The Genius of Armstrong

Armstrong's humble beginnings.
Before one can fully comprehend the indignity of Armstrong’s film roles, one must understand the enormous talent and ability that the man had. Most cliches in jazz history are dubious; the ones surrounding Armstrong are largely true. “The Fist Great Soloist,” “Father of the Jazz Trumpet,” even “First Great Jazz Musician” are all fitting titles for this American genius. What is most amazing about Armstrong, however, is that his talent is all but raw. Supposedly born in New Orleans on July 4, 1900, his childhood was marked by dismal poverty, and Gary Giddins’ authoritative biography notes that his role models were by and large “pimps, whores, gamblers, and razor-wielding badasses” (53). He received almost no formal musical training, learning most of his craft as a member of the “Colored Waif’s Home Brass Band” and in numerous parade engagements. Other than the occasional duet or lesson with the band’s director, Armstrong appears to have learned his craft almost entirely through his own rigorous practicing. He rehearsed every chance he got, but more importantly worked dances and shows at any occasion. After receiving an invitation from bandleader Fletcher Henderson to play in New York, Armstrong wrapped up his funeral gig with the Tuxedo Jazz Band, packed a bag with clothes and a sandwich, and hopped a train.

Armstrong’s arrival in New York was anything but grand. Deveaux describes it aptly: “By all accounts, Louis Armstrong made a bad first impression on Coleman Hawkins and the rest of the Fletcher Henderson orchestra when he arrived on the job in 1924. With his old-fashioned, thick soled shoes fastened by hooks (“the kind that policemen wear”), long underwear showing at the ankles, a thick New Orleans accent, and a bashful manner, the twenty-three-year-old Armstrong could only have come off as a bumpkin-- a social embarrassment to the cool, sharply dressed New Yorkers, who spent a good deal of their discretionary income to ensure that their physical appearance alone stamped them as an elite” (Deveaux 72). Appearances, however, were deceiving, for within a few months the world of jazz had shifted dramatically. The “hot solo” had never been the focus of a jazz piece before, serving instead as a moment of incidental excitement. After Armstrong, however, soloing became a key characteristic of any performance. It was a shift that has lasted until present day.

The ultra-professional Fletcher Henderson band.
Armstrong’s small ensemble recordings in the middle 20s marked the beginning of his soloist career. His previous works with bands or large ensembles emphasized polyphony, or multiple solo lines occurring simultaneously, but in his “Hot Five” recordings his choruses took center stage, even when other instruments were playing along. Giddins notes that “had he stopped performing at the end of 1928, Armstrong would never have become an international celebrity, an ambassador of jazz and goodwill, a media star, a folk hero, and more. But he would still be regarded as the single most creative and innovative force in jazz history... Armstrong’s genius surmounted everything, from poor material and uninspired associates to the constraints of recording technology and the winds of fashion... this was not a man who could interpret the Haydn trumpet concerto, but an artist who produced a tone of insuperable brilliance and improvised musical statements that are as logical and emotionally satisfying as any written score” (86).

It is difficult to explain in written words exactly what was so innovative about his soloing, but an Armstrong analyst is fortunate enough to study a musician who did everything well. Most impressive is Armstrong”s instrumental work, for he combines the time and chord restraints of the blues expertly with harmonic improvisation. The shaping and craftsmanship of his lines are complex, yet they fit perfectly within the context of pop songs of the day. To illustrate Armstrong”s genius, Deveaux contrasts his improvised choruses with a more one-sided musician, Coleman Hawkins. Hawkins was an expert harmonic improviser, experimenting with the types of pitches that can be played over a certain chord, choosing some that were startling and unexpected, yet were appropriate on a more complex theoretical level. Armstrong, however, was able to use accidentals every bit as unconventional as Hawkins” as well as keeping the nature of the chord the same.

In the end, the best way to appreciate Armstrongs’ solos is to listen to a few. His work in Struttin’ With Some Barbecue remains bound by the rather jerky and even rhythmic background, yet takes some surprising rhythmic excursions. His introduction to St. Louis Blues is endlessly imitated even today for its virtuosity and is an excellent indication of his sheer technical abilities. Armstrong is also remembered as an excellent singer, the first to introduce “scat” or nonsense syllables to jazz records, and his chorus over Hotter Than That demonstrates both his musicality and complete knowledge of chord structures.

Armstrong went on, however, to become an international celebrity, usually rated as one of the top ten most recognized Americans of the 20th century. After achieving such fame, he was asked to appear in a number of films and record volumes of pop music. Jazz purists see the death of Armstrong in his fame, some even making the metaphorical hypothesis that the genius of the 20s was replaced by an evil twin for the rest of his life who was willing to squander his talents on undeserving material. This opinion, however, concerns motivation and not talent, and few would deny that, even when performing in a bland or even racially insulting context, his music transcends the original material. His enthusiasm in many cases steals the entire show, most notably his four-minute cameo in Hello, Dolly!, but one aspect of Armstrong’s career is almost universally intolerable: his enthusiastic performances in demeaning, racist roles that strongly evoke the minstrel stereotypes discussed in the previous section. Sometimes he appears as a savage, others as a servile “Uncle Tom” type, but what is most disturbing is that every time he is clearly Louis Armstrong. One of the most respected jazz musicians in history is transformed into a clown in these films, and one of the great puzzles of his life is how he could appear in such obviously degrading, even racist pictures.

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