Armstrong Swings in Scandinavia

front cover

LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN SCANDINAVIA, Vol. 1 / GREEN-HEYMAN: I Cover the Waterfront.1 AKST-LEWIS-YOUNG: Dinah.1 LaROCCA-SHIELDS: Tiger Rag.1 SCHWARTZ-JEROME: Chinatown My Chinatown.1 THEARD: You Rascal You.1 McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street.1 BOWMAN-SUMNER: 12th Street Rag.2 ARMSTRONG: Steak Face.2 RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.3 HANLEY-MacDONALD: Indiana.3 KALMAR-RUBY-HAMMERSTEIN: A Kiss to Build a Dream On.3 LAYTON-CREAMER: Way Down Yonder in New Orleans.3 After You’ve Gone.3 LOMBARDO-GREEN-KAHN: Coquette.3 ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Lover, Come Back to Me.3 BENJAMIN-WEISS: Can Anyone Explain? 3 BERLIN: Russian Lullaby.3 HANDY: Bugle Blues/Ole Miss3 / Louis Armstrong, tpt/voc acc. by 1Charles S. Johnson, tp; Lionel Guimersee, tb; Peter DeConga, Harry Tyne, Fletcher Allen, reeds; Justo Barreño, pn; German Araco, bs; Oliver Tines, dm. 2Barney Bigard, cl; Jack Teagarden, tb; Earl Hines, pn; Arvell Shaw, bs; Cozy Cole, dm. 3Bob McCracken, cl; Trummy Young, tb; Marty Napoleon, pn; Shaw, bs; Cole, dm; Velma Middleton, voc. / Storyville 101 8348 (live: 1October 21, 26, 1933; 2October 5, 1949; 3October 4, 1952)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN SCANDINAVIA, Vol. 2 / RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South (2 vers).1,3 HARDY: New Orleans Function.1 JOHNSON-BURKE: Pennies From Heaven.1 MARES-ROPPOLO-BRUNIES-POLLACK: Tin Roof Blues.1 ORY: Muskrat Ramble.1 S. WILLIAMS: Basin Street Blues.1 ARMSTRONG-MIDDLETON: Big Daddy Blues.1 BERLIN: You’re Just in Love.1 WEBB-SAMPSON-RAZAF: Stompin’ At the Savoy.1 McHUGH-FIELDS: On the Sunny Side of the Street.2 PIRON-C. WILLIAMS: High Society.2 HANLEY-McDONALD: Indiana.3 REID-LANGLER: The Gypsy.3 ARMSTRONG-KYLE: Pretty Little Missy.3 LIL ARMSTRONG: Struttin’ With Some Barbecue3 / Louis Armstrong, tpt/voc acc. by 1Bob McCracken, cl; Trummy Young, tb; Marty Napoleon, pn; Arvell Shaw, bs; Cozy Cole, dm; Velma Middleton, voc. 2,3Young, tb; Edmond Hall, cl; Billy Kyle, pn; Shaw, bs; Barrett Deems, dm. / Storyville 101 8349 (live: 1October 5, 1952; 2September 9, 1952; 3October 2, 1955)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN SCANDINAVIA, Vol. 3 / TRADITIONAL: When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.1 S. WILLIAMS: Basin Street Blues.1 MARES-ROPPOLO-BRUNIES-POLLACK: Tin Roof Blues.1 BERNIE-PINKARD-CASEY: Sweet Georgia Brown.1 HANDY: St. Louis Blues.1 RENE-RENE-MUSE: When It’s Sleepy Time Down South (4 vers).1,2 KALMAR-RUBY-HAMMERSTEIN: A Kiss to Build a Dream On.1 HANLEY-McDONALD: Indiana.2 SANDERS-COCHRAN: I Get Ideas.2 Medley: LAWRENCE-GROSS: Tenderly/RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: You’ll Never Walk Alone.2 FRANTZEN: The Faithful Husar.2 KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: Old Man River.2 WEILL-BRECHT: Mack the Knife.2 LAYTON-CREAMER: After You’ve Gone.2 HANDY: Ole Miss2 / Louis Armstrong, tpt/voc acc. by 1Edmond Hall, cl; Trummy Young, tb; Billy Kyle, pn; Arvell Shaw, bs; Barrett Deems, dm; Velma Middleton, voc. 2Peanuts Hucko, cl; Young, tb; Kyle, pn; Mort Herbert, bs; Danny Barcelona, dm. / Storyville 101 8350 (live: 1October 2 & 13, 1955; 2January 16, 1959)

LOUIS ARMSTRONG IN SCANDINAVIA, Vol. 4 / S. WILLIAMS: Basin Street Blues.1 LaROCCA-SHIELDS: Tiger Rag (+ 4 encores).1 PORTER: Now You Has Jazz.1 BERRY-RAZAF: Christopher Columbus.1 Medley: WALLER-RAZAF: Black and Blue/ALTER-DeLANGE: Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?1 TRADITIONAL: My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It.1 WILSON-PORTER-LEVY: Kokomo.1 LIL ARMSTRONG: Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.1 C. & S. WILLIAMS: Royal Garden Blues.1 TRADITIONAL: When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.1 WEILL-BRECHT: Mack the Knife.2 ARMSTRONG: Back O’ Town Blues.2 HANDY: Ole Miss.2 PRIMROSE: St. James Infirmary.2 KENDER-EBB: Cabaret.2 RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: You’ll Never Walk Alone2 / Louis Armstrong, tpt/voc acc. by 1Hucko, cl; Young, tb; Kyle, pn; Herbert, bs; Barcelona, dm; Middleton, voc. 2Joe Muranyi, cl; Tyree Glenn, tb; Marty Napoleon, pn; Buddy Catlett, bs; Barcelona, dm / Storyville 101 8351 (live: 1January 21-22, 1959; 2July 25, 1967)

Complete set: Storyville SVL1088602

This four-CD extravaganza, though duplicating much of the same material found in other Armstrong studio recordings and live performances of the 1950s and ‘60s, is far superior in performance quality throughout most of it. For whatever reason, Louis Armstrong was always looser and more creative in Europe than he was on his marathon cross-country tours of America. I think perhaps the sheer volume and number of stops on his U.S. tours wore Armstrong down once he passed 50 years of age. The spirit was more than willing—no one had a more unflagging spirit than he did—but the flesh was pooped out.

Perhaps another reason was the fact that his appearances in America were frequent and his repertoire had become limited and stodgy by the early 1950s. He no longer cared to learn new tunes unless they were melodic, tuneful and bouncy. He had no intellectual curiosity in new jazz trends. This was the reason why Edmond Hall, the most original and gifted of all the clarinetists who played with him, went to Joe Glaser one day and simply resigned from the band. As he told Glaser, to him jazz was more than just the same 20 songs played over and over and over again ad infinitum. He wanted more variety and a chance to stretch himself out. Ironically, his leaving the Armstrong band was pretty much the end of his major career. Audiences and booking agents associated him with Armstrong’s trad jazz and wouldn’t give him the opportunity he wanted to stretch out. Hall died broke in the late 1960s while Armstrong just kept on truckin’. Moral: it might have been a good decision for Hall morally, but he committed professional suicide by leaving Satchmo.

But to back up a bit: from his first appearance on records under his own name in 1925-26 through the early 1940s, Armstrong was far and away the most powerful, innovative and swinging of jazz trumpeters. He had to go through a period of beating back some stiff competitors, among them Jabbo Smith, Lee Collins, Bix Beiderbecke and Bubber Miley (Freddie Keppard also thought he was competition for Louis, but he never did swing as hard), but Smith disappeared from the New York scene by 1930, Collins went back to New Orleans and stayed there, and both Beiderbecke and Miley were dead by 1932. In their wake were more names to contend with, and these were more formidable because they had based their styles on his: Oran “Hot Lips” Page, Red Allen, Taft Jordan and Bunny Berigan. Louis took care of the first two by hiring Allen as the lead trumpet for his big band and having his manager, Joe Glaser, represent Hot Lips Page. There was no way Glaser was going to let Page overshadow his biggest cash cow. Berigan, who Armstrong always said was his most formidable rival, drank himself out of the picture by 1939. By that point, however, we had more modern trumpeters like Roy Eldridge, Harry James, Howard McGhee and Dizzy Gillespie whose work pointed towards an entirely new style.

Like so many New Orleans-born musicians, Armstrong had a sentimental streak a mile wide and a proclivity to believe that New Orleans jazz was the hottest and best. This was the primary reason he broke up his big band in 1946 and started his sextet “the All Stars,” with which he performed for the rest of his life, and likewise pared down his repertoire to roughly 20-25 songs. By that time, of course, the “trad jazz revolution” was well and truly underway. The revivals of such musicians as Bunk Johnson, Sidney Bechet and Jimmie Noone brought attention to the older generation of New Orleans players. Eddie Condon’s small Chicago-jazz septets were well established at Nick’s in New York City, and such newly-minted small groups as Lu Watters’ Yerba Buena Jazz Band were drawing large crowds on the West Coast. There was a definite battle between the beboppers and the traditionalists, who the boppers called “moldy figs,” and for better or worse Armstrong fit—uncomfortably—into the moldy fig camp.

Yet there was an important artistic difference, and only a handful of jazz critics have brought this up in a significant way. Even back in the 1920s, on his “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” recordings, Armstrong completely broke the mold of the classic jazz ensemble, where the trumpet would play lead but not dominate, the clarinet would play a counter-lead, and the trombone would contribute fills and breaks. In Armstrong’s groups, HE was always the dominant force, and his rhythmic concept was so revolutionary that he single-handedly invented what came to be known as “Swing.” This was not, as many incorrectly assume, strictly a large-band concept of jazz. In fact, as the first six tracks on CD 1 of this set makes clear, Armstrong’s own big bands did not interact with him as, say, Benny Goodman’s or Earl Hines’ did with them. They were primarily a backdrop to his solo playing, and this is the way he treated his Hot Five and Hot Seven—as supporting musicians.

As I’ve said, Armstrong was the first and most original swing musician of his day, and this primarily meant his concept of jazz “time.” If you listen closely to a good cross-section of his work, you’ll notice that, unlike Beiderbecke whose work was based on the harmonic changes of a song, Armstrong’s pulled the rhythm apart like taffy. A sentimental man who loved the Romantic classics (his warm-up piece was the “Intermezzo” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana), he would throw quotes from Brahms and Tchaikovsky symphonies into his solos. By the time he first experimented with a small group again in 1940, a Decca recording session with Bechet on soprano sax, it was clear that the rhythm was playing 4/4 swing time and not the normal 2/4 “Dixieland” beat, and this is the style he brought to his All Stars in 1947.

Louis was fortunate to have a fine clarinetist in his first group, Barney Bigard, as well as two bona-fide jazz geniuses, trombonist Jack Teagarden and pianist Earl Hines, both of whom had played with him in the late 1920s, Hines on a regular basis as part of his later Hot Five. Ironically, in this later band Hines was relegated to short solos and beating out the rhythm; he did not interact with Armstrong on chase choruses as he had in the earlier band. This led to dissatisfaction on his part and leaving the group in 1952, when he was replaced by Marty Napoleon. Ironically, Napoleon was given more solo spots than Hines had received, leading to accusations from critics that either Armstrong or his manager, Joe Glaser, feared the competition Hines could provide him.

v1 p01On this set, the first “classic” All Stars lineup plays only two numbers, 12th Street Rag and Steak Face. In the former, Teagarden is obviously poking fun at the limited “tailgate” trombonists of the early era like Kid Ory, playing purposely corny in his solo and including a lick from Silver Threads Among the Gold. Steak Face was one of Armstrong’s original contributions, and he plays mightily on it. The opening six tracks from October 1933 demonstrate the last vestiges of Armstrong the virtuoso. This was a period when his thing was to hit as many high Cs in a chorus as he possibly could, to the expense of cohesive creation. It stopped in 1934 when Armstrong split his lip and it took him nearly a year to recover. From that point on, his playing became a bit less flashy but more artistic.

The three musicians whose work on this set is more interesting and enjoyable than on most of the group’s commercial records are trombonist Trummy Young, who replaced Teagarden, bassist Arvell Shaw and vocalist Velma Middleton. I never thought too much of Young years ago, but hearing him in these live concert settings I realize that he was really a very fine jazz trombonist of the swing school—not quite on the exalted level of Lawrence Brown, but certainly better than one remembered. Shaw takes some really outstanding solos on these tracks, and although he wouldn’t have given Oscar Pettiford or Charles Mingus (who actually played with Armstrong’s big band for one year) a run for their money, he does some truly outstanding work here.

As for Middleton, I never cared for her much on other records, particularly when she tried to sing ballads like I Cried for You, but in the rhythmic songs on this set she is really terrific: relaxed, swinging, sounding much like a female Armstrong. Just listen to the way she and Louis interact on You’re Just in Love (a much better performance than their studio recording) or the way she sings Big Daddy Blues. She came to a sad end; while on a tour with the band in early 1961, in Sierra Leone, she suffered a stroke and was sent to the hospital where she died a few days later. She was only 43 years old.

v2 p01By this time the second great All Stars combination was playing, the one with Edmond Hall on clarinet and the vastly underrated Billy Kyle, the former sparkplug of the John Kirby Sextet, on piano. Louis and company are really loose in most of these performances. In Pretty Little Missy, they throw in a quote from a popular tune of the time, Hot Toddy. When introducing Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, the most famous jazz tune written by his second wife Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis fibs to the audience that he wrote it. And when Middleton asks him, “Louie, have you ever been in love?” he answers, “I’ve been married four times! And I’m workin’ on number five right now!” After laughter from the audience, he continues, “Unfortunately number five went back to her husband, so I’m back with number four!”

The only down moments in the first three discs come in the first four tracks of CD 2. For whatever reason, Armstrong sounds tired and uninterested in the proceedings, though his band (and especially trombonist Young) are fully in the spirit. Louis only comes back to life when playing Muskrat Ramble, and from then on he’s fine. But you really need to have the first three volumes because of the terrific playing of the Edmond Hall-Billy Kyle version of the band.

v3 p01By the end of CD 3 and beginning of CD 4 we’re into the post-Ed Hall/Arvell Shaw band. At first Armstrong’s replacements were fortuitous: Michael “Peanuts” Hucko, a veteran musician who had been the lead clarinetist in Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band, replaced Hall on clarinet, and although his style was quite different—very much in the Benny Goodman mold—he was a superb improviser. The vastly underrated Danny Barcelona was a sparkplug of a drummer, Billy Kyle was still on piano, and 1959 was probably Armstrong’s last really great year as a trumpeter. Decades of blowing out his lip in shallow mouthpieces had, quite simply, taken their toll on him. By the early 1950s he was cutting the scar tissue off his lip with a razor blade in his hotel or dressing room. These versions of After You’ve Gone, Ole Miss and Tiger Rag rival almost anything he did in the 1930s and ‘40s; in fact, his playing is far more kinetic here than it was in the 1952 session. Although replacement bassist Mort Herbert wasn’t quite as fine as Shaw, he plays a nice walking line behind the band on Basin Street Blues, where Louis was still able to uncork a couple of nice high Ds, and he also plays some very tasteful solos on his showcase tune, Christopher Columbus. The band tears through Tiger Rag with a boogie-styled shuffle beat, quite different from the way Satchmo played it in 1933, and they keep it going for nine and a half minutes! You’ve absolutely got to hear how Hucko keeps prodding Armstrong to greater and greater heights on the encores of this tune! After it finishes, Louis addresses the audience: “As the audience goes nuts, we go nuts too!”

v4They do a pleasant enough job on Now You Has Jazz, though it’s not as good as the versions he did with Bing Crosby, but it’s funny when Trummy Young sings some of Bing’s lines and Louis introduces him as “Bing Crosby in Technicolor.” The band also tears through a Latin-beat song called Kokomo that I’ve never heard before in my life. Where did this one come from? I was a bit stunned to hear Middleton sing on this one: her voice had become much coarser and less flexible than it was just four years earlier, though she does swing hard. She also sounds somewhat hard of tone on Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, but this is a rare chance to hear the seldom-sung lyrics. Ironically, this version of Royal Garden Blues lacks some of the creativity of earlier versions, though the band does swing hard (and Kyle plays a helluva solo). On the other hand, Louis really tears into Saints with unbelievable drive and imagination, and keeps it up through to the end.

The last six tracks come from Satchmo’s late period, when his trumpet playing had become spotty, his breath and lip control just fair. Wynton Marsalis loves late Armstrong, saying that he played with more subtlety than in the past, but I find it only intermittently interesting. His jazz singing, however, remained unimpaired, and I don’t think it accidental that there are more vocals than trumpet solos on these late performances. By this time the band was almost entirely different; only Barcelona on drums remained from the 1959 group. Tyree Glenn was a solid swing trombonist but not as imaginative as Trummy Young; likewise Joe Muranyi on clarinet and Buddy Catlett on bass weren’t quite as good as their predecessors. Happily, Marty Napoleon was back on piano, and both Armstrong and the band surprisingly pull themselves together for a splendid performance of Ole Miss, Glenn in particular harking back to his splendid playing style with Benny Carter, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington in the 1930s and ‘40s.

Although the set ends with the tearful ballad You’ll Never Walk Alone, the real closer is a nicely-paced version of Cabaret. Running seven minutes, the band pulls back from its normal high-level intensity to play in a medium tempo. For some reason, Armstrong’s vocal is off-mike a bit on this one, but his trumpet is well recorded.

By and large, then, Louis Armstrong in Scandinavia is a wonderful reminder of just why Armstrong was so beloved by audiences and able to maintain a 46-year career at the top of his profession even in the face of stiff competition and changing jazz styles. He was as uplifting as a shot of rye on a cold, raw day and as happy as the sudden appearance of sunshine in the midst of a rainstorm. He was Louis Armstrong, the one and only, and no one has really taken his place in all the decades since his death.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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