Words: Amy Keresztes

I’m currently doing research on Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, set in Harlem in the 1920s and saturated with the kind of loose, swinging vibes the title encourages you to expect. Morrison makes jazz music with her words, improvising, scatting, urging call-and-response reader participation, and introducing textual strains that hang in the air before dissolving, only to return later in the novel to make the reader think “haven’t I heard that before?”

It’s a gorgeous book, and it takes place against the backdrop of some very real jazz music history. Throughout the novel, the narrator refers to some of the characters buying and listening to “OKeh” records, from an American record label active from 1918 to about 1930. Initially, OKeh focused on releasing popular songs like other labels, but when Mamie Smith’s 1920 blues recordings became a huge hit, manager Otto K. E. Heinemann (his initials are the source of the label’s name) decided to tap the growing market for jazz and blues by African-American artists. He hired Clarence Williams to direct what he called OKeh’s new line of “Race Recordings” in their New York studio.

One of those was the classic performance of Louis Armstrong with his Hot Five Band playing Joe Oliver’s “West End Blues.” Recorded in 1928 in OKeh’s “Race” studio when Armstrong was just 26, the twelve-bar blues track is revered by jazz experts and amateurs alike.

Armstrong took the woozy original Southern blues tune and infused it with a spirit and freshness he would come to be known for. While still paying homage to the quiet, plaintive nature of the original blues, his version embodies a kind of new energy and vision. The tinkling piano solo, Armstrong’s own dreamy, wordless vocals, that impossibly long, high trumpet note, and the contrast between the vibrant opening and satisfyingly languid conclusion: all these and more are the reasons the recording is considered a masterpiece. And you can’t miss that milk-bottle percussion, which I learned was called a “bock-a-da-bock” and invented by orchestral percussionist Billy Gladstone.

Even for an amateur like me, it is clear that besides its beauty and its mood, there is something remarkable about “West End Blues.” It perfectly embodies the spirit of the Jazz Age, a golden era whose soundtrack would largely be the improvisational creations and innovative arrangements of Armstrong himself.

Perfect with: a Toni Morrison novel, of course.


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