Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) is a trumpet player and singer from New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the most important folk musician of the 20th century. His innovations changed music.
When I was little, my parents had a modest record collection, a few dozen long play (LP) records and a small box for 45 RPM records. The box of 45s contained a Meade Lux Lewis boogie-woogie piano number, a handful of clear red vinyl John Philip Souza marches on the RCA Victor label, and three or four Louis Armstrong performances with his Hot Five and Hot Seven bands, on the brick red Columbia label. I clearly remember the titles “West End Blues” and “Weather Bird” among the small records with one good song on each side. This is one of my earliest memories as a child, before my third birthday.
By the time I was in college, Daddy had already extolled the virtues of “West End Blues” and its famous opening flourish. During a European vacation in 1978, I purchased my first compilation of Louis Armstrong’s work, a double album that included many of his best songs with the Hot Five and Hot Seven bands. Louis Armstrong’s recordings from 1925-8 are the most important recordings in folk music history. They still sound fresh and exciting today.
The Great Innovator
As explained in Berendt and Huesmann’s The Jazz Book, From Ragtime to the 21st Century, New Orleans ragtime and Dixieland music is two beat music, a 4/4 time signature with emphasis on the first and third beats in each measure. Armstrong essentially invented swing music by asking his drummer Baby Dodds to play an even four beats in each measure, though in swing time the tendency is to emphasize the second and fourth beat.
Sadly, there are no film clips of the Hot Fives or Hot Sevens from New Orleans. However, there is a fine film clip from 1932, Louis Armstrong with a small orchestra in Copenhagen swinging “Dinah”.
The roots of modern music can be seen in this performance.
On his trumpet playing:
“His explosive inventiveness literally blew apart the brief and constrained variations of New Orleans jazz, giving rise to expansive and enormously compelling solos. He didn’t improvise over a musical theme so much as away from the theme to his own, personal melodic lines. This was the legacy of his sound: let yourself go, play all the thoughts, inspirations and feelings that you can find in yourself. Don’t play just any melody:, play yourself, and make the world a richer place.”
On Armstrong’s singing:
“His singing — husky, hoarse, squeezed, rough — shocked listeners in the twenties. Here was someone who dared, in a world still shaped by Victorianism and bourgeois hypocrisy, to transform what he thought and felt into music, directly and honestly…his voice, his trumpet, said “Show your feelings.” That became a message for the century. The entire world understood it. By now there are hundreds of singers who express their own feelings, not just jazz singers.”
Joachim-Ernst Berendt and Gunther Huesmann
Once again, a heartfelt thanks to Berendt and Huesmann. Here is the link to their fine text on Amazon.com:
When The Saints Go Marching In
In April 1938, Armstrong brought his orchestra into the studio, and transformed the gospel hymn “When The Saints Go Marching In” into the jazz standard known and loved today. This was my most pleasant surprise while researching this profile. Make sure to get the 1938 recording of this song. It is an American classic.
Armstrong was a regular marijuana smoker throughout his music career. He was not a heavy drinker. Here is an account of his lifelong marijuana use. Consider this a qualified endorsement.
Louis Armstrong And His All-Stars
Most baby boomers know Armstrong from his later years, the beaming, genial man with the gravelly voice on television. In 1946, Armstrong assembled his second great band, his “All-Stars”, which included at times such standout performers as Jack Teagarden on trombone and Sid Catlett on drums. The 1947 Town Hall Concert is considered one of his great recordings. Armstrong performed with various permutations of the All-Stars for the rest of his life.
Here Teagarden and Armstrong play Hoagy Carmichael’s “Rockin’ Chair”:
A personal favorite, “A Kiss To Build A Dream On”, from 1962:
Armstrong’s theme song for many years, “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South”, from 1964:
A Great Man
He was the only musician who ever lived, who can’t be replaced by someone.”
— Bing Crosby
” Well, people love me and my music and, you know, I love them and I have no problems at all with people. The minute I walk on the bandstand they know they’re going to get something good and no jive and they know what they’re there for and that’s why they come…Some of the critics say I’m a clown, but a clown, that’s something great. It’s happiness to make people happy. Many of those critics don’t know one note from the other…When I play, I just think of all my happy days…and the notes come by themselves. You’ve got to love to be able to play.”
The author Joachim Berendt continues his praise for Armstrong. He shares a personal anecdote in 1962, when Berendt produced a television show in New York, and Armstrong returned 45 minutes after completing the program and leaving the studio, because he hadn’t properly said goodbye.
The irrepressible Armstrong was considered an “Uncle Tom” at times by the succeeding generation of jazz musicians, but in 1957, when militant whites prevented black schoolchildren from attending classes in Arkansas, Armstrong publicly criticized the president in the press, and refused to attend a state sanctioned event in the Soviet Union. In 1965, when police beat black men in Selma, Alabama, Armstrong told a reporter, “They would beat Jesus on the cross if he was black and marched.”
Start with his music from the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, and work your way down the list. All of these songs are notable in at least one respect. Among the great songs from his big band days in the 1930s are “Body And Soul” and “Black And Blue”. “Heebie Jeebies” is the first example of scat singing in popular music. “Memphis Blues” and Jack Teagarden’s “St. James Infirmary” are among the best All-Stars recordings. There are groundbreaking, swinging trumpet solos in “Beau Koo Jack”, “West End Blues” and “Potato Head Blues”. “Weather Bird” and “Basin Street Blues” feature Earl Hines on piano, also considered classic performances.
Profiling Louis Armstrong has been a positive, powerful and emotional experience. I am a better person for researching the man and his music.
He was born poor, he died rich, and he never hurt anyone along the way.”
— Duke Ellington
Louis Armstrong Songs:
West End Blues, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭
Potato Head Blues, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭
When The Saints Go Marching In, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭
St. James Infirmary, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭
St. James Infirmary (Alt), Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭
Basin Street Blues, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
A Kiss To Build A Dream On, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
Weather Bird, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
Beau Koo Jack, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
Body And Soul, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
A Kiss To Build A Dream On (Alt), Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
Black And Blue, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
Mack The Knife, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
Memphis Blues, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
Muggles, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Tight Like This, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Memories Of You, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Wild Man Blues, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
What A Wonderful World, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Star Dust, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Heebie Jeebies, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Mahogany Hall Stomp, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Back ‘O Town Blues, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Dallas Blues, Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Louis Armstrong ✭
Azalea, Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
The Beautiful American, Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong ✭✭
I’m Just A Lucky So And So, Duke Ellington & Louis Armstrong ✭✭
My Walking Stick, The Mills Brothers ✭✭
St. James Infirmary, Jack Teagarden ✭✭✭✭
Rockin’ Chair, Jack Teagraden & Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Note: Louis Armstrong performs on these three songs.
Love Is Here To Stay, Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭
Dream A Little Dream Of Me, Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong ✭✭
I Won’t Dance, Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong ✭✭
Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong ✭
Basin Street Blues, Sidney Bechet ✭✭
Basin Street Blues, Bob Wills & The Texas Playboys ✭✭
Star Dust, Artie Shaw ✭✭✭
Star Dust, Jack Jenney & His Orchestra ✭✭✭
Star Dust, Willie Nelson ✭✭
Star Dust, Ella Fitzgerald ✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Fats Waller ✭✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Fats Waller ✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Django Reinhardt w/ Coleman Hawkins & His All-Star Jam Band ✭✭
Honeysuckle Rose, Count Basie ✭
Body And Soul, Benny Goodman ✭✭
Body And Soul, Coleman Hawkins & His Orchestra ✭✭
Memories Of You, Ben Webster ✭✭
Memories Of You, Benny Goodman ✭✭✭
When It’s Sleepy Time Down South, Wynton Marsalis ✭✭✭
Memphis Blues, Lt. Jim Europe’s 369th Infantry Band ✭
Memphis Blues, Chet Atkins ✭✭✭