“Mahogany Hall Stomp”
Composed by Spencer Williams.
Recorded by Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra for Okeh on March 5, 1929 in New York.
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, directing: J.C.Higginbotham, trombone; Albert Nicholas and Charlie Holmes, alto saxophones; Teddy Hill, tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Eddie Condon, banjo; Lonnie Johnson, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums.
It is really difficult to appreciate the outsized influence Louis Armstrong had on the development of jazz and on the development of American Popular Song in the 1920s and 1930s, and his immeasurable contributions to the art of swinging. It has been asserted, quite accurately, that Louis was primarily responsible for inventing swing. Young musicians who were learning to play all of the instruments commonly found in dance bands in those years were profoundly influenced by Louis’s playing. He had many musical sons on trumpet, and in this post I will be presenting the seminal playing of Louis himself, and then that of two of his greatest admirers, trumpeters Bunny Berigan and John Best.
At the time this recording was made, Louis was at the beginning of his first period of great public acclaim among audiences outside of the Black community. That resulted from a recording he made at the same recording session as the version of “Mahogany Hall Stomp” presented here, the pop tune “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” Here is what Dan Morgenstern, the doyen of jazz historians, said about that recording: “(It was) a landmark recording for Louis and the entire entertainment field. The recording industry gave Louis the chance to reach a mass audience by selecting a pop tune and issuing it as a part of their general release. It became a prototype for all his big band recordings to follow: he plays the opening melody (sometimes muted), sings, and concludes with a climactic trumpet solo, ending on a high note. Probably no other early recording of his since “West End Blues” had as much impact.” (1) Significantly, this recording also had a huge impact on Bing Crosby, who in 1929 was at the beginning of his career as a singer.
“Mahogany Hall Stomp” is another matter. Mainstream pop music audiences in 1929 would not have been interested in it. First of all, it was an instrumental, and that would have eliminated a large chunk of the mainstream audience by itself. Second, it was basically a jazz vehicle, tailor-made for the man who was in the process of spreading the gospel of swing, largely to other musicians, who knew what they were hearing, but most often, in 1929, were incapable of playing themselves.
Once again, Dan Morgenstern caught precisely what this seminal Armstrong recording was about: “Spencer Williams’s tribute to the famed New Orleans night spot was originally titled “Mahogany Hall Blues” and was conceived (at a) much slower tempo. Both Louis and the band knew this place well, and brought the tempo up to a nice, medium rock. Following altoist Charlie Holmes and guitarist Johnson, Louis fashions three muted choruses that were to be as influential as Oliver’s solo on “Dippermouth Blues” was a few years earlier. These choruses are masterpieces of construction. The first, with its melodic variation, leads naturally into the second, with its sustained note (and stomping rhythmic backing); the third consists of an inevitable ascending phrase, repeated. (It wasn’t only instrumentalists who copied these ideas; arrangers for bands both big and small applied them to virtually everything they wrote.) J.C. Higginbotham has a typically unique chorus before Louis leads the ensemble out. The trumpet break in the coda is reminiscent of the Hot Fives, and perfectly summarizes this evocative performance.” (2)
“Mahogany Hall Stomp”
Composed by Spencer Williams; unknown arranger.
Recorded by Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra for Decca on May 18, 1936 in New York.
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, directing: Leonard Davis, Gus Aiken, and Louis Bacon, trumpets; Jimmy Archey and Snub Mosley, trombones; Henry “Moon” Jones, Charlie Holmes, alto saxophones; Bingie Madison and Greely Walton tenor saxophone; Luis Russell, piano; Lee Blair, guitar; Pops Foster, bass; Paul Barbarin, drums.
Louis Armstrong and band late 1935-early 1936: L-R: Gus Aiken, Harry “Father” White, Sonny Woods, Louis Bacon, Jimmy Archey, Leonard Davis, Luis Russell, Paul Barbarin, Louis, Bingie Madison, Lee Blair, Charlie Holmes, Bobbie Caston, Pops Foster, Greely Walton, and Henry “Moon” Jones.
The story continues:
By the time Louis made this recording, he had gone through a roller-coaster ride covering the years of his early fame. His immense talent and onstage dynamism resulted in him being presented in more and more mainstream (white) entertainment venues. However, the business side of his career had almost been demolished by a man, Johnny Collins, who in essence poached Louis away from his actual manager, Tommy Rockwell. Collins worked Louis like a field hand in a Mississippi cotton field, resulting ultimately in Louis almost destroying his embouchure by playing too many concerts too close together. In order to heal his badly damaged lip, Louis took a long vacation in Paris starting in May of 1934. His consort at that time was Alpha Smith.
Louis returned to work with a band in Paris in October of 1934. He continued with them, touring through a number of European countries, into early 1935, when he returned to the USA, where he had not been since 1933. Legal problems awaited him, largely a result of his association with Collins. A plan to have him front drummer Chick Webb’s band at Harlem’s Apollo Theater became ensnared in litigation and was scuttled. In frustration, Louis returned to Chicago, largely his base of operations through the 1920s. There, he did little professionally, again because of the many legal entanglements he had to deal with. It is at this time that Louis turned to Joe Glaser, a man he knew from his earlier activities in Chicago, to act as his personal manager.
Glaser was one of the more interesting characters of the swing era. He was a crude man who seemingly had mob-connections. Yet he was also apparently a man of honor, at least in his dealings with Louis Armstrong. Their business relationship was never formalized, but it lasted from 1935 until Glaser’s death in 1969. It has been said that the only agreed-upon term between the two men was that Louis and Glaser were 50-50 partners in Louis’s career. Whatever the terms were, both Louis and Glaser ended up wealthy men, though Louis worked very hard for the next three-plus decades to earn the money he split with Glaser. Also, Louis was the leading client in the stable of performers Glaser was able to put together as he organized his own talent booking agency, which he operated successfully until his death. The salient fact about the beginning of the Armstrong-Glaser association in early 1935 is that Glaser was able to extricate Louis from his legal difficulties, which allowed Armstrong to resume his career. Louis, who saw Johnny Collins almost wreck his career, was grateful for this.
Finally, by July 1935, Louis was ready to debut a new big band. This band was put together by trumpeter/pianist/arranger Zilner Randolph, with whom Louis had worked previously. Randolph was the new band’s musical director and straw-boss. Louis took this band on a tour of the middle of the U.S., including into New Orleans. The tour ended with a stand at the Apollo Theater in Harlem during the last week of August 1935. After that, Louis jettisoned the band because Glaser had secured a lengthy engagement for Armstrong at Connie’s Inn in Harlem, and for that, because of musicians’ union regulations, he would need a band of New York musicians.
As fate would have it, Armstrong followed the band of Luis Russell at the Apollo. Louis was very familiar with Luis Russell, and his band, having worked with then in previously in 1929-1930. Negotiations were had and soon Louis Armstrong stood in front of the Luis Russell band as they prepared for the Connie’s Inn engagement.
At the same time, Glaser had secured a recording contract for Louis with Jack and Dave Kapp’s new recording enterprise, Decca Records. Armstrong’s first Decca recording session took place in New York on October 3, 1935. By the time Armstrong and Decca parted almost twenty years later, Louis had made hundreds of recordings for Decca.
The band that Louis Armstrong fronted, starting with the 1935 Connie’s Inn engagement mentioned above, was Luis Russell’s band. This situation continued, with a few deviations, until the musicians’ union recording band of 1942. Although the band’s public identity was that Luis Russell was the leader, it was a bit more complicated than that. The actual leader in the sense of dealing with the musicians in the band, was reed player Bingie Madison. “Madison, an erstwhile bandleader in his own right, soon became the straw boss of the band. Russell was too nice a guy to be the enforcer of discipline – a role that Armstrong (himself) always eschewed..”(3)
In terms of arrangers for this band, “Because Russell had (previously) been responsible for most of the arranging …for this band, it’s been assumed that he was also the primary arranger during the Armstrong era until the arrival of Joe Garland, but I doubt this was so. Harry (Father) White was a skilled arranger, and so was Madison, and we know that Chappie Willet did a good deal of writing for Louis in 1937 and possibly later as well.(4) So we are left with few clues to who wrote the arrangement of the “Mahogany Hall Stomp” Decca recording that we are examining in this post.
Key members of the band that accompanied Louis during the mid and late 1930s, were the drummer Adolphe Paul Barbarin and the bassist George Murphy “Pops” Foster, both New Orleanians who, with Russell on piano and Lee Blair on guitar, made up a rhythm section that Armstrong felt quite comfortable playing with. The lead trumpeter was Leonard “Ham” Davis, the alto saxophone soloist was Charlie Holmes, solos on tenor saxophone and clarinet were usually played by Bingie Madison.
In this performance, the first thing that is apparent is the faster tempo than the 1929 recording. It is also clear that whoever wrote the arrangement wanted to make sure that Louis’s playing received swinging support. He got solid and swinging support from bassist Pops Foster and drummer Paul Barbarin, but the brass and reeds sound a bit stiff, playing with an up-and-down vertical rhythm, which did not reflect the flowing legato in Louis’s phrasing. Trombonist Jimmy Archey has a very good mid-1930s jazz solo, and tenor saxophonist Greely Walton, who enters off a nice upward swoosh, treads in the same territory. Louis’s red-hot muted chorus does inspire a bit of swing in the simple, riffing figures they play behind him as he builds dramatic tension. As Louis rests, alto saxophonist Charlie Holmes plays a very fine and swinging solo that reflects well what was going on in the world of swing in the spring of 1936.
Louis’s climactic solo, played with an open trumpet, is a great example of how he could bring lightning-bolts into any performance at just the right moment.
“Mahogany Hall Stomp”
Composed by Spencer Williams; probably arranged by Dick Rose.
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra live at the Madhattan Room of Hotel Pennsylvania on May 11, 1937 in New York.
Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins, Cliff Natalie, trumpets; Ford Leary, Frank D’Annolfo, trombones; Sid Perlmutter, Hank Freeman alto saxophones; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds tenor saxophones: Joe Lippman, piano; Tom Morgan, guitar; Arnold Fishkind, bass; George Wettling, drums.
The story and the music:
Bunny Berigan always made it perfectly clear in what he said and in what he played on his trumpet that he worshipped Louis Armstrong. When asked what he as a bandleader on the road needed most, he replied “a toothbrush, and a picture of Louis Armstrong.” Berigan’s trumpet style was rooted in the Armstrong tradition, especially Bunny’s unfailing sense of swing, his logical construction of improvised solos that flowed out of his trumpet like molten gold, and his ability to create great musical drama. But he had his own sound, his own ideas where jazz was concerned, and he generally employed more stylistic devices in his playing than Armstrong.
Jimmy Maxwell, another great trumpeter, who started his long and successful career in Gil Evans’s band in California, then established his reputation with Benny Goodman, made these comments about Bunny Berigan’s playing late in his life: “I’d never heard anyone play so lyrically. It was a good deal like Louis, but it was looser. Armstrong at that point was inclining toward a more rigid, angular style. Bunny would play those beautiful, liquid solos. So fluid. By 1934, he had started to have an enormous influence on trumpet players, particularly white trumpet players. Here was somebody who played with a different feeling, but wasn’t black. I felt Bunny was one of the first bridges, taking the race out of music and playing music. He had the most gorgeous sound, and that beautiful vibrato. And everything he played had a line. It was like a melody, even if it had a lot of notes in it.(5)
“Mahogany Hall Stomp,” was recorded while the Berigan band was at the Madhattan Room of Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan. That was the band’s first prestigious gig, complete with a CBS radio network remote broadcast wire. This performance demonstrates how completely Berigan had absorbed Louis Armstrong’s rhythmic message, which of course is the essence of swing. It also shows how Bunny’s heraldic sound, one that was totally individual, was nevertheless based on Louis’s. This is not to suggest the Berigan was an Armstrong clone. He was far from that. His phrasing was often more fluid than Armstrong’s, and he could at times be a more reckless improviser.
Here he is in total control however. He paraphrases the melody in his first solo, using a straight mute. Then the saxophones come forth with sixteen bars of aggressive if at times inexact ensemble playing, followed by a full chorus trombone solo played by Ford Leary. (With Berigan, and later with a number of other bands, Leary also sang, specializing in rhythmic novelty numbers.) Here he bounces along showing that he was a capable trombonist, but not a very convincing jazz soloist. (The great jazz trombonist Sonny Lee would soon be joining Berigan.) Eighteen year-old tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld plays next. The young man had good control of his horn, and a nice sound, but was still learning the fundamental lessons of jazz, especially rhythmically. But we must remember that the Berigan band was just a few months old when this recording was made. Bunny kept improving the band until the summer of 1937, when it reached an early plateau.
When Berigan enters with his open trumpet to play jazz, the music suddenly bounds to a higher plane in all respects: his massive ringing trumpet sound, his rhythmic swagger, his cogent ideas, all combine to demonstrate why Berigan was then one of the top soloists in jazz.
This arrangement, which is definitely a swing interpretation of “Mahogany Hall Stomp,” was probably written by Dick Rose, whose chart for Berigan on “The Prisoner’s Song,” would soon be recorded by Bunny for Victor, and achieve lasting popularity.
Note should also be taken of the tasty and swinging drumming of George Wettling on this performance. (Shown above right walking with Berigan on a sidewalk outside of Hotel Pennsylvania in the spring of 1937, during the Berigan band’s engagement at that venue.)
“Mahogany Hall Stomp”
Composed by Clarence Williams; 1936 Armstrong recording performance notated by Billy May.
Recorded by Billy May and the Swing Era Orchestra for Capitol on August 2, 1971 in Hollywood.
Billy May, directing: John Best, Pete Candoli, Shorty Sherock and Uan Rasey, trumpets; Francis “Joe” Howard, Lloyd Ulyate and Lew McCreary, trombones; Marshal Royal, first alto saxophone; Abe Most, alto saxophone; Justin Gordon and Nat Brown, tenor saxophones; Chuck Gentry, baritone saxophone; Ray Sherman, piano; Jack Marshall, guitar; Rollie Bundock, bass; Nick Fatool, drums. Solos by: John Best, trumpet; Joe Howard, trombone; Justin Gordon, tenor saxophone; and Marshal Royal, alto saxophone.
The story continues: John M. Best (1913-2003) was one of many superb trumpeters to have emerged from the swing era. Best’s name band career started in 1937 with Art Shaw’s “New Music” band. Best played first trumpet and jazz solos for Shaw (with one interruption) until August of 1939, when he joined Glenn Miller’s then fast-rising band. Best remained with that band until Miller broke it up to enter the Army Air Force in September of 1942. He sometimes played lead, but more often played solos and contributed greatly to an excellent trumpet section. Best joined Bob Crosby’s band briefly in the autumn of 1942, but responded to Artie Shaw’s request that he join Shaw’s U.S. Navy band, which played in Hawaii and then toured various battle zones in the Pacific Theater of War and Australia in 1943. Best remained with the Navy band after Shaw was medically discharged. That band continued under the leadership of Sam Donahue. After Best was discharged, he joined Benny Goodman’s band in November of 1945, and remained with Goodman through 1946 and 1947. Much of that time the Goodman band was working in Los Angeles, and when Best left Goodman at the end of 1947, he remained in Los Angeles, starting a career there as a free-lance studio musician that would continue for the next 35 years.(Above left: John Best solos with Artie Shaw’s Navy Band in 1943. To his right, drummer Dave Tough and bassist Barney Spieler.)
Best was always a capable jazz soloist, with a style that was very personal, but based on influences from Louis Armstrong and Bunny Berigan. Like both of those trumpet giants, Best was able to spells with his trumpet playing, as you will hear in this performance. But very often, he was used as a lead trumpeter because of his large, ringing sound, his strong swing, impeccable musicianship and utter professionalism. Because of his decades long associations with arrangers Jerry Gray (starting in 1937 with Artie Shaw, then continuing through 1942 with Glenn Miller), and Billy May, a close friend (starting in 1940 with Miller), they often included him in the dozens if not hundreds of bands they led for various reasons from the late 1940s through the 1970s.(Gray died in 1976.) (Above right: Billy May (who was an excellent trumpeter before he became a full-time arranger/conductor), and John Best (standing) at a Swing Era Orchestra recording session in the early 1970s.)
This marvelous performance demonstrates that John Best, like many other trumpeters who grew up in the 1920s and 1930s, was formed in the crucible of Armstrong. What is most interesting about Best is that he learned about Berigan’s playing before he learned about Armstrong’s. However Best came to Armstrong, he certainly learned the lessons Louis imparted well.(6)
As a free-lance studio musician, Best was required to sublimate his musical personality to fit in on dozens if not hundreds of commercial recording dates over the years. But when Billy May offered him the opportunity to pay tribute to Louis, he jumped at it. His performance is a moving paean to Louis. The musicians wo played on this recording, all seasoned veterans of many recording sessions, gave Best a warm round of applause after the take was captured. I’m sure Louis himself, who knew Best and his capabilities as a trumpeter, would have appreciated it too and said to Best…Beau Koo John!
The recordings presented with this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Mahogany Hall, by the way, was a real place in New Orleans. Here is the story: “‘Lulu White was a famous woman in the sporting world in Storyville’ Louis Armstrong once recalled. ‘She had a big house on Basin Street called Mahogany Hall. Rich men would come there from all parts of the world to dig those beautiful Creole prostitutes and pay big money. The song was written after her house had gotten so famous.’
In a souvenir booklet she published headed ‘The NEW Mahogany Hall,’ Miss White described the Hall’s magnificence. ‘The house is built of marble, and it contains five parlors and fifteen bedrooms. Each room has a bath with hot and cold water. The elevator, which is built for two, is of the latest style. The entire house is steam heated, and is the handsomest house of its kind. It is the only one where you can get three shots for your money: The shot upstairs; the shot downstairs, and the shot in the room. In describing Miss Lulu, it would not be amiss to say that besides possessing an elegant form, she has beautiful black hair and blue eyes which have justly gained for her the title Queen of the Demi-Monde. As an entertainer, Miss Lulu stands foremost having made a life-long study of music and literature. She is well-read and can interest anybody. (At right: a photo of one of the five parlors at Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall, which was located at 235 Basin Street, New Orleans.)
The best New Orleans musicians played in Mahogany Hall. ‘Bands that played for those places didn’t need to worry about salaries because the tips were so great.,’ Louis said. Louis himself was too young and unknown to rate a job there, but a musician who knew the place well was Spencer Williams, who composed ‘Mahogany Hall Stomp.’ Lulu White was his aunt, and, Williams said, ‘when my mother died, I went to live with her and became her adopted son. I’d go to sleep to the sound of the piano playing ragtime tunes, and when I woke up in the morning, I’d run down and practice before anyone else got up.’ Mahogany Hall itself had passed into history by 1929, when Williams wrote ‘Mahogany Hall Stomp.’ (7)
Notes and Links:
(1) Liner notes for the CD set Louis Armstrong …Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Columbia Legacy (1994) by Dan Morgenstern, 25.
(2) Ibid. 26.
(3) Liner notes for Mosaic Records set The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions (1935-1946), (2009), by Dan Morgenstern, 3.
(5) The Complete Bunny Berigan, Vol. 2, RCA Bluebird 5657 I RB (1986); Interview of Jimmy Maxwell by Richard M. Sudhalter.
(6) Here is a link to an interview of John Best by Monk Rowe that was conducted toward the end of Best’s life. It demonstrates that Best had not lost either his memory for details or his sense of humor. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQWk99bSpWQ
(7) The Swing Era – 1930-1936, (1971). Notes on the music by Joseph Kastner; 58.
Here are some other links to the music of Louis Armstrong here at swingandbeyond.com:
Here is a great John Best trumpet solo on a classic Glenn Miller recording: