LOUIS ARMSTRONG "AT THE CRESCENDO"
When Louis Armstrong re-signed with Decca Records in 1949 after a three-year absence, he put his recording career in the hands of a man he knew he could trust: Milt Gabler. Louis loved Milt so much, he referred to him as "Angel Gabler." Milt was the right man for the job because he could get Louis hit records, but thanks to his days overseeing Commodore Records (and naturally, the Commodore Music Shop), Gabler had a deep appreciation for pure, no-frills jazz.
Thus, when Armstrong came back to Decca, Gabler was ready to showcase him to maximum effect in a variety of settings. First, there was the choir (and later, strings) of Gordon Jenkins, which helped Pops hit the charts with That Lucky Old Sun and Blueberry Hill. Next, Gabler teamed Armstrong with a variety of singers, including Billie Holiday, Louis Jordan, Ella Fitzgerald and more. Sy Oliver was enlisted to take other people's hits and retool them for Louis; the results--including La Vie En Rose, "C'est Si Bon," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "I Get Ideas" and more--still stand alongside Armstrong's most beloved recordings.
But Gabler also realized the value of the All Stars, one of jazz's most popular attractions. In April 1950, he turned the All Stars loose in the studio, having them wax definitive versions of some of their most popular live features ("New Orleans Function," "Panama," "That's For Me," and more) for two albums, New Orleans Nights and "Jazz Concert." Probably around that time, Gabler purchased Ernie Anderson's live recordings of the All Stars at Boston's Symphony Hall in November 1947 and released the results in January 1951 as Satchmo at Symphony Hall. That very same month, Gabler tried his hand at the live recording business and recorded the very fine Satchmo at Pasadena. It seemed like nothing Armstrong and Gabler did could miss.
But then things started to drift. Gabler continued recording Armstrong throughout 1952 and 1953 and though the results were often wonderful (and in dire need of reissue and reappraisal), they were admittedly more "commercial" in nature. The All Stars made a guest appearance on the soundtrack of The Glenn Miller Story in early 1954 but mostly, they were just used anonymously among the studio bands Gabler hired for Armstrong's recording sessions.
This was beginning to frustrate Armstrong. He was more proud of his All Stars than ever before, especially with the additions of trombonist Trummy Young and pianist Billy Kyle. He told the Voice of America in 1956 that he started telling the people at the label (Louis didn't mention Gabler by name but who else would it be?) that shouldn't the All Stars just be allowed to "tear out" now and then? He was told it was a good idea but first some Hit Parade numbers had to be recorded "and blah blah blah," as Armstrong said when telling the story.
Enter George Avakian. Seeing Armstrong's five-year exclusive Decca contract about to lapse, he waved some money at Joe Glaser and got him to let Columbia Records record an album with Louis. Avakian wanted the All Stars and let them "tear out" on 11 numbers written by W. C. Handy. The resulting album, Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy, was a critical and commercial smash. Jazz purists held it as an example of Decca spoiling Armstrong by allowing him to record so many "commercial" numbers.
The Columbia album was a one-off as Louis was back recording for Decca one-month later on August 13. But the resulting two-sided single of the South African song Skokiaan didn't make many fans of the jazz-centric folks, nor did it make the charts (though it has gone on to be a hugely popular Armstrong recording). On September 1, Gabler had Armstrong take his classic "Muskrat Ramble" and sing the dopey lyrics recently made popular by the McGuire Sisters. And on January 18, 1955, Gabler rang in the New Year by having Armstrong record duets with Crosby....Gary, though, not Bing. And that same day, Louis tried out a few rock-and-roll ballads, "Pledging My Love" and Sincerely. Gabler had hit the jackpot with Bill Haley's recordings in 1954 so why not try Pops on some mellow rock? The results went nowhere.
Gabler was in the midst of a rut regarding Armstrong (commercially, if not artistically; when not compared to Avakian's towering recordings, these mid-50s Armstrong Deccas have plenty of enjoyable moments, not to mention a copious amount of powerhouse horn). So on January 21, 1955 Gabler took a page from Avakian and let the All Stars simply tear out. But perhaps remembering the success of Satchmo at Symphony Hall and Satchmo at Pasadena, Gabler decided to record the group live at Gene Norman's Crescendo Club in Hollywood.
For the All Stars, the early-to-mid-1950s were the height of the popularity on the nightclub circuit. They still thrived on one-nighters but the itinerary was usually full of extended engagements in major cities, playing 3, 4 sometimes even 5 sets a night. The Blue Note in Chicago, Basin Street in New York, the Hangover in San Francisco, the Celebrity Club in Rhode Island and more. Just a couple of years later--after the All Stars' popularity really exploded in 1956--Joe Glaser phased the nightclubs out and booked the All Stars almost exclusively in concerts, jazz festivals and colleges, really ratcheting up the one-nighter count. Louis didn't appear at a New York City nightclub a single time between Basin Street engagements in 1956 and 1961 and after that, didn't do it again until appearing at the Latin Quarter in 1968.
But in 1955, Louis and the All Stars were living high on the nightclub scene. Gene Norman was perhaps best known as a disc jockey but he also ran festivals like the popular "Dixieland Jubilee" concerts; recorded live concerts and released them on his own GNP/Crescendo label; and owned the popular Crescendo Club on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. Norman loved Armstrong and recorded him at Pasadena in both 1951 and 1956 (Decca's Satchmo At Pasadena was a "Gene Norman Presents" event, as well). The venue would be a perfect spot to capture what the All Stars were doing night in and night out in this period.
The band Louis fronted at the Crescendo Club is the one most folks might know as "The Handy Band" or "The Satch Plays Fats Band." Louis was right in the middle of what is considered to be his prime 1953-1958 period during the All Stars years. Trummy Young's on trombone, raising hell throughout. Clarinetist Barney Bigard, bassist Arvell Shaw and vocalist Velma Middleton were the only ones (along with Louis) to have been on Gabler's previous concert recordings from 1947 and 1951. Shaw was sounding better than ever in 1955 and Velma and Louis now had more duets than ever to bring down the house. Alas, Bigard was almost running on empty, exhausted by the grind and possibly drinking too much. He's lost in most of the ensembles and his features meander a bit, but the Crescendo recording does capture a few sparkling moments from his New Orleans clarinet. Pianist Billy Kyle and Drummer Barrett Deems were the newest members but today, they remain two of the best loved. In fact, the entire Kyle-Shaw-Deems rhythm section is something to marvel at throughout the Crescendo performances. Gabler recorded them beautifully as they simply lock in and kick ass on number after number. With rock-and-roll on the upswing, it shouldn't be any surprise that the All Stars remained popular with young folks....they rocked--and swung--harder than any other band on the planet!
When George Avakian recorded the All Stars live multiple times in late 1955 and throughout 1956, he was always trying to get Armstrong to change his program and try different things out, often to no avail. Gabler knew better to not attempt to tell Louis Armstrong what to do on stage. Thus, there's a real spontaneous feel to the proceedings. Armstrong, for all of the criticisms about him playing "the same show every night," was known for not planning anything in advance. Yes, there were certain patterns--you knew you were going to get "Sleepy Time" and "Indiana" at the start--but often, he'd judge what was best for each particular audience on the fly. Sure enough, throughout the Crescendo recordings, if you listen carefully, you can hear Louis calling out the name of the next song to be performed to the other members of the band. On the third set opener, "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," he can be heard quietly shouting during the piano solo, "'Lazy River' and 'Old Man Mose'!" Sure enough, those two numbers follow in order.
So without any special material to record or anything new to prepare, Gabler just hit the "record" button and captured a full evening by the All Stars in this mid-50s glory, three sets in all. First, here's everything Gabler recorded at the Crescendo, courtesy of Gabler's own handwritten tape notes, copied from the files of the Institute of Jazz Studies.
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
Indiana (Back Home Again In)
Someday You'll Be Sorry
Tin Roof Blues
My Bucket's Got A Hole In It
Rose Room (Barney Bigard feature)
Perdido (Billy Kyle feature)
Blues For Bass (Arvell Shaw feature)
Me And Brother Bill
When You're Smiling
Tain't What You Do (It's The Way That Cha Do It) (Trummy Young feature)
Lover, Come Back To Me (Velma Middleton feature)
Don't Fence Me In (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
Basin Street Blues
Mop Mop (unissued) (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (closing theme)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (unissued)
Shadrack/When The Saints Go Marching In
C'est Si Bon
The Whiffenpoof Song
Rockin' Chair (Louis Armstrong and Trummy Young)
Twelfth Street Rag
S'wonderful (unissued) (Barney Bigard feature)
St. Louis Blues (Billy Kyle feature)
The Man I Love (Arvell Shaw feature)
Back O' Town Blues
Old Man Mose
Margie (Trummy Young feature)
Big Mama's Back In Town (Velma Middleton feature)
Big Butter And Egg Man (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
Baby, It's Cold Outside (unissued) (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
The Dummy Song (unissued) (Louis Armstrong and Velma Middleton)
Stompin' At The Savoy (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (closing theme)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (opening theme)
Struttin' With Some Barbecue
Old Man Mose (second take)
My Bucket's Got A Hole In It (second take)
S Wonderful (second take) (Barney Bigard feature)
Big Mama's Back In Town (second take) (Velma Middleton feature)
Since I Fell For You (Velma Middleton feature)
Mop Mop (second take) (Barrett Deems feature)
When It's Sleepy Time Down South (finale)
What a night! Now, how about some music and analysis before the thesis continues? First, the analysis. You can see that Louis had fallen into a comfortable pattern in the first set that would last for quite some time: he comes out and features himself for a bunch, then turns it over to Billy Kyle's piano, followed by Barney Bigard's clarinet and Arvell Shaw's bass, before coming back for a few himself, then turning it over to Trummy Young and Velma Middleton. After a duet with Velma, he closes with something big for himself and then a drum solo.
But just look at those sets. Those are some LONG sets. I clocked them, using the times we know, plus estimating the times of the unissued performances and this is what I got:
First set, approximately 1 hour and 10 minutes
Second set, approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes
Third set, approximately 40 minutes
That's 3 hours and 20 minutes of music in one evening. Throw in two probably 20 minute breaks and it's a 4 hour night at the club. That's a lot of work.
In his notes for the 1992 reissue, Dan Morgenstern makes a very good assumption that perhaps the third set was added only because Decca was recording; it's only 40 minutes and almost entirely made up of second takes of songs the group had already recorded. This would be the only example of Gabler inserting himself into the program, maybe giving Pops a list of songs to do over again. That's entirely possible and even probable. Three sets would have been unheard of in a concert, but as I mentioned earlier, I have found mentions of Louis playing three, four and even five sets during his nightclub engagements. I wonder what the Crescendo Club policy was? Maybe third sets were supposed to be short? In concerts, Louis would often play a much shorter second set when he was doing two shows in one day, often clocking in around 40 minutes. So it's also possible that people who came for the first set were gone by the third set so it didn't matter if Louis played some of the same songs over again and this was part of the routine.
But speaking of repeating songs and such. Louis was crucified for playing "the same songs every night." And you might glance at the above 3 hours and 20 minutes of music and think, "Yep, no surprises." But look at what he DIDN'T play that night: "Blueberry Hill," "A Kiss to Build a Dream On," "Black and Blue," "New Orleans Function," "Sunny Side of the Street," "Mahogany Hall Stomp," "Ole Miss," "Royal Garden Blues," "La Vie En Rose," "Way Down Yonder in New Orleans," "West End Blues" and many more, all songs that could be found in Armstrong's mid-1950s concerts. If Gabler recorded the following evening, who knows what he would have captured? The All Stars book was DEEP.
But what beautifully paced sets. It's hard, but if forced to choose, I'm a sucker for the second set. In this period, the medley of "Shadrack/When the Saints Go Marchin' In" was the standard second opener. One year later, "Shadrack" was retired and "The Saints" was moved into the show closer spot.
After a swinging run-through of "C'est Si Bon," Louis then gives a master's class in how to combine hilarious comedy and good music. First, he teases the boppers with his parody of "The Whiffenpoof Song." He'd put on a red beret and sunglasses and skewer Dizzy Gillespie "and the boppin' faction." (Modern jazz fans were really angered by this routine.) But the first two minutes is taken up by Louis's beautiful, straight reading of the melody. This is followed by Louis and Trummy Young hammin' it up on "Rockin' Chair," but again, the short trumpet statement of the melody can give you the chills:
released May 11, 2020
Bass – Arvell Shaw
Clarinet – Barney Bigard
Drums – Barrett Deems
Liner Notes – Leonard Feather
Piano – Billy Kyle
Trombone – "Trummy" Young*
Trumpet, Vocals – Louis Armstrong
Vocals – Velma Middleton
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