IN THIS ISSUE:
| J A Z Z -
R E V I S I T E D
The Hot Five & High Fidelity
BY HAZEN SCHUMACHER
Two major advances in the history of American music occurred seventy-five years ago in 1925. The first advance was musical: Louis Armstrong's Hot Five recordings, and the second was technical: the introduction of electronic recording. The impact of both of these events is still felt today.
In the early 1920s, Armstrong had been called up to Chicago from New Orleans by his mentor, "Papa" Joe "King" Oliver. Louis soon became well known in jazz circles and was sought after for club dates, recordings with blues singers, and a variety of live and recorded gigs. His next major move was to join Fletcher Henderson's group, the best big band of the day and the most influential. He sharpened up his music reading skills with Henderson and by teaching that band and its leader how to swing he influenced the whole future of big band music.
Louis was with the Henderson band in 1924 and 1925. In late 1925 his wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, convinced him to make some recordings on his own and thus, the Hot Five was born. Louis played cornet; Kid Ory, trombone; Johnny Dodds, clarinet; the rhythm section was Lil Hardin on piano and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo. The group made three sides in November, 1925 and then seven more three months later. Out of these sessions came "Cornet Chop Suey," "Heebie Jeebies," "Muskrat Ramble," and other Armstrong classics.
Louis continued these small group sessions until the end of the decade, producing such gems as "West End Blues," "Struttin' With Some Barbecue," "Weather Bird" (a duet with Earl Hines), and many others. By 1930, due to both his trumpet and his vocals, he had become a popular star and began recording songs of the day with big bands. Even on these sides, however, the power, the inventiveness, the exuberance, and most of all, the swing of Louis Armstrong shine through. One writer said that if Louis Armstrong had died in 1930, he still would have been recognized as the major figure in early jazz. In the '60s, "Cannonball" Adderley reported that he questioned a bunch of older musicians about how Armstrong seemed to have gotten most of the credit for early jazz. Was he really that good? They all agreed that there was no doubt about it; Louis stood head and shoulders above anyone else. (Many historians feel that Sidney Bechet and Earl Hines were the only ones who came close. Woody Allen would probably nominate Johnny Dodds also!)
Now to the technical advances. Before 1925, recordings were made by the so-called "acoustic" method. The performers played or sang into large horns and the vibrations were transmitted to a stylus which cut on to a master disc. The first jazz recordings by the Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917, King Oliver in 1923, Bix Beiderbecke in 1924, for example, were all acoustically recorded and, even though there have been clever attempts to augment these sides for CD re-issue, the original sounds were just not picked up. It's particularly sad about King Oliver since his health declined after 1925 so we've never heard clearly the sounds of a man reputed to be the best of the early players and Louis Armstrong's main inspiration.
Louis' recordings are another matter. The Hot Five sessions were all recorded electronically by OKeh Records which, along with Victor, produced some of the finest products of the day. But the fact is that the phonographs of the '20s were not good enough to reproduce the high quality of many of these early sides. It wasn't until the LP and CD eras that we could hear the full range of frequencies on these records. It should be noted, however, that the full range is there even on the early 78s and with a really high quality system the original disks sound great even today. (The adoption of the electronic recording process in 1925 was unmatched in technical achievement until the invention of the LP record in the late 1940s.)
According to contemporary accounts the composer Franz Liszt was a virtuoso pianist; we'll never know because he died before recording was invented. But we don't have to rely on historians to tell us how great Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson or Bill Evans are; we know from their records. As for Armstrong, his artistry still impresses musicians today. At this year's Ann Arbor Summer Festival one of the featured acts will be the fine young trumpeter Nicholas Payton presenting, " A Louis Armstrong Celebration."
Someone said that you can sum up the history of jazz in four words "Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker." So let's sum up the history of jazz in 1925 by saying, "Louis Armstrong, Electronic Recording" together they changed music forever.