5 ways jazz pianists can learn from Louis Armstrong’s “Hot Five” recordings

I’ve been listening to a lot of Louis Armstrong lately, and it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me how much we pianists can learn from his music.

In a way, it’s ironic that we even have to remind ourselves of this, since Armstrong is universally acknowledged as a jazz giant like no other. He was there almost from the very beginnings of jazz, and was the catalyst for the development of the jazz solo. And every one of his recordings (almost!) is a masterpiece of musicality and sheer beauty of spirit.

While recording my solo piano rendition of the jazz standard “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” which Armstrong recorded, I used 5 concepts and techniques which can be found abundantly in the music of Armstrong. Learn how to incorporate these ideas into your own playing and you’ll hear the benefits!

1. Phrase like a vocalist

This is becoming rarer and rarer in the jazz world these days, because most jazz musicians don’t grow up listening to vocalists anymore. It’s simply not part of the musical culture anymore. But “back in the day,” an instrumentalist like Miles Davis phrased like a vocalist on songs like “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” because he was constantly hearing vocalists phrase that way, on records, the radio, and in nightclubs.

Louis Armstrong was as great a vocalist as he was a trumpeter, and his phrasing is the same in both mediums. We can learn from this.

2. Melodic variation and embellishment

Don’t be in such a hurry to “get to the solo” that you don’t enjoy the sublime art of varying and embellishing the melody. It’s an integral part of the jazz tradition, and we can start by listening to how Louis himself did it.

3. Vary the accompaniment texture

Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5s and Hot 7s are encyclopedias of accompaniment textures. One of my favorites is when the rhythm section only plays on beats 2 and 4 for a chorus or so. Give it a try with your left hand: just play chords on beats 2 and 4 while your right hand plays the melody or solos. It’s fun!

4. Clear phrasing during improvised solos

What do Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Chick Corea have in common? Clear phrasing. If we want to instantly improve our jazz playing, we can solo with clearer phrasing. It’s that easy.

5. “Telling a story” in our solos

This was a “biggie” with the early jazz musicians, and it’s not given as much centrality anymore. “Telling a story” has at least two aspects. First, our solos can have a beginning, middle, and ending like any good story has. Secondly, we can “convey” something story-like with our playing. Armstrong did both.

If you’d like to hear all 5 of these concepts demonstrated in a jazz piano context, check out my Journey Through The Real Book #158, which was a true pleasure to perform:

I Can’t Give You Anything But Love

Good luck with your playing, enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”

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