Monday, 18 January 2010

Louis Armstrong

"Louis Armstrong was probably the greatest musician that ever note implies that if he wanted to he could play ten billion notes, but just one simple note is a beautiful thing." (Flea)

It's been a while since my last post. The main reason for the break is that I have spent a lot of the time researching the early music of Louis Armstrong (definitely pronounced with an s, not Lou-ee.) And quite frankly I have been overwhelmed. I simply had no clue as to the extent of this man's influence, not only over jazz, but over 20th century popular music as a whole. My personal impressions of him were formed when I was growing up. I had an image of the classic Louis Armstrong, the vaudevillian-esque performer with the deep husky voice. I remember the countless commercials/advertisements that have used his later music, including "We have all the time in the world" and "Wonderful World." This was, embarrassingly, the extent of my knowledge of the man and his music.

So it was with some frustration that I first listened to his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. These were Louis Armstrong's first solo recordings made for the Okeh label in Chicago between 1925 and 1929. I say frustration because I cannot believe it has taken me this long to listen to some music that is so clearly iconic. These records clearly illustrate a turning point. They are the link between the old style "dixie" jazz and all other forms of jazz that came after.


This isn't the first time that we have come across Louis Armstrong's work. I first mentioned him in this blog when I looked at the music of his mentor, Joe "King" Oliver. Those recordings of the Creole Jazz Band are clearly in the old classic New Orleans style - each of the main instruments overlapping behind the main melody. Louis Armstrong changed all that. The opening blast of West End Blues (an Oliver composition) announces the new style.

What I found particularly striking about these recordings was how fresh his playing sounds. We are still talking about a fairly primitive period in terms of sound recording and the music has that "crackly" 1920's feel. Yet Armstrong's trumpet playing sounds like it could have been recorded yesterday, such is its clarity. As mentioned there was a lot more emphasis on the soloing ability of the musicians and obvious improvisation (check out Struttin' With Some Barbecue). Potato Head Blues employs a stop time solo which was light years ahead of its time and something that rock musicians later employed - think Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love.

Lonnie Johnson was brought in for some of the recordings. Again, a musician that I have heard of through interviews with BB King and Mark Knopfler but I am ashamedly ignorant of in terms of his music. However his guitar playing jumps out of the tracks I'm Not Rough and Hotter Than That. In the latter song there is a wonderful call and response with Armstrong scatting to Johnson's guitar. The duet with Earl Hines in the song Weather Bird is also superb (although not part of the Hot Five sessions)

It is something of an understatement to say how superb these songs are. Yet it should be noted that the Hot Five and Hot Seven line-ups never performed live. The sessions were fairly informal in nature (as evidenced in the track A Monday Date) However, the influence the music was to have over the future of jazz is, in my opinion, obvious.

Click here for a great documentary from NPR regarding Louis Armstrong's early career.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Chicago & 1920's Jazz

“There was this club, too, that we played at, the Twenty-Five Club. That was about 1912, 1913; and all the time we played there, people were talking about Freddie Keppard. Freddie, he had left New Orleans with his band and he was traveling all over the country playing towns on the Orpheum Circuit. At the time, you know, that was something new and Freddie kept sending back all these clippings from what all the newspapermen and the critics and all was writing up about him, about his music, about his band. And all these clippings were asking the same thing: where did it come from? It seems like everyone along the circuit was coming up to Freddie to ask about this ragtime. Especially when his show, the Original Creole Band, got to the Winter Gardens in New York...that was the time they was asking about it the most. Where did it come from? And back at the Twenty-Five these friends of Freddie's kept coming around and showing these clippings, wanting to know what it was all about. It was a new thing then.” (Sidney Bechet)

A number of events culminated in the space of a few years that helped to shape the direction of the music. Moves were made to close Storyville when the U.S. entered World War 1 in 1917. The Great Migration saw the movement of a million or so to the west coast and into larger northern cities, in particular Chicago. Finally the "Noble Experiment" of Prohibition ushered in the era of the jazz age in the 1920s. Enter the age of illicit liqour, speakeasies and the gangster. Jazz music was to provide the soundtrack for this drama. Moving the music away from its home had an effect on the style. This is where improvisation came to the fore - perhaps, it has been suggested, because the musicians felt more comfortable experimenting with the music in front of people with untrained ears.

The Lincoln Gardens, or The Royal Gardens, became a place synonomous with the music. It was here that Bill Johnson (who had earlier summoned Freddie Keppard to the west coast) established the Original Creole Band, that later became King Oliver's band. With this came the arrival of Louis Armstrong to Chicago and Bix Biederbecke shortly after. With the opening of the first commercial radio station in 1920 and the increased popularity of vinyl records, jazz music was about to go viral across the country,

Calling His Children Home

A nice article about Buddy Bolden and the Funky Butt Hall in Storyville in New Orleans.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Bunk Johnson

Another early pioneer of the early jazz form was Geary "Bunk" Johnson. Known for bending the truth more than a little but he could also claim to have played with Buddy Bolden

Here's a great version of an old classic, See See Rider