Reverse engineering Louis Armstrong’s record stash part 2

I got a fantastic message about Louis Armstrong’s record collection on Facebook this week from my long time record pal and jazz archaeologist, Rob Chalfen. Way back in the early days of this blog, we (mostly he, truth be told) fantasized about the contents of Louis Armstrong’s record collection. Rob had a lot of informed (and musically annotated) ideas what records he might have had which I dutifully documented in my pre-wordpress LOVE beta site. Despite my ham handed coding, it’s a cool bit of research connecting Louis to Caruso via a horn line in Herbert L. Clarke’s “Showers Of Gold Scherzo” (1912) that shows up in Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” (1928). IF that was not enough, he traced connections to Bert Williams and minstrelsy via two Elder Eatmore routines that Louis versioned and flipped. As I read it now, it seems to stand up as a pretty decent bit of freestyle musicology.

At the time, I think we both assumed that this would always remain the realm of informed speculation, because of course, what are the chances that Louis’s New Orleans record stash remained intact? Right. What are the chances?

Rob recently decided to contact contact The Louis Armstrong House Museum and ask. As usual, he sure has a knack for finding old records.

Here was the original message Rob sent:

hey Ricky, on the subject of Louis’ records, this work of quasi-informed speculation might amuse you, from a buddy’s blog with me a few years ago LOVE1_4 Reverse engineering Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans record stash
If you have a concordance of Louis’ early 78s I’d love to see it!

And then the nearly unbelievable reply:

Hey Rob! Finally getting a chance to sit down and respond to your message. Your piece was great and interestingly, almost 100% spot on! How do I know? Because as the Archivist of the Louis Armstrong House Museum, Louis’s entire collection of records and reel-to-reel tapes is one room away from me. And better than that, when I was hired in 2009, my big project was to create an Online Catalog, which you can browse the link before. The accession number for all of Louis’s tapes and records is “1987.3” so you can search for any artist, just make sure you include 1987.3 as part of the list. So go ahead, search for “1987.3 Caruso” or “1987.3 Bert Williams”….you’ll feel like a prophet! Happy searching and thanks again! Yours in Pops, Ricky
Louis Armstrong House Museum – Online Catalog
And Happy Birthday a day early!

Happy birthday indeed my man. And good ears, as always. Here’s to many more years of listening together. Keep on sharing what you find and I’ll keep on bloggin it up for the masses.



The revolution will not be televised

But it might be shown on YouTube. After a peaceful first day of G20 protest up here in Toronto, things got ugly yesterday. What began (and remained) a largely peaceful affair turned nasty when a small group of Black Bloc anarchists swarmed through downtown Toronto smashing (mostly) major chains and symbolic establishments like Starbucks, McDonalds, banks and the like. In one hilarious moment, they apparently pelted a strip club with mannequin arms and legs they had looted up the street. Despite not supporting their violent methods, I have to give them some credit for tactics and irony. I mean, despite 19,000 cops and security personnel, a few hundred kids were able to take over downtown Toronto for a few hours and thereby dominate coverage of the event. Hmmm. Maybe they were allowed to? It sure made for “good” coverage.

Sadly, their hour of mayhem allowed the media to focus almost exclusively on images of burning cop cars, protesters smashing windows and the like. Let me tell you, I was there off and on all day and I only saw them once. To me, it seemed like a hard core group of about a hundred folks with perhaps another hundred friends and curious copy cats. There were at least 11,000 other people up here peacefully demonstrating yesterday and we got almost no attention. Not only that, the cops were pushing and pushing all day. I watched all day and night as they surged against crowds of peaceful demonstrators on foot, bike and war horses. I met people who had been beaten. I heard a girl was trampled by a horse and almost killed. Tear gas was used in Toronto for the first time ever. It was a scary display of state power up here people, let me tell you. If you don’t believe me, watch the videos and decide for yourself.

In a strange bit of personal poetry, local record stores (which unsurprisingly remained unscathed) served as a backdrop for many poignant images throughout the day. (Although I heard after the fact that the iconic Steve’s Music sign melted from the burning police car nearby). Meanwhile, Kops records (I could not make this up) did a nice revolutionary window display in solidarity. My favorite moment was watching the reflected march in their window seeming to burst forth from the cover of Gil Scott Heron’s album “The revolution will not be televised”. Beautiful.

Although his words remain as true now as ever, it seems with the (temporary?) democratization of digital media production and distribution (think cellphone videos from Iran and YouTube posts from Toronto), perhaps we have a chance at a real people’s media before the state takes over all channels. They were blocking cell coverage at times up here and folks tell me that legislation is trending toward making it illegal to film cops on duty. As my man Wayne warned me, guard your grill folks (and more importantly, your YouTube account).

Get out. Get involved. Post your findings. Before its too late.


Old Whirled Music

Olga Bibor and Her Peasant Jazz Orchesra, Out of My Album

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Archive dot org on Olga Bibor.

When you spend enough time listening to and discussing old records, sometimes it seems like the more things change, the more they stay the same. Let me explain. I recently had the pleasure of hosting a lovely couple named Olga and Raph and who had played at Beat Research under the name The Gypsy Sound System. Despite some of the commentary over at Wayne’s mega blog, I have to say I liked the set a lot. In addition to a tasteful selection of tunes, Olga sang mournful melodies over dub instrumentals and they generally played a tight, danceable (if perhaps a little ethnokitschy) set.

Not the make light of the serious issues (of which I am largely ignorant) around the gypsy term in their name, but the whole debate reminded of another Olga who was engaged in a complex re-presentation of Eastern European musical memes and modern dance trends. But this one fronted a band back in 1919. Now this is the kind of coincidence that can only occur if you have paid proper homage to the vinyl gods.

Olga Bibor and her Peasant Jazz Orchestra’s “Out My Album” was recorded in New York City in May 1919 by a Hungarian group led by a woman named Olga. It was also the subject of an old post of mine back in 2006 titled Olga Bibor’s Peasant Jazz Orchestra and the Proto-Jazz Melting Pot and was the most inexplicable record in Rob’s Collection. The post generated a little buzz among a handful of 78 collectors (scroll down), but never went viral. Until now. If you head over there, note that I was not the source of the “world’s first jazz record” question. But these folks do have some interesting notions about the global dance musical goulash represented here.

According to one commentator “like many such emigrant ensembles in New York during this period, their output included folk dance melodies (csardas, waltz, lander), as well as Tin Pan Alley tunes such as Silver Threads Among the Gold.” Rob Chalfen hears this song as blending the sounds of “circus, NY string bands, proto-jazz, klezmer & somehow St. Louis or Memphis-type (?) ragtime riffs in one enigmatic performance.” While others don’t hear as much nuance perhaps, they are similarly clear about the early jazz content. “The tune sounds to me like it’s based, at least partly, on Weary Blues, a jazz standard dating from 1915, by Artie Matthews (prolific African American songwriter and ragtime composer).” Apparently (and not surprisingly), the group also performed under the name Olga Bibor and her Gypsy Ensemble.

So, here we have a woman named Olga fronting an Eastern European band playing a combination of currently popular dance music with jazz in their name (a term which may have been added by recording executives who were trying to capture the exploding interest in this new beat heavy music). But remember folks, this was 1919, just two years after the earliest Original Dixieland Jazz Band releases. Back in the old days, people still managed to share their influences with no assistance from blogs, torrents or rapidshare sites. They traveled around buying records and playing them for (and with) other people. Listening, watching, learning, playing, and partying together as best they could given the social contexts they were coming from/into. In the process, things get creatively scrambled. Trust me. It happened just the other night.

The night Raph and Olga stayed over, I got to chat with them after the gig for a while. They didn’t strike me as boorish exploiters of others’ cultures. Rather, they seemed like kind, open-eared fellow travelers in the musical omniverse. Things got really interesting when Raph pulled out the accordian and I tried to accompany him on some trad sounding tunes. As an old rock guitarist from way back who has gradually lost his chops, I was having trouble finding the right strumming rhythm. After kindly suffering my rhythmic mutilations for a while, Raph finally turned to me and said, “its like ska, chak-chak-chak” as he mimed the guitar strum physically and sang it on the “ands” for me. Somehow, he must have known that a Specials reference would help this half Ukranian Boston PhDj former alterna-rocker learn how to muddle through Eastern European tunes he was still (re)learning himself.

Like I said, le plus ça change.


The day the records stood still

I’ve been out in Milwaukee for the last week on a writing retreat (and visiting my wife who started her MFA in dance here this summer). I gotta say, its a gem of a town. Great music, art, dance and…records. In my typical style, I had to seek out the dankest, darkest, deepest piles. Along the way, I wound up at Flipville Records where I spent the better part of two days digging til my hands turned black. Aside from the somewhat high prices for standard stuff, there are lots of gems to be found here. I was particularly excited by the boxes of soul 45s that seemed like no one had looked them over in years. I took care of that.

I simply flipped when I found this holy grail of a record for a buck.

Flipville gold

Despite thinking lots about whether early hip-hop djs were rockin this 45 (and if so how) I had never seen or heard the original pressing (though it was obviously high on my “want” list). Needless to say, I flipped on Sunday when it titrated out of the piles at Flipville. Sure, its scratched a bit, but for a buck, hell yeah!

As luck would have it, the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee has some 70K records (I’m meeting their archivist music librarian tomorrow to talk shop). So I went directly there to listen.

Beat research

As I sat intently waiting for the break, I was marveling over the fact that this iconic jam was split up on two sides of the 45. I was imagining teenage dancers in the heat of some impromptu dance party stopping to flip the record right in the middle of it (did some keep on shaking it while the DJ flipped the wax?). So funny/analog. Side one passed with no break. Flip. Then, just as my hope was wearing out (along with my memory cause I couldn’t quite remember how deep in the track it came), there it was, on the very last grooves of side two. It seemed so odd that the break that became one of the most sampled in all of history appeared almost like a coda on this original pressing. Amazing how retrospective sensemaking works (and also record karma). I had to think that I was doing something right cause the record gods were sure smiling on me today.

Makin Moves

When you have thousands of records, moving day is time of reckoning. Its the day when all those Sunday thrift store purchases come home to roost. Its the day when you wonder whether all those doubles are really necessary. Its the day when mp3s start to make sense. Its the day when you wish you had hired the cast of Ben Hur instead of the three skinny movers who just arrived from the former Soviet Union only to find themselves trapped in a different kind of gulag.

But when you are moving into a 2000 sq. foot chicken loft,  its all worth it in the end. And that’s just what we did.

Last weekend, we moved our base of operations to the legendary Chicken Loft in Cambridge. More on that soon. But we are already off to a good start. On the very first day, as we sat and sipped a bottle of Wayne’s home made wine, he looked down at his tweetyphone and exclaimed with shock and honor, “holy shit guys, MIT just saved my life”. He learned he had been selected as an MIT Mellon Fellow. Congrats Wayne. Auspicious beginnings.

Control+Alt+Delete. Talk to you again as soon as I unpack!