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The Everlasting Impact of Louis Armstrong on The Trumpet in Jazz

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When jazz is mentioned, one of the first instruments that comes to mind is the trumpet. The trumpet is an iconic image of jazz. From Miles Davis’ mellow and laid back ‘cool jazz’ to Clifford Brown’s hard bop, the trumpet is a staple piece in any jazz group. All of this, however, would not be the case if it wasn’t for the godfather of jazz trumpet, Satchmo, Pops, or better known as Louis Armstrong. Over his five decade long career, Armstrong changed the way not only the trumpet is played but the whole idea of improvisation in jazz. Louis’ impact on jazz is due to his push for featuring soloists instead of collective improvisation, his playing style, his popularity and fame, and the people he influenced who pushed jazz even further out of Dixieland and traditional jazz into the idioms of bebop, hard-bop, modal and cool jazz. This essay will dive into all of these themes and uncover how Louis was such a seminal musician.

Before the style of Louis Armstrong is looked into, we first must understand what jazz music was like before, and at the start of his career. Jazz was born in the mid to late 1800’s with the blues. This was a product of slavery in America. The slaves sung work songs and sung the blues to help them cope with their terrible treatment. In the late 1800’s ragtime was invented and slowly became popular. By the early 1900’s, this had evolved into a New Orleans Dixieland style of jazz. In the 1920’s, the beginning of Satchmo’s career, New Orleans and Dixieland Jazz was at the forefront of the scene (Hunter, 2015). Louis got his first big break with the King Oliver Creole Jazz Band and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, playing this kind of music, and later forming his own Dixieland group, “Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five”. It was in this Hot Five group that Louis started to really make a name for himself in the jazz community.

In the later months of 1925, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five formed in Chicago to record their first album on Okeh Records. This is where Armstrong began to create a true influence on the rest of the jazz scene. Dixieland and the Hot Five’s music centered around group collective improvisation instead of featuring an individual soloist. The music also rarely strayed from the written melody and often featured call and response phrases amongst the group of improvisers). Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five (and later Hot Seven) created some seminal traditional records that really paved a path for that kind of music to become popular and relevant. Louis Armstrong started to make an impact with his music at this time by breaking away from the idea of collective improvisation by featuring a single soloist (louisarmstronghouse, N.D). Louis would feature himself and his skills, or another band member one at a time. Louis, unlike improvisers before him, used space in his solos, instead of a constant flurry of notes and constructed his solo to have a climax or peak in a way that each solo had its own story line. This put a focus on the musicians own virtuosity, which has become a standard procedure for almost any and all jazz combos still to this day. The idea of collective improvisation today is almost forgotten and is very rarely done is straight ahead jazz groups. Not only was Louis’ improvisation revolutionary, but his sound was one that had never been heard before.

Louis Armstrong’s trumpet playing style is an amalgamation of; his life and experiences, his personality, and influences. Louis had a challenging upbringing in New Orleans. He was born into an impoverished family and was raised by his grandmother until the age of five, when he went to live with his single birth mother. Louis got his first cornet from a Jewish family, the Karnoffskys, for who he worked when he was very young (Teachout, 2009). At the age of eleven, on New Year’s Eve, Armstrong shot a blank round of his stepfathers pistol into the air and was arrested. He spent the next two years in the Coloured Waif’s Home for Boys where he properly learnt the cornet and played in and eventually became the leader of Waif’s Home Brass Band. This is what drove Louis to be a musician and shortly after being released, he began working with King Oliver. All of these experiences came out through Louis’s playing, as he famously said “what we play is life”. This can be heard in the way that Louis improvises and accompanies with his trumpet. His loud, brash and almost military sounding tone can be credited not only to his Brass Band education, but also to his time spent dedicated to Dixieland music, having to play on top of other instruments called for loud and authoritative playing. Through this, however, his soul and the blues can be heard crying through. Dizzy Gillespie stated about Louis that, “In his day all he did was play strictly from the soul”. Despite this, his joyful, ever-grinning personality can be heard in the playfulness of not only his trumpet but his singing. In his 1956 album, “Ella and Louis” with Ella Fitzgerald and the Oscar Peterson Quartet, Louis can be heard sharing cheeky remarks with the band, including singing out to them to “swing it boys”. A final stand out part of Louis’ signature sound was his range. “I was always hitting them notes that them other cats couldn’t hit” (Teachout, 2009). In one recording Armstrong does with the Henderson Orchestra on a song called “Shanghai Shuffle”, Louis explosively begins his solo with eighteen high C’s back to back. The legendary Coleman Hawking said about another gig where Satchmo played so incredibly that “[the band] made him play ten choruses” (Teachout, 2009). His style coupled with his personality brought him much popularity. Louis was known for his likeable and playful personality, which gained him fans of all races in America at a time when sadly, segregation was still alive.

Jazz in the 1930’s was beginning to become popular and needed someone to front it. With an enticing personality and an ability to unite people, Satchmo became the face of jazz music and even started acting, appearing alongside the likes of Grace Kelly and Barbara Streisand (francemusique, 2017). Being on such a big stage, Louis was able to influence more and more younger musicians with his music. Jazz was reaching a much wider audience than before. In 1929, Armstrong started recording with a big band, which was not unusual, but the type of music they recorded was. Instead of playing classic big band repertoire, they recorded songs from the great American songbook, converting compositions by George Gershwin, Cole porter and others into jazz arrangements (Yanow, 2019). As a result of this, his jazz music was a lot more accessible to the listener as he was playing songs that were already popular. Louis was also known very well for his stage presence and personality. His confidence and demeanor drew people to his concerts. In video footage of him performing, he can be seen strutting around stage singing, chanting and playing trumpet as well as cracking jokes and interacting with the crowd in a way that had never been done before by a jazz musician (Conrads, 2009). Satchmo put it simply himself, “I never tried to prove nothing, just wanted to give a good show… What you’re there for is to please the people”. In the late 1940’s Louis’ big band separated but he formed a smaller sextet called The Louis Armstrong All Stars. Having a smaller band meant it was much more financially viable to travel and tour around the world. With this group, Louis toured all over the world. From America to Europe and even to Australia. He gained world-wide fame and recognition, being one of the world’s most famous musicians, performers and entertainers.

The list of players that Armstrong influenced is endless and is always growing. From players just after him like Clifford Brown, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis to more modern players like Wynton Marsalis and Roy Hargrove. Dizzy Gillespie, when asked about Louis Armstrong, notably stated, “No him, no me”. This simple statement sets the stage for the amount of impact Louis had. Dizzy’s career began in the late 1930’s right at the beginning of the rise of bebop. This stream of jazz was never played by Louis Armstrong but undoubtedly his influence is still strong in it. The bebop era was led by trumpet players such as Dizzy Gillespie and Clifford Brown, as well as other instrumentalists like Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt. Both known for their incredible speed and technical ability on the instrument, acknowledge Armstrong as an influence. Even players coming out of the bop era and into the cool jazz era praise Louis Armstrong’s influence. Miles Davis, arguably one of the most famous and another of the most influential trumpet players talks so highly of his predecessor. “I love his approach to the trumpet; he never sounds bad”. Miles in a sense, became the Satchmo of his generation, performing slower ballads such as “When I Fall in Love” and “Stella by Starlight” connecting with the audience in the same way that Louis playing “I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues” and “Let’s Fall in Love” would have connected with their parents. More modern musicians like Wynton Marsalis still are inspired by him, this is a real testimony to how long his influence and legacy lives on. “It wasn’t considered difficult… But when I tried to learn one of his solos, just the endurance it took, let alone the type of soul [he played with]… was revelatory for me. All of these trumpet players who came from the school of Satchmo, like Satchmo, pushed the genre of jazz. Louis progressed out of Dixieland into swing and big band music, Clifford and Dizzy Came out of this and evolved jazz into bebop and hard bop. Miles started out in the bop scene, then got bored of constantly playing loud and fast and that birthed cool jazz and modal jazz. By developing the genre of jazz, Louis directly influenced these players and in turn, they did the same. Consequently, Louis has in one way or another, directly or indirectly influenced nearly all trumpet players as these musicians who credit him, have gone on to be more of the most influential trumpet players.

To conclude, Louis Armstrong has undeniably created an everlasting impact on the trumpet in jazz. He achieved this through; featuring a single soloist, his individual tone and sound, his celebrity status and by influencing players who went on to influence many, many more and many more to come. The influence and legacy of Satchmo will live on for many more decades and continue to inspire generations of young trumpet players and musicians. Above all of this, the sheer passion and love that Satchmo had for music and entertaining was his most important quality. Without his drive and desire to make good music none of the points above would be worth anything. “When I pick up that horn, that’s all. The world’s behind me, and I don’t feel no different about that horn now than I did when I was playing in New Orleans. That’s my living and my life. I love them notes. That’s why I try to make them right.” – Louis Armstrong.


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