The more you listen to young Louis Armstrong, the more you hear. The more you hear, the more you realize the extent to which jazz evolved from his intelligence, imagination, daring and sense of form. He shaped the music. To one who has listened extensively to the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens in all of their reissue reincarnations, revelations keep coming. It is something of a jolt to be astonished all over again by Armstrong’s trumpet technique, melodic gift and harmonic acuity (he was improvising on chord changes at least as early as 1925, long before it is generally acknowledged that jazz incorporated the approach). It is impossible, naturally, to isolate one musical element from another in playing a jazz solo and nearly impossible in analyzing what makes a solo work. Nonetheless, it is clear that above all, Armstrong’s rhythm, his mastery of time, is the foundation of his innovation.
In the best of these recordings, we witness Armstrong transforming jazz from attractive folk music performed by collectives into art music energized by the creative power of one man’s intuitive ability to make it swing. Despite leaden accompaniment in some of the earliest Hot Fives from 1925 and 1926, he imparts irresistible momentum by his placement of notes, the values he gives them and his use of vibrato, which divides time within a note. His sophisticated and subtle rhythm is the principal source of the joy that suffuses his playing. As examples, “Sweet Little Papa” and “Big Butter and Egg Man” are in a rhythmic mire except when he is playing. They sink back into it when he is silent. In track after track, a gulf separates Armstrong’s conception and execution from even the most talented of his Hot Five colleagues, Kid Ory and Johnny Dodds.
By the time of “West End Blues” and his duets in the late ’20s with Earl Hines on “Weather Bird” and “Muggles,” Armstrong had established swing at a level of sophistication and subtlety that would not be equaled until Lester Young came along in the middle of the next decade. The rhythmic characteristics of his phrasing, even as early as “Butter and Egg Man,” forecast time conceptions in bebop. He set the direction and ideals for development of the music. Armstrong’s singing had the same attributes as his trumpet style. As emphatically as he changed standards for trumpet players in all fields, his “Heebie Jeebies” and the vocal recordings that followed it set a new course for jazz and popular vocalists-Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday, to name only two. All of that can be heard in these recordings, and should be, by everyone from novice listeners to veteran musicians who may need a refresher course in the essentials of the art form.
This collection of 89 recordings documents Armstrong’s achievement from 1925 to 1929, his period of spectacular artistic growth. About a third of them are what producer Phil Schaap has designated “attendant material” and “bonus tracks” related to the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. Some feature Armstrong backing singers, including Hociel Thomas and the shrieking Lillie Delk Christian, or with groups led by other musicians. All have Armstrong trumpet or vocal solos. Many have both. He transforms even the most ordinary, disposable popular artifacts into minor works of art. The best are major achievements.
The music is presented more or less chronologically, with the attendant material, according to Schaap’s notes, inserted “thematically.” It is a workable approach, although purists may object. One of the convenient attributes of programmable CD players is that they allow the listener to override the producer’s order and substitute their own. On the earliest two dozen of these recordings Armstrong and his colleagues were playing into acoustical horns, but the sound quality is about as good as digital remastering can be expected to make it. On the later electronic recordings, it is often excellent.
The package includes more than a dozen historical photographs, Schaap’s notes on the sessions and an essay by Robert G. O’Meally in appreciation of the recordings. It also has a brief account by George Avakian of his friendship with Armstrong and his oversight in 1940 of the first Columbia reissues of some of the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. Avakian’s stewardship paved the way and to a large extent set the standards for jazz reissue programs. It would have been valuable in the context of this major extension of that effort to have more details about his pioneering work that made important early classic jazz generally available and, indeed, saved some of the metal masters from World War Two scrap drives.
Packaging, history and discography aside, the music is what matters. It is not farfetched to consider these recordings, as the album notes suggest, the Rosetta Stone of jazz. In his emotional eulogy at Armstrong’s funeral in 1971 Fred Robbins summed up Pops’ importance when he said, “He was truly the only one of his kind, a titanic figure in his own and our time. A veritable Picasso. A Stravinsky. A Casals. A Louis Armstrong.”