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Innovator in The World of Jazz: Louis Armstrong

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Introduction

The definition of an innovator is “a person who introduces new methods, ideas, or products”. Throughout history, jazz has been filled with many exceptional and innovative musicians, but it is hard to find anyone who has had as much of a profound an influence and effect on the movement as Louis Armstrong.

Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans, at the turn of the century, on August 4, 1901. By the end of his life, he would be known as one of the greatest Jazz musicians of all time and he was an accredited trumpeter, singer, soloist, bandleader, and film star before his death in 1971. Nicknamed “The Battlefield”, Armstrong grew up in a poor section of New Orleans, Louisiana, and growing up in Southern America, was surrounded by the poverty suffered by Southern blacks at the turn of the century. Growing up the Southern American Armstrong would have been subject to racial segregation, which is the practice of restricting people to certain circumscribed areas of residence or to separate institutions and facilities on the basis of race or alleged race. This experience of racial segregation could have been the inspiration for his use of lyrics that convey themes of race and oppression that African Americans faced.

Armstrong’s legacy is more than simply his virtuoso trumpet playing, but his great formal innovations as well. His commitment to the search for new forms in jazz and his continued heartfelt performances will remain a major symbol not only of the musical life but of the entire culture of life in 20th-century America. Prior to Armstrong’s arrival in the world of jazz, jazz music was played either in highly orchestrated arrangements or in a more loosely structured “Dixieland”-type ensemble in which no one musician soloed for any extended period.

Musicians everywhere soon began to imitate his style, and Armstrong himself became a star attraction. His popularity was phenomenal, and throughout the 1920s he was one of the most sought-after musicians in both New York and Chicago. Through his use of trumpet and cornet playing, singing, and composing, Armstrong was able to innovate the world of jazz which we now know today.

Trumpet and Cornet Playing

In the beginning years of Armstrong’s career, he was primarily known for his cornet and then later on trumpet playing. In 1914, Armstrong was mentored by famous jazz trumpeter and bandleader King Joe Oliver. It is said that Oliver taught Armstrong how to read music and work on his playing technique.

Armstrong’s success then began to snowball and, in the summer of 1922, ‘King’ Oliver invited him to Chicago to play second cornet in his Creole Jazz Band. Through this, he made his first recording with Oliver, on April 5th, 1923, and earned his first recorded solo on “Chimes Blues”. It was then in Kid Ory’s band, which at that time was the most popular band in New Orleans, that Armstrong was able to use a series of solos to introduce the concept of swing music into the band.

This was one of the many times that Armstrong introduced the concept of swing into jazz music. Swing music being introduced into jazz meant that the musicians were able to use a freer-flowing rhythm using four beats to a bar instead of the two beats that were common in New Orleans Dixieland jazz. Similarly, in 1924, Armstrong joined Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, New York’s top African-American dance band at the time. During his time there, he was again able incorporate swing into the band’s music. 

Along with the band members, audience members were also taken aback by his rhythmic swing, which involved “accented upbeats, upbeat to downbeat slurring, and complementary relations among rhythmic patterns”. Armstrong’s style of playing was one of the many things that caught people’s attention whenever he played. He was known to strike listeners with his ‘clarinet-like figurations and high notes in his cornet solos’. It has also been said that Armstrong was able to “play “around” the beat, anticipating some notes, delaying others.” which was a style that had previously not been heard before.

As a result of Armstrong’s innovative use of swinging vocabulary in his trumpet playing, Henderson began to integrate this into the orchestra’s arrangements. Throughout Armstrong’s time in Henderson’s band, he also influenced and incorporated Jazz rhythms and blue notes that then became more and more prominent in the band’s music. This type of music turned into the first arranged music in the style we now describe as ‘big band.’

Which in turn then led to Henderson’s band to become what is generally regarded as the first jazz big band. According to Encyclopedia, 2018 Big Band swing originated with Henderson and Den Redman, thanks to the inspiration of Louis Armstrong. Being able to incorporate swing music into this band was unheard of and controversial, and it is noted that “his ability to use the time and space within a song, and also his skill to build up his improvisations melodically while using a swinging legato phrasing that was most revolutionary.”

Through his performances with a variety of musical groups, Armstrong was able to slowly revolutionize the jazz world with the introduction of the extended solo. As a result of this many musicians began to imitate his style. For example, in numbers such as “Potato Head Blues”, Louis’ stop-time solos featured swinging phrasing, wide range, and challenging rhythmic changes which were heard in the tunes of Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra and have long been considered his best solo of that series.

Singing

Although Armstrong had emerged as one of the top jazz trumpet and cornet players, at the birth of the recording industry, it was not just his instrument playing that made him an innovator, it was also his singing. Whilst playing in Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra, Henderson did not allow Armstrong to sing due to fears that his rough vocals wouldn’t be popular among the sophisticated audiences at the Roseland Ballroom in Manhattan. This prompted Armstrong to return to Chicago, in 1925, where he started playing with his wife Lil’s band at the Dreamland Café. 

In America, during the 1920s the nation’s total wealth more than doubled. As a result of this extra revenue, many Americans bought radios, which with the help of Pittsburgh’s KDKA, Americans’ first commercial radio station in the U.S which hit the airwaves in 1920, opened the world of jazz up to listeners across the entire country. This extra money also enabled people to buy phonograph records, with 100 million being sold in 1927 alone.

In Chicago and through the help of OKeh Records Armstrong was able to make his first records with his own band: Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five. Between 1925 to 1928, Armstrong produced more than 60 records with the Hot Five and, soon after, the Hot Seven. Today these recordings are generally regarded as the most influential recordings in jazz history, especially the tune ‘Heebie Jeebies”. His voice became internationally recognized as the “voice of jazz” itself throughout this period of time. On these records, Armstrong’s talents and creativity began to transform jazz from ensemble music to a soloist’s creation.

In his song “Hebbie Jeebies” Armstrong sang horn-like nonsense syllables after claiming to have dropped the lyric sheet. For many, his “scat” singing was the perfection of a genre in its infancy. With his increasing fame, however, this was met with criticism from the black community that felt he was not living up to the responsibilities of the times, as he was mainly singing for white audiences. Critics then began to note how Armstrong’s instrumental and vocal improvisation was utterly interchangeable and recognized that he sang the way he played. This use of improvised melodies and syncopated rhythm drew the public in, opening them up to a sound that had previously gone unheard of in the western world.

According to scat singing is “Improvised jazz singing in which the voice is used in imitation of an instrument”. This type of music can be traced back to West-African singers assigning syllables to drum rhythms with ‘ times so close in timbre and so inextricably interwoven within the music’s fabric as to be nearly indistinguishable’.

Armstrong did not necessarily invent the jazz style of scat singing as it has also been said that it came from previous jazz musicians’ abilities to formulate riffs vocally before performing them on their chosen instrument. This was very prominent thought out the New Orleans Jazz scene, which coincidently is where Armstrong himself is from. Whilst many cite Armstrong as the creator of scat singing there are many examples that disprove this. For example, in 1911 and 1917 Gene Greene, a ragtime singer, recorded scat singing in his songs “King of the Bungaloos” and ‘From Here to Shanghai’.

Similarly, in 1911 Al Jolson, an entertainer, scatted in his recording of ‘That Haunting Melody’ and in 1924, a year before Armstrong recorded “Hebbie Jebbies”, Gene Rodemich recorded ‘Scissor Grinder Joe’ and ‘Some of These Days’ which both feature scat singing. 

Through his singing, Armstrong was able to present a range of themes and subjects through his lyrics and melodies. For example, in his track ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South’, the lyrics convey racial stereotypes and discrimination against African American people during the great depression, “the pale moon’s shining, the fields below Darkies crooning songs soft and low”. 

Another song that Armstrong used to explore the theme of race us ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead, You Rascal You’. The lyrics in this song explore, not only the theme of race but of white oppression,

“When you’re lyin’ down six feet deep, no more fried chicken will you eat

I’ll be glad when you’re dead, you rascal you, oh yeah”.

Conclusion

To conclude, through these facts it can be argued that Louis Armstrong was an innovator in the world of jazz. For example, it could be argued that if Armstrong were born today he would not be an innovator. But due to the era that he was born in, the roaring twenties, he was able to be at the forefront of jazz innovation. As he already had an established jazz career before the rise of the public radio stations it means it could be argued that he was just in the right place at the right time, however it was Armstrong’s own personal way of playing and singing that changed the face of jazz.

Though Armstrong was a master trumpeter, it is evident that he did not invent jazz trumpet playing, and it is also evident that he isn’t the original innovator of jazz trumpet playing itself. The innovation of Armstrong’s trumpet playing however lies in the way that he played. Through his use of playing “around” the beat, anticipating notes, and delaying others Armstrong changed the way that his fellow peers perceived jazz trumpet, paving the way for fellow trumpeters that would come to follow in his path.

Through his career as a professional singer, and through the history of scat itself, it is evident that Armstrong did not invent scat, but he certainly was an innovator of it. Armstrong was able to take scat singing, which had been around years before he started or before he first recorded anything, and was able to turn it into something new. The way that Armstrong used scat within his solos truly changed the way that jazz was perceived and enabled it to be widened to a larger audience that, without him, might have never heard of it.

Similarly, without Armstrong’s use of scat, it is possible that it wouldn’t be as big as it is within the jazz world, as Armstrong was at the forefront of the jazz scene in his time. And whilst Armstrong was not the first innovator of scat singing within his chosen genre he was arguably and most recognized for his talent, skill, and innovation. Armstrong was by no means the innovator for using lyrics to provoke feelings or to depict racism, but because of his fame and notoriety, he was able to use his status to get these songs into the public.

To summarise, through his trumpet playing and style of singing Louis Armstrong can definitely be classed as an innovator. He opened up other musicians to a whole different style of musical writing and performance, a style that is still used today. In terms of his lyrics, however, Armstrong was not an innovator, as people had been using lyrics to convey the hardships that African Americans had suffered for years before Armstrong.

References

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Innovator in the World of Jazz: Louis Armstrong. (2022, May 24). GradesFixer. Retrieved August 11, 2022, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/innovator-in-the-world-of-jazz-louis-armstrong/
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Innovator in the World of Jazz: Louis Armstrong [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2022 May 24 [cited 2022 Aug 11]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/innovator-in-the-world-of-jazz-louis-armstrong/
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