West End Blues, 1928
While the great Joe ‘King’ Oliver wrote the song ‘West End Blues,’ it is Louis Armstrong who made this tune immortal. Oliver recorded his piece on June 11, 1928 but just 17 days later, Armstrong grabs the tune and turns it into his own personal tour de force. Jazz, of course, in a sense was born that day, and the quest for freedom, in art, and life, reaffirmed.
While the only singing in the composition is Armstrong’s catchy scat vocals with no significant word content, Armstrong, using all of the key components of jazz historically, spins a tale of life in New Orleans for certain people, under particular circumstances, in a particular place, of life and freedom. On some level, every jazz song that follows ‘West End Blues’ is an imitation of this recording because most of all the music is about freedom or the desire to be free as an artist and a human being. All of the greats to follow are chasing Armstrong’s magical template of African-American culture and creativity using what he used and more: improvisation, musical showmanship, and memorable melody.
Beginning with his now famous bright trumpet statement, ‘West End Blues’ is a blues, a slow loop of a tune that simmers like gumbo for the listener. Gradually, Armstrong reveals the story, grabbing you initially with his triumphant horn, calming you with his voice, and then pulls you in further with the narrative. This is holy core of the tune, the song that endures now for nearly a century but decides all the the songs. It the best that jazz has ever produced because it is real and honest, the very foundation for jazz music, and when it is the most free.