Louis Armstrong Records “West End Blues”

On June 28, 1928, a 26-year-old Louis Armstrong walked into a Chicago recording studio with five fellow jazz instrumentalists and walked out having changed the course of music history. The record Armstrong and his Hot Five had just made was of a song called “West End Blues,” written and first recorded several months earlier by Armstrong’s mentor, Joe “King” Oliver. Oliver had taken a teenage Louis Armstrong under his wing back in their native New Orleans. He’d taught Armstrong to play by ear, invited him into his band and then brought him to Chicago, the jazz capital of the world at the time, in 1922. Armstrong left Oliver’s band in 1925 for a three-year stint in New York City, where his playing was the talk of the jazz community. But it was not until this day in 1928, with the recording of “West End Blues,” that Louis Armstrong definitively left his teacher in his wake and captured on record the revolutionary style and virtuosic technique that would make him an international sensation.

Armstrong’s “West End Blues” features a brilliant piano solo by the great Earl “Fatha” Hines, one of Armstrong’s greatest lifelong friends and collaborators, and a vocal section by Armstrong that is one of the earliest recorded examples of scat singing. But even without the rest of the landmark recording, Louis Armstrong’s 15-second trumpet intro to “West End Blues” and his eight-bar solo near the end make it one of the most influential pieces of recorded music in history. Armstrong’s playing established a new standard for rhythmic and melodic complexity, for technical mastery and, most important, for sheer beauty and emotional content.

“Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I’d cry up a storm,” Billie Holliday wrote of Armstrong’s “West End Blues.” “Other times the same damn record would make me so happy.” Holliday also cited Louis Armstrong’s instrumental technique as a formative influence on her own vocal style. “It sounded like he was making love to me” she once told the jazz critic Nat Hentoff. “That’s how I wanted to sing.”

The technology of 1928 didn’t allow for playback in the recording studio, so when Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five ended their session on June 28, they hadn’t even heard the recording that is recognized as a critical influence even on rock and roll. When Armstrong and Earl Hines finally did hear “West End Blues,” they were reportedly as blown away as everyone else. Their recording signaled a clear move toward solo innovation as the driving creative force in jazz, but more than that, it signaled the end of jazz as a mere form of popular entertainment and the beginning of jazz as an acknowledged art form.

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