I am, as you all know, a fan of early jazz. I have shared lots of it here over the past few years, through a wide variety of artists, styles and eras – even venturing into the long-play record era occasionally. But somehow I have avoided featuring the (or perhaps “THE”) player who was there from the very beginning. The one who influenced pretty much every performer of the art to come after him. And the one who is probably the most universally loved and admired of them all – the great Louis Armstrong. Click on and see why.
Armstrong has fallen out of favor in terms of popular listening. Part of that is probably due to his later status as “entertainer” rather than his status as “jazz trumpet player”. Also, Armstrong did not follow trends and styles as music matured. Some players grow and develop in ways that make their early work quite different from their later stuff. Armstrong was different – he didn’t really play into a style at the beginning and he didn’t as time went on either. And when a jazz trumpet was less of an asset than a personality and a voice – say the mid 1940’s onward – Armstrong was there to entertain in his inimitable way.
Everyone starts someplace and Armstrong started several rungs down the ladder from almost everyone else. He was born August 4, 1901 (though he would claim July 4, 1900) in New Orleans into terminally unstable life of a prostitute mother in a neighborhood of grinding poverty that was known as “the Battlefield”. He was taken in by a family of Lithuanian Jews who treated him as one of their own, encouraging his early interest in music. He was so poor that he had to borrow money from them to buy a cornet from a pawnshop. Louis once recalled learning a big lesson about life when he saw how badly other white people treated that Jewish family. Though not Jewish, Louis would wear a Star of David around his neck for the rest of his life in remembrance.
He quit school at eleven and soon got in trouble for firing a gun, which landed him in “The Colored Waif’s Home”, a grim place with little good about it beyond a band where Armstrong got both some encouragement and more experience as a player. After being released, Armstrong was essentially on his own in a place full of ways a young man with little to offer might commence a short life of vice, crime and violence. Fortunately, Louis had something to offer after all.
After scuffing about his native city for awhile, he began playing in the band of one of his early influences, Joe “King” Oliver. Armstrong followed Oliver to Chicago in the early 1920’s and can be found on several early records of that band. Young Louis learned a lot from Oliver and never forgot his mentor, but he struck out on his own during a decade and in a city where a hot young horn player could become a sensation.
Most of my recent jazz pieces have featured an assortment of performances from the subject, but this time we are not going to go that direction – for a couple of reasons. First, there is so much material. We will come back to Louis Armstrong the singer another time. Today is the time for Louis Armstrong, Peerless Blower of Horn. The other reason is that today’s featured record simply cannot be diluted by other efforts – it must stand alone as what many consider to be one of the greatest jazz records ever made.
On June 28, 1928, Armstrong entered a Chicago recording studio with a reconstituted “Hot Five”. The name suggested that the resulting records would be more in a series by Armstrong’s earlier Hot Five and Hot Seven groups. However, the personnel would be all new. Instead of a crew who had mostly known Louis from his New Orleans days, this batch was both more accomplished as musicians and accustomed to a more modern style.
The first fifteen seconds of this record may be the subject of more recognition than any other intro on any other record ever made. Armstrong’s unaccompanied solo is a combination of many things: First there was Louis’ sound. It was a full, fat, powerful sound that sometimes seemed as though it would pop the solder joints on his brass cornet. It was a sound that required him to play just outside of the studio doorway in some early records with Oliver’s band, because Louis’ sound was overpowering everyone else in the days before the microphone. It was also a sound that disguised just how high Louis could play. Other players’ tones got thin and brittle up in those nosebleed notes – but not Louis’.
The second thing is Armstrong’s technical ability – this first fifteen seconds deceptively simple, to the regret of others who have tried to copy it. And finally there is the content – Armstrong had an incredible combination of ear, fingers, lips and mind that composed these perfectly constructed bits and pieces that flowed so beautifully. Could anyone else have moved from something close to a soldier’s wake-up call into the soulful, languid piece that follows? I don’t see how.
Joe Oliver had written the piece and recorded it a few months earlier. But nobody remembers Oliver’s version. This is a record that many have called one of the greatest ever made. I don’t know about that – there have been a lot of great records made through the decades. But after many, many listenings it is hard to find anything wrong with it.
The main theme blends all of the players – Louis leads but does not dominate. His tone could be quite mellow and sweet when he wanted it to be, and it was all of that here. Fred Robinson’s trombone followed in a similar style – a slow, smoldering blues named for a favorite entertainment spot in Armstrong’s native New Orleans. Jimmy Strong followed with a low clarinet so unlike the then-typical shrill barking most clarinetists of the 20’s exhibited. Strong’s solo was comped by Armstrong in one of the most subtle and beautiful vocal passages of his entire career, and one in which he utters not a single word.
Earl Hines’ piano playing blended perfectly with Armstrong’s work. Earl Hines was at the beginning of a long, long career in 1928 and brought a lush, complex and modern style to the group, a perfect compliment to Louis. The playing here – left handed chords under a right hand that tickled out a flourish of single notes was a common thing in later decades, but was not the way people played piano in 1928.
The record finishes with Louis, who came back for the final solo, which began with a single note – drawn out for four full bars (16 beats) before trading off with Hines as they conclude with a slow, soulful ending.
It is hard to imagine how this sounded in 1928 because absolutely every musician that came after Louis for the next twenty years absorbed this performance into their marrow. It has been said that every jazz player can trace his (or her) style to one of two sources: Bix Beiderbecke or Louis Armstrong. And Bix acknowledged that Armstrong was his idol, so really no jazz player got going in a career without bringing some of Louis with him.
As time passed Louis’ singing eclipsed his playing and his playing did not follow modern trends as they came and went. Louis just sort of played Louis from the beginning to the end of his career, which saw him still performing some forty years or more after this record was made. It is easy to think of the wide smile, the gravely voice, the mugging for the audience with a white handkerchief flowing out of one hand to mop sweat from his brow and write him off as a showman from a bygone era. But underneath it all was Louis Armstrong – a poor kid with nothing going for him at all but a generous nature, a love for others and that fabulous, fabulous ability to make a horn do the most amazing things.
Audio: June 28, 1928 recording of West End Blues by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five – from the YouTube page of the78Prof
Okeh Record Label from 1928 recording of West End Blues – from Discogs.com
Louis Armstrong in the Colored Waifs Home band – from syncopatedtimes.com
Early publicity photo from Chicago – from the Smithsonian at si.edu
Publicity photo of Earl Hines c. 1929 – public domain as publicity photo with no copyright markings.
Early publicity photo of Louis Armstrong – from worthpoint.com