Two Hot 7 Transcriptions

I have transcribed Louis Armstrong’s playing on two Hot 7 recordings from May 1927 – ‘Wild Man Blues’, and ‘Potato Head Blues’.

Louis Armstrong – Wild Man Blues

Louis Armstrong – Potato Head Blues

I have transcribed Louis’ playing on the whole recording of each of these as it is also interesting to see what he plays in the ensemble passages. The other musicians on both recordings are Johnny Dodds (clt), John Thomas (tbn), Lil Armstrong (pno), Johnny St Cyr (gtr/bjo), Pete Briggs (tba) and Baby Dodds (dr). The addition of a tuba playing the bass line (generally on beats 1 and 3) really adds something to the ensemble, while Baby Dodds on drums doesn’t really add much except for the classic cymbal hit on beat 4 of the last bar. However, these two recordings are all about Louis, his virtuosity shining through and dominating in both tunes.

‘Wild Man Blues’ opens with a brief 8 bar ensemble passage, before Louis takes over with his solo. Throughout the solo (and Johnny Dodds’ clarinet solo after) the rhythm section play accompanying chords for two bars and then drop out leaving the soloist on their own for two bars. Louis switches seamlessly between a bluesy triplet feel and a faster double time feel (represented by the semiquavers in the transcription), gliding through different registers with ease. Despite the title, the form is not a 12 bar blues, but much of Louis’ playing has a bluesy sound to it (for example, the use of the ‘blue note’ C# in bars 14 and 26). Following Dodds’ clarinet solo an even briefer 4 bar ensemble passage ends the piece.

‘Potato Head Blues’ is also not a 12 bar blues and has a classic Dixieland feel to it. The opening melody is performed by Louis with the clarinet and trombone improvising counter melodies, up to bar 31 where a 2 bar trumpet break leads to a restrained and melodic 16 bar solo from Louis over a new set of chord changes. Dodds then solos over the chords of the initial 32 bar section, before a 4 bar banjo break sets up an explosive solo from Louis over stop time rhythmic accompaniment – this time, a chord played on the first beat of every other bar. This solo is regarded as a classic, and rightly so – Louis plays some beautifully melodic phrases coupled with exciting rhythmic ideas and complete control over his instrument. Then after 32 bars the rest of the ensemble steam in again and Louis powerfully leads everyone home in the final 16 bar section.

A note about the chord symbols in the transcriptions – I have tried to write the actual chords played on the recordings as accurately as possible, although in some cases there is some ambiguity when, for example, different musicians play different chords (for example, bar 25 of ‘Potato Head Blues’ where Louis outlines a concert G7 chord the note played by the tuba is a B flat). The chord symbols are approximations of what I think I hear going on which is why they might differ from chorus to chorus. One place I had a real problem was bar 126 where there doesn’t really seem to be a consensus amongst the musicians as to what chord they are playing – in the corresponding bar of the first section it sounds like a concert E7 chord so I have put this again in brackets.

I am starting to get an idea of some of the key elements of Louis’ playing. Here is a preliminary list (I will be going into more detail in future):

  • SOUND – what an incredible sound, and an absolutely ridiculous vibrato! I personally can’t get a vibrato anywhere near that, but it is coming along….
  • Rhythm – Louis generates rhythmic interest and propulsion from the juxtaposition of short and long notes, as well as syncopation. His short notes are very short, and the long notes often tinged with vibrato (something Woody Shaw also often does).
  • Generally higher use of arpeggios rather than scalic ideas
  • Common use of rips up to high notes



Louis Armstrong

I have thinking for a while now that I really need to check out some of the older players in the jazz lineage, and where better to start than with Louis Armstrong, the father of jazz trumpet and probably the key innovator from the early days of jazz. In particular I have been listening to the recordings he made with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands between 1925 and 1928 – these were the first Armstong made as leader, and are recognised as being the first recordings where individual improvisation and virtuosity are brought to the fore. I have transcribed two of Armstrong’s solos on Hot 5 recordings – ‘Big Butter and Egg Man from the West’ (recorded November 16 1926) and ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbeque’ (recorded December 9 1927).

‘Big Butter and Egg Man from the West’ was Louis’s first vocal recording, and was also his first chart hit in April 1927. The recording features the other members of the original Hot 5 line up – Johnny Dodds (clt), Kid Ory (tbn), Lil Armstrong (pno), and Johnny St Cyr (gtr/bjo) – and also the wailing guest vocals of May Alex. Louis’s solo still shows similarity to the melody in some places, but over a simple accompaniment of piano and banjo chords pounding on every beat his solo is extremely melodic and masterful in its simplicity.

Louis Armstrong – Big Butter and Egg Man

In ‘Struttin’ With Some Barbeque’, Louis solos over a stop time feel where the rhythm section play chords only on beats 2 and 4. However, the intensity and forward drive he generates is amazing – I know from personal experience how difficult it is to keep rhythmic momentum going in stripped down situations like this. This is a more virtuosic solo – Louis plays with a wider range than his solo in ‘Big Butter and Egg Man’, and in bar 15 he nails a highly tricky triplet break. The band on this recording are the same Hot 5 members mentioned above (minus May Alex).

Louis Armstrong – Struttin’ With Some Barbeque

There is much more to be said about these solos – however, I am going to wait until I have transcribed a few more of Louis’s solos until I try to comment on things such as his style and development.


I had a really great tutorial with Martin Speake yesterday in which we looked in depth at Woody’s tune Zoltan from the Unity album. I had been having trouble working out the chords for the middle 8, but with Martin’s help I have managed to work them out. Here is a lead sheet for the tune:


The tune opens with a march like theme taken from Zoltan Kodaly’s Hary Janos suite. This theme is a prime example of the lydian sound heard when the pentatonic scale based on the II is played over the I bass note – in this case, D pentatonic over C. The second theme of the tune, marked A on the lead sheet, switches to a latin feel but is harmonically similar, switching between a D pentatonic scale over C to a C pentatonic scale over B flat. This tune is in AABA form, and the solos are over this form. The B section is also comprised of lydian chords which appear fairly straight forward in the head – however, I was later confused by what Woody was playing in his solo. Here is a transcription of the solo:

Woody Shaw – Zoltan

(Warning: this solo is at B flat trumpet pitch, ie. one tone higher than it sounds)

What confused me was the fact that Woody was clearly playing phrases using bebop language outlining the chord of Eflat7 (concert) where I had reckoned the chord to be Gflat maj7#11 – see bars 17 and 49. However, Martin helped me to realise that the chord is still Gflat maj7#11, Woody is just superimposing fresh harmony on it. Here is an example of Woody using bebop language in the ‘wrong’ key to create a fresh sound. Joe Henderson also does this is his solo but in a more ‘inside’ manner – if you listen around 3’38 on the track he can be heard playing F7 bebop language over the chord Eflat maj7#11. Martin and I then proceeded to try out this idea on all of the lydian chords in the tune – firstly, Joe Henderson’s inside way using the bebop scale starting a tone above the root note (Woody also uses this idea – see bars 13 and 37), and then Woody’s more dissonant way using the bebop scale starting a minor third below the root note. In both cases, familiar bebop language is used in a different context to how it is normally used.

Woody does a few other interesting things on this tune. He consistently uses the A pentatonic scale over the Cmaj7#11 chord – this scale mostly fits but there is a clash between the C in the bass and the C# in the scale. In fact, the only time he uses the conventional approach to lydian chords seen in the head – using the pentatonic scale based on the note a tone above the root – is at bar 81 where he plays Aflat pentatonic over Gflat maj7#11 (concert pitches). This solo shows that Woody was not content to use the conventional pentatonic approach, he wanted to explore and discover new ways of incorporating dissonance. It also shows his respect for jazz language of the past and a willingness to incorporate it in fresh situations. There is much in this solo for me to explore further.

Song of Songs (1972)

This album was Woody’s follow up to Blackstone Legacy, and features Emanuel Boyd on flute and tenor sax, Ramon Morris and Bennie Maupin on tenor saxes, George Cables on piano and keyboards, Henry Franklin on bass and Woodrow Theus II on drums. All four tunes on the album are composed by Woody, and he is beginning to develop his own compositional voice. The music is generally pretty avant garde and reveals the influence of several key musicians.

The influence of John Coltrane can be heard in the extended sections of collective, free improvisation over drones, especially in the first tune, Song of Songs, and the last tune, The Awakening. This tune also morphs into a funk groove which sounds very similar to the type of music being made by Miles Davis during this period. The Goat And The Archer, the second tune on the album is loosely based on a blues structure in F concert, although the actual chords being played are constantly changed by the musicians in a manner reminiscent of the tune If from the album Unity (see post below). The third tune, Love: For The One You Can’t Have is a beautiful tune which fits in neatly with the evolution of Woody’s compositional technique. I need to transcribe this tune, as well as others, to try and see what principles he used and developed when composing.

More Transcriptions

Here are two more transcriptions I have done:

Woody Shaw – You Stepped Out Of A Dream

Woody Shaw – If

You Stepped Out Of A Dream is taken from the 1986 album Solid, and whilst it is not a particularly adventurous solo harmonically, it is still a very impressive solo. Woody’s sound and sense of melody on the solo are fantastic, and his time feel is impeccable. He uses a lot more scalic passages than he did as a younger man, and the big intervallic leaps are becoming less evident. Woody uses several sequences in the solo to great effect – for example, bars 1-4, 15 and 57-58. The use of pentatonic scales is sometimes evident – for example, bars 79-80 – but they are less key to Woody’s approach to improvisation than they were a few years earlier. This is a more mature and more melodic improvisational style, one less focussed on ‘outside’ playing and large intervallic leaps.

Woody’s solo on the Joe Henderson blues If, taken from Larry Young’s Unity album, is a very interesting solo. The chords I have put on the solo are some standard blues changes – however, neither Woody nor Larry Young stick to a distinct set of changes, and I have put these in as a reference only. For much of the solo, Woody jumps between two pentatonic scales – B flat major and B major. The B flat pentatonic scale creates an inside, bluesy sound, and can be played over the whole chord sequence without ever really sounding dissonant. The B pentatonic scale is used as a contrast as it doesn’t really fit with any of the underlying harmony. Woody switches between the two scales at will and uses the dissonant B pentatonic scale on all sections of the chord sequence, the only consistent aspect being a consonant resolution at the end of each chorus. I really like the way he varies rhythmically how he links the two scales together, only rarely allowing the change to fall on a barline. This is a novel way of playing on the blues – Woody takes two scales, one consonant and one dissonant, and juxtaposes them to create tension and release. The fruits of such an approach can be seen in his later recordings, and this is a key idea I need to incorporate into my own practice.  This is a truly masterful solo, and Woody was only 20 years old at the time!

Horace Silver – The Cape Verdean Blues (1965)

In the years 1965-66 Woody was a member of the Horace Silver Quintet, and this was his first recording with the group. The other members of the band at this time were Joe Henderson on tenor sax, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Roger Humphries on drums, and of course Horace Silver on piano. J J Johnson also guests on trombone for three numbers. This album was recorded only a month before Woody and Joe Henderson played on Larry Young’s Unity, and the music is far more straight-ahead. Woody proves himself to be a fine hard bop trumpet player – just as on Eric Dolphy’s Iron Man he sounds at times like Lee Morgan and at others like Freddie Hubbard. However, most of his solos contain relatively conventional changes playing. His playing is often bluesy too, especially on the slower numbers. The only tune on which he explores more adventurous harmonic territory is the second tune, The African Queen.

I think that at this time Woody was pursuing various experimental ideas about harmony and improvisation (as shown by his playing on Unity a month later), but he felt the Horace Silver Quintet was not the place to try out these ideas. For one thing, Silver would have been 37 in 1965, 16 years older than Woody, and had already established himself as a big name in the jazz world. Whereas Woody, a young 21 year old, was still finding his way as a musician, and will have wanted to play in a style fitting with that of his band leader, saving his experimental ideas for sessions with more forward thinking musicians such as Larry Young.

United (1981)

This album was recorded with Woody’s working band of the period, and features Steve Turre (tbn), Mulgrew Miller (pno), Stafford James (bs) and Tony Reedus (dr). This was Woody’s second working quintet and was formed in late 1980, disbanding in July 1983. Gary Bartz also guests on alto for two tunes, What Is This Thing Called Love and Blues For Wood.

This album has been seen as heralding a more straight ahead approach for the new quintet. Woody is definitely the star of the show, with far more solo space than anyone else, but his playing is always strong and full of ideas. The pentatonic approach is less evident on this recording than in some previous recordings. One aspect of Woody’s playing noticable on this album is an increased use of incredibly fast scalic runs, a device often used by Freddie Hubbard. Two of Woody’s compositions on this album are based on other tunes – The Green Street Caper is based on the chords to On Green Dolphin Street, while the chords to Blues For Wood are similar to those in Mingus’ Nostalgia In Times Square. Mulgrew Miller’s tune Pressing The Issue is probably the tune most linked to what Woody had been doing in the 1970s, featuring strange harmonies and wierd chord changes for the soloists to explore, and Woody solos brilliantly on this tune. It also features the juxtaposition of swing and latin feels found in many tunes on Woody’s albums up to this point. Whilst this album could in some ways be seen as a backward step in Woody’s forward thinking approach, the playing on the album is very strong throughout and the players manage to keep up a stream of fresh ideas despite revisiting some tunes and chord changes from the past.