Louis Armstrong and “West End Blues,” Bix Beiderbecke and “Clementine,” and the “Birth” of Swing
An introduction to the music, musicians and singers of the swing era.
During the swing era, big bands were the major purveyors of swing music, but by no means the only ones. Many small groups also played great swing. For this introduction to swing music, I am going to discuss briefly both big bands and small groups. As I post new material here at swingandbeyond.com, I will explain what instruments make up a classic big band, and also how the instrumentation and music of big bands evolved from approximately the mid-1920s into the 1950s, and beyond. And of course I will post examples of great music within the swing idiom and those related to it performed by big bands, and small groups of various sizes.
I can’t think of a more appropriate example than Louis Armstrong’s “West End Blues” to begin our discussion of the “birth” of swing itself. This example is by a small group, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five.
I want to share a few thoughts about the “birth” of swing. Over many years, I have carefully listened to a number of the early recordings that to me are guideposts on the road to the development, really the evolution, of swing. It is clear from those recordings that swing (as a verb) first appeared in the playing of a few pioneering jazz soloists, with trumpeter/singer Louis Armstrong being the fountainhead. His recording of “West End Blues,” is a prime example of why in a very real sense, he was a key figure in the birth and development of swing. Even today, his playing on “West End Blues” is astonishing.
“West End Blues”
Composed by Clarence Williams and Joe Oliver.
Recorded by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Fivefor Okeh Records June 28, 1828 in Chicago.
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Fred Robinson, trombone; Jimmy Strong, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Mancy Cara, banjo; Zutty Singleton, drums.
There are many remarkable moments in this recording. But I want to focus primarily on what Louis Armstrong does in both his trumpet playing and his vocalizing. His opening trumpet cadenza (unaccompanied solo) is arresting. Armstrong’s brilliant trumpet sound, his power, his range, and his utterly relaxed rhythmic approach are all hallmarks of his playing in the 1920s and 1930s.The musical term rubato is central to any analysis of Armstrong’s playing. Rubato means free in tempo, or out of tempo, or not playing on the beat. When rubato is used with genuine artistry and musical sensibility, as it is here, the effect is to impart a sense of rhythmic freedom and spontaneity: the music flows. This is at the root of all swing.
By 1928, when this recording was made, Armstrong had been using a rubato approach to rhythm in his solos for some time. When he played in this fashion in bands that usually employed a chugging, vertical rhythm, the effect was that his playing was soaring over the ensemble. The metaphor I like to use to illustrate this is that the bands Louis played in in the 1920s were like a group of Boy Scouts marching in strict rhythm, while Louis was like a kite tethered to the finger of one of the Boy Scouts, gliding about freely overhead. Armstrong was undoubtedly among the first jazz soloists to employ rubato in his playing. What is astounding is that literally dozens of other musicians actually played with Armstrong in those early years of jazz history, heard and understood what he was doing, yet were unable to incorporate Louis’s sense of swing in their playing. It would take more than a decade before Armstrong’s swing message began to permeate the mainstream of jazz. Until then, swinging jazz soloists were rare indeed.
At approximately the same time as Armstrong was beginning to synthesize the various elements that make up swing (the mid-1920s), cornetist Bix Beiderbecke was also moving forward in much the same fashion. They were both playing jazz in a way that utilized a rhythmic approach that was not bound to the rather rigid dance rhythms usually employed by the bands in which they played. To omit Bix from any discussion on the development of swing, therefore, would be a mistake.
One of the earliest recordings where a band was trying to play with the same rhythmic elasticity that Armstrong and Beiderbecke were using in their jazz solos is “Clementine” by Jean Goldkette and His Orchestra. We must remember that for reasons that had to do as much with the state of sound recording technology in 1927 as with the performance conventions of the time, bands then almost always utilized either a tuba or a bass saxophone to provide their harmonic foundation notes.Of course there was also a rhythmic component to the use of these instruments at the bottom of the band.The unfortunate side-effect of this, from the standpoint of swing, was that very often the basic beat produced by these ungainly instruments was so bulky and ponderous that it made it almost impossible for any band containing them to swing. But pioneering arrangers in the late 1920s and early 1930s were constantly experimenting with various approaches to the use of rhythm in their writing for the instruments in various jazz-based bands that would have the effect of making those instruments swing like the jazz solos played by Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke.
“Clementine (From New Orleans)”
Composed by Harry Warren; arranged by Doc Ryker, Frank Trumbauer, Don Murray and Howdy Quicksell*
Recorded by Jean Goldkette and His Orchestra for Victor Records September 15, 1927 in New York.
Bix Beiderbecke, cornet; Fred Farrar, Ray Lodwig, trumpets; Bill Rank, Lloyd Turner, trombones; Doc Ryker, Frank Trumbauer, Don Murray, saxophones; Irving Riskin, piano; Howdy Quicksell, banjo; Eddie Lang, guitar; Joe Venuti, violin; Steve Brown string bass; Chauncey Morehouse, drums.
In this recording the Goldkette band included a string bass, in the capable hands of Steve Brown, one of the pioneers in the use of that instrument in a jazz setting. As this recording clearly demonstrates, the difference between a string bass and a tuba or bass sax, which had been used previously, from purely a rhythmic standpoint, is tremendous. The band is not weighed down rhythmically and is therefore freer to produce music that is more relaxed, buoyant, and smooth on top of the relatively supple string bass foundation. Unfortunately, there is also present on this recording, in addition to Eddie Lang’s agile guitar, the rigidly chugging banjo of Howdy Quicksell, which detracts substantially from the rhythmic lightness achieved by the bass. That is but one of a number of reasons why this recording marks only a partial transition from earlier rhythmic conventions.
Beiderbecke’s solo toward the end of the piece is rhythmically free of whatever is happening behind him in the band. His playing simply glides over the entire orchestral background. It is not only swinging — it is timeless in every sense, melodically, harmonically, and rhythmically. It is a perfect musical statement, in addition to being great jazz. If this solo were played today in any mainstream jazz setting, it would still turn heads. Not a note, a beat, or an inflection is dated. What Beiderbecke played in his solo on “Clementine” was revolutionary in 1927 because almost no other jazz musicians at that time were playing with this kind of rhythmic feel. (Above left: Bix Beiderbecke – late 1920s.)
Bill Challis, who didn’t arrange “Clementine,” but did arrange many of the tunes played by the Goldkette band, and was fundamentally responsible for much of the band’s movement toward swing, undoubtedly understood the significance from the standpoint of swing of what Beiderbecke was doing in his jazz solos at that time. He was clearly inspired by Beiderbecke’s playing to incorporate Bix’s rhythmic elasticity, among other Bixian elements, into the arrangements he wrote for the Goldkette band. If the term “swing” was being used as a verb in 1927, then I’m sure that Challis told the musicians when they rehearsed and performed his charts that he was trying to write something that would swing, and worked with them to try to bring out those swing characteristics in their ensemble performance. Despite the gliding saxophone chorus in the middle of this arrangement, the Goldkette band members were only partly successful in their quest for swing. Nevertheless, this arrangement and performance definitely represented a large step in the direction of what ultimately became “swing” as a noun. (Above left: Bill Challis in the mid-1930s.)
A photo of Bix Beiderbecke (center) with musical associates, trombonist Al Gandee to his right, and clarinetist Jimmy Hartwell, to his left. This photo was probably taken in 1924.
*NOTE: The collective approach to arranging a tune by members of the Goldkette band was hardly unique to that band. In fact, it was rather common, to one degree or another, among many bands throughout the swing era. They key element to this process was that the musicians had to have a similar view of what they wanted the arrangement to accomplish. In the case of “Clementine,” clearly they wanted the music to swing.
I do not want to leave the impression that swing was born with this recording or indeed with any one recording. The development of swing was an evolutionary process that had begun with pioneering jazz soloists in the 1920s, and continued until the next rhythmic revolution shook jazz, the advent of bebop in the early 1940s. But the evolution of swing to a point where we today, when hearing a given recording, can say “that swings,” continued throughout the swing era, and indeed beyond that era throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s. That evolution was carried forward first in the work of the great pioneering arrangers of the late 1920s and early 1930s, including, in addition to Bill Challis, Don Redman, the Henderson brothers Fletcher and Horace, Jimmy Mundy, Edgar Sampson, Gene Gifford, Sy Oliver, Eddie Wilcox, Benny Carter, Mary Lou Williams, Lennie Hayton, Eddie Durham, and Duke Ellington, whose influence on jazz arranging would continue for decades. As the swing era began to gain steam and provide more opportunities for dance bands to perform more adventurous music from the standpoint of jazz and swing, a new wave of arrangers come to the fore, including Deane Kincaide, Joe Lippman, Bob Haggart, Larry Clinton, Jerry Gray, Paul Weston, Axel Stordahl, Ray Conniff, Billy May, Billy Moore, and Buster Harding, Andy Gibson, Fred Norman, and Sammy Lowe among many others. Also in this group were several arrangers who were moving the swing idiom ahead in other ways, certainly harmonically. This group included Eddie Sauter, Bill Finegan, Gil Evans, Paul Jordan, and Billy Strayhorn. Their work in turn led to the advent of such writers as Neal Hefti, Ralph Burns, Eddie Finckel, Pete Rugolo, Tiny Kahn, Gerry Mulligan, Tadd Dameron, Paul Villepigue, Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini and Johnny Mandel.
The swing era was truly a golden age during which gifted musicians had the opportunity to work creatively before large and appreciative audiences. The lessons they learned were employed in jazz, swing, film music and American popular music for decades.