Classical Jazz 2005: Home

Louis Armstong

 

CD CoverThis short history of Louis concentrates on his career in the 1920s with musical illustrations from the original historical recordings. To hear a clip, just click on the highlighted tune titles. These tracks have been most recently available on the excellent JSP CDs, "Louis Armstrong Hot Fives and Sevens" Vol. 1 to 4. The King Oliver Creole Jazz Band complete recordings are on Retrieval RTR79007. The above have been re-mastered by John R T Davies. The Ma Rainey & Bessie Smith tracks are on "Louis & The Blues Singers" on Affinity AFS 1018-6 a six CD box set.

Louis Armstrong
Born 4th August 1901 in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong, known as Satchmo' was the first real innovator in Jazz. Before Louis, Jazz was an ensemble music where the cornet or trumpet played the lead and the clarinet and trombone would weave intricate lines around the melody. In practice this meant that you could have three different tunes played at the same time. This polyphony in New Orleans Jazz was one of its great characteristics. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band from New Orleans, who were the first to record this new music, was very much an ensemble band. Although Kid Ory's Sunshine band was the first black ensemble to record, it was the two cornet led band of Joe 'King' Oliver whose primitive acoustic recordings in 1923 were the defining sessions of New Orleans Jazz.

Armstrong joined the band in 1922. Although the emphasis is on the ensemble playing, there are several instances where the various musicians are given a chance to solo.

Louis with King OliverLouis first solo was on Chimes Blues, and instantly it is apparent that here was a musician with something new and special to offer. Louis' elastic timing which could leap ahead and behind of the beat, together with his inventive phrasing caused the entire Jazz world to marvel at this great soloist.

There were 37 sides cut with the Oliver band before Louis, encouraged by wife Lil, the pianist with the Oliver band, left to try his luck in New York with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Henderson's band was little more than a dance orchestra at the time. Even Coleman Hawkins, who was to become the first Tenor Saxophone star in Jazz, sounded lumpy and clumsy.

The arrival of Armstrong had a deep influence on the band. Louis also developed musically - his unique vocalizing with its scat singing (wordless vocal improvisations around the melody) was
first heard in this setting.

Other opportunities were seized upon, with the prolific amount of blues recordings being made at the time. With Henderson, Louis recorded with Ma Rainey the mother of the blues. Other sessions with various musicians followed including some outstanding dates with the Empress, Bessie Smith

The Hot Five By 1925 Armstrong had attracted the attention of OKEH records, who invited him to cut a series of hot Jazz discs, which were aimed at the then described "Race" audience. Using a hand picked band of New Orleans musicians plus his wife, Lil, on piano, the Louis Armstrong's Hot Five was born.

The records became classics, each number a gem. Every performance stretched the contests imagination further. It is fair to say that they are not perfect. Nearly every track has a blemish, a fluffed note, a break missed. No matter, this was real Jazz at the cutting edge, and Jazz has never been a perfect art. Although the Hot Five's were Louis Showcase, great credit must be afforded to the sidemen.

Edward Kid Ory, born 1894, was the king of the tailgate trombone, and the first real soloist on the instrument. Ory led a band well into the 1960s and enjoyed a huge success during the revival of the 40s and 50s.

Johnny DoddsJohnny Dodds, born in 1894, was one of the great voices in Jazz clarinet. A particularly talented blues player, who sounded at his best in the lower register. He had been a colleague of Armstrong's in the Oliver band.

Johnny St Cyr was one of the finest banjo and guitarists to emerge from New Orleans. As well as being a good rhythm player (he provided half of the rhythm section with Miss Lil) he was also a creative and inventive soloist.

Of the Hot Fives, mention must be made of "Heebie Jeebies" which has a fine scat vocal as well as a superb cornet solo. The first test piece "Cornet Chop Suey", finds Armstrong playing some really imaginative breaks, soloing brilliantly and blowing a fine lead.

With altered personnel (Ory was missing) and Baby Dodds added on choke cymbal, Pete Briggs on brass bass, the Louis Armstrong Hot Sevens were recorded over several dates in 1927. There are no bad sides amongst these sessions, each one is a classic. The Hot Sevens find Louis increasingly pushed to the forefront as far as solos are concerned. The Blues solo on "Wild Man Blues" has some terrific breaks where Armstrong launches into double time."Willie The Weeper" has a soaring cornet played across Baby Dodds off beat cymbal.

It is "Potato Head Blues", however which is regarded as the absolute classic. Louis solo is perfectly constructed and builds upon a logical foundation, again over a stop time rhythm.

A final Hot Five session, this time with blues guitarist Lonnie Johnson added to the ensemble followed.

By this time Louis was leaving the ensemble style of playing behind and the focus is on the soloist. "Savoy Blues"starts with a cornet solo as opposed to the full band."Hotter Than That" is magnificent, with Louis first dueting vocally with Johnson, and then with the cornet. "Once in A While with its strange stop time solo, which ends the side, is another outstanding example of Armstrong's talents, still on an upward spiral.

Earl Hines By the early part of 1928, Louis had ditched his New Orleans colleagues, and his wife on recording dates, choosing to record with an inferior line up from the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra. Inferior except for the pianist, Earl Fatha Hines and the drummer, one of the greatest New Orleans percussionists, Zutty Singleton. In Hines, Louis found a kindred spirit - a soloist who was on the same wavelength. Of the collaborations made by this new band, which still recorded under the title "Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five", the outstanding tracks are "West End Blues" with its amazingly fresh and difficult cornet introduction, and "Fireworks".

By this time, Louis had forsaken the cornet for the trumpet. The first recording of "Basin St. Blues" was recorded in December 1928. The number was to remain in Louis repertoire for the rest of his career. The remarkable duet of piano & trumpet on "Weatherbird", which Louis had recorded with Oliver in 1923 finds, Armstrong and Hines throwing phrases at each other, each responding to the ideas spawned, so it seems a few bars earlier.

Jack TeagardenA session on 5th March 1929 produced "Knockin' A Jug", one of the first mixed race recordings. This was the first meeting on record of Louis and the great Texan trombonist/vocalist Jack Teagarden. On the same day Louis recorded with a contingent from the Luis Russell Orchestra, which had fellow New Orleanians Albert Nicholas (alto sax), Pops foster (bass) and Paul Barbarin (drums).

By this time, Louis had forsaken the cornet for the trumpet. The first recording of "Basin St. Blues" was recorded in December 1928. The number was to remain in Louis repertoire for the rest of his career. The remarkable duet of piano & trumpet on "Weatherbird", which Louis had recorded with Oliver in 1923 finds, Armstrong and Hines throwing phrases at each other, each responding to the ideas spawned, so it seems a few bars earlier.

A session on 5th March 1929 produced "Knockin' A Jug", one of the first mixed race recordings. This was the first meeting on record of Louis and the great Texan trombonist/vocalist Jack Teagarden. On the same day Louis recorded with a contingent from the Luis Russell Orchestra, which had fellow New Orleanians Albert Nicholas (alto sax), Pops foster (bass) and Paul Barbarin (drums).

Ella FitzgeraldThe success of the 1956 movie, "High Society", owes much to the presence of this giant of Jazz. Who can forget the great jam session from the "Glenn Miller Story" where Louis mugs his way through "Basin St Blues" and is joined on stage by America's ace drummin' Man Gene Krupa.

Chart successes in these latter years included "Mack The Knife" (1950s), "Hello Dolly" (mid 60s) and finally "What A Wonderful World" (1968). Another hit, "We Have All The Time in The World", was featured in a James Bond movie, and reappeared in the British charts two or three years ago.

Louis died in 1971, but the music goes on and so long as Jazz is being played then Louis' music will live. There can be no Jazz musician who has not been influenced by the wonderful sound of Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong

 

Weatherbird Rag Weatherbird Rag

© John Petters. 2006

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Sound Clips

Sound clips are in MP3 format. Please listen to the clips as the music speaks volumes more than words can express. To hear a clip, simply click on the buttons.

Ma Rainie
Ma Rainey

Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith

Wild Man Blues
Wild Man Blues

Willie The Weeper
Willie The Weeper

Potatoe Head Blues
Potatoe Head Blues

Once In A While
Once In A While

Savoy Blues
Savoy Blues

West End Blues
West End Blues

Weatherbird Rag
Weatherbird Rag

Mahogany Hall Stomp
Mahogany Hall Stomp