Route 66 Song Of The Week:  Louis Armstrong’s “Gut Bucket Blues”

[Due to technical difficulties, this article didn’t post on Friday they way it should have, which means that Louis Armstrong’s birthday was last week.  Ooops; my bad.  Sincere apologies for the delay.]

Happy birthday, Louis Armstrong!  This is the birthday week of one of the greatest figures in jazz, if not the greatest.  Born August 4, 1901, Armstrong would have been 114 years old this week.  Louis had always claimed his birth date to be July 4, 1900 and proudly celebrated his natals on the nation’s birthday, but recent research into New Orleans baptismal records indicates that he was really born 13 months later; in fact, he may not have known the correct date himself.  Jazz, on the other hand, may have been born in New Orleans among the whorehouses and saloons of Storyville, but it grew up in Chicago – during the Roaring Twenties – and the young Louis Armstrong was its greatest co-creator, performer and exponent.  He did that here, right in the middle of the Prohibition years, even as Route 66 was being born.

Known in his youth as ‘Dippermouth’ or ‘Satchelmouth’ for his big embouchure (the way a trumpeter’s or trombonist’s lips and facial muscles wrap around the stem of a brass instrument) and his even bigger smile, later as just ‘Satchmo’ or ‘Pops,’ or just plain Louie, Armstrong was a seminal figure in both Chicago and New York in the mid-to-late part of the decade.  The conscious evolution of his own playing style set the direction and shaped the development of jazz during its formative years and heavily affected other jazz musicians for decades to come.  Even now, Armstrong’s music remains strongly influential: nobody becomes a jazz musician or jazz vocalist of any worth without knowing and being influenced by the music of Louis Armstrong, even if indirectly.  The innovations he brought to jazz make it impossible to do otherwise.

What we have for you today is a recording that helped launch that big change in the direction of jazz:  a classic 12-bar blues that Armstrong improvised on the spot during a recording session for Okeh Records in Chicago on November 12, 1925, almost a year to the day before Route 66 came into existence in November 1926:  “Gut Bucket Blues.”  Banjoist Johnny St. Cyr described it as “a low down blues.”  In fact, we have two takes of the same song, recorded 32 years apart, for comparison – the original 1925 recording with a 24-year-old Armstrong and his newly formed Hot Five, and a 1957 version with his All Stars, made for the vinyl LP album set Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography on Decca Records (the latter has been remastered and reissued on CD within the last decade).

Louis Armstrong in 1953

Louis Armstrong in 1953  (Photo via of Wikimedia Commons)

The original version of “Gut Bucket Blues” isn’t the best example of his work from his early Chicago years; others that would be recorded only a few months later, such as “Heebie Jeebies,” would be better choices for that (also “Big Butter and Egg Man,” recorded more than a year after “Gut Bucket Blues” but only a few months after Route 66 was born).  But “Gut Bucket Blues” does show tantalizing flashes of Armstrong’s art that far exceed the contributions of the other performers on that date.  It was recorded barely a week after he had returned to Chicago from New York after playing for a year with the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, the hot band in New York at the time.

“Gut Bucket Blues” was recorded in Chicago on November 12, 1925 for Okeh Records, the ‘race’ label subsidiary of Columbia Records.  That session was also the first time that Armstrong recorded as a bandleader in his own right, under his own name as lead artist instead of as a sideman, and it marked the debut of his Hot Five band.  His groundbreaking Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, which performed and recorded for only a few brief years between late 1925 and the end of 1929, had a powerful effect on the jazz musicians of the time, when jazz was still young and not fully formed.

Armstrong had made his first recordings as part of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, which he had moved up to Chicago to join in 1922 at the invitation of Joe ‘King’ Oliver himself. In all, Armstrong recorded 16 tracks with Oliver’s band on four different labels:  Gennett Records, Okeh, Paramount Records, and Columbia.  The Creole Jazz Band was the best and most influential ‘hot jazz’ band in Chicago at the time and performed at the Lincoln Gardens Café at 459 E. 31st Street (formerly the Royal Gardens Café, for which the jazz standard “Royal Garden Blues” was named; today, there’s a modern, two-story office building there at the north end of the Lake Meadows subdivision).  Oliver’s band was at the pinnacle of jazz society then.  So when Oliver formed the Creole Jazz Band a few years after leaving New Orleans and then sent Louis a telegram, inviting him to join the band, a nervous Louis leapt at the chance.  Having known each other at home, where Oliver had become young Louis’s mentor and a father figure to the teen, the two men already had the measure of each other’s talent.

The 20-year-old Armstrong moved up to Bronzeville in Chicago’s Black Belt and at first lived with Oliver himself, who, like his protégé, played cornet and trumpet (Mrs. Oliver kept house for both men and made sure that the then skinny Armstrong was fed).  Louis became the band’s second cornetist and got his first chance to record, though it was under Oliver’s name.  Those recording sessions with the Creole Jazz Band represented progress for Louis, and the band’s records were popular, especially a tune probably co-written by Oliver and Armstrong, “Dippermouth Blues” (it’s generally credited to Oliver, but others credit Armstrong, noting that ‘Dippermouth’ was one of his nicknames; given the collective improvisation in jazz tunes back then, it’s more likely that both men contributed to the number).  The two talents were well matched, and Oliver and Armstrong were on fire together when they played.

A very young Louis Armstrong, circa 1922 (?)

A very young Louis Armstrong, circa 1922 (?)

However, Oliver rarely let Armstrong solo, either live or on recordings, and not all the band’s recordings made it to disc.  Oliver’s piano player, the classically trained Lil Hardin (who married Louis in February 1924, becoming his second wife) noticed this and decided Louis was underappreciated.  Lil was musically literate and had studied music at Fisk University before joining Oliver’s band, then gained her music teaching degree at the Chicago College of Music (long since absorbed into Roosevelt University).  Even before she married him, Lil helped Louis develop as a musician by coaching him, teaching him to improve his sightreading, working with him on his technique in practice sessions, and even helping him improve his wardrobe and present himself more professionally.  She recognized a great talent, and Louis took her advice to heart.

In his 1965 autobiography, songwriter and pianist Hoagy Carmichael, a friend of Armstrong’s, recalled that Lil “got a book of the standard [classical] cornet solos and drilled him.  He really worked, even taking lessons from a German down at Kimball Hall, who showed Louis all the European cornet clutches.”  Kimball Hall, incidentally, was on Route 66 on the southwest corner of Wabash Avenue and Jackson Boulevard:  it was the building that housed the Kimball Piano showroom and warehouse, and many music teachers had offices there.  It’s now part of DePaul University’s downtown campus.

Pops with second wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong in Chicago 1924

‘Pops’ with his second wife, Lil Hardin Armstrong, in Chicago 1924 (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Lincoln Gardens was destroyed by fire in February 1925, and the band went on hiatus while repairs were being made.  Oliver returned to the Lincoln Gardens in June 1924, but Lil got Louis to break with Oliver that month and temporarily made him part of her own band at the famous Dreamland Café, at 3518 S. State Street, a major jazz cabaret in Bronzeville.  By September, she had persuaded Louis to leave for New York – he’d been invited to join up with Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra.  It was just as well:  shortly after Louis and Oliver parted on cordial terms, the Creole Jazz Band fell apart following some bad business decisions by Oliver, who never quite recovered the spotlight again, although he did continue playing for several more years.  Meanwhile, moving to New York kicked Armstrong’s career into high gear.  Lil joined him there soon afterward.

While playing with Fletcher Henderson, Louis had lots of opportunities to record, both with the Henderson band and in side gigs playing behind other artists, especially blues artists including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Sippie Wallace, and a young Alberta Hunter (usually under the name Josephine Beatty, so that she could get around contract restrictions).  It was during that time that Armstrong is thought to have switched over mostly to trumpet, though he may have chosen different instruments for different situations for a while.  With Henderson, Louis made his reputation in New York with his swinging style, but he didn’t get more opportunities to solo there, either – which was why after a year, the sage and ambitious Lil persuaded him to return to Chicago and strike out on his own.  She’d also taught him how to promote his career.  It paid off.  By the time Armstrong came back during the second week of November 1925, he had performed on 70 recordings.  He knew what to expect and how to handle himself in the studio.

Dreamland poster for Lil Hardin Armstrong's bandLil, meanwhile, immediately set to hustling up steady work for Louis in Chicago, billing him as “the world’s greatest jazz cornetist,” though the hype surprised him and made him uneasy.  She started him off first in her own band, the Dreamland Syncopators, at the Dreamland Café.  However, just as quickly, Louis and Lil raided a trio of top musicians from the many whom they knew through playing with King Oliver:  famed trombonist Kid Ory and the two Johnnies (clarinetist Johnny Dodds and banjoist/guitarist Johnny St. Cyr).

The Hot Five had been formed for Okeh Records, supposedly at the suggestion of blues pianist Richard M. Jones, with whom Louis did his first recording session in Chicago on November 9, 1925.  For that session, Armstrong backed Jones and two blues singers, Bertha ‘Chippie’ Hill and Blanche Calloway.  Two days later, Louis Armstrong’s Jazz Four (Louis, pianist Hersal Thomas (Sippie Wallace’s brother), Johnny Dodds and Johnny St. Cyr) showed up again at the Okeh studio to back vocalist Hociel Thomas (Sippie and Hersal’s niece) on six tracks.

The following day, November 12, 1925, Louis would finally record as the leader of his own band.  His mixed New Orleans/New York/Chicago jazz-and-pop hybrid style in a small-group setting would literally remake the face of American music for the next three years – starting with this historic recording session.  This was also the first recording on which Armstrong’s voice is heard, with him jive-talking rather than singing to his fellow musicians as they played, encouraging them on.  As Armstrong discographers have noted, his personality and natural ability as an entertainer shine through as he makes his remarks in between musical lines.

The way Johnny St. Cyr told the story later, Okeh president E.A. Fearn was there at the session.  Two tracks had already been recorded (one written by Lil, the other by Louis), and there was time for a third, so Fearn asked for an impromptu blues.  Louis was supposedly reluctant at first because he’d been playing blues for more than half his life – back then, lowdown blues was the basis of most jazz in New Orleans – and he thought all blues sounded the same.  Moreover, he already had a collection of ‘set’ solos and licks that he’d played before and must have been getting bored with those; but he agreed to humor the recording exec.

St. Cyr started off with a banjo line that Louis seemed to like, and Armstrong encouraged him:  “Oh, play that thing, Mr. St. Cyr, lord.  You know you can do it.  Everybody from New Orleans could do it.  Hey, hey!”  Then the band joined in.  Louis contributed more support via jive-talk each time someone took a solo (someone else talks back during Armstrong’s solo).  His by-now familiar growly voice and characteristic enthusiasm were already in evidence, and his horn made what otherwise would have been a simply good rendition grand and swing with life.  Moreover, all solos were improvised – there were no ‘set’ solos amid collective improvisation, which had been largely the case in New Orleans (and which Oliver still followed to a degree).  This was a very promising beginning for Armstrong and the Hot Five.

Louis Armstrong and his Stompers in 1927, including Earl 'Fatha' Hines on piano (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Louis Armstrong and his Stompers in 1927, including Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines on piano, at the Sunset Café in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood  (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Hot Five was virtually an all-star band, something that Armstrong would specialize in after the war years, when big bands’ popularity began to wane.  However, the Hot Five/Hot Seven collective was really a studio group that made only two live appearances, and even those were arranged for promotional purposes by the label.  The core members remained Ory on trombone, Dodds on clarinet, St. Cyr on banjo and guitar, and Lil on piano, with Louis fronting on cornet/trumpet (Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines would replace Lil in 1927).  With this group, Armstrong skyrocketed to the top of the jazz world, gaining widespread recognition with his groundbreaking horn solos and steadily improving as a singer.  To many jazz historians and musicians alike, the Hot Five and Hot Seven small-group recordings made between 1925 and 1928 constitute a Rosetta Stone of jazz.  That was why years later, some of his contemporaries accused Armstrong of selling out and going ‘commercial’ after he began to add more popular music to his repertoire.

In 1926, Armstrong began fronting his own group at the Sunset Café on East 35th Street in Bronzeville, when he wasn’t playing with the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra (the site of the historic Sunset Café at 315 E 35th Street has been preserved within the current Meyers Ace Hardware store and has been declared a Chicago landmark; some of the Sunset Café’s original murals have been preserved on the walls of the building’s back rooms).  The Sunset Café’s manager, Joe Glaser, would become Armstrong’s manager some years later and would help the trumpeter get his finances in order (as Glaser was also ‘connected’ to Al Capone, who loved jazz, Glaser would also keep Louis untroubled by the mob for many years, though that would later fall apart after Capone went to prison and others took control of the Chicago Outfit).

Over time, the Hot Five’s personnel fluctuated.  The addition of Baby Dodds on drums made it a Hot Six, and a bass or tuba made it a Hot Seven.  The Hot Seven existed only briefly in 1927 and mostly only for recording sessions.  That year, Kid Ory went on tour with King Oliver and was replaced with another trombonist; in December, guitarist Lonnie Johnson was added for one session.  Thereafter, it was the Hot Five again.  By then, Louis was playing in the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra with Earl Hines.  Hines replaced Lil after she and Louis separated (they didn’t divorce until nearly 10 years later).  The other members of the second Hot Five were also part of Dickerson’s orchestra.  By the end of 1929, however, the ‘Hots’ were over, the stock market had crashed, and the Great Depression was beginning; the Jazz Age was over, especially in Chicago.  Louis returned to New York to firmly establish his place there in the jazz firmament.

Three decades later in 1957, Decca Records assembled a landmark multi-disc anthology of the best of Armstrong’s work of the previous 30 years, titled Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography.  For that set, Armstrong and his All Stars of that period revisited “Gut Bucket Blues.”  In this later version, the drumming of Barrett Deems just increases Armstrong’s swing on this cut, keeping all the musicians on track, and Armstrong’s sound is both inviting and relaxed.  He’s playing for sheer enjoyment, and we’re all along for the ride.

Of course, in between these two different takes of “Gut Bucket,” Louis had upped his public persona, become ‘Satchmo’ to the world, and had begun playing for a broader audience via more popular music instead of just sticking to jazz standards.  Indeed, the concept of what constituted a jazz standard changed dramatically over those 30 years, and the so-called ‘commercial’ music for which Armstrong was criticized for playing had become part of the jazz musician’s repertoire as the Great American Songbook. Biographer Gary Giddins, in noting how Armstrong’s music changed by the end of the Twenties, observes, “His utterly original way of putting over a song – of selling it, of keeping the audience enchanted with it – was as instinctive and ingenious as any other aspect of his achievement.  He figured out how to make the music part of a larger presentation, the Louis Armstrong Show.”  Even other jazz musicians loved that show, as did we all – which is how Armstrong came to be a larger-than-life figure for most of the 20th century, the consummate American ambassador of jazz to the world.

Until next time,
your own DJ SweetMarie



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