Louis Armstrong would have been 100 years old last year. To mark the centennial, Sony released a four-CD box, Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, containing all Armstrong's early recordings for Okeh and Columbia from 1925 to 1929.
The anthology's packaging earns my nomination for "Historical Recording" and "Boxed Package" Grammy awards. The presentation, photos and liner notes are excellent. But wait until you hear the music. It's beyond excellent. It is a history of early jazz.
Today one rarely thinks of Armstrong as a musical revolutionary, no matter how much air time Ken Burns devoted to the trumpeter. However, any rock guitar hero who has played a solo owes a debt to Armstrong who introduced and codified the art of improvisation. Armstrong can be heard laying down those laws over and over on these tracks.
Whether they played in a bar or a street parade, early New Orleans jazz bands were required to play together. That's what you hear on the CD's early cuts like "My Heart" and "Yes! I'm in the Barrel." The more proficient ensembles engaged in group improvisation, particularly call and response. A good musician could embellish a tune but was expected to stay within preset lines. You can hear an example of this sort of elaborate embellishment on "Gut Bucket Blues."
Armstrong and his band went beyond embellishment. On tunes like "Potato Head Blues," the solos are particularly well-thought-out "breaks," miniature solos within the ensemble playing. Both solos by Armstrong and clarinetist Johnny Dodds are brilliant. The recordings Armstrong made with the first Hot Five ensemble (which included Dodds on clarinet, Buddy St. Cyr on banjo and Kid Ory on trombone) are some of the greatest New Orleans jazz recordings ever made.
But then you get to disc four, the recordings Armstrong made with the second version of the Hot Five, with Earl "Fatha" Hines on piano. Armstrong's solos astound listeners at every turn. On tunes like "Weather Bird," they are fluid, and the interplay between Armstrong and Hines is breathtaking. For the 1920s audience, the freewheeling jazz solo embodied escape from prim, musty Victorian confines. Today, seven decades later, we still live in the Armstrongian Age.
In addition to its historic significance, Armstrong's music on these discs gladdens the heart. His vigorous love of life can be heard in every note he buzzed in the little steel cup at the end of his magic horn. A rising tide of Satchmo's notes lifts all boats.