01- Willie the Weeper (3:10)
02- Wild Man Blues (3:13)
03- Chicago Breakdown (3:21)
04- Alligator Crawl (3:04)
05- Potato Head Blues (2:58)
06- Melancholy (3:05)
07- Weary Blues (3:01)
08- Twelfth Street Rag (3:06)
09- Keyhole Blues (3:29)
10- S.O.L. Blues (2:55)
11- Gully Low Blues (3:18)
12- That's When I'll Come Back to You (2:58)
13- Put 'Em Down Blues (3:17)
14- Ory's Creole Trombone (3:07)
15- The Last Time (3:32)
16- Struttin' with Some Barbecue (3:06)
17- Got No Blues (3:26)
18- Once in a While (3:19)
19- I'm Not Rough (3:05)
20- Hotter Than That (3:05)
21- Savoy Blues (3:28)
Chicago, May to Dec. 1927
1927 was the year when Colonel Lindbergh, by flying the Atlantic, inspired a new American dance, the "Lindy Hop". That autumn Jack Dempsey just failed to regain the Heavyweight Championship of the World from Gene Tunney. There were demonstrations in London and Paris, Buenos Aires and Tokyo, when, after waiting for six years on Boston's Death Row, Sacco and Vanzetti ("Those anarchist bastards", as Judge Thayer described them) were executed. In Chicago, reaping the rewards of Prohibition, gangsters kept a firm grip on City Hall - and on Chicago's flourishing night clubs and speakeasies. "If you played the North Side you worked for Bugs Moran", Jess Stacy recollected several decades later, "And if you worked on the South Side, It was for Al Capone".
Several of those nightspots were to acquire a legendary status in jazz history. The Dreamland Cafe on South State Street, for instance, where Louis Armstrong, after returning from a stint with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in New York, joined the band led by his wife Lil. And in February, 1927 the 25-year-old Armstrong became a bandleader himself. That took place on 35th and Calumet, at the Sunset Cafe, one of the clubs run by Capone's syndicate; Armstrong and the pianist Earl Hines had been working there with Carroll Dickerson's Orchestra, but because Dickerson had a drinking problem his band was replaced by Louis Armstrong's Stompers, with Hines as its musical director. (Incidentally, the Sunset was managed by Joe Glaser, who eight years later become Armstrong's personal manager and exerted a powerful influence upon his later career).
Armstrong always took a delight in playing, enjoying what for a less dedicated or less gifted musician would have seemed a punishing routine. During 1927 he and his Stompers performed at the Sunset Cafe until 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning, but that was after Armstrong had already been featured with Erskine Tate's Little Symphony Orchestra in four shows at the Vendome movie theatre on South State Street, playing between – and often behind – the silent film (when he left the Vendome it was to work with Clarence Jones's band at the Metropolitan Theatre). It seems to have been Erskine Tate who encouraged Armstrong to switch from the cornet, the traditional instrument in New Orleans, to the more brilliantly-toned trumpet. Nevertheless, Armstrong continued for some time to use the cornet on his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. His earliest "hit" record, in fact, was "Cornet Chop Suey", made early in 1926. And in 1927 the Chicago music publishers, Melrose, brought out two books of transcriptions, "Louis Armstrong's 50 Hot Choruses for Cornet" (selling at $2) and "Louis Armstrong's 125 Jazz Breaks for Cornet" ($1).
From November 1925 until the end of 1927 Armstrong's recordings for Okeh were almost exclusively the work of pick-up groups consisting of New Orleans players who had moved to Chicago (the prime exception was the pianist, Armstrong's wife Lil, born in Memphis and a former music student at Fisk University). On May 9, 1927, however, Armstrong took his regular band, the Sunset Stompers, into a studio for the first and only time, to record a Jelly Roll Morton tune, "Chicago Breakdown" (it was, coincidentally, the only recording ever made by the saxophonist Boyd Atkins, who is heard taking a soprano solo). But that was the only departure from Okeh's policy of catering for a market of blacks who had migrated from the South and wanted to hear traditional New Orleans jazz.
The format of the original Hot Five records (available on JSPCD 312 relied, therefore, upon the collective interplay of the classic New Orleans front-line of cornet, clarinet and trombone. But Armstrong's rapid development meant that he began dominating the ensemble, while his solos set a standard that became hard for his colleagues to live up to. All the more reason to praise the clarinettist Johnny Dodds for the way he held his own especially on the 1927 recordings. Always an outstanding blues player, capable of performing with a rare intensity, Dodds takes solos immediately alongside Armstrong's that leave the listener with no sense of anti-climax.
Dodds was still a regular member of the recording group in May, 1927, when Armstrong expanded the Hot Five into the Hot Seven. So was Johnny St. Cyr, playing (as the New Orleans jazz historian William Russell has explained in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz) a six-string "guitar-banjo" that he had "constructed himself from a banjo head and a guitar neck and fingerboard". But Kid Ory had gone off touring with King Oliver's band, so his place as trombonist was taken by John Thomas, a musician from Kentucky who was working with both Eriskine Tate and Armstrong's Sunset Stompers. The Stompers also supplied one of the two additional instrumentalists, the tuba player Pete Briggs; the other, the drummer Baby Dodds, was working at Kelly's Stables with his brother Johnny.
The five sessions by the Hot Seven, fitted into just over a single week in May, produced an extraordinary number of jazz masterpieces. Perhaps it is unfair to single out "Potato Head Blues" (not a genuine blues, incidentally, but constructed like a pop song), yet it remains one of the greatest of all jazz recordings, a peak in the careers of both Armstrong and Dodds. Armstrong's stop-time solo illustrates superbly how much this musician's approach had moved away from the embellishment of New Orleans cornet playing. The method now was much bolder, not so much a paraphrase of melody as an improvisation above a set of chord changes.
The performance of "Twelfth Street Rag" may be less exalted than that of "Potato Head Blues", yet it illustrates very clearly the way that jazz musicians can transform their material. In this case a highly repetitive theme, usually treated in a jokey fashion, becomes a slow stomp, largely because of the way Johnny Dodds treats it as a kind of blues, and – even more importantly – the drastic fashion in which Armstrong sabotages, even caricatures, the composition's intrinsic jerkiness, tilting it all to his own triumphant ends.
"Twelfth Street Rag" was one of a number of Hot Seven and Hot Five recordings not to be released at the time and which remained unissued until the masters were discovered in 1940. Another was “S.O.L. Blues” (the fact that SOL was an acronym for “shit out of luck”, meaning extreme helplessness, may have contributed to the delay). However, the same tune was recorded again the next day, this time under the title “Gully Low Blues”, Okeh’s policy – in Chicago at that time, anyway – of scraping rejected masters clean means that this is the closed one can get to comparing alternative “takes”. Armstrong sings blues lyrics in both pieces. But perhaps the most significant development as far as his singing went was the increasing flexibility with which he handled words in pieces such as “The Last Time” and “Put ‘em Down Blues” (the latter, incidentally just like “Potato Head Blues”, “Keyhole Blues” and “Got No Blues”, is not harmonically blues at all).
When Armstrong resumed recording at the Okeh studios in early September it was with his original Hot Five. Kid Ory, back in Chicago again, give a zestful performance of “Ory’s Creole Trombone”, a tune of his own celebrating a particular New Orleans tradition. Not so traditional, however, was the interpretation of another of Ory’s tunes, “Savoy Blues”, virtually a succession of solos followed by two choruses of riffing before the ensemble rounds the piece off in a New Orleans manner. For the final session, in December, the rhythm section was strengthened by the guitar playing of Lonnie Johnson, active as a blues singer as well as a guitarist during the 1920s, but who also – and somewhat unusually – recorded with various jazz groups, including the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Johnson’s presence at the Hot Five sessions added a kind of exoticism to the music as well as enabling the group to swing in a way it had never been done before. This is heard at its most dramatic in “Hotter Than That” (the theme is built on the final strain of “Tiger Rag”), where Armstrong not only gets close to surpassing his playing on "Potato Head Blues” but the music seems to be unified at every level, achieving an extraordinary impetus. Quite apart from this being another jazz masterpiece, one senses that the trumpeter (he had almost certainly given up the cornet by now) hovered on the brink of a new phase in his career, 1928 was to show how true that was.
- Charles Fox
Potato Head Blues (1927)
"'Potato Head Blues' by Louis Armstrong... one of the few reason why life deserves to be lived." (Woody Allen in 'Manhattan')
Here's a transcription of this wonderful Louis's tune I did recently both in standard notation and tab for guitar. And here's my version of this one and other great Satchmo's tunes played on diatonic amplified harmonica!
Louis Armstrong (trumpet), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lil Hardin (piano), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), Babby Dodds (drums), John Thomas (trombone), Pete Briggs (tuba). Composed by Louis Armstrong
Recorded: Chicago, May 10, 1927
"Hello Dolly" and "What A Wonderful World" may get the airplay. "West End Blues" might receive more praise in the jazz history books. But, frankly, "Potato Head Blues" encapsulates Louis Armstrong's artistry as well as any recording he made during his half-century long career. The authority of his phrasing and the grandeur of his tone dominate the soundspace, and his stop-time chorus stands out as the most impressive solo of its time. I dare say no other horn player in the Spring of 1927 could have matched this achievement, and one merely need compare Armstrong's performance here with Oliver, Keppard and his other predecessors to see how far he pushed the art form ahead at this critical juncture. This set a new bar for the trumpet but also—and more profoundly—changed the essence of jazz ensemble playing. The collective sound of early New Orleans jazz was now replaced by an emphasis on the individual soloist. Tone and textures no longer signified as much as virtuosity and daring. Only a towering talent could have spurred this transition, one which still shapes jazz music so many decades later. Potato head? What an inadequate name for such a world-changing work, more deserving of commemoration in granite or marble. (jazz.com)