As anyone who has spent even an afternoon in New Orleans knows, that city’s traditional jazz has never gone away. But those of us who spend our time in other places tend not to give that music much attention. It’s associated with decrepit and too-fast silent movie footage, and cartoons. Swing, bebop, and subsequent styles are so much more sophisticated.
Of course, the secret to New Orleans jazz is that it’s incredibly sophisticated. It’s also the bedrock of all jazz that followed, meaning that even if we don’t instantly detect it, it’s never gone away for us, either. The music is still exciting, profound, and ahead of its time today, and it’s worthy of our attention. We don’t have the sounds of jazz’s very beginning: Trumpeter Buddy Bolden is usually regarded as Jazzman Zero, but aside from anecdotes and a scratchy circa-1905 photograph, there’s no documentation of him. (The notion persists that he made an old wax cylinder record, but we have yet to find it.) For all intents and purposes, though, these 10 records give us the foundation. All except the first entry are in chronological order.
9. Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five: “Hotter Than That” (The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, Vol. 3; Sony Legacy, 2003 [originally recorded Dec. 13, 1927])
In his book Listening to Jazz, writer Ted Gioia recounts an experiment he conducted in college: He spent two weeks listening only to jazz made before Armstrong’s first Hot Five recordings of November 1925, then dived into those Hot Fives and Sevens. “What a revelation … indeed, what a shock!” Gioia writes. “Everything about Armstrong’s conception seemed to propel the art form ahead by light years.” Keep the previous entries on this list in mind when you play “Hotter Than That,” which indeed is a vast advancement over what the music sounded like pre-Armstrong. In fact, the very first second of the record is startling—in its ebullience, its rhythmic momentum, and the sheer power with which Armstrong plays. He maintains that level of virtuosity and authority, hands it off to Johnny Dodds for a clarinet solo, then takes it back for a joyful scat improvisation that he shares with guest guitarist Lonnie Johnson. Kid Ory follows, Armstrong takes us home, and we are firmly in jazz’s future as the song ends.