Saturday Night Tunes: Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong in action (Library of Congress, via Wikimedia)
If all you know about Louis Armstrong (d. 1971) comes from his popular hits in the 1960s, when he was more a singer than a trumpet player, you might be a little surprised to hear him described as a pioneering jazz artist. But the fact is that not only was he a pioneering jazz artist, he might be the pioneering jazz artist. Before there was Ornette Coleman, or Charles Mingus, or Miles Davis, or John Coltrane, or Thelonious Monk, or Charlie Parker, or Duke Ellington (well, OK, maybe not “before” Duke Ellington), there was Louis Armstrong, and the style of music we know as “jazz” probably wouldn’t have been the same if he hadn’t come along. He was known by a couple of nicknames, chiefly “Pops,” after his habit of calling everybody “Pops” because he wasn’t good at remembering names, and “Satchmo,” which may be an abbreviation of “satchel mouth,” after a story that says he used to put the coins he earned for dancing in the streets in New Orleans in his mouth, so other kids couldn’t steal them.

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 (on August 4, so this is actually kind of a birthday commemoration) into a desperately poor family in New Orleans. As a child he worked plenty of odd jobs, many of which brought him into contact with the ubiquitous New Orleans music scene. He also seems to have gotten himself into trouble, winding up in the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs on more than one occasion, and it was there that he apparently got his first real instruction on the cornet. He was a natural, and before long he was playing professionally around town and in the Mississippi riverboat scene. He found his way to Chicago in the 1920s, then to New York to play (star, really) with Fletcher Henderson’s big band; he switched to trumpet around this time because that’s what the other guys in the band were playing. He went back to Chicago later in the decade and started making his own recordings with his Hot Five and Hot Seven groups.

When the Depression hit, Armstrong moved out to Los Angeles and became a big hit with the Hollywood set; national tours followed as well as a move into films and into a more “pop” musical genre from the 1940s on. He was and still arguably is jazz’s biggest crossover star, and reached levels of fame that were almost unheard of for any African-American in the first half of the 20th century. This actually earned him a fair amount of scorn from the black community, who accused him of shying away from the issue of civil rights, though he made national news when he spoke out over the Little Rock school desegregation crisis (he even cancelled a State Department-sponsored goodwill tour in the USSR, saying he couldn’t in good conscience represent his government overseas).

Armstrong is usually thought of as the first true jazz virtuoso, and he not only cemented the trumpet as a solo jazz instrument, he (along with a few other artists like cornetists Bix Beiderbecke and Muggsy Spanier, clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Sidney Bechet, pianist Earl Hines, and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins — who was heavily influenced by Armstrong when they were in Fletcher Henderson’s band together), cemented the idea of the solo, period. Most jazz to that point had been either collectively improvised (as in Dixieland and early New Orleans “hot” jazz) or had featured short solo breaks for particular players. But Armstrong was so freaking good on the trumpet that people just wanted to hear him solo, alone, for an extended period of time. In this sense he was the model for just about every great jazz artist who came after him, on trumpet or otherwise. Armstrong is probably better known by most people for his singing, since his later pop hits mostly featured his voice, and here too he was incredibly influential on later artists like Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra, and anybody who’s ever scatted. He’s really one of the titans of American music.

“Heebie Jeebies” was written by Boyd Atkins, and this recording here was made by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five (Armstrong, his then-wife Lil Hardin on piano, Johnny Dodds on clarinet, Kid Ory on trombone, and Johnny St. Cyr on what sounds like banjo) in 1926. It’s a Dixieland tune that features a solo by Dodds and vocals by Armstrong, including some scat. There’s a legend that says Armstrong invented scatting on this track when he dropped his lyrics sheet and made up some nonsense syllables to substitute for the lyrics. That may or may not have actually happened, but the fact is that people were scatting before Louis Armstrong did it:

Louis Armstrong and His Hot Seven saw the same personnel (minus Ory, who went to New York) augmented with Baby Dodds on drums and Pete Briggs on tuba, plus John Thomas replacing Ory on trombone. Their recording of “Melancholy Blues,” from 1927, was included on the golden record that was sent into space on the Voyager spacecraft. Armstrong’s extended trumpet solo gives you a good sense of what people mean when they talk about him as the first jazz soloist:

“West End Blues” was written by “King” Oliver, one of Armstrong’s first bandleaders and mentors. This version was recorded in 1928 by Armstrong’s second Hot Five, with Earl Hines on piano (Louis and Lil Hardin had divorced), Fred Robinson on trombone, Jimmy Strong on clarinet, Mancy Carr on banjo, and what is probably Zutty Singleton on percussion briefly (which actually makes this a Hot Six, but whatever). Armstrong’s trumpet playing is a real highlight, plus his scatting alongside Strong’s statement of the melody:

We could go on like this all day, but let’s jump ahead to the later part of Armstrong’s career. One of his great collaborations was with equally legendary singer Ella Fitzgerald. On this 1957 recording (from their album Ella and Louis Again) of Dolores Silver’s “Learnin’ the Blues” (where they’re backed by Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Louis Bellson on drums) Armstrong’s trumpet leads them into a duet:

Oscar Peterson was no slouch himself, so Armstrong’s work with him deserves a mention of its own. On 1957’s Louis Armstrong meets Oscar Peterson, they recorded the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer standard “Blues in the Night, with Armstrong’s vocals broken up by Armstrong’s trumpet solo, but Peterson’s piano driving the whole thing:

I figured I’d close out with one of Armstrong’s famous pop hits, but there are so many to choose from (“Mack the Knife,” “When You’re Smiling,” “What a Wonderful World, “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In,” and on and on). Let’s go with his biggest hit ever, 1964’s “Hello Dolly.” Armstrong agreed to record the tune to help promote the musical from which it comes, but his recording became a Billboard #1 hit (displacing the Beatles from the top of the charts and making Armstrong the oldest artist to have a #1 hit song):

OK, here’s “What a Wonderful World,” too, because I really like it. Cheers!

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