50 great moments in jazz: Louis Armstrong

Armstrong's voice propelled him into the limelight, but it was as a trumpeter that he emerged as the first great virtuoso soloist

Miles Davis famously said that the story of jazz could be told in
four words: "Louis Armstrong - Charlie Parker." Armstrong's is as much
of a household name now as it was when he died in 1971, and he was a
legend of 20th century popular music even to those who wouldn't count
themselves as jazz fans. But Armstrong, more widely known as "Pops"
or "Satchmo" or just plain "Louis", is most famous for his
gravel-voiced singing on hits like Hello Dolly and Wonderful World
(Tom Waits is a vocal descendent) rather than for his sensational
trumpet virtuosity.

But it was as a trumpeter that Armstrong emerged as the first
great virtuoso soloist in jazz. More than that, he was effectively the
inventor of the extended improvised jazz solo, since the music had been predominantly a collective ensemble form until his
emergence in the early 1920s. From then until the eruption of the
modernist "bebop" movement in jazz after 1940, Louis Armstrong was a
model for countless jazz instrumentalists and singers, his unique
timing and phrasing influencing the sound of just about every
instrument in the jazz lineup, and the approaches of composers and
arrangers too.

Armstrong could swing as hard unaccompanied as most bands could
with a full rhythm section, his tone glowed, his control in the upper
register was immaculate, and his improvised ideas were often better
than the songs they were based on. The elusive concept of "swing" was
brought to life by him, since he would subtly shift the positions of
the expected strong and weak accents in a melody, or start or end a
phrase slightly behind or ahead of where the listener might expect
it. The effect was of a heightened excitement, spontaneity, and a
tantalising sense of irresistible forward motion.

But Louis Armstrong (who was born on 4 August 1901) was raised
in poverty in the New Orleans ghetto in the early years of the 20th
century, so no one showed him a way to open this treasure trove. His
uncanny natural ear allowed him to understand harmony and
countermelody by instinct, and he refined it by singing in barbershop
quartets on street corners as a child. In January 1913, when he was
11, he was sent to reform school after firing a gun in the street to
celebrate New Year's Day, and began to play the cornet in the
institution's band. He worked as a coal man and a dock worker after
his discharge from the Colored Waifs' Home, but was then discovered
by two fast-rising local jazz musicians, cornetist Joe "King" Oliver
and trombonist Kid Ory.

In 1922, five years after the release of the first-ever jazz
records, King Oliver hired the young Armstrong to work with his
Creole Band at Chicago's Lincoln Gardens dance hall. The improvised
exchanges between the two cornetists were revolutionary for their
time. If they sound a little archaic and even unadventurous today,
it's because they wrote the rulebook everybody else followed. Here's
a classic example from 1923, Riverside Blues.

Next week: More of the Louis Armstrong story


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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