I took a six-month layoff from writing Hotter Than That, my Louis Armstrong biography, to work on the libretto of The Letter. Two weeks ago I picked up the threads of Armstrong’s life, and on Saturday I finished writing a ten-thousand-word chapter about his return to New York in 1929, his Broadway debut, and his emergence as a popular celebrity.
To celebrate, I’m going to share with you the section from “Playing Frantic: Fame, 1929-1930” in which I describe how Armstrong began recording with big bands. Enjoy!
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That afternoon Armstrong returned to the studio to cut two sides with the Luis Russell band, augmented by Eddie Condon on banjo and Lonnie Johnson on guitar. The first was “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” a ballad by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields that had become popular the year before when it was sung in Blackbirds of 1928, the longest-running all-black Broadway revue of the Twenties. This version, which opens with a melancholy, sweet-toned instrumental chorus split down the middle by Armstrong (who uses a straight mute) and J.C. Higginbotham, appears at first glance to have little in common with the daredevil small-group sides that had made the trumpeter’s name a byword among jazz musicians. It almost sounds as if he were sitting in with his beloved Guy Lombardo. But then he puts down his trumpet and croons an ingeniously oblique half-scatted paraphrase of the melody (Armstrong never sang a melody straight) accompanied by three gently mooing saxophones and Pops Foster’s bowed bass, followed by a high-flying trumpet chorus that sheers daringly away from the tune and soars off into the blue, ascending toward (but failing to hit) a climactic high D.
The results exemplified the recipe for a three-chorus solo he had shared with the New Orleans trumpeter Wingy Manone: “The first chorus I plays the melody, the second chorus I plays the melody round the melody, and the third chorus I routines.” They also showed that he could make a ballad sound as jazzy as a blues, a lesson that was not lost on his contemporaries. Ethel Waters paid homage to him in 1932 with a recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” in which she imitates with uncanny accuracy the vocal chorus from his 1929 recording, a witty and knowing tribute that also serves as an indication of the extent of his fast-growing celebrity.
What inspired Armstrong to record so sentimental a song in so personal a manner? The credit, amazingly enough, seems to belong to Tommy Rockwell, his tone-deaf producer. Years later Armstrong discussed the session with George Avakian:
Rockwell knew it had to be different. The song had been on the radio for almost a year, and everybody did it like cheerful–“One day I’ll buy you diamond rings, baby,” and all that. Rockwell thought I should do it like life really is–the guy really can’t give her anything but love. So he had Brother Higginbotham and the saxophones play it way down low, and I sang it that way, too.
And whose idea was it for Armstrong to record a show tune? His autobiographical writings shed no light on the matter, but three months earlier he had accompanied Lillie Delk Christian on her OKeh recordings of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “I Must Have That Man,” another song from Blackbirds of 1928. Though he had never before recorded such fare under his own name, he had been playing it in public since his Sunset Cafe days in Chicago. Thus he might have suggested it to Rockwell, just as he was undoubtedly responsible for picking the last song recorded that day, a rocking instrumental named after a celebrated Storyville whorehouse whose black madam he remembered fondly: “Lulu White was a famous woman of the sporting world in Storyville…She had a big house on Basin Street called Mahogany Hall…The song was written after her house had gotten so famous…Rich men came there from all parts of the world to dig those beautiful Creole prostitutes…And pay big money.” “Mahogany Hall Stomp” shows off the Russell band at its swinging best, with Pops Foster thumping out a fat-toned bass line as Armstrong romps through three muted solo choruses (one of which consists solely of a sunlit high B flat stretched out for ten breathtaking bars) whose pellucid simplicity would be echoed at one time or another by virtually every jazz trumpeter of the Thirties.
But even if it was Armstrong’s own idea to record “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” and “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” he could not have done so without Rockwell’s approval, and it was probably the OKeh executive’s idea to pair him with Luis Russell’s band as well. The success of the collaboration sealed his artistic fate: from 1929 to 1947 he would be the nominal leader of a big band, criss-crossing the country to play show tunes and pop songs for dancers who knew little or nothing of jazz. Many jazz fans came to feel that Armstrong had “sold out” by switching to big-band accompaniment, but in fact he had been fronting such groups ever since he quit King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1924. Had he done otherwise, he would never have become a star, though it would not have occurred to him, or the other well-known jazz instrumentalists of his generation, to do anything else. Dancing was where the money was. Even such stalwarts of the New Orleans style as Joe Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton bowed to the inevitable and added saxophone sections to their bands. Most of the important small-group jazz recordings made between 1925 and 1940 were the work of studio-only pickup ensembles whose members were drawn from the ranks of the big touring dance bands.
Not until World War II laid waste to those ranks did small-group jazz become a big-time business, and even then the cautious Armstrong waited until two years after the war was over to dispose of his expensive orchestra and start working with a six-piece combo. He loved the Hot Five, but he saw no reason why he couldn’t make equally good music with a big band–and he was right.