JAZZ: Gary Giddins, W.W. Norton & Company
"Giddins on jazz"


How did Louis Armstrong raise jazz standards after his addition to Fletcher Henderson's band in 1924?

I have to say that having spent a lifetime studying jazz and Armstrong that no matter how highly I praise him and how great he seems to me I always feel that you can go a step further. Armstrong's genius is one of the most provocative and in some ways mysterious and utterly rewarding adventures in the culture of American history and certainly in the 20th century. His influence is incalculable. Armstrong changed jazz, almost single-handedly, from being a neighborhood cultural phenomenon- mostly in black communities where it was played by dancers, and it was a collective improvisation. You know, you had the trumpet player playing the main theme; you had a clarinet and trombone playing a kind of filigree accompaniment around it. Improvisations were limited to four-bar breaks for the most part and rhythmically it was based on the military two-beat march [Giddins demonstrates]. Armstrong changes that. He changes every aspect of it. First of all, he takes that two- and four-bar break and he turns them into whole solos, which he could do because the personality of his music is so grand that you can't limit it to an ensemble like King Oliver's band when he first started or Bessie Smith records, where he just plays accompaniment. Armstrong, his natural meĢtier is to play 12-bar solos, 16-bar solos; two, three choruses. He changes the rhythmic from the two-beat to the four-beat [Giddins demonstrates]. Where the beat is sort of evened out. In short, he invents swing. He invents modern rhythm and it's from that swing that the modern rhythms of country music, rock and roll, hip hop, rhythm and blues-virtually every kind of popular music derives from that. That's why if you go back and you listen to recordings made say between 1900, when Caruso recorded and Bert Williams-cause Bert Williams, black artist, comedian, was the very first person to sign with RCA, he was a huge star at the Ziegfeld Follies. If you listen to them and you trace recordings through the ragtime and early blues era up to say 1929 when Armstrong is preeminent, everything after Armstrong speaks to us, we understand it.

We understand the rhythm; we can tap our feet to it. We understand the humor; we're involved with the emotional resonance. Everything before that sounds like aliens from another planet. When we listen to Al Jolson, when we listen to Sophie Tucker, when we listen to those Vaudevillians, when we listen to the early Dixieland jazz bands. We may love them; we may find them charming. But they don't speak to us, there's nobody performing like that today. That's from another world. Armstrong is the demarcation in the sand. It's before-and he affects everybody. Armstrong goes to New York. He looks like a rube. He's wearing a box-back coat, the kind of thing a deacon would wear in the South. His hair is parted in the middle. He looks like a country boy, all he needs is a piece of straw hanging from his mouth. And the musicians in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra in 1924 are the most sophisticated musicians in America, the most sophisticated black musicians. They all look great; they are wearing tailored threads of the highest variety. They are the kind of fashion plates that people look at and say, "Oh, maybe I want to be a musician just so I can look like that." They know how to carry themselves, super-sophisticated guys. Armstrong walks into the first rehearsal and it's like "Fletcher sent to Chicago for that? What was that about?" And then Armstrong starts to play and all their jaws not only drop but their lives are changed instantly.

Don Redman, the chief arranger for Fletcher Henderson, said famously, "The minute he stood up to play that first solo on a tune called 'Copenhagen' I knew I was going to have to change my style of arranging." Coleman Hawkins-the great saxophone virtuoso who played with a tongue style on the reed [Giddins demonstrates], very corny today, not swingy at all-heard Armstrong and said, "No. I have to change my way of playing." The clarinetist Benny Bailey, virtually everybody in the band who subsequently went on to have a jazz career of any consequence, what did they learn from Armstrong? They learned how to swing; they learned that music should have an emotional storytelling kind of content that should have a beginning and a middle and an end. That it says something. And as much as anything else and maybe more than anything else, Armstrong proved the resilience and the artistic hugeness of blues tonality.

Because a lot of these sophisticated black musicians at that point, they thought that blues-first of all, they were embarrassed by blues because it reminded them of the worst old days in the Deep South. It was corny, it was the guy sitting on his porch singing some old song, you know, about how I've lost my woman and I'm really depressed. Uh, or they thought it was a fad like ragtime that was going to disappear because it had been taken over in the Northeast by these fabulous blues divas that wore feather boas that look sort of ridiculous to our eyes. But they did the blues as kind of theatrical songs. So they thought they were above this. The blues is a fashion; white folks for some reason like it now but they also like ragtime. At the time they thought "two years from now nobody will remember what a blues was." They heard Armstrong and they said, no, the blues is the foundation for this whole music, the blues give it its depth and its emotional resonance. And this one man did that. And that's just the beginning because remember Armstrong is also the only figure in the history of Western music who is equally instrumental as an instrumentalist and as a vocalist. And every singer who came up in that generation credited his influence. He liberated our vernacular voice. Before Armstrong, if you "talked like that" [imitating Armstrong's gravelly voice], your parents didn't say, "Junior's going to be a singer." After Armstrong, the whole country, world, Ray Charles-I mean, we've become a nation, a culture of vernacular voices. And he's the first.