American Fingerstyle Guitarist

Louis Armstrong

The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens Columbia/Legacy C4K 63527 (4 CD’s)
The Ultimate Collection Verve 314 543699-2 (3 CD’s)
Ambassador Satch Columbia/Legacy CK64926
Satch Plays Fats Columbia/Legacy CK 64927
Satchmo the Great Columbia/Legacy CK 62170
Louis Armstrong & Duke Ellington The Great Summit – Complete Session Roulette Jazz 7243 5 24546 (2 CD’s)

It is odd that the jazz and folk worlds are so thoroughly segregated. After all, both jazz and folk artists have long been willing to attempt crossovers with classical music, often with an eye towards “respectability”, and with rock, usually with a view toward the bank account. Perhaps the fact that jazz and folk can’t help each other in either department is the problem, but I have always found the close-mindedness in both camps troubling. The music is related in very fundamental ways, and artists who realize this, from Bob Wills and Mose Allison to Ray Charles and Nina Simone, have pretty good track records.

If only one jazz set is ever given a feature review in this magazine (and we can admit at the outset the the other titles here, while containing lots of great music, are really along for the ride), it should unquestionably be Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Had Louis not survived to reach age thirty, he would still be considered by many to have been the greatest jazz musician of all time (the argument being that all later players built on what he did), and for some the superlatives would only begin there. That reputation is based primarily on these recordings. It’s amazing, considering the perfection of the Hot Five and Seven records, that these were not working outfits, though Armstrong had performed with clarinetist Johnny Dodds, Pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, and banjo man Johnny St. Cyr in King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. Special mention should be made of Dodds’ beautiful work here. No one ever played the blues better, on any instrument. The other extraordinarily outstanding sideman, who appears in the later line-ups, is Earl Hines, the Pittsburgh native who became the first purely jazz pianist, and a musician who could think as fast as Louis. Their duo on “Weather Bird” remains a masterpiece.

Louis came of age at the same time that jazz itself was coalescing from ragtime, blues, marches, and various other influences. New Orleans jazz was in every way a folk music. It was certainly a community expression and it was primarily based on African-American folk forms, including ragtime, various kinds of folk singing, and the prevalent quartet vocal style that Armstrong learned as a youngster.

It is Louis Armstrong’s development of a great solo style of improvising that is often seen as the line of demarcation between folk and jazz. Gunther Schuller summed up this wrong-headed viewpoint when he wrote in “Early Jazz” that after Armstrong, jazz would never again be a mere folk art, or words to that effect (I stopped reading at that point). This is not only offensive to folk musicians, it obscures the fact that Armstrong was only taking the very logical step of creating melody in a freer way than his predecessors in the tradition of New Orleans cornet playing, Oliver, Freddie Keppard, and the legendary Buddy Bolden. The ongoing desire to present jazz as being “America’s classical music” and thus somehow above it’s folk sources, creates more misconceptions about jazz than anything else I know of. The ability to swing, to tell a story when you play a break, and to blend spontaneously with what’s going on around you are goals shared by jazz, blues, old-time and bluegrass players, but you won’t learn to do these things in the conservatory (nor in the jazz schools, to judge by most Berklee graduates). Like most great American cultural expression, jazz is rooted in a kind of egalitarian consciousness that is quite contrary to the class divisions implicit in the classical composer-conductor-musician paradigm. There can never be any division between “folk art” and “high art” in such a context.

The stories that Louis told on the Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings come as close as anything ever recorded to a sheer expression of pure musical joy. His tone is like a brilliant burst of golden energy and his technical command of the cornet (or trumpet, which he switched to during this period) is extraordinary, but it is the seemingly endless flow of beautiful ideas that make this music so astonishing. The group chemistry is also crucial. The art of collective improvisation in the freewheeling New Orleans ensemble had been developed to its highest degree in King Oliver’s band, with the horns all improvising lines that are independent yet related to the overall sound. By the time of these recordings, this was all second nature to Louis, who weaves his melodic way between the ongoing commentary of the trombone and embellishment of the clarinet, with never a note or nuance out of place. This style of front line interaction became a predictable formula over the years but in the 20’s it was musical dynamite.

There are basically two editions of the Hot Five group, the earlier one being augmented on eleven tracks to become the Hot Seven. No one could criticize the recordings of these lineups, but things do get a little confusing with the inclusion of some tracks on which Armstrong-led groups back blues and pop singers of the day. These range from the great comedy team, Butterbeans and Susie (Susie Edwards was an excellent vocalist), to blues crooner Hociel Thomas, to Lillie Delk Christian, a fine pop singer of the time who has been picked on by jazz fans for seventy years now, presumably because she wasn’t trying to sing the blues. I would argue that Christian is more effective than the indifferent Thomas, and that Armstrong & co. are absolutely magnificent on her recordings, some of the best of which are not included here. (The reasoning behind this is very unconvincing to me, and reinforces the idea that a separate box devoted to Louis’s work with singers would have been a more sensible approach.)

Happily, Louis was around for quite a while after these 1925-28 recordings; he lead big bands through the swing era, and after the war returned to the smaller group format. The big bands were no longer economically feasible, and a revival of interest in “traditional” jazz (a term that almost seems an oxymoron from a folk perspective) led many swing musicians to form Dixieland-style combos. For Armstrong and other older New Orleans players it was as natural as putting on an old suit, and many listeners prefer Louis’s late 40’s and 50’s records to his swing era work. The collection called “Louis Armstrong Plays W. C. Handy” is generally considered the best record of the later period, but the 1955 follow-up, “Satch Plays Fats” is nearly as good. Louis shares the front line with trombonist Trummy Young and clarinetist Barney Bigard, and vocal duties with Velma Middleton. The feeling is great on this session, which is augmented on the CD by four unissued alternates and seven earlier recordings of Fats Waller songs, one by the Hot Seven and the rest by early swing line-ups that are hot enough to demonstrate the folly of dismissing big-band Louis. “Ambassador Satch” is an engaging program of live European recordings by the same band on tour in Europe, and “Satchmo the Great” a soundtrack record that features entertaining interviews by TV pioneer Edward R. Murrow and some solid period playing by nearly the same group (the clarinet chair is filled by Edmund Hall, like Bigard another New Orleans native). The meeting with Ellington occurred in 1961, with the Duke taking the place of Louis’s pianist Billy Kyle in the band, which still included Young and again featured Bigard, who had originally made his name in the definitive Ellington units of the late 30’s. The program of Ellington tunes and Duke’s wonderfully spare piano style make for music that’s intriguingly different from Louis’s norm of the time. The two principals play off each other very effectively.

The Verve set is an interesting cross-section that features music from virtually every period of Armstrong’s career, owing to the fact that a single company now owns such labels of yesteryear as Vocalion, Decca, and ABC Paramount. That the 40’s are under-represented will bother no one; the only significant gap is the late 20’s – early 30’s, when Louis was recording for other labels. Since the aim here is represent all the aspects of Louis’s career, “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” are inevitable, but there’s no escaping the fact that these are great pop performances. Earlier mainstream settings from the Mills Brothers to the Lyn Murray choir are touched on, but the bulk of the collection is given over to 30’s big band recordings and 50’s sessions with a variety of line-ups. I personally would like to have seen a little more of the early sideman recordings that appeared on the great Decca LP reissue called “Young Louis”, but I do hope that this set will cause some people to reconsider the 30’s Deccas. Timeless performances like “Thanks a Million” and “You’re a Lucky Guy”, remakes of Oliver’s “Dippermouth Blues” and “West End Blues”, and classic versions of Hoagy Carmichael songs like “Ev’ntide” and “Jubilee” are a few of the standouts, but there are many others.

Still, as I implied at the outset, these noteworthy releases are really going to appeal to listeners who have already been converted. As was also implied, you have to be more than just a diehard folkie not to be captivated by the music on “The Complete Hot Fives and Hot Sevens”. You probably have to be deaf.

– Duck Baker