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Those Jazz Hot Sounds: Jazz in the 1920s
By Brian L. Knight

Although jazz music has developed into so many sub forms – fusion, contemporary, free jazz, free bop, soul jazz, experimental, hard bop, swing, cool and many more; they all owe a debt of gratitude to the music that came out of New Orleans and Chicago almost eighty years ago. When one listens to the hot jazz recordings, they may seem simple in their composition and reserved in the soloing, but without this honed down style, jazz would have had nothing to build upon. In the last few months, there have a collection of releases that both catalog some historic hot jazz musicians as well as some new recordings that pay respect to the groundbreakers of America’s true art form.

What is Hot Jazz?

"Hot Jazz" is characterized by an ensemble opening improvisation, then a series of individual solos and then a closing orchestrated group improvisation. The soloing was also referred to as "jassing up" which ultimately gave birth to the name "jazz." The music is very fast paced and it alludes to a time when people actually danced when they heard the music. In most cases, the bands were lead by a clarinetist or trumpeter and had a rhythm section consisting of a piano, guitar, bass, drums and banjo. Since the music incited dance and a general uptempo feel, the music is reffered to as " Hot Jazz". It also referred to New Orleans Jazz since it the music first came to the surface in the Crescent City.  New Orleans jazz was known as polyphonic which means that the trumpet or cornet took a primary melody line while a secondary melody line (clarinet, trombone) embellished the primary line. Due to the fact that 78-RPM was the only type of recording at the time, Hot Jazz recordings were limited the length to approximately three minutes. 

The hot spot for New Orleans jazz was the legendary Storyville. This was 38- block district located in the heart of the Vieux Carre that was cordoned off as the only area of New Orleans to allow prostitution. Being the only official Red Light District in all of the United States, the small zone was dense with gamblers, johns, prostitutes, pimps, drunks and the one type of person that makes all these other types happy - the musician. It was here in Storyville that all of the musical styles came together – the Ragtime of the Creole/European upper crust, the blues of the Afro-Americans and the island sway of the Caribbean immigrants. When the United States entered the First World War, the port of New Orleans reverted to its strategic naval value and the US Navy shut down Storyville. Without the drunks, the prostitutes et al, the musicians had no clients so they headed north to the great Industrial northland – Chicago.

Jimmy LaRocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band

Contrary to popular belief, Nick Larocca’s Original Dixieland Jass Band (ODJB) was the first band to play jazz (another Dixieland band that enjoyed great popularity was the New Orleans Rhythm Kings.  They were one of the first bands to have jazz music recorded. Dixieland is considered the "white mans version" of New Orleans Jazz. While New Orleans jazz was less structured and full of improvisation, Dixieland was more rigid. Dixieland was simply a watered down version of what the Afro-Americans/Creoles were playing in the Crescent City.

The tradition of Nick Larocca’s music is carried on through the album Jimmy Larocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band (Louisiana Red Hot Records, , 2000). This recording is Jimmy Larocca’s tribute to his famous father. The songs were written between 1958 and 1960 by Nick Larocca and were never recorded (Nick Larocca died in 1961)

It seemed like an injustice that white musicians were the first to be recorded, since jazz was considered an Afro-American creation. This sense of injustice carried on through history as the swing bands of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller took the spotlight from Count Basie and Duke Ellington and the recordings of Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan and Dave Brubeck attained much more popularity than Dexter Gordon, Hampton Hawes and Sonny Rollins.

Ferdinan "Jelly Roll" Morton 

Like the ODJB, Jelly Roll Morton was a controversial entity in the relaying of jazz history. Both ODJB and Jelly Roll Morton have legitimate claims to being true originators of jazz music, but both of their stories bring a wealth of equally legitimate counter-arguments. Both Jelly Roll Morton and the ODJB benefit from excellent documentation.- The ODJB was the first band to be recorded while Alan Lomax extensively chronicled Morton’s life in 1938 for the Library of Congress. Since they have so much "documented proof" their credit as being originators is difficult to refute.

Jelly Roll Morton was not quite a New Orleans jazz player be definition for he music was more orchestrated than the blues based improvisations of New Orleans music. Jelly Roll Morton’ music was slightly more sophisticated and refined than what was coming out of New Orleans. Jelly Roll’s undoubtable lasting contribution was his sense of composition and arrangement. Without Jelly Roll, pianist/composers such as Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, John Lewis and Herbie Hancock would have had no foundation to build upon.

Jelly Roll Morton played ragtime piano in Storyville’s bordellos as a youth but when his great grandmother found out that he was hanging with the vices, he was kicked out of her house. This expelling sent Morton on a lifetime of traveling that brought him to every major city on the North American continent. During his heyday, Morton composed classic songs such as "Original Jelly Roll Blues", Milenberg Joys", "Black Bottom Stomp", "King Porter Stomp", "Wolverine Blues", "The Pearls", "Beale Street Blues", "Smokehouse Blues" and "Dead Man Blues". The album Great Original Performances (Louisiana Red Hot Records, , 2000) captures Morton later in his career. It is a collection of songs recorded by Morton while he was in New York City from 1928 to 1930. Four of the tracks were taken from Morton’s tenure with cornetist Johnny Dunn’s Band and the remaining sixteen are from Morton’s Red Hot Peppers. Although a resident of the Big Apple, Morton never lost his love of the Big Easy. This is exemplified by the tunes "Pontrachain Blues" (named after the New Orleans lake) and "New Orleans Bump". Even though these recordings occurred during an era when the blander swing was becoming popular, Morton stood to his guns and kept the New Orleans tradition alive.

Clarence Williams

Pianist Clarence Williams made most of his recordings from 1923-1941, which can be classified as "small group Dixieland". Williams was born October 8 in Plaquemine, La in 1893 which was also home to Frank Fields who later played bass for other New Orleans notables such as Fats Domino, Allen Touissant and Dave Bartholomew. At the tender age of 12, Williams hit the road with a minstrel show where he sang, danced and played the piano. Like Louis Armstrong and the majority of the jazz musicians of the era, Williams took his jazz from New Orleans to Chicago and eventually off to New York City.

Much of Williams’ great compositions can be found on the CD Clarence Williams, New Orleans Pioneer: Great Original Performances (Louisiana Red Hot Records, 2000). These recordings have Williams recording under many different bands – " Clarence Williams’ Jazz Kings", "Clarence Williams and his Washboard Band", "William’s Jug Band" and "Clarence Williams Novelty Band". Many of these recordings have Williams playing the jug and one of the players on the cuts was clarinetist Cecil Scott who recorded quite a bit with Billie Holiday while Buster Bailey would go onto record with Fletcher Henderson and Louis Armstrong. "Candy Lips" has banjo playing of Leroy Harris who played with Williams throughout his recording tenure and also played with the great pianist Earl Hines. The tune "West End Blues" was a duet with the great singer/actress Ethel Waters.

Sidney Bechet

Along with Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, Sidney Bechet is one of New Orleans’ greatest musical legends. Unlike Armstrong and Oliver, who found their voice through the trumpet, Bechet was the master of the clarinet and saxophone. Bechet even went further by introducing the soprano saxophone to the world of jazz. Decades later, individuals like John Coltrane, Bennie Maupin and Wayne Shorter would look to Bechet’s innovation with the soprano saxophone and bring the instrument back into jazz’s fold.

With these soaring melody lines, clarinetist Sidney Bechet has one of the most recognizable voices heard. Because of his quick fingering, Bechet often took difficult melody lines that none of the other instruments could handle. In comparison to the other band instruments such as the trumpet or the trombone, Bechet harmonized better with the fluid, less angular sounds of his instrument. As an eleven year old, Bechet played with famed Olympia Jazz Band and then went off to join Clarence Williams’ band. Like so many other jazz musicians, Bechet was a huge hit in Europe. Due to the First World War, it took a while for jazz to make a presence in Europe but when it finally did, it hit like tsunami. The Europeans could not get enough of the new craze from across the Atlantic. This wave of enthusiasm never subsided. As the idiom changed from New Orleans Jazz to Dixieland to Swing to Bebop to Hard Bop to Free Jazz to Fusion to Contemporary, the Europeans were there every step of the way. Half a century later, Post War World Two Japan was similarly enthusiastic as hungry Japan music fans embraced everyone from John Coltrane to George Harrison to Cheap Trick.

From 1925 to 1929, Bechet toured throughout the European continent and British Islands. He went to Paris with the Revue Negre, which also highlighted the beautiful Josephine Baker. Perhaps is best known performance was when he played for Price of Wales at Buckingham Palace. While he was in Paris, he found himself in a dispute with another man that led to a gunfight that ended up in three casualties. As a result, Bechet spent a year in jail. This melee did not deter Bechet’s love of France as he made Paris his permanent home in 1950 where he would spend his final years.

Besides his introduction of the soprano saxophone, Bechet’s other "claim to fame" was his use of heavy vibrato. In laymen’s terms, a vibrato is when an instrumentalist/singer creates a throbbing note that oscillates between the given pitch and one immediately below it. This is accomplished on a saxophone through the controlling wind supply through the diaphragm or lip muscles. A good use of a vibrato should create a rhythmic pulse while poor use is often what avant-garde players are criticized for doing. There is a lot of technique in playing vibrato but it sometimes loses its context. This was not a problem for Bechet as his vibrato remained within the confines of Dixieland jazz or New Orleans jazz. The song structure did not allow for Bechet to blow too "far out". One of modern jazz’s greatest vibrato players was John Coltrane who not only saw Bechet as influence in terms of using a soprano saxophone but also in terms of playing style.

Although shared many attributes, Bechet and Coltrane were different on a human level. In his essay, The Frontiersman from New Orleans, New Orleans’ trumpeter Wynton Marsalis spoke of the two famed saxophonists: "Sidney Bechet wasn’t like Coltrane. Coltrane developed into a religious figure. He used spirituality to develop his music. Sidney Bechet was beyond religion. Sidney Bechet didn’t need a system to achieve his spirituality because he understood the nuances of the inevitable. It was all a feeling to him, as easy as knowing whether it’s hot or it’s cold when you step outside of your door. While he had the kind of intellectual focus that allowed him to learn through investigation and contemplation, the world was not a mysterious place to him. Things were very clear."

Marsalis was not the only noted musician to speak of Bechet for he also affected jazz’s old guard. Here is what Duke Ellington had to say about Bechet: "Bechet to me was the very epitome of jazz... everything he played in his whole life was completely original. I honestly think he was the most unique man to ever be in this music." That is quite a pitch from one of jazz’s finest

Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)

Cornetist/trumpeter/singer/entertainer Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) is considered the father of modern jazz. With his inventive and rollicking solos, Armstrong showed the technical capabilities of the individual musician. He launched a whole new form of music and his influence is still affecting countless musicians in the 21st Century. In music history, there have been watershed events that help usher a new wave of music. Some say that the recordings of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Doors and Surrealistic Pillow during the summer of 1967 was a landmark event for the development of what is known as classic rock. Three years earlier, Bob Dylan went electric and turned folk music on its back. Similarly, saxophonist John Coltrane’s avant-garde records of the mid 1960s opened a whole new outlook of how jazz can be heard or played. None of these events even remotely hold water in comparison to Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings. The 60 or so cuts from the 1920s ushered in a whole new jazz age that continues to redefine itself today.

Starting in November of 1925, Louis Armstrong began a series of recordings that are now known as the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens for the race records, Okeh. These were Armstrong’s first sessions as a leader and they were also breakthrough recordings as they displayed the transition from ensemble playing to the idea of the soloist. The Okeh label closed during the depression and the catalog was purchased by Columbia. In 2000, Columbia resurfaced those recordings and released the four CD set, Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Columbia, 2000). Like Steely Dan of the 1970s, the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens were primarily a studio band that never brought their stuff out on the road. The music from these sessions is characterized by "New Orleans Counterpoint" which was the performances of two simultaneously occurring melodies and "stop time choruses" which is when the rhythm section stops to play and the soloist takes the lead. Two rather simple concepts when thinking of music today but breakthrough back in 1925.

During his early recordings, Armstrong primarily played the cornet. This instrument had a similar sound to the trumpet but it appeared to be shorter in length, had a conical bore in comparison to the trumpet’s cylinder bore and to the discerning ear, the cornet had a significantly mellower sound. In general, the difference was so difficult to discern, that the only assumption that can be made is that all pre 1930 recordings used a cornet.

The Hot Five and Hot Sevens recordings came about after the Okeh owners realized that their best selling recordings were of Clarence William’s Hot Five and certain cuts by Fletcher Henderson, most notably "Sugar Foot Stomp". The X Factor for these tracks was the anonymous cornet playing of Louis Armstrong.

Hot Fives consisted of Armstrong, Kid Ory (trombone), Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Lillian Hardin (piano) and Johnny St. Cyr (banjo). The Hot Sevens had John Thomas replacing Ory on trombone as well as Pete Briggs sitting in on tuba and Baby Dodds sitting behind the drum kit. Baby Dodds was the brother of clarinetist Johnny Dodds and was a veteran of both Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band. John Thomas was a member of Erskine Tate’s Vendome Orchestra, Armstrong’s former band. The members of the Hot Fives and Sevens were generally renditions of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band as most of the players had passed through the famed cornetist’s band at one time or another. The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings possess some wonderful tracks such as "Heebie Jeebies" which not only signified Armstrong’s first vocal release but the first documented example of scat singing. Apparently, Armstrong forgot the lyrics to the song and simply provided a vocal improvisation instead. What initially had its roots in error and forgetfulness, eventually sparked a whole new art form. "Heebie Jeebies" is accompanied by the other early Armstrong vocal pieces – "George Grind", "Don’t Forget to Mess Around" (which also features the rare saxophone playing of Johnny Dodds), "I’m Gonna Gitcha", "I'm Not Rough", "St. James Infirmary", and "Droppin’ Shucks". There is also the Armstrong classic, "Basin Street Blues", a tune that was recorded by Armstrong fifty different times during his career. This particular version stands out above the rest as it has the great Earl ‘Fatha" Hines on piano. "Cornet Chop Suey" and "Oriental Strut" are not only great examples of stop time choruses but they also reflected the fascination that the United States had with China throughout the first quarter of the 20th Century. Although this interest was primarily commercial imperialism, there were some subsidiary benefits such as songs like theses. The song "Muskrat Ramble", a song about a evening of drunken debauchery, is one of the few songs that Kid Ory contributed to these sessions. Considering the song stood the test of time and eventually achieved "standard" status, Ory should probably contributed more to these sessions.

There are some bonus tracks in which the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens serve as a backing band for Butterbeans and Suzie, Hociel Thomas, Lil’s Hot Shots, Johnny Dodd’s Black Bottom Stompers and Lillie Delk Christian. Butterbeans and Suzy, led by Joe "Butterbeans" Edwards and Suzie Edwards was one of the many bands during the 1920s that specialized in writing songs full of sexual innuendo. Besides " He Likes It Slow", performed with Hot Fives, the duo also recorded the explicit "Elevator Papa – Switchboard Mama". On November 11th, 1925 Armstrong, Dodds and St Cyr joined blues singer Hociel Thomas and her piano playing uncle, Hersal, for the songs "Gambler’s Dream", "Sunshine Baby", "Adam and Eve Had The Blues", "Put It Where I Can’t Get It", "Wash Woman Blues" and "I’ve Stopped My Man". Hociel was eventually known for her boogie-woogie playing style, but these recordings have simply singing the blues. "Lil’s Hot Shots" was simply another name for the Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five while the songs cut with Lillie Delk Christian may be some of the most interesting tracks on the recording. Christian’s voice was anything but desirable as she squeaks through the four tracks, but with Armstrong, guitarist Mancy Cara, clarinetist Jimmy Noone and pianist Earl "Fatha" Hines as her instrumental back up, the cuts have incredible historic interest. Along with Sidney Bechet and Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Noone may be one of the most important early clarinetists. Hines and Armstrong also teamed up for the six tracks recorded with Johnny Dodd’s Black Bottom Stompers. It is with these six songs, the listener has an opportunity to hear different versions of popular Armstrong numbers such as "Weary Blues", "New Orleans Stomp", "Wild Man Blues" and "Melancholy."

Armstrong began his career playing New Orleans Jazz (there weren’t really any other options at the time) but then moved onto playing Swing because of its obvious financial benefits. Armstrong’s’ wife and pianist, Lillian Hardin Armstrong may had a lot to do with this transition to swing. Armstrong obviously left his legacy as an improviser and entertainer but he also may have started a tradition that has also been assumed by the Kaplans of Yo La Tengo, the McCartney’s of Wings and the Moore's of Sonic Youth – the idea of a marring your band mate. And just as Yoko Ono may have been responsible for breaking up the Beatles, Lil Hardin may have dragged Louis Armstrong from the traditional jazz of Oliver’s Band and joining the swing of Fletcher Henderson. In 1947, he returned to playing the music of New Orleans and formed his band, the All-Stars.

Louis Armstrong and the All-Stars played throughout Europe. Jazz musicians have always enjoyed a high degree of popularity across the Atlantic and Louis Armstrong most likely set the standard. Armstrong experienced tremendous fan and critical support when he went to Europe in 1932 and the years immediately following World War Two. In 1955, he returned to play great concerts in Milan and Amsterdam. Those performances are captured on the album Ambassador Satch (Columbia, 1955, 2000). The music of New Orleans is all over this performance with a rendition of "Tin Roof" that was popularized by both the New Orleans Rhythm Kings and King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band. There is also a version of "Muskrat Ramble", a tune first penned by Kid Ory, a veteran of the Hot Fives recordings.

Another document from this tour is Satchmo the Great (Columbia, 1955, 2000), which is the soundtrack to the movie of the same title. The movie was filmed during Armstrong’s European sojourn and featured Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly of CBS Television providing commentary. In addition to great Armstrong songs such as "Mack the Knife", "St Louis Blues" and "Royal Garden Blues", the recording are full of interviews that highlight the colorful Armstrong character. For these concerts, the All-Stars consisted of Trummy Young (trombone), Edmond Hall (clarinet), Billy Kyle (piano), Arvell Shaw (bass) and Barrett Deems (drums).

Armstrong’s 1955 album, Satch Plays Fats (Columbia, 1955,2000,) was a tribute to another New Orleans musician, Fats Waller (1904-1943). The two played together in 1925 in Erskine Tate’s band. Erskine Tate, a proficient violinist, ran the Vendome Orchestra, which was one of the first bands to play what is known as Big Band music. During the stint at the Vendome Theater in Chicago during the 1920a, the band played accompaniments for silent movies as well as providing before, after and intermission tunes.

Their tenure together in Erskine Tate’s band was simply a prelude to much grander collaborations. In 1929, Fats Waller was a cast members for the New York production of "Connie’s Hot Chocolates" which produced great Waller compositions such as "Ain’t Misbehavin’", "(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue", "Sweet Savannah Sue" and "That Rhythm Man". Armstrong also threw in a version of the Clarence Williams/Fats Waller collaboration "Squeeze Me". Through out this CD, there are numerous Armstrong duets with singer Velma Middleton. This fine lady was primarily responsible for bestowing Armstrong with the nickname "Pops" which joined a long list of monikers such as "Dippermouth", "Satchelmouth", "Satchmo", and "Satch".

In 1955, Armstrong recorded many of the songs from "Connie’s Hot Chocolates" as well as other popular Waller tunes – "Squeeze Me", "Blue Turning Grey Over You" and "Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now." The 2000 release features seven bonus tracks from the sessions. This album also highlights the work of Andy Razaf, who wrote the lyrics for Waller’s compositions. Born Andreamentena Razafinkeriefo, Razaf was the nephew of the last queen of Madagascar who was born in Washington DC. Razaf and Waller met in Harlem and hit off immediately. Out of the nine songs on the original release, Razaf contributed to five of them.

George Lewis, Sidney Bechet and the Indian Summer Revival

The resurgence of New Orleans music occurred in the 1940s. While Bebop and Swing were fighting for popularity, traditional jazz was sneaking its way back into the musical mainstream. As a result, the careers of Sidney Bechet, Bunk Johnson, George Lewis and Kid Ory were reinvigorated. During the 1930s, these players disappeared out of the limelight and assumed alternate careers such as tailors and dockworkers. The 1940s brought theses players back in the studio and onto the live circuit once again.

Once he made Paris his home, Sidney Bechet made infrequent visits to the United States. The Europeans were far more receptive to the New Orleans music of Bechet that the jazz fans in the United States. One rare visit was during the fall of 1953 when he made a visit to Boston’s Storyville Club in 1953. This date was captured on the appropriately titled Sidney Bechet at Storyville (1201 Music 1953, 2000). The Boston club seemed like an appropriate place for Bechet to play as the venue was named after the famed New Orleans district that was home to musicians such as Bechet, Oliver and Armstrong up to its closing in 1917. For this gig, club owner and Newport Jazz Festival founder George Wein accompanied Bechet on piano as well as trombonist Vic Dickenson. Dickenson was a fellow Dixieland player who recorded with Bechet in the 1930s and 1940s as well as being a member of Count Basie’s band. This live recording is basically an overview of Dixieland/New Orleans jazz but a very fine overview. Check out Duke Ellington’s "C Jam Blues" as well as the tribute to New Orleans with "Basin Street Blues". The set’s other highlight arrives with a version of Fats Waller’s "Honeysuckle Rose."

Another revived career was that of clarinetist George Lewis who played throughout the first two decades of the 20th Century but then disappeared. He was rediscovered in 1942 and he enjoyed a revival right up to his death in 1968. After years of playing in pick-up bands and keeping his day job, his revival brought him on tours throughout the United States and ultimately, Japan. In February of 2000, Michael White brought George Lewis even yet another revival. The well known educator and clarinet player, who has played with Wynton Marsalis and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, pays respect to Lewis with the album A Song for George Lewis (Basin Street Records, 2000 ). The album was a tribute to the centennial of Lewis’ birth (July 13. 1900).

The album covers all the types of songs that characterized New Orleans jazz: hymns, struts, blues, pop covers, marches. "Big Chief Battle Axe" sounds like a soundtrack piece from a silent movie. I can imagine Charlie Chaplin being chased by a headressed Indian with this music played along with the action. Lousian-i-a" evokes the inherent sense of patriotism/nationalism that so many New Orleans musicians possess. The album also contains two originals: "Stafford Strut" and "A Song for George Lewis".


The New Orleans fascination with food. When one visits New Orleans, they can experience an overwhelming variety of culinary delights. From beignets in the morning to Crawfish Monica to Hurricane cocktails, there is always something to satisfy the curious palette. The innate New Orleans food pleasure is also prevalent in the songs of the Crescent City musicians. As early as 1928, Jelly Roll Morton was playing a song called "Ham and Eggs" with Johnny Dunn’s Band. Years later, he would call his band the Red Hot Peppers. Louis Armstrong was also quite the gourmand. Armstrong religiously drank a laxative known as Pluto Water to keep his weight down. Author Bill Gottlieb affectionately referred to this potion as "liquid dynamite." With his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens group, Armstrong penned songs such as "Big Butter and Eggs Man" as well as "Struttin’ with Some Barbeque". A half a century later, the heir apparent to Lois Armstrong, Kermit Ruffins, incites a crowd with "Chicken & Dumplings" and "Smokin' with Some Barbecue." The same spirit is found on the Meters’ 1975 classic "Talkin' 'Bout New Orleans."  In talking about the food that they crave, these musicians are paying respect to the City that they love.