Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part Two
July 11, 2011. Posted by Tim Wilkins.
This is the sixth post in a biweekly blog feature, You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter.
(PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)
Louis Armstrong Didn't Come Out of Nowhere! (Part Two)
This week we will dig into some of the details of Louis Armstrong's art, and present more audio and other materials which put Armstrong's achievements in the context of what else was happening during his formative years, as a followup to our last column, which you can read here. So if you think you know Louis, read on!
The Hot Fives did not suddenly establish jazz as a “soloist’s art”
When authors say Armstrong “single-handedly” transformed jazz into a soloist’s art, they usually point to the quintet recordings he made in Chicago from November 1925 through 1928, which were billed as "Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five." In 1927 he also recorded some septets, now known as the "Hot Sevens."
On these recordings Armstrong is heavily featured, along with clarinetist Johnny Dodds and other group members, and there is relatively little space reserved for the whole group, or "ensemble," playing together.
As a result of the attention paid to these recordings, it has become a “fact” that they spelled the end of the New Orleans ensemble-based approach to jazz, and the birth of the featured-soloist approach. But in reality, by the time the Hot Fives were recorded, there was already a general trend towards more improvised solos on small-group jazz recordings (this never applied to bigger bands), and in any case the New Orleans style was never the only approach found in New York and Chicago.
It is true that recordings by two New Orleans bands, the white Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) and the black band led by cornetist Joe "King" Oliver, do feature a lot of ensemble playing. But they also frequently feature solos.
The recordings made as a leader from 1921 onward by Johnny Dunn, a cornetist Armstrong admired who I mentioned in the last column, contain lots of his solos. Further, Armstrong's recordings under the direction of pianist Clarence Williams starting in October 1924 feature plenty of solos by Louis, as well as by Sidney Bechet.
I don't know that anyone has ever actually compiled statistics on what percentage of recordings is devoted to group playing versus solo playing in, say, 1923, '24, and '25, but I think they'd find a general increase in soloing.
Now, if you want to say that soloing in itself wasn’t new at this time, but that Armstrong’s solos were particularly flamboyant, dramatic and inspiring, I’m with you a hundred percent! For more on Louis's innovations, listen here:
How Did Louis Armstrong Practice?
Now let’s dig into some of the details of Armstrong’s art. Listen to one of the most famous jazz recordings of all time, his solo trumpet intro to “West End Blues,” recorded in June 1928:
Now listen to just the second half of that solo intro:
Now listen to a break (unaccompanied solo bit) that he takes while accompanying singer Margaret Johnson on “Changeable Daddy of Mine,” recorded in November 1924:
Important - notice that this break from 1924 is the same as the second part of the “West End Blues” intro from 1928. (I first published this info in 1983.) Also, for musicians, note that the 1924 recording is in Bb, while the 1928 one is in Eb. What conclusion must you draw?
Yes - Armstrong practiced licks in various keys—just jazz like musicians have done ever since, through to today. By the way, there is plenty of other evidence that he was working on ideas in different keys.
For example, his break at 2:40 near the end of “I Miss My Swiss” in August 1925, is not the same, but a variant of the “West End Blues” phrase (as Ricky Riccardi noticed in his blog), and it’s in the key of G:
My friend Prof. Joshua Berrett has pointed out, in his 1992 article “Louis Armstrong and Opera,” that “Once in a While,” from Dec 1927, near the end, has a related break in the key of C. A bit messy, but proof that he was trying this in different keys:
More broadly, this shows not only that he practiced in various keys, but it shows you that he was a dedicated, organized musician. For more on Louis' practicing techniques, listen here:
Armstrong was Well Aware of and Actively Involved in the Business Side of Music
Some years ago, my friend Prof. Dave Chevan looked through the holdings of the Library of Congress, where everyone sends things to be copyrighted, and found that from 1923 onward, Armstrong had sent in a number of pieces, some in his own handwriting.
Perhaps his most interesting finding was that for “Cornet Chop Suey,” Louis had sent in the whole piece, including the entire cornet solo, almost exactly as he recorded it with his Hot Five.
But—get this!—Louis sent it in January 1924, two years before he recorded it in February 1926!
Click here to take a look at Louis' Library of Congress lead sheet, courtesy of Dave Chevan.
What do we learn from this? Plenty. For example:
— Armstrong was a business-savvy musician who was careful to copyright his work.
— In general, as Chevan, Larry Gushee and others have shown, there was much more written music used in early jazz than is generally thought. And much of what was not written was rehearsed until it was memorized. The idea that early jazz was “pure improvisation” that later got “soiled” by written music and arrangements is the exact OPPOSITE of the truth! See my “Myths About Jazz, Part Three,” for details.
Wynton Marsalis makes this mistake - that is, assuming that sheet music was not generally used - towards the end of his DVD Marsalis On Music: Sousa to Satchmo. He says that Armstrong’s solos were so well structured that they sound like they were written in advance. Then, for an example, he plays “Cornet Chop Suey”—because Marsalis was unaware that Armstrong had in fact written out this solo in advance!
Let's listen to Armstrong's version of Cornet Chop Suey," restored to its original key of F:
Some other interesting points about “Cornet Chop Suey”:
— Early 1924, the period when he copyrighted it, is Armstrong’s so-called “lost period,” when he was still with King Oliver but not recording. His last recording with Oliver was October 1923 (or possibly December, according to some evidence), and his next recording was in October 1924 with Fletcher Henderson. Perhaps one reason he left Oliver is that Oliver had no record deals during this period?
- Why would Armstrong have written and copyrighted this piece in 1924? To me it is absolutely possible that he performed it with Oliver. It is commonly stated that he left because Oliver didn’t feature him enough, but nobody has ever maintained that he never was featured with Oliver!
- For Pete’s sake, he gets solos even on the 1923 recordings with Oliver. So I see no reason that he would not have performed “Cornet Chop Suey” with Oliver. Or—another thought—maybe he had an occasional gig without Oliver in Chicago, and liked to play this on those gigs.
—The name “Cornet Chop Suey” has been a bit of a mystery. To me, that’s just the way Louis would have described such a technical piece, in his way of downplaying his accomplishments: “What are all those notes you’re playing, Louis?” “Aw, that’s just a mess of chop suey—ha, ha!
Armstrong Did Not Invent Scat
I’ll keep this one short—it may be true, as he himself said, that Louis dropped the sheet music in February 1926 while he was recording “Heebie Jeebies,” and decided to scat the second chorus. But that was probably not the first time he ever scatted—it is ridiculous to suppose that he invented it on the spot. And there had already been scat solos on records by Gene Greene (as far back as 1911), Cliff Edwards (aka Ukelele Ike), Don Redman with Henderson (1924) and possibly others.
Let's listen to Louis singing both choruses of "Heebie Jeebies":
FOR FURTHER STUDY:
—The website jazz-on-line.com has thousands of great early jazz tracks for listening or free download!
—Prof. Brian Harker has written an excellent study, with music examples, of Armstrong’s 1920s style, which is available from Amazon.
Thanks and join us again in two weeks for more jazz surprises to open your ears!
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