[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).