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The Trumpet Shadow of West End Blues

Babe Ruth was in town. The year prior, he set a record for home run hitting that would last for 33 years. Still on a tear that 1928 season, his Yankees were visiting the Chicago White Sox. June 11th was a Monday afternoon, and Babe Ruth struck out. A couple of miles down the street, the great Joe “King” Oliver was recording a ‘78 with his Dixie Syncopators. It would be the first time that his tune “West End Blues” would be pressed on glass. “King” Oliver was a giant. He was the standard-bearer for how the cornet should be played. He was a big man in and he played the horn with sinisterness. When he left New Orleans for Chicago, it wasn’t long before he called his protege Louis Armstrong north to join him. Louis had left his idol years ago by the summer of ‘28 and was on a tear, reinventing how Americans heard music.

Oliver wrote the tune a decade before, while playing for parties on the West shore of Lake Pontchartrain, just northwest of New Orleans. By the time the tune was laid of record, it had been battle tested in every night at Lincoln Gardens in Chicago. It’s a fine tune, a foxtrot, with Oliver delivering the honesty of his melody.

But then just about two weeks later, in the same town, Oliver’s former pupil, knocked it out of the park. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives were back in the studio for OKeh records. This time the configuration consisted of the guys he was playing with most nights at the Savoy Ballroom, including pianist “Fatha” Earl Hines. Louis didn’t just play his horn, he innovated an art form. and trumpet playing hasn’t been the same since. Musical genius coming out of his horn. His cadenza to open the track would change how every trumpet player attacked his horn from then on.

(Whenever I tell a student or a peer to take a listen to something, I always think O f David Sedaris describing his father telling him to “really listen!” to which Sedaris reminisced, “How could you prove you were listening? It was as if he expected us to change color.” That said, really listen!)

Armstrong possessed a dexterity and flexibility on the cornet that had only been executed on a clarinet. As a teenager he learned the clarinet breaks off of the 1918 recording by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (the first recorded jazz group). In addition to listening to the prodigious cadenza’s of Herbert L. Clarke (John Philip Sousa’s star cornetist), Armstrong was listening to, and practicing along with Italian Operatic arias. When it came time to record his take on “West End Blues” one can hear the pyrotechnic preface of the tune with his own operatic cadenza The cadenza pops out a high C, a high note for any trumpet player and cascades out with a few powerfully bluesy riffs.. On his first chorus through the melody, Louis combines the fluidity and rhythmic complexity of what jazz was to become witht the unmistakable sound of a wailing soprano, it was Oliver that taught Louis how to play the blues after all. On the third chorus, Armstrong scats a solo melody, singing in the same style and unmistakable phrasing of his trumpet playing.

Armstrong’s ‘78 sold like hot cakes. That 1928 recording of West End Blues was to become canon. The tune would not be played without a horn player attempting Armstrong’s cadenza or a singer trying to copy his phrasing.

Only months later, Ethel Waters released a recording. The tune’s lyricist, Clarence WIlliams, accompanies Waters and mimics much of the same language used by Armstrong and Earl Hines. Williams went on to record the tune several times in the following months with a variety of vocalists including Katherine Henderson and Hazel Smith, who recorded with the man himself, Joe Oliver. Just within a year of Armstrong’s, not only were other musicians trying to cash in on his success but trying to capture the spirit that was captivating the nation. By the end of the 1920’s Armstrong had been catapulted to celebrity status.

Even Joe Oliver re-recorded his tune a year later, attempting to cop his former protege. The task was too much for Oliver and he had to bring in Louis Metcalf, a fellow trumpeter in his orchestra who had briefly played with Armstrong in Fletcher Henderson’s group. Metcalf does an admiral job attempting Armstrong’s cadenza, but botches the first phrase and never captures the ease and swing of the original.

By the end of the 1930’s set in and big band swing took center stage, jazz culture began to embrace its history, which revived the a tradition to find a new market. “West End Blues” was no longer the cash cow it was in the late ‘20s, but was now a way for trumpeters, and musicians of all stripes to pay homage the standard-bearer. Hell, Armstrong even re-recorded his performance for Decca in 1939 (and again ‘49 with Earl Hines). In ‘44 Charlie Barnet’s band paid respects, putting Peanuts Holland in the trumpet spotlight.

Trumpet players now have Armstrong's cadenza in their back pocket, in the same way we learn standards, scales, and etudes. As generations give way, trumpet players still pay their respects to Mr. Armstrong, from Buck Clayton to Clark Terry to Nicholas Payton.

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