• Putting Louis Armstrong in Context: Part One

    June 23, 2011. Posted by Alex Rodriguez.

    This dashing jazz upstart didnt come out of nowhere!
    This dashing jazz upstart had plenty of friends to learn from

    This is the fifth post in a biweekly blog feature, You Don't Know Jazz! With Dr. Lewis Porter.

    Series Introduction

    Episode 1: A Blues Recording From the Congo -- In 1906!

    Episode 2: The Origins of the Word "Jazz"

    Episodes 3-5: Myths About Jazz -- Part One, Part Two, Part Three

    (PLEASE NOTE: If the reader uses any of the material from this series, no matter how brief, this article and its web address must be cited as the source. Thank you for respecting the intellectual property of Dr. Porter.)

    Louis Armstrong Didn't Come Out of Nowhere!

    This installment is inspired by the recent publication on June 21 of What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong's Later Years, by Ricky Riccardi. Ricky is a graduate of the Master’s program that I direct at Rutgers. He was already a terrific jazz historian when he joined the program, and he went on to author a great Armstrong blog and to become the Archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens. A book release party will be held there on Sunday June 26, from 2-4 p.m. -- hope to see you there!

    Louis Armstrong (1901-1971; formerly thought to have been born in 1900) was one of the most influential artists in the history of jazz. That’s an objective fact—you can find literally hundreds of jazz musicians who say that he was their inspiration, especially those born between about 1900 and 1915. Then, it seems, for many years his influence was considered to be a thing of the past, and by the 1960s he was perhaps better known as a pop star (via TV, movies, and his recording of  “Hello, Dolly”) than as a jazz soloist. Through the efforts of Wynton Marsalis, his mentors Albert Murray and Stanley Crouch, and others, the world now knows that Armstrong was a brilliant improviser on trumpet (and cornet) and as a vocalist.

    However, the appreciations might have gone a little too far. Some of the most common statements about Armstrong are that he was “the first great soloist” and that he “single-handedly” transformed jazz into a soloist’s art. Both statements are gross and unnecessary exaggerations. (Examples can be found in the film Ken Burns Jazz, Episode Two, and also here and here.)

    Because of the over-emphasis on Armstrong as though he developed in isolation, most people have no idea where Louis got his musical ideas, or what other musicians were doing in his day—therefore, how can they evaluate how what he did was different, or better? We know it was different and better because all the musicians say so. In this installment and the next, I present some points to put Armstrong in context.

    (A brief aside: Armstrong played cornet, then trumpet—they look and sound about the same to most listeners. If you really want to know the differences, visit these sites: Thinkquest.org, Wikipedia, YouTube demonstration)

    The following three segments will give you an idea of the context in which Armstrong developed his style:

    Armstrong was not the only trumpeter/cornetist of his day

    There was a well-established classical virtuoso tradition, and the soloists were famous. Herbert Clarke (1867 - 1945) was in fact a household name among music fans, and Armstrong knew of him and his recordings with the Sousa band, where Clarke was featured from 1893-1917. Here's an example of Clarke's virtuosity:

    Armstrong also expressed admiration for B.A. Rolfe (1879-1956). Rolfe was not well-known as a soloist until the 1920s, but then recorded with jazz-oriented dance bands. Even moreso than with Clarke, Armstrong could see how such virtuosity could be applied to his own music. Rolfe played spectacularly high:

    For more about Armstrong's trumpet influences, listen to the audio below:

    Armstrong wasn’t the only jazz trumpeter/cornetist of his day

    Johnny Dunn (1897-1937) was already a well-known jazz trumpet soloist when he first recorded as a leader in 1921 (and as a sideperson before that), well before Armstrong was recording as a featured soloist. And of course Armstrong’s idol was cornetist King Oliver (1885-1938); Armstrong did use some of Oliver’s licks, audible on the 1923 Oliver recordings that marked the first for both of them. And there were other trumpeters who were active in jazz before Armstrong, so he had an ample tradition to build on. So, were his early recorded solos vastly different from what others were doing? Let’s see for ourselves:

    Here is Armstrong on his second recording session with Fletcher Henderson in New York, ca. October 13, 1924 (solo at 1:55, after a written passage featuring Don Redman's oboe!):

    Now, compare Louis’s playing with that of his contemporaries. Here is an African American artist (either Sidney Desvigne or Amos White) soloing with Fate Marable's Society Orchestra, ca. March 16, 1924, on the old song “Frankie and Johnny” (1:22):

    (This example is playing in B major--probably it should be faster, playing in the key of C.)

    And here is the white trumpeter Bob Pope with the Arcadia Peacock Orchestra of St. Louis, November 29, 1924 (1:18):

    (Notice the wild sax playing behind the trumpet solo!)

    All of these solos, including Armstrong’s, are somewhat in the same vein. Armstrong did soon develop a unique and unprecedented style--but the point is, he had to start with the styles that were already happening when he began.

    In fact, just a few weeks after this “Shanghai Shuffle,” Henderson recorded it again, and Louis takes a more distinctive, unmuted solo. And here is Louis with Perry Bradford's Jazz Phools, a year later on November 2, 1925. The song is “Lucy Long," but the solo context is very similar to the ones above. Now Louis has a fiery edge in his playing, and his solo emphasizes expressive blue notes (1:15):

    For more discussion of Armstrong's jazz trumpet contemporaries, listen to the audio below:

    Armstrong wasn’t the only capable jazz soloist of his day

    First of all, Sidney Bechet was recording truly amazing solos on clarinet and soprano saxophone from  July 1923 onward. Armstrong joined him on recordings beginning in October 1924, and Louis plays great on these, clearly inspired by working with Bechet. Also, why doesn’t piano count? James P. Johnson made piano rolls from 1917 (yes, just a few months after the ODJB recorded) and recordings from 1921; Fats Waller from 1922, Jelly Roll Morton from 1923—all fabulous improvisers!

    Listen to the audio for more about the talented improvisers of Armstrong's era:

    Check back next time for part two, featuring more on Armstrong and early jazz!

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