Term Paper: Beauty of Jazz in the Time of Louis Armstrong

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Louis Armstrong: Jazz Great

Jazz music exists as music inspired by a set of emotions is significant to music because it captures a cultural emotion and mindset like none other. Born from rugged blues music, jazz is a type of music that is very personal. It represents freedom from the past and it also represents freedom of the individual at a time when individuality was not popular. Jazz is les then a century old but that does not mean that it has no soul; in fact, it may have more soul than most other forms of music because it captures a mood of an entire generation that encourages freedom. Jazz encompasses a wide variety of sounds and beats, including religious pieces, ragtime, rock, pop, celebratory pieces, and blues are just a few of the sounds that emerge when listening to jazz music. Its birth in the rural southern United States at the turn of the twentieth century explains at least part of its inspiration. It grew among a population with influences from Africa and America and it represents the beauty of what happens when cultures collide. Music became a form of escape for many people then as it does now and of all musical genres, jazz represents freedom and expression. One of the most significant influences of this time was Louis Armstrong, a self-taught cornet player that changed the jazz world through improvisation.

Armstrong was born in 1901 in New Orleans. He lived in poverty while he was growing up and only experienced jazz from "street corners, through open windows, and at funerals and parades" (Fordham 96). This was all the inspiration he needed, however, to think about how he could express himself through music. Armstrong met many jazz legends and trombonist Joe Oliver befriended him, an event that later opened many doors for Armstrong. Some of his first musical jobs were working the riverboats that traveled the Mississippi but his talent became apparent when he followed Oliver to Chicago where his music was "so powerful and penetrating that he head to stand 15 feet behind the others" (Fordham 97). It should be noted that Armstrong was not trying to muscle in on his friend's acts, he was simply doing what he loved and that lead to many opportunities that would make him famous for generations to come.

Armstrong changed the way New Orleans played and heard jazz and he began performing professionally with Fletcher Henderson's Orchestra. His presence in the band "transformed" (97) the orchestra from a "glossy danceband to an inventive jazz ensemble, crucial to the later evolution of music" (97). As a part of Henderson's band, Armstrong's improvisations shifted rhythmic and tonal importance, which added variety to new songs. Shipton writes the jazz movement sought "free-flowing solos" and Armstrong's influence in Henderson's band gave this attitude momentum. It also meant more opportunities for soloists as many began pursuing their dreams like Armstrong did. Armstrong's free-style solos were no small things and they did not simply inspire men in his circles. Shipton writes his influences were "extremely influential all over the world" (Shipton 1998 138). This influence began humbly in New Orleans and emerged victoriously to announce that talent can exist and thrive anywhere the soul is open to it. Armstrong had the desire to make music and that is the first step in acquiring style.

It is almost not nearly enough to say Armstrong had style because his style was so powerful. According to Shipton, his style "successfully combined emotional depth, rhythmic innovation, and a liberating sense of solo freedom into a heady and original mixture. He pushed at the boundaries of the cornet's range" (Shipton 138). In West End Blues, Armstrong's ability to build tension with long, upward moving phrases is obvious. These tones, according to Leonard Feather, were Armstrong's "purity of tone was perhaps his most admired asset" (Feather 85). Armstrong also demonstrates how he can take control of tune in a song. Feather contends that the orchestra was often a barrier to the "authentic presentation of his phenomenal musicianship" (86). Gioia writes "Armstrong always took delight in the use of stop-time choruses, a technique in which the band would play a simple rhythm pattern . . . while remaining silent the rest of the time" (Gioia 62). Two songs that demonstrate Armstrong's stop-playing are Oriental Strut and Cornet Chop Suey. Gioia states these songs are Armstrong's finest stop-playing tunes.

When comparing Armstrong's jazz to previous jazz, several elements stand out. One aspect was his ability to lead a "collective polyphonic front line" (Shipton 132), which brought an aspect of "improvisation into the phrasing and timing of the lead itself that had not yet been achieved" (132). This pattern emerged when Armstrong was playing with Clarence William's band, Blue Five. With Blue Five, Armstrong invented variations as he led the ensemble. An example of this is in the song, Many Make Up Your Mind, where his lead is firm and Armstrong "manages the almost impossible feat of continuing to provide a swinging, forceful lead while actually holding the excessive zeal of his rhythm section in check. He is equally in control during Bechet's extraordinary solo on the bass sarrusophone" (133). In addition to this, Armstrong also keeps the "entire performance on an even keel" (133). Here we see how Armstrong possessed the ability to bring a flavor of swing to the small group.

It is worth noting that Armstrong's music was not a big hit in the beginning. It is true that his style and influence "closed the book" on traditional jazz in New Orleans but that does not mean that things were easy for him. Historians agree that Armstrong's style was not appreciated or even accepted by the general public. Early in his career, it was his fellow musicians that leanred to appreciate what he was doing first. They could see he was on the verge of something new and exciting and his music was "revered by countless jazz musicians" (Gioia 56). This demonstrates the importance of Armstrong's strength to remain committed to his dream even when the public did not completely understand him at first. It is necessary to mention Armstrong's ability to emulate the human voice. He possessed a strength that allowed him to pull from the personas of vocalists. Shipton writes that this is visible with Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter. Armstrong combined "flamboyant and bravura cornet interjections with a sensitive display of human feeling" (Shipton 134). We see this in Smith's song, St. Louis Blues. Armstrong's influence reached from musicians to lyricists to vocalists.

Armstrong's innovations are often overlooked today because they sounds are common to modern ears. It is important to remember, however, that these sounds, when Armstrong was experimenting with them, were not common at all. Modern listeners hear "familiar devices used by many players" (Gioia 61) and modern listeners easily "forget that the jazz world originally learned them from Armstrong" (61). Gioia maintains one way to truly understand the scope of Armstrong's impact is to compare his work to the jazz that came before him. From listening to works that inspired Armstrong, one can truly grasp the fresh perspective Armstrong gave jazz. He gave it a new direction in many ways and, one could even say he gave jazz different directions in which to go.

Armstrong's contributions to the swing era is worth mentioning because he set new standards for horn players regarding technique and range. It went further than that, however, because Armstrong's knowledge and insight was respected by all players of instruments. He knew what he was talking about and he knew what sounded good. He became so popular that he began recording songs under his own name. By the mid 1930s, he had perfected his bravura style, hitting high notes with impeccable skill. Over time, his audience grew. He even wowed local musicians when they demanded to see his mouthpiece because they could not believe it was doctored in some way.

The maturity of Armstrong's music is seen in his bands Hot Five and Hot Seven. The inclusion of violinist Carroll Dickerson created what Gioia calls the "most exciting jazz of the decade" (63). The solos recorded around this time illustrate Armstrong's ability to explore a "lyricism," (Shipton 138) Shipton says, that may have come from his "love for light classics and opera" (138). Armstrong enhanced the music with a new set of "aesthetic qualities into jazz, a sense that there could be considerable artistic worth in music conceived as popular entertainment" (138). Armstrong's vision for what the music could do allowed other artists to experience opportunity in a way that was literally impossible before. His vision for what music could do opened doors for him and others brave enough to dream big like him.

Throughout his career, Armstrong became known as an "ambassador for jazz," (69) and later, Ambassador Satch, a term that was attached to the musician after World War II and early into the Cold War. Armstrong was intent on spreading… [END OF PREVIEW]

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