How Louis Armstrong Influenced and Impacted Jazz
Fondly nicknamed Satchmo, Louis Armstrong established himself as a jazz legend with his powerful yet unique voice and style of singing. His emergence and rapid rise to legendary status within American jazz circles and music industry at large came at a time jazz was considered a degenerate form of music with primitive tunes and dancing styles. Most significantly, the vocalist and instrumentalist turned the genre of music as music as whole into an art that appreciates and brings out the American cultural diversity to the fore. This enabled Louis Armstrong to play role in bridging the racial gap between whites and African Americans at a time when the country was deeply divided along racial lines.
Impact and Influence on Jazz Music: Bridging the Racial Gap
Louis Armstrong’s meteoric rise as a reputable jazz musician and one of the most important ones began by accident and from an early age. Barely 12 years old and living with his grandparents, young Armstrong found himself in a Colored Waifs’ Home after he accidently discharged a pistol. While no one was injured during the incidence as he had discharged it in the air, this mistake during the 1913 New Year’s festivities earned him a one-year stay at the home. When he left the home in 1914, he was already a reputable cornet player after Peter Davis took him under his wings and helped him unlock his talent. While his rudimentary music lessons earned him the home’s band leadership position but his love for the cornet, an instrument he received as present a seven-year old laborer, would open new opportunities for him. He soon found himself performing at several functions from an early age and soon joined Joe ‘King’ Oliver who further polished his skills. What followed was a career spanning over five decades marked by historical and unmatched lasting influence on jazz.
The durability of Louis Armstrong’s influence on jazz was grounded on his ability to improvise and transform the music genre. To him, jazz lacked any definitive meaning other than playing and hearing it from the heart. It was improvising the instruments and your vocals with the sole purpose of enjoying the music with heart. When he took up jazz, it lacked a solid foundation. However, he introduced blues as the foundation of his jazz performance. While majority of jazz artists used staccato phrases in a scripted performance with defined phrasing and punctuated solos, Louis carved out name for himself ripping off the playbook. His performances were expressive and story-like with his swing trademark dancing. His phrasings were legato marked by a virtuosic performance founded on bringing drama to jazz music. This was especially evident when he switched to trumpet after moving to New York to perform with Fletcher Henderson Orchestra. Louis’ ‘West End Blues’ is masterpiece of such virtuosic drama, which he brought out by a cadenza at the beginning to leave a lasting jazz rhythmic improvisation that has lasted through the years.
Louis Armstrong’s rhythmic improvisation is expressly evident in ‘West End Blues’, ‘Hebbie Jeebies’ and ‘Potato Head Blues’, which he performed with his Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five band. In the songs, Louis displays a concept that was rarely seen on the jazz music scene: musical freedom. His new technique extended beyond telling a story in his songs: his solos were distinguishably marked by climax instead of double-time phrases as the common practice. But most importantly, he stamped his trademark scat singing style throughout the songs. His loose, almost nonsensical phrasing of lyrics became legendary and was later adopted by other jazz legends such as Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Billie Holiday. He introduced from his early days playing with together with his mentor Joe Oliver in New Orleans and Kid Ory in Kid Ory band and later in Chicago when he joined Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.
Louis Armstrong’s rise to fame within American and global music circles coincided with a rather tumultuous period within American history. With racial segregation and tension simmering between African Americans and whites, it required a delicate balancing to be a successful jazz musician as the music was loved across racial divide. For Louis, it required having an on-stage persona that would make his an unpopular among some African Americans. His warm and charismatic character and his growing popularity among many whites who loved jazz earned him the ‘Uncle Tom’ epithet from some African Americans who saw him as kowtowing to the whims of their oppressors. This was exacerbated by his opulent lifestyle marked by fine dining and accommodation in expensive and exclusively-whites restaurants. Ironically, Louis addressed racial discrimination even in his songs with ‘(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue?’ released in 1929 tackling the issue of racial discrimination head on.
However, Louis Armstrong was an outspoken on the racial issues in the country and even when he was racially maligned. In 1957, the gravel-voiced jazz musician expressed his dismay at the inaction of President Eisenhower following the Knoxville’s Chilhowee Park auditorium bombing attempt made on him. He noted that it felt like African Americans had no country and called the president two-faced. He even went as far as telling off the president for having no guts to act and address the racial situation in the country. Such strong sentiments came at a time when Louis Armstrong was serving as the Department of State’s goodwill ambassador, albeit in an unofficial capacity. He even cancelled his ambassadorial tour of the country’s fiercest rival then, the Soviet Union to protest against the government’s inaction towards addressing the school desegregation issue that had blighted the country then. His outspoken paid dividends with the president successfully ordering the schools to integrate but he had already made it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s watch list.
In conclusion, Louis Armstrong legendary status as a jazz musician was founded on questioning the unwritten conventions of playing jazz music. From his coarse voice to scat singing and virtuosic performance, Louis Armstrong redefined jazz and music as a whole and brought it to the realm of a performed art. While his entry into jazz music was fortuitous, there was nothing accidental about the impact he left behind. The rhythmic and vocal improvisations he incorporated into his performances revolutionized how other artists such as Frank Sinatra would later perform jazz. Today, most jazz performances are marked by a swing and a unique blues foundation with a story-like touch. Such improvisations can be traced to Louis’ courage to be different despite his relatively young age. However, Louis Armstrong’s influence extended beyond belting out soothing beats with his trumpet in clubs and auditoriums. He was an influential civil rights activist who used his connections and music to highlight the problem of racial inequality.
Gioia, Ted. The History of Jazz. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Schwartz, Ben. What Louis Armstrong Really Thinks. The New Yorker, February 25, 2014. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-louis-armstrong-really-thinks
Verity, Michael. “Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement.” ThoughtCo., March 3, 2017. https://www.thoughtco.com/jazz-and-the-civil-rights-movement-2039542
Yanow, Scott. “Louis Armstrong… and All That Jazz.” Biography, Jul 5, 2016. https://www.biography.com/news/louis-armstrong-biography-facts
 Ted Gioia. The History of Jazz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 48, 49.
 Scott Yanow. “Louis Armstrong… and All That Jazz”, Biography, Jul 5, 2016.
 Ted Gioia. The History of Jazz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 55.
 Ted Gioia. The History of Jazz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 47.
 Michael Verity. “Jazz and the Civil Rights Movement”, ThoughtCo., March 3, 2017.
 Ben Schwartz. What Louis Armstrong Really Thinks, The New Yorker, February 25, 2014.