Louis Armstrong: Some History of His Intro to West End Blues—& a Bonus for Paying Subscribers
With a Bonus for Paying Subscribers.
(Note: Paying subscribers, your gift is at the bottom, as usual.)
Let’s start this investigation by listening to one of the most famous recorded jazz solos of all time, Louis Armstrong’s unaccompanied trumpet introduction to “West End Blues,” recorded in June 1928 (for our purposes we don’t need to hear the whole piece right now):
Now, please listen to just the second half of that solo intro:
Now, let’s listen to a break (that is, an unaccompanied solo bit) that he takes while
accompanying singer Margaret Johnson on “Changeable Daddy of Mine,”
recorded in November 1924:
What th…!!!! Did you hear it?! This break from 1924 is very close to the second part of the “West End Blues” intro from 1928. (I first published this discovery in 1981, but it’s still not widely known.) Also, note that this 1924 recording is in the key of Bb, while the 1928 one is in Eb. Here are my transcriptions of both breaks, transposed to the same key for easier comparison, taken from a 1992 jazz history textbook by myself, Michael Ullman and Ed Hazell. Please note, I no longer agree with my 4/4 meter on the first one because I later felt that it would be better to notate it without barlines, or with freely placed barlines to indicate phrasing. Also, in the book I wrote October but it was November 1924. Anyway, here they are
Listening to and looking at these two solos, what conclusion must you draw?
Yes - this is proof that Armstrong practiced licks in various keys—just as jazz musicians have always done, and still do today. It also is a great example of how much preparation is required to improvise. It’s usually said that Louis just stood up and made up the intro to “West End Blues” off the top of his head. But to say it that way ignores the years of disciplined practice that led up to that moment. In this case, the recorded evidence shows that he prepared for almost 4 years—or maybe more, since we don’t know what he played outside of the recording studios.
You will find it interesting to hear a little more of the context of the 1924 version. This time you’ll hear from just before Armstrong’s break to the end of the recording. If you listen closely (and perhaps listen more than once) you’ll hear Louis play some arpeggiated licks starting at 0:20. You’ll also notice that the instrumentalists play at a double-time tempo at 0:27. Few people realize that “double timing” like this was not unusual during the early 1920s. And I don’t want to ignore those humorous lyrics—but I don’t want to get too far from my topic either—so I’ll save those for another time. Here goes:
Back to the “West End Blues” introduction: There is plenty of other evidence that he was working on ideas in different keys.
For example, his break near the end of “I Miss My Swiss” in August 1925, is not the same as the “West End Blues” phrase, but I think it’s fair to say that it’s in the same “family,” if you will, and it’s another key, the key of G. This break was pointed out to me by my former grad student and now friend, early jazz expert Ricky Riccardi of the Louis Armstrong Archive. Here it is—just a few seconds long:
Another friend, musicologist Joshua Berrett, has noted, in his 1992 article “Louis Armstrong and Opera,” that on “Once in a While,” from December 1927, Louis plays a related break, this time in the key of C. This one is kind of a mess, but I love to hear Louis taking chances, playing things that he has not fully worked out. And it’s further proof that he was trying this kind of idea in different keys. Get ready—this is another very short audio clip:
(Paying Subscribers, the complete article by Berrett is attached for you at the end of this post. It’s a lot of fun and proves without a doubt that Louis knew—and used—melodies from famous opera arias! Thank you as always for your support!)
But, wait a second! The way that last example starts with triplets makes me think that it might not be related to “West End” after all. Maybe it’s part of another “family” of licks (that is, short musical building blocks)? After all, “Once in a While” was recorded on December 10, 1927. Just one day before, on December 9, he played a similar wild break on “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” But it’s in the key of Ab!
(“Struttin’” was credited to the pianist on the recording, Lil Hardin, who was Armstrong’s wife at the time. But Louis later said that he wrote it. Let’s get into that dispute another time!)
I could easily find many more examples of Armstrong playing related licks in several keys (and I will, at some point). But these examples show not only that Armstrong practiced in a variety of keys, but, more broadly, that he was a dedicated, organized musician. This is further supported by a Louis Armstrong “jazz method book” that was published in 1927, a year before he recorded “West End Blues.” That book will be the subject of a separate post—soon!
All the best,
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