Louis Armstrong's muscial contrubutions to jazz

I’ve been watching the Ken Burns’ series on Jazz, and I would recommend it to everyone, even if you’re not particularly interested in music. It’s some great history and give some deep (and troubling) background on the civil rights issues that are woven into the fabric of our American society.

I’m only on episode 3, which focuses a lot on Louis Armstrong. His personal story is inspiring and interesting. Being in my 60’s I grew up knowing about him, seeing him on TV, and I’ve always been aware of his stature in the musical world and as a cultural figure.

What I can’t pin down from the series or from googling around is Armstrong’s specific musical contribution to jazz and music in general. Wynton Marsalis and others in the narration compare him to Bach as a giant who laid the foundation for modern, uniquely American music.

What I’m getting from a cursory attempt at internet research is that he is responsible for the practice of improvisational solos in jazz bands and that he brought scat singing to the whole country from its birthplace in New Orleans. He was popular and a crowd magnet. The narration mentions how people used to flock to this one club in Chicago in the 1920’s to see if he could hit 50 high c’s in a row. Fifty high c’s in a row strikes me as a physical feat-- is it really something musical?

What about the specific, original musical contributions he made. Not style or performance or stage presence or just being a great guy. What about the content of his improvisational work. Was there something musically new and special about it, or was it just the fact that this hadn’t been done before. I’m not seeing someone with the musical impact and stature of Bach. I’m ready to believe it–I just haven’t been shown the nature of the impact, aside from his virtuoso talent as a performer. I mean no disrespect to him or anyone–just want to understand something that I’m not getting.

I also realize that growing up with this music already in place, it’s impossible to know the impact that the new sound/style of music had on the public. The series talks about “thousands of young girls being corrupted by Ragtime.” (Cf. The Music Man: “Ragtime, shameless music that’ll drag your son, y****our daughter into the arms of a jungle **animal **instinct-- mass 'steria!”) We also can’t imagine how Mozart shocked the ears of his contemporaries. It’s not the newness of the **sound **I’m asking about, so much as the technical innovations in the structure of the music itself. What innovations did Armstrong bring to this? Can I hear from some musicians who understand and value Armstrong’s work?

Early jazz was pretty formulaic, with group improv, rather than soloists. Armstrong was one of the first (and most accomplished) solo improv players. He was the inspiration for a whole generation of jazz horn players.

They discuss his musical contributions a lot. His swing timing which changed everything. His improv and phrasing (solo phrasing was completely changed when happening on top of a swing beat), his use of multiple lead players improvising on top of each other. I thought they did a good job of explaining them.

Armstrong was a complete badass.

To me, the recording that epitomizes Armstrong’s advancement of the art is Potato Head Blues. His solo in this record is really advanced for the time: rather than just ornamenting the existing melody, it creates new melody. In other words, he introduced a level of creativity into jazz improvisation that didn’t exist previously.

Another thing about Armstrong is that he was very loose with his time. Playing off the beat had always been part of jazz, but Armstrong pushed it farther than those who came before him. He figured out ways of playing (or singing) wayyyy off the beat and bringing it back while sounding natural. This part of his style influenced a lot of performers. Billie Holiday took a lot of her time from Armstrong.

BTW, you’ve hit on something that really annoyed me about Burns’ Jazz documentary. Most of it isn’t really about music. The show is full of talking heads who go on and on about the social history of jazz, but there isn’t much about the music as music.

Yes, I got that his rhythmic originality was a definite innovation and is the essence of jazz. And the creativity in improvised solos–okay, I see that. Did he have most of his impact on solo performers?

It seems to me that Jelly Roll Morton’s innovation of writing down the improvised music so that the *spontaneity *could be recreated was pretty darned important.

And I’m at the Duke Ellington section, and his different use and positioning of instruments in the band also seemed quite influential.

I agree. I like the talking heads and the history and especially the vintage film and recordings. But I’d have liked to hear more about the music and music theory itself.

One thing that is really getting to me (I’m in episode 4 now) is the constant use of superlatives in the narration. Over and over, we hear that <whatever> was the best, the greatest, the highest paid, the single most…, “when ___ happened, ___ would never be the same,” “___ changed ___ forever.” The heaping of extreme superlatives on top of each other in ever-higher piles of dilutes all of them.
This program is making me see how uninformed I’ve been about the history of race relations. If, at my “senior” age, I’m not that well-informed, and I lived thorough the riots of the 1950s & 60s, it makes me wonder how much of this complicated and shameful history today’s high school and college kids are taught.

Jimi Hendrix “just” fused together a bunch of stuff being done by other players, but his combination of them, songwriting and freedom changed everything.

Louis Armstrong’s approach to rhythm and phrasing, and how he looked, dressed and spoke, was THE template for jazz and jazz players.

ETA: I am trying to say that in hindsight, when his “vocabulary” has infused our world and music for generations, it is hard to appreciate how transformational he was…

When you look at the horn and sax players who came after him, like Clifford Brown, Gillespie, Lester Young, etc., it’s hard to overstate Armstrong’s influence on solo players. But his influence on swing and jazz bands was as large, as tunes were written and arranged to accommodate soloists.

He was the first true soloist of jazz.

(Well, second actually, behind the brilliant Sidney Bechet).

But beyond that, he helped legitimize jazz to white America by playing a quasi goofy-minstrel role in his live performances.

To understand the revolutionary genius of Armstrong, you need to listen to this:


It is sublime, bluesy, and rooted in the traditions of New Orleans with a keen eye toward the future.

This is what I was going to say. Before Armstrong, jazz was typically played in more of a ragtime tempo, in 4/4, which sounds old-fashioned and stilted in comparison to the post-Armstrong 6/8 style.

I am no jazz expert by any means, but I found something marvelous in his version of “Stardust” (which, IIRC, is kind of the theme song of Ken Burns’ Jazz):

He starts with a trumpet solo, variation on the melody.

Then sings a different variation on the melody.

The plays another solo, another variation on the melody.

The song doesn’t contain the actual melody, anywhere. It’s awesome.

Okay, I am on the road, stuck in a hotel. I am actually going to take a shot at this.

Bach vs. Armstrong: why they matter

So, with Bach, I start with his Well-Tempered Clavier. He was, in his music, making a case for using a Well Tempered tuning. Tunings had not been settled on, and so playing different keys required different tunings - I am told that D minor was the saddest key. ;). He was showing that an instrument tuned to be Well Tempered could be played in all keys and still work. It just so happens that he did so by composing some incredible music - taking different melody threads and weaving them together into a bigger tapestry - to show that the harmonies that happened sounded great across all keys. It showed that Well Tempered tuning worked by showing that all the notes worked together - but it opened up an approach to melody and harmony that changed how we look at music.

With Armstrong, assume melody and harmony are both established to matter - Bach covered that. Now - what about rhythm? It was held captive in a military beat in Classical music. Jazz starts because the rhythm changes - moving from steady tap tap tap to clustering beats and coming in behind the beat. Breaking the Law of Steady Rhythm changed everything. And Louis Armstrong was the biggest champion of that change. Buddy Bolden was the first guy to really do it, as I understand - but Louis was such a master player, and so popular, that you couldn’t write off his approach to music as simple or primitive.

So he was as important as Bach because he broke open one of the fundamental dimensions of music, similar to how Bach did.

Does that help?

Man, I love this forum. Jeff and WordMan in particular wrote fantastic posts. I can’t really add anything to them.

As far as “Jazz” (the documentary), Burns has freely admitted he knew little about jazz before he started the project. He picked it largely because jazz touches on issues of American cultural development and race relations. Which is why he relied so much on figures like Marsalis, and why it emphasizes racial issues so much. It’s telling that until he plays Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul”, there isn’t a single lengthy uninterrupted musical passage in the documentary.

He played Armstrong’s West End Blues all the way through earlier in the series. I don’t think this changes the point you’re trying to make, though. I think those are the only two pieces of music Burns did this with.

I thought of another area where Armstrong had a big influence: he worked in Fletcher Henderson’s orchestra for about a year. While there, he played alongside Coleman Hawkins, Buster Bailey and Don Redman. They all learned a lot from him about how to construct a solo.

Yes. Perfect.

Well, then: Yay!

I agree with all this, but just wish to point out that it’s primarily a description of the revolutionary nature of jazz in general rather than Louis Armstrong in particular. The simple fact that he was a leader, a focal point, for this revolution is one large part of why he was so important, but it leaves open the question of “Why was he, rather than someone else, the leader?”.

When I started this thread, I had just begun the series. As I got farther into it, they did indeed have a lot more to say about Armstrong. .

Why did Hendrix blow open rock guitar? He took all stuff swirling around him and brought superior musicianship, songwriting, band leadership and a completely innovative and new sound.

Why was he the leader? He was a complete and total badass.