Phil Schaap Jazz

Louis Armstrong and the classic Traditional Jazz tune "Basin Street Blues"

LOUIS ARMSTRONG’s history with a classic piece of Traditional Jazz repertoire, “Basin Street Blues” - a tune he would perform countless times, almost always on trumpet and also singing its words; perhaps most famously when he first appears on screen in the “Glenn Miller Story” before Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson (as Glenn and the future Mrs. Miller) – is surprising in two regards: 1. Louis performs the piece very rarely during the first 20 years of the song’s existence. 2. When Armstrong did do it from 1926 (the year it was composed) until 1946, he leans heavily towards continuing his wordless vocal routine even though there was now a famous lyric. In those early years, it’s hard to document any other performances by Louis of the “Basin Street Blues” other than his two famous studio recordings of 1928 and 1933. BASIN STREET BLUES - Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five - December 4, 1928 – OKeh 8690 / W402153A This recording features the wordless vocal - not truly scatted - by Louis with a trio humming behind him. The words might not even been written. [The first vocal with words of “Basin Street Blues” appears to be the Louisiana Rhythm Kings version of June 11, 1929 where trombonist Jack Teagarden plays a solo that heavily references the chorus he had played on “Knockin’ A Jug” with Pops just 3 months before and Jack Teagarden also sings a few lines that match “Goin’ To Chicago” far more closely than any lyric we have for “Basin Street Blues”. In fact, when we finally hear a recognizable lyric to “Basin Street Blues”, it is Teagarden, again, singing. This is the famous Charleston Chasers version of February 9, 1931, in a beloved arrangement by Glenn Miller in a unit that he plays trombone in under Benny Goodman’s direction. All three (Big T, BG, and Miller) would claim that they had placedunaccredited additions to the composition that included a verse with lyrics that are now standard but were written long after Spencer Williams wrote the tune. These additions are by Teagarden and Miller. Yes, the lyrics to the verse are by them, but where do the lyrics to the chorus come from and why do they surface five years after the tune was composed? If there were words earlier, then why does Satchmo sing “Basin Street Blues” on record in 1928 employing a no lyric approach?] BASIN STREET BLUES - Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra - January 27, 1933 – Victor 24351 / BS-75103-1 This is a {Jazz Age styled} Big Band version. It is a Zilner Randolph arrangement. Even though the words had now been added, Satchmo reprises the wordless vocal. Though Armstrong does not sing the lyric, he offers a vocal is much closer to true scatting. Still, there is humming, as while Louis scats a half-chorus the humming trio background motif from the 1928 version is duplicated. Louis returns late in the record to scat again without the other vocalists accompanying. Louis Armstrong is not known to have performed “Basin Street Blues” again for nearly nine years. Beginning in the Fall of 1941, and continuing for what can be assumed to be roughly a half year, Satchmo, now leading a Swing Era sized Big Band, puts “Basin Street Blues” on his performance set lists. In the two known live versions, Armstrong for the first time sings words when he does the piece and they are the by now well known words that Teagarden first sang in 1931. Louis Armstrong does not return to doing “Basin Street Blues” regularly until at least April of 1947. As his last band, Louis Armstrong and the All Stars, debuted on August 13, 1947 we do not yet have a fully satisfying explanation for Pops returning to this tune. But it is clear that by the next year “Basin St. Blues” was a staple of the band’s repertoire and Louis performed the tune often into the mid 1960s. (Satchmo would die on July 6, 1971 and did not perform too much in his last years.) The anomaly of Louis Armstrong doing “Basin Street Blues” as few as 4 times from 1926 – 1944 and his doing it frequently from 1947 through 1965 is explained by two overarching career developments and three (4 by count) specific performances. The developments are: 1. Louis’ musical rapport with Jack Teagarden – who is essential to “Basin Street Blues” with words becoming a staple in Traditional Jazz’s repertoire – and that “Teagarden is a charter member (1947-1951) in Satchmo’s last band, Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars. 2. Armstrong’s preparing and performing the piece for the sound recordings to the 1947 released film, “New Orleans”, that triggers the transition from Big Band to the All-Stars combo. The recordings are: 1. The preview broadcast (1/16/1944) and then the live concert broadcast (1/18/1944) of “Basin Street Blues” attendant to the legendary Esquire All-American Awards Jazz Concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. These are Jack Teagarden’s first performances with Louis in six years and their connecting is the creed to ‘if Big T is going to be playing with Pops, then they’re going to perform “Basin Street Blues”. And they both sing, with Teagarden singing the words and Louis returning to a wordless vocal by scatting. 2. Another broadcast (1/17/1945) attendant to Esquire’s All-American Awards Jazz Concert (the second) where Armstrong performing in New Orleans is heard in a broadcast component to a stunning three city event (New York and Los Angeles) that would end with Louis, again in New Orleans, and using headphones to hear the others in NYC and LA, playing “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” with Benny Goodman (in NYC) and Duke Ellington (in LA). The central part to Louis Armstrong’s appearance via radio in the Second Esquire All-American Awards Jazz Concert was Satchmo’s concert appearance at New Orleans’ Municipal Auditorium where a (short-lived?) National Jazz Foundation presented a concert headlined by Louis (and including Sidney Bechet and many more) that created a direct relation to Esquire’s production by having the Foundation’s President, Peter Kennedy, present Louis Armstrong with his award. For many, an even more spectacular presentation came when William Zetzmann (misspelled in some publications Zetsman), President of the New Orleans Association of Commerce (later New Orleans Chamber of Commerce), announced that the City of New Orleans would be returning the name Basin Street to the New Orleans roadway, North Saratoga Street, that had been the name for this thoroughfare originally named Basin Street, during the preceding quarter century. The restoration of this more prominent, historic, and now far more prestigious name, Basin Street, demanded that Louis Armstrong perform the “Basin Street Blues” and Satchmo obliged. Louis sang the lyrics and did not scat (or hum). Given the circumstances, it was the only way that he could have sung it. Not too surprisingly, the speeches and presentations had taken so much time that the coast-to-coast broadcast of this concert from the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans was faded out – on the air – before the performance of “Basin Street Blues” had concluded. (Later, on the live broadcast of the Los Angeles concert for Esquire (from the legendary Philharmonic Auditorium – think JATP), Armstrong, separately and in New Orleans, would be heard with BG (studio in NYC) and Duke (at the LA concert). 3. At some point during the late Summer 1946 filming in Hollywood of the film, “New Orleans, Louis Armstrong recorded “Basin Street Blues” with Charlie Beal, Barney Bigard, Red Callender, Kid Ory, and Bud Scott. It wasn’t used for the film. Intriguingly, Armstrong returns to his wordless vocal routine, but even more striking is that the musicians reprise the background humming that was so much a part of Louis first two and major “Basin Street Blues” recorded in 1928 and 1933.