Louis Armstrong was born on this day, August 4, in 1901 to William and Mary Armstrong in New Orleans, LA.
For many years, when I thought of Louis Armstrong, I thought of the man I saw on TV when I was a kid. I pictured a smiling (no: beaming), well-dressed, bald African-American man with a trumpet in one hand and a large white handkerchief in the other. He was alternately singing “Hello, Dolly” in a wonderful, low and scratchy voice, playing that trumpet and wiping sweat from his brow. I think he was also the first person I heard scat sing.
I now know that Louis Armstrong had a #1, Grammy-winning record in 1964 with his recording of “Hello, Dolly.” I also now know that he was so much more than a smiling Pop vocalist.
About two years ago, I started researching the first Jazz recordings and almost immediately came upon the name Louis Armstrong.
I read in William Ruhlman’s entry on Armstrong in the All Music Guide To Jazz that he was: “the first important soloist to emerge in Jazz” and “the most influential musician in the music’s history.”
I found out that he made his first recordings as a member of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in April of 1923. Then, on November 12, 1925, he made his first recordings as a leader with Louis Armstrong & His Hot Five. Everything I read said these recordings were a very big deal.
So, I went shopping.
In his excellent liner notes to the CD Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five And Hot Seven Recordings, Vol.1 on Columbia, Gary Giddins starts off by saying: “If Louis Armstrong had never lived, the world would be a different place.” He goes on to say: “It was Armstrong who established Blues tonality as Jazz’s harmonic bedrock” and “He taught the whole world to swing.” Oh, my.
Then I listened to the CD.
Oh, my, indeed. To say this music (and the other volumes, such as Vol.3) is amazing, or some such adjective, is a vast understatement. You have to listen to it. Try: “My Heart,” “Gut Bucket Blues,” “Muskrat Ramble,” “Heebie Jeebies,” “Hotter Than That,” “Pototo Head Blues” and “West End Blues.”
Listening to this music, you can hear that what Gary Giddins says in those liner notes is true: without this music “the Swing Era, modern Jazz, mainstream Pop, R&B, and Rock & Roll – assuming they came to pass at all – would be so changed as to be unrecognizable.”
Between the Hot Five recordings and “Hello, Dolly,” Louis Armstrong made many, many records. He recorded with small groups, big bands, orchestras and backing up other vocalists, such as Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald. You can hear his smile in every note he played on his trumpet and every note he sang.
And if the music were not enough, I have learned, Louis Armstrong did more.
On his way to becoming “one of the most influential musicians in the history of popular music and one of the best-known, best-loved entertainers in the world” (The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music), Louis Armstrong left his mark on American society as a whole. Gary Giddins again: “Armstrong’s impact on the integration of radio, film, TV, Southern theatres, and other aspects of American life is as immeasurable as the enduring genius of his music.”
Thank you, Louis Armstrong.
Louis Armstrong passed away on July 6, 1971 in New York, NY.