Remembering Louise ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong

If he was still alive, trumpeter, singer Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong would be 150 years old on Tuesday. In recognition of his artistic feat and profound legacy, jazz musicians have been celebrating him since the beginning of July 2015, with live concerts.

Born on August 4, 1900, Armstrong was the pivot, leader and inspirer of a greater part of the jazz played between 1925 and 1950. Without needing to say that he has been the greatest jazz musician,( although many critics would unhesitatingly do this), it is only fair to say that he has been one of the most important not only for his own achievement as a musician but also in his responsibility for the way in which jazz has developed, especially in terms of using his traditional New Orleans style to pave the way for ‘mainstream’, ‘modern’, ‘avant garde’, ‘smooth’ and all of today’s trends

Now that jazz is commonly accepted and has a respectable history behind it, it is difficult to look back to about 1925 and judge exactly what Armstrong’s achievement was. So much of what he played, so many of the phrases he used, the possibilities of the trumpet in jazz which he disclosed, have all seeped into the language of jazz that it would require considerable space to analyse his contribution to the music. The likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane have extended the frontiers that Armstrong created in jazz, but these modernists have often given credits to Armstrong for providing the tradition and platform.

There certainly was some vigorous jazz before Armstrong came along, but his stature as a musician was so much greater than any who had come before him that he dictated not only how the trumpet should be played but most of the other instruments of jazz – the saxophone, for instance, through the playing of Coleman Hawkins. He developed the vocal technique of jazz playing, using his instrument as a voice and a mind. Basically, his approach was simple. Often it amounted only to the reshaping of a melody, and at no time did he ever stray very far away from the tune he was playing. But the presentation of even the tritiest melody was always inspired and logical, quintessentially jazz because he had always spoken and thought pure jazz, and spoken it with clear authority. He was able to do this because of a truly remarkable technical command of his instrument.

It can never be pointed out too often how much a great jazz player can do with an instrument like the trumpet, trombone or clarinet – far more than was ever attempted or imagined by even the most skilful orchestral player. This is worth pointing out, for if we need to defend jazz – and it still is often necessary- this is a major consideration.

Considering Armstrong as a musician, there can be nothing but praise. His playing is sheer magic, pure, strong, electrifying, using the whole range of his instrument. Even the highest notes which lesser musicians strain towards with alarming squeaks, he achieved with easy assurance and a beauty of tone and musical thought which are absolutely undeniable.

During his Wet African tour in the 50s, Armstrong visited Nigeria where he met the late great trumpeter Zeal Onyia whom he referred to as the “hep cat in Africa” on account of his powerful trumpet. He also performed in Accra, Ghana where he was fascinated by E.T. Mensah’s trumpet. In discussing jazz with him, one found that he lived only for his music; he got a vast enjoyment from it and this he communicated to everyone around him. It seemed as though he never considered jazz as anything but entertainment, except – humanly – as a living, and did not have the nature of a man like Charlie Parker (whose revolutionary saxophone ushered in bop and bebop) or Duke Ellington, (the great big band leader and composer who dominated the swing era) – who were always conscious of the fact that they were innovators and mentors. As long as Armstrong was surrounded by highly professional musicians who entered into his enjoyment and did not hamper his playing, then he was happy. He never paused to consider whether what he was doing was artistically satisfying or correct as a whole. Perhaps it is only critics who should consider such questions as these.

One of Armstrong’s great attributes was the fact that he was able to appeal to popular music adherents as well as jazz devotees. Like Ella Fitzgerald, he succeeded in making the most of two worlds, the world of popular songs (but always the best ones) and the world of jazz. Almost all his songs derive their beauty from the popular 32 – bar structure, but perhaps the two most popular are Hello Dolly and What A Beautiful World which are chartbusters.

In the last month, tribute concerts have been held for Armstrong to celebrate his posthumous birthday- in New York and most parts of Europe and America. One musical attribute for which today’s musicians remember Armstrong is melody, the fact that he did not stray away from the song at any point in time. Even when he attempted to improvise, his progressions were thematic. One modernist who should be actively involved in the concerts is Sonny Rollins, the saxophone colossus who seems to have a lot in common with Armstrong even though they belong to different eras, play different instruments and come from different backgrounds. To both of them, music is spiritual and they find melody an essential ingredient and a complete necessity in jazz. Noted for his change-making and power of improvisation, Rollins who is 86 still considers melody as an important part of his improvisational concept, making it a point of duty to remind the jazz listener about the song at every appropriate point.

Almost all the modern jazz trumpeters owe their influences to Armstrong’s broad tone – Fats Navaro, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Art Farmer, Dizzy Gillespie, Donald Byrd, Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove – all of them. Their styles are in the bop and bebop fashion while their approaches are burnished and exuberant. But the tradition of the trumpet as established and manifested by ‘Satchmo’ is visible; the technique is obvious; the tonality is ingrained.

Armstrong deserves all the recognition and acclaim he can possibly garner for being the major pioneer of jazz music. He is being currently remembered with festivals and events, but he deserves to be celebrated with the same veneration as Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman and Count Basie.

Many thanks however to Nigeria’s Dolapo Ajayi for initiating Satchmo’s Jazzfest, a festival name in honour of Armstrong and the platform with which he celebrated International Jazz Day last April, courtesy of UNESCO. Hopefully, this annual festival in his name, if sustained, will engender resurgence in the popularity of Louis Armstrong himself and his music.

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