Outstanding music by a monumental musician recorded almost 100 years ago, and therein might lie a problem. Musical knowledge during those years – some of it learned, much assimilated – is immeasurable, which makes it impossible for today’s listeners to imagine the astonishing impact Louis Armstrong made upon the world of music in the 1920s. This was when he began to reshape popular music, his influence so comprehensive it is sometimes hard for jazz fans to comprehend how many people today can be unaware of Armstrong’s importance, are perhaps aware of him only through Hello, Dolly and What A Wonderful World, and that there are even those who do not recognise his name.
Not that any of the foregoing has any business being addressed in a review of this latest release of Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings, especially so under the Jazz Journal banner. That said, it is perhaps desirable for today’s listeners – including jazz fans – to attempt the impossible and try hearing this music as it must have sounded to those who heard it at the time of its creation. In those days it was not only fans of the (at the time little-known) musical genre whose views were abruptly and thoroughly altered, but also other musicians. Indeed, in the years that followed fellow musicians, instrumentalists and composers recognised the true worth of what Armstrong was doing, adjusted their approach, and continued the changes he had begun.
After emerging from New Orleans to star with King Oliver in Chicago, Armstrong spent some time in New York before his new wife, Lil Hardin, persuaded him to return to the Windy City and appear with her band where he was billed as the “World’s Greatest Trumpeter”. This was in 1925 and while his billing might well have been a publicist’s whim, when in that same year he made the first of the Hot Five records, it was quickly apparent that it was no exaggeration.
Over the course of the next few years he made not only the records assembled here (most of these 100 sides are by the Hot 5 and Hot 7), but also recorded with Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey and other blues singers, while concurrently working with Hardin’s band as well as those of Carroll Dickerson and Erskine Tate (heard here on two tracks each). Despite this intense activity, there is never any indication that he was working too hard or playing too much. His power and instrumental command are constantly on display and so too is his outstanding ability to improvise solos that are filled not only with skill but also intelligence, ingenuity and wit.
It borders on pointlessness to pick out individual titles – every three-minute slice contains moments of musical magic – but mention must be made of West End Blues, one of the best pieces of recorded music regardless of genre. Also, there are Weather Bird, Butter And Egg Man, Knockin’ A Jug, and Heebie Jeebies. On that last song, reputedly dropping the sheet on which the lyrics were written, he promptly invented scat singing. A myth, or did that really happen? With this man anything was possible.
Among other classic versions heard here are Sweethearts On Parade, Weary Blues, Struttin’ With Some Barbecue, A Monday Date and Weather Bird. On those last two titles, Armstrong duets with Earl Hines, an ideal collaborator, as indeed are others heard here, especially Johnny Dodds. The vocals by Lillie Delk Christian (eight) and Hociel Thomas (six) are perhaps less than engaging but Armstrong’s backing and soloing more than compensate.
As for the man himself, there are no weak moments in the almost five hours of music presented here and throughout evidence abounds that this is a man who changed for the better not only music but also the minds of millions. Note that there have been similar releases, so prospective buyers should check against albums already owned.
Accompanying the discs is a 24-page booklet containing full personnel data, a good comprehensive note by Matias Rinar, excerpts from interviews with Armstrong and Hines, many photographs and contemporary publicity material, as well as a January 1927 letter from OKeh Records stating that Armstrong would thereafter receive $150 per “accepted selection” and that he was prohibited from recording for another company or even as “a part of any other musical unit”. Was it just business as usual for the number crunchers, or were they prescient?
Returning to the opening words of this review, this is outstanding music by the greatest originator of jazz captured in his incomparable prime.
CD1: Gut Bucket Blues; My Heart; Yes! I’m In A Barrel; Come Back, Sweet Papa; Georgia Grind; Heebie Jeebies; Cornet Chop Suey; Oriental Strut; You’re Next; Muskrat Ramble; Don’t Forget To Mess Around; I’m Gonna Gitcha; Droppin’ Shucks; Who’sit; King Of The Zulus; Big Fat Ma And Skinny Pa; Lonesome Blues; Sweet Little Papa; Jazz Lips; Skid-Dat-De-Dat; Big Butter And Egg Man; Sunset Café Stomp; You Made Me Love You; Irish Black Bottom; Put ’Em Down Blues; Ory’s Creole Trombone; The Last Time (79.13)
CD2: Struttin’ With Some Barbecue; Got No Blues; Once In A While; I’m Not Rough; Hotter Than That; Savoy Blues; Georgia Bo Bo; Drop That Sack; Drop That Sack (alt); Willie The Weeper; Wild Man Blues; Alligator Crawl; Potato Head Blues; Melancholy; Weary Blues; Twelfth Street Rag; Keyhole Blues; S.O.L. Blues; Gully Low Blues; That’s When I’ll Come Back To You; Chicago Breakdown; Weary Blues; New Orleans Stomp; Wild Man Blues; Wild Man Blues (alt) (78.12)
CD3: Melancholy; Melancholy (alt); Fireworks; Skip The Gutter; A Monday Date; Don’t Jive Me; West End Blues; Sugar Foot Strut; Two Deuces; Squeeze Me; Knee Drops; No (Papa, No); Basin Street Blues; No One Else But You; Beau Koo Jack; Save It, Pretty Mama; Muggles; Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya; St. James Infirmary; Tight Like This; Weather Bird; Symphonic Raps; Savoyagers Stomp; Mahogany Hall Stomp (77.15)
CD4: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love; I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (alt); Knockin’ A Jug; Gambler’s Dream; Sunshine Baby; Adam And Eve Had The Blues; Put It Where I Can Get It; Wash Woman Blues; I’ve Stopped My Man; Static Strut; Stomp Off, Let’s Go; He Likes It Slow; Easy Come Easy Go Blues; The Blues Stampede; I’m Goin’ Huntin’; If You Wanna Be My Sugar Papa; You’re A Real Sweetheart; Too Busy; Was It A Dream?; Last Night I Dreamed You Kissed Me; I Can’t Give You Anything But Love; Baby; Sweethearts On Parade; I Must Have That Man; Funny Feathers; How Do You Do It That Way? (79.19)
Armstrong (c, t, v) with collectively Kid Ory, J.C. Higginbotham (tb); Johnny Dodds (cl); Barney Bigard (ts); Lil Hardin Armstrong, Earl Hines (p); Johnny St. Cyr, Mancy Carr (bj); Pete Briggs (tu); Warren “Baby” Dodds, Zutty Singleton (d); and others. Chicago and New York, 1925-1929.
American Jazz Classics 99150