Sometimes this question can catch you so off guard that you feel it resonate at the center of your chest in the most peculiar way. Its unexpectedness leaves you and your hesitance side by side to try to piece together a halfway decent response. One false move and you’ll find yourself in a pool of “Should’ve, Would’ve, Could’ve (s)” drenched until the day after tomorrow.
<A brief silence>
“What am I on?”
This is the first thought that enters after the silence. Then, just like ancient folk, you look to the sky for answers only to be blinded by a star, our star. You were sure that the perfect ball of hot plasma was at the center of everything for all these years. Now it seems that at the center of the previous plans you once thought were essential stands an attentive listener waiting for your answer.
• Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five & Seven Recordings (Sony, 2000)
• Ben LaMar Gay: Open Arms to Open Us (International Anthem, 2021)
• Ben LaMar Gay: Downtown Castles Can Never Block The Sun (International Anthem, 2018)
Depending on its delivery, this question could be interpreted in many ways. It could be an entryway to a lovely adventure or a blade in search of blood.
<Use your ears, baby>
It’s wild when you can feel the sound of a person before a word is spoken. It usually happens in that brief moment, right before the seal of silence is broken. The way a body moves inside this split second is what alarms or seduces you, pushes you away, or draws you near. Body language is a tongue that constantly reveals the actual music. What you’ve mistaken as the blinding light of a star was just the brilliance of this person who offered you a golden opportunity to hang. You’re now wide open to the thrill of randomness.
“Whatchu on right now?”
“You Wanna . . . ?”
“Yes! I wanna . . . !”
<cue trumpet cadenza>
There it is. The host and you, the invitee riding down King Drive in an ’86 Cutlass, no plates and young with the nerve to be black no matter what type of quota needs filling.
The hang is real.
It’s about one year and some change before the stock market crash and the end of a period historians refer to as “the Jazz Age.” This period could also be known as “Oh, Now They All Up On It, Huh?” which marked the public indulgence of Black culture within mainstream, middle-class, white America in the 1920s.
On June 28th, Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five stepped into the studio and did something we all do when we document—make history. Some of our documents may only resonate within a single household or take shelter on hard drives, while others bounce continuously around the corners of the earth. The 1928 document of “West End Blues” is still bouncing through the lives of many. It most definitely comes in and out of my life, especially in the deep seasons of reflection.
I first heard “West End Blues” 22 years ago while watching the Ken Burns Jazz documentary in my parents’ living room. The song and its lore were placed at the climax of an episode entitled “Our Language.” I already admired Armstrong’s sound, years before my introduction to “West End Blues,” although my imitations of his voice and mannerisms easily exceeded my knowledge of his catalog of sound. From what I did know of the catalog, I adored it. This sentiment left me glued to the TV at the moment of introduction, attentively listening and allowing the recollections of musicians and historians to guide me through the importance of the music. This style of guidance can sometimes create a distance between you and the thing you seek, leaving a divine wall between your mediocrity and your ambition. I definitely anticipated this distance while waiting for the first note to sound.
Much to my relief, the opening trumpet cadenza of “West End Blues” pulled me in closer and allowed me to see the hang that was happening beyond the threshold. The timelessness of the first twelve seconds of sound erased all dividing lines of space and time as if allowing me and all the spirits—past, present, and future—to be involved. By the time the Hot Five joined in with the blues, my imagination was constructing connections between the musicians, Chicago, and us.
The hang is real.
Louis Armstrong’s six-year residence in Chicago was unknown to me until I heard “West End Blues.” Before this, I figured his journey followed the route of New Orleans to New York, then the world. Somehow I missed the part about the Chicago years, one of his most creative and innovative periods. More and more, this makes me wonder about how the influence of Chicago and its creative community has had on experimentalists throughout the years, such as Armstrong, Sun Ra, the AACM, etc. Is there something in the water? Or is it just a thing that happens inside the draw and promise of a large city.
Although “West End Blues”—composed by King Oliver—was named after an area in New Orleans, Bronzeville is all I see when I hear it. Bronzeville is the neighborhood on Chicago’s Southside where at least two members of the Hot Five lived during the time of the recording. It was the Black Mecca of the Midwest. It is also where I spent at least ten years of my childhood. This hood gave me my first music lesson, first bus ride, first fistfight, and my first French kiss. It is the place that allows the imagination to connect with all of the spirits. Like when you walk into a beauty supply store on 35th street and realize that you’re in the actual space of the Sunset Café, where Louis, along with Earl Hines, was in fellowship—hanging, playing, working the night before the Hot Five recording session. I’m pretty sure on that evening one of them said in some way, form, or fashion: “See you at the session tomorrow!”
<A brief silence>
“How much is the bread again?”
This June will mark the centennial of Armstrong’s train ride to Chicago, invited by his mentor and big homie, King Oliver, as the story goes. This story alone reminds you how special an invitation can be, especially when it comes from a person you feel is brilliant.
<Just say, “Nada” baby>
<A brief silence>
“West End Blues” is trance music. It sounds like a person reflecting on an amazing hang fifteen minutes before that hang ends, right before the participants split ways. It has a vibe of looking back and forward, the sadness that lives inside the fact of knowing the lovely moment must come to an end, yet with the positive outlook and anticipation of the moment happening again soon.
Louis, Earl, Jimmy, Fred, Zutty, and Mancy had a strong vibe that summer day in a city accustomed to housing beautiful and exploratory sound experiments.