ROBERTA DONNAY
My Heart Belongs To Satchmo
(Blujazz Productions)

 

In 2012, San Francisco-based singer-songwriter Roberta Donnay released her acclaimed album A Little Sugar, which she followed in 2015 with Bathtub Gin. A few years later, Roberta Donnay & The Prohibition Mob Band return once again in 2018 with My Heart Belongs To Satchmo. A tribute album to the musical style of the legendary Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven band recordings, on My Heart Belongs To Satchmo Ms. Donnay strikes vintage, vocal-based jazz gold as her fifteen track CD is a splendid tribute to the esteemed "Satchmo", who passed away all those years ago, on July 9th 1971. While Louis didn’t write every track on My Heart Belongs To Satchmo, it was his horn-playing style and singing that most impressed Ms. Donnay and was, in fact, the very sound and music that made the name Louis Armstrong such a household word, especially in the years before his passing, when he finally made his long overdue and quite big commercial breakthroughs into the mainstream pop music market. Ms. Donnay is one of the main purveyors and preservers of music from America's infamous prohibition era music of the 1920s and 1930s—the years which, in fact, could be viewed as the basis for some of the finest American roots music of the past one hundred years. Produced by Ms. Donnay, Sam Bevan and Matt Wong, and released on the Chicago-based Blujazz label, My Heart Belongs To Satchmo is superbly recorded and features key supporting roles by a number of musicians, including John R. Burr (piano), the aforementioned Sam Bevan (bass) and many other excellent players. The CD is smartly packaged and comes with an informative booklet featuring track-by-track liner notes by musicologist Scott Yanow. A splendid spin for long time jazz buffs and newcomers looking to reexplore America's infamous “prohibition era” music, on My Heart Belongs To Satchmo, Roberta Donnay makes a return trip to the 20th century heyday of Louis Armstrong a most pleasurable experience. www.blujazz.com / www.robertadonnay.com

 

 





mwe3.com presents an interview with
ROBERTA DONNAY


mwe3
: Great to speak with you Roberta. We reviewed Little Sugar on mwe3.com in 2013 and now it’s great to hear your Louis Armstrong tribute My Heart Belongs To Satchmo in 2018. Has the Satchmo album been a long time dream of yours to make?

Roberta Donnay: First, thank you for reviewing A Little Sugar (2012). We followed that record with Bathtub Gin (2015), and now we just released My Heart Belongs To Satchmo, which is my personal favorite so far! I admired Louis Armstrong from a very young age; he made a huge impression on me, so when I found myself considering ideas for the next record, a project dedicated just to Satchmo was a slam-dunk. I even had the title in my head, long before we started.

mwe3: How were the Satchmo album’s songs chosen and how long did it take to plan and what details emerged around the arrangements and the sessions?

Roberta Donnay: The research behind all three of these projects has been a beautiful experience, which led me to discover a wealth of early material from the roots of jazz. The process from the beginning has been pretty much the same, and ends up taking about two years start to finish.

The first record started with a song titled “You’ve Been A Good ‘Ole Wagon (But You Done Broke Down)” which was recorded by Bessie Smith in 1925. That song inspired me to dig up obscure songs with a similar attitude from the 1920s and 1930s. I started with one of my favorite singers, Miss Billie Holiday, knowing that her mentor was Bessie Smith, and then moved on to Bessie’s mentor, Ma Rainey. Researching Bessie and Ma Rainey songs led me to finding “Oh Papa”, which was recorded later by Bessie as “Oh Daddy”, but we always referred back to the original version.

Working with Sam Bevan, (bassist, co-producer and main arranger), we decided to write our own arrangements by staying true to the original feel but without creating an exact copy. Since I’m not a big record collector I employed different strategies for finding songs. I believe “the groove” is key to any recording project, yet it’s also essential to consider the relevance of the overall theme to ensure it will work together in a viable project or idea. So most of our research took place on YouTube, which happens to be a goldmine for vintage jazz recordings, and Pandora to find related artists.

For the current project My Heart Belongs To Satchmo, the strategy was to concentrate on the early recordings of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. We wanted to avoid obvious songs previously released throughout the years, although we chose to record a few notable Satchmo tunes including “Basin Street Blues”, “Up A Lazy River”, and “A Kiss To Build A Dream On”. Once we had a good selection of songs, it was time to get to work on the arrangements. On the previous two records, Sam and I were responsible for all the arrangements, except for 3 songs arranged by Wayne Wallace. However, Sam had moved to New York and had limited time for this project, so I asked Matt Wong to help out with some of the arrangements.

mwe3: It sounds like you really captured the sound and feel of Louis Armstrong's music. How did you choose the musicians and what else can you tell us about the recording sessions and some of the musicians you worked with on the Satchmo album?

Roberta Donnay: I copied Louis’ phrasing whenever I could, including the notes throughout the intro on “Up A Lazy River” and somewhat in the first chorus of “Ding Dong Daddy”. We had one major rehearsal before recording in San Francisco. Sam flew in from NYC and Matt was here from NYC on holiday break. We recorded Satchmo live in two-days at Decibel, a studio in San Francisco, with the immensely talented engineer Gary Mankin who worked with us on the previous two records. Overdubs were produced by me and some co-produced by Annie Stocking at Nekujak’s studio with Nekujak engineering. Gary Mankin did all the final mixes and mastering.

I believe the strength of this recording is due to the excellent performances by each musician, and each receives my profound, heartfelt appreciation. The musicians are Rich Armstrong (cornet/trumpet), Grammy winner Mike Rinta (trombone), Sheldon Brown (clarinet), John R. Burr (piano), Sam Bevan (bass), Deszon Claiborne (drums), Matt Baxter (guitar).

mwe3: Were these particular songs chosen mainly for their history with Louis Armstrong and that Louis recorded them all? Was it challenging in going through hundreds of songs to arrive with these 15 tracks for you to cover?

Roberta Donnay: Louis recorded every song on this record. It was an honor and pleasure going through his recorded history to find these selections. One song, recommended by a drummer friend in NYC, was “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”, which was a strong contender but ended up not making the final cut. Before long we had 21 cuts, still too many! Rich Armstrong suggested “A Kiss To Build A Dream On” saying it was his favorite, so we considered this one long and hard before Sam wrote the arrangement.

Other contenders which didn’t make the final list included “Gut Bucket Blues”, “St. Louis Blues”, “Don’t Forget To Mess Around”, “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You”, “Swing That Music”, and “Swingin’ On Nothing”. Ultimately, song choices were made based on rhythm, melody and lyrics. I’ve got to love performing and sharing these tunes with audiences for years to come so the final album must be songs I love to sing.

mwe3: What inspired you to want to re-explore the music of the 1920s and ‘30s and specifically Satchmo’s music and even go so far as to call your band the Prohibition Mob Band? That has to be the greatest band name in recent years. Living through that era must have been both scary and exciting. Your album is like an American music history lesson!

Roberta Donnay: Thank you for the very kind acknowledgment for the name of the group! We were looking for a name that just explained the show without having to do a whole lotta thinkin’. Kind of a no-brainer, Prohibition Mob Band, obviously because the years 1920-1933 were the years of Prohibition. “Mob” came from both the energy of support that the Mob actually gave to the world of Jazz by creating speakeasies. Mob bosses were usually the owners and also of course, the runners of liquor brought around and into the country. But the real use of the “Mob” was in the attitude we wanted the band to have. There’s a band made up of many horn players in the Bay Area called “The Jazz Mafia” and whenever I saw that name, and many friends are in it, I felt a certain dangerous energy around it. That energy is what we needed from our own band in terms of style and aggression for this early jazz.

I loved the idea of the guys in the band dressing like 1930s mobsters, which was an easy look which almost any guy could really look good in, after all, it’s a hat, suspenders or vest or both, sometimes a jacket, a tie, and slacks. I felt an obligation to my audience, to make this a fun event every time they heard the band, to really entertain the people, and this was also the original intention of this music, to lift the spirits of the people, whether it was from the Great Depression, or from society at large.

My intention was to educate youth who maybe never heard this music or jazz from this era, to use the history as a back-story, and to teach the history of jazz, which has always been fascinating to me. And to support the history of our jazz ancestors, so vitally important to our culture, to honor and respect those who sacrificed and gave so much to our culture that we are loved around the world for this gift. Which brings me to Tony Bennett’s quote inside the record: “The bottom line of any country in the world is what did we contribute to the world? We contributed Louis Armstrong.”

mwe3: A good example, I didn’t know “Up A Lazy River” was written by Hoagy Carmichael in 1930. My Dad was 4 years old in 1930. I think everyone has heard that song, so the beauty of this album is that everyone knows these tracks.

Roberta Donnay: “Up A Lazy River” is a song I first heard as a child, and I couldn’t tell you whose recording I first discovered it. When I was doing research, we had recorded another Hoagy Carmichael song on A Little Sugar record called “Rockin’ Chair”, which is still one of our favorites, which we play live whenever we can. There were many Louis recordings of this song. This particular version we based ours on what was also used and talked about by Nat Hentoff, I believe, in the documentary called Jazz: A film by Ken Burns which played on PBS.

When I rediscovered this version of Louis playing “Up A Lazy River” with his scat singing and just fabulous intro, well, we just had to use this. And we took Louis’ scat section and turned that into a soli horn section. This is probably one of the most known songs Louis is associated with, the other one being “Basin Street Blues”.

mwe3: How closely did you work with your co-producers Sam Bevan and Matt Wong and also vocal producer Annie Stocking on the album and what were some of the preproduction conversations like?

Roberta Donnay: Matt Wong and Sam Bevan kept in close contact with me while writing arrangements. I’d worked with Annie Stocking before on previous records; she’s a great vocal producer and singer. When we first started working on “Pennies From Heaven”, I knew we had to put vocal backgrounds on this. Dan Hicks wrote the original vocal arrangement plus the new lyrics are his.

All I had was the live version from the studio. I’d had all the parts written in my head, and I had sung the background parts I remembered in our home studio, but I needed help getting them all down, and Annie’s voice I knew would work perfectly with mine. After we did “Pennies”, I asked Annie to help me with “Ding Dong Daddy” because of the fast phrasing, and she helped me tremendously with feedback and picking the best lines possible. Some of the vocals I decided to re-sing later, as I felt I could beat the original.

mwe3: Another great Satchmo track, “Music Goes Round And Round” has an infectious arrangement. The piano sound is excellent on that track. It was kind of a forerunner pop music track Louis covered it in 1936. January 18, 1936 to be exact. I see Matt Wong produced and arranged that track. Did Matt produce all the tracks he arranged?

Roberta Donnay: Matt Wong co-produced “Music Goes Round And Round”. I asked Matt to act as a co-producer on this project with us once I realized that I’m singing live, and Sam Bevan is playing live, during the recording sessions, and since it’s more difficult to listen while I’m singing, it was a big help to have Matt there. Matt had all his arrangements on his iPad, and so in the studio he could see the horn lines and, for instance, he could stop us and say, “Bar 74 – trombone part – need to change this one note”. I think that happened maybe once.

The only song which had multiple takes, and maybe we did 4 of these was “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” because, as I was singing to John R.’s piano we were answering each other’s riffs on this, with Sam; bass comes in on the bridge, and I was trying to get a different kind of feel that was full of the emotion.

mwe3: With Louis in Queens and Les Paul in New Jersey, can you imagine what that era must have really been like? So when were you last in NYC?

Roberta Donnay: My parents both grew up in New York City, so I visited family there as a child, and so I was very familiar with the culture because as a kid I heard from both my parents, who had heard Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald live. Of course, any time I heard of anyone who got to hear Billie or Ella or Louis live and in person, I was so very jealous! Last time I was in NYC two years ago to do shows and attend Jazz Connect, which I plan on attending in 2019. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years visiting and playing in and around New York. We’re planning to spend more time in NYC. I’d so love to have an apartment there! One of my long time dreams. Of course, the history is very deep. Between the clubs of Harlem, the great jazz musicians who gathered there, venues like the Cotton Club, The Savoy and more, where swing dancers could go on any night of the week. When studying this era, I learned that the youth who lived in New York in the 1930s went out dancing at least 3 times a week. I think that’s more folks than went to the movies.

I think it was sometimes a nickel to get into a movie; I expect it wasn’t much more to get into a dance hall. I even wrote a song about this called “Happy Feet”, on the Bathtub Gin album, and part of the chorus goes: “Well, it’s only 6 cents and there’s a barrel of gents…” Savoy held up to 6,000 dancers, can you imagine? The whole vibrant community, thinking of these rooms as being some of the first integrated rooms too, was very exciting to me. We know of the bands who blew the roofs off these rooms, including the great Chick Webb. Also a New Yorker, one of my great benefits in life was to have worked with legendary jazz producer Orrin Keepnews, who produced my very first real jazz record What’s Your Story, who also told me stories of the history of when he was a teen going out to hear jazz, and so this was probably in the 1940s. And for me the inspiration from hangin’ out with great older jazz musicians over the years, well, all that history just made a huge impression on me.

Also working with Dan Hicks & The Hot Licks, all the years I sang with him; he also played these very old records and we talked a lot of history over the many years of touring. He played The Mills Brothers version of “Rockin’ Chair”, which was probably my first exposure to Hoagy’s song, and he also hipped me to Elizabeth Cotten, who wrote “Freight Train” when she was but 17 years old, and then wrote a song we recorded on Bathtub Gin about losing the farm, called “Shake Sugaree”. I played with a couple of Dixieland Jazz Bands when I first got to San Francisco, one of them being Dick Oxtot’s Golden Age Jazz Band and he also taught me lots of songs from that era, including “Gimme A Pigfoot”, which I still perform today.

mwe3: How about “I’m Shootin’ High”? Who brought that one to the table?

Roberta Donnay: I found “I’m Shooting High” myself, along with the other tracks, I don’t remember where I found it. Mostly I was haunting YouTube. I think the lyric and melody for this one are just so catchy, it was just a fun song to add. We actually haven’t as yet played this one live, I did learn it’s one of the few non-re-recorded pieces we did here. It’s similar to “I’m In The Market For You” tempo-wise so we opted to play this one live instead.

mwe3: What are your favorite Louis Armstrong albums? What era do you feel Louis was most prolific as a recording artist? Do you think he was more a trumpet playing musician or more a vocalist / personality like Bing Crosby, not to mention Les Paul.

Roberta Donnay: As I said earlier, I’m not a record collector so I can’t give you album titles. Wish I could just spout these out. I do think the early 1920s were some of the finest recordings of jazz. With other bands like under King Oliver, with the Hot Five and Hot Seven Bands, Satchmo’s energy and inventive spirit are so evident, his energy just jumps out at you, much like it did for me even seeing him on TV as a youngster.

I’m gonna quote somebody here: “Louis Armstrong and his trumpet; more than anyone else he laid the foundation for modern jazz.” I believe Louis Armstrong almost single-handedly invented swing because he swung everything so hard, whether he was playing trumpet, singing real words or scatting, his commitment to the rhythm in a way no one else had done before his time, well, you could say he was a “swing pioneer”. It all translates the same to me whether he’s playing trumpet or singing. Of course, since I’m more of a singer than trumpet player (lol) I can relate to his singing, phrasing, expression, but it’s all pretty much the same thing. When you hear Louis scatting you’re hearing his trumpet playing and vice versa.

Because most early recordings of Satchmo is him playing with other bands like with King Oliver, there’s so much to listen to! Under his own name, I’m not sure that he had recordings before the 1940s under his own name, He wasn’t a band leader until much later. Records that I love listening to the most include recordings on Odeon Records, out of Germany in 1930, which include “Ding Dong Daddy From Dumas”. But again, most of what I found I found by singles and on YouTube. His duets with Ella Fitzgerald are so incredibly sweet, I absolutely adore “Dream A Little Dream Of Me” with Ella and Louis. And of course his duet with Billie Holiday, “The Blues Are Brewin’”. One of my favorite all time recordings of his is also “What A Wonderful World” of course, way later and outside our era. How could a human being not love this song? It’s his humanity shining thru’ and thru’ and occasionally you’ll hear his spoken intro before the song plays if he’s performing live and he’s a beautiful speaker, and it’s all from his heart. That’s the key of what translates to me and to all audiences, I think, young or old. Can we truly speak from the heart? The heart is what’s most important.

mwe3: Can you tell the readers one or more of the most unique things you learned about Louis Armstrong over the years? For example, I read he was a big cannabis advocate and was actually arrested for smoking it. Do you think Louis would laugh if he saw how California is making billions from cannabis sativa 50 years later! What did the prohibition era look like for cannabis? So alcohol was banned in the prohibition but was cannabis too? Check out Louis' page on the JerryJazzMusic.com web site! lol

Roberta Donnay: I read the book Satchmo - My Life In New Orleans. by Louis Armstrong. And I must say it’s a must-read by anyone who wants to learn about his early years growing up in New Orleans, how he first came to love the cornet and how he started to learn music, what he had to sacrifice to be able to go for his dream. I know many musicians are quick to complain when we have to work other jobs. Satchmo had many other jobs before he made it, even after he’d played on the road. He was also put into a home for boys very young and grew up very poor. New Orleans was a dangerous place back then and there was a lot of crime and I imagine young black men didn’t have a great chance of even just staying alive. Satchmo was such a good guy; I mean, one who never ever intended to break any laws. Except of course, when it came to his use of marijuana. I don’t expect that cannabis was prohibited like alcohol was during the prohibition era. Because it wasn’t in the mainstream.

I do have a funny story to share that relates to us recording Louis and his fondness for marijuana. I had heard over the years that Louis was described as a “pot head” meaning that he loved to smoke a joint on a daily basis. And this is something I did in my early 20s, but hadn’t really been a part of for many years. When the recording session was coming up I was in a severe back pain situation, which was flaring up morning of day one of our first Satchmo recording session. My friend had given me some marijuana “edibles” and I had decided to eat half of one on the way to the studio. I had the other half in my hand while I was hangin’ out with the band, just getting ready, I thought, “well, that tasted pretty good, I’ll just pop the remainder in my mouth”.

By the time tape was rolling, about a half hour later, I was stoned. The first song we cut was “I’m In The Market For You”. While I was singing, I was really relaxed, I was focused in on the music in a different way. Then it occurred to me that Satchmo smoked a whole lotta pot and probably did throughout the studio sessions too, so I was right in rhythm! Of course, I didn’t divulge any of this to the band till much later, as I was the main producer of this recording and have a reputation, of sorts, and major responsibility to uphold.

mwe3: Being an expert in Louis and the prohibition era music, how well did the music translate to the digital medium? Are there experts in transferring that music from those crazy 78 rpm lacquers to fancy CD boxsets? Lol It boggles the mind. I heard some of the Hot Five sides Louis cut in the late 1920s. They sounded amazing, almost like tape, don’t you agree?

Roberta Donnay: I’m in favor of any medium that gets the music to the people. It’s a wonderful thing to have remastered original recordings transferred to vinyl LP, CD, and mp3’s. I honestly don’t care how I hear it; of course I’d prefer to hear the original LP or 78 rpm. I miss the white noise and I love the warmth of the analogue sound. But since I’m on the road listening a lot on computers and headphones and on my phone, I’m not unlike most of the world now listening to everything digitally. It’s a crazy world of sound; we just have to accept the times and the different choices available.

I guess about the worse thing that can happen to me now is they take down every recording from YouTube. They have done this with some Ella recordings I was recently listening to. This is death for young jazz listeners! I hope they stop this trend. I guess they’re trying to honor the copyright owners but to the copyright owners I say you’ll make more money in the end if folks get a chance to hear the tracks. They’re unlikely to purchase an LP that they have no way of hearing it first.

It’s like when we used to have Tower Records. (sigh) And we could walk into Tower and there’d be these listening stations set up where you could play some of the new records coming out. Damn, I miss that thing. I discovered so much music; I lived at Tower on certain days. It was always a beautiful adventure to listen to new music there.

I can imagine now someone discovering one of our recordings in a place like that. Otherwise, all we have is word of mouth and social media and to be lucky enough to have writers and magazines, like yours, writing about our projects.

mwe3: Blujazz did a great job on the Satchmo CD. The sound is excellent as are the graphics and liner notes are great. How did you meet Blujazz? Greg Pasenko has some great ideas on sound for his label. He's got a number of releases and the latest Blujazz albums by Galen Weston and Bill Hart which are brilliant. You must be getting a big play on Satchmo by historians and music lovers and the buzz for Satchmo must be creating big interest. What other plans do you have for 2018 and do you already have some ideas on making another album in the next year or any performances or videos coming up?

Roberta Donnay: Thank you! We were fortunate to have sent out a preview link of the Satchmo tracks to a number of jazz labels last year. We got 5 responses which were so positive that it really knocked us out. With Blujazz and Greg Pasenko, it was an easy decision because he was already familiar with our band, our sound, and loved the project, and the record was already mastered when we sent it. We were pleased to be able to work with someone with a long and successful history of working with independent artists and labels. Greg does so much and is committed to his artists. It’s a great collaboration so far.

Scott Yanow was kind to write the liner notes on this project and I thought he was a great choice because of his being a jazz historian. He totally understood the project and had reviewed our past 2 records as well as What’s Your Story so I felt very comfortable with him on this.

Our plans are to continue touring until we drop to our knees from exhaustion! It hasn’t happened yet. We try to get the word out and looking for new opportunities to tour. Personally, I’d love us to take this tour to Europe, where the audiences are even more hip to Satchmo and this era of jazz. Can’t wait to also tour Japan again, too. We have plans for future records, 4 at the moment, but the ideas are all hush-hush for now. But be assured they will covering the same era; highly creative and entertaining!


All photos courtesy of Eddy Bee Images

For more info: robertadonnay.com
Visit Roberta Donnay on facebook, twitter and instagram






 

 
   
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