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When Genius Collides: Pops Meets Fatha

Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines

Special thanks to The Louis Armstrong Educational Foundation, Inc. and the Louis Armstrong House Museum for the photo of Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines. Please visit louisarmstrongfoundation.org for more information.

If forced to name one artist as the most consequential musician of the 20th century, we could make an extremely compelling case for Louis Armstrong. His brilliantly shining trumpet sound, breathtaking virtuosity, and effortless swing certainly place him at the forefront of instrumentalists; just as crucially, his flowing singing paired with his ability to perfectly rewrite melodies to fit his voice has inspired every singer since to take similar liberties. Without Louis, we have no Bing Crosby, no Billie Holiday, no Ella Fitzgerald, no Frank Sinatra.

What must that have felt like for a young Louis? When your genius so fully outstrips that of your peers, perhaps it feels lonely. To be sure, we find moments in which Louis pairs with an artist whose musical prowess can match his own — Sidney Bechet and Bessie Smith as examples — but overall, when we hear Louis Armstrong in the early and middle 1920s, we hear him standing apart. 

Enter Earl Hines.

By the mid-1920s, both Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines worked out of Chicago, where inevitably their paths would cross. And cross they did, notably in Carroll Dickerson’s Savoyagers. Their musical chemistry was immediate and electric: in Hines, Armstrong found an artist whose instrumental technique rivaled his own, and together on stage and on record they cajoled each other to even loftier musical heights. Armstrong’s brilliant trumpet lines became even more sparkling; Hines’ dizzying octave runs on the piano became even more death-defying. Chicago’s audiences recognized the magic that was playing out in front of them, and listeners around the US would soon be brought up to speed.

While 1927 marks the beginning of Armstrong and Hines’ recorded output together, it was in the following year that they would reshape Jazz history together. When now-immortal classics like “West End Blues” reached audiences, the sheer power of this collaboration became clear to everyone. As 1928 wore on, Armstrong and Hines recorded scintillating fare like “Beau Koo Jack,” before turning around and delivering a career highlight in the duet “Weather Bird.”

Indeed, with “Weather Bird,” they seemed to be throwing down a gauntlet to one another and to all listeners. In two minutes and 45 seconds, these two artists seemed to dare one another to fall off of a precarious rhythmic tightrope, as each takes incredibly daring risks in their playing. Nearly a century later, hearing this sheer virtuosity can still take one’s breath away.

Like all of the best chamber music in history, the collaboration of Armstrong and Hines feels both exciting and deeply intimate. In their upcoming UMS performance, pianist Sullivan Fortner and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire step into that same space in a deeply personal musical conversation between themselves and with audiences. Drawing on works from the Armstrong–Hines partnership — as well as from other 1920’s masters like “Fats” Waller — Fortner and Akinmusire will invite audiences into their sublime musical world: listen for the intense interplay, the fully exposed risk-taking that this duet setting allows for, and hear how each artist inspires one another to greater heights.

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