Friday, June 08, 2007

Hotter Than That, Louis Armstrong

Hotter Than That, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, Chicago, December 13, 1927.

Louis Armstrong, trumpet
Kid Ory, trombone
Johnny Dodds, clarinet
Lil Hardin Armstrong, piano
Johnny St. Cyr, banjo
Lonnie Johnson, guitar

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Louis Armstrong on the art and culture of the 20th century. Although he is one of those important and innovative artists who show up once in a while and transform not just their art but their audiences, like maybe Masaccio or Donatello, most people today know him as the singer of nice songs like What a Wonderful World or Hello Dolly; it is hard for them to get past the clowning or downright buffoonish behavior he sometimes exhibited on stage. My role is not to change people's minds, but to introduce Armstrong in the context of a unit on jazz and blues considered in the humanities, and its a real pleasure to talk about this guy, but even more to listen to his music.

Name of section followed by time in minutes and seconds:

Intro (vamp) 0 - 8

The ensemble - that is, the group playing together - takes the first eight bars of introduction, with Louis Armstrong in the lead - a characteristic place for him in any recording he ever made. A chorus in this piece is 32 bars long, so this intro, sometimes referred to as a vamp, is a quarter the length of a typical chorus.

A1 First chorus 09 - 45

The vamp is followed by the first chorus, which consists of Louis Armstrong’s cornet solo accompanied by the rhythm section, with a break in bars 15-16 (at seconds 25-26).

The rhythm section in a jazz band - as we know - consists of the piano, drums, and stringed instruments like banjo or guitar. Fortunately, this recording does not feature the tuba, which does feature on other wonderful recordings, like Potato Head Blues, for example, but which gives to some pieces from this epoch a sort of a comic sense of an elephant’s lumbering along. The tuba was replaced by the string bass in the late 20s to keep the rhythm section rhythmic. There is no drum in these recordings.

The rhythm section is distinguished from the front line, which is the second of the two parts to the Chicago jazz band. The front line consists of the cornet (later the trumpet), the trombone, the clarinet. As we know, the trumpet (or cornet) usually takes the melody as the trombone and clarinet fill in, but each of these instruments may take a solo - each takes a solo in this recording - while the others fill in.

This chorus ends with a clarinet break (seconds 43-45), meaning that Louis' chorus is 30 bars followed by 2 taken by Johnny Dodds in the break.

Such breaks (you may want to listen to them again) are a consistent feature of Chicago jazz (which actually originated in New Orleans but was played and recorded in Chicago by the mid to late 1920s). In a break the rest of the band cuts out for a few measures while the soloist takes a particularly striking few bars by himself to be then re-joined by the ensemble. A break is a way for a soloist to demonstrate his prowess, and for a band to demonstrate how well they keep time together. In this recording they punctuate the middle and endings of the choruses.

A2 Second chorus 46 – 1:20

The second chorus (again at 32 bars long), opens with the final two bars of the first chorus taken by a Johnny Dodds clarinet break leading into his clarinet solo with rhythm accompaniment. Dodds takes another break, (again at bars 15-16) in the middle of the chorus (1:01 – 1:02) as Louis had done in the first chorus. Dodds is a masterful soloist, almost always worth listening to. It is likely that his playing - this would by typical of any player - improves in recordings he made with Louis Armstrong, who seems to inspire him to great depths of feeling.

Then, just as Dodds on clarinet had taken a break at the end of Armstrong’s chorus, Armstrong takes a break at the end of Dodd’s chorus, only this break turns into a scat vocal (1:18 – 1:20). These breaks at the end of the chorus are compelling transitions to the next chorus, and a nice contrast to the breaks that are usually taken in the middle of the choruses.

A3 Third chorus 1:21 – 1:50

Scat singing - which Louis pioneered in recording with Heebie Jeebies, which became a sensational hit in 1926- is the emotive, wordless singing in which the vocal more closely imitates an instrumental, since there are no words, only vocalizations. If at first this style of singing seems like mindless babble, listen more carefully. Armstrong’s singing style influenced every jazz singer after him, though few had his talent.

Armstrong - as we have come to expect - takes a break in the middle of the chorus, again at bars 15-16, (1:37 – 1:38) and continues scatting to the end of the chorus with another break at 1:55 - 1:58, where he starts to imitate himself growling on a muted trumpet. This introduces a 16-bar interlude in which Louis engages the next soloist, Lonnie Johnson on the guitar, in a call and response duet.

Duet Interlude (or, conceivably, the B chorus) with Louis on scat vocal accompanied by guitar antiphony 1:58 - 2:14

After those three A choruses comes the genial and amazing 16-bar duet interlude (half a chorus) for guitar and voice consisting of alternating 2-bar breaks. Lonnie Johnson, a blues guitarist whose fine playing helps take this song into the pantheon of recorded jazz performances, solos on the bridge. The guitar chorus has a similar form as those previous, with a break at bars 15-16, but not at the end.

James McCalla (Jazz: A Listener’s Guide ) calls attention to a particular feature of this chorus:

Try to sing along in the chorus where his scat is working against the backup rhythm, where he’s singing (or syncopating) in 3 (1 2 3 1 2 3) against their 4 (1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4). Louis comes out at the right place at the right time, and had a good time doing it, thank you; can you follow it?”(p. 29).

Me? No thanks!

Interlude 2:14 – 2:17

After the duet interlude comes a 4-bar piano interlude by Lil Hardin Armstrong, Louis’ second wife, the song's composer.

A4 Fourth and final chorus 2:18 – 2:52

Kid Ory on trombone takes 14 bars with rhythm accompaniment leading to another Armstrong 2-bar break at bars 15 and 16 (2:33 – 2:35). This is followed by 8 bars of ensemble playing with, as usual, Louis in the lead and a 4 bar stop time break by Louis over the rhythm section at 2:45 - 50. This final chorus comes to a close with another 2 bars of the ensemble led by Louis that concludes with a 2 bar break by Lonnie Johnson on guitar at 2:52

Coda 2:53 - 3:00

The piece ends with a coda: two bars of solo guitar, another couple of the trumpet and then a final two bars of solo guitar.

Here is Gary Giddens describing the song:

After an eight-bar introduction, Armstrong revels in the theme, bursting into a break at bar fifteen, the melodic content of which appeared in many guises of the next decade (the Ink Spots sing it on “Java Five”). What should have been Armstrong’s second break (bars thirty-one to thirty-two) functions instead as a relay point to introduce Johnny Dodds. Armstrong in turn takes up the relay from Dodds, only this time he sings a rhythmically devious scat chorus, upping the ante with cross-rhythms in bars sixteen to twenty six—his finest vocal to date. He then sings two-bar exchanges with Johnson’s guitar. . . . A piano transition and trombone solo provide a brief lull before the storming climax, a trumpet break and solo in which Armstrong parses twelve high Cs over seven bars. The pacific conclusion is a reprise of two-bar exchanges between trumpet and guitar (Visions of Jazz, p. 96).