As arguably the most famous figure in jazz history, it would be easy to repeat the myriad of stories documenting Louis Armstrong’s era-defining career; but for the purpose of this post, we’d like to focus primarily on his innovative early years and the contemporaries that helped to shape the artform with him – most notably, his band-mate, and eventual wife of 7 years: the trailblazing Lil’ Hardin.
Louis Armstrong began playing cornet as a child and would sing in local vocal quartets around the New Orleans area. He would develop his musicianship as a teenager whilst at a ‘Waif’s Home’ (A juvenile detention facility of the time) having been sent there following a brush with the law. After leaving the home his cornet talents were noticed by local musicians looking to replace older players who had left the south to pursue better opportunities in Los Angeles and Chicago. Armstrong idolised Joe ‘King’ Oliver (covered in our previous entry) and hungrily emulated his style to ensure that he would be the obvious choice to replace Oliver in Kid Ory’s ensemble after he left for Chicago.
It was not long until Oliver would send for Armstrong to join his own group, The Creole Jazz Band, at their renowned residency at the Lincoln Gardens in Chicago. Armstrong was already beginning to make a name for himself in his hometown of New Orleans but regarded Oliver (who he fondly referred to as “Papa Joe”) as his mentor, so made his way north to the Windy City to widen his horizons.
It was here that Louis would meet pianist and composer Lil’ Hardin who had a profound effect on his career outlook. Despite being initially unimpressed by his appearance, she worked to “take the country out of him”, and a romance soon developed. Hardin and Armstrong were married on February 5, 1924 and honeymooned with the Oliver band on tour in Pennsylvania. It was noted in the press at the time that Hardin was dressed in a “Parisian gown of white crepe elaborately beaded in rhinestones and silver beads.”
Hardin assisted Armstrong in learning classical music, and recognising that Louis’ talent outshone that of his mentor, encouraged him to become his own bandleader and manage his own finances. Shortly after, Armstrong resigned from Oliver’s band and in September 1924 accepted a job with bandleader Fletcher Henderson in New York. Hardin stayed in Chicago, first with Oliver, then leading a band of her own. When Hardin’s band got a job at the Dreamland Café back in Chicago, she prepared for Armstrong’s return to Chicago by having a huge banner that read “The World’s Greatest Trumpet Player”.
The Rise of the Soloist
With the encouragement of Lil’ Hardin Armstrong began to show his profound artistic and leadership qualities. In 1925 he went into a studio to record what would become some of the most influential and innovative performances of jazz ever made, creating a seismic shift in the genre. His impact turned this collective ensemble music into an artform that championed the skills of the improvising soloist.
The “Hot Five” and “Hot Seven” Recordings
The ‘Hot Five’ musicians that featured on these recordings were Louis Armstrong on Trumpet, Lil’ Hardin Armstrong on piano, Kid Ory on trombone, Johnny Dodds on clarinet and Johnny St. Cyr on banjo.
It was a typical New Orleans jazz band in instrumentation, consisting of trumpet, clarinet and trombone backed by a rhythm section. The original New Orleans jazz style leaned heavily on collective improvisation, in which the three horns together played the lead: the trumpet played the main melody, and the clarinet and trombone played improvised accompaniments to the melody.
This tradition was continued in the Hot Five, but because of Armstrong’s creative gifts as a trumpet player, solo passages by the trumpet alone began to appear more frequently. In these solos, Armstrong laid down the basic vocabulary of jazz improvisation and solidified what was to become its founding and most influential exponent. The sophistication of his note choices, phrasing and flow presented a group of musical ideas that were truly revolutionary.
Within 6 months Louis Armstrong was back in the recording studio, and this time with a larger, more ambitious project. The ‘Hot Seven’ consisted of the original Hot Five musicians, but now with the added musicality of Peter Briggs on tuba and Johnny Dodds on drums. It was these recordings that simultaneously reinforced Armstrong’s dominance as a soloist and marked the decline of the original New Orleans ensemble style. More emphasis would now be placed on the band to support its star soloist. Unlike other early recording artists of the time, Armstrong would never perform with the “Hot Five” or “Hot Seven” ensembles again.
Improvisation and the Echo of African Culture
Improvisation and the imitation of vocal expressions has been a very important development in jazz since the beginning. The foundational harmonic and melodic innovations would come later following the influence of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings. The early style would rely on the use of diverse textures and sounds; for example, you’d hear growls and bending and smearing of notes in performances. It is this collective, polyrhythmic, improvisational style that is integral to African music and performance.
As was covered in part 1 of this series, the significance of improvisation can be found in the gatherings of Congo Square where enslaved Africans assembled to express themselves and their culture through music and dance. Being their only opportunity to truly reconnect with the African religious and musical traditions passed down by their ancestors, you can also imagine their importance of these events to those involved.
What must have begun as a small gathering each Sunday (the only legal opportunity to do so at the time) eventually drew crowds from all over New Orleans. So much so, that following the abolition of Slavery in 1865, Congo Square continued to be an important meeting place for the community. To do this it remains the sacred ground where the rhythmic sophistication and collective music making practices found in jazz originated from.
NEXT UP… We’ll explore the life of Lil’ Hardin as an incredibly influential figure in her own right; as well as other leading female figures in the formation of jazz culture.