If you're new to jazz, go to our Getting Into Jazz primer
for some hints on how to listen. CD Capsule
Portrait of the artist as a young genius. In these immortal recordings, Armstrong blew new life into jazz and changed it forever. Background
Many people remember Louis Armstrong
only as a popular entertainer, recalling how he wrapped his warm, gravelly voice around such hits as "Hello, Dolly" and "It's a Wonderful World." But he was far more than that. Back in the 1920s, when Armstrong himself was in his twenties, his trumpet playing changed jazz forever.
Before Armstrong, New Orleans-style jazz bands mainly played in tight, three-horn counterpoint, in which the trumpet carried the main melody while clarinet and trombone filled the spaces with counter-melodies. At its best, that kind of ensemble work is wonderful to listen to, even today. But solos in those early bands were short, perfunctory, and mainly dull.
Then came young Armstrong, and jazz would never be the same. He was perhaps the first true virtuoso in jazz, a brilliant trumpeter with searing power and passion. The best of his solos from that era are unforgettable. Once you know them, you'll recall their joy for the rest of your life.
Before you listen to Armstrong, go to the Chet Baker Quartet with Russ Freeman
CD (part of this "Getting Into Jazz" series), and notice the contrast between the two trumpeters. Baker was cool, restrained, lyrical, a master at improvising melody. He treaded lightly on the notes, whispering his feelings through the music. Armstrong was the antithesis of cool. His playing was red hot, with a wide-open passion that stretched from his heart to yours.
The best way to appreciate Armstrong when his star shone brightest is to hear him with his Hot Five and Hot Seven, pick-up bands of top-flight New Orleans musicians recruited by Armstrong for recording dates in 1926 and 1927. The Hot Five (trumpet or cornet, clarinet, trombone, piano and banjo) was augmented in the Hot Seven by tuba and drums. (Armstrong's wife, Lillian Hardin, played piano on these sides.)
A couple of things to note as you listen to these recordings.
First and foremost is the power and elegance of Armstrong's solos. They're not just strong and passionate, they're immensely creative. Armstrong is stretching the limits of the jazz solo, sometimes trying for something he can't quite achieve, and so you'll hear a few cracked or flubbed notes. That's to be expected, because in those days, and for these kinds of records, they didn't record take after take until the music was perfect, and they didn't have the technology to clean up flaws afterwards in the studio. Essentially whatever came out is what you got. But those occasional flubs are endearing. They show Armstrong pushing himself, taking chances.
The second thing to focus on is the wonderful ensemble counterpoint. Listen especially to the way clarinetist Johnny Dodds weaves complex counter-melodies around Armstrong's lead melody. It takes a little concentration, but it's worth it. Highlights Track 12, "Potato Head Blues"
This is possibly the brightest jewel in all of Armstrong's early work. His two solos are short, self-contained masterworks, carefully crafted and beautifully executed. And the precise but passionate interplay of Johnny Dodds' clarinet makes the ensembles just as exciting. The track opens with the melody stated simply by Armstrong's trumpet, with an assertive counter-melody by Dodds' clarinet. Your attention will naturally be drawn to the trumpet, but listen carefully to how the clarinet fills the little spaces that Armstrong leaves in the primary melody. Armstrong and Dodds are weaving a beautiful, tightly stitched fabric.
At 0:41, Armstrong plays his first solo. Notice how simple it is, how economical. Armstrong makes every note count, like an old-fashioned photographer with only a few shots on his roll of film. Nothing is wasted, no notes are blown without reason. And yet those spare notes carry tremendous emotion.
Then, at 1:05, without a moment's breather to relieve the tension, it's time for Dodds to solo, and you're thinking he won't be able to match Armstrong's intensity. But he does match it, and masterfully. Notice the nice bits of "stop time," at 1:24 and 1:38, where the rhythm section stops and his clarinet sings alone.
At 1:53, after a very brief banjo interlude, it's time for Armstrong's second solo, played without accompaniment, the rhythm section inserting periodic accents. This is an extraordinary piece of work, constructed on the spot. You can almost hear Armstrong planning his next move as he lays down the notes. At 2:34, he blows a triumphal swoop that signals the start of the final ensemble, whereupon he picks up the rest of the band, tucks them under his arm, and soars. Pure joy. Track 16, "Keyhole Blues"
Listen in this track for the three-horn counterpoint in the ensembles, and for Armstrong's singing. After a short opening ensemble, Armstrong does a simple, straightforward solo at 0:17, laying out the basic melody. A long, beautiful ensemble begins at 0:54, interspersed with some short, stop-time solos by Armstrong and Dodds. Notice here that you can clearly hear the trombone in the ensembles (not always the case in "Potato Head Blues"), so you're getting a full taste of three-horn counterpoint. Listen closely for those three interweaving melodies.
At 1:40, another solo by Armstrong, but instead of playing it, he "scat" sings it, using nonsense syllables instead of words. As you listen, pretend his vocalizations are coming from his trumpet. Sounds just like what he'd play, doesn't it? Somehow hearing him sing his solo brings us closer to understanding what he's thinking as he improvises.
After a nice clarinet solo at 2:17, the ensemble takes over at 2:51, and you can enjoy the satisfying three-horn counterpoint until the end. At 3:08, notice how Armstrong, almost exploding with intensity, smears a few notes, which just adds to the excitement. Track 10, "Wild Man Blues"
This song, taken at a slow tempo (despite its title), is nearly all Armstrong and Dodds, each giving us an extended, passionate solo. What could be better? After a brief ensemble introduction, at 0:21 Armstrong begins a solo that's filled with invention and punctuated by punchy stop-time intervals. At 1:50, Dodds does the same, and with equal intensity. (When Dodds plays his clarinet in the lower register, you can almost feel the wood vibrating.) At 3:03, a brief ensemble to close things out. Track 15, "Twelfth Street Rag"
The highlight here is Armstrong's opening solo at 0:08, which he begins by punching the tune out in staccato shots that burst with pent-up energy. "I can hardly contain myself," he seems to say. At 0:24, Armstrong loosens up with longer lines of melody, especially beautiful in contrast. At 0:41, listen for another of those smeary notes where he seems to be pushing more energy into his horn than it can take.
At 1:11, a rough-and-tumble trombone solo, followed at 1:45 with a bit of ensemble, and then at 01:57 a Dodds solo that's executed entirely in the clarinet's upper register. In the closing ensemble, starting at 2:30, listen for the trombone's long, pleasingly drawn out notes, and at 2:48, for a beautiful stop-time interval in which Dodds' clarinet suddenly sings out when the other voices fall silent.