Slim Aarons/Getty Images
Earl Hines (piano) and Louis Armstrong (trumpet) at a 1948 jam session in Rome. They're joined by Jack Teagarden (trombone) and a host of local artists.
Earl Hines (piano) and Louis Armstrong (trumpet) at a 1948 jam session in Rome. They're joined by Jack Teagarden (trombone) and a host of local artists. Slim Aarons/Getty Images
My boss readily admits that she doesn't know a whole lot about jazz. But she lets me write all this nonsense on the Internet, so I'm not complaining. And at least she's willing to learn. So every week — or at least as often as possible — she and I get together to listen to and Instant Message about a different great jazz song.
Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines are both back in the news. There's a new Armstrong biography out that's been getting rave reviews, and the Hines estate recently donated all of the pianist's papers to the University of California-Berkeley (with a sizable sum of money, too). So it seemed like an appropriate time to play their brilliant 1928 duet on "Weather Bird."
"Weather Bird," from Louis Armstrong, The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (Sony/Legacy). Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Earl Hines, piano. Chicago, Ill.: Dec. 5, 1928.
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Boss Lady: We just entered into an old movie.
me: Why's that?
Also, is there any old jazz you don't liken to an old movie?
Boss Lady: OK, OK, you got me.
I think movies are where I experience older jazz most often.
me: What's the scene of this one?
Boss Lady: I guess it's an upscale bar and a few people are dancing. White jackets, the whole scene.
me: Well to be super historically accurate: I don't think a lot of faster, "hot" jazz like this was played at the fancy clubs back in 1928. And I don't know how many black musicians were playing for white audiences back then either.
Boss Lady: OK, so where would I have to go to hear it?
me: In a recording studio in Chicago in December 1928.
Boss Lady: Yes, I'm obviously suffering from stereotypical oversimplification factual obfuscation syndrome. Ha!
me: Or possibly after hours at the spots where Louis Armstrong would jam with this remarkable pianist here, Earl Hines.
Boss Lady: So Patrick, while I love this music, I feel like I've heard it before. Which is to say, it all sounds the same to me.
me: Well, think about this: how many instruments are playing?
Boss Lady: Two? Trumpet and piano? (It actually sounds like more for some reason.)
me: Two is right, and you're also right that it sounds like more. It's a trick of the best jazz musicians: making a spare performance sound full.
And those two musicians are also voices we haven't listened to before: Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines.
Boss Lady: Well, yes, that Louis Armstrong trumpet is recognizeable anywhere ... Sounds so playful and spontaneous.
me: I think there's much in his language that rubbed off on everybody: his incredible feeling for swinging hard, all the time. And that's part of why it seems familiar.
There weren't a lot of virtuoso soloists before him. He showed people that it was possible, and to him we owe a lot of the original model.
Boss Lady: You mean the sense of the soloist being a commanding, improvisational force?
me: Yup. He took it to a whole new level from what it was before.
The other part that may trigger familiarity is that piano ... even though I don't think we've done a lot of listening to this style of piano either!
Boss Lady: I notice the pianist is filling in every crack that Louis Armstrong leaves open.
me: They're certainly duetting in a very interactive way, yes.
Boss Lady: It's almost like you could take away the trumpet and you'd still have a perfectly listenable piece on the piano.
me: Why is that, you think? What is the pianist doing?
Boss Lady: He's keeping not only the pulse, but also providing the harmonic foundation and also counter melodies. Whew.
me: Uh-huh. He's doing a lot of bounding in the low register with his left hand, right?
Boss Lady: I'm not sure what you mean by bounding
me: Jumping around: low single note, chord, low single note, chord, all in rhythm.
Boss Lady: In a polka band that would be the oompah
me: Sure. And his solo spots sound so rich in part because he's doing ... what with his right hand?
Boss Lady: so many leading questions.
me note that often when he's soloing, he's playing octaves in the right hand. Octaves! Basically, he's playing those notes, at that speed, with his right hand permanently spread wide open.
Boss Lady: Double the pleasure.
me: It's the statement of the great mint.
Boss Lady: Do you mean that was his signature?
me: I was trying to complete the "double the pleasure" phrase from the old Doublemint gum commercial, but I'll assent to that.
It was one of them, anyway: imagine a piano in a jazz band without amplification in 1928. What could someone do to increase the volume and cut through the horns? Hines' solution: play more notes.
Boss Lady: Right. More versions of the same notes. I'm just taken by the variety in his playing. Maybe that's one of the reasons this sounds so fresh and spirited. Beyond the regular pulse and chords, there's nothing predictable or boring about it.
me: That's the other thing. He does all these trademark things with the most daring rhythmic spirit.
Boss Lady: Let that be a lesson to you!