Swing’s Last Hurrah: The Metropolitan Opera Concert

Met Opera House Esquire Concert

FEATHER: Esquire Blues. QUEBEC-CLARKE: Mop Mop. ELLINGTON-RUSSELL: Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me.1 HOLIDAY: I Love My Man.1 FIELDS-McHUGH: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.2 ARLEN-KOEHLER: I Got a Right to Sing the Blues.3 BURWELL-PARISH: Sweet Lorraine. G. & I. GERSHWIN: I Got Rhythm. TRADITIONAL: The Blues. UNKNOWN: We All Drink Coca-Cola. FEATHER: Esquire Bounce. CARMICHAEL: Rockin’ Chair.4 S. WILLIAMS: Basin Street Blues.3 AHLERT-TURK: I’ll Get By.1 YOUMANS-CAESAR: Tea for Two. RUSSELL-ARMSTRONG: Back O’ Town Blues.2 ORY: Muskrat Ramble. CASEY: Buck Jumpin’. SAMPSON-WEBB-GOODMAN: Stompin’ at the Savoy. PETTIFORD: For Bass Faces Only. WHITING-CHASE: My Ideal. HICKMAN-WILLIAMS: Rose Room. WALLER-LINK-ROSE: I’ve Got a Feeling I’m Falling. ELISCU-ROSE: More Than You Know.4 WALLER-RAZAF: Squeeze Me.4 Honeysuckle Rose.4 HAMPTON-DeLANGE-ROBIN: Flying Home [Flyin’ on a V-Disc]. HAMPTON: Jamming the Vibes. KEY: Star-Spangled Banner / Louis Armstrong, tpt/2voc; Roy Eldridge, tpt; Jack Teagarden, tb/3voc; Barney Bigard, cl; Coleman Hawkins, t-sax; Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, pno; Al Casey, gtr; Oscar Pettiford, bs; Sid Catlett, dm; Lionel Hampton, vib; Red Norvo, xyl/vib; 1Billie Holiday, 4Mildred Bailey, voc. Announcers: Leonard Feather, Michael Roy (Spotlight Bands Broadcast) / available for free streaming on YouTube (live: Metropolitan Opera House, New York, January 18, 1944)

For one night and only one night in the long history of the Metropolitan Opera House, Tuesday, January 18, 1944, there was a major program change. Instead of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini or Strauss, the composers featured were Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, the Gershwin brothers, Spencer Williams, Fats Waller and Lionel Hampton. The sopranos were Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey, the baritones Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden, the bass was Oscar Pettiford, and the only tenor featured was the tenor sax of Coleman Hawkins. This was a jazz concert, a major War Bonds drive, and Eddie Johnson and the Met board had no choice but to capitulate in order to show their patriotism.

The concert has since become the stuff of legend; it was issued several times on LP and CD beginning in 1971, shortly before Louis Armstrong’s death, although in recent years the number of re-releases has dropped off. Despite the fact that Benny Goodman’s name and image were featured prominently on the poster advertising the concert, he wasn’t even in New York at the time. He and his band were playing out in California, and he just phoned in a performance of Rachel’s Dream sometime during the evening, but this remote contribution has not been included in any of the releases I’ve seen. Barney Bigard, who at the time was a star with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, plays all the clarinet solos.

Esquire coverAs you can see from the lineup listed above, this was clearly an all-star band, all of the musicians present either winners or runners-up in every instrumental category. Nowadays, few people pay much attention to Esquire Magazine, and when they do it’s probably to protest the attitude of Maleness propagated in its pages, but in the 1940s it was one of the few major mags in America besides Metronome and down beat to devote a good number of pages per month to jazz and to hold annual popularity contests for fans from 1944 t0 1946. It’s rather sad that neither of the two best jazz guitarists of the day, Oscar Moore or Django Reinhardt, were present, but Moore was still little-known, only recently coming to prominence as a member of the ascendant Nat Cole Trio, and Reinhardt was hiding out at the time in France. Or Algiers. Or Switzerland.

As you can hear on this remarkable recording, the young audience—and those are clearly young voices yelling and cheering, teenagers and others either too young for or exempt from being drafted—go absolutely nuts over the music. Granted, many of them probably had little real knowledge or appreciation of what these musicians were really doing, but although I won’t pretend that every solo in this two-hour concert was an absolute gem (Jack Teagarden, for one, overblows several notes, and a few of the musicians just played rhythmic riffs during their solo spots) there is clearly enough here to excite the jazz genes of anyone who still has blood in their bodies. For these young people, who didn’t even have to buy tickets—all they had to do to get in was to buy a War Bond or three—this concert was the equivalent of their Woodstock, only without having to sleep in mud and get sick. And you know what? It’s actually refreshing to hear an audience go absolutely bonkers for the likes of Roy Eldridge, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Bigard, Casey and drummer Sid Catlett, who in my personal opinion never sounded more vibrant and inventive as he does here, rather than screaming for some craphead rock band playing inane licks over a deafening but uninteresting drum beat.

This was, in a sense, Swing’s Last Stand. In only two years, the musical landscape was to change drastically in favor of progressive swing (faster and less danceable than the beats heard here), bebop (faster and even more complex) and early R&B, the three divisions into which jazz was headed. By the end of the 1940s, you were in one of those three camps or a “Moldy Fig” who only listened to New Orleans or Chicago Dixieland. The jazz world was about to rip asunder, and to this day no jazz historian other than me has ever pointed to this multiple fork in the road as the real reason for the demise of the big bands and the loss of interest in jazz. For better or worse, swing had something in it that appealed to almost everyone. The later forms of jazz did not. They appealed to large sects within the jazz-listening community but clearly not to everyone or there wouldn’t have been that division.

Considering what would happen to Billie Holiday about a decade hence—drug busts and a fall from grace—it’s almost sad to hear her introduced as the “All-American singer.” But was she ever in great voice for this concert! So too was Mildred Bailey, who by 1947 had dropped out of sight, fighting ill health and depression, eventually becoming one of the forgotten superstars of jazz singing.

Flyin' on a V-DiscTo be honest, I have no idea how much of this program was worked out in advance. Probably the order of appearances: note that they held off bringing Armstrong in until the fifth number, giving him special status, and of course Teagarden was also held back until that time as well. There was probably also an ordering of the numbers played or sung—that only makes sense. But in several cases, the length of the performances tended to run as long as they ran, and if one or two of them went overtime, someone else’s number probably got cut. As in the case of Benny Goodman’s January 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, they programmed the longest jam session for next-to-last, a 12-minute version of Lionel Hampton’s Flying Home that absolutely tore up the floorboards. In fact, this performance was so popular with the audience that they even issued it on a V-Disc under the title Flyin’ on a V-Disc.

The second half hour of the show was broadcast live on the Spotlite radio program. Since this was a commercially-sponsored program, the all-stars had to play the then-theme song of the Coca-Cola company We All Drink Coca-Cola. Probably the best band that ever played it in the history of the company.

Interestingly, within this two-hour swingfest we do hear a few indications of the split in jazz to come. Armstrong, of course, always had his heart in what he loved to call “one of the good old good ones,” and there are several of them here, from Muskrat Ramble to Basin Street Blues. Ike Quebec’s and Kenny Clarke’s Mop Mop was very close to the emerging bop beat, and bassist Oscar Pettiford, also at that time a star with Duke Ellington, suggests elements of bop in his solo on For Bass Faces Only.

One of the really interesting things about this concert—to me, anyway—is that fact that although Teddy Wilson was present, he did not play on many numbers here. That honor went to Art Tatum, a man often castigated by the musically insensitive for not being able to swing, but swing he does throughout this concert, even when playing behind Holiday or Armstrong, which he was never to do again for the remainder of his career. Had Goodman been in New York instead of California, we might have had the rare opportunity of hearing Tatum accompany him as well.

But what stands out about this concert that one didn’t always hear in the later Norman Granz-organized Jazz at the Philharmonic jam sessions is the easy communion and unity among the musicians. Everyone is trying to play their best, but as a group there is a cohesion that rarely came out of thrown-together jam sessions like this, even when one hears the contrast between the Armstrong-inspired vibes of Hampton and the Bix Beiderbecke-inspired xylophone and vibes of Red Norvo. It’s not so much competition as simply playing their best and having fun. Just listen, for instance, to the way Tatum comes roaring into view on piano right after Norvo’s excellent solo on I Got Rhythm. You can hear Norvo call out, “Come on, Art, Art!” to egg him on, and I don’t think it bothered Red in the least that Art blew him away. When Armstrong enters, he’s playing his best, but in his own style; he’s not trying to out-Tatum Tatum…although Coleman Hawkins, then on the cusp of his bop phase, plays a blistering solo halfway between bop and R&B, and a brilliant one it is, too.

And listen to how Tatum plays a steady and un-frilly comp to Roy’s, Hawk’s and Bigard’s solos. He’s not trying to show off here, but be a good colleague. He even gets Jack Teagarden into a great mood on trombone. Big T never really embraced bop, but he did flirt with it. Only Roy Eldridge sounds as if he wanted to show Tatum that he had the kind of chops on trumpet that the latter had on piano, and by golly, he succeeds. (It just struck me that one other major jazz name who should have been at this concert, but apparently wasn’t voted in, was Lester Young.)

So there’s not a lot of harmonic sophistication in this concert. Don’t expect to hear anything that resembles what Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie or Bud Powell were doing behind the scenes…that was to dominate jazz’s future, not early 1944. And although I alluded to the fact that Al Casey wasn’t the greatest jazz guitarist of his time, he contributed a surprisingly modern-sounding chorus to the improvised blues that just precedes the Spotlite portion of the program. But alas, Casey later rose to fame as a rock guitarist, and you can hear this element of his playing in his own composition, Buck Jumpin’, which is pure R&B. Casey may have been a good guitarist, but he knew which was the path to riches and it wasn’t the way he played on the blues.

Taken as a whole, however, this is clearly an excellent concert within the swing axis as of 1944. You get a little of everything and a lot of surprising moments when you suddenly realize that your favorite (or not-so-favorite) musician is giving out with a really great chorus or two, and that, after all, is the essence of jazz.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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