Friday, January 28, 2011

I want a big butter and eggs man

A big butter and eggs man is a “small time big shot,” as Laurence Bergreen has it,[i] and the way Louis Armstrong sings it, the lyrics’ plea is even more obvious. Listen to "I want a big butter and eggs man"—it's at the end of this post.

“I’m your big butter and egg man, but I’m different honey, I’m from way down South…now listen, baby, I’ll buy you all the pretty things that you think you need, as long as I can keep this cornet up to my mouth. Oh, I’ll play you a little butter and cheese, and if you say please, I’ll even hit high C’s. Cause I’m your butter and egg man. Come here baby, kiss me! Big butter and egg man from way down in the South!”

Armstrong recorded "Big Butter and Eggs" in Chicago in November 1926 with his Hot Five, Louis on cornet and singing the vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodd, clarinet; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo…and May Alix, vocal. It’s all that business with May Alix that slathers the butter on the eggs. Earl Hines’s recollection of the moment was that Louis was smitten by May and lost it every time he looked at her. ”He didn’t know whether to sit down, stand up, or what,” said Hines, observing from the piano, “but May got a kick out it and had fun with him, and whole house cracked up.” In subsequent performances, May tried her best to coax the lyrics out of him. She would sing out, “I want a butter-and-egg man” and wrap her arms around him, as he visibly melted, and “everybody in the band would get up and shout, ‘Hold it, Louis! Hold it’.”[ii]

Now I’m in one of those sticking places….sources conflict on the pianist on this recording. It would have to be Hines if this story is “true,” but Dan Morgenstern’s liner notes for Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, name Lil Hardin as the pianist. Louis and Lil’s marriage had hit the skids but she might be playing piano with The Hot Five on this recording. I keep telling myself all the nitty gritty fact checking isn’t essential, but when I hit discrepancies in sources, I’d like to know. One way or the other, I can’t leave out the May Alix story.

The vocal performance is vaudeville but the music is something else and many have made a big deal about Louis’s cornet here. Morgenstern writes “he constructs a cornet chorus that is sublime, from the initial triple call through the supremely relaxed reinvention of the melody”.[iii] Lawrence Gushee analyzes the “particularly effective uses of Armstrong’s practice of displacing phrases an octave down, and of embedding the pitches of the original melody in a long descending line with both a prefix and a suffix.”[iv]

So now you’ve listened to the song, but there’s more to this story. I found a different Butter and Eggs (no man) about a year ago when I was deep in Elizabeth Bishop’s poems. In “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” she mentions the wildflower:

Enter the Narrows at St. Johns
the touching bleat of goats reached to the ship.
We glimpsed them, reddish, leaping up the cliffs
among the fog-soaked weeds and butter-and-eggs.

I’d never run across this wildflower. It’s common I was told. Most everyone around here can identify it blooming along roadsides midsummer on. I started looking too early and was sorely discouraged. Then one day in July I went out for a bike ride and saw drifts of them along the road that follows Lake Cossayuna. They’re stunning, the orange almost buried in the pale yellow cups. Late August I was shocked to see them volunteering in my garden. I wonder how many years they’d been springing up behind the garage to my blind eyes.

Back to the BIG butter and eggs man. After finding the song, ferreting around in search engines, Bob Dylan’s lyrics in “The Levee’s Gonna Break” also showed up:

I woke up this morning butter and eggs in my bed
I ain’t got enough room to even raise my head.

Here’s a poem for the day:

Linaria vulgaria

Her life in her hands,
it was hers, after all.
Take names, she said,
they set meaning’s course,
their renegade crossings.

Her life in her hands,
days she handled it
like butter-and-eggs
careening along
roadsides among
goats, fog-soaked weeds.

Her life in her hands.
She went for a guide,
Peterson would do:
from across the sea
they came unseen as seeds.

Sown at seaports
along railroad tracks
riding buses deep down south.
Non-natives or native,
she needed to find them,
her life in her hands.

In a matter of time
they opened wide out,
deep-throated orange uvulas
dropped in lemon petals,
her life in her hands.

No matter. Turns out
wildflowers small part
in the heart of it.
Her life in her hands,
big butter and egg man,
he could handle it.

She learned to say please,
laugh aloud at high C’s,
butter and eggs deep
down under her skin,
her life in his hands.

She woke, no room
for her head, butter
and eggs filled her bed.
Pretty things, pretty flowers.
All the same she said.

Her life in her hands.

[i] Laurence Bergreen, Louis Armstrong: an Extravagant Life, (Broadway Books: New York, 1997), 289.
[ii] Bergreen quoting Stanley Dance, “Earl Hines Remembers Louis,” Village Voice, July 4, 1977.
[iii] Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Notes, 16.
[iv] Lawrence Gushee, “The Improvisation of Louis Armstrong,” In the Course of Performance, Bruno Nettl with Melinda Russell, eds., Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998, 291.


Tuesday, January 25, 2011

When You're Smiling

I’ve watched many documentaries on Louis Armstrong and the history of jazz, including Ken Burns’ Jazz. The best for me is The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. It’s only an hour and five minutes yet this BBC production filmed in 2000 captures the mythology of the man. The story is decked out in sepia tones and vintage photographs. Corny as it sounds this works because the period stuff and romantic sea shots intended to suggest his traveling years float by without intruding. In the last section, Twilight Years, trees in winter glisten in ice and snow. Sounds bad Ken Burnsian, but it’s not appalling, just good background noise.

Like most Armstrong bios, this one emphasizes his vivacity and amazing development both playing and singing with his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens in the 1920s. But the film praises no decade over another. The musicians and critics interviewed celebrate Louis’s music and indefatigable spirit throughout his life.
This video clip, though it’s just a photo over the sound instead of his performance, demonstrates how wonderfully Louis Armstrong sang in the 1950s and even the 1960s.  While Louis is singing, Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch comment on Armstrong’s 1957 rendition of “When You’re Smiling.” Giddins: “Compare this 1957 recording to the 1931 one. Both are good, but this one’s mind blowing, it’s the most gorgeous sound I’ve ever heard.” Cut to Grouch: “I don’t know anyone who could play that now. The sound he got, with the expressiveness. And he played it way up high in the upper registers for a long time.” Back to Giddens: Wynton Marsalis has said to me, no one can play that way. No one can play the way he did in the 1950s. His sound is so personal, it’s the way he builds it up from stored energy.” I’m paraphrasing here so if you put it in your Netflix queue, please don’t hold me to a word-for-word rendering.
I frequently celebrate life’s late period and this is partly the pleasure in watching this documentary. It illustrates the beauty of the man at the end of his life, bringing full circle the durability of his art. I like “durability of his art;” I borrowed it from Lawrence Gushee,[i] that the fungible nature of Louis’s oeuvre creates durability.
Driving to yoga this morning I listened to a story on Wanda Jackson’s new album with Jack White.  Here’s a link. You need to listen to it. The condensed version doesn’t capture her.

[i] Lawrence Gushee, “The Improvisation of Louis Armstrong,” In the Course of Performance, Bruno Nettl with Melinda Russell, eds., Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998, 291.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Introducing StopTime

I started this blog with a purpose. So far that’s a secret. I need to out myself. I’ve been fumbling around saying what strikes me on the life and output of Louis Armstrong. When it comes to Armstrong, I’m a know-nothing.[i]

What’s the point in putting out snippets on Armstrong that strike my fancy? Another Louis Armstrong aficionado is born every day so why blog about it? Better you should spend your energy compiling your own Louis songs and tales, cruising online to build your own library. I’ll defend my approach by saying, the whole world loves Armstrong but most people hum a tune or two with no idea of the vastness of his accomplishments. Even reading tidbits can be enticing. The experts have a whole life in the cloud. If you want substantive stuff, check out my links.

This blog does have a center and it is StopTime, Louis Armstrong, a double birthday celebration, July 4 and August 4, 2011, in and around Saratoga Springs. StopTime invites audiences to attend (possibly, at some points, partake in) free-flowing performances occurring at multiple sites. Performers will move between sites carrying the audience along. Louis Armstrong’s + improvisation centers StopTime. His music and life may influence responses, but the intent is to consider Armstrong’s inspiration, his life force rather than to replicate his work.

The project started a few weeks ago when I met with six people interested in Armstrong and a collaborative opportunity. We talked about how this can happen and brainstormed possible components. Great energy generated many great ideas, including a spectacular one for the location. If we can partner with the agency that manages the sites, the events will be decentralized but integrated. Gaining approval is under negotiation, and so no news yet.

The core group offered a ton of community connections and sources. All week I’ve been talking to people and all responses have been downright encouraging. The network is growing quickly. A good way to keep going in the January deep-freeze.

Meanwhile Louis Armstrong continues to rule my life. The music is unending. I am not up to reading the Complete Discography. For a few days I was deluded enough to think I had a handle on the number of recordings. iTunes downloads and CDs borrowed from friends or libraries is a bare beginning.

Take anyone, any song; it wanders off pulling me along. On the January 5 post Jack Teagarden and Louis play “Rockin’ Chair” at Newport Jazz Festival. This is but one of several recordings. Reading Jazz Modernism, I see how little I know about Teagarden, his trombone, his close relationship with Louis, a friendship often mentioned and particularly important as it’s one of the intersections where race enters. Early on I read parts of Stanley Crouch’s Considering Genius. In the December 19 post, I mentioned Crouch’s recommendations on Armstrong recordings. I sought out Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy and listened to it over and over. I wouldn’t say I forgot about Crouch, I just went elsewhere for a while.

When I question a writer’s opinion, I go to Crouch to see if he has anything to say on the matter. Someone loaned me Alfred Appel, Jr’s Jazz Modernism. So I reread “The Late, Late Blues Jazz Modernism,” Crouch’s book review. He calls Appel on leaving out Ralph Ellison’s essays on jazz and Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues, for not sourcing his ideas on race and racial politics. Crouch is a tough critic, not an angry one. He makes his point and goes on to praise Appel for making essential connections between jazz and visual arts—something that Crouch sees the New York Intellectuals miss entirely. Visual art is a large part of my life, so I want to see what Appel has to say. I read around in Jazz Modernism, the Armstrong parts. Appel is insightful, clear, a good read.

When I found Louis Armstrong the big attraction was music, all music, all the time. That’s possible, but with Armstrong that leaves out a great deal. There’s Armstrong’s foray in the visual (he didn’t call it art, so I’m not going there), but if he never picked up scissors and tape, it wouldn’t matter. Music and art have been going steady since the Greeks (to mention but one ancient culture that applies). I don’t think I can dodge the visual just because music is foremost. Everything I’ve made includes some visual component. Though I repeat I won’t be making anything, I wonder if I can stick to it.

[i] My Credentials.  I am: dogged researcher, dog with a bone, artist, impresario (temporarily), writer, teacher, inveterate dabbler.
I am not: musician, scholar, expert in any field including the one I’m standing in, critic, coach, quick study, inveterate dabbler

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

No videos today. I see the ease of embedding YouTube videos in blogs, fun for a while. Let’s consider Louis Armstrong without visual aids. Picture him without pictures.

What is your picture of Louis Armstrong? Surely you have one. Can you hear or read his name without seeing his face? Which face do you see? Young Louis holding his trumpet? Ambassador Satch in his morning coat carrying his trumpet in its case, holding a folded white handkerchief? Louis backstage half-dressed with white handkerchief tied into a do-rag? Louis and Barbara singing “Hello Dolly”? Seeing his smiling face in your mind’s eye, how do you picture his teeth? Large, pearly, perfectly white, filling, almost spilling, rarely contained by his lips?

In 1930, accomplished, assured, attractive, he’s at the top of his game. His trumpet and voice made him famous, but his looks and his way with audiences were key assets. Picture this: Duncan Schiedt’s photo on the front cover of Louis Armstrong: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (four discs, boxed set). This headshot of Louis in 1930 is cropped below his shoulders. He’s wearing a light-colored sports jacket and white shirt. He’s facing right but he looks at the camera. He’s trim, fighting weight, as he sometimes called it. In the expertly lit photo, highlights fall on his forehead and down the left side of his face illuminating his lustrous skin. His hair is close-cropped. His trumpet-playing scar is clearly visible. He smiles broadly revealing uppers and lowers, a gap behind his left incisor. Prominent, strong, but not perfectly straight teeth, these teeth do not look like the Louis teeth I’ve seen in other photographs. The gap plus the slightly irregular size and spacing show a different Louis from the familiar one with teeth perfect teeth.

Is this photo an aberration? I leaf through picture books, particularly Louis Armstrong: A Cultural Legacy, looking for photos from the late twenties. I can’t find a match to the Schiedt photo. In all the photos I find, his teeth are tight, full, and gapless. His most photographic stance is faced forward, smiling, mouth open, but not as open as in the Schiedt photo. If there’s a gap, it doesn’t show. Maybe only the three-quarter view reveals the gap. Perhaps sometime after the Schiedt portrait, Louis had his teeth capped. Perhaps his reasons were not cosmetic but to protect his vulnerable chops. Will I find out? Why do I care? Does it matter?

Yes, to me it does matter, as the premise of Louis Armstrong dead at 69 is to think about the documented record, full as it is, to wonder what is missing. I want to see him in the many moments of his life, to follow his course through the world, study his changing mind and body.

[1] 1994 catalog accompanying the Queens College exhibition (Louis Armstrong Archive). The exhibition coincided with the release of the Portrait of the Artist boxed set, part of America’s Jazz Heritage: A Partnership of the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund and the Smithsonian Institution.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Muskrat Ramble and Beethoven

Surely the greatest pleasure in working with Louis Armstrong for a year is listening to his music all day long. Since I walk most every day an hour or so, my iPod, not much used till now, brightens up the landscape. Walking time has always been listening to the sounds around me (even if it means the blasted feeder county road in front of my house that I must take for a ½ mile to get to more peaceful roads) and thinking, waiting for whatever stray thoughts converge. I realized I needed to double up, use this time to familiarize myself with the huge inventory Louis left. And listening definitely quickens the pace. My iPod is loaded with Armstrong so Shuffle results in 75% being Louis. It’s fun to wonder when Césaria Évora, Tom Waits or Willie Nelson will show up in the middle of Fleischmann’s Yeast broadcasts or West End Blues or The Great Summit and so forth.
My friend of many years, Penelope Crawford, a brilliant pianist, recently recorded Beethoven’s Last Piano Sonatas, Op. 109, 110, 111 on musica omnnia. She played on her Graf piano, one very similar to the one Beethoven likely composed the Sonatas on. Often I play the CD on in the house only to realize I’m off to the basement for laundry or wander into the little library for a book and suddenly I don’t know where I am—109? 111? which movement? I stop figure it out and forgetfully wander away again. Walking yesterday the second movement of 111 followed “Muskrat Ramble” out along Claire Lane where I walk in an incredibly silent subdivision of townhouses studded along a golf course. I became present in the Arietta—Adagio molto semplice e cantabile.
Earlier I was reading around in Gary Giddins Visions of Jazz, realized I needed to read his introduction for his definition of jazz and its lineage. Jazz is all new to me, classical music is what I’ve always listened to. So when he mentioned Beethoven I paid close attention, especially since he referred to this Sonata, this movement. Here’s what he says about the eternal presence of jazz:

Borges famously argued that Hawthorne is a changed and perhaps deepened writer in Kafka’s world—that, in effect, Kafka seems to have influenced Hawthorn because he has so thoroughly influenced our reading of him. In that spirit, can anyone in a world remade by jazz fail to hear a harbinger of swing in the uncanny rhythmic figure Beethoven introduced in the arietta of his thirty-second piano sonata (op.111)? In a remarkable two-minute episode, he switches to a twelve-beat rhythm, implying an unmistakable backbeat in alternating thirty-second and sixty-fourth notes, an augury made all the more explicit by a melodic and harmonic content that suggests (for example, the major to diminished harmonic change at III 14) the first phrase of “Muskrat Ramble.” Beethoven was also an impassioned improviser who knew heavy blues. But, of course, he had nothing to do with jazz. (9)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

I’ve watched New Orleans twice and have in the queue again, wish I could Watch Instantly. It’s bad movie, completely enthralling. Louis is the key and for the usual reasons. He does what he does impeccably. He is stalwart through the whole darn mess, the plot changes, the race lines. The movie was supposed to be the story of jazz AND the life of Louis Armstrong. That went by-the-by when the movie’s brainchild, Orson Welles, let go of the rights in the early 40s. By 1947, McCarthyism was vocal enough to have a hand in the new version as well.  Laurence Bergreen blames the plot shift to “the preposterous opera” on this.1 The point is the film is another example of Louis taking it all in, letting go of what he can’t change, and making a chocolate cake out of what’s left.
Netflix’s blurb for New Orleans starts out: As owner of a Bourbon Street gambling club, Nick Duquesne (Arturo De Cordova) sits at the center of the New Orleans jazz scene. His scruffy charm -- and the city's beguiling music -- is too much for a new girl in town (Dorothy Patrick). Note that when you listen to Billie Holliday sing "Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans" with Louis playing his cornet (movie takes place in 1917, he played cornet not trumpet then) with his band.2 This is the story that counts but it all but disappears early on, soon after the moving street scene when everyone leaves Storyville.
Songs include Louis and band playing "New Orleans Stomp," "Buddy Bolden's Blues," "West End Blues," "Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble," and "Basin Street Blues." There’s a fine duet, Louis with Billie Holiday in "The Blues Are Brewin'."  Biilie Holliday is crucial in this movie. And there’s plenty written by her and others on her role that begins with her as a maid who morphs to jazz singer.
The film centers on the white story; it’s largely Miralee Smith’s (Patrick’s) struggle to turn herself into a jazz singer instead of the classical career her mother destined for her. More than once Miralee chirps her version of Holiday’s blues. Marjorie Lord as the mother is pretty great right from the first scene when she’s trying to dodge her gambling debt to De Cordova.
By 1947 jazz had shifted. Louis had heard it all, not just the Tomism but how dated he was. Angry sometimes, by then he’d resolved that bebop wasn’t a fad, jazz had several directions and his was but one. But he wasn’t sore anymore, he knew well his commanding place and had set about building a new house with the same tool box.

1 Laurence Bergreen, Louis Armstrong: An Extraordinary Life, 1997, 428-429.
2 trombone-Kid Ory, clarinet-Barney Bigard, guitar-Bud Scott, bass-“Red” Callender, drums-Zutty Singleton and piano-Charlie Beal and Meade “Lux” Lewis. Also Mutt Carey on cornet.

Here are links to reviews of New Orleans:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Louis Armstrong's set at 1958 Newport Jazz Festival

This video is taken from Bert Stern’s film, Jazz on a Summer Day, shot at 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Watch the whole film! You can download it from Watch Instantly on Netflix—a grand mix of performers, Anita O’Day, Mahalia Jackson, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Big Maybelle and Chico Hamilton. The America Cup happened at the same moment and the scenes of the sailboats shot from a helicopter, the crowd, the town do more than set the scene. You can get a taste of it here in Louis’s set, “Lazy River,” “Tiger Rag,” “Rockin’ Chair,” (duet with Jack Teagarden with some conversation about Aunt Harriet thrown in), ending with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It seems like a high moment for Louis, but then consummate performer that he is, he prides himself on leaving his self at the door when he’s performing.
Compare this to the previous year’s Newport Jazz Festival performance. There are several accounts of this, here's Gary Giddins from Satchmo. Arriving at 5 pm from long bus trip, scheduled to perform at 8, management informed him they were planning a birthday tribute for him and he’d be playing in every segment. He exploded, “We haven’t rehearsed…and I’m not going to go out there and make of fool of myself.” Another rub was that since Ella Fitzgerald was on the show, Louis was told that Velma Middleton, his soloist, was not to sing. To which he responded, “I’m playing with my band and my singer and none of this other shit.” Photographers and admirers kept bothering him and at one point he stepped into the musicians’ room clad with only a rag on his head and told everyone to get out. He played his set the way he wanted and the reviews were nasty. (126-127). It’s fine seeing him riled.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Saratoga Arts Center-SPAF Artist Grant

Saratoga Arts Center awarded me one of two SPAF Artists Grants for 2011. Good news for me and my year with Louis. Since working in and with the community is at the heart of these grants, this opens the way for collaboration and improvisation with a loose band of compatriots. The outcome will likely be a performance, summer times sounds best—maybe Louis's birthday, August 4. 
Here's the short version: Making It Up: Life, Music, and Art of Louis Armstrong: Improvisation, at the heart of jazz, is central to Louis Armstrong's life and his music. Making it Up, both performance and exhibition, originate in Armstrong's music--the sound of his horn, his songs--and his way with words and pictures.
The awards ceremony is January 12, 4-6 pm. Please visit the Arts Center website for a list of all grants recipients.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Heebie Jeebies-Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five

Scat – the story goes, Louis invented it in November 1925 recording “Heebies Jeebies” with his Hot Five. In “Jazz on a High Note,” published in Esquire in 1951 he wrote: “…the day we recorded “Heebie Jeebies,” I dropped the paper with the lyrics—right in the middle of the tune…And I did not want to stop and spoil the record which was moving along so wonderful…So when I dropped the paper, I immediately turned back into the horn and started to Scatting…Just as nothing had happened…When I finished the record I just knew the recording people would throw it out.. And to my surprise they all came running of the controlling booth and said—“ Leave That In”…
         Players on the record: Kid Ory, trombone; Lil Hardin, piano; John A. St. Cyr, banjo; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Louis Armstrong, trumpet.
from Louis Armstrong in His Own Words: Selected Writings, Thomas Brothers, ed., Oxford University Press, 132.