Louis Armstrong Turns On The World: West End Blues & Muggles


On the morning of June 28, 1928, six months after Lil left him and the band, Louis Armstrong reconvened the Hot Five with Earl Hines on the keys. There were really six musicians in the studio that day including Mancy Carr on banjo, Fred Robinson on trombone, Jimmy Strong on clarinet and Zutty Singleton keeping a crucial woodblock click. Hines piano playing was more inventive than Lil’s; and Louie, in his first season as a stoner, had a crackling moment of realized potential and was ready to blow that trumpet like it was a miracle from the mouth of God Almighty. Red-eyed Louie counted off Joe Oliver’s 12-bar West End Blues. King Oliver cut his song with a clipped two/four feel, of a N’Orleans funeral, but Armstrong alchemized his take with an expansive four/four that gave a gentle velocity to a series of dazzling acrobatic brass figures. He opened with an incandescent horn – one of the most famous riffs in jazz — an annunciatory blast that extends through four full bars and, by now, many more generations. It is a near-impossible set of sounds that have never been convincingly reproduced by any other trumpet player (although every trumpet player who has come along since has tried). The opening signature to “West End Blues” is a declaratory sentence, simple and complex. It is an uniquely American sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” manifest in two hundred and seventy eight separate notes; it shouts freedom to a lunatic world. West End Blues announced all at once, with beauty, a testament to the Roaring Twenties, the essential vocabulary of modern jazz and the arrival of the sublime art of Louis Armstrong.  

Earl Hine’s chromatic keyboard flourishes, masterful on their own, should not be thought of as attendant. Midway through this three-minute-nineteen-second miracle, Armstrong’s sensuous scat suddenly floats over the syrupy clarinet like a bird over low water. The voice in the horn and the horn in the voice are inseparable and compounded and come smoothly together in an improvised conclusion, an elegant arabesque that set the terms for all else to come. 

This song is what Dizzy Gillespie meant when he said, “If it wasn’t for Louis, none of us would be here.” The four/four and the improvised solo in West End Blues contain the bedrock of rock and roll; his insouciant scat — here in West End Blues, in “Heebie Jeebie’s” and elsewhere — blurred the distinction between voice and instrument and referenced an ancient tradition of rhythmic vocal improvisation. These elements became the building blocks not only for jazz and pop; they are intrinsic in the DNA of rap as well. Rarely, if ever, has any single recording contained more musical seeds than the Hot Five’s version of West End Blues. Arranged and played by genius and enhanced by gage. Given the breadth of its subsequent achievement, West End Blues is arguably the greatest single example of marijuana’s ability to enhance the creative process and increase the human condition. 

Over the next five months Armstrong recorded twenty-three songs for Okeh Records under a variety of names: Louis Armstrong & His Hot Four… His Hot Five… His Savoy Ballroom Five… Louie Armstrong & His Orchestra and, in one instance, simply “Louis Armstrong”. It was all Satchmo at the top of his game working with a small band of elite musicians in Al Capone’s Chicago when – get this – marijuana was legal and liquor was against the law. 

In December they recorded Muggles.

According to legend, before they began Armstrong passed around a stick of the Mighty Mezz and explained what he wanted to do. “Muggles,” of course, is an old school nickname for weed, and It’s hard to believe that the song Muggles, Louis’s loving paean to his newfound “assistant,” was not consciously structured on the passing of a joint. No documentation but common sense supports this theory: but the arrangement is too precious and the metaphor too precise for it to be anything else. .

Armstrong wrote the song, and it starts out as a player’s showcase. Fatha’ Hines kicks it off with a gliding stride that pulls artful horn-like figures – trills, glissandos and slurs – out of the hard ivory under his right hand before he passes the lead, just like a joint, to trombonist Fred Robinson who swings the thing lightly until it flares into a warm bluesy solo then goes to Jimmy Strong on the licorice stick next who plays a short flavorful lick which heralds the full band coming together behind Louis, locking his lips on that Muggles, and blowing such a perfect strain as to turn on the entire world. Legend has it Satchmo took a big pull on a fat joint just before he put the horn to his mouth and blew gray smoke out of its bell along with those first few notes.

Muggles is one of the absolute great Hot Five songs, and it is the true beginning of a minor jazz tradition: the reefer song. Gage was so prevalent and influential in early jazz ethos that, over the next several years, a giggle of muggled musicians would take their lead from Louis and record their own tributes to the joys of weed: The charm in their names of these songs does not diminish with age: Here Comes the Man with the Jive, If You A Viper, Light Up, The G-Man Got the T-Man and Viper Mad. There was Cab Calloway’s Sweet Marijuana Brown, and Fats Waller’s eponymous Reefer Song. Most were recorded in the mid to late 30s by a wide range of players; the great, the near-great and the ingrate: Stuff Smith And His Onyx Club Boys, Sidney Bechet, Hoagie Carmichael, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and don’t forget Benny Goodman’s Texas Tea Party and many more…

But it all began with Muggles, Louis’ loose-knit metaphor for smoking a joint. In addition to being the prime pedigree of all pot songs, it is arguably the best one of them all. Muggles stands as one of the great jazz recordings on its own merits; and it’s creation and its performance, like all the Hot Five records, was inspired and enhanced by gage.

The recordings Armstrong made in Chicago in 1927 and 1928 were not only historically important: they were his swan song to the small band. In 1929 the stock market crashed, the Roaring Twenties came to a roaring halt and the Great Depression commenced. Louis left Chicago for New York to get away from the mob and jump on the Big Band bandwagon. He would not play with such spare and intimate instrumentation again for another twenty years.

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