Monday Notes

Louis Armstrong, West End Blues. Trumpeter singer and showman

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[Monday’s Note No. 4] Louis Armstrong is one of the most charismatic characters in jazz history. Of humble origins, he survived a childhood full of dangers, and it almost seems as if a guardian angel lived on his shoulder and that nothing could disturb his extraordinary optimism. We listen to and analyse his performance of West End Blues.

Louis Armstrong was a great innovator in at least three areas: instrumental technique, playing on the trumpet at a speed and in a register unknown before him. Jazz singing, as it was he who invented scat and proved that you can sing jazz with any vocal timbre. Finally, he was a great entertainer, aware that on stage everything is part of the show, even the presentations, the silences, the looks.

In West End Blues we can appreciate all his talent and measure the abysmal difference that separates him from his contemporaries. The piece begins with a brilliant introduction, in which Louis reaches the highest note with flights of triplets, and then returns to the lower register by means of blues phrases and chromatic passages.

The trumpet expounds the theme once (0’15”), the word then passes to the trombone (0’50”) whose phrasing appears uncertain and almost clumsy, compared to Louis’ performance.

The theme is then laid out by the clarinet (1’24”) and we can hear Armstrong as a singer. Although the voice is only a counterpoint to the clarinet phrases, the clarinet is completely eclipsed by the vocal improvisations.

The piece continues with the intervention of the piano (2’00’) played by a young Earl Hines, the only one that does not disfigure in front of the mastery of Louis Armstrong. This is followed by the reprise of the trumpet (2’33”) that amazes us with a note held for a good four bars, masterfully creating a tension that dissolves in a series of descending volatas, with a strong blues flavour.

This recording is from 1928, Louis Armstrong recorded a limited number of tracks with his ‘Hot Five’ and ‘Hot Seven’ ensembles but marked a new path for jazz, definitively overcoming the old New Orleans-style polyphonic concept and paving the way for the season of the great soloists.

Until next Monday

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