Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings

By Clark, John | Notes, June 2012 | Go to article overview

Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings


Clark, John, Notes


Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings. By Brian Harker. (Oxford Studies in Recorded Jazz.) New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. [xi, 186 p. ISBN 978019538841 (hardcover), $74; ISBN 9780195388404 (paperback), $16.95.] Music examples, bibliography, index.

Jazz biographies have too often been marred by the avoidance of musical analysis. For instance, there are few biographical discussions of Louis Armstrong that foreground a discussion of musical style and syntax. Arguments in favor of that omission are typically advanced by concentrating on the supposed non-Western roots of the music or simple cultural sensitivity, both of which are often used to mask a lack of musical understanding on the part of the author. No such lack is in evidence here: Brian Harker's new book examining Arm - strong's development as a soloist in the 1920s combines biography, cultural studies, discography, and extensive musical analysis done thoroughly yet understandably.

That said, Harker begins with an apologia for his "use of terminology and concepts associated with Western classical music and the Euro-American tradition of musical analysis" (p. 8). While he happily does not cite the usual canards, he does perpetuate the myth of Armstrong as an untutored natural who shunned any attempts to intellectualize his art or approach it from any logical standpoint. Much of the rest of the book is devoted to undermining this claim, suggesting an initial wavering of purpose. It is best to ignore this paragraph and appreciate Harker's methodology, which focuses on musical analysis but which also introduces much cultural examination, including African American rhetorical devices, theatrical presentation, racial assimilation, and even brass technique.

The book is organized into six chapters, each focusing on one or two of the canonic "Hot Five" recordings made by Armstrong between 1925 and 1928. While the complete series of recordings has been reissued numerous times (those under Armstrong's leadership and similar groups nominally fronted by Lil Hardin Armstrong and Johnny Dodds, as well as several sessions in which vocalists were backed up by Arm - strong and other "Hot Five" members, fill up the equivalent of about four compact discs), there has been only one comprehensive examination of the whole oeuvre. Gene Anderson's The Original Hot Five Recordings of Louis Armstrong (Hilldale, NY: Pendragon Press, 2007) is one of those few books using extensive musical analysis in its treatment of the series as a whole and as such represents a milestone in the field. Harker takes a more modest tack, selecting recordings he sees as representative of the main strains of influence both on and emanating from Armstrong.

Chapter 1 focuses on "Cornet Chop Suey," a virtuosic flight utilizing stop-time, breaks, and a catalog of melodic figures that Harker examines in meticulous detail. While his analysis is largely informed by an earlier article of his positing Armstrong's adaptation of certain clarinet techniques, the main thrust of the chapter is his connection of the twin 1920s streams of dance and theatre music. At the time he made this recording (26 February 1926), Arm - strong was featured with Erskine Tate and His Orchestra at Chicago's Vendome Theatre, playing a variety of music in between and as part of stage shows. Harker discusses "Cornet Chop Suey" as a "novelty" tune that capitalized on the showier aspects that Armstrong might feature on stage. The larger point is that this solo feature moved him irrevocably further from the classic New Orleans ensemble idea that had been a link to his upbringing.

While Harker's extensive cross-referencing with earlier recordings is remarkable, he seems to miss the connection that Armstrong obviously had with the tradition of concert cornet soloists such Herbert L. Clarke. Harker mentions Clarke in his discussions of "West End Blues" (chap. 6, quoting Gunther Schuller, who cited that recording to make a more general statement regarding the influence of the concert tradition) and Armstrong's use of the upper register of the trumpet (chap. …

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