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:
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.)
A little over two weeks from now musicians, musicologists, scholars, historians, collectors, aficionados and fans will mark the eighty-sixth anniversary of a revolution in jazz and a landmark occurrence in American music. Some of them may even discuss the remaining three minutes and ten seconds of “West End Blues,” the part after Louis Armstrong’s introductory cadenza:
Armstrong plays masterfully throughout the record but generations (rightfully) continue to focus on his cadenza. Blazing fast, encompassing the trumpet’s entire range, technically dazzling, artfully constructed and as easy on the senses as the curves of a Botticelli bathing beauty, Armstrong could have easily played just this brief free-tempo improvisation and more than satisfied most listeners.
As for his fellow trumpeters, Armstrong’s cadenza must have invited another Italian phrase, namely agita. It’s not a musical term but it is a fair description of what some players no doubt experienced after first hearing “West End Blues.” Musicians are as much working professionals with their ears open for competition as they are sensitive artists seeking inspiration. It’s easy to imagine Armstrong’s contemporaries hearing “West End Blues” as the work of a genius, a tough act to follow and even something to top. Thankfully, many of them tried, several on record.
Brian Harker describes Jabbo Smith as “the only trumpet player, according to many contemporaries, who posed a threat to Armstrong’s supremacy,” a threat that Rex Stewart described as truly “blowing.” Gunther Schuller points out that Smith “evidently worshipped Armstrong [and] imitated many of the latter’s most famous solos (particularly ‘West End Blues’).” Thomas Brothers cites Smith’s recording of “Take Me To The River” as “a response to Armstrong’s celebrated performance”:
Smith’s blistering edge and intense delivery are far removed from the melodicism Armstrong maintained even in his rapid-fire excursions. That’s a statement of musical priorities rather than an evaluation (though melody often keeps listeners coming back for more, which may explain Armstrong’s longevity). Smith’s Rhythm Aces were actually the Brunswick label’s attempt to compete with Armstrong’s Hot Fives on Okeh. Not one for understatement or easing into a task, Smith picked “Jazz Battle” as the first song at his first session as a leader and started it off with an ornamental call to arms:
Smith’s introduction is less of a cadenza and more an instrumental break before the tune or the band even starts up. Armstrong is majestic while Smith is defiant; Armstrong pulls the audience in but Smith dares them not to blink. Equally telling is how instead of easing into a relaxed air, Smith bursts into a racehorse display. He may have “worshipped” Armstrong but doesn’t sound like he’s ready to serve in heaven.
Reuben Reeves also admired Armstrong even as he sought to knock him down a few pegs. Reeves’s high note displays had impressed Chicago audiences, and bandleader/promoter/journalist Dave Peyton had advocated for Reeves as a classically schooled, more respectable alternative to Armstrong. By the time that Vocalion set up Reuben “River” Reeves and His River Boys a.k.a. the Hollywood Shufflers as another competitor to the Hot Fives, Armstrong and Reeves had faced off against one another at the Regal Theater a month earlier in late April, 1929.
That particular jazz battle did not end well for Reeves. Despite a showy piece arranged by Peyton to show off Reeves, Armstrong excelled in terms of musicality, stamina, technique and roaring crowds. Reeves’s defeat may explain the lack of overt references on his own dates to Armstrong’s by now well-known record. The closest thing to an Armstrongian cadenza is the mid-register, in-tempo introduction to “Blue Sweets,” which is as pastoral as Armstrong’s is urbane:
Reeves does seem to hint at and perhaps parody “West End Blues” with searing sustained high notes on “River Blues” that resemble Armstrong’s final chorus (and follow an Earl Hines-esque piano solo by Jimmy Prince):
Reeves’s upper register is steelier and more penetrating than Armstrong’s, and the answers from Omer Simeon’s clarinet are either the trumpeter’s attempt to avoid outright plagiarism or splitting his lip. Decades later it’s easy to dismiss Reeves with the knowledge that Armstrong was far more than a squeaker. Harker writes that Reeves seemed to absorb the letter but not the spirit of Armstrong’s style. That might imply a shortcoming, but “spirit” is as personal as it is important. Maybe Reeves, like Smith, was content to use Armstrong’s letters to express his own soul.
Louis Metcalf might seem to imitate Armstrong in his note-for-note rendition of “West End Blues” with the King Oliver band. Yet his departures from the original, whether deliberately subtle or entirely unintentional, make it a wholly individual statement:
The bluesy run connecting the third and fourth notes of the opening arpeggio, hesitations such as the split-second too long pause before the shaky high note or even potential clams like the slight stutters on the opening chorus all act like little signatures by Metcalf. It’s a sincere form of flattery as well as bravery: who else was willing to not just attempt this solo but to record it with none other than the inspiration for the source leading the band?
Red Allen, leading his New York Orchestra on Victor, falls between imitation and complete rejection of Armstrong’s lessons. Just a few years younger than Armstrong and a fellow New Orleanian, according to Ted Gioia Allen actually absorbed most of Armstrong’s playing through records. For his first session as a leader (and second-ever experience in a recording studio), he begins “It Should Be You” with a cadenza that does his hero proud without trying to clone him:
Speaking of this session in his solography of Allen, Jan Evensmo notes how Allen had “already found his [own] style, an open pure sound, a sparkling technique, a fantastic inventiveness, a unique sense of harmony and a rhythmic sureness…” At the same time Allen obviously loved Armstrong’s easygoing yet confident swing, declaratory phrasing and glissandi. Like Armstrong, he also seems to believe in not fixing what isn’t broke: that cadenza remains the same throughout all three takes of “It Should Be You.”
For trumpeters from the pre-Armstrong era or who were less obviously influenced by him, simply the idea of an introductory cadenza allowed them to channel their own gifts. Bill Moore’s chattering lines and tightly muted sound weave a slick, pithy epigram before the Ben Bernie band takes over on “I Want To Be Bad”:
James “King” Porter tacks a miniature cadenza onto to his lush introduction to “Between You And Me” with Curtis Mosby and His Dixieland Blue Blowers:
While on “Buffalo Rhythm” by Walter Barnes’s Royal Creolians, Cicero Thomas rushes through his introduction like a trumpeter at a bullfight with a bus to catch:
Armstrong himself would of course return to the device on record and throughout his career. His introductory cadenza on “Blue Again” is a personal favorite of this blogger:
Its poise, its subtle mixture of drama and detachment and the casual, humorous way that Armstrong “muffs” the reference to his own cadenza from “West End Blues” show that even Armstrong could look to Armstrong as a springboard to something different.
Armstrong himself was initially inspired by the tradition of concert soloists in European music and American marches. He didn’t play the first cadenza at the start of a piece or a record but it likely seemed that way for many trumpeters. All of “West End Blues” is a marvel but its elevation of a single musical device within the jazz community is equally impressive.
With the exception of the Reeves sides (July and May of 1929) and “Blue Again” (1931) all of these records were made just seven or eight months after Armstrong cut “West End Blues.” Allowing for time between Armstrong recording and Okeh distributing it, “West End Blues” must have been fresh enough to convince trumpeters, and record executives, that they needed a flashy cadenza. Eleven seconds generated enough creative curiosity, professional jealousy and/or commercial trendiness to inspire several individual contrafacts, and of course there are more out there and to come. That really is an amazing introduction.
Photo from Timeless CD CBC 1-090 courtesy of @onlyapaprmoon
Like most early jazz drummers, Stan King was not well served by technology. He first appeared on hundreds of sessions with the California Ramblers, including the band’s numerous offshoots for different labels, starting in the early twenties. Acoustic recording techniques at that time limited the equipment that drummers could use, and the technology wasn’t kind to what remained of the kit. King does manage to burst out of the Five Birmingham Babies (a.k.a. the California Ramblers) on “Arkansas” and bang out some springy drum rudiments on Ray Kitchingham’s banjo:
Unfortunately, outbursts like this one were rare. King didn’t use the standard acoustically sanctioned percussion (like cymbals and blocks) as much as his contemporaries Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds, and Chauncey Morehouse. So despite all the records, it’s hard to hear what or how King was playing early on his career. Either way, it got him plenty of work! He must have been doing something worth hearing.
Based on slightly later recordings, it involved plenty of snare drum. Jazz drumming now often tends to emphasize metal as the primary beat maker. Yet as “Broken Idol” with the Ramblers shows, King could move a band with “just” drum skins. It’s a pity he was so skilled with what amounted to kryptonite for most recording engineers of the twenties:
Aside from a few cymbal crashes, the “exotic” blocks, and tom-toms, King’s main rhythmic medium here is his snare and bass drum. He keeps up a simple but buoyant bounce alongside Tommy Felline’s banjo and then steps out behind Pete Pumiglio’s red hot alto sax solo. The brushes are pure momentum, more than compensating for Ward Lay’s slightly ponderous tuba. There’s none of the military-style heft that so many historians associate with prewar, snare-centric jazz drumming.
King’s work with Frank Trumbauer’s orchestra demonstrates his light but propulsive touch on drum heads while never drawing too much attention to the wheels moving the band. “Futuristic Rhythm” includes a head-bobbing rhythm in the first chorus and percolating accompaniment to the leader’s vocal and cymbals behind Bix Beiderbecke:
King’s airtight press rolls and last chorus backbeat on “I Like That” (a.k.a. “Loved One“) are simple, impeccably timed, and very effective:
Listening to King nearly 60 years later, renowned drummer Mel Lewis pointed to King’s “clean” style with definite praise. A crisp, precise, and utterly unobtrusive approach defines King’s style more than any part of the drum set. He was above all an ensemble player who rarely soloed but always made sure that the band was “well fed” (to paraphrase bass sage Walter Page describing the role of the rhythm section).
With the Charleston Chasers, King leaves most of the rhythmic heavy lifting on “Loveable and Sweet” and “Red Hair and Freckles” (what were these guys thinking about on this session?) to pianist Arthur Schutt and bassist Joe Tarto:
Dancers and jazz aficionados may not be listening for King’s sizzling brushes and tapping rims or how his drums click in with Tarto’s bass to produce a deliciously buzzy sonority or for his simple but firm beat. Listening to those touches reveals how subtly King could color and catalyze a band. It also points to an attention to detail and a knack for musical nuance that might not be heard could be felt. For example, while many drummers use press rolls, and King relied on them throughout his career, the way that he loosens his press rolls up behind Tommy Dorsey’s trumpet solo on “Hot Heels” with Eddie Lang makes a difference:
Audio wizard, historian, and trombonist David Sagerrecalls an “old-time drummer” he met at a gig in California “who nearly shouted when he said, ‘Stan King had the best press roll in the business!’” King’s press rolls with none other than Louis Armstrong on Seger Ellis’ “S’Posin” might not impress on their own, but Armstrong scholar Ricky Riccardiexplains that “Armstrong liked loud, emphatic drumming, and he obviously dug what King was putting down.”
[Listen to “S’Posin” via Riccardi’s outstanding blog here, and subscribe while you’re at it.]
According to Richard Sudhalter, King didn’t read music. His “natural drive and quick ear” were enough to make him one of the most in-demand drummers in New York during the twenties and thirties, performing with Paul Whiteman, Jean Goldkette, the Boswell Sisters, Ben Selvin, the Dorsey Brothers, and Benny Goodman among others. A session directed by bass saxophonist Adrian Rollini finds King with the cream of the New York jazz crop at that time on standards such as” Sugar” and “Davenport Blues”:
On “Somebody Loves Me,” King lays out behind George Van Eps’s solo, which allows the guitar to get heard and changes up the ensemble texture, but digs in behind Goodman’s clarinet and Arthur Rollini’s tenor saxophone while easing back behind trumpeter Mannie Klein and trombonist Jack Teagarden. It’s a model of sensitive, rhythmic jazz drumming (or “dance band” drumming, depending on one’s preferred pigeonhole):
King could also turn up the heat on his own. On “The Man From The South” with Rube Bloom, he locks in with Adrian Rollini, tossing out fast snappy fills and bearing down just a little harder behind Goodman before making room for Rollini’s solo:
On “Here Comes Emily Brown”—again with the Charleston Chasers but without Joe Tarto’s booming slap bass—King add a sizzle to his shuffle behind Tommy Dorsey’s trombone while his cowbell accents practically kick Benny Goodman from behind. Fills and backbeat on the out chorus also boot the ensemble:
King even gets some spotlight in a call and response episode with the ensemble on “Freeze and Melt” with Lang:
Occasionally, King would get away from a steady beat and toss out unexpected accents and syncopations, for example early on his career behind Bobby Davis’ alto solo on “That Certain Party” with the Goofus Five (a.k.a. the California Ramblers):
or his offbeat rim “bombs” behind Jimmy Dorsey’s alto on “You’re Lucky To Me”:
Yet it’s all within the context of the band. Record after record shows King to be a clean, precise, utterly musical drummer. His preferred instrumentation may have limited his recorded legacy, and his unflashy style may have hindered his historical one. Singer Helen Ward, speaking about King’s tenure with Benny Goodman’s band, said “we called him strictly a society type of musician. Everything he played was ‘boom-cha, boom-cha.’ There was no fire there.” Goodman described King as “merely adequate.”
The entry for King in the Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes “an exceptionally good dance band drummer with meticulous time [whose] jazz work always left something to be desired. Listening to, for example, Goodman’s recordings in late 1934 will reveal how King’s playing never lifts the band in the way Gene Krupa did when he took over as drummer…” John Chilton describes Louis Armstrong’s “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket” as a “typical example of [King’s] somewhat foursquare playing:
King isn’t Krupa, Dodds, Sid Catlett (or for that matter Elvin Jones), but it’s easy to imagine any of those players taking the same approach that King does given the thin material, flimsy arrangement, and the fact that this is really Armstrong’s show. Riccardi astutely points out King’s “tasty” accents during Armstrong’s opening trumpet chorus and the fact that “relaxation is the key” here. There’s a difference between playing stiffly and playing appropriately, a difference King was more than experienced enough to understand.
In the stylistic wake of louder, better-recorded, and busier drummers, it is easy to overlook someone like King, who performed an essential role seamlessly and without drawing attention to his work. What some overlook, others celebrated. Drummer Chauncey Morehouse would praise King for his solid time years after his colleague’s death. When Morehouse led his own date playing his patented N’Goma drums, he chose King to handle traps duty. Fud Livingstonthought King was “the world’s greatest drummer!” Saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg noted how King continued to get work despite his well-known status as a “fall-down drunk.” It didn’t seem to matter: King got the job done.
Jazz historian Scott Yanow, who credited King for his “fresh” sound, explains that King’s alcoholism finally did get the best of him. King eventually took a low-key job with former California Ramblers sideman Chauncey Grey before fading from attention and passing away in 1949. King made his last recordings ten year earlier, with pianist (and fellow victim of alcoholism) Bob Zurke. “I’ve Found A New Baby” wasn’t the last thing King recorded but it provides explosive closure:
Fud Livingston’s arrangement gives King and the rest of the band plenty of room. King is a force of nature, crisp and light as always but distinctly forward in the mix, perhaps the influence of what Krupa and Chick Webb were bringing to the table at the time. King still remains his own man, with press rolls in first chorus and rim shots and backbeats egging on Zurke’s contrapuntal flurries and Sterling Bose’s trumpet. At a time when most drummers were emphasizing cymbals and a steady horizontal flow, King stuck to skins and a charging but tight vertical feel. He had something unique to contribute and put the needs of the band first. That certainly sounds like a jazz drummer, or maybe a just a good band drummer, but definitely a drummer worth hiring and hearing.
Joe Muranyi passed away last Friday. A bad Internet connection and a busy weekend kept the news from me until Monday, and uncertainty about what to say kept me from commenting until today.
Muranyi was best known as the last clarinetist to play with Louis Armstrong, as well as a good friend of Armstrong’s, a prodigious jazz writer and a fine musician in his own right. Muranyi was a link to a seminal force in music. He was also the person who taught me how to give Louis Armstrong the benefit of the doubt.
As a younger listener, I was one of those Louis Armstrong fans who just assumed that the great trumpeter’s career as a jazz artist ended some time around 1928, when big bands, vocals and Tin Pan Alley made him into a (mere) “popular entertainer.” Joe Muranyi’s liner notes for the 1989 BMG/Bluebird CD Laughing Louie taught me better. Knowing the man and his music well, he pointed out that Armstrong wasn’t holding back, he was playing just the notes he needed for maximum impact. He wasn’t selling out by leaving jazz tunes behind, he was flexing his imagination and chops by looking ahead to new material. Most of all, he was reaching more listeners. Armstrong was all about reaching people.
Muranyi’s commentary moved like great sports casting. It was also optimistic, open-minded and above all insightful, treating these 1932 and 1933 studio sessions not as popular concessions or the product of opportunistic management, but as the sincere work of a pensive yet joyful artist. In short, Muranyi heard music, and from then on so did I.
And that’s all I have to say about him. I’ll leave the rest to some other writers who help me to hear more and understand better: