I wouldn’t have missed the St. Louis Blues sung out on that trumpet for anything. Something shone from that man, a rare thing, real joy. It is becoming exceedingly rare among artists of any kind. And I have an idea that those who can and do communicate it are always people who have had a hard time. Then the joy has no smugness or self-righteousness in it, is inclusive not exclusive, and comes close to prayer.
Genius is the transfiguring agent.
At first it’s simple verve that gets you; the mad, rattling energy of it all. Despite this music being over eighty years old, and in some senses extremely archaic (tubas? banjos?), the sheer visceral power of this polyrhythmic, polyphonic stew is immediately palpable. It sounds raw, and not a little licentious. It makes you want to bop your head and your knees soon follow suit. This is good stuff, you think: straight out of the New Orleans’ gutter – by way of Chicago and New York – for your dancing pleasure. For a while you struggle to pick out Louis in amongst the sonic jungle. Is that Louis? Oh, that’s a trombone. For a while you also struggle to tell one track from the other. Then your ears adjust and you start to notice little things. A great solo by Louis here, some dirty lyrics sung by his then wife Lil there, a strangely hypnotic slither of clarinet that you didn’t pick up on first time around. Soon Louis’ tone is unmistakable; it jumps out at you instantly. You begin to see how the music is changing. What at first you thought was simple and similar is quickly revealed to be no such thing. There’s a real diversity to this material not initially apparent. They do rags, blues, show tunes, novelty numbers, and the form these songs take and style they inhabit is rapidly changing. What begins in fine New Orleans polyphonic style, with its ragtime derived rhythms and its busy front lines, has, over the space of four discs and as many years, evolved into something much closer – surprisingly close – to our modern conception of jazz as a vehicle for extended solo improvisation. By the time you have reached such masterpieces as ‘Wild Man Blues’, ‘Potato Head Blues’, and ‘Tight Like That’ Louis’ solos have become so intense you are reduced to a near catatonic state of astonishment and are having to concentrate seriously on not dribbling. So solidly has that trumpet gripped you by now, so deeply has that sound entered you, that you think you could recognise that high, keening, golden tone in a roomful of drunken trumpet players. You could recognise it underwater, for that matter, or in a thunderstorm because, frankly, you can’t get it out of your head. It haunts your waking life: melodies and snatches of Louis’ solos come to you in the kitchen; when you lay down to sleep at night they follow you into your dreams.
Listening to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens is a revelatory experience. I fell for them as one does a first love: heavily, helplessly, obsessively. I listen to a lot of music, yet only rarely does something come along that I can label -without a hint of irony or exaggeration – life changing. This was just such a moment. I couldn’t stop listening to them, and when I listened to them I wondered why I bothered listening to anything else. When I did listen to something else it all seemed different, so forcefully had the experience of this music altered my perception of not just jazz, but music as a whole. For it is one thing to enjoy new music, it is quite another to discover something whose fundamental importance to history seems as immediately – and powerfully – apparent as its very greatness. Listening to the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens you are bowled over not just by the fact that the astonishing power and beauty of this music has remained undimmed throughout the years, but also by the fact that you are listening to something whose cultural and historical value simply cannot be overstated. It is one thing to fall in love with a new artist, it is quite another to fall for something whose genius reaches out and grabs you in a way that you are powerless to resist or deny. To discover Louis is like discovering a Shakespeare, or a Mozart. This music has changed everything for me. Nothing can ever be the same after Armstrong.
I realise in this I’m hardly alone, or original. These recordings have been captivating and entrancing generations of listeners since they were first issued in the mid-to-late twenties. They are, after all, amongst a handful of the most famous recordings in jazz history – I was already well aware of their lauded status. And don’t get me wrong: I already loved listening to jazz. I love everything about jazz, from the names of the performers (does anyone in rock have a name as evocative as Thelonious Monk? Or Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis?), to the kinds of smoky, noir-esque imagery that often comes wrapped around the music. I even adore the word, jazz, a word that, to me, conveys a sense of unspoken hipness and inherent freedom that other labels such as rock and pop cannot hope to match. I used to consider myself something of a minor buff in the field too, having listened to various strains of jazz most of my adult life. It has never been my speciality, but I adored the stuff and knew enough to get by (or at least so I thought). I first started listening to jazz in my early twenties. Like most fans who approach the idiom from a background in popular music, I gravitated towards the big names in post-war jazz such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman, because these are the names you tend to see mentioned in connection with their influence on rock and pop. Despite finding the new language of jazz baffling at first, I was sufficiently intrigued by the strange sounds and atmospheres I was encountering to persevere, and eventually I grew to love the devotional white-heat of Coltrane, the molten electronic soundscapes of later Miles, and the wild ‘Ellington on acid’ big-band of Charles Mingus. Although this kind of jazz shared in its expressionistic intensity something with the amplified sense impressions at the more improvisatory end of rock, its complexity and instantaneous ethos meant it was able to convey sensations that were unique to its form. Jazz was loose yet tight; free yet disciplined. It was undeniably hip; rooted in the black experience, yet displaying an almost existential sense of affirmation – there’s nothing more NOW than jazz. My brother is only half-joking when he says listening to jazz makes you instantly ten percent cooler. I began to pick up records here and there, and had my periodic jazz binges. I especially liked the Jazz singers, and soon made it a ritual of mine to play Ella, Lady Day, and the divine Sarah on Sunday mornings.
Yet in over a decade of listening I had, I find I’m now ashamed to say, never listened to Louis Armstrong. A passing comment by my brother changed all that. He had been listening to a series of Blue Note albums from the 1960s and said that in his humble opinion the sixities was the best overall decade for jazz. That got me to thinking. I could see why he would say such a thing – by the 1960s jazz had diversified into several, competing and cross-fertilising streams: there were the remnants of Dixieland and swing; there was post-bop, hard-bop, and cool-jazz; there was “the new thing”; plus the cross-fertilisation between rock and jazz instigated at the end of the decade by Miles Davis’s series of electric recordings. There was a whole host of extremely interesting albums by many great figures in all these idioms. It was this very multiplicity of styles, in fact, that led Duke Ellington to ponder, “how such great extremes as now exist can be contained under one heading.” The sixties, then, cannot be faulted for its depth of diversity. Yet such a bold claim also troubled me by its sweeping nature. Was the sixties really the best decade for jazz? How could he tell? I couldn’t, I suddenly realised, because my knowledge of jazz only went so far. Thinking about my brother’s comment and about the kinds of jazz he and I listened to made me realise how partial our view of the music was when looked at in the cold light of day. Put simply, nearly all the jazz we listened to was from the latter half of the century. On the whole we never listened to Dixieland, or to swing, for example, and only very rarely – the afore mentioned jazz singers – ventured outside of this comfort zone.
It dawned on me that we only listened to jazz that was ‘cool’, not ‘hot’, and that this absorption in the music opened up by the bop paradigm had seriously skewed our overall vision of the music. How could I make a sound judgement based on such arbitrary, one-sided evidence? There was only one thing to do. I had purchased a boxed set of Louis’ Hot Fives and Hot Sevens about a year ago but had never gotten around to listening to it. I began to remedy this in earnest, with the surprising results essayed above.
When I informed my brother what I was up to, he made a joke about Armstrong being an “Uncle Tom”. Although there was little intention in his comment outside of an attempt to wind me up, I thought it was very telling. It was clear that our prejudice about earlier forms of jazz was an indirect result of the kinds of jazz we listened to. We had, unknowingly, internalised a particular version of jazz history written by the be-bop generation, and picked up by those that followed. Be-bop, of course, represented a major schism in jazz; a divergence between the new ‘modern’ style and the – until then – largely unbroken development of ‘traditional’ or ‘classic’ forms. As well as being on opposite sides of this particular fork-in-the-road musically, bop and its antecedents soon became ideological enemies as well. To the boppers and those that followed them, Dixieland and swing were hopelessly out-of-date. To the fans of these forms bop wasn’t really jazz at all. To the boppers the crowd-pleasing antics of the traditional groups played to the “tyranny of popular taste” from which they were escaping; at worst it was an undignified throwback to the minstrel tradition of black caricature. For the fans of traditional jazz, the bopper’s intense, cerebral approach had robbed the music of the very elements that had attracted them to jazz in the first place. Jazz, for the former, was a good-time music made for dancing to: for the latter it was pure-expression – art, first and foremost; a music you sat and listened to in rapt concentration (except when applauding the solos). “Bop is no love-child of jazz,” said Charlie Parker, as if to emphasise the generational divide inevitably inherent in any such musical revolution. It was, he said, “trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes.” The art-verses-commerce debate, which had always been there, had blown-up and ripped the music in two.
Unsurprisingly, the major figures in jazz got caught up in the crossfire, pushing the two camps further apart and concentrating the bad-energy on what divided them rather than united them. Louis Armstrong came in for particularly strong criticism. By this point in his career he was already an icon, and icons are easy – not to mention symbolic – targets. Since his ground-breaking work in the twenties he had become one of the world’s most famous entertainers, and as such had had to learn, in the words of Alyn Shipton, how to “balance his instrumental genius with his role as an avuncular, frequently comic and, occasionally, romantic singer.” To the young, northern, urbane, politically astute sophisticates who made up the ranks of boppers, this amounted to a compromising stance little short of betrayal. Armstrong had, in short, sold his soul to the white masses – and the evidence for this charge was plain for all to see. In the forties, just as be-bop was coming to fruition, Armstrong had been experiencing a relative lull in his creative energies, having been on the road too long with a tired-sounding big band, plus he was recording pop schlock like ‘Sleepy-Time Down South’, with its lazy caricatures of plantation Negroes lounging in the Southern sun. To make matters worse, in 1949 he had been chosen to be King of the Zulus for that year’s annual mardi-gras in New Orleans, an honour that saw him parading through the city blacked-up for all the world to see like Papa Lazarou from The League of Gentleman. After this several accusations took hold that have remained stubbornly persistent: that he was washed-up; that he couldn’t play the trumpet anymore; that he was a grinning “Uncle Tom” – a tool of the white establishment who had caricatured himself to the point of grotesque, even racist, parody.
It’s a familiar tale: that of a precocious and brilliant young Turk, who falls under the wing of a charismatic manager with an insatiable appetite for the Yankee dollar, who encourages his charge to water down his act for the mass audience, leaving him bereft of the fire that originally drove him. This is a narrative recognisable to anyone who is a fan of pop history; it has been told time and time again, with perhaps the story of Elvis Presley’s gradual decline into decrepitude serving as the most commonly articulated version. Like all such narratives there’s a certain amount of truth to it. Like all such narratives its ideological one-sidedness serves to obscure the larger truth and gloss over the ambiguities and contradictions that are always present in the untidy mesh of historical reality.
For a start, totemic figurehead to the be-bop revolution’s most ardent ideologues, Charlie Parker, was himself a remarkably non-ideological listener who loved everything from Stravinsky to Hank Williams (taking in Armstrong along the way). Ironically, he ended up bringing disapprobation on himself and suffering similar accusations of selling-out after he decided to record a series of popular ballads in the early fifties alongside a syrupy string-section and with backing singers just as schmaltzy as anything Armstrong had put his name to.
Secondly, the door that had been pushed open by Parker and Gillespie’s musical innovations and that had provided such a clear way out of the swing impasse for the new generation of musicians was – in a very real sense – a door that was unlocked, back in the 1920s, by a certain Louis Armstrong. His Hot Fives and Hot Sevens were, to quote Alyn Shipton again, “the first substantial body of recordings in jazz history to contain extended virtuoso solos,” and as a consequence they helped, more than any other factor, in shifting the emphasis in jazz away from collective group improvisation and towards individual expression. In other words, the freedom of thought and execution sought by the bop musicians would have been utterly unthinkable were it not for the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic bravery of the very man they so willingly succeeded in distancing themselves from. This is the reason Miles Davis – not especially notable for his unqualified praise of fellow musicians – said of Louis’s technique, “You know you can’t play anything on the horn that Louis hasn’t played – I mean even modern.” Bop, despite much noise to the contrary from those on both sides of the debate, was not an entirely clean break with tradition. To hear the virtuoso opening solo cadenza to Louis’ majestic 1928 recording of ‘West End Blues’ is to hear the spark that lit the torch subsequently picked up by all the later innovators – Hawkins, Young, Eldridge, Gillespie, Parker, Coltrane, Coleman, Shorter, et al (to name just the horn players). As Humphrey Lyttlelton so wisely put it:
From the moment when, in the Twenties, Louis Armstrong demonstrated the possibilities inherent in extended solo improvisation, the use of more complex harmonies, greater rhythmic variation, new ways of starting, developing and finishing a solo, different approaches to tone production and so on were inevitable. They began to emerge at all kinds of random points during the Thirties. The idea, unfortunately embedded in many jazz histories, that the boppers invented a new music out of disgust and boredom with all that preceded them does not bear a second investigation. Indeed, the reverse is true. They were inspired and stimulated by players such as Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, Lester Young and Roy Eldridge, just as those musicians acknowledged the influence of their predecessors.
As for the familiar trope that Armstrong followed the classic path from initial innovator to out-of-touch and washed-up mega-star, closer examination reveals that the story is, as ever, not quite so simple. While he never again quite managed to match the sustained intensity of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sessions, his subsequent career – again like that of Elvis’ – was one of artistic ups and downs. Yet he still had room for many musical high-points along the way. When Armstrong abandoned the big-band format at the end of the 40s, and formed his small band ensemble The All Stars, he experienced something of an artistic rebirth, producing some of the finest recordings of his career, such as the Satch Plays Fats and Satch plays W. C. Handy albums, and his aching 1957 rendition of ‘When You’re Smiling’ – a song with a trumpet solo that is simply beyond stunning in its inimitable beatific, celestial beauty. There is, by now, so much information in each note; so much wisdom, humour, and poignancy; so much light; so much sheer humanity in his blowing that he can play three notes and bring tears to your eyes. At this point in his career – contrary to his reputation – Armstrong knew his instrument and his art so well that his tone belongs to him in a way that Wynton Marsalis could never dream of imitating. He sounds like nothing else on earth ever has, or ever will.
Finally, and most importantly, the Uncle Tom accusations have to be regarded, in retrospect, as wholly erroneous and put to bed. After all, this is a man who was born into one of the poorest districts in turn of the century New Orleans, growing up in a corner of the city so violent it was known locally as “the Battlefield”. The son of an alcoholic prostitute single-mother, he grew up at the sharp-end of the segregated South, experiencing the kinds of degradations largely absent from the lives of the younger, more urbanised, Northern mindset that forged the be-bop backlash. As such, he can hardly have been unaware of the ugly effects segregation and its concomitant racist ideology was having on his people. Besides which, the very success that lay at the root of many of the suspicions surrounding Armstrong had helped breach several racial barriers in radio, recording, and concert-hall; opening many doors that were previously closed to African-American performers, raising the profile of jazz from novelty to art-form along the way, and gaining advantages that the be-bop generation were to take full advantage of. Moreover, the evidence forwarded by the be-bop prosecution in an attempt to get Armstrong convicted on charges of complicity in the white man’s ‘system’ starts to look, under closer examination, ambiguous at best. The songs that made the politicised boppers so uncomfortable represented to Louis and his myriad fan-base no more than harmless, sentimental nostalgia, even if to us they seem in very poor taste. It simply wasn’t the case of Louis doffing his cap and saying yessur to some dominating svengali forcing him to record songs with racist undertones. He liked those songs and saw nothing political in them (‘Sleepy Time Down South’ even became his theme song) . Even the notorious black-face incident at the 1949 mardi gras turns out to have its ironies: the organisation that crowned him “King” – The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club – was the oldest African-American organisation in the country and had been formed in part to mock white parades, much as the protean jazz musicians of the city had taken back the vicious stereotypes of the minstrelsy tradition and made them their own.
A couple of pieces of evidence must also be presented for the defence. For one thing, Armstrong contributed financially to Martin Luther King and other civil-rights activists. For another, after governmental inaction during the 1957 desegregation crises at Little Rock, Kansas, where young black children were blocked by the state guard whilst trying to gain entry to school, Armstrong let rip in an interview, calling governor Faubus an “uneducated plough boy” and president Eisenhower “two-faced”, and saying he had “no guts”. Afterwards Armstrong refused to recant or take the ‘my words were taken out of context’ cop-out. He even cancelled a high profile tour of the Soviet Union in protest, saying “the way they’re treating my people in the south, the government can go to hell.” No other high-profile black entertainer said anything like as strong as this. The public were urged to boycott Armstrong (the public didn’t listen). The FBI kept a file on him. I doubt they paid Charlie Parker the same compliment.
History can often be misleading. We’re far enough away now to see the be-bop/traditional bifurcation in a more balanced and nuanced way. The seeds of the rupture, as much as they reside in generational conflict, also lie at the heart of jazz as a musical form. The emphasis on improvisation that underpins jazz history is necessarily progressive. To improvise is to face forward and create the future moment-by-moment, note-by-note, breath-by-breath. This is where jazz draws much of its excitement; the risky, chance-taking thrill of spontaneous creation and instantaneous, edge-of-your-seat, composition. To listen to jazz is to be aware of a music in a permanent state of renewal where, as Andre Hodeir writes, a “fusion of individualities takes the place of architecture.” Always original, always new, Jazz, then, is in a constant and unavoidable flux, and, like the proverbial shark, if it stops moving it dies (some would argue this is precisely what has happened to the music in the 21st century). In this sense jazz on record represents a small part of a much larger story. “Jazz is everywhere,” wrote Garry Giddins, and the real evolutionary engine of jazz history is not ‘in here’, on record, but ‘out there’, in the places where jazz musicians gather together to push newly-minted air about – the Harlem rent party, the speak easy, the nightclub, concert hall, and most of all in the after-hours jam-sessions and “cutting contests” where competition has often worked like a dialectical crank ramping up innovation and progress. Records are just a glimpse of this process; artificially freezing something that exists in the moment and is always on the move; postcards at best. However, this is, paradoxically, precisely what makes them so valuable – they preserve something unrepeatable, and offer us a precious view of a music that is part of a vast river of history.
Louis Armstrong, I now realise, is no mere tributary to that river. Rather, he is at the source of much of its subsequent flow and flood. All of which is to say, listening to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens has been not so much an education, but a re-education. It has forced me to look again at this thing we call jazz, and investigate my view of its history and development under a new light. In the process many of my unexamined ideas about the music have refused to stand up. I had assumed this music would sound primitive after bop, cool, and free-jazz. I had assumed it would provide me with historical interest, but little else. In retrospect I couldn’t have been more wrong. More crucially, it has changed how I listen to those forms of jazz. All new knowledge can be bought to bear on what you already know, and armed with the knowledge gained from listening to these classic sides, jazz has taken on a new hue, and has begun to make a deeper, more meaningful sense. Even swing has started to sound hip.
Above all, listening to Louis Armstrong has taught me, first and foremost, how to listen to Louis Armstrong. At first, as mentioned above, it was the undimmed power of his instrument that got me: the exuberance and richness of his full, golden sound, with its slightly frayed edge providing what Humphrey Lyttlelton (borrowing a phrase from Gershwin) termed a feminising “hint of pain”. The power of Armstrong’s playing leapfrogs the decades and disperses the fog of primitive recording technology with its capacity for conveying both the joy of spontaneous music making, and, by extension, the tantalising, bitter-sweet joy of being alive in the moment. Take, for instance, his 1927 recording of ‘Wild Man Blues’, where the rest of the musicians provide little more than minimal accompaniment for Louis’ solo which begins in the lower register of the ‘moaning’ blues singers like Bessie Smith, but which, over a series of stop-chords, begins to dance around both the rhythm and the melody until it climbs the register toward a dazzling series of held high-notes that are gasp-inducing in their audacity. When it’s over, you can be forgiven for checking to see if the roof of your skull is still attached. Or check out that same year’s ‘Twelve Street Rag’. After its intro, Louis states the melody over a cakewalking tuba in such a rhythmically discombobulated way that you cannot tell where the accents are going to fall next. In other words, he is doing here what Stravinsky was doing in The Rite of Spring – using our natural expectations of metronomic consistency to wrong-foot us and provide constantly surprising twists and turns. The difference, of course, is that Stravinsky’s innovations were born of study, whereas Armstrong’s art is that of a self-taught and essentially instinctual sensibility. It’s no wonder that to the French this new jazz music wasn’t a novelty (as it still was to many American commentators) but something that was at the very cutting edge of modernism.
After the initial shock of exposure to Louis’ playing had died down, I began to notice the context in which these solos take place. Taken cumulatively, the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens represent some of the most progressive recordings in jazz history. It’s important to understand that the Hot Five and Hot Seven bands didn’t exist outside the studio setting. They were simply a rolling group of musicians with like-minds who came together for these recordings. Although Armstrong’s personality and playing dominate these sessions, he is given support by some of the finest players of his time, and as the line-up changes so does his playing. The first of these recordings are still very much in the idiom of Dixieland jazz, being composed of polyphonic front lines and what Philip Larkin called a humorous “family” atmosphere of collective improvisation. That changes as the musicians change. By the time Earl Hines has replaced Armstrong’s wife Lil on piano something special has happened. The music has opened-up, and the space created has become a space for each personality to express himself freely. Compare, for instance, Lil’s stiff ragtime piano solo on ‘Cornet Chop Suey’ to the way Hines and Armstrong joust respectfully and fluently against each other in ‘Weather Bird’ from a few years later. There is no comparison: the music is looser now, more nuanced, and fluid; each lick and turn of phrase a bold, leaping stab into the future. By this time Armstrong has spurred his fellow musicians onto knew heights. In particular, Hines’ piano and Johnnie Dodds’ clarinet playing have come into their own. While Armstrong remains two steps ahead, these musicians provide solid, sympathetic accompaniment, and often pull off dazzling solo work of their own.
The Hot Fives and Hot Sevens represent unarguably the most important document in pre-war jazz, and arguably the most important recordings in jazz’s entire hundred year history: they consolidated all that had gone before them and showed the music its future. Or, to quote Larkin again, “It has been said that Armstrong was lucky rather than great, that many an obscure trumpeter who never left the South played as well as he did, that he owes his reputation to good publicity and assiduous self-discipline. This is unfair; it would be truer to say that he was the apotheosis of a host of minor talents, of a tradition that raised him up like a wave, and which he in turn purified.”
If he had stopped there, his place in jazz history would be assured. But of course he didn’t stop there. He became one of the most famous entertainers of the 20th century – “Ambassador Satch”; a person recognisable to the whole world, and someone who came to represent the shining, positive face of American music. And that’s the rub: for all the arguments about his ‘selling-out’ the fact remains that Armstrong bought as much pleasure to this harsh world as his contemporary Charlie Chaplin. You can calculate the sales figures; the records broken, charts climbed, and tickets sold. You can notate and analyse the solos note-for-note. But what you cannot do is accurately asses what Armstrong’s music has meant, and still means, to people: joy, after all, is unquantifiable, and beyond the reach of statisticians and musicologists. Louis Armstrong bought an incalculable enjoyment to millions and millions of people for well over five decades, and he did so with some of the most innovative and emotionally complex music ever made – that, as far as achievements go, is hardly nothing. In our cynical, post-be-bop world, where popularity is synonymous with shallowness, and the word “jazz” indicative of serious, high-minded individuals and furrowed brows, perhaps we need Louis Armstrong more than ever. Pops just makes you feel good.