Tag Archives: Louis Armstrong

Tony Bennett: The Great Life

Tony Bennett PR shot 1The last time Tony Bennett performed in Glasgow, two years ago, he was already well into his eighties but, over the course of a non-stop 75 minute performance, he positively romped through a programme of no fewer than 26 songs, without pausing for anything more than the briefest chat and acknowledgement of the massive outpouring of affection for him from the packed Concert Hall. The longer he was onstage, and the more he sang, the more animated he became – and it seemed that the enthusiastic response from the audience was fuelling his staggeringly lively performance.

But it seems that there is more to it than that. Bennett, who is now 88 and set to return to the Concert Hall next week, is not so much driven by the need for applause as he is by the desire to entertain, and by his own enormous pleasure in singing. He explains: “I love doing it, and I like to try to make people feel good. It’s always very enjoyable to me leaving the theatre knowing that I made people feel good.”

And it’s not just to his audience that Bennett feels a sense of responsibility; as the oldest popular singer on the block – and the one whose career stretches back over an incredible six decades – he regards himself as a custodian of the Great American Songbook. After all, there can only be a handful of singers still around who have direct links with the original contributors to that body of work, and such original exponents of it as Bennett’s hero, Fred Astaire. Does Bennett feel a sense of responsibility to these songs?

“Yes, I do because the United States in the 1930s had a renaissance period very similar to what happened in France with Impressionism, with Monet, and musically with Ravel and Debussy. It was the beginning of talkies in films so they grabbed Fred Astaire off the stage and put him in films and they hired George Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter to write the songs. These songs are gorgeous, they never become dated because they’re so well-written. I travel the world and wherever I go, people start to sing them back at me – they’re known internationally.”

Bennett first heard many of them – including the one he cites as his personal favourite, Jerome Kern’s All The Things You Are (“I just adore that song”) – as a youngster growing up in the Queens borough of New York. Before he discovered this homegrown American music, however, it was his father’s Caruso records which introduced him to the art of singing, and in particular to the “bel canto” style, which explains his graceful way with a song and his elegant phrasing.

“My father adored opera and had a reputation himself as a singer. I was told that he would sing on the top of a mountain in Calabria and the whole valley would hear him. This inspired my older brother and myself – and we both became singers. My brother was very successful – at age 14 he was hired by the Metropolitan Opera House. So he was called Little Caruso. Of course I became a bit envious so I just became interested in jazz and started improvising.”

Asked who his first inspiration as a singer was, Bennett instantly names Louis Armstrong who, like him, enjoyed success as both a jazz and a popular artist and who effectively invented jazz singing. That the pair became great friends is perhaps no surprise given that they seem to share the same outlook about entertaining an audience and living life to the full. Bennett says: “His whole life he just wanted to make people feel good and have fun. He loved what he was doing so much that it never became old-fashioned. Just listen to him playing on a Hot 5 record. If you listen to the musicians playing behind him, it does sound a little dated but when Louis comes in on trumpet or singing it sounds like right now.”

Speaking to Tony Bennett, it’s impossible not to be struck by his delight in discussing jazz – his first musical love – and its characters. On Duke Ellington: “He was a complete genius, unbelievable. He just performed every night. I knew him at least the last 30 years of his life and there wasn’t a day that he didn’t compose some music – even when they were on tour doing one-nighters and he was travelling 150 miles a day, he would have the orchestra try something that he might want to put into his composition.”

On John Bunch, the much-loved pianist, and former music director to Bennett, who was a regular visitor to Scotland’s jazz festivals until his death in 2010 : “Gentleman John Bunch. I loved him so much. He was the most wonderful person. In fact, I’ll tell you a cute story .. He asked me one time when we were in London: ‘Did you ever play tennis?’ I said ‘no.’ He said: ‘Would you like me to give you a lesson?’ I said ‘okay.’ So he took me out to a stadium to play at the net and he showed me how to hit the ball over the net and all that sort of thing. Later on I found out that we had been playing at Wimbledon! I’ve been working down ever since then…”

Billie Holiday (“a sweet, beautiful, sophisticated lady”) was a particular favourite – and Bennett, who first topped the charts in 1950, was lucky enough to meet her. “Duke Ellington had a show at a nightclub in New York and I went to see it. Billie Holiday was there too. It was the days when there was an awful lot of prejudice. She said: ‘C’mon Tony, let’s go uptown and have a jam session.’ The people I was with kind of indicated to me ‘don’t go up there – it’s dangerous,’ you know? I regret it to this day.”

Bennett may be embarrassed about that episode but it was exceptional, since he was an active supporter of and participant in the civil rights movement in the 1960s, responding to the call to arms from his friends Martin Luther King and Harry Belafonte. His own life hadn’t been without struggle, and the other overwhelmingly striking thing about a conversation with him is how lucky he feels to have had the life he’s had, making a living doing something he loves, and how – even now, nearly 60 years after his initial success – he still counts his blessings.

“After my father died [when he was ten years old], my Italian family would come over every Sunday and my brother, sister and I would entertain them. They told me that I sang very well and that they liked my paintings of flowers. They created a passion in my life to just sing and paint, and I’ve gotten away with it – I’ve never really worked a day in my life. I just enjoy what I do.”

Asked if he escaped into his music when times were tough, Bennett explains that it wasn’t merely a form of distraction; it was a practical escape route out of poverty. “I went into showbusiness to stop my mother from working – she was making a penny a dress sewing in a sweat shop to put food on the table for her children. I was able to accomplish that with my first couple of hit records – I was able to send my mom out into the suburbs into beautiful nature.”

Tony Bennett - Concert Hall steps

Tony Bennett on the steps of the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 1995 (c) Herald & Times Group

The adult Bennett has had his fair share of professional frustrations and personal problems – and for a while he was, to paraphrase one of his early signature songs, “lost, his losing dice was tossed, his bridges all were crossed, nowhere to go.” A period out of the pop limelight in the 1970s produced some jazz albums – notably of duets with pianist Bill Evans and, most sublimely, his two volumes of the
Rodgers & Hart Songbook with the Ruby Braff/George Barnes Quartet; intimate, cult recordings which are among the very best vocal works in all jazz and which highlight Bennett’s admiration and respect for the some of the most eloquent lyrics in the Great American Songbook..

Relaunching his career in the late 1980s, performing on MTV, and duetting with young pop stars – most recently Lady Gaga – has brought him to new audiences. But best of all, his later success has allowed him to be exactly the kind of singer he wants to be – singing jazz with his quartet and creating an intimate atmosphere even in the largest venue. “I like working that way,” he says. “To clarify my whole premise: I don’t want to be the biggest. I’d rather be one of the best.” Mission accomplished, I reckon.

* Tony Bennett performs at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday, September 9th.

* First published in The Herald, Saturday August 30th

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Jubilant Louis on Parade

Someone has been searching for “Louis Armstrong on parade” – I hope they check back on this blog because I think I know exactly what they’re looking for: a clip of Louis in the 1937 Mae West comedy Ever Day’s a Holiday. He plays a street sweeper (a step up from the chicken thief of Pennies From Heaven the year before?!) who leads a parade and sings this joyful Hoagy Carmichael song towards the end of the film (go t0 0.47 to hear the uninterrupted version and see Mae West playing drums!) 

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Happy Swinging Hallowe’en

Louis Armstrong’s first appearance in a feature film – 1936’s Pennies From Heaven –  found him cast as a trumpet-playing chicken thief who performs at the opening of a haunted house style nightclub .. The great Marty Grosz, who also recorded a terrific version of this song, used to offer audiences a brilliantly funny potted version of the ridiculous plot of this particularly silly film – and it was much more entertaining than the movie itself. But this clip – the perfect Hallowe’en clip for jazz fans – is essential viewing. Louis vanquishes the skeleton with his high notes, while Lionel Hampton is featured on drums!

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Satchmo in Glasgow

I was on BBC Radio Scotland’s The Jazz House tonight, discussing Louis Armstrong’s visits to my hometown of Glasgow – as 2012 is the 80th anniversary of his first concert here, and the 50th anniversary of his last.

Here’s the link if you’d like to hear Jazz House presenter Stephen Duffy and me waxing lyrical on the subject …

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My City of Stars Exhibition, Starring Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong, Kelvin Hall, Glasgow, 1956 (c) The Herald and Times Group

I’ve been totally pre-occupied these last two weeks curating an exhibition of photographs – some of them never before seen – of stars of cinema and music as they passed through my hometown of Glasgow from the 1920s onwards.

Of course, I had to include Louis Armstrong, whose 1956 visit to the city has become the stuff of local legend – though it was his 1962 visit that has a personal significance as that was when my 16-year-old father won a competition to meet him. (The signed photo hung in the family bathroom throughout my childhood – appropriately enough, given Louis’s love of laxatives.)

Anyway, here’s my write-up about what happened when Louis came to town in 1956.

By 1956, when Louis Armstrong made the first of his two post-war visits to Glasgow, he was no longer merely known to jazz fans the world over as the singlemost important figure in the evolution of the music. About to be seen in the all-star Hollywood musical High Society, he was also a household name – an entertainer and movie personality known universally as “Satchmo”.

Armstrong’s return to Glasgow, 22 years after his previous visit, was long overdue – so it’s little wonder there was a great deal of excitement about his back-to-back Kelvin Hall shows in the local press. The build-up started days before his arrival, with the Scottish Daily Express publishing “Satchmo’s Column”, a daily diary – clearly ghostwritten – chronicling his tour of Britain.

Nobody could have been more excited than the Clyde Valley Stompers, the trad band which was invited to appear on the bill alongside Armstrong and his All Stars. Four days before the show, the Evening Citizen published a telegram which the band had received:

“Old Pops is happy to hear that you are working on the bill with my All Stars when we play at the Kelvin Hall on May 15. We have got a wonderful show and my boys are playing greater than ever and I know from your reputation that your boys will help us to give the local cats a good evening’s music they will never forget. Regards, Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong.”

Certainly, no-one who was at the show could ever forget it. Even before Armstrong had set foot on the revolving stage, there was the spectacle of the one-legged acrobatic dancer Peg Leg Bates to file away under “unforgettable”. The Bulletin reported that once the All Stars’ set was underway, “the music was alive and the bubbling energy of Louis infectious”.

Fans had had to wait an hour for their hero, who didn’t come onstage until the second half. It was reported in the Daily Record the next day that he had been giving an impromptu trumpet lesson to eight-year-old Fraser Watson, whom he had spotted clutching his new trumpet amidst the throng of screaming teenagers at the stage door.

When Armstrong did come on, he played for a solid 60 minutes. The only dampener on proceedings was the sight of rows of empty seats near the front – only the less pricey seats had sold out.

Between his two shows, Armstrong feasted on a fish supper brought to his dressing room by the Glasgow-born jazz singer turned Broadway star Ella Logan who was also on the bill. Mamie Crichton of the Evening News was horrified by the choice of food on a triumphant occasion which called for “chicken and champagne”. She described Armstrong eating his fish, with his shirt hanging out, “jacket off, horn-rim spectacles on, a handkerchief tied round his head and his wide, battered lips smeared thickly with his own special lip-salve.”

Don Whyte of the Scottish Daily Express quoted Armstrong’s opinion of his carry-out. “Man, ah couldn’t have done this a while ago with my old stomach trouble. But now ah’ll have blown this lot down after five minutes with my horn.” Armstrong was famous for sharing his favourite laxative, Swiss Kriss, with new friends, but he doesn’t seem to have done this in Glasgow. Instead, Mamie Crichton and the others present backstage were offered diet charts which Armstrong fished out of a huge grip bag and “insisted on autographing for each of us”.

Telling them that he’d lost 15lbs in a year, he said: “You can eat anything you like on this diet, but the secret is – never eat late at night. You take a spoonful of this [he reached into the grip for a jar of white powder] ten minutes after meals, and some of this [in again for a herb mixture] just before you go to bed.”

While fans swarmed outside his police-guarded dressing room, Armstrong also played host to a tailor. Satchmo, you see, had decided that he wanted to be fitted for a kilt – in the Armstrong tartan, of course. In his column in the Express, he explained that his name probably derived from one of Scottish “boss men on the plantations” in the Deep South during the days of slavery. “They knew how to make all the cats toe the line,” he added.

As he was measured by the envoy from Lawries the kiltmakers for the full Highland monty (kilt, shoes, jacket, stockings,  balmoral etc), Armstrong told The Bulletin that he planned to wear it on Ed Sullivan’s TV show back in New York – and that his singer, Velma Middleton (all 350lbs of her) would be getting a kilt too. While reporters took notes and local celebrities – including Jimmy Logan, Ella’s nephew – looked on, Armstrong was busy trying to get his vital statistics from his wife, Lucille. Their conversation was reported in the Express:

” ‘Lucille,’ he asked his dark-skinned fourth wife. ‘What size of shoes do I take?’
‘Nine and a half, my man,’ says Lucille.
‘Hey sugar-brown, what size of hat do I wear?’ asks Satchmo.
‘I dunno. You never wears a hat,’ replies Lucille.”

Perhaps Mr and Mrs Armstrong should have consulted Satchmo’s valet, Doc Pugh, who was in charge of the non-Highland part of his master’s wardrobe. Asked by the Express – for the article MacSatchmo Gets Measured for a Kilt – why Armstrong was wearing a blue suit while the rest of his band was in black, Doc Pugh explained that it was because he only had one black suit. “It’s black mohair – and he’s keeping it off because it’s too warm.”

In fact, it was so warm that, upon arrival in Glasgow, Doc Pugh bought 50 white handkerchiefs (at £5, 5s) to pile up on the piano so that Armstrong would always have one handy to mop his sweaty brow during his shows. Glaswegians who had seen him during his earlier visits, in 1932 and 1933, had been appalled by the amount of sweat to pour out of the trumpeter. One newspaper headline had read: “The World’s Hottest Trumpeter Perspires at the Empire”.

Judging by the reviews, Armstrong needed his hanky supply in 1956. The Citizen said: “He never stopped blowing magic out of dat ol’ horn, hopping about, whooping up the solo bits of his colleagues singing solo or duet with the vast Velma Middleton from a throat that must be a landslide of whole rocks down there to produce that sound. The Daily Record reported that Armstrong got “the Kelvin Hall ROAR”, and that “even a three-quarter’s empty first house didn’t put him off his stride.”

Two days after Armstrong’s triumphant return to Glasgow, the papers were still carrying stories about it. The Evening News revealed that just before the concert, Armstrong had lost his mute and an SOS had to be put out to the London makers of his trumpet. A mute was rushed to Euston Station, put on a fast train to Glasgow and met there by Jimmy McCormack, of the well-known city centre music shop McCormack’s. He jumped in a taxi with it and delivered it to Armstrong in time for the first house….

* The City of Stars exhibition – which also features Cab Calloway – runs at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall from February 25 until September.

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Horns of Plenty

I’m just back from a flying – 26 hour – visit to the London Jazz Festival where I managed to experience not one but two of my highlights of my year (so far) in jazz. Not only were both of them tributes to great trumpeters, but they were also joyous celebrations dished up with a great deal of panache.

The first was the nine-piece Buck Clayton Legacy Band at the Southbank on Saturday evening – the actual centenary of the trumpeter’s birth. Thanks to a particularly fast BA flight and the fact that the closure of the tube line to Heathrow forced me onto the Heathrow Express, I was in time for the kick-off of broadcaster and bass player Alyn Shipton’s loving homage to his friend, who made his name in the 1930s with Count Basie’s band and went on to establish himself as a stylish arranger.

Indeed, as Shipton pointed out at the start, all the charts being played on Saturday night were from a box of mostly unrecorded arrangements which were left to him when Clayton died 20 years ago, in December 1991.

It was a treat to be introduced to them – and by such a terrific ensemble. Numbers such as The Bowery Bunch and Party Time showed a playful side to Clayton’s writing, while I’ll Make Believe was a gorgeous romantic number that benefitted enormously from Alan Barnes’s scene-stealing alto which dazzled against a backdrop of sumptuous horns, evoking Johnny Hodges’s Ellingtonian ballads.

Black Sheep Blues and Claytonia were superb, funky blues; the latter featuring another floor-wiping solo from Barnes while the former, the second tune of the concert, revealed the eloquent trumpet playing of Menno Daams, who emerged as the other star soloist of the evening. His gorgeous, burnished tone and magesterial style stood out on Horn of Plenty and Swinging at the Copper Rail. That number featured the single most thrilling part of the concert: when Barnes and Daams locked horns (well, Barnes had actually chosen clarinet as his weapon of choice) to trade breaks. It looked as if it was unplanned; whether it
was or not, it was electrifying.

Which is also the adjective that sprang to mind as the end titles rolled during the European premiere of the new silent film Louis, and much of the euphoric audience leapt to its collective feet to applaud the top-notch band which had played onstage throughout the movie and was now letting rip with Tiger Rag. (There was even more euphoria, a few minutes later, when the child actor who played Louis Armstrong was spotted in the audience.)

Dan Pritzker’s film is a beautiful thing – shot in black and white by the renowned cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, it looks ravishing. It’s an impressionistic and stylised evocation of Louis Armstrong’s childhood with lots of gentle mickey-takes on the mythology of his story – and of early jazz generally. In one lovely scene, a wagon, bound for the insane asylum, passes the kid Louis and as it does, its horn-playing passenger – the acknowledged first great king of the trumpet, Buddy Bolden – drops his crown for the youngster to catch.

The film is bursting with affectionate humour – and not just for Armstrong who is winningly played by Anthony Coleman (he got me when he flashed that signature Satchmo expression of bemusement/double-take). It’s also a homage to the original silent movies and to the great silent movie kings Buster Keaton and, especially, Charlie Chaplin – who is the obvious inspiration for the villain (played brilliantly by Jackie Earle Haley) and whose films are clearly referenced.

And then there’s the music; a score which fuses original music by Wynton Marsalis plus tunes by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington (The Mooche is very effectively used in one of many racy bordello scenes) and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a 19th century Creole composer whose music paved the way for the jazz of the 20th.

Performed by a ten-piece American band, led by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and featuring two pianists (one classical, playing the Gottschalk in the manner of the film accompanists of yore; the other jazz), it simultaneously evoked the era the film is set in (1907 New Orleans), and the 1920s – the era in which Armstrong exploded onto the popular consciousness and in which silent movies were at the peak of their popularity.

If that sounds a bit of a mish-mash, that’s because it is: like New Orleans in 1907, it’s a melting pot of musical influences – but one which, for the most part, works. Visually, the film moves elegantly between scenes advancing the plot and fantasy sequences which find Louis soaring into the Storyville sky or the villainous judge off in a Chaplinesque reverie. Along the way, Pritzker has woven in many of the hallmarks of the silent movie: the sign cards, the special effects, the slow fade-outs.

Just as Keaton and Chaplin effectively choreographed themselves, so much of this film has been choreographed: the writhing bodies in the bordello, the comic “business” when the judge confronts the street kids … It’s all highly stylised – and very effective.

Only criticisms are that the characters are pretty one-dimensional, the storyline a little simplistic and some of the scenes a bit self-indulgent. But taken as an experience, rather than as a film or as a concert, this is a must – for lovers of Louis Armstrong and cinema alike.

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What Bix Means to Me: Marty Grosz

The inimitable guitarist and singer has trumpeted the music of Bix Beiderbecke since early in his career: one of his early LPs was entitled Hooray for Bix, and celebrated the spirit of Bix’s small groups while avoiding replicating their recordings. He is currently working on arrangements of five Bix tunes – “nothing to do with the records; no recreation of solos” – for a set at the Chautauqua Jazz Weekend in September. He says:

“I first heard Bix when I was about 14, and Columbia reissued some of his recordings. This was about 1944. The rest of the kids were were into Glenn Miller and the hits of the day – and the big record that everyone in that generation had was Bunny Berigan’s I Can’t Get Started which was a sort of anthem.

“Bix’s band had a bass sax. It sounded strange; quite odd actually – that’s what I liked. I felt – and still feel – that there’s something very affecting about Bix, something touching about his sound. People still haven’t put their finger on it, and I wonder if my impression of it isn’t tinged by his story, like Berigan’s is. You know: the alcoholic whose parents didn’t want him to be a musician – the romance of that story. There’s been more bullshit written about him than about Marilyn Monroe … His life filled the role of unappreciated genius and the public loves that. The best thing you can do for your career is die early.

“This cult sprang up about Bix in the 1930s – the Young Man With a Horn and he became a sort of romantic figure. But when you talked to Bud Freeman and Eddie Condon – guys who knew him – they said simply that he was a great guy, a great player, but he drank too much. They didn’t get it – why people wanted that kind of romantic story.

“Listen to how Bix plays In a Mist – it’s like a stomp. I wish he hadn’t called it In a Mist – it encouraged people to talk about Bix ‘the dreamer’. It’s extrapolation after the fact – but the myth will go on. People need it.

“Nevertheless, I’ve always been touched by the melancholy aspect in his cornet playing – Louis Armstrong had that tinge of melancholy too, and profundity. Listen to Tight Like This. When he plays in the minor, it’s Wagnerian.

“I discovered Louis and Bix at the same point in my life since Bix’s recordings and Louis’s Hot 5 recordings were reissued at pretty much the same time. Whereas the Hot 5 tunes weren’t pop tunes – Louis didn’t really start playing pop tunes till the 1930s – Bix’s tunes were ones that people were still singing and playing when I was a kid: Margie, Somebody Stole My Gal etc. It helped us to assimilate them – it was the pop tunes  that got us first, though I’m Coming Virginia was probably the recording that really hooked me.

“I grew up listening to a couple of New York DJs who played a total mixture of jazz – you’d have Duke Ellington’s Ko-Ko, recorded in 1940, followed by something by Bessie Smith – and I didn’t realise for a long time that her stuff was much older. It was all mixed in together. I was drawn to improvised ensembles, like Bix’s and the Eddie Condon records – things that played with a kind of wild abandon that you really couldn’t hear anywhere else because the fashion at the time was for mostly smooth, suave, arranged stuff. And of course Louis got to me – there was a raucous aspect to him which was missing to the arranged things of the day.

“I love the bittersweet quality to Bix’s sound – Berigan had that too. I love Bix’s solos on Sweet Sue – Just You and China Boy, both with Paul Whiteman. Whatever he did, within two bars, you know who it was. That’s the stamp of a very strong musical personality. The most important thing about a jazz musician is that you can tell who it is instantly.

“Years ago, I was writing about Frank Teschemacher for Time Life and I was sent some clippings of interviews with jazz musicians that had been done by a guy in Chicago during the WPA (Works Progress Administration, which ran relief projects).  This guy had interviewed Muggsy Spanier who told him that he and Bix played duets together. He also interviewed George Barnes,  just 18 at the time, who told him that the first time he understood what swing was was when Jimmy McPartland lent him the record of Bix playing Singin’ the Blues.

“If I had to choose one track, it would be I’m Coming Virginia. Why? The sound! The sound and the note choices he makes. It’s a fully realised performance. It’s just beautiful, that’s all.

“I’d be hard-pressed to choose a second – I love bits in all his recordings but I’ve been enjoying Clementine recently …”

As a tantalising postscript, Marty added that Bud Freeman told him that in 1930, there were plans afoot for a tour of Europe by a group comprising himself, Bix, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Joe Sullivan, Gene Krupa, Dick McDonough and a bass player whose name Freeman couldn’t recall .. It never happened.

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