Louis Armstrong And His Hot Five
Recorded June 28, 1928
Track Time 3:11
Written by Joe “King” Oliver and Clarence Williams
Recorded in Chicago
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Mancy Carr, banjo; Zutty Singleton, hand-cymbals
Originally released on OKeh 8597
Currently available on CD: It’s on almost any Hot Five compilation, as well as hundreds of “Best-of” discs
Available on Itunes? Yes, on about 40 different albums, so take your pick!
[Note: On this date in 2008 and 2009, I celebrated Armstrong's seminal 1928 recording of "West End Blues" with a massive blowout posting charting the history of the tune. I didn't share it for the past two years but have decided that "West End Blues" should be celebrated EVERY year. So even though nothing much has really changed since the last time I posted it, here it is again.]
[Second Note: When I re-posted this last week, a lot of the original links no longer worked. Through the magic of YouTube and my own personal collection, everything works now. Sorry for the inconvenience!]
84 years ago today, Louis Armstrong did this:
Technically, that’s all I should have to write about the subject of today’s entry, “West End Blues.” Louis Armstrong’s 1928 performance of the tune has probably been the subject of more words and analysis than any other in the history of jazz. Gunther Schuller devoted page after page to it in 1967’s Early Jazz, writing, “The clarion call of “West End Blues’ served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression.” Gary Giddins wrote that this tune “came to symbolize more than any other the ascendancy of a classic American music.” John Chilton called the introduction “a great moment in 20th century music.” Ken Burns devoted an entire segment to it (if you’d like to hear Artie Shaw, Wynton Marsalis and Gary Giddins expound on it, check that out).
Okay, so now we all know that this is one historic, pretty great recording. It would be senseless for me to come up with different ways of saying “West End Blues” in unbelievable so, with your kind permission, I’m going to take another route and look at the song itself: other versions, other attempts by Pops, tributes to Armstrong, anything and everything I can fine. So get ready for another interactive journey through the history of “West End Blues”....the greatest record ever made during the 20th century.
(Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)
“West End Blues” was written by two very important figures in Louis Armstrong’s life. Joe “King” Oliver was perhaps the most important person to Armstrong in his early years, giving the younger man tips on playing the cornet in New Orleans and eventually hiring him to perform in Chicago with his band at the Lincoln Gardens. Armstrong cut his first records with Oliver and though he eventually left his mentor, the two enjoyed a warm friendship in Chicago, often sitting in with each other’s bands (as Hot Lips Page testified). The lyrics of “West End Blues” were co-written by pianist Clarence Williams, a musician who gave Armstrong a lot of studio work during his time in New York City with Fletcher Henderson’s band in 1924 and 1925. Williams wrote many jazz classics, including “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home,” “Royal Garden Blues” and a tune he apparently stole from Armstrong, “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate” (Armstrong wrote it as “Get Off Katie’s Head” in New Orleans; Williams heard it, cleaned it up and published it as his own, scoring a hit that is still being performed by New Orleans jazz bands today).
In 1925, Oliver organized a new, slightly bigger band, performing in Chicago and making fine records for Vocalion, including the popular “Snag It.” In 1928, Oliver tried his luck in New York, making one of the worst decisions in jazz history when he turned down an offer to play at the Cotton Club, an offer that ended up going to Duke Ellington.
On June 11, 1928, Oliver recorded one of his new compositions, “West End Blues,” a 32-bar, three-strain blues, with a band, the Dixie Syncopators, that included trombonist Jimmy Archey, Ernest Elliott and Arville Harris on reeds, Clarence Williams on piano, Leroy Harris on banjo and Cyrus St. Clair on tuba. Here is that first recorded of “West End Blues,” as originally conceived by its composer (by the way, Williams hadn’t written the lyrics yet, so the original record only credited Oliver).
Oliver’s first “West End Blues” does well in invoking a quiet, blues atmosphere, but there’s nothing remotely earth-shattering on that record. Oliver’s lead is pretty and stately; one can definitely hear traces of Armstrong in his phrasing, especially the mature, later Armstrong. After Oliver’s lead, the clarinets play a unison passage before a somber solo by trombonist Archey, who would go on to play in Armstrong’s big band in the 1930s. Archey’s followed by clarinetist Ernest Elliott, who really hams it up in his spot. So much for a pretty, stately, somber blues! Elliott’s all over the place, playing like he’s trying to impress his girlfriend, even throwing in a little rooster call for good measure (shades of ODJB!). Fortunately, Oliver swoops in to restore the dignity of the performance, entering on a phrase that could have easily been played by Armstrong. The record ends and well, that’s all there is. Nice stuff, but pretty ho-hum.
Exactly 17 days later, in Chicago, Louis Armstrong prepared to record his own version of Oliver’s tune. He had been playing with Carroll Dickerson’s group at the Savoy Ballroom and had just resumed recording for OKeh after nearly a six month hiatus. Armstrong’s new recordings featured former Dickerson pianist Earl “Fatha” Hines, one of Armstrong’s only contemporaries to demonstrate a genius very nearly on par with the trumpeter.
“West End Blues” was the second song recorded that June 28 day, the third OKeh session that took place in three consecutive days. The first song, “Don’t Jive Me” featured a very swinging Armstrong solo and rideout chorus, backed sublimely by Zutty Singleton’s relentless hand-cymbals. “Don’t Jive Me” is a good record, but nothing on it foreshadows what happened next. Again, for convenience, here’s the link for what exactly happened next:
Though only three minutes and 21 seconds, “West End Blues” feels like an epic film. The opening cadenza sets the mood, like a gripping action sequence that occurs before the credits (in this case, Armstrong’s reading of the melody would serve as the credits, I suppose). Some critics have discussed the cadenza as if it were completely spontaneous, as if Armstrong said, “Okay, boys, let’s cut Papa Joe’s tune. I’ll play a little intro and we’ll take it.” That cadenza is too damn perfect to be completely spontaneous, and besides, it contains fragments of ideas that Armstrong had already put into wax. The most famous example was originally spotted by one of my mentors, Lewis Porter, who wrote about in the liner notes of an LP set of Armstrong and Sidney Bechet recordings from their time in New York in 1924 and 1925. One of those recordings was “Changeable Daddy of Mine,” recorded by a Clarence Williams group with a vocal by Margaret Johnson. Pay particular attention to the double time bridge and the break Armstrong takes:
It’s not EXACTLY “West End Blues,” but it’s close, especially in those quick, little chromatic runs tossed around at the end of the break. Something similar can be heard in the breaks of the Hot Five record “Once in a While” from 1927, something that was pointed out by Joshua Berrett in his masterful “Louis Armstrong and Opera,” as published in the spring 1992 issue of “The Musician’s Quarterly.” For those looking for a nuts and bolts analysis of every bar of Armstrong’s cadenza, definitely look up Berrett’s article as he thoroughly deconstructs each of what he hears as the four main phrases that make up the cadenza.
For me personally, the “West End Blues” cadenza could have been issued as a record by itself, like the later Charlie Parker “Famous Alto Break.” It’s like listening to a song with all its different components and each time I hear it, something different knocks me out: the opening descending quarter notes that sound like an alarm clock; the dizzying arpeggios that build to the stirring high concert C; the history-of-jazz-encapsulated-in-one-bluesy-run descending blitz of notes that immediately follows the high C, foreshadowing where jazz is going, yet firmly rooted in where it’s been; and those scattered chromatic phrases, sounding so effortless in the hands (or chops) of an artist who is so completely in command of his horn. It’s 12 seconds of heaven. The rest of the record could have consisted of nothing but a yodeler warbling, “Stick out your can, here comes the garbage man,” and it would still be a classic just for that opening.
Fortunately, what follows is still pretty magical. Armstrong plays Oliver’s lead in harmony with Jimmy Strong’s clarinet as Fred Robinson’s trombone lends a foggy bottom to the proceedings. Armstrong maintains the dignified, somber feel of Oliver’s record, until he gets to bar seven, where his reading of the melody begins to grow more airy and ornate. At the 12-bar chorus, he spins another arpeggio up to a high concert Bb and then takes a breather, handing the ball over to Robinson to take a short solo. Robinson was no legend and on many of these 1928 sides, he doesn’t hold a candle to Armstrong, but even he seems inspired on this one, taking his time and moaning the essence of the blues on Oliver’s written second strain. He gets delicious backing by a Zutty Singleton shuffle beat with his hand cymbals and a steady, nearly 12-bar tremolo by Hines.
The feel of the record shifts in the third chorus, as Hines and banjoist Mancy Carr simply pound out the melody delicately over quarter notes behind clarinetist Strong’s chalumeau take on Oliver’s next strain. Every phrase Strong plays in answered by some of the most sober wordless vocalizing ever contributed by Armstrong. I hesitate to call it scatting because usually the word “scat” sounds happy and joyful and Armstrong is anything but that during “West End Blues.” There’s not a trace of gravel in his voice and he phrases up high, just like his trumpet, though it’s so relaxed, he sounds like he’s listening to the radio. There’s not a trace of a laugh or a grin; it’s just some very pretty singing.
On the Oliver record, the sober mood was broken by the ridiculous clarinet playing. On Armstrong’s version, the fragile nature of the Armstrong-Strong duet is temporary upset by Earl Hines’s dazzling piano solo. However, unlike the clarinet solo, this is not a bad thing. Hines was one of the most innovative pianists to ever sit behind a keyboard and his virtuosic display on “West End Blues” is one of the record’s most memorable features. Singleton and Carr drop out, leaving Hines all alone but he makes the most of it. His left hand is consistently shifting; part stride, part descending and ascending octaves and tenths, all mixed up the occasional jarring, off-the-beat accent. And that’s just the left hand! The right hand plays a lot of those “trumpet style” octaves, but there’s and a lot of single-note runs, too, leading to the solo being equal parts melodic and flashy. All of it is mesmerizing; just listen to the ascending chordal run he plays with both hands simultaneously for a second at the 2:28 mark for a short example of Hines’s brilliance.
With 51 seconds to go, there’s only enough room for one chorus and a coda. Again, this comes off so perfectly, I don’t think anyone could write it off as being completely spontaneous. Almost like an arrangement, Robinson and Strong harmonize, Strong holding one note while Robinson discreetly accents on the first beat of every bar, hitting a blue note in bar for. Meanwhile, Hines and Carr comp dramatically, surging together as the song begins to sweat. And on top of it all, the celestial being known as Louis Armstrong, holding the most dramatic, throbbing, high B in the history of recorded music. He holds it for four bars (12 seconds), with just the right amount of vibrato to send the hairs on one’s neck to rise to attention. It’s such a genius move, because he basically takes the original motif from Oliver’s melody, and inflates it into something much more bold and stunning than anything those original 12 bars suggest
But he’s not done yet! After four bars of the held note, Armstrong unleashes a furious series of descending runs off an Ab7 chord - Bb-Db-Gb-Eb, four notes repeated five times in five beats before Armstrong turns it inside out and hits a high C for a second. He continues onward, phrasing with a flair that does indeed suggest opera, especially with the upward, almost scalar, run he plays towards the very end of the chorus, as well as the little turn of a phrase that ends it.
Then it’s on to the coda, or the final resolution, to continue my movie analogy from earlier. I think if “West End Blues” had a cute little Lil Hardin ending, it might have taken some of the steam out of it. But instead, the actual ending, with Hines’s descending inversions and the final melancholy statement by the horns, delightfully maintains the mood of the entire record. In the noes to a Time-Life LP box set on Hines, the pianist remembered now the ending came about:
“Now how the ending was going to be we didn’t know. We got to the end of it and Louis looked at me and I thought of the first thing I could think of, a little bit of classic thing that I did a long time ago and I did it five times and after I finished that, I held the chord and Louis gave the downbeat with his head and everybody hit the chord at the end.”
Well, almost everybody. As everyone held their final chord, Zutty Singleton unleashed a somewhat strange “clop” from his cymbals. I’ve always liked this sound because, to me, it sounds like someone closing a time capsule on the amazing brilliance that just occurred in the previous 200 seconds. But Hines explained that Singleton had a little trouble with his simple duty: “Zutty had this little clop cymbal...and he clopped it wrong. So then we had to start all over again...We spent hours in there with the hot wax.” Thus, we can be fairly certain that “West End Blues” wasn’t a completely spontaneous performance. No alternate takes survive but I often do wonder that if they did, would each one of them contain the exact same cadenza?
The musicians were justifiably proud of their efforts, as Hines attested to. “When it first came out,” he said, “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.” Armstrong would go on to list “West End Blues” as one of his favorite records, but he never seemed to speak or write too much about it. This is a shame, especially since Gunther Schuller published Early Jazz in 1967 when Armstrong was alive and well. Would it have hurt him or some other musicologist to actually ask the man himself about what was going through his head when he played that cadenza? Then again, to Armstrong it was probably just another session, a brief respite from his daily gig with the Dickerson band (though, of course, he had to know how special “West End Blues” was).
Armstrong’s song must have hit the jazz world like a meteor as other versions began popping up almost immediately. So for now, we’ll leave Pops and focus a little on some of these other recordings. First up, here’s Ethel Waters singing Clarence Williams’s new lyrics to the tune, recorded August 23, 1928, less than two months after Armstrong’s version.
Waters does a nice job, as always, singing Williams’s lyrics about the West End section of New Orleans in an appropriately bluesy manner, covering the different strains of Oliver’s tune with feeling. She also scats a bit in the manner of Armstrong (Clarence Williams, on piano, plays the same descending fun that Armstrong and Strong used to end their duet). Only the end is a little confusing as Williams completely misses Waters’s final note, a dominant seventh Db, creating a slight clash. Otherwise, a fine record.
Just one week later, Hazel Smith recorded the lyrics of “West End Blues,” once again with Clarence Williams on piano. This session, however, had one more special guest: the King himself, Joe Oliver on cornet. Give it a listen:
As can be heard almost immediately, Hazel Smith was no Ethel Waters. She definitely reminds me of a Lillie Delk Christian-type popular singer of the day, with a voice that’s entirely too shrill. But pay attention to Oliver, who clearly listened to his protege’s record. At the :35 second mark, Oliver quotes an arpeggiated phrase from Armstrong’s chorus, though Oliver’s tone is a little thin on the high notes. Also, Oliver’s obbligato doesn’t have the natural ease as the countless Armstrong played on records of the 1920s. Smith’s vocal is almost humorously bad, but it’s nice to hear Oliver playing at length.
Meanwhile, Clarence Williams continued to pass on his lyrics to anyone who entered one of his sessions. Next up was Katherine Henderson, who recorded it backed by Williams and his “orchestra,” which included Ed Allen on cornet. Unfortunately, there’s no solos as Henderson sings for the entire length of the record while the horns only get to play short arranged figures. There’s nothing spectacular here, but if you’d like to hear it, here’s the link:
As the months passed, the influence of Armstrong’s version of “West End Blues” began creeping into other performances of songs that weren’t even the Oliver tune. For example, listen to this track recorded by Albert Wynn’s Creole Jazz Band on October 2, 1928. Wynn was a solid trombonist (check out his later Riverside recorded, produced by Chris Albertson for the “Chicago: The Living Legends” series in 1961) and his band included future Armstrong associates in reedman Lester Boone and drummer Sid Catlett. Alex Hill, a tremendous songwriter, plays piano while Armstrong disciple Punch Miller plays the trumpet and takes the vocal. At the 1:52 mark, Miller and Wynn do a scatting and trombone duet that is definitely influenced by Armstrong’s “West End Blues.” Take a listen:
There's also a version by Fred Hall’s Jazz Band, but I can no longer find any links to it at this 2012 date. Interestingly, they play “West End Blues” as if they never heard the Armstrong version. Only the short call-and-response strain between the violin and the trumpet makes me think of the Armstrong record. Hall was a pianist and seemed to lead more of a dance band than a pure jazz band and it almost feels like he’s playing a basic stock arrangement of the Oliver tune.
Okay, who’s still with me? I find all these other versions pretty interesting because each one palls besides Armstrong’s. But now we’ll turn to 1929 and the first outright tribute to the Hot Five “West End Blues,” recorded by none other than King Oliver and His Orchestra. This comes from January 16, 1929 and was recorded for the Victor label. Oliver sounded strong on the Hazel Smith session but his teeth had begun deteriorating to the point where he could no longer play anything remotely like Armstrong’s opening cadenza or the long, held high notes. He started keeping younger, stronger trumpet players in his bands--musicians such as Red Allen, Dave Nelson, Bubber Miley and Louis Metcalfe--who would do the heavy lifting, though Oliver still would take the occasional solo.
On “West End Blues,” the role of Armstrong went to the fine St. Louis trumpeter Louis Metcalfe. This whole record fascinates me because it’s basically a remake of the Armstrong version. This has to be one of the first jazz recordings to completely pay tribute to an earlier recording by recreating it in an almost note-for-note fashion. And remember, Armstrong’s recording was made only six months earlier. Oliver’s band had to notate every ounce of that record, practice it and get ready to record it. For the session Oliver basically led Luis Russell’s wonderful band with the likes of J.C. Higginbotham, Charlie Holmes and Paul Barbarin. Take a listen and be prepared for the recreation of the opening cadenza:
Poor Metcalfe! And poor Oliver, who some writers attributed to the butchering of the opening cadenza. Metcalfe already has one strike against him when he starts on the wrong note, squealing it out like a mouse who just had his tail stepped on. Already in the hole, Metcalfe soldiers on and I do have to give him some credit. He gets most of it right with the occasional wrong note here and there but I always laugh at the pause before the high C. Armstrong hit it like it was second nature. Metcalfe? You can practically hear him sweat as he prepares to hit it...and he does so let’s give him that. He even continues it, hitting the chromatic runs pretty decently before he finally gets to settle down and play the melody. He’s not quite as free floating as Armstrong, but he does quote Armstrong’s classic ending to that first chorus.
Higginbotham is next and he leaves Fred Robinson in the dust, contributing a lusty solo before Charlie Holmes takes over for a new chorus on alto. Then it’s time for the next strain where Strong originally duetted with Armstrong’s scatting. This time Higgy plays the melody “calls,” while Oliver himself plays muted “responses,” evoking the Armstrong record in a tender way by playing all of Armstrong’s original scat lines as they were originally sung. He sounds quite good, by the way.
Then it’s time for one of the most fascinating parts of the record. Luis Russell was apparently no great improviser, but if you gave him time to learn something in advance, he could surprise you. And here, he does surprise as he does a very good job in recreating Hines’s superlative chorus. Russell’s left hand is a little stiffer, sticking mainly to a simple stride, but he nails Hines’s right hand octaves, tremolos and single note runs.
Because Oliver takes it at a slightly quicker tempo, there’s time for some new choruses. In addition to the earlier alto solo, the piano solo is followed by a somewhat sloppily played arranged chorus. But then it’s time for Metcalfe to step into the spotlight, jumping right in by holding the high Bb for four measures. So far, so good but when it comes time to play the intense descending arpeggios, Metcalfe begins on the wrong beat, only getting to play four instead of five, though he does hit the high C. He finishes well but it sounds like he’s trying too hard and his tone doesn’t hit one’s soul like Armstrong’s. Instead of recreating the mystical original ending, Metcalfe pays further tribute to Armstrong by playing the line Armstrong ended “You’re Next” and “Big Fat Ma and Skinny Pa” with, two earlier Hot Fives. Overall, the Oliver record has its moments, but it really succeeds best in illustrating just how far ahead of the jazz world Louis Armstrong was during this period.
Still, other bands continued to record “West End Blues” as if Armstrong never recorded it. The song also reached the territories, as evidenced by the February 11, 1929 recording of the tune by Zack Whyte and His Chocolate Beau Brummels in Richmond, Indiana. Whyte’s band included future jazz stars such as trumpeter Sy Oliver, pianist Herman Chittison and tenor saxophonist Al Sears. Whyte played banjo and is heard prominently on this pretty version. Still, all of these non-Armstrong versions sound dull to these ears; they’re all atmospheric, bluesy records but without something to grab one’s attention, like the Armstrong cadenza or his bravura climax, it’s all kind of dreary. Nevertheless, there’s some nice touches to the arrangement and if you have three minutes to kill, give it a listen:
Our look at “West End Blues” in the 1920s will end with the next recording, cut on July 31, 1929. Once again, Clarence Williams is on piano (did he ever get sick of recording this tune?) while the vocal is handled by longtime Williams cohort Eva “Cake Walking Babies From Home” Taylor. Taylor sang on so many of those mid-20s Williams sessions, always sounding alive and jaunty, with few of the shrill qualities that have dated so many of the other female singers of the period. I think she sounds magnificent on this recording. She sounds very mature and very sober, selling lines like “You’re gonna see some shooting like you’re never seen before” like she really means it. I like this one a lot:
And after such busy flurry of activity--all of the above discussed versions were cut between June 1928 and July 1929--“West End Blues” disappeared from the recording scene. Perhaps it was too old fashioned because goodness knows the likes of Oliver, Williams and Jelly Roll Morton soon found themselves on the outskirts of the jazz world. The Swing Era was getting started and musicians like Louis Armstrong and Luis Russell were hopping on board.
By the late 1930s, however, a segment of the jazz world finally put on the brakes
and for the first time, began looking backward. The music had been progressing for around 40 years but now it was progressing a little too much for those who enjoyed the old days of the New Orleans style. Thus, the jazz revival was born and all of a sudden, men such as Bunk Johnson, George Lewis, Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet had a new audience who were thrilled to hear jazz as it was originally played in New Orleans (poor King Oliver died broke in 1938, unable to play his horn or lead a band anymore).
Louis Armstrong wasn’t really inclined to look backward in the late 1930s and the revival sprung about. He had been leading a big band, recording pop songs and appearing in movies. He wasn’t about to give it all up to go back to playing in a traditional “Dixieland” set-up. At the same time, Armstrong had become such a big star in 1939 that his recording company, Decca, thought it might be a good time to look back at some of the songs Armstrong originally waxed in the late 1920s. Thus, Armstrong began recording new big band arrangements of tunes like “Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya,” “Save It Pretty Mama,” “Savoy Blues,” “Confessin’,” “Our Monday Date” and of course, “West End Blues.” Armstrong’s first remake of “West End” was recorded on April 5, 1939 and though it’s remarkably lesser known than the original, I think there’s still plenty to admire about it. Give it a listen and then we’ll discuss...
Yeah, man, that record gets better every time I hear it. Armstrong still has the chops to nail the cadenza, though not quite with the wild abandon of the 1928 one. His tone is more clearer than the earlier one but this one is slightly longer (14 seconds as opposed to 12) and during the little chromatic runs, Armstrong now throws in a short gliss, which is a nice touch.
Otherwise, it’s very interesting hear the big band behind Armstrong’s lead. Even the subtle swing of the rhythm section makes this version sound light years ahead of the original (only Pops sounds the same; everyone else had to catch up!). Whoever wrote the arrangement wrote some very pretty phrases for the reeds to play softly as Pops plays the melody as he did in 1928, editing a note or two out, but generally following the same patterns.
J. C. Higginbotham, no stranger to the tune, takes the next chorus, display his usual authority with the blues. Then a new touch: a four-bar guitar break by Lee Blair sets up the call-and-response strain. Pops, though his voice had grown more gravelly through the years, still scats with charming clarity. He swings a little more intensely on this version while the arrangement neatly features a clarinet trio playing Strong’s original part.
Then it’s time for Luis Russell’s piano solo. Perhaps Russell had forgotten how to play Hines’s original or perhaps he just wanted to go for himself but, while what he plays is harmless, it’s no Fatha Hines.
Next is a real treat: a brand new chorus of blues by Pops. It’s very low-down and fits the mood appropriately. Years later, Pops would play this solo about an octave higher during his rideout choruses on “St. Louis Blues,” but here, it works beautifully as played lower, prodded along by the slight nudge of Sid Catlett’s drums.
Next, of course, is the high Bb and Pops nails it, holding it for nine seconds. I really love the arranged countermelody; it doesn’t have the throbbing intensity of the original, but it swings more, again, with special thanks to Catlett’s backbeat. Armstrong’s descending arpeggios aren’t quite as visceral as the original as he only gets four out instead of five and doesn’t go for the split second high C. Instead, a few seconds later, he plays an impressive chromatic run up to a high Bb before discarding the original ending and phrasing a new one built around a giant gliss to a high C. This ending is perfectly suited to the Armstrong of 1939.
Because Armstrong’s Decca big band sessions are neglected in general, this remake of “West End Blues” has never received much attention. As I think I’ve made clear, it doesn’t quite have the spark or aura of the original, but there’s plenty to recommend: Pops’s gorgeous, more mature tone, the updated rhythm section, the furious scatting, the beautifully written arrangement, the brand new trumpet chorus and the updated ending. And I forget where I read this, but I know I read somewhere that a lot of younger jazz musicians were more familiar with this version than the original. This makes sense when one considers a musician who was born around 1920 or 1925 and would go on to great things in the 1940s. Those musicians would have probably been too young to appreciate the original and by the late 1930s, if you were a jazz fan or a Louis Armstrong fan, you were probably keeping up with his new Deccas and not fishing around for older records from the previous decade. And if you were a hip lindy-hopping dancer, the odds are that the swinging big band sound of the Decca would sound a lot more pleasing than the steady plunking of Mancy Carr’s banjo. Thus, don’t underestimate the influence of the 1939 version of “West End Blues” on a whole new generation of jazz musicians and fans.
If you’re still with me, it’s time to take one more brief, non-Pops break and focus on two more different takes on “West End Blues” from the ensuing years. The first one actually comes from later in 1939 (September 14, to be exact). Jelly Roll Morton was going through a resurgence in popularity and the Victor label decided to give him a second chance by letting him lead two sessions with groups made up of some of the finest New Orleans jazz players on the scene. For Morton’s second session, he recorded “West End Blues” with a group of Armstrong associates including one past member of his big band (Albert Nicholas) and one future member (guitarist Lawrence Lucie). The band also featured two musicians from the original 1928 Armstrong recording of the tune, trombonist Fred Robinson and drummer Zutty Singleton. The record had the makings of a classic but Morton, never the biggest Armstrong fan in the world, decided to record a version that couldn’t sound any more different from Armstrong’s OKeh original. Morton picked up the tempo a bit and more or less jammed the blues in New Orleans style, creating a perfectly fine record, but nothing special. You can listen along here:
The opening breaks are a neat touch (dig trumpeter Sidney De Paris quoting “Tin Roof Blues”) but are executed a little sloppily. Otherwise, I do enjoy this tempo and Zutty really moves things along with his cymbal splashes. It’s interesting that the only part of the record that looks back at the Armstrong version is the recreation of Robinson’s reading over the second strain backed by Singleton’s shuffle-like rim playing. But even then, Morton adds Nicholas’s clarinet to the mix to change things just enough. Morton stays out of the way, executing a few tremolos in the background, until a simple chromatic ending. A good, but not fantastic record.
We’re now going to move to 1944 for another out-and-out tribute to Armstrong’s record of “West End Blues.” This one was recoded on October 17 of that year by Charlie Barnet’s popular big band, featuring the likes of trumpeter Peanuts Holland, trombonist Porky Coehn and pianist Dodo Marmarosa (this was a well-nicknamed band!). Barnet had already paid tributes to heroes such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington with “The Count’s Idea” and “The Duke’s Idea” and now it was time to pay tribute to Pops. Barnet had the genius of idea of taking Armstrong’s opening cadenza and scoring it for the entire band. At first it sounds a little ponderous, but when it gets to the double-timing and the chromatic runs, the effect is spell-binding. Thanks again to Fernando de Ortiz Urbina for sending this track along...enjoy!
As can be heard, the song turns into a string of solos after the cadenza, though Barnet’s opening alto solo references the cascading arpeggio’s of Armstrong’s closing chorus on the original.
Okay, good news folks! I like to reward my readers who stick with me for the entire long, long journey and from here on out, it’s going to be nothing but Armstrong, focusing on versions of “West End Blues” he played from 1946 through 1960. Some of these are common and others are unissued treats sent to me by the likes of the late Armstrong discographer Jos Willems and Swedish Armstrong expert Håkan Forsberg. I can never thank them enough for their generosity and I’m sure you’ll want to thank them, too, after hearing some of these treats.
During the war years, Armstrong continued touring with his big band but on all of the surviving broadcasts from this period (and there are lots), there are no surviving versions of “West End Blues.” The next time we encounter the song in the Armstrong discography is a version taken from the soundtrack of the 1946 film New Orleans. This film is pretty much a dog but it offered the novelty of Armstrong sans big band, jamming the old New Orleans classics with an all-star group that included trombonist Kid Ory, clarinetist Barney Bigard, pianist Charlie Beal, guitarist Bud Scott, bassist Red Callender and once again, Zutty Singleton on drums.
The group recorded a LOT of material for the soundtrack and sadly, not all of it was used (the film would have been better off if it was all music and no story!). One of the first songs recorded was “West End Blues,” of which only the cadenza was used in the finished film. But what a cadenza! This is a pretty incredible version, I think:
Isn’t that something else? Armstrong tears into the cadenza like it’s 1928 all over again. He nails every note of it, except for a slight hesitation on his way down after the high C. Still, it’s crazily impressive. The rest of the recording follows the OKeh to a tee, though Ory and Bigard bring more to the table than Robinson and Strong. Dig Armstrong’s scat duet with Bigard where he drops Zutty’s name early on. And I love that ending: “Oh take four bars.” Beal listens and plays only four bars, instead of a full solo. Armstrong kills the high Bb but he only plays three of the descending arpeggios instead of F and he omits the quick little rip up to the high C. He still makes the run up to the Bb but he might have run out of a little gas. Also, for the first time since 1928, we get to hear the original “classical” Hines ending, just as beautiful as ever. A pretty great version.
The success of the small band work in New Orleans, as well as some small group records and concert appearances in 1946 and 1947 led Armstrong to ditch the big band and begin a new small group, the All Stars. I’ve frequently read criticisms of later Armstrong that focus on the trumpeter’s showmanship and love of pop tunes and movie songs, lamenting the fact that the audiences who saw him clowning with the All Stars, never knew that this was the man who created “West End Blues,” an American masterpiece.
Well, hold your horses, Charlie. As I’ve argued at length before, there was only one Armstrong as that guy who played on the 1928 original indulged in quite a bit of showmanship (at the time of the recording, he did a bit with Zutty on stage where Singleton dressed in drag!). But please do not think “West End Blues” disappeared during the All Stars years. It wasn’t one of the tunes Armstrong called every night, but when he was in the mood or when he got a request for it, he still played it--beautifully. And to start, this should be the main event for most readers. If you want to call your friends and send a link to this posting through e-mail, I’ll wait.
Okay, good. Here it is: The Grand Reunion. Louis Armstrong. Earl “Fatha” Hines. “West End Blues. October 20, 1949:
Did you catch your breath yet? To me, that just might be the second greatest “West End Blues” after the original. It comes from a Netherlands broadcast and you can hear the momentary confusion in the beginning as host Netty Rosenfeld introduces “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue” as Pops is just launching into the cadenza. He later straightens it out during Jack Teagarden’s trombone solo.
So we’ll start with the cadenza, which is a fine illustration of a nearly 50-year-old Louis Armstrong. Yes, there’s a slight hesitation in the first part but besides that, it’s paced almost more dramatically than the original. For starters, it’s 20 seconds long, as opposed to the 12 second original. The original makes the listener gasp because it happens so fast and is so damn incredible. Later Armstrong versions are a little slower and a little grander, especially in the high C. In 1928, Armstrong hit it. In 1949 (and later), Armstrong hits it...and HOLDS that mother. The effect is dazzling.
Though this is the first recorded version of the tune from the All Stars days, it’s a very tight performance, making me speculate that they have to had played it before this date. Teagarden plays a pretty harmony to Armstrong’s lead playing in the first chorus, while Bigard sounds quite good, too, harmonizing with Armstrong on the ascending arpeggio that ends the first 12 bars. The scat duet still works, though now, one can hear Armstrong smiling. Also, he has a new way to end it: “Oh yes I know,” which, I think works perfectly.
But now hold on to your seats. I’ve said it before that Earl Hines was not a perfect fit during his tour of duty with the All Stars. He was unhappy being a sideman, he often didn’t listen with his comping and he just plain wasn’t a team player. However, as a soloist, there are few greater pianists and his solo on this “West End Blues” knocks me out. It’s completely different from the original but--heresy alert--I think l like it more. It’s so original, with its jabbing left hand accents and the last four bars always catch me by surprise. Great stuff.
Then it’s on to Pops, who still had the breath control to hold that high Bb for all four measures (12 seconds). He gets in four descending arpeggios but most tellingly, he glisses up to the high C, which was just a quick jolt of lightening in the midst of a flurry of notes and phrases on the original. Again, it’s a sign of the mature Armstrong. The flurries are gone, but that high C now sticks out a bit more.
The original ending is also back, though it’s more drawn out than ever before, really creating a somber atmosphere. Nothing will ever replace the original, but this remake is pretty insane.
Interestingly, it was also in 1949 that Charlie Parker began peppering some of his solos with a quote of the “West End Blues” cadenza. 1949 was a bitter year in the Armstrong vs. bop war as I found numerous articles from that year alone of Armstrong hammering the boppers. When he called it “ju-jitsu” music, it made headlines and in a Leonard Feather “Blindfold Test,” Armstrong beat up records by Miles Davis and Lennie Tristano. Thus, I sometimes wonder if Bird quoting “West End Blues” was an act of tribute or an act of scorn, a way of saying, “Ha ha, old man, I can play this stuff in my sleep.” On the other hand, Bird had an appreciation of old school jazz, including his quoting of the famous “High Society” clarinet part on “Ko-Ko.” We may never know Bird’s motives, but here’s a link to an excerpt of Bird playing it on the tune “Cheryl,” recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1949:
The All Stars reprised “West End Blues” during a concert in France one month later and I’m sure they played it on and off during the next couple of years. The next time it was played in front of a microphone came on January 16, 1954 during a CBS broadcast from the Club Hangover in San Francisco. This was a great edition of the All stars with Bigard still on clarinet, Trummy Young on trombone, Billy Kyle on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Kenny John on drums. The Club Hangover was a hot spot for New Orleans jazz, having housed musicians such as Kid Ory and George Lewis during the same period, so some knowledgeable jazz fan must have requested the tune beforehand. Armstrong just finished a furious version of “When The Saints Go Marchin In’” when, with the applause still ringing, he launched into the “West End Blues” cadenza. Here’s how it came out:
Once again, there’s a little hesitation in the beginning of the cadenza (in the same spot as the 1949 version), as Pops seems to need a little extra breath to get ready to make that climb to the high C. But make he does, really hitting it hard. Again, the descending portion seems to have gotten a little slower, but all the notes are there and I can only imagine the thrill of hearing it live. Armstrong’s opening notes of the melody are greeted with applause by the obviously knowledgeable crowd. Armstrong plays some new idea in the first chorus but, as always, all roads point to the Bb.
Trummy Young’s next and he gets bluesy, adding a real lowdown feeling to the proceedings (Milt Hinton’s bass lines are very nice behind him; he was such a natural fit). The scat once again ends with “Oh yes, you know” before Kyle takes a piano solo. Kyle was a classy, tasteful, urbane musician, but on “West End Blues,” he usually demonstrated his strong ability as a pianist. Also, listen carefully to hear Kyle singing along with his solo. He had just joined the band and in his early days, you can often hear him singing as he plays, purely improvising every note from scratch. Once his solos settled into “set” patterns, the singing stopped, but his solos always were not perfect while his band playing fit like a glove.
Armstrong then enters with the high Bb, but for the first time, age has caught up with him a bit. He can now only hold it for two measures (seven seconds) before holding it for one more (five seconds), taking a breath and finishing off the sequence (three more seconds). The note is still stunning but clearly, between 1949 and 1954, Armstrong lost a little bit of lung capacity. Fortunately for us, his chops were arguable stronger than ever, as he would demonstrate in the upcoming years.
He also demonstrates it immediately after the held Bb, playing the descending arpeggio six times, one more than the original! So he still was blowing beautifully, following it up with the gliss to the high C. The band was really pushing now, accenting the first beat of every bar and swinging mightily. The original Hines ending is gone, replaced by a bit more of Kyle playing the blues before Pops and the horns come back to play the final notes like its 1928. Though there are some imperfections, it’s still mighty impressive.
Almost two years later, on December 20, 1955, Armstrong and the All Stars found themselves in the middle of a long tour of Europe. With Edmond Hall, Arvell Shaw and Barrett Deems on board on clarinet, bass and drums respectively, the band was hitting a new peak in popularity. “Mack the Knife” was about to explode, Edward R. Murrow was filming a piece for Armstrong for See It Now and Columbia was recording parts of Armstrong’s tour to be eventually released on an album whose title would give Armstrong a new nickname: Ambassador Satch.
Ambassador Satch did indeed feature a few tracks that were recorded live on the tour but some of it was recorded in a Los Angeles studio with applause dubbed in later. However, four of the finest tracks were recorded in an Italian movie theater in Milan on December 20. Now, get this: an almost 55-year-old Armstrong played three shows that night. Not one. Not two. Three! Wouldn’t you think his chops would be dead? In fact, they were just getting warmed up. George Avakian met Armstrong, the band, some friends and local fans in the empty theater and decided to record some more material for the album. The group opened up with their usual opener, “Indiana,” (a version that wouldn’t be released until decades later) when Pops deemed his chops ready to tackle “West End Blues.” Thus, here is how it came out, at 5:00 in the morning after two shows:
Amazing, isn’t it? Especially knowing how much Armstrong had already blown that night and how much was to come: “The Faithful Hussur,” “Tiger Rag,” and “Royal Garden Blues” all followed, each one featuring hotter than hell trumpet playing. I’ve been fortunate enough to hear the session tapes from this date and can attest that Armstrong kept the strong blowing going into unissued tracks like “Someday You’ll Be Sorry,” “You Can Depend On Me” and “The Lonesome Road” before he finally started running out of gas a bit on “That’s a Plenty.” An Edmond Hall feature on “Dardanella,” featuring no trumpet, closed out the session as the mighty Armstrong, after so many hours of fierce blowing, could blow no more.
But back to the mighty “West End Blues.” Armstrong used to begin the cadenza with four fast quarter notes but now he announces his entrance with a soul-stirring G before he takes off. This time there’s no hesitation; he hits and holds the high C squarely and takes off from there, playing all the descending phrases and chromatic runs a little slower than the original, but with just as much authority. There is a little hesitation in the ascending arpeggio that ends the first chorus, but it’s slight and almost unnoticeable. Otherwise, the band--my favorite edition--and the sound quality makes this version one to rank up with the original and the 1949 reunion with Hines. The scatting is wonderful and Kyle’s solo is much better than his 1954 one, sounding like the love child of Otis Span and Avery Parrish.
But it’s Armstrong’s concluding solo that moves me to no end. Even though it’s the same one he had been playing for almost 30 years, there’s something about this particular version that gets me every time. Like the 1954 one, Armstrong’s breath control isn’t what it used to be; he again has to spread the Bb over three breaths. But now the band is much more emphatic in their accompaniment. Deems’s drum accents are played with authority, Kyle keeps a slight boogie feel going in the bass and Young fills Armstrong’s gaps with tremendous blue notes. The whole thing surges as Armstrong gets to the descending arpeggios, only getting three out, but hitting and holding the high with a ferocity not heard in any of the previous versions. In his liner notes, producer Avakian argued that this version deserves to be held up there with the original and I agree. It might not be as revolutionary as the original, but it’s quite a moving performance.
And Louis Armstrong would agree. Less than a year later, Armstrong found himself in the middle of his stretch of one-nighters, doing yet another interview. This one can be heard on one of Armstrong’s private tapes at Queens College and it’s telling because when the interviewer compliments Armstrong’s recent Decca album recorded live at the Crescendo Club, Armstrong responds, “Okay, but you can get a later album than that: Ambassador Satch. That I made in Milano, Italy, just coming out over here. It’s better than the Crescendo. Dig that. And we made that after the third concert in Milano. We did three concerts that day, with intermission included. And 1:00 that night, we begin to record that Ambassador Satch. And at 5:00 in the morning, we’re wailing ‘West End Blues.” After praising the version of “Tiger Rag” cut that same evening, Armstrong said about the session, “If you didn’t feel good, you couldn’t do that. You can’t force those things.”
So Louis Armstrong himself knew how he was feeling and how good that “West End Blues.” But if you read Lawrence Bergreen’s biography of Armstrong, you might have come off with a differing opinion. In late 1956, Armstrong embarked on his Autobiography project, recreating some of his earliest, most demanding performances for Decca. Here’s what Bergreen wrote after summing up those sessions: “One telling omission from the retrospective was ‘West End Blues,’ with its famous, bruising opening cadenza. In a recent live recording, he had mangled this sacred tune, but this exception was insignificant in the face of his overall accomplishment.” Mangled? Did that 1955 version sound mangled? Armstrong was proud of it. Avakian was proud of it. That above performance also is the subject of a YouTube video that last year had nearly 70,000 views and over 60 comments, almost all of them overwhelmingly positive. Today? 242,000 views and 213 comments plus 456 ratings resulting in an average of five stars...Pops lives!
I think Bergreen wanted to paint a picture of Armstrong not recording “West End Blues” for Decca because he had just mangled it and couldn’t do it anymore. I think he didn’t record it for Decca because it had just come out for Columbia. Armstrong’s previous three Columbia albums included many songs he had recorded in the 1920s and early 1930s, including “St. Louis Blues,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Black and Blue,” “Blue Turning Grey Over You,” “Squeeze Me,” “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now,” and “Tiger Rag.” None of those songs appeared on the Autobiography probably because Columbia already beat Decca to the bunch (Ambassador Satch also included “Muskrat Ramble” and Decca chose not to rerecord that one either, using a live version from 1947 instead). That’s the reason why “West End Blues” wasn’t included on the Autobiography, not because he mangled it.
Need more proof? On June 1, 1956, Armstrong played it at a concert in Chicago, playing it just as strongly as ever and even holding the Bb for a longer period of time than the Ambassador Satch version before getting off four arpeggios. Only the off-mike opening mars this otherwise gorgeous performance:
And here’s the final proof: from December 11 through December 14, 1956, Armstrong recorded four Decca sessions, three of which were devoted to the Autobiography. On December 18, Armstrong flew to England to perform for one-night only at a benefit concert with a group of British jazz musicians and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The closing song that evening? “West End Blues.” Armstrong then flew back to America and continued the Autobiography sessions.
And for those who have made it this far in this 2009 update, here is the audio of that December 18, 1956 performance in London. This was the same concert from which I uploaded that breathtaking "Lonesome Road" from a few months back. You'll hear Norman Del Mar's arrangement, complete with a opening for strings. The strings provide backing throughout, making this a pretty gorgeous version. As I wrote in my "Lonesome Road" entry, Armstrong had one of the best nights of his career that night and it shows on "West End Blues." Like the other versions from '55 and '56, there's a little pause in the cadenza but otherwise, everything else is spot on (I think he holds the climactic note longer here than on the other performances from this period). Armstrong couldn't bring his All Stars but the group of British musicians sound great. Trombonist George Chisholm cleverly quotes "Rockin' Chair," clarinetist Sid Phillips gets to back Pops's scat chorus, drummer Jack Parnell lays down Armstrong's favored backbeat and the great pianist Dill Jones causes Armstrong to remark, "Smooth, there!" (I'm sure bassist Lennie Bush did a great job but because of the sound quality, he's almost inaudible.) Enjoy it:
Thus, Louis Armstrong was not afraid to play “West End Blues” in the 1950s and honestly, we’ll never know just how often he played it. But I do know that at least one more version exists it’s pretty spectacular. Armstrong’s heart episode in Spoleto, Italy in 1959 might have derailed him for a few weeks, but it had no immediate effects on his trumpet playing. In fact, 1960 has to go down as one of Armstrong’s strongest years when one listens to the album he made with the Dukes of Dixieland, as well as a number of wonderful live concert recordings made that year.
In July 1960, Armstrong performed at Ravinia Park in a suburb of Chicago. Anytime Armstrong played in or near Chicago, he always brought his A+ game (he always brought an A game, naturally). Who knows what musicians and characters from those old 1920s days were in the audience when Armstrong returned to Chicago? In fact, at a 1967 Ravinia concert, Armstrong introduced his second wife, Lil Hardin, from the audience. So, knowing he had to give them something special, Armstrong called “West End Blues.” Now, a warning: the sound quality on this track is pretty awful. I played it for Joe Muranyi, who remarked that it sounded like it was from a tape recorder whose batteries were dying. True enough, it does change keys a few time. But listen carefully, because Armstrong blows the hell out of the tune:
Pretty incredible, huh? The cadenza is pitched a half-step too sharp, but Armstrong’s brilliance still comes through, especially on that high C. If you’re expecting the 1928 version, listen to that one. This is nearly a 60-year-old man with a set of scarred chops that had been through the mill after almost 50 years of blowing at full force. That he could still do something as affecting as this is a testament to his skills and his everlasting genius. He still makes the Bb at the end of the first chorus, he holds the Bb in the last chorus for a longer period of time than the 1955 version, he gets in four arpeggios, he kills the high C, he plays the quasi-operatic run with great panache and he gently caresses the ending with the same fragile sensitivity of the original. Pure genius.
And also, listen to how tight the band is and how everyone knows the routine. Again, this was obviously something they had played before, not something that was being thrown together on stage. The Ravinia version is the last recorded one in existence, but Armstrong still continued to play it, as evidenced by a Dan Morgenstern article from the May 1962 issue of Jazz Journal. Titled “Pops in Perspective,” Morgenstern writes about seeing Armstrong the previous year at the Bronx amusement park Freedomland. After a rousing first set, Morgenstern visited Pops backstage as the trumpeter warmly greeted everyone there, “just as real and warm and strictly human as can be. And then it was time to go on again, and there was some more good music and then--then Louis Armstrong played ‘West End Blues.’ And that was one of those things: I had heard him play it before, and there is the record--three records, in fact. But I’d never heard it like this. And while Louis was playing, I stood transfixed--and there was just Louis and I and the music--and a presence I don’t very often feel was there too.”
So Armstrong’s “West End Blues” continued to transfix live audiences into at least 1961. Even if none of these later versions can match the brilliance and importance of the original, I think they’re all very important documents of a later, more mature Armstrong still delivering a heartfelt, virtuosic, operatic, soul-stirring, life-affirming exposition of the blues. And that’s something that can be celebrated today, 80 years after he first waxed that opening cadenza and it’s something that will always be celebrated as long as human beings have the capability to listen to music. Long live Pops...and long live “West End Blues”!