Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Trumpet of Tommy Dorsey

Tommy Dorsey's standing as a trombonist and bandleader is known to any fan of jazz and big band music. His work as a trumpet player, mainly in the late 20s isn't too widely known and is an amazing surprise to fans of his trombone work.
Both Tommy and brother Jimmy were taught trumpet first by their father Thomas Sr., a music teacher and concert bandsman. They eventually concentrated on trombone and reeds respectively.
Jimmy, himself played a fair horn and recorded a few times, his sound had a Bix Beiderbecke influence to it(Jimmy and Tommy worked and recorded with Bix frequently).
Tommy's trumpet sound came from the hot, driving influence of Louis Armstrong. Both Louis and Bix influenced countless musicians of the 20s.

Tommy gave us lots of fine jazz trombone recordings in the 20s, especially in the company of Bix, Phil Napolean, Paul Whiteman and his own bands co-led with Jimmy. As a trombonist one can hear the influence of Miff Mole and Bill Rank, two of the era's finest players. Right from the beginning Tommy had that beautiful, pure sound and remarkable control. That's why it's so unusual to hear his reckless, hell- bent- for leather trumpeting.

The first recorded example of Tommy's trumpet comes on a Paul Whiteman recording of Aug. 1927, It Won't be Long Now. Both Tommy and Jimmy were recent additions to the Whiteman Orchestra (Bix and Frank Trumbauer would join up in late Oct.).
On this DeSylva-Brown-Henderson pop tune, Bing Crosby and the Rhythm Boys and Jimmy are also heard. Tommy takes an opening spot on trombone then returns for some brief but effective trumpet spots with straight mute. The Louis influence is there and Tommy delivers a hot coda to the recording. If one didn't know that it was Tommy, the solo could have been taken for any fine hot jazzman of the era.

On the many Okeh Dorsey Bros. recordings of the late 20s, Tommy occasionly took a trumpet solo. One of his best is on My Melancholy Baby (4/24/28) . Tommy belts out a Loui-ish verse and takes a solo reprieve later in the tune. His solo on Forgetting You has also been singled out as a stellar hot chorus.
Tommy recorded two sessions for Okeh featuring his trumpet with rhythm accompaniment. The first on 11/10/28 featured Artie Schutt on harmonium, Jim Williams,bass, Eddie Lang,guitar and Stan King on drums. It's Right here for You and Tiger Rag showcase his hot,slashing horn much under the Armstrong spell. The verse to It's Right Here is played pretty and Tommy gets in a hot double time passage. The session of 4/23/29 billed as Tom Dorsey and his Novelty Orch. have Lang, King and pianist Frank Signorelli. You Can't Cheat a Cheater and Daddy Change your Mind contain more standout Dorsey horn.

Another exellent example of Tommy's trumpet work is on the Cotton Pickers session of 3/27/29 and 5/16/29. This was a Brunswick studio group usually made up of members of Phil Napolean's Memphis Five. Along with Tommy and Jimmy are Schutt, King, Joe Tarto on bass, Perry Botkin,banjo and Glenn Miller,trombone. The first session features two takes of Rampart St. Blues (one with a vocal). Tommy's lead and short solos are solid and Glenn Miller shows what a fine trombonist he was,with shades of Miff Mole and Bill Rank. St. Louis Gal has a pretty opening solo by Tommy, reminicent of Joe Smith. The doubletime finale allows him a wailing rideout. Kansas City Kitty is also a solid side with fine solos by all hands. Hoagy Carmichael may be one of the vocalists on this session.
The May session has Carl Kress,guitar, Signorelli,piano and the popular vocalist Dick Robertson.
No Parking (a Napolean original) is a lively, stomping instrumental. Tommy shows off some fast fingering a la Red Nichols. Sweet Ida Joy is a pleasant side with Dick's vocal and Tommy playing a sweeter lead horn. An exellent session, not only for Tommy's trumpet but for the underated Miller trombone.

Tommy's hottest trumpet work came on an Eddie Lang date for Okeh on 5/28/29. Along with Tommy on trombone and trumpet were Jimmy, Schutt,Lang,Tarto,King and Leo McConville,an exellent but underated Bix-like cornetist. (all the band members were frequent colleagues of Red Nichols). Freeze and Melt, an early Jimmy McHugh tune has Tommy on trombone only and features fine solos including a rolling,Bix-ish one by McConville. On Bugle Call Rag, Tommy starts out on trombone but switches to trumpet for the outchorus. He lets off a few slashing breaks,then joins McConville for a driving outchorus with some of the New Orleans Rhythm Kings passages uses as a riff. Jimmy is also inspired with some throbbing high notes over the band. The highlight of the session is Hot Heels, a Lang original with minor key solos in the style of Louis' King of the Zulus and Tight Like That. Tommy is really into his Louis bag here with a classic solo building up to some impressive high notes. (the solo also reminds one of the gifted but eccentric trumpeter Jack Purvis). Jimmy also gets in a hot clarinet chorus going up high ,too before the band rides home. Tommy's horn work here shows a hard blowing Armstrong disciple and certainly stands on it's own merits, even if one was unaware of his briliance as a trombonist.
By the way, Tommy's trombone on Freeze is exellent too, with shades of Miff Mole, one of his idols.

An intriguing session that may have Tommy on trumpet is the Blind Willie Dunn Gin Bottle Four date of 4/30/29 for Okeh. Dunn was a pseudonym for Eddie Lang who added the great bluesman Lonnie Johnson on guitar along with J,C, Johnson,piano and a drummer some credit as Hoagy Carmichael (and perhaps vocalist,too). King Oliver has been suggested as cornetist and it sounds like him, but Tommy has also been mentioned as a possibility. The two sides, Jet Black Blues and Blue Blood Blues have fine Johnson guitar and humorous percussion (including some close mike jaw pounding!). I think the cornet is Oliver, but Tommy was certainly capable of playing in this style. Tommy also played trumpet on a Seger Ellis Okeh date of Feb. 1930. He contributes a Louis-ish muted spot to Should I? with a "Dippermouth Blues" quote. Eddie Lang's great rhythm guitar is also a highlight.

Tommy continued to double on trumpet occasionly. He and Jimmy did some trumpet doubling with the Dorsey Bros. band of 1934-5. (the band had just one regular trumpet). Sometimes with his own band, he would like to grab a horn from the trumpet section and get a few kicks with a solo or two. The last recording of Tommy on trumpet is with his Big Band on a pop tune of June 1,1939,Back to Back. Tommy takes a driving straight mute solo up front, sounding a bit like Yank Lawson who was in his trumpet section at the time. It's the last recorded evidence of Tommy's trumpet work.

Tommy's trumpet work, different as night and day from his trombone shows another side of his musical genius, along with his love of Louis Armstrong and hot jazz. Although a capable jazzman on trombone, Tommy got to let his hair down as a trumpeter and explore a rougher, hotter side of his playing. The fact that he was doing this as a bit of a lark gave him that freedom and abandon that he couldn't attain as a trombonist. It's a fascinating aspect of one of our greatest musicians.

Is it gonna Be Long? and Back to Back can be heard on Youtube.
My Melancholy Baby and other early Dorsey Bros. sides are on Vol. 1 of The Old Masters series on the brothers.
The Hot Heels and Willie Dunn session is on the Classics Eddie Lang collection.
The TD trumpet solos are part of Stringing the Blues on Koch Records.
The Cotton Pickers session is on a Timeless Phil Napolean CD.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Christmas with Louis Armstrong

One of the great tragedies in recording history is that Louis Armstrong never got to make a full Christmas album. Louis embodied all the joys, warmth and sacred beauty of the season.

Pops loved Christmas- one of the most famous stories is his fascination with a Christmas tree that his wife Lucille brought on tour. Louis insisted the tree stay up long after the season was over. I'm sure that Louis played many Christmas requests in person, but none seem to have been recorded. We do have some lovely singles Louis recorded for Decca along with a few other seasonal songs. This post will celebrate these joyous Christmas offerings.

Louis' earliest Christmas recording is the Clarence Williams Blue Five session of Oct. 1925 at Okeh records.He recorded two versions of Santa Claus Blues a tune written by Chicago bandleader Charlie Straight and Gus Kahn. On Oct. 8 the full band backs up vocalist Eva Taylor in a spirited version. Louis is already experimenting with the higher register of the horn and Buster Bailey on soprano is impressive thruout. (he would join Louis' All Stars in 1965). On the 16th Louis accompanied Clarence, Eva and Clarence Todd's vocal in a slow version of the tune with just Williams' piano and Buddy Christian on banjo. Louis' phrasing is typical of the wonderful blues accompaniments he took part in during this period.

We fast forward to September 22,1952 and a studio session at Decca records. Louis is backed by the studio band and arrangements of Gordon Jenkins. Jenkins was an unabashed admirer of Pops and created lovely and inspired commercial charts for Louis. Recorded at the session were the seasonal favorites White Christmas and Winter Wonderland. Louis doesn't play on these selections but his vocals are especially warm and well recorded. The vocal on White Christmas is fairly straight backed by Jenkins' lovely string writing. On Winter Wonderland Louis has a beautiful scat coda and Marty Napolean gives us some one finger piano melody (a Jenkins trademark). Napolean, Arvell Shaw(bass), Cozy Cole(drums) and Bob McCracken(clarinet) were members of Louis' All Stars of the time. (they augment the studio players). A lovely example of Pops'ability to combine simplicity with virtuosity.

The next Christmas session for Pops was on Oct. 22,1953 at Decca again. Backing Louis was the Commanders, a popular swing band led by drummer Ed Grady and here using an all star studio lineup including Billy Butterfield, Lou Mc Garity, Cutty Cutshall, Hymie Schertzer, Al Klink, Bernie Leighton and Carmen Mastren. The band had a brassy sound to it with 3 trumpets and 4 trombones, the charts were by Toots Camarata( he had backed up Louis with Jimmy Dorsey's band in 1936). The Christmas songs recorded were two novelties, 'Zat You,Santa Claus? and Cool Yule (written by Steve Allen).

'Zat You is a fun minor key novelty in the style of Old Man Mose and Skeleton in the Closet.There are some fun sound effects simulating the cold wind and knocking on Louis' cabin. Louis has a lot of fun and the band swings hard Cool Yule swings along in shuffle rhythm and another homage to Santa.There are cute lyrics including Santa taking a lick on a peppermint stick. Louis gets in some trumpet too and wails for a half chorus in great style, his stop time stuff on the bridge is classic Pops.This entire session had great Louis horn and vocals and Camarata's fine charts and a great studio band(that big bone section is very prominent on Yule) put the tunes over in fine style.

The next Christmas recording was back at Decca on Sept. 8, 1955 with a solid studio band arranged and conducted by the great Benny Carter. Louis' regular band (Trummy Young, Barney Bigard, Billy Kyle, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems) were also part of the studio band.
The two Christmas selections were Christmas in New Orleans (a novelty written for the session) and a Raymond Scott favorite Christmas Night in Harlem.
New Orleans is a cute novelty with Pops' having fun talking about a Basin St. Santa (the tune is a bit of a Basin St. clone)and barefoot choir, he also gets in a solid trumpet solo. Carter's charts are well crafted and swinging, as is his custom. Harlem (a Jack Teagarden-Johnny Mercer favorite) swings nicely with Louis getting in some great scat and a burnished,swinging horn solo. Trummy and Barney can he heard getting in some licks.
Also recorded at the session was Moments to Remember, a current hit for the Four Lads. It's popped up on some of Louis' Christmas compilations due to it's opening New Year's line. It's a lovely tune and Pops' vocal and horn are backed up by a pretty Carter arrangement.

We have to wait until may 26, 1970 for the next Christmas tune. While recording the Flying Dutchman lp Louis and his Friends, the selection Here's My Heart for Christmas was recorded for use as a single. The tune was written by George Weiss (composer of What a Wonderful World) and gets a tender reading from Louis with nice backing by James Spaulding(flute) and Frank Owens(piano). Oliver Nelson was the arranger/conductor. Louis was recuperating from a fatal illness and does not play trumpet on the session.

Louis' last studio recording was a delightful reading of The Night Before Christmas. Pops recorded the poem in his home studio on Feb. 26,1971. Although his health was still shaky, Louis was back to playing trumpet and in the midst of his last engagement.
Although there's no singing or trumpet, Pops' narrative is delightful and swings in it's own way. His 1938 Decca recordings of Elder Eatmore's Sermons show his talent as a monologist. He gets in some of his own phrases and personal touches. (he dedicates the reading to "all the kids").
The poem was released as a single by Continental Records backed by a version of The Saints from the 1968 BBC TV show issued on Brunswick. This is a lovely and charming coda to Louis' recording career. Some versions of the poem dubbed in some irritating music behind Louis.
There is also a nice version of Pops and the All-Stars playing Auld Lang Syne from a New Years' Eve broadcast of 1954 at the Down Beat in San Francisco. Louis plays the perennial with his beautiful solemn lead, it's nice to have this version. Another seasonal song that gets packaged in Louis' Christmas compilations is his duet with Velma Middleton on Baby, It's Cold Outside. This was a fun routine that wasn't recoded commercially but exists on many live releases.

The 6 Decca sides are available on the Hip-O CD, What a Wonderful Christmas. Along with Louis there are single sides by Louis Jordan, Peggy Lee, Lionel Hampton, Mel Torme, Lena Horne, Duke Ellington, Eartha Kitt and Dinah Washington. It makes for nice Holiday listening.
The budget Laserlight label offers Christmas through the Years and includes Santa Claus Blues, Baby It's Cold, Nite before Christmas , Zat You and some non-Christmas sides by Louis.
Louis' great Verve duet with Ella Fitzgerald on I've got my Love to Keep me Warm has popped up on Music Choice TV a lot and most of the sides can be heard on Youtube.

Everyday is Christmas when you watch or listen to Louis Armstrong's music.
Happy Holidays from Pete Kelly's Blog.