Milestone Recordings in American Music

4/12/09

Hi-De-Ho (1931)

Whether the jive of Cab Calloway, the tight swing of Duke Ellington, or the re-interpreted pop songs of Louis Armstrong, big band music in 1931 was all about entertainment. Fortunately for us, these bandleaders were not just entertainers but exceptional artists, creating timeless works that we can still enjoy today.

Cab Calloway and His Orchestra
Minnie the Moocher (Brunswick 6074, 1931)

When Duke Ellington’s orchestra ended its tenure as the house band of New York’s famed Cotton Club, they were replaced by a group led by Cabell Calloway III, who would soon become one of the most popular and commercially successful bandleaders of his day. Calloway’s orchestra was talented (though perhaps not at the level of Ellington’s), but what really made them so successful was the innovative singing and oversized personality of their leader. Calloway pioneered what was known as “jive” music: bluesy lyrics filled with slang words and scat singing (“hi-de-hi-de-ho”) set to swinging big band jazz.

“Minnie the Moocher” is Calloway’s undeniable masterpiece and the song that rocketed him to stardom. To mainstream audiences, the song told a slightly shady sounding story filled with a lot of silly nonsense. In reality, a lot of that nonsense was slang terminology that concealed references to illicit drug use: for example, “kicking the gong around” was a slang term for smoking opium. Either way it is viewed, the song is incredibly entertaining. Against some solid, “jungle” style instrumentation, Calloway’s voice rises and falls expressively as he tells Minnie’s tale, and he gets help from the band on some incredible call-and-response scat singing.

~ You may also like: Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, “Reefer Man” (Brunswick 6340, 1932)

Cab Calloway and His Orchestra
St. James Infirmary(Brunswick 6105, 1931)

There are many excellent versions of “St. James Infirmary,” including a famous 1928 recording by Louis Armstrong, but this Cab Calloway record may be the best of all. The song relates the story of a man whose love has just died and is “stretched out on a long, white table” at St. James Infirmary. Given the morbid nature of the song, Calloway’s version is surprisingly upbeat. It starts with an exotic sounding trumpet introduction, which is followed some wonderfully expressive baritone sax playing. Then Calloway begins singing, and his timing and timbre are amazing; at times he sings very fast in a high register and his voice sounds remarkably like a muted trumpet. The song then ends on a high note with some more excellent, exotic trumpet playing.

~ You may also like: Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, “(Hep-Hep!) The Jumpin’ Jive” (Vocalion v5005, 1939)

Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra
Star Dust” (take 1) (Okeh 41530, 1931)

(Note: multiple takes of this song were recorded on November 4, 1931 and at least two were released as Okeh 41530. The fourth take is very good, but the essential version is the less common, slightly longer first take, Okeh master W.405061-1. On it, Armstrong repeats “Oh, memory” three times at the end of the vocal.)

In the 1930s, Louis Armstrong ceased making the kind of ground-breaking, small-band records that had redefined jazz during the previous decade. Instead, he focused on making jazzy, big band versions of popular songs, such as Hoagy Carmichael’s immortal “Star Dust.” Although this decision made him a huge star, it continues to disappoint some jazz fans who consider the move a sell out. However, while his 1930s output is nowhere near as innovative as his ‘20s “Hot Five” records, looked at from another angle, it could be argued that Armstrong made the most compelling mainstream pop of the decade.

On “Star Dust,” his trumpet playing is strong as ever, with a tone that has matured like a fine wine into something utterly intoxicating. The band playing behind him may be unremarkable, but that trumpet is still unmatched. And Armstrong’s voice has similarly matured, the gruff edges blending smoothly into the sweet melody. Just listen to the sentimental way he repeats “Oh, memory / Oh, memory / Oh, memory” at the end. Simply amazing.

~ You may also like: Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, “Lazy River” (Okeh 41541, 1932)

Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra
Casa Loma Stomp(Okeh 41492, 1931)

The Casa Loma Orchestra, a collective led by saxophonist Glen Gray, was one of the top big bands of its day and a major trendsetter in swing music. Although they are not as well remembered as some of the other top bands of the early swing period, records like “Casa Loma Stomp” prove that them deserving of respect. The complex arrangement by Gene Gifford is played with incredible poise and proficiency. That they make it sound so light and effortless only makes it that much more impressive. The entire record is fantastic, but pay special attention to two particularly good passages: the first solo (a fast-paced revelry by trombonist Pee Wee Hunt) and the quiet but kinetic call-and-response by the entire band before they launch into the big finish.

~ You may also like: Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, “San Sue Strut” (Okeh 41403, 1930)

The Jungle Band
Rockin’ in Rhythm(Brunswick 6038, 1931)

This “Jungle Band” recording of Duke Ellington’s classic composition “Rockin’ in Rhythm” was one of two Ellington versions released in 1931, and to my ears is the definitive take on the song. (It should be noted that Okeh 8869, credited to the Harlem Footwarmers, is nearly as good, though.) The track begins with some discordant piano by Ellington, and a humorous wah-wah by the trombone. Next, the reeds state the wonderful, bright melody and Cootie Williams takes a playful, swinging solo on trumpet. The mood becomes a little edgier as Johnny Hodges soars in on alto sax . Then we get some more piano from Ellington, another trombone flourish, and some muted, jungle-style trumpet from Williams before the reeds regain control, restate the main melody and bring the record to a close. The recording is filled with high-spirited, feel-good energy throughout.

~ You may also like an incredible later recording of this song: Duke Ellington, “Medley: Kinda Dukish / Rockin’ in Rhythm” (Piano in the Background, Columbia CL 1546, 1960)

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