For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow: The Music of Louis Armstrong

July is as good as anytime for Jazz. What better way to end the month than get into the groove with some good ‘o swing music. And our man for the occasion is the great Louis Armstrong.

First, a bit of history to set the mood. The 1920’s was known as the swing era for early Jazz. New Orleans musicians travelled to New York, Chicago, Denver and points west – spreading their new sound. Louis Armstrong (1901-1971) settled in Chicago in 1922, joining a ten-piece New Orleans-style ensemble. The young American played the cornet, and later the trumpet. And he went on to revolutionize jazz.

Armstrong was the singularly most important jazz musician in the development of early jazz. He was a great improviser who expanded the capacities of the trumpet in range and tone color. His melodic and rhythmic style of singing led his admirers to coin the term “swing” which entered the vocabulary of jazz. Armstrong introduced scat singing, where meaningless syllables are sung to an improvised vocal line. The singer Ella Fitzgerald (1918 – 1996) would later bring this technique to a truly virtuoso level.

Armstrong’s singing is always infectiously joyous. As if to support his rapturous singing, he introduced new features such as stop-time choruses and double-time choruses. In his solos, these innovations meant that only hints of the original tune were recognizable, which transformed jazz singing into improvised fantasies on chord changes rather than repeated melody.

Armstrong’s discography is huge and space precludes even introducing a small selection of his performances. So, I will zero in on just two recordings. The first is Saint Louis Blues” (1914), a popular American song composed by W.C. Hardy in the blues style. It is one of the first blue songs to succeed as a pop song and remains a seminal composition in the Jazz repertoire. The 1925 version – sung by Bessie Smith, with Louis Armstrong on cornet – was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1993. The 1929 version by Louis Armstrong & His Orchestra was inducted in 2008. The following recording is the crisp 1954 version featuring Armstrong with Velma Middleton.

The next recording is the favourite of many – the raucous Holly Dolly, the title song of the popular 1964 musical of the same name. Louis Armstrong’s version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2001. I guarantee no one can’t watch this video without breaking into a broad smile. Watch how Armstrong gave up singing part-way to switch to his trumpet. Keep watching to the end; nobody can end a note the way Armstrong does at the climax of this jolly song.

Now bring out the champagne and dance the night away under the paring of the silver moon with this next melody:

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