Duke Ellington famously stated, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” but without Louis Armstrong, Duke would assuredly have had to pose some other question. Bing Crosby, the man owed a debut by every popular singer of the past eighty or so years, described Armstrong as “the beginning and end of music in America” while fellow trumpeter Miles Davis acknowledged that “you can’t play anything on a horn that Louis hasn’t played.” Yet Armstrong is arguably most remembered today by the general public for his latter-day vocals like “What a Wonderful World” and the song that unseated The Beatles from the top of the charts, “Hello, Dolly!,” or for his broad comic persona that detractors felt ignored the strides of the civil rights movement. What made Louis Armstrong so venerated, then? If you don’t know already, you’ll find many of the answers on The OKeh, Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933 (88697 94565 2).
This new 10-CD box set is a comprehensive look at some of Satchmo’s earliest recordings, though not the earliest: extant recording date back even further, to 1923. But these sides are among the most influential ever - not just in jazz, but in all of popular music. This period has been addressed before on authorized releases from Legacy. 1994’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man covered the decade-plus period of 1923-1934 on four discs. Another 4-CD set, 2000’s The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings included not just the core tracks from Armstrong’s all-star studio groups but also out-of-contract performances for the Vocalion label and an alternate take, all recorded between 1925 and 1929. Out of necessity, there is some overlap with those sets. The first eight discs here were previously released by Legacy between 1988 and 1993 as the now out-of-print Armstrong Columbia Jazz Masterpieces series, while Discs 9 and 10 replicate the first two discs of the (also out-of-print) 1997 Complete RCA Victor Recordings. For those who don’t own those releases, however, here’s a handy and affordable way to acquire this essential material.
The so-called “Hot Fives and Hot Sevens” on the first three discs have been called “the Rosetta Stone of jazz,” and these are the songs on which Armstrong built his reputation: breaking new improvisatory ground with each solo (on both cornet and trumpet), finding his voice, developing the phrasing that would influence generations, and in the process virtually inventing what we think of as swing. Armstrong’s singular gift of phrasing extended to both instrumental playing and singing; his was one voice, however it was deployed. Original compositions by the band members dominate these Chicago-recorded tracks. The first Hot Fives group consisted of Armstrong, Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Armstrong (piano/vocal) and Johnny St. Cyr (banjo). John Thomas replaced Ory on trombone, and Pete Briggs joined on tuba and Baby Dodds on drums to create the Hot Sevens. Naturally, these instruments (and instrumentalists) lent those sessions a very different feel. The final recordings on Disc Three are from altered line-ups: Lonnie Johnson (guitar) joins Louis, Lil, Ory, Dodds and St. Cyr in one group, while another includes Louis, Fred Robinson (trombone), Jimmy Strong (clarinet/tenor saxophone), Mancy Carr (banjo), Zutty Singleton (drums) and the remarkable Earl “Fatha” Hines on piano. Most amazingly, it should be remembered that the Hot Fives and Sevens groups were studio bands, not well-rehearsed groups that honed its repertoire on the road. Many of these classic songs were improvised in the studio, on the spot. As Cole Porter once wrote for Louis to sing, “Now you has jazz!”
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It’s difficult not to emphasize the importance of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens as they are such landmark recordings. The first three discs here span less than three years, between November 1925 and June 1928, but during this period, Armstrong’s trailblazing style became the mainstream. And important though these tracks are, they’re also a lot of fun! Though Armstrong’s voice was practically built for the blues, all rasp and growl, he must have realized how delightful it sounded when spreading joy. (There are both vocals and instrumentals in the Hot Fives and Sevens.) You could even describe Louis as “sweet” on “A Monday Date,” from June 1928. These tracks are infectiously enjoyable, from Lil Armstrong’s barrelhouse piano to showman Louis’ spirited and flashy leads. You might even want to Charleston yourself during “Don’t Forget to Mess Around.” One productive session alone in Feburary 1926 yielded six songs including “Georgia Grind,” with Lil on vocals, “Heebie Jeebies” with Louis’ landmark scatting, and “Muskrat Ramble,” an instant jazz standard. Louis wasn’t the first artist to scat, but was among the earliest and most influential. And although Kid Ory is credited with writing “Muskrat Ramble,” Louis himself asserted authorship years later. Among the many Hot Sevens pleasures: comparing the original “S.O.L. Blues,” rejected for its suggestive title (you can guess the acronym) and rewritten and rerecorded as “Gully Low Blues” the very next day.It’s also a revelation while listening to realize that these songs were recorded acoustically, made without aid of a microphone. (The classic RCA “ribbon” microphone was introduced in 1931, and Louis would soon master that instrument, too.)
When Armstrong met pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, he found a musician who could match him in innovation. The fourth CD here spotlights Pops’ recordings with Hines and a variety of groups in 1927-1928, also recorded in Chicago for OKeh, Columbia and Odeon. (This box set is not strictly chronological, as the recordings on this disc fall in between those on Discs 1-3.) Once again, some of the most famous performances in all of jazz are on this disc. In 1928, Armstrong and Hines’ band popularized King Oliver’s “West End Blues” (with impressive solos from Armstrong and Hines, and its distinct trumpet introduction), another epochal Louisiana tune, “Basin Street Blues,” and the dark, funereal “St. James Infirmary.” The two men’s rapport, though, was never more evident than on “Weather Bird,” with just Armstrong and Hines, alone, going at it. The recordings on this disc primed Hines for his own success, though he would later return to the Armstrong fold as an All-Star. (But that’s a story for another day.)
CDs 5 and 6 cover the seminal 1929-1930 period during which time Armstrong recorded in New York and Los Angeles with bands big and small. Here’s where we meet Jack Teagarden, the trombonist who would also play a major role in Armstrong’s future. Here, too, are Armstrong’s earliest “pop”-style recordings, with a number of spirited Jimmy McHugh songs: “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” as well as “I Can’t Believe That You’re in Love with Me” and “Exactly Like You.” Fats Waller’s oft-revisited “Ain’t Misbehavin’” is a particularly beloved title. Armstrong’s Gershwin quote in the song still instantly commands attention. Armstrong also has a great deal of fun on insouciant songs with titles like “Bessie Couldn’t Help It” and “I’m a Ding Dong Daddy from Dumas.”
These discs also provide a chance to delve even further into Armstrong’s process, as numerous songs are heard in multiple takes: “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” the Sophie Tucker perennial “Some of These Days,” W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” just to name three. Armstrong recorded both vocal and non-vocal takes of some songs for OKeh. As Armstrong was at the top of his game in both departments, preference for one over the other is just a matter of taste.
On one June 1929 session for “S’posin” and “To Be in Love,” Armstrong assembled a group of all-stars, though his unit was yet to acquire that title. Supporting the vocals of one Seger Ellis were Armstrong on trumpet, Tommy Dorsey on trombone and Jimmy Dorsey on clarinet! Ellis’ mannered alto is as old-fashioned as Armstrong’s trumpet is (still) up-to-the-minute, but the gentleman clearly had taste in his selection of musicians! (Ellis reunited with the Dorseys and Armstrong couple of months later for another session presented here, too. Ellis’ “Ain’t Misbehavin’” may be one of the most staid readings of that playful song.) Renowned songwriter Hoagy Carmichael had a bit more vocal personality, and he duets with Armstrong on a delicious 1930 take of his own “Rockin’ Chair.” Another session accompanying a vocalist was undertaken by Louis with Victoria Spivey on her “Funny Feathers” and “How Do You Do It That Way?” (Though little known today, Spivey was a legend in blues circles. She was supported by none other than Bob Dylan on a 1962 recording.)
CDs 7 and 8 find Louis embracing the new decade with sessions in Los Angeles and his usual stomping grounds of Chicago, tackling soon-to-be-signature songs like “(I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead) You Rascal You” (on which he truly cuts loose!) and Louis’ theme “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” Hoagy Carmichael’s “Lazy River” also brings out the best in Armstrong. There are also a number of popular standards on these discs, and Louis contributed mightily to their present stature: Carmichael’s perennials “Georgia on My Mind” and “Stardust,” plus the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm,” Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” and “All of Me.” He also returned to the Fats Waller songbook with a coy “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” But Armstrong wasn’t keeping out of mischief, far from it. One particularly mischievous song from this era (heard on CD 8) is Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s “Kickin’ the Gong Around,” a Cab Calloway specialty. The title was a slang expression for smoking opium, and if Armstrong had considerably greater success at the January 1932 same session with all-time classic “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” he has fun with the song, even interjecting a comical “Oh, Lord!” at one point. “Reverend Satchelmouth Armstrong” introduces quite the sermon in an unusual and incredibly gravelly reading of “Lonesome Road,” and is similarly raucous on “I Got Rhythm,” from the same November 1931 session.
The final two discs in the box pick up with Armstrong’s move to the Victor label in late 1932 with recordings made not just in the Windy City, but also in RCA’s headquarters of Camden, New Jersey. Though the line-ups of his Orchestra changed, the consistency and quality didn’t. He recorded two “Medley of Armstrong Hits” sides for Victor, reprising staples including “You Rascal You,” “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” and “St. James Infirmary,” and he tapped the Arlen/Koehler songbook once more for “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” (that he did!) and “I’ve Got the World on a String,” much later to become forever associated with Frank Sinatra. The overwhelming ten-CD box ends with a few alternate takes from sessions in 1932, and Louis (and Lil Armstrong, back on piano!) backing country –and-western pioneer Jimmie Rodgers on his “Blue Yodel No. 9,” recorded in Los Angeles in July 1930. (Armstrong would return to Victor in 1946-1947, but those recordings fall out of the purview of this set and have been reissued on 1997’s The Complete RCA Victor Recordings box.) If possible Armstrong sounds even more confident and swaggering on the infectiously enjoyable Victor sides. Though he possessed a joie de vivre for all of his life, it’s particularly potent on these early recordings.
This handsome set of boisterous, rollicking, influential music proves beyond a doubt that good things do, indeed, come in small packages. The box is packaged in the standard style for these sets, with the discs in mini LP-sleeves (each sleeve adorned with a label from an Armstrong record) and a booklet. The latter contains a brief, introductory essay as well as track annotations and some fun photographs of Armstrong and his orchestra in their finest attire. The essay is courtesy the Armstrong historian Ricky Riccardi; as anyone who has read his book What a Wonderful World knows, Riccardi is both authoritative and enthusiastic. The personnel on each track are thankfully indicated, too, as is the place of recording, and the appropriate label and matrix numbers. There may be some technical issues marring the early discs in this set; liner note author Ricky Riccardi wrote in one forum, “it appears that every single one of the 1925 and 1926 Hot Fives are pitched a half-step low.” (The same issue seemed to mar the original issues from which these CDs have been derived. No new remastering appears to have been performed.)
Though aimed at those purchasers who don’t already own the Columbia Jazz Masterpieces and Complete RCA Victor sets, The OKeh, Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933 remains an economic way for newcomers to pick up these essential sides from an American treasure. Armstrong, of course, continued to innovate in the years to come, earning an audience that has lasted for decades after his death. One can imagine, though, what a balm Armstrong and his joyous band of music-makers must have been in the heady days of the Great Depression. When he smiled, indeed, the whole world smiled with him...and many of us still do.
You can order The OKeh, Columbia and RCA Victor Recordings 1925-1933 here!