Thursday, June 28, 2012

84 Years of "West End Blues"

Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five
Recorded June 28, 1928
Track Time 3:11
Written by Joe “King” Oliver and Clarence Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Mancy Carr, banjo; Zutty Singleton, hand-cymbals
Originally released on OKeh 8597
Currently available on CD: It’s on almost any Hot Five compilation, as well as hundreds of “Best-of” discs
Available on Itunes? Yes, on about 40 different albums, so take your pick!

[Note: On this date in 2008 and 2009, I celebrated Armstrong's seminal 1928 recording of "West End Blues" with a massive blowout posting charting the history of the tune. I didn't share it for the past two years but have decided that "West End Blues" should be celebrated EVERY year. So even though nothing much has really changed since the last time I posted it, here it is again.]

[Second Note: When I re-posted this last week, a lot of the original links no longer worked. Through the magic of YouTube and my own personal collection, everything works now. Sorry for the inconvenience!]
84 years ago today, Louis Armstrong did this:

‘Nuff said.

Technically, that’s all I should have to write about the subject of today’s entry, “West End Blues.” Louis Armstrong’s 1928 performance of the tune has probably been the subject of more words and analysis than any other in the history of jazz. Gunther Schuller devoted page after page to it in 1967’s Early Jazz, writing, “The clarion call of “West End Blues’ served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression.” Gary Giddins wrote that this tune “came to symbolize more than any other the ascendancy of a classic American music.” John Chilton called the introduction “a great moment in 20th century music.” Ken Burns devoted an entire segment to it (if you’d like to hear Artie Shaw, Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddins expound on it, check that out). Okay, so now we all know that this is one historic, pretty great recording. It would be senseless for me to come up with different ways of saying “West End Blues” in unbelievable so, with your kind permission, I’m going to take another route and look at the song itself: other versions, other attempts by Pops, tributes to Armstrong, anything and everything I can fine. So get ready for another interactive journey through the history of “West End Blues”....the greatest record ever made during the 20th century.

(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

“West End Blues” was written by two very important figures in Louis Armstrong’s life. Joe “King” Oliver was perhaps the most important person to Armstrong in his early years, giving the younger man tips on playing the cornet in New Orleans and eventually hiring him to perform in Chicago with his band at the Lincoln Gardens. Armstrong cut his first records with Oliver and though he eventually left his mentor, the two enjoyed a warm friendship in Chicago, often sitting in with each other’s bands (as Hot Lips Page testified). The lyrics of “West End Blues” were co-written by pianist Clarence Williams, a musician who gave Armstrong a lot of studio work during his time in New York City with Fletcher Henderson’s band in 1924 and 1925. Williams wrote many jazz classics, including “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” “Royal Garden Blues” and a tune he apparently stole from Armstrong, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” (Armstrong wrote it as “Get Off Katie’s Head” in New Orleans; Williams heard it, cleaned it up and published it as his own, scoring a hit that is still being performed by New Orleans jazz bands today).

In 1925, Oliver organized a new, slightly bigger band, performing in Chicago and making fine records for Vocalion, including the popular “Snag It.” In 1928, Oliver tried his luck in New York, making one of the worst decisions in jazz history when he turned down an offer to play at the Cotton Club, an offer that ended up going to Duke Ellington.

On June 11, 1928, Oliver recorded one of his new compositions, “West End Blues,” a 32-bar, three-strain blues, with a band, the Dixie Syncopators, that included trombonist Jimmy Archey, Ernest Elliott and Arville Harris on reeds, Clarence Williams on piano, Leroy Harris on banjo and Cyrus St. Clair on tuba. Here is that first recorded of “West End Blues,” as originally conceived by its composer (by the way, Williams hadn’t written the lyrics yet, so the original record only credited Oliver).

Oliver’s first “West End Blues” does well in invoking a quiet, blues atmosphere, but there’s nothing remotely earth-shattering on that record. Oliver’s lead is pretty and stately; one can definitely hear traces of Armstrong in his phrasing, especially the mature, later Armstrong. After Oliver’s lead, the clarinets play a unison passage before a somber solo by trombonist Archey, who would go on to play in Armstrong’s big band in the 1930s. Archey’s followed by clarinetist Ernest Elliott, who really hams it up in his spot. So much for a pretty, stately, somber blues! Elliott’s all over the place, playing like he’s trying to impress his girlfriend, even throwing in a little rooster call for good measure (shades of ODJB!). Fortunately, Oliver swoops in to restore the dignity of the performance, entering on a phrase that could have easily been played by Armstrong. The record ends and well, that’s all there is. Nice stuff, but pretty ho-hum.

Exactly 17 days later, in Chicago, Louis Armstrong prepared to record his own version of Oliver’s tune. He had been playing with Carroll Dickerson’s group at the Savoy Ballroom and had just resumed recording for OKeh after nearly a six month hiatus. Armstrong’s new recordings featured former Dickerson pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, one of Armstrong’s only contemporaries to demonstrate a genius very nearly on par with the trumpeter.

“West End Blues” was the second song recorded that June 28 day, the third OKeh session that took place in three consecutive days. The first song, “Don’t Jive Me” featured a very swinging Armstrong solo and rideout chorus, backed sublimely by Zutty Singleton’s relentless hand-cymbals. “Don’t Jive Me” is a good record, but nothing on it foreshadows what happened next. Again, for convenience, here’s the link for what exactly happened next:

Though only three minutes and 21 seconds, “West End Blues” feels like an epic film. The opening cadenza sets the mood, like a gripping action sequence that occurs before the credits (in this case, Armstrong’s reading of the melody would serve as the credits, I suppose). Some critics have discussed the cadenza as if it were completely spontaneous, as if Armstrong said, “Okay, boys, let’s cut Papa Joe’s tune. I’ll play a little intro and we’ll take it.” That cadenza is too damn perfect to be completely spontaneous, and besides, it contains fragments of ideas that Armstrong had already put into wax. The most famous example was originally spotted by one of my mentors, Lewis Porter, who wrote about in the liner notes of an LP set of Armstrong and Sidney Bechet recordings from their time in New York in 1924 and 1925. One of those recordings was “Changeable Daddy of Mine,” recorded by a Clarence Williams group with a vocal by Margaret Johnson. Pay particular attention to the double time bridge and the break Armstrong takes:

It’s not EXACTLY “West End Blues,” but it’s close, especially in those quick, little chromatic runs tossed around at the end of the break. Something similar can be heard in the breaks of the Hot Five record “Once in a While” from 1927, something that was pointed out by Joshua Berrett in his masterful “Louis Armstrong and Opera,” as published in the spring 1992 issue of “The Musician’s Quarterly.” For those looking for a nuts and bolts analysis of every bar of Armstrong’s cadenza, definitely look up Berrett’s article as he thoroughly deconstructs each of what he hears as the four main phrases that make up the cadenza.

For me personally, the “West End Blues” cadenza could have been issued as a record by itself, like the later Charlie Parker “Famous Alto Break.” It’s like listening to a song with all its different components and each time I hear it, something different knocks me out: the opening descending quarter notes that sound like an alarm clock; the dizzying arpeggios that build to the stirring high concert C; the history-of-jazz-encapsulated-in-one-bluesy-run descending blitz of notes that immediately follows the high C, foreshadowing where jazz is going, yet firmly rooted in where it’s been; and those scattered chromatic phrases, sounding so effortless in the hands (or chops) of an artist who is so completely in command of his horn. It’s 12 seconds of heaven. The rest of the record could have consisted of nothing but a yodeler warbling, “Stick out your can, here comes the garbage man,” and it would still be a classic just for that opening.

Fortunately, what follows is still pretty magical. Armstrong plays Oliver’s lead in harmony with Jimmy Strong’s clarinet as Fred Robinson’s trombone lends a foggy bottom to the proceedings. Armstrong maintains the dignified, somber feel of Oliver’s record, until he gets to bar seven, where his reading of the melody begins to grow more airy and ornate. At the 12-bar chorus, he spins another arpeggio up to a high concert Bb and then takes a breather, handing the ball over to Robinson to take a short solo. Robinson was no legend and on many of these 1928 sides, he doesn’t hold a candle to Armstrong, but even he seems inspired on this one, taking his time and moaning the essence of the blues on Oliver’s written second strain. He gets delicious backing by a Zutty Singleton shuffle beat with his hand cymbals and a steady, nearly 12-bar tremolo by Hines.

The feel of the record shifts in the third chorus, as Hines and banjoist Mancy Carr simply pound out the melody delicately over quarter notes behind clarinetist Strong’s chalumeau take on Oliver’s next strain. Every phrase Strong plays in answered by some of the most sober wordless vocalizing ever contributed by Armstrong. I hesitate to call it scatting because usually the word “scat” sounds happy and joyful and Armstrong is anything but that during “West End Blues.” There’s not a trace of gravel in his voice and he phrases up high, just like his trumpet, though it’s so relaxed, he sounds like he’s listening to the radio. There’s not a trace of a laugh or a grin; it’s just some very pretty singing.

On the Oliver record, the sober mood was broken by the ridiculous clarinet playing. On Armstrong’s version, the fragile nature of the Armstrong-Strong duet is temporary upset by Earl Hines’s dazzling piano solo. However, unlike the clarinet solo, this is not a bad thing. Hines was one of the most innovative pianists to ever sit behind a keyboard and his virtuosic display on “West End Blues” is one of the record’s most memorable features. Singleton and Carr drop out, leaving Hines all alone but he makes the most of it. His left hand is consistently shifting; part stride, part descending and ascending octaves and tenths, all mixed up the occasional jarring, off-the-beat accent. And that’s just the left hand! The right hand plays a lot of those “trumpet style” octaves, but there’s and a lot of single-note runs, too, leading to the solo being equal parts melodic and flashy. All of it is mesmerizing; just listen to the ascending chordal run he plays with both hands simultaneously for a second at the 2:28 mark for a short example of Hines’s brilliance.

With 51 seconds to go, there’s only enough room for one chorus and a coda. Again, this comes off so perfectly, I don’t think anyone could write it off as being completely spontaneous. Almost like an arrangement, Robinson and Strong harmonize, Strong holding one note while Robinson discreetly accents on the first beat of every bar, hitting a blue note in bar for. Meanwhile, Hines and Carr comp dramatically, surging together as the song begins to sweat. And on top of it all, the celestial being known as Louis Armstrong, holding the most dramatic, throbbing, high B in the history of recorded music. He holds it for four bars (12 seconds), with just the right amount of vibrato to send the hairs on one’s neck to rise to attention. It’s such a genius move, because he basically takes the original motif from Oliver’s melody, and inflates it into something much more bold and stunning than anything those original 12 bars suggest

But he’s not done yet! After four bars of the held note, Armstrong unleashes a furious series of descending runs off an Ab7 chord - Bb-Db-Gb-Eb, four notes repeated five times in five beats before Armstrong turns it inside out and hits a high C for a second. He continues onward, phrasing with a flair that does indeed suggest opera, especially with the upward, almost scalar, run he plays towards the very end of the chorus, as well as the little turn of a phrase that ends it.

Then it’s on to the coda, or the final resolution, to continue my movie analogy from earlier. I think if “West End Blues” had a cute little Lil Hardin ending, it might have taken some of the steam out of it. But instead, the actual ending, with Hines’s descending inversions and the final melancholy statement by the horns, delightfully maintains the mood of the entire record. In the noes to a Time-Life LP box set on Hines, the pianist remembered now the ending came about:

“Now how the ending was going to be we didn’t know. We got to the end of it and Louis looked at me and I thought of the first thing I could think of, a little bit of classic thing that I did a long time ago and I did it five times and after I finished that, I held the chord and Louis gave the downbeat with his head and everybody hit the chord at the end.”

Well, almost everybody. As everyone held their final chord, Zutty Singleton unleashed a somewhat strange “clop” from his cymbals. I’ve always liked this sound because, to me, it sounds like someone closing a time capsule on the amazing brilliance that just occurred in the previous 200 seconds. But Hines explained that Singleton had a little trouble with his simple duty: “Zutty had this little clop cymbal...and he clopped it wrong. So then we had to start all over again...We spent hours in there with the hot wax.” Thus, we can be fairly certain that “West End Blues” wasn’t a completely spontaneous performance. No alternate takes survive but I often do wonder that if they did, would each one of them contain the exact same cadenza?

The musicians were justifiably proud of their efforts, as Hines attested to. “When it first came out,” he said, “Louis and I stayed by that recording practically an hour and a half or two hours and we just knocked each other out because we had no idea it was gonna turn out as good as it did.” Armstrong would go on to list “West End Blues” as one of his favorite records, but he never seemed to speak or write too much about it. This is a shame, especially since Gunther Schuller published Early Jazz in 1967 when Armstrong was alive and well. Would it have hurt him or some other musicologist to actually ask the man himself about what was going through his head when he played that cadenza? Then again, to Armstrong it was probably just another session, a brief respite from his daily gig with the Dickerson band (though, of course, he had to know how special “West End Blues” was).

Armstrong’s song must have hit the jazz world like a meteor as other versions began popping up almost immediately. So for now, we’ll leave Pops and focus a little on some of these other recordings. First up, here’s Ethel Waters singing Clarence Williams’s new lyrics to the tune, recorded August 23, 1928, less than two months after Armstrong’s version. Waters does a nice job, as always, singing Williams’s lyrics about the West End section of New Orleans in an appropriately bluesy manner, covering the different strains of Oliver’s tune with feeling. She also scats a bit in the manner of Armstrong (Clarence Williams, on piano, plays the same descending fun that Armstrong and Strong used to end their duet). Only the end is a little confusing as Williams completely misses Waters’s final note, a dominant seventh Db, creating a slight clash. Otherwise, a fine record.

Just one week later, Hazel Smith recorded the lyrics of “West End Blues,” once again with Clarence Williams on piano. This session, however, had one more special guest: the King himself, Joe Oliver on cornet. Give it a listen:

As can be heard almost immediately, Hazel Smith was no Ethel Waters. She definitely reminds me of a Lillie Delk Christian-type popular singer of the day, with a voice that’s entirely too shrill. But pay attention to Oliver, who clearly listened to his protege’s record. At the :35 second mark, Oliver quotes an arpeggiated phrase from Armstrong’s chorus, though Oliver’s tone is a little thin on the high notes. Also, Oliver’s obbligato doesn’t have the natural ease as the countless Armstrong played on records of the 1920s. Smith’s vocal is almost humorously bad, but it’s nice to hear Oliver playing at length.

Meanwhile, Clarence Williams continued to pass on his lyrics to anyone who entered one of his sessions. Next up was Katherine Henderson, who recorded it backed by Williams and his “orchestra,” which included Ed Allen on cornet. Unfortunately, there’s no solos as Henderson sings for the entire length of the record while the horns only get to play short arranged figures. There’s nothing spectacular here, but if you’d like to hear it, here’s the link:

As the months passed, the influence of Armstrong’s version of “West End Blues” began creeping into other performances of songs that weren’t even the Oliver tune. For example, listen to this track recorded by Albert Wynn’s Creole Jazz Band on October 2, 1928. Wynn was a solid trombonist (check out his later Riverside recorded, produced by Chris Albertson for the “Chicago: The Living Legends” series in 1961) and his band included future Armstrong associates in reedman Lester Boone and drummer Sid Catlett. Alex Hill, a tremendous songwriter, plays piano while Armstrong disciple Punch Miller plays the trumpet and takes the vocal. At the 1:52 mark, Miller and Wynn do a scatting and trombone duet that is definitely influenced by Armstrong’s “West End Blues.” Take a listen:

There's also a version by Fred Hall’s Jazz Band, but I can no longer find any links to it at this 2012 date. Interestingly, they play “West End Blues” as if they never heard the Armstrong version. Only the short call-and-response strain between the violin and the trumpet makes me think of the Armstrong record. Hall was a pianist and seemed to lead more of a dance band than a pure jazz band and it almost feels like he’s playing a basic stock arrangement of the Oliver tune.

Okay, who’s still with me? I find all these other versions pretty interesting because each one palls besides Armstrong’s. But now we’ll turn to 1929 and the first outright tribute to the Hot Five “West End Blues,” recorded by none other than King Oliver and His Orchestra. This comes from January 16, 1929 and was recorded for the Victor label. Oliver sounded strong on the Hazel Smith session but his teeth had begun deteriorating to the point where he could no longer play anything remotely like Armstrong’s opening cadenza or the long, held high notes. He started keeping younger, stronger trumpet players in his bands--musicians such as Red Allen, Dave Nelson, Bubber Miley and Louis Metcalfe--who would do the heavy lifting, though Oliver still would take the occasional solo.

On “West End Blues,” the role of Armstrong went to the fine St. Louis trumpeter Louis Metcalfe. This whole record fascinates me because it’s basically a remake of the Armstrong version. This has to be one of the first jazz recordings to completely pay tribute to an earlier recording by recreating it in an almost note-for-note fashion. And remember, Armstrong’s recording was made only six months earlier. Oliver’s band had to notate every ounce of that record, practice it and get ready to record it. For the session Oliver basically led Luis Russell’s wonderful band with the likes of J.C. Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes and Paul Barbarin. Take a listen and be prepared for the recreation of the opening cadenza:

Poor Metcalfe! And poor Oliver, who some writers attributed to the butchering of the opening cadenza. Metcalfe already has one strike against him when he starts on the wrong note, squealing it out like a mouse who just had his tail stepped on. Already in the hole, Metcalfe soldiers on and I do have to give him some credit. He gets most of it right with the occasional wrong note here and there but I always laugh at the pause before the high C. Armstrong hit it like it was second nature. Metcalfe? You can practically hear him sweat as he prepares to hit it...and he does so let’s give him that. He even continues it, hitting the chromatic runs pretty decently before he finally gets to settle down and play the melody. He’s not quite as free floating as Armstrong, but he does quote Armstrong’s classic ending to that first chorus.

Higginbotham is next and he leaves Fred Robinson in the dust, contributing a lusty solo before Charlie Holmes takes over for a new chorus on alto. Then it’s time for the next strain where Strong originally duetted with Armstrong’s scatting. This time Higgy plays the melody “calls,” while Oliver himself plays muted “responses,” evoking the Armstrong record in a tender way by playing all of Armstrong’s original scat lines as they were originally sung. He sounds quite good, by the way.

Then it’s time for one of the most fascinating parts of the record. Luis Russell was apparently no great improviser, but if you gave him time to learn something in advance, he could surprise you. And here, he does surprise as he does a very good job in recreating Hines’s superlative chorus. Russell’s left hand is a little stiffer, sticking mainly to a simple stride, but he nails Hines’s right hand octaves, tremolos and single note runs.

Because Oliver takes it at a slightly quicker tempo, there’s time for some new choruses. In addition to the earlier alto solo, the piano solo is followed by a somewhat sloppily played arranged chorus. But then it’s time for Metcalfe to step into the spotlight, jumping right in by holding the high Bb for four measures. So far, so good but when it comes time to play the intense descending arpeggios, Metcalfe begins on the wrong beat, only getting to play four instead of five, though he does hit the high C. He finishes well but it sounds like he’s trying too hard and his tone doesn’t hit one’s soul like Armstrong’s. Instead of recreating the mystical original ending, Metcalfe pays further tribute to Armstrong by playing the line Armstrong ended “You’re Next” and “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa” with, two earlier Hot Fives. Overall, the Oliver record has its moments, but it really succeeds best in illustrating just how far ahead of the jazz world Louis Armstrong was during this period.

Still, other bands continued to record “West End Blues” as if Armstrong never recorded it. The song also reached the territories, as evidenced by the February 11, 1929 recording of the tune by Zack Whyte and His Chocolate Beau Brummels in Richmond, Indiana. Whyte’s band included future jazz stars such as trumpeter Sy Oliver, pianist Herman Chittison and tenor saxophonist Al Sears. Whyte played banjo and is heard prominently on this pretty version. Still, all of these non-Armstrong versions sound dull to these ears; they’re all atmospheric, bluesy records but without something to grab one’s attention, like the Armstrong cadenza or his bravura climax, it’s all kind of dreary. Nevertheless, there’s some nice touches to the arrangement and if you have three minutes to kill, give it a listen:

Our look at “West End Blues” in the 1920s will end with the next recording, cut on July 31, 1929. Once again, Clarence Williams is on piano (did he ever get sick of recording this tune?) while the vocal is handled by longtime Williams cohort Eva “Cake Walking Babies From Home” Taylor. Taylor sang on so many of those mid-20s Williams sessions, always sounding alive and jaunty, with few of the shrill qualities that have dated so many of the other female singers of the period. I think she sounds magnificent on this recording. She sounds very mature and very sober, selling lines like “You’re gonna see some shooting like you’re never seen before” like she really means it. I like this one a lot:

And after such busy flurry of activity--all of the above discussed versions were cut between June 1928 and July 1929--“West End Blues” disappeared from the recording scene. Perhaps it was too old fashioned because goodness knows the likes of Oliver, Williams and Jelly Roll Morton soon found themselves on the outskirts of the jazz world. The Swing Era was getting started and musicians like Louis Armstrong and Luis Russell were hopping on board.

By the late 1930s, however, a segment of the jazz world finally put on the brakes and for the first time, began looking backward. The music had been progressing for around 40 years but now it was progressing a little too much for those who enjoyed the old days of the New Orleans style. Thus, the jazz revival was born and all of a sudden, men such as Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet had a new audience who were thrilled to hear jazz as it was originally played in New Orleans (poor King Oliver died broke in 1938, unable to play his horn or lead a band anymore).

Louis Armstrong wasn’t really inclined to look backward in the late 1930s and the revival sprung about. He had been leading a big band, recording pop songs and appearing in movies. He wasn’t about to give it all up to go back to playing in a traditional “Dixieland” set-up. At the same time, Armstrong had become such a big star in 1939 that his recording company, Decca, thought it might be a good time to look back at some of the songs Armstrong originally waxed in the late 1920s. Thus, Armstrong began recording new big band arrangements of tunes like “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” “Save It Pretty Mama,” “Savoy Blues,” “Confessin’,” “Our Monday Date” and of course, “West End Blues.” Armstrong’s first remake of “West End” was recorded on April 5, 1939 and though it’s remarkably lesser known than the original, I think there’s still plenty to admire about it. Give it a listen and then we’ll discuss...

Yeah, man, that record gets better every time I hear it. Armstrong still has the chops to nail the cadenza, though not quite with the wild abandon of the 1928 one. His tone is more clearer than the earlier one but this one is slightly longer (14 seconds as opposed to 12) and during the little chromatic runs, Armstrong now throws in a short gliss, which is a nice touch.

Otherwise, it’s very interesting hear the big band behind Armstrong’s lead. Even the subtle swing of the rhythm section makes this version sound light years ahead of the original (only Pops sounds the same; everyone else had to catch up!). Whoever wrote the arrangement wrote some very pretty phrases for the reeds to play softly as Pops plays the melody as he did in 1928, editing a note or two out, but generally following the same patterns.

J. C. Higginbotham, no stranger to the tune, takes the next chorus, display his usual authority with the blues. Then a new touch: a four-bar guitar break by Lee Blair sets up the call-and-response strain. Pops, though his voice had grown more gravelly through the years, still scats with charming clarity. He swings a little more intensely on this version while the arrangement neatly features a clarinet trio playing Strong’s original part.

Then it’s time for Luis Russell’s piano solo. Perhaps Russell had forgotten how to play Hines’s original or perhaps he just wanted to go for himself but, while what he plays is harmless, it’s no Fatha Hines.

Next is a real treat: a brand new chorus of blues by Pops. It’s very low-down and fits the mood appropriately. Years later, Pops would play this solo about an octave higher during his rideout choruses on “St. Louis Blues,” but here, it works beautifully as played lower, prodded along by the slight nudge of Sid Catlett’s drums.

Next, of course, is the high Bb and Pops nails it, holding it for nine seconds. I really love the arranged countermelody; it doesn’t have the throbbing intensity of the original, but it swings more, again, with special thanks to Catlett’s backbeat. Armstrong’s descending arpeggios aren’t quite as visceral as the original as he only gets four out instead of five and doesn’t go for the split second high C. Instead, a few seconds later, he plays an impressive chromatic run up to a high Bb before discarding the original ending and phrasing a new one built around a giant gliss to a high C. This ending is perfectly suited to the Armstrong of 1939.

Because Armstrong’s Decca big band sessions are neglected in general, this remake of “West End Blues” has never received much attention. As I think I’ve made clear, it doesn’t quite have the spark or aura of the original, but there’s plenty to recommend: Pops’s gorgeous, more mature tone, the updated rhythm section, the furious scatting, the beautifully written arrangement, the brand new trumpet chorus and the updated ending. And I forget where I read this, but I know I read somewhere that a lot of younger jazz musicians were more familiar with this version than the original. This makes sense when one considers a musician who was born around 1920 or 1925 and would go on to great things in the 1940s. Those musicians would have probably been too young to appreciate the original and by the late 1930s, if you were a jazz fan or a Louis Armstrong fan, you were probably keeping up with his new Deccas and not fishing around for older records from the previous decade. And if you were a hip lindy-hopping dancer, the odds are that the swinging big band sound of the Decca would sound a lot more pleasing than the steady plunking of Mancy Carr’s banjo. Thus, don’t underestimate the influence of the 1939 version of “West End Blues” on a whole new generation of jazz musicians and fans.

If you’re still with me, it’s time to take one more brief, non-Pops break and focus on two more different takes on “West End Blues” from the ensuing years. The first one actually comes from later in 1939 (September 14, to be exact). Jelly Roll Morton was going through a resurgence in popularity and the Victor label decided to give him a second chance by letting him lead two sessions with groups made up of some of the finest New Orleans jazz players on the scene. For Morton’s second session, he recorded “West End Blues” with a group of Armstrong associates including one past member of his big band (Albert Nicholas) and one future member (guitarist Lawrence Lucie). The band also featured two musicians from the original 1928 Armstrong recording of the tune, trombonist Fred Robinson and drummer Zutty Singleton. The record had the makings of a classic but Morton, never the biggest Armstrong fan in the world, decided to record a version that couldn’t sound any more different from Armstrong’s OKeh original. Morton picked up the tempo a bit and more or less jammed the blues in New Orleans style, creating a perfectly fine record, but nothing special. You can listen along here:

The opening breaks are a neat touch (dig trumpeter Sidney De Paris quoting “Tin Roof Blues”) but are executed a little sloppily. Otherwise, I do enjoy this tempo and Zutty really moves things along with his cymbal splashes. It’s interesting that the only part of the record that looks back at the Armstrong version is the recreation of Robinson’s reading over the second strain backed by Singleton’s shuffle-like rim playing. But even then, Morton adds Nicholas’s clarinet to the mix to change things just enough. Morton stays out of the way, executing a few tremolos in the background, until a simple chromatic ending. A good, but not fantastic record.

We’re now going to move to 1944 for another out-and-out tribute to Armstrong’s record of “West End Blues.” This one was recoded on October 17 of that year by Charlie Barnet’s popular big band, featuring the likes of trumpeter Peanuts Holland, trombonist Porky Coehn and pianist Dodo Marmarosa (this was a well-nicknamed band!). Barnet had already paid tributes to heroes such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington with “The Count’s Idea” and “The Duke’s Idea” and now it was time to pay tribute to Pops. Barnet had the genius of idea of taking Armstrong’s opening cadenza and scoring it for the entire band. At first it sounds a little ponderous, but when it gets to the double-timing and the chromatic runs, the effect is spell-binding. Thanks again to Fernando de Ortiz Urbina for sending this track along...enjoy!

As can be heard, the song turns into a string of solos after the cadenza, though Barnet’s opening alto solo references the cascading arpeggio’s of Armstrong’s closing chorus on the original.

Okay, good news folks! I like to reward my readers who stick with me for the entire long, long journey and from here on out, it’s going to be nothing but Armstrong, focusing on versions of “West End Blues” he played from 1946 through 1960. Some of these are common and others are unissued treats sent to me by the likes of the late Armstrong discographer Jos Willems and Swedish Armstrong expert HÃ¥kan Forsberg. I can never thank them enough for their generosity and I’m sure you’ll want to thank them, too, after hearing some of these treats.

During the war years, Armstrong continued touring with his big band but on all of the surviving broadcasts from this period (and there are lots), there are no surviving versions of “West End Blues.” The next time we encounter the song in the Armstrong discography is a version taken from the soundtrack of the 1946 film New Orleans. This film is pretty much a dog but it offered the novelty of Armstrong sans big band, jamming the old New Orleans classics with an all-star group that included trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Barney Bigard, pianist Charlie Beal, guitarist Bud Scott, bassist Red Callender and once again, Zutty Singleton on drums.

The group recorded a LOT of material for the soundtrack and sadly, not all of it was used (the film would have been better off if it was all music and no story!). One of the first songs recorded was “West End Blues,” of which only the cadenza was used in the finished film. But what a cadenza! This is a pretty incredible version, I think:

Isn’t that something else? Armstrong tears into the cadenza like it’s 1928 all over again. He nails every note of it, except for a slight hesitation on his way down after the high C. Still, it’s crazily impressive. The rest of the recording follows the OKeh to a tee, though Ory and Bigard bring more to the table than Robinson and Strong. Dig Armstrong’s scat duet with Bigard where he drops Zutty’s name early on. And I love that ending: “Oh take four bars.” Beal listens and plays only four bars, instead of a full solo. Armstrong kills the high Bb but he only plays three of the descending arpeggios instead of F and he omits the quick little rip up to the high C. He still makes the run up to the Bb but he might have run out of a little gas. Also, for the first time since 1928, we get to hear the original “classical” Hines ending, just as beautiful as ever. A pretty great version.

The success of the small band work in New Orleans, as well as some small group records and concert appearances in 1946 and 1947 led Armstrong to ditch the big band and begin a new small group, the All Stars. I’ve frequently read criticisms of later Armstrong that focus on the trumpeter’s showmanship and love of pop tunes and movie songs, lamenting the fact that the audiences who saw him clowning with the All Stars, never knew that this was the man who created “West End Blues,” an American masterpiece.
Well, hold your horses, Charlie. As I’ve argued at length before, there was only one Armstrong as that guy who played on the 1928 original indulged in quite a bit of showmanship (at the time of the recording, he did a bit with Zutty on stage where Singleton dressed in drag!). But please do not think “West End Blues” disappeared during the All Stars years. It wasn’t one of the tunes Armstrong called every night, but when he was in the mood or when he got a request for it, he still played it--beautifully. And to start, this should be the main event for most readers. If you want to call your friends and send a link to this posting through e-mail, I’ll wait.

Back yet?

Okay, good. Here it is: The Grand Reunion. Louis Armstrong. Earl “Fatha” Hines. “West End Blues. October 20, 1949:

Did you catch your breath yet? To me, that just might be the second greatest “West End Blues” after the original. It comes from a Netherlands broadcast and you can hear the momentary confusion in the beginning as host Netty Rosenfeld introduces “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” as Pops is just launching into the cadenza. He later straightens it out during Jack Teagarden’s trombone solo.

So we’ll start with the cadenza, which is a fine illustration of a nearly 50-year-old Louis Armstrong. Yes, there’s a slight hesitation in the first part but besides that, it’s paced almost more dramatically than the original. For starters, it’s 20 seconds long, as opposed to the 12 second original. The original makes the listener gasp because it happens so fast and is so damn incredible. Later Armstrong versions are a little slower and a little grander, especially in the high C. In 1928, Armstrong hit it. In 1949 (and later), Armstrong hits it...and HOLDS that mother. The effect is dazzling.

Though this is the first recorded version of the tune from the All Stars days, it’s a very tight performance, making me speculate that they have to had played it before this date. Teagarden plays a pretty harmony to Armstrong’s lead playing in the first chorus, while Bigard sounds quite good, too, harmonizing with Armstrong on the ascending arpeggio that ends the first 12 bars. The scat duet still works, though now, one can hear Armstrong smiling. Also, he has a new way to end it: “Oh yes I know,” which, I think works perfectly.

But now hold on to your seats. I’ve said it before that Earl Hines was not a perfect fit during his tour of duty with the All Stars. He was unhappy being a sideman, he often didn’t listen with his comping and he just plain wasn’t a team player. However, as a soloist, there are few greater pianists and his solo on this “West End Blues” knocks me out. It’s completely different from the original but--heresy alert--I think l like it more. It’s so original, with its jabbing left hand accents and the last four bars always catch me by surprise. Great stuff.

Then it’s on to Pops, who still had the breath control to hold that high Bb for all four measures (12 seconds). He gets in four descending arpeggios but most tellingly, he glisses up to the high C, which was just a quick jolt of lightening in the midst of a flurry of notes and phrases on the original. Again, it’s a sign of the mature Armstrong. The flurries are gone, but that high C now sticks out a bit more.

The original ending is also back, though it’s more drawn out than ever before, really creating a somber atmosphere. Nothing will ever replace the original, but this remake is pretty insane.

Interestingly, it was also in 1949 that Charlie Parker began peppering some of his solos with a quote of the “West End Blues” cadenza. 1949 was a bitter year in the Armstrong vs. bop war as I found numerous articles from that year alone of Armstrong hammering the boppers. When he called it “ju-jitsu” music, it made headlines and in a Leonard Feather “Blindfold Test,” Armstrong beat up records by Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano. Thus, I sometimes wonder if Bird quoting “West End Blues” was an act of tribute or an act of scorn, a way of saying, “Ha ha, old man, I can play this stuff in my sleep.” On the other hand, Bird had an appreciation of old school jazz, including his quoting of the famous “High Society” clarinet part on “Ko-Ko.” We may never know Bird’s motives, but here’s a link to an excerpt of Bird playing it on the tune “Cheryl,” recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1949:

The All Stars reprised “West End Blues” during a concert in France one month later and I’m sure they played it on and off during the next couple of years. The next time it was played in front of a microphone came on January 16, 1954 during a CBS broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco. This was a great edition of the All stars with Bigard still on clarinet, Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Kenny John on drums. The Club Hangover was a hot spot for New Orleans jazz, having housed musicians such as Kid Ory and George Lewis during the same period, so some knowledgeable jazz fan must have requested the tune beforehand. Armstrong just finished a furious version of “When The Saints Go Marchin In’” when, with the applause still ringing, he launched into the “West End Blues” cadenza. Here’s how it came out:

Once again, there’s a little hesitation in the beginning of the cadenza (in the same spot as the 1949 version), as Pops seems to need a little extra breath to get ready to make that climb to the high C. But make he does, really hitting it hard. Again, the descending portion seems to have gotten a little slower, but all the notes are there and I can only imagine the thrill of hearing it live. Armstrong’s opening notes of the melody are greeted with applause by the obviously knowledgeable crowd. Armstrong plays some new idea in the first chorus but, as always, all roads point to the Bb.

Trummy Young’s next and he gets bluesy, adding a real lowdown feeling to the proceedings (Milt Hinton’s bass lines are very nice behind him; he was such a natural fit). The scat once again ends with “Oh yes, you know” before Kyle takes a piano solo. Kyle was a classy, tasteful, urbane musician, but on “West End Blues,” he usually demonstrated his strong ability as a pianist. Also, listen carefully to hear Kyle singing along with his solo. He had just joined the band and in his early days, you can often hear him singing as he plays, purely improvising every note from scratch. Once his solos settled into “set” patterns, the singing stopped, but his solos always were not perfect while his band playing fit like a glove.

Armstrong then enters with the high Bb, but for the first time, age has caught up with him a bit. He can now only hold it for two measures (seven seconds) before holding it for one more (five seconds), taking a breath and finishing off the sequence (three more seconds). The note is still stunning but clearly, between 1949 and 1954, Armstrong lost a little bit of lung capacity. Fortunately for us, his chops were arguable stronger than ever, as he would demonstrate in the upcoming years.

He also demonstrates it immediately after the held Bb, playing the descending arpeggio six times, one more than the original! So he still was blowing beautifully, following it up with the gliss to the high C. The band was really pushing now, accenting the first beat of every bar and swinging mightily. The original Hines ending is gone, replaced by a bit more of Kyle playing the blues before Pops and the horns come back to play the final notes like its 1928. Though there are some imperfections, it’s still mighty impressive.

Almost two years later, on December 20, 1955, Armstrong and the All Stars found themselves in the middle of a long tour of Europe. With Edmond Hall, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems on board on clarinet, bass and drums respectively, the band was hitting a new peak in popularity. “Mack the Knife” was about to explode, Edward R. Murrow was filming a piece for Armstrong for See It Now and Columbia was recording parts of Armstrong’s tour to be eventually released on an album whose title would give Armstrong a new nickname: Ambassador Satch.

Ambassador Satch did indeed feature a few tracks that were recorded live on the tour but some of it was recorded in a Los Angeles studio with applause dubbed in later. However, four of the finest tracks were recorded in an Italian movie theater in Milan on December 20. Now, get this: an almost 55-year-old Armstrong played three shows that night. Not one. Not two. Three! Wouldn’t you think his chops would be dead? In fact, they were just getting warmed up. George Avakian met Armstrong, the band, some friends and local fans in the empty theater and decided to record some more material for the album. The group opened up with their usual opener, “Indiana,” (a version that wouldn’t be released until decades later) when Pops deemed his chops ready to tackle “West End Blues.” Thus, here is how it came out, at 5:00 in the morning after two shows:

Amazing, isn’t it? Especially knowing how much Armstrong had already blown that night and how much was to come: “The Faithful Hussur,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Royal Garden Blues” all followed, each one featuring hotter than hell trumpet playing. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear the session tapes from this date and can attest that Armstrong kept the strong blowing going into unissued tracks like “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “You Can Depend On Me” and “The Lonesome Road” before he finally started running out of gas a bit on “That’s a Plenty.” An Edmond Hall feature on “Dardanella,” featuring no trumpet, closed out the session as the mighty Armstrong, after so many hours of fierce blowing, could blow no more.

But back to the mighty “West End Blues.” Armstrong used to begin the cadenza with four fast quarter notes but now he announces his entrance with a soul-stirring G before he takes off. This time there’s no hesitation; he hits and holds the high C squarely and takes off from there, playing all the descending phrases and chromatic runs a little slower than the original, but with just as much authority. There is a little hesitation in the ascending arpeggio that ends the first chorus, but it’s slight and almost unnoticeable. Otherwise, the band--my favorite edition--and the sound quality makes this version one to rank up with the original and the 1949 reunion with Hines. The scatting is wonderful and Kyle’s solo is much better than his 1954 one, sounding like the love child of Otis Span and Avery Parrish.

But it’s Armstrong’s concluding solo that moves me to no end. Even though it’s the same one he had been playing for almost 30 years, there’s something about this particular version that gets me every time. Like the 1954 one, Armstrong’s breath control isn’t what it used to be; he again has to spread the Bb over three breaths. But now the band is much more emphatic in their accompaniment. Deems’s drum accents are played with authority, Kyle keeps a slight boogie feel going in the bass and Young fills Armstrong’s gaps with tremendous blue notes. The whole thing surges as Armstrong gets to the descending arpeggios, only getting three out, but hitting and holding the high with a ferocity not heard in any of the previous versions. In his liner notes, producer Avakian argued that this version deserves to be held up there with the original and I agree. It might not be as revolutionary as the original, but it’s quite a moving performance.

And Louis Armstrong would agree. Less than a year later, Armstrong found himself in the middle of his stretch of one-nighters, doing yet another interview. This one can be heard on one of Armstrong’s private tapes at Queens College and it’s telling because when the interviewer compliments Armstrong’s recent Decca album recorded live at the Crescendo Club, Armstrong responds, “Okay, but you can get a later album than that: Ambassador Satch. That I made in Milano, Italy, just coming out over here. It’s better than the Crescendo. Dig that. And we made that after the third concert in Milano. We did three concerts that day, with intermission included. And 1:00 that night, we begin to record that Ambassador Satch. And at 5:00 in the morning, we’re wailing ‘West End Blues.” After praising the version of “Tiger Rag” cut that same evening, Armstrong said about the session, “If you didn’t feel good, you couldn’t do that. You can’t force those things.”

So Louis Armstrong himself knew how he was feeling and how good that “West End Blues.” But if you read Lawrence Bergreen’s biography of Armstrong, you might have come off with a differing opinion. In late 1956, Armstrong embarked on his Autobiography project, recreating some of his earliest, most demanding performances for Decca. Here’s what Bergreen wrote after summing up those sessions: “One telling omission from the retrospective was ‘West End Blues,’ with its famous, bruising opening cadenza. In a recent live recording, he had mangled this sacred tune, but this exception was insignificant in the face of his overall accomplishment.” Mangled? Did that 1955 version sound mangled? Armstrong was proud of it. Avakian was proud of it. That above performance also is the subject of a YouTube video that last year had nearly 70,000 views and over 60 comments, almost all of them overwhelmingly positive. Today? 242,000 views and 213 comments plus 456 ratings resulting in an average of five stars...Pops lives!

I think Bergreen wanted to paint a picture of Armstrong not recording “West End Blues” for Decca because he had just mangled it and couldn’t do it anymore. I think he didn’t record it for Decca because it had just come out for Columbia. Armstrong’s previous three Columbia albums included many songs he had recorded in the 1920s and early 1930s, including “St. Louis Blues,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Black and Blue,” “Blue Turning Grey Over You,” “Squeeze Me,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” and “Tiger Rag.” None of those songs appeared on the Autobiography probably because Columbia already beat Decca to the bunch (Ambassador Satch also included “Muskrat Ramble” and Decca chose not to rerecord that one either, using a live version from 1947 instead). That’s the reason why “West End Blues” wasn’t included on the Autobiography, not because he mangled it.

Need more proof? On June 1, 1956, Armstrong played it at a concert in Chicago, playing it just as strongly as ever and even holding the Bb for a longer period of time than the Ambassador Satch version before getting off four arpeggios. Only the off-mike opening mars this otherwise gorgeous performance:

And here’s the final proof: from December 11 through December 14, 1956, Armstrong recorded four Decca sessions, three of which were devoted to the Autobiography. On December 18, Armstrong flew to England to perform for one-night only at a benefit concert with a group of British jazz musicians and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The closing song that evening? “West End Blues.” Armstrong then flew back to America and continued the Autobiography sessions.

And for those who have made it this far in this 2009 update, here is the audio of that December 18, 1956 performance in London. This was the same concert from which I uploaded that breathtaking "Lonesome Road" from a few months back. You'll hear Norman Del Mar's arrangement, complete with a opening for strings. The strings provide backing throughout, making this a pretty gorgeous version. As I wrote in my "Lonesome Road" entry, Armstrong had one of the best nights of his career that night and it shows on "West End Blues." Like the other versions from '55 and '56, there's a little pause in the cadenza but otherwise, everything else is spot on (I think he holds the climactic note longer here than on the other performances from this period). Armstrong couldn't bring his All Stars but the group of British musicians sound great. Trombonist George Chisholm cleverly quotes "Rockin' Chair," clarinetist Sid Phillips gets to back Pops's scat chorus, drummer Jack Parnell lays down Armstrong's favored backbeat and the great pianist Dill Jones causes Armstrong to remark, "Smooth, there!" (I'm sure bassist Lennie Bush did a great job but because of the sound quality, he's almost inaudible.) Enjoy it:

Thus, Louis Armstrong was not afraid to play “West End Blues” in the 1950s and honestly, we’ll never know just how often he played it. But I do know that at least one more version exists it’s pretty spectacular. Armstrong’s heart episode in Spoleto, Italy in 1959 might have derailed him for a few weeks, but it had no immediate effects on his trumpet playing. In fact, 1960 has to go down as one of Armstrong’s strongest years when one listens to the album he made with the Dukes of Dixieland, as well as a number of wonderful live concert recordings made that year.

In July 1960, Armstrong performed at Ravinia Park in a suburb of Chicago. Anytime Armstrong played in or near Chicago, he always brought his A+ game (he always brought an A game, naturally). Who knows what musicians and characters from those old 1920s days were in the audience when Armstrong returned to Chicago? In fact, at a 1967 Ravinia concert, Armstrong introduced his second wife, Lil Hardin, from the audience. So, knowing he had to give them something special, Armstrong called “West End Blues.” Now, a warning: the sound quality on this track is pretty awful. I played it for Joe Muranyi, who remarked that it sounded like it was from a tape recorder whose batteries were dying. True enough, it does change keys a few time. But listen carefully, because Armstrong blows the hell out of the tune:

Pretty incredible, huh? The cadenza is pitched a half-step too sharp, but Armstrong’s brilliance still comes through, especially on that high C. If you’re expecting the 1928 version, listen to that one. This is nearly a 60-year-old man with a set of scarred chops that had been through the mill after almost 50 years of blowing at full force. That he could still do something as affecting as this is a testament to his skills and his everlasting genius. He still makes the Bb at the end of the first chorus, he holds the Bb in the last chorus for a longer period of time than the 1955 version, he gets in four arpeggios, he kills the high C, he plays the quasi-operatic run with great panache and he gently caresses the ending with the same fragile sensitivity of the original. Pure genius.

And also, listen to how tight the band is and how everyone knows the routine. Again, this was obviously something they had played before, not something that was being thrown together on stage. The Ravinia version is the last recorded one in existence, but Armstrong still continued to play it, as evidenced by a Dan Morgenstern article from the May 1962 issue of Jazz Journal. Titled “Pops in Perspective,” Morgenstern writes about seeing Armstrong the previous year at the Bronx amusement park Freedomland. After a rousing first set, Morgenstern visited Pops backstage as the trumpeter warmly greeted everyone there, “just as real and warm and strictly human as can be. And then it was time to go on again, and there was some more good music and then--then Louis Armstrong played ‘West End Blues.’ And that was one of those things: I had heard him play it before, and there is the record--three records, in fact. But I’d never heard it like this. And while Louis was playing, I stood transfixed--and there was just Louis and I and the music--and a presence I don’t very often feel was there too.”

So Armstrong’s “West End Blues” continued to transfix live audiences into at least 1961. Even if none of these later versions can match the brilliance and importance of the original, I think they’re all very important documents of a later, more mature Armstrong still delivering a heartfelt, virtuosic, operatic, soul-stirring, life-affirming exposition of the blues. And that’s something that can be celebrated today, 80 years after he first waxed that opening cadenza and it’s something that will always be celebrated as long as human beings have the capability to listen to music. Long live Pops...and long live “West End Blues”!

Friday, June 22, 2012

85 Years of the Hot Seven: Wild Man Blues

Recorded May 7, 1927
Track Time 3:13
Written by Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong (not really)
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Honore Dutrey, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8482
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

The second Hot Seven tune recorded is another classic, "Wild Man Blues." Unlike "Willie the Weeper," Armstrong already had some familiarity with this number going into the studio to record it on that May day; he had already recorded two different takes of it with Johnn Dodds on April 22. But to look at the label, you'd think that Armstrong was REALLY familiar with it since he's given co-composer credit with the great Jelly Roll Morton.

Wow, Armstrong and Jelly Roll, what a pairing! Picturing them huddled together in the after hours of a Chicago nightclub, Armstrong suggesting melodies, Morton playing different changes until they get it right. They finally nail it, go out for chop suey and tell dirty jokes and stories about New Orleans. What a team!

Of course, this is all nonsense. Armstrong had no idea how his name got on the tune; he was adament on his private tapes that he never knew Jelly Roll in New Orleans and never met him until much later in Chicago and even then, they weren't exactly best friends. (Morton preferred Freddie Keppard and later told Alan Lomax that Armstrong got too much credit for inventing scat singing; Armstrong put him down harshly for both of those opinions in later manuscripts and on his private tapes.)

So how did it happen? It's a little messy but fairly easy to figure out. Frank and Walter Melrose were music publishers who handled Morton's compositions. Morton had a song called "Ted Lewis Blues" that is pretty much identical to "Wild Man Blues" (he never recorded it as "Ted Lewis" but the score survives). Melrose probably didn't want to give a plug to another entertainer so suggested a new, more exotic title, "Wild Man Blues," with "Wild Man" harkening back to Morton's New Orleans roots as one of the kinds of Mardi Gras Indians. Fine.

Meanwhile, also in 1927, Melrose hired Louis Armstrong to do books of transcriptions for them, "50 Hot Choruses" and "125 Jazz Breaks." As the story goes, Armstrong recorded short solos on a variety of tunes backed by pianist Elmer Schoebel. The solos were recorded on Edison cylinders. Once transcribed, the cylinders were discarded (check your basements!) and books of transcriptions were released. (See my 2009 blog for more on these books, including audio recreations by the great Bent Persson.)

So though don't have any concrete evidence on how it went down, it's clear that the Melrose brothers, publishing both Morton and Armstrong's music in 1927, though it might be profitable to have a composition attributed to both men. How they got them to agree to this, I don't know (I highly doubt Morton had a say in the matter and it probably caused a great deal of bitterness), but that's how Armstrong got his name attached to what was most definitely a Morton composition.

Interestingly, Armstrong got to record it first--multiple times. By the time Morton got to record it with his Red Hot Peppers on June 4, 1927, Armstrong had already recorded it twice. When Morton did get to do it, he played up the "Wild Man" angle with some good-natured, vaudeville hokum. Here's Jelly Roll's if you haven't heard it:

Louis, on the other hand, didn't find anything comedic about the song. He thrived on minor-key changes, so that was a plus, but the song also had built-in breaks. And if you know anything about Louis in the 1920s it's that breaks = gold.

The Melrose books of Armstrong transcriptions were released in early April 1927, around the same time that Louis left Erskine Tate's band at the Vendome Theater. He began leading his own group, Louis Armstrong and His Stompers, and as he later related, "Wild Man Blues" became a favorite number to perform live, with Armstrong and Dodds taking such long solos, each one would take turns going in the back room and eating spaghetti while the other was soloing!

So when Dodds got his Vocalion session on April 22, "Wild Man Blues" was a no-brainer. The two takes recorded that day, plus the Hot Seven version, are not only testaments to Louis Armstrong's genius but they also feature some of Dodds's finest work. As Gene Anderson has written, "Dodds at his best is Armstrong's equal as a soloist." (Anderson knows what he's talking about; he analyzed Dodds's solos on "Wild Man Blues" for the Annual Review of Jazz Studies in 1996.)

But enough from me (didn't I promise to write less with these Hot Seven entries?). In 1926, Armstrong sat in on a Johnny Dodds session and couldn't repress his style on "Drop That Sack" nor his voice on "Georgia Bo-Bo." OKeh wasn't pleased so for the 1927 session, Armstrong attempted to play in a more reserved, sober style. I'll let you decide if he succeeded but what is not in doubt is the issued take of "Wild Man Blues" with Dodds's group is an out-and-out masterpiece. Let's listen:

Armstrong takes the introduction on a series of calm breaks before the ensemble comes in to play the last four bars of the melody. After that, it's Pops's show...and what a show it is! While he resists the urge to fly into the upper register or unleash any opera-like pyrotechnics, what he plays is quite beautiful, a little haunting and extremely melodic. However, notice Earl Hines's mind drifting as he plays a wrong change. Dodds follows with some lovely work in the chalumeau register....what a tone! (You can see why so many clarinetists have used this as a feature over the years.) At the end of Dodds's solo, the ensemble enters and blows everyone home, Dodds wailing in the upper register.

Now let's listen to the second version:

I hesitated to call this the second take because after listening to it closely, there's enough sloppiness to make me think this one might have been the first attempt. For one, Louis has a slight cracked note in the introduction, but more importantly, Hines plays a wrong change behind Armstrong 39 seconds in (though then again, Hines's mind was known to wander). Louis is full of ideas on this take, showing that even though he might have been playing this live (and had even set down a transcribed solo for Melrose), he didn't have anything that resembled a set routine. In his last extended stop-time break, Armstrong starts with a high note but then realizes that it might give him away, so he scampers into the lower register. Dodds's solo, on the other hand, is pretty similar to the first take....not a bad thing at all! Two great performances.

Finally, on May 7, Louis got a chance to record "Wild Man Blues" under his own name with the Hot Seven. Without anything holding him back, he let loose. Stand back:

Phew! John Chilton gets credit for being the first to refer to this as "Wilder Man Blues" and he's not kidding. (Quick note: I analyzed a transcription of this solo for a Master's class back in 2004. I've edited and punched it up a bit but I just wanted to throw that out there because I'm about to get a little more theoretical--did that come out of me?--than normal in the ensuing paragraphs.)

Right from the start, Louis plays the introductory breaks with more pizzazz than he did on the Dodds recording. He obviously can't wait to dig in. Louis starts his solo by taking the first line of melody, which descends C-Ab-F-C, and arpeggiates the F minor chord the solo begins on, actually sounding a bit flat in the quick F-Ab-F pattern he plays in the middle of the phrase.  He then rests for a beat.  This will soon become a pattern that runs throughout the solo: quick bursts of notes followed by some sense of space.  Unlike trumpeters from later generations who would try to squeeze as many notes as they possibly could within the framework of a bar, Armstrong always leaves space, making it easier to savor every one of his phrases.

Then it's time for the first break. Besides being rhythmically flowing, Armstrong’s use of a limited amount of pitches is ingenious.  Except for an E natural in the second note and a later B natural that is used as a neighbor tone, all the pitches in the break are either F’s, Ab’s or C’s—the three pitches that make up an F minor triad.  Today, in the era of flatted ninths and diminished thirteenths, this kind of improvising might be viewed as simplistic, but one might argue that it is harder to make three pitches sound interesting than it is to use strictly non-chord tones. Armstrong’s secret is his sense of rhythm, so ahead of its time in 1927, making the break swing effortlessly. I like George Mitchell a lot but go back and listen to his solo with Morton. He uses many of the same basic pitches but his phrasing is so overly syncopated, the solo sounds like it was recorded 20 years before Armstrong’s, not one month after.

After a few bars featuring some relaxed blue note notes, the seventh and eighth bars feature Armstrong’s second break.  He gives the impression at the start that it’s going to be a quick, double-timed break, but after the first three notes, he floats in slow motion once again, ending on a very low F.  In the ninth bar, he hits three C’s, and then leaves a lot of room for space, clearly foreshadowing the later style of Armstrong that we will examine in his 1957 recording of this same piece.  Then again, if the early recording has traces of what is generally referred to as Armstrong’s “later style,” then perhaps too much is made of this stylistic difference.  Sure, the younger man might have had more daringness, but the high notes, the rhythmic floating, the use of space, the melodic improvisation, all these characteristics of young Armstrong would definitely never leave him throughout his long career.

Bar ten features a descending chromatic phrase from Eb to C that appears later in this solo and foreshadows the use of chromatics in Armstrong’s later solo as well.  Armstrong’s break in bars 11 and 12 plays with a half-step-based idea, starting with a high E natural-F, descending to an A natural-B, descending again to a lower E natural-F, then going way down for another A natural-B, changing the rhythm on each two-note phrase.  He continues the pattern in the second half of the break by hitting the A natural-B combination twice an octave higher before a surprising high G which he kind of fluffs.  He regains his footing at the end and casually begins bar 13 with the same three eighth-note C’s as he began the ninth bar.  He gets rhythmically playful at the end of bar, setting up a phrase that crosses the bar line into the 14th bar.  Phrases that crossed the bar line are not just a modern jazz invention as Armstrong was doing them here and would continue crossing bar lines throughout his career.  The phrase features a pattern of an eighth-note followed by two 16ths, followed by an eighth-note, followed again by two 16ths, ending on another eighth.  Following a short rest, he goes up to that high G again, hits it stronger, then goes chromatically down with a Gb and an F and rests, building tension for the ensuing break.

Finally, in the break that takes up bars 15 and 16, we get the double-time work he’s been building towards in the previous breaks.  It’s very chromatic:  Ab-G-F#-G-Ab-A-Bb-A-Bb, which then goes into G-G#-A-Bb-A-Ab-G.  The speed and choice of notes makes it a very modern sounding break for that era and any other one for that matter.

In the 17th bar, Armstrong again plays with the melody but hits an A natural instead of an A flat which sounds a little like a flubbed note.  These little fluffs have led many to prefer the more level-headed playing on the Dodds record but I love that Louis is taking chances here. After a slight pause, he begins his next break by hitting a high Ab, juxtaposing the one from the previous bar by playing it an octave higher.  This time he holds it then glisses up to a high C, the highest note in the solo.  He descends with some more wonderfully rhythmic phrasing. 

The next break in bars 23 and 24 opens with a string of 16th notes (the first note is a B natural off the bar’s C7 chord) before Armstrong rhythmically spells out a C triad by building upward through C, E and a G.  He continues upward with a higher C, but instead of an E, goes up to an F, the 11th of a C chord. 

Almost all of the rest of the solo is done in break form.  The first break in bar 25 continues the pattern of a quick phrase followed by space as Armstrong plays four descending sixteenth notes before hitting an Eb, holding it and glissing down to a C.  Off the Bb7 chord in bar 27, Armstrong starts with a F-Ab pattern.  As we have seen, these first two notes of an F minor chord appear throughout the solo and would continue to do so in the 1957 version.  He then plays a phrase that extends into the 28th bar, a fast, chromatically based phrase that would become a trademark of Roy Eldridge.  Coming off of it, Armstrong has some fun with non-chord tones, playing a B natural off both a Bb7 chord and an Eb chord.  Yes, B natural is the blue third of the Ab key of this piece, but Armstrong also knew his harmonies (B natural is the flatted ninth and flatted 13th of a Bb chord and an Eb chord, respectively).

For his final break, Armstrong goes out adventurously.  The piece finally resolves to Ab so Armstrong alternates Eb and Ab, the fifth and the tonic, but in a very complex rhythm, almost foreshadowing the beginning of Lester Young’s “Shoe Shine Boy” solo of nine years later (the phrase can also be traced backwards to the beginning of Armstrong’s “Cornet Chop Suey” stop-time solo).  It’s a frantic break, Armstrong clearly trying to dazzle, and he does so with one final, perfectly placed high C.  In the final bar, he slowly, dramatically descends through the notes of an F minor chord but then ends with an E natural and a C, implying the C7 turnaround chord that is not being played by the band (remember, this is a break).  By changing his pattern to reflect a C7 chord, Armstrong perfectly sets up the following solo by clarinetist Johnny Dodds.  

Dodds's solo is a gem, too. Obviously inspired by Armstrong's heat, Dodds forgoes the lower-register playing that featured predominantly in his own recordings and instead almost immediately starts off in the higher register. His breaks have a sense of urgency, much like Armstrong's, and a fair amount of double-timing, too. Dodds handles the extended breaks at the end beautifully before Armstrong reenters to end the piece with some more scorching, two-note clarion calls, calling everyone home.

Armstrong and Dodds might have had a ball playing this song for 45 minutes straight each night in Chicago but once Louis got established, it seems to have disappeared from his repertoire altogether. There's no recordings, nor any print mentions of him ever performing it again...until 1957. The occasion was the seminal Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography, an album that, in a perfect world, would be just as well known as Louis's 1920s recordings (how nice to talk with Bria Skonberg during a visit to the Armstrong Archives a few weeks ago and hear that the Autobiography is her favorite Pops album...hooray for this younger generation!).

Jon-Erik Kellso recently told me a story that Ruby Braff told him about Louis inviting him over to his house in Corona, Queens as he prepared for the sessions. Louis listened to all of his early recordings and talked about what worked, what didn't work, what he wanted to change, etc. Sy Oliver and Bob Haggart transcribed Armstrong's early solos but made sure to write "Go for yourself" on Armstrong's parts so he wouldn't feel like he had to play exactly as he did 30 years earlier. Armstrong's style had matured and become grander; six months before the session, he told the Voice of America that he was playing better than ever and that was no stage joke. Let's listen to the remake:

The outline of the piece is the same as the Hot Seven recording in terms of solo order though the tempo is a little slower causing the performance to run three minutes and 56 seconds as opposed to the three minutes and 15 seconds of the Hot Seven performance.  Another difference is the number of breaks has diminished greatly.  Whereas in the 1927 performance, Armstrong took a break every two bars, the 1957 recording only features one completely solo break in the first 24 bars before the same series of breaks at the end. 

He begins the opening bars by sticking to the melody without even bothering to embellish it as he did the first time around in 1927.   Armstrong always spoke about the importance of melody so the fact that he opens a 32-bar solo by sticking to the melody like glue does not mean he’s lost the ability to improvise in his old age.  He’s just laying the framework on which he is about to build upon during the rest of the solo.  He taps the melody note F in the first beat of bar three but then goes up and hold a C for a beat and a half before playing with F’s and Ab’s, the same two-note pattern that appears throughout the earlier solo.  The phrase in bar three extends into a chromatically descending phrase in the fourth bar, another feature borrowed from the original recording.  Also, the quick chromatic phrase is followed by a held C, repeating yet another pattern introduced in the 1927 recording, that of playing a fast run, then letting things breathe a bit.

In the fifth bar, Armstrong plays the four melody notes but instead of playing them straight as he did in the original fifth bar, he speeds them up, then lays out, creating more space.  He has already begun to rhythmically play with the melody.  The sixth bar of the 1927 version featured three C flats (or B naturals), the blue note of the piece.  The note is still the centerpiece of the remake, but now Armstrong builds up to it with a three note phrase and instead of repeating it, he holds it, then plays a phrase that resolves the B natural to a B flat and ends on an A flat.

Where he relaxed in the seventh bar in 1927, Armstrong double times here, perfectly arpeggiating an F minor chord before chromatically descending into eighth bar from F to C, where after a quick rest, he plays the same chromatic phrase an octave lower, but even quicker.  Armstrong then plays with bar lines and rhythm, phrasing ahead of the beat here where he stuck to plain melody 30 years earlier.  

After all this playing, very few rests, much of it rhythmically free, floating across the barlines, Armstrong finally creates space, resting two beats then hitting a high F, holding it into the 12th bar.  In this bar on the original recording, Armstrong played around with those two-note half-steps before jumping up to the high G, which he kind of fluffed.  The half-steps are gone in the remake, but Armstrong does arpeggiate an F minor up to the same high G and hits it much more solidly.  To prove it, he leaves some space and begins the 13th bar with three more high G’s, which is also the 13th of the Bb7 chord being held by the band.  Coming down from the Bb he plays the three main notes of both solos, F, Ab and C, but again, like in the original, there’s nothing simple sounding about it. 

This sets up the performance’s first break in bar 15.  Off of an Eb7 chord, he plays the first five notes of an Eb scale and starts heading down the same way before he changes course and throws the lightening fast chromatic phrase played in bars 27 and 28 of the first solo, what I referred to as a Roy Eldridge lick.  Here, however, it’s played higher, topping out on a high Bb.  He begins his descent in the 16th bar by hitting a E natural square at the beginning of the bar, signaling an unheard chord change to a C7, and flying down to an F.  He plays with the F for a bit, setting up tension, and resolves it with another E natural, making the chord change complete and setting up the F minor chord that begins the second 16 bars perfectly. 

Again, the second 16 bars begin with those same first four melody notes, C-F-Ab and C.  Louis plays them quickly as he did in bar five.  At this point in the 1927 version, Armstrong played three behind-the-beat C flats.  Here, he just hits one and holds it about a full bar earlier than expected. He plays the four melody notes then immediately hits the blue third and holds it until the 18th bar, echoed beautifully by Trummy Young's trombone, which appears from out of nowhere to join in on this somber note.  It’s an example of Armstrong’s playing really achieving a kind of freedom but it’s actually leading to one of the great moments of the piece.

Armstrong holds that blue note into the eighth bar, pauses for a second, then plays an Ab and an F downward.  Liking it, he makes it a three-note phrase, B natural-Ab-F.  He plays it twice before ending the bar with a Bb and Ab as he did in bar six.  The segment has a very slow motion feel to it as the phrase gets quicker and quicker before resolving on a Bb.  He continues this trend but in reversal in the next bar.  He hits those two favorite notes of his, F and Ab, first quickly together, then with a little more space, then with even more space.  Again, it’s more rhythmic freedom.  Taking bars 17 through 19 together you can feel Armstrong starting in slow motion, gradually speeding up, then slowing back down again, all with a relatively simple series of phrases (the second one consists of two notes!). 

Bars 20 and 21 are pretty crowded with little of the space that has marked most of the solo up to this point.  He ends his first downward phrase in bar 20 with a short, clipped F, then immediately begins his next phrase opening with another B natural, crossing the bar line into bar 21 where he hits a quick, almost slurred six note phrase.  In fact, the quick, slurred phrases of both these bars are strongly reminiscent of Red Allen’s work.  In December of 1957, Allen would perform “Wild Man Blues” on the landmark telecast “The Sound of Jazz.” Allen is mainly thought of as coming out of the Armstrong school but with a more unpredictable, different sound but even some of those slurred phrases that seem to define his unique style can be heard in Armstrong.

Armstrong ends his busy playing with an Eb in the second half of the 21st bar, which he hold for three beats.  Before that, he had almost eight beats of constant blowing.  Bar 22 features more rhythmic playing as Armstrong alternates just two notes Eb and Db, first playing them as 16th notes before settling into slower eighths.  He’s also planting the seeds for an idea he develops perfectly over the next bar.  Using the final Eb and Db from bar 22, Armstrong hits a C to begin bar 23 making for a three-note phrase.  He takes this three-note idea and just takes it down a step every time (Db-C-Bb, C-Bb-Ab), then turns it into a four-note phrase which he again takes down a step at a time (Bb-Ab-G-F, Ab-G-F-Eb) before he just spirals downward ending on a low G.  Perhaps it’s not as “wild” as some of his work in the original but it’s hard to find elsewhere such perfectly executed ideas that make so much sense. 

Bar 25 features the beginning of the series of breaks that end the piece.  The break in bars 27 and 28 really show Armstrong boiling everything down to the essentials.  This is the spot where he did the quick Roy Eldridge-like phrase in 1927.  Having already played that phrase (and having played it higher than he did 30 years earlier), Armstrong plays a simple three-note ascending phrase up to a high B natural, once again using the minor third of an Ab.  Here, though, Armstrong puts all he has into it, holding it with great power well into the second bar.  Sure, recording methods had improved in the ensuing 30 years but when listening to a lot of later Louis Armstrong, it’s arguable that his sound actually got bigger as he got older.  Either way, it does not get much bigger then it does on this note.
In the original, bar 29 featured an Eb followed by a little space but in the remake, the Eb is an octave higher and instead of the four-note descending chromatic phrase used in the original, Armstrong plays a longer, more relaxed seven-note phrase starting with a high G.  The next bar, using the pickup F from bar 29, uses the exact same pattern of notes as bar 30 in 1927:  F-Ab-F-Ab-C-C.  But whereas in 1927, the phrase was more syncopated eighth and 16th notes placed squarely on the beats, he’s much more relaxed with his phrase in the remake.  He hits the first Ab, lets it settle, then makes the ascending F-A-C into one phrase.  It’s Armstrong not content to play things as he did when he was 30 years younger.  In terms of maturity and rhythmic phrasing, it’s arguably stronger then the earlier recording.

Armstrong finished wildly in 1927 with that final rip up to the high C.  Here he ends more relaxed with a smaller rip up to Ab before taking it down and landing squarely on a C in the final bar.  Like in 1927, he sets up the clarinet solo with a descending slurred phrase down to a G once again setting things up beautifully for the following clarinet solo, played by Edmond Hall. Hall's outing is a beaut (when wasn't in) and with the extra space allotted to the long-playing era, Trummy Young gets to take a nice,d subdued spot as well. Louis brings everyone home again, still full of slippery, bluesy phrases, before a Haggart-arranged ended brings this incredible performance to a close.

So what can be concluded from these solos? For one thing, there was no one quite like the Louis Armstrong of 1927.  His solo on the Hot Seven “Wild Man Blues” features some daring ideas that he does not always pull off perfectly but it’s safe to say no other trumpet player was thinking of these phrases at the time.  His rhythmic concept alone made everyone else, including the members of his own band, seem square by comparison.  And in his choice of notes, relying mainly on chord tones but adding in lots of blue notes as well as some flatted ninths and 13ths, he was creating the vocabulary from which all future jazz would come to depend on.

So what of the elder Louis Armstrong? Times changed as Armstrong’s style gave way to the likes of, first Red Allen and Roy Eldridge and later, Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown.  With those musicians on the scene doing what they were doing, it was easy to label Armstrong as old-fashioned based on his conception of playing and his age alone.  However, when you really listen to the later Louis Armstrong and analyze a given solo such as “Wild Man Blues,” you find that the man never really did falter, at least not until shortly before his death.  But at the time of the Autobiography, Armstrong was in the midst of a prime period of his September years.  The relaxed, floating phrasing was still intact.  His ability to develop motives and tell a story with his playing remained unparalleled.  His tone was bigger than ever and his command of the upper register was arguably better than when he was younger.

The only main difference between the two are the risks the younger Armstrong took, but that can probably be attributed to a young man doing a little showing off to impress his peers (remember, this is the same man who would hit hundreds of high C’s during this same era!).  The elder Armstrong did not have to do such grandstanding to win over other musicians.  He was respected enough by musicians (if not by the critics of the era) that he did not have to blow his top to win some applause.  All he had to do was keep playing the kind of relaxed, melodic, dramatic solo he plays so well on “Wild Man Blues.”
Thus, while the younger Armstrong should be studied and analyzed for changing the sound of music forever, it might be about time that the older man gets a fair shake since he was still doing remarkable things with his horn until the end of his career, as this analysis of “Wild Man Blues” hopefully shows.  Perhaps he was not the “wild man” of 1927, but he was still one of the greatest trumpeters the world had ever seen.

Now I'll admit, much of the above analysis was written for a class in 2004. As many of you might know, I got my Master's in Jazz History and Research from Rutgers, a wonderful program, the only one of its kind. But this experience was an eye opener for me. When I had to present my analysis to my Theory class, I prepared a no-brainer of an opening. "Surely, every one here is familiar with Louis Armstrong's seminal 1920s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. But how many people have listened to the remakes he did 30 years later for Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography?" And with that, I'd be off and running.

When I finally got up to face the class, I uttered the first part of that opening, "Surely, everyone here is familiar with Louis Armstrog's seminal 1920s Hot and Hot Seven recordings." I smiled, looked into my friends' faces...and saw blank stares. I paused and waited for a smile or nod in the affirmative. And that's when it hit me: Jesus, never mind my crusade for later Armstrong, here's the only program in the world pumping out jazz history majors and no one in the room is really familiar with the Hot Fives and Sevens, never mind the All Stars." I gave the whole 40-minute presentation but I felt a little off, as that opening reaction kind of caught me offguard. 

Well, it's 8 years later and I'm firmly entrenched in the Armstrong business now, whether through the blog, my book, my job as Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, liner notes, producing reissues, lectures, you name it. But I still feel that Louis gets taken for granted by the up-and-coming jazz musicians and it's a damn shame.

Fortunately, there's hope. Last week at the Armstrong House, I attended one of our "Pops is Tops" concerts for New York schoolkids. Jon Faddis was his usual incredible self but for me, one of the highlights was when he called up his young trumpet student Max Darche and told him to play "Wild Man Blues." Without thinking about it, consulting any sheet music or anything, Darche picked up his trumpet and played Louis's entire 1927 chorus flawlessly (unaccompanied, too). It sounded so good, yet still so fresh--and judging by Darche's effort, pretty damn challenging, too. It made me feel good and gives me hope that future generations of jazz musicians will study and learn Louis's solos (early, middle and later years) like they've been doing with Charlie Parker for decades. 

After my presentation in 2004, my fellow classmates came up to me, their jaws agape over what they just heard. "Man," one of them said, "we went to school today." Amen. As Ruby Braff pointed out, he was in "the University of Louis Armstrong--from which you never graduate." Let's hope the current and future generations continue to attend that University.

Coming up next time, something shorter! "Alligator Crawl."