Louis Armstrong is so monumental in the history of American music, it’s hard to imagine a time prior to his prominence. You’d almost think he was born (on July 4th, of course) already the most important cornetist in the world. In fact, until 1926, the year Okeh Records began releasing singles by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five, the young cornetist was known only to the hippest of jazz listeners as an exceptional sideman.
And those records were nearly issued as Richard M. Jones and his Hot Five. When Armstrong returned to Chicago after an engagement with Fletcher Henderson had brought him to New York in 1925, he did a couple one-off appearances on sessions for the Okeh, appearing on records with Jones and singer Bertha “Chippie” Hill, a blues singer. The label’s A&R man, Tommy Rockwell, saw his potential and decided Armstrong should become a regular.
The plan to assemble an all-star band of New Orleans musicians in Chicago was hatched, and this is how it nearly became Richard M. Jones’ band. Previous successful jazz singles in the same vein had all been by established groups (like the Original Dixieland Jazz Band or King Oliver’s Orchestra, who had first brought Armstrong to Chicago three years earlier), and the idea of assembling a band for recording sessions was relatively novel. Already taking a risk, the label wanted an established name on the records — record executives, even ninety years ago, were pretty short-sighted.
It’s said the modest Armstrong demurred, at least according to Jones, but what’s certain is that it was Lil Armstrong who insist it be her husband be the session’s leader and she play piano. And so Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five were born, featuring Kid Ory, Johnny Dodds and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo. The group made its first recordings on November 12, 1925.
Columbia Records, who operated Okeh Records as a subsidiary, has kept the Hot Five (and later the Hot Seven) recordings in print in a variety of forms, including as part of an early LP series The Louis Armstrong Story, and collected on their own. In our own collection are all three volumes from the 1980s Columbia Jazz Masterpieces Series, which collect many but not all of the recordings. Two of our favorite songs come from the third session, June 1926, when Armstrong’s range and his vocals really begin to become incredible.
“Don’t Forget to Mess Around”
“King of the Zulus”
James M. Jones never recorded with the Hot Five, and it was another pianist, Earl Hines, who rose to due prominence with the band. He did produce the early Hot Five records. Nearly the leader of these seminal jazz sessions, Jones hardly recorded under his own name. He led a studio band, the Jazz Wizards, and later worked as a jazz producer for Decca and Mercury Records, always maintaining a connection between the roots of jazz and its new directions.