Tuesday, June 12, 2007

West End Blues, Louis Armstrong

West End Blues, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, Chicago, June 28, 1928.

Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal

Fred Robinson, trombone

Jimmy Strong, clarinet

Earl Hines, piano

Mancy Carr, banjo

Zutty Singleton, drums.

The West End refers to a New Orleans neighborhood. Louis was born and grew up in New Orleans, much like jazz itself.

You can hear a clarion call in Louis's trumpet from the very first notes - one of the most imitated in jazz - where he does a breathtaking (literally!) free-tempo cadenza that says, basically, here I am, and if you haven't been paying attention until now, you really ought to start doing so. Trumpet calls do that sort of thing, and there has rarely been a more effective one.

Introduction 0 – 15

With this introduction, Louis traverses the register, swooping down and down and down and then up and up and up again to a stratospheric high note that lasts and lasts and lasts and lasts...

The next part begins way up there in the high notes and floats effortlessly down and into the body of the piece. Gunther Schuller points out that this introduction "combines two ideas--the occasionally used opening break...and the extended stop-time chorus--into a cadenza that is free in tempo. Yet despite its rubato freedoms, the introduction is, in retrospect, clearly in double time to the main tempo of the piece." (Schuller, Early Jazz, p. 115). [Rubato refers to the momentary change in tempo created by holding some notes longer than others.] He goes on to characterize the first four notes of the piece:

These four notes should be heard by all people who do not understand the difference between jazz and other music, or those who question the uniqueness of the element of swing. These notes as played by Louis--not as they appear in notation--are as instructive a lesson in what constitutes swing as jazz has to offer. The way Louis attacks each note, the quality and exact duration of each pitch, the manner in which he releases the note--in other words the entire acoustical pattern--present in capsule form all the essential characteristics of jazz inflection. (p. 116)

At the end of the intro the ensemble plays a chord.

First blues chorus 16 – 49

After the virtuoso opening this song settles into the format of a traditional 12-bar blues with five choruses. The first is a trumpet solo assisted by Jimmy Strong on clarinet and Fred Robinson on trombone. Both the clarinet and trombone play sustained notes; the trombone often starts out with a smeared pitch and the clarinet often follows the melodic line set out by the trumpet. Strong’s clarinet is is in the dark, woody style known as chalumeau.

Second blues chorus 50 – 1:24

The second chorus is a trombone solo accompanied by those weird clumping percussion things coming from Zutty Singleton on the drums. Note that the trombone phrases again often begin with a smear. The banjo provides accompaniment.

Third blues chorus 1:25 – 2:00

The third chorus has Louis scat singing in a duet with the clarinet (Jimmy Strong) in call and response pattern.

Here is what Billie Holiday had to say about this solo:

It was the first time I heard anybody sing without using any words… Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba and the rest of it had plenty of meaning for me—just as much meaning as some of the other words that I didn’t always understand. But the meaning used to change, depending on how I felt. Sometimes the record would make me so sad I’d cry up a storm. Other times the same damn record would make me so happy.

Fourth blues chorus 2:01 – 2:31

Then comes Earl Hines's piano chorus, in a marked contrast to the playing of Lil Armstrong from earlier Hot Five recordings. The rhythmic and harmonic contributions Hines provides are both clever and discrete. There is a sense we get here of a performer saying “Listen to me,” which comes out in many jazz performances - never more vividly than with the trumpet call that opens this recording. I think this attitude is fairly typical of any of the good players who found themselves accompanying Louis; he brought out their best, and almost required that they play so they could be heard better—not necessarily louder, but better. I am not sure it works that way for Robinson or Strong, but Hines does seem to respond effectively.

In the first four measures the pianist uses his left hand to chord in a legato style while the right hand improvises little filigree figures. In the second four measures (another ten seconds) Hines changes the style of playing with his right hand (at 2:10), pounding out double time figures. This style is known as the “trumpet style” of the piano, which may derive from his encounter with Louis. In the third four measures Hines returns to those stylish figures he started with.

Fifth blues chorus 2:32 – 2:55

In the final chorus Louis and the ensemble play together. Schuller calls this final chorus "the perfect climax, structurally and emotionally. It can only be described as ecstatic." It starts with the first four measures in a single high b flat note sustained for ten long seconds with enormous emotional power. The second four measures features double-timing. In the third four measures the horns cut out (stop playing) as the piano plays a sequence of chords descending the scale, each struck out forcefully, linked by glissandos

Regarding this recording, Earl Hines is quoted in the Time-Life series (John S. Wilson, author of the notes) as follows:

Now how the ending was going to be we didn't know. We got to the end of it and Louis looked at me and I thought of the first thing I could think of, a little bit of classic thing that I did a long time ago and I did it five times and after I finished that I held the chord and Louis gave the downbeat with his head and everybody hit the chord on the end.

The problem was that not everybody hit the chord at the end the first time. Hines continues, speaking of the drummer:

Zutty [Singleton] had this little clop cymbal ... and he clopped it wrong. So then we had to start all over again... We spent hours in there with the hot wax ... But it was a lot of fun -afterwards. When it first came out, Louis and I stayed by that recording practically an hour and a half or two hours and we just knocked each other out because we had no idea it was gonna turn out as good as it did.