Armstrong Records with the Hot Five Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five recording sessions between 1925 and 1928 led to recognition of Armstrong as the father of modern jazz music.

Summary of Event

On November 12, 1925, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five band recorded three songs for the OKeh Record Company OKeh Record Company in Chicago. These were the first of more than fifty records made by the group that changed the course of jazz music. In addition to Armstrong, the original Hot Five included Johnny Dodds Dodds, Johnny on clarinet, Kid Ory Ory, Kid on trombone, Lillian Hardin Armstrong Armstrong, Lillian Hardin (Armstrong’s second wife) on piano, and Johnny St. Cyr St. Cyr, Johnny on banjo. Except for one or two isolated public appearances, these musicians performed together only in the OKeh studios. From 1925 to 1928, the Hot Five, also known by a variety of other names during this period, recorded on twenty-two occasions; those sessions reflect a musical growth that has caused music critics to conclude that the Hot Five, and especially Armstrong, had a major influence on the evolution of twentieth century American popular music. [kw]Armstrong Records with the Hot Five (Nov., 1925) [kw]Hot Five, Armstrong Records with the (Nov., 1925) Hot Five Music;jazz Jazz Musical recordings;Louis Armstrong[Armstrong] [g]United States;Nov., 1925: Armstrong Records with the Hot Five[06550] [c]Music;Nov., 1925: Armstrong Records with the Hot Five[06550] Armstrong, Louis Henderson, Fletcher “Smack” Smith, Bessie Hines, Fatha Oliver, King

Armstrong had established himself as a popular showman and musician prior to the Chicago recording session in 1925. He performed as a soloist in cabarets, as an accompanist for other jazz musicians, and in various jazz bands. Audiences already knew him as the “World’s Greatest Trumpet Player,” and they came by the hundreds to hear him. Reared in New Orleans from his birth until he left in 1922, Armstrong naturally adopted the loose ensemble style of music common in that city.

Between 1922, when he first arrived in Chicago, and 1925, Armstrong was a member of King Oliver’s band and also a member of Fletcher “Smack” Henderson’s East Coast-based jazz band. Oliver established a dominant relationship with Armstrong, and, although Armstrong did not learn much about the cornet from Oliver, he did learn something about responsibility. Henderson’s band was easily the best jazz band of the early 1920’s, and Armstrong profited from his years (1922-1924) in Henderson’s group. During these years, Armstrong gradually broke away from the New Orleans ensemble style. When not playing with a band, he made public appearances that emphasized his singular virtuosity with the horn.

In some ways, the Hot Five recordings, especially the early ones, were a return for Armstrong to the more relaxed New Orleans music. Armstrong and others in the Hot Five group viewed the Chicago recording sessions as a holiday in their rigorous schedule of performances. Many critics argue that this informal attitude is what made the sessions so successful. The composition of Armstrong’s group changed frequently between 1925 and 1928, and with each change, Armstrong advanced his improvisation without disrupting the casual New Orleans rhythm. The group’s 1927 recording of “Potato Head Blues” is generally considered a breakthrough for Armstrong and for jazz music in general. In the recording, Armstrong improvised two solos that set a standard for future musicians. Earlier, in 1925, he had revealed his potential for improvisation in a remarkable recording session with the great blues singer Bessie Smith.

By the time he left Chicago in 1929, Armstrong was just short of star status. His recordings brought him thousands of new followers, and his personal appearances attracted both musicians and the general public. Near the end of the Hot Five sessions in 1928, Armstrong began to sing regularly on the recordings, and singing gradually became a more important part of Armstrong’s music. He began by singing in a tenor voice similar to the “crooners” of his time, but he soon developed the gravelly, rasping style for which he became famous.

The Depression years were rough for Armstrong. His record sales and bookings declined, his second marriage ended, and he was arrested for smoking marijuana in California. Things soon turned around for him, however, and he extended his horizons as a popular and commercial performer in the 1930’s and 1940’s. He began to tour Europe on a regular basis, and he acquired a hard-driving, well-connected agent, Joe Glaser, Glaser, Joe who demanded that he smile as broadly as possible and use facial expressions to endear himself to audiences. Some black musicians and critics objected to this “jolly darky” routine, but most who knew Armstrong agreed that his onstage antics were merely extensions of his joyous personality. He was now often referred to as “Satchmo,” an appellation of uncertain origins.

As his commercial star ascended, Armstrong’s cornet playing declined. A recording contract with Decca in 1935 required him to play and sing innocuous popular songs, songs that were suitable for radio listeners in the comfort of their living rooms. The big bands were all the rage, and Armstrong fell into line by leading a number of mediocre groups during this era. There was also a serious problem with Armstrong’s lips. Throughout his career, he suffered from split lips, which forced him to rest for long periods of time. The scar tissue hampered his ability to play with clarity. His singing, however, was not affected. One of his 1930’s songs, “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” clearly demonstrates his brilliant application of jazz phrasing to an otherwise ordinary lyric.

Armstrong reached the peak of his popularity in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Although he had been almost completely deserted by jazz enthusiasts, the general public responded to his many film appearances and to his singing. His hit records included “Blueberry Hill,” “Mack the Knife,” and “Hello, Dolly!” The latter song was such a smash that it became number one on the charts in May, 1964. It also led to a much-heralded appearance in the movie of the same name and to many television bookings. This success marked a high point in Armstrong’s show business career. Shortly thereafter, his health began to fail, and he died on July 7, 1971. Armstrong had fulfilled the promise of the Hot Five sessions, but not quite in the way jazz musicians had expected or would have preferred.

Significance

Biographer James Lincoln Collier has written that Armstrong “struck the first two generations of jazz musicians with the force of a sledgehammer.” This is not an exaggeration. Most jazz writers and musicians without hesitation cite Armstrong as the father of modern jazz or as the “Bach of Jazz.” He was truly a creator, for there was almost no musician who influenced him. He learned something from King Oliver, but what he learned was related more to presentation than to the music itself. Armstrong displayed technical and imaginative talent that astounded and inspired Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Humphrey Lyttelton, and a legion of other jazz musicians. The clarity of Armstrong’s horn, his sharp attacks, and his ability to play effectively in the highest register startled those who heard him for the first time in the 1920’s. His imagination appeared boundless in those early days; he could create melodies of grace and power almost instantly. The most cherished of Armstrong’s attributes, however, and the one that had the greatest impact on future musicians, was his ability to lift all around him, musicians and audiences alike, by the sheer joy and energy he brought to his music. He taught American musicians how to “swing,” how to give even simple music verve and excitement. It certainly helped if one had the virtuosity possessed by Armstrong, but lesser musicians could at least emulate his enthusiasm.

The Hot Five recordings, particularly “Potato Head Blues” and “Weather Bird,” convinced musicians to be more independent and to eschew jazz orchestras, in which they sat in sections and played notes, for the delight of improvisation, the opportunity to soar. Armstrong had, in effect, given all musicians the opportunity to use their creative talent to the fullest. Whether a musician played the clarinet, the piano, the bass, or the cornet, Armstrong was the model. His 1928 recording of “Weather Bird” (which he and King Oliver wrote in 1923) with pianist Fatha Hines was so spectacularly successful that such collaborations became standard for jazz musicians from that time onward.

Although Armstrong’s major contribution was to the future of jazz, Armstrong’s influence can also be traced in rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country music, and all forms of popular singing. Even when he ceased to produce great creative music after the early 1930’s, his impact persisted. The Beatles, Collier points out, played as an “extra” for a jazz band in England that emulated the Hot Five numbers. Jimmie Rodgers, Rodgers, Jimmie one of the original country singers, had Armstrong as an accompanist on his recording of “Blue Yodel No. 9,” and Rodgers’s singing always had a jazz flavor. Bing Crosby, a regular at Armstrong’s Chicago appearances, undoubtedly profited from observing Armstrong’s impeccable understanding of lyrics. Crosby once said he learned to swing from watching Armstrong.

No summary of Armstrong’s impact can be complete without some mention of his effect on those who listened to his recordings, watched him in movies, or saw him in person. There was the Armstrong who influenced musicians, and there was the Armstrong who taught the general public how to enjoy the music. Although his impact was greatest with black audiences early in his career, in the later years, most in his audiences were white. White crowds found joy in his very appearance on stage, but not all the reasons for this were positive. As the Civil Rights movement in the United States intensified in the 1960’s, many blacks found Armstrong’s wide smile, rolling eyes, and general mugging increasingly grating. To some, he seemed to be pushing the happy-go-lucky image a little far. Many whites, however, found comfort in Armstrong, especially in an era of racial stress. By his rise from abject poverty and rejection to the heights of success, he seemed to prove that the American Dream did apply to blacks. In a time of growing anger and strident demands, Armstrong continued to play and sing and look happy. He offered marvelous reassurance, and the popularity of his 1964 hit record “Hello, Dolly!” said as much about the political and social circumstances in the United States as it did about Armstrong’s singing.

The reaction to Armstrong was the same throughout the world. When he first appeared on screen in the 1969 film Hello, Dolly! the huge gathering in a London cinema burst into sustained cheering and applause. The response was not so much for Armstrong’s great musical contributions since the Hot Five days, but rather a recognition of the warmth that emanated from his horn, his voice, and his entire being. Hot Five Music;jazz Jazz Musical recordings;Louis Armstrong[Armstrong]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bradbury, David. Armstrong. London: Haus, 2003. Brief biography serves as an introduction to Armstrong’s life and his music. Includes notes, chronology, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collier, James Lincoln. Louis Armstrong: An American Genius. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Superb biography, filled with insights, provides strong coverage on all phases of Armstrong’s life and music. Highly recommended for both casual and serious students of Armstrong. Includes notes, photographs, discography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, LeRoi. Blues People: The Negro Experience in White America. 1963. Reprint. New York: William Morrow, 1999. Examines how blues and jazz evolved in white America, including valuable discussion of Armstrong’s work. Generally an important and useful study. Includes index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Max, and John Chilton. The Louis Armstrong Story, 1900-1971. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. Written by two British critics, this biography was rushed into print shortly after Armstrong’s death. Anecdotal and filled with reminiscences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lyttelton, Humphrey. The Best of Jazz: Basin Street to Harlem. New York: Taplinger, 1978. Excellent collection of essays on the great names in jazz history by a well-known British jazz musician. Two essays dealing with Armstrong contain explanations for his musical influence. Strongly recommended. Includes select bibliography, discography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Priestley, Brian. Jazz on Record: A History. London: Elm Tree Books, 1988. Impressive history of jazz recordings from the 1920’s to the 1980’s features a useful record guide. Includes photographs, brief bibliography, and index.
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    xlink:type="simple">Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. 3rd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1997. Excellent scholarly account of the subject provides both background and important detail. Includes critical bibliography and discography as well as numerous selections from scores and an extensive index.

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