The recently released early recordings of Louis Armstrong remind us that no one made a more complete contribution to art in the 20th century.
It has become gospel in the jazz world that Everything Comes from Louis. And like so many truisms, the brilliance of Louis Armstrong is so plain that it is easy to miss.
Louis “Pops” Armstrong was the first great jazz player and singer, and his first batch of recordings from the 1925 to 1933—collected here in a definitive ten-disc set—is one of the essential artistic fountains of the 20th century. This music, recorded in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Camden, NJ, did much more than define and lay the blueprint for jazz. It is, almost completely, the source material for all popular music in the follow century, worldwide. Listening to hip-hop or pop or creative improvised art music in 2013 is to be inside Armstrong’s world still: a place where an insistent rhythmic complexity and a defiant expression of the individuality of a singer or soloist combine to make the heart and the body each move without limit.
The Reason to Call Him “Pops” Rather Than “Satchmo”
Of course, placing all this on one man goes a bit far. Armstrong did not come out of a vacuum. Born in New Orleans near the start of his century, Louis inherited a set of traditions that would push him to make great art. He was a brass player coming from a city where compelling street music already existed for brass bands. Great players like Buddy Bolden and Joe “King” Oliver were already improvising solos (on trumpet or cornet, no less) in the context of a band. Jelly Roll Morton was devising ways for band arrangements to reflect a new sensibility of rhythmic pliancy and to set up ingeniously orchestrated call-and-response patterns.
But no one had put the music together like Louis Armstrong would, starting with these recordings in the 1920s. Armstrong was, quite simply, the best brass player anyone had ever heard. He not only played high and fast, but he could create spontaneous melodies that were unsurpassed in imagination, spirit, and cohesive intelligence. Above all else, Pops played with innovative rhythmic feeling—the slippery push-pull syncopation that would come to define the idea of “swing” but that really deserves to be described with a word that is less time-locked. Louis Armstrong didn’t just invent or perfect “jazz” or “swing”—he established the gold standard for groove in modern music. His feeling for the individual expression of time didn’t just set up Basie and Bird, Miles and Marsalis. Without Armstrong there’s no James Brown or Johnny Cash, there’s no Sinatra and no Kanye. The feeling at the root of all that music is in the groove, the way the great American artists address rhythm. And that feeling starts with these records, with the incomparable Louis Armstrong.
Armstrong’s most famous nickname, “Satchmo”, is simply a mishearing and transformation of the phrase “satchel mouth”, which you can hear Louis say on the first take of one of the tunes in this collection. Louis used this phrase in his banter to mean “big mouth”, and it was sometimes used to describe him, becoming “Satchmo” in the hands of an English journalist who was trying to seem familiar with the music star. The nickname “Pops”, however, came from none other than Billie Holiday, a young singer who heard Armstrong’s art and transformed it through her own lens—part of the explicit link between Louis and every other musician to follow him.
Pops, then, is the pops of all of the US music that has since conquered the world.
A Case Study In How a Trumpet Can Change the World
These ten discs, a total of 181 tracks (including some alternate takes, but not too many), contain an absurd amount of great music. Though there are some strong contributions, in the early tracks, from names like Kid Ory, Earl Hines, and Jack Teagarden, the overwhelming genius here is in Armstrong himself. This is titanic trumpet, en masse.
Most jazz fans will already know the canonized early solos, and they’re here mostly in the first four discs of material: the “Hot Five”, “Hot Seven”, and Earl Hines sides that produced “Cornet Chop Suey”, “Big Butter and Egg Man”, “Potato Head Blues”, “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue”, and “Weather Bird”. These recordings remain brilliant and deeply influential, formative work that simply will not be ignored. But hearing this entire box set over the course of a few sittings—plus a lifetime of listening to Armstrong’s 38 subsequent years of work—makes you realize that his greatness was not a momentary thing or a blaze of youth.
More interesting than writing again about “West End Blues” is listening to a relatively unheralded track like “Blue Again” from April of 1931. This is Armstrong “and his Orchestra”, a ten-piece band (three brass, three reeds, banjo, piano, bass, and drums) playing one of the lesser hits of Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields (“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”, “Don’t Blame Me”). It’s a standard arrangement of the period, with the backing horns playing mostly whole-note chords on the intro and vocal, then pulsing down beat chords to push Louis on his instrumental solo chorus.
“Blue Again” is not a great song, but oh what Louis does with it. On the introduction, he plays four logically connected atempo phrases over four descending chords, each of which is linked together with a rhythmic and harmonic motif involving repeated notes played one step above the chord tone then a minor third below. Armstrong jabs and bobs with these notes, then runs up to a high note before starting a cadenza that rips and runs with much more complexity across blue notes and several chromatic phrases before returning to the opening motif, but this time such that is sounds mournful and gentle.
Pops takes eight bars of horn on the straight melody before singing the whole song from the top—a classic vocal (more on this later) with everything the man is known for as a singer, reshaping the melodic form, using soulful and unconventional tone, and creating a sense of swing by a complete remaking of the rhythm of the melody. The tune ends, however with 32 bars of ravishing improvised trumpet. With some room to actually develop a statement, Louis gets to play cat and mouse with the song and with the band’s static arrangement. In the first eight bars, he stays around a single note (the tonic of song’s key), repeating it over and over again but in a myriad of rhythmic combinations that swirl around the groove like a tap-dancer. It’s almost as much a drum solo as it is a trumpet solo. The next eight find him latching onto a single descending figure of three notes, which he repeats with small variations and growing momentum, always starting with that first tonic note, then finally repeating the lick again before he rises up to play a lyrical figure in contrast. The bridge starts with longer tones, played legato, then leads to a rushed/swing figure that doubles back to become a lick played coolly behind the beat. The final eight bars find Louis running across all of these strategies as he sees fit, varying his approach but touching back on the written melody slightly before ending with a heraldic high note.
This song is not considered one of the Armstrong masterpieces, but a bit of reflection suggests that, in fact, it is. But there are many solos this good in the collection. An almost random choice is as likely to land you on genius as a targeted search.
What Louis was doing with his trumpet, one three-minute symphony after another, was teaching other “jazz” musicians what could actually be done with the form, with the art of improvising against American blues and song forms. In this young master’s capable hands, a great solo did not merely mean playing some hot notes but rather creating an intelligent work of art—an act of thoughtful composition—in the moment. Armstrong did this with feeling and startling cleverness nearly every time out. And quite often these feats of spontaneous order carried with them a sense of thrill that could only have come from improvisation. That is, Armstrong taught not just great music but the value there was in trusting the spontaneous moment for its own sake.
After the trumpet solos on these sides, American music changed forever. The groundwork was laid not just for Benny Goodman and John Coltrane but also for Jimi Hendrix and Public Enemy. The feeling of time in our music was as thoroughly altered as if Einstein had been in on the creation.
And: Changing the American Voice for Good Too
But to say that Louis Armstrong’s trumpet changed popular music in the 20th century is to sell the man, and these recordings, short. I’ve made it sound too technical. Armstrong was more than the man who taught America how to swing. He also taught us how to sing
In the eighth disc here are the two famed versions of “Stardust”, for example, each one a masterpiece (though I prefer the slightly more urgent second take). Armstrong’s vocal takes the prevailing style of “sweet” singing in American pop music and dashes it against a brick wall, delicately wrings its neck, and replaces it with a new model that is so audacious that it would take most of the art form at least two decades to catch up.
It’s not that Louis sang “dirty” rather than clean, though bad imitations of him just focus on his sometimes gravelly tone. At the time of Armstrong’s vocal innovations, there were plenty of southern blues singers who were singing in an urgent, unschooled manner—the eventual model for many rock singers down the line. Pops’ singing was more like his trumpet work: ingenious and sophisticated, borrowing tonal variation and soul from the African-American folk tradition that had created the blues singers, sure, but also applying the rhythmic syncopations and complex harmonic tricks of a jazz musician to the existing craft of material he was interpreting. In the case of “Stardust”, a superb Hoagy Carmichael song, Louis didn’t need to redeem a novelty song with his invention, but what he does is dazzle you with the sense of freedom and ease he applies to a tune. He knows it so intimately that he can slow it down and speed it up, invent new lyric phrases in the gaps, create hip harmonic embellishing phrases wherever he pleases, and generate incredible excitement and feeling by phrasing certain notes explosively and others gently, all by a design that feels utterly spontaneous and natural.
Compared to any other singer in American pop music at the time, Louis was a revelation. They were addressing songs with sweet sincerity and a fidelity to the written melody that was “square” and devoid of individual feeling. Louis not only sounded like no one else—injected personality and tonal individuality on nearly every word—but also let his voice become a jazz instrument that could not resist swinging the material. Almost overnight, every other singer seemed like he or she had a broom up his or her bottom.
Another example to be adored is Louis’s “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” from March of 1929. It’s a mid-tempo ballad, and the arrangement is super-square, with the reeds playing the melody in straight legato form. When the vocal enters on the second chorus (which was standard at the time), Armstrong completely abstracts the melody, abandoning convention and sliding across a whole new set of notes that are his own. Along the way he reinvents the words too and restructures the rhythm entirely as well, shouting some words with punctuations by the band, then easing back into slides and moans. It’s a brilliantly original performance.
Most importantly, these were performances that made other singers change the American tradition of singing. Bessie Smith was playing with and listening to Armstrong. Billie Holiday had a single role model: Pops. Eventually Frank Sinatra would say that it was Billie and Louis who taught him to swing and phrase the way he did. And the contemporary singers of the ‘30s and ‘40s like Bing Crosby were, in many ways, little more than excellent white versions of Armstrong, with “crooning” becoming a watered-down version of what Louis was doing full-on ten years earlier.
Repertoire and the Music That Was to Follow
In these 181 tracks are scores of well known songs, from “Ain’t Misbehavin’” to “I’ve Got the World on a String” to “Black and Blue”. Not only was Armstrong setting up the “how” for a few generations of jazz and pop musicians, but he was also explaining the “what”. There are original themes here, but mostly Pops was establishing the territory that jazz musicians would cover and, ultimately, overrun in the decades to follow: show tunes and pop songs mixed with folks melodies and blues, all spun from simplicity into complex gold by the art form and its daring.
There is some goofy stuff here, novelty numbers or material that hasn’t held up over the decades, but mostly you will be struck by the extent to which other musicians copied Louis’ repertoire and methods. Many of these songs are still staples in jazz clubs and cabarets, hotel lounges or schools where this music is taught. And many of the approaches that Armstrong chose in these eight years would become a new tradition the music still honors.
Not that Louis was trailblazing continually until his 1971 death of a heart attack, just short of his 70th birthday. Though he had more hit songs in the 1960s (“Hello, Dolly” and even a kind of posthumous hit in “What a Wonderful World”), his repertoire and basic sound didn’t change much from 1940 onward. He led many similar bands, appeared in movies, shows, and later on television, and he toured the world many times over. He transformed himself from a dangerous young innovator to a somewhat comforting smile who even came to be seen, in the activist ‘60s, as a possible “Uncle Tom”.
But his art—as is made clear in these ten discs—was so far ahead of the curve in his early years that there was no shame in Pops sticking with this art to the end. He continued to sings and play brilliantly, even if the later records didn’t carry the same revelation of innovation. Even as the New Orleans style gave way to swing and swing gave way to bebop and so on, Louis Armstrong’s playing never lost its power to move and to thrill and to stop a person in his or her tracks.
In these timeless recordings as well as in his influence on our world, Louis Armstrong is forever: New Orleans’ great gift to this land and to all of us. Thank you, Pops.