West End Blues by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five
Updated: Jan 29
#listeneveryday 6 Nov 2020
Jazz history was made on June 28, 1928 in a Chicago recording studio, when Louis Armstrong put his trumpet to his lips and blew what became perhaps the most iconic jazz solo in history. With his band, the Hot Five, Armstrong was making his own version of his mentor Joe "King" Oliver's composition West End Blues only three weeks after Oliver made the original recording.
Referring to the westernmost point of a popular New Orleans lake, West End Blues is a classic 12-bar blues, with a melody (known in jazz as the 'Head') originally written to be sung, but treated by Armstrong and his band as a vehicle for the band's talented musicians to take turns improvising solos.
Armstrong's unaccompanied introduction is a blistering display of trumpet fireworks, covering the whole pitch-range of the instrument and committing to 78 rpm vinyl the unmistakeable trademark sound from a man still only 27 years old.
After the Head is played by trumpet, clarinet and trombone together, in the New Orleans 'Dixieland' style, Fred Robinson takes over with a slopey, slidey trombone solo that underlines the forlorn character of this blues, underpinned by a slow, chugging accompaniment from banjo, tremolo piano and unusual sounding metallic percussion from drummer Zutty Singleton.
Next, another iconic moment in jazz takes place as Jimmy Strong (clarinet) engages in 'call and response' with Armstrong, not on trumpet but singing scat. This jazz singing technique was made famous by Armstrong and others such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday - the latter saying that it was in this recording of West End Blues that she first heard scat singing.
Next, Earl Hines, a talented pianist who went on to lead his own big band, takes a piano solo that almost sounds like Schubert and Joplin co-wrote it, intercutting decorative runs with raucous 'stride' ragtime in a solo so complex that the other band members elected not to play during it. Finally, another stunning solo from Armstrong, begun with a crystal clear top C held for four bars before a cascade of falling figures bring this famous recording to an end.
Something to do
A 12-bar blues has a set chord pattern, using just the three primary chords (tonic, subdominant and dominant), over which melodies and solos can be played. There are video guides to playing 12-bar blues on guitar here and on piano here.
More to listen to
Ella Fitzgerald was the undisputed queen of scat - here she is at her peak.
Another fantastic blues-influenced tune from the late 1920s - Duke Ellington's Black and Tan Fantasy.
One of the top blues guitarists of his day, Eric Clapton recorded a number of versions of classic blues tunes such as Driftin' Blues - a 1940s song performed by such greats as Johnny Otis, John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles before him.
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