ARMSTRONG, Louis: Rhythm Saved The World

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‘Rhythm Saved The World’ Original Recordings 1934-1936

Beatified alongside Ellington as a virtual synonym for Jazz, Louis left his indelible stamp on all future developments of the ‘new’ medium. The most important single influence on classic jazz, ‘America’s Ambassador of Good Will’ commercialised Jazz on records and, if he did not thereby actually ‘save the world’, he certainly altered it for the better with his rhythm. Variously trumpet virtuoso, singer, bandleader and ‘Satchmo’ the film-actor and comedian all in one, Armstong the colossus overwhelmed and bestrode all: Jazz’s first real star soloist and its self-styled Ambassador, he remains its most immortal persona. More specifically, as one of the greatest of jazz individualists, a technical master with a creative imagination, he provided the formative force to jazz trumpeters. Brush aside the hokum and he still towers among the most influential musicians of the 20th century, an artist and entertainer whose simple yet dynamic art broke through barriers, traversed borders and disarmed enemies both real and metaphorical.

Daniel Louis Armstrong was born on 4 August 1901 in the Perdido district of New Orleans. Despite the dire poverty of his upbringing (the child of a broken home, he was raised by his mother and a variety of surrogate fathers), in ‘Black Storyville’ Louis grew up surrounded by music and, like his New Orleans contemporary Sidney Bechet, his youthful imagination was fired by that city’s tradition of street-bands. As a child he would follow their processions, blowing his own tin whistle in sympathy, thus absorbing the ornate New Orleans style, naturally inheriting, as Blesh reminds us, the honours of his two most illustrious jazz cornet predecessors, Bolden and Keppard. Fortuitously, on New Year’s Eve 1912 (according to the story later perpetuated by Armstrong himself in Satchmo — My Life In New Orleans), the street-wise but over-exuberant youth was branded a delinquent for firing a stepfather’s pistol into the air "within the city limits" and soon found himself remanded to the Coloured Waifs’ Home. This silver-lined cloud provided him with the golden opportunity to practise and master the cornet, courtesy of the Home’s governor, Captain Jones, who also ran its brass band. However, according to the reliable account of Buddy Bolden’s one-time trumpet sideman Bunk Johnson (1889-1949), Louis had already for some time been "fooling around with my cornet every chance he could get". So we should thank Johnson for "showing him how to play the Blues" and Jones for teaching him the dots.

Leaving the Home at fourteen, Louis worked as an odd-job man but, in the company of Bechet and others, became one of the finest cornet players in and around Storyville, the New Orleans red-light district. He replaced his youthful idol and mentor Joe ‘King’ Oliver (1885-1938) in Kid Ory’s Brown Skinned Babies in 1918 and from the following year worked with Fate Marable’s band on Mississippi riverboats and made a name in clubs in and around New Orleans. In 1922 he joined King Oliver in Chicago as second cornet in his Creole Jazz Band at the newly-opened Lincoln Gardens and there he made his first records (for Paramount and Gennett) and met his future second wife, the Memphis-born, university-trained pianist, band-leader and composer Lil Hardin (1898-1971). (See Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120666: King Oliver).

Hardin cajoled Louis towards better things and, at her instigation, in 1924 he quit Oliver to join a larger outfit run by his old friend Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952) at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, then fast becoming a prestigious high-society venue. With the noted Georgia-born pianist, songwriter and arranger, Louis found ample opportunities for solo playing — he was featured solo by Henderson at the Apollo and Roxy theatres and at this time recorded not only with Henderson but also with Clarence Williams’ Blue Five and blues singers including Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey. However, the larger ensemble — which worked from arranged music — was a far cry from the more intimate, spontaneous Oliver ensemble.

During early 1925 Lil returned to Chicago to form her own New Orleans-orientated band at the Dreamland and in October of that year Louis, now billed ‘The World’s Greatest Jazz Cornettist’, joined Lil’s Dreamland Syncopators, an improvisational group which spawned the Hot Five (by 1926 also dubbed Lil’s Hot Shots), the revolutionary recording-studio group which comprised Louis and Lil, plus Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds (1892-1940) on clarinet and Johnny St Cyr (1890-1966) on banjo and guitar. Their earliest sessions enshrine for all time Louis’ brilliant attack and his rhythmic and melodic inventive-ness within the florid New Orleans framework, and from these discs, the first in a series seminal in the history of recorded small group jazz, Armstrong the mature soloist already shines out. While 1927 brought the formation of the more gramophonically commercial Hot Seven, from 1926 Louis had also been a star attraction and front-man with the Carroll Dickerson band at the Savoy Ballroom and in June 1928 he took back to the studio a revamped Hot Five recruited from the Dickerson outfit. At these sessions sides were recorded which, according to Burnett James, "for invention and imagination" remain unmatched in jazz history (see Naxos Jazz Legends 8.120541: Louis Armstrong Vol.1).

By the early 1930s Louis’ characteristic hokum and scatting was already becoming big business: more ubiquitous, almost de rigueur, they were commercially encouraged features of many of his recordings. His new vocal style, already much imitated and in demand in all the right circles was a salient — and saleable — feature of a much-prized stage persona. During 1930, Louis guested with Luis Russell at Washington (DC)’s Howard Theatre and, after transferring from Connie’s Inn to New York’s Cocoanut Grove, appeared in Baltimore with the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and at top venues in New York, Chicago, California and Culver City. Through his recordings an international audience for jazz was created, and although the purists carped about a deliberate oversanitising of jazz for money’s sake, a wider fraternity was captivated by the new recipe on offer and, through global distribution of his discs, Louis was an international star well before he set foot outside of the States.

‘Ain’t Misbehavin’ (from the 1929 Broadway musical Hot Chocolates), marked Louis’ shift towards Armstrong the populist, relegating Louis the trumpet virtuoso to second place. A new addition to the roster of talkie feature films (in 1930, with a cameo in Ex-flame), on records his chosen numbers included the very latest from Cotton Club revue, while new compositions by Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael and Fields & McHugh were immortalised by his fun-loving, accessible, rasping delivery. In 1932 he scored a US No.1 hit with his version of All Of Me (the Seymour Simons-Gerald Marks standard first aired in the 1931 Fox film-musical Careless Lady) and his other hits included ‘Rockin’ Chair’ (No.14; a duet recorded with composer Hoagy, in 1929) and ‘Body And Soul’ (No.7). By 1933 Louis was already a household name among popular vocalists on both sides of ‘the Pond’ and that year his hits included ‘That’s My Home’ (No.17), ‘I Gotta Right To Sing The Blues’ (No.18) and St. Louis Blues (an uncharted re-recording of his 1930 hit), while his list for 1935 included cover-versions of You Are My Luck
Disc: 1
Rhythm Saved The World
1 St. Louis Blues (No. 1)
2 Tiger Rag
3 Will You Won't You Be My Baby
4 On The Sunny Side Of The Street
5 St. Louis Blues (No. 2)
6 Song Of The Vipers
7 Got A Bran' New Suit
8 I'm In The Mood For Love
9 You Are My Lucky Star
10 I've Got My Fingers Crossed
11 Old Man Mose
12 (Was I To Blame For) Falling In Love With You
13 I'm Shooting High
14 Thanks A Million
15 Solitude
16 Shoe Shine Boy
17 I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music
18 The Music Goes 'Round And Around
19 Rhythm Saved The World
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