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It was a typical New Orleans jazz band in instrumentation, consisting of trumpet, clarinet, and trombone backed by a rhythm section. The original New Orleans jazz style leaned heavily on collective improvisation, in which the three horns together played the lead: the trumpet played the main melody, and the clarinet and trombone played improvised accompaniments to the melody. This tradition was continued in the Hot Five, but because of Armstrong's creative gifts as a trumpet player, solo passages by the trumpet alone began to appear more frequently. In these solos, Armstrong laid down the basic vocabulary of jazz improvisation and became its founding and most influential exponent.
The Hot Five was organized at the suggestion of Richard M. Jones for Okeh Records. All their records were made in Okeh's recording studio in Chicago, Illinois. The same personnel recorded a session made under the pseudonym "Lil's Hotshots" for Vocalion/Brunswick. While the musicians in the Hot Five played together in other contexts, as the Hot Five they were a recording studio band that performed live only for two parties organized by Okeh.
There were two different groups called "Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five", the first recording from 1925 through 1927 and the second in 1928; Armstrong was the only musician in both groups.
The original Hot Five were Armstrong's wife, pianist Lil Hardin Armstrong, as well as New Orleans musicians who Armstrong had worked with in that city in the 1910s: Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, and Johnny St. Cyr on guitar and banjo.
In one session in December 1927, Lonnie Johnson was added on guitar.
The recordings of this group are considered by many to be uneven, with some of the blunders (e.g., the mistimed hokum at the end of "Heebie Jeebies") becoming notorious in jazz circles, and the solos of Dodds, Ory and Hardin sounding pedestrian in comparison with Armstrong's. However, the ensemble passages are frequently effective, and the genius of Armstrong's cornet or trumpet playing touch virtually every recording. Some of the more important examples are "Cornet Chop Suey", "Muskrat Ramble", "Hotter Than That" and "Struttin' with Some Barbecue".
In 1928, Armstrong revamped the recording band, replacing everyone but himself with members of the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra, in which Armstrong was playing: Fred Robinson on trombone, Jimmy Strong on clarinet and tenor saxophone, Earl Hines on piano, Mancy Carr (not "Cara" as has often been misprinted) on banjo, and Zutty Singleton on drums.
The 1928 Hot Five played music that was specifically arranged as opposed to the more freewheeling improvised passages of the earlier Hot Five. A tentative movement toward the kind of fully arranged horn sections that would dominate swing music a decade later was starting to become fashionable, and this second Armstrong group embraced a rudimentary version of it, with Don Redman as arranger providing some written-out section parts. Strong on clarinet and Robinson on trombone were not as strong soloists as Dodds and Ory had been with the earlier band, but Hines was more nearly Armstong's equal technically and creatively than any other in either band.
Thus, these sessions resulted in some of the most important masterpieces of early jazz, of which "West End Blues" is arguably the best known. Other important recordings include "Basin Street Blues", "Tight Like This", "Saint James Infirmary", and "Weather Bird". In the last named, only Armstrong and Hines are present, turning an old rag number into a tour-de-force duet.