The Big Bang Theory of Jazz - Louis Armstrong Arrives

Posted by Sherwin Dunner, November 26, 2012 05:15pm | Post a Comment

In what might be dubbed the Big Bang Theory of Jazz, the world began in April 1923 when King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band with Louis Armstrong in tow stepped into the Gennett Recording studio and cut nine sides. The Oliver band had been knocking 'em dead for several months in nearby Chicago at the cavernous South Side dance hall Lincoln Gardens, and these recordings would become the gold standard for early New Orleans jazz. Even more significant for the future of jazz, although Louis would play his first recorded solos on these sessions, he would soon outgrow the limited space for him in such ensembles of collective improvisation. He just wanted to cut loose and blow, and as people heard him and his fame grew, he would evolve into the first star of jazz and almost single-handedly transform jazz from a dance music to that of improvising solo performance.

You can witness what Louis had become by 1933 in the first Louis on film – that year he was captured in a live performance on a Copenhagen concert stage – no Hollywood gimmicks or studio post-dubbing of music. And you can explore that transformation in Amoeba's new Vinyl Vault.  In honor of, and as tribute to Louis, we have added digital files of virtually all of Louis' early records from 1923 to 1928, remastered directly from the cleanest original 78s available. So have fun exploring the Louis Armstrong archive in Amoeba's Vinyl Vault.

King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (April 1923 to December 1923)

When I first started collecting 78s, I avoided early “pre-electric” discs because the sound was a bit distant and thin compared to the electric process, which was still a few years off in the future, and I passed up many of these 1923 King Oliver Gennetts. Now I look back on my screwed up priorities and feel it was akin to throwing away a hundred dollar bill because it was too wrinkled. Musically, if not sonically, these early King Oliver Gennetts still hold up as some of the most exuberant discs ever recorded. Every player attacked the thread of melody at once, each adding fuel to the fire without getting in each other's way – never mind that you're not a jazz fan, and don't confuse these recordings with later derivative white revival “dixieland” (or “dorksieland” as some of my friends call it).  Early jazz was first and foremost dance music, the rock 'n' roll of its day, and New Orleans style was loud, brash, rock solid dance music, activating hormones and posing the same kind of threat to middle America that rock 'n' roll would in the 1950s. Check out this1925 headline from a Cincinnati newspaper zeroing in on the insidious influence of jazz.


It was just a typical working day for a band in 1923, but looking back 90 years, imagine playing for a crowded nightclub of 600 to 700 patrons with no amplification or sound system, just the foot stomping excitement you and your band mates could generate by playing tunes like "Weatherbird Rag" loud enough to cut through the din. Although he was just past the peak of his powers at this time, Oliver was known to blow trumpets to pieces in a few months.

Louis takes his first solo on "Chimes Blues," from King Oliver's first session on April 5, 1923.  

He's already so technically accomplished, inventive and at ease with phrasing and ringing notes around the melody it could equally have been recorded 10 years later, so fully formed is his style right out of the box. Another notable feature of these records is the way Louis and King Oliver play duet breaks together like they were reading each other's mind. Banjo player and jazz quipster Eddie Condon described those Oliver and Armstrong breaks: “The two wove around each other like suspicious women talking about the same man.” I've always felt the magic imparted by Johnny Dodds' clarinet on these sides has been given short shrift. Although I've never taken to his solo recordings where he's in the studio with just a rhythm section behind him – he's a musical snake slithering and writhing about in space looking for something to sink his teeth into – on the King Oliver Creole sides, his clarinet weaves counter melodies around the brass like an expert pastry chef decorating a cake. Appropriately enough, here he is on "Snake Rag," recorded in their second session on April 6th:

To my ears, Dodds is as important as anyone in making those records come alive. At least for the seminal year 1923, top-flight New Orleans ensemble music would be the most important records made, but with Louis' arrival and emergence, the soloist would soon be exalted.  


Fletcher Henderson and his Orchestra with Louis (July 1924-October 1925)

Louis 3rd from left above Coleman Hawkins, rising star on the tenor sax

 The most enlightening way to hear Louis in the context of his time and get a sense of how far ahead he was on jazz's evolutionary scale is to listen to his solos on the Fletcher Henderson sides. Henderson led one of the finest black bands of the period, and when Louis signed up, they were playing at Roseland Ballroom in New York's Times Square for a white clientele, offering stock arrangements of dance tunes tweaked for the band. These stock charts were produced for reading bands, which at this time meant that with few exceptions, the orchestras were aggregations of musical typists. Henderson brought in Louis to do solo spots, and when Louis takes off, he's five years ahead of the rest of the music, adding breaks that are bright splashes of color against drab grey palletes. Give a listen to "One of These Days."

The band does a pleasant run through the arrangement so you'll get the melody in your head, then 1:15 in, Louis suddenly jumps out with a pulsating full chorus that pretty much leaves the rest of the band in the dust. 

The Henderson period for Louis is full of rich surprises where he comes out of nowhere with startling, perfectly formed solo breaks. Other Henderson sides to check out are "Shanghai Shuffle" and "Sugar Foot Stomp," recorded near the end of Louis' stay with Henderson, when the the band was finally catching up to him.

Clarence Williams Blue Five  (October 1924 – October 1925)

Clarence Williams and Eva Taylor

When Louis was in New York playing nightly with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra, he was hired by fellow New Orleanian Clarence Williams to take part in sessions being set up for Okeh Records. Williams had become one of the most successful black entrepreneurs in the recently burgeoning market for blues and jazz records by black artists. He had his own publishing company, was an Okeh Records talent scout, and he organized and led sessions that produced some of the greatest early jazz sides prominently featuring Louis. Of special note are the sessions featuring both Louis and Sidney Bechet, a New Orleans reed virtuoso and the only equal to Louis as an accomplished soloist of the day.  They battle it out on the Okeh version of "Cake Walking Babies From Home,” and I think Louis ends up taking the cake with his final chorus. This was one of the first 78s I acquired. I was still trying to discover what mysterious, archaic sounds would appeal to me, and had never heard this 78. I took a chance and bought it from a mail order dealer in Albany, N.Y. Best ten dollars I ever spent.  

Other favorites from Louis' sessions with Clarence Williams are a couple titles from his final month in New York before he moved back to Chicago and began recording the Hot Fives under his own name:

"Coal Cart Blues"


"Livin' High"

Both of these feature Buster Bailey, no slouch on soprano sax, and vocals by Clarence's wife Eva Taylor.


Lois Armstrong and his Hot Fives and Sevens (November 1925 – December 1928)

L-R: Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Dodds, Lil Hardin, Johnny St. Cyr

The Hot Fives and Sevens are considered the real coming out party for Louis. He finally had a chance to show what he could do on his own terms, not as side man or spot soloist. These classics also gave Louis a chance to sing, and his natural gifts as a singer were an extension of what he was doing with his horn – another instrument to explore, another way to solo. These bands were put together as studio sessions and never played in public. It's pretty amazing they could produce so many classics without polishing their material in dance halls or cabarets.  

"Willie The Weeper" with the Hot Seven

"Strutting With Some Barbecue" with the Hot Five

"A Monday Date" with the Hot Five, this time with Earl Hines on piano 

"Potato Head Blues" with the Hot Seven. My favorite, a beautiful tune with lovely changes. Johnny Dodds covers it as a solo, then Louis plays a chorus, then the band rides out together. It never fails to get to me.

Art Hodes, a Chicago piano player, recalled seeing Louis at the Sunset Cafe improvising for a full half hour on one song – a Noel Coward song at that, not a blues or a stomp. And when he was doing a show, it was not uncommon for Louis to save for the big finish a rendition of the jazz warhorse "Tiger Rag," on which he would blow as many as 200 high C's, which, for mortal trumpet players, would have been like bench pressing 800 pounds. Even if the audience couldn't appreciate fully what they were witnessing, trumpet players were dazzled. OK, Louis, we get it. 

It's been more than 10 years since Ken Burns' Jazz series gave Louis his due, and whatever issues I might have with Jazz, I'll tip my hat to Burns. Later in life, the public image of Louis was shaped by appearances on TV variety shows and occasional record pairings with popular entertainers like Carol Channing or Barbara Streisand. Louis comes off as a genial old school singer/entertainer who always schlepped his trumpet along with him like a vestigial limb. To once and for all eradicate that Louis cliche, Burns kept hammering away at the seismic shift Louis' playing and singing visited upon the world during his ascendancy. 

I find that I never tire of these early Louis sides. It only sounds archaic if your brain is awash in contemporary sounds. Wipe it clean, visit the Louis Armstrong archive in our Vinyl Vault and give a listen to those I've pointed out, as well as some of these other favorites:

"Stomp Off, Let's Go," Erskine Tate's Vendome Orchestra

"Tears," King Oliver's Jazz Band

"New Orleans Stomp," Johnny Dodd's Black Bottom Stompers

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Louis Armstrong (11), (11), Vinyl Vaults (8), King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band (1), Jazz (152), Johnny Dodd (1), New Orleans (56), Fletcher Henderson (1)