THE UNFINISHED WORK”: LOUIS ARMSTRONG, 1958

Louis Armstrong, 1969. Photograph by Jack Bradley. Courtesy of the Louis Armstrong House Museum.

Pause, listen, consider, and share.  Words and feelings for these times.  We know the words but perhaps hearing them again, thanks to Louis, will make them more real, as they need to be now.

Thanks to Ricky Riccardi and to Judy Smith for inspiration.

May your happiness increase!

“ARE YOU READY? THEN JUMP STEADY!”

This seems not only an invitation to the dance but to a way of life.

Since staring at the label can only take us so far, here are the sounds:

That 1940 recording proves that Louis’ maligned Decca band had by this time was a first-rate swing band, as well as a swinging dance band.  Hear how Sidney Catlett understood Louis as few ever did, and Big Sid knew how to express his personality without insisting on being the whole show, a lesson many people can still learn.  If personnel listings are accurate, this band was, in addition to Louis, Bernard Flood, Shelton Hemphill, Henry “Red” Allen, Wilbur DeParis, George Washington, J.C. Higginbotham, Rupert Cole, Charlie Holmes, Joe Garland, Bingie Madison, Luis Russell, Lee Blair, Pops Foster, and Sidney Catlett — a powerful gliding group full of friends from the Luis Russell band of 1929-30.

That would be a post in itself — Louis and Jack Palmer writing a jovial novelty tune that also is a wonderful swing record, showing us why Harlem audiences so enjoyed the band as well as its leader.

Palmer, also, is crucial here: he, Cab Calloway, and Frank Froeba had created THE JUMPIN’ JIVE (whose refrain is “Hep hep hep”) in 1939 — first recorded by a Lionel Hampton small group, and it was a substantial hit.  Whether Palmer found Louis or the reverse, HEP CATS’ BALL (which was not a hit) seems a Louis-enhanced version of the same idea: you can have a wonderful time in Harlem if you know the way uptown.  Almost eighty years later, I wonder how many people spoke this way, and for how long, but it doesn’t perplex me.

But there’s more here than a fine Louis Armstrong performance that gets little to no attention.  How about two?  How about some comparative listening?

This great surprise came into my field of vision just a day ago — thanks to Javier Soria Laso, who found it and sent it to Ricky Riccardi on Facebook, which is where I encountered it:

Louis Armstrong at WABC

As the site-writer points out, Louis and the band recorded this on March 14, 1940, for Decca, and played it on the air three days later.  Mills Music (still run by Irving Mills?) used a service that recorded performances of Mills-owned compositions off the air . . . for their archives or for purposes I don’t, at this remove, understand.  But the result is a treasure.  The conventional wisdom is that live performances are longer than 78 rpm recordings, but the airshot is almost twenty seconds shorter.  The tempo is faster, and it is less restrained — hear Louis’ ad lib comments, including “I mean it!”, there is a splendid break by J.C. Higginbotham, still at the peak of his shouting powers, and we can hear the little variations within the arrangement, with a great deal of delicious Catlett embellishment, encouragement, and joy.

Airshots of Louis before World War Two are not plentiful, or at least that used to be the case before selections from the Fleischmann’s Yeast programs were issued on CD, and the late Gosta Hagglof’s collection of Cotton Club airshots on the Ambassador label — a disc I am proud to have written the notes for.  But who knew that HEP CATS’ BALL would emerge and be so rewarding?

Incidentally, Ricky Riccardi’s second volume on Louis, covering this period, called I’VE GOT A HEART FULL OF RHYTHM, will be published in 2020.  I’ve read an early version and it is characteristic Riccardi: warm, enthusiastic, and full of new information.

While I was shuttling back from one recording to another, I did as we all do — a little online research, and found some relevant trivia.  1697 Broadway, as Google Images tells me, is now home to the Ed Sullivan Theater, Angelo’s Pizza, and various unidentified offices.  Here’s what it looked like in mid-1936, when HELP YOURSELF ran at the Popular Price Theatre of the Federal Theatre Project.  I regret I can’t take you inside the building at that time to show you what Ace Recording looked like in 1940; you will have to imagine:

NEW YORK – JULY 1: Exterior of the Manhattan Theatre at 1697 Broadway at West 53rd Street, New York, NY. It later becomes The Ed Sullivan Theater. Image dated July 1, 1936. (Photo by CBS via Getty Images)

It’s a foxy hop.  Meet me there!  (“There” is problematic.  The original Cotton Club had been in Harlem, but it was segregated — providing Black entertainment for Whites only.  By the time Louis was broadcasting for CBS “from the Cotton Club,” it had moved downtown to Broadway and 48th Street and was no longer segregated, but it closed in 1940.  So go the glories of hepdom.)

May your happiness increase!

NEW OLD MUSIC FROM “LITTLE BOBBY HACKETT” and HIS FRIENDS: JACK GARDNER, EDDIE CONDON, LOU McGARITY, PEANUTS HUCKO, JOHNNY VARRO, JACK LESBERG, BUZZY DROOTIN (1945, 1964)

Our generous friend Sonny McGown, through his YouTube channel called    “Davey Tough,” has been at it again, spreading jazz goodness everywhere.  And this time he features the man Louis Armstrong called “Little Bobby Hackett.”  If you’ve missed Ricky Riccardi’s wonderful presentation — music and words — of the remarkable relationship of Bobby and Louis, here  it is.

And here are more Hackett-gifts.  The duet with Jack Gardner I’d heard through the collectors’ grapevine, but the 1964 Condon material is completely new.  And glorious. Sonny, as always, provides beautiful annotations, so I will simply step aside and let Robert Leo Hackett cast his celestial lights.

Here he is with the rollicking pianist “Jumbo Jack” Gardner — and they both are wonderfully inspired:

and a wonderful surprise: an Eddie Condon recording I’d never known of, with Condon exquisitely miked for once (let us hear no more comments about his not playing fine guitar; let us hear no more about “Nicksieland jazz”).  And let’s celebrate the still-thriving Johnny Varro, alongside Peanuts Hucko, Lou McGarity, Jack Lesberg, and Buzzy Drootin:

May your happiness increase!

“FESTINA LENTE”: RAY SKJELBRED, CLINT BAKER, RILEY BAKER at BIRD and BECKETT (July 11, 2019)

σπεῦδε βραδέως.  “Make haste slowly.” 

Yes, this post begins with classical Greek and a photograph of Louis Armstrong singing to a horse — all relevant to the performances below, recorded just ten days ago at the remarkable cultural shrine of San Francisco, Bird and Beckett Books and Records (653 Chenery Street).  Thanks, as always, to the faithful Rae Ann Berry for documenting this facet of Ray Skjelbred’s California tour.

As bands play familiar repertoire over the decades, tempos speed up.  Perhaps it’s to stimulate the audience; perhaps it’s a yearning to show off virtuosity . . . there are certainly other reasons, conscious as well as unexamined, that are part of this phenomenon.  But Medium Tempo remains a lush meadow for musicians to stroll in, and it’s always pleasing to me when they count off a familiar song at a groovy slower-than-expected tempo.  I present two particularly gratifying examples, created by Ray Skjelbred, piano; Clint Baker, trumpet; Riley Baker, drums.  Here, JEEPERS CREEPERS is taken at the Vic Dickenson Showcase tempo, or near to it, reminding us that it’s a love song, even if sung to a horse:

and a nice slow drag for AFTER YOU’VE GONE, in keeping with the lyrics:

I don’t know how many people have seen the film clip below from the 1938 Bing Crosby film GOING PLACES, where Louis Armstrong introduced the Harry Warren – Johnny Mercer song JEEPERS CREEPERS.  (There is a brief interruption in the video: the music will resume.)

For the full story of Louis, the horse (a mean one), and the movie, you’ll have to wait for Ricky Riccardi’s splendid book on Louis’s “middle years,” 1929-47, HEART FULL OF RHYTHM.  For now, who knows the uncredited rhythm section on this clip?. I imagine it to be Joe Sullivan and Bobby Sherwood, but that may be a fantasy, one I happily indulge myself in.

And what Eric Whittington makes happen at Bird and Beckett Books is no fantasy: he deserves our heartfelt thanks, whether in classical Greek or the San Francisco demotic of 2019.

May your happiness increase!

“A TRULY LOVING PERSON”: DAN MORGENSTERN REMEMBERS LOUIS ARMSTRONG (May 24, 2019)

I’ve had many beautiful experiences in my life, but being able to hear Dan Morgenstern talk about Louis Armstrong — the man, seen at close range — is one of those I treasure now and will always treasure.  We spent an early afternoon a few days ago, sharing sweet thoughts of our greatest hero.  I invite you to join us for tender memories and some surprises.  I have intentionally presented the video segments here without annotation so that viewers can be delighted and surprised as I was and am.

These segments are emotionally important to me, so I saw no reason to wait until July 4, July 6, or even August 1 to share them with you.

And just a small matter of chronology: Dan will be ninety on October 24, 2019.  Let us start planning the parades, shall we?

a relevant musical interlude:

Part Two:

some life-changing music:

Part Three:

Dave and Iola Brubeck’s SUMMER SONG:

Part Four (and before one of the JAZZ LIVES Corrections Officers rushes to the rescue, I am sure that the funeral Dan refers to as the ideal was Ellington’s):

Part Five:

The blessed EV’NTIDE:

A very brief postscript, which I whimsically began by telling Dan I was going to throw him a curveball, which he nimbly hit out of the park:

SUN SHOWERS:

Dan and I owe much to the great friend of jazz and chronicler, Harriet Choice, who encouraged us to do this interview.

And a piece of mail, anything but ordinary:

 

Early in the conversation, Dan said that Louis “made everyone feel special.”  He does the same thing, and it comes right through the videos.  That we can share the same planet with Mister Morgenstern is a great gift.

May your happiness increase!

“A PACKAGE OF SUNSHINE AND FLOWERS”: MARC CAPARONE PLAYS LOUIS ARMSTRONG at the REDWOOD COAST MUSIC FESTIVAL: MARC CAPARONE, CLINT BAKER, JACOB ZIMMERMAN, DAN WALTON, SAM ROCHA, JEFF HAMILTON (May 12, 2019)

My own periodic table of the essential chemical elements has a space for OP, or optimism, the substance that has carried me and others through darkness — the organism needs it in regular doses.  (Under my breath, I say, “Especially these days.”)

Next to it, of course, is the element LA, for Louis Armstrong, who conveyed more optimism than any other human being.

I grew up deeply in love with the music of Louis’ last quarter-century, with the most played jazz record in my tiny childhood collection the Decca sides with Gordon Jenkins; the second in line, TOWN HALL CONCERT PLUS, which I played until its grooves were a soft gray.  (My original copy disappeared in a period of marital acrimony, but I found another one for solace.)

 

Here is William P. Gottlieb’s famous photograph of that band, that place, and even hints of that fortunate 1947 audience:

But we are in 2019, where I can magically share a passionate new performance of a song very important to Louis — coming from the 1936 film in which he was billed alongside Bing Crosby, PENNIES FROM HEAVEN — created by Marc Caparone, cornet; Clint Baker, trombone; Jacob Zimmerman, clarinet; Dan Walton, keyboard (which he makes sound like a piano); Sam Rocha, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums. Uncredited dancers and irrelevant conversation free of charge.

All this goodness took place at the 2019 Redwood Coast Music Festival (thanks to Mark and Val Jansen) in Eureka, California, a musical weekend that made me extremely happy and fulfilled.  More about those joys as I share videos of this and other bands.

On the original performance at Town Hall in 1947, Louis was accompanied by “little Bobby Hackett” on cornet, playing magnificently.  Marc hints at both Louis and Bobby while sounding like himself.  When the group makes their CD, we will bring back George Avakian to do his magical multi-tracking, so that Marc can play cornet filigree to his own vocal.

By the way, if you are one of those lopsided souls who believe that Louis had little to give the world after 1929, I encourage you to read this book, slowly and attentively:

And there are two pieces of good news.  One is that there is more from this Louis tribute; the second is that Ricky Riccardi has completed the second volume of what may become a Louis-trilogy, HEART FULL OF RHYTHM, covering the period 1929-1947.

Blessings on all the musicians, Mark and Val Jansen, Ricky, and all the optimists we have the good fortune to encounter.

May your happiness increase!

MORE FROM A GENEROUS TRIO: DAWN LAMBETH, MARC CAPARONE, CONAL FOWKES (San Diego Jazz Fest, Nov. 24, 2017)

Dawn Lambeth

She’s lyrical; she swings; she has deep feeling and a light heart.

Conal Fowkes

He’s versatile, a wonderful mix of elegance and roistering.

Marc Caparone and Ricky Riccardi, considering important matters Louis

Marc’s a hero of mine: listen and be moved.

WHEN YOU AND I WERE YOUNG, MAGGIE scored for horn and continuo:

Mister Waller tips over due to love, thus I’VE GOT A FEELING I’M FALLING:

Rube Bloom and Harry Ruby’s wonderful GIVE ME THE SIMPLE LIFE:

An emotionally intense yet swinging SAY IT ISN’T SO:

PORTO RICO, a wonderful dance number first recorded by Bunk Johnson, Sandy Williams, Sidney Bechet, Cliff Jackson, Pops Foster, and Manzie Johnson on March 10, 1945.  But I wish audience members wouldn’t enter into dialogues with the musicians, even when they are correct:

Dawn will be appearing with swing / blues guitar master Larry Scala at the Jazz Jubilee by the Sea in Pismo, California (October 25-28); Marc will be there as well with High Sierra, the Creole Syncopaters, and who knows where Dawn, he, and Larry will turn up?

Conal, Dawn, and Marc will again appear as the Dawn Lambeth Trio at the San Diego Jazz Fest, which takes place over Thanksgiving weekend in that welcoming city, and Conal will be an integral part of the Yerba Buena Stompers there as well.

May your happiness increase!

“EVERY DAY’S A WORKING DAY FOR YOU”

How do you recognize wealthy people?  They go on vacation with more possessions than they can carry, and they hire someone to do the work for them.

“Red cap” or “redcap,” now archaic, dates back to when people traveled by train, when suitcases did not have wheels, so passengers would need help with their luggage, and would summon a railway porter.

Here is a 1983 news story, “The Top Redcap,” which explains it in greater depth.  I believe that the redcaps were hard-working men of color who may not have been treated well by affluent passengers.  One of the sadnesses of this life is that people who perform low-status jobs become servants and are thus invisible.

If you wonder at the photographs — figurines carrying suitcases and golf clubs, my intent is not to demean these diligent laborers, but these objects turned up online, described as “REDCAP W/ LUGGAGE, STANDARD GAUGE MODEL TRAIN PLATFORM FIGURE, NEW/REPRODUCTION” — produced for people who wanted the landscape of their model train layout to be realistic.  “Look.  Servants, too!”

The description reads: “This is a Standard Gauge figure of a redcap/train porter carrying luggage. It is a reproduction cast in tin from a Lionel antique original and is hand-painted by Leddy & Slack. Lionel’s six-piece set #550 of Standard Gauge figures was manufactured from 1932-1936. The redcap is 3″ tall and wears a dark gray uniform. The suitcase in his left hand is detachable. . . . Suitcases are also available separately to replace a lost piece of luggage on an old figure; please inquire.”  It’s significant that this piece of miniature art dates from 1932-36.

But JAZZ LIVES has not turned into a cultural studies explication of Lionel train figures.  It’s all a prelude to the music, which touches us through the decades.

In 1937, Louis Armstrong and Ken Hecht collaborated on a song, RED CAP.  Everyone, including me, thinks the Hecht referred to was BEN — he’s even credited in the Mosaic set — but it’s  KEN.  See below for Dan Morgenstern’s correction.

Louis had traveled coast-to-coast many times by 1937, so he had first-hand experience of the amiable fellows who helped you and your bags off the train.  Ricky Riccardi, my brother-in-Louis, told me something I hadn’t known, that Louis refused to put his name on songs he had no part in writing.  But there’s an even stronger story behind RED CAP.

Louis grew up in poverty, knew what it was like to hunt through garbage cans for food, was contemptuous of the “lazy,” and held hard work for a goal as the greatest good.  He also was generous, and I would bet that when Louis and his band came into town, he was a hero to the red caps and more.

A year before RED CAP, Louis had a great hit with SHOE SHINE BOY, by Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin (Cahn wrote about Louis in his autobiography, and I posted this cameo in 2009).  If you don’t know the song, or know it only through the instrumental versions by Count Basie, Lester Young, and Jo Jones, listen to this touching December 1935 performance:

So: a song celebrating the working man (or child) invisible to the higher classes, directed at him (as in “you” rather than “he”) and predicting a hopeful future, upward economic mobility.  As you’ll hear, RED CAP has one extra touch that SHOE SHINE BOY doesn’t: it ends with the notion that the man working so hard hustlin’ and bustlin’ other people’s suitcases will someday be able to take a vacation and call for a red cap as well.  A dream worth dreaming!

It’s easy to imagine the dialogue between Louis and Hecht about writing a song in praise of the unseen but invaluable red caps, no matter who started the conversation. Louis usually worked with Horace Gerlach,  but you are free to let your imagination wander as to the genesis of RED CAP.

My imagination wanders to this wonderful 2003 performance now accessible on YouTube, from Scott Robinson’s eloquent spacious Louis tribute.  Here Scott plays C-melody saxophone alongside another hero, Mark Shane, irresistible both as pianist and singer:

and from five years ago (can it be that long?), our friend Daryl Sherman, vocal and piano; Scott, taragoto; Harvie S, string bass:

And the Master comes last:

I write these words a few days before Labor Day — thus “Perhaps some day you may be shouting, ‘Red Cap!’ too!” — has much hopeful significance to me: people’s dreams can still become realities.

And this, a gift from the Big Dipper, which says so much:

THIS JUST IN, from Dan Morgenstern, whom I trust!

Alas, I too thought how wonderful that Louis and Ben Hecht, of whom I was and still am a great fan, should have collaborated, and on a theme fitting with Hecht’s ideology . But I was not convinced that Ben and Louis had ever been connected. Sure enough, the Red Cap lyric is by KEN Hecht, writer of special material for many comedians and such entertainers as Belle Baker and Rose Marie. None of his other songs is near Red Cap. As for Ben, his most famous work is the play “The Front Page” a big 1928 Broadway hit twice filmed with success, first with the same title and later as “His Girl Friday” with which anyone at all into vintage films will know. Hecht’s partner was Charles Macarthur with whom he screenplayed “Scarface”, “Twentieth Century”, “Nothing Sacred” and, for Noel Coward’s first major film role, “The Coward”, all that plus making the twosome major league screenwriter. Hecht was one of the major advocates for the creation of Israel, among other causes. His 1926 novel “Count Bruga” is a sui generis satire that should be rediscovered. I don’t know if he was a Louis fan but glad this brought him up. His dates are 1894-1964.

AND a wonderful postscript, just in, from the wise Paige VanVorst:

One of my longtime idols, Natty Dominique, who’s on as many classic jazz records as Bix (As Wayne Jones used to say, “but they don’t buy them for Natty’s playing”), worked much of his life as a redcap at Chicago’s Midway Airport. People loved him, and he told stories of the early days of jazz to the people he served. He had a very nice retirement- he had a nice apartment with everything he needed, a wife who was an excellent creole cook, and he’d tell you it was all from his work as a redcap.

May your happiness increase!

DENNIS LICHTMAN and THE QUEENSBORO SIX: “JUST CROSS THE RIVER”

Slightly less than three years ago, the superbly gifted multi-instrumentalist / composer Dennis Lichtman assembled his Queensboro Six and gave a concert at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.  Here is the first half, and here is the second.  The music was multi-colored and seriously rewarding: Dennis’ tribute to the true jazz borough, Queens County, New York, home of so many jazz figures — from Clarence Williams and Basie to Louis and Dizzy, Milt Hinton and James P. Johnson — and currently home to so many more of the musicians we love.  Dennis assembled his Queensboro Six for a truly delightful new CD, its title above, its theme song below:

This disc is a model of how to do it — musicians and composers take note.  For one thing, the band has an immense rhythmic and melodic energy, but the pieces are compact — sometimes explosions of twenty-first century Hot, sometimes evocative mood pieces, but none of them sounding just like the preceding track.  Dennis is a real composer, so that even an exploration of Rhythm changes sounds lively and fresh.  His arrangements also make for refreshing variety, so that one doesn’t hear him as the featured soloist to the exclusion of the other luminaries, and the performances are multi-textured, harking back to the later Buck Clayton, to Charlie Shavers’ work for the John Kirby Sextet, Raymond Scott, to sensitive elegies and musings that hint at the work of Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhardt.  You’ll also notice compositions by and associated with those Queens denizens Louis, Fats, Clarence Williams.  As that borough boasts some of the finest ethnic restaurants, this disc offers one savory musical dish after another.   As they used to say, “For listening and dancing”!  Peter Karl is responsible for the lovely recorded sound and Ricky Riccardi for the fine liner notes.

Here are some details.  The musicians are Dennis, clarinet; Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Gordon Au, trumpet; J. Walter Hawkes, trombone; Rob Garcia, drums; Nathan Peck, string bass — with guest appearances by Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, vocal , guitar; Mazz Swift, violin, vocal; Terry Wilson, vocal; Nick Russo, guitar.  If you know even a few of those performers, you will want this disc, because they seem especially inspired by Dennis’ compositions, arrangements, and playing.  And no one imitates any of the Ancestors.

The songs are 7 EXPRESS / FOR BIX / MIDNIGHT AT THE PIERS / ROAD STREET COURT PLACE AVENUE DRIVE / SOMEDAY YOU’LL BE SORRY / WALTZ FOR CAMILA / L.I.C. STRUT / JUST CROSS THE RIVER FROM QUEENS / BLUE TURNING GREY OVER YOU / 23rd BETWEEN 23rd AND 23rd / SQUEEZE ME / THE POWER OF NOT THEN / I’D REMEMBER HAVING MET YOU / CAKE WALKING BABIES FROM HOME.

You may order a download or a disc here at very reasonable prices.

But perhaps more important than the disc itself, on August 1, the Queensboro Six will play two sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola.  Tickets and details here.  Get yours today:

May your happiness increase!

A GENEROUS TRIO: DAWN LAMBETH, MARC CAPARONE, CONAL FOWKES (San Diego Jazz Fest, Nov. 25, 2017)

Dawn Lambeth

These three wonderful musicians offer a groovy synergy: more than three selves in inspired combinations.  I refer to the singer Dawn Lambeth, brassman Marc Caparone, pianist Conal Fowkes — who performed as the Dawn Lambeth Trio at the 2017 San Diego Jazz Fest.

Conal Fowkes

Here are two delicious performances.

Marc Caparone and Ricky Riccardi, considering important matters related to one Louis.

The first features Dawn singing RIDE, TENDERFOOT, RIDE (Richard Whiting and Johnny Mercer) — she has secret Western leanings, as anyone who’s heard her sing DON’T FENCE ME IN knows. This one’s fun, lyrical, and swinging, with no saddle sores:

Dawn makes no secret of her delight in hearing the Fellows play duets, so Marc and Conal explore the Ink Spots’ I DON’T WANT TO SET THE WORLD ON FIRE — with passion and ease:

I recorded a good deal by this trio, and also a duet recital by Dawn and Conal.  You’ll hear and see more: to me this is the very peak of casual hot / sweet improvisation.

May your happiness increase!

JUST FOUR BARS

Double rainbow, Evergreen, Colorado, 2014. Photograph by Michael Steinman

The nominees for the 2018 Jazz Journalists’ Awards were just announced, and my blog, JAZZ LIVES, is one of the four blogs nominated for Blog of the Year. Very gratifying, and thanks to everyone who pushed this labor-and-love-intensive blog into the public eye once again. I’m pleased to be in the company of DO THE MATH, JAZZ WAX, and RIFFTIDES as well.

Here is the link, so you can see all the eminent musicians and journalists as well.

Whether JAZZ LIVES wins an award or not, I couldn’t have done it without you. In fact, I wouldn’t have done it without you.  The decade I’ve spent on this blog has been exceedingly rewarding.  Each one of you — musician, commenter, researcher — has increased my happiness.

The soundtrack du jour, inspired by last night’s conversation with Ricky Riccardi — this choice is so Ricky and I won’t fight over Louis’ version:

May your happiness increase!

LOUIS GOES WEST: 1946 and 1950

I believe that most people reading these words understand the sustained power of Louis Armstrong through the decades.  (If you think he went into “a deep decline” or “became commercial,” please go away and come back next week.)

But I think that many are in danger of taking Louis for granted, in the same way we might take air or sunlight as expected.  Yet there is always something new and uplifting to experience.  My text today is the glory of Louis in his and the last century’s late forties, as displayed on two very different but equally desirable CDs.  “Mid-century modern,” we could call it, with no side glances at  architecture aside from Louis’ own creations.

Two new CDs provide heartening reminders.  Both are equally delightful: suitable as gifts to others or to oneself, with no greater occasion needed than “Wow, I got through that week!”

The first, on the Dot Time label, presents music few have ever heard, taken from Louis’ own archives, the “Standard School Broadcast” of January 30, 1950, recorded in San Francisco, featuring Louis, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, and a clarinetist, string bassist, and drummer whose names are not known or are — in the case of the clarinetist — a guess.  (If anyone known more about “Lyle Johnson,” please write in.)  Clancy Hayes is the master of ceremonies — he doesn’t sing — and the premise is that he is helping Jack Cahill, “Matt the Mapmaker,” construct a musical map of America: in this case, New Orleans jazz.

There is a good deal of music issued that presents Louis alongside Jack and Earl.  But this CD is better than what we already know.  For one thing, there is a very small studio audience, and the recorded sound is superb: when Hayes picks up his acoustic guitar to add rhythm, it’s nicely audible.  And everyone sounds relaxed, playful, inventive, even with familiar repertoire.  I know that some listeners might pass this CD by because, “I already have two versions of Louis playing LAZY RIVER and I don’t need another.”  That would be an error, I suggest. Not a note on this disc sounds routine or stale.

About that repertoire: DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS?  [plus two rehearsal takes] / MUSKRAT RAMBLE / BASIN STREET BLUES / STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE / BOOGIE WOOGIE ON THE ST. LOUIS BLUES / ‘WAY DOWN YONDER IN NEW ORLEANS / PANAMA / LAZY RIVER / BACK O’TOWN BLUES [issued performance plus Louis playing along with the 1950 tape two years later].  Those wise enough to purchase this CD and play it — attentively — all the way through will have a wondrous aural surprise on the final track, where Louis duets with himself.  When the performance is over, he’s still practicing, and there is a solo exposition of the first sixteen bars of the current pop tune, I COULDN’T SLEEP A WINK LAST NIGHT, that is positively awe-inspiring.  Louis, completely alone and at his peak, one of many.

DotTime Records is releasing the Louis Armstrong Legacy Series — four CDs, of which this is the first, and the second, “Night Clubs,” has just come out.  For more information, visit their website.  These issues have funny, friendly, edifying notes by Ricky Riccardi, the Louis-man of great renown.

The other Louis issue is possibly more familiar to collectors but is musically thrilling.  Here’s Bert Stern’s famous photograph to get you in the mood, or perhaps the groove.

That photograph comes from the film NEW ORLEANS, which starred Louis and Billie Holiday, Kid Ory, Barney Bigard, and others too rarely seen on film.

I remember sitting in front of the television in the den of my parents’ house in early adolescence, having waited all week for this movie to be shown, perhaps on MILLION DOLLAR MOVIE on a weekday afternoon.  The consensus was that the film was disappointing.  As a showcase for my heroes, even more so.  Watching it, waiting for my idols to break through the terrible script, was depressing.  I had grown up on false representations of the jazz-past (“The Roaring Twenties,” starring Dorothy Provine, for example) but NEW ORLEANS was spectacularly bad, especially when Louis and Billie would appear, read a few lines, do their feature numbers, and disappear.

Some years later, an album — music recorded for the film but for the most part not used — was issued on the Giants of Jazz label.  I see in the discography that the Giants of Jazz issue was “reissued” on several bootleg CDs, and it now appears, with even more music, on the Upbeat label — which issue I recommend to you.   The music was recorded in Hollywood in late 1946, and the participants, in addition to Louis, Billie, Bigard, and Kid Ory, are Charlie Beal, Red Callender, Zutty Singleton, Minor Hall, Meade Lux Lewis, Arthur Schutt, Mutt Carey, Lucky Thompson, Louis’ 1946 big band (that recorded for Victor) and more.

As poor as the film was, the music on this CD is just as wonderful.  Anything even tangentially associated with “my old home town” made Louis happy, and that happiness and relaxation comes through the music.  I expect that because he and Billie were pre-recording music for the film, they had not been compelled to face what their roles in the film would be . . . Billie playing a maid, a grievous insult.

The CD enables us to spend seventy minutes embraced by the music itself, with Louis in the company of old friends and mentors Ory and Mutt Carey, playing “good old good ones” — the cadenza to WEST END BLUES, FLEE AS A BIRD, SAINTS, TIGER RAG, BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES, DIPPERMOUTH BLUES, KING PORTER STOMP, MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, heard in multiple versions.  For one example, there is DIPPERMOUTH, played as a medium-slow-drag with Mutt Carey in the lead, as if taking Joe Oliver’s place, then a version at the expected romping tempo with the young “modernist” Lucky Thompson audible in the ensemble before Barney Bigard takes the Johnny Dodds solo.  Fascinating, and I looked in astonishment to see that the second version was only one minute and thirty-four seconds, because it felt so complete.

SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE, BALLIN’ THE JACK, KING PORTER STOMP, and MAHOGANY HALL STOMP also feature this splendidly hybrid band of Louis, Mutt, Lucky, Ory, Bigard, Beal, Callender, and Zutty: realizations of what was possible in 1946. One could do a fascinating study of ensemble playing as created by Ory and Lucky, side by side.  They solo in sequence on KING PORTER STOMP as well.  Incidentally, if you are familiar with the jazz “journalism” of this period, as practiced by Feather, Ulanov, Blesh, and others, you might believe that the “beboppers” loathed and feared “the old men,” and the detestation was mutual. Nothing of the sort.  What is audible is pure pleasure: hear Louis on the two versions of MAHOGANY HALL STOMP, leisurely and intense.  Attentive listeners will also delight in the very fine string bass work of Callender — someone who deserves more celebration than he has received.

I have said little of Billie Holiday’s recorded performances on this CD: DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS (twice), FAREWELL TO STORYVILLE, THE BLUES ARE BREWIN’ — these tracks have often been issued in various forms, and she sounds wonderful.

I thought of printing the complete discography of what music had been issued, but it was a confusing labyrinth, so I will simply list the titles on the Upbeat release and hope that purchasers will be guided by their ears:  FLEE AS A BIRD – SAINTS / WEST END BLUES / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO MISS NEW ORLEANS? / BRAHMS’ LULLABY / TIGER RAG / BUDDY BOLDEN’S BLUES (2) / BASIN STREET BLUES / RAYMOND STREET BLUES / MILENBERG JOYS / WHERE THE BLUES WERE BORN IN NEW ORLEANS / FAREWELL TO STORYVILLE / BEALE STREET STOMP / DIPPERMOUTH BLUES (2) / SHIM-ME-SHA-WABBLE / BALLIN’ THE JACK / KING PORTER STOMP / MAHOGANY HALL STOMP (2) / THE BLUES ARE BREWIN’ / ENDIE / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS? / HONKY TONK TRAIN / DO YOU KNOW WHAT IT MEANS? / WHERE THE BLUES WERE BORN IN NEW ORLEANS / MAHOGANY HALL STOMP / ENDIE / THE BLUES ARE BREWIN’.

The Upbeat issue is generous: the last five titles are from issued Victor 78s of the same songs, giving us an opportunity to compare.  Here is the Upbeat site where this disc can be ordered.

Incidentally, to see the wonderful photographs Phil Stern took of Louis and other luminaries, visit here.

And for those who have never seen the film NEW ORLEANS or don’t believe me, here is the whole thing uploaded to YouTube.  But don’t get your hopes up: once the first three minutes of WEST END BLUES is over, we have left the reality of the “Orpheum Cabaret” for the melodrama of a routine script:

At times the subtitles are the most diverting thing.  But we have the music, in full flower, on the Upbeat CD.

May your happiness increase!

“LET ME OFF MIDTOWN”: RICO TOMASSO VISITS BIRDLAND: THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG ETERNITY BAND (David Ostwald, Bjorn Ingelstam, Adrian Cunningham, Jim Fryer, Vince Giordano, Paul Wells: August 9, 2017)

When the noble Enrico Tomasso visited New York (with wife Debbie and daughter Analucia) on August 9, 2017, his activities had a distinct theme running through them, which shouldn’t be hard to recognize.  First, Rico visited the house that Louis and Lucille Armstrong had called home for decades.  That was in the morning.  In the afternoon, the Tomassos visited the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College, got to have a good time with Ricky Riccardi, play Louis’ trumpet, look at scrapbooks and hear tapes from Louis’ library — much of which I captured on video here.  Ricky, who is an estimable tour guide in addition to everything else, got us to the subway by car (through the window, I saw my favorite new business sign — the S & M PHARMACY — and I leave the commentaries to you).  On the E train, Rico told stories of Henry “Red” Allen and other heroes.

Where were we going?  To “New York’s friendliest jazz club,” which would be Birdland — for their Wednesday afternoon-into-evening jazz serenade by the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, led by David Ostwald.  I present two thrilling performances by Rico and the LAEB (is the theme becoming clear now?), whose members were David, tuba; Paul Wells, drums; Vince Giordano, banjo; Adrian Cunningham, clarinet and alto; Jim Fryer, trombone and euphonium; Bjorn Ingelstam, trumpet.  Attentive viewers will notice a nicely-coiffed immovable object in the middle of the frame: she and her partner were there to stay and I did what I would like to believe was the best I could.

BACK O’TOWN BLUES:

STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE:

As the little boy says to Alan Ladd, “Come back, Rico!  Come back!”

May your happiness increase!

THE KISS OF JOY: ENRICO TOMASSO VISITS THE LOUIS ARMSTRONG ARCHIVES (August 9, 2017)

At an age when most of us are playing with imaginary friends or real toys, the lovely musician Enrico Tomasso was playing BASIN STREET BLUES for Louis Armstrong and — in that famous photograph — receiving “The  Kiss Of Joy” from Louis.  So when Marc Caparone refers to Rico as “anointed,” he speaks the truth.

August 9, 2017, was a very special day for me, for Enrico and his family — his wife Debbie and daughter Analucia — thanks to Ricky Riccardi, the Ambassador of Louis and Louisness.  For it was on that day that Rico came to the Louis Armstrong Archives at Queens College, my idea of a holy place, to sit among the wonders.  I was there, with my camera, and recorded what happened, for all to see.  The opening videos of this segment are narrative: Rico, Ricky, and family, looking at Louis’ scrapbooks and photographs.  But Rico has marvelous stories to tell: this isn’t “history”: it’s very much alive.

First, Rico’s stories of New York and New Orleans, 1971, with glimpses of Dizzy Gillespie, George Wein, and Big Chief Russell Moore:

Then, going back a bit, stories of Louis in England both in 1933 and 1968.  You’ll want to hear what Rico’s mother told him, and that Louis called Rico, “my little trumpet player”:

Looking at one of Louis’ scrapbooks — and there’s a great punchline at 4:25:

And what I find very touching, the scrapbook that Lucille Armstrong kept of letters and notes of condolences sent to her after Louis’ death.  I asked Ricky to read out the note from Spike Mackintosh, which is touching beyond words:

A little mouthpiece-talk:

“Now here comes the beautiful part”: Enrico Tomasso playing Louis’ trumpets.  Much of the memories above have shown us the grown man reliving parts of his childhood, completely dear and alive — but now we move into the much more vivid present, even though Rico says that he has “holiday chops.”

Here are excerpts from DINAH, STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE, I COVER THE WATERFRONT, SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH, POTATO HEAD BLUES, a story Bob Wilber told about the 1947 Town Hall Concert, a cadenza, and I USED TO LOVE YOU — which the young Rico learned and sent on a tape to Louis:

And a little extra taste:

When someone, as a loving gesture, says, “Have a blessed day,” I have a good sense of where that utterance is coming from.  I usually say, “You too!  I already am.”  But August 9, 2017, with Enrico, Ricky, Analucia, and Debbie, was an especially blessed day.  The kiss of joy that Louis gave Rico in 1968 — Rico has returned to us for decades.  And this was another glowing unrestrained example of love in the form of sound, from Louis, from Rico: a great gift that warms us like sunshine.

And there will be more music from Rico and friends to come.

Rico and Louis at Heathrow Airport, 1970.

May your happiness increase!

ON BLUEBERRY HILL

Photograph by Jack Bradley, 1969

I fell in love with him when I was 9.  He broke my heart when I was 14, and he died when I was 19.  I forgave him for both things, although it took a long time. We lived perhaps twenty miles apart, although I only visited his house after he had been gone for many years.

In the suburban house I grew up in, my mother, Toby, sang along with Barbra Streisand while dusting.  My father, Louis, a short man with black-framed eyeglasses, felt music deeply and brought home unusual records for us.  One was this Louis Armstrong record.  I fell in love.

Falling in love is not a rational action: Cupid gives us no choice.

Unlike the glossy women in glossy magazine advertisements I fantasized about, Louis Armstrong was not a conventional Love Object, but a stocky, sweating older man in a tuxedo, glimpsed at intervals on the television screen. But his music spoke to my heart, and now life “Before Louis” seems indistinct.

My fifth-grade classmates chattered happily about the Beatles and I tried to join their party.  But in secret, I retreated to my nest of books and records, staring at the cloth grille of the speaker and the black-and-silver or red labels of the records.  “I found my thrill / On Blueberry Hill.”  “No one to talk to / all by myself / no one to walk with / but I’m happy on the shelf.”

Louis gave himself utterly to the music without self-consciousness.  His trumpet was eloquent, daring.  I delighted in the final chorus of his 1927 record of STRUTTIN’ WITH SOME BARBECUE.  That this was “old music” ignored by my peers only added to the secret pleasure.  When he sang love ballads, his yearning or exultation filled the room, with no shame or embarrassment.

I tried to emulate him.  On a borrowed trumpet, I attempted WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN.  The saints, sadly, were unimpressed and stayed put. I was the least accomplished trumpet player in the elementary school band.  The band director suggested I practice more before returning.  I knew what that meant.

My fifth grade teacher asked the class to write about a dream or to create and illustrate a story.  I knew better than to tell Mrs. Blumenthal my dream of the naked woman with the lion face.  But I had no reservations about describing my playing SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH next to Louis on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.  I drew the stage, red velvet curtains, myself next to Louis, our horns aloft.  In dreams I had stature, and no one could remove me from the band.

In 1967, when I was fourteen, I read in Newsday that Louis and All-Stars were playing at an auditorium in Hempstead, seven miles away.  Intent, devoted, I made it clear that I had to be there, stating that I would walk there and back in the dark if necessary, so my father accompanied me, protecting his fragile son.

We arrived too early and sat on metal folding chairs, two people in a large hall empty of others.

Louis entered the hall, chatting with his musicians.  “There he is,” my father said.  “Go get his autograph.”

Before the concert, I had agonized over what totem to bring for this moment, the encounter I dreamed of.  What would best show my admiration and adoration?  Frozen in uncertainty, I had taken only a blank index card, which I offered, awestruck and mute, to the man who had no idea how important he was to me.  I had imagined an Olympian figure, radiantly backlit, grinning as he always did onstage.  The real man in front of me seemed small, deflated, even bored.  He signed the card and returned it, saying nothing to me, continuing to speak with his musicians.

Stunned, feeling unworthy, I asked his trombonist to autograph the card, then returned to my seat, invisible. I heard the concert through a loud hum of painful self-criticism.  I kept the story to myself.  I framed the signed card but could not bear to hang it.

Had Louis said to me, “Hey, Pops, you dig my music?” it would have been a gift I would prize forever.  Years later, I part-understood that he had enough to do to play and sing, to get ready to be the man who gave us his essence night after night.  Now I think that expecting him to be telepathic was too much.

Though I had felt stung and ignored in that moment, I continued to follow Louis on television and radio, to collect more records, a devotion that continues to this day.  Each new performance was thrilling; familiar ones revealed new shifts of light: I understood him more as a galactic phenomenon within a human body.

In adolescence, I was compelled to see myself as an outsider, and I silently recreated Louis as a model, uniquely freakish, endearingly individualistic.  I had taken on the expected regalia of the late Sixties, long hair, floral shirt, bell-bottom trousers, but the clothing felt like a uniform I was expected to wear as a foot soldier of Officially Sanctioned Nonconformity.  True subversion was in taking as my hero a man who wiped his sweating face with a handkerchief, who referred to himself as “Satchmo.”  Cheerfully, he seemed to encourage me, “It’s OK to be different.  Have a good time!”  Telling a skeptical classmate that I preferred Louis’ BLACK AND BLUE to anything on the radio was my open radicalism.

Louis died on this date in 1971.  I thought I would have no more opportunities to show my love, nor he to see it.  But after his death I slowly remade myself, moving from Invisible Boy, silent and timid, to Visible Man, wearing my unusual devotion proudly.  A few years later, at jazz concerts, I met other subversives who conversed in code.  “Do you have the German issue with the second take?  Isn’t it wonderful?  I’ll make you a cassette copy.”  “Are you coming next Sunday?  Bobby Hackett will be playing . . . !”  The mocking voices of the uninitiated were loud, “Do you really like that cartoon music?” “Why do you listen to those scratchy records?”  But I felt that our community would shield us.

In my twenties, I grew secure enough to speak to the players I most admired – Ruby Braff and Jo Jones among them – and they spoke to me and saw me.  Now, decades later, I am proud that musicians who revere Louis as I do greet me by name when I come into the club.

Like any satisfying romance, this tale has several endings.

Forty years after that fateful concert, the Armstrong scholar (and angel) Ricky Riccardi told me that Louis was in the middle of a full-fledged bout with pneumonia when I saw him and was not himself.  That fact, and the passage of time, made me feel that it was time to release myself from the old wound.  I have written this piece and offered it in public to forgive Louis for making me invisible.  In doing so, I have also tried to forgive myself for bungling my one chance to show him how much I loved him.  I stood silent in front of him, but I am not silent now.

My dream of playing his music rather than simply listening to it was long dormant but did not die.  A dear friend and inspired trumpet player, Marc Caparone, gave me a beautiful vintage cornet.  When I took it out of its case, I blew the opening phrase of a song Louis had recorded in 1932.  Half of the notes were wrong; my tone was rough, but it was satisfying, a direct link to the red curtains of my fifth-grade dream. In post-retirement life I aspire to be the substitute cornet player in the Elderly Gentleman’s Monday Night Jazz Band, location TBA.  Even to have a cornet in my living room is a kind of fulfillment.

In 2011, nearly fifty years after I fell in love with Louis, I volunteered to be a docent at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, Queens.  There I could demonstrate my love, my high fidelity, and willingness to serve the ideals he so joyously represented.  From the upstairs suburban bedroom of my childhood, I had arrived at another such room, and for a few months I could act on my love for the man, in his house.  I could show people the bed where Louis and his wife made love, where he died.  Part of the tour had me show visitors photographs.  In one, a short, stocky, brown-skinned man with black-framed glasses smiles broadly in his den.  That man looks remarkably like my father, who shaped my life through music.  Recent photographs show me as continuing the bodily lineage, my eyeglasses the least of it.

By his generous example, Louis Armstrong showed me that my life’s work was to spread joy.  I hear him now, “Though we’re apart, I follow you still.”

May your happiness increase!

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!

“IRISH BLACK BOTTOM”: TERRY WALDO, JON-ERIK KELLSO, JIM FRYER, EVAN ARNTZEN, JOHN GILL, BRIAN NALEPKA, JAY LEPLEY (Fat Cat, January 29, 2017)

okeh-irish-black-bottom

No, this isn’t an early celebration of Saint Patrick, nor is it a lesson in North American vernacular dance.  A week ago today, I had the delightful good fortune of being in the basement known as Fat Cat (75 Christopher Street) to hear Terry Waldo’s Gotham City Band — Terry, piano; Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Jim Fryer, trombone; Evan Arntzen, clarinet; John Gill, banjo; Brian Nalepka, string bass; Jay Lepley, drums.  And one of the lively excursions into hot archaeology that they offered was Percy Venable’s novelty number, IRISH BLACK BOTTOM, premiered by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five in Chicago in 1926.  For the full history of this song and that performance, read on in Ricky Riccardi’s quite magnificent Louis blog.

And now, from 1926 to 2017, with a performance calculated to warm you more efficiently than heated seats in a new car:

The genial joyousness of that performance could win anyone over, even without the history.  But I also post this musical episode to reiterate a point.  Many “jazz critics” see the chronological advance of the music as one improvement succeeding another: Roy Eldridge was more “sophisticated” than Louis, Charlie Parker more than Roy, Miles and Trane and Ornette even more so. “Sophisticated” is a weighted word, especially when the appearance of complexity is taken as the highest good.  But for those who look at “Dixieland” as simple, I’d suggest that even a tune as lightweight as IRISH BLACK BOTTOM has its own sophistication, its own complicated routine, and it is not something one could pick up at one hearing, the Real Book notwithstanding.  Court adjourned.

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!