In a few days, on April 12th, the Southside Aces will be playing a whole night at the Eagles Aerie #34 dedicated to the music of Louis Armstrong. There is a particular song that will be the centerpiece of the night. I’ll tell you about that, but first let’s go back 86 years to April of 1926 in Chicago. Carroll Dickerson led the band at the Sunset Café. Drummer Zutty Singleton and pianist Earl Hines were already in that band, and Hines convinced Louis Armstrong to join them instead of King Oliver and his Dixie Syncopators, who were working across the street at the Plantation. Eventually, convinced of their own brilliance, the three of them left Dickerson. Louis summed it up, “After all—we were the ‘Top Notch’ players in Chicago in those days.”
They referred to themselves as the Unholy Three. They formed a pact that they would, as Earl Hines said, “stick together and not play for anyone unless the three of us were hired.” In striking out on this path, they would provide yet another example of the stereotype of genius musicians being terrible businessmen. Expenses such as a year lease in a South Side Hall gave them a panhandler’s income. Another hall rental for a dance led to an incident with a drunken man, wanted by the police, who brandished his gun at the end of the first set scaring all the customers away. Their belief in themselves still far outshined their business acumen, but practical matters such as eating and avoiding bankruptcy finally shoved reality down their hungry throats. Zutty and Louis went back to Dickerson without Earl, breaking up the pact.
While the Unholy Three was no longer an entity, they would revolve around each other’s Chicago musical world. Then, on June 28th, 1928, Armstrong, Hines and Singleton would be joined in the Okeh studios by three guys from the Dickerson band—Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Fred Robinson, trombone; and Mancy Carr, banjo—for what ended up being one of the most important days in jazz history. While I take no umbrage at being accused of occasional hyperbole, you’d have no grounds for such an accusation in this case. Those six men took a tune composed by King Oliver (and just recorded by him two weeks earlier), and changed not only jazz history, but music history. In fact, if you look on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website, you’ll find “the 500 songs that shaped Rock and Roll.” This list contains recordings from AC/DC to the Zombies. And under A for Armstrong, one three minute, twenty-one second slice of history called “West End Blues.”
No one had heard a trumpet player do that before. With this record, Louis let the world know who was boss. I’ll pile on more superlatives myself, but in case you don’t trust me I’d like you to hear from the scholars:
First up, Gunther Schuller. He wrote Early Jazz: It’s Roots and Musical Development. He wasn’t kidding when he said, “’West End Blues’ served notice that jazz had the potential to compete with the highest order of previously known expression.”
Terry Teachout, in Pops—“The four staccato quarter notes he raps out at the start of “West End Blues,” his most celebrated recording, proclaimed the coming of a new way of thinking about rhythm.” Or, incidentally mentioning the song later in the book he tosses off the phrase, “…riot of virtuosity.” Spend a few seconds imagining what a “riot of virtuosity” sounds like!
In Satchmo, author Gary Giddins said how that recording “came to symbolize more than any other the ascendancy of a classic American music.” Giddins went on to draw a line in the sand regarding Louis’ cadenza. “…no trumpeter, in or out of jazz, has convincingly replicated Armstrong’s nine-measure intro.”
I can’t stop! Let’s turn to the pianist of that day, Earl Hines. “When it first came out Louis and I stayed by that recording practically an hour and a half or two hours and we just knocked each other out because we had no idea it was gonna turn out as good as it did.” Billie Holiday, in Lady Sings The Blues, had this to say, “Sometimes the record would make me so sad I’d cry up a storm. Other times the same damn record would make me so happy.” Do you hear these people? I mean, I dare you to try to find three consecutive authors praising that record without seeing the words “immortal” at least once.
My response to “West End Blues” is somewhere in Billie Holiday’s ballpark. I don’t think I go through the manic depressive pendulum that she apparently experienced with it, but it’s definitely emotional for me. I experience a sort of painful joy every time I hear it. The first time I heard that opening cadenza, my jaw dropped. I have had my back o’ head hairs rise up, I have had tears well up, I have discovered myself not breathing when to start his solo Louis holds a high B-flat for four exquisite bars (the Heaven) before ripping off an astonishing and acrobatic series of blues phrases (the Earth). Fortunately for us, after Louis brings us up there, Earl Hines gives us a shimmering soft landing so we don’t hurt ourselves.
You’ll have to read the academics reasons for why the song is so important. Or ask me; I’d be glad to have a conversation about it, giving you much more information than you’d probably want. Tonight’s about the heart for me, though, not the brain. I am so glad that my life led me to a place where I heard that record. It’s a record that’s perfect on a happy day, perfect on a blue day. It’s filled with hope and the certain knowledge that angels do sometimes visit us on earth. And speaking of down to earth, I’ll see you out at the Eagles on Thursday. Let’s see what the Aces can do wrapping ourselves around our three and a half minutes of the song that changed music forever.
I know I've run the risk of building it up a bit, but click on the link below to listen. Then buy it and listen to it again some sunny day. Then buy Terry Teachout’s book to read about it. Come on, do it!