Louis Armstrong got his start listening at the windows of clubs in New Orleans. He struck up a friendship with “King” Oliver, the reigning trumpet player of the day. WIth the Hot Five (and later the Hot Seven), he brought jazz to a new level, and his technical excellence ultimately took him to Chicago and New York.
His early recordings let us see the birth of jazz as a national phenomenon. By the 1950s, he was the ambassador of jazz, his performances playing and singing with Ella Fitzgerald are undeniable classics.
That said, I’ll take those early recordings any day.
The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings, Vol. 1 (or from Amazon) are fast, exciting recordings of a young band playing a young music. Armstrong died in New York, but he will always be remembered as the quintessential son of New Orleans. The free-wheeling fun, the danceable beat anchoring the improvised antics of a group of virtuosos, the carefree feel all define how we think of New Orleans almost a century later, and how we’ll see it a century from now.
Like Las Vegas, New Orleans is the town where nothing quite counts. It’s the place where normally skeptical people can take ghost tours, where hard working co-eds will bare their chests for cheap beads. Louis Armstrong’s jazz did as much as anything to create that town as anything.
New Orleans will rise again, jazz will play again, and now and then, a sad tune will come along, and we’ll remember the days when the rats and alligators ruled Bourbon Street, but then, King Oliver and his heirs’ music will take over again.