The monumental stature of Louis Armstrong in American music was not due to the compositions he wrote, for he was not a composer. Armstrong’s genius lay in the fact that he was an innovator and, in a sense, a completer.
It was as if the musical alphabet before Armstrong consisted of 2 vowels and six consonants. The feel of jazz was definitely there, but the language was severely limited in what it could produce. Armstrong came along and provided the 3 additional vowels and 15 consonants which made the jazz alphabet complete. Those who performed jazz after Louis Armstrong were given a model and a pattern for what the jazz solo, whether instrumental or vocal, should be.
The innovations that Armstrong brought to jazz were in several areas.
First, quite simply, when Armstrong arrived in Chicago he was a more skilled cornet player than any one from New Orleans to Chicago. His ability to play rapid, angular, soaring melodic lines set him apart from all others, including his boss, “King” Oliver. His well-developed range allowed him to play entire lines in the upper registers of the instrument where other players would only briefly play one or two notes. Then, the power of his playing could easily distance all other cornet players. The story is told that in the recording sessions with King Oliver’s band, Armstrong would have to stand 15 to 20 feet behind the rest of the instruments so that they would be balanced with his power playing. With his power, agility, and range, Louis possessed a better technique than anyone in jazz.
Secondly, Armstrong had an innate understanding of the dramatic flair in solo lines. Prior to Armstrong, soloists played their melodic ideas in tight, consistent 2 or 4 measure phrases. They were predictable and comfortable. What Armstrong did to the compact, concise solo was to break the mold from 2 or 4 measure phrases to phrases that may last 5 measures or 2 ½ measures. The line could be chopped into two or three beat parts, then reconnected to create a new idea. Alternating with the rapid lines of dozens of fast notes might be a line consisting of a single sustained note for as many as 1, 2 or even 6 measures. Such shifts between fast, rapid passages and long, sustained notes gave the illusion that Armstrong was in complete control of the moment, working the emotions of the audience with his music. Finally, Armstrong almost single-handedly invented the dramatic song ending where the soloist saves the highest and strongest note for the last. Thousands of instrumental and vocal soloists since then, from Aretha Franklin to Frank Sinatra to Led Zeppelin, have used that dramatic technique to bring an intense finish to a power song. The dramatic skills Armstrong displayed pulled the listener into and through the emotional flow of the music.
Thirdly, by the mid-1920s, Louis Armstrong’s solos crossed the line between embellished melody and original melodic invention. Prior to Armstrong, jazz soloists would present the melody of the song in verse one in its purest composed form. Additional verses allowed the soloist to augment, embellish, and add to the melody from verse one. Regardless of what they played, the bare skeleton of the original was more or less recognizable in their presentation. However, as Armstrong matured and gained confidence in Chicago, he began to take the improvised solo in the verses following the first verse to worlds farther and farther away from the original. By the time he was finished, no remnant of the song melody remained. The new melodies he created were based on the harmonies of the song, but were not limited to the pre-existing melody provided by the composer. For those soloists who had been satisfied with simply paraphrasing the existing melodies, Armstrong’s patterns of original invention blew open the windows of imagination to whole new worlds.
Fourthly, Armstrong’s solos signified the end of ensemble based jazz and the beginning of featured jazz solos with written instrumental backings. In early New Orleans jazz, the small ensemble of 5 to 8 instruments equally shared solo opportunities. No one instrument dominated the spotlight. Even the banjo player, tuba player and drummer were given a shot at a solo. But Armstrong clearly stood out from the rest of the ensemble both in power and musical genius to the point that it would have been a wasted moment to have the banjo player take a verse. Record producers realized that the listeners were listening for Armstrong, not just to the music. As a result, they gave more and more time for his solos, both vocal and instrumental. The ensemble at that point was relegated to their role of providing harmonic support and creating a tight rhythmic groove for Armstrong. Similar to the bass and drummer backing up Jimi Hendrix in the ’60s, the ensemble was satisfied providing a runway, navigational guide, and a landing point for the soaring solo artist.
Fifthly, the recordings of Armstrong in the mid 1920s are identified as the end of the even eighth note patterns in jazz and the beginning of the uneven, swing eighths. As previously noted, the swing eighth note pattern is one of the key characteristics of jazz music. No performer in early jazz understood and practiced the liberating qualities of the swing eighths like Louis Armstrong. As part of his rhythmic invention, Armstrong also played with the accent point of the phrase, moving it away from one to other, unpredictable moments. The exact placement of the beat was also varied. Sometimes it was slightly ahead of the band, sometimes slightly behind, rarely right on target. This elasticity of the beat gave a rhythmic freedom to his playing in the same way that his choice of notes was no longer limited by the composed melody. The stodgy eighths of Dixieland were dead; the swung eighth note beats of modern jazz had arrived through the horn of Satchmo.
Finally, Armstrong made his impact on music not only with his horn, but also with his voice. Never let it be said that he had a beautiful voice. For most of the time it was gravelly, raspy, and rough; but with this rough instrument, he opened doors for those with better instruments singing in jazz, pop, country, and rock ‘n roll. To start with, Armstrong sang the way he played: creating broken, uneven phrases of swing eighths and sustained notes. But Armstrong the singer is most noted for one major contribution: scat singing.
The instrumental soloist can improvise with whatever rhythmic patterns he or she might feel at the moment; but the vocal soloist, who seeks to improvise like their instrumental counterpart, has one significant limitation–words! The lyrics of the song didn’t always neatly fit into the rhythmic patterns a soloist might want to create. Scat singing, popularized by Armstrong, allowed the vocal soloist to adopt nonsense syllables to fit into the improvised line. Although the actual choice of consonant/vowel combinations can be quite arbitrary, often the scatting soloist has a series of combinations that they tend to favor based partially on the type of tone colors they create and partially on the comfort and speed they allow.
Before Louis Armstrong, scat singing was a novelty technique more in keeping with a comic vaudeville moment than serious popular music. Armstrong gave scat singing a legitimacy it had never before experienced. His artistry with the scat solos were alternatively presented with his instrumental solos and in his mind, they existed on equal artistic footing. For the first time in jazz, the vocal solo was treated as a mature member of the jazz community. Armstrong succeeded in emancipating the singers from the lyrics just as he had freed the instrumentalists from the framework of the composed melody.
The innovations that Armstrong brought influenced not only jazz in Chicago, but jazz and pop music throughout America and, by extension, to the entire world. Music would never be the same after “Satchmo” set the mold.
In 1964, Louis Armstrong, at age 63, knocked the Beatles out of #1 spot on the charts with his recording of “Hello, Dolly”. Here he performs it in Berlin, Germany in 1965.