The Life of Jazz: Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald

Trumpet melodies could be heard all over the city of New Orleans in the early 1900s, and it changed the course of music forever. Inconceivable musicians emerged from this era such as Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald; they created a new world of innovation and musical improvisation that is studied around the world to understand the intensity of the phenomenon of jazz.

My research paper will discuss the topic of jazz, and its impact on American culture and society through the lens of Louis Armstrong. I will be writing a narrative for my paper, to explain further the history of jazz and the story of how the genre came to life — starting with the early 20s and the fusion of different musical styles brought from European and African cultures to New Orleans. I will incorporate Louis Armstrong’s bibliography to present how his life influenced American culture and society through music. This topic is relevant to American history because it marks a big stepping stone in the cultural divide and the mixing of different races through music. It allowed African American musicians to have a voice in American culture and to communicate their thoughts on unjust issues through the music. The rise of Jazz in the 1920s, bolstered the city of New Orleans to flourish through the development of its new music genre. The city of New Orleans was pivotal for the integration of races that occurred through music. Musicians such as Louis Armstrong and Buddy Bolden shaped the early stages of Jazz due to their complex trumpet solos and melodic innovation. Louis Armstrong was single-handedly the most influential jazz musician, his unique voice and style are still imitated today, and have had a significant impact on American culture and society. Essentially, jazz redefined what it meant to be African American in the United States in the 1900s. The emergence of jazz and Louis Armstrong influenced American culture and society through a fusion of European and African American, musical and cultural roots into one single genre. The genre and its performers, established a foundation for a new way of life for people of color, while musicians like Louis Armstrong made jazz available to the public despite their racial backgrounds.

In the late 1800s, the city of jazz, experienced extreme growth, and its population doubled in almost a decade, it became a major city for commerce and transport in America. After the industrial revolution had occurred, and new technologies emerged, all cities started to change expeditiously. This growth accelerated the city of New Orleans in many ways, creating jobs and a more natural way of life for its citizens. Its geographical location played a significant role in the city's evolution. New Orleans, is situated by many bodies of water, including the Mississippi River, Lake Pontchartrain, and the Gulf of Mexico. Therefore, the main transportation methods were steamboats and other smaller ships. In the height of its time, the steamboat produced a substantial amount of money bringing an average of 5 million dollars a year just from cargo. Unfortunately, as the railroad gradually substituted the steamboat as the leading form of transportation, the steamboat trading hub was longer prominent and led to the decline of the city. As people lost their jobs, and money was lacking, the city was struck with political corruption only aggravating New Orleans further. The state of Louisiana was incapable of paying its accumulated interest from its 53 million dollar debt.

Moreover, in 1905 there was an outbreak of yellow fever, killing over 40,000 people. There was a lack of medicine and hygiene, that was noticeable, as many people died from insignificant illnesses, and filth. The city did not have access to clean water and working sewer systems until 1898; therefore, the mortality rate in New Orleans grew to 56% higher than in any other American city. Moreover, New Orleans was falling behind, in comparison to other metropolitan cities, and natural disasters like the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, and The Great Storm of 1915, only worsened the situation. People lost their homes and were unable to keep a steady living situation. But still, New Orleans was able to find the light after the tunnel, through the rise of jazz a few years later in the 1920s.

The emergence of Jazz was influenced by both European and African American history that merged in the city of New Orleans. As African Americans and Europeans settled into American cities, cultures started to fuse; it led to the creation of jazz. The genre incorporated European composition, structure, and harmony, while including African sounds. Jazz has many subcategories that include “Dixieland, swing, bop, cool jazz, hard bop, free jazz, Third Stream, jazz-rock, and fusion.” All these different categories within the genre created a vast variety of styles that made Jazz endless to all its listeners. The most significant social advance in the early stages of jazz was the integration of cultures and races, which was seemingly easy at the time. Although discrimination still prevailed, musicians were treated equally, considering the amount of talent African Americans players acquired.

Jazz is known for appearing in the 1920s, but some historians believe it started before then when Buddy Bolden began playing music differently. Historians perceive Buddy Bolden as the first Jazz musician. He was born in uptown New Orleans on September 6, 1877. Buddy was commonly known as “king,” for being the king of black music in New Orleans. He played the cornet, which is an instrument similar to the trumpet, but he played it as no one else had. His incredible rhythm and melodies distinguished him from all other musicians at the time. Unfortunately, his career did not turn out as many expected. Described as a player, and an alcoholic, in 1906 his health began to decline. He experienced unpredictable behavior, paranoia, and headaches. People around him did not feel safe at times because of his actions. He was violent and could not control himself, even towards his loved ones. Therefore, his mother ordered Buddy to confinement at an asylum until his death, ending his musical career. His mental instability forced him into the institution for twenty-four years, where he died on November 4, 1931, at the age of 54. Lamentably, there are no available recordings or primary sources of his playing because of his short career, explaining why some historians are hesitant in calling him the first jazz musician because there is no real proof. The unavailability of his music is also due to the time frame of his career, as it ended before modern cameras could record anything. Lastly, there was no mention of his music until 1933, after his death.

Many great musicians came after Buddy Bolden, such as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker but none of them had the impact Louis Armstrong possessed. Armstrong is one of the few jazz musicians that is still well known all over the world today, and his memory is still alive through his moving music. Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901, in New Orleans, Louisiana. He was raised by his single mother, in an extremely dangerous neighborhood called “The Battlefield.” Armstrong’s father was not around, and his mother could not take care of him, so his grandparents and uncle took him over. He dropped out of school in the 5th grade to help his family, by working for a Jewish family. This job allowed him to buy his first cornet, and he started playing. In 1912, at the age of 11, he was arrested for firing a gun into the air and was sent to the Colored Waif’s Home for Boys, due to his behavior. The Colored Waif’s Home was a juvenile detention center located in the same New Orleans. There he learned how to play the cornet under his instructor Peter Davis, and after much effort, he became the leader of the Colored Waif’s brass band. He was released from the center in 1914 and continued to find a life and a career in music.

A few years later, in 1922, Joe “King” Oliver, who was known as the best cornetist in New Orleans, became Armstrong’s mentor and asked him to join his Creole band in Chicago. Louis came to love his mentor, and always had good memories of his time learning and playing with Joe Oliver. Due to his teachings, Armstrong started to gain influence over the Jazz community. His style of playing was unique, and every player in the band started adopting his techniques on every instrument. The “Louis” way of playing jazz started to become a trend within bands, and musicians tried to imitate his approach to jazz. Armstrong’s musical superiority outshined all other musicians he worked with and competed against because of his musical diversity. He could play the trumpet, the cornet, and sing. Even though during the start of his career, Louis gravitated toward not singing in public because his mentors believed he outperformed all other musicians on the trumpet. He even exclaimed, “Fletcher didn’t dig me like Joe Oliver. He had a million-dollar talent in his band, and he never thought to let me sing”. Fletcher was Armstrong’s employer after Joe Oliver, and the speculation at the time is that the only reason why he hired Armstrong is that the other trumpetist were unavailable at the time. Although this is not completely certain, it is the closest answer historians had to why Fletcher hired Armstrong. The other player in the band was named Joe Smith, and at the time he was known as the best trumpet player in the city. Once he came back to the band and replaced Armstrong. Fletcher still did not allow Louis to sing, even though there were two trumpet players. Still, he continued to improve; and practice made him one of the most recognizable players in New Orleans. While in the band with Fletcher Henderson, Armstrong recorded his most distinguished music pieces, with the “Hot Fives and Hot Sevens,” from 1925 until 1930. Because of the lack of technology these recordings were not released until 2000 and came in a 4-set CD. It included songs such as “Skid-Dat-De-Dat,” and “Heebie Jeebies”.

His exceptional skills on the trumpet led to the age of the soloist. The songs in the “Hot Five and Hot Sevens” displayed his innate talent for improvisation and jazz solos that blew everyone away. His sense of melodic harmony and rhythmic velocity, where astonishing. His solos developed into different categories, such as monotone soloing, and scat solos. Armstrong was known for being able to make monotone solos interesting for the audience. Although he was only playing one note throughout the eight-bar solo, his use of syncopation, length, placement, and intensity on the single note, created an amusing piece of music.

Furthermore, scat solos are the combination of wordless vocals, such as “la, di, bop” that are improvised, within the song’s melodic scales to create solos. Scat singing is always wordless, and singers only performed it. Scat soloing is known as one of the hardest jazz techniques to acquire because of the rapid spontaneity needed. Louis Armstrong was not specifically known for scat soloing, but performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, are extremely well known for solos like, “How high the moon.” These pieces are incredibly hard to replicate, and only the most talented musicians can complete them. It can take multiple years to perform and imitate a single scat solo due to its length and complexity.

Moreover, during that time Armstrong had his 2nd marriage to his bandmate, Lil Harding in 1924. She was the pianist in the “Hot Five” band. Earlier, in his teen years, he had married Daisy Parker (a prostitute) who he had already divorced. Armstrong had a tumultuous personal life; he had four marriages, his last one to Lucille Wilson. After their marriage, Wilson convinced Louis “to purchase a house at 34-56 107th Street in Corona, Queens, New York.” Ultimately Louis never had any children, even though he tried, many believed he was incapable of having offspring.

“Satchmo” was Louis’s given nickname after he started acting in Hollywood films in 1932. The backlash was not positive after film critics were extremely racist against the musicians acting debuts. He ignored the criticism and continued to support and stand for his race in modern media. The appraisal only motivated Armstrong to continue playing huge shows and long tours in Europe. Eventually, his lips gave out from playing the trumpet so often and had to take a break from performing. During this phase of his life, he broke many records for African Americans, such as the “first African-American jazz musician to write an autobiography: Swing That Music, the first African-American to get featured billing in a major Hollywood movie with his turn in Pennies from Heaven, starring Bing Crosby. First entertainer to host a nationally sponsored radio show in 1937. He also continued to appear in major films with the likes of Mae West, Martha Raye, and Dick Powell, and often broke box-office records at the height of what is now known as the 'Swing Era.' All of his achievements impacted the African American community as a whole; it inspired a new generation of people, to stand up for their beliefs, and change the country. His efforts as a musician redefined the meaning of being black in America, and will forever continue to echo throughout history.

By the 1950s, Armstrong was incredibly well known worldwide and was even traveling the globe to perform in different countries. He won many awards for his revered music, including a Grammy for his performance of “Hello dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” which made him an American icon. CBS also produced a documentary of his life called “Satchmo the great,” released in 1957. All the traveling and touring during the last years of his career took a toll on his health when he suffered from a heart attack in 1959. Different illnesses forced him to retire from performing and he eventually died at home in Queens in 1971.

Research has shown the immense impact jazz has had over the last century all around the globe. The genre is played and taught in every corner of the world, due to the efforts from musicians like Louis Armstrong, that kept the music alive. They made jazz accessible to all audiences through live performances and recordings. The success of African American musicians in the public eye impacted our society, as it allowed for more representation within the industry, empowering the younger generation to do the same.  

29 April 2022
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