Recording of November 2023: Wynton Marsalis Plays Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives Hot Sevens
Recorded in 2006 but not released until now, Wynton Marsalis Plays Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives Hot Sevens was recorded live at the Rose Theater, the largest of three performance rooms at the Jazz at Lincoln Center facility. House label Blue Engine Records has now released this concert for streaming.
These performances are based on a series of recordings Armstrong made in Chicago for Okeh Records with the Hot Five—Louis’s first recording ensemble — beginning in 1925. Those recordings changed not just music but also how jazz was consumed. While some of the musicians had played together for years—the band included Armstrong’s wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, on piano—the sole purpose of the group was to record this music; they never performed live under this name. This music itself was made to be recorded, distributed worldwide on 78rpm records, then played on the newly portable folded-horn Victrolas. It was a whole new way for jazz to be consumed.
From 1925 through 1928, Louis Armstrong recorded 55 sides credited to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven. (On a few other sides, the Hot Five were credited as sidemen.) The original members, in addition to Louis and Lil, were Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Johnny St. Cyr on guitar and banjo, and Kid Ory on trombone. When Ory was away playing with King Oliver’s band, John Thomas replaced him. For the May 1927 sessions, the group was joined by drummer Baby Dodds (Johnny Dodds’s brother) and Pete Briggs on tuba, forming the Hot Seven. For the 1928 sessions, everyone but Louis was replaced.
Armstrong is often described as having codified two primary elements of jazz: blues and swing. These recordings are where and when it happened. Wynton—another great New Orleans trumpet player and a scholar of jazz history—has studied this music. In Ken Burns’s definitive documentary Jazz, he comments in depth, often picking up his horn to demonstrate. “You listen to his sound and all the musicians imitated him,” Marsalis comments. “He had that jump and bounce in his playing. … The art of swing is the art of balance, of constant compromise. Swing is the rhythmic identity of the music.”
This program contains 14 Hot Five and Hot Seven compositions. Wynton uses nine musicians and doesn’t try to copy the original sound. As the liner notes say, “Rather than faithfully copying Armstrong’s classic recordings note for note or using the same arrangements, Marsalis wisely chose to do like Armstrong did and not exactly what he did.”
Wynton had the advantage of working with musicians he has played alongside for years: Wycliffe Gordon on trombone, Victor Goines on clarinet, Walter Blanding on saxophones, and a young (in 2006) Jonathan Batiste on piano. The nine musicians credited rotate depending on the arrangements. The performances feel energetic and significant. It must have been especially rewarding to hear this music live. You can hear the level of talent, hear and sense the musicians’ enthusiasm.
Five of these songs have “Blues” in their titles, including “Savoy Blues,” and of course “Basin Street Blues.” Armstrong brought improvised instrumental soloing to the fore with his trumpet and cornet; until these sides were made, jazz was dominated by simultaneous group improvisation. Armstrong also seems to have invented “scat” singing, which he was known for for the rest of his lengthy career, on the song “Heebie Jeebies,” included here. Another important facet of Armstrong’s personality that permeated his music was his outsized sense of humor. Marsalis and his band pick up on it, too, underlined by Wycliffe Gordon’s sassy scat delivery.
Marsalis and his band play and sing the heck out of all the differing moods contained in this music. Yes, there is a bounce to it all, and it all swings like hell, even slow, sad numbers like “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Some of the songs are longer than the original Armstrong recordings; the album-concluding “Fireworks” runs 5:46 compared to the original timing of 3:07. The difference is mainly extra solos; the tempi are usually very close. Some of the songs on the new Marsalis versions include drums. Only Armstrong’s Hot Seven session, with Baby Dodds, included drums.
Wynton Marsalis Plays Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives Hot Sevens takes what was old and re-creates it anew. Is this classical music? Not in the sense of a Baroque string quartet, but in another sense, yes: This music includes several of the foundational building blocks of jazz. Marsalis and JALC have inhabited and presented a huge variety of music over the years, but this album is at the core of their mission: true, like ice, like fire.
by Sasha Matson