Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five
Recorded February 26, 1926
Track Time 2:58
Written by Louis Armstrong
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Originally released on Okeh 8320
Currently available on CD: Both the JSP and Sony Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven boxes have it (I like the JSP better but the Sony has much better packaging if you go for that sort of thing)
Available on Itunes? Yes
We've reached the third song of Louis Armstrong's doozy of a session on February 26, 1926 and this one is a bona fide masterpiece. Louis started the date by jiving around with his wife Lil on the blues "Georgia Grind," followed by creating the scat solo heard around the world on "Heebie Jeebies." But to this point, the Armstrong horn hadn't had much to do.
Well, that all changed with the third song written that day "Cornet Chop Suey." This is a piece that has gotten writers breathless for decades and I don't know how much I can add. You want to know what made Louis Armstrong such a revolutionary musician in the 1920s? Well, it's all right here for you. He's in complete command of his horn, playing almost clarinet figures his trumpet (or cornet). The melody of "Cornet Chop Suey," which he wrote, is very forward-thinking, a harbinger of snake-like melodies that would come later on in the bop era (Scott Robinson recorded a wonderful updated take on this tune in recent years, but I'd love to hear a bebop front line of trumpet and alto tear through this melody in unison...wouldn't sound out-of-date for a second).
And then there's that stop-time solo, every note so perfectly placed and swinging, it's almost as if he wrote it out beforehand. But that could never happen, not in these righteous days of pure jazz, when, if you weren't improvising, well, you might as well be playing dance band music with Vincent Lopez. Right? Hello? Bueller?
Of course, some of you might not know where I'm heading, but here's the straight dope: every note of "Cornet Chop Suey" was written down by Louis Armstrong and registered at the Library of Congress on JANUARY 24, 1924! Two years before he recorded it!
Don't believe me? Well, I don't know how good this is going to work, but Lawrence Gushee wrote a defintive piece on Louis and improvisation that now appears in the book "In the Course of Performance." That book is available on Google Books and you can scroll to page 300 to see a copy of it, right in Louis's hand. Here's a link.
This is not new news. The Library of Congress deposits were discovered in the 80s and have been writen about often since. In fact, when I was a member of the Master's program in Jazz History and Research at Rutgers, when we got to the subject of Armstrong in our Jazz Historiography class, our professor, Lewis Porter, passed this around to make the point that improvisation in the early days wasn't exactly a given. Soloists such as Louis and Kid Ory and King Oliver worked on their solos and once they had it down perfect, well, why in the hell mess with it? They were playing for dancers and making records for a quick buck, never thinking that students at universities would be analyzing their every eighth-note rest.
Louis himself admitted as much. I don't have the quotes at hand (but--plug alert--they're in my book), but he talked about it with Richard Meryman in the 1960s, basically saying that everything he played was improvised at one point. But once he got it down, that's it, only change a few notes here and there, as long as they fit. He made sure to stress that's how it was in the old days, when everybody was supposedly improvising.
So here's "Cornet Chop Suey" two years before it got waxed, and it's all there: that incredible introduction, the melody and even every note of the stop-time chorus, marked by Louis as the "Patter" section. Now should this change anyone's opinion of "Cornet Chop Suey"? I should hope not. If so, if you really need every note of your jazz to be freshly minted from the tortured artist's brain, I feel sorry for you. Because me, I can admire what Louis put into composing this work and how he must have worked on it until it sounded like perfection. He probably didn't play it with King Oliver or Fletcher Henderson, but he probably did play it with Lil on piano at their Chicago home (her solo, while not an all-time classic, is one of her best ones, in my opinion).
Yesterday, I shared a Voice of America interview with Louis where he introduced and discussed "Heebie Jeebies." From that same session, he did the same thing with "Cornet Chop Suey." Here he is talking about it in 1956, downplaying it as just an unpublished compisition, recorded to make some quick money to go to the cabarets, with no thoughts about royalties or anything like that.
So with Louis serving as our disc-jockey, let's dig into the original "Cornet Chop Suey":
Right off the bat, for some of you who may have enjoyed this song for 85 years, it might sound a little different. That's because I went with the version of the song in the key of F, as included in Phil Schaap's "Complete Hot Fives and Sevens" box set of about a decade ago. In his own notes, Schaap mentioned that authorities like Randy Sandke and James Charillo believed it to be in Eb. That's how Bobby Hackett played it and that's how John R. T. Davies mastered it in his JSP set.
But Louis wrote it down in F and the three subsequent versions he made of the song (which we'll get to in a bit), were each in F. That's good enough for me, but Norman Field really did the fieldwork in 2005 and published his results here. Check that out and you'll be listening to this version for good.
And then there's the matter of "cornet vs. trumpet." Everyone asks when did Louis switch and why? I can't give an exact date for the switch but it was around this time when Louis joined Erskine Tate's orchestra at the Vendome Theater. Thus, it's possible that "Cornet Chop Suey" was played on a trumpet! Here's Louis on the Voice of America again, right after playing "Cornet Chop Suey," discussing the difference between the two instruments and why he made the switch:
So there you have it, again, straight from the man himself. One final note: many writers have said Louis titled it this way because exotic material was usually associated with Asia back then (see "Oriental Strut" from this same session). But I don't hear anyting exotic about "Cornet Chop Suey"; I think the title is a play on "Clarinet Marmalade" that works in Louis's love of Chinese food, something that started as a kid and continued until the end of his life.
I've said very little about the playing on "Cornet Chop Suey" but I think the record speaks for itself. It's a masterpiece of the 20th century and was one of those recordings that pretty much said, "Jazz...follow me!" And it did, but Louis seems to have left "Cornet Chop Suey" behind. I have never seen any mentions of him playing it for the next 20 years of life but the next time he dug it out, stand back!
The occasion was the historic Town Hall concert in May 1947. This concert plays a crucial role in the beginning of the book and I center on "Cornet Chop Suey" as the start of things to come. Thus, I'm not going to run my mouth about the subject for long, other than to say, dig it:
That, to me, is just an amazing performance. It's Louis with just a rhythm section with Dick Cary on piano, Bob Haggart on bass and Big Sid Catlett on drums. This concert was supposed to throw Louis back into his "old" styles, all at a time when the dixieland revival had trad bands trying to recreate 1920s recordings with painstaking details.
And here comes Louis and not for one second does he treat it like 1926. That rhythm section SWINGS, Catlett dropping subtle bombs and all sorts of accents. And perhaps because he hadn't played it in so long, Louis is completely free. He makes plenty of allusions to the original, but makes enough changes to keep it fresh, right up to that giant high note at the end, all 1947. Definitely a magical performance that helped usher in the later years of Louis's career.
Concert programs from the early days of the All Stars listed "Cornet Chop Suey" as part of the repertoire but I have never come across a live performance of broadcast of it. Instead, it would be ten more years before Louis would take another crack at it and once again, he came through with flying colors. Like "Heebie Jeebies" and "Georgia Grind," Louis revisited it on "Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography."
The Hot Five and Hot Seven recreations were arranged by Bob Haggart, who transcribed every note of the original recordings. Louis was well rested and had plenty of time to rehearse during these sessions, so his playing is note-perfect, but perhaps not quite as free as the Town Hall version.
Regardless, Haggart has some neat ideas, such as having George Barnes's guitar double Louis's acrobatic introduction. Louis sounds in command and the rest of the band is equally enthusiastic (though the Barrett Deems Drum Machine 2000 is too rigid; not his fault, Haggart wrote in the arrangements "closed hi-hat" on Deems's parts, keeping him locked down for some reason). Everyone gets a solo but of course, the spotlight is on Louis for the stop-time bit and he nails it, though he passes the ball to Trummy for a half-chorus, probably to give his 56-year-old chops a bit of a breather before the rideout, which has a new ending. Louis's crazy spiraling bit from the original is gone, replaced with the raw power of the 1950s Armstrong. Enough from me, give it a listen:
Alas, my final version of "Cornet Chop Suey" is a bit of a letdown. It's from only two years later, but different circumstances lead to different recordings. This time around, Louis did "Cornet Chop Suey" with the Dukes of Dixieland. First off, the session was only weeks after Louis's heart attack in Spoleto, Italy, which didn't have any major effects on his trumpet playing, but did seem to affect his ability to execute fast runs on the horn, something that especially became noticable in the mid-1960s.
Also, this session was the Dukes seems like it was just thrown together, without any prepartion or rehearsal. In fact, they just did a lot of songs Louis was already performing live and/or had just recorded for Decca. Because of that, Decca stepped in and didn't allow the recordins to be released until theirs had been on the market for a certain period of time. Armstrong and the Dukes got their act together and recorded fresh material for a fantastic album in 1960 but this 1959 meeting flew under the radar for years.
After recording so many familiar songs--"Back O'Town Blues," "Someday," "Struttin' with Some Barbecue"--and some different material with basic routines--"Dippermouth Blues" "Riverside Blues," "Bill Bailey"--someone in the Dukes probably suggested "Cornet Chop Suey." This was the kind of material the Dukes ate up (Dukes trumpeter Frank Assunto takes the melody in the first chorus) but Louis hadn't played it regularly for years and when he recorded it for the "Autobiography," he had an arrangement in front of him.
Thus, judged solely on itself, this recording features some fine, powerhouse playing by the 1959 Armstrong. But you can hear his memory trying to conjure up those phrases and then you can feel the execution slowing down tremendously since the 1957 project. Like an aging fastball pitcher, Louis still has the knowhow to throw enough offspeed stuff to strike the batter out. In fact, for a longtime, I winced when I heard this stop-time solo until I learned to just listen to it on its own. And you know what? It's grown on me until I think it's pretty terrific, with lots of new ideas to make up for what old ideas he couldn't execute anymore. Still, it's a different ballgame from those 1947 and 1957 versions. And the whole thing is over in 2 minutes and 15 seconds so it's like everyone just wanted to get it over with. Anyway, here it is:
I doubt Louis ever performed "Cornet Chop Suey" again after this recording (there's an alternate from this session but it's very similar and I don't think worth sharing). I enjoy each of these versions but really, that first one, recorded 85 years ago this week, is the one that changed history. The next song recorded that day, didn't exactly do that, but it's still worth remembering. Stay tuned for my next installment on "Oriental Strut."