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
didnt 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 1930sthe 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
mwe3.com presents an interview with
Great to speak with you Roberta. We reviewed Little Sugar on
mwe3.com in 2013 and now its 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 albums 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 Youve 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 Bessies 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 Im not a big
record collector I employed different strategies for finding songs.
I believe the groove is key to any recording project,
yet its 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
For the current project My Heart Belongs To Satchmo, the strategy
was to concentrate on the early recordings of Louis Armstrongs
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?
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 Nekujaks 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 didnt make the final list included Gut
Bucket Blues, St. Louis Blues, Dont
Forget To Mess Around, Ill Be Glad When Youre
Dead, You Rascal You, Swing That Music, and Swingin
On Nothing. Ultimately, song choices were made based on rhythm,
melody and lyrics. Ive 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 Satchmos 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. Theres 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, its 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.
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 Bennetts 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 didnt 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 couldnt 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
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. Id worked with Annie Stocking
before on previous records; shes 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. Id 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 Annies
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?
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 Im singing live, and Sam Bevan is playing live,
during the recording sessions, and since its more difficult
to listen while Im 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 others
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. Ive spent a lot of time over the years visiting and
playing in and around New York. Were planning to spend more
time in NYC. Id 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 thats more folks than went to the movies.
I think it was sometimes a nickel to get into a movie; I expect it
wasnt 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, its only
6 cents and theres a barrel of gents
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 Whats 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 Hoagys 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 Oxtots 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 Im Shootin High? Who
brought that one to the table?
Roberta Donnay: I found Im Shooting High
myself, along with the other tracks, I dont 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 havent as yet played this one live, I did learn its
one of the few non-re-recorded pieces we did here. Its similar
to Im 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.
Donnay: As I said earlier, Im not a record collector so
I cant 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, Satchmos 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.
Im 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 hes
playing trumpet or singing. Of course, since Im more of a singer
than trumpet player (lol) I can relate to his singing, phrasing, expression,
but its all pretty much the same thing. When you hear Louis
scatting youre hearing his trumpet playing and vice versa.
Because most early recordings of Satchmo is him playing with other
bands like with King Oliver, theres so much to listen to! Under
his own name, Im not sure that he had recordings before the
1940s under his own name, He wasnt 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? Its
his humanity shining thru and thru and occasionally youll
hear his spoken intro before the song plays if hes performing
live and hes a beautiful speaker, and its all from his
heart. Thats 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 whats 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
Donnay: I read the book Satchmo - My Life In New Orleans.
by Louis Armstrong. And I must say its 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 hed 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 didnt 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 dont expect
that cannabis was prohibited like alcohol was during the prohibition
era. Because it wasnt 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 hadnt 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,
Ill 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 Im 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 didnt 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
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, dont you agree?
Donnay: Im in favor of any medium that gets the music to
the people. Its a wonderful thing to have remastered original
recordings transferred to vinyl LP, CD, and mp3s. I honestly
dont care how I hear it; of course Id 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 Im on the road listening a
lot on computers and headphones and on my phone, Im not unlike
most of the world now listening to everything digitally. Its
a crazy world of sound; we just have to accept the times and the different
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 theyre trying
to honor the copyright owners but to the copyright owners I say youll
make more money in the end if folks get a chance to hear the tracks.
Theyre unlikely to purchase an LP that they have no way of hearing
Its like when we used to have Tower Records. (sigh) And we could
walk into Tower and thered 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. Its a great collaboration
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 Whats Your Story so I felt very comfortable
with him on this.
plans are to continue touring until we drop to our knees from exhaustion!
It hasnt happened yet. We try to get the word out and looking
for new opportunities to tour. Personally, Id love us to take
this tour to Europe, where the audiences are even more hip to Satchmo
and this era of jazz. Cant 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
more info: robertadonnay.com
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