Louis Armstrong might be the most influential cornetist/trumpeter of the 1920s but a strong case for second place could be made for Bix Beiderbecke. Though his tragic death at the age of 28 turned him into a cult figure, his cool, lyrical style of playing still sounds timeless today and is the reason why Beiderbecke remains celebrated.
Jazz history is filled with fabled tales of Armstrong and Beiderbecke locking the doors behind them so they could jam into the wee hours at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago in the late 1920s, stories Armstrong himself told until the end of his life. Thus, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Armstrong owned several Bix records and dubbed them to tape in the 1950s, which makes them the perfect subject for today’s installment of “Satch’s Tracks.”
Because of the “That’s My Home” theme of this site, we’ll start with a tape recorded in Louis’s den at home in Corona, Queens in the early 1950s with Louis, his wife Lucille, her sister Janet and Janet’s husband, Charlie Phipps. At the start of the hang, they announce that theme will be records by Bix and Bunny Berigan; a future post here could easily be devoted to Berigan, Armstrong’s favorite trumpeter.
But for today, let’s begin the proceedings by listening to Louis and the gang start by discussing Jazz As It Should Be Played, a Columbia 78 reissue album produced in 1940 by Louis’s friend George Avakian. Here is Armstrong’s copy, which has been on display in the den of the Louis Armstrong House Museum for several years:
And here are the liner notes, from which you’ll hear Charlie Phipps read a bit of in the first clip:
In our first audio excerpt, Louis sets the scene, introducing everyone in the room and dedicating the reel to Bix and Bunny. There’s some good laughs as they get everything set up–Louis puts on his glasses (calling them his “speck-tackles”) and a burp causes him to react, “Oh shit, that caviar!”; Lucille apologizes for his “French” vocabulary–before they drop the needle on “Thou Swell.” Charlie reads the first paragraph of the notes (stumbling on “discophiles”) before Louis expresses his love for Bix and shouts over the music, “Boot it on out there! Come on, Bix!”
After “Thou Swell,” Charlie Phipps announced “Louisiana” and played it while Louis took a bathroom break to gargle. After switching to Bunny Berigan’s Memorial album, the group returned to Bix with “Wa-Da-Da.” Here’s the hot ending, which thrilled Lucille Armstrong.
Confusion then reigns as Phipps almost starts to play the coupling of “Thou Swell” and “Louisiana” he started off with. After Louis and Lucille remind him, he instead switches to “For No Reason At All in C.”
The next sequence begins with Charlie exclaiming, “Disc jockeying sure is fun, you know it?” This brings on the final Beiderbecke side on this tape, Paul Whiteman’s “Sweet Sue,” the mention of which causes Louis to say, “Bix takes a wonderful solo on that one.” We’ve only been sharing excerpts of the recordings to this point, but we’re going to share the entire “Sweet Sue” because of what happens in the background: the sound of Louis making a collage. We covered Armstrong’s hobby of making collages in a previous Virtual Exhibit post and thought this would be worth sharing as Lucille and Charlie tease him for cutting the face or the nose off of the subject of his next work. It might not be the sound of Louis cheering on Bix but it does provide another intimate glimpse of a night at the Armstrong’s, hanging with friends, listening to Bix Beiderbecke records while Louis makes collages and has some laughs.
On a separate tape, Armstrong pulled out another early Avakian Columbia reissue, the compilation Hot Trumpets, featuring Beiderbecke on “I’m Coming Virginia.” Here’s Louis’s copy, complete with handwritten “Recorded” label.
And here is Louis on tape, by himself this time, introducing “a very beautiful number,” “I’m Coming Virginia” by “none other than the great Bix Beiderbecks and the late Frankie Trumbauer.” Louis again refers to Bix as a “genius” before spinning the record (addressing the “folks” who might be listening to this tape 65 years later). We’ve faded out the music and faded back in for the ending where Louis praises guitarist Eddie Lang and sums up the experience by saying, “Those boys are gone now but they’ll never be forgotten.”
We’re going to close this post by skipping ahead to the year 1970 when Louis was convalescing at home for two life-threatening stints in intensive care. Jim Grover at Miami University Radio was embarking on a radio miniseries devoted to Beiderbecke’s life and wanted to include Armstrong as a talking head. Armstrong wasn’t well enough to travel to a studio but on January 8, he did answer Grover’s call and spoke about Bix–and other subjects–for nearly 9 full minutes. Grover’s series Bix: A Biographical Radio Series ended up spanning 19 half-hour episodes, all of which can be heard here.
Grover sent the first episode to Armstrong in the summer of 1970, along with the full recording of their conversation. Armstrong dubbed it onto “Reel 123” of his tape collection and added it into his tape catalog.
Armstrong oddly split the recording of their phone call in half, dubbing the first half earlier on the reel and the second half later after some dubs of his 1967 Italian recordings and a couple of versions of “Mack the Knife.” Thus, there’s a little split in the audio but we’re thrilled to be able to share the audio of this priceless phone call, which also includes Armstrong giving his Corona, Queens address (though there’s some confusion over his zip code and area code!).
And for a visual, a Jack Bradley photo of Louis in his den taking a phone call in 1970:
That concludes another peak into “Satch’s Tracks,” which we think can be summed up by one of Armstrong’s closing lines to Grover: “You just tell the world that Satchmo always loved Bix.”
Here’s a Spotify playlist of the original recordings contained on Jazz As It Should Be Played, plus “I’m Coming Virginia” from Hot Trumpets.