Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pops – Louis Armstrong, “West End Blues”

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“The First Great Soloist”

“When on June 28, 1928, Louis Armstrong unleashed the spectacular cascading phrases of the introduction to West End Blues, he estab­lished the general stylistic direction of jazz for several decades to come. Beyond that, this performance also made quite clear that jazz could never again revert to being solely an entertainment or folk music.

The clarion call of West End Blues served notice that jazz had the poten­tial capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression. Though nurtured by the crass entertainment and night-club world of the Prohibition era, Armstrong's music trans­cended this context and its implications.

This was music for music's sake, not for the first time in jazz, to be sure, but never before in such a brilliant and unequivocal form. The beauties of this music were those of any great, compelling musical experience: expressive fervor, intense artistic commitment, and an intuitive sense for structural logic, combined with superior instrumental skill. By whatever definition of art -be it abstract, sophisticated, virtuosic, emotionally expressive, structurally perfect — Armstrong's music qualified.

Like any profoundly creative innovation, West End Blues summarized the past and pre­dicted the future. But such moments in the history of music by their very brilliance also tend to push into the background the many prepa­ratory steps that lead up to the masterpiece. Certainly, West End Blues was not without its antecedents. It did not suddenly spring full­-blown from Armstrong's head. Its conception was assembled, bit by bit, over a period of four or five years, and it is extremely instructive to study the process by which Armstrong accumulated his personal style, his "bag" as the jazz musician would put it.

Armstrong’s recording activity in the years 1926-29 was so prolific that the jazz analyst's task is both easy and difficult. On the one hand, the recordings give an exhaustive, almost day-by-day documentation of Louis's progress. On the other hand, he recorded so much, under so many varying circumstances and pressures, recorded such a variety of material with the indiscriminate abandon in which only a genius can afford to indulge, that the task of gaining a comprehensive view, in purely statistical terms, is formidable. The wonder of it all is that Armstrong, irrespective of what or with whom he recorded, main­tained an astonishingly high degree of inventiveness and musical in­tegrity, at least until the early 19305, when he did succumb to the sheer weight of his success and its attendant commercial pressures.” 

[Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, New York: Oxford University Press, paperback edition 1986, pp. 89-90; paragraphing modified].

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