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Louis Armstrong sang and played the trumpet with equal flair


They grew up together, Jazz and Satchmo

Louis Armstrong claimed he was born on 4 July, the day Americans celebrate their freedom. July is a good time to look back at the career of a great singer and trumpeter whose free music was born behind bars, in a reform school

Regular readers of The Music Magazine and of my contributions to it might remember that the inaugural issue a year ago carried a review of This Is Jazz: Louis Armstrong. Although the cassette wasn't a new release it was recent enough and I'd chosen it deliberately because (as such readers would have gathered by now) Louis Armstrong's role in the formative years of jazz was pivotal.

A year later, on July 4, 2000, is an opportune time to profile the man. In an interview with Armstrong broadcast over the Voice of America, Willis Conover asked him when he'd realised that the fireworks every year on the Fourth of July were not for his birthday. (Armstrong jokingly replied that he still thought they were for his birthday!). For Armstrong always claimed (although his claim has been doubted) to have been born on July 4, 1900.

A poor black boy growing up on the streets of New Orleans at the begining of the century needn't necessarily have been encumbered with the documentary proof of a birth certificate to disprove such a claim. Such an upbringing had other advantages too. For, the young Louis got into trouble with petty crime and landed in reform school, where a kindly warder gave him a trumpet to keep him out of mischief and improve himself.

Thus it was that the first genius of the new form of music that was to represent freedom for an oppressed race got his schooling in the music by fiddling around with a second-hand instrument in distinctly unfree environs behind bars. When the teenager came out, he returned to the streets, but for the impromptu performances that enthusiastic musicians were putting on for the entertainment of fellow-blacks of the city.

Armstrong played under the tutelage of both the trombonist Edward ''Kid'' Ory and the cornetist-trumpeter Joseph ''King'' Oliver. By the end of the 1910s, when jazz had started moving up the Mississippi river to Chicago, Oliver had established himself in the metropolis, from where he beckoned to Armstrong to join him.

In Dixieland, the earliest form of jazz, the usual line-up of melody instruments was trumpet, trombone and clarinet. During breaks for improvisation, these three usually improvised separate tunes simultaneously. It was unusual to have two cornetist-trumpeters, and since their instruments sounded identical, they had to be much more careful of what they each improvised during these breaks. Oliver and Armstrong had worked out elaborate plans to make sure they improvised differently. It may have been these plans that made Armstrong extra-attentive to the business of improvising.

Whatever it is, we know that after the Oliver band's pianist, Lil Hardin, married Armstrong and prodded him into leaving the band and starting his own outfit, the younger man gave the technique of improvisation a new dimension. Soon he had produced the first famous improvised solo in jazz, the introduction to West End Blues, a tune that thenceforth was always associated with him and this marvellous solo.

Armstrong now worked for a few years in Chicago, leading his bands, usually called the Hot Five or the Hot Seven. Earlier he had been to New York for a brief stint with Fletcher Henderson, the first great big band leader. There he'd worked with Coleman Hawkins, later the first great tenor saxophonist, whom he initiated into the art of solo improvisation. During his Hot Five and Hot Seven days, his band was a small Dixieland-type outfit consisting of (obviously!) five or seven members. But his music was already showing signs of change from the classic Dixieland style in other ways than just the introduction of improvised solos. For one thing, it bore the main hallmark of swing jazz: the staggering of the notes away from the ground beat, or syncopation.

In fact, Armstrong's singing very clearly showed this in phrasing in such a way that the notes rode over the beat in as natural a manner as ordinary speech would dictate. He could be thought of as the inventor of syncopated vocals. At about this time he also probably made his other great innovation, the use of nonsense syllables in singing to enable the singer to improvise the melody just as easily as an instrumentalist does.

In his Chicago days Armstrong had among his band one of his two early mentors, Kid Ory. Ory was perhaps saved from poverty by this reversal of roles, for King Oliver fell on much harder times after Armstrong left. Armstrong was the first star of genuine jazz, the first black to make it to the big time in music, and soon the first black popular entertainer.

By the mid-30s the line between his work in jazz and as an entertainer had been blurred and crossed. Even as he toured Europe and was lionised there (partly because the Continent saw the value of jazz as a serious art form, partly because the all-pervading colour prejudice in the US hadn't crossed the ocean), he was also getting into singing for wider audiences. He got cameo roles in films and became a partner and friend of popular singing stars such as Bing Crosby. Critics began to say that he was no longer a serious jazz musician.

Armstrong had tasted popular success, and it's true that he liked it. It's true that his work also changed in the direction of emphasising the popular. But for one thing he had shot his creative bolt, and the jazz anvil was ready for musicians who would advance the art beyond what Armstrong and other swing musicians had done. For another, he was finding playing the trumpet more difficult because of what it did to his lips. (This characteristic flattening and curling outwards that afflicts trumpeters earned him the nickname Satchmo or Satch, short for Satchel Mouth.) He concentrated on singing, and since few jazz singers had followed his lead to adopt scat singing for improvisation, it was easy to cut down the scat in his vocals.

But from about the mid-40s Armstrong did revive his jazz work. The Louis Armstrong All-Stars made frequent trips to the concert stage, which scattered plenty of good jazz into the pop concerts and TV shows. The line-up was the good old Dixieland small band (trumpet, trombone, clarinet, piano, optional guitar, bass, drums) playing swing. It sometimes included old buddies such as the pianist Earl Hines and the trombonist Jack Teagarden, as well as a one-time Ellington star, Barney Bigard on clarinet. Recordings from the '50s such as Satch Plays Fats (based on the music of Fats Waller) are superb examples of the old jazz fire.

At the same time he became something of a roving goodwill ambassador for the US State Department. He went to Africa and played in the former Belgian Congo as well as at the Ghanaian Independence Day. Even in popular music (such as his appearances in the films Hello Dolly! and Cabaret) his own contribution was pristine jazz, and he did use his trumpet as well as improvise both on it and with his voice. In the early '60s he got his band together with Duke Ellington on piano to record an album of Ellington hits, a high point in classic swing jazz revival that showed him at the height of his powers as a trumpeter and singer.

Armstrong died two days after his supposed 71st birthday. He had already passed into legend and popular mythology, but that hadn't seduced him to rest on his laurels or to let popular acclaim change him from an exponent of a great Afro-American art into a mere purveyor of pop culture.


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