Sunday, March 8, 2009

Louis Armstrong 1924-25

Fletcher Henderson Orchesra with Louis Armstrong, Copenhagen 1924

Bessie Smith with Louis Armstrong, St. Louis Blues, Jan 1925

In 1923, Louis Armstrong made his first recordings, with his mentor, King Oliver. In late 1925, he began a series of (studio only) recordings, the Hot 5's and Hot 7's, that utterly transformed the course of jazz forever by establishing the virtuoso solo as the sine qua non for every jazz performance. But what was he doing between these two periods?

In New York City, Fletcher Henderson had by 1924 already established his orchestra as the number one jazz group in town. Of course, these NYC black musicians had very different background than the New Orleans trained performers like Armstrong, no matter whether they were black or white. Henderson had already begun the process of creating written arrangements for jazz tunes, an innovation required for the northern musicians for whom improvisational counterpoint was not part of their training, and which would be brought to new heights later by Don Redman. But he had heard Armstrong and knew that he would be a really exciting addition. Armstrong finally listened to the prompting of his wife at the time, Lillian Hardin Armstrong, to strike out on his own, and accepted Henderson's offer.

The Henderson recording here is not the absolute best for highlighting Armstrong's contributions to the band, but you can hear him strike out with the vigorous and driving tone that certainly woke up the new york musicians, and impelled them to sharpen their sense of rhythm, not to mention the proper application of the blues scale.

(Also, the proud owner of this actual original 78, and a beautiful victrola, has unaccountably chosen to highlight his possesions in a bare room with such live reverberations that they threaten to overwhelm the actual recording. I apologise for being so lazy that I have not yet created my own videos to make up for the lacunae in the You Tube recordings that are currently available. Truly, I am teh lazy blogger!)

The other recording here is a famous one that Louis made with the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith. All through the 20s, Louis would find the time to pick up a few dollars by performing on recordings with singers. (Musicians would only make a flat fee for recordings, with no royalties or residuals, until the successful outcome of the strike they held during WWII. The so-called V-Discs were made by the U.S. Army during this strike to make sure that servicemen would not be deprived of jazz during the strike!)

In this great recording of W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, Armstrong can barely restrain himself from playing while Bessie Smith is singing. In fact, he is not really showing good musical manners! However, the result for us is a feast of virtuoso singing and playing that makes this side one of the most rewarding of Bessie Smith's many fine recordings. Bessie was not as pleased as we might be - she told her producers to never hire Louis again, and the remainder of her recordings from this period often feature Louis' replacement in the Henderson band, the unjustly neglected Joe Smith.

(okay, for some insane reason there is some copyright issue with this particular recording. it is still, however, a 'must hear' for fans of pops and the empress of the blues)

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