Louis Armstrong: Top Ten Essentials

May 31, 2017

Ricky Riccardi, author of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, told Facebook readers this week that he's on assignment from Jazz at Lincoln Center to select a group of ten Louis Armstrong recordings for a Spotify playlist. I'm sure you understood the kind of pressure a list like this presents to obsessives of our kind. In this case, Ricky's playlist will be widely consulted and scrutinized, for he's emerging as one of the most prominent and reliable of Armstrong experts. In addition to Wonderful World​, which Pantheon published in 2011, Riccardi is also the Director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, and he maintains the impeccable and voluminous blogsite, The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong, which offers an in-depth survey of Armstrong's legacy, "one song and one video at a time." 

My list, which I came up with fairly quickly after reading of Ricky's challenge, may also be a little more whimsical, for I'm under assignment only to this blogsite, and I can always create another one. (I featured this top ten with commentary in Wednesday's Jazz à la Mode; the show is now available on demand through Wednesday, June 7.)  Later this summer for my August 4th Armstrong birthday special, I'll get to other essentials like "Mack the Knife," "Potato Head Blues," "Knockin' a Jug," "Pennies From Heaven," "Jeepers Creepers," "Back O' Town Blues," and many more. 

I love Pops's music from start to finish, so one of my objectives was to cover a broad span of years; this list ranges from 1928-1961.

"West End Blues" Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, 1928

Riccardi's entry on "West End Blues" begins with a quote from Gunther Schuller's seminal work, Early Jazz. “The clarion call of “West End Blues’ served notice that jazz had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression.” Gary Giddins wrote that this tune “came to symbolize more than any other the ascendancy of a classic American music.” John Chilton called the introduction “a great moment in 20th century music.” Ken Burns devoted an entire segment to it." Read Ricky's entire entry here for deep background on the song composed by Armstrong's mentor, Joe King Oliver.

"Tight Like This" Louis Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, 1928

"Tight Like This" has made other desert islands lists of mine, and I'm including it here in memory of Howard Brofsky, the Vermont Jazz Center co-founder who first got in touch with me some thirty years ago because of the enthusiastic introduction I gave the song on the radio. Howard was also on the faculty at Queens College where  he played a leading role in the establishment of the Armstrong House as a museum under the purview of the college. Here's what he wrote about the record.

“I’ve been meaning to write since you posted a list of favorites that included ‘Tight Like This.’ I have always thought that that was great Louis, and was underappreciated by everyone writing about him. It may be the longest solo (besides solo piano) on record at that time; it is brilliant and passionate; he plays on only two chords, anticipating the modal stuff of the late 50’s; and he builds the solo with such rhythmic variety and subtlety that it brings tears to my eyes.”

"Ain't Misbehavin'" Louis Armstong and His Orchestra, July 1929

Following his Chicago breakthrough with King Oliver in 1922-24, Armstrong moved to New York to work with Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in 1924-25, then returned to Chicago where he starred on the South Side with Carroll Dickerson's orchestra and recorded his historic Hot Fives and Hot Sevens. He returned to New York early in 1929 and was soon playing three jobs a day. Through club owner Connie Immerman, he landed a featured role in the pit band of a new Broadway show, Hot Chocolates of 1929 (aka Connie's Hot Chocolates). In Louis Armstrong in His Own Words, he writes, "Now that was one job...after I'd finish the show [it ran for 249 performances between June and December], I'd rush immediately up town and do a show at the Lafayette Theater--up in Harlem...Then from there I'd wind up down stairs at the Connie's Inn Cabaret. That's what one might call 'slinging a lot of Chops into one Trumpet." The off-Broadway show premiered songs by Fats Waller and Andy Razaf including "Ain't Misbehavin'," and "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue." Pops became identified with the latter, but it was sung in the show by Edith Wilson. He learned his show-stopping feature "Ain't Misbehavin'" under Waller's direct guidance, and by "woodshedding it until I could play all around it," as Thomas Brothers quotes him in Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism. He recorded it on July 22, a few weeks after the show's opening. It's one of the greatest early examples of how Armstrong, by "play[ing] all around it," transformed a popular song into his own as trumpeter, singer, and showman. He plays the first 16 bars of Waller's melody before giving way to Dickerson's violin for the song's bridge; on his vocal chorus, he employs scatted, stop-time breaks and humorous asides; and for the final chorus, his ringing open horn plays a 32 bar improvisation highlighted by a quote from Rhapsody in Blue and a spectacular solo cadenza. 

"Stardust" Louis Armstong and His Orchestra, 1931

Of the two uniquely different takes of "Stardust" that Louis recorded on November 4, 1931, I've chosen the original release by Okeh Records. (Click here for the equally compelling second take, which many consider superior.) Both takes are powerful examples of how much emotion Pops could convey even at brisk tempos, which here is closer to the original meter that Hoagy intended. In his chapter on Armstrong in The Swing Era, Gunther Schuller calls it "a flower of superior beauty," and a display of the "extraordinary rhythmic freedom with which Armstrong recasts Hoagy Carmichael's melody...[His] rhythms looks complex in notation, but they do not sound that way. They sound completely natural and light, inevitable rather than calculated...Armstrong here gives a dazzling display not only of his own phenomenally rich musical imagination and originality, but of the inherent and essential poly-rhythmic nature of jazz...one indigenous to many varieties of African music, the root language of jazz." And just think, Louis's seemingly compulsive inventiveness is here deployed on the song that Artie Shaw's hailed as "our second national anthem." 

"Basin Street Blues," Louis Armstong and His Orchestra, January 1933

"Struttin' With Some Barbecue," Louis Armstong and His Orchestra, 1938

"Someday You'll Be Sorry," Louis Armstong and His Orchestra, 1947

"A Monday Date," Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars, 1951

"Yellow Dog Blues," Louis Armstrong and His All-Stars, 1954

"Azalea," Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, 1961