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Armstrong and Bechet, a Precise Freedom.

22 Apr

My brother was an avid collector of early Dixieland Jazz recordings and I grew up with the sounds of great singers, the likes of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Lizzy Miles and King Oliver’s band, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven, and the Original Dixeland Jazz Band. [1.] With incomparable panache these artists wrote and recorded some of America’s most expressive  music. Today, much of this legacy is available in digital format, though pureists may insist on listening to the original 78s and LPs.

In the 1950s Armstrong (1901-71) assembled his All Stars. Recently, I revisited two of my favourite Armstrong recordings from those years, Louis Armstrong Plays the Music of W. C. Handy  and Ambassador Satch. The players were the same on both albums and long time Armstrong collaborators.  The band was Barney Bigard, clarinet; Arvell Shaw, bass;  Billy Kyle, piano; Trummy Young, trombone; Armstrong, trumpet; Barrett Deems, drums; and Velma Middleton, vocals.  Edmond Hall, clarinet, replaced Bigard on Ambassador Satch. [2.]

Louis Armstrong Plays the Music of W. C. Handy was recorded in a studio under the supervision of the composer William Christopher Handy(1873-1958). The tunes on Ambassador Satch were recorded live during a European tour, with Edmond Hall’s lush clarinet tones and incomparably mellifluous lines, Arvel Shaw’s rock solid bass, Kyle’s tasty piano rhythms and sweet solos, Trummy Young’s rip saw Gut Bucket trombone, and Deems, “the Fastest Drummer in the World” tasty back ups and roisterous solos.

These guys played with a joy European fans had been waiting for years to experience. They were not disappointed. Within Europe’s music community, Armstrong and his All Stars were post World War II’s most appreciated ambassadors.

Note: To access audio files, go to my web site http://www.robinengelman.com

“Royal Garden Blues”, Ambassador Satch, Louis Armstrong and his All Stars, 1955. Columbia LP, CL840.

“Dardanella”, Edmond Hall, Clarinet on Ambassador Satch, Louis Armstrong and his All Stars, 1955.

“West End Blues”, Ambassador Satch, Louis Armstrong and his All Stars, 1955. Columbia LP, CL840.

In 1957, a high school teacher played me a recording of le Sacre du Printemps. Its fagotto castrato launched me into an adventure with Western Art Music that held my interest for Dixieland in abeyance for many years. I’ve since played le Sacre more than a few times and have about half a dozen LP and CD recordings by as many orchestras and conductors. During a conversation with Toru Takemitsu, I mentioned my love for early Dixieland. Toru replied, “Sidney Bechet”. Bechet (1897-1959) was familiar to me. Some years earlier I had purchased two recordings he’d made in France. [3.]  Unfortunately, their quality was very poor and I vowed to revisit his music.

Recently I purchased 115 Bechet recordings. As I made my way through this lode, I struck gold on almost every track. I was delighted by Bechet’s mastery of the soprano saxophone and his endlessly brilliant improvisations. There was one tune I had to include here. According to one aficionado, Shag is not only a prime example of Bechet’s art, it contains perhaps the greatest Jazz vocal, ever. That aside, this masterful example of Scat singing by Ernest Meyers offers an enlightening contrast to Louis Armstrong’s style. Shag was written by Bechet and this recording was made in New York City in 1932 with his band, New Orleans Feetwarmers. The Bechet Quintet performance of Summertime is ineffably beautiful.[4.]

“Shag”, Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers, Vic Dickenson, trombone; Sidney Bechet, soprano sax; Don Donaldson, piano;  Wilson Myers, Bass;  Wilbert Kirk , drums. New York, 1943.

“Summertime”, Sidney Bechet Quintet: Meade Lux Lewis, piano; Teddy Bunn, guitar; Johnny Williams, bass; Sid (Big Sid) Catlett, drums. New York, 1939.

“After You’ve Gone”, Sidney Bechet and his New Orleans Feetwarmers, Vic Dickenson, trombone; Sidney Bechet, soprano sax; Don Donaldson, piano; Wilson Myers, bass; Wilbert Kirk, drums. New York, 1943.

I  wrote an article titled Music Appreciation 101. It’s a tribute to Janis Joplan and her album Pearl, one of the alltime great rock albums. Now, Armstrong and Bechet et al are providing me with further hours of pleasure. Their amazingly precise freedom gives me endless “What have I been missing” moments. After listening to a couple of cuts in this article, fellow drummer Rick Sacks said, “In this music you can hear all the voices.”  So true.  Next, I might check out Eddie Condon. Edmond Hall played with Condon as did drummers Cliff Leeman and George Wettling; trombonist Cutty Cutshall; and trumpet fireball Wild Bill Davidson, father of Toronto harpist Sarah Davidson.

NOTES:

[1.]  Ironically, an all white band and the first to make a commercial Dixieland recording.

The band recorded two sides for the Victor Talking Machine Company, “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixie Jass Band One Step”, on February 26, 1917, for the Victor label. These titles were released as the sides of a 78 record on March 7, the first issued jazz record. The band records, first marketed simply as a novelty, were a surprise hit, and gave many Americans their first taste of jazz. (from Wikipedia)

[2.] I recommend exploring the biographies of these great players. The band members dates: Barney Bigard, clarinet (1906-80); Emond Hall, clarinet (1901-67);  Arvell Shaw, bass (1923-2002); Billy Kyle, piano (1914-66); Trummy Young, trombone (1912-84); Louis Armstrong, trumpet (1901-71); Barrett (the world’s fastest drummer) Deems (1914-98); and Velma Middleton, vocalist (1917-61). Velma died in Sierra Leone of a stroke or heart attack while touring with Armstrong. She can be heard on Louis Armstrong Plays the Music of W. C. Handy. Though some critics considered her voice average and suggested Armstrong replace her with someone better, Louis refused, stating “she was family”.  On this tour, the All Stars were official representatives of the U.S. government, hence the album title Ambassador Satch.

[3.] Bechet was a Creole. He was born in New Orleans and died in Garches, France, the country where he made more than half his recordings. Both his birth and death occured on May 14, reminding me of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams who died on the same day, July 4, in the same year, 1826.

[4.] This reminds me of the late Eva Cassidy singing Autumn Leaves on her CD Live at Blues Alley.

 

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