If you are already a jazz fan, then you don’t need a lesson in the greatness of Louis Armstrong or the monumental nature of his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. All you really need to know is the track listing of this compilation (including “Hotter Than That”, “Potato Head Blues”, “Chicago Breakdown”, “Cornet Chop Suey”, “Struttin’ With Some Barbeque”, “Squeeze Me”, and “Tight Like This”) and you can see it: this is a classic single-disc collection. But if you are already a serious jazz fan, then you already have the whole batch of the recordings. Maybe you want a 14-track selection for the car or something, but you already know why. Hit your “back button” and read a review of the New Pornographers’ latest album, why don’tcha?
But if you aren’t a jazz aficionado, here’s the deal: THIS IS THE MOTHERLODE!
I know that you may be wary of recordings that are almost 80 years old, and I understand. It can be hard to hear the energy and genius of music that sounds so acoustically old-fashioned. There is a kind of vo-dee-oh-doh effect, since all the music made during our lifetime has been captured in a kind of perpetually modern sonic clarity. But, as when you watch a black-and-white movie like Casablanca or put the needle on an old Beatles LP, you must filter out the noise. The pure beauty beneath the technological imperfection is unmatched.
If you associate the name “Louis Armstrong” with the songs “Hello Dolly”, “It’s a Wonderful World”, and “Mack the Knife”, it is understood. But that guy — the old guy with the white handkerchief, gravelly voice, and big smile — is a small portion of Armstrong legacy. Louis “Pops” Armstrong was an orphan born in New Orleans, Louisiana near the turn of the century who learned to play trumpet in the “ragged” style of that city in the earliest days of jazz. The unrecorded trumpet hero of the city was Buddy Bolden, but the first trumpet kind we can hear on a record was young Louis’s last boss, Mr. Joseph “King” Oliver. Armstrong traveled with Oliver to Chicago and made his first records with him. But, quite soon, the best trumpeter in the new, improvised style wasn’t this “King” but the brash, swaggering kid with charisma: Louis himself.
The 14 sides on this CD were recorded in the mid-to-late 1920s shortly after Armstrong left Oliver and struck out on his own, and they represent “New Orleans style” jazz and the artistry of the first transcendent jazz soloist. The music we now think of as “jazz” had been developing for 20 or more years, but the first recording wasn’t until 1917, only nine years or so before this work. The King Oliver records represent the “standard” New Orleans style, with the trumpets, trombone, clarinet, and rhythm all interweaving to form a single ensemble sound. On the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, Armstrong’s innovation — and it is arguably the masterful innovation that made the entire history of jazz possible — was to privilege individual instrumental soloists to ride over the ensemble in displays of virtuosity and melodic invention that, nevertheless, always responded organically to the group in the moment.
And while others “solo” on this disc, it is the trumpet of Armstrong that is featured in this setting. And, oh, what trumpet playing it is.
Armstrong’s greatest achievement as a trumpet soloist was to fundamentally reinvent the concept of time, the most basic element of music. Here’s what Armstrong did: he freed himself as a soloist from the “straight” time of quarter notes and eighth notes. While the bands on these records play the music in straight quarter note and half-time “swing”, he freely interprets the rhythm of all his solo melodies — slowing them down behind the band’s beat, speeding them up, switching and shifting as his whim suggests, all to create the effort of surprise, but a kind of casual, effortless surprise. That is, Louis Armstrong achieves supreme relaxation in his own voice — a totally organic and personal voice that feels purely spontaneous — but sets that relaxation in contrast to the set time of the band, which creates a tension and excitement. This amazing — and seemingly contradictory — trick of simultaneously generating relaxation and tension is the very heart of jazz.
The tracks on this collection demonstrate this quality in spades, and they are some of the very most important sound recordings of the 20th century.
Take “Potato Head Blues”. The ensemble, with Armstrong in the lead but not obviously so, is stated with an admirable relaxation. Then the ensemble cuts out, leaving Armstrong to play a one-bar break. His solo, with just the rhythm under him, is a richer piece of music than the ensemble because Armstrong is so free to accent and emphasize as he sees fit. After a clarinet solo, Armstrong is given a daring “stop time” chorus in which the band plays only a single note on the “one” of each bar. Here, Pops breaks every rule, essentially making the time of the song stand still and wait on him as he crafts each blues phrase out of thin air. Listening to it, you think that jazz is being born right before your…ears.
If this was all Armstrong had done, he would still have been the most important jazz musician ever. But Louis also invented from the whole cloth the art of jazz singing. Using his voice like he used his trumpet, Armstrong sang in a manner deadly opposite from the standard singing of his day — using rhythmic displacement, growls, smears, glissandi, and a directly human crying sound. We hear the beginning of that art on this record too. On “I’m Gonna Gitcha”, Louis takes a middle chorus on vocals that elevates a dopey tune to thrilling art. On “Squeeze Me”, Armstrong takes a “scat” chorus (a subcategory of jazz singing that Armstrong also invented) of nonsense syllables, hitting the breaks and flowing in rhythmic ripple of the song’s harmonies just as if he were playing his horn. His straight blues vocal on “I’m Rough” shows how close this music was to Delta blues when it wanted to be, but the singing on “Don’t Forget to Mess Around” is complex and agile, showing that jazz truly is a hybrid of Mississippi mud and European structure.
You can fault this brief collection only by what it excludes. It is not “the best of” the Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions, as certain acknowledged classics are absent: “West End Blues”, for example, and the duet with pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, “Weather Bird”. These are stone-classics too, and no collection of early Armstrong is complete without them, but this cannot diminish the greatness of what is here. It would just be self-indulgent picky-picking to discuss the programming of the disc, the order of the songs, or the balance of different tracks. I don’t want to do that.
What I want to do is say it one more time: Louis Armstrong was one of the great human treasures of the last hundred years. Jazz musicians almost always call him “Pops” because that what he was to the whole music — the father of it all, the fountain, the source. These 14 tunes are links in the chain that connect all of today’s music back to its origins. Without Pops, there’d have been no Ray Charles, no Elvis, no Kurt Cobain, no whoever comes along tomorrow. If you love American music, you owe it to yourself to know Louis.
Miss this music at your peril.