[Monday Notes No. 59] Both born at the turn of the century, Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith recorded this duet on W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues in 1925. By the 1920s jazz was changing from the mainly collective music of the New Orleans groups to music where more emphasis was placed on individual improvisation.
Louis Armstrong is the main protagonist of this revolution. He was the first great soloist in the history of jazz music, or at least the one who most influenced his contemporaries. Bessie Smith, on the other hand, was devoted to the blues repertoire, which often tells of sadness, abandonment and loneliness.
They also had a very different relationship with show business. Bessie Smith was a long-time Vaudeville wandering musician whose greatest satisfaction was perhaps having a railway carriage dedicated entirely to her company. Louis Armstrong, on the other hand, became an international star, the first true ambassador of jazz to the world.
St. Louis Blues is a perfect example of this era and the meeting of past and future. The first part is based on the classic 12-measure blues progression in the key of Eb major. The middle part modulates to the parallel minor key (Eb minor) and has a duration of 8 measures. The final part is again based on the blues chorus, like the opening part. Here is the structure of the entire piece:
Accompanying Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong is just Fred Longshaw on the harmonium, a sober and sparse accompaniment that highlights the differences between the two soloists.
Bessie Smith is introverted, solemn and full of dignity. Louis Armstrong is ironic, provocative and in the end always joyful. The result is a true masterpiece, in which the roots and future of jazz meet perfectly.
Until next Monday!