Jazz 101: Louis Armstrong
by Seth Colter Walls | April 16, 2014
Jazz history is massive enough at this point to be a touch intimidating. With so many box sets and so many compilations to choose from, where to start? We've got you covered, era by era, with our Jazz 101 series, which you can follow here. Each daily playlist offers up five-star performances, and tips you off to albums with plenty more gold left to explore after the intro course is over. Enjoy.
After cutting his teeth in the mid-1920s in bands led by King Oliver and Fletcher Henderson, a young trumpeter was prepared to become jazz's first dynamo soloist. Louis Armstrong didn't invent improvisation -- and some of his most amazing solos were rather well rehearsed -- but he was one of jazz's first imposing instrumental personas. His technique, power and soul made him a star, and changed American (and therefore global) pop music forever.
His unaccompanied intro to "West End Blues" is but one of the great moments on Best of the Hot 5 and Hot 7 Recordings, which began in the late 1920s, though Armstrong's highlight reel isn't limited to those initial groundbreaking sides. (Don't miss "Struttin' with Some Barbecue" or "Weather Bird," either.) Armstrong was a cross-genre sensation, too, recording with small orchestras, country yodelers and blues artists in the '30s and '40s. And as recording technology improved, audiences got to hear his genius on trumpet with greater clarity.
Crowds ate it up, and it's easy to hear why: Armstrong's playing advances like fire through every track on our playlist here. Even an otherwise calm tune like "Sweethearts on Parade" gets wild when Armstrong comes in, riding hard, going double-time, tossing off delicious vibrato riffs with extreme confidence and crystalline execution. You don't have to know anything about the trumpet to know you're in the hands of a master.
Armstrong became an institution and a comfortable, pop-friendly icon later in life. But, as tracks from Plays W.C. Handy and The Great Chicago Concert prove, he remained a fierce player well after he became "Pops" in the public imagination. His vocals are great, too -- particularly on "Summer Song," a later-career collaboration with Dave Brubeck. Don't make the mistake of living without hearing some of the best music from one of the most inventive, joyous and accomplished musicians of the 20th century.