The Once and Future King

The story that emerged and hardened into received wisdom is known to every jazz lover and goes like this. Between 1925 and 1928, Armstrong made several dozen records by small studio units known as the Hot Five, Hot Seven, and Savoy Ballroom Five. They are the foundation for jazz's ascension as an art—indeed, for much of what we value highest in jazz and popular music. At those sessions, Armstrong supplanted the marchlike two-beat of the New Orleans style with a steady and occasionally throbbing four/four; established the imperative of blues tonality; replaced the polyphonic or group approach to improvisation with solo inventions of, in his case anyway, uncanny radiance; and freed the vernacular voice that remains at the center stage of American song. All this is true. The greatness of those records exceeds their influence. We do not pay passive homage to Armstrong's genius, but, rather, lose ourselves in its emotional grandeur, stately tone, earthy comedy, and discriminating rigor.

In 1929, he brought all these strengths to bear on a popular song by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields, "I Can't Give You Anything but Love." This number was no more compromised by Tin Pan Alley expediency than the songs he had already recorded by such successful songwriters as Spencer Williams ("Basin Street Blues") and Fats Waller ("Squeeze Me"). But their songs were the product of the close-knit world of young African American musicians making headway in jazz and on Broadway. "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" was blues-free white pop. It was also superior to much of the material Armstrong had recorded to that time, and his superb interpretation, in effect, provided a jazz pedigree for a song that would live on as a standard. Still, it generated a simmering pique among the most hidebound of his admirers, who may have astutely surmised that he would no longer belong exclusively to them.

In truth, he never did. Here is where received wisdom was skewed by the vagaries of Columbia Records. Blesh complains that he had abandoned jazz before 1925, working with Henderson and an assortment of vaudevillians, including a very mixed bag of blues divas, but ignores the pop records he made between 1925 and 1928 as though they never existed. Until the late 1980s, you could not easily find a complete edition of the Hot Fives and Sevens. But Columbia finally issued a poorly mastered set (a better edition, simultaneously released in England on JSP, can still be ordered online), followed last year by the improved but troublesome The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings. Today, listeners have no choice but to take them all in—the gold, silver, and lead. In this context, we are no longer blinded by an exhibition of largely instrumental masterpieces, from "Struttin' With Some Barbecue" and "Potato Head Blues" to "Tight Like This" and "Muggles." Instead, we are treated to a more complicated panorama in which those works alternate with lighter yet almost always earthier pieces intended to entertain.

If you include the spoken raps on "Gut Bucket Blues" and "King of the Zulus," 14 of the first 24 Hot Fives have vocals. On "He Likes It Slow," the Hot Five appears in support of vaudevillians Butterbeans and Susie, and on "Sunset Cafe Stomp" and "Big Butter and Egg Man," Armstrong's guest vocalist is May Alix, a nightclub performer known for her splits (a routine later incorporated into Armstrong's shows when he hired singer-dancer Velma Middleton) and for being so light-skinned that Ellington balked at taking her on tour. Four numbers, including those with Alix, were created by Percy Venable, who staged floor shows at the Sunset Cafe. One of them, "Irish Black Bottom," begins as "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," interpolates "Black Bottom" (also a white tune, incidentally), and finds Armstrong singing, "I was born in Ireland—ha ha!—so imagine how I feel." As it is intended to make you laugh, it will never appear on a serious best-of Louis anthology, nor should it. Neither does it becloud one's memories of "Potato Head Blues."

In short, at no time in Armstrong's career—which began with him singing for pennies on New Orleans street corners and progressed to social functions like picnics and funerals that were not covered by the press (alas)—did he devote himself exclusively to a fancied shrine of jazz; at no time was he disinclined to entertain; at no time did he forswear popular material. All the songs he sang were pop or would-be pop. No one wrote tunes, least of all Armstrong, in hope of achieving a cult status. The songs he recorded are jazz classics because he did them. In jazz, the singer makes the song, never the reverse. The most famous of his early vocals is "Heebie Jeebies," which popularized scat; "West End Blues" and "Basin Street Blues," for his soft wordless crooning; and "Hotter Than That," for his virtuoso scat romp. Less talked about is the 1928 "St. James Infirmary," another essential performance, because here for the first time we hear what Armstrong could do with a conventional song, perfectly gauging the high notes and propelling the chorus with rhythmic emotion—three months before the more inventive breakthrough on "I Can't Give You Anything but Love."

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