Section from chapter 1925: Satchmo   [ return to introduction ]

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By Mervyn Cooke • 325 illustrations,
82 in full color • 256 pages • 8-1/2 x 8-1/2"
Cloth • ISBN 0-7892-0399-5 • U.S. $45.00
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Armstrong (at the piano) with his Hot Five in 1925, during the time of their early recordings. The other members of the group are (l. to r.): Johnny St Cyr (banjo), Johnny Dodds (reeds), Kid Ory (trombone) and Lil Hardin-Armstrong (pianist). [ view larger image ] (The Frank Driggs Collection)
Louis Armstrong: Hot Five and Seven

Louis Armstrong (dubbed "Satchmo," i.e., satchelmouth) began as a cornetist in early bands led by Kid Ory in New Orleans (1918), King Oliver in Chicago (1922—4) and Fletcher Henderson in New York (1924) before returning to Chicago in 1925 to form his own Hot Five. This group, known as the Hot Seven when tuba and drums were added, recorded prolifically on the Okeh label, and their technical brilliance exerted a profound influence on the development of jazz.

By 1925 Armstrong had changed from playing cornet to the brighter trumpet, and shown himself to be equally accomplished as a singer. Among the best known Hot Five and Seven recordings are "Heebie Jeebies" (1926), an early example of scat singing, and "West End Blues" (1928), with its virtuoso introductory trumpet cadenza and impressive trumpet style piano solo by Earl Hines (• p. 124). In 1928 Armstrong and Hines also collaborated in a duet recording of "Weather Bird," demonstrating an instinctive rapport between the two men that is unparalleled either before or since.

Armstrong was the first great innovator in jazz. He was responsible for the increased prominence of improvisation and he developed the concept of an extended improvised solo (i.e., chorus) based on the chord changes of a song, always shaping his extemporized melodic lines with an innate sense of proportion and growth. In earlier jazz forms such as Dixieland (• p. 37), improvisation was confined to brief two-bar breaks between phrases: after Armstrong, the melodic ingenuity of the soloist assumed an unprecedented importance.

He considerably expanded trumpet technique, hitting notes higher than any played before and employing tricks such as the rip for added excitement. He was the first in jazz to demonstrate consistent licks: apart from the rip, he frequently ended long notes with a rich vibrato and tended to terminate phrases with characteristic melodic formulae. His singing was as innovative as his playing, his vocal improvisations shaped with the same instinctive sense of melodic structuring. And in his unwavering grasp of swing he generated rhythmic excitement like no one before him.

In the 1930s Armstrong was based in New York and appeared as a highly paid featured soloist with various big bands. When he joined the books of hardhitting agent Joe Glaser in 1935, his sell-out to the lucrative world of popular song and Hollywood films seemed complete. Many lamented what they saw as a defection to commercial interests and regretted his abandonment of fundamental artistic values. Miles Davis, while admiring Armstrong's playing, found his habitual impersonation of a grinning black minstrel racially unacceptable. In 1947 Armstrong formed his "All Stars" and began to record again in the New Orleans style, which was then enjoying a revival. He also embarked on a series of high-profile international trips organized by the US State Department, which led to a new nickname: "Ambassador Satch."