Born in 1901, Louis Armstrong fondly referred to “Satchmo” is one of the most significant contributors to Jazz as a genre of music. Observers noted that he was a man with humor, and the ability to make everyone around him happy. What defined his music is the passion and creativity that he presented. Consequently, this brought to life a new form of music that current musicians try to copy. He introduced a new approach to Jazz commonly referred to as “swing” and spent his lifetime presenting it to the world. His influence did not only have influence during the 20th Century but also spread through the 21st century1.
His musical roots began to grow while he was still young as he performed during local events such as funerals and parades. These kinds of performances caught the attention of musical moguls in New Orleans such as Joe Oliver. Oliver was a respectable trumpet player. He became his mentor and later left Armstrong to take his place in the Kid Ory’s band. This opened up the musical experience for Armstrong, who continued to develop his skills by playing alongside other established Jazz players. By 1926, Armstrong was dominating the mainstream media since his music was played on records and the radio. The people of New Orleans appreciated his many performances in Jazz clubs, and this helped him rise to prominence. The year 1929 saw him move to New York, where he continued to horn his trade. It is during this period that the tag, “king of jazz” became his own. By the thirties, Armstrong was already a household name, and he had many performances in America and Europe2.
Armstrong’s stylistic Contributions to Jazz
The Norton Company on its website notes that Louis Armstrong in the 20’s single handedly became the face of Jazz and transformed its performance. The two major aspects of Jazz that changed due to his contribution were the nature of the soloist and ensemble. His first influence was his mentor Oliver with whom he played with in New Orleans, and he soon developed his unique swing form of performing Jazz. The new kind of music he created had more rhythm and this made his style to be compared to the Broadway style of Jazz that was famous at that time.
Another significant influence that Armstrong had on Jazz during his time was the transformation of the polyphony form of playing Jazz to the soloist appreciation. Besides, he orchestrated an embrace of improvisation and the introduction of the full choruses done by a single person. Armstrong’s approach profoundly influenced many musicians, and this saw both white and black artists bring about more improvisation in the genre. This new crop of musicians came up to take advantage of the vast potential that Armstrong had introduced. The dominance and importance of the soloist also came to the light with Jazz taking up a universal outlook.
Armstrong’s musical journey
Throughout his career, Armstrong performed alongside many musicians and bands. The first musician was Joe Oliver, who also acted as his mentor. Suddenly, their time ended when Oliver moved on to Chicago. Armstrong played with other bands and continued to develop his skill as a soloist. Upon moving to New York, he got the opportunity to play with the famous New Yorker, Fletcher Henderson, who further expanded his horizons. It is during this period that his revolutionary ideas in Jazz were born. He also learned essential musical skills such as composition and musical terms3. His phenomenal skills on the stage moved his listeners and elevated the Jazz music to new horizons.
The next step in his music saw him work with OKeh Records, where he was appointed as the head of the recording. Through this avenue, Armstrong went on to work with many artists such as John Dodds, Kid Ory, John Cyr and Lil Hardin. Through working with various artists, he went on to make almost 70 records. Some of his famous recordings include Hebbie Jeebies, which is a song that brought to light the new approach to Jazz that Armstrong developed. Others include chimes blues that were recorded in 1923, Cake Walkin’ Babies from Home recorded in 1925, West End Blues of 1928 and Star Dust in 19314.
Armstrong and race relations
Armstrong lived during a time when racial segregation was the norm. The majority of the whites in America had not wholly embraced people of the black race as equal members of the society. They viewed blacks as illiterate and with no ability to contribute significantly to the wider society. Contrary, Armstrong defied all the odds and rose to a position that no African-American was expected to reach. Through his nature in performing music, he challenged the idea that the African-Americans would only occupy the bottom positions in social stratification. The white majority expected Armstrong just like every other African-American to act as a low class citizen. Armstrong defied the norm to become a prominent figure in the society. He served as an example of the great potential that was within African-Americans in the society.
Various instances are recorded where Armstrong was subjected to certain kinds of racial segregation. He responded to such instances jokingly instead of dwelling on the negative connotations of such instances. These approaches revealed that African-Americans were actually on the same intellectual ability with the racist whites in the society5. Armstrong used his talent in music as a platform to sensitize the black race at the same time; he demonstrated the capability in black Americans to liberalize.
Ben Schwartz in his article in the New Yorker notes that many of the black activists at the time expected Armstrong to join them on the front line when marching against racism in the society. His approach was different, and he refused to join such demonstrations noting that his life would be at significant risk. He viewed music as the tool through which his kind of activism flourished. With this notion, Armstrong invited criticism from the black and jazz communities. The critics pointed out that Armstrong was playing safe by behaving in line with the racial stereotypes that were associated with African-Americans at that time.
Armstrong’s focus was on success in his music while bearing in mind that his music was a tool that would later bring leverage between the whites and black Americans. In a bid to achieve this, he had to appease the white majority, and he accomplished this through smiling and not complaining. Through this, the whites were attracted to his musical performances, and though he seemed not to be involved in activism, his songs and gestures were in sharp contrast. He continued in this silent form of activism until the end of his career. Afterward, Armstrong became vocal about racism and made open statements against segregation in the American society6. It is worth noting that, Armstrong’s music served as a unifying factor for both the white and black Americans since they identified with his music.
Armstrong, Louis, and Thomas David Brothers. Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words: Selected Writings. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Web.
Evans, Joe, and Christopher Antonio Brooks. Follow Your Heart Moving with the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008. Web.
Fahlenkamp-Merrell, Kindle. Louis Armstrong. Mankato, MN: Child’s World, 2010. Web.
1 Joe Evans and Christopher Antonio Brooks, Follow Your Heart Moving with the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 34. Web.
2 Louis Armstrong and Thomas David Brothers, Louis Armstrong, in His Own Words: Selected Writings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 125. Web.
3 Kindle Fahlenkamp-Merrell, Louis Armstrong (Mankato, MN: Child’s World, 2010), 13. Web.
4 Joe Evans and Christopher Antonio Brooks, Follow Your Heart Moving with the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 44. Web.
5 Kindle Fahlenkamp-Merrell, Louis Armstrong (Mankato, MN: Child’s World, 2010), 17. Web.
6 Joe Evans and Christopher Antonio Brooks, Follow Your Heart Moving with the Giants of Jazz, Swing, and Rhythm and Blues (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 43. Web.
Louis Armstrong’s Contribution to Jazz Music