Deep Dive: Putting Louis Armstrong in Context

May 3, 2019

As 'Bolden' opens in theaters, Dr. Lewis Porter peels back the mythology around Louis Armstrong, a central character in the film.

It’s always noteworthy when a feature film is built around jazz — so Bolden is, for us, big news. But please don’t forget that even in its official announcement, the film, which opened today in theaters, is described as "A mythical account of the life of Buddy Bolden.”

Like Miles Ahead from several years ago, this isn’t a biopic, but rather a fantasy inspired by mythology. The first frame of Bolden accurately states that not much is known about Bolden, a cornetist born in 1877. Then comes a more complicated claim: “He invented jazz.”

In reality, no one person “invented” jazz. For one thing, it was not played by a lone cornetist but by a group of musicians — so Bolden’s bandmates, and other musicians in his circle, must have had a hand in it!

Nothing is known about his childhood, or the people who managed his career, who are depicted in the film. And he never recorded, so we don't know how he sounded. One thing we can say with certainty about his music is that he sounded nothing like Wynton Marsalis, who plays his music on the soundtrack, because they were born over 80 years apart, in totally different musical eras.

Reno Wilson portraying Louis Armstrong in the movie 'Bolden'

Bolden also sounded nothing like Louis Armstrong, who is portrayed in the film. Armstrong was about 6 years old when Bolden was institutionalized for what we would now call schizophrenia. But Louis did have an indistinct childhood memory of having heard Bolden, and he had full knowledge of Bolden's overwhelming reputation.

Here's Armstrong on Bolden, from a 1956 Voice of America interview, courtesy of my friend and former grad student, Ricky Riccardi, Director of Research Collections at the Louis Armstrong House Museum:

I could go on for hours talking about them good old cats, you know, like Manny Perez, Joe Oliver, Freddie Keppard, Bunk Johnson, “Big Eye” Louis, Buddy Bolden —one of the early masters, you see? I remember hearing Buddy Bolden when I was five years old. In those days they used to play in the back of the funky butt halls, see? They’d play a half-hour in front of the hall, you know, outside. And then they’d go in and play — when they’d play that half where we kids could — on the side — you know, the sidewalk now. But it was banquet then, on the side of the banquet. And we’d dance and I was in my little, old dress, you know? And I’d be wailing and having a ball and when they went inside, we’d have to go to bed. Because they’d play from eight to four in the morning. And that’s my first time hearing Buddy Bolden.

Without a doubt, Bolden was hugely important to the early years of jazz, but we have plenty of recordings of other African-American artists from the late 1890s through the 1920s — more than enough to hear jazz, and related earlier black musics, changing and developing before we get to Armstrong.

So, just as music has changed too much by today for Marsalis to be able to “recreate” Bolden’s style, it would make no sense to imagine that Bolden sounded like Armstrong either. Music changed dramatically during the several generations that separated Bolden and Armstrong. Even the repertory — about which we do know something, thanks to published sheet music, interviews, and other sources — was transformed. Armstrong himself lived and made music during these times, and it took some years of development for him to create his profound style.

There was one contemporary witness who actually attempted to recreate what Bolden sounded like. Trumpeter Willie “Bunk” Johnson was recorded in 1942 whistling what he remembered as being a typical Bolden number. A year later, he played the same piece on trumpet.

I feel strongly that these two recordings should be taken seriously and studied carefully (they haven’t been, as far as I know). But they also can’t be taken at face value, for several reasons. Johnson gave the year of his birth as 1879, which would make him a contemporary of Bolden; he also claimed to have played with Bolden. But Johnson was a notorious “tale teller,” and there are good reasons to believe that he was born in 1889, which would have limited his association with Bolden. In addition, it would be difficult for anyone to reproduce music he’d last heard 45 years ago. And the style of Bunk’s Bolden imitation is suspiciously close to the way Bunk always played! Still, I feel Bunk’s demonstrations deserve to be analyzed.

Louis Armstrong sometime in the late 1920s
Credit Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In any case, Bunk’s recordings sound nothing like Armstrong. So where in fact did Armstrong come from musically, and how did he build on the music that existed in his youth?

Before we go deep into this, a word about his birth year. During his lifetime, he always said and believed that he was born July 4, 1900. It was James Lincoln Collier, in his 1985 book Louis Armstrong: An American Genius, who first proposed that this date was a little too perfect, and was often used as a birthdate by people of Armstrong’s generation who didn’t know when they were born. That uncertainty was common among poor families who gave birth at home, especially because birth certificates existed but weren’t required statewide in Louisiana until 1918.

The critic Gary Giddins, when he was researching his book Satchmo, hired the late New Orleans researcher Tad Jones to research the birthdate. Jones, realizing that churches often keep their own records, located a baptism record for Louis giving a birthdate of August 4, 1901. For some years this was accepted as the birthdate — but as Riccardi has noted, while 1901 does appear most likely, there’s still uncertainty as to Louis’ exact birthday, because the church knew when he was baptized, but not when he was born.

Now on to the music!

Armstrong 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 he was their inspiration, especially those born between about 1900 and 1915. Then for many years his influence was considered to be a thing of the past; 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. Thanks to advocates like 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 on vocals.

But some of the most common statements about Armstrong are that he was “the first great soloist” and “single-handedly” transformed jazz into a soloist’s art. Both are gross and unnecessary exaggerations. (Examples can be found in Ken Burns’ Jazz, Episode Two, and also here.)

Because of the overemphasis 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. So 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 of Deep Dive, I’ll present some points that put Armstrong in context.

1. Armstrong was not the only trumpeter/cornetist of his day.

I’ve been using the words cornet and trumpet. Armstrong played cornet on his first recordings, then switched to trumpet, probably in 1926. They look and sound about the same to most listeners. If you want to know the differences, start here.

There was a well-established virtuoso classical cornet tradition at the turn of the century, 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 John Philip Sousa band, where Clarke was featured from 1893-1917.

Here’s one written and performed by Clarke that Louis had in his record collection, now at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York. Tim Gracyk, an authority on early recordings, points out the cadenza, which begins just after 0:40, as a possible influence (in general approach, not specific notes) on Louis’ opening to “West End Blues.”

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 more so than with Clarke, Armstrong could see how such virtuosity could be applied to his own music. Rolfe played spectacularly high, with a violin-like sound that has caused some to research just what kind of trumpet he played.

2. 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 sideman 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 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?

Here is Armstrong on his second recording session with Fletcher Henderson in New York, c. Oct. 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 (at 1:22) with Fate Marable's Society Orchestra, ca. March 16, 1924, on the old song “Frankie and Johnny.”

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

In fact, just a few weeks after recording “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," and the solo context (at 1:15) is similar to those above. But now Louis has a fiery edge in his playing, and his solo emphasizes expressive blue notes.

3. 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 on. Armstrong joined him on recordings beginning in Oct. 1924, and Louis plays great on these, clearly inspired by working with Bechet.

And why doesn’t piano count? James P. Johnson made piano rolls from 1917 (just a few months after the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the first jazz recordings) and recordings from 1921. Fats Waller began recording in 1922, and Jelly Roll Morton in 1923—all fabulous improvisers!
 

4. The Hot Fives did not suddenly establish jazz as a “soloist’s art”

When authors say Armstrong “single-handedly” transformed jazz into a soloist’s art, they usually point to the quintet recordings he made in Chicago from Nov. 1925 through 1928, which were billed as “Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five.” In 1927 he also recorded some septets, now known as the “Hot Sevens.”

Louis Armstrong, center, and his Hot Five

On these recordings Armstrong is heavily featured, along with clarinetist Johnny Dodds and other group members, and there is relatively little space reserved for the whole ensemble playing together.

As a result of the attention paid to these recordings, it has become a “fact” that they spelled the end of the New Orleans ensemble-based approach to jazz, and the birth of the featured-soloist approach. But in reality, by the time the Hot Fives were recorded, there was already a general trend towards more improvised solos on small-group jazz recordings (this never applied to bigger bands). And in any case, the New Orleans style was never the only approach found in New York and Chicago.

It is true that recordings by two New Orleans bands, the white Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB) and the black band led by cornetist Joe “King” Oliver, do feature a lot of ensemble playing. But they also frequently feature solos.

The recordings made as a leader from 1921 onward by Johnny Dunn, a cornetist Armstrong admired who I mentioned above, contain lots of his solos. Further, Armstrong’s recordings under the direction of pianist Clarence Williams, starting in Oct. 1924, feature plenty of solos by Louis, as well as by Sidney Bechet.

I don’t know that anyone has ever compiled statistics on what percentage of recordings is devoted to group playing versus solo playing in, say, 1923, 1924 and 1925, but I think they’d find a general increase in soloing.

Now, if you want to say that soloing in itself wasn’t new at this time, but that Armstrong’s solos were particularly flamboyant, dramatic and inspiring, I’m with you 100%.

5. Louis Armstrong was methodical with his practice regimen

Now let’s dig into some of the details of Armstrong’s art. Listen to one of the most famous jazz recordings of all time, his solo trumpet intro to “West End Blues,” recorded in June 1928:

Focus on just the second half of that solo intro. After the high note, there is the descending part starting at the 5-second mark.

Now listen to a break (unaccompanied solo bit) that he takes while accompanying singer Margaret Johnson on “Changeable Daddy of Mine,” recorded in Nov. 1924:

Note that this break from 1924 is the same as the second part of the “West End Blues” intro from 1928. (I first published this info in 1983.) Musicians, note that the 1924 recording is in Bb, while the 1928 one is in Eb. What conclusion must you draw?

Yes: Armstrong practiced licks in various keys, just as jazz musicians have done ever since. By the way, there’s plenty of other evidence that he was working on ideas in different keys.

For example, his break near the end of “I Miss My Swiss,” in Aug. 1925, is not the same, but a variant of the “West End Blues” phrase (as Ricky Riccardi noted in his blog), and it’s in the key of G:

Joshua Berrett has pointed out, in his 1992 article Louis Armstrong and Opera, that “Once in a While,” from Dec. 1927, has a related break in the key of C. His execution here is a bit messy, but it provides further proof (at 0:17) that he was trying this in different keys:

More broadly, it shows not only that Armstrong practiced in various keys, but also that he was a dedicated, organized musician.

6. Armstrong was actively involved in the business side of music

Some years ago, Dave Chevan looked through the holdings of the Library of Congress, where everyone sends things to be copyrighted, and found that from 1923 onward, Armstrong had sent in a number of pieces, some in his own handwriting.

Perhaps his most interesting finding was that for “Cornet Chop Suey,” Louis had sent in the whole piece, including the entire cornet solo, almost exactly as he recorded it with his Hot Five. But Louis sent it in Jan. 1924 — two years before he recorded it in Feb. 1926! Here is the sheet music, in his own handwriting.

And here is the recording.  (By the way, with 78rpm recordings the speeds, and therefore the keys, of turntables are often inaccurate. This is in the correct key of F. Many online versions play slow, therefore closer to Eb.)

What do we learn from this? For one thing, that Armstrong was a business-savvy musician who was careful to copyright his work.

And in general, as Chevan, the late musicologist Lawrence Gushee and others have shown, there was much more written music in early jazz than is generally thought. And much of what was not written was rehearsed until it was memorized. The idea that early jazz was “pure improvisation” that later got “soiled” by written music and arrangements is the exact OPPOSITE of the truth! The actual situation even makes more logical sense: early jazz musicians were more cautious about improvising, and with each generation they grew more adventurous, led by individuals such as Armstrong.

Wynton Marsalis makes this mistake — that is, assuming that sheet music was not generally used — towards the end of Marsalis On Music: Sousa to Satchmo. He says that Armstrong’s solos were so well structured that they sound like they were written in advance. Then, for an example, he plays “Cornet Chop Suey”— unaware that Armstrong had in fact written out this solo in advance!

Some other interesting points about “Cornet Chop Suey”:

Early 1924, the period when he copyrighted it, is Armstrong’s so-called “lost period,” when he was still with King Oliver but not recording. His last recording with Oliver was Oct. 1923 (or possibly December, according to some evidence), and his next recording was in Oct. 1924 with Fletcher Henderson. Perhaps one reason he left Oliver is that Oliver had no record deals during this period?

Why would Armstrong have written and copyrighted this piece in 1924? To me it is absolutely possible that he performed it with Oliver. It is commonly stated that he left because Oliver didn’t feature him enough, but nobody has ever maintained that he never was featured with Oliver! He gets solos even on the 1923 recordings with Oliver. So I see no reason that he would not have performed “Cornet Chop Suey” with Oliver. Or maybe he had an occasional gig without Oliver in Chicago, and liked to play this on those gigs.

7. Armstrong did not invent scat singing

Finally, it may be true, as he himself said, that Louis dropped the sheet music in Feb. 1926 while he was recording “Heebie Jeebies,” and decided to scat the second chorus. But that doesn’t mean it was the first time he ever scatted; it’s ridiculous to suppose that he invented it on the spot. And there had already been scat solos on records by Gene Greene (as far back as 1911); Cliff Edwards, aka Ukelele Ike (1922 on); Don Redman with Henderson (1924); and possibly others.

Let's listen to Louis singing both choruses of “Heebie Jeebies.”

I’ve had musician students say, “But Armstrong is so great, how can you talk about his early solos not being as great, his execution not being perfect?” My experience is different. When we break down an artist’s work as I’ve just tried to do, it does not diminish the artist in the least. In fact, here’s what it does for me, and I hope you will allow it to have these impacts on you:

— It shows us what the artist worked with in order to develop his or her unique style. This also helps us to understand the artistic process in general.

— It reveals the thousands of hours of work that the artist put in to perfect his or her art.

— It teaches us the specific kinds of work that go into making music. This is valuable to anyone who plays an instrument, whether professionally or at home for fun. Instead of marveling at the “impossible” things that artists do, and throwing up our hands, we learn how to aim to be better. That does not mean of course that everyone will achieve greatness. But I think, and hope, that we all want to do our best!

Even more broadly, in this world it is always best to try to get to the truth of things, rather than to perpetuate myths. Myths may be fun, but in the long run, they leave us in the dark, with nothing learned, and nothing to strive for!

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Dr. Lewis Porter is the author of acclaimed books on John Coltrane, Lester Young and jazz history, and has taught at institutions including Rutgers and The New School. He’s also a pianist whose latest album, Solo Piano, was released this spring.

Deep Dive with Lewis Porter carries on a project originally known as You Don't Know Jazz! with Lewis Porter, produced for WBGO by Alex W. Rodriguez and Tim Wilkins.