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Louis Armstrong Jazz Music Album Review

Marine Grigoryan

Louis Armstrong Jazz Music Album Review

            The jazz genre can be said to be “uniquely and centrally American” (Stein 1). Robert O’ Meally describes jazz as the “massive, irresistibly influential, politically charged part of our culture” (cited in ibid). He added that jazz is the sound of American twentieth century (ibid). In this field, Louis Armstrong is a significant figure in the twentieth century not just as a musician and entertainer, but also his life itself is intertwined with the historical developments in the said century (ibid).

            In spite of his claim that he was born on July 4, 1900, Louis Armstrong was born, based on his baptismal certificate, on August 4, 1901 (Anderson 2). His mother was Mary Albert and his father was William Armstrong who left his family after Louis was born (ibid). Louis lived with his paternal grandmother while his mother was working as part-time prostitute and domestic (ibid). At the age of ten, Armstrong has helped his family financially by collecting junk, delivering coal, selling newspaper, and singing with a quarter on the street by night (ibid 3). However, he was arrested on New Year’s Eve of 1912 for firing a pistol in public and as repeat offender, he was put in the Home, a military reform school, which is managed by ex-cavalry officer Joseph Jones. Jones gave Armstrong a routine which includes an instruction on the cornet from Peter Davis, band director (ibid). Eventually, he was appointed as a leader of the school band (ibid).

            Armstrong has adored King Oliver who was considered as best cornetist in their city and taught him and recommended him for gigs (ibid). Then, he was trained by Marable and David Jones, fellow bandmates, to read music (ibid). He said that he met and was influenced by Bix Beiderbecke, a popular jazz cornetist. Eventually in the summer of 1922, he was called by Oliver to join his Creole Jazz Band at the Royal Gardens cabaret in Chicago (ibid). As a trumpeter, he is considered as the major visionary of the 1920s and 1930s for his role as jazz soloist that earned him the name “Master of Modernism” (Stein 1). His studio work with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in 1923 has produced one of the earliest jazz recordings by African Americans (ibid). Although bebop trumpeters Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie have criticized Armstrong for his submissive performance and racially self-deprecating antics, they eventually recognized the personal and musical achievements of Armstrong (ibid). George Wein jazz impresario said in his birthday concert in 1970 that Armstrong is credited for anything that is played in a trumpet even the modern ones (ibid 2).  There are other musicians who acknowledged the musical genius of Armstrong such as Lester Bowie, Wynton Marsalis, Kendrick Simmons, Gary Giddins, etc. (ibid).

            The career of Armstrong as a recording artist extends for 50 years and has classic tunes such as  “Heebie Jeebies” on February 26, 1926, “West End Blues” and “Ain’t Misbehavin” on July 19, 1929, “Blueberry Hill’ on September 6, 1949, etc. (ibid 3). Armstrong’s biggest pop hit “Hello Dolly” was recorded together with the pianist John Hicks in the album Fast Last! (ibid 2). As a singer, he surprised audiences with inventive scat improvisation and pioneered vocal techniques that has influenced singers such as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, etc. (ibid).

            Although, the musical records of Armstrong have been original, his musical session with the Hot Fives has redefined jazz and has revolutionized the history of music (Harker 4). The Hot Fives has transformed the nature of instrumental jazz in the 1920s to long virtuoso soloists from lively ensembles (ibid). The recordings of the Louis Armstrong with Hot Five and Hot Seven were made between 1925 and 1928. Fortunately, these recordings were compiled by Columbia/Legacy, produced by Phil Schaap, and linger notes by Robert G. O’Meally, George Akavian and Phil Schaap in 2000 which is named Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings.  This is the first American-based record company has produced a complete CD box set of the said amazing musical performance by the said band (Garrett 331). Columbia has attempted to compile the said recordings in 1980 but the result was unsatisfactory (ibid). The compilation was released as a centennial celebration of Armstrong birth by the jazz aficionado Schaap (ibid 332). Schaap commented that Armstrong is “the most important jazz musician on the face of the earth (ibid).” The compilation is composed of 89 tracks and arranged thematically rather than in chronological order (ibid). Bonus tracks were included which feature Armstrong moonlighting with friends under the name Lill’s Hot Shots for Vocalion Record (ibid). The musical tracks that are included in the compilation are considered as the most influential and most important music in the 20th century (Wilde My Favourite Album…). They are treated as stage when Armstrong revolutionized the New Orleans-style jazz and single-handedly changed the music from a group art into standard for soloist (ibid). When Armstrong started the Hot Five series in late 1925, there have been evolving jazz approaches in New Orleans such as the zany musical slapstick of Ted Lewis, rollicking polyphony of King Oliver and the bouncy homophonic dance music of Jean Goldkette (Harker 6).

            The packaging of the compilation is luxurious in which its design is similar to an old-fashioned picture album that is clothbound booklet with 84 pages of Armstrong-related material from vacation pictures to promotional paraphernalia, to historic New Orleans photos, to informative business correspondence (Garrett 332). In addition, it has memoirs and products filled with nostalgia that is reinforced with sepia, black, and tan color (ibid). Furthermore, it has booklets that would highlight the influence of Armstrong to jazz and world culture (ibid). Columbia has compiled the music recordings in a way that it acknowledges Armstrong as musical genius instead of comparing him to his colleagues such as Joe “King” Oliver and other contemporary musicians (ibid 333). The compilation instead has drawn similarities of the work of Armstrong to “classical American art” and other creative personalities such as Thomas Edison and Geoffrey Chaucer (ibid). The essays in the compilation by Schaap and O’Meally have shown admiration for Armstrong and at the same time has been made aware of the cultural context of the recordings (ibid). The compilation has been awarded for the Best Historical Album in the Grammy 2000 and has been chosen as the finest reissue by the Jazz Journalists Association (ibid 337).

Personally, listening to the musical tracks, there are still surface noises such as crackling, hiss, etc. but on the other tracks’ clarity have been improved perhaps because as I have noticed in the year released they transferred to an electronic recording equipment. The sound is cheerful which highlights Dodds’ clarinet and Armstrong’s horn. The recordings also improved softer musical gestures such as the energetic strumming of Lonnie Johnson on the track “I’m Not Rough” and the cymbals of Zutty Singleton on the track “Sugar Foot Strut.” I have also found the four seconds silence at the end of each disc as way to appreciate and to adopt the individual tracks.

In conclusion, the album may just be a compilation but this is very significant for the modern listeners as an introduction to what jazz is and its development. At the same time, this opens up to new generation of jazz musicians who wanted to learn and put something “new” in jazz.

Works Cited

Anderson, Gene H. “Louis Armstrong.” The Grove Dictionary of Music, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Garret, Charles Hiroshi. “Louis Armstrong: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings.” American Music, Vol. 22. No. 2. (Summer, 2004): 331-337.

Harker, Brian. Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc. 2011.

Stein, Daniel. Music Is My Life: Louis Armstrong, Autobiography and American Jazz. United States: University of Michigan, 2012.

Wilde, Jon. “My Favourite Album: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings by Louis Armstrong.” October 20, 22020. https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2011/sep/12/hot-five-seven-louis-armstrong.