Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines first met as members of Erskine Tate's Little Symphony orchestra at the Vendome Theatre, Chicago. The following year, while working for the band leader Carroll Dickerson, both musicians also were to be heard at the Windy City's Sunset Cafe, where, at the insistence of the owner, Joe Glaser (later to become Armstrong's manager) the trumpeter was fronting a band - drawn from Dickerson's personnel - known as Louis Armstrong and his Stompers, of which Hines was pianist and musical director.
At the time of the opening tracks on this compilation, Armstrong, Singleton and Hines were to be heard at Chicago's Savoy Ballroom with Dickerson; the pianist also doubled in a small group led by the New Orleans born clarinet virtuoso, Jimmie Noone, both at the Apex Club and on record.
The Armstrong/Hines studio partnership began in April 1927 on a Vocation date under Johnny Dodds' leadership unlike the trumpeter, the clarinettist was not contracted to Okeh. The following month Louis took his Sunset Cafe Stompers into the Okeh Studio, while just one day prior to the June 1928 titles that open this set, Armstrong and Hines joined forces with banjoist Mancey Carr, from Carroll Dickerson's orchestra and the clarinettist, Jimmie Noone to add the musical substance to the gloriously mediocre singing of a lady named Lillie Delk Christian.
Armstrong and Hines, then, were versed thoroughly in each other's styles. The inclusion of trombonist Fred Robinson, reed man Jimmy Strong, Mancey Carr and Zutty Singleton, colleagues from the Dickerson orchestra, indicate that this small group was a feature of live performances. Indeed the polished, evidently well-rehearsed routines and the ensemble voicings, with use of dynamics etc., would appear to confirm it.
The plays-on-words invited by the up tempo opener, Fireworks apply up to a point: there are no flashy pyrotechnics merely intended to dazzle, but there is an effervescent lightness throughout and brilliance in the solos of the main protagonists. The sympathetic interplay between the frontline horns, supported by the tight, unobtrusive rhythm is characteristic of the outfit's cohesive sound. Both Robinson and Strong, here and throughout, adaptable, supportive ensemble players, also contribute commendable solos, without attempting to upstage the stars. Earl Hines' solo, is a good illustration of his innovatory style, and rhythmic flexibility. In his trumpet solo – he had switched from cornet since the final Hot Five date of December 1927 – Louis exudes authorative swing, his beautifully integrated phrases dance over the stop chords with effortless grace. He caps this infectious performance with a thoughtful cadenza. Incidentally, special pressings, retitled Skyrocket were to be heard as intermission music in several cinemas and theatres by their lucky patrons. Earl Hines already had recorded his own number, My Monday Date (with Rosetta his contribution to the standard jazz repertoire) in a different, though equally memorable, version with Jimmie Noone. The highspots are Hines' break, then his supportive accompaniment to Armstrong's insouiant, rhythmic reading of the slight lyric besides the sheer zest of his debonair muted trumpet chorus.
It is evident Earl Hines was one of the few jazz soloists of any style or period equipped to meet Louis on equal terms without sounding either combative or threatened. (In both Louis' earlier and later studio encounters with Sidney Bechet, plus his recordings with the Empress of The Blues, Bessie Smith, there is a keen, needlematch edge) Skip The Gutter features an eloquent illustration of the affinity between Armstrong and Hines in a duologue where each inspires the other to new heights of lyrical invention. Earl Hines claimed his famed "trumpet style", that is phrasing in octaves as a trumpeter would do, was inspired by Joe Smith, the cornettist, whose melodic tones graced many Fletcher Henderson and Bessie Smith recordings. Hines added, "Now, of course, you couldn't be around Louis as much as I was without catching some of his spirit and drive." Yet it was Hines' harmonic inventiveness and acute rhythmic sense too that made his playing so compatible with Armstrong's. His solo on Knees Drop exemplifies the way in which Hines's work, along with that of such stride pianists as James P. Johnson and Fats Waller, was enriching and expanding the jazz piano vocabulary away from ragtime/blues patterns.
The earlier Hot Five and Seven recordings had charted Louis Armstrong's development of jazz as a soloist's medium, by virtue of the astonishing fluency of his ideas, besides the total technical command that enhanced it. The Hot Five and Seven repertoire may have been restricted to fundamental sequences, usually stomps, vaudeville songs and blues, yet Louis' musical experiences outside the studio between 1925/27 had served to broaden his horizons, thus enriching both the form and the content of his recorded solos. With Erskine Tate's Little Symphony orchestra for instance, Louis was featured on such diversities as Noel Coward's Poor Little Rich Girl and Cavalleria Rusticana – thereafter the latter would remain as his "warm up" piece before a performance.
Thus having opened the floodgates to the possibilities of improvisation for the soloist, these sides found Louis consolidating his past achievements, while further exploring his capabilities. One of his many assets was Louis' refusal to dominate ensemble work with fussy brash demonstrations of technique. His mentor, King Joe Oliver once told him: "If a cat can swing a lead and play a melody, that's what counts." Louis never ignored the advice, although as Leonard Feather once commented what might constitute a straight lead from Armstrong would sound alike an exquisite jazz solo by the standards of others."
A supreme confidence and an awareness of his gifts precluded Louis' either needing or wanting to cram all his prowess into every bar of each solo. Such assurance allowed him to succinctly select, with a masterful sense of timing, the exact ideas to add spontaneity, those which also contributed to the construction of a lucid solo, without a superfluous note. The sprightly Knees Drop and Sugar Foot Strut, (both with Singleton's spry cymbal work) Don't Jive Me, taken at medium tempo plus the languid Two Deuces, each contain stunningly original Armstrong creations of melodic invention, expressive power, tonal finesse and rhythmic subtlety. The last named, with its swift exhilarating tempo switch, also contains Carr's delicately melodic banjo solo, a description not readily associated with that instrument.
The Carroll Dickerson Savoyagers' items not only add insight to Louis' regular musical environment outside the studio but are comparative rarities too. Exclusively made for the Argentinian Odeon label and not issued in the United States in 78 form, these items made their microgroove debut some fifty years later on an Armstrong compilation issued in Britain. The up tempo Stomp Convariagones – which has been translated loosely as Symphonic Raps, although Tiger Rag would seem nearer – is lifted out of the routine dance music category by dint of the scoring, with plenty of dissonance and textured contrasts. The articulate Hines' solo, with some dramatic orchestral interjections, previews later recordings with his own outfit, suggesting that the pianist also was responsible for the arrangement. Louis' magnificent solo, mainly over stop chords, bristles with a vitality that definitely inspires the spirited ensemble finale. Poor Jimmy Strong has the unenviable task of following the breathtaking Armstrong tour-de-force opening chorus on Blues Convariagones (or Savoyager's Stomp, aka Muskrat Ramble). Small wonder Strong sounds a trifle overwhelmed in his rather halting tenor solo. The elegant, pensive Hines feature is built around shifting rhythm emphasis and suspended time. Armstrong's thrilling lead predominates in the final chorus, after which the gentle, period tag sounds quaint.
The serene swing of Squeeze Me, with Earl Hines' lyrical introduction has the Armstrong performance as its centre piece. The delicate celeste playing from Hines, with the subdued harmonies of Robinson and Strong set the scene for two unimpeachable Armstrong trumpet features on Basin Street. The first an understated example of his expressive blues playing, then after his wordless vocal (it would be a further three years before Jack Teagarden and Glenn Miller appended a verse and a lyric to Spenser Williams melody) a virtuoso Armstrong showcase. By contrast, Louis' solo on the atmospheric No Papa No is a copybook example of simple, forthright blues playing.
There had been several previous recordings of West End Blues - including a charmingly introspective one from its composer King Oliver – but this version justifiably has eclipsed them all. The superlatives lavished upon this extraordinary testimony to Louis Armstrong's technical resources, musical artistry and communicative powers, have long been exhausted over the past sixty three years. Yet no description really could capture the aura, from the resplendent fanfare introduction, which – when transcribed has flummoxed even the most technically accomplished, to Zutty's final cymbal tap. Along the way we hear Robinson's doleful trombone preface to Louis' wordless, bittersweet lullaby lament, so fittingly underlined by Strong's clarinet. Hines reflective solo is the perfect interlude before the trumpet spectacular.
Earl Hines has related that he and Louis would love to interchange ideas during the course of a performance. This reached its peak in their duet version ofWeather Bird, a number Louis had recorded as Weatherbird Rag with King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in 1923. Indeed, the King Oliver/Jelly Roll Morton versions of King Porter Stomp and Tom Cat Blues made for the obscure Autograph label in 1924 might have inspired this trumpet/piano duologue. The electricity between Armstrong and Hines is established at the start; the tension mounts with each chorus as ideas flow back and forth with astonishing rhythmical elasticity. The solo order of Muggles indicates Armstrong's increasing awareness of his pivotol role on these sides, besides his showman's sense of presentation. Hines opens with a sensuously slow, blues tinged chorus. Robinson, then Strong perform pleasant solos, but thus far Louis has not been heard. His unassuming entry, a capella, in double time, lifts the tempo and the mood. Captured in the "holy roller" vein of King Oliver, Louis "signifies" on his horn as never before or since. Dramatically reverting to a slower pace, the trumpeter holds us in thrall: a mesmeric, preaching blues singer in a soul stirring, heartfelt solo.
The addition of Don Redman to the Savoy Ballroom Five not only meant the inclusion of his stylish alto sound but also one of the most influential arranging talents in big band jazz. In fact, when both men were members of Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in 1924/25, it was Louis Armstrong's unfettered, rhythmically charged trumpet outings that began to inspire Redman's scores. Redman's arrangements here for his own numbers, No-One Else But You and Heah Me Talking' lend a fulsome depth, creating the impression of a larger unit. Louis' solo work here seems like a barometer of his progress and its influence upon the subsequent nature of jazz, since his previous association with Redman in the Henderson period. Beau Koo Jack is a welcome reminder of its composer and arranger Alex Hill, a short-lived, versatile pianist/songwriter/orchestrator, largely neglected today, despite his co-authorship of I'm Crazy 'Bout My Baby, with Fats Waller. His ambitious score, showcases an inspired Hines solo and a Louis feature which, at points, anticipates his work on the 1938 recording of Wolverine Blues, on which sequence the number is based.
Save It Pretty Mama, another Redman composition, contains a glimpse of Dan's pithy, pert alto playing and a sensitive Hines solo. Louis' performance here, though, in terms of material and interpretation, sets the precedent for the next phase of his career. His tender, unsentimental singing reveals a new melodic sensibility in his handling of a lyric, unlike his impressionistic scat singing and far removed from his rather strident harshness on the Hot Five's You Made Me Love You two years earlier. In his muted solo too there is an intimate sensitivity as he adheres to the pretty melody.
A fitting note of splendour with which to conclude the Hines/Armstrong studio partnership, a fruitful association that would be resumed twenty years later in the All Stars. Of these historic dates Earl Hines recalled, " ... we were getting kicks without thinking about making our reputation by records. But I think the public realised we were playing from the heart."
In early March 1929, Louis had travelled to New York to rejoin his former boss, Fletcher Henderson in the orchestra for the show, Great Day. The reunion did not work out and Louis left during rehearsal. Discovering the trumpeter was in town, the guitarist Eddie Condon, without whose enterprising initiative a lot of early jazz might well have gone unrecorded, hastily organised a recording session and selected the musicians for the final item, Knockin' A Jug.
The drummer, Kaiser Marshall recalled, "We took a gallon jug of whisky with us." The refreshment inspired the title, for when asked for the name of the twelve bar blues Louis remarked, "We sure knocked that jug. You can call it Knockin A Jug."
The balance here is not up to Okeh's usually high standard, in fact at times Marshall's drumming sounds as though he is knitting with amplified needles. (Whether the effects of the whisky or the poor sound quality caused the first item recorded, I'm Gonna Stomp Mr. Henry Lee to be rejected will never be known). No matter, the date marked the first studio meeting of the greatest jazz trombonist, Jack Teagarden with his mentor Louis Armstrong, the realisation of an ambition for both since their first chance encounter in New Orleans seven years earlier. Eddie Lang's lilting guitar presages two superb Teagarden choruses demonstrating both his musical and emotional range in a solo imbued with blues notes and gospel-like fervour. In common with Earl Hines, Teagarden could hold his own in Armstrong's presence without resorting to competitive displays, as his relaxed, quietly assured articulation of his own ideas here proves. (Unfortunately, it would be another fifteen years before Jack had another opportunity to record with Armstrong). After Lang's winsome solo – Happy Caldwell's endearingly inept tenor solo need not detain us – Joe Sullivan's persuasive blues playing is all but lost under the overwheening weight of Marshall's over-recorded drumming. The centrepiece Armstrong solo is a virtual gauntlet in the face of his legion disciples and imitators to challenge his supremacy.
This recording marked a watershed for Louis: the closing chapter on the period of phenomenal achievement that began with the first Hot Five date of 1925, whilst heralding the next significant phase of his remarkable career.
Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five
01 Fireworks 3:09
02 Skip the Gutter 3:10
03 A Monday Date 3:15
04 Don't Jive Me 2:50
05 West End Blues 3:21
06 Sugar Foot Strut 3:23
07 Two Deuces 2:58
08 Squeeze Me 3:26
09 Knee Drops 3:28
Carroll Dickerson's Savoyagers
10 Symphonic Raps 3:15
11 Savoyagers' Stomp 3:13
Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra
12 No (No, Papa, No) 2:54
13 Basin Street Blues 3:16
Louis Armstrong and his Savoy Ballroom Five
14 No-One Else But You 3:24
15 Beau Koo Jack 3:01
16 Save It, Pretty Mama 3:19
17 Weather Bird 2:42
Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra
18 Muggles 2:52
Louis Armstrong and his Savoy Ballroom Five
19 Heah Me Talkin' to Ya? 3:17
20 St. James Infirmary 3:14
21 Tight Like This 3:12
Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra
22 Knockin' a Jug 3:15