Introduction to Swing That Music, 1936
You may be surprised that I have undertaken to write an introduction to this book by my good friend Louis Armstrong, for in so many ways Louis and I are direct opposites.
Yet it is also true that the author and I have a great deal in common. I believe I was among the first to recognize his genius. It was before I ever saw him and heard some of his earlier records which have now become established milestones in the evolution of Swing Music, of which he was one of the great pioneers.
It was many years ago when I first saw Louis and felt his effect upon an audience. I was still a student at New Haven and was attending a performance of one of the famous colored shows of that day when I noticed in the pit with the orchestra a colored trumpet player who was reaching and "smacking out" high C's and even notes above that almost unreachable zenith. The audience was so fascinated that at times they forgot the show itself.
In the intervening years, Armstrong's amazing mastery of the trumpet has brought him world-wide fame and today he is generally regarded as one of the greatest, if not the very greatest, of all living trumpeters, particularly of course, in the high register. Volumes have been written about Louis' virtuosity on this difficult instrument - the unerring purity of his notes, his lip and fingering technique, and so on, which are, of course, superb. But there is another side to the genius of Louis Armstrong which I feel has not received the recognition it deserves, and that is his most extraordinary style of singing.
I said "singing" but it is almost inaccurate to use that word to describe Louis' vocal renditions. Most of you have heard his records, if you have not heard him, and are familiar with that utterly mad, hoarse, inchoate mumble-jumble that is Louis' "singing." And yet when you study it, you will come to see that it is beautifully timed and executed, and to perceive that a subtle musical understanding and keen mind are being manifest through this seemingly incoherent expression. Armstrong's vocalizations are peculiarly Armstrong and as distinct from the efforts of other artists as day is from night. They often seem to be the result of a chaotic, disorganized mind struggling to express itself, but those who know anything about modern music recognize his perfect command of time spacing, of rhythm, harmony, and pitch and his flawless understanding of the effects he is striving to achieve. He is a master of his peculiar art. To illustrate this, I suggest you listen to his recorded masterpiece, his vocalization of "I Surrender, Dear." You may say that it is not singing, that it is no beauty, that a beautiful romantic song has been treated as a madman would treat it, and I must, perforce, agree with you. If that is your reaction, try playing it a second, third or fourth time, and eventually there must dawn on you that this man knows what he is about and you will begin to feel upon you the sway of his extraordinary musical personality. It is a test of artistic work--repetition with a growth of effect.
That Armstrong's delightful, delicious sense of distortion of lyrics and melody has made its influence felt upon popular singers of our own day cannot be denied. Mr. Bing Crosby, the late Russ Columbo, Mildred Bailey, and many others, have adopted, probably unconsciously, the style of Louis Armstrong. Compare a record by Crosby, in which he departs from the "straight" form of the melody and lyric, and then listen to an Armstrong record and discover whence must have come some of his ideas of "swinging." Armstrong antedated them all, and I think that most of those artists who attempt something other than the straight melody and lyric as it is written, who in other words attempt to "swing," would admit, if they were honest with themselves and with their public, that they have been definitely influenced by the style of this master of swing improvisation.
That Louis will go on for many years delighting his audiences is, to my mind, a foregone conclusion. He is truly an artist, in every sense of the word, and that he has given so much happiness to his legion of devoted followers will one day merit his right to play for St. Peter a trumpet solo as only Armstrong can play one.
And then he may smile his wide smile and say, as he says so ludicrously in his recording of the tune of that name: "I hope Gabriel likes my music!"
There is no doubt in my mind as to what the answer will be.