Symposium On “Chimes Blues”

Here is Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1923:

Here is Gunther Schuller, describing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1968:
[It] is a solo only in the sense that it takes place alone; it is not yet fully a solo in character and conception. It might easily have been one part of a collectively improvised chorus lifted from its background.

Here is Thomas Brothers, discussing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo and apparently expanding upon Schuller’s point, in 2014:
“Where’s that lead?” Armstrong heard [mentor and boss King Oliver] say…and that admonition was still ringing in his ears when he soloed on “Chimes Blues”…

Here is Bob Wilber’s Wildcats, playing Louis Armstrong’s first recorded solo, in 1947:

Here is the whole recording:

Things really pick up after that Armstrong homage, with the whole performance taking on newfound energy and cohesion. In other words, Armstrong’s “twenty-four bars of magic” work well as a lead. Yet Wilber, pianist Dick Wellstood and the other musicians knew that, didn’t they?  We are fortunate to have a variety of thinkers from a variety of perspectives, and eras, sharing their insights. Yet that band did beat those scholars to this musicological punch!

(Incidentally, “magic” is an inspired description: an incredible thing that can be analyzed and perhaps even demystified, or something that we can explain even as it continues to stupefy us.  Keep listening, and for goodness sake keep talking about what you hear.)

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6 thoughts on “Symposium On “Chimes Blues”

  1. jazzlives says:

    Those CHIMES continue to ring, don’t they? Today is July 6; in 1971, on this day, the mortal shell of Louis Armstrong left town, a fact certified by a doctor signing a piece of paper. But he is still right with us!

  2. andrewhomzy says:

    In “Chimes Blues”, believe Armstrong is playing (reading?) an interpolated strain composed by Jelly Roll Morton. The sophisticated progression is beyond the harmonic language of the credited composer, Oliver, and even pianist Lillian Hardin – who makes many mistakes throughout the body of the KOCJB repertoire – despite her training in classical music.

    Even though “Mournful Serenade” was recorded 5 years later, it doesn’t mean that Morton was borrowing something from the KOCJB. The passage in consideration is thoroughly aligned with the bold harmonic – and melodic – daring heard in other Morton compositions such as “London Blues” and “The (Original) Jelly Roll Blues”.

    Armstrong struggles valiantly with the phrase because it is pianistic. He was right to be cautious –

    Note aside: We know that the “Chimes Blues” recorded by Fletcher Henderson and Herb Wiedoeft are different compositions. It’s too bad that Frank Westphal’s recording of a piece with the same title was never issued – especially since Westphal showed some affinity to Morton via his recording of Wolverine Blues recorded just a few weeks after the NORK.

    • Andrew J. Sammut says:

      Andrew, if you don’t mind my saying so, that is a really fascinating connection. I have read scholars such as Schuller and Brothers pointing to this solo as an example of Armstrong’s harmonic acumen, but had always thought about the “Mournful Serenade” reference chronologically in terms of discography. The idea of Armstrong knowing and admiring Morton’s riff so well as to interpolate it into the piece is definitely a different “lens” onto the music; thank you for sharing it.

      By the way, Westphal’s “Wolverine Blues” and the recording of the same tune by the Benson Orchestra always sound incredibly unique to my ears. I’m always interested the juxtaposition of different idioms/communities and familiar material.

  3. Great post, as usual, Andrew and plenty of food for thought. However, I must disagree with Andrew regarding Morton composing Armstrong’s strain. Yes, it is similar to some things that Morton had done but Morton was usually pretty good about copyrighting his stuff and Oliver had no problem crediting Morton’s compositions (see “London Cafe Blues,” “Froggie Moore,” etc.).

    I also don’t hear Armstrong struggling or sounding cautious. He talked about that solo in later years and bragged that he was proud of it and that based on his solo alone, it was a big seller for the Oliver band. He doesn’t come blazing out like the “West End Blues” of 1928 but it wasn’t his band so he wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that. Are people’s expectations too high, perhaps? Sure, Lester Young turned the world on its head with his first recorded solo. Armstrong’s “Chimes Blues” effort didn’t have the same effect but I don’t think that’s what he was going for. It’s well-played and well-executed, it’s catchy and it’s unmistakably Armstrong. A fine way to start one helluva career!

    Yours in Pops,


  4. Andrew-Thanks for getting me to listen more closely to both the Armstrong and Morton tracks. The “chimes” effect is held in common, which is perhaps why people tend to link the tunes. They’re both blues, of course, but with slightly different harmonic variations. I don’t know this period well enough to call either “daring” or not, although the Oliver track, being considerably earlier, may be more justifiably accorded that appellation.

    Armstrong’s solo has the quality of being worked out in advance, so I could see someone thinking it was a cop of something already written. 3/4’s of the two choruses are the same, with the last section of chorus two approached as kind of a coda. He does a really nice job of dealing with the harmony and I find it quite satisfying. We know that when Armstrong found something he liked, he kept it and refined it. This seems a reasonable approach to listening to this solo.

  5. Andrew J. Sammut says:

    Ricky, Steve, Andrew, Michael, wow! Thank you so much for contributing to and enriching this discussion. That’s all I have to offer; I look forward to hearing more from you and for other commenters.

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