Louis Armstrong’s “Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings”
When people of my generation think of Louis Armstrong, we think of the world-renowned trumpeter who brought us his scraggly but soulful voice on “What a Wonderful World;” we think of the permanent, wide smile that seemed to always be bursting from his face in photographs; we think of a musician that was a true phenomenon in the world of jazz and even music as a whole. But before the legend came a young musician approaching jazz as a student, not a teacher. And before the brilliant musician came a boy from New Orleans with fast fingers and a well-tuned ear. While we may think of these phases as distinct, each phase builds upon the other until we have the mastermind of jazz that we envision when we think of his name today. The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings is an excellent representation of Louis building upon his foundation in jazz as a child and beginning to approach the stardom and success that he achieved further along in his career.
Louis Armstrong: a brief “Life and Times”
Born in 1901 in New Orleans, Louis grew up in and was shaped by one of the foremost jazz scenes in the country (if not the biggest jazz scene). Within the following decade, he had already begun to compete in “Cutting Contests” as a cornetist, in which musicians would take turns soloing and improvising for an audience. These cutting contests provided material for him to use later on in his career (as we will see later on in “Cornet Chop Suey”).
Louis finally left his home in New Orleans in 1922 to pursue a professional career with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. While recording with this band in 1923, Pops met OKeh director of production Ralph Peer, who would be critical in his later success. Louis then moved to New York City to play with Fletcher Henderson. Lil Hardin, Louis’ wife at the time who sometimes acted as his manager, sent a request to Peer to record him in the city. After playing on a series of very successful and renowned records, in 1925 Louis returned to Chicago and began to create records with Peer as “Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.”
The Hot Five and the Hot Seven
When Louis’ first solo contract began with Peer, his Hot Five included trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Johnny Dodds, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr, and his wife Lil on piano. This group continued to change over the next few years, as a couple of members were switched out here or entirely new musicians were brought in to play there. In 1927, Louis replaced Ory with John Thomas and added two new members to the group, Pete Briggs on the tuba and Baby Dodds on the drums, and this new group became Louis’ Hot Seven. Later in the year, Louis brought the original group back together to record, and then completely changed the group the following year with 4 completely new musicians from the north (when most of the musicians he had played with in the past had been from his home state) and a drummer from New Orleans. This new group was called many names, such as the Chicago Hot Five, the Savoy Ballroom Five, and Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra. These series of recordings reveal Louis gaining confidence in his ability and willingness to display his unique set of talents and techniques.
“Cornet Chop Suey”
When seeking an example of a song that reveals Louis’ roots, look no further than “Cornet Chop Suey.” Copyrighting the song in 1924 but refraining from recording it until 1926, Louis used a particular set of techniques and musical phrases in “Cornet Chop Suey” to give the audience a brief glimpse into his past.
Initially, jazz was seen predominantly in two main venues: “the dance hall and the vaudeville stage,” and “performers divided into two camps – straight (or legit) acts and novelty acts” (Harker 17). Initially, straight acts were seen as the higher class form of jazz to be played in the luxurious dance halls, representing European mastery of music. Novelty acts were thought to be left to the realm of the musicians with rudimentary skills and no real talent. Instead, it was thought that these musicians relied upon “gimmicks” to become successful rather than true proficiency with their instruments. This sort of mindset led to a larger racial divide between black and white musicians, as many white musicians had the funds to pay for lessons to become familiar with the Western European style of play while black musicians often had to learn by ear or by passing down knowledge from one generation to the next. In addition, the vaudeville and novelty scenes were often viewed as comedy rather than legitimate musical acts, further negating any skill that was displayed by black musicians.
Louis witnessed the gimmick style firsthand in cutting contests and with King Joe Oliver, who would use a mute on his cornet to play what sounded like babies, farm animals, and an assortment of other bizarre noises. Since Louis was never able to fully grasp muted playing, he instead developed his own “gimmick” which debatably required much more skill: playing his cornet like a clarinet. To do this, Louis had to master fast-moving arpeggios and eighth notes strung together, an incredibly difficult feat to accomplish on the cornet. He used these technique and even excerpts from clarinet pieces in his cutting contests in New Orleans to impress the audience with his speed rather than his ingenuity. Even in the title of the song itself, we can see a reference to his appreciation for the clarinet style as the name closely resembles that of another clarinet piece, “Clarinet Marmalade.”
In “Cornet Chop Suey,” we see not only his fast fingers but also the contrast from his first few recordings. Some of the earlier songs on his first album with his Hot Five were sometimes classified as comedy or vaudeville pieces, whereas this song stands out as a way for Louis to display his true abilities for his audience. In fact, the initial copyright of the song included far more eighth note series and arpeggios than the final recording, showing his desire to both display his skill and set himself apart from other jazz musicians. In the final recording, he also included a couple of bugle calls, an allusion to his time playing the bugle at the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys.
The reception of the song was mostly positive, as many critics were impressed with his ability to adroitly mimic a clarinet. However, Kid Rena, a musician who used to battle Louis during cutting contests in New Orleans, accused Louis of simply imitating a clarinet in “Cornet Chop Suey” rather than coming up with his own unique sound. Even though he wasn’t wrong per se, Louis was able to make what sounded like an original cornet solo using clarinet formations, which was still viewed as an incredible accomplishment. Unlike on strings, woodwinds, and keyboards, trumpets are not well-suited for arpeggios, since brass players have to constantly adjust their lips and facial muscles to change the sound and octave, rather than just being able to press a different finger down to change the note.
This clear display of expertise in combination with a changed appearance due to his wife’s bidding, Louis Armstrong began to slowly change the public’s perception of black musicians. Determined not to let Louis be overlooked by the white appreciators of music, Lil Hardin attempted to present Pops as higher class by dressing him in modern New York styles (shown on the right). This blend of a new look and a new, impressive sound depicted a new concept for a black musician: high class and incredibly skilled. This changed public perception of black musicians as a whole, and is often cited as a key turning point for African American society as a whole. No longer were they delegated to the unskilled, comedic vaudeville. They were one step closer to belonging in the same ranks as white musicians.
“Big Butter and Egg Man”
Next up we have “Big Butter and Egg Man,” a song initially performed live with the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra which Louis then recorded with his Hot Five as well as Mae Alix, a singer for the live group. The title of the song refers to a phrase that came to mean a big spender in the 1920s. This is one of the few songs in the series of Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings that began as a live performance before its recorded conception.
Before this recording, Louis was very fond of creating fresh, new pieces for the recording session that the group (whether it was the Hot Five or the Hot Seven) could spend countless takes practicing and perfecting before actually laying down the final track. Louis himself did not initially enjoy improvisation in the recording studio; he far preferred knowing exactly how he would play his solo and how the rest of the track would sound. However, as “Big Butter and Egg Man” gained traction with audiences at the Sunset Café with the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra, Mr. Armstrong decided to change his approach to recording and use the live performance as the exact template to be used in the studio.
In the live performances, Armstrong changed his playing style to mimic the two dancers, a couple from New Orleans. The couple’s style of dance was known as rhythm tap, a complex style of tap “that mingled fast, intricate steps with acrobatic leaps and Lindy hopping aerials” (Harker 61). Louis tried to emphasize the dancers style in live performances by playing on the same beats that they tapped and blasting high notes to correspond with their high kicks.
To be able to match the fast and rhythmic steps, Louis used false fingering, rather than double- or triple-tonguing, to mimic the dancers. His use of false fingering shows yet another way in which Armstrong sidestepped his lack of specific technical ability by using another technique that was more suited for him and that he could use to create the sound he was looking for.
When the track was finally created in the recording studio, the Hot Five simply replicated what was done live, even to the point that they included Louis’ vocal improvisation in response to Mae Alix’s solo. This fidelity to the live performance was a new concept for Armstrong, as most of his previous recordings were originals. However, by staying true to the live performance, Louis was forced to push his boundaries and go beyond his comfort level soloing by introducing new, complex rhythms brought about by the dance couple, Brown and McGraw. In the following recording, we will see Louis push himself further in his solos, not by changing the rhythms as he did in “Big Butter and Egg Man”, but by complementing the melody with his solo rather than just following alongside it.
“Potato Head Blues”
As Armstrong grew and developed as an artist while working with Peer, so did his loyal crew of musicians. In 1927, as mentioned before, Louis added Briggs and Dodds and replaced Ory with Thomas to create his Hot Seven, and with this new group, Louis recorded “Potato Head Blues.”
In the first couple decades of the twentieth century, jazz cornetists generally stuck with some version of the melody when soloing. There was widespread acceptance of this idea within the jazz community that very few musicians ever thought to question or move beyond. Baby Dodds, one of Louis’ Hot Five, was one such proponent of adhering to the melody, as he was quoted saying that it should be heard “at all times” (Harker 70).
Initially, Louis was part of the establishment that resisted this change as artists began to test the accepted principles of soloing. However, with “Potato Head Blues,” we can hear that Armstrong accepted the new path that jazz was bound to take and decided to take the lead and forage ahead rather than continue to fight back and be left behind.
What Armstrong did expertly in “Potato Head Blues” is that he worked with preexisting melodies and simply used the corresponding harmony as the blueprint to rearrange and make into his own. Louis spent hours with Lil and on his own to understand proper harmonies according to Western musical tradition, all for the sake of learning how to create a bridge between the ultimate goal of true, unfettered improvisation and the euphonic melodies and tunes that steered clear of discordant passages.
Similarly to “Muskrat Ramble,” “Potato Head Blues” displays Armstrong’s hours of research and practice with musical theory to create a harmonious yet novel solo. This stop-time solo flawlessly references the melody all the while remaining unpredictable and creative. To master this new sound, Louis uses arpeggios that follow the chord structure as his model, and then plays around with that model for the entirety of the solo. The end result is a close representation of free melody. The concept of free melody led to the prototypical jam sessions that define much of today’s jazz, in which musicians are completely unrestricted by a particular melody and often base their next line off of a chord progression or even a feeling of the direction of the song.
Significance of Album
Louis Armstrong’s masterful mimicry of both the clarinet and of the tap dancers’ shoes and kicks not only proved his musical prowess but also his ingenuity and knack for unconventional and unique ideas. His adaptations to the previously existing jazz solo to enable jazz musicians to work off of the harmonies rather than being restricted by the melody has had a tremendously powerful impact on today’s jazz. By breaking the mold for jazz soloists, Louis helped develop a new way to approach jazz and even the process of recording.
Bergreen, Laurence. Louis Armstrong, an Extravagant Life.
Brothers, Thomas. Louis Armstrong, Master of Modernism.
Harker, Brian. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings.