New York, 1928
Gherang, Victoria. 2016 onwards.
I’ve always liked jazz – traditional New Orleans style jazz, that is. I love it for its exuberance, lack of pretension, and heart. Later periods of jazz, like bebop, I often find too cerebral and lacking in emotion. As for even later techno, funk, electronic whatever-you-like-to-call-it jazz, well, just give me a break! As soon as I know that a trumpet is anywhere near a synthesizer or computer, I feel a compulsion to run for the hills.
For a long time, I wanted to buy a particular set of classic jazz recordings, Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens, which he recorded with various ensembles from 1925-1929. If they are not jazz’s equivalent to the Book of Genesis (maybe early ragtime recordings are a key part of that phase) then perhaps they are its Book of Exodus instead – in these wonderful Armstrong-inspired renditions, a new force is certainly set free in 20th century music.
Finally, a few years ago, I bought a remastered four CD edition of these Hot Fives and Hot Sevens sessions. It’s a collection I listen to regularly in my rural cottage, often late on a lazy Sunday afternoon, accompanied by few lagers. What wonderful musicality is transferred down through the ninety-plus years since their original recording! What a joy! All the classics are there, of course, “Potato Head Blues”, “Cornet Chop Suey”, “Rockin’ Chair”, “St Louis Blues” etc. For me, an absolute standout is a song performed by Armstrong and His Savoy Ballroom Five, recorded in 1928 – the bluesy, heavily rhythmic, minor key “St James Infirmary”. There’s a fine vocal by Armstrong, as well as some splendidly evocative trumpet playing on his part. Also, the song is lyrically fascinating, its words derived, apparently, from narrative folk material (though the composer of this recording was actually named as Don Redman, a sometime member of Armstrong’s band, then later changed to Joe Primrose, a pseudonym of musical entrepreneur Irving Mills).
In verse 1 of the song the singer is at the morgue, looking at his “baby” lying on the slab (as you do!):
I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Stretched out on a long white table,
So cold, so sweet, so fair.
In verse 2 the singer reflects:
Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be,
She can look this wide world over,
But she’ll never find a sweet man like me.
In the final verse, the focus changes abruptly:
When I die dress me in straight lace shoes
A box-back coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch chain
So the boys will know that I died standin’ pat*
Since 1928, there have been hundreds of versions recorded of this song, and many different variations in the lyrics, as is the case in many folk-influenced songs, but it’s difficult to see how anyone could surpass Armstrong’s – this has the clear, assured imprint of a master.
*standin’ pat: not drawing other cards, playing with those one was dealt – as in poker or blackjack; in other words, being true to oneself
Stereo Story #519