Born On The Fourth Of July: How Louis Armstrong Taught Us to Swing

This genius with a trumpet did not invent jazz, as some have said, but when he got through with it, America’s homegrown art form was changed almost beyond recognition.

07.04.15 4:05 AM ET

Louis Armstrong was a Yankee Doodle Dandy, born on July 4, 1900. At least that's the story Armstrong told. “They named me the firecracker baby,” he said. Who cares that it wasn't true—he was actually born on August 4, 1901 and died on July 6, 1971—it fit his legend. And it is no exaggeration to call Armstrong, one of the greatest artists this country has ever produced, a legend.

In his terrific book, The History of Jazz, Daily Beast contributor Ted Gioia put it like this: “Revolutions, whether in arts or matters of state, create a new world only by sacrificing the old. With jazz, it is no different. To be sure, Louis Armstrong, who closed the book on the dynastic tradition in New Orleans jazz—putting an end to its colorful lineage of Kings Bolden, Keppart, and Oliver—stands out as an unlikely regicide. Armstrong always spoke with deference, bordering on awe, of his musical roots, and with especial devotion of his mention Joe Oliver. Yet the evidence of the grooves do not lie: the superiority of Armstrong’s musicianship, the unsurpassed linear momentum of his improvised lines, could serve only to make Oliver, Morton, Bolden, and the whole New Orleans ensemble tradition look passé, a horse-and-buggy cantering by Henry Ford’s assembly line. The New Orleans pioneers exit stage left, Armstrong on trumpet enters stage right heralding the new Age of the Soloist.”

Let's turn now to Nat Hentoff, the devoted enthusiast and chronicler of jazz music, for this take on Armstrong from Jazz Is. Reprinted with permission, please enjoy this appreciation of a true American genius on Independence Day.

—Alex Belth

Louis Armstrong, summoned by King Oliver, came up to Chicago in the summer of 1922, Buster Bailey reports that “Louis upset Chicago. All the musicians came to hear Louis. What made Louis upset Chicago so? His execution, for one thing, and his ideas, his drive. Well, they didn't call it drive, they called it 'attack' at the time. Yes, that's what it was, man. They got crazy for his feeling.”

His feeling. Even toward the end of his life, when many of the same tunes would be played night after night, month after month, Louis could still, as trombonist Trummy Young remembers, make a sideman cry.

His feeling. Billie Holiday, a young girl in Baltimore, listening to Louis's recordings: “He didn't say any words, but somehow it just moved me so. It sounded so sad and sweet, all at the same time. It sounded like he was making love to me. That's how I wanted to sing.”

There has been no jazz musician so widely, deeply, durably influential as Louis. And no trumpet player who could do all he could do on the horn. Once, Louis told journalist Gilbert Millstein, “I'm playin' a date in Florida, livin' in the colored section and I'm playin' my horn for myself one afternoon. A knock come on the door and there's an old, gray-haired flute player from the Philadelphia Orchestra, down there for his health. Walking through that neighborhood, he heard this horn, playing Cavalleria Rusticana, which he said he never heard phrased like that before. To him it was as if an orchestra was behind it. [Emphasis added. N.H.]

And that reminded me of what happened one night in the early '30s, when a delegation of top brass from the Boston Symphony Orchestra—all of them unfamiliar with jazz but brought there by rumor of genius—stood in Louis Armstrong's dressing room and asked him to play a passage they had heard in his act. Louis picked up his horn and obliged, performing the requested passage and then improvising a dazzling stream of variations.

Shaking their heads, these “legitimate” trumpet players left the room, one of them saying, “I watched his fingers and I still don't know how he does it. I also don't know how it is that, playing there all by himself, he sounded as if a whole orchestra were behind him. I never heard a musician like this, and I thought he was just a colored entertainer.”

But during the previous decade, in a series of deeply influential recordings, Louis had already shown to all who would listen that he was the first toweringly creative soloist in jazz. He did not create jazz, as André Hodeir, the French critic, has claimed; but Louis in the ‘20s did transcend and extend the beginnings of jazz in collective improvisation. As Gunther Schuller has observed in his book, Early Jazz, Louis established “the general stylistic direction of jazz for several decades to come.” Schuller was writing in particular about a 1928 recording, West End Blues, in which, he asserts, Armstrong served notice that “jazz could never again revert to being solely an entertainment or folk music ... [Jazz now] had the potential capacity to compete with the highest order of previously known musical expression.”

Except for true jazz believers in his own country and throughout the world, this concept of Louis Armstrong as a most serious, stunningly innovative artist is unfamiliar. During the last forty years of his life, most of Armstrong's audiences saw Louis as an entertainer—his hands stretched out wide, in one of them a trumpet and a large, white handkerchief, and on his face the broadest and seemingly most durable grin in the history of Western man. He was often seen in the movies and on prime-time television variety shows, and he had a number of hit records, but he was by no means held in awe by the general public. Yet this was the man who had changed the very shape of jazz as fundamentally and permanently as Beethoven had changed the shape of the symphony.

But the musicians knew. In Chicago, when they came to marvel—and to try to steal some secrets—as Louis played with King Oliver. And then, in 1924, when Louis at the age of 24 made his first appearance in New York, the musicians there also knew. Loiuis had come to play with Fletcher Henderson's big band. There were no jazz critics then. Nobody but the musicians took the music seriously, so they are our historians. Rex Stewart, long before he himself became an international force with Duke Ellington's orchestra, remembered: “We had never heard anybody improvise that way—the brilliance and boldness of his ideas, the fantastic way he developed them, the deepness of his swing, and that gloriously full, clear sound. It was stunning! I went mad with the rest of the musicians. I tried to walk like him, talk like him, eat like him, sleep like him. I even bought a pair of big policeman shoes like he used to wear and I stood outside his apartment waiting for him to come out so I could look at him.”

Before Louis Armstrong came to his blazing maturity in the '20s there had, of course, been other notable jazz soloists. Some, like Buddy Bolden in New Orleans, are forever misted in legend because they never recorded. Others, like King Joe Oliver and players in Chicago, New York, and then Southwest were often forcefully, pungently distinctive. But none had the sweep, the extended melodic imagination, and the rhythmic inventiveness of Louis. None could make simplicity so profound or high-register fireworks so dramatically cohesive. And none, above all, had ever before so dominated the jazz ensemble, whether small combo or big band. The first fully liberated jazz soloist, Armstrong hugely influenced soloists on all instruments, and he helped free all who followed. They were still part of a collectively swinging group, but they had a lot more space in which to stretch out for themselves.

Gunther Schuller, an instrumentalist and a composer, emphasized in Early Jazz the four salient elements which set Louis apart from all the jazz musicians who had preceded him: “… (1) his superior choice of notes and the resultant shape of his lines; (2) his incomparable basic quality of tone; (3) his equally incomparable sense of swing, that is, the sureness with which notes are placed in the time continuum and the remarkably varied attack and release properties of his phrasing; (4) and, perhaps his most individualistic contribution, the subtly varied repertory of vibratos and shakes with which Armstrong colors and embellishes individual notes. The importance of the last fact cannot be emphasized enough, since it gives an Armstrong solo that peculiar sense of inner drive and forward momentum. Armstrong was incapable of not swinging.”

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Back in New Orleans, when he was still a boy—who had learned to play trumpet in a waifs' home where he had been sequestered for celebrating New Year's Eve by shooting off a gun—Louis had already shown unmistakable signs that he was becoming a soloist unlike any New Orleans had ever heard or even imagined. Trumpeter Mutt Carey, known as the “Blues King of New Orleans” when Louis was a lad, once let the teenager take his chair in Kid Ory's band, one of the city's most crisply proficient combos.

“That Louis,” Carey recalled, “played more blues than I ever heard in my life. It never had struck my mind the blues could be interpreted so many different ways. Every time he played a chorus it was different, and yet you knew it was the blues.”

On that day Mutt abdicated as the city's blues king.

Almost from the first time he picked up a horn, Louis has exemplified Duke Ellington's dictum, “Nobody is as serious about music as a jazz musician is serious about music.”

“When I pick up that horn,” Louis, at 60, told Gilbert Millstein, “that's all. The world's behind me, and I don't concentrate on nothing but that horn. I mean I don't feel no different about that horn now than I did when I was playing in New Orleans. No, that's my living and my life. I love them notes. That's why I try to make them right. Any part of the day, you're liable to see me doing something toward [playing] that night … I don't want a million dollars. See what I mean? There's no medals. I mean, you got to live with that horn. That's why I married four times. The chicks didn't live with that horn. If they had, they would figure out, 'Why should I get him all upset and get to fighting and hit him in the chops, it's liable to hurt him?'”

And because music was the consuming passion, obsession, and pride of his life, Louis took care of himself so that he would always be in condition, so that younger players like Dizzy Gillespie could marvel at what Dizzy called Louis's “phenomenal chops.” And in the years of his ascent he had to be in condition for jam sessions.

Many of those sessions were cooperative rather than competitive. As Louis once said of after-hours improvising with Bix Beiderbecke in Chicago in the late '20s: “Everybody was feeling each other's note or chord, blending with other instead of trying to cut each other.”

There were times, however, when these were martial sessions. As when, also in the '20s, Johnny Dunn, the top trumpet-gun in New York, confronted Louis at the Dreamland in Chicago. They traded choruses for a while, Louis playing with his eyes closed. “All of a sudden,” Armstrong recalled, “I didn't hear anything. Johnny Dunn had just eased away.”

It was so hard to cut Louis in a session, not only because of his soaring inventiveness, but also because of the extraordinary power with which he played. Critic Ralph Gleason once quoted Louis as telling of how he had sat in one night with Count Basie's band in Florida. “I was just having fun,” said Louis, “and Count said to me, 'Damn! I ain't never heard that much strong horn played in all my life!' Now, Count Basie's trumpet players are all good musicians,” Louis continued, “but they run away from their notes. Why? Because they don't keep their lips fortified.”

It also took a lot of self-fortification for Louis to keep on coping with the Jim Crow that was an obbligato to his life. For many, many years, famed as he was in Europe, when he'd go on the road in his own country, only certain places, black places, would house and feed Louis and his band. All black jazz musicians, no matter how lauded for their contributions to America's “indigenous art form,” were pariahs on the road until comparatively recent times. A member of the Count Basie band, which had just come off the road in the early '50s, told me: “Can you imagine what it feels like to begin pulling up to a gas station and see the attendant running like the hell to lock the men's room. No, you can't imagine it.”

In Louis Armstrong's life one of many pungent illustrations of that dimension of the black experience took place in 1931, when Louis, having triumphed in New York and Chicago, returned to his home town, which was waiting to pay tribute. There were crowds and banners and a week's engagement at a prestigious club where no black band had ever played. On opening night Louis waited for the radio announcer to start the club's regular broadcast, but the latter could not bring himself, as he said within Louis's hearing, to “announce that nigger man.” Turning to his musicians Louis asked for a resounding chord and proceeded to announce the show himself. “It was the first time,” Louis said to his first biographer, the Belgian Robert Goffin, that “a Negro spoke on the radio down there.”

Twenty-six years later, when Louis Armstrong had long since been comfortably established in the public mind as a most genial and wholly uncontroversial minstrel, millions of Americans were shocked at Armstrong's reaction when Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas mightily resisted school integration in that state, the Supreme Court notwithstanding, while President Eisenhower temporized. “The way they are treating my people in the South,” Louis told the press, “the government can go to hell!” As for the widely beloved Ike, Louis observed, “The President has no guts.”

In 1965, as Ralph Gleason has reported, when Martin Luther King's march on Selma, Alabama, was brutally attacked by local and state constabulary, Louis Armstrong, then in Copenhagen, said after watching the carnage on television, “They would beat Jesus if he was black and marched.”

For black musicians who had come up with Louis in the '20s and '30s, this nongrinning Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was no surprise. “If he had been grinning all the time inside all those years,” one of his old sidemen said, “how would he have been able to play the blues the way he does?”

Yet most of Louis's onstage high spirits were not feigned. He greatly enjoyed entertaining, getting through, pleasing an audience. And he certainly enjoyed the act of music. For him playing was a celebration of that act and he often celebrated it with wit. “A lot of people underestimate Louis's musical sense of humor,” Dizzy Gillespie once said. “Many times, listening, I used to laugh right in the middle of his solos.”

Because Louis Armstrong was so much the entertainer from the '30s on, there were some who maintained that Louis had stopped being a vital musician. But, as Martin Williams has observed in The Jazz Tradition:

“Well into his sixties, Armstrong would play on some evenings in an astonishing way—astonishing not so much because of what he played as that he played it with such power, sureness, firmness, authority, such commanding presence as to be beyond category, almost (as they say of Beethoven's late quartets) to be beyond music. When he played this way, matters of style, other jazzmen, and most other musicians simply drop away as we hear his eloquence. The show biz personality act, the coasting, the forced jokes and sometimes forced geniality, the emotional tenor of much of Armstrong's music past and present (that of a marvelously exuberant but complex child)—all these drop away and we hear a surpassing artist create for us, each of us, a surpassing art.”

Or as clarinetist Edmond Hall, who was with Louis on the road for a long time during Armstrong's “entertaining” years, once said, “There'd be times when, even on a number I'd heard so often, Louis's sound would just get cracking and I'd get goose pimples.”

Not too long before Louis died in 1971, a young trumpet player and I were listening to him in a huge hotel room. Louis had been jiving his way through Mack the Knife and then, without an introduction, moved into his old theme, When It's Sleepy Time Down South. Staying close to the melody, Louis was subtly adding a new dimension to the song, a chilling and yet exhilarating fusion of poignancy and strength. There were tears in the eyes of the musician standing next to me. “Man,” he said, “Pops makes you feel so good.

And also of Pops it could be said what he said of King Oliver: “My, what a punch that man had … And could he shout a tune! Ump!”