How many of those who joined Benny Goodman’s swing caravan in the thirties or rocked to Chuck Berry in the fifties or savored the increased vibrato that became fashionable in the brass sections of symphony orchestras knew the extent to which they were living in a world created by the famous gravel-mouthed clown? How many appreciated what Miles Davis meant when he said, “You know you can’t play anything on the horn that Louis hasn’t played— I mean even modern,” or Bing Crosby, when he called Armstrong “the beginning and the end of music in America,” or Virgil Thompson, when he wrote that his “improvisation would seem to have combined the highest reaches of instrumental virtuosity with the most tensely disciplined melodic structure and the most spontaneous emotional expression, all of which in one man you must admit is pretty rare”?
Giddins, Gary (2009-03-05). Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong (Kindle Locations 196-202). Da Capo Press. Kindle Edition.
The only time I come close to believing in the existence of a higher power is when I listen to Louis Armstrong.
What I hear when he plays is the purest expression of the human spirit. Music historians rave about his tonal purity but tend to downplay those aspects of music that cannot be discerned by the five senses. The feel Louis Armstrong gives to his music, combined with his exceptional technical gifts, is what gives his sound its spiritual essence. The only writer who ever captured the essence of Louis Armstrong was a man who had died a century before the Hot Five entered the recording studio, the English poet William Blake:
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
Had Blake been able to hear Louis Armstrong, he would have seized upon his music as evidence for his theory of human perception beyond the sensual. He would have experienced something very similar to how he described Isaiah’s experience of talking to god in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “I saw no God, nor heard any, in a finite organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing.”
When I hear Louis Armstrong, I hear an immense world of delight, the infinite in every thing.
Louis Armstrong influenced every form of modern popular music; he is the source of many features of music that we take for granted. Prior to Armstrong’s ascendancy, music was a highly structured and organized experience where accurate replication of a piece was all that mattered. Even early jazz sounds oddly confined within conventions. Musical excellence was defined as the ability to strictly follow a pattern, either in the form of a written score or trying to copy the song you heard played by the band at the bar down the street. Armstrong introduced the world of music to the value of improvisation, both instrumental and vocal. You can’t say he invented scat singing or the virtuoso solo, because any claim that one person invented any feature of music must be viewed with skepticism due to the fluidity of human contact and our limited ability to capture historical moments. It is more accurate to say that Louis Armstrong made improvisation a vital and viable aspect of music because he imbued his improvisations with technical brilliance and an irrepressible spirit that made the listening experience enjoyable and inspirational. Once Armstrong hit the scene, everybody wanted to play and sing like him. He gave musicians permission to do more than perform music, he gave them permission to play music—to explore, to break boundaries, to create, to have fun.
Gary Giddins’ brief biography—a good starting point for readers who want to understand Armstrong’s history and his influence—is primarily a defense of Louis Armstrong’s place in musical history. He takes on the snobs who dismiss Armstrong as an “entertainer,” people whose limited minds refuse to acknowledge the possibility that a true artist can have popular appeal. These elitists point to Armstrong’s mugging and clowning as evidence he is not to be taken seriously and consider the sheer joy he could generate in the listening audience as damning evidence of a defect.
Since Shakespeare, Mozart, Dickens and The Beatles proved conclusively that on rare occasions popular taste and artistic excellence do coincide, it is ridiculous to condemn Armstrong simply because he appealed to audiences all over the world. On the contrary, Louis Armstrong’s enduring and widespread popularity should be celebrated as evidence that there’s still hope for the human race.
The Best of Louis Armstrong: The Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings are a sample from the complete collection widely available today. The recordings were made in various sessions that took place during the period from 1926 to 1928 when Armstrong called Chicago home. One of many things I love about the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings is how well the music captures the tone of 1920s America. You simply can’t find a more appropriate soundtrack for an era characterized by permissiveness and the fast buck: the music is often boozy, titillating and highly suggestive. Prohibition had made liquor even more appealing than ever, and those über-capitalists we refer to as gangsters emerged to meet burgeoning consumer demand for a good time. Women had a brief period of pseudo-liberation, getting the vote, showing off their legs, kicking their heels on the dance floor and daring to smoke in public. With alcohol going underground and women defying traditional morality, the music of the time simply had to come from those who were not part of the mainstream of American life: black musicians playing “the devil’s music.” The fact that they worked in the city of Al Capone and Bugs Moran makes their emergence even sweeter.
While the recordings are primitive, they are remarkable for the contrast between Louis Armstrong and the supporting cast of musicians. That supporting cast “seemed to be locked into an earlier style,” observed Michael Brooks in the liner notes, and despite Armstrong’s generosity in allowing those musicians to showcase themselves and his game attempts to play a supporting role, the simple fact is that Louis Armstrong was the superior musician, and his trumpet (or cornet) is distinctly noticeable even when he’s not front and center, especially in the Hot Five recordings. The clarity he achieves despite the limitations of 1920’s recording technology is stunning, especially when compared to the tones his bandmates produce. That contrast allows the listener to clearly identify the quantum leap that jazz is about to take into becoming a soloist’s art, leaving the ensemble style of jazz in the dust.
However, it’s the vocal on the opening track (“Heebie Jeebies”) that makes it a special moment, for after the typically extended musical introduction that characterized vocal performances through the Swing Era, Louis gives us a vocal display that was quite advanced for the time, borrowing on his experience working with Bessie Smith and singing the groove instead of the notes. His timing and phrasing defy meter, as he pauses and elongates his lines based on how he’s feeling it. When he moves into the scat section, his playful joy comes through as he captures the essence and spirit of early scat—that odd human impulse to attempt to replicate the sound of an instrument with our voices. When he finishes up with a return to the chorus, what happens next is truly remarkable: the first eight measures are played by the rest of the Hot Five to allow Louis to catch his breath, and when he comes in on the cornet for the next round, the clarity of his tone is like a brilliant sun breaking through the dark clouds.
“Muskrat Ramble” is further evidence of Armstrong’s exceptional musicianship, but I have to say that I find Kid Ory’s trombone work here pretty impressive as well. The trombone has become almost an afterthought in jazz over the years, and it’s quite refreshing to hear its unique capabilities here, during a time when the instrument was an essential part of a jazz combo. Armstrong’s work remains the centerpiece, though, floating effortlessly on one solo then spitting out the dissonant blue notes on the solo that follows Johnny Dodds’ clarinet piece. It’s a fun and captivating number that was Louis Armstrong’s first top 10 hit. It’s followed by “King of the Zulus,” most notable for Armstrong’s acting skills, as he responds with what sounds like genuine indignation when his mournful, bluesy solo is interrupted by a Caribbean voice demanding an order of chitlins. The “interruption” makes no difference, as Louis then proceeds to knock it out of the park with an extended solo marked by beautiful held notes perfectly suited for a New Orleans funeral or Mardi Gras parade. “Jazz Lips” is more of a running duet with Armstrong and Kid Ory, with some amazing call-and-response passages and first-class musicianship on the part of both men.
The disc then moves to some Hot Seven pieces, the first of which is “Willie the Weeper,” which Mr. Brooks says is “notable for a Johnny St. Cyr banjo solo.” Funny, what I notice most about the piece is Pete Briggs on the tuba, probably because it’s so unusual to hear a tuba in the 21st century. As for St. Cyr’s banjo, I’m thankful that he tuned it and played it like a guitar. Louis really doesn’t get warmed up until the final passage, where he soars like an eagle. He starts off strong in “Wild Man Blues” with the brief stop-time solo introduction, and continues to display his excellence as a bluesman throughout the piece, which features several longer stop-time solos designed to amaze you with their energy and command. Johnny Dodds also solos, and not only does his clarinet sound brighter, but some of the sinuous runs he produces are terribly sexy and much bolder than his Hot Five work. “Alligator Crawl” features Dodds’ fingers dancing over the bass line provided by the tuba, but Armstrong is the foundation of the piece, giving it a cohesion that overcomes the archaic-sounding banjo solo.
“Potato Head Blues” is quite deceptive in the sense that the opening sounds like an early New Orleans ensemble, with everyone in on the act. Armstrong and Dodds trade solos and I really don’t hear the angst and rage that Mr. Brooks claims to hear in Johnny Dodds’ clarinet; what I hear is a pretty smooth clarinet player swinging to the rhythm. The piece becomes truly memorable only after a blessedly brief banjo break, when Louis resumes the lead. Anyone who can listen to this solo and tell me that Louis Armstrong was not capable of art has to be certifiably deaf. Far, far ahead of its time, this extended, vibrato-enhanced stop-time solo features incredible tonal clarity and precious moments where his melody frees itself from the rhythm and the notes seem suspended in time—independent of the groove, but always resolved to the groove—a technique you do not hear too often until Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk enter the scene. Mr. Brooks remarks, “English critic and trumpeter John Chilton wrote that when this solo was transcribed to paper, musicians were enthralled, but no written record can capture the tonal beauty and expressive vibrato that distinguishes Louis’ rendition from all others.” Giddins commented, “That unique radiance heard in ‘Potato Head Blues’ now coursed through the man himself.” That is a very perceptive observation, for there are few musicians who achieved oneness with the music to the extent that Louis Armstrong did: the horn was the expressive extension of his soul.
“Weary Blues” hardly sounds weary, as all the Hot Seven get into act, driving it home like there’s no tomorrow. My god, there’s even a tuba solo! “Ory’s Creole Trombone” is a Hot Five number where Kid Ory once again displays the signature sounds of the slide trombone. Unfortunately for him, Armstrong steals the show with an exuberant display of cornet magic. This is one of his snappier solos, as the short notes and high register runs dominate until the finishing flourishes. “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” is the Hot Five number that Giddins considers their masterpiece, specifically pointing to Armstrong’s solo, “a showcase for the entertainer as artist, flaunting his brilliance with mercurial rips, dazzling triplets, a glissando that seems to swallow its own tail.” In addition to the stunning display of individual virtuosity, this is probably the Hot Five’s strongest ensemble piece, for even with his extraordinary capabilities, Louis Armstrong was an unfailingly generous musician.
The inexplicable “West End Blues” comes next—inexplicable because people are still wondering how Louis Armstrong pulled off the introduction. Giddins notes, “How can one explain the large number of violinists who can play Bach’s D-minor Chaconne when no trumpeter, in or out of jazz, has convincingly replicated Armstrong’s nine-measure intro?” Those twelve seconds are packed with evidence of superhuman dexterity—with fingers, tongue and lips working in ways that cannot be explained by human evolution. The song itself is a pretty run-of-the-mill blues number, exquisitely arranged by a different Hot Five lineup featuring Jimmy Strong on clarinet and Earl Hines on piano. The duet between Jimmy Strong in the lower reaches of the clarinet and Armstrong singing soft, melodic scat is simply wonderful, and Hines’ subsequent piano solo, a combination of barroom and lounge, is exquisite. When the combo returns, Louis holds a single note firmly in place for four measures before belting out some blues licks that any modern blues guitarist would be proud to replicate.
Continuing with Hot Seven tracks, Earl Hines appropriately opens the cover of Fats Waller’s “Squeeze Me,” notable for Louis’ scat vocal that pretty much tracks his trumpet solo. Backed by the willowy vocal duet of Earl Hines and Mancy Cara, Armstrong is in total command of melody and phrasing. The track is also famous for the sound of a dropped drumstick, a delightful distraction reminding us that these records were put together on a shoestring and a prayer. “Basin Street Blues” follows, and I don’t think I can come up with a better description of the staging than what you can find in Michael Brooks’ liner notes: “Hines switches to celeste and its delicate strains conjure up quiet rainy afternoons in New Orleans brothel with the girls lounging around déshabillé waiting for a prince who never came.” Louis delivers another superb scat vocal, because a.) he was so good at it and b.) there were no lyrics to the song until three years later.
As tragic as it was that Americans had to bail out the French in WWI, it was even more tragic that the returning soldiers brought fragments of French with them, which they proceeded to shred, chop and dice. The only good thing that came out of it was “Beau Koo Jack,” a title that reflects 20’s slang for a lot of dough. The track features a slinky alto sax part via Don Redman, a frantic set of piano runs from Earl Hines and Louis going positively mad with repeated bursts of arpeggiated magic. “Muggles” is an early tribute to one of Louis Armstrong’s lifelong companions: marijuana. An Armstrong-Hines composition performed at a slow tempo matching the mellow mood created by the green weed, the track gives everyone plenty of time to catch their breaths and savor the notes—until Armstrong switches to double-time for his solo, then makes an amazing caesura-free transition back to the original beat. The solo itself is remarkable for what it lacks: the ripping glissandi we’ve heard in the other solos on the record. Louis plays it simple and straight, pretty much sticking to clearly enunciated notes to accentuate the rhythm (though, as Giddins notes, he does bounce between two pitches).
“St. James Infirmary” has been recorded by hundreds of musical artists in many genres, but this is my personal favorite and my favorite Armstrong vocal of them all. The basic story involves the death of one’s sweetheart, but Louis, playing the part of grieving lover, shuffles verses and changes lyrics to craft a defiant message concerning his own mortality, delivered with breathtaking bravado. What makes his insufferable arrogance so enduringly fascinating is his ability to place himself completely in the role: he sounds like the man’s man, the stud who is absolutely confident in his ability to deliver, the gambler who knows the score and would never go out a loser:
I went down to St. James infirmary, saw my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold and so fair
Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
She can look this whole wide world over
She’ll never find a sweet man like me
When I die I want you to dress me in straight-laced shoes
Boxback coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys’ll know I died standing pat
The backing arrangement is appropriately bluesy and funereal, with Louis playing in a suitably restrained and confident fashion: the epitome of the high-class gent his character believes he is.
Our journey through Armstrong’s early years ends with the blues-tinged “Tight Like This,” the last Hot Five recording. While Earl Hines provides some surprisingly arrhythmic piano runs in the build, Armstrong’s technically brilliant and anguished sixty-four-bar solo is simply out of this world. This is the man in his moment, realizing his destiny. When I hear this solo, he sounds like the sculptor chipping away at the unnecessary stone that hides the underlying form. In this case, it feels like the thing he is trying to reach is some deep hurt, some pain that he needs to express through his horn. Though he downplayed the scars from his chaotic childhood, no one could have been raised the way he was with “multiple stepfathers” and an off-and-on mother without some residual effects. “Tight Like This” gives pretty strong evidence that he used music to express the joy and purge the pain. The track ends when he’s played himself out, a blessing indeed. No one could follow that solo.
Few people have ever possessed the talent of a Louis Armstrong; fewer still have had such an enduring impact on the arts. Despite his incredible gifts and worldwide fame, he was forever accessible, settling into a modest house in Queens where he would play with the neighborhood kids after returning from another long road trip. In an era dominated by ego-driven musicians whose primary goals are fame, money and adulation, Louis Armstrong stands as an eternal reminder that music is the pathway to the spirit and a proven way of bringing people of different cultures together. While I believe he was touched by the infinite, what I appreciate most is his fundamental humanity. What we hear in his work with The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens is a man who has found his mission and life and is absolutely delighted with the discovery.