“What we play is life. You blows what you is” – Louis Armstrong
While Louis Armstrong wasn’t the first jazz musician, he is considered the father of us all musically. Like Charlie Parker, his importance to the music — to all music — cannot be overstated. He is one of the few people who changed the music forever, and he was the first true soloist in jazz.
Prior to Armstrong, who hit the scene in New Orleans in as a teenager in the early 1900s, jazz was predominantly a group exercise. The band played the melody of the tune basically as it was written and then the whole group improvised at the same time, before playing the melody again to end the song.
Armstrong’s bands followed this recipe to some extent, but he was clearly the main soloist, often playing by himself or with just the rhythm section, which was unheard of in the day. The older musicians thought he took too many liberties with the melodies, but Armstrong was undeterred. Early on he became the virtuoso on the trumpet, with no peers as far as range, broadness of tone and rhythmic complexity was concerned.
He was also a true entertainer, and loved being in front of an audience. He quickly won fans in New Orleans, including bandleader Kid Ory, who took Armstrong on tour with him when he was just 19. They toured up the Mississippi River from New Orleans all the way to Chicago, spreading their new style of jazz music all the way. Each town they played was influenced by the band, and all the musicians started copying what Kid Ory and Armstrong were doing.
Armstrong started leading his own bands, called the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, and made much of his best music in his 20s. Today’s song comes from this period. Called “West End Blues,” it features perhaps the most famous 12 seconds in all of jazz. It’s the very opening of the song, which Armstrong plays by himself, called a cadenza. Listening to it today, it’s hard to understand the impact that this 12 seconds had, but it really is the moment that the soloist became king in jazz, and Armstrong is the king of the soloist.
Trumpet players — and all jazz musicians — are still trying to emulate Armstrong’s power, attitude, buoyancy, and joy, not to mention is rhythmic sensibilities, which even today are astounding. They way he stretches and bends the time in the cadenza, playing eighth notes, 16th notes, triplets and some rhythms that just can’t be pinned down is something we’re all still dealing with. He also plays a wonderful solo toward the end of the piece and does some “scat” singing, which was something he helped bring to prominence as well.
Here’s the tune. Three minutes of heaven!
It features Armstrong on trumpet and vocals, Fred Robinson on trombone, Jimmy Strong on clarinet, Earl Hines on piano, Mancy Cara on banjo and Zutty Singleton on drums.
Armstrong went on to lead bands and tour the world, make movies and live the life of a star entertainer. He had many huge hits, including “Hello Dolly,” “What A Wonderful World,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and others. But to me, none of those recordings had the depth of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, which I still listen to almost daily.
Tomorrow we’ll talk about one of the great vocalist in jazz, Billie Holiday.
Jason Parker is a Seattle-based jazz trumpet player, educator and writer. His band, The Jason Parker Quartet, was hailed by Earshot Jazz as “the next generation of Seattle jazz.” Find out more about Jason and his music at jasonparkermusic.com.