Chicago, 1928. Louis Armstrong was 26 when he walked into the studio with his band, the Hot Five. The young Armstrong had been playing and recording for a few years, and this session didn’t seem like it would be any different. The band would wax a few tracks and that’d be it.
Not this time. Louis had a particular song in mind. Written and recorded originally by his mentor, the man who’d really taught him to play, cornet player and bandleader Joe “King” Oliver. The song? “West End Blues.” King Oliver’s version is great, but what Louis Armstrong did with that song changed history. Satchmo took West End Blues and blew it out of the water.
Armstrong’s vocal section is one of the earliest examples of scat singing. And of course there’s his trumpet. Technical devastation only matched by sheer beauty and emotionality. Its opening cadenza—a 15-second trumpet solo—is one of the most influential and inimitable solos in Jazz history.
Suddenly, jazz wasn’t just dance-hall entertainment or garden-variety folk music anymore. Now jazz could be considered the highest form of artistic expression.
So here it is. One of the most important recordings in history—not just the history of jazz and blues, but of all popular music. Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five, “West End Blues.”
Louis Armstrong was born August 4, 1900 (or 1901, depending on the source) in New Orleans, Louisiana. His early life was tough. An illegitimate child born to a prostitute who grew up delivering coal to the strumpets of Storyville and was sentenced to a home for delinquents for firing a pistol at age 11. As for the name Satchmo, it comes with a few origin stories. One is that as a child the young street musician would pick up the pennies tossed at him and put them in his mouth to avoid the sticky fingers of larger thieves. His mouth became a satchel, so, Satchelmouth, which became Satchmo. Another version goes that he just had such a big mouth it was like a Satchel…hence Satchelmouth and Satchmo. That big mouth would go on to revolutionize the history of music.
Louis Armstrong’s version of West End Blues was recorded in Chicago on June 28, 1928 for Okeh Records, just seventeen days after Armstrong’s mentor, Joe ‘King’ Oliver waxed his own version of the song with his band the Dixie Syncopaters. Joe ‘King’ Oliver was a successful New Orleans bandleader, who recognized Armstrong’s potential early on and fostered the young man’s talent. When Oliver made the move north from NoLa to Chicago in 1922, he invited Armstrong to come along with him. Though Armstrong left King Oliver’s band in ’25 for a stint in New York City, it wasn’t until 1928, with the recording of West End Blues, that he truly left his mentor behind.
Oliver had written the song sometime earlier, West End being an African-American entertainment hub on Lake Pontchartrain outside of New Orleans. And the track’s good enough to be sure. But it’s Armstrong’s version that put jazz on the map as an art form to be reckoned with. The recording’s a landmark for a number of reasons. For one, Satchmo’s vocal section is considered to be one of the earliest examples of scat singing. But really it’s Armstrong’s 15-second trumpet intro and 8-bar trumpet solo at the end mark the true beginnings of the revolutionary and virtuosic technique that would make the man a well-loved worldwide sensation. The phrases Armstrong waxed on that record are both so technically difficult and emotionally charged that they remain, to this day, a keystone for jazz musicians, considered nearly impossible to imitate. Even the musicians themselves were stunned by the sound they’d produced. As Earl Hines, the piano player on the record would later attest, “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.”
And good it did. That record became one of the most important and wildly influential tracks in jazz history. Countless musicians found themselves in the sounds of Armstrong’s trumpet. Billie Holiday wrote “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.” She’s go on to say of his instrumental technique, “it sounded like he was making love to me. That’s how I wanted to sing.” And as for critics? Some say that Armstrong’s West End Blues has been the subject of more analysis than any other performance in jazz history. Just goes to show, 15 seconds of trumpet is worth more than thousands upon thousands of words.
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