Louis Armstrong

TrackFind it here
Dipper Mouth BluesOKeh 8402 (1923)
Potato Head BluesOKeh 8503 (1927)
Wild Man BluesBrunswick 3567 (1927)
West End BluesOKeh 8597 (1928)
Tight Like ThisOKeh 8649 (1928)
Gone Fishin’'Decca 27623 (1951)
When You'’re SmilingSatchmo: A Musical Autobiography (1956)
Hello DollyKapp K-573 (1964)
CabaretColumbia 4-43819 (1966)
What A Wonderful WorldHMV 1615 (1967) - UK No.1 single

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Contributor: Gerry Fenge

Louis Armstrong: the Chronological Ten

To really ‘get’ Louis Armstrong you don’t need a top ten of his records so much as a chronological ten. Then you can see how he first of all transformed jazz, then transcended it. Born in 1901 (August 4th) he was a young man at the beginning of both jazz recording and electronic recording, and by the time he died in 1971 his sort of music may no longer have been cutting edge but it was firmly established in the affectionate mainstream, with Louis as its most beatifically smiling face.

Transformation

In 1923, aged 20, he was summoned from his birthplace of New Orleans (where else?) to Chicago where he could join the greatest jazz band of its day, King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Joe Oliver knew he couldn’t stay king for long with this precocious genius on the way up, but he sensibly applied the principle that if you can’t beat them, join them – or, in this case, get him to join you. Thus Louis became second cornettist in the Creole Jazz band, matching King Oliver phrase for phrase in the first great jazz recordings ever made (regrettably pre-electric).

Dipper Mouth Blues (1923) is Joe Oliver’s most famous composition, and it is notable here for two things: his own wonderful extended solo (culminating in the exuberant shout of ‘Oh play that thing’ from banjoist Bud Scott) and the crunchingly powerful effect of two lead cornets (his and Louis’s) in the rest of the track.

Soon, inevitably, Louis cut loose, leading his own Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. By 1927 he was recording unprecedented material such as Potato Head Blues. Have a listen to his final solo over stop chords and marvel at how far jazz had come in the four years since King Oliver’s solo in Dipper Mouth Blues. The King may have known how to hit a note so it stayed hit, but Louis knew how to dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee (to borrow a slogan from another of humanity’s one-offs).

However, it was not just the brilliance of his invention that marked Louis out, it was the emotional depth. His work on Wild Man Blues from the same period conveys a weight of heart-breaking nostalgia that leaves me, for one, shaking my head in wonder. (By the way, I’d recommend listening to the version he recorded with Johnny Dodds’ Black Bottom Stompers, although there is, of course, nothing wrong with the Hot Seven version either.)

This emotional depth reached its culmination in his 1928 recording of West End Blues. He was with a new Hot Five now, exchanging his cornet for the more brilliant trumpet, and swopping breaks with another jazz genius, the pianist Earl Hines. Perhaps the recent death of his mother gave extra power to the number’s long flowing melody, the gentle scat singing and the torrent-of-notes phrasing – but whatever the explanation, this is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest of all jazz classics. Perhaps the greatest.

A few months later his band, now labelled Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, recorded Tight Like This. The saxophonist and arranger, Don Redman, had been added, and his vocal interpolations move from the falsetto humour of ‘Oh, it’s tight like that, Louis’ to the admiring groan of ‘Oh, tight like that, king’. Listen to the blazing trumpet work and you’ll see why.

Transcendence

The Big Band era took over during the thirties and forties, and Louis, ever obliging, led his own big band during this period, but by 1947 he was back with a smaller line-up, Louis Armstrong and his All Stars.

However, he was by now an all-round entertainer, perfectly content to be accompanied by whatever sounds fitted. Take this 1951 recording of Gone Fishin’ where he duets with Bing Crosby. No trumpet, no jazz instruments at all, just strings. He and Bing, by the way, were both graduates of 1920s jazz, Bing having sung with, for instance, the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. But how did Bing learn to sing in his relaxed and natural style? Why wasn’t he just another strangled tenor as so many of his contemporaries had been? Well, there was a certain Louis Armstrong who pioneered natural singing during that period (listen to West End Blues again). And Bing acknowledged the debt.

In 1956, Louis recorded When You’re Smiling, happy to incorporate big-band style saxophones behind his singing, which became increasingly growly as the years went by. However, the remarkable thing about this track, for me, is the trumpet playing. No torrents of notes, no fountains and effusions. This time he’s hitting the notes so they stay hit (remember King Oliver?) It is worth asking yourself as you listen whether it could be possible to cram more expression into notes than Louis manages? Hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff, I’d suggest.

In 1964 the Beatles dominated the U.S. charts, with successive songs camping out at number one for fourteen weeks. Then along came Hello Dolly, and a 63 year old from New Orleans dethroned them to become the oldest performer to top the hit parade. An indication of what Louis still possessed at the time can be found by comparing his version with Kenny Ball’s admirable cover. Kenny, of course, was a remarkable English trumpeter, arguably as brilliant as Louis when it came to flash and fire, but what Louis had in addition was the sort of rounded mellow warmth that Kenny couldn’t hope to find. Think back to Wild Man Blues or West End Blues; there was a hinterland of feeling behind Louis, and you can hear it in Hello Dolly, amiable though the track might otherwise be.

What else? So many hits; which to choose? How about Cabaret (1966) with its ascending melody and januty lyrics? By now, Louis was more of a popular singer than a trumpeter to most people, but he didn’t mind. Why should he? The poor boy from the New Orleans Home For Coloured Waifs had become a State Department sponsored ambassador, touring Africa, Europe and Asia with his All-Stars. Truly, for him it was a wonderful world.

Which brings us to the final recording. What A Wonderful World (1967) is nothing like jazz, so why include it here? Because, of course, Louis transcended jazz. He was about warmth and joy and exuberance and emotion and generosity and, well, you get the idea. So why limit himself? If he could make people happy with his trumpet playing, he would. And if he could do the same with his singing, he’d do that too. And so if we are to choose one quality from the above list, maybe we’d better make it generosity. Louis Armstrong was a man who had many gifts, and he shared them without rancour or reserve. Woah yeah.

 

The Louis Armstrong Discography

Louis Armstrong House Museum

Louis Armstrong biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #92

5 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Oct 9, 2013

    Thank you for a very informative piece. I lost interest in traditional jazz after over-exposure to the “Best of Ball Barber & Bilk” in my youth, but my interest in Louis Armstrong was awakened early in the CD era when Australian jazz enthusiast Robert Parker started issuing remastered early jazz recordings in conjunction with the BBC in the mid-80s. I read a review in a hi-fi magazine and from technical interest initially, got the Louis Armstrong CD “Great Original Performances 1923-1931” (BBC Records). This presents the archival material from scratchy 78s in just about hi-fi quality and recreated stereo. I don’t know how “interventionist” the process was, so possibly anathema to a knowledgeable fan, but they sound great to me. Stand out for me is St. James Infirmary, probably because it verges on my more familiar blues/R&B territory.

    • Gerry Fenge
      Oct 9, 2013

      Yeah, the late Hot Fives are sensational. I wanted to include St James Infirmary (lovely doomy atmosphere) and Basin Street Blues (so cool, then so hot) – but space, ah the constraints of space…

  2. Ian Dufeu
    Oct 9, 2013

    Excellent piece, thank you; I hoped there would be something about Louis on toppermost. My own personal Louis faves are Chimes Blues with King Oliver, Louis’s first solo on record. And there are lots of versions of this, I’m fond of this one of Ain’t Misbehavin’. Also, his version of You’ll Never Walk Alone is very moving. Cheers.

  3. Gerry Fenge
    Oct 9, 2013

    Delightful tracks, Ian, and nicely clickable. I have now added this article to my blog and all the tracks are clickable there. So pay a visit, if you like, and have a good click. (By the way, do you have a date for the Ain’t Misbehavin’?)

    • Ian Dufeu
      Oct 9, 2013

      Excellent work Gerry, I will take a look at your blog – I think this version of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ is from about 1954 with the All Stars.

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