ESQUIZITO / “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South/Les Armes”
There is some shit that is beyond the pale, too square for anyone hip to dig. I used to feel that way about some of Pops’ stuff, particularly this song with its “darkies” and “mammies.” Too much Jim Crow to fit up in my mouth. But eventually, I grew up—by which I mean something specific, something far more than just got older, or even just got “old.” Eventually I came to realize I had the option to refuse to kiss Jim Crow’s ass partially because some of my ancestors had eaten old crow, swallowed it and dealt with having crow, feathers and all, forced down their throats. If they could stomach crow (beak, bones, claw and caw) and eventually produce me, who was I to reject them just because I was rejecting Jim Crow? Indeed, the closer I looked at them, at my ancestors, at the ones who had to deal with bird collectors who kept crows as pets, the closer I got to what it must have been like to be a man with claws stuck in your hair and an unremitting beak picking at your eyeballs every time you looked. When I got to that, I came to understand that previously I had not understood the whole. I had mistaken the parts I didn’t like for the totality of what I should have loved. Louis Armstrong, both reverently and affectionately known as “Pops,” was more than an entertainer. Pops was a progenitor. Put another way, a just as accurate way, Pops not only made us possible; Pops created us. Literally. And cleared the ground to enable us to grow and become whatever we wanted to become, sound howsoever we chose to emote. And then I peeped how Pops created 20th century American music when it came to song. Took the tripe, the entrails and the detritus of what was then a truly square tradition of popular music, gave that bullshit some rhythm, and some melodic elegance and engaged it at the hippest level possible—the level of making life better and more beautiful than when it touched him and he touched it. Soon thereafter (meaning soon after I came to my senses) with “Sleepy Time” I started hearing some of the beauty of the melody, some times even found myself humming it, or even walking in an establishment or warm room full of beautiful black folk and, a la Pops, intoning the sacred greeting: “Good evening, everybody!” Oh, it’s beautiful to be cultured. Pops taught me that. Even though Jim Crow may be shitting on your suit, you can still be beautiful—I guess that’s why the old folks wore so many hats: to keep the crow shit off them! Any how: here are four versions of “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” (But, first a word for our sources. Go to this Louis Armstrong website—I’m damn near demanding that if you care about jazz at all, you should at the very least give a cursory glance to a definitive website about Louis Armstrong. At least read the “home” page and the “about” page. And now back to our program.) 1. Louis Armstrong from 16 Most Requested Songs There must be a trillion versions of Pops doing this song. Without trying hard I put my hands on eight different renditions. I choose this one because it swings. Hard. And that's even though it’s taken at a leisurely pace. From the opening trumpet chorus, Pops with that fat, ebullient tone that was the sound of his horn, starts the song and then Pops the vocalist takes over, on the out chorus giving us a taste of his scat chops and then ending pro forma with his sacred benediction: "Good evening, everybody!" Classic. Trivia note: if you try to research the song, you won’t find much. Some sites even credit the first recording to Paul Whiteman (the media marketed so-called first “king” of jazz, which is insane on the surface of it since “King Oliver” preceded the fat man, but that’s another story—or actually another part of this story, a part for to talk about at another time), anyway they credit Whiteman with a 1932 recording. Louis Armstrong recorded it on the Okeh label, April 20, 1931 in Chicago with a ten-piece band billed as Louis Armstrong And His Orchestra. Pops’ version was so popular, it became his trademark and theme song invariably done in most of his public performances, which is how the song written by Leon & Louis Rene along with Clarence Muse rose to popular prominence—easily the most popular song of Louis’ long career; yes, more popular than “When The Saints Go Marching In” or “Hello, Dolly,” or "Mack, The Knife," or any other well known Armstrong rendition you care to name. And then, of course, with the rise of the Civil Rights movement in the fifties, the song that crooned about “darkies” and “mammies on their knees” had to go and was immediately withdrawn from Negroes’ memory bank, which is why most young people have never heard it. 2. Betty Carter from It’s Not About The Melody Originally this was going to be my pick. Ms. Betty is just way, way too much to be believed. It’s 1992. She calls in Mulgrew Miller on piano, Christian McBride on bass and Lewis Nash on drums. Not only is she going to do this old-ass song but she’s going to do it Carter style, slower than FEMA getting to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina—and it’s hard, hard, hard to get slower than that! The first time I heard her start into that coon song I started to hit the skip button but, you know, it was Ms. Betty Carter, so I figured she was going to do something hip with it (hopefully), or at least “try” to do something hip with it, although I could not see, hear, taste, touch nor smell anything hip about bringing back “Sleepy Time.” But, like I said, this was Betty Carter, one of the hippest ladies to every grace this planet. A lady who had a rep for telling racists where to shove their shit. So, OK, even though I had my doubts, I would check to see what she had in mind. And, even though it literally started off slow, before I knew it, a big fat moon was lighting up the night of this dreadful song. Things started glowing. I said, oh my, what a beautiful night! By the time Mulgrew finishes caressing the keys and all the veils have fallen away and you begin to hear how Betty Carter is altering the melody, expertly improvising at such a slow pace, it’s just crazy loverly. Her long tones unwavering, on key, pitch perfect, her pacing unerring. This is a master course in breath control. Now when I think of “Sleepy Time” this is a version I hear in my inner ear. 3. Wynton Marsalis from Standards & Ballads Wynton in all his retro-ness, except once you get to it and listen closely, you understand he might be playing old but it’s not really an old sound they’re doing. It’s really hip young cats taking a slow train to Chicago rather than flying by jet. By which I mean, they're slow walking, taking their time. It’s really the band that makes this version insanely exquisite. That’s Marcus Roberts acting like he’s peeping how them forties cats (the true royalty of jazz) used to swing a whole orchestra while plunking the ivories except Marcus got Thelonious in his ear so he alters the chords, adds notes to the basics, does some subtle rhythmic shifts and voila, the song sounds sweet. On bass is Reginald Veal who was probably plucking his umbilical cord in the womb. That brother was born to play bass, not only got that fat tone redolent with gut-bucket aromas, but he swings like mad even when the tempo is at a crawl. Veal swings like it was Sunday after church and he was courting a lady friend on the front porch, back and forth, gently, her head on his shoulder, his hand in her lap, furtively touching her thighs, oh my, you know the rest. Well that’s how Reginald swings. That’s Herlin “the best drummer in New Orleans” Riley with them brushes doing that ting-a-ling thing on the cymbals. But pay attention: what makes his drumming sound so sweet is the way he uses the bass drum on the bottom in perfect coordination with Veal’s bass. This is some advanced metrics. No accident. Recorded in the late eighties, this is from a best of collection compiled and released in 2008. Although I don’t care much for retro stuff (mainly because it rarely and I mean very rarely matches the original), I do admit, I do dig this. 4. Esquizito from Something I Dreamed Last Night We were in the parlor on Music Street. (That’s literally the name of the street.) Esquizito’s crib. He had just been playing some tapes of Danny Barker from when Danny was doing a jazz history class at Xavier University back in the seventies. Esquizito is the caretaker of hours of Danny’s personal recordings. I was impressed. Danny Barker is a godhead of New Orleans jazz. Was a regular in Cab Calloway’s band. Recorded with Billie Holiday, including that famous sound of jazz television program. Recorded with Bird too. Not to mention all the trad stuff. Danny Barker forgot more about jazz than I will ever learn. Then some of Esquizito’s music came on. The album I had come to buy from him. He offered it for free. I told him I had just been paid for doing an interview, so I was spreading the good fortune around, which is the New Orleans tradition. You run up on some money, you supposed to at least buy a friend a drink, a kid a candy, a lover a flower, or purchase a CD from a musician. I didn’t recognize this song that came on, although the melody sounded a little familiar. I had peeped at the cover, didn’t recognize this as none of the songs listed. “That’s some Rachmaninov I put on the front.” Seems like when Esquizito had first got back after Katrina, he was at a friend’s house and the friend had Rachmaninov on; the sound had stuck up in Esquizito’s ear and later found it’s way to… goddamn, that’s “Sleepy Time.” You sly devil, you. I smiled at Esquizito, he smiled back. The band was on in its off-kilter way. I mean a two-guitar lead (Esquizito on vocals and acoustic guitar and Dave Easely on pedal steel guitar). Khari Allen Lee on alto sax, Greg Smith on bass and Dylan Hicks on drums. Easely was astringent as a mouth full of Dr. Tichenor's. (Y'all might not know nothing about that; it’s some general purpose antiseptic used for everything from strong-ass mouthwash to cleaning wounds to emergency sips when you really, really need a drink and a bottle is far, far away). The steel sounds barbed-wire strong and razor-knife sharp, the acoustic 'lamp light turned down low' warm and 'goose down pillow under your lover’s ass as you ease into her' soft—what a combination, what a sound. Sort of like seeing a bride stomping down a muddy street in combat boots, holding up her dress with one hand, waving a lit joint in the other. (I know y'all think I’m making this shit up, but New Orleans is on that water; weird combinations is the norm down here; that’s how we came up with gumbo in the first place.) Esquizito’s baritone is perfectly loverly—ahh, there’s that word again: loverly. Floating. Additionally, the way Esquizito has updated the lyrics is brilliant. The meaning of the song is now hip, hip, hip: a song of homecoming, back to New Orleans. I love it. (Y'all knew I would). I can dream again and not be awakened by nightmares. Khari is breathing on that alto, not squeezing out hard notes, just sort of inhaling and quietly exhaling in time to the music. And then they start heading home. “You know what I was trying to do on that ending. I was thinking about how would I sing to put a baby to sleep in the Superdome.” Damn. What a hell of a beautiful way to put it. That’s what Pops had been doing. Singing to soothe people who were cornered by Jim Crow. And here Esquizito thought of singing to babies cooped up in the Superdome on Poydras Street. (Literally a stone’s throw from where Armstrong grew up). Huddled in an indoor stadium, no lights, surrounded by water, and help damn near a week away. Singing a lullaby under those conditions. You know this became my new feature pick. Betty was killing but this, this one raises the dead. —Kalamu ya Salaam Heaven on earth After that "Living For The City" debacle last week, I was starting to think Kalamu was losing his touch with covers. He's always had a talent for pulling out at least three or four dynamite remakes of a song - either well-known or obscure. Well, I'm happy to say he's done it again. All four of these versions are fantastic. I'm not bothered by the "mammie"/"darkie" stuff in the Louis Armstrong version. I guess my generation is far enough removed from the reality of it that it just doesn't get under my skin. I like the Betty Carter too. I remember Kalamu playing the album this version comes from over and over back in the day. As I'm sitting here listening, Esquizito just crooned, "Good evening, everybody." And then Wynton's version (which I already know and love) came sliding in all cool and easy like when my Mama used to finally turn on the air conditioner at nine o'clock at night after one of those liquid-hot New Orleans summer days. She didn't have the money to run the A/C all day, so we'd be sitting there sweating our asses off, arms sticking to the kitchen table while we're trying to eat dinner. But when nine o'clock came.... What a time! What a feeling! You'd just post up right under one of the air vents and let that cool air drift over you. Felt like heaven on earth. That's what Wynton, Reginald, Herlin and Marcus sound like to me. Heaven on earth. Great covers, Baba. —Mtume ya Salaam
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