I’m guessing when most people hear Louis Armstrong’s name, they think of a lovable old guy with a gravelly voice singing “Hello, Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World.” But there is much more to his legacy than that. Oh, so much more. Armstrong is the most important American musical figure of the 20th century. His influence is incalculable and extends beyond nearly a century of jazz to include everyone from Leonard Bernstein to the Rolling Stones.
Music would sound much different today if there had been no Louis Armstrong. The man known as Satchmo and Pops made the soloist the focus of jazz and turned the music into an art. He developed the rhythmic language of swing and made it the foundation of jazz and popular music. He inspired a new approach to singing.
The immense impact that Armstrong had on not just American music but also music around the world is even more astounding considering his origins. He was born into devastating poverty in New Orleans on August 4, 1901, and grew up in a rough neighborhood surrounded by violence and vice. But it was also a neighborhood filled with the nascent sounds of blues and jazz. It’s unknown when he first picked up the cornet, but he was 11 years old when he had the first opportunity to study music. In a fortunate quirk of fate, he was arrested after shooting his stepfather’s pistol in the air and sent to the Colored Waifs’ Home for Boys. He received formal lessons, learned how to sight read and quickly became the star of the marching band.
After leaving the institution in 1914, he sat in with his musical heroes, most notably New Orleans’ biggest cornet star, Joe “King” Oliver. Unlike other older musicians, Oliver was happy to share what he knew about music with budding youngsters and took the promising teenager as his protégé. In the summer of 1922, Oliver invited Armstrong to join his Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, which had replaced New Orleans as the epicenter of the jazz world. Word quickly spread about the hot young cornetist playing with Oliver at the Lincoln Gardens dancehall. Even curious white teenagers, including future jazz greats Benny Goodman and Bix Beiderbecke, snuck in to hear him play.
Armstrong’s role in Oliver’s band was as second cornetist, providing support in an ensemble that rarely featured solos. Yet even on primitive acoustic recordings, Armstrong’s horn bursts through the murkily-recorded band and overshadows its leader. His presence in Oliver’s group marked the beginning of the end for the New Orleans collective style.
In 1924 Armstrong left Oliver and Chicago and moved to New York where bandleader Fletcher Henderson hired him as a featured soloist. Over the next year, Armstrong continued to develop and refine his musical personality before returning to Chicago and making a series of recordings under his own name that created the foundation for all jazz to come.
The legendary Hot Five and Hot Seven sides recorded between late 1925 and 1928 capture Armstrong’s development as the first great soloist in jazz. Other soloists preceded him, notably soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, but Armstrong had a supreme level of melodic invention, rhythmic drive, flash and technical skill that gave him the ability to create compelling and exciting solos that rise above anything that came before.
“Struttin’ with Some Barbecue,” “Cornet Chop Suey” and “Potato Head Blues” are three Armstrong masterpieces that find him brimming with growing confidence and command. During this time Armstrong switched from the mellower-sounding cornet to trumpet, preferring its brighter sound. He pushed the limits of the trumpet register as he reached for higher and higher notes. Perhaps the pinnacle of his Hot Five and Seven recordings is 1928’s “West End Blues.” Opening with Armstrong’s incredible, magnificent, daring, monumental (there aren’t enough superlatives) unaccompanied trumpet cadenza, the record serves as something of a demarcation point of jazz’s past and its future.
Nearly 100 years later, it may be difficult for modern listeners to grasp what was so groundbreaking about Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. Armstrong’s inventive licks, phrases and sense of swing are part of the fundamental language of jazz. His innovations have been further developed and expanded upon through the decades. What is commonplace now was once new and it all began with Armstrong.
To hear Armstrong with fresh ears, it’s helpful to compare him with other jazz musicians of the day. A great example of Armstrong’s impact is a recording of “Mandy, Make Up Your Mind” made as a member of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in November of 1924. The Henderson band was filled with the best musicians of the day, but their playing is stiff and stodgy with rickety-tick, herky-jerk rhythms. But then Armstrong emerges from the dreck with a lively, inventive, muted cornet solo that swings, despite the oom-pah rhythm accompaniment. Henderson’s slick, New York City musicians first thought Armstrong a New Orleans rube, but they were the ones still driving an antiquated horse and buggy while Armstrong was behind the wheel of a Duesenberg sports car.
Listen to the other musicians in Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Sevens. Even though some were top New Orleans players and influential in their own right, none of them can touch Armstrong’s inventiveness and technical skill. It isn’t until pianist Earl Hines joins the recordings in 1928 that a musician approaches his level of musical mastery.
Armstrong’s influence wasn’t limited to just his fellow trumpeters. All musicians were inspired by his playing. He altered the whole conception of what jazz could be. Even though Fletcher Henderson wasn’t that enthusiastic about Armstrong’s playing (he was wrong about Lester Young a decade later too), Armstrong changed the band in his wake. Henderson tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins smoothed out his slap-tongue style and emerged as one of jazz’s great soloists. The band’s arranger Don Redman also fell under the spell of Armstrong and his writing echoed the trumpeter’s feeling, freedom and rhythmic conception. Those arrangements, in turn, became the cornerstones in the development of big band swing over the next decade.
In 1929 Armstrong’s managers began working to expand the trumpeter’s audience beyond the rather limited jazz coterie. He performed and recorded exclusively with big band backing and spotlighted his singing much more heavily. Instead of jazz and blues tunes, his repertoire was increasingly dedicated to the latest Tin Pan Alley songs, many of which he introduced and transformed into timeless jazz standards.
Armstrong’s rough, gravelly voice made him an unlikely singer. But he’d been singing since he was a boy teaming up with other New Orleans street kids to harmonize for pennies. Armstrong made his first records as a vocalist with the Hot Five, most notably “Heebie Jeebies,” which featured Armstrong’s scat singing. According to legend, he originated scat singing during the recording session after dropping the lyric sheet and singing nonsense syllables on the spur of the moment. It’s a fun story, but untrue. Scatting was already a part of the jazz tradition. But, as with his other innovations, Armstrong refined, perfected and popularized the art of the wordless vocal.
Armstrong’s 1931 recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Star Dust,” which had recently gained lyrics by Mitchell Parish, is a notable example of what made him one of the greatest singers ever. The record starts out with Armstrong’s glorious trumpet weaving new licks and phrases into Carmichael’s lovely, flowing melody. After two choruses, Armstrong puts down his trumpet and begins reshaping both Carmichael’s tune and Parish’s lyric. He shortens and lengthens melodic lines; he sings behind and ahead of the beat; he compresses words into near incomprehensibility, often adding his own little lyrical commentary. Armstrong’s brilliant artistry gives him the freedom to essentially re-sculpt “Star Dust” in the image of his own incomparable personality.
Like he had with his trumpet, Armstrong changed the approach to singing. Before him, most popular singers were stentorian tenors, brash vaudeville stars or effete crooners. Armstrong created a loose, free, informal, virile and swinging vocal style that influenced Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and every great jazz and pop singer that came after him. Even Bing Crosby, who was also developing a new vocal style in the late 1920s, found inspiration in Armstrong’s singing.
When the swing craze hit in 1935, Armstrong wasn’t really a part of the scene, even though it was built on the rhythmic revolution he ignited the previous decade. His riffs, licks and phrases were heard throughout big band arrangements played by popular orchestras led by Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and countless others.
Although Armstrong was no longer at the cutting edge of jazz in the mid-to-late 1930s, he was still growing as an artist. And he continued to make some great records, including a swinging remake of “Struttin’ with Some Barbeque,” the moving ballad “Ev’ntide” and the bravura tour de force “Swing that Music,” in which Armstrong plays 42 consecutive high Cs.
When the Swing Era faded after World War II, Armstrong dispensed with the big band and formed his “All-Stars,” a small group modeled on the classic New Orleans combos. Traditional jazz fans were thrilled with what they considered Armstrong’s return to real jazz. However, the young be-boppers who were the latest musical revolutionaries dismissed him as “old-fashioned” and were embarrassed by his onstage clowning and eagerness to please. Dizzy Gillespie called him a “plantation character.”
By the 1950s Armstrong was not just a jazz great, but a popular entertainer who appeared in movies and on television. He made hit records like “Blueberry Hill” and “Mack the Knife” and performed in concert halls and nightclubs around the world. As an international star and goodwill ambassador, he was likely the most famous American on the planet.
For listeners who are unfamiliar with Armstrong and find listening to recordings before high-fidelity difficult, the albums he made during the decade are a good starting place. His trumpet still sounded great and he rarely sung better. His finest albums of the era found him re-interpreting music from his early days, as heard on Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy, Satch Plays Fats and Satchmo: A Musical Autobiography; or tackling the American popular songbook, including his wonderful collaborations with Ella Fitzgerald, Ella and Louis, Ella and Louis Again, and also Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson. Each of these albums captures Armstrong’s greatness as a trumpeter, singer and beloved entertainer.
Armstrong reached the pinnacle of his fame after knocking the Beatles off the top of the charts with “Hello, Dolly” during the peak of Beatlemania in May 1964. While no one would rank it an Armstrong classic, it was nevertheless a fun and entertaining record. At sixty-two, Armstrong was the oldest person to record a number-one song, and he had more than earned the success and adoration that came with it. And if he hadn’t already, Armstrong had now fully transformed from jazz star to pop culture icon.
However, his iconic status a popular entertainer further obscured his importance as a musical pioneer and innovator. It was difficult for listeners to think of the genial old man with the big smile and white handkerchief as the young firebrand who nearly single-handedly changed the course of music four decades earlier. Younger jazz fans were listening to Miles Davis or John Coltrane who, unlike Armstrong, were earnest artists unconcerned with keeping listeners entertained. Davis even turned his back on audiences.
But there was an increasing appreciation of Armstrong’s vital role in the development of jazz, even by musicians who once dismissed him. Dizzy Gillespie admitted he had misjudged Armstrong’s desire to entertain and at the 1970 Newport Jazz Festival said, “If it weren’t for Louis, there wouldn’t be any of us. I’d like to thank Mr. Louis Armstrong for my livelihood.” Miles Davis said, “You know you can’t play anything on the trumpet that Louis hasn’t played – I mean even modern.” And more recently, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who was born two years after Armstrong’s death in 1971, echoed them both: “He’s the father of us all, regardless of style or how modern we get.”
The succeeding generations of jazz innovators like Charlie Parker, Davis and Coltrane took a much more intellectual, theoretical and serious approach to music. Theirs was more of an inward pursuit. In contrast, Louis Armstrong looked outward. His innovations developed from the sheer joy of making music. “I love them notes,” Armstrong said. “That’s why I try to make ‘em right, see?”
That joy makes his recordings a delight to hear, even a half-century after his passing. It’s what all of them have in common, from the game-changing classics “Heebie Jeebies” and “West End Blues” through the death-defying “Swing that Music” to the catchy novelty “Hello Dolly.” Armstrong knew he was blessed with a special gift and wanted to share it with people around the world. And by doing so he changed the world, and it’s a richer place because he did. Thanks, Pops.