Hindsight makes it easy to pinpoint the wonderful jazz events of the 20s and 30s, all transcended by the walking on water of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
One of the elements in Ellington’s overwhelming success that is often overlooked is the exceptionally high quality of the recording studios of the Radio Corporation of America. Duke first recorded at RCA in October 1926. Until then he’d worked for a multitude of labels including Okeh and Vocalion, whose catalogues were specifically intended for black people, but he also recorded for Brunswick (the owners of Vocalion), Columbia and Victor amongst others. In 1929 RCA acquired the Victor Talking Machine Company and became RCA Victor. But Ellington was still recording for all those minor inferior labels. Why?
Why did it take so long for him to sign exclusively with Victor? All his recordings for the other labels were sonically inferior, and many of those were made after Duke had tasted the outstanding benefits of RCA’s recording long before.
Managers were usually regarded as being devoid of attractive human characteristics, and very often this was the case. Ellington’s, Irving Mills, was probably a good example
As so often we’ve ignored another major element, the band manager. Managers were usually regarded as being devoid of attractive human characteristics, and very often this was the case. Ellington’s, Irving Mills, was probably a good example. He had what he saw as the band’s interests at heart, which involved low altruistic values.
Mills had minor musical talent, yet he inserted his name on many Ellington compositions as part-composer, drawing royalties for the rest of his life, which ended in 1985. While he creamed off a large fraction of the band’s earnings, he was also able to tend to the band’s interests in a way that no black manager could have done – in precisely the same manner that the evil Joe Glaser “looked after” Louis Armstrong.
So, for financial reasons Mills refused at first to sign to a single company, and the Ellington band continued to record for the gruesome list of small companies, using 20 pseudonyms for all of them but Victor where it appeared as the Ellington band. (Ellington sometimes recorded for the RCA subsidiary Camden but the studio was inferior to that of the magnificent one of the parent company).
It was late in 1929 that the band signed exclusively for Victor, staying until a 1934 record session when a company supervisor had accidentally left the talk button on in the control studio. Ellington allegedly heard the man suggest to the engineer that he prepare to hear “some Saturday night nigger music”. Duke ordered the band to leave immediately and didn’t return to Victor until the supervisor left in 1939. Ellington then, in 1940, flourished in possibly his most creative year.
Throughout that period Ellington kept a unique team of soloists, each member of which seemed to be comfortably supernatural in his talents. Ellington’s gift for finding such musicians and then developing them was a vital part of his genius.
One of them was the New Orleans clarinettist Barney Bigard, who probably joined Duke at the end of 1927 or the beginning of 1928. Taught by Lorenzo Tio, Bigard was at first regarded as a tenor sax player, although he was undoubtedly the most gifted of the New Orleans clarinettists. Under Duke, Bigard soon emerged as the finest big-band clarinettist of his day, playing off the band ensembles in a totally different way to the equally effective manner developed by Goodman later on.
Bigard remained at the height of his powers throughout the 30s and his deep musical relationship with Duke was one of the key factors in Ellington’s 1940 success at Victor.
Barney left Duke in June 1942 when at one point he had his own band in Los Angeles that included Kid Ory and Charlie Mingus. Studio work and membership of Freddie Slack’s band kept him busy until 1944 when he recorded and played briefly in Ory’s band. The two joined Louis Armstrong for the abominable film New Orleans in autumn 1946 and his work with Louis led him to become an early member of the Louis Armstrong All Stars, playing for Louis for most of the time between August 1947 and August 1955.
Louis had led a magnificent and completely undervalued big band throughout the 40s. After the seminal New York Town Hall concert of 17 May 1947 Joe Glaser’s eyes were slowly opened to the fact that a lot more money could be made from a seven-piece all-star group than from a cumbersome big band. Louis’s career was reborn at that concert, although in truth he hadn’t been doing too badly with the big band.
From the big band he brought into the All Stars Sid Catlett, arguably the best jazz drummer, his young bassist Arvell Shaw and his long-time colleague and friend vocalist Velma Middleton. The electrifying affinity between Louis Armstrong and Jack Teagarden had been obvious since the 20s, so it was obvious that Jack would be the trombonist. Jack, beset with a long-term drink problem, hadn’t recovered from the bankrupting of his fine big band in 1946, and was glad of the haven that Louis offered.
The All Stars involved much harder work than the big band had done for Louis, since he was on stage acting as emcee and playing throughout each concert.
The 1947 concert had been classic, and remains so to this day. With Barney in for Peanuts Hucko and Bobby Hackett out, everything went well for the first year or so.
Everything Louis touched – be it solo, ensemble or singing – continued to enchant his audiences. His trumpet playing remained at a peak untouched by anyone else and he obviously thrived on what was obviously instinctive jazz playing. It seemed that the load never became too much, and he flourished, carrying his sidemen along with him. The partnership with Teagarden flourished too.
One of my more expensive investments lately has been in seven volumes, comprising 21 CDs, of Intégrale Louis Armstrong on the French Frémeaux label. The noble aim is to issue all of Louis’s recordings. To me the sound is OK, but Dave Bennett thinks it should be better (I started at Vol 6 – no point in buying the years to 1928 since they’re covered in the ultimate quality of Dave’s University Of Louis Armstrong label).
The three CDs of Volume 14 are completely given over to broadcasts and concerts by the early All Stars, all featuring Barney, Tea, Big Sid, Earl Hines or Dick Cary.
Paradoxically everyone sounds happy and in good health on these broadcasts and the music, dominated by Louis of course, but with Tea in good form close behind him, is probably that group’s best accumulation on record.
Hines had joined early on in 1948. He stayed for three years despite many altercations with the leader, probably caused by the fact that Hines was used to being the leader. The format of All Star music blocked Hines’s penchant for taking extra choruses, but the two men found other ways to fall out, until in 1951 Hines left, with Louis saying “I don’t give a damn. Hines and his ego, ego, ego. If he wanted to go, the hell with him. He’s good, sure, but we don’t need him.” The mild-mannered Jack Teagarden was no match for the Hines ego. The promoters had included Hines in Jack’s band that toured Euriope in autumn 1957. Hines shoved the gentle Tea out of the way and declared the Jack Teagarden-Earl Hines All Stars.
Billy Kyle, the ideal pianist for the band, joined in late 1953 and stayed until 1966 when he died while on tour with the band.
Bigard had, perhaps inevitably, suffered a decline as soon as he left Ellington. His playing seem to lack direction, although he recovered himself when he first joined the All Stars and often sounded inspired. But his spirit drained away and in later years his solos were set and usually uninspired. He became cynical, most notably when he made deliberate slips at recording studios while trying to drag the sessions into overtime.
Teagarden suffered a similar, but entirely self-destructive and non-malicious decline. He was overtired from decades of life on the road and almost never played with inspiration, although he was still a wonder to hear for the style with which he expressed himself.
Life remained desperately corrosive for the sidemen, although Louis seemed to remain impervious.
Trummy Young became Tea’s ultimate replacement, simplifying his usual style to fit to the formula – a move to his own sophisticated re-take of what was seen as the New Orleans style of trombone. Anxious to escape tax problems in his Hawaiian home he had joined the band as a refuge in September 1952. Joe Glaser signed him to a long contract from which there was no escape.
When I first met Trummy in 1956 he told me that he had been suffering from stomach ulcers caused by life on the road for the past two years. In those days treatment was severe and lengthy, and Glaser wouldn’t let him leave the band to put things right.
The hated contract expired on 1 January 1964 and on that day, out on the road, Trummy brooked no discussion and took the first morning plane back to New York and freedom.
A set of CDs arrived unexpectedly from Dave Bennett while this piece was on the way to posting. It contained four CDs with 75 tracks and is called Louis Armstrong: The Complete RCA Victor Recordings. I’ve had time only to play Please Stop Playing Those Blues and A Song Was Born. What’s left of my hair stood on end. I’ll report back when I’ve played the whole album.