Because so many uninformed or skewed pages have been written about Louis Armstrong, a new book that offers close scrutiny and original research is a pleasure.
Brian Harker’s LOUIS ARMSTRONG’S HOT FIVE AND HOT SEVEN RECORDINGS (Oxford) is just such a book.
Harker bravely and capably combines musicology (attentive readings of Louis’s playing on six famous sides recorded between 1926 and 1928) and cultural history (how were these performances influenced, shaped, and perceived).
So readers need not fear being overwhelmed by transcribed solos being subjected to pages of analysis, because Harker has done other kinds of work — presenting excerpts from Dave Peyton’s columns in the Chicago Defender, offering Armstrong’s comments on his music, as well as making imaginative connections between “sweet music,” vaudeville, the cornet / trumpet tradition, and show dancing. All of these investigations add up to new ways of understanding Louis’s growth, his powerful influence.
Harker’s book (his dissertation, but with none of the inherent stuffiness and tedium of that form) devotes itself to CORNET CHOP SUEY, BIG BUTTER AND EGG MAN, POTATO HEAD BLUES, S.O.L. BLUES / GULLY LOW BLUES, SAVOY BLUES, and WEST END BLUES — as masterpieces in themselves, and as monuments in jazz changing from an ensemble music to a soloist’s art. Harker examines each recording as exemplifying a different aspect of Louis’s creative process.
However, he doesn’t ignore the fact that these recordings — now perceived as iconic — were created (aside from WEST END BLUES) with some degree of casualness, ideas that Louis and his friends worked up for record dates. Ironically or paradoxically, Louis — who treasured his own recordings — said little about these records in his lifetime. But we can be sure that he remembered every note.
But ultimately the recordings are all we have and all that generations to come will have. Harker makes intriguing use of the most unusual detritus of Louis’s Chicago existence — imagining Louis and friends listening to Guy Lombardo’s radio broadcasts, bringing in excerpts from newspaper writing to suggest what it was like to be a jazz musician of the time.
His research is delightful, often surprising, and almost always conclusive. Occasionally, I found myself saying, “Well, do we know that Louis heard that / read that / cared about that?” But such skepticism vanished by the next page. Harker is a clear, understated, witty writer, and he avoids the cliches of Louis-exegesis: Louis the flawed artist who had no idea of what he was doing, or Louis the God, who could make no mistakes.
I learned a great deal about Louis the musician and the man (like Houdini, holding his breath under water, about his changing from cornet to trumpet, about Louis’s playing for the dancers Brown & McGraw (this last a revelation) . . . and I can think of no other book that so joyously and effectively moves from Bud Freeman to the jurist Charles L. Black to Maynard Ferguson.
Since the book costs what a CD would — and it is more rewarding than many — I commend it to you. Brian Harker is clearly a Big Butter and Egg Man of music.
Sold, Michael. Semester’s over in 2 weeks and I know what my summer reading is.
It may be true that “Ironically or paradoxically, Louis — who treasured his own recordings — said little about these records in his lifetime,” but I know that he talked at length about these and other recordings of his with his friend Ruby Braff during the time that he was preparing to revisit his classics for his “My Musical Autobiography” set of recordings.
Ruby told me of this highlight in his life, going to Pops’ home to hear him spin his own old records, thinking out loud about what he might do differently, and what he thought ought to be done the same, or similarly. I got goose bumps when Ruby related this anecdote, and when he repeated it to me a couple times over the years, I never stopped him or let him know that he’d told me this story already.
Ruby also said that that night when he was leaving a club where a fun scene was happening, some other well-known musicians asked what reason could he have for leaving, and when he said he was going to Louis’ place for the hang described above, they laughed at him, thinking that sounded like a drag. Well, there are and always were those who know (where it’s at), and those who don’t.
Wow! What a story — there is no analogue in art that I can think of . . . . like hanging out with Shakespeare and having him tell you why he ended LEAR the way he did. Aren’t we lucky to have been born in this time and place, no matter how odd it seems otherwise?
Jon, that might be the greatest story ever told! Wow…too bad Pops didn’t record any of those discussions on his private tapes (or Ruby should have taken notes!). We do have a tape at the Armstrong Archives of Louis and Bobby Hackett together listening to Louis’s 1920s recordings. They offer verbal introductions of each song but Louis doesn’t offer much insight (he seems more into his Decca coupling of “Because of You” and “Cold Cold Heart,” which he spins after the Hot Fives, singing along with the ending of the former and playing along with the latter). And there’s another tape where he plays “King of the Zulus” from some friends and audibly gets a kick out of the Clarence Babcock interlude, telling his company to dig it. But prepping for the “Autobiography”? Incredible…(and he did a helluva job as the results speak for themselves!)
And I agree with everything Michael said; I definitely learned a lot from Harker’s book. Pick it up!
Can we start the Clarence Babcock Fan Club?
Can’t wait to read this.. From a New Orleans scholar, thanks for posting about this book!
Take care –
Glad you guys enjoyed that anecdote. Gotta get to The House and check all that wonderful stuff out. And I gotta check this book out, thanks for the tip.
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