This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG was the most important popular musician in the first half of the twentieth century.
He pretty much defined how jazz would be played with his improvisation and virtuoso soloing. He established the size of a jazz combo, usually somewhere between five and seven musicians, rather than large conglomerations as was the previous norm and he showed that you didn’t need a “good” voice to be an effective and popular singer.
Louis was born in New Orleans on the 4th of August 1901, not the 4th of July 1900 as legend has it. He was the grandson of slaves. Louis was born into a poor family and his father left while he was still a tacker. He almost certainly was exposed to music while still at school.
After leaving school, he’d often get into trouble but he also learnt to play the cornet, most probably from Joe Oliver.
He went to work for a family named Karnofsky who treated him as one of the family. He said that he discovered then that it wasn’t just black people who were being discriminated against. He paid a glowing tribute to them in his memoirs.
He developed his cornet playing in the “New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs” where he was often sent for being exuberant (that’s how I interpret it). He played as often as he could in street parades, of which there were many in New Orleans, and in brass bands and on the river boats.
In 1919, Joe Oliver left Kid Ory’s band. Louis replaced him and his professional career was off and running. His musicianship developed apace and he was soon seen as the star of the group, taking extended solos and the like.
The band left for Chicago where Louis started living the life of the star that he was. After much success there, his (second) wife, the pianist Lil Hardin, suggested he leave and form his own group. Thus the Hot Five and Hot Seven and all the others were born.
Louis pretty much single-handedly created the role of the jazz soloist taking what was essentially a collective folk music and turning it into an art form with tremendous possibilities for individual expression.
Miles Davis, who was not one for needless praise, said in his autobiography, and I’m paraphrasing a little, that nobody can play anything on the trumpet that doesn’t come from Louis, even the most modern sounds. He’d done it all before anyone else.
Miles intimated that Louis was probably the best trumpet player who ever was. So, let’s get to the music.
I’ll start and end in a similar vein, with the band being introduced. The first one Louis introduces the players, several of whom played with him for quite some time. It’s a most appropriate way to begin proceedings.
The tune is called Where the Blues Were Born in New Orleans. This was recorded in 1946.
Getting back to the early days, or at least the early days of recordings, we have the classic Hot Five – Louis, Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds, Lil Armstrong and Johnny St Cyr.
The group was formed at the instigation of Lil, Armstrong's wife at the time, to showcase Louis’ talent at improvisation. As I mentioned, he had up until this time been a member of other bands and she thought he needed to show the world what jazz could really accomplish. This is Hotter Than That from 1927.
2:19 Blues was recorded somewhat later than the previous track, in 1940 to be precise. It includes Sidney Bechet on saxophone and clarinet.
Although it’s a lot later and even though I really have no knowledge, it seems to me that this track personifies early jazz. I could be wrong, looking through rose-colored, backwards glasses, but I guess there’s no one around anymore to contradict me.
Another with the Hot Five - well they weren’t called that for nothing - also from 1927, is Struttin' With Some Barbeque. This track has the same personnel as the previous Hot Five track and is probably the real thing in spite of what I said on the previous track.
We’re now in 1946 with a large group and Velma Middleton singing with Louis. This is pretty much a big band, not usually to my taste, but it’s pretty good nonetheless. There’s some nice guitar work early on by Elmer Warner. Back O` Town Blues.
I wondered if I should include this next tune as it’s so familiar to everyone. It started out as Die Moritat von Mackie Messer, written by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht for the music drama “Die Dreigroschenoper,” or in English, “The Threepenny Opera.”
The version by Louis bears little resemblance to the original but it really swings and that’s what’s important. Here is Mack The Knife.
Louis played with pretty much everyone in jazz or, perhaps more to the point, they played with him. DUKE ELLINGTON is no exception. This track is an interesting amalgam of Duke’s modern cooler sound with Louis’ more traditional mode of playing.
It also has Barney Bigard playing clarinet and Trummy Young on trombone. Trummy is a long time player with Louis. There’s a touch of the C Jam Blues in this track if my ears don’t deceive me. It’s called Duke’s Place and was recorded in 1961.
A Kiss To Build A Dream On was written in part by Oscar Hammerstein, however, in this case, the other part wasn’t Richard Rodgers. It - or they is more appropriate - were Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby.
The song has been recorded by many people from Mickey Rooney and William Demarest (really) to Richard Chamberlain (really again) and Rod Stewart. Louis’ version trumps them all.
Louis appeared in a bunch of films during his life, but none as notable from this column’s point of view as High Society. This film was an inferior remake of the earlier Philadelphia Story. BING CROSBY was no Cary Grant and Grace Kelly no Katherine Hepburn. It did have Louis though, and Bing was a better singer than Cary, who was not noted as a warbler.
It also had Frank Sinatra but he’s not relevant to today’s column. One of Bing’s songs introduced the various members of the band that Louis led in the film. That song is Now You Has Jazz.