If you want to become a better jazz musician, there’s no better place to start than with the music of Louis Armstrong. Armstrong, who sang and played trumpet, is considered by some to be the greatest American musician of the 20th century, regardless of musical style. I’d like to give you a good sense of his general importance and what you as a jazz musician can learn from his music.
Armstrong was born in 1901 (not 1900, as he claimed) in New Orleans at the very beginning of the development of jazz. There was a wide array of music in New Orleans at that time and Armstrong absorbed it all, from marching bands and blues to classical dance music and opera. He sang in informal a cappella groups and began learning trumpet in as a child.
Armstrong found a supportive musical mentor in Joe “King” Oliver, whose band he joined as 2nd trumpet player, behind Oliver’s lead trumpet. Listen to this recording of "Dippermouth Blues" by King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band for two things: 1. The overall polyphonic sound of the music, with several melodic solos often happening at once, and 2. King Oliver's trumpet solo, which begins at 1:30. It's important to note that even though was the musical environment that Armstrong was influenced by, he put his personal stamp on the music in 2 big ways: 1. He took the individual solo concept much farther than Oliver and his contemporaries did, and 2. He developed a trumpet style that was very different than Oliver's. You'll hear that Oliver uses a plunger mute to produce "growls," which was something that Armstrong rarely did, instead preferring a bright, majestic style of playing. All the early jazz players were encouraged by their mentors to create their own, unique style of playing. (Incidentally, "Dippermouth" was another of Armstrong's nicknames, which leads some to believe that he himself wrote this tune instead of Oliver, who is credited with being the composer.)
Louis Armstrong changed the concept of jazz with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups, with whom he recorded from 1925 - 1928 . It's interesting that these were not "working groups." Rather, they were assembled specifically for the studio sessions.
On these recordings, Armstrong combined the prevailing polyphonic sound, where several instruments improvised at once, with a new emphasis on individual solos. He said that he got the idea for individual solos from hearing operatic vocal arias. Many people consider his recording of Potato Head Blues to feature some of his greatest trumpet playing. The “stop-time” breaks by the rhythm section are a big part of early jazz, too. This is jazz improvisation at its best, of any era. Check it out here:
The song Heebie Jeebies, also by his Hot Fives, is the earliest recording of scat singing, where the vocalist sings an improvised solo using nonsense syllables. Check out how similar Armstrong's vocal sound and choice of notes is to his trumpet soloing, like you heard on Potato Head Blues. Even if you’re not a great singer yourself, I recommend that you practice scat singing. It will improve your musical ear and help you develop your own identity as an instrumental soloist. Many of the great jazz players sing the same way they play their instrument, even if they don’t sing in public. Singing establishes a connection between your musical ear and your instrument.
"West End Blues" is another great recording you should know. The whole feeling of the song is wonderful, and the opening trumpet flourish is one of the classic moments in all of jazz. This wasn’t improvised, by the way. Armstrong probably developed and refined it over a period of several months until he felt it was perfect.
To the chagrin of many New Orleans jazz aficionados, Armstrong’s music changed after the Hot Fives and Sevens. He had a chance at attaining greater commercial success and “went for it.” During the swing era of the 1930s and 40s, he fronted big bands, performing the popular songs of the day. While many jazz musicians wish that he had kept on recording in his earlier style, there’s no denying that many of these “pop” recordings are gems. His trumpet playing remained as creative and vibrant as ever, and he started singing even more. Here are two of his best performances from this era, both featuring incredible trumpet solos. Listening to solos such as these will help your own jazz playing, regardless of instrument. Singing along with Armstrong’s solos will not only give your playing a deeper “swing feel,” but it will also help develop your melodic intuition. Just about every major jazz musician has studied Louis Armstrong’s music at one time or another.
Although he began fronting big bands typical of the "swing era," as public tastes changed, Armstrong's playing remained as inventive as ever. You can hear in this famous recording of "Chinatown, My Chinatown," from 1931. Listen to the thrilling high notes he plays near the end of the tune, soaring over the rest of the band!
And here's one of my personal favorite Armstrong recordings, "Stardust." (My other favorite is "West End Blues," above.) Even though this kind of musical arrangement was very "commercial" for its time, you'll still hear the same greatness that Louis displayed in the earlier Hot Fives and Hot Sevens: swinging, heartfelt vocals and the best trumpet playing imaginable.
Armstrong later returned to his early New Orleans “Dixieland” style when he formed his All Stars. Even though the “front line” of trumpet, clarinet and trombone is playing in the older New Orleans style, I’m fascinated by how the rhythm section incorporated elements of the swing style that was current at the time of these recordings (the drummer, for instance, is keeping time on the high hat and playing swing-era fills). The result was an overall sound that both evoked Armstrong’s roots and sounded familiar to the audience’s ears.
In time, Armstrong became an elder statesman of jazz, familiar to the whole musical public. He was beloved all over the world and made countless television appearances. In his later days, he remained in the public eye with songs like "Hello Dolly" and "What A Wonderful World."
Even on a song like "What A Wonderful World," where he doesn’t play trumpet, you can clearly hear how much joy he conveyed through his music. In this sense, Louis Armstrong is a great role model for us all. He was a virtuoso in the true sense of the word and extended the upper range of the trumpet so much that classically-trained musicians struggled to keep up with him. (Think about this for a moment. A barely-educated person from the poorest of the poor section of the deep south could play higher than any trumpeter in the New York Philharmonic!) He lived his music fully and put his very best effort into everything that he played, whether it was straight-ahead jazz or a pop song. And as you heard with his “Stardust” recording, he often did both at the same time, taking a "pop" song into the realms of "art music."
I hope this brief introduction to Louis Armstrong and his music inspires you to check him out and enjoy his music more fully. Even if you play a style of jazz that he didn’t, like bebop, your playing will improve if you let him influence you. One of my other favorite jazz musicians, the pianist and arranger Gil Evans, was a Louis Armstrong expert. Evans apparently knew every recording that Armstrong ever made inside and out and paid tribute to his musical hero here:
Jazz would sound very different if there was no Louis Armstrong. To get more familiar with his music, start with the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and branch out from there. It’s music that you can return to again and again as you yourself develop and grow as a jazz musician. Good luck and have fun!
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