LOUIS ARMSTRONG / “West End Blues”
This is the big bang, the origin of modern jazz. Before Louis Armstrong jazz music was mainly about ensemble work featuring piano players and/or bandleaders, particularly Jelly Roll Morton but also others such as Fletcher Henderson, James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and the up-and-coming Duke Ellington. But from 1921 when Armstrong went to Chicago, a major change was in the making. By the time Armstrong went to New York to join Fletcher Henderson in 1924 people were coming out specifically to hear an amazing soloist. Satchmo was the preeminent personality in the music, but even so, no one was quite prepared for what Pops accomplished with a series of recordings known as the Hot Five and Hot Seven sessions. What did Pops do that was so different? He established the blues as a basic foundation for modern jazz. He elevated the role of the soloists, not just himself as a feature in front of an orchestra, but rather Pops created a band of individual soloists, which was a radical departure from the collective improvisation of traditional New Orleans music and also from the heavily orchestrated arrangements of dance bands. He established scat singing and created a new style for American vocalists emphasizing rhythmic inflections and melodic variation rather than straight, operatic-like singing. He introduced sophisticated harmonic improvisation with the soloist making on-the-spot variations. He established the trumpet as “the” major solo instrument in jazz and it would not be until the arrival of Charlie Parker that the trumpet’s reign would be challenged. Pick up any major book on the history of jazz and you will read ecstatic paeans about “West End Blues” (from Complete Hot Five - Volume 3). The opening fanfare alone is enough to establish the song as a masterpiece, but check also how Pops reverses the tradition of horn obbligatos behind a lead vocalist. In this case, the saxophone plays the lead and Pops does wordless vocalizing behind the soloist. Armstrong’s accompaniment becomes so memorable that people regularly hum it and almost totally ignore the lead solo. Then there is a very, very modern piano solo, meaning that the pianist plays single note lines rather than chords. When Armstrong re-enters he uses a long, high, held note. Whereas "Heebie Jeebies" (from Complete Hot Five - Volume 1) has an old-fashioned 2/4 feel with a ragtime-like syncopation. When Pops does his second vocal chorus, dropping the wordless vocalizing, the song feels more modern than it does during the ensemble sections. Why is this? Because Pops had grasped where the music could go rather than merely rehashing where the music had been. This was the rhythm of the new era, a time period that would be dubed the jazz age—fast, furious, forceful and full of fun, and Pops created a musical style that perfectly projected the zietgeist of the Jazz Age. After the Hot Five/Seven sessions, the shape of modern jazz was set for forty years, not to change significantly until the advent of the John Coltrane Quartet. —Kalamu ya Salaam A 'significant' change? It's probably just a generational thing, but I've never been able to get into Louis Armstrong. It's not a matter of whether or not I think his music is good, I've never been able to listen either closely or intelligently enough to Armstrong to even comment. The only real question I have is this: you say that Armstrong set the shape of modern jazz, that jazz did not change significantly until the advent of the John Coltrane Quartet. But the little reading I have done on jazz seems to consistently mention Bird and Dizzy in the late Forties (meaning, the advent of bebop) as being a seismic-type shift in the way jazz was played, recorded and even listened to. Isn't that a 'significant' change? And what about Miles' Kind Of Blue, a major recording from 1959 (in other words, it pre-dates the classic lineup of the John Coltrane Quartet) that 'Trane actually played on. I consistently hear that album mentioned as being the impetus for a major shift in jazz in which the music became mode-based as opposed to chord-based. It's hard to believe that jazz made it through both bebop and Kind Of Blue without there being any significant changes. —Mtume ya Salaam good question Yes, bebop was a major change from "swing," which was the dominant style before bebop, however, check that most of bebop was based on 1. the combo format established by Hot Five/Seven, 2. a blues foundation (again, prefigured by Pops), with a deep interest in harmonic development using chord changes. You can easily trace Dizzy back to Armstrong, Bud Powell to Earl Hines, and I would argue Bird to Sidney Bechet (except, Sidney and Louis only played together briefly, mainly because Sidney split for France). It is important to reemember that after the Hot Five/Seven Sessions, Pops went back to traditional New Orleans formats and to soloist in front of an orchestra. Pops did not follow up on what he started with those seminal combo recordings. I definitely agree that 1959 was a watershed in musical development for jazz (Ornette Coleman arrives in New York, Kind of Blue is recorded, Mingus is ascending), but again, as for as jazz as a whole, there was no immediate follow up on those developments until Trane took it to another level. After Kind of Blue, Miles went back to hardbop with Hank Mobley in the band and they mainly played standards—without Trane and Bill Evans, Miles didn't have the musicians to develop that modal thing. So by 1960 Trane has dropped Giant Steps and then followed up with My Favorite Things and the rest is history—including Miles' further exploration of modes and then on to fusion. The significant of the Hot Five/Seven Sessions is that it was a body of work recorded over a three year period and not one isolated recording as is the case with Kind of Blue. Miles had to get a whole new band of young cats, musicians who were deeply influenced by Coltrane, before Miles could explore what was started with Kind of Blue. I won't even venture to guess where the music would be if Pops had continued what he started. Rather than keep stretching, Pops stuck with the tried and true. Plus, who else could play that Hot Five/Seven stuff? Bebop is Hot Five played faster and with more complex harmonies, but it's the same underlying structure, in fact, bebop often used the harmonic basis of earlier songs and just superimposed a different melody, but it was the same basic changes. Trane was the fearless one who followed up (and out) on a completely different approach. Please be aware that this is a simplified analysis and there are some other factors to consider, other musicians such as Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, to name just two off the top. I also don't mean to diminish in any way the genius of Charlie Parker. Nevertheless, I believe my basic point that the first major (i.e. broadly adopted by jazz musicians) shift that was not prefigured by Pops was Coltrane is a defendable analysis. Finally, I think a lot of critics write in hindsight and write without looking/listening closely to the documentation. One record does not a movement make, even though one record may indicate the direction that a movement will take. —Kalamu ya Salaam
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