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Black Musicians behind the Scenes

Black Composer Louis Armstrong

There are very few performances by black musicians in the Knott family record collection, but the works of black composers and arrangers are there. An excellent example from the collection is this 1926 recording of Sugar Foot Stomp performed by Fred Hamm’s orchestra but composed by Louis Armstrong. Surprise! It’s a fox trot:

If we use this recording to set our time machine and then put it in reverse, we immediately encounter the black middle class of the early twentieth century. Hamm’s 1926 version is practically identical Fletcher Henderson’s version from 1924 as you can hear:

Fletcher Henderson was educated as a chemist and mathematician but as a black man he couldn’t find work in those pursuits and turned to music. Along with arraigner Don Redmond, a graduate of the Boston Conservatory, he created the first swing era band. It was divided into instrumental sections and used the call and response exchange that would later come to characterize the big bands.

Redmond got the song from its composer, Louis Armstrong. It was originally recorded as Dippermouth Blues by King Oliver’s Creole Jazz band in 1923 while Armstrong was second coronet in that band. That version is in a less sophisticated style; Armstrong’s playing is easy to pick out:

Armstrong had joined the Henderson band in New York at the insistence of his wife Lil who played piano for Oliver. She had graduated from Fisk and was determined to see Armstrong in the big time.

There is a popular notion that early jazz performers were born with their art, but a closer look reveals education and diligence along with natural gifts.