In the late 19th andearly 20th century African-American communities in New Orleans beganto develop a new music genre that would be known as Jazz.
It was a mixture ofboth blues and ragtime music that would eventually become America’s classical music.Louis Armstrong, a trumpeter, composer, and singer is widely considered as oneof the most influential figures in Jazz music. As composer Gunther Schulleronce said “(Armstrong) had the potential capacity to compete with the highest orderof previously known musical expression.” His career spanned over five decadesfrom the 1920’s to the 1960’s. During that time, he contributed to the growthof Jazz music through five distinct areas; blues, improvisation, singing, repertory,and rhythm. Jazz allowed Armstrong and many other musicians to speak theirvoice no matter their racial or geographic background through music. Armstrong’sinfluence on Jazz as an African-American musician in America would soon beginto change the perception of race in American and institutionalized racismduring reconstruction after the civil war.
Born on August 4th, 1901to a teenager and laborer in a part of New Orleans known as the “Battlefield”for its criminal activity and violence. His father abandoned the family soonafter Armstrong’s birth, which left his mother and him to fend for themselves.Louis at a young age worked as a coal delivery boy to prostitutes as well helpinga rag-and-bone cart.
He would blow a tinhorn to signal the cart arriving to itsdestination. Little did he know that it would start his journey into music. Soonafter he organized a singing quartet named “The Singing Fool’s” with group ofboys, one of which would later become a Jazz drummer named Happy Bolton.
Theywent around picking up pennies and singing on street corners. The experiencegained from this group helped develop Louis’s singing ability and musicalsense. It was a substantial amount of ear training over the two years of thegroups existence and is far more than instrumental practice gets today 1.The first song he learned to play was “Home, Sweet Home” on the cornet. On NewYear’s Eve in 1913, Armstrong was arrested for firing blanks into the air andspent 18 months in the New Orleans Colored Waif’s for Boys. He began to learnfor the institutes bandmaster and eventually became the leader of the institutesband as a cornet player. His early years in New Orleans learning music finallyled him to New York, where Armstrong became a cornet player for Fletcher Henderson’sband.
A pivotal moment in his jazz career in which he demonstrated his musicaltalent with a sense of blues and rhythm that gave his fellow band members afeeling and sound they had yet to ever experience. Over the course of histenure with Henderson’s orchestra he recorded over twelve songs with the bandincluding “Sugar Foot Stomp” and Oliver’s “Dippermouth Blues”. Spreading hisinfluence by having his fellow band members play with the same passion anddistinct style he was beginning to develop. The trumpet soloist known as LouisArmstrong was finally born. His talents were fully displayedwhen he established “The Hot Five”. A band that included his wife Lil, clarinetistJohnny Dodds, banjoist Johnny St. Cyr from Oliver’s band, and finallytrombonist Kid Ory from New Orleans.
Sometimes referred to as “The Hot Seven” witha tuba and drum set player. Between 1925 and 1928, “The Hot Five” recorded oversixty-five songs that would set the standard of what jazz is and how it’splayed setting into motion a jazz movement. Thanks in part to Armstrong, jazzhad finally evolved to become a medium for soloists to express themselvesthrough music. The previous standard of having solos running for two-four barsnow became full choruses and themed ragtime verses were embraced. Armstrong demonstratedthese aspects of jazz music in “Hotter Than That” based on “Tiger Rag” withvery up tempo and swing rhythm. He plays the entire opening through improvisationonly following the harmonic phrases set by “Tiger Rag”. Later in the recordingArmstrong begins to scat-sing with a counter rhythm opposite to the groundbeat, a technique that is very much used today in jazz. The time he spent inNew York and “The Hot Five”, Armstrong learned and mastered versatility.
He wasable to demonstrate a split musical personality; in the theaters, he played composedmusic while in the recording studio he played New Orleans jazz. A very rough,causal, and improvised sound compared to his more operatic melodies and showmusic he would play in the show events. His ability to compartmentalize andadapt to his musical environment were what gave him versatility 2.Eventually, his two trains of playing merged, both high and low. WilliamHowland Kenney said “(Armstrong) fused African-American folk music traditions,elements of cabaret musical entertainment and techniques borrowed from Anglo-Americanmusical culture.” Louis Armstrong had achieved a hybrid sound by mergingdifferent elements of music that would change jazz.
“West End Blues” isregarded as Armstrong’s crowning achievement during his tenure with the “TheHot Five” as it embraces the high-class musical elements that involve the entiretyof his band rather than just his own solos. For this recording in particular,Armstrong recruited a pianist by the name of Earl Hines that enriched theharmonic palette. The smooth thoughtful transitions from Armstrong’s leadchorus to the delicate exchanges between the clarinet, trombone, and guitargave the recording very soft and meaningful phrases.
Topped off with Earl Hinesdistinct piano phrases that would break up the sets between instruments. “HotterThan That” and “West End Blue” demonstrated Armstrong’s musical growth and versatility.The ability to adapt and change his sense of blues, improvisation, singing, repertory,and rhythm.
In the late 1950’s, Armstrong hadfinally come head to head with the institutionalized racism that was present inUnited States. Ever since he was a young boy in New Orleans, he had alwaysfaced the adversity in terms of race and background especially duringreconstruction after the civil war. September of 1957, Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the National Guard to block any incomingblack students into Little Rock’s Central High School.
Outraged by the order,Armstrong at the time said, “The way they are treating my people in the South,the government can go to hell.” For the first time, Armstrong spoke against thegovernment and its ill intentions towards the African-American race. Helaunched highly publicized attacks on the United States government for itscontinued lack of effort in properly addressing institutionalized racism3.
Throughout the fifties, many thought Armstrong was a “Uncle Tom” because heprimarily performed for white audiences and didn’t retaliate as many others didagainst racism. However, these claims were unjust and Armstrong played a keyrole in President Eisenhower sending federal troops to Arkansas to remove theschool blockade. Armstrong was a famous musician that touched the hearts ofmany not through politics or social movement but rather jazz.
He brought peopletogether through music rather than race and his widely popular performancesbrought people together all around the world under the love of his music andpersonal expression.In conclusion, Louis Armstrong is seen as the most influentialjazz musician of all time. From his early to later years all played a criticalrole in his personal growth as a musician and the genre of jazz as a whole. Theconcepts of blues, improvisation,singing, repertory, and rhythm all became staples of the genre because of hiscontributions. Jazz today wouldn’t be the same nor be seen as America’sclassical music.
As a leader Armstrong brought the musicians all around theworld and United States together to create music which would touch the heartsof millions of listeners. At the same time, he used his fame to help bringpeople together and give the civil rights movement in the 1950’s and 1960’ssupport. So that racism could finally be abolished and equality for all.
AsArmstrong once sang, “What a wonderful world”.1 Collier, James Lincoln.Louis Armstrong: An American Genius. Cary: Oxford University Press, 1985, pg.28 2 Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fiveand Hot Seven Recordings. Cary: Oxford University Press, 2014, pg.
138 3 Ryan, James. “Louis Armstrong.” LouisArmstrong (August 2017): 1. MAS Ultra – School Edition, EBSCOhost, pg. 1