There are hundreds of jazz songs that likely could qualify as the greatest jazz record of all time but the greatest of all time, to me, is Louis Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues.’ There is something about the song that seems to encompass everything that the music has always sought to do and say and that is what stands it apart from all the others, if just slightly.
Sure, ‘Giant Steps’ by John Coltrane is an amazing record as is Duke Ellington’s ‘Black and Tan Fantasy.’ Billie Holiday’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’ is pretty close and it perhaps closer than any jazz record. ‘All Blues’ by Miles Davis and Oliver Nelson’s ‘Stolen Moments’ qualify for me and many, many others but ‘West End Blues’ is just a great song that all other jazz songs stand upon.
It is interesting to note first of all that in choosing this song, I am choosing the Louis Armstrong version. ‘West End Blues,’ the composition, was written and composed by Armstrong’s mentor, the great Joe ‘King’ Oliver, who has his own pretty decent version of the song. The song, it is said, is about a west end New Orleans neighborhood, a “sleepy southern” tune, many have described it, that came amazingly to life when Armstrong did his famous intepretation. Where Joe Oliver’s version is a slow blues with no bright intro; Armstrong changes the song forever when he gets it and adds what has been called “his remarkable cadenza.”
After Armstrong begins to play it, even Joe Oliver tries to play the song like Armstrong plays it with the famous trumpet annoncement at the beginning. He even records it again with his band in this manner though Oliver wrote the song.
I probably heard ‘West End Blues’ for the first time in the 1990’s. I was finally confident enough to listen to African-American classical music and discuss it on an intellectual level. Armstrong was one of the first artist who I tried to devour in whole and ‘West End Blues’ was part of that. The song includes not only Armstrong’s famous cadenza but also his famous singing and beautiful horn arrangements that capture the image of the west side neighborhood Joe Oliver was trying to describe when he wrote it. It is a bit of history, this tune, even though there are no words except for those brief scatterings Louis offers. But most of all, ‘West End Blues’ is proving to be a timeless work of art.