Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Jazz Centenaries in The Decade of the 2020's - Louis Armstrong and The Hot Fives and Sevens

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“I don't know who got the idea for the Hot Five records. It may have been Richard M. Jones, who worked for the Okeh company at that time. He worked for them in Chicago, as a pianist for different blues singers and writing and selecting tunes, and it may have been through him that the Okeh company approached Louis.

The idea was that we would have a regular band at Dreamland, and then that five of us from the band would make records together. I got to Chicago a few weeks before Louis, and played around at different clubs. Then Louis got there, and we rehearsed the band for a few days before we opened at the Dreamland. We had Johnny Dodds, Johnny St. Cyr, and Lil with us.

We made our first records in Chicago at the Okeh studios, and, of course, when we made them we didn't have any expectation that they would be as successful as they became. The time was something like today, with people crazy about jazz and the Charleston, and so our kind of music went over very well. Times were good, and people had money to buy records. One thing that helped the sale was the fact that for a while the Okeh people gave away a picture of Louis to everyone that bought one of the records. When they did that, the sales went way up, because Louis was so popular. . . .

The only one of the Hot Five I hadn't played with was Lil, but that made no difference. She was a fine piano player, and from the first we all worked together very easily. . . .

Even though we were working in different clubs, we kept the Hot Five going. The records were very successful, and Heebie Jeebies was what today would be called a hit record. That was the record where Louis forgot the lyrics and started scattin'. We had all we could do to keep from laughing. Of course, Louis said he forgot the words, but I don't know if he intended it that way or not. It made the record, though.

The Hot Five never played together as a band outside of a few benefits. We'd all take a short time off from the regular jobs we had and play for a half hour or so at some affair. We always would break it up, and then go back to our jobs.

Our recording sessions would start this way: 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 get to the studio at nine or ten in the morning. We didn't have to make records at night, with the lights out, or get drunk like some musicians think they have to do before they can play. 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 to move back or to move in closer. Then later, of course, we made records electrically.

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 Fives 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. After we'd make a side, Louis would say, "Was that all right?" And if one of us thought we could do it over and do it better, why Louis would tell them we wanted to do it again, and so we would do it over.

I think one reason those records came out so well was that the Okeh people left us alone, and didn't try to expert us. Another reason was we all knew each other's musical styles so well from years of working together. And then, of course, there was Louis, himself. You couldn't go wrong with Louis. I always liked his style the best. That's not to take anything away from Oliver, but I always thought Louis was the greatest, and I still think so.”

- KID ORY, in Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya: The Story of Jazz As Told By The Men Who Made It [1955]

This decade - the 2020’s - marks the 100th anniversary of many significant dates and events in the development of what Gunther Schuller’s excellent book on the subject categorizes as Early Jazz.

100 years ago, Jazz came up from New Orleans to Chicago and then went east to New York, a migration that took place throughout the 1920s [with a stop-over in Kansas City and a quick left turn to Los Angeles and San Francisco along the way].

Among many other highlights, the decade featured what many Jazz fans consider to be the most important body of recorded work in the entire history of Jazz - Louis Armstrong: Hot Five and Sevens.

“Few jazz records can have had so drastic an impact as the series Louis Armstrong began making in Chicago during the autumn of 1925. Three years earlier he had caught the train from New Orleans to Chicago to join King Oliver's band on second cornet. In 1923 that band's pianist, Lil Hardin, became his second wife and promptly began planning a career for her husband. It was she who persuaded him to hand in his notice to Oliver, then to accept an offer to work in the big band that Fletcher Henderson was leading at New York's Roseland Ballroom. At the first rehearsal Henderson's musicians were sceptical about this cornet player from out of town who looked like a simple country boy ("He was big and fat and wore high-top shoes with hooks in them, and long underwear down to his socks" was how Don Redman, Henderson's arranger, recalled that original encounter. But Armstrong brought with him a rhythmic sophistication and a boldness of imagination that was a revelation to even the most hardened of New York professionals.

A year later - in the first week of November, 1925 - Louis Armstrong returned to Chicago and immediately set about performing in the cabarets and theatres which catered for black audiences. Lil had organised a band to feature him at the Dreamland Cafe on South State Street. The following month he also began working with Erskine Tate's twenty-piece "Little Symphony" Orchestra at the nearby Vendome Theatre. At both venues he played in a style that was noticeably more advanced than what his contemporaries were up to. And within a week of arriving back in Chicago he had begun making records with the group he called his Hot Five, records which at the beginning, anyway - used the collective improvisation typical of New Orleans bands and were aimed at the vast numbers of Southern blacks who had moved northward during and just after World War I.

Four members of the Hot Five - Armstrong, his wife Lil, Johnny Dodds and Johnny St Cyr- had worked alongside one another in King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band; Armstrong had played the cornet with Kid Ory's band in New Orleans not long before leaving for Chicago and Ory was now playing with him nightly at the Dreamland Cafe, So the musicians knew one another well enough to be relaxed. Indeed, every recording by the Hot Five was a "first take" with no worrying out fluffs or missed cues or other occasional streaky moments. The first session was something of a warm-up, a preparation for a more ambitious future. Even the tune titles had a homely flavour. Yes, I'm In The Barrel was slang for being without money (in other words, if you couldn't afford clothes you wore a barrel instead). In Gut Bucket Blues (a gut bucket collected the drippings from wine and beer barrels in barrel horses) Armstrong introduced everybody in the band. It is noticeable, in fact, that Armstrong's voice came to be heard regularly on his own records (he had, he declared later, resented Fletcher Henderson's reluctance to allow him to sing). In February 1926 he could be said to have popularised scat singing by his gravelly improvising on Heebie Jeebies. It was not the first scat to get on to record (that honour seems to belong to Don Redman on Fletcher Henderson's 1924 version of My Papa Doesn't Two-Time No Time) but it certainly became the most influential. Heebie Jeebies was Armstrong's first hit record, selling 40,000 copies within a few weeks. 

But fellow cornet players were overwhelmed by another recording made at that session, one that seems lucky to have been released (a test pressing found many years later had "Recommended for rejection" scribbled on its label). That was Cornet Chop Suey, full of exciting stop-time solo work and demonstrating how Armstrong was breaking away from the tradition of New Orleans ensemble playing, turning instead into an individual virtuoso. That session also saw the first recording of Muskrat Ramble, destined to become one of the most enduring of all Dixieland-style tunes. Martin Williams (in "Jazz Masters of New Orleans'') has outlined the conflict of evidence about its composition. Kid Ory claimed to have written it in 1921 while working at a taxi dance-hall in Los Angeles ("It had no name then", he recalled, "Lil Armstrong gave it that title at the record session". On the other hand, Louis Armstrong, interviewed by 'Down Beat', also claimed that he wrote the tune ("Ory named it, he gets the royalties," he said, "I don't talk about it"). Meanwhile Sidney Bechet maintained that at least part of the theme had come from an old folk song, The Old Cow Died and the Old Man Cried.

The Hot Five performed together in public on only two occasions. Both took place - the first on February 27, 1926, the second on June 12 - at the Coliseum Theatre. Both were organised by the Okeh Record Company in association with the local black musicians' union. Bands taking part included those of King Oliver, Charlie Elgar, Bennie Moten and Erskine Tate as well as the Hot Five, while among the singers were Lonnie Johnson, Sara Martin, Chippie Hall, Sippie Wallace and the duo of Butterbeans and Susie. Perhaps that occasion prompted Okeh to use the Hot Five to accompany the last-named two performers on He Likes It Slow, recorded about a week after the concert. Jody ("Butterbeans") Edwards came from Georgia, his wife Susie from Florida. They had been, respectively, fifteen and fourteen when they were married - on-stage - in 1916. They remained favourites; on the black vaudeville circuit for decade after decade, recording for the last time only a short while before their deaths in the early 1960s.

A couple of days earlier, Armstrong's Hot Five recorded a set of pieces that reflected the pop-song patterns of 1926. Just as he had done in the earlier Come Back Sweet Papa, Johnny Dodds played alto saxophone in Don't Forget To Mess Around, while Who' sit had Armstrong taking a chorus on the Swanee (or slide) whistle, a popular novelty instrument of the day. The session that took place on June 23 allowed Clarence Babcock to earn a tiny niche in jazz history by acting as the master of ceremonies in Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa, and, more memorably, as the intrusive West Indian character offering to play "one o' me matove jazz tunes" in The King Of The Zulus (subtitled "A Chit'lin' Rag"). The reference here was to the Zulu Aid and Pleasure Club, one of the organisations which takes a prominent part in the annual Mardi Gras Parade in New Orleans. By a pleasing twist of history, Armstrong himself was in 1949 to be crowned King of the Zulus - and to ride in the parade.

Five months later the Hot Five came up with two of their very finest performances. In both his singing and playing on Skid-Dat-De-Dat Armstrong began exploring a melancholy ambience, bringing to it his own mixture of the poignant and the majestic. A different kind of eloquence, exuberant rather than introspective, emerged in his solo on Big Butter and Egg Man. That was one of several pieces devised by Percy Venable, who produced the floor shows at the Sunset Club where Armstrong was currently featured with Carroll Dickerson's Orchestra. May Alix, who sings on both that track and Sunset Cafe Stomp, was part of that floor show and most renowned for a running split which had her sliding halfway across the clubs' small stage. Venable also collaborated with Armstrong on You Made Me Love You When I Saw You Cry - not to be confused with James V. Monaco's more famous You Made Me Love You (I Didn't Want To Do It). published in 1913 - and Irish Black Bottom ("I was born in Ireland" may be the most unlikely line Armstrong was ever called upon to sing).

Kid Ory had to miss the Hot Five's final session in 1926. Otherwise the personnel had remained unchanged throughout the preceding twelve months. It was a period which saw Louis Armstrong's emergence as a blazing new presence in jazz, a cornet player who elbowed his way out of the ensemble to become the music's first great soloist. During the following year he not only consolidated that reputation but with his expanded group, the Hot Seven, took jazz to even greater heights of virtuosity and expressiveness.”

- CHARLES FOX - insert notes to Vol. 1, JSP Records 4 Volume, Boxed Set

Charles Richard Jeremy Fox (1921 - 1991) was an English writer and broadcaster who specialised in jazz. Fox worked as the jazz critic of the New Statesman. In addition he occasionally contributed to The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Gramophone. From the early 1960s onwards, he hosted the British radio programme Jazz Today and regularly contributed interviews and documentary series to BBC Radio 3. He also wrote liner notes for British jazz record releases. Fox's book on Fats Waller was published in 1960. In 1972 he authored a guide to the history of Jazz titled The Jazz Scene. Later in 1984, he co-wrote a guide to jazz recordings titled The Essential Jazz Recordings, Ragtime to Swing with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

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