LOUIS ARMSTRONG transformed jazz in the 1920s and gave it a direction and purpose. He remains one of its most important figures, changing the nature of soloist and ensemble. He was also able to pursue a career in mainstream entertainment and, health permitting, remain loyal to his true jazz credentials...
Louis Armstrong : "The Beginning And End Of Music In America"
Bing Crosby described Louis Armstrong as "the beginning and end of music in America." Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's dictum, "No him, no me," remains true and it is often forgotten that Armstrong was not only one of the world's most charismatic and best loved entertainers for fifty years, but, the mythical Buddy Bolden notwithstanding, was also the first rung of the jazz ladder. He possessed a technical brilliance that fuelled a fierce individuality, and if individuality is the cornerstone of jazz creativity, its early flowering in the hands of Armstrong took the primitive jazz form by the scruff of the neck and gave it direction. He straddled two genres effortlessly, and if it was once held in haughty critical circles that Armstrong peaked in the late 1920s, that his career thereafter strayed from the true jazz fold and amounted to a series of embarrassing (if genial) comic routines, it should be remembered that Armstrong, like early jazz, was rooted in vaudeville, his aim was to entertain and his music walked always this undeviating path. Armstrong's hankering after popularity is often put down to his humble background; but humour and joy were the heart and flesh of his music (and a companion to his own feeling for life), and it remains true that humour is often so much more telling than more profound utterances. Armstrong breathed and encouraged vitality and wellbeing, and this persona was streaked in both vivid and delicate flashes across his music.
His father, a jobbing labourer, left the family around the time of Louis'
birth, and his mother was a domestic and, in all probability, an occasional
prostitute. Louis was left in the care of his paternal grandmother when
his father returned briefly to the family; upon starting school he returned
to his mother, younger sister and a round of stepfathers. From the age
of seven until he was twelve, he was taken under the wing of an immigrant
Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, who fed him and put him to work, initially
selling coal in the streets. They also provided him with his first musical
instrument, a tin horn, and enabled him to buy his first cornet from a
pawnshop when he was eleven. Having already dabbled in petty street crime,
he was charged in January 1913 for firing blanks from his stepfather's
pistol into the air. This incident that was to be the making of him: he
was sentenced to serve an unspecified period in the Home for Colored Waifs
where his interest in music was to blossom. Having already developed his
musical ear singing in a street barbershop quartet as a younger child,
he progressed via rudimentary music theory lessons and instrumental tuition
to play cornet in its band, whose repertoire included the popular march
and ragtime tunes of the day.
THE INFLUENCE OF JOE KING OLIVER
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"Armstrong was an artist who happened to be an entertainer, an entertainer who happened to be an artist - as much an original in one role as the other. He revolutionized music, but he also revolutionized expectations about what a performer could be. In the beginning, he was an inevitable spur for the ongoing American debate between high art and low. As his genius was accepted in classical cirlces around the world, a microcosm of the dispute took root in the jazz community, centered on his own behavior. Elitists who admired the musician capable of improvising solos of immortal splendor were embarrassed by the comic stage ham. One reason, surely, is that critics were frustrated (far more than Armstrong ever was) by the fact that relatively few of his fans knew just how profound his stature was."
- from GARY GIDDINS Satchmo The Genius of Louis Armstrong
THE HOT FIVE AND HOT SEVEN RECORDINGS
Armstrong, accidentally dropping his lyric sheet while recording Heebie Jeebies, gave scat singing - a rhythmic, percussive, wordless and improvised vocal style - its first popular airing (although it was first used by Don Redman in 1924!). Now a bandleader, Armstrong's voice would be heard regularly on his own records, stemming, so Louis claimed later, from Henderson's reluctance to let him sing. Heebie Jeebies, recorded in February 1926, was Armstrong's first hit, selling 40,000 copies within a few weeks; it was coupled with one of the most enduring of all Dixieland-style tunes, Muskat Ramble, based on an old folksong and written by Kid Ory, although Louis claimed later that he had penned it ("Ory named it, he gets the royalties, I don't talk about it"). But the most influential track for musicians of the 1920s was Cornet Chop Suey: its exhilarating sixteen bar stop-time solo work and ornately phrased eight-note figures demonstrate how far Armstrong was beginning to move away from the New Orleans ensemble interplay of cornet, clarinet and trombone. As an ironic twist, when its test pressing was discovered in 1940, "recommended for rejection" was found to have been scribbled on the label!
THE BIG STAGE
In March 1929 Armstrong recorded two sides with Luis Russell's band, including I Can't Give You Anything But Love, the first time he had recorded a popular song with an accompanying orchestra. This recording provided a template for future Armstrong performances: an opening trumpet solo, a vocal, a brief instrumental chorus followed by a final trumpet chorus and closing stratospheric cadenza, peppered with climactic high notes. Louis' jazz credentials still shine through as liberties are taken with the beat and phrasing, but from now on he was to rely less on tunes from the black jazz tradition (like Mahogany Hall Stomp) and more on new tunes from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley (such as Body and Soul, All Of Me and Stardust). Hereafter Louis was the star of every show and nearly all of his subsequent recordings highlight his performance and offer limited exposure to his sidemen. Armstrong travelled to New York soon after to play and sing in Fats Waller's revue show Hot Chocolates, which soon transferred to Broadway. His rendition of Ain't Misbehavin' (a hit when recorded later in July) created a sensation, and this marks the point when Armstrong's career in show business as an entertainer takes off, sometimes at the expense of jazz content. This trend is reinforced with his appearance in feature films - Pennies From Heaven in 1936 with Bing Crosby, for instance, Every Day's A Holiday in 1938 with Mae West, or Going Places in 1938, where he is featured singing Jeepers Creepers to a horse! In all, Louis appeared in thirty-six movie roles throughout his career, although some were not particularly memorable.
Armstrong's term with OKeh came to an end in 1933, finishing with some
fine recordings, Chinatown, My Chinatown among them. Following
lengthy touring and sojourn in Europe (he returns with the nickname 'Satchmo',
coined by English critic Leonard Feather), Louis signed to Victor records
and worked immediately with Chick Webb's Orchestra, recording Hobo,
You Can't Ride This Train and other numbers. But the early 1930s,
set against an economic depression, were troubled times for Armstrong
- lawsuits, dishonest booking agents, a troubled marriage, foreign tours,
the ricochet from factional rival underworld gangs which necessitated
his absence from both Chicago and New York, made life chaotic - and when
Joe Glaser, whom Louis had met first in Chicago in 1926, became his manager
in 1935, it followed serious management problems and a near ruinous six
month lay-off enforced by lip trouble. (Lip health was to become a serious
problem for the rest of his career, the result of Armstrong's showboating
technique.) If Glaser was disliked by many, he proved himself to be devoted
to Louis throughout his life and allowed him to concentrate solely on
his music. By the late 1930s, Armstrong was back on track, and with a
sponsored radio show and commercially rooted musical tours with an orchestra
led by Luis Russell (replaced in 1940 with a more contemporary big band),
his success was truly nationwide. Important players - such as trumpeter
Henry 'Red' Allen and Sid Catlett on drums - were secured as sidemen,
and some sensational records were made which epitomised the swing era,
including in 1938 a hitherto forgotten spiritual, When the Saints Go
Marching In, which had never been used before in jazz performance
and which became an instant hit. Armstrong was contracted now with Decca,
whose policy of pairing their stars on recordings meant that Armstrong
performed with a welter of artists, some appropriate like Jimmy Dorsey,
Billie Holiday or the Mills Brothers, others not so appropriate like The
Polynesians or fashionable novelty acts of the day. High quality songs,
such as You Won't Be Satisfied (Until You Broke My Heart), with
some wonderful vocal rapport with Ella Fitzgerald, followed, as well as
revisiting and revising what he called his "good old good ones": Struttin'
With Some Barbecue, for instance, first recorded with his Hot Seven
in 1927, was recorded again with Luis Russell during the late 1930s. However
if recordings of ballads like Sweethearts On Parade in the saccharine
manner of dance-band leader Guy Lombardo (whom Armstrong admired greatly)
opened up avenues to the jukebox inspired mass-market, there was a sense
in which Armstrong, despite his popularity, was left slightly behind in
the swing era stampede of the late 1930s and early 1940s. His was essentially
a theatrical act featuring his own trumpet and vocals; new generations
of trumpeters, like Harry James, Roy Eldridge, and, of course, Dizzy Gillespie,
were often more technically accomplished, and Armstrong lost out to the
white swing band audience, and a younger black audience was deserting
his style of music in favour of rhythm and blues and even bebop (which
Louis abhorred). But always Louis weathered the vicissitudes of public
taste, and even benefited from them occasionally, such as the revival
of Dixieland music during the war years.
recordings of King Oliver :-King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band: The Complete Set 2 CDs [1923-24] further details
Sugar Foot Stomp: Vocalion & Brunswick Recordings Vol 1 [1926-27] further details
Farewell Blues: Vocalion & Brunswick Recordings Vol 2 [1928-31] further details
Chronological Classics  further details
Chronological Classics [1923-1926] further details
Alternative Takes In Chronological Order with Luis Russell [1923-30] further details
Chronological Classics [1926-1928] further details
Chronological Classics [1928-1930] further details
Chronological Classics [1930-1931] further details
"Armstrong seemed able to hear what Oliver was improvising and reproduce it himself at the same time. It seemed impossible so I discounted it, but it was true. Then the two wove around each other like suspicious women talking about the same man."
- EDDIE CONDON
recordings of Louis Armstrong :-
King Louis 4 CDs
Properbox anthology of Louis' work until 1929
Hot Fives & Sevens 4 CDs
brilliantly remastered by John R.T. Davies
C'est Ci Bon 4 CDs
Properbox anthology of Satchmo in the 1940s
Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy
Satch Plays Fats
Two classic albums from 1955
"No band musician, jazz, sweet or bebop, can get through thirty-two bars without musically admitting his debt to Armstrong. Lewis did it all, and he did it first."
- GENE KRUPA
Work and global travel were relentless, including a forty-five date African tour sponsored by the U.S. Government and Pepsi in 1960. Feted wherever he went, it seemed as though no door was closed to "Ambassador Satch", even an audience with Pope Pius XII, who was "a little bitty feller I liked so well." Armstrong suffered a heart attack in 1959, and as general ill health and old age took its toll, his singing became more prominent. The smoke-filled clubs of his youth and his own heavy smoking, growths on his vocal chords and shortness of breath altered his singing style. His voice resembled perhaps more a pastiche of itself as the years rolled by and his trumpet playing was reduced to cameo snapshots; but the emotion, individuality and warmth he imparted to any lyric more than compensated. Insignificant songs like Hello Dolly!, from an otherwise forgettable Broadway musical of 1963, were transformed by his blend of musical alchemy, imagination and taste, and became worldwide hits.
Louis Armstrong's death in 1971 was mourned the world over, his funeral covered by national American television. It may come as a surprise to the jazz newcomer when, having thought that Armstrong was merely the jovial entertainer who made the world a happier place for singing What A Wonderful World (what a wonderful performance!), he or she discovers that Armstrong is also the primus inter pares of jazz. "Lewis did it all, and he did it first," was drummer Gene Krupa's summation of Louis; "…what you're there for is to please the people," is how Louis himself put it.
© DENNIS HARRISONMay 2006
"When Armstrong takes a first-class song like Stardust, he discards everything a conventional performer would seize. Using mild embellishments and bold improvisation, he rephrases, restates, amplifies, and finally re-creates the melody. He is equally unintimidated by the lyric, which he turns into a pastiche of words and moans. That song, which most performers find difficlut to sing straight, is in Armstrong's hands, the starting post for an emotional statement far more potent than the original."
- GARY GIDDINS, Satchmo: The Genius of Louis Armstrong