Armstrong as an OKeh artist

In 2013, Sony Music representatives announced their intentions to relaunch OKeh Records as the primary jazz imprint of the company’s Sony Masterworks. According to Sony Music, OKeh of the twenty-first century was going to feature global jazz music played by musicians such as John Medeski of the United States, Dhafer Youssef of Tunisia, and Michel Camilo of the Dominican Republic, to name a few. A contributor to The Atlantic, John Murph, critiqued the kick-off lineup since it did not include any Black artists from the United States. He wrote, “OKeh Records has time to prevent a PR nightmare around the scant African-American presence on its roster. But for now, the label looks suspect to the global jazz community – a community that includes, as it always has, black America.”[1] In 1918, German phonograph and record industry pioneer, Otto K.E. Heinemann, founded OKeh Records and formed the label’s name from his initials. In its heyday, the 1920s and 1930s, OKeh was one of several major music labels that produced “race records.”[2] “Race records” often featured Black blues and jazz artists from the United States and were first marketed to the country’s Black consumers residing in the Deep South.

In 1925 Louis Armstrong began recording with OKeh in Chicago.[3] From 1925-28 he and his two groups, known as the Hot Five and Hot Seven, made over seventy recordings for OKeh. Armstrong’s two ensembles included musicians he knew from New Orleans and Chicago, such as pianist Lil Hardin, trombonist Kid Ory, and drummer Baby Dodds. The musicians of the Hot Five and Hot Seven only gathered for studio sessions in between gigs and never toured.

Armstrong’s OKeh records were 10-inch, or 12-inch 78 rpms made of shellac, and sold for less than two dollars. Each disc could store two approximately three-minute recordings. The early Hot Five recordings required the performers to congregate around a large horn at varying distances. The horn acted like a funnel to disperse “the sounds to a stylus which cut them directly onto a rotating wax disc.”[4] Making mistakes while recording required starting anew. Armstrong and his Hot Five showed listeners how the label’s recording technology worked during OKeh’s Race Records Artist Night on February 27, 1926 at the Chicago Coliseum. While on stage, Armstrong and his group made a recording in front of the audience. After this, the recording was played back to the attendees.[5]

A 1926 newspaper advertisement for OKeh’s Race Record Artists Night featured in one of the Armstrongs’ scrapbooks

In Chicago, OKeh had a recording studio on the fourth floor of the Consolidated Talking Machine Company building, run by E.A. Fearn.[6] According to scholar Gene Anderson, OKeh “avoided trying to expert the musicians, allowing them almost complete artistic freedom within the studio.”[7] OKeh producer, Ralph S. Peer, stated, “…The funny thing was, I wasn’t even present when those records were made. I’d ok’d the musicians, all of whom I knew, and as long as Louis and the girl [Lil Hardin] were there, I knew it would go alright since they’d worked in our studio….”[8] Despite certain studio freedoms, OKeh and its main competitors were run by whites who had control over fees, copyright, and marketing.  

A 1926 newspaper advertisement for one of Armstrong’s OKeh Records featuring “Gut Bucket Blues”

According to trombonist Kid Ory, the Hot Five discs were popular among OKeh’s target group. He states:

 When we made them [the recordings] we didn’t expect they’d be so successful. With people crazy about jazz and the Charleston, our kind of music went over well. Times were good and people had money to buy records. One thing of Louis that helped was that the OKeh people gave away a picture of Louis to everyone that bought one the records. When they did that, the sales went way up because Louis was so popular.[9]

             While Armstrong was an OKeh artist, he had the opportunity to make many records that highlighted his name. Advertisements and other marketing materials featuring his face circulated. When Armstrong recorded with King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, he supposedly had to stand far away from the recording horn to avoid overpowering his mentor and the other musicians. On the OKeh discs, Armstrong’s sound is prominent, mostly when he plays lengthy solos on his horn or sings. Armstrong was one of the first musicians who heard his recordings sound via various technological channels. His relationship with audio technology developed throughout the rest of his career.  


[1] John Murph, “How Not to Relaunch the ‘Race Records’ Label of Ellington and Armstrong,” The Atlantic, April 17, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/04/how-not-to-relaunch-the-race-records-label-of-ellington-and-armstrong/275010/.

[2] Other labels known for releasing and circulating “race records” during the 1920s and 1930s include Paramount, Brunswick, Vocalion, Columbia, and Emerson. OKeh released “race records” and those featuring folk and religious music from various countries.

[3] Armstrong’s recordings with the Hot Five and Hot Seven were not the first recordings he ever made. Armstrong first recorded with King Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. King Oliver’s recordings of 1923 were the first to be made by OKeh in Chicago. While Armstrong recorded with OKeh, he also made similar records for other labels but was not the top name on those records. 

[4] Gene Anderson, “The Origin of Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens,” College Music Symposium vol. 43 (2003): https://symposium.music.org/index.php/43/item/2193-the-origin-of-armstrongs-hot-fives-and-hot-sevens.

[5] William Kenney, Recorded Music in American Life: The Phonograph and Popular Memory, 1890-1945, Oxford, Oxford University Press (1999): 121.

[6] OKeh’s main office was in New York City and it had several studios in the city.  

[7] Anderson, “The Origins.”

[8] Kenney, Recorded Music, 123.

[9] “The Iron Lip Cornet Wonder: The Early Years,” The Mississippi Rag, Object ID: 1995.141.1, February 1, 1995, https://collections.louisarmstronghouse.org/asset-detail/109592, The Louis Armstrong Archives.

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