Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Love and New Orleans

Happy Mardi Gras, everybody! Tonight I get to play New Orleans jazz with two different bands in two different places. Also at two different times, just so you know. I’m not one of them temporal clarinetists. One of the joints is called The Bungalow, where the Mouldy Figs will reside, the other the Fraternal Order of Eagles, Aerie #34. It is there the Southside Aces will throw in with three other bands and a vat of beans and rice. A lucky jazzman it is who gets to provide some of the Gras of Mardi Gras. I hope you will do your best to bring the Carnival Season to a swinging, crashing, whiskey-sipping, bead-throwing, second-lining, gumbo-wolfing, purple, green and gold, so-what-if-you’re-a-little-tired-on-Wednesday close! I know I will.

But why would I talk about Mardi Gras when I can talk about Valentine’s Day? Once we finish lending a hand observing Fat Tuesday, two days later the Aces come back to the Eagles to provide a Valentine’s Day dance. Sweethearts On Parade! Every few years or so, both Mardi Gras and Valentine’s Day make their appearance in the same week. I checked into it, and the last time they fell on the same day was 1961, the next time 2040. It’s like the Haley’s Comet of dual holidays. One of the only other dual holidays that has come to my attention is on June 14th. Flag Day and National Bourbon Day. Hard to beat that. Except that a Mardi Gras/Valentines has bourbon anyway, plus you get candy. At any rate, you have quite awhile before you have to begin worrying about placing your special order for a heart-shaped King Cake. 

This year Mardi Gras falls on Lincoln’s birthday. I don’t know what to do with that. Instead, I’m going to focus on the combination of Love and New Orleans. On June 26th, 1950, the Decca studios in New York recorded Louis Armstrong with the Sy Oliver Orchestra, Earl Hines on piano. It was French pop music day, apparently, because not only was “La Vien Rose,” put on record, but the B side was “C’est Si Bon.” These were big, orchestral pop arrangements, something Louis began to do more often starting in 1949. Music critics, who found it impossible to seek out jazz in so-called “commercial” surroundings, often overlooked these recordings. In Ricky Riccardi’s book, What A Wonderful World—The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years, there is a section recounting a radio interview from around that time where Louis gives us a great education about the mistaken idea that “commercial” necessarily equates to lack of jazz. I did not feel sorry for the deejay as Louis gave him a fantastic dressing down. You’ll have to get the book and read it yourself (pages 50-51). Or call me up and I’ll read it to you. The upshot was his final word to the deejay. “Every tune’s hot until you make it otherwise, Pops.” Someday, I’ll weigh in more on that subject, but today I’m going to stick with Love and New Orleans, and “La Vien Rose.” 

What Louis did with that Edith Piaf-penned hit was remarkable. For four bars the orchestra holds a gentle C, while Earl Hines gives us beautiful piano glissandos; all creating a soft cushion of space that literally makes me take a deep breath before Louis’ entrance. Here he is playing this slow, slow melody, all the while making you feel the swing of the thing. And there’s his old Chicago pal, Earl Hines, dropping in piano phrases behind him. You’d think a full orchestra would be unwieldy to these two jazzmen, but not so. The conviction of their swing could shrug off an orchestra of a hundred. He finishes the melody, and Earl and the orchestra go back to the top to give us that C cushion again. Then Louis sings.

Not many people use the word “tender” when describing Louis Armstrong’s vocal qualities. I consider this to be perhaps his most tender vocal on record. And what kills me even more is how he combined that real tenderness with his unequaled syncopation and swing. He creates a feeling of true love…and of wanting to do something about it. And just about when you’re saying, “Dang!” over what he just sang, the orchestra goes up a fourth to the key of F and Louis puts his trumpet to his lips to finish the song. It’s soaring and powerful, yet filled with the same tender tone of his vocal. The orchestra pauses right before the end, and he hits and holds a high C that makes you shake your head and think, “Nobody but Louis!”

The Southside Aces trumpet man, Zack Lozier, hasn’t been overlooking Louis’ “commercial” recordings. No sir. If you step into the Eagles Aerie #34 this Thursday, you will get to hear “La Vien Rose.” Though you don’t have to admit it to anyone, you’ll probably swoon just a little bit. It’s all right. How else are you supposed to respond to a strong dose of Love and New Orleans coming at you all at once?

Check out Louis for yourself: