Category Archives: History

Armstrong and Bechet, a Precise Freedom.

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

“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.


[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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Igor Stravinsky, a correspondence.

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In the early days of May, 1958, as my first year in college was ending, I wrote Igor Stravinsky’s publishers  J. & W. Chester Ltd. to ask if I could arrange for percussion quartet, the three dances from Stravinsky’s L’ Histoire du Soldat. The letter I received in reply is copied below as well as further communications between myself, Stravinsky and his publishers.



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May 19, 1958.

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July 29, 59. jpg

And so, emboldened by the fearlessness of youth, I wrote Igor Stravinsky asking for his permission to transcribe the three dances from L’ Histoire du Soldat  for  a quartet of percussionists.  I had to deal with problems of my own making and a few copyright hurdles proffered by Stravinsky’s publishers. To my ears, their letters, written in quaint, but authoritative English, were at once humorous, revelatory and a bit intimidating. However, I continued writing my arrangements sure in the knowledge that one day I would receive the permission I sought. Voila, it came to be. I now have two dated Igor Stravinsky signatures. [1.]

Though I blush to inform you, Dear reader,  please note the absence of my signature on my letter to Mr. Stravinsky. Ooops!


[1.] I have received a few letters asking about this arrangement,which turned out to be only one, the Devil’s Dance. I did finish it, it was recorded by the Ithaca College percussion ensemble conducted by Warren Benson on Golden Pressed Records. I have three recordings dating from the late 1950s, but the surface noise makes it almost impossible to listen to them. I still have the score and I’m not sure about the parts. At any rate I’m not really interested in hearing a performance today.  The arrangement has some merit, but not enough I think to justify a modern audience or me.  I don’t even know if Golden crest records exists and if it does, if it would have a master of the album called Warren Benson Conducts.


Posted by on February 28, 2015 in Articles, Composers, History


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NEXUS WORLD TOUR – 1984 – A DIARY, Part 10. Government spies and an adieu to Kwang Chao.

May 15 – 8:05 AM

I have been thinking about styles of speaking – choice words – and my mind goes back to the speech at our first banquet in Beijing given by Charles LeBlanc. His reference to May 4 was quite interesting. The comment was directed to us in Nexus. To me, he was letting us know that politics is a sensitive issue to the Chinese and, more subtly, they had the capacity for reference – love – human qualities that deserve our attention and respect. By saying this to us in front of the Chinese he let them know he was giving us a command, a guide for our behavior. He was displaying his authority not only to us but the Chinese. The choice of example was historically distant enough to be safe. (The 1919 revolt will never be purged). But, more importantly it was a revolt by young people bringing new ideas to an old system. Even more, the student demonstration was more symbolic then climatic. It had the aura of martyrdom. A beginning.  A compliment to us, a possible definition of us for the Chinese. I sensed a moment of importance – a guide for ourselves and our hosts. His presentation was perfectly balanced. There was nothing in his manner which distracted from his message.

A very relaxed morning. It is good to listen to music and drink tea. The Minorities Orchestra plays of piece for drum solo an orchestra. Five Tom Tom’s – 2 Toms – small crash cymbals – suspended cymbal – two large Toms and cloud gongs. Terrific piece. The variety of instrument sounds is immense. We go to the Conservatory – good arrangements for xylophone, timpani,snare drum and piano of “Sabre Dance” and the entire “March to the Scaffold” from “Symphonie Fantastique” for piano, timpani and snare drum. Many performances of traditional music. The most impressive and expressive, is a young girl who plays Pipa – a great artist. A string quartet plays the same piece we have been playing on marimba and xylophone. I think they must have prepared it for us. The atmosphere at the Conservatory is somewhat strained – I think partly because of our host. The piano player who came to our second concert here. A very defensive fellow. Also, since our arrival in Shanghai we have been accompanied by three or four people on many of our excursions. Kwang Chao did not come this morning. Mrs. Chong seems as usual vaguely uncomfortable in her job. She probably wants to be someplace else – maybe with her husband. It throws a blanket on everything.

Guy says there is no Chinese word for Yes. My reasoning behind this interesting fact is that Yes is a commitment to the future. No is shorter lived. A popular salesman’s technique is to get the prospective buyer to say yes to an innocuous question and once that is established (the yes) it becomes increasingly difficult for a person to say no. The Chinese do have a word for no.

May 16
The banquet is at a restaurant in town – really good and different dishes. I am seated amongst various officials whose names I wrote down phonetically, but forty years layer, are no longer pertinent. Guy and John set on either side of Mrs. Ma. The usual speeches – dear friends from Canada – ( by now they must know we are all from the United States) – we learned so much – inspiring – your successful concerts – come back soon we hope – you do etc. etc. etc. At first, the speeches were interesting in their stiltedness. They become boring and are now embarrassingly obsequious.

We got drunk with Guy in the hotel bar. He informs us that Kwang Chao came to his room just as he was getting ready for bed and told him she wanted to come to Canada and she would marry someone from Nexus in order to facilitate the move. He explained that she could only apply for permission to study in Canada and then make the move. She answers Guy that there has been no trouble with her being on our floor and she is thankful that she has met us. She enjoyed traveling with us very much.

4:35 PM
Narita airport. Our departure from China was handled expeditiously and a two hour flight brings us to 55°F temperature and rain. My dreams of a long sushi bar lunch is put to rest with immigration hassles and check-in time. I’ll have to wait for our meal on the flight to Seoul or something at the hotel. I passed up the lunch on our China Airlines flight. At the end of our dinner in Shanghai we were served two soups. A piquant soup with a huge 4 inch crown of egg white with an edible flower on top and a warm fruit soup with egg white ducks with vegetable beaks and eyes floating on top. Mr. Li Ming Quang is warming up a bit  and relaxing. Guy later suggests he may have been hit hard during the Cultural Revolution. He probably had a large library of Western literature and music confiscated and have spent a few years shoveling shit in the country. He will participate in the Toronto International Festival concert on June 3. I want to go and hear him play.

I invite Mrs. Ma to a corn roast at our house and explain how we prepare our corn. She is delighted. Mr. Long, the choral conductor, and I have a real nice buzz going and warmly embrace as we are leaving the room. He is coming to Toronto in three weeks to visit his brother, mother and father whom he is not seen in 40 years!

Well, that part of the trip is over and out and without being mean or unappreciative, it was rather like any other gig. A chemical engineer from Copenhagen asked what I had learned about Chinese music. I told him that people all of the world play, some better than others, some enjoy it more and the sound of Chinese music is interesting, some not. He understood. What can one learn from another’s music unless you are a composer and can borrow certain modes or rhythms for your own music. As a performer, I am content that the Chinese have great players who are striving to express themselves just as we are.

Northwest Orient flight 9 to Seoul “Shawn lay Bah!”

PS – Unbidden, the Danish chemical engineer told me about the endless speeches at their banquets – “how much we have learned” – “friendship between Denmark and China”– the lack of spontaneity and creativity in what they say. I almost fell over laughing, while explaining our series of banquets and the same speeches.  All of them so safe and troublefree and meaningless. You would think that after two of those speeches their guests would get the message. Perhaps they don’t care (beyond sounding diplomatic).

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Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Articles, History