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

RUNNING TIME, 4:46

Armstrong was a musical innovator in several areas. How was he able to emerge as a soloist who could do so much and for so long?

Well, genius is always hard to explain. We don't really know what Mozart's brain was made of, um, a guy who wrote operas when he was, you know, not yet into his teens. Armstrong, if you listen very closely, you hear phrases that he got from King Oliver, probably phrases he picked up from other trumpet players, but they become completely changed when he plays them. One thing, remember that he was a virtuoso trumpet player in a way that was new to music and unique to jazz. He's not a virtuoso in the European sense that he can sit down with the most complicated score, the Haydn trumpet concerto, and just rip it right off. He's not that kind of musician. He's a virtuoso in the sense that, first of all, his tone on the instrument is huge. And his range, especially in the high register, is without precedent. Because he plays with a brilliantly controlled vibrato he changes the way the trumpet is played in every kind of music.

I know many classical figures that studied the trumpet in the 1940s who said that as homework, at Juilliard and various conservatories, that they had to listen to Louis Armstrong. And it's a fact that if you listen to the progression of symphony orchestras in the 20th century, by the 1940s they're using more and more vibrato, whereas if you listen to the very earliest symphony recordings, the whole idea of the brass is this concision of sound, with no vibrato-it's almost considered vulgar. And jazz changes that. Armstrong changes that. When you listen to his first recording of "When You're Smiling," he was actually tutored by a trumpet player named B. A. Rolfe-a brilliant classical virtuoso-who taught him how to control some of those high notes. But when Armstrong goes into that range he does it with a brilliance that just no one had heard.

And always with Armstrong there's an emotional directness, he's always saying something from here-it's never just from the brain. So you know he puts all of the things together but there's certain things, as with Mozart, that are just inexplicable. Time, how did he get to this major cross from the military two-beat to four-four swing. When the Swing Era came into blossom, a lot of the old-timers used to say, "Oh, swing. That's nothing but orchestrated loss." Because he was there, he was already there. And he played solos in a way that people just couldn't believe what they were hearing. The way he sang, the same thing. He didn't, he didn't have, you know, the reverence for the way the song was written. He could improve the song in the way he sang it. If it was a good song, he could make it better. If it was a terrible song, it didn't matter. If you want to sum up Armstrong's contribution in one phrase, you could use a song title that became a big hit record in the 1930s. Jimmy Lunceford recorded it and the name of the tune was "It Ain't What You Do, It's the Way That You Do It." Before Armstrong, it's what you do. You play a Mozart symphony, you play a Brahms quintet, and you try to play it as best you can. The music is in the score. After Armstrong, he could be playing a good song, like "Body and Soul"; he could be playing a trashy song like "Sweethearts on Parade," "Hobo You Can't Ride This Train." It doesn't matter; it's not about the song as much as it is about the artist and the personality of the artist.

This changes the industry incidentally because before Armstrong you sell music primarily through sheet music. Again, it's the idea of the score, the tune. And most of the people who plug sheet music, the famous recording artists who did nothing but sing these tunes to help promote sheet music sang them as straight as humanly possible. Their voices had very little personality. After Armstrong, you're not selling the tune, you're selling the artist. Suddenly, recording's become very important, radio becomes very important. So the difference is, you might like "Stardust," but do you like the way Louis Armstrong does it or do you like the way Bing Crosby does it? It's all-or Mildred Bailey or Ethel Waters-it's now the personality of the artist. And at that point, jazz becomes the ultimate interpretive art. Because you're not just interpreting what's written, you're interpreting from the perspective of who you are as an artist.