LOUIS ARMSTRONG / “West End Blues”

louis armstrong 02.jpg 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. louis armstrong 01.jpg 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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5 Responses to “LOUIS ARMSTRONG / “West End Blues””

Rudy Says:
August 28th, 2006 at 6:53 am

Excellent analysis. Wynton seems to agree on the jazz significance of “West End Blues.” He also speaks of the musical genius of the opening flourish. One now hears “West End Blues” in a lot of settings. It may become one of the most recognizable jazz selections.

I’d like to repost all three responses in ChickenBones: A Journal. — Rudy

Qawi Robinson Says:
August 30th, 2006 at 11:55 am

Thanks for another classic. This one is interesting in a sense that “West End Blues” lives up to its title. It is BLUES, moreso than a Modern Jazz precursor per se.

I would look at the origin of Modern Jazz not as a road with multiple forks in it with a single path. I would characterize it more like roots from a tree. Whereas multiple paths/roots (or in this case artists and albums) converged into something brilliant.

One would like to think that Satchmo, Bird, Miles, Dizzy, ‘Trane, Wes, or even Ornette Coleman were the originators of Jazz. But EACH had their own inspiration, someone who taught them or they “borrowed” from. Where this fits in, is how to define the quintessential album. The album, that without it, the artform wouldn’t have existed. Honestly, there is NO album as such at least in a non-Divine sense. Individually, the albums were good, but they ultimately were part of the COLLECTIVE Jazz experience.

Saying all that, West End Blues had it’s time and place…and still does. Without it though, Jazz would still exist. The same goes for all of the above mentioned artists. Jazz was going to exist regardless. 🙂

youngblood Says:
September 1st, 2006 at 11:46 am

Somehow the term modern jazz seems redundant. The real shift in paradigm occurred when Jellyroll Morton and Buddy Bolden sounded the clarion call of jazz – that, to me, is the sonic boom creating the jazz universe. However Louis Armstrong, especially through the Hot Fives and Sevens, is the sun around which all modern jazz revolves. Whether whites wanted acknowledge publicly or not, none could deny what their ears heard or what was felt inside. Early on in the history of western music the church controlled music as well as musical thought. Beethoven was one of the first heretics who dared to use modes outside of what was prescribe by the cannon constructed by (Gregorian) priest of the Baroque period.

The western construct of chordal structure had previously been adjusted by blues musicians who, no doubt, retained elements of their African origins. Traditional African culture was not bound by the constraints of western music and thought. The early jazz musicians altered the music a step further by augmenting and diminishing steps here and there eloquently modifying inflections to convey the intellect behind emotions, the spirit and intent behind actions, the heroic soundtrack of Black life. Jazz is inherent genius expressed musically. The creative spirit soaring with profound comprehension finds an outlet. The music of Louis Armstrong exemplifies an intimate relationship with some thing or some energy beyond the realm of regular communication with music. Pops’ music proceeded with an urgency that could not be stopped by Jim Crow or Al Capone. Who else could have invented “scat” and have everyone believe nonsense were, in effect, sensible? The shear power of his personality is such that though sometimes his wide grin and big eyes were misunderstood Louis Armstrong’s persona transcended jazz and became internationally recognized as a man of great character unafraid to express and act upon what he knew was unjust for Black people.

The Music of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens eventually took a back seat to more pressing issues of equality. And though Pops continued to perform jazz music at a high level, the sacrifice and devotion needed to push the music forward became much less of a consideration when weighed against the immediate situation of racism in America. Jazz is definitely a potent indicator for the modern era charting how Black people see themselves and helped, through self-determination and dignified expression, to light a path illuminating a more erect way of being and being seen in the world.

Considering the period from which it comes and eventhough West End in New Orleans remanins basically a closed society for Black people, West End Blues proceeds with a joyousness unrestrained by external circumstances – the epitome of self-determination or man/womanhood for Black people. Asante Saint Louis.

Take that fleur de lis and stick it!

Jack Harris Says:
May 27th, 2013 at 12:08 am

My dad, who himself was a knowledgeable authority on jazz, New Orleans jazz, use to say, “The last four bars of West End Blues will tell you everything you need to know about New Orleans.

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