My Early Jazz Education: From the Firehouse to Louis Armstrong

by Bill Benzon

I don’t remember just how I first became interested in jazz as a child growing up in Western Pennsylvania in the 1950s. There was always music in the house, but it was mostly classical music, often on big old 78s. My father had a particular affinity for Beethoven.

Walt Disney is part of the story. Not Uncle Walt himself, but a Dixieland jazz band, The Firehouse Five Plus Two, consisting of personnel from his animation studio. They’d show up regularly on “The Mickey Mouse Club” TV program back in the 1950s, and I’m sure I heard them there. Here’s a clip where they play “Muskrat Ramble”:

I have no recollection of having seen any particular performance of theirs, but I could well have heard them play this one.

Dixieland, as you may know, is a style closely based on traditional New Orleans jazz from the first quarter of the 20th century. It was enjoying a resurgence, perhaps in part as a reaction to bebop, and was sweeping college campuses. But me and my friends knew nothing of that. We just knew that we liked this music.

One of those friends, David Leffler, actually his mother, introduced me to Louis Armstrong. I was down the street visiting David late one afternoon when somehow or other his mother asked whether or not I’d heard Louis Armstrong. I’d never heard of him. She put a record on and I listened. I don’t remember what it was. All I remember is that it sounded a bit thin. But – and here’s the thing – I remembered it.

When my father joined a record club – you know, one of those deals where you could by records and they’d be mailed to you – I was allowed a selection in the first buy. I read through the little pamphlet and picked something called A Rare Batch of Satch. Again, lots of tinny sound. And a lot of what I would come to recognize as standard repertoire: “Basin Street Blues,” “High Society,” “St. James Infirmary” (which I loved), “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” (Armstrong’s theme song), and others.

But the standout number is a little gem tucked away in a cut called “Laughin’ Louie.” “Laugin’ Louie” was a silly novelty tune that isn’t worth much. It broke down during recording and Aarmstrong decided to treat his bandmates to some a capella gold: “…you must listen at this beautiful number, one of those old-time good ones.”

The magic starts at about 2:16, just Armstrong’s trumpet, no accompaniment. The rhythmic virtuosity at the end of the first phrase is astounding. The highest note is G above the staff, which was quite high for trumpet playing at the time.

By this time I was earning enough money mowing lawns that I could afford to walk a mile or so to the local discount department store and flip through the record bins looking for trumpet records. Of course I found mostly jazz because classical music didn’t have much of a solo repertoire for trumpet. But trumpet was second only to the saxophone in jazz – at least that’s how saxophone players see it. I’m not so sure.

One of the first albums I bought was Louie and the Dukes of Dixieland. The Dukes of Dixieland were quite popular at the time, at least in certain circles, and played quite well. Here’s a cut from the traditional repertoire, “Bourbon Street Parade”:

It opens with an Armstrong vocal. Then one of the Dukes does a vocal. I likely wasn’t too enthusiastic about all this singing. We want trumpet! Still, listen to Armstrong’s scat singing behind the second chorus, and the way he joins in on harmony for the last line. We have a clarinet solo then the drummer does a parade roll-off – you know, the riff played by the drums of a marching band to bring in the band on the beginning of a tune – to introduce the final chorus of collective improvisation. That’s the key to the traditional style, collective improvisation, no one strutting it above and before the others.

The stand-out cut on the album, though, was the closer, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” a tune traditionally played at New Orleans funerals as they walked the guest of honor to his or her grave:

Louis starts it off by playing the tune on his Selmer balanced action trumpet (if you know trumpets you can identify the model from the picture on the album cover). His playing is stately and dignified over a dirt-simple background of sustained horn harmonies with a simple drum beat. Stunning. Then he sings the tune over the same background with the addition of a simple trumpet obbligato from Frank Assunto. Armstrong returns to the trumpet for a simple statement of the melody to close, with trumpet obbligato and harmonies.

Wipes me out every time I hear it.

At about that time I found a book of Armstrong trumpet transcriptions and started working out on them – which I’ve been doing ever since. When I looked at the copyright dates on the individual transcriptions it became obvious that they must have been transcribed within weeks or months after they’d first been recorded. These were all from his landmark Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings of the late 1920s. My music teacher, Dave Dysert, included these transcriptions in my trumpet lessons, along with my Rafael Mendez solos – Mendez was a Mexican American trumpet virtuoso who made his living in Hollywood studios.

Here’s “Gully Low Blues” (1927):

The format was typical: fast opening, slow it down for a clarinet solo followed by Armstrong vocal, then back to clarinet. Armstrong enters at 2:16 with an astonishing solo chorus. As you know, the blues is typically a twelve-bar form. Armstrong’s chorus consists of six two-bar phrases, with the first five cut from the same cloth and then a contrasting 2-bar closer. Then it’s collective improvisation to the end.

Let’s look at Armstrong’s chorus. The first five phrases start exactly the same way, a rip to a half-note B-flat trumpet key, A-flat concert) which Armstrong colors with a shake – you have no idea how long it took me to get a convincing shake. The first time Armstrong simply does a line of triplet figures descending to a low E-flat. Second time it’s much the same through for the first half of the phrase – shake on a high B-flat, triplets coming down – but he changes the second bar. The triplets are faster and the phrase goes up a bit before coming back down, this time to D-flat, a step lower than the end point of the first phrase. So, the phrase has a slightly larger range and a more complex melodic shape.

How’s Armstrong going to change it up for the third time through? Opening’s the same – by this time we’ve got the point, same old same old with a little spice on the end. He starts down but then, suddenly he leaps up above that opening B-flat to a high C and finishes the phrase on a fourth space E-flat, a full octave above the point where he ended up the first time through. The spread of the phrase is more compressed than the first two versions. The fourth time through, same opening, but he descends much more rapidly and ends up in the basement, a below-the-staff G, on the second half of the first beat. This version spans two octaves and a third, top to bottom, while the first two times it was less than two octaves and the span was less than an octave on the third.

Armstrong is working variations on this one idea with a systematic deftness and economy that would have brought tears to the eyes of Johann Sebastian Bach and Sons. And it’s still different the fifth time, spanning just over an octave and leading into the final phrase starting in the second half of bar 10. Five times in a row each two-bar phase starts on the first beat of the bar. The last time through, what does he do? He starts the phrase half-bar ahead of time, in bar 10, rather than waiting for the 11th bar. I’m telling you, those Bach boys must have been laughing themselves silly with joy when they heard Pops lay this one on them as he showed up at the pearly gates. What chutzpah to announce himself to St. Peter with the “Gully Low Blues.”

Now we have his performance on King Oliver’s “West End Blues” with Earl Hines on Piano.

This cut is noted for Armstrong’s opening cadenza, a capella of course (remember that gem buried in the middle of “Laughin’ Louie”?). Armstrong played pretty much the same cadenza for years and decades. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This, like everything Armstrong does, is worth serious analytical attention. But he wore me out with those “Gully Low Variations,” so you’re going to have to take care of the analysis yourself. I will only note that it starts straight out on an A above the staff. For a trumpet player to start out cold on an exposed high A, that’s danger Will Robinson, danger! When I’m feelin’ feisty I’ll pick my horn up and, without any warm up, see if I can nail that cadenza. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. The thing is, sitting here in Hoboken, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan, I figure there must be a 100 or more trumpet players – black white yellow red purple green male female tall short wide thin young old middle-aged all kind of trumpeters – within a 10-mile radius who can play that cadenza sharp as a tack. It’s something we work on. Thus about a year ago I don’t know how many trumpeters accepted the West End Blues challenge on YouTube and recorded their version of that cadenza.

Let’s end on a lighter note. This is a duet Armstrong cut with Bing Crosby in 1951. No trumpeting, just singing. “Gone Fishin,” was a hit for them:

Listen to Bing scat behind Armstrong. He learned that from Louis, and he got half his style, the relaxed half, from Louis as well.

Here’s a version that Crosby did with Pearl Bailey in 1977 (Armstrong had died in 1972):

You’ll hear some of the same business that Crosby and Armstrong did in 1951. At one point Bailey breaks into an Armstrong gravel-tone. Listen to the very end. She hits her final note almost a half-step flat, holds on to it for a while and, just when you can’t take it any more (Bing’s getting worried), she comes up on pitch.


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For a more general appreciation of Louis Armstrong, see Louis Armstrong and the Snake-Charmin’ Hoochie-Coochie Meme, 3 Quarks Daily, March 6, 2017.