In his new book Heart Full of Rhythm: The Big Band Years of Louis Armstrong, Ricky Riccardi—director of research collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York City—focuses on Pops’ life and career from 1929 to 1947. Although this era tends to be less celebrated by critics than his Hot Five/Hot Seven years, its importance is unquestionable. After all, it was the period in which he established himself as a global superstar.
This exclusive excerpt from Riccardi’s book picks up the story in March 1929. After more than three years away from New York, Armstrong has come back to the city for two nights at the Savoy Ballroom as a special guest with the Luis Russell Orchestra. On the first night, he receives a hero’s welcome and confirms his mastery to all in attendance. The next day, March 3, at a recording session led by Tommy Rockwell of OKeh Records, a new revolution is set in motion.
After Armstrong’s opening triumph at the Savoy, he attended a banquet thrown in his honor featuring many top New York musicians, black and white. Charles Buchanan hosted the banquet and old boss Fletcher Henderson served as master of ceremonies. Some of New York’s finest musicians, including trombonist Jimmy Harrison, drummer Chick Webb, and multi-instrumentalist Benny Carter, delivered speeches in tribute to Armstrong. One newspaper account reported, “Never before in the history has New York lauded an individual in the music profession as it did Mr. Armstrong, who well deserves the name ‘King of Jazz.’ ”
Another musician present was banjoist Eddie Condon, a man with many ideas and the nerve and gumption to make them happen. “I looked around the table and shook my head,” he said. “I had never seen so many good musicians, white and colored, in one place at the same time.” In February 1928, Condon organized a recording date for Victor that was revolutionary for the way it combined black and white jazz musicians in a loose, jam session setting (Jelly Roll Morton recorded with the all-white New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1924 but as far as interracial recordings went, that was it). Condon now had a similar idea and insisted that Tommy Rockwell record Armstrong with an integrated band. Unsure, Rockwell responded, “I don’t know about using a mixed group.” Condon argued, “If Victor can do it OKeh can do it.” Rockwell agreed.
Rockwell might have hesitated about an integrated setup, but to the musicians, this was important. “We were all in contact with each other at that time, and it was a very close brotherly thing with white musicians and black musicians in Harlem,” guitarist Lawrence Lucie recalled. Armstrong himself always encouraged the white musicians in Chicago who were interested in his music, jamming with Bix Beiderbecke, hanging out with Muggsy Spanier, and even inviting the New Orleans Rhythm Kings to his apartment so they could rehearse for their record dates. “[T]he mixed band was just a pipedream in those days,” wrote clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, adding, “Louis and I used to talk about it all the time—it was our idea of the millennium.”
Rockwell had already booked studio time for Armstrong to record with Luis Russell’s band in the morning but decided to push the big band to the afternoon. “Get your boys together and I’ll speak to Louis,” Rockwell told Condon. Condon went to work and within a few hours, the studio was filled with three black musicians—Armstrong, tenor saxophonist Happy Caldwell, and drummer Kaiser Marshall—and three white musicians, guitarist Eddie Lang, pianist Joe Sullivan, and trombonist Jack Teagarden. The musicians never even went to sleep, having breakfast together in the morning and stopping to get a jug of gin to help keep spirits bright. Nobody was particularly shy about imbibing; Condon apparently got so drunk, he passed out before the recording light went on.
Once assembled, Armstrong immediately became taken with Texas trombonist Teagarden. The two had met once before, years earlier, while Armstrong was still playing on a riverboat with Fate Marable’s band. They now had a chance to bond at the session and immediately took to each other like brothers, Armstrong telling Teagarden, “I’m a spade and you an ofay. We got the same soul—so let’s blow.” Musically speaking, Teagarden proved to be the ideal partner for Armstrong and was often named by the trumpeter as his favorite musician. “Jack, he lives music like I do,” Armstrong recalled in 1950. As the engineers got everything in place and Teagarden began to warm up, Armstrong placed his hand on his heart and said, “It moves me. It moves me right through here.” He became so enamored with the sound of Teagarden’s trombone, he found a stepladder and ascended it so he could hear it better, only coming down when the engineer persuaded him to get in place for the recording.
When the light went on, the integrated group lit into a slow blues. There was no theme, just a string of solos, a true jam session that pointed the way to jazz’s future, topped off by two choruses by Armstrong in storytelling mode, before hurling himself into a bubbling unaccompanied closing cadenza. Rockwell asked for the name of the song. “I don’t know,” Armstrong responded before glimpsing the empty jug of gin. “Man, we sure knocked that jug—you can call it ‘Knockin’ a Jug!’”
“Knockin’ a Jug” became one for the history books, but when the band couldn’t get through the next song planned, “I’m Gonna Stomp Mister Henry Lee,” Rockwell pulled the plug and sent everyone home, ostensibly to sober up. After a few short hours to rest, Armstrong was back in the studio in the afternoon, this time to record the one song that was the main reason for Rockwell bringing him to New York in the first place, “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love.” Already one of the smash hit songs of 1928, recorded by Paul Whiteman, Seger Ellis, Annette Hanshaw, Red Nichols, and Lillie Delk Christian (the last of which featured trumpet work by Armstrong), Rockwell knew that no one else was going to approach it the way Armstrong did. Since Armstrong remembered performing it and dedicating it to King Oliver at the Savoy the night before, everyone was familiar with the routine.
That doesn’t mean everything went down easily in the studio. After the freewheeling days of recording with the Hot Five, Rockwell’s traits as a perfectionist came to the fore, frustrating some of the other musicians in Russell’s band. “I know it had taken us the whole session to make one side—‘I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,’” said Charlie Holmes. Asked why it took so long, Holmes answered, “Everything was Louis. Everything had to be perfect for him, according to the technicians. They were the ones back in the room with the stuff on their ears, and this-that-and-the-other, placing him here and placing the horns there.” The music itself was not a challenge as the band had to play the simplest arrangement imaginable, just keeping the melody going steadily in the background as a backdrop for Armstrong’s daring vocal and trumpet explorations.
The extra effort paid off, though, as the master take is a masterpiece. Over a slow tempo, the saxophones croon the melody in a way reminiscent of Guy Lombardo’s famed reed section, as Pops Foster saws away on his bowed bass. If Armstrong was removed from the equation, it could be almost any 1920s dance band, which was most likely Rockwell’s point. But instead, he’s front and center, using a straight mute, playing lead, respecting the melody but also spinning variations on it as he goes on, another technique that would soon become a hallmark on his future recordings. Midway through, he passes the lead to the brilliant trombonist J. C. Higginbotham, who maintains the somber mood before Armstrong sings.
The vocal alone pushed this recording into the pantheon, Armstrong retaining the sentiment of the original lyrics and infusing it all with a sense of passion not commonly found in pop vocals of the late 1920s. He sings the title phrase on a single pitch, infuses high notes with a vibrato usually reserved for his trumpet, and even finds spots for scatting. American pop singing would never be the same. But the genius of Louis Armstrong is he could follow an earth-shattering vocal such as that one with a trumpet solo that’s nearly as striking, building higher and higher—until the end of the record, when he accidentally goes too high. Working on an ascending chromatic motive, he makes his way up to a high concert E-flat, but doesn’t quite hit it, squeaking out the final note just short of the target. Still, given what just transpired, Rockwell knew he had a winner on his hands and released the recording even with the pinched final note.
Rockwell was done and more than satisfied with the results, but perhaps to commemorate what was happening at the Savoy, Armstrong and the Russell Orchestra teamed up for one more song, “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” this one featuring a special guest, New Orleans–born guitarist Lonnie Johnson. The song was credited to Spencer Williams and named in tribute of a famed New Orleans brothel, Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, where Williams was born (his mother, Bessie Williams, was Lulu White’s sister and worked at the hall). This must have tickled all the New Orleans musicians in the studio that day, but truthfully, it isn’t a very strong composition. After a catchy introduction (devised by Luis Russell, according to Charlie Holmes), Armstrong leads the band through the first strain, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the spiritual “Bye and Bye.” Armstrong’s lead is strong but there’s some sloppiness in the background as the other horns play a semblance of an arrangement, suggesting either poor reading or perhaps some spontaneous creation. Eventually, the song morphs into a 12-bar blues in E-flat, but bassist Pops Foster sounds momentarily lost with his bow, hitting a few off notes behind Holmes’ alto solo.
However, when Armstrong takes his solo after a dazzling unaccompanied chorus by Johnson, the piece zooms ahead from the shaky, 1918-style two-beat of the first section to pulsating, swinging, sweating, modern jazz. Foster ditches the bow and starts walking, Johnson offers a stream of countermelodies, and Armstrong takes over, mute in bell, for three perfectly constructed choruses that would provide fodder for countless big band arrangements that followed.
With that, Rockwell now had three sides ready for release, each one pointing the way toward the future of Armstrong’s career—and the future of jazz.