DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. One hundred years ago today, Louis Armstrong wrapped up his first recording session. The 21-year-old Armstrong on cornet was a protege of New Orleans fellow cornetist and bandleader King Joe Oliver. And on April 5, 1923, they went into a Richmond, Ind., studio for a two-day recording session. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead tells us the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF KING OLIVER'S "CHIMES BLUES")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Louis Armstrong on cornet taking his first solo on record, King Oliver's "Chimes Blues," April 5, 1923. Even then, you could hear Louis' rhythmic assurance, sturdy tone and love of melody. His boss and idol, Joe Oliver, was known for muting his horn with various objects to color the sound. He could make cornets sing or talk like a human voice, an idea Duke Ellington's brass freaks would run with. The following day, April 6, 1923, King Joe Oliver recorded his iconic solo on "Dippermouth Blues," a long solo for its time and one jazz trumpeters and composers like to quote from later.
(SOUNDBITE OF KING OLIVER'S "DIPPERMOUTH BLUES")
WHITEHEAD: The recording quality is primitive, but your ear may adjust to let you hear the music behind the noise. But these recordings distort the septet's actual sound. Bass and drums didn't record well, so here, animated drummer Baby Dodds mostly clops on woodblocks, while bassist Bill Johnson switches to banjo. Other string players used banjo to fake a snare drum beat. Bill Johnson on banjo just plays a bass part, only higher. That's Johnny Dodds on clarinet.
(SOUNDBITE OF KING OLIVER'S "CANAL STREET BLUES")
WHITEHEAD: In another band, two top players of the same horn would battle for supremacy. But Louis Armstrong revered Joe Oliver and wouldn't upstage him, although it was evident the student was surpassing the master. Armstrong could play higher, louder and longer. But they play with one mind when they team up at ratty, rough unisons or simple harmony, playing melodies and short duo breaks where the other players drop out.
(SOUNDBITE OF KING OLIVER'S CREOLE JAZZ BAND SONG, "SNAKE RAG")
WHITEHEAD: Duo and solo breaks were an early jazz specialty, and Louis Armstrong gets an extended workout on "Tears," recorded in Chicago later in 1923. The tune is credited to him and band pianist Lil Hardin, soon to be Mrs. Armstrong. Honore Dutrey is on slide trombone.
(SOUNDBITE OF KING OLIVER'S CREOLE JAZZ BAND'S "TEARS")
WHITEHEAD: Louis Armstrong left King Oliver in 1924. The following year, Louis started recording under his own name, and then there was no stopping him. Later, Pops could be critical of some old timers, but he never had a bad word for Joe Oliver. In the 1947 jazz movie "New Orleans," Armstrong recreates his hero's solo on "Dippermouth Blues" but without the wah-wah mute. Mutes were Oliver's thing. Louis liked a cleaner sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG'S "DIPPERMOUTH BLUES")
WHITEHEAD: King Oliver's later career was shorter and less triumphant. He was plagued by dental problems due to an epic sweet tooth. He liked sugar sandwiches washed down with sugar water. In New York in 1927, Oliver spurned an offer to lead the band at the Cotton Club. Duke Ellington took that career-making engagement. Oliver kept touring in the '30s but played less and less as his chops deteriorated. But even toward the end, once in a while, he'd grab his wah-wah mute and blow the blues at length. Let's go out with King Oliver in 1926, post-Armstrong, on "Snag It," if only to remind us how much master and star pupil could sound alike.
(SOUNDBITE OF KING OLIVER AND HIS DIXIE SYNCOPATORS SONG, "SNAG IT (FIRST VERSION)")
DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and the Audio Beat.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNAG IT (FIRST VERSION)")
KING OLIVER AND HIS DIXIE SYNCOPATORS: (Singing) Oh, snag it. Snag it.
DAVIES: If you'd like to catch up on interviews you've missed, like our conversation with actress Brooke Shields, who's the subject of a new documentary, or with Bible scholar Bart Ehrman, who discusses what the Bible has to say about the end times, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF KING OLIVER AND HIS DIXIE SYNCOPATORS SONG, "SNAG IT (FIRST VERSION)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.