© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"You are too young to know the impact Louis had in the 1920s," he said. "By the time you were old enough to appreciate Louis, you had been hearing those who derived from him. You cannot imagine how radical he was to all of us. Revolutionary. He defined not only how you play a trumpet solo but how you play a solo on any instrument. Had Louis Armstrong never lived, I suppose there would be a jazz, but it would be very different."
- Artie Shaw, clarinettist and band leader
At the time of the release of The Genius of Louis Armstrong - Volume 1: 1923-1933 [Columbia G 30416 double LP] in 1971 as part of “The John Hammond Collection,” double LP “gatefold” edition vinyls were still fairly rare, especially those offering a career retrospective of what might be termed a founding Jazz giants.
I suspect that the 1971 issue date on The Genius of Louis Armstrong - Volume 1: 1923-1933 might have had a lot to do with the fact that Louis died on July 6th of that year.
But whatever the factors that prompted its issuance, and never being one to quibble about new issues of recorded music as far as Pops was concerned, anyway, I snapped up my copy as soon as it hit the bins of my neighborhood record store [remember those?].
In addition to the fabulous retrospective of Louis’ recorded music from the first decade of his professional career, much to my delight I found that the liner notes were composed by Don DeMichael. Don had at one time served as the editor-in-chief for Downbeat magazine and always composed writings about the music that were insightful and discerning.
As a note in passing, although all of the music on these recordings has since been issued in a digital format, the fidelity on these vinyls is exquisite, so much so that I urge you to seek out a copy of the double LP [I found many affordable copies on eBay].
“When on June 28, 1928, Louis Armstrong unleashed to 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 clear that jazz could never again revert to being solely an entertainment or folk music.”
“That's the way Gunther Schuller. a leading modern composer, sees Armstrong. Other musicians and critics see him in different lights -there are many Armstrongs — but all observers agree that what he accomplished in the '20s almost single-handedly determined the course of American music His breathtakingly lyrical trumpet improvisations soared like eagles over his often plodding accompaniment. His musical conception was far ahead of that of most contemporaries and revealed a natural artistry seldom found in any art form. So pervasive was his influence that an era of jazz — the swing period —was almost totally a celebration of Louis Armstrong. The direction ie set is still very much of importance.
"Louis has been through all kinds of styles…." Miles Davis said a few years ago. "You know you can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played —I mean even modern."
Fortunately. Armstrong recorded prolifically during the '20s It is possible to hear his development unfold almost monthly, as he progresses from a talented but limited follower of King Oliver to master of all he surveyed. The records in this album show this fascinating development; one can hear how he prunes this, adds that, shaping his art as if it were a piece of sculpture
His growth had four stages: 1) the emergence from the New Orleans style of King Oliver: 2) after he had set down the basic precepts of his style and began polishing and perfecting them within the New Orleans context: 3) the leap into virtuosity and experimentation; and 4) bringing together the best of the previous concepts into one astonishing whole. His musical conception went from simplicity to complexity and back to a simplicity that echoed the first but was far more advanced harmonically, melodically and rhythmically.
The most striking development of his work during the '20s was his increasing use of legato, which he managed to do without losing the heat and power that marked even his earliest work. Long notes. usually followed by short, rapidly descending phrases, became an Armstrong hallmark from 1927. As he perfected this highly dramatic device, the notes became longer, reaching something of a record in Mahogany Hall Stomp (1929). when he held one for 12 bars.
In his book Early Jazz (Oxford University Press). Schuller pointed out the outstanding musical aspects of Armstrong: "His superior choice of notes .. incomparable basic quality of tone ...and sense of swing and, perhaps his most individual contribution, the subtly varied repertory of vibratos and shakes with which Armstrong colored and embellished individual notes.”
Many other musicologists have analyzed the Armstrong genius, sometimes missing the main point: the rare beauty and artistry of Armstrong's work during the '20s stands as an achievement yet to be matched.
The earliest record in this set is Mandy, Make Up Your Mind, made with Clarence Williams' Blue Five on December 17, 1924, while Armstrong was a sideman with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra. (Armstrong had come from New Orleans to Chicago to join King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in August. 1922. but left two years later to go with Henderson's big band in New York.)
Armstrong uses a straight mute throughout the performance and leads the ensemble gracefully but forcefully, never letting his variations obscure the melody.
"If a cat can play a beautiful lead nowadays, he's in business ..." Armstrong said in 1965 "That's the first thing Joe Oliver told me when he listened to me play He used to come around the honky-tonks where I was playing [in New Orleans] in the early teens.
I'd say. 'What lead?' 'You play some lead on that horn, let the people know what you're playing.' "
Youthful enthusiasm shoots through Mandy, not only in Armstrong's hot playing but in the equally torrid sarrusophone solo by another New Orleanian. Sidney Bechet. who normally played soprano saxophone and clarinet rather than the odd-sounding sarrusophone.
Bechet once recalled the products of the Blue Five recording sessions as "something you could listen to and not have to do no waiting for the music to arrive, because it was arriving. They had that feeling right there. In the old days there wasn't no one so anxious to take someone else's run. We were working together. Each person, he was the other person's music: You could feel that really running through the band, making itself up and coming out so new and strong. We played as a group then."
When Armstrong arrived back in Chicago in November, 1925 he plunged almost immediately into a flurry of recording work. His wife, Lillian, a better businesswoman than pianist, had secured a job for them at the Dreamland Cafe and, one presumes, had laid the groundwork for the recording sessions. The most famous records from this period, and the ones that first established Armstrong in the entertainment world, were by his Hot Five.
Armstrong picked up considerable extra recording work by accompanying a raft of singers, who ranged from inept to adequate. He was no stranger to backing vocalists: he had done much of it during his stay with Henderson, including some memorable sides with the marvelous Bessie Smith. In Chicago, however, he was something of house cornetist, probably at the behest of Richard M. Jones, a pianist and composer who also was sort of an A&R man for Okeh Records.
Though he was adventurous on the Hot Five recordings. Armstrong reverted to a simpler style for most of his blues accompaniments Certainly the two included here—Lonesome, All Alone And Blue and Bridwell Blues—find him in that frame of mind He seems uncomfortable in the Chippie Hill performance, perhaps because of the rather bland tune and pedestrian piano, but manages to gel off a few nice phrases behind the vocal and an Oliverish solo. His first fill after the solo is the record's most delightful moment.
Nolan Welsh, one of the few male singers Armstrong accompanied, is almost a country blues singer, and Armstrong seems at ease with the material, tossing off several daring fills and contributing an utterly relaxed solo.
His solos with the Hot Five were different from the ones he played as an accompanist, as well they might be, since it was his band and his name on the label. The original Hot Five was a congenial group of New Orleanians (except for Lil) whose repertoire consisted basically of the type of songs its members had cut their musical teeth on years before. There is charming casualness and joi de vive about the Hot Five that probably stemmed from the rather off-handed way in which the sessions were conducted.
"Our recording session would start this way." trombonist Kid Ory recalled "The Okeh people would call up Louis and say they wanted so many sides They never told him what numbers they wanted or how they wanted them. Then Louis would give us the date, and sometimes he'd call me and say I'm short of a number for this next session. Do you think you can get one together? I'd say all right, and that's the way Savoy Blues came to be composed, two days before we recorded.
"We would gel to the studio at nine or ten in the morning…. In the beginning we made records acoustically, and there was a separate horn for each man The recording engineer would motion us if we were playing too loud or too soft, and then we'd know.
"When we'd get in the studio, if we were going to do a new number, we'd run over it a couple of times before we recorded it. We were a very fast recording band. In fact, the records I made with the Hot Five were the easiest I ever made. We spoiled very few records, only sometimes when one of us would forget the routine or the frame-up and didn't come in when he was supposed to Even then we'd try to cover up. . . "
Johnny St. Cyr's Oriental Strut is fairly typical of the Hot Five records some innocent hokum: (the Near Eastern banjo effect), loosely-knit polyphonic ensemble, some stop-time (a favorite Armstrong device and one which always spun him into a great improvisation) and solos all around.
The trumpet solo on Oriental Strut shows Armstrong to be ahead of the New Orleans game. He runs chords and moves his line over the full range of his horn (one phrase may go an octave or more) more often than the other horn men, and, perhaps more important, he wasn't tied to playing on the beat, frequently using offbeats to propel his lines.
The other Hot Five performance in this set, Once in a While, is from a much later session, and the musical freedom and sophistication Armstrong had brought to his work in 1926 is even more pronounced. His stop-time solo is preceded by a four-note pickup (then part of the Armstrong style) and the solo itself dashes equally over the broadly-syncopated background. It's almost a conversation between Armstrong and the other members of the band in a New Orleans context. Armstrong’s musical imagination stretched so far that, at times, he sounded out of place in the older musical style.
This yearning for the horizon can often be heard in the Hot Seven (the Five, plus tuba player Peter Briggs and drummer Baby Dodds) records made during one creative week in May. 1927. The all-out fast choruses are practically high flying trumpet solos with accompaniment instead of collective efforts. The addition of drums seemed to inspire Armstrong, and some of his best work on these records is bounced off the unwavering afterbeat provided by Dodds' thick ride cymbal. The two create a rocking swing on Willie The Weeper and on Weary Blues. Armstrong seems almost in a frenzy as Dodds whips him to ever greater heights. Drums also made it possible tor Armstrong to stop being his own rhythm section (the Hot Five's banjo and piano team was somewhat thin, to say the least) and allowed him to inject an implied double-time in his Alligator Crawl solo which is remarkable rhythmically because of the subtle way Armstrong mixes the original tempo with double-time.
Wild Man Blues. SOL Blues and Potato Head Blues are stunning. On these, Armstrong and clarinetist Johnny Dodds are without peer - Armstrong exploring the simple chord structure in a manner much different from the way he did a few years earlier, Dodds keeping within the narrower framework of the old style but displaying his mastery of the idiom, nonetheless The two are the only soloists on the haunting Wild Man, and their incorporation of double-time breaks within the deeply melancholy mainstream is masterly.
Armstrong's chorus is marked by an adroit and effortless use of tension and release, the basis for all art. His finely-honed sense of when to let up and when to tie knots in his lines never left him after this time. An even more explicit use of this artistic device comes in S.O.L. as he holds a high note and then releases the tension it has built with short, complex descending phrases that set up another tension, which he releases by going back to the held note, and so on. This solo is so perfectly conceived that numerous trumpet players played it note for note.
Armstrong's stop-time Potato Head solo was widely acclaimed. Richard B. Hadlock, in his book Jazz Masters Of The 20's (Macmillan). which includes one of the best essays on Armstrong, described it this way:
“Using basic phrases made up of simple eighth-note and quarter-note patterns, a few dotted eighths, and some triplets, Louis organizes his musical thoughts in a truly remarkable way. Hit solo is triumph of subtle syncopation and rhythmic enlightenment, strong beats on weak beats and whole phrases placed against rather than on the pulse create a delightful tension. This tension is suddenly released with an incisive on-the-beat figure, which in turn leads to more tension-building devices Thus does Armstrong build the emotional pitch of the solo over a full chorus.”
In the middle of the Hot Seven sessions. Armstrong recorded one side. Jelly Roll Morton's Chicago Breakdown, with the Carroll Dickerson band, in which he played at the Sunset Cafe on Chicago's south side. [Earl “Fatha”] Hines was also a member. Already the two were making musical magic together.
The performance is bogged down somewhat by the tricky arrangement (the Sunset was a show club, not a jazz club), but Armstrong and Hines are in fine fettle. Armstrong's somber solo is laced with offbeats and is placed within a combination of stop-time and afterbeats, which must have delighted him. There also is a tender moment in the generally uproarious performance when Armstrong solos with only guitar accompaniment, a change-of-pace device he was to use occasionally during the next two years (eg. A Monday Date, Squeeze Me and Mahogany Hall Stomp).
Armstrong had found a musical brother in young Hines (he was 22 at the time Chicago Breakdown was recorded), and the pianist undoubtedly influenced Armstrong, not only harmonically, but also rhythmically. In fact, Hines was instrumental in convincing Armstrong to join the Dickerson band
"I went on the road with Carroll Dickerson," Hines recalled recently "and when we came back we were going into the Sunset. Two of us from the band were going to rehearsal and ran into Louis.” ‘Where you going. Louie? You working?)' And he said, no, but he was going back with King Oliver. Jokingly we said. 'Why don't you come over here with us young fellows?' And he did. After a while, the Sunset let Dickerson go and gave the band to Louis. I was musical director "
The Sunset Cafe period was a turning point in Armstrong's career. His fame increased, his showmanship began to approach perfection and most importantly, his musical ideas became ever more daring, thanks in large part, one suspects, to Hines.
"We had the same ideas about music." Hines said "Louis and I used to exchange ideas nightly. He'd do something I liked, and I'd steal it. smile and say. ‘Thank you.’ And he'd do the same with me. So we played practically in the same channel. We had the same feeling, the same ideas—only mine were on piano and his on trumpet.
"We explored an awful lot. That was the fun part of it — stretching out, finding new chords, new ideas. That meant a lot of the stuff Louis used in his solos sometimes meant that he didn’t know know where he was; he was taking so many chances.”
“We'd do head arrangements when we had the small group for recording. Every man knew his position—the trombonist knew he carried the third part, the clarinetist knew he had the second part, and trumpet naturally carried the lead. It was very simple and easy to follow because Louis stood very strong on his melody. And I used to emphasize the chord as heavy as I could: so it was very seldom that they'd run out of the range of the chord "
The chord structure of the music came more to the fore in Armstrong's style during this time. Schuller believes this was the result of "maturing musicality, which saw the jazz solo in terms not of a pop-tune more or less embellished, but of a chord progression generating a maximum of creative originality. Louis' solo conception developed in exact proportion to the degree his solos departed from the original tune. His later solos all but ignored the original tune and started with only the chord changes given "
The Armstrong and Hines collaborations in 1926 produced the most adventurous of all the trumpeter's recordings, and are almost avant-garde compared to what other jazz musicians were playing at the time.
"We were allowed to do what we wanted to do as long as we wanted to do it." Hines said of the recording dates. "The record company people would come up to us after we'd finished something and say, 'Is that it? You satisfied with that? If you're not, that's okay; we'll stay here as long as you want.' Many times we spent hours and hours recording "
The 19 recordings by the small group with Hines were made at two sessions, one in June and the other in December, 1928. This album has seven of them, three of which (Beau Koo Jack, Fireworks and Save It, Pretty Mama) have not been available on LP in the United States before.
The most astonishing of the Armstrong-Hines records is West End Blues. The opening cadenza may well have been what Armstrong referred to on his 70th birthday, when he is supposed to have said about one of his old recordings: "Nobody ever played anything like it before—and nobody ever played anything like it after," or words to that effect.
Schuller, in near ecstasy, described it in his book:
“Louis' West End Blues introduction consists of only two phrases . . . these two phrases alone summarize Louis' entire style and his contribution to jazz language. The first phrase startles us with the powerful thrust and punch of its first four notes. We are immediately aware of their terrific swing, despite the fact that these four notes occur on the beat, that is, are not syncopated, and no rhythmic frame of reference is set for us is set (the solo being unaccompanied). These four notes should be heard by all people who do not understand the difference between Jazz and other music, or those who question the uniqueness ol the element of swing. These notes as played by Louis - not as they appear in notation - are as instructive a lesson in what constitutes swing as jazz has to offer. The way Louis attacks each note, the quality and exact duration of each pitch, the manner in which he releases the note, and the subsequent split-second silence before the next note — in other words the entire acoustical pattern — present in capsule form all the essential characteristics ol jazz inflection.”
Armstrong used elements of the opening cadenza in the first-chorus ensemble (which is somewhat removed musically from the old Hot Five ensemble, since the other two horns created textures more than counter lines). He again referred to the cadenza in his magnificent closing statement. In between came a wordless, almost-romantic vocal in response to low-register clarinet murmurings and a dreamy, Debusseyesque Hines solo. Armstrong's final solo is conceptually similar to his earlier one on S O L. except the artistic daring (one is tempted to say audacity) is staggering. He creates a delicious suspense by holding a high B-flat for four bars and then shattering the tension with jagged, broken runs of dotted 16th and 32nd notes that leave you wondering if he will ever be able to pull it off.
It is evident that the Armstrong blood was hot at these sessions his mind racing from idea to idea, his facility at a peak. Nothing lay beyond his grasp; whatever idea came to him was instantly shaped. polished and inserted into the music And the music flies thick and fast on Fireworks and Beau Koo Jack, an exceptional arrangement by its composer, pianist Alex Hill, and a performance that included what may be Armstrong's most rapidly-articulated improvisation. Armstrong seems to be reveling in the sheer joy of playing for playing's own sake.
His vocals also took on a different coloring on the Hines records. Before (and after), many of his vocals served as broad comic relief— That's When I'll Come Back To You by the Hot Seven is a good example—but with Hines. he seemed to look upon himself as a crooner. Except for some obvious discomfort with the lyrics to Sugar Foot Strut, he brought off the crooning, combining it beautifully with some wild scat breaks on Squeeze Me.
His trumpet solo after the wordless vocal on Squeeze Me is like honey flowing — big, broad tone coupled with a sweeping majesty. He was to bring this approach to perfection in his big-band days. Hines' contribution to the recordings is immeasurable. His style of accompaniment lightened the texture of the rhythm section, setting up a pulse (with telling help from drummer Zutty Singleton) that drove the horns without becoming ponderous. He plays several brilliantly conceived, off-the-wall solos ….
Armstrong's small band days were numbered. Big bands had been an important part of the musical world during the '20s, and Armstrong was featured in several Chicago theaters. In the summer of 1928. he rejoined Dickerson's for a run at the Savoy Ballroom on the south side.
The band made one record, which was originally issued only in Argentina. All the men in the first Armstrong-Hines small band were on the date, made the day after Armstrong turned 28. One of the two sides recorded that day was Savoyageur's Stomp, an elaboration on Muskrat Ramble. Except for the rhythmically adventurous Hines solo and a smeary, lazily floating Armstrong solo, the performance is a period piece. Nonetheless, it was a forerunner of the approach Armstrong used when he took a step up in show business and became an international star, always featured with a big band behind him.
Late in 1928 or early 1929, he and the Dickerson men borrowed twenty dollars apiece from Lil Armstrong and left Chicago and went to New York. When they arrived, they found that Armstrong's fame among musicians had preceded them.
"We got to New York on Friday and by Sunday we'd lined up a job for that afternoon." Singleton has said "Duke Ellington was playing the Audubon Theater in the Bronx, but he couldn't make the first show ... So our band played it.
The pit band looked pretty surprised when the curtain went up and there we were on the stage. But then Louis played the St. Louis Blues and I saw something I'll never forget as long as I live. When he finished, even the band in the pit stood up and applauded for him. It was a wonderful, wonderful reception "
"We opened at Connie's Inn and stayed there six months." Armstrong once recalled "All the musicians came up and gave me a very beautiful wrist watch. Every musician from downtown was there that night. What a memory of those fine days."
Armstrong soon began the series of big band records that always found him in excellent form and usually employing a simpler style than that on the wilder Hines records or even the Hot Five and Seven performances.
The first date produced a classic, Mahogany Hall Stomp. Pops Foster, the superb bassist on the record, claimed that "it took all day to get that thing right." It was certainly worth the effort. There is an exquisite three-chorus Armstrong solo that could serve as a primer on how to swing The first chorus uses short motifs that dissolve into a 12-bar held note (with some lovely Lonnie Johnson guitar underpinning), which gives way to a perfectly-placed five-note riff that Armstrong repeats six times, setting up a tension that he winds tighter and tighter The performance also has excellent solos by trombonist J C Higginbotham and alto saxophonist Charlie Holmes (the New York musicians were superior to the Chicago brothers, except, of course, Hines).
The big-band records were eagerly snatched up by Armstrong's growing public. Mezz Mezzrow. an old friend of the trumpeter, did his bit to help the popularity grow:
"[The records] hit the juke boxes fast, and they rocked all Harlem Everywhere we went we got the proprietor to install more boxes, and they all blared Louis, Louis, and more Louis. The Armstrong craze spilled over from Harlem right after that, and before long there wasn't a jukebox in the country that Louis wasn't scatting on."
Certainly his singing was one of the reasons for Armstrong's popularity, but his ability (and eagerness) to hit high notes was of equal importance. He had developed his facility to the point where he could knock off an F above high C with ease, a feat unheard of at the time. The big-band records almost always included at least one of these stratospheric flights, usually at the climax of the performance. He occasionally used the high notes to startle, but more often incorporated them into a logical musical progression.
Trumpeter Roy Eldridge remembers the first time he heard Armstrong and the effect the upper-register passages had on him. It was 1932 at the Lafayette theater in New York, and the tune was Chinatown.
"He started out like a new book, building and building, chorus alter chorus, and finally reaching a full climax, ending on his high F. It was a real climax, right, clean, clear The rhythm was rocking, and he had that sound going along with it. Everybody was standing up. including me. He was building the thing all the time instead of just playing in a straight line. "
Armstrong's trumpet solos on this album's big-band tracks build much in the same manner — a gradual reaching upward, never straining but always flowing, the phrases growing more urgent, until they come to a sunburst-like climax. Those on The Lonesome Road, I'm A Ding Dong Daddy. Kickin’ The Gong Around and Lawd, You Made The Night Too Long are among his finest, culminations of all that had gone before, the mature offerings of a musician of rare genius, a musician far removed from his beginnings.
On the day Armstrong died, Earl Hines tried to put into words his feelings about his friend:
"The man loved his horn and he lived his horn. All his expression was in his music. Louis was just a natural. The Man Upstairs intended him to be that. The world lost a champion when it lost Louis Armstrong. And I mean the world not just the United States. He had an awful lot of soul … an awful lot of soul.”