- Louis Armstrong's Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings by Brian Harker
Despite its title, this slender little book is not really a comprehensive study of Armstrong's seminal recordings made between November 1925 and July 1928. Rather, Brian Harker is concerned with what he considers seven exceptional, though not necessarily representative, recordings treated in chronological order: "Cornet Chop Suey"; "Big Butter and Egg Man"; "Potato Head Blues"; "S.O.L. Blues" and its twin, "Gully Low Blues"; "Savoy Blues"; and "West End Blues." These recordings comprise the six key chapters of the book—"S.O.L. Blues" and "Gully Low Blues" share a chapter—all treated in pointed detail within the context of making a living in the competitive environment of vaudeville and show business. In the process, Harker brings the specific stylistic traits and technical principles that drive each of these pieces into sharp focus, making telling comparisons with related recordings. And because his primary goal is to illustrate how 1920s jazz was transformed from being an ensemble-based to a solo-based music, Harker concentrates on Armstrong's cornet and trumpet solos rather than on ensemble interaction and Armstrong's singing.
The "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Big Butter and Egg Man" chapters deal with Armstrong through novelty-vaudevillian traditions, bearing the respective overarching thematic titles of "Novelty" and "Telling a Story." The "Cornet Chop Suey" chapter opens with a characteristic self-defining Armstrong quote lifted from a 1966 interview: "You take an old ham actor like Satchmo, you press a button and you got yourself a show" (15). It is striking how this self-image remained with Armstrong to the very end, melded with a very strong work ethic—from the time of his recording of "Cornet Chop Suey" (and even earlier), to his last gig in March 1971 in the Waldorf Astoria's Empire Room. By the same token, it is revealing that he himself never canonized his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens as the community of critics and historians have done. Referring in his epilogue to the two publications of Armstrong's autobiographical writings, edited by Thomas Brothers and myself respectively, Harker is spot on in making the point that Armstrong does not even mention these sessions, dismissing them as a series of gigs for which he simply wanted to collect his pay.
For Harker, "Cornet Chop Suey" is striking in its juxtaposition of the ironically "studious" opening cornet cadenza and the more lighthearted passages that follow. Then again, even though it is solo-based, there is no real "blowing space" because the emphasis falls on breaks and stop time, akin to earlier ragtime practice; in the process, Armstrong draws upon arpeggiated sawtooth patterns that recall New Orleans clarinet style. By contrast, "Big Butter and Egg Man," the story about a big spender, is unique in this book as a product of his concurrent nighttime engagement with the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra at the Sunset Café. The piece, in fact, was written by the producer of the Sunset floorshows, replete with comic banter. This trumpet solo demonstrates a strong sense of musical integration, drawing upon such unifying devices as recurring dotted quarter-notes or combinations of dotted-quarter patterns with eighth-notes. These qualities were subsequently amplified to an unprecedented level in the [End Page 517] Hot Sevens's "Potato Head Blues," with its heady mix of stop-time technique, motivic virtuosity, and fluent articulation of harmony.
The nuances of Armstrong's trumpet embouchure enjoy extensive treatment in chapter 4, as Harker considers not only how he achieved such brilliance and power in the top register, but also the larger sociocultural context of the sound itself. Entitled "Top Notes: 'S.O.L. Blues' and 'Gully Low Blues,'" Harker takes his cue from the Armstrong epigraph, "The trumpet is an instrument full of temptation" (88), launching into a richly allusive introduction where we read, among other things, about the Faustian bargain of bluesman Robert Johnson and how high...