Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Louis Armstrong (190-1971)

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Louis Armstrong - Satchmo - (August 4, 1901 - 1971) was an African American Jazz trumpeter and singer. Armstrong was an innovative performer whose musical skills and bright personality transformed Jazz from barrelhouse background music into a popular art form. The nickname Satchmo or Satch is short for Satchelmouth, but fellow musicians called him Pops. He was born Louis Daniel Armstrong, on July 4 in legend, but August 4 on the books, to a poor family in New Orleans. He learned music in a reform school, but at his death he was regarded as one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. In a tribute to Armstrong, Bing Crosby said: "He was the only musician who ever lived, who can't be replaced by someone." Miles Davis said, "You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played." His accomplishments can be considered under three headings:

His virtuoso playing skills, including a markedly unique tone and an extraordinary talent for melodic improvisation. A side effect of his talent was the emergence of the trumpet as a primary lead instrument in Jazz. He started his career on cornet, a good instrument on a crowded bandstand, but switched to the longer trumpet when he became primarily a soloist. With his innovations, he raised the bar musically for all who came after him.

His singing. First, there is the distinct, gravelly voice, but here too he exhibited his skill as an improviser with his ability to bend the lyrics and melody of a song to suit the needs of his performance, including his skill at scat singing, or wordless vocalizing. Before Armstrong, singers simply sang the song; after him, they were free to put their own stamp on it.

His irrepresible personality, both as a performer, and later in his career as a public figure. His personality was so strong that it overshadowed his contributions as a musician and singer.

Armstrong first learned to play cornet in the band of the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs where he had been sent after firing a pistol at a New Year's Eve celebration. He later played in the brass bands and riverboats of New Orleans but in the 1920s he joined the exodus to Chicago. He had been invited by his mentor Joe "King" Oliver to join his Creole Jazz Band. Oliver's band brought New Orleans style ensemble Jazz to the attention of a wide public for the first time, and Armstrong blossomed. The Armstrong-Oliver recordings of 1923 were the first Jazz most of the world had ever heard.

Armstrong was too big a star to be contained in someone else's band, particularly another cornet player's band. He and Oliver parted amicably and Armstrong moved on to New York City, then as now a magnet for the top players.

He recorded famously with his Hot Five and Hot Seven with such hits as Potato Head Blues and West End Blues which music set the standard and the agenda for Jazz for many years to come. All too often, however, Armstrong was recorded with stiff, standard orchestras leaving only his sublime trumpet playing as of interest. He continued to develop as a live performer, however, and had great popularity in night clubs. All the while, the world could watch the flowering of Jazz genius unlike any other. Although subject to the vicissitudes of Tin Pan Alley and the gangster-ridden music business, he continued to develop his appeal. He continued to tour for the next 30 years on a gruelling 300+ days a year on one-night stands. He also appeared in over 30 films. Most of this touring was with a stable group called the All Stars, but he also continued an active recording career.

In his early years, Armstrong was best known for his virtuosity with the trumpet, but as his music progressed and popularity grew, his singing became more important. Armstrong was perhaps the first to record scat singing when he sang out "I done forgot the words" in the middle of recording "Heebie Jeebies" and finished out the verse with nonsense sounds. The record was a hit and scat singing became a major part of his performances, although it should be noted that Armstrong was playing around with his vocals, shortening and lengthening phrases, interjecting improvisations, long before the fabled incident.

In his career he played and sang with the most important instrumentalists and vocalists; among the many, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Bessie Smith, and notably with Ella Fitzgerald, with whom he recorded the two famous albums Ella & Louis and Ella & Louis again for Norman Granz's Verve records. His recordings, Satch Plays Fats, all Fats Waller tunes, and Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy in the 1950s were perhaps the last of his great creative recordings, but even oddities like Disney Songs the Satchmo Way have their musical moments.

He toured the world under sponsorship of the US State Department to great success, particularly in Africa and China. In the end he was revered all over the world as "Ambassador Satch" and had an international success with tunes like "Star Dust", "What a Wonderful World", "When the Saints Go Marchin' In", "Dream a Little Dream of Me", "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Stompin' at the Savoy" and "Hello, Dolly". To the end of his life he would sometimes enliven the most mundane gig with a flurry of new notes to the astonishment of his band.

In 1968, Armstrong had one last popular hit with the highly sentimental "What A Wonderful World". The song gained further currency in the popular conciousness with its use on the 1987 movie Good Morning Vietnam, its subsequent rerelease topping the charts around the world and, indeed, is probably what he is currently best known for amongst the general public. He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. Some of his solos from the 50s, such as the hard rocking version of "Saint Louis Blues" from the W. C. Handy album, show that the influence went in both directions. [This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Louis Armstrong.]

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