85 Years of the Hot Seven: Melancholy Blues

Recorded May 11, 1927 
Track Time 3:05
Written by Marty Bloom and Walter Melrose
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet; John Thomas, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; Lil Armstrong, piano; Johnny St. Cyr, banjo; Pete Briggs, tuba; Baby Dodds, drums
Originally released on Okeh 8496
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 

[Note: This blog was written on Sunday, September 2, but when I went to upload my audio through Hipcast, nothing showed up. So I gave up and figured I'd try later in the week. Then I received an e-mail saying, "Um, why do you have five links to the audio of 'Melancholy' on your blog?" Oops! So I hope you enjoyed listening to them but here's the words that were supposed to go with it!]

When we last left our hero, he had just made music history with his momentous performance on "Potato Head Blues." That song concluded the quick May 10, 1927 Hot Seven session, but there wouldn't be much time to rest. One day later, the group was brought back to record three more numbers, this time with trombonist John Thomas replacing Honore Dutrey.

Two of the numbers were quite familiar to about half the members of the group as they were recorded at a Johnny Dodds Vocalion session that took place on April 22, just 19 days prior to this session. The first song was "Melancholy," or as it was labeled on Louis's record, "Melancholy Blues." It's pretty much a rip-off of "I Ain't Got Nobody," the Spencer Williams chestnut that was originally published in 1916 and would eventually be recorded in 1929 and 1959 (to read about those versions, here's an old blog I did on the subject).

Why update "I Ain't Got Nobody"? Well, why not, when there's money to be made. Armstrong's record credits the song to Marty Bloom, who had composed another Hot Seven number, "Willie the Weeper," and Walter Melrose, he of the Melrose Brother publishers, the team that worked with Jelly Roll Morton's catalog, and who recently added Louis's name to Morton's composition, "Wild Man Blues" (also recorded by the Hot Seven and the Dodds group in April 1927). A quick Google search shows that some sheet music adds pianist Elmer Schoebel's name to "Melancholy," which makes sense since Schoebel was also part of the Melrose fold, having helped Armstrong on his "50 Hot Choruses" and "125 Jazz Breaks" book projects. (One sheet online also gives a credit to Walter Donaldson, but I'm not so sure I buy that as Donaldson was pretty prolific and Bloom-Melrose-Schoebel were all associates.)

Anyway, Melrose had a new tune so it was time to push it on Chicago's top black jazz artists. Dodds had the first crack at it, surviving in two different takes.  Here's the first go:

Without any introduction, the record begins right as Armstrong hits the first note of the melody. He leads the ensemble through eight bars of the main strain with Dodds sounding prevalent in the mix (it was his record after all!). Dodds then takes the verse, set up by some smears from Roy Palmer's trombone (nice accents by brother Baby Dodds on the drums). Dodds holds his final note which is then picked up--with the exact same vibrato--by Barney Bigard's tenor saxophone. Bigard sticks to crooning the melody pretty much as written before Pops comes in--anticipated by a killer bass drum bomb by Dodds--for the bridge. He also sticks to the melody for a while--remember, he didn't want to play too much like himself on this session because he wasn't supposed to be recording for another label--but he eventually starts playing around a bit towards the end of the bridge, sounding loose and swinging. He catches himself and heads back to the melody for his final eight bars but his closing phrases are so, so relaxed and melodic. 

Armstrong barely has the trumpet out of his mouth when the sound of a piano tremolo tells us that that's none other than Earl "Fatha" Hines at the keyboard. Hines's tremolos are a nice touch but even he sticks pretty closely to the melody; perhaps Melrose was in the studio, telling them he wanted drilled in the public's heads (perhaps forgetting that Spencer Williams had already done that 11 years earlier). Hines does switch it up a bit in the turnarounds; on one of them, he plays an Armstrong lick, something Pops used towards the end of his solo just seconds earlier--trumpet-style piano from top to bottom!

A few "modern" 1920s whole tone-ish chords set up another spot for the leader's clarinet, who improvises a variation on the bridge, sounding a little stiff but still with that identifiable tone. Everyone swoops in for the final eight, Louis leading the way out on top of more fat accents by Dodds. Hope Louis's high note ending didn't give his identify away!

As I mentioned, two takes from the Dodds session survive. Here's number two:

The second take is almost identical to the first except it's a little looser--and sloppier--than the first take, which incidentally, was the issued one. The routine is identical; the differences are in some of the improvisations. Armstrong's solo follows the same pattern but he goes another way at the end, still nice and melodic but not as perfectly constructed as on the issued take (one low note gets a little choked). Hines, on the other, takes more chances, especially with his wild run in the middle of his spot--piano-style piano! Dodds actually eschews more improvising and sticks a little closer to the melody in the final bridge before Louis once again leads everyone up and out.

Dodd's "Melancholy" is a fine record, but I personally don't think it's one for the time capsule. Let's listen to the Hot Seven and see how it compares:

Now that's more like it! The Dodds record almost sounds like a society band in comparison to what the Hot Seven put down. Instead of every soloist repeating the melody for three minutes, the Hot Seven takes chances from the start, letting its leader set the pace.

Instead of opening with the melody, there's a short arranged introduction featuring the three brass instruments before Louis sets out on an exploration of the theme. He takes a full chorus up front, just with rhythm section backing. It's one of those moments where, after listening to the Dodds record, you think, "Oh, now I see why jazz started going in a soloist's direction." Armstrong, as he always did, keeps the melody within ear shot, but really, he's creating his own melody here, playing the written line slightly behind the beat at time, and filling some spaces with quick little flurries of notes. By the second eight, he's already playing variations on it. He handles the bridge in stop-time, tossing in a few double-timed phrases, though he seem to momentarily lose his footing midway through, a slight, unusual stiffness creeping in for a quick second. But he regains his equilibrium in no time to make the most of a repetitive motif before shooting for the stars in his final eight, going for--and hitting--a searing high note more dramatic than anything he played with Dodds. At the end, he seems to have the end of his solo on take 1 of the earlier performance on his mind, but--remembering he's Louis Armstrong, dammit--he shakes things up with an unexpected rip into the upper register, an aural exclamation point to a great solo.

Then it's time to go back to the verse, a hallmark of many 1920s recordings. Louis still takes control with Dodds playing some nice harmonized lines with him. But after a few bars, Louis leaves everyone in the dust with a wild, double-timed run. I don't know if it was planned or if everyone else was too scared to play anything, but clearly Louis was feeling his oats and running away with the thing. Order is restored in the second half of the verse as Armstrong and Dodds continue to play well together. 

John Thomas's first solo with the Hot Seven follows. He ain't bad but he lacks the punch of a Kid Ory or the singing quality of Honore Dutrey. He does have a grasp on the blues and it comes to the forefront in his outing, which earns this record's title of "Melancholy Blues." Actually, Dodds picks up on Thomas's lead and really gets bluesy in his bridge. Interestingly, the bridge is the exact same spot in the tune that he took in April but he sounds more passionate here than he did on his own record. He, too, momentarily battles a little hesitation towards the end, but in all, it's a pretty wailing eight bars. 

For the final rideout section, the ensemble gets together to blow it out, Louis sticking to the melody a little closer, while Baby Dodds's cymbal accents are a nice touch (too bad it seems like he wasn't allowed to bring his bass drum). An arranged ending adds a dash of polish to the proceedings, much like the intro, both possibly products of Lil Hardin Armstrong's mind. 

Louis's "Melancholy Blues" is a terrific record but admittedly, it doesn't seem to get the attention of some of the bigger and better known Hot Seven outings. What to you think about it? As always, I'd love to hear other opinions on the recordings. Next up, though, is a hot one, "Weary Blues." Til then!


Phil said…
Ricky, amazing music, Satch is outstanding, and the quality of the recording is excellent. Maybe it's my new headphones, but I've never heard it better or clearer than this. Like you, I think that the bass-drum could have been used to great effect, too.
Great blog again, informative and entertaining! Thanks.
This music is included on the Gold CD for Voyager 1. Launched on 5th Sept 1977 (35 years, 1 month and 16days ago), it has travelled 121.836AU (1.82264×1010 km; 1.13254×1010 mi).
So now you know! Satchmo is in deepest space!
Richard Basi said…
What else to add other than yes Louis' solo after the stop time section, so from about a minute in is what fries out bacon. Theatre!

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