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Louis Armstrong and the First Great Soloists
Chapter Outline

This chapter considers the landmark career of jazz revolutionary and pop icon Louis Armstrong and his effect on creating jazz as a solo art. We begin with the arc of Armstrong's career from New Orleans to Chicago and New York, detailing his interactions with the music of his hometown (King Oliver), the new big-band dance music (Fletcher Henderson), and the classic blues (Bessie Smith). We then move back to Chicago and Armstrong's landmark Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1926-28), which bridged older, New Orleans-style collective improvisation with the new emphasis on soloing, often aided by pianist Earl Hines.

Armstrong influenced two important soloists: Bix Beiderbecke, who represents the pinnacle of young white interest in jazz, and Coleman Hawkins, whose canny understanding of Armstrong's achievements launched a lengthy career. We conclude with a discussion of Armstrong's later career as a mainstream entertainer, singing popular songs with his own, large dance orchestra (1930s) or his small New Orleans group (1947-71).

  1. Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
    1. He is the most important figure in the history of jazz.
      1. He transformed a social music into art and a place where a musician, regardless of race or geography, could find a voice.
      2. He was a central influence as an instrumentalist and as a vocalist.
      3. He was also very popular at a time when jazz was considered primitive and degenerate.
    2. Primary Innovations
      1. Proved that improvised music could have the weight and durability of written music
        1. Blues: established it as jazz's harmonic foundation when most saw it as a mere fashion
        2. Improvisation: established jazz as music that prizes individual expression, above and beyond technique
        3. Singing: introduced a jazz vocal style using scat, loose phrasing with lyrics, which influenced later vocal stars such as Bing Crosby and Billie Holliday
        4. Repertory: created masterworks based on Tin Pan Alley songs, not just original New Orleans themes, showing that jazz could expand musically and commercially
        5. Rhythm: introduced swing
      2. These five contributions were introduced in ways defying conventional ideas about art and put American music on a par with European and Russian music.
    3. Early Years
      1. Although he came from bleak beginnings, he had a long and fruitful career in music and later in movies. He did not simply peak during the 1920s. He helped spearhead swing and persevered through bop and fusion even though he disliked them.
      2. Born to an unwed teenager in 1902 in a devastated New Orleans area. When his mother showed him her hometown in the country, Armstrong saw a different kind of life.
      3. At age seven, he was working two jobs. He received his first cornet from the immigrant Jewish family that owned one of the businesses that Louis worked for. In 1913 he was arrested for shooting blanks and sent to the New Orleans Colored Waif's Home for 18 months, where he received rudimentary musical instruction; he was made leader of the band before he left. After discharge, Louis took lessons from Joe Oliver.
    4. Riverboat Years
      1. In 1918 he started playing in saloons and parades, often with his own trio (with bass and drums), playing mostly blues. When Oliver left for Chicago, he suggested that Armstrong take his place in the band with co-leader Kid Ory.
      2. Later that year he started working on Mississippi riverboat excursions. He spent three years with the Streckfus Steamboat Line under the musical leadership of Fate Marable, who played the calliope. During this time Armstrong:
        1. Became a better music reader; learned to adapt New Orleans music to written arrangements
        2. Learned songs beyond the New Orleans repertory
        3. Experienced a new kind of audience (white)
        4. Acclimatized to the life of a traveling musician
    5. With Oliver in Chicago
      1. Marable did not let Armstrong sing, so he quit in 1921 to return to Ory's band. He became well known in the area. Ethel Waters, while traveling with her pianist Fletcher Henderson, attempted to lure him to New York, but he stayed in New Orleans. In 1922, he was invited to join Oliver's band in Chicago at the Lincoln Gardens.
      2. He usually played second trumpet (there were a few exceptions, such as "Dippermouth Blues"). He astonished musicians with his harmonizing trumpet breaks with Oliver and the brilliance of his timbre. By 1924 he left Oliver with the encouragement of his second wife, Lil Hardin (the pianist in Oliver's band), and went to New York at the invitation of Fletcher Henderson.
    6. With Henderson in New York
      1. This was a crucial time for jazz and Armstrong. Henderson hired the best black musicians of the day. Armstrong was considered an old-fashioned country rube by the slick New York musicians of the Henderson band, but only until they heard his originality, blues feeling, and rhythmic drive.
      2. He also made many recordings with blues divas such as Bessie Smith and others. He recorded with Sidney Bechet on the Clarence Williams Blue Five sessions.
      3. Armstrong recorded more than thirty-six times with Henderson in fourteen months, during which he:
        1. Influenced Redman's arrangements
        2. Made the blues more a part of the band's sound
        3. Increased the prominence of the band's beat
        4. Set the standard for other players in the Henderson band as well as other bands
        5. Because Henderson would not let him sing, he left in 1925 and returned to Chicago.
    7. The Hot Five
      1. In Chicago he played in a pit orchestra that played for silent movies and intermission music. By the end of 1925 OKeh Records asked to him record as a leader. He chose Lil Hardin and three musicians whom he had worked with in New Orleans: Johnny Dodds (clarinet), Johnny St. Cyr (banjo), and Kid Ory (trombone). Using varying personnel, Armstrong made sixty-five recordings with the Hot Five and Hot Seven.
      2. These were very important recordings in that they mark:
        1. The change from polyphony to showcasing soloists
        2. The move from embellishments to improvisation
        3. The move from breaks to full chorus solos or more
        4. The move from multiple ragtime-like strains to single-theme choruses of pop songs and blues
    8. "Hotter Than That"
      1. Recorded in 1927. The thirty-two-bar chorus is based on a New Orleans favorite, "Tiger Rag," originally recorded by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band in 1918. Lonnie Johnson joins in on guitar as a soloist, which was unusual.
      2. There is no written melody, just improvisation (including a trumpet solo, scat singing, and trading between Armstrong and Johnson) and complex three-beat figures.
  2. Enter Earl Hines (1903-1983)
    1. In 1926 Armstrong was asked to be the feature soloist with the Carroll Dickerson Orchestra at the Sunset Café in Chicago. Dickerson also hired pianist Earl Hines.
    2. Hines had an idiosyncratic style, which included soloing like a horn, using octaves and tremolos as well as single notes, and accompaniment using playful rhythms combining on-the-beat, boogie-woogie, and stride rhythms.
    3. Armstrong and Hines hit it off immediately. Armstrong had him record with the Hot Five in 1928 and took him to New York the same year.
    4. These recordings were considered an advance on the earlier Hot Fives. Polyphony generally disappeared, to be replaced by solos and homophonic textures that characterize jazz to this day.
    5. "Weather Bird"
      1. Written by Armstrong for Oliver and recorded with him in 1923. It is structured like the traditional three-strain ragtime; each strain is sixteen bars long.
      2. A good deal of friendly battling occurs here.
  3. The Armstrong Impact: A Generation of Soloists
    1. Before Armstrong, bands reflected the abilities of their leaders or took an ensemble approach.
    2. Armstrong changed that tradition by inspiring a new generation of musicians, both black and white, who were interested in unfettered improvisation. With Armstrong jazz had the potential to become universal.
    3. By 1929, a number of musicians were following Armstrong's example of the starring soloist. Composers also had to make use of these emerging soloists.
  4. Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931)
    1. Beiderbecke was born in Davenport Iowa. He had an exceptionally good musical ear. He became famous as a cornet player but also knew his way around a piano.
    2. He belonged to the generation that learned jazz from recordings. Recordings had three influences on the dissemination of jazz:
      1. Young people could hear jazz no matter where they lived.
      2. Solos could be learned and memorized through repeated listening to a recording.
      3. Recordings helped young players to break away from tradition.
    3. At the age of fourteen, Beiderbecke was deeply affected by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band recordings when they first came out. He taught himself the New Orleans style of cornet playing through recordings and live performances on the Streckfus steamers that visited Davenport. Both these activities dismayed his parents.
    4. He neglected his schoolwork so in 1921 his parents sent him to a boarding school, which happened to be within train-hopping distance to Chicago. Beiderbecke took full advantage, regularly visiting clubs like the Lincoln Gardens, where he heard King Oliver and Armstrong. He was expelled in 1923 when he joined the first band of northern whites to imitate New Orleans ensembles: the Wolverines. In 1924 they recorded for Gennett.
    5. Chicago Style
      1. In 1924 he made some recordings with the Sioux City Six, which included C-melody saxophonist Frank Trumbauer (1901-1956). Trumbauer had a strong influence on Lester Young and Benny Carter.
      2. Beiderbecke and Trumbauer became close friends and the figureheads for a generation of white musicians referred to as the Austin High School Gang. Other musicians who were associated with this group included Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and others. They created the Chicago style, which started out as an imitation of New Orleans jazz but later became more rhythmic and combined soloing with polyphonic themes.
      3. For young white musicians, being involved with jazz was an act of rebellion, but for blacks this wasn't the case.
      4. Beiderbecke died young from the effects of alcoholism. Although a featured soloist with the popular Paul Whiteman band, he was largely unknown during his lifetime.
      5. He recorded between 1924 and 1930, but his career reached its zenith in the recordings made in 1927 with Trumbauer and guitarist Eddie Lang (1902-1933).
    6. "Singin' the Blues"
      1. This is one of the most imitated records of all time. The performance had three novel aspects:
        1. The source is a popular song.
        2. The melody is never actually played until after the cornet solo,
        3. The tempo and feeling are indicative of a ballad.
      2. Both Trumbauer's and Beiderbecke's solos are famous, as is Lang's accompaniment.
      3. Fletcher Henderson recorded a version of Trumbauer's solo. His famous trumpeter, Rex Stewart, often played Beiderbecke's solo note for note, and words were put to it in 1935. Beiderbecke is quite different from Armstrong-he is more subdued, yet still swings.
  5. Coleman Hawkins (1904-1960)
    1. Hawkins had a long and successful career. He learned to play a number of instruments including piano, cello, and C-melody saxophone. He started playing professionally for dances in Kansas City. In 1922 he joined Mamie Smith's band, at which point he took up tenor saxophone. He traveled with Smith's band before ending up in New York and joining Wilbur Sweatman, where Fletcher Henderson heard him and asked him to join his band. He stayed with Henderson for eleven years.
    2. He had a big sound with a wide vibrato. After Armstrong joined the Henderson band, Hawkins strove to adapt Armstrong's sense of swing and blues sensibility to the saxophone. Hawkins's solo on "Stampede" was influential on the next generation of jazz musicians.
    3. However, his playing still lacked a smooth legato style until 1929, when he recorded "One Hour."
    4. "One Hour"
      1. This was a rare integrated session that included black musicians Coleman Hawkins and Pops Foster with a white band, the Mound City Blue Blowers, led by Red McKenzie.
      2. It was based on a piece written by James P. Johnson in 1926 called "If I Could Be with You One Hour," which was recorded by a number of groups in 1930.
      3. The structure is ABAC, and each section is four bars long except for a six-bar extension on the C section.
      4. Hawkins plays with a rich timbre, musical variety, and legato phrasing.
      5. Pee Wee Russell's clarinet solo playing is very percussive. Both Russell and Hawkins show Armstrong's influences. McKenzie sounds dated next to the two reed players.
  6. Satchmo's World
    1. Armstrong's 1920s recordings set a new direction for jazz. Although he was not as broadly known as the white jazz musicians, each new recording was highly anticipated by his fellow musicians. In the 1930s, Armstrong gained a wide following but musicians started to look elsewhere for new directions.
    2. To World War II
      1. After the Hot Five sessions ended in 1928, Armstrong went on the road with Carroll Dickerson. His next record in 1929 was, for the first time, with an acknowledged integrated group: three blacks and three whites including guitarist Lang, trombonist Jack Teagarden, and pianist Joe Sullivan.
      2. At the same session he fronted Luis Russell's ten-piece integrated band, whose members came from a wide geographical area. Jazz had superseded its origins. They recorded two numbers, one of which was a show tune, "I Can't Give You Anything but Love," which showed Armstrong's effectiveness as a jazz-oriented singer of pop tunes.
      3. This led to a number of hit recordings starting in 1929, including Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'," which he performed on Broadway more than 200 times in the show Hot Chocolates. From 1930 to 1933 he recorded many songs and became the hit of New York.
      4. After a number of long engagements in several major American cities, he went to Europe in 1932, where he was a hit in Paris and London. He returned in 1933 and 1934 to even greater acclaim. He started appearing in short films, usually in stereotypically demeaning roles, which Armstrong carried off with a certain degree of irony.
      5. In 1935 and 1936 he signed a long-term contract to front Luis Russell's band, took on a new powerful manager, and signed a lucrative deal with Decca Records, which lasted twenty years. He published his first autobiography (heavily ghostwritten), Swing That Music, and had a starring cameo appearance in the Bing Crosby movie, Pennies from Heaven. And all this was in addition to releasing many hit records and having the first nationally sponsored radio show starring an African American.
      6. By the mid-1930s his singing voice became mellower while his trumpet became more brilliant. He was acclaimed as one of the great singers of pop music and jazz.
    3. The All Stars
      1. During World War II his popularity waned as the material grew stale and a new generation discovered rhythm and blues. Jazz was also changing in ways that shunned show business, something that Armstrong had come to represent. He made a Hollywood travesty, New Orleans, in 1946, after which he formed a small band. It was with this band that Armstrong made a comeback, triumphing at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in 1947. This led in turn to the formation of Louis Armstrong and his All Stars.
      2. They really were stars at the beginning. During this period he also made movies and hit records, appeared on television, and traveled constantly, in some cases as an American goodwill ambassador.
    4. Africa and Arkansas
      1. In 1956 he went to Africa for a documentary being made by CBS television. He had lunch with Ghana's president and then played for an audience of 100,000 fans. Armstrong was very moved by the acceptance but was then faced with the problems of segregation back home. He insisted on touring with an integrated group. In Knoxville, his concert was dynamited.
      2. The U.S. government wanted to send him to Russia as a goodwill ambassador, but when Arkansas governor Orval Faubus ordered the national guard to prevent black students from attending Little Rock Central High School, Armstrong balked.
      3. At the same time, black leaders characterized him as an Uncle Tom. But by the mid-1960s the controversy had passed. He had a great success with "Hello Dolly!" in 1964. During his later years he wrote his memoirs. He died in 1971, but seventeen years later his "What a Wonderful World" was a big hit.
  7. Jazz Personalized
    1. Armstrong's life paralleled the story of jazz. In 1929 he started to achieve mainstream acceptance, and he underscored the importance of individual expression and the potential of its emotional impact.
    2. In the 1930s, a whole generation personalized jazz while making it one of the world's best-known popular musics and in the process giving it a new name: swing.
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