90 Years of Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five!

The Hot Five.

What more needs to be said? The most influential recordings in jazz history were made under that moniker, guided by fearless leader Louis Armstrong. They've been celebrated, analyzed, transcribed, issued, reissued, scrutinized and just plain enjoyed since the minute they were recorded....90 years ago today.

When I knew the 90th anniversary was approaching, I toyed with writing "the blog to end all blogs" on the entire Hot Five series but a funny thing happened along the way: my wife gave birth to our third daughter, Lily Rose Riccardi (you can call her Miss Lil), on November 3 so the weeks leading up to the birth and the days since have been filled with just about everything you can think of except time to write blogs. Also, Gene Anderson did a wonderful job in covering these sessions with his book The Original Hot Five Recordings of Louis Armstrong and I urge readers looking for deeper analysis of the 1925-27 recordings (as well as a boatload of transcriptions) to Anderson's work.

But it's such a big anniversary, I just had to write something so I'm focusing on the three songs that kicked off the series on November 12, 1925: "My Heart," "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" and "Gut Bucket Blues."

But first--how the hell did the Hot Five even come about? Multiple people claimed credit so we'll probably never know exactly how it went down but for my money, I give most of the credit to Elmer "E.A." Fearn of the Consolidated Talking Machine Company, who supervised many of OKeh Records's Chicago "race record" sessions. OKeh had a massive hit in 1920 with Mamie Smith's "Crazy Blues" and Fearn was eager to help OKeh make more such recordings. The April 15, 1921 issue of Talking Machine World reported, "E. A. Fern [sic], president of the Consolidated Talking Machine Co., states that the demand for OKeh records has increased considerably during the past few months, and he has found it impossible to secure  sufficient stock of Mamie Smith records to keep pace with the requirements of the dealers."

Fearn continued overseeing OKeh recordings of blues and jazz music in Chicago, including King Oliver's recordings with young Louis in 1923. Hot Fives banjoist Johnny St. Cyr later remembered, "Having recorded on numerous occasions with King Oliver for the OKeh label, Louis became well known to Mr. Fern [sic] who was the recording engineer for that company at the time." Even though Louis wasn't exactly in the spotlight on the Oliver recordings, Fearn must have liked what he heard (especially on sides like "Tears") and probably enjoyed working with the young cornetist.

Armstrong then spent a year in New York from October 1924 to the beginning of November 1925, performing with Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra regularly but also becoming a first call cornetist on scores of small group blues and jazz sides OKeh recorded in this period, including those with Bessie Smith, Clarence Williams and more. This is where Ralph Peer enters the picture. Peer was OKeh's director of production and the man who really shaped OKeh's direction after the success of "Crazy Blues." Peer recalled Armstrong's wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, contacting him and saying, "Louis has an offer to go to New York. Could you give us recording work there?" Peer remembered, "Whenever we needed a New York trumpet player our first choice would be Louis Armstrong."

But by November 1925, Louis was no longer happy in New York. Lil, who really deserves full credit as the architect of Louis's early success in the 1920s, told her husband to leave Henderson and come back to Chicago, where Louis could join her band. Louis was happy to do this, though probably embarrassed by Lil billing him as the "World's Greatest Jazz Cornetist," as seen in this November 21, 1925 ad from the Chicago Defender (poor Lil, though, is billed as "Lil Stewart," someone probably getting her mixed up with bandleader Sammy Stewart).

According to Peer, Lil told him that Louis was going back to Chicago and Peer responded, "Well, now if he goes back to Chicago, I will do this for you. We will create an Armstrong orchestra so that we can give you some work." At this point, Peer probably contacted Fearn in Chicago, who took it from there, along with pianist-composer Richard M. Jones, who was OKeh's Race Division manager in Chicago since 1923. In fact, Ory gave Jones the credit for starting the Hot Five but according to Gene Anderson, Jones couldn't have negotiated with OKeh on his own so it would have been Fearn who officially signed up the group.

This is supported by Louis himself, who said in 1951, "The minute Mr. Fern (the President of the OKeh Company) gave me the go sign, I hit the phone and called the Musician's Union, and asked permission to hire Edward "Kid" Ory, Johnny St. Cyr and Johnny Dodds." Armstrong always referred to Fearn as "The President of the OKeh Company," which he wasn't, but it's indicative of how important Armstrong viewed him.

With the pieces in place, Armstrong was able to hire his own dream band. Naturally, Lil would man the piano chair but for the rest of the group, Armstrong dug back to his New Orleans roots. After King Oliver left New Orleans for Chicago, Armstrong was hired to play cornet in trombonist Kid Ory's band, alongside Johnny Dodds on clarinet and St. Cyr on banjo. And now, with the Hot Five, Armstrong, Ory, Dodds and St. Cyr would be reunited to give listeners a little taste of what it must have sounded like in New Orleans circa 1920. I think it's a beautiful example of Armstrong not forgetting his roots. In fact, Ory was living in California at the time of Armstrong's offer and moved to Chicago to have the opportunity to record with his old friend. "He said we'd both make some money, so I decided to give up my own band, go back East to Chicago," Ory recalled in 1950. "That was the end of 1925. I thought the world of Louis, so I was glad to go with him."

On November 2, Armstrong blew out the lights on two numbers led by Perry Bradford in New York. The title of the second number was appropriate: "I Ain't Gonna Play No Second Fiddle (if I Can't Play the Lead)." A few days later, Louis landed in Chicago and joined Lil's band at the Dreamland. Fearn immediately made sure Armstrong was comfortable in his OKeh studio, recording accompaniment behind Bertha "Chippie" Hill and Blanche Calloway (two sides apiece) on November 9. On November 11, Louis was back to record with singer Hociel Thomas, but this time he was accompanied by his "Jazz Four," with Thomas's brother Hersal on piano, along with Johnny Dodds and Johnny St. Cyr, ready for their Hot Five debut.

Finally, on November 12, Louis finally got the opportunity to record as a leader for the very first time. It can't be stated enough that the music of the Hot Fives (and temporary Hot Sevens) went on to change the sound of jazz (and American popular music in general) but most commentators write off the fruits of the first session, Gunther Schuller, for one, dismissing them because they provided "no earthshaking jazz." This might be true but I still think first three sides recorded on that November 12 provided fascinating insights into the band.

For one thing, there's always the "legend" of the Hot Fives that most of the tunes were made up in the studio, named on the spot, five musicians just having some loose fun. This has led many to assume the Hot Five numbers were more or less studio jam sessions but the very first two Hot Five songs recorded dispel that notion. This was Louis Armstrong's first session as a leader and he and Lil made damn sure they'd be prepared, aided by the knowledge that they'd get an extra $50 for recording their own compositions.

The very first Hot Five number recorded was a composition by Lil titled "My Heart." Interestingly, Hardin had originally composed it in 1920 as "My Heart Will Lead Me Back to You" and wrote it as a waltz! I'm still surprised that some dedicated Armstrong interpreter hasn't given "My Heart" a waltz treatment to see what it could have originally sounded like. (At least, I don't think this has happened.) Lil wasn't from New Orleans and had never met Kid Ory before so this would be a new tune for the band to tackle. As Ory remembered, "Often we didn't know the tunes when we got to the studio; one of us would suggest a melody, we'd run through it once and then we'd record it. We never used any kind of arrangement. All we needed was a lead sheet and everybody would figure out his own part."

After figuring out the arrangement, Mr. Fearn turned the Hot Five loose and this was the result:

It might not be "earthshaking jazz" but "My Heart" sure is a swinging little number. The introduction alone shows that this was not some impromptu studio jam session, with Armstrong, Ory and Dodds sharing a two-bar arranged passage. After that, they're off and running in the best New Orleans polyphonic style, Louis playing the melody, Johnny Dodds playing circles around him and Ory's tailgate trombone almost acting like a tuba or bass, while all the while St. Cyr and Lil pound out the chords, four beats to the bar.

At the end of the first 32-bar chorus, a turbocharged Dodds plays a flurry of notes that seem to act as a springboard to propel Louis into his first Hot Five break, a swinging little line that contains the germ of a phrase he'd play in 1927 on "Potato Head Blues." From there, they play a 16-bar verse, this time with Ory taking a jaunty break in the middle. 

So we're almost through half the record and we've had an arranged opening, a 32-bar chorus, a 16-bar verse and two prepared breaks. These guys (and gal) and have this stuff down tight, all the more impressive since they most likely hadn't seen the song since shortly before they recorded.

To continue varying up the sound, Dodds steps forward with a low-register clarinet solo backed by a stop-time "Charleston" rhythm. Midway through the chorus, Dodds takes a break and then Lil takes over, pounding away with an exuberant two-fisted attack with some very nice left hand work. At the end of her chorus, Armstrong and Ory split a break, Pops playing a two-note rip upward and Ory marching down the stairs in his best tailgate fashion. 

At that point, it's back to the ensemble, Armstrong's lead growing more exciting as he takes more liberties with Lil's melody, finally going to the upper register after Ory's break in the middle of the chorus. Finally, with 19 seconds left in the record, the band falls into stop-time mode and lets Louis loose for some bluesy breaks. They swing out towards the finish line, topped off by a short coda that prefigures the stop-time ending to "Cornet Chop Suey."

Wow, what to make out of all this? If you're listening to the Hot Fives with your scorecard out, ready to just yell and clap every time Louis hits a home run, you're bound to be a little disappointed by "My Heart." But again, that's what I find so interesting about this record: it's Louis's first record ever as leader and he's so happy to be with his homeboys again, he makes sure to feature them over himself, with Ory getting multiple breaks and Dodds splitting that chorus with Lil. There's no ego here at all. As Louis told the Voice of America in 1956, "I didn't just take the band over to be a big shot or nothing like that. We just played music the same as we did in New Orleans."

There's also the choice of tune, a 32-bar pop tune by Lil, complete with verse. This is no New Orleans "ragtime" specialty. And think of the time they put into crafting the routine from the opening arranged passage to the closing coda to all the breaks in between. They put a lot of effort into this record and it shows, though it's over in a flash, lasting just two minutes and 24 seconds.

Johnny St. Cyr later talked about the recording limits and added some neat imagery to the making of this music: "At that time we were only allowed two minutes and forty five seconds per record. Three minutes was the longest but that was only for special arrangements and that was a special privilege allowed staff artists. All bands that were not staff artists had to stick to the two minute and forty five seconds limit. If the number ran over time the engineer would have to cut out a chorus or two to reduce the recording to the allotted time. We could not play at ease as the musicians do now as we had no microphones then, and we had to play into a horn which was attached to the recording machine. There were several of them, one to the piano, one to the reeds, and one to the brass, and one to the banjo. I would be sitting on a small ladder, or on several packing cases stacked on top of one another. Boy! We did it the hard way but it was fun. Johnny Dodds could not play real hot without patting his foot so Mr. Fern got a pillow and put it under Johnny's right foot which was the one he used when he got hot. They really got a kick out of that."

With one number out of the way, it was time for another. Once again, Louis and Lil were allowed to record whatever they wanted and it was more lucrative to record original compositions, which Louis had been stockpiling since Lil told him to start writing more pieces after they began dating in 1923. "I used to sit on the backsteps and write half a dozen numbers and go down and sell them for about $10 apiece so we could cabaret that night, not thinking about today, you could have been getting royalties and things. They just buy 'em all and they don't know what to do with them themselves. They were just unpublished numbers."

For the second number on the November 12 session, Louis reached into his bag and pulled out a composition he registered with the Library of Congress on December 8, 1923, when he was still in the Oliver band. Back then, Armstrong copyrighted it as "I Am in the Barrel, Who Don't Like It?" For the Hot Five version, he modified it to "Yes! I'm in the Barrel," but the meaning was the same, as he wrote in Esquire in 1951, "Whenever one of those gambling guys would get busted in a gambling game . . . they would pawn their best clothes to pay off their gambling debts. Quite naturally they would have to go back to their raggedy clothes until they got lucky and get the good ones out of pawn again. So that's why we used the expression, 'Yes! I'm in the barrel.' Yes, I too was in the barrel lots of times."

Like "My Heart, "Yes, I'm in the Barrel" has a fairly intricate routine. After rehearsing it a bit, here's how it came out:

If you're familiar with the better known 1926 Hot Five number, "King of the Zulus," the opening of "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" should sound a little familiar as it features an almost identical D-minor vamp. Now Louis wants the spotlight so he takes off with an exciting muted flight, sounding great, as he always did in a minor key. He starts low, takes his time and gradually builds to a high A before showing off some of his fast-fingered stuff. Armstrong often played muted in his sideman recordings in New York but he didn't seem to like it. You can almost hear his relief when he puts it down and starts playing the lead with open horn.

Armstrong leads the group through the 20-bar main strain in F before again going back to the verse, a common practice in that era. Like the intro, the verse is in D-minor, though it resolves in major. Like "My Heart," the ensemble playing is top notch throughout but once again, Louis cedes the spotlight to Dodds. Instead of following the form of the written tune, Dodds stretches out for two choruses of 12-bar-blues, his specialty (you can imagine him driving his foot into that cushion). Listen to Lil back there, really backing him up nicely with some animated playing.

Armstrong gets back to the leads and leads the group home through the final chorus of the written tune, allowing Ory to take a short break in the middle. Like "My Heart," Louis reserves a couple of short breaks for himself before a chromatic flurry leads to the somewhat abrupt ending at the 2:36 mark, the band making sure to not hit the 2:45 limit mentioned by St. Cyr.

Once again, "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" might not have changed the world but I'm more interested in though process of choosing this somewhat atypical tune, teaching it to the group, coming up with the minor vamp introduction, allowing Dodds to just play the blues, etc. All of that shows a band serious about adhering to a tight routine on record, once again not simply content to just pass around a string of solos or just play ensemble-breaks-ensemble-breaks like other New Orleans records of the period.

With those two numbers out of the way, Louis and Lil were probably happy but there was still time left and Mr. Fearn had a suggestion: a blues. This makes perfect sense, knowing how OKeh had made its reputation with the blues. Louis, too, had appeared as a sideman on countless OKeh blues sessions while in New York but now, he might have been a little sick of them. According to St. Cyr, Fearn asked Louis to do a blues and Louis responded, "Man, we have so many blues and they all sound mostly alike!" Again, fascinating insight into Armstrong's thought process. You can see by the choice of "My Heart" and "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" that Louis liked played tunes with melodies and main strains and verses and tight routines. He wasn't in the mood to just jam the blues, even though he was a brilliant blues player. Later critics said that Louis was really "at home" playing the blues with his New Orleans friends in the Hot Five, but I think he was so well-rounded musically, he naturally gravitated towards the pop songs and "commercial numbers" that he was performing nightly with Lil's band and soon with Erskine Tate's band (as well as all the types of recordings he made after the Hot Five period).

Still, if Fearn wanted a blues, Armstrong was going to give him one but also a little something extra: PERSONALITY.

By the time he headed back to Chicago towards the end of 1925, he had appeared on almost 70 recording dates. And out of all 70, his voice had only appeared one time, barking out a few seconds of encouragement at the end of Henderson's record of "Everybody Loves My Baby."

Armstrong was always quick to point out that singing was his "first hustle." He loved to sing but was discouraged from doing it during his tenure with Henderson, who felt that Armstrong's gruff voice and exuberant style was too unpolished for his primarily white audiences. Regarding Henderson, Armstrong complained about his lack of singing in that band, saying in 1960 that Henderson had "a million-dollar talent in his band and never though to let me sing." But now, Armstrong was a leader on records for the first time and he could change that.

Johnny St. Cyr offered to start off with a banjo solo, an idea Armstrong liked. Then Armstrong, whose voice had been silenced on the hundreds of records he had made to this point, decided to make his personality immediately known by shouting encouragement to each member of the group during their solos. That's one of the reasons I've always loved this record; it's as if Armstrong could not possibly wait another session longer without letting his personality and natural ability as an entertainer shine though. "Oh, play that thing, Mr. St. Cyr, lord. You know you can do it. Everybody from New Orleans could do it. Hey, hey!" It's a blast. No wonder it was chosen as the first Hot Five to be released...listen for yourself:

Besides Armstrong's exhortations to the other members of the band, "Gut Bucket Blues" contains some fine playing, too. Armstrong's lead in the opening chorus is dynamite, for one. Jack Teagarden would often borrow Kid Ory's opening trombone phrase. Dodds "toots that clarinet, boy" at his uniquely bluesy best. Pops makes a great cheerleader but who would step up to cheer him on? As the story goes, when the originally attempted to record it, Johnny Dodds was supposed to do it but when the time came, he suffered from a severe case of mike fright. Here's Armstrong in 1956 recounting what happened:

[Note for the obsessees out there: for his Musical Autobiography set from the late 50s, Armstrong told this story but during an introduction for "Gully Low Blues." That was a lapse of memory since he clearly meant "Gut Bucket."]

Once Dodds bombed, Kid Ory volunteered to step in, doing a great job in the end with his reference to Pops as "Papa Dip." As for Armstrong's one-chorus solo, it's pretty perfect. No fireworks, no flights of fancy, no high notes, just one chorus of pure blues storytelling. Every phrase is so logical, it almost seems composed...

...and that's because it kind of is. Earlier in the year, Armstrong performed on a Bessie Smith record, "Cold in Hand Blues." He took a solo on it and this is how it came out:

Flash forward to his "Gut Bucket" solo:

Sound familiar? They're virtually identical. Before you jump on me, I said virtually...Pops is muted on the Smith record, the tempo is slower and some of the improvisations in between the main phrases are different. But overall, it's proof that even at 24-years-old, Armstrong already had a "bag" of licks and set solos. He had been playing professionally for years and had performed so many blues pieces that he was already getting tired of the genre. Wouldn't it make sense that he honed a few of those choruses to perfection over the years? Louis Armstrong was a genius at improvising, but jazz is much more than just improvising. Armstrong also worked hard on his solos until the point where he got them just right. This was something he got killed for in his later years, but I think it was something that was part of his style from his earliest days as a musicians. And again, this is his record, so why not lead with a pet solo he knew worked?

After Pops's solo, there's a terrific outchorus of riffing, which I've always heard as a kind of forbearer to the riffs at the end of "Savoy Blues." It's a great little chorus and Pops puts a perfect tag on it, starting with a neat rip up to a high note. It was a great record, but it still needed a title. Here's how banjoist Johnny St. Cyr told it:

"So we made a short rehearsal and cut the number. When Mr. Fern [sic] asked, 'What shall we name it?,' Louis thought for a while and then said 'Call it "The Gutbucket."' Louis could not explain the meaning of the name. He said it just came to him. But I will explain it. In the fish markets in New Orleans the fish cleaners keep a large bucket under the table where they clean the fish, and as they do this they rake the guts in this bucket. Thence 'The Gut Bucket,' which makes it a low down blues."

Fearn knew he had a winner: "Gut Bucket Blues" would be the one to lead off the Hot Five series, rushed into release in December 1925, with "Yes! I'm in the Barrel" as the flip side. Here's how it was advertised in the Chicago Defender in January 1926:

And here is the original 78 label, as found at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (and one that will be on display at the Armstrong House in an exhibit I'm preparing for the 90th anniversary of this release that will debut in mid-December):

The result was a hit and in February, Armstrong would be called back to record seven more sides: "Come Back Sweet Papa," "Georgia Grind," "Cornet Chop Suey," "Heebie Jeebies," "Oriental Strut," "You're Next" and "Muskrat Ramble." The results exploded and that was that. [cue dramatic voice] Nothing would ever be the same.

The Hot Fives and Sevens have celebrated and dissected so much but their reissue history is problematic, as I detailed in a previous post, So You Wanna Buy the Hot Fives and Sevens? This is something that might change in the future if I have my way--wish me luck! But no matter the sound quality, all you have to do is listen to a few minutes of the Hot Five in action to know you're listening to New Orleans jazz--and American music--at its finest, something to celebrate today on the 90th anniversary of that first session, as well as any and every day music continues to be heard and played.


Unknown said…
Fantastic article!! Thanks Ricky
Dan said…
Maceo Pinkard, who wrote "Them There Eyes" in 1930, had to have known this recording of "My Heart"--the second 32 bars contains two statements of its opening--once at the beginning and then again at the start of the second eight.

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