Wilton event: Louis Armstrong ignites a jazz flame
WILTON — Louis Armstrong, who died in 1971, could not have imagined his music would find its way beyond the galaxy. But it has, included as it was on the “Golden Record” alongside the work of Bach, Mozart, Australian Aborigine songs, and Peruvian panpipes and drums and more — that were taken into space aboard the Voyager space probe as selections intended to portray the diversity of Earth’s culture.
It is a testament to Armstrong’s status not only in the world of jazz but in the world of international music that his work — Melancholy Blues performed with his band Hot Seven — should be among the representations of life on Earth.
Melancholy Blues was recorded in the late 1920s, a period of Armstrong’s life that will be covered in a talk, “Seriously Satchmo: The Importance of Louis Armstrong, The Early Years” by Chris Coulter on Sunday, Feb. 9, from 4 to 5:30, at Wilton Library, 137 Old Ridgefield Road.
Coulter is a musican, teacher, and self-described “learned enthusiast” of Armstrong’s music “who’s trying to spread the word of how important a man he was in the history of our country.”
Because Armstrong was such a prolific, talented and complex artist, Coulter said it would be impossible to cover his entire career, given that Armstrong was born in 1901, in a one-hour talk. Since many are familiar with Armstrong’s later career, he chose to focus on the early years, anticipating bringing his audience up through 1938, the year Armstrong recorded “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Armstrong was born into poverty in New Orleans when the musical influences pervading the city were “amazing,” Coulter said in an interview. There were ragtime and blues, and across the country opera — with Enroco Caruso — was wildly popular as was John Philip Sousa’s marching music. Early on, Armstrong sang barbershop-type music in a vocal group.
After a run-in with the law as a young teenager, Armstrong was encouraged to take up the cornet and he taught himself to read music. A big influence was jazz pioneer Joseph “King” Oliver.
Armstrong played “in all kinds of places” around New Orleans, Coulter said, and as news of his talent spread he made his way to Chicago and New York, where he met his first wife, Lil Harden, whom Coulter will also touch on in his talk.
Armstrong returned to Chicago in 1925 to record his “Hot Five” album for the OKeh recording company. One of those songs was “My Heart,” written by Harden, who also played piano on the recording. This album was followed by “Hot Seven” in 1929 and together, Coulter said, “for jazz musicians they’re amongst the greatest recordings made anywhere by anybody.”
They were “earth-shattering, shake-the-world kind of music. They influenced virtually everyone who came after him,” Coulter said.
This was right before the swing era, and Coulter said Armstrong influenced those who came after musically and vocally, “from Bing Crosby onward.”
That includes Benny Goodman, often referred to as the “king of swing.” “Armstrong was the father of swing. Everyone learned from him,” Coulter said.
One of the ways in which Armstrong was so influential, was spearheading the move from jazz as an ensemble form of music to one that featured soloists. In his early years of playing with people like King Oliver, there was very little soloing, Coulter said. It wasn’t until Armstrong started recording and playing with singers like Bessie Smith, that soloing took its place in the spotlight.
“The sheer force and originality of his playing … he was so far ahead. It was a natural progression it would feature his playing more,” Coulter said, adding he will illustrate that with examples like “Potato Head Blues” and “West End Blues.”
What puts Armstrong at the top of the jazz world? Simply put, Coulter said, there was no one like him nor has there been since.
After the Hot Seven recordings, Armstrong switched from the cornet to the trumpet, which Coulter described as “a little more powerful and a little more brilliant.”
“He equated his trumpet playing and singing to be one and the same,” Coulter said. “That’s what made him so unique. His trumpet playing has a very vocal quality and his singing has a trumpet quality.”
Of him, Bing Crosby once said, “He is the beginning and end of music in America.”
Trumpet virtuoso Wynton Marsalis was not a fan of Armstrong’s until he tried to play one of his solos.
“When I tried to learn one of his solos, just the endurance it took, let alone the type of soul and feeling he was playing with, it was revelatory for me,” he said. “If you love jazz, you have to love him.”
One of Armstrong’s trumpets is on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Early in his career Armstrong did not use his celebrity to speak out against racism but, Coulter said, “he fought the racial injustice the only way he could, by making opportunities.”
Armstrong was one of the first featured black artists in movies and although he was portrayed as a racial stereotype, he was always playing his music. He was also the first black artist to host a radio show when he subbed for Rudy Vallee on NBC.
It wasn’t until 1950s and 60s he made his thoughts more publicly known, Coulter said. “Early on it was mainly through his music,” such as in 1929 when he recorded Fats Waller’s “Black and Blue,” with the lyrics “my only sin is the color of my skin.”
Armstrong toured all over the world and Coulter will show a video clip of him playig in Copenhagen in 1930.
The “History of Jazz in America” will pick up with Reggie Quinerly addressing “The Harlem Renaissance: Connections and Creativity” on Sunday, March 8, from 4 to 5:30, at the Wilton Historical Society, 224 Danbury Road
The series concludes with “Women in Jazz: Past, Present, Future” with Brenda Earle Stokes on Sunday, April 5, 4 to 5:30, at the Wilton Historical Society.
Registration for each session is at www.wiltonlibrary.org.